Reflections On The Rooted Ministry Leadership Summit

In May just gone I had the privilege of attending a leadership summit organised by the US-based youth ministry organisation Rooted Ministry. I’ve written for their blog over the past couple of years and enjoyed many of the articles they produce. Unbelievably, I was invited to attend this small summit in Birmingham, Alabama with other 40 like-minded youth ministry practitioners.

rootedbadgewriter

This summit was three days of being fed in my faith, my love for God, my love for youth ministry, my love for writing, and for ministry in general. I made some great connections and friends, and was edified by everyone I met. I saw and heard more about American Christianity and life, and I also experienced some amazing Southern hospitality and food. Incredible.

In the months since this summit I have often reflected back on what I learned and the different conversations I had. Below is an outline of some of those reflections under four distinct questions.

Where Was God?

This is always a hard question to answer, because of course, God is everywhere! But, it is always worth asking because it helps us observe and be intentional about where we believe God is impacting us. It’s the kind of question I constantly ask on short-term mission teams, and we as a youth ministry ask it at the end of each youth night. The question is worthwhile in this context too.

I believe I saw God at work in:

  • The conversations I had with the people and those I connected with. I stayed with some friends before I arrived at the summit. It was great to reconnect with them and hear about how God has been shaping them and their lives in recent years. The conversations I had with my hosts and at the social gatherings of the summit were often powerful. And also, God was at work in the small group conversations we had as our writing and speaking was critiqued by others.
  • The terrific teaching we had from pastor and preacher Robbie Holt. Robbie was from a church in South Carolina (I think!). He spoke from Genesis 27-33, the story of Isaac, Esau and Jacob. It was certainly encouraging; and in some ways was preaching I hadn’t heard in a while. The applications to church, youth, and family ministry was particularly beneficial.
  • Having a greater understanding of the vision and passion of Rooted Ministry. To hear more about the beginnings and then the hopes for the ministry, the impact it is having, was really encouraging and felt like ‘home’ in some sense. An organisation that upholds the grace of God, theological depth, and relational youth ministry.

How Was I Encouraged?

I was encouraged in ministry through:

  • Understanding more about the breadth of contexts there are in the US, but also seeing how similar some of them are to Melbourne and to me.
  • Hearing the stories, the challenges, and encouraging growth of God at work with people, youth pastors, and the ministry itself. Often it is hard to find the encouraging stories in amongst the trees, but they are always there.
  • Realising that many of the issues to church-based youth ministry and youth pastors are issues everyone has to deal with in their own contexts. Issues like human sexuality and gender, social media, biblical illiteracy, evangelism and mission, loneliness and isolation, and mental health.

What Was The Impact Of This Summit?

I think this summit will impact my future ministry in the following ways:

  • I am encouraged to be even more conscious of shaping the ministry through the Bible.
  • Thinking deeply and theologically regarding ministry shape and philosophy, including pastoral responses and issues.
  • I’ll continue to mentor younger youth pastors and emphasise the use and effectiveness of the Bible in their youth ministries.
  • This summit has put a greater urgency in the mission and evangelism aspects to youth ministry. The summit highlighted for me the importance and urgent need to think and speak in evangelistic ways in youth ministry.
  • I was also reminded of the need to gain clarity on strategy for our youth ministry and family ministries. This includes communication of that strategy, particularly to new students and families. In a world where most parents believe youth group is going to be either, (1) a saviour for their child or (2) a place where they find wholesome values that are similar to their own experience, it’s important to outline why we do what we do.

Why Was It Worthwhile?

It was worth going to this leadership summit because:

  • It helped build relationships and hear encouraging stories of other people involved in youth ministry.
  • It provided exposure to different contexts. There were youth pastors from all over the States and provided a microcosm of experiences and issues people were dealing with in their own cities and towns. The US is the largest youth ministry market in the world and as ideas on youth ministry filters down through resources coming out of the States; no doubt Australian youth ministries will be impacted by them in the future. Having a first hand experience with a number of people from different parts of the US has helped me in understanding this more.
  • It strengthened my alignment to Rooted Ministry as a youth ministry organisation. I was grateful for the grassroots type approach to the ministry that they are seeking to undertake and encourage.
  • It has made me reflect on the state of youth ministry here in Melbourne and Australia. There are very few, if any, youth ministry organisations that are solely church-based, with the similar approach to that of Rooted Ministry.

All in all this was a terrific time and a worthwhile week. It was a privilege to be invited and have the opportunity to go. I look forward to writing for them more and perhaps reflecting further in coming months. I’m very thankful for the opportunity given to me because of the generosity of Rooted Ministry, my church, and individuals too.

Advertisements

Published: The Public Progress of a (Youth) Pastor

While listening to a podcast of one of Alistair Begg’s conference messages I was struck by his exposition of 1 Timothy 4:12-16. In it he refers to the public nature of the ministry, and the progress seen of that ministry by the congregation. This sparked an idea about what that might look like for those of us in youth ministry. In reality it took far longer to write than I’d hoped but I think it has come out with what I wanted to say!

It was recently published at Rooted Ministry, and you can read the whole thing here.

“Through our own maturity as a believer – our persistence in relying on Jesus – and the sharpening of our ministry skills and abilities, we will find ourselves making progress. As we use these God-given gifts, skills, abilities, and aptitudes we will grow in these things, develop these things, and our progress will bear fruit in those to whom we minister to (no matter the size of the group).”

Inspire – A Reflection for SYG 2018

This coming weekend 3000 people from nearly 70 youth groups come together to play sport, connect with one another, and worship God. It’s also the weekend where we find out whether we have everything we need at our campsite, go to bed and wake up cold, and possibly get flooded. Yes, that’s right, it’s State Youth Games 2018.

SYG2018_Title-Single-Story_medres

The SYG theme for this weekend is “Inspire”. The various aspects to the weekend will be focussed on this theme, particularly the main sessions on Saturday and Sunday night. And while there may be some inspiring acts of sporting greatness occur on the courts and pitches at the various venues, I would like to think the focus will be on how we are inspired by God, because of God’s Son, to be God’s people in the world.

I enter my third SYG weekend inspired by what God may do with the group we have going. We have the largest group I’ve been part of, 60-65 in total. Together there are great people, great leaders, great helpers, and great opportunities to build the community and faith of our youth and young adults.

I’m also reminded of Jesus’ words to his first disciples, something I preached on only days ago, “Come, follow me”. It is my hope that through the Spirit a work of God will take place in the hearts and minds of those who are with our group. That they will be called to follow Jesus, perhaps for the first time, or perhaps at a deeper level.

And this links to the theme we have as a group. Our t-shirts will have the phrase, “Walk in the light”, taken from 1 John 1:7, on the front pocket. It is a theme within our group we want to be promoting all weekend, and afterward as well.

Of course, one needs to know the light in order to walk in the light. And this phrase is set in the context of the author writing about God being the light. Only a couple of verses earlier John, the author, writes “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” For those of us who have faith in God know that this light is displayed most perfectly and brightly through Jesus Christ. It is Jesus himself who tells the world, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

And so to walk in the light is to recognise that Jesus is that light. When light is shone darkness disappears. And so it is with Jesus, who through his death and resurrection provides the light we need for life and faith and hope. Moreover, his death and resurrection provides the disappearance of darkness, of sin and ugliness and brokenness, in our hearts, enabling a relationship with God.

In essence, as we follow the light that is Jesus, we find ourselves following him who has called us.

And so we come full circle back to the words, “Come, follow me”.

It is my hope that we as a church community, and particularly our youth and young adults, are inspired to know God more and grow more like him because of their experience this weekend. May they see the light, know the light, and follow the light of life. As the great missionary William Carey said, “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God”.

If you are a praying type, then please do so. Looking forward to it.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Billy Graham And Gramps

With the passing of Billy Graham overnight there is much to thank God for in terms of his ministry and impact, not only within Christianity in the twentieth century but the world at large. Billy had an impact in over 180 countries and is said to have a major influence in seeing over 200 million people come to know Jesus for themselves.

He is quite possibly the greatest evangelist ever, in the same ilk as Whitefield, Wesley, and Spurgeon.

During the 1950s and 60s my grandfather, Gordon Coombs, was the pastor of Opawa Baptist Church in Christchurch, New Zealand. A few months ago, I had a brief conversation about what pastoral ministry was like in those days, trying to mine as much gold as possible. Part of that conversation, I remembered this morning, was about the 1959 Billy Graham crusade in Christchurch. In light of Billy’s passing I thought I’d give him a call and see whether he would be willing to reflect a little more about that time.

Here are some of those memories and reflections.

Billy Graham Quote

The 1959 crusade was held just down the road from Opawa Baptist Church (OBC), at Lancaster Park. Literally, they are on the same street. Being the pastor of the most local church to the stadium there was clearly going to be some involvement.

As Gordon remembers there were three main areas he was involved in.

The first was to be on the organising committee for the eight-day long crusade. This involved preparation meetings and co-ordination with other churches in the city to stage such a large event.

The second main task he had, with the help or many other volunteers from other churches, was to be the host church for the follow-up of the crusade. This involved the use of OBC’s large hall where all the response cards would be collected, sorted, and distributed to the various churches across the city. After each night meeting, and once the counselling had been completed, this follow-up process would begin in the OBC hall and involve many volunteers late into the night and early morning.

And the third task, of vital importance, was to allow the crusade to borrow the brand new OBC organ for the entire eight days. This organ was expensive, it was new, and it was seen as a highly prised possession of OBC. And it would be sitting out in the middle of Lancaster Park day and night. However, after one of the Sunday morning services had been completed Gordon proceeded to announce the situation to the congregation. He asked for their thoughts, even though he didn’t know whether they would allow it. And as he said,

“There were some of the older people who put up their hands in opposition to this idea, but I told them that if we did this I am sure the Lord would bless us for it. And in doing so we had 40 new conversions out of the crusade.”

And it was these 40 new conversions that increased the size of the congregation by a third. 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.

“Some of the older people thankfully got their noses out of joint because they couldn’t sit in their same seat at church anymore, but there were some marvellous people who joined OBC in those days through the influence of the crusade”.

And it wasn’t only the churches that felt the impact.  It seems that a by-product of this crusade, particularly in the community, was a freedom to speak about Christianity; “for a short period of time Billy Graham and his crusades were on everyone’s lips”. And this allowed for people to speak freely to their friends and neighbours about the Christian faith.

Being on the committee Gordon did get to meet the man himself, meeting him as he arrived at the airport in Christchurch. Apparently, his eldest son (not even five at the time) was keen to go and meet him too but had a serious fever at the time. This meant he could only go as far as the airport window and look out in envy. But what Gordon does remember of him and his ministry was that of a humble man, committed to preaching the biblical gospel to everyone he could.

It is interesting to note that his arrival and ministry through the crusade also bought with it challenges. Some of the ministers in the city were not in favour of his coming because “they wouldn’t go along with his biblical emphasis”. And this is nothing new to those of us who have read a little about his ministry and methods. But he did,

“…bring renewal in the life of many ministers and because of his emphasis on the bible there came an increase in biblical preaching and the restoration of the authority of God’s word; it’s importance and centrality.”

If nothing else, I had a great conversation with my grandfather and was again reminded of how God continues to be at work in times and places and with people we will never know.

RIP Billy Graham.

Below are a couple of photos from the time of the crusade, various people meeting Mr and Mrs Graham.

Billy Graham Crusade 1959 - Men

Billy Graham Crusade 1959 - Ladies.jpg