Retreat Reinforecments: Costs, Cultural Relvance Pass, and Youth Can Listen to Sermons

This is simply a follow up from yesterday’s Modgnik post highlighting some random things I learned as a leader last weekend.

1.) Retreats really do have a cost. Obviously they cost money, as the retreat center needs to be rented (600 kids!), speaker paid, band secured, creative skits practiced, food eaten, kids housed, gas guzzled, etc…..These retreats take up a big chunk of our youth budget, and family wallets/bank accounts do take hits. But there is also physical toll that retreats take on leaders. One of ours progressively got sicker throughout the weekend and will be paying for her sacrifice this week. Sleep has never been my companion on these retreats either. But also, consider the family sacrifice. My four year old was not happy to send has Daddy off, and so that made his Mommy’s sacrifice a bit harder as well. But it is part of my job, so how thankful am I to have parents and another non-parents come to labor alongside of me? Very thankful. I became acutely aware of some of the costs that really go into such a retreat (saying nothing of the sacrifice of those who regularly get together to plan these things). Modgnik is worth the price of admission and the “pay-offs” in the lives of these youth-and their leaders-is often eternal. Cost counting doesn’t make me prideful but thankful for those who sacrificed to send kids and leaders.

2.) Youth will give you a pass when you don’t pass the cultural relevance test. Our speaker referenced R.J.3, the former Heisman trophy winner and current Washington Redskins quarterback the first evening. The problem is that his name is Robert Griffin III, and so his nickname is R.G 3. He got some flack, but the kids cut him some slack. No mention of it throughout the weekend. Perhaps the Harry Potter allusions covered his bases, but I think that most kids get over that kind of stuff pretty quickly. Middle schoolers care that you like them much more than how well you know their culture. Fortunately. I must be living in the past, because I knew ZERO pop songs they played as we piled into the meeting room and cafeteria. Coolness and relevance are far less important to youth than love.

3.) Middle Schoolers can listen to sermons. This speaker is an RUF guy, and RUF guys do sermons. They preach expository sermons, and regularly allude to verses and say things like, “I get this from verse 8.” He didn’t disappoint, and yet I was concerned that he might be over the kids’ heads. Last year’s speaker looked and sounded very different, and spoke on very different subjects. This guy preached Revelation, yet he wasn’t over their heads at all! Most of them articulated back to me exactly what he said in our cabin discussion time. The amount of “take-away” from the sermons confirmed that kids really can listen. A number of girls even took notes. While I do think preachers like myself need to recognize folks with shorter attention spans (like myself), middle schoolers should be expected to follow along. As parents we can follow up with our kids and expect to have meaningful sermon discussion. But we have to raise our expectations beyond the “Well I didn’t hear him/her talking too much this week, so things are good” perspective.

4.) Illustrations are important for all, but especially so for middle schoolers. I consider illustrations as the “coat hanger” on which to hang both the truth and applications. When connected with the truth and application, they provide something to help the kid think about when the sermon is done. These kids could re-tell the illustration and the truth articulated. Reinforced the need for illustrations, and their power to connect the listener to more than just the preacher, but to Jesus.

Just some things I learned this week and want to pass on.

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Modgnik Recap 2012

This past weekend, Redeemer’s youth group, and 4 leaders made our trek down to Rockbridge (a young life retreat center) for the annual Modgnik Retreat 2012. Modgnik is “Kingdom” spelled backwards, which is appropriately named because Jesus’ Kingdom often runs completely backward to how the world (not to mention Christians) operates.

Last year, the speaker focused on the Kingdom and Culture. This year, Shawn Slate, R.U.F. (Reformed University Fellowship) campus minister at University of Virginia, camped out in Revelation. He called the youth, and of course their leaders, to a greater heavenly vision with all sorts of relevance for our lives today.

While the speaker is clearly in his element on the college campus, his personality, allusions, honesty, and illustrations reinforced a very deep message. As far as I could tell in the following cabin discussion times, the youth tracked well and could rehash the main points and illustrations.

So with that in mind, let me rehash some for you.

On the first evening, he challenged us to think about Revelation like a portrait. As with anyone creating a portrait, the artist is asking you to see the world the way he sees it. So it is with God, who offers us a portrait of what is really going on with the world. And we need such a portrait because we don’t see the world from His vantage point. Yet the portrait of Revelation offers us a beautiful glimpse of not just what God is doing in the world, but a deeper, brighter, more beautiful picture of Jesus. The one who is first and last, and everything in between. The world hinges around Him. The portrait is ultimately a portrait of Jesus.

He also gave us something to really think about in regard to how we read Revelation. Some of the bible explains, “Do this, or believe this,” but Revelation is God’s “show and tell.” Instead of believe this, do this, understand this, we have a “see this.” A helpful hermeneutic indeed for connecting 1st century images to 21st century life.

The picture of Jesus we have in gospels is of gentle, suffering, servant-King, but we see a bigger, brighter portrait in Revelation. Nothing boring or ordinary, but a King worthy of respect, as John immediately falls down in His presence as if dead. Jesus isn’t our “binky.” But how cool is Jesus’ offering the comfort of a “Fear not?” We’re undone in His presence, but he puts us back together in His presence. Fearsome and powerful, but compassionate and reassuring. Jesus makes no promise of comfort or power, but he does promise none other will satisfy.

Why do we need such a portrait? Because Jesus is inviting us into this story of what He’s doing in the world. It’s an invitation, more than a straight command. If God captures our imaginations, He captures our hearts. That’s what He really wants. Our hearts.

One of the more challenging images he presented was that of Jesus saying, “I will spit you out of my mouth.” Instead of us looking at Jesus and saying, albeit inaccurately but honestly, “I’m bored with you,” Jesus is ultimately saying, “I’m the One who is bored with you!” Powerful and sobering.

When John lays his eyes upon the figure of the Son of Man, where is he? Right smack dab in the middle of His people. Jesus is always right there with His people. He suffered for and with His people. And even now, while reigning, He is still in some real sense here with his people. Comforting.

So how do we live now? We long for the return of this King. We can see his presence now, though its distorted, like the Mac Photobooth where folks twist, turn, and stretch photo images. If you look closely, you can still see glimpses of what the world should look like. It’s there. But we long for the real fulfillment. We bite into 3 foot chocolate Easter bunny, and discover its hollow. But one day we get a solid chocolate Easter bunny. We are heading for a real, solid world one day. Not an ethereal realm of spirits, but a real tangible world made new. Can’t wait. Exciting!

Our cabin time after this talk focused on the hope of what will one day be. Our imaginations need to be recaptured, particularly in regards to relationships. Consider judgment on the evils of this world. We don’t have to exact vengeance, but can trust God to do that. This belief makes us more gentle, less retributive. Consider the fact that your Christian friend, leader, etc…, who hurt you, will be made new as well. If we can imagine what that person WILL become, with their positives accentuated and negatives redeemed, we can love/forgive/bear with them better TODAY. Rubber meets the road kind of stuff.

Finally, he closed with the reality that the Return of the King will be good news for believers, but bad news for unbelievers. He illustrated what longing looks like. His little daughter called her daddy a bunch of times while on his way home. Daddy are you coming now? Yes, but I had to get groceries. Daddy are you coming home now? Yes but I had to pick up your brother. Daddy, are you coming home now? Yes, sweetie, do you see that blue car, I’m just behind that blue car? His daughter was in the front yard ready and waiting with a soccer ball to play with her daddy. That’s anticipation. That image will stick. 

Hope you feel somewhat as if you were there. Would have loved to have this kind of stuff when I was a youth!

Just for your info, that is me in the pic, wearing a giant over-sized onesie pajamas. My skit career made a brief comeback after years of dormancy when someone volunteered me simply because I’m loud. Compliment or fact?

How many leaders you got? Now that’s a better question

The other day I received a similar question to the ones mentioned in my previous post. The question, probably posed out of mere curiosity, provoked a little more thought than the standard: “how many you got” type questions. Instead of how many kids do you have, it was more like, “How many leaders do you have?”

That is a different type of question and one that deserves a little more positive dissecting.

One common thread I’ve noticed the past several years in books/articles I’ve read, seminars attended, ministry leaders I’ve talked with, and years of extensive personal experience/reflection is that the kids who walk with Jesus have several things in common. 

And having one dynamic youth leader really isn’t tops on the list. But what seems to always be present is that the youth have had a number of adult relationships. Perhaps it looks like adults investing in their lives through a youth group, Sunday School, mentoring, or simply an “unstructured” but invested relationship involving hospitality, normal activities, or a retreat. 

One youth leader, and/or two parents are not enough. It’s a great start, but kids need multiple adult relationships. By the way, I’m not de-emphasizing parent-child discipling relationship for that is primary; I’m merely emphasizing the responsibility of those in the covenant community. The principle “the more the merrier” could not be more apropos.

So here is the kicker: kids aren’t going to naturally seek out adults. Adults have to seek them out. That may look like volunteering to teach Sunday School or youth group. That may look like filling in as a sub from time time. That may look like simply doing something very novel and creative: trying to talk with them on a Sunday morning. It may look like serving alongside of them as they rake leaves or participating in fantasy football with them. It may look like inviting them over to share a recipe or grab a latte. Regardless, if you are an adult male/female without a record who loves Jesus and currently has a pulse, you can play a part. Take that first step.
They actually do like adults. And they need adults. But they probably won’t take that first step, and we probably shouldn’t expect them to. 

When I prayed for the graduates last Sunday, I thanked God for the number of adults who were involved in their lives. I’m hopeful for these kids leaving school. For the most part, they are connected to other youth and adults.

I’m hopeful in a God who is faithful even when we as parents, youth leaders, or the rest of the church are faithless. But I’ll take that as encouragement instead of a license to laziness. We often think of our kids in this way: “We ONLY have 18 years with them and so need to take advantage of this time.” But for some reason I don’t think we often view our covenant children with the same sense of urgency. Time is of the essence.

Thanks for all of you who have invested in not only your children, but the children of others. I hope you realize how important that time and relationship really are in the eyes of your Heavenly Father. Whatever the impact you notice or fail to notice (remember sometimes the impact isn’t seen for years down the road, and sometimes there may not be the impact we desire), remember it isn’t that type of “numbers game.” And remember Henry Lyte’s hymn Jesus I My Cross Have Taken, “Think what Spirit dwells within thee, think what Father’s smiles are thine….” Those are the only smiles you need to motivate and remind you that you cannot fail.

Christian’s don’t need a bucket list: A middle schooler will tell you that

In our Middle School youth group at Redeemer, we spent 4 weeks on the topic of heaven (Revelation 21:1-8; 22-27) and its current application for our lives NOW. It seems strange, almost counter-intuitive, that thinking about something so seemingly “other-worldly” would have any sort of real impact in our lives today. But nothing could be further from the truth. 
For starters, the concept of the final state of heaven (heaven as it exists now is only a “third base”) as the New Heaven and Earth in Revelation 21 is anything but “other worldly.” God comes down to Earth and dwells with His people DOWN here. It is described as city, where there is non-stop action going on. The gates never close their doors; we called it “the city that never sleeps.” Kind of like a Las Vegas without much of what goes on in Vegas. It won’t be boring. The best of all cultures will be present and the worst of them will not. 
After opening with the lie from John Lenin’s “Imagine”-that if people imagined there were no heaven then they would live for today-we moved into some brief review questions. Then I decided to let the kids, as we’ve done several times before, create a skit to demonstrate to each other (we always break into two groups for these) what heaven is like and what difference it makes in life. This helps reach those with differing learning styles, as well as challenges the kids to really chew on how to communicate and apply deep truth.
My group, led by a Sr High and myself, came up with the idea of a group of guys wasting their lives away in a bar talking and dreaming about the next thing to cross off on their bucket lists. These Middle Schooler’s, on their own (as far as I can remember) came up with this idea. They recognized that there is no need for a bucket list for Christians. If heaven will one day come down to Earth, there will be plenty of time for those things you don’t have time, money, opportunity, or quite frankly God’s approval, to do now. 
As a result you are free to live without the burden of “I wish I could do such and such” but just can’t. Or you can live without the burden of “I need to go do such and such to make me happy.” Whatever you way you slice it, the theology of the New Heaven and Earth, is not as much “other-worldly” as it is “down to Earth.”
So begin to believe in the final promise of the gospel-freedom from the presence of sin-and live more radically and freely than you would have if you were unaware of the last chapter in God’s Story of Redemption. There’s more joy here than crossing of another one off your bucket list.

Reflections on David Platt’s sermon to the youth

As I mentioned earlier, this past week was Redeemer’s Missions Week. We do these things yearly to really emphasize world missions. Without something yearly to remind us to really hone in our thinking, praying, giving, going, we can easily forget about people that we’ll never see (but hope to one day in heaven).
So for our last act of the Missions Week, one of my incredibly helpful youth teachers requested we show the recent David Platt Sermon delivered at Together for the Gospel (T4G) for youth group. More often than not, I try to give folks the freedom to bring options, run them by me, and then let them run with those ideas. So we watched what has been deemed as the best sermon ever preached on missions over a delectable spaghetti dinner.
Here are my reflections
1.) I was wrong. I thought it would be best to break up the video into 2 sessions. An hour long sermon can be difficult for a middle schooler. Last year they listened to a half hour audio of a Piper lecture and it did not go well! The Sr High’s did go well on the other hand. Plus, if we broke it up, I figured we’d have more time for discussion. However, I yielded to the desires of the one who wanted to show the video and am glad I did. Leadership sometimes involves yielding. It also involves admitting you were wrong! I even told the kids I didn’t think they had it in them, but that someone else did!
2.) Teaching up. I always tend to “teach up.” Our Jr High use Sr High material for Sunday School and it has gone well. Our Sr High use an adult study from Tim Keller and have been doing this type of stuff for a while. When we had to break up our Sunday School classes from the normal break-up (PreK-K, 1st-2nd, 3rd-4th, etc…), we sent the 2nd graders up and the Pre-K have been working with the 1st-2nd grade material. I prefer to teach up. I knew that the Sr High’s would be OK with the video, but my concern was the middle school kids, particularly the younger middle school kids. But in the end, “teaching up,” was the right way to go.
3.) In “teaching up” one must still remember the younger ones instead of assuming everyone “gets it.” This sermon is probably the best sermon on missions I’ve seen, but we need to remember that it was delivered to pastors at a pastor’s conference (of course many others go who aren’t pastors, but those who go have more knowledge than most others in the church). As a result, David Platt does not define all of his terms (and he shouldn’t have to). It is impossible to think like a middle schooler if you are not one. But instead of assuming that all kids knew such terms, I made sure to get up and ask the kids if they did. I’m glad I did, because several didn’t know what the word “Sovereignty” meant; and that was a word used in his main point! So I let the Sr High’s define “sovereignty” for the others, as well as “people groups.” Those were two huge points in the sermon, and several folks didn’t know what they meant. When you “teach up,” you still have to take pains and ask questions to make sure kids are getting it. But in the end, you end up letting the older kids assist in teaching the younger kids. So cool to see.
4.) Power of stories. While David Platt didn’t illustrate heavily, he did use several stories and anecdotes that I could tell ALL of the kids got. It is beautiful to see a middle school lad get excited about a story where a pastor realizes that dying is gain; because that pastor realized it, so did his persecutors. They would have been worse off killing him, so they let that joker live! That’s priceless. All the kids got a kick out of that. I think these stories will stick, even if some of the main points or terms may not.
After the brief discussion and clarification time, we sent them on their way. It was a great night and encouraging to expose these kids to the radical call of the gospel to lose our lives for Jesus glory. Whether they go overseas or minister here at home, we have to teach our kids to say no to the suburban American comfortable lifestyle and to find the joy in following Jesus wherever we are.
If you haven’t seen the video, check it out here or the audio here.

Youth Ministry that is more than "keeping the kids off the streets."

I used to not be a big fan of W.V.U. coach Bob Huggins. I still have a hard time not calling him “Thuggins.” But I do like the lad now, and not just because he coaches for W.V.U.  I can see that he does indeed care about his players. Whether it was that loving moment (though somewhat creepy as well) of him caressing his injured player in the Final Four floor, or the increased graduation rate, I don’t know. Perhaps its the more of the latter than the former. 
When coaching at the University of Cincinati, he had a very low graduation rate. In fact I don’t think anyone had one lower than Huggins. That’s not to hard to believe, since I don’t think he graduated A player. Seriously. 
But according to many college coaches, just have kids play basketball for the college is a win-win. The coaches win (literally) and make money, and the college kids play basketball and stay off the streets. Keeping the kids off the streets is better, “non-graduation emphasizing” coaches will reason.
I wonder if that’s really the case. Maybe it is. But in the end, you may keep them off the streets, but if you don’t equip them while in college, don’t many simply return to the proverbial streets?
Some folks take this approach with youth ministry. Keep the kids away from their “bad friends” and entertain them while in jr. high and high school. In other words, if they are entertained, they at least have somewhere to go; they are being kept off the streets.
But the problem is much the same with the college athlete who only knows basketball. He’ll simply return back to what he knows because he can’t play ball forever. With youth who have been entertained throughout their church and youth ministry experience, where will they go when they head off to college? Not the church. It just can’t keep up. It’s impossible to do so, not to mention draining when you try. 
If you haven’t seen this article, that emphasizes discipleship over entertainment, check it out. It sums up a lot of what many, including myself, really envision.
If the goal is not simply to keep the kids off the streets, but to point them to Jesus and His Church NOW and LATER when they leave, the church has to 1.) Throw resources toward the children/youth and  2.) Expect much of them. I’m not talking about parents role, but focusing on the Church’s role now.
1.) Throw Resources. I don’t mean money. Money helps in that we can purchase material, go to retreats, etc….But the best resource a church can spend is adults who love Jesus. That’s the most important. College kids who walk with Jesus usually have several things in common: one is that they have a few godly adult relationships. In addition to parents, they have a few adult relationships which challenge and encourage them. Kathy Keller in her article about raising kids in the city had this to say…
I have often said that the best thing you can do for your teenage children is not to have them in a great big youth group (of other teens as clueless and confused as themselves), but to have lots of young adult, cool, ardently believing friends.
…..More seriously, the time came in the life of one of the boys when the club culture cast its allure, especially a fabled den of iniquity known as the Limelight. Begging to be allowed to go fell on deaf ears. Sneaking off to try to talk his way in resulted in being caught and grounded for decades. We were bemoaning this seemingly intractable desire to walk on the wild side to a 30-something friend. He was a talent agent who represented very well-known people, and my sons thought he was the coolest person they’d ever met. When the son in question walked up, Steve turned to him and said, “I hear you want to visit the Limelight. If you want to go, I’ll take you. I went there many times before I became a Christian, and I never want to go back. But if you want to see it for yourself, I’ll take you.” We never heard another word about it. Steve had been there, done that, and found Christ better. His words had a power that our lectures never could have.
Whether it’s formally teaching Sunday School, youth group, filling in as a sub (we always need them), or informally teaching (talking to them at church, having them into your homes, inviting them on an outing, going out for lunch), these resources get most bang for the buck. Most of us would rather throw money at a ministry than get involved and get our hands dirty. But God seldom uses more money to change the lives of our youth; he uses His people.
2.) Expecting much from them. Just as a good college coach expects his student athletes to do more than just be “off the streets,” the church has to expect more than just decent Sunday School/youth attendance. We have to find them “jobs” to do while they are already in jr high and high school. Perhaps no segment of the church is more self-absorbed, but that is partly OUR fault. We perpetuate that when we don’t give them opportunities to serve NOW, thinking they are too young to serve, lead, help organize, or even at times teach. Of course they will think the world revolves around them when we don’t give them opportunities to bless others. And the more plugged into serving NOW, the more integral church involvement will be THEN when they leave. If serving the church is part of their normal Christian lives, then church becomes not something that they go to (or sleep in) once a week, it is part of who they are. Why would they want to miss corporate worship when it has become more than simply a “spiritual activity?”
In addition to opportunities IN the church, we need to expect them to be involved in the mission OUTSIDE the church. 

These two areas seem to pop up time and time again in studies dealing with the college-and-beyond transition. And since these factors simply involve the church being the church, it is wise for us to emphasize these two things in the youth ministry of a local church.

Thoughts from the 2020 conference

This past weekend, several close friends and I drove up to Butler PA to attend the C.E.P. 2020 Conference. The overall ministry projection, desire, and prayer was for the church to make disciples who make disciples. Several speakers specifically described such disciples as Kingdom disciples and further defined them as having 1.) Heart that loves King Jesus 2.) Mind that thinks like King Jesus 3.) Lives of service to others. Basically it was the same vision we already have put in place at Redeemer with the Head, Heart, Hands model.
But what was new was the tangible expectation of producing disciples from our children who would be discipling others. The plan is a 10 year plan. Not a 20 year plan. A 10 year plan. That means that if parents and church partner together, that by age 14, he/she would be ready in some way to make disciples. I’ve always believed that youth will only rise to the level that is expected of them. As a result, I’ve conceptually raised the bar, and begun to practically put in place opportunities for them to serve. But I’m not sure that I’ve practically put structures into place for them to actually disciple others. 
Much of discipleship is informal. Philippians 4:9 shows us both content (what you’ve learned, heard), but also informal (what has been “seen in me.”) This stuff was already on my heart due to a timely text message from a parent the past week, so now the fire to practically put something in place is scorching my back side.
Straight shooter Sue Jakes reminded us of a very simple application of the scriptural truth: children are a blessing. If that is the case, how are we as a covenant community ministering together to our covenant children? Not YOUR kids, but YOUR CHURCH’s kids. I’ve heard several times in my ministry over the years, “I just don’t like kids.” Sue Jakes shared with us a simple response: “Repent.” If children are a blessing, then we can’t just “wash our hands of them.” That children are a blessing is not specific or particular conviction, it is a timeless truth. That we disciple our covenant children is not specific or particular conviction, it is a timeless command. 
What that command looks like can be all across the board. Nursery or 2-3 year old church (we start discipling these kids at age 2), children’s church (4-1st grade), Sunday School, youth group. These are formal structures in place for passing on “what we’ve learned/received/heard” but much of discipleship is informal (“seen in me.”) At the conference, I could tell many folks’ answer to discipleship was simply “do Sunday School and do it better.” But the speakers challenged us all with the plethora of informal ministry opportunities to disciple our covenant children. 
To be regularly involved in Sunday School requires some teaching gifts. To be regularly involved in youth ministry requires a certain amount of, well, maybe insanity. But to be involved in some sort of informal relationship with children/youth requires a pulse and a love of Jesus. That’s it.
Do things with them. Even the introverted sound guy, can bring a youth along with him to help set up, troubleshoot, etc… When you pass out bulletins, pass them out with a child. When you greet, don’t just greet with a smile; greet with a kid.
Talk to them. Simple things like getting to know the names of other children/youth in the church. Talk to them. Ask questions about them and their lives. None of this stuff requires you to be “marooned” in a nursery or class room for an hour and half. It involves you simply taking time to look at those children/youth and around you and move towards them. That’s it.
In the end, if you don’t make any effort to somehow involve yourself with our covenant children, you don’t have a problem with kids/youth; you a problem with God. They need you and you need them. I don’t want to see more kids go off to college and not come back to the church. More than that, we want disciples that are salt and light outside the church. Be a disciple and make disciples. It’s for the church. It’s for you.