4th Most Read of the Year!

It turns out that on the Rooted Blog, the article on Engaging Millennials made the top 10 most read articles of 2015.  It was number 4 on the list. The Rooted Blog is a highly read site and the ideas presented in this particular article are the essence of our Engage initiative. Also it's interesting that sex related articles captured 4 of the places, representing 40% of the top 10. I think that says a lot about where we are struggling  in society.  See the list here.  And the Millennials article is at http://rootedministry.com/articles/engaging-generation-millenials.

Parents, Grandparents, and well adjusted teens.

The wsj.com had a fascinating short article recently about a study that was published online in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.  Having no idea what orthopsychiatry was, I discovered it is "the branch of psychiatry concerned with the study and prevention of mental or behavioral disorders, with emphasis on child development and family life.". Now that I have revealed my relative ignorance, I will get to the fascinating bit.  The study, which surveyed 1400 teens, looked at the relationship between specific family relationships and emotional and behavioral well being.  The conclusions are not surprising for those of us who believe that parents and grandparents are vital in the lives of kids (including teens). They found that "teens who form close, loving relationships with a grandparent are more likely to have fewer behavioral and emotional problems than less-attached teens". What's even more fascinating is that this tendency is most true where teens had strong relationships to parents and grandparents. If they were close to their grandparents but not their parents, the effect was diminished.

Read the article here

The Study can be found here


Why You Should Attend Rooted with us

I first learned about the Rooted Conference through a friend who is on to board of directors.  We served in youth ministry together and she encouraged me to attend right after I had moved to begin seminary at Duke Divinity School in the Fall of 2010.  At the time I thought my youth ministry days were over, and though I was very interested in the premise of Rooted, I was a poor seminary student so I declined the invitation.  Fast forward to 2013, and I found myself in full time youth ministry and on the fast track to becoming an Anglican priest.  I landed in a fairly large church, and though I had years of youth ministry experience, this was a totally new challenge for me.  My Rector (Sr. Pastor) encouraged me to seek out a youth ministry conference, and the first place I looked was Rooted.  In a world full of over-hyped, gimmicky, and entertainment-based conferences, Rooted was a breath of fresh air.  I found myself surrounded by other Gospel-centered leaders with a passion for relationally based ministry.  I had the chance to make new friends across denominational lines and to enjoy meaningful worship and fellowship with them.  Most importantly I had the chance to learn and grow both from some amazing speakers and in smaller breakout sessions and discussion groups.  I left from my time at Rooted feeling refreshed and nourished spiritually, and deeply encouraged in my own ministry to point young people to the grace and love of Jesus.  No matter where you are in your ministry life, I cannot encourage you enough to join us in Chicago this October!  

Rev. Matthew R. Wilkins | Associate Rector for Youth and Families
St. Peter's Anglican Church | Tallahassee, FL

Get into the word, not into the theme

It seems that the phrase “Bible study group” is a common part of ministry. Many youth ministries have Bible study groups. It is, hopefully, a time to get into the word of God.  However, do they really get into the word?

I know of many groups that call themselves a ‘weekly Bible study’… however, they don’t appear to study the Bible! They study a modern Christian book, followed by topical DVDs, followed by a movie with a theme they discuss etc. Sometimes these can be good things to do, but they are not a replacement for the Bible! This kind of group is not a ‘weekly Bible study’.

This seems to be a pattern for many, many churches and youth groups.

Isn’t a Bible study a group where we … study the Bible? Is it all that difficult to open up one of the great books in the Book of Books and go through it? Sure, it can be tricky. Yes, we have to do a bit of prior preparation. And, it can lead to a difference of interpretation and even get a bit heated sometimes… but Bible study is GREAT. It is living, active, shapes our thinking and what we believe. It keeps us on the narrow road and informs our actions. If we keep this away from the people in our churches and youth ministries, we do so at our peril.

Here’s a suggestion for youth leaders: run a study in the book of 1 Thessalonians. This is the earliest letter that Paul wrote, it was written to a group of recent converts, and is filled with teaching and exhortation that is not all that difficult to understand. When you are done, look at the book of Job. The first two chapters will capture the interest of most young minds. Spend a week or two on the long discussion in chapters 3-37 and then focus on God’s response at the end of the book (ending with the Epilogue in the last chapter). Great stuff and (almost) guaranteed to thrill your small group. You could then move on to a themed study that comes from the word of God: Who is Jesus? or What does the Bible say about suffering?, these would be great topical studies based in God’s word.

After opening the Bible for 6-8 weeks, if you want to ‘take a break’ for a week or two, go and grab a DVD on relationships. But this is the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

If you are not into actually opening the Bible in Bible study maybe you should call your group something else. “Theme Study Group” perhaps? Or, “Topical Response Group”? Or, even “Modern Author’s Opinions Thinking Group Discussion”!

Ken Moser




Cameron Cole has a great article on The Gospel Coalition Blog about what we teach teens about sex and the message we send in doing so.  He challenges us to think beyond the basic abstinence arguments.  Here is a snippet...

When churches lead classes related to sex education, they often present sex as a category unto itself. The conversation usually involves teaching the Bible’s standards on sexuality with emphasis on waiting until marriage. Then the class involves a disclosure of the consequences of violating God’s law. An anatomy lesson may get thrown in. Finally comes the inevitable debate: “How far is too far?” The most hopeful word usually involves the pleasures of sex within marriage.

All of these details are valuable aspects of helping kids embrace a healthy Christian approach to sexuality. However, we must also explain how sex fits within the broader context of biblical theology. If we don’t, we set students up for failure, frustration, and despair.

Sex is just one small piece of a broader classification of relational intimacy, both with God and man. Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:5 say that a man and a woman become “one flesh” through sex in marriage. Paul echoes this concept in 1 Corinthians 6:16 when he says that a man who has sexual intercourse with a prostitute unites himself to that woman. The Bible discusses sex with the language of intimacy, portraying it as a way that husbands and wives bond powerfully.

Too often, though, we portray sex as the ultimate avenue for intimacy, similar to the way the world elevates sex. Then, as Knox Seminary professor Jono Linebaugh put it, we “dangle marriage out there like a carrot,” telling kids that one day they will enjoy this supreme gift of intimacy.

Read the rest here.

Will The Real Anglicanism Please Stand Up?

Fr Iain Boyd is writing a great blog series on Anglican identity.  It explores things like high and low church, Anglo Catholic and reformation Anglicanism.  These all have historic roots that he is exploring. It's worth reading because it will help us to explain these things to students and to think about how we do youth ministry in the Anglican tradition.

I have to admit, even after over a decade of active leadership in Anglican and Episcopal ministries, it still surprises me when I hear people articulate a monolithic understanding of what Anglicanism is. For this reason, it’s important that we ask the question “What does it mean to be authentically Anglican?” While this question seems straightforward at first, through Anglicanism’s 450 plus years some very different answers have been offered. This series of posts will examine some of the main ways Anglicans have identified themselves through the years.

Read his blog at https://trinitypastor.wordpress.com

Anglican Youth Ministry in Moose Jaw

Since Advent 2012 I have been Youth Minister at St. Aidan Anglican Church, Moose Jaw, SK. The purpose of youth ministry at St. Aidan is to foster mature faith in our young people, and to equip them to become mature participants in the life and ministry of the parish. Our focus is spiritual formation and community-building, seeking to help young people to grow deep roots in the Church and to understand the importance and challenge of cruciform living. Our goal is not merely to entertain; it is rather to walk with the young people of St. Aidan (and those from other churches who make this youth group their own) as we learn together what it means to follow Christ in all areas of our lives. Our life together is focused by three “seriouses”:
Taking God seriously: Each week we spend a significant amount of time reading and discussing scripture, praying together and learning to pray, and challenging ourselves and each other to follow Jesus.
Taking each other seriously: As a Christian community of young people, we want to learn to appreciate who each other are, how we can support each other, and to learn to see Christ in each other.
Taking our tradition seriously: The youth ministry year is structured according to the Christian Year, shaping our time together by the “big questions” of each season. We regularly celebrate and learn from the lives of the saints, feast days, liturgical rites, creeds, and spiritual disciplines within the Anglican tradition (such as compline prayer), and enjoy opportunities to hear from notable voices in our region, such as those of our bishop, priest, and local theologians and scholars from a nearby college.
At the center of this ministry is a desire to see young people reimagine their lives in light of Jesus’ resurrection -- to call them into a life of following after Jesus, and to discover together what it takes to do so in the midst of regular, everyday living.

Our group consists of about 15-20 young people, grades 6-12. Our leadership team is made up of 6 people: myself, 4 volunteer youth leaders, and my wife who assists me with a lot of the day-to-day administration. Our group meets weekly on Tuesday nights from September to June. Now in our third year, one of our greatest challenges has been to keep connected to the young people in our group as it grows in number. We’ve been finding ways to involve each other in each other’s lives outside of the formally-scheduled youth nights. E.g., One of our volunteer youth leaders joined a local elementary school’s chess club where some of our young people attend. My wife and I have started inviting smaller groups of young people for Friday suppers in our home. Opening our lives to one another has allowed us to share in both the good and difficult things life brings.

I would love to connect with you if you are working with young people in your parish. If you are looking for resources to use in your ministry, I regularly post the materials I create for my own youth group at http://www.getliturgized.ca. You can find me online at https://twitter.com/lukenjohnson and luke@getliturgized.ca. 

Weekly Bible studies

Dave Little
Youth Minister, St John’s Vancouver
At St. John's youth in Vancouver, Canada our Friday nights are a bit crazy, but probably not in the way you'd think. Every Friday we have kids from 12 to 18 years old in a bunch of different boys and girls Bible studies. We just finished the Youth Alpha video series with our grade 7s this winter. Each week we ate pizza, watched the videos, had some great discussions, prayed together and played together. It was so good to see the kids bringing their friends and learning to listen to each other and growing in their friendships.
Yes, there are a lot of challenges to running a Friday night Bible study - plenty of excuses and other things to do. But it is amazing to watch faithful youth leaders disciple kids week by week, loving and encouraging these teens. As our youth ministry continues to center on the gospel, Jesus has brought great joy and fruitfulness in this season and we give all the glory to Him.

Why I love my coach

Submitted by Steven Tighe
President of Young Anglicans Project
Ok, so I’ve been doing this for over thirty years. I think I probably know as much about youth ministry as anybody. When I heard about youth ministry coaching my first thought was “I don’t need a youth ministry coach. I’m an expert. I should BE a youth ministry coach. Honestly, who is going to be able to tell me anything that I haven’t heard?”
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I was wrong. Not about the whole being an expert thing. I was right about that. I was wrong about what a coach does and very wrong about whether or not having a coach would be helpful to my ministry. 
I love my coach. The trick isn’t that she knows more about youth ministry than me (as if…). It’s not that she’s smarter than me (…). The thing I love best about my coach is that she LISTENS to me. She listens. She helps me draw out and focus on the most important parts of what I am thinking. As someone who is not involved in my ministry or my church, she provides a really helpful sounding board for me to bounce ideas off. She’s not my boss. She can be always on my side. 
She helps me discover what I already knew to be the most important stuff to focus on. I already knew it…kind of… there are just so many trees screaming for attention in the youth ministry forest that I sometimes forget which of the trees are crucial. She helps me pick out what is most important by asking questions, and then helps me come up with solid plans for making those things happen. THEN she remembers my deadlines when sometimes I don’t and helps to hold me accountable. 
Guys, getting a coach has been one of the most helpful things I’ve done, and I highly encourage anyone involved in youth ministry at any level to take advantage of the Young Anglicans Projects FREE coaching service!!!

The Every Generation Challenge

Imagine the church passing the faith from one generation to the next and involving all generations in the life of the congregation. This is the impetus behind every congregation engaging every generation, the challenge put before the Diocese of South Carolina in recent years. We realize that churches in our diocese are in various stages of engagement with the generations.  Some are well rounded while others are ministering almost exclusively to one age group.  All congregations want to be vibrant expressions of the body of Christ. So, what does it take for a church to transition into engaging every generation? I’ll offer five essentials that will help us rise to the challenge.

1. We need to know the power of prayer.  By this I am specifically referring to corporate prayer in the congregation outside of Sunday mornings.  The praying church is a more vibrant church!  The pattern we see in Acts was that the early church gathered regularly to pray. They actively sought God’s blessing on their efforts to spread the gospel and serve people. What if all of our congregation held prayer meetings once or twice a month to pray for the needs of the congregation and community? Such prayer meetings are common in churches in other parts of the world and they see lives changed and people come to faith on a regular basis. Transformation in the church begins with transformation of hearts.  Corporate prayer is essential to this happening.

2. We need to look to the provision of scripture. We know that God’s word contains all things necessary for salvation, but do we look to it for more? The Bible informs how we pass the faith from one generation to the next.  It is the same means by which all believers grow in their faith. We don’t need to look to the mega church for insights on effective ministry.  Mimicking the church down the road is not going to help a congregation be the church that God intends.  It’s all in scripture.  We pass the faith from one generation to the next by telling of the wonders of our creator, by proclaiming the goodness of God and his plan for redemption. Imagine congregations filled with members who are passionate about scripture and the sharing of God’s truth and goodness.

3. We need to think about ministry without programs. The church, broadly speaking, has had a program mentality for far too long. Our default thinking in the church tends to be that we address needs by starting new programs. Programs, while useful organizational structures, too often become the focus of our attention. Sustaining programs takes extensive resources - both human and material. If we prioritize people over programs, we can strategize ways to meet needs and minister to all the generations. The question to ask when considering how to engage a specific generation is not what program shall we start but how can we minister to them. The difference is one of coming or going.  When we offer programs, we look for people to come to us.  When we strategize to minister to people we look to go to them.

4. We need to focus on the preparation of leaders. So many churches look to clergy alone to lead all aspects of ministry. This stifles growth and limits what a congregation can do.  It is worth considering that the task before the local church is to develop leaders for gospel ministry. Leadership development should be a strong focus of every congregation. We need lay people in all congregations who are able to lead others in prayer, the study of scripture, and mission or outreach. The more leaders trained to minister, the more effective the reach of the church. Engaging every generation is going to require a great many people of all ages trained for leadership. Resources are available to help train leaders in many aspects of the life of the church.

5. We need to take seriously the proclamation of the gospel. Evangelism is a foreign word to many of our congregations. We often think that is what other traditions do but not us.  Sharing the gospel comes naturally when we know the gospel and we strongly desire for others to hear the good news. Engaging every generation is going to be an evangelistic endeavor in many places.  What age groups could be reached out to in your community? If we send gospel-saturated people out to serve the local community, they will find opportunities to share the good news. Fortunately there are a great many tools available for congregations to use in evangelism. Some of our congregations are currently offering training to their members on how to share their faith. Evangelism courses are readily available for use in homes, schools, prisons, and churches.  Imagine if all our church members had a passion for sharing the good news with everyone they come in contact with!

Can you see the vibrancy in the life of a congregation that is engaging every generation? It is not only a church that is alive today but also one that is ensuring it’s own future simply by being obedient to God’s instructions in scripture.

We will tell the next generation about the Lord’s praiseworthy acts, about his strength and the amazing things he has done.  Psalm 78:4

Five Priorities We Promote In Youth Ministry

A few years ago the board of Young Anglicans Project agreed on common values and priorities for youth ministry.  Since Young Anglicans Project exists to advance youth ministry across North American Anglicanism, we see the following as essential to healthy ministry to teens in the church.
1. Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ… The gospel needs to be proclaimed frequently, clearly, and without assumptions. The gospel is not simply the means of salvation; it is the truth that transforms our lives. That we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus is the most important truth to communicate to students. We never outgrow our need to hear the good news!
2. Engaging students in scripture… God reveals himself through his word and informs us on matters of salvation, the Christian life, and ministry. Therefore we must rely on the Bible for God to speak into the lives of students.  That cannot happen if we never open it with them or if we don’t teach them how to read and understand the word of God. The implication here is that the old traditional youth talk consisting of some stories and points that we dream up and link to some passage or verse is not sufficient. We need to open scripture with teens and show them what it means and how we live it out.
3. The local church… Students must be integrated into the life of the church! Youth groups should never become a parachurch ministry, segregated from the rest of the congregation.  Young people need intergenerational relationships and the church needs to know and love its youth. This is also a key way for our ministries to reflect the Anglican ethos of our churches.
4. Building healthy relationships… A vital aspect of good youth ministry is relationships.  We as youth leaders need to build community among the youth so that they can grow together and learn to care for one another. This helps them learn how to be the church and experience intergenerational dynamics.  Youth leaders must learn to love and care for students without infringing on parents or peer relationships.
5. Reproducing leaders… Youth ministry must be shared in the congregation, engaging as many as possible in this ministry. It’s not healthy for the church to rely on one or two people to do all the youth work. Leaders need to reproduce, meaning enlist and train others to minister to students. Additionally, students need opportunities to develop leadership gifts and should be offered training and roles in the church to exercise these.

Pursuing the Ultimate Youth Ministry Conference

Rooted hopes to take another step closer to the ultimate youth ministry conference experience with our 2015 gathering in Chicago on October 22-24. Rooted is a ministry driven by practicing youth ministers. Consequently, we know the struggles and needs of the everyday youth minister, fighting the good fight in the trenches. Here is what we think are the essential ingredients for a youth ministry conference that leaves you encouraged, educated, and equipped.

1.)  Intimate connections and encouraging conversations
2.) Excellent speakers
3.) Teaching from scripture and proclamation of the Gospel
4.) A theme that connects the Gospel to the context of your teenagers
5.) A genuine effort to care for your heart, leaving you spiritually and emotionally renewed
6.) Practical instruction that helps you gain greater skill and more confidence in your vocation

Read the details of these 6 points at http://rootedministry.com

Why have a youth ministry coach?

Submitted by Matthew Wilkins
Associate Rector for Youth and Families
St. Peter’s Anglican Church Tallahassee, Florida
I began my first full-time job in youth ministry right out of seminary.  I was not yet ordained, but I was well on the path to the priesthood.  While I had worked in youth ministry for many years as a volunteer and as a church intern, the truth was that I had NO idea what I was getting myself into. 
I knew that I loved working with middle and high school students, I knew that I loved building relationships, and I knew that I was called to preach and form kids with the Gospel, but that was about it.  I was not at all prepared for the leadership demands that were required of the job I was stepping into.  While much great ministry happened in my first year in terms of teaching and building relationships with students, our church was about to move into a new building with new challenges that I was neither trained for nor experienced enough to navigate on my own.  
As part of my preparation for ordination, my diocese asked that I take part in the American Anglican Council’s Clergy Leadership Training Institute (CLTI).  One of the things that CLTI pushes clergy to do is to find a solid coaching relationship to help continue development in the areas of organizational management and leadership.  This year I began working with two different coaches, one to help me specifically with youth ministry and another to work on my personal development as a leader.
I found both of these relationships to be an invaluable part of my ministry and my personal development. They helped me to live more fully in my calling to build a youth ministry that embodies the excellence of Jesus, and to grow into the best leader I could be for the sake of the Gospel. 
Young Anglican’s Project thinks these coaching relationships are so important that we offer free (yes free!) coaching for youth ministers!  Based on my own experience I can’t encourage you enough to at least explore the possibility of entering into some sort of coaching relationship, not just for the sake of effective ministry, but also for your own spiritual health and well-being as you help grow the Kingdom.

This matters. Stay on your pace!

Does your ministry lose steam at the end of the year? We all know that finishing well is important, but like a fatigued runner, we often lose our stride a bit at the end of the program calendar.

Now we have a fabulous group of youth workers. They love God, one another, and they really care for our students, most of whom are the entry point to the church for their families. But it is the end of the year and…

Games become a little less purposeful…and a few kids stop coming.
Instead of carefully planning the meeting so that all things work together to build Christian community and take kids deeper in their faith, the various components begin to stand alone…and a few more kids drop off.
Bibles aren’t opened and read by students quite as much.
Leaders start doing more – more sharing, more preaching. Students start doing less – and passive kids quickly become disengaged kids.
This happens every year in youth groups all across the country.

For us, this came to a head at our end of the year badminton tournament last week. The kid across the street, a young man we have been inviting to youth group for three years, showed up. O, he joins us occasionally for games and food, but he skips out when students go inside for worship through song and scripture…after eating, of course. Last week he handed me a badminton racquet and asked if I would be his partner for the tournament. I am not a youth leader and had a bunch of stuff to do, but one look at his insistent face and I heard myself saying, “I would love to. But if I do, you stay for Bible study.”

“Deal!” He said, sticking his hand out to shake.

Two leaders were standing behind me. The older one had missed the planning meeting. He whispered to the younger one, “What is the Bible study?”

“We are just having fun tonight.” She said.

His reply, “Hey, our core values include ‘don’t waste kid’s time’ and ‘have fun with a purpose.’ A kid we have been inviting for three years just said he would stay for Bible study. You get a song. I’ll do a message.”

In a highly unlikely turn of events, the neighbor and I won the tournament. As the mob tromped from backyard to living room, the neighbor kid proudly paraded the trophy inside over his head.

When the song finished we passed out Bibles and students read the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). The older leader retold the story of Jesus angering his home town to the point that they took him to the edge of a cliff to toss him off when he turned around and walked away through the silenced mob. He concluded with Jesus, the God of the universe in human form, whose life, death, and resurrection offering us the opportunity to be a Kingdom bringer (a Luke 4:18 life of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free“). He asked if anyone who hadn’t yet was ready to have “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19) by allowing the Lord, Jesus, to become their savior (John 1:12). Three hands shot up. One of them was the neighbor kid’s. He was waving and pointing to himself. The same young man who ignored three dozen invitations…who snuck home early another two dozen times…who had told us repeatedly, “I’m not into God.” That kid, with tears in his eyes, was smiling ear to ear, waving, and saying, “Me! I’m ready.”

And by letting our core values slip in end of the year fatigue we almost missed it.

“how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him?                                                                      And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?”    -Romans 10:14, NLT

So stay on your pace!

Three students had what they experienced as their first God moment Wednesday night. And we darn near dropped the baton in the relay between them and our God.

In track and field finishing well is called having a strong “kick.” Races are won or lost on the final straightaway. Most runners fade. Champions find another gear and shift into it, pulling away from the pack.

The baton we pass is nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus. So end strong friends. Find your kick. Because this race really does matter.

TGC, Rooted, & Cameron

Since The Gospel Coalition National Conference is this week (some of us are sad not to be there) and since Rooted has a booth in the exhibit hall and hosting a coffee Tuesday night for Youth Ministry Folks, and since Rooted's founder and fellow Anglican Cameron Cole is presenting a workshop this year at TGC...  It seemed appropriate to draw attention to Cameron's latest blog post at Rooted.  It's really good.

Three Students I’m Always Speaking To

I’ve found in my time in youth ministry that a youth worker must have a clear picture of his or her audience when giving a talk or teaching a Bible study. It’s of great benefit to personalize and individualize your audience as much as possible. I am never simply speaking to a generic group of teenagers. When I prepare for a talk, I have three types of individuals in mind, but those individuals have a name. I remember their story and think about their day-to-day life. While it’s challenging to speak to a cross-section of people, I always try to address and engage these three teenagers in the crowd:

1) Belle (the Seeker)

2) Betty (the Sufferer)

3) Bobby (The Saint)

We will let you go explore what each of these represent. It's worth the read!

Inspiring Teens

Nate Morgan Locke of Christianity Explored Ministries has a great article on the "Open up the Bible" website (a site devoted to helping people read the Bible more).  In it he shares 4 great thoughts that are helpful for students to hear.

1. The Bible is about Jesus.
2. God loves you, whether or not you read the Bible.
3. Bible times don’t need to be quiet times.
4. Two key ingredients: routine and variety.

The first of them I find incredibly refreshing.  The point he makes is that too often we approach the Bible to read about us not about Jesus.  The second is great for the legalist.  The third resonates with me merely because I hate the token "quiet time" that never worked for me. (though my house is quiet when I read my Bible after breakfast) and the fourth is so key.  Read the whole article!

What We’re Saying When We Don’t Mention the Gospel

From Cameron Cole, Youth Minister at Cathedral Church of the Advent Birmingham AL from the Rooted Blog.

Two of my couple friends have moved to new cities in the last few months and tried out new churches with disappointing results. One couple attended a church with a conservative bent where the pastor spent the sermon railing against liberal churches and their position on sexuality. The other couple sampled a mainline Protestant church, where the pastor’s message was that we are the “salt and light” just by being ourselves.

The obvious problem at both churches: There was no Gospel in the message. 

A nice lady gave me a series of CDs from her church that included her pastor’s five-week explication of Song of Solomon. He did a great job teaching on the meaning of each verse in context and ended with a passionate exhortation for everyone to commit more effort to improving his or her marriage. 

It was a well-intentioned sentiment, but the sermons contained one problem: there was no Gospel in the message. 

In most seasons, stories such as these disappoint me, but, given my life circumstances over the last quarter, they enrage me.  I am literally left feeling ill.

Welcome to the Gutter

The story of my life in the last few months is almost hard to believe. In November, my precious three-year-old son died. He simply passed away in his sleep with no explanation. It was the heartbreak of my life. 

About a month later, I found out that a dear friend of mine has a very serious prognosis of lung cancer. He has three children under the age of four - one who was born about two weeks after the diagnosis. It is a terrifying situation for his wife and him. 

In the last two months I have watched a friend destroy his life and the lives of many other people due to his problems with addiction and mental illness. He possesses no capability of “getting it together,” and functions like a tornado of destruction for family and friends. The tornado has crescendoed in the last weeks. 

Finally, this month, a beloved former student of mine took his own life. He was one of my favorite kids of all times - a sensitive, caring young man that lost his life in a moment of despair. I offered the eulogy at his funeral in the most difficult hour of my ministry. 

I find myself walking through perpetual fire and anguish, although the faithful Lord continues to give me hope, strength, and peace. 

What You Say When You Don’t Preach the Gospel

We can all be guilty of not preaching the Gospel. Sometimes, we neglect to mention our sin explicitly and our need for grace in a Bible study lesson. Perhaps, we preach nothing but Law- sweat and effort- with no promise of God’s help and redemption. And as sad as it is, some churches just simply don’t mention it at all. It’s words of wisdom, life lessons, inspiring stories, moral directives, and maybe a light mention of a loving God. 

When we do not preach the Gospel, this is what we say: Everything is fine. 

We say that our problem with sin is not that severe; we can fix our problems with a little effort. We say that death is not a real thing; we can kick that can down the road. We say that the world is generally fine; it’s not in need of radical rescue. We say that our need for God’s redeeming love and power is not that great. 

Well, I have an offer for anyone who thinks “everything is fine,” given what I have witnessed in the last three months. I have a free plane ticket for you to tell my friends or me that everything is fine. Look my student’s parents in the eye and tell them that death is not real. Sit down with my addict friend and tell him just to try a little harder. Tell the wife of my friend with cancer that the things in the world are generally good.

Any takers?

Now obviously I am speaking in metaphor and with hyperbole. I speak with such strong language because it’s offensive to suggest that no great problem exists in the world and in our lives. When Christian leaders neglect to explicitly preach the Gospel, it’s implicitly saying, “Let’s just smile and be nice and try to be good people.” It’s an insult to people who are suffering, failing, and dying. 

Take it to the Cross

My point in all of this is to say that all of us in ministry- as volunteers or paid pastors- have a duty to sufferers to take the message every week back to the Gospel, back to the message of the Cross. The Cross gives an accurate appraisal of the utter depth of the pain and brokenness in life, and it offers real hope. 

The Cross says that human powerlessness over sin is so great that God would have to die a brutal death to rescue mankind. The Cross says that the world is so broken and dark that it would crucify a perfect, meek, loving man. The Cross says that God’s love is so powerful that it can redeem the impossible. The Cross says that there is hope and life even in the saddest, darkest, vilest of circumstances. 

As one living in the gutter, I want to plead with you: Remember that behind the veneer of nice clothing, well-kept hair, and apparent smiles on Sunday morning, Wednesday nights, and gatherings in-between lie dozens and dozens of broken hearts, desperate spirits, and doubting souls.  

Do what my mentor, Frank Limehouse, taught me to do every single time: Take it back to the Cross.

Resisting the Urge to Do Cutting Edge Youth Ministry

Cameron Cole, Youth Minister at The Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL wrote this for the Rooted Blog and it became one of the most read posts on that blog. He has graciously allowed us to post it here.

In my early twenties upon moving to Birmingham, AL, I attended for three months a mega-church with an impressive growth rate. The pastor regularly boasted about the church’s increasing attendance in between opportunities to talk about the large audiences, to which he was speaking around the world. My last Sunday was capped by the pastor’s proclamation that the incredible prosperity of the church resulted from the “cutting edge ministry,” which they performed (and, oh yea, God too.) I exited with a bad taste in my mouth and a headache from the number of times I rolled my eyes that Sunday. 

Fast forward ten years. I had been working for six years as a youth pastor at the Cathedral Church of the Advent. During a meeting with a business leader in town, where I explained our somewhat unique approach to reaching postmodern teens through a fragmented ministry of smaller, intimate clusters of students, the entrepreneur said, “Wow, it sounds like you guys are really working at the tip of the spear.” As I burned with pride, the voice of my ego whispered, “You might even say that we are on the....cutting edge.” In the one- and only one- potentially cutting edge moment of my life (which lasted ninety seconds), I felt this rush of pride as if my efforts made the difference and as if I had distinguished myself from other ministries. (These are ironically vain sentiments for someone who still uses a flip phone.)

In all spheres of ministry, the temptation lurks to be “cutting edge.” This enticement may exist more in youth ministry more than other sectors, due to the frequently evolving nature of teen culture, where the target seemingly moves every five to seven years. In a valuable manner, youth ministry people seek to keep a watchful eye on the most efficacious means by which to reach teenagers. It is part of what makes the field exciting and dynamic. At the same time, youth ministry can dedicate exorbitant amounts of attention to finding a magic bullet in our methodology. 

The longer I work with students, the more convinced I am that there is nothing sexy or cutting edge about effective youth ministry. I have annoyed many a colleague with my penchant for repeatedly saying, “There is nothing new under the sun: if you want to be cutting edge, go into biomedical engineering or particle physics, not ministry.” Effective youth ministry boils down to pursuing relationships, teaching scripture, proclaiming the Gospel, worshiping, and praying fervently. That is it. Ministry revolving around these five components has endless possibilities. Other parts of ministry, such as missions, social justice, and fellowship, can have great vibrancy with such a foundation. Ministry that lacks relating, exegeting, proclaiming, worshiping, or praying usually evolves into an exercise in futility or a practice in “playing church.” 

Such a minimalistic philosophy will not sell many books or land you on a panel at the next conference. Nobody has ever been impressed when I describe our strategy with a few participles: loving, teaching, proclaiming, worshiping, and praying. Perhaps, this is because effective youth ministry involves a healthy lack of confidence in our ability to effectuate change and transfers all hope upon what Jesus did do and what the Holy Spirit can do. Thus, our methods become less sexy and sophisticated and more simple and basic. What a relief! Thanks be to God.