Monday, October 29, 2012

Comforting Words for New Youth Ministers - Part 3

This series seeks to provide comfort and guidance for new youth ministers. The series includes narratives from youth ministers in their first year of ministry (Article #1 and Article #2) and advice from veteran youth ministers to rookies. 

So how am I feeling about my new job in youth ministry?
The simple and honest answer: I am tired.
I am four months into my new job in youth ministry and I am barely catching my breath. I shot out of the cannon with vigor and enthusiasm and am now making the recovery from a rather large road bump of exhaustion and migraine headaches. It is not surprising considering four months ago I started my job off with a week- long retreat and have been moving at a steady pace ever since. From the moment I hit the ground running I have had girls seeking out time and answers from me, and the list of about 200 high school girls on our list continues to grow.  

But perhaps the more pertinent reality is that in the past four months I have not been faithful to protect my altar time before the Lord. And, no, I have not been faithful to position myself to be filled up so that I may pour out. I have not sought to measure my success in my job through the lens of my Heavenly Father’s eyes. And my chair designated for my prayer time has been vacant for quite some time.

The result: I am running on empty. If only the solution was as simple as it is obvious. Or maybe it is. But if there are always more girls to connect with, always a broken and hurting student needing my attention, always program to plan, always work to be done, how do we rest easy at night knowing I have done my job that day to the best of my ability? How do I feel that I have completed for that day what I needed to do? How do I decide when to carve out time for myself when I know the names of the girls who will potentially cry themselves to sleep that night?

My boss graciously and frequently reminds all of our staff of the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10, verses 38-42. But I am realizing how much more of a challenge it is to be like Mary when my job feels a whole lot like Martha planning, coordinating, and caring for those in our church home. But, yet, I long to have the attitude and poster of Mary. But how?

This week, I have the weighty job of meeting with a girl who had severely victimized and for the first time is seeking out help on how to cope and heal. How do I handle such a responsibility? What truth do I offer her? The Lord’s promise to her is that, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28-30).  I want her to believe that the Lord can take her grief and shame. And, yet, am I even believing and walking in that same truth for myself? 
I have reached a point in my job when I am feeling more inadequate, more humbled than ever, but at the same time I am so thankful that four months in and I am finally moving into the place the Lord wants and needs to me be. Am I actually more pliable and more usable for His ways now? I hope so.

My hope is not that the Lord will transform my next talk into an eloquent and understandable masterpiece rather than the stumbling mess of a talk I gave last week, nor for my capacity for connecting with girls to double in size. But my hope is that I can more genuinely communicate the message of Christ’s truth and love while walking faithfully in His promise of an easy yoke and a light burden.  So today, more than ever, I cling to the Lord’s promise that He uses the weak things of the world for His purposes.

1 Corinthians 1: 26-30 says, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong… And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 

Liz Price is serving in her first year as the Cornerstone Girls Coordinator at the Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Virginia. She is a graduate of the University of Alabama. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Comforting Words for New Youth Ministers - Part 2

This series seeks to provide comfort and guidance for new youth ministers. The series includes narratives from youth ministers in their first year of ministry,  perspectives from those who just have finished their first year, and advice from veteran youth ministers to rookies. 

I’m about two months into my journey in youth ministry. I ended my fourth year in college thinking that I was headed back for one more semester this fall before graduation. As a person who likes a plan, I had a defined idea of what my path after college would look like and it did not include youth ministry. I always knew that I would enjoy working with youth as a volunteer, but I simply had a different plan for my life.

I was approached this summer about the opening here at Saint Luke’s. I was flattered but initially dismissed the idea because it wasn’t a part of my well laid plan, and I wasn’t sure that I fit some non-existent mold of what a youth minister should be.  I think that God finally had enough of my headstrong, inflexible attitude about life. I found myself thinking about the opportunity here more and more. Finally, it became clear that this was something I was supposed to pursue. For the first time in my semi-adult life, I let go and did something totally unexpected. I told myself that if it wasn’t meant to be it wouldn’t happen. This took a little bit of the worry away and gave me the courage to pursue something outside of my comfort zone. Then, everything just fell into place.
That is not to say that the past two months have been easy. They have been quite the opposite. Trying to figure out what I am supposed to do and how I am supposed to do it has been especially challenging. Despite a lot of guidance and great advice, I think I have moments of sheer panic every day. There are always people to help me if I ask, but sometimes I don’t even know what questions I need to be asking. Just when I feel like I’ve started to get my basic planning routine down, something happens that changes it. A parent calls with something that needs immediate attention, or I spend hours doing something that I suddenly realize needs to be done. Sometimes I’ll work hard all day and then get to the end and realize that I haven’t done a single thing on my well mapped out to-do list.
Then you enter my youth into the equation. After all, the planning and endless emailing that I do all day would be pointless if it didn’t result in something that reaches the group of thirteen through eighteen year olds that walk into the youth rooms every Wednesday and Sunday. Building relationships with the kids in this youth group is easily the most exciting, rewarding, and challenging aspect of the job for me. After high school graduation, I never thought I would spend another day worried about whether or not a high school kid liked me. Now, I spend much of my energy planning events and programs in hopes that they will have the right balance of spiritual nourishment, intellectual challenge, and the kind of fun that keeps a fifteen year old coming back week after week. 
I’m a person who can get really worked up. It is important that I find comfort and peace in all of this craziness. I find myself thinking more and more of Christ as the Good Shepherd. He has a plan and is taking the lead; all I have to do is follow. For me, this is easier said than done. But I think that might be the point. For someone who likes structure so much, it’s crazy that I feel most spiritually fed sitting silently in the presence of God. The most comforting thing that God does for me these days is simply being there all the time. 
Parker Garrett is serving in her first year as the youth director at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Birmingham, AL. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

God, Evil, Suffering, and Teens: Part 2- So, Where Does Evil Come From?

As we saw in Part 1 of this series, the problem of evil isn’t an abstract philosophical problem.  Evil really exists, and it affects us personally and tangibly. 

As we look at the evil in the world around us, reflect on our experiences, and discern how evil is portrayed in scripture, we discover that we can categorize the evil we face into three types: spiritual, physical, and moral.

Spiritual evil, as I use the term, refers to evil in the “supernatural” realm.  Like the wind, you can often see the effects and influence of spiritual evil, but you can’t usually see it directly.  False (pagan) gods, satan, and demons (fallen angels) often represent this sort of evil in scripture.

Whereas many adults remain skeptical of such evil (thinking demons and the like to be false superstitions of less enlightened cultures), most of the youth I know today readily accept such categories.  I guess they’ve read enough Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, and other such books  to be open to the idea that there is more to reality than meets the eye. (Or, to put it another way, the  reason today’s youth are so drawn to books like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight is because in their heart of hearts they know that there is more to reality than meets the eye and are drawn towards anything that touches on this hidden reality.)

Physical evil is used to describe evil in the “natural” realm.  Unlike spiritual evil, physical evil can be seen and touched directly.  Sickness, cancer, mental illness, decay, tsunamis, tornadoes, and hurricanes are all examples of physical evil.

Moral evil is best understood as evil in the ethical realm.  As such, moral evil arrives from the decisions and actions of conscious beings.  Biblically speaking, moral evil is sin and it involves rebellion against God.

Okay, okay, okay, you might be saying (because it’s likely what your youth are saying to you right about now), so we can categorize evil. Whoop-de-do.  Enough with the philosophical mumbo-jumbo.  Where does evil come from...? Did God make evil...?  Why does he allow evil to exist?

It’s here that we need to remember back to what we saw in Part 1 of this series: you can only meaningfully speak of evil as a category when there is also a corresponding category for good (which requires a moral standard and therefore a moral standard giver). 

The flip-side of this argument is that when you create the category for good, you also allow for the existence of evil--for evil is best understood as the perversion of what is morally good.  This is particularly true if God also allows for conscious life that can think and act of their own volition, thus allowing for willful rebellion against the good.

Therefore, whereas good can exist on its own, evil requires the category of good from which to draw its perversion.  As C.S. Lewis colorfully puts it, “...good should be able to exist on its own while evil requires the good on which it is parasitic in order to continue its parasitic existence.”

Thus, to answer their questions: No, God didn't create evil, for evil in and of itself doesn’t have substance--it’s an absence of the good.  But God does allow for evil when he declares his creation “good” and gives elements within his creation (specifically angels and humans) the freedom to willfully rebel against God’s goodness.

With this in mind, let’s turn to scripture to discern God’s response to the problem of evil and suffering.

When we begin carefully reading Genesis 1-3, the first thing we notice is that the story isn’t trying to tell us about evil’s origin in God’s good creation.  Although, given the understanding of evil as the privation of good, the possibility for evil existed as soon as God declared his creation good.  In fact, God introduced the category of evil within creation when he planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden--something he did before humanity fell.

We aren’t told when angels chose to rebel against God, thereby bringing spiritual evil into existence, but we are told that this happens sometime before the fall of humanity.  This is seen most clearly in existence of the serpent (who is satan according to Revelation 12:9 and 20:2) in the garden of Eden who is already seeking to deceive and distract Eve and Adam from obedience to God’s ways.

It is also likely that some form of physical evil existed before the fall of humanity.  A careful reading of the creation account in Genesis 2 discloses that in addition to the garden of Eden, there was the not-garden.  It is from the dirt of the not-garden that God forms Adam before placing him in Eden.

Biblically speaking, we don’t know much about the not-garden.  All we know is that Adam and Eve were called to subdue and have dominion over the whole earth, which would lead us to believe that part of the earth did, in fact, need subduing.  (And if you believe in the reliability of the geological record, it seems apparent that there was much physical evil in the world that needed to be subdued.)

Peter Hicks, a Baptist pastor and former lecturer at the London School of Theology, writes, “Was the garden of Eden itself entirely free of pain and suffering?  It is hard to imagine that it could have been so.  Quite apart from the fact that the words of God to the woman in Genesis 3:16 spoke not of the introduction of pain but of the increasing of pain, it is hard to conceive of life in any garden that could be pain-free….  If [Adam] experienced loneliness before the forming of the woman, did he not also feel other emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant?  Surely Eden was not free from pain and suffering; but what made it Eden was the presence of God.”1

So really, the first three chapters of Genesis 1-3 aren’t about the origin of evil in all forms; they provide the story of humanity’s moral rebellion and the devastating impact this has for all of creation.  For as we’ll see in Part 3 of this series, humanity was created for a special purpose: to be a central part of God’s “setting-to-right” plan for his creation.  Humanity is meant to play the key role in God’s victory over evil.

Part 1: (Re)Framing the Conversation
Part 3: Humanity and God's Solution to Evil

Mark Howard serves as pastor to students at Trinity Presbyterian in Covington, GA. He holds a masters in theology from Wheaton College.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Comforting Words for New Youth Ministers - Part 1

This series seeks to provide comfort and guidance for new youth ministers. The series includes narratives from youth ministers in their first year of ministry,  perspectives from those who just have finished their first year, and advice from veteran youth ministers to rookies. 

I never thought I’d be a youth minister, now I’m six weeks into to my first ministry job. When I was in high school, I thought it was weird for the bearded, 20-something guy to come eat cafeteria lunch with my friends, so I avoided youth group. Now I’m that weird bearded guy.

There is more to this new work than acceptance of my new identity as a youth minister. In addition to seeing myself as a youth minister, I must be a youth minister, and this being involves worry. Yes, the work is fun and important and thrilling, but what worried youth minister needs to hear that his work is great and exciting? With worry, there are many more questions than answers and so is the following.

After I’ve told my friends that I work as a youth minister, they soon ask, “So what do you do during the week?” I begin to panic and start my stumble through an answer. What is my schedule? I hoped for something that didn’t fit the M-F, 9-5 desk job, but what is this? I work nights and weekends. My afternoons are spent watching field hockey and football games. My days may have a share of reading and planning and emails, but then I find a Wednesday morning or Thursday afternoon when there is no work to be done. For me, the weekly refrain is, “Am I doing enough?” How do you begin to answer this question? Enough for what?

On a Sunday morning, I ask teenagers, “How are you doing?” Every answer, “I am so tired.” Then the bible study that is sunday school is a dealing with catatonic eyes and pregnant silences. Reminds me of the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Anyone? Anyone?”  I’ve come to the church because desperate need in my life. What do these teenagers desperately need? Sometimes I think they just need a nap.

Another difficulty is entering these families’ lives. Is my knocking on their doors welcome, or is youth group another activity thrown on top of their complicated and busy calendars? I wonder how many spam folders my emails go into. Scheduling just one weekly hour for youth group is a tough enough chore. It’s actually impossible. There is no time that works for all the teenagers at our church. There’s a soccer practice or baseball game or even a viola lesson. Is youth group interfering with their lives, or are their commitments interfering with youth group?

So these are a couple observations of the deficiencies in my youth ministry, places where I feel: “That there could improve,” or, “I could try harder here.” Jesus says in Matthew, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I have this idea of the perfect youth ministry. My firstefforts in youth ministry largely expose the failure to be perfect or even good. Trying to be excellent in these categories is like trying not to be angry. It’s as impossible as finding the right time in the week to have youth group.

Comfortable words of Christ are also found in Matthew’s Gospel, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” My ways of evaluation no longer apply to my work. I could only measure the amount of flour, but I could not distinguish or quantify the leaven that is spread throughout. My success is not how many kids show up or how many hours each week they do youth-related activities. The kingdom is about the good news, though it may start small, working its way through all of our lives.

Brooks Tate serves as youth director at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA. He is a native of Nashville, TN and graduate of the University of Virginia. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

God, Evil, Suffering, and Teens: Part 1- (Re)Framing the Conversation

Rooted contributor, Mark Howard, writes this important series about helping teens deal with their questions about the presence of evil and suffering in a world ruled by a good, sovereign God. 

If you’ve worked with youth for any length of time, then it’s likely that at some point you’ve faced a question something like this:  How can God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?

Such a question demands an answer.  But how should we go about answering such a deep and difficult question?

Ultimately, as with every question, we’ll need to take them to scripture to discern how God answers the question for himself (which we’ll do later on in this series).  But in some cases, the person asking the question isn’t a believer and doesn’t trust the scriptures - just as they don’t really trust a God who would allow for evil to exist.

Moreover, the whole point of this conversation isn’t to win an argument or merely transfer knowledge - but to foster a relationship with the Father in Christ by the Spirit.  And so it’s helpful at the outset to begin with God, showing how the problem of evil and suffering is actually only valid if you assume a Christian view of God and reality.  Let me explain.

In order for the question concerning the problem of evil to make any sense, the categories for good and evil must make sense.  This means that good and evil have to truly exist as meaningful categories.  If their is no such thing as good or evil (if morality is relative to the whims of people), then the problem vanishes with the absence of any meaningful way of defining evil.

But if the categories of good and evil do exist, then there must be some sort of objective moral standard beyond our feelings that defines what good and evil actually mean.  If there is an objective moral standard to which we can appeal to define evil, then there must also be a moral standard giver--it requires a moral God.  And so we discover that the very problem that calls into question the existence of moral God actually requires that a moral God exists.

C.S. Lewis, thinking back to his days as an atheist, puts it this way in his book, Mere Christianity (a good book to read through with anyone questioning Christianity):

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed cruel and unjust.  But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.  What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?  If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?  A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet.  Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own.  But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too--for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies.  Thus the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist--in other words, that the whole reality was senseless--I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality--namely my idea of justice--was full of sense.”

This quote by C.S. Lewis leads us to another important discovery: the problem of evil is not an abstract philosophical problem, it’s a tangible practical problem that impacts people personally.

Evil exists--not theoretically--but in reality. Though often presented in philosophical terms, the question of evil and God is actually quite personal.  The youth posing the question are most likely struggling with something specific that’s happened to them, someone they love, or someone in their world.

Perhaps someone has abused them, their parent has cancer, there was a devastating natural disaster, or there was a recent shooting in a community.  They’ve been confronted with evil and intuitively know it’s wrong. Evil doesn’t just confuse their minds; it breaks their hearts.  They hurt.  They feel injustice in their bones.

And since the problem is personal, our role with the youth requires us not to just answer their questions, but to minister to their mind, body, and soul--to shepherd and care for someone in our flock who is hurting emotionally, physically, and spiritually because of evil.  Our response to their question must be real, tangible, and practical.

Not surprisingly, then, when we turn to scripture, we don’t find that God gives us an abstract philosophical treatise on the problem of evil.  We cry out to God, “Why do you let evil exist?”  And like a loving Father he personally invites us to draw near to him as he begins his answer by saying, “Let me tell you a story...In the beginning I created the heavens and the earth...”

And so as we seek to answer the question of God, evil, and suffering over the next several weeks, our approach will be to see how God addresses the problem of evil in scripture, and then to engage the practical implications for us as Christians living in a world still plagued with evil.

As with all Rooted blog postings, comments are welcomed as they provide a good way to continue the conversation.

Part 2: So, Where Does Evil Come From?
Part 3: Humanity and God's Solution to Evil

Mark Howard serves as pastor to students at Trinity Presbyterian in Covington, GA. He holds a masters in theology from Wheaton  College.

1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996) 45-46. First printed in 1952.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Are We True to the Gospel?

Rooted Conference keynote, Ray Ortlund, provided this exceptional piece to the Gospel Coalition Blog, about how futile our doctrinal accuracy is if our lifestyles do not embody the Gospel.

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”  Ephesians 4:31-32

The gospel is in these verses: “. . . as God in Christ forgave you.”  The rest of it is how we are to be true to that gospel, how not to be a living denial of the very gospel we profess, how to be living proof of that sacred gospel."

Read the rest here: Are We True to the Gospel?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Youth Ministry Isn't About Youth Ministers

The second Monday of each month I gather with several pastors in the area to pray, confess my sin, and fellowship together.  During our last meeting, my mentor brought us to 2 Corinthians 4:1-6.  It was an incredible reminder of what we’re to be about as ministers, and I believe it’s particularly relevant to those of us working in youth ministry.

In chapters 1-3, Paul defends his ministry amongst the Corinthians, reminding them that the power of his ministry is from God--not from himself.  He goes on in 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 to write:

“Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

How often are we tempted to be God’s PR filter--to tamper with God’s word to soften the hard truths, gloss over the parts that make us uncomfortable, or tweak the passages we feel need help?  But our ministry isn’t about us or what we want to be true--it’s about faithfully proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord.

How often are we tempted to think that we can “win” others to Christ, as if we could change hearts and behaviors with our own cunning?  But our job is only to faithfully witness by openly stating the truth of the gospel.  The results of our proclamation are not up to us--that’s the Spirit’s work.

How often we are tempted to proclaim ourselves--our passion, our insight, our efforts, our creativity, our humor--in an effort to try and make Jesus “cool”.  But the youth don’t need us--they need Jesus and the power of his Spirit.

How often do we forget our utter dependence upon the grace of Jesus and the power of the Spirit in ministry, foolishly thinking we somehow earned the right to be ministers of our own merit?  But the light of Christ shines out of the darkness in our hearts.  We were graciously given whatever knowledge of God in Jesus we have by the Spirit.

I find incredible freedom in this passage.  It reminds me that from start to finish, my ministry is to be about Jesus and his grace at work in me and through me by his Spirit.  It’s okay when I feel weak.  It’s okay to feel like I have nothing to give.  For this, too, is part of our message--apart from Christ we are weak, we are nothing.

Later on in his letter, Paul will write down one of the strangest truths in gospel reality--a truth that comes directly from the mouth of the resurrected Jesus.  Having grasped something of his insufficiency and weakness--and having repeatedly begged for the removal of his weakness--Jesus says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

And so Paul continues, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecution, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

As we minister to youth, my prayer is that we will remember that it’s not about us.  May we grow in our dependence upon God, learning to embrace our weakness so that the power of Christ may rest upon us in the ministries he’s given to us. 

Let’s us remember along with Paul and Timothy, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant...” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6a)

And--praise God!--God’s grace is sufficient even for our youth, so let’s be ministers utterly dependent upon God’s grace.

Mark Howard serves as Pastor to Youth at Trinity Presbyterian in Covington, GA. He holds a masters degree in theology from Wheaton Theological Seminary in Wheaton, IL.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Biblical (Il)Literary of Teenage Believers

Richard Ross of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary offered this insightful and valuable article at Here is an excerpt with a link to this pivotal issue in the landscape of American Christianity:

Youth ministry researcher Chap Clark says, “I’m convinced that the single most important area where we’ve lost ground with kids is in our commitment and ability to ground them in God’s Word.”

As a result, Barry Shafer says, “The church today, including both the adult and teenage generations, is in an era of rampant biblical illiteracy.” Duffy Robbins takes this one step further when he says: “Our young people have become incapable of theological thinking because they don’t have any theology to think about. … And, as Paul warns us, this … leaves us as ‘infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching’ (Ephesians 4:14).”

At the conclusion of the National Study of Youth and Religion, lead researcher Christian Smith reported: “Even though most teens are very positive about religion and say it’s a good thing, the vast majority are incredibly inarticulate about religion. … It doesn’t seem to us that many teens are being very well-educated in their faith traditions....

Read It All Here