Friday, November 12, 2010

Violent Video Game: The Downward Sprial

I was not very popular when I took the Halo game out of the youth room the day I started running the youth program at my second church posting. The previous youth pastor, a green 20-something jock, had been playing it with the boys. He would host Halo tournaments and other events featuring the game. He was oblivious to the damage this violent game was inflicting on his youth group. Not only had he alienated all of the girls, one boy was actually seeing a counselor at school because of violent anger related issues. The suggestion that this students issues might be exacerbated by playing violent video games was met by scoffs and excuses.

Dude! You really don't have to look very far on an Internet search to find the headline of ghastly crimes blamed on mimicking video games: In 2004 a British boy murdered a friend with a claw hammer emulating the game "Manhunt". In 2005 a man in Alabama killed two police officers and three other people simulated by his video game "Grand Theft Auto." In September, 2006, a man beat his 17 month old daughter to death after she disrupted his six hour marathon playing of "Ghost Recon." I could go on and on but what's the point.

Holy smokes! Are you not horrified by these headlines? No you're not.

Gamers and developers of video games will pounce all over anyone who makes such allegations claiming that anyone can say anything on the Internet. It's true. I found a story posted June 9, 2004 on the USA Today website by Mike Snyder, saying, the video game, "Full Spectrum Warrior, which grew out of Pandemic Studio's creation of an Army training simulation, is "technically, tactically very real," says retired Army captain James Ytuarte, who served as a consultant on the game." The same system the army uses to desensitize soldiers to killing is being sold as video games.

In his book, "On Killing," (shown below), another soldier, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman "argues that the breakdown of American society, combined with the pervasive violence in the media and interactive video games, is conditioning our children to kill in a manner similar to the army's conditioning of soldiers: "We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion." This was written in 1996 and the downward spiral continues unabated.





330008: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and SocietyOn Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

By Dave Grossman / Hachette Book Group, Usa




This was a problem even in Jesus' time. He said, "For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes" (Matthew 13:15).

The Apostle Paul says, "The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the
faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron." (1 Timothy 4:1)

Warnings from the distant past. It sounds like Jesus and Paul were aware of someones directed efforts to bring man to an evil end. Someone a lot older than video game makers.

Want to wake up your kids? I spell it out in my teen Bible lesson, "Calloused Hearts."

Philippians 4:8 "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

You are training tomorrows church. Re-sensitize them. Awaken their consciences to God and His love. If you must, first convince yourselves, then convince them of what is happening. Do everything you can including standing against violent video games. "Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes" (Ephesians 6:11).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Helping teen's deal with bullies.

Having once again become alarmed and saddened by the reporting of suicides due to bullying I set about to provide a Bible lesson for teenagers on How To Handle Bullies. While investigating internet resources I found a wide variety of suggestions including luring the bully into a wooded area and attacking them with a sword (no kidding).

The Bible does have many examples of bullying. The story of David and Goliath come quickly to mind. David dealt with many bullies. Sometimes he fought back, sometimes he ran and hid but he always "strengthened himself in the Lord." (1 Samuel 30:6) David wasn't perfect but he had a strong relationship with God to whom he regularly cried out to for help and understanding and frequently forgiveness.

A single Bible lesson will not provide the necessary silver-bullet to vanquish the problem of bullying in the adolescents life. The real answer is to envelope the kids in a caring supportive community that provides them with real-time help and advice for each situation as it arises. This must included "listening ears", wisdom from trusted counselors, and a strong sense of their identity in Christ.

Parents must keep an attentive eye on their child's situation. They must provide the empathetic "listening ears" and occasionally go-to-bat for their kids. Sometimes kids are dealing with additional issues like guilt or depression. The bulling exacerbates these problems, may become the straw that broke the camels back, but isn't necessarily the main thing that needs attention. Inform parents to watch for clues and misbehavior on their child's internet social pages.

School's must be more vigilant and foster a safer environment. This may need to include getting involved in the bullies life to determine why this child feels compelled to act out this way.

We must also provide the kids with workable coping mechanisms so they don't think that suicide is their only option. I have a lesson on suicide but this might not be the best context in which to use it. Kid's will be dealing with angry people and unfair situations all of their lives. Sometimes a little understanding of the perpetrators will help them not take insults too personally.

In any case, bringing it up in your youth group or Sunday school class is always a good idea. It helps the kids feel that you are connected in a relative way to their everyday situations and gives them one more supportive adult they might turn to for advice and wisdom.

In addition, your students might not have even realized that they could be playing a part in bullying when they join in the laughter at another students blunder. Watching their own behavior might help them become more sympathetic to the one being bullied and encourage them to become part of the solution. Part of adolescent maturity is realizing that their actions can have profound effects on others. Talk about what is personally at stake for them if they befriend the uncool person. Consider Jesus' interaction with Zacchaeus (Luke 19). Talk about your youth group being a safe place for the "down-trodden" and oppressed.

You should also be aware of students that shy away from participation in activities and games. This may be an indication that they have felt personal distress due to normal teenage awkwardness. No one likes being laughed at especially if they feel alone. This is a great opening to become a friend and supportive adult. Give these kids many opportunities to enjoy social interactions. Value their input whenever they participate in class discussion.

Some great professional advice is available from this book:

291947: What Do I Do When: Teenagers Encounter Bullying and Violence?What Do I Do When: Teenagers Encounter Bullying and Violence?

By Youth Specialties, Just $5.49 from Christian Book.com


Explore bullying, violence, and aggression from the perspective of the victim and the aggressor. Discover how theology informs the issue, and what practical actions you can take to help stop the violence and heal the pain. Paperback.
I have a rich past of being bullied. The childish locker room heckling made being on the skins team (of shirts vs skins) totally beyond my comfort zone. At one time I was also a bully. In fourth grade I picked on the weird looking kid with the speech impediment until he beat the tar out of me. Then I was given the title of being the weird kid. This social standing made me the butt of jokes and frequent beatings all through middle school. It had a profound effect my on whole life. How I wished there had been someone there for me. Just a few words of wisdom or encouragement would have helped. Even the youth group leader was a source of belittlement and exclusion. Did he even know? Did he even care to know? Thanks be to God who came to me and told me I was His son.

Try not to be thoughtless. Do your best to help kids through these hard years of early adolescence.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Multi-part Sunday School Lessons

A few weeks ago I did a lesson about Spiritual Warfare. I had heard that some recently Baptized kids were having trouble sleeping and others had shared their worries with their parents. As I was teaching the lesson they kept bring up Spiritual Armor (Ephesians 6). They were pleased with themselves for at least knowing this Spiritual Armor existed and exhibited an interest in knowing more. I determined that that would make a good follow-up lesson and spent many hours preparing over the next week.

The next Sunday I walked into the kids room all set, with a matching activity, great snack, the works. However, instead of the fifteen girls and one boy I had the week before the class now consisted of six boys and only one girl who attended the week before. I felt like I was in a completely different church. Where was my class?

This had happened about a year ago too. I taught a lesson on Spiritual gifts one week and had them fill out a Spiritual Gifts Questionnaire the next week. Unfortunately the kids that got the questionnaire were completely different kids, unprepared and not interested. But that was the only plan I had for that weeks class. It was a bust.

As memories of that miserable day flowed through my mind I remembered that I had two other Sunday school lesson plans in my bag. One lesson plan was tailored more for boys, and the other more for girls. I put away my lesson on Spiritual armor and taught a different lesson. As jarring as that unexpected change in direction was to me, the class was not a disaster. The boys were engaged in learning and the lessons goals were successfully realized. The next week the girls returned. The original lesson was taught to the audience it was intended for with success.

Dan Folgelberg warned in a song, "Changing horses in the middle of a stream gets you wet and sometimes cold." Luckily he wasn't talking about a Sunday school class. I'd rather be wet from sweat than drowned by disaster any day. From now on I will always come to class with several options ready to go. I write my Sunday school lesson plans clear enough so I can teach them even if my old brain locks up half way through. I fear "brain freeze" in front of an expectant group of middle schoolers. It happens. These Sunday school lessons can be taught cold. I could even hand one to an untrained parent or volunteer in an emergency and it would work.

Games can be easy too. I always keep a bag of balloons with a list of balloon games. A bag of rubber bands and some paper cups can amuse boys. Grab a couple rolls of toilet paper from the bathroom and have the girls make bridal gowns. Keep candy or "Zany-Bands" for prizes. Cash will always work for a prize in a pinch (actually that was a real hit one day).

I can't fix the inherent problem of uneven, sporadic Sunday school class attendance. But being flexible and prepared for several lessons helps.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How to Make Your Youth Group Grow.

I have a page on my website that lists 10 easy things you can do to ensure a great youth group. The second suggestion is: "Create a party atmosphere with Christmas lights or other party lights as your budget can afford. Have activities like ping-pong and video games ready to play."

This advice seems to be dismissed as nonsense by many in Sunday school ministries but now Josh Hunt has survey data that proves groups that party together "are 104% more likely to be growing than low-fellowship groups."

In his new book, Make Your Group Grow, Josh Hunt succinctly delivers many practical, easy to implement strategies and tips to help your small group grow...that is , if you want your group to grow.








440151: Make Your Group Grow: Simple Stuff That Really WorksMake Your Group Grow: Simple Stuff That Really Works

By Josh Hunt


Grow your volunteer base with tested principles that really work! Based on discoveries from three surveys, Hunt shares statistics, anecdotes, and real-life stories that will equip leaders to develop healthy groups; offers hands-on suggestions for how to put findings into action; creates a model that's easily reproduced and passed on; and more. 160 pages, softcover from Groups.
Of all the tips I give on my website this one seems to be the one that generates the most skepticism and disagreement. It seems that in many Christians eyes you're not being a serious Christian unless your being...serious. Well, if you know kids you've learned that being serious only lasts about five minutes at best. Coincidentally, these are the same folks who think teaching middle school age kids is hard.

In reality, teaching this age group can be really fun if you create a fun, party like, atmosphere. Hey, I'm the first person to encourage youth leaders to teach at every opportunity. I teach serious Christian lessons. Just take a look at some of my Sunday school lessons for proof. But, my kids love coming to class, and invite their friends, because they know it's also going to be fun.

Josh's book is an easy read and you can skip right to the stuff that really makes a difference if you want to but it's full of useful nuggets to help any group grow.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Spiritual Retreats for Recharging Youth Leaders

I'm sure you've already got plans to take your youth group to an amusement park, raft trip, outward bound camp, and/or a mission trip this summer. Summer is only about twelve weeks long so you want to pack in as much as you can while the weather is nice and the kids have the time. It is also important to plan a few spiritual retreats for yourself.

My favorite activity is camping. I go by myself to a favorite spot. Two nights is enough for me. That allows one whole day for prayer, reflection, and relaxation. The prayers are frequently "listening" prayers. The hikes, fishing, reading, napping are things I do for refreshment feeling that God is doing them with me. It's great to be surrounded by things God created.

I am able to do this because our church traditionally does not do Sunday school on the first weekend of every month so I can be gone. I also have a team of practiced helpers who can step in and cover the days I miss.

My wife also does spiritual retreats...alone. She usually has her spiritual retreats in a condo she gets through a travel club for just $99.00 a week (e-mail me and I will refer you to this club). That's cheaper than camping. It gets her away from the distractions of home. She also feels safer than being in the wilderness. Plus, it gives her the opportunity to go in bad weather or the winter. She takes her favorite music, devotionals, and easy food. She goes for a week at a time, comes home really refreshed.

Whatever you can do, plan to do it before a hectic schedule crowds it out.

If it's already too late for that you can still get a little time for yourself and be a great example to your kids at the same time. Jesus frequently left his dusty band and went off alone to pray. When you're on an outing with your kids just let it be known that the first thing in the morning, for about an hour, you'll be walking a little ways from camp to do your own "quiet time." Suggest they do the same (safely). My son actually does this when we go camping together. What a witness it has been to me. A pastor friend also does this. He goes camping every week, invites guys to join him, but it's understood that he will be doing his quiet time every morning and highly recommends those who join him to do the same.

It's commonly know that "more is caught than taught" in youth ministry. The kids will remember seeing you making your time alone with God a priority.

I can't stress enough how important this has been my for continued spiritual health and vitality. When ministry starts to feel overwhelming it's usually a reminder that I need to get alone with God to pray, listen, even cry and complain. Burnout is one of the most frequent topics in the youth ministry forums I participate in. There are many reasons youth pastors and leaders give for feeling burned out. These reasons are just symptoms of the underlying cause. The real cause is lack of spiritual nourishment.

You can't remain a healthy branch of you're not constantly sucking nourishment from "the vine."

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Innocence and addiction, one messed up package.

We had an interesting "Youth Church" lesson today. Youth Church is what we call our junior high group that meets during the sermon time. That helps identify it from the Sunday school that meets before the service. Anyway, I always give the kids a snack and let them socialize for awhile before we start. This week the talk centered around a drug bust in which one of the kids they all new was arrested for selling pot out of his locker at school. The school was locked down, dogs were brought in, and lockers were searched with a heavy police presence. Then the boy was led away.

Their discussion was very animated. Everyone was intensely interested. I had a lesson all prepare but I chose to let this conversation continue. They were dealing with an issue that confronts them everyday and pushes against their faith and choices they make. The boy arrested is from a church attending family. Why had he chosen this path? How does the enemy entice you into destructive behavior? How will you react when offered the seemingly innocuous joint at a party? What if...

I could not have planned a better lesson. Near the end I asked them if they wanted to hear my story. I revealed to them a less-than stellar past of addiction and how God saved me. It was a little more than I had intended to reveal about myself but may have given me a little for credence for knowing what I was talking about. I was able to clear up a lot of misinformation that had been voiced, like the addictiveness of pot and it's role as a "gateway" drug. I shared my battle and the path back to relationship with God. They listened intently. I felt like I was speaking to adults.

We still had a little time left, it was a nice day, so I suggested we end with a game. Their choice: Duck, duck, goose. They played with child like abandon. This is understandable since they are still children, yet the jump from a serious conversation about drugs to the innocence of a children's game left my head spinning. As students, they deal with this incongruity everyday. Is it any wonder that they seems dazed and confused sometimes? My sympathy for their situation has intensified even more. Kids really need us to be good role models for them. They need us to be involved in their lives, to teach them what we know (when their ready to hear it).

I remember when I was offered my first joint. I was twenty. They are twelve. As a twenty year old Christian I made the wrong choice. How can we possibly expect them to make the right choices. Frequently they do make the right choices. That is a time to marvel proudly. We talked about how the enemy will attack when we are at our most vulnerable at a point where we are at our weakest. They got it because they had just seen it in real life.

I'm glad I was there. Hadn't planned it. God must have. Right place at the right time. Ok, what will happen this week? Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Shiny Penny Kids and how to reach them.

The kids in my current Sunday school class are all great kids: Good grades, well behaved, two parent households, attend church regularly, lots of after school activities. So what's wrong with that? For one thing, they are actually harder to reach than the so-called fringe kids. They take in the Biblical knowledge I teach them but it's hard to tell if their hearts are being touched. I was a bit miffed about what to do until I read Chap Clark's book shown below.




027322: Hurt: Inside the World of Today"s TeenagersHurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers

By Chap Clark / Baker


Contemporary adolescents seem confident, well-adjusted, and happy. But beneath the surface, they're often lonely, insecure, and empty. What's going on? Claiming that adults have "abandoned" teens just when they most need support, Clark's ethnographic study examines today's changing youth culture from the inside out and suggests five strategies to "turn the tide of systemic abandonment." 236 pages, softcover from Baker.

I also took a class from him at this years Simply Youth Ministry Conference. Now I know that even these "shiny-penny" kids feel abandoned and alone at times. The shiny pennies are just really good at covering up the hurt and conforming to adults expectations but they still hurt. After much thought and reviewing my own middle school history I see that this loneliness can actually be used as a "God -provided" entry point into a teens heart.

In my case, walking home from school one day in the eighth grade, I strongly heard God's voice or the Holy Spirit bringing up verses, that reminded me that I was His son. "You are my son, " I heard over and over. I felt the presence of God strongly. "Look straight ahead not down, you are my son." I knew I had heard the verses in Sunday school about being adopted into the family of God (Ephesians 1:5) and being heirs with Jesus (Romans 8:17) but now it was real.this realization changed everything for me. My self-esteem went up, even my grades went up. I have operated with that knowledge in my heart ever since.

We, as teachers, need to be mindful of the faith we are leading our kids to. Is it one of performance, cleaning up their act to be shiny pennies or is it adoption into the family of God. What a solution to the loneliness once they realize, "He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6). My father is with me all the time. What an opportunity we have to make the connection between the head knowledge and the hearts understanding.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Balanced Youth Ministry

Over the years I've met and worked with many youth pastors and leaders. Each one had different strengths and spiritual gifts. One guy was a musician and could get the kids into a worship mindset better that most I've seen. He's great at leading worship but his teaching ability is lacking. Subsequently many of the kids that stick around his youth group also are talented musicians. His youth group meetings generally center around an awesome jam session. Unfortunately the kids who aren't musically inclined are mostly left out.

My spiritual gifts lie in the area of teaching and discipleship. I can get even the most reclusive kids into a lively discussion, digging into a spiritual concept for an hour easy. But I just can't lead a worship time and I really don't get excited about taking the kids on a mission trip at all. Just leave me home in my comfy youth room teaching kids to deepen their faith and understanding of the Bible. I console myself by focusing on how admirable this goal is but I know in my heart that the kids need to be exposed to all of the aspects of their faith.

Another youth pastor acquaintance is an evangelist, and he's really good at it. From his perspective youth ministry is all about evangelism and mission trips. In fact he believes that we should "Burn Our Youth Rooms." He see's little value in having a safe place to call home. We should all be out bringing our faith to the unchurched. The rest of youth ministry is a waste of time and resources.

In one worst case scenario I witnessed a youth leader decide that to learn outreach the youth group would do a worship service at the local nursing home once a month. This was really motivated by her desire to provide a Christian worship time for her mother who lived there. At the end of the worship time it was suggested that the kids wheel the old folk back to their rooms and engage in conversation along the way. Doing as directed, two teens headed down a long corridor and into a room with one senile resident. It turned out to be the wrong room and the old woman freaked. I found the girls later in tears hiding in the church van. Even though the nursing home was staffed by many lovely service minded young adults these two teens had been forced into a situation way outside of their comfort zone. They stopped attending the youth group. These two girls could not be accused of attending just for the fun and games. I knew them to be true Christians and they had some magnificent spiritual gifts. Just not the kind needed to be good in a nursing home.

There must be some balance in youth ministry to avoid a lopsided focus on just one aspect of our faith. In researching just what a balanced youth ministry is I've found that every authority I investigated has different ideas. I was hoping to find a well excepted, bullet point list of five or so things with which to insure that my ministry is well rounded. Well, it doesn't seem to be that easy. Oh, there are bullet point lists alright but they too are weighted to support the focus of the particular ministry from which the list comes.

In general I've come to believe that any well rounded ministry should have an element of worship, service, relationships, evangelism, and giving. Some have stated this as: knowing, relating, growing, serving, and sharing. Another ministry lists: emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and social as their aspects of a balanced youth ministry. Still another, in it's mission statement, gives these points: evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, worship, and ministry. At least they all have five points. All, not surprisingly, were well Biblically supported.

Perhaps there really isn't the golden bullet point list that will apply to all youth ministry. The problem of an unbalanced ministry might stem from the unrecognized self-centeredness of the leader. If we apply only our spiritual gifts to our ministry we are giving no real thought to the needs of the kids we are ministering to. In addition, it might be more advisable to focus on the needs of the specific kids in our particular youth group than to think that all young Christians everywhere need the same balanced approach.

There are many varied spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit gives them out as He determines. No one gets them all but some get more than others. Within a body of believers all of the spiritual gits needed for the continuation of the faith will be present. See my teen Bible lesson: Spiritual Gifts Or Super Powers for a more complete understanding of spiritual gifts. Giving a Spiritual Gift Assessment to the kids is a good idea to understand the talents of your group. I think that a youth ministry should be tailored to support, grow, and encourage the gifts of the kids in the group. If you do not have the necessary talents within your particular set of spiritual gifts chances are that someone in your churches body has the gifts and talents you need to get the job done.

As I get to know the kids in my current youth group I am consistently amazed by their talents. While planning next summers camping retreat I have found a worship leader within the group. I will look at the parents to fill some other needs as well. I am confident that I will find all of the talent I need to pull off the ministry this group of kids need. It might not be exactly balanced but it will be exactly what they need to grow into the best Christian adults they can be.