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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”

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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?

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?

My Prayer for Moms (A Redemption Blog)

Going into Mother’s Day with my last post, When Mothers Attack on my blog didn’t seem kosher. So here is my redemption post and my prayer for all the mommas!

God,
I have a hunch that one of the most exhausting and life-giving jobs you created was to be a mom. These strong women are often the backbone of our churches and homes. The calling and duty of a mother is never done.
While raising children is often overwhelming, I pray that these ladies may rest in You and on the couch not just on Sunday, but more often than they do. I pray that those mothers who have difficult children like my mother did, would be fully aware that You are not finished with their children yet. God be near those mothers who have rascally children, help them to not buy the lie that rebellious children equal bad mothers.

Lord, you told us about some rock star moms who didn’t get much attention in Scripture and I believe their son/grandson Timothy was lost without them. In  2 Timothy 1, Paul says  I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

Timothy borrowed his faith from 2 strong moms. I have gleaned faith from my mother. My children are blessed to have a mother who trusts in Christ and slathers that love on her daughters daily.
Father, I am for moms and I know you are also!
In the strong name of Jesus I pray,
Amen

When Mothers Attack!

During my very first week as a full-time youth minister, my inaugural youth committee meeting was in a shark tank and I didn’t know it. The elder who formed this team of sharks (mothers) had a specific strategy. He wanted to keep several parents on the inside or in the know instead of leaving them on the outside where they could cause more harm. In short, this optimistic youth minister who had 3 great skit ideas, a guitar and a couple talks about Zacchaeus left that meeting in tears and I remember talking to my dad about quitting after 1 week. I got an earful about how things were and how they should be when I was looking for a “we can’t wait to work with you and drop off pecan pies on your porch” type of meeting.

Why Mothers Attack- There have been a few times in the outdoors when I’ve seen a black bear and my eyes begin to frantically look for cubs. Why? Mother bears are so protective that they don’t even think twice about going medieval on anyone who threatens their cubs. All kidding aside, when a mother feels like her child is being taken, ignored or even harmed by the church, she will let you know in a host of ways. The most common reactions are taking the child out of your ministry, trash talking the ministry and the minister to a host of families, coming into your office for a “come-to-Jesus” or worst of all…nothing.

During the Attack- I am a sensitive fellow, so attacks have never been my favorite (By the way, I have had only a few major run-ins over the years that have taught me much. For the most part, sharks are my friends.) Nowadays I try to look past the drama and the tantrum to understand the heart of that mother. What is she really trying to say? For the most part, moms want their kids to be loved, invested in and cared for. I’ve also learned that striking back during the attack is deadly. Again, listen to the heart behind the rant and make your response to that mother happen over a long period of time, don’t fix it in one meeting. Simply make sure the mother feels heard.

Avoiding Sharks- Avoiding parents is never healthy, even the difficult ones. I actually used to run away from certain moms on Sunday mornings.! One thing I have learned more and more is that our calling to students is as much of a calling to their parents. In many cases parents can act “sharky” because they could use some encouragement and when a parent is praised, witch hunts seem to be called off.

While this is the not so fun side of Christian community, it is community. For youth workers I will go one step further by saying; if we have never heard the concern or hurt from a mother, then we are standing too far away.


Forcing Kids to go to Church

Currently I have families who a) drag their teenagers to church b) leave them home each Sunday c) worship with their teenagers or d) send them to our High School ministry while the parents go to worship. For those parents with kids who don’t want to go to church, I frequently am asked for advice on “getting them there”.

I really do think that each family is unique and must choose what response is the best fit, but here are a few observations;
1. Teenagers follow people before they will follow a plan.
It is so easy for the family of a teenager who doesn’t want to go to church to withdraw as well. I have seen some great parents be very proactive about finding mission trips and fellowship opportunities that fit their kid. This is the best way to connect with the leaders and other students. Sunday morning or weekly programs don’t have the time to be as relational as trips and retreats are. Always call the youth minister and let them know the situation so that can help make the trip a great experience for your reluctant child. It is too easy to give up on church after church when something goes wrong. I am encouraged by parents who turn over every rock to find the right people and experiences to encourage their teenagers in the faith.

2. Teenagers Choosing Church:
I know several families who have let their teenage children choose the church the family will attend. The parents say “it is so important that our kids have a good church experience that we can adapt anywhere”. When I was 16 I actually told my father (pastor of the big Presbyterian church in town) that I was switching churches so I could be a Methodist. My father’s response was “that is fine Nate, I hope you become more involved there!” What??? That is NOT the response I was looking for. My dad called my bluff. My dad “learned me” a good lesson about ecclesiology that day.

3. A Balanced Response
 I have heard statements like, “while you are in our house we will go to church, but we will not force you to be involved in everything”. I know of a family with a teenager who doesn’t believe in Christ, but he is willing to go to worship with his family and even have good discussions about the sermon. These parents get an A+ in my book when it comes to response. They basically said, we aren’t going to force you to “believe” but we would love for you to join us as a family and discuss what we experience.

4. The Para church ministries like Young Life do a great job of presenting Christ to students who don’t want anything to do with church. Once kids “get” Jesus, they will often “get” the need for Christian community, Worship and the Scriptures.

Quick Responses to Common Complaints:
A. Church is Boring:
Sure. With some kids I don’t fight this battle right away because Church is boring when it is all about us. Our shallow understanding of worship has caused the entertainment craze in our churches. My other response is that God is not boring, only certain people who teach about God can be boring. I am not for entertainment, but I am all about spirited and passionate teaching.
B.  It is too early: This one doesn’t work for me anymore! There are church services at every hour of the day in most communities!!!

C. What other tips or thoughts would you add to this post?

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: a Youth Ministry Perspective

Last week I was given Donald Miller’s (Blue Like Jazz) newest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story and his thoughts have opened a crucial door for me. Every youth minister, teacher or parent who knows a floundering teenager (we all should!), then I beg you to read chapter 9 entitled How Jason Saved His Family, it is a powerful 5 pages long.

Jason is a friend of Donald Miller and he has a 13 year-old daughter who had a bad news boyfriend and was caught with marijuana in her room. The context of this discussion between friends is that Miller had just returned from a grueling seminar by Robert McKee who is the godfather of “story”. Authors, writers and filmmakers come from all over the world to sit at McKee’s feet in an attempt to understand the fullness of story. So what was Miller’s response about Jason’s daughter? He said, She is living a terrible story”.

I won’t tell you Jason’s response, because Miller tells it better than I ever could. I will tell you this, the father of the 13-year-old girl was determined for his family to live out a better story and response was outlandish, yet powerfully healing.

Here is what I’m chewing on from a Youth Ministry perspective:

* 2 Stories: As Christians, we hear stories like this and must know the connectedness to the Story of God and not settle for a self-help type remedy. Our personal narrative functions in relationship with the grand story of the meta-narrative. This meta or larger story is written by God and carried out by his squirrelly followers. In short, it is bigger than just our story, His story knits the rest of our stories together. (Did I just say story a million times?)

* In Defense of Short-Term Missions: I feel like I’m keenly aware of the pitfalls of short-term missions and the damage we the church have caused over the years. I am also aware that service, outreach and mission trips play a crucial role for teenagers as they hope to see a bigger and more adventurous story. When one of our students goes to New Orleans, Las Vegas or the Dominican Republic this summer, I pray that catch a glimpse of the role they could possibly play in the bigger story. In my own life I know I am the most self-centered when I have ceased to serve others.

* Catalytic Moments: In scripture and in our own lives, it seems like we need some catalytic moment to catapult us from a lifeless story to a life-giving story. Think about “mountain top” experiences in your own life, most likely they weren’t in your room doing your homework. Youth ministries can often be very helpful in creating catalytic moments that are Christ-centered, adventurous and family friendly as well. Family missions trips have been mountain experiences for many families who find themselves in a funk.

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