Archive for category: Youth Ministry

Nonverbal Communication with Adolescents

26 Oct
October 26, 2017

Did you know that 93% of communication is nonverbal?* A large percentage of that nonverbal communication comes through facial and tone of voice cues. What is surprising, however, is just how different the level of ability is in interpreting these nonverbal cues are when comparing adults and adolescents. Further, it probably explains a significant amount of the misunderstanding that can and does happen between adolescents and their parents.

At this point, it’s probably clear that I am a fan of Dr. Jeremy Clark and Jerusha Clark’s book, “Your Teenager is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent”. I blogged a review about it here, and then a follow up post on some of the neurobiology research they were exploring here. In their chapter entitled, “Why are you looking at me like that?,” they explore this topic of nonverbal cues and what the latest research is showing us about it.

Citing research from Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, they pointed out that while adults have a 90-100% success rate in interpreting the emotions and tone behind facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, adolescents only decipher them correctly about 50% of the time (Kindle location 1389).  Essentially, what the research shows is that adults interpret these cues by using the part of their brain where decision making and executive functions happen (the prefrontal cortex), while adolescents use the region of the brain where emotions are the dominating factor (the limbic system).

Where this is helpful for parents is in thinking through how we communicate with our adolescents. We cannot just assume they recognize the emotions or intent behind our words; 93% of communication is nonverbal, and teens misinterpret those cues half the time, which means they genuinely misunderstand us potentially almost half the time. We can’t change that; it’s biology. Their brains do not finish developing until around age 25. Instead, the Clarks recommend naming our emotions calmly. Let them know when you’re confused, worried, upset, etc., don’t just assume they know what you’re feeling when other adults would understand.

All that to say, if you’re a parent of kids of any age, or someone that works with young people. Get the book. It’s fascinating!

*All percentages and information in this post are drawn from the Clark’s book.

Jeremy & Jerusha Clark’s “Your Teenager is Not Crazy”

06 Oct
October 6, 2017

I really, really like this book. It’s a must read for parents of teens, tweens, and those that work with them. Dr. Jeremy Clark and Jerusha Clark’s book, “Your Teenager is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent” is a strong exploration of the biological, psychological and spiritual changes and developments happening in adolescents. What makes this book stand out from others I have read like it is how the Clark’s have used some of the latest in brain development research help shape and inform their approach to understanding teenagers. Adolescence triggers explosive amounts of neurological development, a process that does not finish until the mid-twenties, and actually explains much of the conflict and misunderstanding between parents and their teens.

Their approach is simple; over the course of 26 chapters, the Clark’s tackle a wide variety of adolescent and parent issues, from emotions, to sex, to blame, selfishness, friends, food and more. With each topic they introduce the issue, then follow a pattern; Bio 101 is where they tackle exactly how adolescent brain development connects to the topic at hand, Psych 101 address the psychological aspects of the issue as well as how to approach it effectively with your teen, and finally, Faith 101 is where they give advice on how to point the teen (and parents) to Christ in this area. At the end of each chapter, they give a practical challenge on how to live out their advice in your home today.

The book is strong. It’s clear they have done their homework in researching the topics, and their years of experience counseling, as well as parenting their own teens, come through loud and clear through the stories and illustrations they share. As a parent of a fifteen and a thirteen year old boy, I found this book incredibly enlightening. As I understand more and more the psychological and physical development going on under the surface, it makes it far more attainable to understand what is going on with my kids and the teens I work with as a youth pastor, as well as help give me the ability to be more patient and confident in how I approach them.

I already said it at the beginning; this is a must read for parents and those interacting with adolescents. It is a strong resource, covering a wide range of adolescent topics – making it something that can be turned to as different issues and situations arise. It’s available as a book, digital book and audio book, so it’s very accessible. Check it out!

Lamentations

08 Sep
September 8, 2017

The other week I finished teaching through the book of Lamentations in our Sunday morning student hour. It was a part of our larger, seven year teaching plan that includes walking students through every book of the Bible. It is a fascinating book, one I have not been able to stop thinking about. Essentially, if you’re not familiar with it, it is five poetic laments written and/or collected by the prophet Jeremiah, which the Israelite people would gather each year to read out loud together as they processed their grief from having been utterly defeated by the Babylonians. They had lost their independence, their capital had been destroyed, and perhaps the most devastating to their identify, the temple had been reduced to rubble. Over the course of three weeks we explored three significant themes that are throughout the poetry of Lamentations; God’s judgement, God’s compassion, and God’s sovereignty. What is particularly powerful about Lamentations to me is that it does not wrap up with a happy ending; they are still just as ruined at the end of it as they are in the beginning. The writer(s) are brutally honest with their pain, their loss, their suffering and their grief. And its final words – recited together as a community annually – ends with the question of whether or not God will help them or has He completely rejected them.

It’s powerful because it puts into words what so many of us feel during our times of suffering but are often times afraid to speak. Lamentations gives us permission to take all of our pain and suffering in its fullness and bring it out into the open to God. It gives us words to our heartbreak. Ultimately, it is a powerful lesson on how to grieve, something that I think our culture does not do well at. We tend to bottle things in, to celebrate those who are able to get back to normality quickly with comments like, “Wow, he’s handling it really well,” when in reality, that burying of pain is the opposite of handling it well.

If you want, you can find the audio to all three weeks on our iTunes podcast feed, or on our podcast website.

Mark Oestreicher’s “Leading Without Power”

30 Aug
August 30, 2017

As a youth pastor, the title of Oestreicher’s book, “Leading Without Power: 9 Paths Toward Non-Coercive Ministry Leadership,” immediately grabbed my attention. I never have any power!

When I was first beginning in ministry, my then senior pastor once explained to me that “leadership is getting people to do things they don’t want to do.” He didn’t mean challenging them to get sin out of their lives; he specifically meant that our job was to manipulate, guilt, push – whatever it takes – to get people to do what we wanted them to do.

The thrust of the book is simple and opposite to that approach; that coercive, hierarchical leadership is not only unbiblical, it’s dangerous and unhealthy. Towards that end, Oestreicher identifies nine ways to lead rooted in scripture, ways that use our ability to influence in far healthier, God honoring ways.

I appreciated his challenge to readers to not try and take on all of the ways he suggests, rather, he suggests finding one or two to try and implement, and then build from there. I know for me, two jumped out immediately as being ways that fit with my wiring and approach that I want to continue to develop; the first is what he calls a “Storytelling Host,” the second is a “Uniqueness DJ.” Yes, he has unique names for his paths to leadership. The storytelling host uses stories that embody values to challenge, inspire, teach, and guide the listeners. Our ultimate example of this approach, of course, is Christ, who frequently used stories to lead those around Him. The Uniqueness DJ is someone who is able to blend different people together in forming a team, using each person’s uniqueness to form a great team – rather than trying to get everyone to fit a specific mold.

“Leading Without Power” is a great book. While Oestreicher is a well known youth ministry expert, this is not a youth ministry book. It’s a quick read – you can probably finish it in one sitting. His style is fun to read and packs a lot of powerful truths. I love his honesty about the appeal of power and the very real temptation and ease of leading in coercive ways, and his challenge to find a different way is incredibly relevant. I bought copies of the book for each of my student ministry staff, and will be going through it with them in the coming weeks. This one is a must read for all believers; its lessons applicable in all areas of life.

Seven Year Teaching Plan

25 Aug
August 25, 2017

We are moving into the seventh year of a seven year teaching plan I put together back in the day. Essentially, I wanted to tackle three things with our Sunday morning teaching time over the seven years we have a student in our youth ministry (6th-12th grade); core truths that we really want to drive home, topical issues relevant to the group’s needs, and biblical literacy. You can check it out here.

Having stayed committed to this plan for six years now, I’m increasingly happy with it. It’s flexible enough that we really are able to roll with what’s happening in culture, needs of the group, and strengths of the teachers. At the same time, it gives enough structure that we have to give our topic selections a lot of thought and care so that we can meet our big picture goals. Finally, I love the thought that as of this years’ rising twelfth grade students, any graduate that has been at our church for middle school and high school will have graduated with teaching from every book of the Bible.

Where do I get the materials? Primarily through a handful of companies I’ve come to trust over the years; Youth Specialties, The Live Curriculum, The Youth Cartel, and Download Youth Ministry. In addition, we’ve created some studies for books of the Bible that I couldn’t find materials elsewhere for.

Here’s the overview:

  • Core Truths (yearly, 11 weeks). These are the teachings we land on every year – if teens don’t remember anything else when they graduate, at least they’ll know these eleven lessons. Within this broader category, there are two main themes; our church values and purpose (Know, Grow, Go) inform us of why we gather, while the HABITS series gives the spiritual disciplines that tell us how to follow God.
    • Our Purpose
      • Fellowship (‘we are real people’)
      • Worship (‘in love with a real God’)
      • Discipleship (‘in love with a real God’)
      • Evangelism (‘making a real difference in the world’)
      • Service (‘making a real difference in the world’)
    • HABITS
      • Hang time with God (quiet time)
      • Accountability
      • Bible study and memorization
      • Involvement in church
      • Tithing
      • Sacraments (communion, baptism)
  • Topical (yearly, 17 weeks). This is the category that gets the most flexibility year by year. Basically, it’s age specific, felt need topics (e.g., the place our group is in right now leads us to talk about this). Some topics will probably be repeated every year (dating, sex, peer pressure).
  • Biblical Literacy (23 weeks). This is the bigger picture piece of the puzzle. One of our church values as a whole is Biblical literacy, and our concern that as a culture we are becoming less and less familiar with the scriptures. Towards that end, over the course of seven years we will give students an overview of the whole Bible, working our way through every book (in varying degrees of depth). If you look at the plan,, you’ll see that we’re working our way systematically through the Old Testament while bouncing around the New Testament.

Youth Ministry Longevity

04 Aug
August 4, 2017

I’m going to try this again; yesterday I wrote a blog post, used some undependable stats, and ultimately, distracted readers from the point I was actually trying to make, which is that longevity brings deeper perspective and awareness of the long term impact of student ministry programs.

There are tremendous benefits to longevity in youth ministry; both in regards to total ministry experience, as well as long tenures in one church. It brings stability, deeper roots in the church, greater depth of relationships, and a host of other benefits. For me, somewhere around my sixth year at my current church, and going forward, I have really begun to see a lot of changes in my perspective and attitudes about student ministry.

In 2016, Barna and Youth Specialties teamed up to release The State of Youth Ministry, a fascinating look into the world of American student ministries. Based on their research, they found that the average youth pastor is at his or her church for just over five years (p.55). The graph below reflects youth pastor tenures currently throughout the US (p.56):

They did note that 39% were in their first three years at a church, reflecting a “plurality [that] moves on within three years” (p.56). There are a lot of variables that can factor into that percentage, and it is only a portion of the broader youth ministry field. What I find myself wrestling with is the challenge for myself, and youth pastors in general, to plant deep roots into my/their churches and congregations long enough to really see the rewards in longevity, as well as some of the deeper perspectives that help youth ministry as a whole that come with being in a place long enough to see multiple groups of students move through the entire program, into college, adulthood and beyond. On the flip side, the challenge is also for churches to have the long term vision to keep staff in place long enough to see these benefits.

I was at my first church for two years. I saw the program double in attendance in my time there. It was exciting and validating. I was at my second church for just over five years. I started with less than five middle school students; five years later I had seen almost every teen in our region come through our doors at some point and felt my influence was rooted both in the church and the community. These are meant as boasts, rather, to contrast my changing opinions on what success looks like.

Honestly, I’ve heard the statistics over the incredibly large drop off in faith from students graduating from church, heading off to college, and essentially graduating from the faith. And for the most part, I assumed that was a problem with other churches.

I’ve been at my current church for nine years this month. That’s long enough for many teens to have not only graduated from our program, but to have also graduated from college, start careers, marriages and families. I actually do believe that we have seen a higher percentage of graduates maintain faith after graduation, but I’ve seen a lot of students disappear. Too many. And on the one hand I’ve read the articles pointing out that many do ultimately return to faith in their 30’s, I would still prefer to see them not wander to begin with.

Nine years of watching students fade away begins to add up. It is a sobering thing to see. It has made me question a lot of things I used to assume were effective. What good does it do if we can pack out an all-nighter if we’ve lost the connection a few years later?

Research by people like Christian Smith, Kenda Creasy Dean, Kara Powell, Chap Clark, and others, all point to the same thing; one of the most critical ingredients in long term faith is being plugged into the larger church. It’s why in recent years we have shifted so much of our focus at Brandywine Valley Baptist Church to make it easier for families to attend worship services together, to serve together, to grow in faith together. I’m hopeful to see the payoff to these changes in the years to come.

Which brings me back to my point; to me, one of the critical benefits of youth ministry longevity is seeing and feeling first hand the weight of this need. With each year it brings a deeper sense of priority to the big picture of ministry. A youth leader needs to be in one place long enough to see the long term results of the approach their church is taking with adolescents if there is going to be any kind of change in this trend of losing young people after graduation. I think that 9% of youth pastors who have been in the same place for twelve years or more represent volumes of experience and insight all of us could benefit from.

Caleb and Micah’s Mission Trip Report

10 Jul
July 10, 2017

On June 25th, the student ministry took over both worship services at our church, Brandywine Valley Baptist Church, to share their favorite moments and what God taught them during the mission trips to Maine, Detroit and Peru. I was particularly proud and excited to hear what Caleb, my 13 year old son, would share about his trip to Maine, and what Micah, my 15 year old son, would share about his trip to Detroit.

I actually led the mission trip to Peru, so this was the first year that McNutt’s were on all three student mission trips. It hit me a few days before the trips were to leave that I have incredible youth leaders; it never even occurred to me to worry about sending my sons with the leaders on either the Maine or Detroit trip. My trust and confidence in them is that high! Our volunteers love God and their calling to work with young people – it’s an incredible team to be a part of!

Us Versus Us review

01 Jul
July 1, 2017

us versus usAndrew Marin’s Us Versus Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community is a powerful examination of the relationship between the LGBT community and the church. Based on extensive research and surveys – the largest of its type – administered by his organization, The Marin Foundation, Marin presents startling and convicting results. The big result? 86% of the LGBT community were raised in faith communities, leading to the title of the book; Marin contends that for too long the debate on sexuality has been framed as an “us versus them” approach, when the reality is that most of us originated in the same place – it is actually and “us versus us” debate, which has only resulted in damage.

Each chapter is committed to examining the major findings of the research; beyond the 86% statistic, he also found that 54% of those in the LGBT community left their faith communities by the age of 18, 76% are open to returning to faith and its practices, 36% of the LGBT community continue to pursue faith beyond the age of 18, 80% regularly pray regardless of faith association (or lack thereof), and finally, he examines the impact of coming out on religiosity.

For years, Marin has powerfully advocated for building bridges instead of walls in the conversation between the church and the LGBT community. He writes that “we have allowed the people comprising the conversation to be characterized by caricature” (Kindle location 128), pointing out that we define positions and camps, focusing the conversation on opposition. Instead, he advocates for “the lost art of loving in disagreement” (Kindle location 135).

What do we do with these results? For Marin, the answer seems obvious. The pattern for many churches in America has been incredibly painful for those in and out of the congregation; somehow we have not been able to emulate Christ’s approach, which in His divine perfection somehow combined His sinless reputation with the ability to have sinners flock to Him. Throughout the gospels Christ avoided closed door conversations; when people asked him yes/no questions in an effort to nail down where He stood, He answered with parables, with stories, with questions of His own. The result? Instead of shutting down the conversation He continued the dialogue and built bridges.

Do I agree with all of Marin’s conclusions? Not necessarily; we differ on the interpretation of some of the data. But the work he and his team have done is essential. Every pastor/church leader should read this book. It is a powerful insight into a group often dehumanized and vilified by churches in America, and the longing for community and spiritual hunger present there.

Understanding Gender Dysphoria review

31 May
May 31, 2017

mark 2Dr. Mark Yarhouse, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Regent University, has put together a solid resource for leaders and those wanting to know more about Gender Dysphoria, or transgenderism, in his book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture. There are very few issues in my experience as a pastor as misunderstood as this topic, and in that misunderstanding, tremendous damage and hurt has been and will continue to be caused.

Yarhouse does a tremendous job of explaining the nature of gender dysphoria, as well the different theories surrounding the causes and treatment of gender dysphoria, and the pros and cons of each. He also explains his own approach as a psychologist and his rationale. Because the research is still in early stages regarding the ramifications for the different treatment approaches, he personally advocates taking the least invasive approach that can resolve the dysphoria; which in practicality means different approaches for each individual. I won’t try to summarize his content here; I would never be able to do it justice.

One of the strengths of Yarhouse’s book for those in ministry is his careful and well thought out Christian perspective and connections to scripture paired with his deep knowledge as a psychologist and his practical experience. He has done the research and it shows. By shedding light on this topic and confronting many of the wrong perceptions and faulty ideas, his book is both beneficial and a call to many in the church to rethink their assumptions. One particularly jarring quote from his book really hit home for me;

“What most people who are gender dysphoric find in the church is rejection and shame – the feeling that there is something fundamentally flawed in them, that the flaw is their fault (back to willful disobedience) and that if others knew about their gender incongruence, they too would reject them.” (Kindle location 946)

Yarhouse’s book is timely. As such a hot button topic, it is a relevant work for anyone who wants to grow in their understanding rather than allow news headlines and Facebook rants shape their opinions. As the church, this is an area where we need to grow in our love and empathy, and I think Yarhouse helps point in a direction that accomplishes that. I have personally read a number of resources and articles in my own pursuit of understanding, and his work is the first to really help address that need for me. He has clearly done his homework, supports his assertions with the research, yet writes in a way that is approachable and understandable. Definitely worth checking out.

Unintentional Arrogance

02 Jan
January 2, 2017

unintentional arrogance

I was listening to Mark Matlock’s “Transforming Conversations: Using Research from Barna’s State of Youth Ministry Report” session from the National Youth Worker’s Convention the other day and wanted to respond to part of it. Essentially, Barna and Youth Specialties did a massive survey on youth ministry in America, producing a lot of valuable data for youth workers and churches to process and discuss; you can find the research here. In his session at the convention, Matlock highlighted some of the data, including the topic of what obstacles youth workers face in youth ministry.

To reveal my own bias, before hearing the results, my immediate response to the question of my greatest obstacle in youth ministry is my own busyness.

According to the survey, the top two obstacles reported by youth workers were (1) the busyness of youth (74% said this) and (2) 34% reported lack of parent interest (respondents could put more than one obstacle). It is significant that student busyness was far and away the highest reported obstacle.

Further complicating the conversation was the survey responses from parents regarding the busyness of their children: 11% felt their teens are way too busy, 58% feel the balance is good, and 31% believe their children need more to do.

At this point Matlock opened up the conversation to the youth workers in the room to comment on the disparity between 74% of youth workers believing students are too busy, and 89% of parents feeling kids are at the right balance or actually need more to do. There were a number of different thoughts; some felt parents needed to be educated on the busyness of their kids, perhaps parents are not in healthy balance so cannot see that their kids are not either, etc. One person suggested that youth ministries are running too many programs so kids are picking and choosing, as opposed to them actually being too busy. Matlock suggested that perhaps some youth workers blame busyness because it puts the fault of lack of involvement outside their control; it’s the fault of families and other circumstances, rather than the youth worker not giving them something they value enough to participate in.

For me, it was frustrating to hear some of the responses. Sometimes I feel like we as youth workers can be unintentionally arrogant, genuinely believing we know more about what’s best for someone else’s child(ren). Yes, there are things students talk to us about that they don’t tell their parents; while it may make me uncomfortable at times to know that my fifteen year old may go to someone else about something instead of me, I remember my own discomfort with bringing up some topics with my parents as a teenager and so I try to surround him with Christian adults I respect and trust to be positive influences and role models for him. In the same way, some of their teens come to me; but it would be incredibly arrogant of me to believe that my limited interactions with their child compared to their lifetime of daily involvement would leave me knowing more than them, only that I may have a different perspective with limited insights.

Kids make time for things they value and are excited about. Parents prioritize that involvement when they know the important enough details far enough in advance to plan for it. Rather than looking to things outside of our control to blame poor response on (busyness of teens, lack of parent interest), we should be constantly evaluating and changing our approaches and programming in response to the rapidly changing youth culture. Further, this type of blame only builds invisible walls of disconnect instead of bridges with parents. One of the values I have constantly told my team is that we should never have to guilt or manipulate kids into coming to something, and we definitely should not have to be spending excessive amounts of time trying to talk them into participating – if they’re not excited about it, than we’re doing something wrong, not them. Maybe our schedule is overcrowded, maybe we’ve picked the wrong hook, the wrong date (yeah, the time I inadvertently scheduled a retreat on homecoming weekend – that’s not them loving school more than Jesus, that’s me creating an unnecessary conflict of interest), or the wrong content.