Categories
Church Leadership

3 Things I’m Wondering About What Church Leaders Believe

Yesterday, Kristen and I went to the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. It’s an event I’ve always loved… I’ve gone 3-4 times in the past decade and the years that I couldn’t make it I always wanted to. Looking back, it’s an event where I always learn a lot.

I’m probably a lot like you. I’m tired of talking about why humpty dumpty sat on a wall, why he had a great fall, or why all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put humpty dumpty back together again. Deconstruction is so… 2005. My time is spent coming up with ways to reconstruct the church in new ways, in ways that people currently disconnected from Christ want to connect with Him. It comes from a deep respect for the Scriptures, leaning into the truths of the Gospel, and a relentless hope that our best days must be ahead.

All that to say– I walked away with 3 things I’m wondering about based on what I heard yesterday. These were the working, meta-narrative, definitions of how the speakers/hosts seemed to view the world around them. And it left me wondering… is this what they really believe?

  1. The church is the hope of the world – I walked away wondering… Is that really a true statement? I know I just have an undergrad Bible college degree. And I picked Spanish in college because Greek and Hebrew didn’t seem all that practical for youth ministry. But I think Jesus is the hope of the world. I think the church is the bride of Christ. The church is Hope’s wife, they are wed, they are one… but the church is not the Hope of the world. Jesus is. (I can accept the phrase as a metaphor but the phrase was not said as a metaphor– it was said as an axiom/truism/fact.)
  2. Neighbors are people you invite to church – I walked away wondering about the application of one of the stories… Bill Hybels told a story about a man who came to their property looking for his cat. The man asked Bill, “What is this place?” (Assuming it was a college) Bill used that story to illustrate that they, for the first time in 30 years, needed to do some marketing to retell the Willow story to people in their community. His story left me screaming inside! Dude, you blew it. Jesus didn’t say, “Love your neighbor and invite them to church.” He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The guy didn’t come and ask Bill for a flyer or an invitation to church. He wanted help looking for his cat. It was an invitation for Bill to go to the man’s house! It was an invitation to get to know his neighbor— not fill his mailbox inviting neighbors to hear him preach. Oh, I really wanted that to be a turning point for Bill to see that a church dispersed in its community, as Hope’s representative and wife, is far more potent than a church coming to his “college.” [If you know me, you know my prayer is that the church becomes Good News in the Neighborhood.]
  3. Leadership is the most important spiritual gift – Oh, there was so much insider language and playing to a senior pastor audience about “leadership!” Bill Hybels repeatedly pumped up leadership as the only important spiritual gift. He “thanked God” that he didn’t have the other gifts. (There was a lot of woman bashing from the stage, too. I hope someone mentions that to him. That’s beneath leaders of his caliber.) It made me wonder about the definition of Christian leadership. Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 12, no one is more important in the body of Christ than anyone else. And Jesus corrected his disciples again and again… to be great, you must be a servant. (Mark 10:42-45) Those weren’t popular concepts at Willow’s Summit. In fact, in an interview with an organization that has two equal leaders the question came up again and again… “Is it possible to have 2 leaders?

So that’s what I left wondering with after day 1. Just wondering. Not criticizing or tearing down. Just wondering. 

If you went to WCAGLS— what were your highlights? What did you leave wondering about? 

QUICK UPDATE: Day 2 of WCAGLS was very good, I didn’t stick around for Bill’s closing talk, but really enjoyed all of the speakers today. Pranitha Timothy was absolutely stunning today. Very thankful for that talk.

Categories
youth ministry

The cup is 95% empty

“Adam, why are you always assuming that the cup is half empty?” 

Youth workers say this to me over coffee. Their lives are run wild with activities, planning, teaching, and meetings. Their ministries are full and something I’ve said has called that busyness into question.

My response, not trying to be trite, is “Oh no, I’m not saying the cup is half empty, I’m saying the cup is 95% empty.

Again and again I’ve challenged folks to do the math for themselves. Most people can do it in their head. You don’t need a scientist to measure impact if you know basic facts about your community.

  • How many students are in middle & high school in your community? How many students attend a youth ministry in your community? Divide. Probably less than 10% of the eligible population. (If you factor in students who attend youth group by choice… this number dramatically falls, doesn’t it?) 
  • How many years has the current model of youth ministry been impacting your community? 20, 30, 40 years? How much have churches grown as a result? At best, church attendance has flatlined over the past 20 years, likely declined compared to 30 or 40 years ago. 
  • You might be able to point to a couple of exceptional examples. (Communities of great impact or individuals greatly impacted) But for the amount of effort, amount of investment, in most communities the impact is pretty small.

My point is not to tear youth ministry down down. It’s to rebuild. We can’t think about the future until we can make a sober assessment of what our tribe has accomplished.

It’s not that the wrong people are in youth ministry, it’s not that they are uneducated, don’t care, are lazy, or even under-resourced. I actually think the frustration, the quitting, angst, and the burnout we see in youth ministry is because we have the RIGHT people working 24/7 [largely] on WRONG strategies. [More fairly, their current strategy is OK, just limited in impact.]

That’s not tearing down at all, is it?

My point is that the strategies we’ve used to date have a finite impact. We can look at 40 years of history and say “youth group” will impact less than 10% of any given student population. (How much more evidence do you need to see that this is true? 50 years? 100 years?)

The challenge to anyone who will listen is to think about the 95% of un-impacted adolescents in their community and ask themselves, “What are other strategies that might impact these students lives for the sake of the Gospel prevailing?

That’s not being negative. It’s missiology 101.

Photo credit: Mykl Roventine via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Categories
Christian Living

The Hopeful Lean

He leaned across the table and told me a secret in a hushed tone. “This neighbor loving neighbors thing. It really works. It’s incredible!”

He then went on and talked about all the things that are going on in his neighborhood.

Over the past months I’ve had several conversations that essentially went the same way. I hang out with a former youth worker, a person like me, who left full-time ministry on some sort of a quest to find their first love, ministry. And that position they take when they lean across the table? I call that position HOPE. 

With excited hushed tones they start talking about what happened when they gave up the podium.

  • They stopped talking and started listening.
  • They stopped looking for their next illustration and started noticing what was going on.
  • And they got involved. And it lead to more cool things. And now Good News is on fire on their block.

This life reorientation is disorienting at first. It causes them to lose their balance and go through a period of questioning, often times slipping into a period of depression.

And what they find in that dark place of self-reflection is that they live in a neighborhood. There are people, often just like them, living next door. And this newfound disequilibrium causes them to be open to something they never were before… listening to what God wants them to do… regardless of if their church is behind it or not.

That was funny to write. That people who have spent decades working at churches started to listen to what God wanted of them only after leaving their church work. And I’m sure that some may take offense at that. All I mean is that these folks feel free to listen to God’s voice in a different way, not through the filter of leadership, but with a more simple posture, “Lord, what will you have for me to do?

And almost universally the answer to that question involves simply reorienting their life around serving the needs of their block. It’s not a program and it’s not a paycheck. But it’s the ministry they always wanted.

It Was There All Along

It’s kind of funny having these conversations. Each of them is unique. With each person finding a new kind of ministry that fits their neighborhood differently. Big smiles emerge as they share this secret they’ve discovered: It was there all along. 

Hope has a flavor to it. It’s having tasted the bitter root of despair, rejected popular fast-food cynicism, and popped out the other side with a big smile on your face. Hope is like taking an overcooked steak and decided to chop it up and put it on a salad. What was once not-quite-right is now the star of the meal.

Hope has derivatives. It’s contagious. As one neighbor ventures out of the front-door and meets others, others do likewise. Suddenly, hope spreads down the street. A person shares a garden. A guy cut a neighbors grass when they are sick. A block party pops up. And neighbors begin to slow down and enjoy where they live as opposed to just seeing it as a place to store their stuff and relax between activities. Kids start to play outside again. Kids start to be kids again. Crime goes down. On and on and on.

All because a family on the block decided to reorient their lives.

The Bible doesn’t lie. Each of us were created in Christ Jesus to do good works. (Ephesians 2:10) And when we lean into that the rewards are everywhere.

Categories
Christian Living

A Fall to Grace

One day morning will dawn, your eyes will open, and you will awaken with the literal reality that the dream you had for yourself is over and it’s time to move on.

I can think to specific days in 2000, 2003, 2008, and most recently in summer 2011 when I rolled out of bed with the knowledge that I’d just crossed a line. The dreams I knew were gone. And I had to find new dreams.

In each case, those mornings felt like I’d just fallen from a place of positional power, security, and recognition. Even in going from one role to another– even if that new role was “better” than the one I’d left, it still felt like a fall.

Perhaps it is a guy thing? But much of who you are and how you think of yourself on a day-to-day basis is wrapped up in what you do, who you work with, and the people you do stuff with. When that’s gone– whether by choice or not– you experience this unmooring free fall feeling.

While other leaders have experienced ugly falls from grace I have never experienced that. Instead, in times where the things I knew are suddenly gone because I’ve moved on to something else… I’ve experienced something I can only describe as a fall to grace.

The free fall feeling of change always lands in the loving arms of a God who has nurtured and cared for me from the beginning. And those strong palms support my back as I try to get my bearings. God’s grace supports me, lifts me up, and the warmth of that palm reminds me that I’ll be fine.

To know Hope you must know Despair

Despair is not the enemy of hope. Frustration and anxiety may not be your friends but they are repeatedly wrestled on your way to hope. Over the years, plenty of people have called me overly hopeful– almost stupid hopeful. From my eyes I only know summits of hope because I have been in great depths of despair. In the darkness of that valley I’ve cried out to God, “What am I doing here! I can’t do this anymore. I hate every last step of this! AAAAHHHH!!!!” The echoes of those moments haunt me.

But when you’ve been there– when you’ve screamed in that valley and heard those cries echoed back empty? Then you discover that any step above that is a step towards hope.

But knowing hope, truly living a hope-filled, is a reflex against despair.

To know Faith you must know Doubt

It perplexes me that some have made doubt the enemy of faith. I would argue that you can’t know what faith is until you know what doubt is. Both are invisible. Both are real. And both are internal, silent motivators of our daily actions.

In putting both feet on either side of the faith/doubt teeter totter I desire balance while one always wins over the other. I’m either standing on faith or standing on doubt.

Falling into the arms of grace isn’t an action of doubt or faith. But the resolve that comes through pushing against doubts gravity to take action is a step of faith. That is what reassures me that grace truly will catch me.

To know Grace you must know Failure

One of my mentors, at each of these moments over the past decade, has asked me… “What are the things you are running away from by doing this and what are the things you are running to?” Even in roles where everyone has labeled me a success I know there were failures. I know there were expectations unmet. I know I expressed attitudes I shouldn’t have. There were many times when I worked on what I wanted to work on to the neglect of what others thought I should be working on.

Even on the road to success there are many failures you have to deal with. Being honest about that with myself and with others helps me discover what grace really means in my life.

Because of my failures I don’t deserve anything good. But good keeps coming my way. That’s not a reflection of my character or timing or anything else. But it is a reflection of the character of God.

Friends- I have no idea what is going on in your life. But I do know that we will all encounter times where we experience free fall. My encouragement? Fall into the receiving hands of grace.

Categories
Christian Living

Deliver us from evil

If you hang out in Churchland you’ll almost never hear of evil in the church. We cover it up with elder approved statements, letters, forced resignations, cheesy happy, clappy worship songs, smiling sermons, and a heavy dose of denial.

I didn’t have to search very hard for those headlines above. All I did was search the term youth pastor” on Google News; these were on the first page of results.

Evil exists everywhere, of course. Just because people are Christians doesn’t mean they are absent of sin in their lives. But it boils my blood that the profession I love leads headlines with evil instead of the good that we do.

My point isn’t that youth pastors are evil. Far from it. My point is that we can’t live in denial that there is evil. 

People in your ministry deal with real evil every day. There is real evil in your life. There are people who are out to destroy you. There are forces at work through the tides of relationships that can elevate or destroy you. There are real temptations and moments of failure which can lead your life into horrible directions.

Life is full of temptresses and tempests.

And we need deliverance from this evil every day. And we need to lead people in a way that seeks deliverance from evil, real evil in their lives.

Because at the end of the day– living a happy, clappy, smiley, existence of denial may just be enabling evil. 

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come. 
Thy will be done in earth, 
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, 
But deliver us from evil. 
For thine is the kingdom,

The power, and the glory,

For ever and ever.

Amen.

Categories
Christian Living

Dispatches from the land of Hope

My dear friends of Despair,

I know you are tired. Despair is an exhausting existence. As you know I was a resident there for many years.

I know that each day is much the same. You spend countless hours looking for nourishment, feeding on things of no nutritional value, then falling asleep with the horrifying hunger reality that the next day you’ll awaken just to look for food that food won’t fill you up. It’s a life of unsatisfying hunger which lead me to malnutrition of my body and soul.

There is nothing left for you there. It’s time to flee the life you know in Despair and join me here in a place named Hope.

The land of Hope only seems scary because Despair is so familiar. After a couple of days you’ll get used to it. It’s nice here. The air is clean. The beds are soft. You won’t be hungry over here, there’s plenty to feast on.

People are more friendly, too. Instead of gnawing on the food of the past they are eagerly building tomorrow. I love talking to the people of Hope. Sometimes, just in casual conversation with a Hopeful, my eyes will well of with tears of Joy.

It took leaving Despair behind to discover that the people over there are murderers. They fixate on happiness in order to steal your Joy. Then they feast on your joy, mocking its value while consuming it like a taste test at a Chinese buffet. All my life it felt like the people of Despair would finally turn around and their hunger would be satisfied. But they are like zombies, dead men walking.

If you moved to the land of Hope we could be neighbors. I know we’re friends now. But imagine how much closer we’d be if we lived in the same place? Heck, our kids could go to school together. Maybe they’d even call you aunt or uncle? I’d love that… but it’s just not practical with us living so far apart.

Join me in the land of Hope. Leave Despair behind.

Hopeful,

Adam

 

Categories
Christian Living

I choose hope

Recession? Here's the NASDAQ Index July 2, 2009 -July 2, 2011

Our culture loves despair. We ignore the facts and choose lamentation.

Listen to an hour of the news and you’ll hear how dangerous our country is. (Crime is down significantly over the past 30 years) You’ll hear how horrible the economy is. (The image above shows the NASDAQ Index the past two years.) Public school stink. (In fact, most major metropolitan school systems have seen test scores steadily increase over the past decade.)

Find a slow news and the media just goes back to the wheel of despair news stories that you love. Teen pregnancy, homelessness, violence in schools, date rape, sexting… you know the list. They go back to that wheel of despair because YOU LOVE THAT NEWS! Our culture is sick,  twisted, and upside down.

We love to point to examples of bad news and apply them to our entire culture. Gang violence up 2% in Chicago? People in Arizona will go buy a handgun, just in case it spreads. A school in the district is struggling? Pull financial support, start a private school, all the kids with means will go there.

We’re all going to hell in a handbasket and there’s nothing you can do about it. Armageddon is on the horizon, cope and deal baby!

That’s our culture of despair.

I reject despair for a posture of hope

I refuse to be defined, to think of myself, or to allow myself to be manipulated by an evil system which loves despair. Jesus did not die so I could live a life of despair. He subjected himself, even to death, so that I could live life to full. (John 10:10)

  • My project is faced with impossible odds? I like my odds of winning.
  • Life biggest challenges afoot? I smile at the opportunity.
  • Less than 5% of our neighborhood attends a church? Let’s get to work loving our neighbors.
  • One of my students lives in ruin because of bad decisions? Today can be the next chapter in an amazing story of redemption.
  • 1.5 million people left homeless after the earthquake in Port-au-Prince? Well, let’s feed this 5,000. It’s a start.
  • The church cut the budget, staff let go, initiatives put on ice? Time for some soft innovation.
  • Everything that could have gone wrong today did? Tomorrow is a new day. Let’s learn from this and move forward.

I choose to fear God alone and allow Him to have dominion over what He’s asked me to do. He’s not surprised by my circumstance. He’s never let me down. And He takes great pleasure when I put my faith and trust in Him despite the odds.

The only story Americans like more than despair? A comeback. Your comeback can begin right here and right now. But you have to put on hope. You have to wear it like a jacket. You have to allow hope to define you.

Hope goes beyond and attitude and a forced smile.

It is a posture I choose to carry in all areas.

If you don’t like hope. You won’t like me.

Join me. Reject despair.

Assume a posture of hope.

Categories
youth ministry

Hope reigns over youth ministry

Hope makes humanity unique.

No matter how bad things may look, you can always choose hope.

Hope is the reason a widow can smile at her spouses funeral. And hope is the reason a woman living in a tent can shock you with a smile and call out to God with thanksgiving when she is destitute.

Hope is the fire that brings warmth to your heart during your darkest hour.

The way I see it, hope is winning in the lives of many friends in youth ministry right now.

The last few years have rattled us to our core as two realities crushed our confidence:

  1. We realized that the way/methods/modes we experienced youth group and even came into a relationship with Jesus weren’t effectively reaching the students in our lives in the ways or with the veracity we had grown used to.
  2. The economic crisis changed, foundationally, the way our ministry was financed. Many of us lost our jobs or were forced (or given the opportunity) to take on additional responsibilities in the church.

While, from a humanist perspective, those crushing realities should have devastated youth ministry, I think it has made youth ministry better. When circumstances should have snuffed out the dreams of our heart, hope blew a steady, gentle breath onto the embers, igniting the flame once again.

From my perspective this last period of youth ministry has brought about two amazing things which I aim to demonstrate more vividly in the months to come:

  1. Youth ministry was never truly about a model anyway. Youth workers have created fresh ways to share Jesus’ love with adolescents built on the best practices of “what we grew up on” and melded into the needs of individual communities we serve.
  2. Youth ministry was always a calling as much as a vocation. When the money got cut back and even when people lost their jobs– they still chose to minister to adolescents because that is who they are more than what they were hired to do.

So, here we are! We have run the gauntlet and survived! Circumstances can not snuff out hope!

I am snubbing my nose at those who have declared youth ministry dead. Swooned? Maybe. Knocked down? Definitely. Humbled? You bet.

But giving up? Never.

Categories
Christian Living

Fire is Free

Photo by Harsha K R via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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.

Categories
haiti

Apocalypse Now – Life and Theology in Haiti

24 hours into my second trip to Haiti and I started crafting this phrase:

Theology and culture always co-mingle. You just hope that theology and culture never conspire against the goals of the church.

In America: Theology and culture conspire to destroy the church through our belief in the American Dream and pursuit of happiness.

In Haiti: Theology and culture conspire to over-spiritualize everything.

At least that’s my opinion after my second visit. The first go-round, I was doing my best to look past all of that so I could focus on evaluating the needs of the people. But this time, it became clear to me that the desire to blame everything on the spiritual world was seriously hampering rebuilding.

God may have been in the earthquake. But there were certainly human factors at play as well.

Walking around Carrefour, the epicenter of the January 12th quake, is like a scene out of a movie. Not the beginning and fun parts. And not even after the credits roll. It’s like that sense of curiosity you have when you watch a movie like I Am Legend. What would happen if people re-inhabited the set? That’s the feeling you get walking around the effected areas. You are on the set of a movie about the end of the world.

The world has ended.These are the words of some church leaders. Most Christians in Haiti seem to believe that January 12th was the beginning of the tribulation. And who can blame them? On a single day half the cities people became homeless. Almost 10% of the cities population was killed. Countless homes, business, churches, and government buildings either collapsed or were severely damaged. If this isn’t tribulation than the real tribulation is truly something unimagineable.

Last week I documented some signs of hope in Haiti. This time I wanted to be fair and share some signs of despair. (And evidence that you need to be involved!)

  • Some rebuilding has begun. But with no building codes, horrible materials, and skilled labor lacking… people are just making the same mistakes that lead to so many deaths. It’s easy to blame God, but one major contributor was faulty construction practices.
  • Billions of dollars in foreign aid will be distributed mostly to wealthy oppressors. Joel spoke with a Spaniard on his way out of Haiti. He had been in the country for 3 years and is leaving because he can’t handle the corruption anymore. “Want to know where all the aid is going? The Haitians the NGOs are hiring are selling it out of the back door.” Enough money has been given to Haiti to completely level and rebuild Port-au-Prince. Unless people intervene all of that money will be squandered away bit by bit. Sorry if that’s shocking to you.
  • While there are thousands of NGOs on the ground, very few have camp managers like Sean Penn. Like it or lump it, each camp needs a foreigner who will go to the various NGOs and leverage social currency selflessly on behalf of people. Spiritual needs are great to meet. But there are still plenty of physical needs unmet too. A camp manager who checks in 1-2 times per week isn’t going to cut it. It takes people who make running the camp their life mission to make things happen.
  • The earthquake shook the people, but a culture of dependency is hard to loosen. Americans have a “fix-it” mentality. It’s in our cultural DNA and we exhibit it everywhere we go in the world. As the recipient of generations of this, Haiti (and other places in the world like Haiti) have a “foreigners fix-it” mentality. Our cab driver in Ft. Lauderdale was the perfect example. His wife is a doctor in Haiti and he sends home money to support her. When I asked him when he would move back to his country he told me, “I will move back when I find a white man willing to partner with me on my water and ice business.” When I told him that, in my opinion, the only hope from Haiti was if the Haitian people lead themselves and stopped depending on outsiders… he just laughed. “I wish that same thing, but the Haitian people just like to buy and be given things by white people. It means it is a better gift or business than a Haitian can create.”
  • The government of Haiti is dragging its feet. A major problem facing rebuilding efforts are the myriad of 18th century property laws that govern ownership. You need a permit to remove rubble. And if you are renting you need to get the owners permission. The owner might live in another country, and he may only have a share of the ownership with dozens of cousins. And, of course, to prove you own the land you need to go to a government building which collapsed. Round and round you go. Months go by and nothing gets done. Unless you pay a bribe, that is.

Is there hope for Haiti? Obviously. I believe to the core of my being that Jesus brings renewal of the soul and the land. While this is an incredible time of spiritual revival in Haiti it is also the greatest opportunity in our lifetime for Christians to get involved at the grassroots levels and help root out corruption and see the best interests of the people served.

If not you than who? Want to change the world? Think you are crazy enough?

Step one.