FRIDAY NUGGET: do you love your role, or love teenagers?

sure, we’re allowed to love BOTH being a youth pastor (or director, or leader of any sort) AND teenagers. in fact, they’re pretty linked.

but i was reading a challenging fiction book by Will Self the other day, and this line jumped out at me:

I think Steele is one of those doctors who doctors because he loves he loves the disease, not the patient.

i’ve met plenty of pastors who love the role, but not the people. and sometimes i meet youth pastors who fit that description.

pausing to reflect on your own prioritization of loves would be worth a few minutes of your time today.

inviting teens to make decisions without being manipulative

brad hauge, a brilliant and thoughtful youth worker friend and YMCP grad, sent me an email the other day with a great question:

You tweeted this from the camp you were speaking at last weekend:

“Amazing night at the Fairfield County Winter Summit. About 40 teens decided to follow Jesus tonight.”

I’m honestly interested in what the looks like when you are speaking and leading those moments. Not sure if you have the time/ability to type that out… but man, I trust how you speak and lead (e.g. not manipulating emotions, making promises that may not hold up, etc) and have been struggling with this for a while. Which seems weird to type…

But I’m really working at how to lead moments at camps/retreats/trips that aren’t manipulative, that aren’t gross, that aren’t about numbers… but still give kids a chance to confess their desire to know and follow Jesus in a healthy both in that moment and then in their future contexts.

my response:

yeah, i went back and forth about including that number 40 in that tweet, for all the reasons you list. it’s been a journey for me also. many years ago, i found that i was really good at manipulating teens (especially JHers); and, disgusted with that, moved away from calling teens to a decision (though i probably still focused a good bit on application and ‘next steps’ stuff). but i eventually came back around, in a way. i realize that most teens need to make decisions (heck: most adults do also) that feel like important place-in-time commitments. and i’m not all that concerned any more about whether that decision “sticks” completely — most need to make a series of decisions. in my thinking now, i see those commitment points as ebeneezers on their journeys — points in real time where they sensed that they were experiencing god, and wanted to mark that in some way.

so — i’m VERY careful not to manipulate. i use common language and am not overly emotive. but i do offer an opportunity to respond — usually a first-time commitment as well as a recommitment of sorts. i tell them they can express that desire to god however they want. and then i offer that if they’re not sure how to pray, i’ll suggest some words, and they can “grab them out of the air and make them their own.” i try to avoid overly churchy words (i don’t talk about a ‘personal decision to follow christ’ or ‘get saved’ or anything like that at all; i usually use wording that connects with whatever talk i’ve just given).

i RARELY do ‘come down front’ (alter call) responses anymore — i don’t like them, but am willing to if the event hosts really want me to. but i’ll often ask for students who made a commitment to raise their hands and make eye contact with me. i take time, looking around the room and intentionally try to point to each one and make eye contact and say “i see you.” this past weekend, i actually had them stand up too (just what i sensed i was to do in the moment — this group felt like it needed a little extra action step). i have found that some sort of physical action (even as tiny as raising a hand) goes a long way to make the moment more impactful and memorable. sort of like the action of physically building an ebeneezer.

so, what are your thoughts? have you struggled with this tension?

photo in need of a caption

i can’t even remember the last time i posted a photo in need of a caption. but it’s a rare rainy day in san diego (this is what we consider “bad weather”), and seemed like a good day for some fun.

PRIZE for this: the winner gets their choice of one of our amazing brand new Cartel resources:

  • The Real Jesus, by Jen Bradbury — a student devo based on jen’s research about what teenagers believe about Jesus, and responding to the question Jesus asked Pete: Who do you say that I am?
  • Finding Jesus in the Old Testament, by Eric Ballard — a 10-lesson downloadable curriculum focusing on catching glimpses of Jesus in the lives and stories of some of our most beloved Old Testament heroes.
  • Viva: One-Offs — the latest in our Viva series of downloadable lessons, this set includes four sessions that aren’t a series — perfect for that moment when you realize “Oh no, we don’t have a lesson for tomorrow morning!”

OK — here’s the photo. whatcha got?




Scott Riley — When choosing a presidential candidate, follow the sign!

Robby Balbaugh — You know you’re no longer the cool youth pastor when you can’t keep up with all the dances. #heymacarena #aight

supadupaluper — After being hired by the Galactic Department of Transportation, Yoda’s boss informed him, “Right, the Left Lane Must turn Right so please install a new road sign.” Promptly, Yoda replied, “Must turn Right…mmm…Right, the Left Lane,” and so he made and installed the sign “Right Lane Must Right Left.

[note: max read the above comment and said, “that might not be the winner; but he has to be a contender just because he put so much effort into thinking that through.” so, luper, as your mom probably said (and now my son), “very good effort, honey.”]

Mike — Your left or my left?

shardsofeternity11k — “Then proceed to turn right round baby right round.”

RevBT — After the last youth group meeting the church created a new, clearer policy regarding skateboards in the sanctuary.

Chris Ownby — Now cha cha real smooth…

and the winner is…

think i’m gonna go with the very first entry (which actually caused me to make a muffled laugh/chuckle/guffaw sort of sound when i read it. certainly timely. so, Scott Riley, you win, with: When choosing a presidential candidate, follow the sign!

(i’ll contact you about your prize, reno man)

The Surprising News About LGBT Teens and Church

my latest column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) has been released into the wild. i felt this one had an extra dose of importance, and hope youth workers will both read it carefully and think deeply about implications.

I don’t believe there’s an increase in gay teenagers, or those wrestling with same sex attraction (SSA), in the average church. But there’s no question that youth workers all over the globe—whatever their church’s theology, or their own—are facing an exponential increase in questions from all fronts.

In every one of my youth worker coaching groups, participants of all theological stripes want to talk bout how they should respond to teenagers with SSA questions (and transgender questions). Almost every youth worker is asking (or should be asking!) pragmatic questions, and being expected to give answers to teenagers, parents, and oversight committees.

I’ve found that most of us don’t know how to talk about these issues. One of the results is an interesting one: we almost always default to theological camps (even the large quantity of youth workers who aren’t sure of their theological camp). Conversations quickly become debates.

There’s a place for debates, to be sure. Biblical and theological understanding is critical. But at the end of the day, I’m finding that most youth workers are wrestling with questions and situations that are more pastoral than theological. And I’m not seeing enough of those conversations. To paraphrase pastor and author Andy Stanley: With Jesus, we see that theology is never allowed to trump ministry.

us verses usI was recently reading the manuscript of a wonderful book being released later this year by Andrew Marin, called Us Verses Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community (NavPress, 2016). The book reveals the findings (and practical implications) of a massive research study of the faith of LGBT people. And there are some very surprising findings, one of which should result in direct action from youth workers everywhere.

(It should be noted that while Marin currently lives in Scotland, studying at St. Andrews, the research study was conducted on a US population. That said, I believe the implications still have something to say to youth workers outside of the US.)

In short, one surprising finding of the study was that LGBT people score more than 10% higher than the general population when it comes to having a background in the Christian church. That fact itself is fascinating, and worthy of reflection. The research team dug deep into the data, cross-referencing reams of data from other questions and digging into the responses from open-ended prompts.

They discovered that a large portion of young teens experiencing SSA look for ways to rid themselves of the attraction they don’t desire to have. Prior to their young teen years, survey respondents may have been aware of their SSA; but the questions (and often pain and fear) surrounding these issues become particularly urgent to young teens stepping into the developmentally normative work of identity formation.

Here’s the news for youth workers (and churches in general): a statistically significant percentage of young teens experiencing SSA, but without prior church experience turn to the church, as a means of turning to God. Did you catch that? Young teens without prior church experience start attending church and/or youth programs specifically because of their SSA. They are looking, primarily, for answers and help (and often, hoping that God will remove their SSA).

Sadly, the statistics also show that the vast majority of teens experiencing SSA do not find help in the church (all too often experiencing condemnation and rejection): The majority of LGBT adults report leaving the church (but not their faith) during their later teen years.

Teenagers are in our midst, looking for help; and we have been—for a very, very long time—failing them.

This is one of the reasons I am so firmly in agreement with Andy Stanley’s insistence that “the church should be the safest place to talk about anything, including SSA.”

This column is not the place for a deep dive into all the ways we youth workers should be living out this ‘safest place to talk about anything’ mandate. But let’s at least start here: love, and dialogue, and create safety, and prayerfully work out your pastoral response (more urgently than your theological posture) to the teenagers in your very midst who are wrestling with same sex attraction.


What is our role as youth workers?

My role as a youth worker is to live, honestly, my own journey toward Christlikeness with and in front of the teenagers in my midst. I can’t change teenagers—that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. I’m not directly in the transformation business; I’m in the transformation hosting business.

Hosting is a metaphor that brings up sub-metaphors like stewarding (“How do I steward the time I have with teenagers in a way that best exposes them to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit?”), curation (“How can I highlight and bring attention to the good stuff God is already doing in the world and in the lives of teenagers?”), and evangelist.

Wait—did I just write evangelist?

Yup—but I don’t mean it in the way you might think. I mean it in the same way that Apple might have an evangelist on staff. My role as a youth worker is to be the evangelist for teenagers in my church. I am the lead banner-waver for teenagers in my congregation (or one of them, since I’m on a team), reminding people in the congregation of their responsibility to collectively engage with the teenagers in their midst.

vulnerability vs. authenticity

we talk a lot about the need for ministry leaders and speakers to be vulnerable and authentic these days. i’m all for that — 100%.

but some time ago i heard a speaker that caused me to reflect on this a bit, and particularly the fact that the two are not synonymous.

i was sitting in a congregation, listening to a guy preaching. he was a guest speaker, but is apparently someone who speaks once or twice a year at this church. and people seem to love, love, love him. the congregation was amped.

there’s no question the guy was vulnerable. he shared openly about struggles and wrestling. that approach itself can sometimes be a mess — more about the speaker experiencing catharsis (at best) or exhibitionism (at worst). but i didn’t sense this preacher was doing that.

but there was something that was really, deeply bugging me about the sermon (and it wasn’t the content, per se). the preacher occasionally slipped into a funny accent (at least he thought it was funny), used quite a few words pronounced in an strange, super-spritual manner, and utilized other speaking ‘tricks’ to–ultimately–manipulate the listeners to an intended feeling. he told self-revealing stories with an affected performance.

and i realized: i found this completely inauthentic.

i came to a sense that i could barely listen, as the speaker was vulnerable, but inauthentic.

authenticity trumps vulnerability in preaching, imho (and for leadership in general). i’d rather listen to an authentic speaker (or follow an authentic leader) without a ton of vulnerability than the other way around any day. both are great; but vulnerability only helps when it’s a subset of authenticity.

youth ministry as a NOTHING PREVENTS YOU reality

i was challenged by a sermon given this past weekend by a retired methodist bishop, based on the biblical story of the ethiopian eunuch. and it got me thinking about the message and the message our youth ministries should embrace and project.

you probably know the story: the ethiopian eunuch was rich, powerful and elite (traveling by chariot was the equivalent of today’s private-jet-and-limo set). he was, after all, in charge of the ethiopian queen’s treasury. clearly, a very smart man, also, as we first encounter him as he’s reading isaiah (not his native language!) in the back of a chariot.

philip, after hearing from an angel that he’s supposed to head down to gaza from jerusalem, camps out alongside a road. and there he encounters the eunuch who is heading home from jerusalem (the direction is important — and it’s fascinating that the angel didn’t direct philip to the eunuch when they were both in jerusalem).

deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” (the junior high boy in me likes the old KVJ version, though — “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”)

the eunuch went to jerusalem to worship; but would have been prevented from doing so.

after philip explains the prophetic passage the eunuch is reading, about jesus, the eunuch asks an important question: here’s some water — what would prevent me from being baptized?” of course, phil baptizes him, and we have one of the most important conversion stories of the new testament.

there are (and have been) a hundred ways this passage can be projected to our current day. but i’m a youth worker, and i got thinking about how PREVENTED teenagers are today–maybe more than at any time in human history.

  • Massive, culturally-endorsed isolation
  • Kept from the world of adults
  • Viewed as incapable and broken
  • Infantilized – treated as children

To those who are prevented, the gospel says, “NOTHING PREVENTS YOU.” You are welcome as an equal.

Our youth ministries should not exist as well-meaning holding tanks, waiting for maturity and adulthood.

Our youth ministries should not isolate teenagers from the world of adults.

Our youth ministries should not treat teenagers as children, incapable and broken.

Our ministries, instead, should be loudspeakers and labs of a Nothing Prevents You reality.

FRIDAY NUGGET: myths of belonging

Myths of belonging

  1. more time = more belonging
  2. more commitment = more belonging
  3. more purpose = more belonging
  4. more personality = more belonging
  5. more proximity = more belonging

“Belonging happens when you identify with another entity – a person or organization, or perhaps a species, culture, or ethnic group.”


(all from The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups, by Joseph Myers)

Seven Sins of Re-Inventing Your Youth Ministry

my latest column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) is in print.  some thoughts about ministry change…

I’m a big fan of change. In fact, one of the personal values I try to live out in every area of my life is:
Change is non-negotiable. Upheaval, starting new things, risk and failure are all necessary and good, both for the organization I’m a part of and for my own level of thriving.

Given the fact that we’re all doing youth work in a constantly changing culture, with teenagers whose needs are constantly changing, and with teenagers whose very lives are marked by constant change, we’d be idiots to just keep doing the same thing in the same way.

Experimentation and noble failure are the spark plugs of great youth ministry (well, I suppose Jesus is the spark plug; but you get the picture). Coasting, gliding, and staying the same are resounding gongs on the death bell.

So with that in mind, I’d like to suggest Seven Sins of Ministry Re-Invention. They are all phrased as assumptions; because our assumptions provide mental maps that lead to action (good or misguided) or inaction. Some of these assumptions keep us from change; but I’m assuming that you’ll get the gist of those quickly. So I’m focusing more on assumptive sins that mask as progress. Here we go!

Assuming everything is fine as is. In a column on the importance of change, this one sort of goes without saying. But here’s the reason I list it (even first): most of us know we need to consider change when things aren’t going well; but most youth workers I work with have a working paradigm that says the goal is to reach stability.

Here’s the problem: stability means you’ve already begun the inclination toward decline (of heath, vibrancy, impact – and attendance, sometimes). Great leaders must be courageous and initiate change prior to arrival at stability. This is counter-intuitive, as it means instigating change when things are seemingly at the best they’ve ever been.

Assuming youth culture is what it always was. Bob Dylan famously sang, “The times, they are a-changing.” And—wow—have the times ever changed since ol’ Bob sang that! Youth work might focus on timeless and unchanging truths (like the consistency of God’s unswerving love); but ministry is always set in a context, and great ministry is responsive to that context.

Sure, some aspects of youth culture or the experience of teenagers isn’t all that different. But there is no denying that all sorts of variables, values, pressures and cultural norms have shifted. Being a teenager in 2016 is simultaneously the same as it ever was, and new every morning.

Assuming you have all the answers to what needs to change. If you’re a leader, you have a responsibility to instigate, promote, provoke, and explore change. But change you envision and activate completely on your own will never be as good as change you collaboratively discern with others. I’m sure you’re smart and super-spiritual; but you’re not that smart and super-spiritual. You need sounding boards and anchors and fire-starters and push-backers and people who say, “Yes, and…”.

Assuming change should be a democratic process. I’m a fan of democracy when it comes to government. But when leading change in a youth ministry, democracy can quickly lower the bar, achieving agreement over excellence. Dissent can be healthy. And while ideas birthed and decisions made in community will always be stronger than those without any input, choosing your change collaborators is essential. Choose wisely, grasshopper. Collaborate with creative and hopeful people who don’t have a personal agenda. But don’t pass around a ballot.

Assuming everyone will easily be on board with change. It’s tough not to have the wind taken out of your sails when you’re excited about some intentional and thoughtful change, only to be met with naysayers and criticism and whining. Remember: people tend to resist change. This is almost always due to fear that they’ll lose something they value—something the current reality or program is providing for them. Expect opposition, not so you can be armed to blow people away, but so that you can adopt a curious perspective about what people need to move past their fears.

Assuming more is better. Short and sweet: adding stuff on—more programs—is not the pathway to vibrancy in your ministry. If you’re going to add something, you have to be ready to cut something also.

Assuming teenagers really dig cool programs and nifty youth facilities. What teenagers really want is a safe and encouraging place to belong. They want to be wanted. You might assume that a super-cool youth room or mind-blowing entertainment will deliver, but these are not the droids you’re looking for.

Step into change, with courage (which comes from God). But do so with wisdom (which comes from the Holy Spirit).

2 sentence book reviews: Christian Nonfiction and Parenting

30 book reviews this time around, over five days of posts. as always, i allow myself two sentences (unless otherwise noted):
– the first sentence is a summary of the book.
– the second sentence is my opinion of the book (complimented by the star rating).

my opinion:
– just because “Leaders are Readers” is a cliche doesn’t make it untrue.
– and, people who want to grow choose to read widely.

in this current series:
YA Fiction and Fiction (6 books, monday)
Illustrated Books and Graphic Novels (7 books, tuesday)
General Nonfiction (6 books, wednesday)
Ministry and Theology (7 books, thursday)
Christian Nonfiction and Parenting (4 books, today)

Christian Nonfiction

the wired soulThe Wired Soul: Finding Spiritual Balance in a Hyperconnected Age, by Tricia Rhodes)
4 stars
[note: this book releases July 1. this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

Like so many others, I long for a more contemplative life. I know it’s in my best interest. Yet my desire and my experience, born out of my choices, don’t often seem to be on the friendliest of terms. Rhodes offers a practical (yes!), fascinating and insightful set of explanations, encouragement, and tools. This is a useful book, very much worth digesting.

broken hallelujahsBroken Hallelujahs: Learning to Grieve the Big and Small Losses of Life, by Beth Allen Slevcove
5 stars
[note: this book releases April 4. this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

I don’t normally think of Grief and Beauty cozying up with one another. But that’s the indelible impression this gorgeous book imprinted on my heart and mind. Slevcove–with sometimes startling vulnerability and relentless authenticity–opens up her journey into and through grief, shining a light on something far, far better than simple platitudes or greeting card perk pills: this book reveals truth. And it’s the best kind of truth, messy and heart-wrenching and full of the potency of new life.


pass it onPass It On: Building a Legacy of Faith for Your Children through Practical and Memorable Experiences, by Jim Burns and Jeremy Lee
4 stars
[note: this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

I’ve always been a huge fan of intentional Rites of Passage (as opposed to the non-intentional cultural rites that most of our children and teens stumble through). This book, like none I’ve ever seen, provides practical and actionable Rites, along with amazing insight, for every year of elementary, middle school, and high school. It’s an absolute wealth, a treasure trove, of hope and spiritual parenting. I will be recommending this books to lots of parents!

your teenagers not crazyYour Teenager’s Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent, by Jerusha and Jeramy Clark
5 stars
[note: this book releases April 4. this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

The depth of insight and reams of practical ideas in this book are the second best things about it. The best thing–what really sets this book apart from other parenting books–is this: the vast majority of parenting books use fear, guilt, and hyperbole to promote a “teenagers are broken, and a problem to be solved” perspective. I find this perspective theologically unsound, destructive, and unhelpful. But the Clarks offer us, instead, a book that embraces a “teenagers are a wonder to behold” viewpoint. And that makes all the difference in the world, and is–i would suggest–the most important perspective needed for effective parenting.