Not All Young People Are The Same

Ali Campbell of the fantastic site, ‘The Resource’ put me on to this through his facebook feed. Have a watch!

Two things speak really clearly to me from this:

1. Not all young people are the same!

We say this a lot, but the activities, trips and projects that we set up betray what we really think. ‘We need a big music event, with xBoxes and cake!’ Sure, that’s probably fun for a lot for young people, but for some of them it will just be superficial fun, and for others it just won’t be interesting on any level. I wonder just how many young people we miss with these flat-packed projects? Do we assume they are in the minority – why?

2. Young people are longing to make this world a better place!

I really believe that young people are geared against the introspection that we expect of them. They want a mission and a purpose. That’s why Jesus called his young disciples together with the mission to fish for people. I’d love to make all of my projects release young people into activities and ideas that make this world a better place – rather than just entertaining them.

This is a great story – and well worth supporting. You can check out Campbells’ ‘Project 365’ facebook page here.

When Youth Work Is Supposed To Be Difficult

This morning I had a great chat with a leader of a national youth project that develops events and camps where young people are expected to work hard, study and learn more about God. It runs totally counter to much of our popular youth work models, but is also exponentially growing and spreading nationally every year, developing incredibly enthusiastic and mature young people.

In contrast, one of the most popular youth work models of the last few decades has been the ‘Funnel Method.’ Made popular by Dough Fields’ ‘Purpose Driven Youth Ministry,’ the idea is to run several projects aimed at different crowds with different content and funnel young people down from easy-to-attend, accessible events, into deeper more clearly Christian groups.

In the funnel method, you effectively start with a large crowd event that makes connections and does very basic (if any) Gospel teaching. From that first connection, you invite attendees to a slightly smaller, but still accessible group (like an Alpha Course) that goes into a little more detail about the Christian Faith. The next step is to look for conversions, and move those into a smaller and more specific group aimed at new believers. You then develop this further into yet again smaller and deeper groups, ending with a core community of young people who are leading and maturing.

Fields goes into great detail about how this is done, and why it can be successful; and he’s right, it can be very successful if it’s done properly, is well resourced, and if it matches the needs of the context that you’re in.

So What’s The Problem?

The funnel method can be a little ‘bait n’ switch’ calling young people to a fun event without being honest about what you’re doing. Jesus always immediately called people to Himself without needing to warm them up. It can also create a fragmented youth ministry complete with worn-out and under-resourced leaders.

The bigger problem though, is when the vibe of the first accessible project trickles down into all the others. This is when the funnel method is done badly, or is being pushed into a context that doesn’t fit it.

What I mean is this: If you’re finding it hard to get attendees at the smaller projects it’s easy to water down the content, and add more comfortable activities taken from the larger events. This is especially true when young people are introduced to you as the ‘fun group’ but now you’re asking them to do ‘boring stuff.’ So every project becomes a games night with a God slot, or a disco with a couple of Christian songs thrown in. Your real discipleship never gets off the ground.

The Candy Culture

If you haven’t yet seen ‘That Sugar Film’ by Damon Gameau, or Jamie Oliver’s American ‘Food Revolution’ then you should! Not only will these freak the sugar right out of you, they go into detail about the biological changes that happen in your body in a sugar heavy diet.

Tim Hawkins, in ‘Fruit That Will Last’ makes this same link to sugar-styled youth ministry projects. These are projects that dial up the fun and stimulus constantly, without demanding any real work at following Jesus. He says,

“‘Hype’ is like sugar in your diet. A splash of it every now and again livens things up amazingly. Life gets a little dull without it. But if your total diet is sugar, then it won’t build ‘fruit that will last’. Feeding kids on sugar will always have 3 results
i. an initial rush of energy
ii. then they will be flat
iii. then they will be fat.”

If you never move into a real space where young people have to work at their relationship with Jesus, coached by leaders who genuinely walk with and educate them, then you’re creating a youth ministry without lasting believers.

These young people will not be able to grow and develop into fully functioning members of a church, or be able to rely on God in a substantive way when life gets real. If they are able to do these things, then they’re probably being mentored by something or someone outside your youth work – which makes your ministry pretty redundant right?

The Bible’s Pattern

Young People throughout the Bible were educated by their religious leaders. In fact, it was only relatively recently that education was separated from religion. Robert Raikes founded the Sunday School Movement to teach young people in church that weren’t being educated by the state.

In the Old Testament, the whole nation of Israel was involved in teaching about God’s promises. This was a constant thing which was woven into the fabric of their lives.

‘These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live… 7 Impress them on your children’ [Deuteronomy 6:1-7 ].

In Proverbs, we are given a complete educational theory that revolves around young people learning God’s own wisdom.

In the New Testament we are introduced to the method of Jewish Education, the latter stages of which was used by Jesus with his young disciples. Young people who go to school for a couple of hours every morning, 5 or 6 days a week to simply memorise huge portions of the Old Testament. Then they were taught how to study and apply these teachings wisely to their lives.

Education Vs. Youth Club

What we have done, I fear, is spent a huge portion of the last half century doing is driving a wedge between school and youth ministry. We don’t ever want to hear ‘this feels like school’ from a young person. Our mission has been to make everything fun, unique and distinct. There is definitely a lot of good that has come from this approach too! It’s also hard to blame us, considering the among of expectations and undue pressure our school systems place on young people’s shoulders.

There’s also a ‘baby and bathwater’ metaphor that comes to mind, however. We all too easily straight-jacket ourselves into just doing cute things to the point where we lose any cultural expectation to study, learn and develop.

Bringing It Together

We really need to harmonise some learning environment culture with our youth projects and ministry. There needs to be an expectation of hard work and education that happens in our youth work projects. Times do need to be set apart for real Bible Study, meditation and reflection. Space needs to be given over to substantive ethical and philosophical discussion. This can still work in a funnel method, but you need to make clear boundaries and set genuine expectations which you stick to right from day one.

Let’s not be afraid to be educators, and lets not freak out at the idea of doing real Bible study and deep reflections. We are youth workers, so have the right stuff to make this engaging, relevant and authentic. Let’s get stuck in!

Youth Work and Mental Health Pt. 1 – A Gentle Poke

When I was 14, one of my best friends was Daniel. I didn’t know Daniel was clinically depressed or that his random outbursts were actually early signs of bipolar disorder. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t normal that Daniel’s room only contained a mattress, a guitar and a pile of black hoodies. All I knew was he was fun and unique to be around, and that he had an unusually broad talent for music.

We drifted apart over the years, which meant it came as a bigger shock when he was found in a flat, dead at age 23, after swallowing a mix of alcohol and methadone.

Daniel was a disruption to the classroom environment. He was always in trouble and – as far as I knew – had no-one working with him to identify or work with his root causes. To me though, Daniel was just a mate who I’ll never see again.

I’d like to think that I’m a passionate advocate for the mental health world. At least I believe that we neither spend enough or research enough to develop treatment for those who really struggle. Classrooms are simply not geared for it, and the health service doesn’t really step into that gap. Self medicating is all too often the only option that seems available.

I also truly believe that the Church is supposed to define and lead culture – that we should be setting the trends, making the calls and leading the charges. Can we then, as youth workers and as Church develop programs that specifically work with young people during the early signs of mental health issues? Can we cultivate a culture in our programs that leaves room to observe, identify and even treat young people who are going through these struggles?

Daniel was my mate, but there was at the time no language to discuss these problems, or develop an awareness that this could be happening to someone I knew. The language is more available today, but I’m not sure if we’re any closer to implementing real, culture-saturating change.

Bill Hybels said “the local church is the hope of the world.” Can we be this hope that the world is so desperately craving? Daniel’s mum said, “I hate to think another young life could be wasted as tragically as Daniel’s has been.” Can we be the answer to her prayers?

Please, talk to your young people regularly and clearly about mental health. Talk to your team about how to organically identify and respond to needs. Finally, lets keep talking to God – crying out to him for healing and restoration; for the redemption of a culture that lifts up the broken and downtrodden, and helps all people live a life to the full as Jesus taught (John 10:10).

Working With Introverted Young People

A few months ago I appeared on the fantastic youth ministry podcast ‘The Longer Haul‘ to talk about ministering to introverted students. This is an issue that keeps coming up, and I think represents one of the fundamental missteps youth ministry can take.

For those of us who prefer reading to listening, I’ve taken some of my key thoughts from the podcast and written them up here as notes. Enjoy!

The Extrovert Epidemic

Much of our youth ministry is focused towards the extrovert. This follows a cultural pattern of being extrovert-driven too. Our school rooms and classes, for instance, are geared towards controlling and regulating the extrovert by putting them in rows, or engaging and energising the extrovert by pushing group discussions and activities. Also, modern offices are moving towards more open plan layouts, instantaneous planning sessions, and group enterprises.

In youth work we’re very adept at running youth work projects and particularity events; “everybody jump or I’ll squirt you with this water pistol!” But it even exists in our naturally quieter, small group ministry, “everybody go round and tell us something interesting about yourself.”

This creates a subliminal constant message that the introvert is not as able as the extrovert.

Jody pointed out in the interview that often youth ministries take on the character of their leader. Very true! There are of course many extroverted youth workers, especially new or younger youth workers, as extroversion is not necessarily the best ingredient for longevity. Introverts more naturally allow their teams to outgrow them, run with ideas and create a space and flavour that reflects more than one person. Introverts often create safer boundaries, develop more realistic goals and allow more open dialogue for change.

Extroverts may need to learn this behaviour, as they are often the charismatic force that drives content, holding ideas close, while not always delegating effectively. This of course is not always true, but the intro-extroversion line seems to me to be a key player.

I believe that youth ministry models and strategies, on a whole, tend to lean towards the extrovert. It certainly seems, at least, that developing extroverts in youth work is more well-established. So we will attempt here to bring in some balance, by developing specific ideas for developing introverts.

What Is An Introvert?

We often hear introversion linked with shyness, and extroversion with boldness. Although there can be links, it doesn’t take more than an amateur pop psychologist to tell you that this is a false assumption to make all the time. You can easily by a shy extrovert or an outgoing introvert.

I think about introverts using two sides of a coin. On one side is ‘how are they energised’ and on the other, ‘how do they process information.’

Energy?

An extrovert is energised by social stimulus in various forms (what kind depends on the extrovert), whereas the introvert tends to be drained by that. Both might enjoy going to a party, but while the extrovert may come back energised – like they have received from it, the introvert might want some down time – feeling like they have given out.

Information?

An extrovert tends to process verbally. When responding to a question they start speaking, showing their working until they get to an answer – you see the process and various types of responses and working out along with perhaps several answers. This is why extroverts are sometimes seen as rude through impatience. An introvert processes internally. They stop, think for a minute about what the question means, what else it could mean, what they know, how an answer could sound, how else it could be phrased etc. This happens internally an is why introverts are sometimes seen as rude through withdrawal.

This also might be why we as youth leaders subliminally prefer talking to extroverts. They provide more real time feedback on the conversation without looking like they are glazing over. It’s too easy to assume that the introvert is angry at us, or just bored or afraid when they are 1. giving us energy just by being there and 2. internally processing.

Bring It Together

When you put the energy (down time, reflective, away from most social stimuli) and the process (internal, cognitive) together you get your introvert.

It is of course very possible to be an internally processing extrovert, or an introvert who is energised by carefully cultivated social times. Just one of the reasons we shouldn’t be too prescriptive with any of this!

5 Principles For Introverted Youth Ministry

Jody pointed out that you will need both introverts and extroverts on your team to reach a diverse group. He’s bang on the money again, and we will now talk about putting some principles in place to get the most out of exactly this kind of team. Both introverts and extroverts will need to learn new habits and develop a wider awareness and tolerance, which, if trained and led well, will lead to quality, long-lasting youth ministry!

This requires more than just giving introverts space, as the extrovert will be tempted to fill any space that you give. This needs a rethink of our models to develop introverts intentionally and consistently alongside extroverts. Hopefully these 5 principles will be a good start to this process.

1. Stop using the word ‘everybody’

“Everybody get up and jump!”

“Everybody stand up and stay something about yourself!”

That little word ‘everybody’ can send fear right down the spine of the introverted young person, especially if you give them no time to think and process first. Look instead for inclusive but not expected phases that create safe opt-out spaces in your programs and sessions which allow young people to not engage with aspects of the activities without just dropping off the face of the planet.

2. Look For Ways To Show Value

Introverts (like all of us) need to know they are valued for who they actually are, not what an extroverted-youth-programs make them think they should be. One of the best ways to do this is to develop active listening skills. That’s listening which holds eye contact, makes affirming relevant gestures, repeats back what was said, and develops their side of the conversation over yours.

This is essential when they make a contribution to the group. You need to point to it clearly showing that you have understood their intentions and believe that it is valuable. This is something they will go away and process and become part of their historic experience with you – that you are someone who values them within their identity.

3. Stop, Look, Listen

It’s sometimes easier to spot the behaviours of the extrovert, which tend to carry less subtly in a group. We need to be watching the introverts, noticing what they do, and pointing to it. It’s all too easy to look through the introvert to the active extrovert behind them. Take the time to be with them certainly, but notice them when you’re not. We need to be present to and with our introverted young people consistently.

Be a youth leader who sees, hears and notices. Then names it.

4. Create Opt-Out Spaces

Similar to stop using the word ‘everybody’ this is about creating re-energising, processing times and spaces for the introvert. Make space for young people not to be part of everything. This will need some rethinking of our models.

Assuming that all your young people will equally want to do all activities is one thing, but forcing an introvert into a highly uncomfortable extrovert game is going to create a fight or flight response that’s going to be hard to forget – or forgive. So ‘up front’ games and questions should be voluntary – not pointing and naming. Group games and activities should be designed so they are easy to jump in and out of too. Ice-breakers should be easy enough to pass on too. It should be enough to say “I’m Tim, hi!” without having to then go on to explain my 14 favourite types of spatula… unless of course I want to!

This works for spaces too. Youth rooms tend to be noisy and busy, the layout is activity-driven. So having spaces that work for the introvert is a must. We have a ‘quiet room’ in our group setup with head-phoned music, books, colouring, beanbags and simple games. Conversation in their is kept to a minimum.

This is essential because a big fear for the introvert is letting people down;

“If I don’t participate, I’ll let my team down.”

“If I don’t say something, then I’ll let the leader down.”

These times and spaces should be intentional expectations for the fabric of the group – so rather than ‘letting us down’ they are participating in how the group is supposed to work.

5. Cultivate A Culture Of Conversation

Introverts can be incredibly creative and intelligent, and can be amazing conversational partners. In our youth ministry programs, however, sometimes the only time we give to conversation is before or afterwards, or during the break. This is not intentional conversation.

Developing real intentional conversation within our programs needs us to dramatically rethink the content. During one of our groups ‘Redefine’ we make sure every element (talks, prayer, worship, games) each has a give and take philosophy. Talks and teaching always encourage interruptions, we regularly run Q&A, and we put music up on the screen so they can bring their own instruments with them. Everything invites them to participate and add to the conversation. We also run TED nights where they bring their own talks and teaching.

Developing this as a culture – so a regular part of what you do – actually creates a lot more safety and sure-footing for the introvert as well as some healthy engagement for the extrovert. It’s win-win.

Find Out More

This is just the cliff notes of a great 50 minute conversation with Jody. Check out the whole thing at The Longer Haul here. Or on the iTunes podcast here.

This is an ongoing conversation – if you’ve got anything to add, please get in touch, or comment below. 🙂

Also – check out Chloe’s awesome comics on ‘Things Introverts In Your Youth Group HATE!”

When the ‘Father-Heart Of God’ doesn’t work.

I was talking to a classroom of teenagers last week about having parents for part of an explanation of the eternal nature of God. There was a young girl sat on the front row who jerked suddenly, and then glared at me through genuine tears for the next twenty minutes.

The ‘Good Father’ Myth

Parents are not always there and when they are, they are not always good. We cannot simply assume that young people have any real concept of a loving family. This myth has followed our evangelism for quite a long time now, that everyone has some concept of what a ‘good father’ is. It has permeated every part of our worship and still forms the cornerstone of much of our teaching.

The degradation of society, however, just doesn’t back this myth up. 42% of UK marriages end in divorce, almost half of those affect children under the age of 16, and the vast majority of child abuse happens within the family unit. Not everyone knows what a ‘good father’ looks like.

God is Father and He has a true, good Father’s heart towards us. We cannot assume, however, that everyone will understand exactly what that means. The Father metaphor in lots of cases can conjure images of imperfection, brokenness or even neglect and abuse – in some cases it simply leaves confusion or absence. In other scenarios, like what happened in my classroom, it can invoke real, deep pain and propagate ill will towards God.

Incredibly, fatherhood then becomes an obstacle, a stumbling block to a young person falling in love with God.

So what should we do?

How do we respond to this and redeem the image of Fatherhood? Here are two gentle suggestions:

First, rather than talking simply about ‘fatherhood’, we should make sure that we share which specific traits we are talking about: Warmth, protection, compassion, strength, solidity, and leadership. You can actually talk faithfully about the Fatherhood of God by sharing what it means specifically, and you don’t necessarily need to use the word ‘Father’ each and every time.

Second, develop a philosophy that makes God the original form or ideal of what Father means. God is the highest reality of Father, which means He sets the tone for what it really is. Don’t say ‘God loves you like a Father,’ instead say ‘God is the ultimate Father, and He loves you.’ This gentle change of orientation stops us making God in the image of our own broken fathers and creates a new category that He fully inhabits.

A new language for an old truth

My good friend Mark and his wife just had a baby and she is a little knock out! She won’t fall asleep, however, unless she is in physical contact with one of her parents. Mark spends hours sat with this little life sleeping soundly on his belly. Her parents are her safe place, a secure and protected zone of absolutely love and compassion. That’s what good fatherhood does!

Fatherhood can be a beautiful thing – and with God is certainly, always is! However, if we trip up on the first hurdle and can’t get past the word, then we’ll never get to the heart.

We need to speak to this culture about the truth of God as a Father – a truth that breaks chains and dismantles spirals of self-destruction. Our language needs to be basic and specific, and should show a real awareness of the problems many young people have with fatherhood as a concept.

In the way we teach, and the songs we sing we need to reach beyond just the word ‘Father’ and capture the reality behind it.

It is, after all, more important to communicate the real truth than to use the ‘correct’ words.

How To Work With A Visiting Speaker

For a wee while now I’ve been helping churches run events and projects, which inevitably means getting outside help. This usually comes in the form of musicians and speakers – although can be in the form of giant chickens and chocolate eggs.

Visiting speakers are awesome! You can find someone who treats speaking as a spiritual gift and a vocation, and they bring an outside breath of newness to your group. I loving getting speakers in, and I sometimes get used as a visiting speaker.

Some churches have policies and budgets for speakers, but in youth work land, we sometimes neglect these in the wake of enthusiasm and last minute planning! So here’s a little checklist to help you get the most out of your speaker:

1. Do your homework

Don’t just go for the biggest names as it’ll cost you your whole budget, and they might not actually be the best voice for your groups. You may even end up compromising the ideal dates and venues to fit their busy schedules. You should look instead for what a speaker values; ask for feedback from people who have used them and – if you can – listen to some of their recordings. Match the speaker to the people they are speaking to, not the topic.

2. Show your working

When sending an invitation to a speaker, specifically point to why you have asked for them. Share what traits they have displayed, or topics they have spoken on which you think will find synergy with your group. This is not about flattery (although it couldn’t hurt, right?), it’s about starting a conversation on the right track.

3. Explain details

Many, if not most, visiting speakers are in some kind of full-time ministry, thus will have lots of sporadic events and dates to juggle. For me that means I really appreciate a few months notice (not weeks), and will want to know who I’m speaking to, and for how long.

4. Give value

If you’re getting in a speaker, use them for what they are good at and are passionate about. Don’t just pair them up with someone they don’t know, or randomly drop them into a space they wouldn’t normally work with. Servant-heartedness aside (that’s for them to work on), they shouldn’t feel like a spare part or just another volunteer. Make sure it’s worth their time.

5. Decide on remuneration

This should (at the very least) be expenses for travel and board, but you really should consider a financial gift for their time. If I’m speaking for 30 minutes, at a 2 hour event say, 15 miles away, then I’ll probably put 5-8 hours total work into it. This includes speaking and being at the event obviously, but also prayer and prep and maybe meetings. I broadly try to delegate 15-35% of an event budget for speakers. Some speakers actually do have suggested rates and payment details – it’s better to ask in a frank and clear way early on – but with the attitude of wanting to bless, not wanting to save.

Note: If you plan on recording their talk and selling material with it in afterwards, then you might want to figure that in somehow too. At very least, you need to get their permission to do so.

6. Be realistic with your expectations

If your event starts at 6pm, don’t ask your speaker to be there with the setup team at 4pm to ‘meet people.’ If you want them to meet people then put on a dinner beforehand. There’s nothing more awkward than wandering around a hall, trying to find ways to be useful (or just stay out of the way) for 90 minutes while it all gets set up. This is time your speaker would rather have been with their family! Also remember that your speaker doesn’t know your young people like you do, and isn’t their to do your job of relationship building, or the Holy Spirit’s job of saving!

7. Ask for their requirements

I don’t mean a rider – as that might be pushing it! What I mean is sound, projection, or helpers to hand things out. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve arrived somewhere that didn’t have a music stand for my notes. Also – ask them beforehand if you want to record it.

8. Say thank you

It’s important to value your speaker. You can give some helpful feedback, but mostly show your gratitude for their work. Visiting speakers are professionals so they can work with feedback and understand that people have different needs. I try and give the ‘triple whammy’ of thanks: 1st, say Thank You in the event publicly, which gives the whole group an opportunity to be a part of it. 2nd, say Thank You to them personally, as the event organiser, when walking them to their car or dropping them off at the train. 3rd, say Thank You a day or two later, over email, highlighting the specific ways you think it was useful to the audience.

9. Don’t let them be a diva

You should value your speaker, but if you have given clear expectations in a timely fashion, then you should expect them to work within those parameters. You can’t change the shape of your whole event to fit them, and you can’t throw out your theology play book to accommodate something their playing with at the moment. They also should expect to be with you for the whole session to gel in well and talk to people afterwards. They shouldn’t nip out the back when their bit is over. Be clear and upfront, and hold them to the expectations you have agreed on.

A big myth that teachers still tell…

There’s been some great posts recently on Things To Tell Young People Often. It’s nice to get a positive spin on the 101 Things Not To Tell Teenagers angle, which is – frankly – far easier to write!

Nonetheless, I heard a doozy this week – an old resurfaced saying that hit me the chest like a bullet train.

I’d just given an assembly to a room of year 8s and was packing up my equipment when I overheard a teaching giving a firm talking down to her form class. She was quite clearly, and I’m sure justifiably, ticked.

When this teacher had reached the bottom of her disciplinarian bag of tricks, she dug out this classic, dusted it off and let rip:

“School will be the happiest time of your life.’

I involuntarily let out a gasp that carried across the room.

Really?!? Well what on earth is the point of the rest of it then? So much for learning, lets just have fun… or throw bricks or something!

This old myth was told to me a lot when I was at school too; that somehow these 5 years of peer pressure, social anxiety, raging hormones, identify crises and perpetual mood swings was going to be the best that life had to offer. That exams, homework, confusing love triangles and fragile friendships would be the bar that nothing else would ever reach. If that’s the case then stop the bus and just let me get off now.

I can comfortably say, however, that life has gotten better, clearer and happier since leaving school. It hasn’t – as was predicted – gone exponentially downhill. Maybe I’m the exception to the rule, but I’d guess probably not.

Gah.

Let’s give teenagers hope that life beyond school and youth-dom is worth the effort. Let’s develop sayings that lay the foundations for high expectations and a good run. Let’s give a vision of their future that encourages them to dream big, and far outstrips what they believe to be possible.

Let’s go Jeremiah 29:11 on them!

The best is yet to come guys, keep pushing on, you can do it, it’ll be worth it!