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6 Nights in Cuba

Note: Do to the nature of my trip and in an effort to protect the privacy of my hosts I’m not able to share specifics in this format. If you have specific questions about my trip please contact me via email.

“I’m so happy to be here, I never thought I’d have the opportunity to visit with you.” This is all I could come up with last Sunday when handed the microphone. I never even considered visiting Cuba as a possibility so I had no idea what to expect.

So what did I discover? Here are some snapshots. 

Continue reading 6 Nights in Cuba

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What Does Justice Look Like to You?

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As you hopefully know, this summer we’re hosting our very first event for students, the Student Justice Conference. Like a lot of what we aim to do, SJC is a dynamic collaboration with a dynamic group of parters.

  • International Justice Mission
  • Nazarene Compassionate Ministries
  • Plant With Purpose
  • Point Loma Nazarene University
  • World Relief
  • World Vision
  • And us! 

In the coming weeks we have the awesome opportunity to present the Student Justice Conference to a wide variety of groups. And that’s where we need your help.

We are producing a video that’ll feature a whole bunch of images. And we’d LOVE to get pictures of you and your youth group out in the world, bringing everyday justice in your community, on a mission trip, serving in a nearby town, helping people in the congregation… you name it. 

So, do us a tiny favor, go through your pictures… you know you’ve got millions… and share up to 10 with us. (You can upload them or just give us links to Instagram/Flickr/Facebook/etc.) We’re looking for pictures of you and your group doing stuff.

In short, we want pictures that answer the question: What does justice look like to you?

Sorry. This form is no longer available.

 

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Closure and Bows

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Discipleship is a great catalyst for growth. It’s a process that meets someone and makes a change. One of the biggest balances to strike is the end game of discipleship.

Christmas is over, but I still remember all the presents under the tree. I could easily tell which I had wrapped from those my wife wrapped. All of hers had a bow. Some were big red ones and some were those silver ribbon-y kind. None of my presents had bows. It just never even occurred to me to finish a present topped with a bow.

Remembering those presents, I realized most of my meetings end without being wrapped up nicely. Finishing a talk or discussion with a couple of questions is actually a good practice. If you wrap things up too much, then there’s really no reason to continue thinking about what was said.

It’s uncomfortable (even jarring) for some people to be left without a clear answer to a question or three points of action they can try in response to your time together. It might be unsettling for you as well. But what really happens is a matter of trust. Do you really trust God to enter into that space? Do you trust the people you see to work out their faith when they leave?

Try this sometime. Start a conversation about something you have no specific answer ready. It doesn’t have to be about understanding the Trinity or predestination. Just try to enter a place where the answer can’t be known right then. Stay in that place. Don’t run from it. Then give some direction. You might say I think you should keep thinking about this and see where God leads you.

You will absolutely grow more in trusting God to do work outside of your influence. The people you lead will also grow more when they are forced to trust more as well.


Looking for more? Paul has written a great book on discipleship called Masterpiece: The Art of Discipling Youth. Download a free sample or purchase your copy here

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What a Resident Director Wants Youth Pastors to Know

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I’m not a youth ministry expert but you might call me a post-youth ministry expert.

Spending years working with college students in secular and non-secular settings, I’ve seen the gambit. I’ve seen students shipwreck their college careers by breaking policies a couple of months in. In my career as a Resident Director, I’d be the one to call the parents to let them know, “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, your student has been evicted.” Of course, I can never share the reason with them due to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), but the parents usually plead with me, explain how great their student is and precious they were in the Christmas play. One comment I heard all the time was— but my child was so involved in church—how could this happen?

98% of the time, by the time it escalated to eviction I had met with the student beforehand. I had reinforced our rules; the student had written papers about irresponsible behavior, etc. Trust me, resident directors wanted students to succeed, but like Willy Wonka, sometimes we wind up whispering, “No, stop, don’t.”

Then bloop, the student was in the chocolate river. But instead of Oompa Loompas– I’d wind up calling the police.

I found that some of the students in trouble were highly involved in youth ministry, came to college and their decision making ability somehow ripped apart at the seams. What happened? What was the common deminator among these students?

After many interviews with post youth group college students, these were the commonalities:

They Want to Time Travel: Students that were highly popular and involved leave that behind when they get to college. Consequently, they have to start over. No one knows their name. They aren’t invited to lead a youth group or a discussion. They want to go back to their youth group and be the popular kid.

Their parents are WAY INVOLVED: Maybe you have a parent who corners you every Sunday—”Can you talk to Billy about eating his vegetables? I found Harry Potter under his bed. Can you talk to him?” That student may explode when he or she arrives at college. In your discipleship, take the time to get to know that student’s fear, worries and stresses when it comes to his or her home environment. (My parents were like that. My rebellion wasn’t in the form of drugs or alcohol. I became a clown in a circus. It’s not something I’m proud of. It was a rough time of big shoes and animal balloons. I digress.)

Their Growth is Stunted: Some of your students might have their growth severely stunted because their parents rescue them every time. These students come to college without basic skills such as laundry or making a bed. Many of them do not come to college with any conflict resolution skills. (If I could teach 17 year olds one skill it would be to talk through a conflict and apologize. I’ve seen thousands of students through my tenure. About 20% can apologize.)

They Don’t Know Where to Go: Most students who attended church in high school will want to find a church. Try and develop those contacts or help them search. Maybe have a Senior-college transition night to help them along.

Are all Youth Group Students Like That?

Of course not. Most of the Christian students I worked with were a light on their campus; because of their integrity and willingness to work hard, they received leadership positions on the campus quickly.

But I also remember having many conversations with students, with my M.Div hanging on the wall, breaking the news to them that I would be evicting them (about 80% for drugs and alcohol).

Man, my youth pastor is going to be so disappointed.

I’d hear that and cringe. “I’m sure your Youth Pastor will be.”

 Photo by Aaron Brown via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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What I’ve learned in 16 years of Youth Ministry

I’ve been in youth ministry at the same church for 16 years. I’ve been here through all kinds of changes and seasons and I’ve made my share of mistakes, but here’s some key things I’ve learned along the way:

Relationships are vital! Of course we all know this, but I’ve learned that if we really value this, we need to be VERY intentional to build and grow the following relationships:

  • Parents: They want to learn. They need our support. It’s vital to build their trust in you. Communicate well with them.
  • Adult leaders: Build into them. Love them deeply. Spoil them. (I invite ours to my house a few times a year and cook a gourmet meal.) Train them. Hold them to a high standard. Know their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Other Youth Directors: It’s VITAL to have a network of others who love teens and love God. We do WAY more together than we can do alone. We lean on each other for support and help. We’re constantly reminded that the Kingdom is WAY more important than being a lone-ranger church.
  • A local Christian counselor: This is one of the most important relationships I’ve ever developed! I learn from her, I call her when I need advice, and I refer youth to her when I need to. This trusted relationship is INVALUABLE.

Have the long-term in mind! I’ve learned to remember that we are developing people for the LONG TERM, not just for now. Long-term teaching takes more intentionality and thought. It’s OK to discipline and give boundaries, and to lovingly tell them the truth, even if they get mad at us. They need that. They need a safe place to fail and make mistakes, too. We are teaching them to know and love Jesus while developing into healthy, quality people. Sometimes it’s messy, and that’s OK.

Develop Healthy Community! Youth need a community where they feel valued, where they are safe, and where they can be themselves. It’s essential that we provide that. We have a rule– no youth or leader can put someone (or themselves) down. If they do it’s 3 “put ups” immediately about their character (“You’re creative”) not surface stuff (“I like your hair.”). We teach and practice writing affirmations during retreats/trips. We regularly affirm youth in front of their parents. The results are clear and consistent. Youth tell us church is a place where they “relax and can be myself,” where they feel safe to bring their burdens, and where they know when they walk in the door they’ll be greeted with genuine love by their peers and adults!

Live What We Teach! We’re ALWAYS teaching by what we say, how we treat people, how we handle stress, how we treat our spouses, if we take Sabbath, ALWAYS!

Be a Life-Long Learner! We need to be a learner of culture, youth ministry, of our youth, of teens in general, of ourselves, and most importantly of God and His Word. Never stop learning and growing!!

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Carpe Diem!

In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays Professor John Keating, the new English teacher at an all-boys school.  In his first classroom time with his new students, Keating walks through the class whistling, leaving the students wondering, “What’s up with this guy?”  He continues to walk out of the room.

Curious, the students follow him out of the room where they find Professor Keating standing next to a trophy case.  In this scene, Keating has the students lean in closely to the trophy case to listen to the voices of the past.  He begins, in a husky and ghostly whisper, to say, “Carpe Diem.  Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.”

The wisdom writer of Ecclesiastes (see 11:9-12:7, 13) is whispering to its readers, “Carpe Diem.  Seize the day.  Make your lives extraordinary.”  The wisdom writer guides us through the tension of being youthful and growing old.  “Seize the day” is fundamental to the wisdom writer.  We must not wait until we have grayed to seize the day, but as Keating challenges his students to, in our youth.

Those of us who work with youth have a responsibility to whisper to our students, “Carpe Diem! Seize the day!”  Today’s youth are not the “church of tomorrow”, but rather they are the church of today – the church of right now.  We need to open up spaces and places for them to be the church.  We need to be in dialogue with them as we discern who God is calling us to be as the church.  Kenda Creasy Dean writes in the book she co-authored with Andrew Root The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, “God calls youth to become ‘practical theologians’ in their own right, not for the sake of the youth in the church basement, but for the sake of the church.”

But no one said it would be easy.  Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years when it comes to whispering “carpe diem” to youth:

Start in the Basement.  Before throwing your youth in the lion’s den of church committees vision groups and ministry teams, inspire, challenge, and equip them to seize their role as the church in a space that’s comfortable for them.  I know, I know, we’re supposed to be stepping out of our comfort zones, but that comes later.  A few months ago our youth got so inspired and challenged by learning about families (some they knew from school) living in motels less than 10 minutes from our church.  Then they learned how these families seek assistance from the local food bank. And so they devised a plan to collect necessities like soap, toilet paper, and shampoo.  Items that they learned are not purchasable with food stamps.  They collected over 110 brown grocery bags of such items in one of the neighborhoods near the church.  They seized the day and it all started in the basement.

Be a cheerleader, a promoter, a lobbyist.  Take your pick between these roles.  It’ll be different from church to church, and from situation to situation.  In the first few years in youth ministry it seemed like every other week I was being told that the youth will help with this or with that.  I would ask, “Has anyone asked the youth?”  “We’ve always done it this way,” was the answer.  It took me a few years, but I finally broke them of that habit.  It became a object lesson for the adult leaders in the church.  The youth have a voice too.  The youth can make decisions and plan out their involvement in activities.  The youth are the church, too.  So if you get asked (or told) to have the youth do something, say, “I’ll ask the youth.”  Take it to the basement.  Let the students seize the day by being part of the discernment process.

Encourage (and at times create) Intergenerational Activities.  The more time adults in the congregation spend with adolescents, the better they get to know them.  In addition, the adults get to know what the adolescents can do and what they think.  In short, it builds relationships between the generations.  A few weeks ago a group of guys in the youth group decided they wanted to do something with the Mens group’s wood ministry.  They wanted to split fire wood and deliver it to needed homes just like the men.  And they did, with the men.  Intentional moments like these offer opportunities for adolescents to share their gifts, their stories, and themselves with other adults in the congregation.

Open Theological Reflection. Youth can do it.  Youth do do it.  The more they are engaged in theological reflection in Bible studies and/or small groups, the more youth hone their critical and theological skills.  This can be done in the basement, but don’t keep all that theological wealth in the basement.  At least once a year, I try to teach a Bible study for high school youth and adults during the normal high school Bible study time.  We have covered things like The Da Vinci Code and forgiveness.  It’s a great opportunity for the youth to hear other adults in the congregation be theological thinkers, as well as giving them opportunities to be heard.  What an amazing moment when adults in the congregation hear the deep, theological thoughts from the youth in their church.

So, what about you?  What are some ways you’ve learned to help youth seize the day and be the church?