Back to Mexico

The very first thing we did as a youth group when the Farra Tribe moved to Texas in 1995 was take a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico…before we even unboxed things in our new apartment. That yearly spring break trip would shape our personality as a youth group and influence who we became as a whole church for over 15 years.

For years, we raised money, stockpiled tools and camping gear, collected donated food, and mobilized teams of kids and adult leaders to make our yearly 1300-mile round trip through west Texas nothingness, to build houses for people living in poverty.

We would load vans and trucks and trailers and buses full of nervous expectations and servant hearts.  We would always come back changed people with a different view of ourselves and the world we lived in here in Lewisville.  On those trips, we always felt a little closer to what Jesus called his followers to do in the world and a little better prepared to do it at home, also.

Then it all changed.

In March of 2010, we made our last youth group trip to Juarez. That was the year the local drug cartels made open war with each other and travel to Juarez became too risky.  Even though things got back to normal in just a few years, Amor Ministries (the organization that always managed our trip) had decided to close down mission trips in that area for good.

I had always hoped we could take kids back to Juarez.  A couple of weeks ago, that hope became a reality as we took a small group back to where our life in Texas began 24 years ago.  I am grateful to Amor Ministries for making the trip possible…for connecting our youth ministry to the group of Mexican pastors in Juarez who have continued the work of building homes for people in need and to the local church that hosted our group.

The trip was very different than the way we used to do it back in the old days.  We stayed inside a nice church building and shared fellowship with some pretty sweet church folks.  Gone were the dusty tents and bucket showers and temporary banos. It was anything but roughing it.

The work project was like old times, tho.  We raised a bunch of money to pay for building materials and supplies.  We cut and hammered and nailed and mixed and rolled and stretched and spread.  And in the end, we passed on a set of keys and a Bible and some hope of a better life for a young family and their parents.

The house isn’t much by our standards.  It’s an 11-foot by 22-foot, wood framed, stucco coated, asphalt roofed building.  Not much bigger than a bedroom or a backyard storage shed here in our burgh. But to the family that received it, the gift is a treasure.

It was good to be back.  It was good to get our priorities realigned.  It was good to be reminded we have more than enough and that, as a church, we spend way too much money and attention on ourselves, our building, our technology, and our experience…all in the name of kingdom building.

I’m glad we get to go back. We’re better now.


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Growing up

Grown upMost kids I’ve ever been around are in a hurry to grow up.

They can’t wait to become independent.  To make their own decisions. To be the masters of their own destiny and the controllers of their future.  To pick their own clothes…their own hairstyles…their own menu…their own curfew. Kids generally can’t wait to get their freedom to go to the movies with friends…their driver’s license…their first job…their own apartment.

And ultimately, they grow up.  And they buy cars and houses. They get married and have kids.  They get more demanding jobs.

Then the reality of growing up hits.  With freedom, comes the dreaded “R” word: Responsibility.

School loans have to be paid off.  Better jobs require more time and energy.  Children get sick…and need to be fed and have new clothes.  Good marriages take time and effort. Lawns need to be mowed. Washing machines need to be fixed.  Cars need new timing belts. Houses need foundation repair. Accidents happen. Hospital visits are unavoidable.

And you can’t look around anymore and expect your mom and dad to take care of it.

Yup.  You’re a grown up now.

You are now the grown up you were in such a hurry to become.  You are now your own master. You are in charge. You answer to nobody and nobody tells you what to do. You pick. You choose. And adulthood is just what everybody told you it was going to be…but you never listened:  a mess of responsibility.

There has always been one big reason I loved doing youth ministry.  I got to spend my life with kids before they became adults.  I got to teach kids while they were still teachable.  I got to lead kids who needed to follow. I got to influence kids before they already knew everything.  I got to be with kids who accepted challenges, weren’t afraid of taking risks, still believed in the impossible, and were captured by the wonder of a God who really made a difference.

In short, I got to spend my life with people who had yet to be overwhelmed by responsibility, jaded by cynicism, controlled by finances and schedules, fractured by unhealthy relationships, and disappointed by God.

That’s why it has been so easy for me to invest in youth ministry again, for however long it gets to last.

So what has been the greatest joy of spending the past nine years focused on sharing my life with adults?  I finally figured out how to love and challenge responsible, overwhelmed, exhausted, controlling, masters of their own world: by helping them remember how to be kids again.

Duh.

And sometimes it even works.

Oops…I did it again. Part 2.

Emoji - what was I thinkingIt’s not like this was a hard decision. Somebody had to do it. Hah!

Youth ministry is the only thing I have ever felt “called” to do in my life… as if anybody can define how that works!  I guess I would explain it this way: It’s the only thing I ever felt gifted or drawn to do with my life.

When I was a young man, these decisions and this journey had clarity and ease.  It made sense. I connected with kids and I cared about them. I cared about their dreams and their dramas…their struggles and their playbooks. More than anything, I wanted them to know God, live with an awareness of his presence, and choose to boldly embrace his kingdom.

For years and years, I never wavered in that priority for my life.  Even as a husband and a dad. As a pastor. As a teacher. As a counselor.  As a friend. As a mentor. Doing youth ministry always made sense to me. It all connected.

But when we moved to Texas years ago to work with kids, I found myself (again) in a situation where I needed to do more than just youth ministry…and for nearly 15 years, I was the youth minister who also preached every Sunday.  Man…those were some crazy years!

And something slowly happened.

I’m not necessarily proud of this, but in my nearly 40 years of youth ministry, I never really played very well with adults in the church, even as I slowly became one and ultimately got older than almost all of them.  That mess of honesty is for another blog post, btw.  I love kids.  I love their openness and willingness to be taught and challenged, to take risks, and to follow the words and example of Jesus as if he really mattered.  

But over the years here in Texas, two unexpected things happened.  

First, I found the church family where I belonged.  My closest friends have always known I was a square peg in a round hole.  I’m now at home in a square church.

In my head, I suppose I understand why people have chosen to leave my church family over these years…

We’re not big enough, spiritual enough, focused enough, deep enough, conservative enough, relevant enough, friendly enough, visionary enough, missional enough, mature enough, organized enough, committed enough, political enough, serious enough, influential enough.  There’s probably more.

For me?  Call me Goldilocks… “ahhh, this porridge is just right.”

Second, once I figured out I just needed to treat adults like big kids, I found my sweet spot as senior minister.  Look, there’s nobody in my church family who would ever mistakenly refer to me as dignified, but there are many who would call us “friends”.  And that’s as it should be.

So the dilemma is born.  I love my church family.  I love the adults.  I love the kids.  It’s a great dilemma to have.

Go ahead.  Hit the cray button.

Oops!…I did it again.

Emoji - what was I thinkingThings happen.

I didn’t plan for it.  Honest.  I thought it was part of my past. But here I am doing youth ministry again.  

I’m going to be 64 in a few months.  *smh*

A couple of months ago, I did my first overnight conference with 5th and 6th graders. High school kids are back at my house. Eating my food. Throwing foam footballs and (this time around), playing with my granddaughter’s toys that reside on the living room. I just got back from our spring break mission trip to Houston. Driving a van. Sleeping on an air mattress. Taking crap from high school snarks. I’m adding kid’s performances and games to my calendar, figuring out summer camp and conference schedules, and practicing new songs on my dusty guitar that I haven’t played in years.

…and trying not to forget my daily heart medicine and regular exercise on new metal knees.

I have no idea how this season of my life is going to play out.  Absolutely no clue.  I suppose it would be great if God decided to mic-drop the perfect new youth minister for our kids.  Boom.  I just know I don’t have any time to be out there looking.  And it’s taken all of four months for me to get deeply connected and super protective of this group under my care.

So for now, I’m back to life as it used to be for many years here in Texas: Preaching, leading a church family, and doing youth ministry.  I guess it’s not like I don’t have the resume’…  

Oh.  It’s definitely time to write again.  For me.  Let the therapy begin.

These thoughts really are connected.

ConnectAbout thirteen years ago, I was part of a group of guys who met to create a space for younger (and older) youth ministers to come together, be encouraged, be mentored, face their struggles, and be held accountable to the lives of service, leadership, and example to which they were dedicated.

We travelled to the mountains of Colorado for a week of rest, contemplation, confrontation, relationship-building, study of the Word, counseling, and refining.  The years I co-led this experience were some of the most memorable and meaningful in my life.  I genuinely looked forward to each fall, knowing I would reconnect with old friends and meet many new ones…and be able to pass on wisdom in life and ministry that others (and experience) had taught me.

A few years back, the organization I was partnering with started to have a shift in leadership.  Younger guys began replacing the older ones in positions of influence.  There was a subtle (at the time), but noticeable culture shift in the priorities and structure of the whole organization.  Two years ago, after all those years of investing my time and my heart in this thing I had helped create, I was simply not invited back.  No email.  No phone call.  No Rolex watch for years of service.  I found out by accident.  I assume it’s doing well without me.

If you see the sadness in my face and melancholy in my voice, it’s not because of this shameless act of age discrimination and shunning (this is a joke, people).  I was over it a long time ago.  No, the doom and gloom in my life right now, is more related to the loss of innocence and wonderful memories of my life as a fan of the San Diego Chargers and what’s become of them.  Because of political in-fighting, greed, the machinery of the NFL, and a myriad of other contributing factors, my beloved home team is imploding.

With the threat, and now probably reality, of relocating to Los Angeles, this personal little piece of mindless, entertaining diversion… namely, my lifelong support of the San Diego Chargers… is being shredded.  Opposition fans now outnumber the locals at home games.  Ownership has undermined the team’s ability to put a championship team on the field for years.  Financially hostile transplants to SD refuse to support ballots to build a new stadium.  Being embarrassed by the Oakland Raiduhs yesterday is nearly the final nail in my emotional coffin.

For a guy who has championed change at every intersection, I just want a little stability.  Something from my past to hang on to.  Is that too much to ask?

Our church family is at a crossroads.  Those who God used to build it are aging.  We have been the providers.  The backbone and steadiness that formed the foundation is as strong as ever, but the time is coming for the mantle of leadership, financial support, heart and “ownership” to spread to others.

North Point has meant so much to so many over the years.  Home to the wanderer.  Friend to the rejected.  A place of refuge for those torn apart by the toxic structure of modern church machinery.  A breath of fresh air for those suffocating under the weight of legalism, heavy-handed leadership, doubt, or guilt.

We have never, ever, been the church for most.  We probably never will be.  But for those who have, and will continue to call North Point “home”, the future must remain a reality.  The baton must be passed.  New voices must be heard.  New strategies must be formed.  New people must partner with those of us who are older, to create a new and sustainable leadership in the years to come.

To be honest, I have mostly embraced my aging process.  I am not afraid of growing older and the senior discounts are pretty cool.  I know I cannot keep doing what I do forever.  I am comfortable knowing I am not irreplaceable.  Far from it!  A true test of our effectiveness as leaders, parents, teachers, ministers, counselors, coaches, civic leaders, and the rest, has always been to leave behind a stronger, healthier, bolder legacy.  This must be true of North Point as well.

It’s time to step up, youngsters.

Getting a little nostalgic tonight

Youth-MinistryI got to talk about youth ministry a couple of different times today.  It was pretty coolnot something I get to do much these days.

I miss it.

I miss hanging out with teenagerscokes and conversation after schoolplaying my guitar and worshipping with kidswrestling on the floor and shooting hoops and making up games to get kids to interact with each other.

I miss long road trips in the bus.  I miss hiking in the backcountry of the High Sierras, canoeing whitewater, sitting around campfires, and going to mystery locations with young adventurers.  I miss teaching kids the fine art of mixing cement in a wheelbarrow and how to navigate cross-culturally.  I really miss teaching kids how to embrace their doubts, ask important questions, and fearlessly follow Jesus.

This could be an endless post.   I’ll stop with the reminiscing.

Here are some things I love about teenagers (especially in the context of youth ministry):

  • They are teachable.
  • They are open, transparent, and most of the time, brutally honest.
  • They love to have fun.  To a fault.
  • They are struggling to fit in and find where they belong.
  • They don’t judge and condemn those who are different.
  • They follow leaders.
  • They are establishing their independence, but still need structure.
  • They are not afraid of taking risks.
  • They live out their faith from their heart and not just their heads.
  • They don’t sweat the small stuff.
  • The difficult commands of God don’t scare them.
  • They are not afraid to call you out.
  • They are resilient.

Not every kid fully reflects all those characteristics, but I’ll stand by my list as pretty accurate.  But this really isn’t about youth ministry.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if this list was true of adults, also?

Too bad it’s not.

I’m no expert

No ExpertA couple of weeks ago, I wrapped up two weeks of teaching at Lakeview Bible College and Seminary in Chennai, India.  I was invited to come as a guest professor to teach on church ministry and leadership.

Usually, those kind of gigs are reserved for the experts.

Clearly, I’m no expert.

The church world is full of successful ministry models.  The seeker-sensitive model.  The purpose-driven model.  The pastor-centric model.  The missional model.  The small-group church model.  The multi-site model.  The family-church model.  The we’re-gonna-get-big-at-any-cost model.

And there are tons of successful big-dog, pastor-leader-teacher experts out there.

Then there’s me.  And the North Point model.

Yeah.  That model.

I’m still working on a name for it.

So far, the best one I can come up with is the “we-don’t-know-what-we’re-doing-but-we’re-having-fun-doing-it” model.

When the Farraclan came to Texas 19 years ago, I came to do youth ministry.  I had a lot of experience in church leadership and church growth and church politics, but the one thing I really knewthe one thing I was comfortable withthe one thing that made sense to me as a Kingdom worker was youth ministry.

So when my best friends asked me to step up and assume the head pastor-leader role in our church family a few years ago, I politely declined the request.  “Are you guys crazy?  This is a sure-fire recipe for disaster!”  

My theology and my methods and my personality and my rule-bending and my frustration with church politics were always easily camouflaged in youth ministry.  As long as kids were coming and learning about the love of Jesus and submitting to Kingdom principles and practice, everybody was happy.  And nobody asked questions.

But moving to the lead-dog role was going to expose me for what I really was.  A youth minister.  To the core.

So when my friends would not back down, I made a fateful proposition.  I said since the only thing I really knew was youth ministry, then they needed to be willing to have our whole church family function like a large youth group.  That’s what I was willing to offer.  I was not willing to start doing things differently.

I believed in my heart that if something of substance worked in youth ministry, then it would work with a whole church full of adults.  And it would be good.  There were no models to learn from.  There were no books to read on the topic.  There were no conferences to attend.  Nobody I knew of had done what we were going to do.  This was going to be totally uncharted territory.

Here has been my conviction:  Kids hang out with each other.  Kids pursue fun.  Kids are open to change.  Kids are willing to be taught and challenged.  Kids are interested in changing the world.  Kids are moved by compassion.  Kids laugh and joke and play.  Kids freely accept others and are not quick to judge.  Kids are not wowed by programs and structures and rules and guidelines.  Kids are honest and speak their minds.  Kids embrace wonder and see doubt and questions as friends.  Friendship means everything to kids.  Faith is instinctive.

And then kids turn into adults.

So what is our model of ministry at North Point?

I don’t really have a clue.  But teaching adults to act like kids again has been a good place to start.