My 2011 VMA Moment: Kids Pay Tribute to Britney Spears

I missed the 2011 VMA’s on MTV this year because the power was out from Hurricane Irene.  Honestly, though, I wasn’t upset about it or disappointed.  As a youth pastor I believe it’s important to be aware of what’s going on in pop culture that so many teenagers are consumer on a regular basis, but I also feel the struggle of wanting to protect myself from watching/listening to what can best be classified as “garbage.”

Then yesterday when I was home flipping through the channels I noticed MTV was replaying the VMA’s and watched about ten minutes of it.  In those ten minutes I saw Lady Gaga dressed up as a man (and really pulled off the look so well it was just strange) and the tribute to Britney Spears.

Aside from the awkwardness of Gaga and Spears’ interactions, what stood out to me most was that the girls who performed the dance routine which reenacted scenes from Spears’ most famous videos were kids.  MTV’s website even boasts, “Kids Pay Tribute to Britney Spears with Dance Medley.”  None of them looked older than 16 (maybe!), but some of them looked like they could’ve been 10!  Watching these young girls dancing to such heavily sexualized songs in outfits that propelled Spears into the spotlight for her sexuality just felt wrong.  Honestly, my heart was (and still is) sad for those girls.  They are being fed the message that their body is their key to success.

Girls, you are more than sex objects.  You are valued and precious no matter what you look like, because God made you in His image.  Your worth is not determined by what size you wear or what your hair looks like.

Parents, talk to your kids about healthy sexuality.  Don’t just have “the talk,” have talks on a regular basis, because your kids are seeing and hearing sexual messages all the time.  Set up parameters and guidelines that limit what your kids watch on tv, visit online, play on the video game console.  Take an active role in helping your teenager (not just girls, but boys too!) grow a healthy and biblical view of sexuality.

Kids are being exposed to sexual content earlier and earlier, don’t wait so long to have uncomfortable conversations that you’re playing catch-up and you don’t even know it.

Leave a comment below: What are some other ways you’ve noticed sexualization targeting kids who are younger and younger?

What Really Matters?

Richard Branson's Island Home

CNN featured a story today (found HERE) about billionaire Richard Branson and actress Kate Winslet.  Over the weekend Branson hosted family and some friends (including Winslet and her family) at his home on a private island in the British Virgin Islands.  According to the article, the fire was started by a lighting-strike and the entire house burned down.

The story quote Kate Winslet saying, “I will never forget Richard placing his arms around both my children as we were watching the flames, and saying, ‘At the end of the day, what you realize is that all that matters is the people that you love. Everything else is just stuff. And none of that stuff matters.'”

At the risk of trivializing what a terrifying experience this must have been for those involved, I think there’s something here for each of us to remember.  It’s so easy for us to start focusing on stuff, this serves as a wonderful reminder because Branson is mostly right.  I’d include our faith and relationship with Jesus Christ as what ultimately matters, then I would agree with what Branson says.

As Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Just a few days ago our youth Bible Study was on this very topic and I asked for a list of different things that teenagers often set up as “Treasures,” here’s the list the students gave:

  • Money
  • Electronics
  • Game Systems
  • Sports
  • School
  • Status & Popularity
  • Parents’ Stuff (taking pride in your dad’s sweet car, or how big your house is, or whatever… even though they aren’t “yours”)
Every once in a while, it’s a good and healthy thing t0 stop and ask yourself “Does this really matter?”  Asking yourself big questions and trying to look at life with a bigger perspective will go a long way towards helping you live your life in light of what matters most.

Understanding Peer Pressure

Last night I was reading about an experiment by psychologists from Temple University who wanted to understand how peer pressure works.  The New York Times published a great and short look at the study entitled, “Teenagers, Friends, and Bad Decisions.”

The study found that “Perceived Peer Pressure” is of far greater influence than previously believed.  In the study forty teens and adults were instructed to drive a simulated car through a course with stop lights and that the faster they completed the course, the greater their cash prize would be.  Each participant drove the course four times, however, in the last two of those rounds the participants were informed that two same-sex friends of theirs were watching them from another room.  While the adults’ time-results were fairly consistent, the teen ran 40% more yellow lights and got into 60% more crashes when they knew their friends were watching.  During this study, researches used a brain scanner that measured increased activity in the region of the brain that controls both reward processing and social information.

Dr. Laurence Steinberg, who oversaw the study, concluded that, “We’ve shown that just the knowledge that your friends are watching you can increase risky behavior. …The lesson is that if you have a kid whom you think of as very mature and able to exercise good judgment, based on your observations when he or she is alone or with you, that doesn’t necessarily generalize to how he or she will behave in a group of friends without adults around.”

Meanwhile, other research has shown that the brain is not fully developed until the mid-20’s.  Additionally, nearly every study has shown that the “goal of adolescence” is a quest for identity-formation and autonomy.  Combining these three factors (perceived peer pressure, the still developing brain, and the quest for self-identity), it should serve as no surprise that a teenager’s peer exert great influence on him or her.  While teenagers are on their quest to discover their own identities, they walk the line between being unique while not setting themselves apart from their peers, thus becoming a target for bullying or harassment.  As peers exert such influence upon each other on an individual level, it is necessary to recognize the peer-group is greatly influenced by the media.

Here are a few suggestions to help your teenager(s) combat Peer Pressure:

  • Help him discover his identity in Christ in practical ways.  Don’t be overbearingly spiritual, but be intensely practical about helping your son or daughter connect daily life with God’s purposes for him.
  • Get to know your kids’ friends.  This one’s pretty obvious, but make an effort to really get to know them.  Ask them questions and really listen to them, not as a spy, but as an adult who wants to understand them and have a Christian influence on them too.
  • Be patient.  Your kid WILL make dumb decisions, if he hasn’t yet… just wait.  Don’t be too harsh, but don’t brush it off by saying, “He couldn’t help it, it’s his friends’ fault because his pre-frontal cortext isn’t fully developed yet!”
  • Model taking responsibility for your own actions.  If you’re constantly making excuses, your kids will do the same thing.
  • Pray for your kids and with your kids.  It’s good to hear mom or dad say, “I’m praying for you,” but it’s another thing for them to actually pray with you about something your nervous about or struggling with.
What nuggets of insight do you have to add?  How are you helping teenagers win the battle over Peer Pressure?

What Can We Learn From the 2011 Teen Choice Awards?

The Teen Choice Awards were two weeks ago, but I just got pointed to the winners today through an article by Jonathan McKee, where he has an excellent post all about this year’s awards.

Here’s a complete list of winners, below are the awards that stand out to me:

Choice Movie Actor — Romantic Comedy
: Ashton Kutcher, No Strings Attached

Choice Movie Actor — Comedy: Justin Timberlake, Bad Teacher

Choice Movie Actress — Comedy: Cameron Diaz, Bad Teacher

Choice Vampire: Robert Pattinson

Ultimate Choice Award: Taylor Swift

Top Winners:

  • 6 Wins: Harry Potter (this includes both “Deathly Hallows” Parts 1 & 2 combined.) Wins include Movie of the Summer, Movie – Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Movie Actress, Movie Star, and Movie Villain.
  • 6 Wins: Taylor Swift. This includes the “Ultimate Choice Award” in addition to awards for Choice Female Artist, Choice Female Country Artist, Choice Country Song (“Mean”), and Choice Breakup Song (“Back to December”), and Choice Red Carpet Fashion Icon.
  • 5 Wins: Twilight Series.  This also includes Robert Pattinson’s win as “Favorite Vampire” (seriously, there’s a category for that!), which simply highlights how popular vampires and fantasy has become to today’s teens.
  • 5 wins: The Vampire Diaries.  See what I mean about this whole vampire thing?  I’ve never watched the show myself, but from what I seen (a few minutes here, a website there, etc.) it’s a pretty sexualized show.
What Can Parents & Youth Workers Learn:
  1. Your kids are either sneaking into movies you don’t want them seeing, or you have looser standards than the people who rate movies “R.”  Think about it: Ashton Kutcher wins favorite actor in a romantic comedy for “No Strings Attached,” a movie all about casual sex between two friends who want the pleasure without the commitment.  Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake with favorite actress/actor in a comedy  for the movie “Bad Teacher” which begins its self-description (on its website) by saying, “Some teachers just don’t give an F.”  Do you set media restrictions for your kids?  Do you know what parameters your kids’ friends have?  Don’t feel the need to stalk your kids, but if you aren’t monitoring what they’re watching and listening to then I guarantee you they’re seeing things you probably don’t want them to see.
  2. Vampires are still “in”… and probably will be for a while.  Twilight, Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf, etc.  Vampires and other fantasy stories (aka: Harry Potter and the like) provide a great opportunity for writers to allegorize what they are seeing or experiencing.  Look for opportunities to ask your kids “Why do you think vampires are so trendy?” and hear them out.  Encourage them to think about it if they haven’t already, and then follow up with them after they’ve had a few days to think about it.
  3. There’s so much to be said for Taylor Swift.  For the most part, she’s kept herself pretty clean and controversy-free.  She dresses well enough to get the “Red Carpet Fashion Icon Award,” but she doesn’t do photoshoots (that I know of, at least) for Maxim or other “Mens Magazines.”  Her music is simple and clean and tons of teenagers identify with what she’s singing about, which is why she’s so huge.  But at the same time, she seems to jump from one bad relationship (she dated John Mayer… seriously, she should’ve seen that one coming!) to the next to the next, which might be why she’s able to write the “Best Breakup Song.”  Talk to your kids about Taylor – hold up what she’s done well, and talk about why they think she might swing from relationship to relationship.  When security and self-worth is found in anything other than in our relationship with Jesus Christ then we might be “filled” for a while, but only Christ gives lasting hope and contentment.
Did you watch the Awards?  What stuck out to you from the show?  Especially if your a teenager, I’d LOVE to hear from you what you think about both the Award show in general and some of my thoughts in particular…

Favorite iPhone Apps for Youth Ministry (so far)

After having a Motorola Droid for almost two years (which I really liked, by the way), I finally got an iPhone about three weeks ago… and it really is everything it’s cracked up to be.  As a Youth Pastor I really don’t like being tied to the office in order to be productive and get things done.  Ministry should be much more about people than about administration and to-do lists… but if you’re not organized then your ministry to people will suffer.

I either had most of these apps on my Droid or found them through different blog posts similar to this one, so I thought I’d contribute since a lot of those blog posts seemed a little dated.  Here’s my list of the best iPhone Apps that I’m using and I thought they might be helpful to share:

UPDATE (11/12/12): I just wrote a new post listing 15 iPad apps that are great for those of us in ministry.  Follow the link above to check it out.  Most of the apps below are still on my iPhone and being frequently used (except for Google Plus, that was a total bust).  

Evernote  Evernote is a great way to keep a bunch of information readily available.  Working on a youth group event?  Download Evernote onto your phone and your computer and you’ll be able to access all your notes wherever you are.  It’s free and everything syncs up through the internet automatically.  There are tons of features to take advantage of (voice notes, picture notes, sharing notes with other Evernote users, and more).  This has really helped me in organizing a recent Camping & Canoeing Trip.

Wunderlist  My short-term memory is terrible, so I really need to keep a to-do list going that I can easily add items to wherever I’m at, otherwise I’ll forget about it and it won’t get done.  Wunderlist, like Evernote, can be downloaded on both your phone and your computer and syncs up through the internet and is also free.  I really like the design and ease-of-use, but I wish there was a feature to be able to add items to iCal or Google Calendars through Wunderlist while setting the due date.  Maybe that’s coming in a future update, who knows?

Dragon Dictation  I try to keep from texting while driving and am usually fine with being slow to repsond to text messages.  But there are times when you’re on the go and really want to get details hammered out or whatever and you’re tempted to text while driving.  Dragon Dictation allows you to speak your message into your iPhone and it translates it into text on your screen.  I’ve found it’s probably 85% accurate, but if you’re a clearer speaker than I am then you’ll be golden.  You can easily edit mistakes and choose to either Email, Send to Facebook or Twitter, or simply Copy the text so you can paste it somewhere else.  I don’t write emails with it, but it’s great for quick responses to text messages while you’re on the go.

Accordance Bible Software  If you use Accordance on your Mac then you’ll LOVE having it on your iPhone.  Want to do some sermon/lesson prep while you’re waiting for your car to be repaired, no problem.  Download the app, enter your username/password, and download any of the Bible, Commentaries, Reference Books or whatever else you have on your computer.  You can easily download and delete whatever books you want so you can use them wherever you are.  One of the greatest things is it still gives you the automatic parsing for Greek and Hebrew texts and you can open up an additional pane so you can reference two Bible at the same time (or have a Bible and a commentary open).  I know people wouldn’t think I’m using my phone to do exegesis in church if I used it during our Senior Pastor’s sermons, but I’ve been tempted a few times…

Bible by YouVersion  By far this is the best Bible app if you don’t have Accordance.  Tons of translations available for free, you can bookmark any verse for future reference, this is just an overall homerun.  If I didn’t like all the nerdy features of Accordance I’d absolutely have this one.  I encourage all my youth group students to download this onto their phones and they love it too.

WordPress for iPhone  The WordPress app is way better for iPhone than for Android.  It’s incredibly easy to maintain your website, moderate comments, and add a short post if you want.  If you have a WordPress site then you really should have this app.

PowerDocs  This is a great (and cheap!) app that lets you easily access all your Google Documents.  I’ve found Google Docs to be a great way to collaborate on youth group events with my youth leaders, brainstorm future lesson plans, and a million other things.  This app is easily worth the buck it will cost you.

Motion X GPS Drive  One of my favorite features about my Droid was Google Navigation was free and super easy to use… this was almost a deal-breaker for me switching to the iPhone.  I know where a lot of my students live, but I don’t know where all of them live and I don’t always know the best way to get there from where I am.  Motion X is only a dollar!  Sure, you have to pay a monthly fee if you want voice commands (“Turn left ahead”), but if you can have your phone somewhere you can easily see it then you can just follow the turn by turn navigation for only one dollar… how do you beat that?  It also syncs up with your contacts, so you can just type peoples names in and if you have their address in your phone you’re good to go.

Facebook  I have this last and won’t really comment much here because it’s such a “duh” it barely belongs on the list, but if I didn’t list it then I’d probably hear about it.

Google + The jury’s still out on what will happen with Google + (it looks promising but I highly doubt it will overtake FB), but here’s the link to download that app if you want it too.

As I said above, I’ve only had my iPhone for three weeks, so please let me know what I’m missing!  What iPhone apps would you add to this list?

EBC Camping & Canoe Trip: Aug. 14-15, 2011

We're going canoeing!!! (sorry, no elephants allowed)

Pastor Mike and a group of adults will be leading a youth camping & canoe trip to Brownfield, Maine on Sunday Aug. 14 through Monday the 15th.  We’ll leave right after church on Sunday, set up camp, and then Monday morning we’ll break camp to canoe down the Saco River.  We should return back to EBC around 7:00pm on Monday.

Here’s the essential info:

  • Cost: $60 due by Tuesday, Aug 9th (checks made out to EBC with “Canoe trip: name” in the memo line)
  • Where: Woodland Acres Campground in Brownfield Maine
What you should bring: (please remember we’re only camping out for one night, so don’t go overboard packing too much stuff)
  • Clothes to wear monday (duh, but I need to list it)
  • Swimsuit & towel (girls, one-piece suits or modest tankini-style suits please)
  • Sunblock & Bug Spray (I’ve heard the black flies can be brutal along the Saco River, so it’s worth it to buy the good bug spray)
  • Sleeping Bag & Pillow
  • Water bottle and any snacks you might want
Everyone must turn in the following Permission & Medical Release form before we’ll let you leave the church with us on Sunday, Aug. 14th.  If you’ve paid but don’t turn in this Form you still won’t be able to come, so don’t forget to turn it in ASAP.

College Transitions are Tough for Youth Pastors too…

I recently celebrated my sixth year as a youth pastor, all at the same church.  What that also means is this year’s graduating class were just entering Junior High when I started – that makes them the first class I’ve “cycled” through.  Obviously, graduation is tough every year and I feel a sense of loss whenever students graduate, go off to college… but this year is especially hard because these students have been my Guinea Pigs for six years.  They’ve seen my best and my worst (including my first youth group ever when I decided to try teaching them a song in Hebrew.  I haven’t tried that one again!).  They’ve made me want to quit and made me vow that I would never ever ever leave because I couldn’t imagine leading a different youth group.  But now I’m looking at the roster this year, and their names aren’t on it.

In some ways, I feel a hint of what parents probably feel upon graduation (just a hint of it!): “Did I do enough to get them ready for college?” “Did I teach them everything they need to know?” “Do they really know how much I love them?”  I’m not a very emotional guy and I don’t get teary very easily, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this is an emotional transition for me.  It’s tough to imagine youth group without them, and that’s not anything against former graduating classes or against the students who I still have in youth group this year.  It’s just weird… I’ve never had youth group without these students and I’m going to miss them.

In many ways, when I look at these young men and women I see my strengths and weaknesses in them.  The old saying “More is caught than taught” is all too true.

Students, if you take the time to read this, I hope you always remember the impact you have made in our youth ministry.  I’m sincerely sorry for the times I’ve let you down, but I hope you remember Crosswalk: Walking towards the Cross is the only way to truly navigate through life without getting “run over.”  Sure, you’ll get run over and face trials of many kinds, maybe even persecution (if you never face persecution then that should be a warning flag for you), but walking towards the cross of Christ is truly the only way to eternal life.  Remember “I’m Third” (Jesus, Others, You).  Remember the Church is your spiritual home, whether it’s EBC or another Bible-teaching Christ-centered church, this is where you belong.

Parents, you can trust Christ with your kids even despite the statistics we’ve all heard about college killing students’ faith.  God really is in control, even over atheistic anti-Christian professors.  Pray for your kids daily and make sure they know you are praying for them (but don’t tell them that you’re praying for them in a preachy, nagging way).  Love them, even when they get worse grades than they’re capable of or make terrible personal decisions… love them unconditionally with Christ’s redeeming love and give them grace.  Finally, know that just because your kids aren’t in youth group anymore that doesn’t mean I’ve written them off my prayer list and that I don’t want to help them and help you anymore.

Here are P.Mike’s Final Tips for College:

  1. Find a Christian Group on campus ASAP.  Don’t put it off, because if you wait too long and then visit you’ll probably feel like you’re an outsider and won’t go back.  Make seeking out relationships with other Christians one of your top priorities in your first week on campus.  Find out if there’s a Navigators or Campus Crusade group, or if one of the local churches has a strong college ministry for you to plug into.  Along with this, FIND A CHURCH and GO on Sunday mornings.  Everyone else is going to want to sleep in on Sundays, I get it, but wake up and go worship the Lord and get to know some of the older folk in the church who can invest themselves in you during your college years, you won’t regret it!
  2. Practice the Spiritual Disciplines!  If you aren’t reading your Bible and spending quality time in prayer then your faith will grow weak… that’s just how it works.  Martin Luther was once asked how he had enough time in his busy schedule to devote to prayer and he replied, “I’m too busy NOT to pray!”  You might want to think about keeping a journal (guys, it’s not a diary, don’t worry), it’s a great discipline that really helped me while in college.
  3. Seek out connections between what you’re studying and your faith.  Don’t disconnect what you’re learning in class and what you read in Scripture.  Ask hard questions.  Seek tough questions.  Don’t be afraid of paradoxes.  If something is true, it’s true because God made it that way.  What you learn could point to Christ, or demonstrate what happens without Christ, or could be a “mirror” reflecting Christ in a metaphorical way.
  4. Love God with your mind.  Don’t be lazy.  I’m a natural procrastinator, I think you all know that by now, so this one’s tough for me.  Don’t put off your studies, because if you do then they’ll pile up and it will be VERY difficult to catch up.  God gave you your brain so you could use it and discover wonderful things about his good Creation.
  5. Spend extra time in prayer when studying for exams.  I know this sounds weird because you’ll feel like you should cram, but this is also a good check-and-balance to make sure you give yourself enough time to study.  Don’t put off studying until the night before.  When your brain gets tired, take fifteen minutes to read some Scripture and take a walk outside meditating on God’s Word.
  6. Choose your friends carefully.  I know, I know, this is what everyone says.  Just remember your Vital Signs: Healthy Friendships build you up, Unhealthy ones tear you down.  Build up and be built up.
  7. Remember Christians don’t fall from grace, they fall into it.  You’re going to make some mistakes.  That’s not permission, it’s just a reality.  Remember that the Christian is a tension of: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1) and “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. …Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21, 24-25).  Seek faithfulness to Christ as much as you seek your next breath of air, but if you fall miserably on your face, do not believe the devils lies that you aren’t worth God’s grace and that you’ve always just been a big phony.  Fall into grace, not from it. 
  8. Don’t become a stranger.  Come visit us back home.  Let me know how I can be praying for you.  Send me a message telling me when you’re coming home, I’d love to buy you lunch or coffee and hear all about college.  I’m very proud of you and would LOVE the opportunity to reconnect with you.