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the secret weapon for youth ministry

I have been out of youth ministry for almost three months now. It has been a welcome break, and one that has helped me to be able to think about youth ministry without the stress of being in youth ministry day-to-day. At the time my previous ministry came to an end, I thought I was done in youth ministry. It had become a grind, and I had become filled with more questions about it than I had answers: “How do we get kids to share their faith?” “How do we reach out to kids outside the faith?” “How do we help kids own their faith?” “How do we keep kids in the church after they graduate?” “How do we keeps kids in the church until they graduate?”

While I doubt I have discovered a silver bullet that will answer all these questions, I think I have found something that will help. This idea is not a new idea in ministry but rarely do I see it being made the main emphasis of youth ministry. Used comprehensively and intentionally, it could help kids be bolder about sharing their faith, it could help a youth group live missionally in its context, it could help kids own a faith that will last into adulthood.

It’s daring and it’s risky and it starts at the top with the youth pastor. The secret weapon for youth ministry is vulnerability.

I am enchanted with underdog stories, especially when the underdogs are able to use their supposed weakness against their opponents in order to achieve victory. The Bible is full of these stories. David vs. Goliath. Jesus choosing crucifixion over waging war on the Romans. God’s grace making Paul’s weakness perfect. In our perceived weakness, we can accomplish great things. So, as a pastor, youth or otherwise, I suggest that we play to our weaknesses more than our strengths. I suggest that we minister out of a place of vulnerability rather than our giftedness.

This is a scary idea, and not just for pastors. Most people I know do not want to think of their pastor as a human being with faults just like them. They want their pastors to be a finished product, not a person in process. They want their pastors to discuss their issues in the past tense. Most pastors I know go along with this. We do not want people to see our weaknesses and our struggles, as we assume this will diminish our pastoral credibility. We want our pastors to be humble but not vulnerable. We want them to have arrived. We do not want them to be in process.

But how effective is this, really? First of all, one cannot be humble without being vulnerable. To be humble is to admit that you have weaknesses, to do so honestly would require a great deal of vulnerability. Secondly, is it better for us to be the image of “the arrived Christian” the one who has been sanctified and is no longer in process, or is it better for us as pastors to model what it looks like to be a Christian who is still in process, who is still learning, growing, maturing, struggling, and becoming? Because, after all, there is no such thing as a Christian who has arrived. Why project that to people as a model to emulate when it is impossible? Why not show your congregants or students what it looks like to grow. To learn. To process. To struggle and wrestle with God. To become.

What a powerful force this could be in youth ministry. A youth pastor who is willing to share, from a place of honesty and vulnerability, what he or she is learning, how he or she is growing, how he or she is struggling. Obviously, there are professional boundaries to keep in place and not everything is appropriate for your students to know about. However, if a youth pastor is willing to admit fault, show how they are growing, and model how they are comfortable with the fact that they are still in process, they have modeled to their students the very things they will need in order to grow in their own faith.

Think about it: Youth workers who model vulnerability:

  1. Normalize vulnerability for their students. They show that it is OK to make mistakes and learn from them. They show that failure and shame is not the end of the world and how it can help them grow. It helps them be comfortable with the fact that they are still in process.
  2. It helps them to live into their God-given identities. One of the most common pieces of advice students (and adults) receive is “just be yourself.” We forget how hard that can be! When we live as our true selves are mocked or teased or rejected for it, it can be quite painful. We hide behind masks in order to protect ourselves from that kind of a rejection. We rarely show our true selves to anyone! But if youth pastors can be comfortable in their own quirky skins, if youth workers can model how to be their true selves, it provides for our students a way to understand how they too can be their own God-designed selves. This requires a degree of vulnerability and emotional risk that most people are not comfortable with but can unleash oneself to take great risks and do great things.
  3. It can show students how to handle their sin. Sin can so easily lead to shame, which cuts at our identity. When we sin, we don’t just say, “I sinned” we say “I am a sinner.” But Jesus died so we don’t have to say “I am a sinner!” Jesus died so our shame would die with him. When shame takes over it makes us think that because we ourselves are bad, we have no hope of ever changing. But, when we can learn to turn shame-statements into guilt-statements, when we can still say “I am redeemed!” in the face of sin and limit it to “I sinned,” we are able to remember and receive God’s grace, remember our identity as his redeemed child, and deal with the sin from a place of hope. Modeling this to our students in an appropriate fashion is essential to helping them trust in God’s forgiveness and grace.
  4. It can help them dare. It takes daring to reach out to social rejects at school to show God’s love to them. It takes daring to share one’s faith with a friend. It takes daring to go on a missions trip. The more comfort with vulnerability, the more resilient to shame and the more comfortable with failure we become. Therefore, we are willing to risk because we have the tools to overcome potential failure. We need to help kids become resilient to shame and comfortable with failures as life lessons to be learned in order to help them dare for God’s Kingdom.
  5. It helps faith go from a mask that can be easily removed from a kid’s identity to core to their being. Sticky Faith talks a lot about how students never really make faith central to their person, and it is likened to a sweater that can be easily taken off when social situations warrant. When someone is comfortable with risk and vulnerability in regards to their faith, it goes from being a sweater to being their underwear, something they really can’t take off.They aren’t going to care about trying to fit in with a crowd that won’t accept them because of their faith, they are going to be comfortable being a Christian in an environment that may not appreciate or approve of that. It will help them navigate that tricky time when they first start out on their own without compromising their faith or their values.

My hunch is this is just scratching the surface of the positive impact a youth ministry designed towards helping students be vulnerable and geared towards helping them be shame-resilient and take risks in order to be the person God created them to be. Youth ministry should be about these things, about helping a student know who they are, be comfortable with it, and willing to risk living into their God-given identities. We should be equipping them with the emotional tools they will need in order to overcome rejection and shame. We need to focus on normalizing vulnerability so they can understand and appreciate that they are still a person in process, that they are still becoming. Youth workers can model this, teach it, and live it out in front of their students. They can help parents unlock the power of vulnerability in their homes. They can create a safe environment for kids to be willing to risk being who they are.

P.S. I am indebted to Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly for much of the thoughts on vulnerability and shame in this post. I highly recommend reading that book, even if it means not having time to read any of my future posts 🙂

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ok, fine, here are my political views

I live in New Hampshire, where, once every four years, presidential politics is inescapable. As I speak, on the eve of the 2016 New Hampshire Primary, candidates are criss-crossing the Granite State hoping to find as many votes as they can.

I have a four year old daughter, Addison. She is very curious about just about everything and has noticed the obvious signs of primary season: the myriad mailers that flood our mailbox, the thousands of political signs polluting our roadways, and the bevy of commercials on television. (We don’t even have TV; they’ve invaded Hulu and YouTube, too!)

So wanting to affirm her curiosity and interest in all that is going on around her, I took her this morning to see one of the candidates, Carly Fiorina. I chose her because she was stopping by one of our favorite breakfast spots, Blake’s in Manchester, and I thought this would be a non-threatening event for my four year old. I also wanted her to see a strong woman running for president because she was surprised that “girls can run for president.”

It was a madhouse, and to my surprise, bringing an adorable four year old to a political rally attracts attention. From media, from campaign staffers, from the candidate herself. I found myself being interviewed by a news crew from California, the Concord Monitor, fivethirtyeight.com, the Union Leader, and Jake Tapper of CNN. In fact, I made it on CNN.

I have an uneasy relationship with politics. As a Christian, I believe that my primary allegiance is to the Kingdom of God, and to my King, Jesus Christ. I do not believe that the goals of America are the same as the goals of the Kingdom of God, and, often, they are opposed to one another. I do not believe either political party has a corner on Christian morality and virtue. More than this, I want to resist political tribalism as much as I can so that I can faithfully love and minister to all who God places in my path no matter their political stances.

Within this context, I am willing to participate in elections. I often choose not to vote, as I believe this to be a better alternative than choosing the “lesser of two evils.” When I vote, particularly in presidential elections, I am looking for the most “adult” person running, by which I mean someone who possesses virtue, character, integrity, a concern for the least of these in our society, and good ideas (and not ideologies). In a primary, I am not seeking who I think would be the best president, but the best person that party can put forward in the general election as its nominee. Often, I will vote for the person who is raising issues that I care about and want discussed, even if I don’t necessarily agree with where that candidate ends up on that issue. In short, I look at the person first, second, and third, and then his or her policies.

So when Jake Tapper asked me who I was considering, I told him Carly, John Kasich, and Bernie Sanders. Yes, that is an eclectic bunch of people, but again, I am looking at who I want to be nominees, not necessarily who I want to be president. As a New Hampshire voter, I do have the ability and responsibility to carefully choose a potential nominee and there are some candidates I want to be able to continue to run and share their ideas as they move on to future primaries.

I want to encourage my fellow Christians to vote but to understand what they are doing and what they are not doing. America is not the Kingdom of God. The next president is going to neither save nor destroy Christianity. We should be choosing the person who can best lead our country, and leadership ability transcends platforms. No matter who is president, Jesus is still King, and our allegiance to him far outweighs our political and national allegiances.

By the way, the fourth candidate I was considering? This guy:

g3ZCLjO.jpg

 

there’s a much better story we are forgetting to tell

The Christmas season is upon us once again. Even though it is not even December yet, I find myself being cranky about it already. There’s just so much that bores me. Sickens me. Irritates me.

Take Santa, for example, or anyone of those endless television specials where one woman is sad, one man is clueless, and Christmas-related hijinks bring them together. We are so oppressed by this stuff that we forget that there is a better story to be telling this time of year. The consumeristic, stuff-obsessed, sex-obsessed culture has screamed an inferior story louder, and has drowned out the better one.

Christmas is not about Santa Claus and his simple story of self-interested morality. Christmas is not about shopping or decorating or buying. Christmas is certainly not that Hallmark Channel treacle that pollutes our television screens every year.

Christmas is about destruction.

Christmas is about how we were stuck in the middle of darkness, enslaved to evil, corrupted by sin, and imprisoned by Satan. Christmas is about how we were without hope, without light, without mercy. Christmas is about how God decided to do something about it.

God saw our plight. He saw the forces of injustice and evil and darkness and corruption at work in this world. He saw the bentness and brokenness of our own hearts. He saw us far from himself. And so, God marshaled all his power and sent in an invasion force to do battle with evil itself.

He sent a baby.

Alexander the Great, when he conquered the Ancient Near East, had an invasion force of 12,000 regular troops. The Norman invasion of England had roughly 10,000 men. The D-Day invasion saw 3 million men storm the beaches of Normandy. You would expect God, in an invasion this cosmic in scope, to send more than a baby boy.

This invasion was so small, and so unexpected, and so, well, let’s face it, pathetic, that it caught the enemy completely off-guard. Where he could have sent an invulnerable army, God sent a baby–as vulnerable as one could get.

But God was refusing to do battle on the world’s terms. God knew this invasion could not succeed with more death and more violence–those were symptoms of the very enemy he came to destroy! Rather, his invasion would be opposite of the enemy: gentle, peaceful, humble, merciful, compassionate, forgiving, and loving. And what better way than to invade this world as a baby–the exact opposite of this world’s conception of power.

This is the story of Christmas: that God himself came in the flesh as a baby boy to do battle against the forces of evil in this world. This baby boy, Jesus, would grow up and wage war against injustice and evil and sin. This Jesus would conquer death itself and open up to us the opportunity to live in his Kingdom, newly established in this world, and continue to invade the realm of darkness. He came to destroy the works of the devil so we could find the freedom, the healing, and the forgiveness we so desperately need.

Maybe it’s just me, but that’s a much better story than Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Carol or even Holiday in Handcuffs. 

The one who does what is sinful is of the devil,because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work

–1 John 3:8

*The idea of Christmas being about destruction is not mine, I attribute it to Ben Stuart, who spoke at CHIC 2015.

 

ecclesiastes, broken vessels, and Mad Men: season 7, episode 1

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS. 

 

“I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!  I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” –Ecclesiastes 1:13-14

 

“Happiness is a moment before you need more happiness.”  –Don Draper

At the end of last night’s episode of Mad Men, Don Draper, the self-made man, sat alone in the cold on his balcony. All the things that he had used to create his new identity were missing. His wife was living the life of a wannabe-TV star in Los Angeles, his children were with his ex-wife, and he was still on a forced leave-of-absence from his job. Even his usual coping mechanisms (alcohol, women) were absent. The self-made man has self-destructed. Don Draper is gone; Dick Whitman has returned.

Watching Mad Men always reminds me of Ecclesiastes. Solomon, at the end of his life, despairs all that he had done in pursuit of meaning. He declares it all “meaningless.” Everything is “a chasing after the wind.” Don Draper has finally reached this point. All that he did to abandon Dick Whitman and become Don Draper has left him empty and broken. His job did not satisfy him and we ultimately dismissed from it. His marriage brought him no closer to happiness and his unfaithfulness and dishonesty to his wife led her to leave him. His new wife and her hopes and dreams for her own life and his inability to get on board with them has alienated him from her. He is to the point where he can look at his life, as Solomon has, and see how utterly meaningless it all has been. 

The fact that we see him without his comforts of alcohol and women reveal that this is different for Don. He realizes that drinking and sleeping around will no longer mask his pain.  At some point, he will no longer be able to pretend that he has a job. His life is being stripped away, and all is left is a little boy who grew up at a brothel. 

The fact the he even admits that he is a “broken vessel” to Neve Campbell right before he rejects her offer to come home with her indicates that he knows all of this. The question is, will Don truly change this time (we’ve seen his false starts at self-improvement before) or will he find some other way of finding momentary happiness? Can this broken vessel be fixed? 

Extraneous Thoughts

  • Just when you thought Pete Campbell couldn’t get any more Pete Campbell-y, he shows up wearing this.
  • You can’t find good bagels in Los Angeles.
  • Anyone else miss Bob Benson? 
  • I feel like Peggy’s character arc is the opposite of Don’s. Better, it might have been his character arc had the story started several years earlier.
  • Ken Cosgrove’s eye patch is my new favorite thing on television.

motive for mission: love

About a week ago, someone retweeted a quote by Kevin DeYoung, a Reformed pastor, author, and blogger at (sigh) The Gospel Coalition into my timeline. He said:

The sovereignty of God and the mystery of election is the great motivation for missions and evangelism

I just got back from spending a weekend with my Confirmation students on their annual retreat. The theme of this retreat is always evangelism. We talk about the Story of God and His people, Israel, the Story of Jesus, the students’ own personal stories, and we learn how we can effectively share this Story with others. In this entire weekend, focused on missions and evangelism, do you know how many times I mentioned the “sovereignty of God” and “the mystery of election”? Zero. Perhaps I’m doing it wrong. But I don’t think I am.

You see, if I was to truly hold to a Calvinist perspective on God’s sovereignty (that He decides and renders certain all that happens) and election (that God predetermines some individuals for salvation and other individuals for damnation) then I don’t think I would be motivated to evangelize at all. People are either The Elect or they are The Reprobate. Evangelism, in this framework, seems more like playing roulette than anything else (“Five hundred bucks on elect!”). I don’t know who is elect, you don’t know who is elect, so anytime you share God’s word with someone, you are rolling the dice that God has elected them to salvation. If someone is elect, God will save them no matter what I do. If they are not, then they will be damned no matter what I do. If God’s sovereignty and election are what was supposed to motivate me to evangelize, then I probably wouldn’t. 

And why not? There is too much dissonance between motive/belief and behavior for my comfort. My actions in evangelism would to some extent betray what I believe about how salvation works. 

So, while I didn’t talk much about sovereignty or election on my retreat, I did talk quite a bit about something else: love. Love is our motivation for missions. Love for God as revealed to us in His Son Jesus Christ. Love for our neighbor, who is missing out on the whole point of existence by not being in a relationship with the Creator. Love is our motivation, and if that’s not enough, then you are doing it wrong. It wouldn’t matter to me if someone was elect or not; if I loved them, I would do all that I could to help them know Jesus.

I believe love is our motivation for mission because it was God’s motivation for His mission in the world. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…” Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The reason God’s sovereignty and the mystery of election are not proper motivations for missions and evangelism is because they aren’t even God’s motivation for reaching into this world and rescuing us. 

If love is our motivation, then we will be more inclined to live a life of selfless devotion to God and our neighbor in seeking to be God’s messengers of love, hope, forgiveness, and salvation in this world. Here, there is no dissonance between motivation/belief and action. 

We need to remember that God is love. If we are not about love, then we are not about what God is about. If we are not motivated to missions by his love for us and this world and our love for our neighbor, then we are not about what God is about.

 

steve’s college football thoughts for week 11

Well I missed a week. I have no excuse. Other than that I work full-time at something other than watching and writing about college football and have two kids under the age of 3.

the news

  • I’m writing today because tonight might be the greatest night in the history of Thursday night football. Oregon-Stanford and Baylor-Oklahoma. Big-time BCS stakes in both of those games and a win over the Cardinal might propel Oregon over Florida State for good in the BCS and a win over Oklahoma adds some major legitimacy for Baylor in the polls. Maybe enough to push them over Ohio State should Stanford also lose.
  • Florida State is really, really good. (Are you happy, Roger?) They pummeled Miami last week and Jameis Winston is a legit Heisman candidate. Florida State also has a very good defense which makes me wonder if they are the better threat to Alabama than Oregon.
  • I have very sensitive eyes. I’m blind as a bat and get really anxious if something goes wrong with my contacts or glasses. I say this because the fact that Jameis Winston plays WITHOUT his contacts (and constantly squints at the sideline to see the play) drives me INSANE. I get so anxious worrying about his eyes its hard to watch him play. Imagine how accurate he’d be if he, you know, actually wore his contact lenses?
  • I know “Famous Jameis” has already caught on but “Squints” would also be a good nickname for Winston.
  • Winston is a lot like Johnny Manziel, if Johnny Manziel was a decent human being.

this week in the big ten

  • I am from Big Ten country, and thus the bias. Deal with it.
  • Ohio State is routing teams left and right. Purdue, poor, sweet Purdue, didn’t stand a chance. If the Buckeyes started the season doing this, they might still be second in the polls.
  • Northwestern. What started out so promising has ended up so disastrous. With three games to go, they still need 2 wins to become bowl eligible. With all the injuries and horrible luck (losing on a Hail Mary to Nebraska’s 3rd-string QB), it does not look good for the Wildcats.
  • Michigan State might have the best Defense in the country and they dominated Michigan. In doing so, they took the lead in whatever division it is that they play in (Leaders? Legends? Legends. I think.). This also helps Ohio State as it gives them another highly ranked team to play later in the year, provided Sparty keeps winning.

steve’s true big ten

  1. Alabama. Big game against the only program that rivals theirs in the SEC, LSU, this week.
  2. Florida State. Right now, they have better wins than Oregon. That could change this week.
  3. Oregon.
  4. Ohio State.
  5. Baylor. They are undefeated. Stanford is not.
  6. Stanford.
  7. Trinity International University. The Trojans won convincingly over Waldorf College and move up the rankings.
  8. Clemson.
  9. Auburn.
  10. Oklahoma.

this week’s proof that college football uniforms CAN get dumber

So we go from Pinktober to another cause-based month, with all the military tribute uniforms going on. If you want to support a cause, great. Wear a patch, a special sideline cap, an on-field logo. Just don’t change your uniform to do so. Northwestern, a team that typically wears purple and black, is wearing black, red, white, and blue on Saturday. The uniform, which is worn by the Northwestern football team, has nothing Northwestern-y about it. I know it’s for some special veterans project, but there are better ways of supporting causes than this. There has to be!

the picks

Oklahoma @ Baylor. This might be the biggest game in Baylor history. There offense has scored at prolific rates, and this is their first true competition of the season. This might be a set up for a huge disappointment, like the Northwestern-Ohio State game earlier this year. I think they will be ready for it. Baylor 59, Oklahoma 47. This could be a fun one.
Notre Dame @ Pittsburgh. The Irish struggled mightily with Navy, but may have found a running game in the process. Irish 31, Pitt 17.
Florida State @ Wake Forest. Someone suggested that this was FSU’s biggest trap game left. Huh. Florida State 56, Wake Forest 7.
LSU @ Alabama. The SEC game of the year. Can the Mad Hatter pull off an upset? They have struggled to win on the road, and one does not venture to Tuscaloosa and expect to win. Tide rolls. Alabama 34, LSU 24.

smooth jimmy apollo’s lock of the week.

Oregon @ Stanford. These two have taken turns ruining each other’s seasons the past 2 years. With one loss, it would seem it would be Stanford’s turn once again to play spoiler. It’s not going to happen. Oregon 49, Stanford 27.

 

don draper and the death of thanksgiving

Today is Halloween, a subject on which I have almost zero thoughts. Christians have an uneasy relationship with this holiday, given its pagan roots, but in its modern form it’s pretty harmless. If my neighbors are willing to give me free candy just for wearing a silly costume and knocking on their door, I think it’s irresponsible not to. 

What concerns me more is the state of Thanksgiving in our country. By far, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Let’s be honest; it’s the perfect holiday. It revolves around eating turkey, watching football, and napping. As an added bonus, you don’t have to buy presents for anyone! It’s an ideal time of gathering with family, taking time off of work, and reflecting on all to be thankful for. 

SO WHY IS EVERYONE TRYING TO KILL IT?!?!

OK, to be fair, not everyone is trying to kill it. But Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, J.C. Penney’s, Target, The Gap, and many other retailers are opening their stores on Thanksgiving Day to allow Black Friday shoppers to get started on their Christmas shopping early.

This bothers me for several reasons. First, I am an unabashed defender of Thanksgiving. I do not take the encroachment of the Christmas season onto Thanksgiving lightly. Christmas music may not be played in my house or in my car until the Friday following Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving deserves its due and its place as a major holiday. Christmas does not start until all the leftovers are gone. 

Second, having stores open on Thanksgiving takes people away from their families and forces them to work. I hope that they will be getting overtime pay for it, but still, it breaks up families on a day that families should be together. 

Third, this move by retailers cheapens two holidays. It not only cheapens Thanksgiving by casting it as merely the launching point for Christmas sales, but it also cheapens Christmas, making it about unbridled greed and getting the best deal on Apple products. Critiquing the consumerism surrounding Christmas is old hat at this point, but it does seem that this is taking it to another level. 

However, are these stores really to blame? After all, they are really only giving us what we have demanded. If people didn’t want to shop on Thanksgiving, stores wouldn’t open. Clearly, there is enough demand for shopping on Thanksgiving that all these stores are opening their doors. The problem, as always, is us.

We have taken a day intended for us to give thanks for what we already have and have turned it into the starting line in our race to buy stuff that we don’t already have.

Contentment, simplicity, and thankfulness used to be virtues. But who wants contentment when I can have a new iPad or a new toaster oven with built-in WiFi or the complete Ernest collection on Blu-Ray. We don’t want to pause and reflect on what we have to be thankful for anymore. 

So one can’t blame retailers for opening their doors on Thanksgiving Day; if we pause to reflect too long on what we have to be thankful for, we may realize that we are happy without all the stuff they are trying to sell us. After all, they desperately want us to believe what Don Draper said on an episode of Mad Men

What is happiness? It’s a moment before you realize you need more happiness.

In a consumeristic world, this is gospel truth. And this is why we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, because we don’t believe we can be happy for long. We don’t believe we can be content with what we have and must continue to consume. 

Contentment and thankfulness has become an uncomfortable place for us. We are afraid we will be left behind in a world where obsolescence happens overnight. Don Draper was right; for most of us, happiness is only a fleeting moment before we realize we need more. 

Thanksgiving, more and more, is a discipline that we need to practice. If we want to get off of the hamster-wheel of consumerism, if we want to learn that we are able to be happy, content, and joyous, we must learn to give thanks. Ideally, this should be an every day happening. For right now, I’ll settle for one day a year.