Friday, January 29, 2010

Getting Adult Involvement in Youth Ministry--Baby Steps

Many churches have the mentality that hiring a youth director/pastor/worker will solve all of their youth-related issues and they can "wipe their hands clean" of all things youth. But those in the trenches of youth ministry know that no youth program will ever be effective if it is the youth worker's one-person show. Lots of youth workers ask the question, "How do you get parents and volunteers involved?" I was just asked this same question by a fellow youth worker who was fairly new to her congregation and was facing a sense of apathy from many parents of youth. So, I laid out for her how we've made the progression from getting them to bring their kids to getting them involved and recorded my thoughts here. This is not the only way or even the best way...just the way that has worked for us.

1. Rely on them for planning. Almost every youth program has events throughout the year. The last thing a youth worker wants to do is plan a retreat while half the youth group is going to be at a band contest, or plan a mission trip when a large number of kids will be at cheerleading camp. Parents are an invaluable resource for simply synchronizing the calendar so that youth events are at a time that are most convenient for everyone.

2. Get their help with mundane, but necessary tasks in the youth program. Just about every church has a minimum requirement on the number of adults that should be at every youth meeting, event or trip. Also, many churches have limited transportation (only one church van, or maybe two vans and only one driver). Recruit parents to be "warm bodies" at meetings and drivers and chaperones on trips. This just gets them used to being a part of the program.

3. Move into more spiritual roles. Many youth groups are set up in a small group ministry model where kids spend time developing relationships and learning in small groups with kids their own age and gender. The next step for many volunteers will be to spend time as a small group leader. While some ministries require a lot of planning and preparation, our small group ministry will be for a short question time at the end of our Sunday night Bible study. It is my hope and goal that these small groups will begin to do some activities on their own outside of the regular youth group meetings.

What has worked for you in your ministry?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Smoking, Church, and Habits

A new series of anti-smoking TV commercials are quite poignant. One depicts a lady mixing a drink at work before her smoke break and says "You don't drink every time you smoke, so why do you smoke every time you drink?" Another one uses the same concept with a guy running around with a cigarette looking for a car to drive. He eventually jacks a courier truck and takes it for a spin while the narrator proposes "You don't drive every time you smoke..."

Bad habits, we know, are hard to break. While good habits are hard to start. And they're even harder if we don't see fast results. I've been going to church for just about my entire life. I can't say that there's been a time when I wasn't a part of some congregation. There were times during college where I might have stayed at school for a few weekends and wound up not going, but for the most part, every season of my life has included some regular house of worship. Before you accuse me of bragging, let me very clear. There have been plenty of times in my life where I did not feel close to God--I was just still in church during those times-sometimes because I was literally getting paid to be there. I can recall the Sundays after tragedy struck my life where I was particularly unenthusiastic about going to church. For some of these times, I was on staff, so my paycheck required I attend. For others, I just plain didn't want to go, but somehow made myself go. Sometimes I just didn't go at all.

At the end of last week, I found out that my sister-in-law had passed away in Indiana from ovarian cancer and the funeral would be on Monday. Cindy (my wife) and I decided Friday night to drive up there with her mother for the funeral. Since my wife gets car-sick if she doesn't drive and my mother-in-law insisted on taking her car, I spent the last 3 days riding in the back seat of a Dodge Neon catching up on my reading. One book I read was "My Jesus Year" by Benyamin Cohen. The book is a memoir of the Orthodox Jewish author's 52-week journey into all things Christian-various churches, concerts, Christian festivals, and even celebrating Christmas-in an effort, not to convert to Christianity, but to learn more about his faith in God and Judaism.

One of his final experiences in this year-long experiment is going to confession at a Catholic church. He tells of going into the booth "undercover", and shares with the priest how he feels disconnected from his faith and how he hasn't been getting much out of the services. The father encourages him to attend services more regularly saying, "Even if you don't understand it now, just come to the services anyway, because eventually it will have meaning for you." Then the author comments how he was reiterating a Jewish concept known as Shelo lishmah bah lishmah-even if you do something for the wrong reasons, you'll eventually start doing it for the right reasons.

I think that is true of a lot of things in life, especially going to church. I don't know where I'd be if certain times in my life weren't accompanied by a staff job at a church that required my church attendance. And that habit has sustained me at times when I didn't realize it. Making ourselves go to church sometimes is hard, especially when we have to ask ourselves why we do it. But even if we don't know why we come, there is value to coming...and sometimes it just takes time to see that.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Blogging Life: A Quest to Be Heard

Recently, I saw a hillarious TV commercial for FedEx. You can view the commercial above. As you can see, Carl was the best "presentation guy" because he put presentations together in print. But here he is mistakenly roped into giving a presentation having no prior knowledge of what it is he is supposed to present or discuss. Of course the kicker of the commercial is when Carl stands up and says, "Good morning...but, I digress."

As I thought about this commercial, I began to think about the world of blogging and even microblogging on Twitter, facebook, and other sites. It seems everyone is in a rush to be heard. We all want to get our voice out there. And so rather than having really great stuff to say, we get caught in the trap of just trying to say something in hopes that maybe we may get traffic to our blog or that our posts will get retweeted. And so, we end up looking like Carl with nothing really to say but feeling like we need to say something.

I think technology is great. I also love the fact that someones creative writing that has meaning and impact can spread like wildfire through cyberspace and have a positive effect on its readers. I can only hope that my musings on this site fall on the desktop of someone who benefits from them. But I also hope that I'm not blogging or writing simply to be heard. Proverbs 14:23 says "All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty." I hope that this blog site is truly a site that has a positive impact and not just my narcissistic attempt at getting more followers.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Youth Ministry: Preparing the Child for the Path

I posted yesterday about my own spiritual journey and the role that hard times have played in my understanding of God and how he relates to us and also how he wants us to respond to him. Today I read an email account of someone who was at a Regent's banquet at a high school in Texas.

The guest speaker for this banquet was Brad McCoy, who is well-known as a football coach, but even more well-known for being the father of Colt McCoy, who has been the face of Texas Longhorn football for the last four years. Being from Texas, the celebrity status of the nearly-national championship team hits close to home. In fact, I know a couple of the players on that UT football team who happen to be from my home town of Palestine, TX...but I digress.

According to the email, Mr. McCoy shared his story about the recent events surrounding the National Championship football game in which Colt was injured on the third play. He shared how God worked through this seemingly dire situation for a young man who had played over 40 consecutive games only to get hurt at the very beginning of the most important game of his life. One comment that was quoted from Brad McCoy was the philosophy that he and his wife share in raising their children, "You prepare your child for the path, rather than prepare the path for the child."

As I thought about my approach to youth ministry, these words resounded with me. I think many times youth workers do try to prepare the path for the child--and I used to be one of them. We are so busy building a hedge around our kids to shield them from the perils of the real world that our kids learn to live in a purely Christian bubble. We take them to Christian concerts and Christian youth days at our favorite theme parks. We show all the latest Christian movies by Christian production companies and teach lessons based on the movies. We give them Christian T-shirts and bracelets with witty acronyms and slogans on them so they won't stray from their faith. We encourage them so much to avoid certain activities that inadvertently they avoid anyone who does those activities. I'm afraid, many times, these kids will learn to function within the confines of a church, but not in the real world, because the real world is nothing like this Christian bio-dome we've created. These students will not know how to be relationally evangelistic because they will not have any friends who are not Christians. Now some people go too far the other way and really just teach that Christianity is just a supplement to a number of other important things in their lives. I don't agree with that either. I'm not saying Christian movies or T-shirts or events are bad--many of these things are good. But they shouldn't be our source of identity as Christians or four our teens in our youth groups. So how do we prepare students for the path of life, rather than preparing the path for them? How do we find that balance in what we teach without creating a Eutopia of shallow kids with a huge stash of Christian T-shirts, bumper stickers, and bracelets with abbreviations on them? Here are some things I think we can do.

1. Don't be afraid of the world in which our kids live. Let me make a distinction here. I think there is a difference between addressing the world the kids live in and embracing it. Truth is absolute. And I believe all truth comes from God. But I think truth can come in many forms and does not necessarily have to come from a “Christian” source. Rob Bell said in Velvet Elvis that the word "Christian" is a great noun, but a horrible adjective. I happen to agree. When the label "Christian" becomes the primary component of our filtration process, we can miss a lot. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of truth. But, if there are things students can learn from movies, music, books that aren't "Christian", we should be open to embracing the truth found in those things, even though they don't have the adjective "Christian" somewhere in their description. Something doesn't have to be labeled "Christian" to be true, but somehow we try to teach our students that truth can’t exist in anything that doesn’t come from a “Christian” source. So when they see a Scientologist or a Muslim teaching about loving one another or some other tenet they share with Christianity, it creates a crisis of belief for the student. An example of this occurred a few of years ago when mainstream Latin rock band Los Lonely Boys released the song "How Far Is Heaven,"-a prayer asking God to deliver the writer from the trials of life. The song quickly became a smash hit on pop radio. Not long after the song's release, the song was covered almost note-for-note by Christian Latin rock band Salvador and the song became a huge hit on Christian radio, even though many listeners now feel the original version is superior. Why did the song have to be “Christianized” before certain radio stations could or would play it? God's truth doesn't have to come in a box with the word "Christian" stamped across the top. By allowing students to see truth in their world, they are less likely to have this philosophical meltdown when they realize that someone who isn't a Christian can have similar views to their own. But they will also be able to know that their beliefs are founded on who God is and how he was revealed in Jesus Christ. Likewise, they will be less likely to abandon their faith in Christ for some merely humanitarian ideology that isn't centered on the person of Christ because it looks similar to Christianity.

2. Teach them to serve others without regard for a person's religious views. I've served a number of churches over the years. It seems many of these churches were great at taking care of their own members, but not very good at meeting the needs of those outside the church. Their own members who were elderly, sick, or poor, were nonetheless saints of God who lived out their faith daily. These are important people and most certainly should be helped. But when we serve someone and do not question where they attend church or whether or not they have put their faith in Christ, students learn from it. I'm not saying we shouldn't be evangelistic. I'm saying our agenda should be showing love to someone rather than making a convert. If God opens the door for them to put their faith in Christ, great, but love should be our motive, not a notch on our Bible or another church member. Another possible outcome is students may wind up serving someone who isn't overly appreciative or friendly, which creates a different internal reaction to the time spent serving. Learning that everyone we serve in love is excited and appreciative of what we do creates an unrealistic expectation of how real people in the "real world" will respond to loving assistance from followers of Christ. After Katrina we had a chance to do a mission trip in New Orleans. We worked five days on two different houses and never met the homeowners the whole time we were there. No thank you notes. No appreciative phone calls. Nothing. My students came back with a different sense of what it meant to serve someone who, at least in the students' eyes, didn't appear to be thankful.

3. Give them opportunities to spend time with local Christian students from other denominations. One thing the youth pastors and leaders in our area have a passion for is building unity among the teenage members of the body of Christ across denominational lines. So we plan three to four events a year that allow students from all denominations to meet together in worship and prayer. This shows the students of our area that these other students are on their team. They may go to different churches. They may do some different things in their worship. But they are on the same team! I believe doctrine is important to every denomination. Students should know what their church believes and what they personally believe. However, something is wrong when we get so ingrained with denominational doctrine that we spend our time arguing with other Christians about things like the methodology of baptism or predestination vs. freewill instead of joining our brothers and sisters under the banner of Christ to impact our communities for the glory of God. Reading Jesus' conversations with the Pharisees we can see what Christ thought of legalism. Yet, we get so dogmatic sometimes about the aspects of our faith that are less important that we forget to focus on the things that are most important. If our students refuse to fellowship with other students because they don't baptize like we do, or they have a female pastor, or they speak in tongues at their church, we have done something terribly wrong. Paul encourages us to look past our differences in Ephesians 4:4-6. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

We live in such a godless society, it is easy to get caught in the trap of trying to create the perfect Christian kingdom for our students. But when our goal is to prepare them for life after youth group, or after high school, our focus is not on creating a perfect environment, but rather on creating a student with an arsenal of tools to deal with a cold, harsh world that has lost its sense of who God is. What things do you do in your ministry to "prepare the child for the path"?

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Role of Pain in a Healthy Approach to Ministry

I consider myself to be somewhat "connected" to the world outside...not just the people around me who I do know, but those whom I may have never met but exists in similar circles (musicians, worship leaders, youth workers) through the miracles of modern technology. One website I frequent is basically a forum for youth workers and other ministry personnel to come together and ask questions and debate various topics. I recently posted a debate about an upcoming youth event which was met with a lot of criticism. And I began to examine why my approach to ministry is different from a lot of people who serve the church in the same capacity I do.

From a loss standpoint, I grew up in a pretty sheltered way (and for that I am thankful). I never had to go through the pain of my parents divorcing when I was young or losing one of them in an untimely death. Having no siblings, I never sent a sibling off to war or felt the loss of losing one of them. I had lost grandparents, but their deaths were timely for the most part and time had given them an opportunity for life. My life for the first 25 years, although not perfect, was in many senses ideal. But the quarter-century mark was not a good time in my life. I went through a divorce and lost my wife of nearly 3 years whom I'd been in a relationship with for nearly 5 years. For the first in my life I hurt in a new way. And not only did I hurt, but no one in my circle of influence was able to stop it. Not my parents, not her parents, not my pastors, not my friends. I was left there in a town with no family and few friends to weather the coming storm. In that time I hurt in ways I never had before and had an overwhelming desire to kill that pain.

Just prior to my divorce, our church had lost its senior pastor and I was the only ministerial staff person. My best friend had moved out of town six months before as well, and I remember the feeling of having never been that "alone". My church really did not know how to minister to me and take care of me. In that particular denomination, divorce is kind of a "hush hush" subject and people have all kinds of views on it. Also, during this time, I was serving as a youth pastor, a choir director, and was going to seminary full time. The pain of divorce, the lack of community, and the shear stress of personal and professional pressures put me on a roller-coaster ride for the next two years. This ride came to a screeching halt the weekend I graduated from seminary when I found myself in another life-changing situation that was beyond my control.

Spiritually depleted, emotionally broken, and just plain exhausted, I resigned from my church staff position a couple of weeks after getting my Masters Degree in Christian Education. Having no plan or job, I moved back in with my parents at age 27, trusting God that he would show me the next step of the journey. During this time I became a part of a great church and was able to make a decent living selling insurance for a very good company. But I was hungry for ministry. Two years to the day after starting at the insurance office, I took a position as Director of Youth Ministries here at First United Methodist Church in Palestine. The Methodist Church was a good fit for me because it didn't carry all of the stigmas I'd experienced before. They were just excited to have me on board. That was nearly four years ago. And my ministry now is completely different than it was when I was in my early 20s. The thing that makes my approach to ministry different is the pain I experienced.

In Scripture, the greatest stories of triumph (Moses, David, the missionary journeys of Paul) are the ones that stared the darkest fates in the face and rose victorious by God's grace. Having been through trials, I approach things differently with my kids hoping that when they face the gut-wrenching pain of loss in their life they will be able to weather the storm better than I did. I don't try to convince myself that we live in a perfect world and that if we follow Jesus everything will turn out right. God has a way of making things harder on us in such an amazingly wonderful way. I also worry less about the smaller things and worry more about whether or not they are "getting it" when it comes to faith in God. I also try really hard not to isolate them from things that are in the world. Many people in my line of work feel that by talking about something, we are somehow promoting it. Jesus talked about a lot of social and moral issues in his day, but by giving lip service to these issues he was in no way condoning them. I would rather a student encounter a taboo message under the leadership of Christian adults who love and care for him than to have him run across it late at night when surfing the internet or watching movies at his friends house. If I can't be the one to talk about these issues with him, then who can?

I am thankful that God has placed me on this amazing journey of life and this amazing journey of ministry. Since my hour of darkness, he has since blessed me with a new wife and family. But I can't erase the scars of what happened. And to not learn from those experiences and to not pass that knowledge on would be doing a disservice to my students. I feel my ministry now has more focus than it did prior to this dark time in my life. I now teach with the goal that when my students hit rough water they cling to it rather than abandon it. And personally, there is no substitute for the role it had in my life and ministry. If you are in ministry or any area of service in your church, what personal experiences have shaped the way you carry out God's call on your life?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Different Approach to Evangelism

Last week, I went to a United Methodist ministry conference centered on evangelism. Now, there was a time, when I thought any sentence that had "Methodist" and "evangelism" in it was not to be taken seriously. Since the United Methodist church did not throw around the "evangelism-y" lingo I was accustomed to growing up--passing out tracts, four spiritual laws, the Roman Road, or knocking on doors--I assumed it was just not an important concept. Especially since Methodists seemed to spend so much time taking care of physical needs like building wheelchair ramps and buying mosquito nets.

I learned something, though. I was mistaken. It's not that Methodists don't do evangelism. It's that they do it differently. You see, I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. I went to a "leadership" camp when I was in 7th grade that taught me how to share Christ with others using a little square tract that unfolded into the shape of a cross. As I grew older, I learned about other ways to share God's plan of salvation--most of which required memorizing statements or scriptures and then worrying about how to work those canned statements into conversation. And I'm not saying these were all bad. I certainly learned what Scripture teaches about God's plan to draw me into fellowhsip with him through the death of his son, Jesus Christ. But it always seemed sort of forceful.

In the Methodist church, the reason we don't talk about evangelism as much is because we are just expected to DO evangelism. This doesn't mean quoting scripture or knocking on doors. What we are called to do is come along side those we know who are living outside of God's kingdom and establish a relationship with them. Through establishing that relationship and letting those people know that we care about them, we then have an opportunity to share; not a tract, or a canned statement of faith; but rather a story of how this God of the universe has totally wrecked our lives in such a glorious way! The picture above is called "Offer them Christ" and is a depiction of John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) sending off Francis Coke (who really got the Methodist movement going in America) to America. That is what Christians are called to do, right? Offer them Christ. Not a canned speech. Not a booklet or a tract. Offer them Christ.

I'm thankful for all the things I've learned. I'm also aware that thousands of people have come to faith in Christ because they picked up a tract or someone quoted them a series of scriptures. But where is the relationship in that? What happens after the tract or booklet is dropped off? What happens when the conversation is over? That's where relationship is key. Paul said he became all things to all people that by ALL MEANS might save some. Our approach to sharing the gospel doesn't really matter as long as it is founded on relationship. It is my prayer that we can all learn to establish relationships with those who may not be living in the Kingdom of God. What are your thoughts on sharing Christ with others?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Most Important Factor in Getting Kids to Church

I've been doing this thing called youth ministry now for a long time...and wouldn't you know, I'm still trying to figure it all out. I've read books, been to conferences, sat in formal classes, discussed with my peers, joined discussion forums, and just about everything else I can do to understand these slightly-smaller-than-me people God made called teenagers. While everyone will say that numbers don't matter, there still seems to be this unwritten pressure to get more kids in the door. Youth leaders like me are always discussing the perfect event, the perfect activity, the perfect format for our meetings (you know, hang out, then structured games, then worship, then Bible study), the perfect outreach event or trip, and how important small groups are to our ministries. And these are all good. But I think I've figured out the #1 factor in whether or not a student attends a particular church or youth group. That factor is....friends.

Yes, friends. Why do some kids want to go to a different church than where their parents go? Friends. Why do some of the kids who come to your youth group have no family members in your church? Friends. Why do some kids whose parents are very involved in your church choose not to come to youth group meetings? Friends. How could friends cause them not to come? Because their friends are not at youth group. The people they consider to be friends are in 7th period algebra or on the basketball team with them. They are playing video games with them on Friday nights before crashing out on the living room floor with a half-eaten bowl of popcorn.

So, what do we do when a kid in your church doesn't consider the other kids in the youth group to be "friends"? This is a common thing in my group as we have 5 school districts and nearly 10 campuses in the area around my church. I also changed churches my 7th grade year because I was the only kid in my youth group who went to a particular school and felt I had absolutely nothing in common with the other students there (which was true). I went to a smaller church with a smaller youth program because of one thing. Friends. So here are some things to help kids connect and make their "friends from church" just their "friends".

1. Schedule games and activities that encourage the kids to interact with each other. Play silly games that encourage interaction and team building.

2. Allow for informal relationship building with time for kids to hang out. Video games are a great way for kids to connect with each other.

3. Encourage kids to spend time together outside of youth group.

4. On short trips, discourage your kids from bringing video games or MP3 players to encourage interaction with one another. (On long trips your kids may go crazy without these things and will probably eventually bond anyway.)

To be honest, though, I wrote this post not because of my expertise, but because of my frustration. It seems the main reason I have some kids who are not as active is because they don't consider the kids at church to be their friends. Some of them attend other churches. Some don't come at all. Some of my kids who do come are very active because of the friendships they have there. What is it that you do in your youth group (or out of it) to allow kids who go to different schools or run in different social circles to build relationships and become friends?