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?

 

 

 

Movie Review: My Case For The Case For Christ

 

I just got back from watching The Case For Christ. I read the book, ok, read is a strong word; I glanced really hard though the book when it first came out in 1998. It’s a very good reference book for getting the conversation started about the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ.

If you know me, you know I do not look favorably on Christian movies. I review only the good ones (which are few)  because my mother taught me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, shut your mouth. I hold to that today.

You can guys then, because you are reading this, know I have something favorable to say about the movie. Not only do I have something favorable to say about the movie, but I declare The Case For Christ the third best movie ever made about Christ; behind The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson and Silence by Martin Scorsese.

What did I love about this movie so much? Let me count the ways.

First, the movie seems to take place  in the late 70’s early 80’s based on the Tootsie Pop commercial and Kansas’ Carry On My Wayward Son. That’s all a plus since I grew up in the seventies.

There were times I felt like I was watching This Is Us especially when the show focuses on Jack Pearson in the early years. Also a plus. And yes, this movie made me teary eyed too.

If you’re not familiar with the story, this movie is based on the true story of journalist and atheist Lee Strobel as he struggles to deal with his wife’s conversion to Christianity.  But, unlike other Christian movies, this movie is not preachy, heavy handed, or cheesy as it follows the journey of Lee Strobel from atheist to believer.

This movie is well directed and well paced. Jon Gunn who has written for other Christian movies such as Mercy Streets and directed My Date With Drew starring Drew Barrymore. Gunn does a superb job of weaving not one but three story lines throughout the movie and they mesh perfectly.

There are some family side bars, like Lee’s relationship with his father, but even that adds to the movie versus being a distraction.

The tone, the realism, and the feel of the movie made me forget I was watching a “Christian” movie and, for me, that should be the point. There’s no sappy, over the top endings (I’m looking at you Facing the Giants). Gunn has made a movie that actually makes sense and is well crafted from beginning to end.

I also love the “experts” Strobel meets throughout the movie, including a cameo by Faye Dunaway. These characters were not goofy intellectuals or far fetched truth speakers to make the movie work. Each of the experts Strobel visited, were thoughtful and reasonable voices. None of these experts tried to convert Strobel, they only shared with him the facts, most of which he did not want to hear.

One of the biggest reasons this movie separates itself from it’s cheesy counterparts is the acting. Mike Vogel (Cloverfield)  as Lee Strobel  kills it. I believed every step of his journey.  In the movie, Strobel struggles with his marriage, with drinking, with working too much, you know, a real person.

Vogel doesn’t over commit, but  keeps a steady pass throughout the movie and  shows what a real marriage looks like when the person you married changes, even if it’s for the better. The film is filled with conversations I could see real couples having about their faith or lack of it.

Vogel is not carrying this by himself. Erika Christensen (Parenthood, Flight Plan) plays Leslie Strobel and she does an excellent job of partying a hurt, confused wife trying to understand her faith and save her marriage.

Leslie finds Christ after her daughter is saved from choking by a nurse (Alfie) played by L. Scott Caldwell (The Fugitive, Gridiron Gang). Leslie’s conversion sets up the tension for the rest of the movie as Strobel tries to debunk the faith she has found.

I felt the struggle between Lee and Leslie. I felt the anger of Lee towards his father. I felt the desperation of a marriage that was crumbling. I felt the light in Lee’s eyes as he came to the conclusion so many people have after  examining the Christian faith for themselves.

Maybe the best compliment I can give this movie is that going in, I thought it would only make me think and instead it made me feel. Here’s to more Christ-centered movies that make me do both.

 

Why Pentecostals Should Celebrate Lent

I have not always been Pentecostal. In fact, I did not choose to be Pentecostal,  it sort of chose me. I was a resistance, skeptical, former Catholic who found himself at a protestant Bible College seeking God.

I received the gift of the Holy Spirit in a church off campus and it was not a smooth thing. God and I had a struggle going on. I didn’t want to go to the front to be prayed for so I said, “God, if you want me have this, you can give it me right here.” And, by God’s grace, he worked with me and blessed me with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

I was raised in the Catholic Church for 17 years. Needless to say, this experience was quite new.. Before you start thinking that I started jumping pews or running around the church, I did none of those things. I simply received and then smiled at how good God was to me.

Now, having been a Pentecostal youth pastor in some capacity for the past 26 years, old habits die hard. Lent is, and has been, one of my favorite times of the year. I used to love the colors in the church, the ashes on Ash Wednesday, and a whole church effort to get to know Jesus better. I carry this tradition on in my own life though I do not attend a Catholic church.

Pentecostals can be funny about the practices of other faiths, but I am here to tell you that Lent is not a Catholic practice or a Methodist practice, it’s a Christian practice.  If you’re a pentecostal and not familiar with what Lent is, here is a brief definition from umc.org

Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry.

Lent is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. In the early church, Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism. Today, Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others.

I know Pentecostals love fasts, such as the Daniel Fast, because we like to fast at the beginning of the year to get things rolling. We like the sound of ‘calling a fast” because it sounds super holy and super Jewish. Beyond these trivial reasons, Pentecostals should embrace Lent for other reasons.

First, we should embrace repentance. Although our sins are forgiven and we  enjoy every blessing in heaven and under heaven, we must take time to mourn for not only our sins but the sins of our nation. Our repentance may not be for our grievous sins of commission, but rather our sins of omission.

Second, Lent allows us to identify ourselves with the life and heart of Jesus. Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit for a time of prayer and preparation. We should take advantage of these 40 days to prepare ourselves to celebrate the greatest event in history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In addition to preparing our hearts for the cornerstone of the Christian faith, we should also prepare ourselves for the mission God has for us, to bring the message of “He is risen” into every corner of our communities and our world.

Lastly, Lent is not about not receiving or asking anything of God,  but about acknowledging what has already done and for the grace to receive it. Lent allows us come to God not with open hands, but open hearts. Lent allows us to humbly come to Jesus and say thank you for loving me, thank you for dying for me, thank you for taking on my sins, my struggles, and my shame.

Let me close with some wise words from St. Teresa of Calcutta,

“As Lent is the time for greater love, listen to Jesus’ thirst…’Repent and believe’ Jesus tells us. What are we to repent? Our indifference, our hardness of heart. What are we to believe? Jesus thirsts even now, in your heart and in the poor — He knows your weakness. He wants only your love, wants only the chance to love you.” — Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

Lent allows God to love us more fully so our hearts will be open to loving others more graciously.

If you are Pentecostal, consider looking at Lent in a different light and lean into  the sacrifice and surrender that Lent affords us.

This Lenten season, Christ our Savior awaits with outstretched arms to hold us, love us, and secure us.  Let us come humbly and enjoy His presence.

If you want to get the Lent ball rolling with your young people on Instagram, try my Insta-Lent Devotions 

Join The Quiet Resistance

I have been resisting for years.

Resisting authority

Resisting conformity.

Resisting average.

Lately, I’ve seen the resistance going on in our world and I am not resisting the cause, I am resisting the mode of resisting.

I am resisting hatred.

I am resisting negativity.

I am resisting piling on.

I am resisting flash in the pan protests in favor of quietly protesting every day, my way. I daily resist, Apathy, Negativity, Laziness, and Bullying.

I am in favor of protest. People should act on their convictions. A Protest without love though is not a protest, it’s an angry mob. Love has to go out to those we care for and for the ones against whom we are protesting. One without the other is  just pitchforks and torches afraid of the angry monster.

I want to live a lifestyle of resistance. My life is a protest, but you’ll never see my resistance on a t-shirt,  a banner, or a sign. You will not see it on the news. You will see it in 10,20,30 years in the lives I impact as, one by one, I encourage the people around me to resist

Authority with respect.

Conformity with creativity.

Average with excellence.

I guess some things never change. Join me.