Monday, November 10, 2008

What I'm Doing Now

Today I received an anonymous comment from a blog reader. I'm completely OK with a good amount of disagreement about youth ministry. I believe that constant questioning of our practices make us better ministers. It keeps us sharp. It helps us think through why we do what we do.

But in reading this reader's comment I realized that the message and purpose of this blog might be completely ignored because of people's perceptions about me. Here's the comment:

"I just read through a lot of your posts, but I think it would've been more meaninful if you were still in ministry. It's easy to sit on the sidelines, even if it's on a court you once played, and yell at those who are still participating. Roll up your sleeves and see some of these things happen."

I guess the perception is that youth ministry became "too hard" and has "too many flaws" so I just quit. Or that I'm no longer involved or interested in fixing the problems. That I'm just content to complain or criticize about what's broken.

I hope this isn't the common reaction.

My concern isn't about my credibility as much as readers rejecting the issues raised in this blog because of perceptions about the writer. Maybe a bit of context will help.

I've never shared my reason for leaving youth ministry other than "God simply led me to something different." Maybe knowing what that "something" is will help clarify my departure from youth pastordom. It's a long story, but I'll make it short.

Our family (not just me) has felt a clear call to those Jesus called "the least of these" - the outcasts, forgotten, oppressed, poor, unlovable - and especially widows and orphans. This call led us all the way to Ethiopia where whe adopted two little orphan girls. My wife increased her hours at the hospital to support our family so I can rehab houses for seniors (especially widows) living in one of the poorest areas of Toledo. This winter we hope to insulate several attics free of charge. This is what we've been doing for the last year.

As per the "getting involved" comment... Unless youth ministry is narrowly defined as "youth pastor" I don't feel like I'm "sitting on the sidelines". I just feel like I'm playing on a different court. Or maybe I'm just playing a different position than before. I've found a way to maintain my involvement with students at the local high school. I invite young people into directly serving the seniors I've met over the past year (hopefully even moreso in the future). And just today I trained and equipped a group of parents to become the primary spiritual investors in their kids lives.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I wrote these questions about three years ago when I started rethinking things. They changed the way I view youth ministry:
  1. When was the last time we saw teens and their parents inside the walls of the church discussing spiritual things together?
  2. Do we equip and support parents of teens even a fraction as much as the teens that walk through their doors?
  3. How much time does our church/youth ministry invest in parents?
  4. What percentage of our youth ministry programs involves parents as participants, not just chaperones or leaders?
  5. Which of our ministries communicate that parents are the most important part of a teen’s faith formation?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

More Gardening

I see the purpose of my posts as providing a springboard for discussion of youth ministry. Generally, I just post and then read your comments. I've never yet joined the discussion and commented.

There seems to be need for clarification on my last post. My "gardening" story was excerpted from a training piece I produced for my youth volunteers a few years ago. I failed to realize that removing it from it's original context changed the reaction that some had to it.

Several comments on this blog centered around the idea that the farmer with a big field should go hire more help. If you're going to have a big garden, you're going to need lots of helpers (i.e. if you've got more kids in youth group than you know what to do with, get more people to disciple them). I agree. And as one commenter implied, it's really not all that radical of an idea. Good stuff.

However, that wasn't why I originally used the story in my training piece. The comments caught me off guard. I had originally used this story smack dab in the middle of a discussion of fruit (see Measuring Real Success). Basically, the story was designed to spark discussion about the QUALITY of fruit we see in our kids in relation to how thin we youth workers seem to spread ourselves. In the context of my string of posts, the discussion understandably went the QUANTITY route (an equally good discussion).

But I'm curious about the discussion this will generate. Assume:
  • YOUR FARM IS TOO BIG (i.e. You've got more teens than you can feasibly disciple).
  • THERE ARE NO HELPERS (i.e. You've tried to recruit adult disciplers but are unsuccessful - for whatever reason).

Choose one:

A) Put priority/energy in only the plants that will be most fruitful, knowing some plants will die.
B) Put equal priority in all plants, knowing that the quality of fruit will likely be lower for all the plants.

This is real. It's something we all struggle with. In youth ministry there's always more good to be done than time to do it!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


About 10 years ago while living in Iowa we received a Gurney’s Seed and Nursery catalog in the mail. The pages were filled with colorful, delicious fruit that could be grown in your own garden. All you had to do is order it, plant it, and harvest it. I set aside two full acres (we lived on a 70-acre farm) for my first-ever independent garden. I ordered strawberries, red raspberries, black raspberries, dewberries, blackberries, gold raspberries, pumpkins, and several varieties of watermelons. My dream was to grow as much great fruit as I could.

The summer started dry. No rain. Since you can’t have watermelons without water I spent countless hours carrying five-gallon buckets of water to the scores of watermelon plants. As the early-summer drought continued the berry bushes began shriveling. More water was needed – so much more that I pumped the well completely dry.

Sometime in mid-June the skies decided to open and release their moisture. And with the rains came weeds – 2 acres of them. Instead of watering plants I was now spending countless hours pulling weeds. The rain wouldn’t stop. As the entire strawberry patch was now flooded I faced a new problem. How do you get water out of a garden?

You can imagine the summer I had. My garden was a mess by the end of the summer. Weeds were growing everywhere. Every plant in the garden had evidence of varying degrees of neglect. Even so, nature did its part (have you ever seen how many watermelons can be grown on two acres?) I began giving watermelons to the neighbors. I’d take them to work and give them out. I loaded up my truck and handed them out after church services– more than once.

The foolishness of my gardening endeavor didn’t completely sink in until the weeds died in the fall. The whole hillside was covered in melon carcasses. Literally thousands of pumpkin and watermelons littered the landscape. What an embarrassing revelation for the entire countryside to see! I wonder what the neighbors thought!?!?

Even with my best efforts I was able to only rescue maybe 10% of the harvest. And the 10% of the fruit that was rescued wasn’t very good. Acceptable at best, but not good. I learned a valuable lesson that year. Just because you have a thousand melons on your hill doesn’t mean it’s a good thing – especially if they’re all rotten.

We often operate our youth ministries like I did my garden. Just because you have hundreds of kids in your youth room doesn’t mean it’s a good thing – especially if they’re not producing good fruit! Fruit production takes patience. And a fruit farmer can only handle so much fruit in his garden before he becomes ineffective and inefficient.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Diversion

Jesus and I have at least one thing in common. Our father's were both carpenters. We know that Jesus himself was a carpenter because thousands of Christian bumper stickers can't be wrong and the "really tall table" scene with Mary from "The Passion of the Christ."

After an unfortunate meeting with a hammer about a month ago (I hit the wrong nail), here's what I wanna know. Did Jesus ever do this to his thumb?

And if so, do you suppose he healed it on the spot? All God and all human. But just how human was he?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Is a Youth Pastor Necessary?

Granted, the 21st century model of youth ministry seems to demand excellent programming (sometimes at the cost of real fruit - we've talked about that).

And granted, those who call the shots in most of our churches (i.e. boards, senior pastors, etc.) have expecations that often push us in unhealthy directions (such as a fixation on numbers, big shows, and raised hands).

Because of these things, a youth pastor seems necessary. The demands of the job are way too great for the "average" layperson (a term that, by the way, is not found in scripture).

I've seen lots of great youth workers doing great ministry with teens come to the conclusion that they a youth pastor because they can't keep up with the demands of the youth ministry job that's expected of them.

The verdict's still out on this. I'm not lobbying, just facilitating. Several questions:
  • Is a youth pastor necessary? When? Why?
  • Is there scriptural support for the position? If so, why did it take 1950 years for us to discover it?
  • Can youth ministry exist without a youth pastor? Can it exist without a youth pastor WHILE the people participating in the youth ministry are thinking "We don't need a youth pastor."?
  • Is it healthy to build a structure that rises or falls on the back of one person?
  • If this structure is unhealthy, what kinds of changes are necessary? Is there a way youth ministry can continue to exist even when it's "head" is chopped off?

Not sure this was one of my most thought-out posts, but hopefully it'll generate discussion.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Revealing Conversation

About a year ago I ran into a 23-year-old former student from our youth ministry on my way to visit one of our youth cell groups. This young man was a 9th grader when I was hired as youth pastor. The conversation went like this:

Him: “So, how many you got coming now?”

Me: “There’ll be between 10-15 guys there tonight.”

Him: “No girls?” Me: “No, it’s a guys-only cell group.”

Him: “Oh, I was talking about your big meeting. You still meet on Sundays, right? How many do you have there?”

Me: “Usually between 30-40.”

Him: “Oh (pause) Must be pretty hard to get them to come, huh?”

It was obvious what this young man viewed as success – more bodies at a meeting. He was a part of the youth program when we were operating under the “pack them in at all costs” mentality.

At this point in the conversation I felt it was time to challenge his thinking. I wanted him to begin seeing that numbers were not necessarily an indicator of success. I threw what I thought was a thought-provoking statement at him. The conversation continued:

Me: “I’m convinced we could double our discipleship crowd if we’d start a dodgeball league.”

I had hoped he would see the irony in my statement. I had hoped something in his mind would have said, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s not necessarily all about how many people you have in a meeting or how much fun you have.” Instead, here’s what I got:

Him: “That’s a great idea! You should do that. The YMCA does that and they pack them in every week. That’s a good idea!”

Unfortunately, this is what we’ll find in many of our churches – an inaccurate measurement of what successful ministry looks like. And in many churches there's an extreme amount of pressure to pull this kind of numbers-based ministry off. It becomes a real problem when our leaders – especially youth leaders – view success only in terms of numbers.

I can’t ever remember anyone ever asking me any “fruit questions” about youth ministry. I don’t think anyone has ever requested, “Tell me about a kid in your group that has had a complete life-change.”

That's a conversation I’d love to have!