Recenty I had a conversation with Jenn Mikelait of Project Serve (a Youth Unlimited program) on how to add value to the lives of the people she's communicating to.
Still moving through a series on community, this post is a bit of a rabbit trail into some thoughts on how discipleship and youth ministry fit into my theology of community. I hadn't planned on writing it but the inspiration hit.
There's two things I'm told you're never supposed to talk about at a dinner party: politics and religion. I break that on fairly regular basis. There is however one thing I don't like talking about: money.
Now, as many of you may know, I have recently begun a support raising journey into a role with Youth Unlimited. What you may not know is how hard it was to get there.
As Tori and I have spent much of the last year wondering whether this was the right move for us, we had to seriously wrestle with the notion of putting ourselves out there on the charity of others. As a fairly extreme introvert who really doesn't feel comfortable in the spotlight, this was a bit of a mental stumbling block for me. Not only that, but I was raised to believe in letting my work speak for itself. "Work hard and you'll be rewarded for it," my good capitalist parents always told me. In my home, having to rely on others was not overtly considered a weakness, but it was something to avoid if one was able. And that's not to say that generosity wasn't important, in fact my parents have been both the recipients and the givers of great examples of generosity. As kids we were taught to be both grateful and generous with all that we had been given. But hard work was still the backbone of our family's histories and the value of earning a salary was something I learned to do at a fairly young age. Asking people for money was just not what I was raised to do. I didn't even feel comfortable asking someone for a drink of water when I was at their house.
Needless to say that entering into a support raising role would require a very different perspective than what I was working with.
The one thing that has been made very clear to me throughout this whole process has been a sense of calling. At every turn, whenever I expected there to be reasons not to move forward with this, there has only been a clarity of taking the next step. It is such a matching of who I am, who I've been becoming, my passions, my interests, my gifting, and my convictions. As one person recently told me, "everything about this sounds like God just teed it up perfectly for you."
But still, having to ask people for money...
Can't God just put it in my bank account or on my doorstep or have an unknown distant uncle leave me a bunch of money in his will?
Last winter I sat down with a good friend who works at YU and asked him to help me work through some of my anxiety over the support raising aspect. He explained the importance of finding people who not only believed in me but who would see themselves as being a part of this ministry as a result of their giving. That the goal was not simply finding financial donors, but building a team of ministry partners. A partner is someone who has a stake in what's happening because they care about it.
So, while money is important (my daughter really enjoys eating) what's more important is understanding this as both a calling and a sending. And while I may not be heading off to India or Poland or Hawaii, I am being sent.
And this will require a certain trust and vulnerability and dependency on others that I am still in the process of developing. I'm going to have to put myself out there and invite people to be a part of this wonderful, exciting, ambitious, terrifying call in my life and to consider sending me to be able to go and do it.
This means I have to start talking to people about money.
But I guess I'm really talking about a whole lot more.
Would you be interested in sending me by supporting me financially?
Join my mailing list and get regular updates on how things are going and ways to get involved.
Several weeks ago I participated in my fourth trip to Poland with a team of youth and young adults from our church. This trip is the result of a three-way partnership between us, a local Polish church in Rzeszów, and Josiah Venture. We have gone every other year since 2009 to host an English Camp as a sort of community outreach project for the local church's youth group. While I know short term missions has its criticisms (and I agree with many of them), it has been really amazing to partner with another church in another part of the world and see what God is up to in the lives of teenagers in a different context. Here's a few highlights from this year's trip.
It has been a very unique privilege to see change occur over a period of time on both a micro and a macro scale. Watching people grow into their gifts and passions and go from 13 year olds to young adults with some serious leadership gifting is something not everyone gets to see. Although I do get to experience this as a youth worker here in Canada, it's interesting getting to "check in" on change taking place in people's lives every two years. This is why I think if you're going to do short-term missions, do it with a long-term relationship.
Similarly, seeing the changes in the Polish lead team was nothing short of inspiring. When we first went back in 2009, our team was responsible for running most of the camp's program. This year, we honestly didn't even need to be there. They had an incredible team of young leaders who took the reigns of the program and pulled off a great week of camp. This is the first time I left Rzeszów feeling hopeful for the future and excited to see what comes next.
Now for something about our team. Another one of the reasons I like these sort of trips is because you learn things about yourself when you're serving in another context. The trip had it's share of unique challenges to overcome (Gastro outbreak abroad!) which I think forced many of us into some level of self reflection. Anyways, the absolute standout of the trip was one of our teens, Abbie Bauman. Initially apprehensive, I think she surprised herself at how well she connected relationally with her roommates. Throughout sickness and tiredness and pushing past comfort zones, Abbie stayed positive and energetic. She was a constant encouragement to the rest of the team.
This was also a year of transition for me. Although I don't know what the future holds in any degree of certainty, I realized that this will probably be my last English Camp (though I'm not done with Poland yet). So a huge highlight was bringing Katharina Keddy with us as team leader. It was so great to see her passion for Poland reignited (she was a Josiah Venture intern for a summer) and I am thrilled to see that this relationship between our churches is in good hands.
Honestly, despite a few setbacks and challenges, I think this may have been my favourite trip yet.
I was able to have some new experiences, visiting Tarnów and Zyblitowska Góra after camp was done. Huge thanks to my friends for hosting me and taking me around their lovely city and showing me a bit of life through their eyes. It ended with a beautiful view of the city at night sitting in the ruins of an old castle on a hill. Looking forward to going back and visiting there again.
In Zakopane they also took me up a mountain by lift. I've never done that before so that was great.
I bought prayer beads in Pope John Paul II's hometown. Also known for it's cream cake.
I got to share some thoughts on the importance of tables to the story of God and how we're invited to cooperate in building the Kingdom together.
Over the last few years I have been building friendships that I count among some of the best people I've ever met. Poland no longer feels like a foreign country, it's more like a second home and I chalk most of that up to my friends who welcome me into their lives. I learned so much from them over those two weeks. Conversations that I didn't want to end left me feeling inspired and excited for them and all the good that they're doing in Poland. Seriously, these people are amazing.
As always, it was sad to leave but I left feeling good about things. Our team, the ongoing partnership, and most importantly what God is doing in Poland.
Thanks for supporting,
"They were all amazed and praised God, exclaiming, 'We’ve never seen anything like this before!'"- Mark 2
This is a youth ministry post.
Just warning you up front in case you thought it was about home renovations or something.
There was this time a few years ago when I arrived home after work to discover that my family was missing, the front door was locked, and the spare key had failed to find its way back to its hiding place. I wandered around back to check the door into our basement but it was locked as well. I was quite hungry and didn't feel like waiting around until my family got home so I did what any normal teenage boy would do and broke in through the bathroom window, really hoping that none of my neighbours mistook me for a suburban home invader and called the cops. It was a tight squeeze and a bit of an awkward entry face first onto the toilet seat; but I made it through, celebrating my success over a bowl of President's Choice Mac and Cheese.
At that time in my life, I wasn't about to let a locked door keep me from getting my dinner.
So there's this great story about Jesus that's written down in Mark 2. He's staying at someone's home in Capernum and we're told that this house was so packed with people that there was no more room. It was so full that the crowd was spilling right out the doors. It reminds me of a time I was at a music festival where the organizers didn't realize a particular band's popularity and had them in far too small of a tent. Security had to start turning people away because there was just no more space and it was getting pretty crazy in there. It was hot, sweaty, and packed full of dancing fans.
I'm sure this is what Mark was experiencing when he wrote, "and many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door." It's in the subtext.
Anyways, here we read that Jesus is in the middle of teaching the crowd when four guys show up carrying their paralyzed friend on a stretcher wanting to get him inside to Jesus. They can't do it though, there's no way to get past the crowds. I can just imagine their frustration after carrying their friend all that way only to find they can't even get to the door. Well, these four guys were determined to see Jesus, so rather than turning and heading home or waiting until some space cleared up, they hoisted their friend up onto the roof of the house and cut their own way in.
I am in love with their tenacity.
They were getting in, one way or another.
You can't get very far in the youth ministry world these days without coming across some study, book, or blog post discussing the crisis over young people leaving the church. It's nothing new and there's no shortage of words spent on the topic so I won't say much more on that. That's not really what this post is about anyways. Suffice to say it's something we all have to deal with.
The connection I would like to make is between this crisis and the story of those four men and their friend.
Youth ministry was created in a declining Christian culture. By that I mean, most of the models and practices that have come to typify youth ministry as we know it were made during the tail-end of Christendom in the West. Particularly North America. Especially the United States.
The problem? Christendom is over.
Now, I live and work in Canada, an expressly Post-Christian nation. What does this mean exactly? I think Stuart Murray says it the best. "The culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.” It cannot be stressed enough how important this is to the future of the Western Church.
To put it simply, Christianity no longer has a seat at the table.
So why is this a problem? Because the cultural framework that we are working within no longer resembles the one that most of youth ministry as we know it was built around. Our ministry models were established on certain premises, assumptions, and conceptions that no longer exist outside of our churches. Not only that, but because of this shift we may need to consider if it is precisely these models and practices of youth ministry that are preventing teenagers from encountering Jesus.
In the Mark 2 story the door to Jesus was blocked. What seems like a perfectly good door is no longer useable. Everyone inside used that door. For them, it still makes sense that the way to Jesus is through that door. But for the four friends it didn't work, and it's important to notice that it's because people were in the way. We may need to honestly evaluate what's preventing teenagers in our context from discovering Jesus. Is it our programs? Is it our doctrines? Is it us?
The way to Jesus for these young friends was to do something that no one expected, they went up on the roof and made their own door. They put it all on the line, risking their reputations, their safety, what's considered socially acceptable, and even someone else's property all because they were driven by a desperation to get their friend to Jesus. Are we, as youth workers, desperate for teenagers to get to Jesus or are we just busy trying to get them to join our youth groups?
To my friends in youth ministry,
It's time for us to risk. It's time for us to get desperate. It's time for us to begin to imagine new ways of moving forward.
We can't afford not to.
We can't be content with seeing teenagers turn around at the door because the way in isn't working for them.
I am so thankful for those who are stepping out and engaging in this conversation and breaking new ground. Please take the time to check out voices like Rich Atkinson and Brock Morgan, two people who are addressing this topic.
I'm planning on posting about my own context soon. The questions we've been asking and the experiments we're trying. I would love to hear more about what others are doing in theirs.
I’m pretty confident Jesus wouldn’t last long in my job.
Besides supplying alcohol at parties and breaking church property, he also kind of sucked at the getting kids 'saved' part.
Don’t believe me? Just check out his exchange with "the rich, young ruler” in Mat 19, Mark 10, or Luke 18. Maybe you’ve heard it.
A young man comes running up to Jesus with a question, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" [Translation, how can I make sure I’m on God’s guest list when I die?]
His question is typical of a young man who has grown up with privilege and who is familiar with the workings of religion. He lives a life of financial security, probably wanting for very little, and now he wants to secure his spot in the afterlife as well. Now, we don’t know why this young man seeks out Jesus at this time. We have no back story, nothing to indicate what occurred in his life that got him thinking about what happens after he dies. All we know is that this is what’s on his mind and he’s come to the one place he believes he can find an answer to his spiritual dilemma.
This is it Jesus.
A young person is looking to have religious dialogue. It’s the moment every youth pastor dreams about. You know what to do.
- Break out your Romans Road and lead the guy through the steps towards salvation.
- Have him invite you into his heart.
- Ask him if he’s made you his personal Lord and saviour.
Jesus doesn’t do any of that. Instead, he dances around the question by sort of throwing it back at him with a list of commandments. Basically,
“Just do what the bible says.”
Real helpful Jesus.
Then, just when the guy is starting to feel as though he's doing pretty well on the whole commandment thing, Jesus lobs a bomb into the conversation.
“There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
You had to go and bring the whole social justice bit into this didn't you?
In the end, Jesus doesn’t even answer his initial question at all. Instead, what he does is expose the flaw in his worldview. He cuts right through this guy's checklist mentality by inviting him into the very present reality of the Kingdom of God. Where this guy wanted to secure an eternal future, Jesus ignored that and invited him into the present. Where this guy is interested in gaining self assurance, Jesus challenges him to give away his privilege. Where this guy was looking for a simple answer, Jesus just lets him walk away confused.
This is how I know Jesus probably wouldn't make it as a youth worker. I mean, this kid clearly grew up in the church - his parents are probably on a committee or something - and here he is looking for eternal assurance and Jesus lets him walk away without even giving him a straight answer. I can just hear the phone calls...
Yet I'm wondering if there's something we can learn from this as we try to disciple students today.
This young man has a lot in common with young people that grow up in a rural, suburban context. Often, those that come from a similarly privileged and/or religious upbringing are looking for the same thing - a spiritual checklist so that they can be sure that they're in. For many of them, religion can be boiled down to a list of dos and don'ts that secure a place for them in heaven. They're wanting us to assure them that they're on the right track, that they've been checking off the right things, that their eternal future is secure.
I think there's a reason that Jesus then turned to his friends and said that it was very difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God; and I think it directly involves what he said to this young man that he found so frustrating. When Jesus talked about entering the Kingdom it turns out that he wasn't talking about gaining access to something, it had far more to do with participation in. And this is where it gets so difficult for so many of us.
Participation confronts our privilege because it requires giving it up for the sake of others.
Participation confronts our religion because it says that later is not as important as right now.
Participation confronts our checklist mentality because it asks something of us that doesn't end.
Participation confronts our desire for simple answers because it's not really an answer at all - it's an invitation into life.
I believe that we may need to evaluate what's at stake here.
If our young people are struggling to find a faith that matters it could be because they have yet to understand that Jesus is inviting them to participate in the work of the Kingdom, not simply ensuring them that they're in it. When we as youth workers spend all our time mastering our soteriological formula, we may get more hands in the air; but I wonder if we're truly challenging students with the life change that Jesus is all about. If we really want to see students embrace a faith that lasts beyond each youth night, we may need to be willing to step out past what's comfortable and easy for us.
What might our youth ministries look like if we started offering less answers and more opportunities for young people to participate in the Kingdom of God together? How might our students respond if we stopped giving them what they wanted and began to explore what Jesus is calling them into?
Confession: I've spent the last 48 hours immersed in a fairly substantial theological debate with myself. The topic, why is Jesus God and does it even matter?
It's got me running down all sorts of fun mental rabbit trails and writing furiously in my notebook. I've been obsessively flipping through books and jumping through scripture like I'm researching a talk or writing a paper. I even texted a couple friends asking what they think.
In the process I realized something about myself,
I prefer theology to doctrine.
What exactly do I mean by that?
Well, it all comes down to what I'm talking about when I say theology and doctrine. Here, theology can be understood as the study of the nature of God; where doctrine is defined as a belief or set of beliefs held by a religious organization. Turns out the two, while similar in theory, are worlds apart in practice.
Where one is dynamic, the other is static. Where one is flexible, the other is rigid. Where one you actively engage in, the other you passively adhere to.
Theology is exciting to me.
It brings new life to my faith and pushes me deeper in my ever-expanding awareness of God. It invites me into a larger conversation with all sorts of other people asking the same questions that I am, exploring God together, and interacting with all those who have come before us.
Doctrine, on the other hand, has no room for any of that.
Instead of a conversation, doctrine only offers repetition. Rather than welcoming questions, doctrine insists on conformity. While theology is like going on a journey, doctrine is more like being sent to boot-camp.
That's what I mean when I say I prefer theology over doctrine.
It's also my personal conviction that if we hope to engage this generation in spiritual matters we need to invite them to do theology with us, not just hand them doctrines from us - which it turns out is a really hard thing for most of us operating inside the institutional churches to accept. Probably because we're so afraid that our doctrinal conclusions will somehow be compromised that we're unwilling to explore the questions that brought us to them in the first place. The only problem is that these are the same questions that young people are asking whether we want them to or not. Our role should be to help them discover how to answer these questions for themselves in a safe space that embraces the conversation.
After all, this is a generation that has been taught to 'show their work' and 'cite their sources' since grade school. They're hard-wired to figure out how to get to the answer. Simply knowing the conclusion doesn't come close to cutting it for them... and it shouldn't be satisfactory for us either.
Sometimes I wonder if the real reason that those of us within the church fear theological conversation with this generation is because we only know how to recite the doctrinal statements that we've been taught. We're well-read on leadership principles and business models and however many habits highly successful people have these days; but we're theologically shallow. So we avoid the questions because we have no idea how to get to the answer.
How did we get here?
I believe it's because we've let our reliance on doctrine replace our need for theology. It is far easier to just be told what to think than it is to learn how. I'm just not sure the cost for our complacency is worth it and I'm certain it won't be enough for an entire generation of young people who desire to be part of the conversation.
Oh, by the way, if you're wondering which of the two you prefer, just note your reaction when I first told you I was asking if Jesus was God and if it even mattered.