The Fix: Tools
group magazine: November-December, 2008
Have kids bring wrapped gifts to your Christmas party, then each grab a gift and stand in a circle. Read How the Grinch Stole Christmas (available at everwonder.com/david/thegrinch/story.html). Every time you say “Grinch,” kids pass the gifts twice to the left. Every time you say “Christmas,” they pass gifts once to the right. No one may open a gift until you say “beast.”
The sickening crack of a head hitting a cement floor echoed through the room. The gym went deathly silent. A game of Tug of War had turned ugly. Someone dialed 911. Later we learned that, thankfully, the girl was okay.
We all take risks in youth ministry. The nonprofit Risk Management Center recommends asking these three questions before any event:
1. What could go wrong?
2. What can we do to prevent it, and how will we deal with it when it occurs?
3. How will we pay for the damages?
Do you long to experience your kids praising God with passion? Here’s the deal: Stay in it for the long haul.
God has made us shepherds over his sheep. Do you think a shepherd expects his sheep to act perfectly, stay together, move quickly, and respond in perpetual obedience? Of course not! A shepherd knows he has to be patient. He knows his sheep are imperfect—they don’t always stay together, they move slowly, and they aren’t even smart enough to feed themselves sometimes.
In 1 Peter 5:2 the apostle tells us to “care for the flock God has entrusted you” (NLT). As worship leaders, our job is to lead our flocks to green pastures and the fresh waters. That’s why we encourage them to stand, kneel, sing out, raise hands, clap, rejoice, repent, and cry out to God. It’s as if we’re saying to our sheep: “No, don’t eat those weeds of complacency and apathy. Come to this fresh pasture where you can encounter the living God with passion!”
hands on help: SAFETY
When we’re at a faraway event or missions trip, I keep track of kids by taking daily pictures of them with my camera phone. This way if something happens, I know exactly what they’re wearing and can provide an up-to-date picture for authorities.
To help me remember to take the pictures—and to make it a little more fun for the kids—we turn it into a contest. We’ve given out awards for best-dressed, most crazy outfit, most mismatched, and so on.
One Foot in Two Worlds
Tips for success when you’re navigating between the adult world and the teenage (under)world:
1. It’s okay to pop your gum in one, but not the other.
2. Check your surroundings before you let yourself say “like” every four words.
3. Put shoes on before you show up at the church board meeting.
4. Never park in the church’s handicapped spaces (even at 3 a.m.).
I’ve got bad news for people who live in the shadows: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Luke 12:2). These are scary words for dishonest youth workers. A well-tended soul is an honest soul. Make honesty your best friend.
A Confrontation Primer
My friend’s gentle but direct words were: “Danette, you want to pretty this up and you can’t.” I’d just confessed a serious sin—the fallout would cost me for months. Over that time I experienced both helpful and hacking ways people handled my offense, and that has influenced the way I confront other leaders.
When you must confront sin or simply poor judgment in a volunteer, follow these four practices:
1. Privately question flaws when they first occur. Avoiding, coddling, and dropping hints are just as damaging as a public berating. Confront privately or with another trusted leader. Speak calmly but directly about the issues.
2. After you’ve stated the problem, ask good follow-up questions. For example: Do you understand what I’m saying? Can you see why I thought we should talk about this? What’s your perspective? What's the wisest way to handle this?
3. Call things what they are without slandering. Reassure your offending volunteers that you can separate your concerns about their behavior from who they are as people.
4. When you confront, only include those involved in the problem or solution.
The Copier Is Our Friend
I’ve found a strategic way to use the photocopier to fuel better Bible studies. I photocopy the text we’re studying and give a copy to each teenager. This gives me three important “wins”:
1. I’m getting a readable translation of the passage into every teenager’s hands.
2. We’re not confused when someone reads aloud from a text that’s different from the others.
3. It helps to demystify the Bible passage so kids feel more free to circle key words, write questions in the margins, and underline key ideas.
In counseling you know you’re in good territory when the person you’re sitting with tells you, “That’s exactly how I feel.” That’s the moment you know you’re “getting it.” Truly understanding another is one of the best ways to loosen the nasty grip of loneliness. Teenagers often feel like the adults in their lives “just don’t get them”—in fact, they’re not so sure anyone gets them. They talk with friends about all sorts of stuff, but they often don’t share some of the harder things about their lives with anyone. They often feel weird, like no one struggles with the things bouncing around in their unique brains.
I remember a time on a cross-country ski trip when a group of rough-and-tumble guys shocked each other with their candid vulnerability. Maybe for the first time in their lives they didn’t feel so alone. Understanding someone is one of the most therapeutic things any person can do for another. Humans connect at the human level—so make it a priority to be real with your teenagers, and they’ll eventually take the risk and be real with you. If they do and you “get it,” a real relationship just got started.
If you’re married, track how many days it’s been since your wedding day. When you get to 2,000, invite the older folks to your home for a 2,000-Day Anniversary Celebration. Explain that the purpose is to honor and celebrate their long marriages. You’ll win their hearts, and their enduring support.
know your rights!
Your teenagers have a right to share their faith on campus—the Student Bill of Rights gives them that legal privilege (you can read it at rae.org/student.html).
But there’s no guarantee that this right might not someday be revoked. If and when it is, your kids will still have a right to tell others about their faith—not a legal right, but a divine one (Matthew 28:18-19). This is important because a fundamental question your kids face is “What right do I have to make my faith public at school?” Currently they have a legal right to do it. Always they have a gospel right to do it.
Roots and Wings
I’ve often heard that great parents give their kids both “roots and wings.” And I think great youth ministries strategically do the same. When you build youth group traditions, you create community—you give kids roots.
In the fall we run a Saturday flag football tournament called The Pumpkin Bowl that builds small group pride like nothing else. Then, around Thanksgiving, we host our candlelight Thanksgiving pitch-in dinner. And in the spring we hold Mud Olympics, complete with a fire truck that comes to hose down everyone. Youth ministry traditions create a youth ministry family.
Watch and Talk
At times our kids’ media culture is so negative that we’re tempted to just tell them to turn it off. Instead, why not watch with them? Then discuss the show’s messages in light of God’s standards, deciding together whether they’re positive or negative. This is why group has a Ministry and Media section, and why group’s editors created MinistryandMedia.com. When you talk, you own your conclusions. When you're told something, you have no ownership. Watch-and-talk translates to owned conclusions.
hands on help: GROWTH
Like many youth groups, ours takes lots of trips—camps, missions, conventions, rallies, and so on. With that kind of time on our hands, we wanted to fill the hours with something that helps us grow.
So we started taking a small library with us on these trips. Every teenager has to grab a book to read. They don’t have to fill out reports or summaries or answer any questions, and they don’t have to read a certain number of pages. It’s just a chance to learn more, read great Christian authors, and provide opportunities for teenagers to start a dialogue if something strikes them from their reading. We’ve had some great conversations because of this.
Does your mission statement target parents? If not, it’s time for a rewrite. group research found that about 40 percent of teenagers stop going to church when they graduate from high school. Most kids who don’t leave have parents who’ve played a significant role in their spiritual development.
The more help you give parents, the more successful you’ll be. Make sure by making it your mission.
This Web site lets you enter a portion of text (the whole text of John 1, for example) and create a word cloud out of it. You can change the font, layout, and color scheme. The pieces you can create are just beautiful and interesting.
Helping Teenagers Live Way Beyond Average
My friend Kevin blogged: “Nobody would say they just want to be ordinary, yet very few people ever take steps to rise above the ‘norm.’ My made-up statistic is this: About 5 percent of your ability to rise above the crowd is you being great—95 percent is you just stepping out and taking the risk.” Rising above the crowd is not the point—our challenge is to lead teenagers into believing their “ordinary” lives can be extraordinary just because they lock arms with God. One that sticks out is what group editor Rick Lawrence calls positive labeling. Jesus used this strategy in Matthew 16:18, when he labeled Peter the “rock.” A youth worker used this positive labeling strategy with me: “Kent, I can see you ‘coaching’ thousands of students someday.” Increase the leadership gauge in your ministry by positively labeling kids—tell them how you see God moving with and through them.
‘Help, My Son May Go to Jail!’
“Please help...my son may go to jail!” cried Ivan’s panicked mother. She was desperate for support and encouragement. The next Sunday, in response to my personal invitation, Ivan showed up at our Life Hurts, God Heals group with a surprisingly open heart. He’d previously tried, and left, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
Ivan stayed, and afterward he said: “I’ve done some bad stuff, but I swear I’m not bad. Now I could go to jail and I’m scared to death.” After chatting, I realized what he said was true—he wasn’t a bad kid. But like many hurting kids, he’d made some dumb decisions and was facing serious consequences.
In moments like these I’m reminded of an important theological truth: I’m not a miracle worker (duh!), only God is. He alone is Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals (Exodus 15:22-26). God’s role is to heal; my role is to love, care, and be present to the one who’s hurting. As I abide in the Vine, I gain the strength to persevere with kids who are hurting, not abandon them (I’m sorry to say I’ve been guilty of this before). Remembering these truths helped me minister to this hurting family as they worked through some pretty big stuff.
Read the Red
In the inner city, the kids you deal with have heard the gospel message plenty. They know Jesus was born in a manger and died on a cross to bring them marshmallow bunnies at Easter. They know this because they attended my outreach program to get the free pizza. But that’s where their knowledge ends. They don’t know that Christ dealt with many of the same issues urban youth deal with today.
It’s time to “read the red”—focus on the words of Jesus. Point out how Christ had a lot in common with kids in their neighborhood, from having enemies, having friends die, to being the son of a teenage mom. Plus, Christ got the death sentence even though he was innocent. If we paint a true picture of Jesus, urban kids are more likely to depend on him for the tough stuff.
GINGER SINSABAUGH MACDONALD
Created to be Creative
God actually hard-wired your brain to grow in creativity. Your brain is filled with billions of neurons that store information. When you learn something new, your neurons make actual physical connections called dendrites (Einstein’s brain was literally filled with dendrites). The creative process works this way. You take two pieces of information and make a new connection. The more connections you can make, the more creative you’ll be.
So if you’re interested in launching a new outreach event, brainstorm a list of words that represent ministry goals; then brainstorm another list of words that describe things kids love. Then randomly combine words from the two lists and look for word pairings that lead to a great new idea.
One way to build community with your middle schoolers is to find ways for them to have physical contact with each other. Kids often shy away from that, so use this fun game to overcome their barriers.
Have everyone in your group find a partner and grip each other’s right hand with four fingers, leaving the thumb sticking up on top. Count down together: “One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war!” Then have kids thumb wrestle for the chance to stay in the game for round two. The loser is the one whose thumb gets “pinned”—that person sits down and the winner finds a new partner.
The game continues until you have only two thumb wrestlers left for the Thumb War Challenge Championship! To save time, tell kids that when you yell “Time!” the round is over and any twosomes still wrestling are eliminated.
Dealing With Discrimination
Not long ago a youth pastor asked me: “I suspect a church that interviewed me didn’t hire me as its youth minister because I’m a woman. I’m also disabled. What are my options?”
I told her to see an attorney soon. Churches are sometimes exempt from many standard nondiscrimination laws. I assume, since the church granted her an interview, that its leaders didn’t prohibit or discourage women from assuming ministry or leadership roles. If that’s true, she might have an easier time making a case. But discrimination is rarely easy to establish.
It’s a good idea to get familiar with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990; you can check it out at ada.gov/pubs/ada.htm. If you feel you might have been discriminated against, for any reason, consider contacting the church’s denominational leaders to discuss your concerns in confidence (of course, do this after you talk to a lawyer). Prepare carefully and be concise, complete, and courteous!
MISSIONS & SERVICE
We’re Serving God...What Could Go Wrong?
No matter how your next service experience is organized, something is going to go wrong. The accommodations may not be exactly what you expected. The food may not be up to snuff. The work you’re doing may not be what you hoped for. One of your teenagers could get sick.
The best way to prepare for the un-expected is to place a high premium on flexibility in your group. Inject surprises into your regular meetings and events. Change directions on a dime, on purpose. Great athletes are incredibly flexible. So are great servants. Remember the reason you chose to serve in the first place, and watch God bless even in the unexpected.