Echo Parent Summit – Preparing for the college transition

Echo recently sent its largest graduating class ever out for their first year of college.  I have had many conversations with parents and college freshmen this month, some of them have been encouraging and some of them have been concerning.  Echo reaches many parents with older teens, and for them the college transition is very close at hand.  Others have young teens, and maybe you have even believed the myth that the college transition is a distant dream.  Here is the cold, hard truth: your child started the journey out the door the day they were born.  They will all leave, that is the way of the world.  How they will leave, whether they stay gone, and whether they succeed has SO much to do with how we prepared them for this challenge.  Your son or daughter will leave your door and go face the world with only the tools and wisdom that we have given them.  So what do you want to put in their suitcase? I am not talking so much about “what” as I am about “who.”  So much personal formation happens in this critical window.  

Asher Roth’s vision of college should be alarming to most parents. 

First off, we need to understand that the “script” has changed.  Your teen will enter a college scene that is different from the one you experienced.  College is much more expensive, morality is much more relative, the academic system has experienced shifts in attitude and focus, and the job market they will emerge into is totally different.  I recently heard of a dad talking about how he felt unprepared to help his son navigate the college transition.  He claimed that he went to college in the early 80’s.  His career path was suggested to him by a guidance counselor that knew him well enough to know his gifts, talents, and aptitude.  His tuition was completely funded by grants and scholarships, and immediately on graduation he started a job he worked for the next 20 years.  This kind of story might not have been normal for everyone, but it at least used to be common.  Now, the average student will change majors twice, 60% of them will use student loans to cover the cost (around $30-40 grand a year for a private 4 year college), attend 62 parties per year on average, and only 6 out of 10 of them will find a full-time job after graduation.  The more alarming reality for me as a youth pastor, and the one that Echo has looked most closely at, is the way that people statistically take a “recess” from faith during college.  We have been paying close attention to the research coming out of Fuller Youth Institute and adjusting our programs as a result.  Many students, even those that were involved in strong youth ministries (up to 40-50%) leave their faith in college.  This is alarming, but it is based on solid research.  How do we address this? Here are two “structures” we need to work together to build for each of our students.

1.  A Foundation they can stand on – This is purposefully preparing your teen for life without your guidance.  They are on the way out the door the minute they are born.  One of the things I notice is that young people have a hard time mapping out the “why” of college.  They need to have a vision for college, wandering can be an expensive experiment.  Most students will say that the goal of college is to get an education so they can get a good job.  That sounds good on the surface, but the truth is more complex.  The truth is that learning cannot be the highest goal.  It doesn’t really matter what our kids know if they don’t know what really matters.  From 18-25, huge questions are being answered about identity; not just what they will do for a living but what sort of person they will become.  They will form central convictions during this time that last a lifetime.  They need our help.  Their character will take shape dramatically during these years, as will their values, and those issues of “who” will both matter far more than the “what” of job/career. 

  • Laying the right foundation means we create space for true doubt, wrestling, and complexity while they still have some adults to anchor them.  It means that we anticipate and even catalyze their searching and their questions.  One of the most common complaints students in the research have voiced is that there wasn’t room for discussion, doubt, and disagreement in their churches or their homes when it came to faith.  They were encouraged to have “blind faith” and not to think critically.  We want to introduce our students to the many logical challenges to the Christian faith while we can still have the conversation
  • Laying the right foundation means connecting them to a bigger story.  Students that live on mission: to serve and heal and restore the world, have a much better chance of surviving college with their faith in tact.  This is one of the reasons that a “gap year” is a very good idea for many college students.  Students can defer their acceptance a year, and that year is spent on mission.  It is not sitting around, it is spent purposefully serving the world and discovering who they are and setting their priorities. 
  • We want to a lay a foundation rooted in community.  Relationships matter, HUGELY.  One of the issues here is that it is difficult for them to duplicate the level of community they experienced in youth ministry in college and beyond.  There are campus groups, but many students find “adult church” lacking in the level of relational depth they crave.  We have to be better about integrating them into the life of the church, not as a separate little church for youth, but as vital members of the greater church movement. 
  • Laying a solid foundation means facing difficult tensions and boldly asks the tough questionsThis means we need to address the challenges they will face long before they leave for college.  They need some practice wrestling with the tensions and temptations that will face them in college.  Issues that need to be addressed long before they leave your house include:     Debt – the average college student will graduate with over $30,000 in debt.  That is a heavy load to carry if the average starting salary is under $50k and 40% of them will not be able to find jobs right away.  Parties – The average college student attends 62 parties a year.  This party scene is not even enjoyable to some, according to the research, but they feel like they cannot connect meaningfully without it.  They need help finding another answer to this need to connect.  Dangerous behavior – 40% of college students admit to binge drinking.  Everyone made some dumb and reckless choices in college, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prepare our students to make better choices! Dangerous behavior includes digital irresponsibility, the pictures of their foolish choices may follow them forever digitally and negatively impact future opportunities. 

2.  A Net to catch them when they fall – We all hope that our child will succeed.  One of the hardest things about statistics is that we can assume hopefully OUR kid will defy the stats.  We hope we have prepared them to succeed, we hope we have given them the tools they need.  Still, we need to also prepare them in the inevitable event of failure.   They are going to mess up.  They are going to miss a class, to struggle with grades, to bow to social pressure.  They are going to be homesick or to be lonely.  How will they respond?

  • Grace – This is the most important thing we can teach them.  It is ESSENTIAL that they understand the heart of God toward them.  Your faith becomes robust and resilient when you learn how to get back up after you fail.  Many students think something like: well, I already screwed up and now I’m tainted, I might as well stop trying.  This is an actual conversation I have way too often.  This is why faith that is based on human merit or behavior will never work.  True Christianity is not about what we do for God, it is about what God has done for us.  Grace needs to be the face that loves wears when it meets imperfection. 
  • 5 Invested adults – 5 seems to be the magic number.  Do you have 5 different adult voices that are invested in the success of your teen? Adults that know them well, know their story, and want to see them succeed in life and in faith? A youth leader, a coach, an older sibling, they need 5-6 voices.  There are going to be so many times when they don’t want to turn to a parent, even if they have the best parents in the world.  What will the net look like that catches them?

These are actual interviews of college freshmen.  I can’t help but notice how much these students needed help in the form of grace and the wisdom of other loving adults! If your student was to fail, what net would catch them?

Surviving Middle School

I love watching the “survival” themed shows that are always invading the Airways. Man vs. Wild, I Shouldn’t be Alive, and Survivor are probably the most popular, but my favorite is Survivorman. The Canadian Les Stroud amazes me on every episode. Not only can he survive in the most hostile environments imaginable, but he does so while filming everything himself. No camera crew to give assistance (like Bear Grylls recieves), no tricks (like Bear Grylls employs), and no “dramatization” or theatrics (did I mention Bear Grylls real name is Edward?).

Some people would classify Middle School as a survival scenario. Students leave the predictable environment of elementary schools to roam the labyrinth of middle school hallways and deal with the dangers within. They are faced with social pressure and social changes as cliques are formed and friend groups are tested and established. They are slammed with physical changes as puberty complicates the scene with unwelcome hormones. As a youth pastor, the range of exposure in middle school is hard to navigate: some girls are tucking their stuffed animal collection in at night while other girls are dealing with sexual attention from their boyfriends. This month, Echo has been talking about strategies for survival in middle school. Our goal is that all of our students do more than survive these turbulent years and they actually thrive: growing in wisdom, maturity, and influence.

Survival experts will talk about the Rule of Three, which is a way to establish the order of priorities in a survival situation. A person can live for:
three minutes without air,
three hour without shelter,
three days without water,
three weeks without food,
and three months without love.

When it comes to Surviving Middle School, the rule of 3 looks a little different. These are the three areas that every adolescent needs to address if they are going to survive:

1. The Challenge of Identity – Who am I? One of the things students soon discover in Middle School is the amount of labels that are tossed around. People want to categorize other people: are you going to be a jock, a skater, a hip hop boy, emo, preppie, goth, glamor girl, punk, geek, brain, lax bro, or whatever. So much energy in Middle School can be spent trying to maintain your reputation or enforce or define you label. The danger is when students stop being themselves in an attempt to be who others want them to be. Middle schoolers need to be reminded that they are not what the crowd says they are; not unless they choose to become that. No label or reputation really defines one’s identity. Some students will rise above this pressure and refuse to defined by anything but God. These students know that first and foremost they belong to God and what He says is most important.

2. The Challenge of Belonging – Where do I fit? One of the biggest challenges students face in Middle School is LUNCH. The questions that troubles many in the first weeks of school are: where will I sit? Who will you sit with? Do any of my friends have the same lunch that I have? Remember, they are in the uncharted wilderness of the Middle School social system; the last thing they want is to be the person that has to sit alone! The question “Where do I sit?” is really about a deeper question: “Where do I fit?” Never before has who you choose as your friends mattered so much. Here are a couple of survival tips that we offer to new middle schoolers: figure out before hand which of the friends you already know have the same lunch as you, so you know what to expect. We also give our students this challenge: be on the lookout for people who are sitting alone – it is your job as a follower of Christ to not let that happen. Never underestimate how much friends can affect your future.

3. The Challenge of Purpose – Do I matter? Do my choices matter? Every student has to deal with the challenge of establishing autonomy. This is the source of much conflict between parents and teenagers. As they search for independence, they often do so by pushing back against authority figures, especially mom and dad. They start desiring greater levels of freedom without necessarily demonstrating greater levels of responsibility. Here is the good news: everything I have seen and everything I am reading is still confirming that students values and choices are MOST influenced not by media or their peer group, but by their families. As parents, you still are the most important voices in the lives of your students. They will listen to you, and they do listen to you. This can be tough to believe during the times of one-word answers and ipod earplugs, but it is still true. The time you spend with your teenagers and the input you give them will have the greatest affect on their values formation.

One of the mistakes that I see parents make is assuming that the “stiff arm” of their teenage kids actually means they want “space.” They are struggling with the challenge of autonomy, and how they express their independence from you while still feeling that they want to be close to you. Push through the stiff arm and know that you are the most important voice in their world. Your affirmation and guidance will always carry more weight than anyone else’s. We have to learn to hear what they mean past what we think they are saying. It is easy for us to misunderstand the language of adolescence (largely because it is always in the dialect of sarcasm with an accent of attitude), but let me try to translate a few things I am sure teenagers are looking for:
-They long to belong. (They say: “You don’t know me.” We hear: “I don’t matter to them.”)
-They long to be taken seriously. (They say: “You never listen to me.” We hear: “They don’t want to listen to me.”)
-They long to matter. (They say: “I can do it!” We hear: “They don’t need me.”)
-They long for a safe place. (They say: “I’m fine, okay?” We hear: “They want to be left alone.”)
-They long to be uniquely themselves. (They say: “It’s my life – you can’t tell me what to do.” We hear: “They don’t care what I think.”)
-They long to be wanted. (They say: “Nobody cares about me.” We hear: “They don’t care about me.”)

Praxis

Praxis is the practical application of a theory. When it comes to faith, praxis is faith in practice. It refers to what you live out, not just what you believe. It is one thing to know something, but it is another thing to live it. It is something remarkable that our culture has such a profound disconnection between knowledge and practice. For example: I know all about physical health. I know about eating healthy and exercising. I know how to get into “fighting shape.” That theoretical knowledge actually does nothing for my actual physical health unless I put into practice. People for the most part understand good financial planning. They know that if they spend more than they make, they will go into debt. They know that it is bad idea to live beyond their means. They know that if they do not save any money for retirement, they will not have any money with which to retire. All of this knowledge does them nothing, because the average American household has thousands in consumer debt and nothing saved for retirement. It doesn’t really matter what you know if that knowledge does not translate into action. Your theoretical knowledge might be impressive, but it is worthless, practically speaking. This is especially true in the area of faith. People come to church to learn more about Jesus, who He is, what He did, and what He asks of us. Yet for all this knowledge, sometimes it seems like nothing actually changes. We know that God asks us to love others, but do we love them? We know he asks us to be just, but do we practice justice? We know God asks us to worship Him above everything, but do we do it?

Series Graphic for PraxisJames is a book of the Bible all about praxis. James teaches that faith is something that needs to be lived out. The only kind of faith that matters is faith that is practiced: faith that you can see “evidence” of. Faith is an internal reality, a change from the inside out – starting in the heart and surfacing in changed priorities, affections, attitudes, and actions. James argues that if people cannot see a change in action, your faith probably doesn’t exist.

This month, our Echo High School students will be exploring the book of James and examining where our lives need line up with our beliefs. We will look at practical expressions of our faith in areas like social justice, our handling of money, and what comes out when we open our mouths. We no longer want to miss the path between knowledge and action, faith and charity, piety and moral proof.

Questions for you and your teenager:
*What does “praxis” mean to you – how do you put your faith into practice?
*Some people would say that Christians have a reputation for being hypocrites. What do you think James might say about this, based on what you read, heard, and discussed at Echo?
*Do you think people that “practice what they preach” are rare? Why or why not?
*What are some beliefs you hold that are tough to practice?

Twilight Part 2 – Bella’s Secret

twilight-background6
As an ongoing exercise in cultural redemption, we have been looking at the Twilight phenomenon. These love stories have taken teenage girls by storm…much to the puzzlement of many teenage guys. It is a typical story of girl meets boy, (who seems to be the only one that understands her) falls in love, and much emotional drama ensues. The twist is: the boy is a vampire. Their relationship is complicated by his “thirst” for her blood, which serves as a bit of a metaphor and the source of erotic tension. These characters endure an ever present, mutual desire that culminates with Bella – on prom night – offering her jugular to Edward so that his bite might turn her into a vampire…Hmm….sound at all familiar?

Let’s look at this story from the perspective of a teenage girl, who sees the unfolding drama through Bella’s eyes. Bella has her dreams come true in storybook fashion. She is described as a very plain, ordinary young lady, yet she manages to capture the heart of a very extraordinary guy (two extraordinary guys if you read the whole series). Edward is a vampire, and that gives him some supernatural charm or power over women. He seems to be able to attract people. He is also in possession of the ability to read the minds of the people around him. The book portrays him as some sort of Super Romeo; the perfect balance of good looks and intrigue. He has his pick of the girls, but he only chooses one. Not insignificantly, this girl is the one whose mind he cannot read. She is the one least available to him. The questions racing through the minds of teenage girls are along the lines of: “how can this happen to me?” What is it that makes some people stand out and others seem rather ordinary? How do I get the attention of Prince Charming? What is it that makes a woman captivating?

This is a huge question that our teenage girls struggle to answer, and their culture is short on quality answers. Am I attractive? Am I enough? Am I captivating? Will a guy ever bother to pursue me and fight for me?

Our girls are growing up in a twisted world. I heard one story (it made national news) of a young woman auctioning her virginity. She is “putting it out there.” That seems to be the model in culture right now. I am not saying that many women are so blatantly “for sale,” but I am saying that many women “have it in the showroom,” so to speak. Modesty is a lost art. I don’t think that girls understand what really captures a man’s heart. Many seem to understand what captures a man’s eye – that is easy. You don’t want his eye – you want his heart. His eye is the most fickle and fleeting part of him. You want a man to give his life to chase you and delight in you and cherish you forever. You want a man that can appreciate the beauty of who you are long after time has its way with your physical body. When it comes to finding a mate, the question our teenagers should be asking is: how do you get the attention of his heart?

Beauty is another reality distorted in the teenage mind by our culture. Let me give you an example: a very pretty 15 year old comes to me and her youth leader because she is struggling with bulimia. This might sound shocking, but when you stop and think that the average model is 5’10” and weighs 110 lbs, but the average woman is 5’4” and weighs 150 lbs, it’s easy to see why this creates a tremendous health risk for young girls. Advertisers are hiring psychologists to help them exploit teenagers’ insecurities to sell more products. Last year, girls saw more advertisements for diet products than adults. I just read an article about students having anxiety attacks about acne on prom. I thought zits were a part of the teenage deal! This distorted ideal makes this world a very hard place to be girl. I am finding more and more girls that never feel like they are enough. “I am not pretty enough, I am not skinny enough, my hair is not thick enough, my skin is not smooth enough, some things are never big enough, and other things are never small enough.” As our teenagers are struggling to figure this out, we need to help them discover the biblical ideal of inner beauty. They need help so they don’t let beauty become something as superficial as their appearance; what they weigh, what they wear, and so on. Let your beauty be found within. When they settle this issue in their hearts, they will finally find “enough.”

These are just symptoms of the real problem. Ultimately, Bella decides what many girls decide: that life without Edward is not really worth living. She is only complete when she is with him. The heart of every woman is seeking the answers to specific questions: am I loved, am I valuable, am I captivating, am I wanted and needed? No guy can be the answer to these questions. Our girls have a hunger in their souls for a significance “he” (whoever he may be) cannot give them. I have met too many girls that are incomplete without a boy on their arm. The truth is: having that boy makes them no more complete. When we can find the answers to the questions of our hearts in the presence of God, we will have found the source of true strength. The most beautiful and strong kind of girl is the one that is confident in her identity in Christ. She respects herself, and so others will respect and value her too.

The Game of Life – Prudence

This series we have been talking about how morality has more to do with becoming the right sort of person than it does being a person that follows all the rules. People sometimes assume that if they can do “good” things more and “bad” things less, they will somehow put God in their debt or gain his approval. This attitude fails to consider the level of transformation that is available in Jesus. In Christ, there is the possibility of New Life, where an internal transformation occurs supernaturally. This is not based on our moral performance, but on Christ’s work on our behalf. This is how we are to become the “right sort of person.”

What is the right kind of person? In this series, we are looking at morality in terms of “virtues:” internal characteristics that define who a person is or is becoming instead of external rules that define what they do or do not do. The 4 classic virtues (sometimes called the “Cardinal Virtues”) are Temperance, Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude.

Let’s talk about Prudence. This is one of those words that has lost its meaning over time. What I mean by prudence is the correct knowledge of things to be done or avoided, or the ability to make the right choice. Prudence is first among the virtues because it guides the others by setting the course of life and helps in applying moral principles to particular cases.

Know-the-Game-Title-3

Remember the Game of Life? You make your choices, and depending on how well you choose, you either end up living in “Millionaire Acres” or as some dead beat. I don’t know about ending up in “Millionaire Acres,” but I do think that the Game of Life has a lot to do with Prudence. Prudence, like Life, is all about making choices.

The bible gives us a great conversation throughout the book of Proverbs that sets “Wisdom” against “Folly.” Wisdom is personified by in a noble and beautiful young woman. She is the kind of girl every young man dreams of marrying. Folly on the other hand, takes the form of a woman with “questionable character.” If wisdom is the ability to make good choices, folly is the opposite. Folly is impulse, empty promises, misplaced desire, reckless affection, and self-destruction. She is sneaky and seductive, but in the end she is disaster. She represents all the choices that seem like a good idea only to end in unbearable consequences.

When it comes to virtues, Prudence is not on the top of the teenage list. They tend to make decisions based on feeling, considering only the most immediate impact and ignoring long term consequences. Being prudent means having the ability to forecast the long term impact of our decision. Our culture struggles with this idea, as evidenced by the “credit card philosophy” by which many people live. Play now, pay later is a slogan that would sum up the average student’s attitude toward life. Prudence means taking the time to stop and think, weigh each option for pro’s and con’s, and proceed with the logical choice. Jesus warned about “counting the cost” before beginning any endeavor.

Prudence also means knowing where to find wisdom when you need it. When they are at an impasse, most teenagers naturally look for advice from their friends. This is a bit like asking another drowning person to help you out of the pool. One of the marks of maturity is when a young person starts seeking advice in the right places. Very often, when people say they are looking for advice, what they are actually looking for is someone to agree with what they have already decided. Proverbs 12:15 says it just right: “Fools think they need no advice, but the wise listen to others.” Teens need to be challenged and reminded that teachers, coaches, pastors, youth leaders, and (gasp) even their parents are MUCH better sources of advice than other teenagers.

ORANGE MOMENT: Of course, there are plenty of topics in the teenage universe that they are not comfortable talking to mom and pop about. This is where youth ministry can offer families a great tool. In youth ministry, we have adults (that are not mom and dad) that have taken the time to enter the teenage world and earn enough relational currency to matter. These adults have established a platform to say the same kinds of things that mom and dad would say. This is why we work so hard to create environments that are conducive to deepening the relationship between youth leaders and students. This way parents have a resource they can turn to when another adult is needed to “echo” the wisdom that our students should be hearing at home. Now we are thinking orange!

Questions for you and your teenager:

*How do you make decisions? What is your thought process like? What kinds of things do you consider before making a big decision? Why?
*Who can you go to for advice on something important? Should you trust these people to give you good advice? Why or why not?
*How should the Bible play into our decision making? What role should God have in our choices?

Welcome to the ECHO Parent Forum Weblog

DCC has gone Orange.

Or at least “ORANGE” is the word we are using to describe our philosophy of ministry to families.  We believe that parents want the best for their children, hoping they become spiritually healthy adults someday.  We believe that youth ministry can play a vital role in connecting teens to God and His Kingdom.  When these forces combine, we believe we will see a synergistic increase in ministry effectiveness.  So, with this in mind, it is my pleasure to unveil the Echo Parent Forum Weblog.

Here is what I hope to accomplish here:

1.  Better communication between our youth ministry and our parents. This morning I met with an Echo mom that had never received emails from me.  This is a mom of a very involved Echo Middle Schooler, and somehow, she has been in the dark about communication.  I hope that this blog gives parents a space to hear what is going on with Echo and to talk about it.  I also hope this becomes a place where the heart and culture of our youth ministry are communicated to parents in a clear way.

2. Connect our parents to the teaching/experiences our students encounter in Echo. My dream is to give parents short summaries of teaching series or experiences that their students are covering.  This will provide them with a tool to initiate spiritual conversations with their teens.  I hope to provide some discussion questions that parents can ask at the elusive family dinner or in the car on the way from dance to basketball practice.

3. Engage youth culture with a redemptive voice. As busy as parents are juggling work, home, and family obligations, I am pretty sure they don’t often have the time to check out latest episode of The Hills or the latest Katy Perry CD.  You might not like what they watch or listen to; but it has undeniable effects on their worldview and attitudes.  On this blog, we will engage youth culture through the lens of scripture and suggest ways to talk out these realities with your teens.