Back to the Future: Youth Ministry Edition

B2TFWhen I was in high school I still remember taking my girlfriend (who is now my wife) to go see a movie at the local mall. All I knew about the movie was that it was a Steven Spielberg movie starring Michael J. Fox. These were two very good reasons to see a movie in 1985. Little did I know what I was in for. It turned out to be one of my favorite ‘80’s movies. The concept of going back in time 30 years to help change the future was a great concept. Of course, Marty McFly was trying to help his parents who were teenagers in 1955. But I often wonder, what would I do if I could go back 20-25 years and find the young version of myself just starting out in ministry. Knowing what I know now, what would I say to the 1990’s Scott just starting out in youth ministry?

First, I would begin by saying, although you have studied youth ministry and biblical studies, and you are super anxious to try out everything you have been studying in college and seminary, learn to appreciate and support your parents of teens! When I first started out in ministry I was slightly resentful towards my parents and adult leaders. I always felt like they thought I was not fully capable of understanding teenagers until I raised my own. I felt slighted by this in that I have spent years studying adolescent development, adolescent psychology, adolescent spirituality, adolescent culture, and a heaping dose of biblical studies. I was proud of the knowledge I had. I believed that I spent more time studying the modern-day teenage experience than most parents have even had teenagers in their own home. A little prideful, I know. But now that I have raised 4 kids of my own, and have had all of them go through their teenage years, I get it now! There is nothing that college can teach you when it comes to parenting your own teens.

Secondly, parents are not your enemies! They can be your greatest allies. Understand that their lives are crazy trying to manage their teenager’s life. Many of them are going through their own issues when it comes to marriage, parenting and work in that any help that they can get would be awesome. Minister to your parents by regularly communicating with them, providing resources to them and using them to help with the ministry. Some of the best youth leaders I have ever had have been parents of teens.

Third, teens’ lives are crazy busy and it is even more crazy as each decade passes. Be careful to put even more pressure on them than they already have. Allow youth group to be a place of rest; an opportunity in their lives where they can take off the masks, let go of their responsibilities and just be themselves for a few hours. In my early years, I was so busy trying to make teenagers even more busy doing church stuff. Now I admit that there is a place and time to get them doing ministry, but they also need downtime just to be themselves. And what better place to do that than in youth group.

Fourth, GRACE, GRACE, GRACE! Do not take things personally and get resentful towards teens or parents if they are not showing up or getting involved in the way you would like them to do. Realize that many times they are trying to figure out life themselves. You may not agree with their decisions or choices but always err on the side of grace and love. Don’t show preferential treatment to your “fan base” and snub the others. Instead, show grace and love to everybody, all the time. Always leave the door open for any and all teenagers to come back and get plugged into the youth group. Go to where the teens are. Go to their games, performances and recitals! Show that you care even if they are not regularly involved in your ministry events.

And finally, BALANCE! Give equal time to all areas of your life. To have the greatest youth ministry of all time is not worth it if your own family is in shambles. Make time for just you and your family. Make time for you personally doing things that you like to do that will recharge you. Make sure you are investing in your marriage. You will see way too many couples divorce when their teenagers go off to college because they stopped making time for themselves and invested all their time into other things. Once the teens left for college then the couple realized they didn’t really have a relationship anymore. If you are in a church that demands 60-90 hours every week then get out. Busy weeks throughout the calendar year are inevitable and always work hard during those times. But it is vital for you to find a church that sees the importance of you and your family development being just as important of a “job” as the ministry you are being hired for. You are going to want your own biological teenagers to love the church. I promise you they will not if they feel like they are ignored because all your time is given to the church and you have no time for them, that is, until they are in your youth group. But by that time, they will be resentful of the church and you have defeated the very thing you would want for your own kids!

Ministry can be tricky. And it can play with your thoughts and emotions. But keep a balanced life and always, always, always be full of grace and love! I wish I could go back in time to convince my young self of these things. Sometimes I wish I could have a do-over. But thankfully God continued to work in me and bring me to this point in my life where I feel proud and honored to be a husband, father and minister to teens!  

Book Review: Start With Why

startwithwhyOnce again, I heard a great speaker at the Global Leadership Summit back in August 2018. They so inspired me to go out and buy some of his books! This one is called “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” by Simon Sinek. It was a great read in explaining how great leaders start with the “why” when it comes to being successful. So many businesses start with what they do and how they do it without wrestling with why they do what they do. When you discover your “why” that will help to inspire and empower the people who work for you. And the answer to WHY is not just about making money. It is about what inspires people to want to give their best effort towards your cause.

Sinek states that “Great leaders . . . are able to inspire people to act. Those who are able to inspire give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained. Those who truly lead are able to create a following of people who act not because they were swayed, but because they were inspired.” (p. 6). This sets up the rest of the book in detailing companies, like Apple, who have created a culture of inspiration and excitement for their workers. They believe in the WHY of the company which inspires them to do their best when it comes to WHAT and HOW. Sinek says that “By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?” (p. 39). He goes on commenting that “We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special., safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.” (p. 55). These are the kinds of leaders in business and in the church that make serving more enjoyable. When we know what our WHY is, we can create vision, direction and inspiration. I have worked for pastors who are really good at this and some who were really bad at this. Now ultimately the United Methodist Church’s “WHY” is the make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But the question is how have individual pastors used this WHY to inspire their own congregations. You would think this is so simple but yet I have seen it go horribly wrong.

Another characteristic that Sinek adds to great leadership is authenticity. He points out that “Being authentic is not a requirement for success, but it is if you want that success to be a lasting success. Again, it goes back to WHY. Authenticity is when you say and do the things you actually believe.” (p. 69). Nothing is worse in a church setting than an inauthentic, fake leader. And the reality is that many young people can pick up on this big time. That is why I believe that many of the younger generations are leaving the church. The church is not doing well to help define it’s WHY and then lead authentically and with integrity to be who we are meant to be. When we lead like this we build loyalty and trust with the congregation as they are inspired to fulfill the purposes of the church. Especially in the context of the church, we ought to feel like we are working for something bigger than ourselves. The Bible gives us that inspiration but it takes great leaders to take that and inspire others to believe in the bigger picture of who we are and why we exist.

Sinek goes on to say that “Companies with a strong sense of WHY are able to inspire their employees. Those employees are more productive and innovative, and the feeling they bring to work attracts other people eager to work there as well.” (p. 95). A church that is living into its WHY will be a church that is attracting others who want to be a part of the vision and direction of that church. Good leadership will take time to develop their WHY and then use it to inspire the congregation to live into that vision.

Sinek also comments that “The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.” (p.99). Pastors who feel that they need to do it all themselves are prime candidates for burnout. But those who help to inspire WHY will create an environment in which people can feel free to think creatively and come up with their ideas. Sinek points out that “only when individuals can trust the culture of organization will they take personal risks in order to advance that culture or organization as a whole.” (p. 104). So creating a culture in which people are both inspired and feel a sense of trust with the organization will help to bring out the very best in people.

Passion is another key aspect to inspiring people towards the WHY. Sinek says that “Passion comes from feeling like you are a part of something that you believe in, something bigger than yourself. If people do not trust that a company is organized to advance the WHY, then the passion is diluted.” (p. 111). This is what a good pastor wants to do in advancing why we exist as a church. Creating passion to feel like you are part of something that is bigger than yourself and that you are a part of contributing to that cause is huge. Instead of having passive participants you can have a church that is alive and moving in the right direction.

Now you can have a vision but not know how to get to where you want to go. The WHY needs to inspire the HOW. Sinek states that “It is the partnership of a vision of the future and the talent to get it done that makes an organization great. This relationship starts to clarify the difference between a vision statement and a mission statement in an organization. The vision is the public statement of the founder’s intent, WHY the company exists. It is literally the vision of a future that does not yet exist. The mission statement is a description of the route, the guiding principles – HOW the company intends to create that future. When both of those things are stated clearly, the WHY-type and the HOW-type are both certain about their roles in the partnership. Both are working together with clarity of purpose and a plan to get there. For it to work, however, it requires more than a set of skills, it requires trust.” (p. 142). A vision statement and the mission statement must work together to accomplish its goal. But ultimately trust has to be the glue that holds it all together. In the context of the church I would agree that dynamic pastors and leadership teams need to work through their vision and their mission and be transparent about it in order to earn the trust of the congregation. Without trust, the whole thing can come to a screeching halt.

I have also been a part of churches that are busy for the sake of being busy without doing the due diligence of defining our WHY and then clarifying HOW we accomplish that. Without a clear WHY, we could have so many things going on that have no rhyme, reason or connection to ultimately answering why we are doing such things in the first place. Sinek says that “When people know WHY you do WHAT you do, they are willing to give you credit for everything that could serve as proof of WHY. When they are unclear about your WHY, WHAT you do has no context. Even though the things you do or decisions you make may be good, they won’t make sense to others without a clear understanding of WHY.” (205-206). We cannot be busy just to be busy. We need to define WHY we exist first and then structure WHAT we do and HOW to get there. This kind of visioning should help a church be more purposeful in its mission as people trust the vision and see how it is being fleshed out.

Sinek concludes his book by pointing out that “Leaders don’t have all the great ideas; they provide support for those who want to contribute. Leaders achieve very little by themselves; they inspire people to come together for the good of the group. Leaders never start with what needs to be done. Leaders start with WHY we need to do things. Leaders inspire action.” (p. 228). It is with this that the book wraps up this quest for understanding our WHY. Leaders are not the ones with all the ideas but instead, are the ones who can create an environment where people feel inspired by the vision that empowers them towards action. On rare occasions I have actually seen this work the way it is supposed to in the context of the church. But when it is done right, look out! That church will find itself, live into its purpose, and attract others to be a part of the kingdom building that it is supposed to be doing in the first place. It seems so simple but yet it can be so complex depending on the ability of the pastor and her/his team around them.

This was a great book to help understand the WHY behind what we do as an organization or church. It helped me to see the difference in creating a vision statement and how a mission statement comes out of that. This book also helped me to see the importance of trust with the people you work with. If they don’t trust you’ or you don’t trust them, not much is going to happen. But with trust, you can help to inspire people towards a vision bigger than themselves. When a church does this correctly there is a desire for others to want to plug in and contribute to the vision. And that right there is a dynamic church that will attract people to Christ rather than bore people to death or, worst yet, repel people away from the cause of Christ.

 

So It Begins!

soitbegins

And so begins another year! And with a new year comes even more resolve to get myself in a healthy place. This time last year I attempted a diet with the YouthPastorDiet.com group led by youth ministry extraordinaires, Doug Fields and Josh Griffin. They created this idea to inspire youth pastors to get real about their health. Why? Because so many of us, as a result of the ministry we are involved in, are around a lot of food that would fit into the “unhealthy” category: burgers, fried food, pizza, wings, chips, cookies, candy, etc.. Teens can burn this stuff off with no problem. But for this 50 year old youth pastor, my eating habits have expanded my waistline more than I want.

So anyhow, last year, January 2018, I started the diet topping out at 230 pounds. Throughout the course of the diet I lost a total of 21 pounds. That was Round 1. That was good. But like most people, once the challenge was over, the bad eating habits came back with a vengeance. Currently I am at 228 pounds. I am embarrassed to say I gained most of it back. So now begins Round 2.

As a result of No-Shave November I decided to grow a beard. I kept it through out the holidays. But much to the chagrin of teenagers with no filters, when it comes to their mouth, both in the church and in my family, I got told I would make a great Santa Claus by one too many. So I shaved off the beard today and I am ready to start the process of getting back to a healthier place. My goal is to get down around 189. And yes, I am signed up for Round 2 of the Youth Pastor Diet. This year it goes for 100 days, ending on April 11. My other goal is to not have to do this again in January 2020. At least not to the extent that I am attempting to lose this year. I want to keep it off for good this time.

To reach these goals I am going to go to the gym (Planet Fitness) every day possible after work. No less than 3 times a week, but if I can make it 6 or 7 times a week just to at least drop weight then so be it. As long as the weather is wintery outside, the gym is my only option. But when the weather starts to get better in March/April, I would like to get outside and start running again. If things go really well I may even sign up for the Flying Pig half-marathon that is always the first Sunday in May. I have done that race 3 times. This is a huge goal, but if I get some running partners to run with me I know I will be more motivated to do it.

So here is to a great start to 2019. I’ll keep updates coming.

Living Fully into God’s Will

 

91fe1Q8CSALI heard Erwin McManus for the first time at the Global Leadership Summit in August 2018. He was by far, the most passionate and dynamic speaker of the whole event. He spoke about the fact that he was diagnosed with cancer a while back. As a result of his battle with cancer, this has helped to put things into better perspective as to living his life in order to make the most impact possible.

While I enjoyed reading the book about his journey with cancer and the lessons he learns, his actual live delivery was incredible. If you ever have a chance to hear Erwin McManus speak then do it. He will get you fired up and inspired. With that said, the book was great also. He focuses his readers on 2 Kings 13. It’s the story of Elisha telling  king Joash to grab a bunch of arrows and fire them off. The king fires off some of the arrows but stops with some arrows still available in the quiver. Then Elisha gets upset with him, explaining that the amount of arrows represent the amount of battles the king will win against his enemies, but since he did not fire off all of the arrows he will not be completely victorious in his battles. It is an odd story to say the least. I am impressed with the fact that McManus developed a whole book around this passage. McManus does a great job in using this story to explain how we need to live life fully into what God has called us to do.

McManus begins by focusing on the fact that we were not made to be ordinary or average. He states that “I do not believe anyone is born average, but I do believe that many of us choose to live a life of mediocrity. I think there are more of us than not who are in danger of disappearing into the abyss of the ordinary. The great tragedy in this, of course, is that there is nothing really ordinary about us. We might not be convinced of this, but our souls already know it’s true, which is why we find ourselves tormented when we choose lives beneath our capacities and calling.” (p. 4).

In referring to the quiver of arrows that King Joash partially used, McManus goes on saying that “There is a posture toward life that separates those who end their lives with their quivers full of untapped potential and unseized opportunities and those who die with their quivers empty.” (p. 10). This is an interesting application of this passage of Scripture. I never thought of it this way. He sees the arrows representing all the potential that we have to offer. We are to live life in such away that we live fully into who we were meant to be, holding nothing back for the next life.

Many times we do not develop our potential due to fear. McManus says that “I am convinced of this: you must not allow fear to steal your future, and every day that you walk this earth you must make sure you save nothing for the next life. You must never allow fear to keep you grounded. The moment you choose to play it safe, you’ve lost the game. Instead of running from your fears, lean into them, for on the other side of them is the future you long for. These moments form character and forge the future.” (p.24) We live in a culture that is stoked by fear. But as believers we must not give into the fear-mongering whether it is from our culture or within our own minds. To do so will lead to a less than average life.

McManus gets more specific about living into the life we were called into in that “the one thing where you must never settle for less is the calling that God has on your life, the purpose for which he has created you, the impact he designed you to make in the world. The great tragedy that I have witnessed over and over again is that we keep underestimating how much God wants to do in us and through us.” (p. 28). Primarily, what the author is communicating is that we ought to “seize the day” fully living into all that God has created us to be.  He concludes this chapter stating that “You have one life to use everything you have been entrusted with, so you might as well save nothing for the next life.” (p. 30).

Fear is not the only thing holding people back. McManus also believes that some of us live comfortable lives that don’t require us to trust in God. He says that “Perhaps the reason so few of us have received a double portion of God’s Spirit is that the lives we have chosen require so little of God because they require so little of us. I do not want to watch God work from a distance. Neither do I want to hear the amazing stories of God’s work from a distance. Neither do I want to hear the amazing stories of God’s activity in the world as if they are fables made for other people in an ancient time. I want to live the kind of life that cannot be lived without the fullness of Christ in my life.” (p. 89). Some people live their lives in a way where they really don’t need God in their lives because they have created a comfortably average life for themselves. We hear of God doing amazing things in other areas of the country or in the world but never in our context. McManus is challenging the reader to live fully into all that Christ has made us for.

The author goes on to explain why we need to live into this life that Christ has for us in saying that “If for no other reason, we need to choose our most heroic lives, because a world desperately needs to see what it looks like to be fully alive. What the world needs most from you is for you to be fully alive.” (p. 102). We certainly need more people like this. Instead, so many Christians are know for what they are against. If we live into all that Christ has created us to be I would hope that that would attract others to the faith.

McManus goes on to implore that “There comes a time and a place where you have to decide, This is worth fighting for. This is where I stand. This is who I am. This is the life I have chosen. I will not run. I will not allow fear to move me from where I should be to where it wants me to live. I would rather die facing the challenge than exist running from it”. (p. 124-125). We need to find that which God has made us passionate about and pursue it to the fullest.

McManus focuses some of his criticism on the church in that “The church has become an institution that preserves the past and fears the future. It is not an overstatement to say that the church has become more of a reflection of what we are running from than what we are running to. No wonder we have lost our power to change the world. No wonder the church has lost its magnetism to a world searching for hope. We are seen as the guardians of tradition. The church is known for fighting the future rather than creating the future that humanity desperately needs.” (p. 140). This is his most powerful statement against the modern American church. And I pretty much agree. While we learn form our past, we must live into a future that radiates with hope, love and passion. We need to stop being a church that is only known for what we are against.

McManus explains that throughout this process we need to be in line with God first. He comments that “the process must begin by loving God first. It is in loving God with all your heart and mind and soul that he begins to shape your passions. When God has your heart, you can trust your desires. His will is not a map; it is a match. He shows you the way by setting you on fire. You will know God’s desire for you by the fire in you! The fire win you will light the way.” (p. 176). When we make God the center of our life, He will create and shape us into his image and that will develop passion in our lives to seek justice, to love mercy and to walk humble with our God. If God has made you passionate about something that stoke that fire, don’t put it out.

McManus concludes with stating “Don’t make the mistake of living your life waiting for good things to happen – make good things happen. Be faithful in the small things that do not matter to you as much and treat them with the same level of respect and importance as the big things connected to your hopes and dreams. Remember that Jesus laid out this principle for us: it is the person who is faithful in the small things who will be entrusted with bigger things.” (p. 194). When you read all that McManus has done in his life it is pretty amazing. But he is not saying “be just like me”. He points out that we need to be faithful in all things. We need to be trustworthy in the little things of life and that helps to prepare us to take on bigger responsibilities. Don’t wait around for the BIG opportunity but be faithful now in all the things related to your life.

I really enjoyed this book. Erwin McManus is a popular American pastor and writer. He is involved in a lot of great things. But to have to face cancer and to not let that derail you is amazing. Instead, it seemed to light a fire under the author where he wants to make the most of every moment of every day living faithfully for Christ and doing all he can to expand the kingdom of God in the remaining amount of time that he has. His story is powerful and passionate. And to build a book around the passage of King Joash shooting some arrows I thought was great.

The Positives of Youth Ministry

WRAYM-front-coverThere is enough negativity out there directed at youth ministry that when I saw the title of this book I knew I just had to get it! Mark Oestreicher has been in the “business” for quite a while now. I have aged in my ministry to youth following the career and writings of Marko. And just about anything he has written on the topic of youth ministry has been very thought provoking and enlightening.

Marko begins his book by pointing out the importance of youth ministry in stating that “The church is called (see: the New Testament!) to share the gospel and grow disciples, to be the presence of Christ on earth. In a world where youth culture exists, this simply must include adults who are cross-cultural missionaries, willing to embody the gospel into that cultural context.” (p. 24). So the question becomes, how can we do this effectively?

Marko continues his book by expanding on 6 values that great youth ministries embrace. The first value is The Long View. “the humble youth worker knows and lives a ministry approach that actively practices faith in God to transform lives, knowing we are powerless to change hearts.” (p. 49). This is vital for youth pastors to understand. Sometimes we want to see results now as an affirmation of the time you spend ministering to youth, but we must realize that we need to be patient and faithful in what God has called us to do, trusting that the Holy Spirit, in his timing will bring to light what that teen needs in her/his life. All we can do is plant seeds. It is up to the Holy Spirit, in his timing, to grow those seeds. Marko goes on to explain that “As much as we might try to control the beliefs and behaviors of teenagers, we’re powerless to transform lives. That’s God’s role, not ours. Of course, I don’t desire that any post-youth grouper walk away. But their stories and their journeys are not mine to control. All I can do is be faithful in the here and now while trusting God for each teenager’s future. The Long View leans into humility, trust, and hope.” (p. 54)

The next value is the Power of Small. Marko’s point here is that what really works in youth ministry is “a caring, Jesus-following adult engaging a small group of teenagers.” (p. 57). No matter how big a youth ministry might get, there is power in making sure to break it down into small groups. Youth ministry needs to be relational. In a large group context it is hard to do that; but to break that down into small groups where real relationships and dialogue can happen helps in the process of developing faith. In a small group a teen is known, recognized, loved and is given a voice to share about their lives and their faith journey.

The third value is the Role of the Holy Spirit in you and your ministry. It is important to make time to listen and be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in your ministry. Now this is not to say throw out any planning and organizing and just “let the Spirit lead”. I have know people like that and the irony is they go to the same scripture references and tell the same stories as a lack of their preparation. Marko states that “your best youth ministry will never come from excellent brainstorming; your best youth ministry will always be the result of stepping into God’s dreams for your ministry.” (p. 68). God has plans for our youth ministry and it is important to be aware of that. You want to be on the same page in which the Holy Spirit is leading. We are being invited into a much bigger plan and purpose we could ever imagine. Listen, pay attention, and be open to the Spirit’s leading and prompting.

The forth value is Integration over Isolation. Marko says that “we’ll see long-term faith more often when we work to decrease the constant ghettoization of teenagers and help them find meaningful belonging in the life of the church.” (p. 73). Some people have reacted to the isolation of youth ministry by stating that youth ministry is unbiblical therefore banishing it from their churches. I think this is a huge overreaction. It is important to have a place specifically for the youth but we must also look for ways to integrate them into the life of the larger church. Let teenagers get involved in other areas of ministry through the church, sing in the choir, play in the praise band, attend the main services. At our church we close down the youth Sunday morning class on every 5th Sunday so that we can go down and attend the worship service together. If we don’t do this, then church will seem foreign to them when they graduate out of the youth ministry. They will be less inclined to integrate into the life of a church away at college unless it looks and feels like youth ministry. That is not healthy. Integration into the life of the larger church is important. They need to connect with other generations. To strictly separate each generation within the church does not help anyone. It is important to help integrate everybody on all levels.

The fifth value is Embracing the Role of the Parents. In this Section Marko points out that we youth workers need to listen, communicate, equip and involve parents. I couldn’t agree more. It is important for us to come along side of parents and be a source of encouragement, and love, recognizing that the parent is the number one spiritual role model for their teen, not us. This isn’t to say, as some churches have done, that we throw away youth ministry in favor of family ministries, expecting parents to be their teen’s “youth pastor”. Parents need help and having other adults pour into their teens’ life is invaluable. But we must understand the importance of the parents. We should regularly communicate with them, we should honor them as the primary role to their teen, we need to equip them to be great parents, and, as I have always done, use them within the youth ministry! Get them involved! They are the best resources I have in my ministry.

The final value that Marko lays out is in the area of Contextualization. He states that “In an age of splintered youth culture. great youth ministries have discerned an approach to ministry that is wonderfully unique to their context. . . . The best youth ministries are always weird. They have a high degree of self-awareness about their uniqueness, and they celebrate them.” (p. 95). The fact that my current youth group has a plastic mascot taken from one of the three wisemen in a nativity set and we call him Hoku and he goes on almost every trip with us I think shows off our uniqueness and weirdness! Anyhow, it is important to know your context in the particular community that God has put you in. In the 4 churches that I have served at in my lifetime, each had a very different cultural context and my approach to ministry changed and adapted to their needs.

A final thought that Marko closes out with is that “A youth ministry anchored in faith believes that God is at work.” (p. 108). There are a number of books out there that will tell you what is wrong with modern day youth ministry. Some are very good books that we need to read and wrestle with. Some are just bad. But overall, if you want to have a great youth ministry you can’t go wrong with incorporating these six values into your ministry. Marko leaves us with a great foundation to build a successful youth ministry.

God Moments

youthministryLately I have been feeling a little discouraged when it comes to my ministry. Not a big deal, nor is it something I really want to get into here, but I do want to share some God moments I have had over the past week where God clearly showed Himself to me as an encouraging sign that things are happening with our youth.

A week ago I had a parent of one of my teens contact me and asked if I would come over to their house to chaperone a Bible study since both parents were not able to be there. I didn’t think much of it and I was available so I said yes. I assumed this was a CRU or Young Life event where there would be other adults. When I got there, there were a handful of teens from the youth group as well as a bunch I have never met before. The Bible study started and I didn’t see any other “adult leaders”. As I sat and observed, I began to realize that this teen was the initiator of this gathering. She put it all together, invited her friends, and opened up the Bible and shared about her favorite characters! And not only that but some of her references were clearly from things I could tell she learned from our youth group either in small groups or mission trips. This warmed my heart!

A few days later my son came home and told me that he got nominated to a club at school called the Hope Squad. (To learn more about Hope Squad as an organization go HERE.) Anyhow, I learned from my son that this was a group of teens who were nominated by their peers to be a resource at their schools for suicide prevention. The fact that he was nominated by the student body made me a proud father. To know that his peers see him as one they can go to for help, encouragement, and support means a lot to me as a father. Well, it turns out that there was a parent’s meeting that was mandatory and my wife was unavailable, so I had to go. Not that I mind going up to the school since I am a youth pastor but when it involves “mandatory” parent’s meetings it can cause me to grumble just a little bit. So, I get to the meeting and realize that the 40+ teens who were asked to be leaders in the Hope Squad for Loveland High School were all the leading candidates who were nominated by the whole student body. Teachers and the school administration had nothing to do in deciding who was a part of this. The whole student body were supposed to write down 3 teens that they would trust to be a resource that they would feel comfortable talking to if they needed help. While I was beaming with pride that the student body felt that my son was worthy of this, I began to look around the room and discovered that about half the parents there at the meeting were parents of teens from my youth group! The fact that so many teens from our youth group have such great character and empathy that the majority of the student body would nominated them to be a part of the Hope Squad had me walking out of that meeting on a spiritual high! I felt God’s presence as He smiled at me and reminded me that they get it, they are listening, and they are applying what they are learning in small groups and missions.

So fellow youth pastors and youth leaders, don’t get discouraged. It is easy to fall into the mindset of whether or not you are making a difference. You are! It may not be in your timing or the way that you imagine it to play out. But you are making a difference. Live out your faith. Meet them where they are at. Be consistent and persistent.

As an intern back in the ’90’s, my mentor taught me that youth ministry is a “delayed gratification” ministry. In the moment, it is easy to think whether you are making a difference or not. But you have to be patient. All I can do is plant seeds and trust that the Holy Spirit is going to spark life into them. Sometimes it may happen in a moment, but often times it is a process that at times, can go on well beyond high school. Just be consistent. Love the teens entrusted to you. Teach the Bible and live it out for them in your own personal life. May God bless your work!

When Jesus Wrecks Your Life

interuptedWhat happens when God messes up your comfortable Christian life? Author Jen Hatmaker takes you on a personal journey of how God did just that for her and her family. She begins by recognizing the facts about poverty around the world in contrast to a comfortable Christianity that so many of us practice. Through the influences of Shane Claiborne writings, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Jen was challenged to step out of her comfort zone and let her faith get messy. She states that “I am still stunned by my capacity to spin Scripture, see what I wanted, ignore what I didn’t and use the Word to defend my life rather than define it.” (p. 5). The sad fact is that I believe that many American Christians do approach their faith like this. Jesus came to radically change our lives. Too often we want Jesus in our lives but on our terms, not His. We don’t want Him to ruin the life we have created for ourselves. Jen points out that “Americans living in excess beyond imagination while the world cries out for intervention is an unbearable tension and utterly misrepresents God’s Kingdom.” (p. 31). Jen balances this out though, not trying to lay a big guilt trip on her readers, but instead she is trying to wake us up to many of our realities. Jen comments “Please don’t hear me say that America stinks and all her citizens are narcissists. It’s just that most of us have no concept of our own prosperity. Nor do we have an accurate understanding of the plight of the rest of the world. Our perspective is limited, and our church culture is so consumer oriented that we’re blinded to our responsibility to see God’s kingdom come to ‘all nations’. . . . We stand at the intersection of extreme privilege and extreme poverty, and we have a question to answer: Do I care?” (p. 34-35).

Throughout the book Jen takes you on her family’s journey out of a comfortable faith and into a much more dependent faith on the leading of the Holy Spirit. Jen and her husband Brandon went to go hear Shane Claiborne at a local event. Having never met him, they noticed a homeless looking guy when they entered the building not realizing that that was Shane! Shane challenged them at the end of his talk to give up the shoes on their feet for the poor in the community. It just so happened that Jen and Brandon had some quite expensive boots on but they felt convicted to give them up anyhow and go back to their car barefooted. This propelled them to open their eyes more to serving the poor. Jen says that “We don’t get to opt out of living on mission because we might not be appreciated. We’re not allowed to neglect the oppressed because we have reservations about their discernment. We cannot deny love because it might be despised of misunderstood. We can’t withhold social relief because we’re not convinced it will be perfectly managed. We can’t project our advantaged perspective onto struggling people and expect results available only to the privileged. Must we be wise? Absolutely. But doing nothing is a blatant sin of omission.” (p. 62). The church needs to be about reaching out and serving others in a profound way. We need to get back to getting our hands and feet dirty for the cause of Christ. Jen goes on to remind the reader that “We have the privilege of serving Jesus Himself every time we feed a hungry belly, each moment we give dignity to someone who has none left, when we acknowledge the value of a convict because he is a human being, when we share our extreme excess with those who have nothing, when we love the forsaken and remember the forgotten. Jesus is there.” (p. 109).

At this point of her story, Jen and her husband decide to leave their church and start a new one that is more focused on getting out and serving the poor. Jen stresses that “I worry the Christian community has accepted an insidious shift from laboring for others to prioritizing our own rights. We’ve perpetuated a group identity as misunderstood and persecuted, defending our positions and preferring to be right over being good news. . . If we were not too beneath Christ, who died for us while we were still sinners, then how dare we take a superior position over any other human being? How lovely is a faith community that goes forth as loving sisters and brothers rather than angry defenders and separatists.” (p. 202). This is such a profound statement in light of current state of politics and religion. So many of us in America are more concerned about my rights, my experience, and feign as if we are being persecuted. With this approach we are losing the next generation who aren’t interested in this type of American Christianity. Instead, we need to be on the forefront of social issues related to those who are in need and actually serve them as Jesus served others.

Jen concludes her book by emphasizing that “If an endless array of Bible studies, programs, church events, and sermons have left you dry, please hear this: living on mission where you’ve been sent will transform your faith journey. At the risk of oversimplifying it, I’ve seen missional living cure apathy better than any sermon, promote healing quicker than counseling, deepen discipleship more than Bible studies, and create converts more effectively than events.” (p. 233). I couldn’t agree more with this quote. We must get outside of our buildings and get busy applying our faith through serving and helping those in need. We need to stop with arrogant Christianity that is tied to politics and be about being Christ to others. If the church focused more on this then we would be attracting people to Christ instead of repelling people from our “unchristian” Christianity.

Yet, I see so many churches and youth ministries trying to help people KNOW Christianity without helping them to DO what Jesus did by example. I am afraid that if Jesus were to reappear in America right now, the American church wouldn’t even recognize Him and quite possibly crucify Him again. I see this right now in how some are reacting to the mass of humanity that is walking to the USA through Mexico. Jesus would be with these people. Jesus would expect the church to be leading the way in serving them. Yet I see well-meaning people on social media falling in line with our political leaders and demonizing these people without even considering their plight and how we can help them. I will say this though, I love being in a mainline denomination that can have the ability and resources from the support of thousands of churches to help with situations involving natural disasters, humanitarian crises, and poverty within our country and around the world. One church can only do so much, but collectively we can achieve a lot for the Kingdom of Christ. The danger though is that we in our individual churches can just write a check and feel that we are done with our contribution. My hope is that everyone would find opportunities to actually serve others face-to-face so that you have the opportunity to practice the ways of Christ up close and personal.

I highly recommend this book if you want God to mess with your faith. But keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to leave your church and start a new one to make change happen (but sometimes you do). Reform needs to happen within the churches that already exist too. Change happens within the individual through the power of the Holy Spirit. The question is are we trying to manage the Holy Spirit to conform to our way of life, or are we allowing to Holy Spirit to have his way with us completely and entirely. A church like this will do tremendous things for their community and will attract people to Christ. I want to be a part of that kind of church.

No Fear

Fear

While I will be the first to admit I kind of lost my mind during and after the 2016 election, I was genuinely upset by what was happening to the Republican party in it’s choice of Trump. You may really like him, or you may really hate him, but this is an important book that you should read. Bob Woodward is a highly respected journalist who became famous for breaking the Watergate story on President Nixon. Since then he has written many books about the presidents and the government. I’ve also read “Bush at War” when it came out.

While I believe that character matters, especially when it comes to our leaders, this book shows exactly the opposite with what is going on in the White House. Democrats dismissed President Bill Clinton’s moral indiscretions back in the ’90’s, while the Republicans seem to be doing the same with Trump.

I believe pretty strongly that we are living in a time where we have a lack of leadership in the government as well as the church. Morality and character seem to have been replaced by power and control by any means. I personally miss the days when the two parties, while having their differences, seemed to have enough respect for each other that they worked together for the common good of the country.  My belief in where we have failed was in the creation of the 24 hour news cycle. News transformed to be more commentary than factual reporting, thus creating news that tailors to your specific politics. If you are conservative, you have Fox News. If you are liberal, you have MSNBC. Truth has been hijacked to become truth AS I SEE IT. Facts don’t matter anymore. I just interpret things as I want them to be. We are truly living in post-modern times where truth is relative. Truth is what I make it to be, regardless of actual facts. And this is one aspect of Trump that deeply concerns me. He defines his own truth regardless of facts. And the scary thing is, his base (not saying all Republicans) eats it up. This concerns me. Again and again in the book, people in his own cabinet claim that Trump is incapable of the truth. Instead, he creates the narrative he wants.

The interesting thing here is that I grew up in the evangelical church that warned me about post-modernism and truth becoming relative. What is shocking to me is how 80% of the evangelicals embraced Trump. So what were Christians to do? Vote for Clinton? I don’t know what the answer was but I can say when it came to character, both parties picked candidates with glaring character flaws which made this election difficult for a lot of people. I have a relative that made the decision to not vote at all, and I have to say, now that time has passed, I have more respect for that decision. In every election I have been a part of, I always hear the phrase, “I am voting for the lesser of two evils.” Well, this election might have been the epitome of that more than any other election.

While there is a lack of character, integrity and truth from those in government, this presents an opportunity for the church to rise up and lead in these areas. Instead, you have a large percentage of evangelicals identifying themselves with Trump, and there are incredible moral failing playing out in the evangelical and Catholic churches, and many denominations are not leading in the way of Christ because they are too enamored by the “way of Caesar” with power and control.

My hope is that we as a church, the Bride of Christ, wake up to the history of when the church tried to identify itself with political power. Every time it failed. The church lost in a big way, again and again. It is time we find our main identity with Jesus and the kingdom of God more than any other system. It is that which should unify us above the mess that our country finds itself in.  Truth matters. Character matters. Jesus matters.

If we want to have any hope in reaching younger generations we need to show them the way of Christ lived out through the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Jesus. We need to be able to talk about what is true and false in both political parties allowing the Bible to be our standard. We need to model what it means to serve the least and the lost. We need to lead through servant leadership, empowering others to live lives of community, love and respect. The church needs to be counter-cultural in this respect. So my encouragement to you is to tread lightly when it comes to politics. It would be nice to have moral leaders who live out character that you would want your kids to look up to.  Unfortunately that is not the case. So instead of finding our main identity in political parties or leaders, let’s get serious about finding our main identity in Christ, and Christ alone. And let’s be honest, Jesus would not easily fit into either political party. My fear is that we would not recognize him if he were to appear and we would crucify him all over again.  Let’s get back to the business of the church being the bride of Christ and live such counter-cultural lives that actually ATTRACT people to Him instead of repelling people away from Him because of our political affiliations. We must rise above this.

 

Restaurant Work and the Church

 

setting_the_table

When I think of visiting New York City I often think of Broadway productions I want to see. But after reading Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table” I now want to visit NYC just to try out his restaurants. Unbeknownst to me, the last time I was there I did go to a Shake Shack not realizing the story behind the restaurant.

I first heard Danny Meyer at the Global Leadership Summit back in August of 2018. He struck me as a very dynamic and inspiring speaker which lead me to buy his book. This should be required reading for anyone in the hospitality business as well as churches. My grandmother used to have a cross-stitch frame that said “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This book hammers that point hard. Churches need to consider what a visitor’s first impressions might be upon visiting the church. If there is no initial hospitality, chances are that person may never return again.

There was so much in this book that I enjoyed, but I also felt that, although the church does not fall into the restaurant business, there is a lot to learn here about hospitality and leadership and how we can apply it to our context.

One thing that impacted me was Danny’s use of the 51% rule. What he meant by that is that he would hire people that were 49% skills and 51% character and people skills. Danny states that “far more important to me than a friend’s skills was always his of her goodness as a person. . . . I want the kind of people on my team who naturally radiate warmth, friendliness, happiness, and kindness. It feels genuinely good to be around them. There’s an upbeat feeling, a twinkle in the eye, a dazzling sparkle from within. I want to employ people I’d otherwise choose to spend time with outside of work. Many people spend a large percentage of their waking hours at work. From a selfish standpoint alone, if that’s your choice, it pays to surround yourself with compelling human beings from whom you can learn, and with whom you can be challenged to grow.” (pp.142-144). In the context of the church, I believe that this is true for those on staff and leadership. Skills can develop and be taught, while heart and people skills are at least 1% more important.

Danny believes in servant leadership as a bottom-up manager. He makes the point that “An organization puts itself in grave danger when it permits integrity to be compromised.” (p. 198). While this may apply to management, waiters and cook, I believe that this is essential for the church. It is imperative that a church staff and leadership have integrity and a servant-leadership model toward the rest of the congregation. In modeling this, we hope to empower the congregation toward love and good deeds!

Another great chapter in Danny’s book dealt with how you handle problems. Danny comments that “the secret of the game is anticipating mistakes, harnessing them, and addressing them in constructive ways so that we end up in a better spot than if we had never made them in the first place.”  (p. 221). He gave a lot of great illustrations in which costumers had a mistake occur, and then how the management of the restaurant didn’t allow the mistake to define their experience, but found a way to go over and above in creating a positive outcome that would overcome the mistake. This can be done in the context of the church with a simple phone call, visit, or letter.

In the context of church it is important that we are hospitable, that we empower people to live into being a child of God, and that we lead with integrity.  Granted, in a good church, this will not necessarily apply to the sermon because the job of the pastor is to teach the Bible within the context of our lives today and I know sometimes that can leave a person feeling really good, or convicted, or angry because they are not ready or willing to receive the message. But in the context of first impressions, we should absolutely have a hospitality team that helps people feel recognized and important. We should expect high moral integrity from our leaders which should inspire the rest to live better lives. And we should look to make difficult situations better with real conversation, warmth and kindness.

John Perkins and the Lives that Really Matter

All LivesDo all lives matter? The answer seems easy. All of us would say that all lives matter. And the fact is, you would be right. But the reality that we live in today does impose a hierarchy signifying that certain lives matter more than others.  Throughout American history we have seen many times in which certain people’s lives were seen as less significant than others. This is the heart of what John Perkins is getting at in his book “Do All Lives Matter?” John states early in the book that “if we are going to make progress with regard to behaving as if all lives matter, we need to make a genuine effort to understand others and the realities and struggles they face.” (p. 25).

This is not a book advocating for violence to advance it’s cause although we need to be sympathetic to why someone might act out from a feeling of hopelessness and despair. Although John has faced a lot of discrimination in his life he reasons that the solution is not to fight violence with violence but to fight it with love. He says that “We need to work together to create a climate that clearly acknowledges that all lives matter. All people have inherent dignity but many don’t know it, feel it, or believe it.” (p. 32)

John goes on to illustrate within our history when indigenous lives, women’s lives and black lives have been and still are being treated as lesser than others. It is important that we understand our history and the ripple effects that are still being felt by our treatment of the marginalized. In making the case for the continued marginalization of black people, John states that “Yes, African American people – as all people – ought to take personal responsibility for making the right choices, even in the midst of an uphill battle. But this is easier said than done. To relegate the slavery era and subsequent generations of racist legal and social policies to the past is not just logically absurd but is at the least insensitive if not immoral. Centuries of discrimination continue to shape the lives and limit the choices of African American people in our country today.” (p. 43)

The goal that all of us essentially wants is to live a life of peace and love knowing that justice is fair and balanced for all people. Instead of causing more reasons to fracture and splinter us as a society, we need to strive for wholeness, equality and reconciliation for all. And the majority should not sit back and ignore the problems of the minorities and marginalized but instead, work together so that everyone has hope and equality. Do all lives matter? Absolutely! Is it a reality in our country though? No. So we have work to do to build bridges and unity between groups so that we can eventually say that all lives really do matter. And might I add that the church should be the leader in modeling what this looks like to the society and helping to implement change in the larger culture.  Perkins reminds us that “Laws might change behavior but they cannot change hearts. A true revolution in our country – one that claims victory over violence and eliminates all exclusions to the proclamation that all lives matter – will come only as hearts are changed and as we recognize who our neighbors are and learn to truly love them as ourselves.” (p. 71) It is the church’s responsibility to live this out as kingdom believers recognizing and living out our unity in Christ. Jesus made a regular habit of identifying with the marginalized by bringing hope, healing and restoration into their lives. It is up to us to do the same.