Characterization, Beowulf style

Whether rearing children, growing your soul, or writing a novel, it’s hard to beat this bright line from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf:

Behavior that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere (page 5).

Seven Things I’ve Learned About Running a Winter Youth Retreat

(1) Forget about sleep. Students love late nights, and wee hours yield transparency. Make yourself available and you’ll forge new friendships. But don’t torture yourself by hoping for rest. That’s what van rides are for (unless you’re driving).

(2) Schedules matter. Students want to know what’s next. Schedule event time and free time. Action and togetherness. Gym time, quiet time, events time, and late night lodge time (bring board games!). Make a major deal about certain things, but not everything. Change it up.

(3) Run assembly lines. Eighty students and ten adults means 250 pieces of luggage. When you get there, back in, line them up, and assembly line the whole mess straight into a common area. They can sort it out from there in a bigger area than the back of a trailer.

(4) The girls get the nice quarters. Plenty of toilets and most of the showers. The guys will shower when they get home. Maybe.

(5) Be intentional with God time. Schedule 30-minutes of it every morning. Plan your sessions around it. Pray about it for weeks in advance, and get people praying while you’re there. And if you want soul searching, don’t yuck it up every minute. Sobriety is not a bad thing.

(6) Ban romance. Except for one breakfast. As a surprise.

(7) Tradition is huge. As stories pass from one year to the next, they become legends. The 3:00 Football Game. The Saturday Night Banquet. The Skit Competition. The Guys Writing Poems for the Girls. It’s all the stuff of Facebook pictures.

Kindness and respect

Last week a student said she really enjoys one of our leaders. Why? “Because he doesn’t treat me like I’m stupid.”

We asked what she meant.

“When I don’t know something, he doesn’t look at me like there’s something wrong with me. He doesn’t skrinch his eyebrows and say, ‘you don’t know that?’ He just smiles and says, ‘Oh, OK, let me show you.’ And he’s friendly about it. I feel like I matter. He treats me like he respects me.”

It’s so easy to joke about everything, or to treat students like kids. But it’s nicer to be treated with honor. Proverbs 3:3-4 reads, “Do not let kindness and truth leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man.”

The Time Factor

We once had a student who never smiled. Ever. A barrier or an opportunity? If our goal is “a smile by the end of today’s session,” we’ll be disappointed. Most things take time. Seeds to trees, babies to adults, first pages to finished manuscripts. A frowning student in September can be a healthier person by April. Love is patient. Dish it out liberally — and give it time.

Now we have a student who is quietly and gradually coming off the rails. Withdrawing from meaningful conversation, cooling spiritually, and making troubling choices. We’ve begun praying for him. Specific prayers for hedges around his life and the warming in his heart. He may not be a new man this Sunday, but we’re optimistic about this summer.

Keep at it.

What kind of church attracts students?

The most recent edition of Immerse, a bimonthly journal for youthworkers, features a thoughtful piece* on churches that attract and retain students. The author, Christy Lang, cites several research papers and presents findings both surprising and useful. Here are three samples from her article:

Drawing on developmental theory, Lytch notes that adolescents have particular needs for forging identities, adopting worldviews and developing skills for living in an adult world. Given those needs, she says, particular kinds of opportunities for church involvement are especially important. She writes, “When teens are attracted to churches, they are attracted because the churches engage them in intense states of self-transcendence uniting emotional and cognitive processes. Churches ‘catch’ them on three hooks: a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and opportunities to develop competence.”**

Three key concepts here for youth are belonging (understanding themselves as accepted members of the community); sense of meaning (hearing faith articulated in relation to their lived experience and having opportunities to express faith); and competence (developing skills in church that relate to skills they need in the rest of life, so that church isn’t something to leave behind in childhood).

Busy youth workers don’t need to create busier calendars. Focusing on belonging, believing and competence enables youth workers to address the places where youth are most likely — and most longing — to connect to their communities of faith. As we do this, we must consider theologically what it means for church to be a place where belonging, believing and competence are done faithfully.

This type of insight doesn’t lend itself to a quick new program. She’s describing a culture. Yet, culture is servant to the astute.

*Communities of Disciples: Why the Kind of Church We Are Makes a Difference, by Christy Lang, appears in the March/April 2011 issue of Immerse: A Journal of Faith, Life, and Youth Ministry

**Carol Lytch, Choosing Church: What Makes a Difference for Teens, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004

A “lordship salvation” exercise

Ever heard of the “lordship salvation” controversy? Here’s a simplified version: Some believe if you’ve prayed a prayer of salvation you are a Christian. Others believe if your life shows no sign of following Jesus Christ, you’re not a Christian.

Wherever you fall on the lordship salvation spectrum, here are two exercises* to get your students thinking about their own relationship to Jesus Christ.

First, pick three students to stand up front. The student on the left represents a person who is following Jesus Christ. (Use your own anecdotes to describe what that looks like.) The student on the right has zero interest in Jesus Christ. Doesn’t believe at all. The student in the middle prayed a prayer of salvation when he was eight. Now he’s seventeen and not walking with Jesus.

Option 1 — Break everyone into small groups for five minutes and ask each group to decide whether the guy in the middle is a Christian or not. Don’t let them just give opinions. Make them defend their positions biblically.

Option 2 — This one is more intense, so weigh it carefully before taking it on. Ask everyone to line up behind one of the three students up front. Whichever one best describes where they’re at. When everyone is lined up behind one of the three, ask them, “What if the middle row is not a true biblical category?” Then remove the middle guy and ask those lined up behind him to pick one of the other two lines.

Both of these exercises will get your group thinking about their personal faith. Just be aware that it could get messy.

* Thanks, Kevin!

A Student’s Perspective / Prayer

Our group recently did a ski retreat. While snowboarding, one of our freshmen guys got seriously hurt. He ruptured his spleen and the doctors said it was bad — stage four out of five stages of danger. He wasn’t expected to recover without surgery, and even then, it was iffy. So iffy they medevacked him by helicopter to the nearest big city.

We, however, had a powerful weapon. As soon as the group learned about his condition we started praying. Not just three-second prayers, either. Groups of us clustered around the ski lodge and prayed for half an hour. Dedicating his safety to Christ, we prayed for our friend, pleading for his recovery and health.

The next morning, after at least half a dozen more prayer times, we heard from his mom. The doctors were stunned. Not only was he recovering at record speed, he hadn’t needed surgery and the internal bleeding was only nominally affecting him. They couldn’t figure out why he was getting better so fast.

We knew.