Monday, December 24, 2012


Christmas: Where rubber meets the road.  Where God enters time and space.  Where the kingdom of God intersects earth.

I watched the movie ‘The Nativity Story’ several nights ago, and I had a really interesting experience of having my mind’s construction of the incarnation disrupted.  In the best way, I was taken aback and challenged with new visuals and different potential depictions of Jesus’ birth.  Living inside the story the way the movie painted it yielded the tilling of years of a certain way my mind had related to it.  And it made me think: Thank God for the incarnation, for a God who puts skin on to rescue us not only from death but from the trappings of our minds.

One of the beautiful elements of Christianity is the embodiment of faith: God creates the earth and dwells with His people.  God humbles himself and takes on a body - that we might know Him specifically and intimately as a Person.  And God lives in His people through the Holy Spirit.  Mankind isn’t left with an abstract, disembodied spirit or philosophy to theorize about; they are offered beauty, hope, meaning, and salvation through a Man/God who broke into the timeline and lived a life connected to the history of years and years before him, and years and years to come.  Whether anyone likes it or not, Jesus came, made super scandalous and important claims about Himself, and left a mark on history.

Youth ministry is a unique adventure of rubber meeting the road; information dissemination isn’t the primary purpose.  We are not ministering to a herd of brains-on-sticks.  Relationship is at the heart of the incarnation (which manifests God’s continued desire for reunion with His creation, mankind), and it is also best placed at the heart of youth ministry.  There is an enormous amount of mystery involved in the incarnation, and I believe there is similar mystery in mind meeting mind, spirit meeting spirit, and body meeting body.  How much is actually going on when you place your hand in someone else’s in meeting them, share a moment of eye contact, and offer a little bit of who you are even in sharing your name?  It’s actually pretty intimate when we let it be, and it’s a moment of connection not unlike the way God encounters us (and we Him) through the incarnation.  This continues through the telling of the Great Story in and through Scripture, through the living out of the Story in worship, and through the sharing of His Presence with one another through love.

Teenagers are in a unique, transitional phase of existence where they are growing and changing, and they are constantly formulating their understanding of relationship.  To encounter one of them with the welcome of the incarnation, the pursing grace of Jesus, and the understanding forgiveness God offers each of us can be one of the most profound honors a youth minister gets to experience.  I pray that each of you as youth ministers or volunteers are also experiencing that intentionality from someone else.  It’s a particularly poignant picture of the Spirit’s continual playing out of the incarnation, and of our joining with Him in that.

It is just as important to tell and teach the Great Story of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection as it is to read and hear it for ourselves, and to live it out in our lives and ministries.  Blessings this Christmas as you continue on your journey with Incarnate Love who has pursued and is pursuing you to the utter most.  

Liz Edrington previously served as a youth minister at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA. Liz presently is pursuing a masters in counseling at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL .

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ministry Across America: American South

1.) Please describe the context in which you minister (geographically, ethnically, socio-economically, etc.)
I serve in the American South in a suburban context in Birmingham, AL. My students are almost entirely white and upper-middle class to affluent. Attending church is a major social expectation. Whether it is accurate or not, nearly all of the kids in my context identify themselves as a Christian.

2.) What are your students biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to receiving the Gospel?
Students in the South equate church attendance with being a Christian and having salvation. Compulsive cultural Christianity rules the day. They embrace the religious elements of the faith without understanding the central elements of Christianity being about living in relationship with God and of Christ coming into the world to save sinners.

3.) How do teenagers in your region feel about the Church and Christianity as a whole?

Teenagers generally have a positive view of the Church and Christianity. At the same time, while they do not express this, their views and behavior suggest that they view church as a cultural compulsion, that you "just do." ("We go because we go. Right?") Many of the anti-institutional rejections of Christianity seen in other parts of America have not surfaced in a major way down here.

4.) What perceptions and reactions do teenagers in your area have to Christian morality?

Christian morality very often boils down to drinking or not drinking alcohol underaged in high school with kids in the Deep South. A-Team Christian teens do not drink, while second-stringers do, in their eyes. Not drinking makes you good, while drinking means you are not serious about God. Many kids in the South oppose gay marriage and homosexuality but their views on this originate more in "red state" political ideology than a developed biblical theology. Given the traditionally conservative socio-poltical mentality in the Deep South, most teens generally do not have a problem with biblical morality. I will say, though, that over the eight years of my ministry, kids are becoming increasingly geared toward morally relative thinking than when I first started. 

5.) What approaches have you found helpful in dealing with the aforementioned stumbling blocks such that you effectively can share the Gospel with students in your area and bring them in to the life of the Church?
When sharing the Gospel with kids both individually and corporately, I tend to speak in terms of being perfect vs. imperfect before God, rather than sinful or good. So many kids think the formula for salvation is church attendance plus being a good person. They do not understand that the standard for salvation is perfect righteousness, which only can come externally through faith in Jesus. Few kids in the South will accept that they are not good, but nearly everyone will accept that they are not perfect. Therefore, I try to communicate that the only way to be in relationship with God and to have salvation is to be made perfect, something only God can do for you and of which a person is wholly incapable. ("Hell is filled with 'good people,' but heaven contains only absolutely perfect people."

6.) What encouragement would you give to other youth pastors in your area trying to reach teenagers?

I would encourage youth pastors and parents in two ways. First, you need to understand that in the American South seventy-five percent of your work involves deconstructing false belief related to Christianity. You have to constantly remind kids that the faith is about a relationship, not religion. You have to constantly debunk the idea that Christian is a moral code for practical living rather than an invitation to live in dependent relationship with the Lord of the universe. You have to distinguish between biblical theology and Republican socio-political ideology. (Yes, many kids think that anything associated with Republican political ideology, such as gun control, has its roots in Christian theology.)

Secondly, I would encourage youth pastors that we do have a great blessing in the way that kids have a mostly positive view of the church in the South, as compared to other regions of the country. My friends in other regions face enormous struggles in just getting kids to consider attending anything associated with a church. Southern youth workers face less resistance and do not have to work as hard to build trust and overcome deep prejudices against the church.

Cameron Cole is the chairman of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry and the Director of Student Ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL. He is a candidate for a Masters in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ministry Around America: West Coast

1.) Please describe the context in which you minister (geographically, ethnically, socio-economically, etc.)
I currently serve in the Mira Mesa community of San Diego. There are 80,000 people within a few miles of our church and many thousands more within a short drive.  Mira Mesa has about the same number of whites as Asians (Filipinos make up about a fifth of the entire population of Mira Mesa), though our church is about 70% white.  I attribute this to there being so many ethnic churches in San Diego.  Our kids come from primarily middle-income families, with about ½ having both parents work.
2.) What are your students biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to receiving the Gospel?

This isn’t found only in Southern California but the biggest stumbling block I’ve encountered is the perceived “goodness” of self.  This is a problem everywhere.  We’ve been told by our parents how good we are at things in an effort to build our self-esteem and when someone presents the gospel showing how broken and dirty we really are, it’s taken as an attack because no one has ever talked to them with such truth before.  Even those from Christian backgrounds who attend church regularly are taken aback by a clear, honest presentation of the gospel.

3.) How do teenagers in your region feel about the Church and Christianity as a whole?
Southern California is such a different place and I see that when discussing our faith with those around me.  I grew up in the south where, even if you had never been to church, you had a pretty good idea of what goes on there because so many around you did.  In the west, there are people who have no understanding of the reason for Christmas or Easter, some not even realizing that there is any religious element to either holiday.  It’s a mission field here more than any place I’ve ever been.

4.) What perceptions and reactions do teenagers in your area have to Christian morality?
Much of what I’ve seen comes from what kids see in the media.  However Hollywood or the media portrays Christians is how kids view us.  Popular opinion amongst lost teenagers is that Christians are anti-gay, anti-abortion, and hypocritical.  We’re seen by many in the same light as you or I would see the Westboro Baptists.

5.) What approaches have you found helpful in dealing with the aforementioned stumbling blocks such that you effectively can share the Gospel with students in your area and bring them in to the life of the Church?
Be genuine and honest in who you are what you say.  I’ve seen way too many 40 year olds try to be cool when they talk to teenagers.  It doesn’t work and it makes you look silly.  When you speak to teenagers, show them that you truly care for them and their soul.  This is especially true when a man is sharing the gospel with a teenager as there are so many kids around us who don’t have a male figure in their life that cares about them and will give them the attention that teenagers crave, even though they’ll never admit that. 


6.) What encouragement would you give to other youth pastors in your area trying to reach teenagers?
Preach the word.  Be ready in season and out.  Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching!  Stay true to the gospel and continue to preach the Bible.  Don’t confuse silliness and games with effectiveness.  We are called and commanded to preach the word and disciple each other so that God is glorified through our obedience.  Let God deal with convicting and converting the lost. 

Ryan Roach is a youth pastor at Community Bible Church in San Diego, CA.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Remembering What's Important: Part 4 - The Holy Spirit

-->“Youth Ministry - NOT a DIY Project!  Remembering the Role of the Holy Spirit”

I love DIY (Do It Yourself) projects!  As a result, I love Home Depot, and the show Home Improvement with Tim Allen!  In a strange and nerdy way I find fixing, building, and maintaining my home quite satisfying.  But in our culture that praises DIY projects, independence, and solo work, we as Youth Ministers must fight every urge to treat ministry in the same way.  Youth Ministry is not a DIY project!

So if it’s not done alone, who is it done with?  I’m convinced that without the empowerment and participation of the Holy Spirit our ministries will be weak, impotent, ineffective, and void of the spiritual fruit we so badly want.

As part of the “Remembering What’s Important” series, I’ve been asked to reflect upon the role and ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Let’s consider His role in Scripture, in us as Youth Ministers, and at Youth Group.


The Holy Spirit in Scripture:

One of the most concentrated teachings on the Holy Spirit comes from John 14-16.  Consider again what Jesus taught there:
·       John 14:16[The Helper will] be with you forever,
·       John 14:17… he dwells with you and will be in you.
·       John 14:26… he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
·       John 15:26… he will bear witness about me.
·       John 16:7Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.
·       John 16:8… he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:
·       John 16:13… he will guide you into all the truth...
·      John 16:14He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” 

The Holy Spirit in Us

The most unexpected passage is John 16:7 where Jesus says, “… it is to your advantage that I go away”.  This runs against my natural assumption that Jesus’ physical presence is better than his absence.  But since Jesus is absent, the Spirit is present in all believers.  The Spirit then “teaches us all things and brings to remembrance all that Jesus taught” (John 14:26), and “guides us in all truth” (John 16:13).  Great courage and boldness should result from knowing that we are empowered by the greatest and most powerful Person youth ministry has ever seen!

How contradictory it is when we fail to express our dependence upon the Spirit!  We portray a powerless Holy Spirit when we depend upon our own wisdom, effort, and passion.  We imply our personal efforts are more effective than the work of the Spirit.  If Jesus intended ministry to be a DIY project, He would not have given the Holy Spirit.

We must regularly express our dependence upon the Holy Spirit, especially in study and preparation for Youth Group, counseling, meetings, etc.  The Holy Spirit can give in 6 seconds the insight and direction that would have taken 6 hours on your own.  He can give perfect words in the moment that you hadn’t previously read, heard, or prepared.  Are we depending on Him to do such work?

I can testify, He is faithful!  NEVER – in 5 years of doing youth ministry (the past 3 years being weekly expository preaching) - have I ever arrived to the start of youth group unprepared.  God has ALWAYS been faithful to give me words.  Admittedly, I’ve often felt underprepared from a delivery standpoint, but I’ve never been unprepared and speechless.

The Holy Spirit at Youth Group

I think the single most important passage from this section is John 16:8 “… he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”  As we effort to faithfully preach the Gospel and see sinners saved, the Holy Spirit is working in our hearts by opening our blinded eyes to our need for a savior.  We can’t convict student’s hearts.  We can’t make them run to Jesus as their treasure.  But the Holy Spirit can!  Are we depending on Him to do this work?

One of the greatest challenges for me each week is to apply the message to the heart.  I aim to teach insightful, relevant, and specific ways that the text intersects with their lives.  But let’s face it: None of us can comprehensively apply a passage to the lives of all who hear.  But the Holy Spirit can!  Are we depending on Him to do this work?

Depending on the Holy Spirit

When I’m discouraged by low attendance, irritated when students aren’t listening to my message, worrying that the few remaining hours are insufficient to finish sermon prep, and failing to consistently pray throughout my day, I’m not depending on the Holy Spirit.

In a culture where DIY projects are praised, and independence and self-sufficiency is esteemed, we ought to model for our students how to avoid self-reliance and how to depend on the Holy Spirit.  For example when we pray before our messages, let’s recognize the Spirit's constant presence, and ask him to be the teacher, to give us words to say, and our students ears to hear.

As Youth Ministers, we are weak.  But the Holy Spirit is our ever-present strength for all God has called us to.  Let’s regularly pray, and ask for help.  Let’s show our Youth through our neediness that the Holy Spirit is all-sufficient.  Let’s with Paul depend upon the Holy Spirit and have his attitude from 2 Corinthians 12:9

But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

May the Holy Spirit comprehensively apply this post to our lives and ministries.  Because while I can’t, He can!

David Brashler has served since 2007 as the Youth Pastor at Living Water Community Church in Vancouver, Washington. He holds a bachelors degree in Industrial Engineering from Oregon State University.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Ministry Around America: New England Edition


1. Please describe the context in which you minister (geographically, ethnically, socio-economically, etc.)
I am a proud, life-long New Englander.  I attended college and seminary a little over an hour away from home, and now I serve in a church only thirty minutes from where I grew up.  I serve in a church of 250 that's about half an hour south-west of Boston.  New Englanders are generally well-educated, brutally honest, and traditional people. 

The suburban towns Emmanuel Baptist Church pulls from are largely upper-middle class, mostly white communities where many commute daily into Boston to work (most commuters work in the financial world or in one of Boston's many hospitals or universities).  In New England, it is simply assumed that not only will you go to college after high school, much of your teenage life after freshman year revolves around getting high enough grades and excelling in enough extra-curricular activities to get into a good college with a scholarship.

There are two general assumptions most New Englanders make (especially in my area around Boston): You will go to college and you're Roman Catholic.

2. How do teenagers in your region feel about the Church and Christianity as a whole?
My wife teaches eighth grade in our town's public school and frequently gets questions about being married to a priest.  A few weeks back, something about church came up in one of her classes and since she's not Catholic she was asked what religion she was, as if being a Baptist is like being a Buddhist.  She had to explain what "Protestant" and "Baptist" meant, since "Christian" and "Church" simply means "Roman Catholic" to most unchurched teenagers.  It's simply assumed that if you're religious, you're Catholic. Many parents have a difficult time agreeing to let their teen attend anything a Protestant church is doing - in some ways the changes of Vatican II are still being worked out.

Even though many will identify themselves as Catholic, they rarely attend Mass and dread attending CCD. The Roman Catholic Church is viewed with skepticism because of the clergy sex-abuse scandals, and all other Churches are untrustworthy because they aren't Catholic. Religion simply isn't something that should affect real life. In many ways, it wouldn't be unfair to make the observation that the universities (which were ironically founded by the Church to train up the next generations of pastors and missionaries) have taken on the authority the Church used to hold in public life.

3. What perceptions and reactions do teenagers in your area have to Christian morality?
When I was a teenager, I remember classmates getting drunk and partying hard on Friday and then going to confession on Saturday.  Religion is thought of as something peripheral and pretty insignificant.  Disappointingly, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" is a very accurate description of teen spirituality - God exists but doesn't impose himself on you, he's just there to help you when you need him to and help you do good things for others.  

In a culture so dominated by both secularism and Roman Catholicism, the Gospel of Grace is not easily understood and is often under attack from both groups of people.  The Gospel is either stupid and unnecessary because God, sin, and judgment aren't real anyway, or the Gospel is a New Law declaring what we ought to do without giving us the ability to do it. 

Practically speaking, most teenagers around here don't seem to think too much about moral decisions.  It's not that they're more thoughtless than other teens, but they're simply postmodern and think with their feelings and impulses.  As the Ben and Jerry's Bumper Sticker says, "If it doesn't feel good, why do it?" 

4. What approaches have you found helpful in dealing with the aforementioned stumbling blocks such that you effectively can share the Gospel with students in your area and bring them in to the life of the Church?
One of the most effective things you can do is to invest your time to gain the trust of parents.  Evangelical churches (especially Baptist churches like mine!) are often viewed with suspicion and distrust.  This makes earning the trust of parents both difficult and essential.  I've had a number of students get plugged into the youth ministry who wanted to attend our Sunday morning worship services; but they have been told they aren't allowed to come "because we're Catholic" (even though they rarely attend Mass).  I've had students drop off the map for a season because they had to attend CCD in order to receive their first communion.  It's becoming a bit "trendy" to emphasize parents today, but I'm increasingly convinced that we need to minister to the whole student, and that means we need to reach out to the whole family... parents included. 

I often hear youth pastors from around the country talk about the importance of plugging into the local schools, and I agree that's really important, but in New England it's extremely difficult to do.  I'm not allowed to eat lunch with students, and even if I was, I'm not sure how many students would be willing to put such a huge target on their back by allowing me to sit with them and their friends.  I've been a volunteer coach for one of the local high school's Track & Field teams and that's been a great blessing and a great challenge.  A few years ago one of the students I had already coached for a whole season was surprised to find out I'm a pastor (I have no idea how she didn't know, since it comes up quite a bit) and proceeded to ignore me for the rest of the week because she was so weirded out that one of her coaches was a priest. 

5. What encouragement would you give to other youth pastors in your area trying to reach teenagers?
Don't give up, and stay somewhere long enough to make a difference!  We've all heard the statistics about how short most youth pastors stay at a church before moving on... I want to encourage you to try breaking the record as the longest-tenured pastor in your church's history.  I've been serving at my church for seven and a half years, and it wasn't until year four that I felt that I really had gained significant trust from the parents at church (so how much more of a challenge will it be to gain the trust of parents from the unchurched community!). 

You will see mini-revivals break out among families, churches, schools, and communities through your ministry the longer you stay, the more consistently you model the servant-love of Christ, and as you continually proclaim that amazing grace of the Good News.  Don't set out trying to be Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield or whoever else... set out to be faithful in your calling to serve the students and families God has given you and trust Him to bear the fruit as you scatter the seed.

Besides, we all know New England is the American Church's best-kept-secret... God is doing a mighty work here!  Friends, stay faithful.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Remembering What's Important: Part 3- The Patience of God

Admittedly, I’m not a very patient person.  As a young adult, I thought I had my irritability, anxiety, and restlessness under control...and then I got married and saw the real me.

But where my recognition of sin increased, God’s grace also increased.  And so after five years of marriage, I thought I had my impatience under control once again...but then we had our first child.  A couple years later, God called me to full-time ministry with youth.

Why can’t people just adjust to my schedule?  Why do they move so slowly? Why do I need to explain this to them again?  Why won’t that kid just realize he’s hurting himself and his family and change!?!

Ugh.  I am such a hypocrite in need of grace.

And yet through all this wrestling with my own peevishness, God has been letting me see something about his character that I often overlook.  God is incredibly patient--especially towards sinners like me.

One of scripture’s recurring refrains is that “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8), and though we regularly talk about God’s mercy, grace, and love...we often skip over God’s being slow to anger--his patience.  Why?

In my own life, I’ve come to see that I tend to downplay God’s patience when I fail to take seriously the magnitude of my sin and what my sin deserves.  If I’m “basically good”, what’s there for God to be angry about?  Why does he need patience?

I think that many of our youth feel similarly much of the time.  Thus, when we see God’s anger in Scripture towards sin, we can sometimes think that God’s being rather mean, missing his patience altogether.

We see God kicking Adam and Eve out of Eden and think him rude, rather than marvel at the merciful patience of God for not obliterating Adam and Eve in the moment of their sinful rebellion. 

When God brings destruction upon this or that people group in the Old Testament, we think God’s being harsh and petty rather than marvel at the fact that God has patiently provided air, food, water, and so forth for a people that have been stubbornly bent upon rejecting him.

How quickly we forget the seriousness of our sin and the wrath it deserves!  ...That is, until we personally experience the true ugliness of sin. When someone deeply hurts us or goes on a shooting spree in a theater, all the sudden we want a wrathful God.  How can God put up with such a person, we ask, why doesn’t he just do away with them once and for all?

We scoff at God because of his patience with sinners.  Sometimes we scoff at him for being too harsh, other times it’s for being too soft.

But thankfully, God is patient with us in our scoffing, too.

In fact, God actually tells us through the apostle Peter “that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing” (2 Peter 3:3).  Peter continues in his second letter,

They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  (2 Peter 3:4-9)

The ultimate final judgment sin deserves is coming.  One day God finally will do away with all evil and suffering.  But God doesn’t value time the same way we do, and his love is patient enough to wait for the repentance of his people.

Just think of that kid for which your heart aches to know the redeeming and saving love of Jesus.  God is willing to endure their sin, our sin, and the present evil in this world to see s, inners like that kid reach repentance.

And if God is patient enough to endure the messiness of sinners like the youth we work with, can’t we trust in him to give us patience to walk with them amidst the mess, trusting that God will redeem and use for good even the struggles we are asked to endure (cf. Romans 8:28)?

But we should not be so careless as to think that God’s patience will last forever.  Eventually, Jesus will return to make all things right--which includes the judgment of all who fail to take refuge in his patient love.  The apostle Peter goes on to write, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10).

There is an urgency to what we are called to do as ministers to youth.  The patience of God directs us to trust in God’s timing to working repentance and sanctification in our youth’s lives, but it doesn’t give us an excuse for timidity in calling these kids to repentance and faith in Jesus as Lord.

And when we fail in patience and boldness--as we all do--we too can repent and along with Peter “count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15). God’s patient love in Christ by his Spirit surrounds us, upholds us, and will ultimately sanctify us completely when Jesus returns.

As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)  Jesus’s patient work in our life is our hope for salvation--for us and for our youth.  May we grow in the fruit of God’s patience.

Mark Howard is the Youth Director and Assistant to Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Covington, GA. Mark has a Masters in Theology from Wheaton College Graduate School

Monday, November 26, 2012

Remembering What's Important: Part 2- The Humble Servanthood of Christ

Jesus redefined leadership as servanthood in taking on a humble form to most genuinely reach and minister to people --in particular, the last, the little, the lost, and the least; why do youth ministries attempt something different?

One of the places I’ve most often seen the gospel hit home in a tangible way with teenagers has been during service events or on mission trips.  It is a concrete depiction of incarnation, of love being fleshed-out.  And the physical interaction amongst the kids and between the folks they are serving provides a vessel, a metaphorical and literal vehicle for the message of laying down your life, putting others before you, and trusting yourself to the bigger picture of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world.  In an era where instant access to information, ‘relationship’, and entertainment rules our kids’ lives, the sometimes-awkward, new, and eye-opening experience of spending time in a soup kitchen, amongst elderly folks, or in another service capacity breaks through the familiar, stale, and often-consuming patterns teens actually really long to be liberated from.  They are invited into something different, something oriented outside themselves -- something that pulls the veil back a peak to let them glimpse the kingdom of God. 

I think that we, as youth ministers (and, honestly, as the forgetful, broken human beings we are) lose sight of the fact that something approximating this same experience of glimpsing the kingdom of God is what drew us in, to Jesus, in the first place.  Whether you grew up in a family where the story of the gospel was woven into everyday life or you had a specific break-through moment of encountering the love/power/presence of God, a Way different than the way of the world became a reality to you at some point. 

So why do we fall into the snare of thinking that our ministries should be successful according to the world’s way (standards/measures)?  And why do we see so many business-like models for youth ministry that functionally use power, control, and popularity to convince kids of the gospel -- or maybe just to convince them to come to church?

Indeed, we forget the backward leadership of Jesus, the Way Himself.  We forget the reality that the kingdom of God is at-hand, and that an emptying of self, a laying down of our lives is the call we live by.  Servanthood is the invitation for us -- the alternate to the world’s way of power and control.  Contrary to glorifying ourselves, building ourselves up, or gaining more and more competence/pride/feelings of success, Jesus invites us as youth leaders to continue in His Way even as we head-up our ministries.  This means that we get to point to what He has already done, is doing, and will do in lieu of worrying as much about the success of the retreat we just did, the small group we’re currently doing, and the lock-in we’ve got next week.  We get to rest in the laying down of our lives and in the struggle to trust God with our ministries.  We get to know that His strength is in our weakness, and He values the offering of our gifts and selves.

A youth ministry shaped after the heart and ministry of Jesus isn’t going to look pretty, folks; as much as we are inclined to maybe think it should, it is more likely to look like the nitty-gritty relational pursuit, perseverance, constant proclamation of the Word, and God-reliant sacrifice of time, effort, and energy.  It is likely to bring you to your knees everyday with outstretched hands if you aren’t already there, and it’s likely to be one of the sweetest tastes of the kingdom of God you will ever experience – a taste much, much sweeter than the appearance of worldly success or the feel of finally having some control or power.  It is a taste of eternity, and of Love, Himself, who laid down His life for yours.

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
                                                                                                  - Mark 10: 43-45

Liz Edrington previously served as a youth minister at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA. Liz presently is pursuing a masters in counseling at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL .

Monday, November 19, 2012

Remembering What's Important: Part 1- Student Ministry and the Sovereignty of God

Some youth ministers labor for years on end without ever seeing a conversion or they see very little spiritual growth.  Others, however, seem to have it all together—big crowds, mass baptisms, teens singing Ke$ha to the tune of Kumbaya.

How much of the success of student ministry is up to you?  Where does your ministry and God’s sovereignty connect?  And if God is completely sovereign (which He is), does it affect your daily approach to working with youth?

Sovereignty “Displayed”

The sovereignty of God is one of his holy attributes.  It means that His divine will is omnipotent and supreme over all (Eph. 1:11).  God’s sovereignty is displayed or expressed in two distinct ways.  First, God’s sovereignty is displayed in his eternal decrees—God has decreed the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10).  All things come to pass according to his eternal purpose and plan.

Second, His sovereignty is displayed in his temporal providences—his eternal decrees executed in time and space.  For example, God has decreed salvation for his elect (“predestined”), but it comes to pass when the Spirit of God performs divine heart transplant and causes His beloved to be born again (1Pet. 1:3).  That is the sovereignty of God displayed and nothing—not even the tiniest molecule, as R. C. Sproul would say—falls outside of the sovereign control and plan of God.

So where do you fit in?  How does this relate to student ministry?

Your Part: The Means of Grace

God has not only ordained (“decreed”) the ends, but the means by which He would accomplish those ends.  This can be illustrated in both evangelism and prayer.  While God elects His people by sheer sovereign mercy, He sees fit that those people come to faith in Christ through the hearing of the gospel message.  Thus, He has ordained both the means and the ends.

A similar theme can be found with prayer.  I sometimes get asked, “Does prayer change things?”  My answer:  No, God changes things, but He uses your prayers to do it!  Both the outcome in time and space as well as the means to accomplish that outcome are wrapped up in His eternal purpose and the “secret things [that] belong to the LORD” (Deut. 29:29).

The usual and ordinary means by which God saves and sanctifies His people—including teenagers—are the Word of God, prayer, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Historically, these have been called the “means of grace.”[1]  However, God also uses other means to save and grow His people, including gospel-motivated service, grace-centered community, and worship.

While God remains sovereign, He calls you to plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:7).   But how do we faithfully plant and water the gospel?  Through the means of grace that God has already provided His church.  We don't have to invent new foundational paradigms and strategies for saving and sanctifying teenagers.  We have a role and responsibility:  to simply be faithful to the various means—the six listed above—that God uses to grow his people.  In fact, the early disciples “devoted” themselves to such a ministry (Acts 2:42-47).

Two Common Pitfalls

As youth pastors and those working with teenagers, it is easy to fall into one of two theological and pastoral pitfalls, when considering the sovereignty of God and ministry.  One is to think that—because God is sovereign—it really doesn’t matter what I do; the ends all turn out the same.  While it is true that “faithfulness” is always more important than “success” in ministry, we should heed Timothy Keller’s plea for an emphasis on fruitfulness as well.[2]  As noted above, God uses our ministries of the Word, prayer, sacraments, etc. to accomplish His eternal decrees, in time and space.  We have, therefore, a great responsibility in our ministry to students.

The other pitfall is to think that the “success” of my student ministry is really determined by my programs, special events, or my cool soul patch.  This, I’m sad to say, is the default ministry paradigm in student ministry in the American church.  There is so much emphasis on creating the greatest show on earth, that we have lost the centrality of the sovereign grace of God in saving sinners.  Instead, we gimmick and game students to the point that the youth themselves are left confused by the essential character of the gospel.  In the end, what’s missing is God himself!

Some Practical Suggestions

Let’s put this together.  Let me give you three practical suggestions for leading a student ministry in light of the sovereignty of God:

1.    Study the attribute of God’s sovereignty.  Yes, study!  Scripture is replete with references to the sovereignty of God and many books have been written to help us explore, discover, and take delight in this holy attribute.[3]  Such a study and focus will undoubtedly lead to a greater daily reminder and awareness of the truth that we serve a God whose sovereign will reigns supreme from all eternity.  My failings in ministry, therefore, will not thwart His plan.  Rather, my failings and weakness are used by God as part of His sovereign plan—often pointing to the reality that God’s grace is sufficient and that His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
2.    Evaluate your student ministry by the means of grace.  These include the Word of God, prayer, sacraments, gospel-motivated service, grace-centered community, and worship.  Do these provide the backbone of your current ministry?  If not, the pitfall of self-reliance might be lurking up ahead.  But a faithful and fruitful ministry will seek to plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ through these divinely ordained and established means.

3.    Don’t Apologize for God.  I hear this all the time: “I’m sure God wouldn’t let that happen.”  There is a temptation to apologize for God when bad things happen, or when things happen that we don’t understand.  No, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job. 1:21).  Just because we don’t understand why something happened doesn’t suddenly render God impotent.  Just because all of your event planning and financial resources didn’t provide the desired effects, we must not say, “If only God could give a little help here!”  Nothing is sweeter and more comforting than serving in student ministry for a God who is, at once, good and sovereign.  Let God be God and praise Him for His sovereignty!

[1] See The Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 154.
[2] Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 13.
[3] For a true classic, see A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976).