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in the afterglow of the Campference

i got home from the 2nd annual middle school ministry campference sunday evening at about midnight. there’s something very, very special about this event. i mean, when i was leading youth specialties, i would certainly come home from the nywc on something of a buzz. but i think that had to do with the magnitude of the thing, the force of nature it was. but the campference isn’t that, certainly. instead, i think it’s the intimacy of this event that sets it apart.

certainly, if you put 100 youth workers of any stripe at a camp setting for a weekend, a special vibe could (and most likely would) surface. but i think there’s the added dimension that middle school youth workers often feel a bit isolated. i mean, we’re youth workers, and are peers with high school pastors and the vast majority of youth workers who lead both middle school and high school ministries. but sensing a specific calling to young teens is, well, sort of weird. of course, i mean that in a good way. i mean that in a great way.

a friend emailed and asked me about the weekend. as i was thinking about what made it so amazing, i was reflecting on the potentially counter-intuitive fact that meal times were the best parts of the weekend! that’s sorta different, huh? but it was at meals that we all sat as peers — speakers, rookies, veterans, event partners — and talked about each others’ lives and ministries. with that connectedness, our main sessions (we called them “tribal gatherings”) were less about whoever was speaking or any other element of the stage program than about a shared experience with people we cared about, people with whom we enjoyed a unique and rare heart connection.

free time was just a chance to get away. example #1: a bunch of attendees (and speakers, since the speakers are in the mix the entire time) went skeet shooting on saturday afternoon. it was one of the free time options spring hill camp offered us. but it wasn’t just a few people doing something for the activity; it became a shared experience of cheering each other on and chatting about other things. it was a synergy that had very little to do with shooting guns at clay pigeons (the new cover photo on The Youth Cartel’s facebook page captures a bit of the feel of that time). example #2: saturday evening, we ended our formal program at about 8:45. people naturally split into about three groups: about 16 people started a poker tournament; in the same room, clusters of people stood or sat and talked; and, about 40 people carpooled into the nearby town of seymour, indiana (home of john cougar mellencamp! which is why some smarty was hashtagging his tweets with #mellencampference) to watch the world series at a buffalo wild wings. of course, youth workers at any event might gravitate that way; but this was a “let’s do this together” experience, with 30 around one table and another 10 around another table — whether they came to the event together or not.

there was also a stunningly beautiful thread through the speakers at the tribal gatherings — 7 talks (including 4 soapbox rants of only 7 minutes each). really, it seemed like we had planned a theme around honesty, hope, fear, and the interplay of praise and criticism. we didn’t plan it; but i think the spirit did.

this is a decidedly unslick event. when the slides didn’t show up in the right order, we all just laughed. when i shouted from the back of the room that there was a video that seemed to be skipped, no one thought “wow, this is an unorganized event!” that said, the stuff on the stage was awesome, hilarious, deep, thoughtful, provocative, insightful, and encouraging.

yeah. i sure do like this tribe. a few more pics:

some attendee posts about the event: kevin libick, terry goodwin

the deconstruction of blogging

blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog blog

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sorry. this week i’m experiencing a mash-up of “no time” and “no desire” when it comes to blogging. but, the middle school ministry campference starts tomorrow, and i’m completely stoked about that. we have, as of tonight, exactly 100 people attending this year (up from 75 last year); and it’s going to rock our faces off.

photo in need of a caption

there’s actually a real story to this photo; and it’s pretty funny on its own. but the photo is too good to get away without a caption contest.

winner gets a free download of the new book, The Youth Cartel’s Unauthorized Dictionary of Youth Ministry (because, really, this photo looks like it could have been an illustration for some definition in the book).

contenders!

wow, we have a very high percentage of contenders this time based on my normal means of selection (they humored me). so i’m being extra picky when i choose the following as “finalists”:

jenni
intern initiation.

Dan
When Furries play The Hunger Game.

Scott
Run Honey Badger!

Brett Hetherington
This was the last time our Senior Pastor volunteered to help with the youth group’s annual lock-in…

Kevin
This is what happens when the partners at “The Youth Cartel” do not agree with Marko and Adam.

e. sutter
And then Jesus said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests…so you better run boy.”

Dave Wollan
“So I guess what you gotta ask yourself is, do you feel foxy, punk? Well, do you?”

and the winner is…

tough call, but the one that caused the most spontaneous snort from me was e. sutter’s…
And then Jesus said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests…so you better run boy.”

you win, e. sutter! shoot me an email ([email protected]), and i’ll send you the download of your prize!

Be Prepared, but Be Flexible

“i don’t really have much planned for my small group,” (or teaching time, or youth group discussion) “because i just want to be response to the leading of the holy spirit.” lame. my experience is that i’ll never notice the spirit’s leading with that sort of laziness.
but, the other extreme is equally unhelpful — being rigid in sticking to what i’ve prepared.
the best conversations with my smalli group — the ones where i can truly be responsive to the leading of the spirit — are when i’m both prepared and flexible.

(i wrote this earlier this year for my middle school ministry column in youthworker journal.)

Just before Christmas, I was leading my 6th grade guys small group in a conversation about the incarnation. My hope was to remind them that this season was about more than presents and a break from school. Pretty straightforward stuff, right?

So I was a little caught off guard when Chris interrupted whatever brilliance I was in the midst of explaining to say, “How do we even know this is true?”

My compassionate and well-honed response: “What?”

Chris: “I mean, I know the story of baby Jesus and all, and I know the stuff about him being God, and Mary being a virgin, and how Jesus was God in a man and all that. But I just don’t understand how we’re so sure about it all.”

One of the other guys piped in, loudly, with, “You’re not supposed to ask questions like that!”

Whoa. Wait a second. These guys are 6th graders. And if there’s one thing I know about 6th grade guys after 30 years of working with them is that they are still concrete thinkers. It’s a very rare 6th grader who has already tip-toed far enough into puberty to have his brain rewired for abstract thinking, the kind of thinking that often produces doubts about a faith system worked out through years of parental and church input. It’s a very rare 6th grader who asks questions like Chris.

I assumed it was an aberrant blip on the radar, based on my understanding of early adolescent development. And I quickly concluded that the more important reality at that point was to affirm Chris for asking the question, and remove any judgment from the room. I affirmed Chris, and explained to all the guys how questions like that are great, and will become an important part of their growing faith as they move into and through their teen years.

And I moved on.

Three months passed. I don’t even remember what topic I had prepared for when we got to “Chris’ questions, revisited.” I’m sure it was going to be good, and I know I had something prepared. All I remember was that we had just started reading a Bible passage when Chris interrupted again, “No one will answer my questions!”

Me again: “Huh?” (See, that’s the kind of deep and inquisitive questioning you’ll get to with lots and lots of experience.)

Chris unloaded, “I asked my parents, and they told me it was great that I was asking questions. I asked you and you said the same thing. You gave me this book (he pointed to a book I had written for young teens!), and it basically said the same thing, but didn’t answer a single question for me.”

He was desperate, and it was clearly time to set aside my finely tuned plan for our small group time. I said, “Ok, let’s do it now. Ask me whatever you want, and I’ll try to answer as honestly as I can. But I need to warn you, Chris, that my answers might not be good enough for you. Because, ultimately, you’d going to have to choose whether or not you’ll have faith. And most of the answers won’t completely remove your questions.”

He started asking questions, like:

  • How do we know the Bible is true?
  • How do we know God is who we say he is?
  • What if we’re wrong about all of this?
  • How do we really know there’s a heaven?

He wasn’t giving me a chance to respond! And other guys started jumping in. One of my favorites (worded as only a young teen could word it) was, “What if we get to heaven and find out it’s the wrong God?”

We spent the next 30 or 40 minutes, my co-leader and I, attempting to explain why we believe what we believe. Throughout that time, I continually tried to “normalize their experience” by affirming the asking, and restating the role of faith.

It might have been the best night of the year. And there are two things that were extremely clear to me at the end of the evening:

  1. We never would have gotten to that good stuff if I hadn’t had something prepared. If I’d been winging it, the context wouldn’t have been there for the questions to arise.
  2. And, we never would have gotten to that good stuff if I’d stayed true to what I’d prepared.

That’s the secret sauce of middle school ministry – be prepared, but be flexible.

week long blog hiatus

i had a wonderful and busy weekend with extended family from all over the country this past weekend, while attending the wedding of my cousin in denver. and for the rest of this week, jeannie and i are holing up in a little cabin somewhere outside of estes park. nothing but reading and sleeping and relaxing.

so… no blogging this week.

i hope your week will be even a fraction as glorious as i expect mine will be.

finding real hope, part 3

in part 1 of this 3-part series, i wrote about my frustration over how biblical hope has been downgraded to optimism and positive thinking by much of the american church. i also wrote about the a-ha experience i had in haiti, bringing me to the early stages of a new understanding of real hope.

in part 2, i unpacked a model of hope i’ve been slowly developing, where dissatisfaction is a necessary (and good) precursor to real hope, and where longing and hope co-exist (relying on each other, really) in a beautiful dance.

so… a few final thoughts (and, for my youth working friends: the implications for youth and young adult ministry should be clear — we work with a naturally dissatisfied people group. it’s a freakin’ cornucopia of hope potential, baby.)

counter-intuitive truth about hope: embrace pain and suffering – yours and other’s. we all experience pain and suffering. but most of us find tricky ways to squash it, or ignore it, or medicate it, or spiritualize it. we’re robbing ourselves when we do that.

our path to experiencing true biblical hope is a path into the place where god dwells, with the suffering. that’s the place of the deepest hope, the hope that reaches out for the hem of christ’s robe, like the bleeding woman in luke 8.

and, since god dwells with the suffering, it’s not only our own pain, suffering and dissatisfaction we need to embrace. we can find god (and therefore, hope) when we come into contact with god in the midst of others who are suffering (that’s exactly what happened to me on that street in haiti).

if you want to find hope, go to the suffering, the dissatisfied, those longing for something better. then and there, the dream sparks back to life.

photo in need of a caption

hey, it’s summer! we need to have some fun! so, yes, a photo in need of a caption is certainly in order.

let’s see — i want to offer a prize.

how about this? the winner gets to choose between these three prizes:

  1. a $50 discount off a single registration for the Middle School Ministry Campference (for which the price goes up $30 after sunday — so win, and use it before sunday, and you get $80 off! holy cow, have i lost my mind!?).
  2. a $25 discount off a single registration for The Summit.
  3. the respect and admiration of The Youth Cartel (all of us).

ooh! at least two of those are pretty good!

so, here we go. make me laugh!

CONTENDERS…

Geoff Snook
Sometimes even Matt McGill has to catch the bus.
(marko comment: so extremely youth ministry blog-world insider-ish, and yet so funny!)

daryl
When’s the last time you saw people wearing ponchos? Weird.

Stevie Pointon
“…sure hope I make it to that ark in time or else my buddy will have a lonely ride!”

Mark Bushor
(Lyrics to Singing in the Rain…..maybe)
私は雨の中で歌っている
ちょうど雨で歌う
どのような輝かしいフィーリン
私は再び幸せ
私は雲で笑っている
上記までのように暗い
太陽は私の心にある
と私は愛のために準備ができています
嵐の雲追跡してみましょう
場所から誰も
雨で点灯
私は私の顔に微笑をしました
私は車線を歩いていく
幸せなリフレインと
ただ歌う’、
雨に唄えば

Christian
I know we need to protect the rain forests. But barbwire? Really?

brian aaby
“Now that it’s raining more than ever, know that we’ll still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella, You can stand under my umbrella, Ella ella, ay ay ay.”

Jonathan
That awkward moment when your blind date turns out to be a pocket monster.

Heidi
you think he would’ve gone to a different bus stop after escaping the chia pet zoo

Joe Iovino
If that Goonie gets wet, we’re all in big trouble!

Gene
NO! I did not just escape from those woods.

Gene
No, YOU, tell her she’s violating the leash law.

stephen
where the wild things aren’t

Gman
Princess Kate’s attempt to not be seen by the photographers doesn’t seem to be working.

AND THE WINNER IS…

a few of these really cracked me up. had a hard time picking one.

i’m going to give an honorable mention to Gman for “Princess Kate’s attempt to not be seen by the photographers doesn’t seem to be working.” really funny. Gman, as a consolation prize, you get #3 of the prizes.

and, i’m awarding the grand prize to stephen, for his succinct, unique, and witty “where the wild things aren’t.” let me know what prize you want, stephen! (comment, or email me: [email protected])

things i learned and/or observed at my 6th grade guys small group pool party

my small group of 6th grade guys had a pool party a couple weeks ago as our final meeting of the school year. we take the summer off (a good break for me and for them), and will resume in september. it was a great night of laughter, silliness, sharing, and food. a handful of things i noticed:

– ask 6th grade guys to all bring a snack, and their creativity comes out. surely, moms were helpful; but i was amazed at the diversity. one guy brought a pan of taquitos he’d heated up himself. one brought a couple pizzas. two brought rice krispie treats that they had a hand in making (one with marshmallow fluff on top, the other individually wrapped in little zip-loc bags). there were brownies and bags of chips. but the prize of the night went to the chocolate covered bacon.

– put a bunch of 6th grade guys in a pool or hot tub, and they seem more like kids than teenagers. their “cool factor” goes away, and their pre-pubescent bodies are revealed in all their glory. but they are keenly aware of their budding selves. during the game of “sharks and minnows,” motivation was much more anchored in avoiding looking dumb than in being competitive (which would be different if they were in 8th grade).

– my co-leader, gary, has been bringing his “waterproof bible” to our small group all year. and the guys have been mesmerized by it. all year they have wanted to put it in the sink or test it in some other way. but it didn’t take long, at the pool party, for gary’s bible to become a prop for funny posed photos, causing gary to have to say, more than once, “please don’t land on my bible; it’s not made for that.”

– while consuming a table-full of munchies, we shared what we’re looking forward to about the summer. i was once again reminded of the uniqueness of each guy, including both their unique interests and their unique family situations. examples:

  • “i’m looking forward to NO SCHOOL!” vs. “i’m looking forward to summer being over, because i like school better”
  • “i’m looking forward to going to the beach” vs. “i’m looking forward to going to england”
  • “i’m looking forward to seeing my dad” vs. all the plans that assumed dad was in the picture

– i learned that while i can still effectively compete in a breath-holding contest and win, my days of effectively competing in a “number of somersaults in one breath” days are over. i still won (12), but it ruined me for 24 hours. i had a headache and was nauseous, and my sinuses were jacked through the next day. ah: old, you taker of things.

(btw: if you “get this,” you should be making plans to join us for the middle school ministry campference, this october 26 – 28.)