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is your gospel too small?

October 2, 2010

One of our favorite hobbies as youth workers is bashing on the church. For those of us who have grown up in it, and now do ministry with in it, we have a lot to bash. I find myself wresting with the institutional church and its relevancy for me and our culture. I have decades of examples of hypocrisy and hurt. I see little difference in the lives of people in church, including myself, and those outside the church. I have a faith that is trying to break free from the systems and programs that have shaped me up ‘til now. But these issues and growing places are my issues and my growing places.

As someone who works with students it is essential that I am aware of my faith and the places where Jesus is meeting me, transforming me, and challenging me. And thankfully I can identify and am enjoying these places. But even more importantly, I must be aware of the faith development of the students I work with and the issues they are wrestling with. As someone who shares the gospel with people in a completely different season of life and in a different culture, I must enlarge my view of the gospel. This means I must discern the parts of the gospel story that help students come to know the real Jesus who loves and cares for them where they are at. Part of this process is separating my own walk with Jesus as he loves and cares for me in the place that I am at.

The apostle Paul was brilliant at this. Paul encountered Jesus in a very real and wild way on the road to Damascus. This is by far the most unique conversion story ever! Paul writes in his epistles about his struggles in faith and in ministry. He writes about wrestling with sin and doing the things he doesn’t want to do. He writes about the thorn in his side that overwhelms him. He writes about people in his ministry that have personally wrecked him and broken his heart. Paul had a dynamic and growing faith that was real and intimate.

And while all this is going on in his walk with Jesus, Paul was able to separate out his own issues with Jesus and discern what the people in a particular context needed to hear so they could connect with Jesus and begin to experience their own walk.

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.

In this season of my life, I am wrestling with growing deeper in my love of, and for Jesus. And this wrestling has been bringing up more issues then it is settling. And while I love the wrestling match, I need to get myself and my story out of the center of the ministry God has called me to. My walk with Jesus is my walk. I am called to be a cross-cultural missionary to this adolescent culture. And I need the Holy Spirit to illuminate my heart and mind as I attempt to find the thin places in their culture where their brokenness can meet Jesus’ healing. I can not make my thin places theirs. And thankfully the gospel of Jesus Christ is big enough to meet the brokenness and needs of every person in every culture in every time in every part of the world.

Jesus, show me where these thin places are in my students’ lives.

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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.

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adolescent theology

September 5, 2010

ADOLECENT THEOLOGY:

Kenda Dean has written a really challenging book titled, Almost Christian. And CNN wrote a really fair review of the book and her study:

http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/08/27/almost.christian/index.html?hpt=T2

Dean’s conclusion is simple and profound: “Your child is following a ‘mutant’ form of Christianity, and you may be responsible . . . more American teenagers are embracing what she calls ‘moralistic therapeutic deism.’ Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.”

My conclusion: YIKES!

Student Ministry is a really complicated calling with an even more complicated application. For their entire personal, emotional, and spiritual development until adolescents has been without the ability to understand abstract concepts or ideas. Their world is concrete and they are the center of it. Everything that occurs happens with them in the center. In fact it is actually impossible, developmentally, to see outside of this reality. And for better or worse our children’s ministry and our student ministry fit this developmental framework as we come along side them and help them see that in this world of theirs there is a God who loves them desires a relationship with them. Jesus loves ME this I know!

As children transition into adolescence, they can actually being to conceptualize a world outside themselves. I know that any 5 minute conversation with a teenager might cause you to question that statement, it is true. Chap Clark summed up a ton of complicated sociological work into the term individuation. This is the process in which students are sorting out their own identity. And this process can only happen by separating yourself, by developing an identity as someone other. And to do this, means that for the first time students can begin to conceptualize a world outside themselves, and even a God that might be about more then their world.

While I so appreciate the hard work that Dean has done, and agree with her conclusions, I am not quite ready to throw out youth ministry, the church, or parents in the process. This is a reality that is well documented, and to address this “mutant” form of Christianity, we need to first recognize some of the significant obstacles in helping our students develop good theology.

1) Adolescent development means that their natural inclination is to have an ego centric view of theology. And as adolescence lengthens the chances to really tackles this is even more difficult. Where middle schoolers were developmentally ready to work out their theology just a generation ago, high schoolers are just at the beginning of this process. So instead of six solid years to work this out, we are looking at maybe one or two years where students can realistically develop a theology that is healthy and centered around God and not themselves.

2) Our American Christian Culture. At the very core of our national identity is this deep strain of individualism and self-reliance. And this has impacted our theology. We come out of a tradition where Jesus saves me, where Jesus heals me, where Jesus blesses me. And when Jesus doesn’t come through for me, many have a crisis of faith.

These two obstacles are enormous contributors that leave students with a self-centered view of faith. And this is not a faith in a the personal a specific God found in the Bible, but the generic, moralistic, therapeutic deism that Dean has observed. While this may be a fact, this doesn’t have to be the end. This study is a very helpful indicator of the context in which we are called to do student ministry.

Every context in every time has obstacles, and this “mutant” from of Christianity is one of ours. Now we get the opportunity to find ways that work in our context to help students develop emotionally and spiritually in a way that paints a world view where Jesus is in the center, not them. Confirmation Curriculum, The Apostles’ Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, Reading Through The Entire Bible, and Short and Long Term Missions, are time tested ways to communicate that the Jesus we follow is so much bigger than we are and so doesn’t need us in any way, but invites us to go with Him, to where He is going.

In the midst of our amazing lessons with great theology, we mostly get the privilege to graciously walk through life’s ups and downs. And as we walk alongside them, we get to help students frame their experiences with a theology that the church has affirmed for thousands of years and will serve them their entire lives, no matter their context or circumstance.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.