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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Your students are not developmentally able 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! But, even more than my son playing professional baseball, my dream for him is to be a godly man who loves Jesus. And as he loves Jesus, to live a life that reflects that love in his personal life. As his personal life reflects his love for Jesus to live “within the culture as a missionary who is as faithful to the Father an his gospel as Jesus was in his own time and place.”

My dream is that my son would mature in his faith and live a life that is missional.

Missional living is truly advanced Christianity. It is advanced because it assumes the foundations of the faith are firmly established. It assumes that we have our identity firmly set in Christ. It assumes a biblical world view, which means that we have a base understanding of scripture. It assumes that our lives reflect the hope and transformation that happens when we grow in Christ. With this foundation of faith firmly set, we can then differentiate ourselves from our culture, we can think abstractly and wrestle with issues of contextualization so we can be faithful to the gospel message in our time and place, just like Jesus was in his time and place. With this abstract thinking we are ready to take our personal faith and our cultural understanding and live as missionaries to our context where we can communicate the good news of Jesus with both our words and deeds.

This advanced form of Christianity is a needed direction for the Church to go. I have been so encouraged by the books and blogs that I have read, the conversations I have had with my colleagues, and even by the conversations among our church’s leadership. Living a missional life, getting outside ourselves and the walls of the church, is exactly what we need to be doing to reach our communities for Christ. While I agree with that this is the trajectory of the church, and the needed direction for our churches, the issue is how much of this our students can digest.

Everyone from Chap Clark to Time Magazine has been saying with a unified voice that adolescents is taking decades longer then the generations that preceded them. What is taking so long is the ability to answer three significant questions regarding their identity. In the book Starting Right, the author says that these key questions are; Who am I? Do I matter? How do I relate to others?

At the very same time that it is taking longer and longer for students to mature, many youth workers are wrestling with how to give this advanced form of Christianity to people who can’t even answer with any certainty question one about who they are, let alone even begin to answer the final question about how they relate to others. While the church needs to have these conversations, it is vital that those of us who work with students don’t put our spiritual journey onto our students. What we are learning and they ways we are working out our faith has to be different than that of the 15 year old boy in our student ministry.

In the student ministry world “milk” has gotten a bad rap. It is true that in Hebrews the author lays into the congregation for still drinking milk. But for real babies, that is what they need to drink. The rub comes when they should be eating solid food and are still drinking milk. I think high school, and certainly middle school students, are not at all ready for steak. This isn’t a put down. If we are honest and take a look at our average student in our ministry we would also agree that our students are not ready for this advanced form of Christianity. They have no idea who they are, or if they matter, or even how to relate to others because of their identity.

Our students are fragmented in their thinking and in their living. At church and with their church friends they live one way, and at school with their school friends they live another. And for some of our students who are blessed to have overlap with these worlds, it appears that they are ready for more, but really they just have a great community while they continue to work out their identity. Working out their identity is the key. And their identity has to be differentiated from their parents’ identity, their peers’ identity, and even their youth group’s identity. This means that who they are and the faith they have and are going to live out is all formed and worked out during this middle season of adolescents.

This brings us back to the original point that students, mid-adolescents, are not ready to live missionaly. They need to work out the fundamentals of their identity and faith by differentiating it from others. It is only after this is done that they are ready to engage their culture in any sort of meaningfully missional way.

My son’s T-ball season is more similar to student ministry then I thought. You see, T-ball is teaching the fundamentals, it is painting the picture of what real baseball will be like. His coaches don’t just give them the age appropriate version of baseball mechanics, they give them age appropriate version of baseball. And this is the delicate balance we need to give our students. We don’t make them have a faith they aren’t ready for, and we don’t baby them with giving them a faith for just where they are at. We give them an age appropriate faith that points to what a mature faith should look like.

Here are a couple of thoughts as we move forward to allowing space for our students to be where they are developmentally, while painting a picture of what healthy mature faith looks like:

We model steak eating Christianity in our own lives. This means that, as adult leaders, we live lives of purpose. Lives where we have a personal and social righteousness, lives where we love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with our God. And these lives are lived out missionaly, firmly planted in our cultural context.

We communicate a Christianity that is missional in our words and deeds. This means that even though our students aren’t developmentally ready to do this, we help them develop the habits of missional living. Just like my son practicing running bases and throwing the ball to first base doesn’t fully matter in T-ball, but it is vital in baseball. In the same way we do these fundamentals with our students. We take them on mission trips, we do acts of service and compassion, and we partner with organizations who work for justice.

We do this in an age appropriate manner. And for this age, our focus should be on identity formation, not identity application. We have to help students figure out who they are and how they matter before we put them to work. If they are just doing the motions without a clear identity, they will struggle with how their faith is any different than the Lions Club or Rotary or Habitat for Humanity. We live missionaly because we have been redeemed and transformed by the power of Jesus Christ, and this is the hope that is the foundation for any sort of missional living.

Let us not put our developmental issues on our students. We need to be missional, we need to push our churches to be missional, but our students need to understand who they are and who they are in Christ before we push them to be missinal. May Jesus, who is so faithful and uses all our feeble attempts, continue to woo, redeem and transform our students so that He may use them to missionaries in their context.

This article was featured on shrinkthechurch.com.

We are not as cutting edge as we think

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Our church leaders, my colleagues in ministry, and my circle of friends take ministry pretty seriously. We are always studying up, praying, and discerning in an continued effort to do the most effective, contextualized ministry that is aligned with the heart of God.

For the past few years those buzz words, I mean models, have been things like, missional, contextual, social justice, authenticity, and community. There is so much to be discussed, said, written on, and implemented surrounding these topics and values. I for one often think of myself as well read and on the early adopter side of ministry trends. So it is both refreshing and humbling to come to the hills of Guatemala and work alongside a church that is already doing all of this!

Here in Santa Apolonia we are partnered with Englesia del Belen (or something close to that) and this church, specifically the church leadership, embody many of the values and strategies that big wig church leaders and speakers are peddling as revolutionary at conferences like Thrive, Catalyst, Youth Workers, etc.

The head elder, a man named Julio, embodies who I want to be as a pastor, leader, and ministry leader in my context.

Hospitality:
Every day our entire team gets to eat at his home. He moved out beds and furniture from two of his rooms even, so we would all fit. He makes time to connect with our students and warmly embraces them. It his Julio's hospitality that has inspired our students to work hard and practice hospitality themselves.

Outreach:
Julio is attractional in his ministry style by providing big and fun events for the community and for our students to engage one another. We played a huge soccer game with our students against some of the students from the church and their friends. It was a great night and at the end, Julio gathered us all together to bless us and pray for us. We are also opening up the church to have a celebratory dinner with the church and our team on Friday. This all by itself is great, but the students and kids that we have connected with throughout the week are welcomed as well.

Authentic and Deep:
The ministry at the church is also built around home groups. Just like you and I have small groups, they have those as well. It is these small groups that carry out ministry and care for each other and for the community. Tonight our kids get to go to 7 or 8 of these small groups and join the study, worship, and prayer.

Missional:
What this church, through the leadership of Julio, does that is the most impressive to me is that they are fully involved in their community. They are members who are involved in politics, even the mayor, who see their role as ambassadors for Jesus and to attempt to model their lives and government around the values of Jesus. They are also being a blessing to their community by caring for the least of these in their town.

The little village up the hill is one of the poorest in Guatemala, and this church has taken it upon themselves to plant a church their, to upgrade the houses, bathrooms, and kitchens of those homes, and care for the elderly. They use their own recourses to do this, and when we came rolling in with our big, American dollars to spend, they funneled it to work projects in this little community.

Always Learning:
I am pretty sure that Julio hasn't been to seminar, been to a major conference, or even aware of some really inspiring podcasts. He is simply a man who knows and loves Jesus, who has decided to follow him for his entire life, to use his influence for the expansion of the kingdom and is modeling ministry that beats closely to the heart of Jesus.

Not bad for a grandpa!

I am glad that I get another picture of how church is done, of what godly women and men look like, and how we can continue to serve Jesus long after our early 20's. Julio is an amazing man, and it is an honor to partner with him and his church. His example is significant for me and for our students!

Please keep praying for us:
Please continue to pray our students and for me as we finish up another great day of ministry. And please pray for Englasia del Belen, Julio, and the ministry they are doing in Santa Apolonia and the little village on the hill.

Calling Teenagers to a Developmentally Appropriate Faith

teenagers2[averageym Note: Andy Blanks is becoming a good friend, and in fact a good enough friend that we found ourselves disagreeing on some ministry philosophy.  I love when we be come good enough friends and that there is already a foundation of humility and grace that we can actually wrestle through issues, sharpen each other, and learn from one another.  Thanks for inviting further conversation.  The post below was featured yesterday on the youthministry360.com blog.] [ym360 Note: This thoughtful and thought provoking post is born out of a discussion Ben and I had based on a post I wrote entitled, "Stop Telling Students To Invite Their Friends To Church." (You can see Ben's comment at the bottom of the page.) I was reminded once again of the great truth that there's room for different opinions and approaches as we all seek to lead students closer to Christ. I'm deeply thankful for Ben and his devotion to Christ, his family, and his ministry. Even if I don't always agree with him. :) --Andy]

This last spring we signed up my 5-year-old for his first season of T-ball. It’s quite entertaining to watch 5-year-olds learning the game of baseball. By the end of the season, the goal is that these kids will (almost) know their positions, the direction to run around the bases, how to hit a ball off a T, and, well, that’s about it. But the foundation has been laid.

While I’d love for my son to live out my his dream of playing in the big leagues one day, my ultimate dream is for him to be a godly man who loves Jesus, and who lives a life that reflects that love. My dream is that he would live “within the culture as a missionary who is as faithful to the Father and his gospel as Jesus was in his own time and place.” In essence, my dream is that my son would live a life that is missional.

I’ll come back to this baseball analogy. But first, I want to talk about this concept of missional living as it relates to the students in our ministries.

I believe missional living is advanced Christianity because it assumes the foundations of the faith are firmly established within an individual. It assumes we know our identity in Christ. It assumes we have a biblical worldview, among other things. With this foundation of faith set, we can then differentiate ourselves from our culture, wrestling with the task of being faithful to the gospel message in our time and place, just like Jesus was in His time and place. This is missional living. And being effective at it depends on having certain foundations in place.

So how does this relate to youth ministry? While I agree that this missional living is the needed direction for our churches, the issue is how much of this our students are ready to embrace.

Everyone from Chap Clark to Time Magazine is pointing out that adolescence is lasting years longer in the current generation of teenagers and young adults than in preceding generations. The excellent book Starting Right provides one take on why this is the case, namely the ability (or inability) of young people to answer three significant questions regarding their identity: Who am I? Do I matter? How do I relate to others?

How do we as youth workers lead students in embracing this advanced form of Christianity when they can’t even answer with much certainty who they are, let alone even begin to answer the final question about how they relate to others? We need to be engaging students with these conversations, helping them work through them. But in doing so, it’s vital that those of us who work with students don’t project a spiritual journey that is developmentally too far ahead of them.

In other words, what we’re teaching students has to be different than what we’re learning.Our current “location” on the path of spiritual growth is (hopefully) different than that of the 15-year-old boy in our student ministry.

In Hebrews the author lays into the congregation for still drinking milk. But this admonition was about expectations. The expectation was that the Hebrews were no longer babies in their faith. Yet many of our students really are spiritual babies, and rightfully so. “Milk” is the expected drink for babies, right? The rub only comes when they should be eating solid food and are still drinking milk.

In my experience, high school and certainly middle school students aren’t at all ready for the "steak" of missional living. This isn’t a put down. If we’re honest about the average students in our ministry, isn’t there a healthy number who aren’t ready for this advanced form of Christianity? They have little idea who they are, whether or not their lives matter, or how to relate to others because of their identity. They’re still working out the fundamentals of their identity and faith. It’s only after this is done that they’re ready to engage their culture in any sort of meaningfully missional way.

And so my son’s T-ball season is more similar to student ministry then I thought. T-ball teaches fundamentals. It paints the picture of what real baseball is like. My son’s coaches don’t just give them the age appropriate version of baseball mechanics; they give them the age appropriate version of baseball. The difference is significant.

This is the delicate balance we need to strike in leading our students. We don’t force-feed them a faith they aren’t ready for. And we don’t baby them by painting a picture of a faith for “just where they are.” We give them an age appropriate faith that points to what a mature faith should look like.

In seeking to lead our students in a developmentally appropriate spiritual growth, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:

We should model a “steak-eating” Christianity This means that, as adult leaders, we live lives of purpose. We model spiritual habits and practices that are foundational to spiritual growth. We live lives where we seek holiness in our personal and public lives, where we love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God . . . Missional lives firmly planted in our cultural context.

We communicate the basics of missional living in our words and deeds My son’s proficiency at running the bases and throwing the ball to first base doesn’t really matter in T-ball. But it’s vital in baseball. In the same way we demonstrate missional fundamentals to our students. We take them on mission trips, we do acts of service and compassion, and we partner with organizations who work for justice. Even though our students aren’t developmentally ready to embrace missional living, we help them develop the foundational habits of missional living.

We model missional living in an age-appropriate manner Because we work with teenagers, our focus should be on identity formation, not identity application. We have to help students figure out who they are and how they matter before we put them to work. If they’re just doing the motions without a clear identity, they’ll struggle with how their faith is any different than the Lions Club or Rotary or Habitat for Humanity. We live missionaly because we’ve been redeemed and transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. This is the hope that is the foundation for any sort of missional living.

We need to be missional, we need to push our churches to be missional, but our students need to understand who they are and who they are in Christ before we push them to missional living.

What about you? How do you approach challenging and leading your students to live out their faith in their unique contexts (both cultural and developmental)?

My prayer for all of us is that Jesus, who is so faithful and uses all our feeble attempts, continue to woo, redeem, and transform our students so that He may use them to be missionaries in their context.