Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why I'll be Showing a Blatantly Non-Christian Movie at Youth Group

Some time earlier this year (I think around October), my wife and I had some rare, kidless downtime and found ourselves in Tyler (the nearest town with several decent-sized movie theatres) with a few hours to kill and a few extra bucks in our pockets. Being that we were an hour's drive from home and had just showed up at the theatre hoping to catch something good, we realized we didn't want to wait 45 minutes to see the new Sandra Bullock film. So we opted to see "The Invention of Lying" which started in just a few minutes. We had heard no reviews about the movie, but with a cast that included Jennifer Garner, Tina Fey, and appearances by Rob Lowe and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, it looked promising to say the least. Two hours later, I found my heart and mind in a tug-of-war wrestling with a number of ideas that had been presented in a very different way. Because of the response it created in me, I immediately realized I had to show it to my youth group and allow them to be presented with the same questions that were presented to me during the film.

I did not include a link to a movie review of this movie because the opinions surrounding this movie are as varied as the number of people who've written them. I didn't want you to read a Christian's conservative review blasting the film as "blasphemous" nor did I want an extremely open-minded review praising its satire, which many people found just plain offensive. If you have not seen the film, I would urge you to resist temptation and see it without reading anything about it beforehand. I will say that the film was co-written, co-directed, and starred in by professed atheist and British comedian Ricky Gervais, famous for his role in original British version of the hit comedy series, The Office (the pre-cursor to the wildly popular American version). Without giving away too much information on the movie (you can google all the movie reviews you like), I can say that "The Invention of Lying", whether by intent or not, makes a case for atheism much the same way "Facing the Giants" or "Fireproof" makes a case for putting faith in God. In the course of the story, this movie takes numerous less-than-subtle stabs at Christianity, Jewish traditions, and the whole idea of faith in general. It is rated PG-13 for language, some sexual material, and one drug reference. So why will I be showing it to my youth group after it is released on DVD January 19th? Here is why.

1. I think we learn more about ourselves and what we believe from people who disagree with us, than simply by listening to people who are echoing our own thoughts. As I left the theatre after seeing this movie--while my blood was boiling because many parts of me felt like my faith, which I hold ver dear, was under attack--I began to process the argument that had been presented to me through this subversive, yet light-hearted medium. For me, it wasn't something that caused me to question my faith, but rather solidify it.

2. We must be challenged in order to grow. The metaphor of a muscle in the human body being broken down in order to be rebuilt in a bigger, stronger way has become cliche, but it holds true. If you have ever been through a physically strenuous workout, whether running, or lifting weights, or some other form of exercise, or if you've exerted yourself physically more than usual, the next day, you will find you will be quite sore--sometimes in places you didn't realize you had! That is because using our muscles excessively causes them to break down, then rebuild themselves in a stronger manner. Likewise, many houseplants (from the way I understand it) will not really start to grow, until their roots have found their way to the sides of the pot. So challenging my students will cause them to ask some really important questions and in the proper environment we will be able to answer their questions.

3. Creating a bubble for our Christian kids does not paint a clear picture of reality. I've known many people in youth ministry (and I have been there myself) who feel it is our job as youth leaders to shield our precious children from all the reprehensible stuff out there in the world. We encourage them to only listen to Christian music (especially on youth trips) and only watch "G" or "PG" rated films. And while this can work in the vacuum of youth group meetings or even a week-long camp, it's not realistic to assume that our students follow these same ideals when they are not at youth group functions. Now, does that mean I show the latest Quentin Tarantino movie at our next movie night? Absolutely not. However, our job as youth workers is not to shield them from the world, but rather to give them the means to adapt to the culture they are in and to do that from a faith-based standpoint.

We've all heard the stories about the student who goes off to college and find his faith challenged by some philosophy professor who thinks Christianity is all a bunch of garbage, or the other college student who is too busy partying to remain true to his Christian beliefs that may or may not have ever truly been his own (as opposed to his parents). I feel that if youth workers are to be effective, we have to get our heads out of the sand and be aware of the culture our kids live in and give them the tools to help solidify their faith.

Do you agree with this approach? Would you show this movie to your kids? What similar things have you done in your ministry to challenge the way kids think?

Monday, December 28, 2009

You'll Catch More Flies with Honey than With Vinegar

I heard this phrase once while doing a youth lesson with some boys in my youth program. I probably heard it before that, but it's one of those sayings that has stuck since then and I find myself using it a lot--even with my daughter at home. You don't have to be a rocket surgeon to figure out what it means but here's my loose translation--"You'll get more of what you want out of life by being nice, than by being mean, belligerent, annoying, etc." Well, since I work in the field of ministry, you would think that would go without saying for the people and companies I deal with on a regular basis.

There is a particular company that I've had dealings with over the majority of my ten-year stint as a youth minister. The first time I dealt with them, I got a phone call and they were up front that they were a Christian publishing house and had just created a new curriculum they would like for me to preview. I agreed to preview it and send it back if I didn't want to keep it and pay for it if I did. Well, I forget if I actually kept that study or not, but I'm pretty sure I sent it back. Well, about every three months or so, I would get another call from the same company wanting me to preview another study course. I eventually became good at finding new ways not to talk to their representatives or to politely, but firmly, hang up the phone when I did find myself with one of their fishhooks in my lip!

Fast forward about 4 years. After a two-year sabbatical from youth ministry and starting over at a new church, I got a phone call from the same company (not at the church office, but on my cell phone!) telling me about a new study they had. I told them that was great. A week later I got a packet from them in my office asking me to preview it. I didn't even realize I had agreed to anything! Two years after that, I'm still getting phone calls from the same people. This morning, I asked our church secretary to screen a call that I suspected might be fishy. Well, she got dooped and there I was picking up line 1 to talk to these sneaky envoys of Christian truth. Having tasted that lure before, I spit it out before the representative had time to set the hook!

So, here is the focus of today's blog post. Should Christian companies limit their marketing strategies to methods that are less invasive? While there is nothing sinful about asking someone to check something out then send it back if you don't want it, it's really annoying after about the fourth or fifth time you've done it. Also, there is a lot of deception that is used to try to get through to someone and then try to get them to do something without them realizing they are doing it or to push their comfort zone when they try to refuse something. I am to the point that I don't care if this company has the most effective, biblically-sound, life-changing study course known to humanity--I AM NOT INTERESTED! While they obviously put a lot of thought and time into their resources, why can't they market them through Group or Youth Specialties. So my question to those of you in youth ministry or other areas of church work, do you agree with me? At what point does a "Christian" company cross lines to try to get their product out there?

Does Technology in Ministry Have to be Cutting Edge?

Recently, a friend of mine, Russell Martin, blogged about the goals of websites in ministry. His question, based on a conversation we had about a website we had a mutual interest in, was that when we create a website for our ministry or our church, is our goal to get people to our website or to get people to our church? I have a similar question as well about the role of technology in ministry.

I recently took over our church's website. In the last 24 months, the approach to web development seems to have drastically changed as the shift has migrated from having static information about your program available on the web, to having constantly changing, updated information that comes to your "followers" through Twitter, Facebook, blog feeds, or email subscriptions. No longer are you trying to direct traffic to your site, but rather you're trying to direct your site to others. As for me, I am involved with an older congregation, most of whom probably have computers with internet connections. However, does that mean that every technology available is going to be right for our church? For example, out of 230 people who regularly attend services, we have 53 who follow us via our Facebook fan page. Conversely, of the numerous random people who are following us on Twitter, only one of those is a church member and she actually had never used Twitter before signing up to follow our church website!

So, should I continue to progress in our technological capabilities by allowing our church members new ways of keeping up with our church (i.e. podcasting as opposed to online audio), or continue to use the methods that our congregation is comfortable with? I think the answer lies in what your congregation is comfortable with. Here's why.

1. Technology is scary to some people. For many, the simpler the better. If you do not serve a bunch of IT personnell and web developers, don't be afraid to keep your communications simple.
Not only will people be more likely to use it because they are comfortable with it, but they won't feel compelled to change just so they can stay up-to-date with your group.

2. There are so many portals available for people to receive information (Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, blogging, Posterous, Email, StumleUpon, LinkedUp, iphone apps, Blackberry apps...etc.), that it's easy for information to get lost in the shuffle and you can spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to send information to all these media that may or may not ever be used by anyone in your organization.

3. Being "cutting edge" is a relative concept. So while a new smartphone app or social media site my be the next big thing to a very tech-savvy person, for many simply having a Facebook page is just as revolutionary. You don't have to be cutting edge with the world to be cutting edge with your followers!

What have been your experiences using technology in ministry?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Is Having Things in Common with Your Students a Pre-requisite for Ministry?

It seems I spend a lot of my time in ministry behind a desk learning how to make the most of the time I have with our kids and working on other projects I take care of here at our church. Also, our church has a pretty rigid policy which speaks against a lot of one-on-one ministry time that I've had with students in other churches where I've worked. So most ministry has to be done in a fairly formal setting. Well, this week, a couple of my students came up to help us pass out door-hangers in the neighborhood to advertise for our Christmas Eve Service. I got a chance to just hang out with a couple of my guys for a little while and I learned something in that time.

I've always been aware that I don't have many of the same intrests as the kids in my youth group. And the older I get, this issue doesn't get any better. While we all like music, we like completely different kinds. I love to follow sports and watch them on TV. I like the outdoors and enjoy hunting and fishing in my spare time. I also work with my dad doing ranch work, building fence, vaccinating cows, putting out feed. While these are the things I spend most of my leisure time doing, my students are not into any of these things really. In our group of nearly 20 kids who come on a regular basis, I have two who play basketball in a very small school district that really has few other offerings in terms of extra-curricular activities. My kids don't enjoy hunting or fishing and certainly wouldn't be found sticking a vaccinating needle in calf. While these are the things that I do and enjoy, most of them really enjoy video games, modern music, and the latest tech gadgets available. As I attempted to visit with these two guys in my group yesterday, I realized I had nothing to contribute to their discussion of "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare", or "Split Second", the soon-to-be-released action racing game. I didn't know anything about how the controls worked, or what special weapons you could get. Aside from reading part of GameInformer magazine last month (a feeble attempt at exploring their world), I had almost nothing to say. This got me thinking.

How critical is it that I share the same interests with the students I'm called to reach? Obviously being a guy I will have less in common with the girls in my group, but really, how much of a factor is it that I don't know how to get the super photon blaster on level 5, or I don't listen to Paramore or All-American Rejects? As I think about this, I look back at the ministry of Jesus. He was a carpenter, but many of his disciples came from other vocations (fisherman, tax collectors, etc.). So what was the common bond they talked about? Logically, I think it was the things of God. But we know that Jesus used his knowledge of their interests to help them understand certain things (i.e. become a fisher of men). So I'm asking you. How critical is it for someone to have the same interests as someone in order to build a deeper relationship with them? You can also respond to this question at

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bringing Christmas Home

I blogged a few days ago that this year it just doesn't feel like Christmas...for a number of reasons. The fact is, though, that our second year of marriage has been a trying one for my wife and I. Not because our relationship is that bad, or anything like that. But on two occasions this year (and one last year) we went through the pain and loss of a miscarriage. Now, I know there are people who have lost loved ones and part of me feels bad even mentioning what we've been through. But for a young family with hopes and dreams of bringing a new life into the world, these losses have been difficult. We've also endured some unexpected health problems and have been searching for answers from people who know a lot more than we do.

Well, since our home hasn't really felt "Christmasy", I knew bringing Christmas to our house rested with me. Due to a number of factors, we aren't financially where we were a couple of years ago, so getting excited about Christmas wasn't easy. But reluctantly, I stopped by the storage building on my way home Monday night and picked up our tree, some lights, and some decorations. As I walked into the house, I was reminded of Clark Griswold in National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. At one point when the family Christmas disaster has reached its climax and everyone is about to get in their cars (or RVs) and drive home, Clark goes on a tyrade and says that no one is going anywhere. Then he makes a very emotional statement saying that "We are going to have the happ-happ-happiest (*expletive*) Christmas since Bing Crosby danced with Danny (*expletive*) Kaye! When the smoke cleared, everyone stuck around and they truly had a happy Christmas.

In some ways, this year, I felt like I forced Christmas on my family (much like Clark Griswold). But now that we've decorated, it feels like Christmas in our house and our hearts are lighter. What's striking to me was that maybe we weren't really in the mood to have Christmas, but we chose celebrate the season for what it is. While Christmas is a holiday, I think a lot of things that are religious in nature need to be done deliberately, even when we are not in the mood. And what usually happens is that our hearts are blessed in the process. But if we only do what we are in the "mood" for, we can miss out on a tremendous blessing.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Just Doesn't Feel Like Christmas

Last year, my family and I had a very memorable Christmas. The weekend after Thanksgiving I was out hanging lights on the outside of the house (a first for me), and we put up our 7ft tall tree right in the living room. We did probably more than we should have in terms of Christmas shopping. And the wonderful day was met with great anticipation. This year things are just...well...different. It's nearly ten days before Christmas and I'm just now getting around to putting up a miniature version of last year's tree. There are no lights on the house, and we've barely done any Christmas shopping. Maybe we're just tired. Maybe because the recently-acquired recliner cuts into the amount of available space for a tree. Maybe it's because we now have a cat who we know will make a destructive hay day out of a full-sized tree. Maybe it's because we've felt the disappointment and loss of two miscarriages this year. Maybe... well...

This year, it just doesn't feel quite like Christmas--for me anyway. And maybe I'm not the only one who feels this way. But with Christmas comes the message of hope. It's the message that when Christ comes into the world, things are never the same. So for me, the message of Christmas is not something that happens once a year. It must be a daily reality. Sometimes life causes us to lose track of what's really going on in life. We all experience hardships, loss, and heartache. I hope that we can all remember, though that as Peter walked out on the water, it was his circumstances that caused him to sink and the hand of Jesus that kept him above the water.

No matter what you've experienced this year, and how you choose to reflect on it, that we can all remember that there is something greater than this world that is watching us. God bless.