Great thoughts from a friend: "On Being a Boring Missionary"

Some missionary friends of ours, Jim and Heather Frazier, keep a blog on their experiences serving in Kenya. Jim’s most recent post, “On being a boring missionary,” really hits home for me:

A lot of our life here as missionaries is totally boring. Most of it, really. To be totally honest, my greatest spiritual triumph right now would be finding the time and self discipline to get assignments back to students a little faster with some really meaningful feedback – feedback about biology. Often stories from the mission field include intense spiritual warfare, but so far the most intense spiritual warfare I’ve experienced here has been the ‘boring’ fight against a stubborn self-righteous flesh that works to do good while pushing the real issue, that of total obedience to Christ, comfortably out of mind. Instead, it’s easy to sit and think of how I am spiritually above grading papers and how much greater my impact could be – to think how awesome I could be for Christ, not how HE is doing amazing things. I begin thinking of how my spiritual life can entertain me – not in those words, of course, but eventually, being ‘more spiritual’ begins to replace being obedient.

It’s definitely worth your time to head over to their blog and read the whole thing.

What if You Were the First Youth Pastor Ever?

Imagine this: You wake up one day to discover that you are now in an alternate universe. Everything about your world is essentially the same, with one exception: youth ministry as we know it has never existed. Perhaps Jim Rayburn gave up ministry to become an auto mechanic, or maybe Wayne Rice convinced Mike Yaconelli one night before the creation of Youth Specialties to join his bluegrass band, and the pair spent the rest of their lives as a highly-rated duo singing songs about squirrels–“Pharaoh, Pharaoh” never saw the light of day. Whatever the reason, in this alternate universe Doug Fields is the most successful Farmer’s Insurance agent in southern California, Josh Griffin helps run a popular Star Wars fanboy website works nights at a computer repair shop in Winnemucca, NV, and Kara Powell heads up the Classified Research Division of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The world has never heard of Youth Specialties, Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry, Young Life, Youth Ministry 3.0, or Fluffy Bunny.

Today in this alternate universe, you are beginning a job at your church. After attending the church for a few years, you’ve been tapped to help the church carry out a specific task: help teenagers in your church and community know Jesus and live for him. Remember, you’re the pioneer in this whole youth ministry thing, and you might be the first youth pastor ever.

My question is this: what five resources would you have on your side if you could choose them? By resources, I don’t just mean curriculum or stuff you can get off the internet. I’m using the term in the broad sense, which would include not just physical resources, but also some intangibles that are harder to measure, such as a great relationship with your senior pastor or a committed core of parents. Feel free to think a bit outside the box, as I try to below.

I know that defining the youth pastor position as a job, I’ve already stepped outside the bounds for some of you in terms of how you would shape this thing we call Youth Ministry had you the chance to start it all over. But, I wanted to narrow the scope of the question a bit. Here’s how I answer the question:

1. A great marriage. One of the biggest strengths for me in ministry is my wife, Jennifer. She’s an amazing encouragement, and when I give her, our marriage, and our family the time and energy they deserve, ministry just seems to go a lot smoother.

2. A passionate, visionary senior pastor who is passionate about people knowing Jesus. Thankfully, this one is true for me where I am right now. A lot of youth pastors wish their senior pastor would support them and the youth ministry more. Those are probably good things, but I think it simply starts with a senior pastor who is passionate about people knowing Jesus, which helps determine the direction of his/her church’s youth ministry.

3. A core group of parents who believe that they should be the primary disciplers of their children. Look, we know that this is how it’s supposed to work: parents should be the primary disciplers of their children, including their teenagers. A group of parents who were passionate about this would be a huge asset in helping other parents grow in this area. Of course, not all parents will want to disciple their kids–or will even have a relationship with Jesus for that matter. But it doesn’t mean we don’t set it up as the ideal.

4. A core group of missionary-minded students. One of my critiques about the common critiques of modern youth ministry is this: those critiques often only take into account the small percentage of teenagers who are followers of Jesus and are a part of our churches. Yes, we need to encourage parents more and stop trying to do their jobs for them. Yes, we need to stop separating the teenagers in our youth ministry from the broader church. But what about those teenagers who desperately need to know that God loves them and that his Son died on the cross so they might have life in Jesus? Not only are they not in our church’s worship services or youth ministry, too often they’re not on our radar. And guess what? It’s not the job of the youth pastor to connect with all those teenagers and tell them about Jesus. It’s the job of the teenagers in your church! Our job is to equip them, and when the teenagers we serve are passionate about being missionaries wherever God has placed them, the sky really is the limit.

5. A loving group of mature adults who love mentoring teenagers. It was tough to decide what would be the last item on this list, but I think it has to be mature, mentoring adults. And note that these adults don’t necessarily need to be a part of the “official” youth ministry team. When it’s part of a church’s culture to love teenagers naturally, and teenagers are mentored and nourished in their faith by several loving adults, those teenagers are far more likely to make an impact for the Kingdom, wherever God places them.

So, that’s the list. What would you put in your list of five resources if you were the first youth pastor ever?

Center for Student Missions Trip – San Francisco

Last month, we took 42 students and 11 adults from our church to San Francisco on an inner-city mission trip through Center for Student Missions (CSM). It was a fantastic trip (feel free to see our trip’s Facebook page for some more insight), and I’m really glad we went. It was my second trip with CSM (the first was with two small churches on a trip to Chicago a few years ago), so I knew I could trust the organization to host a meaningful trip where we not only served, but we learned about God’s heart for those who live in the city and how we can love and serve people when we got back home.

If you’re a church looking for a good, affordable mission trip for teenagers or college students, I’ll give you the short version first: CSM is a great organization to work with, and they’ve got sites in several U.S. cities (and in Toronto as well), making travel by vans or cars relatively easy.

If you’d like a few more details, here’s the longer (but not too long) version: The thing I like most about CSM is their philosophy of ministry and missions: they partner with ministries that are already “on the ground,” so you know that you’re supporting ministries that have been serving faithfully before you got there, and they’ll continue serving faithfully long after you leave. This is no “parachute” in operation where a youth ministry jumps into a situation, feels good about the perceived difference it makes for all of five days, then leaves without affecting any real change. That’s a must for me when working with a missions organization, and it’s a core part of who they are.

Another thing I really like about CSM is their staff. No matter how large of a group you bring, you’ll be divided (by you, of course, not by CSM) into groups of 10-15 students and adults–for us it was 10 people per group. Each group serves together for the whole week, and has one CSM staff member (a “host”) who leads the group’s week of serving. The amount of organization that goes into planning a week of serving is incredible–not only does each CSM site build relationships with great ministries and organizations, but they have to make sure they schedule everything correctly to make sure the right people show up at the right places. Chad, our junior high pastor, commented that it would have taken us months and hours and hours of work just to schedule where we would serve during the week. The hosts do a great job managing our schedule, letting us know beforehand what each ministry site will be like, and sometimes making last minute modifications when something changes with the ministry site’s schedule or needs.

Probably the only downsides to our week was some confusion in the pre-trip planning (mostly regarding the number of vans we needed and how many students we could bring), as well as some issues regarding our group’s size. Serving in smaller groups was a HUGE win, but it made it tough to keep connected with leaders who weren’t in my particular group (something I share the blame for). It also made for several confusing mornings and evenings, because there were times when our groups were literally going in five different directions, and there was very little time for us to be together as one large group and simply ask, “how’s everybody doing?” As a youth pastor, I enjoyed my previous trip with CSM to Chicago more, where we brought six students and three adults.

After processing the trip for the past four weeks, I can safely say that we would use CSM again, and I definitely recommend them to any of my YM colleagues. It’s a relatively inexpensive trip for what you get (for 2011, CSM charges $390 for six nights and five days, which includes all meals–check with them for special pricing for college students). Of course, other expenses are involved such as travel as well as parking/tolls when we were in the city.

If you’ve ever partnered with CSM before, I’d love to hear about your experiences!

To Evangelize or Not to Evangelize?

This week, CNN “Belief Blog” blogger Carl Medearis posted an article titled “My Take: Why evangelicals should stop evangelizing.” In our culture, this is a common sentiment from many (both Christians and non-Christians) who are turned off by evangelism. Often, the sentiment gets boiled down to, “I don’t mind you (Christians) having your own beliefs, but why do you have to bother others by trying to convert them?” Medearis has done well to lay out his argument in a relatively short blog post. Since his objection is a common one–and therefore an objection that followers of Jesus ought to be prepared to answer–I thought I’d devote a post to answering his objections and some of his claims. I’ll do so by choosing and commenting on a few quotes from his post:

“When I tell my Christian friends in America that some of the fiercest militias were (and are) Christian, most are shocked. It doesn’t fit the us-versus-them mentality that evangelism fosters, in which we are always the innocent victims and they are always the aggressors.” Not all Christians are ignorant of the fact that terrible acts of violence have been in the past and are now in the present committed by those who claim to be followers of Jesus. Such acts ought to be renounced by followers of Jesus. In addition, not all Christians who are passionate about evangelism espouse an “us-versus-them mentality.” To choose the worst examples of evangelism and paint all attempts at evangelism with the same brush is unfair, and amounts to a straw-man argument.

“This us-versus-them thinking is odd, given that Jesus was constantly breaking down walls between Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, men and women, sinners and saints. That’s why we have the parable of the Good Samaritan.” Yes, Jesus broke down such walls. However, those walls are broken down through a relationship with Jesus. Paul speaks of the division between Jew and Gentile–who were, humanly speaking, adversaries–and how that division has been obliterated through the cross. Paul says that Jesus died that he “might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:16). In addition, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he writes on the great extent in which we are reconciled to one another, he makes it very clear that such reconciliation occurs in Jesus: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, emphasis added). Such reconciliation occurs when people accept the grace and love of God that comes through faith in Jesus. How does one learn about Jesus? primarily through hearing it from another person: evangelism.

“I believe that doctrine is important, but it’s not more important than following Jesus.” When Christians put more time and effort arguing the finer points of Christian theology and doctrine more than they do actually living out Jesus’ commands and telling people that Jesus loves them so much he died for them, yes, that’s a sin. But doctrine–literally, “teaching”–should really be about trying to understand who God is. Medearis’ statement is one that sounds agreeable because of how hurt people have been by institutions that care more about doctrine than a relationship with Jesus. But you can’t somehow sever a relationship with Jesus from what we believe about Jesus. To make a statement of belief in our about Jesus is to make a doctrinal statement–which Medearis himself does throughout his post. What we believe about God is important, because it informs our relationship with him. You cannot have a relationship with someone you know nothing about, which is why Medearis’ statement doesn’t make sense when you get right down to it.

One more…

“Encouraging anyone and everyone to become an apprentice of Jesus, without manipulation, is a more open, dynamic and relational way of helping people who want to become more like Jesus — regardless of their religious identity.” I agree with Medearis that our task is not to bring people into a particular religion, but rather to send people to Jesus! Here are two critiques of this statement: 1) the most important thing that happens in a relationship with Jesus is not just that we become more like him as we follow him, but that through faith in him and his death on the cross, we are given (because we could never earn it) eternal life. To paraphrase Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:19, if we follow Jesus only that we might be more like him in this life, we are of all people most to be pitied! 2) When we learn who God is through his son Jesus, we are called to renounce all false representations of God (both those that exist within Christianity and outside it). For some, this might mean renouncing their previous religious convictions that are incompatible with what Jesus taught.

My response to Medearis (who is a brother in Christ): The heart of the matter is this: does eternal life come only through Jesus or doesn’t it? The answer to this question (whether yes, no, or I don’t know) will inform one’s view of evangelism. If the answer is yes, than by all means, we ought to love people enough to tell them and try to convince them that Jesus indeed is the only way to be reconciled to God. To not do so would be unloving. Have some used sinful, manipulative, and awful ways to do this (or for some, done sinful things trying to cover them up by using the name of Jesus)? Yes. For some examples of such un-love, one only needs to read a few of the comments by readers at the bottom of Medearis’ post! Does this mean that all attempts at evangelism are wrong? No. Telling someone about Jesus–even pleading with someone to follow Jesus–is perhaps the most loving and grace-filled thing we can do.

Video of the Week: Serve West Bountiful

Here’s the highlight video of our church’s “local mission trip,” Serve West Bountiful June 20th-24th. Many of the before and after photos are really cool. Enjoy!

Serve West Bountiful from The Heights Community on Vimeo.

Student Mission Trip this week to San Francisco

We’re off to San Francisco at 3:30am tomorrow (Sunday) for a short term inner-city mission trip with Center For Student Missions. Can’t wait to share stories when we get back!

Serve West Bountiful Recap

One of the homes worked on during
the week that got a new deck,
fresh paint, as well as some yard work.

Last week, our church took part in a local mission trip called Serve West Bountiful. I had hoped to post a bit more on this last week, but that just didn’t happen. So, as a recap, I’ll share a bit from a local news story, then below that a couple of other experiences. Note in the story that Bountiful Heights is one of our campuses down in Bountiful, and Washington Heights is one of our campuses in Ogden:

Last year the group repaired 25 homes in the Ogden area. So when members in the Bountiful congregation suggested a project in West Bountiful, everyone jumped on board.

“We don’t come in assuming what a city needs,” said [Jimi] Pitts. “Mayor Romney and Craig Howe have been excellent to help us find people in need. It means so much more when people are in need (of our service.)”

Pitts said his unconventional looks [my note: Jimi has long hair and big earrings–somewhat unconventional in very conventional Bountiful] sometimes worry people when he shows up to their home. “They want to call the cops on me,” he laughed. “In today’s economy it’s hard for people to accept that there are no strings attached. This is genuine. We’re not looking for something. People just don’t get that today.”

Homeowner Tanya Hodges agrees. “I thought, ‘what’s this going to cost us?’” she said when she filled out the paperwork. “It’s hard to believe they are just doing it. This is very exciting.”

Two interesting stories from the event:

A woman who owned one of the houses we worked on wasn’t at home when Jimi and a city official came by to talk to her (a couple of months before the event). Her elderly father was there, and they told him they were interested in painting the house and doing other work for free, leaving a number for his daughter to call when she returned. The message to the daughter came across as “the city came by and said you need to paint your house.” She became very worried and could not sleep that night, because though she knew her home’s exterior really was in poor shape, she could not afford even the supplies, let alone paying someone to paint it. When she called the number the next day and found out that it wasn’t a mandate, but rather an offer to work on her house for free, she was overjoyed.

One day while my team was cutting down several dead and dying trees for the city (which was desperately needed, but not in the small city’s budget–I think we ended up doing over 30 pretty big trees), we talked to a woman who lived nearby. She mentioned that she had done quite a bit of work trimming trees and had some large branches that had fallen during a wind storm. She had recently had shoulder surgery, and wanted to know if we remove a huge branch from her property with our truck and allow her to dump a pickup full of tree trimmings in our dumpster. After we helped her with those things, we were talking with her friend who wanted to know about our church. After telling her what we were about and that we were just trying to do what we could to help people know they are loved by God, she explained how she had not set foot in a church in decades because of how she had been terribly hurt by people in a church and vowed never to go back. I pray that we were able to break that ice and that we or another church will see her soon.

If you’re interested in other stories or photos, feel free to check out the event’s Facebook page, which includes participant photos, as well as notes from the mayor of West Bountiful and a few homeowners who had their homes worked on.

Serve West Bountiful This Week

Today is the start of a busy week for our church. We are taking part in a local short-term mission trip in a city near one of our new campuses. The event is called “Serve West Bountiful.” We have over 500 volunteers signed up to work on over 20 homes in that city. This event is becoming a favorite in our church, and for good reason: serving people in Jesus’ name and having a lot of fun doing it. Last year we did “Serve Ogden” where we worked on 25 homes in the city of Ogden. It’s a lot of work to organize so many people to get so much work done in just a short week, but it’s a huge payoff in terms of building bridges in our community and giving just a small glimpse to folks what love with no strings attached really looks like. I’ll try to post some updates as the week goes on, but to get an idea of what we’ll be doing, you can check out my posts on last year’s event here, here, here, and here.

Scholarships, Trips, and Registration Fees

Our summer trip is coming up (mission trip to San Francisco), and it’s an event that carries the biggest price tag for families each year. We do our best to keep the trip price modest so that it’s not out of reach for families. Not only do we keep the price at what we consider a pretty doable level for most families, we also try to help families by…

  • Laying out a payment plan so that families only have to pay a bit each month over five months. We are good about holding families to the plan, because otherwise, the plan would be worthless. In addition, we offer modified payment plans to families who just can’t do the $100 deposit at the beginning so that they can pay for the whole trip through our scholarships and the fundraising.
  • Providing two $50 scholarships ($100 off the trip total) for each student that goes through each scholarship process, which included this year fasting from something during Lent, reading the Gospel of Luke during Lent, and writing response papers about each experience.
  • Providing two fundraising opportunities (one in March and one in May) that students can participate in if they want to. This year, the two were selling coupons from a local auto shop and selling car wash coupons. Both have been really beneficial for those families who wanted/needed to pay for most of the trip through the scholarship and the fundraisers. I love these fundraisers because they are relatively simple for us (really, our amazing administrators) to manage. They are both fundraisers students do on their own, we set them up for success, and it’s an effort-in/money-out deal, meaning there’s no harping on families to show up for endless spaghetti fundraiser dinners.

Because we’ve provided so many opportunities for families to be able to raise money for the trip, we’ve decided not to provide any scholarships beyond what we’ve outlined above. It’s hard to do when students say they have a hard time coming up with money, but when I do a little more asking, I find that they have not put in a whole lot of effort–if any–into the fundraising opportunities, and some didn’t even take the initiative to participate in both the $50 scholarships (which have a time limit, since they had to be done during Lent).

I’m really a bleeding heart when it comes to making sure students get to go on trips and events regardless of their family’s financial situation. But by being a bit more hard-nosed (which has been a hard change for me), I’ve found those whom I’ve had to talk to about getting up to date on their payments really had a different issue–namely they hadn’t really put much effort into the opportunities we’ve already made available. If a legitimate need were to become known (an illness, unique family situation, etc.), we would certainly work something out. However, that hasn’t been the case. In short, the problem wasn’t money, it was effort. And no one has had to drop out of the trip because of money. When I’ve had to let a student know they were in danger of losing their spot (a couple of times this semester I’ve given a bit of extra time on a trip payment), they suddenly found their motivation and went out to sell auto coupons or car washes, and voila! They had great sudden success in raising money!

QUESTIONS: Are we being too harsh? What ways have you found that help families own their responsibility for trip costs while making trips open to all?