Offense versus Defense in Student Ministry

A little while back, my friend Eric, told me that our youth ministry is geared more towards offense then defense.   While either/or is not my language, my initial thought was it’s probably better to be that than the opposite. Like so many (especially youth pastors), I am tired of being part of the Church that appears to be cryogenically frozen in a defensive posture.  Even worse, should they break that position, it is only to get into a mode of judgment or criticism.  

Here’s some of the greater context of what we are trying to do.  Our students know some of my passions and fears.  The passions are somewhat normal youth pastor ones like family, friends, coffee, etc. I enjoy discussions that intersect faith, culture, theology, issues and the tensions that exist within these conversations.  Add music, movies, books, wifi, and baseball, and I could live on any “island” ;-).  Following Christ faithfully in our context is a topic that I believe we I am always discussing.

My fears are somewhat normal too.  Like falling out of the Superman ride because the 16 year old who wanted to be a life guard at the Jersey shore pressed the “Release All” button when reaching for his Red Bull or drowning in the pool at one of our summer parties because someone jumped on my head, broke my neck and I stayed under the water and no one saved me because they thought I was kidding and so I drowned (wow what an awkward moment that would be).  Like I said, normal fears.  Our students also know that as youth leaders, our real fear is that our students will abandon their faith as they leave the safety of our homes and youth groups.

Because we believe that God is not afraid of our questions nor is the truth trying to hide, we not only encourage our students to ask their questions but try to provoke them.   At first the temptation is to be too provocative and do your favorite old school Tony Campolo impersonation every week.  Certainly there is a goodness in quoting a brilliant moment from a conference you attended but remember that you are at a different starting point when you hear that quote.  (Not saying to avoid it, saying to be careful.  Anyway, I digress). 

I have found that if we encourage our starting points to be honest from within our contexts and see if and how we are being faithful to Christ, then there is a relevant and worthy discussion to be had.  Those discussions ought to be sensitive enough to welcoming doubts and questions.  I sometimes voice them like “Some of you love the Lord so much but you feel guilty because the ideas of evolution make a lot of sense to you.  That’s ok, you should think that through.  God is not afraid of our questions but realize the answers take time, discipline, and work.”  This resulted in two students talking to me privately about that. 

I’m describing a starting point and sometimes I find myself guilty of rushing our students past them.  For instance we say that Christianity is the best and most unique of the world religions but if we haven’t explained the virtues and the issues from alternate worldviews, then the statement tends to lack integrity.   Does everything require an 8 week explanation?  Certainly not, but may God give us the wisdom in making the statements we make and modeling the lives we live.

Indeed, some times it is an ideology or a passion that hinders us in our faith journey and we get to the point where we have to sacrifice it in order to worship our Lord.   This is part of the process of life long discipleship that we need to do our part in allowing the Spirit to work through us so their faith be take root.  

Finally, our students know that we love God and we pray they too will love Him with all their hearts mind and soul.  Coffee, books, traveling, even family and great friends are secondary upon coming to an understanding of what Christ is asking of us.  To go back to my friend’s language, it is in this way, that I find Jesus to be the most offensive and so, may we be Spirit-led and model this life.

Post-NOLA Trip thoughts 1 – Why New Orleans?

We’ve just returned from our trip to New Orleans and the Desperation Student Conference.  Really grateful for so many aspects of this trip.  Here is some of how and why we got there (and here).

I thought twice about planning a mission trip to New Orleans.  In fact, I thought twice about having another student mission trip. Though they have their flaws, I really do see the value of these trips and believe them to be worth having.  Will probably share more about that as time goes on.


One of my hopes in our student ministry is to have a Christ and others-centered, mission approach where we go and serve local and further out domestically and internationally.  This past year, among the best things we’ve done was skipping our traditional fall retreat. Instead, we went out and did local mission projects in Paterson, NJ, Harlem and Queens, NY.  Frankly, we need to find ways to do more of these types of things as a student ministry and as families and believers.  We’re taking steps.

Anyway, it’s a long story but New Orleans became the place.  I couldn’t really avoid it, these opportunities kept coming up, the need is great, turn on tv and from PBS to even the Edge having a charity devoted to saving the music, it was everywhere so it got my attention.

As I was praying about it, the idea of not going because it was too cliché seemed more superficial and compelled by the need of New Orleans (and much of the Gulf region), I found myself planning a mission trip. Time went on and I got excited about the opportunity. In college, I connected with classic jazz and some friends turned me to Harry Connick Jr. – a son of New Orleans. Dealing with the aftermath of Katrina, the rebuilding, the non-rebuilding, the corruption, the hurt, the politics, the culture of New Orleans, Cajun, its symbolic presence in the South, and then there was us. I am not handy. Most of my students aren’t either. This was going to be tough – for all of us. As you could see, things were falling into place in terms of a mission trip. I was getting excited to do something that we weren’t that good at. Something that would make us uncomfortable as that would force us to keep focused. As many know, it’s when we are uncomfortable and not in control that we hear God’s voice. I doubt it’s because He is speaking any louder but more that we are listening so much more intently. Next thing I knew, friend, fellow seminarian and blogger, Evan was bringing some students as well. God truly seemed in the midst of this. For if it was me, we’d be in Vegas. Hmmm, that’s a great idea for next year.


Are Great Adventure Trips Missional?

Yes they are! There are certain rides like Kingda Ka that are very much a spiritual experience. The speed, the anticipation, the relief that you are still alive – praise Jesus. Ever get to the top of a ride like Nitro (which is a fun stand-up roller coaster) and pray that everyone is doing their job? Similar to praying for the pilot and his family and confessing unconfessed sin upon take off, I am praying for the 17 year old operating the controls, the maintenance guy in charge of seat restraints and praying that the team of engineers are all happily married with well-adjusted children being and being fairly compensated.

In fact, the next time a roller coaster gets retired, I’m going to suggest to our elder board that we consider purchasing it and throwing it in the back of the church. Not so much to thrill teen-agers but to convict those older. Imagine sending up that guy who complains after every worship service or the “just a suggestion” lady (that suggests that you were a different person – LOL). We could strap them in, play sermons of kindness, edification, complaining, giving! And you don’t get off the ride until you repent (Now that’s a suggestion). Truth be told, that’s just where some people are at and I find it fun to joke about (You don’t expect me to take it too seriously do you? And this is a blog not Christianity Today).

But over to my context, I enjoy taking our students to things like G.A. One reason is because I am normal (somewhat) and I like having a good time. Among my concerns and frustrations with some parts of student ministry is this cool, fun Jesus thing. I guess that’s really a different type of post but here’s the issue with Great Adventure. These trips of become so cliché. We ask ourselves, how can a student ministry NOT go to an amusement park? It’s like a church without a cross in the sanctuary. Has anyone heard of such a thing? Yes in fact, we have. And there are many successful student ministries that have given up on trying to entertain their students and have focused more on ministering to them. And many more that are trying to find the balance in between (like ours).

What I like about trips like these is standing in line, talking (except when it’s ridiculously hot, which it wasn’t yesterday), getting to know students and leaders. Truth be told, I do feel closer to our students after these types of trips. Not really sure that counts as being missional though. Perhaps we should pick up the trash, free the dolphins and tigers, and evaluate their energy efficiency. But spending time conversing in the lines is better then turning kids loose in the park and deluding ourselves into thinking that this is youth ministry.