Category Archives: Youth Ministry

Design, Ministry, Life, Learning

I recently graduated from the Austin Center for Design.

Just a month ago, I was siting at my desk, surrounded by boxes of design books and clothes and sparkhouse curriculum and office supplies as I packed up for my return to Minneapolis.

I’m back to working fulltime on sparkhouse projects again. Jesse Jack and I are continuing with Kites & Ladders, a company that came out of our work at AC4D that seeks to amplify the voices of people with autism. And I’ve got another project in my back pocket to bring together all this design stuff I’ve been living with all this theology stuff I’ve been doing for the last decade.

Because now when I talk theology, I can’t help but think about design theory and methods I’ve learned over the last year. (Externalize everything. Sketch ideas. Design with vs. design for. Develop empathy through ethnographic research. Iterate. Iterate. Did I mention iterate?)

And one place I’m excited to explore these ideas around theology and design is at The Summit, put on by The Youth Cartel in November. I’m one of the speakers, and I can’t wait to learn from everyone else who will be there.

Here’s a promo video they released with clips last year’s conference, and be sure to check out details for the rest of the event. (And the reduced Early Bird rate runs through mid-July.)

The Summit 2013 from The Youth Cartel on Vimeo.

Any chance I’ll see you there? 

What is “real beauty?” A response to the latest Dove campaign

As soon as I saw the latest video from Dove’s “Real Beauty” initiative earlier this week, I tweeted the link, saying I want to show it to every teen girl I know.

In the video, women sit in a curtained-off area and describe their appearance to an FBI-trained forensic sketch artist as he renders their portrait. But the video doesn’t stop here. Earlier in the day, these women had conversations with strangers (with no explanation why). These strangers then enter the room and go through a similar process—but instead of talking about themselves, they describe the women they conversed with that morning.

The result literally illustrates the women’s negative self-perceptions when the two different sketches are matched side by side.

This is part of a larger campaign Dove has been running to showcase “real beauty”—but not without controversy. And I agree—there’s plenty that’s not-quite-right with what Dove is doing.


I still want to show this to all the teen girls everyone I know. I want to watch it multiple times for myself.

Because it’s a chance for critical reflection. To talk about media and manipulation and motivations. To help young people become savvy about advertising. What is Dove selling here? How does it reinforce or conflict with other messages we hear around us?

Because body-bashing happens, and Dove’s campaign can spur conversation about about imago dei and what it means to be made in the image of God. The video isn’t perfect, and that’s why it shouldn’t stop us.

Because it’s a good reminder that our self-perceptions are skewed. And to reframe how we see ourselves in both theological and practical ways.

Because all of us are more beautiful than we think.

And we are more beautiful than Dove thinks…because we are more than beauty.

Teaching Wisdom

I just read a blog post written by Amy Jacober over on Theological Curves. She is a professor with a Ph.D. from Fuller Seminary and has written a book on practical youth ministry. In the post, she recounts an interview for a teaching position at an academic institution where the interviewer asked how she would teach in a way that would protect the faith of male students who don’t believe women should be in leadership roles in ministry.

I am grateful to be part of a faith tradition that has been ordaining women for decades and recognizing female leaders for even longer. But the question Amy reflects on has deeper implications and pops up in other variations across the church, so I wanted to share this paragraph that resonated deeply with me:

We do a disservice to young people when we refuse to pose controversial topics or present a variety of views as valid. We breed future ministers who fail in reflective practices for fear that their precious theological glass houses will shatter. We dishonor God when we treat young people as if they are pathetically fragile in the name of preservation of faith. Assuming these same young people are created in the image of God… That god too is fearful and unreflective.


I am not interested I dismantling faith. I am however interested in helping young people, men and women, to be in ministry for the long haul able to draw strength in the face of diversity and new ideas.


Read the rest here.

This Post is Not About Davy Jones

Facebook and Twitter streams reflected people responses and sadness over the death of Davy Jones on Wednesday. While I recognize that a 66-year-old music icon’s passing reminds us (especially children of the ’60s) of our mortality, I struggle with the amount of attention it’s getting.

Because when I woke up this morning, I heard this report from Syria on NPR:

After pummeling the Baba Amr neighborhood with tanks and rockets for nearly a month, the Syrian government pledged yesterday to, quote, “cleanse the area.” And that’s what appeared to be happening today. Activists say soldiers are going house to house, arresting all males over the age of 14. This morning, activists say soldiers lined up 10 men and shot them, execution style.

14-year-olds are reportedly being rounded up in an effort to quell the rebellion. Those boys would be high school freshman in the United States.

Soldiers are executing people. Despite repeated efforts, the the Red Cross has been turned away, and many Syrians are without food, water, electricity, and medical care.

The crisis in Syria is overwhelming, the politics are complicated, and I don’t claim to understand what’s happening. I don’t know what I can do to help the people of Syria.

But I’m paying attention. And I’m thinking about how life is fragile. And I’m praying for resolution in Syria.

Even if it would be easier to change the topic to Davy Jones’ legacy.

Creativity (and a Crowdsourced Bibliography)

Princeton Youth Forum banner

Right now, I’m at the Princeton Youth Forum in Santa Barbara, which features some really smart people who are leading thinkers in youth ministry and beyond. Last night, I gave a presentation on how design and design thinking methods can help youth ministers address the challenges (big and small) we face in our ministries. It’s drawn from the practices we use to create sparkhouse resources, as well as my experiences in ministry.

I’m posting a growing bibliography from my talk at Some other forum attendees will also be posted highlights and sources from the lectures and electives they go to, so we’ll crowdsource a more complete bibliography from the event. And if you have other references you’d like to add, just let me know!

I speak again on Wednesday afternoon, or if you want to catch it some other time, I’ll be leading a couple workshops at the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza and co-presenting with Tony Jones at the Princeton Forum in April.

Immerse Journal Interview

Hey, that's me!

I’ve been honored to write for Immerse, a youth ministry journal that offers a great mix of theologically deep, thought-provoking, and practical articles by some great thinkers and leaders in the youth ministry world today.

When I was at the National Youth Workers Convention in Atlanta back in November, I sat down with Aaron Mitchum for an interview about my article, “Imagination, Tinkering and Theology: Youth as Theologians” (Jul/Aug 2011). The interview was just posted to their site last week, and you can hear it here.

And then check out the Jan/Feb 2012 issue to see my next article, “Encountering the Messy Midrash.” And then subscribe–or give a subscription to your favorite pastor or youth minister. Because it’s a great publication. 🙂

Symposium Ticket Winners! (And one more chance to enter)

Thanks to everyone who commented and helped get the word out about the Extended Adolescence Symposium on Twitter and Facebook. Three things:

1. Winners!
I just drew names from those who posted comments, and congratulations to Jim and Gavin Richardson. I’ll see you in Atlanta!

2. One more chance
If you didn’t win, don’t despair. There one more ticket up for grabs on the sparkhouse blog.

3. Breakfast
It’s always more fun to know a few folks before the conference gets started, so I’m thinking about putting together a little meet-up for breakfast before the Symposium starts. Anyone else interested? Or have recommendations near the Atlanta Marriott Marquis? (Thanks, Andy Cornett, for the inspiration!)

Free Stuff! Extended Adolescence Symposium Tickets (giveaway)

Extended Adolescence Symposium Banner

As a young adult who works with you and develops educational resources, I’ve been intrigued by the changing nature of adolescence. All I have to do is walk into the youth room on Wednesday nights to see first-hand that puberty is starting earlier for many kids than it did just 15-20 years ago. On the other end of the spectrum, I know a number of college graduates who have moved back into their parents’ homes and don’t exhibit many of the traditional signs of being an adult.

The path to adulthood looks much different than it did a few decades ago. And this shift has serious implications for youth ministry and how we navigate the realities of adolescent culture and the call of discipleship.

That’s why I’m excited to go to the one-day Extended Adolescence Symposium, featuring a dialogue (and probably some debate!) between Dr. Robert Epstein and Dr. Jeffrey Arnett. Dr. Epstein and Dr. Arnett come from distinctly different perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of this shift in adolescence, and facilitator Dr. Kara Powell will help us consider what it means for people in ministry. The event is being put on by The Youth Cartel, and it all goes down Monday, November 21, in Atlanta (after the National Youth Workers Convention). 

Do you want to join me?

Since I work for sparkhouse and we’re one of the event sponsors, I have two (2) tickets to give away (worth $100 each). Two ways to enter:

  1. Leave me a comment explaining why you want to go to the Symposium.
  2. Mention this giveaway on Facebook or Twitter, and then leave a comment to let me know you did.

(Comments must be posted by 11:59 pm CDT on Thursday, November 3. I’ll randomly draw two (2) winners and post them on Friday, November 4. Please note: This giveaway is for the tickets only—you are responsible for your own transportation and lodging.)

Want to know more? Check out the video on the Symposium Kickstarter project.

Miss Representation (in Youth Ministry)

Miss Representation 3 minute Trailer 8/24 from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

I just saw the trailer for Miss Representation, a documentary that premiered at Sundance Film Festival this spring. The film looks at the media portrayals of what it means to be a woman, and how these messages hold women back from becoming strong leaders in American society. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I think it would be really interesting to watch, especially in context of youth ministry.

I know a lot of women who are pastors and youth ministers. But just flipping through the program book for a youth ministry conference I recently attended, I discovered men outnumbered women at least 3-to-1 in the speaking/presenting line-up.

Yes, many people across the church (including the leadership staff for that conference I attended) are working to lift up underrepresented voices. But we have a long way to go, especially since our actions send messages to young people in our congregations about the place and value of women in the body of Christ.

Which is why Miss Representation intrigues me. They’re asking what we can do to make sure girls don’t think youth, beauty, and sexuality are all they have to offer the world. Seems like that’s a question the church and youth ministries should be asking too.

Has anyone else watched this film? What do you think?

(Want to see more? Check out the extended trailer.)
(Video HT Cathy Zielske)

Tools for Schools (and Churches)

I loved this Fast Company article about Tools for Schools, a program that integrates design-based problem solving into the daily curriculum.

Students were challenged to design the classroom of the future. In their classes, they researched and tinkered with desk, chair, and locker designs. They prototyped with pipe cleaners and cardstock, explored material costs, and put together concept pitches.

I especially love two aspects about this program.

  1. Students were given a meaningful project that’s tangible and more relevant to their everyday lives than a standardized test.
  2. The teachers and partnering businesses took seriously the students’ work and discovered innovative ideas they may not have come up with on their own. Like this desk with a backpack hook and interchangeable inserts for different classes:

From the article:

“Clearly, the project showed that kids as young as 13 can grasp the rigorous process that designers undertake. It also reflected the fact that students are enthusiastic learners — of math, science, and writing — when those subjects are integrated into a project they care about.”

What would it look like to invite our faith communities to design the worship space of the future? What would it look like to rethink how we compartmentalize our ministries? What would it look like to empower and learn from the young people in our congregations?

Don’t miss the article and the photo gallery.
(image: Fast Company)