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“Prideful Guilt” A Lenten Lesson from Henri Nouwen

“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”

Owning It: Helping Kids Experience Love for God and Neighbors

By Nate Stratman | Youthworker Journal December 2011

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?

Catalytic Events

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.

Video: My Favorite Description of a Healthy Church.


Simple, refreshing and a hair controversial if you will. The high performance rock show vs. the neighborhood relationships and the line that said “instead of making coffee, make disciples” both made me say dang. I serve a church that I love very much and we are trusting God to do something that on many days seems humanly impossible and probably is. We are a large mainline church who has reached thousands of people for Christ through a programmatic model. Now we are attempting to go from big and programmatic to spread out and missional. Theologically and on paper it looks great, until you take my coffee!!! I’ll admit, coffee and excellence in the music aspect of worship can be idols for me. It is pretty hip right now to have super expensive, fair trade coffee (which I adore), but it is one more thing that can delay our departure and fuzz our focus on showering our workplaces, schools and neighborhoods with the shocking grace of Christ.

And another thing, can large, established churches look like the church in this video without decreasing in size? I personally think that huge churches have a huge roadblock in front of them on their way to becoming a missional church. And you?

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Video by the Foursquare Church

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.

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

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?

 

God’s B-Team?

I preached yesterday on some of these thoughts and today I still struggle with them. The challenge for me in preaching is that I want to hash out some of the questions I ask from the pulpit and maybe that is why I really love speaking to teenagers because they talk back!

Quick Synopsis- If you take a survey of the entire bible you will see that God has used young people as agents for his mission over and over again. The call of Jeremiah in chapter 1, the call of Samuel, David, Timothy, Moses, the boy who shared is lunch in John 6 and on and on. The fact that God calls young people consistently throughout scripture tells us about his heart. Age is no barrier to Him and neither are titles.
Here are a few of the points that I made yesterday that I wished we could have hashed out, but maybe we can do that here.
1. Our churches are structured to have “B-Teams”- While no good-hearted follower of Christ would admit to putting teenagers and children on the Junior Varsity, yet we are still guilty by the way we structure. I hear more and more people talking about the need for intergenerational opportunities especially in larger churches and I would say that our structure makes assimilation very, very, difficult. What do you think?

2. Mature believers make room for maturing believers Sadly, mature believers often make room for their own spiritual health, worship styles and opinions. ( I am not exempt from this statement) I know this sound cynical, but I really thought hard before I wrote it. For the most part, we aren’t malicious about turning our heads to new and maturing believers, we just have our own routine that captures our hearts and minds. I referenced a question yesterday that was asked of every Presbyterian Elder until 1825, What are you doing to recruit young people to the Gospel ministry? This question has some teeth and I wonder why we no longer ask it? So, what does and could it look like for a church to really make room for maturing believers?

3. Wild Hair Idea- What if we got rid of youth ministry? Yes I know, this means I would looking for new job. But really, what if we canned the youth ministry, would the body rise up to take care of the teenagers without having to pay someone? Is this a better model of ministry? Do I (youth ministers) actually inhibit the people of God from reaching out to serve young people?

I really want some input here!! Pick 1 and go!

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?

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

A Double-Edged Sword for Youth Ministers (Pastors)

Is it o.k with you if your pastor has friends?

Really?

What if you weren’t included in their group of friends?

I have found the whole idea of ministry leaders attempting to be as “normal” as possible, amusing. I grew up as a pastor’s kid and my dad spent most of his time outside of church with his family or in old, dusty used bookstores. At one point I thought my dad was a loser because he didn’t have any friends, but I knew that wasn’t the case because he is a Stratman and we aren’t losers!  But seriously, even if he wanted to spend a bunch of time with the guys or working the church casserole circuit, would that have caused unnecessary drama? Would it have been ok to hang out with some and not others? I was told by a pastor that “being friends with the people we ministered to was unhealthy on many levels”. I continue to wrestle with this statement.

You may be reading this and thinking that it is a non-issue, but I promise I continue to hear comments like “he plays favorites” or “I guess we aren’t in the inner circle” from time to time. Youth Ministry constantly deals with the “youth-pastor pet” syndrome because we are working with a group of people who want everything to be fair. Have you ever watched two middle school students split a candy bar? They do so with laser like precision in the name of being fair!

Here is the question at the crux of this post,
Do we want our church leaders to be one of us or not?

If the answer is yes, then….
1. We know that they can’t be friends with everyone, so we encourage them to model community with a few.
2. We also know that all personality types don’t mesh, so leaders being human, will connect with some better than others and that might not be you or me. So be it.
3. If they are like us, then they probably don’t want to talk about what they do when they are at the movies with their family. I wanted people to know that my dad loved God but he also likes the St. Louis Cardinals.
4.  Pastors can bleed like you and me. I have watched several humble church leaders take verbal beatings time and time again and it drives me nuts. While it is not the masses, some people see church leaders as punching bags because “they can take it” and they don’t get their feelings hurt because they are holy…BOLOGNA!!!!!

I personally want a pastor with a life. I want to follow someone who can speak, teach, live out the Word as well as someone who likes corn dogs, watching Nightline or playing golf.  I want a pastor who has a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

Am I just being angst-y or do others see this as an issue in church leadership?

The Death of “Show and Tell”.

My 4-year old Ruthie has show-and-tell every week at her pre-school and I love it. I love watching my daughter search around for something in her room that she is proud of and wants her friends to see. I always loved it when kids would bring some gnarly dog or angry cat to class, because drama would always happen. So why do early elementary teachers put up with stinky pets, broken toys and pictures from a family vacation to Branson, Missouri? I believe they understand the importance of not only having an “experience”, but sharing that experience to others. Secondly, it is that time where ALL kids have something to offer and don’t have to be a math whiz or the king of four-square to feel confident.

We must have more show-and-tell in our churches and youth ministries.

What are you doing in your ministry to let young people share about what God is up to in their lives? Many churches have youth sunday or let the kids report about a mission trip, but that is not enough. I admit that we need more show-and-tell in our weekly youth ministry and it doesn’t have to be some huge production.

I tend to overuse an analogy about my wife and I on the beach looking for sea glass. Kim finds all kinds of sea glass and I have never found one piece in all the years we lived on the beach. Why? I wasn’t really looking for the sea glass because I was so distracted by the smell of dead fish, or a big wave or a european tourist wearing a scandalous bathing suit. Kim always found sea glass because she was actually looking for sea glass. If I as a youth minister am about anything, it is to help my flock look for God. And If I’m all about them looking for God in the every day events of life then I believe I need to allow them to tell me about that.

What are some ways that you have seen the church embrace the  show-and-tell philosophy?

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