Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Caring for all of God's kids

Every church has children and teens that are on the autism spectrum, yet we often see very little action plans being developed.  We don’t hear about it too much—even though the rates of kids with autism has gone up over 78% in the last decade.    

In 2000 and 2002, the autism estimate from the CDC was about 1 in 150 children. Two years later 1 in 125 8-year-olds had autism. In 2006, the number was 1 in 110, and the newest data -- from 2008 -- suggests 1 in 88 children have autism.  Boys with autism continue to outnumber girls 5-to-1, according to the CDC report. It estimates that 1 in 54 boys in the United States have autism.

Bekah Miller—the Associate Director of Youth Ministry at my home church has been working on this issue over the past few years.  I have seen her be intentional about caring for students with autism—and she shares these thoughts as we prepare for a Youth Leadership seminar on April 8.

“I never really thought about students with Autism and how it affected my ministry. Then, I met Lisa and her son Ben. I learned from them the reality that most families with Autism don’t feel welcomed in churches. They also don’t feel like church is a safe place for their students to be a part of youth group. This broke my heart. I am in the business of trying to make ALL students feel safe and to create a welcoming environment that ALL students can be a part of.

At that moment I had a decision to make – I could keep ignoring this increasing issue, or I could choose to deal with it head-on, even when no one else was willing to.

I chose the latter, and I continue to choose it each week.

It is not easy. It often times takes extra time, extra meetings, and extra love. These choices though are creating a place, an environment, and a community for students that struggle to find them anywhere else.

Consider joining me and Lisa for a conversation about what this looks like to integrate students into your ministry that have Autism; where they can be successful and where they find a place to belong.  I look forward to continuing the conversation with you.”

Let’s talk.  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Risk of Going Deeper

I have been hanging around youth ministry for a LONG time now, and one thing that has remained true over the years is that youth workers are fun.  We know how to laugh, we know how to eat lots of pizza, stay up late and hang out with students.  We aren't the boring adults that kids hate to be around.  In fact, some of you have stayed in youth ministry because the thought of going to adult Sunday School terrifies you!! 

I have always liked that about us.  We are fun.  Kids like us.  We are a party waiting to happen.

And that might be the problem.

Fun is great--but fun does not create disciples.  Fun does not draw a young person into the spiritual place where God can speak in a whisper and catch their attention.  Fun does not open the soul. 

Now, before you think I have turned into an old theological geezer, please hear me out.  Fun can be a great opening and create a caring, inviting atmosphere in youth ministry.  I am all for fun.  But, the problem is that sometimes we don't take the risk of going deeper and consider how we might challenge kids in the spiritual arena of their lives.  We don't build something on our atmosphere--we simply enjoy the relationships and activity in the room.

Too often youth ministry has become a program that meets at the "lowest common denominator."  We don't want to offend or go too deep in youth group, so we often just skim the surface with a little God talk, a spiritual nugget and a small group led by the most vocal teenager in the room.  We lose sight of the real vision for our ministry by falling prey to the affirmation syndrome--which is the downfall of most fun, extroverted youth workers. 

So, what can we do with those teenagers who might actually want to go deeper?  How do we create a fun atmosphere that might also include spiritual challenges and deeper opportunities?  How do you raise the bar on your youth group without joining the "Jesus Marines."? 

That may be the key question in youth ministry right now.  If we are going to build a faith that sticks--that doesn't become part of the drop-out statistic--what elements are required?  How do you lovingly confront spiritual apathy and call teenagers to actually have their faith shape them and lead them?  How do you give them biblical perspectives and information that is more than a flannel-graph Jesus who is nice to children?

I would love to hear what you think.  We will be wrestling with this at the next Youth Leadership 3 Hour Seminar on March 14th.  It would be good to hear your thoughts--here in this blog or at the seminar if you can make it.

Take a risk of going deeper--it really is the key issue of our ministry isn't it?


Friday, February 15, 2013

Messy Families in a Messy World

Family Ministry continues to be a major theme in youth ministry these days. It is an important reality--parents are the primary influence in the lives of children and teenagers. Youth workers need to understand and appreciate this reality in many different ways. The "old days" of youth ministry as an isolated silo of frantic activity led by super-cool, young youth leaders has been attacked and buried in most churches. So, Family Ministry is the vogue. Or "Household Ministry", or "Inter-generational Ministry", or "Birth and Beyond"...

But, I wonder as I listen to the words and images. I hear some nice ideas about the family being the church and the parents being the priests. I hear images of faithful parents who buy our devotional resources and have significant faith conversations around the table and prayer times before bed. I listen to stories of how our books, folders, models will build families and raise connected kids.

And then I wonder again. Really? Is that where the pendulum has swung? Are we creating models and images that react against the old youth ministry model--or are we honestly speaking to the reality of our world today? Reaction against something is not always a good indicator of a clear vision. And, I would suggest that a model of family ministry that does not honestly address the messiness in many families will only create nice seminars--not clear family ministry.      

I am simply calling for language and models that speak to the complex reality in our families and in our churches. Messy families don't always fit into the Deuteronomy model. They don't always lead in the spiritual realm--or even have a spiritual realm in their household. It is critical that leaders and churches understand the actual families they minister to, not the ideal model often given in the handbook. Communication patterns in messy families need to be understood in order to minister to the kids growing up in those systems. Messages in messy families may actually be contradicting what we are teaching in our children's and youth ministry--and to pretend differently is to miss the real context.

While parents are the primary influencer on their children, we must acknwoledge that this influence may not be positive. Sounds obvious, but I often miss it when I hear the family ministry conversations going on. If the parents ARE the proactive Christian influence in the family, then they are the church---and we can take a much more supportive role. If they feel inadequate and really are fearful of leading their family in the spiritual realm, then our role is much more motivational, supportive and educational. However, if the parents have no faith to share--or contradict what we teach--then we need to have a clear vision for our ministry role.

Let's be sure of one thing. No matter what the family system--OUR job is to share the Good News about Jesus to the next generation. There will always be a need for excellent, age-appropriate, distinct ministry to young people. Let's not lose that passion in the midst of the new family language. Every messy family needs help, and the church is positioned to be this sort of help. We are most helpful when we work hard to understand the families, adjust our ministry models to represent our assessment, support and encourage parents while loving and teaching their children about Jesus.

What are some of your thoughts when it comes to this real-world, messy ministry to youth AND families? I'd love to hear.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Advent of Kate Middleton's Baby

The news spread fast--Kate Middleton is having a baby. Over 1/2 million people searched for news about this on Google this past Monday. It will be BIG news over these next 9 months. All the media people camped out in front of the palace for any current news or updates. The WORLD will be watching this one. It is the Advent of a Future King. It is big news. And we all love (hate) a media circus, don't we? What a great backdrop to the Christmas story. According to our friends at Wikipedia, "Advent is a season observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus." Simply, it is a time of joyful waiting--of expectation. The Kate Middleton baby will be anticipated. (They are already making pregnant Kate ceramic dolls for the occasion!!) This will be an advent with great pomp and circumstance. And then, we have this familiar--but radical--story of God sneaking His son into this world with NO fanfare. NO kingly connections or visibility. NO protection or exclusion from the ordinary. Jesus was brought right into the midst of the messiness of this world. The stable with animals and loneliness declares a vision of God's method. And it really doesn't make much sense to world that continues to have a "ladder" mentality to the value of people.
God chose to bring His son into the world in a very effective disguise--the disguise of a weak, dependent, innocent baby. Nobody would have caught this one...and only a few got in on the majesty of it all. And, it all started with the shepherds--an image that doesn't fit for most of us in urban settings. All we know is that Kate Middleton's baby will not be visited first by smelly farmers or shepherds!! It just doesn't work in the palace model of kingship. But, God chose the shepherds as the first-hearers of this incredible news. "God has skin on--and it is laying in a manger for you to see. You can come. God has broken INTO this world. He is not aloof. He is here. He is Immanuel--God with us." I wonder how we can help young people actually HEAR this amazing news. How can we help them understand that God has always been pursuing His people...loving them...and surprising them with His strategy. What will you do this year to break free from the glazed look--and help your young people encounter an incredible truth that could set them free? May the message of God's Advent catch your attention more than the Royal Pregnancy. Peace, Tiger

Thursday, June 7, 2012

I Gotta Do More

I just got off the phone with one of our certification students and found us talking about a subject that shows up for so many leaders. It is this sneaky suspicion that I am just not doing enough. I must be busier to prove my worth. It is the mantra of our culture right now--ask almost anyone how they are doing, and you will find "Oh, I am really busy" somewhere in the answer. It is our drug of choice in the christian world. I can relate. This addiction to activity has been one of my pitfalls of leadership. There is something that is wired into many of us that busyness is the proof of our value--and the church will affirm this addiction all the way to your funeral. They love those of us who can't do enough, who won't say NO, and who refuse to slow down. They worry a little about us, but secretly hope we don't find any antedote to the disease because they love our frantic efforts and full schedule. This past month was the last month of Youth Leadership's fiscal year. It is the month that pushes all my "gotta do more" tendencies. It's the time when the voices creep up all over again: "The financial bottom line is dependent on my activity" "If we are going to make it--it is up to me" "I need to stay later, make more calls, send more emails and make sure it all works out". And, God is left in the back seat again. 

Youth ministry can feed this "gotta do more" syndrome is so many ways. There are expectations everywhere--from kids, parents, staff, and the broader church community. There are job descriptions that are so vague and include everything except bus maintenance that feed this feeling like I am just not doing enough. How can we stop? How can we beat the voices that whisper to us? How can we NOT feel guilty when we actually take a Sabbath? Now, let me say that I am not suggesting that you will ever make youth ministry into a tight, manageable 45 hour a week job. That just won't happen. Youth ministry is not a job--it is a lifestyle. And there are simply crazy parts to that lifestyle. But, I am convinced the lifestyle doesn't need to dangerous to our health, our spiritual life and our relationships. It CAN be managed. It can be lived out in a healthy way. So, what do you do to stay healthy, hang in there and not feel guilty? I would love to hear any ideas...because my addiction is sneaking back up on me. I gotta finish and run off to a meeting!!! See you later.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Hope is not a strategy

I love phrases. They help put big ideas into a sentence that can be remembered. I have a list of them--some I have created, some I have stolen, and some I have no idea where they came from!!
This one is one of my favorites: Hope is not a strategy. Every parent I know of hopes that their kid turns out well. They hope their kids keep going to church and make good decisions. Every parent hopes their kids are "happy"--whatever that means. (That's another blog...) Every youth worker hopes their ministry impacts kids and helps them. Every church hopes that they make a difference. And the hopes go on. But, remember...Hope is not a strategy. God bless you for your good feelings, but it won't really matter in the end if you don't build some intentionality into your hope. More parents need intentionality. More youth ministries need a strategy to go with their energy. More churches need clarity and intentionality to add to their busyness. Intentionality does not mean you lose all spontaneity. It doesn't mean you become super-organized and a Type-A personality. What I am talking about is simply being clearer about WHY we are doing things and WHAT we are hoping will happen because we are doing them. This issue of relying on our hopes is creating a culture of ministry and parenting that is based solely on our feelings. That may help to create some sense of "we care" about our kids--but it loses any chance of actually being strategic. In the process, we are losing so many of our young people to a culture that is relentlessly pursuing them. Depending your your study, we are losing between 40 to 60 percent of the teenagers who are presently involved with our youth ministries--but will be disengaged from church life, and their faith, by the time they hit their late teens and emerging adulthood. And, this is NOT A DETOUR--this is the EXIT RAMP from church and faith life. This is incredibly significant. And hoping it will change will do nothing. Until parents and churches begin to strategically address this issue, the slide away from church and faith will only continue. I am not a pessimist by nature, but this one is serious. What can parents do? What can churches and youth ministries do? What WILL we do? My dream is that it is more than hoping....In fact, I will be doing an event on Monday night, May 21 at Cornerstone Church in Crystal, MN where we will be discussing this issue. If you are in town, join us. The information in on the Youth Leadership website. Here is to your action steps. Start somewhere. Do something. I'd like to hear what you think.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

An Unnamed Issue Can't Be Beat

Brian sat in front of me trying to put words to his struggle. He looked at his shoes, started 4 or 5 different sentences, and looked like he was in real pain. It was hard to watch, but it was an essential part of the process. Brian had to figure out a way to NAME the issue he was wrestling with. He had to hear himself say it out loud....because that is the key step to resolving the issue.
I have personally experienced this struggle--and watched scores of folks do the same thing. Now, it has become a mantra for me in both counseling and coaching--you have to learn to name the issue if you have any chance of dealing with it. It goes like this: "An unnammed issue is almost always undefeatable. A named issue has a chance to be defeated." I see leaders all the time who won't start the journey. They keep it all silent. They hold onto the hope that they can work it out without having to admit it out loud to someone. They are lost. They can't win. I grew up in an alcholic family where we learned the survival rule of "Don't Talk". It was built into my DNA as a survivor--and then I became a young, Christian leader. And, I carried that rule right into my leadership life...and found that people liked that about me. I didn't whine about my feelings or drain them by sharing my struggles all the time. I just moved on and worked hard. Good stuff by outside standards..and a land mine on the inside. I finally stepped on the land mine and it was not pretty. Naming the issue is tough--but, it is essential. When you are working with people, watch for the power of giving them a safe, graceful place where they can figure out and name the struggle in their life, their world and their soul. You also need to find that safe place where YOU can name the issue (or issues) that trip you up. By the way--we ALL have issues. Let's not try to pretend otherwise. I mean NAME it--not just think about it. I may sound unspiritual, but I also mean to not just pray about it. Those two things are important, but healing comes when you SAY it out loud to at least one other person. You have to have your ears hear your mouth confess it, admit it, announce it or cry about it. You have to NAME it out loud. That's when healing begins.
So, joint the messy club of leaders with issues. But, only join if you are ready to name it. The key is to find the healthy, safe place to do this hard work. It should not be your youth group, your co-leaders, a person of the opposite gender or someone on your personnel committee!! Find your place, find your safe person and take a deep breath.....and NAME it. By the way---afterwards, read a few Psalms to join the club of honest, faithful people who have questions, struggles, pain and unresolved anger. Good luck.