Reweirdifying Christianity

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.

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A Fun Week in Belize

Last week Marci and I were finally able to take a week off and go on vacation, something we haven’t been able to do for a couple of years. Last summer we were stuck in a local hotel most of the summer (with people who were vacationing here) and I had a bout with Bells Palsy. All that to say that last summer wasn’t so great for us, vacation-wise. So we made sure to plan at least a week this summer to do something fun.

As we were considering options for our vacation week, we got the crazy idea of visiting our good friends Gary and Georgia Bell who moved to Belize (Central America) earlier this year. I checked on flights and the airfare wasn’t too bad so we decided to throw caution to the wind and just go. We had no idea what we would find in Belize (other than the Bell’s) since we had never been there before, but it sounded like an adventure.

And it was. We booked a first night hotel room on a Belize island called Caye Caulker. The island is small, reachable only by water taxi, and there are no cars on the island–only bikes and golf carts. We stayed at a nice little hotel and enjoyed the island atmosphere. We even went snorkeling with stingrays and sharks swimming all around us.

After a couple of nights on Caye Caulker, we headed to a place called Placencia which we heard had the best beaches in Belize. We took the water taxi back to Belize City, rented a car (a real clunker as it turned out) and drove about six hours to a wonderful hotel called The Inn at Roberts Grove. We stayed there for three days and just took that time to relax. We didn’t do any sightseeing at all but just stayed put and enjoyed the beach. This being the off season for tourism, we literally had the place to ourselves and it was fantastic.

After our time in Placencia, we drove our sputtering rental car to San Ignacio, an major inland city in Belize close to the Guatemalan border. Our friends the Bell’s were gracious hosts. We loved staying with them even though we found the heat and humidity somewhat suffocating. They have a very nice home by Belizean standards but it was not air conditioned. Thank God for fans.

Gary Bell has been a dear friend of mine for many many years. As a high school student, he attended a Campus Life Club that I led back in the 1960’s. Ten or fifteen years later, his graphic design firm was hired by Youth Specialties. When I started Understanding Your Teenager in the early 90’s, Gary did all of my graphic design work. He’s a talented guy and a committed Christian.

For several years, Gary has served on the board of a mission organization called Sparrows Gate and in January, he and his wife Georgia moved to Belize to work with children. They opened a children’s center in downtown San Ignacio called “Kid’s Corner” which offers homework help, tutoring and lots of fun activities for kids who need a place to hang out after school. They are also helping Sparrows Gate set up a mission home base for short term missionaries who come to serve in Belize. After visiting with them and seeing what they are doing first-hand, we are even more impressed with the work they are doing and amazed by the sacrifice they have made to pursue this call of God on their lives.

San Ignacio is also a wonderful place for tourists to visit, so the Bell’s gave us a tour of the area. We visited Mayan ruins (archaeological sites) and an Iguana preserve. We ate in some very nice restaurants and truly enjoyed spending time with our wonderful friends.

Sometimes when you plan a vacation like this one, there’s no way to predict how things are going to go. “The best laid plans …” and all that. But this trip definitely lived up to our expectations. As they like to say down there, Belize is unbelizable.

If you would like to see more photos of our trip, click here.

 

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Worship Abuse

What is it with worship leaders who don’t know when to quit?

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.

True story.

 

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Another Amazing Family Band on my Radio Show

Each month I try to feature a live bluegrass band on my radio program–usually whoever is appearing at the local San Diego Bluegrass Society’s 4th Tuesday event at the Boll Weevil Restaurant. I heard that a group from Orange County called the Wimberly Bluegrass Band was going to be appearing at the June SDBS event, so I wasn’t real sure if they would be coming down to appear on my radio show or not. I wasn’t familiar with them and I hadn’t heard anything directly from them (or the SDBS) to confirm their appearance on my radio show. So when I arrived at the radio station Sunday night, I wasn’t absolutely sure if anyone was going to show up.

But there they were! What a surprise to find this young, good looking group at the front door of the radio station ready to play! The Wimberly’s are a family group, three brothers and a sister ranging in age from 13 to 19 who are self-taught and have already recorded two CD’s. Mom and Dad accompanied the group to the studio and unlike many “stage parents” I’ve been around, they were extremely calm and content to let the youngsters speak for themselves and do their own thing. I was very impressed with them and wasn’t surprised at all to hear that they were home schooled. That certainly explained why they were so articulate and comfortable around an old codger like me, and how they developed a fondness for bluegrass and country music rather than what’s being marketed to the teen population these days.

If you would like to hear them on my show, visit the kson.com/bluegrass web site … it will be there for a month. They will also be appearing at many Southern California bluegrass events, so keep an eye and ear out for them. This is a group with a lot of appeal and I think they will have lots of success coming their way.

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Fathers Day with Huck Finn

Just returned from another Huck Finn’s Jubilee in Victorville which is how I have spent Father’s Day weekend for the past 20 years or so. I have been involved with this event either as a performer with my band Lighthouse or as the main stage emcee or both.  I also serve as a consultant to the show’s producer (helping with talent selection) each year and I host the Sunday morning chapel service which is where my two worlds (ministry and bluegrass) collide in a big way.

The festival went great this year with a large turnout and great weather. The idea of going to Victorville in June sometimes scares people away because they think it’s going to be too hot. But we have had moderate temperatures and cool nights for several years in a row now. The music was wonderful with outstanding performances by the likes of Sierra Hull, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Rodney Dillard (of the Dillards), NewFound Road and Roy Clark. It was also great to spend the weekend with my wife, daughter Amber, and our three grandkids Nick, Maddie and Jack. They all had a good time.

I’m always amazed and a bit conflicted that I get to live in two completely different worlds. Throughout most of the year, I’m a pastor, serving on a church staff, doing rather mundane (yet significant I hope) ministry tasks. But on a weekend like the one I just had, I’m not a pastor but a bluegrass music insider, radio personality, stage announcer, friend and colleague to some of the most talented musicians on the planet. I’m amazed by it all and grateful to God that I get to do this.

But I got a quick return to reality when I got home Sunday night. The water supply to our home had been shut off by our neighbor because of a pipe break at the water meter on the street. I spent all day Monday getting it fixed and somehow strained a muscle in my back in the process. But the repair was made, the water is back on and except for the sore back, life is pretty much back to normal. See you next year, Mr. Twain.

 

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Mission Accomplished

I just returned from a wonderful week of ministry in Mexico with 25 College Avenue Baptist Church parents and their kids. We built a very nice new home for a poor family and we conducted four days of Vacation Bible School (VBS) in two separate villages involving more than 150 children.

Since I joined the staff of CABC as Pastor to Generations, this mission trip has been a dream of mine. I’ve participated in dozens of mission trips with youth groups over the years but have always felt like something was missing from them—namely the involvement of parents. Even though I believe in youth short-term mission trips and the powerful impact they can have on kids, I think they fall short just a bit. Typically when teenagers return home from a mission trip, their parents rarely understand the significance of what their kids experienced. (“Now, if you’re through changing the world, how about cleaning your room?”) I exaggerate here, but not by much.

So this family mission trip to Mexico was something I was really looking forward to doing for a long time. There is much processing and reflection that still needs to be done but so far there is a feeling of euphoria that makes me want to think this has been somewhat of a high water mark in ministry for me. Watching moms and dads serving together last week in Mexico was absolutely thrilling and I’m so looking forward to seeing how God will use this experience to change those families forever. One parent told me that his family has already decided to start serving meals on a regular basis at a local homeless shelter.

We arranged the trip through YUGO Ministries and stayed at their Ensenada Outreach Center (EOC) near Estero Beach. They set everything up for us and provided us with supplies, meals, the program for the week and very nice accommodations. One parent commented that she felt a little bit guilty staying in such a nice place while serving the poor. I understood completely what she meant but reasoned that since our trip was only a week long, it was such a blessing to have our needs provided for by YUGO so that we could concentrate on meeting the needs of the people we were there to serve. It’s a great introduction to the mission field and a wonderful ministry that YUGO provides for churches and individuals who want to be challenged and stretched.

The only negative of the week is that several of our people got sick. I don’t think all of the sickness was Mexico-related however. We were doing ministry during the week jointly with another group of families from Memphis, Tennessee, and apparently one of their families came to Mexico with the flu. (We started calling it the “Y’all Flu”). Fortunately, it was not too serious and did not hamper our efforts too much. But it’s never pleasant to be sick while you’re far away from home.

I posted some photos which I took on my Flickr page. Since I spent most of my time with the VBS team, they are mostly photos of our VBS activities and lessons. You can view them here.

If you would like to go on our next trip, just let me know! We’d love to have you.

 

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New Leadership for Youth Specialties

Youth Specialties is the ministry that Mike Yaconelli and I started back in 1968 to provide resources and training for people who do youth ministry in the church. I don’t think the mission of YS has changed much since I left in 1994 or since Mike died in 2003 but the leadership continues to change. After a few years as part of Zondervan (Harper Collins), it’s now in the hands of YouthWorks (headquartered in Minnesota). The “world headquarters” of Youth Specialties is still in El Cajon, just a couple of miles from my home, but that may change since Tic Long (who has served as president of YS for the past couple of years) is stepping down and passing the baton to Mark Matlock who lives in Texas. Tic just accepted a position at a local church in town as executive pastor.

I don’t know Mark real well, but I’ve had a few conversations with him and I like him a lot. He seems to get youth ministry–that’s it’s not it’s so much about being relevant as it is about helping students become lifelong followers of Jesus. He a smart guy, a good communicator and he’s highly regarded among youth workers from both sides of the theological aisle. I think he’ll be very good for Youth Specialties and its future.

Here’s a video that YS released recently to introduce Mark.

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A Positive Spin on the Ten Commandments

I have often talked to parents about the importance of writing family mission statements or family creeds to help pass faith from one generation to the next. Many children grow up in Christian homes not really sure about what their parents (or they themselves) believe. Last month I wrote an article for our church’s parent newsletter on that same topic. Here it is:

In the book of Deuteronomy, parents are instructed to “impress” the commandments of God upon their children (6:7). What does this mean? The word impress in the original Hebrew means to permanently fix or brand, similar to what takes place when a farmer brands his cattle.

So how do we brand the commandments of God on our children? Obviously we aren’t supposed to tattoo them on our children’s bodies. Our goal is to brand them on our children’s hearts and minds.

Let me suggest one way to do this. We can teach the commandments to our children not as a negative list of things they shouldn’t do (“shalt not’s) but as a positive list of things they get to do as members of your family and as followers of Jesus Christ. You might even want to rewrite the Ten Commandments especially for your family as a mission statement or creed. Here’s an example:

Our Family Mission Statement

  1. We will love and serve God, who first loved us and gave his Son to die on the Cross for our sins.
  2. We will keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
  3. We will be ambassadors for Christ and share his love with others whenever we have the opportunity.
  4. We will devote special time every week for worship, prayer, reading Scripture and serving others.
  5. We will love and respect our parents, grandparents and others who care for us, teach us and provide for us.
  6. We will live in peace and harmony with others, forgiving those who wrong us rather than hurting them or seeking revenge.
  7. We will remain sexually pure and faithful in our personal relationships.
  8. We will be honest and trustworthy in all that we do.
  9. We will be honest and trustworthy in all that we say.
  10. We will be thankful and content with all that God has given to us.

Of course the best way to impress these things on your children is to live them out consistently at home every single day. I guarantee you … they will be impressed indeed!

 

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The Future of Bluegrass

In my recurring posts of youth in bluegrass music, I present the The Mizzone brothers, Johnny, Robbie and Tommy from New Jersey. They range in age from 9 to 13 and call themselves the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys (from a verse in Psalms). Pretty amazing stuff.

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Easter 2011

We had a wonderful Easter this year. We’ve been celebrating Easter in our backyard for over 30 years now (way before we had a backyard to celebrate in) because we believe that nothing is worth celebrating more than the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15).

Easter was especially meaningful for me this year. It started with our Ash Wednesday event at College Avenue Baptist Church called “Journey to Golgotha,” which kicked off the season of Lent, the 46 days leading up to Easter, during which I try to observe each year with a fast of some kind and time for reflection and spiritual discipline. This year I read a surprisingly good book by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) titled Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection which unpacks the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. My brother Jim sent me the book as a gift and quite honestly, not being Catholic, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a sitting Pope. But this book was rich, touched my heart and gave me numerous insights into the Gospel narrative, harmonizing the four Gospels to provide a thorough commentary on the last week of Jesus’ life before his ascension.

Easter Sunday was a great day at church. As I usually do on Easter, I put on a coat and tie to wear to church. I know it’s old school (hardly anybody at church wears a coat and tie anymore) but for some reason I just feel like Easter is a day worth dressing up for. After I got all spruced up, our 4-year-old grandson Jack took a look at me and shouted out, “Mommy look! Grandpa’s a … MAN!” We got a good laugh out of that.

Marci and I volunteered to sing in the Easter choir (our worship pastor needed a few extra voices) and it was really great to look out at a full sanctuary while singing classic Easter hymns like “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee” and “Christ Arose.” After the choir performed the song “Redeemer,” Marci and I took seats on the front row and listened to our pastor, Carlton Harris, who delivered an inspired Easter message on Matthew 16:13-20. Right in the middle of his sermon however, a cell phone went off nearby and in horror we realized it was in Marci’s purse. She fumbled around trying to find it, but it just kept on ringing … loud. I wanted to stomp on her purse and make it stop but I couldn’t reach it. Finally she found it and turned it off. After the service, Marci apologized to Pastor Carlton and thankfully he was very understanding and kind to her.

After the sermon, the choir and orchestra and other members of the congregation performed the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. I’ve always thought that this was was (and is) the greatest piece of music ever written so I was a little nervous about trying to sing it. Usually I just sit (stand, actually) and listen and am always moved to tears. I’ve always wanted to sing it, however, so I decided to give it a try. I went to choir rehearsal on Wednesday night and discovered that I had no idea how to read that music. Since the choir seemed a little short on tenors, I decided to be a tenor. But the Hallelujah Chorus is an incredibly complicated piece of music and during rehearsal, I felt like a musical moron. I couldn’t find my part at all. So I came home a bit embarrassed and humbled.

The next day, however, I decided to see if there wasn’t some way I could learn that part by Sunday morning. I searched the internet and happily discovered a YouTube video which had the Hallelujah chorus with the tenor part only! I downloaded it, put the audio on my iPod and listened to it about 50 times Friday and Saturday as I worked around the house. Actually it was really cool to be getting ready for Easter with the Hallelujah Chorus playing over and over in my head.

I was still a little unsure of myself during rehearsal on Sunday morning … but during the actual performance at the end of our worship service … I nailed it. Hallelujah indeed!

We headed home right after church and finished getting everything ready for our guests who started arriving around 12:30. Most didn’t leave until 5:30 or so. there was lots of good food and good music and good fellowship with people we love. It was a happy day, perfect for celebrating the happiest day in the history of the world.

If you would like to see some more photos of our Easter celebration (taken by Tom Cunningham), click here or on one of the photos on this page.

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