Reconnecting and Walking with Seniors During the Stressful Season

Jan 17, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

Teen Curriculum In light of our newly-released Sticky Faith curriculum products for students and parents, we’re excited to share a guest blog series on how various youth pastors have approached preparing seniors for the transition out of high school. Today's guest blogger is Lars Rood, a Fuller grad, a student ministry pastor at Highland Park Presbyterian near Dallas, TX, blogger, and part of the 2010 Sticky Faith Cohort.

As a part of our interaction with the Sticky Faith research my youth ministry felt like we needed to take some new steps to connect and walk with our senior class through their senior year.  It’s a stressful season full of college applications, acceptance and rejection letters and ultimately deciding where to go. That “decision” has so many facets and factors to it that it feels like a really big and stressful deal for our students.

So we decided to walk through it with them.  The Sticky Faith idea was to just surround our seniors in a time of non-agenda relationships. We did this by inviting them over to my house every other Sunday for the entire fall and winter months of their senior year for dinner.  I generally would cook up something good to show them that they mattered and were important to us, and we’d just sit around and talk. In the fall we tried to make sure they knew that we just wanted them there and we didn’t have a program or plan for the evening. The basic idea was come from 6-7. You have to eat and we live close to the church. Just be with us.  One thing I always said was we love you if you come or don’t.

Through the fall we targeted both the seniors and their parents and let them know what we were doing. Most nights we ended much later than 7pm although many students always had to leave early.  We would just sit around and talk about college applications, essays and their hopes, dreams and nightmares about the college process. We talked a lot about their senior year too and other things they were experiencing. 

In the winter students started getting early acceptance letters and some of them decided immediately but others didn’t hear back for a while. For both of those groups we just encouraged and cared for them and stayed consistent with our questions and prayers.  We started having a bit more program in the winter, so each night after dinner we would talk about some specific bits of college Christian life.  We had great discussions about how to find a church, where to meet friends, how to relate to your parents, and what things they should look out for in a spiritual community.  Lots of really good discussions.

There's a lot of ways to care for your senior class. This was just one way we did it and they said they loved it. The payoff was that this winter when they were all back from college, we were able to have great talks about their first semester.  

Church Field Trips

Jan 11, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

Teen Curriculum In light of our newly-released Sticky Faith curriculum products for students and parents, we’re excited to share a guest blog series on how various youth pastors have approached preparing seniors for the transition out of high school. Sticky Faith research team member Meredith Miller kicks us off with a three-post series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

After spending most of a weekend retreat for grads focused on personal spiritual growth habits, we closed out with what we told the group was the most important component—community.  Specifically, we challenged them to engage in the multi-generational community of a local church.

On Sunday, we took the group to the church I attended in college and lucked out, because it was “church on the beach” Sunday.  We sat on the sand hearing testimonies before ocean baptisms, and all got a little sunburned before the morning ended.

Thus we kicked off Church Field Trips, a series of six visits to churches in our surrounding area.  Our team strategically selected churches we respected that were distinctly different from our own—more charismatic, smaller, more ethnically diverse, more conservative, more liberal, louder, bigger. After worship we discussed how they would process that visit if they were considering the church while away at school.

Each discussion employed the same basic framework.  First, we reminded ourselves of two things: a single visit is like a snapshot of life in an ongoing community, and whether you ‘liked it’ is not really enough to go on after one visit.  Then, we asked the same series of questions:

  • What did you learn from their bulletin or other print material?
  • What did you learn about them from their music, announcements, sermon and other segments of the service?
  • What did you most enjoy?
  • What felt different or strange to you?
  • What questions would you want to ask someone who calls this church home?
  • What more would you want to know or experience in order to want to call this church home?

We had this conversation over a meal or dessert.  Sometimes the staff pointed things out the grads missed (like the time the elder list was in the bulletin and had no female members) but often we held off so they could draw their own conclusions (like the visit to another church I called home during grad school.  The students liked it, but completely misread the community.)

At the end of the series, the grads scheduled a seventh unplanned visit.  They went to our own services, trying to imagine being new to the area.  Then they discussed:  would you attend here if you were a new student from a local school?  Their feedback was invaluable for our team as we considered how to connect college students to our community.

Senior Retreat

Jan 09, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

Teen Curriculum In light of our newly-released Sticky Faith curriculum products for students and parents, we’re excited to share a guest blog series on how various youth pastors have approached preparing seniors for the transition out of high school. Sticky Faith research team member Meredith Miller kicks us off with a three-post series. Read part 1.

When we first began to construct a summer calendar just for our high school grads, we had a pressing issue to address.  For the first time, graduated seniors could not attend camp with the rest of the youth group, whereas in the past they could.  So we decided to host a weekend retreat for them, just a few weeks after graduation at Westmont College in Santa Barbara.  I’m biased because it’s my alma mater, but most would agree it’s a beautiful campus.

The weekend was designed to address faith after high school, with a strategic flow to the meetings.  Our first evening involved an open discussion about the changes they were beginning to experience, especially how their faith was not going to be enforced for them anymore.  We hoped to equip them to take ownership of their spiritual growth.  We discussed “The Problem with Quiet Time” from Nancy Ortberg’s Looking for God.  In a nutshell, Ortberg questions the idea that God is only available if we meet him for 30 minutes (minimum) in the morning.  With a journal.  And after saying the ACTS prayer.  Any other way we find God’s goodness, grace, and delight is, at best, “extra credit.”

The next day, we introduced Gary Thomas’ Sacred Pathways:  nine unique ‘paths’ for drawing close to God. With the Sticky Faith research, we talk about a faith that is internalized and externalized.  Thomas’ pathways include externalized faith dimensions and affirm that God forms and guides us throughout all of them.

The book includes a self-assessment, which identified paths to which one might be well suited.  After taking the assessment, the rest of the morning was devoted to engaging in practices that aligned with the different pathways.  They goal was not only to seek God, but also to be aware of how well that path ‘fit’ for them.  For instance, we had empty, undecorated dorm rooms for an ascetic experience, and we went to the beach for the naturalists.

Overall, the retreat was one of the highlights of my summer, and set us up for a great series of future conversations with the grads.  But I’ve only talked about Friday and Saturday.  Next time, I’ll write about Sunday’s church on the beach, which closed out the retreat and kicked off a 6-week series of church field trips for the group.

What I loved:

  • There was plenty of time for fun.  We played late night glow-in-the-dark Ultimate Frisbee in front of the administration building, spent Saturday afternoon at the Santa Barbara zoo, and got Cookie Monsters at Longboards on the pier at midnight.  The super-late night options especially offered new flexibility and freedom for the grads, who were used to having more structure in youth group.
  • They unplugged from phones and TV, even though they got service and had a TV available.  I love that camp invites us to unplug, but it often does so by force, because there just isn’t a tower.

 What I would change:

  • It was tough to put every one of Thomas’ nine pathways into practice, but I’d be sure to have them all.  For instance, we didn’t have an activism opportunity prepared, and a few of our students had that as their strongest pathway.
  • I’d have invited parents of the grads to be involved in some way—sending letters for their kids to be read over their time, or meeting us for church on Sunday.

Next time:  Church Field Trips

How do you prepare seniors for college?

Jan 06, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

Teen Curriculum In light of our newly-released Sticky Faith curriculum products for students and parents, we’re excited to share a guest blog series on how various youth pastors have approached preparing seniors for the transition out of high school. Sticky Faith research team member Meredith Miller kicks us off with a three-post series.

How do you prepare seniors for college?

While serving in a previous church, we designed a “Senior Summer” in response to that question—a six-week calendar of events just for recent grads to help them leave the proverbial youth group nest.  It consisted of three components:  a weekend retreat at a nearby college campus, a mid-week dinner and discussion about college transition related topics, and a series of church visits to various congregations.  Over three posts, I’ll share a bit about each one, including some thoughts about changes I would make if given a do-over.  This time, our weekly dinner-discussions:

We called it “BBQ&A,” a series of group dinners at our church, followed by a discussion of a topic related to the college transition.  We talked about everything from personal spiritual disciplines in the midst of a busier and more independent life, to the party scene, to how to build a résumé and find a job when you’re young (and what rights you do have to protect you from potential workplace abuses.)

What I loved: 

  • We grilled outside each week, sharing the menu planning and various cooking responsibilities.  Too often in youth group, the adult volunteers do all the work for the kids.  Perhaps some student leaders have some jobs, sometimes.  But this was a chance for us to all come together to create our meal as a group.  Every week included Gushers fruit snacks by popular demand.  I have no idea why.
  • We ate at one communal table.  The high school group was quite large, so up until this point, there was no way for one group to share one meal together; we always had to break down into smaller sub-groups.  But I think there is something family-like and important about a group meal.  Students who were not necessarily in the same friend group at in high school spent time meaningful time together.
  • Each week a guest came to host the conversation, so there was variety in the perspectives they encountered.

What I would change:

  • I’d host it in a home instead of on our church campus.  Since we had a small enough group to fit in a home, I think it would have been more personal than just a church classroom.  But your church may have better spaces than we did, so it may be less relevant.
  • I’d find a few college students from the grades above to come offer their perspective.  We didn’t have the opportunity to bring them in, and I think they would have added a lot to the discussions.

 Next time:  Senior Retreat

To Stay or to Leave

Jan 05, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

To our delight, Relevant magazine did an interview with me and posted an online story about our Sticky Faith research a few days ago.  It’s generated quite a bit of comment.  As of yesterday afternoon, it had generated 103 comments to be precise.

One of the themes in the comments was whether folks (particularly young people) who are not experiencing God in their current church should leave, or if they should “stick it out”. Good arguments were made on both sides. 

To me, the question of whether to bring about reform from inside your current church or outside it is one that requires buckets of prayer and discernment.  I think God calls individuals to both paths, but the key is to make sure it’s God calling and not just our security which motivates us to stay or our restlessness that stirs us to abandon ship. 

Ironically, it’s often our community that helps us make sure that we’re hearing the voice of God and not just our own fancies.  Tragically, often folks drift so far from Christ-centered community by the time they’re asking these questions that they end up making decisions on their own instead of in the context of a caring web of friends.  And if they leave a church, they often don’t move on to a different congregation, but leave the church altogether. 

So if you’re one of those young adults who is contemplating a move, whatever decision you feel led to make, please, please, please make it in the context of community.  Allow God to speak not just to you, but to others around you.  Others that you trust and who know you well. 

And if you’re a church member or leader, please take a hard look at the ways that you might have allowed your community to become unwelcoming and maybe irrelevant to younger folks.  Maybe it’s not so much that young folks have abandoned the church, but that the church has abandoned them.

One last somewhat related note:  I wasn’t going to quote any of the comments, but toward the end of the comments posted yesterday was this excerpt that resonated with me.  It well captures the ways that I have often unwittingly contributed to young people’s tendency to drift from God and from the church.

To all of you who have been hurt, who weren't taught that your service comes out of your love for your Kinsman Redeemer, who find Christians or church leaders to be phony, who find nothing in the Church for you ... I'm sorry. I must confess I've been careless in my words and deeds just like other ministers.

There are lots of people of God getting it wrong. Yes. BUT! There are lots people of God getting it right.

A Year From Now

Jan 03, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

I'm not a big fan of New Year's resolutions, but I do think January offers us an opportunity in the rhythm of the year to reflect on what the past year has been and what we hope the coming year will be. To be sure, these reflections can spur us to actions that we might not otherwise have taken. And they might turn into "goals" or "resolutions" we hope to keep.  Perhaps more than that, they can become stories we hope to live into as the new year becomes a text we read -- or that reads us -- across the days and months ahead. 

In our newly-released curriclum for high school students, the following questions become something along those lines. They offer the possibility for students to create a narrative of their future and then take action toward living into that hoped-for future. As we kick off a new year and celebrate the release of this curriculum, we're sharing these and more in a free downloadable sample session on identity.  But perhaps these questions might be useful to you in other ways as well, for yourself or teenagers you know and love. Happy new year!

Imagine yourself a year from now. Write down words or phrases that describe who you hope to be in the following areas…

In my relationship with God, I want to be…

In my relationship with my family, I want to be…

In my relationship with friends now, I want to be…

In my relationship with new friends, I want to be…

In the way I think and feel about myself, I want to be…

In my job or studies, I want to be…

Based on the words and phrases you’ve jotted down, write a three-to-five sentence description of who you want to be a year from now:

A year from now I want to be…

Do You Dare Shut Down Your Programs?

Dec 21, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

The Sticky Faith website has only been in existence for four months now, but--thanks to you--we have gained a fantastic readership over these few months. We are incredibly grateful for the ways this site and especially this blog have become the kind of portal we'd dreamed of for sharing Sticky Faith ideas and stories to leaders and parents.  

Looking back over these months, our most popular blog post was this guest post below from Alan Mercer, a youth pastor at Christ Community Church in Leawood, KS. Perhaps because this church is daring to do what many leaders (and perhaps parents and students too) would love to do: shut things down.  Engage a different rhythm that isn't just focused on doing the same thing over and over. Experiment with bringing the church together in new ways (that might totally flop) and also pronouncing that ministry is truly more than our great programming (something many of us profess in rhetoric). 

What if more ministries did that?  What if more families did that? 

From now until January, the Sticky Faith and Fuller Youth Institute blogs will go silent as well. Why? Because we dare to believe that we can shut down, take a break, pause, rest, and live into the rhythm of the season, and on the other side of that you'll still read what we post if it's worth reading.  Do you dare to join us? That may not entirely be possible, but perhaps there are things you can drop, skip, or shut down to engage the season at a more restful pace.  We wish that for you!

Merry Christmas from the FYI team!

Here's Alan's original post for thought: 

As we have wrestled with the concept of Sticky Faith in our context, the importance of intergenerational worship has risen to the top of our list of adjustments to make.  Like so many churches, we have enjoyed years of great age appropriate and age segmented ministry.  These individual ministries have been amazing and have been effective in many ways.  However, in the past few years, we have noticed an increase in the number of students who refer to the student ministry programming as their church.  In fact, some have stated their parents go to “Christ Community” but they themselves go to “encounter” or another youth program.

We see the corporate worship service as playing a significant part in our efforts to begin to more holistically incorporate our students into the life of the body.  For this reason, we have cancelled our Sunday morning student programs for about 12 weeks of our year.  These cancellations force our families to attend corporate worship together where our students have the chance to meet more adults and feel more a part of our congregation.  In addition, it gives our adults a great chance to meet students and be positively impacted by their energy, spirit, and youthful zeal.  It is definitely a two way street and a win-win situation. 

We have chosen to focus our time around Advent and Lent, cancelling four or five weeks in a row for each of these two seasons.  We’ve also taken the opportunity around Spring Break and July 4 to cancel.  These windows offer us a balance of age appropriate ministry while holding up the significant value of being together as a corporate body.

Has this been easy?  No!  Has there been resistance?  Yes!  Is it worth it?  You bet!  We look forward to where we are going and what awaits us.

The Power of Blessing

Dec 19, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Today’s guest blogger is Billy Jack Blankenship, Minister to Children and Families at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church and part of our 2010 Sticky Faith Cohort.

We continue to wrestle with the process of being a community that contributes to lasting faith in our kids and students. The shift from being a multi-generational congregation to community that models intergenerational relationships proves to be a slow, yet exciting, journey.

One shift we made last year was to begin each worship service (on Sundays) all together—with our kids (6thgrade and below) in the sanctuary with their families and other adults. Originally our hope was to help them experience different elements of the services (i.e. celebrations, baptisms, giving, stories of God’s movement in our community, etc). However, something cool emerged from a subtle addition to the first half of each service.

About half way through each service there is a time when we dismiss the kids to their classes. The piece of this that has shaped us is a blessing for the kids before they go. Depending on the Sunday a different minister leads the moment. We have families lay hands on their kids while the congregation extends hands toward children close to them, and the person leading extends a blessing to our children. After the blessing they are dismissed to their classes.

Our hope is that we will not think that we are “intergenerational” because of the blessing moment. Rather, our hope is through moments like this, where we posture toward our children, our community will come to understand the importance of being in relationship with our kids as they journey in faith.

A mother in our congregation asked her son how the blessing made him feel each week.  She relayed to us:

“It’s cool,” he said. He went on to offer that the blessing makes him feel loved, by not only his parents, but by everybody in the church. He also said the blessing makes him feel like kids are respected. I could tell that he feels important and valued during this part of the service. Thank you, thank you. From the tone of his voice it seemed that he is filled with a warmth, seldom freely offered, by being touched by outstretched hands each Sunday.

Our Sticky Dinner Table

Dec 15, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

It’s 5:35 PM. My family and I sit at dinner, face to face. It’s in these seconds that my kids do and say intriguing things.

Mya, the nearly two year old, decided to make up a dinner cheer. “Foo-fwah!” We had no idea what she was saying, so we all joined in “Foo-fwaaaaahhh!” We later realized that Mya was saying the word “flip flop”.

Kirra, our older and wiser four year old, told us with confidence (as she was moving food around on her plate), “God helps us do hard things.”

There were a few moments of silence. Then she said, “Jason and Melissa taught me that at church, that God helps us do hard things.”

“You’re right, God does help us do hard things.”

I thought Kirra might have been referring to the fact that it would be hard to eat all of the food on her plate, and that God would help her. But she was thinking of something else.

She told us that she plugged the TV in today all by herself. “And that was a hard thing! Right Mommy?”

As I thought more about our conversation I realize that what we consider hard, our children may not. For Kirra, hard things are literally hard things. It’s hard to plug in the TV by herself, it takes effort for her to do it.

And the people who helped her to realize that we have help when life gets hard were other caring and loving adults who invest in my daughter in community each week. Knowing that others are raising her up in faith alongside me gives me hope. It also sparks motivation to try to foster more opportunities for the students in our ministry to experience this over a longer period of time (not just during their elementary years).

We all face hard things. For a senior adult or someone just going into retirement, hard things look different. It’s hard to figure out where to fit again. It’s hard to give up freedoms or to admit when some things aren’t working like they used to.

For early middle schoolers, it’s hard to walk into a room alone.

For new parents it’s hard to function on three hours of sleep.

For college students it’s hard to manage new responsibilities.

If we want to be advocates of sticky faith—or connectors to building faith in people that lasts--if we want our teenagers (and everyone else) to value their relationship with Jesus we have to connect them to the church that says, “God helps you do hard things.”

The echo is empowering and life-changing.

When I meet up with a group to run, I tend to run better. My desire to run increases as I discover that I can get through the hard parts and as I realize that there will be people cheering me on as I develop. It’s the same with the church.

How are we helping our teens do hard things? Do we ask our students where they are struggling? Do we lead them to others who are a bit farther ahead to cheer them on and give them cues? Do we allow them to lead in the areas where they find things easy?

I believe God helps us do hard things, including building sticky churches or sharing faith with each other in ways that are lasting.

I’m grateful for Melissa and Jason, and the many others who are found “faithing” in front of my kids and our youth group. The kingdom of God is found as we walk, worship, struggle, serve, cheer, and lift up each other on the way.

A Tale of Two Tables

Dec 13, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute