Running From and Journeying Toward

AN ARTICLE WRITTEN FOR THE MARCH/APRIL 2016 ISSUE OF  YOUTH WORKER MAGAZINE:

“I need to tell you what happened to me last summer.”
“I have so much anxiety about starting my senior year.”
“Can we talk about the boys who ask me for pictures?”
“If I don’t have Cross Country I don’t have anything.  I feel so much pressure to improve my time.”
“Do you ever have doubts?  Because most of the time I don’t believe this Jesus stuff.”

While I’ve talked with countless high school students in our student room, outside of our sanctuary on Sunday morning, and at coffee shops or high schools in our town, the most vulnerable conversations I’ve had with young people have taken place when we were far from home.  Students opened their hearts to me with these comments on a hiking trail, making breakfast at a campsite, at the top of a sledding hill, and in a dorm room just before “lights out”.  And as you can imagine, these comments led to further conversations, prayers, and action.

In my nearly 10 years of youth ministry experience, I’m more convinced than ever that retreats have the possibility of being an unparalleled catalyst for transformation in the lives of our young people.

On The Run

We’re all running from someone or something.  To be human is to struggle and to experience conflict, and we’re all on the run from challenging people or circumstances.  There is no population in our society that understands this better then today’s North American teenagers.

Whether it’s the pressure to perform in the classroom or the athletic field, expectations regarding post-high school plans, coping with a bully or social anxiety, or balancing all of the demands for their time, energy, and money, our high school students live historically challenging lives.[i]  My relationships with high school students have only continued to confirm this reality, and the high school students I know are desperate for an escape.  We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that our young people make seemingly irrational decisions or turn to risk behaviors with peers as a temporary refuge from their daily lives.

However, I suspect the reason we’re all in Youth Ministry is because we believe the Church has the responsibility and the potential to be an alternative refuge in the lives of our young people.  Whether it’s the physical space of our church campuses or the relational spaces that are created between students and peers and students and adult mentors, youth ministers and youth ministry are voices of advocacy in creating this refuge.  The camps and retreats that we lead for our young people have the possibility of being the refuge our young people are desperately looking for.

An Alternative to Refuge

Because of this, I’ve been committed to creating a refuge with my students around two words:

“Retreat”

And

“Pilgrimage”

These two words are likely familiar to anyone who was raised in a religious context. In fact, they’re probably so familiar that they may have lost their meaning.  I’ve learned to reclaim these words as verbs that are vital to these experiences with my students.

I now create space at the beginning of each retreat for my students to ask and answer these two questions as a group:

Retreat = What are you running from? What do you need to run from?

Pilgrimage = What are you journeying to or toward? What do you need to journey to or toward?

It should be no surprise that our students can actually articulate what it is that they need to leave behind at home, whether it be abuse, habits, addiction, pain, or troubled relationships, if they’re honest, they know they’re “running” or “retreating” from something.  And it should also be no surprise that our students can actually articulate what it is they need to journey to while on an adventure, whether it be wholeness, a fresh start, new friendships, a positive environment, or “God”.

In short, in order to help create a helpful refuge for our young, we must reclaim retreating and pilgrimaging as verbs.[ii]

Creating Space

I would never want to minimize all of the good that can take place within relationships or during weekly youth ministry programming, but in order for young people to be able articulate what they’re running from and need to run toward, they need helping creating the space for them to do the running and gain some perspective.  As adults, we often take for granted our ability to go for a drive, take a few days off work, or get away for a weekend.  Teenagers often don’t have the ability to create this space for themselves.  Our Churches have the unique opportunity to provide space from life at home and daily routines through the retreats we offer.

So as we engage the young people we care about so much, may we continue to create the space they need to continue to learn and grow.  May we say to them, “run with us” or “run toward us” as you run from all that is painful in your life.  And may our retreats be the refuge our young people need as they navigate a difficult and challenging existence.

[i] For more on this, see:  Clark, Chap.  Hurt 2.0:  Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers.  Baker Academic:  2011.
[ii] For more on “retreating and pilgrimaging” in the context of adventures, see my article in the March 2015 issue of Youth Worker Journal.

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Anything but the Blood

AN ARTICLE WRITTEN FOR THE INSTITUTE FOR YOUTH MINISTRY AT PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY:

One of the great privileges I’ve had in the past ten years is guest teaching in classrooms, youth groups, and camps both near and far from home. During one of these camps, a friend from home called me and asked how my week was going. After sharing a few stories about the incredible students and volunteers I’d encountered, I blurted out, “these people are obsessed with ‘the blood.’”

My friend laughed, and asked, “What do you mean?”

“The band keeps singing about ‘the precious blood’ and ‘nothing but the blood’, and camp staff is praying about ‘the gift of the blood of Jesus,’ and I don’t think these kids have any idea what we’re talking about.”

After this conversation I couldn’t help but wonder if youth ministry and our churches need to reconsider how we talk about the death of Jesus with our young people.

Read the full article at:  http://iym.ptsem.edu/anything-but-the-blood/

 

How Do We Create Adventures with Students?

An article written for Youth Worker magazine:

1) With, not For. Notice that you’re not creating an adventure for your students—you’re creating one with your students. Invite them into the process of creating the adventure, and you also must be committed to being a co-adventuring participant.

2) Plan ahead, but not too much. If you’re going on a camping trip, make sure you’ve been to the camp or campground and visited the area on your own ahead of time. From there, you can take calculated risks that won’t involve putting you or your group in a bad situation. You can take students down a trail you’ve never hiked before, as long as it’s not the first time you’ve ever been in the same country as the trail you’re hiking.

3) “Where there’s a fence, there’s a way around it.” When I was studying in Israel, one of my professors voiced this infamous line when our class unexpectedly came upon a fence with a sign that said, “Danger: Mines Ahead,” while hiking on a trail near Galilee. Unexpected problems are opportunities for more adventure, not obstacles that should derail your adventure.

4) Don’t adventure alone. Make sure you have the support of parents, senior leadership and your volunteers as you plan an adventure that involves any type of risk or danger.

5) Tell them the truth. Talk to students as if you believe they can handle what lies ahead (even if you don’t). I once started a morning hike that involved walking near 100-foot cliffs that dropped directly into Lake Superior with the words, “Everything we’re going to do today is 100 percent safe; but if you don’t do what I say, it’s possible you could die.”

Why I Hope My Students Believe Bigfoot Exists

On the last night of the first summer camping trip I ever led, our group was huddled around a campfire laughing at the inside jokes and funny stories that had unfolded during our time together. A student subtly tugged on the hood of my sweatshirt and quietly asked me a question:

Student: Wait. Are you serious? You’re telling me you actually believe Bigfoot exists?

Me: Wait. Are you serious? You’re telling me you actually believe a guy named Jesus was murdered and then came back from the dead?

Student: Wait. What?

Maybe a little context will help.

Nearly 10 years ago, I inherited a high school ministry that had experienced four different high school pastors in the previous four years. Although there was a remarkable group of volunteers involved in the ministry and solid traditions and programs were in place, the ministry was craving a more consistent and clear vision from leadership. Although I initially focused my energy on building relationships with students and volunteers and sought ways to improve our weekly program, I knew that eventually I would need to rethink our annual camps and retreats…

Read the full article at: http://www.youthworker.com/youth-ministry-resources-ideas/youth-ministry/11729416/

Sodom, Gomorrah and Youth Ministry

Having the Talk

Every February for the past eight years our high school students have been given the opportunity to anonymously submit any question they have about sex and relationships to our youth ministry staff, knowing that our team would somehow attempt to respond to as many of these questions as possible the following week. While some people might want to run at the thought of what these questions might reveal, I found each February to be the most challenging, interesting, and important time of year. The questions my students submitted gave me a rare glimpse into the hearts, minds, and lives of the students I cared so much about…

Read the full article at: http://iym.ptsem.edu/sodom-gomorrah-and-youth-ministry/

Week To Year: How to turn a week-long service trip into a year-long process of transformation

If you’ve served in student ministry for any amount of time, it’s likely that you’ve participated in some type of mission, service, or outreach trip with your students. It’s also likely that some of your students came home from the trip saying things like:

“God changed my life.”
“I will never be the same.”
“I’m not the person that I was before.”

As youth workers, we have to celebrate when we hear students articulating moments of positive growth and transformation. However, we also have to grieve when we don’t see the growth and transformation manifested in their lives long-term. I’ve heard plenty of students and volunteers make pronouncements like this after an experience, only to profess a few weeks or months later that their lives are the same as they were before the trip and that the feel as if they’ve “lost” something since they returned home…

Read the full article at: https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/week-to-year#sthash.YcyZcTqJ.dpuf

Sexting the Night Away

“Everything is about sex … except sex. Sex is about power.”

In a chilling moment of honesty, Frank Underwood, the main character in the popular political drama, “House of Cards,” makes a claim that is true about his pursuit of political power and his understanding of how the world works.

As I read the recent front-page article in The Atlantic about teen “sexting” I couldn’t help but reflect on this quote. The interviewed teenagers admitted that the pictures they share aren’t “a huge part of their sex life” or “a springboard for fantasy”, but are a kind of “social currency.” Essentially, sharing and collecting nude photos of peers is a way of furthering their own position, undercutting the position of others, and successfully navigating the social pecking order.

What’s striking to me about this story is that both male and female teenagers describe willing participation in this practice and the exchange of pictures.

While these “sexting” stories often involve bullying, peer pressure, and other oppressive circumstances, instances of mutual participation involving both genders are also common. What many participants in this practice share in common is what all humans share: the temptation to use another human being as a tool for our own gain.

You could say, “Sexting isn’t about sex. Sexting is about power.”

As we talk about “sexting” and our role as youth workers in this discussion, I wonder if talking about “power” is where our conversation should start.

The reality of our human existence is one of great power and responsibility. Being made “in the image of God” is a term of royalty that carries with it the capacity to create, steward, and care for, as well as to destroy, waste, and harm. We all have been given divine power.

My experience in youth ministry has taught me that teenagers can be more aware of this sense of power than any other age group, but are often lacking in examples of and environments for the proper use of this power. When the majority of the world exercises power for personal gain at the expense of others, we shouldn’t be surprised when individuals dehumanize themselves and others by using their bodies and phones to create their own social currency.

When it comes to addressing the issue of “sexting”, the temptation we all face as youth workers is to focus our energy on very pragmatic conversations about rules, boundaries, and blame. Parents will want us to help “fix” their kids, volunteers will want to know how to “change” the behavior of their students, and we as youth workers will feel the weight of what seems like life altering and risky behavior among those in our communities.

I want to affirm the desire to protect and shelter the young people we’ve been trusted with. But methods of “sin management” and “behavior modification” won’t capture the imaginations of our young people. This method of entering the conversation will undermine the power of the Biblical Story and will ultimately miss an opportunity to cut to the heart of the issue: That the purpose of the power that has been extended to each of us, based on the nature of our very existence, was intended to serve and bless all of creation. We were made to extend the same sense of beauty and dignity to others that God has extended to us, and I think our young people are craving a vision and environment to use their God-given power to make the world a better place through their relationships with others.

Our opportunity as youth workers is to avoid becoming one more adult that is setting himself or herself on fire over the latest calamity that has struck the teenage world. Maybe the teenagers we know aren’t looking for someone to “fix” them, but are waiting for someone to tell them a better story about what it means to be human.

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This is from part of a panel response to the prevalence of sexting in the lives of youth that I was privileged to be a part of. Read the other responses here: http://iym.ptsem.edu/resources/engage/sexting/#tab-id-7