Monday, November 05, 2007

National Youth Workers Convention 2007

I attended the National Youth Workers Convention at St. Louis just this past weekend and I am trying to wrap my head around the things I took away from the conference.

By the way, see this cool picture of St. Louis? If you look out of my hotel window you saw the arch! Pretty cool. I left the hotel plans up to my cousin from La Croix, MS and he DELIVERED!

Okay, THOUGHT #1: There is something going on within the church which is more reflective of the larger culture. Some refer to it as post-modern, others as "emergent". There are those who embrace the change and others who strongly oppose it. Case in point, I was in a seminar with a well-known speaker explaining the emergent thinking going on within the church. During that discussion an audience member called the speaker a heretic! I couldn't believe it, myself. I wanted to start a Flatfoot 56 Irish-smackdown brawl right there! If you know that you strongly disagree with the speaker why pay the money to come to the seminar and throw verbal bombs like that one! But it is reflective of a greater issue within church history. Whether one wants to admit it or not, the church evolves in it's thinking and that is not always a bad thing. Yes, cults and extremist groups have spun out of the mainstream church. But if you look at all of the major figures of church history, whom today we now praise as reformers, movers and shakers, they were all labeled as godless heretics by the church in power at the time. Not to say that no one is above criticism. But what I am saying is that if someone breaks out of the mainstream way of thinking and comes up with a new way of looking at church and culture that challenges the old structures of interpretation then watch your back! I personally am glad to see those who are coming up with new ways of thinking about church. All to often the church is 20-30 years behind the times. It is about time that we engage the culture in its current context and analyze, critique and synthesize our current context into our faith.

THOUGHT #2: Redeem the culture, within the culture! I honestly believe that so much of 20th century was an embarrassment in how the church handled culture. We pulled out of the mainstream culture and created this ghetto sub-culture within Christianity with our own artists, musicians, writers, and film industries. They were made to entertain us and us alone. God forbid if a Christian musician collaborated with a "secular" artist to make a good song. (For those of you old-timers, "The Next Time I Fall" by Amy Grant and front man for Chicago, Peter Cetera). I am so tired of sugary, sweet, family friendly, so-called Christian crap marketed to the church. Of course the mainstream church has lost all sense of taste and has rotted it's teeth on the fluff of the Ghetto Church of Buddy Jesus. If you go to any museum and look at art prior to the 20th century, you will see a huge Christian influence dating back to the first century. Then Christian themes all but disappear at the 20th century. Because instead of engaging culture and trying to be a significant impact and influence with mainstream culture, the Christian community all but pulled itself out. A lot of this has to do with a horrible eschatology that corrupted the mainstream church. But I will save that for another blog! (Thanks to Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye we are still dealing with this even today.) The point in my ramblings is this: we need to engage mainstream culture and redeem it! Mel Gibson proved that it can be done. And he also proved that any real movie based on the Bible will most definitely earn a strong rated-R, and that is not a bad thing! Only when the grace, mercy and forgiveness of God is contrasted with the darkness of sin, separation, alienation and corruption will the true message of the Bible be truly appreciated, understood and received. Doug Fields spoke about ministry envy and I understood what he was saying but it wasn't until Hollywood producer Ralph Winter spoke that I fully understood Doug's message, because if I could steal any ones job it would have been Ralph's. What an amazing testimony of a man impacting culture and making movies that ask the deeper questions and explore issues that we all face, and contrast the dark areas with the light.

THOUGHT #3: I simply love the Skit Guys and I have never laughed so hard in such a long time as I did at their stuff. It is always great to have someone break through all of the seriousness of many of these themes at conferences and the situations that many of us find ourselves in and just make us laugh so hard we hack out a lung. I laughed harder at these guys than most of what I have seen on the Comedy Channel. And these guys make me laugh that hard without any other influences causing me to laugh more than I would normally laugh! I mean it is REAL GUT-BUSTING laughter! Not only that, but these guys are now in a commercial for Southwest Airlines. Once again, guys who are having a great influence on the church but are good enough, and talented enough to begin breaking out into the mainstream culture and having an impact much bigger and broader that just the church culture. Do it guys!

Well, that's my thoughts for now. I would love to hear yours!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

And the Wheels of Church History Go Round and Round

This was a monster of a book but it was very true to its title. Bruce Shelley goes through all of the time periods of the church and puts it in terms that were easy to understand and in many cases there was never a dull moment. In fact, you would never guess by the size of the book, but at times, it seemed to me that he was skimming the service of many of the event, giving me just enough of a taste to want to cry out for more. The most powerful thing I learned that seemed to be an all-too-common theme is the constant temptation of the church to want to gain political power in order to control people from the outside-in, instead of doing the harder task of loving and serving people until God changes them from the inside-out. From Constantinople, to Rome, to Geneva, to New England and, dare I say, to the present, we see Christians gain political control believing that they now have the power to establish the kingdom of God here on earth. But in every case throughout all of history, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts, absolutely. It is surprising to me that the early Christians who remember suffering persecution to the point of hiding in catacombs, now became the ones doing the persecution; or that great reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther, who broke away from a church system that became corrupt and began inspiring people to look to the Bible for themselves, would then turn around and condemn to death people who come to different conclusions than them; or that places like England and Ireland would become countries of intense persecution between Catholics and Protestants.
So I guess my question is this: if all of these lessons in history are there for us to learn from, why is it that it almost seems we are on the verge of repeating the very same mistakes over and over again. The Reformers broke away from a church that allowed itself to become corrupt with power robbing people blind to fund their building projects. Have you seen any of these "Super Walmart" size churches going up all around? I would dare to guess just how much of their budget is actually a part of their empire-building as opposed to real ministry needs within their community.
As a college student in the late 80's I remember being sickened with what was considered evangelical television back then. It was full of charlatans, fakes and frauds yet they drew in the thoughtless masses because they put out a "christian pop-culture" that their mindless audiences ate up. And it really hasn't changed much since then. Now we have a Republican party that has essentially seduced the evangelicals of our country into thinking political power will solve all of our problems YET AGAIN! Read history! It doesn't work. It will not work. It will never work until Christ himself sits on the throne. Even then I have to believe that he will be proned to rolling his eyes at us idiots every once in a while wondering if he still has the free pass to smite us in the desert and start over again. It is time for the church in America to rise above politics and act as a unified body of Christ bringing the best of traditional and progressive thinking to the table and honestly debating the issues and seeking God through it all. And by all means, serving the poor, lost and persecuted. It is time for us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves why we seem like narrow-minded jerks to most of the people out there. Our actions should win people over to Christ, not repulse people away from Him (not Him really, more like us. Or as Bon Jovi would say, " We give God a bad name."). It is time we stop thinking that church history pauses at the end of the New Testament and then picks up with us! The absolute height of arrogance! We need to learn from the giants who came before us, in all of their ugliness and beauty, from every time period that came before us. We need to listen to their voices cry out so that we learn from their failures and flaws and see how God still used them anyhow. Since we are surrounded by such a great, great, great host of witnesses . . .

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Wa boo-hoo!

  • Game 1: Dang, it's over.
  • Game 2: Oh, maybe I gave up to quick.
  • Game 3: yesssssss!
  • Game 4: YES!
  • Game 5: That's alright. We got 2 more chances.
  • Game 6: Damn.
  • Game 7: Noooooooooooooooooooo! You have got to be kidding me! Hey Ortiz, stop pointing up to the sky! Believe me, God is just as disappointed as I am. Cleveland is God's team! And Manny, you didn't even care whether you won or lost! At least Lofton had the dignity to come back to the team he loved!

The greatest achievement of the whole season: Sending the New York Yankees back home!

Stupidest thing I saw: LaBron James wearing a Yankees hat! Hey punk, remember where your paycheck is coming from. Being a Yankees fan in Cleveland is one thing you LEAVE IN THE CLOSET!

And as we Cleveland fans always say year after year: Maybe next year!


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sexual Preferences of Wizards

Okay! I have got to say this and get it off my chest. WHY? Why is this necessary? I am absolutely confused why J. K. Rowling would do this. If there are people out there that read Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and other such books and they really must know the sexual preferences of each character then let's leave them to their own speculations and fantasies. But I just don't understand why this is a question that she is being asked and why she decided to answer it the way she did. To bring in such a hot topic issue into an incredibly successful series of books after the fact that she has completed the series and has made her fortune doesn't make sense to me. I have read the entire series and never once did I think about the sexuality of who got it on with whom and what their preferences or sexual idiosyncrasies were. I spent years defending her books against the Religious Right who saw her as introducing witchcraft to their kids. I still stand solidly on the facts that J. K. Rowling is a brilliant and extremely creative writer and I love the film adaptations of her books. But to bring sexual politics into a book that is read by a lot of children I think is in poor taste. It is up to the parents to educate their children about sexuality when they believe that their children are at the stages to understand and process the necessary information. I personally am getting tired of a culture that want to try and beat parents to the punch by cramming their views on our kids at a younger and younger age.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A. J. Jacobs Goes Biblical!

I first saw A. J. Jacobs on the Today Show being interviewed about his new book "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible". Now to be honest, I have had my share of experiences attending and working in churches and christian schools where I lived around people who thought they were living the Bible . . . as literally as possible. And quit frankly, I am still dealing with the scars of those experiences. But as I listened to Jacobs I realized that this was going to be very different than an ultra-conservative elitist smugly looking down on everyone else. In fact, Jacobs confesses to being a liberal New York agnositic who after having his first child, realized he wasn't to excited about our culture instilling its morals and values as the primary source of socialization for his son. So he decided on giving Christianity a good hard look by living it out as literally as possible, following ever rule in the Bible for one whole year. And the results are hilarious, enlightening, inspiring and in may ways an incredible sermon that exposes the Law for the very thing it was intended to do: to show the insane impossiblity of trying in our own power to live according to the Law. Jacobs first off, becomes completely overwhelmed with the amount of laws there are to follow. But as he becomes more and more conscious of the law, he begins to realize just how often he is more of a law-breaker than he ever realized: coveting, lusting, lying, etc. Jesus delt with those who thought they were living up to the law in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knew that many of the religious leaders of the day were dumbing down the law to make it achievable so that they came off looking oh, so righteous! But Jesus pushed the Law to the fullest extent showing that the Law isn't for us to attempt to achieve it but to show the IMPOSSIBILITY of keeping it, thus the point of a Savior!
Jacobs maintains a great sense of humor through the whole experience. He even goes so far as to stone a real adulterer. That story alone was worth the price of the book. But I guess the thing that took me by surprise was that there were many instances where I was genuinely challenged, convicted and inspired to grow in my faith - despite the fact that Jacobs does not convert to Chrsitianity at the end of his project! His work with the homeless, the lessons he learned about thankfulness, the significance of prayer, and the humanity that he portrayed in all of the people and places that he visited was incredible. His experiences at Thomas Road Baptist Church, the snake handling church, Israel with ex-uncle Gil, The Red-Letter Christians, his Jewish friends, The Purpose Christian Life and the rest of the Chrsitian culture that he explored showed a humanity and diversity of people within the church that was all amazing. In many cases where I thought he was going to see the pockets of insanity within the church he actually saw real people trying to the best of their abilities to live out their faith. Jacobs used humor not in a way to make fun of people but more often to make fun of himself throughout his quest. So A. J., thanks for sharing your journey! My only challenge to you is to read a book on the grace of God to balance out all of the lessons you learned about the Law (Philip Yancey's "What So Amazing About Grace?"). Then I think you will get a complete picture of the message of the Bible. Then after that, I sooooooooo want you to go back to the snake-handling church and complete the conversion!

The Miracle of Pope John Paul?!?!

Okay, is it just me or is anyone else slightly concerned about this fiery image that some claim, in a fervor of religious excitement, is the former pope waving to us from this bonfire? Now the last time I checked when an image of a person arises from the ground encased in flame, that was not a good thing! Looking up and seeing clouds that look like Jesus produce warm fuzzies. But ANYBODY emerging from the earth in fire is cause for running away very fast and hiding in a church. So I think it best to not associate Pope John Paul with the bonfire. I would like to think that he would not come back as the Torch to wave to us. Maybe we can find his image in a potato chip or a cinnamon bun! Or better yet a pirogie!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Scariest Movie EVER!

It is definitely getting closer to one of my most favorite holidays. Yes, I am one of those sick, twisted Christians who actually looks forward to Halloween. I still have a secret fantasy of transforming into a werewolf someday. A kind and gentle werewolf though; not an evil one. One that viciously kills the raccoons that try to break into my trash can and unearths the vile moles that dig up my lawn and administers a crushing death before eating them. During this time of year all of the classic scary movies come out from the vaults and some new and creative horror films come out on the big screens. But in all seriousness I wanted to bring attention to what I consider the scariest movie that I have ever seen. It is a documentary entitled "Deliver Us From Evil". It is the very true story of Father Oliver O'Grady and the hundreds of children that he victimized under the roof of the church. The reason that this movie is so shocking is that this is a REAL MONSTER who has preyed on hundreds of children. This movie is in a category all unto itself. When I think of Halloween films I usually think of scary movies that are fun to watch. This movie was sickening. Especially when you see the pain that his victims are currently suffering through, how the church covered up his behavior, and how O'Grady is living out his elderly years. The only think that gives me any comfort is knowing that he will have to face God soon, and for this man, there will certainly be hell to pay. Now I do not want to make a blanket statement against the Catholic church although those who were directly involved in the oversight of O'Grady should be held accountable (which apparently includes the current pope!). In every church I have worked in (except the one I am in currently) there has been an adult who has taken advantage of one of the teens directly in my ministry and in both cases they have been dismissed from their job and the proper authorities were immediately involved. How can we in the church do no less. Make sure your teens and children are protected from any predators out there, and do not be naive to think that they are not in your community. I live in one of the most affluent communities in Ohio. I had a local police man host a parent seminar in which he went into a chat room posing as an underage girl. I sat in my youth room completely shocked, horrified and sickened by the amount of hits this fictional girl was receiving from perverts. And in a few of the cases the conversation went to the gutter very quickly. It was numbing. Never forget, you are the shepherd that God has called to look after his sheep. Do your duty and protect your children and teens by all means possible. And allow this movie to burn an image into your head that will put the fear of God in you so that something like this will never happen on your watch.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Shut Your Mouth and Let Them Speak!

I found it interesting that apparently the Christian community is upset at comedian Kathy Griffin's remarks about what she said at the Emmy Awards. Below is an article about her comments and the reaction of a Christian theatre company below.
Comedienne Kathy Griffin Scolded by Christian Theater Group
By Ray McDonald Washington24 September 2007
Kathy Griffin A Christian theater group has scolded Kathy Griffin for her off-color remarks Emmy Award acceptance speech.
The Miracle Theater of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee spent $90,440 on a full-page advertisement in the September 17 national edition of USA Today.
Proclaiming "enough is enough," the ad took the comedienne to task for her speech, in which she said that "a lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus." She went on to hold up her Emmy, made an off-color remark about Jesus, and proclaimed "this award is my God now!"
Kathy Griffin won her Emmy for her Bravo reality show My Life on the D-List.
The Miracle Theater's ad reads "We at the Miracle Theater consider it an honor to stand for Jesus today. We may never win a national award. We may never be household names. We may never be seen in Hollywood. Although others may choose to use their national platform to slander our God, we are honored as professional entertainers to stand for Christ."
General manager Russ Hollingsworth said group members were offended by jokes about Jesus. "When word reached our cast that a Hollywood celebrity had stood before TV cameras and said such vulgar things about Christ, they were incensed. It's just not OK anymore to mock Christians and Jesus with impunity."
In a statement released through her publicist, the 46-year-old comedienne said she meant the remark not as a slight on Jesus Christ, but as a spoof of celebrities who routinely thank Jesus during awards acceptance speeches. "Am I the only Catholic left with a sense of humor?," she said.
Griffin's speech also drew fire from the Catholic League, an anti-defamation group which called upon the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to "denounce Griffin's obscene and blasphemous comment" at the September 9 ceremony.
The E! Channel chose to edit Griffin's speech when it aired the taped event on September 15.

Now I find it very, very interesting that an entertainer has FINALLY come out honestly about the achievement of her award. I honestly would agree with her statement that Jesus really didn't have a lot to do with her award. What has been more disturbing to me within the entertainment culture are those who put out degrading, misogynistic, crude, racist, egotistical, profane art and then have the audacity to stand before a national audience and proceed to thank God for their award with a sincere tear gleaming in the corner of their eye. So let me be the one Christian that say THANK YOU KATHY GRIFFIN for finally coming out as an intellectually honest entertainer!

Who are we to demand of our very much non-Christian entertainers that they show us any honor?!?! Yes, I know what you are thinking! But they would never say that about the Jews or the Muslims. True. In fact, we as a country seemed to have a little bit of fun (I know I found it delicious) watching Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being schooled by the administration and students of Columbia University. But I would dare them to try the same thing in Iran. Those students would discover the same fate of the apparently non-existent homosexuals in Iran. I concede that this is a true fact: Christianity is an easy target. But there are 2 very valid reasons we are such an easy target: one factual and one Biblical. First of all, I am willing to admit that our "community" has an over abundance of freaks that are like magnets for negative attention. It is like that nerd in Junior High that at times you feel sorry for but every now and then you come to realize that the kid needs to be pounded so he won't be so daw-gone annoying! Or better yet you tease him just a little bit because his over-reaction is pricelessly hysterical. Come on, you know the kid I am talking about. And there are many in the "Christian community" that resemble that twerp.

Now biblically, Am also reminded of a little beatitude that Jesus closed with that went: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Matthew 5:10-12

Hmmmmm. This is a very interesting approach to insults that we have seem to be forgetting about! Why do we act surprised when the world acts like the world! It is time we take Jesus' advice and rejoice when the world starts to insult us! So bring it on Kathy! Say what you want because it gives us the opportunity to share in the insults and persecution of Christ himself. Thank Jesus that he did not act indignant and flabbergasted when his executioners came calling. He did not take out an add in the Jerusalem Times demanding respect for what he was trying to do. And how do we think we advance the cause of Christ by acting this way? We are to be people who rejoice in insults and persecution. We are to turn the other cheek in the face of persecution. And we are to love our enemies. I really think the kingdom of Christ would expand so much quicker if we actually followed his teaching particularly in the Sermon on the Mount.

So let's PU-LEASE stop acting as if we have rights that the world must respect us! Let Kathy speak! Let Christopher Hitchens say whatever he wants about God not being great and Billy Graham being a fraud. Let those San Franciscans take mock photos of the Last Supper. Let Richard Dawkins rail against us as delusional. It is about time the American church deals with some persecution and allow their faith to be tested through it all! Don't get mad. Rejoice and be glad! You're actually in real good company. Let's just take it on the chin like those before us and hope that our reaction will not reinforce stereotypes but actually break through the hearts of those who are hardened against God. Remember, these people are NOT THE ENEMY! We are called to love them regardless of their attitude towards us. Let their words be more of a reflection of their character than in how silly we look when we react to their comments.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"God Is In Control . . . Yada, yada, yada" by Lee Evans (and my response)

God Is in Control...Yada... Yada... Yada by Len Evans
I toyed with the idea of writing this anonymously because I was scared that it would come across bitter and angry sincewell, I'm probably bitter and angry.
David wrote about walking through the valley of the shadow of death; well, this past year it seems like we've been camping out in the valley of the shadow of deathand the dangers, toils, and snares have come courtesy of some Christians and some churches.
I've never served in a true mega-church (2000 on a Sunday) or had 200 active students every week, but I've been fortunate and able to do some pretty cool things in youth ministry land. I graduated from a great seminary, pastored thriving youth ministries, spoke at national youth worker conventions, and wrote lots of articles and curriculumeven a recent book.
Despite all these accolades and appearances of success, it's been a rough haul recently. So I thought I'd share some of my recent journey with all of its fear, doubt, and messiness, written in the moment.
The Dark Days 4 months ago
I've been looking for a new ministry position for over six months. I left the church and have been without income for almost three months; my savings will run out soon. I've played back the last church situation in my head hundreds of times. Seems it "wasn't a good fit"which was true in some ways. At the end, my senior pastor told me I didn't fit in well with the church cultureand I agreed, since it seems to be characterized by material affluence that's led to an attitude of entitlement.
I made mistakes and I could've done things better, but I didn't do anything worthy of being asked to leaveer, excuse meI "resigned"of course, it was made clear to me that it'd be easier to provide some severance if I agreed my departure was 100utual.
There were no moral issues, my behavior was above reproach, and I was told that I'd left with grace. (Does telling this storyalbeit truestill qualify me for leaving with grace?)
I believe there's a plan for me, but I just wish God didn't have to use these kinds of people to accomplish it.
The Darkest Night
I've never really considered abandoning youth ministry until tonight. I looked at my wife and told her, "If this church that we're talking to doesn't work out, I'll leave youth ministry. I'll leave any sort of ministry."
I'm tired of my wife being hurt by promises that are broken by church leaders. I'm tired of telling my daughters, "It'll be okay, maybe this next church is where Jesus wants us to be," and "No honey, we're not poor yet. Don't worry about those kinds of things." But most of all, I'm tired of being treated like a corporate employee who's simply there to do the bidding of the higher ups.
This whole experience makes me just want to find a job to pay the bills, focus on loving my family, and go hide in a church rather than serve in one. Then fear kicks in as I wonder who would hire a 35-year-old former youth pastor with no "real world" experience. I still, and always will, love the church; though some churches really tick me off with how they treat people, especially youth workers.
Don't get me wrong. Some youth workers should be fired. Heck, some of us never should have become full-time youth workers in the first place! But right now, it feels like there are a lot more of us out there who should be treated better than we are.
I've had over 20 phone interviews with different churches, and yet not one place has worked out. Four have been very close. One even said, "We can have you here in two weeks," and then the next day called and said, "We're sorry; we think we rushed the process."
Maybe God is telling me that I should get out of ministry or maybe that I should wait. I'm not sure what the answer is, and I'm not sure, at this moment, what I want the answer to be. My theology tells me that God is in control and in the end it'll all be okaybut right now I don't want to hear it, and frankly I'm not sure if I believe it.
The Rest of the Story
It seems that my camping permit to the valley of the shadow of death was a temporary one. It was so dark on some days that I joked with my wife that if it got much worse I was going to take my daughters' Bibles and pitch them, saying, "You won't need those." I didn't really want to, but that's how low I was feelingwow!
As I reviewed what I wrote four months ago as a cathartic exercise at my lowest point in the search process, it's still hard to relive or even recall the extent of the pain I was experiencing.
After interacting with over 40 churches in response to my resume, I'm currently a volunteer youth pastor while working a full-time job somewhere else. Lots of stuff about this church excites me, especially the leadership. They're all on the same page, and they know where they're going. And they're hoping by faith and proper planning to hire me full-time in another 4-5 months.
Meanwhile, a church of 8,000 contacted me last week with the words, "You're at the top of our list." But the truth of the matter is that this church of 350 is such a great fit that I'd rather be here as a volunteer than pursuing that next step up the youth ministry success ladder.
Through this process I learned several things: to trust God more than my resume; that contentment comes from God's plans, not mine: and that it's okay to hurt when life's circumstances go from bad to horrid. Most importantly, I learned that God really is in control, even when I think about pitching the kids' Bibles.

"God Is In Control . . . Yada . . . Yada . . . Yada: The Sequel" by Scooter 4.0

Early in the month of April I read the "original" article by Len Evans. Although it was only a one-page article I only made it half way through it until I burst into tears. The almost strange, surreal feelings that overwhelmed me at the moment was because Len was describing word for word the exact situation that I was going through with my church. Evans writes that "I've played back that last church situation in my head hundreds of times. Seems it 'wasn't a good fit' which was true in some ways . . . I made mistakes and I could've done things better, but I didn't do anything worthy of being asked to leave . . . er, excuse me . . . 'resigned'. I believe that there's a plan for me but I just wish God didn't have to use these people to accomplish it." (Youthworker Journal Mar/Apr 2005, p. 64).

I spent two days prior to reading Len's words agonizing over what just happened at my church and wondering whether or not I was due for a radical career change. I didn't get it. On a ministry level the youth group was on the right track. Once I arrived at this church I discovered that I was the third youth pastor that many of my students have had (first red flag!). They have not had someone stick with them long enough to earn their trust and provide the spiritual foundation that they needed in their life. During my first two years many issues came up with the teens that made it evident that they were in need of the 'milk' of God's Word before we could move onto the meat. Their lives were not far different from their secular counterparts. After two years of nurture and spiritual care we began to see many of the most unlikely students start to blossom spiritually. Many were rising to the challenge to discover their spiritual gifts and implement them within the ministry. Finally, after seeing some encouraging signs of the Holy Spirit moving within the students I get told by the church management team that there isn't the kind of 'youth movement' going on that they would like to see, a.k.a. "numbers!" (the second red flag!).

As I reflect on my college and seminary years I remember hearing my "Student Ministry" professors claim that the typical stay of a youth pastor at a church is anywhere between 6-24 months. As a young, naive student ready to charge the next generation for Christ, I remember thinking "How stupid is THAT! How could you possibly see the fruit of your ministry if you aren't even willing to commit yourself to a church for the long haul! What kind of knuckle-headed youth pastor would quit in less than two years!" But as I have had the chance to befriend many youth pastors over the years I have yet to meet that young, stupid youth pastor that just up and quits in less than 24 months. Instead, all to often, what I seem to always hear about are youth pastors that I admire, respect and are neck-deep in ministry all of a sudden are "let go" by the church management / elders / administration because the student ministry does not look like what they envisioned it to be. Therefore, it is a "BAD MATCH!" The question I want to pose is this: why does there seem to be a break down on an administrative level when it comes to student ministries pastors?

A colleague of mine once describe youth ministry as being just like baseball. Every person at one point in their life has played baseball. As a result, everyone thinks they know the game. Go to any little-league game and you will find a host of adults acting more childish than the very kids out on the field as they want to assertively point out every wrong move that either the coach or the umpire evidently screwed up! In the same way, everyone has been a teenager. Sometimes, us youth pastors even work for people above us that put their time in as a youth pastor or leader back in the 1970's, 1980's, or 1990's. They have memories of the "Youth For Christ" rally-style of ministry that was the model of effective youth ministry decades ago. Or they might remember the bus ministry that seemed to find enough teens to maximize every square inch of the vehicle. There was once a day in which free pizza worked liked a magnet with teens. The times, the culture and the family have changed significantly though these days. And youth ministry is not the same today as it once was when we were growing up.

The Times

The two most significant events that forever change youth ministry occurred on April 20, 1999 and on Sept. 11, 2001. They have been introduced to a culture of violence from within and without. The Columbine shooting is the most notorious to date of violence within the schools that impacted our entire country. The Red Lake High School shooting just recently jolted our national conscience into being reminded of the fact that violence within schools is a very real problem. And as a direct result of the horrific events of 9/11 just about every church has some student on their prayer list that is fighting in a war battling against terrorist and those who sponsor terrorism. The times we are a livin' in are very, very different.

The Culture

As a young, stupid teenager I will confess that I remember the day when my friends and I got really curious about pornography. What was so different back then was that you had to go on a mission to find it. Sneak out to that convenient store on the other side of town, go late at night, look around and make sure that there is not one there that might recognize you, go up to the clerk (DON'T MAKE EYE CONTACT!), mumble what it is you want, fork over the cash, and then scurry away into the night. Today it is so much easier than that for our teens. With the invention of the internet and our sex-saturated culture it is no wonder that most of our teens have been exposed to a great deal of pornography at a much younger age and with materials that make the convenient store bookshelf look tame! And this is just one of many, many issues within our culture that is currently affecting our teens.

The Family

During the days that I grew up in my youth group I had many friends who came from good, solid Christian families (or they were really good at faking it). Many of our parents demonstrated a Christian lifestyle that included making us go to church whether we liked it or not! Not so today. Many, many families are falling apart and are not providing the foundation that many teens need these days. When you factor all of this in, it is no wonder that more and more teens are hurting or abusing themselves just because they are emotionally numb to all of the pain that they have experienced in their short-lived lives! Praise God that we carry the message of a Savior who offers grace and love especially to this generation!

But with all of this in mind now, let's get back to the question at hand: why does there seem to be a break down on an administrative level when it comes to student ministries pastors? Maybe it is because their idea of "successful" youth ministry comes from an out-dated model. Maybe they don't realize that the big, fun, exciting programs of the past really don't work with teens these days. At some point, us youth pastors need to finally admit that we can NOT compete with the entertainment culture. Entertainment is a band-aid to the real problem. It may make us feel warm and fuzzy on the inside when we pull off a big, flashy program, but is this the most effective way to deal with the heart issues of a teenager these days? To change a teenager from the inside-out will take a relationship. And THAT takes time to develop. Unfortunately if a youth group gets a new youth pastor every 2 years the church will be in danger of losing this generation.

If we are to come of age, it is time for us to start educating those above us about why teens are different today and how effective youth ministry might look today as opposed to a decade or two ago. I pray that some of you out there will start a movement that will begin to reach out to those above us to begin educating them so that our jobs can be more effective as they trust us in knowing that the times, methods and ministries are very different today. Let's stop huddling in our own networks and conferences and begin to invade the territory of our administrators and pastors helping them to understand the times, the culture and the family and how that has significantly altered how a "successful" student ministry will look like. In the immortal words of Kip: "Now that's what I'm talkin' about!"

When the Fringe Interrupt Our Youth Ministry Schedule

It was one of those crazy days as a youth pastor. In fact, the craziness seemed to be becoming the norm instead of the exception lately. I was stuck in my office working on paper work that someone above me seemed to think was so important that it must be done now! I continued to work on my budget, lessons, agendas, among other things on my "To Do List" that went all the way down to the end of the page. My students need me, my leaders need me, and my parents need me. It seemed so important at the moment for me to sit in front of my computer screen and work on the best possible plan to have an effective student ministry.

All of a sudden one of those annoying interruptions occurred. Someone knocked on the door and gave me a slip of paper with a name and address on it. Apparently there was a young teenage girl who had attempted to commit suicide. Fortunately for her, she was not successful. But now she is in the psychiatric wing of the hospital and could use a visit from a pastor.

I did not recognize the name. Questions immediately came to my mind which showed my annoyance to this interruption. Who is she? Not sure. Does she attend the youth group? No. Do her parents attend the church? Not really, her mom occasionally. Is there anything you can tell me about her? Not really. This girl does not even know who I am. If I didn't visit her, she wouldn't even know one way or the other. She is not a contributing member of this Student Ministry! But a small voice inside my head would not allow me to make up a simplistic answer to avoid what I knew I had to do.

That night I went up to the psychiatric wing of the local hospital to visit this teen that I have never met. In fact, when I introduced myself to her, she thought I was one of the security guards. The fear, apprehension and annoyance that I felt when I first received the information about this girl turned into guilt as I began a conversation with her that ended up including three other students that were so hungry for someone to just talk to them without hate, judgment, anger and abuse. I walked away from that night, not only knowing that the Holy Spirit used me to reach out to this teen, but also I was flooded with his conviction of helping me to understand what is really important to the Lord. Angels don't get excited about the latest youth program that I put together. Believe it or not, I really don't think that the angels are just sitting on the edge of their seats ready to explode with excitement when I turn in my budget for the up-coming year . . . ON TIME! But when we go after the one lost sheep and we are able to bring them into the flock the Bible tells us that there is a huge party in heaven going on. God has a BIG HEART for the fringe kids.

But this story doesn't end here. The Holy Spirit changed me heart with this young girl who was on the edge. Eventually she was released to go home and she decided to visit the youth group. At the time, she found her identity within the Goth culture. As she stepped into the youth room I was absolutely thrilled about her taking the initiative to come check us out! What I wasn't ready for was the gut-wrenching response that many of my "regular" students made in response to her appearance. There was a small group of students who immediately judged this teen strictly by her outward appearance. For all they knew, a Satanist just entered our sacred youth room and was going to bring down a curse on all of them! Knowing what I knew about this young lady, I was appalled and horrified by the very blatant and disrespectful reaction towards her by my youth group. This entire story could have had a very bad ending to it all. But it was only by God's grace that it ended up well.

First of all, this young girl continued to come because of the fact that I followed through with the Holy Spirit's prompting of me to reach out to her. Over the years the spiritual transformation that took place in this young teenager was incredible. She developed into one of my most solid Student Leaders. During her Senior year she lead the drama team in directed an incredible play dealing with issues of school violence, bullying and gossip. She is now a college student who is studying to become a youth pastor.

Secondly, when the timing was right, her testimony became one of the most convicting stories that our youth group needed to hear. Once our youth group heard her story, many of them were convicted about how they initially reacted to this peer when she first came to youth group. How were they supposed to know that she was hurting, lost, and ready to end it all? How were they supposed to know all that was going on underneath this tough exterior of a teenage Goth? Instead, she fit a stereotype and it was all too easy to throw a bunch of harsh, critical judgments her way hoping that she would eventually just disappear.

In John 4 Jesus was confronted with a woman that fit many stereotypes of his day: she was a sexually promiscuous Samaritan woman. She knew very well the labels that her culture threw at her simply from the fact that she choose to get water in the heat of the day when she would have had the best possible chance to not have to run into anyone who would look down on her, judge her, label her. Jesus in his wisdom had a lesson that he needed to teach his disciples, but he had to get rid of them first in order to approach the woman. Once Jesus confronted the woman, the disciples came back into the picture with their eyebrows raised wondering what in the world Jesus was doing talking to this Samaritan woman. More than that, they were anxious to eat and get on the fast track out of Samaria, which represented the fringe of society. Little did they know that they would be spending a few days there immersed in ministry as the transformation of this woman impacted the whole community. I can only imaging the disciples apprehension, the desire to be with their own kind, questioning the need for them to make a layover in Samaria. Over those two days I'm sure that they were challenged to reach out to those who may be considered the fringe of society.

It is our responsibility as youth leaders to model what it means to reach out to those students who are on the fringe. There are times when a name comes across your desk and you are going to be faced with the decision to past the labels, stereotypes, and masks in order to reach out to a teen wcontinue doing what seems so urgent at the moment, or will you drop everything in order to do the important: looking ho is desperately hurting and lost inside. The paperwork will get done and youth events always have a way of coming together but will you be ready for that student who doesn't quite fit in? Are you modeling this type of grace in front of your youth group which struggles with labels every day? My hope is that we all lead the way in being grace-givers to those students on the edge who may hide behind a tough exterior but on the inside are desperate for God's grace to reach out to them and change them from within.

The 3 Worlds of a Teenager

The 3 Worlds of a Teenager

It is hard to believe but I already have fellow classmates e-mailing me to see what we are going to do for our 20 year high school reunion! I did have a lot of fun throughout high school. As I look back I can remember all of the things that I used to get involved with: sports, theatre, youth group, student council, summer jobs, and I still had plenty of time to go on retreats, mission trips, youth group activities and family events. That was 20 years ago when "extra-curricular" activities were "extra". There were many things I got involved with because they only involved a season. The Fall always included Cross-Country and the Fall Play. The Winter always included Wrestling and the Winter Play. The Spring involved getting ready for the mission trip that the youth group was preparing for. The Summer included mission trips and part-time jobs. I had a lot of fun getting involved in many things with my school and church. Unfortunately, 20 years later, I am starting to see some unhealthy trends in the youth culture that are threatening the family and making the church completely irrelevant in the eyes of teens.
Diagram 1
Diagram 2
Throughout history there have been 3 primary institutions that have helped to shape each one of us: 1) the church, 2) the family and 3) the workplace. As I have observed families in many churches, it has become apparent to me that the healthiest families are the one's who can maintain a healthy balance between these three worlds. In order for teenagers to thrive they need to spend time in all three areas. But it appears that the trends lately are for teens to give a majority of their time in their "workplace" (school / sports / work) as the influence of the family and the church fade away into existence. It seems that any commitment that is expected of our teens is no longer merely for a season, but instead it is demanding of every moment of their time all year around. More and more parents feel disengaged from their teens. Churches everywhere want a ministry for their students but when the ministry is established students don't come out because they are already over-committed in so many other areas. Sundays used to be considered a sacred day for the family to practice their faith together and spend time together before the work week kicked off again. This being a command from God Himself! But instead I see and hear more and more parents and students running off to sporting events that are interfering with the faith and family times. The disturbing thing is that we are accepting this as normal.
Diagram 1 below illustrates the tensions that I observe with many parents and youth leaders. We all seem to be competing for time with our teens and it is easy to feel stressed and frustrated by how our commitments seem to keep us so busy that we do not have much time for the things that are just as important, if not more important: our relationship with God and our family. Thomas Hine points out in his excellent book The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager that:
"For most families, long work hours and parental absence from the home are not an option but a necessity - at least if the family is to maintain a high material standard. The work is, in fact, often justified in terms of providing young people with the best opportunities for schooling and later life. Still, there must be some connection between the sense of disengagement that adults bemoan in contemporary teenagers and young people's complaints that their elders don't simply misunderstand them but really can't be bothered with them.
There's no doubt that peers are influential in key areas of young people's lives, no matter what parents do. In a society like ours, where change is rapid and teenagers spend most of their time with others exactly their age, the young have more authority than adults have. Still, there is evidence that if parents to take a lively, though not defensive, interest in their children's lives, their teens are less likely to commit crimes, use drugs, or become pregnant prematurely. For example, teenagers who have dinner with their families most nights are far less likely to get into trouble than those who do not. Yet, the pressures on both parents and teenagers are in the other direction: toward immersion in work to support the overhead, not the essence, of family life."
One of my greatest fears is what we teach the next generation by making our work and their work of primary importance, willingly giving away the time that would be spent with family and church to these seemingly important causes. Should teens do well in school, go out for extra-curricular activities and work hard. Absolutely! But the greatest influence in any teenagers life is his or her parents. And if parents willingly allow other "good" things to impose and steal time away from the truly "greater" things I am afraid that we might be raising generation after generation who are disengaged from their families and church. In the book A Tribe Apart, Patricia Hersch states that in her observations of teens:
"What kids need from adults is not just rides, pizza, chaperones, and discipline. They need the telling of stories, the close ongoing contact so that they can learn and be accepted. If nobody is there to talk to, it is difficult to get the lessons of your own life so that you are adequately prepared to do the next thing. Without a link across generations , kids will only hear from their peers."
I want to encourage you as parents to take back control of your own schedule and your teens. Spend time together. When was the last time that your family just had some down time together? Take back Sundays! Say no to the coaches that seem to be taking every minute of your teens life. If enough parents speak out they will adjust their schedules to keep the parents happy. The greatest influence that anyone will ever have on a teenager is their parents. You are their parent, teacher and youth pastor all in one. You raise the bar in each of those areas. My job is merely to support you teens' spiritual development to the level of importance that you have modeled within your household.
Diagram 2 illustrates what a balanced life looks like between the three worlds. When all three worlds are balanced well there is going to be overlap. A youth leader has the time to make it to one of the teens' sporting events. A parent has the time to volunteer for a youth group activity. A teacher or coach has time to support other areas of their teens' life. This may seem impossible, but I have seen it done. I was a Fellowship of Christian Athletes speaker for a football team at McDowell High School in Erie, PA. I saw the head coach raise the bar high for his players not only on the football field but also in all other areas of their lives. I was able to speak to the team on a weekly basis helping them to process the lessons they learn on the field and how it relates to the game of life. And when a teammate accidentally died in the Winter of 2005 the coach called the FCA team to help coordinate a student-led memorial service for their teammate. It was awesome to observe a coach who not only cared about his players physical life, but also made the extra effort to support their family lives and their spiritual lives. As a result, the team consistently had winning seasons and went far into the playoff season.
Make the extra effort to create time for your family and also to stay connected and involved in church. If anyone is guilty of "stealing" too much time away from you and your teen don't be afraid to be jealous of that time and speak out. Extremes are never a good thing for anybody but when a parent can help a teen to stay balanced in these three worlds - school, church and family - your teen will grow up strong in their faith, their commitment to their family and their responsibility to their work. What more could you ask for?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Purpose Statement

I have been involved in youth ministry in the great states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio (In case you are wondering, i am a Buckeyes fan! Born and raised in O-HI-O!). I have had a lot of extraordinary experiences that have tempted me to walk away from the church altogether and give up on the whole God thing. But I continue to try and work out my faith "with fear and trembling" understanding that God hasn't given up on me just yet. I have been working with teenagers for 17 years now and I am on the verge of my home being taken over by my soon-to-be teens! I have had a lot of experiences at college (Lorain County Community College, University of Toledo, Liberty University and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary Those years were interesting but I don't know if I would ever want to go back to them. And I am not sure I would recommend any of those schools to anyone accept GRTS (especially now with the more "updated" staff that they have. Don't get me wrong, I loved the dinosaurs I had for teachers but I would have loved to learn from those they have added to the staff since then too! Sorry Dr. Houch! R.I.P.). Anyhow, my college experiences should be another blog for another time. I wanted to kind of formulate a general purpose of what it is that I am attempting to do with this blog. As I ease into my mid-life years and I have put in several years in the church, I have been doing a lot of thinking, critiquing and analyzing of myself, the experiences of my past, the modern day church and our great American pop-culture. My purpose here with this blog is to put those thoughts into words. What I am not: anti-American, anti-culture, anti-Christ, anti-church. What i am is a post-conservative Christian, an American who is critical of the nature of where we find ourselves as a country in the 21st century, one who gets very excited to find beauty in culture, and one who hopes to be a part of a major shift in how the church defines itself in the new century. So there it is. I hope to hear from those of you out there whether you agree or disagree with me.