The 70 Weirdest Nativities (the revised 2016 list!)

This list started with a simple dozen weird nativities, several years ago. Each year the list has expanded; and in recent years that expansion has primarily come from people sending me nativities (this is awesome and annoying also, just like many of these nativities). Last year I had at least a hundred people send me that freaking Coke Can nativity.

This year, the viral nativity is the Hipster Nativity (it’s deep in the post, with the new additions for 2016). Funny thing is that even though it’s been sent to me by about 30 different people, I first saw it when its creators reached out to me, asking to be included in this year’s list! That was a first, and made publishing an updated list this year something of a non-negotiable.

I have one main rule for inclusion (other than that the nativity has to be weird or horrible or interesting or odd): I only include nativities that were made as nativities. (Otherwise this list would be three times longer!) I’ve even pulled a few classics off the list this year since they didn’t fit my rule.

So, here we go!

The Kitty Cat Nativity. Makes me want to cough up a hairball.

The Nativity Kitchen Timer (ding-ding! baby jesus is born!):

Yeah, the Cat Nativity is probably worse. But these Dogs ain’t much better…

This one is a craft kit, using marshmallows to make a S’mores Nativity. Yum.

This isn’t a whole nativity set, but there are other pieces available. This Mouse Drummer Boy is just about as confusing as a bit of kitschmas junk can get.

When searching for tasteless nativity sets online, it doesn’t take long for one to stumble onto multiple versions of bears…

This Rubber Duckie Nativity has to be right up there in the “worst” section of cheesy nativity sets…

Lotsa Santa nativity sets and pieces out there, but this one is a bit disorienting. Is the holy family IN Santa’s bag? Or does Santa have an nice appliqué of the Holy Family on his bag of gifts? And, what can the letters in Santa be re-arranged to spell?

If cats, dogs, and teddy bears weren’t enough, how ’bout penguins!?

Sure. Snowmen. Shouldn’t be a surprise.

Ah, the Veggie Nativity. I debated on this one, because my kids loved Veggie Tales back in the day. But the baby carrot pushed me over the edge into including it.

This nativity — well, i just don’t even know how to describe it. Clowns? modern art? The baby Jesus seriously looks like something out of a circus or a John Waters movie.

Oh, the animals. I suppose, while i think the Dog Nativity and Cat Nativity are somehow explainable as something people WAY too “into” those particular animals might display, this Chicken Nativity is just a bit beyond my comprehension as a purchasable — nay, displayable — holiday trinket.

You know those people who have those geese on their porch? Yeah, them. And they put a cute little goosey costume on their porch-goose to mark every season? Yeah, those people. This costume set is made for those people. Or, to clarify, for those who actually have TWO of those geese already. Sigh. I’m guessing the rubber ducky baby is “not supplied” (not to mention zoologically impossible).

What better expresses the spirit of the incarnation than owls? I found these in an online cavalcade of nativities, where the comment was: Whoooo is the Son of God? Whooooo?

Yes, I give you, the Naked Troll Doll nativity. Eesh. Feh.

The Irish Nativity, where the 3 Irish wise guys have clover, gold and Guinness:

The most viral nativity from a few years ago… the Meat Nativity (yes, bacon and sausage):

And, why not the Butter Nativity:

The Cupcake Topper Nativity. holy and yummy all at once!

The Pig Nativity. Oink-vey: certainly not kosher…

The Mary-and-Josesph-as-Kids Nativity. This one is mildly disturbing.

In keeping with our current cultural fascination with all things zombie, I give you the Etsy craftiness of: the Zombie Nativity. Full disclosure: after this collection blew up online a few years ago, my business partner, Adam McLane, bought me this one as a Christmas gift. It now sits proudly in my home. and my interactions with the creators were just lovely (they “get it”).

The Nativity Carved out of Spam! (Thanks, Adam!)

The Shotgun Shell Nativity. What a blast (get it!?). Perfect for your redneck Christmas, I suppose.

The Peg Doll Nativity. Other than collecting some larger figures and one smaller one, and telling me it’s a nativity, this one doesn’t exactly scream “manger”.

The Mice Nativity. Say goodbye to the cookies you left out for Santa.

Um, the official description is “Folk Nativity“. But i’m pretty sure that’s a small 7 eleven frozen burrito with a face on it, along with two new age tree fairies, or something (btw: I had interaction with the creators of this gem a few years ago, and they’re good people).

From a nice reader in the UK (thanks, Mary!) who bothered to email this pic…
The Soggy Jesus Nativity. I’m sure there are plenty of nativities in a snow globe, where all three (or more) characters are IN the globe. But this freakish thing just has Jesus in there, with Mary and Joe staring at their baby-in-a-fishbowl. Too weird and hilarious.

Honestly, this one — the Mexican Mermaid Family Nativity — is some pretty beautiful art work, even if it is fairly strange. Thanks to Karen on flickr for allowing me to post this one.

And what I can only call the ‘Minimalist Nativity’. Props to some kindergarten art class for this one, or some very lazy community college art student.

Yeah, this one probably crosses some line. Sent to me by the creators, I give you the Halloween/Christmas Mash-up Nativity.

More animals! This time, it’s Meerkats! Hakuna matata, Jesus.

Not to be left out of the animal kingdom nativities, the Frog Nativity:

Ok. If I had a line, I’ve probably crossed it by now. I hesitated on this one, but it was suggested SO many times in recent years, and it’s from a crafty little website called (really). Yup: it’s the Tampon Nativity:

More animals! This time it’s Moose (meese? mooses?).

Robin, the creator of this Soap Nativity, sent it to me. I suppose the birth of Christ has something to do with getting us all squeaky clean.

I love this one: three wise-men cheers for the Color Nativity!

What’s more fun that a puzzle? I’ll tell you what: little puzzles made out of eraser stuff. And then–in case that wasn’t fun enough!–make ’em a Puzzle Eraser Nativity set! Obvious, right, since baby Jesus came to erase your sins!?
puzzle eraser nativity

Take, eat, this is the body of Christ MADE IN CHOCOLATE FOR YOU, nomnomnomnomnom.
chocolate nativity

A quick Google image search will turn up a wide variety of nativity-themed nesting dolls. But I got a little chuckle out of the idea of the sheep being inside baby J on this one (alert reader Alison pointed out that “maybe that’s the ‘Lamb of God’!”):
nesting dolls nativity

Really, how did this list of wild and weird and wonderful and horrible nativities get to this ripe old age and NOT have a Gingerbread Nativity?? Just like the nesting dolls, there are hundreds (homemade and not) in a quick google image search. Here’s one of ’em:
gingerbread nativity

Speaking of gingerbread… just in case you’re hoping to communicate “WE ARE SO CUTE YOU MUST LOVE US” to your neighbors, here’s a Gingerbread Yard Art Nativity (I’m sure the word “art” is used merely for reference in that description):
gingerbread yard art nativity

What can I say: the world thanks Etsy artist thepinkkoala for finally building a bridge of peace, ending the rancor brought on by the scopes monkey trial. Now Christians and Darwinists can hold hands whilst viewing this Monkey Nativity set:
monkey nativity

I’m salivating as I post this one, the Fondant Nativity, from Etsy wonder craft rosy. Jesus and dessert: Two of my favorite things!
fondant nativity

You saw the Snow Globe Nativity above with only baby Jesus in the globe, right? Well, a lovely and alert reader sent me a photo of this fantastic piece of awesomeness she saw at a thrift shop. Yup, this time the snow globe is only on mary’s head. It’s like a space helmet! HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM.
nativity - mary snowglobe

And here I have to confess: this nativity is amazing. I want. I already have one on the list called the “Minimalist Nativity,” so i’m going to be forced to call this the “Minimalist Balls Nativity.” Seriously, this bit-o-brilliance makes it pretty clear that the nativity is iconic (btw: here are step-by-step instructions for making this one):
nativity - minimalist balls

There are so many nativities that try to incorporate Santa in some way. But this Father Santa Nativity takes things to a whole ‘nother level.
Father Santa

Unvirtuous Abbey, on FB, was the source of this confused Frankenstein Nativity.
frankenstein nativity

This has to be one of the strangest and most disorienting nativities on the whole list. I call it the Frog Belly Nativity, and it leaves me with more questions than answers, to be sure. But, hey, if this connects with your soul, you can get your own at The Frog Store.
frog belly nativity

Holy cow, it’s a nativity. Confused? Me too. The Holy Cow Nativity is available as a Christmas ornament for your mediations on beef and spirituality.
holy cow nativity

Nativity Chess Set. Seems pretty obvi, right?
nativity chess set

Three truths about this Paper Mache Nativity:
1. I don’t remember where I got it (I think someone sent it to me; but I don’t have notes on it).
2. I’m not really sure what’s going on in it.
3. It scares me, just a little bit, in an Aliens-want-to-eat-your-soul sort of way.
paper machete

The Peanut Nativity reminds me of a lame craft from Christian summer camp. Sorry, peanuts. And sorry, good summer camps with your brilliant craftiness.
peanut nativity

Food-related nativities are fun, apparently. And the Radish Nativity has an interesting story. Sent to me by Christy, a missionary in southern Mexico, who writes: My husband and I work in Southern Mexico. Every December 23, people from all over flock to Oaxaca City, Mexico to the Noche de Rabanos (Radish Night) celebration. There are always some lovely nativities painstakingly carved out of giant red radishes. Sure. Radishes. Because they’re red, maybe?
radish nativity.4

My friend Josh snapped a pic of this Woodland Creatures Nativity at a Christmas store in NC. Oh, Deer! (Note: Santa in the background sorta ticked me off. Go away, Santa, back to your freaking chimney.)
woodland creatures nativity

How did I get all the way to 2015 without a Salt and Pepper Nativity in the list? Yup, it’s the reason for the seasoning.
salt and pepper

This is one of my new favorites: the Super Minimalist Nativity. Created by French artist Émilie Voirin, who says, “The holy scene that has been broadly reproduced is here recognizable by the names only, giving free rein to people’s imagination.”
super minimalist nativity

People have sent me dozens of nativity scenes cobbled together with independent superhero dolls. But this one was actually made as a nativity, with Baby J in a wee Superman costume! Finally, a real Superhero Nativity. (Haven’t found a source for this one yet.)

I don’t think the creators of this nativity intended to make something that looks like the Star Wars Jawa. So I’m calling this one the Unintentional Jawa Nativity.
unintentional jawa

New to the list this year!

sure, a driftwood nativity. this crafty nativity was sent to me by greg turner, who took the pic.

How ‘about a Haitian coconut nativity. I mean, make nativities out of what ya got, right? (Thanks to Dave Mahar for sending this one.)


Why not play games with your nativity? You can with this Dominos Nativity (photo sent by Mark Eades).


OK, someone who said he has a very “bah-humbug” feeling about this season put all that feeling into his creation of the Negativity Nativity. Wow.


Can’t say I’m a big fan of the Gnome Nativity. But to each his own!


More than one of my Canadian friends send me this shot of the Canadian Nativity. It’s kind, apologetic, and loves poutine.


Here it is: the viral nativity of 2016. I give you: the Hipster Nativity (also called the Millenial Nativity). Gotta give the creators props for putting thought into this baby.


Not really sure what to call this one. I’m going with Road Trip Nativity.  Good times.


I’m surprised it took me until now to find a nativity honoring the Day of the Dead. Well, here you have it:


And last but not least this year, a pinto bean nativity cutely named Holy Frijoles!



check out bohemian rhapsody re-written as “bethlehemian rhapsody” (so totally fun!).

also check out this awesome take on the real christmas story, as if it played out on facebook, and this fantastic imagining of the nativity story played out on a a wide variety of social media.

An Open Apology to Those Not Like Me

To my brothers and sisters who are immigrants, refugees, people of color, women, LGBTQ, Muslim, or any other marginalized group:

I’m a white man of privilege. I’d love to view myself (and by viewed by others) as someone who isn’t racist, misogynist, homophobic or in any way demeaning to any human, either in action or thought. But I’ve had an inescapable sense of obligation in these last few days: an obligation to ask for your forgiveness.

It started when my oldest child, who identifies as gender neutral, texted late on election night to say that they didn’t feel safe.

Then I almost cried when Van Jones, during CNN’s election night coverage, shared honestly about his pain and wondering how he would process the current reality with his children.

Then a dear (white) friend with adopted African children shared through tears how she was choosing to keep her children home from school the next day out of concern for their safety.

Then a youth ministry friend shared that he was on his way to the hospital to visit a youth group kid who checked himself in with suicidal ideation the previous night, due to his fear surrounding the election results and what they might mean for him as a gay teen.

Then I saw, as I’m sure you have also, all the horrible instances of bullying perpetrated on those viewed as “other.”

Finally, my amazing wife came home from work and shared her weariness. As I was in the midst of meeting her in that space, she very lovingly and graciously said something like, “I know you care about this, and I know that you are intentional about supporting women; but there’s a part of this you just can’t understand.”

I’ve been wrestling with my own culpability. I’m tempted, of course, to hide behind proclamations of my beliefs and build a tiny wall of defense based on some of my previous actions. Those urges are strong. But I know they are helpful to no one other than myself.

So I want to say to you, I love you, and I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for the times—protracted or in-this-moment—when you experience limitations imposed on you by others (by people like me).

I’m sorry for the way we patronize you.

I’m sorry for the slurs, and the diminishing looks.

I’m sorry for excluding you from the White Men’s Power Club.

I’m sorry for giving you ample reason for fear.

I’m sorry to have put you in place where you have completely legitimate anxiety over the treatment your children receive in the world.

I’m sorry for my role in perpetuating a culture that has not yet progressed beyond this injustice, this permitted prejudice and inequality.

I want you to experience the freedom and opportunity that I’m given; and I’m sorry for whatever role I’ve played in keeping that from you.

I will be searching my thoughts and behaviors for the ways I may actively or inadvertently contribute to this systemic exclusion. And in the mean time, I ask your forgiveness for the myriad ways I have perpetuated these realities knowingly or unknowingly.

A Smart Church Has Young People at the Highest Levels of Leadership


many churches and youth ministries highlight teenagers from time to time (like “Youth Sunday”). some even include teenagers and young adults on committees and other leadership functions, but for the purpose of ‘raising up tomorrow’s leaders.’ in my most recent column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK), i argue that a smart church has teenagers and young adults on leadership teams because they have something essential to contribute.

(note: this was written for a UK audience, and some of the language and terminology reflects that!)

What if our churches didn’t only move away from isolating teenagers and young adults, but moved beyond a patronizing, atta-boy, “oh, they’re so cute” approach that treats young people like junior members? What if our churches saw the powerful benefit of including 16 – 25 year olds in every aspect of congregational leadership, including oversight groups and planning teams? And what if this inclusion wasn’t merely in order to raise up future leaders, but was born out of an understanding that we are better with young people as part of our process?

For dozens of years now, churches with active youth programs have wrong-headedly moved toward isolating teenagers from the congregation. The thinking was: teenagers will learn best, and be most happy, if they’re with “they’re own kind.”

I have a somewhat cynical additional reason why I think so many churches have moved in this direction: it allows adults to feel like they’re caring for youth without actually needing to be with youth. Everyone wins!

Except: that’s not true.

When youth and young adults are siloed: everyone loses.

I could make this case many ways, not the least of which is that research has made it clear that the faith formation of young people—if we hope for any chance of a faith that lasts beyond their involvement in a youth ministry—is highly correlated to engagement with a congregation.

But I’d like to suggest a developmental reason why any organization—certainly churches included—absolutely need to have teenagers and young adults on leadership teams, planning committees, and any other sort of decision-making group. This reason is anchored in brain development, but must be viewed through the less-common lens of “teenagers are a wonder to behold,” rather than the more-common lens of “teenagers are problem to be solved.”

Maybe you’ve heard this, but in the last dozen or so years we’ve discovered that brains aren’t fully developed until the mid- to late-20s. One of the most significantly underdeveloped parts of the brain is the frontal lobe. And those babies are responsible for a handful of fairly helpful critical thinking skills, like: decision-making, wisdom, prioritization, impulse control, planning, organization, and focus.

Through a negative lens (the most common way of viewing young people), that underdevelopment quickly leads to the reaction: What a subhuman, broken mess! No wonder they’re such a nightmare!

But through a positive lens (most common for scientists studying teenage brains; and most aligned with a Christian commitment to consider God’s creation intention), the resulting response should be: Wow! These people are perfectly tuned, specialized for particular contributions that older folk struggle with.

Teenage and young adult brains are specifically and fantastically wired for passion, creativity, invention, dissatisfaction with mediocrity and status quo, and the demand that things make sense. (Oh, and in addition: they are at the pinnacle of learning capacity, which sharply trails off starting in the late 20s.)

Let me reverse-engineer that last paragraph for church leadership:

Not including the highly specialized brains of young people means that a group is intentionally choosing to continue with the way things are currently done, embracing a lack of creativity, completely missing cross-current re-direct options, and settling for mediocrity.

Too often, church leadership team members are merely selected for their donation levels or the impressiveness of their business world job titles. But the best teams (in any context) intentionally include some divergent thinkers.

Teenagers and young adults = divergent thinkers.

Including young people at the highest levels of leadership and decision-making in a church won’t necessarily lead to brilliance. It can be messy. Teenagers and young adults lack the maturity and experience that, hopefully, others will bring. And I’m certainly not suggesting an entire leadership committee made up entirely and exclusively of teenagers and young adults. A team comprised entirely of divergent thinkers is—I’ll spare you hyperbole on this one—not best.

But the first time that 19-year-old member of the church oversight committee asks, “Um, can someone explain to me why we’re doing this?” – now you’ve got movement!




New Music Rodeo! Whoop!

i do dig me some music. and i’m old school — i still buy it (as in, download it from the itunes store; though i get a ton of awesome indie free stuff from noisetrade). in the last few weeks, i’ve totally overshot my normal purchasing rate, because i’m weak, and there have just been too many amazing albums.

here’s what i got, and a peek into my eclectic-but-specific-and-opinionated taste:

shovels-and-ropeShovels & Rope: Little Seeds

pre-ordered this one, and have two songs so far. i found Shovels & Rope a couple years ago via a free download on noisetrade, and have become a huge fan. bluesy, indie, husband and wife duo, with amazing harmony.

the-bad-plusThe Bad Plus: It’s Hard

TBP is, hands down, my all-time favorite jazz act. i have 13 of their albums. a jazz piano trio (piano/bass/drums), every member is a virtuoso. i love their original tunes, but i fell in love with them because of their inventive cover songs. they haven’t had cover songs on their last few releases, so it’s a massive treat that this album is all covers.

crowderCrowder: American Prodigal

another pre-order. what’s to say, other than i dig both the man and his music. always have.

jon-batisteJon Batiste: Jazz is Now

you might recognize jon batiste as the band leader for stephen colbert. that’s where i was introduced to him. i love his style and decided it was time to pick up one of his albums. i chose this slightly older release over his newest stuff with his current band (Stay Human), and have almost worn out its digital grooves. (btw: Christianity Today recently listed him in their article on culture shapers.)

jack-whiteJack White: Acoustic Recordings 1998 – 2016

jack white is the man. jack white is to me what 21 Pilots is to a 13-year-old girl. he’s musical crack for me — everything he releases. this is a compilation of acoustic recordings (some in original form, some stripped down versions) that span various bands and jack iterations. oh, and it’s double-length. yee-haw.

miaM.I.A.: AIM

you know, that girl who had the mega-popular song Paper Planes (“All I wanna do is / And / And take your money”) a few years back. i’m not normally a fan of dance music, but i love the world music influences and pretty much everything else about her music. it’s PUMP YOU UP music.

macy-grayMacy Gray: Stripped

ah, the voice of macy gray. how to categorize her: post-soul? r&b? all i know is her voice is amazing, in a gritty, sexy way. this album shows maturity (we’re all getting older, after all), and leans well into jazz on some tracks. it’s mellower than some of her angrier stuff of the past, and i like it.

wilcoWilco: Schmilco

normally an amazing alt-rock band (last year’s release Star Wars was UH-MAZING), this time around they go with a WAY-stripped down, almost acoustic album full of inventiveness and lyrical depth. so good, in a more chill way than past releases.

frank-oceanFrank Ocean: Blond

despite the buzz, i hadn’t planned on getting it. but my son’s strong suggestion (begging?) caused me to give it a listen. and — wow. reminds me of a guy version of beyonce’s lemonaide, a little in sound, but more so in its variety and creativity. i guess the genre is called ‘post-soul.’ but all i know is i’ve been listening to it nonstop for 3 days.

seminars for the 2016 Middle School Ministry Campference

i just finished finalizing the seminars and late nights for this year’s Middle School Ministry Campference. i’ve written this many times, but the Campference is the most fun youth ministry event i’ve ever attended or been a part of. we overlay an amazing weekend of content (great main sessions and seminars) over a retreat vibe, with lots of hang time and conversations and weirdness (in a good way).

AND, the regular registration deadline is almost upon us — just two more weeks. after september 30, the group rate goes away, and the regular rate jumps up another thirty-five bucks. but, heck, the event is October 14 – 16 — so you should be registering before the end of this month anyhow!

here they are — the AMAZING 2016 list of seminars and late nights, presented by some of the most amazing and brilliant young teen ministry experts in the world:

Friday Night

  1. Adam McLane – Understanding Teenagers & Social Media (seminar)
  2. Tom Shefchunas – Double-Dog-DareAthon on Inviting “Outsiders” to Church (dialogue)
  3. Katie Edwards – Walking Middle Schoolers Through Difficult Times (dialogue)
  4. Alan Ramsey – Growing to Love 6th Graders (and Seizing the Opportunity) (seminar)
  5. Matty McCage –Four key investments today’s volunteer requires

Late Night Friday

  • How-To Sharpie Tattoos (Crystal Kirgiss)
  • Let’s Talk Confirmation (Heather Lea Campbell)

Saturday Morning

  1. Kurt Johnston – 7 Sins of Communicating to Young Teens (dialogue)
  2. Heather Flies – Effective Ministry with Middle School Girls (seminar)
  3. Scott Rubin – JH Ministry with HS Ministry in Mind (dialogue)
  4. Kenny & Elle Campbell – Leveraging the Uniqueness of Middle School for Faith Formation (seminar)
  5. Crystal Kirgiss – Developing Talk Series for Middle School Retreats and Camps (active learning)

Saturday Afternoon

  1. Mark Oestreicher & Tom Shefchunas – Pastoring LGBT Teens (and those wondering) (dialogue)
  2. Heather Flies & Crystal Kirgiss – Being a Woman in Youth Ministry (dialogue)
  3. Scott Rubin – Next Steps for New Believers (seminar)
  4. Kenny & Elle Campbell – Our Best Games and How We Play Them (active learning)
  5. Kyle Whitcroft – What Your Middle School Ministry Can Learn from an International Nonprofit (seminar)

Late Night Saturday

  • Multi-Site Youth Ministry (Kurt Johnston & Tom Shefchunas)
  • How-To Tiny Books (Crystal Kirgiss)

Sunday Morning

  1. Adam McLane – Working with Introverted Teens (dialogue)
  2. Kurt Johnston – Leadership: What I Know Now That I Wish I’d Known Then (seminar)
  3. Katie Edwards – Leading & Developing a Team (seminar)
  4. Crystal Kirgiss – 9 Ways to Engage Scripture Directly & Creatively (active learning)
  5. Mike Branton and the CIY Team: Maximizing Ministry Through a JH Intentional Space

Things I’m Excited About

holy cow, it’s september! i was traveling for most of two weeks — taking my son to college, then leading two YMCP cohorts in a row. but this week i’m at my desk (which, to be honest, is mostly my picnic table in my backyard — i do live in san diego, after all). and i’m feeling waves of excitement and anticipation this week. there’s just so much good stuff.

here’s a small smattering of that…

Riley and Max

my two kids are both at college (riley at University of Redlands in redlands CA, and max at Regis University in denver). and both are doing really well. riley’s a junior, and has a job this year as the head of the RAs for the program they’re in, which includes two dorms. max is a freshman, and finding his way on a grand adventure.

Empty Nesting

i love having my kids around, and we miss them. but there’s undeniably some pretty awesome stuff about empty nesting. not the least of these is that i now have regular access to a car!

Growth in YMCP

i’ve never been a part of something so strongly at the crossroads of my gifting and impact on youth workers as the Youth Ministry Coaching Program. we currently have 260 graduates and about 40 in current cohorts. and it’s looking likely that we’ll launch about three more cohorts this fall, and something around 8 or 10 cohorts in 2017. in addition, we’re expanding our offerings under the “coaching” umbrella: we’ve already launched 1-on-1 Coaching, and are days away from launching another cool low-cost growth opportunity. this all has me energized and thankful and hopeful and full of anticipation.

2 Campferences

we’ve scaled back on events at The Youth Cartel, putting more emphasis on the things we’re best at. but two of our events still have me very excited. the first of those — the Middle School Ministry Campference — is coming up very soon (October 14- 16), and i’m in the thick of planning and organizing. this is quite literally my most favorite youth ministry event i’ve ever attended or been a part of. it is my tribe.

we also just inked the contract for the Women in Youth Ministry Campference, our 3rd time around (now in a new location!). it will be next spring, and we’ll get stuff out soon on that. but i attended this event last year, and even though it wasn’t great for the Cartel financially, it’s so powerful and unique that we just felt a spiritual compulsion to do it again. it’s missional for us, and mind-blowingly good.

New Products

we have some exceptionally good resources that just released — three, to be exact: Slaying Biblical Illiteracy (a short and practical book), Don’t Do This (a highly instructive book of failure stories by youth ministry leaders), and Sunday Comics (one of the most creative curriculum resources i’ve seen in a long time). (oh: we also have brand new editions of our downloadable curriculum series — Viva and NEXT.) and we have some revolutionary and practical and creative resources in the pipeline right now — i’ve been working on these and finding great energy in them!

Starting a New 7th Grade Guys Small Group

last night i started yet another middle school ministry small group. i have nine 7th grade guys in my group this time around. and i’m particularly pumped about my TWO new co-leaders: chris davis (a former co-worker from my YS days), and joel sullivan (one of my son’s buddies and bandmates). i refuse to be that youth ministry guy who only talks about his experience in youth ministry back in the day.

Anniversary Trip to Italy

my amazing wife and i have talked about a trip to italy for years. we almost went for our 25th anniversary about six years ago. we had it planned for earlier this year (for our 30th), but postponed it due to my son’s HS graduation. but we’re going next may, and it’s likely going to be 2.5 weeks long. we’re in early planning stages now, and super excited.

i could list a dozen more things i’m pumped about. maybe i’ll post some time about a new sense of calling i have for a particular sort of ministry as i move deeper into my 50s. but that’s enough for today.

i hope that you’re also finding excitement and energy and renewal in your life and work!

A reminder of what we get to do and how it works

We’ve told Bible stories to teenagers as examples of how God wants to use even them. So shouldn’t it make sense that God wants to use even us? Even you? Even me? And doesn’t it follow that God will work through us to draw teenagers to him, whether we have brilliant youth ministry skills or not, whether we have the right approach or not?

A modern-day story, shared with me some time ago by a friend of mine, gifted veteran youth pastor Sam Halverson (author of One Body: Integrating Teenagers into the Life of Your Church):

Sam had a teenage guy in his group (we’ll call him Tim) who’d shown no spiritual interest whatsoever and was normally brooding and dark in his outlook. At a particular worship time, the students in Sam’s group were given some space to reflect on their spiritual lives. Tim sat by himself and was drawn into a very personal something. Sam couldn’t tell what was going on, whether Tim was having a profound spiritual moment, or was angry, or something else. He noticed Tim with his head down; as Sam moved around the room and neared Tim, he could tell Tim was in the midst of something intense. Sam said he had no idea what to do. Should he interrupt what was possibly a personal moment between Tim and God and ask Tim what was going on? Should he lay hands on Tim and pray for him? Should he leave Tim alone?

Sam, feeling helpless and bumbling, lightly touched Tim on the shoulder and said, “I’m here.” Tim only nodded but said nothing. As he walked away, Sam felt he’d probably blown it, that there was likely something better he should have done (but he had no idea what that better thing would have been).

A week later, Tim’s mom called Sam about another issue. At the end of the call, she said, “Oh, and I wanted to tell you thanks for what you did for Tim.” Sam was confused. Tim’s mom continued, “Tim told me that he was really struggling with whether or not God even exists. In that prayer time, Tim was begging God to reveal himself. He prayed, ‘If you’re real, God, then do something—right now—to say “I’m here!” ’ Tim told me that the second he prayed that, you put your hand on his shoulder and said, ‘I’m here.’ ”

The fact is: Sam is a great youth worker. He’s smart and relational and creative and caring. But that moment with Tim had nothing to do with Sam’s youth ministry skills. Sam felt like he’d blown it! But God was working through Sam and in Tim.

Learning to Listen and Be Present to Others


for a number of years, i wrote a monthly “Postcard from Marko” column for Youthwork Magazine in the UK. usually, these mini columns focused on a place i had recently visited and some observation from that trip. but today i was looking through some of these, and found this one. i was challenged and reminded of a few things:

  1. i want my self-centeredness to give way more and more. i want to listen and notice more.
  2. i have noticed some movement in this area of my life over the last year, noticing that with age, affirming and encouraging is coming more naturally to me.
  3. it takes SO little effort, really, to be present to people. and when we do that, we bear the kingdom of god with us, bringing all those resources along with us into that liminal space.

anyhow. here’s the postcard i wrote on 9/11/10:

I write these little “postcards” to you all from, theoretically, places I visit on my travels. But these days I’ve been traveling so much, my most-common place to think about life, faith and youth work is on a plane.

Sometimes my time on a plane is quiet, reasonably isolated (thanks to noise-cancelling headphones), and contemplative. Other times – usually due to a talkative traveler in the next seat – I’m engaged in conversation that brings about a different opportunity for reflection, insight or learning. A week ago, it was the latter of these.

I was on a tiny jet – one of those with 1 seat on the left of the aisle, and 2 on the right. I was on the right, on the aisle; next to me, by the window, was a small-ish older man in a dated suit and tie. As I stood and moved for him to take his seat, he said, “I’m a Baptist Pastor; Can I give you this?”

“Sure,” I responded, taking the small leaflet from him. As we sat down again, I quickly flipped through his personalized tract, finding it to be an overview of, and invitation to, his church that would, were I pretty much any variety of spiritual seeker or church shopper, have completely scared me away.

Before we even left the gate, he launched in with, “I’m a Baptist Pastor; I’d like to talk to you about salvation.”

Annoyed, I put by book down, attached a feigned smile, and said, “Yeah, I’m a pastor also.”

“What kind?”

“Well…,” I paused, shuffling through my mental files of possible responses. But apparently I paused too long. He finished my sentence for me, with a notably disapproving tone: “…I see – non-denominational.” He wasn’t finished.

“Do you know for sure that you’re going to heaven?”

I could see where this was going. Even though I’d told him I was also a pastor, he wasn’t convinced. I assured him of my assurance, but that still wasn’t enough.

“Tell me how you came to salvation?”

I could tell it was a test, but stupidly started talking about the wonderful Christian home I’d been brought up in, rather than the point-of-decision I knew he was looking for.

“But can you remember the actual moment when you made a decision? If you can’t, I’d like to help you with that now.”

I finally convinced him I was already a Christian, even by whatever his definition of that was. He rambled a bit about his church and how he’d been there 48 years. When he paused, I put my noise-cancelling headphones on and turned to my book, clearly communicating, “I am done with this conversation.”

But I couldn’t read. Something was poking my soul, like a child, trying to get attention.   I finally closed my book and gave the annoying child my attention. What came to mind – and I’m sure this was the Holy Spirit – was: “He said his wife died this year, and you ignored him.”

I sighed. Dang. I’m an insensitive idiot. I was so convinced of my spiritual, theological, ministerial superiority over this old, admittedly annoying saint (really, I’m guessing most of the saints were annoying) that I sinned against him.

I turned my headphones off and put them away. Just as the plane lifted off, I asked, “Could you tell me all about your wife?”

He lit up, and didn’t stop sharing about the woman he’d adored for more than 50 years until the plane touched down an hour later.

Adding a Cultural Descriptor

back in 2007 or 2008, when Scott Rubin and i were writing the manuscript for Middle School Ministry: a Comprehensive Guide to Working With Early Adolescents, i wrote a chapter with seven descriptors of middle school culture. not long after the book was published in 2009, i realized they were descriptors of youth culture in general. then, a bit later, i realized they were apt descriptors of western culture in general, which brought me to the realization that my original identification of these realities was more about encroaching cultural realities, rather than uniquenesses of being a young teen (or teenager) in america today.

the uniqueness, for teenagers, is that they are indigenous to this culture (and these realities), whereas those of us over 30 are immigrants. for example: i live in a culture of information just as much as a 13-year-old does; but my immigrant status allows me to see it (if i choose to). for a teenager, it’s the air they breath, and the only cultural realities they’ve every known. that means their identities and world view and faith have been inseparable shaped by these realities every day of their entire lives.

a few years ago, i posted a blog series on these descriptors, and multiple people suggested an eighth descriptor (in varying language), which i’d then added as the fourth on this list:

  • A Culture of Information
  • A Culture of Immediacy
  • A Culture of Disposability
  • A Hyper-Sexualized Culture
  • A Culture of Consumerism
  • An Intense but Temporary Culture
  • A Networked Culture
  • A Driven/Sedentary Culture

reading an article in Time magazine the other day, i realized another shaping descriptor that needed to be my ninth:

  • An All-Access Culture

this reality has overlap with the first two on the list (really, all of them have overlap with one another, informing each other and creating the soup of cultural experience). but i think it’s worth noting separately.

until very recently, our lives, and the information we had access to, were almost-completely curated by people and organizations who acted as gate-keepers.

publishers curated reading options (books, magazines, newspaper). and our options were significantly limited by these gatekeepers.

TV was curated by a few networks and their broadcast schedules. i very much remember, as a child, how all of the kids playing on my detroit block would run simultaneously run inside on friday nights to make sure we didn’t miss The Brady Bunch at its scheduled broadcast time.

of course, there are still gatekeepers and curators (for good or ill). but in a revolutionary shift, most people now choose what (information, entertainment) to consume, from a functionally endless or infinite catalog of options. and most people now choose when they will access this what. and the what is just as likely to be user-generated (social media, for example) as it is to be curated. in fact: teenage engagement with information and entertainment certainly skews to user-generated content (us older folks access some of both, but still rely quite a bit on curators).

think about how this reality would shape you if it’s all you’d ever known. there are upsides, to be sure (cultural realities almost always have benefits as well as risks): having the ability to make choices is empowering, and offers us the advantage of parsing our intake toward our interests.

but this shift brings threats also, particularly when it shapes everything you understand about yourself and the world. some possibilities (i would love to hear more in comments below) include an increase in narcissistic egoistic perspective, along the lines of “i’m the best arbiter of what has worth.” marinating in an All-Access Culture for your entire life (and particularly, your formative years) could also lead to a distrust or dismissal of input from those with informed perspectives, or curators with the best intentions (like: a youth worker).

thoughts? additional implications?


Smoking Cigars to the Glory of God

I intend to smoke a good cigar to the glory of God before I go to bed tonight. – Charles Spurgeon

I love good cigars. The taste of a long-filler, hand-rolled premium cigar is, to my pallet, simply sublime.

I enjoy the craft of a good cigar (not the cheap-o machine made dogs). I revel at the opportunity to explain to the uninitiated-but-intrigued the difference between the filler, the binder and the wrapper, and the role each plays in the subtly and complexity of a cigar worth smoking.

I love the experience of smoking a cigar. Like a good meal, a cigar with friends provides a necessarily prolonged time of calm, perfect for discussion and dialogue (I’ve had some of the best conversations of my adult life in the presence of cigars).

And when by myself, the 45 minutes to an hour it takes to smoke a premium cigar is one of the most contemplative, nourishing, reflective, recalibrating sections of my otherwise busy and noisy days. When I’m home, it’s more often than not that I will slip out to my backyard (I do live in San Diego, after all) to relax, unwind, and think about the day—while puffing on a hand-rolled beauty.

I don’t want to over-spiritualize it, but cigars—for me—are one component of a deeply satisfying and sustainable life. And, like Spurgeon, I consider them a gift, assistance to the life I want, and, well: life-giving.

I have, occasionally, been called out on my tattoos by well-meaning Christians completely misinterpreting Leviticus 19:28. A few times, I’ve been asked to remove my earrings, in a church context where they’re considered inappropriate on a man.

But when fellow Christians find out I’m a cigar smoker, the most I usually get–even from those who would never think of partaking—is a disapproving chuckle.

I think that’s because, deep down, most thoughtful Christians realize an anti-cigar stance is a tough one to support biblically.

The most common pushback against cigars, from Christians misusing the Bible, is to reference the “your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” bit from 1 Corinthians 16. Of course, this is a good and helpful teaching. It just doesn’t have anything to do with cigars! Paul is referring to sleeping with prostitutes in that passage. And even if we broaden it to a general spiritual principal, there is no significant health risk in moderate cigar smoking (cigar smoke, in case you don’t know, is not meant to be inhaled, and doesn’t contain the nasty—and addictive–stuff found in cigarettes).

The only biblical bit that gives me pause, when it comes to cigar smoking, is the stumbling block question (which makes me a little nervous to even write this article!).

Once, on the pastoral team retreat for a large church where I worked (we had about 25 pastors on our team), my sub-group, including the children, youth, and young adults pastors all had one of our meetings outdoors with cigars. I was the Executive Pastor at that church, and my peer, the Executive Administrator, called me out on it in a meeting we had with the Senior Pastor. The Senior Pastor responded: “I want you to give me one biblical justification for your objection. And don’t even try to use the stumbling block passage; because, if any of our pastors aren’t mature enough that this would be a stumbling block to them, they shouldn’t be on our staff.” I loved that Senior Pastor.

Still, as a youth worker, this is a question, and a biblical principle, I have to take very seriously. While I know that cigars aren’t addictive (any more than food, and certainly less addictive than coffee or Twitter), I also know that the students I work with don’t have the discernment to see the difference between cigars and cigarettes and excessive use of alcohol and a host of other things I don’t want them partaking in. So I use caution and restraint, and I’m careful to be aware of my context.

I’m not trying to convince you to smoke cigars. If you have other regular ways to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation; if you have others ways to enjoy regular, extended quiet conversations with friends; if you have other ways to quietly unwind at the end of a day and reflect; and if none of those things is unnecessarily addictive or harmful, enjoy them. Enjoy them to the glory of God!