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What Novelist John Green Teaches the Church about “Reaching” Young People

HERE COME THE FEELS!

BRING ON THE FEELS!

If you’re a fan of John Green (and if you’re not, what’s your problem?), you’re going to want to check out the New Yorker profile, THE TEEN WHISPERER: How the author of “The Fault in Our Stars” built an ardent army of fans.

John Green is like Colbert to me: someone who’s extremely good at what he does and who brings a joie de vivre to his vocation. I can’t help but root for him.

The church is awash with concern these days about the so-called “nones”: people who are not affiliated with any religion, who may (or may not) consider themselves spiritual but not religious… many of whom are in the millenial generation—aka many of John Green’s fans.

How can we “get” more young people? churchy people ask. Is there a way we can “appeal” to them? The format of the questions reveals their purpose—to find more members so that our churches won’t decline and die.

Guess what? Young people don’t care to be our institutional life insurance.

(Neither do 42 year old mothers of three, actually.)

That said, being interested in young people isn’t necessarily opportunistic. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, and young people are our neighbors. (So are old people, married people, single people, LGBT people, poor people, Muslim people…)

Jesus also calls us to serve, and that’s something that motivates millenials a great deal. (As the saying goes, they love Jesus; they don’t love the church.)

So. In the spirit of connection rather than conversion, friendship rather than membership, partnership rather than fixing, here are some things we can learn from John Green and his tremendous appeal.

He isn’t trying to “reach” young people. Green reportedly hates being called the “teen whisperer,” which is to his credit. His crazy popular vlogbrother videos were not started as some calculated attempt to build his fan base. (Well, not primarily with that purpose, though you can’t argue with success.) Rather, he and his brother Hank started them in order to play with the online video format, which was pretty new back in 2006. They created something winsome and irresistible and the fans thronged to it.

Do we in the church see millenials as a means to an end? 
What are we doing that is winsome and irresistible? 

~ 

He takes young people seriously and learns from them. The Fault in Our Stars is filled with wickedly good dialogue, pitch-perfect one-liners and deep wisdom. Some have criticized him for this because “Teenagers don’t really talk like that.” I read somewhere that Green doesn’t try to duplicate the speech patterns of teens. He tries to write the way teens sound to themselves and one another—clever, weird, and wise, assured sometimes and sharply insecure at others. It’s like teen-speak, boiled down to its essence. You have to love and admire and understand young people to pull that off.

Also, the protagonist in The Fault in Our Stars was inspired by an actual teenager with thyroid cancer, Esther Grace Earl, whose experience helped shape the book. Four or five times a month, Green talks on the phone with kids who have cancer, sometimes through Make a Wish, sometimes not. He is also fluent in social media and engages folks on Twitter and Tumblr. And once every few months, he Skypes with teens who are struggling with serious illness.

Is your church present where young people are present, whether online or in person?
Are you cultivating actual relationships with them, not so you can bestow your wisdom,
but so we can all grow together?

~

He’s created a tribe. There are traditions and catch phrases and a shared history—not all of which were created by him. (This is important.)

Last year I checked out a John Green book from my local library and when I got it home, out fell a note that had been tucked into its pages: “Hey, nerdfighter! Don’t forget to be awesome!”

DFTBA is very big with this tribe.

And there’s a focus on giving to others. Esther Day is a holiday that Esther Earl asked people to observe on her birthday. According to the New Yorker, “Her idea was that it could become a celebration of non-romantic love—a day when you’d say ‘I love you’ to people who don’t often hear it from you.” And check out the Project for Awesome that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthy causes.

How does Christianity help people (of all ages) become a part of something larger than themselves? (Hint: as the Project for Awesome demonstrates, they don’t need us in order to feel this. Still, what is our distinctive gift in the midst of the broader culture?)
And are people encouraged to bring their own energy and ideas to the table, or are we the keepers of our traditions and norms?

~

He’s a learner. Check out his Crash Course videos. In these, he (and Hank) are teachers, but he comes at his topics with the posture of a student. And my kids love his Mental Floss videos in which he tests out various lifehacks:

Do we have all the answers, or are we willing to learn?

~

He employs humor with substance.  From the New Yorker profile: “In a post advising boys on how to charm a girl, John jokingly said, ‘Become a puppy. A kitten would also be acceptable or, possibly, a sneezy panda’—an allusion to a popular clip on YouTube. But he also said, ‘If you can, see girls as, like, people, instead of pathways to kissing and/or salvation.’”

As communities of faith, do we offer meaning and substance… while taking ourselves lightly?

~

He loves the grand gesture. Again, the New Yorker: “Many authors do pre-publication publicity, but Green did extra credit: he signed the entire first printing—a hundred and fifty thousand copies—which took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder.”

Which leads to my final question for the church:
When’s the last time you undertook an extravagant gesture for the sake of this world God loves? 

Ten Lessons on Stepping into Leadership… from Jimmy Fallon

I haven’t seen The Tonight Show in years, and my main late-night indulgences are Colbert and Stewart. So I haven’t watched much Jimmy Fallon. Except for “Barack Obama Slow-Jams the News,” which still cracks me up two years later. (The Prezi of the United Stezi!)

But I did catch Jimmy’s inaugural monologue on The Tonight Show this week, which led me to seek out several other clips. Here’s the monologue:

Jimmy Fallon is succeeding a giant of late-night television, and he’s entering a crowded field. At 39 years old, he’s taking a leap onto a larger stage and needs to prove himself in some ways. As I watched, I was struck by the smart stuff that was going on under the surface, whether calculated or not, and I started to relate Jimmy’s debut to other situations leaders find themselves in.  (What can I say? It’s what I do.)

Leaders sometimes find themselves following beloved leaders, some of whom are older, more experienced, and firmly entrenched in the culture. Or we may find ourselves having to step into a new role thanks to a promotion or other circumstance. How can these transitions succeed?

Here are just a few things that came to mind as I watched Jimmy take the helm. Might some of these relate to you as a leader, or in other roles you play? Some of these would apply not just to leadership, but any new creative endeavor:

jimmy-fallon-tonight-show-hed-20141. Locate yourself in history. Fallon made explicit mention of every Tonight Show host (and turned it into a joke by listing “Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno.”). This was a reverent nod to the folks who’d occupied the chair before him, but also a clear statement: my name belongs on that list now.

2. Make the role your own, but don’t go overboard. The set and format were very similar to the previous incarnation of the show, but with several small tweaks, and a few big ones. For example, Jimmy Fallon brought the show back to New York after many decades in L.A. (Carson started out there but moved the show to California ten years into his tenure.) You’ve got to find the right balance between continuity and novelty.

3. Mix self-deprecation with really knowing your stuff. As a young woman pastor wanting to be taken seriously, this was always my approach. It would do me no good to demand respect and get strident when I didn’t get it. So my approach was to be completely disarming, even self-deprecating, while still projecting extreme competence. The former takes the wind out of the sails of your detractors; the latter ensures they don’t write you off. Fallon achieved this balance with his characteristic aw-shucks modesty, coupled with running the show very well and taking his role seriously.

4. Make your family visible. This doesn’t apply to every situation, but it was sweet the way Fallon mentioned his wife and daughter and cut to his parents in the audience. Many leaders I meet (especially younger ones) don’t want a brick wall of separation between work and family. We want to be integrated. Having your family visible humanizes you. Also, knowing more about you makes people want to root for you.

5. Call in every favor you can. The sheer number of guests and cameos on the first show was dizzying! Check this out:

This isn’t just great TV, it’s great strategy. Don’t go it alone. Calling in favors builds excitement and makes you feel more comfortable too.

6. Spend it all right away. This relates a bit to the previous point. Don’t keep good ideas in reserve. Use them immediately, trusting that other ideas will come to take their place. I’m sure there will be other surprises for the rest of this week, and beyond. But taking the previous clip as an example, isn’t there something so abundant about the way that parade of celebrities came on stage, one after another? Too fun.

Speaking of which:

7. Don’t forget to enjoy the moment. Fallon sure looked like he was having a blast, didn’t he? I watched the episode mainly for curiosity, but now I want to tune in just to see what he’ll do next. (It’s one reason why I prefer Colbert to Stewart these days. Nobody looks more tickled to be doing his job than Stephen Colbert.)

8. Keep your goals modest. As leaders, we sometimes have an overinflated sense of what we can accomplish. We have to remember that we’re stepping into a system that existed before us and, we hope, will outlast us. Jimmy Fallon made his goals clear: to “take care of this show for a while” and to make his viewers laugh, to send them off to bed with a smile on their faces.

9. Be gracious with your “competition.” I put this in quotes because not every leadership role involves competition. But you will notice that Stephen Colbert made an appearance in the clip above. Fallon and Colbert are slotted opposite one another. But having them together is a statement that there is room for both of them.

10. When in doubt, bring on U2. Enough said:

Did you watch The Tonight Show? What did you think of Jimmy’s debut?

~

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Little She-Who-Is Turns 11

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Happy Birthday to my firstborn, my little she-who-is, my Caroline, maker of parents and (mostly) happy tween.

We’re supposed to get snow today, so I was going to post a poem I wrote about her several years ago, called “snowflakes,” but I see I did that two years ago.

So here’s another poem that came to mind last weekend during Caroline’s slumber party when the girls were playing sardines. I’ve never liked games involving hiding. But I do play with my kids sometimes. This one was written when she was about 3 1/2:

it’s how you play the game

twenty-eight
twenty-nine
twenty…

a confused pause, a quick conference
with a deeper voice—
thirty,
and i crouch behind the brown chair,
head bowed but neck turned, eyes wide on the place
where she will appear.
my whole life, i have hated this part, the
breathless silence after the counting, the
frantic beating in the brain, the stalking,
swishing tip-toe of socks, the pouncing,
never-knowing-when—the
unpredictable inevitable.
but the way we play
there is no breakneck dash for home.
whenever she finds me, curled up and twisted,
i am calm, my heart locked in its place,
beating a glad, redemptive rhythm.

~

Image: I’ve been putting little heart messages on the kids’ doors this week. These are replies Caroline has been posting for me. <3

Free Stuff for Eagle Eyes and Good Grammarians

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They still use this technology right?

Hey folks,

Sabbath in the Suburbs is heading into a second printing, and we’re running a contest to celebrate and to make that second printing better. Click over to the Sabbath blog to find out more, and to read a post about a Sabbath experience I had on a random Wednesday morning.

photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton via photopin cc

Such Beauty and What the Meaning

Especially for my local friends. Mary Oliver’s “First Snow,” from the Improvised Life:

imrs

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence, such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles; nowhere
the familiar things:
the stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain–not a single
answer has been found–
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

~

Image from the Capital Weather Gang