Growing in Faith for Youth Ministry

my most recent ‘epilogue’ column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) is out. here’s what i wrote:


My church has just launched a capital campaign. It’s not sexy; but it’s needed. Several years ago, the church’s landlord (we were leasing space) informed us we could move or buy the place, as they had plans to level it and sell it to a condo developer. We stretched and believed and gave and somehow, by God’s grace, bought the property (of course, a bank now owns a major portion!).

But now, the place is sort of falling apart and needs major infrastructure improvements that go way beyond our budget. So we’re asking people to pray, “God, what step of faith do you want me to take?”

I was at a leadership meeting about this campaign recently, and one of our pastors shared about the three steps he and his wife were taking as they considered the commitment they would make. He outlined three steps:

  1. What might we be able to do?
  2. What can we add as a sacrificial stretch goal?
  3. What portion can we add as a step of faith?

A few days later, I was sitting in a room with 50 North American leaders of youth ministry organizations. As I looked around the room, I was discouraged by how un-diverse the group was. I noticed that it was almost exclusively white, and almost exclusively male. I also noticed that it was almost exclusively old. I thought to myself: How is this group of old, white men—myself very much included—holding onto control of our ministries and getting in the way of younger leaders (and women, and people of color)? How could we change that? How can I change that?

In that moment (whether it was a prompting from the Holy Spirit or a result of the cheesecake I’d just devoured), that 3-step giving approach came to mind, and I quickly wrote it down on a pad of paper. As I reflected, I gave myself a mental pat on the back, acknowledging that I’m already attempting, in some ways, to give platform, opportunity, and voice to youth ministry leaders who aren’t old and white and male. That’s the first bit: What might I be able to do?

But when I looked at my scribbled notes, I was challenged by the other two bits: What might I be able to do as a stretch goal? And, What can I do on top of that as a step of faith?

Now, a few days later, I’m still ruminating on that. But I’m also seeing that this process could be helpful in more contexts than capital campaigns, as was clear to me from my application on the issue of getting out of the way and making room for non-old-white-male youth ministry leadership in my sphere of influence.

My a-ha: this is an approach to growing my faith (belief in action) in any area of my life! and this is an approach to growing my faith in the practice of youth work!

I’m thinking now of Nate, a 13 year-old guy in my small group. Honestly, the guy is a challenge. He’s not intentionally destructive or disruptive; but his ADHD, immaturity and…well…oddness make him exasperating when our small group is trying to have a conversation about pretty much anything.

What might I be able to do about Nate? Well, so far, I’m trying to be patient. I’m disciplining myself to not shame him, or make him feel anything close to rejection. I’m making sure the other guys in the group don’t make fun of him. All of that is my reasonable and important response.

What more could I do, as a sacrificial stretch? Dang, it’s clear I need to do something any good youth worker should do (but I haven’t done): I need to spend time with Nate. I need to build a relationship with him outside of the group. I need to pursue him.

And then, for the increase of my own faith and—hopefully—Nate’s welfare also: What can I add as a step of faith? In order for this to have teeth, my action has to be beyond my ability, beyond my normal practices, beyond my desires. This extra portion needs to be action that will reveal God, rather than revealing Marko. This third portion takes my past the limits of my own imagination and competency and resources. Honestly, I don’t have an answer for this yet (though I have a sense that praying that God develops in me a genuine affection for Nate is a piece of it). But I’m praying about it, asking God to show me that step (or steps) of faith, and to give me the courage to act.

Where do you need more faith in your youth work? Start by considering your rational, measured contribution. Add to that a stretch goal. Then, on top of all that: consider the step of faith that takes you beyond yourself into “Only God” territory.

two ways of viewing long-term partnership for short-term missions

had another wonderful day in jamaica yesterday, visiting with a few local pastors served by teams who come with Praying Pelican Missions, and visiting teams in action.

and i realized i’d only been communicating one of the two (equally valid and beneficial) meanings of talking about the value of long-term partnerships in short-term missions. i’ve written many times about how one of the things i really love about PPM (and one of the values and practices that sets them apart) is their commitment to developing long-term relationships with local, indigenous church leaders (in this case, jamaican pastors), and exercising a no-exceptions policy of only doing work requested by these pastors. it’s a significant way they are able to stay away from activities that aren’t culturally appropriate, or are tainted by anything like corruption, or are merely bad missiology and american-savior colonialism.

i saw this in PPM’s work in haiti two years ago; i saw it in belize last year; and i’m seeing it again here. but, while the Cartel does have a partnership with PPM, i still feel a pretty strong obligation to represent my youth ministry tribe. so i check this value/practice with every pastor i meet on these trips, asking them about their vision, asking about how PPM treats them, asking if they feel served or used. i make it clear that i’m a third-party, and usually get a bit of alone time with them. and so far, that value/practice has been proved in 100% of these conversations.

but there’s another way to think of long-term partnership in short-term missions. it’s the value of you and your church establishing a long-term partnership with a church and community somewhere else. i was reminded today that this is the ideal that PPM longs to see.

but, honestly, few groups do this. and i think the primary reason (though i’m sure there are others) is that many of us still have ‘tourism’ in the mix, at least a little bit, when we think of a location for short-term missions (particularly when it’s international). as a middle school pastor, i wasn’t convinced it was good stewardship to take young teens on a foreign missions trip other than to a mexico border town (which, for the last 25 years of my life, has been within 2 hours of home). and, honestly, i sometimes got a little jealous of the high school ministry heading off to exotic locations when my group was heading back to the border again.

but i’ve seen the impact of long-term consistency, since my own church has had a church-to-church partnership with a single church (and community) in haiti for about four years now. the benefits multiply for both the recipients of ministry and for those traveling to do ministry.

for the recipients, the long-term relationship offers (at least) these things:

  • it removes the dance of not knowing the visiting group, and wondering what their motives actually are
  • it removes (or at least lessens) the feeling that recipients are ‘less than’ or begging
  • it increases the joy of working together, since the visiting team begins to feel like family
  • it allows the recipients to play a more active reciprocal role of ministering to the visiting group, praying for them and in some ways participating in communion with one another

for the visiting team, the long-term relationship offers (at least) these things:

  • it decreases our temptation to see ourselves as little saviors. we’re going to visit (and serve) people we know and love, not faceless foreigners who need our generosity and pity
  • it takes the guesswork out of the relationship, building confidence in serving alongside (with a confidence in knowing how the serving fits in with the vision of the church and pastor)
  • it decreases any pressure we might feel to slip into unhelpful (and even damaging) stereotypes, like some already mentioned
  • and it builds momentum, healthy tradition, and expectation in your group and church

heck, i’ve even seen, in my own church, how our long-term partnership has re-shaped the worldview of our whole congregation. prior to that partnership, we had a somewhat myopic vision focused almost exclusively on our local impact. now, a short three or four years later, local and international serving has exponentially grown at my church, with a much greater sense that we are playing an active role in God’s redemptive work in the whole world.

so it’s obvious: i think youth workers should consider returning to the same location for multiple years, building a relationship with a church or ministry you learn to know, love and trust. you and they will both benefit greatly. really, in my mind, i see the best-case-scenario as a triangle: a three-way partnership (including an organization like PPM to both find the right partnership and handle logistics).

oh, and as a wonderful corrective to anyone who might, even for a second, think something like “we’re bringing the gospel to jamaica;” i took this photo of the cornerstone of one of the churches we were at today. yup, jesus has been here a very, very long time.

  


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blessing a school so a local church wins

a number of years ago, i started volunteering as a lunch-room monitor at three local middle schools. i’d met with principals, and they’d told me this was help they needed. there were four significant positive benefits: i got to see kids from my group at school; i got to meet their friends; i got to build trust with the school; and i got to hang out with the vice-principal and principal on a fairly regular basis, chatting about this and that.

somewhere along the way, after i’d built some trust, one of the principals share with me–in passing–how he was frustrated because, with budget cuts, he just couldn’t afford to bring in special speakers for all-school assemblies anymore. i quickly offered: i could bring speakers in for you.

we usually brought in top-notch communicators a couple times a year–once for a retreat, and once for our biggest outreach event. so, for two years, i would bring those speakers in a day early, and they would do a non-evangelistic, non-religious talk (critical for keeping trust!) at the three schools. the principals LOVED it, and it built massive bridges, opened all kinds of other doors in the community, and reflected really well on our church and its commitment to the community.

then i got fired. so there’s that. different story, though.

but my successor called me about a year later to ask for input. he said, “i have these three principals calling me asking for assembly speakers, and wondering if i’d like to come by and get to know each other. can you tell me what’s going on here?”

here’s why i share this today. as you might know, i’m in jamaica, observing the work of Praying Pelican Missions. i very much dig (and approve of) the all-too-unique approach of this organization: their stringent commitment to developing long-term relationships with local, indigenous church leadership, then serving the vision of those leaders. i know plenty of other organizations who say or imply that they do this; but as someone who’s been on more missions trips than i can count, with lots of organizations, i can honestly write that i skepticism keeps being undone with PPM.

IMG_7136this morning, i found out the american youth groups i was going to see were doing work in schools. my skepticism instantly kicked in. i instantly imagined reluctant school administrators, tolerating the imposing gringos. and i instantly started to question my PPM host, almost as if i was going to finally find out the truth of this organization, that they were only committed to working under the leadership of the indigenous local church leadership when it was convenient.

i was wrong.

the local church leadership WANTS PPM teams to work in public schools (btw, the teams are doing work with children in the classrooms in the morning–both jesus-y stuff, and math and spelling reviews–and doing service projects in the afternoon, some at schools, some in other locations). in fact, PPM was skeptical when church leaders asked for this. but the church leaders explained: we are on these school boards. we want to bless our communities. but we need help. and if (this is where it started to remind me of the benefits of my partnership with principals all those years ago) the school and community are blessed because of the church, that’s enough for us right there. but it also has a significant positive impact on the community’s view of our church, which helps in plenty of other ways.

i sat with three different jamaican principals today also. in each case, they honestly shared (i could tell they were being authentic with me) how the visiting teams were a win for everyone, including their students.

ok. i stand corrected. i’ll put my skepticism back in it’s storage container (i have a neat little pocket for it in my new travel backpack).

oh, and here’s a pic of my and sister norma. she’s a PPM staffer here in jamaica, after a lifetime of being a teacher and principal herself.

IMG_7138


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why i’m in jamaica

when i was a little kid, i was proud of the things i collected: rocks, coins, pennants. these days, if i’m honest, i collect experiences. there’s no question that’s one of the reasons i so love traveling internationally–grabbing up unique sights, sounds, views and memories. i have this little personal agenda that i hope to add a new country to my list each year (this is a banner year, btw, as i’m adding three: italy, jamaica, and spain, in addition to my two returns to new zealand).

nothing wrong with tourism.

but tourism and missions make extremely awkward, even destructive, relationship partners.

i think that’s why i added a couple days of low-key tourism onto the front end of this jamaican missions trip: to get the tourism out of the way. i’ve been staying, since sunday afternoon, in a budget-level all-inclusive resort in montego bay. the rooms are fine and the food sucks (for a resort). it feels a little like the place the wal-mart crowd vacations. but i’ve holed up in my room, or out on a beach chair, and read books (halfway through my third one today). so this bit of palm-tree-ocean-view-don’t-set-an-alarm-clock jamaican warmth has been good for me.

jamaicaflagbut now it’s time to change hats. or, change shirts, since i have a few ugly-but-breathable shirts i pretty much only wear on missions trips, and i put one of them on this morning.

i think i’ll write more about this later this week: but i think there are two particular things that are done very poorly or very well in youth ministry. those are: presenting the gospel, and short term missions.

in the last couple years, i’ve had the chance to get to know Praying Pelican Missions. two years ago, my son max and i traveled to haiti to see their work there (and max, having already been gifted with an indescribable call to the country and people of haiti had that calling solidified, and is now unstoppable in his commitment to haiti, returning for a month each summer). last year, i traveled on my own to see PPM’s work in the country where they launched: belize. and what i’ve seen, the deeper i dig, is an approach to short-term missions that dismantles my skepticism and reminds me that a few organizations do this in a way that’s theologically, missiologically, and culturally sound (and clarifies for me that many don’t).

these last two years’ trips gave me more of a 30,000 foot view of PPM’s work: traveling around haiti and belize, meeting with national church leaders and learning about how PPM serves them. this year i’m doing something different: i’m hanging out for four days with one american church youth group (a huge one, honestly, with something like 150 participants). i won’t be traveling around, seeing work all over jamaica. instead, i’ll be observing (somewhat like a fly on the wall, actually — i don’t know the youth group and they don’t know me) what things really look like for a team coming here to serve.

i get picked up in a couple hours to put my ‘missions trip shirt’ into action. i’ll be reporting and blogging more as the week unfolds!


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FRIDAY NUGGET: the location of great middle school ministry

i was massively revising an old seminar on middle school ministry while in new zealand last week, and updated some stuff i didn’t find complete enough anymore. i had previously taught an axiom: “quality middle school ministry always takes place in the context of meaningful relationships and meaningful ministry opportunities.” it wasn’t that i completely disagreed with that; but it didn’t feel like the whole story, or the best way of expressing the whole truth.

so i came up with this:

great middle school ministry takes place at a 3-way intersection:

  • feeling stuff (belonging and safety)
  • doing stuff (particularly serving, but also the sort of ‘doing stuff’ that provides a shared experience for relationships of meaning and a sense of agency)
  • saying stuff (“verbalization of belief is more important–or a higher priority–than accuracy of belief”)

photo in need of a caption

i haven’t posted a photo in need of a caption for EV-er. with summer upon us, this pic seemed ripe (see what i did there?) for fun!

winner gets a free copy of a very awesome new Cartel book called Bigger Badder Board Games. you want this book, whether you win or not.

bring on the fun captions!

contenders…

Jesse
Ah, the classic catch phrase… Whoever smelled it, burnt the entire forest down…

scott Riley
A picture sparks a thousand words!

haley
Only you can prevent forest farts.

David Hanson
Thanks Obama!

Dave Palmer
Just another welcome sign when Marko comes to speak.

Jay Phillippi
Fines increase for finger pulling

Mike Pitts
Changing the letters on the church sign has been removed from the list of junior high service day projects for next year

Brad Anderson
Don’t be hero…remember Ricky.

Kevin I
Flummoxed by the new Rangers sense of humor, the youthful sign vandals of the town were forced to change the letters to read “don’t even raft in the forest”

and the winner is…

a few of these really cracked me up. but at the 11th hour, kevin i (a perennial ‘photo in need of a caption’ entrant) came sliding in for the win, with that last beauty. honestly, it was the only one that actually made me LOL. so, kev-i, you win!

thanks for playing, everyone!

FRIDAY NUGGET: the mature youth worker

recently i was chatting with an older national youth ministry leader, and we were reflecting on a youth worker “maturity marker” we have both noticed pertaining we have both noticed, linked to the youth worker’s attitude when the ministry they leave suffers and/or falls apart.

the immature youth worker responds (at least inwardly) with: “success! clearly, they needed me!”

the mature youth worker responds with: “failure! clearly, i made it too much about me!”

(the inverse of both of these statements could be made about a ministry that flourishes when the youth worker moves on, by the way. the immature youth worker is secretly sad about ministry vibrancy after their departure; and the mature youth worker sees this as a major win.)

which are you? how are you positioning your ministry in relationship to yourself?

Pastoral Identity Through the Lens of Belonging

a few months ago, i participated in a blog series on Adam Walker Cleaveland’s blog, pomomusings, on the theme of Pastoral Identity. there were a lot of deep and pithy posts in the series. with a bit of trepidation, i threw in, with this…

As a lifelong youth worker, I have wrestled with framing my understanding of adolescence both in response to research and those who know much more than I do, while still being critical and not simply acquiescing to damaging and biased cultural opinions of teenagers. As a result, I’ve rejected the assumption, held by most, that the teenage years are necessarily a time of ‘storm and stress’ (a phrase used by a dude to describe adolescence back in 1904), unavoidably marked by rebellion, moodiness, volatility, and a host of other negative descriptors.

Instead, I think of adolescence as an overlay of two realities—new cognitive capacity and cultural permission—providing space for the working out of three interwoven tasks. Those are: Identity (“Who am I?”), Autonomy (“How do my choices matter?”), and Affinity (“To whom and where do I belong?”). I believe that the teenage years are the white-hot stage of these tasks.

But those three tasks are not limited to teenagers.

As an adult, I continue to periodically wrestle with those same questions. And as a person in ministry (and all that entails and implies), the working out of those tasks, as we all must do from time to time (particularly when we experience change), gets awkward.

Because we live very public lives. At least we should. We’re either somewhat authentic and, therefore, public; or we’re private and limiting our relational connection and impact. It’s tough to think of another profession that calls for life in a fishbowl to the same extent. Maybe POTUS.

Here’s what I find (both from my own experience, and from watching the lives of the professional youth workers in my year-long coaching program): Pastors are notoriously bad at separating “who I am” from “what I do.”

On one hand, those two are somewhat inseparable. There’s no denying that what I do and who I am are intertwined, informing each other and cuddling. Let’s say they’re spooning, even.

But if “who I am” and “what I do” are one-and-the-same, I’m in trouble. And, frankly, so is whatever ministry I’m a part of.

One of the points I make when I teach on these adolescent tasks is that today’s teenagers use the Affinity task as a lens through which they view (and work out) the other two. In other words: “to whom and where I belong” will give me insight into “how my choices matter” and “who I am.” (This, by the way, is a major shift from previous epochs of youth culture, when the other tasks were the lenses.)

As I think about my own identity, as a minister, maybe I should consider that adolescent lens as not such a bad thing. After all: if I have a healthy and honest (and theologically informed) understanding of my belonging to Christ and to the community of Christ, that could be pretty helpful in developing a healthy identity spooning with “what I do,” but not inverse-twinning into one thing.

Through that lens, “who I am” starts to take on distinct hues of “I am one who is following Christ, now, and through death and resurrection.” And “who I am” starts to take on shades of “I am one part of the body, the bride. I might have a different role; but I exist in authentic relationship with a community.”

Honestly, that sounds SO much better, so much more life-giving, than an identity merely formed by what I do.

Why We Published This: The Amazing Next

when The Youth Cartel first decided to start publishing, my friend brock morgan contacted me about a nonfiction book for teenagers he wanted to write. brock is one of the best youth speakers i’ve ever heard, and is particularly gifted at storytelling (great stories, told very well). in a nutshell, this proposed book was a collection of his best stories with spiritual implications. i was being less picky in those earliest days (we wouldn’t publish this book today, as it doesn’t really fit our publishing direction), and we agreed to move forward with the book. i think we even contracted it; but we didn’t have a timeline, and brock got busy with other stuff, and the book didn’t get written. later that year, brock spoke at the very first Summit on Activating the Hearts of Teenagers Who Don’t See a Need for Jesus; and i immediately knew that talk had to become a book. a year later, that book released as Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World!

fast forward a couple years.

i have always been a little annoyed by graduation gift books. i think the concept is fine; but i’ve felt that most of them feel more like greeting cards. and they tend to either be overly earnest, or too heavy-handed. i wanted the Cartel to publish a grad book that teenagers would actually want to read; one that was honest, encouraging, challenging, and fun to read. i imagined a book with a large scoop of sass, with the silly title This is Your Graduation Gift (that was the working title FAR into the process, until we were in cover design on that title and it came out that no one else–adam, brock, and our managing editor tamara–liked that title at all). i imagined a book with variety — some regular chapters with advice or discipleship stuff, some interviews, some blank pages for interaction, some quotes or poems, some humor, some weird extras.

9781942145097cover-frontso i asked brock if he was up for re-imagining his original book idea into this vision. and he loved it. i knew he was exactly the person to pull this off. and he totally nailed it. The Amazing Next: Waking Up to the Journey Ahead is now real, and i’m super pleased with how youth workers are responding to it.

here’s the official product description:

The new go-to gift for the graduate is not a book of promises or a list of life hacks (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s a collection of stories, interviews, and journaling prompts woven together by veteran youth worker Brock Morgan to wake high school seniors up to the world of imagination and wonder—a life of faith lived to the full—that awaits them once the cap and gown have been put away.

and here’s the back cover copy:

So you’re a graduate. And a lot of people who love you are probably itching to tell you how to get this NEXT stage of your life right, maybe some of them are even hoping this book will do it for them. But there’s something you should know right now. This book is not a list of rules for spiritual growth; instructions on how to claim your best life now; or a formula for success.

Instead, this is a safe place to process your fears; read stories about freedom, imagination, and wonder; and consider a calling to live your life with the fullness God intended. Open it up, put your finger on a chapter (any chapter), and awaken the grace and hope you’ll need in the days ahead.

you can check it out here, and even download a sample. we’re offering fantastic discounts on bulk orders.