Thinking Out Loud

September 1, 2015

Homeschool Parents’ Paranoia Extends To Sunday School Teachers at Their Own Church

This archive article is the second of two in a mini-series on the homeschool movement which I began yesterday. In this case, this will actually be the third time around for this one, but the other two were over five years ago…

homeschool fishFor seven months, Mrs. W. and I (but mostly her) were forced to become homeschoolers during a period when Kid One wasn’t quite fitting into the public school near our home. Despite the short period in which we did this, we became immediate friends with other people in the homeschool movement, and I would say we can somewhat understand their motivation.

So if you’re a homeschooler, let me say that I get it when it comes to not wanting your children to be under the influence — for six hours each weekday — of people who do not share your core values, some of whom may be 180-degrees opposed to your core values.

What I don’t get is not wanting to put your kids in the Sunday School program — some now call it small groups for kids program — of your home church. Not wanting anyone else to teach your kids anything. If your home church is that lax when it comes to recruiting teachers, or if you are that concerned that any given teacher in your church’s children’s program could espouse some really wacky doctrine — or worse, admit that he or she watches sports on Sundays — then maybe you should find another church.

To everyone else, if these comments seem a bit extreme, they’re not. Apparently, in one particular church that was under discussion this week, the homeschool crowd — which makes up the vast majority of those in the ‘people with kids’ category at this church — has decided that absolutely nobody else is going to teach their kids anything about the Bible. (Those same parents say they’re too tired from teaching their children all week to take on a weekend Sunday School assignment.)

In other words, it’s not just people in the public school system who aren’t good enough to teach their kids, it’s also people in their home church.

I am so glad that my parents didn’t feel that way. I think of the people who taught me on Sunday mornings, the people who ran the Christian Service Brigade program for boys on Wednesday nights, the people who were my counselors and instructors at Church camp, and I say, “Thank you; thank you; thank you! Thank you for sharing your Christian life and testimony and love of God’s word with me when I was 5, 8, 11, 14 and all the ages in between. And thank you to my parents for not being so protective as to consider that perhaps these people weren’t good enough to share in the task of my Christian education.”

I also think of Donna B., the woman who taught Kid One at the Baptist Church that became our spiritual refuge for a couple of years. He really flourished spiritually under her teaching, reinforced of course, by what we were doing in the home.

What message does it send to kids when the only people who have it right when it comes to rightly dividing the Word of truth are Mommy and Daddy? And what about the maturity that comes with being introduced to people who, while they share the 7-12 core doctrines that define a Christ-follower, may have different opinions about matters which everyone considers peripheral?

Where does all this end? Are these kids allowed to visit in others’ homes? When they go to the grocery store, are they allowed to converse with the woman at the checkout? My goodness; are they even allowed to answer the phone?

I’m sorry, homeschoolers, but when you start trashing the Sunday School teachers at your own church, you’ve just crossed the line from being passionate, conservative Christian parents to being downright cultish.

…There’s more to the story (two weeks later) — In an off-the-blog discussion I realized there is a critical factor missing in the original article that couldn’t be shared at the time. Because homeschool families made up the majority of this church congregation, it kind of stopped the Sunday School in its tracks. But more important, it ended up preventing any kind of mid-week program that would have been an outreach to neighborhood families that the pastor regarded as a vital element of the church’s ministry; and ultimately the church simply never grew.

However, when all attempts at outreach were ended — the pastor was forced to give up that agenda — one of the core family parents said, and this is a direct quote, “Isn’t it great; all the new people have left. That’s right, the new families that had wandered in got that spidey sense that told them they just didn’t belong and they all left that church, and the remaining families were glad that they left. Talk about backward priorities.


Update (2015) — The pastor of that church ended up leaving the denomination and is now enjoying a ministry on another part of the continent. I do seriously question any Christian denomination allowing all this to happen without severing ties with the church in question. In that particular town, that particular denomination has a reputation and it’s not a particularly good one. If I were part of a district or national office staff, I would be quite concerned.

August 31, 2015

Homeschooling: Protecting Your Kids from The World and Other Christians

We have had contact with a number of people over the years who did homeschooling, including a former employee at the local Christian bookstore who, with her husband, became close friends. Heck, we even jumped into the homeschool pond ourselves once, for almost a full school year. But you do meet some interesting people in the homeschool movement. Recently, while looking up some past blog articles, I came upon two which I had completely forgotten, which will run here today and tomorrow; I apparently spelled homeschool differently back then…

My job necessitates a certain amount of interaction with what I would call the widest possible variety of people who consider themselves Christ followers. If someone is new to the community, I try to find them a place to connect with like-minded believers. This can take a great many forms, and I always try to leave the person with a choice of two or three possibilities, so it doesn’t look like I’m promoting one group over another.

I’m actually quite good at this. I say that honestly because I’ve identified about 35 worshiping ‘bodies’ in the part of the world where I live, and I’ve attended “main event” services at 31 out of the 35. So I think I know where a person is going to fit in.

The family that came in today would prove to be more difficult. After making it instantly clear that they were not interested in your standard, brick-and-mortar church, I quickly adjusted my pitch and told them about a couple of home church groups I’m familiar with; groups I am allowed to refer new people to.

This wasn’t good enough. Apparently, these people receive their teaching straight from the Word of God, and they receive their fellowship from each other. (My goodness, Mrs. W. and I would say it’s challenging enough when couples work together; where does this leave you if your total fellowship is your spouse and kids?)

The problem is that nobody is good enough. This man told me that he finds many church people to be lacking in personal holiness. No argument there. I again adjusted my pitch, to try to see where I could encourage this guy that there indeed ARE people out there who are striving to live and walk in holiness; keeping in mind that God’s demands for each of us may be different.

But once started on this theme, there was no stopping him. Like the proverbial freight train heading downhill, he attacked people who celebrate Christmas, people who don’t follow the ten commandments, and on it went. I tried to interject Paul’s bit from Romans about how one man says its okay to eat meat offered to idols while another chooses not to. Didn’t help. He then attacked me for having absolutely no fruit in my life. (He had known me for about five minutes at that point.) To wrap things up, he informed me Saturday is the only sabbath we should observe.

Well, actually, just before he got to that point, there was this big giant sign that lit up in my brain that said “CULT.” Instead of finding the perfect environment in which to advance Biblical faith, he had basically founded his own false cult, even if it did resemble a few others you may be familiar with.

And to think, all I was trying to do was welcome this guy to our town and make him feel that there were potential points of connection if he and his family so chose.

scared-kids-1Just before he finished boiling over, and while the neon “CULT” light was flickering on, he said to me, “Look, you’re scaring my kids; they had to go back to the van.”

Of all the parts of this conversation, “You’re scaring my kids;” was probably the one I’ll remember a week from now. It occurred to me later that this was a school day, and that these people were obviously home schoolers. Absolute, complete, total isolation of their kids from the world, and also, apparently from other segments of the Christian world.

Had these kids never been exposed to any real “discussion” of Christian doctrine? Had they never heard an opposing point of view? I was actually enjoying the discussion. I felt that the Lord brought to mind some key scriptures that spoke to some things he was saying, and at least three times his wife silenced him so I could get them out. This is the stuff that good small group meetings are made of; and had you been there, you probably would have been itching to add something to the thoughts that were already on the table.

scared_kids-2I was calm, I was relaxed, I was peaceful, I was asking God all the while to give me some love for this guy, and … also … I was scaring his kids.

If you read my post a few days ago about the worship gala we attended, you’ll see a comment posted followed by a very long defense of my desire to ‘critique’ the event. It seems though, that in some parts of the Christian world, there is a strong desire to shut down debate, discussion and differences of opinion.

These kids have probably grown up thinking that their dad is an ‘expert’ on all things spiritual, and have probably never heard anyone challenge his opinion. Well, today they did. Part of the “working out” of our salvation is “working out” our doctrines. As iron sharpens iron, in the course of give and take, we share our various “God pictures” and so better understand the ways of God.

I have personal doctrines that are written in pen and ink, but I have other beliefs that are written in pencil. I’m still working them out. Someday, perhaps soon, perhaps later, this couples’ kids are going to have to work out their beliefs; because each of us stands before God individually. My own kids have learned that there are a variety of doctrinal belief out there; they have the freedom to challenge my take on certain scriptures; they have visited a wide variety of church situations, have sat under DVD and audio teaching of the widest variety of speakers; they are in every respect shaping their personal spiritual future before the eyes of a loving God.

By the way, I’m not trying to make a stereotypical example of home schoolers. Please don’t write; it will just force me to post back something lame like, “Some of my best friends are home schoolers.” Instead, I’m just noting that these people reinforce that very stereotype. The home schooled kids I know are part of church kids or youth groups. They attend regional conferences or rallies or festivals. Some of them are also part of house churches, but they are house churches that are attended by several families. Not just their own family.

If you want to separate yourself entirely from the world; if you want to think that nobody can match you for personal holiness; if you want to ignore the verse in Hebrews about fellowship; that’s fine. Just don’t put your kids in that same spiritual bubble and think there won’t be a price to pay down the road.

It’s a real pity when a healthy exchange about doctrine frightens kids.

August 20, 2015

Andy Stanley: Love, Sex and Dating

Eschewing the standard Christian Television approach, Andy Stanley and the staff at North Point in Atlanta have been buying time on local NBC stations after Saturday Night Live. The repackaged sermon video is called Your Move, and the website is YourMove.Is

Today, if you have 28.5 minutes; we’re going to watch one of Andy’s most popular messages, which is also a book and a curriculum, The New Rules for Love Sex and Dating. This is the first of several episodes and deals with The “Right Person” Myth.

August 16, 2015

The Divorce Effect – Part Three

Jeff-SnowThis is the third and final of three parts, click to read part one which dealt with the effects of divorce. Part two was a focus on the theology of the topic, and today we look at practical suggestions for the church to minister to teens of divorce.

divorce effect3Jeff Snow has spent the last two decades working in youth and young adult ministry in Canada, both in the context of a local church and a parachurch organization. The three articles are taken from his masters thesis on the impact of divorce on middle-school, high-school and college youth.


by Jeff Snow

In the first of our articles on the effects of divorce on teens, we explored the findings of many studies that pointed to the fact that divorce is not a benign event in the lives of teenagers. It should not be seen as a “cold” that knocks a young person for a loop for a time but which they eventually get over. Rather, it should be seen as a chronic illness, with many effects that will be flare up at various stages in life. These effects do not have to define the young person or doom them to a difficult life, but they must be understood and managed, like any chronic condition.

In our second article, we focused on some less tangible effects that are characterized by a sense of loss. Teens of divorce deal with a sense of loss of community, loss of identity, loss of a positive view of God as Father, loss of a family structure within which to safely develop morals and values. These multiplied losses lead to an anxiety which negatively impacts a young person’s life. We ended by suggesting that God has provided the church as a reflection of divine community that can come alongside teens and help them deal with loss and anxiety.

The effects of divorce are far-reaching, and with almost half of the students in an average student ministry dealing with those effects, it is important for youth pastors and leaders to be aware of the particular needs of these students and develop characteristics within their youth ministry that will minister to these needs.

Community

Every youth pastor works to build strong bonds of unity within their youth group, unity that goes beyond simple friendship. A strong youth ministry will have a sense of being united in the Spirit (Eph. 4:3), of being a safe community where students are drawn together by God’s love and presence as well as by their natural kinship. While this atmosphere is important for every teen, it is that much more important for teens of divorce.

youthminstryDouglas Adams, in his book Children, Divorce, and the Church, for teens of divorce, “what they lack in life is a caring community around them. They need help in dealing with past and present pain in their lives. Most need restoration of their self-esteem. The local church is one place where young people from divorced families should be able to find a supportive, loving community.”

What I am advocating as part of ministry to teens of divorce in this area is not so much a distinct program of ministry to them. In fact, very little of what we will discuss points to a specific program that would single out teens of divorce from the group. Rather what is needed is a heightened focus on the importance of nurturing a supportive community within one’s youth ministry, with the equally heightened awareness of the importance of that supportive community in the life of a teen of parental divorce.

The good news is that there already exists in many churches at least the beginnings of this community in the youth groups and youth Sunday school classes that are in place. The goal of the youth pastor is to work to intentionally foster community within these already existing structures so that teens of divorce can know they are not alone and begin to find a community that will help replace what has been lost in the dissolution of their family community.

Andrew Root, in his book The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as The Loss of Being, proposes five practices that should be part of any church community that ministers to teens of divorce. The first is accompaniment. This simply means that peers and adult leaders in the church are willing to walk alongside teens through their journey through divorce, regardless of how long it takes, or how painful and messy it can become.

The second practice is the provision of sanctuary. A youth ministry needs to be a place where a teen suffocating in the throes of familial upheaval can simply come and breathe. It needs to be a place where they know they belong, and where they know they are safe.

The third practice of community is convening. The youth ministry will provide contexts for people, youth and adult leaders, to get together, form community and build relationship. Practically speaking, this means the youth pastor must avoid the temptation to over-program and leave youth as mere spectators. Give the teens and adult leaders the opportunity to hang out together and see what kind of community the Holy Spirit develops.

middle school youth ministryFourth is connecting. It is important for teens of divorce who have lost so much adult influence in their lives to make meaningful connections with the adult leaders of the youth ministry. This is where the youth pastor must train and surround herself with adults who love Jesus and love teens, and who are willing to make connections with teens when the community gathers.

Root contends that a big part of the youth pastor’s job is to “convene spaces for intergenerational conversations to occur.” This is why, though I firmly believe that youth need a weekly gathering to call their own, I am not a believer in a parallel youth church that meets on Sunday mornings, or that in any other way takes the youth away from opportunities to convene and connect with Christians from other generations. Teens of divorce, in particular, need the influence of and connection with older, more mature believers.

A final practice in building a community that will minister to teens of divorce if that of blessing. A teen of divorce needs to know that they are wanted and accepted by the church and youth group. They need to feel that they belong, and that the community is glad that they are there.

Ministry people

Besides clergy, there are four types of people in a youth ministry that can be of benefit to teens of divorce. The first is their peers. Teens, especially teens of divorce themselves, need to be encouraged to reach out to each other to provide support.

A second group can be termed an “adult friend”. This is someone who is willing to welcome a teen of divorce into their life and spend time with them, both in the context of the church and youth group, and beyond. The home life of a teen of divorce can be difficult. It may not feel like home anymore. Families within the church can develop a relationship with a teen where their home can become a refuge where the teen can be invited to help them to get away from it all for a while.

The third group is the adult role model. This includes spiritual modelling, giving the teen of divorce someone to guide them through their development of godly morals and values. Though teaching in a youth ministry is essential and important, teens will often learn more from observing how Christianity works in the real life of a real person.

Modelling for teens of divorce is also very important in the area of marriage and relationships. In my ministry, I have two young couples who have dated, become engaged, and are now married with small children, all while serving as leaders in the youth ministry. Their example is invaluable in terms of modelling God’s plan for relationships, dating and marriage. Teens of divorce need to know that what they have seen in their families is not the only way to live. Providing them with role models who demonstrate healthy relationships is very important.

discipleshipA final category of adult-teen ministry would be a mentor. This is a more intentional and intensive coming alongside of a teen by one adult who is willing to walk with them through the divorce years. Douglas Adams describes a mentor as someone who “took the time and, in some cases, made the sacrifice to help these children of divorce see a better tomorrow.” Teens of divorce need to see hope that things can be different.

These relationships are very important in ministry to teens of divorce, yet in today’s world, it must be acknowledged that this type of relational ministry is becoming increasingly difficult. Some churches and youth ministries simply don’t do this kind of ministry anymore because of the potential risks. Others have put good policies in place to make it work. I believe churches must do all they can to do formulate structures that will allow for safe ministry between adults and teens, especially teens of divorce, who need an adult influence in their lives. Teens will be looking for that support and influence regardless of what we do, and if we don’t provide safe people to be part of their lives, they will find that support and influence in the very people that our policies are trying to protect them from.

These relationships between adult leaders and teens of divorce must not be forced or assigned. They must happen naturally. This is where the youth pastor can use discernment and the context of “convening” events to observe the connections between particular youth and adult leaders, and gently nudge them together.

Teaching

Teaching is an essential part of any youth ministry. For teens of divorce, it would be important to focus some teaching on issues of identity. Divorce strikes at the heart of a teen’s identity, exacerbating low self-worth and complicating the already difficult search for who they are. In community and through teaching, youth ministries can help teens re-discover their real selves, help them see the image of God in themselves, and come to know that they are worthy of love, both from their fellow humans and from God. A series such as “Who I am in Christ?” can help teens of divorce begin to define themselves less and less by the divorce, and more by their relationship with Christ.

ymin mentoringAnother important area of teaching is in basic morals and values, helping teens distinguish between right and wrong. We have said that teens of divorce are left to forge their own values independent of their parents. This provides a great opportunity for ministry. I have found that teens of divorce are much more spiritually inquisitive than many teens who have grown up in the church in intact families. We have the opportunity to answer their questions and teach them God’s direction for their lives.

A third area of teaching is in dating and preparation for marriage. This is a standard topic in the youth pastor’s tool kit, but it is all the more important for teens of divorce, who are more sexually active as teens and get divorced more as adults than teens from intact families. The “sleeper effect” of divorce shows itself when teens and young adults begin to develop their own romantic relationships. Youth ministries can provide teaching as early as mid-adolescence that will help teens of divorce prepare for healthy relationships.

A final area of teaching is focusing on the nature of God, helping to correct the misconceptions of God teens of divorce develop because of their experiences. We need to teach them that God is a confidant they can talk to about their pain; that He is a source of stability and a comforter; that He is a true Father who is sovereign and has all things under control, even when it seems like all is falling apart. The teen of divorce needs to hear that they are safely in the palm of God’s hand, that He loves them and protects them.

Spirituality

How can youth ministries speak specifically to the spiritual lives of teens of divorce? We said last time that many teens of divorce, while losing interest in organized religion, still have deep spiritual interest. They define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This has two positive implications for youth ministry. First, the less formal, less “churchy” nature of most youth ministry can be attractive to teens of divorce in particular. Secondly, we recognize that teens of divorce have not given up on their spiritual journey. They are full of questions. They want to connect with God. They may not like the church, but they are willing to pursue knowledge of God and Jesus. Youth pastors need to not be turned off by their disinterest in the organized church, but rather encourage and nurture the deep spiritual hunger that they have.

Divorce Effect Part threeWe pointed out one study last time that found that divorce often drives committed teens away from the church in anger and disillusionment, while drawing fringe youth closer to God and the church as a means of coping. The youth pastor needs to be aware of these possible reactions. Youth leaders must be OK with the questions and anger and even rejection these committed students may display towards God and their parents, and gently walk beside them on their journey away from a faith that relied on their parents, and towards a faith that will hopefully be stronger and their own. Youth pastors also need to pay attention to the students on the fringes of the youth group whose experience of divorce will heighten their desire to find a coping mechanism in faith in God, and come alongside them in their walk towards God.

In both cases, youth leaders need to realize that the window of opportunity for ministry may be small as deepening family conflict and parental moves may take the teen out of the group.

Support groups

We haven’t discussed support groups much yet. They can be an important part of ministry to teens of divorce as they find healing through shared experience. But one must be careful that such a group does not label or isolate the teen from the rest of the group. The church must also caution against any mindset that a 12 week course will solve all the teens’ problems and that the presence of the group does not discourage others from getting involved. A support group must be seen as part of an overall ministry to teens of divorce, not as an end in itself.

One support group curriculum for teens that seems effective is “Spectrum”, produced by an organization called Rainbows. The curriculum has a faith-based component for use in churches, and one for use in schools if a youth ministry finds itself with an open door to reach into the school system.

——–

In my research, I have noticed one common theme that arises again and again as an important element in ministry to teens of divorce: The importance of listening to them. This may seem rather simplistic, but it is something that is essential and astonishingly neglected and overlooked.

The most disturbing statistic I found in my research pertaining to ministry to teens of divorce was found in Elizabeth Marquardt’s book, Between Two Worlds. She writes, “of those young adults who were regularly attending a church or synagogue at the time of their parents’ divorce, two-thirds say that no one – neither from the clergy nor from the congregation – reached out to them during that critical time in their lives, while only one-quarter remember either a member of the clergy or a person from the congregation doing so.”

Let that sink in. This is not a survey of people outside the church, nor is it referring to teens of divorce where the divorce happened to them as a child. For teens who are regularly in the church and who are in the midst of experiencing a divorce, 66% of them said no one paid any attention to them. This is a sobering statistic for youth pastors and the church as a whole. The church needs to be aware of the teens involved in a divorce and needs to find ways to reach out to them. And the simplest way to begin to do that is to listen to them, because having someone who will listen is at the core what these teens are missing. No one asked them if they wanted to live through a divorce. Most of the decisions made in the divorce are made without consulting them, yet they severely impact their lives.

Those involved in youth ministry have the opportunity to create a safe place for teens to talk about their experiences, and assure them that they will be listened to. When that is done, they are valued and deemed important. They are shown their worth in God’s eyes.

The key to awareness of the needs of teens of divorce, and as a result the key to ministry to them, is quite simply to listen to them, not just for a short time, but over the long haul, for divorce is a long and difficult journey for a teen. As youth ministers listen and gain knowledge of the pain and needs of teens of divorce, they will be more equipped to meet those needs in their ministries, and to share with the broader church community what can be done, and what needs to be done, in order to help these adolescents grow into the person God created them to be.

 


If you’ve found this series helpful, and would like to send Jeff a message off the blog, use the contact form on this page and we will pass it on for you.

August 15, 2015

The Divorce Effect – Part Two

Jeff-Snow First, if you haven’t already, click to read part one of this series. This is the second of three parts; part one dealt with the effects of divorce. Today we will focus on the theology of the topic, and part three will look at practical suggestions for the church to minister to teens of divorce.

divorce effect2Jeff Snow has spent the last two decades working in youth and young adult ministry in southern Ontario, Canada, both in a local church and parachurch context. For his Masters thesis, he wrote on the impact of divorce on middle-school, high-school and college youth.


by Jeff Snow

In our last article, we looked at the effects of divorce on teens as spelled out by researchers who have studied the subject. An overarching theme is the sense of loss that teenagers feel in various ways as the result of parental divorce. There are a few ways that those wanting to help teens affected by divorce can help them deal with these losses. We can work to replace the social capital they have lost, giving them the physical resources and support they need to heal and thrive. We can give them psychological support by way of helping them think properly about the divorce and their place in the situation.

Both of these are good and necessary. But divorce brings about more than an economic, intellectual, or psychological loss. Divorce brings with it a sense of loss that strikes much deeper into the soul of a teenager and impacts his life in different ways for years to come. These spiritual and existential losses are important to understand, for they lie at the root of the painful effects of divorce experienced by teens. As those involved in Christian ministry to youth, we are uniquely positioned to speak to these issues and minister to this less tangible sense of loss.

Divorce brings to a teen a loss of their sense of community. The most basic form of community is the family. Divorce pulls children out of that most basic form of community and by doing so, it strikes at the very nature of how God created us to live.

Marriage ripped apartGod Himself, by His very nature, lives in community, a community of mutual love among the three persons of the Trinity. Humans, created in the image of God, are created to live in community. Living in relationship is essential to our humanity.

Genesis 1:27 and 2:23 tell us that both man and woman and their one flesh union reflect the image of God. The early church father John Chrysostom expanded this idea to include children. In his view, “The child is a bridge connecting mother to father, so the three become one flesh.”

Divorce destroys this “one flesh” community of parents and children. Divorce does damage to the image of God as reflected in marriage. Though a teenager may yet find community within which to live, and still within his own being reflect the image of God, he is nonetheless impacted greatly by this loss of community, the loss of love, and the loss of the active model of the image of God in his life represented by his parents.

This loss of community strikes at the very core of the teen’s sense of self, his sense of being. Andrew Root, in his deep yet excellent book The Children of Divorce: The Loss of family as the Loss of Being, writes, “When that community (of mother and father) is destroyed, it is a threat to the child’s being. Divorce, therefore, should be seen as not just the split of a social unit, but the break of the community in which the child’s identity rests.” Root maintains that the effects of divorce cannot be limited to social and psychological factors. The root of the loss inherent in divorce is the loss of being and the subsequent anxiety resulting from that loss.

Sad TeenRoot asks the question, “Can a person be at all, now that those who are responsible in their union for creating that person are no longer together?” He goes on to say that “there is no community more primary than that of mother and father, than those responsible for my being. When their community is not, my being is shaken.”

Divorce brings into question in the mind of the teen his very identity. If existence is found in relationship, then the removal of the key relational community in the life of a teen will impact their identity. The refuge and protection that family is meant to provide is pulled out from under the teen, and the safe harbour in which they can discover who they are no longer exists. They are left to figure out their identity on their own, caught between the two worlds which their parents are creating for themselves rather than for their children.

Ministry to teens of divorce will focus not only on social and psychological needs, but will zero in on issues surrounding identity, who they are in Christ, and their relationship with God as a Father.

A healthy view of God as Father is another area of loss among many teens of divorce. The idea of God being a father to the fatherless (Ps. 68:5) is not a comforting thought if God is going to be like their father. The idea of God as “Abba” and of the teen seeing herself as Abba’s child (Romans 8:14-16) is somewhat of a foreign concept. Yet coming to grips with these concepts and this understanding of God is important in order for the teen to be able to rediscover their identity and realize who they are as children of God. Our job as ministers to youth is to come alongside teens on this journey of rediscovering who they are in Christ and as beloved children of God. For as we noted last time, divorce leaves teens embarking on these journeys of self-discovery primarily alone.

One of the key roles of the parents within the family is the transmission of values and beliefs to the next generation. This was clearly spelled out in Hebrew law:

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. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

In an intact family, a community exists where the image of God, where the admonition to love God, where the instruction to follow His commandments, can be taught and modeled through the everyday routine of life. In divorce, that community is fractured. That place of refuge where children can have inculcated upon them the values and beliefs that will point them to a relational experience with God has disappeared. Their view of the image of God, their impression of God as Father, becomes deeply marred.

Instead of embarking on this journey under the watchful tutelage of their parents, children of divorce must create their value systems on their own, while living within the dichotomy of the often conflicting value systems being created by divorcing parents, putting teens in a position they were never meant to fulfill.

In divorce, the line of ancestral obligation is broken, and the teen is left to be what Elizabeth Marquardt calls a “moral forger” who has “to grow up quickly … trying to make sense of adult concepts and choices with the tools of a child.” The teen is left to figure out his belief system and to figure out exactly who God is, what He desires of him, and why that matters, entirely on his own.

search for identityIt is the cumulative effect of these losses which often fly under the radar that creates the anxiety in teens of divorce that breeds many of the issues and behaviours we discussed in our last article. All young people wrestle with the existential questions of “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?” “Is there a God and can He be trusted as a Father?” But in the lives of teens of divorce, this search for identity and security is heightened as they pursue these questions alone, without the community of support that God created for them to have.

These losses breed anxiety in the lives of teens. Anxiety is different from fear. Perhaps that’s why we buy into the “kids are resilient” idea and assume teens will survive divorce relatively unscathed. Most teens of divorce are relatively free from fear. They are, for the most part, physically and economically safe. But that doesn’t mean they are free from an anxiety rooted in a loss of a sense of being and security that permeates their lives and exhibits itself in a myriad of issues.

It is this sense of anxiety that God the Father desires to alleviate as the teen of divorce grows in relationship with and understanding of Abba Father, and with the community He provides for the teen, namely the church. As the reflection of divine community, the church can come alongside the teen of divorce, providing him with a community in which to belong, with people who can remind him who he is in Christ and how the image of God is still evident in him. The church can provide a sanctuary where he can safely formulate a value system that corresponds to what God has created him to be. The church can provide a place where the anxiety caused by dealing with the many losses inherent in divorce can be borne by others in the community, and can be alleviated by bringing the teen in to a clear and healthy relationship with God the Father.

In our third and final installment, we will look at practical ways the church can be a divine community for teens affected by divorce.

to be continued…

August 14, 2015

The Divorce Effect – Part One

This weekend we’re repeating an original, powerful series by Jeff Snow that first ran in August of last year. In 2014, the three parts ran as completed; this time we are running them on consecutive days.

Jeff-SnowJeff Snow has spent the last two decades working in youth and young adult ministry in southern Ontario, Canada, and he has become a friend of our family for much of that time. For his Masters thesis, he wrote on the impact of divorce on middle-school, high-school and college youth. Ever since I heard about this, I have been asking if he could summarize some of his findings for us here.

This is longer than we usually roll here, but it’s important to read every paragraph. This is actually the first of three parts, on the effects of divorce. The second will focus on the theology of the topic, and the third on practical suggestions for the church to minister to teens of divorce. We’ll interlink the parts as they appear here.

divorce effectBe sure to forward the link for today’s post to anyone involved in children’s or student ministry at your church or in your community. Feel free to leave questions in the comments section.


by Jeff Snow

A defining moment in my 16 years of youth ministry came a few years into my stint running a drop-in for unchurched teens. I was driving a number of youth home after drop-in one evening when two of them began a discussion in the back seat. They were listing off a number of their friends, maybe 15 in all, most of whom teachers at the high school would identify as “at-risk” youth. At one point, one of them exclaimed to the other, “Hey! We’re the only two who still live with both our parents!”

From that point onward I began to take more careful notice of the connection between youth who find themselves in trouble in various forms and the fact that a great majority of them do not live with both their biological parents. Those observations eventually led me to a Seminary paper on the effects of divorce on teens and an examination of what we as the Body of Christ can do to minister to these young people.

As in any other area of study, the research sometimes presents contradictory results. While almost all researchers agree that divorce is a traumatic event that has negative effects on children, particularly in the first year after the divorce, there are some researchers that maintain while some youth face ongoing lifelong effects, most youth will emerge relatively well-adjusted after going through a 2-3 year adjustment period.

Divorce LawyerThe problem I see with this assessment is two-fold. For an adult, three years is just a blip on the radar. But for a teenager, three years is half their adolescent life. A teen experiencing a divorce in junior high school will spend half of their formative teen years trying to adjust to having their world turned upside down. It is hard to believe that this will not have a long-lasting impact, at the very least in terms of missing out on the formative development they would have experienced in an intact family.

Secondly, many of these studies focus on a single factor, such as school grades or adult earning potential, as a means of measuring overall health. They also depend widely on statistical analysis and questionnaires. But surveys that rely on interviews with teens of divorce, that rely on actually listening to their stories, paint a much different, somewhat bleaker picture.

Divorce is not a benign event. Many people like to view its impact like that of a cold, which may knock you down for a short time but which you eventually get over. But the effects of divorce on teens is more like a chronic illness. It may lie dormant for a while, but it flares up at the most unexpected times. It never totally goes away. It can only be managed in order to live life to the full.

The effects of divorce on teens can often be very visible in their behaviors, yet often it is unseen. Elizabeth Marquardt wrote an eye-opening book entitled Between Two World: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. In another article she writes, “I’ve interviewed dozens of young adults from divorced families … If you gave them a questionnaire and asked, for instance, if they had ever been arrested, dropped out of school or been diagnosed with a mental illness, practically every one of them could respond ‘no’. But that does not mean they were unaffected by their parents’ divorce.”

Divorce is a time of loss for a child...like a death

Divorce is a time of loss for a child…like a death

So, how does divorce impact teens? Most researchers describe divorce as a time of loss for young people. This goes beyond the loss of a parent. They have lost the security of their home. They have lost connection with grandparents and other extended family members. The divorce is often only the first in a long string of losses, as numerous new boyfriends and girlfriends come in and out of their parents’, and their, lives.

Teens lose something as basic as their own room. They end up having to divide their lives in two, splitting their possessions between their parents’ two houses. In the case of step families, teens will end up having to share personal space with step siblings. I still remember a grade eight girl telling me of the difficulty she was experiencing as her mom’s new boyfriend’s family moved in, and she was forced to share her room with someone who was supposed to be a sibling, but who was to her a complete stranger.

Teens experience the effects of what is called “diminished parenting.” As parents deal with their own trauma and grief resulting from the divorce, they have less time and emotional energy to help their children through their grief. As time passes, parents become engrossed in moving on with their lives, and the needs of teens are unconsciously put aside as the parent looks for a new partner. This neglect is almost always unintentional, but the results are the same. The teen does not receive what she needs from the parent, and in fact, at times care-giving goes in the opposite direction as the teen, particularly the teen girl, takes on the role of a support to the parent whose life is falling apart.

Caught in the Middle - DivorceAs the two parents’ worlds begin to move apart, the teen is stuck in the middle, trying to navigate the chasm on their own. They are often faced with divided loyalties, as pressure is put on them by parents to take sides or to report back after custodial visits. They are faced with inconsistent parenting, as each household develops different rules for living. This even impacts teens as they work to develop their own morals and values. In an intact family, the two parents work together to present a united front of morals and values that they present to their children as the way their family is to live. But in families of divorce, the parent’s value systems will invariably start to differ with each passing year, and the adolescent is left to forge their own morals and value systems on their own, at an age where they are not yet able to successfully accomplish this task.

Diminished parenting shows itself in the lack of protection afforded, particularly to teen girls by the non-custodial father. Without a father figure, with less accountability and with decreased monitoring of activities, studies show that girls from families of divorce engage in sexual activity earlier, more often, and often with men older than they are.

Though teens of divorce will achieve grades in school that are close to those from intact families, the issue is in getting them to school and getting them to stay there. Teens of divorce are late for school more often, will skip class more, and get suspended or expelled more than teens from intact families. Teen of divorce are 30% less likely to complete college, as non-custodial parents generally feel that their financial responsibility is over once the child reaches 18, and will rarely provide the funds for college.

Family ConflictSome statistics from the website Rainbows, which is a curriculum for divorce support groups, state that 50-80% of patients treated in Canadian mental health clinics are from separated families, and that teenagers of divorce are three times more likely to be in psychological counseling than those in intact families.

For those of us in the church, it is interesting to see how divorce affects a teen’s spiritual life. Generally, interest in the church and religion will diminish, but interest in spiritual things, even in prayer, will not. One author posits the theory that the increase in divorce may be behind the contention of many under the age of 35 that they are “spiritual but not religious.”

Teens who are heavily involved in church activities will experience a retreat from spiritual things. They will wonder why their prayers were not answered, and why parents who said they loved God and believed in Him would then give up on a marriage which was supposed to be sacred. Teens who are nominally involved in church, however, will go the other way and will turn more towards the church as a coping mechanism.

Broken HomeTeens from families of divorce are more likely to be kicked out of the house, more likely to report not feeling emotionally or physically safe at home, more likely to be abused. Anywhere from one third to one half of girls from families of divorce report being sexually abused as children or teens, most often by stepfathers or stepbrothers. Two leading researchers conclude that living with a stepparent remains the most powerful predictor of severe child abuse.

Though there are many effects of divorce, the one most people will refer to first is economic, and while this must not overshadow the devastating effects that are more hidden, economic factors still cannot be ignored. Families of divorce will experience a decline in income of as much as 50% as compared to their pre-divorce lives.

Though as we said, some researchers see divorce as a temporary setback for young people, Judith Wallerstein, from her 25 years of study, has put forth the idea of “the sleeper effect” of divorce. She maintains that many teens of divorce will emerge from adolescence relatively unscathed, only to have the trauma of the divorce hit them when they reach young adulthood when they begin to seek out their own romantic attachments and consider marriage. Without role models, many teens of divorce find it harder to maintain long-term relationships, and are 2-3 times more likely to get divorced themselves.

Elizabeth Marquardt uses the phrase “happy talk” to describe how most of society talks about divorce and its effects on children and teens. We convince ourselves that teens are resilient and that we don’t really have to worry about them. Marquardt suggests that we do that in order to defend our own adult decisions. In view of the pain that I have seen both in youth ministry practice and in my research, this has to stop. There was a time when adults sacrificed for the sake of the children, not the other way around.

We as adults in the church need to have the courage to dismiss the temptation toward “happy talk.” We in fact need to stop talking and start really listening to the pain and hurt that teens of divorce would be willing to share with us if we only gave them the chance, and to find ways to support them as they attempt to navigate their way through life “between two worlds.”

to be continued…

July 31, 2015

Helping Teens Spiritually Crash Land

It’s the end of July already.

image 073115Over the next several days, teens in your church will return having spent some time this summer

  • going to a Christian music festival
  • attending a Christian camp
  • working at a Christian camp
  • serving on a missions trip.

They return spiritually energized only to discover that their church experience now seems rather flat by comparison. Suddenly, business-as-usual or status-quo church holds no interest. I say that from personal experience. One summer, after the spiritual high of 13 weeks on staff at large Christian resort, by whatever logic it seemed to make sense, I simply dropped out of weekend services for an entire month, until a friend said something that gently nudged me back.

On the other hand, there are other teens in your church whose summer experience has not been so positive. They’ve been negatively influenced through contact with people

  • hanging out at home
  • vacationing at the campground, cabin or RV park
  • met on a road trip
  • interacting in the virtual world online

For them, returning to church has lost its appeal because they’ve either backslidden a little,  or taken a nose dive into the deep waters of sin. Perhaps they’ve made new friends outside their Sunday or youth group circle.

Either way, summer is always a transitional time for preteens and adolescents, and while that’s true of mental, physical, emotional and social development, it’s also true in terms of spiritual development; and while some have soared spiritually, others have taken one step forward and ten steps backward.

The first challenge is knowing the difference between the two types of summer experiences. Identifying the source of the first type of disillusionment is easy because you probably already know the youth went to camp, the music festival or the mission field. It’s then a simple matter of probing what is they are now feeling after having had such an inspiring and uplifting summer experience. That might consist of finding ways to get them soaring again, although here one is tempted to caution against having teens live a manic life of going from spiritual high to spiritual high.

The group in the other category might not be so willing to open up. There may have been factors that drove them away from the centeredness of their past spiritual life. Perhaps their summer has been characterized by

  • a divorce in the family
  • an experiment with drugs or alcohol
  • delving into alternative spiritualities and faith systems
  • a loss of someone they loved or a pet
  • depression following a regretful first sexual experience. 

They are dealing with pain, or doubt, or guilt, or uncertainty. Restoring them gently, as taught in Galatians 6:1, is likely your strategy at this point.

The second challenge is that many of these youth were, just a few weeks ago, on a parallel spiritual track. In post summer ministry, you’re reaching out to two very different types of kids: Those who prospered in their faith and those who faltered. Either way, they now find themselves back into the fall routine and the spiritual spark is gone.

A temptation here might be to let the first group help and nurture the second, but I would caution against that. The first group needs to sort out their own spiritual status first. They need to process how to return from what they did and saw and felt and learned and apply it to life in the real world. (One only goes on a retreat if one expects to go back to the battle and advance.) They shouldn’t live off the experience, but rather try to keep the closeness they felt to Christ during their time away.

The group which experienced everything from a lessening of their faith to a spiritual train wreck need a lot of love. They need to be reminded that their church or youth group is a spiritual home to which they can return, no matter how they feel, what they’ve done, or where their summer experience has left them.

Youth ministry is not easy. I only worked in it as an itinerant presenter, not as someone facing the same group of kids over a period of several years. If you were to graph their spiritual life, some would present an even line rising to the right, while others would show erratic ups and downs.

Either way, I think the greatest challenge would be those critical roundup weeks in the early fall when you’re trying to assess where everyone is at, and then try to move on.

 

July 18, 2015

Two Children’s Products Every Adult Should Own

You will learn much from these two products that were originally produced for a much younger audience. If you can’t justify the expense in a kid-less home, rent a kid for the weekend.

Jesus Storybook BibleThe Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones (Zondervan).

We attended a weekend seminar where the speaker walked up to the pulpit carrying only this book. While it doesn’t replace a regular Bible, it shows how the classic stories we read to our children anticipate or foreshadow the coming of Christ. Probably one of the few Children’s Bible story books to receive critical acclaim by theologians.

If you can’t bring yourself to own a kids title, in October the book is releasing in an adult edition as The Story of God’s Love for You.

 


 

WhatsInTheBibleSetBuck Denver Asks “What’s In The Bible?” by Phil Vischer (Jellyfish Labs).

Regular listeners to his podcast know that the Veggie Tales creator decided to go beyond the moralism of the video series that made him well-known, and this time around teach the Bible narrative instead.

There are sections of these stories that evidence the input of Christian education and theological specialists. There’s a lot of inane banter between the puppet characters, but in-between, there are lessons for both kids and adults that begin with the first introductory kid-friendly segment about Bible inspiration and interpretation. Each episode is about an hour with a break in the middle.

13 DVDs will set you back, so look for bundles like the one pictured here. A second series is now in production.

 


Check out an interview with Sally Lloyd-Jones on the Tuesday, June 19th edition of the Eric Metaxas Show, hour #2.

Check out the Phil Vischer Podcast and the What’s In The Bible website.

 

July 2, 2015

Family Games Night

Filed under: Christianity, family, parenting — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:09 am
Admittedly, I wasn't doing well in last night's game of Settlers of Catan, which meant I had time on my hands to construct this fortress.

Admittedly, I wasn’t doing well in last night’s game of Settlers of Catan, which meant I had time on my hands to construct this fortress.

For some of my US readers, the kids have already been off school for a month now. So… how much time have you spent together as a family?

Trips to the cabin, road trips and similar adventures will often pull parents and children together for a time, but even there, smart phones and personal computers take us into different physical and mental spaces.

The question is no longer, ‘Does the motel have a pool?’ but rather, ‘Does the motel have good wi-fi?’

Much has to do with the ages of your kids. Younger is better when it comes to bonding and creating experiential memories. But as the kids get older, you often have to force the issue, and one way to facilitate that is through what is usually referred to as table games or board games.

Our ‘kids’ are actually now in their 20s, but they’re both home this summer. Most of that time is spent staring at screens. I’ve done everything I can do to break this routine, but not with much success and honestly, I am just as guilty as everyone else on this. I’d love to pack the whole family on an airplane and fly to Europe, but that’s just not in the budget.

I’m also big on the idea of giving children a Christian camping experience, but that’s only one or two weeks out of the summer. What happens when they return? Does everyone just take off to their rooms and switch the devices back on? That’s just not ideal. Movies are an option, but much of what popular culture offers is not helpful to spiritual nurture. Our family DVD of choice last month was episodes from classic television, in this case Green Acres. For some reason, as it did in another season when the kids were in their early teens, it works.

So we play games. Rummikub is a favorite of mine, because it involves numbers, and is not so dependent on luck. Right now the favorite for everyone else is Settlers of Catan. I join in for the aforementioned reasons of family unity, but this one is not my preference, and I’ve only won once. Still, it’s not a video game; and as I don’t bother with such — I get enough adventure driving the freeways — at least we have a lingua franca in discussing Settlers strategy.

We have others, and the camp that my wife and I met at often sees the adults breaking out board games during the evenings in the dining room. Ticket to Ride is one I can enjoy just watching, and we recently purchased Bohnanza, a card game where you buy and sell crops of every type of beans imaginable. (Grammar police: I know that should be ‘every type of bean’ in the singular, but I liked it the other way…)

To jump in, it’s helpful to have a friend who can recommend something or let you sit in as they play, but a good games store (i.e. not a department store or toy store) can usually tell you what might be best for your ages and interests. If your kids are younger, you can get the routine started with classic standbys such as Monopoly and Clue. If your kids have been to a Christian camp, they’ve also probably encountered Dutch Blitz, which is available in Christian bookstores and is now available in an expansion pack for up to eight players.

The time you spend together is priceless, but the kids grow up fast, and the opportunities become fleeting.

Don’t let personal computing and online diversions rob you of simply being a family.

June 6, 2015

Duggars: Should Sins Committed in One’s Early Teens Destroy an Adult Life?

Filed under: family, morality, parenting — Tags: , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:37 am

After a rather informal podcast, Phil Vischer raises the issue of the Duggar Family scandal. His take on this may rile some, others of you may resonate with this. Stay with it until 57:07. Do you agree with Phil’s opinion?

The subject matter of this section of the podcast is not appropriate for young ears.

The United States has a very high rate of teenagers who are registered sex offenders because of things they did when they themselves were children. The things they did were wrong and often violated another person. But they are prosecuted under laws intended for adults, and many of them have their lives ruined and their futures destroyed because they have been so labeled.* Does the punishment fit the crime?


*I’ve deliberately opted not to link to the various stories and websites that concern this issue, but some of the stories are heartbreaking. In many cases involving a heterosexual act, the couples today are married, but face a lifetime of stigma essentially for having premarital sex. I know that some will say that I’m taking a liberal position by raising this issue, or that Phil is, but in a country where there are already a disproportionate number of people incarcerated, I think the laws needs to be revisited. (I’m guessing the podcast will get a lot of mail on this one.)

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