Friday, December 30, 2011

Gracenomics & Creativity in Youth Ministry

One of the last books I read this year was Gracenomics from Mike Foster. In a chapter about putting grace into practice at work, he describes a scenario:

"The boss pretends the company never fails. Never has, never will.

The employees know this is a bunch of bull. Always has been, always will be.

But because they know their boss is fixated with erasing all evidence of the company's failures, the employees trade in the goal of advancing the company for the boss' real goal: covering up mistakes - along with anything that might've been learned from them.

Creativity is choked out.

Innovators are handcuffed.

Dreams die."

Grace allows creativity and dreams to flourish because grace makes room for failure. I know that he was talking about the workplace with this picture, but I can't help but forward this dynamic into the church (maybe because that's my workplace). In a group of people who are admittedly depending on God's grace, what if we're so intent on covering up mistakes (or maybe we just ignore them and hope they'll go away) that we don't really let anyone learn and grow from them, that we don't learn to give grace ourselves?

I believe the result is the same: creativity is choked out, innovators are handcuffed, and dreams die. Only, in the church, instead of continuing to punch the clock and collect a check, a lot of creativity will look elsewhere for an outlet and the less patient of the innovators will walk away long before the dreams die.

Through youth ministry, I have been given the chance to shape both the church that is now and the church that will be. I want to make sure I'm giving students and other leaders the freedom to fail. I'm not sure I've always done that well, and I can't help but wonder what dreams and creative ideas have been stifled by my bottling up of the grace that's been given to me...

What were the latest mistakes you or your church has addressed with grace? What did you learn?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Social Media Awkwardness

Have you ever wondered what social media are doing to us? What are we becoming as a people who are so pixel connected? There are a number of aspects of social media that I've noticed:

Twitter Trolling - If you followed me, just so I'd follow you, but I didn't on any of the 16 occasions you've tried to get my following attention, what are the chances that I'll follow you on attempt number 17?

Begging for Celebrity Retweets - "Hey Mr. Famous with your thousands of followers who don't really pay attention to what you say, would you include my name in your next tweet so some of them can come ignore me, too." I don't get it. Maybe there's a famous for being famous gene I didn't get or bug I didn't catch, but if I'm going to be known, I want to be known for doing something - not for having my name mentioned by someone who's done something. I don't know how @BrianDawkins puts up with it.

The Declaration of the Unfollow - If you don't want to read what someone tweets, just don't follow them. No need to announce it or threaten to unfollow them. Just leave the room. @markschlereth takes all kinds of crap because his football followers don't want to hear about his chili, or some food snob chili fan just found out he was a gridiron gladiator, or because his son didn't pitch away from some hitter, or because he just posted another of his 'churchy thoughts'. "Sorry Mark, if you can't be as one-dimensional as I am narrow minded, I'm not following you anymore." What kind of person finds it necessary to tell someone that you're not going to read their tweets anymore?

Facebook Relationship Status - Let's just all put "it's complicated" and leave it at that. (I would follow my own advice here, except that I'm already statified as married, and the switch would REALLY freak people out.) Relationships are ALL complicated, why complicate them more with this feature?

MEdia - What makes us think it is ok to be SO self-centered just because we're digital? Even in the digital universe, other people exist, and they don't just want to talk about me(you)! But I really am glad you told me how good your toast was this morning, do you put the jelly on with a knife or a spoon?

There are a ton of other strange moments in social media I'm sure you've noticed. The Old Flame Friend Request. The Terribly Public Argument That Should Have Been Behind Closed Doors. The Wall Post of Passion That Definitely Should Have Been a Private Message (closely related to the Tweet That Should Have Been a DM).

Which ones are most awkward for you?

Content To Be Frustrated?

I've been struggling to manage a tension lately between contentment and my constant (and perhaps idealistic) desire for improvement. I seem to always want things to be better. Call it perfectionism or whatever you want, I just always seem to see ways to improve and desire to implement those ways. I remember getting my ACT scores back when I was in high school and paying the extra money to get back my answers. I wanted to see where I'd fallen short, and when I realized the silliness of the mistakes I'd made, I knew I could do better. I even thought about taking the test again to improve my score, to reach that perfect 36, even though doing so would have had absolutely no bearing on my college choices or scholarship options, my upcoming marriage (yes, I was processing wedding bells and Pomp & Circumstance at the same time), or any other aspect of my life. It was just a desire to do better.

I've carried that penchant for improvement with me throughout my life and work, which has mostly been helpful, but is sometimes really frustrating. (Maybe even more frustrating for those that get stuck working and living with me... sorry.) People sometimes get annoyed with my tendency to expect better, because in the church, contentment is held as one of the highest of virtues. Paul, himself, hoisted the banner of contentment several times in his writings to the Christians in Philippi and to Timothy. 

I've asked friends to be praying for how I handle the frustrations that have come up in the current struggle, but lately have come to a conclusion: Contentment with anything less than what God wants is not a virtue. It's sin and I don't want to go there.

Doesn't God deserve our best? Not just settling for our "best efforts", but working diligently and intelligently for the best results possible. I know I don't earn anything from Him with my incremental improvements in ministry techniques or tactics. I'm not trying to get a better score on some Kingdom entrance exam - in Christ, my score is already a 36. I'm in! But in light of what that has cost Him, doesn't He deserve me doing my best AND working to gain the capacity to do better?

It's one thing to be satisfied with a job well done, but it's something else to think we're finished with the work. When does contentment creep its way into that dank and squalid hole of complacency?

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Future Is Orange, Predominantly

The other day, I saw a bunch of lemmings patting each other on the back and celebrating how awesome their collective lack of perspective was. As their bandwagon rolled along, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of compassion for them as they mindlessly followed their own tails. I was in my truck, so I compassionately ended the misery that was their bandwagon existence. I'm not really a bandwagon guy.

Having said that (fictitiously of course), this post is going to sound a little bandwagonesque - ok, a lot! There, you've been warned. When it comes to the Denver Broncos, I have no shred of objectivity. I've mentioned here the pain of watching them crumble the past few years, but I'm glad to say the pain has subsided considerably.

Actually, the past couple months have been the most fun I've had watching the Broncos play since I sat in my grandma's living room and listened to her cuss out John Elway's gunslinging comeback ways. It's a little scary that we now have to worry about the 4th quarter heart conditions of the elder set of Broncos fans again - and a little refreshing. Take some aspirin before the game - I hear that helps the heart...

A few quick Broncos thoughts:

- Tim Tebow is just inexplicably getting it done. 3 completions through 3 quarters of play? No problem, what if we just have 18 completions in the next few minutes, okay guys... Win. For the record, McDaniels did a lot of crazy stupid things in his time in Denver, but drafting Tebow was not one of them. I loved the pick then, and I love seeing Tebow lead this team after waiting a year and a half for his shot. The lack of off season work put him in a bad spot, but he seems to be making up the learning curve pretty quickly. Character matters - A LOT.

- The Broncos are not winning in spite of his first 3 quarters of play as some have suggested. What the Broncos are doing on offense is what they have to do on offense. They are playing for first downs and field position. Tebow's throws are much more consistently getting where they need to be, and the offensive line is working like some kind of dump truck tank the A-Team would've put together is some rancher's barn in New Mexico. (Sidebar: What would you give for a Mr. T sideline sighting with about 10 minutes to go? Sidebar spawned afterthought: What would you give to see Tim T. with some feather earrings and a mohawk!?)

- When the receivers catch the balls they should be catching, Denver could be putting good teams away early. I know Marion Barber helped out in a big way by not going out of bounds yesterday, but if the Broncos receivers had caught 6 or 7 more passes (that were right to their hands!) earlier in the game, he wouldn't have been in a position to gift-wrap the final moments for the Broncos. Can you imagine Dumervil/Miller/Williams getting after a quarterback who HAS to throw because his team is down by a couple TD's?

- The defense is looking stronger than it has in a long, long time. I loved the draft pick of Von Miller. Along with a couple other pickups and health improvements, the front of this defense improved in a big, big way. Champ & Dawkins are still playing like they always have and offer an incredible amount of leadership and work ethic to the young guys. If those young guys are listening and learning from that tandem, the defense could be back to the Orange Crush standard for several years to come.

- I love watching a quarterback run over DB's and shove linebackers to the ground with a well placed stiff arm as they desperately try to dive at his legs. (The Revis Matador was pretty sweet to watch as well.) I know, I know, the purist NFL fans want to see the QB stay in the pocket and look pretty, but I'd much rather see my field general crashing the front lines. Injuries happen, so depth is important, but then again, how many pocket-passing QBs are currently sitting around injured because they got blindsided standing 6 yards behind center?

It's good to be a Broncos fan. And it's enjoyable again too, now that every week doesn't bring another beat-down. There's hope again in the Mile High fan base. The future is orange... predominantly.

/fan boy ravings
/band wagon basking

Friday, December 09, 2011

Compassionate Christmas Sharing?

When it comes to food, we have some pint-sized picky eaters in our house. They're often hearing from LuAnn or I that they need to be content that they have food every meal, even if it's not something they like. I remind them that while they complain about their potatoes, there are kids all over the world who are going to bed hungry... again. Today, we got confirmation that the message is getting through. Sort of.

Lizzie's preschool class has been gathering food for an elderly lady, so before we left this afternoon, she took a couple cans to donate from our pantry. Noticing what she was happily providing, I asked Lizzie if she thought the lady would like the green beans.

"Yeah, probably..." was her first reaction as she hurried to get the cans into her backpack. But as we left the room, she expounded upon her initial enthusiasm (to herself in a very matter of fact manner):

"She should just be happy that she has food."

As LuAnn and I overheard from the next room, we humorously wondered how we've warped our kids in so many ways... I'm afraid the compassion runs so deep in that one that is has yet to fully surface.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What They Don't Know...

Last night, after our youth group met, I noticed one of our kids sending home another student with one of the well worn Bibles our children's minister keeps handy. Why would this 16 year old kid in western Nebraska be needing an overused Bible? Because he didn't have one. Last night we were talking about what the church is supposed to be and how we can only really find out who we are by paying attention to Who made us. How we find ourselves when we find Him in His Scriptures...

Img: Ron Loveday at CreationSwap
But this kid had no Bible until last night, and he's hungry to know more because the whole idea is new to him.

Let that sink in for a minute.

He has 16 years of life surrounded by steeples and church-goers, but without an understanding of who God even is... or maybe even that God is. This is the second time recently that I've been confronted with the stark reality that my generation is largely failing when it comes to teaching the next generation. We can no longer continue to think (or maybe it's just pretending) that everybody already knows who Jesus is and that every upstanding American has already chosen to follow Him. How can they believe if they haven't even heard? And how can they hear unless someone is sent to tell them? (Check out a bit of Romans 10 for more on that.)

Still think we're living in a Christian nation?

Wake up.

The mission field is right outside your front door. Your community is full of people who have no clue who Jesus really is. Go make disciples.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Generation iY

I seem to have a perpetual stack of books that I keep hoping to get to that sits on my desk. The stack often gets interrupted by some other new entry into my reading whims, so sometimes books will sit in the stack for quite a while. Last year at Christmas time, one of the books I was wanting was Tim Elmore's Generation iY. I got the book in Decemeber, but it has sat for almost a full year, waiting...

The subtitle of the book "Our Last Chance to Save Their Future" may seem a little overdramatic, but when you think about what's really at stake for today's young people, it's not such a grandiose statement. The book does a really good job laying out a description of the Millenial generation (especially the younger half), the cultural influences that have shaped them, and what we as parents and teachers and youth leaders need to be doing to help them launch into adulthood.

It was a great reminder of the potential that lies latent in young people and the need for mentors to guide this potential into fruition. Sometimes, I can get distracted by so many secondary frustrations in my job that I forget... We have an incredible generation of young lives who are hungry for authentic direction as they emerge into adult life. They are hoping to mean something to the world around them, but too often we adults are doing a poor job helping them understand how to do so. I was reminded that a huge part of my job is to identify adult-student partnerships and construct frameworks to facilitate the unleashing of potential within those partnerships - making the most of our students' current gifts and opportunities and preparing them to launch into lives of ministry of their own.

If you work with young people or have them in your home, the insight Elmore shares from his years of experience developing young leaders is invaluable. Check out the book for yourself and get some practical strategies and ideas for parenting, mentoring, & employing Generation iY. Also check out Save Their Future Now for more.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Healthy Church Culture

I'm listening to the Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast from last month and hearing some great stuff I wanted to pass on. He's talking about organizational culture - the way a group/organization expresses values/vision. It's the way things are going, the way people are feeling/acting/reacting, the way we do things, attitudes... "This is who we are & how we do things."

We can say whatever we want in describing our vision, but if the culture of our church or ministry doesn't support what we say is important, then even the greatest statements have very little real value. For example, I say the highest priority for our student ministry is to 'reveal God to students'. But if the culture of our ministry doesn't lend itself to eye opening moments and conversations where God is held up to be noticed, then there's not much hope that we'll actually be revealing God to students. So we need to make sure we're consistently showing students where to look for God and helping them learn to recognize Him when they notice what He's doing around them.

Every organization has an organizational culture & the leader is responsible for shaping that culture. Are we just operating by default or are we purposefully shaping our culture? The longer a leader has been in an organization, the more responsibility they carry for the culture of that organization. They also become less aware of the culture of the organization. This is why the 'new guy' notices things that no one else may notice. Too often, we are just doing things because that's what we've always done and we stop noticing the broken tiles and screeching hinges and horrible signage to which we've become accustomed. The problem is those blind spots may be hindering our ability to accomplish what we've set out to accomplish.

Healthy cultures attract & keep healthy people, so the culture of an organization impacts the long term productivity of the organization. Who wants to work in a place where co-workers hate their jobs, shoddy work is passed on to the next department to clean up, and the proverbial floor is made of eggshell? I know I don't. It's de-motivating. A good worker who wants to be productive can only stay in that kind of environment for so long before they either begin to hate themselves as they slowly resign to wallow in the slop... or leave to be a part of a more productive team. In some cases it may be possible for the worker to begin to reshape the culture around them, but unhealthy cultures are very slow to adapt to change, so it's a rough road... This is no different in the church. People who have gotten serious about accomplishing the mission passed to us from Jesus won't be able to hang around very long in a church where not much is happening to further that mission.

Some indicators of unhealthy culture:

  • Lots of drama - There always seems to be some big issue to deal with that's not really a big issue. Small things are consistently blown out of proportion, but the underlying issues are probably not dealt with at all. Lots of elephants standing around everywhere, but everybody's pretending they're not there.
  • Inward focus - The organization spends most of its focus/energy on itself. Questions like "What do our people want/deserve? What do we owe our people?" are given precedence over matters of outward mission.
  • Sideways Energy- There's seems to be lots of motion, but not really any movement. People may feel like they're spinning their wheels without getting any traction... Lots of bull, but no buck - it may look good, it just doesn't accomplish anything.

When we think of the church, we don't always think in terms of organization/leadership, and it may even be a little uncomfortable to talk about the church this way. The church is a different kind of organization, where the leader is the servant, where top-down strategy was flipped over when the "head honcho" got off his throne and picked up a cross. And while we are a living, breathing Body with Jesus as our head, we still function organizationally. We can benefit greatly by shaping healthy cultures in our churches and ministries.

Maybe it's time we learn to "be still" instead of spinning our wheels - to wait for God, listen to Him, then do what He tells us to do...
Are there ways we need to shift our focus away from our own members?
Could we cut down the histrionics if we'd deal with the underlying issues that are causing people to grumble at the slightest annoyances?

Let's get healthy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Facial Intertia

The month is almost over, which means semi-psychotic shoppers who had way too much turkey being incredibly stupid to beat the rest of the half-crazed commerce corps to that greatest deal ever on that one gadget that will be completely unappreciated and probably forgotten by the spring thaw. (No, I'm not cynical at all, what are you talking about?) In happier news, it will also mean a merry end to all the No Shave November hoo hah.

I know most of the rest of the civilized parts of our nation have already forgotten that this was a thing, but we're more than a little trend-challenged here, so No Shave November hasn't become last week's news yet. Young guys are sporting shaggy chins with pride for another week or so, but I have to admit - I don't get it.

Is manhood really something to celebrate by letting the inertia of life just take over your face? Do we really think it means something that we can grow hair on our faces? (And if so, what does it mean when we can grow hair on our backs?) Is there some kind of statement being made in all of this? I have a suspicion, that culturally, it has something to do with guys trying to assert their manhood without having anyone to help them do so in a meaningful way. If you're a man and you know you're a man, would you do something to help a younger guy figure out how he can be one, too? Would you see, in the scratchy young faces of No Shave November, an invitation to mentor boys (even boys who can shave) as they learn the essence of manhood?

Near the beginning of the month, I quipped that guys should put down their moms' mascara and stop pretending if no one had noticed their participation in the no shave lack of activity yet. Conversely guys, if they still haven't noticed, either a) you're kidding yourself about that peach fuzz, or b) you already had the hobo look nailed before the month began. Either way, being a man doesn't have jack to do with facial hair.

What does it mean to be a man? Comment below with how you'd fill in this blank: "Being a man means ________________."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What Do I Teach In Youth Ministry?

Image via DcJohn on flickr
I recently posted some thoughts about Teaching In Youth Ministry. I talked about personally not having good results using pre-packaged curriculum and summed up by saying that I basically try to pass on to my students what God is teaching me. That post wasn't meant as a knock on curriculum writers. I don't want to be arrogant and think that all my lessons are better than all of theirs. In fact, for the most part, I think they are providing valuable resources for those who are trying to teach youth in the church today. My approach is not the one that every youth leader should take. To raise the level of transparency a bit, I'll say that my own questioning of whether it is even the way I should be doing things is part of what precipitated that post.

So, having said that, I want to share a framework I've used to answer the question, "What should I be teaching in my youth ministry?" I don't offer this as a definitive scaffolding for other youth leaders to build on, but as a glimpse into my own heart and mind when it comes to teaching.

First and foremost, I consistently reinforce that it is not me and my teaching that students need. It is God - so the primary task I have when it comes to teaching is to answer the question, "Who is God?" Our spiritual development process starts with "revealing God to students". He is the one who makes the transformation in their lives and mine. I often use the metaphor of Wind & Water to capture this concept. Wind and Water both shape the landscape around us, sometimes subtly over the course of many years, sometimes drastically and suddenly. My teaching needs to depend on His Spirit to blow away the layers of sediment already building up in young lives and on His life-giving Son to cause growth.

With that aim clear (to reveal God), there are 5 characteristics that I want my students to carry into life that I teach toward:

1. A permanent attitude of worship. Worship is not what we do a couple times a week when we're with all our church friends - it's the life we live. I want to teach my students to offer every moment and act of living to their Creator. I want to teach them to make Him their 'magnificent obsession' for all of life.

2. A kingdom view of the church and the world. As globally connected as we are, we can have a pretty narrow view of what's going on in the church. I want to teach my students to look beyond our own front doors and labels to see what God is doing in His church all over this planet.

3. A passion for revealing God to people who don't see Him. Just as I am not the change agent for my students, they are not the change agent for their friends, either. Their responsibility in evangelism is to let their friends see what God is doing in their lives. I want to teach them to notice His work and be able to point it out to people who don't notice.

4. A commitment to local service as the church. It's been too long that youth group was some side-light ministry of 'big church'. We've mirrored our culture that pushes kids aside as the adult world busies itself with its own stuff, then wonders why they're not ready for 'the real world' when they hit 18. In the church, we wonder why kids leave when they hit college. Often, they never really were connected to the church in the first place - only to the youth group. I teach my kids that if they're disciples of Jesus, they are the church. Now. Are they complete? Mature? Fully formed? No, not yet. But then again... am I? Are you? I want my kids to know that all of us who have allied ourselves to Jesus and are living our lives in service to His mission are the church, young and old. They need to know they have a job to do now, and they need guidance in figuring out just what that is. The local church is a great context for doing that.

5. A desire for depth in their relationship with God. I don't want my students' relationship with God to depend on them getting a fresh dose of Scripture and some good worship music out of me once or twice a week. I want them to develop a hunger for His Word that's only filled when they dig into it themselves. (I've found some of my most significant teaching moments have come as a direct result of my students poring over their Bibles, then coming together with questions that come up from what they're reading.) I don't just want to tell them to read their Bibles, but I need to help them understand what they're reading, and even how to read it for the highest impact.

I know these 5 characteristics are a better representation of the intended outcomes of what I'm teaching than the actual content that I teach. But that's kind of the point. When I find a passage or resource that can effectively move my students toward adopting one or more of these characteristics, that's the content I'll use.
As a youth pastor, I'd think this would be self-evident, but I'm not new at this... I know someone will question it, so let me just say that throughout my teaching toward all of these characteristics, the primary source of teaching material is the Bible (just as it is for any good Bible curriculum writer).

Question: What are you teaching toward? How do you decide what to teach?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thoughts on Klout & Influence

Several months ago, I was invited into a beta of something called Klout. That may sound kind of cool and trendy, but I think it just means I write a blog and have a twitter account and Klout found my e-mail address somewhere. Regardless, it's a site that aims to measure the amount of influence a person has online. By analyzing "pieces of content and connections" (2.7 billion of them each day), Klout formulates a person's online influence.

I hesitantly decided to splash around in the Klout waters a little bit. I jumped in because I'm generally curious, plus I'm a sucker for something new and techno-social; but I was hesitant because it just seems weird to be trumpeting how much influence I have or don't have. Self promotion has never felt right, even when the darker parts of me crave the adulation it brings from time to time. And self humiliation is something I'm already pretty good at and with which I don't really need the help of another web site. Besides, if you have to tell everyone you're influential to get them to listen to you, are you really that influential?

One of the interesting aspects of the Klout site is that they'll designate certain topics in which you are most influential. There are a lot of different topics. A couple days ago, I received notice that my influence was being recognized in a new topic. Thinking of all the things that are important to me and that I blog or comment about, a list of possibilities flitting through my mind. But when the site loaded and I saw what the topic actually was, it was nowhere near my list of possibilities: Mascara. Yes, friends, it seems I am influential in the realm of mascara. It dawned on me that I'd made a flippant comment on twitter about boys trying too hard to make something of no-shave November that was re-tweeted by a couple guys (Thanks Drew & Robert). Because they repeated what I said, that must mean I'm influential, right? Ok, maybe not!

So anyway, I'm currently sporting a Klout score of 26, with a 'conversational' style, influencing 53 people (one of whom apparently clubs baby seals with sticks of kittens). But what the heck does that really mean? What does it really mean that I have 168 'followers' on twitter? (It was 170 before I re-tweeted Rick Warren this afternoon, but that's a whole other issue.)  What does it really mean that there are 531 people who 'friended' me on facebook?

What this really has me thinking about is the relationship between online connections and real life influence. There are people whom I know I heavily influence in some areas who will never show up on some websites radar. There are others who, according to the data, appear to be being influenced, but are they really?

What do you do with influence when it's granted to you?

How do you handle influence?

What are the benefits and drawbacks of measuring influence?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Teaching In Youth Ministry

Image via DcJohn on flickr
I have a confession to make: Despite teaching students for 20 to 30 minutes every Wed. night and 45 minutes or so every Sunday morning, I haven't used a youth ministry specific curriculum in a really long time. For that matter, outside of a 1 week curriculum that was provided at a conference (CIY Move) I haven't used a pre-produced teaching curriculum of any kind for quite a while. It's not that I'm a curriculum hater, or that there aren't any good options (and there are TONS of options), but there are several 'hangups' I usually have (some of the problems are my own, some are not):
  1. The publishers and writers do not know my students. In writing lessons for an unknown audience, lesson writers are forced to keep things fairly vague and general. Sometimes so general that there just doesn't seem to be much substance.
  2. I have a personal aversion to short-cuts. I can be guilty of re-inventing the wheel when it comes to teaching time, but I would rather wrestle with a tough passage and how to interpret it for my students than just parrot someone else's thoughts. I don't think I can really help my students effectively apply a lesson to their lives unless I've already applied it to my own - and often, a canned lesson offers a mechanism for trying to do just that.
  3. Often, there are better alternatives. One of the things that's kind of prickly for me in the youth ministry world is the 'youth edition' of whatever the new thing is. Someone writes a great book, so let's have someone else put together a replica that uses smaller words and video game illustrations and call it a youth ministry edition... Why not challenge our kids to struggle with the original if it's something through which they'd grow? Are we really doing them any favors by 'dumbing down' what we really want them to know?
"So how do you know what to teach?" Without having a weekly topic decided for me, how do I decide what to teach? Thanks for asking...

As a rule of thumb, I teach what God is teaching me. At times, this may look a little haphazard, and it's certainly a messy and difficult way of doing things. Every lesson is always "in process" and not quite finished - because I'm not quite finished. I'm ok with that because I don't want my students to think I've got it all together and everything will someday be wrapped up in a nice little package for them like it seems to be for me (which is the impression sometimes left with pre-packed lesson plans). I want them to be engaging in a life-long pursuit of knowing God more fully.

There are some difficulties with doing things this way, though.

- It's too easy to wing it. If we're working through a curriculum book and I'm not well prepared, it's obvious. But after 12 years of ministry, I can stand in front of a room of students and buffalo my way through a lot of stuff if I have to. This is a dangerous place to be, because it lets me fake it if I don't really have anything to say. Instead of winging it, I want to spend significant time in prayer begging God well ahead of time for something to deliver.

- What if I'm not really learning anything or if what I'm learning isn't really applicable to younger lives? This gets back to the last point a little bit; if I'm humbly asking God to use me, His grace is sufficient. He knows my students and knows my heart better than I do and wants them to know Him even more than I want them to know Him. I have to spend time seeking His heart for my life and my teaching. He'll deliver. But if I'm not doing that, I won't really have anything to say worth hearing.

- I have to be vigilant to not get stuck on a few issues. All of us have pet issues that we like to pull out and pass on. Often, they are things that we are very passionate about and can be more easily taught that some other issues. These are ok, and we should teach about these things, but not exclusively. This is why, for the Sunday morning class that I teach, we have been walking through books of the Bible. The last 2 we've done have been Revelation and Acts. We go through verse by verse, week after week, talking about whatever those passages bring to light. Often, these issues are not things I would have naturally brought up myself, but are exactly what the class needs to hear. This approach also opens the door to talking about issues that are tough to bring up without seeming like I'm calling out specific individuals. Our rule is that if it's in the text, we'll talk about it.

There are some specific touch points that I seems to gravitate toward regularly in my teaching. These are foundational to everything else, and we can dig into that in another post. But for now, what are you teaching? More importantly, how do you decide what to teach?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Traditions & Alternatives

When I was growing up, "church tradition" was a term in my mind that had more to do with old habits from the 50's and 60's than anything from previous centuries. Singing verses 1, 3, & 4 in the old green hymnals (Did anyone else secretly feel bad for verse 2?)... Vacation Bible School and camp in the summer... Mercifully shipping off the kids to children's church right before the sermon (that must've been so long and boring as to warrant our exodus)...

Most of what I thought of as traditional, I decided I didn't like. I still have this propensity to dislike stuff that's done just because 'that's what we do', but I'm realizing that my problem isn't really with tradition; it's with pointless tradition. If you want to observe something traditional, that's fine, but if you want me to participate with you I have to know why. I just cannot bring myself to get into something just because a bunch of other people like it - and have liked it for the last 30 years. Tell me "Why?"

But I'm also thinking today about another side of tradition. It's a side where the point is not missed - a side where the reason still matters, and still shapes action. And here is where I'm finding myself a little dis-advantaged. In the big picture, is a practice that's 30 or 40 or even 50 years old really worthy of the label 'tradition'? The church has been around about 2000 years, so what we're calling tradition is probably BRAND NEW! And in the eddies of independence in which most of my church family swims, our traditions often extend about as far as the nozzle on our self inflated floaties.

Yesterday and today are a great case in point. It's become traditional in many church circles to have some kind of alternative to Halloween. So instead of staying home and connecting with our neighbors, we can all get together in a safe environment to have some safe Jesus fun together. It might be called a Fall Festival, or a Harvest Party, or even Jesusween (I didn't make that up, it's actually being used), but I wonder if this new tradition could be reshaped to be more than a means to duck & cover from the biggest pagan bomb in our culture? Could a deeper look at history offer us anything?

Enter November 1st. It's just November 1 to most of the people I know, but for hundreds of years, this has been a huge day for the church: All Saints' Day. A day to celebrate the church through the ages - to realize our connection with the 'saints of old' who are collected with us into that 'great cloud of witnesses'. But, at least in the church circles I've lived in, All Saints Day was a tradition that had long ago lost it's purpose, fell out of practice, and which is now collectively forgotten. (Check out this interesting article for more on All Saints' Day then come back and let me know what you think.)

If we could recapture the purpose of Nov. 1, could Oct. 31 become more than something from which we think we have to hide? Could there be more to anticipate than a boat load of candy and sugar tainted dreams at the end of the night? I don't really offer an answer here, because this is something I'm still wrestling with. And I don't mean any disrespect to those who want an alternative to Halloween as it is. I just wonder if there's a more meaningful alternative to the alternative we've come up with...

Friday, October 28, 2011

One Meal One Day

A few weeks ago, I showed our students a quick video introducing One Meal One Day. It's a program put together by Compassion to encourage students to skip 1 meal and donate the money they would have spent on it to feed hungry children. I showed the video to sort of gauge interest and see if it was something my students wanted to pursue. The response was pretty positive, so we're going to do it, but sometimes you just can't wait for something, right?

I just heard this morning that one of our students has already raised about $500! After seeing the video, he did his own checking online and took the information he found to a teacher at school. From there, he went to the principal and finally to the school board to pitch the idea. This little K-8 school has primed the pump, and I can't wait to see what God will do throughout our other schools!

This is what happens when you let kids try! (Or when you plant seeds and don't get in the way...)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

58 - The Film & A Call to Act

Last night, I introduced our students to 58. It's a "global initiative to end extreme poverty by living out Isaiah 58." Some of the scenes are pretty difficult to watch, so I was a little hesitant to show the film. I decided to go ahead with it, though, because I really do believe that today's young generation can make a difference with this huge issue. Heads have been buried in sand long enough.

In Isaiah 58, God is critical of the way His people got all the externals of religion right while missing the whole point. They acted pious, as if they would never abandon God, pretending to be near Him, all the while ignoring God's heart for humanity. To turn a blind eye to the extreme poverty in the world today is to repeat the arrogant folly of ancient Israel.

I've challenged my students after watching the first part of the film last night to read Isaiah 58 each day this week and ask God to reveal His hopes for them in relation to that passage. What does He want our response to be? Watch this trailer and join us in digging into Isaiah 58 this week. Parents who are local are welcome to join us for the conclusion of the video next Wed. night as well.

58: THE FILM Trailer from LIVE58NOW on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Our Family Identity

A couple articles caught my attention yesterday that I keep thinking about.

First, this one from India: almost 300 girls in a particular district have had their names legally changed, complete with a renaming ceremony last weekend. You may think that out of the millions who live in India this is no big deal, but these are 285 girls who were previously named "Unwanted" who are taking new names. In our culture, names don't always carry the meaning they do in others, but can you imagine growing up with a name like that? Every assignment turned in, every application or form filled out, & every check you write reminding you that you're not wanted.

The other article, out of eastern Russia is the story of two 12 year old girls who have just found out they were switched at birth. After 12 years within a few miles of each other, they've discovered they are not biologically connected to the people they've been living with all their lives. They are getting to know their/each other's families and both girls are staying in the homes/families they've always known, showing there is more to family than biology.

It reminds me of the prophet Hosea, who was instructed, as a life size object lesson for Israel & Judah, to name two of his children "Not Loved" and "Not My People". But God promised a day when they would be given new names, they would be called "The One I Love" and "My People". His people had rejected Him, but He promised to once again restore them and remind them of His love.

In Hosea 8, the very altars they'd built to make sacrifices to atone for their sins had become just another place to further their sin. Verse 13 states that the people "love their rituals of sacrifice, but to me their sacrifices are all meaningless." It wasn't their ritual that made them part of God's people. In fact, their ritual meant nothing because they had "forgotten their Maker." How often are we in danger of doing the same thing? How often do we show up for Sunday services, or youth group, or small group, or Easter or Christmas services as a matter of ritual, but ultimately forget our Maker? Do we really think our traditional observances make a difference to God? How often do we plan a message or lesson or service just because it's that time of the week and we have to have something to say or do when we stand up on the stage again?

If we forget our Maker in deference to personal preferences or traditions or weekly schedules, how much different can we expect our fate to be from that of the ancient Jews? Although, their consistent rebellion would leave its mark on their relationship with God, it could not kill the Father's unquenchable hope. "For someday the people will follow the Lord. I will roar like a lion, and my people will return...And I will bring them home again." (Hosea 11:10,11) He knew He would one day call His people together to bring them home again - people from every tribe and nation who'd been adopted into His family.

Church, we've been given a place in the King's family to which we don't naturally belong. May we never take for granted the new identity He's giving us as His children. And may we live every moment seeking to know Him and make Him known.

"I want you to be merciful; I don't want your sacrifices. I want you to know God; that's more important than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6)

Monday, October 17, 2011

6 Adults Every Youth Ministry Needs

Youth ministry is not healthy when it's a one man show. Every youth ministry takes a team of people to function well and to build healthy disciples. Also, I need to think about something a little light-hearted today so I'm giving you 6 Adults Every Youth Ministry Needs:

1. The Mom - She's perturbed about the stain you just left on the church carpet, but you know she loves you anyway, and she'll probably start bringing treats again in a couple weeks. She can't help herself. It's amazing how aware she is when it seems like she's distracted with something else, and a split second of raised eyebrow eye contact from her will calm even the most savage of sophomores.

2. The Janitor - That stain on the carpet? Oh, he'll get it out alright, but you're now on his list. He will spend the next 17 months showing you every brand of blemish remover known to man, following you around with 4 different types of cleaning rags (all of which look suspiciously like cloth diapers from 1987), and explaining which combination is best for each and every surface in the church building. And before you even ask, "No, you can't just spray paint over that!"

3. The Magnet - This is the adult that walks into the room and immediately is swarmed with a hive of students, eager for a shred of attention. His ideas are always right in their eyes and his stamp of approval will immediately boost participation by 37%. If you can manage a couple of these, you're going to need a bigger youth room, but be careful, Magnets can do some really weird stuff to each other if they're not properly aligned.

4. The Juggler - She can tell you where your youth ministry schedule will put you at any given moment over the next four and a half months. Balancing student activities with carpool duties is more natural to her than stink to a muskrat (Ha! You thought I was going to say skunk, didn't you?) and she'll know every detail about every upcoming trip on the docket. The Juggler is often an indispensable ally and translator in contacts with the outside world (i.e. real people who don't speak youth ministry).

5. The Driver - The Driver knows how to get there from here. He knows where the potholes are and the best routes to avoid them and he'll tell you both enthusiastically. Also, he can tell you the location of every Chic-fil-A and Krispy Kreme on the continent! The Driver is the epitome of the no-nonsense kind of guy in every other situation, but he's willing to overlook the nonsense of youth ministry in order to get some kids where they need to go. Your students have no idea how awesome this guy really is until The Magnet draws him in to some crazy scheme where he becomes their hero.

6. The Cheerleader - Every student needs to hear that they've done well and the Cheerleader will deliver that message with fervor! She's constantly scouting facebook posts like an eagle soaring high above the prairie dog town - except instead of swooping down with crushing talons for a quick, furry snack, she's always the first to comment with an encouraging word and just the right emoticon!-) (Pathetic attempt, I know, but give me a break, I'm not the Cheerleader!) I guess that's not really like the eagle at all, but you get the point. If not, ask the Magnet - He's married to the Cheerleader & he'll convince you I know what I'm talking about.

So, there you have my authoritative, qualitative summary of necessary youth leaders. Which one are you? I'm sure you can think of other adults that youth ministries need. Share them in the comments section, because it really does take a village, not just the village idiot!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy Reality

Anyone else a little less than clear about just what the whole Occupy Wall Street thing is all about? The message seems to be "Big corporations, bad; individual, good." but I'm sure that doesn't exactly capture the whole heart of the protest. I checked out the Occupy website and found some interesting thoughts, and I've watched some of their livestream footage to see if I could get a better handle on just where OWS' focus is. Incidentally, it wasn't live while I was watching due to weather problems, so it was a montage of produced footage and brief clips, which would presumably be filtered so as to present 'the message' as clearly as possible. I still can't quite get the pulse of what the point of the protestors is, but some of the highlights are here:

1. Don't tell us what to do - we just want to be free.
2. Let's get together and be upset... about anything.
3. "Fight the power." Whatever that power may be...
4. 1% of Americans are too rich and couldn't have possibly got that way legitimately.
5. 99% of Americans are too poor because of the greed induced power manipulation of the 1%.
6. "We demand a democracy that has zero tolerance for corruption."
7. People before profits.

Among some recycled socialist mantras there are some really good things to say, but I could see the lack of a well articulated vision for what they want causing the degeneration of these peaceful protests into something much worse. Maybe I'm wrong, but the overriding feeling I get from what I've seen and read is "We're mad." If there's no other motivation for being together, sleeping on concrete and under tarps is going to get old quickly.

While my more liberal friends will celebrate the stand for freedom they see in OWS, and my conservative ones will decry all the pot & pooping on the police car, I wonder if we'll all miss something deeper. I wonder if any of us will listen well enough to hear the root of dissatisfaction. What's really going on here?

Is there corruption in the highest echelons of corporations and government? Sure, just as there is corruption in the hearts and minds of people of every income level - and it needs to be dealt with. Is the gap widening between those who have a lot and those who have a little? Probably, in terms of how much they have, but the problem isn't that some people make too much. The problem is most of us aren't very generous - we're looking out for ourselves first. Whether we live in luxury or near poverty isn't the issue as much as our attitude toward what we have. When "what's mine is mine" and you can just go get your own, it doesn't matter whether the system is capitalist, socialist, or anything else. The solution is not a political one.

Church, the unrest in the world today is an open door for us to exhibit something better. What if the world could see a 'peculiar people' who love unconditionally, share whatever they have that's needed, and genuinely look out for their neighbors' best interests? What are we doing to show people that, while they may not feel like they matter to whatever corporation they vilify, they do matter to God and they do matter to us?

I don't make a lot as a youth pastor. I'm definitely not in the top 1% of America's wage earners. But here's a reality check for me (and you): check out this Global Rich List. My family, and probably yours, is a lot closer to the top of the scale than the bottom. What are we doing with what we have earned to benefit someone else?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Making Our Own Heaven

I had a strange dream last night that keeps flickering across my synapses. I don't make a big deal out of dreams I have when I'm sleeping, but this one just brings up some questions...

I was working at a church and was trying to explain heaven to my students. They discovered that heaven existed in a closet at the church building. (Umm... not like that guys.) We weren't able to see into the closet, we just knew that heaven was in there. They were all trying to figure out how to get in, but no one could get the door open. As I was explaining the Way in, one student found an air vent and crawled through to sneak in.  (Just for the record for those of you who will wonder, it was... nah, you'll just have to guess!)

But you can't cheat your way into heaven. You can't just sneak your way in. As he popped through the air vent, we were all suddenly in the same room and the students began "rearranging heaven" to be more what they wanted. I got really angry - my students don't get to see angry Mike very often, but they pretty much didn't notice anyway, which made me more angry. They just kept laying out this fluffy white carpet and messing around. It turns out, heaven wasn't in there at all, so they just made their own.

I wonder how often we settle for what we can do instead of waiting for God to do what only He can do? How often do we just do what we want because 'the way is narrow' and His Way just seems too abstract or difficult? When Jesus talked about being "the way, the truth, and the life..." in John 14:6, what do we really think He meant?
Funny little side note: When I got to the office this morning I started reading the next passage after where I left off yesterday. It started with John 10, where Jesus talks about anyone who sneaks over the wall to get into the sheepfold is just a thief and a robber.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Always With You?

When you start talking about poverty, a lot of Christians immediately think of the words of Jesus (from Matthew 26), "You will always have the poor among you..." There seems to be a sense of hopelessness to be able to do much about it. Kind of like we're all just thinking, "Some people have a lot, some people don't have much at all... that's just the way it goes." But is that the way it should go? Is that His "will on earth as it is in heaven?" Was Jesus telling His disciples to waste their resources on extravagant gifts for him (like the alabaster jar of expensive perfume that "could have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.") and not worry about the poor, because, "Hey, they're still going to be there tomorrow, right..."?

Who are we to argue with the very words of Jesus? But was He really saying what we seem to think He was saying? Have we maybe misunderstood because we don't hear those words in their context? Or, even worse, are we guilty of twisting Jesus' words to justify the pleasures to which we think we are entitled? Is there some latent greed within us driving us to hoard all we can get a hold of and let everyone else fend for themselves?

"You will always have the poor among you..." Jesus was scolding His indignant disciples who were mad about a woman's "waste" and seeming lack of concern for the poor. But Jesus next words may surprise you: "but you will not always have me." Jesus saw her act as an anointing in preparation for His burial. So, even though any money gained from the sale of the perfume could have gone to the poor, this woman had chosen something more important. What are we doing with our resources that is more important than ending extreme poverty?

Right now, I can't help but think of the upcoming Christmas season. I remember coming across a statement at Advent Conspiracy's site a couple years ago about how Americans spend about $450 Billion each year at Christmas to "celebrate the birth of Jesus". Holy holly, that's a lot of tinsel and presents... but at least some of it could have been a lot of food for the hungry or clean water for the thirsty. One of those two possibilities is pretty important to the man whose birth we celebrate, but if you want to see some "indignant disciples" today, just suggest to your church friends and family that you want them to donate whatever they would have spent on a gift for you instead of buying you that gift.

I don't think it has to be one or the other (live comfortably or help those in need), but I can no longer pretend these are Jesus' only words about how I should think of the poor. What about what He had to say about how those gathered in Matthew 25 had treated "the least of these"? What about all the talk of the minor prophets about justice and mercy for the widow and the orphan? The way we think and what we do about extreme poverty does matter to God. He loves those people, just as He loves us.

"But wait, Mike... what they really need is Jesus. We need to tell them about Jesus." While I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, they also need food and shelter and water. Both needs are significant, and the church is equipped to address both sides of this issue. Watch this video and let me know what you think.

Friday, October 07, 2011

6 Things You Should Think About (But Not Too Much)

1. Tonight's football game here in Scottsbluff is homecoming... and the cross-town rivalry game with Gering... and the first game of this season against a district opponent... Just another game? Yeah, right. Big deal for Monument, NE tonight!

2. The homecoming dance is almost as bad an idea as prom, but not quite. There - I said it.

3. You actually CAN teach an old dog new tricks, especially when his cup of tea is all lukewarm and stale. 

4. This post is the six hundred & sixty-sixth one here.

5. I secretly laughed a little bit at my friends who were whining about facebook's changes a few weeks ago... the real changes are yet to come. You're probably going to hate it. You might want to be ready to return to myspace or something... and Jr. High.

6. Monument, NE would be a great name for two towns and a townish village that would do well to tear down some fences.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Needing Feedback? I Confess...

Confession: I am a feedback junkie.

Every time I lead worship or speak or teach a class or write something, I am immediately asking, "How was it? What did you think? Did that make sense?" or something similar. I eagerly wait for editorial responses to articles submitted, and I watch for follow up comments to those that get posted (either to bask in or maybe to argue with). It would be tempting to seek out people that I know will assuage my insecurities and tell me how great I am, but I know that wouldn't do any good, so, among others, I always ask my wife. I can trust her to tell me the truth even if the truth isn't what my ego wants to admit. Then I can fix what needs fixed and be satisfied with what was done well.


In John 5, a couple verses are really standing out to me right now that show Jesus taking a very different approach: "Your approval or disapproval means nothing to me..." (v. 41) Ouch! The Jewish leaders were ticked off with Jesus and trying to find a way to permanently shut him up. Essentially, He told them He didn't really care if they liked what He did or not because He was only doing what His Father wanted done, and "because I know you don't have God's love within you." (v. 42) BIG Ouch!

Jesus wasn't taking exit polls and checking His numbers all the time. He couldn't have told you what search term on Google or Bing led the most people to His latest post. He had no idea what His Klout score was and couldn't have cared less.

And all of that confidence rested in His knowledge of His Father. He knew who He was and what He'd been sent for. "I do nothing without consulting my Father." (v. 30)

How are we doing consulting the Father? Is our ministry functioning the way it does because "that's what people want/need," or because "that's what God told us to do," or maybe because "that's what works," or "that's just the way we do things around here"? There is a right answer here, I think. If we want our ministries to look like that of Jesus... If we want the character of Christ to show through our own actions, we need to be consistently consulting our Father.

Does that make any sense?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Praying With Strangers on the Phone

I just got off the phone with a representative from a well known youth event/evangelism/promotions organization. I have to disclose that I'm predisposed to simply flush when the hype seems to be getting too high, and I get that vibe a lot with this particular organization. I'm also, as a full fledged member of the human species with a fully developed frontal cortex, predisposed to say no to sales calls. Consequently, I was probably looking for the exit sign very early in this conversation. The easy out presented itself when I learned that the end of his spiel concludes with an invitation to bring my students to an event whose date conflicts with another event to which we're already committed.

At the end of the phone call, he asked, "Is there anything I could pray for you about?" I'm not sure I can articulate exactly why, but this felt really strange. Does this seem awkward to anyone else? Am I an unspiritual jerk because I didn't really want to tell him anything to pray? Anybody else experienced a 'sales' type call that ended in prayer when you actually did want to share requests and pray with a stranger on the phone?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

See You At The Pole - Scottsbluff

Huddle at Bluffs Middle School
I remember a sort of nervousness as a high school student heading out early for See You At The Pole. Who would be there? What if I'm the only one? What are they thinking as they walk by? Hey, why didn't that kid stop and pray with us? As a youth minister, I've seen the same anxious thinking in my students when they start thinking about SYATP (or other very public evidence of their faith). They deeply want to know they're not the only one...

This is my first year as a parent of a Middle Schooler, so I got an even closer look at that angst in my own house this time around. Emily was nervous that she'd show up early and be stuck like "the cheese", standing alone. Her fear was assuaged a little bit by the fact that her friend Faith was riding with us and would be there, too, but it was obliterated when we rounded the corner and she saw several of the older Middle School students already there. "There's Austin... and Maddy... and Emily... and Liz..." The list continued.

Praying at Bluffs Middle School
After dropping the two girls off with a handful of friends, I drove a couple blocks to a coffee shop where I've been meeting a group of men for our own time of prayer on Wed. mornings to let them know I wasn't going to be staying today. I was hoping to stop back at the Middle School to pray and take a couple quick pictures. By the time I got back, the cluster had grown to include more students, a couple teachers, and a few parents and younger siblings - and everyone gathered to pray.

The SYATP Remnant at Scottsbluff High School
Hoping to make it over to the High School, which was starting a little later, I snuck away as the students prayed. As it turned out, the High School kids had bumped the time back up so that the band students could be there. They were mostly done when I arrived, but half the group was still there, so I got to wrap up the prayer time. I'm proud of our students who've stepped out and brought people together to pray. God is working in our students and they're eager to see what He will do.

I enjoyed stopping by the closest 2 schools this morning to pray with my students and their friends and teachers and a few parents. I wish I could have made it to my students in other schools that aren't so close, but I'll just have to wait until tonight to see how their mornings went.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Youth Ministry with Guys

I've had a series of articles posted lately over at YouthWorker Journal about ministry with guys:
     - The Risk of Discipleship - raising the risk level in youth ministry
     - Have Fun - making ministry enjoyable
     - What Did You Expect? - raising expectations of young people

In each of the articles, I've brought up some issues that I think is important in regards to working with boys in my own youth ministry: doing things that are risky, having fun, expecting great things from and for our students. These aren't necessarily the three most important things about boys ministry, but they've been among the first to come to mind. I'll be sharing more from these articles here on the blog at some point, as well as other thoughts from the rest of the series, but I also want to know what you've seen in ministry with boys.

What are the greatest successes and failures that you've seen or experienced in ministry with boys? Whether you're looking at it from the perspective of a student or parent or youth leader... what have you seen that's worked well and what have you seen that's flopped?

Monday, September 26, 2011

2011 See You At The Pole

During my freshman year of high school, a small group of kids in TX had decided to go pray at some area schools one night. They went and prayed for their friends and teachers at school during a weekend discipleship retreat they were having. I didn't hear a thing about it. Why would I? It was just some kids a thousand mile away, praying for their schools like God was urging them to.

I may not have heard about it, living several states away, but God was up to something that I did hear about not long after that first year. Their little prayer time together became the epicenter of a movement of prayer that is still re-shaping lives and schools, not only in Texas, but around the world. Later that year, about 45,000 students in several different states met at their school flagpoles for the first See You At The Pole. This week, over two million students worldwide will take part in this time of prayer.

"I am there with you."
SYATP isn't about taking a stand or some political agenda for forcing God back into schools. It's not about staking a claim to anyone's rights... It's about the dependence of God's people on Him. It's about young people humbly begging Him to use them to reveal Himself to their generation. It's about recognizing His powerful presence "where two or three are gathered..." It's about depending on that powerful Presence to help us become what we've been created to be.

This Wednesday (the 28th) is the official day of See You At The Pole 2011. Take some time Wednesday morning to pray for students you know, for their teachers and administrators at their schools, and for the leaders of our communities. (If you're a student, get to school early and meet the others at the flagpole to pray.) And listen with an open heart for His side of the prayer conversation. God used the obedience of a handful of school kids about 20 years ago to spark something that's still burning bright. What will He do with yours?
Here at WestWay, we're getting a number of community youth groups together that night at 7:00 to celebrate what Jesus is doing as His people converge to reveal Him to the world around us. If you're in the area, you don't want to miss it. (Our building is located at 1701 W. 27th St. here in Scottsbluff.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Where's Our Focus?

All of life is flavored or  colored by our focus. Two people can see or experience the same thing and walk away with completely different descriptions, feelings, & thoughts because of what they were focused on.

Check out this post from Perry Noble about focus.

Where's your focus in life?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What Do You Do When Everything Sucks? Pt. 2

Just thought I'd follow up on a previous post sparked by the struggles of my favorite football team. What Do You Do When Everything Sucks? I offer a few suggestions:

1. Walk around with a tragic look, so people can tell that everything sucks. Black turtlenecks can help with this, but not those cool Steve Jobs kind - keep 'em sloppy and a size or two too big. Be sure not to offer any real clue when people ask what's wrong, though. They might just do something helpful and mess up the whole suffering vibe you've got going. Just embrace the suckiness and let life take shots at you like a fish flopping around the bottom of a dry barrel.

2. Frequently let out heavy, audible sighs. These are kind of wasted when you're alone, but try a few for practice anyway. See how long you can keep the exhale going and experiment with a little bit of vocals thrown in for good measure. If you work in a cubicle, you can learn to bounce these off the ceiling into some neighboring boxes, while not alerting some others to your plight. This way, you can ensure a little sympathy from that nice looking hamster in the next wheel over and avoid any awkwardness with that guinea pig, Stan, on the other side. Be really careful with the vocalizing though, too much and you're just going to start laughing at how ridiculous you sound and the levity of the moment may make you forget that everything sucks.

3. Lie around and don't really do anything productive. Being productive may actually change something about your circumstances, then what would you have to feel crappy about?

4. Turn off the lights and walk around in semi darkness - in your sloppy dark turtleneck, of course. When anyone asks why the lights are off, just shrug your drooping shoulders and tell them you didn't notice... must be because of all the darkness you feel surrounding your soul these days.

5.Write a blog post that will remind yourself what a moron you're being as you go around as if everything sucks, when in fact, ever thing does not suck. Actually, while it is true that some things do suck, there are many things not sucking in the least. Then turn the freakin' lights on, ditch the "sackcloth and ashes," grab hold of just how deeply you are loved by the one who made you, and get back to work living the life He dreams for you. (Also, throw that stupid turtleneck away and get some clothes that fit.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Blogging Mojo Book Review

A while back, I came across this guy from Intercourse (PA) who posts pictures of Amish people, blogs a series of cartoon videos, drinks vinegar on camera, and mixes some of the most humorously random metaphors ever known to woodchucks. Bryan Allain is a funny guy with a funny blog. As I first read his blog, I shouted out, "Wow, this guy has some serious blogging mojo! I wish I could find my own blogging mojo like that." It was a big moment here in the office...

Ok, that last part is a total fabrication; I don't think I've ever actually said the word mojo because it confuses my mouth. Wait, was that a Spanish word, or are we just making stuff up now? Do you really think you're cool enough to pull off a word like that? Regardless, you should check out his blog. If you're a blogger, or if you just like funny stuff, you should also check out his new ebook - 31 Days to Finding Your Blogging Mojo. You can find it on the book's site as a pdf, or on Amazon in a Kindle edition.

Lost your mojo?
The books offers a 31 day walk-through before jumping into the big blogging game. Or maybe it's more of a quick series of timeouts in the middle of the game to remind you what the heck you started out to accomplish with this whole blogging thing. Either way, it's full of really good, practical blogging suggestions and ideas for making your blog better.

Allain begins by re-acquainting you with the core elements of your blog (the audience, the content, and... you'll have to get the book for the other one) - these are the foundation of what will make your blog something someone else will read and to which they'll actually return to read some more. He spends another 10 short chapters or so helping you tweak your content and focus in on what you really want to write, then fills the last third of the book with helpful tips on getting people to visit your blog and keep coming back for more.

Each chapter is only 2 pages and contains a short exercise that will help to put the idea of that chapter into practice on your blog. It's written to probably take about 10 minutes a day, plus another 10 to 20 on the exercises, but it's also pretty easy to read in longer chunks - you'll just have to be careful not to miss the benefits of the action points.

I've been thinking about shuttering this blog and restarting a more focused blog, so I was glad to sign up to receive a free review copy. I was really glad when I found out I was lucky enough to be getting one. Bryan Allain will be even more glad when lots of you spend a measly $4.99 for your own copy. That's like a couple boxes of really cheap cereal. Or one box of expensive cereal. The book's definitely worth it.

In fact, if it was cereal, the box would say: Great Stuff! Start your blog off right. Dig in and find your blogging mojo.*

*CAUTION: Contents will not stay crispy in milk.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What Do You Do When Everything Sucks?

I'm a Denver Broncos fan. Last season was brutal. Watching the team implode the way it did was awful. I guess they didn't implode so much as they just sort of forgot how to play football against any other team... I don't know. I remember some bad games when I was a kid, even tough seasons, but nothing was ever like that. I remember watching with my grandma and laughing as she got so irritated with John Elway that she'd be yelling at the tv. Grandma was little, but I think she was ready to step through the TV and put  on a helmet a few times and show those boys how it's done. I loved watching games with Grandma. Even the tough losses. But last year... all the fun seemed to be sucked out. There wasn't much to enjoy.

I didn't get to watch the game last night, but as I checked my twitter feed occasionally, I saw lots of updates (thank you @milehighreport). There seemed to be signs of life at times, but the end result was still a loss. I bet it's tough to get the tar knocked out of you and have nothing to show for it but a loss, knowing you're going to get back out there and work to do it all over again.

But life is like that isn't it? We have "seasons" where it seems like everything sucks. Maybe every single thing doesn't actually suck, but it sure feels like it. After the horrible season last year, a time where nothing seemed to be going right, the Broncos fired staff, rearranged responsibilities, brought in fresh ideas to the organization, all in attempting to defeat the suckiness and bring back the joy (and hopefully some wins!).

What do you do in those times? How do you regain a perspective that lets you enjoy life again? Do you need to "fire some staff" in your life? Or rearrange your priorities? Where can you bring some fresh thinking into your day?

Does 'reality bite' or 'life suck'? You can't change it until you refuse to accept it. Make some move today to make it better.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

How to Save Money Like An Idiot

For some reason, Sunday afternoon seemed like a good time to start a project that's been looming at our house since the city of Scottsbluff repaved our street several years ago. They'd contracted a landscaper to re-sod all the right of way areas when the job was complete. (You know that section between the sidewalk and the street that runs the full width of your house.) Since we've got no water to that area, we asked if they'd just put in some landscaping stone instead. They were glad to do so, but unfortunately spread the stone without putting any kind of weed barrier down.

So, for more hours than I care to admit on both Sunday and Monday, I got to partake in a level of work that is completely inappropriate for any holiday, regardless of its name. This weekend's project essentially was this: move rocks, put down rolls of weed block, replace rocks. We also threw in a handful of shrubs for good measure.
One shovel at a time...
It was not fun work. It was not easy work. But it needed to be done. And now, it has been done. It's nice to have a project started and completed. We seem to have a number of "less than finished" projects. Several times, LuAnn commented on how it would've probably been easier to just finish one of them (or two or three) instead of shoveling all those rocks only so I could shovel them again.

She's probably right. This project could have waited. Why did we do this now?

Because I found some shrubs for sale for less than 3 bucks... So, because I could save roughly $15, I bought the bushes and started digging...

What an idiot.
Ever done anything dumb to save a few dollars? Share your story in the comments...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Wanna Race?

- Pad roll cage
- Bolt two doors shut
- Paint number on car
- Tow car to track

Things I have left to do before racing Friday night!

My car is finally ready... almost. I'll be back out to Hiway 92 Raceway this weekend ready to go again. I had a blast racing a couple years ago, but when my car refused to be resuscitated, I put my helmet on a shelf in the garage and closed the door. But my friend Greg, found an old Neon that we were able to put a good roll cage in and get ready to race over the past couple months.

We've taken out a less than adequate roll cage, replaced it with a really good one, installed a racing seat, stripped off former sponsorship decals, rerouted the airbox, replaced a rusted out fuel tank and refinished some wiring that had gone bad. There are still a few minor things, but for the most part it's ready to race. This Friday we'll put it to the test.

I have to admit, as much of a redneck as it may make me sound - I've missed racing. I've learned a lot from working on the cars, and that's nice (especially on days like yesterday where I saved about $130 just by changing my own brake pads on our van)... I love having the chance to get to know people outside the church and hopefully redefine for them what it means to be a Christian (or at least open the door to the possibility that church people aren't all boring)... But mostly, I've just missed having something where I just go have fun.

So Friday night - I'm going to fight life's capacity to suck the fun out of me and force me into cubicles of bland repetition.

Wanna race?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Overhauling the American Family? Replace the American Dream.

In The Problem No One Wants to Talk About, Paul Williams (an editor at Christian Standard) connects some educational dots that need to be faced. The short version: the education of a child is ultimately up to the parents. You should read the full article, too, especially if you have school age children. We can blame bad schools and administrators and standards all we want, but the bottom line is that it is up to me and my wife to educate our own children. We've considered ourselves fortunate, even since Emily's first day in Mrs. Riggins' Kindergarten, to have our kids in public classrooms with good teachers who really cared AND were well equipped to teach their students. I know not everyone would share that sentiment, but we're glad to have had most of the teachers we've had and even keep in touch with a number of them.

Williams talks about how one of his wife's "greatest frustrations was parents who did not even bother to attend the school's open house or parent-teacher conferences. Even those who valued education were so busy trying to stay alive they were happy to leave Johnny's ABC's up to the school." In the end, he says, "It is not the American education system that needs an overhaul. It is the American family."

Parents may be too busy to show their kids which way to turn.

Families are definitely being stretched dangerously thin today, but before we throw parents under the bus, notice something tucked away in that statement: Parents are "so busy trying to stay alive" they've abdicated their responsibility. Just to be clear, most American parents are not busy dodging bullets or hiding in foxholes. Most American parents don't fill their waking hours clinging to literal last ditch efforts to keep breathing and pumping blood. So what are they busy doing that Williams refers to?

I'd argue that what we fill our time with is not so much "staying alive" as it is "getting ahead." The elusive American Dream was perhaps a noble ideal in previous decades, but the modern version of it is nothing like the simple original. It's not just the American family that needs overhauled, but the American value system that says "What I have is never enough. I must have more - even if that means burying my family under a truckload of Visa bills."

I read an article this morning about elected officials who were having a tough time making ends meet... just barely scraping by... struggling to keep their children well clothed and properly fed... "living paycheck to paycheck"... on $174,000 a year!

But this isn't about politics (I say as I choke on that last statement). It's about you and I and contentment. Are we sacrificing our children for a newer car in the driveway? Are we leaving our children to fend for themselves so they can sleep in a bigger house?

I have to admit I struggle with this. I never go to bed hungry, but I struggle with wanting more - wishing I made more money and could afford better stuff. Wishing I could go visit more exciting places and eat better food. But my kids don't need me to get a second job so they can ride in a truck with power steering as much as they need... me. They need me to coach their teams and be at their games. They need me to show them where the boundaries are in life and how to tell which ones are good boundaries and which ones were put there by some goober and need to be moved. They need me to help them know what it means to be a man, what it means to follow Jesus, and two of them need me to explain to them once and for all that men will never really understand them. (The other two need me to explain how to have fun trying!) I'd go full circle and say they need my help with homework, but... not so much. Not yet anyway.

How do you balance the desire to provide for your family with the demands that places on your time? Are you educating your children well, or have you left that up to "the professionals"? What could we do to help you "train up your child in the way he should go"?

Image via Agatha Villa at CreationSwap

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What are you writing?

I came across a post on Tentblogger today about notebooks. He lists 10 of his favorite writing notebooks and that got me thinking about the pages I've used over the years. As a kid, I missed out on the typical black and white composition notebooks (which are number 10, by the way) because we were always well stocked with those really inexpensive spiral notebooks - the ones you see the cheap frugal moms lugging around at Target at back to school time for like 17¢ each or something (like my wife). I didn't know what a Moleskine was until just a few years ago (and still wouldn't mind a good debate about the proper pronunciation of that brand), but I have at least seen most of the options on the list.

Though the usually smashed spiral inevitably made page turning a little tricky, I was at least privileged to write almost exclusively in college rule notebooks. This was necessary mostly because I write tiny (not small - tiny), which some handwriting expert will probably tell you indicates a lack of self confidence or an introverted and academic personality. I hated Big Chief, with his cocky wide lines and paper that was impossible to erase without burning a hole through 3 pages. I secretly looked down on teachers that accepted assignments on wide rule. How could they be at peace with such sloppy arrogance?! Ok, maybe that's exaggerating a little bit...

I've never been a die hard journal keeper, but have filled more than a couple notebooks with what would pass as journal entries. Someday, someone is going to read them and say, "Wow, I always thought he was  more well adjusted than that." That's because my journals are often filled in mildly distraught moments of prayer - pouring out to God what I don't think I should dump on others. A lot of people don't notice the rougher edges of me because I've learned to tuck them away in writing that doesn't usually see the light of day. I can imagine my grandkids finding an old box of my stuff and thinking, "Grandpa was really weird and moody. With all those years being unhappy, it's no wonder he's so grumpy now!" Part of what may make me seem well adjusted (whatever that means) is that I don't go around spewing all my garbage because I've found a better dumping ground than in your lap.

The thing is, what I write in notebooks can be easily misunderstood, especially since it's because a sort of salvage yard of my broken pieces. If parts of it are taken out of context and the rest of it ignored, those parts don't really accurately represent who I am. Whether it's a song (which are mostly written upside down from the back of the notebook for some reason that still escapes me), a prayer, some sermon or lesson notes, a rant, or just a catchy line I wanted to remember... you can't know me fully from just that piece. If you only know me from this blog, you see me only through the limited lens this blog affords. My private writing gives an even less illumined view.

This leads me to how we treat the Bible. There's no doubt in my mind that reading God's Word can help a person get to know Him. (And yes, I realize the Bible is much more than God's personal little journal.) But we will not get to know God fully by taking our favorite bits and pieces of Scripture and divorcing them from the context of the rest of Scripture. We won't even get a very full picture by reading the whole text year after year. The Bible isn't a compilation that's meant to only be read and discussed - it's meant to be done. It's meant to be lived. It's meant to be demonstrated by His kids.

It's only when we act on the Word that we really understand the Author. Write that down in your hand-crafted Ciak or your bamboo Writersblok...  scribble it into your spiral bound cheap-o college rule... maybe even scrawl it in your Big Chief (use a crayon)... but don't forget what James wrote, "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." God doesn't just write in notebooks - He writes in you for all to see. What's He writing?

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Book of Ax?

Our high school class on Sunday mornings has been studying the book of Acts for the past couple months. I love the look in their eyes as our students hear how the Holy Spirit was moving in the first century church and as they come to understand that the same Spirit lives in the church of this century as well. But I was caught off guard a little bit yesterday.

We're just getting into the shift between Peter's meeting with Cornelius' family and Paul's travels through Asia Minor and his hope to reach Rome. It's amazing how a little splinter cell of Jews loyal to a carpenter became the multi-cultural church stretching throughout much of the known world so quickly (all without the help of blogs, mass-texts, or facebook). I wanted to recap the first several chapters that we'd covered up to this point, so I started at the beginning and asked them to "Tell me about the book of Acts."

As they began talking about Jesus ascending into heaven and the Apostles waiting in and around Jerusalem, I asked about the name of the book. "Why is it called Acts?" The one student who piped up first offered only a shrug, a confused look, and a frustrated "I have no idea what any of this has to do with an ax."

The Ax of the Apostles. The Ax of the Holy Spirit. Ax.

You need to know this is not a dumb kid. He's been to church all of his life and reads his Bible more than most adults I know - by a lot. He's not Biblically illiterate and often leads in our student ministry in many ways. He's a great young man. But somehow, when he was a little kid his mind latched on to an "Ax" metaphor instead of more of an "Actions" picture - and it stuck until yesterday!

I've been reflecting on this in a couple ways:

1. A church that doesn't Act with the Holy Spirit will soon see His Ax. That's cheesy enough to fit on a church marquee (sorry), but we have to remember the stakes are high. When we stop following His lead we're not really being the church.

2. Spelling Matters.

3. Don't assume everybody knows what you know. Cover the basics and re-cover them frequently.

4. There may be more teaching going on than learning - and that's not ok. If you teach or lead a group, be prepared when it comes time to deliver and fill in the gaps that even the best curriculum will leave. Don't settle for the Saturday night, flip through the workbook then read it Sunday morning approach. The way you fill the role (whether it's in the nursery or the nursing home or anywhere in between) is shaping the church. Shape it well.

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