Thursday, April 21, 2011

Celebrating Suceess In Youth Work Through Tears

The safe ride vans park outside of the drop in center that Al built

This week I went to a memorial service for a coworker of mine named Al McLean.  I knew Al best for some of the programs that he started in the neighboring community. These included one of the most dynamic and well structured drop-in centers that I have ever seen, a "safe ride" home program that would pick kids up from dangerous situations and bring them somewhere safe and anonymous forum called "Ask Al" in which kids could ask any questions they wanted from the long time youth worker.

When I was doing research for planting the work of Youth For Christ in Langley, BC I spent time observing these programs that Al had built and was inspired by them.  I remember the big guy standing at the entrance to the drop-in center greeting every kid.  I remember hearing crazy stories about staying up all night with his volunteers helping kids.  He really sacrificed himself to be with the kids, so much so that he died at the age of 49.

Sitting in the auditorium of the funeral service was an interesting experience as the room was filled with a vast array of people.  There were those with purple hair and piercings and those with white hair and canes.   There were those that were dressed in suits and smelled of cologne and those that were in dirty ripped jeans and smelled of pot.

Trying to determine what success in youth work is, is a daunting task.  When you feel that you are about to grasp onto an answer it is pulled away from you.  It is like trying to pick up money off the road as someone has attached fish line on the cash and is merely toying with you for their amusement.  However, sitting in the midst of the memorial service for a fellow youth worker, seeing the tears in the eyes of the young and old together - I caught a glimpse of what success in youth work really should be centered on: Love. This was the most impressed on me when three men shared how Al had found them in jail and the midst of violence and addiction and knowing their problems had adopted them as his own sons.  Isn't that a perfect example of what God does for each of us?

I know that most people reading this didn't know my friend Al, but his example can be inspiring to all of us who are called to youth work, or simply want to be better at loving people the way Jesus would want us to.  I would challenge you to take the hour and a half to watch and experience what the sacrifice of youth ministry is all about. If you only have a few minutes to spare just watch his "sons" share about their "dad" and you will get a glimpse of what success in this job is really all about They start at 41:06 To watch now: Just click here

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Youth Culture Update: Music Hurts, Reading Heals

Sometimes I come across research into the world of teens that makes me want to research if researchers have too much time on their hands.  This week an article was released that was headlined, "Teen Music Listening Linked to Depression”.  However even after reading the article I don’t think that depression is linked to depression as much as music reflects the state of mind that we are in.  If we are depressed we will listen to different music than if we are excited. Teens are are completely absorbed into music are likely doing that as a way of expressing their emotions.  The problem that I have noticed through the years is how music is used.  If you are angry, then listening to death metal doesn’t improve the emotion, but rather amplifies it.  The same can be said of depression or even in love.  Young people should have outlets for their emotions but not traps to keep them in the same emotional cycle, which is why, as the article reveals, that reading helps to decrease depression.  Reading helps people focus.  Lack of focus is common with people that are depressed, because they don’t feel as though they can do it.  Reading generally helps to regulate thoughts where music generally plays off of emotion.  This is probably good research that has just been presented poorly.  Give it a read and let me know what you think.

Youth Culture Update: Teens Need To Know They Are Worth Extra Effort

My team and I have recently started volunteering in a school in the community.  We are excited about this partnership on many levels as we feel we can help to make difference with the students in the neighborhood.  In getting to know teens and teachers at the school we caught wind of something special the teachers had done at Christmas for the student.  Here it is:

When I watched this video I had tears running down my cheeks because I had never hear a group of kids collectively cheer so loud for their teachers.  I knew that these teachers have very very full schedules and families of their own and this performance had required a sacrifice of their time.  I have been doing youth work for a long time and it was refreshing to see teachers that see working with young people is more than a job.  I'm excited to work alongside this teaching staff as we volunteer to help make them even better at their life work.

Youth Culture Update: Boston To Hire 300 Youth Workers

Even though I live and work on the west coast I have a strong appreciation for the city of Boston.  Of course the fact that my dad is from that area holds sway in that thought process.  I follow the Boston Red Socks and the New England Patriots almost as religiously as I follow the teams in my neck of the woods.  However this week I ran across a news release from Boston that may have won my heart over to the city for good.

The article (found here) reported that the Boston City Council was voting on a proposal to hire 300 youth and street workers to help take the pressure off of police officers.  As a youth worker I realize that I am biased in my thought process, but I really do see this as a progressive move with the potential long term benefits for the community.  While police are enforcing the law, youth workers enforce relationships.  I have many young friends that have been in trouble with the law and yet our mentoring relationships continue before during and after those dark periods of their lives.

Here are three reasons why I think this is a good move:

  1. Police are not trained to be compassionate.  I have many friends that are police officers who are very compassionate people, but their personalities aside, police are suppose to enforce the law not help guide people to making right choices.  Police are needed to keep order.  Youth Workers are able to be good role models without the stigma associated with the police.  Youth Workers try to prevent chaos.  This is a subtle but important difference than can make for a good partnership if done well.

   2. Helps police officers be better police officers.  Police work is hard work as they get to see humanity at its worst.  They may care deeply about what is going on, but unless they remain emotionally detached they will be burnt out quickly.  Youth Workers can help to fill a void in a young person’s life, if police officers know theses youth workers they can refer these young people to them so that they may continue to focus on their job while knowing something is being done, not just in enforcing law, but helping people.

   3. Makes youth work a more credible profession.  Many times youth workers are thought of as people that were too immature to get a job anywhere else.  This is because youth workers tend to reflect a lot of the personality traits of the people they work with.  However, youth workers are passionate and motivated usually out of a personal experience of their own upbringing and want to make a difference.  Because many youth workers are unorthodox in their style and more relationally motivated they avoid meetings and committees because they would rather be in the field working with young people.  Having the city hire these workers they are legitimizing a form of professionalism that looks much different. 

This proposal would not be without its difficulties.  The “success” of youth work is difficult to track and government funding always wants cold hard facts.  I applaud Boston for even considering add this sort of mess to their system.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Success in Youth Work Means Letting Go of Your Methods

Success in Youth Work Part 6

I have been a youth worker for a long time and through many different phases of life.  At each new phase it becomes necessary to stop, catch my breath and reevaluate why and how. 

The situation
I was a new part time youth pastor on my first youth group night.  After about half an hour of waiting I asked one of the kids when everyone was going to get there.  She replied “everyone IS here”.  There were six young people.  I realized that a couple things in that moment.  The first was that I should have asked a few more questions before committing to this job and secondly that this was going to be a lot more work than I originally planned.  I had expected to find a large group ready to take on a big community project, instead I realized I was going to have to build the large group first.  I started by volunteering in the school, meeting all the city officials that would talk to me and spending time where young people in the city were known to spend their time.  For the first time I experienced youth work beyond the walls of church and something clicked.

Why was I doing it?
I had come into this situation looking to build a successful project and instead I became overwhelmed with kids that just needed an adult who cared about them.  I got to know kids from all walks of life.  I didn’t wait for them to come to my group – I went to them.  My youth group of six started a club in the school where they were having 80 students twice a week coming out to discuss deep life and spiritual issues.  I was blown away.  I took away the model and things started to grow.  I was doing this because it was exciting.

How I would do it?
I started to think that my models were wrong.  So I would change things up.  Kids wanted to share their opinion when they were learning.  The wanted a chance to be heard and they wanted to be able to hang out.  They didn’t really care about the games they cared about friendship.  We changed youth group to a coffeshop format.  I would bring up a topic and discuss it around tables and on couches. 

In this experience I genuinely thought that success was directly linked to innovation.  It was hard to argue with seeing as the group was growing fast with kids that would not normally step foot in a formalized program. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Youth Culture Update: Will Video Games Make Teens Depressed Geniuses?

Researching the affect of video games upon the teenage brain is a popular trend among researchers.  This week I read over two articles on the topic and it seems to me that there is no consensus among experts as to exactly what time in front of a screen will do to you. According to, “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids' total screen time should amount to no more than two hours a day.” (click here for source)  I find this ironic because most researchers, undoubtedly, spend most of their time in front of screens as well.  They report that, “Too much time playing video games may be bad for kids' mental health. In addition to depression, it can lead to anxiety, social phobia and poor school performance, report investigators from the Iowa State University” (Click here for source).  Did I just read that right?  Video games will melt your brain and eliminate your ability to form proper sentences?  I thought twitter did that.

On the other side of this debate, another so called “expert” reported that gaming increases IQ and creativity as well as the fact that, “Games can even teach students morals which they grasp more quickly than from books”  (Click here for source).  I’ve heard reports of educational uses of gaming (such as using the shooting game Call Of Duty which follow the course of World War 2 in a teaching environment as a tool to give those with a more interactive and visual learning style an opportunity to have another way of having historical information given to them) as well as the benefits gaming has on reflexes and coordination, however reporting that morals can be taught via gaming is something foreign to me.  Based on this research, some school are incorporating more gaming time into the school schedule.  I wonder what the American Academy of Pediatrics would have to say about that?

If we put all this research together, I suppose we would have morally superior super human geniuses with excellent reasoning skills and coordination but are depressed and socially awkward beside the fact that they occasionally drool uncontrollably.  I just wonder if maybe there are some more important things are researchers could be doing.  Maybe they should get off their computers and go play with their kids.  As a matter of fact…So should I.  I’m off.

Youth Culture Update: Teens Who Take Drugs Make Poor Decisions. DUH

Here is the headline: “New study shows booze and drugs fuel sex for Island teens.”  I am unsure who decided that was news worthy.  I am equally unsure about whom though a study needed to be done on this topic.  I think that it is pretty common knowledge that people who take drugs are prone to making bad decisions.  To me the question isn’t what the behavior is, but more simply what is causing the behavior in the first place. Simply telling someone that they are making bad choices isn’t something particularly surprising even to them and it is definitely not a motivating factor in change.

When studies like this appear it is something that we feel we need to stop.  After all these young people are making unhealthy choices.  We may be quick to judge the parenting, the neighborhood or the media because we don’t like the fact that there isn’t someone to blame.  What is wrong with the world? In the mid 20th century the world was literally war torn with the young people of each nation’s countries literally trying to annihilate each other a similar question was asked to the days greatest minds.  I’m sure that there were some excellent essays returned to the famous British Newspaper, The Times, but it was the letter by G. K. Chesterton that has stood the test of time.  He wrote simply this:

Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours G. K. Chesterton

Often in the world of research it is easy to isolate problems to a specific demographic, but this isn’t their problem that we need to fix.  If we need someone to blame, we need to blame ourselves.  We make excuses for our own bad choices all the time.  We may not even believe that we have a problem.  We justify what we are doing wrong and don’t allow comparisons to be made with those that are so far below us.  If we really want to see change we have to be willing to be changed ourselves.  We need to stop looking for the problems and start seeing the people.  If you read through the article and read some of the stories, don’t be shocked and horrified by what you read, be move with compassion and think what you would want done for you if it were your story that you were reading.  (click here to read the article)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Success in Youth Work Is Linked Measurable Goals... Right?

Success in Youth Work Part 5

I have been a youth worker for a long time and through many different phases of life.  At each new phase it becomes necessary to stop, catch my breath and reevaluate why and how. 

The situation:
I was working as a cell phone repair tech and salesman in my home community.  I liked the job. Working with electronics was a lot more cut and dry than working with teens.  When they were broken you fixed them or replaced them.  That doesn’t work so well with people.  They don’t want to be “fixed” and they can’t be replaced.  Everything was going great until some of the students I used to work with came in.  I talked with them about cell phone plans and what would be best for them.  As they left I felt something inside me grieve the fact that I used to talk with them about things that really mattered.

Why was I doing it?
Was I running away from a calling?  To be honest, I never really felt as though I was going to be a career youth worker.  I enjoyed having an excuse to be immature and all, but I figured I could do that on a volunteer basis.  I really felt as though youth workers needed good volunteers that they could rely on.  Wasn’t that a good enough goal? Success as a volunteer was much easier to measure.  (I showed up to youth group and lead the games. Check). Plus you don’t have to attended nearly so many meetings nor deal with all the politics.

How would I do it?
I wouldn’t.  I would feel a bit of grief and be done with it.  I was ready to move on with my life.  I was just finishing up college and I was newly married.  Life was good.  Life was fun.  Then tragedy struck our lives as my wife’s younger brother died at the age of 21.  A local church was moving forward on a plan to do something in his honor.  I volunteered to help, never intending for it to be anything more but when I was offered a job as the youth pastor I didn’t feel I could say no.

In the midst of the experience I thought that this was different than the other goals that I had in the past.  This was a project based job, not so much people oriented.  I really found something that I could measure success against. When you work with people all you have to gage how good you are is if expectations are met.  The problem is that everyone has different expectations.  The project was the ticket.  I was sure of it.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Success in Youth Work Means Ignoring Your Own Problems

Success in Youth Work Part 4

I have been a youth worker for a long time and through many different phases of life. At each new phase it becomes necessary to stop, catch my breath and reevaluate why and how.

The situation:
I had moved out on my own, was working three jobs, commuting to college full time and holding down an internship as a youth worker at a local church. At the same time my soul searching came to a climax as God really started to isolate some of the areas of my life that needed to be changed. I was an emotional train wreck waiting to happen. I thought that if I ignored my problems and simply tried to help other people through their issues, that God would honor that and fix me through my service hours. I would define my actual youth work as one of my most “successful” of my career. The group was growing in attendance and in spiritual depth.

Why I was doing it?
I can isolate the why to a single moment. I was standing on the stage of the church as a couple young guys came up to talk about their experience at a camp that we attended the previous weekend. I expected them to talk about the cool stuff that they had at the camp, but instead they talked about me and how I had shown them love and moved their hearts toward God. I was moved to tears. (which wasn’t rare for an emotional basket case).

How I would do it?
I wouldn’t change a thing. In fact I would push myself harder. Until – I train wrecked.

Looking back on this experience I realized that success couldn’t be achieved simply in being busy. You can help others for awhile, but when you crash you can easily take other people down with you. You need to invest in nurturing your own relationship with God, not merely prepping your bible studies. You need to invest in your family. When everything else falls apart you need to have some people to fall back on. You need to invest in yourself, your interests, your hobbies. You need to define yourself apart from your role as a youth worker.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Success in Youth Work Comes When Least Suspected

In the past week I could have listed a thousand reasons why I didn't want to do my job; tonight one thing happened to erase my whole list. 

We gathered with a group of youth and did  bunch of contemplative and reflective activities focused.on prayer and love.  One of these activities involved writing a note to a friend on a wooden coffee stir stick. The message was suppose to stir encouragement into the recipient. This was well received because we ran out of them.

As the night ended one of my volunteers stayed behind to share the experience he had from this. A young guy had written a note that confessed some serious stuff he had been contemplating and how my volunteer had helped him see things more clearly. The final words were the kicker.  They read, "you're my hero".
All we did was supply a meal, a listening ear and a stir stick. It required little effort. It was nothing bit to those young person it was heroic.  It can often feel as though we make no impact and then when it is least expect it we find out we did. Somehow.

That's how I know there is a God. Lives are changed even when we don't even know we are part of it.