What Works……………………………………………….Todd Buegler

I’ve been working in children, youth and family ministry for 23 years, and in that time, there is one thing I have learned:  The longer I do this, the more clueless I am.


When I started out, I was quite certain I knew and understood the whole thing.  I knew what to do…I had great advice…I was program ready at the drop of a hat…I played guitar…

Now?  Not so much.

I think this is due to a few different  “standard” things:

1.       I’m older now.  I drive a mini-van.  ‘nuff said.

2.       Young people and their families have changed.  (Yes, I know…that’s not exactly revolutionary, but I think it can’t be underestimated)

3.       Culture has changed.  (Again…not exactly brain surgery…but huge.)

I think there is also another reason, however, and perhaps it’s one that we have underestimated, or never even considered:  I think quite simply, “there is more to know.”

23 years ago, the idea of doing youth research focused on meeting a young person at a Burger King and asking them “how are things going?”  (Still not a bad practice, by the way)  But the world of research into the adolescent faith lives of young people has completely blown away the assumptions with which we used to live.

Now we know things.  Now there is data.  Now, we can test our assumptions against actual information and see where we were completely off base…we can ask more questions, create new models, and have a baseline to continue to test effectiveness.

I know there are people who thing research in our field is a waste.  I’ve heard the mantra: “It’s all about relationships…why should I pay attention to data that gives me a wide swath of info…I’m just concerned about one kid at a time.”

The only response I can make to this is: “huh?”

Yes, the individual kid is important.  No doubt.  And that kind of one-on-one contact work is critical.  But we need to be aware of a bigger picture:  This is what we do!  This is important stuff.  For us to be excellent…for us to be effective…for us to be professional we all need to not only be familiar with the data, we need to master it.  We need to know it backwards and forwards.  We need to wonder and argue about its implications nationally, regionally and within our own congregations.  There is a conversation going on of which we all need to be a part!

There has been a lot of data that has come out in the last couple of years, and it’s raised a million questions.  The study that’s gotten the most press and traction has been the National Study on Youth and Religion.  This is perhaps the largest and most important piece of research done across the scope of the Christian church.  This is one that is going to take years for us to digest and process.

But hovering out there, in perhaps a more humble, shy Lutheran way, is the data from the Exemplar Youth Ministry Study.

What I love about the EYM material is that it focuses on what works.  It is focusing on the positives and the assets of ministry with young people.

These two studies, the NSYR and the EYM Study complement each other.  We need them both:  The NSYR focuses on the whole, big picture.  The EYMS focuses on a slice, and in all honesty it’s the one slice that I’m most interested in.  It’s the question I love to ask:  “What’s working for you?”

Whenever I gather with ministry peers, I love to ask that question.  It steers away from the trite and mundane questions about numbers…and it directs conversation away from complaining.  Let’s be honest: I already have a long list of things I’ve done that has not worked.  I have zero interest in hearing about your failures.  But I am interested in knowing about the one or two things you have going for you that really work…I might have one or two things too.  And if I can find out what you do that works, and I can figure out how that might be contextualized to my setting and put into practice, then I might add to my “it works” list.

The EYMS looks at what is working, and why it’s working.  That information is gold to me.  Not that I’m just chasing programs…that’s not it.  Rather, I know that if I can find out why something works, I’ve learned something important about faith formation with young people.  And I know that I can probably figure out a way to make that fit in at my congregation.

So I’ve finished the NYSR books.  And now I’m working my way through the EYMS book, with a highlighter; and I’ve bought copies for a couple of my colleagues…we’ll talk about it together and figure out what we can learn from the data.  Ultimately, I believe it will affect our ability to participate in God’s mission in the whole of the church, in our region, in my congregation and yes, even with that one young person sitting across the table from me at the Burger King, talking about what’s going on in their life.

Todd Buegler, along with being a youth ministry “lifer” is a pastor at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Maple Grove, MN.  He is also the Executive Director of the ELCA Youth Ministry network.  He has been a lifelong advocate for people doing youth ministry.


What if? More from the D6 Conference……………………Jason Miller

There is a great deal of power in those words.  What if children, youth and family ministries were more than a program?  What if they become the basis of a fully integrated mindset for the relationship between the church and the home?  Imagine the possibilities.  Parents taking on their God-given roles as the primary faith formers for their children.  Families committed to serving their church and the world in the name of Christ.  The end of “drop-off” ministry because parents are actively engaged in ministry with their children.  A church where ministry silos are integrated and connected to a common goal…strengthening the home and therefore strengthening the church in its mission to the world.

Pretty lofty, huh?  For years we have recognized the need and have tried to start program after program with the goal of encouraging a relationship between home and congregation with modest results.  The time has come to think differently about family faith formation, more holistically.

Permeating the discussions at the D6 Conference this year was the insight that the Schema (Deuteronomy 6) was not a program to be implemented, but a mindset, an ethos to become part of our DNA.  Many of the presentations revolved around this “easier said than done” notion.  It’s just that,  but it is the ONLY way we will truly succeed in partnering with parents in forming faith in young Christians.  And that’s what the “family assets” of the EYM study are really all about.   Churches who are constantly figuring out how to make this partnership a part of who they are.  They did this by intentionally engaging and including the single most influential people in the lives of young people…their parents.

Now I want to hear from all of you.  Is D6 a part of your (and your congregation’s) DNA?  What are you doing in your life and your church community to live out the Schema?

Jason Miller is a husband, dad and Christ follower who serves as Director of Christian Education for a congregation in Apollo Beach, FL.  He has been engaged in Children’s, Youth and Family Ministry for over a decade.

EYM and D6 …………………………………………………..Nancy Going

If the D6 conference is not on your radar screen, watch for it next year. D6 stands for Deuteronomy 6.  This year’s D6 took place in Dallas, September 15-17, 2010, and was sponsored by Randall House.

Here’s how D6 connects with the EYM study results.  While the EYM study doesn’t give a lot of information about the faith formation that takes place in the homes of the students in these exemplary congregations, it does tell the story of churches who made notable strides in supporting parents in their role as the primary shapers of the faith of their children.  The parents reported that they got it, and it helped.

The conference not only did a great job of holding that focused support as a God-given pattern, but providing lots of step-by-step how-to’s related to the hard work of changing how churches think about what we do.  More than just naming it family ministry, or handing out obligatory family devotions for people to throw away on the way home, the conference worked hard to find leaders who were bit by bit changing the cultures of their churches, and asked them to talk about the new support systems for parents that they are putting in place for faith formation to happen outside the walls of the church and instead in cars and family rooms.

Most profound, however was the way that Doug Field’s(founder of Simply Youth Ministry) talk at the conference challenged leaders to LEAD with this commitment themselves.  To live a spirituality of God’s activity in the every day of family life, and not just at church…..to be the kind of spiritual leaders in their own families who put attention to the spiritual formation of their children before the next event at church.  We all know that’s a part of the bigger picture here.  He named it.

Dr. Nancy Going is a 20 some year veteran of congregational youth ministry.  She coordinates the Distributed (distance) youth ministry students at Luther Seminary.  She did her PhD research by interviewing adolescents from the Exemplar congregations.  The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry book comes out this week.  Order yours here.

For Every Sport There is a Season……………………….Jerry Watts

I’m a big fan of the four seasons.  There’s football season, basketball season, baseball season, and… well you get the idea.  If you are a sports aficionado there is always something to fill your TIVO box, fantasy league addiction, swipe your debit card for, or fill up your calendar with.   The same kind of frenetic rhythm is true in the lives of teens as well as our youth ministries today.

There’s the gear up for fall kick-off season, weekly program season, retreat season, confirmation season, summer mission trip season, and … well you get the idea.  There is an info meeting to go to, a deposit check to be cut, and facebook event page to click “maybe” on.   I am certain if you are reading this blog you can easily fill in the blanks of season upon demanding season in the life of a teenager today.

Because of this youth ministry often (and rightly so) tends to look for gaps or windows in those busy seasons to offer retreats, a weekly respite, or frankly make room to share the Gospel.   Either that or we find ways to invest in walking along side youth at their football games, or band concerts, lunch hours, or maybe the occasional 5th quarter party.  I’m not suggesting we abandon all those tools, however I am suggesting that the EYM study and yes Holy Scriptures themselves call us to something more.

The EYM study reminds us that exemplary youth ministries nurture mature Christian youth who see God active in their DAILY lives, who spend regular time in the WORD through a personal devotional life, and recognize God has a purpose for them…today.  These markers go beyond mission trip week, winter camp, youth group night, or any other gap, window, or program wedge we can squeeze into an already packed schedule.

Isaiah 40:8 reminds us that “the grass withers and the flowers fade but the Word of our God stands forever.”  What red thread weaves through the youth ministry you lead or partner with that calls youth to be engaged by God’s Word that supersedes every season? As Isaiah reminds us, in the final analysis, God’s Word is the only thing that will last.  Can we retrain our radar from looking at gaps in a calendar to scan for opportunities to help kids pick up on the voice of God calling, inviting, and speaking to their hearts everyday?   Maybe we don’t need to start by throwing out all of our youth ministry seasons, but maybe we do need to start looking for relationships that can be the mixing boards that sort out the noise of busyness to hear God speak…everyday.

Jerry Watts is still serving as Youth and Family Minister in Plano, TX.  He’s been doing in youth ministry for almost seventeen years.

Be nice to kids…………………………………..Tom Schwolert

Ok adults, think way back to your middle or high school years.  I know for some of us it is a reach, but think back for a  moment.  Do you remember having any adults in your life that were very significant to you, particularly in your faith journey?  I remember one in particular.  She was a mom of a friend of mine.  She always opened up her swimming pool to any kids that wanted to come over during the summer when we were “bored.”  But it was always more than swimming.  We would usually end up sitting on the back porch with a glass of iced tea telling stories, laughing and sometimes even talking about God.  She was very accepting of me and all the kids, she knew how important it was to “be Christ” to teenagers.  I was forever changed by that relationship.

God used people in the past (see the Bible) and will use people now and in the future to further God’s kingdom.  There is no doubt that we are relational beings.  No matter what kind of personality we have, we need meaningful relationships in order to thrive in this life.  We need people in our lives who will “be Christ” to us.  Without relationships that are centered on Christ it can be difficult to center one’s own life on Christ.  Young people will search out other ways to fill that relational void.  No, I’m not just talking about “being nice to kids.”  While we should be nice to kids, we need to develop faith nurturing relationships with them.  And no, you don’t have to be “cool” or “relevant” to talk to a teenager, you just have to be real and genuine.  You don’t even need to talk much, just let them talk.  They have a lot to teach us adults.  Having this faith-filled support will equip them to walk in Christ’s footsteps into a new world when they graduate from high school.

The Exemplary Youth Ministry study looks at 44 assets that a congregation needs to be most effective in growing maturing Christian young people.  Check out #30-37.

30. Establish Adult-Youth Mentoring: adults engage youth in faith and life supported by informed leadership

31. Participate in Training: evaluate and equip youth and adults for ministry in an atmosphere of high expectations

32. Posses Vibrant Faith: youth and adult leaders possess and practice a vital and informed faith

33. Competent Adult Volunteers: foster authentic relationships and effective practices with youth within a clear vision strengthen by training and support

34. Establishes a Caring Environment: provides multiple nurturing relationships and activities resulting in a welcoming atmosphere of respect, growth, and belonging

35. Develops Quality Relationship: develops authentic relationships among youth and adults establishing an environment of presence and life engagement

36. Focus on Jesus Christ: the life and ministry of Jesus inspires the ministry’s mission, practices, and relationships

37. Considers Life Issues: the full range of young people’s lives is valued and addressed

Do you know teenagers at church, in your neighborhood, at work or in the community?  Do they know you support them?  How have you been called to “be Christ” for them?

Tom Schwolert is Director of Youth & Family Ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Flower Mound, TX and has over 22 years of youth ministry experience.

On Maturity……………………………………….Nancy Lee Gauche

What is maturity anyway?

Take a look again at the characteristics of a spiritually mature youth from the EYM study.

  • Demonstrates a Personal Spirituality
  • Believes God is present in the world
  • Acts out of a commitment of faith
  • Is active with God’s people
  • Possesses a Positive, Hopeful Spirit
  • Lives out a life of service
  • Lives a Christian moral life

I agree that just getting our heads around the notion that Youth Ministry is about maturing Christian young people is challenging.  It is challenging for 2 reasons:

1st it can mean all kinds of changes in the “how” and the “why” of what you are doing as someone connecting with young people.

But 2ndly, it means being mature yourself.  Right.  Maturity.  Spiritual maturity. “But I don’t want to grow up,” I whine.  J

One way I long to be mature is in my personal spirituality.  Let’s just take one aspect at a time. How about prayer?  I’ve always prayed for young people and continue to, but now I want to pray with young people and alongside them.  Their prayers move me deeply.  She’s not a high school student, but a former student here at Luther Seminary shared this prayer on her blog and now I’m praying it along with her.  Join us.  Surrendering to God’s mercy is a great place to start.  May we all find hope when nothing in the past points towards hope.

Gracious God, beckon us into your widening, foolish mercy, a mercy that finds its grounding in your cradle and cross.  A mercy so tender that it teaches us to hold our gladness lightly and to find hope in our grief when it stutters wildly.  Amen.

~Prayer of the Day, Mercy Seat, 7/18/2010

Nancy Lee Gauche worked in Children, Youth & Family ministry for 25 years.  Today, she is program associate for the Center for Children Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St Paul, MN.

EYM On the Road………………………………..Terri Martinson Elton

We called it, “EYM On the Road.” The weekend began with three Luther Seminary staff piling into a mini-van and heading across the farm fields of Minnesota, Power Points and lectures ready. The weekend ended with an overwhelming sense of appreciation for the greater church, and for the people God’s called into leading youth and family ministry in these changing times. Let me explain.

Luther Seminary has been committed to sharing the findings of the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study to as many people as we can for almost five years now. We, at Luther, have been doing this in many ways, including developing workshops, websites, webinars and coaching congregations. Last year we made the decision that it was time to take the “workshop,” developed to help congregational teams think about the EYM findings through the lens of their own context, out to the church. And South Dakota was our first destination.

For almost two days, on a weekend in the end of July, 30 people from eastern South Dakota came together eager to learn. During our time, we shared stories, about young people and vibrant congregational life; we rethought what it is to be church in these days; and we focused on the call to join young people and families in a journey of discipleship. As our time progressed, the posture of the participants shifted from taking in information, to imagining what it means to create a congregational culture of youth ministry, to brainstorming ways to move into such a new reality, and to networking with future long-term conversation partners. A new way of thinking about ministry with and for young people and their families was birthed, and hope was in the air.

When the three of us piled back into the van at the end, we did so with a sense of gratitude and humility. I am convinced that the findings of this study are challenging us, even forcing us, as leaders in youth ministry to look with new eyes at ministry with young people, and be open to new things. And as we do, our faithful God meets us and the Spirit moves among us, and we are not the same.

I am looking forward to seeing what God is up to in South Dakota in the weeks and months and years ahead. God has planted gifted and passionate leaders there, people that really care about young people and God’s church, and that are willing to find a new way forward together. May you too be so fortunate as to discover travel companions as you seek to faithful be in ministry with and for young people.

Terri Martinson Elton is the Director of the Center for Children, Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.  She has a PhD in Congregational Mission and Leadership and teaches youth ministry and other classes at Luther.