Youth Ministry and the Future of the Church Part 6

Primary Audience – Local Context
Secondary Audience – Fellow youthworkers and Kingdombuilders

This is probably my last post in the “Youth Ministry and the Future of the Church” series for a while but I have enjoyed putting these thoughts out and have especially appreciated my local context friends expressing their thoughts (and at the very least … reading! – Seriously thanks). Be warned, I’ve tried to not be too provocative on these but I am finishing this post while listening to the new Radiohead album (really good).

Had I finished this series without the mention of the word “Missional”, it would only be a matter of days that someone from my beloved seminary would have contacted me for failure to apply practical objectives. But even with that lurking threat, ;) I sincerely believe that youth ministry will need to evolve and become more missional.

Before we dive in to that, a brief recap – My hope is that we will always support parents in the raising of young followers of a more Biblical Jesus with theological integrity. I hope we always provide opportunities for worship, community, learning and serving. Ultimately, I hope that the church will strengthen for the sake of the Kingdom.

That said, there’s only so much parents and youth workers can do for students, and there are some things that a student must see and do for themselves. At some point, students need to read the Bible for themselves and not just be taught about it. At some point, students must pray for themselves and not just be prayed for. And at some point, students must participate in mission and not just be the object of it.

It’s been my experience that if you want to convince a student to become less self-absorbed, you need to show them the physical/emotional/spiritual poverty of others. It’s among the reasons we believe in short-term missions and trying to create a sustainable and more consistent missional culture. This has been among the better aspects of our ministry.

To be completely honest though, I join the many who have always been concerned with the virtues of the short-term missions experience. Looking back on the last five years however, I think our response to the concern has been part of what has made these opportunities helpful. We tell students that they need to share their summer with others. We tell them to be faithful with the opportunities provided on the mission trip and to allow their hearts to be broken. We tell them later, that they can’t care for the homeless in New Orleans or the HIV patient in the Bahamas and curse their mother under their breath and ignore the socially marginalized in their school. In leaving our zip code, God has taught us a great deal about the people in it.

Now “being missional” is more than participational, it’s formational and communal as well. But among our problems is that our youth ministries are limited by the participational aspects of joining in service in the Kingdom.

We use a fair amount of sending language in our youth ministry. We even have students who say things like, “I am salt and light on my team/group/band.” That’s a great starting point for a young Christian and my hope is that we serve our community as individuals, families, and as a local church. To do this, I think a few aspects are needed.

One we need to be missional church-wide. Like many things, it must be part of our culture to serve and not just a “hobby” that the students do.

Two, we need to confront and dismiss the consumer culture that exists in many of our suburban churches. There’s a lot written about that on this blog and so many other places but consumer culture is suffocating us.

Third we need a new metrics of measurements. I know of some larger churches that are doing great things, some not so much. I know a few mid/small being very faithful and powerful and many not so much. Large/Small expired a long time ago, it’s about fruit, power, transformational difference. Instead of “How many are attending this week?” It needs to be more like, “How many new are coming in this year? How many are being sent out? What are they doing/saying/thinking/worshipping in here/out there?” etc. What is the fruit of our discipleship from our homes/churches?”

Finally, and I know how general this sounds, we must collectively pursue the mission of the Kingdom in the way Jesus modeled – liberation, provision, healing, sacrifice, forgiveness, redemption, all in the name of God’s love.

In the ministry I am serving in, we have had some amazing moments, some terrible ones, mediocre seasons and some real beautiful ones too. We are praying that we are on the Spirit-led road in being a strong church following Jesus. I truly believe that what we are doing today not only matters for now but for the evangelical church 30, 40, 50 years from now. Thoughts?

Youth Ministry and the Future of the Church Part 5

Primary Audience – Local Context
Secondary Audience – Fellow youthworkers and Kingdombuilders

In the previous post, I made the case that we need to present a more Biblically responsible vision of Jesus. In this post I want to insist on the second part of that – youth ministry needs to go deeper theologically.

Also in my previous post I am aware that I came across strongly towards my church upbringing. My intention is certainly not to offend anyone, especially those that served in this way. That said, if the goal of youth ministry is to train disciples in the way of Jesus, I think it’s appropriate to say that we haven’t always been faithful and effective with that great responsibility.

It was in college that I really sensed the lack of theology from our church upbringings. Ironically it was at Liberty University that I discovered the anti-intellectualism of evangelical culture. Resolved in my hope of equipping students theologically, during my first few years in youth ministry I kept hearing, “What are you talking about? and “Why does this matter?” Every so often parents would approach and say, “My kid likes you and all but I think you’re talking above his/her head” and “My kid doesn’t like you and you’re talking over his/her head.” To some extent, I would try to respond with better teaching, speak more clearly, slower, less “Christianese”, and tried to be more interesting. Then one day I heard a student say, “Wow, lately his messages have sucked.” (Among the lessons were – You can’t win but be Spirit-led, be faithful and be better for the sake of the Kingdom.)

Now, I”ll save describing how/what I changed for a different post but basically my teaching style is aimed at two audiences, “The church brat” and “the newbie” (At least that’s how I plot in my mind) but I am convinced that we need to offer our academically-geared, post-Dawson’s Creek, sophisticated suburbanite student some deeper Christian teaching. I know that not each of our students are AP and Ivy League bound and some have trouble focusing and such, I get that. But when focused, students can really engage in what is being taught (especially if you can tell a story), the God-sized world of youth ministry is profound.

It is no surprise that this need was one of the attractions to the emerging church discussion. I remember hearing Tony Jones at a YS Conference in 2003 saying, “We need youth ministries with theological robustness.” We’ve heard him and others say that or similar countless times (for more check out youth pastor Dan Haugh talk about the need for better theology in youth ministry here).

In case you are coming into this series a bit late, please remember that a deeper theological emphasis is only part of what we need in youth ministry today. But to have this, we need a number of things. Among them are:

1. Youth workers who love theology and are trained/in training to teach it.
A. Seminary training is helpful.
B. Solutions for the many that can not/don’t want to go to seminary.
C. Training for the countless volunteers that are vital to youth ministry
2. A church culture that values theology for the sake of glorifying God (and committed to not break fellowship over “proper doctrine”).
A. This comes not only from the church leadership (pastors/elders) but must also be from our homes.
B. More books/training resources similar to Mike King and Chris Folsmbe.

Youth Ministry and the Future of the Church Part 4

Youth Ministry has come a long way since I was a kid in the late 80’s-early 90’s. I remember clip-art with white surfers/skaters always saying that Jesus was Radical!! Tubular!!! Outrageous! Sorry not enough exclamations there, I mean OUTRAGEOUS!!! (need one for each member of the Trinity).

Unless I am mistaken, it was believed that if we could make Jesus relatable enough and “cool” enough, our young minds wouldn’t be able to help ourselves and we would fall madly in love with Jesus and reject our cultural’s non-edifying values and live happily ever after. A funny thing happened though, it was pretty much the opposite of all that. My friends and I were fairly polite, we tolerated the “Sk8r boi Jesus” but similar to how Jesus lost many of the 5000 with the “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man …” part, He lost us also with the “Jesus is Gnarly” part. Trouble is, one is found in the inspired text and the other in a flawed methodology.

I always knew Jesus was good, but in my teenage mind, he reeked of desperation and seemed a bit insecure, you know with all the searching for identity stuff. There was also a very high amount of guilt in many of the messages I heard in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I wasn’t quite sure if it was because he lost some of his skater/surf endorsements but for a “chill” guy, he seemed pretty consumed with my thought life and I kept hearing how angry he was about it.

That said, my real problem was while I had been convinced that Jesus loved me, I had no idea what the Bible was really about. For years, it was a fragmented collection of stories (like Daniel and the Lion’s Den), parables (like the Prodigal Son), data to be largely ignored (Numbers, Leviticus, Acts) and words of comfort (from select Psalms, the Gospels and Pauline references). Oh – there was Revelation and a handful of prophecies warning us that Russia was going to attack us (This is true, I grew up toward the end of the Cold War era).

Imagine my relief when I discovered a better vision of Jesus. Soon after that, I was humbled by the beauty and awed by the brilliance of the Bible. Content with a better understanding of the Messiah, jaded by my impressions of the Church, it was no wonder that I (and so many of my friends) loved movies like Dogma and Saved! I admit, I still laugh every time I think of “Buddy Christ” (It’s not Jesus they’re making fun of).

It is possible years from now my current students will write blog posts (or whatever it will be then) about the times we used the metaphors in movies for an entire weekend, week-long mission trips, Crowder-stye music, documentaries on human trafficking and suggest how this was counter-productive to their faith but it’s the best I know to do and may the Lord use me in spite of myself.

Along with my calling and my desire to be faithful, this tongue-in-cheek fear keeps me motivated. And here is today’s thought – For the sake of our Church’s future, youth ministry today must not only be Jesus-centered but give a Biblically-responsible Jesus.

Youth Ministry and the Future of the Church Post 3

Primary Audience – Local Context
Secondary Audience – Fellow youthworkers and Kingdombuilders

This post may be a bit more case-specific but it has been occupying my mind lately. For the last few weeks, I’ve been leading an adult Sunday School class entitled, “The Faith of the American Teenager” based on Smith and Denton’s Soul Searching and Dean’s Almost Christian. Their research insists upon the parents are the greatest influence of their student’s faith; not the youth pastor, not the youth volunteers, not the great camp speaker or the celebrity Christian, but mini-van driving Mom and sandal-and-socks-wearing Dad.

For years, many youth ministry types have said similar.   I have also heard it in the form of, “They may drive you crazy but you need to get parents involved in your ministry!” or “Parents can be a youth pastor’s worst nightmare or best friend.” The youth pastor-parent relationship has been a dicey one to say the least. In my church, we have always seen youth ministry as a support to the home but we have always felt that we are not utilizing the full potential of this belief. Many of us have been talking about this for some time and lately, more conversations are forming as well. That’s right, the wolves are laying down with the lambs.

Like most youth pastors, my relationships with parents has been diverse. Some have given me nothing but grief and blame, others have given me too much credit and of course many in the middle. Overall and over the years, I have enjoyed wonderful and encouraging relationships with many families and consider parents to not only be allies, but friends and co-laborers (and know that it matters to me that I write these words with integrity). , I have/am seen/seeing that when there is trust between parents and pastors, there is better ministry in and out of the home and in and out of the “youth room”.

In previous posts I have been stating that in order for their to be a healthy vibrant church in the future, it needs to be discipleship based now (read Christ-centered, relational, etc.) and second, it must be focused on the Millennials as we focused on the Boomers. Today, I want to emphasize that youth ministry has to to go beyond “allowing parents to help out once in a while” and truly partner with parents in the development of their children’s faith. Some families/churches are already doing this, at least in some ways, while some have out truly outsourced their child’s spiritual development to a weekly program that is scarcely attended and some are confused why their child lacks spiritual identity.

A ministry that partners with parents requires more than emails and newsletters. Frankly many parents have told me kindly that they do not “really read” correspondence from the church which makes things hard (I literally have an email and a weekly handout that is called, “News You Need to Read” but what can you do?). I’ve attended seminars and read articles/books that have focused on ministry to parents and while there are many excellent thoughts and ideas, it will take a reculturing and new understanding of youth ministry for all of us. It’s when we understand and care about the objectives that we not only read emails and correspondence but serve together for the collective goal.

The Sunday School class I have been teaching has reinforced this and a few have suggested that we do something like this a bit more frequent. Today I am brainstorming out loud that while I would like to teach/lead more discussions with parents, I think it’s also necessary that parents teach/lead these discussions to each other. This seems logical for youth workers like me who are in their 30’s and whose oldest child is not yet three.

I truly believe that youth ministry today serves the future church by not only bridging the gap between the parents but truly serving the parents. This raises many questions, like what about parents who are not believers or very dysfunctional, certain types of churches, etc. But these are matters to be resolved in a healthy culture, not reasons to be released from purusing it. I keep trying to remind myself of that.

So yeah, the first thing I think of when hearing parents working with youth workers for the sake of their students is the wolf lying down with the lamb, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs drinking coffee together, and Brett Brett Favre playing for the Minnesota Vikings – oh wait :) Well, anything is possible you know.

Youth Ministry and the Future of the Church Post 2

Primary Audience – Local Context
Secondary Audience – Fellow youthworkers and Kingdombuilders

If you are new to my blog, I offer a sincere welcome. I am among the many youth pastors that takes this aspect of the Church very seriously. In short, I really believe that the Church is going to have to focus a lot of its efforts to the family, our neighbor’s family and our enemy’s family. Hopefully, I’ll get to some of that later. To summarize the last post, youth ministry must center on discipleship in order for their to be a future church (and of course a present one).

I’m going to lay a few cards down on the table here and list some of my presuppositions:
1. I don’t really know what the future church is going to really look like. And honestly, I don’t really think anyone really, really does but some people get it better than others.
2. I do agree with those that say the mid-size church will be disappearing over the next 50-100 years.
A. Thus we will be left with big churches (more than 1000) and small churches (under 100, but probably much, much smaller).
B. Presumably, there will still be professional youth ministry in the bigger churches and probably one or none professional clergy in the small churches.
C. Both types will need to focus on youth ministry but of course, a different type of one than is happening today.

And here is this post’s main point – Soon, today’s churches will need to focus on the Millennials the way it focused on the Boomers. It’s a bit “Captain Obvious” in some sense, but in another, it isn’t. From where I sit, family ministries in many churches serve as a “service” to attract more Boomers. For a number of reasons, including the decline of the evangelical church, we are going to need to focus on the Millennials for their sake.

Think of it this way, as good preaching (and the worship experience) is to the Boomers, community and identity will be to the Millennials. The Boomer Generation churches were built on good preaching. Guys like Bill Hybels & Rick Warren illustrated this. I know, I know, it was much more than good preaching. Their seeker-sensitive, purpose driven approaches were keys in their ministries’ success. I get it – but they are extremely gifted communicators and I am pretty sure if you put Rick out in South Barrington and Bill out in Lake Forest, you’ll get something like Saddle Creek and Willow Back.

But here’s why churches will no longer be centered on preaching – the digital age has made sermons available to everyone. I am literally listening to Rob Bell right now and boy is he awesome (and Warren and Hybles are only a few clicks away). Further, I don’t need my pastor to preach like him, because I subscribe to him and a few others through iTunes. And even further, i don’t want my pastor to preach like them because imitation is the mother of flattery but the harlot of ingenuineness.  Don’t get me wrong, preaching is always going to be important but even in my lifetime, I have seen that dramatically change (which is a strange comfort to pastors who want to pastor and not just preach and scary thought to pastors who have inferior relational skills but are spectacular speakers).

But where the church is going to need to step it up is the place of creating community. As our culture becomes more secularized, the local church (and not the building) is going to have to create that culture and it will not be able to rely on the once a week Sunday morning worship preaching experience. You know who doesn’t have a once a week Sunday morning worship experience? The youth group. In fact, for many of us, the Sunday school hour is the weakest part of our ministry because it meets at a time when our target audience is barely awake.

Now, what you are about to hear could simply be dismissed as another youth pastor delusion but I am thinking that as time goes on, the youth pastor (family ministries, next-generation) position will be the focus (sorry worship pastors :). This does not mean that the youth pastor is going to have the big office or be on the cover of Christianity Today. But it does mean that the position/job description is going to change which is going to change the entire approach as well.

Here’s what it also means, youth ministry won’t be the “entry level” position for twenty-somethings with goatees and spikey hair. But it won’t be the Warren/Hybles guys either. The “successful” youth pastor will be the facilitator/organizer whose gift is creating community among teenagers. Don’t worry, he/she will speak too but this person is a creator/organizer/facilitator of youth ministry culture. (If you want a quick read, I recommend Doug Pagitt’s Church in the Inventive Age).

The landscape is changing, dramatically but not completely.  For instance, there will always be the “celebrity pastor”, there will always be the best-seller, every corner of every sub-culture will always have the old “it” person and the new “it” person – that’s not what I am talking about. But the need is community and identity, especially among the Millennials. Thus, growing churches are going to be the ones that are serious about ministering to teenagers and children. And the intentionally-minded churches (big and small) are going to pursue this need with creative and brilliant approaches with the similar urgency that it pursued the Boomers.

Feel free to add, disagree, push-back, reframe …

Youth Ministry and the Future of the Church Post 1

Primary Audience – Local Context
Secondary Audience – Fellow Youthworkers and Kingdom-builders

My calling/vocation of youth ministry has been on my mind a lot lately and there are a number of reasons for that. For a while, I hesitated in really blogging about youth ministry because there was always the tendency of coming across as either bragging or complaining and I feel I do enough of those already. I’ll do my best here to be as honest and fair in a Christian way as I can but please remember I offered this disclaimer (and for those of you who despise disclaimers, appreciate the fact that some of us really do need them).

Like so many, I am interested/concerned/excited about the future of the church. And because of that, I am also focused on the present church. I am among those that feel that we should be stronger and more faithful to the way of Jesus and among the many reasons, consumeristic spiritual mentalities, personal selfishness, pseudo-Christian homes, poor church leadership is also inadequate youth ministries. I don’t believe the problems have anything to do with liberalism, secularism, or pluralism as countless books of the last twenty, thirty (forty?) years have insisted.

A long time ago, I heard someone say something like. “Fix the heart, fix the home, fix the church, fix the world.” It was way too linear for me but it stuck. There is truth in it but the landscape is quite complicated these days and questions emerge like, “What exactly is the heart and what would you fix it with?” Someone (like me) would quickly say, “With Jesus of course!” and that questioner who ask with all sincerity, “Which Jesus? You have all these traditions and denominations that all claim to be Biblical interpretations from the Bible, it’s really confusing ….”. Good point, we need to fix the church too. Which “church”? Hmmm … you see where I am going with this.

Given that people like me (youth pastors and vocational clergy) need to do our part in our own Christian devotion, our own families, loving our spouses and children, etc. But further, the Church needs to get out of the keep “their people happy business” and get serious about discipleship and worship for all ages and among other factors, it’s clergy that need to champion this.

There are some days that I feel we have too many churches and because of the number, they are in competition with each other which creates a market, which converts worshippers of the Triune God to consumers (of either spirituality or a cheaper, easier form of Christianity). Other days, I feel we don’t have enough churches that subtly communicates to a non-believing community, “Yep, it’s optional, not even the Christians really care.”

As a youth pastor, I find that we are many times guilty of saying/doing similar things. Many times we take the easier way out and attempt to “build a youth program” that fails to do several things. It fails at discipleship in favor of attendance and good times, fails at supporting the home and community (at times undermining the home/community) and fails to inspire a sustaining hope and belief in the way of Jesus that matures in later adolescence and adulthood.

Don’t get me wrong – a lot of fantastic things are happening in the Kingdom of God, but I believe that we can/must do more to have a stronger present Church for the sake of the future Church. Thoughts?

Next Christians and Our High School Ministry

Each year we give a gift to those who went on our Senior High Winter Retreat. Examples include shirts with that year’s theme and recycled bookbags made by those rescued from trafficking. This year, we handed out the Next Christians by Gabe Lyons. If you are following this blog, you might remember that I picked this as one of my favorite books of 2010 (it was picked by just about everyone).

Which begs the question, what’s so special about this book and why would senior highers be interested in it? In some sense, you may not find anything special or unique about it. Many in the emergent conversation have been offering similar perspectives for years. Others may dismiss this as just another book on how Christians need to make a difference in their world and honoring God and so forth while citing illustrations and providing commentary. It’s true that many of these have been written already.

But for me, here’s the important difference – it’s genuinely hopeful. It could be that Gabe’s natural disposition is optimistic but what I really think is that he’s inspired by what he sees God and others doing in the world and is dedicated to contributing as well.

He’s also in a unique position. He’s extremely well-connected for a younger evangelical and has access to so many stories of what people are doing. You might think he’s a name-dropper and that may be true if his organization was called “Gabe Lyons International Ministries” or something but it’s called Q (it stands for “Questions”). And the Q Conference is quite the showcase of what many diligent Christians are doing in the 7 Sectors of Culture. If you can get to one (next one is April 27-29 in Portland), I highly recommend it and if you can’t, check out presentations from previous years on their website.

All that said, this is not a cheerful naive book. How could it be when the subtitle is “The Good News About the End of Christian America” and the book opens with the line “A few years ago, I was twenty-seven and embarrassed to call myself Christian.”? Mentioning his strong Christian upbringing and contrasting his experiences in the world, he was among countless that saw the disparity between the Christianity described in the Scriptures, what’s going on in the world and the Church’s involvement in it. Referencing the research of UnChristian, a book he cowrote with his friend Dave Kinnaman, he shares what many think and feel towards the term Christian.

Many high schoolers already know all about this. In fact, in some ways, they may know it better than anyone because they have never been a part of “Christian America” (at least not the version of it that children born in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s know of it). After all, the Millennial Generation’s first words out of their cribs were”I’m spiritual but I don’t believe in organized religion.” While that line could create an entire set of posts, I’ll jump ahead to what Gabe’s main themes which calls for “Relearning Restoration”.

I highly appreciated Part 2 – “The Restorers” where each chapter calls for a better way of Christian engagement with the world. They include “Provoked but Not Offended” “Creators, Not Critics”, “Called, Not Employed”, “Grounded, Not Distracted”, “In Community, Not Alone” and “Countercultural, Not Relevant”. They include accounts from people like Jaime Tworkowski, the founder of To Write Love On Her Arms (a non-profit trying to bring awareness to teen/young adult cutting. Their t-shirts are worn in every high school and mall in America) and discusses global crises like AIDS and human-trafficking (issues that today’s young people are very concerned about).

Between the stories (postmoderns love a good story) and the insights (postmoderns appreciate wisdom), there’s a lot here for everyone including teenagers.  Even in my youth pastor fantasies, I know that not all of our students will read it. But the book is very much about them and some will really resonate with it. Like last week, one of our 9th grader girls “tweeted” that she loved the first two chapters  – I was so proud.  I’m telling you, it’s a different world and high schoolers understand more than we realize about it. If we as a church can challenge, equip and guide them, we may be a real asset to them as they discover life in the Kingdom.

Answering the Question, “Why Don’t You Plant a Church?”

Primary Audience – Whoever Read the Previous Post – A Yankees Take on Church-Planting in Nashville

Sometimes you have to provoke what you perceive to be a problem to see that it’s not (or may not be as bad as you think – make sense?) As I mentioned, I received a couple cool emails and links from people doing good work in Nashville like here and here.

I’ve also been asked the obvious and legitimate question, “Why don’t you plant a church here in Jersey?”  In truth, I’ve been asked this quite a few times. It’s not because I am special; I’m pretty sure most pastors (and seminarians) in their 20’s & 30’s get asked as well. I confess, I do have a fascination with church planting. Some guys make it look so fun and easy on Twitter that you can’t help it and some of my friends are planting (they either do not exaggerate as well on Twitter or not planting missionally/purposedrivenly/annointedly/Jabezly). And similar to how I am fascinated with the idea of batting second for the Yankees, I am just not sure if that’s the direction I am going.

I certainly do believe in the importance of church planting so yes, to compare it to playing major league baseball is a bit ridiculous – even for this blog. But I also do believe in the importance of reforming and rebuilding our existing churches. Just like it takes a special type of person to plant, I think it takes a special type of person to reform. And I’d like to add that it takes a special type of person to be in youth ministry. Hmm, maybe I was wrong, maybe I am special :)

To use the “called” language, not only do I feel called to be a part of reforming the Church, I feel that I am to be doing that in youth ministry. Honestly, most days, I really like what I do. Indeed there are days when I get frustrated, like when a need comes through the church and someone else volunteers the youth group for it (Volunteer yourself bro!), but really, I find a great deal of fulfillment and consider it a privilege to be a part of this chapter in our students’ lives.

A lot of is due to the type of youth ministry we are trying to build here. I know it sounds a bit dramatic but I actually believe this stuff – we are trying to create & foster a Christ-centered culture of young disciples to serve God’s kingdom. Blessed with a great Jr. High pastor and some fantastic youth leaders, we have been working on a culture that is loving, sacrificial, generous and “deep” (not always sure what that means, but we do tackle some tough content). To be truthful, there have been times when our students have completely dropped the ball. There have even been times when the youth leaders have dropped the ball. And there was one time that I forgot to fill up the church van after an activity but I would hardly call that dropping the ball Ok, ok, I’m the worst of them all but come on, I was distracted by the prospect of batting second for … :)

But there have also been times when our students have really went above and beyond anything I/we have expected. Many of them have the godliest parents I have met, some of them have not been as fortunate but the Lord has been just as near – and it’s been incredible to witness. I’ve seen students barely stay awake in youth group and then months later, tearfully express to the group what the Lord is doing in their lives. I’m betting that it wasn’t my teaching that had drastically improved in the short span but rather the student taking hold of the faith that God was extending. There is a goodness you gain in knowing that you are doing your job well but then there is an overwhelming fulfillment in knowing that you are a small part of something that is happening through you and your community and in spite of you and your community.

Witnessing students embrace Jesus and pursue the work of the Kingdom is among the greatest joys of my life. As you can see, this is a very special thing to me and until the Lord changes my heart, I doubt I’m planting a church, leading one, or batting second for the Yanks.

Reflecting on our Sr. High Winter Retreat

Primary Audience – Our students and the fine folks of MEFC
Secondary Audience – Youth workers who can relate

We just got back from Harvey Cedars on Monday afternoon and I am enjoying that post-retreat afterglow/hangover that youth pastors/volunteers know very well. It’s a great way to spend a weekend but each year has its challenges. For one, in today’s crazy busy culture, it’s tough for students and volunteer leaders to commit to a weekend like this, especially since we go from Friday-Monday to take advantage of the holiday weekend. We dragged ourselves there Friday and left on quite the high note Monday afternoon.

It may be a bit too early to write this post but here some initial thoughts on this past weekend’s retreat. Each year, I appreciate our group more and more. We keep doing movie-themed retreats because if you have a good enough movie, you have a working metaphor that can last the weekend. Further, it’s so difficult to discuss a movie over a month (given that few students can attend each week of the month) and of course, we tend to forget scenes and lines as time goes on.

This year was the ever-popular, The Matrix. It being our second time doing at Montvale, it was the first time for anyone in this group (as this class of seniors were still jr. highers last time). Though I hate doing “repeats” (I know, I know, work smarter not harder but still…), we were able to build off of the previous retreat and offer add some more serious content. Since last year’s retreat on Bill Maher’s Religulous and our typical youth group gatherings, I have a lot of faith in our group. We may never become an gigantic-sized youth group, but we are going to be a deep one.

They caught on pretty well, asked good questions during our recap, followed along during our lesson time and had some pretty intense small group sessions. I know it sounds like I am exaggerating (and maybe even bragging) so forgive me, but I am so grateful for this group. One of the biggest discouragements in ministry is when you offer something that you think is solid and the feedback is negative or apathetic. One of the greater encouragements is seeing students connect with deeper content and also hearing them say, “Wow, I never thought of our faith like that before” and “I needed this.”

They’re not perfect kids (I blame the volunteers ;-) but they continue to demonstrate their desire to grow in their faith. Even our time of worship is improving! We have a solid senior class that is leaving and I feel that we have some underclassmen that are ready to go. The combination of great homes and Pastor Tim Nye’s Junior High ministry is yielding fruit in each new 9th grade class. I needed it too and a few of our leaders offered similar sentiments. It’s not because we are discouraged. In fact, we find ourselves in a good rhythm these days but I think we needed it because we are committed to this work. May the Lord forgive us for our missed opportunities and our shortcomings and may He bless our faithfulness as students draw closer to Him. Indeed these are special times for us and though we are tired, we are grateful.

Reflecting on my First Time at the Youth Specialties National Youth Workers (2003!) #NYWC

The Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention took place this past weekend Nashville, will conclude today and this is the second year in many that I have missed it. YS has been a very important place/organization/community for me over the years and here’s why.

Flashback to 2003. I was in my first church burning out. Having been in the ministry for three years then and for a number of reasons that I won’t mention here, I really felt the need to be among other youth workers, hear from Mike Yaconelli and many other speakers that I did not know at the time. 2003 was the year I read New Kind of Christian, Postmodern Youth Ministry,and Dangerous Wonder. (I do want to be careful here and mention it’s not the simple reading of books that is so life-impacting; it’s more the prayerful search for something, not finding it, then finding it. And it is the direction, not so much the answer and it’s not only contained in books, music, art, friendships, it’s everywhere because God is sovereign over all. Just wanted to clarify ;-))

That year, YS gave free registrations to those who had brought their youth groups to DC/LA and as one who did not have an adequate youth ministry budget nor was given the blessing of those in authority over me to attend, (A real quote, “Not only will I not give you the time to go, but I know you won’t like it”). I used my vacation time, Priceline, headed to Charlotte and met up with my friends Joel and Todd. What I didn’t expect was just how much I would like it.

I could list the existential moments like driving down with Switchfoot’s Beautiful Letdown. Hearing Jon Foreman yell, “Are you who you want to be? This is your life …”, hearing the David Crowder Band lead, “You Are My Joy”, and attending an evening “brotherly discussion” and thinking, “Thank God for Tony Jones“. (Duffy Robbins was the other speaker in the discussion and I thank God for him too; I’ve been among the many who have profited from both men. It’s just that people like Tony were not only speaking my language but creating the language that I was trying to verbalize). Then on Monday as it was all ending I ran into Mike Yaconelli after he had finished speaking at the final session (which is still a bit eery because he would be killed in a car accident two days later). I know how this all sounds, cheesy with the Switchfoot reference, emotional with the Crowder sing-along, and fanboyish with the homage to TJ and Yac but it’s what it is.

I was also fortunate enough to take advantage of the free career counseling that YS offered through veteran youth pastors. I’ll spare you from that too but I still consider it to be among the most affirming, life-altering words of advice anyone has ever given me. The entire event was much-needed and all I know is that I drove north with a bit of my mojo back (yep, we were quoting Austin Power’s then).

This weekend I have been thinking and praying for those in attendance in Nashville, especially for the first-time attendees and for those who desperately need to be refreshed (and this may include the speakers/teachers themselves). From the Twitter feeds and blog posts, it sounded great and my hope is that many are getting back into the cars and boarding planes different than when they walked up to the registration tables just days ago.

It also seems fitting to express my gratitude for Youth Specialties and the incredible people who work there. They have been through so much these last few years and from what I can see through the words of people like Tic Long and the web presence of Adam McLane, God is very much at work there.