Archive for the ‘published articles’ Category

h1

swimming: equipping adolescents for a lifetime of personal records

December 14, 2010

http://www.distanceswimming.com/featured/swimming-equipping-adolescents-for-a-lifetime-of-personal-records/

As someone who has worked with adolescents for the past 15 years, I am impressed with the consistency of character that comes for the students who participate in competitive, year round swimming. I am a student ministry pastor at a local church and have had students from just about every walk of life come through our program at one time or another. And as these different sub groups of youth culture come and go, I have noticed a unique difference in the character of the students who are competitive swimmers.

Extra curricular activities provide many benefits. Whether it is being in the top five percent academically, band, the arts or team sports, students learn many valuable lessons. But swimming has a unique culture that is not found in these other activities and provides something more significant than just lessons. The culture of a competitive swim team offers four things that are vital to the emotional well being and character development of adolescents that are difficult to facilitate in any other venue. Swimming provides family, discipline, forced quiet and an environment for self improvement.

Swimming creates family: Just about every competitive swimmer I have talked to and know sees their swim team as their second family. It doesn’t seem to matter the geography, the economics or even the coaching. Something within the very DNA of the sport creates a sense of family. The amount of time together combined with the mutual encouragement as swimmers develop and compete allows students to feel like they are a part of something bigger then themselves and have a place to belong. And when the coach expands their view and facilitates a healthy and caring environment, this sense of family and commitment multiplies.

Swimming develops discipline: Nothing about swimming is natural. We are land animals, designed to live and thrive above the water. Swimming takes a set of skills that have to be learned and perfected. Then these skills need to be practiced and made into second nature if there is any chance of swimming on a competitive level. The rigorous schedule weeds out the faint of heart, and those who remain develop the mental and physical discipline needed to participate in this sport. And because this is a year round endeavor, most swimmers have developed the discipline needed to master their personal schedule and the emotional discipline of self-motivation.

Swimming forces quiet: Where in the life of a student is there quiet? From the time they wake up until they fall asleep, they are bombarded with noise and distraction. Some of this is important and needed like school, and much of it is created by the students themselves. It is rare to come across a student who is not plugged in to their iPod. For the duration of swim practice, students are forced to live with just their thoughts and nothing else. This forced quiet allows students to discipline their thinking, to reflect on their lives and to quiet their hearts. Students need to be alone with their thoughts for proper development and lap after lap provides just that.
Swimming teaches students to strive to beat their personal record: Just about every swimmer knows that they are not competing for a shot at the Olympics or for a trophy or a ribbon. Swimmers don’t even really compete to be the best team in their area. Although competitive swimming has all of these elements, what makes this sport unique is that most swimmers are constantly swimming to beat their PR, personal record. Every part of the practice and the competitions themselves center around swimmers striving for this personal goal. And when these personal records are broken, the swim team family celebrates. Swimming offers a place for everyone on the team to compete and have their effort matter. It is not just the top swimmers that are important and need to push themselves; every swimmer is important and every swimmer’s race matters, because every race is a chance to prove that all that hard work is paying off when they crush their personal record.

The very nature of the adolescent world is chaotic and unsafe. Competitive swimming offers a gift in the unique benefits it brings to the lives of students who participate. Their team is their family, they develop a disciplined life, they are forced to live with their thoughts and they are continually striving to be their best, not the best. And the combination of all of this develops strong character and confidence in the lives of students.

h1

Advent: What Are We Really Getting Ready For?

November 29, 2010

http://www.youthworker.com/youth-lessons-bible-study/youth-bible-study/11642062/

There is something magical about the Christmas season. From Thanksgiving on, people spend a significant amount of their free time and extra money preparing for one day. There are cookies to bake, cards to send, music to listen to, houses to decorate, and gifts to buy. After a month of build up, Christmas finally comes. After a month of building expectations, it is next to impossible to have them met. If you are like me, I have grown tired of not having them met, so I have mastered the art of managing expectations. Don’t get wrong, I love Christmas and I love the cookies, but I am very careful to let my heart get all in, because having your expectations crushed can be one of the most painful things in the world.

It is so easy to be jaded when our expectations are dashed, that most of us don’t even realize that it has happened. Every year that goes buy you find your self saying more and more often that it just doesn’t seem to feel like the holidays. However, ever now and then you bump into someone, usually a kid, who could not be more excited for Christmas, or their birthday, or Disneyland, or summer, or whatever. It is usually through the eyes of kids that we get a picture of a life that is really great and worth living.

What has happened over the course of the years to make our heats numb? I think the answer has something to do with self preservation, with protecting our hearts at all cost, and in the process our hearts get even more damaged. I know I am not alone in experiences pain and heartbreak. I am not the first person to have their hopes built up high only to have them crushed. Because it is so painful to have our expectations not met, we gradually lower them until we expect very little if anything from anyone anymore, including God.

But this is not the way we were designed to live. It is our expectations that allow us to live life to the fullest. This Christmas season I highly recommend that you watch Christmas vacation starring Chevy Chase. The entire movie is a about a man who never lets go of his expectations. Every event, every moment is a high light and needs to be shared. Even the arrival of his brother in law adds to the narrative of hosting the best family Christmas ever. There is something naive about his character and it is easy to mock him for these expectations, but at the same time we are drawn to him as a person and impressed with his love towards his family. Even his apathetic teenaged kids know their dad loves them.

When we have expectations our hearts are quickened and we are on alert for things to happen, for things to be special. And the same is true in our walk with Jesus. Isn’t it amazing that kids always come back from camps and mission trips profoundly impacted by the Holy Spirit. Part of it is the trip, but the truth is our camps and trips are pretty average. But what isn’t average is that for the month or two leading up to these trips, we have special meetings, special fund raising, and special lessons all preparing for an amazing trip. And after several months of preparing for an amazing trip what happens, we have an amazing trip. Even the kids who threw up the entire week all talk about what an amazing trip it was.

It is one thing to be jaded by the Christmas season. But it is devastating when we become jaded in our faith. This last month I had the pleasure of being in a meeting with several youth pastors to plan our winter camp. For me, this is old hat. I was mostly enjoying an excuse to have coffee with friends. But a brand new youth worker at the table could not contain her excitement about winter camp. She shared stories from last year where kids gave their hearts to Jesus and how excited she was to be on the planning team for such an important event. On my drive home I came to a scary reality, I had become jaded. But thankfully, God used our time together to refresh my soul, and to build a new sense of expectation.

Expectations are not an accidental thing. God as an integral part of our faith development gives them to us. Expectations are what open our eyes and ears to the movement of God. The entire redemptive history found in scripture is filled with people expectant for God to provide children, free them, save them, bless them. And the culmination is the expectant coming of the messiah, and his return.

Advent is not really about preparing our houses for the Christmas season. Advent is about raising our expectations for the messiah to come. I think it is true that Jesus not only loves the world, but also loves you and me on an intimate level and desires to impact our lives. (At least this is what I teach our students) a jaded heart can never hear the still and small voice of God or see the subtle ways in which he seems to often move. An expectant heart is continually straining its eyes and ears for the movement of God, and even the slightest movement increases our faith and causes us to strain even more.

I am pretty tired of having such low expectations of Jesus. So, this advent I am going to add a rule of life to this season. It is pretty simple, but I am expectant for it to rock my world.

1) In the morning ask God to show up, and expect that he will.
2) And in the evening, reflect on the day and the places he did.

A poet in the 1850’s named Alfred Lord Tennyson penned the famous line, “it is better to have loved and lost, then to never have loved at all.” Tennyson got that life happens in the living of it, and this advent I want this to be true for me also. I so want God to show up and have at it with me, and I am going to expect that he will. For, I would rather expect that he would show up and wrestle with the awkwardness and disappointment of when it looks differently, then to be numb and jaded to working of the Holy Spirit and miss out on the coming of Jesus!

Advent: be expectant, because Jesus is coming!

h1

If your student likes nelly, then she will like . . .

October 29, 2010

http://www.youthworker.com/youth-ministry-resources-ideas/youth-ministry/11640567/

For the longest time, I have tried really hard to relate to students. I have known that music was a very powerful gateway, and if I just had a little guidance then I would be able to relate to them, to understand them, and be able speak their language. But even more than relating, I would be able to influence their musical diet and help them transition into artists that would help them develop spiritually as well. Year after year I would buy curriculum that would help me “understand” my students and would be able to point them to “appropriate” choices. And as I did this, year after year, I realized that this attempt to understand youth culture actually did a disservice to me, my students, and my calling as a youth worker.

When we look to some outside person, group, curriculum, author to tell us about our culture, we are actually embracing a false reality. There might have been a time when there was a youth culture. But that time is no more. Even in our small youth group we have students from different versions of youth culture together in one room creating our own unique culture. Because there is no one, two, or even three versions of youth culture, we can not rely totally on outside voices to speak into our lives and equip us to do the heavy lifting in our context. It might be time to put that resource back on the shelf and do some hard work.

We need to first swallow the tough medicine that there is not one unified culture, one way to meet kids’ needs, one model of student ministry that will work for us. We live in a fractured culture where there are millions of options to define us, and every option defines us in different ways. In order to understand how to meet the specific needs of the students we work with, we have to figure out the specific context we find ourselves in.

What is the context we find our selves:
Where do we live? Urban, suburban, rural?
What are the economic conditions? Rich, poor, depressed, generous, stingy?
What is the spiritual climate? Are people churched or unchurched? Pro, Neutral, Anti Christian?
What kind of church do you work in? Evangelical, Mainline, Catholic, Pentecostal?
Who is your church in your community? The leader, the follower, the biggest, the smallest?

By just figuring out our location, we see that there are already a variety of issues and needs that will need to be addressed and will need to be addressed differently depending on where we live. But these questions only get us part of the way. This just gives us a broad picture of where we find ourselves. Within this unique context we have our fractured youth culture with an entirely new set of questions.

Who are the student in our ministry and in our community:
What is their family background? Strong family, broken family, really broken family?
What kind of resources do they have? Huge allowances, part time jobs?
What activities are they involved in? Sports, band, art, service, video games?
What is their spiritual background? Churched families or unchurched families?
What are your specific students main needs? Felt, unfelt, spiritual?

With just a cursory look at the actual place you are called to do ministry and the specific students to whom you are called, you can see that there is no way a boxed curriculum or author or speaker can tell you what your students needs are or how best to meet them. But we do have an example from scripture of someone who understood their unique context and unique sets of people within that context. The apostle Paul was a master at this.

In In Acts 13, Paul finds himself in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. In this Jewish community Paul easily retells the story of God’s faithfulness to his people; God rescuing the people of Israel from Egypt, giving them the law of Moses, conquering Canaan, and establishing a king, King David. And although David died, Jesus, his decedent, rose from the dead and conquered sin and death, and offers the forgiveness and justification the law of Moses was unable to do.

In Acts 17, Paul finds himself in a completely different context. Now he is in the middle of a Gentile city, surrounded by pagan idols. The story of the people of Israel have no touch points in this context. Paul’s personal testimony of persecuting the Jews, or the heartbreak of his ministry doesn’t matter to the people of Athens. And instead of Paul relying on his own history, his own experiences, or his own expression of faith, Paul taps into a larger gospel story, one that will be received in this unique context.

During his time in Athens, Paul notices the religiosity of the people and uses their idol worship as a thin place to share Jesus. He capitalizes on one of the temples and uses a known poet as a hook and then shares how this mysterious and unknown God has been made known by Jesus his son whom he rose from the dead. And although a revival didn’t break out in this city, Paul did manage to capture their attention and opened the door for further conversation.

The apostle Paul understood that his location impacted his message. Paul understood that even in s similar location, the specific backgrounds of the people he was sharing with impacted his message. Paul had a deep faith in Jesus Christ and had an amazing combination of passion and wisdom. This is the combination that we are going to need to move forward in ministering to needs of the specific students in our specific context

So, even though we are colleagues in ministry. And even though we share a passion to walk with students along this journey toward Christ. And even though we may do student ministry in the exact same context and in the exact same town, God has given each of us totally unique and special people with very complex needs and issues. We may be able to share ideas and resources, but God has given you the call to ministry to the specific students in your ministry.

Let us give up trying to be someone we are not. You see, I don’t even like Nelly. And the truth is I couldn’t tell you one of Nelly’s songs. All I know is that Nelly has a song that is in the top ten downloads this week. I will never know “youth culture.” But I do know my students. And It has been a pure joy to walk with them, as they work out their issues of life and faith. And because I am working with my particular students in my particular context, I get to spend time getting to know them, praying for them, speaking truth into their lives, and showering them with grace and mercy. It is actually easier not knowing anything about “their” culture. We are already outsiders, With this reality, may we now have the freedom to ask questions and be invited into their world.

As we go, may be be true missionaries to our unique context with the passion and wisdom of Christ as we proclaim the good news to our students. Amen, and amen!

h1

connected, but unable to connect

September 5, 2010

http://www.youthworker.com/youth-ministry-resources-ideas/youth-ministry/11637727/

A couple of weeks ago, I experienced the Twilight Zone in Sunday School. Even though the room was full of students, there was this strange silence. At first, I couldn’t tell what was happening. I know that Sunday School is early, but as I looked around at the group, I could tell it wasn’t that everyone was tired, or even bored. Friends were sitting next to friends and everyone seemed fine, except for me. As I looked around the room again, I realized that everyone had their phones out and were texting away, many of them texting each other!

I experienced a similar phenomena while I was with some family friends for their daughter’s wedding. Their daughter, who had just graduated from college, had all her brides’ maids together at the house for some hang out time before the rehearsal. This group of girls had been great friends throughout college and loved being with each other. Now that these girls were together, reunited, instead of laughing and story telling, the room was quiet with just the soft sound of typing while all of them updated their Facebooks with their laptops and phones in front of them.

These are just two antidotal encounters of groups of friends who are together, and instead of relating in human-to-human contact, they easily choose to connect through texting and Facebook. Technology has always been changing the ways in which we communicate. But this new development is fundamentally changing the ways in which we communicate and connect and is even changing the definition of the word, “friend.”

I don’t want to come off like an alarmist proclaiming that the sky is falling. I know we are never going to get back to the days of hand written letters. In fact, we might never even get back to the days of Email. But this continued evolution in communication and social networking brings with it some pit falls that those of us who love students and who work with them should be aware of. And in doing so, we can help them navigate their world and develop socially in a way that reflects their God-given nature.

1990-2000 was an amazing decade in the advancement of electronic communication. Car Phones and Email first show up on the radar in the early 90’s, the World Wide Web becomes a viable tool by the mid 90’s and by the end of the decade, email, websites, and cell phones became part of our every day experience. In August of 2003 MySpace enters the scene and the social networking phenomena was underway. MySpace rose in prominence through the 2000’s until Facebook took over in 2008. And for the last two years, Facebook has been the number one place for students to connect, to share life, and communicate the large and small parts of their lives with each other.

This incredible rise of social networking is an astonishing thing all by itself. But right alongside this development is the rise and proliferation of cell phones. When I talked to the students I work with, many of them have had cell phones since middle school (2006 or so) and our middle schoolers have had cell phones since 4th and 5th grade. And from the moment they got their cell phones they have been texting, and texting at an amazing rate. Many students are texting in the 3000-5000 per month range, and some much higher. It is simply how communication is done. When I asked them about how many cell phone minutes they use, the overwhelming response was “hardly any.”

Gone are the days of sitting on the phone and talking for hours, staying up late and talking with your friends about anything and everything. Now everything is communicated is small little snippets, 180 characters at a time, disconnected from any real face time or contact. The big question is, “What does this sort of disconnected contact and lack of conversation do to social development?”

The upside is that students have all the space in the world to try on new personas. They can expand their “friend” base with many people as they have time to request. And this is hundreds of people more in their lives then their predecessors had even a decade before. Another positive is that students can find people with similar interests and values with just a click of a button.

The downside is that all of this communication is happening with very little connection. All of these interactions are done in isolation, separate from human contact. At the very moment adolescents need community and connection to work out their identities and to develop social cues they are becoming even more and more isolated.

Our students are having so many experiences and processing them in compete isolation. When bullying happens, when depression is overwhelming them, when they engage in risky behavior, when they try to figure out romantic relationships, feelings, and expressions…all of this is done in private, in seclusion from the adult world and even with out the knowledge of their peers around them.

This isolation, at such a vital time in their social, emotional, and spiritual development is dangerous. The ways in which experiences are shaped or not shaped are vital for healthy development. As adults who love students, we must be keenly aware of the hidden life where students are communicating and help them actually connect in healthy and genuine ways.

In the very fabric of who God is, the Trinity, there is community and connectedness. God is community, God created humans to be in community with each other and with God. In Christ we are connected, we are actually family, and even more. We are one body. It is in our very core to be connected with other humans and with God. When we provide space and opportunities for this to happen, transformation actually occurs.

It is similar to taking a group of students who have only lived in an urban context camping for the weekend. Away from their normal context, these students are surprised and amazed by the new sights of brilliant stars, towering mountains or the powerful ocean. When the awesome power and creativity of Creation is experienced by these students, they experience a taste of who they were created to be by interacting with things made by God and not human hands. In a similar way, when students experience true connection with human to human contact there is a realization that there is a shallowness to the faux versions of connection they had been used to.

There are many simple things to do to accomplish the goal of genuine connection, and many of us are already doing them. But if we can get our head around some of the added benefits of these activities and use them more purposefully for connection, students will develop a taste for community and crave more and more of it.

Youth group games and mixers, sports, and board games are all designed for fun. But on a very basic level these games are tools of social development. These games and mixers teach students appropriate ways of interaction and how to communicate with one another. And the best part is that none of this is done in private. All this interaction and awkwardness happens in plain sight where other students and adults can help give shape and define social cues so that we actually get to walk alongside students to help them love and connect in ways that honor God.

Many student ministries have some form of small groups. And these small groups are our ministries’ bread and butter when it comes to helping students actually connect. There is space in these groups for students to share their stories to get support and prayer. And while most of the time we are content with students sharing their stories and the rest of the group listening and waiting for their turn to share, we can give our small group a larger purpose. We can make these groups a place of true connection. We can help our students learn how to really listen, how to ask follow up questions, and how to remember details and check in later. As adult leaders we have the privilege of hearing these stories, and we also have the responsibility to help shape these experiences. Instead of working these experiences and issues out in isolation, we can walk alongside them encouraging them to work it out using the wisdom and care of their community and scripture.

It is true that texting and Facebook are here to stay and for the foreseeable future will be the norm in communication. While we can’t turn back the clock, we can use our piece of the pie, our place of influence, to draw students out of isolation and a false sense of connection and into a warm community with true connection. We have the opportunity to take these students out of the city and into the forest and give them a taste of true community. And once you have experienced true connection with other humans and even more with God, texting and Facebook will become just the tools they were created to be, avenues for connecting, but not replacements for true connection.

h1

who is apollos (a.k.a. ben kerns)

August 3, 2010

http://www.youthworker.com/youth-ministry-resources-ideas/youth-ministry/11640403/

A call into student ministry is a special thing. We have been called by God to participate in the spiritual development of students. For a very specific and often chaotic season, we get the privilege and honor of being adults who coach, mentor, disciple, and journey with adolescents who are exploring their faith and making it their own. What could be greater? But as we attempt to live this out, in the real world with real students in a real context, this simple and yet profound calling gets blurry.

The students we work with have joys and concerns, victories and losses, growth and set back. We attempt to be there for every student for every part of the roller coaster ride. And while we work our guts out, pouring our lives into these students our vision gets impaired. Because very slowly, without even us knowing, the joy that comes from getting to be there for students and walk with them, turns and starts to become about us. Instead of being AN adult who journeys with students for a season of their lives, we see ourselves as THE adult who journeys with them, who advocates for them, who loves them, who will get them through adolescents, who will solve their problems, etc…

It is not a difficult leap to inflate the role we have in the lives of students. We give so much of our selves to them, and in return we are part of such intimate and transforming events and conversations. We get to be a part of genuine transformation. Take these intense moments and add in the already emotionally charged reality of adolescence and it is easy to see ourselves as the lynch pin holding it all together.

This blurry lens in which I have recently been viewing my ministry through has had a refreshing cleansing. And this cleaning of the lenses happened at an unlikely place this spring. Graduation.

I didn’t plan on a graduation ceremony being the place where God was going to do a fresh work in me. In fact, I approached the day with zero expectations. Over the years I have gotten Graduations down to a science. In fact this year I managed to get in 5 graduations in a single day. Coming for the beginning taking pictures, hugging parents, saying hi to kids you haven’t seen in years, giving a nod to the other youth workers doing the exact same thing as you, jumping in the car to catch the end of the graduation across town to do the same thing. But as the day unfolded and watched speech after speech, student after student process across the podium, I saw something I have never seen before.

For the first time I looked past the students, and saw the teachers, principles, and administrators and what I saw was amazing. I saw dozens of faculty sit back and watch the fruit of their labor graduate, move from one season of life to the next with joy and pride. What was unique in this picture for me is that it is not one person or teacher who propels a student to graduation. It is 12 years of teachers, principles, and administrators that have all faithfully done their part, which culminates in a graduation. And as quickly as graduation started, it ended. The students left empowered and launched to whatever new thing they were off to do. And while the students left for graduation parties and new life, teachers returned to the classroom to clean up their rooms and prepare for a brand new group of students for them to educate, to faithfully complete their part of the process.

This is exactly what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 3. In Corinth there was some grumbling going on about who their true spiritual leader was. Some people thought it was Paul, other Apollos. And Paul’s focus was on helping the people see that it is not the work of the leader, it is the work of God that should be our focus. Paul draws a line in the sand with his confrontational question, “Who is Apollos? Who is Paul?”

This question cuts to the heart of student ministry and confronts some of the false versions of ministry while the rest of the passage actually give us a healthy view of starting, ending, and continuing to do faithful student ministry in a particular context.

Paul’s questions strikes right to the heart of one of the most challenging issues in student ministry, the personality driven ministry. Because many of us use our relational and leadership gifts well, we find success in collecting and gathering students. And without even realizing what we have done, we have managed to collect students to us. And if this goes unchecked, this version of ministry puts an enormous stumbling block in front of our students.

Students are not the ones trying to pick one person to be their end all be all in life. Students intuitively know that there are a collection of people who have been a part of molding and shaping them. If we move from seeing ourselves as an adult to seeing ourselves as the adult puts students in a challenging position.

When we arrive in a new context we don’t need to be intimidated by the history that happened with out us, with the jokes and the stories. Shutting those down, belittling the person and program before us, ignoring the parents and volunteers who have served faithfully long before we arrive on the scene actually cheapens what we are currently trying to do. This alienates our older students who’s hearts are deeply imbedded with those leaders and staff they have history with, as well as shuts down those leaders and opens the door for grumbling and conflict.

We cannot forget that God has been working in the lives of these students long before we showed up, and will continue to work in their lives long after we are gone. Are we mature enough to live into the question that Paul poses? “Who is Apollos, and who is Paul?” Paul goes on to remind, encourage, and rebuke us:

“My job was to plant the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God, not we, who made it grow. The ones who do the planting or watering aren’t important, but God is important because he is the one who makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work as a team with the same purpose. Yet they will be rewarded individually, according to their own hard work. We work together as partners who belong to God. You are God’s field, God’s building, not ours.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)

What a helpful picture Paul paints for serving in a ministry context. Whether we are new, leaving, or staying put, our job is clear. We plant where there has been no seed planted, and we water the work that has been done before us. And we prepare our students to continue to grow when they move past our ministries. There is no glory in the planting and watering. It is the humble task of the youth worker. And this faithful work, partnering with the power and purposes of God is what causes growth and produces fruit.

Thankfully it is not all about us. Actually it is not about us at all. It is Jesus who is the author and perfector of our faith. It is Jesus who has the mysterious power for growth and transformation. These students are God’s building, God’s field. And while God doesn’t Need us, he invites us into a partnership. Out of his grace and mercy he allows us to participate with what he is doing.

We give all of our hearts to our students, we sacrifice time and money for them. We listen to them, celebrate with them, and journey with them. Even the words, “our students” are said with affection and the amount of love and care we have for them. But we only do this for a time. And rightly so, because these students are not our building or field, they are God’s building and field. The more we can live into that truth, the more we start well, end well, and serve faithfully for years to come.

The principles, administrators, and teachers at the local high school graduation have it right. Graduation marks the end of part of a journey and the beginning of a new one. They all gather together and celebrate the students. They understand that they play an important part in the development of the students, but only a part. And because they understand this, they are genuinely excited for students who are being launched into a new season of life, and excited for the new students to enter their classroom and do it all over again.

What a great reminder that is available every spring. Instead of racing from graduation to graduation, making sure I am seen and that students and parents know that I care for them, I can sit back with pride and watch the fruit of our labor cross the stage. What a great discipline to join with the teachers, principles and administrators and recognize that we are only part of the process. And specifically on a spiritual level, we may plant and water, but it is God who causes the growth. For who is Apollos? Who is Paul? Who am I? I am only a small part of each student’s life, for a short season. And because of that I will faithfully do my part for this time and place, finding joy as God causes the growth in students, before me, with me, and long after me.

h1

justice: a contrarian perspective

April 30, 2010

http://www.youthworker.com/youth-ministry-resources-ideas/youth-ministry/11631578/

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.


[i] http://www.cta.org/Professional-Development/Publications/Educator-Feb-10/Meet-Generation-Z.aspx

h1

retelling a lost story

April 29, 2010

this article can be seen at :http://www.youthworker.com/youth-ministry-resources-ideas/youth-culture-news/11626484/

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.