Youth Ministry Curriculum Sucks

I have been doing this youth ministry thing for a long time. Well a long time relative to the world of youth ministry.  Much longer than I ever thought possible. Who knew that when I asked my Youth Pastor in the Spring of 2001 if I could be a youth advisor my freshmen year in college where that question would take me. I spent those first couple years investing in a group of middle school girls, figuring out what in the world to teach them in Sunday school every week, and trying to break down the cliques of a relatively large group of girls. That was a pretty tall order for someone with little to no experience.

In the years since I have worked with college students with Campus Crusade. I went to seminary. I interned part-time 3 years at a Baptist church in South Dakota. I interned full time for a year at a large Evangelical Free church in Tennessee. And for the past 5+ years I have been the director at a larger Presbyterian Church in New Jersey.

My journey has taken me to places I have not expected to live in. And it has taken me places in my own faith where I have not expected to go. I have grown and changed in ways I did not expect. When I set out, I planned to stay in my comfortable conservative Baptist upbringing. In a small and tightly connected denomination where I knew many people before I even went to seminary. I did not expect to find myself on the East Coast in a mainline church. And I did not expect so many things I believed about God, the Bible, and theology to be shaken. But that is where God has taken me.

I share all this background about me not to give you a mini resume. But to let you in on my particular lens as a teacher and leader and youth minister.

So here is what I want to tell you. Youth ministry curriculum if you are in a progressive, mainline type church sucks. Yes, it sucks. Every summer I begin the process of thinking about what I am going to teach next year. And I look through website after website looking for something fun and deep and high quality for my youth. Now if you are in an evangelical church, there is no limit to what is available for curriculum. But for the progressive types, the selection is limited. And what there is available, looks like it was written about 40 years ago. Long before the advent of videos, let alone social media. I am thankful for the work companies like Sparkhouse has done. Their curriculum is fun. It’s up to date. And it is theologically relevant to my youth and my setting.

But where is the curriculum about life issues? About Christian living? I want to teach my youth about sexuality without talking about how true love waits. Or that they need to kiss dating goodbye. And I want to be able to talk to them about the spectrum of sexuality and gender in a faith base setting. I want to teach them about serving others, but I also want to talk to them about advocacy and race issues. I want to teach them about spiritual disciplines, and to go beyond just pray and do a devotional for 10 minutes (my kids don’t even know what a devotional is!). I want to talk about social media and television and music. But I don’t want to start from the position that all media is bad. And I want to recognize that there is no place from which God is absent. I want to teach about the fruit of the spirit, the armor of God, the beatitudes, the parables. But I want to do it in a way that is culturally and theologically relevant to my context. I want to talk to them about friends and school and dating and making big life decisions.  This simply does not exist in any curriculum I have seen. And simply fitting existing curriculum to my context is actually a complete overhaul.

It cannot be that only evangelicals care about how to live out your faith in the world. It cannot be that only evangelicals care about biblical literary in their congregations and their youth. But if you take a look at the curriculum available out there, one begins to wonder if this is true. I want to take the strength of my Christian education as an evangelical — the years I spent memorizing Bible verses, learning the Bible inside and out, learning how to live my faith, and how to share my faith with the world — and apply that to my progressive church. I want to contextualize all I learned in my youth to my progressive setting. I believe it can be done.

So I guess this leads me to only solution. It is time I write my own curriculum. Frankly, I am not sure I have the time to do this task justice. In the midst of all the other tasks of ministry. But instead of complaining about it, it is time I do something about it. I have the credentials and the experience. And maybe along the way it will become something other people will want too. Maybe even some people will want to buy it.

That is my hope and prayer and dream for the future. To equip other leaders and ministers with curriculum and resources for mainline, progressive, post-evangelical settings.

Time to get started.

Hello, old familiar shoes!

So. I’m single again.

And it feels like home, like a comfortable well worn pair of shoes.

I tried on different shoes. The shoes of someone dating.

Someone in a committed, long term relationship.

And it felt unfamiliar.

There were places that these shoes pinched.

Places that dug into the back of my heels.

Places that didn’t quite conform to the shape of my own unique foot.

Sure there were times I loved it.

But there were also times I missed this old identity of being single.

I missed having a voice in the conversation.

So even though those new shoes were nice, and I invested a lot into them

Sometimes you just have to go back to your old shoes.

Where the leather is worn is all the right places.

And the soles have those dips and grooves that conform to your foot.

And rest in that familiarity. For the moment.

Re-seeing Jesus’s Parables: The 10 Bridesmaids

par17This past Sunday one of the lectionary passages was the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids. It’s a troubling passage, that people often boil down to be attentive and be prepared. However, if you read the passage more closely, there are a few things that make a modern day reader uncomfortable. Let’s take a look at the parable and re-familiarize ourselves. I also highly recommend looking at the two following parables in Matthew 25. I am going to be covering a lot of ground in a relatively short post, so stick with me.

The 10 Bridesmaids

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

One of the first things to pay attention to in this parable is that it is a “kingdom of heaven” parable. There are many parables where Jesus talks about what the kingdom of heaven is like. And this is one of many. Knowing that this is a kindgom of heaven parable gives us a context for the story. Always, always pay attention to context. What comes before the passage? What comes after? Just because it is a parable, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a larger context. And we mis-interpret a passage when don’t look at the context.  The second thing to notice in this parable is that there are two types of bridemaids. There are the wise and the unwise. Many times in Jesus’s parables there are two groups. The wise and unwise. The sheep and the goats. And so on… In this parable the wise are prepared and have extra oil to spare upon the bridegroom’s arrival. While the unwise bridesmaids are close to running out. While the typical interpretation is that we need to be prepared and patient, for the bridegroom can arrive at any time, I would like to posit a different interpretation to this often read and often confusing parable.

Many times Jesus’s parables are not what they seem. And his parables often answered a question, got the listener to think in new ways, and pushed people to look at something in a new way through story. When reading a parable, it is always important to read the parables in context. The Parable of the 10 Bridemaids is in the context of a larger story being told in Matthew 25. Jesus doesn’t not tell one parable here, but three in succession that all seem to tie together. After the Parable of the 10 Bridemaids, Jesus then launches into the telling of the Parable of the Talents, and ends with the telling of separation of the the sheep and the goats. Each of these stories have a common theme woven through them: the economy of the the kingdom of God. There are the haves and the have-nots. There are those who have been given much. And those who have been given little. And the question in all three of these stories is how do we handle this in the kindgom of God. How are we to use our resources? What is the economy of God’s kingdom?

One of the troubling portions of this parable is the focus on having enough oil for the lamp. The bridesmaids seem much more focused on oil for their lamp, rather than the arrival of the bridegroom. This attention seems misplaced. And instead of waiting for the bridegroom, the bridemaids concerned themselves with more futile things, such as having enough oil for their lamp. This lead the 5 “foolish” bridemaids to leave their post to get more oil and miss the arrival of the bridegroom. Could it be that even if they had run out of oil, the bridegroom would have welcomed them in. The oil for the lamps in the parable seems to be a distraction. And leads me to think about what are the things that distract us from what is important? Do we get focused on the minutiae of our lives and miss what God is doing?

Another troubling portion in this parable is that the 5 wise bridemaids had oil leftover. Though we often praise these bridemaids for being prepared. From my perspective, these 5 “wise” bridemaids are complicit in the door being shut on the 5 “unwise” bridemaids. Instead of sharing what they have, they tell the other bridemaids to get their own oil. From the many parables I have read, this isn’t in line with how Jesus taught us to live. And I find it interesting that though these 5 bridemaids are called “wise,” it is followed with the story of the talents, when each man was given talents, from 1 to 2 to 5. And it was the one who hoarded their one talent that is judged harshly.

So the question remains, why are some in and some out of the kingdom of heaven? Are the 5 unwise bridesmaids out because they ran out of oil? Are they out because the other bridemaids didn’t share? Do we get into the kindgom of heaven by just being prepared ourselves, or is their a higher call in the economy of the kingdom of God. In the second parable, the one who multiplied their 5 talents is rewarded. And the one with the single talent who buried it is punished. And the story ends with these words:  For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” These words are troubling when I read them, which leads me to believe that there is more to the story.

In the final story, Jesus tells us of the sheep and the goats and leaves us with these words from Matthew 25:44-46: “Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” In the economy of God it is not ultimately who has the most that enters the kindgom of heaven. It is those who have been given much and share what they have with others. And read in the context of the sheep and the goats, the parables of the 10 Bridesmaids and the Talents have more to say than what originally meets the eye.

A Vision for our Youth: Increasing Youth Involvement in Worship

Big changes have been happening in the youth ministry over the past year. I have been serving at this congregation now for over 4 years. In that time I have graduated a whole class of high school students. I have also seen the great things about ministry at this church, and the areas for growth. Sensing that we needed to grow as a ministry and I need to grow as a leader, last Spring I invited a team of consultants from Ministry Architects to look at the Youth Ministry at the Presbyterian Church in Morristown. Many great things have resulted from that weekend. One of which was spending the summer casting a vision for the youth ministry and working on the foundation of the youth ministry.

Over the next several days I will be sharing some of the behinds the scenes things I have been working on and the vision for the future of the youth ministry. There are many exciting things going on, so stick around and find out what is happening in the life of the Youth Ministry!

Our church is going through several big changes, one of which was a change to our worship schedule. For many years, further back than anyone can seem to remember, this congregation has had two worships services. One at 9:15am and the other at 11:00am. And at 9:15, during our first service, our Sunday School classes met. For some families this was convenient, as parents could drop off their children at Sunday School and then attend worship without disruption. However, this has side effects. Most children and youth in our church did not attend worship from birth to high school graduation. And when they no longer had Sunday School, they didn’t come to church either. As the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, I do pretty well at the Youth portion of my job. However, when it comes to Young Adults it is an uphill battle. We have over 50 young adults who live in the area, who went to this church as children and youth, and yet the vast majority of them rarely attend. Many reasons can be attributed to this, but my suspicion is that lack of church attendance when they were younger and being in a ministry silo is the biggest contributor to their absence.

I am not the first one to see this result nor am I the first one to write about it. Recently a blog post with similar thoughts made the rounds on social media, entitled “Sunday School is Killing the Church.”  As a church staff we spent close to a year talking about this change in our Sunday schedule, formulating a plan, and sharing a vision with the congregation. And finally this fall that plan has been put in place. Obviously we are only a couple weeks into the change, but we hope that this is a change that will affect generations to come.

10682343_754461561267132_3898958707971389426_oIn the few weeks that we have had a new schedule with Sunday School at 8:45 and worship at 10:00am, it has been great to see what a difference it has made already towards inter-generational worship. Along with this change in schedule, we have also made a few changes for youth involvement. We have a long time, well regarded Chancel Choir that has been an adult choir for years. This year the Music Director invited high school youth to join this choir. This affords our youth the opportunity to sing with adults at a higher level musically, as well as being mentored by choir members and forming inter-generational relationships. This year we also added an Acolyte program. It is my desire and the desire of the congregation to have youth involved and visible in the life of the church. It has been a beautiful change to attend worship on Sundays and to see youth singing in the choir, participating as Acolytes, taking notes in the pews for Confirmation, greeting at the front door, and ushering.

My hope, and the hope of our congregation, is that through this involvement in the life of the church, participation in Christian Community will become a habit of their lives both now and in the future. Numerous studies have shown that youth who involved in worship have faith that stick. This is actually a much stronger prediction for future involvement in the church than even their involvement in youth ministry. This is a sobering fact for someone who’s job is leading youth ministry. However, it is also a part of my role to connect youth with the congregation, help them form inter-generational relationships, and break down silos between youth ministry with the rest of the congregation, while still providing age-appropriate community. The best way to have youth adults in a congregation is to start by forming habits in the lives of children and youth. My hope is that these changes will further involve youth in the congregation both now and as younger adults.

Living Simply

IMG_3299 I am probably the least qualified person to talk about the gift of living simply. I have more pants, sweaters, and shirts than I know what to do with. I have a scarf for every outfit. And more necklaces and earring than anyone than I know. Don’t even let me get started on my book or stationary collection. Or the number of bath products and lotions in my bathroom. It’s safe to say that my life is as far from simple as one could get. But maybe that makes me even more qualified?

I have been on a journey the past several years, trying to simplify my life. Sometimes that just consists of reading daily blogs from Unclutterer, Zen Habits, and Becoming Minimalist. When I read their articles about a more simple life, about making space for the things that matter, it resonates with something inside of me. I don’t want to be held captive by my stuff any longer. I don’t want to be held captive by cleaning it, sorting it, and organizing it. I would rather spend my days doing something fun or something that matters, than feeling like I have too much to clean or take care of at home.

So I have begun to take small measures in my life. Going through my clothes every few months, and asking myself if I went shopping again today, would I buy this item? In the past b301417dbc8423117e34dbd1436b794dyear I have donated 10-12 large bags of clothing. And yet I have a long ways to go. Recently I cleared out two shelves on my bookcase. A painful process, no doubt, for a book lover like me. And I have cleaned out several bins of old phone cords and electronics. Then there was the large bin full of old socks, which is peculiar considering I rarely wear socks. As well as the large suitcase packed full of purses from middle and high school. Little spaces here and there, throughout my apartment, acting as holding places for the many things I have accumulated through the years.

The life I live now is different than the life I desire and imagine for myself. So I keep reading stories and posts from others further along on the journey than me. And step by step I move closer to the simple life I desire. Where I am not weighed down by things but am free to enjoy life and love and people.

Spotlight on Volunteers – Youth need YOU!

1238896_10151690919973918_1412994744_nYou might have heard the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child. In my years of youth ministry, I have seen this proven time and time again. Youth and children flourish and grow into young adults when they have adults invested in their lives. Numerous studies have shown that ONE youth needs FIVE adults invested in their life. That is just for one youth. We have been entrusted with many more than that as a congregation.

 

581725_10151591594098918_1388062124_nThe youth of this church have been blessed by adults that have invested in them. The work of youth ministry in not just the responsibility of a few; it 530840_10151109921068918_1525170628_ntakes a whole church to raise these amazing youth to adulthood. And one place to invest is through the youth ministry. Throughout the year we meet weekly for youth group, monthly we share in fun events together, and throughout the year we go on mission trips, weekend retreats, and service projects. None of this would be possible without the many, many adults who have invested their time to listen to, hang out, and make lasting memories with our youth.

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There is often the impression that youth only connect with adults who are a certain age, or who are young and hip. But I truly believe and have seen that all is takes is someone with a little bit of time, openness, and a listening ear. There are so many ways to get involved. From confirmation mentors to providing a meal. From event chaperones to weekly advisors. From church school teachers to mission trip advisors.

 

Thank you to the many adults have invested their time and talents!

Lives have been changes because of YOU!

 

One Great Hour of Sharing

A couple months ago a representative from the PCUSA, with Special Offerings visited the area. While he was here he interviewed some of my youth and I. From that this amazing video emerged. It was personally so moving to see my youth in this video and to hear them share their experiences so articulately. Take a look! And be sure to support One Great Hour of Sharing. Part of the money goes to support Presbyterian Distaster Assistance trips, much like this one.