Your students are not ready to live missionaly

Your students are not ready to live missionaly

I think baseball is an amazing sport. On the surface, it is a simple game, hitting and fielding. But the more you dive into the game, the more you see the deep strategy, pitch selection, and the never ending statistics. Since my dream of becoming a professional baseball player didn’t pan out, I am now putting that pressure on my son. So, this last spring we signed him up for his first season of T-ball. It is quite an entertaining sight to watch a group of 5 year olds learning the game of baseball.

The first season of T-ball is just that, learning the very basics. By the end of the season, this kids mostly know their positions, the direction to run around the bases, how to hit a ball off a T, and that is about it. But the foundation has been laid and a trajectory set for these kids to become legitimate baseball players and for my son to fulfill my dream of playing in the Bigs!

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Retelling a lost story

Retelling a lost story

Remember This Movie: Lions and tigers and bears, ___________! If you could immediately fill in the blank, then, whether you realize it or not, you have been impacted by culture. If upon further thought, you could fill in the blank and your mind went to Dorothy and her companions walking along a yellow brick road towards Oz, then you have some context for that cultural expression. And if the conclusion of that statement causes you begin to think about your favorite scenes, smile at the munchkins, hum a song, and even have fond memories of seasons of life when you enjoyed watching the film, then you are part of the generation that has been impacted by the movie, The Wizard of Oz.

Many of us have grown up with this movie. We know the songs, we know the stories, and we know the characters. We have seen poor high school versions of this movie, and even a brave interpretation of the story by Micahel Jackson. And because this story is so ingrained in our current pop culture, there was a place for someone to come along and use that story to tell a fuller story. And that is exactly what happened in the production of Wicked.

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The hidden danger of mission trips for students:

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It is once again time to start gearing up our annual mission trips.  There are so many great options out there.  Some are as close as an urban setting, some are in rural and isolated contexts, and some are international ranging in proximity to Mexico all the way to Thailand or Africa.  One of the key considerations when planning a mission trip with students has to be assessing the potential dangers of the context we will be traveling to.

Our church has changed our context for short term missions several times depending on concerns for danger.  We have taken into consideration the violence in an urban setting or an outbreak of hepatitis within the street community.  We have wrestled with the potential danger of crossing a drug warfare zone in the boarder towns of Mexico.  Add to the danger of the location transportation and housing, and we start to realize that a mission trip for students is a costly and dangerous endeavor.

As someone who thinks that short term mission trips is the bread and butter of student ministry, I have come to the conclusion that these potential dangers are part of the process of helping students (and parents) to live outside their comfort zone.  And taking our students and putting them in a totally foreign and partially dangerous context softens their hearts and opens their eyes to see the working of God in new and fresh ways.

But after leading dozens of trips over the years, I am starting to realize that while the surface dangers are real and must be taken seriously, there is actually a bigger danger that is hidden lurking just below the surface.  This danger is cementing in our students a false view of missions and of themselves.

Every year we ask students to fill out an application.  One of the questions has something to do with why they want to participate in this trip.  And with almost 100% unanimity the answer is “we want to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”  Don’t get me wrong, this is an awesome value, it is a value that is at the heart of the Christian faith.  Those of us with power and resources are to care for the orphan and the widow, for the poor and oppressed.

However, when we unintentionally frame missions as us, wealthy suburbanites, helping those poor people, we continue to instill in our students that they have their acts together and are “above” others.  I am not saying that the suburban church is the problem, or that we need to beat down our own context or culture and make students feel awful for the blessings and resources they have.  The suburban culture is just that, a culture.  But when we engage in missions we must consider and celebrate the culture in which we are going to.  We have to help students see that we are guests in another culture, not superior to those we visiting.

Our students are naturally self-absorbed and limited in their worldview.  And when we set up our trips as us coming to save the day, their foundational worldview doesn’t have the chance to be challenged.  And this is the true danger of student ministry short term missions.  We take one of the most significant spiritual experiences of their high school carriers and actually solidify some of the worst of suburban thinking.  Missions is not suburban kids with their wealth and privilege helping the poor.  This is the danger in compassion ministries.

One of the best books I have read on mission for those of us leading trips from a suburban context is When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself by Brian Fikkert.  This book is a must read for anyone leading a trip.  My biggest take a way from my read of the book is that we must change our view of wealth and poverty.  All of us are wealthy in some ways and poor in others.  The challenge is to identify the ways in which we are wealthy and the ways in which we are poor.  Once we have done this, then we can come into any context, specifically impoverished ones, and easily become partners who share resources.  We then have a real chance for cultural exchange, instead of seeing ourselves as superiors above the poor people we help.

As the fundraising, logistics and training for our annual short term trips are gearing up.  There are many practical dangers we must take into account.  But it takes intentional work and training to breakthrough and breakdown the traditional mindset of many suburban students, and leaders.  Here are four values to consider as you plan your short term missions trip this year:

1)   Short term missions is about recognizing that God is already at work wherever it is we are going. The God we serve, so loves the entire world.  And the place that we will be heading off to for our short term missions trip is already loved by God and God already has people in place doing great ministry there.  This immediately takes the focus off of us and what we bring, and opens our eyes to the spiritual reality that God is alive and at work long before we showed up.

2)  Short term missions is about partnering not helping. We now have the privilege of coming alongside the people who God has called to love that community for the long haul.  And when we see our role as partners there becomes an exchange of blessings that occurs, we become givers and receivers, rather then saviors.  For this to be successful we must find organizations that are not only established and committed to that particular community, but organizations that we can trust.  The more you trust an organization, the more you can truly partner and celebrate all that God has done before you got there, is doing while you are there, and will continue to do when you leave.

3)  Short term missions is about student development. There is little long term benefit our students can bring to mission field.  We are only there for a week and often have little knowledge of the culture and language.  At best we are a blessing to the organization / missionaries we partner with.  Because that is the case, we get to use this experience to shape and transform the students we are called to be missionaries to.  And that means that we must help shape this trip in a way that broadens their view of ministry, not affirm their privileged world view.  Their spiritual health and development is our chief concern.

If we are taking students on short term mission trip we must clarify what we are doing.  It is true that many of us come from churches with significant resources and we want to partner with the heart of God in doing ministries of compassion.  But we cannot solidify the thinking that financial resources are the definition of God’s blessings.  Wealth does not put us a superiors.  We can not let our students live into this false and dangerous reality.

Our task in short term missions is to help our students understand how big God’s heart is for the world, to partner with those who are already there, and to be a blessing for the short time our paths cross.  We all have wealth and we all have poverty.  By helping our students identify and articulate where they are wealthy and where they are poor allows them to truly be partners in ministry and cultural exchange.

helping church kids develop an easter faith

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Painting the Picture: It is easy for the students in our ministries to get the wrong idea about Christianity. And to be fair, it isn't their fault. Most of our students are connected to our ministries because their parents want them to be. At some point in their parents' life they made a profession of faith and have given their hearts to Jesus. The parents have intentionally chosen to be a part of a church community for their own spiritual growth and development, and part of that decision iis finding a place for their children to develop spiritually as well. Which leads us back to our students.

Most of our students are part of our ministries due to the faith of their parents rather than their own. This is probably some of the reason that the faith of many of our church family students seems so dry and weak. At best they are choosing the religion of their parents. But this religion of their parents is a far cry from the Easter faith that is offered to us by the risen Christ.

If we want our students to move from religious faith to and Easter faith we must paint the picture of what that sort of faith looks like. We have to affirm them where they have been and where they are, and encourage them to take the next steps into a deeper and more alive faith. By examining some of the purposes of the Easter story we can help students identify where they are in their personal faith and what it might look like to move closer to a faith that is alive and full of power.

Substitutional Atonement: This is a big and fancy word for church people, but it is vital to our understanding of Christianity. This purpose of the atonement can be summed up in 2 Corinthians 5:21. "For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ."

This purpose of the resurrection is the beginning steps in our Christian faith. We are sinful people separated from God and it is Christ who takes our sin upon himself and bears our punishment in our place. And in exchange we become righteous, not because of our works, but because of our faith.

It is this understanding that most of our church kids understand and even accept. This is an intellectual understanding of faith and the transaction that happens because of the cross. But if our faith understanding ends here, we are left with a boring and selfish version of Christianity.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit: The second purpose of the resurrection is that the Jesus we love and follow is not just a sacrificed savior, but is actually alive. In John 16 5-15, Jesus tells his disciples that he must go so that the Holy Spirit can come. And it is the Holy Spirit that leads us into truth, convicts us of sin, comforts us in our sorrow and grief.

The Holy Spirit is the key ingredient to transform a generational faith into a personal one. Without the Holy Spirit, our students are destined to be simple religious people who will be good church folk. But when our students actually recognize that the Holy Spirit is alive and active, who wants to lead and direct their lives, they have an opportunity to actually develop a relationship with a God who is alive.

Conversing with the Holy Spirit is dramatically different than the religious duty of confessing sins, thanking God for our blessings, and offering prayer requests. We must help our students realize that the Holy Spirit is what separates our faith from simple religion. And access to the Holy Spirit cannot be transferred generation to generation. We can only have access by our own confession of faith.

Power over Sin and Death: "Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God's law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin." Romans 7:24-45 about sums it up!

Death and sin are the signatures of this world. We experience grief and heartbreak because of this broken world. Peoples horrible choices impact us and crush us. Our choices impact others and crush others. This world is broken!!!

For our church kids and for most of their peers, the world is broken and good works, charity and recycling is the answer. The resurrection is our answer. Death and sin no longer have the final word. We do not have to be good people trying to make the world better. Rather in Christ we are new creations. We are being transformed into the image of Christ, we are being healed and made whole.

This process of transformation is not by works but by the work of a Savior who is active and alive. Jesus' resurrection proves that he has true power over the grave and over sin. And 2000 years of church history prove that this power is real. Telling your story and the story of people in your own community is vital to help shape the reality of this transformation.

Students aren't old enough to have the perspective to see the gradual healing that the Holy Spirit has done in our lives. But this is the testimony we must proclaim. Gutter to Glory stories aren't helpful for their faith development. Jesus is alive and is at work in our lives in big and small ways and we must be faster to point that out and celebrate together.

Ushering in a New Kingdom: This last purpose of the resurrection is the most exciting and least selfish. So far the beneficiaries of the first three purposes are ours. We are the ones who are forgiven and made right. We are the ones who get direction and comfort from the Holy Spirit. And we are the ones who are being transformed and freed from a life dominated by death and sin.

But the last purpose, and I think the main purpose of the resurrection is to usher in a brand new kingdom. Colossians 1:13 says, "For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son" We pray, "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done." The resurrection is about the suffering servant regaining his proper place in creation at the right hand of the Father.

The resurrected Lord is now king of a kingdom that is nothing like the kingdom of this world with all its death and destruction. It is an upside down kingdom where the poor, the meek, and the pure in heart are blessed and the pride are taken down. It is a kingdom that is rueld by faith, hope and love.

What is mind boggling is that the risen Lord invites us to be part of the ushering in. We are the body of Christ and it is our job as people with a genuine faith in Christ and access to the Holy Spirit to roll up our sleeves and get to work. The mission trips we do, the acts of compassion and mercy we do, the justice work we do are all part of bringing in this new kingdom.

Helping Our Students Get It: This Easter faith can not be transferred down from their parents. Our students need us to help them understand where they are genuinely at with their faith. Do they simply have intellectual assent to the work of the cross? Do they have a one way relationship with the Holy Spirit? Did they know that they can be transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, not by them trying harder? Did they know that they are part of God's solution for healing and life on this planet?

Adolescence is the appropriate season for them to separate from their parents' identity and faith and to figure out their own. We must not be blind to good church kids saying having good theology doing good things and miss a faith that is connected to the power of Easter. Let's ask them the hard questions and be praying our guts out for them as they figure this out.

May this Easter faith be just as alive in me too. He has risen.

Some Questions For Reflection: 1) Which purpose of the resurrection do you most identify with and why? 2) How do these purposes manifest itself in your life? 3) What is the purpose after the one you picked and how can. you lean into that more this week? 4) What is your biggest hang with really living like we believe in an alive God and not a dead religion? 5) What is one thing you can do this week to live into the reality of the resurrection?

a slave to more then just caffeine

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This year for lent I decided to not just give up coffee, but to give up caffeine.  I knew this was going to be difficult, but that is partially why I chose this discipline. In my mind, I know that I don’t want to be mastered by anything. I want to be in control of my body, mind and spirit.  And in my heart, I knew that caffeine might have me mastered.

When I start to list out the amount of caffeinated drinks I consume in a day, it becomes evident that this was a hefty sacrifice.

  • 2 cups of coffee before I go into the office
  • 1 cup of coffee at the office
  • 1 cup of coffee for a morning meeting contact work
  • 2 24oz of soda for lunch with a student
  • 1 cup of coffee in the afternoon meeting
  • 2 24oz soda for an afternoon soda with a student
  • 1 rockstar to get me going for youth group.

I know, totally disgusting and out of control.  When I began this lenten season, I was excited to get some control of my life again and not be ruled by caffeine.  But as the weeks unfolded, God revealed to me something unexpected, and even a bit terrifying.

I am not addicted to caffeine in the typical sense.  I found that I still can get out of bed. I didn’t have withdrawal symptoms like headaches.  And I wasn’t really that much more cranky and difficult to be around than I normal.

But what I did find was that I can not maintain my current pace of life without it.  Throughout these weeks where I have maintained my crazy schedule with out the aid of caffeine.  And I realized that my life is totally out of control and the expectations I have on my self are way out of balance.

In my typical week I am waking up by 6:00, running 25 miles, writing 3000-5000 words, reading 40+ chapters of scripture, preparing 3 different lessons and programs for sunday school, jr high and sr high, normal meetings, planning upcoming trips or events,5-10 contact meetings, and then trying to be a good dad and husband on top of that.

With over 200oz of caffeinated liquids running through my body I was able to maintain this, and even excel in some of it.  With no caffeine running through my veins, I have noticed a gradual deterioration in my soul.  I am not simply addicted to it, like my body needs it, I am addicted to it, like my life needs it.  And I am not going to lie, I thought that this “season of sacrifice” was going to be another opportunity to prove how strong I am, but instead God is using it to reveal some new areas brokenness in me and a place of growth and transformation for me.

It is true that I don’t want to be mastered by anything, and the thing that is mastering me is not what I drink, but how I live. Since I wasn’t expecting this revelation, I have no idea what this means for me as I move forward.  My expectations on myself are ridiculous and impossible.  My prayer for the remainder of this lenten season is that my expectations about being a follower of Christ, a pastor, a youth worker, a writer, a runner, a husband, a father and a friend would be measured by the prodding of the Holy Spirit revealed through the Word, through community, and through my on sensitivities to His leading.

How fun is it when we enter into disciplines and rituals and God actually shows up like he promises he will.  And how fun that God doesn’t just let us learn what we are prepared to learn, but that when we are genuinely open to his leading, he will correct us, rebuke us, encourage us, heal us and transform us.  And he always does this more then we could ever expect.

Who will rescue me from this body of death, Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Romans 7:24-25.  Deliver me!



wired but dis-connected: helping kids establish genuine relationships in a networked world

This post was originally posted at and in their january / february print journal. A couple of weeks ago, I experienced the "Twilight Zone" in Sunday School. Even though the room was full of students, there was this strange silence. At first, I couldn't tell what was happening. I know Sunday School is early, but as I looked around at the group, I could tell it wasn't that everyone was tired or bored. Friends were sitting next to friends and everyone seemed fine, except for me. As I looked around the room again, I realized everyone had his or her phone out and was texting away, many of them texting each other!

I experienced a similar phenomenon while I was with some family friends for their daughter's wedding. Their daughter, who had just graduated from college, had all her bridesmaids together at the house to hangout before the rehearsal. This group of girls had been great friends throughout college and loved being with each other. Now that these girls were together, reunited, instead of laughing and telling stories, the room was quiet with just the soft sound of typing while they updated their Facebook pages with their laptops and phones in front of them.

These are just two antidotal encounters of groups of friends who are together, and instead of relating in human-to-human contact, they chose to connect through texting and Facebook. Technology always changes how we communicate, but this new development is changing the ways in which we communicate and connect, as well as changing the definition of friend.

is the sky falling?

I don't want to be an alarmist, proclaiming the sky is falling. I know we never are going to get back to the days of handwritten letters. In fact, we might never get back to the days of email; but this continued evolution in communication and social networking brings with it some pitfalls of which those of us who love and work with students should be aware. In doing so, we can help them navigate their world and develop socially in a way that reflects their God-given nature.

The 1990s were amazing in the advancement of electronic communication. Car phones and email first showed up on the radar in the early 90s; the World Wide Web became a viable tool by the mid-90s; and by the end of the decade, email, websites and cell phones had become part of our everyday experience. In August 2003, MySpace entered the scene and the social networking phenomenon was underway. MySpace rose in prominence through the 2000s until Facebook took over in 2008. For the past two years, Facebook has been the number one place for students to connect, share life and communicate the large and small parts of their lives with each other.

This incredible rise of social networking is an astonishing thing all by itself, but alongside this development is the rise and proliferation of cell phones. When I talked to the students I work with, many of them have had cell phones since middle school (around 2006) and our middle schoolers have had cell phones since fourth or fifth grade. From the moment they got their cell phones, they have been texting—and at an amazing rate. Many students are texting in the 3,000- to 5000-per-month range and some much higher. When I asked some of them about how many cell phone minutes they use, the overwhelming response was "hardly any."

it is a new world:

Gone are the days of sitting on the phone and talking for hours, staying up late and talking with friends about anything and everything. Now everything is communicated is snippets, 140-180 characters at a time, disconnected from real face time or contact. The big question is, "What does this sort of disconnected contact and lack of conversation do to social development?"

The upside is that students have all the space in the world to try on new personas. They can expand their friend base with many people as they have time to request. This allows potentially hundreds more in their lives then their predecessors had even a decade before. Another positive is that students can find people with similar interests and values with just a click of a button.

The downside is that all of this communication is happening with very little connection. All of these interactions are done in isolation, separate from human contact. At the very moment adolescents need community and connection to work out their identities and help develop social cues, they are becoming increasingly isolated.

our students are developing their social skills in complete isolation:

Our students are having so many experiences, yet processing them in compete isolation. When bullying happens; when depression is overwhelming them; when they engage in risky behavior; when they try to figure out romantic relationships, feelings and expressions…all of this is done in seclusion from the adult world and often without the knowledge of their peers around them.

This isolation at such a vital time in their social, emotional and spiritual development is dangerous. The ways in which experiences are shaped or not shaped are vital for healthy development. As adults who love students, we must be aware of the hidden life where students are communicating and help them connect in healthy and genuine ways.

In the very fabric of who God is, the Trinity, there is community and connectedness. God is community; God created humans to be in community with each other and with Him. In Christ we are connected; we are family; we are one body. It is in our very core to be connected with other humans and God. When we provide space and opportunities for this to happen, transformation occurs.

It is similar to taking a group of students, who have lived only in an urban context, camping for the weekend. Away from their normal environment, these students are surprised and amazed by the new sights of brilliant stars, towering mountains or the powerful ocean. When these students experience the awesome power and richness of creation, they get a taste of who they were created to be by interacting with nature and reality in a different way than what technology allows. In a similar way, when students experience true connection in human-to-human contact, there is a realization that there is a superficiality to the typical connections they know.

some simple tools to help connect our students:

There are many simple things one can do to accomplish the goal of genuine connection, and many of us are already doing them. If we can get our heads around some of the added benefits of these activities and use them more purposefully for connection, students will develop a taste for community and crave more and more of it.

Youth group games and mixers, sports, and board games are all designed for fun. But on a very basic level these games are tools of social development. These games and mixers teach students appropriate ways of interaction and how to communicate with one another. And the best part is that none of this is done in private. All this interaction and awkwardness happens in plain sight where other students and adults can help give shape and define social cues so that we actually get to walk alongside students to help them love and connect in ways that honor God.

Many student ministries have some form of small groups. And these small groups are our ministries’ bread and butter when it comes to helping students actually connect. There is space in these groups for students to share their stories to get support and prayer. And while most of the time we are content with students sharing their stories and the rest of the group listening and waiting for their turn to share, we can give our small group a larger purpose. We can make these groups a place of true connection. We can help our students learn how to really listen, how to ask follow up questions, and how to remember details and check in later. As adult leaders we have the privilege of hearing these stories, and we also have the responsibility to help shape these experiences. Instead of working these experiences and issues out in isolation, we can walk alongside them encouraging them to work it out using the wisdom and care of their community and scripture.

It is true that texting and Facebook are here to stay and for the foreseeable future will be the norm in communication. While we can’t turn back the clock, we can use our piece of the pie, our place of influence, to draw students out of isolation and a false sense of connection and into a warm community with true connection. We have the opportunity to take these students out of the city and into the forest and give them a taste of true community. And once you have experienced true connection with other humans and even more with God, texting and Facebook will become just the tools they were created to be, avenues for connecting, but not replacements for true connection.