Giving “Always-Online” Kids a Space to Breathe

This fall, we tried something that might seem a bit unusual for an evangelical youth ministry program. We set aside one night a month for high school students centered around a series of spiritual practices, such as Lectio Divina, the Labyrinth, or the Prayer of Examen.

Surprisingly enough, it worked.

Even though “Breathe Night” was largely my idea, I was easily the most surprised of anyone that it worked. And that is because, like many other youth ministry leaders, I often limit my imagination of what is possible to the “chocolate-covered spinach” approach to youth ministry:

Chocolate-covered Spinach

The “chocolate-covered spinach” model looks like this: First, draw the kids in with an exciting game or activity — the chocolate. Then, when you have their attention, follow that up with the teaching or lesson — the spinach that in some sense you believe will be good for their soul.

Fun + content = youth group night.

This “chocolate-covered spinach” model of youth ministry can be quite effective. It was the sort of youth ministry I experienced growing up, and I can’t say it didn’t work. But there are some definite limits to the “chocolate-covered spinach” approach:

First, by dipping our spinach in chocolate, we assume the gospel is not compelling enough to stand on its own. Theology at its finest inspires awe and wonder, rather than boredom or confusion. We patronize our kids when we assume they need the “living water” to be watered down with fun and games in order for them to get it. If there are glazed eyes in the teenage audience, it is probably because there is something wrong with the content, not the context.

Second, chocolate-covered spinach can totally miss the true value of games and other fun group activities. Through teamwork and shared experience, games are a great way of building community. But they often fail as a form of outreach, especially among older kids who have the time and freedom to do whatever they want. There is an element of pride in thinking we can be the “fun place” in the neighborhood; besides, the spiritual seekers who walk by our church everyday are not secretly wondering how good our dodgeball game is.

Third, the chocolate-covered spinach too easily assumes that what kids today need most in their spiritual formation is more information.Growing up as a “Millennial”, I experienced information overload from school, the media, and even from my church. Fortunately (and this was an advantage my generation had over the “Gen-X”ers), the answers to this information flood were a quick Google search away on a dial-up modem. For today’s youth, the “Digitals” who breathe wi-fi as if it was oxygen, the internet has gone from being a place of answers to being yet another information flood. If we want to serve our kids, we need to realize that they have already have a full plate of information to consume. The last thing they need from us is more spinach: what they need is a moment to digest it all.

The “Breathe Night” experiment

Riffing off a resource put out by our denomination, “Breathe Night” opens with worship and centers on a contemplative activity from church tradition.

Curious how the kids were connecting, I asked our two sophomore girls — who are both blessed with the spiritual gift of telling it like it is — what they thought of Breathe Night. The responses I got were a simple “good” and “it reminds me of camp, and I like camp.” Success.

In youth ministry and in life, there is no such thing as a miracle program or even something wholly original. Nonetheless, Breathe Night has been for us one more step away from the limitations of chocolate-covered spinach:

First, it does not patronize the kids. By giving them this space, it puts them in charge of their own spiritual biographies. Theologically speaking, we trust this works because of the influence of the Holy Spirit. If that is a bit too shaky a foundation for our modernist sensibilities, there are plenty of scientific studies supporting the idea of contemplation as good for the brain. Both Christians and non-Christians are welcome to the Breathe Night space, and by extending the invitation to both we underscore the idea that church is a place for all to experience God, not simply a place for fun and games.

Second, by prioritizing spiritual formation we actually put fun and games in their proper place. At the end of each Breathe Night is an informal time of snacks and hanging out, along with an invitation to join us next week for an activity that usually is more on the fun side of the spectrum. Like any meal where the entrée comes before dessert, putting the spinach before the chocolate seems to make more sense. In the merely strategic terms that help us think through how to “grow” a youth ministry, Breathe Night serves as outreach to the spiritual seekers, the low-hanging fruit.

Finally, Breathe Night provides that much needed space kids need to process today’s information overload. In today’s world of constant noise and fractured attention, the idea of pushing pause is subversive. One example: during a recent Breathe Night that utilized a labyrinth, students had space to write and journal while the rest of the group made it through the labyrinth. I have yet to see a sermon move the kids to write down quite this much. We ended up running late and so the leaders had to gently interrupt the sound of mad scribbling on paper.

Of course, the kids are not the only ones getting something out of Breathe Night. As a participant myself I can say each of the spiritual practices has left me feeling inspired and recharged — and I imagine this has been true for the other adult leaders who join in. Even if as a “Millennial” I did not spend my formative years in today’s information flood (I did not get my first smartphone until after college), I am still living in today’s world with all of its challenges. I suspect those of us who are “Generation X-ers”, “Baby Boomers”, or part of the WWII generations are all feeling some sort of fatigue from being always connected all the time.

Kids these days are finding God in the disconnect. Maybe it would be wise for the rest of us to follow their example.

Article cross-posted from Ravenswood Evangelical Covenant Church’s February 2015 newsletter. Also available on Medium and LinkedIn.

Giving “Always-Online” Kids a Space to Breathe

Church Leadership & Climate Change: a quick guide to action

I work “bi-vocationally” as an evangelical youth minister and as a faith-rooted climate change activist. In the latter, I am mobilizing young Christians to influence our senior church leaders to use their moral authority to support meaningful climate action.

Given this unique role, a number of my sympathetic—but perplexed!—colleagues in ministry have asked me this question:

What can we, as leaders of the church, do about climate change?

They assume I am some sort of a expert on the topic—and for a while I did too, until I opened my mouth and realized that all that was coming out was talking points and sound bites. While these quips have certain value for inspiring large audiences and time-strapped leaders, they are not necessarily helpful for navigating the complexities of church ministry.

Recently, I have been brainstorming how to answer the climate question using the language of ministry—the sort of language that might actually take root within the church leadership imagination and blossom into original ideas and real projects. As an activist, this exercise has given me a fresh and exciting vision of what “climate action” consists of.

And so, as both an activist and a church leader, I want to share some of these ideas with you. To start, I am going to discuss the two modes available to the minister for speaking about climate change: the prophetic voice and the pastoral voice. These two voices will harmonize in three familiar ministries that can be applied to your church context.

The Prophetic Voice

The prophetic voice is a tradition that stretches back to the Old Testament. The prophets were men and women who looked upon their world with godly eyes. With this perspective, the prophets called out the present situation for what it was — and the future for what it might become.

The prophetic voice is a natural fit for talking about climate change. In a rush for cheap energy, we exploit God’s creation to extract the fuels that give us incredible power and speed. The present situation is such that scientific abstractions (e.g. carbon emissions, radiative forcing) are compounding with the rest of the world’s brokenness, as the global poor and marginalized are left most vulnerable to climate disruptions — despite contributing the least to the problem.

If we do not repent and change our ways, we risk a future where our civilization’s existence stands at risk. The planet we neglected to take care of threatens to take revenge on us through plagues like catastrophic flooding and crop failures. It is an ironic twist of justice that seems like it would fit snugly in between the writings of Amos and Obadiah.

While climate change might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, the moral obstacles are as old as the prophets. Human beings continue to succumb to greed, pride, and the false notion that there is nothing that actually can be done. We still act as if God is not real and alive in our time. Because of this, it is imperative that ministers of the Christian gospel reclaim the prophetic voice and speak out boldly against the sins that drive anthropogenic climate change.

The Pastoral Voice

Whether or not our job title includes the term “pastor”, many of us in church leadership embrace the pastoral dimensions of ministry. We hear ourselves in the call of Jesus to Peter: “tend my sheep.” Through projects of compassion and spiritual formation, we speak with the pastoral voice to join Christ in the work of leading people to streams of living water.

If it is prophetic to share the latest United Nations report on our Facebook wall, it is pastoral to join the Facebook group Climate Change: It’s Personal, where members “discuss the subjective, psychological, social, and spiritual experience of climate change.” If there is a climate report that might be of pastoral interest, it is the American Psychological Association’s recent analysis titled “Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change”.

The work of pastoral care requires that Christian ministers be in tune to a range of emotional crises and mental distresses — including those wrought by climate change. Not only will the physical impacts of climate change be a driver of stress, trauma and grief in the 21st century, but the mere idea of climate change has important psychological consequences as well. This is evidenced by the depression and hopelessness suffered by many scientists, the so-called “frontliners” who have wrapped their minds around what our civilization is spiraling towards. Within the broader environmentalist community, phenomena like solastalgia and ecoanxiety are not figments of the imagination but very real experiences for a growing number of people. (Trust me, I’m seeing it.)

My prayer for the church is that we can learn to come around all who are suffering, all who are yearning for hope, all whose problems have been trivialized by the rest of the world. In relation to the sheep of the 21st century, this learning can only happen if the shepherds grapple with understanding how climate change is causing the flock to stir.

The Prophetic and Pastoral in Harmony

I’m no choir director, but my understanding is that when two different voices come together in song, the aim is that they somehow make a harmony. When it comes to climate change, the prophetic voice and pastoral voice resonate best in the ministries of reconciliation, sanctuary and empowerment.


Sin deforms our relationships into destructive and hateful forms. Accordingly, the ministry of reconciliation is the work of joining God “who reconciled himself to us through Christ” in navigating these relationships back to a place of goodness and wholeness.

When it comes to climate change, one of the most obvious relational fault line is the divide in our political spectrum. By a fluke of history, climate change has become a marker of cultural identity and partisan politics in the United States. The stereotype goes thus: if you’re a Democrat, you “believe” in climate change; if you’re a Republican, you don’t.

In fact, studies show that a person’s view on climate change is more strongly correlated with their political affiliation than their religious identity. This means that the divisions we see in Congress are also likely to be found in our pews.

Partisan politics may seem petty to a minister of the Christian gospel. After all, in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, Republican or Democrat. But we are not called to transcend the fray but rather to live among it, building bridges among a humanity prone to division. This works requires the sincerity and objectivity of the prophetic voice, but also the compassion and patience of the pastoral voice.


The world can be a threatening and dangerous place. For millennia, people have found refuge in spaces meant to house the sacred — in Latin, sanctuarium — so that the word sanctuary has come to mean “a place of safety.” As climate-related natural disasters increase and some parts of our civilization perhaps even destabilize, the ministry of sanctuary is all the more necessary for church leaders to consider.

The ministry of sanctuary is clearly pastoral: it is providing a space for peace and order in the midst of chaos and brokenness. But in a world affected by climate change, sanctuary must also be prophetic: it will require foresight to see the challenges ahead and be ready when disaster strikes, instead of passively waiting until after and too late.

Of course, not every church has a sanctuary building, nor does every church find itself in a community where these sort of climate-related emergencies are a realistic threat. If we expand our imagination, however, we can think of the ministry of sanctuary as directing our financial assets through our missions and international relief agencies, in order to respond to the increase in humanitarian disasters worldwide.


Climate dread is the overwhelming fear many feel when contemplating worst-case climate scenarios. Climate denial, on the other hand, is the categorical rejection of climate change as a reality.

While seemingly opposite, climate dread and climate denial have a common obstacle: the belief that there is nothing that can be done about climate change. Climate dreaders see planet-wide catastrophe as inevitable, either because they think we have already reached the “tipping point” or because they cannot imagine how the political coalition required to halt climate change will ever form.

On the other hand, climate deniers usually are not greedy, inhumane, or dumb — despite the stereotypes. Rather, most climate deniers have not been presented with adequate solutions to the problem. When they realize that their ability to do good is not enough to solve the problem, they mentally convince themselves that the problem is not as big as it seems. (In psychology 101, this is called cognitive dissonance).

Empowerment can play a key role in overcoming this obstacle. By giving people a sense that there is something they can do about climate change, we can help them cope with the problem or perhaps even admit to its reality. The ministry of empowerment requires using the prophetic voice to point the way forward and the pastoral voice to encourage others on that journey.

An urgent call

photo-1413977886085-3bbbf9a7cf6eI have outlined two ways of speaking about climate change — prophetically and pastorally — which intersect in the ministries of reconciliation, sanctuary, and empowerment. My hope is that these categories are specific enough to give you a vision for your own leadership, yet open enough to apply to any context.

Perhaps, even with this practical way forward, you don’t see climate change action as a priority for your ministry. Let me remind you that climate change is set to be one of the defining issues of the 21st century, shifting the ground we journey on — figuratively and literally. Many institutions, from Wall Street to the Pentagon to subsistence farmers in Malawi, are aware of this and reconsidering their own strategic priorities in light of what is being called the “new normal”.

We as church leaders must begin to think ahead and prepare for the various socio-cultural impacts climate change will bring to our world and our work. Otherwise, we risk being leaders of a church that — much like as we saw in the 20th century — will find itself playing catch-up to the present, struggling to be “relevant” and “contemporary”.

And so I beg you to take these considerations to heart — if not for the sake of the planet, for the sake of your ministry.

May God find us faithful.

Cross-posted on Medium and LinkedIn Pulse.

Church Leadership & Climate Change: a quick guide to action

BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

Like most historical figures of the early 19th century, Hannah More is not someone I thought I would be bringing up in casual conversation. That changed soon after I started reading Karen Swallow Prior’s biography of this remarkable author, educational leader and slave-trade abolitionist.

I had heard positive buzz about how “Fierce Convictions” was a quality book, researched with academic rigor yet presented in engaging prose. However, as my interests do not include Victorian-era England, a biography about the so-called “first Victorian” Hannah More wasn’t likely to wind up on my to-read list. What eventually pushed me to grab the book for myself was when I registered for an intensive course on Christian Education and Formation at North Park Theological Seminary, and one of the pre-reading requirements was “a biography on someone who made an educative/formative impact on society.”

In terms of fulfilling that course requirement, Fierce Convictions succeeded. To offer a snapshot of what can be found in the book about education: as a child, More had a unique educational journey, living in a time when views towards female education were impoverished but nonetheless having the fortunate advantage of being raised in a family of educators. More grew up to be a educator herself with an approach to teaching that perhaps is as refreshing today as it was back then, an approach exemplified by her warning to fellow educators: “Do not fancy that a thing is good merely because it is dull” (p. 27). Yet, More’s greatest legacy within education was perhaps the numerous “Sunday schools” she established with her sister Patty. These schools brought in thousands of poor children who simply wanted to be literate, Sunday being the only day the kids had off from farming or other labor.

However, More was not just a leader in education. Within London high culture and beyond, she made a name for herself as a playwright, poet and author. For the uninitiated, Prior does a great job of explaining how More’s various works fit within More’s life and English society. My interest in More was piqued to the point of wanting…well, more More. For those of us interested in further reading, perhaps the only thing lacking here was an annotated bibliography that mapped out which of More’s works are actually timeless and which are better left for the scholars.

What has got me talking about More the most was her moderate-yet-effective politics. For example, she used her celebrity to play a major role in the abolitionist movement commonly associated with the evangelical parliamentarian William Wilberforce. More never quite identified as evangelical and remained committed to the established Church of England, and in so doing proved that ideological purity is not prerequisite for making a positive impact in society. The 21st century reader will rightfully disagree with More on a number of her sensibilities that were shy-of-progressive, such as the role of women in society or her beliefs towards class (and in these cases, Prior does a good job explaining More without excusing More). Nonetheless, the Hannah More portrayed in Fierce Convictions exemplifies the sort of bridge-builder and pragmatic leader who we could use more of in our world today.

Chapter 12, “Burdened for the Beasts”, outlines More’s concern for animals subjected to cruelty. It is unclear why there is an entire chapter dedicated to this topic (as Prior admits, “animal welfare was never a central focus of [More’s] work” p.195). Despite the importance of the issue both then and today, readers in a time crunch can pass over this chapter without interrupting the narrative flow of the biography.

With that caveat, I can sincerely recommend the whole of Fierce Convictions — not only as an enjoyable read, but as what appears to be a well-researched portrayal of a historical figure who certainly deserves more fanfare than we have given her.

Review cross-posted on

Update: Dr. Prior called me out on my one point of critique. I’ll let her have the last word here.

BOOK REVIEW: “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist”

BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

51tLSKtnqNLI purchased “What Can We Do? Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience” out of a sustained interest in the intersection of religion and public life (professionally, I split my time as the youth minister of an evangelical church on the north side of Chicago and also as the communications assistant for a movement of faith-based climate change activists). I was pleased to see the authors, David Livermore and Terry Linhart, write what I believe to a sorely-needed resource: a practical guide for youth groups aspiring to “change the world” beyond short-term mission trips and polarizing politics.

The meat of the book are 9 chapters on various contemporary issues — such as poverty, human trafficking, and the environment. Each chapter concludes with a list of practical ways a youth group could faithfully respond. These issue-based chapters are sandwiched by short reflections on global awareness and “glocal” service for Christian teenagers. At 167 pages, the book is purposefully concise; readers interested in delving deeper into a particular subject should take advantage of the “Resources” section at the end of each chapter.

I majored in global studies & conflict transformation for undergrad, so most of the issues discussed in this book I had already studied in-depth. Rather than new knowledge, the value of the book for me was seeing complex issues distilled into their most important points relative to youth ministry (I sometimes forget teenagers don’t need every piece of information floating around in my head before they can carry the pain of the world in their hearts). As someone actively engaged in youth ministry with an eye toward doing justice, there were times I found the book encouraging — for example, I was recently feeling disappointed about how a particular outreach program wasn’t bringing in the sort of numbers one would expect, when I was reminded that we don’t do it just for the numbers but because “youth groups who emphasize outreach have higher levels of social and ethnic diversity in their groups” (p. 109).

One important critique: when Dave and Terry discuss climate change, they sheepishly say “we…don’t believe global warming and climate change are certainties” (p. 83). By framing the issue in this way, the authors mistakenly assume climate uncertainty is a question of reality rather than severity. By suggesting that Christians should “continue to probe the science on this” (p. 84), the authors convey an irresponsible lack of urgency and miss a valuable opportunity to invite youth pastors to help students understand how the media and other cultural forces shape how scientific fact is interpreted.

Although I have not yet had an opportunity to use this book with students, I think it’d make a satisfactory small group guide for any youth mission leadership team. Besides being a good read for all youth ministers to get up to date on important global issues, it also serves as a helpful reference book for the office bookshelf — although, given the nature of our rapidly changing world, there might be need for a 2nd edition sometime in the next 10 – 15 years.

(Another good book to add to the same office bookshelf would be Mae Elise Cannon’s Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, a more encyclopedic and comprehensive discussion of contemporary issues, written for Christians of all ages.)

Review cross-posted on

BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

Historic “Clean Power Plan” Announced: What America Is Doing and What YECA Already Did

Today, Administrator Gina McCarthy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the proposed Clean Power Plan for existing power plants. Less than a year after President Barack Obama promised cuts in domestic carbon as part of his Climate Action Plan, the reduction standards released today are aguably the Obama Administration’s most significant climate action to date.

As a young evangelical who, as part of my Christian discipleship and witness, is working to encourage our national leaders to act swiftly and responsibly on climate change, you can imagine I looked forward to today with at least a little bit of eager anticipation.

Read more of my thoughts for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action here.

Historic “Clean Power Plan” Announced: What America Is Doing and What YECA Already Did