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What if they tag the bathroom?

Would it be appropriate to:

Close the church to youth programming if they tagged the bathroom two times?

Ask students to leave the youth ministry if the teens were smoking weed in the cemetery across the street?

Forbid a pregnant church teen from attending the youth group?

What if teens are using callousness and indifference to simply veil the real adolescent behind the mask? Research indicates many adults are scared to relate to teens. I wonder if our rules are more for our protection and not for the good of the people we serve. We are prone to think that the teen we see is actually the whole teen. We fail to recognize that there is a veil the teen is hiding behind.

I have worked with churches that have done all these things listed above. Let me tell you a story why I think they were missing the point.

My parent’s church never had an official youth program. We had some denominational retreats and a few BBQs, but it was sparse. Yet my childhood church had a youth ministry.

I remember one poignant model of Christlikeness from my teen years. My church was along a popular cruising strip. The community was in an uproar, laws were passed, police patrolled and businesses put up fences around their parking lots to keep teens out. Not my church. Several elders went to the bakery, bought tons of doughnuts, and spent hours on the parking lot every Friday and Saturday night.

Here’s one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned in ministry: programs cannot make disciples.

Think about natural reproduction. What makes a tree? Only trees. What makes a giraffe? Only other giraffes. Following this logic (and the very definition of disciple), what makes disciples? Disciples make more disciples. Programs? In my experience programs breed more programs.

Jesus’ life and ministry teaches us an important lesson. His method flung disciples into every city in Galilee and eventually every region of the world. Many programs tend to be Centripetal: inward moving and focused on the core. They attempt to draw into the center.

The difficulty lies in that we try to form and fit hurting teens and families into the mold of the program. We want them to come but they have to play by our rules and not spill sprite on the library carpet. Then we ask them to leave if it gets a little scary.

There is a place for centripetal ministry yet Jesus’ ministry was distinctly centrifugal. The core was a training ground for the purpose of launching a disciplemaking movement out into the world: Into the parking lot with donuts.

My elders when I was a teen taught me that ministry is using the overflow of your life to impact other people.

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The Last Dance

One last time.

As I held my toddler for the 90 minutes of her nap, I could not figure out why I was practically crying the whole time. Suddenly I realized it was likely the last time. I had no way of knowing, but that there will be a last time is certain. That the last time was coming soon I had no doubt.

What gifts do I give to my daughter in this moment? Her snuggling with me is a gift to me: from her, from God. My spending ninety minutes holding her was not a role I would play for very long. She would move on. These times would never return. In one sense she did not need me at those moments. In a very real sense I needed her, but how often am I convinced to give a little or the minimum?

It was my last chance to invest in her life in this way. Just as there is a long series of firsts, there would be a series of lasts in our life together: The last bubble bath, the last dance, the last time teaching her how to ride her bike. These “lasts” appropriately bring new first and freedoms and independence.

The nap was not easy. She fidgeted and cried when I tried to adjust the 40 pound sweaty ball. It was not even pleasant. First my right arm, then my left arm and then my right leg fell asleep.

I had much to do. Ministry stuff to do.

In a very real sense, adolescence is the time of the last dance. We are often preoccupied, don’t like the music or are unable to dance at all. Many of us and our churches are wounded and wounding teens. For me and my ballerina daughter there are many dances left. But there is a time of the last dance. A send off.

There is a limited window in which we are given chances and many of us are not dancing at all.

Maybe we offer programs, or keep our teens busy because we are scared. Dread of failure, of being hypocritical, of being rejected again drive us to make decisions based, not on our priorities, but on fear. We even withdraw because we are afraid we will damage what little relationship we have.

The very real reality of the western world is that we have abandoned our children.

My fellow youth pastors have told me they use relationships in order to attract students to a program or event. Relationships are offered for some other end than relationship itself. When it satisfies us. When it suits us. When we need a snuggle.

I consulted with a large church after an abusive firing of their youth pastor. The head elder told me, “We can get all the programs and activities going to make this thing successful. What we need is a face. Youth ministry needs a face.” This was stated as if 30 adolescents had not just walked away from the church.

As a society, we allow teens to be marketed towards in the most despicable fashion. We believe them when they say they don’t want us around. We place teens, almost exclusively, in situations where there is little adult interaction and relationship from school to church. We could also mention Christian who are 65+ watch 205 hours of television a month.

One college student recently told me “Churches have failed teens for years because they feel that by using these great programs they are showing the youth how much they mean to them, but instead those very programs just add to the isolation that they are feeling.”

I was recently in an online discussion with church leaders about involving parents in the church’s ministry to children and youth. I suggested sitting down with each family in order to regularly model and teach parents to disciple their children. The idea was quickly dismissed, as nice and impractical. Maybe the efficiency of programs that solve our problems has actually created the problems in the first place.

All that is to say we are often not doing ministry with teens in mind. There are other forces at play that cause us to do things out of guilt and fear. Instead of guilt money (money given to teens because we do not spend time with them), we offer guilt programs and guilt relationships for abandoned kids.

What if adolescence was an opportunity and not a terminal illness to survive? What if we allowed teens to lead the dance, and instead of placating we partnered with them?

The point is that we have tried to form our children into the image of our activity because we are afraid. We are afraid of failure, we are afraid that they won’t join us in our projects, we are afraid that their dreams will be bigger than ours.

I pondered all this as I ached in my heart (and my body) while holding my daughter. Today, she will be a teen under 10 years. I wondered, “Will the church be ready for her?”

Then she woke up. She smiled. She gave me that smile I am convinced only a two or three people have ever seen and then only a handful of times. As if I had not spent the last 90 minutes in agonizing physical discomfort, she said “oh look daddy we should clean up Hi-ho Cherry-O.” Then she looked at me and said “I love you daddy” and she was gone. Off and running, asking me now to participate in an activity of her choice that changed the world and ordered it for the Kingdom in her way. Not in mine.

Teaching Engine #1: Positive and Negative Triggers

We often believe that our program IS our ministry. This is fatal. Ministry is simply a vehicle for relationships, which are the core of any Jesus-centered ministry philosophy. The key here is to leverage programs to facilitate ministry. Otherwise students may be growing in spite of your program and not because of it.

Every teen is going through daily experiences and relationships. They are making decisions and learning to live with the consequences of their choices. The real life of a teenager provides a whole host of connection points for spiritual growth. Meaningfully entering into a relationship with a teen and knowing their life circumstances gives us a route to draw them toward Christ. Generally there are two types of triggers: positive and negative.

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Negative Triggers: We are often acutely aware of the negative experiences of teens. The divorce of their parents, failing a test, or losing a job all give avenues in which we can guide toward spiritual growth. The first necessity for being able to tap into these negative triggers is often relationship prior to the negative experience. When we have relationship we can pace with them through their pain questions and responses.

Positive triggers: Positive triggers are experiences in the teen’s life that provide a sense of peace, love, comfort, care or success. These experiences are often overlooked for their potential teaching value. At such times a teen will often take a teachable posture toward spiritual truth and guidance by an adult that is pacing with them. Making the team, a new friend, answered prayer, the marriage of an older sibling can all be used as appropriate doors.

In our ministry we need to ask: do we provide enough adult relationships in order to know our adolescents positive and negative life experiences? Are we walking with them? We need to ask ourselves: Are we helping teens see where God is breaking into their lives in order to make himself known?

We often believe that our program IS our ministry. This is fatal. Ministry is simply a vehicle for relationships, which are the core of any Jesus-centered ministry philosophy. The key here is to leverage programs to facilitate ministry. Otherwise students may be growing in spite of your program and not because of it.

Small groups can utilize this spiritual growth principle exceptionally well. Triggers are usually accessible only through relationship. Relationship provides the opportunity to create growth using the triggers already present within individual’s lives. Multiple people drawing toward one another and God is likely to create fiction which can drive all involved deeper into the life of God. These are often triggers that can only be seen and experienced from within the relational context. It is often very difficult to relate to a large group of teens based on individual life experiences.

Thus the difficulty: How do we guide larger groups toward spiritual growth? Look for the next post!

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