Monday, October 26, 2009

Reggie's Sleepout

Saturday night I participated in the 4th annual Reggie's Sleepout...but it was the third time I had done something like it. When I first moved to Des Moines in 2003, the first youth minister to befriend me was Brent. One day, while sharing a cup of coffee, he shared an idea for a joint ministry event called a "Lock Out". This was a counter to the classic youth lock-in, where kids stay up all night playing ridiculous games and drinking too much Mountain Dew. It sounded like a cool idea, so I hopped on board.

On a chilly October night, our group hung out at the homeless youth outreach center, did a simulation of what it's like to buy food on a limited budget, and had a midnight prayer service underneath an interstate overpass where many homeless people sleep in the winter. We slept under the stars or in cardboard boxes in the yard at Brent's church and enjoyed some gloopy pancakes cooked over a propane stove.

Reggie's Sleepout was quite a different experience, but an equally powerful one. Our group experienced the struggles of unpredictable weather, long lines for food, and having to work together in cramped environment with limited resources. We had a good post-Sleepout conversation at the Drake Diner, where I posed the question: "What do we do with the 3,000+ homeless youth in Polk County?" We found no easy answers, but lots of faithful discussion. The awareness raised by our participation in the Sleepout lit a fire within some of our young people.

Here is some more information about this unique event:


Pretty Good Lutherans did a great piece on Reggie's Sleepout

Here are a few pictures I took of the "construction" process.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Birth of Holistic Youth Ministry

This post is a response to yesterday's article, The Death of Luther League.

The challenge with all ministry is to find the sweet spot of being counter-cultural while embracing the cultural realities that people face outside of church. Abandoning the old Luther League model of ministry is only helpful if a different model emerges. My belief is that youth ministry requires a more holistic approach to youth, church, and spirituality. Here are some ways to give life to this new approach:

1. Encourage kids to use their gifts at church. Make sure young people fill out a time-and-talent list or spiritual gifts inventory. Encourage their involvement in the entire church's ministry, as their gifts and interests dictate. Avoid the temptation to exclusively plug kids in to youth activities. Integrating youth in the life of the congregation will help everyone to move from "us vs. them" to "we".

2. Forge connections. Joining a new small group, class, or ministry group can be intimidating for anyone, regardless of age. Help young people connect with someone in their new group that will look out for them. You might need to contact this prospective mentor in advance and ask them to help assimilate the young person.

3. Encourage kids to use their gifts outside of church. Christians are a sent people. Churches should help young people find ways to live faithfully in the midst of their seemingly mundane routine. Educate yourself about civic, academic, or social justice groups that provide a natural avenue for them to live out their faith. Check in with young people throughout the week to inform them of these opportunities.

4. Offer several age-specific entry points at church. Just because Luther League died doesn't mean there is no longer value in bringing teens together. Consider balancing occasional large group activities with a variety of small group opportunities. For example, the church where I work offers a Wednesday evening Bible study, Sunday morning breakfast club, and Sunday evening service / fellowship events. None of these are times that even half of the total active youth are present. While there are times that I lament that "only" a handful of people are present in any one time, I know that more people are connected with a peer group because there are multiple options each week.

These are just a few ideas of how to move from a Luther League model to a more holistic model of youth ministry. None of these are truly new (there are no new ideas) - but perhaps we have reached a point where we need to bid farewell to an old definition of success and embrace a different approach to guiding young people along their journey of faith.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Death of Luther League

For over 90 years, youth ministry in Lutheran congregations was united under one name -- Luther League. The primary function of Luther Leagues was to gather at church each week. These gatherings incorporated fun activities, service projects, and planning for future events. In most churches, this was the important time and place for youth to gather; often trumping attendance in worship. (For a more thorough account of the history of Luther Leagues, check out this video.)

There are three major why I believe this model of ministry is dead:

1. Full inclusion is key. If teenage youth are to be considered full members of a church, they should have full participation in all of the church's ministry. If the most important aspect of a young person's church involvement is a weekly peer group, they are merely a prosthetic appendage to the body of Christ. By shifting the focus away from weekly youth group, young people are freed and encouraged to use their gifts in more edifying ways. Their church experience looks less like an extension of high school classroom and more like a genuinely diverse religious community.

2. Kids are busy. I'm willing to believe that there was a time that Sunday night was considered sacred by schools, clubs, families, and churches. It's time that we accept the present reality that this is no longer true. What message are we sending young people if they can't participate in the life of a congregation because they have another commitment on Sunday nights? The Luther League model dictates that the weekly youth group is the one-stop-shop for all your Christian needs. Why eliminate the one way they can connect with a faith community because of a schedule conflict?

3. It's not about numbers. Because kids are busy, it's unrealistic to gauge the number of "active youth" by finding out who attends youth group. However, the expectation remains for most youth ministry leaders to provide a regular event that all youth will attend. This leads to the dreaded question - "how many kids do you have at youth group?" Why do we do this to ourselves? Is a young person's presence at youth group more valid than singing in the choir, reading the lessons, serving on a committee, or teaching Sunday School? Furthermore, isn't worship attendance a better barometer of an active, faithful Christian than youth group attendance? When determining the number of adults in a congregation, we ask for worship attendance numbers...but when determining the number of youth in a congregation, we ask for youth group attendance numbers. Is this an accurate reflection of our priorities?

I have some ideas of how to shift from Luther League to a new kind of youth ministry...I'll share them tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why I'm Luthermergent

It was my first wedding anniversary and I was stuck in the worst place imaginable -- a seminary classroom. I was wrapping up my final week of Youth Ministry Certification School at Wartburg Seminary, listening to Dr. Nathan Frambach talk about “post-modernism”. I didn’t care about the topic and I didn’t want to be there. For some reason, however, my frustration turned to curiosity. “If this post-modernism thing is real,” I thought, “it should be a no-brainer for Lutherans.”

* * * * *

In the past few years, the emerging church has become the unofficial branch of post-modern Christians. The lack of organizational structure or defining documents makes the emerging church movement undoubtedly post-modern, and also extremely difficult to talk about. My quest to find a singular definition of emerging church has yielded zero results. The best explanation I’ve seen is in the Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger manifesto Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures (Baker Academic, 2005):

Emerging churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. This definition encompasses nine practices. Emerging churches (1) identify with the life of Jesus, (2) transform the secular realm, and (3) live highly communal lives. Because of these three activities, they (4) welcome the stranger, (5) serve with generosity, (6) participate as producers, (7) create as created beings, (8) lead as a body, and (9) take part in spiritual activities.

To which I reply – “Sounds like a bunch of Lutherans!” As a group of Christians who are willing to acknowledge the complexity of faith, we are wired to thrive in a post-modern world. Lutherans live in the tension between sinner and saint; between the shared absolutes of Word-alone, grace-alone, and Christ-alone. We rely on the redemptive power of God’s grace and use it as fuel for a life of selfless giving in response to this gift. Our reliance on ancient, sacred practices helps us embrace the importance of mystery and history, while simultaneously being compelled by the power of the Gospel to act in the here-and-now.

* * * * *

If my eight years as a youth minister and six years as a father have taught me anything, it’s that religion must be focused on commonalities. No two Christians agree on everything; but every Christian agrees on most things. We have been on a 500-year detour since the Reformation that has brought far more division than union to the church. We see disagreements as the end of a conversation and not the beginning of a new layer of discourse. There are thousands of denominations worldwide, each offering their own niche of Christianity, but none of them fully whole because they are defined by distinctions with “those other” Christians.

This is why I think that our future as a denomination depends on our ability to engage the emerging church conversation. Consider the emerging church conversation to be the next wave of the ecumenical movement. Over the course of the last decade, the ELCA has entered into full-communion agreements with six other denominations. These agreements have given post-modern Lutherans a strong foundation with which to build other partnerships. Emerging groups from every major protestant tribe -- Baptists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians -- have found ways to be the body of Christ that honor the uniqueness of each other’s traditions while celebrating a shared passion for the Great Commission. These faith communities are not creating watered-down versions of their proud churches. They are, instead, teaching each other the beauty of religious diversity that is both gospel-centric and mission-focused. They are doing God’s work together, as a response to the gift of God’s grace.

Sounds like a bunch of Lutherans.