Below is a letter which was sent out to our congregation from our new pastor Tim about our upcoming call.
As a pastor, I am frequently interacting with those who wish to follow and sometimes flee our Christian faith. For those who flee, they usually have one issue or aspect of the faith that seems too difficult to reconcile. Others walk away from the faith because of a painful interaction with a Christian. For the most part, those who flee are frustrated horizontally and not vertically. I do understand where most people are coming from, yet at some point, all humans will disappoint and leave us scratching our heads.
There is another reason why some folks flee the faith and it just so happens to disturb me the most. Continue reading “Why Some Folks Flee the Faith”
I would not call myself an angry person.
I am fairly sure those who know me would not call me angry either.
Yet, at a certain point with certain people I can feel anger welling up inside me. It can get me worked up, rob my sleep and completely sideline me. Anger does not manifest itself in my life through crashing cars or punching holes in walls. It is much more sneaky. So sneaky at points that I have no clue that I am being motivated or overcome by anger. Continue reading “On Anger”
“Do you have to be good at sex?”
During a seminar on sex and dating, I received this anonymous question, among many others from a group of teenagers. While some of the standard questions are, “how far is too far?”, and “is oral sex really sex?”, I have noticed the question about being good at sex has become popular in the last few years. Continue reading “An Interesting “Sex Question” from a Teenager”
“There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation.
Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.
Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord.”
– Henri Nouwen
Continue reading ““Prideful Guilt” A Lenten Lesson from Henri Nouwen”
I met a leper.
Really, I did. He said so.
I was talking to a friend who was asking me about the sermon I was about to preach. I told her I was preaching on Mark 1, a moving story of a leper who came to Jesus to be healed. As soon as I said the word leper, a voice from behind me said, “hey, I’m a leper.” I turned around to see five well dressed men sitting on a couch behind me. The spokesmen for the group said “I’m a leper and all these guys are as well”, pointing to his friends on the couches. “We are actually schizophrenics”, the man proclaimed boldly. “The bible refers to us as demon possessed and people today think we are whackos.” After the man made this statement, my heart began to hurt for him. I began to grasp what he was trying to tell me. He was begging me to understand that the leper in Mark 1 was viewed as a social corpse and he as a schizophrenic could identify. This man and his friends knew what it was like to be physically and socially outcast and misunderstood.
One thing I didn’t know is that I was talking to some famous, modern-day lepers. All of them had PhD’s and one of them was John Nash, the Nobel Peace Prize winning mathematician who was portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. These men and many others stayed where we live for a week as they were leading a symposium on schizophrenia and the flourishing life at my seminary.
So what did I do after this stirring encounter? First I went back to my room and cried for 30 minutes. I cried because these men represent multitudes of others who are viewed as “whats” and not as “whos.” The leper in Mark 1 was a “what”, because we know nothing about him except “what” disease inflicted him. We know nothing about where he was from, what he was like or what brought him joy. We just know he had a disease. The men I talked to throughout last week made sure I knew they were so much more than “whats”; they were “whos.” You might be reading this and saying, “of course they are “whos!” My response would be, “then why are so many modern lepers still on the outside of the village, begging to come into our churches, homes and social circles?”
I think I took a step in conquering a fear I didn’t know I had. In my closing conversations I wanted to let these men know that they have helped shape they way I see life. One man asked me if he could quote me on that and I said, “yes.” He then said, “Can I quote you an every conversation we’ve had this week?” Remembering that I was talking to a bona fide genius, I said, “sure.”
The past few days have been tough for my family. Throughout this crisis, many have prayed or promised to pray for the situation. I have found myself offering prayers that range from fiery passion to moments where I don’t know what to pray and sometimes I don’t even want to pray.
Here is what I know; prayer doesn’t begin and end with me. I have found great strength in knowing that the Spirit intercedes for me when I don’t know what the heck to say. I also know that written prayers of the saints are helpful to me. I love when people pray from their hearts, with no notes and as the Spirit leads. But I am becoming more aware of the richness gained from prayer books, creeds and other written prayers. I need a diversity of prayer in my life.
Speaking of written prayers, here is one from Thomas Merton that I am marinating in today.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and will never leave me to face my perils alone. -Thomas Merton
Over several years in youth ministry, I’ve realized that students continually see me in a different way. I started as the Christian Jack Black; loaded with energy, donuts and an assortment of shenanigans. Then I was seen as the moral, advice-giving big brother to many of my students. Now I’ve given up trying to look trendy (not sure I ever did) and I’m settling into a different role, but I’m not sure exactly what that is. Who knows how students will view me next?
It has been the life-story of my mentor Cliff that has opened my eyes to the way students perceive us and more importantly, how we perceive ourselves as youth ministers. Cliff has been serving teenagers through Young Life and the church for over 40 years and he is still at it! (He has taught many classes at Fuller as well) When Cliff was in his 40’s, he clearly realized that students no longer viewed him like they once did. This realization sent Cliff into a season of reflection that ended in a great life lesson for he and many others.
Cliff needed a name change.
I’m not talking about “the Young Life guy formally known as Cliff” or a nickname like C-Diddy. He chose a name that left no imagination to who he was and what he actually looked like. He chose Uncle Cliffy. Mind blowing, right? If you ask around in seasoned Young Life circles, they will know who Uncle Cliff Anderson is. While the new name sounds rather bland and uncreative, it propelled Cliff forward in the way he saw himself around teenagers and vice versa. Cliff was no longer trying to be cool or relevant which has made him incredibly cool and relevant to so many people.
Cliff has helped me to understand when students see an older or maturing youth minister that they are looking for just that. While students are entertained by our joke crackin’, guitar strumming and milk chugging, we all know that they desire more from us.
There are many aspects of ministry that Cliff can offer to families that I can’t. He can say things in a way that I can’t. He has life experience that I don’t have yet. Our church is blessed to have Uncle Cliffy just the way he is and we are glad he doesn’t listen to Lady GaGa and wear skinny jeans.
As far as youth ministry is concerned, how do you see yourself?
How do you think the students view you?
And what do your students need from you regardless of age?
Several years ago, I had a life-changing experience with a ninth grade boys’ small group I was leading. We were studying Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37-40.
I had hoped the boys would grasp that loving our neighbor was a natural overflow from loving God with our hearts, souls and minds. Boy, was I wrong, as I realized when I heard some of the boys’ comments.
“Poor people are poor because they are lazy and didn’t go to school.” “God helps those who help themselves!” “Honestly, I don’t care about helping them.”
At this point, I was about to blow a gasket. Then I looked at my mostly affluent group, and it dawned on me that in their 14 years of life they had little reason to need God or need help from others. How could I expect them to care about others in need?
We had talked about loving God to death, but I didn’t offer enough tangible opportunities to experience loving God and loving people. So I changed course.
“That’s it!” I said. “Let’s go get in my truck. We’re heading downtown to see what it’s like to be in need.”
I wasn’t sure if this would turn out to be one of my brightest ideas, but it became an ah-ha moment for me and my kids.
Creating Opportunities to Love
Moments later, as one fired-up youth pastor and a pack of wild 14-year-olds headed downtown, I could tell I had their attention.
We stopped to purchase servings of coffee and hot chocolate, and we ended up on a sidewalk where another youth volunteer usually fed some of the homeless people in our city.
We set up shop out of the back of my truck, and my only instruction to the boys was to try and talk to these men and women as they would talk to any of their friends. Before they got to work, I asked them to consider these questions: “Do you think God considers these people our neighbors? If so, what should we do about it?”
From that point on, I sat back and watched as my boys began striking up conversations and drinking hot chocolate with some of God’s most interesting and beloved people.
I heard them talking about the weather, sports, politics, music and faith. The anxiety they had been feeling earlier was nearly gone; my formerly apathetic small group was loving God and His people, but I don’t think they realized it.
As we drove back to the church that night, I brought up Matthew 22:37-40 again. Suddenly, these boys were fired up as the words of Jesus came to life in a fresh, new way. As a youth minister, I got to live out Scripture in front of my group, which was the lesson they obviously needed to experience.
From Borrowing to Owning Faith
No one reaches Christian maturity on his or her own. All of us grow into our faith by borrowing faith from someone else and then eventually transitioning to a faith that is owned, alive and growing.
Any time I’ve heard a teenager share about his or her faith at camp or in front of a congregation, they always mention the loaner. The loaner is grandma, youth workers, teachers or neighbors who live out their faith in such an accessible way that any teenager could grab it.
So how exactly do we help our students along this continuum?
Youth workers not only function as key loaners in the lives of students, but we have a great role in what Mark DeVries calls “Stacking the Stands.” Our first role is to realize that we physically cannot sit in the stands for each student, but we can show countless adults where the stands are.
I want my students to borrow faith, but there has to be a caring someone and something of substance to borrow. This idea of connecting faithful adults to the students in our ministries will demand a shift in our leadership, vision and philosophy.
If seeing students develop a lifelong love for God causes us to get up in the morning, then why not share this excitement with a bigger and broader cross-section of the body of Christ?
Sharing hot beverages and conversation with our downtown neighbors was a catalytic event for my teenage boys. For others, it is the camp experience, the mission trip, the big rally event or some other unique moment that catapulted them from unbelief to belief.
The gospels are full of catalytic moments when Jesus took His friends away from the routine of life to a life-altering experience with the Savior.
These catalytic experiences often occur in what the ancient Celts called “thin places.” These are places and experiences where the distance between heaven and earth feels miniscule.
The presence of God is often palpable for students when there is just enough silence to hear Him, mixed with leaders who speak and live out the gospel in a way that is attractive and real.
Here are two examples of my favorite spiritual catalysts for students:
1. Backpacking Trips
When students are confronted with the beauty and risk of the outdoors mixed with the power of silence and campfire conversations, the ground becomes fertile for an encounter with God. For a good reason, many students connect with the Word of God as I’ve never seen before when we are out on the trail.
2. Mission Trips
I’m not talking about a week of laboring on a construction site. Mission trips should demonstrate the same rhythm of life that we want our students to continue when they return home.
Breaking each day of the mission trip up into thirds allows for being with Him in the morning, doing the work that needs to be done during the day and celebrating through worship services and culturally immersive experiences in the evening. While this rhythm feels a bit monastic, it is this spiritual structure that many adolescents are longing for in their mission to know and love God.
Think about your own journey with Christ. Picture those faces you borrowed your faith from and remember the spaces and places where a catalytic encounter with Jesus happened. Now, identify those faces and places that students in your ministry will experience as they venture from a borrowed to an owned faith in loving a living God.
As for my group of boys, the following week after going downtown they had shared their experience with every person in our church who would listen. They demanded that we hang out with our new friends downtown every other week as we attempted to apply what we were learning.
This new effort became a program we call The Curbside Café. The piece that I was completely unaware of was the number of parents who wanted to volunteer to make this ministry happen because they couldn’t deny the change they had witnessed in the lives of their kids.
God’s love compelled me to take the boys downtown, allowing them to witness faith in action; and their own excitement for ministry became contagious. The greatest part of this story is that other Christian adults, families and other small groups began to serve alongside this small band of boys; and the Curbside Café continues to this day.
Nate Stratman has been in youth ministry for over 12 years and is currently the director of student ministries at First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs. He also serves as a staff consultant with Youth Ministry Architects and frequently writes at NateStratman.com.