When the Giants in your life are your fellow staff

A funny thing happend at the YS Unconference this past week.

A veteran youth worker had recently been told that he was teaching wrong and that he had been for years. His example came from teaching about David and Goliath and offering a look at the biblical text, setting in context and then transitioning to talking with his students about the giants in their lives…what seems to threaten their very existence and faith. He told stories of rich conversations and it being a great time with teens leaning into reliance on God when something seems insurmountable. The critique came not in that he moved to application of the principles from the passage regarding David and Goliath, rather that he did not make it end with Jesus nor tie it to the death, burial and crucifixion of Jesus in some way.

He was sincerely struggling and questioning whether he had been teaching wrong all along as he was increasingly running into leaders, in particular young (and by young I mean late 20’s – early 40’s) leaders that taught all teaching must be directly or indirectly about Jesus to be legitimate in a Christian church. In fact, it seems after 20+ years in youth ministry, he now finds himself serving with a ministerial staff which is split on whether this is or is not the only way to bring about formational teaching in a ministry.

There seems to be a sort of sick obsession with Jesus in certain circles. I am acutely aware that this very sentence that I just wrote can be taken wildly out of context but there it is. It is an obsession that sounds so good as we seek to be followers of Christ when in reality it distorts scripture, context and deems one hermeneutical lens as THE hermeneutical lens. It denies the Trinity, belittles the Old Testament and offers a truncated version of what it means to join the great cloud of witnesses who came before us. Our teenagers deserve better than this.

I hope the youth pastor who was sharing felt affirmed by the end of our time in the circle. In our small group, clearly all but one were appalled and trying to encourage him. The one who seemed in full agreement with those who said “Jesus Only”. Interestingly, this one man was so confident in what he held, that he simply made his statement then turned to texting rather than offering any pastoral presence or response. Apparently “Jesus Only” also means dropping your statements of absolute truth like a declarative wall to either surmount or to keep you out.

Be encouraged my new friend…this too is a Giant that with the help of God (including the entire Trinity) you will be able to slay!

Going Deep and Increasing Numbers

Smoke_and_Mirrors

I feel like I have had this conversation no less than one hundred times, feels more like a thousand.

Youth workers who are doing the best they can. ANd yes, I get it, there are youth workers who need more training or better time management or possibly to consider another path in life.  Regardless, they are doing the best they can in that moment but they have no idea what priority to pursue.

They are told to offer something deep, something of substance in response to Chris Smith’s Moral Therapeutic Deism. The pendulum has swung (if their pastor or committee has at all read Soul Searching) and they freak out. They want depth and solid teaching. Curriculum in the youth ministry world came dangerously close to dropping the trinity altogether and embracing a Jesus only perspective, if not officially, functionally in response to MTD.

Before youth workers can process this high calling, they are reminded that numbers are what is key to them keeping their job. That without teens present, there is no reason to pay them for ministry. Then come the weird expectations of 20+ hours/week of facetime in the office, to only cooperate with other youth pastors from their same tradition and to be certain that they are connecting all over the community. (Even though none of the other pastors have this requirement.)

The conversation to which I am referring begins with “how do I do both, go deep and invest in the teens I have AND please my pastor, committee and be involved in every possible outreach/incarnational option available”? All too often it is ending with “how do I get out”?

Talented, young Jesus loving leaders not only need to have balance modeled for them, they need to be told it is OK, actually good for them too. We have set a standard that says if you don’t give your very life (and too often this means your personal life, your marriage, healthy relationships with your own kids, etc.) that you can’t possibly be doing God’s work. I also hear from many of them working 2-3 jobs just to make ends meet and being told they are too materialistic or don’t have their priorities straight. How silly they are, health insurance is such a luxury not to mention your own car and home.

I have never been a senior pastor, don’t ever plan to be. What I do know is that teenagers are vital in the kingdom. That God loves them dearly and it is a slap in God’s face to not care for them with equally as much devotion and intentionality as we do adults. (I could say the same for children but that’s another day.) I am grateful for the many senior pastors who get this. They are a light of hope that others will too. I just wish they would talk with their other senior pastor friends.

So I am curious, how would you answer the questions about going deep AND increasing numbers? What is the balance? What are practical steps that have worked and which ones were smoke and mirrors?

Would a homosexual youth rather kill themselves than come to your church?

When called to youth ministry, many people talk of longing for teenagers to know Christ. To know that there is a place where they will be accepted no matter what. For a long time, Young Life even had the motto “Every kid, everywhere.” I can’t help but wonder if we really mean this. Or do we mean we will welcome you into our group as long as you either a) already look and act like you belong here or b) quickly change to look and act like you belong.

I have long loved the passages of scripture that talk about Jesus pursuing us. The ones that talk about His longsuffering and unconditional love. I then think of Ephesians 5:1. Our imitation of Him has been poor at best. At least when it comes to loving those who are deemed by some as less than worthy. I have written a great deal in the past about issues surrounding racism, sexism and teens with disabilities. We still have work to do on inclusion in each of these arenas. Sexual orientation must be included in the conversation. Our young people are having the conversation, the question becomes whether they are having it with or without us.

There is (at least) one important difference between these important issues and that of sexual orientation. Regarding racism and teens with disabilities, for example, I have never met, heard of nor read about any young person saying they would rather kill themselves than share who they believe themselves to be with their youth group of church. Regarding the issue of sexual orientation, I have heard this repeatedly in the past two years. By no means is a struggle with sexual identity the only reason teens are attempting and completing suicide, but it is one, and knowing one that is preventable is a sin if we do not seek to prevent it. “Anyone,then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.” James 4:17

There are news stories replete with the grim realities for many young people today. Rolling Stone offered a particularly poignant word picture of one communities struggle earlier this year. Suicide is on the rise. It is currently the third leading cause of death for young people. Even more alarming is the rate at which LGBT young people are choosing to attempt and complete suicide.

There is a new album scheduled to drop tomorrow from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis tomorrow called¬†The Heist.¬†In particular there is a song named “Same Love” (see below) that has been getting a lot of attention. There is no shortage of critique and reference to faith throughout the song and in particular the video. It however, does not bash of the church, but rather offers a picture of how the influence of faith weaves into the life of one man from birth to death swirling around his life and homosexuality. It is offering a positive ending, a snapshot of a life that is wholesome and faithful. It offers what many of our young people are looking for.

With the portrayal offered in this video as a norm for many of the teens in our youth groups and for even more teens who are not a part of any ministry where we serve, how then do we enter the conversation?