Camp Followup: It isn’t about not “losing” kids. It’s about developing the next generation of Christian Leader

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Ten Ways To Supercharge Your Camping Program To Develop Christian Leaders

When camp is “Awesome” but two months later kid’s lives look just like they did the week before camp something is wrong – the Gospel is a transformative life change, not a temporary high.

Much post-camp “falling away” is alleviated by a great followup plan. But we have a higher bar than keeping kids from “bailing out” on the youth program and the church. We want kids to press on to become disciple-making disciples. A great camping program is a big part of that process. But great experiences without great followup, most literally, wastes the power of the experience. Here are a few thoughts on following-up on summer camps and mission trips…

1) All ministry starts with leaders. The first step in spiritual retention is to have spiritually solid, trained volunteers who are relationally engaged with students year ’round, not just at camp.

2) TAKE kids to camp. We want church leaders to BRING (rather than send) their students to camp. Why? Because to maximize the benefits of the camp experience we want the affiliation bond built at camp to be with a parish leader. You want the emotionally and spiritually intimate cabin group to also be the youth group. That way camp followup is in the local church, building on the good work that was begun at camp, rather than atomizing this powerful experience.

3) Send kids home with food. At our camp we work hard to “send kids home with food.” We have a “taking Jesus home” experience that helps students with how to press on in the Christian life. On the last morning, in front of parents, we have a “say-so,” as in “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” (Psalm 107:2)  Students stand up, grab a microphone, and talk about the life-changing experience camp was for them. Then, when parents are in tears over their kid’s tears, youth pastors stand up and line up not-yet-churched students with the youth pastors and groups near them so that they go home ready to plug into a church community. They go home with fliers to help them apply the scriptural truths they have learned, find a church and know when the “reunion” events are during the year.

4) Stay Connected. Have periodic reunions and weekend camps IN PARISHES around your diocese.

5) Gear up (not down) in summer. Kids today tend to be really, really busy. Summer is often the exception. Students are usually either out of town or bored. This makes summer the time of the year in which it is often easiest to build momentum. “Gearing up” after camp has two benefits: First, you can build numerical momentum going into your fall ministry year as excited students invite their unchurched friends to come join the community. Second, you keep students from falling back into old habits and destructive patterns. The spiritual discouragement that accompanies “falling away” not only causes your students to struggle, but it poisons the well with those students’ friend group when they say, “I tried God. It just didn’t work for me.”

6) Equip your parents. Parents are also least busy in the summer. Equipping parents to be the primary source of spiritual formation is not only scriptural (Deut. 6 and Ps. 78), but it is how the faith was passed on for 19 centuries before “youth ministry.” Equipping parents is especially critical in elementary school and junior high. In high school, students are emotionally separating themselves from their parents. In late adolescence your equipping will be more along the lines of making sure parents know the what, when, and why of your ministry and knowing your leaders as safe, trusted Christian adults who are reinforcing the faith of the family. Leaders become parent’s allies, saying what mom and dad say at a time in life when students, for the healthy developmental reason of self-differentiation, tend to look for direction outside of the home.

Leaders become parent’s allies, saying what mom and dad say at a time in life when students, for the healthy developmental reason of self-differentiation, tend to look for direction outside of the home.

7) Fill the Pipeline. Think strategically about your students. What do you want for them in Christ? In our diocese youth camp programs are about evangelism and the beginning of the discipleship process. We program 7th-9th grade to be like a confirmation retreat – an adult experience of Christ…but one with the “talent” of 60 parishes on tap. We program high school to be a discipleship week. Following that experience we have a leadership development camp we call WILD (Wilderness Introduction to Leadership Development) available for high school juniors and seniors. WILD involves a variety of outdoor/wilderness experiences and group leadership skills development. Then we have a three week long experience called Leadership Encouragement and Development (LEAD) for graduating seniors and first year college students. In LEAD, students live in community, serve campers, and are given intensive discipleship and bible study by a team of handpicked youth ministers of spiritual depth with powerful ministries of their own. Needless to say, when our students graduate from high school, young adults growing in their faith from our parishes line up for the chance to be camp counselors (a minimum wage paid position). Also, as part of the development of our young people as Christian leaders, we have a week of discipleship and counselor training to prepare them as counselors. We have a clear, strategic pipeline to develop young people as Christ-centered leaders.

8) Camp Assignments. Our full-time youth ministers spend three weeks each summer at camp. These committed individuals fill senior staff roles: camp speakers, head counselors, and discipling the high school LEAD staff. This builds a shared vision, spiritual commitment, and increases the spiritual, emotional, and physical expectations of our camping ministry, and year-round ministry in the parish.

9) Train volunteers. Many churches do not train volunteers. That sends a message that being a youth worker isn’t very important and neither are our young people. Volunteers buy-in and stay bought-in when they know the goals, the methods to reach those goals, and are equipped to walk with students and share the Good News with them. In our context, we have a variety of training experiences for volunteer youth workers, camp counselors, and both a one-year part-time youth director and a two-year full-time youth minister training program. Your youth leaders are the relational bridge to Christ when students are developmentally separating from their parents. This makes them a critical gift to families. Treat them as such by equipping them well and thanking them often!

youth leaders are the relational bridge to Christ when students are developmentally separating from their parents. This makes them a critical gift to families. Treat them as such by equipping them well and thanking them often!

10) Recruit the called to seminary to be the next generation of Christ-centered, theologically grounded, missionally-minded clergy to lead our churches.

If this looks far larger than simply following up with your students from camp, it is. Your camping ministry is much more than keeping kids busy. It can be the strategic beginnings of a leadership development pipeline to replace yourself with the next generation of Christian leader.

This matters. Stay on your pace.

USLYF00Z

 

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Does your ministry lose steam at the end of the year? We all know that finishing well is important, but like a fatigued runner, we often lose our stride a bit at the end of the program calendar.

Now we have a fabulous group of youth workers. They love God, one another, and they really care for our students, most of whom are the entry point to the church for their families. But it is the end of the year and…

  • Games become a little less purposeful…and a few kids stop coming.
  • Instead of carefully planning the meeting so that all things work together to build Christian community and take kids deeper in their faith, the various components begin to stand alone…and a few more kids drop off.
  • Bibles aren’t opened and read by students quite as much.
  • Leaders start doing more – more sharing, more preaching. Students start doing less – and passive kids quickly become disengaged kids.

This happens every year in youth groups all across the country.

For us, this came to a head at our end of the year badminton tournament last week. The kid across the street, a young man we have been inviting to youth group for three years, showed up. O, he joins us occasionally for games and food, but he skips out when students go inside for worship through song and scripture…after eating, of course. Last week he handed me a badminton racquet and asked if I would be his partner for the tournament. I am not a youth leader and had a bunch of stuff to do, but one look at his insistent face and I heard myself saying, “I would love to. But if I do, you stay for Bible study.”

“Deal!” He said, sticking his hand out to shake.

Two leaders were standing behind me. The older one had missed the planning meeting. He whispered to the younger one, “What is the Bible study?”

“We are just having fun tonight.” She said.

His reply, “Hey, our core values include ‘don’t waste kid’s time’ and ‘have fun with a purpose.’ A kid we have been inviting for three years just said he would stay for Bible study. You get a song. I’ll do a message.”

In a highly unlikely turn of events, the neighbor and I won the tournament. As the mob tromped from backyard to living room, the neighbor kid proudly paraded the trophy inside over his head.

When the song finished we passed out Bibles and students read the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). The older leader retold the story of Jesus angering his home town to the point that they took him to the edge of a cliff to toss him off when he turned around and walked away through the silenced mob. He concluded with Jesus, the God of the universe in human form, whose life, death, and resurrection offering us the opportunity to be a Kingdom bringer (a Luke 4:18 life of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free“). He asked if anyone who hadn’t yet was ready to have “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19) by allowing the Lord, Jesus, to become their savior (John 1:12). Three hands shot up. One of them was the neighbor kid’s. He was waving and pointing to himself. The same young man who ignored three dozen invitations…who snuck home early another two dozen times…who had told us repeatedly, “I’m not into God.” That kid, with tears in his eyes, was smiling ear to ear, waving, and saying, “Me! I’m ready.”

And by letting our core values slip in end of the year fatigue we almost missed it.

“how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him?                                                                      And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?”    -Romans 10:14, NLT

So stay on your pace!

Three students had what they experienced as their first God moment Wednesday night. And we darn near dropped the baton in the relay between them and our God.

In track and field finishing well is called having a strong “kick.” Races are won or lost on the final straightaway. Most runners fade. Champions find another gear and shift into it, pulling away from the pack.

The baton we pass is nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus. So end strong friends. Find your kick. Because this race really does matter.

 

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Mean people suck. But that’s not why millennials dropped the church.

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An open letter to Lead Pastors.

Do you hear that sucking sound? It’s the sound of young adults walking out the back door so fast that you can feel the breeze from the pulpit way down at the front of the sanctuary.

Young adults have always been a bit shaky in their church attendance during college. But then a new trend emerged: They stopped coming back. No one worried much about it at first. But as the return rate continued to plummet, the Millennial abandonment of the church became the stuff that keeps pastors up late at night. Millennials are, after all, the ones whose attractive fresh young faces make people say, “Oh, this place is doing really well!”

A few churches are still doing really well with young adults, of course. But multiple studies, such as this one from Pew Research, show that young adults now attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents at their age. One in three young adults now characterize themselves as  “nones” – religiously unaffiliated.  If you haven’t noticed your church greying yet: fear not, you will.

What is going on with those Millennials? 

According to the narrative, the church is full of narrow, nasty, fearful, bigots. If you are smart, hip, or have a pulse, you should drop the church like a hot rock for something more helpful to your life…like spending Sunday morning playing games on your iPhone at Starbucks, or puttering in your garden, or just pulling your covers up over your head and grabbing another hour of shuteye.

David Kinnaman, in his interesting book, “You Lost Me,” provides a stark articulation of this meme. His team conducted research with more than 1200 young adults. According to the compelling stories he recounts, young adults dropped out because they found the Church to be:

Shallow, with easy platitudes, proof texting, and formulaic slogans.

-Overprotective and repressive: Sexual mores feel stifling to young adults.

Exclusive. Christian claims to exclusivity are a hard sell in a pluralistic culture.

Doubtless. The church is fearful and dare not risk allowing them to express doubts.

Antiscience.

In other words, the church is mean. 

If you talk to folks between the age of 20 and 35 about the church you have probably heard all of the above statements. However, these don’t necessarily paint a complete picture as to why Millennials left. They tell us why they SAY they left – how they have interpreted their experience. So, although Kinnaman’s book has become the “Bible” on Millennials, there is…

Another piece of the puzzle…

It appeared in last April’s edition of Atlantic Monthly: “Listening to Young Atheists.” Alex Taunton interviewed college students who self-identify as atheists and asked them to “tell the story of your journey into atheism.” What he heard was not what he expected – which always makes my ears perk up. To his surprise, young atheists did not wax eloquent about their intellectual difficulties with Christianity – the anti-science, anti-gay, theologically rigid, “easy believe-ism” stuff we all hear about (apologies to my more progressive friends). Neither did they talk about a desire to engage in sinful, frowned upon by the church, lifestyles (apologies to my more conservative friends). Here is what young atheists told Taunton…

1. They had attended church The number one source of college atheists is, wait for it, Christianity…as it was modeled to them.

2. The mission and message of their churches was vague – rather than too much catechesis, they received too little. They were not given an intellectual frame for their faith.

3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.

4. They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.

5. Ages 14-17 were decisive  In the middle of forty years of enormous investment in youth ministry, high school is when atheist millennials embraced their unbelief!

6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional oneusually involving the loss of a trusted youth leader

Did you notice the seedbed that hatched young atheists? It was specifically a reaction AGAINST their experience of the church. Second, they didn’t become atheists in those evil, conspiratorially faith-stealing secular universities. We lost the Millennials when they were in high school – In our youth groups!

One student said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”

Our big fail?

“Meanness” is style. And apparently a style fail is the least of our issues. According to atheist millennials, we also have a theology fail, a program fail, and a leader fail. The atheists who grew up in our churches tell us that we didn’t:

1) Model love and authenticity during their critical adolescent years.

2) Disciple them. Not downloading information, but the time-intensive task of walking with them, life on life…teaching them Christian practices in a context of friendship.

3) Catechize: Provide historic answers to the historic questions.

4) Allow them to engage their doubts. Talking through doubts is how one gets through them.

5) Integrate them thoroughly into the life of the church. We gave them a soteriology without an ecclesiology:  A personal Jesus without a Body of Christ. We professionalized student ministry and segregated kids away in youth rooms. We let parents, the older generation, and anyone in the church staff not titled, “youth pastor” off the hook.

Students needed a web of relationships and an affiliation bond with the larger church.

But we shuttled them off into “youth services,” creating in-effect parachurch student ministries on church campuses with trendy grow-out-of-it-when-you-graduate names. And, often, by the time they get back from college, their pastor, the student pastor, is gone as well. In a “youth service” model, Millennials have never been in the sanctuary and don’t know those leading in there either. Add in the fact that the sanctuary reflects a ministry model developed for their parent’s generation and, for many, you have strike three, and the Millennials are walking off the field and hanging up their bats.

6. Give them a mission in the world. The doctrine of creation tells us that we were made on purpose for a high and holy purpose. When they were in high school did we give them something epic to do? Something unreachably heroic that they could only see and do with eyes of faith?

Will we listen to them?

Young adult atheists are telling us that we failed to give them a robust faith in the triune God…a faith they were asking us for. And this isn’t just a problem facing “liberal” or “conservative” churches.  While the Left gave them Social Justice Jesus, the Right gave them a truncated, topical Jesus who promises, “Your Best Life Now.” A Fuller seminary friend told me that in a recent survey of graduating youth group seniors the most common thing students, across denominations, wished they had been given more of in youth group wasn’t games, skits, or worship. It was “Bible Study.”

Lead pastors, you have served your mission field of busy 35-55 year olds nervous about cultural change by giving them practical content from fewer, trusted voices on video-venues. What might missionally engaging students in there changing context look like? After all, like you once said to your senior pastor when you were working with youth, “We cannot expect today’s youth ministry to use the models we designed for a previous generation.”

When you and I started in ministry, students came to the church hungry to be entertained. Today they come expecting a sense of the transcendent. Study after study tells us that Millennials long for spiritual practices, meaningful service in the church, and a mission to the world. They seek peer groups to support their faith. They desire older Christian mentors and multi-generational relationships. They come for Scriptural knowledge and, gasp, theology. They come to learn about the God who made them, redeems them, and has a purpose for the world. They come seeking God’s plan and calling on their lives to do something of true and lasting significance.

Yes, the world changed. But while that change occurred we kept giving them a simple Gospel message with fog machines, light shows, and games in which they stuffed their faces with marshmallows.

So they left. But not when we thought. Not why we thought. And not how we thought.

A way forward?

It should be obvious that what I am pointing toward is not less youth ministry but a redirecting of it toward a more robust form. A form more tied to the greater church. The solution to all of this will involve Lead Pastors – You are the source of vision, direction, permission and covering. Nothing changes without your endorsement. Will you allow your Student Ministry leaders to change your student ministry today so that tomorrow’s students don’t bail too? You were an innovator in reaching your mission field. Will you free your student ministers to innovate to a new generation? We all want Christians for life, not just for high school. Will you unravel programs when the data demonstrates that filling youth services today leads to empty sanctuaries tomorrow? 

The truth is staring us in the face. The stakes are too high to throw away another generation with sincere but ultimately unhelpful youth ministry.

Youth Ministry after “Cool Church”: Sample Youth Teaching on Genesis 1 & 2

Youth leaders always want to know what theory looks like in practice. Here is an example of one component of a youth group meeting: the teaching time…

Our church plant has a small youth group (usually about 25 students) with 6 very committed young adult volunteer leaders. They recently began a semester of working through the Old Testament.

For Genesis 1 and 2, instead of a sermon or video, the group was divided into two groups by gender. In one room the boy group read Genesis 1 together several times. In the other the girls read Genesis 2. Each group took notes and discussed what the text said and emphasized for the hearers. Then they outlined the chapter. The leaders gave guidance in the form of questions to take the students back to the text when they started reading into it. On a large poster board with colorful markers, each group drew a graphical/artistic representation of their chapter. Then they came back together and the students taught their chapter to the other group from their poster. Having students teaching one another engaged students in the learning process in a way that was wonderful. By the end, each group knew the contents of both chapters.

Then one of the leaders did a wrap-up to help students get the “big picture” and think theologically about their lives – a 7 minute mini-message on “Have you noticed that the first two verses of Genesis One say exactly the same thing your biology teacher taught you?” After reading Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, the leader gave a message that went like this:

Did you notice that both Christians, who think God is the author of life and truth, and scientists, who observe life, have the same version of what happened in the very beginning of the universe? Does that surprise you? More subtle though is the enormous difference between the two narratives. Science, not as a discipline but as an “ism” (called materialism) follows a very different narrative. BTW, We are not anti-science here, but materialism is a philosophy of life that what you see explains everything that is. When you know what materialism teaches you might choose to reject it.  For the materialist, time and chance explain everything. For the Christian, the hand of a loving Creator is the ultimate explanation. For the materialist, because they believe only in time and chance, all of life is an accident. For the materialist, you might be “unique,” but you are a unique accident.

On the other hand, for the Christian, all of life is a gift. Life was made on purpose, with a high and holy purpose. So, in the Christian narrative, you matter. What you do matters. What you don’t do matters. Everyone around you matters to God too.

Think of the difference the narrative you believe about your life makes: Can you see how what you do with your life gets shaped by the narrative you believe about who you are? What choices do you make with your life when life has no purpose? (Discussion)

How does it change your choices if you are absolutely convinced that you and everyone else was created on purpose, with a purpose? (Discussion)

If the materialist story is true, nothing you do matters. You don’t matter. If the Christian story is true then everything you do either spreads our Creator’s beauty and redeeming love or shuts it down.

Which narrative do you see being played out around you? What might life look like if everyone you know, new God’s love for them in Christ? You see, both the Christian and the materialist see the same events, they just interpret them differently.

Which narrative would you rather follow with your life? Thinking about what you said in our said in our discussion, why is it important that your friends know “the hope that is within you”?

As a result of the teaching time students left with the ability to tell us what Genesis 1 & 2 actually says…and what it doesn’t say. They learned something about exegesis: letting the text, rather than other’s ideas of the text speak. And more, they left with a powerful doctrine of Creation and can tell you why that doctrine is important. They went to small groups and prayed passionately that God would help them stay clear on who they are and whose they are…and that they would have boldness to share with their friends the Good News of God’s love in Christ-because of how desperately their friends need a different narrative on which to base their life.