Do Not Say They Are “Only” Youth

Edited and re-posted from my congregational newsletter.

My jaw dropped.

On one of our recent “Living Faith” gatherings of the Confirmation Class – a Sunday night event that includes dinner and hands-on faith activities – we began with a game of questions. To play this game, the person who will answer a question has a choice – to sit in one of three chairs. If you sit in the small, hard, uncomfortable chair you get an “easy” questions. If you sit in the normal but otherwise unexciting chair, you get a “medium” question. If you sit in the comfortable, high-back, cushioned chair, you get a “difficult” question.

The comfort of the chair is inversely related to the difficulty of the question.

So when one of my youth sat in the comfortable chair – which will likely invite a less-than-comfortable question – I pulled a card from the deck of questions and asked, “How do you feel about euthanasia?” He paused for a moment to think and then responded, “Well, if someone is in pain and suffering, and wants to end their life, I guess that’s their choice. But really, we should help them so they don’t get in that situation in the first place.”

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Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

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Confirmation Ministry: Age Grouping in a Medium-Sized Program

Like many Lutheran congregations, my congregation's Confirmation Ministry is a two-year, group-graded program involving 7th and 8th graders.  And like most Lutheran congregations, one year of the program focuses on Martin Luther's Small Catechism, and the other year of the program focuses on the Bible.  We have 14 kids in the roster, more or less evenly split between 7th and 8th graders.  Average attendance at the Sunday morning classes and Sunday evening program hovers around 8-10. (Our congregation's average weekly worship attendance is 173.)

There's an odd social dynamic, however, in that each year the 8th graders are confirmed and thus "graduate" from the Confirmation Ministry program, and are released into our high school ministry … which doesn't exist.  We tried last year to have a high school class, but with little success.  We have a smattering of high school kids who come to worship regularly, but getting a critical mass of them to gather regularly for a class has been nearly impossible.  This is an experience shared, I believe, by many Lutheran congregations.  There are a variety of reasons that high school kids' participation drops-off, but one of those reasons, I think, is the sheer lack of numbers.

By the time they are confirmed in May or June, depending on when Pentecost falls, confirmed 8th graders have just completed two years of a somewhat intense, high-expectations program.  From service notes to worship leadership to class attendance to a retreat and other events, they've been keeping busy at church with a dozen or so kids.  But after they are confirmed, and thus no longer in a structured program, the proportion of these (now) 9th graders who actively participate in church drops significantly, and those who do come to church have few, if any, peers.  What results is that we have a handful of kids who just a year earlier had a vibrant, if not huge, group of about 8-10 kids who regularly gathered for class and events.  Now the few who remain are lucky to have a peer or two who still comes to church.

What if, instead of confirming only the 8th graders, we confirmed the whole class – 7th and 8th graders together – creating a larger critical mass of kids who are "released" together into the post-confirmation world of youth faith formation? Even if half of the kids on the class roster drop off, half of 14 provides a bigger critical mass than half of 7, and gives us a fighting chance to create a post-confirmation youth fellowship.

It could work like this: 6th and 7th graders are gathered together in the fall of Year One, and move together through the two year faith formation ministry we call Confirmation.   After Year One the make-up of the class doesn't change at all (unless new families and youth join the church, of course). In Year Two of the program all the kids are 7th and 8th graders, and 6th graders remain in a pre-Confirmation ministry class setting.  At the end of Year Two, on Pentecost Sunday, the entire class – 14ish kids – are confirmed, and advance together into the congregation's post-Confirmation ministry program with a larger peer group than they currently do, a group that has spent two whole years together growing in faith and forming relationships with each other, with the church, and though these, with God.

This means that we would celebrate the Rite of Affirmation of Baptism only every-other year.  That's fine with me.  And this means that some youth would be "confirmed" in 7th grade, and some in 8th grade.  Again, that's fine with me.  

The goal, of course, is that no child would "drop off" after Confirmation, and clearly more needs to be done to support the faith formation of our teenagers and their families.  But assuming that some kids will drop off, I think it is worth while to restructure the program in a way that gives our kids the best chance to maintain a viable post-confirmation peer group as they move from the structured confirmation ministry experience to life as post-confirmation youth in the church.

Have any of you out there tried this kind of age-grouping scheme?

Related Posts:

Teaching the Bible in Confirmation Class

Confirmation Ministry: Sunday Evening Gatherings

Confirmation Ministry: Sunday Evening Gatherings

In an earlier post I shared how we are using the Here We Stand confirmation ministry curriculum to help us teach the Bible to our 7th and 8th graders.  Yet the hour-long, traditional Sunday School class session – informally dubbed "Learning Faith" – is only one of two core program components of our ministry.  The other core program component, "Living Faith," is a Sunday evening gathering with a more hands-on, book-free approach to faith formation.

To be honest, these Living Faith sessions were born not out of a sense that our kids needed to learn something – though there is always more to learn! – but rather out of a sense that our kids needed a chance to come together in a less formal setting to build relationships with each other, with the church, and through these, with God.  An hour on Sunday morning in a traditional learning environment was not condusive to forming relationships and creating community.  Hence, the Living Faith sessions – a fellowship event with a meal and a hands-on learning opportunity – were born.

We have fifteen Living Faith sessions during the year, divided into three units of five consecutive Sunday evening sessions each.  Each unit has a theme and objective:

  • Fall unit theme: Worship Leadership
    Goal: That 7th and 8th graders feel competent and valued as worship leaders (readers, assistant ministers, ushers, communion preparers).
  • Winter unit theme: Serving Others
    Goal: That 7th and 8th graders embrace service toward others as central to Christian identity and calling; and, that they plan and carry out a service project.
  • Spring unit theme: Spiritual Practices
    Objective: That 7th and 8th graders develop a competency and a comfort level with practices that can nurture their faith and relationship with God.

For this first unit of Worship Leadership, I'm not drawing from any curricular materials but am simply introducing each worship leadership ministry (sometimes by inviting congregational leaders to attend and introduce their ministries), and then giving the kids a chance to practice it.  To help set up a session on serving as lectors, for example, we watched a few minutes of a Dead Poets Society clip in which Mr. Keating speaks passionately about poetry as containing rich words of life, full of meaning for us and for the world.  In last evening's session, two ladies who each week prepare the altar, elements, and vessels for the sacrament of Holy Communion, took the kids into the sacristy and walked them through their Sunday morning tasks.  In the coming weeks, these kids will sign up, two by two, to assist these ladies with the task of preparing communion.

The schedule for these evening programs is as follows:

5:00 – Gathering, and introduction to theme
5:30 – Dinner (and dinner clean-up)
6:00 – Hands-on activity/training/practice
6:45 – Prayer
7:00 – Go home!

A different confirmation ministry family has signed up to provide dinner each evening.  We use doodle.com for sign-ups and for Living Faith RSVPs, so that the dinner families know how many people they can expect to have to feed.

Our confirmation class has 14 kids on the roster, though past experience tells me that Sunday morning attendance will hover around 8-10.  At our first two evening sessions we've had attendance of 8 and 9.

The real success of this program – if I can speak of success after only two weeks – is that relationships are being created.  Kids are genuinely getting to know each other, and they look forward to spending time with each other.  There is laughter and lively conversation around the dinner tables.  It has been a pure joy.

Using Curriculum in Youth Ministry: Is Curriculum Even Necessary?

Adapted from a presentation given on Sat, Sept 11, 2010 at a Metro DC Synod youth ministry workshop.  Four points guided the discussion. This blogpost focuses on the first point.

  1. To use, or not to use, curriculum?
  2. Are you ready to teach?
  3. How do you evaluate and select a curriculum?
  4. Some recommendations

First question: To use, or not to use, curriculum?

This is an important question.  Though I used to sell Sunday School curriculum for a living, I do not believe that every learning opportunity in the church requires the use of a published, purchased curriculum.  Teaching and learning requires planning, but we don’t always need a packaged curriculum.  So first ask yourself two questions: what do you want to achieve in a period of study?  And, do you need to go out and buy a curriculum do achieve that goal?

For example, if your goal is to read the Bible with your youth group, you can do this without purchasing a curriculum.  A very popular, simple, and down-to-earth Bible Study method is often referred to as The African Bible Study Method.  This method involves reading the text aloud three times and, after each reading, inviting each participant to share a word, phrase, or feeling that emanated from the hearing of the Scripture.  There is no discussion, no need for historical analysis or heady theology.  It is a shared time of reading and hearing the words of the Bible, and allowing its words and message to speak to our faith and life.  Visit the link for more information.

For an overview of several curriculum-less methods for reading the bible, enjoy this article written by Pastor Paul Lutz, formerly on staff at the churchwide headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and now serving at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Princeton Junction, NJ.  In it he writes about Bible reading methods that seek not only to inform, but to transform.

Simple methods of reading the Bible in community are easily memorized or noted on a folded sheet of paper tucked inside the front of your Bible.  If you, as a leader, want more background in a certain book of the Bible, you can access Study Bibles, commentaries or other Bible study material, without needing to buy materials for your whole group.  But before we reach for fancy (and expensive) materials perhaps we should simply open the Bible and use a method that allows the grace and truth of God's Word to speak to our faith.

A closing comment about reading the Bible in community.  I avoid the use of the term "Bible Study" when possible.  There are many ways to read the Bible in community that are not "studies" in an academic or heady sense.  We can and should read the Bible devotionally, as a faith-filled story that connects with our own stories of faith.  We shouldn't disregard the significant academic issues related to ancient texts, theology, and the traditions of the church.  But these things need not dominate or become roadblocks to the way we read the Bible in community, either.

Of course, going curriculum-free is not for everybody or for every situation.  Sometimes we just need to use a curriculum.  More on how to select and use curricula in future posts.

Next post: On being prepared to teach in the church.

Relational for a Reason?

My mind-bending immersion in the theology and practice of youth ministry took a wicked turn this morning.  To recap, on Thursday and Friday I was in a two-day course at the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza on the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study.  This study identified 44 "faith assets" of congregations noted for nurturing mature faith in young people.  I was blown away by this study, impressed by its talk of the practices (assets) of exemplary youth ministry congregations.  I had some critiques, but overall I was extremely impressed.

But then I heard Andy Root, professor of youth ministry at Luther Seminary (and former neighbor and colleague of my wife's in Princeton Theological Seminary's PhD program) speak about "relational ministry."  In a 60-minute tour de force taking us on a tour of the history of Christian Education, youth ministry, Christian theology and the structure of family systems, Andy described how relationships in youth ministry had become means to an end of getting youth to do something – to come to church, to make moral decisions, to choose God.  Relationships in this old paradigm of relational youth ministry are functional, intended to get the youth to do something.  But no matter how commendable such goals might be, forming relationships for the purpose of getting somebody to do something is manipulative.  As Andy said, "you can't be in relationship with someone you're trying to fix."

Stop right there.  At this moment my head popped – the sound of a paradigm shifting (again – there's been lots of that happening this weekend).  Whereas on Thursday and Friday I was learning about the characteristics of youth ministry designed to nurture mature faith in the lives of young people, I heard from Andy that it is unethical to get into a relationship designed to influence the behavior of the other.  Ministry is not about influencing people to do X, Y or Z.  And though I'm not going to equate the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study's paradigm of ministry assets that nurture (influence?) faith in the lives of young people with Andy Root's critiques of relationships intended to influence people to do something, I suddenly felt a conflict between these two paradigms – if not a direct conflict, perhaps an indirect.  On the one hand is ministry whose goal is to achieve something in young people – mature faith.  On the other hand is ministry of relationships whose goal is to be with and be faithful to the other.

Relationships are not a means.  They are the beginning and the end and the ministry itself.  Ministry is not about getting kids to do something, but being with them wherever they are.

And so I asked Andy to finish this sentence: The goal of youth ministry is ______.  Andy's reply, "The goal of youth ministry is to encounter the action of God."

This was a one-hour workshop, and I'm not entirely sure how it all works.  But I'm fascinated and intrigued by a dramatically different paradigm than that which I saw earlier in the weekend.  In fact, some of what I heard from Andy today sounded much like the ministry of accompaniment model that some missionaries use, and like the ministry of companionship that I was trained in while serving as a resident hospital chaplain.

Next step: read Andy's book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation.

I have a day and a half remaining here at the Extravaganza.  It'll be fine with me if I don't undergo any more paradigm shifts.  Two in one weekend is enough for me.

Youth Ministry: Producing Programs or Nurturing Faith?

Yesterday I wrote about some of the anxieties I was feeling in advance of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza.  I was bracing myself for the possibility that I would find at this conference a mess of bad theology and dangerous personality-driven ministry practices.  My fears were based on what I head experienced ten years ago, when I was working full-time in youth ministry.

Boy was I wrong.

Today I attended the first part of a two-day intensive course examining the Exemplary Youth Ministry (EYM) Study, a Lily-funded study that examined the ministry practices of churches that had nurtured a mature Christian faith in young people.  That is, rather than examine a youth ministry in terms of numbers – numbers of kids or numbers of events – this study looked at the practices of congregations which successfully help youth grow in faith and affirmatively claim their Christian identity.  Some of the nine qualities of this "mature Christian faith" in young people include:

  • seeks spiritual growth
  • practices faith
  • makes Christian faith a way of life
  • reaches out to others

Studying 131 congregations identified as nurturing mature faith in young people (from 7 denominations, of various sizes and demographics), the EYM articulated 44 "Faith Assets" that describe the ministries of these congregations.  The "Faith Assets" are organized into four parts: Congregational Faith and Qualities, Youth Ministry Qualities, Family/Household Faith, and Leadership.

Some of the 44 "Faith Assets" of congregations with exemplary youth ministries include:

  • Focus on Discipleship – the congregation is committed to knowing and following Jesus Christ.
  • Encourages Support Groups – the congregation engages members in study, conversation, and prayer about faith in daily life
  • Participate in the Congregation – youth are engaged in a wide spectrum of congregational relationships and practices
  • Develops Quality Relationships – youth ministry develops authentic relationships among youth and adults, establishing an environment of presence and life engagement
  • Promotes Family Faith Practices – parents engage youth and the whole family in conversations, prayer, bible reading, and service that nurture faith and life.
  • Mentors Faith Life – the youth minister assists adult leaders and youth in their faith life both one-on-one and in groups.

Well, you get the idea.  No mention of how many youth are involved, or how many monthly programs are offered.  Instead, the ministries of these congregations have an outcomes-based model that sets certain faith goals and then seeks to develop practices and programs that help achieve those goals.  There are no programs for the programs' sake.

For example: rather than have a Sunday School program because "churches always have had Sunday School" (which, actually, they didn't), churches should articulate what they want the faith and Christian life of their young people to look like, and then build programs to meet those goals.

In the above example, you can swap out "Sunday School" and replace it with "Confirmation Ministry," "Vacation Bible School," "Youth Group," or any other main-stay ministry program in your congregation.  After going through this process of setting faith goals and then articulating programs and practices to achieve those goals, your congregation might still have a Sunday School or a Youth Group … but it will do so much more intentionally, having more than a "we've always had a Sunday School" reason for doing the ministry.

The basic concept behind this study's findings shouldn't be a great surprise.  When I was a youth director many years ago, my pastor worked with parents and youth to articulate what we wanted confirmed youth to "look like" – that is, we articulated what youth will have experienced, learned, done, etc. by the time they were confirmed.  In many respects, this is just common sense!  However, what the EYM did was to take my pastor's common sense approach to ministry and flesh it out, study it, and articulate what a mature Christian faith looks like in a young person, and what the congregations that nurture such young people look like.

I'm very impressed with this study, and I'm looking forward to spending tomorrow looking at it in greater depth.  I'm not entirely uncritical, but I'm suspending my critical questions for now.  I simply want to learn more about this study on its own terms before I launch into a series of challenges.  (For sure, describing Christians by what they "do" or what "qualities" they have can easily send us on a slippery slope of formulaic and works-based Christianity, and might easily undermine the promises given to us in baptism.  I'm not sure that these problems are evident in this study, but the potential remains.)

I took five pages of written notes, and also scribbled on some handouts – and that was just in four hours.  Tomorrow we go from 8am – 5pm … a long day of note-taking, for sure, but I can't wait.  I'm terribly excited to learn more, and to begin wondering what all this means for my congregation.