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Audrua Malvaez

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If you give a teen a cookie, they will change the world. The things we do as youth workers impacts the future of our society, and Greta Thurnberg is the most recent example of teenagers stepping up to incite systematic change. And we would be wise to listen to what she and others in her generation have to say.

In One Short Year

On September 23, 2019, Greta sat on a panel before the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations in New York City. She had been invited to speak because of the climate strikes she had been organizing in her home country of Sweden. On school days, she stood outside the Swedish parliament building with a sign reading “School strike for climate change.” Shortly after her first protest, other teens joined her outside parliament and others organized their own strikes in their hometowns. It’s estimated that over one million teens across the world have been participating in school strikes for climate change since August of 2018.

Greta doesn’t have a doctorate degree from a prestigious science university; she doesn’t even have a high school diploma, but she has her voice. Like many of our students, she can’t vote or hold political office, but she will soon inherit the consequences of our actions. She has paid enough attention and studied enough scientific data to know that our current levels of pollution are not sustainable if our planet is going to survive.

Scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades now. In 1996, when I was in second grade, I remember learning about the melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and how important it was to reduce, reuse, and recycle. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, a city that survives and thrives on fossil fuels production. I drove past miles of refineries every month to go fishing in Galveston Bay with my dad. My friends and family’s jobs depend on the oil industry. Fear of rising water and plastic filled oceans fought daily with the fear of an economic collapse of my hometown. The cultural voice around me shouted skepticism, and I gave in to that narrative for too long.

The Tide Is Turning

Evidence of climate change is harder and harder to ignore, but people are still trying. And one 16 year old was brave enough to stand up and speak out. She has been attacked by world leaders and common citizens alike over her appearance, her age, and even her Autism. Greta has not let any of that stop her. She takes the criticism in stride and continues on her crusade. The world may finally be listening, maybe because our young people are now refusing to allow their legal limitations to define their ability to affect change.

On September 20, three days before Greta’s speech at the UN, around four million young people took to the streets across the world to beg their leaders to enact immediate change. One of my 19 year old students flew to New York to participate in the March for Science, where he also served on a panel discussion. This current generation is more likely to believe that humans are responsible for global warming and one in four have already taken action to do something about it. If the world won’t listen to scientists, maybe they’ll listen to their children.

The Gift of Teenagers

Every generation of young people enacts some kind of societal change. My generation claims responsibility for LGBTQ+ marriage rights and is continuing to fight that battle. My parent’s generation ended segregation. This generation of young people will save the world, but only if we listen.

Greta Thurnburg’s parents are the adults in her life giving her a platform and supporting her charge. Following her lead, they have taken strides to reduce their own carbon footprint, including giving up meat and air travel. As youth workers, we may be the only encouraging voice our young people hear. It’s imperative that we listen to them and follow through with our actions. While this holds true in matters like a change in youth group programming or installing basketball hoops in the parking lot, it’s even more important that we listen and respond to their hopes and dreams for a safe, sustainable future. The United Methodist Church backs the voices of those shouting for systematic change to decrease global warming so that Earth can still provide for generations to come.

All Creation is the Lord’s

Our social principles declare we “recognize the responsibility of the church and its members to place a high priority on changes in economic, political, social, and technological lifestyles to support a more ecologically equitable and sustainable world leading to a higher quality of life for all of God’s creation.. As Christians, climate justice is not just a political issue, it’s a theological one. In Genesis, God granted humans stewardship of creation. God mandated that we care for creatures, big and small, and that we care for the earth under our feet. Allowing coral reefs to die, polluting the ocean with plastic, and deforestation goes against our divine responsibility.

We must empower our young people and listen to them. We must give them the tools that they need to withstand criticism when they do speak up. We must have their back at the church and in the community. Give them more than a cookie and they will change the world. We would do well to follow.

I am not part of the blessed 2% of the population that doesn’t have a social media account, so every time there is a national crisis, a natural disaster, or a local tragedy, I witness an outpouring of thoughts and prayers across platforms. When the phenomenon started a few years ago, I even shared my own. It felt good to express my sympathy and know that I wasn’t the only one hurting and processing the news.

Sometimes I’ve even asked for those thoughts and prayers from Facebook groups when I’m struggling with my own personal crisis or tragedy and the encouragement I receive from those communities lifts my spirits and gives me the bump I need to keep going.

Prayer is one of the most important spiritual practices. That kind of meditation actually stimulates a part of the brain, the anterior cingulate, that increases our awareness of others and the Divine. John Wesley would spend hours in prayer and encouraged the bands in the fledgling Methodist movement to do the same.

Along with communion, worship, tithing, and personal Scripture study, these acts of piety, or personal holiness, develop an individual’s faith and accomplish the third Simple Rule: Stay in Love with God (or, for you non-Credo people: Attend to the Ordinances of God). Acts of piety are critical to discipleship and faith development.

We Need Faith In Action

It can’t stop there. As we teach about and help our students respond to tragedy, we have to help them see that a “thoughts and prayers” post online is not enough. The book of James is clear, faith without works is dead – and this is pivotal to our identity as Methodists. John Wesley took Jesus’ command to serve the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the imprisoned seriously. Alongside the acts of piety, he also preached acts of mercy.

When he preached, Wesley continuously pointed out that Jesus was more concerned about bringing the kingdom of God to the present day than he was about where we went after we died. More than once, Jesus condemned those who prayed publicly for forgiveness only to turn around and victimize the oppressed. So the early Methodists went to the prisons and prayed together in their homes. They set up orphanages and faithfully tithed.

Faith in Action is Who We Are

In 1869, Mrs. Butler and Mrs. Parker, wives of missionaries, went to India where they witnessed an overwhelming need for women’s medical care and girls education. When they came home, they gathered their friends and told the Indian women’s stories. The 8 women present formed an organization at that meeting and committed themselves to meet the physical and spiritual needs of these Indian women. After just a few months, these women raised enough money to send Isabella Thoburn, a teacher, and Dr. Clara Swain, to India where they opened the first women’s college and women’s hospital in Asia.

In that meeting room, the organization that would become the United Methodist Women was created – a group that continues to put faith, hope, and love in action in the world today. 150 years after its inception, UMW has run safe boarding houses for immigrants, campaigned to improve women’s health care, marched on Capitol Hill, opened schools and clinics in developing countries, provided care for orphans around the world, and so much more. Those 8 women of the United Bretheren Church came together to pray and move, and their legacy has brought millions of disciples of Christ into the fold.

Getting to Work is a Spiritual Practice

This truth is deep in our roots: by serving others, we can more fully encounter and understand God. Our thoughts and prayers are not inherently bad, but they’re useless without action behind them. When Hurricane Harvey hit my hometown, I hit my knees. The texts and posts from my friends and family gripped me in fear and I felt completely helpless. My husband and I opened our home in Dallas and begged friends to drive north and stay with us, out of the danger that was predicted. Being a Houstonian myself, I get it – we’ve lived through bad storms before, what made this one any different?

Then the water rose, and while I prayed, I put out blasts on Facebook searching for boats to rescue my friends and shared every bit of (fact-checked) emergency information. I donated to UMCOR and to the Kingwood Library, drove down to muck out houses, coordinated a flood bucket event at my church, and took a group down to install Sheetrock in a home months later. Did I save the city? Not in the least. But I couldn’t just sit there and pray.

Cynicism and desensitization have gripped our fear-driven, immediate-and-intense culture that can wear on even the strongest faith. Everything is in the right now and we lose sight of the long game, which is really what Christians are about in the first place. Discipleship is a life-long journey that we can begin as early as birth, marked by the waters of baptism. When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied, “Love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your being. And the second is like it: love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matthew 22:37-40).

The Way of Discipleship

One of my favorite lessons in Confirmation is on the way of discipleship. I use a Wesleyan cross to give my students a visual understanding. Each part is equal in the Wesleyan cross; no one section is larger or longer than another.

The top quadrants are our personal responsibility and the bottom quadrants are our responsibility as a corporate body of Christ. The left side represents our personal relationship with God, and the right side is our relationship with others in the world. Worship and devotion involves our thoughts and prayers while justice and compassion require action, living as hands and feet of Christ in a broken and hurting world.

Friends, hear this: do not let your hearts be calloused by fear and cynicism. We serve a God who is more powerful than us, and that same God has charged us to care for creation – the broken people included. In John’s gospel, Jesus promises us that “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Creator will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of everything I told you… Get up. We’re leaving this place” (John 14:26,31). Let’s spend time in prayer, giving our thoughts over to the needs of others, but let us not stop there!

A few years ago, I found myself jaded by the amount of keyboard activism I was witnessing on social media. For my own faith development, I instituted a personal rule: I would not post anything on social media until I had done something about it.

This is What We Teach Youth:

  • Upset with Congress’ lack of action on gun violence? Write to my Congressmen before sharing my thoughts online.
  • Disgusted at the way our children are being treated on the border? Make a donation to a vetted, boots-on-the-ground organization that is helping before posting an article.
  • Broken-hearted by another natural disaster? Begin reducing, reusing, and recycling, research more ways to impact climate change, and share the link to UMCOR after I’ve already donated myself.
  • And when a friend asks for prayers for their situation? I stop and type out my prayer in the comments or a private message as I pray those words over them.

As Methodists, we have a legacy of putting faith into action. As Christians, we have a responsibility to actively love and serve others as Christ loved and served others. The Spirit is here and now is the time. Get up. We’re leaving this place.

Several years ago, a church in my hometown did a storytelling project for Lent. Several artists in the congregation collaborated on 14 different tattoo designs, one for each of the Stations of the Cross. Church members were invited to choose a station that resonated with them and have the design – or a modification of it – tattooed on their body. It was then photographed and put in a visual Stations of the Cross at the church during Holy Week. This idea fascinated me, so I went to the exhibition. It was set up like an art gallery, and each station had the Scripture, an explanation of the design, and anecdotes from some of the participants. Images of Christ’s final hours on Earth were inked onto the forearms of recovering addicts, the wrists of stay at home moms, calves of businessmen, and biceps of construction workers, and together they told a story of powerful love, redemption, and grace.

The Stations of the Cross is a historic tradition that originated from the Via Dolorosa, a procession in Old Jerusalem that is believed to be the path that Jesus took from Gethsemane to the tomb. Even today, priests take groups of pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa where there are images carved into the stonework of buildings marking significant moments of the crucifixion story. The Stations of the Cross made its way into churches around the world as a common way of participating in the suffering of Christ and as a way to reflect and contemplate the meaning of Good Friday.

Last year, my staff and I put together interactive prayer stations that correlate to the 14 stations acknowledged by the United Methodist Church (UMH pg 366). These stations are easy to set up using materials found in most Children’s Ministry closets and create little-to-no mess. We used black full-size flat sheets from Wal-Mart with strips of purple fabric and burlap on top of card tables and arranged them in a U-shape in our Fellowship Hall. The Scripture and instructions were placed at each station and people were encouraged to come through the Stations during office hours and evening programming. Feel free to adapt as necessary to meet the needs of your congregation.

PowerPoint Instructions and Scripture

Station 1: Jesus Prays Alone

  • Scraps of paper
  • Markers
  • A chalice

Station 2: Jesus is Arrested

  • Giant Post-It Notes or poster board
  • Markers

Station 3: Sanhedrin Tries Jesus

  • Play-Doh

Station 4: Pilate Tries Jesus

  • Several palm sized rocks
  • Several feathers

Station 5: Pilate Sentences Jesus

Station 6: Jesus Wears a Crown

  • A crown of thorns or a thorny branch

Station 7: Jesus Carries His Cross

  • 2 10-lb dumbbells

Station 8: Simon Carries the Cross

  • A tea or coffee setting for two
  • Pastry optional, definitely encouraged

Station 9: Jesus Speaks to the Women

  • Blindfolds
  • Strips of black fabric (for those who don’t want to share eye germs)

Station 10: Jesus is Crucified

  • Shallow bowl or large platter
  • Sand to fill bowl/platter

Station 11: Criminals Speak to Jesus

  • Pitcher
  • Water
  • Clean towels
  • Basket for wet towels

Station 12: Jesus Speaks to Mary and John

  • Pillow
  • Quilt or soft blanket

Station 13: Jesus Dies on the Cross

  • Paper or communion cups
  • White wine vinegar

Station 14: Jesus is Laid in the Tomb

  • Linen strips
  • Myrrh essential oil

Being a youth pastor comes with significant responsibility. In our attempt to foster life-long disciples, there’s this underlying fear that we’re going to mess it all up and build a permanent barrier between a student and God. Obviously, God is bigger than our mistakes, but we must be self-aware enough to minimize harmful attitudes and maximize God’s ability to transform the hearts and lives of our students.

LGBTQ students in our ministries are actually at a higher risk of suicide than their non-religiously affiliated LGBTQ peers. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in March 2018, “lesbian and gay youth who said that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts… Religiosity among lesbians alone was linked to a 52 percent increased chance of recent suicidal ideation.” (Huffington Post) We have a role to protect not only the spiritual health but the physical wellbeing of the teens that step foot in our doors. Churches are places for all of God’s children to live in community with others and the Divine. So how can we become less so God can do more?

Validate their worth exactly as they are.
We live in a culture of disposability, from the packaging of our food to the entertainment we consume. An adolescent internalizes that culture and can easily believe that they, too, are disposable even to God. Verses like Psalm 139:14 (I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well) can speak powerful value to a teenager. Just as they are before God in this place, they are known, they are loved, and they are of value. Whatever work the Holy Spirit may do will come, but that doesn’t change God’s view of that teen in this exact moment, and we are responsible for reinforcing that.

Assume a posture of grace.
Remember that one time we kicked a guy out for insisting the earth rotated around the Sun? As a church, we can’t claim to have the answers to everything. But we do know that God’s grace is available to all people at all times in all places. In our Wesleyan understanding of grace, we’re on a constant spiral of transformation throughout our lives. We encounter prevenient grace, receive justifying grace, and live in sanctifying grace over and over again until the Spirit’s work has refined us into Christian perfection. Prevenient grace exists before we even begin to change. There is no requirement to renounce sin, no expectation of changing behavior, no punishments; if that is how God works, then why would we not do the same?

We need to name the damage we’ve already done and apologize.
Historically, the church has been on the forefront of the anti-LGBTQ campaign. With conversion therapy, Pray-The-Gay-Away, and fire and brimstone sermons, persons speaking on behalf of God have caused significant harm to queer people. Whether we have actively worked against the gay community or not, by serving in a broken church, we have been part of a system of abuse. When we as faith leaders take ownership of our part in the system, we can apologize to our students and stop pretending it’s not happening. Teenagers can smell a fake a mile away – own your mess (our mess) and say sorry.

Above all, err on the side of love.
We worship a God that so fiercely loved God’s people that even though they broke their covenants and rebelled as a nation, God put on flesh and walked in our midst. God even died and rose three days later so that the doors to the Kingdom were thrown open for all of mankind. This God we choose didn’t kill everyone because they broke the rules; instead, the Divine acted in sacrificial love, atoning for our mistakes and brokenness. As ministers to teens, we are an extension of that love and we must act on it and in it.

No one is beyond the redeeming quality of God’s grace. As we pastor our young people who are LGBTQ, we must live in love and act in grace.

For more information, please check out the following resources:

 

Small group leaders are the front lines of youth ministry. These benevolent humans have answered a call to disciple young people, to listen to their sorrows and share in their triumphs. By nature of that unique relationship, our teens are often comfortable asking their leaders tough questions, including questions about sex. Here in the Bible Belt, we hardly ever mention the “s” word in our churches, but our students are not only inundated with sexual content but are also developmentally aware of their sexual nature. There is so much stigma around sex and sexuality that we’ve allowed ourselves to be muted out of fear. As a member of the front lines, here are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to talking about sex with teens.

DO

Listen and Clarify

Talking about sex isn’t comfortable for everyone, and that’s okay. At the beginning of the conversation, acknowledge to yourself your own discomfort so that you can be a better listener. Give space for the student to talk and ask clarifying questions before giving your response. Not only will a safe space be created, but you’ll be able to answer their actual question. It also cuts down on that nervous rambling we’re so prone to (or is that just me?).

Provide Medically Accurate, Factual Information

Teens wouldn’t be broaching the conversation if they already had the answers. Because sex is taboo, there is a plethora of misinformation available, which can be harmful spiritually, emotionally, and physically to our teens if we pass it on to them. In the UMC, our Social Principles uphold the church’s role in providing medically accurate information on sex to people of all ages. It’s also important to examine our own knowledge of sex and fact-check ourselves. So do your research – read articles from reputable news sources, talk to a professional healthcare provider about their experiences with misinformation, or take a webinar from Rutgers at http://answer.rutgers.edu/.

Talk About Maturity

I had a student approach me about having sex with their partner. They were pretty sure they were ready, but they wanted to talk it out first. So I asked this student a series of questions: have you talked about sex in person – NOT via text; what birth control will you use and do you know it’s effectiveness; do you know how to get that birth control; are you ready to have a baby; have you both been tested for STIs? Each one of these is a different marker of maturity, and for the well-being of both partners, all of these answers should be a yes before making the decision to have sex. We talked at length about “being ready,” which is too often held in an emotional context. Heterosexual sex always has the chance of resulting in a pregnancy, and sex of any nature can result in an STI. Teens are trying out adult behaviors without all of the adult critical thinking skills, so let’s equip them with some so they can make smarter decisions.

Know Your Church’s Perspective

Regardless of whether or not you agree with it, as a small leader you must back the decisions of the church. In paragraph 161 of the UMC Book of Discipline, section G, it states, “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage. The Church should support the family in providing age-appropriate education regarding sexuality to children, youth, and adults.”* If you’re unsure of your church’s understanding of sexuality, ask your youth director or pastor.

DON’T

Overshare

As a small group leader, you naturally share your life with your students. They know about your struggles and triumphs, but they do not need to know the details of your sexual history for two reasons: 1) Sexual predators use that level of intimate discussion to build trust and normalize sexual conduct with minors. We don’t want our students to think that is an acceptable conversation to have with an adult. 2) A student can either use your history as justification for their own actions (“They turned out fine, why shouldn’t I?”), or put your story on a pedestal and feel overwhelming guilt or shame if/when they fail to meet your standards. As adults, we are responsible for setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries with our students, and we are in professional leadership even if it’s in an informal setting.

Judge or Shame a Teen

In an informal survey I conducted among 150 people aged 12-60+ of which 91% attended church growing up, 52% struggled with their self worth because of the sex education they received at church. While this was no Pew Research Study, that statistic still speaks. There is so much stigma and shame connected with sex in the life of the church that it can haunt our students into their adult years, impacting marriages and church involvement. As small group leaders, you can take an active role in changing that stigma. When a teen approaches the topic of sex, don’t shy away or shut them down, and don’t condemn their actions. Instead, listen to what they have to say, and ask them what end result they would like to have, then discuss how they might achieve that result.

Be Afriad

If a student is talking about sex, they trust you and value your opinion. In case I haven’t said it enough, don’t back away from these tough conversations. It’s okay not to know the answer; say as much when you reach that point. Do your research and get back to them with what you found.

Resources

http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/

www.TalkAboutItDallas.org (live 2/27/19)

www.ntarupt.org

www.plannedparenthood.org

*section is currently up for revision at the Called General Conference. The 2016 BoD states 

 

Getting students experiencing the deep truths of Advent is essential. It is a season of preparation in the church. For four weeks, we spend time reflecting on the story of the birth of Christ and preparing our hearts to experience full hope, joy, love, and peace made possible when God made the choice to walk in our midst. 

The most comparable human experience to the season of advent is the arrival of a new child, through pregnancy or adoption. There’s a lot that goes in to bringing a baby into the world and to their new home. Cribs must be assembled, all of the gadgets must be purchased, car seats safely installed, and all of the time, there’s a current of expectation running under all of the activities: a heart beats, “I am coming.”

The following activity is a worship service designed to help students interact with the season of Advent. We used glow sticks, party hats and noise makers, ribbon, sharpies, paper, a net strung on the altar, and candles + lighters.   You can use one a week to explore the traditional advent themes or combine them all into a single worship experience.

HOPE

Hope is this thing we talk about but rarely do we understand what it is. For teenagers especially, it’s an abstract concept that is difficult to grasp. We use “hope” to describe longing: oh, I hope I pass my math test; I hope I get into Texas A&M; I hope my mom doesn’t ground me for getting a C in English. 

In the church, when we talk about hope, we’re also talking about longing, but in a different way. 

Hope is being certain of something that is coming. (Hebrews 11:1). 

Passing Algebra is contingent upon the effort applied. So is getting accepted to Texas A&M. Not getting grounded rests on a mom’s willingness to show grace. Hope in Christ is a different thing. It means that we know when we don’t pass algebra or get into A&M, God is still good. Or when we do pass algebra and we don’t get grounded for grades, it means God is there celebrating with us. 

Hope in Christ is longing for the things of Christ – more than a math test or a college – and being certain that they will happen and are happening now. 

The prophet Micah describes this kind of hope in Micah 7:7-8

“But as for me, I will look to the Eternal One, and my hope is in the True God who will save me. My God will hear me. Although I am down now, I will rise up.. Although I am in darkness now, the Eternal One will be my light.”

Our hope isn’t contingent upon our grades in school or our social status. It means our hope depends on witnessing the good things of God in us and around us and trusting that they will happen, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s happening right now. 

The scripture reading for Hope during Advent is Isaiah 60:2-3: 

“Though darkness covers the earth and flood the nations, the Lord will shine upon you. god’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.”

Take a glow stick. Don’t crack it yet. 

– What do you see and feel?

Now, let’s crack our sticks together.

– what do you see now?

This season, be a beacon of hope by cracking a part of your shell that you have put in place to protect yourself fro life. Know that the things of Christ are happening here. Like expecting parents, use Advent to clean out the clutter in your life. Reduce or change spending habits. Shop ethically this Christmas. Donate more than you buy. Make room for new people in your life. Prepare with great hope, because Christ is here and Christ is coming again. 

LOVE

One of the more daunting things about pregnancy or adoption is the idea that within a matter of months, new parents will be responsible for keeping a whole new life form alive and healthy. They will have to bathe, feed, dress, and shelter their new child, not to mention give them enough freedom and disciple to being an emotionally well balanced, contributing member of society as they grow up. 

Loving them when it’s easy and when it’s tough: the sleepless nights, the screaming, the temper tantrums, the embarrassing public comments, and everything that is rebellious during adolescence. 

It’s so easy to love those that love us back. When a friend is hurting, we can comfort. When a teacher shows respect to us, we go the extra mile for them. Spending time with grandma is one of the best things in the world. 

But when we’ve been hurt, we want to hurt back, or pull away, or avoid the pain in other ways. Pulling away from a friendship, tearing down a teacher in front of our classmates, engaging in self harm, or talking with strangers online. 

Our scripture reading for the day of Love comes from Mark 1:4

“John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.”

Love changes us. We practice love by showing we are changed. Reconciling with those who have hurt us – parents, friends, teachers – and love the ones that are difficult to love. We keep an eye out for those who sit in the shadows, who work to intentionally undermine us, and even those who put such unbearable pressure on us that running away feels like a better option. Because of this, we look different. 

Jesus calls us to love, and it’s not meant to feel like a punishment. Something good can come out of the being courteous to the ex-best friend. Something good can come out of forgiving the parent that has hurt us. 

Take a piece of paper and write the name of a person that you can be intentional about loving this Advent. Spend time in prayer asking God to give you what you need to love. When you’re ready, come and place the piece of paper in the basket on the altar. 

John the Baptist called out into the wilderness for people who were changing their hearts and lives to follow after the example of Christ. On the second Sunday of Advent, we celebrate love, and we love our enemies because we have been changed. And doing so helps us change. 

JOY

To get new moms ready for a baby, friends and family come together to throw a party. The guests shower the mom-to-be with clothes, toys, and helpful things like diapers and wipes. There’s usually an awful party game, too, that has everyone either cringing or laughing all day long. 

On the third Sunday in Advent, we talk about Joy, a word much like hope. We use it often but it means something a little different, a little deeper once Jesus gets involved. 

When we think of an emotion like joy, it’s usually synonymous to happiness. We feel good, therefore we feel joyful. When we’re not feeling so good, we’re not so joyful. 

For King and Country recently redid this song, but as a child, I always sang it:

I’ve got the Joy Joy Joy Joy down in my heart!

Where?

Down in my heart!

Where?

Down in my heart!

I’ve got the Joy Joy Joy Joy down in my heart! Down in my heart to stay!

The silly children’s song paints a picture of joy as deep, really deep, immobile in fact, untouchable, even. Happiness feels good, but it sits on the surface and can change with the shifting winds. Joy is so down deep that even the strongest wind can’t move it. Having joy doesn’t mean having to be happy all the time. You can still experience sadness and have joy. Because that joy – pleasure and satisfaction – is so deep, it changes the outlook we can have during difficult or really upsetting situations. 

When something bad happens, there is still mourning, sadness, and pain, like when someone we’re close to dies, or even when we lose a close friend. But that difficult place isn’t where we live forever. The joy of Christ sustains us and brings us through to the other side. We can still find opportunities to experience happiness and not feel guilty about it. Funerals can be really crummy, but at the same time, there can be a lot of laughter as stories are told and memories are re-lived. 

Our scripture reading on the third Sunday of Advent is from Isaiah 35:10

“The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away.”

We live in a broken world where bad things happen to good people. In the end, God will triumph over it all, and in that promise we find our joy. There is hope. There is love. And those things aren’t shaken by the shifting winds around us. In the meantime we celebrate the things of God taking place here. 

Let’s use our noise makers and celebrate:

 – (insert something relevant to your community)

– (insert any new babies in your community)

– new friendships made at ______ event

– a school to attend tomorrow morning

– a place to work/for our parents to work

PEACE

Preparing for a new child is like riding a roller coaster of emotions. But just like on a roller coaster, things settle into place and you’re ready for what’s next. For new parents, having the nursery set, reading all the books possible, having clothes washed and ready to go, and with bags packed, there is peace. 

The last Sunday in Advent is centered around peace. It’s the state of being we associate most with calm, order, and absence of conflict. With peace comes healing. There is time to restore and be restored. Martin Luther King, Jr., puts it best: “True peace isn’t merely the absence of tension; it’s the presence of justice.”

The presence of justice. In the aftermath of chaos, peace restores our souls, our lives, and our world. We live in a broken world that is more often than not chaotic and overwhelming. It’s so easy to feel drowned by the noise and conflict around us, carried away by someone else’s agenda. 

Our scripture reading for the fourth Sunday in Advent is from Isaiah 9:6-7

“A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be vast authority and endless peace for David’s throne and for his kingdom, establishing and sustaining it.”

Isaiah spoke these words to the people of Israel in the midst of great chaos. For generations, they have fought with their neighbors. They have been exiled to a foreign land where they weren’t welcomed and weren’t offered any rights as citizens. They lived intimately with chaos and knew it well. God sends a promise of a deliverer, a messiah that would come four hundred years after this prophecy was made. 

This is God’s promise to God’s people: there will be an end to the chaos. Peace establishes and sustains Christ’s reign in our lives, a peace that comes through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

We actively wait for peace in our own lives. We seek ways to be still, to be encouraged, and we fan the flame that God has sparked within us. 

There are people we know who are waiting for something to happen. We are waiting for something, too. Good things, scary things, exciting things, sad things. Take a ribbon and write one of those things on it – your own or someone else’s. When you’re ready, come tie the ribbon onto the net. Stand around the altar and light a candle. Spend time in prayer asking God to sustain peace in your time of waiting as the flame is sustained before you. 

Close in prayer around the altar.

2017 gave churches a great number of things to think about. Between the shooting at the small church in Sulphur Springs, TX and the decimation of communities by Harvey and Irma, my own congregation’s prep work on disaster response fell into sharp relief. Did we have a plan for an active shooter? What about a major weather event? Do we have a procedure to follow if a congregant passes out during the sermon?

We all face these realities – emergencies don’t ask our permission to happen first, and they sure don’t care if we’re in the middle of How He Loves when they happen. I’ve spent a couple of months now working on our church’s preparedness plans, and I’ve learned a few things in the process.

Reach out to your local police department.

 

 

Our senior pastor is highly active in the local community, so after the incident in Sulphur Springs, he gave me the phone numbers for the Community Development Director at the police department. It took a few days of telephone tag, but I eventually got him on the phone to talk about how they could help us. It turned out they already had a church safety seminar scheduled and gave us all the information we needed.

Reach out to your local fire department.

Because we frequently invite the fire station down the street to our church-wide fellowship meals, we had an established a relationship with the crew. I called them up and asked if they would come and talk to our ushers about handling a medical or fire crisis. Check to see if your fire department is a Fire Rescue (meaning fire and ambulances in the same building) or if there is a separate EMS team (ambulances are sent from a different building than the fire trucks) before you call. If your department is separate, you may need to reach out to each department.

Identify your natural disaster risk and plan for them.

Geography determines what natural disasters your community is most likely to face. Do you know where the tornado shelters are? Is there a protocol to follow if the church floods? Having these things written up, clearly marked, and published in accessible places will help congregants and staff members respond safely and quickly in case of an emergency. In an eight month period between 2016 and 2017, our church flooded three times. The first flood was utter chaos, people frantically calling one another, everyone doing their own thing to clean up the water. By the time the third flood happened, we had established a chain of command, everyone knew where the wet vacs were stored, and everything was documented for the insurance company – correctly this time.

Train a team.

Identify who in your congregation will be the “first responders” for a particular emergency. When it comes to floods, our trustees committee is the first to respond to water in the church, but our usher team is trained to respond to medical emergencies. Every year, we ensure that staff and lay leaders are up to date and trained to use the AED. We’re working to compile a list of the nurses and doctors in our congregation so that in case of a medical emergency, the ushers can identify them quickly.

Publish your plans.

Hopefully you have guests coming to your church and new members joining. They also need to know what to do if disaster strikes. We’re pooling all of this information and putting the basics on a laminated pew insert that will live behind the offertory envelopes in all of our pews. With all of the information in one place, it will act as a reference for anyone who walks into our doors. The more educated our congregation is, the less chaos there will be and the faster the response of the necessary officials will be.

Clearly marked exits, shelters, and fire extinguisher locations are simple and quick steps to start the process of disaster preparedness. Pulling your people into these discussions will alleviate anxieties and ensure that when a disaster does occur, everyone will be ready to respond.

 

Teens do things that their parents just don’t understand and vice versa. Then, by the end of the night, it’s become A Thing and no one knows how to find a solution without yelling and/or crying. There’s usually grounding involved and an adolescent oath to never trust adults again. We get the morning after calls from the parents and texts from the students, both trying to figure out what went wrong and why the other just doesn’t see sense.

In order to help families become better communicators and healthier units, our responses can be helpful with a basic understanding of family systems theory.

Dr. Murray Bowen suggests that individuals can’t be understood in isolation. We have to look at a person’s problem as part of the whole family unit and emotional structure. Each family member has a role to play and when those roles shift, and the rest of the family responds in order to restore balance to the unit. The way each person responds is impacted by a number of factors including their family of origin, their birth order, their susceptibility to depend on others for approval, how society responds to conflict, and the flaws present in the nuclear family’s emotional system.

Now what do we do with all of that? How does that help us as youth workers? It can help us move our conversations with parents and teens who are freaking out into conversations that help them understand, navigate and reshape the family dynamics.

Let’s look at a real-life example.

One early Saturday morning, my phone started ringing in that maniacal way all pre-7am phone calls do. Without my glasses on, I deciphered the name of a youth parent, attempted to clear my throat, and hit the green button. I could barely get out a croaky “hello” before she burst into tears, launching into a recap of her latest fight with her teenage daughter.

The parent on the other end of my phone that morning was upset because her daughter came home smelling like marijuana. She had confronted her daughter, who casually admitted that her friend’s boyfriend had been smoking, but she had not partaken. You can probably imagine how the rest of that played out into the night. This one escalated pretty quickly and pretty severely, like most of the previous fights had.

The mom reacted in similar proportion to how her own mom had treated her in high school. The daughter, who desperately needed to be accepted, no longer felt valued by her family because of one decision she had made. The role of a nurturing mother became that of distrustful authoritarian mother. The role of loving and respectful daughter became that of indignant and righteous daughter.

My response to that mom through the early morning brain fog was first to listen, and then guide her through a few questions to help her reflect on the rapid escalation of the fight:

  • How did her parents respond when she made a similar decision at that age?
  • Did that impact the way she handled the situation?
  • How does the daughter’s need to be accepted by others impact the decision she made?
  • How can we help the daughter become a more valued part of the family system and build her confidence in a way so she doesn’t make the same mistake again?

The use or non-use of marijuana wasn’t the focus of our conversation, it was the family system. I was working to give her perspective that would pave the way for healthier arguments that wouldn’t escalate to such a serious level again. We talked through the reality that simply due to age, their roles within the family were changing and how to handle that.

They totally fought again, but these kind of self awareness conversations with both the the daughter and the mom helped each one understand more about themselves and each other. Eventually, they figured out how to fight in a less harmful way.

If this kind of conversation is not an option for you try pen and paper.

Have family members write letters to each other. Using pen and paper, the brain processes differently. Parents and teens are forced to think about what they are feeling and communicate it in writing. Have them write down everything they want the other party(s) to know about them and the situation using an actual pen and paper – a la 1989 – and encourage them to revise and edit with an end goal stated in the closing.

They can do whatever they want with the letter once it’s done, but this way they’ve (hopefully) processed through many emotions and set a goal in place for both the student and the parent to achieve together.

You can read more about Family Systems Theory here. https://thebowencenter.org/theory/

One of the cornerstone activities of a Youth Group is a good, solid weekend retreat. You can host them in the Fall, Mid-Winter, Spring, and even in the Summer, but getting one off the ground can always be a bit tricky. Here are some tips and guidelines to help you as you prepare for your next retreat.

6-8 months out:

  • Set a purpose – The beauty of retreats is the fellowship that takes place. Is your retreat to train up specific leaders or is to create space for bonding within your group? This will dictate the next step.
  • Determine length –  A leadership retreat doesn’t need to be a two-night event, but a whole-youth retreat can benefit from the two nights together.
  • Pick a place – Contact a handful of retreat centers and compare prices. Sign a contract with a realistic number (the number of people you are expecting to attend). Find out what the retreat center’s policy is on meeting the contractual number. Book any extra activities.
  • Publish the dates – Getting this information out to your people increases the chance they’ll attend.
  • Decide on a theme – Talk to your student leadership about topics and ideas they’ll want to focus on during this retreat. Pick the scriptures and any games that you’ll want to play.
  • Determine content –  Will you have a guest speaker? Contact this person. Will you write your own small group lessons or purchase curriculum? If you’re going to have a guest worship leader, invite them now. Discuss rates with all guest speakers and leaders.

3 months out:

  • Generate excitement – Put up a “coming soon” poster in your youth room, or drop blurbs in the church newsletter about the upcoming youth retreat.  
  • Start lining up chaperones – Talk to parents now and get them on board to stay overnight. Get approval from their students!
  • Put together a transportation plan – Are you renting vans? Get those reserved. Need parents to drive their own cars? Talk to them now! Determine when you’ll be leaving the church and when you’ll return, along with any extra meals students may need to pay for on their own.
  • Do the math  Figure out how much it will cost each person for transportation, lodging and meals, tshirts, and any miscellaneous expenses like smores materials or game equipment. Are you going to charge less for adults?

2 months out:

  • Contact a tshirt person – Get your tshirt design started once you have your theme and scripture picked out.
  • Follow up with the retreat center – See if there are any extra forms that they require. Check the payment schedule and make sure your check requests are in order on your end.
  • Put together a schedule – Get meal time information from the retreat center, along with any extra activity times, and plan out what the weekend will look like. How many worships will there be? When will there be free time?
  • Gather forms –  Make sure your medical releases are current and accurate. Create a registration form with necessary information on it. Put together a packing list so that information is handy for parents from the beginning.

6 weeks out:

  • Open up Early Bird Registration – Charging $20 less for the first two weeks of registration will cause your registration to come in quickly. Make sure the dates are clearly published for the cut off!
  • Follow up with chaperones – Make sure they’re registering, too.
  • Reach out –  Now is the time to text or call that student that has fallen off on their attendance or who has never attended a retreat before. Explain why they should go, tell them who is already registering, and let them know they have a few weeks to make up their mind if they need it.

4 weeks out:

  • Close early bird registration – Advertise the new price in all publications and continue to promote the retreat.
  • Start writing curriculum – Get outlines written for small groups and messages.  If you are using a pre-written curriculum, make sure you have everything you need for it.  Download it. read it.
  • Get organized – Put all of the registration information into a spreadsheet so you can easily pull info like email addresses, payment history, and whether current medical release forms are on file.
  • Stay Safe – Make sure all adults have background checks, are in line with driver policies at your church, and are Ministry Safe/Safe Sanctuaries/Safe Camp trained. This includes any guest speakers/worship leaders you may have.

2 weeks out:

  • Confirm, confirm, confirm – Make sure the retreat center has everything they need from you. Confirm with transportation providers that everything is kosher. Confirm that the A/V plan is in place and all parties have everything they need.
  • Make lists – Put together a shopping list for any supplies and a packing list for anything you’ll need to take with you.
  • Close registration –. Give yourself enough time to put in your order for tshirts.
  • Order t-shirts – Make sure to add 1-2 shirts to each size category for any late registrants or sizing mix ups.

1 week out:

  • Pay up – Send final payments to retreat centers, guest speakers, guest worship leaders, transportation companies, etc.
  • Get organized – Put all medical release forms in a binder, alphabetically. Make a copy to leave in the church office, along with an itenerary/schedule, any transportation information, and emergency contact info. Create small groups for participants.
  • Communicate – Send out information to parents including a packing list, a schedule, emergency contact info, and any last minute information. Email your small group curriculum and small group lists to group leaders.
  • Go shopping – Gather everything you need for the retreat according to the lists you made the week before.

At the end of the day, remember to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. The purpose of a retreat is to literally get away. When we lead a retreat, we’re leading students away from the chaos that is their every day lives and bringing them into a place where they can rest and be present with one another and with God. Allow for free time, give them space to be and to talk, and keep it simple. There’s already enough out there competing for their attention. We don’t need to add to the noise.