Later this afternoon I’ll join 70 high school students and 20 other adults for the Encounter Men’s Retreat.
This is my second year doing the retreat so this year I have a better idea of what to expect.
- Intense, respectful content that asks young men to lean into practical realities of walking with Jesus.
- A large scale, rustic communal experience. No running water, no bathrooms, no cell service, no tents.
- Moving and setting up a completely self-contained 3 day retreat– built with lots of muscle power and big boy toys.
- Massive, burning man-style bonfires. (Last year U.S. Border Patrol stopped by– big.)
- Guns, lots of them. (Used in a very safe, secure, proper way)
- Explosions, lots of them. Fireworks, explosives, and pretty much anything else that will blow up.
- Seemingly unlimited paintball, bouldering, and combinations of bouldering & paintball.
- Lots and lots of meat, potatoes, etc. No crepes or powdered sugar or quiche.
- An extremely memorable weekend for all the guys who go.
No doubt there are parts of that list which absolutely resonate with you and other parts that make your skin crawl. Trust me, I’m totally with you.
If you know me very well at all you know my convictions on gun control. I’m not just a little anti-gun, I actually think it’s morally wrong for Christians to have guns for self-protection. So the idea of taking a bunch of guys to the desert and shooting off a bunch of ammo is really, really hard for me to swallow.
So, why do I go? If I’m not a big fan of putting a 12 gauge in the hands of 14 year old… why not just bow out? Why support and give 3 days of your life to something that might feel wonky?
Because the men’s desert trip works. It’s an example of looking at the culture you are called to reach, reading it properly, and connecting the dots between something that happens in culture and impacting people’s lives.
And while it I’m not comfortable with parts of it I’m fully aware of these three facts.
- East County San Diego dudes go to the desert, blow stuff up, shoot guns, and eat meat. It’s something east county people do for fun.
- God does significant things in people’s lives in the desert. Do a word study on that… there’s a correlation in the Bible between time in the desert and movements of God.
- Reaching young men for Christ is sacred. My opinion, comfort level, and personal preferences are not sacred.
I was listening to a message by Rob Bell a few years ago and someone posed the question to him, “Why do people drive for hours to be a part of Mars Hill.” His answer was profound and simple: “People will drive from miles around to see what’s on fire.”
Very true, isn’t it?
When I read the book of Acts I am sucked into the story of both the fire God started and the massive attention that fire drew wherever the Apostles traveled. Sure, there was spectacle on the day of Pentecost where God dropped tongues of fire on believers as they were indwelled with the Holy Spirit.
Yet they only grew by a few thousand that day.
By the end of Acts there were tens of thousands of believers. (Maybe more?) They had unleashed a virus of forgiveness of sins and restoration of relationship that the Roman army couldn’t stamp out. By Acts 28, what started as a small fire in Jerusalem was spreading. God had captured hearts whereas other gods and kingdoms tried to capture their bodies– and the Romans simply couldn’t shut down a virus that spread with love.
Because of the division between Luke-Acts we lose sight of the resolution of the story of Jesus’ ministry. While the credits roll and Easter is celebrated at the empty tomb, the story isn’t over!
The story is really just beginning.
It was a virus so strong that within three centuries it would topple the most powerful and dominant empire the world has ever seen.
The empty tomb is the climax. But the unleashing of God’s people by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are the resolution.
Why did Jesus come to earth? Surely, to seek and save the lost. Surely, to make a way for salvation of all who seek him. Of course those are reasons He came to earth.
But it was also to unleash a fire through his believers that can’t be stopped.
For 2,000+ years the fire has burned as the only hope of the planet spreads. While evil has appeared from every direction over millennia the fire has spread. Even as martyrs were literally burned at the stake they passed the flames on with their love. The fire is shared from father to son, neighbor to neighbor, classmate to classmate, and homeless man to executive.
A lot of people I know are disappointed in God today. A new year has dawned and they look at the resources they have available, they scratch their heads, they look at the agenda God has laid on their heart, and they cry silently– God, there is no way I can do this with the resources I have.
Unfortunately, too many of my friends in ministry woke up this morning wondering if God has still called them to a life in ministry.
To both, I have this simple reminder from Acts: Fire is free.
The great Hope of the world flows from the pores of our weakness. While we may be depressed by a lack of resources or even a lack of a job– be encouraged the your greatest calling spreads fastest through people with no resources, no stock piles, and nothing left but a flickering flame.
It’s June. Professional youth ministries most dangerous month. I’ve served in three churches and all the hiring, firing, quitting, and retiring with the youth ministry seems to happen in June. It’s a wicked combination of the end of the school year and for a lot of churches, the end of the budget year. I could offer some theories as to why so many churches hire and fire in June… but that’s not the point of this post.
“What do we say when the youth pastor leaves?”
Church leaders: Tell the truth. If the person quit, just say they quit. You don’t have to spin it. Just tell it like it is.
But if you are firing them, I can’t tell you how many people I have talked to who were fired and then asked to enter into an agreement (never in writing) that for a sum of money they will say that they have decided to quit. Hundreds. If you are man or woman enough to fire a person than be man or woman enough to tell the congregation. You don’t pay severence to someone you are firing to cover up the fact that you are firing them. You pay them severance because they are self-employed and ineligible to claim unemployment benefits. It only makes matters worse when you fire a person and then put on a charade that you are sad to see them go. You throw a party, you say all sorts of glowing things in public when you know full well that you sat in a board room and decided this person needed to be fired. If you lie, your lie will be found out. Your sin will be exposed and the embarrassment you were trying to avoid will come back to haunt you for years. If you made a brave decision as the leadership of the church then it is a sign of your strength as leaders. When you try to wuss out, it shows what kind of leaders you are.
The truth always wins.
Church staff: Tell the truth. If the leaders of your church dismissed a person don’t ever lie about it. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “The leaders decided to go another direction.” You don’t have to go into the specifics of why the person was fired. But don’t participate in the leaders lie if they are trying to spin the truth. That makes you party to the lie! Your corroborating the leaders story and remember, the truth will come out eventually. And remember, this is exactly how you will be treated if they let you go later.
The truth always wins.
Youth Pastor: Tell the truth. I have been in your shoes. I know what it’s like to have that meeting where the leaders tell you that you aren’t the person they want pastoring their kids anymore. I have felt my world crash around me in that moment. I’ve looked across that table when they told me what to say. They are going to wave a big check in front of your eyes and you are going to think, “How else can I feed my family? How will I pay my rent? How will I have enough money to get the heck out of here?” Just don’t get bought by Satan. Think about it… would Jesus ask you to lie in His name? Not telling the truth is telling a lie! Church leaders who ask you to lie for a little bit of money are doing the work of your sworn enemy. Walk out of that meeting with integrity. Do not cave to their pressure and promise of financial security to further their lie. They will end up offering you the same severance check anyway… because it is the right thing to do and the congregation will demand it. Moreover, your telling a lie to the congregation will only make matters worse. They are trying to get you to take the fall because they know you are leaving the church.
Candidates for youth ministry positions: Find the truth. Your well-being and the well-being of your family and future ministry depend on you discovering the truth! If you are interviewing at a church you need to talk to the former youth worker. During the interview process ask the search committee about the previous person. Then ask for their email address or phone number so you may contact them. This is 2009, you can find them in 10 minutes on the internet. Be a detective and get to the truth as to why that person left. If there is a lie… don’t take the job. This is precisely how you will be treated. If the previous youth worker was fired and the pastor and the elders participated in that lie, confront them! No matter how good they make that job sound, that entire relationship will be based on lies unless they come clean. Confront their sin and then don’t take the job. Show them what a leader looks like.
Some may read this and think, “Boy, Adam McLane has a chip on his shoulder about this.“ You would be correct. I am sick of seeing my friends in ministry asked to lie for a few thousand bucks. I am sick of churches hiding the fact that have fired a person. I am tired of the Bride of Christ doing things that are worse– even illegal— than what happens in the business world. I know that a healthy ministry can only be built on the truth. And it is time to speak up and get some truth out there.
I’ve done small groups in one form or another most of the last 15 years. I’ve been in high school, college, and adult small groups. I’ve lead middle school, high school, college, and adult small groups. I’ve always wanted a small group that gelled and did awesome things… and I could never make it happen as a leader. Just when I had nearly given up on small groups, along came Harbor and my stupid insane idea to say “yes” to hosting this group after visiting a church one time.
It’s been about 8 months and I can’t imagine a better community group to be a part of. I’m growing. We’re growing. And I think we’re making an impact on the people around us. Moreover, I can’t think of a better church to be a part of in this season of my life. That may sound like hype… but you need to understand what happened tonight to see why I dig Harbor so much.
Last week we decided that it would be fun to meet at Ocean Beach for a bonfire. For those who read this outside of San Diego all you need to know if that OB is kind of a leftover surfer area full of artists, hippies, beach bums, and those who can afford to live down there who probably secretly wish they were one too. The beach has these fire pits that are open to the public, just bring wood and claim one and you’re good to go.
So our group met at 6:30. In typical form everyone brought something. Wood, hotdogs, a cooler full of water, etc. We got our fire going and started to enjoy an awesome sunset laughing and catching up. Then Keith showed up. Keith is a homeless guy who asked if he could sit by the fire. Soon enough another person from our group struck up a conversation like he’d known Keith since grade school. Hotdogs eaten, water drunk, more sunset enjoyed. Pretty soon Keith asked us why we were hanging out at the beach. He didn’t really wince too much when we told him we were a small group from a church. “So, what do you guys talk about?” That’s when Richard pretty much told Keith the entire sermon from the day before. He read all of the Scriptures and then retold him all of the illustrations and all of us agreed… we were pretty much hypocrites and we were construction zones… we all settled on Stephen’s description of “holy mess.” Yeah, that pretty much explains me too.
Just when we were all settled into a nice quiet moment another person shows up. This sort of thing happens in OB all the time. (This kind of thing happens to our community group all the time as well.) 10 people having a good time on the beach naturally draws others looking for a good time. So a guy walks up with a couple of his friends. “Hey, would you guys mind if I practiced my fire twirling?” Um… no!
So here we are. A hodgepodge group, a holy mess, huddled around a fire enjoying s’mores, the perfect sunset, waves traveling thousands of miles across the open ocean and crashing on the shore 50 feet in front of us, and a guy with a boom box twirling fire. “This is the best night ever,” Amy says. She’s right. We all exchange high fives. He does his performance while we all look on. His friends are not sitting with us but are cheering him on. After a couple of routines our entertainer comes over to us and says, “You are in for a treat… a lot more people are coming.”
Within 15 minutes ten more fire twirlers show up. Each of them has a few of their friends. 20 or so of us huddle around the fire while people with flaming sticks, fireballs, and numbchucks wait their turn to show off their skills. More hotdogs eaten by anyone hungry. More s’mores by those who needed a sugar fix. And our hodgepodge small group, the holy mess, is completely surrounded by awesomeness. We’re all grinning ear to ear.
Fire twirlers, hippies, girlfriends, and us. I post a couple of pictures and tweets onto Twitter… and my co-worker Mandy and her husband who live in OB come walking over. How could they resist, right? That’s when it hits me: This is the best small group night ever in the history of human existence!
You can’t put small group mojo in a bottle. You can’t buy community at a conference. All of the training in the world couldn’t put this magic in a bottle and sell it. We’ve got the real deal in our community group and all we can do is enjoy it.
As Kristen and I pulled out of the parking lot we roared with laughter. We knew full well that in most ministry contexts, including the ones we’ve served in, tonight would be viewed as an utter and complete failure. “What do you mean you had a bonfire? What do you mean you just talked to a homeless man all night? What do you mean you watched people twirl fire? I heard there were people their smoking drugs, is that true?” I’m glad to be a part of a church looks at tonight and screams SUCCESS instead of hides in shame, calling an elder meeting to discuss how to break those people up.
As I drove home it hit me. The magic of our small group isn’t about an agenda. Don’t get me wrong, our leaders try to keep us moving forward. It’s never been about pounding out curriculum. It’s not about the hottest small group resource or DVD series. All of those things are great and I’m happy to have them. But when a small group hits the stratophere like ours has lately… all of those things just seem irrelevant. We get together. Not as a holy huddle but as a holy mess. We invite others in. It’s infectious. We need each other and we all secretly live for Monday nights. For me, this group is a magnet. Who wouldn’t want to be in a group that dyes Easter eggs one week and hosts Burning Man the next?