If you are leading anyone, you need to read. It doesn’t matter if you are leading your family, a few students, or hundreds of employees. Leaders read — a lot. But if you are at all like me—in our little Christian world—it is far too easy to get caught up reading the latest and greatest of Christian authors. I have a library full of hundreds of books on apologetics, theology, spiritual growth, and Christian leadership.
But I started to think. What if I read non-Christian’s thoughts about culture, youth, even the church; took their insights and applied it my ministry? What could I glean from other great minds, past and present? So I started reading—looking for insight into youth culture. Here is what I found. I crafted a short list of some of my favorite reads over the last several months and how they helped my understanding of our students and the world they live in.
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure
If you have been paying any attention to college campuses over the last few years, you have no doubt heard something about safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions, campus protests, professors in the hot seat, and guest speakers shouted down or canceled. Legal expert, Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt offer some incredible analysis and insight into a new social trend that is fueling America’s political polarization and dysfunction. Lukianoff and Haidt show how three critically flawed ideas are woven into our children’s education.
They argue that our children are growing up believing that what doesn’t kill you makes them weaker, to always trust their feelings, and life is a battle between good people and evil people. Not only do these—what they call “great untruths”—contradict simple psychological principles, ancient wisdom, and even common sense; it is easy to see the tremendous impact these ideas can have on the future of the church. It might seem odd to consider a book focused on politics and social issues to help in youth ministry, but these issues have an essential and profound spiritual impact as well.
There are two reasons I love this book. First, it is a book on brain chemistry—a topic I am fascinated with—but done in a way that I can understand. Because when it comes to science, I am not the sharpest crayon in the box. Second, Dr. Jensen is a mom. She is not some research scientist stuck in a lab surrounded by lab coats, beakers, and test tubes (at least that is the image I have). Her lab experience is being immersed in the lives of the students she interacts with every day.
Whether you have teenagers, work with them, or are on the path to raising your own; this book is a must-read. It not only shapes your understanding of the teen brain but helps develop a sincere, empathetic response to the students you interact with. Dr. Jensen dives into the science behind why teens think the way they do and make the decisions they make; giving the youth worker some critical insight into ministering to students more effectively.
iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us
Let me begin by stating that I am a big fan of Barna research and the work that David Kinnaman and his team do. However, their work on GenZ (or iGen in some cases) is somewhat limited. I have now lost count of the number of youth workers that have asked me about resources for GenZ. Out of everything out there, this is the one you want. Period.
Dr. Jean Twenge is a generation research professor at San Diego State University, which means that besides teaching students, she spends the vast majority of her time researching generations. She is the expert. Her studies are some of the broadest, most comprehensive in the business. She combines hard data with stories from students themselves all over the country. She looks into habits, cultural trends, religion, the impact of technology, and what our response ought to be. This book is a non-negotiable for every youth leader.
I originally picked up this book partly because it came highly recommend, but mostly because I am a huge nerd when it comes to this stuff. I love learning how our brain works, how we change and develop habits and even how things like food and sleep affect us. I wasn’t looking for youth ministry connections as I read this, but the more I did, the more relevancy I saw. Charles Duhigg helps us understand the habit loop, why and how our brains create craving, most importantly how to transform all of that into good, healthy habits.
The whole idea of building good habits, got me thinking about spiritual habits and how habits play a critical role in the development of the teenage brain. I have learned in my time as a teacher and in youth ministry that we can’t just tell students what they should believe, how they should behave, or the spiritual habits they should display every day. The results won’t be good. But imagine the progress students would make if we could help them create the right kind of habit loops. How much stronger would their faith be?
As you read these books, take a look at the researched referenced by each of these authors. Follow their train of thought. See where it leads. And most importantly, take the time to think, write, and reflect on how your ministry is impacted on what you have learned and how you can move forward.