Thursday, April 29, 2010

Is Your Youth Program Flashy? Here's Why Ours Isn't?

As of May 1, I will have been at my current church in my current role as director of youth ministries (7th-12th grade) for four years. These types of milestones in one's ministry always seem to call for examination of a number of things-what have I accomplished? what have I not accomplished? how far have we come from when I started? how much have we grown since I started?

And lately, I've really been struggling with beating myself up over the numbers game. Because frankly, we don't have a lot of kids. I've blogged about some of the reasons we don't have many students. And today, I read a great blog post that really confirmed a lot of the feelings I have about doing ministry. I shared some of my frustrations a few weeks ago when I realized that many of us in youth ministry (at times myself included) feel like it is our calling to create this alternate reality for our kids with the best camps, the most famous speakers, deepest worship leaders, tallest zip lines, and most exotic mission trip destinations; all so we can send a student out into the "real world" who has no clue how to function without this Christian eutopia he called a youth group.

Call me old-fashioned. Call me lazy. Maybe our church budget doesn't offer some of the frills of a larger church ministry. But Jesus never marketed to the disciples. He didn't spend time convincing them why they should follow him. The crowds just followed his message. He didn't do "outreach events." I realize we live in a consumer culture and marketing is a very important part of the way anyone with a message has been forced to think. "How do I get my message out there." But the most effective marketing tool in the world has been the same for thousands of years. Word of mouth. Movies come and go. Sometimes I go see a movie because of the trailer. But the times I am most likely to go see/rent a movie is if someone I know and respect tells me "Hey, this is a great movie. You really should see it."

That is the way I hope our youth program is. And it seems to be that way. Our students have been bringing their friends and saying "This youth group is really great. You should come check it out." There's no crazy, high-energy youtube video, no neon logo outside the youth building, no Six Flags trip for the kids who come at least 3 Sundays in a month. Just Bible study, and worship, and some events that allow us to grow closer together and make a difference in the world around us. One thing that hasn't happened, though is the "bait 'n switch"-to have a kid come for free pizza and a concert, then to come to our regular youth group meeting and think "This is really lame." (See Tim Schmoyer's post about outreach events) While I firmly believe all this, I still found myself struggling with the numbers game and getting down about having a small group.

But the other day, something neat happened to me. I ran into one of my former Sunday School teachers. She asked me two questions: 1) How is your youth group? (Fine.) and 2) How many kids do you have? To which I replied, "We don't have many, but the ones we have are going to change the world!" I don't know where it came from, but it really affirmed some of my doubts I'd been having up until that point. When I look at our students and I envision where they will be in 4-6 years, I can say I'm pretty sure they will be world changers. They are developing skills and learning things about the Bible that will empower them for years of ministry. Some of them are doing things with computers. Some are doing things with musical instruments. And they're not just doing it in the youth group, but in the larger church services as well.

Maybe your church is small. Maybe your group is small. Maybe you don't have the time, budget, or resources to make clever videos on your Mac (PC if you're like me) for every Bible study or to have a student-made youtube video blog go out every week. But remember, that Jesus didn't have those things either. And youth ministry is about giving kids something they can take with them for the rest of their lives, not making the coolest videos.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What is Retweet Evangelism?

I got on Twitter about 6 months ago. Twitter is an amazing tool for passing on information. Several times a day, I would read quotes from many different thinkers and think "Wow, that's good." Then, shortly after, I found that I felt this huge urge to try to be as profound as my favorite tweeps. (Since when was Christianity ever about me anyway? But I digress...). I felt I had to come up with stuff that was as philosophical as @rickwarren , @maxlucado , or @donmilleris . But what I realized is that Twitter is as much about re-tweeting as it is about being profound. Many of the Twitter accounts with huge blocks of followers have this huge following not because they are so enlightened, but because they are following people who are that way and are willing to pass that information along (RT).
This is not a lot different from sharing the gospel, is it? Take something good that's been passed on to you, and pass it along to someone else, right? I grew up in a tradition where evangelism was a big deal (and it should be). But we were always learning new "gimmicks" for sharing the gospel. I remember a T-shirt I had once that said, "Ask me. I have the Answer." "The Answer" was a gospel tract that unfolded in the shape of a cross and told people how they could put their faith in Christ. In theory, someone was supposed to read the shirt, ask me about it, and I was supposed to show them the tract and five minutes later angels would be rejoicing in heaven. I don't know if it ever worked. As I remember, every time I wore the shirt, I never had the tract with me-typical 7th grader! While these approaches aren't necessarily wrong, I have to wonder have we as a church made evangelism more difficult than it is? When Christ instructed the disciples (us) in the Great Commission, he didn't say "Come up with some new ways to communicate all of this stuff I've shared with you. Be original and profound and make people scratch their heads after you talk to them." He said, "Go make disciples, and teach them to obey everything I've commanded you." (my loose paraphrase) To be very modern, I think he might have said, "Just follow me and re-tweet." I like to call this concept "Re-tweet Evangelism."
Sharing Christ with others doesn't have to be as complicated as we make it. We've heard the words of the Master. All we have to do is re-tweet (in the real world) what's been passed on to us (and live our lives like we believe it). If you want people to follow you in life; if you want them to come to you for answers, don't feel the pressure to be original or different. Just give people Jesus. Not someone else's version of Jesus. But Jesus. Simply re-tweet.

See related post: A Different Approach to Evangelism

Monday, April 26, 2010

Why God's Grace is Better than Baseball.

I’m a baseball fan. I’ve been a baseball fan off and on ever since I played my first game of coach-pitch in my cut-off shorts in 1981. And unfortunately, I’m a Texas Rangers fan. Yes, I’m a fan of the team that’s never won a second-round playoff series. One reason for our misfortune is the New York Yankees. No, the Yankees are not in that division, but if the Red Sox beat the Yankees for the division title, the Yankees are usually the wild card team for the first round.

And why are the Yankees so great? The answer is easy. Money. Yes, M-O-N-E-Y. Cold cash. Greenbacks. Smackers. Somolians. Buckaroos. Clams. And in a league where there are not many restrictions on capitol, the team that has deep enough pockets to pay for all the top players, is the team that has the most success. This is no secret in baseball circles and the Yankees make no bones about having the funds to create baseball's most productive, perennial powerhouse. And what happens is other teams become breeding grounds for future Yankees.

Two of the most talented current Yankees are both former Rangers. The Rangers drafted and groomed Alex Rodriguez and when he outgrew his Texas-sized salary, he got traded to the Yankees. First baseman Mark Teixiera was drafted by the Rangers in the 5th round of 2001. When he really started playing like the player the Rangers needed, he moved on up to wear the Yankee blue after a couple of short stints in Atlanta and Anaheim. So the perennial pattern is that the Rangers world-famous farm system will prove to be a ripe field for the Yankees and other teams with deep pockets.

Were money like grace, infinitely abundant, baseball and a lot of other things would be different. But thanks be to God that it’s not. God’s grace is not rationed out in an unequal manner so that some people get a lot, and others get less or none. God’s grace is abundant. In Romans 6:1-7, Paul writes that grace is directly proportional to sin. The more we sin, the more grace we receive. But he goes on to say that we should not keep sinning just so that grace will abound! Paul also writes in I Corinthians 12:9 that God’s grace is sufficient for us. This doesn’t mean life will be perfect. This doesn’t even mean that all of our earthly needs will be met. But the grace that Christ’s salvation offers is something that can not be taken away—not even by death!

So the next time you see someone and feel like they’ve just been blessed by God beyond measure, (or when you see your favorite baseball team get trashed again by the Yankee blue,) before you start getting envious, remember that God’s grace is infinitely abundant and his grace is sufficient for me and you.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Celebrate Earth Day by Giving Thanks to God

"The earth is the Lord's and everything in it." So goes the first line of Psalm 24. In Genesis 1:20-31, and 2:8-17, we see the role God intended for people to play in the stewardship of creation. God made people so they could rule over the earth and animals as well as take care of them. According to the writer of Genesis, the earth was made first, then plants, then fish, then birds, then wild animals, livestock, and creatures that move on the ground, and finally...humans. There seems to be a hierarchy to the way things were designed. And the top of the list is us. And to quote Uncle Ben (not the rice guy, but Peter Parker's uncle), "With great power comes great responsibility."

But what has happened in our culture, as we take great strides to take care of the environment, we have, at times, created some new problems. If you are driving your car and realize you are across the yellow line and are headed in the wrong lane towards oncoming traffic, you can gently ease your way back into your lane, or you can abruptly jerk the wheel causing your vehicle to roll over, or go careening across the road into the ditches, mailboxes, telephone poles, and trees which were not meant for driving. Unfortunately, we have done a lot of the latter when it comes to the environment. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Most of us agree that increased dependence in fossil fuels is bad. Offshore drilling platforms are unsightly and do a lot do disrupt the delicate balance of life in the world's oceans. But once they are built, not only does life survive around them, but it thrives. By attempting to remove offshore oil rigs, there is a danger of disturbing new ecosystems that have developed around these drilling platforms.

Another attempt to reduce our dependence on petroleum has been the move towards corn-based ethanol as an alternative fuel for vehicles. When government subsidies encouraged farmers of all kinds to start producing corn for ethanol it sent the food market into a tail spin. Corn that had previously been produced for feed purposes and human consumption was now being raised for ethanol production. Farmers who had been raising other crops were attempting to "cash in" on the ethanol corn market. The cost of corn-based feeds for livestock went up, causing prices to rise across the food industry. Another problem was that as more and more land in the Midwest was developed for ethanol corn production, it was being done in areas that had once been natural wildlife habitats. So attempting to help the environment, created a new problem.

Hybrid cars have been a very popular (pricy, but popular) attempt to reduce the impact that gasoline-powered cars have on the environment. However, the production of these vehicles requires the use of some very rare earth metals, many of which are only found in China. So as hybrid vehicle production increases, so does the mining and removal of these rare metals, creating another problem.

The good thing about all this is that we have become an environmentally aware society. While we don't have all the answers to reduce our impact on the environment, at least we are doing something. But I'm afraid in an effort to become good stewards of the earth, many of us (Christians included) have become earth worshippers. Rather than utilizing the earth and caring for it the way God intended, we have made a diety out of "Mother Earth". Some of us have vilified people for driving SUVs or building large houses (even acting out violently with criminal activity). At what point is acting out in violence good for any cause?

I consider myself to be an environmentalist. I absolutely love the outdoors. I love living in the country with my dirt driveway. I love seeing the birds and the squirrels and the occasional deer come through my yard. I don't mind so much when the feral hogs dig up the front yard, because I'd rather have that than live in a small city lot. I love being in the woods watching the sun come up and listening to the world come alive. I enjoy collecting the chicken droppings and putting it in my compost pile and eventually putting it on the watermelons and cantaloupes I planted a couple of weeks ago. I can't stand it when I go fishing and I see all of the trash people have left by the banks of rivers and lakes. I also hate paying nearly $3 a gallon for gas. The finiteness of earth's resources is a problem we should strive to fix. To think that many of our strides to help our situation have only created more problems is a sobering thought. And if humanity's efforts thus far have been somewhat futile, what are we supposed to do?

Earth Day is a good place to start. But how should we celebrate/observe this Earth Day? Why don't we start by giving thanks to the one who has created everything, both seen and unseen. Going back to Psalm 24, after stating that God made the world and everything in it and that he established it upon the waters, David writes, "Who may ascend the hill of the Lord or be found in his holy place?" His answer to his rhetorical question is that the one who may ascend the hill of the Lord is the one who has clean hands, a pure heart, and does not lift his soul to an idol.

Let us celebrate Earth Day, not by worshiping the Earth, but by worshiping the one who made the earth and giving praise to him. Let's not get caught up in knee-jerk environmentalism where we do things just because they seem like a good ideas. Let us truly seek God and ask him how he would have us take care of the world he has given us. Maybe we should start recycling more. Maybe we should start walking more and driving less. Maybe we should purchase more biodegradable materials. But as we do this, let it be a spiritual discipline as part of the responsibility God has placed on us to be good stewards of the earth, not as an act of worship to our sacred "Mother". Let us give praise to the Creator of all things.

"Oh, God let us be a generation that seeks...that seeks your face, Oh God of Jacob."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Youth Ministry Rant-Ministers or Salespersons?

Do you ever feel like more of a salesperson and less like someone in youth ministry? If you're like me, you went into ministry to see lives changed for the better; to see students develop a passion for God, to see people change the world because God had changed them. But now it doesn't look anything like that. It's time for the next big event that will change the lives of your students and rather than signing them up at warp speed, you find yourself making phone calls and emails confirming that they are coming and that they have their money and forms filled out.

I've spent nine of the last eleven years doing full time youth ministry at two different churches. In the middle, though, I had a two-year stint as an insurance salesman...uh, I mean...agent. While the pay was good and showed promise of even better pay, this was one of the most difficult jobs of my life. Life insurance was our company's bread and butter. And every agent in the company understood the value of life insurance. The problem was convincing our clients that they needed life insurance and helping them realize that need so they would by it. So once you had a meeting with the client, you set up a follow-up meeting, then discuss all the reasons they need it and encourage them to buy it. Four years after leaving that job, I feel like I'm doing the same thing all over again...this time in ministry.

While it may not be true, it certainly feels like I'm trying to convince students why they need to be a part of our program. I'm trying to convince parents why they need to be active in our program. It's phone calls and emails. It's not about relationships, but about advertising. We are "selling" a deeper relationship with God at little or no cost and yet, we still have to persuade people as to why this is better than any of the dozens of other activities they can be involved in.

Maybe it's because we've become a society of consumers. Maybe it's because band camp, soccer camp, and church camp, all come with a price tag. I've read so many posts about the perils of program-based youth ministry. And yes, the program should not be our end goal. But we have to have structure and consistency to build relationships. We need events to enrich faith and provide opportunities for teaching. So why do I feel like my job as a youth minister is to peddle the youth program and its activities? I'm not sure but it's frustrating. If you have any answers, I covet your thoughts.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Nike and Tiger-An Image of God's Grace

Several weeks ago, I blogged about what Christians can learn from the Tiger Woods press conference (the first statements he made after the scandal hit the media). Since it's obvious this Tiger Woods debacle is not going away any time soon, I suppose I will jump back in and see what it is we can learn from the rest of this whole thing-especially since the guy is more famous now than he was before we found out the number of mistresses he had on the side was in the double digits.

As part of the whole scandal, Tiger lost a lot of notable advertising endorsements from companies who felt he no longer carried an image of integrity that they sought to promote to their audience. But Nike chose to stick by him; a move that was questioned by a lot of people.

But in Nike's latest commercial is an image of God's grace. Now, Tiger is not a Christian. He has been very open about his Buddhist beliefs. But I think the way Nike has handled the situation shows us how Christians should speak the truth in love when someone has fallen from grace.

When I found out Nike and others were keeping him on board, I suspected they would sweep the whole thing under the rug and act like it had never happened. But the latest Tiger commercial has absolutely nothing to do with golf, sports, competition, or athletic skill. It is all about integrity and choices. It eerily puts Tiger's dead-still mugshot staring blankly into the camera with a subtle blink of the eyes to let the viewers know it's actually a video all the while a recording of his deceased father questions him about his thoughts and choices.

In the church, when our brothers and sisters make choices, we are called to speak the truth in love. This doesn't mean ignoring sin, it is acknowledging that sin, but also forgiving and calling others to receive God's forgiveness and renew their commitment to God. In Romans 5-6, Paul reminds us that the law was given so we could know what sin was. And that grace is directly proportional to sin. So as sin increases, grace increases all the more. But we should not keep sinning so that we receive more grace. A fall from grace is a time to acknowledge what went wrong and make a change.

This whole experience has been incredibly humbling for the world's greatest golfer. Sin does that to us, it brings us to our knees and for those of us who believe, it should bring us to the foot of the cross. How do you handle those who have fallen from grace? How have you been treated when you've made mistakes?

Monday, April 5, 2010

How Do We Create Spiritual Growth?

As part of my job, I try to read articles and blogs by other youth workers and by current ministry publications. Youth Worker Journal often posts questions on their Facebook page asking questions from youth workers about issues they encounter. Today, the question was, "What challenges do you face in terms of spiritual growth?" As I sat there thinking about the question, I began to think about my own spiritual journey and the nature of growth in general.

There are many different kinds of growth-physical, intellectual, and emotional. There's the growth that occurs in a plant as it absorbs nutrients from the soil and converts sunlight into food. And so I asked myself, what is it that causes growth? Well, growth isn't really "caused" by least not any one factor. Growth occurs when a certain number of factors are all present at the same time and in the proper quantities. For a plant to grow, it needs nutritional soil, water, sunlight, and sometimes fertilizer, all in the proper amounts. For a growing child, a lack of food, water, shelter or clothing, could actually stunt the child's growth because certain basic needs are not being met.

In my own faith journey, the times of greatest spiritual growth came out of external circumstances that put me in a position where I needed him desperately. And out of those circumstances came periods of spiritual growth. So can we create spiritual growth? I think spiritual growth (like most other types of growth) is something that happens when the conditions are right. Just as a plant needs soil, water, and sunlight, so the Christian needs certain things for growth to occur. But we cannot make this growth happen. We need to create an environment for the growth to occur. In I Corinthians 3, the Apostle Paul addresses the issue of spiritual growth and acknowledges again that it is not something that we can create. Only God brings spiritual growth.

So what factors are important for spiritual growth?
1. Prayer
2. Bible Study
3. Involvement in a community of faith
4. Willingness to reach out to God when life gets rough
5. Circumstances that require dependence on God.

What would you add to this list? What things have spurred spiritual growth in your life? What problems inhibit your spiritual growth?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Let Your Yes be Yes" a Lesson from 24

33"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." --Matthew 5:33-37 NIV

One of my favorite TV shows is 24. And you might be surprised that my favorite character is not Jack Bauer (although he is pretty cool...I wish I could do all that stuff the same day I was stabbed in the gut and shot with a 9mm Uzi saved only by my Kevlar vest...but I digress). My favorite character is Chloe O'Brien. Here is what I love about Chloe O'Brien.
1. She always seems to be doing the right thing. If there is a choice to make, she will take the high ground in most cases.
2. She submits to authority. Unless it is absolutely necessary to disobey, Chloe does what her supervisors tell her to do.
3. Chloe is excellent at her job. Few people in her office realize how important she is to the function of CTU, especially in times of crisis. But when someone questions her, she is usually right, even if they don't always believe her.
4. She doesn't draw attention to herself. More than once in a season (sometimes in an episode), Chloe can be found proving someone wrong because they didn't trust her or believe in her and all along she knew more about what was going on than they did. When all is said and done, you don't find her gloating about how she was right and everyone else was wrong.

While the show is fictional, her character inspires me more than any on the rest of the show. While other people are deceitful and corrupt, or they are so arrogant about their position, Chloe is the one person who just does her job to the best of her ability and can always be counted on when things get rough. As Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount that we should not make promises to God or others that we cannot keep. We should be people of integrity and simply let our yes be yes and our no be no. Then when people need us in time of crisis, they don't have to worry if they can depend on us. So how do we do that in our own lives?

1. We should be dependable. Nobody likes a flake. Christians should be people who hold up our ends of commitments. We should be where we say we are going to be. I tell my youth that the more they prove to their parents that they can be trusted, the more their parents can trust them. It's the same way between adults. If people know we are Christians, they should know we can be trusted.

2. We should make good choices. While this certainly applies to sin, there are things that aren't necessarily sinful that are just bad choices. We should seek to have good judgment in all our decisions.

3. We should strive to excel in all our endeavors. Someone once told me "If anything is worth doing, it's worth doing right." It doesn't mean we have to be the world's greatest at everything we do, but if we are going to commit to do something, we should strive to do it well. As Paul taught the church at Corinth, we should do all things to the glory of God. While this applies to everything, I think it's especially true of things that involve other people. If we're serving on a committee, or working in an office with other workers we should do all things as unto the Lord.

4. We should not gloat when we prove someone wrong. One of the things about Jesus that is most likable, is he never says "I told you so." Even after Peter denied him three times, Jesus showed him love and grace.

What do you do to "let your yes be yes and your no be no?"