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dance party: a youth ministry must

Do you remember the last time you kicked back, relaxed, and just had fun?  I don’t.

Have you ever noticed that high school students that joking and laughing seem to come pretty easy?  In fact, if you really look, most of their interaction is light hearted joking with one another.  When my friends and I get together, this just isn’t the case.  Our conversations are really deep and important.  I wonder why that is?  But why it is, is not the topic of this post.  The fact that it is, is what I would like to explore.

As youth workers, we are called to connect with students, and to be cross cultural missionaries.  We are to enter their world and find places where we can share the love of Christ, to bring the abundant life to them, in their context, on their level.  What if one of those thing places was actually good ‘ol fashioned fun.  Fun in the form of music and dancing might actually be a powerful tool to accomplish this challenging task.

Why do you think we suck so much at having fun?   It might just be because we are old. Somewhere along the way we have gotten caught up with all the heaviness of life and our calling.  We have taken our jobs seriously as youth workers, and we are pretty good at it.  We can teach the spiritual disciplines, help manage sin, provide spiritually moving experiences, all while genuinely providing space to help students grow in their faith.  It seems the rule is that the more serious you take your calling to student ministry, the less fun you should have.

What if part of our job was expanded from just creating spiritual experiences for our students to helping them live an integrated life?  What if we could help the develop a theology that works for their entire lives, not just their very limited time at youth group?  What if we could help them see that being deep and having fun are not mutually exclusive, that being spiritual is bringing Jesus into every activity, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Solomon, author of Ecclesiastes, was on to something when he writes,

“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born, a time to die.  A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.  A time to tar down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.  A time to grieve and a time to dance.”
Ecc 3:1-4

Most youth workers I know are amazing at providing space for students to grow, to grieve, and cry.  But maybe we could add a little balance to our youth ministries by creating space for our students to laugh, and even dance.

Even though students have experienced deep pain and brokenness, and often more than their years can comprehend.  At the same time they are still kids and they need space to be kids.  They need space to celebrate, to laugh, to dance.  What better way to facilitate this than by incorporating the most ancient of rituals into our student ministries:     DANCE PARTY!!

Dance Parties provide our students with 3 very important realities:

  1. Dance Party allows students to actually have fun. Music has such power in the lives of our students.  When you start cranking the music, you can see their entire countenance change.  This is most noticeable when some kid changes the ipod in the youth room from Hawk Nelson and turns on Taio Cruz.  Even the most sheltered home schooler starts to sing along, and before you know it, the entire room is filled with kids jumping around, singing and laughing.  We have an opportunity to harness this reality and create a safe place for kids to cut loose, express joy, and have fun.
  2. Dance Party allows students to experience an integrated life. You see, for 98% of their life, students live outside the walls of the church.  And in the bulk of their life they long to laugh and have fun.  They love music that has strong beets and that they can sing along too.  If this is their desire, it is a crime to make church and youth group be the one place that shuts down fun and shuts down dancing.  When we bust out the dance party, we celebrate, not shut down the God given longing of their souls for fun and laughter.  The church becomes the place where all parts of life get to be experienced and celebrated, not just the “deep” and “spiritual” parts, but the abundant life the Jesus talks about in John 10:10.
  3. Dance Party allows us to re shape their musical memories. Have you ever had the experience of hearing a song from your past and immediately you are reminded of a particular time and place, a love interest, or a break up?  Music has this amazing power to shape and hold memories.  And all the good music that is shaping our students memories right now is secular music.    But instead of weeping and gnashing our teeth about it, what if we actually co-opted the power of music to create memories.  Most students hear certain songs on the radio all the time and they become the soundtrack of their lives.  If we can incorporate their natural soundtrack into our student ministry, especially in the form of Dance Party, the songs themselves actually carry memory associations.  A song they hear on the radio every day becomes associated with youth group, with community, with fun, and joy.   And without our students even realizing it, their songs help remind them of their true community.

As we strive to find new and effective ways to connect with our students.  We might realize that connecting with them is easier than it seems.  It just involves us getting to know our students and the songs that are shaping the soundtrack of their lives.  Then we have the opportunity to take that soundtrack and redeem it, to re-create it.  We do this because we recognize that as deep and spiritual as our kids are becoming, they are still kids.  And because of this fact, they need space to laugh, sing, and yes, even dance!

So, next week, when youth group is all over and you have done an amazing job at building community, creating rich opportunities for students to connect to Jesus, try a little experiment.  Crank up the volume on your stereo, hit play of your ipod, and watch the dance party begin!  For there really is a time for every activity under heaven.

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a unique glimpse into the hearts of students

Last week we took a bunch of students to winter camp.  On Saturday night they an opportunity to identify an area of their life that they wanted to surrender to Jesus.  With that being the basic prompt, here are their un-edited responses:

  • Bringing peace and love to my family, to solve their issues with each other.
  • Life, friendship, moving on, problems, love.
  • I’m willing to surrender to god my refusal to forgive myself for all the sins I’ve done.  if god gave me grace I can forgive myself too.  I’m willing to surrender my personal looks as well.  I am beautiful.
  • Mistreating others.  Not listening.  Ignoring those in pain.
  • I surrender my life plans.  You are in control and have a plan for me that is beyond what I can imagine.
  • I want to surrender the loneliness I feel at home and that I can open up to family.
  • My flaws, insecurities, and future.
  • I have no mess.
  • My performance.  Tomorrow.  My daily life.
  • Everything.
  • I surrender my heart to you.
  • I want to be free from all impieties and have a filling relationship.
  • Anything.
  • I absolutely, positively must show grace to others. Ditch the junk, prioritize, do I really really care about these things.  Make time for Him.
  • Forgive my brother for leaving.
  • My sin.
  • I need help.  please…
  • Control.
  • My anger and hatred for me and everyone around me.
  • My lies.
  • Performance, popularity, personal looks.  my obsession/want of a relationship.
  • I need to completely trust in God to guide me and guard my heart and take my life where its meant to go, I surrender my pride.
  • Relationships with God.
  • Fighting with my mother.
  • Blaming myself for my sister’s death.
  • My own agenda. My heart.
  • Knowing that my mom will always be with me.  She lives on in heaven and in me.
  • God, you know everything, and you know me, and everything I need to surrender is everything in me.
  • Depression.
  • My wants over his. my time reading my bible.  Lord i want you, please come.
  • Willing to surrender: career dreams/ $, OCD, friend troubles, jealousy, compassion, judgement, guilt, everything
  • Masturbation, hungry to be loves by another.
  • I want to surrender my worry of the future.
  • The lies i made from my parents, being honest.
  • Relationship with mom.
  • Wanting someone to love me.
  • Fighting with my sister.
  • Not knowing the future; letting God provide in every aspect of my life.
  • Not a lot of stuff, not asking for everything.
  • Making everything about me.
  • Being perfect, needing to fit in.
  • God I surrender my stress from my brother .  He is going through so much and I need to know an need help knowing that I can’t take on his problems.
  • I surrender…my stubbornness to open my heart.
  • My pain.
  • Time, focus.
  • I’m struggling with actually giving myself to God!  I need God in my chaos.
  • Not putting God first.
  • Time, personal judgement, feat of others’ judgement.
  • I need help letting go of my childhood and my dad.  All I get from it is my pain. I just want peace in me.  i know my dad will never change and i need to cut him and the trouble he brings out of my life.
  • Possessions.
  • John and kelly, Live life for Jesus, Whether or not to have sex with my boyfriend, nicer to parents, hope grandma’s cancer goes away.
  • My time.
  • Possessions.
  • Doubt.
  • Doing good things for the wrong reasons, not to honor you.
  • Lord help me to continue walking on your path, help me to finally open my heart back up to the ones who need my love.
  • I’m willing to surrender my pain/depression and fear of the new adventure that my mom and I are starting.
  • Relationships.
  • My lust and the things I look at for them, not accepting your love or grace.
  • I surrender college and who I am going to marry.
  • God I give you my pride in the ifs you have given me, my sense of entitlement, my what ifs, God I give you my relationship with Daniel.  Capture my heart.
  • Talk, money, pride,fear.
  • God, help me.  help me become someone that i can please.  Help me focus on what I need to focus on.  Dear God save me.
  • Gossip.  Ugh Lord this is so hard.
  • The need to be the best at everything.
  • Not procrastinating.
  • The loneliness that no one sees, and the pain that no one knows.  I lay it at the cross for you to take.
  • Material possessions, take ‘em.
  • Giving up my own control.
  • To surrender some of my possessions.
  • Strength.
  • I don’t need to live up to the expectations that others put on me.
  • My insecurities of who I am.
  • My part in being social to other people.
  • Jesus, I need help.  Lord I’m sorry that i continue to live with this secret shame.  Help me.
  • My alter ego.
  • (boys name) God help me have more grace to show him.  I always take him for granted, but he is a blessing.
  • I need help with getting a good paying career.
  • The pain of not living up to expectations.
  • I surrender myself to you Lord.
  • Surrender my worry.
  • Guys, personal looks, family issues, feelings toward my dad.
  • Lust, selfishness, greed, materialism, alcohol.
  • Personal looks, shame and feeling unworthy, unhappy and worthless.
  • Pride.
  • Selfishness.
  • 4 P’s, wanting to love myself and my body, look for his love everyday, feeling him everyday.
  • Weed.
  • Personal looks, obsession.
  • Personal looks.
  • My stress, my striving for academic perfection.
  • My life, the need to be wanted.
  • Regrets, worries, depression, loneliness.
  • Self-consciousness.
  • Believing statan’s lies has led to cutting.
  • Future.
  • My lack of involvement with youth group.
  • My impure thoughts.
  • Myself, in all the pride, loathing, and disappointment.
  • What others think of me.
  • Depression, Suicidal emotions.
  • Performance: school and crew.
  • Controlling my own life instead of letting him.
  • Possessions.
  • I don’t know, I need help.
  • Clean up my mess Lord: heal my heart.
  • My EDNOS: fears of relapsing.
  • Performance for other people, priorities, patience.
  • Committing to true and real friendships.
  • Acting different around different people not always living for God.
  • My comfort zone.
  • Fear/Worry.
  • Worrying about a job, not trusting God’s financial provisions.  Boy and future with him.
  • Summer, Sean, next year.
  • Selfishness, pride, control, let go.
  • Disrespect.  My family and girlfriend.
  • God I want to surrender to you my full commitment to you.
  • Self image, worry.
  • Performance- academically and in sports.
  • Always being brave, performance, independence.

We sure received a potpourri of responses.  Some  responses are deep and incredibly insightful, and some are missing the point entirely.  Isn’t this exactly how it is with student ministry and the variety of students we work we work with.  As we consider how to care for them and their hearts, it is important that we have a true picture of what is going on with them.  We can not project on them a depth that isn’t there and we can minimize a wound because it seems small to us.   We have to love them where they are at.  And most of them are at a place where they can identify some place of brokenness and need, and it is in this place where there is a huge ministry opportunity.

It is amazing the depth of emotion and brokenness students feel and feel about such a wide range of issues.  Some of these issues are profound, and rightly deserve our urgent attention.  Some are tiny and seemingly insignificant.  But no matter how big or small the wound seems to us, it is profound to them.  These areas of surrender and brokenness should not be overlooked.  They are in fact the thin places where we can share the good news of God’s love, grace, and healing for our students.

Students today have little use for a savior who helps them manage their sin.  Sin makes no sense to them.  But they have a huge need for a savior who will meet them in their brokenness and pain and will gladly accept the surrender of their garbage and exchange it for life.  (I wrote a longer piece on this here.)

May we lavish the healing balm of Christ upon our students, no matter how big or small their wounds may be.

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the hidden danger of mission trips for students:

This article was published at youthworkerjournal.com

It is once again time to start gearing up our annual mission trips.  There are so many great options out there.  Some are as close as an urban setting, some are in rural and isolated contexts, and some are international ranging in proximity to Mexico all the way to Thailand or Africa.  One of the key considerations when planning a mission trip with students has to be assessing the potential dangers of the context we will be traveling to.

Our church has changed our context for short term missions several times depending on concerns for danger.  We have taken into consideration the violence in an urban setting or an outbreak of hepatitis within the street community.  We have wrestled with the potential danger of crossing a drug warfare zone in the boarder towns of Mexico.  Add to the danger of the location transportation and housing, and we start to realize that a mission trip for students is a costly and dangerous endeavor.

As someone who thinks that short term mission trips is the bread and butter of student ministry, I have come to the conclusion that these potential dangers are part of the process of helping students (and parents) to live outside their comfort zone.  And taking our students and putting them in a totally foreign and partially dangerous context softens their hearts and opens their eyes to see the working of God in new and fresh ways.

But after leading dozens of trips over the years, I am starting to realize that while the surface dangers are real and must be taken seriously, there is actually a bigger danger that is hidden lurking just below the surface.  This danger is cementing in our students a false view of missions and of themselves.

Every year we ask students to fill out an application.  One of the questions has something to do with why they want to participate in this trip.  And with almost 100% unanimity the answer is “we want to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”  Don’t get me wrong, this is an awesome value, it is a value that is at the heart of the Christian faith.  Those of us with power and resources are to care for the orphan and the widow, for the poor and oppressed.

However, when we unintentionally frame missions as us, wealthy suburbanites, helping those poor people, we continue to instill in our students that they have their acts together and are “above” others.  I am not saying that the suburban church is the problem, or that we need to beat down our own context or culture and make students feel awful for the blessings and resources they have.  The suburban culture is just that, a culture.  But when we engage in missions we must consider and celebrate the culture in which we are going to.  We have to help students see that we are guests in another culture, not superior to those we visiting.

Our students are naturally self-absorbed and limited in their worldview.  And when we set up our trips as us coming to save the day, their foundational worldview doesn’t have the chance to be challenged.  And this is the true danger of student ministry short term missions.  We take one of the most significant spiritual experiences of their high school carriers and actually solidify some of the worst of suburban thinking.  Missions is not suburban kids with their wealth and privilege helping the poor.  This is the danger in compassion ministries.

One of the best books I have read on mission for those of us leading trips from a suburban context is When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Brian Fikkert.  This book is a must read for anyone leading a trip.  My biggest take a way from my read of the book is that we must change our view of wealth and poverty.  All of us are wealthy in some ways and poor in others.  The challenge is to identify the ways in which we are wealthy and the ways in which we are poor.  Once we have done this, then we can come into any context, specifically impoverished ones, and easily become partners who share resources.  We then have a real chance for cultural exchange, instead of seeing ourselves as superiors above the poor people we help.

As the fundraising, logistics and training for our annual short term trips are gearing up.  There are many practical dangers we must take into account.  But it takes intentional work and training to breakthrough and breakdown the traditional mindset of many suburban students, and leaders.  Here are four values to consider as you plan your short term missions trip this year:

1)   Short term missions is about recognizing that God is already at work wherever it is we are going. The God we serve, so loves the entire world.  And the place that we will be heading off to for our short term missions trip is already loved by God and God already has people in place doing great ministry there.  This immediately takes the focus off of us and what we bring, and opens our eyes to the spiritual reality that God is alive and at work long before we showed up.

2)  Short term missions is about partnering not helping. We now have the privilege of coming alongside the people who God has called to love that community for the long haul.  And when we see our role as partners there becomes an exchange of blessings that occurs, we become givers and receivers, rather then saviors.  For this to be successful we must find organizations that are not only established and committed to that particular community, but organizations that we can trust.  The more you trust an organization, the more you can truly partner and celebrate all that God has done before you got there, is doing while you are there, and will continue to do when you leave.

3)  Short term missions is about student development. There is little long term benefit our students can bring to mission field.  We are only there for a week and often have little knowledge of the culture and language.  At best we are a blessing to the organization / missionaries we partner with.  Because that is the case, we get to use this experience to shape and transform the students we are called to be missionaries to.  And that means that we must help shape this trip in a way that broadens their view of ministry, not affirm their privileged world view.  Their spiritual health and development is our chief concern.

If we are taking students on short term mission trip we must clarify what we are doing.  It is true that many of us come from churches with significant resources and we want to partner with the heart of God in doing ministries of compassion.  But we cannot solidify the thinking that financial resources are the definition of God’s blessings.  Wealth does not put us a superiors.  We can not let our students live into this false and dangerous reality.

Our task in short term missions is to help our students understand how big God’s heart is for the world, to partner with those who are already there, and to be a blessing for the short time our paths cross.  We all have wealth and we all have poverty.  By helping our students identify and articulate where they are wealthy and where they are poor allows them to truly be partners in ministry and cultural exchange.

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with situational ethics, who needs a savior?

How do we help a generation who has no sin see their need for a savior?

A major part of our calling as youth workers is the vital task of evangelism. Unfortunately the tyranny of the urgent puts our true calling on the back burner. We have programs to run, bible studies to lead, and parents to keep happy. As great as these are to do, very few of us got into student ministry because we love programs and managing parents. Many of us got into student ministry because we have a heart for this broken and lost generation. We are cross cultural missionaries called to the field to connect with early and mid-adolescents so that, by any means necessary, they will come to know Jesus.

“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some “ 1 Corinthians 9:22

Classic Evangelism: This verse sums up the classical understanding of evangelism. Simply we want people who don’t know Jesus yet to know him as their Lord and Savior. We want to use whatever means, whatever stories, whatever programs, whatever resources are needed to do it.

Classic Gospel: For the past 100 years, the story that has been developed is a simple,

compelling, and effective story. You may have heard of it. God loves us, but our sin separates us from him. Jesus, because of His love, took the punishment for our sin on himself. If we accept what Jesus did for us on the cross, then we will be saved and have eternal life. The classic gospel has proven to be very effective in our context where Christianity has been our national religion and story. But as our context becomes increasingly more post-christian this classic gospel has developed a classic problem.

Classic Problem: Simply put, there is no longer an understanding of sin. Our students live in a world where there are really no ethics, no right and wrong.  If there is any residue of an understanding of sin, it is when it happens to them. They can clearly identify all the times and places others have wronged them, but can not see when and where they have wronged others.

Situational Ethics is now king. Whatever might be right and wrong in theory, gets re-worked depending on the circumstances they find themselves. Cheating may be wrong, but what defines cheating, depends on the situation. Stealing may be wrong, but downloading pirated music or lifting something small is fine, because no one notices or cares. Saving sex for marriage is a good idea, until they are really in love.

It seems like situational ethics has so invaded the psyche of our students that they are convinced they are good people and do not sin. I bet that they could take lie detector tests and pass because their world is so fragmented and post-modern. There are no firm rules which means that there is no such thing as missing the mark, because there is no longer a mark to hit.

With this world view, sin is a foreign concept. It is like trying to help a first grader understand algebra. They don’t even understand basic addition and subtraction. It is mind bending for them to begin to add letters to the mix. But sin is a a foundational concept in a Christian worldview. It is impossible to understand the gospel without also understanding sin, in effects and consequences.

But this post-christian context where situational ethics rules the day should not dishearten us youth workers. We are true missionaries and culture is not the enemy, it is the tool. We have to be students of culture and our context and find a place where the gospel story can meet up with some of the cultural stories we find ourselves. And like all cultures all over the world, there is always a thin place where these stories will meet, and I think there is a gigantic thin place in the cultural context of our students. While they may have no need of a savior to save them from their sins, every one of my students understands that they are broken and in need of repair.

Our students live in a world where brokenness is the norm. Because there are no rules, there is never ending uncertainty. Their parents are getting divorced, there is no loyalty in friendships, their hearts are crushed in romantic relationships, there is bullying that happens in private, and there are no consequences for any of it. They get that the world isn’t as it should be. They may not be able to articulate it, and they may not get that there is right or wrong, but they do get that this brokenness is awful and hopeless. It is lord of the flies, but the adults never show up.

And it is into this cultural story that we bring the good news of Jesus Christ.

This world our students live in is a dark and broken world. They get that they are broken and that everyone around them is broken. Their brokenness has impacted others, and others have impacted them. It is into this dark and broken world that the light has come. Jesus shows up and brings our brokenness into the light. We are like cancer patients. On the outside we look just fine, but inside we have a deadly disease. Jesus comes and diagnoses the problem. The problem is we are broken.

In our inner being our students understand that this brokenness is not the way life should be. While it is their reality, there is a hidden memory of a life of wholeness. The gospel tells this story in dramatic fashion. God created the world and us and it was very good. Brokenness entered the world through our rebellion and ever since humans have been crushing each other. At the same time God was coming up with a plan to heal this broken world. That plan culminated in Jesus Christ.

Jesus not only shines light and exposes our brokenness, He also provides a way for healing. Most church kids have heard that Jesus died for their sins. But this statement has power when we help them understand that Jesus takes all our sin and brokenness on him when he died on the cross. His conquering of death is a conquering of brokenness. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Once we can equate sin with brokenness we can see that this gospel is truly good news. God takes our sin and brokenness on him so that we become his righteousness, we are made whole. And now the gospel is no longer a gospel of sin management, but it is a gospel of sanctification, of healing and transformation. Our students need to have hope that there is more than this life of brokenness, I need to have hope that there is ore than this life of brokenness. The good news of Jesus Christ is that Jesus came into the darkness to take our brokenness and exchange them for wholeness, healing, and life!

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an open letter to my pastor

Dear Pastor,

I am writing you because I am dying. I know it probably doesn’t look like it but I am alone and withering on the vine.

I came to this job excited about starting in this new ministry position. I showed up on a spiritual high and with high expectations of all the ways that God was going to move in this ministry, and things have been going great. But as these months have started to add up, I have been noticing that things aren’t quite right in my soul.

My initial excitement was great and spurred me to work hard and work with expectations. It pushed me into new relationships and these relationships have been great. I feel like I connect well with students and their parents seem to respect me. But there is still this void.

What I have been realizing is that although I appear to be in the middle of community, I actually have no community. I meet regularly with the youth workers in our area, but there seems to always be turnover and one or two new people show up every meeting, so we are always getting to know each other. I meet regularly students, but I am their pastor. I have good relationships with their parents, but it is within the context of their children. I have gotten to know many people at the church and even have developed some good friendships, but there always seems to be a barrier with them. I am on staff at this church and whether I like it or not, my relationship with people is affected by this fact.

My closest friend at the church has bottomed out in their marriage and all of the sudden I became not just their friend, but also their pastor. The dynamics of our friendship have now changed dramatically. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am truly honored to be welcomed into the darkest parts of people lives and humbled to play a part of the healing process. But this friendship is not community, it is work.

Ministry is a lonely profession. And I know I don’t need to tell you this. You have been a pastor longer than I have been alive. You have seen more tragedy and broken relationships than I could ever imagine. Of all people at our church, I would think that you would feel even more isolated from community than me. Our church is your heard of sheep. You carry emotional and spiritual responsibility for the well being of your flock. How do you do it alone?

I have only been doing this ministry thing for a short amount of time and I am already dying. That is why I am writing this letter.

As I have been reading though the gospels I have noticed again, for the first time how often Jesus left the crowds and his disciples to be alone. Or at least that is what I always thought. He went to spend time in prayer, spend time with the Father. But as I have been thinking about this more and more, he withdrew because the crowds and even the disciples were not his community. They were his ministry. His community is being a part of the Trinity, being united to the Father and the Spirit. It is the community of the Trinity where Jesus received all he needed to continue his ministry on earth. The Trinity at the core of its being is united in love and purpose.

Now not to take this illustration too far, but I think we as a staff could learn something from the Trinity. Our church is not our community, it is our ministry. But we are called to be in community. And what I am proposing is that our community needs to be with each other. We are both working at this church and we both want God’s best for this place, and we are both alone in this job. Bur for this to work, we need to be able to share vision for this church.

I confess that I have probably been more of a thorn in your side than a partner in ministry. It is so easy for me to get excited and be pushy about things I know little about, or to get frustrated when thing move slowly in the larger church, or acknowledge your style of worship is different than mine. I am sorry. I know that we have different ministry styles and probably even different visions for the direction of the church. But God has not called me to be the pastor of this church, he has called you to be. My job is to be your partner in ministry and bring the youth ministry alongside your vision for ministry in this place.

I am willing to submit to your authority and vision for the church. And at the same time I want to be your partner in ministry. But even more than that, I want us to be friends, to be community, to share our joys, our struggles, to complain about those frustrating people at church, to weep for those who have fallen away in their faith, and celebrate the return of the prodigal. I want to be a blessing to you and you to me.

I know this sounds strange, but I am willing to take a stab at it. I know for this to work, I need to be a blessing to you and not a person that you go and complain to your pastor buddies about. Here I am, take me under your wing, and let’s go, let’s do the great things God has for this place, and let’s do it together.

Sincerely,

Your partner, fan, friend

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retelling a lost story

this article was originally published at youthworkerjournal.com

Remember This Movie: Lions and tigers and bears, ___________! If you could immediately fill in the blank, then, whether you realize it or not, you have been impacted by culture. If upon further thought, you could fill in the blank and your mind went to Dorothy and her companions walking along a yellow brick road towards Oz, then you have some context for that cultural expression. And if the conclusion of that statement causes you begin to think about your favorite scenes, smile at the munchkins, hum a song, and even have fond memories of seasons of life when you enjoyed watching the film, then you are part of the generation that has been impacted by the movie, The Wizard of Oz.

Many of us have grown up with this movie. We know the songs, we know the stories, and we know the characters. We have seen poor high school versions of this movie, and even a brave interpretation of the story by Micahel Jackson. And because this story is so ingrained in our current pop culture, there was a place for someone to come along and use that story to tell a fuller story. And that is exactly what happened in the production of Wicked.

In case you haven’t seen the play, which I highly recommend, let me give you a quick synopsis. Wicked is a more complete story of what is going on in Oz during the time of Dorothy. The movie is Dorothy’s story, and the play is the unfolding drama between the two witches, Galinda, the Good Witch of the North and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. All by itself, Wicked is a compelling play with great characters and music. But what makes Wicked amazing is that it so incredibly clever.

Wicked tells the story by weaving in and out of the movie the Wizard of Oz. They reference people, places, and scenes. It is as if you get to walk through Oz and occasionally cross the yellow brick road just missing Dorothy and her entourage. During the entire play you have, “Ah, ha!” moments as you put all the pieces together. I found it to be a great evening of fun and incredibly refreshing. As I was driving home, I realized how much more I would have enjoyed this play if I had rented the Wizard of Oz before and re-familiarized myself with the original story. There was so much I missed, and if I weren’t so cheap I would have done that.

They Don’t Remember The Movie: The next day I ran into one of the students I work with who saw Wicked several weeks before, and we began to share our favorite parts, the amazing music, the great characters, etc. But as our conversation continued for a few more minutes, I realized that she was not impressed at all with how clever the play was and how amazing the intertwining of the two stories was. And the more I thought about it, I realized it is because The Wizard of Oz is not part of her cultural story. She might have seen the movie once, and parts of it here and there, but without the cultural context, she missed the best component of the play.

Without the Wizard of OZ, Wicked would still be entertaining. However, Wicked is only clever and engaging because it has been built on a cultural phenomenon. Creative people love building on current cultural stories to create even more compelling stories. And this pattern is true in the Church as well. We are continually exploring ways to communicate the Gospel that are unique and compelling. Over thousands of years and through millions of stories, Christians have been finding new ways to tell this story. For many, there is a deep culture that has had touch points with the Gospel. There have been songs sung, books written, and movies made that portray the Gospel story with a fresh angle with fresh characters. And like the play Wicked these characters and stories just cross in front of and behind the hero of the story along the yellow brick road. Stories as renowned as Les Miserables, to recent films like the Book of Eli have attempted similar things with the Gospel. These stories are built on the expectation that our culture knows or is at least familiar with the original story. To fully enjoy and even be impacted by these stories, we need to know something about the Bible, about grace and forgiveness, and about Jesus the Christ.

As I reflect on my conversation with my student about Wicked and the connection between the play and the movie, The Wizard of Oz, I realized that culturally we are losing, or have already lost our cultural connection to the Gospel. Yes, there are many biblical, “Christian,” Jesus, or spiritual references in our pop culture, but our ability to use context to connect all the dots and enhance the Gospel, the Gospel centered on the transforming grace offered to us by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is getting harder, if not impossible. One of the implications of this transition is that we must connect the dots and re-tell a compelling Gospel story.

How Do We Re-Tell The Story: Because we are transitioning into a post-Christian context, it might be time to re-examine the stories we tell and the manner in which we tell them. It is amazing that it has only been ten years since conversations started about postmodern vs. modern worldviews. In that time the church has moved into finding really clever and new / old ways of telling the Gospel story, and has made some amazing strides into applying this faith into missional living. Christians have been refreshed with a more holistic version of the Gospel, a gospel that is more community driven and must be applied in tangible and real ways in our world. Even though the church is being much more intentional in its theology and practice, worship, and mission, it is this post-christian context that continues to shift and move further away from any understanding of the original story.

One of the responses to this transition was the “seeker” church movement. Although the leaders in this movement correctly understood that our culture was moving away from a biblical worldview, the application only further separated this new church culture from the original Gospel story. In an attempt to reach this drifting “christian” culture, many churches moved away from themes of sin and punishment, and transitioned to contemporary language highlighting contemporary themes. But all this did was remove even further the themes and language to fully tell the Gospel story. What the post-modern and emergent moments highlighted was that people did want some connection to the historical Christianity and a theology that actually impacted our world that was not so individually focused, but rather community and world minded: Christ’s heart for the entire world.

This movement helped remind the church that we need to define our terms. No longer should a preacher begin a sermon with, “We have all heard the story of the prodigal son, and many of us are prodigals . . .” But rather, “In Luke, the third book of the New Testament there is a story about . . . “ Over the last decade we have moved even further along to the point where words like Luke and New Testament no longer have any cultural connections. Because our context is becoming more and more post-christian, the church needs to be that much more intentional about making the original Gospel story clear and compelling.

We Need To Understand Our Context: Our culture doesn’t know God’s redemptive story as told through Scripture. This story is rooted in history with real people and real events, all pointing to a Messiah who was going to come and usher in a new Kingdom. This Kingdom is to be centered around Jesus the Christ, a Gospel that invites people to move from spiritual death and brokenness, to a an eternal life, a healed life. This life is to be used for the Glory of God in this life and the life to come. There has been plenty written regarding this new Kingdom, about the need for Justice, about Redeeming Creation. The assumption is that people can put the pieces together and have a fuller and deeper appreciation for the original Gospel. What I am noticing is that they can’t.

I am not arguing that we should move away from “Kingdom,” “Justice,” or “Redeeming Creation” theology or praxis. I am arguing that we use the thin spaces to tell a compelling story for God’s desire and our need for true and full salvation in and through Jesus Christ. Just like the “Seeker” movement missed part of the story by assuming everyone knew their Bibles, I don’t want our current movements to only paint a beautiful picture as we work towards Justice. Even more than before the church can not be so subtle with the picture we are painting. We are made in the image of God and are longing to be healed from our brokenness. Our personal and cultural desire for healing and justice is because of this universal truth. And because of this universal truth, we can be bold in pointing out that it is through Jesus that we are healed and wrongs are made right.

This is what famous missionaries did a century ago such as Hudson Taylor. In the mid 1800’s Taylor went to China, and with a sensitivity to their culture, found these thin places. These are places where the needs of that particular culture have rubbed up against solutions the Gospel of Jesus address. And then Taylor would use those thin places to point to Jesus. We need to take a closer look at the culture we actually live in without our church eyes and look for these thin places. The good news is that the Holy Spirit has been already moving the church to these places, specifically in justice, poverty, and peace issues. As we strive to be missional and work for justice, we can immediately find places where our post-christian context and the church can meet. (and have been meeting)

We Have To Get Around To Jesus: The step that is missing is the point that tells the rest of the story. Our desire for missional living and justice go hand and hand with the very character of God. We are motivated by our love for Jesus and a response for the complete salvation he offers us. This connection is getting more and more tricky. Since our non-christian neighbors have zero touch points for any of this language, the church, you and me, must be that much more intentional and purposeful in communicating. While missional living and justice are vital in of themselves, if we never get back to Jesus, then we have really missed it. We must find a clear and compelling way to put this all together. We have to find a way that Jesus is the hero of the story again. We have moved so far away from a cultural understanding of who Jesus is that our post-christian context has no idea that the buildings we work on in our community, the schools we volunteer in, the non profits we partner with have anything to do with what Jesus has done for us and for them. There was an important pendulum shift over this past decade. Like all transitions, there is a need to come back towards the center so that the canvas is complete with the beautiful setting, and with our hero Jesus Christ front and center.

Without a crystal clear understanding of the original Gospel story, those Kingdom principles and works of compassion and justice, just become a nice story that has value in it of itself. Just like Wicked! is a great play on its own merits. But what makes the play truly amazing is the original story of the Wizard of Oz. As our culture loses connection to the original Gospel story, maybe it is time to revisit how we tell our story, so that the redemptive story centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes the center of what we do once again. As our heart grows for people who are totally unconnected to the church and to Christian faith, we might need to do less with fancy illustrations to a great story, and go old school and share the original story once again.

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bruno mars: bringing romance back to youth group

“you are beautiful, my darling, beautiful beyond words.
your eyes are like doves behind your veil.
your hair falls in waves, like a flock of goats winding down the slopes of giliead.
your teeth are as white as sheep, recently shorn and freshly washed.
your smile is flawless, each tooth matched with its twin.
your lips are like scarlet ribbon; your mouth is inviting.
your cheeks are like rosy pomegranates behind your veil.
your neck is as beautiful as the tower of david,
jeweled with the shields of a thousand heros
your breasts are like two fawns, twin fawns of a gazelle grazing among the lilies.
before the dawn breezes blow and the night shadows flee,
i will hurry to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense.
you are altogether beautiful, my darling, beautiful in every way.”
song of solomon 4:1-7

i think it is pretty amazing that bruno mars could have been solomon.  his song is really the song of solomon put to better words and music.  (although comparing noses to the tower of lebanon should make a comeback)  at its core, isn’t that what the song of solomon is really about, crazy, deep, romantic, infatuation.  being all caught up in her delights 🙂

i think it is strange that in christian circles we try to shut down this all powerful emtion.  but, what if romance was actually a god given gift;  something that was intended to be a part of our dna, part of our actual design?  wouldn’t that be amazing if god really did created us to be infatuated!

if that is the case, then maybe it is a disservice to work so hard at shutting that down with our students.  when we do, we deny them one of their core emotions and unintentionally communicate that church and jesus don’t understand what is really going on inside of them.  because infatuation and romance consumes our students, maybe we should help them understand it and give them tools to appropriately frame it.

the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy.

while god has made romantic love, the the thief perverts romantic love and transforms and corrupts it.  the thief has nothing to offer in of himself.  his only strategy is to take what is already in existence and pervert it.  and this is exactly what he does with romantic love, telling students to give their entire hearts and bodies over to the object of their affection.  isn’t that such a subtle lie.  in some sense we were designed to do that, but not just anyone to our partner.

when our students buy into the perverted version of romantic love, they foolishly give their hearts and bodies to their peers who are not developmentally mature enough to care for, protect, or commit to that kind of love.  and the result is all over our student ministries, students who have been devastated by awful breakups and blinding crushes.

jesus came to give us life abundantly.

the truth that jesus also wants to be lord over our romantic affections unfortunately sounds like bad news to our students.  their entire world is consumed with situational ethics and instant gratification.  however, the truth is the truth.  and what needs to be communicated is that this romantic love is a good and right feeling, but the way of abundant life is to protect our hearts until it can be fully expressed in the bonds of marriage.

the trick of living the abundant life when it comes to romance is helping our students wrestle with how much of their heart they are willing to give away.  it is normal and right for them to want to be in dating relationships.  and it is normal and right for us to give them tools to help them guard their hearts and to hold them accountable as they navigate these powerful emotions.

the easy thing to do is make romantic love a dirty thing and shut down dating within our ministires.  but the truth is that every single one of our students is consumed with this emotion.  so, instead of shutting down romance, and making it shameful.  why not celebrate it as the god given gift it is.  and what needs to be shaped and worked out is how to guard your heart in appropriate ways.  and that looks one way for middle schoolers, another for high schoolers, another for those who are engaged, and another for those who are married.

and for me, i am going to celebrate romance in the fullest way possible with my sweetheart (who still has it after 13 years of marriage!)  thank you bruno mars!

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the myth of senioritis

this is it, the final semester of high school for the class of 2011.  and for many of them, they have been suffering from senioritis long before they were even seniors. according to wikipedia, “the main symptoms of senioritis include procrastination, lack of motivation, a drop in academic performance, and ‘coasting,’ which is the act of going through classes with very little concentration or application of intent along with truancy.

i wonder if this dreaded disease might not really be a disease at all, but a wat to justify the massive drop off of engagement and participation from our seniors.  our seniors live into this description, and many of my fellow youth workers do too.  but when i step back and actually look at my seniors, what i see is a group of students who have figured out what is important and what isn’t important.  and because they are practically adults they feel empowered to make their own decisions regarding their time and effort.

they know what things bring them life and are purposeful.  they willingly pour hours into friendships because they realize that this is the last time they are going to be together like this.  they do well and study hard for their AP classes to prepare for their AP tests which will give them college credits.  and they practice and train hard for teams that are competitive. and at the same time they understand that more and more of their life is being filled with busy work, barely worthy of their time and attention.  and the teachers and coaches who are just filling time get disinterested students.  and the same might be true with our student ministries.

seniorites really isn’t a disease, but truth serum.  what seniors do with their time and attention is the true test of what they see as valuable and important.  so, maybe the reason for seniors beginning to lose interest in youth group is not senioritis at all, but a true representation of how valuable they think youth group is.

since we know seniors are fully engaged in the things they think matter, the bigger question is how to actually reach out to and meet the needs of our seniors.  if student ministry mattered to seniors and they viewed it as important, they would be there in mass.  so, letting them fade away because of senioritis is a crime.  we are youth workers who are called to run after and care for students, and last i checked, seniors still are students.

to help seniors stay connected we need to:

  1. give them a purpose for participating in youth group. for students who have been around a while, youth group can and should be pretty old.  youth group is really designed for 10th and 11th graders.  they have heard your lessons, played your games, and heard your jokes and stories many times.  the truth is there isn’t a lot for them to get out of youth group.  and truthfully there shouldn’t be.  but what an opportunity to give them a bigger purpose for participating in youth group.  help them see themselves as leaders, tone setters, as mentors to the younger students.  by calling out the truth that youth group isn’t for them, they get to live into their true calling as servant leaders.
  2. give them responsibility at youth group. you are probably a great communicator, and your leaders probably do a fantastic job of leading games.  but what if we all stepped back from some of our up front responsibility and gave that to students.  maybe seniors should get special privileges, like allowing them to teach at youth group and sunday school, or help lead games, trips, and activities, then they will have some ownership.  there is something they have to do, and if they have to do it, chances are they will show up, support their friends, and model that to younger students.  their senior year is the time for them to step up, not step away.  and we play a huge rule in what we allow, or don’t allow them to do.
  3. help shape their understanding of faith development and community.  i always get my feelings hurt when my seniors complain that youth group is boring or not deep.  and while that may be true on one level, on a deeper level this is completely not true.  we can not let students develop the mental patterns that youth group or church is not relevant for them.   have you noticed that your church service doesn’t change much, or ever.  we do announcements, sing songs, and preach from a passage of scripture.  that is it.  and if our students are going to get plugged in to church and stay plugged into youth group, part of our job is shaping their experience.  youth group and church is part of life, and life is normal and often boring.  running with perseverance is what we are called to do.  perseverance means that it is not easy or fun, but  a discipline.  we stay connected and we keep working out our faith in community during normal life, and second semester of your senior year is about as normal as it gets.

there is still five months left of high school for our seniors.  that is so much time.  there are over 150 days left, with over 20 youth groups.  there are  so many conversations still to be had and so many opportunities for ministry still to be done.  let’s work hard to hold on to our seniors, celebrate them, empower them, disciple them, and then launch them into whatever god has next.

 

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the secret ingredient for keeping students connected to christ:

the million dollar question seems to be something like, “how do we keep students committed to jesus into adulthood?” this is one of the main questions i have been wrestling with during my tenure as a youth pastor.  and depending on the season, i end up somewhere swinging between it all being on jesus or all being on me.  it is true that jesus is the author and perfector of our faith and as shepherds we are called by god to build up or students in their faith.  and at the end of the day, it is both.  i plant, you water, i plant, you water, and god causes there to be growth and life.  this is a mysterious partnership.

in this mysterious partnership there are always better techniques and practices to improve our planting and watering.  and if we take a step back, i think we will see that the solution to fertile and usable soil has been there all along.  we try all these ways to make the gospel more appealing, to make the good news seem better.  and in the process we distance ourselves from the church.  the church is old, bureaucratic, institutionalized, boring, irrelevant.  and while that might win us points in the short term, by making us seem hip, flexible, and relevant.  this attitude decimates the chances of our students becoming adult followers of christ.

if our time and energy is spent winning students to us or to our student ministry at the expense of the church we really are cutting off the nose to spite the face.  the church, warts and all, is where adult followers of christ gather for worship, discipleship, fellowship, and ministry.  student ministry is temporary, college ministry is temporary, big church has to be the place we help students land if we want them to continue to know and love jesus into adult hood.

one of the greatest quotes i have ever heard was from a random volunteer on a mexico mission trip.  he said, “student ministry is a short term mission in a long term life.” and if you think about it, this is a revolutionary concept.  just like short-term missions, we are only around for a short period of time.  and to be effective and a true blessings, we partner with those people who have been there and will continue to be there in the long term.  we don’t show up as the end all to ministry, because we know we are there for only a short amount of time.  instead we work our butts off in that short amount of time and are a blessing to the community we are partnering with.  then we graciously hand them off to their long-term community.

student ministry as short-term missions: student ministry must be seen as short-term mission, and the landing place for long-term mission is the church.  for students to not get caught in the middle, we must do a better job of loving the church; highlighting how the church has been caring for the students, helping students fit into adult worship, encouraging students to serve, and finding meaningful ways to transition students into the adult life of the church.  this allows there to be meaningful, long-term faith and commitment to jesus christ.  the following are some principles we have implemented at our church to help our students stay connected to the church.

first, it is not ok for student ministry leaders, myself included, to be among the biggest critics of the church.  our jobs and budgets are there because the church loves students.  they shell out tons of money to provide a person and place for students to figure out who Jesus is in an environment that works for their development.  and if we take their money and recourses and then discredit the very people who provide for us and our students, everyone loses.  we must communicate with our students that the old, out of touch, adult church, loves them so much.  that is why we have a youth worker, a youth room, a budget.  that is how our mission trips get paid for.  this happens because students are valued by the church.  (but sometimes the adult leaders don’t know the best way to show it)

second, everything we do points to getting our students connected to “big church.”  big church is the formal term for the adult worship gathering. with all the great things that happen at youth group and sunday student worship, we do a huge disservice if we don’t help our students engage in adult worship.  there is a discipline to singing worship for 30 minutes, or for standing and sitting liturgy, for long sermons that don’t speak directly to students’ lives.  this is where the adult church gathers and is ministered to and worships together, and it is a learned habit.  if this habit is instilled in junior high, it will be much easier for them to continue to worship with adults when they are one, as opposed to only worshiping with their peers in services designed only for them.

another way we are helping our students connect is by making service to the church part of our ministry diet. our students regularly serve in children’s ministry.  and their service is not just because we need warm bodies there, it is because we are continually reminding them of how we develop spiritually, that is we are always pouring our lives into someone younger and always finding people older than us to pour their lives into us.  children’s ministry is a great place to remind our students that the church loves them and cares for them.  it did when they were little, it does now, and it will as they get older.

the last thing we do to connect our students to our adult worshiping community, is by having a transition service for the senior class in our student ministry.  we spend an entire service in the spring for our seniors to share their testimonies.  in these testimonies we work with them to reflect on how they have been loved for and cared for by our church.  then we commission them by having the church lay hands on them and pray for them and welcome them into the adult community.  it is an amazing service, and i am always reminded at god’s goodness and faithfulness.  our church is reminded as well of God’s goodness and faithfulness through their love and support of student ministry.

like you, i still have students who don’t do any of the things i encourage them to do, show up here and there, and end up being amazing followers of christ, and i still have students who are totally committed to everything we do as a student ministry and choose to walk away from christ.  but one of the transitions we have seen is that when students return from college, their gathering place is in big church, not outside the youth room.  big church can not only be for adults, we must help our students develop that habit.  i said at the beginning, the spiritual development of students is a mysterious balance between us planning and watering, and god causing growth.  i do think we make god’s job harder if we cut the legs out from the church instead of helping students find their rightful place in the larger body of christ.

we give our students an amazing gift when we give them the tools and the habits to develop their faith into adulthood within the adult worshiping community. it is then they have the best chance for loving jesus for the long haul.

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