Published: Bible-shaped Youth Ministry

I’ve managed to re-work a short talk I recently delivered into an article for The Gospel Coalition Australia. It’s all about the usefulness of the Bible in shaping youth ministry.

“I can’t remember what we were explicitly studying during that season, but I do know that we were walking slowly through a book of the Bible, verse-by-verse, section-by-section. Through this experience I, and I’m sure the rest of the group, came to realise not only in the importance of the Bible but its usefulness as well.”

You can read the whole thing here.

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Test Match Youth Ministry

There can be a range of emotions for anyone involved in youth ministry. The emotional rollercoaster can, at times, be brutal.

There are the obvious highs:

  • A kid becomes a Christian
  • The night runs smoothly
  • There is a significant conversation
  • The attendance is high or growing
  • The leaders are developing
  • It was simply a fun night
  • People were connecting with one-another
  • A parent gives positive feedback on the way their child is enjoying the youth ministry

All these bring terrific intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as well as emotional highs for any youth leader.

But, of course, the opposite is also true.

  • Criticism from a parent for failing to communicate
  • A night where everything planned goes wrong
  • When you’re the only one left to clean up and lock up the church
  • Observing that no one else is taking initiative to lead, serve, and connect with others
  • A medical emergency in the middle of the program
  • A conversation that is awkward
  • The hard slog of week in week out with hardly anyone coming along

Here you can see how disappointment and discouragement can occur. Things don’t go right or there is simply nothing to feel motivated and happy about.

Test Match Youth Ministry

The thing with the emotional rollercoaster is that it is exactly that; up and down, up and down. Riding these waves of emotions often causes increased stress and anxiety, it can become tiresome, and also lead to the seeking of more and more highs. In this way, the rollercoaster can begin to affect the way we do youth ministry.

Helpful ways to settle these emotions is to gain perspective.

Perspective is crucial to understanding the long-term stability of oneself and the ministry.

Early in youth ministry I would have been up and down most weeks because of the way the program ran, what the night consisted of, and how the students reacted to its various parts. But now, realising that this is a long-term game, I don’t get that as much. If things aren’t that great, then it’s OK, it’s one week and a crucial question at the end of a night is, “What can we learn from this?”

You see, youth ministry is like a test match.

A cricket test match.

A test match goes for five days, the players need to be patient, perform their roles, understand what they’re there for, and apply themselves in a stable and steady way.

In test match youth ministry any leader needs to do the same.

We need to understand what we’re there for, what our role is on any given night, and apply ourselves to that. This involves intentionality and being alert to what’s going on. It means we look out for other ways we can help the team. And it also means we make sure we gain perspective while we’re in a season when things don’t go so well. There’s always next week, and the week after that. It’s a long-term approach, a long-term game that requires persistence and endurance.

It’s hard to judge what I love more. Youth ministry or test match cricket. But in both I see parallels in the need to keep perspective. Make sure the long-term game is in the picture, rather than getting emotionally caught up in the short-term ups and downs.

Recently Read: April 2018

Here are some brief summaries of the books I’ve finished recently. There aren’t as many as last time, but range from bible commentaries to biography to sport.

Recently Read - April 2018

Ruth: The King Is Coming by Daniel I. Block

I preached through the book of Ruth in February and March. This was the main commentary I used, which was simply excellent.

Ruth: The King Is Coming by Daniel Block is part of the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament series. This particular commentary gives a good outline of all the textual, cultural, and literary issues of the book. It walks the reader through the text and its structure in a helpful way. It raises the theological issues and conclusions of the book too. It was very helpful in thinking through the book of Ruth and and a useful preaching tool.

The Message of Ruth by David J. Atkinson

This commentary is in the Bible Speaks Today series. It’s not a new commentary nor is it particularly academic. It raises some helpful thoughts regarding the book of Ruth, particularly focussed on applying the text to the reader. However, I found the application reasonably poor, and various theological aspects of the text are not dealt with at length or in needed depth.

The Blueprint: LeBron Jame, Cleveland’s Deliverance, and the Making of the modern NBA by Jason Lloyd

The writer, Jason Lloyd, has been an NBA beat journalist for years. He was the Cleveland beat writer during the time of LeBron’s coming, going, and return to the Cavs. He gives a fascinating insight into the way the club operated during this time and how the club dealt with the superstar.

While there is biographical material of LeBron himself, the real insight of the book comes in the form of team strategy. That is, the management of an NBA team and what strategic moves the back office uses to build a winning team.

This was a great book, worth reading, and great sports writing.

The Prodigal God by Tim Keller

This is one of the best modern Christian books you’ll ever read.

I rate it highly. So highly that I’ve made it the first book in our church internship program.

The Prodigal God is a short book that takes the reader through the parable of The Prodigal Son. Each chapter not only reveals the content of the parable in a fresh way but is powerfully mind-blowing and heart-convicting for your soul.

If you’re looking for a great read and something that will encourage you in your Christian faith then this is well worth getting your hands on.

Packer on The Christian Life by Sam Storms

J.I. Packer is essential reading for any Christian and has been highly influential for millions of believers around the world. His best known work is Knowing God, one of his 25+ books written or contributed to. Now at over 90 years old he is no longer writing and teaching theology has he has done, but continues to impact many in the Christian faith because of his writings.

Sam Storms has written a great biography of the man, which focusses more on the way he has thought about the Christian life than about his life itself. In this way The Christian Life series is a unique contribution and well worth reading.

Storms gives one chapter to the life of the man but then spends 11 chapters on working through his Christian thought on topics like the atonement, the role of the bible, holiness, sanctification, the battle with sin, the Holy Spirit, prayer, suffering, and discerning the will of God. Each chapter is excellent and I found the chapters on the bible, sanctification, and prayer most beneficial for myself.

One interesting element of this book was reading Sam Storms articulate and reflect upon Packer’s cessationism while being a contiunationist himself. This was helpful and encouraging to see, particularly the attempt to understand Packer’s position while disagreeing with it.

Another book worth reading.

Divine Action In Youth Ministry

One particular aspect to Andrew Root’s latest work, Faith Formation In A Secular Age, is the concept of divine action.

Divine action is God’s work in the world. It is his activity in the world through the means of the Spirit and human beings. An older generation would term this ‘God’s providence’, and Root himself uses ‘God’s transcendence’ to describe the same thing. Nevertheless, divine action is helpful in capturing the idea that God is actively at work in the world.

Divine Action In Youth Ministry

Root wants to counter the disease of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) and believes that reaffirming the concept of divine action will do just that. MTD is the idea that God wants me to be a good person (moralistic), God is a being who should help me feel good (therapeutic), and God is a concept to decorate our lives with but isn’t an agent who really does anything (deism). Divine action, and the truth that God is at work even in the ordinary lives of middle-class Westerners, is Root’s solution to the ‘D’ in MTD.

With the loss of recognising God in our lives we are left believing that God isn’t there. We are left wondering if God is actually real, and whether he does indeed care for us.

As I finished reading this book I was also working through a teaching series on the story of Ruth. While the Lord barely makes a mention throughout the four chapters, never actively speaking himself, his handiwork is clear in the lives of the characters, Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. If there is ever a book of the bible that teaches God’s divine action and transcendence in the lives of ordinary people then this is it.

When we turn to youth ministry I wonder whether we recognise the handiwork of God?

In all aspects of youth ministry in your church; with your students, with your families, with your leaders, God is at work. He is working in each of their lives and in the ministry-at-large.

And of course, it’s hard to see how God is working at times. It’s hard to see, in the moment, the ways God is comforting, strengthening, freeing, connecting, growing, and inspiring different people and their lives.

It is hard to see God at work when our eyes aren’t seeing it or our hearts aren’t feeling it.

How often we might doubt when someones say they think God is speaking to them? How often do we question whether someone is actually growing in their faith? How often do we feel disappointment over a poor conversation, or a seemingly poor youth night, or a rowdy couple of kids in our small group?

Yet despite this, God is often working while our limited perspective clouds our view of God’s divine action.

In this day and age of result driven, short-term, growth it’s hard to gain perspective. In this day where God is seen as a divine being who will only give happy, heart-warming therapeutic advice, it is no wonder we exclude the divine action of God in our own lives and the lives of others.

The bible promises that God is with us. And through his Spirit he continues to be at work. May we remember this in the excitement of summer camps and in the depths of winter lock-ins.

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6:)


You can read my review of Faith Formation In A Secular Age here.

Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book About A (Really) Big Problem by Kevin DeYoung

Most people I know live busy lives.

I live a busy life. I suspect you live a busy life.

When people ask how I’m doing I try to avoid saying, “I’m busy”.

Everyone is busy.

Everyone says they’re busy.

It’s part of life.

I could have added ‘these days’ to the end of that last sentence but I don’t think we’re living in an especially busy era. People of every age have been busy, it’s just a different type of busy. And that’s humbling. To know we’re not alone in our busyness, either in this era or another, makes us no different to anyone else. We’re ordinary, ordinarily busy.

In light of life’s busyness Kevin DeYoung has written another neat little book; this time describing his busyness journey while looking at this theme-at-large.

Crazy_Busy_Kevin_DeYoung_

In many ways he has written it for himself, and anyone else who will read it. It’s not a 10-point plan on how to get rid of busyness, but it is a 10-chapter book helping us understand more broadly why we’re busy and how to think about it.

There was a period of time there where I’d be chasing the latest productivity tool or app that would make me more effective in life and work. I think that is similar to others I know. But really, when you consider all the time wasted in fiddling around with these tools you begin to wonder whether it’s worthwhile.

I’ve found they’ve made me feel more busy that perhaps I really am.

And that’s a problem.

We sometimes believe we’re so busy when actually it is the case of having information overload and always being on the go. If we cut a couple of things out and didn’t input into our heads so much then we might find we’re not as busy as we thought.

But it’s the things that need to be cut that are the issue.

What do we prioritise? What’s important? What can’t go? What has to be prioritised?

These questions, and many more, including the issue of sleep, are thought through by DeYoung.

The final chapters really push home the point from a Christian perspective. The number one priority is our walk with the Lord.

Using the story of Mary and Martha the author outlines the main point; resting in God and at the feet of Jesus is the priority and from there our work and busyness is to flow.

He’s not being legalistic or prescriptive in how this is done. But, he certainly emphasises the good point that spending time with Jesus is important and has consequences now and in the future.

I’d highly recommend this book, particularly to anyone who finds themselves feeling busy (read: everyone). Again, it’s not a book that outlines a plan for how to get out of your busyness. It gives a broad framework for thinking through and understanding the topic and some good wisdom for stepping into that. This is one of the best parts of the book, it leaves me to make my own decisions about how to avoid over-busyness.

Here’s some quotes:

“Busyness does not mean you are a faithful or fruitful Christian. It only means you are busy, just like everyone else.” (p32)

“Jesus understood his mission. He was not driven by the needs of others, though he often stopped to help hurting people. He was not driven by the approval of others, though he cared deeply for the lost and the broken. Ultimately, Jesus was driven by the Spirit. He was driven by his God-given mission. He knew his priorities and did not let the many temptations of a busy life deter him from his task. For Jesus that meant itinerant preaching, with devoted times of prayer, on his way to the cross.” (p56)

“The person who never sets priorities is the person who does not believe in his own finitude.” (p57)

Peter Kreeft is right: “We want to complexify our lives. We don’t have to, we want to. We want to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very things we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it.” (p83)

“The antidote to busyness of soul is not sloth and indifference. The antidote is rest, rhythm, death to pride, acceptance of our own finitude, and trust in the providence of God.” (p102)

Published: Faith Formation In A Secular Age by Andrew Root

I’ve recently read Andrew Root’s, Faith Formation In A Secular Age: Responding To The Church’s Obsession With Youthfulness.

It was a dense read. As a result, it has triggered numerous thoughts about how we engage students, helping them to form faith in the current cultural era. I think this book has been very helpful in thinking through the way we approach discipleship, particularly in youth ministry. But, at the same time, I found that it raises unsatisfactory answers in its conclusions.

Having read the book, and thought through some of Root’s ideas I have written a fairly comprehensive review. It was accepted by The Gospel Coalition Australia editors and published on their site.

You can read the whole thing here.

“This has resulted with churches increasingly viewing youth ministry as a “saviour” for their church. While the church youth movement has historically been there, it is really only in the last fifty years that this area of the church has risen to the level it is today. There was actually a time when churches didn’t have a youth pastor and where the work toward the young people was driven by a group of volunteers. The striving after a pastoral staff position specifically for youth ministry is something new, relatively speaking.

A by-product of this is churches increasing their value for and commitment to keeping young people in the church. This increase in attention has also created youth ministry and youth focussed para-church organisations that seek to hold a young person in the orbit of faith. This kind of thinking hopes to see more kids, and particularly kids of church families, stay in church life instead of walking away and becoming one of the ‘Nones’ who are now self-identifying in surveys and census data. As Root remarks, “Even today, study after study in youth ministry seems to define faith primarily through institutional participation.” (p30)”

Andrew Root has also been doing the rounds on various podcast episodes. If you’d like to have a listen to what he says then head to one of these:

Youthscape are a youth work organisation in the UK and interviewed Root about his book in episode 41.

Homebrewed Christianity interviews Andrew Root about Faith Formation In A Secular Age. I haven’t listened to this but will do in coming days or weeks.

The Distillery Podcast is an initiative by Princeton Theological Seminary. They interviewed Root about this book and I found it to be a good insight into his thoughts.

When You Gonna Be A Real Pastor is a fun podcast by two youth pastors in the USA. Here they interview Andrew Root before the book was released, partly on his previous book and partly on this one.

Youth Ministry With The Headphones Off

As I drive on my commute, when I’m at the gym lifting iron, and often as I am falling asleep after a long day, I’m wearing headphones.

I listen to a variety of podcasts and audiobooks, trying to learn something new or enjoy a good story while being productive in other ways.

At the gym I’m focussed on two things. First, to do the exercises I’d like to do for the day at an intensity that will improve my health. And second, to listen to whatever is coming through my headphones.

As I look around the gym I notice everyone else doing the same. Everyone has headphones in their ears, listening to something they enjoy while working out.

As a side note, I think those who are actually working the hardest at the gym are often those who aren’t listening to anything. But I digress.

Often, I notice myself lowering the intensity of my exercise because I’m listening to something I’m interested in. Rather than being focussed, and pushing myself for the set of lifts, I’m more interested in what I’m hearing and so drop my intensity to around 80%. Instead of listening to my body, or pushing myself to achieve more, I have my focus elsewhere.

I wonder whether we do the same when we come to youth ministry?

Youth Ministry With The Headphones Off

Most of the time our connection points with people during the week happens while doing other things. It could be trying to talk to a student when youth group is about to begin. It could be a deep conversation with a young adult but small group has wrapped up and they’re about to be picked up. It could be talking to a parent after church but there are others lining up to speak with you.

In youth ministry there can be plenty of things, either in the moment or during the week, that can distract us from putting our full energies toward the task at hand. Whatever it is, there can be moments when we are distracted or lose focus.

The much overused verse from Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:31 is still true and valid, even for distracted youth leaders.

“…whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.”

This can apply to anything we put our mind to, and is relevant for us as we think about ‘focus’. To actually focus on the tasks at hand, such as, organising an event, having a conversation with a parent, introducing a student to another, creating the actual program, or driving someone home after their parents forgot them, will go a long way in glorifying God through our youth ministry.

This focus is intentionality.

It is about being present.

It is about the moment.

Perhaps it is time to take the headphones off and begin to focus on the youth ministry tasks at hand.

Recently Read: March 2018

Well, reading wise, this year has started with a flurry. It seems I have completed 20 books at the time of this posting, which raises the question as to whether I can keep up the pace. The other question it raises is whether I’ll be able to retain anything I’ve read too. I’ve impressed myself with the amount of reading I’ve done.

I should clarify that about half of these books have been audiobooks, listened to at 2.0x speed, while on holiday. But that doesn’t really matter, it’s still 20 books! Who makes arbitrary rules about what can be counted and what cannot? Not me. They all count in my book. See what I did there?

Anyway, I present to you some of the fine and not so fine books I’ve reading recently.

Recently Read - March 2018

When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide To A Life Of Miracles by Bill Johnson

Is this standard pentecostal theology? If it is I’ll be happy to avoid it for the rest of my days.

Confusing, almost crazy, that’s my summary of this book.

There is a complete disregard for any consistent interpretation of Scripture, and if you do read this you will lose count of how many passages are used outside their context.

Overall I’ll be judging this one as pretty poor. Granted, I’d like to do a more comprehensive review of this book but I think I’m still recovering from reader whiplash. It is important to engage with Bill Johnson and the Bethel movement. They are a major player in world Christianity right now. Their influence is seen here in my context. But, as for this book, there is much talk of healings, miracles, the power of prayer, the power of self, reading signs, and an continual over-realised eschatology. It’s just not worth it.

A Summer of Discontent and A Killer In Winter by Susanna Gregory

If you’re looking for a fictional series set in the 14th century, with a doctor as the main character, who investigates a plethora of murders with his monk counterpart; then this series is for you.

These two books are numbers eight and nine in the series. It’s a murder mystery type series and I enjoy reading them.

12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke

This is a book about smartphone use from a Christian perspective.

I think it’s helpful, thought-provoking, and very practical.

It’s not one of those ‘depart from the evil smartphone’ kind of books you might expect. It affirms technology as a gift from God and something to be embraced, while also providing wisdom-like thoughts as to its usefulness. The book sets up some helpful frameworks to think through technology and smartphones and their ultimate purpose. At times there is some clear theological over-reach going on, quite often associated with books of this genre (read: a lot of Christian living books today). But, it’s certainly worth the read.

A Sweet And Bitter Providence: Sex, Race, And The Sovereignty Of God by John Piper

This is one of the books I used in preparation for preaching a series on Ruth at my church. I think it is fantastic.

It’s more of a devotional commentary and gives good insight into the book. It teaches the meta-narrative themes of Ruth and provides devotional material to personally ponder. It’s very helpful in understanding of the book of Ruth, who God is, and the implications of the story. It’s also helpful in teaching how to read Old Testament scripture in narrative form.

Embracing Grace: A Gospel For All Of Us by Scot McKnight

The emphasis of grace here is a great reminder of the gifts God has given each of us. This is quite an easy read, and a good book to work through devotionally.

McKnight seeks to remind us that the gospel is what can make us whole, restored, creatures of God. The various facets of the gospel were great to hear again. Evidently published at the height of the emergent church movement, there is subtle reference and use of examples from that period (circa late-90s to mid-00s). But unless you’re aware of this period and of its writings then it makes no difference upon reading. The gospel forms us and restores us as personal creatures, image-bearers of God, and the communities in which we live and serve. Good to read.

Faith Formation In A Secular Age: Responding To The Church’s Obsession With Youthfulness by Andrew Root

This is one of the more dense and theologically heavy books I’ve read in a while. That’s probably why it took my a few months to get through.

In any case, it is a book of two halves. The first, focussing more on the rise of youth culture in Western society, particularly since World War II. This has had and emphasis on valuing authenticity, seeing it as a virtue to uphold. This section is a historical journey with clear implications for today, certainly in the church and its youth ministry. The second part of this book is focussed on faith formation in the secular age. It deals with how this could be done, albeit very briefly, while giving details of a more in depth analysis of what faith is and how to think through it biblically.

It was worth the read even if it did leave me rather unsatisfied with its conclusions.

I have written a more comprehensive review on The Gospel Coalition Australia website, and a further reflection on this blog.

Finish: Give Yourself The Gift Of Done by Jon Acuff

Here’s a helpful self-help book.

This is about helping those of us who start projects but never complete them. You know, we leave them half done, or complete day one of our goal but by day four we’ve already stopped because it’s hard and unenjoyable.

Acuff, with a significant amount of humour, really gives some great advice. The main issue being our dependency to seek perfection in everything we do, which results in us never completing the steps of a project in the first place. Some suggestions Acuff has for helping with this is by cutting goals in half, giving more time to projects or goals, actually saying ‘no’ to things that get in the way, do what’s fun, and also get rid of the secret rules we give ourselves with these types of things. Case in point, making an arbitrary rule about what can or cannot be counted as ‘read’ books. Audiobooks count. It’s OK. Why make rules around this? It’s just silly and stupid.

Anyway, excellent book.

Published: Billy Graham and Gramps

I’ve been fortunate enough to have my original post about my grandfather and Billy Graham posted on The Gospel Coalition Australia website and in the ‘Baptist’ Magazine of The Baptist Churches of New Zealand. It was a such joy to research and write that I’m really pleased to have it spread a little wider than my own family and circles.

“For the churches there were new people joining congregations all over the city. There was an increased vigour in evangelism and almost a mini-revival.”

You can read it on TGCA here.

You can read it on the NZ ‘Baptist’ here.

Billy Graham Quote

Published: The Book of Ruth, Critical to God’s Narrative of Redemption

I’ve recently been preaching through the book of Ruth. It’s been really exciting and energising to do so. For one thing, I’ve been fascinated by the various levels of meaning the author uses throughout the narrative. Anyway, in reading and re-reading the story of Ruth I put together a post, which has been published on Rooted Ministry.

I imagine in the work you do as a youth minister – the people you have conversations with, and the crises you get called into – there are similarly tragic moments you’re involved in.

The student who loses her best friend to suicide and didn’t know she needed help. The young man in high school whose father passes away suddenly. The family who is effected by a car accident, or by cancer, or by an illicit liaison.

As youth ministers, we often have the privilege of being part of people’s lives at the worst of times. And often we ourselves don’t know what to say or how to handle such events and experiences. But we sit there, we listen, and we show our love and care for them.

You can read the whole thing here.