Monday, November 28, 2005

Alice's Restaurant

Many years ago, a good friend of mine got really sick and tired of the "corporate sellout" of what was on the radio in those days (disco, mainly), and found solace in the protest music of the 1960's. Finding teenaged hippies in the early 80's was interesting in and of itself, but what was impressive about Gord (my friend), was that he memorized, in its 25-minute entirety, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree", originally by Arlo Guthrie.

Gord and I first met at a youth/young adults retreat at what would now be labelled a "liberal" Presbyterian church, which also included a lot of the burgeoning New Age emphasis of contacting the Divine resident in each of us, etc. Just a few months after I'd finished high school, I had moved back to the town I'd grown up in for college. While there, I had a lot of friends whom I was trying to share my faith with, and they would often say "hey, we are Christians -- we went on that retreat at the Presby. If you'd go, you'd understand."

So, getting tired of this "talk to the hand" response, I went.

And that's where I met Gord. We hit it off almost immediately, and hung out for most of the weekend. A lot of the teaching material seemed to be based on "if you have an emotional reaction to anything during this sleep-deprivation experiment, it's the Spirit of Christ that is in all of us", but since I already did have the Spirit of Jesus in me, I probably got more out of the retreat than most. At least, about six months later, fellow retreaters would ask me "how come we've lost the 'retreat feeling' and you haven't" -- can you say "open door" to sharing my story?

Late Saturday night, Gord came over to my bunk and whispered "I can't sleep. You wanna go to the chapel and talk?" I had been thinking the very same thing, so Gord and I spent from about midnight until 7:30 AM in the chapel, burning candles, hunched over my tattered paperback Bible, and talking about God.

Gord believed that Adam and Eve had been planted on earth by wise and benevolent aliens; he was really into reading peoples' "aura's", and commented that he knew I was a "Jesus Freak" when he first saw me: "All you Jesus Freaks have the same golden glow about you." We talked literally for hours about my own spiritual journey, his journey, and trying to figure out various Bible passages together.

Long after the retreat, there would be "theology pub" nights -- except it was at Tim Hortons because (A) Starbucks didn't exist in Canada at the time, and (B) most of the group was too young to get into a pub -- where I would be one of two Christians present while many topics were discussed. One of my favourite Bible passages at that time was the Parable of the Sower, because that was where I was living on a regular basis.

When I left for Bible college the following fall, Gord was one of the people who took up a collection among our friends, and bought me a leather-bound King James Bible as a going-away gift ("You seriously need a new Bible, dude..."), which they gave to me at the surprise going-away party that they threw for me.

I learned a lot from Gord; we had great talks, and I learned very quickly that if I showed him the common decency and respect that friends share, he would listen to my story as well. I had "divine moments" of being able to share my faith with him, and learned an equally important lesson from the Parable of the Sower: we sow, but we are not the Seed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Ecclesiastes Moments

From "Practicing the Presence of God" by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1690):
"During our work and other actions, even during our reading and writing on spiritual projects, more -- during our exterior devotions and vocal prayers -- let us stop a few minutes, as often as we can, to adore God in the depths of our hearts, to enjoy Him, as it were, in passing and in secret."
And this gem from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote "On Loving God" in the early 11th century:
"On a lower plane of action, it is the reluctant, not the eager, whom we urge by promises of reward. Who would think of paying a man to do what he was yearning to do already? For instance no one would hire a hungry man to eat, or a thirsty man to drink, or a mother to nurse her own child. Who would think of bribing a farmer to dress his own vineyard, or to dig about his orchard, or to rebuild his house? So, all the more, one who loves God truly asks no other recompense than God Himself." (emphasis added)
There are times in this journey where I have Ecclesiastes Moments: "Meaningless! Meaningless! All is vanity and chasing after the wind!" 

I read anti-emerging blogs and feel (to use an vintage Vineyard phrase) "slimed" by the sarcastic and angry rhetoric. I surf over to pro-emerging blogs, and feel slimed by the sarcastic and angry rhetoric against the anti-emergents, the modern church, and western capitalistic society in general -- and it sometimes makes me want to unplug my own blog and withdraw from the conversation.

Sometimes I pray, "Jesus, just give me a few friends who are people of the spark, and we'll do ministry together, in anonymity, and be satisfied with that and with You." The ranting and raving on all sides gets overwhelming at times.

My father has, more than once, suggested that people like me are needed in Christian circles. His metaphor is "You're a burr under the saddle that's needed, to keep pushing for change." As much as I understand what he means (and my father and I have a great relationship that I'm very thankful to God for), there are times I want to facetiously point out:
  • the "burr" is caught between the saddle and the horse, and tends to get a lot of weight slamming onto it -- repeatedly
  • eventually, as the burr makes its presence known, somebody reaches under the saddle, grabs the burr, and throws it into the campfire where the rest of the cowboys are cooking their grits 'n' beans en route to a Blazing Saddles-inspired fart-fest
  • nobody ever misses the burr after it gets burnt up, although both horse and rider are relieved and seem to be sadistically enjoying watching the burr burn
Not the kind of personal mission statement that I'd normally get excited about.

That's when quotes like Brother Lawrence's and St. Bernard's come into play. They remind me that it's not about emerging, submerging, pomerging, or being post-evangelical, post-charismatic, post-colonial, post-post-modern, or whatever.

And it's not about me.

When I read about the great saints listed in the Hall of Faith (Hebrews 11) -- men and women of God who clung to their faith and their love of God, even though they died before seeing the results of their faith -- it helps to put things back into a proper perspective.

Some people need to get back into the saddle again; perhaps I need to get back under it.

Because it's not about me.

Monday, November 7, 2005

People of the Spark

"Stick with me, friends. Keep track of those you see running this same course, headed for this same goal." (Philippians 3:17, The Message)

The NIV version says to "take note" of others, while the NASB has the more passive "observe others", and the King Jimmy says we should "mark" others who are running the race well.

It's hard sometimes to know what marks to take note of, observe, or keep track of. What outward signals do we notice that say to us, loud and clear, that we're in the presence of people who know Jesus pretty well, á la Acts 4:13?
"When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus."
We've all met people who almost immediately strike us as "wow, these people are close to God, and being with them brings me closer to God, and I feel encouraged and more faith-filled after spending time with them."

Wendy and I have discussed this many times over the years; it just seems like some people have that "spark" within in them, and you can't help but notice it. Sometimes they're quite theologically astute, and sometimes not, but either way, you just knew that they "had been with Jesus" in a way that was encouraging, refreshing, and challenging all at the same time.

A good friend of mine recently remarked in an email: "I will say openly that your orthodoxy is more generous than mine... I don't know if I should admire that or worry about you! You do seem to simply make the assumption that you'll settle into a local attractional / modern / organized / institutional / what-have-you kind of church congregation in Kelowna. Can I try not to be offensive and still ask why?"

I guess the short answer is that I'll hang out in de-structured and structured places alike, if I encounter people there who have that "spark" of the Holy Spirit within them. I fully expect to meet some of them in a house church; I also expect to meet some really unhealthy people in a house church. I fully expect to meet "spark" people in the established church(es), and of course I am also painfully aware that I'll meet some really unhealthy people in these same churches.

A few years ago, I re-read Keith Green's biography, No Compromise. One of the things that really gripped my heart at that time was the question: "Where are the passionate followers of Jesus now? I want to hang out with them again!"

And, of course, we will also recognize that it is only as we pursue being people of the spark, that we will in turn be a blessing to others.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

X-Box meets iPod

Sounds sorta like a classic "Frankenstein Versus The Mummy" kind of Hallowe'en B-movie, don't it?

It all started innocently enough.

My eldest daughter Jo got to wondering recently, "What would happen if Microsoft tried to copy the iPod (since Microsoft is always trying to copy Macintosh)?"

A few creative ideas, a little bit o' Photoshop savvy (Jo is becoming quite the digital artist), and voila! The X-Pod:

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

St. Paul & Rick Whats-His-Face

I finally found something that all the emerging and anti-emerging blogs have in common: they all dislike Rick the Warren because of his ©Purpose Driven Everything. The anti-emergents foam at the mouth about Ricky being a false prophet with a false gospel; the emergents slap their foreheads and moan about the selling out of the mega-church, lack of true community, etc.

By now most people are aware that Starbucks has decided to include a quotation from Rick in their series of "As I See It" messages on the sides of grande- and venti-sized cups. Anti-emergents (who can't seem to tell the difference between PDL and the emerging church) are upset because the gospel message isn't "clear enough", which to them just proves that Rick is a False Teacher.

The message is as follows:
You are not an accident.
Your parents may not have planned you, but God did.
He wanted you alive and created you for a purpose.
Focusing on yourself will never reveal your real purpose.
You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense.
Only in God do we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance and our destiny.
For all those, emerging and not, who aren't all that impressed with Rick or Purpose Driven Life or Saddleback Church, can I still point out a similar situation that confronted St. Paul?
"While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols." (Acts 17:16)
I wouldn't want to compare Rick & PDL to idols, but Paul was distressed about idols, and many people today seem distressed about PDL.
"Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: 'Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you." (Acts 17:22-23)
 St. Paul was distressed about the idols, but he still used their existence as a starting point of commonality in order to have a platform to talk about Jesus.
"When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, 'We want to hear you again on this subject.' At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed." (Acts 17:32-34)
 Why doesn't everyone, who is currently criticizing Rick or doesn't know what to make of Starbucks including a quote from him, take the opportunity to hang out at Starbucks with some of your not-yet-followers-of-Jesus friends, relatives, or co-workers and see if you can strike up a conversation with The Quote On The Cup as a starting point? Nobody ever really expected that Starbucks would print the whole Gospel on their cups (and would it fit, even on a Venti cup?), but it's a great opportunity for those who have ears to hear and are willing to step out and take some risks.

Many people missed the opportunity to discuss Jesus when Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was in the theaters. They were too busy debating the biblical accuracy of the movie. 
Let's not make that mistake again.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Emerging Generations: V

In Postmodern Pilgrims, author & professor Leonard Sweet described a four-part model that he felt would be a good starting point in ministering in a postmodern context: EPIC, an acronym that stood for Experiential, Participatory, Image-driven, Connected.

For this last entry in the brief look at the Emerging Generational ministry in a church context (for those who are "in the system but not of the system", and who have thus far eluded being Fired for the Glory of God), I just wanted to comment a bit on the "P" of Sweet's acronym, "participatory".

In short, the more participatory you can make your group, the better your group will be. Youth and young adults have always learned well in community settings, and as the shift through postmodernism continues (and on through whatever postmodernism will lead to), this will only increase, not decrease in importance.

In our pursuit of making worship more participatory, we gradually adapted to a "worship jam" approach to worship over the years, where everyone brings whatever musical instrument they play (no matter how good they are at it), and participates in a whang-dang-do of worship which is quite a stretch from the organized worship-band-and-congregation style of most churches. A learned-by-history tidbit here: worship jams start to get unwieldy around 40+ participants -- meaning singers, instrumentalists (all acoustic, since there's no sound system), dancers, painters, readers of Scripture, pray-ers, and so on. In order to keep the level of participation high, it eventually becomes necessary for more than one jam to being going on, although it will feel initially as if the community is getting too spread out (but the only alternative is to make it an invitation-only clique, which is obviously counter to the idea of the advancing Kingdom).

When you adopt a highly participatory approach to teaching, don't be surprised if you're soon inundated with more teenagers than you anticipated. Once word gets out that there's a safe place to talk openly about faith and life issues, people start showing up. Over the years, we have found that many not-yet-followers of Jesus would come to our weekly youth gatherings. The puzzling thing was that we weren't doing anything remotely "seeker" oriented; we were doing creative, but intense, God-in-your-face worship and Bible study. But all these pre-Christians kept showing up, week after week, anyway.

In order to cope with a youth group of around 70, with almost half of them not being followers of Jesus, we had to develop an understanding of how to keep the meetings extremely participatory -- a favourite method was the "agree/disagree", where the group would have to go to one of the two ends of the room when a controversial statement was read (by me, usually). Originally designed to help churched youth get shaken out of their Christian subculture, the goal was to get them talking about the tough questions and being honest about their faith, their doubts, their commitment, and their struggles.

When you suddenly add about 40% pre-Christians to the mix, they assume that they can be as open as the church youth are, which can lead to some interesting tangents and rabbit trails! Eventually, in order to give some framework for how we would choose to act in the midst of an incredibly wide range of Christian denominational backgrounds and completely unchurched teenagers, I came up with "Robby's Rules":

There's a whole story behind the "squirrels" thing, but it turned into a fun inside joke for the group as to why we weren't into "sunday school" answers that had not been thought through.

Bottom line: if we want youth and young adults to "own" their faith, we have to give them a safe place to wrestle through their honest questions and doubts. By nature of this wrestling, a highly participatory approach is absolutely crucial. A community of peers and leaders who have dedicated themselves to be spiritual mothers and fathers (1 Corinthians 4:15) is the best setting for this "safe place to take risks" to happen.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Emerging Generations: IV

Just a few thoughts on youth retreats, youth conferences, their differences and opportunities, and how to approach them.

In a perfect world, it would be great to have one retreat and one youth conference per school year. In this perfect world, the retreat would be in the early fall, just after that school year began, and the conference would be in the spring -- April or May, perhaps.

A youth retreat is (should) be a gathering for just your group. A retreat is a time away from the regular grind, to focus on God. As a youth group, this is the time of year you want to be focussing on building community. If your church follows a typical model, you'll have just inherited a new group of Grade Nine's who need to be integrated, and the new about-to-grad seniors will get an opportunity to die to last year's cliques and include the new students as well. A retreat is a great venue for community building, early in the new school year.

So, keep the retreat as "organic" as possible; don't bring in guest speakers. Make it an in-house time, of sharing together as a group. Focus everything you do on this retreat on building relationships and having a growing expectation of seeing what God will do in and through the group. Remind each other of God's previous workings with the group.

A youth conference, on the other hand, is made up of many churches, and of course will have guest speakers and worship leaders (bands). The setting is vibrant due to the sheer numbers of attenders. The conference, again due to the larger numbers, will be less personal and more programmed, but that's neither good nor bad. To quote Brother Maynard, "it is what it is".

This venue is an excellent opportunity for your now-in-community group to spend a weekend away where all the hard work is being done by other people, and all of you -- youth and leaders alike -- are in exactly the same place: receiving, interacting, and being touched by God. It's a great opportunity for the leaders to again model by their example of openness and responding, and to share in the new things that God is doing via the teaching and worship.

These conferences can act as "stones of remembrance", such as when the Israelites of old would build stone altars to remind themselves of "God did this". Youth conferences can be present-day stones of remembrance, times that the group can talk about (perhaps at the next fall retreat?) where they were significantly impacted or challenged.

And, as another community-building experience, there's nothing quite as good for building relationships as the time-honoured "ROAD TRIP". Discourage the use of iPods; play a rotating selections of CD's during the trip (or hook somebody's iPod into the vehicle's system), but keep interaction a priority. iPods are best reserved for the trip home, when everyone is tired and the driver just wants to concentrate on driving.

If we view retreats and conferences this way, I would submit that we'll be more proactively in tune with the opportunities provided by both venues to model and join in ministry to, with, and from youth.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Emerging Generations: III

Dann Spader, who wrote the original material for Sonlife Youth Strategies, had this interesting observation to make about the average youth group and approach to youth ministry:
"Jesus spent the first year of His ministry teaching His followers who He was. They had a wrong concept of the coming Messiah. They thought He'd come as a conquering King - instead Jesus came as a suffering servant. Jesus knew that only as people understood who He was and why He came, only then would they begin to have the right motivation for following Him. Christ's disciples slowly began to see that He was different than their perception of the coming Messiah.

"Those we minister to are no different. People have wrong concepts of who Christ is, what He has done for us, and what He asks of us. It is very difficult to yield your life to someone you do not know properly. Proper motivation to serve and minister stems from a proper understanding of Jesus Christ."

Knowing Whom you serve, and what He wants of us, is absolutely crucial. However, the number of times that people get the WRONG idea about Jesus is appalling. Somehow, far too many Christians live in a legalistic manner, trying to earn God's approval or at least avoid His disapproval, thinking that Jesus is generally disappointed in them, if not outright angry.

"Performance orientation" in our walk with Jesus is only going to bring condemnation and death to us - and that's what we'll reap in the youth if we teach or model anything but that God has unconditionally accepted us in Jesus.

We love because He first loved us. We serve because He served us. We give our lives for Him because He gave His life for us. Any motivation for serving that is not rooted in our being acceptable to God in Christ will result in striving, legalism, and condemnation.

Three things we need to repeatedly emphasize:
  1. Who Jesus is.
  2. What Jesus has done for us.
  3. Who we are in Jesus.
The goal is youth and leaders alike who love Jesus. Everything that we do or say should be done out of this love for Jesus. Law, legalism, "putting the screws" to people (often in the guise of "challenging") is anti-grace, and only results in a spirit of manipulation and control in leaders, and condemnation and defeat in the lives of the youth.


Observe our own actions
  • What is the tone of our life & actions?
  • Is it a tone of law, performance or "doing" for God, or is it a tone of love, grace & acceptance?
Observe the people around you
  • Why are people doing what they're doing - because they want to, or because they think they have to?
  • Do they talk about God and His goodness, or about their performance (or lack of it) before God?
Teach the Character of God
  • Does our teaching worship God through emphasizing who He is, or do we emphasize man and only what we are to do?
  • Are we teaching the character of God, or only data about Him?
Emphasize grace and acceptance
  • In our conversations, do we emphasize God and His character, or man and his efforts?
  • In our actions and lifestyle do we emphasize performance for God, or grace and acceptance, out of which flows good works?
  • In our own spiritual formation, do we only see what we are to do for God, or can we see God in all His glory and what He has done for us?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Emerging Generations: II

Today we celebrated the day, twelve years ago in 1993, when the Small Bear we call "Caleb" was born. Even as a young child, Caleb was fascinated with musical instruments, and started playing guitar in our worship jams when he was 7. Recently, we passed that magical moment when he was playing something really cool on the guitar, and I had to ask him "hey, show me how you did that".

I was hoping that moment wouldn't come until he was at least in high school, but it was inevitable that it would come...
"This make be the place you hang your hat. This may be a stop along the way -- to other things, grand ambitions, true callings. Either way, we hope you have fun, make friends and create uplifting experiences that enrich people's daily lives."
(from "The Green Apron Book" at Starbucks)
As a pre-thought to the second post on emerging generational ministry, the above quote from Starbucks reminded me of a truism of ministry (youth and otherwise) -- we're only co-travellors on the journey for a season. Yes, there are some people who we walk alongside for many years, but more often than not in our very transient society, we are co-mingling our story with the stories of others for only seasons of varying length. Especially with high school and college students.

How this applies to youth and young adult ministry is simple: (A) relax, you're only one part of the total journey of their lives; you don't have to pressure yourself (or them) to be completely, definitively discipled during the time your paths coverge, but at the same time, (B) don't miss opportunities to be a part of the lives of youth, because you don't know how long you'll be together with them.

For example, look at the two leather-clad guys in the picture here. One of them, of course, is me. The guy giving me the hug committed suicide about three years after this photo was taken. You don't know how long your journey will coincide with others -- invest wisely.

The second building block, as developed by Sonlife Youth Strategies, is a "Healthy Group Self-Image".

You're thinking to yourself, "Wow, how 80's is that? 'Group self-image'? C'mon, give me a break..."

Well, let's morph the concept a bit:

Instead of "healthy group self-image", let's focus on our "tribal identity" -- it's not exclusive, elitist, or 'cutting edge'; it's just our understanding of the unique chemistry of the group of youth & youth adults that God has given us the privilege of knowing, in the context of our community and our church relationships (where applicable).

If our group is a "safe place to take risks", where people are accepted just as they are, and we've set an ethos that says that no questions are out-of-bounds, and no-one will be treated judgmentally if they say something or hold an opinion that is something less than Christian perfection, people will feel that it's a safe place to bring their friends -- who should be treated as honoured guests, not evangelism projects (see George Hunter's excellent ideas on honouring guests in The Celtic Way of Evangelism).

Groups have self-image just as much as the individuals who are in the group do. If we find ourselves "challenging" the group to bring their friends, that should be our first clue that we're probably putting the cart before the horse. A group where people feel loved & accepted, and where God is at work, is a group that people will bring their friends to. If the group isn't attractive even to our own youth, why would they want to bring their friends?

Definition: a healthy sense of our tribal identity is the mental picture (impression) that the group members (AND leaders) have of the group - do they look forward to coming, and do they come with an expectation of meeting God in their community of faith, or do they come because it's what they do on Wednesdays, or their parents made them, or they feel some sense of church loyalty to the leaders even though the group "does nothing for them"?

  • Ask yourself: how do I feel about the group? Ask the group. Treat their answers with respect.
  • Focus on the group's strengths, not on their weaknesses (I.e. if not too many show up one night, focus on the people there, don't look discouraged and moan about who's not there)
  • Do you have an expectation that God is present and working in the group?
  • Is it really okay for people to "belong before they believe"? Do the people presently in your group understand that?
  • Remember (and tell each other) how God has already worked and is working in the lives of those in your group. Celebrate the good times.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Emerging Generations: I

During my six years of ministry alongside George Mercado, all of the youth leaders who worked with George were introduced to Sonlife Youth Strategies (as it was called then); Sonlife is a ministry that flourished big time in the 1980's, with its focus on developing a discipleship-based approach to youth ministry that was aimed at training youth leaders to train youth to be people of impact in their high schools.

A lot of churches adopted Sonlife's approach, with varying results. It's success or failure seemed to largely depend (surprise, surprise) on the hearts of the leaders who were involved. (Not forgetting that if God doesn't move, then any of our efforts, no matter how well-intentioned and strategized, won't count for squat.)
First off, Sonlife challenged us as youth leaders to think long and hard on what was called a "Description of a Discipled Student" (DDS). Simply put, they were asking us, "If you 'successfully' disciple a high school student, what will he/she look like after being discipled by you? What are the marks of discipleship? How will you know if you're being effective in discipling or not?"

The old saying -- "aim at nothing and that's what you'll hit" -- is still true in our 21st century context. What does a discipled teenager look like, and what is your role (as you work hard to NOT usurp the Holy Spirit's role in their lives) in the journey of spiritual transformation in a youth community?

The first area that Sonlife stressed was the "Atmosphere of Love & Acceptance"; we've often used the term "a safe place to take risks" in more recent ministry settings with teenagers and 20-somethings. 
To summarize: What makes our group a "safe place"? How will people who attend the groups be able to tell?
It starts with us. What we model, becomes "normal" for the group. Youth leadership means risk-taking in the areas of being transparent and vulnerable with the group. If we act like "having the right answers at all times" is the greatest goal in a group setting, that is what our group will learn from us -- act like you're all together even if you're not (you don't want to look unspiritual, do you?).
We are always communicating, even non-verbally. The question is: what are we communicating by our words, actions, and the ethos that we set for our group(s)?

Ongoing checklist:
  • Evaluate our own lives - do we honestly love those God has called us to? Or are we just "chaperones"?

  • Are we "above" the youth, or do we share the same spiritual journey? Do the youth believe that we don't see ourselves as "above" them by the way we talk to and treat them?

  • Evaluate your own ability to communicate love. Key question: do THEY know we love them? How can they tell?

  • Create situations in which love can be expressed. Is love flowing in the group, or not just from leaders or just from group members?
The last item in that list could raise the issue of authenticity in youth ministry -- ie. "create situations" could come across as fake and manipulative. Without going into a long diatribe about it, allow me to suggest that there's a difference between 'manipulation' and 'influence'.
Manipulation is orchestrating events (and attempting to force people) towards a pre-determined destination. Influence, on the other hand, means that we can clearly set what our personal direction is (based on the words of Jesus), but it's an invitation to the youth to respond to; no coercion involved. It's still their decision as to how they will respond.
More to follow...

Saturday, October 8, 2005

(Youth) Pastors That Make a Difference

Somewhere around the early 90's, I started to notice that the younger generations were changing -- again. As someone who started out in youth ministry 21 years ago, I believe that "change" is the only constant in ministry to and among youth.

Being in youth ministry -- coupled with a healthy respect for a missiological understanding of the advancing Kingdom -- was the 'back door' that motivated me to constantly re-think and re-tool how we did ministry.

The late Mike Yaconelli wrote a provocative article a few years back that has become -- in my observations of youth pastors today -- not only an accurate assessment of our church culture, but also an increasingly pervasive experience for many of the young pastors that I meet, here in Kelowna as well as other parts of Canada and the United States.

Yaconelli's Getting Fired for the Glory of God is an eerily accurate assessment. If you don't believe me, befriend some youth pastors, earn their trust, and listen to their stories. Mike's comments in the article are grievously accurate.

I have met or heard the stories of youth pastors -- just this year -- who have been fired for not "bringing in the numbers", for choosing a discipling ministry model over a big-event-driven model, and for daring to question the corporate approach that too many churches are falling prey to.

My interest in breaking down inter-generational division is still strongly held, but for the sake of some of the youth pastors who are currently trying to find their way "in the system", I will be posting some thoughts on youth ministry in today's culture in the coming days.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The End is in Sight

No, this isn't going to be a "turn or burn", scare-the-heaven-into-you post about the end times. (Sorry if that disappoints anyone!)

The end that is in sight refers to my many months of research and writing on "Post-Charismatics". It was sometime in the summer of 2004 that British blogger Maggi Dawn first suggested (or challenged) that I put some of my thoughts of what it means to be post-charismatic into writing.

Since then, others have also contacted me to encourage me to start writing on it. So, in late January of this year, I started researching. Because of the sheer number of people that I personally know (or have come to know in recent months) who would identify themselves as post-charismatic, I wanted to do a really thorough and thoughtful piece of work.

Originally, I thought I would entitle the whole thing as "Post-Hype", but the more I thought about it, talked to others, and re-read a lot of books from a charismatic perspective, I realized that it goes far beyond the hype of charismania. The reasons people have been rejecting charismatic expressions of worship, spiritual gifts, etc. usually has as much to do with cultural aspects of the charismatic movement as it does with some of the theology.

A very real danger, IMO, that post-charismatics run is that we will reject the charismania aspects and "throw the baby out with the bathwater", and end up attempting to build a community of faith on our own strength and ingenuity. As Bob Girard wrote 35 years ago (nothing new under the sun, eh?):
"The idea persisted that much about (our church) with all its early marks of success was no miracle at all! It wasn't Acts. It was a monument to the kind of good things men can do... all by themselves. (emphasis in original)
My personal contention is that we dare not be post-Holy Spirit in our emerging, deconstructing communities of faith. What needs to happen is a careful re-examination, de- and re-construction, and re-imagining of our understanding of:
  1. A biblical view of authority and the five-fold ministry that is not hierarchical and controlling
  2. A view of spiritual formation (oldskewl: discipleship) that goes beyond the typical weekly crisis-event of "ministry time" but without eshewing genuine Spirit-initiated crisis-events
  3. The role of spiritual gifts -- including the more upfront (and often abused) gifts -- in the gathered Body
  4. The role of faith, and what it means to be living by faith; to be people characterized by faith
  5. Anything else that God brings to mind as I start working on the (final) section of a Reconstructed Praxis!
I received a couple of emails just this morning from other bloggers wondering if I had forgotten or given up on this project. I haven't! Lord willing, it'll all be online as a subsection of this website within just a few more weeks. Thanks should also go to Brother Maynard, an old friend in the analog and digital world, who has been proofing, critiquing, and fish-slapping encouraging me to finish.

The End is in Sight!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Brethren, Hang Loose

This is an excerpt from Bob Girard's Brethren Hang Loose, which was a book that I found by "accident" when I was 21 years old, and which first put into language the things that I was seeing around me in the church at large. Although this book was written 35 years ago, it could have been penned just recently (aside from the very 70's title artwork). It was comforting to know, in the summer of '83 (just a year before I first met George Mercado), that I wasn't the only one thinking these kind of thoughts.
"'New Testament life can't happen within the organized church,' I concluded. 'There is too much against it!'
"Too many "barnacles" from the past still cling to the old institutional church concept.
"Too much emphasis on building and budgets. Too much money needed just to keep the machine running. Too much pastoral and lay effort spent on oiling the gears of the organization. Too much energy expended keeping touchy members happy because you can't afford to lose them.
"Too much dependence on the pastor -- and no way to change that.
"Too many comfortable pews all facing the front so no-one has to relate to anyone else. Too easy for Christians to sit-listen-leave-and-forget without anything really happening in their lives.
"Too much holding one another at arm's length. Too little real fellowship -- gut-level fellowship -- inner circle fellowship. Nothing provided in the church to make it happen at that level.
"Too many rules. Too much government. Too many man-made standards. Too many reports to fill out.
"Too little time to enjoy life. Too little time with the family. Too little time to get to know God. Too little time to pray.
"There seems to be no way for peple to get free from the notion that Christianity is activity in an organization that owns a building someplace. There is no thought of finding one's own ministry under the personal leadership of the Holy Spirit. Christians can never get that free from 'the Church'."

- Bob Girard 1970 -

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

What to Make of This?

Someone sent me a link [now defunct] to De-Institutionalized Christians. It's about reaching out to de-churched Christians, so that your own ministry could be increased. Part of the reasoning for trying to re-connect with de-churched Christians, according to this website, is:
  1. "Would it make more sense to first become the kind of church that is highly effective in reaching the Dechurched?
  2. "What we can learn from the Dechurched, may be more important than what they can learn from us.
  3. "Collaboration, rather than assimilation, may be a more appropriate goal to set with regard to the Dechurched.
  4. "This collaboration, done right, could produce the most transformational impact on your ministry and your community of any program presently in place."

The discussion list has had some great discussion on "church marketing" recently, which is one of the reasons that this website -- a part of C. Peter Wagner's "New Apostolic Network" -- has me uneasy. Check this out (from the same linked page above):
"With a little openness and creativity put into it, what could an intelligent 'withreach' strategy that effectively connected with them mean to your church, and in turn, what impact it could have on your city?
"I have more ideas on this, some practical steps and strategies, and maybe even a synergistic marketing strategy that would reach them...
"I've included an additional article on the Dechurched below (brace yourself, you may not agree with them but it's important to understand the Dechurched perspective):
"Detoxing From Church, by Robby McAlpine."
And that's the second reason why I'm uneasy -- they're using something I wrote to market their ministry. Although I had to smile when they told people to "brace themselves" before reading it. :)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Psychotic Penguins & Apologetics

1 Peter 3:15 says, in part : "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."

Whenever I think of how I've seen a few people approach this verse, I am reminded of the penguins from Madagascar ("the penguins are psychotic..." said Alex the Lion). Most take the posture of the three peripheral penguins: they're on guard, waiting in almost paranoid anticipation of the dreaded "question that we don't know the answer to", and are always ready to attack the perceived enemies of the faith.

A smaller number assume the posture of the penguin in the middle: cocky, self-assured, and smugly confident that they can adequately argue into submission anyone who dares to challenge the veracity of their truth claims.

When I say that 1 Peter 3:15 was "in part", most would assume that I'm referring to the opening phrase about setting Christ apart as Lord. Actually, I was thinking of the end of verse 15, and hoping to dive right into verse 16 as well:
"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." (1 Peter 3:15-16 NIV; emphasis added)
Being "ready to give an answer" should never be equated with a posture of either attack-ready paranoia nor one of cocky more-apologetic-than-thou. Some of the most fruitful discussions I've had with people have resulted from doing what this verse actually says (God wants us to get it, so He's made it easy): gentleness, respect, and with a clear conscience (that we weren't offensive, probably).

Verbally beating people into intellectual/spiritual submission through apologetics -- even emergent apologetics (the writings of McLaren, Sweet or even Derrida) -- should never happen among those who claim to be imitators (apprentices) of Jesus. Yes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive to some, a stumbling block perhaps, but that's different than if WE are offensive in our attitude, actions, and words.

(And it was fun to find a spiritual use for the penguins from Madagascar.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

The Edge of Discipleship

I am such a book nerd. I read all kinds of theology, church history, and practical theology books for my own understanding and research, and when I want to relax, one of my favourite things is... reading a book (often from my Bloom County collection).

One of my favourite diversionary writers is Michael Crichton, and I found a great quote in The Lost World (the sequel to Jurrasic Park) regarding chaos theory that I thought would fit into our larger discussion of discipleship, the shepherding movement, etc. (Yes, even when reading a science fiction novel for recreation, ideas surrounding leadership surface.)

Here's the quote:
"Complex systems tend to locate themselves at a place we call 'the edge of chaos'. We imagine the edge of chaos as a place where there is enough innovation to keep a living system vibrant, and enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy.

"It is a zone of conflict and upheaval, where the old and the new are constantly at war.

"Finding the balance point must be delicate -- if a living system drifts too close, it risks falling over into incoherence and dissolution; but if the system moves too far away from the edge, it becomes rigid, frozen, totalitarian. Both conditions lead to extinction.

"Too much change is as destructive as too little. Only at the edge of chaos can complex systems flourish." (emphasis added)

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Remembering Elmer

In the fall after I finished high school, I was enrolled in the Radio, Television & Journalism program at Lambton College in Sarnia, Ontario. A family I had known as a kid, Elmer & Betty Johnson, invited me to rent a room in their basement, and I soon arrived in my rusty '73 Corolla, ready to start life as semi-independent young adult.

When I arrived at the college, I ran into some friends I had known in elementary school, and discovered that we had all become aspiring musicians. And most significantly, they had a working band that was in need of a bass player.

I had been playing bass for almost two years at this point, so I was reasonably confident that I could pass muster, but the bigger question (in 1981) was the fact that I was a Christian, and this was a "secular" band that played at dances and nightclubs (a big no-no in those days, when most churches -- including mine -- still thought Keith Green was too worldly for using drums and electric guitars).

As far-fetched as that sounds now, it was a legitimate struggle for me at the time; how could I possibly justify playing in such a band, and still call myself a Christian? I would read the Gospel of John and see repeated examples of Jesus going to all the wrong places and hanging out with the wrong people, and I started to wonder why more Christians weren't doing the same thing.

The elders at my church had no struggle at all: they condemned the idea and later instructed the youth at our church to shun me until I "saw the light". When I brought two of my bandmates to our youth group, they were treated so judgmentally that they never returned.

In the midst of my own wrestling with this question, there was a knock on the door of my basement bedroom in the Johnson house. It was Elmer, with Betty hovering just behind him.

In his usual soft-spoken, but very direct way, Elmer cut to the chase: "Rob, do you really believe that God has called you to join a band that plays at dances and in bars?"

Weary from the repeated arguments I'd been getting from well-intentioned people at church, I replied, "Yes, believe it or not, I'm pretty sure God is calling me to this."

Locking his gaze to mine, Elmer emphatically said, "Then go do it. And don't worry about what other people say about you. You have to obey what you believe God is speaking to you."

Betty chimed in, "If you'd like, we can ask you the day after any gigs you have, how you conducted yourself, if that would be helpful to you." (Anyone who has met Betty knows that it's virtually impossible to lie to her.)

I felt such a sense of relief and support from both of them. "Yes, I'd like that. Please feel free to ask me any questions at all; I'd really appreciate it."

And thus began the first of many ventures into being salt and light in the musical subculture.

When we were travelling through Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from Elmer's son, Brett, who informed me that Elmer had passed away due to post-surgery complications. We were, of course, unable to attend the funeral, and so I was unable to share any stories about Elmer at that time.

I was really touched by the wisdom and helpfulness of Elmer and Betty during that turbulent time in my late teens, and am still very grateful for their input and example to me during that year at Lambton College. Like all of us, Elmer was "stumbling heavenward" as the old song says, and I'm sure he has just recently heard the words "well done, good and faithful servant... Come and share your Master's happiness." (Matthew 25:21)