Using a Simple Red Ball to Connect Generations

Nov 28, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Today's guest blogger is Jim Sparks, a leader within Salvation Army youth ministries and the SAYNetwork website/blog.

Inspired by the Sticky Faith movement, a couple of months ago I set out to find out how I could connect generations in a unique way. So I gave myself the following criteria to chart my course:

  • Must be fun
  • Must include laughter
  • Must connect generations
  • Must be in an environment where people can be themselves
  • Must provide an experience for all to talk about

With this in mind, I scribbled a bunch of ideas on a whiteboard ranging from a flash mob to a service project. But one activity stood out like a sore thumb and was screaming “OOOH, PICK ME, PICK ME!!”; and so I obliged. What was the idea? Dodgeball. Yep, you heard me.

A friend of mine turned me on to the favorite childhood playground game a couple years ago at a camp, and I can’t tell you how much fun it was.  So I decided to bring it to our church gymnasium.

I advertised it through our church bulletin and recruited some influencers to help push the concept. We were intentional in inviting everyone, no matter the age, and gave plenty of warning to the parents of young children that a ball—yes, a ball—would most likely hit their children. We, of course, gave the same advice to the elders. However the balls we use are self-inflating, gator skin, family-friendly dodgeballs that don’t hurt, even if they hit your face. Trust me; I know personally. 

So the night came, and I expected about twenty male young adults to be the only ones to show up. Well, I was wrong. We had 43 men, women, and children. The age range was 10 – 51 years of age! We spent several hours that night in the gym pummeling each other, and having a great laugh while doing so.

What a scene. Dads laughing with their sons. College students engaging in friendly banter with forty-something’s. Children trading dodgeball war stories with thirty-something’s. And everyone had a smile on their face while doing so.  

It worked. It was fun. No one got hurt. There was plenty of laughter. No cliques and no barriers. Generations were actively engaged in genuine conversations, and it is now the buzz at our church.

We just completed our second dodgeball night, and our number grew to 63 while the age group expanded to 8 – 51. We plan on playing once a month through June and are looking into ways to make the evening even more intentional.

Gift Bibles with a Twist

Nov 23, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Part of what I love about my role at the Fuller Youth Institute is I feel that it makes me a better parent.  Almost every day I get a great idea or hear an encouraging story or challenging insight that shapes me.

Last week I heard from a dad who, along with his wife, wanted to make a tangible impact on their oldest son, who was a high school junior.  So they bought a Bible for him, but they didn’t give it to him.  They kept it themselves, and used it during their son’s junior and senior years as their own devotional Bible.  They prayed through it, and made notes in it about specific passages that specifically related to their son.  After two years, they presented it to their son upon his high school graduation.

They did the same for their other three children as they entered their junior year of high school.  For all four of those young people, that Bible was a constant reminder of their parents’ care and concern for them.

Recently this dad heard from a church that heard about this story and decided to bring an intergenerational twist to it.  The church had 15 high school juniors and so it recruited 15 senior adults who would get a Bible and do the same prayer and Scripture underlining and journaling for two years for those juniors.  Upon their high school graduation, each senior adult presented their Bible to their respective young adult in a special intergenerational rite of passage.

Can you imagine how it would feel to receive that Bible, whether it was from your parents or another adult who had been thinking of you and praying for you for the last few years?

That’s Sticky Faith in action. 

Shocking Teens Before They Shock You

Nov 21, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Student Life recently released a new resource called "Morf". It's a magazine for parents, youth workers and pastors. It's got a great modern design and an earthy smell. 

In its inaugural publication, Andy Braner wrote an article dealing with how adults are treating the topic of sex with teens. He tells stories that revolve around honesty as the best policy for both parties. Even when it's a fifth grade son encountering the topic for the first time on the playground. 

I vividly remember from high school the shock teachers would express when they would encounter the private lives of teens. Yet at 25, I've often experienced that same feeling when hearing the truth from teens. Lets just put it out there; for some reason, sexual issues are strangely uncomfortable in the intergenerational context. 

But hearing about sexual trends and habits shouldn't be a surprise. It's happening in all generations. The discussions need to happen before, not after "it" happens.

I'm guessing this approach would shock a lot of teens.

Unfortunately, we're cuturally in a season of damage control. These conversations are typically about the outcomes and aftermaths, not the plans or hopes. When we leave it up to a generation to define sex on their own, we need to be prepared to hear the outrageous, scandalous, and the shameful. If we don't prepare them well, the least we can do is become a safe and restorative place. Our relationships need to be strong in preparation for whatever storms may come. As Braner says, "We have to build a rapport with our kids so that when dating (or sex) becomes the issue, they'll listen." 

Hard questions: 

  • Have we sincerely/seriously defined what's sexually appropriate? Teens can handle these conversations, but can we? Clarity defuses confusion. Why aren't we shocking teens before they shock us? Are we willing to have conversations about confusing or "gray" areas of sexuality, or what may seem like gray areas to our students?
  • Along with culture (until fairly recent changes in cultural expectations), most churches have idolized marriage as the ultimate goal for every person. But this is not the "only" biblical ideal (1:Corinthians 7:26). How, or why aren't, you talking about singleness? Our students need to know that staying single and celibate is tough, but it could be the life they are called to. How are we helping them navigate that lifestyle?

Sticky Parent Faith Stories

Nov 17, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Today’s guest blogger is Noah Starksen, Associate Director of Youth Ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame, CA.

As we have been considering the Sticky Faith research and the practical implications within our context, two big themes rose to the top: intergenerational ministry and parent-centered ministry.  This idea of intergenerational ministry is not a new one for our church.  The term has been tossed around for a while and we already have places where this has taken root (like an annual intergeneration missions trip).  Yet here was our paradigm-shaping question: how can we get our adult congregation to think of themselves not only as church members, but as “undercover youth pastors”? 

We have also been looking at the idea of a parent-centered youth ministry.  Our church has been reviewing the resource Think Orange  by Reggie Joiner, which explains how the light of the church (yellow) and the warmth of the family (red) can be brought together.  We seek to remember that although we love what we do, parents are the primary source of faith development for teens, and we want to find ways to partner with parents.

After reading the FYI blog as well as hearing the idea in a Sticky Faith workshop at NYWC, we found that a great way to work towards both of these goals was with parent testimonies, or as we have been calling them, Faith Stories.  This was a practical step that achieved many goals.  It gave parents an opportunity to come and see our program first hand, rather than asking the all-to-common question, “What do you do upstairs every Thursday night?”  It also gave parents an opportunity to see their child in a faith setting with peers, something many parents don’t see often.  It is also catalytic because it generates conversations at home between kids and their parents about their parent’s faith - possibly for the first time.

So after a bit of discussion, we decided to have a series of Faith Stories.  This did require a bit of up front work for us, because we wanted to make sure we set parents up to succeed.  We talked to parents a few weeks out to give them time to process their thoughts.  Once they confirmed that they would do it, we sent them a form we had created with questions to help guide and articulate their story.  One week prior to them speaking, we met with them to help them gather their thoughts and answer any questions. 

One week before our series started, I met up with our first volunteer, Jim, and it became one of the best conversations I have had in ministry.  He talked about his faith from childhood and the struggles that he currently has, like his commitment to read the Bible.  He also talked about his young adult years and how he really didn’t feel God and took a step back from Christianity.  But then he began to talk about his children.  Jim is the father of two high schoolers, Jenny and DJ, who are both very active in our ministry.  He told me how they were the reason that he returned to church.  He said that watching them develop brought him back to God.  Jim talked about their maturation through our Confirmation class and how it really gave him a sense of pride, that his children were owning their faith and growing into men and women of God.  He ended with saying that watching his kids the past couple of years has challenged him to own his faith and really take it seriously. 

This conversation reinforced our decision to have parents come in and share their Faith Stories  with kids.  Not every story is a picture-perfect example of Christian discipleship, but we have this inspiring hunch that by creating space where family and faith begin to merge, we are participating in God’s desire for a stickier faith to seep through families into the next generation.   

97-Year-Olds are Not Exempt

Nov 15, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

I love a good story, and often when I speak about Sticky Faith, folks come up to me afterwards with story about the power of intergenerational relationships.

Recently I was speaking in Orlando at a conference convened by the Forum of Bible Agencies.  Afterwards, a man (who I would guess was in his 60s) introduced himself to me and said, “I need to tell you about my mom.”  He proceeded to tell me that he just buried his 97 year-old mom last month.

“Now normally, there aren’t many folks who show up for funerals of 97 year-olds, but my mom’s was different.  The place was packed.

Standing near her casket was a 17 year-old who I didn’t recognize, so I introduced myself to him.  I asked him, ‘Are you here with your parents?’

‘No,’ he answered, ‘my parents aren’t here.  But I’ve known your mom since I was 8 years old.  She said when I was 8 that she would be praying for me, and she’s been praying for me for the last 9 years.  Whenever I needed encouragement or a bit of mentoring, I would talk with her at church and she would give it to me.  It has meant so much to me to know that your mom has been praying for me.  I’m going to miss her so much.’”

Did you catch that there was an 80 year difference between the 97 year-old and the 17 year-old?  Did you catch how much that relationship meant to the 17 year-old?  I’m guessing it meant quite a bit to the 97 year-old also.

If you’re wondering where to start in surrounding teenagers with intergenerational relationships, there might be a 97 year-old or a 67 year-old looking for a way to invest themselves in younger people but not knowing how to do that.  Maybe you can invite them to pray for the teenagers you know and open a Sticky Faith relational door bigger than you can imagine.

Observe the Cooler

Nov 14, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Before our high school seniors arrived to a recent college transition prep session, our college pastor carefully placed a dollar bill inside a plastic cooler and closed the lid. He knew the dollar would go undiscovered.

Once all the students had taken their seats, he tasked them with "observe the cooler." He would invite their reports in a few minutes. The students touched it, studied it, and even moved it. But no one opened it. So, while their descriptions were accurate, the report ultimately was incomplete. No one opened the cooler, so no one found the treasure inside.

Our college pastor Jeff went on to explain that the Bible, like the cooler, contains its real treasure within. The key is opening it up, and studying the inside. From there, the students broke into small groups and tackled some tricky biblical passages together. By the time they left, they had a refreshed interest in the Bible, along with a positive
experience with a pastor other than me (their high school pastor).

At Lake Avenue Church, transitioning seniors is a 9-month process. Essential to that process is forging relationships with other LAC pastors, leaders, and church members across generations. Experiences like the one with the cooler create fun, memorable, spiritually-edifying moments. My hope is that these moments can stack on top of one another, like stones, and together help bridge the gap between high school and the next season of life.

Let’s Dance

Nov 09, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Today's guest blogger is Jason Herman, high school pastor at The Hills Church of Christ in Richland Hills, Texas. The Hills was part of our 2010 Sticky Faith Cohort.  

When I first met Ethan, he was a fringe kid who hated church, and for good reason.  His dad (a church elder) had just kicked him out of the house for getting in an argument with his stepmother.  It was the summer before his senior year, and with nowhere to go, Ethan’s future looked bleak. 

But God had other plans.  Finding out about his situation, Madeline (a student at our church) simply responded in the way she had seen her parents do for years: she reached out.  It wasn’t long before Ethan was living with the Orr family. 

The last thing Ethan expected to find at the church services the Orr family required him to attend was teenagers and adults who cared, but that’s exactly what was waiting for him. He quickly latched on to our worship minister, and their shared love for music began breaking down the walls he had put in place for protection.  I approached Ethan about attending a high school small group series, which he joined.  He also participated in our annual senior transition class. 

His lack of desire and effort in school quickly gave way to a desire to graduate and a determination to get into college.  With the help of other families and adult mentors, Ethan graduated from high school and was accepted to a local university.  Ethan was adamant that he did not want to commit to being a follower of Christ until he was ready to give up everything. Out of nowhere one Wednesday night, he approached me and said, “Let’s do this – let’s dance!”  He made it very clear that this dance was an eternal decision to follow Christ.

This summer we took Ethan on a mission trip to New York.  While there, we worked with a new church plant sponsored by our church.  Through this trip God continued to work transformation in Ethan’s life.  Following our return, Ethan decided to move to New York City and join what this church is doing there.  He is now heavily engaged in ministry and is scheduled to start college (now in New York) next spring.  Ethan’s life is now Sticky Faith in action!

Could God Love You Less?

Nov 07, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute
Now that my son is in fifth grade, I'm a volunteer in our church's Preteen Ministry.  I am loving leading a small group of fifth grade girls every Sunday morning.
We are working our way through the Old Testament and last week's topic was the Ten Commandments.  Because of our Sticky Faith research, I wanted to make sure that I framed the Ten Commandments in light of God's incredible, unending love for us.
So I asked the girls, "If we obeyed all of these all of the time, would God love us any more?"  None of the ten girls (I know, it's pretty large for a small group; we're still recruiting more leaders) thought that obedience would make God love us more.  So we talked for a minute or so about how God loves us unconditionally - no matter what.
Then I asked the inverse question, "If we disobeyed one of these commandments and murdered someone, would God love us any less?"  This time, four of the ten girls thought that murdering someone would make God love them less, even after we had just reflected on God's unconditional love.
While this is far from a scientific study, it's interesting to me that the girls in my small group thought that their positive behaviors wouldn't increase God's love for them but that their negative behaviors would decrease God's love for them.  
Dave and I are really trying to communicate to our own kids that God and we love them - no matter what.  When they score a goal, we tell them on the way home that we think it's great they tried so hard, but that even if they just ran in circles on the field and never touched the ball, neither God nor we would love them any less.
I'm always looking for ways to communicate God's unconditional love to my own kids and the teenagers/preteens in our church.  How have you tried to do that in your family or ministry?

Church as a Living Bridge

Nov 04, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Today’s guest blogger is Mike McClenahan, senior pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church. Solana Beach was part of our 2010 Sticky Faith Cohort. This post originally appeared on Mike’s blog, and is reprinted by permission.

Each week in worship we bless our children.  First through sixth graders sit with parents or a trusted adult for the first 25 minutes of worship, then are dismissed with a pastoral blessing. We raise a hand or place a hand of blessing on "our" children as a way of physically extending ourselves to them. 

Last Sunday we baptized an infant. The couple professed their own faith in Jesus and committed themselves to raise their daughter in an environment where she might one day profess her own faith in Jesus. The congregation likewise committed ourselves to come alongside the parents and the child. I've said before, "'Their' children become 'our' children."

We want to be a place where children see their parents and other adults worship God, serve the world, meet together and love each other. We want them to have an experience of the church in organized and organic ways. Our hope is that one generation would "commend the works of God to the next" (Psalm 145) as a living bridge that lasts beyond the oldest generation. 

This video is a beautiful example of one generation passing on knowledge and wisdom to the next generation. What does our living bridge look like?




What keeps students from connecting with God?

Nov 02, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

This week we’re hosting a small group of folks helping us explore what it looks like to help teenagers develop faith rhythms that stick with them beyond our ministries and homes.  Thanks to a generous donor, we have a grant supporting this exploration over the coming year.  

One of the things we learned in our Sticky Faith research was that high school and college students don’t tend to have very robust prayer lives.  While we were not able to explore that very deeply, we did ask college students to share about some of the obstacles they faced in engaging faith practices.  From their responses, here were some of the primary themes we heard:

  • Time—making space for God in the midst of balancing other priorities and managing your own schedule is tough. 
  • Relationships—suddenly you don’t know other Christians and have to decide if you’re going to show up by yourself at a campus group or church.  You also may not have accountability relationships with people who remind you to stay connected in your faith.
  • God may begin to seem distant, uninvolved, or even irrelevant to college life.

When you think about (and ask) the college students you know what hinders them from connecting with God, what do you hear?  And what can we do to support them in ways that keep them connected to God across the transition?