I don’t feel relevant

I was in a conversation with a middle-aged lay youth leader last week. He has been serving in his church with his wife for years. He has teenagers himself. He really cares for the teenagers and goes out of his way to love them and connect them with Christ, but he still appeared a bit discouraged that he himself was not connecting with them. Moments later he said, “I am too old to be a youth leader. I do not feel relevant.”

What is relevant?

Relevant is a word that is often overused and hard to define. It’s a buzz word. It is a word that gets tossed in the air but quickly evaporates into cultural jargon. Relevant supposedly has connotations towards how one generation relates to another, but is seemingly out of style or touch.

I like Webster’s definition of the word relevant, “closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand.” Could older Christians be more relevant according to this definition than they get credit? I want to encourage all the older people serving in churches among teens, children’s Sunday school classes, young adults, and the man I met this week struggling to be relevant to today’s generation.

Am I relevant?

You might be old, but your faith is still refreshingly youthful. I think it is great when parents of teens serve their own teens in their church. My favorite servants as a youth leader were the old ladies in the church that would pray for and write cards to the teenagers. They loved it and the teens loved getting real mail. Faith does not have a sell-by-date expiration. Nothing stirs the faith of a church more than multi-generational ministry.

Youth are the same today as they were when you were a youth. I would also add, youth are the same today as when Jesus was a youth. Teens are sinners. When you were a teen you were a sinner too. Each generation of young people have the same temptations just disguised in new clothing: pride, lust, and issues with authority. Even though a decade or generation may have passed since you were a teen, as a sinner you have something in common, and together you can help each other look to Christ to fight your temptations.

The struggle to be relevant is one of the great lie of our ministry-age. To think about the amount of ministry that has been missed or messed up because elder believers did not feel relevant enough to minister to younger believers. This is a tragedy. Satan’s strategy is to deceive and the church has bit into the fruit of the tree of relevance. Young and old need to stop believing the lie that they are not relevant enough.

The gospel message is always relevant. It has been for 2000 years and it will be for 2000 more. It never goes out of date. Sinners need a Savior. Stick to this truth. Stop trying to be so relevant. Teach about Jesus and seek to live like Jesus. What could be more appropriate or connected to the matter at hand than the good news of Jesus?

Now I might sound like an old codger myself, but I’m an advocate of being relevant and change for the sake of change. However, while being relevant I do not want to forsake the gospel or compromise biblical truth. I am encouraged that for more than two millennia Jesus and His message has been relevant enough to transform lives and communities. It will for two millennia more! In my opinion, working in youth ministry the past 8-years, being relevant has less to do with you and more to do with your message. I’ll stick with Jesus.

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build it and they will come

Build it and they will come: Changing the way we do gospel ministry

Changing the way we do ministry towards a gospel-centered focus is not easy. It is a paradigm shift from the cry of our culture. Or cultural proverb says, “Build it and they will come.” There is some truth to this Field of Dreams proverb. However, it depends what you build on that could affect whether it will last.

We are not about building the greatest ministry that makes the cover of Christianity Today. We are not about growing huge numbers, having the coolest coffee-shop-like atmosphere, blasting the craziest and latest worship tunes, or any other low-level purpose. We have a higher purpose: we build on the foundation of Christ [1 Corinthians 3:9-17]. All other foundations mentioned above–if not grounded in the bedrock of Christ–will blow over in the gale force storms of culture or sink into the quicksand of lustful lures and low-level goals. Christ is our goal and the gospel is absolutely central to a surviving and thriving ministry.

Our number one job and joy as ministry leaders is gospel centered discipleship [Acts 28:31]. Between Acts 1 and 28 the church of Christ grew not by a Christian circus rolling through town, but by constant and relentless followers proclaiming the core gospel truths about Christ. Our student leadership has been growing in their understanding of this truth this year as we have implemented changes to meet this goal. We have seen first hand how difficult it is to cultivate a Christ-centered culture of followership. The past few months, I have observed some amazing blessings through the diligence and sacrifices of our student leaders:

Followership is contagious reformation to Christ.

Our students are recognizing and excited that their leaders really care about their walk with God and want to help them apply God’s Truth [Philippians 2:12-13]. Followership is fulfilling your role as a priest under the Priesthood of Christ [1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10]. Every believer is a priest of Christ who is leading others to Christ worshiping and sacrificing for the sake of the glory of Christ. Like Luther, we are reformers who desire to point people to the person and work of Christ.

Followership is active participation in the Gospel.

Our student leaders are less passive and more active in their faith knowing that they are expected to dig deeper into the lives of one another. By its very nature the gospel is the saving sacrifice of Jesus’ person and work. The gospel impacts every aspect of our life. The gospel never sleeps and is actively involved in the process of conforming us to the image of Christ [Philippians 1:5-11]. Followers are participates of Christ’s gospel to the world and specifically to those they are ministering.

Followership is the incarnational.

Our student leaders are coming along side our students encouraging them to follow Christ. By doing this they are resembling the incarnated Christ to those they are discipling. They struggle along side the students striving to live for Christ even though they see themselves as chief sinners [Philippians 2:4-5] spreading the grace of Christ with compassion.

In conclusion, our number one job and joy as ministry leaders is gospel centered discipleship [Acts 28:31]. Changing the culture of our youth ministry to model this goal is a process that will not happen over night, in a semester or even in a school year, it will be an ever-changing process. Followership is a life-long process followers encouraging others to follow Christ too. Building a ministry that will last is built on the gospel of Christ. He has built it, all we need to do is come to Him.

discipleship defined

What is discipleship? And what does it look like? This is a good question. There are about as many favors of definitions for discipleship as there are suckers at the candy store. To be verbosely pithy my response to what discipleship is NOT is that discipleship is followership. As Paul in his simple yet divinely given wisdom stated, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” [1 Corinthians 11:1]

To illustrate the point that there are many great views of discipleship I have attached an essay that shows the views of volunteer leaders in our student ministry [Discipleship Defined]. Each of them slugged a homerun: discipleship is following Christ and helping others follow Christ too. Those we seek to disciple have different needs, with different situations and different means to become discipled. This causes discipleship to be hard work, but the rewards are literally out of this world. Discipleship is active, alive, and fluid, but supremely rooted in the work of Christ.

Youth Training in Congo & the Globe

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Sarah and I traveled to the Congo this summer where we were involved in running youth training seminars and connecting with church and youth leaders to try and get them thinking about youth issues, Christian camping and developing youth ministry training. This is my first visit to the Congo (my wife grew up there) and we are trying to work out ways in which we can encourage training for youth leaders in a country where it doesn’t really exist.

The Congo is not unusual—in many countries in Africa the idea of a formalized or structured youth leaders training doesn’t exist. Most youth leaders just do what they have seen done by others and they follow the patterns and styles of what they know. What this means is that youth ministry in many countries is stuck and young people are drifting away from the church because youth ministry is irrelevant to them.

Some of the issues youth leaders are facing in the majority world (like Congo) are:

  • People are not seen as important until they reach age 30
  • Young people are not recognized as a separate culture
  • Churches and Bible colleges do not have the material or people to teach and equip youth leaders and pastors
  • Lack of material, equipment and resources for youth ministries
  • Lack of support and recognition of the importance of youth ministry by pastors and church leaders
  • Youth culture is functioning in the year 2000 while most churches are still functioning in a 1960’s model
  • Youth leaders know that youth ministry in churches is not cutting it but they often lack the training, skills and freedom from church leaders to change the situation
  • Youth leaders do not have people to mentor and train them in doing youth ministry and so they can easily get lost and discouraged in what they are trying to do.

Sarah and I are passionate about helping churches in Africa uncover the realities of youth ministry and to be able to connect into the spiritual and practical needs of young people so that the church of Jesus Christ may become so real and meaningful in their lives. I believe that this loss of meaningful youth ministry in churches in the majority world is starting to cause churches in these countries to lose their place and effectiveness in society.

There was such a large desire by many in the Congo who want to reach out to young people and to provide relevant youth ministry to young people inside and outside the church community. The thing that they lack is good training on understanding youth culture and leading youth ministry.

In the Congo there is no denomination or organization that provides consistent youth leadership training. Occasionally a group might run a seminar but there is nothing consistent where youth leaders can start to really grasp the basics of leading a youth ministry. The Congo is not alone in Africa—I am not aware of many countries in Africa where there is structured training in youth ministry. Many of the youth leaders we came in contact with around Congo are looking for ways in which they can even learn the basics of youth ministry. They can see the possibility of what could be, but for many of them this reality is far away because they do not have a way to learn and grow in developing and running effective youth ministry.

I came away from Congo even more committed to work out ways in which structured youth ministry training can be provided in countries where it doesn’t exist, countries from the majority world, countries where they do not have the same access to resources, countries where you do not have a place in society until you are thirty years old. I am also more fired up to continue leading our youth here in the USA to become better disciples of Jesus Christ.

a congo camp

August 14-15 A Congo Camp. For two days we are holding a half-day retreat for youth. We have about 20 youth and 20 adult leaders that are attending. This gives the leaders attending our seminars a practical application to what they are learning. Each of the adult leaders has a responsibility: teaching, leading worship, prayer, administrating, cooking, serving, scheduling, leading activities and more. The leaders did an amazing job and took ownership of their responsibilities. On a side note they all love the game HUWA. It is all they want to play!!

We met with a group of the leaders from the seminar that now have a vision to start a camp that travels across the country to churches that could use a camp/retreat as a means to reaching out or growing their youth. It is great to see their passion for God and youth. We walked through the process of beginning such an organization (theological structure, government legalization, and more). My experiences with the ReFUEL Retreats, Shakamak Bible Camp and Checkpoint Bible Camp have proved to be valuable.

seminars

August 11-13 The seminars begin. And we are off… So we had about 49 people the first day. Many more than we expected. We had a wonderful discussion about the biblical basis of youth ministry and the ground level instructions on how to structure a camp/retreat for youth. It was so wonderful to see such faithful servants passionate about the youth of their country and desiring to learn more about the Truth. Their faith inspires me, their heart of prayer convicts their desire and me for God moves me.

On Wednesday we started our morning with some discouraging news. One of the leaders was given word on the way to the seminar that the soldiers down country killed his brother. He and a few others went to help him prepare shelter for his family coming in from out of town. We prayed for him at the seminar. This is painfully common in the Congo. It set a somber mood for our seminar this day. After each session in the workshop we allow time for questions. They have many good questions. I don’t always have the answers. So I am studying the Bible answer give them adequate answers.

Thursday was our final day of the seminar and we prepared for our retreat for tomorrow and Saturday. Sarah and I are confident that they are going to do a great job. Each of the leaders have a specific role and ownership of the retreat. My translator Rafael has been excellent!! Praise the Lord for all your prayers!

dust


August 10 Dust. There is dust everywhere here in Bukavu. Since it is dry season the the vehicles and people walking about stirs up clouds of red clay dust. Sarah and I walked through the city markets and streets of Bukavu. We are full of dust. People were selling anything from bait fish to sandals, avacados to palm nuts, leaks to cell phones.

We visited a hospital and visited with Dr. George. He walks with a limp and specializes in pediatics. For the Congo the hospital seemed large and organized because it used to be a private Catholic hospital. We also met Dr. Gila, a Messianic Jew, who works with Moriah Africa an organization that networks churches and hospitals with helpful resources. For lunch I tried some local sombe (rice, greens, palm oil and a side of sardines) and a bottle of Coke. It was satisfying and filling.

We set up a few meetings today with youth leaders from the area. Many of them are headed to our seminars this week. The meetings are times we can discuss the week in the seminars in advance and answer any questions they might have. We were expecting about 15-20 leaders, but it now looks like we will have over 40. This will prove to be logistically challenging, but God has show His faithful. At one meeting we met a pastor by the name of Leonard and his son. Just months ago his village just 3 hours away was burned to the ground, except for their church because it was made of brick. The soldiers told him to leave so he has moved to Bukavu to look for work. He has 6 children and a wife who is expecting. He asked if we would take in some of his children. How would you respond to this proposition. We prayed together that he would trust God to supply His needs for our God is faithful.

a prayer of thanks for the DR

Early Sunday morning we got back into town. We are tired.

I didn’t want to leave the ministry in the Dominican Republic. Personally, I wanted to adopt at least 5 kids from the villages or orphanages we visited. I am so proud of our team for the spiritual initiative and giftedness they pour out on this mission. The fruit was immediate in their lives and ours. God is glorified. May we repeat more of the same here on our home turf.

Father,

thank You for the opportunity to  glorify Your name in the Dominican Republic.

thank You protect us and keep us safe as we flew, during Kiko’s bus driving, and walking around the various villages.

thank You for the strength empowered within us as we did new things in a strange place.

thank You for opening up the floodgates for you glory to shine through us.

thank You for using us as lights of your Sons grace.

thank You for Your love and allowing us to show Your love to the unlovable.

thank You for bring our team together as One.

thank You for using our hands to touch minister to Your orphans, and allowing Your love flow through us.

thank You for spiritual nourishment and immediate fruit the people we feed, clothed and played with in the sugar cane villages.

thank You for the spiritual healing those we sought to nurse in the medical clinic.

thank You for the numerous souls redeemed through our drama “Tired” and Your gospel message.

thank You for being the center of our worship.

thank You for humbling my prideful heart from the joyful poverty of the people we met.

thank You for my new friend Kiko [thank You for rescuing him and giving him a passionate heart]

thank You for creating a beautiful island with beautiful people.

Amen.