Posts Tagged ‘youth ministry’


swimming: equipping adolescents for a lifetime of personal records

December 14, 2010

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.


Advent: What Are We Really Getting Ready For?

November 29, 2010

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!


your students are not developmentally ready to live missionaly.

November 9, 2010

I think baseball is an amazing sport. On the surface, it is a simple game, hitting and fielding. But the more you dive into the game, the more you see the deep strategy, pitch selection, and the never ending statistics. Since my dream of becoming a professional baseball player didn’t pan out, I am now putting that pressure on my son. So, this last spring we signed him up for his first season of T-ball. It is quite an entertaining sight to watch a group of 5 year olds learning the game of baseball. The first season of T-ball is just that, learning the very basics. By the end of the season, this kids mostly know their positions, the direction to run around the bases, how to hit a ball off a T, and that is about it. But the foundation has been laid and a trajectory set for these kids to become legitimate baseball players and for my son to fulfill my dream of playing in the Bigs!

But, even more than my son playing professional baseball, my dream for him is to be a godly man who loves Jesus. And as he loves Jesus, to live a life that reflects that love in his personal life. As his personal life reflects his love for Jesus to live “within the culture as a missionary who is as faithful to the Father an his gospel as Jesus was in his own time and place.”

My dream is that my son would mature in his faith and live a life that is missional.

Missional Living is truly advanced Christianity. It is advanced because it assumes the foundations of the faith are firmly established. It assumes that we have our identity firmly set in Christ. It assumes a biblical world view, which means that we have a base understanding of scripture. It assumes that our lives reflect the hope and transformation that happens when we grow in Christ. With this foundation of faith firmly set, we can then differentiate ourselves from our culture, we can think abstractly and wrestle with issues of contextualization so we can be faithful to the gospel message in our time and place, just like Jesus was in his time and place. With this abstract thinking we are ready to take our personal faith and our cultural understanding and live as missionaries to our context where we can communicate the good news of Jesus with both our words and deeds.

This advanced form of Christianity is a needed direction for the Church to go. I have been so encouraged by the books and blogs that I have read, the conversations I have had with my colleagues, and even by the conversations among our church’s leadership. Living a missional life, getting outside ourselves and the walls of the church, is exactly what we need to be doing to reach our communities for Christ. While I agree with that this is the trajectory of the church, and the needed direction for our churches, the issue is how much of this our students can digest.

Everyone from Chap Clark to Time Magazine has been saying with a unified voice that adolescents is taking decades longer then the generations that preceded them. What is taking so long is the ability to answer three significant questions regarding their identity. In the book Starting Right, the author says that these key questions are; Who am I? Do I matter? How do I relate to others?

At the very same time that it is taking longer and longer for students to mature, many youth workers are wrestling with how to give this advanced form of Christianity to people who can’t even answer with any certainty question one about who they are, let alone even begin to answer the final question about how they relate to others. While the church needs to have these conversations, it is vital that those of us who work with students don’t put our spiritual journey onto our students. What we are learning and they ways we are working out our faith has to be different than that of the 15 year old boy in our student ministry.

In the student ministry world “milk” has gotten a bad rap. It is true that in Hebrews the author lays into the congregation for still drinking milk. But for real babies, that is what they need to drink. The rub comes when they should be eating solid food and are still drinking milk. I think high school, and certainly middle school students, are not at all ready for steak. This isn’t a put down. If we are honest and take a look at our average student in our ministry we would also agree that our students are not ready for this advanced form of Christianity. They have no idea who they are, or if they matter, or even how to relate to others because of their identity.

Our students are fragmented in their thinking and in their living. At church and with their church friends they live one way, and at school with their school friends they live another. And for some of our students who are blessed to have overlap with these worlds, it appears that they are ready for more, but really they just have a great community while they continue to work out their identity. Working out their identity is the key. And their identity has to be differentiated from their parents’ identity, their peers’ identity, and even their youth group’s identity. This means that who they are and the faith they have and are going to live out is all formed and worked out during this middle season of adolescents.

This brings us back to the original point that students, mid-adolescents, are not ready to live missionaly. They need to work out the fundamentals of their identity and faith by differentiating it from others. It is only after this is done that they are ready to engage their culture in any sort of meaningfully missional way.

My son’s T-ball season is more similar to student ministry then I thought. You see, T-ball is teaching the fundamentals, it is painting the picture of what real baseball will be like. His coaches don’t just give them the age appropriate version of baseball mechanics, they give them age appropriate version of baseball. And this is the delicate balance we need to give our students. We don’t make them have a faith they aren’t ready for, and we don’t baby them with giving them a faith for just where they are at. We give them an age appropriate faith that points to what a mature faith should look like.

Here are a couple of thoughts as we move forward to allowing space for our students to be where they are developmentally, while painting a picture of what healthy mature faith looks like:

  1. We model steak eating Christianity in our own lives. This means that, as adult leaders, we live lives of purpose. Lives where we have a personal and social righteousness, lives where we love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with our God. And these lives are lived out missionaly, firmly planted in our cultural context.
  2. We communicate a Christianity that is missional in our words and deeds. This means that even though our students aren’t developmentally ready to do this, we help them develop the habits of missional living. Just like my son practicing running bases and throwing the ball to first base doesn’t fully matter in T-ball, but it is vital in baseball. In the same way we do these fundamentals with our students. We take them on mission trips, we do acts of service and compassion, and we partner with organizations who work for justice.
  3. We do this in an age appropriate manner. And for this age, our focus should be on identity formation, not identity application. We have to help students figure out who they are and how they matter before we put them to work. If they are just doing the motions without a clear identity, they will struggle with how their faith is any different than the Lions Club or Rotary or Habitat for Humanity. We live missionaly because we have been redeemed and transformed by the power of Jesus Christ, and this is the hope that is the foundation for any sort of missional living.

Let us not put our developmental issues on our students. We need to be missional, we need to push our churches to be missional, but our students need to understand who they are and who they are in Christ before we push them to be missinal. May Jesus, who is so faithful and uses all our feeble attempts, continue to woo, redeem and transform our students so that He may use them to missionaries in their context.


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.


connected, but unable to connect

September 5, 2010

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.


who is apollos (a.k.a. ben kerns)

August 3, 2010

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.


justice: a contrarian perspective

April 30, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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