Category Archives: youth ministry

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.


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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”)

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?

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.

My Resistance to Excellence as a Value

my most recent column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) was published in the current issue. here’s what i wrote:

One of the wonderful tasks that make up my work is a yearlong coaching program for youth workers. In the four years since its launch, we’ve had about 200 people go through this program, in cohorts of 10. I currently have five cohorts at various points in their journey, meeting in various locations around the States.

Central to this coaching program is a focus on leading from values. Participants develop both ministry values and personal vocational values during our time together, and I’ve seen the process be revolutionary in helping people be more intentional.

I see values as the ship’s rudder, providing an ability to steer, hopefully in the direction toward becoming the ministry that God has dreamed of for your context. Values should be spiritually discerned (ideally in a collaborative setting), and should flow out of mission. Mission is the answer to the question: Why do we exist? Values, then, are the answers to the question: What are we called to embody in this season? Once values are in place, we can think about strategy and identify goals. But without values, goals are nothing more than throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. (For the record, Strategy is the answer to the question: How will we best live into our values? And Goals are simply the measurable action steps toward that end.)

Taking 200 youth workers through the process of developing their ministry values, I’ve regularly seen a particular value pop up that makes me squirm a bit: Excellence. Because I require my coaching group participants to state their values as complete sentences, this value often shows up as something like: We are passionate about doing everything with excellence, or Everything we do will be done with excellence.

I’m not anti-excellence. It’s not that I desire the opposite: everything we do will be done poorly and in the shoddiest manner possible. No, of course I’m not suggesting that. Excellence is a good thing. I’m just not convinced it’s a great thing.

Too often, what I can read between the lines is a commitment to programming excellence. In my mind’s eye, I see a youth worker with that value slaving at her computer to make extra-stunning PowerPoint slides. I imagine a youth worker combing the Internet and spending way too much time assembling the props for games with that extra-special wow-factor. I get a little depressed picturing the youth worker who drools over better technology for a snappier show.

I realize there’s a semantics issue at play here. Sure, we can commit to doing relational ministry with excellence. Of course, we can embody excellence in our listening, and in our encouragement, and in our patience and love. But that’s not usually, from my experience, what those excellence values are meant to imply, if the value-writer is being honest.

I get uncomfortable with excellence as a value because it all-too-often reveals a subtle wrong-headed thinking that our very best programming will change lives. Honestly, the number of teenagers who owned their faith, or deepened their understanding of Jesus, or asked the questions most deeply on their hearts as a direct result of the design quality of a PowerPoint slide has to be pretty close to zero.

I like sharp-looking graphics. And I’m all for technology helping us connect with teenagers. Planning and creativity and thoughtful programming are good things. But as an elevated value–a focus on the excellence of those things–they can quickly become a seductive distraction from our true calling. And at worst, those focuses can supplant the transformative role of the Holy Spirit, working through and around us in the lives of teenagers.

I’m more interested in leaning into a value of being responsive (to the Holy Spirit, to the needs of teenagers) and present. I want to value responsiveness over proactivity, and discernment over planning.

Dream of a ministry approach that lifts up those values, and you just might find yourself on the road to some truly amazing results.

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.