immerse journal: my first full-time gig in youth ministry.

i had the opportunity to write an autobiographical piece for Immerse Journal recently on transition in youth ministry and how to navigate it successfully. here’s what i said…

I just got my full-time gig in youth ministry. Well, that’s not totally true. I had worked for years as an intern in the church where I grew up, but that was different. There I had a youth ministry team I worked alongside, and although I had some authority, I still wasn’t really in charge. I looked, felt and acted like a youth pastor, yet I could always rest easy knowing that the buck never really stopped with me.

But now those days are behind me. Six months ago I was hired as the youth director at Jacob’s Well Church in Kansas City, and I thank God every day for the opportunity I have been given. I love my new students, staff and congregation, and every day I learn more about myself as a leader and how to navigate this transition into a new place. Who knows? Maybe my experiences will help you navigate your own ministry.

Pray for wisdom.

Disclaimer: I don’t really have a clue what I’m doing most of the time. In fact, I feel unqualified for my position. As I ponder the ministry I lead, there are numerous things I am convinced would cure me of my cluelessness, such as a larger budget, more volunteers and students, a dynamic worship band, an administrative assistant, etc. Surely these things would cure my lack of confidence and take my youth ministry to new heights. Right?

In 1 Kings 3, Solomon has just inherited the throne from David when God visits him in a dream. God tells Solomon, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon is a kid. He doesn’t know what he is doing. He’s a total noob to this whole concept of leading a nation. Admitting his limitations, he responds with, “God, I am only a child and I don’t what I’m doing. I need your wisdom—a discerning heart for choosing what is right for my people—because I don’t have clue how to do this on my own.”

Solomon isn’t qualified for his job either, but he is willing to admit it and ask God to intervene. Not one of us is truly qualified for ministry, but that is exactly what ultimately qualifies us. We are broken people who have been given the task of being Jesus’ perfect hands and feet on this planet. In admitting that we are flawed, we embrace our depravity and allow God to intervene on our behalf. When we admit our limitations like Solomon does, we are freed from the weight of our humanity and can enter into what God is truly leading us toward: himself.

Remember your calling.

One of my favorite movies is That Thing You Do. It’s the story of a ’60s rock band from small-town Pennsylvania riding the whirlwind of nearly overnight success. One day they’re playing chords in a garage, and suddenly they’re on national TV with a #1 album. As the curtain is about to rise on their biggest stage yet, the guitarist takes a deep breath and, in a moment of nostalgia, exclaims to the rest of the group, “Guys, how did we get here?!”

Think back to when you first felt the nudge toward ministry. Where were you? What were you doing? What led you here? How did you arrive where you are today? There was a point when you were called to youth ministry, and I pray that you remember it whenever you feel frustrated, tired, confused, lost and clueless. Remember that you are called.

I first felt the nudge into youth ministry while riding shotgun in a 15-passenger van. I was an intern, and we had just returned from a middle school retreat of some sort. A friend asked me if I’d ever thought about becoming a youth pastor. I had never truly considered it before. I realized that not only did I have the right skill set, but I had a desire to invest in the lives of middle schoolers and lead them in the way of Jesus Christ.

As I was going through the interview process for my position, I found myself wrestling with my calling nearly every day. Some nights I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so uncertain. I kept considering alternatives; I felt broken and unsuited for ministry and kept asking the question Moses asks God in Exodus 3: Who am I to lead anybody? What if I fail? But when I think back to that conversation in that 15-passenger van, I am always reminded that this is my calling and what I was made to do. Even as I write this paragraph I am filled with energy and joy.

Recalling this time of wrestling is crucial to your transition into your new ministry. Don’t just ignore those thoughts and push through without giving it the amount of prayer and struggle it deserves. Remember what got you into the youth ministry game in the first place and celebrate where God has already taken you on your journey. Because “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” By celebrating where we’ve been, we can better look forward to where God is taking us.

Adopt the long view.

When I first arrived at Jacob’s Well, I felt an internal tension. I was expected to lead a group of students, but I didn’t have a clue who any of them were. I was called to enter into the lives of these students, but I didn’t yet know anything about them. I wasn’t able to truly love them without first learning their stories. Before I could be an effective leader, I had to learn who it was I was leading. But that doesn’t just happen overnight; meaningful relationships take time to develop.

Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint, so adopt the long view and take time to study your new culture. Spend the first six months being a cultural anthropologist, taking in your surroundings, learning the values, understanding the history and discerning what God is already up to in your ministry. Most importantly, give yourself time to develop relationships with your new students.

Unfortunately, your new culture doesn’t just grind to a halt because you need time to figure out your surroundings and establish relationships. This tension is just part of the transition you’ll have to fight through. Change is not going to be easy, and this is by no means a perfect formula. I pray it can bring you some peace, as it has me.

thanks to aaron, mike, chris and everyone else over at immerse/barefoot for letting me be a voice in the youth ministry realm. it’s an honor, fellas.

-apc.

welp. hope you show up.

this is a Holy Week post. yeah, i know it’s a few days late – we already celebrated the resurrection and everything, but today was the first time in months that i remembered that i had a blog where i could share some longer-than-140-character thoughts.

this lenten season i’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus being fully man, yet still abiding in God’s meta-narrative for his life: that he was called to die for our sins. his prayer in the garden of gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me,” is something that i’ve heard and even spoken on a number of times with my youth group, and i’ve always understood its implications – how Jesus is dreading the journey ahead of him just like any man would, but still ultimately leaves it up to his Father – and that has always been powerful to me too. but that’s not really what’s been resonating with me this season.

i’ve taken the idea of Jesus’s faithfulness and spread it across all of his miracles throughout the gospels in my mind – water into wine, calming the storms, feeding five thousand, walking on water, healing the blind and lame, raising Lazarus from the dead – and i’ve come to realize that all of these acts took a great deal of trust and faith on the part of Jesus. i think that since we already know the whole story that we forget how much faith it requires to perform each of them. we already know that he succeeds in all of his soon-to-be-miracles, but is Jesus fully aware that he’s going to succeed?

what’s going through Jesus’s mind when he sends the blind man to the jordan river with mud all over his eyes? “welp, hope you show up God, cause thats a long way to go for a bath.” or when he is about to keep the wedding reception rolling by turning the water jugs into wine, “welp, hope this actually works, cause otherwise i’m going to look like a total lame-o.” or when he starts to walk out onto the water, “welp, hope i don’t sink cause i’ve only got this one shirt…” or when he commands Lazarus to walk out of the tomb after three days of rotting, “welp, you better get up Lazarus cause it really stinketh up in here.”

okay so maybe i’m being a bit too facetious, but my point is this: when performing these numerous miracles, does Jesus have any doubt that his Father will pull through for him as he expects him to? does he know that with God’s help he’s the Ender Wiggin of performing miracles? or, since he’s fully man afterall, does he ever even have a fleeting “welp” moment?

whenever i think about the events or curriculum or courses i create for the students in my youth group, i’m consistently doubting that God is going to show up. almost every morning i finish speaking and think, “welp, that could’ve gone better.” and when i’m watching the clock countdown the minutes before the first students start showing up for our various events, i always have that quick thought, “welp. hope somebody shows up tonight.” what pitiful faith i have. Jesus has the confidence that the Father is going to perform miracles at a moment’s notice, yet i don’t have the confidence that my Sunday morning series that i’d been preparing all week had any sort of impact whatsoever. lame.

a few weeks before palm sunday, i spoke on the triumphal entry and how the Jews didn’t fully grasp the idea that Jesus wasn’t exactly the mighty conqueror king they were expecting when he rolled into Jerusalem. (i used this performance of whitney houston’s “i will always love you” to illustrate my point)*.

*not who you expected, huh?

anyway, long story short: i tanked it. i ran out of time and had to skip half of my talk, and i’m not totally sure i even mentioned the triumphal entry. i left that sunday feeling like a total failure. “welp. really bombed that one.”

then a few days later, we had an event at the church, and i gave a short little blurb and utilized Lazarus’s resurrection as an illustration. i asked the group why Jesus would wait three days to go to the tomb and save him when he clearly has the power to heal people immediately from a great distance away. he already did it with the roman centurian’s servant. i asked, “why would Jesus ever do it that way?”

a sixth grade dude raised his hand and responded, “it’s like what you were talking about on sunday: Jesus doesn’t do things the way we expect him to.”

um. what? excuse me? you mean you took something away from my string of incoherence this past sunday? did i just dream that, or did you actually repeat what i said verbatum? it was a perfect illustration of what little faith i have that God will actually show up amidst my endeavors – whether they’re successes or failures in my eyes.

I planted the seed, Apollos watered the seed, but God is making the seed grow. – Paul, 1 Corinthians 3:6

nothing happens on account of us. we just have to have the faith that God is growing the seeds we’re planting and watering. which can be frustrating when it doesn’t happen on our time, in our midst, and during our programs. it’s a failthful grind every single day.

which brings me back to the garden. Jesus is pleading to God for Door #2. he’s about to be arrested, tried, tortured, and nailed to a cross until he suffocates. and then – just like Lazarus – he’s gotta wait three days until God decides to sweep in and raise his body. Jesus doesn’t even have the luxury of being immediately risen – he has to go hang out with Hades until Sunday morning.

he’s the getting nailed to the cross, yet i’m the soldier whining about my swollen thumb.

i’m the one who gets frustrated when Jesus doesn’t work things out on my watch. i’m the one who needs affirmation that my ministry is remotely a success. i don’t have the patience to wait and see if the seeds i’ve planted ever grow, yet, in the meantime, my Savior has just bled all the way up a mountain side without saying a single word. it’s embarrassing to even think how small my faith is in what my Father is capable of doing.

so that’s been the state of my heart over Holy Week this year. full of shock and admiration at Jesus’s faith in his Father. wishing i could be remotely like Him. thankful that even though it looks like Friday through my unfaithful eyes…Sunday is always comin’.

-apc.

tough questions from andy root.

i am in the middle of andrew root and kenda dean’s latest book “the theological turn in youth ministry”. andy explains that Jesus was a representative for us in his death on the cross, and that, likewise, we ought to be a representative for our students. this representation appears in a number of ways, and he asks some really tough reflection questions for every youth worker to consider in their ministry areas. thought I’d share them on here. this is all directly from the book:

a representative is qualified. Jesus was qualified to be our true representative by incarnation, crucifixion and ressurection. have we helped our volunteers and young people do deep theoretical reflection on human action and theological action? or have we settled for a programmatic focus?

a representative must regularly face in two-directions. Jesus, as the church confesses, was simultaneously the Son of Man and the Son of God, human like us, but also completely other. youth workers and volunteers have been taught to identify with adolescents, but have they also been taught the importance of differentiation?

a representative must suffer. God in Jesus suffered the full human condition. have we understood that (youth) ministry demands suffering? are we aware that youth ministry is more than just fun and games, that it is a call to bear the suffering of the adolescent as one follows the suffering of Christ?

representation flows from vocation. Jesus could not be distracted from his vocation of the cross that bore the suffering love of the Father for the world. can youth workers articulate that suffering love in youth ministry is about doing but also about thinking? have we seen ourselves as local theologians reflecting and articulating Gods continued unveiling in the world?

those who are being represented know themselves as being apart of the representational event or act. Jesus calls his disciples to love as he does; discipleship (as Bonhoeffer asserted) is the invitation to follow Jesus to the cross. have youth workers helped adolescents see and participate in representation? do youth workers see their part in helping adolescents themselves become representatives of Christ in the world?

just wanted to share those questions. makes for great fodder with volunteers/fellow youth workers.

-apc.

easter hymn: the roots – “walk alone”

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had the opportunity to write a guest post over at my friend christian’s blog, justbeingchristian.com. he has been writing a series of posts titled “easter hymns” – telling the story of Christ’s death and resurrection through hip-hop tunes. i’ve really enjoyed them, so i am pretty honored to get to contribute to them. mine is the fourth post in the series.

check out my post here: the roots – “walk alone”

check out the previous three installments here:
kanye west – “Jesus walks”
T.I. – “dead and gone”
common – “a dream”

thanks to doubledizz for the writing opp.

-apc.

Book Review: Jesus Creed for Students


the first sentence of the forward of “Jesus Creed for Students” makes it perfectly clear why this book was written: “this book is about following Jesus.” the authors (Scot McKnight, Chris Folmsbee and Syler Thomas) explain that this book is to be read alone but dissected in a group setting. the “Jesus Creed” is straight from Matthew 22, “love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” in short: life is about “loving God and loving others.”

this book has been rewritten from the original version specifically for students to connect with, and it does an incredible job of being relevant, stylistically conscious, and, ultimately, very applicable for the life of every teenager.

relevance: this book takes questions that ever student deals with and packages them in a way that students can understand and wrestle with. questions like,

– who am i?
– who does God want me to be?
– how does God want me to live?
– is there more to Christianity than just being “good”?
– how do i talk with God?
– what is life all about?

but even more than providing accessible answers to those and similar questions, the authors are contextually relevant to today’s teenagers. topics like social media, respecting parents, school life, labeling and judging. there is so much insight that can be gained from so many books, but very few books are written so that students can connect with them. students pick up a book, read the first couple chapters (maybe) and then put it down because it never connects with their world. this book does that very well and is very relevant for youth. my personal guess is that this book would be perfect for the 8th-11th grade age group.

the answers to these questions also push against the religious stances of today’s American teenager. in the book, “Soul Searching”, sociologists Christian Smith and Melina Denton study the religious life of the American teenager in ways no one has before. they concluded that rather than the true Gospel of Jesus, today’s youth are following what Smith and Denton call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. this idea affirms the existence of God as a Creator and supreme being, but that he is only essential in hard times and that the most important parts of life are being nice, morally good people and to be happy about oneself. clearly, this is an incorrect view of the gospel, but it is a reality of today’s students. the questions that “Jesus Creed for Students” asks are exactly what is relevant.

writing style: this book is a quick read – students won’t have to stumble over cumbersome wording like they may when reading a book written for adults. the authors do an amazing job of articulating the Jesus Creed in a way that is accessible to youth, but also that it doesn’t lose any of its overall message. the book paints what the true Gospel is all about in a way that students can read and not be bored or turned off.

it does this in a few different ways: first, the book uses this generation’s lexicon. words like “wannabe”, “grunge”, and “popularity” – subtly, the authors have inserted the language that students can understand and connect with, thus, making them more effective in reaching their target audience. they avoid complex language and colorful sentences and instead employ hyphenated descriptors and culturally conscious creations.

– instead of “disciples” it’s “Christ-followers”.
– instead of the “second commandment” it’s the “love-others statement”.
– instead of “material possessions” it’s “iThings”, “iWants”, or “iNeeds”.

they’re youthful enough to connect more effectively, but not childish enough to lose focus or impact (or to become overly silly with their creativity). students will connect with this book – with the concept of “loving God, loving others” – because it is written in their vocabulary.

practical application: in my opinion, application is the easiest way for students to connect well or to not connect at all with a certain concept. if i say, “pray more,” then students may or may not actually pray more. but if i give them a exact prayer to pray with guidelines and a terrific explanation of how to pray and when and why, then they are absolutely going to apply “praying more” in their lives. this book’s greatest strength is providing practical application points for the concepts introduced.

at the beginning and the end of every chapter it either states “Recite the Jesus Creed” or “Say the Lord’s Prayer”. it encourages this repetition as a way of establishing a spiritual rhythm in life. they suggest reciting the Jesus Creed every morning and every night and upon both coming and going from their home. and then add to it by reciting the Lord’s prayer with it at the same times for a month solid.

the authors also encourage students to get involved serving somewhere without anyone else knowing: a way for students to grow strictly with God, and to develop their desire to serve for the right reasons.

they are also very specific when it comes to asking questions. there aren’t any vague or unclear questions; they are focused and intentional:

– “what do you think ‘whenever you pray’ means?”
– “how are you doing on reciting the Jesus Creed daily?”
– “what is your biggest temptation when it comes to branding yourself?”
– “what do your possessions reveal about where your heart is? are you serving two lords?”

questions like these interrupt the text so that students can think about them as they are reading the next paragraph – simultaneously reading and applying the text. students need this sort of dialogue within the text if they are going to process what they are reading. the application is consistently the most effective aspect of this book.

cover to cover, this book is a home run. students can connect, comprehend, and have perfect outlets to apply the Jesus Creed. i would 100% recommend this book – in fact, in the season of planning summer activities and curriculum, this book will certainly find its way into the conversation.

-apc.

buy the book: paraclete press.