Archive for April, 2010


justice: a contrarian perspective

April 30, 2010

According to the California Teacher’s Association website, generation Z is the generation that “while they may be named for the last letter of the alphabet, they’ll soon be at the forefront of solving the worst environmental, social and economic problems in history.”[i] This generation, born in the mid 90’s, or current middle and high school students, are supposed to be the ones that fix all our problems. This is the generation that will recognize the damage we have done to the planet and to each other and rise up and fix it. This is a perspective by many secular leaders, and is a calling that Christian and non-Christian kids are trying to live into. With social action being all the rage right now the church has been able to find common purpose with our culture to expand God’s Kingdom.

But is social action and world change really the goal of the youth worker? Is mobilizing an army of young people to enact lasting social change what we are called to do?

Justice is part of the calling of all Christians. Throughout the Old and New Testaments we get the picture that a true and whole faith cannot escape the call for God’s people to live into their faith and be about God’s heart for our broken world. In the book of Micah, when God’s people had all their great religious practices, the prophet makes it very clear that the application of their faith was in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. We cannot love God on one hand and stand by while the poor are being oppressed. James says a similar thing in his book as he declares that faith without works is dead. Our faith shows itself in the way we live it out. True religion is caring for widows and orphans.

It is encouraging to see our culture have a heightened awareness and call for justice. To move past compassion ministries and work toward fixing the systems that keep people in systemic poverty is a mighty task. This is also one of the tasks of the Church. Christians in power must use their power to stand up for those without it. This desire for justice is also the desire of our culture. Civil rights, worker’s rights, going green, fair trade; these are cultural desires that are good and can easily be partnered with because it is also the heart of God.

The problem with calling students to social action and justice ministry is that these terms are too vague and tend to be just a feel good sport dealing with ideas and concepts that have no real touch points for them. In our area, students love wearing Toms shoes, drinking fair trade coffee, drinking Ethos water, boycotting Wal-Mart, and shopping at American Apparel. These are the markers of students who “care” and who are “making a difference.” In many cases these are token gestures that carry zero weight into other and all areas of their lives. This is because justice and lasting social change is a job for people with power. Students have no real power to stop hunger, make fair trade happen, stand up for homeless rights, or racial discrimination. It is people with real power who can transform unjust systems, not students with too much disposable income.

Thankfully God has already been calling people and organizations to work for justice and for social change. God has called people of power and influence. God has collected money and resources. And God has been and will continue to enact lasting influence in the specific places those people are called. And because justice is the heart of God and should be our heart’s also, we have the opportunity to partner with organizations that are doing great work and will continue to do great work. International Justice Mission, World Vision, and our Community Food Bank, are three places where our students get to work alongside people who are enacting social change we have chosen to partner with. And because these organizations are established and here for the long haul, any involvement we have with them strengthens their ministry and does in fact help enact social change.

When we took students to Mexico for our annual mission trip we worked really hard to retrain our students’ thinking. We are not the great white church who is going to help the poor Mexican church and change the lives and community with our week of good works and testimonies. Rather we were invited to partner with what God is already doing. God was already at work in the community where we served. God was already using people to transform that community. We simply got the pleasure of working alongside our sisters and brothers in Christ, encouraging one another as they worked toward lasting social change.

Social action and Justice that students can fight for is the injustice that happens on their campuses every day. They can use their social power to stand up for the little guy, to confront bullies, and to speak up and for those who are marginalized on their campus. This kind of social justice and social action actually costs students something real, their social status. If our focus was to have students work toward social change and justice, their campus needs to be the laboratory for their faith to take action. Their campus is where they are to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. Their campus is where their faith must be lived out in action.

So is social action and justice is our calling? I would argue that the answer is no. It is the fruit of our calling, but should not be the focus. We are called by God to make disciples. We have been called by God to walk with students through this short season of their lives and to partner with God to help solidify and own their faith, and to begin to discern their unique calling. And like good missionaries we will use any and all places, stories, and values where our cultural values and desires match the values and desires of God. Some people call this a thin place, a place where the veil between the sacred and secular is especially thin. Right now, social action and justice get to be that place where we can partner with culture and use it as a common story with our cultural context as a compelling way to tell the Gospel Story.

Christians have done this from the beginning. In the book of Acts we see Stephen use Old Testament history to communicate the Gospel to his Jewish audience. Paul uses a local poet and an unknown alter on Mars Hill to communicate a knowable God. In recent history, Josh McDowell used the power of logic and reason, when logic and reason were king to communicate that we don’t have a blind faith, but a reasonable faith. Even Audio Adrenaline made an impact and used the growing place for music and Rock ‘N Roll to highlight that Jesus came to give us an abundant life and Christianity is not a boring, saying no to everything fun, sort of religion. And now in our current context, social action and justice is the thin place. It is the place where cultural values touch our spiritual values and we can use that as a place to communicate the gospel of a God who sees and loves the poor and oppressed, and calls his people to do the same.

Just like in the past, the thin place is not the Goal. Old Testament history, local poets and artists, logic and reason, Christian music, and even social action is not the goal. The goal is for students to give their hearts to Jesus Christ and experience personal transformation and to live into their unique calling. For students to do this, they need to be a part of a ministry and a church that provides a well balanced diet of teaching, experiences, community and action.

Service projects and mission trips are a vital part of the youth ministry diet. They are an important part, but only a part. These trips and opportunities provide experiences for students to explore their calling as God’s people and solidify their faith as their own. The body of Christ is made up of many different parts and students need to see a vital Christian life lived out in many arenas. Vital faith is lived out in normal jobs like the ones many of our volunteer staff have, it is lived out as missions, overseas and local, it is lived out in activism, it is lived out in compassion ministries, and it is lived out in vacation bible school. A vital faith that is lived out in action happens in whatever context God places us. Exposing students to the many different ways vital faith is lived out is a tool to achieve the goal of helping students have a true and vital faith that is lived out in the unique way God has made them and called them.

It is great that students want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to be about saving the planet, stopping injustice, and we need to celebrate these values because they are the cultural values that align with our Christian values. But unless hearts are yielded to Christ and transformed by Him, then the result is still dead faith. Social action and world change are real places we can use to present a Gospel that is powerful and relevant. A holistic Gospel that not only causes lasting transformation personally, but locally and globally.



retelling a lost story

April 29, 2010

this article can be seen at :

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.


christian youth culture

April 28, 2010

Imagine you are a new high school student and you walk into a room filled with other high school students. There are kids bunched up all over. There is loud hip-hop music playing over the sound system. There are the jocks, the Abrocrombies, the computer nerds, the punks, the band geeks, the over-achievers, the apathetic losers, the sexually active couples, the hip-hop crowd, and the religious group. Where do you fit in? Where are going to stand or sit? Will anyone talk to you? Will you be liked? Is this place safe emotionally and physically? This room can very easily be the lunch room on your local high school campus, or this could even be your youth room on a typical evening at youth group.

In my years as a youth pastor what I have observed is that social structures on a high school’s campus are the same social structures as at youth group. How students behave and interact all week at school doesn’t change the moment they walk through the door of youth group. There are a wide variety of cliques. These cliques rarely interact. Within these groups there is infighting, bickering, and jockeying for position. Even the students who participate in leadership within the youth group display the same ladder of social order.

As youth workers, we want all of our students to be in the “leaders’ clique” in our youth ministry. These are the students that get it: they are excited about their faith and are striving to live it out daily. And if they can articulate their beliefs and in their actions they can abstain from worldly pleasures then they get to become a part of the leadership clique.

Now these student leaders might speak a more Christian language, but most students’ attitudes and actions are just the same as any other clique on a high school campus. Take the movie “Saved” as an extreme example. There was worship, prayer, Christian music, abstaining from drugs and sex, and even reaching out to friends who are walking away from their faith. Even though the characters said the right words and participated in the right activities, there was still infighting, backstabbing, exclusion, violence, gossip, and blatant cruelty which are no different than any other clique. But what makes it worse is that this Christian clique allowed these attitudes to continue and they even were exalted in the name of God. What this movie did was show that all the right words and actions don’t make a person a good Christian. The missing piece was the truth that it is the Holy Spirit that transforms our lives and that our values and attitudes are fruit of a life walking with the Spirit. What hurt my heart the most is that the attitudes portrayed in this movie are lived out in churches and youth groups all over America, even within my own church and youth group.

I think the problem is that we have tricked ourselves (or I have tricked myself) into thinking that by changing the cover on youth culture, students would grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. For example if a student was into Nelly, the rap artist, I would let them borrow my Gritz CD, if they were into death metal, then I would let them borrow my ZAO CD. I would give away Christian T-shirts and W.W.J.D. bracelets. When we would go on trips I would only play Christian music and show Disney movies. And if a kid would go on their own to the Christian book store and by a Christian CD, then I knew I was making progress.

But what I realized is that I was creating more problems instead of solving them. On one hand there would be the kids who would give lip service to the Christian music and the “no cussing rules” at youth group, but then leave and continue living exactly how they had before. They had become more and more numb to Christ’s impact on their daily lives. I have created a little Christian clique that is no different than any of the other cliques on a high school campus. Sure, they may listen to Christian music and may know scripture, but they are just as self-centered, just as rude. There is a social pecking order with inside stories and jokes just like all cliques, but what is worse is that they are self-righteous. Because they don’t drink or have sex and listen to Christian music they think that they have a strong faith but in fact are just as numb to Christ’s potential impact on their daily lives.

As I have wrestled with this problem I am starting to think that creating a parallel Christian youth culture that mirrors secular youth culture is not the answer. Instead, I think that we as youth leaders have an amazing opportunity to truly create a new culture. Not by changing the surface issues of youth culture like their music, clothing, or even their common interests. These are just surface issues. Culture is much more than this, it is attitudes and values. We have an amazing opportunity to create a culture that is not just on the surface Christian, but is Christ-like. Christ’s attitudes and values shape a ministry and will shape student’s lives at the heart level.

I spent four years with a student named Zach. He was a popular kid and into all the wrong things. But after a camp high experience his freshman year he bought into the Christian thing hook-line-and-sinker. He cleaned up his language, was honorable in his relationships with girls and over the years grew in his knowledge of scripture and ultimately finished out his high school career as president of the Christian club on his way to a great Christian college. Zach seemed to be growing in his faith so I put him in leadership positions and let him share at youth Sundays and at youth groups. But actually he was just climbing the Christian social ladder. And all of this change was superficial for their wasn’t any heart change. He didn’t get plugged into bible studies or college ministries, etc. He went off to college met a girl, and quickly became sexually active. He is no longer concerned about his faith and put our relationship and his relationship with Christ on the back burner.

As someone who poured my life into Zach for four years I was heartbroken about the recent developments in his life. And I was also heartbroken for the way I think I contributed to his spiritual downfall. I put all my effort into changing the surface of his life and rewarding those superficial changes instead of going deeper and looking at his heart and challenging him to do heart work instead of head work.

There has to be a better way.

Jesus calls us to be a city on a hill. A city that gives light to the surrounding area and will draw people to it. We are not to be a spot light that focuses all the light into a concentrated beam that actually repels people in the dark with our self-righteousness. But we are to be a beacon of hope, love, and justice. Out light is not our words, but it is our good deeds. And our good deeds are motivated by love. It is easy to love our friends. We all do this easily. But Jesus calls us not to just love our friends, but to love our neighbor, parents, and enemies. This is unique in this world and even more unique in youth culture. But this is the foundation of what a new Christian youth culture could look like.

Paul gives a great summary of what Christian culture and what Christian youth culture could be. Colossians 3:12-14 Because of our identity in Christ, “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” We are to not separate from the world, be self-righteous, look down our nose at others, but “clothe yourselves with COMPASSION, KINDNESS, HUMILITY, GENTLENESS, and PATIENCE. BEAR with each other and FORGIVE whatever grievances you may have against one another. FORGIVE as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on LOVE which binds them together in perfect unity.”

This is what should characterize Christian culture. Sure Christian music has a place, yes it is good to challenge our kids to not drink or have sex. Yes we absolutely want to teach our kids how to read scripture, pray and develop “quiet times.” But if what we are doing doesn’t result in changed lives that are truly and deeply transformed, then I think we (I) might be just fooling ourselves. This is exactly what happened with my student Zach. The fruit of the Christian life is LOVE, JOY, PEACE, PATIENCE, KINDNESS, GOODNESS, FAITHFULNESS, GENTLENESS, and SELF-CONTROL. This is what I want to model in my own life and challenge kids to live in their lives.

But the real question is how to do this. And for that I don’t have any easy answers. I do know that in a typical youth ministry schedule we have Sunday school, youth group, bible studies, special events, and retreats. These are little chunks of time that we are in charge of and that we can some-what control. So why not just work hard at teaching scripture and promoting the latest Christian band, and challenging kids to not be of this world, but to shape culture around them.

Let’s face it, being a teenager is difficult and they always have to be on their toes socially. Everywhere in their lives they are divided up into cliques and sub-cliques. They are trying to fit in, be accepted, and not put their foot in their mouths. High school can feel like total war and absolute chaos. Instead of having a youth ministry that has the same social structures just in a Christian context, why not work to create a safe harbor in the storm? A place where kids will be loved and accepted by the staff and students alike.

I want to create a youth ministry that was shaped by compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another, forgiveness, and love. When you figure out how to do this, you can write the article and let me read it. I think it is a next to impossible task, but I think that it is the direction that youth ministry needs to go. Until then let’s at least not settle for cultural change at the surface level. Let’s instead challenge ourselves and our students to live lives that reflect the One who saved their lives, to love our neighbor, or parents, our enemies, to be light in the darkness, to bear with one another, forgive one anther, and to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Amen.


dear pastor

April 28, 2010

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.

Your partner, fan, friend,



the secret ingredient for keeping students connected to christ.

April 28, 2010

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 is right there in front of us and has been all along. That missing ingredient to make the soil fertile and usable might be 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 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.

And 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. And 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. And 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. What an amazing gift we can give to our students when we give them the tools and the habits to develop their faith into adulthood within the adult worshiping community.