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The Power of Story

power of storyHave you ever wondering where stories come from and why they are so powerful?

The origin of story is found in something we lovingly refer to as oral tradition. From the dawn of time, human beings gathered together to share in story – story of life’s origin, story of purpose, story of definition and story of hope. Every human culture that has ever existed has elevated story to be the capstone of their existence. We are immersed in story.

Story is in the sinew that binds the human narrative together.

One of my favourite things to do as a parent is to tell stories to my children. Sometimes these stories are about my own childhood memories; sometimes the stories I tell are focused on producing some sort of desired response; and at other times stories are simply about celebrating something.

Stories are powerful because they matter to us. Here are three ways the power of story is revealed.

Story inspires. Have you ever heard someone say, “I’ve gotta great story to tell?” They proceed to dive into a great tale of some triumph or failure, evoking emotion, engagement and wonder as a result. Great stories are ones that inspire us in some way. Inspiration is a fickle thing. At times it demands an active response, and at others it invokes a pensive state. In all its forms, great story-telling catapults the listener into an emotively saturated climate called inspiration.

Story celebrates. The best stories told through image or words are those that seek to elevate a cause, an individual or a dilemma that is worth celebrating. While Hollywood has done society a great disservice is many regards, what Hollywood does do well is celebrate great stories. Historical turning points, social awareness issues and personal triumphs have been captivated in print or on-screen in ways that have allowed millions of people to be influenced in some way. Awards shows like the Grammys & Emmys provide a platform through which the telling of story is honoured, and the stories themselves may gain the recognition and joy they deserve.

Story breathes. Stories are alive. Don’t believe me? Try telling someone a story and see what happens. Stories evoke question, wonder & hope at the drop of a hat. What we say, how we say it, and how we choose to live in response to what we’ve experienced are signs of life…life that is wrought into existence by the power of story.

One of my goals as a leader is to learn to harness the power of story in my own life – knowing that what I say and what I do are stitching together a narrative that influences the world around me. More importantly, knowing that my life as story exists within the context of a greater unfolding story known as human existence, which has been authored by a creator God in a loving and determined fashion.

It’s this story that all of human kind finds itself immersed in. Which leaves me to ponder how we are engaging the power of story in all its forms to inspire, celebrate & breathe in present reality and the not so distant future? What do you think?

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English is Crazy

After watching the video I’ve got 3 questions for my fellow youth workers:

  1. According to this 2010 U.S. census report, “More than half of the growth in the total U.S. population between 2000 and 2010 was because of the increase in the Hispanic population. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population grew by 43 percent, rising from 35.3 million in 2000 to 50.5 million in 2010. The rise in the Hispanic population accounted for more than half of the 27.3 million increase in the total U.S. population. By 2010, Hispanics comprised 16 percent of the total U.S. population of 308.7 million.” (source) Question: Is your church/youth ministry seeing an increase in Hispanic families participating in your worship services or program offerings? 
  2. As the video pointed out, learning English as a second (or third) language is very difficult. As is documented in this Department of Labor report, English language proficiency is directly tied to both employment, in general, and wages directly. Question: Is your church/youth ministry engaged in helping English language learners? If so, we’d love to hear from you in the comments about your experience. 
  3. “In 2011, about 22 percent of school-age children spoke a language other than English at home, and 5 percent of school-age children both spoke a language other than English at home and had difficulty speaking English.” (Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2013) Beyond the educational and labor issues of English-language learners, there’s also the challenge of worshipping Jesus in your native language. Rooted in the Protestant tradition and in the Reformation itself is the idea of accessing the Bible and worshipping in your own language. Wars fought, martyrs celebrated, and denominations were founded on the issue of accessing worship in a native vernacular. Question: What efforts is your ministry taking to minister to the 22% of children/teenagers growing up in homes that natively speak another language? 

As you can see from the questions above, I don’t have answers to these questions. But I think these are truly important questions for our ministries to think about as our culture sees a rapid increase in non-English speakers within our population.

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Two keys to working with people

I recently returned from a cross-cultural experience with teens. Trips like these always provide students (and leaders) with valuable memories, opportunities for conversations, growth and potentially life-changing experiences.

This is one of many different trips that I’ve been a part of in the youth ministry world over the years. Each time I’ve travelled to a different country, experienced a different culture, or have simply taken the time to be present with a group of people I’ve noticed that there are two primary values (keys) that drive connection: a place to belong and someone who believes in you.

These values aren’t limited to culture, context, age or gender. They simply exist because they speak to the core needs of humankind. So if these values happen to be the root motivators for connection, what does that mean for us as leaders who work with people? I’m not an expert in this material at all, but I would suggest there are some key shifts that may need to take place in the systems and communities we leaders create.

 

A place of belonging. There are numerous articles written by people who are much smarter than I am on this particular subject matter. Here is one of my favourites written by a friend of mine, Mr. Mark Oestricher.

The question that belonging answers is “where do I fit?” If the communities, activities and environments we help create answer this question for the people we hope to serve, then we are on to something. But, what if the reverse is actually true? What if the sub-culture we’ve created is based on something other than acceptance and love and polarises people rather than embraces them?

Can you believe different and still find connection with those around you? If we foster a place to belong we value and embody love ahead of anything else.


Someone who believes in you. Every single person who is in existence, has existed or will exist in the future needs someone who believes in them in their life. Someone who comes along and speaks hope and life into you at a dark place in life. Someone who has your best interest in mind in the way the speak to you and interact with you. Someone who isn’t willing to see the dark side of our human nature overshadow the hopefulness of the image of God that exists in every human being.

Without someone who believes in us, we may never find the strength to persevere through tough times or the hope to carry on when things don’t seem to make any sense. What if having someone that believes in us is a literal matter of life or death? No one can walk through life alone, nor should they believe the lie that says they have to. Do our ministry efforts foster a culture of belief and hopefulness through the exchange of respect, honour, love and admiration?

 

Do you agree with these two ideas? What would you add or subtract from this conversation?

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What do dreams & innovation have in common?

Photo used with permission
Have you ever had a dream that was so vivid it seemed as though it was reality? You know, the one where you wake up and think you can fly, or look good in a mullet?
There is a great fascination with humanity as it pertains to dreams. How many of us have been asked or even asked others what dreams they might have for their lives? Sometimes our dreams may include a preferred relationship, job opportunity, home, car, vacation or other things. At other times, the dreams that we have are more focused on seeing the Kingdom of God become a reality.
When I read the story of Joseph, I’m consistently reminder of the power that dreams can have in a person’s life. But there is a distinct difference between dreaming and innovating that we as leaders need to be aware of.
1. Dreams aren’t for everyone. In a conversation with a great friend of mine, Travis Wilkins, I was reminded that dreams aren’t for everyone. Joseph was given an incredible dream by God…and he was excited. And when we as humans get excited, we want to share our excitement with others. As a young man, he believed that his brothers would share in his excitement…but the opposite was true. Joseph’s brothers were frustrated with his dream, and plotted to eliminate their juvenile brother as a result.
So what’s the point of this facet of the story? I believe it’s to show us that dreams aren’t for everyone. The excitement that we experience through the hope that dreams can bring should be shared, but not necessarily with everyone. I wonder if this story may have played out a little differently had Joseph found a person of peace, someone who believed in him and loved him, to be his confidant.
Sometimes we unknowingly create enemies by sharing our dreams with people who aren’t ready to hear them, or who really aren’t people of peace in our lives. Dream your dreams, but take great care to find those who truly love you to share in them with you…a principle and model that Joseph demonstrated later on in his life.
 
 
2. Dreams without innovation may not really matter. Just like the dreams we have when we are flying, anything we think of but never work towards just doesn’t matter. Some of us love to stay in the idea stage of leadership. We think about what could be or should be, but we rarely venture in the lab to begin experimenting or innovating with our dreams. Ever wonder why that is?
I think that sometimes we let expectations, fear of failure or fear of the unknown limit our dreaming to a blue-sky stage instead of inspiring us to begin to innovate. Dream your dreams, but please find ways to experiment with bringing them into reality over time.
 
 3. Dreams speak of hope, innovation lives it. Dreams are an invitation to hope. Innovation is an invitation to live it. Martin Luther King uttered the most famous line “I have a dream” when he spoke or racial equality. This dream was an invitation to hope, but it was brave souls like Rosa Parks and others who began to live into this new reality through innovation.
There’s a line from one of my favourite movies, We Bought a Zoo, that I believe sums up this invitation culture the best – “sometimes you only need 20 seconds of insane courage to do something incredible.” As leaders and parents we sometimes need to find these 20 seconds in our lives. And if we have the ability to begin to see different challenges that we face in light of 20 second courageous intervals, maybe the hope we so desire to experience and thrive in will actually become the reality in which we live.
Discuss this: What tendency do you lean towards as a leader, a dreamer or an innovator? If there is one thing you need insane courage for right now, what would it be?
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When your leadership feels threatened

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Every leader will face a season where his or her influence seems to be fading. Sometimes this can be due to age, sometimes to irrelevance or sometimes due to a copious amount of mistakes that are made.

In other moments and seasons, a diminishing influence in leadership may occur when a younger and perhaps even more gifted leader comes into the picture.

The biblical narrative is chalked full of a number of different stories of leadership transitions, both positive and negative. For the purpose of this short article I simply want to focus on two such stories highlighted by Dave Brotherton in his live interview with Mark Buchanan conducted online through Canadian Youth Worker here.

 

Saul meets David

Saul was the first king of the nation of Israel. The story of Saul and David begins with David defeating an enemy, Goliath, who was terrorising the Israelites. David, a teenager at the time, fought Goliath in battle. No one from Saul’s court or mighty army was willing to lead out in battle against this supposed giant.

In this moment, David not only seized a level of authority and fame, but also elevated his leadership voice substantially.

As this story progresses, Saul becomes increasingly threatened by the ability, talent and popularity of David. At one point, Saul tries to end David’s life by hurtling a spear at his head…side note, if someone physically threatens you as a leader, I would say this classifies as a failed leadership transition…just saying.

Saul maintained the title of authority, but David’s leadership ability and anointing from God elevated him to a place that surpassed Saul.

Every leader will face their own David and/or Saul moment. As a youth pastor, there are leaders and teens in my ministry who are going to do even greater things that what I’ve been able to accomplish in my leadership thus far (and in the future). I have a decision to make when the stories of these brazen, young & incredibly gifted leaders collide with my own leadership story. Will I hurl a spear at their heads hoping to wound or kill their ability, or will I have the confidence to step outside of myself, lend whatever leadership reputation I may have built to these younger leaders for the sake of the Kingdom?

 

Eli mentors Samuel

Eli was the high priest of Israel at the time when a young boy named Samuel came to live with him. One evening, the Lord began to speak to Samuel (which was a privilege typically reserved for the priesthood in Israel…of which Samuel was not yet a part of). Samuel, not knowing what was happening runs to Eli several times seeking to respond to what he thinks is Eli calling out to him.

 

At some point, Eli clues in that Samuel is hearing the voice of God, and instead of letting his jealousy overwhelm him…he coaches Samuel to embrace the Lord’s invitation. Eli knew he was being passed over, and he could have held on to what “he built” for the sake of his family and his reputation, but instead he allowed wisdom to shape his decision to celebrate Samuel instead of destroy him.

 

So when threats occur…

When your leadership feels threatened will you throw a tantrum like Saul, or embrace wisdom like Eli and support, coach, empower and cheer on those who will do more amazing things that we can possibly imagine?

Are there people in your current sphere of influence as a leader that you need to begin to view differently in light of these two stories? What is God saying to you, and what are you doing about it?

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Celebration – the role of the extended family

I grew up in a small town and what was unique about my childhood is that the majority of my extended family lived within 20 minutes of one another for these early formative years. We’d gather together regularly for special holidays, feasts and crazy family experiences.

At this young age I never really understood the value or privilege it was to share in these experiences. To be honest, there were times I didn’t want to be a part of these experiences. I felt like too many people knew me for who I really was, and I wasn’t sure if that would ever be enough for them.

Kind of sounds like what some people have to share about connecting with a community of faith, no?

As a father of three young children, I’m being inspired to return to the practice of celebration. There is great value when we support, protect and honour these shared experiences.

1. Support/Love – Families are designed to support and love each other. Both of these habits aren’t always easy to create or achieve. There are internal and external pressures that affect the context families exist in. A family doesn’t always represent a biological connection. Families are clusters of people of different ages who consistently commit to living out life together….families are meant to be people who love one another no matter what.

I long for my own children and for teens/leaders/parents under my influence of leadership to know that they matter. Do I shape the elements of my parenting and pastoring around the postures of love and support, or do I allow productivity and measurables dictate rhythm, pace or design?

2. Protect – Families are designed to protect each other. It’s true that those who are closest to you have the most influence to harm or to help you. As an extended family, gathered around a set of values & principles (like a community of faith), do we fight for things that truly matter, or do we reserve our physical efforts to creating chaos within our familial connections? When people connect with your extending family (community of faith and/or ministry) do they understand that they are being welcomed into protection, or do they live in fear of being seen for who they really are?

Only one person ever lived a perfect life…Jesus. And we still found a way to make fun of him, hurt him, betray him while ultimately killing him. For the rest of us who are less than perfect, maybe we should invest our energy into developing health and growth in one another instead of always focusing on why we might be sick. Would people flourish if they knew they were worth fighting for?

3. Honour – Families honour each other. In my world, to honour means to celebrate. I honour those who are older than me because their lives have helped to shape the current reality that I benefit from. I celebrate my own kids because we all need people who believe in us and will cheer us on. Honouring doesn’t infer that we completely agree with everything that has transpired over time, but it demonstrates that we are willing to overcome our differences and recognize that diversity isn’t meant to polarize us, it’s meant to inspire us. As leaders, parents and people, is our posture one that speaks to defiance, or one that speaks to celebration?

What other roles do you see an expression of the extended family playing in the lives of people?

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Test..test…is this on?

If you’ve been in any sort of leadership role you will know the reality of being evaluated. It’s happening constantly. Parents are looking at you to see if you are trustworthy as a voice of reason in the life of their child. Teens are wondering if they can trust you with who they really are. Volunteer leaders are hoping they can find a faithful cheerleader who supports, encourages and cares for them as they invest their life in the lives of others. And while tests can sometimes help us evaluate the good, the bad & the ugly, at other times I wonder if they simply get in the way of our goal of defining meaning and purpose behind the ministry activity we are seeking to measure.

Over the years that I’ve been involved in youth ministry as a student, a volunteer and now a paid youth worker, I’ve discovered that there are 3 predominant themes that permeate the evaluation process from both a programmatic and personnel perspective.

  1. Personality
  2. Passion
  3. Performance

Here are some thoughts on how each of these themes burrow their way into the evaluation process.

Personality – This is perhaps the most contentious aspect of evaluation. It’s also the most subjective. Every person in the world possesses a unique personality and make up. Some personality traits are more endearing than others. Different environmental factors can enhance or detract from natural personality quirks. But at the end of the day, some people are going to like you as a leader and others aren’t. And they base a lot of their assessment on whether or not they can understand or interact with your personality.

It’s important to remember that the way you are wired is the way God intended you to be wired. As Creator, we must trust that God doesn’t make mistakes. We aren’t asked to be perfect like Jesus, we are asked to follow the way of life that He modelled for us. Perfection is unattainable for us as humans, and therefore we should never seek to personify it. Yes, we can grow in our understanding of ourselves and others, and in our ability to love one another, but we must recognize that we are intentionally flawed and yet still worth knowing and being known. As such, we cannot lament about different aspects of our personality that naturally connect us with people while disconnecting us from others.

Evaluation that is based solely on personality is always subjective. Sometimes it really is about you, and there is nothing you can do about it. Live into who God has created you to be while asking others to love you in the same way. If you hit an impasse in evaluation, you may have to embrace the reality that some personalities will never get along and it may be wiser to move on than to continue trying to create hope or change.

Passion – Passion is most easily defined as burden or hunger…although I do think the word suffering is appropriate to use at times. Passion asks the question: What drives you to move forward? Passion is also contagious. As people interact with you, are they experiencing our passion or are they questioning it?

Having passion doesn’t mean doing more or working harder. Sharing your passion means learning to communicate what drives you forward to lead the way you are wired and to do what you do as a leader. If there are questions about your passion, it may be because people don’t understand your personality, or it may be because what you are saying and what you are doing don’t link up.

If you have passion, it should be seen through what you do and heard through what you say. Sure, we all have our off-days, but is it our passion that drives us to move forward or something else?

Performance – While personality may be the most subjective element of evaluation, performance seems to be the most convoluted. The typical North American church defines success based on the bottom line reality of what is most easily measured (attendance, budget & income vs. expense). We’ve created different metric systems to try and bring clarity to our performance, but in doing so we may have unintentional creating recurring ripples of chaos that detract from the true goal of our leadership efforts.

It’s easy to say that performance should be defined by obedience and faithfulness. But how do you measure it? I will say this, if you are performing well according to whatever contextual metric is in place, questions about your personality and passion become less frequent. But if the opposite is true, questions about both become increasingly prevalent.

 

If these three elements are in play throughout the evaluation process, where does that leave us in our quest to evaluate and even define success? What do you think?

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Parents – Allies or Enemies?

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When I first started out in youth ministry I thought my role was to be everything a teen’s parents could never be in their life. I focused on being edgy, cool, hip and of course up to speed on pop culture.

Then something happened. I myself became a parent.

So what was my new role as a youth worker going to be now that I was parent myself? Did this eliminate my identity as a hip, cool and with-it youth pastor?

The truth is, being a parent has enhanced my ability to both pastor and parent. Neither of these roles are mutually exclusive, but somehow they have blended together to help me reshape how I lead families in the present and into the future. Here are three things that I’m learning about working with parents in ministry.

 

1. Parents aren’t the enemy. We’ve all had negative interaction with parents I’m sure, but these experiences don’t make parents bad people. Parenting is the most difficult job on the planet. Add into the mix the explorative tendencies teens possess, and you get an emotionally charged scenario 9 times out of 10. Parents are passionate about their kids, and sometimes their passion is mis-communicated as anger, rage or displeasure. Wise youth leaders find ways to disarm emotionally charged confrontations and turn them into win-win scenarios for all parties. Parents sometimes just need someone to listen…just like teens do. I wonder if we spent more time listening to the stories and needs of parents if we’d build greater partnerships with them?

 

2. Parents need to be loved & valued too. If you’re constantly told that you aren’t doing a good job, wouldn’t you begin to believe it? Most teens (like most human beings) have no problem telling people when things aren’t working well for them, but when it comes to sharing encouragement, they might struggle to do so. Consider your next upcoming parents gathering. Spend a few moments encouraging and inspiring parents instead of asking them to change something they do right away, you might find that they are more willing to consider your ideas once you’ve spent some time listening to them.

 

3. Parents want to belong & fit in. Often times parents feel isolated in their parenting struggles or wins with their kids. The family schedule is usually oriented around that activities of the children. Parents often sacrifice their own desires and needs for socialization for the sake of their child’s development. Are your parent connection times more about information being given, or relationships between parents being built? The most powerful gift you can ever offer another human being is to help them see that they aren’t alone in life. Parents long to belong and fit someplace…is your ministry to families a place where they can do that?

 

What are you learning about working with parents? Post your ideas below!

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What’s in a Name?

I remember the first moment when I found out I was going to be a dad. Mixed emotions of excitement, nervousness and joy flooded into my soul. The weight of responsibility of caring for and discipling a young child into adulthood became the focus of my thought power and energy leading up to the moment of birth (and beyond!). Of all the responsibilities associated with being a parent, none seemed as important as providing a great start for this new child by choosing the name they would live into.

My wife Bonny and I spent countless hours creating names for our children. We created a spreadsheet listing all the leading name candidates, researching their meaning and dreaming about what we hoped our children would live into in terms of values, character and aspirations for their future.

The day came where we met each of our three children and called them by name. In that moment everything seemed settled, new, hope-filled and amazing.

Fast forward a couple of years and these young little babies who are now young children are beginning to live into and own the name that they have been given. They respond to it when it’s called (for the most part…), they introduce themselves by it and they know how to write it. My kids are beginning to share who they are with others, starting with their name.

I often marvel at the power that names have in each of our lives. Working with teens I’ve seen firsthand the positive and negative effects of names or labels that have been placed on these kids by those who they trusted and cared about. How we speak to each other and what references or names we use matter. The grade 7 boy who is home-schooled is more than just a home-schooler. The grade 10 girl who has dated half the youth group is more than just the floozy. The student that lives in the rough part of town is more than an underprivileged kid.

The names we share with one another and we give to others matter. What names are you using to refer to the teens and families under your sphere of influence and care? Are they names that breathe life into their souls, or names that reinforce all the lies they may be tempted to believe about who they are? What’s in a name, and does a name really matter?

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What’s different about your youth ministry?

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Summer is officially dwindling. Camps, mission trips, and vacations are winding down while thoughts of band camp, high school football, and back-to-school shopping are creeping in.

The sun is setting microscopically sooner each night. And every once in a while you feel a breeze hinting coolness from somewhere cold.

This is the cycle of youth ministry. Students graduate and move out and new students excitedly move up.

Within the cycle of youth ministry summer is also a time of renewed vision. We wrap-up the school year exhausted. We want to do better, we tweak some ideas, we work within our structures to fold in new ideas.

Every youth group starts the year off with high hopes.

And so I ask a simple question: What’s really going to be different this year? 

Photo credit: Tomas Alvarez via Flickr (Creative Commons)