Nate Stratman

Faith and Culture



Why Cliff Got a New Name

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?


Why Student Leadership Teams Make me Gag, sometimes.

So what do you think we should do?” I said to my student leadership team during my first year of ministry. This was like throwing a dog a bone. For the next hour I heard what sucked, what I needed to do and when I needed to have it finished. I sheepishly concluded with “great leadership meeting guys, I am excited about what God has in store!” What a load!! I wasn’t excited about jack squat. I just got told by a bunch of teenagers what to do and I was about to do it. This wasn’t leadership. I was training baby dictators.

To be honest, I still twitch a little bit when I hear the term student leadership. I absolutely believe in equipping all the saints for ministry, I just question some of the practices we use to go about empowering young people. Here are my two current thoughts as I wrestle with student leadership;

1. If They Aren’t Serving, They Aren’t Leading- This is classic Jesus leadership 101 found in Mark 10:43-45. As youth ministers, we have opportunities to not only get great theological input and cultural observances from our students, but we can help deploy them as little Christs to a hurting and thirsty world. Looking back I was absolutely setting a low bar by only asking kids about their opinions on pizza, lock-ins and t-shirt designs. In God’s economy, it is the kid who picks up trash after a meeting or who welcomes a newbie who is being the kind of leader our world is dying for.

2. Why a team?-
For me, I have struggled with the select few students serving as a leadership team. You could fire back at me and say “hey, Jesus had His select few!” Well I’m not Jesus and these aren’t my disciples. Here is what I am most excited about as far as student leadership is concerned; a. find those who are already leading and continue to encourage the mess out of them. I know it is hard to believe, but even before we get to our lesson about being a servant, students are already serving. b. investigate the passions and gifts of your students and match them with a need in the ministry, community or world. I would honestly make this one of your highest priorities as a youth worker. It is textbook discipleship and I believe it can spread like wildfire throughout a ministry. While I have known this in my head, I can honestly say that I haven’t been as vigilant about it as I should have. Instead of an insider-outsider leadership team, why don’t we aim to equip each student as a leader in one way or another. I think it would make brother Paul happy based on his body part talk in 1 Corinthians 12.

So how are we attempting to do this? Well you might think I’m a Presbyterian goober who loves polity and meetings and you are wrong! But I have started to think that our students are showing elder like traits in decision making and our little deacons are becoming caretakers. Both of these are servants, they just approach service in different ways.  For instance, we have collected a good sum of money over the years and a small group of students who are responsible stewards are actually deciding how we will best invest this money into the Kingdom. They are writing up some guidelines and the other students will soon submit missions requests. I think our group has been pretty crumby at hospitality in the past, but we have a small band of students who want to change that. One crowd of girls has taken it upon themselves to be the first to welcome and invite any student with a disability who visits our group. This are just a few that get me excited.

What are some ideas you have about student leadership?

Grateful for the Ravens (1 Kings 17:6)

“The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning
and bread and meat in the evening.” 1 Kings 17:6

I was spending time with one of my students the other day and he was flirting with the idea of one day becoming a youth minister amongst a few other careers. He didn’t flat-out say it, but basically asked so how poor are youth ministers”? We had a great conversation and I basically told him to look at my home, clothes, cars and decide for himself if I looked poor or not.
As we kept talking I was trying to explain to him that there was an elusive blessing that many in ministry receive. Without using the term, I described the blessing of the ravens. The term is based on God’s use of these rather unattractive birds to provide for Elijah in 1 Kings 17.  As the son of a pastor I remember an anonymous man stuffing our freezer with all kinds of meat, bags of hand-me-down clothes on the porch or free tickets to some kind of event for our family. In my own experience in ministry, the ravens have blessed my family in many ways and half of those blessed birds are anonymous. I now realize as I look back on my childhood that we didn’t have too many material things compared to some of my friends, but the ravens kept me from realizing that.

Raven Entitlement
For Elijah, the ravens came and went and the brook actually dried up, sending Elijah packing. I firmly believe that God continues to provide throughout ministry, but he might not use the ravens in the same way or maybe not at all. What I’m really trying to say is that there is a danger in thinking well, I’m suffering for the Lord with this puny salary as a youth minister, so these church folks better start dishing out the goods!” I confess that I have had seasons of the “poor-me’s” and they usually happen when my prayer life goes from being a willing servant to an entitled whiner. It is this very discussion of expecting God to bless us in the ways we want him to that makes me nervous about the prosperity gospel.

Raven Recruitment
There was a time where the church family literally supported the priest/pastor by providing food and shelter for them. In many ways, the Catholic church still cares for their priests with basic provisions instead of large compensation packages that many protestant pastors receive. Most congregations I’ve been around have many people in the congregation who make much less than their youth minister and pastor does and these brothers and sisters could use a raven or two. I have realized the never-ending faithfulness of God as I have recently tried to be a raven to some special people in my life. Even though I have grown in the area of stewardship, I know that deep inside of me is this voice that still thinks the church owes me something. The church owes me nothing. I realize more and more that I am one amongst a local flock of ravens who owe much to our God who has really long arms.


* Inspired by Dr. Jim Singleton, my friend and pastor who has been teaching on Elijah this summer.

Three Ingredients for Youth Ministry

I remember speaking to teenagers one time and I was using an illustration about a cookbook. I was explaining that we often treat God’s word as a recipe in a cookbook and if we don’t like an ingredient, we leave it out. I ask the group, “what happens if you leave out necessary ingredients when you are baking?”
The answer I was looking for was that the cake would be jacked up and not look or taste right. The answer I got from a 9th grade boy named Jason was “The cake will you burn and you will too!”  I’m not quite the hellfire and brimstone type of guy, but Jason got the attention of his peers that night.  read the rest here…..

I am now writing Youth Ministry articles for The Burner Blog, a great resource from Fuller Seminary currently featuring folks like Dallas Willard, Tony Jones and many more. Make sure and follow the Burner! I will probably have one post a week over at the Burner and will link it on my site as well.

I Know What You Believe By Looking at Your Church Building.

Father Anthony is an Orthodox Priest with a Young Life background who lives in my community. He shared some interesting thoughts about church buildings with me one day when I visited his church with some of my students. He described 3 major strands of the Christian church and how their buildings tell us something about their belief in God.
1. Evangelical  (Large/Contemporary)-  These buildings are made to fit as many people as possible inside so that all may be “saved”. The media and music create a non-threatening and attractive environment that encourages followers to bring non-believers to church and it helps that the buildings don’t look like traditional churches.

2. Reformed/Presbyterian –  John Calvin was known to preach for 2 hours. These buildings look like lecture halls, with all seats pointing forward towards the pulpit. This design makes sense for folks who put great emphasis on the study and proclamation of the Word.





3. Orthodox –  For an A.D.D guy like myself, the Orthodox church has all the smells and bells. The entire worship space is covered with sacred art, telling the story of God. The priest is not the focal point in these services as there are many places for you to look and ponder the works of God. The Orthodox priest appears to facilitate the worship experience more than lead it.

These descriptions have really caused me to think about the blessings and curses of churches around the globe. Think about a few of these comments and questions below and ponder the necessity and usefulness of bricks and mortar.

1. an Episcopalian priest friend of mine was facing losing his beautiful church in denominational battles. He said “I actually pray that we lose it, because our identity is too wrapped up in the building.” Erwin McManus, a pastor at Mosaic in LA, said that God led them to sell their building which caused ministry to flourish across Southern California. 

2. Of the three models above, is one more conducive to youth ministry than the others?

3. One argument for huge elaborate churches is that they draw in more people who then can pool their resources to be a larger collective blessing to the world. True? 

4. I have seen thriving churches around the globe who meet under tents and have beat up sound systems and chairs. Why aren’t their large churches in our country that look like that? 


What does your church building look like and what are the strengths and weaknesses of its design?


Should Jokes Be Told From The Pulpit?

As I’m preparing to preach this Sunday I am trying to put together a puzzle of scriptures, stories, quotes and anecdotes. I love humor. I love to laugh. I started thinking about the role of humor in preaching and I was reminded of a quote from a favorite book of mine. In Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner gives his thoughts on telling jokes in sermons, which caught me by surprise.
“There are 2 dangers in this (telling jokes in sermons).One is that if the joke is a good one, the chances are it will be the only part of the sermon that anybody remembers on Monday morning. The other is that when preachers tell jokes, it is often an unconscious way of telling both their congregations and themselves that the Gospel is all very well but in the last analysis not to be taken too seriously.

I think Beuchner has a valid point. Here is the rub, in most pulpits in our country we have competing values that are fueled by both actual and percieved expectations from congregations. We want both a scriptural message and a delivery that puts us at ease and makes us feel like our pastor is just like us. I admit, I am often one of these people. In my own speaking experience, if I try really hard to connect with a group primarily through humor, I run the risk of neutering the Message.

Is it possible to be both loyal to the scriptures and experience Godly emotions such as laughter and humor through a sermon? I hope so, but maybe not on every scripture. Have you noticed when you are watching a very dark and serious movie that somewhere towards the end of the film people will chuckle at sections that aren’t that funny? Why? We laugh because it is hard for many of us to handle a heavy emotion for two hours. The book/movie, Into the Wild is so painful to watch that I started giggling at the fact that the main charactar died from eating the wrong kind of plant. It really wasn’t appropriate to laugh, but I just couldn’t take the pain anymore! If I’m honest, I feel the same way about Lent leading up to Good Friday, which makes Easter so powerful.

Not saying laughter isn’t from God, but have you experienced humor as a scapegoat to aspects of the Gospel that are hard to hear?

* Frederick Buechner “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC

They are going to do it anyway! (Parenting Teenagers)

Parents supplying condoms to their teenage sons or parents who buy the beer and collect the car keys are operating under the assumption of “they’re going to do it anyway, better safe than sorry”. The parents who make all the decisions for their teenagers and who work harder at preparing the road for the child instead of the child for the road operate in a bubble. Both of these scenarios are extreme for me, yet fairly common from my seat in the bleachers.

Over the years I have really thought hard about the “ya’ can’t stop ’em” mindset and I’ve heard some compelling arguments and I’ve also heard some weak ones. Here are a few thoughts to this mentality;

1. Eliminating Success: Just by saying “they are going to have sex or get drunk anyway” we have eliminated any chance for them to succeed. I have heard parents say this to their children and it is absolutely permission giving. If we take this approach, then we could also say “Hey Ryan, you’re so immature and don’t have the backbone or capability to make a good decision so I’ll just make it harder for you to actually choose the right thing by enabling you to keep doing the wrong thing”! 

    a. Caveat: What about those teenagers with broken frontal lobes? The exception and not the rule is that there are some teenagers over the years that are reckless with their sexuality. If this were my own child, you’d better believe that I would have every type of birth control available and I would have to move from a stance of abstinence to the less safe stance of protection.

2. A Healthy Curiosity: If we know anything about adolescents, we know that they are curious. When I teach on Sex and Dating I get questions like what does sex feel like?”, “can you get pregnant in a pool? and my all-time favorite from a boy does it hurt to put in a tampon“? These are great questions from curios souls and the avoidance of such questions will have huge repercussions. Contrary to some, just because a teenager is asking some of these graphic questions does not automatically mean they are on the verge making some awful decision. As a parent or a youth worker, if our children or students in our small group would never ask us tough questions, a) do they have someone they could ask? and b) what about you might be unapproachable?

Scripture has much to say: Just because there were no condoms or kegs in the Bible doesn’t mean that God has left us hanging on these specific issues. We often run off our teenagers by being so black and white on certain issues without asking them to actually think through and own the decision. “The Best Question Ever” is a book by Andy Stanley that centers on one HUGE biblical principle: Wisdom. So the question becomes, “what is wise about having sex as a teenager?” or “is it wise or unwise to have a keg for the senior prom in my basement?” Ephesians 5:15 says be very careful, then, how you live– not as unwise but as wise.

I have actually had a number of students over the years write their answers on a board in my office to “is this wise or unwise” and watching them discover biblical wisdom is one of the perks of my job.

Spaghetti Sauce and Church Leadership (Malcolm Gladwell)

Fellow Blog Readers,
I need your help!
I have really been struggling between two philosophies of youth ministry as it pertains to programming. One way is to offer very few ministries for the students or the you can offer a wide variety of programming to help many different students connect. I thought that I really believed in the latter, but I’m not 100% convinced.

This video below is Malcolm Gladwell (Author of The Tipping Point) sharing his insight at the TED conference. Yes he is quirky and Yes it is 15 minutes long, BUT I think we in church leadership could really learn something from this.
(Ponder my questions after you watch the video)

1. People don’t really know what they want: whether it is spaghetti sauce or ministry style, we don’t really know what we like. Sure, some may know…but as much as I have been to worship and lead worship, I’m could be convinced that I truly don’t know what I “want” in a worship service much less a church. Before you faint, I do have some thoughts and ideas, but do I REALLY know what I want?
2. Horizontal Segmentation: There is no great or perfect mustard (youth ministry), there are only different kinds of mustard that suit different kinds of people. So do we offer several varieties or say “you won’t like what we have, go to the Methodist church down the street”?
3. Universal Principles- When we make universal assumptions about the people we serve (we know what they want) do we miss the mark in our churches? Have we embraced the diversity of our ministries and can we do so without having too many “ministries”?

The example I used today in a consultation (Kevin Ford met with us and suggested this video) was of the Chinese restaurant with 100 options verses the steak restaurant I have been to in Buena Vista, CO that literally tells you what you’ll be having. Both are extreme and both describe many of our churches and ministries.

Where do you fall in this discussion?

The 2 Seasons of Youth Ministry

Youth ministry has two distinct seasons, a 9 month and a 3 month season. We are entering into the short summer season that is like the fast and furious after coming out of 9 months of a more structured approach to serving teenagers.

I have finally realized that there is a danger in approaching these two seasons in the same way. 

The Pitfalls of Summer Ministry-
1. The Golden Calf(s) of summer ministry are often the mission trips or summer camps and for a good reason. From a youth minister’s perspective, these trips have been dreamed about, planned for and heavily marketed throughout a good part of the year. They are exciting or at least we really want them to be. Yet, no matter how you fudge your numbers, there will always be more students back at the ranch than there will be on your trip. In general, we spend a disproportionate time with students and the flashier and more expensive trips get a huge amount of attention, no matter how formative they are. (This realization came to me after doing 5 trips in a summer on top of some family time away).


The Benefits of Summer Ministry- Summer is a great time to contact the busy students, those on the fringe and the group that will be entering your program the upcoming fall. We often fight throughout the school year to hangout with students and the summer makes this so much easier!! I have found that structuring my contact work and events for the 3 month short season is more crucial than the 9 month season.
1. Make a strategic list of students that you want to be intentional with in the next few weeks. Without a game plan, you will hang out with 10% of the students 100% of the time.
2. I have finally learned that summer events don’t have to be huge productions and the more laid back they are, the more relational fruit you will see. 

3. Get into work early in the summer!!! Knock out those emails, lessons and phone calls while your flock is sleeping. 

I actually love the fact that youth ministry has two seasons with two different approaches. And for the record, I think camps and mission trips are often key catalysts in our spiritual journey and we need them in the mix. But, remember that these summer trips serve as a few clubs in the summer golf bag and not the entire set.

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