Just Be There

I am not sure what I am supposed to say and yet here I am.  This young man just learned his fate “cancer.”  And I am in a car alone with him on my way to a waiting group of high school students wondering what is happening.   The very thing that never happens to you or someone you love, was happening.  What do I know about cancer?  I was just the youth pastor who was now just a bit more concerned with the faith of a few of the students in my youth group.  They were already confused and now this. The first one approached me almost immediately with  “If he dies, I am done”   Oh, God knows I prayed that was not a place I was going to have to go with them.  But this was an honest sentiment, which I appreciated hearing.  It represented real hurt and confusion.  I get it. I felt it.  I saw it in eyes and heard it in conversations.

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Care enough to enter another person’s world.  This is what Jesus did for you. 

I have often thought about those early days and about how much of a privilege it was for me to be brought in to such a personal journey.  I also thought about how inadequate and exhausted I felt during those many trips for treatment.  What did I have to offer?  I didn’t even have words to make anything better and my attempts to brighten the day wasn’t always met with great joy. And I can’t say I even blamed him for it because, let’s be honest, cancer is horrible enough without the chemo.  Add chemo and it is like hell on earth for people.  If you want to feel compassion for people, go into a cancer center sometime and hear the sounds, smell the smells, and see the 3-year-old kids pushing their chemo around.  It is gut wrenching at the best moments.   But there I was and  for over a year, I did the best I could to follow the example of Jesus Christ.  “Just be there”  was all I could do and it seemed like it mattered to some extent.  Interesting how God works because the end of 2013  after being there, I left Cape Cod and moved many miles from this church family.

And so a message came to me in November of this year that this young man was nearing death.  My heart hurt.  My mind raced.  How do I pray?  What do I do?  And then when I got the news that this young man died, I wept.  I was really surprised by the emotion that I felt and came out of me realizing that he was free from this pain now.  I guess that is what the Bible calls”sorrowful and yet rejoicing.”  It is this strange dance of emotions and I did them both.   In that moment I knew I needed to get there for the funeral.  I just needed to be there.

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A ride my boys did to support those with cancer. 

As only the Lord could have planned, I was already planning on being gone on a Sunday from my current church and it was that Sunday that the funeral was planned.  Now the hard part:  getting an affordable flight on Thanksgiving weekend.  Through a variety of circumstances, God provided and there I was.  I was there.

I didn’t know what was going to happen.  My mind went back to a time when I was in High School and a young boy was killed in a car accident.  I remember the youth pastor up front, weeping, completely broken.  They always told me that if you do youth ministry long enough, sooner or later you will bury one of your students.  I just could not believe the day had come.

But in all of this, I was struck again with this simple realization.  There is great power in just being there. And all I shared were stories, reflections of my time being there.  In all my time playing games during chemo, I didn’t really provide a ton of insight, I provided my presence.  People in the church were overwhelmed that I had made the journey.  It inspired them in a way that I was grateful for, but wasn’t expecting.

This is what the Church is all about.  This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  You don’t have to have all of the answers.  You don’t even have to have an answer at all.  I didn’t.   You need to simply be there.  Learn to live in relationship with others.  Love people.  Allow yourself to care for them.   I learned the power of that in a profound way.  It is a privilege I will never forget.

The 7 Dwarfs of Youth Ministry

There is a character in every group...often more than one.
There is a character in every group…often more than one.

My kids went through a season where they watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs almost every day.  One night while watching it with them I realized that I was looking at a picture of our youth ministry and probably many others as well.  There is such diversity in a youth group that at any given time you could have any or all of the 7 dwarfs represented.  It is important to know that and figure out how to help them thrive in that group setting.

Bashful 

Every group has their wall flowers.  These are the people who are happy to sit in the corner by themselves and watch everyone else.  I have sent leadership students to go talk with the bashful ones before only to find that they really would rather not talk.  In our minds we think that they are not enjoying their time when they are just introverted.  And if you call them out of the crowd they will immediately turn red.

Bashful seems to thrive the best when they find someone who is similar to them.  If you have one bashful person, you probably have another one.  And while their level of bashfulness might be different, they seem to enjoy being together.  These students are also great people to pull into some behind the scenes service role.  Try it out and watch them thrive!

Dopey

Unfortunately Dopey comes the most often.  They are the ones tripping over their feet, injuring themselves playing video games and forgetting how to get home.  They are wonderful people who just miss a lot of the details in front of them.  Their favorite phrase is: “wait, what?”

I have found that these students thrive when they are able to see the humor in life and enjoy some of the silly mistakes they make, not as some sort of liability, but as a unique way God has created them.  They often bring a lot of interesting ideas to brainstorming sessions as well.  You might never use their ideas, but their ideas often bring about other even better ideas.

Sleepy

Sleepy cannot even stay awake to say hello to you.  These are the students that will go to a loud concert with you and sleep in the front row.  What do you do?   I guess you should start by giving them a job they love to do and by serving coffee.

Doc

Doc is your resident know-it-all.   He knows Greek, Hebrew and a few of the tribal dialects.  He will win the trivia game every time.   Look to Doc to provide the schematic for the outdoor maze you want to make complete with emergency exits for Dopey.  The best thing you can do with Doc is help him steer his genius to be helpful and not off-putting to others.  When Doc is a humble person, others will respond with much greater respect.

Sneezy

Sneezy is always sick or has an allergy to everything, including air.  That makes things hard enough, but they are also extremely nervous about it.  I have found the best thing to do with them is remove that which makes them nervous and help them to relax.  This should be a safe environment for them, so they can relax and hear from God instead of sneezing.

Grumpy

Grumpy is a glass half empty kind of person.  At times he even breaks the glass.  There is no way to make this person fully happy, even if they are smiling.  They will always find a way to kill the fun you are having with a snappy, sarcastic comment.  What can you do with them?  Sometimes the best thing to do is ignore their grumpy comments.  I have sometimes even playfully called them out on it or sent Dopey to converse with him.  There is an opportunity to build a relationship with someone who is pessimistic to help them see that there is joy in the Lord.

Happy 

Of course Happy does not need to be reminded of joy, they got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in their heart.  He is always smiling, laughing and waking up at 5 a.m. with a bubbling personality.  Happy makes a great greeter or game leader because they are just hard to get past without being happy also.  As it turns out, happiness is contagious.

There is a variety of people in our churches.  That means we cannot use a one-size fits all approach.  It also means we need to think more creatively about how to reach them.  Maybe it is time to throw out the box and look at the needs of the people right in front of you.  You might just be surprised at how different personalities can be steered to really make a huge impact for the Kingdom of God.

Faith: There’s No App for That

No app for faith
No app for faith

There is a palpable buzz in youth ministries today.  It is the buzz of cell phones that are not turned off despite your request for them to be turned off.  Since there is no App labeled ‘off’, many people just turn the volume down.  There are so many phones in the hands of teenagers these days. Students who don’t even say much have cell phones so that they can text, tweet, and download the latest App.  In this age of immediate technology youth ministry communication has changed.  We now have conversations with students while they play the latest edition of Angry Birds or giving students the benefit of the doubt that they are truly using a Bible App during the lesson.  We also have multiple text-message conversations at once because we realize that the students will look at their phones if it buzzes.  It also means being ever vigilant to penetrate the world of constant media stimulation with the ever-constant Word of God.  This can be a source of major frustration for youth leaders because students will spend hours staring at the screen and then tell us they have no time for God.  How are we to make sense of that?

The Bible is the most relevant book ever written.  This has never changed despite all the latest technology.  The challenge for us in youth ministry is to encourage teenagers to see it that way.  It is a significant hurdle because of the constant distractions the latest gadgets produce.  It all creates buzz that doesn’t naturally help students follow Christ.

Faith is not an App we download one time and let it update on its own.  Romans 10:17 tells us that “faith comes by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”  It is not good enough for students to set their faith to update automatically and then to never think about it again.   It only updates through time with Jesus Christ. Students who don’t have people regularly encouraging them to think and live biblically will have a difficult time growing in faith.

As youth leaders our job is to point them to Jesus Christ as the source of true faith.  Students need to understand that the fast paced, media-driven, self-centered lifestyle that so many experience is not what God calls us to.   We can challenge students to set down the distraction of technology in order to hear the voice of God because there are no short cuts to that.

The lack of time with God also has an affect on relationships in the youth groups.  It used to be that disputes were handled in the public forum.  Now students in might look fine on the outside, but on social media they are mean to each other.   There have been conflicts between people that have been escalated because of social media.  It has become so easy to say whatever without thought and it matters for the long-term.

Let’s create buzz in youth ministry.  We don’t do this by offering the same things that the world does.  We instead see the challenges of youth ministry as opportunities to teach what God says in His Word.  We leverage the good and bad of technology by being engaging in the teachable moments their influence provides, whether pleasant or not.  With proper vision and by the grace of God we can make the buzz in the youth group the truth of God’s Word.  After all, Faith only grows because there is no App for it.

This is an article I wrote for a recent edition of YLO by Interlinc.

Throwing Out the Template

Think creativity and new!
Think creativity and new!

What would happen if we started over every time we came to a new ministry event?  What if we looked at each new event as a fresh start, a clean slate?  What if instead of laziness and routine we found ourselves in a creative and cutting edge place?  Maybe there needs to be more done than just changing the dates on a flyer in order to remain fresh and moving in ministry.   People need creative thinkers right now who are willing to step into each event with fresh eyes.  I am not saying that we can’t use some of the same stuff we have already created.  What I am saying is that each event needs to be put together with intention beyond just getting it done and over with.  We need vision for true impact on lives for eternity.  With that in mind, I offer three indicators that it is time to start throwing out some templates in your ministry.

You routinely have missed errors because of the date

If you know what I am talking about, then you need to throw out the template.  These are those times when you come to a meeting or some other event and you realize that the printed materials have the wrong date because all you did was print out last year’s materials with a slight change.  I know creating something new can feel daunting, but give it a try.

Creativity is lost

If you have not had a creative idea in years, it is time to throw out the template and to start brainstorming again.  Creativity will only come with time and collaboration.  I know the best events are those that are planned over a period of time with many people.  The worst ones are those thrown together at the last minute.  We need to dream again in the church and use the talented people right there!

You don’t know why this program is going on

We are all busy enough without adding programs that just fill time.  This can be a difficult place to be because the programs might be a lot of fun.  Over time people get very comfortable in their routines.  Still, that is not a valid reason when it comes to deciding what is done and when.  If you don’t know why a program exists, it is time to take a step back and consider what direction you need to be heading.  Sometimes the best thing that can happen is to stop a program.  When you do that, the things that are important become better because more time is invested in doing those things well.

I know that ministry planning is difficult, but we do want to leverage the influence we have in order to make the most impact.  I believe there are many creative ideas out there that would help us reach our communities for Jesus.  It is time to ask the question: “why”  and be willing to throw some programs out in order to do what God is calling.  Have you asked God in a while to clear the clutter in your ministry?  Have you looked at your calendar with fresh eyes?  Have you inquired of the people serving as to their level of energy and commitment?  When we evaluate, we  learn and the church is better for it.

Do you have any methods or tools you use to keep things fresh in your ministry or life?  

The Lego Jar (7/20/13) – Meet me in St. Louis…

Well, last week was a week where I was away at a youth conference in St. Louis.  It has taken a little bit of time to get back into the real world this week.  This week’s Lego Jar consists of a picture from St. Louis and a video from my boys this week.

I will say that St. Louis is a pretty quiet city.   It wasn’t awful, just kind of quiet.  We did spend some time at the City Museum, which was awesome!  The arch is quite large, but you didn’t need me to tell you that.

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The conference was awesome!  There were about 7,000 high school students present giving their time to worship and growth in the Lord.

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When I came back to my office, I had a gift!

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We went to the beach this week and caught some crabs.  We also lounged in on the deck in the wonderful heat of summer.

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The other night the boys decided to put on a little show for us. I captured part of it on camera.

I guess that will do it for this week.  Have a great weekend!

Serve One; Serve Many

We should not be surprised that God would desire to show up when people honor Him.  It should be expected that God would be where His name is lifted and people are walking in step with Him. So why is it so hard to notice Him in daily interactions? I believe it can be as simple as how we view serving.  We pray for opportunities to love people in Jesus’ name and then ignore the people right in front of us.  We go on trips to foreign countries and give time all the while ignoring the communities we live in and then we wonder why God is not at work around us.

Serving together
Serving together

While in St. Louis, we had the opportunity to spend time in the local community in an effort to renew it.  There were groups serving in dangerous areas of the city in the name of Jesus because that is what He has called us to do.  Our group went to the historic Gustave Koerner House in Belleville, IL, which is not a dangerous spot, but still a community with a need for volunteers.  By comparison to some others, our service project was not too scary or even all that difficult.  In fact, we felt like we could have accomplished a lot more.  But, is that the goal?

There is something so special about getting into a community in Jesus’ name.  In fact, Jesus says that when two or three gather in His name, there He is in the midst.  That is the beauty of this.  While we pull weeds, peel wallpaper, move bricks or pick up trash, Jesus Christ is among us.  We go with Him and people notice.

I was sanding a street sign in front of a little pub in this town when two kids suddenly came out of the alley.  They were followed by their mother who literally stopped in her tracks and looked up and down the street.  She was taking it all in.  After a few minutes she asked me what we were doing.  I explained that we were here for a conference with like 7,000 teenagers and we wanted to help make a difference in local communities around St. Louis.  She was immediately surprised and grateful.  She had just moved to town and had some real concerns about some of the run down buildings we were working on.  Her comment to me was, “thank you for doing this; it is really needed.”

Of course this makes us feel great.  We made a real difference in that community, a positive thing.  But still I walk away with a sense of longing to see these same things happen in my own community.  Sure we live in a different culture where we are, but there are needs all around us.  What is it about local service projects that make people ignore them all while jumping into projects in other communities?  Why is it that when we put service projects together here only a few kids show up to help? Could it be that we forgot how to serve because we just don’t serve often enough?

I believe there is a significant take-away for us in this.  All of us has the opportunity each day to serve someone in the name of Jesus.  It might not be landscaping or even anything large, but there are people everyday who need someone to notice them and serve them.  I believe this is the heart of the Gospel and would make a serious impact on our world if we all got involved.    So, here is my challenge to all of us:  Find one person to serve today and watch how God blesses that.  I know God will show up in that.

Follow God Over Your Heart

School is out for the summer.  That is a good thing, right?   What amazes me is that I have been on Cape Cod for almost 7 years now and have been to a myriad of graduations.  How incredible it is to be a part of so many young lives, whether directly or indirectly.  With graduation also comes a heavy burden.  Here are hundreds of graduates ready to enter college – a time that has not historically been a time of spiritual growth for many.  Today with prevailing relativistic, anything goes,worldviews in control of many colleges, it scares me to think about how many young minds are being led astray.  It reminds me of the importance of being involved in the lives of children, whether our own or ones entrusted to our care.  As I sat in graduation this year I was struck by two prevailing thoughts.   Sure, we all have heard the typical graduation “go conquer the world” speech, but there were two comments that jumped out to me.    It is not that they were wrong.  I just feel they were misrepresented.

Bring it on
Bring it on

No Weapons Formed Against Us

It is amazing when a high school graduate shares a verse from the Bible.  It is underwhelming when they attribute it to an athlete.  The sad part for me is it is likely they really think this athlete spoke this and that it was actually about sports.  It is not about sports at all.  In the real world people do get hurt despite our best efforts.  It is a bit overstated to think that just because we try hard we will have success.  Many have tried and many  have failed.  There must be something else than just trying really hard.   The only real safety we have is in doing God’s will not our own.

Follow Our Heart

Every time I hear about following my heart I literally feel sick.  It is not that the notion of pursuing dreams and desires is necessarily wrong.  In fact, we all want our children to find things they enjoy and to do them well.  What I don’t want is for my children to only follow their heart.  I know this from my own heart.  In fact, the Bible has something to say about this.

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? – Jeremiah 17:9

Following our hearts, while the thing many people tell each other, is actually a dangerous thing.  We must line our hearts up to God’s Word and live that out.

Follow God, not your heart
Follow God, not your heart

Each summer brings about a new transition for youth ministries.  Students are on a different schedule and sometimes ready to engage in something meaningful.  At other times they are just wanting to hang out with other teens and build some relationships.  Whatever the case, it is important that we all make the most of the opportunities we have to help the people we influence get the right picture of God and His Word.  The truth is we just don’t have that much time and the culture is not going to help.