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!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Measuring Real Success

Quantity (i.e. attendance numbers) isn’t a bad thing, as long as the quality is good. But quantity is useless when the quality is bad. Who wants to eat a whole truckload of rotten apples? One good apple is more valuable.

In his letter to the Galatians the Apostle Paul gives us a list of the good fruits followers of Jesus should be looking for in their lives.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

These are the indicators of success. Does a kid love better? Is he joyful? Does she exhibit self-control? If you think filling out your denominational reports is hard now, try measuring fruit in a report!

Measuring Our Fruit

Jesus suggests our trees should be producing quality, not quantity. He doesn't say, "if a tree only produces six apples, cut it down". Instead he says, "if it doesn’t bear good fruit, cut it down." There are four kinds of trees.

1. Lots of apples. Good apples.
2. Not many apples. Good apples.
3. Lots of apples. Bad apples.
4. Not many apples. Bad apples.

Jesus would celebrate good apple trees regardless of the number of apples. I fear that many of us burn (or at least have in the past) the two trees with the least apples and keep the ones with the most apples, even if they were bad.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


How many times have you been asked the following question:

"How many kids do you have in your youth group?"

The implication is that bigger is better (or more successful).

Admit it or not, the fact remains thatyouth ministry (and for that matter, churches) use all kinds of scorecards to measure success.

Nearly every denomination sends out some sort of "local church scorecard" at the end of the year. With it you can quickly pick out the successful churches from those who are – well, success-challenged. These scorecards measure things like number of first-time commitments to Christ, numbers of recommitments to Christ, numbers in Sunday School, number in worship, and, of course, number in youth ministry programming. Our denomination lets us throw out our two lowest scores for the year and still count our high scores at Christmas and Easter.

Then there's the financial scorecard. We measure how much we give to missions, how much we raised in tithes, and how much was raised for the new building project. And some churches get special recognition if they pay a certain percentage of their annual income to featured denominational projects! Our denomination even keeps track of how many missionary books are read by church members each year.

Youth ministry uses scorecards too.

But Jesus' indicator of success is fruit.

By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Matthew 7:16-20

Good fruit comes from good trees. Bad fruit from bad trees. Sounds simple, right? We should be measuring fruit. But how do you measure good fruit? What makes an apple good? Is it good simply because there aren't rotten spots? Is a shiny apple a good apple? Does goodness have to do with texture? Taste? A lack of worms?

See how hard this is? We should be asking what kind of apples we're producing. But that's way too hard to measure. So the default measure of success is to count how many apples there are on our trees.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

What to Do?

A few weeks ago a reader left this comment:

"What I feel Jesus leading me to do in youth ministry and what my church expects me to do in youth ministry are often quite different. My church expects the T-shirts and the hundreds of kids laughing and playing and having a good time. Oh yeah, and then they want those same kids to show up for "real" church. My team and I feel Jesus calling us to a much quieter, more "insignificant" (as far as numbers) existence that allows students to question, struggle, doubt and grow in their faith at their own pace - something much more lasting than the emotional high of a bait-and-switch event.”
I have a young youth pastor friend who faced a similar dilemma. He recently resigned from his first youth ministry position because his pastor (a former youth pastor himself) wanted the high-profile, event-driven, bells-and-whistles youth ministry mentioned above.
Walking away is an option. But is it the best (or only) option?