Fuller Youth Institute

FYI

Photo by The U.S. Army

After the Vietnam War, many service members returned back to their hometowns only to be spit on amidst a flurry of scathing remarks. That rarely happens today, as that greeting has generally been replaced with a warm, "Thank you for your service."

That’s nice, but it may not be enough. It is time for us to take a step back to reflect on what we are communicating with this message.

 
Why “Thank You” isn’t enough
 

In the statement, "Thank you for your service," we really have not communicated solidarity or support for these young persons. We are more like baristas passing out a "thank you" instead of a latte, sending our troubled and hurting service members out the door alone.

It's time for this to change. As a military chaplain, I hope to offer some practical ideas to address the gap in strong relational support networks for young people entering military service. They need help creating and supporting a sticky web of relationships for before, during, and after their service.

 
Sharing our pain, sharing our joy
 

There is one evening in my life that I will never forget. I was sitting in the house of an acquaintance from church. It was an old house, perfect for college students. News had just gotten out to the church that my high school sweetheart had been killed in a car accident. Her tires slipped on some black ice in a storm, and the Thanksgiving dinner we shared with family would be the last time I would share how thankful I was for this person I cherished so deeply.

My friend was sitting on a couch across the room from me. I was sitting in an armchair, a manifestation of my emotional state of feeling alone. I was broken. I needed help.

Much of the conversation is a blur to me now. My friend tried to empathize with me in my pain. He tried to connect with the lost boy in the body of a grown man across the room, but was struggling to find the right words. He was certainly not alone. The number of people who came to me with nice words in the weeks and months following the accident was staggering. Unfortunately, most of the sentiments offered felt more like awkward reminders of the pain that I didn’t need to be reminded about.

Then my friend said something different to me. His words felt like a cool, moist breeze on my dry and cracking heart.

I know this isn’t much, but I want to be in this with you. I want your pain to be my pain, and I want my joy to be your joy.”

Those words would change my life. He meant everything he said.

My friend’s witness to the self-giving love of Christ and commitment to support me through thick and thin has taught me a great deal about what it means to follow Jesus. Most specifically in my own life, my friend’s words have fueled my calling to being an Army chaplain on many days that I doubt that call. I remember back to that evening he committed to stand beside me through the challenges that lay ahead, and I am reminded of those young service members in uniform that similarly need the love and support of Christ in the flesh.

 
Help for teenagers entering the military
 

The truth is that the transition from being a teenager into the military is rough. It is rough for many reasons (leaving home and enduring boot camp are two of the big ones), but the challenge becomes even more pronounced for service members when they deploy and are engaged in combat.

Younger service members who deploy are more likely to incur a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to be susceptible to drug and alcohol addiction, and to attempt suicide than their older counterparts.[1] Support is needed for these young persons. 

This is where the Sticky Faith community kicks in. In a report from the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, it was determined that young service members and veterans need support, but that many are not seeking out the appropriate resources. Thus, the study suggests a need for lay-providers (friends, family, and clergy) to also be trained to support young men and women experiencing the costly effects of military service.[2] In other words, there is a need for our Sticky Faith webs to be just as developed and present in the lives of our youth entering the military as those going into the workforce and college.

 
Building a 5:1 community
 

One of the most practical ways that we can offer our support to young people entering and returning from military service is to integrate a model of 5:1 community. Based on FYI’s Sticky Faith research and the work of Chap Clark, 5:1 refers to the strategy of inviting five adults from your community to support every one young person. It is a concept that emphasizes the importance of mentorship and discipleship in the lives of youth, fivefold.

As young adults wrestle with the challenges of military service, a web of supporters from home that is committed to supporting young service members is invaluable. However, I often find that adults don’t really know what to do to live out that support. They lack ideas for how to respond to those young people along the way.

Consider using the following idiom (typically used in emergency scenarios) as a way to think about how to effectively support those service members to whom you have committed your support:

 
Look, listen, and feel. 
 
  1. Look. There are two ways to “look” into the lives of those young service members we support. The first is through time spent in face-to-face interactions. These times are precious and can be rare. If the young person is home on leave or holiday, take advantage of every minute you can get to communicate that you are still “in this” with the person. Communicate to them through words and actions that you are truly committed to supporting their spiritual life of discipleship. When you can’t see them literally face-to-face, make use of video calling applications to bring a visual connection to your long-distance conversations.

    The second way is to connect to the young person via the social media portals that they utilize and, quite literally, look into their life. In today’s world, a person’s social media interactions can say a lot about how they are doing. If you are committed to supporting this young person, commit to keeping up with their life to communicate with them in relevant ways and show that you are paying attention to what’s happening to them in this new season.
     
  2. Listen. I was recently at an event speaking with families of deployed soldiers, and the one piece of advice that I gave to everyone in the room upon their soldier’s arrival home was this: listen. It is incredible just how much a person can heal from internal wounds and difficult experiences if we encourage that person to share his or her story. Unfortunately, often times service members are unable to talk about their stories for one reason or another; but if the people who are committed to supporting these young persons are committed to listening to their stories on an ongoing basis, they are more likely to feel our support when it is needed. Here are a few tips while you listen:
  • Remember that you never will completely know what someone else is going through. Don’t try to communicate to a hurting service member that you “know” what she or he is going through, but instead let them know that you are in it with them.
  • If you’re a parent, try to listen openly to your daughter or son without letting your own emotional reactions to their experiences hinder the healing and restoration process. Sometimes parents’ emotional response can actually shut down important sharing.
  • If you’re a ministry leader, it is okay not to have all the answers. Sometimes the most theologically sound answer to a difficult question in regard to violence or war is, “I don’t know…”
  1.  Feel. If you don’t feel the effects of the experiences the young person to whom you are committed is going through, repeat steps #1 and #2. When we do feel the effects of the young service member’s experiences, and commit to sharing the joys and pains of life with this person, then our emotions and gut reactions can fuel a life of deep and committed prayer. In the words of Oswald Chambers, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.”[3]
     

Healthy reintegration into the community and into family life mentally, emotionally, and spiritually necessitates a robust web of support for young people in the military. I often receive mailers from the Wounded Warriors Project, and on the back of the envelopes read the words, "The greatest casualty is being forgotten."[4] As families and churches connected to military service members, we have a responsibility to our young brothers and sisters in Christ not to forget them. In fact, not only do we have a responsibility not to forget these young people, we have a responsibility to intentionally remember them.

 
Action points
 
  • Think about the young people you know who are heading into military service. How can you and your church community provide a consistent web of support around them as they go?
  • Similarly, what young people do you know who have returned from serving, in particular those who deployed overseas? Who could be part of a support network for these vulnerable young people?
  • If you are a parent whose son or daughter is heading into the military, talk with them about their support network of adults, and offer to help them build this network prior to service. You may want to reach out to these adults directly, and share this article as a resource.
 

[1] Gallup Poll: Deployment Taking Greatest Toll on Young Service Members, 2010.

[2] “Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery” edited by Terri Tanielian and Lisa H. Jaycox, 2008, p 109.

[3] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, October 17 devotional entry.

[4] www.woundedwarriorproject.org

The Fuller Youth Institute is excited to announce our newest team member: Dr. Steve Argue, a thought leader and researcher with decades of on-the-ground ministry experience, most recently with Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Steve will serve a hybrid role with FYI and Fuller Theological Seminary, teaching masters and doctoral-level students as an assistant professor in the Youth, Family, and Culture program in the School of Theology. With the FYI team, Steve will serve as an Applied Research Strategist, pioneering innovative theology and theory channeled into practical ministry resources. Steve’s role poises Fuller to exponentially impact leaders worldwide, in particular through this unique partnership between academic programs and FYI.

No stranger to FYI, Steve has been part of our Advisory Council, Sticky Faith speaking and coaching team, and is the Coaching Director for our Sticky Faith Cohorts. We sat down with Steve to ask him about his new role on Fuller’s campus.
 

Q: What can you tell us about the pathway that led you to this role at Fuller?


I have always believed in the intersection of academic discipline and real-life ministry experience. I think the best ministry and the most effective teaching/training happens where these two worlds meet. Over the years, I have developed as a ministry leader while maturing as an academic researcher. My research reflects my commitment to young people and my desire to better understand their spiritual journeys.

One of the practical ways this intersection played out for me has been through introducing FYI to the church where I pastored—Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids. Over the past five years, I have been invited by FYI to train and coach churches, speak into research projects, and serve on the Advisory Council. My involvement with FYI also allowed me to meet some of the tremendous Fuller faculty, like Dr. Pam King, Dr. Scott Cormode, Dr. Chap Clark, and Dr. Tommy Givens. All these experiences and relationships only grew my deep respect and love for Fuller. When this position was posted, it just seemed like a great fit. The whole candidating process has only confirmed this. I couldn’t be more excited!
 

Q: So you’ve been doing some pretty intriguing research lately; can you tell us a little about that?


Yes, my doctoral research focused on how undergraduate students who attend public universities perceive and work through spiritual struggle. My work has helped me better understand their experiences of spiritual struggle and the resources students need as they work through their struggles. More broadly, I think this work can contribute to us better understanding emerging adults and faith, as we give voice to their journeys. I hope it can provide more meaningful ways for faith communities to support emerging adults in one of the most important periods in their lives. They also tend to be the most misunderstood people in our churches today. I hope my research can contribute to shifting people’s attitudes and relationships with emerging adults.
 

Q: From your research and experience, what are you hoping to bring to Fuller as a professor?


I’m really excited to contribute the ongoing reputation of Fuller’s of commitment to youth, family, and culture. Dr. Chap Clark and Dr. Kara Powell have done an amazing job, and I think together we’re going to train and inspire emerging ministry leaders who feel a deep calling to advocate for young people.

I am inspired by the value and support Fuller places on interdisciplinary scholarship. I’m excited to learn from and work with some amazing colleagues who can deepen our understanding of young people and the ways they work out their spirituality.

I believe the classroom can be sacred space. Students spill into these spaces with incredible stories, experiences, hopes, passions, and ideas. Meaning can be made here and dialogue can happen that has the potential to evoke game-changing ideas. I also believe that seminary students are forming themselves, and I hope to get to know them and to be a support to them as they invest themselves at Fuller. Current and future Fuller students: I can’t wait to meet you.
 

Q: What are you hoping to bring to FYI and the youth and emerging adult ministry world through your role as Applied Research Strategist?


Over the years I have been drawn to FYI’s commitment of “research into resources.” FYI has led the way in thoughtful, responsive ministry in the youth, family, and culture conversation. I’m excited about the research we can do to understand the formational trajectory from youth through emerging adulthood, along with finding ways to communicate findings in helpful ways to ministry leaders. I particularly believe that we can reimagine new avenues for supporting and inspiring ministry leaders toward better, more responsive approaches for youth and emerging adult formation and advocacy. Let’s go!

 

Learn more about studying at Fuller Theological Seminary in a Youth, Family, and Culture program.


Read some of Steve’s articles for FYI:


From Faith to Faithing

Spiritual Growth Through Self-Authorship

Processes, Pitfalls, and Aha’s of Implementing Sticky Faith

Reimagining the Gospel in Relationship

 

Follow Steve on Twitter

Photo by Christienne Nathalie A. Beroña. 


I’ve made a big mistake with my previous short-term mission trips. I’ve always thought of them more as group experiences rather than individual journeys for each kid.

It’s easy to do when you’ve got 32 college students for a single weekend building a house in Mexico. Or 18 high school students digging wells for a week in Guatemala. There are so many details to organize that if the entire group seems to learn—and make it back home safely—the trip feels like a success.

A few weeks ago Compassion International invited our family to Brazil as part of our partnership with their Step Into My Shoes project. Experiencing the trip with my own kids changed everything.

As a parent, I was more tuned in to each of our kids’ unique needs and personalities. As a parent, I paid far more attention to how God worked through each of them as individuals than I ever have as a youth pastor. Even though none of us spoke Portuguese, I watched them communicate in their own ways with the people they were meeting.

Nathan, our 6’2” 14 year-old, quickly connected with Brazilian boys on the soccer field, as well as through playing guitar.

Krista, our leadership-minded 12 year-old, bonded fast with Brazilian girls through volleyball. 

Jessica, our more introverted 9 year-old, connected with smaller groups of kids her age, who loved the way she listened to them (even though she couldn’t understand them) and took pictures (a hobby she loves).

As a mom, my radar was tuned in to their individual approaches to culture and life, how their individual personalities best interacted with others, and how their individual lives were changed.


Looking back on all the youth ministry trips I’ve led, I wish I had done a better job…

  • BEFORE: Helping kids identify their unique personalities and gifts. Some ideas here.
     
  • DURING: Debriefing with them each day about how God used those personalities and gifts in unique ways.
     
  • AFTER: Once we get back home, helping them discover how God can continue to use both their gifts and what they learned from our missional work in our own community.


Whether you’re a parent or a church leader, what can you do this summer to help every young person you’re around be sensitive to how God wants to use them individually to change the world around them?

 

Check out the Step Into My Shoes Project
 

Photo by Kelsey Elinor.

Today’s guest blog is by Shane Stacey. Shane has been involved in student ministry for 19 years. He currently serves as the EFCA's national director of ReachStudents. He lives with his wife and three children in Minneapolis, MN.
 



I serve in a student ministry that just did a series on doubt. We loved it. Here are a few things we learned that might be helpful as you consider leading your own.


OUR EXPERIENCE:


Flipping the normal lecture/lab format

Our student ministry normally starts with a large group teaching then breaks into smaller discussion groups. For this series, we flipped it and started with discussion groups that allowed students to express their own opinions and thoughts on a particular issue, then came back together for a large group time.

Students loved it.

In fact, it seemed that they engaged more deeply in the larger group teaching because they had already articulated their own questions to their friends.


Robust dialogue

This series stirred up A LOT of robust dialogue. It was like shaking a bottle of soda and finally pulling off the cap. Deep questions, confusing emotions, and conflicting thoughts quickly surfaced, and it became clear that many students had already been wrestling with these issues on their own.

Students also learned how to express disagreement with one another in a way that showed respect and dignity.


Kitchen table conversations

Several parents contacted the student ministries pastor to let them know that their son or daughter was coming home fired up and asking questions they had never voiced before. Some families found themselves staying up late around the kitchen table for hours talking about the questions. Most of the parents were thrilled to hear their son/daughter wrestling so hard with such foundational faith issues.

One dad mentioned that it woke him up to the reality that his son was no longer a child. He said, “I realized that I’ve not shifted my parenting. My son has his own thoughts about his faith and I need to adjust how I come alongside him in this season.”


Exposing their worldview

This series did a great job of exposing what students really believe. And it revealed just how much they are being influenced by culture. It also helped expose how many students actually know what they believe and, more importantly, why they believe it. Our series on doubt has helped us better understand what we need to focus more on in the coming year, and affirm where the gospel is taking root and growing.


Do your homework

We used the Can I Ask That? book as a framework. It gave us a great foundation, and I decided to do some additional reading on each subject before the sessions. Honestly, it was great for me. It exposed me to new ideas and new ways of thinking about each particular issue, which allowed me to dialogue along with the students.


Prepare your adult team

You’ll also want to do your homework so you can best prepare your team. Several of our adults had not thought through these issues very deeply themselves, or had not done so in a very long time. As a result, the depth of the students’ questions caught them off-guard. To help equip each parent, we supplemented them with additional resources on each topic.


Don’t short change the dialogue

A few of our adults were tempted to switch into “teaching mode.” They didn’t grasp that helping students articulate and express their own thinking is the critical step to learning. Be careful not to jump right into teaching. Dialogue first.


Two weeks per question

If we were to do it again, we’d spend two weeks on each question. The first week would focus on dialogue, and in the second week we’d spend more time addressing specific questions/thoughts that came up from a biblical perspective. I discovered that I needed to frame the question, let students express their current position, consider various ways to approach each question, and then see what the scriptures had to say about the issue. It’s a lot to try to do in one night. Two is better.


Understand the point

We continued to remind ourselves that the point of the series was not to answer every question definitively. We wanted to help students realize it was OK to ask tough questions. And, when they do, we’ll do our best to wrestle with them deeply. However, we can’t say everything there is to say about every question. These are topics we will all continue to wrestle with throughout our lives.

 

If you’ve used Can I Ask That? What have you learned?

 

This post is copyrighted by the Evangelical Free Church of America and re-posted with their permission.

Photo by Vintagebutton. 

If there’s one thing my friends and family around the country know about California these days, it’s that we are in a severe drought. Some outside folks seem even more aware than most Californians of the extent of the situation. Closer to home, more and more people are waking up to the reality that our water is running short.

It’s tempting in the midst of that narrative to buy into the story of scarcity about everything. After all, our world feeds on this narrative. There’s not enough! is the cry we hear all around us, whether it’s about water, money, education, Christians in America, or a hundred other things.

A question presents itself in the midst of all this "not-enough" talk: Can the good news of God’s abundance be trusted in the face of the story of scarcity?

The question comes from theologian Walter Brueggemann in an essay entitled The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity. [[Later published (2000) in Brueggemann’s Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World.]] I make myself re-read this powerful reminder every now and then. Brueggemann presses us to consider God’s shocking alternative to the myth of scarcity. Take a moment to read it yourself right now.

Bruegemann was recently at Fuller for a fantastic conference on justice, grace, and law, and I was reminded that this message influences the way we think about the world’s problems and our responses to injustice, poverty, and lack of resources. If there’s enough to go around, what can we do about the obvious scarcity we see?

Last year I was able to travel to the Dominican Republic with Compassion International as part of a project we’ve recently released called Step Into My Shoes. Together with my daughter Anna, I witnessed the work of God proclaiming enough in places of true scarcity.

Scarcity of clean water.

Scarcity of livable income.

Scarcity of decent housing.

Scarcity of power to change circumstances.

We saw so many reasons to scream “Not enough!” And yet, God’s work through local churches and the partnership of folks like Compassion speaks a different narrative to a hopeful people.

Brueggemann prophetically reminds us, “We have a love affair with ‘more’—and we will never have enough.” At the root of it, we don’t trust the story of generous abundance laid out for us in scripture. Rather, we buy the shadow-story of scarcity, the line that there’s not enough. It doesn’t matter what “it” is—money, time, prestige, people who care about what we think, kids who show up at youth group—our tendency is to say, “Not enough!”

The story of God speaks in opposition to this narrative. Brueggemann writes, “The Bible starts out with a liturgy of abundance. Genesis 1 is a song of praise for God’s generosity … [it] affirms generosity and denies scarcity.” 

From manna in the wilderness to a small lunch feeding thousands, the story goes on and on proclaiming that “the gifts of life are indeed given by a generous God. It’s a wonder, it’s a miracle, it’s an embarrassment, it’s irrational, but God’s abundance transcends the market economy.

Here’s the one line we have to remember in the face of all of this:

There is enough.

In the midst of our temptation to give in to fear or to the security of comfort, we’re invited to embrace these truths from scripture. Our God is outrageously generous.

There is enough.

Sometimes we need a story that reminds us that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it’s discovering God’s idea of “enough.” That’s my hope for my family, my ministry, and yours. Let’s live as if this story is true!

 

Take a look at the Step Into My Shoes Family Toolkit or church-based Group Starter Kit for help taking a next step on this journey of discovering “enough.” 



Related Posts:

Can I Ask That? Volume 2 Curriculum

Freedom and Exploration. Freedom in Exploration.

The most important question to ask before serving

  

Photo by Cat Klein.

Why are we serving?


Our family was finishing up frozen yogurt, and it was time to get to the heart of our conversation about our upcoming service trip. Thanks to FYI’s exciting partnership with Compassion International on a new family-based project called Step Into My Shoes, the Powell family was going to Brazil to experience Compassion’s ministry firsthand.

Because of our research on justice and service, Dave and I wanted our kids to be more prepared than simply making sure they have the right clothes, immunizations, and bug repellent. During our first Brazil prep meeting, we learned about the history, culture, and people of Brazil. We created a trivia game, rewarding correct answers with York Peppermint candies (a Powell favorite).

Having understood more about Brazil, this second prep meeting was devoted to what I think is the most important question about our trip: why are we serving? Our kids had various answers, ranging from “because we get to miss school” (at least they are honest) to “so we can learn about a new culture.” Reading Jesus’ teachings about “salt and light” helped deepen our conversation, and explore more Jesus-y flavored motivations.

We decided to create a single sentence together as a family. One sentence that we could memorize and turn to when our Brazil experience got bumpy. After several edits and iterations, here’s what the five of us came up with:

“We’re going to Brazil to learn firsthand about a new culture and people because we feel called to spread God’s love.”

The five Powells feel incredibly blessed to get to go to Brazil together. We had wanted to do a cross-cultural service experience in 2015 and God answered our prayers in a bigger way than we ever expected. But also in seasons when your and my family’s service experiences are less than 5 miles from home, it’s always a good idea to talk together as a family about why we serve. Even if it’s a 40-second conversation in our minivan as we’re driving to the local shelter for folks who are homeless.

I’m curious: What do you do to help young people—or your whole family—remember WHY they are involved in God’s justice work?

 

Find out more about the Step Into My Shoes family toolkit

 

Related Posts:

Can I Ask That? Volume 2 Curriculum

4 Things That Surprised Me Talking About Gay People at a Baptist Church

Freedom and Exploration. Freedom in Exploration.

 

Photo by Wiissa.

Today’s guest contributor is Tim Gardner, a husband, dad, and high school pastor at Faith Church in Pennsylvania. 

 

Can I be a Christian and believe in evolution?


This session in Can I Ask That? changed the culture of our youth ministry. For the first time, our students began to explore their beliefs, ask questions, and express doubts in the context of a caring community. Having led this session I saw firsthand the freedom and peace it brought students about the perceived war between science and faith.

Here’s how two students now deal with the question, “Can I be a Christian and believe in evolution?” after going through Can I Ask That?

Julie is a pastor’s kid; she has always attended Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, youth group, you name it. Having been taught that God created the earth in a literal six-day period, Julie felt like she could never question this view, that doubting the “how” of creation would show weakened faith. At the same time, science made sense to her. She struggled through biology class and conversations with peers and teachers because of her conflicted upbringing. In the middle of our discussion on evolution, Julie declared, “Having grown up in church, I never knew I could even think about things like this.” For the first time, Julie felt the freedom to engage in this conversation. This question did not weaken her faith; it strengthened it.

John felt like he couldn’t talk in biology class; if he shared his views of God as creator, he would be shot down and embarrassed. Talking through topics of genre, creationism, and evolution, he began thinking through these issues in a different light. Bringing ideas about old-earth vs. new-earth theories into the conversation allowed John to explore the “how” of creation without feeling like he had to defend the “who” of creation, the fact that God created and made humankind in God’s image. Because of Can I Ask That? John became comfortable exploring his faith and is now able to articulate what he believes.

Having only been in my current church for less than six months, Can I Ask That? has expedited meaningful connections with my students. Hosting these sessions at our home and co-leading with my wife has added a more personal dimension to an already impactful study. It’s always good to wrestle with these questions personally, and it is a privilege to help students wrestle with these questions for themselves. This series created space for our students to investigate doubts and questions without the fear of being judged or rejected. We are creating a culture of freedom, not a culture of fear. We are starting to see the harvest.


Related Posts:

Can I Ask That? Volume 2 Curriculum

The Power of Yes

4 Things That Surprised Me Talking About Gay People at a Baptist Church

 

Photo by Massimo Ankor

Today’s guest blogger is Matthew Lumpkin, an ordained baptist minister and Fuller alum who feels called to work in technology building systems that encourage people to be more human. He teaches an adult Sunday School class at Altadena Baptist Church where he's attended with his wife and two girls for nearly 8 years.


“My cousin is gay but she also loves Jesus, reads her Bible, and goes to church. Can we talk about whether or not that’s even possible?”

I had just asked the class for their burning questions, the ones they’ve always wondered about but didn’t feel they were allowed to ask at church.

To my surprise, over half the class spoke up in agreement with more examples of people from their lives who they know, some they love, who also are living this apparent paradox: gay and Christian. They wanted to understand better how to think about, talk to, and love these people in their lives.

During my time in student ministry and leading this adult Sunday school I’ve tried to make room for these kinds of burning questions. But with some trepidation about this particular topic, I agreed to prepare a series of lessons about gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, and questioning people (“gay,” for short), the Bible, and the Church.

Can I Ask That? was the first resource I went to because I knew it had a chapter about being gay and being Christian. I also knew that FYI had a reputation for balancing accessibility, good work with biblical texts, and pastoral sensitivity to the real ways these hard questions intersect real people’s lives, especially the lives of students.


Four Things That Surprised Me

1. Setting boundaries on our tone actually worked

Before we began addressing the actual topics, we spent some time describing the kind of conversation we wanted to have. That is, a conversation that was faithful to the character of Jesus. We agreed to speak about gay people as though they were in the room. In several cases we knew they actually were. We agreed not to doubt anyone’s faith or make ultimatums about what one another “had to believe” to still count as a “real” Christian. Along with several guides on owning our own feelings and listening with the same charity with which we want to be heard, these made up our “Agreement of Humility and Respect.” I was convinced we would fail at these, but keeping them posted on the wall enabled us to keep the same kind of conversation as people came and went from week to week. One of the reasons we are afraid to ask divisive questions (especially at church) is that we are afraid of the conversation devolving into opposing camps in battle. The stricter boundaries on the kind of conversation we all agreed we wanted made people feel safer to say riskier things and engage.

2. Praying for and caring for one another enables a different kind of conversation

Perhaps most importantly, we continued our regular practice of beginning our weekly meetings by sharing the ways we believe we’ve seen God at work in our lives that week, and the things we are worried about that we would like one another to remember in prayer. Even when I strongly disagree with your position, if you pray for my sick child, and I pray for your dying mother, it changes how we approach one another. By enacting community and care, we were primed to listen with openness and empathy.

3. Health care professionals offer interesting experience to the conversation

One of the first questions the group wanted to address was: “What does science have to teach us about gay people and gender?” This question was posed by a retired public health nurse. She had some idea about the kinds of genetic disorders that can cause someone with XY (male) chromosomes to never develop secondary sex characteristics or male genitalia.

Accurate numbers of babies born in the US with some ambiguity in their genitalia are hard to come by. The best estimates are between 1 / 1000 and 1 / 500. Another retired nurse in the class who had worked in neonatal intensive care said that number seemed low as compared to her experience. She had seen quite a few babies with ambiguous genitalia and was heartbroken to see how often parents push for surgical revision based on what is visible at birth. We found that talking about making room for kids born between genders in our communities of faith was much easier than talking about “gays” or “lesbians,” especially for folks on the conservative side. It’s hard to blame a baby for how they are born.

4. Welcoming questions welcomes people with questions

The biggest surprise to me was that by making room for these questions and by treating them thoughtfully over a year, we made room for people who weren’t even part of the group to talk about it too. It was almost as if the space that we made in that basement classroom extended beyond it.

Because people knew we were wrestling with this, young people in the church came out to me and to other adults in the church. Adults shared stories of sexual questioning. Parents who had kept their children’s sexual identities quiet felt free to talk about them with me, members of the class, and others at the church more openly.

Regardless of how you feel about the appropriate role of gay people in the church, it’s hard to see it as anything but good that a young person who is experiencing same-sex attraction feels they can remain a part of their community of faith while they work to understand it. 

Because when you welcome questions, you welcome people with questions.

When the answer to “Can I ask that?” is “Yes,” then so is the answer to the question, “Am I welcome here?” And if we do that long enough, with humility and respect, then we make room for the Spirit of God to transform us into something resembling the character of Jesus.


One Big Lesson Learned From a Failed High School Romance

Meeting Students Exactly Where They Are

Can I Ask That? Volume 2 Curriculum

  

Photo by Martin Neuhof.

Today’s guest blogger is Jason Heppner, a recent graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary (‘11 MDiv, Youth, Family, & Culture), he is the Family Ministry Director at Glendale Presbyterian Church in Glendale, CA, coaches baseball for Crescenta Valley High School in La Crescenta, CA, and frequents any and all coffee shops that sell and offer Stumptown Coffee.

Can I ask that?

No.

Oh…

(End of conversation.)

How often have you heard this type of shut-down conversation take place between an adult and a curious teenager?

“No” can take different forms. It disguises itself so you may not think you’re shutting down the conversation, but to the student it’s the same thing:

  • Let’s talk later.
  • Not now.
  • …  because that’s what the Bible says.

Saying, “No” means the moment has ended and doesn’t deserve to move on.

But what does “No” accomplish? Well, nothing really. It represents a lack of creativity, time, and desire for engagement. Momentum is halted and deeper relationships are thwarted.   

So let’s change one word of that conversation to encourage ongoing conversation: “Yes.”

Suddenly, we have endless possibilities.

  • Yes” communicates to the student that you’re a safe person to share with.
  • Yes” encourages the student to ask deeper questions.
  • “Yes” removes barriers that almost all students have as they approach youth leaders and youth pastors regarding faith, sexuality, and relationships.

Can I Ask That? says, “Yes” over and over again to extending deeper conversations with students about God and faith. It’s a resource that actually resources the youth leader with responses to questions that have historically felt scary and, honestly, questions that sometimes seem impossible to adequately respond to.

Have you ever had a student whose questions were so thought out and deep that you wondered if they thought about anything else? Jake was one of those students for me. He had a lot of questions. What’s God’s role in my life? How does my pursuit of Jesus define who I am? Where am I going in life?

I had the privilege of walking (sometimes running) alongside Jake navigating through questions, reading and studying the Scriptures together, and having conversations over flavorless coffee and mocha lattes about how this all goes together.

Jake’s questions and thirst for life remained constant, but Can I Ask That propelled him in a direction that I didn’t know was possible. It bolstered him to take the lead on forming a Student Leadership Team in our ministry. He got other students to attend our Tuesday evening gathering where we talk openly about Scripture, faith, and the complexities of life. He steps up to serve his peers, comes early to set up, engages thoughtfully in small groups, and is always willing to serve and lead. He continues to ask questions, and brings others alongside him who also ask questions.

Students were already asking these questions; they were just looking for a safe place to address them. All I had to do was say yes.

Photo by Amanda Tipton

We had dated for one month, and I knew there was a problem.

She had mannerisms I didn’t like.

She was so head-over-heels for me (or at least that’s what I thought), it was actually quite annoying. She wanted to spend every spare moment together; I wanted to hang with my friends.

I was a high school senior and I had major doubts about this romance I found myself in.

But I kept those doubts to myself. I endured a few more months of this relationship and then ... I couldn’t handle it any longer and broke up with her. She was devastated, and completely surprised.

In our important relationships, whether with friends, spouses, co-workers, or even God, why do so many people keep doubt inside?

Doubt should evolve in any serious follower of Jesus. In that sense, doubt is good news. Only someone wrestling with faith on a deeper level will care enough to ask some of the faith’s toughest questions.

But, like a senior boy who hasn’t figured out how to express himself, we often keep it inside. It’s not all relational naiveté though. There are some legitimate reasons we fear expressing our doubt:

  1. Doubt produces conflict. Admitting doubt almost always leads to hard conversations. For those who fear conflict, doubt means submitting yourself to potential discomfort.
  2. Doubt admits the relationship is in jeopardy. Most of us realize that relational doubts can lead to the end of a relationship. Doubts usually mean we are saying something is (potentially) wrong and, if not satisfactorily addressed, the relationship will change or end.
  3. Doubt opens the doubter to potential criticism. Expressing doubt could lead to feeling like an outsider in community. The friends of this high school girlfriend were my friends too. If the relationship didn’t go well, it could mean the end of the community that I was a part of.

The same three barriers attempt to prevent us from verbalizing doubt in the church. We fear the energy required in the conflict of doubt, the admission that seriously addressing doubt has negative ramifications, and the potential of being excluded from the community we love. So we keep our mouths shut.

A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine pulled me aside. This friend was seen as a leader in the church, a “pillar.” She was someone people respected—she got things done and worked tirelessly for the cause of the church.

“I don’t think I believe in God, really,” she said to me in a hushed tone, even though no one was nearby. “I don’t know who else to tell, but I’ve never really experienced God in any way that would make me sure life isn’t just a random accident.”

I thought about my response for a moment, then offered, “Tell me more.”

Her courage to be vulnerable, combined with a response that didn’t shame, led to a healthy and hopeful dialogue about faith.

Could this conversation happen in your ministry? What kind of environment are you creating for young people’s big questions?

The death of my high school romance started with silence, not doubt. Silence kills. Choosing silence results in the very harm we were trying to avoid in the first place.

Don’t let silence be the story teenagers tell later in life.

  

Meeting Students Exactly Where They Are

Can I Ask That? Volume 2 Curriculum

FYI Webinar with Dan Kimball