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.