FRIDAY NUGGET: Small Church Youth Ministry

tiny dogsmaller churches have a shorter pathway to excellent youth ministry. the larger you get, the more complex things become, and the greater the temptation to trust in resources, technology, and robust and creative programming to transform lives.

if you’re doing youth ministry in a small(er) church, stop apologizing. and stop envying the resources of larger youth ministries. celebrate the core of great youth ministry: a caring, jesus-y adult spending time with a small-ish group of teenagers.

youth worker story: starting over at 60

i met marvin this past weekend. we chatted after i led a youth leader workshop at a salvation army youth retreat.

IMG_6567marvin is roughly 60 years-old; a handsome african american man with fantastic salt-and-pepper hair, a warm smile, and eyes full of life. i asked him to tell me about the youth ministry he was involved in. he told me this story:

for 30 years, i was involved in different sorts of youth ministry. for 20 years, i worked for the chicago board of education as a disciplinarian. it was tough work, but occasionally very rewarding. so many of the kids i was working with hung out at the same park; so when the park manager position opened up there, i moved over to the parks department and took that role for 10 more years. i spent time with teens from the neighborhood who hung out at the park (they often had less-than-positive activities in mind and motion).

when the salvation army opened up a rehab center in the neighborhood, i decided it was time for a change. they asked me what i wanted to do, and i said, “anything that doesn’t involve teenagers.”

they put me in maintenance. and i hated it.

i didn’t hate it because of the work–maintenance work was just fine with me. i hated it because–as much as i thought i was completely done working with teenagers–i couldn’t escape my calling.

after two years, i shifted jobs again and became the chaplain of the rehab center. and in that role, i’ve also launched a youth ministry. we’re just ninety days into it at this point, and the kids don’t trust me yet. we have about 27 of them coming, but only 2 were willing to join me this weekend. but we’re making progress. and i love it! i’m starting all over again.

as soon as marvin got to the part of his story where he re-engaged his youth ministry calling, he started beaming a massive smile and quite literally radiating energy.

let’s be honest: youth ministry isn’t for everyone. but when you align with your calling–vocationally or avocationally–you are living the best life: a life of congruence. it the glove fits, you must submit.

Hopecasting excerpt: The Happy Police (A Hope Enemy)

a selection from Hopecasting:

As someone who’s spent thirty-three years in youth ministry—the majority of that with middle schoolers—I’ve certainly experienced my share of embarrassing ministry moments.1 But most of them have centered on malapropisms or other verbal blunders. Only a handful of times have I experienced the sort of embarrassment that made me angry.

I was a rookie junior high pastor at a large church in the Midwest. Our aging outreach and evangelism pastor, a wonderful and gracious man, held massive sway in the church due to his history and alignment with the church’s values. So when he told us all about an “opportunity” to host an event to evangelize business leaders in our community, the other pastors went along with it.

The event centered on bringing in a known motivational speaker who happened to be a Jesus-y person in private. Though no one on our leadership would have used the term, we were going to employ
the classic bait and switch approach to evangelism. Youth ministries have done this for decades, so I’m quite familiar with it (“Come for the haunted house! Then we’ll trap you in a room and scare you into heaven!”). Full disclosure: I wasn’t that uncomfortable, at that time in my maturity and spiritual journey, with a bait and switch. But I still felt it should be handled with a bit of finesse.

I’ll call the motivational speaker Bobby W. Clark, which is not his real name. He has long since passed away, so my purpose in telling this story is not to denigrate the name of a dead privately Christian motivational speaker but to illustrate our confusion about Hope and optimism.

The W in his name—whatever it stood for on his birth certificate—was part of his schtick, and he went by Bobby “Wonderful” Clark. As I would come to find out, he was a very minor celebrity who’d been working the corporate pump-’em-up circuit longer than I’d been alive. The plan for our church’s event was this: Host a nice dinner in a hotel ballroom, with the opportunity to hear this Wonderful business speaker. Guilt our church members, particularly those with influential business roles, to invite (persuade) multitudes of business associates to attend. Slip in the gospel. And, BAM, more business leaders in heaven!

I wasn’t in business. I didn’t have business associates. But my wife did. She was a low-level but professional employee at a natural gas trading company (yes, fodder for lots of jokes about “natural gas” in my junior high ministry world). So I did what I thought I was supposed to do: I pressured my wife to pressure her business associates to attend this Wonderful opportunity. And a few of them, very reluctantly, came along.

The food was good enough. But good old Bobby: well, let’s just say the operative word in that phrase was “old.” Seriously, I think he came out of retirement for this gig so he could afford another golf trip to Florida or something.

I have two extremely groan-worthy memories of that night, even though it was well over twenty years ago. The first of those memories was the root of my anger-tinged embarrassment. Bobby’s bait and switch was just the worst I’d ever seen. After offering literally three minutes of business-y clichés (shorter than his introduction by the evening’s emcee), he launched into a horribly hackneyed and manipulative presentation of the gospel complete with a simultaneously high pressure and confusing prayer of salvation. My wife and I were both horrified. Our church had traded on her friendships with colleagues and given them nothing more than a caricature of their worst assumptions of what the night might contain.

But my second memory of that night is the reason I tell this story. Bobby had a signature move. Really. Like, no one else could do that move without someone saying, “Hey, that’s Bobby W. Clark’s move!” I think there’s a little twisted part of me that admires anyone who has a signature move. Except…

Bobby’s signature move went like this: he would say something like, “I’m Bobby Clark, and I’m here to tell you that Life is Wonderful!” When Bobby said this last phrase (which he said multiple times during his talk) he would kick one long leg (he was really tall) high in the air. It was a bit startling the first time you saw it since it’s not a common movement for a man in a business suit.

But remember, Bobby was old. And his signature move required a bit more coordination—even athleticism—than Bobby possessed by that night. The first time he attempted the kick, right after he was
introduced, there was a long pause between “I’m here to tell you that life is…” and “wonderful,” with the leg kick. It was like he had to coax his body into action. On his first attempt, he only got his leg partially up in the air, and stumbled to the side. The audience silently willed him to move on, but he was not going to leave without executing his signature move.

It took him three tries. But he got it. And with newly reinvigorated confidence, Bobby busted out the leg kick three or four more times during his talk, rivaling even the Rockettes.

happy cageMr. Wonderful was selling us a very, very subtle lie that even he likely had no awareness of: pretending you’re happy makes life better. The core of Bobby’s motivational schtick was simple: choose to be happy, select the perky option, pretend that nothing’s wrong, ignore your pain, and you’ll be more productive and garner success.

I like happiness. Nothing wrong with that. And I generally agree with the sentiment that Life is Wonderful. But leg kicks and smiles won’t close the gap between the life I’m living and the life I long for.

Several years ago now, a little book called The Secret sold millions and became a runaway New York Times bestseller. The essence of The Secret was simply this: visualize the positive future you want for yourself, claim it to be true, and it will come to be.

And while Christians might have chafed at that message (for good reasons), we have all too often taught a version of the same. Sure, we spread a little Jesus mayo on that self-actualization sandwich. We say it’s God who brings the blessing, not our own efforts at positive thinking. But really, what we’ve often taught (and thought) is only a tiny shade different: our positive thinking allows God to bless us.

my schedule in new zealand (pray for me!)

i’m flying to new zealand tonight for a crazy-short and insanely full weekend. i love this country and its people, and have great friends there. but i could use your prayers for stamina and impact this weekend; but here’s what it looks like:
nz

  • tuesday night (west coast USA) through thursday afternoon (NZ): fly san diego to los angeles to sydney to auckland
  • thursday afternoon: get driven to hamilton (should be 1.5 hours, but it’s a holiday weekend, and could take twice that)
  • friday: two main session talks to 5500 teenagers at the north eastercamp, and one seminar
  • friday night: immediately following my evening main session talk, get driven 6.5 hours down to wellington, arrive in the middle of the night and sleep a few hours.
  • saturday: two main session talks to 1600 teenagers at the central eastercamp, and one seminar
  • saturday night: overnight at a wellington airport hotel
  • sunday morning: early flight to christchurch
  • sunday: two main session talks to 5000 teenagers at the south eastercamp
  • sunday night: overnight somewhere
  • monday: fly back to hamilton for debriefing and hangout with organizers, then get driven back up to the auckland airport
  • monday night: overnight in auckland airport hotel
  • tuesday morning: fly home, auckland to sydney to san francisco to san diego

whew. i’m winded and jetlagged just typing this!

this kid (reflections on my son leaving for 4 months)

my son max is just over 17 years old. he’s a junior in high school. and i am just blown away by how awesome he is.

i mean, his humor and quirkiness and musical passion and curiosity are all aspects of the joy he brings to our home and to others. but it’s his heart for others–particularly for those in need–that brings me pride and wonder.

i know this could sound like bragging. maybe it is. but i see this all as cause for thankfulness, not cause for self-congratulation. here are a few things he’s been involved in over the past few years:

as a junior higher, max started participating in a ministry loosely connected with our church, called Hope for the Homeless. every friday night, for about a decade (they have never, ever missed a week–and that consistency has been the secret sauce), a group of people from my church make sandwiches, then head downtown to hand them out to homeless people and engage in relationships. because of the consistency, the ministry has been been much more about humanizing people than about the sandwiches. when max started participating, they didn’t have other junior highers involved. it was all high school and college students, and a few adults. max went weekly for years, and still goes occasionally. the result is that max knows homeless people in san diego by name, and they know him. he knows their stories. when we’re downtown, they call out to him.

IMG_5691a little over a year ago, max started a ‘social justice club’ at his tiny private high school. it morphed into something else, and max isn’t currently leading it; but one of his first actions was to get his classmates to join him in sponsoring a World Vision sponsor child. to this day, max collects funds and manages that relationship and support (i have never helped on this at all, financially or otherwise).

when it was time for max to phase out of being the drummer for our church’s preteen ministry, he took it upon himself to raise up replacements. he coached, taught and encouraged a couple young drummers. one of those is now a freshman in high school and max’s back-up as the drummer in the high school ministry worship band.

max has always had a heart for haiti (even before the earthquake). he went with me on a Praying Pelican Missions trip to haiti a couple years ago, which ramped up his passion. last year, max was part of a month-long trip to haiti to put on a music day camp designed to give dignity to restaveks (haitian child slaves). he organized a small benefit concert to raise funds. and he worked to procure dozens of donated instruments.

in light of all this, the tiny nonprofit hosting the music camp–called Gabriel’s Promise–asked max to be their marketing manager. to this end, max has sought out coaching from a friend of ours who’s a marketing consultant.

this year, in preparation for the second music camp, max has seriously ramped it up on the benefit concert. he put together an informational packet about Gabriel’s Promise, met with the manager of one of the top music venues in San Diego (called Soma), and got them to agree to host the benefit. he recruited a half dozen of the top local music acts to perform. he worked with a designer through fivver to get a design and poster, started a facebook event, and recruited a team of high schoolers to be something of a street team, promoting the event. he shot short videos with the bands to promote the event. and he’s working to sell the thing out.

this is where the challenge entered.

with max’s desire to work in global development, he has felt it would be good to get a better handle on spanish (he takes it in school, but is FAR from fluent). so: two weeks ago, an opportunity came up for max to do a 2.5 month foreign exchange in peru. in many ways, it’s perfect: max’s class is going to peru for a class trip (sort of a service trip combined with a trip to machu pichu). the opportunity was to stay after the class returns, attending a sister school of his own. that meant no additional flight costs. but it also meant max would have to miss the benefit concert he has poured himself into. and he would miss the final months of fun with his many friends who are seniors (mostly his church friends). these are big losses for max, understandably. but he’s making the choice (with encouragement from us, but not pressure) to do what’s best for his long-range goals.

as a result: max leaves in a week for four months. the first three weeks will be his class trip; then he’ll stay in peru for 2.5 months of foreign exchange, living in the home of a peruvian classmate who will live with us for three months next fall; then he flies directly from peru to haiti to participate in the music day camp for child slaves. we won’t see him until the very end of july (when he plans on quickly turning around and working at a camp for a couple weeks).

i can barely imagine how much we’re going to miss him (i leave for new zealand tomorrow night, so today and tomorrow are my last days with him). with riley away at college, max is the center of much of what happens in our home. and he brings a significant amount of humor and joy to our daily lives. it’s going to rough for us (and i’m sure, at times, for him). i’m pretty sure that he’ll come back to us quite different (mostly in good ways, but there’s some loss in that for us also).

but, dang, i am so proud of him. godspeed, son. your dad loves you.

FRIDAY NUGGET: preventing or navigating conflict with your church leadership

In my coaching groups, I regularly try to help youth workers navigate tension and conflict with their church leadership (senior pastor, or other leadership). Here’s a quick list of practices that can prevent conflict, or help you navigate it if it already exists:

  • Continually clarify and unearth expectations
  • Exercise curiosity; Look for the “positive intent”
  • Be honest with myself about my own motives, desires, and dreams
  • Exercise full disclosure, even when it feels like the wrong move in the short run
  • Look at your contribution to any failure, even if it was only 10% of the problem
  • Hold these two things in tension:
  1. Don’t add drama (don’t make things personal, don’t assume motive)
  2. Enter courageously into places of conflict

Hopecasting excerpt: Post-Zombie Soul

hopecasting.coverhere’s a li’l tasty appetizer from my brand new book, Hopecasting: Finding, Keeping and Sharing the Things Unseen

The 2013 zombie film Warm Hearts was extremely unique for this weird film genre: it’s a zombie love story. I remember watching it on a trans-Pacific flight in the middle of the night, having not heard of it before finding it on my seat-back on-demand video screen. And I remember being very pleasantly surprised.

The film’s tag line summarizes the plot, in a sense: He’s still dead, but he’s getting warmer. Basically, it’s the story of a zombie guy whose heart gets a super tiny jump-start when he sees a live (non-zombie) young woman. He ends up saving her, and they’re forced to spend a bunch of time together in his proto-hipster bachelor pad while the zombie hordes move on by. But, of course, she begins to see the flickers of life in him just as he starts to feel them in himself. And love ensues! Yay!

What I found particularly unique about this zombie movie is that it was not about gore or horror or creative sound and visual effects (which are called for, I suppose, when the script calls for the eating of humans). At its heart (ha!), Warm Hearts is a film about feeling. It’s not-so-subtle message is “to be dead is to feel nothing; even those who no longer feel anything can come back to life, to feeling.” There’s also a subtle message, an exploration of the soulless zombies that only commodify others for consumption, and how some of the nonzombies in the film fit that description just as easily. Hopeless people are hollow people, zombie or not, and they use others to stave off their emptiness.

In my own mini-exile, I came face to face with the fact that I had developed a zombie soul. In order to press through a horrendous season of life, I had shut down my feelings. And while the soul and feelings are not synonymous, I’m not sure it’s possible to have a vibrant soul without authentic feelings. They’re both symbiotic prerequisites of one another.

Lots of people, I’ve found, live with a zombie soul. They’re going through the movements of life. They may even be going through the movements of a spiritual life. But there’s no blood pumping. And there is—by choice or external force—a complete shutting down of honest feelings.

In my own little way, I lived the story of R, the zombie in Warm Hearts. The rekindling of my soul was a love interest, just like his. But it wasn’t a girl. My love interest—the gentle and present heart sparker of my story—was none other than the Creator of my heart.

FRIDAY NUGGET: Vibrant Youth Ministry in 4 Steps

if i could re-write and re-release my book, Youth Ministry 3.0, i would cut the current 6th (and final) chapter and replace it with a chapter that focuses on four things. embracing these four things, i’m convinced, is the pathway to a vibrant youth ministry in 2015. of course, there are plenty of other issues and practices we should consider; but these four are the common ground:

  1. Embrace change as normative. Lean into it.
  2. Develop a culture of experimentation.
  3. Cultivate the skill and practice of collaborative discernment.
  4. Contextualize.

(i plan on expanding this in one or more blog posts in the future; but i thought i’d toss it out as a Friday Nugget for now.)

FRIDAY NUGGET: What You Do is Not Who You Are

I spin plates. I’m really good at it. Do you know what I mean? I have so many tasks and projects and ideas that demand my attention and focus: they require that I keep reaching toward them, giving them a little spin, to keep them from crashing to the ground.

Someone once asked me if my concern was that I wouldn’t know what to do if one or more plates crashed to the ground. But that’s not my issue. The issue for me is that I’ve often not been convinced I would know who I am, in a deep inner-life sort of way, if the plates no longer required spinning. After all, plate-spinner has become an identity.

Maybe, like me, you’re a youth worker. You passionately pour yourself out into the projects and people of youth ministry. But that’s not who you are. Do you know that, at a deep level? Do you know that you are so much more than what you do?

I’ve been on a long journey to separate “who I am” from “what I do.” Or, as a wise person said to me, to turn both “who I am” and “what I do” over to the transformational, redemptive work of God. So, if you hear a loud ripping sound coming from San Diego, you can assume it’s me. Want to join me?