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NYWC Atlanta 2012: Part 1

17 Nov

There’s nothing like a National Youth Workers Convention to jump-start my blogging!  So, I will once again attempt to record my thoughts, observations, and notes here…should anyone be interested in reading them.

I came a day early for the pre-convention spiritual retreat, “Coming Home: An Invitation to Rest in God” led by Mark Yaconelli.  This also gives me a chance to scout the lay of the land before the rest of our group comes up tomorrow.

This is the first time I’ve been to an NYWC in Atlanta that wasn’t at the World Congress Center.  At first I was very disappointed in the new location of the conference, but once I got here I fell in love with it!  The Atlanta Marriott Marquis is beautiful, well laid-out, and has great access to plenty of food options that are reasonably priced.  In fact, I can walk from the parking garage to the hotel to the Peachtree Center Mall without ever stepping foot outside!  I can see definite advantage in having the conference in the hotel!  It takes 30 seconds to get up to my room!

Now…on to more weighty matters.  My first day of retreat was very meaningful.  The Lord has spoken to me and revealed to me some deep things about myself.  We spent the day exploring the idea of “coming home,” with God being the one who is always “at home” in our lives.  We are the prodigals who wonder away and need to come back home to the Father.  We explored our childhood memories of home, we wrestled with the deep fears and longings of our hearts, and we laid ourselves bare to Jesus’ loving attention.   I really can’t write any more on this until I have some time to sit with it.

Finally, let me say that I’m thankful the bookstore wasn’t actually open for purchasing anything.  I gave it a very thorough look over, and if I could buy anything right now, I’m sure I’d blow a small fortune!  There are so many great resources and books there for student ministry and personal growth.  So, I’m now going to spend some time narrowing down my selections!  Tomorrow is going to be great!


Stand Firm in the Faith!

30 Sep

I have continued to meditate on 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 over the last several weeks, but have fallen down on the job of blogging about it.  These two verses are a series of brief, pointed commands.  And I believe that they outline some of the key elements to being a strong disciple of Jesus in today’s world.

Here it is in the Holman Christian Standard Bible translation:

“Be alert, stand firm in the faith, act like a man, be strong. Your every [action] must be done with love.”  –1 Corinthians 16:13-14

“Stand firm in the faith” has taken on new meaning for me as I have been following the story of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani in Iran over the past several days.  This young Iranian pastor has refused to recant his faith in Christ.  As a result today the Iranian courts have sentenced him to death.  Whether this will stand, or will be repealed, remains to be seen.  The international community has risen up in united outrage over this blatant violation of basic human rights.  With this outcry and God’s people in earnest prayer, hopefully Pastor Nadarkhani will indeed be released.

This man is a living example of what it means to “stand firm in the faith.”  He willingly risks losing his life for the sake of the Gospel of Christ.  He would rather die than deny his Lord and Savior.  THAT is true faith!  C.S. Lewis once said,

“You never know how much you really believe anything
until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.”

I hope that you will join me in prayer for Pastor Nadarkhani and all Christians facing persecution for their faith.  Here are some other things you can do with your church and youth group:

  • PRAY with your youth, Sunday School class, and church.
  • Educate them with help from Voice of the Martyrs and many other organizations out there.  I’ve recently discovered a powerful documentary entitled Love Costs Everything.  Below is the trailer:
  • Discuss with your group the difference it would make if they lived in a place where being a Christian was dangerous.  How do they stand firm in their faith?  How does that compare to how people like Pastor Nadarkhani stand firm in the faith?

Recognize Your Roots

28 Nov

This blog is a long time in development, thanks to my constant distraction by a little person who has taken up residence in our house.  😉  But, better late than never!

You know the old expression, “You can’t go home again”?  Well, back in September, I did just that!  I enjoyed having the honor of preaching on “Homecoming Sunday” at the church where I grew up.  It was more than a little surreal riding into that parking lot in the back seat of my parents’ car…the only thing that would have made it even more nostalgic would be a good old-fashioned Sunday morning argument between my brother and me.  But once I stepped into the church building, it became clear that this wasn’t a trip back in time.

Seeing your childhood church through adult eyes is a sobering experience.  I haven’t been inside that building in 15 years.  It seemed smaller to me.  There were many welcome updates to the facilities, bringing it into the 21st century.  Many of the old feautres I remember were no longer there…the old 1950’s water fountain downstairs, the bamboo-print curtains in the men’s bathroom that acted as toilet stall “doors,” and the old memeograph machine.  But what trully suprised me where the things that hadn’t changed…namely the people.  I saw men and women who played such crucial parts in my childhood and adolescent faith formation.  Sunday School and VBS teachers, RA leaders (Royal Amabassadors, a Southern Baptist missions organization for boys), Deacons, and other men and women who simply loved and supported me and encouraged me in my calling to the ministry.

This church was the place I accepted Christ as my Savior, was baptized, embraced God’s calling on my life, was liscensed to preach and ordained into the ministry.  I preached my first sermon there, taught my first class, was incharge of my first church-related event, and held my first church job.  It’s because of one summer spent as an interim youth minister that I’m in youth ministry today!  This was, as they say, where it all began!

And to be back there after all these years, married and with a baby just a few weeks away…was more than a trip down memory lane.  It was an opportunity to revisit my roots, to see where I came from, to remember the formative years of my faith, and to say “Thank You” to those whom God used to teach me the basics of His word, and the power of His love.

But it was also, I believe, an important trip for the people at that church.  How often do Christian men and women poor their time, energy, heart, and tithes into the lives of children and youth and never see the fruit of their labors?  How many times have I as a youth minister wondered whether I was making any difference?  How rewarding is it for me to see my students continue to grow in their faith development and remain faithful to the local church through college and beyond?  How powerful is it when a former youth enters the ministry or even comes back home to become a youth worker?  Well, the people of my childhood church were able to see exactly that.   And it was an affirming and rewarding experience to be able to thank them and relate to them that they were in deed making a difference.

What about you?  Where do you trace back your spiritual roots?  Who were the men and women who believed in you, who saw something in you you couldn’t even see in yourself, who dared to trust you enough to give you a pulpit for a Sunday or entrust you with a church van and 14 kids for the first time? 

I encourage you to find the time to visit those people, to return to your spiritual “birthplace” and thank those people.  Let them share in the joy of your labors, tell them stories of lives changed through your ministry, laugh (and cry) about old times, and dream about the future.  It will be a blessing to you and to them.  And maybe, just maybe, down the road some young person will seek you out and do the same!

Attempting to Bridge the Gap

21 Jul

You can’t blame people for behaving in ways you’ve taught them to behave.  And you can’t get mad when people fail if you’ve set them up to fail.

I’m beginning to realize that we’ve set-up a lot of church people to fail (especially teenagers and their families).  And I’m finding myself getting frustrated for how people behave, when they’re only doing what I–as a youth minister–have taught them to do.  Let me give you the most recent example:

Last Wednesday night, I decided to bring our youth up to join the adults in their Wednesday night Bible Study because my good friend & our Minister of Education, David Walker, was going to do a study on the idea of being created in God’s image.  As we talked about it I commented on how appropriate that would be for our students to hear.   This summer we’re taking a more casual and laid-back approach to our Wednesday night youth program anyway, so why not do something radical and merge with the adults for one night?

I got the word out through Facebook, texts and phone calls to our students.  With our summer-time attendance slump, I was expecting at least 10 or 12 show up and couldn’t wait to see how impressed our adults would be with the depth of insight they could bring to the discussion!

Guess how many showed up?  Lower…lower…there ya go!  ONE. Yep, that’s right.  And it was our minister of music’s daughter. We even had a couple of youth there for supper with their family get up and leave to help work with the children’s program.

But as I sat there frustrated and discouraged, I realized that we have set-up our students for this very fall.  We have been operating a youth ministry built more out of what Mark Yaconelli calls “adult anxiety and teen angst,” and this was  a perfect example of teen angst.  It frustrated me because if we had met as usual in the Warehouse for youth Bible Study we would have had a decent group.  But because we were going to join the adults up in the “big church” they stayed away as if we were hosting a missionary showing mission trip slides!

This is a problem that MUST be fixed! The “generation gap” must be bridged!

And we are taking “baby steps” to do just that.  One thing we’re doing more of is family-based events instead of just planning multiple events for adults, children, and youth that just end up competing with each other for buses and calendar dates.  Tonight, in fact, we are taking a whopping 44 people to see the Atlanta Braves play!  We’ve promoted it as FBC Family Night @ Turner Field.  We have whole families going together…parents, teenagers, and younger siblings.

It’s a youth event…no, it’s a children’s event…no, its a FAMILY event!

Bridging the Gap!

And in a couple of weeks we’re transforming our annual Youth Lake Day to a Family Lake Day.  We’re hoping we’ll have families of all kinds come: those with small children, teenagers, or no children at all.  We’re having a fish fry that we hope will help even bring out our senior adults.

They’re not world-changing, earth-shattering events.  But they’re baby steps in helping our adults be less anxious about being with teenagers, and helping our youth feel less angst about chillin’ at the lake with our older generations.  I feel as Kara Powell does in the latest issue of Immerse where she said,

“I’m inspired by churches that are realizing that the Kingdom is more than separate adult and kids’ tables; it’s followers of all ages who feast together on the goodness of God’s Kingdom and invite others to join the celebration.”

I want our church to be one of those churches.  I look forward to sharing more about our adventures in “attempting to bridge the gap.”

How’s Your Youth Ministry Environment?

29 May
Parents Backyard

An Environment for Life and Growth

I’m spending Memorial Day at my parents’ house.  Over the past several years they have transformed their normal, blah backyard practically into a wildlife refuge!  They tore down their deck and created a serene water garden with a waterfall, rich landscaping, and 5 birdfeeders with a variety of feed.  Just sitting here this morning we saw the following: 3 frogs, a red-tailed hawk, a rabbit, about 20 species of bird, and of course their 4 Koi fish.   We joke that it might qualify as a protected wetland!

As I reflected on this abundance of wildlife flourishing right outside the windows, I thought about why so much life is drawn and nurished in my parents’ backyard.  It’s because they have created an environment that both draws and sustains life.  It’s more than just pretty flowers and birdfeeders…it’s a place that nourshes and protects as well.

How does my youth ministry compare?  What kind of environment are we creating for students?  Are we creating the kind of spiritual and relational environment that both draws students in and sustains, nourishes, and protects?

You know the old saying, “How you get them is how you keep them.”  There is truth there.  It’s one thing to draw students in with lots of smoke and mirrors—games, concerts, food, wacky stunts, etc.  But how do you keep them coming week after week?  And are you offering anything that nourishes their souls, or are you just giving them spiritual junk food?!

My goal is to create an environment where young people are welcomed, accepted, and known.  I want to provide a nourishing place for their souls and a place where they feel safe to explore questions of life and faith with caring adults who can help guide them.

What kind of environment are YOU creating for your youth?

Experiential Worship Services, Part 2

6 May

For most of my life I thought that the best and most biblical way of conveying the precious truths of the faith was through preaching/teaching.  And by preaching/teaching I mean lecturing. It was how all of my previous pastors, youth ministers, and Sunday School teachers did it.  It was the way all the camp pastors, guest evangelists, and featured speakers at conferences did it.  Wasn’t it the way Jesus and the Old Testament Prophets did it?

Now THAT is the question.  And HERE is the answer:  NO!  If you look at the teaching methods of Jesus, He did speak a lot (hence all the red letters!) but when He spoke it was usually in the form of stories, question and answers, and explaining object lessons.

  • Jesus loved object lessons–whithering fig trees, fields of grain, water wells, stormy seas, unleavened bread, wine, money in fish mouths, etc.
  • And Jesus loved stories: good Samaritans, prodigal sons, foolish and wise builders, weddings, and treasures buried in fields.
  • Even the Prophets used stories and object lessons, and visual displays…weird things like eating scrolls, lying around on your side naked for years, wearing yokes around your neck, and stories about rich men killing and eating their neighbors pet lamb.

In fact, many of the teaching methods of Jesus and the prophets were very hands-on, multi-sensory experiences that involved food and drink!  Take the feeding of the 5,000…or the woman at the well…turning water into wine…or, naturally, the Passover meal.  They obviously understood something that many of us in the Church have forgotten—people are more than just empty minds waiting for us to poor information into.  People also have bodies…hands and feet and eyes and mouths…full of billions of nerve endings and sensory receptors that convey information as well as (or even better than?) the ears!  So why not use all the senses in teaching?  Why not involve the WHOLE PERSON in telling and retelling the stories of the faith?

And so as part of our great experiment this year, we observed a Seder Passover Meal as a student ministry.  We timed it to coincide with Holy Week and our Storying of the Last Lord’s Supper in our Bible Storying process.  It couldn’t have timed out better!  Imagine students hearing the story of the Last Supper, then experiencing it in a Seder Meal together the next week, then going through a “Walk to Golgotha” Prayer Experience the next week, and then after celebrating Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday storying through the Death and Resurrection!  If they don’t get it after all of that…well, we’ve got issues to say the least!

This was such an amazing experience for our students and adults.  Not only was it multi-sensory, but it was completely emersive, totally collaborative (everyone was involved), celebratory yet serious, and it was intensely worship and thoughtful.  We sang together, retold the story of the Exodus, read Scriptures, prayed, served each other, retold the Last Supper, and worshiped the Risen King.

Many of our students commented how fun and interesting it was.  And for some, that may be as much as they got out of it.  But several more talked about the connections between the first Passover and how Jesus fulfills so much of that story–how He is our Passover Lamb.  Many were amazed at how much of the Seder Meal is fulfilled in Jesus, and some even wondered out loud how any Jewish person could celebrate this meal and NOT see the connections with Jesus!  The meal certainly raised good questions and provided opportunity for great discussion and reflection.

If you are interested in doing a Seder Passover meal with your students (or your whole church) visit this link for an indispensable resource to help you plan and take a group through the experience.

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Experiential Worship Services, Part 1

28 Apr

I’m tired of being a program director!  I’m tired of being a glorified cruise director!  God has called me to be a DESIGNER, not a programmer…a Designer of opportunities for students to experience spiritual growth and transformation.  WE don’t cause that growth or change…God does.  But we are to partner with God in that process.  We can create environments where growth is likely to occur.  We can create opportunities for transforming experiences to happen.  

That has been the goal of our student ministry this year.  We’ve been experimenting this year with several hands-on, experiential, multi-sensory and collaborative approaches to discipleship and worship with our students. 

We’ve been employing a “Storying” approach to teaching Scripture, taking all school year to walk students through 22 key stories of the Bible in order.  We began with Creation back in August, and this week have concluded with the story of Restoration/New Creation.  It has been a fascinating experience for us, and a valuable one for the students.  Each week we review the overall Story up to that point, narrate the new story, the students do a creative retelling of that story, and then we spend time in small groups discussing the story’s implications for us and how it fits into the larger Story. 

We have also had some experiential worship opportunities using Prayer Stations and a Seder Meal.  Below are some pictures from the “Follow the Star” prayer stations.  We used Lilly Lewin and Dan Kimball’s excellent resource Sacred Space to plan and prepare this worship experience.  I highly recommend this book w/ resource CD.  It explains very well the ideas behind and benefits of this form of worship and learning as well as helps you through the process of preparing these kinds of experiences.  They include over 15 different themed worship experiences, each consisting of anywhere from 3 to 10 different parts/stations.  

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It was a powerful and moving experience taking down these stations, reading the things students wrote on the strips of duct tape about the things in life that keep them stuck in their spiritual walk, the prayer requests they put on the world map, and the things they said they would do less of and do more of in the next year to help them better “follow the star” of Jesus.  

It’s amazing how middle and high school students can surprise you with their depth and how seriously the take their Christian faith and walk with God!  We seldom give students opportunities to wrestle with these issues and express their struggles and hopes and fears.  But they need these opportunities.    And as youth ministers, we’re called to design these kinds of opportunities for spiritual growth and transformation.  Here are some invaluable resources that are transforming how we approach student worship and discipleship.  I can’t recommend these to you too highly!  They are revolutionary.  



In my next post, I’ll talk about the Seder Meal experience and share some pictures.  And then I’ll wrap up this mini-series of blogs with some of the thoughts from our students about our process this year.