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!

ABC News: Hooking Up for Sex: Sluts or New Feminists?

I’m preparing for a series in January and February entitled “The Truth About…” on guys, girls, relationships, marriage, and sex. Here’s a story I’ve come across:

Just recently at Harvard University — sometimes pegged as “godless and liberal” — the hookup culture came under fire, mostly from a small but growing abstinence group called True Love Revolution.

They argue that women who invoke a new kind of feminism — the right to have sex whenever and with whomever they choose — is demeaning to women.

“A popular thing to say among this intellectual crowd, in the ivies and in feminism in general, is to say that sex is empowering and a real woman uses her sexuality in any way she pleases,” said Rachel Wagley, a 20-year-old sociology student who is TLR’s co-president. “It’s blatantly false and a lie that this culture tells to girls for their own benefit.” Silpa Kovvali, a 21-year-old computer science concentrator, argued in a Harvard Crimson editorial that there is nothing “inherently degrading” about engaging in casual sex — in fact, she said, it can be “empowering.”

It is sad to me that many of the students in our ministry hear this message and buy into it. This is why the series is called “The Truth About…” While we will be talking about relationships and sexuality, the core issues here are What is the truth about God?” and What is the truth about humanity and our identity in God? The fact that a woman would become liberated through being degraded by a man is a terrible lie. Men and women are liberated through Jesus and trusting in his sacrifice on the cross.

Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church (And How To Fix It)

The title of this post is a book I’m currently reading by Thom and Joani Schultz. As the title suggests, the book is about education within the church. I’m enjoying it so far, and have a few things to think through after only one chapter. Some takeaways so far (in my own words):

  • It’s silly to teach without knowing the overall goal of teaching. We’re not talking just about the goal of a particular sermon, “talk” or lesson; we’re talking about teaching in general. If I picture teaching as a ministry as a machine of sorts, and if the input to this machine includes our time, effort, resources, etc., what do I hope to get out of the machine? What do I want the outcome to be? If I don’t know the answer to this question, I need to really think and pray about it before I teach another lesson or preach another sermon.
  • It has been shown that students do not learn best in primarily lecture-based format. So why is this format the “go-to” for most youth pastors? Time is one factor (it’s easier to simply talk), fear comes into play (what if I try something new and it bombs?) and some of it is just plain “We’ve always done it this way!” (insert your favorite denominational joke here).
  • What we’re doing isn’t working. Fewer and fewer students (according to studies) can articulate a biblical worldview or are impacted in a positive way by what they learn in church.

Good food for thought here. After thinking about this for a few minutes, here are my, “but what about…” thoughts:

  • So what should be our primary form of communication? I’m not ready to buy into the idea that since students watch a lot of T.V. and movies, we should totally embrace those media. Teaching in the form of a sermon seems to be a consistent form of teaching in the Church and was embraced by Jesus (although I doubt Peter and the other apostles were too worried about having three points or organizing their thoughts into easily remembered acrostics).
  • Okay, I agree that we shouldn’t focus on the memorization of facts as a benchmark for how well students are learning. I want to graduate faithful followers of Jesus who are passionate about being doers of the Word, and not mearly hearers. But don’t we need the building blocks of a decent understanding of Scripture, theology, church history, and other disciplines? At some point in time, hard work that might not be the most exciting is necessary. In athletics, sprints and strength drills aren’t always the most fun, but they provide for us the endurance and strength necessary to enjoy and be successful at the game.
  • How do I provide ways for a large group of students to really engage what we’re learning so that it sinks in? I know that not everyone I teach will totally dive right in to applying what I teach to their lives, but how do I provide tools for students “take the next step” and live out what they’ve heard? When I led a smaller congregation, I felt like it was easier to do this, because we could do more things as a group. So what’s the answer? Encourage my small group leaders to do this in their groups?

Well, here’s looking forward to a nice evening reading more of this book and holding my sweet girl Samantha…

Biblical Illiteracy

From Here:

The situation may have comic possibilities for Leno, but for preachers working to craft a biblically based sermon, the situation is confounding. If parishioners can’t follow references to significant people, places or things in the Bible, they may miss or misunderstand the whole message. Tony Campolo, founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education and author most recently of Red Letter Christians: A Citizens Guide to Faith and Politics, recalls referring in class to the book of Proverbs and hearing a student ask, “Do we have that in our library?” Wallace Adams-Riley, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, says biblical illiteracy is such a big problem that a lot of ministers “don’t even know where to start.”

Much of my philosophy of ministry is based on Ephesians 4:11-13, and so in many ways I view being a coach as part of my role as a youth pastor. In a lot of ways, studying the Bible is like practice. It has fantastic merits in its own right and can often be really enjoyable. Some of my favorite memories in college soccer were having a great time working hard at practice (maybe the fact that my playing time was also very minimal contributes to this). However, practice requires discipline and sacrifice. How does a good coach get players to practice? By creating a culture where good practice is valued. Yes, many tools help, but in the long run, punishments (running extra sprints), rewards (also known as bribery), or other enforcers will fizzle out.

So, how do I create a culture of practice and discipline in youth ministry? I’m honestly not sure. I suppose by highly valuing it myself–one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever had ran every run and sprint with us. And by continually teaching students to value it. If I say I want students to learn how to be learners–especially of Scripture–but I don’t build our ministry to help them be successful in that endeavor, then anything I say up from up front about it is moot.

LarkNews.com: Trend: Youth groups forget meaning of names

Here’s a bit of humor for your Friday:

SYRAC– USE — When Rhett Wilson became youth pastor at LifeWay Church, he inherited a youth group name nobody could explain: GetReady 7:35. The youth group had been using it for five years, but almost the entire pastoral staff had changed and nobody could remember what it meant.
“We know the youth used to have prayer early Saturday morning,” says Wilson. “Maybe it means 7:35 a.m.”
Others surmise the 7:35 refers to a Bible verse, or to the time on Wednesday nights when the group used to meet. Wilson tasked youth group members with looking up all chapter 7 and verse 35s in the Bible. They didn’t come up with anything that fits.
Youth groups across the country are finding themselves in the same predicament: sometimes their names outlast their leaders and memories.
Get Wi’dit 4:11 in Ft. Lauderdale doesn’t know if their name refers to 411, as in where to get critical information, or a Bible verse.
“I think it’s Ecclesiastes 4:11,” cracks the associate youth pastor. That passage reads, “And on a cold night, two under the same blanket can gain warmth from each other. But how can one be warm alone?”
Two youth groups — The Call 5:16 and Higher 37 — have posted online requests asking former youth group members what their names mean, so they can retire them with dignity.
At Youth Group 720 in Seattle, the current youth pastor confesses he doesn’t know what exactly it means.
“The previous guy explained it to me one time, but I forgot it,” he says. “It may mean two full revolutions, or maybe it’s a Bible verse. Maybe it was his membership goal.”
He laughs.
“We still use it because it sounds skateboard-y,” he says.

Walt Mueller in Youthworker Journal: "Why I Am Rich"

Walt Mueller’s article in the November/December Youthworker Journal has served as a good reminder for me in ministry. The article brings up a number of good points, but what hit me was the following phrase from the last section about how we can plan mission trips that bring about lasting change:

“cut the entitlement-feeding stuff from our programming (expensive winter ski trips, etc.) and funnel our youth ministry time into radical giving.”

The phrase “entitlement-feeding” was what really caught my eye. When planning events, I do try to not go overboard and have really expensive events and trips that simply are a lot of fun and nothing more. However, before today, I had never really thought about asking the following question when it comes to event planning: Is this event reinforcing a sense of entitlement in our culture? I usually plug and advertise all events, whether it’s a “block party” event designed for students to bring their friends, a service project, or World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine in the following way: “It will be a lot of fun! You should come!” As I thought about it, I don’t usually say something like, “This event will help you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus!” Why? Because I buy into the idea that students need to think they’ll get something out of an event in order to come. That’s reinforcing their sense of entitlement.

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?

Parents and Their Teens’ Music Choices

I recently got an email from a parent asking for some advice on how to help her teenager think through music that she likes to listen to that the parent does not think is appropriate for her or edifying for her relationship with God. I am always glad when parents think through how to set healthy boundaries for their kids. The fact that this parent wants to think through how to set good limits for her daughter is a great thing in itself. Here was my response:

[Parent Name]:

Discussing culture in general and music specifically is certainly on my “rotation” of things to teach on. We will likely discuss it specifically sometime in 2010, but we do regularly talk about (as an application) the music, movies, and television shows that we choose to listen to and watch.

My goal when it comes to music is to help students think through the messages of the music they listen to. For instance, when traveling with students in a van on a mission trip or in a car to a retreat, I allow students to plug their iPods in (it used to be CDs!) and play any music they like as long as I get to press pause any time I want and ask questions about the music and make comments. I find that this equips them to help make decisions about what they choose to expose themselves to in our media-saturated culture. It doesn’t mean that I condone every song that is played (I once gave an impassioned 20-minute lecture to some students on the way home from a retreat on the intrinsic value of females as children of God after we listened to the first 60 seconds of a song that demeaned women in an awful way). However, it does open the door for great conversation.

I’m not familiar with the band she likes to listen to, so I can’t speak to their music. However, if [daughter’s name] is willing to listen to some songs with you, it might be good (and even fun!) to have a conversation with her about specific aspects of the band’s songs. Ask her questions about why she likes the music, what the message of particular songs are, whether those messages line up with or are contrary to God’s Truth as found in the Bible, and whether or not the music builds her up in her walk with Jesus. And please feel free to speak frankly to her about concerns you have with the band’s music and message.

Ultimately, they choice is yours in terms of what concerts [daughter’s name] attends and what music she can have on her iPod. I’m encouraged that you are willing to set limits for her, and I hope you continue to set safe boundaries for her as her mom. She may not come to a point where she understands why you set those boundaries, but I guarantee that it will help her to set boundaries for herself in the future.

A resource that’s been a huge help to me when it comes to music and other media is www.cpyu.org. Walt Mueller, who started the site, has put a lot of time into helping parents understand the culture that their teenagers live in.

Thanks for the note, and I’ll continue to be in prayer with you as a parent. You are certainly not the first parent to have these concerns!

Yours in Christ,
Benjer

Ultimately, I try to take an equipping approach to this. Of course, this does not mean that I’ll play a song during a lesson that is obscene or has explicit lyrics (I may bleep a few things out) just to have students discuss it–just as I don’t need to show pornography to teach a lesson on it. However, if students are already listening to something, then it can often be good to engage in a conversation with them and try to shed God’s truth on what they are exposing themselves to.

NYT: Recession Drives Surge in Youth Runaways

It’s pretty heartbreaking when we work with students who have been in or are in crisis situations that would lead them to run away. Many times, the issues run below the surface, and we (those who work with youth and their families) need to be on the lookout for warning signs. A wise seminary professor taught us that just about every student are “at risk,” meaning in difficult family situations or already engaging in risky behavior, including running away.

From Here:

Betty said she had run away from home a week earlier after a violent argument with her mother. Shivering and sullen-faced, she vowed that she was not going to sleep by herself again behind the hedges downtown, where older homeless men and methamphetamine addicts might find her.

The boys were also runaways. But unlike them, Betty said, she had been reported missing to the police. That meant that if the boys let her stay overnight in their hidden tent encampment by the freeway, they risked being arrested for harboring a fugitive.

“We keep running into this,” said one of the boys, Clinton Anchors, 18. Over the past year, he said, he and five other teenagers living together on the streets had taken under their wings no fewer than 20 children — some as young as 12 — and taught them how to avoid predators and the police, survive the cold and find food.

“We always first try to send them home,” said Clinton, who himself ran away from home at 12. “But a lot of times they won’t go, because things are really bad there. We basically become their new family.”