Thoughts on Culture, Consumerism, and Youth Ministry

A recent post over at studentministry.org is aptly titled, “I think I’m doing youth ministry all wrong.” I think all youth pastors have felt this way more than just a few isolated times. For me, it is often a nagging feeling that God is calling our church and ministry to something higher, but I just don’t have the time, guts, or faithfulness to respond.

Tim has raised many questions which I certainly don’t have the answers to. What is really encouraging about his post is that he realizes that perhaps a change in how we view ministry is needed, rather than just dealing with a certain component. Both the post and the ensuing conversation is well worth your time. My thoughts:

We live in a cultural context that is highly consumeristic and for which we have a distaste but from which we cannot separate ourselves. Couple that with our task as missionaries (I see myself as a missionary within our culture, perhaps because I live in Utah where a very small percentage of people attend a Christian church–however, I think this applies to all of the United States), which is to make disciples, baptize, and teach (Matthew 28:16-20). Suddenly, we are faced with ministering to a culture that we know has sinful elements (such as self-centered consumerism) but that we want to faithfully reach with the Gospel. This is no small task, and I am thankful that folks like Tim are taking a step back, picking the issue apart, and wondering aloud how to be faithful in our calling.

I wish I had answers. It’s tough to minister each day knowing that if I would just jump in with both feet, the risk would be worth it, only to stay another week, another month, another year with what I know, because it’s safe.

Way off-topic, but Irresistible

From a wonderful article on the moral superiority of baseball over football:

4. Aesthetically, baseball is superior because of its unique sense of time. There is no clock in baseball. Time never runs out, only opportunities do. When Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” he was not uttering a tautology. Since the game is not terminated until the final out is made, it is always possible to come back or to blow a huge lead. In football, the game is often over (determined) before it is over (temporally), rendering the final minutes meaningless and pointless. In baseball, as in the Christian world view, a measure of hope is always alive until the game is over. Near-miraculous comebacks are possible. When they occur, there is no greater drama in all of sports.

The comments at the end of the post are quite good as well.

On Church Marketing

You may not have heard about Richard Reising or his blog Beyond Relevance, but you’ve probably seen their video, “What If Starbucks Marketed Like the Church?

I tend to cringe when I hear the phrase “church marketing,” because I usually associate the word “marketing” with trying to convince someone that a product is better than it really is. However, when you really think about it, every church markets itself in some way, whether intentionally or unintentionally. How do we put our best face forward? Our church has recently done an overhaul of our communications, including printed materials and our website. It looks great, but we continue to remind ourselves that it’s not about looking good, it’s about accurately and effectively communicating what we’re about as a church in order to reach people with the Good News of Jesus. This post at Beyond Relevance has some good points, and I especially resonate with this excerpt:

Promotion without connectivity is destructive. I often share with church leaders that most of the churches in the United States should not promote themselves. Why? Simple. If your current membership is not actively inviting people or visitors are not staying, there are reasons why. If you do an advertising campaign, you are asking people to come in your doors only to realize why no one wants to invite anyone to your church. They never come back and leave to tell all their friends what they did not like about your church. This is not good marketing.

If you are connecting with people well, your membership will validate this by bringing their friends. If you are not, they won’t. The problem with your church-goers not inviting people is not their problem—as church leaders, it is our problem. It is not time to craft a message to get people to invite their friends. That is the equivalent of preaching a message on not falling asleep in church. It is our responsibility to want to make them want to bring their friends just as it is to keep people awake.

USA Today: Multi-site Churches

Articles like this have been of interest to me as of late, because our church is considering launching additional sites within the next couple of years. It’s interesting to see secular news organizations giving print space to the growing number of multi-site churches.

Among U.S. Protestant megachurches, 37% reported having two or more locations under the same leadership in 2008, according to a study by the Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Conn.

It’s a growth strategy that works for churches of any size because it doesn’t require new buildings or fighting for zoning or parking space, says Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, where the institute is based.

“They just rent a couple of extra theaters and high schools and put together a church in a box. Most pastors wouldn’t give this as the primary reason, but clearly it’s a distinct advantage,” says Thumma, co-author of a 2008 study examining eight years of growth and change in megachurches.

Of the USA’s 100 largest churches, 67% now have two or more sites and 60% of the 100 fastest-growing churches also have multiple sites, according to the annual listings of the USA’s largest churches in Outreach magazine’s October issue.

Still, the multisite model can prompt culture shock.

“I do miss having a pastor at the door shaking hands in the ‘check-out line,’ ” says Lauren Green, drawn to join Redeemer by Keller’s preaching. “But I realize that model of a personal relationship with a particular pastor is probably gone.”

Green grew up in an American Methodist Episcopal church in Minneapolis, where her mother still worships and the pastor she has known all her life led her brother’s funeral last month.

That congregational model is suffering, however.

Young adults change churches often as they move from job to job, marry and relocate. Older churches are costly for older members to maintain. And new pastors like the flexibility and evangelical energy of multisites.

Here’s a question I have a lot of thinking and praying to do over: what does youth ministry look like in multi-site churches?

Thoughts on Recruiting Volunteers

Well, this won’t be a full-fledged set of thoughts. However, I had an experience these past couple of weeks that made me think of how we treat volunteers in our student ministries.

As a youth pastor, I try to be involved in some way in a local high school. I decided to volunteer as a tutor in a local high school’s AVID program since I had done so at the local high school near my last church. I contacted the teacher in charge of AVID, and thought I was on my way. I knew I would have to complete a few tasks before I could be eligible to volunteer, such as going in for fingerprinting. However, I had a very difficult experience getting everything done. Here’s a summary of what happened:

  • After talking with the teacher, I went in for a required interview with the AVID coordinator at the local college (because the local college in part sponsors the program at the high school through a federal grant) to take care of some logistics. It went quickly, and the coordinator told me someone from the school would be in touch with me shortly to discuss the schedule.
  • In the mean time, the teacher told me that I could get my background check at the school district’s main office. I went in one day when I had some time. Here’s what happened during that visit: 1) I filled out a piece of paper; 2) paid $15 to the district (for the background check); was told that I needed to take that piece of paper back to the college to be fingerprinted on a Tuesday between 2pm and 4pm or a Wednesday between 3pm and 5pm (which would cost an additional $10 there). Note that I did not actually get anything processed at that time, besides my $15 payment. I thought this was curious, but was encouraged that I would be done after one more stop, especially since it happened to be Tuesday that day.
  • I went to the college that day at 2:30pm. I could not find a place to park because seemingly all the lots within 1/4 mile of the building required a permit. Thankfully, I was able to find an information booth, who gave me a temporary parking pass near the building I needed to visit. The employee at the school district office had told me how to get to the building, but not how to park.
  • Unfortunately, the wait when I finally arrived at the fingerprinting office at the college, the wait was over an hour, and I needed to get back to the church before then. I called the school district to inquire if perhaps there were other ways to be fingerprinted (such as at a local police station, which is permitted in Colorado). The only way to be fingerprinted was at the college during the two scheduled times, Tuesday between 2pm and 4pm or Wednesday between 3pm and 5pm.
  • Since it’s December, the fingerprinting office would be closed during Christmas break. So, the next day, Wednesday, was my last chance to be fingerprinted before I was to start volunteering in January. I took a book and arrived 45 minutes early. After waiting a few minutes, the gal who was preparing the fingerprinting made sure I had all my paperwork. I had prepared to pay the $10 with a debit card, following the recommendation of the school district office. Thankfully, the gal at the fingerprinting office let me know that if I was using a debit or credit card, I would need to pay across campus in the cashier’s office first, then come and get in line. Since I was early, it was not an issue and I went to the office to take care of the payment. When they opened the office, I was first in line, was fingerprinted, and went on my merry way.

Now, each person that I worked with along the way was nice and as helpful as they knew how to be. However, my total experience–from the time that I contacted the school to inquire how to volunteer to finally getting my fingerprinting done–didn’t make me feel like anyone really cared whether I volunteered at the school or not. The reason I’ve gone through the trouble to list the details of my experience is this: it caused me, for the first time, to wonder about the experience of those who volunteer in our high school ministry. Do they feel valued as volunteers, from the first time they ask about how to get involved or the first time I contact them to recruit them? Sure, the process makes sense to me, but how do they feel about the packet of information we have them fill out? Do they feel supported? Do they feel like the trainings we provide are a good use of their time? When I give them a book as a gift, do they see it as an additional obligation instead?

One of the biggest things I needed to learn when I was a young 23-year-old youth minister with minimal youth ministry experience and no formal training in my first position running a ministry was how to build a great team of volunteers. When I first began in youth ministry, I saw volunteers only as people who helped me do ministry. Yes, I valued them in a way, but I wanted volunteers who were already great at doing ministry, and I did not see myself as someone who was supposed to help develop leaders. Thankfully, the two youth ministers I volunteered under while I was in college invested a lot in me, so I had some idea how to do the same. However, I’ve come to realize that a large part of my job is getting people on board who love Jesus, love teenagers, and are excited about the mission and vision of our church and youth ministry, and helping them to become great volunteers. Without a great team of volunteers, our ministry does not do what it does. Period.

I’m excited about tutoring in our local high school. From what I know about the school, not a lot of people volunteer there. I don’t know a whole lot about education, but I do know that schools that tend to do a great job educating kids have a lot of volunteers investing their time, whether those people are parents, volunteer coaches, or retirees who just want to spend their time helping kids do well in school. I wonder how the school would change if the administration put a greater emphasis on recruiting people to volunteer and making it easy to do. I wonder how our high school ministry would change if I did a better job doing the same. In my ministry plan for 2010, I placed it as a high priority. I suppose it’s time to put my money where my mouth is.

As I continue to work through these issues, here are some links that might be of interest:

Cadre Ministries
– a great website for volunteer training resources that are really practical.
Why Volunteers Won’t Show Up For Your Training, a post on Life In Student Ministry by Bill Allison from Cadre Ministries
YS One Day” – a one-day youth ministry training that’s probably coming to a city near you. I’m not sure about the form it will take given Youth Specialties’ recent sale to YouthWorks!, but it’s always been a great experience for my volunteers in the past.

The Christian Century: Pastors, Depression, and Suicide

A very important topic to have out in the open. This is why it’s so important for every pastor–including youth workers who are on staff at a church (whether you are considered lay or clergy)–to have at least one person, if not a network of people, we can trust for counsel and friendship. We are not islands, and we are not above the struggles and trials everyone faces. If you are a pastor or in any kind of pastor-like position, please make sure you have a person you can trust when times get tough.

Being a pastor—a high-profile, high-stress job with nearly impossible expectations for success—can send one down the road to depression, according to pastoral counselors.

“We set the bar so high that most pastors can’t achieve that,” said H. B. Lon don, vice president for pastoral ministries at Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “And because most pastors are people-pleasers, they get frustrated and feel they can’t live up to that.”

When pastors fail to live up to demands imposed by themselves or others, they often “turn their frustration back on themselves,” leading to self-doubt and feelings of failure and hopelessness, said Fred Smoot, executive director of Emory Clergy Care in Duluth, Georgia, which provides pastoral care to 1,200 United Methodist ministers in Georgia.

A pastor is like “a 24-hour ER” who is supposed to be available to any congregant at any time, said Steve Scoggin, president of CareNet, a network of 21 pastoral counseling centers in North Carolina. “We create an environment that makes it hard to admit our humanity.”

It’s a job that breeds isolation and loneliness—the pastorate’s “greatest occupational hazards,” said Scoggin, who counsels many Baptist and other ministers. “These suicides are born out of a lack of those social supports that can intervene in times of personal crisis.”

Evangelism: What do we need to rethink?

As I grow older and spend more time in youth ministry, I learn more and more that I have a lot to learn. I love to write, but you’ll notice that I spend a lot of time thinking about what others have written on this blog. I find that I feel like I’m at my best when I humble myself to learn from others rather than thinking I’ve got it all together. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about evangelism, and came across the following article from last year in the Journal of Student Ministries. Grant English writes about an experience he once had with his youth at a evangelism conference where he realized that he didn’t want his students equating handing out tracts with evangelism. Here are his thoughts:

Theological Collisions
I figured that studying Scripture would make Jesus easier to follow, easier to accept, and easier to explain. I seriously thought the more I knew about Jesus, the better I’d be able to explain the unexplainable and live the ultimate Christian life. I figured there’s no way my life wouldn’t get better and clearer.

I wish I knew who was responsible for filling my head with those assumptions—I’d have a few choice words for that individual.

Disturbing Reality #1
Jesus’ conversations with people in the Bible were disturbing. He talked in code with Nicodemus. He argued with the religious elites. He comforted the woman caught in adultery. He confronted personal issues with the rich young ruler and woman at the well. He told stories to the fishing communities and laborers and seekers.

In short, Jesus used no “method” when he evangelized. Rather, everywhere he went, he simply engaged people relationally—and on their level, with language they could understand. He never started out with set lines or a memorized pitch. If they needed healing, Jesus healed them. If they needed a listening ear, he listened. If they needed some strong rebuke or encouragement, he provided that, too.

Disturbing Reality #2
Grace trumps everything. To those who thought they had it all together, Jesus pointed out that they didn’t—not to hurt them, but to show them that they, too, needed grace. And to those who “knew” they were beyond redemption, Jesus showed them otherwise. Whenever Jesus engaged people, he led them from where they were to his grace.

Disturbing Reality #3
Jesus wasn’t in a hurry. He didn’t press people for commitments of faith. In fact, he was really comfortable letting them walk away. (Can you imagine that encouraged at an evangelism conference?) The terms Jesus used to invite people to “believe in him”—e.g., “follow me,” “pick up your cross,” “walk with me,” “put my yoke on,”—all pointed to the idea of a process or journey. Even in the Great Commission the command was to “make disciples”—i.e., learners and apprentices—not super-Christians-one-rung-from-perfection.

I believe part of the reason Jesus wasn’t in a hurry was because he knew that people didn’t need another system or method or “secret” to live life well. He knew they needed him.

In spite of all the academic, theological, and political questions and problems people faced, Jesus knew they needed more than answers to those questions.

Just him.

They needed him for the moment…and for eternity.

Disturbing Reality #4
Lastly, for those who chose to follow Jesus, life often got harder, not easier. Does Jesus redeem our messes? Yes. Does he heal? Absolutely. But none of those processes are necessarily pleasant or even easy.

To be fair, those who’ve gone through redemption and healing are typically happy when they come out the other side in better shape—but you’ve got to wonder if they had that same perspective in the middle of the process.

For me, the bottom line is this (I love that my senior pastor pushes this a lot): our example for evangelism is Jesus. Of course, we are not God, but we are to become more Christlike, not just in some areas of our lives, but in all of them. If we’re to become more like Christ, there’s no better example to look at than…Christ! That’s why I love Grant’s approach here: question what we’re doing as the Church, and look to Jesus to see if we need to change anything.

In fact, while I’m on the topic, that’s pretty much a good thing to do as ministry leaders and youth workers: question our habits and the way we normally do things, and look to Jesus to see if we need to change anything. Actually, that would be a great thing for me to do personally. Of course, that would ruin my life even more…something Jesus is great at doing!

Chicago Area Church Fills Pews by Giving Cash

I had to read this carefully to make sure it wasn’t a satire piece from LarkNews.com:

At Lighthouse Church of All Nations in Alsip, the congregation can get more than just prayer at the Sunday worship services.

If a lucky — or “blessed and highly favored” — churchgoer is in the right seat, they can also receive a cash prize.

At each of the three Sunday services, the Rev. Dan Willis pulls a number of one seat from a bag and the worshiper in that seat wins a cash prize. Two of the churchgoers win $250 and the third gets $500. The church gives away $1,000 each Sunday, Willis said.

The cash prize is part of Willis’ recent focus on helping his congregation pay bills and begin a debt-free life, he said.

“We’ve had soooo many of our people displaced from jobs, facing foreclosure,” he said. “When people’s faith was high, their debt was down. When their faith was down, their debt was high. I realized the two are connected.”

Willis concedes the cash prize is a gimmick to fill the pews. But he’s unapologetic about the plan, because it’s working. On a typical Sunday, his church draws about 1,600 people to its three Sunday services. But since the money giveaway started, about five weeks ago, the congregation has grown to about 2,500 each week, he said. The money for the giveaway comes from the church offering. Lighthouse is a non-denominational church.

A USA Today Commentary has some good thoughts on this.

After wading through my disbelief at the story and identifying some misguiding and false theology pastor Dan Willis gives, I got to thinking: do we as a high school ministry ever engage in these kinds of tactics? Now, there’s nothing wrong with engaging people and trying to draw them to church with the hope and prayer that they will hear about Jesus, repent, and begin a relationship with him. However, I believe some strategies are off limits. To give an extreme example, it would be wrong to draw a sex addict to church by offering one free session with a prostitute in return for attending. But do I practice more subtle forms of this?

Discerning a Call to a Youth Ministry Position

In June, my wife, daughter, and I moved to Utah where we had accepted a call for me to serve as a high school pastor at Washington Heights Baptist Church in Ogden. For us, it was the culmination of a five-month long process that began when denominational issues had come to a head at our former church and it was clear that most in our church would be leaving our church and denomination (but that’s another post).

A recent post over at Tim Schmoyer’s Life in Student Ministry discusses some warning signs when interviewing for a youth ministry position. It got me thinking about some of my experiences looking for youth ministry positions, and some great advice I’ve received when it comes to the search, interview, and candidating process. I wanted to pass some of that advice on, as well as a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that the process should be a process of discernment.
When it became clear that my church’s situation meant that it was time to search for a new position, my wife, Jennifer, and I had one daughter and had just found out that we were expecting our second child. It was no longer simply a question of trying to discover what God had in store for the next period of our lives. In a matter of months, I would need new employment to provide for my family. When I began looking for positions, I committed to sending in a résumé to at least one open position a day. By the time we accepted a call to Washington Heights, I had applied to more than seventy open positions. It was hard at times not to feel like I was just applying for a job instead of trying to discern what God had planned for our family next. Thankfully, I have a wonderful wife to pray with, and we prayed almost every morning that God would simply make clear where he wanted us to go. Of course, that’s how we ended up in Utah, so know that it’s a dangerous prayer to pray. Fine tuning that résumé, visiting Youth Specialties’ Job Bank three times a day to search for new jobs in your area, and following up with senior pastors and search committees to confirm that your application did indeed make it through and hear that their next meeting is in four weeks and that they’ll be able to let you know within three weeks after that doesn’t always seem like a spiritual process. However, even in the details, commit the process to God, spend plenty of time in prayer, and ask others to pray with and for you as well. Do your best to simply follow God where he leads.

Don’t be afraid to ask professors and fellow youth pastors if they know anywhere that might be a good fit.
I have a hard time with this one, because I like to do things myself and without help. However, it’s a good idea to consider positions suggested by people you trust. They not only might know of positions that aren’t on job sites or denominational websites, but they also will have some insight into ministry positions that might be a good match for you.

You are allowed to check a church’s references.
Any church you interview with (if it is doing what it’s supposed to) will check your references that you provide. Feel free to talk to people who are familiar with the church to get some more information. And there’s no reason to feel like you need to do this undercover. Most healthy search teams and senior pastors will probably be pleased that you are serious about doing your homework as part of your discernment.

Write down questions to ask during any interviews.
One of the benefits to a search process being a process of discernment is that both you and the church are determining whether you are a good fit for one another is that you are interviewing each other. What are your “non-negotiables” when it comes to serving in a church setting? In my last search process, churches that seemed like such a good possibility quickly were crossed off my list, not because of any red flags or huge issues, but because my questions revealed that we weren’t a good fit for one another.

Find out why there is a vacancy in the youth ministry position.
There are several reasons why a church might need a new youth pastor. Is it a newly created position? Did the former youth pastor leave on good terms? If it was clear that the former youth pastor and the church leadership had some differences, what was the conflict? Any kind of conflict with a former youth pastor should not automatically kill the deal, but if you learn of any previous conflict, you have every right to ask pointed questions in a loving way.

At its best, searching for a youth ministry position can be a great journey of following God where he leads. However, there are often many bumps along the way, so allow me to point you back to my first bit of advice: commit the process to God and remember: you’re not just looking for a job, you’re discerning carefully where God is leading.