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.

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!

Why We Should Cultivate A School Contact Network

In just one local school I have seen four different heads of RE, at least half a dozen changes in senior management and two (about to be three) headteachers – all in the space of five years. This is in no way a unique story.

Many quality teachers are being promoted out of teaching positions and are being lumped with more admin than they have ever had to deal with before. Senior staff positions are under review annually and teachers are surrounded by constant scrutiny. The teaching fabric and staff hierarchies are constantly in flux.

This simply means that authority changes hands constantly, and people who you could rely on at one point may no longer be able to help you.

It is vitally important to cultivate multiple relationships throughout the school. Teachers that you work with today could be running their department by next year. Contrastingly, department heads that valued your services once, could easily be replaced by people who have never met you and have no reason to trust you.

I make a conscious effort to network as broadly as possible within a school. Teachers, librarians, office workers, senior staff and other school visitors are all on my contacts list. I also try to make regular appearances at school events, plays, performances and open days.

As a result I have a working relationship with a wide variety of staff, and I have regular contact with at least 60% of the students of one school every year. The same school I mentioned in my opening line.

Broad school networking relationships: It can be done, and it should at least be attempted.

Social Media Safety Lesson Plan (free download)

Social Media Safety Lesson Plan.

This is the first of a 2 part lesson plan we offer to Schools on the issues of Social Media Safety for Students. This has minimal explicit religious content and is aimed at building trust for the school while providing valuable training and awareness for young people on the issues of Social Media Safety.

This should happily fill a 50 minute lesson for most secondary school age groups. It’s based around dynamic conversation and group work steered through you the facilitator. This is a far less authoritarian way of raising and taking these issues.

This is a free download and you are free to use, adapt and it as far as it is useful. Please do point people back here if it has been useful to you. Thanks!

Download Here: Social Media Safety pdf (3 pages)

3 Overlooked Reasons for School’s Work

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There are lots of well known and accepted reasons for school’s work, not least of which is you can kiss your youth ministry goodbye in a few years if you’re not. Here’s a few though that came to mind that are maybe sometimes overlooked:

To challenge stereotypes
Young people are several generations removed from the world of habitual church attendance and Sunday school. This leaves their systems wide open to lots of misinformation and tabloid-infused stereotypes of who Christians are and what Church looks like.

“By being present in school you can continually challenge the stereotype of what Christ-followers look like.”

Last week I asked 140 year 9 students in groups of 5 to give me a freeze frame for the word ‘church.’ The vast majority had people kneeling on the floor bowing to a vicar figure who was stood up on a chair looking posh and disinterested. A few did funerals, and one did an image of ‘togetherness.’ One in nearly 30 groups caught at least something of the heart of church.

By being present in school you can continually challenge the stereotype of what church and Christ-followers look like. Yes we look normal, we dress normal, we don’t have secret handshakes, we like good music (most of us) and some of us even have tattoos! Weird eh?

To create dynamic, tolerant conversation
Christians – being in a spiritually aware world inhabited by theologians and philosophers with a rich history – are expected to provide stimulating thoughts, deep questions and engaged conversation.

“Teaching young people how to think and how to talk cultivates the ground needed to hear the Gospel.”

Rather than coming with ‘look, here’s what I think!’ all the time, use your unique space and persona in school to develop activities and spaces that grow conversation techniques, tolerance, listening skills and opinion articulation. Teaching young people how to think and how to talk cultivates the ground needed to hear the Gospel.

We do this in North Wales by through running RE conferences that massively rely on small, dynamic conversation groups. The result is lots of young people who feel genuinely listened to, accepted and yet challenged. This means they have a memory of being respected and heard, and that memory is attached to Christian adults! Well worth it.

To constantly show that faith is not a bankrupt option
The world isn’t split into smart people and Christians. Using helpful and memorable illustrations you can allow young people the space to open their minds to possibilities beyond the mundane and quite easily back this up using classical philosophy and modern science.

You need to keep saying and demonstrating that faith is not intellectual suicide. You can do this in science classes with science teachers if you approach it properly. Develop a language in school through your involvement that allows young people – Dr. Who style – to consider more than what is simply in front of their noses.

Young people are incredibly spiritually aware so you have an opportunity to dovetail supernatural alertness into academic rigor.

An Attitude for Christian School’s Work

Heiwa_elementary_school_18Last week I was hosting a Q&A for the year 9s from our local school when we broached the topic of suffering.

“Why doesn’t God just control everybody to stop them doing bad things!” a young lad asked me.

“If He controlled everybody all the time,” I responded “then He could decide to make you a ballerina right here and now in front of all your mates, which would probably be a bit awkward.”

We followed up by looking at the importance of God allowing us to make choices and giving us dynamic (not autonomous) freedom in order for us to be fully human.

At the end of the session while his friends were boarding the coaches, he came back up to me with “we’re gonna have this out! Why can’t God just give us some basic guidance when choices come up in our lives, or some basic help when we’ve got to make hard decisions eh?”

“That’s exactly what He does do,” I replied delightedly, “but in order to hear His voice you need to know who’s speaking, you need to pick up the phone and dial the right number, you need to start a relationship with Jesus.”

“Wow, I should convert then!” He yelled jubilantly (and possibly slightly tongue-in-cheek) then he bounced off.

Without a solid relationship with my local school and the golden opportunities that it provides I don’t think I ever would have had that important (albeit flyby) conversation with that young person. It all comes down to having a quality attitude for Christian school’s work.

The Silver Bullet

School’s Work is the silver bullet for youth ministry – if you’re not involved in any kind of school’s work you can almost all but guarantee that your youth ministry’s days are numbered.

School’s Work provides a rolling community of young people who add longevity to your ministry projects. The days of the drop in, bring a friend youth club are ticking away. You have to build relationships with young people in schools where they are at and you have to do this in a way that adds value to the school itself.

Adding Value

Our attitude to School’s Work should not be ‘trying to get in,’ but instead a compassion-driven, servant-hearted desire to add value to that school.

“I ask lots of questions and I say ‘yes’ a lot.”

My first conversation with a new school is around how we can serve them. I go to meetings armed with knowledge of the curriculum and with understandings of extra-curricular requirements that they might struggle with. I ask lots of questions and I say ‘yes’ a lot.

I’m confident that what we do in our local school’s work adds educational and social value to the students, I’m confident that the staff are happy and I’m confident that this provides opportunities needed (without being subversive) to share the Gospel with Young People in an honest and open way.

Some ideas to consider:

1. Look for the unconventional.
In my current ministry we’ve taught RE yes, but we’ve also taught drama, PE, social studies, critical thinking, CV writing skills, street dance and internet safety. We also fill requirements for acts of worship, enrichment, Duke of Edinburgh and work experience. Go with what they ask for and provide what they need.

2. But work with what you have.
Can you provide a learning experience at your local church? A day out with a tour, talk and quiz in your church building can tick a whole load of academic boxes and is often a great way in while challenging stereotypes.

3. Don’t be afraid of giving it time.
If your mission is to go from 0-60, from first contact to school concert to setting up a CU in a few weeks – good luck! Finding a niche in a school might take a couple of years of providing different services, but it’s well worth it.

4. Make specific suggestions.
Schools don’t often take initiative with outsiders, especially with the volume of potential visitors they have to consider. Give the school specific options with outline plans and learning objectives. It’s far more likely that they will consider something if they don’t have to put that amount of extra thought into it themselves.

5. Make the right friends.
Specific senior teachers, caretakers and reception staff – the Holy Trinity of the school and those who really have the most access. After every weekly club I leave all the ‘extra’ doughnuts with the reception staff, I’ve been for drinks with heads of RE and I’ve always tried to set the rooms back before the caretaker arrives to take over.

6. Actually make friends.
Teachers are real people and we should be seeking to develop real relationships that are personal and open to life outside the school.

“Be low maintenance and high value!”

7. Be professional.
School is not youth club, it has specific learning and social development objectives. At PGCE you are taught how to work within this structure, at YouthMin training you are not! Learn how to write formal letters, dress appropriately, follow up clearly, have short and efficient meetings and communicate with different levels of staff properly. This will go a very long way. Be clear about your objectives and don’t be overly demanding. Be low maintenance and high value!

8. Care about what they care about.
School’s take a lot of time committing to a small group of charities and local community work. Rather than trying to add to this list, look for ways you can work with them on the same projects for the same causes.

9. Don’t push your luck.
You are in the school as a guest. Always be honest and open about why you are there, be clear with your opinions, don’t overreach for more than you know and don’t encourage an ‘us and them’ mentality with you and the teachers. Subversiveness doesn’t serve anyone!

10. Get a shed load of people praying!
Not only for the ways in and for the developing relationships but for protection. A surefire way to loose your hard earned connection with a school is the one phone call from the one angry parent who thinks you are there to indoctrinate. So see point 9, and get people praying!