VIA MEDIA My [Own] Space: Supervision vs. Surveillance

Jul 22, 2014 Art Bamford

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people.
Read Part 1 here: VIA MEDIA A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People

In a scene from the film Jurassic Park, one of the scientists explains how the velociraptors have been systematically testing the electrified fence all the way around the perimeter of their captive environment. He points out that rather than running into the fence and shocking themselves repeatedly, the dinosaurs were clever enough to start tossing sticks at the high voltage fence instead.

This image of savvy velociraptors is not unlike one of the ways that young people use social media. Researchers have found that new technologies have become an important part of the process of identity formation that occurs during our adolescent years.[[Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Horst, H. A., ... & Tripp, L. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. Digital media.]] Digital technology has become a space where young people can “throw sticks” at the boundaries of their identity to see what kind of reaction they will get before they decide to break out beyond those boundaries completely.

It is important to begin by reminding ourselves what the process of identity formation is about. Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains this developmental stage as follows:

“During our teenage years, we begin to discover that there exists a world of different ideas, different cultures, different people. We experiment with the idea that we don’t have to limit our life’s course, our personalities, or our decisions to what we were taught by our parents, or to the way we were brought up…when we are young, and in search of our identity, we form bonds or social groups with people whom we want to be like, or whom we believe we have something in common with. As a way of externalizing the bond, we dress alike, share activities, and listen to the same music.”[[Levitin, D. J. (2011). This is your brain on music: Understanding a human obsession. Atlantic Books Ltd.]]

It used to be the case that you might start listening to heavy metal and try wearing all black to school, for example. If you received positive feedback from your peers, you would align yourself more with that identity; if you received negative feedback you would try something different. Goth? Zap. Try something else. Hippie? Zap. Try something else. Repeat as long as necessary. This experimentation was not all done in public, and there was not usually a permanent record of it (apart from an embarrassing photo or two).

Social media provide another space where identity experimentation can play out. However, researchers John Palfrey and Urs Glasser explain how this has changed in a distinct way thanks to digital technology: “One of the big differences between what Digital Natives are doing in creating and experimenting with their identities and in interacting with their peers online, and what their parents did as teens talking on the telephone, hanging out at the local mall, is that the information that today’s youth are placing into digital formats is easily accessed by anyone, including people whom they do not know.”[[Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2013). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. Basic Books. p. 30.]]

So why not just share it all?

Digital technology lets young people explore their options and receive feedback from their peers in a seemingly lower risk, less intimidating space. They can post a selfie wearing all black and gauge the response of friends and followers before actually choosing to spend an entire day at school dressed that way.

But this is where it becomes frustrating for parents and youth leaders. It can be terribly difficult to discern what is a stick being tossed at the high-voltage fence of identity boundaries as opposed to something intended as genuine.

A lot of conflict can come from adult supervision of teenage online sharing because young people feel like their privacy has been violated. This is because adolescents want, and need, some space to go about the “work” of their own identity formation among their peers without an adult hovering around over their shoulders. Both having privacy, and negotiating between how we present ourselves publicly and privately, are key parts of becoming an adult in our society.

What’s that you say?

Adding to this confusion, there is a process of encoding that young people have developed as a strategy for preserving their privacy in digital spaces, where it is never quite clear who is looking. Teens will use “inside joke” types of clues from face-to-face interactions in order to conceal messages within what they share digitally. That is why the things that young people share online often seem like nonsense, or another language to parents and leaders. Author and scholar dana boyd helpfully explains that: “Rather than finding privacy by controlling access to content, many teens are instead controlling access to meaning.”[[Boyd, D. (2014). It's Complicated: the social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press. p. 76]]

Young people very intuitively determine what, where, and how they share content and interact with peers digitally across various social media platforms. More often than not, they are intentionally being cryptic and speaking to a specific set of their friends. Researchers have generally found that teens do not expect their parents to understand what they are saying and sharing online—but also that young people often enjoy explaining it to adults! At their age, being consulted to explain something is a pretty rare occurrence.

It is really tough to respectfully and responsibly keep track of what young people are saying and sharing through social media. But remember that this is tough on them, too. They are trying to navigate through the difficult process of forming their own identities in uncharted waters, using the tools we have given them. It is important to allow some freedom for identity formation to be acted out through social media (after age 13), and recognize that it is often the laboratory where they explore different aspects of identity.

The best thing parents and youth leaders can do is to humbly ask for help translating the stuff we don’t understand. Young people may be willing and eager to teach us to speak—or at least to understand—their digital language better, and sometimes even to join in the conversation.

VIA MEDIA Part 1: A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People
VIA MEDIA Part 2: How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media?

VIA MEDIA Part 3: Sticks and Phones: Preventing Digital Bullying
VIA MEDIA Part 4: My [Own] Space: Supervision vs. Surveillance


VIA MEDIA Sticks and Phones: Preventing Digital Bullying

Jul 17, 2014 Art Bamford

Photo by SeamusZ.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people.
Read Part 1 here: VIA MEDIA A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People

Bullying used to be something that required face-to-face interaction.

Sadly, communicating online or by text now allows us to hurt each other from a safe distance. The statistics are tricky to discern, since many young people feel uncomfortable reporting instances of bullying, but current data suggest that between 4.5% and 24% of teens today have been bullied “online.” This definition groups together chat, text, and social media posts.[[See: Ybarra, M. L., Boyd, D., Korchmaros, J. D., & Oppenheim, J. K. (2012). Defining and measuring cyberbullying within the larger context of bullying victimization. Journal of Adolescent Health, 51(1), 53-58.; Palfrey, J., Sacco, D., Boyd, D., DeBonis, L., & Tatlock, J. (2008). Enhancing child safety & online technologies.; Levy, N., Cortesi, S., Gasser, U., Crowley, E., Beaton, M., Casey, J., & Nolan, C. (2012). Bullying in a networked era: A literature review. Berkman Center Research Publication, (2012-17).; Dinakar, K., Reichart, R., & Lieberman, H. (2011, July). Modeling the detection of Textual Cyberbullying. In The Social Mobile Web. Additional resources are available in the links provided.]]

If you’re a parent or leader wondering whether your teenager might be among those percentages, in this post we will walk you through how to help prevent online bullying, how to spot it when it is happening, and how to respond if it does.

Preventing Online Bullying

  1. The most important thing parents and youth leaders can do is make sure that young people have relationships with a few adults where they feel absolutely safe and comfortable sharing their concerns and struggles. Bullying often compromises a teen’s sense of security, even if adults have done nothing that they think might cause a teen to second guess reaching out to them. A sense of safety is something that needs to be continually and proactively nurtured.
  2. It is also important that parents and youth leaders try to empower young people not only to report bullying, but also to hold each other accountable. Students who may not be bullied themselves can be great allies to those who are. Adults should encourage young people to affirm their peers who have been bullied, and to support them as they report it, which can sometimes be as difficult as enduring the actual bullying.
  3. Finally, the instant a young person receives something that makes them feel uncomfortable or hurt, they should capture it and be encouraged to send it to an adult friend or parents. Make sure teens know the following shortcuts for capturing screenshots:

Mac: ‘Command’ + ‘Shift’ + ‘3’ saves to your desktop

PC: The ‘PrtScn’ key saves to your desktop.

iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch): Press ‘Home’ + ‘Sleep/Wake’ at the same time, an image will save to the Photos app.

Android: Hold Volume Down + Power for 1-2 seconds, an image will save to the ‘screenshots’ folder in the Gallery or Photos app.

Recognizing Bullying When it Happens

Bullying takes a lot of shapes and forms, but some of the more common warning signs that a kid has been bullied include: a noticeable change in mood and demeanor, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, reduced interest in hobbies, nightmares, and not wanting to go to school. The best thing parents and those who work with young people can do is trust their gut, and if something seems wrong, ask about it face-to-face.

We will talk more about monitoring online activity in a separate post, but as it relates here, research indicates that parents typically do not catch bullying simply by keeping an eye on their son or daughter’s online activity.

What’s Next? A 5-Step Response

  1. First and foremost, the victim of bullying needs to be assured that they are, and will be, safe. Affirm them by listening. Victims say that being heard is the most helpful response. It is also important not to restrict completely their access or prohibit them from using their phone or the Internet. That can feel like a punishment, or like they were somehow responsible—neither of which is the case. Work out a plan for how they will respond if more bullying occurs, and encourage them (don’t demand) to block or remove whoever has been involved from their phone or social media accounts.
  2. Next, adults need to respond thoughtfully, not quickly. Investigate thoroughly, and document the evidence. Take screenshots if they have not been taken already.
  3. Reach out to the teen’s school and ask to set up an appointment with a principal or counselor to discuss the matter privately and explore solutions. Often students who bully others are doing so as a response to their own problems at home. Teachers and school counselors may know both sides of the situation, and are typically the most well-equipped to determine an appropriate intervention.
  4. Contact the phone or Internet service or content providers if necessary. Explain the situation in a calm, respectful manner and provide them with whatever evidence you have. Due to some of the very tragic extreme cases that have occurred as a result of bullying, most sites and services have a zero tolerance policy for bullying and will take the matter very seriously.
  5. Finally, in situations where a serious threat of harm has been made, or any kind of sexually explicit material has been shared with a minor, the local authorities ought to be notified. Courts have determined that the medium of communication through which a threat is made has no bearing on whether or not it can be considered a “true threat.”

It’s worth noting that while digital technology has provided a new channel through which bullies can inflict harm on others, it has not created a completely new problem. There is, we are reminded, nothing new under the sun. Bullying has always been a challenge facing kids and parents. The good news, if there is any in all of this, is that these kinds of harmful and damaging comments can now be captured and recorded when they are made online. So while some bullies might feel emboldened from behind their screens, it is also easier to stop this type of behavior with evidence than when it is simply one student’s word against another’s.

Have you had experience helping a young person deal with cyber-bullying? Share what strategies helped resolve the situation in the comments section below.

Here are some additional tools and resources:

VIA MEDIA How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media?

Jul 15, 2014 Art Bamford

Photo by Monica.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people.
Read Part 1 here: VIA MEDIA A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People

This is part of an FYI summer series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people. The question guiding these conversations is: How can we both thoughtfully address the potentially negative aspects and capitalize on the positive?

Many of you know firsthand how difficult today’s question is: At what age should a person start using a certain device, app, or social media platform?

When we talk with parents about this, many express feeling like they’re holding the line in a battle for as long as possible. There is constant pressure, from multiple sides, for kids to start using more and more digital technology at earlier ages.

That cultural pressure makes this question particularly tough. We can tell you what doctors recommend, what the national averages are, or various other pros and cons; but when your kids’ school tells you they need an email account, or their coach tells you they will be coordinating practice times by text message, or your teen comes home and tells you the irrefutable sad refrain “all my friends have one!”—the data seems to go out the window.

What the Doctors Say

In case you’re wondering, here is what medical professionals say: The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends having “screen free zones” in the house, especially a young person’s bedroom, as well as “screen free times” like during meals. They also recommend just one to two hours of entertainment screen time per day, and zero screen time at all for children under two years old.

Now don’t be too thrown off if those recommendations are not quite how it is in your house. Keep in mind that these are the same people who recommend brushing your teeth three times a day, sleeping eight hours a night, daily exercise, and a well-balanced diet—they set the bar at “best-case scenario.” But that best-case scenario is based on what’s good for our bodies, minds, and emotions. Aiming high never hurts.

That being said, there are several big takeaways that I want to share after having reviewed a number of relevant studies. First, a few key findings to consider, followed by some recommended tips and strategies for families and leaders.

Key Findings about Kids and Digital Technology

1. Online behavior tends to be very consistent with offline behavior.

Parents should discuss concerns about their teen offline: spending a lot of time with the opposite sex, easily distracted from homework, getting picked on by peers, and so on. It is easy to imagine any and every negative scenario that might happen, but you’re better off identifying and focusing on the more likely ones—which are the ones most similar to the concerns you already have about offline behavior.

2. Parents set the standards for the house.

You get what you give. Many parents and leaders might be best served by focusing on honoring their own screen-free zones and times, and limiting their number of hours per day on screens outside of work. I know that can be a hard pill to swallow, but seeing you struggle with it, and seeing how you work out accountability structures for yourself will have a big impact on your kids. In some cases they may even be your best allies—you hold them accountable for a lot of things; they’ll appreciate a chance to return the favor!

3. The primary reason young people actually use digital technology is to interact and communicate with friends, family, and peers.

(Here’s an earlier blog post with more details on that.) The second reason is to explore their hobbies and interests online—with gaming falling into this category since the interest itself (the games) are online. Any ways you can enhance their abilities to do these two things without technology may reduce their sense of needing or wanting the technology itself.

Tips and Strategies for Navigating the “When to Start” Question

  1. The magic number is 13. The minimum age required for Facebook, iTunes, G-Mail, Pinterest, SnapChat, and Instagram are all 13. Twitter no longer says so as required in their terms, but encourages parents to notify them of accounts for anyone under 13 (at: to be taken down. If you have a child under the age of 13 who is using these social media platforms, you can appeal to terms of use and the current law and draw a line. (Here is a helpful post from Adam McLane explaining the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which made 13 the minimum age.) Service and user-agreements for various other devices, software, apps, and so on will often provide a mandatory minimum user age, typically to avoid legal liabilities. This should help parents make certain limits up to at least age 13.
  2. Talk with other parents, particularly at your church, and try to set community standards. A lot of parents read blogs like this one because they feel left on their own with these types of decisions. Coordinating with other parents provides some peace of mind, and can be helpful when teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and so on try to push towards using email/text/etc. by providing strength in numbers. “We signed a pledge with 10 other families at church that we aren’t going to let our kids have a smartphone until…” If you are a pastor or youth leader, think about facilitating something like this for parents. Your job will be easier too if most of the young people in your group are on the same page with this stuff![[Kevin Kelly, a Christian and the founding editor-in-chief of Wired magazine has a great chapter titled “Lessons of Amish Hackers” in his book What Technology Wants on the community discernment practices Mennonites use with regards to adopting new technology. Obviously you may not skew as lo-tech as the Pennsylvania Amish, but their process is great and could easily be adapted to fit your context.]]
  3. Remember when you are having these conversations that these devices are, to them, like the Air Jordans, Leather Jackets, Walkmans, belly-button rings—whatever it was that would set you apart as cool or uncool at their age. It is easy to get misdirected by questions of convenience, necessity, requirement for school, and so on. What is at stake for a lot of young people when they ask, then beg, for these things is a feeling of fitting in and self-worth. Take that into consideration, show them empathy, and don’t discredit how important something similar seemed to you at some point in your adolescent journey.
  4. Create a kind of “terms and conditions” plan with your teenager prior to giving them access to a device. Be generous in creating it and strict in enforcing it, rather than the other way around. Include timeframes for when the contract will be renegotiated/renewed based on certain expectations, like grades or help around the house. Contracts are helpful in setting boundaries, but also helpful with understanding the types of contractual relationships they will enter into as adults. In keeping with our first tip above, it might be helpful for parents to also have some responsibilities in this contract.

    Common Sense Media offers free sample agreements for grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12. The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU) also has a sample family covenant.

    We might also suggest adding a relevant Bible verse to your family’s covenant (e.g. Ephesians 4:29, “Let no evil words come from you, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who receive them.”) to remind your kids that being a Christian applies to communicating digitally as much as it does to communicating face-to-face. Online behavior tends to be very consistent with offline behavior—that can be a good thing, too!

Have you tried an agreement like the ones we have described? We would love for you to post your ideas in the comments section below to help other parents and leaders.

Similarly, if your church has tried to set community standards like what we’ve described, tell us how that went. What were the biggest challenges? What commitments emerged?

VIA MEDIA Part 1: A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People
VIA MEDIA Part 2: How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media?

VIA MEDIA Part 3: Sticks and Phones: Preventing Digital Bullying
VIA MEDIA Part 4: My [Own] Space: Supervision vs. Surveillance


VIA MEDIA: A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People

Jul 10, 2014 Art Bamford

Photo by Benjamin Caldwell.

Would you believe that the percentages of young people who report sexting, feeling bullied or harassed on social media, and having seen explicit images online are all declining?

Or that a large percentage of young people have told researchers that some of their happiest memories of time spent with their families have centered around things like creating music playlists, online family Christmas cards, and digital scrapbooks?

This is the first post in a series from FYI this summer called Via Media. In this series we’ll be taking an in-depth look at emerging research and strategies related to social media and digital technology. We chose our title, Via Media, for two reasons:

  1. Via Media is a Latin phrase that simply means “middle way.” So much of our talk about how digital technology is reshaping our world and impacting the lives of young people tends to skew towards the negative, and we we’ve all participated in some of those types of conversations. But if there is one thing that top researchers in this field seem to agree on, as we will see, it is that things are not nearly as bad as they are made to seem. That may not ring very true if one of your daughter’s close friends recently got caught sending provocative pictures of herself to a boy at school, or if your son hasn’t looked up from his smart phone for more than thirty seconds yet this summer. But on the whole, the research is finding that teenagers are not as out of control as we think. 

    That tendency of ours to focus on the concerns raised by digital technology also tends to make us oblivious to how these tools have potential to make life better, or can enrich our relationships with each other. There are great opportunities available to all of us, no matter what age, as a result of things like smart phones, tablets, and social media. The trick is figuring out that “middle way”—and that is what this series will be all about. How can we both thoughtfully address the potentially negative aspects and capitalize on the positive?
  2. Via Media also reminds us of something about the nature of technology in general. “Media” used to mean the middle, or something centered in between two sides. Today “media” often function as the center between people, connecting us with one another. Communication theorist and scholar Marshall McLuhan once famously described media as being “the extensions of [people]”—media amplifies our ability to do certain things, but what those things are and how we actually use technology remains up to us. For that reason one of McLuhan’s former colleagues, Neil Postman, told a group of researchers in 2000: “To be quite honest about it, I don’t see any point in studying media unless one does so within a moral or ethical context.” It is easy to forget that we still have control over how we choose to use the tools at our disposal. Our decision-making process, guided by our faith, is the heart of the matter, not the devices themselves or even expert-recommended “best practices.”

This series aims to adequately address the very genuine concerns so many parents, pastors, and youth leaders have with regard to digital technology and social media. Some of our anxieties are well founded. We’ll share tools and strategies for steering clear of the real threats and pitfalls. However, our hope is that you won’t just feel relieved but also encouraged! Things are not nearly as bad as they seem, and there are lots of exciting opportunities that tend to get overlooked amid the concerns.

So stay tuned and join us in trying to navigate this Via Media. Considering how fast things are changing, and new research findings continue to emerge, its tricky to stay ahead of the curve. If you have a burning question you hope we’ll answer, post it in the comments below. Let’s figure this out together.

VIA MEDIA Part 1: A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People
VIA MEDIA Part 2: How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media?

VIA MEDIA Part 3: Sticks and Phones: Preventing Digital Bullying
VIA MEDIA Part 4: My [Own] Space: Supervision vs. Surveillance


High School Service Trips, Part 3: Reflecting on the Experience

Jul 01, 2014 Matt Laidlaw

In Post 1 and Post 2 in this series, I shared about the history of our youth ministry’s service trips, our transition process, and the new opportunity we innovated for our students and volunteers. After a year of planning, last summer a group of students and adult volunteers participated in our new service trip to Detroit, Michigan. Our students demonstrated an extraordinary amount of respect, compassion, and love during this experience. They worked hard, didn’t complain, and reinforced our belief that high school students are capable of much more than most adults usually assume and expect.

At several points throughout each day, and during an extended time of debriefing each evening, students and volunteers reflected on what they were experiencing. They shared how they were being challenged to rethink some of their assumptions about life and faith. Several students shared the following reflections:

  • A storm destroyed Mississippi, but people destroyed Detroit.
  • We are the story of the “Good Samaritan,” but most of the time we’re the religious people who didn’t help the suffering person.
  • The love of Jesus is a beautiful, unique thing.
  • The historical connection and conflict between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is anything but simple.
  • It’s not okay to take your experience with a small number of people and project that experience onto their entire religion or culture.
  • I didn’t feel “welcome” where we were working today, but then again, if a bunch of people who looked different than me showed up in my neighborhood uninvited, I might not want to welcome them either.
  • We didn’t accomplish much this week. The problems here are bigger than a few people giving money or time. The system is messed up. That’s what needs to be fixed.

In response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” students shared:

  • People we don’t understand
  • People with different beliefs
  • Immigrants
  • Enemies
  • Refugees
  • Those we would last want to accept as our neighbor
  • Anyone who needs me to be a neighbor
  • People being silently persecuted by their own religion
  • Everyone

We have continued to process this experience together as a team over the past year, and we suspect that further learning, discovery, and opportunities to serve will continue to flow from this trip in the lives of our students and volunteers.

Our year of planning, building consensus, and inviting collaboration and support from our community all contributed to the success of this trip. However, not everything went completely as planned. We learned plenty of lessons that we only could have learned by executing our first trip. There are certain aspects of the trip we could have better prepared our volunteers for as they led our students. Although well intentioned, several situations with our partners created awkward interactions for our students and the individuals we were attempting to learn from and serve.

And when construction begins on transportation routes you were planning on utilizing, or when restaurants you were planning on visiting close without warning, you realize that having a “Plan B” for every situation is necessary on a trip that you are designing from scratch.

We’re also working to assess what the future of an experience like this might be for our community. The consensus among the group involved in this trip was that the trip is definitely worth replicating. We want to strengthen and deepen the relationships we started. However, how often we should offer this trip and to how many students are questions we’re still exploring. We’re also working to discover ways to make the trip more cost effective, making adjustments to the trip itinerary, and exploring other potential partners to work with in the Detroit area.

Questions for your own context:

  • What stories or reflections have you gathered from your students during previous service or mission trips? What do they tell you about the trip experience? In what ways were they surprising?
  • What opportunities for storytelling or reflection do you offer your students and your community during or following your service experience?
  • How do you evaluate service and mission trips once you return home? What factors do you consider when attempting to look at the past and plan for the future?
  • Have you ever been on a trip with your students and had to improvise? What did you learn from the experience and how could you be better prepared with a “Plan B” on future trips?
  • What kind of formal preparation and post-trip processing do you plan for your students and volunteers who participate on the trip? How has this been helpful, and in what ways do you need improve?

High School Service Trips, Part 2: Innovating and Executing the New Service Trip

Jun 26, 2014 Matt Laidlaw

Photo by tony katai.

In the first post in this series, Matt explored what it was like for their church to end a six-year commitment to take short-term trips to a particular community and figure out what to do next. Part 2 offers a window into that trip, and Part 3 will reflect on the experience. At the end of the series, Matt will share a more detailed look at how to turn your weeklong service trip into a plan for yearlong transformation.

Once we figured out the why of our trip, the what flowed naturally from there. It became much easier to sort through the possible partners, locations, and causes we could join. After having conversations with individuals and groups from around the country, we realized that we really didn’t know anything about our neighbor two hours to the east. We had a growing sense of confidence that Jesus was inviting us to take a step towards a relationship with our brothers and sisters in Detroit, Michigan.

Our church is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is approximately 160 miles west of Detroit. Although a two-hour drive doesn’t sound like an insurmountable distance to travel, aside from attending a sporting event or concert, many of our students and volunteers had never really experienced this part of our state.

Further, while the more recent economic struggles of Detroit have been well chronicled nationally, most of our team didn’t realize the complexity of a town so close to home. The more we learned about Detroit, the more we realized that it wasn’t anything like Grand Rapids. We didn’t know about the important role Detroit played during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, that the metropolitan area is now home to the largest population of Arab-Americans and Middle Eastern refugees in the United States, or that there is a vibrant Jewish community and Holocaust Memorial.

We decided that this trip must be focused on helping students and volunteers ask and answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” so we could better live out Jesus’ command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22:36-40)

Because we couldn’t find one single organization to help facilitate the comprehensive experience we were looking for, our team had to do the hard work of finding lodging, meal locations, trusted ministry and non-profit organizations (both Christian and non-Christian), and individual conversation partners to help innovate this trip. This included hours of online research, phone calls, and several trips across the state to visit hosts and locations in advance of our trip.

After over a year of planning, last June twenty-four students and eight adult volunteers experienced our new High School Ministry Service Trip. Below, you can see how the itinerary and schedule puts into practice the values identified during our transition process:

Day 1: Depart from Mars Hill

Grandville, Michigan

  • Arrive at housing
  • Trip Orientation
  • Large Group Prayer


Day 2: Intro to Islam, Intercultural and Interfaith Immersion

Dearborn, Michigan

Partner: Community Center[[At the request of the Community Center Director, details related to the name and work of this ministry must remain anonymous.]]

  • Guided individual solo-time and prayer
  • Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt
  • Guided tour of the Arab-American Museum
  • Cultural lunch and tour of Christian ministry center
  • Mosque visit and Q & A with an Imam (Muslim religious leader)
  • Conversation with a Christian ministry leader serving the Muslim community
  • Cultural dinner
  • Large group debriefing, processing, and prayer


Days 3-5: Community Development and Service Work

Detroit, Michigan

Partner: Habitat for Humanity  

  • Daily guided individual solo-time and prayer
  • Conversation and neighborhood tour with Habitat Staff
  • Discussion on economic, racial, and religious history of Detroit
  • Daily participation in abandoned home demolition and construction
  • Interaction with neighborhood small business owners
  • Daily large group debriefing, processing, and prayer


Day 6: Intro to Judaism and Global Issues

Farmington Hills, Michigan

Partner:  Holocaust Memorial Center

  • Guided individual solo-time and prayer
  • Guided tour of Holocaust Memorial Center
  • Interaction with Holocaust survivors who live in Farmington Hills
  • Large group debriefing, processing, and prayer
  • Return to Mars Hill

(The details related to how our team debriefed and processed our experience together before, during, and after the trip will be explained in Parts 3 and 4 of this series)


Questions for your own context:

  • Can you identify any “causes” or “needs” that may exist closer to home than any previous service or mission trips you’ve planned and led? How would your community respond if you planned an experience that didn’t involve traveling a long distance?
  • How does this schedule and itinerary compare to trips you’ve developed or participated in? What can you learn from or adopt? What would you challenge or improve upon?
  • What kind of response do you think you would get from church leadership, parents, and volunteers if you created an opportunity for your students to learn from and interact with people from other religious groups?
  • What tools or resources, guides, or devotionals have you provided students or volunteers during your mission trips? In what ways were they helpful? In what ways were they unhelpful?
  • How would your students answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” What kind of resources and experiences can you provide in your context to continue to shape how they might respond to this question?



High School Service Trips, Part 1: Navigating transitions from one experience to another

Jun 24, 2014 Matt Laidlaw

Photo by Kris Arnold.

Too often in youth ministry, we tend to jump from one cause to the next. This gives our students missional whiplash, and I suspect prevents us from supporting the “cause” as much as we think we are.

I wouldn’t be able to recognize this reality except for a relationship that our ministry stumbled into nearly eight years ago. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, our church began an immediate and active presence in Waveland, Mississippi – the community most devastated by the storm. As an extension of the initial disaster relief Mars Hill provided, our high school ministry sought to get involved in any way we could.

If you had asked me in 2006, I would have guessed that our high school ministry would raise some money and make 1-2 short-term trips to Waveland. Then we would move on to the next opportunity for our students. However, our students were captivated by early estimates stating it would take ten years for Waveland to recover and rebuild from Katrina-related destruction. Every time we heard someone’s “Katrina Story” or met a family that was still rebuilding, our students and volunteers responded with an attitude of, “We’re not done yet.”

What started as disaster response and a short-term opportunity for our students evolved into a six-year relationship from 2006-2012, including seven short-term trips where 350 individuals contributed 12,000 hours of service work towards helping Waveland rebuild. Our “Spring Break Trip” unexpectedly became known as “Mississippi,” and our relationship with this region became part of the DNA of our high school ministry.

But in April 2012 it became clear to our staff, students, and volunteers that our ongoing commitment to this relationship was coming to an end. Local leadership in Mississippi extended the invitation for our continued presence and work in the region, but they were excited to tell us that most Katrina-related relief work had been completed. This news created mixed emotions among our students and volunteers: joy on behalf of the people we were serving, satisfaction for a job well done, and grief because it was time for the relationship to change.

This difficult but clear sense of “release” from our long-term commitment propelled us into a year-long process of discerning what was next. Because of what our high school ministry had learned from our relationships in Waveland, it wasn’t as simple as finding the right next “opportunity” or “cause” for our students participate in. We were interested in the next relationship we wanted to invest in, with the hope of mutual transformation.

Because there was such a high level of investment in this trip among students and volunteers, and because so much about our church had changed since 2005, I knew this discernment process would bring both challenges and opportunities. There were multiple opinions about what the future should hold, and our church leadership had since very precisely focused how our congregation would think about mission, the causes and relationships we would join, and how we would use our community’s resources.

For the first time in our ministry, we needed to create an intentional mission transition strategy. Beginning the week after we returned to Grand Rapids from our last trip to Mississippi, I outlined a nine-month “transition process” to help guide this discernment of completing our work in Mississippi and determining our next partnership.

Here’s what that transition process looked like:

  • One-on-one meetings with volunteers and students who had participated in a minimum of two of our service trips. This time was spent listening to what they valued about our experiences and what they sensed God was inviting us to consider for the future.
  • A series of conversations with our outreach pastors, trying to navigate the tension between our community’s missional values and the unique needs and opportunities presented by a short-term service trip for students and volunteers.
  • A series of conversations with our executive ministry leadership team, asking for guidance, support, and advocacy in this process.
  • A series of conversations with several elders with experience in youth ministry or missional outreach in our congregation – to listen, learn, and share stories.
  • Identifying a small team of staff, interns, and volunteers committed to helping divide the work related to researching and vision casting for our next trip opportunity: making phone calls, visiting potential partners, and building consensus within our community.

After all of this work, what became clear to me was that before we could make decisions about future opportunities, we needed to outline a core purpose for a high school outreach trip. We also determined that we wanted to weave the core values of our student ministry – identity, belonging, and mission – into the fabric of the trip. The four following ideas rose to the surface from those transition conversations as we began to articulate a trip purpose:

  • To reflect the missional philosophy and emphasis of Mars Hill outreach initiatives
  • To provide meaningful, age-appropriate, and intergenerational service-work opportunities for high school students and volunteers (A focus on “mission”)
  • To engage high school students in spiritually appropriate and missionally focused education, awareness, and debriefing (A focus on “identity”)
  • To invite high school students and volunteers into meaningful relationships with each other (A focus on “belonging”)

We built consensus surrounding these values among groups within our community, leading to a lot of energy and enthusiasm towards the future. Once this purpose was identified and communicated more broadly, making a specific decision about the future of service trips in our high school ministry became clear.

Check back in for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll talk more about the details of what happened next.

Questions for your own context:

  • In your short-term missions and service work, how have you balanced the tendency toward “missional whiplash” with seeking out long-term relationships?
  • What have you done to evaluate longer-term relationships and/or repeat service locations? When do you know it’s time to move on? How do you involve local hosts in that process?
  • Can you—or better yet, can your students—articulate why you’re going on your next trip? If not, what would it look like to put together a purpose statement that folks can rally around?

Helping teenagers make sense of inequality … without making peace with it

Jun 20, 2014 Brad M. Griffin

Recently TED Ideas released a gallery of images illustrating inequality. In curator Helen Walters’ words, “We asked an international group of artists, designers, photographers and activists to provide one image that encapsulates what inequality means to them — and to explain their selection.”

It’s a gut-wrenching collection of domestic and global scenes picturing a world where much is broken. It raises a lot of questions about human life, suffering, community, and the presence of God.

In the words of one photographic contributor whose image shows Palestinian workers lining up to be allowed through the largest separation checkpoint in Bethlehem:

“Inequality is one of the roots of injustice, and one of the biggest contributing factors to crime and violence (including war). It’s the result of unchecked privilege and of the inability to empathize. It’s the ritual humiliation of the less powerful for the benefit of the more powerful. It’s depressing and tragic, and the worst part is it’s completely unnecessary and totally avoidable, even in a capitalist economy. So, when I see inequality, I see a society that has chosen to keep some of its members subjugated, even though all evidence and observation says that it’s destructive and completely preventable.” Saeed Taji Farouky, filmmaker and photographer in Palestine and the UK

The image is part of a series urging the question, “What’s to be done about rising inequality?” which is a fine question for TED to be asking, and an even greater one for the Church. In fact, chances are good that you have students in your ministry who are wondering about inequality of all kinds, alongside other students who probably remain oblivious.

How do you help them respond to these kinds of hard questions?

This summer can be a great window of opportunity to explore issues of injustice, poverty, marginalization, and God’s heart for the world in the midst of these crushing realities. Especially if you’re taking students on a short-term mission trip or serving nearby in your local community, be sure to take time along the way to process pressing questions like inequality. You might even use this photo gallery as a prompt to stir up conversation and explore some scriptures that call us to action against injustice (like Isaiah 58 or Amos 5).

If you want even more resources, at FYI we’ve written a few that might be helpful. For your short-term trips and service projects, Deep Justice Journeys offers over 50 exercises to do before, during, and after you serve. For bigger-picture conversations about why God might allow injustice in the world, Can I Ask That? is a small-group curriculum for high school students with Leader and Student Guides you can use to tackle eight hard questions about God and faith. 

The Coolest Sticky Faith Action I’ve Seen in a While

Jun 19, 2014 Kara Powell

Photo by shota mitsuyasu.

The fifth grade assignment was fairly typical: write an essay about an adult who’s important to you. Most of the class wrote about parents or grandparents, but my daughter decided she wanted to be different than the rest of the class (which if you know Krista completely fits).  She wrote about my step-sister, her Aunt Laura.

Laura has been “cool” all her life. Five years younger than me, she and I have had a special bond ever since her mom married my dad. Not only is she hip and fun, she’s incredibly committed to loving Jesus and loving others.

Last summer, Krista bonded with Aunt Laura on our annual family vacation. I watched as Krista wanted to sit next to Laura at dinner, and ride in her car to the beach. Given our Sticky Faith research about the power of adults investing in kids, Dave and I were thrilled to see this relationship blossom. 

So it was no surprise that Krista wrote her five-paragraph essay about her Aunt Laura. A few days ago, Krista used my phone to text her Aunt to let her know about the essay, and that she was going to mail her a copy.

What was surprising to me was Laura’s text back:

Hi Krista!  What a delight you are!  I’m going to write an essay about you and mail it to you.  You’re awesome!

As I read the text aloud to Krista, I teared up. Laura had sent the PERFECT response. As much as I’ve championed Sticky Faith and intergenerational relationships, I don’t know that I would have had the brilliant idea of writing an essay in return.

So my question to you is this: When a child or teenager shows you how much you mean to them, how can you tangibly reciprocate? 

If a child draws you a picture and hands it to you at church, maybe you do the same.

If a teenager comes and talks to you Sunday after church, maybe you make a note to text them twice this week to let them know you’re praying for them.

What can you do this week to let a young person know you are crazy about them?

The Science & Art of Story: New Possibilities in Ministry

Jun 12, 2014 Brad M. Griffin

Photo by bassett12.

I’m not an awesome storyteller. I know it’s important, but admittedly it’s a tool I have had to work on. And every time I teach students or preach in my church, I have to remind myself of its value.

It’s not that I don’t value a good story. It’s just that I don’t intuitively know how to tell them well, and I get so excited about content that I forget content often gets lost outside of narrative.

I was reminded recently of this truth through an HBR blog post on storytelling. Contrasting Dead Poets Society’s John Keating (one of my all-time favorites) with novelist Kurt Vonnegut (who you likely have never heard of), HBR’s Andrea Ovans wonders what we can learn from actually graphing out classic storylines.

I’m not one to graph a story, but this is pretty amusing:

Vonnegut’s “good fortune/ill fortune” axis approach yields fascinating insight into the stories we love to love, and love to remember. Someone gets into trouble, then gets out of it. Something wonderful happens, then all is lost, then they get it back again. The third and most popular Western story, however, is the Cinderella story. Here’s a graph, thanks to HBR:

But the post goes on to point out that “…Vonnegut’s delivery matters as much as his ideas. His timing is perfect. His language is concrete and unexpected. He’s showing you the simplicity that underlies apparent complexity – that’s what data are so good at doing. But he’s just as concerned with making sure you’re paying attention — since no one is persuaded by something they don’t remember.”

And this is where John Keating is so impressive. A good story involving ripping pages out of a textbook. What could be more compelling for high school students in a stuffy prep school? Watch this scene again, especially if you need the inspiration to rip a little J. Evans Pritchard today:


It was no accident that one third of Jesus’ teaching is recorded for us as storytelling through parables.

As Jon Huckins reminds us, there’s both a science and an art of storytelling. A good fiction story creates a suspension of belief that opens up new possibilities for understanding and exploration. It’s part of the science of what happens in our brains. And it requires the art of crafting a narrative that catches and holds the attention of those squirrely middle schoolers who show up in your youth room on Wednesday night.

So as you’re thinking about your next teaching series, those summer camp talks, or this week’s Sunday School lesson, don’t forget the story.

I’ll close with a few concrete suggestions from Jon’s article excerpt based on Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling:

  • Instead of preparing a three point propositional teaching, begin to build an outline of your story as a modern day parable, while taking into close consideration your audience and context. As a 1st century Rabbi in the Roman Empire, Jesus was exceptional at this.
  • Create characters, a setting and plot that integrate scripture and illuminates your topic. Try to develop characters and setting that your teenagers can relate to and have fun with it!
  • Prepare follow-up discussion questions that unpack your story, which ground it in the everyday realities of your teenagers.
  • Tell your story with confidence and conviction!  You can tell your whole story in one night or you can tell it over the course of a few weeks and build momentum by ending each session on a cliffhanger. Your teenagers will hardly be able to wait to come back and hear the rest of the story!