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Nate Stratman

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An Interesting “Sex Question” from a Teenager

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“Do you have to be good at sex?”

During a seminar on sex and dating, I received this anonymous question, among many others from a group of teenagers. While some of the standard questions are, “how far is too far?”, and “is oral sex really sex?”, I have noticed the question about being good at sex has become popular in the last few years. Continue reading “An Interesting “Sex Question” from a Teenager”

Owning It: Helping Kids Experience Love for God and Neighbors

By Nate Stratman | Youthworker Journal December 2011

Several years ago, I had a life-changing experience with a ninth grade boys’ small group I was leading. We were studying Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37-40.

I had hoped the boys would grasp that loving our neighbor was a natural overflow from loving God with our hearts, souls and minds. Boy, was I wrong, as I realized when I heard some of the boys’ comments.

“Poor people are poor because they are lazy and didn’t go to school.” “God helps those who help themselves!” “Honestly, I don’t care about helping them.”
At this point, I was about to blow a gasket. Then I looked at my mostly affluent group, and it dawned on me that in their 14 years of life they had little reason to need God or need help from others. How could I expect them to care about others in need?

We had talked about loving God to death, but I didn’t offer enough tangible opportunities to experience loving God and loving people. So I changed course.

“That’s it!” I said. “Let’s go get in my truck. We’re heading downtown to see what it’s like to be in need.”

I wasn’t sure if this would turn out to be one of my brightest ideas, but it became an ah-ha moment for me and my kids.

Creating Opportunities to Love

Moments later, as one fired-up youth pastor and a pack of wild 14-year-olds headed downtown, I could tell I had their attention.

We stopped to purchase servings of coffee and hot chocolate, and we ended up on a sidewalk where another youth volunteer usually fed some of the homeless people in our city.

We set up shop out of the back of my truck, and my only instruction to the boys was to try and talk to these men and women as they would talk to any of their friends. Before they got to work, I asked them to consider these questions: “Do you think God considers these people our neighbors? If so, what should we do about it?”

From that point on, I sat back and watched as my boys began striking up conversations and drinking hot chocolate with some of God’s most interesting and beloved people.

I heard them talking about the weather, sports, politics, music and faith. The anxiety they had been feeling earlier was nearly gone; my formerly apathetic small group was loving God and His people, but I don’t think they realized it.

As we drove back to the church that night, I brought up Matthew 22:37-40 again. Suddenly, these boys were fired up as the words of Jesus came to life in a fresh, new way. As a youth minister, I got to live out Scripture in front of my group, which was the lesson they obviously needed to experience.

From Borrowing to Owning Faith

No one reaches Christian maturity on his or her own. All of us grow into our faith by borrowing faith from someone else and then eventually transitioning to a faith that is owned, alive and growing.

Any time I’ve heard a teenager share about his or her faith at camp or in front of a congregation, they always mention the loaner. The loaner is grandma, youth workers, teachers or neighbors who live out their faith in such an accessible way that any teenager could grab it.

So how exactly do we help our students along this continuum?

Youth workers not only function as key loaners in the lives of students, but we have a great role in what Mark DeVries calls “Stacking the Stands.” Our first role is to realize that we physically cannot sit in the stands for each student, but we can show countless adults where the stands are.

I want my students to borrow faith, but there has to be a caring someone and something of substance to borrow. This idea of connecting faithful adults to the students in our ministries will demand a shift in our leadership, vision and philosophy.

If seeing students develop a lifelong love for God causes us to get up in the morning, then why not share this excitement with a bigger and broader cross-section of the body of Christ?

Catalytic Events

Sharing hot beverages and conversation with our downtown neighbors was a catalytic event for my teenage boys. For others, it is the camp experience, the mission trip, the big rally event or some other unique moment that catapulted them from unbelief to belief.

The gospels are full of catalytic moments when Jesus took His friends away from the routine of life to a life-altering experience with the Savior.

These catalytic experiences often occur in what the ancient Celts called “thin places.” These are places and experiences where the distance between heaven and earth feels miniscule.

The presence of God is often palpable for students when there is just enough silence to hear Him, mixed with leaders who speak and live out the gospel in a way that is attractive and real.

Here are two examples of my favorite spiritual catalysts for students:

1. Backpacking Trips

When students are confronted with the beauty and risk of the outdoors mixed with the power of silence and campfire conversations, the ground becomes fertile for an encounter with God. For a good reason, many students connect with the Word of God as I’ve never seen before when we are out on the trail.

2. Mission Trips

I’m not talking about a week of laboring on a construction site. Mission trips should demonstrate the same rhythm of life that we want our students to continue when they return home.

Breaking each day of the mission trip up into thirds allows for being with Him in the morning, doing the work that needs to be done during the day and celebrating through worship services and culturally immersive experiences in the evening. While this rhythm feels a bit monastic, it is this spiritual structure that many adolescents are longing for in their mission to know and love God.

Think about your own journey with Christ. Picture those faces you borrowed your faith from and remember the spaces and places where a catalytic encounter with Jesus happened. Now, identify those faces and places that students in your ministry will experience as they venture from a borrowed to an owned faith in loving a living God.

As for my group of boys, the following week after going downtown they had shared their experience with every person in our church who would listen. They demanded that we hang out with our new friends downtown every other week as we attempted to apply what we were learning.

This new effort became a program we call The Curbside Café. The piece that I was completely unaware of was the number of parents who wanted to volunteer to make this ministry happen because they couldn’t deny the change they had witnessed in the lives of their kids.

God’s love compelled me to take the boys downtown, allowing them to witness faith in action; and their own excitement for ministry became contagious. The greatest part of this story is that other Christian adults, families and other small groups began to serve alongside this small band of boys; and the Curbside Café continues to this day.

Nate Stratman has been in youth ministry for over 12 years and is currently the director of student ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs. He also serves as a staff consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and frequently writes at NateStratman.com.

Talking to Teenagers about Sex: 7 Helpful Thoughts

1. It is Time: A parent of a teenage girl came to me many years ago in a tizzy about the upcoming sex, dating and relationships talk I was about teach at church. As she was mildly hyperventilating she said ” my 16-year-old daughter isn’t dealing with those things yet!”  I responded with my inner eye roll and a small barf in my mouth before I could respond. Looking back on the situation, I believe the mother was saying that she didn’t want her daughter to be dealing with sexuality. The reality is that our young children who see commercials, magazines, look on the internet or ride the school bus are already exposed to sexuality and most likely the type of exposure that you would never choose.
2. How far is too far? Think about the motive behind this question. My translation of this is, “how close to trouble can I stand without really getting in trouble?” When I would ask this question as a teenager, I can assure you that I wasn’t thinking about commitment or the feelings of my girlfriend. I wanted to know what I could get away with. Whatever the temptation, if we stand on the very edge of the cliff, it only takes a small breeze to knock us over.

3. Rob Bell and Sex (not hell)- Regardless of what you think of Rob Bell, his second Nooma video called Flame is very helpful in talking about marriage and sexuality with teenagers. In the video, Bell talks about three types of flames or love found in Scripture. The major point is that the 3 flames of friendship, commitment and erotic love are all needed in marriage. For example, an affair or one night stand is the sexual flame without commitment or friendship. Many Christian marriages are deeply committed, but the fun and the passion has often fallen away. Although it is hard for teenagers to hear, sex is just ONE part of love.

4. The Fireplace Analogy- When a fire is inside the fireplace, it has the ability to warm the house. When fire gets outside of the fireplace, it can burn the house down.”  In surveying all of scripture I see that God was the designer of sex (not Hugh Hefner) and His design was meant for the context of marriage. You might be like me and want to challenge this analogy. I actually mulled over many scenarios of sex outside of marriage from my own experience and non of them warmed the house.

5. The Best Question Ever: Instead of bantering about right and wrong, I think there is a better question. In a piece I wrote called “They are Going To Do It Anyway!”, I close with this paragraph; Just because there were no condoms or kegs in the Bible doesn’t mean that God has left us hanging on these specific issues. We often run off our teenagers by being so black and white on certain issues without asking them to actually think through and own the decision. “The Best Question Ever” is a book by Andy Stanley that centers on one HUGE biblical principle: Wisdom. So the question becomes, “what is wise about having sex as a teenager?” or “is it wise or unwise to have a keg for the senior prom in my basement?” Ephesians 5:15 says be very careful, then, how you live– not as unwise but as wise.
I have actually had a number of students over the years write their answers on a board in my office to “is this wise or unwise” and watching them discover biblical wisdom is one of the perks of my job.

6. Doing the Dirty or the Nasty!- I continue to hear these two terms when students talk about people having sex. As Christians, I feel strongly that we have a duty to reclaim the beauty of sex. If I would let my daughters figure out sexuality on their own, I am certain that they would refer to sex as “doin’ the dirty” as well. 

7. Major “No-No’s” of Talking to Teenagers about Sex:
     A. If your conversation is a monologue and not a dialogue, you’ve lost ’em.

     B. If they say “everyone is doing it” or you say “nobody is doing it”, you        both have lied.

     C. You are not a sexpert! Sex is something to be explored and learned within    marriage, not something to conquer with the mind.

     D. Enough with the Scare Tactics! – Herpes and teenage pregnancy are absolute realities of sex outside of God’s original plan, but scaring teenagers about disease and pregnancy cannot be our main approach to talking about sex. I have known several friends who were raised in Christian homes that scared the living daylights out of them in regard to sex. These people have actually had difficulty in having sex the first year of marriage. These friends have been scared for so long about sex that they just couldn’t believe it was good and of God.

Question: What are the consequences of having a “NO, NO, NO…..GO!!!!” approach?

These are just a few conversations that I repeatedly have with teenagers and parents. What would you add?

I Know What You Believe By Looking at Your Church Building.

Father Anthony is an Orthodox Priest with a Young Life background who lives in my community. He shared some interesting thoughts about church buildings with me one day when I visited his church with some of my students. He described 3 major strands of the Christian church and how their buildings tell us something about their belief in God.
1. Evangelical  (Large/Contemporary)-  These buildings are made to fit as many people as possible inside so that all may be “saved”. The media and music create a non-threatening and attractive environment that encourages followers to bring non-believers to church and it helps that the buildings don’t look like traditional churches.

2. Reformed/Presbyterian –  John Calvin was known to preach for 2 hours. These buildings look like lecture halls, with all seats pointing forward towards the pulpit. This design makes sense for folks who put great emphasis on the study and proclamation of the Word.

 

 

 

 

3. Orthodox –  For an A.D.D guy like myself, the Orthodox church has all the smells and bells. The entire worship space is covered with sacred art, telling the story of God. The priest is not the focal point in these services as there are many places for you to look and ponder the works of God. The Orthodox priest appears to facilitate the worship experience more than lead it.

These descriptions have really caused me to think about the blessings and curses of churches around the globe. Think about a few of these comments and questions below and ponder the necessity and usefulness of bricks and mortar.

1. an Episcopalian priest friend of mine was facing losing his beautiful church in denominational battles. He said “I actually pray that we lose it, because our identity is too wrapped up in the building.” Erwin McManus, a pastor at Mosaic in LA, said that God led them to sell their building which caused ministry to flourish across Southern California. 

2. Of the three models above, is one more conducive to youth ministry than the others?

3. One argument for huge elaborate churches is that they draw in more people who then can pool their resources to be a larger collective blessing to the world. True? 

4. I have seen thriving churches around the globe who meet under tents and have beat up sound systems and chairs. Why aren’t their large churches in our country that look like that? 

 

What does your church building look like and what are the strengths and weaknesses of its design?

 

10 “Take Home Experiences” from the Dominican and Pico Escondido

(Playing stick ball in the Barrio. I’m pitching “tapas” or caps to Ryan)
Ten Transformative Moments from the Dominican Republic:

( these are in no order of impact. They are each instruments in the symphony that impacted the lives of many teenagers.)

10. La Comida- Is there anything better than good food and great conversation with new and old friends? Moro ( a rice dish that rocked my face off) and tostones (fried or toasted plantains that rocked the other side of my face off) were two of my favorite culinary finds. 

9. The Doulos School- a Christian, bi-lingual school that has an incredible model for education based on “adventures”. The founders of the school started Pico Escondido and are long-time Young Lifers. They have a coffee plantation that offers all the proceeds to scholarships for local Dominican children at Doulos. Kids there are learning about Christ, recycling, gardening, architecture as well as the basic subjects.

8. Berto “El Gato”- a carpenter at Pico who made me laugh everyday as we both butchered each other’s language. Berto and I would be BFF if we lived closer.

 

7. Dan and Elizabeth Jessup- Dan is a VP with Young Life who oversees Latin America amongst other things. He and his wife brought donors to the camp for the blessing of 2 new cabins at the camp. Dan goes to our church and I loved that our student’s saw Dan in his element has he gave great vision for YL in the Dominican.

6. Club and Poop Smell- we helped lead a club that was out in the rural part of La Vega. As we walked up to the house, the smell of manure was unreal! Stalls and cages for pigs, chickens and goats surrounded the shed we met under.  As kids were laughing, worshipping and listening to the word of God, the aroma turned from a stink to part of the essence of this powerful ministry.

5. Spanglish- Both the Gringos and the Dominicans made great efforts to speak and hear each other’s language (that will preach!). This is such a simple, yet powerful example of understanding what life is like for our brothers and sisters around the globe.

4. Near Carjacking- Our group was returning to camp after a night in downtown Jarabacoa. We stuffed into a flat bed truck with a tarp over it to protect us from the rain. I was sitting on the back bumper hanging my feet over the edge as dogs chased us and motorcycles whizzed bye. The truck came to a stop and people started to surround the truck and the noise of a small crowd got louder and louder. I was convinced that some gang was about to mess with us and the group started to get a bit concerned. We sat still for 10-15 minutes, which seemed like hours. I finally worked up the guts to walk to the front of the bus and saw a mob of young people surrounding the truck. It was local Vida Joven kids who saw that our driver was one of their volunteers, Joba. These folks get relational ministry that they cause traffic jams to be with kids, I love it! 

3. My Beard- My beard often draws many stares and random comments in other countries. When I was walking down the streets of La Vega with my baseball hat, sunglasses and a stick, the men shouted “FIDEL, FIDEL” as I walked bye. I was also called Moses, Osama Bin Laden and Santa Claus. 

2. Staying with Odalys- Odalys is 20 years old and is a leader in Young Life. He hasn’t seen his mother in 5 years because she is a housekeeper in Italy. He takes care of his 7-year-old cousin, goes to University and loves Basketball. We actually watched his beloved Miami Heat get beat in the NBA finals the night we stayed with him. The home stays were by far the most formative experience on the trip for many of our kids as they discovered bucket showers, roosters and no air conditioning.

1. Teenagers are Teenagers, everywhere- The students of both nationalities blended together in a powerful way. From walking to the local cormado, having a crazy dance party and playing cards on the porch, to worshipping together and cleaning up the trash in the barrios. They are all relational beings who long to be known, love to laugh and are on a journey with Jesus Christ.

___________________________
Notable Mentions: eating several pounds of ribs, waterfall hike, coffee factory tour, meringue lessons, eating dinner with our entire group from a tiny empanada stand, singing in the dark and many more.

Reflections from the Dominican Republic: Beauty in the Barrio

I’m sitting in a plastic chair on the front porch (which is practically the street) with my new friend Chulo. Chulo is the area director for Vida Joven (Young Life) in the town of La Vega, Dominican Republic. He oversees many clubs in the various barrios of La Vega, but Chulo lives and loves young people in his own barrio.

The Scene: Chulo (25) and his wife Katerin live in one section of a large concrete building.(Chulo, his 2 sisters and wife are the 4 in the middle of the picture above) The front porch is really a covered carport with piles of plastic chairs, which have been loved well by countless Dominican teenagers. This front area functions as a club room for meetings and has been painted in bright colors with a large map of the many clubs of La Vega including those barrios they are praying for ministry to eventually be birthed in the near future.

The street in front of Chulo’s house is about 15 feet wide and filled with potholes, dogs, countless motorcycles and kids playing baseball with a stick and the tops of water bottles. As I sit with Chulo, I am taken back by all the activity in front of me. Small cars with huge bullhorns rigged to the top pace the barrio playing loud recordings trying to sell anything from clothes to eggs. Music is often playing from multiple houses and cars at a level that would get the cops called for noise complaints in the states. On top of all this noise and activity, Dominicans stay up really late hanging out in the streets and the wake up early too!!  The Barrio never stops.

Pico Escondido– The YL Camp of the D.R
After reading the prior paragraphs, you will see the importance of Pico Escondido in the following description. Vida Joven’s Pico Escondido is the only camp in the country and it is literally holy ground for many Dominicans, nestled in the hills outside of Jarabacoa. When teenagers come to camp ($48 US for a week), they are welcomed by a piece of property that creates something so powerful for these young people who just came from the noise of the barrio; silence. The only noise you hear at this camp is the laughter and discussions of people accompanied by the light buzz frogs and crickets. The excellence of Young Life camping carries overseas and plays such a huge role in the ability of teenagers to hear the voice of the Savior. 

I’m not going all Thomas Merton on you, but we as Americans have become seduced by the same noises and activities. I am chief among sinners in this category. What amazed me about Chulo and the other Dominicans was that they had the ability to “be” in the midst of the chaos. They taught my students and me how to “be” for hours and hours. (It helped that my cell phone didn’t work and we had a very minimal schedule). I actually believe that this is a life and death issue for me, spiritually speaking. I am also convinced that this soul nourishing time can happen outside of camps, monasteries and retreats. I am on a new mission to create room to “be”, even at the sacrifice of productivity.

They are going to do it anyway! (Parenting Teenagers)

Parents supplying condoms to their teenage sons or parents who buy the beer and collect the car keys are operating under the assumption of “they’re going to do it anyway, better safe than sorry”. The parents who make all the decisions for their teenagers and who work harder at preparing the road for the child instead of the child for the road operate in a bubble. Both of these scenarios are extreme for me, yet fairly common from my seat in the bleachers.

Over the years I have really thought hard about the “ya’ can’t stop ’em” mindset and I’ve heard some compelling arguments and I’ve also heard some weak ones. Here are a few thoughts to this mentality;

1. Eliminating Success: Just by saying “they are going to have sex or get drunk anyway” we have eliminated any chance for them to succeed. I have heard parents say this to their children and it is absolutely permission giving. If we take this approach, then we could also say “Hey Ryan, you’re so immature and don’t have the backbone or capability to make a good decision so I’ll just make it harder for you to actually choose the right thing by enabling you to keep doing the wrong thing”! 

    a. Caveat: What about those teenagers with broken frontal lobes? The exception and not the rule is that there are some teenagers over the years that are reckless with their sexuality. If this were my own child, you’d better believe that I would have every type of birth control available and I would have to move from a stance of abstinence to the less safe stance of protection.

2. A Healthy Curiosity: If we know anything about adolescents, we know that they are curious. When I teach on Sex and Dating I get questions like what does sex feel like?”, “can you get pregnant in a pool? and my all-time favorite from a boy does it hurt to put in a tampon“? These are great questions from curios souls and the avoidance of such questions will have huge repercussions. Contrary to some, just because a teenager is asking some of these graphic questions does not automatically mean they are on the verge making some awful decision. As a parent or a youth worker, if our children or students in our small group would never ask us tough questions, a) do they have someone they could ask? and b) what about you might be unapproachable?

Scripture has much to say: Just because there were no condoms or kegs in the Bible doesn’t mean that God has left us hanging on these specific issues. We often run off our teenagers by being so black and white on certain issues without asking them to actually think through and own the decision. “The Best Question Ever” is a book by Andy Stanley that centers on one HUGE biblical principle: Wisdom. So the question becomes, “what is wise about having sex as a teenager?” or “is it wise or unwise to have a keg for the senior prom in my basement?” Ephesians 5:15 says be very careful, then, how you live– not as unwise but as wise.

I have actually had a number of students over the years write their answers on a board in my office to “is this wise or unwise” and watching them discover biblical wisdom is one of the perks of my job.

The Death of “Show and Tell”.

My 4-year old Ruthie has show-and-tell every week at her pre-school and I love it. I love watching my daughter search around for something in her room that she is proud of and wants her friends to see. I always loved it when kids would bring some gnarly dog or angry cat to class, because drama would always happen. So why do early elementary teachers put up with stinky pets, broken toys and pictures from a family vacation to Branson, Missouri? I believe they understand the importance of not only having an “experience”, but sharing that experience to others. Secondly, it is that time where ALL kids have something to offer and don’t have to be a math whiz or the king of four-square to feel confident.

We must have more show-and-tell in our churches and youth ministries.

What are you doing in your ministry to let young people share about what God is up to in their lives? Many churches have youth sunday or let the kids report about a mission trip, but that is not enough. I admit that we need more show-and-tell in our weekly youth ministry and it doesn’t have to be some huge production.

I tend to overuse an analogy about my wife and I on the beach looking for sea glass. Kim finds all kinds of sea glass and I have never found one piece in all the years we lived on the beach. Why? I wasn’t really looking for the sea glass because I was so distracted by the smell of dead fish, or a big wave or a european tourist wearing a scandalous bathing suit. Kim always found sea glass because she was actually looking for sea glass. If I as a youth minister am about anything, it is to help my flock look for God. And If I’m all about them looking for God in the every day events of life then I believe I need to allow them to tell me about that.

What are some ways that you have seen the church embrace the  show-and-tell philosophy?

Should Teenagers Date?

I have witnessed teenagers who date and treat one another with respect, have boundaries and still manage to maintain other friendships, good grades and quality family time, but sadly this is NOT THE NORM!

I have never felt comfortable saying “all teenagers shouldn’t date” and at the same time I would say that 80% of these relationships end in unnecessary drama, awkwardness and little chance for continued friendship following the break-up. I know for me, lust was confused for love and drama came following after.

I know that young kids have innocent little crushes and I think this is natural and cute. The stakes are so much higher in high school and both guys and girls can be wickedly manipulative. Teenage dating can often be a pressure cooker to have sex, lose weight or even negate all other responsibilities for their new-found love.

The bar for teenage dating has been set high.
Truthfully, the bar for friendships, marriages and every other relationship is high.
Jesus set the bar.

Three Loves- Jesus and C.S Lewis speak to several different types of love and I’ll highlight three from a teenage perspective.

Friendship- 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, while we call this the “wedding verses”, I see these as the friend verses. Re-read this passage by inserting your name where you see the word love. Can I say this about my friendships? Nate is patient, Nate is kind etc……..
Friendship is crucial if you are going to date! This means that you genuinely love being together and want the best for each other.

Romance- The most distorted and abused form of love. Romance without commitment is what you call an affair or lopsided love. Physical attraction is important and God designed this, but physical attraction alone won’t sustain a marriage. P.S, romance is so much more than sex! Romance can be creative and even though the tabloids disagree, it is not intended to be raunchy.

Commitment – Romans 12:10 Be Devoted, Honor one another. This would be my biggest question about teenage dating from my own experience and my observations of teenage dating for a long time, can teenagers fully commit to a relationship? I’m a bit cynical about commitment as teenagers because the word commitment has been so watered down and hold very little weight to this generation. I would also say that high school tend to be so “me-centric” that devoting or honoring another person in a sacrificial way takes more time to grasp.

While I sound like a cynic, I don’t want to be. I would love to see more teenagers sacrificial caring for one another and with Christ at the center of any relationship, it is possible. As Christians, there is supposed to be something in our dating, friendships and every other relationship that not only stands out from the norm but continually points to a good and loving God.

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