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Kingdom Diversity

This post also appears on Canadian Youth Worker here.

If you study the life of Jesus you will not only discover a God-man full of integrity and character. You may also discover that He likes to do things differently…a lot.

When I first started out in ministry as a volunteer and then young ministry leader, I was convinced that the way I was doing things was the best possible way to minister to teens and families. Call it arrogance, call it being naive, or simply call it being blind. Many years later as a seasoned ministry leader I’m learning to appreciate the richness that diversity has to offer.

Diversity is an interesting word. To some it means embracing a laissez-faire attitude towards life and leadership, while to others it means uncovering and celebrating the different personalities, character and dreams that people possess. For me, diversity is a value; one that liberates a leader from a narrow frame of modus operandi.

Back to Jesus.

If you study the miracles that Jesus performed during His time on earth, you will discover that each one is uniquely different and yet completely amazing. He spits into mud and rubs it onto the eyes of a blind man restoring his sight, He changes water into wine through a simple exercise of refilling empty wine barrels, He speaks to a dead man inviting him to step back into life, and he prays over a small lunch in order to feed a gathered crowd of over 5000 people. And these are just a few of the miracles Jesus performed!

If you take a deeper look into the people that Jesus interacted with, you will again discover this theme and value of diversity. Jesus took the time to notice and to befriend anyone who was willing to be known by Him.

If Jesus embraced and lived this value of diversity, shouldn’t our families, churches and ministry communities do the same? Is there room for diversity in your current ministry context, or are you asking everyone to be like everybody else?

Here are a few questions that I’m asking in my life and in my ministry to help me refine the value of diversity:

1. Do I create space where people with different stories, personalities, abilities and learning styles can connect?
2. Do I take the time to celebrate someones uniqueness as well as to look for something that we might have in common?
3. Do I encourage other ministry leaders who do ministry different than I do to keep leading into their uniqueness, or do I suggest that they should copy what I do?
4. Do I possess a balance between creativity and imitation in my pursuit of embracing diversity as a value?

So what about you…how have you seen the value of diversity impact the lives of people? Are there additional questions you’d add to this list to help refine the pursuit of diversity as a value?

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Four Tensions a Leader Must Face

Being a leader isn’t an easy task. The greatest leaders in history are those who have learned to work around, embrace and resolve tension. While many people enjoy the responsibility of making decisions, choosing a direction or having people work for you, there is significant weight associated with being a leader because tension is inevitable.

A leader is someone who is open to criticism that is fueled by the mismanagement of the different tensions they endure.

Here are four tensions that every leader faces:

1. Physical Tension – respect and honor for other leaders
There is a natural default human tendency to define our self-worth based on who we are in comparison to others. Leadership is no different. We might look at a leader from another environment and evaluate ourselves to be better than or worse than what we see based on a set of identified or inferred criteria.

Every leader will be faced with the tension to consider him or her self to be of better quality than another leader. Learning to value other leaders for who they are, while leaving room to disagree with process, philosophy or methodology will help you to stay focused on developing into the leader God has created you to be.

2. Emotional Tension – hope vs. pessimism or cynicism
Leaders are often faced with the tension of creating a sense of hope or a sense of impending doom. Facilitating hope creates and sustains vision. Consistent pessimism or cynicism leads only to peril.

Leading from a hope-filled perspective doesn’t make a leader naïve, but instead helps the leader to process, refine and redirect vision as necessary. Leaders need to be honest about their current reality, admitting when things are darker than they had hoped, and brighter then they could have imagined. Hope may not disappoint, but pessimism and cynicism always do.

3. Intellectual Tension – being teachable vs. being arrogance
There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. This is often the difference between creating momentum or chaos. Leaders who are willing to learn from everyone and every situation will begin to develop intrinsic momentum within their organizations by valuing creativity and innovation over proper procedure and/or productivity.

4. Spiritual Tension – love or legalism
There is a leadership tension between valuing tradition over outcome. A loving leader celebrates diversity while a legalistic leader demands conformity. The values of an organization are its social conscience. Violation of values leads to a culture that is more cumbersome than hopeful, depleting the leader’s ability to inspire, manage, create or stimulate growth. Leadership is learning to balance the tension between a legalistic carnal response and loving spiritual intuitiveness.

Tension is a necessary experience for growth and development as a leader. While this is not an exhaustive list of leadership tensions, it points out the reality that tension exists and it cannot be avoided. What do you agree or disagree with? What other leadership tensions do leaders face? What tension are you facing most prominently right now?

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The Spiritual SAT

1517798383_9bd851eee6Sweaty palms. Loss of breath. Fear and panic.

These are some of the many symptoms different people experience when they are confronted with life’s most unforgiving tutelage… the test.

I can remember the first time I wrote a mid-term exam in university. I had studied more intensely than I ever had before, and had even decided to sleep on top of some of the study material I was supposed to memorize hoping that osmosis would allow for more absorption and retention of information in my nearly exhausted body.

Exam day came. I entered the room, found a place to sit and began feverishly attacking the test with great vigor. Two hours later I found myself back in my dorm room, mentally and physically exhausted, hoping that I had done enough to pass the test and continue on with my course studies.

Several days later, I received confirmation that I not only passed the test, but did better than I was hoping to do because of something called the bell curve that my professor had decided to implement for this particular exam.

This was probably one of the most significant times where I took notice of a metric, something that is used to measure the success of failure of an individual. This bell curve pushed me into an entirely different category than what I had labeled myself to be, and I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it.

The Spiritual SAT

I think one of the most challenging facets of ministry is measuring success. We’ve learned through studies like the Willow Creek Reveal, Sticky Faith and Hemorrhaging Faith that what we’ve typically used to measure the spiritual success in others isn’t working. Our metric seem wrong. These studies have shown us that we cannot assume a person’s attendance at a religious activity will develop long-term transformation in their life. But we still have this desire to measure how successful we might be, and so we continue to utilize the broken metric. The metric; the Spiritual SAT. The test that doesn’t really tell us anything that matters, but something we continue to point to cause we don’t know what else to do.

Maybe I’m the only youth pastor in the world that will ever say this, but I’m tired of the metric.

This test that we’ve created doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know, and it places a label and structure on the lives of teenagers that they don’t need and aren’t asking for. I’m tired of asking teens to find our fit instead of allowing them to find how they fit into the life of the community they so desperately need to connect to. I don’t want to view teenagers through the lens of attendance, or spiritual merits achieved. I want to see them for who they’ve been created to be. Intentionally flawed masterpieces.

It’s time to find a new metric; a new way of defining what success looks like. Success should be based on character development and life transformation instead of attendance and compliance. Death to the Spiritual SAT.! Life to a new creation!

Define your success. What does that look like?

Photo credit: Davidalender Hu via Flickr (Creative Commons) 
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Do you have a Hopeful Imagination?

Chris Folmsbee: Hopeful Imagination

Chris Folmsbee, the leader of Barefoot Ministries, and author of a handful of fantastic books (my favorite is Story, Signs, and Sacred Rhythms: A Narrative Approach to Youth Ministry) presented some soul-stirring thoughts about a Hopeful Imagination, and what it has to do with youth ministry, at The Summit last fall.

Give yourself a 12 minute break and watch this video. Then tell us what you’re thinking or feeling… (by the way, Chris was sick as a dog when he gave this talk).

(Oh, and don’t forget that the early bird pricing for The Summit 2013 runs out in a few weeks. join us for the most pot-stirring, spirit-awakening, creativity-sparking, diverse slate of speakers at any youth ministry event.)

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Making Mentorship Fresh


I believe life exists for the purpose of creating community. Each of us is impacted in and through the relational connections that we develop. Whether challenging or refining, the relational context that individuals are exposed to shapes who they are, who they have been and who they are becoming.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how my journey through life has unfolded and what factors affected my character development as a leader.

Some Background


I grew up in a small town in a rural setting. My community was filled with different generational representatives, multiple ethnicities, and of course both men and women. My parents were heavily invested in the community. Particularly with the faith community portion of our relational context. We went to church most Sundays (often twice in one day); we knew all of our neighbours and many of our other community members in our little town.

While being in such a small setting does come with its disadvantages, there were many things about my upbringing that I unintentionally took for granted. The older members of our community took a vested interest in who I was. They knew me by name, and were happy to give me a piece of their wisdom when I was in need (either because of my propensity for mischief, or because of my desire to learn… I’m not sure which desire was greater.) I didn’t know it at the time, but the investment these people were making in my life was really about mentorship.

What is Mentorship?

Mentorship in its most basic form is best understood as the intentional relational investment in another person. Sometimes mentorship can be a negative experience. We humans are creatures of habit; we mimic what we see and experience. Children that experience abuse at a young age, most agree, are more likely to become future abusers than those who are not victims of this sort of tragedy.

While we may not see this as a form of mentorship, it is. Although negative, there is an intentional investment in a relational capacity in the life of an abused child. Similarly, there is an intentional investment in the lives of those who do not experience great trauma as a young child. The mentorship process becomes more about a sequence of relational exchanges than a linear curricular guide to adulthood and beyond.

There is actual biological evidence to back this up. Human brains contain something scientists refer to as “mirror neurons.” These neurons help us as humans to display empathy and sympathy. Have you ever wondered why a great storyteller captivates us? At the most basic level, the mirror neurons in our brains help us to be able to identify with and even imagine ourselves in the unfolding story that is being presented. The same can be said for experiences of mentorship. We are shaped by those we interact with because of our desire to either become or refrain from becoming more like them. Mentorship is discipleship. As followers of Jesus we are invited and expected to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20), and because of this great invitation those of us who have given our lives to work alongside emerging generations must become experts in the mentoring process.

So what is a mentor?

Being a mentor and finding a mentor are two significant milestones in the process of discipleship. While there are many different components of what this all entails, I want to suggest three basic principles every mentor and disciple-maker should pursue:

  1. A mentor is someone who knows your name. You can’t intentional invest in people if you aren’t willing to either know or be known by them. While it’s true that we can learn from people we may never meet, it’s those that we do share some sort of relational connection with that will have the greatest impact on our lives. In the absence of relational, mentorship and discipleship in turn are virtually impossible. As we work alongside this emerging generation are we making the effort to know and to be known, or are we more concerned about a statistical analysis of our ministry success than character development and transformation?
  2. A mentor is someone who inspires you to be. Our North American cultural possesses an over-stimulated fascination with doing. Think about this for a minute, what are some of the initial questions you ask someone you are meeting for the first time? What is your name? Where do you live? What do you do for a living? As we introduce ourselves to people, we are more likely to talk about our vocation than we are about some sort of character quality that we either possess or are trying to develop (Hi, my name is Lisa and I’m a dentist). Deaf culture, conversely, makes the effort to introduce themselves to one another using a being descriptor instead of a doing descriptor (Hi, this is my funny friend Lisa who is a dentist). Mentors focus more on character development and transformation because they care more about who a person is than what a person does. As ministers to youth and families are we helping to create a culture that emphasizes being rather than doing, or are we simply content modify a persons behaviour instead of partnering with Christ in the transformation of their identity or entire being that will ultimately shape their behavior?
  3. A mentor is someone who stands in the gap for you and with you. People who value character development are people who are willing to walk alongside of others in all seasons of life. This is the most difficult time in all of history to be a teenager. They face more obstacles than us older folks ever have. The communities that we create in our gathered or scattered church settings must be places of safety, hope and restoration. Do those we serve know that we are willing to walk life with them no matter how dark or how bright the next season might be? Mentors are allies in life’s journey, not adversaries. Difficult truths need to be shared verbally and non-verbally. People who are willing to share in the suffering of others earn the right to be heard and the credibility to be a mentor. How does your community reflect this value of being present in the moment?

Making it Fresh

When we work with this emerging generation our ministry initiatives should be steeped in the concepts and principles of biblically based mentorship. If we believe that the church needs a fresh infusion of enthusiasm, life, energy and passion, perhaps we should grow to consider what it would be to re-culture our approach to mentoring and discipleship instead of re-engineering our programmatic elements of youth ministry. What would it look like if our commitment to families (how ever diverse the definition of this may be in your context for ministry) became more about mentorship and less about keeping them active in our programming efforts?

I know that I’m longing for something fresh, what about you?

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Connecting to the Geeks: A non-Geek guide

Connecting to Geeks: A non-geeks guide

Geeks are an eclectic bunch, sometime hard to get to know; they speak a different dialect, a jargon that seems so strange. The jargon varies from geek to geek, determined by what the geek is passionate about, what they are into. They might seem cool for a spell like how we might laugh at The Big Bang Theory or when a geeky movie comes out like The Avengers.

But most of the time, the geek life is a lonely life.

I should know— I’m actually Geek Royalty. In 1991, I won the Dungeons and Dragons Open event, the largest event of its kind at Gen Con (the Super Bowl of nerdery). I’ve presented at Comic-Con for multiple years and started “Geek Week” at colleges such at UCLA and Rutgers. It’s in my blood, my DNA, my Gattaca.

But when you don’t speak our language, when we ask if you what you thought of the Walking Dead and you reply, “The TV show?” and with such scorn we reply, “No the graphic novel” it can cause some distance. So how do you connect with these geeks in your youth group.

Now there are some stereotypes of geeks—we are pale skinned, male, horrible at athletics, introverted and socially awkward. And I’ll be the first to admit, at 14-15, I was all of those. Now you’ll find some geeks are extroverted, but you might only see this around their own tribe. They are horrible at athletics, because when you are picked for kickball last in 3rd grade, you are usually picked last in 6th. But there is no template for us—we have more variations than the X-Men comic book covers (if you’re a geek, that joke totally kills).

Here’s a primer on how to get geeks attention and connect

  1. Listen, for a spell: Geeks will go on and on if we have an attentive ear. Sometimes in the junior high development and on to high school, they might not have the clue you are uninterested. Geeks can miss that subtle verbal clue and we are wounded when it’s not so subtle. We bottle up all of our enthusiasm and when someone shows mild interest, we tend to gush. If we tend to go overboard, start asking questions that are about their geek love, but not necessarily why there are two Slayers instead of one (Answer: Buffy died briefly and then Faith became….you know what, never mind.) You could ask: “Why does that interest you?“, “Who would you be if you could be one of them in the story?“, “What movies (games, TV) are influenced by that?” They aren’t asking the question about their hobby—they are answering questions about themselves.
  2. The Gateway Drug: Ask the geeks what you could watch to start to see their interest. If they are interested in World of Warcraft, ask them to show you how to make a character. If they are into Steampunk, ask for one book you should read. Geeks are not looking for people exactly like us; we understand people care about us if they want to know what we love.
  3. Give the Option: These kids are slammed into lockers, picked last in gym, and if that becomes what your youth group is about, they will put on the One Ring and become invisible. If you have physical stuff as part of your weekly meeting, give them the option out, but they must serve in some capacity. Also, let them shine. Have a trivia night—some kind of engineering challenge (egg drop)—and let their geek flag fly a bit.
  4. They are More Than a Geek: When you have time find out what else they are interested in besides the geek menagerie. Do they like to swim? Are they into art? Do they build things? Sometimes our geek identity is what takes up the most space and most people do not get past it to see what else is there.
  5. Connect Us: If you have adults in your congregation who are of the geek clan, make sure and connect them to your youth. One of the hardest parts about being a geek is not having a role model who doesn’t tolerate, but celebrates our geeky nature (my father and I watched Star Trek together growing up. It is one of my favorite memories, but alas, he wasn’t a board game player since he was always more into the kind of games with cash prizes.)
  6. Just Love Us: We seek heroes in our films and comic book pages. We look for someone to save the day. Behind every single geeky pursuit there is the need to be loved and find connection. Show us Jesus; show us He loves us and we’ll follow Him (and you) to Mordor.