Surviving Middle School – What Captures your Heart?

We wrapped up our series Surviving Middle School this week talking about surviving in faith. After almost a decade in student ministry, I have come to recognize that the strength a student’s faith boils down to one thing: What captures his or her heart? Answer this question and I can tell you whether or not you have what it takes to survive in faith. The kind of people that can face the tests and difficulties life brings and survive with faith in tact might be called “obsessed.” So what are you obsessed with? What captures your heart? What are you in love with – what gets your thoughts and your time and your devotion? The ancient Hebrews knew that centering your heart on God was essential to faith. They would start each day with a prayer they called the “Shema.” This comes from a passage in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This is the secret to surviving Middle School with your faith in tact. It is the one thing.

Thriving faith is really about having a heart that is captured by God. Everything else seems to be less important when your give your heart to something or someone. I am talking about being passionately in love with God – worshiping Him with all your heart, soul, and strength. This is the one thing. If God has captured your heart, if you have seen and experienced the Love of God, you will be able to see through everything else.

There are many rivals for the attention and affection of a teenager: fashion, cell phones, iPods, boyfriends, x-boxes, sports, school, pride, vanity, and so on. None of these are inherently evil, but they can still mess up our priorities. There are some great things out there that we can love and be passionate about, but when these things become the center of our lives, we will find that they are inadequate. Many of the things that demand our attention and affection are good things, but they are not supposed to be central things. Inordinate affection has a corrupting and decaying affect on the object and the giver of love. As creatures we have been designed to keep God at the center of our lives. This is a truth that sometimes gets diminished because of fear.

We hear God demanding our love with heart, soul, and strength, and sometimes we feel guilty about loving other things. The secret is that loving God with everything does always not subtract from the love you can display for other things, in many cases it amplifies it. When you center your life on Him, even your passion for other things can be better and healthier. The best way for me to love my wife is to love God with all my heart, and then I learn to love her more. Love is an infinite resource in God’s kingdom.

I learned this in a powerful way when I became a father.
I love my wife intensely, and when our first daughter was about to be born, I wondered how I could make room in my heart for another. So, when she was born I dutifully took the love I had for my wife, cut it in half, and gave half of my love to her and half to our daughter. Of course that is silliness! That isn’t how love works. The truth is that when Arabella (my daughter) was born, I loved Jamie (my wife) MORE than ever, not less. Love can do that – it can grow in capacity infinitely! The more you love, the more you have the ability to love. The same thing was true when my second daughter was born. It was not a challenge to find enough love for her as well, as if I had to make room in my heart for her. In reality, my heart just grew bigger and my love for each member of my family grew as well. Our love for God is much the same: when we direct our attention and focus our affection on Him, our passions for every other good thing in this world become more pure, more refined, and more intense.

So do it! Unlock the secret to thriving faith: receive love from God and return it to Him with everything you have.

Questions to ponder with your teen:
*What does it mean to love God with all your heart?
*What about with all your soul?
*What about with all your strength?
*Does this mean that you cannot love anything else? Why or why not?

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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.”)

Tips for New College Parents – How to handle your freshmen

Many of our parents are just now discovering a new rhythm of life after sending their kids off to college. This is a very difficult transition for many, especially when so much of life revolved around your kid for 18 years. One of the things we have found to be true of early college students is that they still need the voice of youth ministry – and more importantly they still need the guidance of their parents. Still, the conversation needs to shift as students enters greater dimensions of autonomy. Our youth leaders do their best to keep the conversations about faith going with students, even after they have graduated from our program and head off to college, but the conversation looks different after high school. This is often a hard transition for parents and students alike.

Echo has been following the research of the “Sticky Faith Project” for a few years now, and listening carefully to their recommendations and findings. They have just published a great article on stickyfaith.org about the tough transition for college freshmen and their parents.

Check it out here: http://stickyfaith.org/articles/out-of-the-nest

What I learned watching MTV

MTV and I were both born in 1981. I was born with little fanfare in a Detroit hospital: a baby too big for a momma too small that required an emergency c-section. MTV on the other hand, was born when they prophetically aired “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Back then, all you could see on MTV were music videos. The concept of a channel devoted to showing commercials 24/7 was brilliant. A music video is basically a commercial for the song and artist, and they interrupt these commercials with other commercials on their commercial breaks. We are suckers! Now, MTV rarely if ever shows music videos; it is in the business of creating culture.

Our high school students are engaged in a series right now that I like to repeat every few years called MTV and the Truth. The idea is to confront the worldview behind some of the shows on MTV with a critical and redemptive eye. We have engaged classic shows like Pimp my Ride, Room Raiders, Punked, The Real World, Made, My Super Sweet 16, and many more. This year, we are tackling Bully Beatdown, The Buried Life, Skins, and 16 and Pregnant. This year is by far my favorite!

I will put up some thoughts from the series in the coming week.

Childlike Wonder

My daughter Arabella is two years old today. I cannot believe how much our lives have changed because of this little blond girl running around and enriching every moment with a sense of wonder and joy. She is obsessed with princesses, shoes, jewelry, magic, and beauty. I still harbor a secret hope that someday she will turn into a hunter that likes watching football shooting guns with her daddy. Given that she has not taken off her pair of glittering pink princess shoes since her grandma bought them (she even wears them to bed), I should stop holding my breath. Seeing the world through her eyes is always a treat for me as her father. Jesus understood something about the benefit from such a shift in perspective and the beauty of the world as seen through the eyes of a child.

Mark 10:13-16 – this is a great passage. Jesus is having a blast hanging out with some kids, and his disciples see this and make to remedy the situation. They come over to righteously defend their teachers importance and his lack of time for such a trivial thing as playing and such insignificant people as children. Their attitude leads to one of those moments when Jesus gets ticked off. He is indignant about their pride and assumption: to Jesus, there isn’t anything more important than what he is doing. And he uses the kids as a great object lesson – become like them if you want to get the Kingdom of God. So what can we learn from kids about life and about God? In what ways can we actually learn about spiritual maturity from the simple mind of a child?

Mystery – kids are okay with the unknown. They don’t feel they need to know everything. This doesn’t stop them from asking questions. Arabella is just getting to this age. She flips through her books and asks “What’s this?” “What’s that?” She looks at the world like it is a puzzle she is going to figure out if she just pays attention. Never will there be a group with more questions than children. They want to know if God is really invisible, or if that is just a trick. They want to know if God could make the sky green if he wanted to. Why don’t we have any questions anymore? Because we have moved on and become mature and we don’t like to admit we don’t know everything. Sometimes we focus on showing everyone what we know, not admitting what we don’t know. There are just some things we will never understand. Some of us have a hard time understanding girls. Others of you, you just don’t get guys. Good luck understanding your parents. Sometimes, we don’t even understand ourselves. There are questions in life that you and I can’t answer. We offer up platitudes. We make guesses; sometimes even educated guesses, but we really don’t know. For example, we don’t understand why good people suffer. Or why bad people prosper. We can’t understand why some people from a certain kind of background become criminals, while other people growing up under the same kind of circumstances become sterling citizens. The difference between kids and us is that they are okay with not knowing everything, while it drives us nuts. Kids have the potential for remarkable faith because of their comfort with the unknown.

Wonder – Kids are amazed by the simplest things. My daughter is impressed every time I make chocolate milk. She studies the way the milk and the chocolate swirl around and cheers when it is done. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to impress us. We have lost our sense of wonder. I think it is because we have become so big that God has become smaller. I love what John the Baptist says about Jesus – “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Kids know they are small, and the world and God are huge! I love to see a kid that is amazed and impressed.

FUN – Why do kids have more fun than adults? Things that are common and routine to us are pure excitement to them. Running, jumping, dancing, music, games, and laughter. They laugh deep; energy that comes from their core. It isn’t just a courtesy laugh, you know, the little chuckle we give each other when something really isn’t funny but a laugh is appropriate or expected. Kids laugh from the gut, and it erupts out of them like pure, care free joy. Arabella reminds me every day about the simple reasons to laugh. Yesterday, we danced in the living room for 10 minutes with no music other than the melody of her contagious joy. Then she wanted to jump. Then she wanted to pretend to sleep while I pretended to be a pillow, complete with snoring sounds.

Kids don’t care if their clothes are the coolest, they don’t care if they have the best looking prom date, they don’t care about so much that is so superficial. Kids don’t worry about popularity or image. Think of the barriers that we have to deal with between us and serving God with abandon: our reputation, selfish agendas, our plans, our hang ups – kids just aren’t encumbered by this stuff. Jesus was on to something when he taught us to rediscover the faith of a child. If this is something you struggle with, come over and hang out with my 2 year-old. See the world through her eyes.

Twelve Stones and Thanksgiving

Echo High Schoolers have been talking through the book of Joshua this month, centered on the story in Joshua 4 of twelve stones being taken from the center of the Jordan River to serve as a reminder of the miraculous event of their crossing into the Promised Land. The passage commands:

“In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”

On a similar theme, this Sunday, Echo Middle Schoolers will hear about the spiritual practice of celebration, and how scripture is filled with feasts and festivals that commemorate the activity of God among His people. God loves a party, and especially a party with a purpose.

This week, we will do what we do as we celebrate our holiday of Thanksgiving. Family will reunite, traditions will be observed, a meal will be shared, and a nap will be had by many. In my house growing up, we would feast with family (TURKEY!), watch the Lions lose at football, and do some more feasting on turkey sandwiches after dessert. What I remember most was when the family would actually take time sharing specifically what we are thankful for. Even my youngest cousins were required to share something. This exercise gave the day meaning.

So, while you carve the Turkey, be sure to carve out a time and a place to some real “thanksgiving.” Practice celebrating each other, remembering what God has done on our behalf, and expressing our thanks for everything. Here is my suggestion, it sounds cheesy, but I think with the Holiday as your excuse, you can get away with it: everyone needs to express what they are thankful for in exactly three sentences. That helps teenagers get past the one word answer and it helps long winded family members to be cut short before the food gets cold.

Boring Teens to Death?

The 4th message in our series The Never Ending Story brought us to a passage that is comical and tragic at the same time. Acts 20:7-12 tells the story of a young man named Eutychus. Eutychus means “Lucky.” However, this guy was not so lucky. Paul is leaving the city of Troas in the morning, and I guess he is trying to make the most of his time. After an evening of “church,” Paul keeps preaching late into the night. Our lucky young man Eutychus is trying to stay awake, but he can’t. He falls asleep. Now this is a problem because the meeting is being held on the third story, and Eutychus was sitting in the window sill. When he falls asleep, he actually falls out of the window. It wasn’t the three story fall that killed him; it was the sudden stop as he hit the ground! This story is a bit amusing, but still pretty tragic. A young man dies in this story, right in the middle of their church service. Now, it does have a happy ending, because Paul raises him from the dead. This is one of only a few miracles like this in the whole Bible. What is crazy to me is that after this drama, Paul goes back up stairs to finish his message.

As someone who has given his life to help this generation of young people, this story hits me pretty hard. I have sat through some boring messages in my life, the kind you wish would end, and I am sure I have even delivered a few myself. I have to ask the question: why did this young man fall asleep? Why was he in the window? How did this happen? In many ways, a whole generation of young people have essentially “fallen asleep” when it comes to God’s Kingdom. What is going on? Is church boring teens to death?luke9_26

Was Eutychus bored? If so, I find this disturbing. Something has gone horribly wrong when the revolution that was started by Jesus Christ is viewed as boring. It means that we are under-challenging people and soft-peddling the gospel. I am not saying that everyone should be able to love the message of Jesus. It could be rejected as too hard, but it should never be boring. This is an assumption that I would really like to do my part to challenge. The message of Jesus is anything but boring and irrelevant.

Was Eutychus worn out? Maybe he was like many teenagers in this area – a bit overloaded with “stuff.” Maybe he had just finished his biology homework, knowing fell well that he still had that English essay and those Latin vocab words to memorize by tomorrow. Plus there is always a girlfriend to text, karate practice to attend, and a meeting for some future business leaders of Loudoun County that his dad made him join. Maybe he was just worn out. Maybe Eutychus had no time for what really matters because he was so busy with other stuff.

Was Eutychus overlooked? This is the one possibility that I really lose sleep over. One of my friends and ministry mentors told me a haunting story. When he was a youth pastor, he had an unremarkable boy named Brian Warner visit his youth ministry several times. The boy did not connect with anyone, make a friend, or try very hard to get involved. The group did not seem very interested in involving him or reaching out to him either. After a few weeks, he was gone. What makes this boy stand out a bit in the sea of nameless faces is that he is now known by a different name: Marilyn Manson. Just a thought – but his future could have been considerably different if one or two teens showed some hospitality or concern.

The thought that any teenager would feel like they do not matter or they do not belong breaks my heart. That should not be the case as long as God has any people living and breathing down here on earth. The Kingdom of God is in the business of ascribing unsurpassed worth to everyone, even those that might otherwise be overlooked or go unnoticed. Every student should matter, they should be seen, and they should be known. We talked out this week how it is the responsibility of all of us to make sure this never happens.

Echo exists because we are concerned about the teens that are sitting in the window in danger of falling asleep concerning the things of God. We want to seek out the teens like Eutychus, invite them off the window sill, and help them hear the challenge of the Gospel of Christ.