This last month at youth group we have been looking at media, pop culture, you tubes, music videos and movies in order to develop a more biblically framed world view.  And in doing this, I was surprised by what we discovered.

Of course there is plenty of garbage out there, and yes most of it dehumanizes and satisfies our base impulses.  For as much as I love Katy Perry, Dark Horse leaves a lot to be desired.  But as we were exploring media we came across the new John Legend song, “All of Me.”  And to my surprise, this was the most biblically accurate and affirming song in both pop culture and even in the Christian music charts.

Take a listen and let me know if you agree or disagree:

How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter!
Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of an artist’s hands.
Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.
Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies.
Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim.
Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel.
Your hair is like royal tapestry; the king is held captive by its tresses.
How beautiful you are and how pleasing, my love, with your delights!
Your stature is like that of the palm,  and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.

Song of Songs 7:1-9

God KillsOver the past few weeks I have been reading an incredible book on spiritual formation.

It seems like most of the books I have read lately about spiritual formation, Christian living, or about ministry have all had a pretty strong sense of self help sort of vibe to them.  As you can tell by the title of this book, God Kills is not that sort of book.

God Kills, written by Art Greco, has very little to do with life.  For in this book, it is Satan who works hard to give life, but it is Jesus who is in the business of killing.  Killing our flesh and the the things that we so badly long for and have wrongly assumed bring us life.  When, in fact, it is only by Jesus killing, destroying, and eliminating those hidden parts of our soul that pollute our hearts.

Greco goes through seven spiritual disciplines that have seem to gone missing in our current spirituality of personal fulfillment.  With full transparency, we are walked through the spiritual development of a pastor and theologian, and mostly as a fellow sojourner towards the cross of Christ.

As you read this book, I am sure you will notice the deep waters of theology and spiritual growth in which Art swims.

It would be easy to sit in an ivory tower and give some deep pontifications surrounding these disciplines, but instead, you get a peek into an incredibly reflective and brilliant man as he works these disciplines into his own life.

Throughout this book, Art explores the disciplines of:

  1. Humility: God has a bigger plan than the plan he has for you.
  2. Teachability:  Maybe you’re right
  3. Celibacy: It’s not just about sex anymore
  4. Courage: Be afraid be very, very afraid.
  5. Faith: Pain, poverty and other really good things God doesn’t seem to mind you experiencing.
  6. Yieldedness: Live free and Die!
  7. Loyalty:  Look both ways before walking.

If you are looking for a devotional book, or a book that is going to kick you in the butt and spur you on to wrestle through some difficult topics as you grow towards Christ, then this is your book!

If you are noticing a larger chasm between the pop spirituality that is supposed to fulfill your soul and the deeper waters of death and service that are molded by our savior and want to explore this sort of death, then this is the book for you!

If you long to read a book by someone who not only has some good theology and wisdom, but who is currently walking down this road as well, then this book is for you!

I am thankful for a contemporary book that is authentic, humble, and deep that addresses the issues the church at large and that I personally am encountering.  I pray that God will not allow me to embrace the spirituality of self fulfillment, but rather the spirituality that daily lays bear my flesh and hammers it to the cross so that only what is made alive through the spirit will grow and thrive!

I could not recommend this book more and hope that you enjoy exploring some underused muscles in our spiritual development!

Blessings

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My good friend and brilliant youth worker, Carlos Devitis, from Peninsula Covenant Church established one of the best ministry ideas I have heard in a long time.  In fact, it is so great, I am actually stealing an idea from him for once and implementing it in my own ministry.

Once a month, or at least 4-6 times a year, we are going to invite our parents to join us on our Wednesday night youth group extravaganza.  Now, I am not totally sure what Carlos does, but the way we are working it out in our context is like this:

  • Youth Group happens just like normal for our middle and high school students
  • While the students are getting after it, parents will meet downstairs.
  • The parents will have dessert and coffee, a small mixer and then a discussion led by me.
  • This month our topic is “loving your unique kid”  It’s not sexy, but should get the job done.

The whole point of the evening is for parents to not feel so isolate and alone.  To bring refreshment and encouragement to our weary parents.  And hopefully, some of them may connect with each other and build friendship and community.  As parents connect and are encouraged their entire family system does better.

To be honest, parent ministry is not what I am most passionate about.  I love students and student ministry with al my heart.  But good student ministry can only happen when we as youth workers engage the entire family.  Big Wednesday’s are how Carlos does it, it is now how I do it.  How will you do it?

I would love to know the creative and effective ways in which you are engaging parents and partnering with them for the sake of the students we work with.

Here is a talk I gave at our denominational’s youth connection.  Recognizing our culture has changed is the easy part.  Developing a way to share the gospel and a path of discipleship is the call of this moment in time.  What are your thoughts?

What is Lent?

I find it interesting that as youth workers we are always looking for a new series to do with our students.  We inherently know that we must mix up the ritual and routine of youth group or kids will get board and get into a rut.  This need to mix things up might actually come from God himself.  I think that we were actually created for seasons, for change, for rhythm.  And this need for annual celebrations is affirmed all throughout scripture with the commands to celebrate all the different festivals.

While this need for seasonal change is needed and expected, many Christians seem to discard the traditional season change in the Church.  According to the church calendar, today is Ash Wednesday marking the transition from “ordinary time” to the season of Lent.

According to Wikipedia, Lent is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter.  The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer – through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial.

Lent is the worst season in the Church.

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“Everything is permissible for me”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”–but I will not be mastered by anything. 1 Corinthians 6:12

Who needs lent?

In just a few days millions of Christians around the world will be celebrating Ash Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.  For many Evangelicals this word and this season have zero meaning.  In an theological system that centers on grace and a cultural context that thrives on individual freedom, it makes sense that the drab and dreary season of lent would get little air time.  But it is exactly for those very reasons that we should reexamine the Lenten discipline as we journey towards the cross and ultimately toward Easter.

I have recently rediscovered the many places throughout scripture that call those of us who follow Christ to give up our freedoms, make our bodies slaves, and give up our rights for the benefit of others.  The more I wrestle with these topics with my friends, the more I realize that in our grace based, individualized context, any talk of limiting either seems to be blasphemous.

Can slavery actually bring me freedom?

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I love at attractional ministry as much as the next guy.  I love the hype, the big games, the thrill of the crowd, the dynamics of a full room.  In fact, most of how I judge my effectiveness in student ministry is by how full I can get the room.

But one of the pit falls of this approach is that us youth workers end up ministering to the “crowd” and not to the individual students.  As a crowd, students generally play ball.  They engage games, seem to engage in worship, listen quietly and give us adults the answers we want to hear in small groups.

This is all well and good and strokes our ego.  But my fear is that as we engage the crowd, we loose sight of the individual students, their stories, their issues, and their world view.

The more time I spend with students, I am convinced that students are more than rebellious teens, or broken in need of healing, but they are straight up lost.  They have no idea what end is up or who or why they ended up where they are or do what the do.

Even though they may play ball in our system, the truth is that their world view is so far removed from ours.  And if this is the case, the we must as the question, “What are we really doing as a student ministry?”

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There are three things that I have found to be true in my life. And surprisingly, I have found that these three things turned out to be in conflict. They are:

1) I love Jesus
2) I love learning
3) I love middle schoolers

On the surface, these three things are every youth worker’s bread and butter. It is these three foundational values that have launched us into this unique vocation. But what I have been wrestling with is that the combination of these three values have almost closed the door on good, long term vocational ministry.

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My best “go to” game!

February 19, 2014 — 6 Comments

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Ok, it is Wednesday and you have been cranking out a semester and a half of youth ministry.  Are you looking for a simple and fun game that takes practically zero set up, engages the entire group, AND is actually pretty fun?  Then this is the game for you.  (I am not taking credit as this game’s inventor, I just love it and it has been my go to for over 10 years)  No, its not shuffle your buns, which is my, not fun, go to, game.  It is a game called:  CATEGORIES

SET UP:  Circle of chairs, pitcher of water, cup of water.  This game is great for groups of 10-30 or for large groups, simply divide into groups of 10-30.  Have everyone sit in a chair in a circle with one person in the middle.

THE OBJECT:  The object of the game is to simply not get splashed with water.

RULES:  The person in the center of the circle picks a category.  They could pick any category.  Some simple ones that can get you started are: states, subjects in school, subjects in school, baseball teams, candy bars, cereal, boy bands, people in the room.  Once a category has been called, the person in the middle tells me, the leader the specific item in that category.  (This keeps everyone honest)  Then I take the pitcher of water and pour some of it in the cup of water and give it to the person in the center.

GAME PLAY:  The person in the center calls the category:  Candy Bars!  Then goes around the circle so that everyone takes their turn naming a candy bar.  The people sitting down call out candy bars hoping to not say the one that the person in the center told the leader.  If they say “Snickers,” the item that was told to the leader, then that person gets splashed with water.   Or if someone repeats what someone else said they get jacked with some water as well.  Then the person who got splashed takes a turn as the person in the center.

That’s it!  Enjoy!

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Peter Pan is one of my favorite characters.  The desire to never grow old, fight pirates, and fly probably influenced my decision to become a youth pastor more than I care to admit.  Peter Pan has a dark side, however, that we must come to terms with in youth ministry. Think about how our attitudes as youth pastors often betray a Peter Pan mentality.  We think we will get to be young forever by working with teens.  We will be a magical leader who will give lost boys, (and girls) love and purpose.  That purpose is to have fun and fight the pirates of worldliness, boredom, and bad cable tv.  Parents are at best unnecessary and at worst, a roadblock to having fun, I mean to true ministry.  As for the love triangle with Wendy and Tink, I’ll have to save that for another post.  If we don’t come face to face with our dark side, we will become increasingly immature, negligent, arrogant, and dangerous.  All kids are meant to grow up and that includes us.  Youth need parents to be involved in their lives.  Youth pastors and other adults can have great influence in the lives of teens, but not as smug, impressive, show-offs.  We need to leave behind Peter Pan and find a better model to emulate.

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Parenting_Beyond_Your_Capacity_Connect_Your_Family_to_a_Wider_Community_OrangeThis last week I read a really helpful book by Reggie Joiner and Carey Nieuwhof called Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. This is a straightforward book that offers a clear roadmap for parents who want to connect their family to a wider community of faith. And for parents who think that going at it alone is best, Joiner and Nieuwhof offer a compelling argument for the need to invite others into the circle so that our kids have the widest safety net possible as our kids grow into adults and explore a faith separate from ours.

Parenting Beyond Your Capacity is kind of like a primer for parents to understand the Orange concept of parenting. Being an orange parent is understanding that “a parent’s influence is best realized in partnership with a wider community.” And that community is the church. If you are looking for a book to share with parents to help them understand the orange model of ministry than this book is for you. This book highlights 5 family values that are key for the long term spiritual health and maturity of kids and students.

Family Value 1) Widen the Circle: Pursue strategic relationships for your kids.

Family Value 2) Imagine the End: Focus your priorities on what matters most.

Family Value 3) Fight for the Heart: Communicate in a style that gives the relationship value.

Family Value 4) Create a Rhythm: Increase the quantity of quality time you spend together.

Family Value 5) Make it Personal: Put yourself first when it comes to personal growth.

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A huge gift for parents

February 10, 2014 — 2 Comments

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It is really interesting how youth workers seem to have a love / hate, ok, maybe a hate / hate relationship with parents.

This last week I was at a national gathering with youth workers and in a break out session with 35 colleagues, I asked them to share their biggest frustration in ministry.  No, joke, in unison, the all said parents!It was interesting as it was sad.  For whatever reason, the tenor of student ministry professionals is that we are God’s agent for the spiritual development of students.  We are awesome.  We are experts at adolescent development and faith formation.  (At least, that is what we tell ourselves.)  We spend our entire existence dreaming up programs and meeting with students so that they will come to love Jesus.  But then our hearts get crushed as our students don’t show up to the parties we throw because we are getting such little support from parents.

I mean, COME ON!  Is soccer really more important!!

Then there are the family first peeps who think that professional student ministry is an anathema!

According to part of the bible, the nuclear family has the sole responsibility for the faith formation of their children.  All of the weight that we think we carry as youth workers, is carried exponentially by the family first crowd because their very own child’s walk with Jesus is dependent on their attempt at being whole, balanced, theologically sound, and the perfect representation of the their heavenly father.  All kidding aside, setting yourself up as the person who is ultimately responsible for your child’s faith development is an incredible burden to carry.

What if there was a third way? Continue Reading…

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One of the most important aspects to a balanced and thriving student ministry is having an intentional scope and sequence to your curriculum.  We must be intentional with what we teach and to use the limited amount of time we have with our students well.  And while many of you are thoughtful about your teaching and are biblically deep, contextually astute, and clever as all get out, there might be one significant area that gets left out.

I am sure that you would agree that our culture is getting more and more coarse.  Students are increasingly self absorbed and rude.  Maybe the truth is that you don’t even realize it anymore or have simply died to it.  Maybe you think that you will lose street cred if you push back against their entitlement mentality.  Or maybe you are satisfied that you can at last get them to say grace when you are all together for a meal.

As students become more and more isolated, they have fewer and fewer places in their lives where they actually have to consider others.  Their music choices, their movie choices, their food choices are all individualized.  Whatever they want whenever they want it is their instinct and highest value.  If at any time a student is done paying attention in a group, they simply need to plug in their ear buds, check facebook, and check out.

Why manners are important:

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Bribery_Pays

I remember it like it was yesterday.  I had an outreach event where we used a raffle with a huge prize as an incentive to have kids come to youth group and to bring friends.  The prize was HUGE and so was the criticism I received form my intern and her recently received B.A. in youth ministry.  The bribe worked and a ton of students came to our student ministry, and this event turned the corner in momentum of for our ministry.  And unfortunately turned my interns heart away from me and student ministry.  Which leads me to this question:

Is there harm in bribing kids to come to youth group?

Now, before you get all judgmental or self righteousness in your theology, why are you really opposed to bribing kids to come to youth group?  I’ve heard the arguments:

  • That people live out the gospel that they are introduced to.  
  • That bribing kids doesn’t correctly portray the life of faith that we are called to live.  
  • Bribing highlights students selfishness and doesn’t help students live the kingdom life that they are designed to live.

But aren’t these arguments simply the pontificating of youth workers who have given up a little bit?

Remember back you your middle and high school experience.  Why did you come to faith? Was it a cute boy or girl?  You didn’t want to go to hell? Jesus would give you a better life?  We are all selfish and self absorbed at first.  Meeting some of these needs is just getting our foot in the door.  And Jesus does that with us, we do that in every other ministry, and for students, it is the same.

#bribing4jesus

What do you do to get kids to come to your program?  How is that not bribing?  What if you embraced that reality and capitalized on it?

Let’s be honest, our job is not that complicated.  Really, after a year you have learned everything you need to know in order to faithfully do student ministry.  For the quick studies, you have made it a past year and are good to go.  For those who didn’t make that first year, you probably aren’t reading this blog. :)

Of course there is always things to learn, and I am a huge fan of life long learning.  But for the most part, the basics aren’t that hard.  What is hard are the specific ministry encounters, our own soul care, and navigating the political waters at church.  No book or class will help you in these endeavors.  The only hope you have for success and longevity is to be connected to colleagues who love student ministry and love Jesus.

I am so thankful to be a part of a denomination that values connection so much.  I have had the pleasure and joy of spending this last week connecting with my fellow youth workers, sharing life, joys, failures, and best practices for some mutual edification.

Connection is one of my core values and I am fully committed to it.  Is it for you?

What do you do to connect with fellow youth workers?  How do you stay sharp and encouraged in ministry?  May you too find some colleagues that you can connect with and share life with so you can serve your students for the long haul.

Peace!

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There has been some discussion lately among some of my youth ministry friends about the future of our profession. There seems to be another round of shots fired across the bow at youth ministry and the professionals that lead these ministries. Sticky Faith, Family Based Ministries, and people with axes to grind continue to lay the decaying faith of adolescents and young adults squarely at the feet of us professionals and the failed models we are propping up.

Fellow professional youth workers have no fear, our jobs are here to stay!! We have an amazing calling and part of an amazing legacy, and I am convinced that for the foreseeable future, churches will continue to do everything in their power to make sure their staffs include a paid youth worker. Here’s why:

1) If a church is going to attract young families, they need to prove that they will care for the entire spiritual development of their kids.

For better or worse, a church that has a paid youth worker, signifies to the entire church family that they care about families. While children’s ministry is incredibly important, many parents will tolerate poor children’s ministry if they know that as their children grow into teens, there will be a place for them to continue to work it out at the church. Think of all the families that restart the church hopping process when their kids reach 4th and 5th grade. All of the sudden, that great church plant, or dynamic young preacher doesn’t seem to cut it when their own kids’ faith is on the line. A paid youth worker communicates care for this significant felt need.

2) It is a model that has positively impacted those who are now at the age to make decisions regarding staffing and budgets in churches.

It is an unavoidable truth that people invest and do the things that are meaningful to them. Think of how you choose what to do for your youth ministry program. Chances are most of what you do is based on the things that God used in significant ways in your own life when you were in student ministry. Youth ministry has now been around long enough that the power players at most churches remember the Hay Day of youth ministry and the significant role that ministry played in their faith development. They want their church to provide solid ministry for their own kids and their view of a thriving church includes a thriving student ministry. Most thriving student ministries are headed up by a paid point person.

3) Students continue to need a place for fellowship and learning that is separate from their parents and makes space for their unique developmental needs.

For all the talk about family ministry and integration, the fundamental task of adolescence is still individuation and separation from their family’s faith. Students need a place separate from their parents where they can ask the hard questions, push back, run away, and still be seen and loved by the church at large. Student ministry provides a unique haven in this adolescent development where students can work out their faith separate from their mom while still being connected to the church. It is really brilliant if you think about it.

4) The traditional model of youth minister, run by a professional, continues to be the most effective model at helping students develop personal faith and providing significant water marks in their lives.

I know it is so cool to be pissed at the church and youth ministry for all the kids who walk away from faith. But stop and think about all the kids who have ever come through your ministry and reflect on the ways that God has grabbed ahold of. We need to actually stop and celebrate the great things that God is doing in them and through them now. This isn’t something to gloss over. A vast majority of those in leadership now in the Church with a capital C are people who were leaders in their student ministries. Praise God for the gutter to glory stories of those people who find Jesus all by themselves later in life. But when you start to ask around, those people are the exception. Youth ministry is the tool that God has and is continuing to use to clarify people’s call into His family, and into ministry.

5) Name one church who has all the resources they need who would intentionally staff their church without a professional to run the student ministry.

For reals, name one. I know finances are hectic and churches have to be creative. But not hiring because of financial hard times is not the same as not doing youth ministry because of conviction. And the churches who are relying on faithful volunteers, whom I am honored to count as my colleagues, would pay those volunteers or someone else if they happened to win the Mega Millions Jackpot this last week.

A caveat:

While I do firmly believe that churches will continue to pay for people to work with students, they will no longer pay people who do shoddy work. Financial hardship is a reality in many of our contexts and every dollar matters. If our church leaders are going to be good stewards of their resources then they will only be paying people who will work hard and do a good job.

Gone are the days where youth workers are simply paid to goof off with students, play video games, eat pizza, and have a few informal bible studies at their house. If someone is being paid to run a youth ministry, then they will be expected to run a youth ministry. This includes program, administration, duties assigned by pastor, and then video game extravaganzas, all within a tight budget.

The good news is that our profession is here to stay! The bad news is that we will continue to be expected to work harder and be more effective than our predecessors. Friends, it is gut check time!

Are you still called to do ministry in this environment and with these expectations? Do you still love students, but may be losing steam on the professional aspect of it? Is it time to maybe need to call it quits? Or do you simply think I am full of crap and protecting my own paycheck? :)

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#pearlsbeforeswine

Context: Driving a couple of high school boys to youth group talking about movies and the ones we want to see and the ones we are bummed we missed while they were in theaters.

Student: I really wanted to see Don Jon.

Me: That movie has an interesting premise. All that porn that you look at ultimately messed up your relationship with the woman you want to love. If you aren’t careful you will get used to porn and prefer it to actual sex and then you and your relationship / marriage will be in trouble.

Student: I just think Scarlett Johansson is hot.

#bestjobever

(Here is some further reading on how porn is changing sexual appetites from the NY Magazine.  The Porn Myth.)

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For the last few months, and if I am honest, maybe the last few years, I have realized that my heart towards student ministry and really towards students has changed.  What has happened is that over the years and years of student ministry, years and years of fickleness, heartbreak, death and destruction, my heart has gone into protection mode.  I think I just couldn’t take the heartache of walking through the chaotic lives of students anymore.  And unintentionally, I moved into self preservation mode.

I still provided an excellent program, excellent contact work, excellent trips, excellent talks, excellent discipleship, basically excellent student ministry. (or by best attempt at excellence)  But I did all of this with my heart somewhat removed.  Being too intimately involved with students is really the hardest part of student ministry, and I think I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Thankfully, Jesus isn’t done with me yet, and He gently revealed to me that my heart has grown cold and distant towards my students.  So beginning in December I prayed a simple prayer, “Jesus, please grow my heart towards my students.”

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$250,000.  This is how much money I think that I am worth.  The problem I am having is finding someone who agrees.  Although this may be my worth, my value as a youth worker is significantly lower.  And here is where the rub occurs.  You see, we all have a strong sense of worth, but it is determining our value that is the true challenge.

The difference between worth and value can be clarified by a simple craig’s list transaction.  A couple of years ago I wanted to get an iphone.  I mean I couldn’t see straight, I wanted an iphone so bad.  The deal was I had to pay cash for the phone and for whatever cost it would be to switch services.  Easy enough.  I grabbed my digital camera and started posting on craig’s list.

I quickly realized that items that were worth a certain amount to me, had a significantly lower street value.  And at every sale, I had to decide what the items true value was.  Sometimes I did ok, and sometimes I got taken pretty hard, but after a couple of weeks, my garage was clean and I was making calls on my new iphone.

What does this have to do with you or with me?  It has to do with wrestling with our value as youth workers.  How much money are we worth as youth workers?  We feel called to student ministry and we feel called to work at a particular church.   Then we are offered a salary package and with out even realizing it, we are confronted with the difference between our worth and our value.

No one tells us youth workers who simply want to serve God and love students that there is an actual science to salary negotiations.  So after some painful negotiations of my own and a couple awful ones for some of my friends, here are a couple of pointers that may be helpful for you next time you are sitting around the salary negotiations table:

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Ever since my first day in student ministry, my number one goal has been to cancel Sunday School.  I mean, come on, everyone knows that Sunday school is the dumbest ministry model on the planet.  It is awful on just about every level.  9:00 on a Sunday morning is the absolute worst time in the entire world for any sort of ministry, especially to adolescents.  We try and try and try to make this hour of spiritual formation relevant and matter to a group of kids who could actually care less.  But it seems as much as we try to put a nail in the coffin of this antiquated mode of ministry, I could never muster the political capitol to pull it off.  That is, until the perfect storm of events allowed me to do just that.

This last spring we had to move our entire church off our main campus to a hotel ball room while we underwent some construction and renovations.  We went from two services with spiritual formation and student Sunday school during the first gathering, to a situation where we were only going to have one service.  The best part is that I didn’t even have a choice.  There were logistically not enough rooms to do church, children’s ministry and Sunday School for students.

When I was approached with this dilemma, I hung my head in grief and said that I would, reluctantly, take one for the team and cancel Sunday School.  On the inside, I was freaking out!  It just happened.  My dream for almost 20 years became a reality and it actually gained me political points instead of costing every point I have ever earned.

And I have to tell you, those first few months of not having Sunday School was a dream come true.  There was no more Sunday morning anxiety or dread for having to face a room full of apathetic and judgmental kids.  No more dealing with the zero feedback on the incredible curriculum I have put together for the morning.  Yes, my only responsibility was to simply glad-hand students and their parents as they walked past to their seats, and again as they left.  I WAS FREE!!

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR:

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