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

Now available for download: “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay”

NEW VoOM coverA little under two years ago, my professor challenged me to find a way to decimate some of the ideas I had developed in a senior thesis.

A little over a year ago, I challenged myself to think bigger than a blog post. 1,000 words every couple of weeks was neat, but what if I strung those together? What could I come up with? Could I do 10,000 words? 20,000 words?

And then I decided to put those two challenges together. The final result, and my excuse for not blogging lately, is now live and available for download at Amazon.com.

There is a genuine sense of accomplishment in just bringing “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay” to fruition. The thing, for better or worse, is littered with running metaphors, but I have to use one more: it feels a bit like completing my first half-marathon. Who cares about the final time. I crossed the finish line, and that is great in and of itself.

But, of course, I would love it if people were to read this essay. If they were to discuss it, critique it, embrace it, share it. I believe the ideas in this essay matter, and I do not think I could have succeeded in finishing this essay if it was not for this belief, however naive this belief may ultimately turn out to be.

So, towards that end, I am offering the essay for free over the next couple of days. (Soon, it will have to be priced at $3.00, to appease the Amazon.com gods and additionally help pad my rather lean wallet). If you download it for free and read it and say, “hey, that’s great, wish I paid the poor kid something for this” I would love it if you went back online and gifted a copy to a friend.

If you feel led, “four star” or “five star” reviews also warm my heart. Heck, I’ll appreciate one or two star reviews if you read the full thing and take me seriously.

What’s this essay about, you ask? Well, according to my publisher (aka me):

When it comes to culture, ethnicity, lifestyle, ideas, or just people in general, American Christians in the 21st century have found themselves caught in an unprecedented flood of diversity. Rather than something to escape from or merely tolerate, this sudden rush of strange and new things should be seen as an exciting gold rush with which we can enrich both our individual lives and our lives together. To join in on this adventure, however, we need to equip ourselves with the proper tool — “the virtue of open-mindedness.”

Author Kaleb Daniel Nyquist gives an account of the virtue of open-mindedness that is both personal and theoretical, theological and practical. It is a journey that meanders through the forests of Oregon, the streets of Chicago, the sidewalks of India, a Sunday School classroom, a Planned Parenthood clinic, and many hair-pulling trips to the university library. Mashing together ideas from Aristotle, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and even Jesus of Nazareth, he puts together a model of the virtue of open-mindedness that just might help American Christians (and whoever else cares to listen in) navigate our strange, beautiful, broken and interconnected world.

You literally have nothing to lose. Apologies for the aggressive sales pitch, but you are going to waste more time thinking about downloading it (or not) than actually downloading it.

Check it out here.

(By the way, if you don’t have an actual Kindle, don’t worry. Amazon.com has Kindle apps for your computer, tablet, internet browser and smartphone. Problem solved.)

Aside

The Economy of Attention

“Title” by Dude, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Licsense.
Photo Credit: Stephen Poff. Creative Commons License.

What if you had all the attention in the world? What would you do with all that attention?

(What do those questions even mean? Do they mean, “if I had everybody’s attention at my disposal” or do they mean “if I could give attention to everything I wanted to”?)

Quick economics lesson: economics is the study of a human behavior, taking as a starting point the scarcity of the factors of production necessary for humans to get what they want. The scarce factors of production studied by economics are labor, capital, and resources.

But if I may indulge myself in a thought experiment, what would our economic models look like if we factored into the mix of scarce factors, the factor of attention?

I mean, we talk about attention in economic terms already. We are often asked to pay attention. Attention deficit disorder is a thing. Information overload seems to be just another kind of surplus, something that sounds great from one perspective but, just like how a surplus of labor is really unemployment or a surplus of money is really just inflation, an information overload reduces our ability to think clearly, throws our minds out of equilibrium.

I am apparently not the first person to think of such an idea (thanks, Google, for reminding me that I am not as original as I thought I was). In 2002, Thomas Davenport and John Beck published a book called The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business, and in 2007 Richard Lanham came out with The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. There is a Wikipedia article on the Attention Economy — but all the sources cited are at least five years old.

Why Thomas, John and Richard and their readers stopped the conversation then and there is beyond me. Maybe because the years that followed were the years that Facebook and Twitter really took off, and they all signed up for accounts which they now are all distracted by (although, certainly those services underscore the fundamental importance of attention all the more!). Or maybe they just decided that attention, like entrepreneurship, is just another type of labor, just in the same way information is just another type of resource or perhaps even capital.

Can we have that conversation again though? It seems to me that the scarcity of attention is an important enough topic that it warrants, well, our attention.

How to Get Attention

It dawned on me on the other day that I am employed in the attention economy. Whether it is middle schoolers or influential public figures, I go to work each day trying to figure out how to influence people so that they pay attention.

I could probably write an entire post on how to get people’s attention, and it would probably get people’s attention. I could elaborate on the following tips and tricks:

Be quality. Be concise. If you have to go beyond 140 characters, write with the cadence of pop music, with plenty of lyrical hooks. Be visual. Be active. Be attractive. Use innuendo – reveal enough to spark their interest, conceal enough to keep them wanting more. Be loud. Be fussy. Be charming. Turn the lights off and on. Use suspense to your advantage. But don’t be vague or esoteric. Make lists. Make a sign. Get this guy to hold your sign. Make a list of guys holding signs. Be timely, not timeless. It is easy to get the attention of a narcissist – just make it all about them. Have you considered sending a notification?

It is important to realize, not all attention is the same. A single thing may capture a person’s entire concentration, or it may simply be a multitasker’s background noise. Attention may convey love, it may invade personal space. Attention may be given to a task of mental endurance, it may also be given to a distraction. There is a certain value in having the attention of the intended audience, and yet a different value in having the attention of an eavesdropper or a passersby.

Know what kind of attention you want + figure out how to get it = formula for success.

How to Pay Attention

The powers that be are going to want our attention, because our attention is productive. Sometimes we will get goods and services in exchange for our attention (fill out this survey, get entered into a sweepstakes to win an iPad mini) (here are some flowers, will you go out with me?). Sometimes we can’t help but pay a fleeting moment of attention (to a billboard on the interstate) (to that provocatively dressed individual).

But then there are some things that inherently are worth our attention, but have trouble asking for it (like buried treasure) (like the one with the shy smile, sitting across the room).

Mastering the art of paying attention is perhaps our best shot at making it in the world.

Know what you want to give attention to + figure out how to give it = formula for success.

At the after school tutoring program I work to coordinate, during a day where the middle schoolers were particularly rowdy, one of the tutors gave the youth a lesson in how to pay attention. “Keep your mouth quiet, look at me with your eyes, and listen to me with your ears.”

Hopefully when they are in high school, they will learn the advanced arts of paying attention: nodding their head with an occasional “mmhmm”, choosing to pursue those who are neglected, and asking responsive and appropriate questions.

Best after school tutoring lesson ever.

On Defense

There is a lot of noise out there, some of it competing for our attention, and some of it directed at others but we can’t help but be distracted by it. Some of the noise that comes emanates from really valuable stuff – friends and family and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities – but the timing is all off, the noise fractures our attention into worthless fragments.

In the rush to get attention and to give attention, we need to take an occasional breather. It sounds cliché, probably because it is common argument for anyone who is trying to get your attention, but we need to focus on the things that really matter. And to do that, we need to create the right kind of space.

I have a number of friends who have gone off to work at some sort of camp for the summer (I used to be one of them). They are off to work in places where cell phones don’t work and the news isn’t breaking, to create places that people enjoy coming to – not simply because they are fun, but because they are an escape.

These camps are defensive places, places where our thoughts can settle and the things that really do matter can rise to the top. We can give people, ideas, and tasks our undivided attention. For those who work there, they can experience the incredible thrill of doing one thing in one place for a long time – the feeling of having life flow.

What about the rest of us, those of us stuck in the city, or, rather, stuck in the routines and the noise? How are we to play defense?

I simply don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be one good, solid answer. I suppose I’ll have to give the question a little more thought.

On Devotion

Attention is ephemeral. Once you have it, you have to spend it. There is no bank, no warehouse, no armory in which attention can be stored for later use. People will have heard your point, listened to your song, done what you asked them to do. They are going to move on; you are now yesterday’s news.

But what happens when they come back? With no hand-waving, no yelling, no new signs, no external incentive of cash-back or a candy bar? Not because they are curious if you have anything new or novel or different, or because they are addicted, or because they want to squeeze a little bit more value out of what you already given, but, because, well, they just came back?

This is the phenomenon of devotion – a loyal and active (intentional) exercise of focus and dedication, directed towards either someone or something.

Devotion, in economic terms, is a kind of capital good. Devotion is durable, devotion is man-made, devotion can transform simple things into something incredible. If attention is a nail, a package, a steak, some gasoline, or a question, then devotion is a hammer, a forklift, a grill, a car, an encyclopedia.

Notice that we show devotion, we don’t pay devotion. Devotion, unlike attention, does not have an ephemeral, transactional quality. The one who shows devotion will remain devoted; the one who experiences devotion trusts that this time is not meant to be the last.

For these very reasons, devotion is powerful. The same powers that be that want our attention would kill for our devotion — if only they could. The problem is, there is no way they can get it. Because devotion is not transactional, no level of incentive (or degree of threat) could ever wrestle devotion away from a person.

If mastering the art of paying attention is actually our best shot at making it in the world, then mastering the art of showing devotion would seem to be an important part of not being overcome by the world. If we learn how to develop devotion, express devotion, appropriate devotion, we may actually end up being unstoppable.

What if you had all the devotion in the world? What would you do with all that devotion?

Will Work for Attention” by Stephen Poff, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

The Economy of Attention

A vision for neighborhood youth ministry

Confession: because of a lot of exciting projects I am in the middle of, I had decided to take April off from the blogging game.

Confession #2: I’m going to fail at that un-resolution. In addition to the knee-jerk response I wrote after the Boston Marathon bombings, I wrote a newsletter piece for Ravenswood Covenant, the church that I work at, that I think those of you who like what I write here might appreciate.

Confession #3: I am really, really excited for May. Stay tuned.

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

Mark 4:30-32

The imagery of a mustard seed parable has been helpful for me when it comes to understanding the sort of kingdom work that has been taking place among Ravenswood Student Ministries, work that has taken place not just over the past year but also before I came on as program coordinator.

I came to Ravenswood with my youth ministry background being almost entirely in camping ministry. Camp is a unique environment for spiritual formation – kids are there for a week or more, all distractions from the outside world are cut off, and a large and focused staff work to create a big experience. From this big experience comes the big stories of conviction, conversion and commitment.

Things are different at the corner of Damen and Ainslie. At best, youth come for a couple hours a week, but sometimes we see them only once or so a month. The outside world makes itself known, as we spend Thursday nights talking about the week’s highs and lows. Instead of an army of college students who have taken what often is a convenient summer job, we have a crew of 5th Quarter tutors and Thursday night leaders who all have to make certain sacrifices to be there consistently.

But because our presence is felt year-round, because our conversations are rooted in day-to-day issues, and because our love is so sacrificial, we have been effective in a way that (at the very least) complements the camp experience. If from camp comes big stories, then I believe here at Ravenswood Covenant that God has entrusted us with the small stories.

Small stories like the one night the kids actually listened to me talk about finding their identity in Christ. Or the 5th Quarter student who is learning to express himself musically for the first time. Or the Thursday night regular who is turning in her application to be a part of North Side Youth Collision’s discipleship program. Or the fifth grader who can’t wait till next year to join Ravenswood Student Ministries.

Some of the small stories are so small, they go unnoticed by myself and the student ministries team. But that’s because there is mustard seed logic at work here: we have faith in a kingdom that grows and becomes like the largest of all the garden plants. We do not know when these small stories will come to fruition: maybe it will be at camp, or maybe it will be when one of these students is in their mid-twenties and has hit rock bottom and all they can remember is that one happy time when a church cared unconditionally for them.

Perhaps then too, they will become part of a project so big that the birds can perch in its shade.

A vision for neighborhood youth ministry

Passion for the rest of us: a Moderate Manifesto

Somewhere along the way, in a polarized political system, “being passionate” and “having extreme views” have become more and more synonymous. Passionate moderatism sounds nearly as oxymoronic as compassionate conservatism did some years back as a Bush-era slogan. But conservatives can be compassionate, and I want to contend that moderates can be passionate.

A story

My high school US History teacher, the beloved-and-moustached rabble-rouser that he was, repeatedly told our class: “Be conservative. Be liberal. Be whatever, but whatever the case don’t be a boring ol’ moderate.” When former President Bill Clinton came to visit Mac High in order to rally support for Hillary’s presidential candidacy, I remember a number of my politically-minded friends saying how stupid it was to not join either party. “Why would anyone sacrifice their primary vote?”

When I went to register to vote, however, I could not bring myself to join any party. Perhaps I was torn between my conservative evangelical subculture and my liberal Pacific Northwest context. Perhaps it did not help that I was reading Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People for 12th Grade English Literature. The third parties were even more extreme and even less effective, and I could not register as an Independent because Oregon actually has an Independent Party and so I was, and still am, designated as “Not affiliated with any political party.”

(Interesting tangent: my first jobs out of high school would be helping non-profits use a particular piece of content-publishing software that Independent Party chair Sal Peralta had implemented but could no longer maintain because he was now the Independent Party chair. It just so happened that I had to use that same software for my journalism class.)

I did not feel like I was transcending the fray. Instead, I simply could not find a political ideology, much less a party, that matched my sense of society-level right-and-wrong. When that new-fangled-Myspace-called-Facebook would later ask me for my Political Views, I typed in “Moderate,” and, upon further tongue-in-cheek reflection on my own indecisiveness, added “…sort of.”

Moderate Manifesto

The state of things

It was not that I did not care. It was just that I did not know. My undergrad electives and eventually my major were, in many ways, about figuring out these strange and confusing things for myself. Surprisingly to myself, instead of falling towards either side, I found myself going more firmly to the center. If I was indecisively moderate in 2008, I was decisively moderate in 2012.

Sadly, I also came to realize, moderates are castigated by the Republican party. They do exist, but none of them are in power: Bob Inglis, Colin Powell, Jon Huntsman, Olympia Snowe, and back in the day Mark Hatfield. In 2012, Moderate Mitt was forced into playing a losing charade of being Right-wing Romney. The Democrats don’t have this problem: they welcome moderates, and their current standard-bearer is actually rather moderate himself. I do hope the GOP opens up towards moderates before the next election cycle, not because I am a party loyalist, but because I like having more than one choice at the ballot.

For that to happen, of course, moderates need to start causing a bit more of a ruckus.

Standing up is hard enough. You do not wish to offend anyone. Furthermore, as a moderate, it can often feel like standing up takes place on a tightrope. But if that’s where the common ground is, let’s be fine with that, because if we fall off we’ll end up in the safety net of common sense.

A Moderate Manifesto

There is some substance, I think, to being a moderate that is greater than simply adding up the numbers and finding the average between two sides. For the past many years, I have being trying to work out what being moderate means for me. I publish these ideas, like almost anything else I publish, not because I know I am right but because if I keep these to myself I will never have to face the possibility of being wrong.

With that said:

  1. Government exists because of the reality of public life.

    I don’t buy the liberal vision that we can govern our way into utopia, but neither do I feel comfortable with the conservative claim that government is a necessary evil. My starting point, as far as legitimate government, is this: just as individuals have worries and aspirations, groups also have worries and aspirations. Politics is one (but not the only) way we can address the worries and aspirations as a society-sized group.

  2. Opposed to big government or small government, government in the right amount.

    Government cannot solve all problems, nor would we want it to. But there are some things it does really well. And (take healthcare for example) there are some things it does only slightly better or slightly worse than the private sector, and while we can have a decent conversation about these things we need not go crazy as if it were a life-or-death situation.

  3. Cultural compatibility of government.

    Because the legitimacy of government is based in the reality of public life, the government system should be culturally compatible with the society it represents (i.e. there may be greater distribution of wealth in Sweden than the United States, but the Swedes also value the concept of lagom). In other words: there is no god-given, time-proof, platonic ideal or rationally supreme form of government.

  4. Let ideas be held in tension.

    If we do cultural compatibility in a multicultural society, there are going to be problems. 49%, or even 4.9%, of the population can have a legitimate concern worth listening to. The ideal character of any place, instead of being domination by some, should be participation by all. As much as it possible, a moderate seeks to achieve this.

  5. Delegate and trust.

    We trust doctors with our bodies (despite the reality of malpractice), we should be able to trust politicians with our societies (despite the reality of corruption). That said, being an expert in one area does not make one an expert in all. If the scientists say global warming is happening, or economists say a debt ceiling is a bad idea, or a minority group says some oppressive force is asserting itself upon their people, politicians should shut up and listen.

  6. Live up to our potential as a society.

    This might sound a bit backwards to American ears, but as a nation, we shouldn’t strive to be the “best in the world” but the “best that we can be.”  Competition is a good thing, but reckless comparison is destructive. We can focus on our own problems and potential and still celebrate the victories of others (with a healthy dose of good-hearted jealousy, of course).

  7. Do not find purpose in a political ideology.

    This is much a spiritual issue as a political one. Too many people, I fear, in the fragmentation of vacuous postmodern society, have traded their religions and other good convictions for the half-assed metanarratives that are contemporary political ideologies. As a moderate, I can tolerate (and perhaps even celebrate) the fact that you may be a Tea Partier or a Marxist or anything along those lines. But please, at the end of the day, be something more than that as well.

high wire 3” by Graeme Maclean, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Passion for the rest of us: a Moderate Manifesto