Learning to Love Junior High

Five-second montage of the past month: graduated college, got a job in youth ministry, started that job, and too busy to post anything substantive here.

I’ve taken a position as Discipleship Director for 5th-8th grade at Riverwood Community Chapel in Kent, Ohio. I was familiar with the church before, having grown up in the area, attending Kent State, and having a few personal connections there, so when the position opened up and was offered to me, there wasn’t too much question about it. I love the focus and desire of the staff and community among three simple goals:

Worship God. Love People. Reflect Christ.

I’ll be honest, when I was working through my degree and searching for jobs, exclusively junior high ministry was not really on my radar. Junior high ministry tends to be the tag-along to any youth ministry job, but in the case of Riverwood, I’m working exclusively with the junior high age group, and a little younger. It’s come with a few unexpected challenges.

I’m only just realizing that, at least in my own mindset, I’d always treated junior high as secondary to senior high ministry, as if junior high ministry is about babysitting until they’re old enough to make big decisions and actually do something with their faith. I guess in that respect, I’m guilty of the very thing we tend to decry the church for when it comes to youth ministry as a whole.

Unconscious assumptions like these I have toward junior high youth ministry are surfacing as I’m getting acclimated to the new position, and I’m grateful for it. The exclusively-junior high focus of the position gives me the chance to work out the skills and habits that I’ve been most lacking in: connecting with parents, empowering volunteers, and simplifying my teaching. Not to mention the fact that junior highers will appreciate my at-times ridiculous side with a bit more humor than senior highers have in the past.

I’m just about finished reading through Wayne Rice’s Junior High Ministry. At the suggestion of a mentor, I read it as a quick crash-course in junior high world to prep for the position. In it, he suggests that anyone working in junior high do their very best to recall in detail who they were in junior high. Thankfully, my junior high years came before the explosion of social media to document everything in photos and comments. But I’m working out a few posts about what I can recall from junior high, maybe with a few old pictures. Stay tuned!

Question: What do you remember most vividly about your experience in junior high?

“We’re Awkward, and That’s Ok”

Why Awkward Youth Group Games Are Important

A few weeks ago, as some friends and I were enjoying dinner together, the topic of our conversation somehow drifted into our memories of youth groups growing up, and from there into all those “awkward, youth group games” our youth pastors made us play. You know, games like “Honey, If You Love Me, Smile,” “Four On a Couch,” “The Phonebook Game” and “Fish Baseball.” (I’m not sure if those last two were played outside my own youth ministry experience, so if you’ve played them before, it’d be great to know).

As we sat there laughing at how silly we were and how awkward some of those situations
were growing up, I found myself wondering what it was we all gained from those memories and those games. Obviously, at the first mention of “youth group,” these games are the first things to come to mind and have the obvious benefit of providing compelling and hilarious stories for years to come. But what’s the point of playing Honey, If You Love Me, Smile? Does anyone even play those kinds of games anymore? And how do these games even matter when most kids today are perfect content to play each other in Call of Duty online or play Angry Birds alone on their iPhones?

I think some of these games were so formative and can find a place in youth ministry today because they embrace the awkwardness that is teenage life. Let’s face it – teenagers are awkward, no matter how cool they try to be. (And the further I get from my own teenage experience, the more I’m coming to realize that to be human is to be awkward, we just get better at hiding it as adults). But especially today, in a world where teenagers are being forced to grow up quicker and take on adult roles sooner, a youth ministry that provides space for laughter and for teenagers to remember that it’s ok to be weird can be refreshing and redemptive.

Providing space for us to embrace our awkwardness is important because it communicates that you can let your guard down when we’re together. This emphasis has to take place in the context of safe community and in a spirit of unity, not at the expense of anyone else. I’ve seen on numerous occasions where activities like this can turn into a few people’s awkward situations becoming everyone else’s joke fodder. When this happens, our communities turn instantly from a place of celebration and fun to a place of ridicule.

Teenagers already feel the awkward tension of their own adolescence; they don’t need our group or our ministry pointing that out to them and making a joke out of it. But when done in a spirit of community, where teens and volunteers can let their guard down, put down their masks and their attempts at being cool, we can all enjoy and celebrate the fact that we’re awkward, and that’s ok.

Theology in a Wikipedia World: Part II

The Challenge of a Collaborative Generation

I’m currently working through David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me, in which he presents his research on why the younger generation of Christians disappear from the church. He sees three key challenges that are contributing to the loss of this generation: unprecedented access to information, alienation from meaningful relationships, and suspicion of traditional authority structures. His research on the impact of unprecedented access to information translates into this observation made by Kinnaman:

“Young people expect to participate as well as consume.”

If I think back hard enough, I can remember the first time I voted in an American Idol competition. For students younger than me, they can’t remember a time when they didn’t have some participation in the media they consume. Now, advertising companies tap into the appeal of this participatory model with competitions for making their next ad, giveaways for retweets on Twitter or likes on Facebook. The ultimate model of this collaborative, participatory way of thinking is Wikipedia itself, the majority of which was written and compiled by Millennials, Kinnaman notes, challenging us with the collaborative reality of this generation:

“Who would have guessed that one of the largest, most influential and well-funded technology companies (Microsoft) would mothball Encarta, losing the race with Wikipedia to create a comprehensive online encyclopedia to thousands of unpaid volunteer contributors, many of whom are Mosaics? It’s not a one-to-one comparison, but think about which model the church most resembles – the established monolith or the grassroots network – and what that mean for its relevance in the lives of a collaborative, can-do generation that feels alienated from hierarchical institutions.” 

How much of the meaningful stuff of our youth ministry is participatory? Between games and singing and a lesson and maybe small groups, the traditional paradigm has students playing the passive observers to us as we do ministry. Sure, we may have students leading the music and maybe have a drama team or a student speak the occasional week, but as a whole, are we giving space and permission to our students to participate in truly meaningful, ministry-shaping ways every week? Or do I just stand up there every week, say what I want to say, and hope that something gets through their iPod headphones into their brains, and then, if I’m lucky, their hearts?

Students expect and want to participate in meaningful ways in our ministries. I know that might be hard to believe, considering that it’s a hard enough struggle to get them to put down Angry Birds in small group, but perhaps that’s not because they don’t want to participate, but because we haven’t given them permission to. In general, they are not used to being treated as co-creators, as individuals with worth and with worthwhile things to say. Talking heads are everywhere – the news, the classroom, the internet. Students don’t need another person talking to them about them. They need individuals who will care enough about them to listen and to seriously consider the things they say and the emotions they feel, and to give them power and permission to truly make a difference. It’s a daunting task, and one which doesn’t seem to have clear solutions, but perhaps the solution is in the process: ask your students how we can minister to them, give them the power and the permission to speak into our own ministries to them, to shape what we do and how we do it. That’s certainly an easy solution to write, but a hard reality to make happen. But it starts in the context of the relationships and conversations we have with our students.

Off the Shelf: Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry by Doug Fields

The first time I picked up Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry two years ago in my freshman level “Intro to Youth Ministry” class, my first thought was, “Who does this Doug guy think he is telling me how to do ministry, and why does he keep asking me to imagine we’re sitting in a restaurant together?

At the time, I was a brand new youth ministries major, coming off of two years as a camp counselor, convinced that I knew how to do youth ministry. After all, I was a few years out of my own experience as a student in ministry; I knew how to relate to students and what to do and not do. This Doug guy seemed a bit out of touch compared to me and my relevance to students.

In the two years since, I’ve thankfully learned a whole lot more about youth ministry. I’ve learned that Doug Fields knows what he’s talking about (turns out he has his own sub-section in the Wikipedia article on “Youth Ministry”), I’ve learned and experienced relational ministry and the difficulty of small groups, and I’ve become convinced that it’s far more than a high-tech hangout space that draws kids to Jesus.

Now, facing my impending graduation and in the midst of a search for an “entry-level” youth ministry job (which usually means “junior highers”), I decided to revisit Your First Two Years. Reading it this time, I felt like that teenager who is finally coming to the realization that his parents might have been right all along.

In Your First Two Years, Doug tackles the second-most pressing question facing me in my current state of life. The first one is, of course, “Will you hire me?” The second, and the focus of the book, is “Now that I’m hired, what the heck do I do now?”

In his great conversational and often witty way, Fields “sits you down” and shares from his wealth of experiences (and failures) in ministry, giving us amateurs an edge and a solid foundation to begin once we convince a church we won’t give their students fireworks or set animals loose in the youth room. It’s a broad sweep of what it takes to start well, one which no “green” youth pastor should go without. Doug’s 10 Youth Ministry Commitments in the first chapter should be tattooed across the eyelids of every youth pastor. The goal is longevity, according to Fields, and these ten commands alone are worth picking up the book. His discussion in the later half of the book on how to handle conflict are incredibly practical and obviously come from Doug’s honest experience. I have yet to come across a discussion on conflict management in youth ministry as helpful as what Fields provides in his book.

Relationships are the heart of youth ministry. More than any other endeavor in your first two years, Fields pushes the reader to get to know your students, your staff and your parents before doing anything else. This takes much more patience than we in youth ministry tend to be known for, but as Fields will remind you several times, youth ministry isn’t a sprint, and our work is never done.

Every youth pastor, wanna-be youth pastor, and youth leader should read this book. Fields has written it specifically for this audience, at times giving permission for volunteers to skip the boring sections so he can talk to paid youth workers about meetings and church staff relationships and the more technical, office-y side of ministry. Especially if you’re like me, facing the daunting task of stepping into a ministry green, you should read this book. Several times. And keep it on your desk. And think about that tattoo thing I mentioned earlier.

Theology in a Wikipedia World

Last year, I attended a benefit dinner for World Vision’s End Malaria campaign, put on by a student org on campus at Cedarville. The event was packed, probably at the offer of homemade soup and bread from several faculty and staff families. If you want to get a big turnout of college students, offer homemade food.

As the ladles were scraping the bottom of the crockpots in the back of the room, several members of the org stepped up to the microphone to share about the End Malaria campaign and to make an appeal for our awareness and support of this important issue. I happened to be sitting at a table with several friends of mine who are communication arts majors, which was quite a fascinating experience as the keynote speaker stood up and gave her presentation. A minute into her presentation, a large, highly detailed diagram of the path the malaria virus makes from a mosquito’s body into the bloodsteam and into the human system was projected across the screen, and we all squinted to see the details as she all too quickly walked us through the process. After that, we were audience to another highly detailed diagram of the scientific process by which pharmaceutical drugs are able to combat the spread of the malaria virus. It was all quite a dizzying and eye-straining experience, one which my com arts friends couldn’t wait to finish.

I came away from that experience with this one thought: we don’t need more information, we need meaning. We had all come to the benefit dinner because we wanted to make a difference, not because we wanted to know the exact anatomy of a mosquito, but because we saw suffering and wanted to take action. We didn’t need a diagram; any of us could have found those diagrams in a simple web search. We came because we needed a direction in which to point our passions and sacrifice.

We live in an age where we have more information than we know what to do with. Ten years ago, when I would be doing a research project, I’d have to go to the library, check out some books, read journal articles. Today, I can find all the information I need to make an informed decision in three clicks: Click google, type word, click Wikipedia.

What difference does this make to how we approach education, ministry, teaching? How are we to go about teaching students about the essence of the Christian life when they can Google the names of every theologian and theological position in the time it takes us to explain why its important?

What our students need from us is not lengthy discussions and explanations of theological systems, or Venn diagrams on the differences and similarities between Peter and Paul. Surrounded by a whirlwind of information and messages, our students need someone to come alongside them and provide meaning, context, and motivation to action. Our students will find the information on their own, probably on their phones while you’re making your opening announcements or your final plea to sign up for the upcoming missions trip. Students have all the information they need at their fingers. We can best serve them and point them to the life-change Jesus offers by teaching them how to think, where to move, how to sacrifice. Information is everywhere. Our students don’t need us to lecture to them. What they need is someone to help them process, someone to teach them how to think and how to ask penetrating questions that point to deeper meaning behind the latest statistic or argument or cultural movement.

How do you incorporate teaching theology into your ministry to students? What kind of theological questions are your students asking?

Off the Shelf: Reviewing Hurt 2.0 by Chap Clark

Hurt 2.0 was a challenging book for me as a young soon-to-be youth pastor, mostly because I find myself assuming that I have an edge on youth ministry over the “older guys” because I’m younger and can relate to students more because I’ve been there. Clark destroyed that thought, and I’m thankful for it.

“These kids are no different from when I was a kid.” This is the first and greatest misconception that hinders our understanding of what Clark refers to as “midadolescents”: (generally teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18). Adolescence is vastly different from what you or I experienced, and Clark’s central thesis revolves around one concept: abandonment. Midadolescents experience abandonment everyday from parents, teachers, coaches… everyone except their “cluster” of friends, with whom they form an unspoken bond of trust and a “world beneath.” Most striking to me was the observation that Clark makes about how often we as adults seeking to minister to students completely misunderstand them, primarily because we meet them on our terms. How often have I left an encounter with a student thinking we really made progress, I really understand them, when in reality I know them even less than before? Clark says this:

“The [students] I had known were in reality only conjured presentations. In effect, those relationships were based wholly on my social and worldview contexts rather than theirs or even a mutual context. I had failed to recognize that each young person exists in a social setting vastly different from my own. Therefore, as painful as this admission may be, I missed truly knowing most of them.”

Beneath all of these observations and interviews that Clark offers, there was one theme I continued to see in the adolescent experience: an intense desire for community. In each chapter of the midsection of the book, Clark discusses how teenagers have experienced abandonment in that area (family, sports, sex, etc) and demonstrates how they have made up for that sense of abandonment with their own set of community standards and rituals in the “world beneath.” Alcohol, sex, partying and intense gaming (to name a few) become expressions of a deep desire for a truly accepting community. Clark does well in pointing this out and calling those of us who work with students to offer acceptance and love to our students without expecting them to meet our standards beforehand.

I highly recommend this book for youth pastors to read, and then to ask ourselves the question that Clark presents to us: Are we willing to take the time to meet students where they are, mess and all, without any agenda or expectation? This is where youth ministry must begin with the new generation of teenagers.

In addition, his observations on how parents especially abandon their children provide a good groundwork to begin a discussion with the parents of your students. If you opt to read it, get Hurt 2.0 (not Hurt, the first edition). Clark makes some additions to the book in relation to how students interact in community over social networks, texting and gaming that would be valuable considering the proliferation of these technologies among our students.

jesus | student ministries | creating | coffee

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