Category Archives: Youth ministry

New male contraceptive in development

Jeff, one of the people who is volunteering in our comprehensive sexuality education program this year, pointed me to an article on a new male contraception product now in development: gel is injected into the vas deferens, preventing sperm from leaving the testes. Preliminary trials with rhesus monkeys show minimal side effects with one hundred percent effectiveness. More on this new product, trade-named Vasagel, is available online here, from The Guardian.

One of the challenges of teaching comprehensive sexuality education in the past half decade has been trying to keep up with the many recent developments in contraceptives. As challenges go, that’s a pretty nice challenge to have.

Who’s your youth advisor?

This story from the Babylon Bee (a completely reliable source of news, and besides everything on the Internet is true), reveals the truth about the Dakota Avenue Christian Church’s youth program:

“Scandal erupted at Dakota Avenue Christian Church on Sunday, as it was revealed that beloved and long-standing youth pastor Blake Dickinson, who goes by the name “Rhino,” was actually just a homeless guitar player that had wandered into a service several years ago.

“An internal investigation revealed that Dickinson had been sitting on the corner of Dakota Avenue and First Street one summer morning, playing acoustic covers of Radiohead songs in hopes of scoring some change from passersby. Wandering into the church to ask if he could use the restroom, he was immediately assumed to be the new youth pastor, due to the guitar he was carrying, as well as his unkempt looks, Birkenstock sandals, and distinct patchouli scent.”

This raises the question: Who, exactly, is the youth advisor at the Dakota Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church next door?

New models of youth ministry

The old model of youth ministry — inward-focused intensive overnight experiences like cons or rallies, plus weekly youth groups focused on community-building — still serves a significant minority of youth in our congregations. We shouldn’t abandon it, but my observations seem to indicate this model is slowly declining. My guess is in our increasingly multicultural, market-fragmented world, we are no longer going to have one single model of youth ministry that will serve the majority of youth in our congregations.

Given that the era of one-size-fits-all youth ministry is probably over, what are some other possible models?

Continue reading

Easy face painting

Some of our high school youth youth advisors went to Kids Carnival today, the fun event organized by the University AME Zion Church as a way for people of different races and ethnicities to get to know each other a little better while having a good time. Our youth group offered to do a face painting booth. We lucked out in that Elaine, a high school senior from the Palo Alto Vineyard Church, joined us — she is a fine artist who has her own business doing face painting for kids’ birthday parties. We let her do all the hard designs (Ice Bear, a Death Eaters logo, etc.), and we used our own easy designs.

Our designs turned out to be easy enough that children can do them (we let some of the children who came to our booth use our paints to paint designs on each other) — yet they’re satisfying and look pretty good when you’re done. I’m posting them here in case you want to use them next time you do face painting in your congregation. Except where noted, our designs are meant to go on cheeks or backs of hands. We had copies of the designs where children could look at them and choose the one they wanted. One last suggestion: it is worth spending extra money for good face paints; we bought the cheap ones, but when Elaine let us try hers, we saw that they were far better.

Face Painting 1

Face Painting 2

Face Painting 3

Black Mountain trail camp

More and more, I’m coming to believe that if organized religion is going to help fix global climate weirdness, we have to get out of our buildings more. Not that we should get rid of our buildings — we need our indoor spaces to accommodate a wide range of human person, including elders. But we also need to do more outdoor ministries.

Last night, group of youth spent the night at the Black Mountain trail camp, in Santa Cruz Mountains behind Silicon Valley. The hike in is two miles, with a total elevation gain of about 500 feet. We got to the camp, set some tents and made dinner.

After dark, some of us took a quick walk up to the summit of Black Mountain (elev. 2,800 ft.) and looked down at the bright lights of San Jose and Silicon Valley on one side, and the mysterious fog creeping up the valley on the other side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Come to think of it, that image could serve as a metaphor for the role of organized religion in understanding humans’ place in the universe: if we wanted it to, organized religion could be the metaphorical high point where we could see both human-centered life on one side, and non-human-centered life on the other side.

Back in camp, some of us slept in tents, and some of us just slept out under the stars. The moon was really bright, so I slept restlessly. I awakened before dawn, and snapped this photo of our campsite:


Dawn from the top of Black Mountain was beautiful: orange sky at the horizon and pink clouds above. After a breakfast of bacon hot chocolate, and more bacon, we hiked out, and were back in Silicon Valley by about ten. It was a short trip, but short trips fit in well with the busy schedules of our teens.

Youth service trip, day two

We worked on a Habitat for Humanity rehab project today. Three of us worked on nailing down oriented strand board on the roof, then putting up drip edge. Four of us worked on painting and other miscellaneous tasks. I posted a couple of photos here. And here’s a photo proving that, even though I haven’t worked as a carpenter for 18 years, I still actually know how to use a hammer (thanks for taking the photo, Samuel):


By the end of the work day, we were pretty dirty, a little sore, a little sunburned, and very satisfied. Habitat for Humanity is a great organization to work for: they are well organized, they have clear goals, and they know how to manage volunteers.

We have another day of work at Habitat, and then we head off to volunteer at an ecology school doing trail maintenance. We’ll be camping at the ecology school, with no Internet access, so don’t expect another post until Saturday or Sunday.

(And, honestly, this service trip is more enjoyable for me than attending General Assembly. I’m doing something to make the world better! )

Youth service trip, day one

I’m on a five-day service trip with a total of seven youth and adults from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. Agenda for day one: drive to Los Angeles, check in at motel, eat dinner and maybe do some sightseeing.

We drove down in two vehicles, with four people in the Neffmobile minivan, and 3 people in my car. They napped in the other car, but our car was very chatty. When Sam joined my car after the lunch stop, the car had a majority of people who liked classical music, so it became the classical-music-and-chat car.

Los Angeles traffic proved to be just as heavy and slow as we thought it would be. The Neffmobile pulled into the motel parking lot just after we did — with brake problems. So we scrapped our plans of driving to downtown Long Beach for dinner and sightseeing, because Robert had to drive the van to a nearby repair shop (which, fortunately, was open until 9 p.m.). The rest of us went to eat at the motel restaurant — the food was just adequate, but it was quite inexpensive so we kept well within our budget.

We’re off to bed early tonight, because we’ll be up at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning so we can get to the Habitat for Humanity work site on time.


In this season of “bridging ceremonies,” that peculiar tradition of Unitarian Universalism that tries to convince graduating high school seniors to remain affiliated with our religious tradition, comes an article by Jen Bradbury in the May 29, 2013, issue of Christian Century titled “Sticky Faith: What keeps kids connected to church?”

Bradbury, a long-time youth minister in a Lutheran church in Illinois, begins the article by admitting that in spite of her attempts to make youth ministry relevant to teens, most of the teens who went through her programs left the church. It sounds like the same outcome she would have had had she been doing youth ministry in a Unitarian Universalist church: talk about “friendships, sex, and alcohol” during youth group, then watch the kids leave religion after graduation and never come back.

But, Bradbury says, a six-year longitudinal study called the College Transition Project carried out by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) offers an alternative; the results of this study have been published in the book Sticky Faith: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers. According to Bradbury, the College Transition Project argues that most youth groups “offer teens a ‘Red Bull experience of the gospel’ — it was ‘potent enough to help them make the right decisions at a party in high school’ but not ‘powerful enough to foster long-term faith.’.”

Bradbury suggests ways that congregations could revise their youth ministries in order to foster life-long faith in teenagers. Continue reading

Why we still need OWL

Every once in a while, I hear someone say that we Unitarian Universalists don’t need the Our Whole Lives (OWL) comprehensive sexuality education curriculum because “we live in a progressive community, and our kids can get adequate sexuality education in the public schools.”

However, a recent controversy in the relatively progressive communities of Los Altos and Mountain View show that school systems are always subject to the pressure of popular opinion and loud voices in the community. Recently, the student newspaper at Mountain View High School (which also serves Los Altos) ran a spread on sex and relationships that aimed to supplement and fill out what is not taught in health classes — and some very vocal parents objected:

The paper recently ran a two-page feature, “Sex & Relationships,” including the piece “What they teach you in health and what you really need to know.” The article upset many parents, who attended the Feb. 11 Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District board meeting to voice their objections.

Mountain View High parent Nathan Sandland described the article as “too forward” and said it “counteracts parental advice.”…

Daniel Ledesma, whose four children are not yet in high school, said he was concerned with the content being “too explicit” and that he didn’t want his children exposed to it.

“It sends the wrong message,” he said. “It approves sex before marriage.”

Superintendent Barry Groves acknowledged that the article contained content that should not have been published and apologized for it.

“Parents sound off over Mountain View High newspaper content,” Los Altos Crier, 27 Feb. 2013

My read on this is that the opposition is religious in nature — the key quote above is “It approves sex before marriage.” Of course we Unitarian Universalists would like to see sex happen within committed relationships, but since gays and lesbians can’t get married in this state marriage is not an option for them. Those who demand that people have to be married before they have sex is probably against same sex marriage, and that kind of attitude is typically linked with conservative religion.

Since that article, the school board and superintendent have had to backtrack. Fortunately, California has laws in place that protect student journalists:

As objectionable as the articles may have been to some parents, there is little school officials can do to prevent the Oracle from publishing such articles in the future, according Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center.

“Very, very little can be censored in California,” Goldstein said, explaining that while the Supreme Court precedent set in the 1988 case “Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier,” dictates that districts can censor school publications, laws have since been passed in the state which supersede that ruling. The only way a school administration could legally exercise prior restraint on an article in a student newspaper, Goldstein said, would be if that article incited students to act in way that presented a “clear and present danger” to the operations of the school, or if the articles were defamatory, libelous or obscene.

While Robinson and other parents have said that they felt certain articles printed in The Oracle met the criteria for obscenity, Beare pointed out that U.S. courts have had trouble defining exactly what “obscenity” means.

There is a good reason behind California’s strong legal protections for journalists, no matter their age, Goldstein said. “Whenever you have a question to err on the side of fewer rights or more rights,” he mused, “you always produce better citizens by giving them more rights.”

“Calmer heads prevail in aftermath of sex discussion: Support for student journalists who wrote controversial articles,” Mountain View Voice, 1 March 2013.

But in this instance, the dissemination of information on sexuality is allowed by protections for student journalists — not because it’s inherently good to give adolescents comprehensive information and education on sex and sexuality. Those protections would not apply in the classroom, and given their initial response, the school board might well give in to any demands made by religious conservative parents who objected to comprehensive sexuality education in the public schools.

This helps explain why we continue to need OWL programs in our congregations, even in relatively progressive communities like Mountain View and Los Altos. Too much pressure can be brought to bear on school boards for us to certain of comprehensive sexuality education in the public schools. Indeed, I would argue that we need to expand our OWL programs so we can offer them at no charge to people outside our congregations — and doing so might be the most important social justice effort we could take on right now.

Why UU youth programs suck

Our model for youth ministry in Unitarian Universalism sucks. The reasons why it sucks begin in our recent history, and in our current responses to the social changes going on all around us.

History first: Our model of youth ministry is an amalgam of three old models; none of the older models is particularly relevant to today’s world.

(1) First, there is the core model of youth ministry dating back to around 1900, when the Unitarian and Universalist denominations (along with many other denominations in mainline Protestantism) decided that persons in the age range of about 14 to about 20 had different religious and spiritual needs than adults — they did, that is, if their families were wealthy enough to keep them in school through their mid-teens; and since mainline Protestants were the ruling elite in the United States at that time, many mainline Protestant families were wealthy enough to keep their kids in school up to or even past the age of 16. By contrast, families in the Black churches and “ethnic” Catholic churches were less likely to keep their children in school up into their mid-teens, and those churches were less likely to have youth ministries that looked like mainline Protestant youth ministries.

This first model of Unitarian and Universalist youth ministry is rooted in entitlement and privilege that is based in unconscious membership in a religious elite that ruled the United States to serve its own purposes and values.

(2) The second layer of youth ministry emerged in the 1950s, when mainline Protestantism was at its peak in the United States. Continue reading