Thursday, August 30, 2007

    Going Back for Seconds

    One of the attributes of my denomination that perhaps distinguishes it from many other mainline denominations is that the laity in our churches can do anything an ordained pastor can do. This includes presiding at the communion table. Such freedom meant that at our youth fall retreat last weekend, we were able to hold a communion service entirely led by the youth.
    The setting was an outdoor chapel which looked out over the campground's lake. Communion elements were grapes and a loaf of bread. Two girls in our group shared the words of institution from scripture and then invited the others forward. With big smiles on their faces, they received each person and offered them the symbolic elements of Christ's life and ministry. I took my place in line, received the elements, and sat down. Then I noticed that some of the youth had returned to the line for a second helping! Imagine that: wanting to recieve a double portion of communion. One of the other adults looked at me as if to say, "Is this okay?" to which I replied "Hey, we need all the communion we can get!" As more people got back in line, the ritual of communion took on a festive atmosphere, as we were indeed sharing in a real meal together. The typical staid atmosphere of the communion service turned festive, with the youth talking and laughing with one another. I wonder why communion couldn't be this enjoyable every Sunday?

    Poll Results: Parents in Youth Ministry

    When we asked recently how many of you would use parents as volunteers within your youth ministry, 56% said "Great idea! I'm already doing it." 29% said they would do it if the parent's teen was okay with the arrangement. 12% said they would do it only as a last resort and only one person said they would not even consider using a parent as a youth group volunteer. I was actually surprised to find that so many people use parents as volunteers, but I have to say that I think it's a good idea. Recent studies have confirmed what most of us probably assumed: parents have the greatest impact on the future involvement of young people in church. If parents are actively involved in ministry, it greatly increases the possibility that their teens will continue to see faith and church as important once they move into adulthood.


    Wednesday, August 29, 2007

    The Doubts of a Saint

    Almost four years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Southern India and spend a month visiting various churches, seminaries, villages, and cities. After recovering from my initial acute culture shock (it was the first time I had ever been out of the country and I really did not know what to expect), I fell in love with India. The people, the customs, the food, the smells, the colors—everything in India is so vibrant and alive. For a time, I seriously considered moving to India. I was so serious that in the winter of 2005 (days after the tsunami struck) my wife and I took another trip to India. India resides deep in my heart and writing about such a wonderful country makes me homesick for a place that I have never lived.

    I have never been to Calcutta (the home of Mother Theresa), but I have been to several orphanages and deep in the slums of India. I’ve seen the effects of extreme poverty, sickness, and disease. And so, it is with great admiration, that I have looked, and continue to look, to Mother Theresa for inspiration and guidance.

    So, I was a little surprised when I came across an article in this week’s Time Magazine that reviews a new book about Mother Theresa entitled: Mother Theresa: Come Be My Light. Basically, the book claims that Mother Theresa, while trying always to project a self-image of one who was continually filled by God’s love and presence, had doubts, serious doubts, regarding her faith and believe in God and Jesus Christ. In letters to her spiritual mentor (which she asked that be burned upon her death), one can sense the anguish that she must have felt as she worked with the sick and dying.

    Some argue that such a book will incriminate or obstruct Mother Theresa from being made a saint in the Catholic Church. Others claim that this book will elevate her into a stardom on the same level as Augustine or Thomas Merton.

    Personally, I am unsure of how this book will influence individual’s perception of Mother Theresa. What I do know is that I feel a sense of reassurance, and calmness, to learn that Mother Theresa experienced moments of extreme doubt and anxiety. I think we all, whether we admit it or not, experience moments of disbelief and heartache. Yet, I believe such experiences are not a sign of a lack of faith, but rather a sign that our faith is growing. I believe, and share with my youth, that doubt is the crest of faith. If we’re not asking questions, not thinking, not being challenged then we’re probably not growing.

    I look forward to reading this book and learning more about the life of one who influenced so many. I’m also considering spending a few Sunday’s with my youth examining the lives of saints and the notion that we are all saints in today’s world.


    Happiness and Religion

    Before church on Sunday morning, I like to read the paper and drink my cup of tea. Last Sunday, this article caught my attention: “Survey links happiness, religion among youths.” The first few lines of the article state, “Among America’s young people, godliness contributes to happiness. An extensive survey by the Associated Press and MTV found that people ages 13 to 24 who describe themselves as very spiritual or religious tend to be happier than those who don’t.”

    The article also notes that “when it comes to spirituality, American young people also are remarkably tolerant—nearly seven in ten say that although they follow their own religious or spiritual beliefs, others might be true as well.”

    I get the sense that the researchers were surprised by their findings. But, as an individual who constantly works with youth, I’m not really surprised at all. I think it’s true for adults, and youth, that if you have a sense of grounding, a sense of understanding, a spiritual sense that you were created by a God (not by a society consumed by material wealth and greed) then you are going to be a happier person.

    I also am not surprised that youth are tolerant of other religions. It’s evident to youth at a young age that there are many religious and spiritual practices. A common question I get is: How should we understand other religions? This is my answer: I know God best through Jesus Christ. However, I have to believe that the God I know best, as disclosed through Jesus Christ, a God of love, would not limit himself or herself to only one group of individuals. I believe strongly in the ecumenical movement and the recognition that all faiths are called to work together to achieve God’s presence in this world.

    How about you? What are your thoughts on this article?


    Thursday, August 23, 2007

    Quoting Homer

    The Simpsons have made it into the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations. Here's a particularly brilliant quote from Homer that is included:

    "Kids are the best, Apu. You can teach them to hate the things you hate. And they practically raise themselves, what with the internet and all."

    Wednesday, August 22, 2007

    Faithless - BOMBS

    Another great song and video from the alt/techo group Faithless. A powerful statement on war. Apparently MTV refused to show this video. Wonder why...

    "We think we're heroes, we think we're kings
    We plan all kinds of fabulous things
    Oh look how great we have become

    Key in the door, the moment I've been longing for
    Before my bag hit the floor
    My adorable children rush up screaming for a kiss
    And a story they're a gift to this world
    My only claim to glory
    I surely never knew sweeter days
    Blows my mind like munitions
    I'm amazed

    So much heaven, so much hell
    So much love, so much pain
    So much more than I thought this world could ever contain
    So much war, so much soul
    One mans loss, another mans gold
    So much more than I thought this world can ever hold

    We're just children, we're just dust
    We are small and we are lost
    And we're nothing, nothing at all

    One bomb, the whole block gone
    Can't find me children and dust covers the sun
    Everywhere is noise, panic and confusion
    But to some another fun day in Babylon
    I'm gonna bury my wife and dig up my gun
    My life is done so now I got to kill someone. . . "

    A Blast at the Back to School Bash

    Last Sunday night, we had our annual Back to School Bash. Here are some quick facts from the night: 220 youth in attendance, 75 adult volunteers, 3 local bands, 34 different churches represented, 9 area youth ministers/leaders in the dunking tank, and all together more than 300 people in attendance.

    The games were a ton of fun. The music was loud. The food was delicious. But, perhaps most importantly, at the conclusion of the evening, when we gathered for worship in the sanctuary, the spirit of the living God was present and among us all. Every seat in the center of the sanctuary was filled from the front to the back. Youth from thirty-four different churches joined in prayer, songs, and fellowship. You could feel the energy and sense of community in the air. There was a true sense on Sunday evening that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

    Who would've thought it?

    Anyone else pleasantly surprised by the recent MTV/AP survey that found that the majority of youth 13-24 reported "spending time with family" as the number one thing that makes them happy? Second on the list with youth was "spending time with friends." Few listed money as something that made them happy and many said that having sex made them less happy. Here is a fuller report on the study. Hat tip to youth ministry guru and consultant Randy Kuss for pointing out this article.

    Friday, August 17, 2007

    Can I Get Some Help Here?!

    In our recent poll, we asked "What would be most helpful for you in your ministry right now?" Some of you said a bigger budget, more help from parents, or a sabbatical to recharge your batteries. But the majority of responses (54%) indicated a need for more volunteers to help in ministry with youth. I suppose it will always be a challenge to find folks who are truly called to work with teenagers. Often the persons who want to do it are wrong for the job, and the ones who are the most qualified don't want to do it. So, I was thinking about some guidelines that I've learned in the past years for building a youth ministry team:

    Call others into the ministry. Rather than "recruiting volunteers," focus instead on the idea of "calling" individuals that you discern have gifts for ministry with teens. Invite these individuals to meet with you one-on-one and share with them the gifts and qualities you have observed that could help them be successful in nurturing the faith journey of youth. This "personal approach" is immensely preferable to putting out a public call for volunteers, which often results in people coming forward who have the best intentions but who are also totally unsuitable to serve with teens.

    Build on your own weaknesses. Do some real soul-searching and make a list of the things you are not gifted at but which would be a blessing in growing a healthy youth ministry. Not good at organization? Find someone who is! Not into sports? Find someone who is uniquely gifted to help teens in this area. Are you great at details but sometimes missing the big picture? Seek out those who can help your ministry dream and vision.

    Think out of the box. Despite what most churches might think, you don't have to be a male in your early twenties with a goatee, slim waist, and proficiency in ten sports to be a great youth leader. Help your youth experience the diversity of your church when seeking adult leaders. Senior citizens can be great with youth! Married couples and single people each bring their own unique perspective. A college/grad student can add a whole new dimension to your team. With great care and thoughtful boundaries, occasionally even a parent of one of your teens could be a real benefit to the team. (One caveat: when inviting parents to serve as adult leaders, I always check with their teens first.)
    Ask your youth. It never hurts to find out who your teens would like to see serving with the youth ministry. Even better, bring a teen along when you talk to a prospective helper. Adults are sometimes cautious about helping if they aren't sure whether or not the kids really want them there. Hearing the invitation directly from the mouth of one of the youth can go along way to helping an adult make the choice to become a regular part of your ministry.
    What others would you add?

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007

    Me Church

    This is a parody...I think.


    Last night, while waiting for my car to be done in the shop, I went over to Applebee’s and ate supper. Since I was by myself, I had a lot of time to people watch—hopefully I didn’t freak anyone out by staring at them. I noticed that when their meals were served, several families said a prayer before eating. This caused me to wonder: What is the history of saying prayers before meals?

    Theologically, the Bible is full of stories with individuals giving thanks to God before sharing a meal. This seems simple enough. But if we pray before meals, as a sign of thanksgiving, when else should we be praying? Should we pray before we eat ice cream? Should we pray when we are thankful for something that we have?

    Perhaps these are really mundane questions. But, when working with youth, I occasionally wonder when I should be praying. On mission trips, we don’t pray at the fast food restaurants, but do pray when we stop at a rest station for a picnic lunch. At church camp, we pray before meals, but not before our evening snacks. On a recent backpacking trip to Colorado we prayed before we went to sleep at night, but not before we heated up our freeze dried meals (which, by the way, if you eat freeze dried meals and hike all day long for a week you will lose weight).

    Maybe it’s not so much when you pray, but rather, the intentions of your prayer. This, in turn, causes me to wonder: What happens when you say the same prayer day in and day out? For example, my wife and I, at each meal, say the Lutheran Common Table Prayer. I like this prayer: Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to be us be blessed. But, I have to admit that sometimes, perhaps because the meal smells so good, I rush through the prayer, simply going through the motions. Other times, I feel that this prayer really feeds (no pun intended) my soul.

    Does anyone else ever think these thoughts or am I just crazy?


    Monday, August 13, 2007

    Slowing Down

    This summer has been incredibly busy. Every week has involved mission trips, summer camps, vacation Bible school, or some other church activity. I’m certainly beginning to understand why there is such a high burnout rate among youth ministers. I think many of us have the desire to offer, and participate, in as many activities as possible. We want our youth to come together, create community, do service projects, and grow in faith and spirituality. We want our camp programs to be large and have life-changing experiences. We want to be able to say that the summer was full of great events. And, I have to say, for the most part, that I enjoy all of these various activities. This Sunday we have our annual Back to School Bash where twelve other churches from across the city of Columbia will join us for fun, food, and fellowship. There will be all sorts of games (from bungee runs and dunking booths to water slides and bashing a car) and worship.

    But what would happen if the summer wasn’t so busy? What would happen if during the summer we did an intentional forty day prayer journey with our youth? What would happen if we just came together and sat in silence? What if we conveyed the message that summertime is to be a Sabbath: A time to reflect on God’s presence in our lives. What if we held a one week camp that focused on contemplative spirituality and spent the entire time in prayer, silence, and worship?

    Friday, August 10, 2007

    Intermission! Let's All Go to the Lobby!

    I'm off for a last grab at a few days of vacation before the summer ends and the hectic fall schedule is upon me. Peace -- Brian

    Thursday, August 09, 2007

    Self-Serve Youth Ministry Blog Dispenser

    Does God Watch Baseball? - Stuart has an interesting theological take on baseball, Barry Bonds, and salvation.

    Give it a Rest! YouthHacks challenges youth ministers to take up the spiritual discipline of sabbath-keeping.

    Do We Need Youth Groups? Caleb at the Missional Students blog reflects on this question. Calvin over at Random Bloggings responds here.

    Fastest Text in the West? Steve at Youth Ministry Ideas offers up a youth group game for the cellphone age.

    Want to Visit the City of God? Darren, an Australian youth blogger over at PlanetTelex, has a great post on a creative project he set up to help youth and others create a model city/kingdom of God. Read his description here and see photos of the final product here.

    Tuesday, August 07, 2007

    Death to Veggie Tales?

    Here is a blogger rejoicing in throwing out all of the church's Veggie Tales videos. I can't tell exactly why this decision was made, but I applaud it. We should do the same at my church.

    In seminary we watched and dissected the Veggie Tales version of the Esther story. Our professor ripped it up one side and down the other, pointing out the blatant sexism and racism in the episode. I've also noticed how the Veggie Tales tend to sanitize the bibical narratives (see the one on the battle of Jericho). Singing tomatos are cute, but I doubt they do much to advance the mission of the church. Anybody want some cheap Veggie Tales videos?

    Young Adults Walking Away from Church

    From the "Tell me something I didn't already know" file:

    Protestant churches are losing young adults in "sobering" numbers, a survey finds. Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research.
    And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30. That means about one in four Protestant young people have left the church.

    This August 6, 2007 USA Today article goes on to say:

    Just over half (51%) of Protestant young people surveyed (both the church dropouts and those who stayed on in church after age 22) saw church members as "caring" or had other positive descriptions, such as "welcoming" (48%) or "authentic" (42%).

    Among dropouts, nearly all (97%) cited life changes, such as a move. Most (58%) were unhappy with the people or pastor at church. More
    than half (52%) had religious, ethical or political reasons for quitting.

    Dropouts were more than twice as likely than those who continued attending church to describe church members as judgmental (51% for
    dropouts, 24% for those who stayed), hypocritical (44% vs. 20%) or insincere (41% vs. 19%).
    Check out the full article here.

    Random Facts Meme

    Dan Mayes tagged me with this meme awhile back and it's taken me until now to respond.

    Here are the rules:

    1) Players start with 8 random facts about themselves
    2) Those who are tagged should post these rules and their 8 random facts
    3) Players should tag 8 other people and notify them they have been tagged

    I'm going to break the rules on the tagging, but here are my eight facts:

    1) I love robots, which explains why my desk at home is still flanked by the toy robots I was given as a kid. (Oh, and yes -- the robot pic above is my own creation).

    2) I was one of the founders of the first ever outdoor free Shakespeare festival in the state of Missouri.

    3) I am a recovering Trekkie.

    4) I have a twin brother, and he is one of nine siblings in my family.

    5) When I find something I like to eat in a restaurant, I tend to order it (and only it) every time I go there and the restaurants I eat at are almost exclusively ethnic (Indian, Greek, Mexican, Asian).

    6) I am the third generation of pastors in my family (and one of my older brothers is also a pastor).

    7) I have never had a broken bone (or ever had to stay in the hospital).

    8) My current TV show obessions are The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Prison Break.

    Image of the Day

    Jesus bandages.jpg, originally uploaded by johnny_bravo_richard.

    I sense a bad children's sermon coming upon me...

    Monday, August 06, 2007

    The Mission Trip Revisited

    I mentioned a few posts back about how proud of was of my youth group during our recent mission trip and participation in our denomination's national gathering. Part of that gathering included attending workshops with other youth. On one particular day, our group really wanted to stick around for a workshop on sex and dating. The other adults and I had our concerns, not knowing just who was teaching it or what they might say, but we agreed to stay and check it out. The young youth minister leading the discussion jumped right into it, using all his powers of entertainment to get the group on their feet and actively involved in the topic. However, and just as I had feared, he made the dangerous assumption that every teen in the room was exactly like him, which in this case meant: raging heterosexual.

    His opening challenge to the youth: "Split into groups of just guys or just girls and I want you to use a big sheet of paper and markers to show us your image of the ideal person of the opposite sex." Immediately the majority of the group jumped up, formed teams, and went to work. The boys clustered into two large groups, standing around in a circle like football players in a huddle, chuckling at jokes under their breath. The girls, perhaps more thoughtful, sat down together in small groups, working more quietly. All was clearly going as planned to set up the talk the youth minister had in mind on the difference between guys and girls!

    But not all the youth joined in. Throughout the audience, ten or so youth, most sitting by themselves, stayed in their chairs, not participating at all. "Describe your image of the ideal person of the opposite sex" he had instructed them, perhaps not realizing that in doing so, he had just alienated every young person in the room who was not attracted to the opposite sex, wasn't sure WHO they were attracted to, or simply did not want to share out loud for fear of being made fun of by their peers.

    Predictably, the two boy groups ended up with almost identical drawings of a Barbie-shaped girl, in a bikini -- big breasts, big butt. Oh, and neither of the boys' drawings bothered to include a head! Just the girl's half-naked body. One group of boys were kind of enough to draw a small stick figure of a "fat girl" at the bottom of the page to represent the one guy in the group who liked big women. This elicited laughter from the group. I wondered how that made the less-than-thin girls in the room feel. (Some boys from my group later said they wanted to mention other less "carnal" attributes for a girl but felt embarrassed to say anything given the situation. No points for bravery there, I guess.)

    The girls' efforts were not much better. One after another they presented either a drawing or a list of attributes they look for in a guy: muscles, abs, good-looking, good hair, good teeth, biceps, athletic, not fat, etc. I began to wonder just what the less-than-perfect kids in the room, those with "bad hair" and no abs, were thinking about themselves in that moment.

    Finally, the girls from our group (most of whom were wearing "Celebrate Diversity" pins they'd picked up at the gay Christians booth) got up to share their response. On their sheet of paper they had drawn a series of stick figures pairs, each holding hands and surrounded by hearts. One pair was a male and female figure, one was two males, and one was two females. On their page they had also listed the qualities they look for in a partner: honest, trustworthy, tender, sense of humor, good listener, forgiving, loving. After they finished sharing, the youth minister leading the discussion thanked them for their response, but clearly didn't know what to do with it since it didn't quite fit into the stereotyped expectations he had hoped to elicit.

    This experience made me think about how often we make the mistake of assuming that the people we serve in ministry are just like us. We assume they share our values, our perspective, our view of the world, our interpretation, our politics, our prejudices. I thought of the number of times I've made the mistake of assuming all the youth in the room are straight, only to find out later I was sorely mistaken. The number of times I've assumed all the youth in the room were Christian, when the truth was otherwise. The times I've assumed all the youth in the room have parents who love them more than life itself, only to discover later that some were living in emotionally destructive families.

    I'm reminded that Jesus met people where they were at and invited them to take a place at God's table with the invitation "Come as you are!"
    Image above is of some of our youth at the recent General Assembly of The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

    What If? : Fall Kick-offs

    What if...instead of kicking-off youth group this fall with a huge, loud, action-filled event, designed to attract every teen in town and convince them that "Yes! Church is fun! Church is cool!" you instead thought "small?" What if you instead thought "quiet?" What if instead you thought "restful?" What if the first activity that starts off the new school year offers time for youth to break away from the constant noise and activity of their everyday world? What if you created an experience where deep relationship building can begin? What if you set the tone for the whole year by starting off with a mission project, focusing outward on the needs of others rather than inwards on the need to be entertained? What if your first gathering modelled contemplation, intentional listening and sharing, and thoughtful prayer rather than trying to compete with the distractions of popular culture? What if...?

    Downhere - "The More"

    And the more You show me, the more You grow me
    The more Your glory becomes all there is
    And the more I know You, the more I need You
    The more I love You, the more You become to me . . .

    Thursday, August 02, 2007

    Theology Simplified

    Bumper sticker I saw today: