youth ministry is experiential

The father of experiential education, John Dewey, presented the world with his most concise and compelling vision of what experiential education could be in his classic, Experience and Education in 1938. It has some valuable lessons for those of us who work in the area of children, youth and family ministry.

Dewey was writing to critique both the traditional and the progressive approaches to education. The traditional approach was primarily content-driven and didactic. The instructor was the source of knowledge and the student was an empty vessel waiting to be filled with all the knowledge the instructor could impart. The progressive approach was primarily student-centered and unstructured. The assumption was students would only learn through freedom and a hands-off approach. This was a naïve understanding of both freedom and learning. Learning will not happen unless there is some structure and intended outcome working in partnership with freedom. In his critique, Dewey claimed that not all experiences are educative. These are words to heed for those of us working in youth ministry.

The practices associated with children, youth and families are often thought to be “experiential”. I would agree many of our practices are experiential. However, we must confess that they are not always educative. Camping ministry, retreats, mission trips, and service projects are often touted as the epitome of experiential ministry. They are important practices and far more effective than traditional classroom models of youth ministry. But these experiences are not always educative and are, in fact, sometimes miseducative.

Dewey gives us certain criteria to help us know whether or not an experience is educative, or worthwhile. I believe these criteria are important for us to keep in mind as we consider whether or not the experiences we lead are meaningful, constructive and worthwhile.

Past-Present-Future: Dewey says it must be a thoughtful experience that builds upon people’s prior knowledge and experiences. Much thought is put into choosing a particular experience over any number of other experiences. The leader thoughtfully considers “where” the group is at and what type of experience might meet them there and challenge them appropriately. It is an experience upon which future knowledge can be built and future experiences can be based. Together, these two claims imply that the leader is considering the groups knowledge and experiences leading up to the current experience AND is also considering how the current experience will lead to the creation of new knowledge and future experiences.

Personally Transformative: Every experience is received and perceived differently from one person to the next. In order for an experience to be educative, or worthwhile, it must be transformative. In order for it to be transformative for each participant, we must know each participant well enough to know what he or she needs to experience in order to grow and change. We must be aware of how each young person is receiving and interpreting the experience. We must know the past experiences the young person has had which will shape his or her current experience. Lastly, we will have some idea as to how this experience might move this particular young person towards future knowledge and experiences. Not only do we need to take the time to conceptualize this for each student, we must also have an idea as to how we will help each student make these connections for him/herself.

Socially Transformative: Dewey also believes that experience should not result simply in growth for growth’s sake. It is not enough for one to become a better leader or a better learner. One’s experience should also lead to social transformation. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, agrees. He claims that “[e]ducation either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” It is not enough to plan learning experiences to socialize our youth into the Christian lifestyle or to raise up leaders. The experiences with which we engage must bring about transformation of our communities and our world.

Leader’s Role: Dewey likens the role of the leader to that of a midwife. A midwife cannot give birth to the child, but helps one give birth to her own child. We cannot “give learning” to a young person but we can help a young person bring about her own learning. This requires us to find ways to engage the voice of our youth in the entire process of discerning, planning, leading and reflecting on an educative experience. It involves the hard work of asking really good questions and making really good connections with previous experiences and knowledge in order to help young people interpret and understand the experience.

According to David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me, many young adults leave the church due to our inability to help them learn wisdom. Wisdom is different than knowledge, or content. Wisdom is the ability to access knowledge for the sake of practice. It is also the ability to access experience in order to better understand knowledge. Wisdom is the constructive interaction between knowledge and experience. For a long time the church emphasized knowledge, working hard to pass along the knowledge of God to its young people. Many criticize modern youth ministry for emphasizing experience to the detriment of knowledge. We create experiences but never teach a language, a history or a narrative that helps young people understand their experience. Wisdom is what young people long for from the church. It is the ability to constructively work the intersections of knowledge and experience. This is the same intersection for which Dewey was advocating.

As we plan experiential learning opportunities for our young people – and as we unpack those unpredictable experiential learning opportunities that just pop up – it will serve us well to keep Dewey’s, Freire’s and Kinnaman’s claims in mind. When we take on the role of midwife, helping to birth an experience that connects the past, present and future for the sake of personal and social transformation, then we will be facilitating educative experiences. We will be helping our young people understand how their experiences of God’s work in their daily lives are connected with God’s work in the Christian narrative and to the future coming of God’s kingdom.

Educative experiences become the glue that holds all other foundations mentioned here together. It becomes the method through which we engage relationally in the holistic reality of our young people’s lives, helping them to think theologically about their experiences in order to gain a deeper understanding of their vocations. This is the way in which we discern and proclaim Christ’s presence and activity in the lives of our youth.

This post is the ninth post (of 9) in this “anti-model” series.

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rebranding youth ministry

In the six years I’ve taught Youth and Family Ministry at Augsburg College, I’ve noticed a decrease in the number of students in our program. However, I’ve also seen an increase in the number of students across the college who are interested in and involved with youth ministry in some form. These students want to work with youth in the context of a faith community, but have no interested in earning a degree in youth ministry. In fact, many of them don’t see themselves serving professionally in youth ministry in the traditional sense.

This is both troubling and inspiring. The problem is not a lack of interest in ministry with youth. The problem, I think, is linked to the branding of our profession. Continue reading

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ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravganza Workshops & Webinars

This past weekend I had the honor to gather once again with many, many, many youth ministers from across the ELCA. These folks are volunteers, part-timers, full-timers, rostered lay-leaders and ordained clergy. They are young and they are old. They are liberal, moderate and conservative and it is beautiful!

Best of all, these folks really, really love the kids they are called to serve. There is no doubt about that. Continue reading

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youth ministry is vocational

Emmanuel! God is with us, in the vocations of our youth!

Vocation is the most critical issues youth ministry faces today. If we cannot help young people listen for and discern God’s call in their lives, then they will find little reason to stay engaged in the community of faith. When we claim that God is at work in the life of a young person, we claim that biology and culture are not the only factors in human development. From a theological perspective, Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-Ecological Systems Theory is incomplete. We would also want to add one more system, the kairos system.

Kairos is God’s time. God shows up and God does God’s work in God’s time. Culture and biology shape our physical, cognitive and social development but God also works on us in kairos moments. Continue reading

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Youth Ministry is Holistic

22% of children in the USA under the age of 18 are living in poverty. Yet, when I hear the Church talking about young people I don’t hear us talking about poverty rates. I only hear us talking about post-confirmation retention rates. Isn’t this a little short-sighted? Where are the boundaries or limits to our call? Are those of us in children, youth and family ministry only charged with the faith formation of young people? Continue reading

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Youth Ministry is Relational

Mission without relationship is colonialism. Ministry without relationship is patronizing.

I’ve been guilty of both many times. I was new to ministry and had developed a complex chart depicting the leadership structure that my ministry would take including youth committee members, small group leaders, peer ministers, drivers, etc. I shared this with my father, a pastor. His responded by saying, “That sure is a nice drawing. Where are the people?” I had a snazzy organizational chart for my ministry but no people to plug into it because I had not established any relationships. Mission without relationship.

Also, there were two times when I tried to assert myself as an authority figure or mentor into the life of a young person who I thought was “needy” only to be shot down by the teens both times because I had not done the hard work of actually getting to know them. Ministry without relationship.

In previous posts I’ve claimed that everything we do in our ministry with youth can be thought of as interpretation, discernment or proclamation. My claim here is that our work of interpretation, discernment and proclamation should always be done relationally. Continue reading

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In Honor of the Youth Minister on Rally Day

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. (John 1:35-37)

A few years ago I was at a retreat where this verse was used for our morning Lectio Divina exercise. We were asked to identify the word that grabbed us. My word was “again”. — What? — Why “again”? — Why couldn’t I have a cooler word, Lord?

As I began to wonder and pray about what this word “again” might mean for me; I realized I was really anxious and angry about having to start a new program year at the church and all the monotony that would come with it. I would have to try and make Jesus become really important to a bunch of youth again. I would have to try and motivate a congregation to support their youth again. I would have to convince parents that they play the primary role in the faith formation of their kids again. It all seemed so exhausting to me. Continue reading

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