Grief - Part I

Last night’s conversation at youth group confirmed what we all already know:  death and dying, loss and sadness – it sucks.

There have been numerous deaths in our community in the last month – both in our church and in our county.  Two teenage boys from the same school district drowned within two weeks of each other.  Two amazing men of faith from our congregation succumbed to illness and cancer.  Death and dying sucks.  There’s really no nice way to describe the feeling. 

Last night was tough, but it was important; it was important for our students to have opportunity to vent, talk, and for others to listen.  It was important because it confirmed 2 things about today’s teens:

1) There is a shortage of adults who are willing to really LISTEN.  I was impressed with my team of volunteers last night.  Last night wasn’t really fair to them.  I sort of threw them to the wolves, so to speak.  They weren’t prepared ahead of time for the topic.  Some weren’t aware of the latest tragedies.  They sort of got dumped on last night, but in some ways it was absolutely appropriate.  We had to address the pain, the reality of death, the elephant in the room.  My volunteers were rock stars last night!  They listened.  Kids shared about the lack of safe places where they could be heard.  They shared that there were plenty of people telling them how to feel or saying, “I’m sure you feel like this, and that’s normal, but tomorrow everything will be ok.”  There are plenty willing to say, “It’s all going to be ok.  This is God’s plan.  He’s in a better place.”  The list of niceties and platitudes goes on and on.  And there are fewer willing to listen – willing to listen to kids who are hurting, confused, angry, pissed off that there friends are gone.

2) Kids are HURTING.  A few years ago Chap Clark wrote a book based on his interaction with teens entitled, Hurt.  The title of the book gives away the conclusion of his research:  Kids are HURTING.  There is great sadness, sorrow, depression, anxiety, confusion, and anger in our youth today.  Families are in crisis.  Loved ones are diagnosed with and dying from cancer.  Almost everyone knows a family member or loved one who has gone off to Iraq or Afghanistan.  There are many students who have lived through a parent or both parents losing a job and the uncertainty and fear that can accompany that reality.  The world is messy.  The world is confusing.  Kids are hurting.  Enough said.

Wrestle with those ideas.  Tomorrow I'll post a follow up with some conclusions/suggestions.


conform or transform?

Following up my last past, the “Demise of Guys,” where a commenter asked, “What are verses that can help with this issue?”  Another suggested Romans 12, and since I had a post sitting in my brain featuring Romans 12, leggo!

What I love about Romans 12:1-2 is Paul’s juxtaposition of the words “conform” and “transform.”  Do not conform; instead, be transformed.  This, I would argue, is the heart of Christian living.  Don’t conform.  Be transformed. 

In recent years, the hot topic in youth ministry has been the fact that too many students are graduating high school and leaving church behind.  The numbers reported are alarming; it is a legitimate issue.  And even if it’s only 20-30% of high school graduates who are leaving the church, I believe that’s too high.

Two of the books I’ve read on this topic specifically address how parents can model faith and walk with their teens in order to produce, as one book suggests, Sticky Faith – a faith that lasts.  Isn’t that what we’re after in youth ministry – faith that lasts?  The consensus in these two books (Parenting Beyond Your Capacity and Sticky Faith) is that too many Christian parents are settling for the appearance of faith in their children.  That is, they are happy so long as their children conform to the rules of Christianity and play the part.  Upon graduating, these students quickly find new roles and new parts to play.   In the same way, youth ministry is to blame when we teach “behavior modification” rather than transformation in the likeness of Christ. 

We are teaching conformity rather than transformation, and conformity doesn’t always stick.   Here is where I pick up my argument from the beginning:  The Christian faith isn’t so much about “conforming” as it is “transforming.”  I believe there is a difference, and that difference speaks to issues present in my previous post on the “demise of guys.” 

Paul says, “Do not conform to the patterns of this world.”  Resist the temptations the world provides!  Flee from evil.  So we in the church say, “Here are some new patterns to which you need to conform.”  On one hand that doesn’t sound so bad, but conformity isn’t the same as transformation, is it?  The Gospel is about transformation!  A relationship with Christ is about being changed, so that the believer can “test and approve God’s will.”  Conformity is about doing things without really understanding the meaning or reason behind the doing.  This may be fine for the beginner in Christ, but transformation is the goal. 

My desire for my students is that they would resist evil desires and sinful living not because of sheer determination or “conformity” to a religious code, but because their desires have been transformed to imitate those of Christ.  My hope is that the student confronted with temptation would begin to naturally resist the patterns of the world because she has been transformed and trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit to deliver her from these temptations.  

The power of the Gospel story is that Jesus death and resurrection has made change in the world.  Things aren’t the way they used to be.  Death is defeated.  Sin is overcome.  And the power that raised Christ from the dead is available to those who seek God.  Conformity says, “Keep trying to live up to the rules, be a good person, and hopefully you’ll learn self-control and earn salvation.”  Transformation says, “Salvation has already occurred, Jesus already did the work of defeating sin, now submit your life to Christ and let Him do the work of changing your heart and mind.”

There is a difference, and it matters.


Demise of Guys

This is an alarming article and a must read for anyone working with teenage boys or raising boys.  Read it here:  “The Demise of Guys”

There were a number of sentences that grabbed me.  Such as,
“This new kind of human addictive arousal traps users into an expanded present hedonistic time zone.   Past and future are distant and remote as the present moment expands to dominate everything.”
We’ve been talking about this at youth group over the past six weeks.  Fact is, today’s youth are all about living for the “present moment.”  No regrets is the mantra.  That’s why trite phrases like “YOLO” (You Only Live Once) are on the tip of our teens’ tongues, and as dumb as they claim the phrase is, it pops up on my Facebook feed quite frequently.  It’s what makes Whiz Kalifa’s song, “Young, Wild, and Free,” so popular.  The lyrics: 
“So what we get drunkSo what we smoke weekWe’re just having funWe don’t care who seesSo what we go outThat’s how it’s supposed to beLiving young, and wild, and free”
So what?  So what we watch porn.  So what we play violent video games.  So what?  Get over it.  YOLO.

That is what I consistently hear not only from today’s teens, but from my generation as well.  I’m 31.  I remember when Grand Theft Auto was all the rage!  I remember when we, yes even we good Christian kids, spent hours with the PS2 stealing cars, shooting people, and sleeping with prostitutes because that’s how you were rewarded in the game.  But it didn’t affect us, right?   

So why is my generation finding it harder and harder to grow up?  Why is my generation finding it harder and harder to keep a job, find stability in relationships, and stay in one place for longer than a year?  Does it have anything to do with the instant gratification we’ve taught ourselves through video games and other online escapades?  Surely not!  These are just for fun, right?

It’s a scientific fact that our brains can be programmed by our actions, and that repeated actions begin to wire our brain.  This is the danger in any addictive behavior – it will change you, reprogram you, and next thing you know, it’s out of control.  Yes, even addictive behaviors such as playing video games and watching porn.

In John Medina’s excellent book, Brain Rules, he has a whole chapter on “Wiring.”  He writes, 
“Our brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon the culture in which they find themselves.”   
Did you really read that closely?  Our brains are super sensitive to external inputs.  Ok.  So sensitive, in fact, that their physical wiring depends upon the culture in which they find themselves.

Well then, that begs the question:  What is the culture in which our teens' BRAINS are hanging out? 

Church?  Gaming?  Pornography?  Sports?  Music?  Movies?  

If the wiring of brains depends on the culture in which that brain finds itself – depends on the external inputs – then what are we doing to help or hurt our kids as they navigate this messy world?  As Christian parents and youth workers, will we encourage and attempt to create healthy boundaries in regards to internet use, video game use, and types of games played, or will we simply continue to ignore the science and take our chances?  After all, “Boys will be boys.”




This weekend was our annual men’s retreat.  What a great weekend!  One of the messages was about being “servant/leader” in the likeness of Christ, the ultimate leader (King of kinds, Lord of lords) who came to serve and spend time with the least of these - those on the margins of society.

During the message, our speaker mentioned that when doing a Google search for the word “servant,” Google autofills the word “leader.”  In other words, Google assumes you are searching for “servant leader,” for no one would simply search for the word “servant.” 

During the discussion time, one of the men noted this as being a strange thing.  As he stated, it’s as if no one wants to be a servant unless they can also be a leader!  Isn’t this true in our culture?  Corporations preach the concept of servant leadership consistently these days.  Again, the message seems to be that those in leadership ought to have a servant’s heart so long as the serving produces a desired outcome of increased productivity and job satisfaction.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but is this the biblical model of servitude?

Which leads me to ask, what are we teaching in our churches?  We talk servant leadership quite a bit these days, and appropriately so, as Jesus himself modeled servant leadership.  But do we preach and teach servitude without the leadership piece?  It’s the question of whether someone can truly serve and give of their time, talent, and treasure without expecting something in return.  Are there any truly altruistic acts?

I believe there are, but only when we have the same attitude of mind Christ had, as Paul describes and begs us to adopt in Philippians 2.  Though we find ourselves in positions of power and privilege, of prestige and importance, we are not to use it to our own advantage.  Rather, Philippians 2 shows us that Jesus was exalted by God only because he exhibited humility, obedience, and servitude on earth.  This is God's economy:  the humble are exalted, the meek are rewarded, the peacemakers inherit the kingdom.  I'll leave you to wrestle/reflect on Paul's words:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 
Who, being in very nature God, 
did not consider equality with God something to be
used to his own advantage;rather, he made himself nothing 
by taking the very nature of a servant, 
being made in human likeness.
 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death —
        even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
    to the glory of God the Father. 


the future worship wars?

Two online headlines caught my attention this week:

The first, a blog post responding to a recent talk Francis Chan gave where he stated, 
If I just read the Scriptures, I wouldn’t even think so much about the gathering. You know–Like, my first thought wouldn’t be, “Let’s have a gathering.” Out of the Scriptures, I would think, “I’m on a mission. Like, I love this God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and now I’ve got to go out and make disciples.”
The second, a post poking at the topic of preaching.  Will preaching be the same lecture based, 20-40 minute talk in the future?

Both articles really provoked me to think about the future of worship. 

I get what Francis Chan is saying.  We focus so much on the gathering, on the Sunday morning event, that we can easily lose focus on living for Christ the rest of the week.  We focus so much on what has become a production of sorts that we’ve lost focus on the mission.  I agree with that.  But…I also think he’s sort of created a false dichotomy between worship and mission.  We can’t have one without the other.  

So what is the future of the two held in tension?  This is something my generation struggles to understand, grasp, and see in the church today.  To be sure, there are many churches who get this tension and see worship and mission as both being vital to healthy Christian living, but there are so many others still caught up in worship wars or in trying to prove they are doing the most ‘missional’ work in the community. I’m asking, how can we move forward in worship and mission so we don’t lose even more young people to cynicism and doubt in the leadership of the church?

Though I preach only 7 times per year or so in “big people church,” I have often thought about the future of preaching.  Can we continue to expect people to sit and listen for 20+ minutes without interaction, dialogue, or opportunity to discuss/interact with the biblical material?  What is the future of preaching?  As I process my experiences with today’s youth both in youth ministry settings and “big people church,” I see that they are extremely distracted, easily lose focus, and aren’t afraid to show that by texting, surfing the web, or playing games during worship.  Again, will we continue to preach and teach in the same way and risk losing more young people?

I don’t have answers.  I’m asking questions, and in some ways that’s safer, easier, less risky.  However, I know that a generation MUST eventually answer these questions.  We must critically evaluate what we do in worship, and how we model and lead in mission, if we are to further the kingdom and keep each others’ eyes focused on Jesus.


Don't Tell Me What to Do

A student asked me this morning, “Do we ‘tell people what to believe’ when they come to youth group?” 

Interesting question.

“What do you mean?,” I asked.

“You know, do we tell people what to believe.  Like, do we hope that people will just do as their told if they come to you group and church?”

“Well,” I responded, “I guess in some ways, yes.  But why are you asking?”

“I have some friends I invited to youth group who said they wouldn’t come because the church would just tell them what they’re supposed to believe.”

Turns out these kids went to a youth group once and this is what happened.  They were told what to believe and why they should believe it.  And, believe it or not, this doesn’t sit well with today’s youth.

Why?  What’s going on?  Has something changed?  Is there some reason that teens today aren’t interested in hearing what they are supposed to believe, or in receiving the 7 steps to a better life as defined in Scripture?

Here’s what I think is really going on.  Kids today believe in experience, feeling, and story.  You can’t deny someone’s experience, or someone’s story.  If they said it, it must be true - at least for them.  If you hear someone say something happened and you don’t believe them, well…that’s messed up.  You can’t do that.  Again, this is all according to kids today.

Well, guess what?  We have an opportunity to speak into youth culture using these same tactics if we can do something very simple:  Get back to telling the Gospel as a STORY with an invitation to participate.

Currently, over at Internet Monk, there is a series going called “First Things First,” and it’s all about this very thing:  putting the Gospel story first.

The problem:  for too long we’ve been teaching, preaching, running spiritual formation in churches based primarily on Paul’s teachings and other Epistles.  We teach behavior modification before we teach the Gospel.  Some are beginning to note that we have abandoned the story in favor of explanation or application.  This is a modernist approach.  In doing so, we are losing postmodern thinkers, or the next generation, who tend largely to identify not with a black and white, do-this and do-that, don’t do this and don’t do that mentality, but instead identify with story, experience, and feelings. 

The answer:  get back to telling the biblical story, specifically the story proclaimed in the Gospels/Acts.

Given this argument, here are my questions for youth ministers, and even for myself:  
What is the role of Scripture in your ministry?  If you're honest, do you tend toward using “proof texting” to tell kids what to do or not to do?  When was the last time you simply told a story about Jesus for the sake of talking about Jesus and not to of ask kids to change their behavior or attitudes?  
 As I said before, I believe we have an opportunity and the tools necessary to speak to the current generation about faith and salvation in Jesus Christ if we are willing to change our tactics.  And, I believe that this change in tactic does not ask us to compromise anything; instead, it asks us to focus on Jesus, and he is someone worth focusing our attention on.

Anyone had luck with this approach?  Anyone struggled to teach the Gospel story to youth?


I Deserve This

News about Jesus spread quickly.  People heard about his healings, his miracles, and his way of teaching with authority and wisdom.  On one occasion, a centurion, a Roman military man, hears about Jesus and sends for him that he might come and heal his sick servant.

The centurion himself doesn’t go and talk to Jesus; instead, he sends “elders of the Jews” to come and plead with Jesus to come and heal the man.  In inviting, or should I say, begging Jesus to come, the language they use is quite interesting.  Their words, one in particular, JUMP at me.

They come to Jesus and urge him, plead with him, beg him saying:
“This man deserves this.  He loves our people.  He even built our synagogue.” 
Did you catch that? 
“He deserves this.”
Jesus goes.


The Culture

Culture is scary, messed up, leading people astray, and we’re all part of it.

It is too easy to attack culture.  I do it all the time.  It’s sort of become a “go to” thing for Christians today.  Attack the culture; that always gets people on your side.  In fact, I did it in a sermon this last weekend.  It was appropriate.  Everything I said was true.  But let’s be honest, it’s just too easy. 


If we’re honest, we are as much wrapped up in and influenced by culture as folks outside the church.  Maybe not you.   Maybe this isn’t a post for you.  But the kids I work with are influenced by culture.  They are culture.  Yes, they love Jesus, but they also love Justin Bieber, The Hunger Games, “Red Solo Cup,” How I Met Your Mother, and countless other songs, movie, television shows out there in the mainstream.

And you know what?  I do too.  I don’t listen to Christian music exclusively or even encourage people to watch Christian movies.  I couldn't handle that.

We need to strike a balance. 

And we need to remember that the Church is strongest when it doesn’t just stand against the culture, but offers a better way. 

Shane Claiborne says it this way in Irresistible Revolution,
“You don’t get crucified for being cool; you get crucified for living radically different from the norms of all that is cool in the world.  And it’s usually the cool people who get the most ticked off, since you are disturbing their order, for it was indeed the cool religious leaders and the cool politicians who killed the Lover from Nazareth.”
We have a better way.  We have a legitimate opposition and critique of the greater culture to offer.  We know culture is messed up, chasing after satisfaction and things to save us that cannot satisfy nor can they save us.  We know it, and yet we all too often are caught up in culture.  We cannot entirely escape culture for we live in it, but we need not be of it.  That’s just straight up biblical!