I started reading through A Simplified Harmony of the Gospels by George W. Knight for several months in my quiet times. On a recent trip to Peru, a friend and I read brief passages with notes over breakfast each morning. We happened to be focused on the trial, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus. On the day we read about Jesus calling out, “It is finished,” and giving up His Spirit, I couldn’t help but stop and allow a few tears to run down my face. I know, teenagers today are hesitant to accept on narrative that defines their lives. They dance between a world that calls them to fulfill all their desires and dreams, and a faith that calls them to a life of restraint and even sacrifice.

I recently read that Christian teenagers are more likely to have had sexual experience than their non-believing peers. If true, that goes against much of what we have found previously, but it also would bear witness to the fact that teenagers are at least as entranced with the sensual world as other Christians.

We attempt to win students with a lot of different things: slick programs, well-constructed messages, engaging worship. Nothing wrong with that . . . except that I think the thing teenagers need is a long, capturing gaze at Christ.  Jesus is the center-point of all history, the climax of the story of humanity, the full revelation of God to His world. Sure, teach students the problems of sex outside of marriage, but help them to see it in the context of the story . . . that Jesus wants to bring healing to all of our brokenness, to all of our thread-bear relationships. Yes, students need to understand the atonement, but not as a theological idea–as a flesh-and-bones person.

If Jesus doesn’t seem enough for us as we teach our students, perhaps it is because we need a deeper gaze at Him ourselves. This week, praying that God will make His Son passionately known by this generation of young people.

Category : Teaching

Did you ever wonder why Jesus chose TWELVE disciples? I mean, why not just one? After all: Long, long ago in a galaxy far away, a Jedi Master only had ONE padawan. What would it have been like if twelve padawan learners were following Obi Wan instead of just Anakin Skywalker? Hm. Might have been good since Anakin ended up turning into Darth Vadar. But, I’ve gotten completely lost in my (until now) secret love for science fiction. Back to the point . . .

I think Jesus chose twelve disciples for several reasons, but I think one of them was His love for community. Jesus could do everything on His own and there is absolutely no doubt that He could do things better than His disciples could, and yet He determined to do ministry with a group of men who were not perfect, but who were willing to follow. I suppose this is one reason why I am convinced that youth ministry is NOT a project to be accomplished by one talented guy with a good bag of tricks.

Regardless of how small your youth group is, working with teenagers requires that you build a team of adults who are willing to invest in teenagers. Why is that important? At least four reasons:

  1. You need the help. I know, you are Luke Skywalker. You can accomplish great feats on your own. But taking on all of the work of youth ministry . . . even with 3 or 4 students . . . on your own is a prescription for burn-out.
  2. Your ministry needs help. I don’t mean to discount your gifts. They are awesome. But no one is good at everything. I’m a decent Bible study leader, but I am an AWFUL party planner. Some folks are good at organization. I’m not. Some folks are good at sound, light, ambiance. I’m not. You and I need those other people to do the things we’re not good at. Sure, we always end up having to do some things we aren’t particularly good at, but when you spend much of your time in those areas, you frustrate yourself and everyone else.
  3. Your students need help. Research indicates that a student has the best opportunity to build a solid, life-long faith when he or she has heart connections with FIVE adults who are deeply committed to Christ. I hope two of those people are their parents. You can be number 3. But you are going to have to enlist some other leaders if you want students to find number 4 and 5.
  4. Your church and your parents need to know that their kids are safe and protected . . . and that means having several adults around. If you are alone with five or six kids and one gets hurt, taking care of the five or six things that need to happen simultaneously is nearly impossible. If you get hurt, they are next to impossible. And, of course, in the world we live in, accusations can ruin the ministry of a church. Those things are much easier to debunk when you have a solid group of adults with you.

Maybe you are a paid youth leader with a degree or two under your belt. Maybe you are a mom who is trying to make sure your son and his friends have a youth ministry experience at your church. Maybe you are a college student who is assigned to a church for the summer. Regardless, a big chunk of your job is developing a team of adults to work with you. It takes time and effort, but it is essential to successful youth ministry.

Category : leadership

If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit
to those who ask Him
?” (Luke 11:13, NASB)

Group of TeensI have always thought this verse was a wonderful verse on God’s goodness and His willingness to answer prayers, but this morning I noticed what this verse really says: The Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!

What are we trying to give students? There are certainly a lot of good things we give students in small church youth ministry: a tight group of a few peers to do life with, adults who really care about them, opportunities to make a difference within the church and outside. All of that is great. We give them pizza, and trips to the water park, and lots of opportunities to share a laugh.

But God gives them Himself. He IS the gift.

Is it possible that we focus on the wrong things in youth ministry? At the end of the day, all the good stuff we offer students isn’t really worth all that much if they miss the big gift. Perhaps it is worth considering this week: What are you doing to help students to experience the gift of God’s Spirit, the gift of His presence?

Paul Kelly is the Founder and President of SmallYouthGroup.com, an online ministry for youth leaders in smaller churches. He also teaches youth ministry and Christian education at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in California.

Category : leadership

By Paul Kelly

What leads teenagers to stay connected to the Church and continue to pursue God? A lot of research right now is trying to answer that question. I was reading an article today written by Fuller Seminary Prof, Kara Powell based on a survey they had done of High School Seniors. The news is pretty encouraging for those of us who are ministering within smaller churches.

First, Powell says, “It turns out that intergenerational relationships are one key to building lasting faith in students.” I suppose this shouldn’t surprise us. I mean, students who are connected with the oldsters and the youngsters in the church should feel more like sticking around and should be encouraged in their faith. It is still good to see research support this idea. Powell suggests a few insights that are intended to help churches develop intergenerational relationships and thus long-term faith. First . . .

“Involvement in all-church worship during high school is more consistently linked with mature faith in both high school and college than any other form of church participation.”

This might be bad news for churches who divide their students off into their own worship experience, but it is right where we live in the small church. Regardless of the fact that your teenagers may at times balk about the oldsters’ music, helping them to find a place with everyone in the church family helps them to build a long-term faith.

Beyond that, Powell says, “The more students serve and build relationships with younger children, the more likely it is that their faith will stick.” Again, this may be difficult to address for churches who put their children in a different building than their youth. (No impossible, but difficult.) But, for those of us in small churches, everyone is already pretty close together. Don’t stress about asking the teens to help watch kids during the church picnic. And feel good about asking them to help as leaders in VBS. As they are investing in younger kids, they are also investing in their own faith.

Finally, Powell says that, while most High School seniors don’t fell supported by the adults in their churches, “The number-one way that churches made the teens…feel welcomed and valued was when adults in the congregation showed interest in them.” That might not be easy to create in a church of thousands, but in a church of tens, you can tell the adults (individually if necessary) that their interest in teenagers is forming their faith. Just asking how they are and teasing with them a little helps them to build a lasting faith.

If you want to read all of Powell’s article, you will find it in the Sept/Oct 2001 volume of Immerse journal under the title, “The Church Sticking Together.”

Category : Strategy

By Paul Kelly

Last weekend, a youth minister from a small church in Latvia spent the weekend with me. For those of you who are geographically challenged, Latvia is a little country on the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe. It was part of Russia for most of the last century and Russian culture still influences Latvia, though they seem to be looking to the West. But, I’m wandering from my point. Arturs and I visited several of the most significant youth ministries in Southern California (as well as the youth group at my church, a small church in Yorba Linda). Spending time with Arturs was eye-opening. Here are some of the things we talked about:

1. While American churches are strong, they are not having much impact. We have resources that people in most parts of the world could not imagine having. So, one would think we are much more effective at reaching people for Christ and disciple-making than churches in other places. The opposite may be true. Despite all we have, we are often less committed to the mission of Christ than churches who are trying to carry out the great commission with virtually no resources, no paid staff, and people with limited training and education. I wonder why . . . ?

2. American churches seem to be better at building programs than building relationships. Arturs was amazed at how little time most Christians spend with other members of their church. I am a big believer in a church developing organization to support its work . . . but is it possible that we replace real discipling relationships with discipleship programs?

3. Many American churches seem to be helping teenagers connect with the Word of God in a way that is powerful in their lives. Lest I leave you with the idea that all of Arturs observations were negative, I want to emphasize that Arturs was overwhelmed with the number of teenagers who seem to be passionate for Christ. In many places in the world, students are so molded by their culture that engaging them in discovery of the Word of God seems impossible. Leaders often are content with trying to build relationships and hope something rubs off. I think Arturs left America with a new passion to make the Word of God the central focus of his youth ministry in Latvia.

There is much we can learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ . . . whether they are around the corner or across the ocean. Youth ministry is simply too important to simply go it alone. We need to see what we are doing that can help others . . . and what we can learn from them.

Category : Youth Ministry Discussion

By Paul Kelly

Erik Erikson suggested that the primary task of adolescences was the development of identity. That seems likely. Most students are beginning to reflect on who they are, what they are like, what their focus on life will be. For a long time, many of us in youth ministry have insisted that one of the key issues for youth ministry is to help teenagers to build their sense of identity on what God says about them–to help students develop their identity in Christ. When students come to Christ, how they see themselves should change. They should begin to identify themselves as a child of God . . . and that should be the focus of their identity formation, right?

In the last few decades, a new focus on self-esteem has dominated the teaching of children–from their parents, their schools, television shows they watch, movies, music. Children have been bombarded with a barage of statements about how they see themselves. “You are a unique and special person,” we tell children. “Your ideas are important; your choices help to define who you are.” And a generation has grown up believing that their sense of self is the most important thing about them. It seems possible that what we as a society have fostered is not merely a sense of positive self-esteem, but a narcissism that places self at the center of the universe and disregards anything that does not affirm the individual.

So, do we in the church help teenagers to develop a more Christ-centered view of themselves? I’m not sure. We have a tendency to work as hard as our culture does at giving students an over-blown sense of their “self.” We tell students that, because they were created by God they are incredibly valuable. We emphasize their uniqueness and their giftedness.

While I don’t want to argue with the significance of being created by God in His image, I wonder if we are giving them a true biblical picture of humanity. The Apostle Paul wrote, “No one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive…” (Rom. 3:10-13, ESV). None of that sounds like, “You are wonderful because you are created by God!” In fact, Paul indicates there is nothing good about us. We have no reason to boast in ourselves. It is not that we were so wonderful that Jesus came to die for us. It is because we are so corrupt.

So, do we help students develop their sense of identity by telling them how horrible they are? Not at all. That is NOT how you help students to build their identity on Christ. We don’t build our sense of identity by focusing on who we are at all! We build our sense of identity by focusing on who Christ is. We are not significant because of our innate value. We are significant because we belong to Christ. We are significant because HE is at work in us, developing HIS character in us, and is using us to accomplish HIS purposes.

If we are really interested in helping students develop an identity in Christ, we need to understand that we are attempting a counter-cultural task. Our culture teaches kids, “You can’t let anyone else decide for you when sex is right. You have to decide what’s right for you.” God teaches that sexuality practiced outside of a covenant marriage is sin and degrades people. He calls students to obedience, not a personal preference. Our culture teaches adults who are considering divorce, “You cannot be happy with someone else if you’re not happy with yourself.” God says that marriage is sacred and should be honored regardless of how I feel. Culture teaches us to stand up for ourselves. God says to humble ourselves and do more than is expected.

A positive focus on a Christ-centered identity does not begin with a focus on self. It begins with a focus on Christ. Help your students to see that He is what is valuable above all things. Being a follower of Christ means sacrifice of self, not  the indulgence of it.

Category : Adolescence

By Paul Kelly

One of the stark comparisons Thom and Jess Rainer (father and son writers of The Millennials) made between the younger millennials and the older baby boomers is that the boomers are committed to the acquisition of stuff while millennials have much less interested in bigger houses, fancier cars, and nicer clothes. That may be. Christian Smith has a strikingly different perspective. Smith’s recent book, Lost in Transition, paints a darker view of the world of millennials. Both book have been developed after research projects focused on young adults, the older millennials. Of course, the subjects of these books are not the teenagers we work with. They are the teenagers some of us were working with 4 or 5 years ago. And I think their lives have much to teach us about how we want to influence their younger peers.

Regardless of the distinction of WHAT millennials want to acquire, they are well-integrated into the American mindset of getting stuff. Buying new products is not merely a favored pass-time in America, it is down right unpatriotic to NOT buy stuff. Our economic wheels are greased by people purchasing things they don’t really need with money they don’t really have. Apple has built an empire by selling us the notion that we need the newest technology. I’m not saying that having an iPad wouldn’t be cool. I’m saying that it is a bit of a stretch for most of us to see it as a need. Going to the mall is recreation for many.

I don’t mean to point fingers at other people. I live in a house stuffed with so much that I have been thinking of buying a bigger house. I’m moving to digital books (I’ve already moved to digital music) because I have no more room for book shelves. And, while I love having a smart phone, I find myself playing games on it more than using it for things that would be … um, smart. And how many shirts does one guy need, after all?

So, what’s the problem with our students growing up with this consumer mindset? Why not just go with the flow? If they make money, they should be able to spend it on things they want, right?

I think there are some spiritual issues, and, however counter-cultural it is, I don’t think we are doing our job if we don’t address those issues. Let’s consider the two most obvious ones.

First, millennials are not growing up with a biblical understanding of stewardship. We are not helping them to understand that they are not given wealth simply to consume it on themselves. Most millennials have no sense of responsibility to help anyone else. They see themselves as not having the resources to help others even if they wanted to … and they can show you their low bank balance in seconds from their new iPhone. While I don’t want to miss that one of the ways God blesses people is materially, I also don’t want to miss the strong warnings of Jesus about those who are wealthy, particularly when they consume the wealth on themselves (Luke 16:19-31).

Second, millennials are tending to define themselves by the products they buy. They have witnessed a steady stream of commercials since they were old enough to hold up their heads that have told them that their lives would be warm, happy, and … um, sexy if they would only buy … you fill in the blank: everything from shampoo to sports cars. They tend to see their stuff as extensions of who they are, ways that they define themselves. Not a problem … except that Jesus expects for our identity to be defined by HIM.

So, what do we do? How do we address this cultural trend toward consumerism that is like the air our students breath?

  1. We point out the push toward consumerism. Watch commercials with students and ask them to talk about the claims made by them. When they talk about needing a new phone, or new shoes, or a new car, ask, Why? Ask students what they think drives us to always want more stuff.
  2. Make the case for stewardship. I don’t mean just to get them to give a tenth to the church. I mean, ask them to think about why God has blessed them with so much…and what they think is required of them since He did.
  3. Give students real experiences to invest in people from poor cultures. It is amazing how much students are willing to give away when they see the need in front of them.
  4. Teach students to practice contentment. Every ad they see is designed to get them to be discontent, to want something. Teach them to say, “You know, I have everything I need. There is nothing I need and nothing I really want.” OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but we should at least help students to question their own constant desire for more.
Category : leadership