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a meditation for youth workers: BEAUTY

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 third one:


rise up, my beloved, my fair one, and come away.
for the winter is past, and the rain is over and gone.
the flowers are springing up, and the time of singing birds has come,
even the cooing of turtledoves.
the fig trees are budding, and the grapevines are in blossom.
how delicious they smell!
yes, spring is here!
arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away.

song of songs 2:10-14

Beauty. Find some.
Take a long drive on a beautiful two-lane highway.
Hike in the mountains.
Sit at your favorite beach.
Go to an art museum.
Play beautiful music.
Eat wonderful food.

Notice the beauty in yourself.
Look at the people around you and recognize the beauty in them.
Breathe it all in…deeply.

(photo credit: jonny baker)

thoughts on returning to haiti

IMG_0043a little over three years ago, and less than a month after the earthquake that devastated haiti, i rolled over the border from the dominican republic in a minivan full of 8 youth workers. over the next several days, our team encountered pain and devastation and suffering like i never seen in my life. but we also encountered a well of hope that surprised me, and in many ways, completely reoriented my understanding of what real hope looks like.

in fact, the experience of that first trip has been germinating in me, showing up in blog posts and sermons and talks and other opportunities to beta-test ideas. and it’s now the subject of the major book i’m writing for IVP. i would not be writing this book were it not for that week in haiti and what i experienced.

i went back a second time, a few months later, with a group of pastors. one of those was the senior pastor of my own church. and the result of that trip was the establishing of a church partnership between my church and a wonderful church in carrefour, haiti. in the years since, the pastor of that church has been to our church twice; and my church has sent 4 – 6 teams to haiti every year. it’s been transformative for my church, and we’ve been able to be a part of helping this wonderful church in haiti bless their community.

i’ve wanted to return to haiti, since those two experiences were, and continue to be, so profound for me. and i really wanted to find a way for my 15 year-old son max to get to haiti. he’d done a school project on haiti a few months before the earthquake, and has had a big heart for the country even before the challenges created by that devastation.

so, it’s with major excitement and a good dose of trepidation that i fly to haiti tomorrow, bringing max with me.

we’re going with Praying Pelican Missions, to see their work. The Youth Cartel and PPM have been partnering on a few things over the last year or two; but adam has been the point person on that (he’s been to haiti with them, even, and will be with us there this coming week also). i’m really not familiar with their work, but have heard such positive responses from youth workers who have worked with them on short term trips.

PPM will have 170 participants from multiple churches in haiti this coming week, so we’ll be very much observing them in action.

i hope to be reporting on the trip here on my blog, sharing my impressions and what god is stirring in me. i also have great expectations about seeing everything through max’s eyes.

anyhow: pray for us. i expect to sweat off about 10 pounds, be uncomfortable in all sorts of ways, get stretched, be moved to tears, and–please, god?–have another encounter with the sort of hope that only comes from god.

photo in need of a caption

don’t know the story behind this, but it sure could be a youth group photo scavenger hunt! so, in honor of a holiday week and summer youth ministry craziness, let’s have a caption contest!

whatcha got for a caption? i might make it worth the while for the winner (depends how awesome your caption is!):

drive thru


the upside: i had a great weekend, unplugged from the internet mostly, focused on preaching in my church and resting.
the downside: i completely forgot to pick a winner (which i should have done on friday. my bad!

first, some contenders:

“And dad thought taking away the car keys would slow me down!”

Eat here and get gas!

meals on wheels took some budget cuts this year.

Brian Aaby

Aaron Geist
Churches just don’t pay for 15 passenger vans like they used to.

Kevin I
The car promised in the youth directors contract proved underwhelming. The meal plan however balanced it out

the cool bus

Jesse R
They have a bumper sticker that says my other car is a fridge box…

and the winner…

well, while there were many fun captions (many more than are listed as contenders), there was caught me off guard and caused an audible guffaw, so the win goes to jess for “meals on wheels took some budget cuts this year.”

kevin i, however, was a close runner-up; so we’ll go for BIG PRIZES for you also!

and just, you might ask, are those BIG PRIZES?

jess, you get to pick a digital book of your choice from The Youth Cartel.
kevin i, you get a digital copy of jonathan mckee’s soon-to-release The Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide for Teenagers: 27 Principles of Wisdom When You’re Running for Your Life!

a hopeful imagination for youth ministry

chris folmsbee was sick as a dog at The Summit last year. he somehow made it through a full day on friday with the 25 or so people in his Pre-Summit Session. but when it came time for him to take the stage on saturday at the main event, i wasn’t sure he was going to make it. i seriously wondered about him passing out or having explosive diarrhea on stage. i gave him an out, but he wanted to power through.

so it’s pretty amazing that chris was able to present this really wonderful presentation on the topic “Hopeful Imagination” (a topic i’d asked him to address). this will get your spirit stirring…

early bird pricing for this year’s Summit only last for another few weeks. jump online and plan to join us now! it’s the most diverse and potent roster of presenters i’ve ever seen at a youth ministry event!

photo in need of a caption

came across this beauty the other day and thought it was just begging for the creativity of the fine photo captioners who particpate in this occasional meme on

BIG PRIZE this time. the winner gets the videos of the session of their choosing from The Summit (just released this week!).



e. sutter
And on your left you’ll see our monument to the Prosperity Gospel.

Bob Karr
Four simple steps to youth ministry success!

Cartel Culture: We take wrapping a pastor’s office to a whole new level.

Shane Mulin
This is what happens when you allow skater kids on the the building committee…

As the stairway neared completion, lo, the Lord smote the building committee and confusedeth their languages.

Uhh… how else were we going to change that lightbulb?

“I’m just glad we got the bathrooms.” Church split negotiations gone bad.

How you know you’re fired on Monday after the middle school retreat the previous Saturday.

Wes Pardue
“Complaints Department: Upstairs”

Chris Marsden
The prank war escalation took a bad turn when the worship pastor’s study simply disappeared. We’re still not sure where his intern is.

and the winner is…

lots of the captions made me smile; but the only one that actually made me laugh out loud this time was chris marsden’s gem (maybe because it’s just a shade too close to potential!).

The prank war escalation took a bad turn when the worship pastor’s study simply disappeared. We’re still not sure where his intern is.

chris, you win The Summit video from the session of your choice! email me ([email protected])

the power of small

small groupin the little book i published last year called A Beautiful Mess: What’s Right About Youth Ministry, i included a little section where i riffed on the power of small. and a couple weeks ago at the SYMC, i led a half-track seminar (4 hours) called “six values great youth ministries embrace,” and included this idea as one of those six.

actually, now that i think about it, the section in the book and the seminar was actually “the power of small churches.” here was my summary statement from the seminar:

Since small churches often don’t have the resources to develop impressive programs fueled by amazing technology, they are often forced to “settle” for the core of what really works in youth ministry: a caring Jesus-following adult engaging a small group of teenagers.

i’ve seen this over and over again in the past few years, particularly since i’ve moved out of a role that was primarily about “developing impressive programs fueled by amazing technology,” even if it was for youth workers instead of teenagers.

and when we talked about this value in my seminar, we went a step further, and asked people to wrestle with what this means for medium-sized and large church youth ministries. how can they embody a value of small, even though they’re not a small church?

i was struck by this over the weekend in terms of my own practice. sunday morning, as i was making my way into church, a dad approached me. he’s the dad of a college freshman guy who was in my small group as a 6th – 8th grader. the dad said something like, “i was thinking of you just this morning! i was thinking about what an amazing young man my son has become — with strong character, an active faith, personal practices and boundaries that naturally flow out of who he is — and i thought to myself, this all traces back to marko and that small group.”

of course, i was wonderfully encouraged and flattered. and of course i took a minute or two to tell him how he and his wife have had a greater impact on who their son has become than i could ever hope to have had (which, as an aside, was a surprise to him — a reminder to me that we have to keep telling parents that!).

and as i took my seat and waited for the service to start, i reflected on what it was that made that particular small group so rich. and the small group that followed that, with another set of guys i met with weekly from 6th grade through 8th grade. i see those guys — from that second small group — now sophomores in high school, and how active their faith is, how much they’re holding each other accountable, how much they’re stepping into leadership.

and then i compared that to the group of guys i have now, currently in 7th grade. they are awesome guys, and i love them. but, i was thinking, something’s not the same. it feels like our weekly small group has primarily become a christian education endeavor. but i don’t remember many recent wednesday nights when someone really opened up with doubts, or with hurt, or with questions, or with confession, or with a request for help. i realized that i’ve started measuring “good nights” as the ones where we talk about something spiritual and the guys engage to some extent. that’s not the same thing.

it might be that i’m exclusively remembering times from the 8th grade years of those two previous groups. after all, i’ve often felt that leading a small group of middle school guys is a couple years of building relationship and trust, and a third year where the return starts to show up.

but at the end of the day, i can only chalk it up to the size of the group. they guys i have in my group right now have every bit as much potential as the guys in the previous groups. but they’re getting ripped off. that first group — with the son of the dad who talked to me sunday morning — had five guys in it. the same five guys for three years. the second group had six guys in it. the same six guys for three years. but my current group had about 12 guys in it last year (when they were in 6th grade), and runs between 14 and 18 most weeks this year (7th grade). we’ve talked about splitting the group; but there either hasn’t been enough leaders, or enough will power, or enough urgency, or something. i’m not putting the blame anywhere other than at my feet. in fact, there’s probably even been a little ego satisfaction in having a larger group (i get to feel simultaneously self-important, and permitted to whine and expect sympathy).

how can i really create a place of honest life-sharing with 18 guys? how would any but the exceptionally bold and verbal among them ever feel that it’s safe enough to ask a tough question or offer up a genuine hurt or verbalize an honest doubt?

i’ve got to figure out how to re-embrace the power of small. funny, isn’t it, that i have to wrestle with this in the context of a “small group”? my goal: by next fall, i’ve got to find a way to make this two small groups. that will mean loss for me, because i have no interest in not being the small group leader for all the guys. i mean, i’ve invested two years into these relationships, and am stoked about what next year could be for all of them. but i’m ripping them off. we must get small. if i give a rip about the spiritual formation of these guys, we must get small.

overheard at my 7th grade guys small group

ugh. can’t catch up on blogging these days. maybe i DO need to break down and start using guest posts! :)

but: last weds night was a really good night with my 7th grade guys small group. first, some funny stuff:

7th grade guy: my ‘high’ this week was that i’m memorizing a song in japanese.

several guys were talking over each other. i snarled at them, with a sort-of monster-y groan.
7th grade guy: are you a zombie?
another 7th grade guy (very matter of fact voice): he’s a part-time zombie.

we played a couple quick rounds of ‘telephone,’ based on a couple guys begging for it.
“there was a pink turtle under my bed” became “there’s a fake turd under my bed”
“my butt got picked” became “my buttercup cares”

7th grade guy: i started a bear cult with my bi-polar friend and my schizophrenic friend.

a few minutes later, when the “high and lows” sharing got around to the dad of the 7th grade guy who made the previous comment (this dad is not normally a part of our group, and was just sitting in since my normal co-leader was out of town): well, my low was finding out that my son’s in a bear cult.

7th grade guy: i got a new bat today.
other 7th grade guy: animal or sport?

first 7th grade guy: my ear is bleeding.
second 7th grade guy: why’s your ear bleeding?
first 7th grade guy: why’s your ear not bleeding?

me, talking about what we mean when we say things have ‘strings attached’: there are so many things in the world that come with strings attached.
7th grade guy: puppets.

we talked about the concept of grace and unconditionality. i started by breaking the 15 guys present into three groups of 5. i gave each of them a piece of string and told them they had three minutes to create a 2-minute skit. the only requirements were:
1. everyone had to be in it
2. they had to use the string
3. they had to use the word “grace”

after they performed their skits, we had a chat about what we mean when we say things have “strings attached,” and what that has to do with the concept of grace.

we read the first part of John 1 (5 guys did, reading one paragraph each), and stopped after each paragraph to talk about anything we noticed that had to do with grace (or “no string attached”). we had a really interesting conversation at the spot where John 1:12 says “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” one of the guys very insightfully asked, “wait, isn’t that a strings attached thing? is that an if/then statement.” i was really stoked he brought this up, but had to think quickly about how to explain it, since the sentence structure really does look like an if/then construction. i grabbed a miniature hershey bar out of our tub-o-pens-and-junk and held it out on my open palm in front of him. i said, “hunter, this candy bar is for you, no strings attached. nothing you do will cause me to close my hand or take back the offer.” of course, he reached out and took it. i asked, “what did you do to get that candy bar?” “took it,” he responded. i said, “that’s what’s going on here in this passage, and in our relationship with god. grace is freely offered to us, no strings attached. but we need to take it. that’s why the verse says ‘to all those who did…’” (yeah, it was a good moment. awesome understanding swept across his face and other guys’ faces.)

since this was more of an “understanding” outcome than a big-time actionable application, i handed out little slips of paper (printed on parchment!) that looked like this:

grace bookmark

i asked the guys to put it in their wallets or phone cases or on a dresser or nightstand to remind them of the no-strings-attached nature of god’s grace.

shoot: two of them even thanked me! (crazy!)

Famine National Date this weekend: 100,000 strong!

(i posted this originally on the 30 Hour Famine blog earlier this week)

I have strong emotional and mental memories of attending World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia several years ago, with more than a quarter million people.

Sure, it was cool to be in a beautiful world-class city. And everywhere I went there were groupings of Christian teenagers and young adults attending the weeklong event.

But the highlight, by far, and the bit that stands out in my memory the most, was the Saturday evening worship gathering. It was one of the few times when everyone attending would be in the same place at the same time. I didn’t plan well, and had a difficult time getting to the outdoor site. By the time I arrived at the site, worship was well under way. I made my way through the massive crowd, alone, but in a sea of people.

100_1118But then the moment came when everyone – 250,000 youth and young adults! – simultaneously lit candles and held them up in the air. I stopped and looked around, and couldn’t breathe. Suddenly I was transported from being alone in a crowd to being a part of something massive, something compelling, something meaningful.

This weekend, there are 3225 groups participating in the 30 Hour Famine. And that’s just the groups we know about! That represents about 100,000 students this weekend alone. Really, this would certainly represent one of the largest (if not the largest) group of teenagers rallying together this year, at the same time, to make a difference in the world.

100,000 teenagers going without food for 30 hours (that’s 3 million hours of hunger!). 100,000 teenagers learning about the needs of others, raising funds to stop hunger. 100,000 teenagers focusing on the needs of others. 100,000 teenagers participating in the work of God in the world.

Seriously, how cool is that!?

A few things to remember heading into the 30 Hour Famine
+ This weekend, the 30 Hour Famine website will have a “Social Media Takeover.” You can see it on the page now, by clicking on the green sticker. But this weekend, everything you post with the #30HF hashtag will be fed to the Famine home page.

+ Remember that any student who raises for than $360 is eligible to apply for the Famine Study Tour. A group of these students will be selected for a trip to see the impact of the Famine first hand.

+ Please remember to send in your funds after the weekend!

As you and your group dive into the weekend, remember that you are making a live-saving difference in the lives of real children. Remember that you are partnering with Jesus, bringing His redemptive work in a tangible way.

And remember that you’re part of something HUGE! You are part of a movement to end hunger, and you’re linking arms with 100,000 others!

four teenage moments that resulted in my lifetime of youth ministry (part 3)

at a recent speaking event, i met the granddaughter of a man–the former choir director of the church i grew up in–who had a huge impact on my life and vocation. it got me thinking about the small handful of significant moments that played out-sized roles in my calling to youth ministry.

i thought of four moments, more than any teaching i ever heard or discipleship program or retreat or any other aspect of youth ministry programming, that i can still clearly remember to this day.

in part 1, i wrote about the choir director who invited me to ride with him and his wife in his car, while on choir tour, and the impact that had on me.
in part 2, i wrote about being invited to lunch at my youth pastors’ apartment, and why that was such a big deal.

both of those were stories of being invited into the world of adults. the third moment has a different learning, about the occasional word of encouragement.

in the mid-1970s, my church was very much living the transition from youth ministry 1.0 to youth ministry 2.0. the church had hired their first youth director, who still reported to the “director of christian education.” and the youth director only worked with high schoolers. the junior highers were still only a part of the christian education programs of the church. for me, as a junior higher, that meant sunday school on sunday morning, and “christian service brigade” on tuesday nights (brigade is a sort-of christian boy scouts).

terry priskwhen i was in 7th grade, i saw the youth director — a guy named terry prisk (who later became a very popular youth speaker around the midwest, and is now the senior pastor of The River in brighton, MI) — as “my older sisters’ youth director,” not mine. i heard about him all the time from my sisters. but i expected that his only and solitary impression of me was that i was lori and lisa’s little brother. and terry had moved on by the time i got to high school. so he was, technically, never my youth director.

so i was quite surprised when, in 7th grade, terry stopped me in the hallway of the church. to this day, i can recreate every tiny detail of the scene. i know exactly where it happened: in the angled hallway just outside the youth director’s office, an office with a split door (open the whole thing, or just the top half!), across from the “fellowship hall,” coat racks with shelves for hats or bibles there and there, the men’s and women’s restrooms just over there, weird brick bay windows, of sorts, looking onto a courtyard around the corners in both directions, the custodians’ office/work area 10 feet in that direction, and just beyond it, the entrance to “the hub,” the basement space where the youth group met. it’s interesting that i remember this level of detail, because i haven’t seen this spot in 30 years. in fact, it doesn’t exist anymore outside of my memory, as the church moved well over a decade ago, and that building, sold to a developer, was leveled and replaced by condos and a strip mall.

it was a busy passing time between services, or between sunday school and church. the hallways in that part of the church were stupidly thin for the quantity of people we had mashing through them. but as terry was passing me (or me him), he said, “oestreicher…”

i just had a thought. i wonder if he called me by my last name (which i distinctly remember) because he didn’t even know my first name?!

he said, “oestreicher, you’d make a great youth pastor one day.”

i have no idea why he said this, or why he picked that moment to say it. but he said it, and i never, ever forgot it (let’s be clear: that was 36 years ago!). i might have still ended up in youth ministry without that 7th grade comment from terry prisk. in fact, i planned on another career (or, many others) until i was partway through my senior year of high school. but i saw myself differently after that passing comment. and i’m 100% confident it played a formative role in the identity work that had just at that point sped up onto the freeway onramp provided by my newly acquired abstract thinking.

yup: being invited into the world of adults, and a simple word of encouragement. these simple moments shaped my life. and as a youth worker, i have tried to follow suit hundreds of times, calling out things i see in teenagers, giving them vision for their lives, encouraging and naming their sheer awesomeness. hopefully, i get to sometimes be a word from god to them. wow, i sure hope i have an impact on some kid like that 9-word comment, 36 years ago, had on me!

thursday i’ll post the final moment/story, which has to do with being shown grace, when i was a 9th grade idiot.