10 Important Youth Ministry Practices That Could Prevent A Teen Suicide

Recent suicides by entrepreneur Kate Spade and chef/tv star Anthony Bordaine, reminded me that if money, power, influence, tons friends and excitement  can’t hold back depression and suicidal thoughts, what’s keeping a kid in my youth group from ending his or her life?

Here’s the podcast

This report, last year (2017) show that teen suicide is on the rise

Here are the notes

I have had, to my knowledge, only one student attempt suicide in my 30 years of youth ministry. I cannot tell you whether any of my youth ministry practices prevented any of these as there are no testimonies as such. But, my hope is, that everything I tried to do (listed below) was a speed bump for a kid who was heading down that path.

Let me share 10 youth ministry practices that could keep a kid from ending their life.

open ended questions…

So much of a midweek meeting with youth is about the program. Youth leaders are trying to make the program happen so the conversations with students can b very surface level. Regardless of the length of the conversation, we can ask open ended questions that would allow a student, who you’d consider at risk,  the room to answer openly and honestly.

Start with “how’s school going?” but go a little deeper with, “Do you feel like you have a strong group of friends to help you make it through school?”

affirm their worth & how much God values them

Kids are constantly hearing about how much they don’t measure up.  We have to pour on the love and affirmation to counteract that. I don’t just mean through messages, but though one on one, over lunch, or in a text message.

You don’t need to see them down and out before giving them a kind word. Give them the love they need long before they need it.

forgiveness and redemption 

Jesus is our hope. I, like you, have preached my share of fire and brimstone, not good enough to go to heaven, messages. I don’t deny the reality of hell, our own sinfulness or our inability to measure up to the holiness God asks of us, but if this is the only messages kids hear, what hope is there?

I’ve gotten much better at offering truth in love with a bunch of hope for good measure. God reveals to each of us how we do not measure up and pours grace upon our wounds. A student doesn’t need our condemnation and judgment, they need to know there is a way to be forgiven and that God has made a way out of the darkness they’r in.

follow up

This one is so simple, yet, the busyness of life steals it like Satan steals the seed. How many times has God checked my heart to call or contact a student who I thought was struggling and busyness swallowed that thought? Too many to count.

Whether it’s us or one of our leaders, we have to respond to the Spirit’s prompting towards those kids who are missing in action. If a student misses one night that’s one thing, but two in a row, that could means something else. We must be diligent to notice when students are not with us. When we call or text we are saying, “We noticed you were gone.” We care.

random kindness

I had a student who was sick recently. I could have sent a text and offered “thoughts and prayers” but I went deeper. I had a lady in our church, who’s a florist, put together some of this students favorite goodies and deliver them to her house by the time she was arriving home from a procedure.

This girl was not an “at risk” student, but I did it anyway. Why? Because I don’t know how much kindness she receives at school. She doesn’t fit the type of kid who might think about suicide (neither was Spade or Bordaine) and I hope, with healthy doses of kindness towards her, she never will.

be awkward, “how are you doing, really?”

Go ahead and be awkward. I had a conversation with a young man who, by his pictures on Instagram, was not going well for him, The pics, plus not looking well, plus hear say, led me to believe he might be at risk.

We sat at McDonald and I saw something in his eyes and demeanor I did not like. So I just asked him, “Have you thought about hurting yourself lately?” He denied having an inclinations, and it was awkward to ask, but I’m still glad I did. Now, he knows that I know he might have been having struggles. He might open up next time I ask.

train teens/leaders to be empathetic

Youth night at church should be a safe haven for kids, but sometimes the students in our ministry do not act any different than the kids they see at school. Youth night is filled with imperfect kids who do and say imperfect things just like we do, but we have the microphone or the floor,  and we can direct thoughts and attitudes.

We can teach on how Jesus who, rather than judge others, showed mercy and empathy. We can have practices like

  • getting to know each other’s names
  • meet and greet
  • small group time for conversation
  • affirmation times

These kind of things are not practiced regularly or enforced at school;  but at church, kids willfully come and we can design our meetings to encourage kids to practice empathy towards one another.

clearly defined standards, policies and procedures

I am a big fan of standards. If the house rule is not bullying, that’s the rule and no one is beyond it. If the house rule is no creeping on each other, that’s the rule and I enforce it to the best of my ability.

I had a group of kids one time where one boy would not leave a girl alone. I asked that young Man to stop, I councils him, I told hime to take a few weeks off to think about it and call me every week to check in. He would not have any of it and neither would his friends, and they all left.

Not only should we have standards (rules) we enforce but when we have kids at risk, we need to have phone numbers in our phone for emergencies, numbers of counselors or therapists we can recommend, and other resources we can point to.

If a kid maks the claim that they are going to commit suicide, we need to have a policy, back up by the church, that allows the youth pastor to make that call in agreement with his pastor or boss.

be prophetic

If you’re older than a teenager, you have some thing they do not, perspective. You’ve lived through a few things. You know things because you came though some stuff with God’s help. We need to pass that on.

If you’re a youth worker or a Christian, like me, you have some idea of God’s word and the hope and promise it contains, and you need to spread it around.

We have to see kids, not as they are, but as they will be. Jesus called Peter the rock while he was still a pebble. We should be looking at kids and saying things like,

  • you can make an impact
  • you have potential
  • you have more courage in you than you think
  • you could be a leader

Positively prophesying over a student lets’ them know that you see something they may not and affirms their worth and value. Powerful, positive, Spirit-Filled words can change the course of life for a kid and lead them out of the darkness.

small groups and accountability

Connecting kids in a smaller group where they can know others and be known is powerful step for at risk kids. Being in a smaller group allows them to build trust and be more vulnerable as well as have a safety valve to release the pressures of life.

These groups do not have to be standard Bible study groups, but could be groups who are just committed to checking in, praying for one another, and lifting one another up on hard days.

Like I said, I cannot prove that any thing I just listed here has averted any kid from taking their life, but, I can’t disprove it either. So, I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and pray for the same outcome, that kids will find their way out of the darkness and into God’s marvelous light.

Here’s a free resource from my friend Jim Hancock on dealing with suicide

Here’s my interview with Jim on How To Deal With A Crisis

Youth Ministry Round Up #4

Articles

The Day My Church Died (As sad tale, but a reminder that even the most spiritual endeavors come to an end.

Relentlessly Poking The Revival Fires

The Problem of Watching Porn and Playing Video Games – For Girls 

Podcasts

Ministry Zoo Podcast 

Videos

You Should Try- Great advice from Leslie Odom

Logic is a super popular rapper. Your kids know him. You should too.

If your kids love soccer, this could be fun around World Cup time.

This is a fun game. The channel is filled with great icebreakers, games, etc. The game even comes with a pdf that you can download HERE

Youth Bible Study: The World Is Still Looking For A Savior

How do I know this? Because we keep making art about our need for the transcendent. Iggy Azalea is looking for a savior. The problem is, the Savior we want and the Savior we have (Jesus) are two different things. Watch the video and I’ll discuss more below.

Now, if you decide to use this with your youth, think through whether this video is too salacious for the boys. Maybe you could show it for a girls Bible Study or you could just use the lyrics

The imagery is a throw back to Madonna and many of her religious themed videos. 

In the beginning, Iggy sings about a guy and her longing and waiting for him to be her savior, someone to save her. She sings

I’ve been looking for a savior (hey)
I’ve been looking for a savior (hey)
I’ve been looking for a real one to hold on to (hey)
I’ve been looking for a savior, savior, yeah, to save me

She shifts from her focus in the man she’s looking for to her relationship with God.

I feel like God playin’ tricks on me, got a fix on me
Feel the weight of the world like I got a brick on me
Had a dance with the devil and he got a grip on me
I’m just tryna get to heaven, hope you got a ticket for me, huh
I’ve been sending up prayers, I need feedback
Past full of sin, can someone delete that?
My path got muddy, I feel like my feet trapped
Can you give me the strength now to beat that?

Have you ever felt like Iggy? Which part of the lyrics speak to you? In the second stanza, she “asks” seven questions many people are asking.

Does God have it out for me? Deuteronomy 6: 23,24

How do I get the world off my back? I John 5:4

How do I break the devil’s grip? I John 3:8

How do I get to heaven? John 3:36

How can I hear from God? Psalm 46:10

How can I get rid of my sins? I John 1:9

How do I get unstuck? Psalm 40:1-3

By the end of the song, she sings the chorus again, but the question is, has she moved on from the boy and talking to God?

She says, what we’re all thinking and  looking for

I’ve been looking for a savior
I’ve been looking for a savior
I’ve been looking for a hero in my corner
I’ve been looking for a savior
A savior, to save me

We all want a hero in our corner, and Jesus steps up and says, “I’ll be that hero”. Is He the Savior you’ve been looking for?

Why Is It So Hard To Connect With “Weird” Kids Like Nikolas Cruz?

And Broward County Mayor Beam Furr told CNN that Cruz had been getting treatment at a mental health clinic for a while, but that he had not been back to the clinic for more than a year. “It wasn’t like there wasn’t concern for him,” Furr told CNN. “We try to keep our eyes out on those kids who aren’t connected. … In this case we didn’t find a way to connect with this kid.”                   – Washington Post 

I have been a professional youth worker for 28 years and connecting with students is what I do. I find a way to connect on the surface (sports, movies, etc.) and find ways beneath the layers to express unconditional love and speak truth, with permission.

Nicholas Cruz was went through the loss of both of his parents before the age of twenty. This is no excuse to kill 17 people, only a reminder that this kid was a walking open wound who sensed life was shaking salt all over him. Violence was his response to whatever he deemed was unfair or unjust about his life.

The report, by all accounts, is that he had a good mom. She supported him , gave to him, and loved him, but she may have been the only one. It’s still early in this tragedy and there will be those who were his friends that may come forward and offer some kind of perspective to the kinds of relationships they had with him.

In addition, after his mother died, he lived with a family who got him a job, drove him to school. and overall supported him. He left that home do to things “not working out”.

The word that I read over and over again in the articles like the Washington Post, in regards to Nicholas’ demeaner, was that he was weird and people struggle with weird or off-putting behavior that does not match social norms. Teens who like anime or cosplay are “weird”, to some, but behavior such as Nicholas’s  love of guns and knives and his infatuation with harming animals etc. is a differ kind of weird.

Disconnected kids, like Nicholas, are nothing new, but many professionals, like Jonathan McKee as well as others, saw what the internet would do to exacerbate this disconnection five years ago.

It seems to me students today are more isolated, have fewer close friends, and are drifting away from activities with personal interaction. This is creating a relational void in their lives. Add this to the growing levels of stress and pain teenagers already face as part of adolescence, and it is no wonder we are seeing an increase in teenage anxiety, depression, violence, and self injury. Teenagers are hurting more than ever before. – Jonathan Mckee 2013, Youth Specialties, Blog Post

“Connecting with students” is a somewhat ambiguous term What does that mean? Does it mean we, adults or youth workers like or approve of everything a kids likes? No, it means we can look past the surface, and our own biases, to what’s happening behind the eyes of a student and seek to engage anyway.

I’ve dealt with my own share of kids who were hard to reach. Some I was successful with and others I was not. Like Jonathan says in his article, it was his face to face interactions with hard to reach kids that made all the difference.

It’s hard to talk to kids about their social idio-syncricies, their lack of hygiene, their awkward interactions with the opposite sex, their fascination with horror movies or violence, but it’s these hard issues that kids need us to talk to them about and affirm that, although these are difficult subjects, we’re having these conversations with them because we love the, and want life to be good for them.

Who looked past the weirdness of Nicholas Cruz and their own discomfort, to have a face to face or a heart to heart with him?  I don’t know. Right now, the news is fixated on his social media accounts and who should be blamed for all of this.

While this is going on, there’s another kids sitting somewhere who needs a face to face, a loving word, an affirmation during their difficult times, and they need someone who doesn’t mind a little discomfort who will risk rejection on behalf of love to reach them.

 

Cell Phones Aren’t What’s Wrong With Your Youth Meeting

I hear about kids being on their cell phones during youth meetings and ignoring what is going on. I have not had that experience.  It could be because we have smaller group (15-20) and they are far more noticeable in a small group, so they don’t risk it. I also think there are a few things that I do, intentionally, to keep kids from checking out on their cell phones and they may help you as well.

I work hard on my messages

If kids are checking out  on me, it’s because I’m not saying anything interesting. I work hard only messages so they will be engaging, thought provoking, and sometimes interactive. I want every kid to be invested in what I am going to say, but more importantly, I want them to know that the Holy Spirit has something to say to them.

I make eye contact

I don’t use notes any more, I use the slides I create as my notes. If I buries in my notes, that gives kids permission to be distracted and check out.

I walk around

Once again, if your group is larger, this may not be an option, but if I see someone talking or I see two kids sitting together that looks like they are Russia and the U.S.A colluding to make trouble, I walk over and speak right in front of them. This lets them know I am aware without being rude or calling them out.

I ask them questions 

So, I just said I don’t call kids out, and I don’t, but, the next best thing is to ask a question. I try to make the question and honest one, that has to do with the message, and I watch my tone of voice so they don’t think I’m being mean. I am genuinely trying to snap their attention back to what’s going on rather than trying to embarrass them (btw, this does not work).

I get them involved in the message

I love illustrations. I love getting kids up and letting them help me make my point. Kids could help you by holding signs (your points) or by acting as props (you be Jesus and you be Peter, etc.) and have them act our the story as you tell it.

I also have kids ready to read scripture so they can’t veer to far from the notes otherwise they will be unprepared.

I have them use their cell phone in positive way

If I think someone is having a problem with their cell phones, I ask them to help with my message. I ask them

  • Would you take notes tonight so I can see how effective I am
  • Can you take some pics of me preaching for the website or social
  • Can you make a few memes

I know this sounds crazy and even counterintuitive, but I find that kids would rather feel useful than just sit and listen to me. If we are measuring how good we are by how well kids sit quietly, pay attention, and fawn over our presentation I am afraid we all lose. I

I foster mutual respect

I have never had to take a kids cell phone away during service. If I think their is a problem, I will talk with kids during the week or after serve and let them know I love them, I saw them on their cell phones and I ask them “What can I do to help you get more engaged?” or “Hey, I know your cell phone is important, but I really need you to be an example to others” . How I approach them depends on my depth of relationship with them, but it is always respectful.

So, what distracted kids before cell phones? Everything else. Their friends, some thing they fidget with, etc. At least today, we can use these distractions and turn them into tools of engagement.

Cell phones are not the issue. Our attitude towards cell phones, and sometimes the kids who use them, are the issue.

 

My Top 17 Christian Albums of 2017

This list is not in any particular order and includes bands you’ve probably never heard of. I love extra-ordinary artists that do not get the hype of average artists industries push as the next…

I scoured the release list provided by Jesus Freak Hideout and listened to many artists I had missed and I’m so glad I did because I found some gems. Enjoy.

Manafest –  Stones

Manafest has been around a while,  I found him in his rap days and he has matured to quite the rocker. This is great album with smart lyrics and get riffs.

Demon Hunter – Outlive 

Looking for a little thrashing with a lot of conviction? These veteran rockers have not lost their edge or their mission. Jesus Wept, The End, and Raining Down are some of my favs. Some good keyboard work in this as well.

As We Ascend – Farewell To Midnight 

Has an old school rock feel that you’d want to play with a Beats headset while playing air drums. This is not to say they don’t have something to say with songs like When The Gun Goes which deals with suicide.  Good keyboard and killer guitar solos. Feel free to crank Watch The World Burn up to 11.

Ce Ce Winaans – Let Them Fall in Love

This may be the most perfect album of the year.  I could listen to this album all the way through. Ce Ce’s rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s Why Me is worth everything. Other standouts include He’s Never Failed Me Yet, Hey Devil, Dancing In The Spirit, and Marvelous.

Hollyn – One Way Conversations

Simply a breath of fresh pop air with a raw honesty about relationships but plenty of room for being fun and young. Awe is a stand out track for me.

Steven Malcom 

New school hip hop with a touch of the old school. If you have seen his video for cereal…where you  been? It’s this generations Cartoon Network (KJ52)

Mercy Me – Lifer

This was a surprise for me. Mercy Me has been going though some musical changes that I’ve enjoyed. They’ve been playing with abandon and it shows on songs like Happy Dance, Life, and the solemn Even If.

Army of Bones – Army of Bones 

What is not to like about this Martin Smith (Delirious?) led band? Absolutely nothing. Although not listed in the Christian section of iTunes, you can still feel the passion and Spirit behind the lyrics. Dead In The Water is my jam.

Zach Williams – Chain Breaker 

Blues, Rock, his rendition of Midnight Rider and the song Freedom. That is all. You’re welcome.

Bethany Barnard – A Better Word 

A beautiful and simple worship/country-esque album that hits all the right notes. If you use this as an entry to your prayer time (and I recommend you do) I would suggest keeping a tissue box handy as many of the songs will strike a chord as the Holy Spirt beckons you deeper.

Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black 

This Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) produced album is jam packed with blues guitar and positivity. The political tones are not so much avert but are hard to miss in the times we live in. The album is a gentle nudge (but a nudge none the less) to live  wide awake, take action, love better, and love more.

Krum

If you like your rap old school with some progressive blues sensibilities, this is your jam. I loved the rhymes, the jams, and the message behind the whole album. Lots of honesty and heart. The songs Blue Eyed Devil, Dougie With The Devil, and Oddball are stand out tracks.

Beautiful Eulogy – Worthy

At first glance of the Spotify pic I thought I was looking at a Beastie Boys photo. The dreamy beats, the smooth flow, and the direct message all make for a great album worth listening to all the way through. The songs If.. and a killer version of the Doxology are some of the highlights.

The Welcome Wagon – Light Up The Stairs 

I can’t tell you the last time I listened to a Tooth and Nail record, but it was definitely in the 90’s. I’m glad to have stumbled on this T&N album because it reminds me of the quirky-ness I remember from bands like Havalina Rail Co. or Morella’s Forrest. Light Up The Stairs is something you want to listen to when everything starts sounding the same. They will cleanse your music pallet and maybe a little of your soul as well.

Matt Mahr – Echoes

Oh Matt, what have you done? You made an album that makes me think about this world and my part in making things right. Matt’s call is to all believers is to get off the bench and engage with the world around them in a civil and Christ-Like manner.  Not only does this album prick my conscious (and my heart)  but it makes my foot tap along while it’s happening. God has the front row seat in every song and had me wishing, “I wish they’ play this in church”.

Jordan Feliz – The River

Jordon didn’t initially make my list. Maybe because at first blush I thought this was a copy of a copy album but, with several listens, I’ve changed my mind. The lyrics are strong, not sappy. The vibe is fresh not re-hashed. Jordan puts his heart into each song. Hope is a strong theme through out. He reminds me, a little,  of Eric Champion in his freshman and sophomore albums, and that’s a good thing. Put it on, and just enjoy and let Jordan’s vocals sweep you into better mood.

Andy Mineo  and Wordsplayed – Magic and Bird

Pure fun. Take the Way Back Machine to the 80’s and 90’s with this clever rap take on basketball legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Did a miss one? Share in the comments.

Here’ my playlist with 17 of my favorite songs, one from each album so you can get a taste.

 

 

 

 

The Future of Youth Ministry Depends On This

Are you a time traveler. Do you live in the future and visit the past every time you go to church?

Many people do. I love the church, it’s first century church principles, but I don’t want to go back to sitting on the floor and eating falafel.

There are many time traveling Christians. They live in the 21st Century and flash back to the 1970’s, 80’s and even 90’s every Sunday and it’s killing the faith.

I used to complain about mega churches and now I’m a fan because at least they embrace technology and they believe the message is important enough and that people are important enough to do Facebook Live, Instagram Stories, and every new etc.

So many youth pastors, of my age (40 and above) have resisted technology, social media, etc. I’m not saying you have to do it but at least find a kid or a young adult who will document the journey of your ministry. I think we should also live out your faith publicly, online and off,  so other teens and people in your community can see how a faith life works even with it’s ups and down.

How important is the message? How important are your students? Enough to change? Enough to learn something new?

Our ability to change, adapt, and adopt will set the pace for  future generations. In fact, the future of our student’s faith depends on it.

 

 

Don’t Be Surprised

Christians under daily punishment flourish all the more. This is the high rank to which God appointed them; and it is not permitted to seek exemption.  – Ignatius

Ignatius seemed  kind of obsessed with martyrdom, at least according  to his writings,  and being torn apart by wolves and such. Let’s us just stay I’m not as excited for martyrdom as he was. Nevertheless, I agree with the last part of this statement that comes from his Epistle to Diognetus.

We cannot seek exemption from times of persecution because exemption shall not be given. Yet, in our entitled society, exemption is the only thing many believers seek.

We pray things like”Why me Lord?”, “What did I do?”, “Whys is this happening to me.”, wen trouble comes to us.

Even the early Christians understood that exemption was a ridiculous thing

I John 3:13 says

Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.

and

I Peter 4:12 says

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

Ignatius saw persecution as a high rank given by God. Today we see trouble and suffering as something to be prayed away rather than accepted and prayerfully explored, and even pursued  as the Apostle Paul was

I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, Philippians 3:10

When I see Christians in Syria killed, I am saddened but not surprised.

When a church is bombed in Africa I am saddened but not surprised.

and when I see this stat

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity, an academic research center that monitors worldwide demographic trends in Christianity, estimates that between the years 2005 and 2015, 900,000 Christians were martyred — an average of 90,000 Christians each year. – via Fox News

I am saddened, but not surprised.

If I have a choice between being persecuted or not being persecuted, I (in the flesh)  choose not to be persecuted, but if I am, I will  not be surprised by it. Will you?

 

5 Options To Consider Before You Go Nuclear

In light of the United Airlines debacle, I thought we should talk about how we should respond to the occasional obstinate teenager without losing our minds and reputations.

If you’re not aware of the United Airlines incident, it’s simple, United Airlines flight was full, they needed passengers to voluntarily leave. When no one volunteered United used force to remove a passenger and it was a bad scene. Hello? People? Cell Phones? Documenting everything?

There were, sadly, too many times where I confused action and force.  Although I’ve never man-handled a kid, I’ve used force in different ways including yelling, arguing, and stand offs. None of the were great options.

Thankfully, through the years, I have learned some other options before choosing the “nuclear option” as way of getting your students to comply.

Incentivize

One of my first options is to make whatever I am asking a teen to do seem to be (or actually be) worth their while and in their best interest. Some might call this bribery but bribery is “I’ll give you this if you do that”. I see incentives as rewards for good behavior not bribery to do good behavior.

United Airlines tried to incentivize for people to give up their seats but to no avail. United has enough money, they could have given away much more and should have, to avoid the incident that took place. A youth workers budget is a bit more meager but that does not mean we can’t sweeten the pot a bit more.

Compromise

I have to admit that there were times when my requests were either unreasonable or sounded unreasonable to the teenager I was talking to. United had to get people off the flight because they overbooked the flight.

There are times when teens have to do what I say because, if they don’t, more trouble will ensue; but there are times when its o.k. to compromise instead of choosing a hill to die on.

Wait It Out

I was always too quick the draw to address a behavior issue. I wanted control and my authority to be accepted. I remember one time at camp I yelled at kids who rage quit during one of the competitions. I screamed “You have no character.” #IAmALoser

Thankfully, we worked it out later which means I apologized, he accepted and we moved on, but I wish I had simply waited on him to calm down before I addressed the issue. My yelling at him only escalated the situation and I regret that.

Just Listen

Usually, the teen’s issue I am addressing is never the issue. If a student is being obstinate, there’s a reason for it and it’s not always the reason they tell me. So, what to do?

I Just listen. I listen for voice inflection, emotion, and content. Is the student more mad than sad? Or vice versa? Do I know the students background and is this issue to do with that? Taking

Listening to teens and discerning, in the moment, gives us some clues on how to address the blow up or the challenge that teen is presenting to you or the group. Me yelling gets me no where and further away from the reason  this teen is having an issue.

Raise the Bar

I do this mostly with guys, but it’s effective. If I know the student well, I just tell them, “I expect more from you.”. Normally this get the guy thinking about his example in front of others. This tactic at least allows me an open to why the student is behaving the way they are.

If I do not know the student well, I tell them, “Hey man, super glad you’re here, but we have a high standard on this trip and that behavior is just not going to cut it.” I say this with an even tone and allow the student to respond anyway they like and then I respond from there looking of any connecting points.

Hopefully, this puts a few more tools in your conflict resolution toolbox.

What are your favorite tactics for de-escalting a problem?