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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

6 foundational lessons learned from 4+ Years of high school ministry

It was crazy for me last night watching the election coverage and realizing that 4 years ago I was still out of college!  I feel like the time is flying and over the past few weeks I have been doing a lot of thinking/reflecting on ministry and the growing passion and desire I have for my church, as well as all churches to be effectively reaching young people and impacting lives for the sake of Christ!  Is many ways this has been what I have dedicated the last 7 years (4.5 as a youth pastor and 2.5 as an intern/volunteer) of my life to and I wanted to share some of the foundational lessons that I have learned and things that I believe to be true when it comes to doing youth ministry well and making an impact.  I have been part of 2 church plants in states that have both won and lost the civil war, and many times in spite of myself God has blessed these churches and the youth ministries,  and I have been privileged to see awesome fruit from both ministries which is on-going.  So in an attempt to be helpful here are 6 big lessons that I have learned over the past 4+ years

1. Always Remember Your Audience!

So, as part of my responsibilities as a pastor is that I not only teach for the high school ministry on a weekly basis but I also end up preaching to the whole church 15 times or so a year.  If I could take my sermon and give it to my high school group, or if I could give my high school message during the Sunday morning service I have failed miserably.  At youth group, preach to high schoolers!  engage them, talk like they talk, be funny, show how God's word is powerful, practical and apply's to them where they are right now!  Preach the gospel, show how Jesus is our hero in spite of our failings and gear your application to where they are struggling.  Stop parsing greek verbs and studying the end times and continually communicate how Christ is sufficient in their relationships, purity battle, friendships, home life, and future!  Study the gospels, study Christ, hit them where they are at, and care about the craft of communicating.  If your grandma or your old Bible professor would love your message at youth group... you probably haven't done your job!

2. Young Leaders are Vital to Effective Youth Ministry

Some people will disagree with this and be offended, but I strongly believe that when it comes to relating to and working with high schoolers, your effectiveness window begins to slam shut when you hit the age of 30-35.  Now there are exceptions to the rule.  I have seen 40 year old men and women relate wonderfully to kids and build great youth groups but they have an extraordinary gift and are not the norm by a long shot!  Kids don't want to sit around a small group and open up about what they are struggling with to someone who is their parents age.  Guys are way more likely to open up about their porn addiction to a 22 year leader who can relate with them than they are a 45 year old man who didn't grow up with the internet!  I am not saying it is right, I am just saying that it is a reality.

So here is what this means practically for my ministry.  First, I will not settle for immaturity in my leaders in order to keep have young leaders.  Our youth group right now has 11 leaders all ranging between 27 and 21 years old and I want the best young people in the church as leaders in our youth group.  My leaders are growing and maturing people who love Jesus and our students and are the best of the best and people that our students will want to be with and be like.  I expect a ton out of my leaders, hold them to a high standard, and allow them the freedom to lead without me looking over their shoulder!

Secondly this means that I routinely look at parents and tell them they can't be high school leaders.  Not the most fun conversation, but the culture I am building is worth having the occasional parent upset when they cant be involved.  By the way that anger usually subsides when they see their child growing in our youth group and the kid is always pumped not to have their parent there!

3. Student Leadership is a Failed Model

There seems to be a trend developing where youth pastors think it is a good idea to raise up student leaders to help lead the small group discussion time and be responsible over other students.  I know of churches where their whole leadership structure is student led.  That idea is about as good as the final season of The Office has been...horrible.  I have yet to meet a high school student who has the maturity and leadership ability to lead other students well in the context of small group time during youth group, and I have had a TON of great kids.  All high school students are still figuring what it means to be a consistent in all areas of their lives, they all have struggles, they all need accountability and encouragement and youth group needs to be a place where they are being led, fed by God's word, challenged, and encouraged.

When you place a student as a leader above his classmates often times the result is either pride which results in sin or the student leader feeling a crushing weight of having to lead others while not having the proper training, maturity, or ability to lead.  Either way everyone loses when you have students lead.  All students need leaders who can love on them and encourage them, don't settle for student leaders to make sure you have students invested in the ministry and don't leave.

I am not against students using their gifts!  We have students lead in worship, play in the band, paint, come up with games, pray,  ect. to bless our group, but I am not putting high schoolers in the discipleship role over other high doesn't work!

4. Building a Culture of Worship is Slow, Painful, and Incredibly Rewarding.

The positive part about being part of a church plant is that you start with a clean slate.  You don't have to clean up any messes left by past pastors and you get a great opportunity to set the direction of what you want your youth ministry to look like.  The negative is that you are starting from "Ground 0".  I guess the best way I can describe it is like buying a large piece of rural property hoping to one day build a city on that land.  There is a ton of time and work to get from point A to point B!

I can clearly remember having the conversations with Chris, our worship leader and faithful youth min sidekick a little over a year ago about forming a worship band with and for our students.  Our church was at the 150-200 stage our youth group was running anywhere from 10-12 students on a full night and it was like "is the band going to be bigger than the people they are leading?"  It was terrifying!  We live in a context that is extremely dead both emotionally and spiritually, meaning that expressive, engaged, heart-felt worship is not the norm and to build what we felt God was leading to build was daunting.  So we did it anyway, and the first month it was hard and borderline painful, then the second month we started seeing a small response, then we had winter camp and the Lord moved in a huge ways and students were actually looking forward to worship!  More students started coming which created more of a comfortable atmosphere and slowly this thing started to take shape!

Now, 15 months later, by God's grace we are seeing 50-60 students consistently passionate about worship, excited to hear from God's word and getting after following Christ!  Our space is packed out kids are almost literally on top of each other because we are so crowded and nobody complains, nobody cares because they are excited about Jesus and want to get after worship, and get after being more in love with their savior and living that out.

We are by no means the finished product and definitely can continue to grow in this but we have seen HUGE transformation in the heart of our kids and it has been my greatest joy in ministry!  But it didn't come without pain, without patience, without a lot of self doubt, and a lot of perseverance.  It takes a lot of sweat and hard work to make something that matters!

5. Care About Creativity

If I am honest this is my biggest challenge.  I am not a creative type, actually if I have a creative bone in my body I haven't found it yet, so this is the area in ministry that I have to be putting the most effort towards and constantly be checking myself on.  The reason creativity matters is because creativity not only communicates something in a different, thought provoking way, but creativity also communicates that you care deeply about the message!

Too many youth pastors get stuck in the rut of snack, game, 1 awkward song, Bible study, prayer, leave.  And even though its unintentional, routine and a lack of creativity produces boredom and indifference.

And it is for that reason that we constantly move around the worship set, change how we do small groups for a night, I'll teach by candlelight, we will do dramatic readings, we will move around who leads worship, we make a concerted effort to be creative and to stay true to one of our youth ministry pillars which is to be "fresh".  Creativity takes more effort and more risk and the end goal is not to be cool or hip but to communicate that Jesus matters, he is fresh, and we care about engaging our students!

6. No Regrets

This summer/fall in my spare time I devoured a show on Netflix called "Friday Night Lights."  And in the show Coach Eric Taylor's famous pre-game tagline before his players would take the field was "Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can't Lose."  Every time I heard that line my heart resonated with the message that if you give everything you have each week for the glory Christ, if you pour yourself out for your students in love showing them Jesus, you win!  And because I believe that I challenge my leaders to not hold back!  

Here's what I mean, there will be times in youth ministry when you are in a one on one conversation with a student and you feel the Spirit moving the conversation in that moment you don't want to leave thinking "I wish I would have asked this", or "I wish I would have pressed in more on that."

Last winter during our winter camp there was a student who was unsaved and I could sense the Lord was working on his heart and breaking down walls and after one of the sessions he and I went at it in a verbal tug of war for 45 min where he was laying out his doubts and fears and I was responding with the gospel, I knew in my heart I could not quit and the result was one of the sweetest salvation moments I have experienced.  We have limited times with our students and we do not know what tomorrow brings so each Sunday night, each event, the goal is to leave spent and exhausted pursing our students for the glory of God!  Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Cant Lose! (I just wanted to say that again!)

Anyways, this is what we have seen and what we have learned and I hope this has been helpful/challenging, would love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gospel Motivations Fear or Love PT 1 of 3

So I recently heard a sermon by one of my favorite preachers, Matt Chandler where he asks the question: what is our motivation in regards to our Christian walk, is it fear or love?  (you can listen to the sermon here and if you have an hour it is SO worth your time!)  The reason it was so powerful for me is that it helped me solidify where exactly I have come from in my own personal journey with God and in many ways why I am so passionate about preaching and proclaiming the gospel specifically where God has called me in West Michigan.  

So over the next 3 days I hope to look at this idea of fear vs. love examining how it has played out in my life, how it manifests itself in our lives now, and hopefully encouraging you in Christ along the way!

Galatians 5:1 "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

I grew up in a Christian home, to a family with great Christian heritage, in a church that loved God's Word, in Christian School, and I was not free.

Here's what I mean, I grew up viewing the gospel as "If you want to go to heaven you need to ask Jesus into your heart, and not get God angry at too you so that he will love you."  There were a few different factors that led to this mindset.  Some of it had to do with some legalistic tendencies and interactions at my church, my school being more focused on morality than Jesus, but the main reason I believed this (by an overwhelming majority) was simply my immaturity and sinful pride desiring to make my salvation more about me than about Jesus.

Here is what this (false) view of the gospel led to in my life: I believed that my salvation was determined by Jesus + reading/memorizing the bible enough, listening/not listening to certain types of music, behaving a certain way, not watching certain movies or TV shows (Simpsons), being morally pure, not lying, ect.  In short the goal of the Christian life was to not anger God too much, even though I didn't know how much that was, so God could love me and I could go to Heaven.  I was a slave to morality (the law) and in my mind salvation was hanging in the balance... it was terrifying!

Here's the problem: there is NO FREEDOM in that belief system and that's not even the gospel!

And what breaks my heart is that mentality was shared by all my friends both in church and in school, I was by no means alone in this slavery. (I know this will sound familiar to many of you!)  Almost all of my friends grew up with the belief that basically God was an angry dad that we had to please in order for him to love us.  And what happened in my life is that the majority of my friends in high school came to the realization that "that dad sucks" and isn't worth following or loving and many abandoned the faith and ran to other idols to varying degrees.

The major negative influence my false gospel had on me was un-relenting doubt regarding my own salvation.  Was I good enough?  Had I sinned too much?  Could God love me?  And rather to running to God in repentance I carried guilt, shame, fear, and crippling doubt.

I carried this with me through most of my college years, I attended Moody Bible Institute which is a great school but does carry some legalistic and fundamentalist baggage which did not make things clearer for me.  And even though I was training for ministry I felt like I was serving a God that loved my when I was holding up my end of the bargain and I was under His wrath when I wasn't.

If I am honest, the turning point in my life came while living in Orlando working as a youth pastor at Harvest Orlando that through a lot of study, reading, and listening to sermons from guys like Driscoll and Chandler that the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to the fact I was covered by Christ's perfect righteousness both at my best and at my worst moments.  That despite my sin and failings God's love was unchanging and unceasing for me and that the star of the gospel is Christ and what he accomplished FOR me rather than myself and "how I'm doing at the moment."

This shift for me produced 2 huge outcomes:

First was that I was no longer motivated by fear but by love!  My motivation to please God and to live righteously now has nothing to do with fear of hell or condemnation but I rest assured that God loves me that I am his adopted child and the big difference is now rather than working for love and affection from God I can rest in him and serve him out of joy and mutual love.  Understanding this made all the difference in the world!  I now have a joy I had never experienced before!

Secondly there is a fire and passion to share God's love and the life transforming power of the gospel with others.  The gospel is not merely the doorway into the Christian life but it is the sustaining force and power behind our lives.  Our joy, security, hope, love, and life is all rooted in the Gospel and who we are to God through Christ.  This is my passion and I am grateful for the opportunities I have at Harvest Spring Lake to proclaim this message of hope!

Tomorrow the plan is to look at what it means to be motivated by fear and Tuesday we will look at what how our love for God and his love for out should play out in our lives!

you are loved,


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Unleashing God's Power in Our Lives

So last weekend I was at Harvest Winter Camp with my high school group (if you want to read my thoughts on the weekend check out the previous post).  And the biggest issue almost all of my students were/are struggling with is the idea that:

 "I love Jesus and understand I need him as my saviour, but I don't feel close to God and because of that I am doubting if I am even saved." 

 I bet almost all of us have resonated with these feelings before and often times there are sin issues and stuff we need to deal with in our own lives that when left un-dealt with cause these doubts.  But what I want to focus on today is the question: "How do I unleash God's power in my life?"  

When you read the New Testament, especially the book of Acts, you see over and over again God taking normal, sinful, broken people and do incredible things through them, but it never happened on accident!  God's power is not unleashed in our lives while we sit passively on the sidelines.  And as I pray, study, and mature, I am becoming more and more convinced that we will not experience God's power in our lives until we make the commitment to give ourselves completely to him.

Here's what I mean... When you think of someone who God unleashed his power on, the Apostle Paul leads the list, and what I can't get out of my mind is the phrase he wrote to the Corinthian church in 2 Corinthians 2:2

"For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God."
What is so amazing about this passage is Paul's unwavering motivation and desire to be about nothing other than Jesus.  And that, I believe is the key to living a life that is powered by God!  

So here is the life changing question(s)

What if we made Jesus our number 1 passion?

What if our desire to see people saved was greater than our fear of man?

What if we loved one another enough to get after sin and have difficult and helpful conversations?

What if we prayed like we actually believed Jesus was alive and was listening?

What if Jesus was more than our savior but also our king?

I believe lives would be saved, families restored, hearts would be on fire, communities would be transformed, and I believe that we would have the power to change the world!

You Are Loved!