Tag Archives: youth work

I live overseas so I understand what life is like for a TCK. Right?

Last week I discussed some of the different labels for people with international experiences – TCKs, ATCKs, and TCAs.

In international youth work, we see a range of international experiences among the youth leaders. Some are ATCKs now living in a new country. Some are new international-ers, on a short term contract or studying abroad. Some are true TCAs, having lived overseas so long they don’t really fit in at home anymore.

Most people who haven’t lived abroad long are quickly able to realise that they don’t understand what it is like to be a TCK. They can see the differences in the teens’ experiences to their own. The best youth leaders in this situation set about listening and asking questions and learning about the experiences of the teens they work with. The ones who will do this, acknowledging what they don’t know and willing to learn, often become great youth leaders much appreciated by their teens.

When I first started working with TCKs, this was me. I had lived overseas for 18 months. I had an open-ended plan regarding China – no plans to leave, but I didn’t intend to stay forever. I loved the youth group as soon as I first visited. I soon realised that while there were certainly similarities to working with kids at home in Australia, there were differences as well, and I began to learn how to adjust to a different sort of teen – what did they need from a youth leader? What could I do to best help them?

That was 6 years ago. I’ve now lived in China for 7.5 years. I’m settled here. I shipped my things from Australia. I still have no plans to leave, but I gave up the “one day I’ll go home and be normal” plan I’d assumed for my life. I am a TCA – I am not Chinese, can not become Chinese, but while I am definitely Australian, I don’t really fit in there anymore. I feel like a visitor when I go there – which I am. If I were to go back to live in Australia at some point in the future, it would be an international move to a new place, rather than returning home.

As I’ve come to this point, I’ve seen a temptation to identify more with TCKs than I did in the beginning. I start to think that I understand their experience. I can swap old China stories with the kids who’ve lived here *forever*. I can join in conversations about which are the best/worst airports in Asia and why. I know what it is to be far away from friends/family, to go “home” to a place that is both familiar and uncomfortable, to get back to Beijing with a sigh of relief.

While there are overlaps between my TCA experience and the TCK experiences of the kids I work with, I have recently realised that I must be careful not to go too far with this.

As a TCA, I have chosen to live overseas, away from friends and family in Australia. A TCK has not chosen their life – it was chosen for them.

My childhood was entirely Australian. While I may be able to understand some of the international experiences of the teens I work with, I will never know what it is to spend my childhood abroad.

As a TCA I have an emotional resonance with my home country developed before I came to China. An Australian TCK’s connection to Australia will be very different to my own – they don’t share the pop culture references. They experience Australia through visits to grandparents and Cadbury chocolates.

Not all TCKs live in the one place – many move from place to place. While I moved several times as a child/teen (6 schools in 2 countries/3 cities from K-12) I will never understand what it is to grow up in a country-hopping family.

My international experiences are an asset as a TCK worker. I want to be careful, however, not to lose what I had as a new youth worker here – that sense of not knowing, not understanding, and desiring to learn from and about the teens I work with.

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Posted by on August 25, 2011 in Leading Youth, TCKs


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How does working with TCKs apply to youth work “at home”?

Nathaniel is a youth worker from  Australia. In this guest post he compares working with TCKs in Cambodia with the work he does with 1st/2nd generation immigrant youth in Sydney.

A bit about me

I am an Australian-Born Chinese (ABC) living in Sydney, Australia. My parents migrated from Hong Kong, to England, then to Australia shortly before I was born.

A bit about my Youth Group

Two years ago, our youth group consisted of around 3 youth. Over the past two years, we have grown to a consistent 25-30. It is multi-ethnic, and a mix of Christian and non-christian (30-40%). The youth are a mix of migrant, first-generation and second-generation Australian youth. Our youth group is located in Sydney’s south, which is heavily dominated by immigrant families. The youth group is made up of youth from year 6-12, and they all get on extremely well – not often seen at many youth groups. They are an absolute joy to serve, lots of fun to hang out with, and I love them heaps and thank God for the amazing depth and rate of change in so many of their lives.

Cambodia vs Australia

I had the opportunity to spend two months in Cambodia doing a variety of work, which included working with the expat youth groups, Cross Culture and Solar. Tanya and Christina introduced me to the term “TCK”, and the awareness of their characteristics and needs has helped immensely due the cultural diversity present in my own youth group in Sydney.

Some differences I noticed between the two groups:

TCKs in Cambodia

  • Engaged much more readily i.e. were quite comfortable speaking to people older and in a different life stage to them.
  • Much more aware of cultural differences and how that made them different (whereas youth in Sydney would be aware of cultural differences, but less aware of how that affected how they interacted with the world around them)
  • Switch from acting very mature -> immature, extremely quickly
  • Friendships tend to develop much, much quicker
  • Quirkiness if accepted more readily, if not encouraged. Often helps groups to bond.
  • Greater appreciation and commitment to friendships

There was significant overlaps between the similarities. However, they were often more pronounced and noticeable in the TCKs in Cambodia, which made it helpful for me to identify and realise how important they were.

Similarities with Sydney youth:

  • Will open up to a leader if they know that leader cares and wants to invest in their lives
  • Looking for a place and people to belong to
  • Want someone who will accept them for who they are, but at the same time still encourage growth and development

Since coming back from Cambodia, I’ve really tried to be intentional about:

  • Spending as much informal time with the youth as you can. i.e. time where you both don’t have to be there, but choose to be. This can be the time before or after youth group/church, informal gatherings, optional events, lunch together, etc. Some of the most valuable conversations happen not during events such as talks etc, but the time before and after when they are processing ideas and issues.
  • Asking lots of questions – Find out about their friends, family, culture, country, what questions they have about anything at all. Connect them to places where they can start to address those concerns.
  • Investing in a few – The greater the diversity of the youth group, the more time and effort will be needed in getting to know individuals and how to help them grow. But the great thing is, that if you start to do that, then they start to invest in other youth as well.
  • Cultivating creativity and talents – Not just so they can go “serve” (though they might). Not just so they can play in church (even though that’s a great thing). But because God has made them in His Image and made them with interests, passions and talents and helping them to develop them because those things are good things in and of themselves and are ways for them to express themselves in a very positive way.

After meeting TCKs and TCK workers in Cambodia, it really became apparent to me that the TCK ministry is going to be increasingly important in the future due to the rapid pace of globalisation. So I’d like to say thankyou to all TCKs, people who work with TCKs, and networks such as YiA – it’s a tremendous resource and look into how the Church will continue to serve and reach global cities in the future with the good news of Jesus Christ.


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Posted by on June 17, 2011 in Guest Posts, Leading Youth, TCKs


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Lively listening: one of my most memorable youth small group experiences

In my second year of youth work in Beijing I began a small group for the older homeschooled girls living in a certain area of the city. These were good, solid girls with personal faith and leadership skills they were already putting to good use. All 5 were oldest children (with the exception of the younger sister of a pair who were both in the group – although the younger sibling was a total type A anyway!) They are wonderful young women and I love each of them dearly, despite the fact that I don’t talk to them often as they are living in different parts of the USA, busy with college.

I tried to make the group something different to a “normal” bible study. Most MKs have a LOT of Christian knowledge. They’ve been hearing it, just about breathing it, for most of their childhoods. I figured that if we did a regular bible study, these girls would stay in their comfort zone – with easy-access answers, safe in the Christian bubble.

Instead, I tried to poke and prod them a little – try to find questions they didn’t have stock answers for.  I tried to challenge them to think laterally/critically about their faith – to examine the things they accepted; to think about why. Sometimes I was successful in asking questions they didn’t have a ready answer to; sometimes I’m not sure they followed the weird angle I was coming from.

The most memorable small group for me – certainly the most lively discussion by far – was the one in which I didn’t reference the Bible. Not even once. And yet, I think it was the most “productive” afternoon I spent with that group of girls.

I’m not entirely sure where we started. I think we were talking about how to love other people well. We listed a bunch of ways to love people, and honed in on listening to them – we all agreed that when we feel listened to we believe the other person really cares about us. Therefore, listening well to the people around us was a way we could minister to them, showing God’s care and love.

So I asked them a question: how do you know someone’s listening to you?

It took a while to get some answers (they seemed to think it was obvious!) but eventually they began to describe concrete ways they measured whether a person was listening to them.

The 1st said: “their face is animated”
The 2nd said: “they ask lots of follow up questions”
The 3rd said “the keep eye contact with me”
The 4th said “they share similar experiences they’ve had”
The 5th said “I can see it in their body language”

I thought to myself “Wow! Five different responses! I couldn’t have planned this better!

The only thing was, they hadn’t seen it yet.

I asked the first girl “are you careful to keep your face animated when you’re listening to them?”
“Of course!” she replied, animatedly.

I asked the second girl “are you careful to ask lots of follow up questions when you’re listening?”
“Of course!” she replied, enthusiastically.

I asked the third girl “are you careful to maintain eye contact when you’re listening to someone?”
“Yes…” she replied with a hint of “what are you getting at” to her voice.

I couldn’t believe I was still getting blank stares. I changed tack.

I asked the first girl “are you careful to ask lots of follow up questions?”
“No,” she answered. She didn’t say “well why would I?” but she might as well have.

I asked the second girl “do you keep your face animated when you’re listening?”
“No,” came the reply.

I looked at them. Then it clicked. They turned to each other and started talking at the same time.

“You mean you don’t…!”
“Why wouldn’t you…?”
“Don’t you think…?”
“But it’s normal to…!”

And they were off and racing! I don’t think I contributed much more from that point on. We must have had a full 20-30 minutes of conversation discovering that the way you show something and the way I perceive it are different – and that when you learn how someone else works, you can express listening (and love) to them in a way that they understand. I might be showing someone love without them realising it – and the people might be showing me love in their own way, it’s just not obvious to me.

That discussion was so gratifying to me as a leader – I don’t remember them ever being that animated ever before or after. I had that wonderful sensation of having unlocked something for them – nothing earth-shattering or revolutionary, but bringing them to that point of catching a new concept for the first time. They would have worked it out sooner or later, but it was wonderful to watch them unpack it excitedly together.

I think that’s one of the most wonderful parts of small groups – giving teens the chance to work out their faith together: to understand new concepts and work out the practical applications. Creating a safe space for those discoveries and the experimentation that follows is a great goal for any small group.

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Posted by on May 4, 2011 in Leading Youth


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Violence among youth – how does it affect TCK ministry?

I took a course on trends in violence as part of my post-grad course on urban youth ministry (through Fuller). In order to research the trends in violence among expatriate youth in Phnom Penh, I interviewed two administrators of international schools in Phnom Penh.

Both schools serve international populations of largely middle to upper class families. In both these discussions the issue of violence was treated in a general sense, including neglect and self harm. One school reported concerns about self-harm among younger girls (13-14 years old). The trends they reported were similar. Overall violent occurrences are rare. While they admitted there are occasional issues, these tend to be isolated and short term.

Some thoughts that came out of these discussions:

  • Most violence arises among the boys, often related to aggression that comes up during sporting events. It is therefore important to have men model healthy ways of handling aggression on the sports field.
  • Cyber bullying is a larger issue than face-to-face bullying. It’s important to be aware of cyber bullying and teaching media awareness (and the importance of integrity). This includes teaching responses for teens to use if a friend is being cyber bullied.
  • Important to be aware of cultural differences – some Asian families would consider “acceptable” what some Western families would consider “neglect”.
  • Helping parents network – where discussing challenges would be possible (this may apply more to schools than a youth ministry setting)
One of the schools is a Christian school. We discussed what violence could look in a Christian setting. Isolation can make it easier for a family to disguise domestic abuse issues. There is an assumption of health among Christian families (particularly among missionaries) which make this sort of disguise easier to maintain.

I also attempted to gain a better understanding of issues of violence in Khmer families. I spoke to someone familiar with cultural trends contributing to violence within families. Khmer cultural attitudes to be aware of include that boys are expected to get into trouble, while girls should be kept at home. Often in incidents of rape, the woman is held accountable and brings shame on her family. Women have an attitude of “deserving” violence. Better understanding the cultural attitudes towards rape and violence helps me better anticipate some of the identity issues raised in or adopted from Khmer families may deal with.

This conversation brought home to me the importance of understanding trends of violence among youth and differing cultural attitudes towards violence. This knowledge enables me to better serve the teens I work with – it gives me an idea of what they may be struggling with, helping me read between the lines of their stories and predict possible future issues (that I can then help the youth deal with).

All of this shows the importance of fostering relationships with teens where there is safe space for youth to share difficulties.


Posted by on March 14, 2011 in Leading Youth, TCKs


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The Oscar for Youth Pastors…

The red carpet, the camera flashes, couture dresses and sleek tuxedos,  the orchestra and the big stage…  The Oscars are quite a spectacle! If you’ll humor me for a second, what would it look like if we developed an awards ceremony for Youth Pastors? A youth ministry Oscar awards… err… maybe we could call them the Ebenezer awards…

What would the categories be? Maybe…

  • Best Game Adaption
  • Best Original Game
  • Largest Regular Group Attendance
  • Largest Special Event
  • Best Special Event Theme
  • Best Event Advertising
  • Most Creative Service Project
  • Best Teen Leadership Development Program
  • Best Evangelist
  • Funniest Youth Pastor/Small Group Leader
  • Most Dramatic Speaker

As the night went on, we would approach the main event. The highest coveted honor of all Youth Pastors. As an actor aspires to receive an Oscar, we would aspire to receive this award. The Oscar of all Oscars; the Ebenezer of all Ebenezers. This would be the highest mark of recognition; a Youth Pastor could live for years on the glory of this one night. Honor would follow the chosen one for years to come.

The question is, what would it be?

What would be the mark of this ultimate Youth Pastor? How would we measure it?

Would it be based on group growth?
If so, would it be growth in number? Spiritual growth of the students in the group?
How about how many youth pastors are being raised up, or how many are heading to Christian schools?
Would it go to the most creative programming? The best events?

What if the final award had little to do with “youth ministry” as we normally see it. What if, instead, it was based on the Youth Pastor’s personal relationship with Christ.  What if the ultimate award was measured in term of holistic health. What if the winner was a YP truly Real in relationship with Christ.  Their peace, their security, their rest, would be set confidently in Christ – not in a need to be recognized for their charisma or the size of their group.

What if an award was given to the Youth Pastor who lived out their relationship with Christ in the most comprehensive way. What if we gave the highest honor to a YP who was living life as a branch abiding in Christ the vine, demonstrating to them that apart from Him we can do nothing.

I think that sometimes we get mixed up about youth ministry. Amid all the practical theory and the fun it’s easy to forget that the most effective and God-glorifying youth pastor isn’t necessarily that Coolest Guy Ever in another church, but rather, the one who is truly living out a relationship of reliance on Christ in front of students.

Now, wouldn’t that be an Ebenezer worth working for? An award that would command humility and true Christ-given freedom instead of the desire for recognition. That would be an empowering Ebenezer, one that would highlight a group of kids blessed to be mentored by someone who truly gets it.

I know we’ll never have a YP Awards show, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask questions, and challenge what true impact means in our honorable and blessed ministry.

What about you? What Ebenezers would you want to see handed out?
What criteria would you use to determine the winner of the Ultimate Ebenezer?

Posted by on February 25, 2011 in Leadership Development, Leading Youth


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Camp themes: some of my favourites and why they rock!

Most youth camps I’ve been involved in have had a specific “theme” for the event. A theme can be simple or complex, can apply just to the messages/games, or be integrated across all parts of the event.

There are many advantages to a theme:

A good theme can lead you to new and fun ideas you wouldn’t have thought on of otherwise. Maybe it started as a theme for the sessions/messages, but then naturally lead you to some great games or a fantastic t-shirt design. Maybe it just sounded like a fun idea for the kids to enjoy, but then you were able to pin a series of great messages to it. However you get started, having a firm theme idea can help guide leaders’ discussions and give you new ideas.

Learning Aide
A good theme can be used to help kids hang onto the messages presented. Themes give kids a picture to “hang” the content on. If you present three messages over a weekend and all three points can be tied in some way to the camp theme, kids will find it easier to remember the three points and refer back to them later on.

Memory Aide
A memorable theme will help kids (and leaders) latch onto memories of the event. If you hold annual events at the same location, having a clear theme for each year helps the experiences stand out, rather than running together into one big camp memory. Themes differentiate one camp from another – one learning experience from another.

It’s just fun!
And you know what? That’s a great thing! It’s wonderful to get together with a bunch of kids and have a blast. Themes can make an already fun weekend even more fun! New in-jokes are created, bonds are created and strengthened – and a theme to connect it all to makes it all the more fun.

When I think back to all the camps I’ve done, I don’t think “Spring of 2006” – although I can work out the timing if I choose. What characterises each camp for me is its theme. So here’s a few great themes we’ve used in Beijing in the past 6 years:


Tanya at Mythbusters Camp in Beijing

About to get twenty pies to the face at the middle school Mythbusters camp.

This was planned around the idea of having an outreach camp. We encouraged kids to invite non-Christian friends to camp, knowing that while there would be worship times etc., the messages would be “seeker-friendly”. Kids had a chance to ask anonymous questions about the Christian faith and we planned teaching on apologetics. Clement, a student who designed (or worked with friends to design) all our camp shirts for several years, came up with a great design. The Mythbusters t-shirt said “God does not exist” which then had a “BUSTED” stamp over it. We also planned a big “mythbuster” event for the last day of camp – dropping mentos candy into coke to see if it would fizz/explode. We turned several big bottles of coke into fountains – a fun sight kids still remember!

While the theme of the camp’s content was “identity” the concept we wrapped it around was facebook and avatars. Each team had an “avatar” (a person-sized animal costume – bunny, lion, tiger, elephant, etc) and the team scores were shown as facebook pages with a number of “friends” instead of a number of points.

Uncharted Waters
We talked about life as new territory to explore, and there being no map explaining how our unique lives will play out – but God can guide us. Although our custom at the time was to keep camp themes a secret until the first session, we previewed this theme by showing a clip from “Pirates of the Caribbean” and invited kids to dress up as pirates for the first night of camp. We gave away prizes like eye-patches and plastic hand-hooks during the first session games, and the big outdoor game involved searching for and actually digging up buried treasure. We even kept a big “treasure chest” on the stage throughout the retreat.

This was my first camp in Beijing. As I said above, our custom was to keep the theme a secret til the first session of camp, at which point there’d be a big hype up and reveal – painting a vision for the weekend. At the “nothing” camp, we finished worship during the first session and the two youth pastors came up to the front to do the intro message. They hyped the kids up “do you want to know what the theme is??” for a minute or so, then said “Okay! The theme for this year’s camp IS…” – then stood there in silence for a minute or so. In the end they explained – we studied three “nothings” of faith, for example, nothing is impossible with God. The camp logo was just a circle with a line through it (like a street sign).

This was the theme of the first Beijing Youth Conference. The whole weekend was styled as a “flight”. As kids arrived and lined up for registration, several leaders used metal-detector style wands to “frisk” them, occasionally making certain kids do silly things before letting them through. Kids got water bottles we’d put our own “Go” labels on them, and stickers. During the first session the youth pastors got up and apologised that the flight had been delayed, but that we had some entertainment planned. When the session finished, they explained that the flight was delayed until tomorrow, so the “airline” had reserved places for them to stay (before bussing kids to host homes for the night). We provided leaders with DVDs which contained video devos and some other fun things – including a track of camp “rules”, set up like an airline safety video – complete with voiceover and a lovely “hostess” (youth leader) showing the “passenger” (another youth leader) what NOT to do. Another highlight was the “Deep Vein Thrombosis” video included for the morning – it was a crazy video with three guys in suits/ties doing insane exercises. It became a youth group cult classic! Kids were doing the DVT dance all day and it was an in-joke that kept up for over a year.

With an amazing double-cabin of girls at the GO09 conference in Beijing.

With an amazing double-cabin of girls at the GO09 conference in Beijing.

That’s just 5 examples from MANY camp themes.

What was the best themed event you’ve participated in?


Posted by on February 21, 2011 in Leading Youth, Youth Resources


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What does a youth leader’s influence look like?

When I was a teenager in a youth ministry, I learned a lot from the leadership training offered to me. Training students as leaders in all areas of ministry and giving them opportunities to practice their giftings is something I am very passionate about.

Aside from opportunities to be trained and to practice ministry, there is one other thing that affected me significantly during those years:

My observations.

I’ve never been a shy, retiring type. Although I can be quiet and intimidated by a large crowd of people I don’t know, most people would put me more on the chatterbox end of the scale – especially anyone who’s seen me engaging in youth ministry!

So while I did a lot of talking during my teen years, I often didn’t talk about the things that were affecting my faith the most deeply. Many of the big steps I took in my spiritual journey were heavily influenced by the words and actions of youth leaders – I listened to what they said and watched what they did. I rarely (if ever) had conversations with them about their influence, but influence me they did.

Nathaniel Hawkins was my youth leader in Connecticut, when I was 14-15. He was studying youth ministry at a Christian college an hour away (Nyack College, I believe) and drove down twice a week to lead the high school youth group and Sunday school (along with another student who lead the middle school group).

Nathaniel had a massive influence on my spiritual growth. He was the first person to challenge my opinions (as he did so I discovered that my opinions weren’t really my own – I was parroting what I’d heard my mother say) and the first person to talk to me about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

While I never talked to him about the struggles I was having and the ways I was growing in my faith, his loving questions and openness about relating to God personally were instrumental in my decision to follow Jesus as my Lord and Saviour.

As youth leaders, and especially as leaders of TCKs, we get only a short window of opportunity to feed directly into the lives of the teens we work with. It’s rare to have more than 3 or so years of closeness with any given kid. If we use the illustration of a person’s life as the growth of a tree, perhaps our task as youth leaders is to plant a seed, or water it, or put fertiliser on a young sapling.

We are mostly engaged in the business of preparation. We don’t always see the fruits of our labour. The kids we work with are young and still developing; they are just beginning their walks with God, just beginning to develop spiritual maturity. With some kids we are allowed to see growth and development – and doesn’t that just warm your heart and make you glad to be alive?? Still, a lot of the time we walk through questions with them, model integrity and authenticity to them, but see little response to our efforts.

And you know what? That’s okay.

Our kids are each on their own journey. Their lives don’t look the same. They have different preparations to undertake. Some, like Joseph, will have a long road to walk before fulfilment of the potential we see in them begins.

If we as youth leaders measure our “success” by what our kids are doing with their lives, I think we’re missing something.


Posted by on February 18, 2011 in Leading Youth


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