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.

A take on childhood

childhood

There are not a whole lot of things cuter than watching and listening to a child pray.  Their honest and unfiltered rambling is filled with young faith and free of self-consciousness that plagues those that are older.

There’s nothing like children singing “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” or “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world”.  It’s almost medicinal.  It can melt a hard heart.

The Christmas season will find children of all ages telling and retelling the story of the baby Jesus in the manger and singing beautiful angelic choruses of Silent Night and O Come All Ye Faithful.

And people who have little or even no faith in God at all will enjoy those moments and see nothing wrong with letting them happen again and again as their children grow up.

You see, apparently this Jesus thing is okay for children.

But then children grow up and things like belief and church and the Bible and heaven and a continued life of faith become increasingly irrelevant.  Little hearts full of wonder and trusting confidence in a God that is bigger than any problem they will ever face…begin to be replaced with culturally acceptable self-reliance and the pursuit of academic, relationship and financial success.

In short, the Jesus-God-Bible-Church experience is fine for children (as well as the emotionally and intellectually weak)…but it is definitely not okay for reasonable, intelligent, and culturally relevant adults.

One of the greatest joys and most profound disappointments in all of my years of youth ministry was living my life with teenagers whose faith was deeper, more mature and clearly more profound than their own parents’ faith.

I have interacted with parents whose lack of faith and knowledge of the Bible stood in the way of their own kids’ spiritual growth.  I have dealt with parents who “punished” their kids by not letting them come to a weekly Bible study.  I’ve confronted parents who would willingly pay hundreds of dollars for their kids to receive private music or athletic instruction, but whined like babies when they were asked to spend $75 for their kids to go on a youth retreat.

I’ve wrestled with parents who were totally offended at my suggestion that they consider rearranging a family vacation by a few days, so their child could attend a summer youth group trip.

And I’ve actually had parents get mad and shun me when they became aware that I had encouraged their gifted and talented teenager consider a life of mission work with the poor…instead of pursuing a life in the corporate world.  No joke.

So what happens on the road to adulthood?  When, exactly, does the wonder of childlike faith get replaced with a life that places God and the pursuit of his kingdom into the closet of irrelevance?

Parents, there are many things to teach our children…like responsibility and a work ethic and personal hygiene and money management and academic determination and manners and dealing with strangers and how to cross the street safely and a host of other important life skills.

Parents, you need to teach your kids about sex and marriage and healthy relationship behavior.  And about winning and losing and dealing with pain and death and unexplained tragedy.  Parents, you’ve got a tough job.

But your greatest and most important job is to point your children to a life of faith in Jesus.  You can’t make them believe.  That will be their responsibility when they grow older.

But don’t hinder them.  Please.

Seasons

on the road againokay…i know i’m like the little boy who cried wolf. but this time is going to be different. for real. honest. i’m going to press through my obstacles and start writing again. regularly.

i know. you’ve heard it before. but trust me. no more excuses. no more surprises. no more letting life circumstances get in my way. no more emergencies to rob my time. nothing more to hinde…

yeah, right. maybe i should just write today and see what it’s like tomorrow. here goes.

i’m sitting inside a cabin looking out the window at the snow-covered rocky mountains, on my yearly trip to colorado to spend a week with younger youth ministers. i get to challenge, teach, counsel, encourage and mentor these guys to live a life worthy of their calling.

it’s a good thing.

it’s also a week where i get to (or am forced to) remember my past life. and as much as i love talking about youth ministry and hanging out with guys who get to do the best and most important job in the world…it’s still bittersweet.

i started doing youth ministry when i was 18 years old. before i was 21, i had led youth group “allnighters”, road trips, winter and summer camps, and a mission trip. parents were way too trusting, back in the day.

for the next 36 years, youth ministry defined what i did with my life. i did a lot of other things on the fringe…preaching, teaching in college, coaching, counseling… but youth ministry was always at the core. it was always what i loved to do the most.

it wasn’t always just fun and games, like most people think. it was often painful and infuriating. so many nights of going to bed exhausted and empty, carrying the weight of broken lives…shattered by bad parenting, bad coaching, bad friends, or bad examples. to walk beside kids who struggle to find their identity and purpose in their creator, rather than a world of other voices screaming for their attention feels like an impossible task most days.

to be honest, there were many times i wished i could leave my work at the office or feel the sensation of a completed project, but that is not the life of youth ministry.

it’s been four or five years since i felt at least some of the responsibility for kids and the youth ministry program at north point. it’s been almost seven, since i was fully responsible. anymore, it’s just once a year that i live in the world of youth ministry for more than a passing moment.

and once a year i remember how great it was…and what a privilege it was to spend most of my life doing it…and what an honor it is to still stand up for it and speak about it and be the defender of its purpose in the world today.

and how much i miss it.

the good news? i’m now responsible for an entire church family that functions like…and sometimes acts like…a big youth group.

my goal this week? i’ve got to figure out a way to include a couple of rounds of dodgeball into the sunday morning services. any ideas?

Who will show this kid the way?

Sadnessi’m going to go ahead and state the obvious.   if you’re not interested in thinking about the spiritual realities of our life together, it’s ok to move on.  you could check out the espn site or maybe some youtubes of the VMA’s.  my sleep will not be hindered.

here it is:  the most important thing in my life is to help people experience the life that jesus died to give us…and to experience it everyday.  everything else is a collective second place.  a very distant second place.

it is what i devote myself to as a husband and a dad.  it’s what i do everyday as a neighbor and friend and a part of the community.  it’s how i define my role as a minister and counselor and teacher and discipler.

i love sports and music and cool television shows and home improvement projects.  i love eating out with friends and talking about social issues and jeep rides in the country.

i’m a normal guy…nothing special.  god didn’t give me anything that he hasn’t given freely to everyone else.  i don’t have more of his “spirit” than anybody else.  my understanding of the bible has come from simply studying it.  my love of people and patience and contentment come from the exact same source available to anyone who chooses to humbly walk with god.

i’m absolutely weary of people thinking that because i’m a “pastor”, god did something to me or somehow made things more clear to me…that my calling to serve god is heroic or my life ambitions have come from a special spiritual hotline.

i’m naturally an introvert.  i’m spontaneous and horribly undisciplined.  i’ve had a closet attention deficit problem most of my adult life.  i’m uncomfortably self-conscious.  i hate being up in front.  in my twenties, i was deathly afraid of public speaking, let alone preaching.  i lead singing in worship settings for years, but i’m totally intimidated by my below average singing voice.  kids used to make fun of the way i sang…and my nervousness secretly overwhelms me to this day when i have to lead singing.

prayer is usually difficult for me and bible study is most often a grind, because of attention issues.  at heart, i think i’m really more self-centered than others-oriented.  i am often controlled by fears and doubts and questions that plague my spiritual journey.

so what made the difference?  is there anything at all that separates me from you?  yeah.  maybe.  so don’t miss this.

again…here it is:  when i was a young man, i had people who inspired me.  i had people who lived their lives close to mine and challenged me to follow their lead.  i had people who modeled lives of spiritual discipline and passion for the things of god.  i had people who spoke truth to me.  they challenged me to swallow my fears and refuse to listen to the lies that came from the darkness of media or thoughtless critics.

i had people who told me they believed in me and that they would be there for me, no matter what.  i had people who refused to let me give anything less than my best to god.  they would call out my sin and they would celebrate my faithfulness.

here is now the greatest sadness in my life:  over the past 25 years, there are fewer and fewer men and women who invest deeply in the lives of kids and young adults…to show them the way…to teach them the riches of god’s words and the joy of serving him.

my childhood and youth was filled with faithful bible school teachers and good-hearted young couples and spiritually mature adults who saw it as their responsibility to pass on faith and godly values and a holy life purpose to the next generation.

my college and young adult years were heavily influenced by dedicated youth leaders who showed me how to live out my beliefs in a difficult and complicated world.  and they left me no room but to follow in their footsteps and do the same for young people who would follow in mine.

this is how the “christian life” works.  this is god’s only plan for passing on truth and raising up the church and leadership in any future generation.

and there are simply fewer and fewer people who are willing to accept that mantle of responsibility.  there are lots of people who have no problem accepting god’s goodness for themselves and their own children…yet the void of servants and disciplers and teachers and leaders of kids and spiritual mentors continues to deepen.

apparently, there are three or four less hours in the week than there were a few years ago.

anybody else have a better explanation?

50 Life-changers…#3

number-3some things are just out of your control.

as a matter of fact, most things are out of your control.  we work hard to manipulate the environment and set goals and work the system and do everything in our power to make things turn out the way we want them to turn out…but in the end, sometimes things just don’t turn out the way we planned.

and we are either better for it, or we succumb to the tragedy of loss.  we either let our theology shape us…or let the situation shape our theology.  or maybe a little of both.

twenty-five years ago, i was convinced i was exactly where god wanted me to be.  although there were unknowns all around, i was content and deeply fulfilled living out my dream as a youth pastor in huntington beach.  i was confident, but challenged.  the work i was doing had meaning and purpose greater than anything i could have imagined.

i was surrounded by amazing friends.  i lived in one of the most beautiful and picturesque places on earth.  i was respected and valued by leaders and had the age and experience to continue to do youth ministry right there for the rest of my life.

for me, there was nothing greater than the thought of living out the rest of my days loving and serving with this same church family.  it was my heart’s desire.  it was the promise i made to god.

and then everything changed.

during my 30-plus years of teaching youth ministry to young men and women, one of the most important pieces of advice i ever gave was to help them understand that youth pastors didn’t call the shots.  youth pastors were always subject to the vision and decisions of the leadership they served under.

twenty-five years ago, i had to take my own advice.  the leadership of my own church hired a new senior pastor and it became clear from the moment i met him, that we were extremely different.  i knew, almost immediately, that we were on different pages.  his way of “doing church” and my way of “doing church” couldn’t have been more opposite.

but i had to respect the vision and decision of the leaders.  they were convinced he was who god wanted to come and lead our church family.  and for the record, he has done a great job of leading my old church family for the past twenty-five years.

but all it did was break my heart.  even though i tried for two years, i knew i no longer fit with the direction of where they were heading.  so i took my own advice and we packed up and moved on.  those were some of the saddest and most difficult days of my life.

now here’s what i learned:  we’ve gone on to have an amazing past twenty-three years…the last eighteen here in the sovereign state.  it’s hard to imagine that ministry and friendship and opportunities and family life could have been any better.  god has more than cared for us and met every need that we have had.

some would even say, that this was god’s plan all along.  that everything happened for a reason and god’s mysterious will was played out perfectly in our lives.  but that theology is not the one that has shaped and sustained me all of these years.

nope.  my understanding will appear far less profound.  i embrace the belief that bad things happen.  that dreams can be crushed and disappointment always lurks around the corner.  sometimes things just don’t work out the way we want.

but god never leaves.  he never turns his back.  his promise to hold us and sustain us and provide for our most pressing needs will never be neglected.

did i lose my dream in huntington beach, because it was all part of god’s master plan to get me to where the deer and the antelope play?  i’ll never really know.  theologically, i seriously doubt it.  but really… it doesn’t much matter to me, either.

god always kept his promises.  and he always will.  and that’s really all that matters.