ECHO Parenting Conference
The ECHO Parenting Conference is November 4, and if you have ever walked away from a conversation with your teenager, or any teenager, and thought, “What on earth are you thinking???,” then you will not want to miss this year’s speaker. The upcoming ECHO Conference will feature Mark Oestreicher, who has over twenty years of experience in youth ministry. Mark was called into youth ministry when he was still in high school, and as soon as he began college, he started working with teens. Aside from being a youth pastor, Mark also worked for eleven years as the Vice President of Ministry Resources, and later as the President, of Youth Specialties (YS) developing resources for youth ministries around the country. After his time at YS ended, he launched The Youth Cartel, a coaching and consulting group that works with adults who are in ministry to equip them to reach their students in the most effective way. He still has a passion for middle school students and leads a group of guys each week at his church. Mark also has plenty of personal experience with teenagers, since he and his wife of twenty-eight years, Jeannie, have successfully raised two of them, both of which are now in college.
Mark’s vision for youth ministry is all about finding innovative ways to share the gospel with teenagers, and he approaches this from the standpoint of actually trying to understand teenagers and to meet them where they are. He relies a lot on scientific research about the brain and cognitive development and what that looks like in teens, and this is what he’ll be focusing on when he visits FBC Starkville. Mark did an interview about this very subject recently in an episode of the podcast Rethinking Youth Ministry, and he has also written two books on this subject: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains and Understanding Your Young Teen.
In the podcast interview, Mark begins by laying a foundation for how churches, unfortunately, typically approach teens and how they actually should approach teens. He starts by asking this question: “Do you see teenagers as a problem to be solved, or as a wonder to behold?” He argues that too many people see the teenaged years as a time to just get through as unscathed and undamaged as possible so that the survivors can then become actual people, and for Mark, this is the wrong way to view and approach teens. He claims that understanding the changes that are going on in the brains of teenagers lends real insight into how to successfully shepherd and lead teens to Christ.
One area that Mark focuses a lot of attention on is the development of abstract thought that occurs at the onset of puberty. Until that time, around age 13 or 14, adolescents can only think in concrete, black and white terms, so they have made lots of conclusions about themselves and their lives and their beliefs, but when abstract thought begins to develop, those new teenagers begin to have the ability to speculate and doubt and question. Instead of viewing this as a roadblock to be circumvented, Mark sees this as an opportunity to teach teens how to deal with questions about their faith and family and identity. Mark says that around this age, teens have “had this inherited faith…and now they’re moving into a time where they are becoming their own selves and have their own thinking abilities,” and their experiences make them question those concrete conclusions that don’t always add up. Because of this, “they need an adult to come alongside them, help them raise that question to a conscious level, talk about it, process it together, and find a better replacement” for the old concrete belief. Mark’s approach to ministry is really innovative and somewhat ground-breaking. His biggest point is that parents, youth ministers, and youth workers should view the early and middle teen years as a time to teach adolescents how to have faith and how to work through questions and doubts about faith instead of just trying to teach them the “right answers” about God and who He is.
Mark is also an avid researcher of physical brain development and talks a lot about specific parts of the brain that are underdeveloped in young and middle teens. He gets really science-y on the podcast, but what his research findings really come down to is that there are parts of teenaged brains that process emotion and decision making and social behavior that are not fully developed but are really just starting to develop around the age of 13. Because of this, Mark argues that what many adults think they are communicating to teens is not being understood by the teens because they don’t have the ability to process and grasp what a fully developed brain is trying to say to them. For this reason, Mark says it is of the utmost importance to check for understanding when one is engaging in a teaching moment with a teen.
Regardless of whether or not you currently have a teenager, you will benefit from Mark’s visit. He is a passionate and engaging speaker, and he’s really fun to listen to. On Sunday, November 4, Mark will meet with all parents (preschool-teens) in the Warehouse during the 9:45 am Community Group hour. He will also be interviewed during the 8:30 and 11:00 am services. Finally, he will do a special training with all youth workers at noon.
If you’re interested to find out more about Mark, I encourage you to check out episodes 16 and 18 on the podcast Rethinking Youth Ministry. You can also read about Mark on his blog, whyismarko.com. I especially enjoyed his latest post about whacky nativities that he has come across over the years, a few of which he owns. If you’re interested in learning more about his ministry, check out theyouthcartel.com. Don’t miss this opportunity – you may not leave being able to answer “What were you thinking???,” but you’ll definitely better understand why.