Meeting Teenagers Halfway: Is That Good Enough?

Last week I finished reading Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers by Chap Clark.  Throughout the course of the book, Clark reports on lengthy and in-depth analysis he has conducted on what life is like for teenagers today.  Overall, he concludes that teenagers have been “Systemically Abandoned” by the very structures and organizations in our society that ought to support and encourage teenagers.  Families are no longer a “safe” place (“Family” can mean single mom with kids, a mom and her kids joined with a step-dad and his kids, or even a two dads and their kids), Schools are more interested in test-scores, Coaches (even at the elementary level) are too concerned about winning.  Where are teenagers supposed to encounter adults who truly care about them enough to be trustworthy?  If you’re a youth worker and you haven’t read Hurt 2.0 yet, order it right now… seriously.

Hurt struck me on a very personal level – many times.  How could a youth pastor read this book without asking, “Am I contributing to this systemic abandonment?”  One important clarification came when Clark pointed out that teenagers don’t really need to be abandoned by adults, they only need to think they have been abandoned in order for their mistrust of adults to grow and turn them to their peers for the support they don’t feel from the adults in their lives.  Unfortunately, I have to confess that the following is too frequently true of me:

“An adult who wants to connect but who demands that midadolescents come halfway only serves to confirm the mistrust they feel and deepen the divide between adolescents and adults.  To the midadolescent, this attitude is yet another confirmation of abandonment.” (p.39)

It could be very easy and reasonable to justify requiring this give-and-take within the context of ministry (“There are so many students, how could I possibly meet with all of them… so I invest in the ones who will meet me half way.”), but this clearly means the students who are the neediest and most abandoned are simply condemned to never have an adult actively invest in them.

As I read Hurt 2.0  the names and faces of students whom I attempted to minister to but either simply gave up on or got too busy to continue my pursuit immediately flooded my mind.  I’ve been asking myself some difficult questions since finishing the book:

  • Are my administrative and peripheral duties from keeping me away from actually spending time with students?
  • Do I really give my full attention to be with to students who require me to demonstrate my trustworthiness by consistently time spend listening to them?
  • Am I giving students freedom to explore who God is calling them to be and what He’s calling them to do, or do I have too much of an agenda for students?
  • Who do I need to apologize to for letting them down?

It’s so easy to say the right thing because you known it’s the right thing to say… even if you know you can’t (or won’t) follow through.  How do you keep yourself from promising what you know you can’t give (even if you really want to give it)?

Peace on Earth: What’s it Mean?

The other day I went to LaSalette with my family and some good friends to see their Christmas display.  After enduring the insane traffic we pulled up front and I saw something that really frustrated me.  I saw the below image.


Let me explain why I was upset. Next to the biblical declaration, “Peace On Earth,” was placed the Jewish Star, the Muslim Crescent, and the Christian Cross.  I hope it’s a no-brainer that I would be fully in support of earthly peace between religious groups.  I do pray for peace and that violence would end.

My wife had no problem with the display and thought it was a nice gesture to encourage people to pray for peace.  On that level I agree, and have no problems with it.  But I think there are a lot of ways this display COULD be interpreted that caused (and continue to cause) me concern.

  1. It miscommunicates what Scripture means by declaring “Peace on Earth.”  Certainly, there is a type of “Peace on Earth” that points to the desire for world peace and an end to violence and hatred.  But when the angels declared, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” they were directly pointing to the truth that God is bringing peace between Himself and Men (and women).  This Peace on Earth is not merely a human peace, but it is a peace that God creates between Himself and his people who had rebelled against him so they could be reconciled and their relationship made “right” again.
  2. It could easily be confused as radical tolerance.  Does this display mean that the three religions are equally true?  Does this mean that we all worship the same God?  I do believe that Judaism and Christianity worship the same God, though the Jewish faith denies what the New Testament teaches about him, and is therefore incomplete for salvation.  Don’t misunderstand me: I’m in full support of religious tolerance legally, the government should neither actively promote nor limit religious freedom – but tolerance assumes disagreement.
  3. It confuses God’s order for establishing Peace on Earth.  The Peace and Joy we have because of Jesus Christ will transform our world and, in time, bring about the peace that the news continually reminds us we need.  Jesus came to change our hearts and to reconcile us to God the Father.  God’s plan was to redeem his people, and then to redeem his creation… when we cry out for “peace on earth” without first latching onto Christ for our peace then we are confusing God’s plan.

Again, I fully support and earnestly pray for peace between followers of different religions.  But seeing this display at a Christian Christmas lights display simply hit me as out of place, especially since there it was just there with no clarification of it’s desired meaning.

At Christmas-time when we see “Peace on Earth” and “Joy to the World” all over the place, I sometimes feel like Charlie Brown crying out, “Can’t anyone tell me what Christmas is all about!?”  These wonderfully rich phrases are promises given to us by God, and they only come through Jesus Christ – the baby who was born in the feeding trough (aka: manger).

Peace and Joy have come, that’s something to celebrate!  That’s something that we should pray for the people of other religions around the world to know and understand and believe!  SO if the picture above serves as a call for ministry to communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Jewish and Muslim communities, then I wholeheartedly support it… I just don’t think that’s what it was trying to say.

Maybe I am simply too much of a grinch to enjoy a Christmas display with family and friends.  Am I simply reading way too much into this, or do you also see reasons to be concerned?  

The Trap of Being Relevant

As a pastor, it’s my desire to teach and demonstrate that God’s Word really is still powerfully true today.  This desire brings some pastors to be so “relevant” they become just like those they’re trying to minister to, while others stand at a distance while trying to speak that truth into the culture.  I think both of those extremes are off the mark, and I’m honestly not sure which is more common… but that’s not my topic for today.

I just want to think about the “trap of being relevant.”  While writing a paper for school on Michael Horton’s book, Christless Christianity, I wrote the following reflection:

One of the greatest pearls of wisdom came when he wrote, “While the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, the assimilation of the church to the world silences the witness” (p.16). Of course, this is the great irony of making Christianity culturally relevant: in seeking to win an audience, we lose our distinct message.  Scripture is relevant and does not need us to make it so.  Therein lies my greatest point of agreement and disagreement with Horton: I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that the American Church has succumbed to culture and that Gospel-Proclamation is the calling and mission of the Church, but I often disagree with how he applies this within the local church.

As Christians (this is especially true for both pastors and parents as they attempt to teach Scripture), we need to be careful that in our desire to be “relevant” and “applicable” we aren’t guilty of a few things:

  1. We aren’t holding back from saying what needs to be said.  Are you so concerned about seeming judgmental that you’re not correcting what is false and speaking what is biblically true?
  2. We are blending in so much our message is just one of many conflicting messages.  The call to trust in and follow Jesus Christ better be different than the sales pitch to buy a new iPhone 4s.  Methods and Message ARE linked… if we blindly adopt so much of our cultures methods for communicating then we run the risk of simply making the Gospel another message for them to ignore.
  3. We are “redeeming culture” as a way to communicate the Gospel so much that once the Gospel is believed in, we’ve lost the ability to call people to repent and leave what is sinful behind.  I’m not separating faith and repentance here, but simply want to point out that if we are constantly “using” cultural touchpoints to demonstrate biblical truths then people could easily think, “Ok, now I believe in Jesus, but why would he want me to leave behind all this music I love if you’ve shown me how to listen to it Christianly?”

Keep in mind this is a word of warning against extremes, not a wholesale rejection of using cultural trends as a way to begin biblical conversations.  We need to understand both Scripture and our world, that’s obvious and I would never disagree with that (as the cliche says, “Preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”).  If we need to “make” Scripture relevant, then we simply have not understood what it says enough.

These are things that need to be held in tension.  It’s so easy to go from overemphasizing Scripture (where you want people to go) that you’re ignoring culture (where they are right now), then recognize what you’re doing and begin to overemphasize the other to correct your imbalance… and next thing you know you’re on the ministry see-saw constantly trying to find the “relevance sweet spot.”

Pastors – Are you trying to be so relevant in your ministry that you focus more on culture than Scripture?

Parents – Are you trying to be accepted by your teenager so much that you’re becoming more like them than you are calling them to be who God created them to become (aka: like Jesus)?

Everyone – Are you trying to justify the music/movies/whatever you like by “infusing” it with biblical overtones, or is it really something that needs to be honestly evaluated and left behind?

Three Sure-Fire Ways to Get Out of Youth Group

"Youth Group's sooo boring, do I HAVE to go?"

There are three things that a teenager can tell their mom or dad to get out of having to go to Youth Group.  I got these from my friend Bob Long a few years ago, and I really think he hit the nail on the head.  Here they are:

  1. “The youth leaders don’t like me.”
  2. “The other teenagers don’t like me.”
  3. “It’s boring.”

Do these sound familiar?

Here are a few questions of my own for students who say this to a parent:

  • Do you really mean it, or are you just saying that so your parents don’t make you go?
  • Did you really give Youth Group a shot, or did you decide ahead of time that it would be lame and the people wouldn’t like you?
  • Did you give other people the impression that you didn’t want them to include you in things?  If people try to greet you and you give them the cold shoulder and your body language says, “Leave me alone!” then they’ll probably leave you alone.  I know this can be a real struggle for people who are naturally very shy, but maybe you’re accidentally giving off the impression that you don’t want them to talk to you?
  • Are you expecting Youth Group to be the most amazing and fun thing you’ve ever been to… every single week?  Youth leaders have good weeks where they have lots of time to plan, and they have really busy weeks where there’s not too much time to devote to finding new and exciting games.
  • Especially if you’re a Junior/Senior: Are you going to serve or be served?  Is Youth Group all about you, or do you go in order to make sure others are greeted and welcomed and have a good time?
  • Are you rejecting Youth Group because you don’t want anything to do with God?  Sometimes, it may not be about Youth Group at all… sometimes there’s sin in your life that you don’t want to deal with, so you create reasons to avoid Youth Group.
  • Are you really pursuing Christ, or do you just want people to think you are?  If you go to Youth Group and everyone’s “too immature” for you, then maybe you aren’t as mature as you think… start serving!  Talk to your youth pastor and ask how you can get involved.

Parents: Do any of these three excuses sound familiar?  Try asking some of the above questions to your teen and see how they respond.  Have you talked to the Youth Pastor – not to tell him how to do his job better, but to share what you’ve heard from your teen and to hear his perspective on it?  Are you praying for your Youth Pastor, the other Youth Leaders, and for the Youth Ministry as a whole?

Students: Be honest about why you don’t want to go.  Maybe you’ve listed one of the above reasons above and you really mean is!  Try an experiment: Go to Youth Group every week for a month and be intentional about YOU being the one who welcomes people and tries to make things more enjoyable for everyone.  If you still hate Youth Group after a month of really doing that, then maybe it’s time to talk to your parents and/or your youth pastor about things.

Youth Pastors: I think I can speak for all of us when I say I’m very much aware of how cliquish Youth Group can be for a first-time visitor.  Are we doing all we can do to encourage our students to be reaching out to visitors and to break down the walls between the groups within the group?

Missions Trip 2012: Guatemala

I am so excited to announce that after six years, we’re finally returning to serve at Casa Bernabe, an orphanage just outside Guatemala City, Guatemala!

Here’s the basics you need to know:

  • Where: Casa Bernabe, Guatemala
  • When: August 5-12, 2012
  • How Much: Probably between $1000-1200 (too early to reliably know how much airfare will cost, so stay tuned)
  • What are we doing: Caring for orphaned and abandoned kids, Landscaping, Construction, and other random things that they’ll need done (and playing lots and lots and lots of soccer/futbol).
Let me share two stories I’ll never forget about the kids at Casa Bernabe in 2006:
  • Our team was there for a little over a week.  While there, at least six kids were dropped off to live at CB (I don’t remember the exact numbers, but it was at least six).  These are kids who were either living on the streets in nearby Guatemala City, or they’re kids who have been abandoned by their families.  Most of them are not, technically, “orphans” whose parents have died.  Many of these kids have been given up because their family was unable to care for them – due to drugs or because they couldn’t afford to feed all their kids.  In Guatemala, children are “unadoptable” unless they are legally reliquished by their parents, so most of the kids at CB are not able to be adopted and are literally stuck.
  • Juanita.  I wanted to bring her home.  She didn’t speak any English, and I hadn’t taken my Spanish classes very seriously in school, so my Spanish was very limited.  But I could communicate enough.  There was something about her that just grabbed my heart, and I still pray for her every time I see the picture of the two of us that’s in my office.  Your heart will be grabbed and changed… you will be changed.
Team Expectations: Since this is an international trip, the following expectations raise the bar. We do not want to add “one more thing to do” to your plate, but want to encourage you to reconsider what’s most important to you.  If you come on this trip and you’re already busy, I’d encourage you to ask, “What am I going to drop so I can serve on the Guatemala Team?”
  1. Active participation in at least half Youth Group events (Sunday School, Youth Group, Bible Study, Retreats, Service Projects, etc.).
  2. Active participation in Guatemala Mission Team Meetings (dates TBD, usually Saturdays 9-12 once a month for the 4-5 months leading up to the trip).
  3. Involvement in Fundraising Efforts to an estimated $1000-1200/person to cover costs. (note: Much of the expenses will hopefully be met through fundraising and support letters, if you choose to pay the total cost yourself please make note of that on your application).
  4. Complete the Guatemala Mission Team Application & Release Forms and submit $150 by Jan. 29th (youth should contribute towards the deposit from their own money).
  5. Following the Casa Bernabe Dress Code.
  6. Respect must be shown at all time to one’s teammates and Team Leaders must be obeyed.  There may be times when circumstances call for immediate action and complete explanations cannot be given.
  7. Possession of or acquiring illegal drugs, involvement in sexual or violent activity will be grounds for immediate dismissal.  You will be responsible for reimbursing Emmanuel Baptist Church for airfare and other related expenses incurred.
The '06 Guatemala Team on our "Tourest Day" in Antigua
Casa Bernabe is on a hill, so get ready to climb a LOT of stairs!
The '06 team around the dinner table. CB cooks all the food in their kitchen... if you don't like the food there's always peanut butter sandwiches available!
The guys' dorm at Casa Bernabe. Nothing fancy, but it's a bed to sleep in.


Sermon Summary: From Enemies to Family

The following is a summary of the sermon I preached at Emmanuel Baptist Church on 11/13/11.  Audio CD’s can be requested by contacted the church office.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be call sons of God” (Mt. 5:9).  As children of God, we should be people who build peace where there used to be conflict – Peace with God, and Peace with others.  God made peace with us through the Gospel and He sends us out as Ministers of Reconciliation.  The Gospel has turned us from enemies into family… and we are called to do likewise.

In 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 the Apostle Paul instructs Christians that they are ambassadors for Christ who must go out to proclaim to others, “Be reconciled to God!”   Reconciliation literally means, “To rejoin what has been separated.”  Jesus Christ took our sin upon himself, canceling our debt, and reconciling to the Father.  We have been reconciled to God, adopted as children of God through faith in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.  This is the message of reconciliation we are instructed to share.

How can we plead with others to be reconciled to God if we ourselves leave a trail of conflict behind us?  The Gospel isn’t merely a pattern to follow or a good example to learn from; the Gospel is life.  Even if you could live at peace with everyone you know, there would still be “something” missing in your life… and you’d know it.  We need to be reconciled to God, and that is only possible through faith in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the foundation for peace-making; meanwhile, peace-making is a fruit of the Gospel.

Bitterness and an unforgiving heart are directly opposed to the Christian’s calling.  We will never desire peace any more than we desire humility.  Are you willing to learn from Christ and make the necessary sacrifices in order to bring about peace and reconciliation?

“The peace that God secures is never cheap peace, but always costly. He is indeed the world’s preeminent peacemaker, but when he determined on reconciliation with us, his “enemies” who had rebelled against him, he “made peace” through the blood of Christ’s cross (Col 1:20). …We have no right to expect, therefore, that we will be able to engage in conciliation work at no cost to ourselves….” (John Stott, in The Cross of Christ)

One helpful reminder is the difference between Forgiveness and Reconciliation.  Forgiveness is one-sided: I’m responsible for it and I can do this without you doing it in return.  Reconciliation, however, is a two-way road: I can’t force you to be reconciled to me, it must be mutual.   While I can’t force reconciliation, I need to do everything I can to make it possible.

Jesus prayed, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sinned against us.”  Are we really willing to do that, or it is just something we say in church?  When we refuse to forgive and pursue peace with others then we need to remember how much we have been forgiven by God through the Gospel.

Please visit PeaceMaker Ministries’ website for the “Seven A’s of Confession” I shared in the sermon are listed on the website along with many other wonderful resources here: Foundational Principles in PeaceMaking.

A simple way to determine whom you need to pursue reconciliation with is to ask yourself this question: “Who makes you roll your eyes?”  God made peace with us through the Gospel, and He sends us out as Ministers of Reconciliation.  Do you bring peace where there is conflict – Peace with God, and Peace with others?

About two years ago I used PeaceMaker Ministries’ resources to teach a series in Youth Group called “Conflicted?” below are the links to those lesson summaries:

  1. The Gospel of Peace.
  2. Healthy Responses to Conflict
  3. How do you Resolve Conflict
  4. How Should we Resolve Conflict Christianly?

Can I Get a Witness

Over the next few weeks in Youth Group we’ll be welcoming different people from Emmanuel Baptist Church, who will come and share their faith-stories with us.  These “Faith Stories” are usually called “Testimonies,” and everyone’s story matters.  Too often, we come to thinking that the only people with good testimonies are people who have been in gangs, did drugs, and were generally crazy sinners before coming to faith in Jesus Christ.  But I don’t believe that – I believe that EVERYONE’S story matters, even if you think your story is boring.  Teenagers, I would love to have some of you share YOUR stories with us on the final week of the series, let me know if you’re interested!

Here’s some practical advice on how to prepare your testimony:

What is a Testimony?

1. Testimonies Point to Christ, not Yourself

  • In Acts 1:8 Jesus said that his disciples would be his “Witnesses” to the world.  Our Testimony is our “Witness” about Who Jesus is and What he’s done.  We need to make sure that we point to who Jesus actually is and what he really did through Scripture.
  • If it’s not about Christ in you and the power of the Gospel demonstrated through your life, then it’s just your biography.  We want to get to know you and your life story is important, but remember that you’re not sharing your testimony to talk about yourself, but to talk about Jesus Christ.

2.  Testimonies are Humble and Honest.

  • Don’t be over dramatic, but don’t downplay things either.  If something was really difficult and painful, share it.  If something is really exciting and amazing, share it.  Please just don’t put on a show.

Do You Have a Testimony?

  • Are you truly convinced that Jesus is the Son of God, died on the cross for your sin, rose from the grave, and is coming again?
  • Have you consciously give Jesus everything, or are you living a “borrowed faith?”
  • What difference has Jesus made in your life?
  • Where have you seen God at work in your life lately?

If you can answer these questions by saying, “Yes, I believe this and it’s not just my parents’ faith,” then you have a testimony!  Have you paid attention to how Jesus has changed your life, or has it just happened without you noticing?  However, if you think, “Yeah, I believe this stuff, but Jesus really hasn’t made any difference in my life,” then maybe you need to reconsider whether or not you’ve believed the right things without actually trusting in Jesus.  Our Faith is not just a set of ideas/truths to agree with… our Faith is in Jesus Christ (who He is, what He’s done, and who He’s calling us to become).

How to Learn Your Testimony:

1. Your life before Christ

  • What was your life like before you gave your life to Christ?
  • Please DO NOT glorify your sin.  Share what needs to be shared so you can give credit to Christ for saving you, but we don’t need specific stories unless they are really connected to how Christ opened your eyes to your need for him.

2. How God “woke you up” through the Gospel

  • Where were you?
  • Who shared the Gospel with you?
  • Was there a something in particular that God used to get your attention, or was it a slow process?

3. How the Gospel transformed your life

  • How did your life change?
  • What were some of the joys that Christ brought?
  • What were some of the challenges you faced?

4. How Christ is still working in you today

  • How have you seen God’s faithfulness play out in your life (short stories are ok!)?
  • What difference has Jesus made in the long-run?
  • How has your relationship with Christ deepened over the years?
  • Where do you see Christ at work in your life now?

Thank God for Boring Testimonies!

It really is amazing to hear people talk about the extraordinary things God has rescued them from, but most Christians don’t have stories about God saving them from suicide, illicit drugs, prostitution, or gangs.  Those are remarkable stories to hear, no doubt, but too often people think, “I’m just a normal person with a boring testimony.  Yeah, I’m a Christian, but it’s no big deal.”  Wrong, it is a big deal – Faith in Christ is ALWAYS a miracle to celebrate!

Instead of thinking of your testimony as being boring, think of it this way: God has protected you from a ton of things that you could’ve experienced!  The funny/ironic thing is, so many of us who’ve never experienced the pain and loneliness of being a “prodigal son” think about it like we’re missing out on something.  But those who have been there left it all behind in order to pursue Christ because they know how empty and lonely it all was.  So if you have a “boring testimony,” thank God for protecting you!