why i’m in jamaica

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

nothing wrong with tourism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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FRIDAY NUGGET: the location of great middle school ministry

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

so i came up with this:

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

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

photo in need of a caption

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

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

bring on the fun captions!

contenders…

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

scott Riley
A picture sparks a thousand words!

haley
Only you can prevent forest farts.

David Hanson
Thanks Obama!

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

Jay Phillippi
Fines increase for finger pulling

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

Brad Anderson
Don’t be hero…remember Ricky.

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

and the winner is…

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

thanks for playing, everyone!

FRIDAY NUGGET: the mature youth worker

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

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

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

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

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

Pastoral Identity Through the Lens of Belonging

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

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

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

But those three tasks are not limited to teenagers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Published This: The Amazing Next

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

fast forward a couple years.

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

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

here’s the official product description:

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

and here’s the back cover copy:

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

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

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

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.