Reflecting on 7 years of Youth Ministry

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A recent Facebook post caused me to reflect on my time in youth ministry.

  1. Youth Ministry is tough.

It is exhausting work. It is work that, by most, is done with an enormous amount of passion and dedication. The youth ministers I know love their students. They have them to their house, answer texts at odd hours of the day, show up at ball games, take them on exhausting retreats. The youth ministers that I know passionately engage their students. It is tough work to dedicate that amount of heart and time to youth ministry. Continue reading

The Guardian: Some Thoughts on Drowning and Discipleship

A few years back there was a movie released called The Guardian. The movie centers on the rescue swimmers for the United States Coast Guard. These are the men and women who valiantly defy all risk and harm, diving into storms to save drowning service men. If you’re one of these rescue swimmers you can confidently know that your work matters, your efforts are not in vain, and the lives saved will be your badge of a life well-lived.

A few months back I started a meeting for a small group of men. The point was the have a very intentional and personal relationship with these men. The nature of this relationship would be primarily in spiritual guidance – discipleship. The more that I meet with these men the more that I find myself identifying with these sorts of films. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a sort of messiah complex, where I have to jump in and save these men. It is quite the contrary. The theme that I identify with is the drowning, not the rescuing.

The men that I meet with are fighting to stay afloat. Drugs, alcohol, violence, all are undercurrents pulling them under the surface of the water. On Wednesday evenings we come together and they take in one big gulp of oxygen, only to wake up the following morning to the same titanic waves threatening their very existence.

Of course, the drowning for me is a bit different. I walk into the room where we meet, and that’s where the drowning begins. Every single day is an exercise in recognizing how incapable I actually am. In my own strength and wisdom, I have nothing to offer these men. I hear myself regurgitating biblical truths and think “tomorrow they will face a myriad of challenges that I know nothing about, I sure hope this helps.” The drive home from those meetings is often lonely. I am constantly faced with the undercurrents of my own inadequacy.

But there is a quote from The Guardian that has always stuck out to me. A survivor of a rescue mission swears to Jake Fischer, played by Ashton Kutcher, that there was someone in the water helping him. Fischer responds, “There is a legend of a man who lives beneath the sea. He is a fisher of men, a last hope for all those who’ve been left behind. He is known as the Guardian.”

For the USCS rescue swimmers, the Guardian was a legend. For missionaries, drunks, murderers, suburbanites, addicts and anything in-between, the Guardian is a reality that we must cling to. Once we confess that Christ is King and begin to follow Jesus, the waves don’t calm down. As a matter of fact, for many, it seems like the waves intensify, for a time. As followers of Jesus we know that our King can lead us by still waters, yet we find our lives too often characterized by chaotic waves deafening the still voice of the Guardian who is with us.

Every Wednesday night I come to recognize that fighting the waves is a useless battle. The magnitude of the ocean that is the human life is way to vast and way too strong for a measly little guy like me. And instead of battling, I must learn to rest in the Guardian. Jesus Christ is not just the last hope –He is the only hope. He is the only hope for any and every vice that a human will face. Only Jesus satisfies, only Jesus heals, only Jesus restores. He is the fisher of men. He is the one who rescues. He is the one who willingly dove into the chaos that my sin caused, pulled my head above the water, and is carrying me to safety. And, He is the only one that can do that for the men that I meet with as well. I can’t. I’m drowning. Jesus is the Guardian.

This is the Stuff that Drives Me Crazy…Literally: My Frustrations With Christian Pop

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There was a popular song a few years back titled “This is the Stuff” by Francesca Battistelli. Well, I don’t know how popular it was, it was just always on the radio. Though I’m not a fan of Christian pop, it had a catchy tune – catchy in the sense that I would be annoyed hours later that I was still humming the song. The words of the song were pretty simple…as with most Christian pop:

I lost my keys in the great unknown
And call me please ’cause I can’t find my phone

This is the stuff that drives me crazy
This is the stuff that’s getting to me lately
In the middle of my little mess
I forget how big I’m blessed
This is the stuff that gets under my skin
But I’ve gotta trust You know exactly what You’re doing
Might not be what I would choose
But this the stuff You use

She goes on to also talk about getting pulled over for speeding. The entire premise of the song is that God uses these small, inconveniences in our life to “break us of impatience” and remind us that “in the middle of our little mess” we really are blessed.

The first time I heard this song, I couldn’t identify. I felt scummy for living a much more complex and insidious life than this sweet girl who just can’t seem to find her phone.

 

So, let me express some of my frustrations with this song that is really a small representation of what happens in a larger context.

  1. Exemplifies Christian Disconnectedness

Maybe these lyrics are the experience for many Christians, though I highly doubt it. However, how can we expect to communicate the gospel to those around us, when the most challenging elements of our life are losing our keys, our phone, and getting pulled over? Maybe Battistelli isn’t saying those are the “most challenging,” rather they are the ones God uses. However, if she’s not saying it explicitly, it is certainly implied.

The world around us is wrestling with addiction, anger, hatred, greed, rejection, self-injury, thoughts of suicide and many are looking for a solution to their brokenness. If they looked to the church and found this sort of ideology, they would be left hopeless, with a sense of too-far-gone-ness. By hearing the lyrics of this song they may be left thinking “man, these Christians are such good people and there is no way that I could ever fit in.” 

  1. Trivializes the Human Experience

While I’d never want to generalize, I highly doubt that any Christian has lived such a moral and upright life that the most gigantic struggle that they face is trusting in God when they lose their keys and phone. Every Christian wrestles with the deep-seated residual affects of sin. Before Christ, we were enemies of God, with hearts aroused by evil and wickedness. Sin had affected every part of our being and every part of our existence. Coming to Christ was not an immediate change from “a heart bent towards wickedness” to “darn, I lost my keys again, gee-golly I better trust God.”

After listening to that song, I was left feeling condemned and lonely. If that is the Christian experience, than I am a filthy, arrogant, wretch damned by my own vice. Because, God knows, my daily struggles are so big, so cosmic, and so lethal, that I must crucify myself daily. My personal human experience is so much stronger, that losing my keys isn’t even on my spiritual radar.

Grace doesn’t make a lot of sense when all I need is a little bit of faith for when I lose my phone. A cheap explanation of the human experience, will inevitably lead to a cheap explanation of grace.

  1. Dishonest Art

Sadly, it is these sorts of songs that critics of “Christian art” often point to. It is dishonest. Not in that Battistelli is lying, but it doesn’t adequately express her daily life. This song is not evidence of strong soul-searching, deep into the caverns of the human heart, expressing deeply compelling truths about her life before God. Rather, it comes across like a cheap marketing scheme, that will quickly rise to the top of the charts.

You would find none of this sort of superficial writing in the words of Paul, Peter, James, or John. They were harshly true and viciously honest about the human condition. Paul tells us “18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[d] I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” He concludes “wretched man that I am, who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin?”

Paul’s frustrations are not that he keeps poking himself with the quill writing his letters, or that the wheels on the chariot that arrested him were a bit squeaky. His writing is honest to his human experience.

For an alternate example of an honest expression of the human condition, consider Sufjan Steven’s song John Wayne Gacy. After explaining the horrific tragedies committed by the hands of Gacy, Stevens writes one of the most honest, self-assessments I have ever heard:

and in my best behavior, I’m really just like him

look underneath the floor boards for the secrets I have hid

 

This sounds like a man who has understood that he too is the chief of sinners. I don’t want to demean, or condescend. However, as Christians, we must do better. And, we cannot allow this sort of sugarcoated air we call “Christian music” define our artistic expression as followers of Jesus Christ.

The Poison of Christian Humanism

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I realize that the concept of christian humanism sounds a bit oxy-moronic. Despite it’s self-defeating appearance, it takes a while to spot, but once you see it…you see it everywhere.

Humanism, simply put, is a worldview with the human at the center. The human is the apex, the cornerstone, the climax of existence. The human has all of the power, all of the authority, all of the world at her fingertips, and all that she must do is exercise that un-tapped potential.

To much of the on-looking world, the United States is a utopia of humanism. Americans have story after story of the self-made man, rags to riches, from gangs to C.E.O.  We Americans value entrepeneurialism and individualism and have idolized these values in shows like Shark Tank and The Apprentice.

In places like Guatemala, this message has been exported and copied. Joel Osteen would be thrilled to see the inspirational, self-help that qualifies as “preaching.”

This humanistic distortion of Christianity is chaff to true Christianity. It looks the same, feels the same, smells the same, but when you break it down into its separate components, it brutally fails the test of faith.

This worldview, simply put, merely adds the notion of God to an already established worldview. Its motto could read “If you just believe in God, you can do anything” or “Now that you’ve got God, you can achieve your wildest dreams.” christian humanism has an affinity for Bible verses like:

Philippians 4:13

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Or

Isaiah 40:31

but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Or

Jeremiah 29:11

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Or

Romans 8:28

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

All of those verses are interpreted as being about me, me, me, me, and me. Not only are they about me, but they are about me, in my situation right now, applied the exact way that I need those verses to be applied so that I can feel better about my current situation.

Another characteristic of christian humanism is that it is primarily inspirational or motivational. There is an entire market that has been developed due to Christian humanism. Coffee cups and t-shirts, all telling me that if I have God, I can do anything that I put my mind to.

Other variations of christian humanism can be found in the Christian workplace where passages like that of the talents is used to put pressure on employees to get more done. You don’t want to be left out like the guy with one talent, shamefully looking at the ground in which he buried it. “Get up, produce results, do something for the Kingdom…and when I say do something, I mean accomplish the job description that I have put in front of you.”

At the end of the speeches, pithy phrases, motivational videos, emblazened t-shirts, christian humanism comes down to one conclusion…it’s all about me!

Christian humanism leads people to believe that God needs me. Everything that I need I already have, now its just time that I pick myself up and get to work! I have to produce. I have to go multiply my talents…after all, I have God in my life now.  God did His part, now it’s our turn to do ours.

In the end, christian humanism is a worldview that has merely added some god (little g) to the stew. It is no more than therapeutic deism, where God is a distant old man who just wants to make me happy.

The Bible and the gospel are completely and entirely about God, His name and His glory. Yes, it’s okay to dream big things, it’s okay to be ambitious, it’s okay to be successful, but it is not okay to turn the entire message of the Bible into your own idolotrous search for self-actualization. Your self doesn’t need to be actualized; it needs to be crucified. When our lives collide with Jesus, our lives no longer have anything to do with us! Every breath, idea, aspiration, goal, and ambition comes under the sovereign rule of King Jesus. He’s in charge, and it’s all about Him!

And, if God answers prayers, it is FOR Him. If God grants you your dreams, it is FOR Him. If God allows you great success it is FOR Him. It is all FOR Him and ABOUT Him.

Christian humanism is so darn appealing because it takes the beauty and purity of the gospel message of Jesus and makes it all about me. I can come to Jesus without ever having to abandon the old self. I can come to Jesus without ever having to let go of my dreams, my plans, my goals, and my desires. As a matter of fact, christian humanism empowers me to be all I can be, to just do it, etc. because, after all, I can do all things through Christ.