Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Youth Culture Update: Wishes Vs. Hope

Every once in a while I find a song that really captures the youth culture that I am exposed to on a daily basis.  Music, more than textbooks, is an indicator of the way that teens think and feel.  It is the chorus of this song by B.O.B. that really ring out to me:

Can we pretend that airplanes
In the night sky
Are like shooting stars
I could really use a wish right now (wish right now, wish right now)

Here are a few of the situations that I’ve watched kids face:

A teen whose mom refuses to acknowledge she has a daughter.  A dad that has ignored her, and friiends that have turned on her. 

She could really use a wish right now

A teen who has never met his dad and for Christmas – his mom died

He could really use a wish right now

A teen that has spent more time in the hospital than in their home.

They could really use a wish right now

A teen that walks the streets trapped in the grasp of drugs and prostitution

She could really use a wish right now.

Of course, as the song portrays, shooting stars are rare.  Too rare for the amount of wishes needed to change the world.  I have sat with these young people and listened to their stories.  The snippets that I have portrayed don’t even do the stories justice. 

When you sit next to a real live teen telling you these things – the only appropriate response you can have is to cry.

Of course even a shooting start wouldn’t be able to make things right.  But as long as they are staring up into the night sky they still have hope that something can change.  It is those that don’t even notice the stars any more that I worry about.  And around this part of the world, a clear night in which you can even see the stars in rare.  Then what?

To each of the above kids I have shared what I know about the God who created us and walks alongside us.  Each of them has responded with hope, but when life continued to throw unimaginable things at them.  Each of them has rejected whatever hope they did have in him.  I think they have more hope in the airplanes than in him.

Yet, I can’t give up hope.

I can’t abandon them.

I can’t leave them staring up into the sky.

They have told me they want no part of God, but that they are ok with me. 

I can only hope that in time, they see God shining through me and that they realize that even if they have lost hope in him, he hasn’t lost hope in them.  Thanks for reading, praying, wishing and hoping with me.

Meet David Roberts, A ProYouthWorker from Seattle

 The online world of social networking is an amazing place to meet other people in the youth work field.  In any given day you can seek help for resources, event ideas, connections for venues and speakers and the list goes on and on.  However the greatest part of this, if you allow it to be, is to connect with the person behind the profile picture.  I know that we are all busy and can only connect 140 characters at a time, but try to slow down and get to know someone new today.  For that reason, I'd like to introduce David Roberts who has been a proyouthworker for 18 years.  It is good to learn from those who are truly youth ministry veterans.  You can get to know him better by following him on twitter.

What is your name?
David Roberts

What trait are you known for?
I am passionate, funny; creative…this is beginning to sound like a dating profile.  I am also a photographer and a communicator.

Current Youth Work Role:
Director of Student & Family Ministries at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle, WA

Number of years in the field:
I have been in vocational youth ministry for 18 years, and have been serving at my current church for the past 9 years. 

What made you choose to pursue youth work as a career?
Let’s be clear about one thing here…I never wanted to be a youth pastor.  It was definitely a call of God on my life during my sophomore year in college.  I was at the point in my faith where my only two options were: walk away or total surrender.  I chose to surrender to Christ and almost immediately sensed the call of ministry. 

What does a typical week look like for you?
I’m not sure ministry has a “typical” week, but almost all weeks include: staff meetings (necessary evil), study and preparation time, online content creation time, meeting with students and leaders, prayer, planning, times of collaboration and some eating thrown in there.

If you wrote a book based on your experience in youth work what would it be called?
“You can’t make this stuff up” subtitled with “what I have learned about the relentless love of God from almost 2 decades of youth ministry.”

Favorite memory with a teen(s)
During a mission trip to Belize we were debriefing on a small island in the Caribbean Sea.  During the evening we were having worship and sharing on the roof of the hotel overlooking the sea.  There were thunderheads forming in the distance and lightening was going off, and on the other side the sun was setting into the sea in the most gorgeous hues of red and pink.  Our group had just experienced one of the most powerful weeks of ministry and mission, and there we were sharing and praising God in worship on the roof of this hotel.  It was a holy moment and one that I will not soon forget.

Worst nightmare (what has happened, or what you fear has happened)
Worst nightmare happened almost 16 years ago, before cell phones.  I had almost 200 junior high students on an event call the All Night Blitz.  It was an event I helped organize and run for almost 2500 junior students in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul.)  The first step of the All Night Blitz was a rally at a church downtown.  After the rally, we were supposed to go to Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America.  We made a count on each of our 4 busses, and came up one kid short.  After figuring out who that student was, we began searching all over for him.  We searched and searched for him…I began to fear that maybe he was snatched by someone as we were all coming out of the rally.  I had to call his parents and tell them that we couldn’t find their son.  They immediately came to where we were and continued to search.  His mom reluctantly ended up going over to the Mall of America to see if somehow he ended up there.  She was insistent that her son would know better than to get on another groups bus.  It turns out after almost 2 hours of near panic he was found riding rides at Camp Snoopy. Apparently he decided to get on the bus with another church who didn’t believe in counting their students.  His reason for doing so was that one of his friends was in that group.

What are you most passionate about in youth work?
Seeing students come to know Christ and grow into disciples.  I am also completely passionate about missions and getting students involved in them.

What is the best idea you have ever come up with for youth?
One of the most fun things we did was create an amazing game for junior high students involving hidden glow sticks, nerf guns, darkness and a creepy church building that was like a castle.  We called the game espionage and it became a cult classic.

I am also proud that at every church I have ever served, I started junior high mission trips, which are still continuing to this day.

What is the best idea that turned into the worst event?
Why live in the past?  Let’s just move forward…I think it is best for everyone really.

What is one thing that would make your job easier?
Besides an unlimited budget?  I would say a team of interns and directors.

What is one thing you wish you didn’t have to do?
Besides staff meetings?  I would say expense reports and fundraising

Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review: Reclaiming Our Prodigal Sons and Daughters: A Practical Approach For Connecting With Youth In Conflict

Reclaiming Our Prodigal Sons and Daughters:
A Practical Approach for Connecting With Youth In Conflict

By Scott Larson – Larry Brendtro

My entrance into the field of youth work started 15 years ago as I volunteered my time to lead a group of middle school kids at my local church.  I quickly realized that needed help in my approach to be effective.  Now years later as a paid “professional” youth worker I still search for ways to be better at doing my job by connecting and understanding young people.

When I picked up this book entitled: Reclaiming our Prodigal Sons and Daughters: A Practical Approach for Connecting With Youth in Conflict, I must admit I did not have high expectations.  Most books of this type are either overly scientific and dry, or have an agenda that is misaligned from the practical aspects of working with young people in a secular environment on a daily basis.

I couldn’t have been more inaccurate.  This book provided me with encouragement on things I didn’t know what I was doing right and some insights on some more useful approaches.

The book begins with a history of youth work.  This may not seem all that exciting, but the better understand how our jobs came to be in existence and the lessons that were learned in the past.  The better we understand the past – the more effective we can be in the future.

The core of this book is spent on unique challenges in working with teens that come from difficult backgrounds.  There is a strange tension within the Christian community that recognizes the problems but has historically had difficulty in connecting with this demographic.  The authors, Scott Larson and Larry Brendtro, cite this example:

When we tried to place a youth from a foster home in a volunteer position at a Bible camp, the director rejected the application, saying, “if he’s an at-risk child, I don’t want him around here!” Although churches understand that delinquency is a spiritual and moral crisis, faith communities generally have not been on the front lines reaching out to prevent delinquency or to reclaim troubled children. (24)

This revelation is quite troubling and motivating all at the same time.  Even if faith communities are not widely understood or valued in the communities like they used to be, there are still a great many ways that churches and other religious groups can make a positive impact upon “at-risk” teens, besides the obvious spiritual components.  The primary way is just providing a place of belonging and acceptance which is very much a gaping void in the life of many teens.  This lack of care in their life stems into deeper issues into their future.  This book points out that,

Children deprived of caring become children who do not care.  The most damaging effect of attachment problems is the failure of the conscience to develop properly. (25)

Conscience is developed through mentoring and care on an individualistic basis; or in other words, through parenting.  Most churches understand that youth work is connected with family work and not merely isolated on just the troubled children and teens.  There is also a hope for change among most faith groups that goes beyond reason.  That can be a great place to start.

Larson and Brendtro continue to talk about the power of positive adult relationships and the rebuilding of the family.  However the culture in which we live is much more fragmented than it was historically which is having some adverse effects upon the youth in our communities.  As they point out,

Contemporary society is faced with scores of underparented kids.  Most neighbors no longer become involved, contending that these youth are someone else’s problem or a job for professionals.  Many educators and youth workers try to keep a “professional” distance” but an unbounded child will never be reclaimed by an uninvolved adult. (99)

Frustrations such as what the un-named camp director arise when things get messier than we were anticipating.  We often think that when we present helpful and hopeful things that change should naturally happen.  When it doesn’t happen then we quickly move toward establishing rules and the teen leaves.  We call it rebellion.  They call us hypocrites.  When the next kid roles around we apply the same rule to them as a starting point, and while we have excellent intentions, generally this approach is not perceived as care, but as something else.  I like how the authors put it when they say,

Rules minus relationship equals rebellion (60)

This is really where I felt affirmed as a youth worker.  We make it our business to build relationships with young people.  In my own experience there are a ton of kids that simply fall between the cracks of society and go unnoticed until they do something so bad that the only solution is punishment from the very society that has so long ignored them.  We may have lots of complex reasons as to why kids turn out this way, but it may be more simplistic than many of us realize,

Albert E. Trieschman (1931-1984) was on of the first to recognize that the core problem of many troubled children is profound sadness.  Some children have suffered so many losses that they are “cried out” unwilling or unable to handle any more sadness.  Some losses may be obvious, such as the death of a friend or family member.  Many are small losses that accumulate and overwhelm the a child.  These children desperately need adults who can help them develop the courage to master loss and sadness in the circumstances of their daily lives. (67)

This is the kicker of it for me.  “These children desperately need adults who can help them develop the courage to master loss and sadness in the circumstances of their DAILY lives”.  This is difficult for many church based workers as they are often stuck in their offices preparing for a weekly youth meeting, while they could be on the street and volunteering in the schools nurturing relationship on a day to day basis.  If kids have to wait a week for a chance to interact with you, they will find someone else.  Illogical as it may seem often youth will associate a lack of presence with rejection,

In most cases where youth are ignored or rejected by caregivers, they find substitute relationships of belonging, perhaps with a relative, teacher, neighbor, or with siblings or peers.  But if no substitute attachments are found, the child may rage or become increasingly empty and devoid of affection (27)

It seems like a small thing but just showing up at the corner store after school every day and buying slushies’ can make a huge difference for a youth worker to establish trusting relationships with troubled teens.  At first it is just about the free food, but in time it is about consistency.

I also tremendously respected the authors of this book for making bold statements aobut the spiritual needs of modern teenagers.  It is often a social faux pas to bring up the topic of spirituality in secular environments.  And yet they say this,

Modern youth are suffering from a deep spiritual hunger.  Yet most schools are so narrowly preoccupied with academic achievement and superficial behavior that they fail to meet the most basic emotional and spiritual needs of their children.  Likewise, many courts are no longer committed to meeting the needs of our most difficult children.  Even professional counselors may not know how to speak to the hearts of the youth they serve. (173)

This is a longer post than I am accustomed to writing, and there is still so much I could write about.  The benefits of this book to anyone that presently is, or is hoping to work with at risk kids is indefinable.  Get it.  Read it.

Pick up your copy of this amazing resource by clicking on the following:

Reclaiming Our Prodigal Sons and Daughters: A Practical Approach for Connecting with Youth in ConflictChildren's Runaways Books)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How Youth Work Is Like The Surrender Of Japan In 1945

AttributionShare Alike Photo contributed by Marion Doss
It was of unbelievable tension and excitement as the assembled dignitaries stared at each other in a surreal disbelief of the events unfolding.  However the ceremony concluded with the signing of the Instruments of Surrender, there was officially peace between the nations of the United States and the Empire of Japan.

However, it took years to for this fact to become reality.

Japanese soldiers that had deployed to fight in the pacific islands were cut off from communications refused to give up the fight.  Many never knew that peace was a reality, others refused to believe the propaganda.

Victory had been declared.

Yet victory had not yet happened.

It makes me wonder… What is victory?

The definition of this word can seem far from the manifestation of it when comes to war and also to work with young people.

Recently I was told on two separate occasions about a hope for more stories of inspiration or victory in the stories I communicate about youth work. 

We want to know that what we are investing in is worth it.  We want to know that our beliefs are not merely pipe dreams.  I have days when I wish for the same thing.  I wish I saw more people fall head over heels in love with God.  I wish that these kids I work with would realize that their choices are leading them toward a life of needless suffering and pain.  I wish they could find peace.  Occasionally this does happen, but it is so rare that I have ceased looking for it lest I become disappointed in God.

Instead of looking for things that I wish God would do, I look for things that he is already doing.  These may seem trite, but these are some of the things that inspire me.

The moment the a kid uses the word Jesus to refer to the person and not an expletive.

The moment the teen decides to keep the baby and not abort it.

The moment the teen moves from defining themselves as an atheist and instead define themselves as apathetic.

The moment the kid says they know they should change, but are not ready to do it just yet.

The moment the young person that says they never want to talk to me again calls me to apologize

The moment I read the text message that states: You know, you are like Yoda in my life.

 In my work I maintain that I have not been called to be successful in the traditional sense of the word. 

I am not trying to make converts. 

I am not trying to achieve victory. 

I am not trying to save anyone. 

I am merely trying to be faithful to the people God has sent me to.  Occasionally I look for opportunities to listen to the life story of an older person.  Someone that has lived a hard life and has found God in the midst of a mid-life crises.  I listen to them tell how they encountered a sliver of truth when they were young but didn’t actually change until they were much older.  My job is to plant seeds – not to harvest the crop.  Some seeds grow.  Some don’t.  But that is something I can’t control nor should I try. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Meet Rachel Blom, A ProYouthWorker from Germany

All to often youth workers feel very isolated as they do much of their work independently.   It is for that reason that I pursue getting to know youth work professionals all around the world.  Today I am honored to introduce Rachel Blom. 
What is your name?
I’m Rachel Blom, Dutch of origin but now living in southern Germany. I often joke I’m American at heart, but for now, I’m very content living in the beautiful part of Germany with my husband of almost sixteen years and our three year old son.

What trait are you known for?
Being addicted to yellow M&M’s and Coca-Cola ;) Other than that, a very sunny disposition, my fabulous memory for names and my preaching I guess.

Current Youth Work Role:
In my last church I was on staff as youth ministry coordinator. At the moment, I’m not involved in youth ministry in a church. I am however filling my days with my blog called Youth Leaders Academy, which is aimed at training youth leaders worldwide to serve better in youth ministry. I’ve discovered I love writing and so using my experiences and knowledge to help other youth leaders. But I’m hoping and praying God will have an ‘active’ youth ministry job for me in the near future.

Number of years in the field:
About twelve years, of which two on staff and ten as volunteer, doing everything from small group leader and communications team leader to actually leading the whole ministry.

What made you choose to pursue youth work as a career?
I started out as a volunteer in teen and student ministry and discovered I had a passion for youth. When the former student pastor left in our last church, my husband and I took over basically because there was no one else and that’s when I realized that was what I wanted to do. After two years I was offered a paid position and I took it. I simply love young people, I love being around them and most of all I love showing them how great and awesome our God is.

What does a typical week look like for you?
It involves a lot of sitting behind my MacBook to write blog posts, catch up with people on Twitter, Facebook and stuff and to research ways to improve my blog. I look after our son when he’s not at Kindergarten. Then there’s a huge garden to be maintained and a lot of household chores…All in all, I’m happy to have sort of a sabbatical after a couple of very busy years in youth ministry. I do miss the day-to-day contact with young people though, even though I’m still in touch with a lot of my former students via social media.

If you wrote a book based on your experience in youth work what would it be called?

With a big wink to the famous singer Edith Piaf I’d say ‘non, je ne regrette rien’, or ‘I don’t regret anything’.  If I look back at how I started out and what I’ve seen and learned and experienced, I’m just so grateful that God gave me a chance to do this. It’s surely been a ride, including some bumpy parts, but I loved every minute of it…even the difficult moments have shaped me as a person and I’m thankful for them.

Favorite memory with a teen(s)

The moment when completely unexpected five students in our small group announced they wanted to get baptized. Well maybe the actual baptism service was even better. I cried buckets! To hear their testimonies and realize that our small group had made a difference in their lives, that was so awesome, I’ll never forget that.

Worst nightmare (what has happened, or what you fear has happened)

When two girls decided to bring alcohol to the youth retreat and we found them (and a third girl) dead drunk. For some reason, I took that very personal and it took me a while to get over that.

What are you most passionate about in youth work?

To see students ‘get the message’. We have a lot of kids who grew up in church, yet they don’t really understand the gospel. When they grasp the concept of grace, it’s an amazing sight to see. And I love seeing teens get radical about their faith, that inspires me to keep doing what I do.

What is the best idea you have ever come up with for youth?

That’s a hard one, as most of our best ideas were a group effort…Some of our best ideas have included special youth retreats. One that worked really well was the theme ‘pure’ where we kept everything as pure and simple as we could, including acoustic worship, old fashioned games and a breakfast picknick-style in the woods – it was one of our best retreats!

What is one thing that would make your job easier?

There was a lot of tension between the two pastors at [my former church] that really affected my job.It made working in the church building so difficult that I vacated my office and started working from home again. They’re working on a solution to that right now and I understand that takes time, but that was really awful having to witness that.

What is one thing you wish you didn’t have to do?
 I don’t particularly like making phone calls in general, especially with people I don’t know very well. I’m much better in face to face talks, even Skype works fine for me…I’d be very happy if I could skip the calling part!

Rachel Blom is a youth ministry veteran from The Netherlands, currently residing in Germany with her husband of sixteen years and their wonderful three years old son. She spends most of her time on her daily youth ministry blog www.youthleadersacademy.com, aimed at training youth leaders world wide to better serve in youth ministry. You can also find her on Twitter via @youthleadersac