blue-door-feet-598005-o90% of your students are going to walk away from Christianity and the Church after High School?

There has been a lot written lately about what is going on with our students and why are they leaving the church in record numbers after they graduate from college.  It seems to me that this is a problem that has been around forever, or at least since I graduated from high school.  (Back when Pearl Jam was King!)

What would it look like if we quit wringing our hands about this awful statistic and accepted this as reality.

Everything I have read says that part of the adolescent journey is separating their identity from their family and faith of origin and develop an independent identity.   This process of individuation is understanding who they are, where they belong, and if they matter.  And these questions can not be done under the thumb of their parents, or their parent’s youth pastor.

So, If 70% to 90% of my students are going to push back from the faith of their childhood during late adolescence, then what is my response going to be?

It seems like blaming the church, youth ministry, the culture, whatever doesn’t move this conversation forward.  Maybe there needs to be a different framing question to move this conversation forward.  Instead of asking, “Why are so many students leaving the church?”  Maybe a better question is, “Why are so few students returning to the church after they become adults?”

If it is a known fact that so many of the students who wander through the doors of my student ministry are going to bail on the church and their faith for part of their adolescent development, then I think my job is to create a ministry that leaves these students with a picture of the church and faith that is worthwhile to come back to when they are ready to be adults.

The question that has been shaping my ministry over the past few years has not been how to make sure kids don’t bail, but rather, are we painting a picture of the christian faith that is worthy of adulthood.    I think the story of the prodigal son is a great starting point for figuring out how to give our students space to rebel and space to return.

May we have the heart of the prodigal’s father

With all my heart, I want to model the heart of the father who loves his students, who longs to do life alongside his students, who will make space for students to bail, who will wait with anticipation on the edge of the property for them to return, and who will welcome them back with open arms and no judgement.

Our students deserve a picture of mature Christian faith that is compelling and complex enough to make it worthwhile for them to someday return to when they are done rebelling and pushing away from their childhood identity.  We can not make our faith smaller and easier to swallow as we lock down our students in fear of rebellion.  Rather we love them extravagantly and give them space to walk their path, the one that Jesus has gone before them as the author, pioneer, and perfecter of their faith!

How would your youth ministry look if you asked a different question?  What would it look like if you were less concerned about them wandering away, and more about making the christian faith a viable option in adulthood?

May we continue to have the heart of the father as we watch with broken-hearts our students wander away, and ever hope for their return.

Secret_Sauce

Me too!!  :)

Over the almost 20 years of doing student ministry, I have had the opportunity of being a part of a lot of student’s lives.  And while I think I am an incredible youth pastor and do incredible ministry, I think there are about 5 or 6 students who are adults and who totally love Jesus where I had the honor of playing a huge role in their spiritual development through middle and high school.

There are many more students who have meandered in and out of my program during their adolescent career who are now adults and who love Jesus.  But when I look at this group of people and ask the question why they “made it” and so many other students simply fell off the rails, the answer is actually pretty simple.

I have found that for the students who are still loving Jesus into adult hood, they share three ingredients in common.  The combination of all three almost guarantees that a student will actually grow up and follow Jesus into adulthood.  2 out of 3 there is still a decent shot, but the stats fall off rather quickly.

So, if you want to know the secret sauce for kids to love Jesus into adult hood, they need to have all three of these ingredients:

1)  Their parents must love Jesus as adults.

This sounds more simple than it really is.  Most parents in and around the church are “religious.”  But passing on religion does not work.  Being good, or valuing good things, even spiritual things is vastly different than having parents who love Jesus, who have been transformed by the Holy Spirit and who understand their identity and value in the Kingdom of God.  Parents who love Jesus model their faith and bring it to life for their kids.  Kids have amazing BS detectors.  The right words will not cut it.  Kids will always take on the values of their parents, not their spoken ones, but their internal ones.  So if you want your kids to love Jesus, then you need to love Jesus.

2) Their parents must stay married.

This doesn’t mean that divorced kids have no shot at loving Jesus into adulthood.  But parents who stay married add stability and structure to a kid’s life that highness their self-esteem and value.  Kids naturally equate God to a gigantic version of their parents.  So if your parents provide little stability, if they can’t be trusted, and add insecurity to their life and world, then God will be the larger version of that, and making the leap to trusting their Heavenly Father with their lives is very difficult.

3)  They must be connected to Christian community.  

Our Christian faith is meant to be lived in community.  I get making your kids show up at youth group seems like a losing battle.  But it is only in a diverse community like church and within youth group, that students can work out their faith, grow in their understanding of God and be confronted with people who are not like them and have to learn to love others the way they love themselves.  Parents alone can not be the only spiritual influence in a child’s life.  The Sticky Faith people say it is 5:1.  5 adults to 1 kid.  And what better place to find 5 other adults who love Jesus and model that for your student.

Thankfully God is gracious:

Thankfully, God is gracious and doesn’t make transferring faith to our kids into something this objective.   The Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of our students and will move freely, partnering with our best efforts, and often despite our broken lives and promises.  This is good news.  But before you simply shrug off these three ingredients because they don’t define your life or your kid, please reflect on this proverbial wisdom.

The overwhelming number of students who love Jesus into adulthood are the students who have been connected to our student ministry.  But I have had tons of students who have been connected to my student ministry at one point or another.  The difference maker for most of these students were the ones who came from intact families combined with parents who genuinely loved Jesus.

May we as parents, volunteers, youth workers strive to be adults who model our love for Jesus to our students, who provide safety and stability and community so that they too many have the best chance possible to love Jesus into adulthood!

shaky foundation

One of my favorite hobbies is talking with other youth workers around the country about our unique and amazing calling.  Over the last few years, I have noticed these conversations begin to shift.  What used to be times sharing our best practices and our best ideas on programs, has become more of laments.  What used to work and kill it, are having little impact.

Our knee jerk reaction is to scrap our programs and figure out the newest, latest and greatest.  But maybe it isn’t our programs that are in need of change, but our foundational assumptions about students, their world view, and where God is actually meeting them in their lives.

It is not the programs that need to change:

Every church, every town, every student ministry has a very unique culture and style in which they do ministry. Some are huge and are like a worship service with hundreds of kids. Some are small group focused, some are on Wednesday nights, some are Sunday mornings only. Some have a strong campus presence, and others can’t get on campus at all. Some are cluster focused, and some have a hodge podge of students. Some focus on worship, others on service, others on disciple making, and others on fun.

This emphases a ministry has doesn’t matter when we are talking about post-Christian anything. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the what form a student ministry takes does not matter in the slightest. I have the exact same form that my youth ministry had when I was a kid in the early 90’s. (Yikes) As I went around to visit other youth ministries on my Sabbatical, I realized there is nothing new under the sun. There are like 4 basic models and everyone falls into one of those models. AND THAT IS OK!

THERE IS NOT A SILVER PROGRAMATIC BULLET!

Unfortunately, this is where we want to go first in all of our conversations. We want want to find the secret sauce. But here is the reality: There isn’t one. The form a student ministry takes does not matter, what matters are the underlying assumptions that inform your ministry. Some of those assumptions inform your form, but most of it will impact your youth ministry language, culture, expectations, and understanding of and communication of salvation, discipleship, and sanctification.

This conversation is motivated solely out of my love for Jesus and for my desire for as many to come to know him as possible. To be like Paul in my missionary endeavor, to be all things to all people, to find the thin places in my cultural context, and find the touch points with the Gospel and to point people to Jesus. This for me, is not an intellectual exercise or a pissing contest. It is recognizing that our culture has changed, and for some of us, the distance between us and the culture that our students live in has fundamentally changed. It is not simply a form or style issue, but a worldview issue. And this change must force us to change.

What does post-Christian even mean?

Owning that our students are fully post-modern, post-Christian, beings is hard to get our head around. We think because they can mimic back some Christian language at our gatherings this conversation doesn’t apply. I think that outside the two hour program we do, no matter where in the United States we find ourselves, every student’s worldview is completely post-modern and post-Christian. Simply stated this means that our students have no understanding of the Christian story and if they do, it has little to no impact on their lives and that they have basically rejected the Judeo-Christian ethics and morals that most adults over 40 take for granted. I have written about this topic several times, and for a little primer you can peruse the articles here:

All this is to say that if we are serious about reaching students we MUST get our head around the fact that their worldview and culture is FUNDAMENTALLY different than ours, and therefore we must do some cross culture contextualization. Here are some of the questions that will help us move the ball forward:

So, as we move forward in discussion, here are some questions I have surrounding this topic.

  • What in the world does post-Christian mean?
  • What is the the core of the Gospel? Is there even a core?
  • What Gospel picture speaks good news to this culture most effectively?
  • Can we own that penal-substitutionary atonement has ZERO cultural touch points with youth culture?
  • What are we to do about that reality?
  • How do we deal with students who are amoral?
  • How do we develop convictions in our students that are Holy Spirit directed rather than us directed?
  • How will we speak about, think about, and reach out to the LGBT community and those who sympathize with them. (Meaning all of our students)
  • Can we or should we move away from behavior modification focused language and talks?
  • How does us / them, in / out, death / life, language make us loose credibility with this culture?
  • How can we embrace dissonance and complexity?
  • If our goal was to make the Christian Faith and Christian Community a viable option for them to embrace in adulthood, how would that change what we do?

Ok, I got a little carried away. These are some of the questions I have, some of the thoughts that inform me, my worldview, and my ministry. The form of my youth ministry is for sure not cutting edge, but I hope and pray that the content of my ministry is getting closer and closer to the sweet spot, the thin place, of my context so that by God’s grace, my students might embrace the love of God, experience salvation, healing, adoption, and live into the grand purpose that God has for their lives! (And that grand purpose has nothing to do with reaching their campus for Christ. Just sayin’ :) )

May we love the LORD our God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our MIND! And may we live life and do ministry in a way that compels our students to do the same.

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There are so many micro cultures in which to do ministry:

A couple of weeks ago, I met an transfer student to our local seminary, Golden Gate Theological Seminary. Like most of their students, they come from the heart of the Bible Belt and study in the heart of one of the last churched contexts in America.

As we talked, I found myself fascinated with his home context and the joys and struggles he experienced doing student ministry in his home state of Kentucky. As he told me about his church and his ministry, I found myself mesmerized about this foreign world where 80% of the student body has some connection to some local church.

Now, he made it clear to me that of course that is just 80% attendance, not necessarily 80% Christian or disciples. But still 80%!!! Is that crazy? Maybe for you that is the norm, and your biggest angst is working your tail off trying to break past the dualism that is so present in the life of your students. Maybe you are forever disheartened because the larger church in town is so much more appealing and sexy than yours is? Or something else? If that is your context, I would love to understand it and know your joys and failures.

My context could not be more opposite.

My good friend, and one of the best youth workers I know, Ryan Reed, is the faith community representative to our local blue ribbon commission on teen drinking. (Or something like that) And he was sharing some of the figures from his last meeting:

In our little county there are 11,000 middle and high school students.

This is not abnormal. But this prompted the next question, how many of those 11,000 students are connected to a local church. And we racked our brains, identified the major and minor players in student ministry in our area, and we came up with a whopping 300 students. Not in my ministry, 350 in our entire county. YIKES! This means that only 3.1% or so of students are connected in the most basic level to a church. This isn’t committed Christians, or even committed attenders, this is attending once within a month.

This raises the next question, “WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO TO REACH THIS LOST GENERATION IN A TOTALLY LOST CONTEXT?”

Over the next couple of posts, I am going to be wrestling with how we are choosing to work this out. Our values, the gospel story, and our programmatic plan that will hopefully make a small dent, and rescue even a few from the alienation, anxiety, and depression that has marked our students.

I would also love if this was a two way street. This is just my simply musings bases on my limited perspective and world view. I need to be sharpened by you and your context so that we are both strengthened and encouraged to continue to fight the good fight!

Following in the footsteps of the first missionary, the Apostle Paul, we must remember that every context requires wisdom and discernment to find those thin places where the cultural needs meet the good news of Jesus.

May we embrace our context, and lean into the Holy Spirit for guidance as we long for our students to know and love our savior, Jesus.

Let’s get after it this year!

It is Labor Day, and I am hopefully on a boat right now soaking up the last bits of summer before the hectic grind of the school year.  So instead of some earth shattering post, I wanted to simply share a sermon I preached recently with you.  Not because I am an incredible speaker, nor because it is a prophetic word to you or your church.  It is simply a little message of hope and and encouragement to live for Christ in the commonness of our lives!

To keep your attention I share about my son’s poor hygiene, a bit of an overshare about my sex life, all for the purpose of reminding us that Revelations 21 is our final hope, and it is the reality we are to live into today!

Blessings!

bk

 

Everyone Says Numbers Aren’t Important:

Whatever!  Everyone wants to grow their ministry and expand the kingdom of God.  Some times it is true that our egos get in the way and our motives are not entirely pure.  But at the end of the day, most people in student ministry are doing what they do because they love students and their hearts break for them.

Everything about the DNA of a youth worker is wrapped up in walking through life with students helping them connect to Jesus Christ.  At our best moments we want as many kids to come in contact with the saving, redeeming, healing, and transforming work of Jesus Christ.  Practically, this looks like trying to increase the numbers of students that can be impacted.

There Are Plenty of Short Term Options:

For better or worse, in my best moments or my worst, trying to grow numerically is always in the back of my mind.  I have done pretty shameful things to try to boost my numbers.  Some have worked great and others have flopped miserably.  For me, any short term numerical gain always seemed to fade.  There are many reasons for this short term blip.  But the biggest reason is that I simply put a ton of effort into an event or two for the simple attempt to inflate my numbers.

You are probably in a better and more whole place in your walk with God and would never be so petty to try and increase your numbers for personal gain, but often I am not.  Thankfully over the years God has continued to refine me and heal me as he has continued to grow my heart for students.  And as He has done this, my heart to increase the size of our group has never gone away.

With the internet we now have access to thousands of clever ideas to grow our groups.  Assuming our hearts are in the right place and we are striving to connect with more and more students, there are some great tricks, gimmicks, and structures that will allow you to grow your group numerically.

But most of these ideas will work in the short term, unless there is a dramatic change in systems or straight up hand of God, most groups will settle back to their average size.  For me, I have found a sure fire way to grow my youth group for the long haul.  It isn’t with gimmicks, it keeps my ego in check, and it actually cares for the larger church.  My trick to grow our student ministry is to invest heavily in our children’s ministry!

The Best Long Term Strategy is to Invest in Children’s Ministry

There are few things more depressing that working hard all year and to watch God bless your ministry as your numbers grow and kids come to faith, only to watch it all disappear when the seniors graduate and are replaced by a freshman class of 1.  Or when a group of solid 8th graders move up to high school and you welcome in one or two 6th graders.

The future of your student ministry is not found in your good looks or charisma.  While those are important, it is the base of students who come through every year that allow for the critical mass to have a vibrant and healthy ministry.  When these graduates of children’s ministry are already on board with the church and with the ministries of the church, the transition into youth group is a normal and natural one.  When their parents are already locked in then you are golden!

Instead of taking this transition for granted, it will actually serve youth workers well if they see children’s ministry as their farm team and put in some time and effort to help develop these kids and build relationships with their parents.  Whether the children’s ministry is great and exciting or struggling, any investment a youth worker makes in it will come back 10 fold.

5 Easy Ways to Invest in Children’s Ministry as a Youth Worker:

1) Become Friends / Partners with the Children’s Ministry Director:

I have no idea about the church you minister in, but I do know that children’s ministry workers/directors come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are naturally great friends and some will take a movement of God to knit your hearts together.  Thankfully the job of a youth worker is to connect with students, and students are the most difficult demographic to win over.  View your children’s ministry director as a student that must be won over and do it!  This person has more influence than you know and being on their good side will be mutually beneficial.

2) Attempt to Make the Transition as Seemless as Possible:

From birth through elementary school, the children and their parents at your church are used to relating to the church and church workers in a certain way.  Sometimes those are good rhythms and sometimes they are unhealthy.   Now that you and your children’s ministry director are such good friends, you can now partner with them to help the kids who they have poured their heart and soul into for the past 10 years make the transition into your program.  These people are invested and want the transition to succeed, so partner up and do it.

3) Be a Champion of Children’s Ministry

Many youth workers feel under-resourced and under-appreciated so we spend most of our time lobbying and fighting for our own programs, our own budgets, and our own space.  But all that does is entrench our thinking and seeing other ministries as competition.

When youth workers champion children’s ministry and help elevate it as a ministry of high value, the message that gets communicated is that all children are of high value.  Students just happen to be older children.  By loving children’s ministry first, it will actually build good will among the children’s ministry team and soon they will be championing your ministry.  Children’s ministry and student ministry are truly partners in the faith development of children.  By shaping it this way, you have doubled your team and your influence.

4) Have Your Students Help in Children’s Ministry

Students in our ministries need help to see that they are not the center of the universe.  By helping students plug into children’s ministry we have an opportunity to help shape their spiritual formation by putting their life and faith in the context of a church family.  There were people who poured their lives into them, and now they get to pour their lives into others.

On top of the valuable spiritual formation that happens when students help, it also elevates the children’s ministry and adds life and fun.  Children are so impressed and think it is such an honor when the big kids help out. They think they are so cool and many have reflected how they couldn’t wait to be in middle school so they could now help.  This added life improves children’s ministry and paints a picture for parents and the church that children’s ministry is of high value and student ministry isn’t always just a money suck.

5) Help Expose Your Children’s Ministry People to the Larger Children’s Ministry World.

Finally, as youth workers, many of us have had great opportunities for educational, spiritual, and professional development.  There are great conferences out there like Youth SpecialtiesSimply Youth Ministry, and Orange which do an amazing job of inspiring and equipping youth workers.  Think of how much better we do our jobs now that we have some fresh ideas, fresh inspiration, and a break from the headache of our job.  Why should we have all the fun?

In fact, there are opportunities out there for children’s workers, and this year I am ponying up the money to take my entire team.  My team of four exceptional, hardworking women who have faithfully served our church for years have never been to a conference before.  How great will it be when they have their socks knocked off by the music, the speakers and the seminars?  How much better with our ministry be as they become inspired and equipped?

I am sure there are great conferences out there.  The one we are choosing to go to is the Orange Conference in Atlanta in April.  If you register today and tell them, Ben sent you, you will get to for half off!!!  Ok, that isn’t true, but there is early registration prices and scholarships available.

If your heart to increase the numbers of students who are connected to your ministry so that more and more people can experience the love and grace of Jesus Christ, then bribing is a great place to start.  But for long term growth and health, investing in your children’s ministry is a solid strategy.  Hope to see you in ATL!

Have children’s ministry people have the same opportunities.  This year I am taking my children’s ministry team to Atlanta.  My team of part time children’s ministry workers are moms who faithfully serve our children.  They have never been!

Planning a fall calendar, let alone an annual programmatic and curriculum calendar can often be quite overwhelming.  We have a couple of things going against us.  1)  Most youth workers are relationally focused and to spend the  hours planning ahead is a tiresome task.  2)  We all think we are the smartest people we know and don’t really want to share our best ideas or admit that we are out of them.

But if we are all going to continue to grow and thrive in ministry and if we are going to continue to provide the best possible ministry experience for our students then planning must be a part.  I highly recommend putting an annual calendar together by early August complete with program, events, and curriculum.  Then roll that out in a way that works for you and your context.  For us, we roll out calendars 4 times a year.

Here is our fall calendar.  And thanks to the good people at youthmin.org, I was able to impress my families with a clearly communicate programmatic plan that looks really impressive.  (This is last year’s model.  I am old and still can’t keep up, so we are enjoying this template for one more year.)

Anyway, here is what we have on the books for the fall.  I would love to know what you have coming up that you are fired up about!

Have a great fall launch and may God continue to use you to love kids into the Kingdom!

bk

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lizard-orange

The people over at ORANGE have some great deals in their store this week.  Over the past 3 or 4 years our church and my ministry have been dramatically impacted by the sharp thinking and practical helps of the Orange crew.  They have, hands down, the best comprehensive philosophy for ministry and for leveraging the combined efforts and resources of the church and family so that children and students may come to be life long followers of Jesus.

If you are looking for some new books to read, to be encourage and equipped in your ministry, or just love deals, then check out this new offer:

Buy the Orange Books Digital Library (Kindle editions of Married PeopleMake BelieveCreating a Lead Small CultureLead Small,Leading Change Without Losing ItLeading a Special Needs Ministry, and Playing for Keeps/Losing Your Marbles, and get all of the following:

  • All Orange Conference 2014 breakouts offered in Deals 1–4
  • A three-month trial membership to Weekly (an online subscription to empower your small group leaders and parents)
  • Do for a Few: A Training Event in How to Lead Small (a training event and guide)
  • Playing for Keeps 2.0 (a workshop and training event for small group leaders and parents)
Plus, when you tweet or share on Facebook any of the deals using the hashtag #OrangeBooks, you’ll be entered to win a prize.
Go to OrangeBooks.com to learn more.
Ok, peeps, lets get after it this year!  only a week or so until fall kickoff.  Read, study, dream pray, and then implement!

Remember-The-Titans-Screencaps-remember-the-titans-19489485-1706-960

This last weekend I took my incoming seniors away on our annual Senior Road Trip. This is the kick off for our intentional Senior Confirmation program that is a year long investment in our oldest and often, our most burnt out students. The purpose of this trip is to build community, inspire leadership, and solidify faith as they launch into adulthood.

This year one of the elements was to watch Remember the Titans and have a discussion on leadership. To my horror, that movie is already 15 years old. For me, who is old and been at this a while, 15 years is recent. But to our students, this movie couldn’t be more dated. Although they enjoyed watching a young Hayden Panettiere and Ryan Gosling.

Thankfully,for as dated as the movie is, it is such a compelling movie that it held their interest for most of the 2 hours. As we watched this movie as a group and discussed afterward, there was one simple point I wanted to drive home:

Unless our student leaders take up the mantle and vision of what our ministry can be, we will simply be just an average, run of the mill student ministry. But if they embrace and own the vision, they will be the anchor in making our ministry great!

In the movie, Denzel Washington’s character, Coach Boon, had a very clear vision and plan for his team. He had an awful situation he was handed with incredible racial tension and politics from the administration, parents and from kids. Despite these obstacles, he went forward with his vision and leveraged all of his leadership capital to create an environment on his team, where this dream could be realized.

But all of his dreaming, all of his hard work, and all of his pouring out his guts into this program and into his students, the team was still divided, selfish, and impotent. It wasn’t until the two leaders of the team actually decided to lead. In the turning point in the movie, when Gary Bertier leveraged his status and political capital to come down on one of his white team mates, and Julius laid down an incredible hit on one of this black team mates, followed up by the two leaders embracing. Ok, they hit each other and yelled, but that is the boy version of embracing.

From that point on, this program was no just Coach Boon’s. It was the students.’

I found myself getting emotional a little bit with our students during the discussion, because for the first time in a long time, I had a way to express to my students my heart and dream for them and for our student ministry. But I couldn’t just express my dreams, I also had to express my anxiety and fear because my heart for our students can not move forward unless my seniors embrace it and own it. What a scary thing to realize that our leadership only goes so far.

For our ministries to be great, we can only control what we can control, which is only the environment where ministry can happen.

It isn’t until our student leaders, in our case, our seniors step up and leverage their status and political capital to lead by example and model deep and inviting relationships, and an authentic and active pursuit of Jesus.

My desire is to have a great student ministry! Not great numerically, but great in its impact for Jesus and his Kingdom. Great in the way it models the household of God, and great in the ways that our students run after Jesus in a fully authentic way. This is my dream and I will work until I die to create environments that allow this happen. But this can only truly come into fruition if my seniors embrace this vision and make it their own. Please, oh please, class of 15, don’t settle for a cliquey, run of the mill youth group, but embrace all that God has for you and for our ministry! Leverage your time, your relationships, and lead your peers to the feet of Jesus our King!

Let’s Do This!

051912-MLB-Cleveland-Indians-PI_20120519231611104_660_320I think programatic youth ministry has gotten a bad rap over the past few years or decades.  A solid program is the skeleton in which relationships can be built and faith gets formed.  With no program, there is just you and a half dozen kids.  Every great youth ministry has a program that is fun, engaging, inviting, and points towards Jesus. But a good reminder is that no matter how amazing our programs are, how many cool lights and graphics we have, what are online presence and platform has become, without personal contact we have nothing.

At its very core, ministry is about relationships.   Now I know you are pretty smart and know this.  But before you skim down to the end or click to a new page, ask yourself if you really do know this?  A good gut check is to take a look at your calendar and see how you spend your time. Of all the hours you have allotted to pull of ministry, how many of them are spent building relationship, doing contact work, texting your guts out, facebook and instagram stalking, buying ice cream and coffee for, calling, etc. Chances are less and less of your time is devoted to these things.

I am watching this alarming trend among my good friends who are youth workers.  They think that clever programs and graphics with witty names draw kids to youth group.  Worse, some actually think it is their teaching.  While clever programs and solid teaching are vital for solid ministry, it is the hidden hours of connecting with students individually, seeking them out, listening to their stories, building memories doing silly things, goofing off before and after events, and mostly remembering the little details of their life that allow them to be seen and cared for.  And when students feel seen and cared for, then they are willing to engage in a program and even let their guard down enough to wrestle through the intimate and dangerous issues of life and faith.

As you gear up for your fall program, work hard to have epic games, clever videos, and sassy graphics.  Knock your program out of the park!  But DO NOT NEGLECT THE THINGS YOU DID AT FIRST!!

Make contact with those kids, see them, love them, build friendship with them.  Then and only then will your hopes and dreams for your program be realized!

Happy Fall Kick Off!

wedding

I love / hate Facebook!  

This last month one of my old youth group kids go married.  And because of Facebook I got the pleasure of knowing all about it and being so happy for her and his amazing new chapter of her life.  At the same time, I got the pain of seeing picture after picture of my old youth group kids celebrating with her along with the youth pastor who served after me.  For over 7 years I served in a context and in that time, I had the opportunity to pour my life into this incredible group of girls.  They were all so talented, fun, reflective, and strong leaders.  They were the core of my student ministry and going to the be the anchor as they transitioned into upperclassmen.

It was at that junction that I was called away from that context and a new youth pastor stepped in.  This new youth pastor is awesome and a friend.  But from a totally worldly perspective, I was so bummed that he got to reap the fruit of my years of investment.  Just as they were becoming amazing, I left and he got a group of amazing young women who were all ready to step up and lead.  And with his leadership and love they thrived and continued to be great friends and a mentor into adult hood.  And now got to celebrate this amazing event together.

This is the natural rhythm of student ministry:

My angst about all this is mine alone.  It is the natural transition in ministry.  Youth workers pour their lives into kids and after a time the youth worker moves on, or more likely, the students move on and graduate.  And for the most ministry minded kids, those who came to know and love Jesus under your care, head out into the great big world ready to go to the next level in their faith and in their leadership.

I can’t tell you the number of conversations I have had with college students over Christmas or summer break tell me how amazing their Bible study leader is, or how amazing their college pastor is.  They are so excited to share with me their growing edges and had no idea there were authors out there like Rob Bell, Francis Chan, N.T. Wright, John Piper, etc.  Did you even know that some people even speak in tongues?

Again, I am so glad that these students are finding places to land and are thriving spiritually.  But deep within me, my heart still breaks and bitterness seeps in a bit to watch the years of labor, of planting and watering get harvested by some chump college pastor who oozes with passion and hipster glasses.

However, there is a grace when you stick around in one context for a long time.

I may have missed out on the wedding of an amazing student from my last context.  I may miss out on some of the deep and life changing 2AM conversations that happen on a college campus.  I may even miss out on the roller coaster of walking with young adults fall in and out of love.

But every now and then, one of these students who I have poured my guts into when they were punk kids end up moving back home, or simply have grown up and are becoming adults who know and love Jesus.  They are getting married, having kids, and even want to serve in the ministry that helped shape and form them.

Out of God’s graciousness, He has given me a handful of students from days gone by to come back as interns, or volunteer staff, or simply as friends.  I get to live normal adult life alongside them.  And while I may not get the amazing Instagram photo at some event, I get the pleasure of partnering with friends.

Harvesting in youth ministry is a rare activity.  

Youth ministry is not a ministry of harvest.  It is a ministry of planting and watering.  It is a ministry of selflessly pouring out your life into self-absorbed and immature adolescents.  To share with them the love and grace of Jesus and give them experiences of what the Kingdom of God looks like, and expose them to opportunities for them to be close to God and the places where He is at work.

But, by sticking around, staying put, and being faithful to the task we are called to do, every now and then, God graciously allows us to participate in the harvest!

May you faithfully pour your life into students, selflessly plant and water until your hands and knees are blistered and sore.  So that the Lord of the Harvest may do His work in His time.  And every now and then, may God be gracious to you and allow you not just enjoy the harvest, but the joy of sharing life with those you have walked with since their childhood. 

becoming-2

Imagine it is 3:00 pm on the first day of school.

Your daughter or son comes home and gives you a horrible report. They didn’t get the classes they wanted, one of her friends was mean to her, your son isn’t in classes with any of his friends, and it turns out they aren’t going to get to start their fall sport like they thought. So much disappointment all in one day.

As their parent, how do you respond? “It looks like school is going to be too difficult this year for you and I don’t want you to have to experience this kind of pain and discomfort, from here on out, if you don’t want to go to school or play that sport, you don’t have to.”

Why would you not respond this way? Probably because school is a no brainer. It is a value and a commitment that you have made. In fact you have so internalized this value that this conversation would never even happen and there is absolutely no expectation from your child that you would bail them out and they would no longer have to go to school. Because there is no exit strategy, they are forced to find their way, to make it work, and survive. And in fact, this is what happens every year with students and school.

What would it look like if you valued your child’s spiritual formation the same way you valued their school experience?

I know we all think that we value them the same, or we might even say we value them more. But as I have done this job and done this job here at MCC for the last nine years, I can firmly say that this is not the case.

It starts in 4th grade with kids complaining that Sunday school is boring, then in 8th grade that youth group is too immature, then in high school that their friends no longer come. And somewhere along the way the kids win out and church and youth group become an elective.

It is true that some of your kids really enjoy youth group, and I am glad. Matt and I work incredibly hard to make youth group a fun, safe place for kids to work out their faith. But what if your son or daughter, who loved youth group last year, decides this year it isn’t their thing. Every parent I know at our church would let the child decide because they don’t want to cram religion down their throat.

Here are some things to consider: 

1)  You are never going to cram religion down their throat. That is not you, that is not our church, and that is not our culture. This is our baggage from our childhood that we have to get over and die to in order to truly help our kids thrive spiritually.

2)  It is a no brainer to make your kids figure it out at school, why not make them figure it out at church. Kids will always find a way to survive. If they know that youth group is part of their life like math and english, they will actually find a way to enjoy it and make friends.

3 ) If you value the spiritual formation of your kids, then youth group is the only place in their world where it is going to happen. I know this sounds rough, but we don’t live in a christian culture, and there is no back up for what you are trying to instill on the home front. Teachers, coaches, radio, tv, internet, do not have your back spiritually. And if the only place they are getting a spiritual diet is from home, then during adolescence, this message is firmly going in the,”you are the parent, and I need to define myself against your beliefs and values” box. Youth group is the best place where they get to wrestle with these spiritual issues, have space to push back in a context that values what you value among peers who are in the exact same place.

4)  Would you consider this school year making the spiritual formation of your son and daughter a high value.  We work our butts off making space in our schedules for every activity under the sun.  Would you be willing to put some skin in the game to help them land at youth group so they can work out their faith and get after all that God has for them this year.

I know that this is the heart of just about every parent in our church. But the tyranny of the urgent, the old patterns we have slipped into often distort the desires of our heart. A new school year gets to be a reboot. This is the perfect time to take an honest inventory of our life and schedules, and to come up with a plan to live life according to what we value.

The worst mistake I see parents making is that they do not put a high value on actual attendance within the church community and in turn their kids never connect to the church community or to Christ.

“We become what we want to by consistently being who we want to become each day.”  The problem is that we are not intentional with what we do with the little and small decisions each and every day.  Spiritual formation for our kids is an intentional effort every day, and why not have today be that day?

May God give you wisdom and discernment as you navigate these waters and make some difficult choices. And no matter when your daughter or son jump into youth group, know that they will be welcomed with open arms and loved completely for who they are and where they are at!

 

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Out of the front lines of ministry comes an app designed by youth leaders for youth leaders. There are countless web-based, subscription based web-applications for managing youth ministry. But this is the first mobile app to really leverage the device you have with you all the time, your iPhone.

The app is built with features that will be really helpful in ministry. You are able to capture info from students, track attendance for events, monitor attendance trends over time by gender and school, and create smart filtered groups for powerful communication.

Capturing info gets everything you want from students. It would be nice if every teen came with a business card, but they don’t. So you hand them the phone with the app open and it leads them through a series of screens. By the end, you will have everything you need to follow up with the students, and this info helps create really smart tracking metrics.

Once you create ministry events in the app, you can take attendance or add new students at the event. The attendance screen features a picture of the student as well as their first name or nick name just in case you can’t quite remember everything about a newer student.

As you take attendance at events, the app is automatically generating graphs over time that highlight different statistical metrics. These will show you how your group is growing and how attendance is trending over time. The really helpful part on this screen is being able to show different graphs for gender, school breakdown or all of the students. This can help you catch any trend issues that may be coming up as they happen.

Our favorite feature of the app is really putting all of the data to use on the Groups screen. You can create static groups where you control the participants like “My Leader Students” or “The Worship Team.” You can also create dynamic smart groups like “All the new kids from my last event” or “High school students that have come on a Wednesday but not on a Sunday in the last month.” With the powerful filters in the app, creating smart groups with the data you collect has never been easier.

The bonus feature that only works on iPhones but not on the iPad or the iPod touch (because they lack a phone number) is that you can then send a text message to everyone in those groups with personalized name holders. For instance, you can type out “Hey [NAME]! Just wanted to see if there is anything I could pray for you about?” Then it will auto generate the text message, filling in the right name for each student when you send it. This will seriously cut down on those mass texts and allow youth pastors to say the same thing to a lot of students with a personal touch.

The immediate roadmap for the app is to include a native iPad version in the fall of 2014 and a cloud based backend for accessing and taking attendance on the same database with multiple devices in early 2015.
To get on the wait list, visit www.youthministrytracker.com.

The app will debut in August at 33% off for everyone on the list.

Senior and Young Women Holding Hands

It is only the first week of July and I am programmatically spent.  Wrapping up a hectic youth ministry school calendar, completing VBS, and prepping for a summer mission trip has just about fried my brain.  But as I prepare to take a team to Guatemala, I am noticing God percolate a small change in my heart.

I know God is saying something like, “Ben, You are an administrative genius!  Even I am impressed with how you juggle all these details and programs.  Nice job!  However, don’t forget that all these programatic endeavors are simply tools for the real work I want you to do.  You are called to be my ambassador of love and grace.  To model the incarnation and practice the ministry of presence.”

Embracing presence this summer:

With the logistics behind me, I am looking forward to spending this week in Guatemala simply enjoying my students and listening to the Holy Spirit so I can go, say, and do what the Spirit says.  The structures are in place, but without the ministry of presence, this trip really has no impact or purpose.

And for the rest of summer, this is going to be how I attempt to live.  I still have items on the calendar and events to lead, but mostly, I have relationships to build and ministry to do.  So as I backpack, officiate weddings, go on vacation, and play with my friends and family, my goal is to simply relax and enjoy the moments that God has provided for me.

Must unplug:

With that being said, I am unplugging for the rest of the month.  No more writing, no more blogging, no more checking my status, or reposting old blogs in a feeble attempt to grow my platform.  (I don’t even know what that means)  For this month, my online life has to concede to my real life life, my real life family, my real life ministry.  And the ministry of presence can only really happen when I am actually present.

I hope you too have a great summer, enjoy the relationships that God has blessed you with, and embrace your small piece of the world to be God’s ambassador of love and grace to the real people who you will be rubbing shoulders with today, this week, and this summer!

See you in August!

 

Have you come across this song?  It is a great song and has become our unofficial theme song of summer for my little weekly surf crew.  Hitting the beach, shredding the gnar, soaking up the sun, has been right inline with the catchy hook of this song.

But as the weeks have gone on and I have listened to this song a number of times, I finally started listening to the words.  And, with no surprise, it turns out that this isn’t just the theme music for my summer, but the actual song is the theme song for my students.

“No points to making plans
The wild life is human nature
We’ve got to take our chance
Try our best to keep it working
No points to making plans
The wild life is human nature
We’ve got to take our chance
Try our best to keep it working”

No wonder no one RSVP’s for events anymore :)

Where do we go from here?  Thoughts?

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How he loves!

For as long as I can remember, everyone in ministry has been trying to communicate to this broken world that there is a God and that this God loves them very much.  So much, that He gave His only son to pay for our sins so that we can be in restored relationship.  And in this restored relationship, we can now be fully embraced by God and live in the spotlight of his love and affection.  We sing our anthem, “How He Loves,” and our congregations and students swoon and weep as they celebrate over and over how much God loves them.

And the warriors of transforming God’s image from a one of judgement and wrath to love!  In fact they have won so much that nobody in the western world would even consider that there is a God who has anger or wrath.  Ok, maybe some old skool boomers, and for sure some old skool boom catholics.  But any and everyone else has a one dimensional view of God and that is that God is Love!

Instead of our culture reciprocating God’s love and returning His affection, we have become spoiled brats.  

I recently was part of an intervention between some parents and their out of control daughter.  She had been failing out of school, experimenting with drugs, and become toxic to her entire family system.  In an evening blow up, I was called in as reinforcements.  What sparked this outburst you ask?  The parents decided that the first step of regaining order back into their home, was to take the phone away.  NOOOOOOOO NOT THE PHONE!!

Students’ phones are the only thing in their life that seems to matter to them.  And loving parents who ooze love and grace to their kids and provide everything they could ever need or want, doesn’t seem to reciprocate respect, love, or kindness.  Instead, when the parents step in, for their kid’s own good, they through a huge temper tantrum.

Most of us our as spoiled and as entitled as the students we work with. 

This sounds like a lot of Christians I know.  We love that God loves us, and that means that he is to never stop pouring grace and blessing on us.  But when that gravy train ceases either by God’s providence, or our dumb choices, we freak out and throw in the towel.

Love being received by students doesn’t cause them to change their life.  And this is true in my own life as well.  But what does cause life change is when we love somebody, we actually want to be more like them.

Think about your students for a second.  Whoever is the alpha in a group at school or in youth group, the rest of the group tries to become more like that person in order to win their affection.  Or, in a more noble way, think of how you love the person you are dating or married to.  Because of your love FOR them, you long to to find out what pleases them and blesses them and work towards that end.  You don’t sit around receiving love FROM them and then return the favor.

A fundamental change in focus:

If we really want our students to experience life change, then I think we need to change the focus of our ministries.  Everyone gets that God loves us, but nobody gets that we are to love God in return.  Maybe that needs to be the focal point of our ministries these days.  What matters is not that you believe that God loves you or not, what matters is whether or not you love God.

Life change happens when we love!  Now when we are loved.

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There is definitely a wide verity of opinion regarding Vacation Bible School and its importance, effectiveness, and mission.

I have some friends who put on the most excellent program of all time.  It is a well oiled machine with incredible sets, dramas, teachers and group leaders.  It is done in the exact way the developers of the curriculum dreamed up.  I have some friends who are convicted by the Holy Spirit that VBS is the biggest waste of time and resources.  So, for my friends on both ends of the spectrum, feel free to stop reading, and / or check out my good friend, Ryan Reed’s blog :)

For me, VBS is the best thing on my student ministry calendar because:

1) I get daily contact with a large group of my student ministry.  Besides summer and winter camp it is really hard to get this many hours with a large group of students.  It is easy to forget that the number one way to build community and friendship is by logging in hours and having shared experience.  VBS does both. Plus it costs zero dollars so every student from every demographic gets to participate without it costing my budget a dime.

2)  It is not about them.  It seems like everything in their world is about them.  And unfortunately everything I do in my student ministry program is designed around them and their needs.  But for one week, they just get to serve. Not for community service hours, not for glory, not for anything other then to put someone else’s needs and program above themselves.  They have to give up sleep and spend 3 hours getting to know and caring for kids younger than them.

3)  It is actually for them.  As culture continues its massive slide into post-Christendom, VBS is a great primer on some of the most simple truth and well known Bible stories found in scripture.  It is easy to think that our students know all these things, but if you actually talk to them, or even tested them, you would realize that they don’t know any of these things.  And if they do, they have never internalized them.  VBS is a chance for them to rediscover some of these truths and think about them in a fresh way.

4) VBS models the life long chain of discipleship.  For whatever reason, there seems to be this vibe in student ministry that spiritual life begins and end with middle and high school students.  But the truth is that when our students have older college students to look up to and who will pour into them, they are so much more likely to model them and their faith, then us old guys who are paid to model it.  The same is true for the kids in children’s ministry.  Instead of only mom’s talking about Jesus, our kids get to see middle and high school students talk about their faith, and in doing so makes faith a real option for them.  We should always be talking about the people we are pouring our lives into and those who are pouring their lives into us.  This never ends, and VBS helps model it.

Thank you to my Children’s Ministry team for a job well done, and for being willing to sacrifice a little bit of excellence for some much needed opportunity and ministry to my middle and high school students!

 

least of these

As my ministry grows and shrinks and and I grow and shrink, I have found myself wrestling with this challenging question.  “Do I pour my life into leaders, or into the least of these?”  

I totally get the strategy and potential multiplication that happens when you take the cream of the crop and invest into them.  The potential pay off is huge.  They become spiritual leaders among their friends, at their schools, in their companies, and even follow a call into ministry.  Many of us youth pastors were “leader” kids that were given some extra love and attention by our youth pastor and helped shape a larger view of ourselves and ministry and that is why we are doing what we are doing.

Leader kids are the best.

They are all in.  They are normal.  They have social kids and it feels good when they like us.  And while I am a product of some extra love and have seen the fruit of that in some of my leader kids, I wonder if the strategy of ministry to leaders trains our hearts, our leaders, and our ministries to miss the very heart of the ministry of Jesus Christ.

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swim

What Are Your Summer Bathing Suit Rules?
Now that summer is here it is time for pool parties, lake barbeques, and beach activities. As a youth ministry professional there is always one question that seems always rise to the surface: what is appropriate summer beach attire? Every youth ministry throughout the country has different rules and regulations when it comes to what is ok to wear at events that include water. All of the rules seem to surround the ladies and their swimsuit options. Bikini? Tankini? One Piece? Or my favorite, a Potato Sack.

Because our country is large and our micro-cultures are so varied, the rules we set up become “just the way we do things.” For many of us haven’t really thought through all of the reasons and cultural issues surrounding our decisions. We don’t even get push-back anymore because, “it is just how we do things.”

This way of setting up guidelines is perfectly fine with me. But the problem is that, when the larger body of Christ comes together for some summer fun, there seems to always be some conflict. Whether it is summer camp, a joint camping trip, or a denominational gathering, issues arise when one set of rules bumps up against another set of rules.

Will our pool be a bikini-free zone? For the churches who make strict rules regarding this, their students are ready. Even though the girls in this youth group wear bikinis to every summer function, they dutifully bust out their “youth group” swim suit for this event. But sure enough, some other youth group, who seems to have no morals, lets their girls wear bikinis. Now you have trouble! “Why do we have to wear these ugly swim suits when those girls get wear those hip bikinis?”

Purity or Freedom?
If you have ever been around a planning meeting for a joint event, you know that hours of conversation can swirl around the swimsuit issue. And in my world, it seems to be always framed in terms of modesty. We value modesty; that group doesn’t value modesty and as a discipleship issue, that group needs to see their sin and embrace modesty. While I do agree that modesty is an important value, I think there might be another way to approach the bathing suit issue.

Instead of the “one-piece” group pointing their fingers of shame and disgust at the “bikini” group wanting them to mature in their faith and value modesty, maybe the discipleship that needs to happen should come from the “bikini” group.

Check out Romans 14: 1-23 This is the passage where Paul talks about accepting their fellow Christians who are “weak in the faith.” One person believes that it is ok to eat meat sacrifices to idols, and another will only eat vegetables. He affirms that each of us personally will be held accountable for our decisions. God judges us, so we don’t have to judge each other. In fact, the stance that Paul argues for is not of finger pointing, but of self-sacrifice. “Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember, there is nothing wrong with these things in themselves. But it is wrong to eat anything if it makes another person stumble.” (vs 20)

There is nothing wrong “in themselves.” To the pure all things are pure. It is culture that defines what sin is. Playing cards, drinking beer, smoking a cigar, and wearing bikinis are only sinful if the context you are in has made them sinful.

Clothing Is Culturally Optional:
It is kind of a trip to think about clothing and modesty as culturally defined, but as we look around the world and throughout history we know this to be true. What was acceptable beach wear in the 1920’s is vastly different than what our most conservative sisters and brothers accept at their pool parties. It is common for women in tribes of Africa or in the Jungles of Brazil to go topless. In their culture bearing it all isn’t shameful or sinful, it is simply their culture.

For the Yanamomo people in the Brazilian Rainforest the men are completely nude except for a small string they tie to their junk. If they come out in public without that string, then they have brought shame to themselves and are in sin. If one of these Yanamamo people becomes a Christian they are not supposed to immediately cover their privates and wear dockers. When they are in their context they dress in a way that won’t cause others to stumble. So the string stays.

If my Christian Yanamomo brother comes to Church with me and shares on a Sunday morning, the string will not cut it. It is not the string, but the culture that determines if something is sinful or not. But because my brother loves God and God’s people, he will gladly dress appropriately for our context because he doesn’t want to cause any of our people to stumble.

This same principle can be used for just about anything, and now must be used with bikinis. You see, the modesty group are actually the weaker brother in this passage of scripture. It is their cultural issues that cause them to see bikinis as sinful. The hard part is that the modesty group by nature of being the modesty group sees themselves as the true Christians, the keepers of the faith, and pure and holy ones. But in reality, they are the ones in danger of stumbling.

Another Approach:
If you have joint events that include swimming and you want a common dress code, that is perfectly acceptable. But it is a mistake to make the reasons be that those poor girls with no morals or concern for modesty the focus of the issue. For most students today bikinis are not scandalous in any way. It is the common dress of the day. And for those who live in beach communities, it is a way of life.

The real issue is that bikinis cause the weaker sisters and brothers, and mostly brothers, to stumble. The discipleship that needs to happen is for youth workers to walk with their bikini wearing-sisters to help them understand the vast variety of the body of Christ. And part of the call of being a follower of Christ is that we love another and serve one another. Part of that serving means dying to our own freedoms for the sake of the weaker sister or brother.

The next time you get together to plan your event and you are worried about dress code around the pool, it would be helpful if the tone was a little less judgmental about those people, and to own our status as the weaker Christians. Then in grace and humility we can ask those with more freedom to graciously give up some of their freedom for our sake. This posture would dramatically change the conversation and might even lead to some good ‘ol fashioned discipleship.

Speedos will always be sinful!

That is a question I regularly get asked by my friends in ministry.  And one I ask myself every time Doug (Fields that is) calls me and tries to talk me into working for him to help train his up and coming  youth workers. :)

The truth is, I am a paid youth worker and I love my job.  And even if I didn’t love my job, considering a move and all the dynamics involved in that decision seem to get exponentially more complicated.  Because of the secrecy of the process there seems to be little candid and open conversation about what sort of issues should be brought to the table when considering a job change.

The knee-jerk response is, “God is leading me.” While, I would concede that this is of utmost importance when considering a job change, this is almost always used as a spiritual smoke screen which conceals other factors that are vital to address in this process.

Thumbs-Up-Thumbs-Down

Can we be honest for a minute and put our puffed up spiritual egos on the shelf for a minute and talk.

The truth is I am tempted to take every offer.  I love feeling wanted and valuable, who doesn’t.  When a church pursues you they make you feel like a million bucks.  (Even though they want to only pay you $25,000)  You know how great it is when a committee calls you up and wants to hear your story, your heart for ministry and are so impressed with your revolutionary model of ministry!

It is especially easy to have the exact opposite feeling when you have been in your context for a while.  Because, once you are hired you are in the machine, doing the down and dirty ministry that you love and are called to do.  But no one is asking for your sage advice, no one is impressed with your model of ministry, and students are as fickle as all get out.  Depending on how dry you are feeling, anything sparkly gets attention.  And the dryer you are, the greener the grass will appear.  The trick is doing the spiritual discernment to figure out if this of God or of your ego, of both, or of something in between.

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