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Author Archive | Walt Mueller

Big Church = Big Opportunities

I grew up in a pastor’s home. We were in church every Sunday morning. . . and several other times during the week. On Sunday mornings, the pews at our church were filled with everyone from wimpering (or screaming babies), to kids, to young adults, to middle-aged people, to old ladies (yes. . . I can still smell the pungent mixture of perfumes). One thing I remember about Sunday morning worship is that I usually found it to be incredibly boring. Consequently, I wasn’t a big fan of being there in “big church.”

But as the years marched by, I began to “get it” . . . “it” being something transcendent and beautiful about the Body of Christ and what it meant to be together, to sometimes do the same things week after week (prayers, creeds, other recitations), to relate to each other, to get to know each other, and to learn from each other. I didn’t know it at the time, but God was active and busy doing something in my life that today we would call “spiritual formation.”

And so, I always feel a bit of uneasiness when I talk to youth workers and pastors whose corporate worship model is one where the full breadth and width and depth and diversity of the local Body of Christ is not present together in worship. Even though our motivation may be good, the methodology we’ve chosen might actually be doing more to divide than unite. And, it might be nurturing kids into “worship is for me” rather than “worship if for God” mentality that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Make sense?

I’m convinced that one of the reasons so many teenagers and young adults are walking away from the heritage of their faith is that we haven’t given them a complete heritage. Many of our kids have a church experience that’s filled with nothing but worship, classes, youth group, and activities with peers of the same age. They haven’t worshipped intergenerationally with people of all ages. Nor have they been in social situations with the older members of the church. What happens is that we not only socialize them into thinking that anything related to their faith is only relevant when experienced with people of like age, but we’ve robbed them of those opportunities to experience life in the larger body of Christ which allow them to benefit from the full breadth of gifts, ages, wisdom, experience, and abilities of the people that make up the church.

Our teens’ spiritual maturity is best-fed, grown, and cemented into maturity when fellowship is broad-based, rather than with just their peers.


Meet the teachers. . . and others at the school. . .

Your students are heading back to school. Teachers, coaches, club advisors, administrators, and yes. . . even the lunch ladies! . . . are spending hours and hours each week with your students and their peers. Over the years, I’ve learned just how important it is to tap into the experience, education, observations, and wisdom of these people. And what I’ve come to appreciate is that as a youth worker, dad, and culture-watcher, there’s a lot I still have to learn. . . some of which can be gleaned from conversations with these folks who keep our schools going.

Why not take some time to intentionally get to know and learn from these people this year?  Here are some ways that you can learn from the adults who spend time in school with your kids:

Learn from their experience. Some of these folks have been working with kids for three or more decades. Invite them to share their observations about how youth culture and adolescence has changed. Ask them about the needs they perceive in today’s teenagers. Let them vent, lament, and complain. Ask them about the pressures, challenges, and choices kids face. And, ask them about positive changes they’ve seen. School employees are some of the best and most well-embedded youth culture ethnographers in the world (especially the lunch ladies!).

Learn from their education. Many of us in the world of youth ministry have a very limited knowledge of developmental or educational theory. While we might not agree with many of the presuppositions and conclusions of some in the educational establishment, that’s no excuse to not ask them to share what they know. Respect their education. Show that respect by approaching them in an inquisitive, teachable, and humble manner. There’s always more for us to learn.

Learn from their understanding of character formation. There was no such thing as “character education” when many of us older youth workers were going through middle school and high school. Character formation was the assumed work of the home, church, and village as they cooperated to teach us right from wrong. Now, with relativism the default setting on matters of ethics and character, our schools have had to become increasingly deliberate about teaching virtue and character. . . primarily because everyone else has dropped the ball and it’s now a matter of survival for our schools. Asking teachers about kids and character will give you insights into where what you are trying to teach students overlaps in agreement with your local schools. In addition, you will also learn where the schools may be falling short theoretically or practically when compared to a biblical view of character formation. Keeping your eyes and ears open for this will spur you on to become more diligent as you teach the truth.

While we certainly won’t agree with educators on everything, we can come to appreciate and benefit from the wisdom and expertise of people who, in the end, have dedicated their lives to kids. . .  just like we have.


Five Trends Kids Aren’t Blinking At. . . But Should.

When you’re born into something, you don’t notice it. It’s normal. It’s always been there. You know nothing different. You don’t question it. You accept it. And when someone comes along who does question it. . . well. . . that rattles your world and you think the questioner is nuts. That’s certainly the way it is with the youth culture soup kids are swimming in today. There’s stuff in there that wasn’t around when those of us who are older were adolescents. But it’s always been there for our kids.

Even as I sit here in a beachfront coffee bar writing this post, I’m reminded of just how true this is. I’m overhearing a conversation between a lady on the couch across the room (can’t help it. . . she’s talking loudly!) who’s lamenting a young adult’s behavior with someone on the other end of her cell phone. “How could he be so stupid?!?” she just yelled out loud. “Doesn’t he know that it’s wrong for him to be married to you and then he goes and posts a picture of himself half-naked with some other woman on the Internet?!?” My guess is that the guy who posted that photo never stopped to consider all the issues related to his behavior. Maybe it’s even normal and right in his little world.

As we hit the halfway point of the summer and you jump into the fall planning mode, start thinking now about how you will take time during the year to intentionally address, talk about, and pound home (over and over and over again) God’s will and way on these five trends that have become just a normal part of life for your kids. . . .

1. Social Media Narcissism. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. But when using those sites to create, curate, promote, and sell one’s self. . . that’s narcissism. It’s idolatry. We need to teach our kids how to use social media to the glory of God, not self.

2. Relativism. We live in a world where kids are encouraged to develop, figure out, and act on the truth that works for them based on how they feel at any given moment in time. If it works for you, well then go for it. Fact is, that’s a recipe for personal, communal, and societal disaster. Let them know that God has gifted us with His will and way. There is such a thing as transcendent truth.

3. Cohabitation. Marriage is in deep, deep trouble. The days of “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage” are long gone. Even our Christian kids are opting to get it all out of order. Teach a Biblical order for love, sex, and marriage through your words and actions. Chances are they aren’t hearing it anywhere else.

4. Tolerance. I will be the first to admit that we need a little more appreciation for the great diversity that God has placed in His world. In addition, we need to show a whole lot more love and grace to those who might think and act differently. The church hasn’t done a good job of that in recent years. Now, the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. When tolerance runs amok we wind up promoting, celebrating, serving, and spreading the kingdom of the world, the flesh and the devil. . . not the Kingdom of God.

5. Marketing and Consumerism. Each of us sees multiple thousands of marketing messages a day. Talk about swimming in something so much that we don’t notice it anymore! Each of those ads sells both product and a way of looking at/living life. I believe that in today’s world, marketing shapes us more than anything else. Ads promise redemption, wholeness, and satisfaction. But we know it can never deliver. Why then, do we buy into their messages and manipulation? Teach your kids to think critically and Christianly about ads.

Go ahead now. . . rattle your kids. . . even if they think you’re nuts!

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Faith As A Factor In Teen Pregnancy

sex+drugs+rockI distinctly remember a conversation I had back in the 1980′s regarding youth ministry and criticisms that youth pastors were talking about certain things way too much. At the time, this oft-criticized topical trifecta that most youth ministries like ours was addressing was sex, drugs, and rock &roll. At the time, the sexual revolution of that same 60′s decade was bearing fruit in loosened values, attitudes, and behaviors that were encouraging all of us who felt sexual temptation (all of us!) to no longer see those struggles as temptations to fight, but as natural desires to indulge. We needed to talk about sex. The drug culture rooted in the 1960′s had grown and was bearing fruit in broken lives, horrific addictions, and crime related to drug trafficking. It was bad. We needed to talk about drugs. In addition, And then there was the world of rock & roll, which tended to evangelize the young into adopting and indulging the changing mindset on the prior two topics. We needed to talk about music.

Yes, we talked about a whole lot more than sex, drugs, and rock & roll in our ministry. . . a lot more. We talked about how faith mattered in all of life. But we also learned that where the culture is speaking to matters of life and defining for kids what matters, our responsibility is to channel that Other Voice that speaks clearly, plainly, and truely on those matters. And the louder the culture speaks, the more diligent we need to be about bringing the light of God’s Word to bear on the spirit of the times.

While leading a Bible study for a group of biblically-illiterate high school kids back in 1981, I mentioned the issue of temptation. I illustrated the idea of temptation by talking about sexual temptation. i figured that was something they could identify with. I knew I could! They had blank stares on their faces. Then I mentioned that the Bible talks about sex in very positive ways. That it’s a good thing. That God created it and wants us to indulge it. They were blown away as they had never heard this before. One kid asked, “You mean the Bible talks about sex?!?” I directed them to the Song of Solomon. . . and our discussion of temptation was tabled until another time! These kids had been steeped in sex talk, but it was horribly unbalanced.

Sarah Brown, the CEO of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, has issued a call to Christian parents and youth workers to turn up the volume and frequency on our conversations with kids about sex. In a Washington Post op-ed piece earlier this week (“Can faith prevent teen pregnancy?”), Brown offered this directive. . . .

“It may be even more surprising for adults to ponder the role that faith and individual morals and values have played. Among those teens who haven’t had sex, the primary reason they give for…well…not doing it is that having sex at this point in their lives is against their religion or morals, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Research makes clear that religion, faith, and a strong moral sense play vital roles in protecting teens from too-early sexual activity and teen pregnancy. In particular, being connected to a religious community has been linked with a decreased risk for teen pregnancy. Moreover, a survey we released this week suggests that the majority of Americans want more from religious groups rather than less. Some 52 percent of adults and 57 percent of teens think religious leaders and groups should be doing more to help prevent teen pregnancy.”

We need to continually show how faith matters in all matters of life. And talking about how faith matters in the matter of sexuality. . . well, it matters!