We Like It, But Do We Care?

We all see the photos.

You know, those photos that depict the perfect life someone else is living.

matthew-smith-100638Those photos of beautiful sunrises. Those photos of the legs on the beach. Those photos of nights out with friends. Those photos of perfect families, all smiling and joyful and happy. Those photos of food. Oh, those photos of food. The ‘amazing’ smashed avo for breakfast, the ‘delightful’ quinoa salad for lunch, and the ‘huge’ burger for dinner. OMG. Like. Like. Like.

We’ve all seen these photos. They pop up all the time.

And as we sit on our couches scrolling through our phones, feeling sorry for our self and jealous of our so-called friends, I wonder whether we care about the other side…?

Because there is another side.

This other side is the side of people we don’t see while traversing the inter-webs through the 5 different social media apps we have on our phone.

It’s the side of sadness, unhappiness, anxiety, hurt, and brokenness.

A little while ago I was struck by how social media changes my perception the relationship I have with others. I noticed one morning one of my friends was with a new partner. I was stopped in my tracks. The last time I saw a photo they were with their spouse and kids, looking happy. Yet, here in front of me is this person with another partner. It was a bit of a shock.

It’s not a shock because of the relationship breakdown. No, relationships fail and marriages breakdown, that’s not the shocking part. The shocking part is that I felt I was in a position where I could reach out and ask how they were.

In reality I haven’t seen this person in over 10 years. We’ve got no real relationship. Yet, because of the way social media comes at you it makes you feel like you know them, and know them well. What kind of response would they have if I did reach out?

“Oh, you’ve been stalking me on social media”.

“Oh, you’re not really a friend but more an acquaintance, and now you want the goss on what’s happened to my relationship”?

“I haven’t heard from you in 10 years and now you want to connect because something seems to have gone wrong. In my world it’s been heading that way for over 12 months and this is the end result, which every one of my actual friends knows about”.  

None of this comes across well.

We all have friends who we haven’t physically seen in years, and have nothing to do with them outside of our digital world. Yet, because of the nature of social media we find ourselves believing we’re closer to people than we actually are. What we perceive on social media may well be what is happening at the time, but underneath there’s a lot more going on.

There’s always another side.

And so, I wonder whether we actually care about those ‘friends’ with whom we have no outside relationship with?

Where are those friends of ours who don’t post?

Do we think of them?

Do we touch base with them?

Do we care enough to like them too?

Para-Church Triage In Youth Ministry

It could be the regular emails sent by various para-church organisations. It could be actual snail mail arriving through the church office. It could be the phone calls from representatives seeking your ear.

In church ministry there is the constant demand from people in Christian organisations around the country who would love to ‘partner’ with you. They email, post, call or seek coffee with you regularly enough that a whole day of your week could be filled with meeting people para-church organisations.

So, what do you do?

On one hand, it seems rude to palm people off and not hear what they have to say about their organisation and what they’re doing. On the other, there is only a certain amount of time, money, and space you can give to various organisations.

How do you prioritise which organisations you will closely ‘partner’ with?

I’ve come to see the answer to this question as para-church triage.

If there is some form of health crisis and you need to go to hospital for help you usually head straight to the emergency department. If you’ve ever been to the emergency department you’ll know that the first person you see is the ‘triage nurse’. The triage nurse is someone who takes your details, assesses your condition, and then places you in the appropriate spot in the queue to see the doctor. This assessment and placement is known as triage. The nurse is evaluating where you should be placed on the priority list, whether you’ll be seen quickly or whether you’ll need to sit a while. If the triage nurse is making the right assessments someone with a drug overdose should be seen quickly while you wait with your basketball-induced sprained ankle.

It’s the same with para-church triage.

As a youth pastor, or any type of pastor I suspect, you need to do a little triage. That is, you need to decide where in the priority queue the various para-church organisations are placed. Some organisations might be at the front of that metaphorical queue and have a strong relationship with you, others might find themselves having to wait a while or work on the relationship, and then there are others who probably need to move queues.

What kind of system is useful in order to perform this triage?

I’ve come up with a framework that helps me think through what to prioritise. I understand that it will have flaws, but it might be helpful for some.

Para-Church Triage Framework

Priority 1: A relationship of openness, trust, and engagement

  • The organisation already has an ongoing relationship with the church.
  • The organisation is given financial support through the annual church budget.
  • The organisation employs members of the church.
  • The organisation is aligned theologically with the church.
  • The organisation can helpfully contribute to the vision and mission of the church.

Priority 2: A relationship that is cautiously open

  • The organisation is known to you and you affirm their work.
  • The organisation has connection with people who attend the church.
  • The organisation has been recommended to you by people you respect.
  • The organisation helps train and develop disciples through people, events, and resources.
  • The organisation reaches out, wanting to improve its partnership with the church.

Priority 3: A relationship of little or no connection

  • The organisation is not known to you and there is no relationship with them.
  • The organisation doesn’t fit with the vision and mission of the church.
  • The organisation doesn’t align theologically or philosophically.
  • The organisation pushes for financial support over relationship.

That’s the framework, and one that I hope helps you think through this issue. It’s not an issue that’s overly appealing so I’ve created a graphic to go with this to make it that little bit more sexy.

para-church-triage-graphic

Published: The Significance in Engaging Our Students in The Word

I’ve had the privilege of having a post published on the Rooted Ministry blog today.

“Why is it that many of us in youth ministry are hesitant to reference the Scriptures? Do we believe that the Word of God is too antiquated, that it will scare young people away? Have we lost confidence in the meaning and power of God’s Word?

Don’t get me wrong. I too often wonder whether the scripture I use in sermons, talks, and one-on-one meetings is actually helpful or comforting for my students. But one particular experience has made me more confident, relieved, and secure in using God’s Word in youth ministry than ever before.”

You can read it here.

You can read other articles or posts I’ve written elsewhere here.

Baptism and The Baggy Green

The Australian baggy green is a significant symbol in our nation’s sporting landscape, and some would argue our Australian culture-at-large. The baggy green is held up as a symbol of sporting greatness and success, and is the embodiment of Australian cricket values and expectations.

When a player is selected for the Australian test team they become part of a select number of people to ever do so. Upon being selected they are presented with a baggy green cap.

mitchell-johnson-baggy-green

Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

In years past this cap was picked up when the player received their kit bag for the upcoming tour. Some players were given a number of caps throughout their career and many of the ‘greats’ have long ago lost or given theirs away. But in recent time, from the mid-90s, each debutant is physically presented with their baggy green by a former Australian test great. On the morning of their first test, just after the warm-up, this player is told of the significance of the cap and what it represents. He is surrounded by the others in the team, who congratulate him on becoming an Australian test cricketer. They watch him put it on and welcome him into the fold. As cricket journalist and historian Gideon Haigh comments ‘the baggy green means a lot to the current generation of players – they are constantly being told how important it is and how great they are’.

This baggy green is a symbol of what it means to play cricket for Australia. It is a symbol of elite performance and cricket excellence. But more than that, it is a symbol of joining the other 450 players who have played test match cricket for Australia.

In a similar way baptism is a significant symbol of the Christian church.

Baptism has played an important part in the history of the Christian church. Prior to the birth of Jesus baptism was practised by the various Jewish sects as an act of cleansing, for ritual purity. Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, led people in the practice of baptism ‘for repentance of sins’. And, Jesus was baptised himself, in order to fulfil all righteousness and share in this act with those who were to follow him in faith.

Throughout the New Testament the followers of Jesus have continued in this tradition and symbol of baptism. After Jesus was resurrected, and before he ascended to the Father, Jesus said to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

And from this time on baptism has been a symbol and rite of passage that takes place as one puts their faith in Jesus, follows him, and seeks to obey his commands.

But what’s this got to do with the baggy green?

First, like the baggy green baptism is a significant symbol and rite in the Christian church.

Since the resurrection of our Lord Jesus baptism has been performed as a symbol of entrance into the Christian community. It is through baptism that Christians were recognised as believers of the Way. When we are baptised today we not only join a local body of believers, but also join with the millions who’ve gone before us in recognising Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

Just as the baggy green is a symbol of an Australian test cricketer, a marker of their entrance into the team. So too, baptism is a symbol of a follower of Jesus, a marker in their life and faith.

Second, like the baggy green baptism has meaning and significance.

Through the act of baptism itself we acknowledge what Christ has done for us. When we are baptised, like many before us, we acknowledge the work of God in our lives and the reality of what Christ has done.

Those who have been baptised do so because through his death on a cross Jesus has paid the punishment for their sin. Through his resurrection Jesus has enabled true life, and a relationship with God. And by faith, those baptised acknowledge Jesus as Lord and seek to trust and obey his commands.

Going down into the water and coming up again is an imitation of this truth. It is a symbol of leaving behind the ways of the past and committing to a life of following Jesus.

Just as the baggy green derives its meaning from the players of the past, the values and expectations of what it is to be an Australian test player. Baptism derives its meaning from the person and work of Jesus, who died and rose again in order for us to know God.

Third, like the baggy green baptism is a natural part of being a Christian.

It would be odd for a player to be presented with his baggy green and then to put it in his pocket or stick it in his kit bag for safe keeping. The baggy green is handed over and is expected to be worn. To not do so would be odd.

In committing our lives to Christ and putting our trust in what he has done it is only natural to be baptised. To not do so would be odd. The New Testament doesn’t have a category for one who is a disciple of Jesus and not baptised.

Those who do go public with their faith are following a rite of passage into the Christian community from ages past until now. In front of a local church congregation they acknowledge Jesus as Lord and simply follow him in obedience.

Just as the baggy green is to be worn and acknowledges the cricketer as a test player. Followers of Jesus are to be baptised, publicly declaring that they are following in the way of Jesus and his commands.

Beginning As A Youth Pastor: 11 Things I Wished I Knew

I was asked to speak at a gathering with other Youth and Young Adult Pastors a few months ago. This was in a session on ‘Winning In The First 3 Years of Ministry’. I shared 10 points from the perspective of what I wish I had known going in to youth and young adult ministry. Here are those 10 points, plus an extra.

beginning-as-a-youth-pastor-11-things-i-wished-i-knew

1. I wish I knew that an active and exciting relationship with Jesus would be so hard to foster.
It’s easy to look at the Youth Pastor when we’re in youth group, or volunteering as a leader, and think they’re really spiritual and full-on for Jesus. If they are then that’s great, but in my experience it is really hard to find a rhythm in order to foster an active and growing relationship with Jesus. Sure, I’ve grown and have made Jesus the centre of my being since I was in high school, but being surrounded by teaching materials, going through Bible College, leading Bible studies, and preaching regularly, aren’t a substitute for personal spiritual disciplines. Make sure you carve out time for Scripture, prayer, reading, music, reflection and solitude.

2. I wish I knew that my relationship with my Senior Pastor was the most important in the church.
I feel like I’ve had great relationships with my Senior Pastors but I’m surprised at how crucial they’ve been for the week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year ministry. They are the closest relationship I have in the church because of my proximity to them and the regularity in which I see them. It is the relationship that keeps me energised and willing to stick around for the long haul. When Youth Pastors leave it is most likely because their relationship with the Senior Pastor has broken down. I’ve seen it, over and over again. I don’t want it to be me.

3. I wish I knew that the health of the youth ministry is only as healthy as the church.
Youth and young adult ministry is not happening within a vacuum, it is set in the context of the wider church. When you are sick the whole body is sick, not simply one particular part. So it is with youth and young adult ministry. In my first year as a paid Youth Pastor there was significant disharmony in my church that saw a number of significant and influential people leave. This had a trickle down effect. The evening service went from averaging 60-70 people each week to 20-30. The loss of young adults, the loss of youth leaders, the loss of high school students. It just went bang. This highlights the importance of making sure we are aware of what is going on in the wider church. Getting to know people across all ages and stages is important. An understanding of the history of the church is also critical when thinking through the church’s health.

4. I wish I knew that there would be friends for the road and friends for the journey.
Some friends stick around. They stick with you through thick and thin, when you move church, and are generally lifelong friends. These are friends for the road of life. Other people will simply be friends for the journey. They’ll be with you for the time you’re at their church or in their life. But, when you move they won’t continue to catch up with you or check in with you. It’s taken time for me to realise this, more so in the last 12 months. Friends and colleagues that I thought would continue to have an interest in my life, as I do theirs, don’t. It’s important to gather around you 3-4 friends who’ll be with you for the road, ministry or not.

5. I wish I knew that the grass was not greener in another church, in another ministry role, or in another para-church organisation.
It’s easy to let your mind drift to the church down the road and begin to think of how good it must be there. It’s not. It’s just not. They are having the same issues as you. They are having the same struggles. They are having the same problems. The same goes with going into a different ministry role or a role at a para-church organisation. The grass isn’t greener. It’s work. It’s hard.

6. I wish I knew that what I have done in the past doesn’t really mean much to others.
I’m proud of what I’ve done in my life. There are of course some stupid things I’ve done, but generally, I’m pretty proud of some of the things I’ve achieved in life – relationships, study, work, ministry. Guess what? No one cares. Except perhaps for that job interview or the search committee coming up. Other than that, no one cares. I mean, most people have a decent sized ego and so we’d like to think that our achievements matter. X number of years at this church, volunteer years put in at that other church, the secular work we’ve done in the past, the degrees we’ve studied for, the service opportunities we’ve been involved in, et cetera. et cetera. You know, it all builds us up to think that we’ve got some awesome job experience to be an awesome pastor, even before we walk into the role. Nup. That parent of the 14-year-old kid who is annoying each Friday night doesn’t care, they just want to know if you can look after their kid for a couple of hours while they go on a date with their spouse. That deacon doesn’t really care either, they just want to let you know that you can’t park your car at the front of the church because that’s reserved for more significant members of your church.

O how humbling ministry is.

7. I wish I knew that the sin that so easily entangles will entangle you with more force in ministry.
Yep, those things we fear, those habits we slipped into years ago, those things we listen to and watch, those temptations to click. These things will continue. The devil will attempt to strike, and strike with more and more force. I figured it would be easier to let go of those things because of the important and significant work I would be doing in the life of the church. How little did I know! You’ve had a porn habit, watch the devil seek to strike you there. You’re overly insecure, watch the devil play with you. You’re too conscious of your appearance or what people think of you, bang. You’re seeking intimacy and relationships, boom. Sin doesn’t stop. It carries on. And it’s usually coming at you with a force you’ve never seen before.

8. I wish I knew the extent of which church politics would take up headspace and suck my emotional energy. 
There is a lot to be said about getting to know your wider church and being involved in the high level discussions and conversations at your church. Yet, it is also the place where church politics is most clearly seen and can just suck you dry if you let it. This is closely connected to point 3 about church health, but it is surprising at how deeply it can affect us. Some, and perhaps all of it, may not be about the ministries we are involved in. It might be to do with the budget, or with the way the flowers are arranged on Sunday mornings, or how the coffee and tea is served at morning tea. It might have nothing to do with your ministry at all, yet something small and insignificant can get us down and consume the rest of the day if we let it.

9. I wish I knew that people don’t need me to tell them what to do, they need the grace of God applied.
I remember the first few months of going to church after I’d finished up on staff at a previous church. I took the opportunity to visit various churches and also went back to our home church. What I distinctly remember was that every time I walked out I felt like I had more burdens than when I arrived. I felt like I’d been given a good sermon and good teaching, but when it came to application I’d be lumped with more and more things to do. My week was already busy. I’m house-hunting, I’m waiting for a newborn to arrive, I’m feeling overwhelmed with my own sense of sinfulness, I’m trying to study hard, I’m looking for a new job. I don’t need application that leaves me feeling like I’ve got to do more in order to get my life back on track. No. What I need is grace. I need the grace of God shown to me. I need the grace of God to make me realise that he is the one my burdens are to go to. All those significant things in life will be before him, given to him, and dealt with by him. I would encourage you to give people grace – kid, parent, young adult, oldie, pastor, ministry volunteer, anyone. When you’re teaching, give them grace. Apply grace.

10. I wish I knew how to work better.
I had been in the health and fitness industry for a couple of years before I moved into ministry. A few more years and I took up my first position in a church. I am an organised and systematic person naturally, but it still took me a number of years to work out a decent workflow system. Things like getting your emails down to zero, planning your calendar, working out how long things would take, making to-do-lists, dealing with budgets, how to think through a project like a camp or one-off event. The non-people work side of stuff. What is that? Administration. For this I’d recommend Tim Challies’ “Do More Better“, which only came out a little while ago. It covers what you’d need. And I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how much administration you find yourself doing.

***While I shared the above there was a glaring omission from the list, one which every Youth Pastor needs to know.***

11. I wish I knew it was such a privilege
Not until I left my first church did I realise how much of a privilege it is to be such an influence in the lives of young people and students. The trust, affection, openness, and vulnerability people have toward you is simply amazing at times. The position you have and the places you find yourself in as you disciple young people is phenomenal. While it can be long, frustrating, and messy work there is the privilege of guiding people in life decisions, applying the Gospel to people’s lives, and celebrating their growth as people and disciples.

What a wonderful work it is. 

What Building Sandcastles Teaches You About Youth Ministry

On holidays our family has been hitting up the beach. With the beach comes sand. And while I know a number of people who aren’t big fans of such creation there are awesome sandcastles to be made with it. Yesterday was our opportunity to achieve such heights of awesomeness. 

Our daughter was sick of the beach after only 30 minutes. Considering the effort it took to get there we weren’t leaving anytime soon. So to help entertain her we began making sandcastles together. The conditions were perfect with the right balance of dry and wet sand. And after picking our spot we created a fairly sizeable sandcastle city with roads, tunnels, bridges, hills, castles and village houses.


Post-sandcastle fun I’ve thought about how this activity can teach those of us in youth ministry a thing or two. So, here are five ways building sandcastles can teach you (and me) about youth ministry. 

(1) You need a team

This was a great activity for my daughter and I to do together. The wife also joined in at times, while our young son looked on. But the experience of building this sandcastle city was made better by doing it together. I could’ve made the thing on my own but this wouldn’t have been as fun, nor would there have been as many ideas about what to build, and the shared experience of doing this together would be non-existent. 

Youth ministry is the same. 

Doing it by yourself can work but it won’t be nearly as good. Youth ministry is great fun together as a team, the ideas coming from each unique person involved is essential in growing faith and community. Furthermore, the shared experience of being on a youth ministry team, serving one another and the church, is something you hold dear for years and years. 

(2) You get dirty 

It’s sand. Sand gets in places you’d never think it could get to. It isn’t the most pleasant flooring to kneel on. It gets in your eyes with every gust of wind. And in my case, it cakes on to my thick matte of leg hair. Building sandcastles means you need to be all in and be ready to get dirty. 

Youth ministry is the same. 

The obvious link here is to refer to the classic youth group night of “messy games”. Of course, you’re going to get messy when playing games involving eggs, tomato sauce, and cooked spaghetti. Messy games are part of any good youth ministry repertoire. 

At a deeper level, getting dirty refers to being involved in the lives of young people and their families. It is physically and emotionally taxing to be helping people with their mental health, sexuality, drugs, alcohol, relationships, family crisis, death, school stress, and other growing pains. It’s a dirty work in this sense. 

(3) You need patience

Building something from scratch, even something as small as a two square metre sandcastle, can take time. 

Youth ministry is the same. 

People take time to grow in life and faith. Being in a ministry that deals with young people who are 11-18 years-old means patience is required. You’re not going to see results in six months. It takes years for the seeds of youth ministry to sprout fruit. 

It’s been said to me by a number of long-term Youth Pastors that they felt most effective after six years. Six years! It is quite rare in the Australian context to find a Youth Pastor who sticks around for more than three years in one church, let alone six. More Youth Pastors need to stay, and recognise that patience in the ministry is required. 

This isn’t all about young Youth Pastors though. Long-term youth ministry volunteers are needed too. It’s the volunteers who more often than not have greater influence long-term than any fly-by-the-night Youth Pastor. 

(4) You make mistakes

At one point in our sandcastle building my daughter and I were digging tunnels under roads and castles. In a couple of areas we hadn’t evaluated the wetness of the sand and soon found the tunnels collapsing, the whole thing folding in on itself. When we tried to make a river flow, in order to create a moat, a group of village houses were taken away in a flood. We made a few mistakes as we build this little sand city. 

Youth ministry is the same. 

Mistakes are bound to be made when you serve in youth ministry. In fact, if you don’t make mistakes you’re probably not trying hard enough.

But mistakes can happen at a variety of levels. Not having enough balls for a game of dodgeball is one thing, writing an angry late night email to a parent is another. Hiring an expensive bus and not having enough kids to cover the costs is one thing, undermining your senior pastor in front of others is another. Not turning up on time to meet one of the young adults is one thing, choosing a person who hasn’t got the character to join the leadership team is another. 

The level and variety of mistakes vary in youth ministry. Some will be of little impact. Others, however, could derail an event, program or the whole ministry.

(5) You will find delight

There was little more satisfying than spending time with my daughter building sandcastles yesterday. It was a delight to play with her and talk with her about what we were doing. We searched for pieces of driftwood to build bridges, and joined hands in tunnels we made. It was a delightful experience. 

Youth ministry is the same. 

While youth ministry may have a number of challenges there is a certain delight that comes with it.

First, seeing young people grow in faith, connecting in with a community of people who accept them, and serving others together as a group, all these bring personal delight. Looking back after a number of years and seeing how young men and women have grown always blows my mind. Being able to help them and their families as they struggle with whatever life might bring is a privilege. There is a personal satisfaction and delight in being involved in such a work. 

Second, ultimately it is not youth ministry that needs delighting in. 

It is Jesus. 

It isn’t the ministry that’s important for young people, it’s the person who they follow. This person isn’t the Youth Pastor, or is it the Youth Leader, or the mentor, or the parent, or the friend. 

The person is Jesus. 

If young people find their delight in Christ then the inward delight will come to anyone involved in youth ministry. But may it be that they delight in their Creator as He delights in them. 

Spurgeon On Writing

I came across this this quote from Charles H. Spurgeon while traversing the interwebs this morning. What a great comment about writing and preaching.

“Long visits, long stories, long essays, long exhortations, and long prayers, seldom profit those who have to do with them. Life is short. Time is short.…Moments are precious. Learn to condense, abridge, and intensify…In making a statement, lop off branches; stick to the main facts in your case. If you pray, ask for what you believe you will receive, and get through; if you speak, tell your message and hold your peace; if you write, boil down two sentences into one, and three words into two. Always when practicable avoid lengthiness — learn to be short.”

– CH Spurgeon (Sword & Trowel, September 1871)