Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On "Teenagers"

My wife and I love to watch "The Office" on NBC. This is our routine most Thursday evenings.

I was intrigued by an interchange in a recent episode between Michael (the dysfunctional boss), and Oscar (the Hispanic accountant). It's not verbatim, but the dialogue went something like this..

Someone refers to Oscar as "Mexican."

Michael: "Is there something else we could call you that would be less offensive?"

Oscar: "Less offensive than what?"

Michael, uncomfortably: "Less offensive than Mexican."

Oscar, confused: "But that's what I am, Michael. I am Mexican. Why would that term be offensive to me?"

Uncomfortable as it is, this scene provides valuable social commentary to all who will listen. Michael obviously adheres to an unhealthy stereotype of the Mexican community, to the extent that the term "Mexican" itself holds a negative connotation in his mind.

Think for a moment of all the terms that illicit strong stereotypes in our culture: Republican, Democrat, Evangelical, Attorney, Chiropractor. You get the idea.

Now, consider the following baggage-laden term: Teenager.

What thoughts come to mind? Responsible or Lazy? Respectful or Disobedient? Selfish or Selfless? Agents of God or Objects of Ministry and Correction?

I think I know how most adults would answer this question. Let's face it, the word "Teenager" does not carry the most positive connotations in our culture.

For this reason, I try not to use it.

The past couple of years I have tried hard to replace the word "Teenager" with "Student" in my personal conversations. In the churches I have served, it is common to speak of "the Teens" as a collective entity. Another troubling term, I'm afraid. I prefer to speak of "the Student Ministry" when referring collectively to our group of students. (Did you catch that - our group of students.)

Don't discount my point here as a mere semantic preference - there is much to say for the names we call things. Let's face it, Shakespeare was an idealist on this issue. Call a "Rose" a "Tumor" and you immediately understand it differently.

Now, just to be clear, the term "Teenager" is not inherently bad. Just as "Mexican" accurately describes a particular people group, "Teenager" accurately categorizes a group of particular age. Fair enough. Perhaps we retain specific use of the term "Teenager" for categorical purposes. If so, only because it accurately reflects the age of this people group in question.

With this in mind, let me expand my point one step further.

If "Teenager" proves troublesome as general reference to a young person, the word "Kid" is far greater still. Surely you have heard someone (maybe a well-intentioned youth worker) refer to the "kids" in their youth group? At least, with "Teenager" we find an accurate age distinction. "Kid" is synonymous with "Child" in the English language, implying all things childish: behavior, dependency, need for discipline, etc.

Is this how we view our students?

Now, we all know those students who rightly earn the "Teenager" branding, for all the wrong reasons. This does not mean that all of our young people deserve the stereotyping that comes with this distinction. One bad apple should not spoil the whole barrel.

So, the next time you refer to the young people (those aged 13-19) in your church, school, community, consider carefully the implications of your terminology. Our students will rise or fall to our expectations. What could we possibly expect of "Teenagers" or "Kids" in our adult world?

Set the bar higher, please. Call our young people Students.

- DB

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

To All Who Minister:

So I had this kid in my youth group several years ago. Full of potential, but a real pain in the butt. I wished he would get involved in our student ministry. He was always too busy. Sometimes he would participate; those times, he was a pain in the butt.

That kid is now a youth minister. A good one.

I keep a picture on my desk of me and this former student. We met up at a youth conference not long ago; each of us present with our own groups of teenagers. We are friends now. Colleagues.

I never saw that one coming.

I received a note this past week from another former student. This one was a great youth-grouper back in the day; one of my favorites.

Though a favorite of mine, this girl loved to make fun of my age. I was 24 at the time. It didn't matter; I was the "old" guy. Typical for an "old" guy, I was supposedly also a lousy driver. Once, she accused me of almost hitting a helpless pedestrian. (Okay, I earned that one.) This girl never let me forget. I was mocked; ridiculed. "The old guy who can't drive."

The note I received? Turns out this girl-now-mom and mother of two now volunteers to drive teens from her church to camp every summer. This summer she was accused of being old and ridiculed for her poor driving. She just wanted to let me know.


That note is hanging on the wall in front of my desk. It will for a long time.

Two of my former students married ministers. Another went overseas to do mission work. Still another is in seminary, preparing for foreign missions. The student I hear from most often? Probably that girl who came to our group as a "visitor", later to graduate from a Christian University, move back home and volunteer as a small group leader in a local student ministry.

I sometimes wonder if my work makes any difference. Some days, ministry feels like a fruitless and hopeless enterprise. I can't show you the picture that sits on my desk. It's inappropriate to fully disclose the contents of the note hanging on my bulletin board. In their stead, to all who wonder if your ministry will ever bear fruit, I offer this post as an affirmation and encouragement.

Don't give up.

- DB

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Minister Tag

I never wanted to become a minister. My wife never wanted to marry a minister.

So much for all that.

I tend to be paranoid at times; always over-analyzing things, often losing sleep over pointless matters. I am the first to admit many of my "intuitive hunches" are way off base. Take what follows with a big grain of salt.

I have a group of old friends from highschool with whom I have tried to make contact. Most have become my "Facebook friends", but that's about all. Because we are "friends" I am able to see them online and browse through their postings. It has been interesting to see where life has taken people and how the years have changed them.

These friends would certainly say the same of me.

In highschool we partied together. Though we were good kids, we did engage in some destructive behaviors. Nothing serious, but nothing I would recommend to my own children either. Our group was close, and we spent much time together.

The college years sent us in different directions. Some went to school, some worked, others even married. A few stayed in touch, but most were scattered.

I was the guy who went off to school and later became a minister. No one saw that one coming; not even me.

Ministers have always been too fuddy-duddy for me. Too straight-laced, too polished.

Ministers are the conscience of the faith community. They don't drink, swear, or watch R-rated movies. Ministers are boring at best, preachy at worst, and few people want them around when it's time to get the party started.

Ministers wear a scarlet letter of sorts. Call it: The Minister Tag.

I never wanted the Minister Tag. Today I wear one everywhere I go. Not everyone sees my Tag right away, but given time, they recognize me. Surprisingly, my Tag is often well-received. I am amazed how many Christians I meet; how many random strangers seem to appreciate my work. Even the government gives me special tax privileges, all because of my Minister Tag!

But to my old friends, the people of my former life, my Minister Tag seems little more than a red flag. "Be careful what you say," they whisper, "Don't let him know you have beer in your refrigerator. Don't mention your divorce. Don't invite him over on poker night; after all, what would a minister think of such things?"

All reasons I never wanted the Minister Tag.

I see pictures of my old friends together, laughing. I see notes they have posted on each others' profile pages. I know they can talk and share and confess to a variety of things together.

Things change when the minister enters the room.

Like Paul, I want to become all things to all people. I want to live and laugh and play with others, whether they are drinking or gambling or bemoaning their broken marriages. Regardless of popular opinion, I am capable of this sort of relationship, without judging or condemning others. Sadly, I often feel judged myself; ostracized from relationships that are more relaxed and enjoyable in my absence.

To be excluded, to be uninvited; to be passed over or conveniently ignored, is to wear the Minister Tag.

- DB

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Someone Pooped on the Slide!

A brief glimpse into my life this week. Seven days with mommy out of town - I am beginning to understand why she is often worn to a frazzle by the end of the day...

Tuesday, June 23, 6:30 PM

We are at McDonald's - just dad and the kids. Should have fed the kids an hour ago - got caught up with some emergency sprinkler repairs. Kids are fussy. My fault...

I am worn out from an all-day service project with our student ministry (thanks, Chelsea, for babysitting!). The plan is to eat with my kids and let them climb on the play place for as long as they like.

Never mind the air conditioner is broken at home.

Forget about the broken sprinkler line that is scheduled to release gallons into the neighbors yard if I don't get it fixed by dark.

For now, just enjoy a break - take some time to relax with the kids.

7:05 PM

Someone pooped on the slide!

Not my kids, luckily. But sure enough, about halfway up the big yellow corkscrew slide, someone had left a present for the rest of us to enjoy. "I wondered why it smelled like poop in there," said my acutely observant daughter.

Everyone out of the play place!!! Time to speed home for emergency baths.

This puts a kink in my schedule. I had planned a trip by Home Depot for supplies to fix my sprinkler line. Disinfectant is the priority now.

7:12 PM

Emergency call to one of our trusted sitters:

"Amanda, I know this is a weird request, but could you stop by to watch the kids for a bit so I can run to Home Depot before dark?" Of course she could - Amanda is awesome!

8:35 PM

I have bathed the kids and everyone is in their pajamas. Amanda just got here, and I am off to Home Depot.

"Sorry the house is so hot," I say, "our air conditioner is broken."

8:38 PM

On my way to Home Depot I wonder if I should have measured the width of the tubing I am replacing on my sprinkler line. Surely not. After all, I just fixed a similar break in the same system a week ago. 3/4 inch is what I need.

9:12 PM

I am home. Amanda is released of her duty. There is still enough glow on the horizon to see what I am doing! Off to the back yard.

9:25 PM

Turns out I needed 1 inch pipe instead. I should have guessed.

10:45 PM

Everyone is finally in bed asleep. I'm not sure how - the house must be 90 degrees inside.

I sit on the couch, defeated...

Wednesday, June 24, 3:55 PM

Thank you, Lord, for my wonderful wife. I could not do this alone. Thank you for Chelsea, Amanda, Pat, Diane & Larry, Jane & Michael; all those in the family who are helping me out this week. Thank you for my daughter, who watched the boys while I fixed (small victory) the sprinkler line today. Thank you for the guy who got our air conditioner running.

I'm in a better place now.

Time to address the growing puddle that is bubbling from our A/C unit in the basement...

- DB

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Your Thoughts, Please?

I invite you to weigh in on the following issues.

In 1997, the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project began a reform of contemporary ministry practice in North America. After ten years of research and experimentation, the following four discoveries were made:

1. Current approaches to youth ministry neglect the spiritual life of youth ministers, adult volunteers and youth.

2. People long to experience God within their own lives.

3. Communities of transformed adults, living lives of prayer and service, attract and transform the lives of young people.

4. Youth desire to recognize God's presence in their lives and to be empowered to live out their calling.

Based on your experience, how accurate are these findings? What are the implications for churches as we engage the work of youth ministry?

Your thoughts?

- DB

Resource cited:

Yaconelli, Mark. Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tuesday at Caribou

Today is newsletter day. I am sitting with my laptop at Caribou Coffee; six mile and Haggerty. I have my coffee, and I’m diving into my newsletter. Hopefully my work is finished before I head home.

There is something weird about this place. My coffee (some minty, mocha thing) is awesome. I also love the atmosphere here; the “lodge-like” setting makes me feel like I am back in the mountains of my childhood. Sweetening the experience, I even got a great deal on coffee beans to take home! Still, something’s just not right.

Every Thursday I keep “office hours” at Panera Bread; Schoolcraft and Middlebelt. I have frequented this Panera every week for about four months. As weird as it sounds, that Panera has become something of a home to me. Want proof? This past week I was greeted by name at the register...

As I walked inside Caribou today I was lost. There is a different menu here. Many more drinks to choose from; hardly anything to eat. It took me forever to order.

Not so at Panera. I have my routine down. Always a house coffee; sometimes a cherry pastry. I have my favorite booths. I know where the outlets are for my computer. I know Ashley, Sara and Ian behind the counter. That Panera has become “my” coffee shop.

Ever visit a church where things just felt different? The atmosphere was cooler, the worship more exciting? Ever think: “I wish my church could be more like their church?” Well, consider this: your church is just that - your church. Which holds greater meaning, a minty mocha, or a group of people who know you by name?

- DB

Monday, April 13, 2009

Our Moral Failure?

Christianity is not about morality.

To follow Christ is to emulate his example. To be sure, morality plays its part. Jesus was a good and honest person. Never do we find Jesus at the horse track in a drunken rage, cursing his misplaced bets while swiping popcorn from his neighbor. Make no mistake, Jesus is the model for moral behavior.

He did hang out with prostitutes, though. Ate with sinners, that sort of thing...

I would say more here, but I think you've heard this sermon before. At least, I hope so.

Here's the problem. When moral behavior is our ultimate objective, we neglect much of our calling as disciples. Following in Jesus' footsteps includes time spent with sketchy people. It demands the nerve to challenge the pious fuddy-duddies of our day. Following Jesus means endeavoring to be holy, not simply moral. It has to do with where we spend our time, money and energy, and how closely related those things are to communion with the Father.

So here's the tragedy that occurs in our churches - from the admittedly less than objective standpoint of a full-time youth worker:

We parents are increasingly concerned for the safety and well-being of our children. Rightly so - our world is getting scarier all the time. We Christian parents see hope in the morality of our faith. While others' kids struggle with teen pregnancy and alcoholism, our young people have a chance to avoid all this, simply through adherence to a Christian moral initiative. We parents recognize this, almost instinctively.

We ask, "What would Jesus do?"

That's a no-brainer. Jesus would wear a Silver Ring and preach abstinence to his friends.

Maybe he would. And so should our young people.

We affirm, "That's what Christianity is all about."

So, as parents, we do everything we can to insulate our young people. Keep them pure, keep them clean, keep them safe, at (almost) all costs. We say things like:

"As long as they are keeping busy..."


"As long as they are hanging out with good people..."

And we assume that busy-ness and responsible company holding will protect the moral development of our young people. Not only does this make sense, it becomes high priority when morality is our ultimate objective.

Here's the rub:

Annie finds her niche in volleyball. Volleyball keeps Annie busy. Annie's team is full of good and mostly "moral" people. Through volleyball, Annie can stay busy (keeping her out of trouble) while spending time with a good (relatively moral) group of people. Thus, volleyball can be Annie's salvation.

It can also become her God.

So, with the best of intentions, Annie and her parents embrace the volleyball God. Annie plays competitively four months each year, not including a handful of tournaments in the off-season. Annie attends two volleyball camps in the summer and a team retreat in the fall. Annie trains and conditions with her team almost year round.

She is busy. She is hanging with a good crowd. There's no time or influence to become pregnant, thank God.

The youth group at Annie's church volunteered at a homeless shelter this past weekend. Annie did not participate - she had a tournament on Saturday.

On Sunday mornings the high school class at Annie's church has been studying spiritual disciplines. Students have selected disciplines to employ in their lives, and each week the group reports together on their experience. Many have said this class has had a profound impact on their faith. Volleyball has consumed Annie's weekends this season. Annie has not been to class in months.

Annie's involvement in volleyball insulates her to some degree. It keeps her busy, safe and moral to the extent it can. If morality were the objective, good parenting coupled with a full volleyball schedule may indeed be Annie's salvation.

But we all know (don't we?) Jesus is Annie's salvation. Not volleyball. Not football. Not drama club. Not choir. Jesus.

Jesus calls his followers to more than just morality. We are called to service, fellowship, worship and proclamation. We understand our identity is found in rich community with other believers. We know that following Christ is often following others who have followed for much longer than we have. We know that faith is nurtured in the home, supported by the teaching and example of our greater faith community. We know volleyball can't provide this for Annie.

Yet, as long as morality is our ultimate objective, we parents will strive to keep our kids busy and out of trouble. We would love for them to be more familiar with their Bibles; to serve and worship regularly. We want our young people to be deeper and more mature in their faith. We want our kids to be right with Jesus.

Sadly, there is just no time for that. We have exhausted ourselves keeping our kids moral. As long as no one is drunk or pregnant, we have fulfilled our charge.

Have we really?