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Robin Williams, Teen Suicide, and the Church

Robin WilliamsTeens and students everywhere struggle with depression and teen suicide is on the rise, sort of.  In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, conversations about suicide and depression abound.  I have counselled a number of teens contemplating suicide, and an even larger number of teens struggling with depression.

Since 1991 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that annually, the number of teens contemplating suicide has dropped, from 29% to 17%, while the number of teens actually attempting suicide have gradually increased, from 7.3% to 8%.  Take note; 17% is nearly one in five teens.  Let’s put that in perspective.  For every ten teenagers active in your church’s youth ministry, two of them will contemplate suicide this year.

For every ten teenagers active in your church’s youth ministry, two of them will contemplate suicide this year.

 

The CDC also reports that suicide is the number three cause of teen death in America, followed by homicide and accidents.  Student ministers should have a plan for ministering to suicidal teens and their families, because if you stay in youth ministry long enough, a teen will confide in you that they have hurt themselves, or have thought about suicide.  So how should youth leaders and volunteers respond?

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA) has some great tips that all youth workers should take to heart.  This list is adapted from their full list of tips, which can be found here.  When a teen mentions suicide or exhibits signs they may be suicidal:

  1. Be direct.  Do not change the subject.  Do not appear uncomfortable or act shocked.  Speak matter-of-factly and be open to hearing everything the teen has to say.  Many teens are an open book, especially if they trust you.  They have extremely high B.S. meters, and can tell if you are not being direct.  If a teen comes to you and wants to discuss hurting himself or suicide, give them (and their conversation) the seriousness and frankness they deserve.
  2. Listen.  Many times a mention of suicide is a plea for help itself.  The teen came to you!  They want to talk, and more important Helpthan any advice you could give them, you can give them your undivided attention.  I had a teen approach me with suicidal thoughts one time and instead of starting Bible study on time, I gave more time to our conversation.  I had a parent volunteer who was irate that I didn’t start the lesson on time and that Bible study was only ten minutes that evening, but my conversation with the potentially suicidal teen took priority.
  3. No secrets. Never guarantee confidence in a conversation when a student’s safety is on the line.  Their parents have a right to know if the teen is threatening to hurt themselves, and once a teen has mentioned suicide, you have a responsibility to try and seek out help for the student.
  4. Take Action.  When a student says they are going to hurt themselves, parents should be notified in a loving and calm way.  Telling a parent that their teen is contemplating suicide is one of the most uncomfortable and heartbreaking conversations a youth minister can have.  Parents will exhibit a variety of emotions, like failure, denial, and even anger.  Suggest agencies and organizations in your area equipped to handle crisis intervention and suicide prevention.  If the student comes from an abusive home, contact the agencies directly on the student’s behalf.
  5. Offer them sincere hope.  Depression is no joke.  The home lives of students are no joke.  Bullying is no joke.  Anxiety over sexuality is no joke.  Any one of these factors (and many more) can potentially lead to suicidal thoughts.  As Christian mentor, you may have the great privilege and responsibility of reminding a teen that they are loved by you and by the Lord.  You can remind them that God is constantly present.  You can read some scripture together, and you can pray with them.  Most importantly, never gloss over their pain by saying things like “just give your sadness over to Jesus,” or “God wants you to be happy,” or “living in defeat is a sin.”  The only thing these statements to is mask our own discomfort.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and I have passed it out to an entire youth group before, knowing the three kids I was really targeting.  Suicide is a serious topic and it effects too many teens for the church to not take note and speak out.  How have you addressed suicide with your students and parents?  Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.

My Empire vs. God’s Kingdom

Youth Ministry TerritoryI have done youth ministry for well over a decade and I am always amazed at territorialism in the church.  Like Paul, I feel like there have been times where I am “chief among sinners” in this regard.  I am guilty of building my empire and not God’s Kingdom.

Some of us have served on staff at churches where the issue of territory was prevalent.  Conversations like, “well you can’t use resource X because resource X belongs to the _________ ministry team and they don’t like people touching their stuff.”  Or perhaps your church is short on space for storage, and a few ministry teams insist on keeping many things in closets that will likely never see the light of day.  “But what if we need that VHS curriculum for an adult small group?” or, “Could we  use those cassette tapes for children’s choir?”  Perhaps you’re the perpetrator, and have said “I just can’t part with _______ because I might need it for a crazy rec game at camp in 2035.”  In one way or another, we all try to protect our territory and the resources that belong to our ministry department.  There comes a point however, when this is unhealthy.  Territorialism is NOT Christian stewardship.

Donna Flagg, founder of The Krysalis Group identifies territorial tendencies as “turfism.”  In a post for Psychology Today, she states that “turfism erects walls, commonly known to produce what has been coined in workplace jargon as a “silo effect,” which ultimately limits communication, hinders the development of relationships and infects the culture with an overall lack of cooperation among people and departments.”  Protecting territory and erecting walls between others on your ministry team is NOT a healthy way to manage resources.

In Acts 4, Luke points out that all the believers shared everything they had because ”No on claimed that any of their possessions where their own” (Acts 4:32, NIV).  This worked in the early church, and it works today.  We need to understand that the resources that we are blessed with are not our own.  We are all on the same team,  We all have the same goal of reaching people with God’s love.

We should build God’s Kingdom, not our own empires.  The Gallup Business Journal identifies “empire building” as the ”pinnacle and most extreme level of pyramid bureaucracy.”  Read the full article here.  When we build our own empires through turfism, the Kingdom of God becomes secondary.  So how are these pitfalls avoided?  Three ways to avoid personal empire building in your own ministry are:

  1. Try to see the big picture.  We we view things narrowly and from our perspective alone, we are on the road to empire building.  Take other views into consideration and maintain a flexible spirit.
  2. Admit that everything belongs to God.  Realize that the resources you have are not yours, or your departments, or even your church’s.  They belong to God.
  3. Let go of your fear to fail.  Too often, we fear our own failure and so we grasp for power.  This may include trying to Turfismtake over or “help” in multiple ministry areas, or even an unwillingness to share a storage closet.  God is the one who called you to ministry, so let go of your need to impress others and find true joy in serving the Lord.

Contrary to the Jay-Z song, Christians are NOT called to have an “Empire State Of Mind,” but a Kingdom of God state of mind.  Let’s get busy building God’s Kingdom instead of our own.

Five Tips For Effective Preaching

Ifemale holding Biblef you’re in full-time student ministry, there are a few things that are guaranteed.  You will certainly gain weight if you try to keep up with the students during pizza eating contests.  You will certainly get injured playing dodge-ball/table-tennis/and/or that sport-that-includes-more-than-one-hyphen.  And finally, you will certainly preach and lead small group Bible studies on a regular basis, and eventually get asked to speak at another church, retreat weekend, camp, or (insert sport-with-more-than-one-hyphen)-night.

To make your night/weekend/kangaroo-boxing-championship-night a success, here are the five best things you can do as a preacher:

1.       Consider your context:

This seems simple, but it’s important to remember.  If you’re working at a Methodist church, it’s probably best to not preach a sermon titled “Why infant baptism is silly.”  If you’re going to preach at an event primarily focused on senior citizens, you might want to avoid preaching on the power of teenagers to change the world.  Make sure you know what you’re walking into when you agree to preach.  Does the church or senior pastor have certain theological expectations?  Are there any recent tragedies or dramas affecting the group you should aware of?  What does the outside group you’re partnering with expect from you?  This is also a great time to find out what’s been preached on before.  If a sermon series was just preached on the topic you had planned, you may want to consider changing your topic or theme.

2.       Plagiarise the Bible, not other Pastors.

I love Matt Chandler.  I also love Judah Smith, and Mark Driscoll.  Perry Noble is a blast to listen to.  For some odd reason, I really truly enjoy podcasting a lot of my favorite preachers.  It’s an ordinary part of what I do to focus my attention on Christ.  I’m attracted to them because of the way they exegete the Word of God.  Pastors, at best, are simply fantastic plagiarists.  Sometimes though (and maybe this happens to you,) I start adapting parts of their speech patterns, stories, examples, and even points to fit my sermons because they sound really great.  Maybe this has happened to you.  I think this is especially easy for younger folks (like myself) to get drawn into.  God however, wants to use YOUR voice!  God doesn’t need you to become the next (insert speaker you really love).  In the pulpit, you should be you.  You have the ability to reach students that other preachers will never have the opportunity to reach.  God placed you where you are, with your abilities, and with your specific voice to reach a specific group.  Use your own voice.  It’s far better to develop your talent through developing your own voice and not stealing from others.

3.       Put the hours in.

You will preach how you practiced.  When I get ready to preach, I spend hours in my room, praying, writing, and yelling whatever I’m writing out loud.  Then I’ll preach it all the way through several times out loud.  Maybe your mind works differently and you can pull fantastic sermons out of the air on the way to the pulpit, but for most of us, this isn’t true.  We need to put the hours in, studying the Word, preaching it to ourselves, practicing illustrations, and hammering down points that make sense.  Is there anything worse than the story that leads nowhere, or the illustration that looked cool but has no semblance of meaning or relevance to what the speaker is talking about?  One way you can avoid horrible illustrations and points that don’t flow well together is to…..

4.       Phone a friend.

No, seriously.  Make it someone you trust.  Make it someone who loves you enough to point out huge flaws GRACIOUSLY.  Sometimes, reading illustrations, ideas, and even main points to a friend before preaching can save you lots of pain.  If our sermons are really meant to point people to our Savior, isn’t it worth the awkward conversation of discussing whether your sermon makes sense?  You’ll benefit from this, and so will your hearers.  Learning to take constructive criticism is crucial to functioning better at any task in ministry, but especially preaching. 

5.       Rest in God’s speaking ability.

You can’t do this on your own.  It’s impossible.  Only the Holy Spirit can draw people to God.  And thank God!  When we rest in God’s ability instead of our own, we are free to gracefully make mistakes, learn, and trust in God’s sovereignty to change the hearts of people instead of our own ability.  For some of you, speaking is one of the most terrifying events of the week, but in our limited ability, God can still speak with unlimited potential.  He’s bigger than you.  He’s got a better microphone than you.  And thank God, he’s promised to build His church, regardless of you.

BONUS POINT: Flannel.

Why flannel? Flannel is the bonus point, because it’s incredibly difficult to sweat through, but it will also give you at least a few points with the hipsters. Can’t decide what to speak in? Rock the flannel. It’s always right.

Five Do’s and Don’ts for Ministry With Grieving Teens

grieving familyGrief can be hard to comprehend for anyone. This is especially true for adolescents. There is a very good chance that an adolescent experiencing grief due to loss or tragedy is experiencing true grief for the first time in their life. Grief is most often an emotional response that comes from some deep personal loss. For a teenager, grief may arise due to the divorce of parents, the loss of a friend, or the death of a grandparent, parent or sibling. The most common cause of grief is the death of a loved one or friend, which most adolescents have yet to experience. Grief can be a scary, overwhelming experience that leaves people struggling with feelings of anger, guilt, helplessness, fear and anxiety, loneliness and abandonment, depression, and even relief.[i] Grief is not just feeling blue, but rather a roller-coaster of emotions that takes months to process. Here are a few tips for providing pastoral care for teenagers and their families when a death has occurred.

Five Do’s

  1. Do provide loving presence. Mark Twain once wrote “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”[ii] Avoiding a teen or family in mourning because of our own insecurities is a challenge for many ministers to overcome. Grieving people need the support of caring individuals who simply provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Everyone is uncomfortable when tragic loss strikes a family but as pastoral care providers, ministers and lay leaders should comfort the family rather than avoid them. It is important to realize that “acknowledgement of their loss is what they need.”[iii] A hug, a hand on a shoulder, sitting together in silence, praying, listening, crying together and remembering happy memories of the deceased are all ways of providing presence. Remember, in a pastoral sense, you are the comforting presence of God to a grieving person. Words and cliché’s are not adequate or helpful, but your calm assuring presence is.
  2. Do help provide hospitable care for the teen and her/his family. Providing care goes beyond simply providing presence. Have other youth make a giant card with encouraging scripture written on it. If someone from the church hasn’t made a sign-up sheet for providing meals for the family, make one. Remember to only take as much food as the family will need. Sometimes it works best to bring by food every other day instead of every day. The church may be providing food, but the coworkers of parents may as well.
  3. Do assist with the funeral and visitation. If you are a senior pastor this job likely falls on your shoulders. Families experiencing grief often need guidance in making plans for burial, especially if the loss was unexpected. Funeral homes might try and up-sell the family a bunch of things they don’t actually need. Questions a family needs to think through may include: Did the deceased have a life insurance policy and if not, where will the money come from for the funeral and burial? (Some families may need assistance from your church’s deacon’s or bereavement fund.) Are they going to bury or cremate? If burial is their choice do they have a plot? Will the coffin be open or closed before the service? Do they want to have a private funeral for the family only, and a memorial service open to the public at a later date? They may want to pick songs or scriptures that had special meaning to the deceased. Funeral directors will help guide the family through many of these decisions, but a pastor’s presence and gentle advice can save a family thousands of dollars in unnecessary expenses. It’s not really the youth minister’s place to help guide a family through these decisions, but youth ministers can help in axillary roles such as: being an extra pastoral presence at the visitation and funeral service, providing transportation to teens that may be getting out of school early for the funeral, helping transport the elderly to the graveside service, picking up a floral arrangement from the church and delivering it to the funeral home, printing bulletins for the funeral service, or pushing out information about visitation and funeral times on the church’s social media accounts.
  4. Do come up with an extended plan for care. Grief is a process that takes considerable time to deal with. Make plans for follow-up contact with the teenager and her/his family in the days and weeks after a funeral. A house can get awfully quiet and even lonely after extended family has all gone home, meals are no longer being delivered to the house, and everyone else has gone back to routine and normalcy. The week after the funeral, plan on dropping by the family’s house and visiting for about thirty minutes. Let the family know that you are praying for them. Send encouraging texts to teenagers, perhaps with a scripture to remind them that God is grieving with them and loves them deeply. On the first day the student goes back to school send them an encouraging text at the beginning of the day. Be mindful of the one year anniversary, and set a reminder on your calendar to send a card. The teenager and family will likely need counseling to deal with the grief process. Make appointments with them as necessary.
  5. Do help other teenagers in your group process the death. Other teens in your group are likely to have known the deceased, especially if it was a parent, a friend’s sibling or one of their peers from school that died. They are likely to need help processing the situation and may be grieving themselves. Take time at youth group meetings or in the hall on Sunday mornings to speak with teens that are processing the death. Teens may be very disturbed by death because they have never considered the fact that they too will die one day. They might want to spend more time with members of their own family because they have never fully appreciated the frailty of life. Teenagers will also need help in knowing how to comfort their peer. They’ll have no idea what to say or do, but they’ll be willing love on their friend. It’s the responsibility of a youth minister in this situation to teach students in the group appropriate ways of providing comfort and care to the bereaved. The same principles that apply to ministers are appropriate for youth to consider as well: that presence is more important that having the right words to say, that care is more important than avoidance for personal comfort, and that the body of Christ goes into action when a family in the church needs loving care. The students of your church are future elders and deacons, assuming this whole discipling things works. Take the opportunity to teach them how to care for others in the church who need their support.

Five Don’ts

  1. Don’t use clichés or filler phrases. Just because you don’t know what to say in the event of tragic loss doesn’t mean you have to say something stupid. Many times when we are uncomfortable with a situation we may be tempted to use filler phrases that do little to help the grieving individual. Avoid saying things like:
    • “Well I guess God just needed another angel.” (Then God could have made a new angel without taking a loved one away. God has enough angels. This is not only a stupid thing to say but it’s bad theology.)
    • “At least you have your other parent/sibling/children, grandparent.” (Totally ignores the loss at hand and trivializes the griever’s pain.)
    • “I know _________ is smiling down on us.” (Doesn’t make the loss better at all. The bereaved would rather have the family member smiling here and now.)
    • “Don’t cry, he/she wouldn’t want you to cry.” (Crying is part of grieving, and that’s what needs to happen for healing to come.)
    • “We should be joyful because he/she’s in a better place.” (This may be true, but some people use this filler phrase as crutch to avoid the awkward pain of grief.)
    • “If you think this is bad, I know a family that…” (If you say this to a grieving person Chuck Norris will hunt you down and punish you with a roundhouse kick to the face. Minimalizing someone else’s loss to draw attention to ourselves is one of the most selfish things we can do when caring for a person in grief. Beware, Chuck is watching.)
    • “The Lord never gives us more than we can handle.” (While this is biblically true, that’s not at all how a grieving person feels. The weight of losing a loved one can be devastating.)
  2. Don’t speak more than you listen.[iii] When people grieve they often process through talking. Sharing their feelings, memories of the deceased and talking about how their loved one died are all ways of coping with loss. Let the grieving person talk, and simply be content with being present with them. Many people want to give advice or tell their own personal story of loss as a way to avoid the situation as hand. This however trivializes the loss of the bereaved and comes across as quite tacky.
  3. Don’t judge people based on their reaction to the death.[iv] Grief brings out a litany of emotions. Many people fear death and have never considered their own mortality. This is especially true of teenagers. A teen’s initial way of confronting death may be total avoidance, because they have never faced it before. Some adults might try and pressure a teen to view an open casket, or even eulogize the deceased at the funeral service. The teen may not be emotionally able to handle either of these and should be allowed ample space to process what has happened. Be careful about placing pressure on the student and encourage parents, who are likely grieving also, to give their student room to breathe while dealing with death for the first time. A grieving person may have anxiety about the up-and-down emotions that come with grief, and find that they have little control over outbursts of tears, stabbing memories of when they found their loved one dead, joyful and nostalgic memories of the deceased and even raging anger against God. All of these emotions are natural psychological responses to grief. Not one of them is sinful. We should treat grieving teens, angrief is ok hered their family members with the utmost grace and love, however they mourn.
  4. Don’t rush the student and their family through the grieving process.[v] It takes a LONG time to grieve. The process is not over in a week, a month, six months, or even a year. If a teenager has lost a grandparent, sibling, or parent, it will take considerable time for emotional healing to come. There is no such thing as “getting over” the death of someone you deeply loved. There will always be a hole in the family, and a part of the bereaved will always mourn the loss, especially if it was an untimely or unexpected loss. If the death of the loved one or friend was especially tragic, i.e. suicide, drug overdose, murder, drunk driving accident, etc., the grieving teen may need counseling that is beyond the reasonable scope of care a minister can provide. Youth ministers and pastors should keep a list of local professional counselors and grief support groups handy, and be mindful of when a student or parent is in need of care beyond regular pastoral counseling. When a situation is out of your league, refer the family to a Christian professional in the area who can assist in their care and healing.
  5. Don’t use the death as an opportunity for alter calls, evangelism or an object lesson in Bible study. Ecclesiastes says that there is a time and place for everything. There is a time for pastoral care for grieving families, and there is a time for evangelism. When a family is grieving and emotions are running high, the last thing a minister should do is become an opportunistic soul winner who preys on the emotionally vulnerable. Giving an alter call at youth group on Wednesday night after a student at the local high school is killed in a car accident is not entirely appropriate. In fact, the LEAST pastoral thing you could say in such a situation might go something like this: “Jimmy didn’t know God and therefore is certainly in hell. He would want you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior so that you don’t burn for all eternity like him. So who wants to give their heart to Jesus and avoid the eternal anguish of face-melting fire? ” Sure, you could get a lot of “decisions” for Christ in said scenario, but have you helped any of the teens actually process grief? Have you been the quite presence of God, who listens rather than feels the need to have all the answers? Do students who come forward in a situation like the one above REALLY surrender to a life of discipleship, or are they signing up for fire insurance? A death in a family or in a school provides excellent opportunities for dialogue and conversation about faith, but ministers should tread carefully and be sensitive to the true needs of grieving students and families.

In the second century a.d., the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.”[vi] Death is an unavoidable part of living, and teenagers are bound to deal with death sooner or later. Knowing some appropriate, and equally inappropriate, ministerial responses to grief can make all the difference in the quality of pastoral care a person receives while grieving. We hope this list of do’s and don’ts is helpful to you in thinking about how you minister to grieving teens and their families.


[i] Olson, Dr. G. Keith; Counseling Teenagers-The Complete Christian Guide to Understanding and Helping Adolescents, (Group Books, Loveland CO, 1992), pgs. 489-491

[iii] RTS Bereavement Services, Suggestions for Grieving Families Handout

[v] Ibid. missfoundation.org

The Salt Of The Earth

Salt ShakerWhat does it mean to be the salt of the earth?  In our culture we have plenty of salt.  In fact, we have too much.  If you haven’t noticed before, check out the sodium content in any frozen meal you eat.  Chances are there is enough salt for a year in your TV dinner.  Perhaps your doctor has even told you to cut back on salt so that your heart doesn’t do crazy stuff… like kill you.  To understand what Jesus meant when he said “you are the salt of the earth” we need some perspective.

Two-thousand years ago salt was a hot comodidty, much like oil is today.  The person (or rather the kingdom) that controlled the salt trade had incredible power over the food supply.  The ability to preserve food was vital to city life in the Roman empire.  If you take away Rome’s power to preserve food for the city populations, you knock the empire back from being a trade-oriented culture to a purely agricultural one.  Wealth goes down, and power goes to another empire.  Salt was crucial to the stability of the empire.  Kinda changes your perspective on Jesus’s saying, does it not?  “YOU are the salt of the earth.”  Meaning YOU,  children of God, have the real power.  YOU, with my Spirit living in you, can bring life to others.  YOU are vital to God’s plan for ushering in a new Kingdom.

So it’s a new year for ministry.  How will you usher in God’s kingdom for your youth ministry this year?  We are called to disciple students and teach them that God’s kingdom is more important than any earthly one.  Have you thought about your youth ministry in Kingdom language before?  Ask yourself in 2013:

  • How can our youth ministry bring the Kingdom of God to earth?
  • How can our youth ministry usher in the reign of Christ in families and schools?
  • What are some creative ways we can bring true vitality to our congregation?

Being the salt of the earth is a big deal.  Only God’s people get that responsibility and priviledge.  As a student minister or volunteer, you have the priviledge of teaching teens what it means to bring God’s reign to earth.  This year, let’s not be about programs and activities, but about building the Kingdom.  Let’s choose discipleship over entertainment; God’s reign over our agendas.

We’ve provided a free Bible study for your group on what it means to be the salt of the earth.  Our prayer is that this year, you could lead students and parents toward living as citizens of God’s kingdom above all else.  The “Salt of The Earth” lesson can be found in the Ideas Toolbox part of our site on the Bible Studies page.

Five Youth Ministry Resolutions for 2013

New Year ResolutionsThe start of a new year is the perfect time to reflect on priorities in ministry.  From year to year in ministry it is important to evaluate what works and what doesn’t, and come up with strategies that will lead to more effective Kingdom building.  Here are five youth ministry resolutions worth making every day of 2013:    

 

 

  1. I will intentionally build deeper relationships with parents.  When parents are an integral part of youth ministry, longevity and depth become a true possibility.  Let’s face it; part of ministering to youth is ministering to their parents.  Students in our ministries come from a variety of family situations, each with its own dysfunction.  Reaching teens with Christ’s love should include reaching the single parent struggling to pay the bills, the workaholic dad, the parent whose substance abuse issues are rubbing off on their teen, and the parents who truly desire for their student to become a passionate Christ follower.  The student ministry of the church may be the entry/re-entry point for faith for many parents.  Effective ministry includes the entire family and equips parents to be the primary disciplers of their children.  The first step to the end game is to build meaningful relationships with parents and guardians.   
  2. I will make more time for personal devotion and prayer.  All too often the day-to-day grind of doing ministry distracts from building and deepening a personal relationship with God.  We all know that ministry is no substitute for personal prayer and devotion, but it sure is easy to get in that rut.  Planning for Bible studies and sermons each week, praying in staff meetings, and leading worship are sometimes substituted for one-on-one time with God.  The problem is it’s hard to preach, write Bible studies, and lead worship when the personal well is dry.  This year it can change.  We tell our students all the time, “just read your Bible or pray for five minutes a day!”  Let us not be guilty of ignoring our own sage wisdom.  Who knows, more time spent in prayer and Bible study might even lead to fresh vision from God.   
  3. I will not do events for the sake of filling a calendar.  We’ve all done it.  It’s January and you look at your calendar for the winter and spring and realize…its blank!  So the filling in process begins.  A movie night here, a dodgeball night there, sprinkle in a few service projects and maybe even do one super youthy event like a lock-in (even though you don’t feel super or youthy at the end of the night).  The New Year is a great time to consider why we do the events we do.  Are they simply filling a calendar so that the youth department looks busy on paper?  If so then we are little more than baby-sitters or activity directors.  Events take time, energy, and resources.  We should be intentional about what we calendar and make sure that each event has a purpose, fulfills a goal, and falls in line with our philosophy and vision of ministry.
  4. I will invest more heavily in personal relationships with students.   Seeing students at church has its limitations.  We’re bound to see even the most faithful kids just a few times a week, for no more than an hour or two.  It’s hard to have a meaningful mentoring relationship that leads toward true discipleship with such limited time constraints.  It takes a LOT of love to attend a middle school band concert and if you show up the student and the parents will take note.  Part of ministry is doing life together.  Doing life with a teenager can mean supporting them with your presence at a school activity, dropping an encouraging note in the mail, sending a birthday card, or even checking in on Facebook when they  post a depressing status update about the third break up this month.  If we used Jesus’s ministry as a model, we would hardly EVER do big events.  He was relational to the core.  Remember, twelve actual disciples can have a far greater Kingdom impact than a hundred students who show up to be entertained.   
  5. I will get creative with resources and be a better steward of God’s money.  In case you’re not aware, most sectors of our economy are lagging.  Chances are that giving was sluggish at your church this past year, and maybe the year before that too.  If so, there is a high probability that the youth budget, if you’re lucky enough to have one, stayed the same.  Maybe the youth ministry line even decreased if your church made across-the-board cuts.  Let’s get creative in 2013!  There are lots of ways to do youth events on a dime.  It’s nice to have resources, but Jesus didn’t need a Wii, a flat panel TV, a fancy prewritten Bible study curriculum (given, He’s Jesus), or even a large stash of duct tape to do ministry.  Free ideas for student ministry abound, and we try to post some of our favorites on this blog.  Check out websites like Pinterest.  Write an original Bible study that your students can relate to.  Instead of buying nasty Wal-Mart cookies get one of the grandmas in your church to make a homemade batch.  When people tithe money to God on Sundays (as an act of worship), they trust that the money will be used wisely for the furthering of God’s Kingdom.  Let’s get wise about how we spend God’s money this year.

These are our youth ministry resolutions for 2013.  We would love to hear yours in the comment section below!                 

A Real Discussion About Church

Atwo people having a conversations I look at forums and discussion groups for the church, I am overwhelmed with the amount of idiotic and often UN-Christian conversations concerning the church.  The hot button issues in many online forums seem to be homosexuality, women in ministry, Islam-a-phobia, homosexuality, how to protect current denominational structures, the inerrancy of Scripture… did I mention homosexuality.  Now, in all fairness these are each important topics that deserve a robust and honest dialogue.  The problem is that there is little real dialogue on any of these issues.  By the time most clergy and ministerial staff go through college and even seminary, the lines in the sand have been drawn both theologically and in many cases (sad to say) politically.  So I propose a new set of topics that may help evangelicals and main-line Christians move forward.  After all, not one of the hot button issues addresses why many churches are hemorrhaging members and money.  If Paul and Peter had sat on their laurels griping at each other in a Facebook forum then the church wouldn’t even be here today.  So what needs to be added to our conversation?

1.  Eyes (Vision):

Most denominations have not honestly evaluated their vision and mission in 50-100 years.  Most local churches follow suit.  I have been to numerous seminars on church vision and growth.  At a recent seminar I attended one consultant advised us not to bother coming up with a good vision or overarching mission plan since pastors will probably be moved in a few years anyways.  WHAT?!?!?  SERIOUSLY?!?!?  I couldn’t believe we had paid money to hear this guy.  Having worked on staff at a church-start and in my current situation where I lead music and preach for a new worship service, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart.  I believe strongly that most churches either live on borrowed or murky vision.  Neither is ideal.

I recently learned of a church that went to a conference at the mega “Church of the Resurrection” pastored by Rev. Adam Hamilton.  Hamilton’s church clearly states that their journey toward fulfilling their purpose is “Knowing, Loving and Serving God.”  This 3,000-member church took leaders to the conference to dream dreams and seek clarity of vision and purpose.  They came back with a new mission statement: “Knowing, Loving, and Serving God.”  Instead of doing the work to find what they were truly unique and gifted to do, they borrowed vision and language from another “more successful” church.  Instead of the leadership of the church taking the time to initiate difficult discussions on local strategy and mission, they took their church’s potential shared identity and slapped another church’s bumper sticker on it. Every church needs to ask:

  • “Is our vision borrowed from another church or from the denomination?” Be honest!
  • “What is our shared identity as a congregation?” Get specific!
  • “What rallying cries can we make based on who we are?” Be BOLD!
  • “How can people catch the vision?” Get creative!

2:  Evangelism

Let’s face it; we don’t live in a Christian society.  By my best guestimates less than 10% of youth in our area are involved in a local church.  That means 90% are lost, 90% have no relationship with their Savior, and depending on whether or not you agree with Rob Bell, 90% are going to hell.  The church’s lack of urgency when it comes to evangelism is alarming.  Now before you think that I’m suggesting we scare the hell out of people in order to win them to Christ, let me pause.  I’m simply suggesting that we stop soft-selling the Gospel.  Stop soft-selling the redeeming blood of the Lamb.  Stop soft-selling eternal realities that we don’t fully understand.  There was an urgency to spread the Gospel among the early apostles because the return of Christ was seen as eminent.  Does Christ’s potential return inform anything we do?  Any sermons we preach?  Do we even believe He shall return?

The Southern Baptists adopted a strategy for evangelism in 1976 called Bold Mission Thrust.  (I will not take time here to comment on the suspect nature of this initiative’s name.)  Simply stated the goal was “that every person in the world shall have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ in the next 25 years … and can understand the claim Jesus Christ has on their lives.”  Over the next 25 years the Southern Baptist Convention increased career missionary personnel by 85%, saw a 2430% increase in mission volunteers, and more than doubled the countries in which it had missionaries.  This kind of vision changes lives and saves souls.  The sad conclusion of this bold campaign however was that despite all the resources poured into evangelism, denominational infighting largely kept the SBC from reaching many of its stated goals for the initiative.[i]  Also, the balance between evangelism and social justice became skewed as fundamentalists began to take over the demonination.

What if the mainline church’s vision and theology of evangelism was as robust as its understanding of baptism?  They are closely related.  Evangelism leads to conversion which leads to Christian baptism for unbaptized adults.  The mainline churches even teach that adult and teenage conversion is necessary for those baptized as infants, because infant baptism is not alone salvific.[ii]  With this in mind it’s odd that many ministers shy away from alter calls out of fear that a decision made at a moment in time won’t lead to true discipleship.  One could go an entire week at some youth camps without hearing an altar call or invitation in worship.  Also, the small retention rate of confirmands in most churches proves in many ways that confirmation is far from a perfect solution.  Every church should look at its own grim numbers for adult/youth baptisms and adult/youth professions of faith, and ask itself honestly:

  • “What is our strategy for evangelism?”  – My church has an “Inviting” team (soft sell).
  • “Are we equipping members to evangelize?” – Most churches fall short.
  • “What is our goal for adult baptisms this year?” – Most churches don’t have one.
  • “Do we incorrectly label social justice as evangelism?” – Many churches do.
  • “Why are we afraid of evangelism?” – Most people can’t say.

A youth minister friend of mine was instructed by his senior pastor not to take the youth to an area wide youth revival because “The evangelist might be too evangelical.”  If by “too evangelical” he means “share the gospel and give people a chance to respond to it” then we need to talk.  The students chose to go anyway since there were 30+ churches in the area participating in the event and since it had free food, a BMX team, a NASCAR team, and a band.  Only 3 middle school kids attended youth group that Wednesday after the others came and left when they realized their youth group wasn’t going to the event.  Many say “we’re ecumenical” but don’t participate in community events and revivals.  Many denominations and churches used to be known for revivals.  We say we want to grow the youth ministry but fail to be attractional to that age group.  In the past, Christians have been known for innovation.  What are we afraid of?

3:  Equipping

Churches in the West likely have a better trained staff today than churches 100 years ago.  There are specialists who have degrees and training in a litany of ministerial areas.  You can get undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees in youth ministry, children’s ministry, church recreation, non-profit finance, religious education, family ministry, modern worship, hymnology, missiology, theology, “practical” theology, Christian counseling, pastoral care, Biblical studies, Christian ethics, Church history, preaching, and the list goes on!  Those degree fields don’t even take into account the certificate programs offered online for second career ministers and folks that want continuing education.  Count degrees, certificate programs, professional trade shows and conventions and you have an entire cottage industry of professional ministerial training.

The problem is this: many churches rely too heavily on a professionally educated staff and not enough on their most powerful resource- lay people.  We all know this but few do anything about it.  I’m probably among the worst.  I rely on my own strength and don’t ask God OR church members for help nearly as often as I should, but I’m trying to get better.  Pastors nationwide struggle to find time for writing a great sermon because of all the other demands of ministry.  Our failure to equip church members drags down our worship.  When a church reaches a certain size it is simply impractical for a senior pastor to visit every sick church member, do all marital counseling, and preach or be present at every funeral or wedding.  Some churches are fortunate enough that they can hire full-time pastoral caregivers who are not the senior pastor.  For the rest of us, the simple solution is to train and equip laity to help with pastoral care.  “Oh we can’t do that!” most pastors say.  “The people expect the senior pastor to visit them!”  That may be true, but the underlying problem here is threefold:

1st: Many people including pastors have a weak view of their role in congregational life specifically when it comes to certain ministries because…

2nd: Many growing congregations and their pastors are clinging to smaller church models of ministry which means that…

3rd: Large churches often place the same expectations on senior pastors as smaller family-sized churches.

For head pastors the temptation to do it all is dangerously seductive.  When it comes to visitations people smile and say “the pastor came to visit me!” which is a small boost to one’s ego.  We know it’s false but we let people go on thinking that there is something a little more holy about a pastor’s presence, prayers and poise.  When you go to visit someone in a hospital bed you are the presence of God to them.  What if the laity was trained and freed to the same end?  Expectations often placed on the pastor force him/her into a posture of fear when it comes to prophetically leading through the equipping laity to be the hands, feet, and listening ears of Christ.

This is simply one example of how equipping laity might empower Christians to be more faithful disciples.  I am not trying to say that senior pastors should not do any pastoral care, but I am saying that as a church grows they can’t do it all.  Instead of freeing people to DO ministry, we invite them to serve on a committee and come to countless meetings that take them away from time with family.  Proof that hell does exist.  Instead of inviting people to dream dreams and cast vision, we go to a conference and try and import another church’s uniqueness to the detriment of our own.  Instead of training people to ministries of evangelism we simply make token appeals for them to invite a friend on high attendance Sundays or to a church-wide picnic where we give visitors a brochure with another church’s vision printed on it.  Instead of asking a youth parent to be responsible for leading large group games or small group Bible studies we are content to do it ourselves.  If ministry professionals DO all the ministry when will we have time to lead in ministry?  Almost every protestant denomination says it believes in the priesthood of all believers, but the understanding is rarely as potent as it should be.  Every church should ask these questions:

  • “How can we better equip and free our laity for real ministry?” –Nothing is off the table.
  • “What ministries in our church don’t utilize laity?” -Name specific ministerial tasks.
  • “What is our concept of priesthood of the believer?” –Read 1 Peter 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:19-25
  • “How should this understanding change the way we do church?” –Make a plan.
  • “What fears might be present for ministers and laity in expecting more from laity?” –Name fears.

Eyes, Evangelism, and Equipping are my offerings for fresh conversation among people who are as concerned about the church’s future as I am.  We must find ways to dialogue with each other in areas where common ground can be found.  We must discuss together the future of the church and what the REAL reasons are for the decline of the church in America and around the world.

 



[i]http://www.baptiststandard.com/2001/6_25/pages/sbc_bold.html Article on the Bold Mission Thrust Initiative