Creating a sustainable youth ministry

Many youth groups go through a boom-and-bust cycle: you have a few good years of youth ministry, and then things seem to fall apart and the kids all stop participating in any youth ministries. After a few years with a struggling youth ministry, things seem to miraculously get better, and you have a few more good years of youth ministry. That’s what we’re going through right now, here in our church. We’ve had a strong high school youth ministry for a while, but this year the program has gotten small. Meanwhile, our middle school youth ministries have been slowly growing for the past three years. Boom and bust.

So how do you create a sustainable youth ministry? According to the book Sustainable Youth Ministries by Mark DeVries, most congregations try the wrong approach to building up their youth ministry. They may look for that superstar youth director (or other paid staffer, e.g., DRE, MRE, etc.), or the young charismatic youth advisors. Or maybe they try to build or renovate dedicated space for youth ministries (a youth room, a basketball court, etc.). DeVreis says all these approaches are bound to be unsuccessful.

Instead, DeVries advocates taking a systemic approach to building a sustainable youth ministry. This is not as exciting or sexy or razzle-dazzle as hiring a superstar staff person, or building a new building. But it’s more likely to work in the long run, providing year after year of stable, sustainable youth ministry. There are no magical solutions; instead, you have to work steadily at building up board-based systems which will support your youth ministry.

I’ve been studying DeVries’s approach, and what he says makes sense to me. And I’ve slowly been working on applying his approach to our youth ministry here in Palo Alto. Here’s what I’ve been working on most recently, as I try to apply his concepts…. Continue reading “Creating a sustainable youth ministry”


Yesterday, I noticed that the Swiss chard and dandelion greens we had planted in the garden were wilting again. The soil was almost as dry as it gets in the summer time. I brought out a bucket of salvaged gray water, and gave them a long drink. Even though the rainy season has begun, the weather forecast for the next five days calls for sunny dry weather, so it looks like I’ll be doing more watering in the garden in the week ahead.

Ballou on the brain

After spending something like 36 hours editing Hosea Ballou over the Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve got Ballou on the brain. So I can’t resist posting one more Ballouvian quote. This time, I’ve edited and updated the language somewhat. You shouldn’t go reposting this and attributing it to Ballou, but I think my edited version does capture the essence of his meaning for early twenty-first century readers:

The ideas that sin is infinite, and that it deserves an infinite punishment; and that God took on a natural body of flesh and blood, and actually suffered death on a cross to satisfy God’s infinite justice and thereby save human creatures from endless misery; — these are ideas which appear to me to be unfounded in the nature of reason, and unsupported by the Bible. Such notions have, in my opinion, served to darken the human understanding, and have rendered the Bible a subject of discredit to thousands who, I believe, would never have condemned the scriptures had it not been for those gross absurdities….

Online Treatise on Atonement finally complete

Back in 2005, on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement, I decided to put the entire text of the Treatise online. Although I thought it would take me about a year to complete this project, it proved more time-consuming and more difficult than that. But, after spending twenty or so hours on it over the long weekend, I’m finally done, the full text is now online, and you can find it here. Continue reading “Online Treatise on Atonement finally complete”

The search for wisdom

I’ve been working my way through A Treatise on Atonement by Hosea Ballou, the great Universalist minister and theologian of the early nineteenth century. I like Ballou’s commitment to the use of common sense and reason in religion, as exemplified in passages like this one:

We feel our own imperfections; we wish for every one to seek with all his might after wisdom; and let it be found where it may, or by whom it may, we humbly wish to have it brought to light, that all may enjoy it; but do not feel authorized to condemn an honest inquirer after truth, for what he believes different from a majority of us.

This could be a central motto for religious liberals.

Anne McCaffrey: a brief homage

Science fiction writer Anne McCaffrey died on Tuesday. She is best known for her series of books about the dragon-riders of the planet Pern, but I also think of her as the writer who has made the lives of a lot of teenagers better. I still have a drawing of a dragon made by an eleven year old girl who made it through the first year of middle school supported in no small part by the Pern books. Another teenager of my acquaintance analyzed the dragonriders of Pern as characters who strove for and accomplished things that were challenging and important, and as such were worth emulating.

Not that McCaffrey’s books are just for teenagers. I first read her books when I was well into adulthood; for me as an adult, they provided a path into that same archetypal realm that the Star Wars movies, or the Lord of the Rings books, or the Harry Potter books and movies lead you into. But where Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are story cycles about the confrontation between good and evil, McCaffrey’s books are more about the ways that humans and other sentient beings confront impersonal natural forces.

Over the years, some of McCaffrey’s books made it onto the New York Times bestseller list; yet her stories never achieved the popularity of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. I suspect McCaffrey achieved a somewhat lower level of popularity because the central conflict in her stories is between sentient beings and Nature, whereas the central conflict in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter is between good and evil. The religious foundation of our Western culture accords greatest importance to battles between good and evil, and that cultural bias downgrades McCaffrey’s popularity. Given my own religious perspective, I prefer stories about confronting impersonal natural forces; I see more of that kind of thing in my day-to-day life than epic battles between good and evil; so I prefer stories like hers.

I would say that McCaffrey’s earlier books were her best. Her later books, especially some of the books she co-wrote with other writers, have the faint whiff of the writing-factory about them. But then, the majority of the Star Wars movies are less than inspired, the mock heroic language in the middle book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is cloying, and there are far too many words in the Harry Potter books. Tapping into archetypes does not always produce great art, but it sure does produce satisfying art.

Brief obituary at Locus online.

Palindrome day (sort of)

Today is another exciting day for a certain kind of geeky person who uses the U.S. convention of writing dates: a one- or two-digit number for the month, then a one- or two-digit day for writing the date, followed by a two-digit number for the year. Given that convention, today’s date is a palindrome: 11/22/11. There have been eleven other such palindrome dates this year: 1/1/11; 11/1/11 through 11/9/11; and 11/11/11. The last time we had such palindrome dates was in 2001: 10/1/01 through 10/9/01; 10/11/01; and 10/22/01. And of course we’ll have more such palindrome dates next year.

But palindrome days are less interesting than they might be, because they are dependent on conventions for writing dates that vary from place to place. In Europe, the convention for writing dates reverses the month and date. If you’re bored over the Thanksgiving holiday, you can figure out the palindrome dates for 2011 in Europe.

Update: UUpdater offers another way of looking at palindrome dates in a comment.

In case you forget…

2011 is a prime number year, which makes this a prime number year. The next prime number year will be 2017. That means we have just two prime number dates — when day, month, and year are all prime numbers — left this year: 11/23/2011 and 11/29/2011. Then we will have to wait until February 2, 2017, for another prime number date.

I figured I had better tell you in case you wanted to do something special on Wednesday, or a week from Tuesday.