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.

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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

On Planning Your Youth Ministry

I have to admit that I often enjoy the planning process of youth ministry. There is something about the start of the year, when the calendar is fresh and empty, that inspires creativity and excitement about the ministry year ahead.

Over time I’d like to think I’ve grown in my understanding of how to plan a youth ministry year. This growth has helped in solidifying my process and systems in preparing an event, a curriculum, or even gaining a grasp on the coming 12-months. It’s not always easy taking the ideas and inspiration for youth ministry and making them fit into an already busy year. However, I’ve found it helpful to put my planning in perspective as I look ahead to the year.

On Planning Your Youth Ministry.png

 

(1) Make A Plan To Plan

There needs to be some time set out in your calendar to actually plan.

This will require planning itself.

But as the saying goes, “failing to plan is planning to fail”. With this in mind I’d encourage you to look at your calendar over the next couple of weeks and block out a whole afternoon to plan the coming months (or more). First and foremost, there needs to be time set apart for planning our youth ministries.

Go.

Do it now.

(2) Put Planning In Perspective

When I haven’t planned well I can get into an anxious and stressful state.

But when I have planned an event or a meeting to the best of my ability I am considerably less anxious. Even when my planning fails, knowing that I’ve done all I could have in the lead-up allows me to reconcile the failure. It puts me in a better position to evaluate what is happening while things are going wrong and also gives me the metrics to learn what I could’ve done better.

It’s also helpful to be reminded of the words in the book of Proverbs, that while

“…the hearts of humans plan their course, the Lord establishes their steps” (Proverbs 16:9).

With this kind of thinking my planning is put into perspective.

I can do as much as I can, as well as I can, but at the end of the day I need to recognise God’s hand in these plans too.

Keeping this in mind helps me from relying on my own skills, abilities, and self and turns my heart to praise as I know I’m part of God’s wider, global, mission in youth ministry.

(3) Move Those Plans To Action

We could spend a lot of time planning and little time actually implementing those plans.

Remember to make sure you have the time and energy to put these plans into practice. Each year that goes by I always find an adjustment is needed in my schedule to move the youth ministry forward.

At the end of the day I am hoping to implement the plans I make, having a heart for the Lord to use them in whatever capacity he chooses.

May it be so for me, just as it may be for you as you serve God and his people.

Idea: Multiple Churches, One Youth Pastor

An enjoyable part of working within the #youthmin world is connecting with other youth pastors and youth ministry practitioners from across the globe. For a number of years I’ve been following a guy called James in the UK. He regularly blogs about youth work and ministry from a British perspective. I often find his posts helpful, and it really is just him vomiting his thoughts onto the page (or screen as it may be).

As it happens, James and I are reading the same book at the same time. Andrew Root’s latest work, “Faith Formation In A Secular Age: Responding To The Church’s Obsession With Youthfulness”. Yesterday, James had a few reflections on the beginnings of the book and I found it useful to engage with. You can read it here. In this post I’d simply like to engage with what he has written and add my two cents too.

Basically, James asks the question, after reading a chapter or two of the book, “Has the church embraced youthfulness – but given up on young people?”

James then outlines a few thoughts on how the church in the UK has been focussed on young people, and a lot of the time only young people, perhaps to the neglect of other generations. But, one of the key lines in this reflection from James is, “…I imagine that in the UK the drive to attract young people has less to do with authenticity, and more to do with survival.”

This is a key comment.

It is a key issue the church battles with today, and one that youth pastors and other church leaders know, feel, write about, and talk about a lot.

The first part of Andrew Root’s book is a fascinating look into the rise of youth culture in society, particularly American culture, and the effect this has had on our thinking. His contention, better argued than I will articulate here, is that the West, since the 1960’s, has had an obsession with ‘youth’, which filters into everything we see around us. So much so that whenever we think of something to do with ‘youth’ we believe it is authentic and cool. That which is authentic is generally that which is young, yip, and youthful.

In our churches we’ve seen this occur over the last 40-50 years through the strong rise in the youth ministry movement. Prior to the 1960’s, and the beginnings of student and youth orientated para-church organisations, the sole youth pastor within a local church community was not even a thing. Now, almost every church’s second staff appointment would be a youth pastor. To look after the ‘young people’ of course.

Furthermore, there has been a sharp rise in considering ‘youthfulness’ as being the epitome of church and church life. For a church to be authentic, happening, and growing, it needs to have the vibe that it is young, cool, and hip. When you look around Christendom currently, this sort of vibe is especially evident.

James talks about how many of the youth workers and pastors in his region have been given the flick because of financial restraints and the like. He talks about the decrease in specialist youth workers in his region regularly, it seems to be a major concern.

But this got me thinking about how many churches I know who have full-time youth and young adult pastors. Generally, it is only the ones who are large, perhaps with a Sunday morning attendance of 250+, that can afford such an expense. I am also aware that there are plenty of smaller churches who seek to employ a youth pastor (or similar) but can only afford to days per week at the most.

My question is, is the church of the future willing to work together in order to pay someone a full-time wage but have their youth work cross local church boundaries?

In other words, would two or three smaller churches in a particular area be willing to pay for one person to cover youth ministry in their region? 

I think this would be an interesting experiment for local churches to grapple with.

This would provide someone with full employment, paid through two or more churches, while giving broader scope for the churches than their own little patch. Some might call it kingdom thinking I suppose.

And this links back to the key comment James was making when he said, “…I imagine that in the UK the drive to attract young people has less to do with authenticity, and more to do with survival.”

Rather than actually think about survival (which I understand is a massive issue when the finances are barely paying the overheads), wouldn’t it be better to think more strategically and out-of-the-box in regard to youth ministry? When we’re solely thinking in terms of survival, looking to ‘attract young people’, then we’ve lost the plot.

What we need is a vision that understands the realities of what it is to work in faith-based youth ministry, but have that aligned with a larger vision of God being at work through his people, the Church. And, along the way it would be worth experimenting and working together with other churches for the spread of the gospel and work of his kingdom.