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The Youth Cartel youth ministry

My Commitment to an Intellectually Stimulating Youth Ministry

My 17 year old is studying multiple languages and chemistry over summer break just to get a jump start, she thinks calculus is fun, and she reads complex literature in her spare time. The truth is that she’s really not that unusual. This is what today’s high school students do.

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youth ministry

13 Thoughts on 13 Reasons Why

Like [apparently] everyone else I watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why last week.

I actually started watching it a couple weeks back but stopped after the first episode, it just wasn’t for me. But I watched the other 12 episodes in two days as I was traveling to New Jersey.

It was an intense couple of days.

With that in mind…

Here are 13 thoughts about the series

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The Youth Cartel youth ministry

Coaching Newer Youth Workers

Historically, youth ministry has always been a young adults game. For many their first foray into working on staff at a church/parachurch, or even a first real professional job of any kind, comes with a call to youth ministry.

As I’ve gone to youth ministry conferences and youth pastor meet-ups over the years they always seem dominated by folks in their 20s and 30s.

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youth ministry

Why We Progress

Sometimes life gives you glimpses of cultural progress.

I got one of them yesterday. In a Facebook group I’m part of a youth worker posted this question:

Any suggestions on how to handle homosexual or bisexual relationships in the group. We have a new attendee that I want to be careful with teaching in love but not ignoring what God says about it.

Now, the question itself is contemporary– I’m not knocking the question, stick with me.

Lots of churches, particularly churches in less populated parts of the country, are just now engaging with the question for the first time.

The answer I gave in that thread, “How do you treat other relationships? Same diff.” is not considered a controversial one. It’s not a liberal, progressive, or even conservative answer– It’s just a common answer.

But that same answer? It was very controversial just a few years ago. When I gave a very similar  answer in the Love is an Orientation DVD in 2011 it was pretty edgy. I actually had to get clearance from the non-profit I was working at to say it. There were meetings, lots of meetings, hand-wringing, fretting, vetting, and questions about if my private position should be “our” public position before they finally said it was fine for me to appear in the training videos, much less offer that advice. 

This is what progress looks like on a micro level. 6 or 7 years ago the majority of church youth groups would have either not have ever experienced that question or would have an answer born out of textbooks instead of their own practical, street, theology. But today? Even relatively conservative evangelical churches in small towns would agree with the advice I gave.

Why Progress Matters

This morning, as I was thinking about this question I had a little bit of a flashback to questions I got interviewing at churches 15 years ago… questions that seem so completely foreign that we forget how fast culture progresses.

  1. “What do you think about mixed bathing?” — In 2002, I had multiple churches ask me if I thought it was OK, from a biblical perspective, if teenage boys and girls could be in the pool at the same time.
  2. “What do you think about mixed dating?” — Again, in 2002, I had multiple churches ask me if I thought it was OK, from a biblical perspective, if teenagers of different races or ethnicities dated.

In both cases these weren’t mainstream questions. But these were serious questions in interviews. Both the asking of the question and how I answered were significant matters for whether a church wanted to hire me. More importantly, I had to decide if I wanted to work in congregations where questions were still normative enough that they’d come up in a job interview with a youth pastor.

One thing is certain: Culture will continue to change and labels will continue to shift, too. Things which seem crazy to talk about today will one day be mainstream and in only 15 years will be so commonplace that we’ll assume you live in the sticks if your thoughts haven’t kept up. In fifteen years we won’t wonder about what to do with two girls holding hands in the back of the church van because… today’s 15 year olds will be the youth workers, they’ll know intuitively to treat everyone’s sexuality is treated the same, because that’s what they grew up with. It’s as native to them as their mobile phone is today, the question will feel as offensive to their sense of justice as the casual racism I was asked about.

The question for us is simply about posture. Are we ready to stay focused on our ministry regardless of changes in culture? Or are we going to hold onto “the culture we grew up with” to the detriment of  the main focus of our ministry? 

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youth ministry

Pokémon Go and Your Youth Ministry

There’s a new fad that’s completely wholesome, brings people to church, and is 100% free. In that sense Pokémon Go is pure youth ministry gold.

But, like the 1849 Gold Rush, you’ll need to act fast because it won’t last long. I don’t see Pokémon Go lasting in the mainstream for very long… but it’ll be great while it lasts. (We’re talking weeks here… probably not months.)

What You Need to Know

Pokémon Go is a free app that takes Pokémon out of the realm of the Nintendo DS line of products, out of the trading card game, out of the holdover early-2000s geekery class, and puts the game into real life on your mobile phone. The game sends you out looking for Pokémon using augmented reality technology that’s been out several years but never truly taken off publicly in the way this game has.

  • You have to walk around to play the game, finding characters and logging kilometers so your eggs hatch.
  • You have to have the app open to play.
  • In order to collect more Pokémon you need check in at Poké Stops to get more Poké Balls, the app has chosen millions of public landmarks, including just about every church.

Here’s a beginners guide if you want to know more about how the game works.

Adults Are Kinda Freaking Out

Of course, since it involves kids/teenagers/game-loving-adults and phones plus being outdoors… adults are kind of freaking out.

For the most part people who aren’t playing it seem to fall into two camps:

A. Genuinely amused to see people wandering around playing the game. (This is from a high school friend’s Instagram feed, language warning…)

B. Dismissive & Issuing Warnings

My Advice?

Here on my blog you know I write frequently about things to look out for with social media apps. And yes, I could point out the security concerns or the semi-obvious-COPPA compliance issues.

But you know what? Let’s just go with this one. It’s simple, it’s fun, it’s pretty harmless, it’s getting millions of people out walking around in our communities, (the absolute BEST thing you can do to make a neighborhood safe is people out walking around!) and people are enjoying it.

Let’s set aside the concerns and just enjoy it. I mean, we let small children play with sparklers on the Fourth of July, right? It’s that kind of dangerous. Yes, somebody is going to poke an eye out or find a dead body. But most people are just going to have fun with it… so let’s have fun, too.

[Literally, you grant so many apps with the exact same types of access to your phone’s private information, I’m a bit shocked at the backlash about privacy. I mean, you can probably trust this company more than you can trust the random free photo filter apps you’ve got that use your Google account to login.]

Some Ideas for Youth Ministry

I think this little cultural phenomenon is a great way for your ministry team to connect and get to know people. Think build relationships and not evangelism.

First, if you haven’t already, go ahead and download the free app so you know what the heck everyone is talking about. Spend an hour playing it, at least get to Level 5, you might as well do this as a staff since it’s not just a kid thing… pretty much everyone is playing it. (It’s the most popular iOS app right now. It’s user base is closing in on Twitter after just 6 days on the market.)

It’s kinda big right now.

Second, see if your church is a Poké Stop. You’ll probably already know that because there have been cars stopping in front of your church or people walking up to your church’s sign for a week.

Third, if you notice people are dropping by to visit your Poké Stop, grab a lawn chair and go sit outside for a while to watch and enjoy. Wave, have fun with it. You don’t have to understand it to enjoy the phenomenon. I mean, when was the last time this many people just randomly swung by the church?

Hack the system: You can combine the first idea with the third. Sit out by the Poké Stop and play the game… if you don’t understand something, ask one of the people walking by for help. (Nerds are helpful!)

Fourth, serve ’em.

Here’s a few ideas off the top of my head:

  1. Put out a candy dish. Get some Poké Balls, maybe an egg, and get a free lollipop? WHAT!?!?!?! I love that church!
  2. Buy a bunch of battery chargers and lend them out. (The app uses a lot of power, a little charger is like $10. Get 5-10 of them and lend them out.) Sure, you might lose a couple. But you might be surprised.
  3. Put out bottles of water. Did you know to hatch an egg you’ve got to walk 5 KM? (3.2 miles!) Put a cooler out with free waters next to your stop, or just a jug and some cups with ice water, pretty much free and a great way to communicate you like nerds.
  4. Offer something simple like a free tour of the sanctuary. Chances are these players have never been in a church! Show them all the technology you use or show them what everything is in your sanctuary. Keep it short and sweet, but also keep in mind they need to walk 5 KM to hatch an egg, so they need to walk around. Oh, you’ve got A/C? Even better!
  5. Offer free (side) hugs. We’ve even made a t-shirt for this one.
  6. Host a Pokémon Go meet-up. You’ve got space available, right? Get all the players together and let them nerd out. (Since your whole staff plays, they might even enjoy this!)

What other ideas do you have? Leave a comment and let’s make a list.

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youth ministry

Youth Ministry as an Advocate for Vulnerable Children

Perfect.

No really, perfect.

With my sarcasm volume cranked up to 100% I say it again, “We had the perfect ending to a perfect school year.”

How perfect was this school year? It was so perfect that we’re planning a bonfire at the beach this weekend where we will burn everything. And I mean that literally. We will burn everything.

Why? Sure, the whole school year wasn’t bad. There were parts of it that were pretty good! But we need to start over– to symbolically leave the 2015-2016 school year behind us.

I’ll spare my readers the details and just summarize it like this: One of our kids made a mistake at school and the school offered an outsized, nuclear response. It took 8 days of near round-the-clock work to finally clear it up late last week. And the ramifications of the outcome will take months to navigate.

Something like this is an unholy mess no one can prepare themselves to deal with.

It put us in a tailspin emotionally. Anger, disappointment, heartbreak, distrust, frustration… near madness. Round and round we went.

And, in the end, we don’t know what the long-term ramifications will be.

And even though it’s over we are exhausted, heartbroken, angry, and frustrated. Most of all exhausted. Thank you Jesus for our upcoming vacation… we desperately need the sanity only Yosemite seems to bring.

Vulnerable Children Are Among Us

I share this not looking for sympathy. I share this because you need to understand how privileged we are to have the resources available to deal with this.

  • I’ve been involved in things at school before on behalf of other people’s children, so I had some working knowledge.
  • We’ve got access to a myriad of friends who are experts in what we were dealing with.
  • We have financial resources and a budget that make funds available for when unexpected things come up.
  • We’ve got a support system to lean on as we process a course of action.
  • Our children have two parents at home full-time.
  • Our family has work/life flexibility which allowed us to dedicate the time needed without fear.

Yes, those 8 days were hell. But we are painfully aware our  family walked through that with many advantages and privileges.

All along the way we kept wondering about children in similar circumstances who just didn’t have access to the resources we did, who didn’t know how to navigate a system, who didn’t know they could fight back or fact check or compare actions against the law, or who– quite honestly– wouldn’t even have had the ability to show up because work wouldn’t allow them to go.

What would have happened to them? I shudder at the thought.

Most likely, if the same thing happened to another child anywhere in America, the outcome may have been much different.

You see, no one stepped forward to help us. And if no one stepped forward to help us— you can be assured that this is standard operating procedure. If you get accused of something it’s up to you to defend yourself.

Each day millions of children navigate the hallways as classmates in a public school system defined as equal. But it’s not. Schools do their very best to level the playing field. But everyone knows what is up, who has and who doesn’t. It’s no secret among students who gets free lunch, who attends before or after school care, who has a big house, who is undocumented or a refugee or whose parents are on the splits.

Schools aspire to be a great equalizer. But they are not. Students may be afforded equal opportunities but they aren’t equal.

We should continue to aspire to that but we also need to stop pretending. 

Just as there are privileged children among us, there are vulnerable children, as well.

Youth Ministry as an Advocate for Vulnerable Children

If you know me, you know I’ve long held up the baton that youth ministry needs to see itself from a bigger lens than youth group. I think youth group is great– but there is so much more that the church could and should be doing to minister to the needs of adolescents in our communities.

I don’t think that the church’s responsibility to minister is limited to the people who show up to a program. I believe that God has placed our churches where they are for a reason, we aren’t just a place of worship, we are a place that lives out the Gospel as people of faith in a community. Just like Jesus’ life was incarnate, we too as Christian men and women must live incarnationally. To be like Jesus, “Christ-like” we have to live among and for others.

Friends, there are vulnerable children among us. Your kids go to school with kids who are vulnerable. Your kids are friends and classmates and buddies with them. You’ve got vulnerable children in your youth group, on your block, on and on.

The question is: Are you prepared to advocate for them?

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youth ministry

I’m Still Here

It’s 2016.

Duh.

But I started on this journey in 1994.

Whoa.

How many people can say that they set out to join a profession at 17 that they are still in at 39? Not just ministry-types… adults, in general?

Not that many.

Looking back at it now I see three waypoints that have me right where I am now, right where I started out as a high school kid.

Distractions & Temptations

I don’t want this to sound pompous. But I’ve tried out enough different things to know I could have been good at a lot of things. All along the way there have been distractions and temptations drawing me away from ministering to teenagers. I can think of 8-9 different career directions I could have continued with had I wanted to. Everything from executive leadership to tech start-ups to leading a church.

But here I am. Sometimes distracted. Sometimes tempted. But still here pecking away at it.

Haters

I’ve had a few straight-up haters. The brave ones said things to my face. In a twisted way I can respect that, someone with the balls to say something face-to-face. But most haters are cowards, whispering in the shadows to others that I wasn’t suited for ministry or that I’d never graduate or that sooner or later I’d be just like so-and-so.

The funny thing about haters? They seek to destroy you but they give you fuel.

A lot of people lie and say they don’t hear the haters. Don’t kid yourself. You always hear them. Those whispers often mimic the voices in my head, giving a face to my own doubts.

And for some people? Haters do damage. But for people like me? That’s all the motivation we need.

Quick reminder to the haters: I’m still here. Where are you? Probably right where I left you.

Mentors

I’m here today, largely, because I’ve had great mentors along the way. I’ve always had ambitions, talents, and some other intangibles. But I wouldn’t still be here if I hadn’t had great women and men to look up to and show me the way.

Call it luck. Call it good fortune. Frankly, I don’t know what to call it. But I’m thankful for the people who invested (and are still investing) in me along the way.

From Here to There

And that brings me to where I’m at right now. I’m here and I’m still trying to get there. I’m still just as easily distracted as ever. I’m just as susceptible to the voices of haters as ever. I’m just as open to learning and being mentored as ever.

But I’m also at the point where a big thing I’m looking for from the next 22 years of youth ministry is continuing the cycle.

Just like lots of people have invested lots of themselves in me I’m getting more and more serious about returning the favor.

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youth ministry

Where Are Our Heroes?

A youth worker from Arizona posted in a Facebook group:

Do you any of you carry during youth events? Concealed or open?

A shocking number of practicing ministers responded affirmatively. They carry a gun while working with teenagers.

A minister of the Good News of Jesus Christ standing before his flock armed with a loaded handgun.

Let that sink in.

It’s simply unfathomably wrong to me. Yes, Americans have a right to bears arms. But a representative of Jesus bears sacred rites that far exceed the man made rights of a nation-state.

Here are three specific reasons I believe it’s wrong for a pastor to carry a handgun in the course of his duties:

1. It’s Contrary to the New Testament Narrative of Pastoral and Apostolic Work

On Sunday, we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. Remember the Garden? Jesus, the Second Adam, was tempted one last time by Satan.

Whereas Adam and Eve failed the test in the garden:

 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5

Confronted with controlling the knowledge of life and death, Adam failed.

But Jesus did not. This is at the very heart of understanding the Gospel message. This is why we celebrate Resurrection and the conquering of sin in the first place! In the Garden, tempted with control over his very life, Jesus conquered death… not with the sword… but by power that comes only from the Father.

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)

Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

John 18:10-11

Now, gun advocates cling to phrases from the New Testament to try to justify their right to carry a gun or protect themselves. Let’s peak at the oft referred to Luke 22:36, He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.) They take this as Jesus commanding his disciples to arm themselves for self-defense… which surely means you can own a gun for self-defense, right? But don’t forget… that sword Jesus told them to go get? That conversation took place the night of Judas’ betrayal. That sword that Jesus told them to get is the same one he told Peter to put away. Oops.

And still people cling to this?

Of course, you don’t see many people preaching with a purse and a bag, or even a sword. This is the maddening joy of literalism! Literalism allows you to contextualize what you want while ignoring other aspects of the same verse! Why is it that this somehow justifies owning a handgun for self-protection in the home when the men Jesus was talking to had no home? Why is it about carrying a gun at all? Why don’t Christian bookstores sell purses, handbags, and swords in the pastoral resources department? That is, after all, so precious a command.

Instead, what we see is Jesus’ followers doing the exact opposite. Not only did Jesus not defend himself in the Garden, not only did he command Peter to put his sword away…. Christian tradition holds that each of the men in the garden with Jesus went on to suffer a similar defenseless death as Apostolic leaders. (With the exception of John, who apparently died of old age.) Moreover, the Apostle Paul and the first generation of pastors planting churches all over the world did not arm themselves as they traveled! In fact, the example of Paul giving his life to the cause of Jesus while remaining defenseless was the great catalyst of growth for Christianity in the first 100 years.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1

The cult of Judaism known as The Way, had they armed themselves, would not have survived the first century! The secret sauce of Christianity’s spread under the thumb of the Roman empire was that it was not an insurrection of the sword, it was an insurrection of the heart. Pax Romani would have never allowed a militia of armed religious leaders gathering up people! But men accused of overthrowing Pax Romani with a message of love and forgiveness? This proved unstoppable.

To argue that a Christian leader should arm himself in the course of his sacred duties is to deny the very actions of Jesus and first century Christian leaders. You cannot read the Gospels, Acts, or the Pastoral Epistles and argue otherwise.

2. It’s Contrary to the Historical Position of Pastor Throughout the Centuries

When I saw that Facebook post I instantly thought of the martyrs.

Nate Saint and familyCan you imagine Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Flemming, and Roger Youderian being known not for dying at the hands of the Huaorani but instead tried for crimes against humanity as they defended themselves on Palm Beach? “They threw spears at us so we shot them.” (Read more)

But don’t forget the preachers, who for millennia have gone before us.

Can you imagine Charles Spurgeon, pistol in hand, preaching these words on April 14th, 1840?

Let us stand to our preaching like soldiers to their guns. The pulpit is the Thermopylae of Christendom where our foes shall receive a check; the field of Waterloo where they shall sustain a defeat. Let us preach, and preach evermore! (Charles Spurgeon, sermon The Model Home Mission and the Model Home Missionary, April 14th 1840)

Maybe he’d squeeze off a few rounds right there, just to make a dramatic point?

Can you imagine an armed Billy Graham? How about Billy Sunday in his Chicago White Sox uniform with a sidearm… just in case? You know he preached to the drunk and scoundrels of his day, surely that was less safe than a church youth room.

And what about military chaplains? You know… men who go into combat to minister to soldiers. Surely those guys have sidearms… you know, just in case? No. Throughout history chaplains on the battlefield have been unarmed.

Dramatic photos: Ukraine’s priests take an active role in protests
A man kneels before an Orthodox priest in an area separating police and anti-government protesters near Dynamo Stadium on Jan. 25, 2014, in Kiev. (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Just two years ago Ukrainian clergy of all Christian traditions bravely stood, unarmed, in the lines between unarmed protestors and the government-controlled, heavily armed henchmen sent by the former president to gun them down.

What about those men’s right to defend themselves? Why didn’t they arm themselves instead of being murdered in the streets by their own government?

Throughout history you will see that clergy– when acting in good faith– rarely arm themselves. Instead churches are places of sanctuary and refuge from the battles of the day. And you would be hard pressed to find clergy with concealed handguns in the pulpit while teaching the word of God!

3. It’s Contrary to the Needs of Today’s Teenagers

Look, let’s say you forget the New Testament narrative. Let’s say you discard completely the historical role of the pastor. Let’s say that you’ve only got the teenagers in front of you to serve the best that you can figure out yourself.

Do the teenagers in your youth group need to see a person teaching them the bible or taking them on a mission trip with a handgun? How can you say “Put your life, future, and faith in Jesus” while showing them with your actions that you don’t? A teenager is wondering, “Is this stuff true? Can Jesus really transform my life, the way I think? Can Jesus give me a new life? Can he forgive my sins… like for real?” and the actions of the youth pastor who is standing there with a Bible on his phone and a gun on his hip seems to contradict the whole thing. “He doesn’t put his life in Jesus’ hands… look, he has a gun. He decides who lives and dies.

So play it out. Let’s say that you’re playing Chubby Bunny with 30 teenagers and a man walks in with a gun. Is the only possible resolution to that scenario that the youth pastor pulls out a gun and kills that person in the youth room? The power of Christ is limited to bloodshed? I pray not. What happens if a teenager gets pissed off and runs into the youth room with a baseball bat or a knife? Is the youth pastor going to discharge his weapon at a teenager he’s been called by the church to minister to? I pray not.

Let’s pray not.

So why is the youth pastor carrying a gun in the first place? I can only guess at the reasoning.

Where Are the Heroes?

When I saw the Facebook post this morning my heart sunk and my mind raced. I hurt for my tribe. Are we so insecure in our faith that we arm ourselves to go to work? At a church. A CHURCH!!!!

Surely, we don’t live in a country where a youth pastor is so fearful for his life that he arms himself while teaching the Word of God, do we?

And it made me wonder… Where are the Heroes?

Surely, someone can speak to the nonsense? Surely there is a voice that people respect enough to listen to and admit that their behavior does not reflect the position they hold nor the faith they profess.

Surely, someone can help a fellow minister of the Gospel understand that the Second Amendment of the United States is subservient to our God who holds power over government and nations? He is the author and finisher of life. He feeds the sparrows. Like our old preacher Ray Pritchard loved to say, “He is God and we are not.”

And yet…. Where are the voices pulling people aside to say that preaching while armed is wrong? Where are the steady voices reminding leaders that the power of Jesus is bigger, better, and more awesome than the perceived power you feel carrying a gun while teaching teenagers in a church?

My fear is that we’ve exchanged our heroes for Christian celebrities. A hero stands up for what’s right, says and does what needs to be done, and doesn’t worry about making people made. A celebrity? He offends no one. He protects his brand. He murmurs to his friends while saying nothing to his fans.

We need fewer celebrities and more heroes.

Where are the heroes?

Where?

I see none.

My Heroes Didn’t Need Guns

I am thankful for the youth pastors in my life who were heroes to me.

My first exposure to youth group came on an army base in Germany. Ironically, we met in a middle school about 100 yards from a firing range where helicopters and mortars and tanks regularly practiced their crafts of destruction.

Our volunteers were soldiers. And the students they ministered to had moms and dads who knew combat. Not the stuff you see on TV, they knew the real thing.

Did Dan arm himself? Of course not. He fears only God. He respects his role in lives too much. (Though, like myself, Dan doesn’t mind guns for sport or even target shooting.) I learned a lot from him about whom and what to fear. Even now, as we’re both a little older, Dan continues to teach me that lesson. Life has thrown him some pretty nasty curve balls but his hope, his future, and his day-to-day… they remain in Jesus.

We need heroes like Dan. I pray that each teenager who walks into a church gets the pleasure of learning from a man or woman like Dan, a hero of the faith, unconcerned about anything else but the primacy of the risen Christ, even his own life.

Categories
youth ministry

February 2016 – “Youth Pastor” in the News

Each month I publish a list of the search term “youth pastor” in Google News.

Yes, this is an attack on youth ministry. Yes, this is personal. But it’s not me attacking us. It’s us attacking us. Our tribe destroys itself but while no self-change occurs. Collectively we devalue our profession in the eyes of the general public with each new instance of abuse, arrest, conviction.

We must root out evil.

We must create healthy ministries.

We need training, coaching, professional standards, and accountability.

If my drawing attention to this ticks you off…. good. It ought to make you sick that a profession which does SO MUCH GOOD in the world only makes the news largely for getting hired or gotten fired because they’ve been arrested.

If you don’t like the news change it. Make the news for doing good.

My daily prayer for youth ministry is that we, as a community of adults ministering to teenagers, would be good news in our neighborhoods. But prayer is not enough… join me in taking action.

Without further delay, here is this month’s list.

“Youth Pastor” in the News

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youth ministry

January 2016 – Youth Pastors in the News

Here’s a list of headlines from the month of January 2016 for the Google News search term, “Youth Pastor.” I’ve deleted multiple links to the same instance.