Category Archives: faith

kidney bean

unknown youth ministry heroes, part 2

in the last couple weeks, i’ve heard a couple stories of youth workers that were so inspirational and challenging to me. both stories were inspirational because they capture a vivid snapshot of the passion of people who truly love teenagers. and challenging, because, in both cases, they poked at my comfort and my willingness to really empty myself (as christ did).

yesterday, i shared the beautiful (and difficult) story of tim and sue. here’s the 2nd story:

would you offer to give up one of your kidneys to a teenager in your youth group who needed one?

kidney beani have a few nurses in my immediate extended family, who i recently spent time with in the detroit area over the christmas and new year’s holiday. one of them was present the day a volunteer youth worker came in for surgery, along with a teenage guy from his youth group. apparently the kid desperately needed a new kidney, and a match and donor had been difficult to find. so this youth worker–let’s call him dan–stepped up with an offer than falls significantly outside the normal role description of any volunteer youth worker i’ve ever known. really, it falls outside the job description of any paid youth worker for that matter!

i would have prayed with and for the teenager, sure. i would have likely visited him in the hospital. i would have tried to be a listening ear when he was struggling with mortality and the brokenness of his body. but i truly don’t think it would ever cross my mind to say, “take one of mine!” in this case, though, if i had been this youth worker, i would have died.

my family member who’s a nurse, and was there, said the two–dan and the teenager–were prepped for surgery and both rolled into adjoining surgical bays at the same time. family waited.

but in a time-frame that was confusing at first, because it wasn’t long enough, the teenager was rolled back out. turns out: when the surgeons went in, they found dan’s kidney was cancerous. it had been completely undetected in all pre-op tests and was 100% unknown to dan and his family. the doctors were able to remove his cancerous kidney and save his life. and some time shortly thereafter, another kidney donor was found for the teenager.

the end of the story is amazing: dan’s life was spared, and the teenager is fine also. but that’s almost a distraction from why dan is an unknown youth ministry hero. dan’s a hero–far and away beyond anything i have ever, ever done in 33 years of youth ministry–because he was willing to go to irreversible, costly, intimately personal lengths to give to a teenager.

paraphrasing, “greater love has no youth worker than this, but to offer up his kidney to a teenager in need.” seriously. dan, i don’t know you; but you’re my hero.

council estate

unknown youth ministry heroes, part 1

in the last couple weeks, i’ve heard a couple stories of youth workers that were so inspirational and challenging to me. both stories were inspirational because they capture a vivid snapshot of the passion of people who truly love teenagers. and challenging, because, in both cases, they poked at my comfort and my willingness to really empty myself (as christ did).

i’m in england as i write this post, speaking at the british YFC staff conference. it’s a wonderful family gathering of 450 youth workers from all over england, wales and scotland. immediately following my morning talk on the first day, where i’d attempted to remind the crowd of the simple core of our calling (and not all the complexity we’re often pulled toward), a upper middle-aged couple approached me and asked if i could spend some time with them. later in the day we met for what turned out to be a coaching session of sorts, and i hope god used me to speak some truth into their lives, both encouragement and caution.

but their story…well, it just blew me away.

council estatesue and jim had mostly raised their own children (i think their children are 18, 21 and something a little older than that now). sue was (and is) a part-time mobile hair stylist, and jim manages some properties. but three years ago, sue felt a nudge to consider ministry, and started bible college. as part of her program, she was expected to do some sort of practicum. she approached the minister of her small church and asked about starting a children’s ministry. there were no children in their church, but she somehow reached out to some children from a “council estate” (the british equivalent of a housing project; but here in britain, they are often not urban) a few miles outside of her town. very quickly, the church had a small children’s ministry of 7 or 8 kids. as sue got to know the kids a bit, she realized the struggle of their community, that many of the children never even had a chance to leave the estate, and that there was not a single church presence in this large community, where thousands of children and teenagers lived.

so sue and jim sold their house and moved into the housing estate.

they asked their church for support, but were, in essence (these are my words), shunned, and told that the church would have no part of their work. with no training, no resources other than their own, and no support, they began working directly in this community, seeing the children’s ministry quickly grow from 7 or 8 to more than 120 children attending every week. they launched a young teen gathering and an older teen gathering. initially, their ministry work consisted mostly of taking kids on excursions to give them experiences outside their little estate world. needing transportation for this work, they used personal funds to purchase a 16-person mini-bus. but as the ministries all grew, these excursions became more and more untenable.

without a place to meet, they’d originally held gatherings in their home. but when the attendance overwhelmed their space, they rented space in a small building on the edge of the community.

currently, they run 6 weekly meetings for these three age groups — a sort of “youth group” for each on a weeknight, and a children’s or youth church for each group on sundays. they do all of this without any consistent help from any other adults (one of their adult children had been a key leader with them, but he has just recently needed to step out due to other demands in his life). a long-empty small church building in the middle of the estate has just come up for sale, and they’re in the process of considering using jim’s pension to make an offer on the building.

jim and sue (jim runs the older teen group, and sue runs the children’s and young teen group — but they both attend everything) seriously need to make some changes in order to become sustainable (and hopefully, their recent move to become a YFC centre will be part of that solution).

no youth ministry expert would look at jim and sue’s ministry and conclude that they’re doing things perfectly. how could any two people run multiple ministries of this size and demand in a sustainable way or a way that reflects “best practices” of relational youth work. but without anyone willing to join them in their work, they’re doing literally everything they can to meet needs and follow jesus. changes need to happen, or they won’t make it.

but their hearts. their willingness to give all. their courage. their generosity. their willingness to forfeit comfort. frankly, i was breathless, and brought to the edge of tears.

what are you doing–what am i doing–what brings you beyond your own self-sufficiency and resources? what are each of us who are called to youth ministry doing to minister in a place that completely requires dependency on god?

women in youth ministry, and april diaz’s ymcp cohort

the brou-ha-ha over the last couple weeks about the under-representation of female voices at christian ministry events (see here for starters, but there’s lots more) has had me thinking a bit about women in youth ministry. i know that, for a segment of the church, this is mostly a non-issue. their traditions have long viewed women as equally gifted for and called to ministry. but i also know that so many of my sisters in ministry continue to be viewed as “limited” in what they can or should do, and what roles they can or should embody. and for those women, there’s an additional layer of complexity in that it’s often not safe for them to talk about it.

this made me think of two particular women in youth ministry that i’m partnering with these days (two of many, to be clear): gina abbas, a wonderfully gifted youth minister, newly the JH Pastor at mars hill bible church, and currently writing a book for The Youth Cartel for women in youth ministry; and april diaz, a very longtime friend of mine who is one of the most gifted leaders of any gender i’ve ever met (who, coincidentally, also wrote a book for The Youth Cartel!).

that made me remember a lament april wrote for me a couple years ago. i was working on a large multi-author project, and specifically asked april to write a lament to god about the place of women in church leadership. i asked april because i know her to be gracious to peoples’ stories and not demanding or rude in how she talks about these issues. april wrote this wonderful “prayer” based on psalm 40:

april

Lament for Psalm 40

Waiting. No one likes waiting. Maybe me least of all. I’ve waited my entire life to see your Church reflect your heart to see men and women lead your people. Equally. “With skillful hands and integrity of heart” (Psalm 78:72). I’ve waited for your Church to wake up and get it that we have as much to contribute to the Kingdom as men do. I wish your Word were painfully clear about our contribution equality.

Too many times I’ve seen women in the pit of despair because they have not been allowed to use their voices, their gifts, their experiences, their calling to build the Kingdom. You have not stopped them from leading and teaching, Lord; your people have.

My sisters and I have cried when we’ve been told “no”, “be quiet”, “this is not your place”. We need your rescue, God. We desperately need you to bring good news in places where we are pushed down, snuffed out, and negotiated around. Your Kingdom suffers when we are relegated to roles and ministries and places where we are not gifted or passionate. How long?

You are solid and steady and trustworthy. When your Church fails me, I can still be amazed by who you are. I will find my hope in you, not in an outcome – a promotion or a platform or power. I will receive a new song that you give me and sing to the rooftops of who you are and what you’ve done. I will serve you fully and contribute my best to your Kingdom, even in the midst of broken systems. Give me the courage I need to be faithful today.

How long will we sing this song? When I grieve for what your Church is not yet, I must remember that you are a God of justice and have called ordinary people like me to bring justice on earth as it is in heaven. Help me not be afraid to speak out and speak for those who do not have a voice, but to do so with humility and love.

You have written your calling upon my heart and I will not forsake you. I will take joy in following you no matter what anyone else says. Help me listen to you more and more and follow you obediently. Thank you for my calling, even if it’s not honored among others.

and here’s the killer, that points out the problem and almost caused me to pull out of the whole project: we weren’t allowed to use this piece, because a major, conservative, christian bookstore chain would not carry the project if april’s lament was included. april was as gracious about the whole thing as one can possibly imagine.

yc-all-black-300x68and this is one of a hundred reasons i’m glad april will be leading a cohort of my youth ministry coaching program for women in youth ministry. the women in all my other coaching cohorts have been equal in every way, and have added so tremendously to each group. but some, i realize, would particularly benefit from being a part of a cohort that allows them a sisterhood, a place that’s truly safe to not only think about youth ministry and leadership, but also to lean on each other. april’s cohort will be a modified version — 2 face to face meetings of two days, and 4 shorter online meetings. we’re limiting it to 8 participants, 5 of whom are already committed. april’s really hoping to get the remaining spots filled in the next few weeks, so the cohort can look for an early-2014 launch date. if you’re interested and would like more information, please email april directly, as [email protected] april has blogged about this cohort here and here and here.

the bible is story

storyWhen we present the Bible to our youth as a collection of guidelines, principles, and stories, we rob them of the opportunity to see the grand arc of God’s Big Story – the single, unified, awe-inspiring story God is unfolding from before the creation of time and space, to well beyond our understanding in the future.

One of my greatest joys in youth ministry in recent years has been helping students understand how their stories can intersect with God’s Big Story, and that God invites them to be an active participant in His unfolding story of creation, grace, love and restoration!

Curiosity is the Serum for Judgmentalism

my most recent epilogue column for Youthwork Magazine (UK) came out recently. here’s what i wrote!

serumI get insanely annoyed by the judgmentalism within the Christian church. I’m not just talking about judgmentalism within a single church, but that judgmentalism that dismisses or diminishes entire movements and tribes within the bride of Christ. That judgmentalism that shows up as ministry leaders who spend so much time and effort deciding (for God, it seems) who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s “in” and who’s “out.” But, I can’t deny the beam in my own eye on this one.

That makes me think of a quote my wife shared with me sometime ago. It’s a quote about Gandhi (not by Gandhi), from the book “The Root of This Longing”:

Gandhi always brings you back to yourself–the beam in your own eye, the discrepancy between your own actions and the ideals you profess. He insists that you look beyond the headlines for the root causes of each new horror, and always the trail leads back to forces in consciousness, like envy and fear and the lust for power, and always you have to recognize those same forces in yourself.

Shoot. I would much prefer the point out others’ annoying judgmentalism than face my own.

Half a dozen years ago, the leadership team of ministry I was a part of was sitting in the living room of a beach house in beach town in California, on retreat. And we were getting worked. Our consultant was in the process of inverting all the dimensions of reality as we knew it. At one point, during discussion, I noticed a co-worker getting defensive. This particular co-worker was pretty transparent when about his defensiveness, so it’s not that I was being perceptive: his body tensed up and he fidgeted like crazy, his voice raised a half-octave, and his answers become a series of “uh-huh’s”.

In the spirit of the truthfulness we were trying to foster, I decided it should be called out — “for the good of the team.” I did, at least attempt to speak with gentleness, even though I was calling him out. I said, “Hey, can I interrupt? You’ve suddenly gotten really defensive.” And here’s where I completely blew it: in the insecurity of that moment (thinking I was doing a good thing), I turned to the rest of the room to back me up: “Am I alone in this? Do the rest of you see this?”

Before the defensive guy could respond, the consultant turned to me, and with uncharacteristic directness and push-back, completely unveiled what I had just done: that I had attempted to gang up on my coworker; that I had tried to manipulate everyone in the room to my opinion in order to corner my friend. Just as the tingly nature of being publicly exposed and realizing he right started to set in, the consultant re-directed again. He said something like: I’m calling this out for a very specific reason. If you five are going to be effective, you have to learn the skill of being curious.

He used the situation that had just been unveiled as a case-study: if I notice that my coworker seems to be getting defensive, and if I really want the best for him as a human being, as an image-of-God bearer, than I should be more interested in what his “positive intent” is (what’s driving the defensiveness, in this case), than in embarrassing him or making myself look like the hero of group dynamics and herald of truth.

This concept of “being curious” profoundly shaped that leadership team over the next couple years. We exercised it all the time with each other, and it — more than anything else, I think — changed the tone of our meetings.

I found the concept of being curious (particularly about someone’s “positive intent”) has spilled over into other areas of my life. And I think it might offer us some particular value in our overwhelming place of judgmentalism in the church.

If judgmentalism is the venom currently coursing it’s way through the veins of the church, I’m thinking the anti-venom, the serum, isn’t what we’ve thought it to be. It’s not more truth or more clearly defining what we mean or retreating.

Curiosity. Loving, “I want the best for you” curiosity. I think that’s the serum.

To the church or ministry leader who seems overly concerned with criticizing others, or with who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s “in” and who’s “out,” I ask, gently: What are your fears? What are you feeling, and what’s driving those feelings?

And to myself, when I catch myself in the midst of judgmentalism, I ask, gently: Wait, Marko, what’s going on here? What’s driving this judgment or attitude? What’s the positive intent behind this — how are you hoping to benefit from this? What’s another way to think about this?

creating a youth ministry that’s safe for theological exploration (aka: doubts)

baby-peek-a-booone of my YMCPers led us in a great exploration, last week, of what’s necessary for a youth ministry to be truly safe for students to ask hard questions, explore their doubts, and pursue the verbalization research is telling us is so critical to faith formation. my very simple thoughts on this:

FIRST: state the safety of your group so often that students make fun of you.

you can’t just say, one time, “hey, we want this to be a safe place.” like most things you’ll say, that will connect with the ONE teenager who happens to be wondering if the group is safe (and he probably won’t believe you; but he’ll notice that you said it!). you have to state this intention over and over and over and over again, to the point of annoyance; but also to the point of the very statement being a part of your group’s culture.

THEN: ruthlessly prove it.

enforce a zero tolerance policy on your own reactions — making sure you never ever cut someone off who’s trying to share, never guilt or shame, never get passively-aggressive. don’t allow it from others, either — other teenagers or leaders. prove that your incessant promises of safety were genuine.

i’m starting to see that this is true (this is going to scare some of you):

for teenage faith formation, verbalization of belief is more important than the accuracy of the beliefs.

(yeah, that probably deserves more unpacking. maybe another day.)

a meditation for youth workers: COMMUNITY

many years ago, i decided the staff of youth specialties were super tired. we were about to head into a busy season, and we were all running on fumes.

sounds a little like coming off a busy youth ministry summer and jumping into a new school year, right?

we decided to give everyone a 7-day weekend, a mini-sabbatical. our amazing spiritual director beth slevcove wrote some beautiful meditations for those days, and i’ve just rediscovered them. i’m going to share them in a series here on my blog, and hope you’ll take ten minutes to rest and soak in god’s love for you as you read them. here’s the seventh (final) one:

28COMMUNITY

when two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it,
my father in heaven goes into action.
and when two or three of you are together because of me,
you can be sure that I’ll be there.

Matthew 18:19

As much as we need to be alone, we need each other. As Bonhoeffer says,
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.”
“Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

Hang out with people who are important to you today. Find the people who bring you life, the ones who remind you of the things you want to be reminded of.

Call one person who has meant something to you and catch up.

Look around you and notice the people in your life whom you are thankful for.
Think of something fun to do with other people.
Think about the community in your youth ministry.
Think about who brings you life there.
Think about ways you can connect with that person.

We need each other.

(photo by tash mcgill)

a meditation for youth workers: SOLITUDE

many years ago, i decided the staff of youth specialties were super tired. we were about to head into a busy season, and we were all running on fumes.

sounds a little like coming off a busy youth ministry summer and jumping into a new school year, right?

we decided to give everyone a 7-day weekend, a mini-sabbatical. our amazing spiritual director beth slevcove wrote some beautiful meditations for those days, and i’ve just rediscovered them. i’m going to share them in a series here on my blog, and hope you’ll take ten minutes to rest and soak in god’s love for you as you read them. here’s the sixth one:

21S O L I T U D E

but so much the more the report went abroad concerning him;
and great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities.
but he withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.

luke 5:15-16

Solitude and silence allows our insides to become spacious.
Everything needs space.
· Our minds need empty space, times of no thought, or free, random thinking without attachment and without a need for us to do something right away with our thinking.
· Our hearts (emotions) need to be aired out, not ignored or held in the tiny spaces of our fear, or shoved to the side by our busyness and overwhelm.
· Our bodies need space. When we jam them into our schedules and force them into our expectations for too long, they get sick.

Solitude is not loneliness. Loneliness is being without. Solitude is being with God and yourself.

And as Henri Nouwen reminds us, It is in solitude that we remember we are the beloved. (It is In our busyness that we forget).

Take a long hike today. Look at God in all that’s around you and notice God looking back at you.
Or sit at your favorite park bench and talk with God, or just fall asleep in His presence.

Fight the temptation to mentally head back to work early. Trust God with your responsibilities and stay in the present moment. That’s where the Holy Spirit dwells!

(photo by jonny baker)

a meditation for youth workers: WORSHIP

many years ago, i decided the staff of youth specialties were super tired. we were about to head into a busy season, and we were all running on fumes.

sounds a little like coming off a busy youth ministry summer and jumping into a new school year, right?

we decided to give everyone a 7-day weekend, a mini-sabbatical. our amazing spiritual director beth slevcove wrote some beautiful meditations for those days, and i’ve just rediscovered them. i’m going to share them in a series here on my blog, and hope you’ll take ten minutes to rest and soak in god’s love for you as you read them. here’s the fifth one:

dancingWORSHIP

david, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the lord with all his might…
michal, daughter of saul watched from a window. and when she saw king david leaping and dancing before the lord, she despised him in her heart…
michal came to meet him and said “how the king of israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”
david said to michal,…”i will celebrate before the lord. i will become even more undignified than this, and i will be humiliated in my own eyes. but by these slave girls you spoke of, i will be held in honor.”

2 samuel 6:14-22

I define worship as anything that pulls me out of my narcissistic center and into the deeper reality of God.

Do something today that reminds you that you are not the center of the universe. We don’t have to be!
That’s what Sabbath helps us to remember.

Stopping and worshipping helps our bodies and minds remember that as Christians we are constantly trying to reorganize our lives around the larger reality of God.

We don’t do anything productive so that we can remember we’re not the ones making this place run. Whew!

So dance naked today!

a meditation for youth workers: JOY/LAUGHTER

many years ago, i decided the staff of youth specialties were super tired. we were about to head into a busy season, and we were all running on fumes.

sounds a little like coming off a busy youth ministry summer and jumping into a new school year, right?

we decided to give everyone a 7-day weekend, a mini-sabbatical. our amazing spiritual director beth slevcove wrote some beautiful meditations for those days, and i’ve just rediscovered them. i’m going to share them in a series here on my blog, and hope you’ll take ten minutes to rest and soak in god’s love for you as you read them. here’s the fourth one:

Happy BabyJoy/Laughter

i sing for joy in the shadow of your protecting wings.
Psalms 63:7b

Today, talk to God about the pain and suffering you are carrying. See if you can’t let God hold it for awhile.

Rent a funny movie, hang out with goofy friends, go disco bowling, do something silly. If there are little kids around, watch them and learn. Sing loud and slightly off key and see if anyone notices. Build a tent fort. TP your pastor’s house (at our ages this IS funny).

Dance with wild, reckless abandon.
Or just meditate on all the things that give you life, the things you are grateful for. And tell God you remember that he delights in you and guards you under his wings.