Tag Archives: youth ministry

Bullying: It Never Stops

26 Jul

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Once upon a time—in the late 90’s—I was sitting in math class at my Christian high school.  We had some free time so I was working on homework when a student in the back of the room began harassing me.  “You’re a lesbian, you know that?” he taunted.

One of his smirking friends joined in pointing out that I must be a lesbian because I didn’t have a boyfriend.  At least they didn’t call me ugly or fat—that day.

Finally, unable to stand it anymore, fighting back tears I told them to stop, which just encouraged them to continue their torment.  My teacher was standing at the front of the classroom, no more than 15 feet from where I was being verbally abused.  I looked straight at him and asked, “Aren’t you going to do anything about this?”

I’ll never forget his response.  It’s one I’ve heard used by educators, parents, and adults everywhere when they talk about bullying.  Dismissively, he said, “If you ignore them, they’ll stop.”

If you ignore them, they won’t stop. 

I know because I tried that, too.  The bullies only jeered more loudly.  Other joined in or laughed, while a few girls sometimes giving me pitying glances.

Back in those days I didn’t cry nearly as much as I do now.  I would hold it in knowing that they could never see you cry.  You can never let them see that they got to you.  I knew I would come home and drag a razor across my wrist or thighs or stomach and somehow that would release my pent up rage.  No one called it “cutting” or “self-injury” back then, just para-suicidal behavior.

Sometimes during middle school and high school, I imagined I would stand up and give an impassioned speech, which would change everything, like I was staring in some sort of Hollywood blockbuster.  I would tell them how much it hurt to be called names, to be pushed into my locker, and to be left out.  They would finally understand, apologize, and we’d all become best friends like on “Saved By the Bell” episode where Zack dated the fat chick.

I couldn’t wait to grow up because I thought there wouldn’t be bullies anymore, or at least I wouldn’t have to go to school with them every day.  When I became an adult or at least went to college everything, I assured myself that everything would be OK.

When I went to college, everything was OK.  I met and befriended real lesbians on campus and wondered what those immature high school boys would say about that.  I excelled in my classes, like I usually did, and felt secure in my environment of friends who accepted me.  Finally, I was part of the “in” crowd or maybe just in a crowd.

They (whoever “they” are) say that bullying is just one of those things kids do and the victims will survive.  Students just need to toughen up, educators say, because kids will be kids.

I wish I could say it still didn’t hurt.  I wish I could say the kid who made fun of my voice every single say in sixth grade science class hasn’t affected why I sometimes feel awkward when my voice is amplified over a microphone.  So many of these lies still rattle around in my brain and the lies have become my truth.  It is something God and me are working on together. 

The truth of the matter is that words do hurt.  The far reach of social media has made bullying even worse.  I recently watched a documentary called The Bully Project and I cried through much of it.  I couldn’t even watch the entire thing.  Emotions I thought long dead resurged.

Finally, it occurred to me that no matter where you are, what age you are, or what you do, there will always be bullies.  Work bullies, neighborhood association bullies, church bullies (who do it in the name of God), road rage bullies, mommy group bullies—and you know what?  Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Frankly, I’m sick of bullies.  They’ve taken too much from me and I’ve let them.  I don’t have any deep answers on how to solve the bullying epidemic.  I don’t know how to make teens stop sending stupid text messages or posting ridiculous nonsense on Instagram or Snapchat.  All I know to do is to tell them over and over again the effects of bullying. I can’t change them, but I can change me.  I can stop giving their words meaning and move past the hurt they inflicted.

I refuse to be like my math teacher, who incorrectly told me they would stop.  They never stop.  Instead, I work with students as they deal with conflicts and teach them about who they are in Christ so the truth can overcome the lies, so the light of God can overcome the darkness

In this work, I have found redemption for my own middle and high school years eaten by the locusts.  There is healing in ministry—something that makes the scars bring forth His light. 

My junior year of high school was more than half a lifetime ago and I still remember the words of the students and my teacher.  I still feel the sting because I am human.  But I don’t let it consume me because I am redeemed.

Pokemon Go Into the World

14 Jul

Last night there were a lot of youth and young adults at my church.  The problem is that they weren’t inside the doors, but rather in the parking lot.  You see, our church is a Pokemon Go Gym and there was an epic battle being fought between the red and blue teams for control of this precious resource.

Have I lost you yet? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here.)

Like millions of other people, I downloaded the alternate reality game because when it comes to pop culture, I like to be in the know.  What I initially didn’t realize about Pokemon Go is that it’s a precious tool when it comes to meeting others.  Take a walk around your neighborhood, and you’re bound to run into someone else looking for Pokemon (aka “pocket monsters”) to catch.  Eavesdrop on a conversation at a local fast food joint and you’ll find out where the biggest and best Pokemon are lurking.

I’ve heard so many complaints about how the game is silly, a waste of time, and childish.  I’ve read the stories about how it’s consuming people’s lives and seen funny videos and meme’s about those who take the game a little too seriously.  Pokemon Go can and may be all those things.  But like all technology—all things really—it’s what you do with it that matters.

As a youth leader, I’m always looking for ways to connect with my youth—whether it’s singing Adele and Taylor Swift songs,  watching superhero movies, playing MarioKart, and social media.  Any way I can dive into youth culture, I’m willing to give it a try (within reason.) If downloading a game that involves catching little creatures with things that resemble baseballs (pokeballs) is a way to bond with students, then I’m all for it.

My heart echoes what Paul talks about 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.  I want to become all things to youth—a mentor, cool adult friend (like an aunt), a karaoke singer, a movie watcher, and a Pokemon Go player.  Like Paul says, I want to be all these to different students because I desperately want them to know about the One who made me.  I want it to be way to sharing the Gospel and showing how God is alive in my life.

See, last night one of the girls in my small group and I roamed around the perimeter of our church catching Pokemon.  Then I was able to talk to another student—a boy who just finished 8th grade—about Pokemon Go.  He excitedly answered all my questions and honestly, now I’m a better player.  The students and I even talked about the potential for a meet up with their friends to go monster hunting together.  I suggested the same thing on my neighborhood Facebook page, which is usually filled with drama about what time we should put out the trash, complaints loud teenagers, and random gossip.  Finally, there was something that brought us together; we could go out and play Pokemon Go.

Tomorrow I plan to spend time with another student and hopefully catch a few pocket monsters during our time together.  Maybe we’ll even make new friends.  In a nation that’s become so divided by politics and race, isn’t it great that there is something that’s bringing us together, even if it is a little silly?

And tonight or tomorrow night, I’m going to head over to my church and sit with the young people littering its parking lot.  Since I’m Pokemon Go newbie, I need help from experienced players.  No one seems to mind a quirky blond woman in her 30’s asking about Pokeballs and hatching eggs.  So, I’ll sit with them on the concrete and as the Holy Spirit leads, perhaps invite them into the church.  One day maybe we won’t sit together on concrete, but rather inside the church worshipping God together.

Last night when I looked at the Pokemon players, less than 100 feet from the church doors, it filled me with hope and excitement.  Churches aren’t exactly filled with the under-30 crowd these days, but there they are in our parking lot.  We could easily dismiss this nonsensical game or we can use this opportunity to minister to the people that are very literally sitting at our doors.

I don’t know about you, but I am definitely joining the PokemonGo Out Into the World movement (#pokenmongointotheworld).  Yes, I meant that to be punny, but it fits in with Matthew 28:19 pretty well.

Wanna join me?  We gotta catch ‘em all!

The Wisdom of Youth

15 Mar

Not my students, but we can pretend they are!

On Facebook, I recently posted some off the cuff remarks on what I, as a youth leader, have the privilege to learn from the student with whom I work.  See, the thing is that I often think I will impart the wisdom of the ages on these young minds.  I will amaze them with all my Bible knowledge and life experience.  My middle school girls (the primary group with which I work) are so lucky to have me.

Really and truly, I am so fortunate that God allows me to work with them.  I often tell them I love having a front seat in seeing them grow into young women of God.

Because everyone in the world isn’t my Facebook friend, I thought I’d recap what I posted here and add a little meat to my top 10 list because it’s so easy to forget how much we get from the students who spend time with us.

Here are 10 ways my students pour laughter and encouragement into my life…

  1. They are always FIRST to like my Instagram photos…and they like each and every photo I post.  Sometimes my own mom doesn’t even like my Facebook photos. (To be fair, she’s technologically inept and doesn’t always see my photos.  In case you’re reading this, I love you, Mom!)
  2. Not only do they insist I *REALLY* am engaged to Captain America, they think I’m amazing enough to be engaged to someone LIKE Captain America. (Being engaged to Captain America started as a joke last May and since then has really taken off.  My students, in particular think it’s great and often introduce me to their friends as Captain America’s fiancé.)
  3. If the Captain America thing doesn’t work out, they have back up guys for me to date and it hasn’t occurred to them that these guys might not be interested in me. Seriously, they see the rare single guy at church and automatically start planning our wedding.  Sometimes I look at these guys, who are really good looking and think about how they’d never be interested in me.  These girls don’t see that—they see *ME* and think I deserve the very best, even when I don’t.  I love them so much for wanting that for me.
  4. They remind me that cynicism doesn’t have to be a reality; idealism can flourish. To them, almost every fun idea is a good idea, whether it’s running outside to check out the twin brothers who live next door (note to parents: we are discouraging this) or learning to crochet scarves or sledding down a snow mound during the Super Bowl party.  They are ready for anything.  I love when they’re told they can’t do something and they ask, “Why not?”  It hasn’t occurred to them that certain things just aren’t possible.  I am learning to ask myself the same question because why not?
  5. No matter WHAT the discussion happens to be, they can tell random stories that have nothing to do with the actual discussion. It’s a special skill.  It really is.  If you’ve ever talked to middle school girls, you know what I mean.
  6. They can’t remember to bring their Bibles to *BIBLE STUDY*….but they remember the words I say. As much as I think they aren’t listening to me because they’re staring blankly at the wall or laughing with a friend, they hear me.  They remember when I tell them they can have a piece of candy for memorizing a Bible verse, that I love meat, and even that they are so dearly loved by God.  Keep talking, fellow youth workers, they’re listening.
  7. Even if I think I’m the biggest loser in the world, they think I’m completely awesome.  I was one of those kids that never fit in when I was in middle school.  I could those are three of the roughest years of my life.  High school was only slightly better.  Yet these are the kids who know think I’m a role model.  How on earth does that happen?  I have no idea only to say it is by the grace of God.  Plus, I think listening and showing an interest in the students probably helps a little.
  8. They still think playing WiiU is cool…especially when they team up against me on MarioKart.  I consider it a fellowship and bonding activity.  It’s always fun to win a game against an adult, right?  Except I always crush them in MarioKart.  Sorry, girls, I have a lot more practice driving than you!  It’s fun to be able to “play,” which is something we adults neglect far too often.
  9. They raise their hands when they don’t interrupt each other.  It’s a respect thing and it’s absolutely adorable.  But yes, there are lots of random interruptions.
  10. Sometime they say the most astonishing things, I can’t believe they’re only teenagers.  Last summer when I was running a high school girls small group, we were looking at Psalm 139.  I asked the students, “If we are fearfully and wonderfully made, then why are some babies born with birth defects?”  There was a long pause and one of the girls said, “He makes us how it pleases Him.” I had to take in her thought…and often times, I still have to take in her thought to remind myself, I have been created to please my Creator.

I could probably write an entire book on learning from middle and high school students, but I’m sure many have been written.  Here are a few of my thoughts on some of my favorite people in the world. Thought it’s an often quoted verse for youth, I want to use it just the same. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for all believers in speech, in conduct, in faith, and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12

I’m so fortunate God blessed me with teenagers who set such a high example for me.  My prayer is that I can be worthy of this calling.

She’s leaving home [for college]

28 Aug

Each year a new round of freshmen disembark on the next big journey of their lives—college.  I have seen teenagers enter the hallowed halls of higher education, very much children, and exit very much young women and men.  As a former church youth worker, each year sixth and ninth graders entered the middle and high school groups, while we bid farewell to graduating seniors, who were now college freshmen.  Even though I’m not currently involved in youth ministry, I still mingle with former students from time to time—undergraduate and graduate degrees have been earned, marriages have happened, and babies have been born.  Still, yet again, the freshmen are starting their first days of the fall semester in that strange new world known as college.

This year, my best friend Sarah and I have been helping a special young lady prepare for her future in fine arts at a college in Philadelphia.  Since my college days, I don’t think I’ve ever been so hands on in prepping a kid for what’s to come.  We’ve been on countless shopping trips to buy school supplies, clothing, personal items, storage bins, and who knows what else?  Sarah and I took her to Philly to take her college placement test and assisted her in finding a place to live since on-campus housing was all filled.  Studying her finances, we thought of ways she could practically spend the money she’s saved from working as a cashier for three years.  And let me tell you, it’s been exhausting!

It’s not just running from this sale to that sale or trying to find Twin XL bedding that she likes, it’s the worry.  Am I advising her the right way?  Is this really a good choice?  Should she really live in this apartment?  Will she need more highlighters?  Will she be safe?  Why didn’t she choose a closer school?  Who will be her friends?  What does she think about God and spirituality and all that stuff?  Where is the closest church?  Will she miss me as much as I’m going to miss her?  And finally, will she be OK?

Because I want her to be OK.  I want her to have an amazing college experience in which she will discover parts of herself that she never knew existed.  I want her to come into her own, find her passions, and drink deeply of life. I want her to make lifelong friends, go on a couple crazy road trips, and come through unscathed by the harshness of life.  Most of all, I want her to know God.  When a college boy breaks her heart, I want her to know that God is closer than she can imagine.  As exams and papers pile up, I want her to know that she can find rest in Him alone.  In her religion and philosophy classes, I want her to hold fast to her beliefs and allow them to become solidified.  I want her to know God the way I knew Him in college.

I can’t control all that.  I can merely prepare her for what lies ahead with pens and notebooks and a stapler.  I can have a few long talks when she wants to listen.  I can hug her tightly and let her know that she can always come home.  And I can get down on my knees and pray and trust God that she will be OK

This Beautiful Republic: Youth Ministry’s New Venue

18 Apr

By Amy Sondova Imagine five guys in their 20’s, a bit punchy from being in a van too long, standing at a scenic overlook at the Grand Canyon. In the past few days, they’ve traveled from Ohio to Arizona and now were headed back east again. A fledging rock band, This Beautiful Republic’s lead singer Ben Olin, guitarist Adam Smith and his brother, drummer Andrew, bassist Brandon Paxton, and guitarist Jeremy Kunkle did what any of us would do. They began lobbing big rocks over the side of the overlook and timing to see how long it would for the rocks to hit the bottom of the canyon. About 15-22 seconds according to Olin.

Then Olin says things took a very silly turn, “We got a Dr. Pepper bottle and shook it up real good so it would explode when it hit the bottom. Andy takes it and tries to throw it. He throws it directly up in the air. It comes down three or four feet away from me and explodes all over everybody.” Olin erupts into laughter when he adds, “The scary thing is that I’m holding the video camera and taping the whole thing only three feet away from the edge of the Grand Canyon. So when that thing exploded, I jumped back and Andy thought, ‘Omigosh, he’s going to fall into the Grand Canyon and we’re going to be minus a lead singer for the rest of our lives.’” Fortunately, Olin did not fall into the Grand Canyon and his life remains intact, at least until the band’s next trip westward.

Hitting the music scene with notable impact, This Beautiful Republic (TBR) released their debut album, Even Heroes Need A Parachute in April 2007. Being compared to a plethora of industry heavy-hitters such as Switchfoot, Foo Fighters, and Taking Back Sunday, Olin explains the band’s sound like this, “Take Silverchair and put in some Jimmy Eat World and you get sweaty, honest rock that has great melody, driving guitars, and other cool guitar stuff.” But the band’s technical proficiency, clear vocals, and cut-to-heart lyrics make TBR stand out amongst the Christian music crowd.

“I think the best thing about us, the thing that really makes us stand out, is that our music is creative and original. It’s fresh. People who appreciate music or play music can respect what we do, but it’s catchy enough for the 13 or 14 year-old kids to bounce their heads to and jump around,” explains Olin. And it’s the youth group kids that TBR is targeting. Growing up in youth group, the guys in TBR know the unique struggles Christian teens face and want to encourage them in their faith. The fact the teenagers are the biggest demographic purchasing and listening to music doesn’t impress Olin who says, “From a business aspect, that fact helps but our genuine goal is to reach teens, not get them to buy the CD.”

The business aspect of TBR is not lost on 28 year-old Olin, who after graduating from the University of Toledo with a B.A. in business supervised a Hummer sales team. Olin gave up a steady job and a six figure salary to pursue the rock star life. However, the rock star life can be anything but stellar. “One of the biggest things I wanted to do when I started in this band was to keep the perception real. Performing on the stage, the merch table, the autographs—people get this perception that we’re the Rolling Stones. But when we go home we’ve got to work jobs to put food on the table,” says Olin, and with characteristic wit quickly adds, “So don’t steal music.”

TBR is serious about their song-writing process seeking to craft songs that evoke deep emotion through a purification process that involves ripping apart a song and reworking it over and over again. Unlike many bands, TBR writes their songs as a group in which every member has equal say over the song’s musical and lyrical content. “There’s not one main songwriter in which one person comes in with the melody, the chord progression, and the basic structure of the song already done. Someone brings in a singular idea and bounces it off four other guys. The four other guys give input on what they want the song to do or what would be cool. We go with the very best idea for the song,” shares Olin, who then takes the music home and writes up basic lyrics. The process goes on an on until a song worthy of TBR’s high standards is completed.

“Black Box” is an intriguing song about death and making life count. “Everybody’s going to have a black box,” says Olin. “Will the black box say you lived your life to the fullest for God or that you went to the bar after work, spent 50 bucks, and went to bed? The song’s encouraging people to realize their lives are going to end at some point.” Then Olin shares about his 22 year-old friend who recently had brain surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor, “He was talking about how he needed to be reminded that life is a fragile thing and it can be taken in an instant. He’s treating every day as if it’s the last day and planning for tomorrow.” Only three weeks after the successful operation, Olin’s friend, who is a phenomenal drummer in another band, was back onstage performing.

The reality of life here on planet earth can be far removed from the kingdom of faith and love that the band’s name signifies. It’s this reality—the beauty and the brokenness—that TBR deals with on their album. In the song “Going Under”, Olin the chief lyricist for the band, writes about how God delivered him from a bad situation that restored his belief in God. “I struggle a lot with just being stubborn. God tells me what I need to do with my life, and it’s hard to take that first step. I come to the full realization that God is in control and completely understands what’s going on. He has a plan and just needs me to go along with His plan and forget my own. That’s hard for me,” Olin reveals.

Olin’s ability to share his life, his faith, and his convictions make him an asset to the world of Christian music and to the world of youth ministry. Showing a deep understanding of teens, Olin offers advice and encouragement to youth workers, “Most kids want the ability to speak and be heard. They want a voice. It’s when they get stifled that they get into trouble. My biggest observation through talking to teens is that they love to take and know that you’re listening. Youth workers are huge—these are people who are completely shaping the rest of their lives. They don’t go without recognition and their work is worth it.”

Then again, Olin’s a youth worker at heart with a youth group in the thousands. Think of it as youth ministry in a different venue. Because this band puts a ton of creative and physical energy into their live show, going to a TBR concert could make for a popular youth group outing, one enjoyed by both teens and youth workers. “We’re very high energy. We’ll get in people’s faces, give them high fives, and interact with them. We do thrashing and guitar throw. Our other goal is to play the songs correctly, so that what you hear on the CD is what you hear live, but the way you see these songs is like nothing else.” Olin and the rest of the band love spending time with fans at concerts at their concerts, especially teenagers. “We want teens to be able to hang out with us afterward, get pictures, and get stuff autographed,” Olin says.

Like any good band that panders to youth, TBR is also full of antics. According to Olin, there’s also an unplanned pre-show “show”. “If you just pay attention while you’re waiting for the show to start, you’re bound to see us doing something stupid. We always end up getting in trouble,” laughs Olin. Whether at the Grand Canyon or on a stage, This Beautiful Republic, is endearing, humorous, and yet serious about their faith and their music. Just make sure you step back if you see any of the guys shaking a bottle of Dr. Pepper.

Print copy of article.

Covert Christianity

16 Apr

Written in 2006

By Amy Sondova Today the Christian book man came into my mom’s store to replenish their inspirational literature stand. He and I have a little ritual that takes place each month. He looks at me oddly when I request some of my favorite authors like C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey. They’ve done demographic studies, he says each time, and they know what sells. Maybe it’s futile to try, but today I did it again. I told him that we’ve had requests for some quasi-Christian books—ones that Christians can give to their unsaved friends to offer them hope. He didn’t look at me oddly this time; he looked at me with disgust. They didn’t have books that hid the message of the gospel, he curtly replied. I half-expected him to ask me how I could suggest such a thing. But he didn’t. He simply went about his work. For months, the rack has been housing books such as Amish Home Remedies and Good Clean Jokes to Drive Your Parents Crazy. Not exactly offering moral inspiration to the masses, is it? Yet my request showed fruits of a benign faith to this man.

Sometimes I wonder if I really am hiding my faith under a bushel. I mean, I have a Rock for Life bumper sticker and a Christian fish symbol on the back of my SUV. I try to be Jesus to the people I see (at least most of the time.) I’ve just never been one to walk up to a stranger and ask, “Excuse me, do you know where you’re going when you die?” I did it on a mission trip to Philadelphia once when I was in high school. I hated doing it. There just seemed something wrong with harassing people on the street with the gospel.

Yet these people so desperately need to know who Jesus is and what He did for them. They’re crying out for God’s love and they don’t even know it. Sometimes my burden for the others is so strong, I want to run up to someone, grab them by the shoulders, and shake them while screaming, “Jesus loves you! Do you understand that? He died on the cross for you and you act like it never happened. Please love Him back!” Tears of sincerity would be pouring down the contours of my cheeks, yet I’m fairly certain a simple assault charge would be my reward for this type of “witnessing”.

Street evangelism can be effective. I’ve seen people sob right there on the sidewalk and give their lives to Christ. Children, who came from the poorest of households, prayed for the first time in their lives. These are sacred moments. It feels as though we should take off our shoes in reverence because it is at these times that we trod on holy ground. Still I can’t help but wondering what happens to these individuals once we go home and return to our normal lives.

Personally, I like relational and servant evangelism. Both types of evangelism offer more than the “Here’s-a-tract-and-call-me-in-the-morning” witnessing approach. Relational evangelism was the crux of my relationships with marginal kids in the senior high youth group. Since our church is huge, it was easy for a few kids to slip away from youth group. Fortunately, I knew every nook and cranny of the church (probably because I used to sneak away from youth group, too!) Other adult leaders forced these escapees to return to the youth room. I, however, had a different approach. I just sat there with them and talked about music, weaponry, art, and whatever was on their minds. Sometimes the conversation would take a surprising turn towards God or Christianity, and they shared their hearts. They stayed in the youth room when I did talks, and then eventually stayed every week. It wasn’t because of me though; it was God in me and even then it was God.

Our youth pastor was a big proponent of servant evangelism. One sizzling summer afternoon we gathered the middle and high school students together for a project. A group of over 70 students and leaders trekked to the super Wal-Mart conveniently located next to our church. We were armed with Windex, paper towels, and garbage bags. Our mission was to wash the windshields of the cars in the parking lot. The only indication of our presence was a streaky windshield and a little card telling the car owner that we wanted to show him or her God’s love in a practical way. My mission was to be the keeper of the trash bag in which the kids deposited used paper towels.

As soon as they hit the parking lot, groups of boys ran to the hot rods while the girls began a systematic sweep of the area. The middle schoolers ran from car to car trying to bless as many people as possible (or trying to see who could wash the most windshields). Oh, well, I thought, at least they’re learning about how to serve. They really seemed to be having fun as they started to belt out, “I love Jesus; yes, I do. I love Jesus; how ‘bout you?” Customers were pleasantly surprised to see our teens serving God. I was, too.

An elderly couple and their two grandchildren exited their beat-up station wagon and were immediately approached by a couple of kids. “Can we wash your windows?” one boy enthusiastically asked.

The old man looked down and softly replied, “No, thank you, not today.” The kids ran off to the next car. A couple of girls and I were nearby picking up paper towels some of the boys forgot to throw away. While his wife and children walked away, the old man lingered behind watching us. Then he turned to us and asked, “Well, how much does it cost?” I looked at the girls indicating I wanted them to respond, but they remained tight-lipped.

“It doesn’t cost anything. We’re washing your windows to show you God’s love in a real, tangible way,” I said with a smile. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

The old man’s eyes filled with tears. “No one has ever showed me God’s love like this,” he choked. He was moved beyond words.

“Can we wash your car windows, sir?” I asked hopefully.

“Yes,” he said, “Please do.” Excitedly, the girls raced over to his car and got to work. He thanked the girls for their service and joined his family at the entrance to the store. The girls and I then prayed for that old man, his wife, and grandchildren. And somehow that sticky blacktop became holy ground.

A little while later some students decided that washing car windows wasn’t enough, so they began washing Wal-Mart’s windows. A few decided to return carts abandoned by careless shoppers in the parking lot. A couple of Wal-Mart employees stood at the entrance and laughed at the teens. The employees then blessed us with a whole role of smiley face stickers and thanked the students for their work. One of the kids replied, “No problem. We just did it because God loves you.” Then he put a smiley face sticker in the middle of his forehead. He was Jesus in the flesh. They all were. Smiley faces stickers and all.

Thinking about it, Jesus talked a lot and followed up His words with actions. He spent time with people, talked to them, and He served them. In fact, He was the ultimate Servant Evangelist dying on a cross for our sins. So here I sit in the shop writing this article while Five Iron Frenzy blasts from my laptop. I’m not wearing my faith on my sleeve, nor do I take issue with those who do. There’s a place for all of us at the Great Banquet. I can only hope my seat is near the saints with the smiley face stickers firmly attached to their faces.

Print copy of scribble.

Leeland: Raising Up a Worship Generation

8 Apr

By Amy Sondova w/ Melissa Brown A best-selling album, a GRAMMY nod and several Dove Award nominations, a new marriage, and the Feb. 26 release of sophomore album, Opposite Way—that’s a lifetime of accomplishments for 19 year-old Leeland Mooring, frontman of the band, Leeland. The band’s first album, Sound of Melodies, was heralded by audiences and commanded attention and respect from the pillars of the Christian music industry, including Michael W. Smith, Casting Crowns, Switchfoot, and Chris Tomlin.

In addition to the band’s namesake, the band is comprised of Leeland’s big brother, Jack Mooring (keys/vocals), the Mooring boys’ cousin Jake Holtz (bass), and friends Mike Smith (drums) and Mike Campbell (guitars). In hot demand, the band has been touring nearly non-stop for the past two years, which has given them a lot of time to craft an album that continues the excellence that excited audiences in Sound of Melodies.

Just as Opposite Ways first cut was just being released to the media, Melissa Brown and I had a chance to sit down and chat with the members of Leeland, who despite being 19-24, were intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally mature. Perched on a seat neat to me was Leeland, who rolled up my business card and stuck it in his sock during the interview. Despite his apparent disdain for paper objects, he was surprisingly attentive and well-spoken as were the other band members. Next to Leeland sat Mike C., then Jake, followed by Mike S., Jack, and finally Mel.

Jack took special care to make sure that questions were answered accurately and appropriately and helped moderate discussion. Jake, one of the youngest members, was amazing and forthright, often making the everyone laugh (especially Leeland) while the duo of Mike’s were less talkative, yet insightful. Passionate about raising up a generation of worshippers, Leeland the band was eager to talk and even nicely shared the microphone.

START TRANSMISSION

Amy: I’ll start with Leeland. Everyone loves the fact that you’re 19. Youth workers love the fact that you’re young. What kind of response have you had from youth workers about ministering to teenagers?

Leeland: What’s really cool is when we get to minister at church. We sing for youth groups and the youth pastors are really encouraged. First of all, we see tons of kids that are my age, and I’ve had tons of kids come up to me and say, ‘How do I get that passion for God that you guys have? I look up to you guys and your walk with God.’ It’s humbling and encouraging at the same time for us.

As far as youth workers, we’ve got to really inspire youth workers to nurture the gifts in their own youth groups. We’re trying to encourage youth with their dreams. There might be a kid that loves to draw, loves art, writes poetry, love music, or loves speaking—we love to encourage that and see that develop.

Amy: When people think of “worship”, they think of music. Worship can encompass so much more. What are other ways you guys are encouraging worship in other ways, besides music, even though you are obviously involved within the music genre?

Jack: I think that goes back to our main topic of what we’re taking about, which is raising up a generation of worshipers. Does that mean raising up a generation of songwriters or singers? No. It means maybe quite the opposite. Raising up a generation of worshipers means going past songs and past music into living a lifestyle that glorifies God.

Yes, music is amazing and a great way to worship God, but there are so many other ways to worship Him aside from art. Our goal is to help people to find ways to dedicate their whole lives to God and worship in every aspect of their lives. I definitely think there are lots of ways we’ve missed as a Church to worship God.

Matt S.: For us, it’s more of a lifestyle. We try to be the same on the stage, on the bus, or wherever. Worship is definitely living a lifestyle of prayer and being in a relationship with God. I think if you really want to define worship it’s a lifestyle that is trying to be pleasing to God.

Leeland: Worship is anything that’s glorifying God whether that’s praying or hanging out or cleaning up the church after worship or cleaning the toilet—anything that’s glorifying God in your life or in a song is worship. It literally is your whole life devoted to God.

Amy: Leeland here is the youngest in the band and he’s kind of the “leader of the band”. How do you older guys deal with that?

Mike C: We have a good open line of communication and Leeland’s always been good about pushing everything back towards the band and towards us and making it a group thing. We were the ones that made him take the band name ‘Leeland’. He didn’t want it in the beginning, we were just in our youth group back home playing worship and then we started playing other places as ‘The Leeland Mooring Band’.

Amy: So you guys all went to youth group together?

Jake: Jack and Leeland’s parents started a church about five years ago and yeah, so we started in the church. We met Mike at IHOP and Matt went to a church across the street and Jack was the youth pastor. That’s how it started—in youth band.

Jack: Leeland I were brothers and our parents actually started the church, and maybe the people didn’t know that… (Everyone chuckles at him.)

Amy: You were brothers? What are you now?

Jack: Actually you know we did an official separation for purposes of the band. We didn’t want things to get personal, you know? So, yeah, I was actually youth pastor at the time and Leeland started writing all these songs—he was 12 years old! It was a really cool time in our lives because I would get up and preach and Jake would play bass and Leeland would get up and lead worship. It all came about because of our youth ministry. Without our youth ministry, we wouldn’t be here.

Amy: OK, let’s head back towards youth ministry. There are a lot of kids who are pretty talented and write songs. Obviously, Leeland over here is a musical genius, but how do you encourage kids in their craft without crushing their dreams?

Leeland: In the beginning, the songs may not be that great. But one of the biggest things I’ve noticed is that when someone is really, really close to the Lord and when they’re really been seeking God and have an innocent relationship with the Lord, they could be singing ‘Kumbaya’ and the presence of God will come. I’ve been around some places where the person’s voice wasn’t that amazing or they weren’t great with the instrument, but you could just tell that they were so close to the Lord and loved God so much that when they were playing I felt the Lord and felt him stronger than professional musicians.

Keep encouraging kids to write songs and keep writing and to seek after God as they’re writing. That’s the difference between a great song writer and a great worship leader. A great worship leader is so in tune with the Lord that they could be up there singing anything and the presence of God will come.

Amy: A lot of people look up to you guys as a band—both youth and youth workers because the music’s great and the lyrics are real. What do you think is a critical issue in youth workers? What do youth workers need to know?

Jack: I actually worked with youth before I was in the band. One thing I can say as a word of encouragement is to make time to spend with God and for your self. Youth workers are very selfless people, so they don’t have time for themselves.

Leeland: You are selfless and you give and give and give so much you come to the point where you’re tired. But if you devote yourself to the Lord, you are able to keep your dreams alive for your group and your city. A lot of youth workers start out with great dreams, but they lay down their dreams because they’re tired because they don’t seek the Lord and the presence of God.

Youth workers need to say, ‘God, let your presence fill out youth group.’ We can have Playstations and games all day long, and these worldly things don’t edify. They attract people, but they don’t edify. The presence of God is what our churches need to be asking for, that’s when people are changed.

Jack: Games and all those really cool fun lights attracts the kids, but once they’re there, what happens? Where’s the beef? Where’s the meat? Are they going to take something more home than meeting their friends and beating Guitar Hero? I think that’s where the youth workers need to get on their faces before God.

Amy: Youth workers can be guilty of neglecting their families because they think that ministry is the highest calling, but also family is ministry. How do you guys keep the romance alive with your wives?

Jack: Literally, your family is your ministry. It’s amazing that we’re going to minister to all these people, but 20 years from now if our kids aren’t serving God and our wives have been neglected, I don’t really see the point. When we stand before the Lord, he’s going to ask us how we treated our families, how you treat your children and your wife is going to affect many generations to come.

Amy: So, Jack, honestly, what’s it like being Michael W. Smith’s son-in-law?

Jack: They’re an amazing family. He has a reputation of integrity, and he’s put his family first. You can just tell when you spend time with them. He’s been nice to me and hasn’t given me a hard time.

Amy: We’ve been talking about the Michael W. Smith fan cruise. I was like, “It’s going to be 50 year-old ladies and Leeland”. So, really, what was it like?

Jake: It was like a worship conference to me. It was awesome. It wasn’t all 50 year-old peple. There were younger people there and some people brought their kids. We went to Alaska and spent 7-8 days there. It was free food the entire time. Ice cream in the middle of the night. Milk and cookies.

Jack: And we saw whales and that was amazing.

(Random incoherent mumblings from which I could glean, “We drove the ship into an iceberg.” Mel asks, “Did anyone abandon ship?” All of a sudden Leeland grabs the mic to make this announcement.)

Leeland: The blue whale is the biggest thing in the entire world. Its tongue weighs as much an elephant. It weighs 200 tons and its heart is as big as a car. Its tail is as wide as a small aircraft and you could swim in its largest blood vessel.

Amy: Ooo-kay. On that note, anything that you want to say in closing?

Leeland: Keep dreaming for your city and know that God is with you and be encouraged. God is doing something incredible in the hearts of youth today. Keep encouraging your kids to devote their lives to God.

END TRANSMISSION

For more information on Leeland and their current tour “The Altar and the Door” with Casting Crowns, visit the band’s website (LINK: http://www.leelandonline.com). Also remember to check out their latest album, Opposite Way, which released February 26.

Print copy of interview.

When Cutting Comes to Church

15 Feb

By Amy Sondova, M.A. When Cutting Comes to Church: A Guide for Youth Workers is a manual for youth workers who are working with students who self injure. Because cutting still remains largely a female problem, this manual addresses it as such. To get receive a PDF copy of this manual, When Cutting Comes Home: A Guide for Parents, or the research paper that started it all, Razorblade Confessionals, please e-mail me at amy@backseatwriter.com.

An excerpt from WHEN CUTTING COMES TO CHURCH:

It happened my first week as the youth ministry intern in the summer of 2001. Clara, then 15, a girl I had known for several years, approached me and asked if she could come over to my house and chat with me. Because I had been close to her family since they moved to Allentown, I was excited about the prospect of hanging out with Clara. I babysat Clara and her sister, when they were younger and now I house sat for the teenagers when their parents went on trips. Clara knew me during those turbulent teenage years and she knew my testimony as a recovering cutter.

Clara sat on my Lazy Boy recliner. Petite in stature, she looked lost as she sat with her legs crossed Indian style. Her long hair framed her face and hung past her buttocks. She was a very attractive girl, I noticed, and she looked at me with clear, liquid brown eyes and bluntly said, “I think I’m gay.” Unprepared for such a statement, I kept my composure and explored the topic. True, she had engaged in a lesbian relationship that never directly involved intercourse, but did that make her gay? “Boys just make me feel icky,” she said. “I feel like girls understand me so much better. Amy, you used to be into self-mutilation? I know I can trust you with this. I’m a cutter.” I looked at her pretty face, and wanted to cry. I watched her grow up. I put her to bed when her parents went out. I cared about her. I saw the melancholy torture in her eyes and I knew that she was serious. If Clara was a cutter, who else growing up right in front of me was also cutting?

Over the months and years that followed, more students let me in on their dark, little secret. During one pre-dawn conversation on the high school winter retreat, Julie, 15, told me that she had tried cutting a couple times.

Then another girl, Martha, 16, who I had been counseling, showed up to youth group with mysterious bandages on her wrist. Since I was giving her a ride home that night, I asked her if she had cut. She admitted that she did. The number of students, both male and female, continues to rise dramatically. More often than not, a trusted youth worker knows about a student’s cutting before her parents do.All of a sudden, one of your students has come to you with her horrible secret, or perhaps you found out from someone else, or saw the scars on her lovely, youthful arms. There is hope. God has put this child into your life in this specific time and this place. Because you are her youth worker, entrusted with the responsibility of shepherding a teenager, you are capable of helping her. Come with me on a journey of hope, and let us enlist the help of the Holy Spirit to guide us in our journey. Remember, this is not a dark end, but a new beginning.

Please Note: If you want plan on using more than ten copies of this manual, please obtain permission from the author at amy@backseatwriter.com.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA. This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it <!– document.write( ” ); //–>

The Art of Storytelling

22 Jan

After posting “A Thread of Reality” last night, I felt empowered.  In chatting with a friend about the post, he commented that with transparency comes vulnerability.  And with vulnerability, I thought, comes the chance to be hurt…badly.

As I lie awake in my bed, I pondered why I want to tell my story.  What makes my story worth reading?  What makes my story so special?   The answer was surprising–nothing and everything.  In and of itself, I’ve got another sob story about being bullied as a teen, recovering from self-injury, battling two serious ailments at 21, a dad’s affair, a broken marriage, and a nervous breakdown.  The fact that most of it happened within a span of 12 years, the worst parts in a span of five, make it a bit more interesting.  Still, people have better stories to tell.   To that end, nothing makes my story worth reading.

Yet my story is one of hope and faithfulness, mostly due to God, and the people He placed in my life at crucial times to help me weather these storms.  These individuals are intricately and wonderfully woven into my most trying moments, and my story is also their story.  I find their story both telling and worthwhile.

God’s role in my life is by far the most fantastic.  Without Him, there would be no story to tell.  From the moment He began knitting me together in my mother’s womb, my story began and it continues to this day.  Since my main purpose as a human is to bring glory to God,  how can I not tell of His faithfulness?  God makes my story everything.

Interestingly enough, “Storylines” was the theme at the 2007 National Youth Workers Conventions, where youth workers were invited to see their role in the bigger picture of God’s story.  As a writer, I loved that theme and found it compelling.  I guess that’s how I started thinking about all this stuff, about getting serious about writing my book.   But as I write, I’d love to see others be encouraged to write as well.

Now there are various types of writing.  When I work with writers at Youth Ministry Exchange, they have to have a certain level of skill and proficiency with word smithing.  However, personal storytelling need not be good; it just needs to tell a story.  Obviously, if you have hopes of getting published, your story should be well-written and interesting.  But that’s not necessarily the point of writing–sometimes the point is just to write.  That being said, here are some tips on the art of story telling.

1. Find your main hero or heroine and build your story around him or her.  When writing a story, I find it easy to pick one protagonist and build the story around him or her.  This is easy when I interview an individual, because obviously, he or she is the protagonist.  It can be tricky when I interview more than one person because there are different stories within the same story to tell.  A good rule of thumb, though, is to pick your hero (or heroine).  Perhaps the hero you pick is you!

2. Emphasize a struggle.  Some common struggles include–man vs. enemy, man vs. God, man vs. himself.  If you don’t have some sort of struggle, then your story isn’t well-grounded.

3.  Make sure you build a good foundation to support your story.  No one likes it when a story doesn’t make sense.  For example, when writing a memoir, if you start talking about your husband and children, but never mention that you got married, it causes confusion.  If you wonder about your husband’s faithfulness, establish that your own father was unfaithful.  It helps the reader understand where you are coming from.

4. Allow your other characters to take on lives of their own.  Let their personalities shine–the good, the bad, and the ugly.  It gives a better view of people if they are well-rounded.

5.  Just get it out; you can edit it later.  When you write, don’t worry about whether it’s good or bad, just keep writing.  As you revise your piece, you will take the meat and spit out the bones.  You can go nuts making sure everything is perfect on a first run.

6.  Tell the story, even if no one reads it.   If you want to write a story, any kind of story, just do it.  Don’t worry about whether it’s good or if your friends will like it, just tell your story.  God seems to like to tell stories, and Jesus told quite a few while He was here on earth.  Story telling is part of what it means to be human, to be made in the image of God.   By sharing bits of yourself or your imagination, you are doing part of what you have been created to do, and hopefully giving glory to God with your words.

If Hannah Montana was in my youth group…

6 Dec

Just think of all the possibilities for your youth group if pop singer Hannah Montana a.k.a. Miley Cyrus was in your youth group…

1. The youth worship band would be rockin’ with Miley and/or Hannah as the lead singer. The drawback: All the ‘tween girls would try to sneak into youth group.

2. You could scalp tickets to Hannah Montana concerts to raise money for your youth budget. The drawback: It’s a bit unethical. (Read blog post here.)

3. That church yard sale could make big bucks when the Cyrus family gets rid of old clothes and autographed CDs. The drawback: You’d make more money selling it on Ebay.

4. Attendance would go up 1000%. The drawback: Everyone’s only there to see Miley.

5. Cheap missions trips to Disney World with Hannah; no waiting in long lines to get into Space Mountain.

6. You’d always have a great father/daughter team to emcee and perform at your church’s annual Father/Daughter dinner. The Drawback: Billy Ray would insist on singing “Achey Breaky Heart” every year and his mullet jokes get old

7. You could give Hannah Montana toys to needy kids for Christmas for a discounted fee. The Drawback: Little boys probably don’t want Hannah Montana toys.

8. Rent-A-Teen youth benefits would sky rocket as church families would seek to “rent” Miley for their kids’ birthday parties.

9. The poor girl would have an identity crisis–is she Hannah or Miley? She would definitely need some individual counseling.

10. Hannah Montana could probably get you into some pretty sweet concerts for free. The Drawback: The concerts are all artists that are played on RadioDisney like those High School Musical kids, the Jonas Brothers, and Bucky Kentucky.

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