Friday, January 29, 2010

It was a WOW!

All kinds of events happen in youth ministry and each has its own "buzz." Last weekend, I was at the WOW event of the United Methodist Church's Missouri Annual Conference. There is a particular kind of "buzz" that is present when a couple thousand students of all ages and their youth workers gather to worship, learn, meet new people, and generally have fun. I was there with youTheology's booth. Each year I enjoy seeing meeting the other "vendors." Some of us are regulars. This time, I took three things away from the weekend:

Energy and excitement. Those young people were moving around the booths, attending the sessions, and doing just about everything with energy and excitement. They were, for the most part, interested in what was happening around them. The organizers also were well energized with lots of enthusiasm.

Insecurity. In the midst of it all, I was reminded that the tween and teen years are often an insecure time as one seeks to find oneself. I could see some of that. A little shyness, a little uncertainty, but still the courage to mingle and find a place, even if it meant staying with the home group.

Commitment. It takes a lot of commitment on the part of adults who work with youth to take on the responsibility of taking students on an overnight trip. And yes, it takes a great deal of commitment to sleep on church floors. The Missouri Conference Council on Youth Ministries, adults and students, are dedicated. It is no small task to plan and execute an event of that magnitude.

Love. There was lots of love in evidence in the youth, the adults, the organizers, the presenters, and so on. There were many reminders of God's love.

Energy, excitement, commitment, and love are ingredients that will contribute to the growth and wellness of our youth ministries when we keep them rooted in the love of God in Christ Jesus, allowing the Holy Spirit to move in and through us.
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wonder, Beauty, and the Arts in Youth Ministry

Where are mystery, awe, and wonder in our lives? Mystery, awe, and wonder not because someone manipulated our senses but because we stood back long and far enough to be struck by the beauty and wonderment of God and life. Can you remember such a moment?

I would like to think that we have a way of helping our high school students experience such moments. And yes, our senses are involved. God made each aspect of our being and it is true that sometimes these senses provide an entrance into awe and mystery. It seems that technology can be used to enhance these. However, sometimes technology is used to manipulate us into a pseudo-awareness that leaves us clutching the shadow rather than embracing the reality. This could be as simple as a praise song led by an accomplished band and singers with fancy lighting and cool images projected onto the screen. We all sing and have this deep sense of worshiping God. But are we? How much attention are we paying to the words that we sing? How deeply are we experiencing their meaning? How much more are we drawn to loving God in a way that expresses itself in our continually changed lives? Shadow or reality? Yet, with less focus on all that is around and more focus on the One whom we claim to adore the same moment could be a powerful time of transformation in which our heart, mind, and strength are in service to a Holy God.

A question I asked in last Wednesday’s blog, was, “How do we plan in such a way that we enable our young people to focus so that they can practice the presence of the Holy?” In that post I was looking at some of the challenges of multitasking for youth ministry. This is the question that led me to reflect on mystery, awe, and wonder. Part of the answer lies in allowing our young people to be creators with God rather than passive subjects of praise music and whatever experience we have planned for them. David White speaks of the separateness of youth and adult worlds, noting that, “our official version of ‘good’ adolescence actually relegates young people to passive roles as consumers and students” (White 2005, 18). Unfortunately, much of what we do in our ministries perpetuates this acquiescent behavior that registers little genuine excitement, awe, and change. White continues in his book, Practicing Discernment With Youth: A Transformative Youth Ministry Approach, to make the link between beauty and the gifts that young people bring (White 2005, 28). He makes the profound statement that “All of creation bears the mark of God’s beauty and . . . . Young people in their developmental stage and social location bear marks of God’s beauty and await the energizing of these for God’s reign” (White 2005, 29). This statement reminds us that we cannot extract young people from participating in God’s reign. They are God’s creation and love ready for God’s love to be brought alive and unfolded in and through them, just as they are at this point in their lives.

How then do we plan in such a way that we enable our young people to focus as creators with God so that they can practice the presence of the Holy? There are several ways but I will suggest one here: Evoking the mystery, awe, and beauty through the use of the arts.

God made us all with the ability to create through the arts: music, drama, mime, dance, poetry, prose, storytelling, pottery, painting, sketching, and so forth. They allow us to focus and approach God in a different way. How can we use these to enable young people to create and go deeper to make meaning for themselves of God, the world around them, their faith? How can we do this in such a way that honors each person’s gift and level? How can we employ the arts so that they are not entertainment but vehicles of understanding as well as doorways to deeper meaning that come from an engaged imagination experiencing the amazement of God and life?
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Monday, January 25, 2010

youTheology: Preparing Youth for Leadership and Ministry

As many churches seek to redefine the manner in which they fulfill their God-given mission in a new climate/environment, I have often heard the need to “rethink” church. I am encouraged through the efforts of the youTheology program as it prepares youth for leadership and ministry. I have had the opportunity to experience youth through this program who have a desire to learn more about how the church reveals itself in the world and how the voice of the church can make a difference in the lives of all people. They want to be involved and have assumed roles in their churches regarding worship, youth ministry and mission. These young people are leading the church into a new era that continues to express the gospel, but in a way that appeals to the youth of today. The youTheology program opens up new possibilities of ministry for our youth as well as supports their vision of living out the gospel of Christ so that the message is relevant to those who are seeking to know more about the power of God in our world.

Kathy Williams
youTheology Planning/Logistics Coordinator
Saint Paul School of Theology Seminary Student
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Friday, January 22, 2010

Perspectives from the Field: Road Trip

There’s something about leaving your hometown that gets youth fired up. While we like to tell ourselves that it’s all the wonderful activities we’ve planned, my experience tells me that it’s often the conversations on the way there, staying up late and hanging out with their friends, and just a change of scenery.

While the fellowship is wonderful, it’s important to take all of that positive energy and turn it into something meaningful and long-lasting. Sometimes, a different environment allows a youth (or a youth leader, for that matter) to open up about what’s going on in their life or to raise questions they might have about their faith journey.

Interacting with other Christians can get all of us fired up for God, but we should also strive to take that energy back to our congregations. Whether it’s attending a conference (I’m taking my youth to WOW in Springfield, MO on January 23-24) or going on a Mission Trip (we went to Cherokee Nation in 2009 and have two trips in 2010) everyone is excited. Be thinking about ways that you can share the experiences with the congregation and other youth back home. This makes them feel a part of the experience and reinforces what you learned on the trip.

Let God be your Navigator and don’t fall asleep at the wheel!

by Mark Whitaker
Youth & Young Adult Director and Communications Coordinator
Avondale United Methodist Church in Kansas City, MO (North of the River)
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Multitasking and Youth Ministry

Multitasking is not new. However, technology allows us multiple avenues to engage (or indulge) in multitasking. Most of us do it to greater or lesser degrees: work in multiple browsers + do other tasks + check our gadgets. There are those who suggest that it is natural for digital natives, born into and growing up surrounded by technology. Certainly, they seem to engage in this accelerated multitasking with greater ease and in a way that conveys it is an extension of who they are. Research suggests, however, that regardless of age, there are downsides to multitasking. Mark McGuinness quotes a number of sources that deem it a myth and that also reframe it as "task switching." It has its place, but there is often a need for focus. More specifically, a Stanford University Study looking at technological multitasking showed that people who multitasked a lot, were less able to focus, switch gears, recall, and assess for relevancy. This research was conducted among college students, a younger age group. Gary Small also looks at the dangers of multitasking. In iBrain, he points out that, "studies show that too much multitasking can lead not only to increased stress and attention deficits but also to a decline in work efficiency" (Small 2008, 32). Thus, while multitasking may give us a sense of keeping up with the demands of life and offer some satisfaction, it has definite downsides. This raises questions for us in youTheology as we seek to develop faithful leaders for a diverse church and world. In general, it raises questions for all of us who work in youth ministry with high school students toward faith formation.

~~What place is there in our program for a recognition and use of the ability to switch from task and activity to task and activity? Should there be a place?
~~How do we plan in such a way that we enable our young people to focus so that they can practice the presence of the Holy?
~~How can we teach so that content important to our faith is recalled?

I will continue this discussion in next week's blog, but in the meantime, what do you think? What do you do?
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Monday, January 18, 2010

youTheology for Life

I was sixteen when I received the call to full time ministry.

I wish I could say it was a remarkable moment where everything in my life suddenly became clear and perfected. However, that was not the case. And yet, each decision now had a new twist on it-would it lead me to further God's call on my life? Would it equip me for what was to come in ministry and in life? When I applied for youTheology, I knew the answers to these questions were, "Yes! Of course this will equip me for ministry." But I didn't realize how much it would equip me for life. Moreover, I wish I could say that this year-long event changed my life and my perspective in an instant, but instead it provided foundational blocks for what was to come. Instead of changing us in a moment, youTheology defines and refines God's graces in us, which is a greater and more lasting change.

I remember standing in the middle of the Salisbury Cathedral, in England, looking at the beautiful windows at the altar. They shone beautiful blue, so clear, like water. To think that they had been in those stone walls for nearly 800 years and still shown so brightly. The cathedral sanctuary was busy with tourists and visitors. At a few minutes before two, a man came forward and announced that they would be having a moment of prayer and silence at two o'clock. When two came, we all bowed our heads and prayers were whispered up into the heavens just as they had been for eight hundred years. As I prayed silently, I realized that there were no words for a moment like that. There were no words when you are sitting in such a sacred, historical place-where for generations, English families traveled in to services each Sunday to worship God in a place of special wonder.

I often visit this memory and that moment in time. It reminds me of the entire experience that I had in youTheology. The topics we studied, the lessons we learned, the activities we did were like light shining through those stained glass windows. We were truly exploring theology-"faith seeking understanding." We were also looking for our place within the history of Methodism and the work of John Wesley. Yet it took time for me to comprehend and to reflect on all that was taking place during our year together.

Education is not about learning something once, but about learning it until it is a part of you-until you see the topic's greater significance. youTheology gives the tools, the building blocks, and the introduction to topics that you'll revisit over and over again. You begin place your faith in the conversation of theology-studying who God is and what that means for the world. And you begin to understand what it means to be a Methodist, to be a believer in God's refining and perfecting grace. It is more than just a trip; it is more than just learning history; it is more than making new friends. It is way more.

Since youTheology, I see that what we learned was like musical theories and notes known by a composer. By knowing chords and keys, theories and melodies, the composer can create music of their own. Moreover, it takes time to put those notes together in a way that makes it their own. The study of languages, of medicine, of sciences, of mathematics does the same. These studies equip us with tools so that we might make something that is our own, we might apply it in away that shows the world a little bit about who we are-where God's creativity shines out in us.

Kim Swartz
youTheology Program Assistant
Pastor, Napoleon UMC, Napoleon MO
youTheology alumna
Student, Saint Paul School of Theology
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Friday, January 15, 2010

Perspectives from the Field: Engaging Youth For Christ

One of the many joys of working with youth is being able to help expose them to valuable life learning experiences. We must continue to energize them with God’s Word and to meet the temptation’s of today’s society that our youth face every time they step outside of their door. We must realize that if times change, we must also change with it. If we have to have youth group meetings at the local Braum's, so be it. It should never matter where you have your meetings, as long as you are strapped with the Word of God.

One of the hardest things for any youth worker is trying to reach all the youth with one lesson. This is truly one of the most difficult tasks because each youth learns in different ways. They have different life experiences. They may also have different interests and concepts of fun. The one word that I use for this situation is VARIETY, which allows you to reach more of the youth you are trying to teach. You must mix it up and keep it interesting for the youth. I know this may be draining at times, but you must have excitement in your voice, in your step and in your heart, each and every week. Please continue to shine your bright light on our Savior, Jesus Christ.

by Earl Williams
Youth Director and Safe & Sacred Space Trainer
Grace United Methodist Church, Emporia, KS
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Technology, the Adolescent Brain, and Community

We start today's blog by expressing our common grief with our sisters and brothers in Haiti. As John Donne wrote, "No man is an island. entire of itself . . . therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." We pray with our family in Haiti and encourage everyone to give as you are able to the relief and rebuilding efforts there.

One thing those of us who work with high school students know is that there's going to be a tech device, or several, somewhere. They come in all shapes and forms: cell phones, ipods, you name it. These items may disappear for a while, but you can be certain that once there is a break, or maybe a lull in activity, they will reappear. This is a challenge for many of us as we emphasize that community is important in our faith. We take Jesus' words seriously: Love God, Love Neighbor. For many of us this means honoring the physical presence of the other, recognizing in them God's wonderful creation, being attentive to what and how the Spirit of God would reveal through them. Thus, while we do not decry tech for its own sake we encourage, sometimes mandate through ritual or rules that items be put away while we are together in organized activity. We do desire that when we are gathered together in community we are attentive to each other as we allow God to work through us in the worship. Worship happens as we sing unto the Lord, read/hear/share God's Word, pray, and hear what is happening with those around us.

What helps us when we gather in this fashion are the cues we receive form each other, both verbal and non-verbal. We get these primarily from reading faces, awareness of changes in body posture, and recognizing various tones of voice. These cues are applicable to many social settings but here I am concerned with the youth group gathered in Christian community. We learn to recognize these cues from being around others and often we are helped to interpret them by someone who is more versed in these matters: a parent, a friend, a mentor . . . . How are we doing with helping our young people, our high school students in this adolescent phase of life be sensitive to others? Have you, as a youth worker, noticed a decrease in reading cues? Maybe it seemed that a particular youth or group of youth was non-responsive or unnecessarily belligerent, or maybe they totally misread your facial expression and thought you were angry when you were not. Some of this may be attributable to adolescents operating more out of the region of the brain regulating emotions while making the shift to increased use of the executive functioning frontal region. Yet, it seems that this is further compounded.

Dr Gary Small, in iBrain, notes that the constant immersion in and connection with technology leads to changes in brain wiring. With adolescent brains still developing, they are particularly likely to experience these changes. Of course, there are some gains. As many of us have observed, adolescents are very adept at multi-tasking to give an example. Nevertheless with gains there are often loses. Small observes that the interaction with technology frequently does not use parts of the brain integral to face-to-face social interaction. Could this development of social skills be hindered in our adolescent high school youth? Do we need to be social interpreters when we gather? What are the implications for us in our youth groups as we seek to foster Christian community?
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Monday, January 11, 2010

youTheology Moves On

We are gearing up at youTheology. Youth Worker's Gathering 2010, our program for adults working with youth, will be held from April 23-24. Our keynote speaker is Dr David White who is on Faculty at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Be sure to check our website for more information and online registration. If you register by February 23, 2010, you will pay $10 less. Youth Workers' Gathering is always a great time of learning and fellowship as we hear from experts and connect with each other.

We've also opened online application for our one-year program with high school students. This is a wonderful opportunity for sophomores, juniors, and seniors to worship, serve, learn, and explore together in diverse places, with diverse people. Some of the places we'll travel to are Harlem, New York; Baltimore, MD; Philadelphia, PA, and Washington DC. They'll be together with other youth from around the Midwest. It will also be time to learn with seminary faculty and students, in addition to leaders in the wider community. Lots of fun is in store.

Check back for more of what we have in store for you and how you can benefit from youTheology.
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Friday, January 8, 2010

Perspectives From the Field: Welcome With a Warm Heart

When the youth we work with each week come walking through those church doors, we must welcome them with an open heart and a warm smile. I say this because we never know what their day or past week has been like. This could be the only place that they will receive love and the needed attention that all kids need and seek. It is our Christian duty or obligation to give this to all our youth. We must continue to help the kids we serve build a lasting relationship with the best friend you can have, Jesus Christ .

by Earl Williams
Youth Director and Safe & Sacred Space Trainer
Grace United Methodist Church, Emporia, KS
Loving God, Loving Neighbor

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Balance in Our Lives

As youth workers/youth ministers, we seek to be faithful to God as we live out our call. At youTheology, we're very mindful of this. One of our projects this year is a publication entitled Youth Ministry in a Technological Age. It comes out of our last Youth Workers' Gathering, in April 2009. I'm thinking about this project a lot right now, so I guess it will influence some of my blogs.

One of the issues we wrestle with is balance. This predates our technological world. However, it takes on a new shape and meaning now. We need to ensure God is at the center and not squeezed out or put to the side. We have to nurture meaningful relationships among friends and family. Of course, we must be available to our youth and not just simply plan events for them to attend. The question is, how available? Not just with regard to the youth, but with other people and related activities. How accessible should we be when we can be reached almost constantly through the click of a mouse, a button on a cell phone, and we can go on . . . .

We want to know that if people need us, especially our youth, we are there. Nevertheless, if we're not careful, we can easily crowd out God and what really matters. Moreover, we can end up being scattered, reacting to everything that comes, as soon as it comes, missing the mark. The world we live in makes it seem like that's how we should be. I've been there, believe me, and visit there too often.

What we can do is pause and breathe, and say, "Lord, what now? How can I best please and serve you in this moment, surrounded by all that is around me?"

Monday, January 4, 2010

Communicating About Technology

At our last Youth Workers' Gathering, among other issues, Dr Peggy Kendall spoke of the need for training and for us to role model how to use technology in godly ways. She also spoke about the difference between face-to-face self-disclosure and what happens online, using relationships among youth as an example. I was reminded of this when I saw the Pew Internet report on "Teens and Sexting." Those of us who work with youth can neither distance ourselves nor throw our hands in the air when we see such reports. Let's be savvy enough to have intelligent and useful conversations about safe and responsible uses of digital media. What are the best ways to use them to communicate and how can our communication glorify God? What would be pleasing to God? What is helpful? How does what we do affect ourselves and others? What are the long and short term consequences? These are just a sample of some of the questions that we can talk about. The question for us is, do we spend enough time with our youth to find natural points of entry for these types of conversation?