Thursday, June 28, 2012

Youth Groups in the Digital Age, Part 2

Our youth ministry at the Church of the Advent has experienced a similar trend in students having little interest in Sunday night large group events. At the same time, we have observed a positive trend in another direction. Numbers have grown markedly in attendance at weekly small group meetings, while they have dwindled for large events. This trend has been so salient that it has led to the total reconstruction of the organization of our ministry over the past six years.

My theory on why this trend has occurred rests in the social and emotional state of postmodern teens. Quite simply put, teens are lonely, isolated, and disconnected. Kids want intimacy. Many point to the disintegration of nurturing family structure for this loneliness. Others emphasize the over-programming and intense schedules of children in the pursuit of what David Elkind refers to as “child competence.” Both certainly have a major role in the emotional malaise in which students live.

I personally believe that the evolution of social media and virtual life has played a major role in this social problem, as well. God made people to live in incarnational relationship with one another. Face-face, hand-in-hand, side-by-side. Biblical Christianity embraces the physical realm and embodied relationship. The opposite of what scripture endorses is a gnostic view that the material world is evil and that mankind should strive to transcend above and beyond it.

These realities have large import as it relates to the emotional condition of students. Many students engage in relationship through virtual means more than in an incarnational fashion. A 2010 study revealed that 49% of teenagers verbal communication occurred through text means (email, Facebook, text messages) compared to interpersonal discourse (face-to-face, telephone, etc.). A tremendous amount of student’s social experience occurs in a disembodied fashion where there is no tangible reality. In a sense, they are living the gnostic dream.

My theory has been that students do not desire any more superficial relationship; they access plenty of those via their iPhone. In a large group setting, there is little vulnerability or close connection. I think students really want intimacy, and this explains why they are far more likely to commit to a small group and far less apt to invest time in large meetings.

Seeing this trend, we decided to drop Sunday large group altogether and focus solely on relationship-building, small group Bible studies, and trips, where connections tend to be more intimate. I know many churches view “Sunday night’ as the face or flagship of their ministry and, therefore, resist not having this program. (Everyone seems to measure their ministry by recording how many kids they have coming on Sunday night.) For us, we are comfortable saying, “Nobody wants to come to Sunday night large group, so we don’t do it.” We also are grateful to see that weekly small group numbers continue to grow and students seem content with what we offer in that way. 

Has your church or student group experienced similar trends?  How do you explain the cause, and how have you addressed the issue?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Youth Groups in the Digital Age

Nate Birkholz, the assistant pastor for Lakeside Baptist in Grand Rapids, MI, posed this insightful question to the Rooted blog regarding declining attendance at large group and its relationship to social media and the digital age. Dave Wright and Cameron Cole offered responses that will follow in this short series.

I'm writing to ask for your thoughts about the future culture of youth and youth ministry.  Here's what I mean by the future "culture".  As I've talked with a few youth pastors we've seen a shift in the culture of youth.  Just a few short years ago teens were piling into youth group on Sunday/Wednesday night because their friends were there.  Many of these pastors steered away from the entertainment based ministry and focused their time on singing,
preaching/teaching the word, and small groups (by the way, I am including myself in the 'they').  While a number of the teens were simply there for their friends, most would listen respectfully, sing energetically, and participate in the small groups.  The gospel was the center of our teaching then as it is now, but then something happened...

Many of the teens do not show up to youth group anymore.  We're wondering what happened.  Here's a thought: Many teens used to come to youth group because it was a place for them to interact with their friends.  We, the youth pastors, were more than ready to have these teens in the audience knowing they were going to hear the gospel.  But, a few year later, those "types of teens" aren't there anymore.  These types didn't show much interest in spiritual things during the week, but when it came time to preach, they were there listening politely.  Their moms and dads didn't make them go to youth group.  They just showed up because of the fellowship.

Is it in part b/c of the digital era?  Is it that their friends are on their hips, in their pockets, or constantly in the palm of their hands vibrating away and ready for a response in less than 10 seconds?  So why show up to youth group?  They get to be with their friends at any time via digital technology. 

Question: Have you all seen this pattern?  If so, do you have any suggestions on how to 1) adapt to the current culture, 2) view the change (positive and negative), and last what should we think about in terms of change as we proceed into the digital future?

Thanks for any thoughts and resources,



I was asked to respond to your email on behalf of Rooted...

Your question and observation is interesting and worth giving a good amount of thought to.  I have been in youth ministry since I got out of college 25+ years ago and watched many shifts in culture and technology that affected things.

I do wonder if being technically in relationships that are so constant via social media and texting affects the relational draw of the youth group.  Long ago (before I entered youth ministry) getting a crowd to a youth group event was as simple as offering food or a concert.  Students yearned for social opportunities.  I entered the field at a point when that was no longer the case, so we had to find what would draw them in.  Many were moving into entertainment driven and while I dabbled in that, I really sensed that students needed something they could not get anywhere else (in addition to the gospel) so I put a heavy emphasis on community - a place students could really be themselves and experience deep relationships.  Cyber relationships are so open these days though that the counterfeit it offers to real depth is hard to distinguish from the real thing.  What I mean by that is that students are so open on FaceBook and not hiding so much behind false personas as they did in the 80's and 90's.  So, I think they don't feel the same need as they did 20 years ago for an accepting place to belong. Yet at the same time, there is something more to be had in the relationships at youth group that is transforming (in light of the gospel) than what they get via technology.  I believe they need to somehow experience and know what real authentic relationships are these days.

I kinda think we could take a cue from advertising and think about what we can do to show students their deepest needs and seek to meet those.  I do mean deepest needs, which starts with gospel truth and extends to spiritual relationships.  It seems impossible to ignore the potential of social media to create hype and communicate these days.  The buzz we are hearing about all the time is FOMO (fear of missing out) which could be leveraged to help us reach and keep students at youth group.  It has to be centered around the gospel of grace that transforms lives though and not cater to a fear of missing entertainment and social.

Dave Wright is the Director of Youth Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and is a candidate for a Masters in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Evolution Issue, Part 2

Jarett Van Tine continues his article on how to teach our students about biblical creation in a  secular world. Start of with Part 1 here.
Let’s examine the principle for determining truth conveyed by many public school science classes – again, the principle being that the only way a person can know something is true is if it has been “proved” through observations and tests using the five senses.  The first reason we should not believe this principle is because it contradicts itself: the principle is supposedly true, yet there is no way to prove it through observations and tests using one’s five senses.  So, based on their own criterion for truth, it has to be false!  Scientists (secular) are forced to assume the principle, or better, accept it by faith, in order to employ it as the standard of “what’s reasonable to believe.”  But then who are they to judge us Christians for embracing our doctrines by faith? 
Furthermore, the principle conveyed in our students’ science classes is unable to verify as true parts of reality that we all take for granted on a daily basis.  For example, how could a scientist prove by this principle that he is not living in a dream world?  This may seem weird to think about, but there is no way for a scientist to prove that he hasn’t been taken captive by aliens, induced into a permanent coma, and hooked up to a machine that creates an alternative dream world for him to experience as if it were reality (cf. The Matrix movie).  Someone may object, “That’s ridiculous – of course I am not living in a dream world!”  The point, however, is that there is no experiment or test that someone can perform that would be able to prove that the world he is living in is a false one.  To insist, therefore, that the only way you can know something is true is if you can prove it through observations and tests is absurd.  Here again the (secular) scientist must have faith – but faith in what?
Ultimately, by suggesting – as so many public school science classes do – that reliable knowledge can only be derived from our sensory experiences is to exalt humanity rather God.  Rather than relying upon ourselves to determine what is or is not true, we must first and foremost look to God.  Only by placing our faith in His good and kind character can we begin to trust our sensory experiences because we know that He is not a mean God who would give us these our five senses if they did not correspond to reality.  Back to the last example: so as Christians we know that the world we live in is not just a dream, not because we can “prove” it via our senses, but because we know that the God who loves us has given us reliable capacities to make observations that, by and large, correspond to what is actually true.  Both Christians and secular scientists must have faith, the major difference being that Christians actually have Someone reliable to place it in.
This brings us to my next point, namely, that the only real basis for scientific investigation lies in a Christian worldview.   As Jason Foster, a member of our congregation, so aptly put it, “The Christian view that all things were created and are held together by Jesus Christ (Col 1) formed the basis for scientific investigation of the natural world, because the idea that creation was created by a sovereign and rational God made the creation a legitimate object of study.”   Science, therefore, can be a great thing when used in the service of Christianity rather than as a basis for denying it.   That is to say, Christian students should be taught to use the scientific method to prove and/or understand better what the Bible already says is true. 
As I mentioned above, having attended public schools my entire life, I know personally the kind of angst, doubt, and faith struggles that can be raised by science classes not rooted in Scripture or a Christian worldview.  This entry is, in large part, the culmination of those struggles and God’s intellectual guidance amidst them.  I have, of course, only scratched the surface of the issues raised.  But I hope that my initial responses to the truth criterion (i.e. empiricism) employed by (secular) science teachers, textbooks, and adherents are helpful for equipping parents and students to hold strong to our Christian beliefs.  Feel free to email with questions.  For further research, check out following resources (testing everything against the Word ):

Creationism in Public Schools: Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed Movie – Make it a Blockbuster night with your family!

Jarrett Van Tine is the Youth Director at Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kingstown, Virginia.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Evolution Issue, Part 1

In Colossians 2:2-4,8 Paul writes – “My goal [in my ministry] is that [Christians] may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”

In this blog, I am going to attempt to refute what many of our students’ public school science classes are conveying to them in relation to the Christian religion.  Like Paul, my goal today is to move us more toward a “complete understanding” of our Christian beliefs, that we “may know…Christ,” and that we may not be taken “captive through hollow arguments” or “hollow and deceptive philosophy” against Christianity as is (often) taught in our students’ public school science classes.

This blog is born out of our Ecclesiastes series, specifically Ecclesiastes 3:21: “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” What Solomon is saying, here, is that, based purely upon our five sense, we are unable to know what happens to us after we die.  Why?  Because nobody has died, experienced life after death, and then returned. The only way we can know what happens to us after we die is if God tells us. 

My concern today is not so much the function of Solomon’s statement within its immediate context, but with the twofold principle Solomon here affirms.  The first part is that there is much we cannot know in our lives based purely on the evidence we gain from our five senses.  The second (implied by Solomon’s continued adherence to his Jewish monotheistic beliefs) is that there is, nevertheless, much we can know through God’s revelation, personal faith, and a form of empiricism that is rooted in and answerable to Scripture (i.e. a Christian science – not to be confused with the cult, of course).  Solomon’s twofold principle is exactly the opposite of what our students’ public school science classes are conveying to them, namely, that the only way they can know anything is through evidence derived from experiments using their five senses.  To this I will return.

Science, in many ways, is a wonderful thing. There are good reasons to value science as its various forms (chemistry, biology, physics, computer science, etc.) have culminated in a major improvement in the quality of life we enjoy.  So, for example, thanks to science we have awesome medications that can heal us of sicknesses we might otherwise have died from (strep throat, flu, small pox); we enjoy everyday luxuries like refrigerators, cars, video games (can’t forget those!); and so on.  In many ways, life is substantially more enjoyable for us thanks to the discoveries of science. 

At the same time, the science classes taught in our students’ (public) schools are, for the most part, operating from assumptions that are contrary to Christian beliefs; assumptions that significantly downplay, if not deny altogether, the role and place of the spiritual world in relation to the natural one.  Along with these assumptions has come a very bad thing: religious (particularly Christian) skepticism.  Public school science classes have caused many students to doubt their ability to know things that were once taken for granted, such as the existence of God (and other spiritual beings), the creation of the world, the truthfulness of the Bible, and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Often, Christian students come away from their public school science classes feeling like they are na├»ve, unreasonable, out of touch, and brainless to actually believe the kinds of things they do.  

The reason for this anti-Christian (and anti-spiritual) stance is the (often) unspoken assumption that the only way someone can know something is true is if it can be proven through observations and tests using the five senses.  Anything that is not “proveable” in this sense – such as the existence of souls, angels, or even God – is looked down upon as merely opinion, belief, or preference, rather than something that can be respectfully called knowledge

The kind of sentiment of which I am speaking is embodied in the following California instructions (issued in 1989) for dealing with problems relating to public school science classes.  If a student approached a teacher with reservations about the theory of evolution, the teacher was advised to respond as follows: “I understand that you may have personal reservations about accepting this scientific evidence, but it is scientific knowledge about which there is no reasonable doubt among scientists in their field, and it is my responsibility to teach it because it is part of our common intellectual heritage.”  Notice how the theory of evolution is presented as if it were unquestionably true, using words such as, “evidence,” “knowledge,” “no reasonable doubt,” “responsibility,” and “common intellectual heritage.”  If a student’s Christian convictions are at odds with this particular scientific hypothesis, those beliefs are denigrated as “personal reservations” – that is, mere opinions that are, supposedly, not born out of the “rock solid” methods of science.

Our students must realize how false such statements are, and, conversely, how true Solomon’s twofold principle really is.  That is to say, they must learn that they are not limited in their knowledge to what they can prove through observations and tests using their five senses; they can (and should) reasonably embrace God’s revelation (i.e. the Bible) and personal faith, along with the contributions of Christian scientists.  They must gain confidence in their Christianity and be convinced that, although they may believe things that they cannot “prove” according to the rules of (non-Christian) science, they are, nonetheless, very rational to believe such things.  Moreover, they must see that these (non-Christian) science adherers – that is, their science teachers, textbooks, and fellow classmates – require just as much faith (indeed, more so) as Christians to believe the things they do.  
Jarrett Van Tine is the Youth Director at Faith Evangleical Presbyterian Church in Kingstowne, Virginia.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reforming Youth Ministry

Check out this two-part interview with Brian Cosby, Rooted contributor and author of Giving up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture, on the White Horse Inn radio show!


Reforming Youth Ministry, Part 1

Reforming Youth Ministry, Part 2

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Perfection as Protection: Rooted 2010

Check out Dr. Ashley Null's first keynote address, "Perfection as Protection", from the Rooted Conference in August of 2010.  

Don't miss out on Rooted 2012!  Registration information can be found here.