An interview worth reading: “The Teenage Brain”

On the Grown and Flown website, there is an excellent interview with Dr. Frances E. Jensen, author of the The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.  You can find it here.

We don’t have teens yet. But I do know that from a spiritual perspective, emotional attachment with parents is an important piece of the faith transmission puzzle. Dr. Jensen offers good tips on how to stay connected to your teen during those often turbulent years. Her insights help parents understand their offspring’s sometimes trying behaviour, from a developmental perspective.

Dr. Jensen also offers advice on key parenting issues during those growing years, especially as it relates to brain development.

It’s a quick and worthwhile read.

I find neuroscience (when it is explained in lay terms) fascinating, so I may even get around to reading Jensen’s book.  Likely when our kids move into the teen years, and I shift into “oh-oh” mode.

 

Youth Alpha

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I am currently using Youth Alpha for confirmation classes for a group of eight 12-14 year olds at our church. It’s my first time using it, and I’m impressed.

Here’s what I like so far:

It’s engaging and gets them talking:

No bored kids in this class! The length of each video is about 20-25 minutes, which ends up being about 45 minutes to an hour when you add in discussion.

The production value on these videos is impressive. It’s no longer just talking heads, as in the old adult Alpha series; instead, these videos are visually rich and make use of the most creative styles of image-communication.

Since the videos were made as an evangelistic tool, they assume little to no knowledge of the Christian story. For confirmation classes, given that young people come from all different places spiritually, this is very helpful. Everybody is able to participate.

Following the model of the older Alpha series, Youth Alpha is low-coercion and open to questions. Before each group discussion question, there are interviews with ordinary people giving their perspectives on the question. There are always a range of viewpoints, and that diversity in outlook (ranging from belief to unbelief) creates space in the small group discussion for people to speak their minds.

This is one of the gifts I appreciate most about Youth Alpha. I have never had so much honest conversation with young people in a group setting. Somehow, the videos create room for people to speak the truth about where they are at spiritually, instead of giving the correct ‘religious’ answer. As a pastor, I have gained deep insight into our young people’s lives, and so been better able to engage with their questions. For that I am truly thankful.

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It talks about the basics:

Kenda Creasy Dean, in her excellent book Almost Christian, talks about the failure of both Mainline and non-mainline churches to teach the basics of the Christian faith to young people. This, she argues, has led to the concomitant development of unorthodox faith amongst North American young people, which sociologist Christian Smith has dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Dean writes:

We ‘teach’ young people baseball, but we ‘expose’ them to faith…we blithely assume that religious identity will happen by osmosis, emerging ‘when youth are ready’ (a confidence we generally lack when it comes to, say, algebra). We simply have not given teenagers the soul-strength to recognize, wrestle, and resist the symbiotes in our midst, probably because we lack [it] ourselves… Exposing adolescents to faith, as it turns out, is no substitute for teaching it to them.

Youth Alpha provides an excellent resource that helps redress that imbalance.

Here’s a look at the topics they cover off:

Life: Is This It?
Jesus: Who is He?
Cross: Why Did Jesus Die?
Faith: How Can We have Faith?
Prayer: Why and How Do I Pray?
Bible: Why and How Do I Read the Bible?
Follow: How Does God Guide Us Into Full Life?
Spirit: Who Is the Holy Spirit and What Does He Do?
Fill: How Can I Be Filled With the Holy Spirit?
Evil: How Can I Resist Evil?
Healing: Does God Heal Today?
Church: What About the Church and Telling Others?:

It is user-friendly and manageable for small churches & tight budgets:

Once upon a time, when I worked in multi-staff settings, I had time to develop my own curricula. Now, I am a factotum pastor: I am needed everywhere.

Youth Alpha enables me to do (I feel) a good job of confirmation preparation without requiring hours of prep. That means a lot to me, because the kids going through confirmation in our church matter…but my sanity is worth something too.

Plus, did I mention it is free?  No?  It costs exactly zero dollars, so that helps churches with tight budgets. (Of course, donations are welcomed to help under-write future Alpha ventures).

The caveat: It needs tinkering for your context

So obviously, as with every program, you’re not going to love every aspect of the videos. For example, we will not be showing the video session on healing (it is optional). And, you may not agree with every angle taken in the teaching. But you can handle that yourself as the leader, in the discussion portion.

So, for example, one of the questions today took us 20 minutes of energetic discussion to sort through: “How do you feel about the idea that God has a plan for your life?”  We talked about what that even means, this notion of “plan”, and what it doesn’t mean. We talked about human choice, and human responsibility. We talked about a “way of life” as opposed to a “blueprint.” We wondered about suffering, and how that fits in with this notion of God having a plan. We wondered about the scope of freedom. We somehow even ended up talking about sex and the huge pressure on teenage girls to give oral sex.  (Yep. Very revealing conversation, that continued on for awhile with parents and teens after the class officially ended).

There is a new Youth Alpha being developed, although the one currently available is only four years old.

Alpha has been around for so long, some people have developed an allergy to it.  I encourage you to keep an open mind and check it out.  It’s not going to be for everyone, but for those for whom it’s a fit, it is an incredible resource.

For Canadians, you’ll find the videos here:  https://www.alphacanada.org/ayfs/

 

St. Patrick’s Feast Day

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It’s March 17th, and bars around the world are serving green beer.

In our home, we are marking the day with our annual Irish coddle, a heart-clogging stew of potatoes, onions, bacon, sausage garlic and beef broth. It’s the only time we make it – in the hopes that the children will associate St. Patrick’s with this family meal in the same way I link turkey to Thanksgiving dinner. We are intentionally trying to build a family tradition.

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It tastes and smells better than it looks.

And it’s a tradition that we are trying to create not so much because we are Irish (we are Irish in the same way that we are Scottish and English: barely).  We have made this celebration a family tradition because Patrick is a Christian saint whose story is inspiring and worth re-telling, year by year. Plus, it’s a party, and why shouldn’t religious things be associated with good food and good fun?

We celebrate the Church Year in our home, as a way of marking time other than by the school year calendar. I like the cyclical nature of the Church Year, with the holy seasons like Advent and Christmas and Lent and Easter shaping our family practices, and the party days like St. Patrick’s giving us reasons for practicing hospitality and inviting over friends, and fellowshipping over a fine meal.

A feast for the eyes:

Just like we decorate our homes for Christmas, so we decorate our home for the different seasons of the Church Year.  This often includes Saints days like St. Patrick’s.

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The feast begins.

As much as possible, I like there to be consonance between the seasonal colours at church and in our home, so there is the visual carry over from worship in community, and our communal life at home.

Thrift stores and dollar stores are my best friends. Plus, small plastic bins for storing these treasures year to year.

Fun and Fellowship

When our children were younger, we would often play games associated with whatever gospel story or feast day we were celebrating. On St. Patrick’s day, for example, a very popular one was finding the dollar store plastic green coins Mike hid around the house, then exchanging them for the pot of gold (dessert).  We still eat gummy worms with our dessert in memory of the fanciful tale of St. Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes, but this year we skipped the treasure hunt. Nobody complained, which is a reliable sign that the time for that game has passed. This year, the older ones were more interested in joining in adult conversations, and that is pretty wonderful too.

The key thing? I want my children to have warm associations with their faith. I want these celebrations to provide them with a treasure trove of good memories, and memories that go deep because they are rich with familiar tastes, sights, sounds and stories.

The Stories We Tell

As part of our Feast day celebrations, we always take a moment to read the bible story of the event we are remembering, or read a storybook or watch a video of the person we are recalling.

Since I left our usual St. Patrick storybook at the office, we watched this video instead.

It held the attention of the tweens in the room, and was easy enough to follow for the younger ones. It also generated some good discussion, including our youngest wondering how Patrick knew it was God who spoke, and not just a strange dream because of something he ate. This prompted a little out-loud thinking about how God guides, and some suggestions as to why Patrick drew the conclusions he did. There was also some wondering about whether we would have readily gone back to the country that had enslaved us. Our son concluded that “It would have to be from God” for him to go, but if God said “go,” then he’d go.

Then we ate green jello and worms, which is often how these things end: with laughter and too much sugar.  Just like every good celebration.

Edited to add:  this photo from five years ago just showed up on my Facebook timeline.  What ridiculously cute kids, eh?  And, I see we were still eating green jello back then.

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Our Story & the Children’s Talk

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This is the second in a three part series.  Read the first entry here:.

Ivy Beckwith, in her excellent book Formational Children’s Ministry: Shaping Children Using Story, Ritual and Relationship, talks about the importance of not only of sharing God’s Story and the Church’s Story with children, but also telling the story of the local church.

She writes:

“No one can refute that our own stories, our own personal histories, and the way we tell them to others and ourselves shape who we are and how we act. Our memories provide our lives with context. Our histories help us to know who we are and explain ourselves to others. Our histories give us our identities. Because I believe faith communities play a large and important role in the spiritual formation of children and that stories of all kinds have the power to transform, it stands to reason that the particular stories and histories of a child’s faith communities have the power to shape children into children who love God and follow Jesus.” (49)

The children’s talk provides a good forum for sharing these stories.

Anniversaries & Images

Our church is looking ahead to celebrating the 90th anniversary of our foundation and the 40th anniversary of the rebuild after a fire destroyed the original church structure. A good part of our first planning meeting was taken up discussing how we would share these stories with the children and young people in the church. We talked about posting pictures in the entranceway, creating videos, interviewing the seniors who were there in the days before the fire and during the rebuild…Obviously, with these special anniversaries looming, we will have lots of occasions to tell and re-tell our community story.

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Photos of the fire that is part of our story.

But the most natural place to engage children with our local church story, on an annual basis at least, is on our parish’s feast day or anniversary Sunday. Again, as we have screens, it is easy for us to display photos from different eras of our church’s past. In other church contexts, it might be more appropriate to print a few, scanned digital images, show them during the children’s talk, and then post them on a bulletin board in a highly visible place where Sunday school meets.

Meet and Greets

I like to do interviews from time to time with members of our church, to allow those who participated in our parish history to tell their story and for members to tell children the story of the unfolding faith and life of our community.

A lot of this is testimony, which is about witnessing to what God has done or is presently doing in our lives. A former Bishop of mine, Philip Poole, used to call these Now Testaments, a term I absolutely adore and have re-purposed in my own context.

Now Testaments provide a powerful reminder that God continues to speak into and act in our world today.

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Our caretaker, telling his story.

Because Now Testaments can be on the long-ish side, I tend to put those in between scripture readings once the children have gone down to Sunday school.

But I like our children and teens to hear these stories too, and those I handle in the children’s talk in the form of an interview.  Why an interview?  The interview allows me to control the length and direct the content.

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One of my fave interviews

Let me give a few examples of the kinds of interviews you can do in the Children’s Talk.  When nine of our older children went through our local formational program, I interviewed one of them, asking him to describe the highlights of the course and his accomplishments. He talked about learning to pray and his pride in reading through the Action Bible, from cover to cover. On another occasion, I interviewed a young tween about her decision to ask guests at her birthday party to bring canned for the local food bank in lieu of gifts for herself. She spoke powerfully about God’s call to care for the poor. In another instance, I interviewed our retiring caretaker and he talked about his ministry cleaning and caring for the building. Praying for him, and giving thanks, then made a lot more sense to the children. On still another occasion, when we were talking about praying for the sick, I invited a senior who had been sick in hospital to come forward and tell his story. He talked about what it meant, while he lay in his hospital bed, to know that the church community was praying for him.  (He was still very frail that day, so we had him sit for the interview. In a totally unscripted but melt-worthy moment, one of the shyest kids in Sunday school spontaneously came over and climbed onto his lap, sitting quietly there right through the whole interview).

Again, I cannot tell you in any statistical way what real impact this is having on kids’ lives. There is always a mix of kids paying close attention, kids poking their neighbour, kids looking bored to tears. In short, kids being kids! But I keep plugging away at it, because there is plenty of research that confirms the importance of mentoring in the faith formation of children and teens.

As Beckwith says: “When kids meet people who talk about their stories of faith, how God works in their lives, and how they live out their faith every day, they have models for their own faith development. They see people other than their immediate family, who make positive choices about loving God and living in the way of Jesus.” (53)

Church Story & The Children’s Talk

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I’m going to be honest: I have mixed feelings about the Sunday morning children’s talk. On the one hand, I have low hopes for it as a significant formational moment for either children or adults. On the other, I value the place of children in worship, and support the notion of creating identifiable space and time for our little ones in gathered worship.

So how do you make the most of the children’s talk as a teaching opportunity?

Story and the Children’s Talk

Ivy Beckwith’s book, Formational Children’s Ministry, is one that has helped me with creative and research-based approaches to the children’s talk. One of Beckwith’s emphases is the importance of story in the spiritual formation of children, an insight that research in the field of psychology confirms.

Now, when we think of “story” and “children’s talk”, our minds go immediately to the biblical narrative, which is right and appropriate. Connecting children with God’s story is most important. But sometimes the gospel reading doesn’t lend itself to a simple children’s talk. Or maybe there is a special feast day being celebrated in worship – All Saints, say – and you want to somehow draw the children into conversation with that communal moment.

This is an opportunity to draw children into the Church’s Story.

Beckwith writes:

“Knowing the stories from church history is an important piece of the positive spiritual formation of our children. Helping children understand they are part of a movement that has been alive for more than two thousand years in places all around the world is an important part of their spiritual development and spiritual memory. Helping children meet and know the characters from church history who have followed Jesus in harrowing, life-threatening, and life-ending situations is a way to begin to capture their imagination for what it means to be a person who loves God and follow Jesus no matter what the cost. These brave and faithful men and women are great models for our children of what living according to Kingdom values looks like.” (41)

In my own ministry, I tell the Church’s Story during the Children’s Talk about once every four to six weeks. So for example, in January, I told the story of Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Sunday. In February, we celebrated Black History month, and I told the story of Harriet Tubman. This coming Sunday, with St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, I will talk about St. Patrick and his desire for people to learn about Jesus. In June, when we mark the National Aboriginal Day of prayer, I may talk about St. Kateri. And so on.

There is some work involved in incorporating the Church’s Story into your children’s talk.

First, I do a bit of research about the person I am presenting, and ask myself: What good example of the life of faith does this person offer, in particular?  Next, I sort out what part of their story I will tell, in a way that is brief and simple enough for children to understand. Then, I look for photos or portraits so that the children can capture of visual image of the person being discussed. I’m lucky to be in a context with screens, so I can easily project the photos so everyone in the congregation can see. (For those without screens, another possibility is to print an image, although I realize that introduces additional cost and hassles. Posting the image somewhere in the entrance to the church means that adults will have a chance to at least glance at the image, before and after service.)

At the end of the Children’s Talk, I give thanks to God for the life of the person we have remembered, and ask God to help us, like them, grow in… [insert the commendable quality being held up.]

How is it working in my parish? Honestly, I haven’t heard any feedback on these Church Story moments, either positive or negative. But I keep plugging away at it, because I know that the witness of the lives of fellow believers is a source of encouragement and hope to children and adults alike. As Beckwith says: “Familiarity with the history of the church helps [us] to see that the work of God in the world did not end with the last page of the Bible. Having an understanding of the history of the church…helps [us] see the continued work of God over the centuries and assures [us] that God’s will continue through [us] as well.”

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

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This book came recommended to me by my friend Tiffany Robinson, and it has in turn become one of my top suggestions to mums and dads looking for parenting books and for colleagues looking for resources for parenting small groups.

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The author, Dr. Wendy Mogel, is an American clinical psychologist and internationally renowned writer and speaker on parenting. She also has an interesting story of faith.

Although Mogel’s parents were Jewish, they did not raise her in the tradition. Mogel discovered Judaism later in adulthood, when a friend invited her to a children’s Rosh Hashanah service. She went to the service thinking of herself as a cultural anthropologist, but left with “something stirred inside me.” That brief outing marked the first step in a journey that eventually led to her embrace of the Jewish faith.

The book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, is the product of her experience as a clinical psychologist and her discovery of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition, with much of the content drawn from years of teaching a Jewish parenting class at her Temple.

Mogel believes that the Torah speaks powerfully into a milieu where parents wrestle against a consumeristic and individualistic culture,  and where children are reared in a performance-oriented and anxiety-producing environment. She writes:

Judaism provides a very different kind of perspective on parenting. By sanctifying the most mundane aspects of the here and now, it teaches us that there is greatness not just in grand and glorious achievements but in our small, everyday efforts and deeds. Judaism shows us that we don’t have to be swallowed up by our frenzied, materialistic world – we can take what is valuable from it without being wholly consumed.

Three cornerstone principles of Jewish living are moderation, celebration and sanctification Through these principles we can achieve a balanced life, no matter what culture we happen to inhabit…By applying them to our family life, my husband, my children, and I have found some mooring and meaning in an unsteady world. In my professional life, I’ve seen families transformed by this new perspective on their problem in living. (34)

That quote is from the opening chapter, and in the rest of the book she delivers on her promise of a parenting approach that is both liberating and commonsense.

The table of contents offers a good picture of the kind of topics she tackles:

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She touches on everything from picky-eaters to chores to discipline problems to the futility of pious lectures, to teaching children to manage boring or frightening conversations with adults, to helping your child manage their yetzer hara.  [I know.  I had never heard of yetzer hara, either. You’ll have to read the book to find out.]

As a parent, I loved this book. (I say this as the kind of person who reads a book every time she faces a parenting dilemma she has no idea how to handle. So, I’ve read a lot of parenting books.) This is one of the few parenting resources I’ve read that didn’t make me feel more inadequate or more burdened than when I started it. Hopeful, is how I would describe my mood when I finished the final chapter.

As a pastor, you can see the possibilities.  Mogel not only offers excellent clinical advice, she ties it with the Torah, modeling a way of applying the wisdom of holy scriptures to daily living. For pastors wanting a resource for a parenting small group, this book helps lay people connect their parenting with their faith.

The other bonus: the book comes with a parents’ discussion guide.  As a pastor, you don’t even have to build the questions.

My only caveat, as a pastor: not everyone loves to read.  In a large church, this is no big-deal, since if you advertise a book study, people will self select. But in a small or mid-size church, you may not have tons of families. Your small group may well be all the families in your church!  Odds are, not all those parents will love to read, or have time to read.

I have gotten around this in the past by going through a summary each week of the content of the chapter, so that people get the nuts and bolts of what Mogel discussed. The discussion questions are broad enough that everyone can still participate, but…it’s imperfect.

I had summary notes on my old laptop that died; sometime in the next year I will take time to dig around for them, and if I find them, I will post them here.