Category Archives: Ministry
I’m very excited that my sister Mary (along with her puppet partner Darcie Maze) is coming to San Diego to do a concert at the church where I now serve as Pastor to Generations, College Avenue Baptist Church. The concert is on Saturday, April 21 at 4 PM and it will benefit the College Area Pregnancy Services, which is supported by our church for its good work helping expectant mothers have successful deliveries.
If you are in the San Diego area, come to the concert (it’s free; an offering will be taken) and bring some kids. The address is 4747 College Avenue Baptist Church and the concert will be in the family center (gym). It should be a fun day. Here’s a video clip trailer for Mary’s new TV show.
One of the great things I get to do at College Avenue Baptist Church is to plan and promote intergenerational short-term mission trips. Here’s a video we showed in church this past week:
I recently finished Roger Steer’s biography of the late Anglican pastor and renowned author John R.W. Stott titled Basic Christian. Thank you InterVarsity Press for sending this book to me during the Christmas season. What an amazing, full and exemplary life was lived by this giant of the evangelical faith. I have read several of his books over the years, most notably his The Cross of Christ (several times) which I learned in this biography was the book he considered his greatest work. But I regret that I never had a chance to hear him speak nor to learn more about his private and public life. I am especially intrigued that he was an avid birdwatcher and always took time to enjoy his hobby all over the world and sometimes at great personal expense and risk. This encourages me somewhat as I also have some obsessions (like bluegrass music) which is sometimes hard to explain to people in ministry circles. I have often suggested that people who do ministry should take up a hobby, an “other life,” a passion outside of ministry that is healthy, invigorating, fun and irrational. I’ve discovered that pastors and ministry leaders who do not have such an “other life” often become full of themselves and are more likely to burn out or fall into an other life which is more often than not self-destructive.
One big take-away for me from this book about Rev. Stott (and there are many) is his morning prayer which Steer reprints and notes that John prayed it daily. “Each morning (usually before five a.m.) John swung his legs over the side of his bed and before placing a foot on the ground started the day (whenever possible) with this Trinitarian prayer.”
“Good morning heavenly Father, good morning Lord Jesus, good morning Holy Spirit. Heavenly Father I worship you as the creator and sustainer of the universe. Lord Jesus I worship you, Savior and Lord of the world. Holy Spirit I worship you, sanctifier of the people of God. Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Heavenly Father I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more. Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you. Holy spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God, have mercy upon me, Amen.”
I want to make this prayer mine also. And I want to go back and read more of Stott’s books now that I know more about the man. I am at an age when I am seeking out contemporary mentors–dead or alive–who lived their lives completely dedicated to God with immense integrity all the way to the end of their lives. I have found one such mentor in the life and ministry of John R.W. Stott.
The December 2011 issue of Christianity Today featured an article by Anthony Baker, a theology professor at the Seminary of the Southwest titled “Learning to Read the Gospel Again” with the subtitle “How to address our anxiety about losing the next generation.” Losing the next generation (or expressed positively—hanging on to the next generation) is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately in my role as Pastor to Generations at College Avenue Baptist Church. Like many churches, we are doing our best to stop the bleeding of young people leaving the church in record numbers.
Professor Baker makes a strong case in this article that the only thing capable of holding young people to their faith is the Gospel itself. He quotes the venerable theologian Stanley Hauerwas who made this comment about the emergent church movement which of course targets younger generations: “The future of the church is not found in things like this; the future is in doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday.” The “same thing” Hauerwas is referring to here is not the same failures of acculturation, but rather the continual proclamation of the good news, the Gospel about Jesus Christ, and “attending to the various classical practices that form people’s lives within the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ … The future of the church is found in doing this week in and week out, Sunday after Sunday, come rain, drought, hell or high water.”
Baker notes that one doesn’t have to look far to find churches where the “same thing” is a thing of the past and he suggests that youth & children’s ministries today are particularly prone to skipping over the gospel message in favor of more relevant fare.
For the kids, the situation is especially dire. Summer camps feature Jesus on a surfboard, or perhaps in safari gear, while Sunday morning classes tend to specialize in low-quality group counseling sessions. What we offer is anything but the simple gospel that ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:19). On good days the children humor us by pretending to enjoy themselves, all the time wondering when they get to do something more fun.
Quoting a memorable line from Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, he continues: “Young people look to the church to show them something, someone, capable of turning their lives inside out and the world upside down. Most of the time, we have offered them pizza.”
What Baker is suggesting is not that we stop using age-appropriate methods of reaching and teaching our young people, but that we consistently offer our kids a fresh and inspiring look at Jesus as revealed to us in the Scriptures. He continues,
“Of course what Matthew Mark, Luke and John offer us is a story, but not just a story. It’s also the linguistic vessel through which we encounter the loving, creating and saving God. The central character in this narrative loves us back. After asking, ‘Do you love what you are reading?’ the Christian educator ought to be able to add, ‘And are you loved by what you are reading?’… Imagine a church in which children and adults of all ages, races and classes were bound together by their common love for the words of the Gospel. If Christians can learn, week after week, to read the story of Jesus of Nazareth—to love what we read, to be loved by what we read—then surely the future of the church would look a bit more hopeful.”
I also read a new book last month by professor Scot McKnight (North Park University) titled The King Jesus Gospel which has greatly enlarged my understanding of what the Gospel is all about. McKnight begins at the beginning of the book by asking the reader to write down on a piece of paper an answer to the question “What is the Gospel?” I played along and wrote something like this: “The Gospel is the good news that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, was buried and then rose again on the third day.” I based my explanation of the Gospel on Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15:3.
As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off. McKnight in fact bases much of his book on the same verse in 1 Corinthians. But he takes issue with evangelicals who summarize the Gospel more in terms of a formula for salvation: “Christ died on the cross for your sins. If you will repent, believe and receive Christ as your personal Savior, you will be saved.” I have to admit, I have presented the Gospel that way many times.
But McKnight’s view is that such a formula is not the Gospel but “the plan of salvation.” It is, of course, an important part of the Gospel, but it’s not the Gospel. When we reduce the Gospel to the plan of salvation, writes McKnight, we tend to make the Gospel more about us and what we do than about Jesus and what he has done. The Gospel is not our story, writes McKnight, but instead it is the story of God, the story of Jesus, how he came as the Messiah of Israel, lived, died, rose again, ascended into heaven and is coming back again to rule over his Kingdom forever and ever. That’s the good news (Gospel) about which all of the four evangelists wrote and which is contained in their four accounts which are appropriately named “The Gospel (according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).” This is also the Gospel which Paul proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 15: 1-5: “Now brothers and sisters I want to remind you of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this Gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve.” McKnight asserts that these four crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ are the concern and the primary message of the biblical evangelists, not the “four spiritual laws” which are the concern and primary message of evangelical Chrisitanity today. The Gospel as a system of personal salvation is an incomplete Gospel, says McKnight, and is ultimately self-centered.
We are tempted to turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my personal salvation. In other words, the plan has a way of cutting the story about God and God’s Messiah and God’s people into a story about God and one person—me—and in this the story shifts from Christ and community to individualism. We need the latter without cutting off the former.
What McKnight is saying is that the Gospel is more than what can be communicated in four bullet points. It is even more than what happened on the Cross. It is the whole story of God’s redemptive plan, from the creation story to the coming of the Messiah to the final consummation of human history when Jesus reigns forever as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The story is told of author and professor Robert Webber’s (Wheaton College) encounter with a student who asked him to explain the Gospel. He replied, “Do you have an hour?” McKnight himself takes a stab at summarizing the Gospel in his book and his summary takes six pages. He’s not saying that it’s impossible to be concise and clear about the Gospel message by using just a few words (that’s exactly what Paul did it in 1 Corinthians 15). He’s just saying that the Gospel is the entire amazing story of Jesus as Messiah, Savior, Lord and King as told in the context of God’s amazing plan to redeem all of humankind.
I remember reading a book years ago by Paul Little called Your God Is Too Small. McKnight’s book has made me think that mayber our Gospel has become too small. I agree with Baker that the Gospel, the good news about Jesus, is big enough, awesome enough and certainly powerful enough to capture the hearts of our young people and keep them connected to Christ and the church. If the Gospel is something that we want our children and young people to believe and trust for a lifetime, then we must take the time, week after week, to teach it to them.
I recently read Eugene Peterson’s memoir, a book simply titled Pastor. Peterson is of course best known for The Message, his wonderful translation of the Bible. But before he was a famous author, he was a not-so-famous pastor of a small suburban church in Maryland.
For the past year or so I have also been a pastor—not a senior pastor, but a pastor nonetheless. Even though I have served alongside pastors and youth pastors for almost 50 years, I have never actually been a pastor before. In some ways I feel like I’m starting over again in ministry, learning a new vocation that requires new skills and new ways of working with people. I’ve got a long way to go. I thought I would read Peterson’s book to learn more about what it means to be a pastor.
Peterson is a good one to learn from. The book is autobiographical in nature, and it’s a good read. His story is told honestly and with humility. There are also points in the book when Peterson adds some wonderful commentary on ministry, theology and the state of the modern church. For example, when he became a pastor, he resolved to focus on just two things: worship and community. Of these, he writes, “The religious culture of America that I was surrounded with dismayed me on both counts. Worship had been degraded into entertainment. And community had been depersonalized into programs.”
“By the time I arrived on the scene as a pastor,” he continues, “the American church had reinterpreted the worship of God as an activity for religious consumers. Entertainment, cheerleading, and manipulation were conspicuous in high places. American worship was conceived as a public relations campaign for Jesus and the angels. Worship had been cheapened into a commodity marketed by using tried-and-true advertising techniques. If so-called worshippers didn’t ‘get anything out of it,’ there had been no worship worth coming back for. Instead of calling people to worship God, pastors all over the country were inviting people to ‘have a worship experience.’ Worship was evaluated on the ‘consumer satisfaction scale’ of one to ten.”
And he writes this on community:
“Church in America was mostly understood by Christians and their pastors in terms of its function—what it did: build buildings, become ‘successful,’ change the neighborhood, launch mission projects, and create programs that would organize and motivate people to do these things. Programs, mostly programs. Programs had developed into the dominant methodology of ‘doing church.’ Far more attention was given to organizing and giving leadership to programs than anything else. But there is a problem here: a program is an abstraction and inherently impersonal. A program defines people in terms of what they do, not who they are. The more program, the less person. … I wanted to develop a congregation in which relationships were primary, a household of hospitality. A community in which men and women would be known primarily by name, not by function. I knew this wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t.”
There’s a lot to learn in this book about how to be a pastor. Peterson served at Christ Our King Presbyterian Church for 30 years, not a big church by today’s standards, but one where lives were transformed and disciples were made. I think I would have loved being a member there.
I have a confession to make. Last week I bought a $35 guitar pick. Yes, that’s right … a guitar pick. I don’t think I have ever paid more than 35 cents for a guitar pick in the past. In fact most guitar picks, I get for free.
How did this happen? Why would I spend $35 on a guitar pick? I have no other way to explain this except to say that it was peer pressure, pure and simple. Here’s how it happened: I walked up to a booth in the exhibit hall of the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) last week in Nashville. The booth was “Blue Chip Picks,” a company based in Knoxville, Tennessee which makes picks primarily for professional guitar and mandolin players. Several bluegrass “stars” endorse Blue Chip picks and probably get them for free in exchange for their endorsements. I have wondered for some time what all the fuss was about.
So I’m at the Blue Chip booth and ask the obvious question. So how much do these picks cost? “Well, the one you’re holding there is $35.00.” I quickly put the pick down. Wow. I had no idea a pick could cost that much. Of course the man behind the table went on to explain to me all the desirable qualities of a guitar pick, how they are shaped, what kind of material they are made of, and how these picks never wear out but if they do, they can be returned for a new one. My problem of course is that my picks never have a chance to wear out. I lose them right away. They magically disappear after each use. Or somebody borrows my pick and that’s the last I see of it. So I’m standing there watching other musicians casually laying down some serious money for these picks. “I’ll take three,” says one. I do the math in my head: that’s $105 for three guitar picks. Holy smokes.
“You can’t beat these picks,” says Bull Harmon, a flat-pick guitar champion from Missouri. “Just like a tortoise shell pick.” Of course, I’ve never played guitar with a tortoise shell pick, since they are illegal and also very expensive if you know where to get one illegally. I’m not sure what makes a tortoise shell pick so much better than a plastic pick. I’ve actually made guitar picks out of old credit cards.
Several other musicians are there at the booth just raving about these picks. Before long, I’m starting to want one. I try out a couple of thicknesses. They even have picks that have been shaped a certain way depending on whether or not you are left- or right-handed. I finally settle on the TD-40 (which sounds pretty impressive for a pick — it’s pictured above). I hand the man behind the table my credit card and say, “I’ll try this one out and if I like it, I’ll order more.” I think I said that to make him believe that I did this all the time, and that $35 really didn’t seem all that outrageous to me. I get my receipt along with the pick, which is in a little plastic zip lock bag. It doesn’t come in a fancy case or anything. Just a guitar pick in a plastic bag. I put it in my pocket, hoping I won’t lose it before I get out of the building.
On the way out of the IBMA exhibit hall I stopped at the Martin Guitar booth. They had free guitar picks on the table. “Take all you want,” the man said. But not to be greedy, I took two and put them in my pocket, right next to my $35 guitar pick.
As I was walking back to my hotel room a few blocks from the Nashville convention center, I suddenly came to the realization that I had just spent $35 for a bleeping guitar pick! What in the world made me do that?
All I can say is that it is the exact same kind of peer pressure that we warn our kids and grandkids about. While I was standing in that booth, with all those other musicians encouraging me to “try it, you’ll like it,” I did. I couldn’t just walk away. When I got home, it took me two full days to confess to my wife what I had done. She wasn’t too upset as she admitted that she had been a little extravagant herself while I was away and bought a new purse.
So, next time you hear me playing my guitar, I know you’ll be impressed because I will be using a $35 Blue Chip TD-40 pick. If I don’t lose it first.
I’ll be heading off this week for a conference in Dallas which is called D6, named after the oft-quoted passage in Deuteronomy 6 which commands parents to know the commandments of God and to “impress” them on their children in the normal routines of daily life (6:6-9). Several of us from College Avenue Baptist are going and I’m looking forward to hanging out with them and some of my friends who will be there like Doug Fields, Tim Smith and Mark Matlock. There are quite a few good speakers lined up for this conference and I’m looking forward to hearing them and attending some of the seminars. I’ve been asked to be on a panel for one of the sessions, to talk a little bit about how youth ministry intersects with family ministry today. Should be a good conversation. If you would like to peek in on the conference this week, you can do that online by visiting http://d6conference.com/.
A few weeks ago I got a shiny blue package in the mail from Zondervan Publishing House containing a prepublication copy of Sticky Faith, the new book for parents by Kara Powell and Chap Clark. The book has a catchy title and from the looks of the fancy packaging, it’s going to be marketed pretty well by the publisher. That’s a good thing if you’re an author!
I was eager to read my copy of Sticky Faith not only because it’s a topic I’m interested in, but because of who wrote it. My package included a nice personal note from Kara who I’m proud to say was a very bright student of mine when I was teaching youth ministry classes at Bethel Seminary in San Diego about 15 years ago. She went on to Fuller Seminary, got her PhD and now heads up the Fuller Youth Institute. There’s no question that she has become one of this generation’s most respected youth ministry voices.
Chap and I go back a long way, having worked together for many years at Youth Specialties. He also teaches at Fuller Seminary and his 2004 book Hurt has established him as one of the leading authorities on adolescent culture.
Simply put, Sticky Faith is a book for parents on how to pass lasting faith on to their kids. It’s not the first on this subject of course. (Ahem, now would be a good time to plug my book Generation to Generation, right?) There are quite a few good books coming out these days to help parents raise their children up in the faith.
The unique spin that Powell and Clark give this topic is found in the word “sticky.” They express concern, as we all do, that faith just doesn’t seem to “stick” with kids who populate our youth groups. “Our conclusion is that 40 to 50 percent of kids who graduate from a church or youth group will fail to stick with their faith in college.” Some researchers have put this percentage a lot higher (anywhere from 65 to 80 percent) but Powell and Clark, while being a bit more optimistic, make it clear that “a 50 percent rate of Sticky Faith” is unacceptable.
I found their chapter titled “A Sticky Web of Relationships” to be especially good and affirming in my current ministry (Pastor to Generations at College Avenue Baptist Church in San Diego.) For the past couple of years, besides working with parents I’ve been trying to help our church take some baby steps towards becoming an intergenerational church, which is what this chapter is all about. Powell and Clark write about the importance of connecting kids with ordinary adults in the church (not just the trained youth workers) and creating what they call 5:1 (a reverse in the typical ratio of adults to kids in the church).
I’ve advocated something along those same lines for many years. In my mind, the first youth group in history was the one found in Luke 2:46. That verse pictures Jesus as a 12 year old, sitting in the temple with a group of elders (“teachers” in the NIV). Rather than a bunch of kids with one adult in charge, here we have one kid with a bunch of adults. I’m not sure how many elders were actually there with Jesus at the time, but I do know he had more than one overworked, underpaid youth worker.
The basic idea behind 5:1 is to intentionally and regularly integrate young people with the adult population of the church so that faith can be passed along from one generation to the next in a natural and dynamic way. Powell and Clark offer several examples of churches that have successfully made this transition and some of them reflect our experience so far at CABC. Like this one:
“So they canceled Sunday youth group. No more Sunday meetings. Instead, kids are now fully integrated into the church on Sundays. Kids are greeters, they serve alongside adults on the worship music team, they are involved in giving testimonies, and they even give chunks of the sermon from time to time. The youth pastor described the power of this 5:1 shift: ‘We knew that this would change our kids. What has surprised us is how much this has changed our church.’”
We don’t have the teenagers preaching sermons yet, but our pastor frequently uses them as sermon illustrations.
Intergenerational churches are not new of course. What’s new is that churches over the past 50 years have intentionally and regularly segregated kids from the rest of the church. “And that segregation is causing kids to shelve their faith,” say Powell and Clark. Not the only reason, perhaps, but certainly a contributing factor.
I suppose my only nit-picky criticism of the book would be the authors’ overuse of the word sticky—sticky findings, sticky identity, sticky Gospel, sticky justice, and so on throughout the book. The book started to even feel sticky. No wait, I think that happened after our 5-year-old grandson Jack used the book as a placemat. Still, this is a good book, one that I’ll definitely be recommending to parents and youth workers.
I am an avid reader and admirer of author and Princeton professor Kenda Creasy Dean. In response to a question “What’s the biggest challenge facing youth workers today?” on the Youth Specialties blog, she says:
The biggest challenge might also be the best thing to happen to the church since the apostles and that is the fact that, even though 3/4 of American teenagers say they are Christians, most people in our culture really haven’t got a clue what the church is about, or why Jesus matters, or what on earth the Holy Spirit is doing in the world. The fastest growing religious preference among Americans—especially among young people—is “none”. And the “nones” aren’t in other people’s families or churches—they’re in ours. Churches are going to keep shrinking and the “nones” are going to keep growing, at least for another 10-15 years, mostly because churches are now so darned hard to distinguish from any other well-meaning institution in middle class American culture. It’s very hard for kids (and if we’re honest, for us) to figure out why we should follow Jesus Christ when Christians are caught up in the same rat race as everyone else. So what does that mean for youth ministry? We can either spin our wheels trying to stem the decline of any number of wobbly Christian entities or we can go out and do ministry among the “nones.” If the church depends on Jesus Christ instead of on us, I think maybe it’s time to spend less time worrying about dying and more time hanging out with young people who are dying—literally—to live. It’s never occurred to most of them that Christianity has anything to offer in the “get a life” department, much less that we might offer something that is distinct from what is offered everywhere else. I think one way youth workers will serve the church in general in the next generation is to re-weirdify Christianity, and remind young people, and the church as a whole, that we live by distinctive standards, standards of grace, humility and hope, that make no sense in a world where the primary objective is to “get ahead”.
Good stuff. If you haven’t already, you might want to check out Kenda’s book Almost Christian. It’s the best book I’ve read on youth, youth ministry and the church in years.
I attended a meeting recently (to be kind, I won’t mention where) which was nearing its conclusion. A few opening songs had been sung, Scripture was read, a lesson was taught effectively, all good stuff. The meeting was attended by around 75 adults, youth and children. Then the speaker asked the worship leader (actually, make that “the guy with the guitar”) to lead us in a little worship time while we reflected on the meaning of the lesson we had been taught.
Okay, I thought to myself. Maybe I do need to reflect a bit.
My head is bowed, eyes are closed. I’m reflecting. The first song has a chorus that I’ve heard somewhere before. “Oh … how he loves us so … (repeat over and over).” I sing along. But then come the verses. I notice that not too many people are singing the verses. That’s because not too many people know words. The lyrics weren’t being projected for this impromptu worship time. This is a hard song to sing. There are too many words to fit into the rather unpredictable melody line of this song. And who wrote these words? I sure don’t feel like a tree in a hurricane nor is my heart jumping violently out of my chest. I’m not singing now, just listening. And I’m second-guessing the worship leader’s choice of songs.
That song ends and then comes song #2. Not sure I’ve heard this one before. Can’t remember the name of it. Then comes the third. The chorus of each song is repeated … how many times? Three? Five? No, make that twenty times. A fourth song (sounds a lot like song #2). Now five songs. I’m not counting but I’m sure this is song five. The worship leader is really into these songs. My guess is that he’s trying to sound like Chris Tomlin. Or is it David Crowder? I’m not sure because I’m not too familiar with all the latest Christian music. I’ve heard some of these songs before but not all of them. I don’t know the words or melody lines to hardly any of these songs. Apparently no one else does either because the only one singing right now is the guy with the guitar. I’m looking around and notice some folks are getting restless. How much time has gone by? Twenty minutes? Thirty? I can’t believe that he is still singing away at the top of his lungs, oblivious to what is going on around him. Besides, that guitar is turned up way too loud for any kind of reflection to be going on. I’m getting a headache. Why is he doing this to us? Is it simply because we are a captive audience? Does he think this is a concert? Why doesn’t the speaker just get up and stop him? Just shoot me. What I’m reflecting on right now is that I would rather hear fingernails on a blackboard. I’m also reflecting that I’m too much of a coward to get up and walk out, although I notice a few others are not afraid to do so. One more chorus and I’m out of here too.
The mini-concert finally ends. A check of the wrist watch shows 40 minutes have gone by. Thank God it’s over. My time of prayer and reflection is done for tonight. Thank you Jesus.
I go to bed. During the night, I keep waking up to a song going off in my head: “GREATER THINGS HAVE YET TO BE DONE IN THE CITYYYYYY!!! …” Lord, please make it stop so I can get some sleep.