Lamentations

08 Sep
September 8, 2017

The other week I finished teaching through the book of Lamentations in our Sunday morning student hour. It was a part of our larger, seven year teaching plan that includes walking students through every book of the Bible. It is a fascinating book, one I have not been able to stop thinking about. Essentially, if you’re not familiar with it, it is five poetic laments written and/or collected by the prophet Jeremiah, which the Israelite people would gather each year to read out loud together as they processed their grief from having been utterly defeated by the Babylonians. They had lost their independence, their capital had been destroyed, and perhaps the most devastating to their identify, the temple had been reduced to rubble. Over the course of three weeks we explored three significant themes that are throughout the poetry of Lamentations; God’s judgement, God’s compassion, and God’s sovereignty. What is particularly powerful about Lamentations to me is that it does not wrap up with a happy ending; they are still just as ruined at the end of it as they are in the beginning. The writer(s) are brutally honest with their pain, their loss, their suffering and their grief. And its final words – recited together as a community annually – ends with the question of whether or not God will help them or has He completely rejected them.

It’s powerful because it puts into words what so many of us feel during our times of suffering but are often times afraid to speak. Lamentations gives us permission to take all of our pain and suffering in its fullness and bring it out into the open to God. It gives us words to our heartbreak. Ultimately, it is a powerful lesson on how to grieve, something that I think our culture does not do well at. We tend to bottle things in, to celebrate those who are able to get back to normality quickly with comments like, “Wow, he’s handling it really well,” when in reality, that burying of pain is the opposite of handling it well.

If you want, you can find the audio to all three weeks on our iTunes podcast feed, or on our podcast website.

Celebrating the Reformation

07 Sep
September 7, 2017

This summer we tried something new with our adult Christian education program by having a unified theme and offering it during both worship hours (my role expanded a few months back to include adult Christian education). Essentially, we tackled the Reformation in honor of its coming 500th anniversary. Over the course of ten weeks we had local seminary professors, members of our congregation who work in area colleges, as well as our former senior Pastor and myself, each tackle different aspects of the Reformation. Overall, I think it ended up becoming a really solid resource for those who want to know more about the Reformation and its impact on modern Christianity and the world. I’ve also been recommending it to parents who homeschool as an option to consider as well; there were several middle school and high school students who attended the series and enjoyed it. We did record each of the sessions, as well as save all the powerpoints/handouts from the series. Here’s where you can find it all:

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Mark Oestreicher’s “Leading Without Power”

30 Aug
August 30, 2017

As a youth pastor, the title of Oestreicher’s book, “Leading Without Power: 9 Paths Toward Non-Coercive Ministry Leadership,” immediately grabbed my attention. I never have any power!

When I was first beginning in ministry, my then senior pastor once explained to me that “leadership is getting people to do things they don’t want to do.” He didn’t mean challenging them to get sin out of their lives; he specifically meant that our job was to manipulate, guilt, push – whatever it takes – to get people to do what we wanted them to do.

The thrust of the book is simple and opposite to that approach; that coercive, hierarchical leadership is not only unbiblical, it’s dangerous and unhealthy. Towards that end, Oestreicher identifies nine ways to lead rooted in scripture, ways that use our ability to influence in far healthier, God honoring ways.

I appreciated his challenge to readers to not try and take on all of the ways he suggests, rather, he suggests finding one or two to try and implement, and then build from there. I know for me, two jumped out immediately as being ways that fit with my wiring and approach that I want to continue to develop; the first is what he calls a “Storytelling Host,” the second is a “Uniqueness DJ.” Yes, he has unique names for his paths to leadership. The storytelling host uses stories that embody values to challenge, inspire, teach, and guide the listeners. Our ultimate example of this approach, of course, is Christ, who frequently used stories to lead those around Him. The Uniqueness DJ is someone who is able to blend different people together in forming a team, using each person’s uniqueness to form a great team – rather than trying to get everyone to fit a specific mold.

“Leading Without Power” is a great book. While Oestreicher is a well known youth ministry expert, this is not a youth ministry book. It’s a quick read – you can probably finish it in one sitting. His style is fun to read and packs a lot of powerful truths. I love his honesty about the appeal of power and the very real temptation and ease of leading in coercive ways, and his challenge to find a different way is incredibly relevant. I bought copies of the book for each of my student ministry staff, and will be going through it with them in the coming weeks. This one is a must read for all believers; its lessons applicable in all areas of life.

Eclipse Road Trip

28 Aug
August 28, 2017

It was a little bit spur of the moment, but Heather and I decided to take a road trip to Tennessee with the boys to see the eclipse last week. It was kind of a wild ride; we left on Sunday right after church for what should have been a nine hour drive. It ended up taking twelve hours on the way down, we spent the night in Pigeon Ford, then traveled over to the Foothills Parkway to watch the eclipse … then hit the road back home not realizing between eclipse traffic, road construction, and college traffic we were starting an 18 hour drive home.

So, in case you missed it, we spent 30 hours driving round trip in about 48 hours so we could see less than two minutes of eclipse totality. And it was totally worth it.

What an amazing thing to see. I thought I knew what it would be like, but words really don’t do it justice. It is no mystery why ancient civilizations were shaken by them. Without the knowledge we have today, how could it be interpreted any way other than the gods bringing judgement or warning of doom?

I took a ton of photos; a few turned out pretty good – certainly better than my camera should have been able to do. I essentially held my eclipse glasses against the lens and snapped away. I used a Nikon Coolpix L340.

And yes, we’re already planning our 2024 solar eclipse trip.

Seven Year Teaching Plan

25 Aug
August 25, 2017

We are moving into the seventh year of a seven year teaching plan I put together back in the day. Essentially, I wanted to tackle three things with our Sunday morning teaching time over the seven years we have a student in our youth ministry (6th-12th grade); core truths that we really want to drive home, topical issues relevant to the group’s needs, and biblical literacy. You can check it out here.

Having stayed committed to this plan for six years now, I’m increasingly happy with it. It’s flexible enough that we really are able to roll with what’s happening in culture, needs of the group, and strengths of the teachers. At the same time, it gives enough structure that we have to give our topic selections a lot of thought and care so that we can meet our big picture goals. Finally, I love the thought that as of this years’ rising twelfth grade students, any graduate that has been at our church for middle school and high school will have graduated with teaching from every book of the Bible.

Where do I get the materials? Primarily through a handful of companies I’ve come to trust over the years; Youth Specialties, The Live Curriculum, The Youth Cartel, and Download Youth Ministry. In addition, we’ve created some studies for books of the Bible that I couldn’t find materials elsewhere for.

Here’s the overview:

  • Core Truths (yearly, 11 weeks). These are the teachings we land on every year – if teens don’t remember anything else when they graduate, at least they’ll know these eleven lessons. Within this broader category, there are two main themes; our church values and purpose (Know, Grow, Go) inform us of why we gather, while the HABITS series gives the spiritual disciplines that tell us how to follow God.
    • Our Purpose
      • Fellowship (‘we are real people’)
      • Worship (‘in love with a real God’)
      • Discipleship (‘in love with a real God’)
      • Evangelism (‘making a real difference in the world’)
      • Service (‘making a real difference in the world’)
    • HABITS
      • Hang time with God (quiet time)
      • Accountability
      • Bible study and memorization
      • Involvement in church
      • Tithing
      • Sacraments (communion, baptism)
  • Topical (yearly, 17 weeks). This is the category that gets the most flexibility year by year. Basically, it’s age specific, felt need topics (e.g., the place our group is in right now leads us to talk about this). Some topics will probably be repeated every year (dating, sex, peer pressure).
  • Biblical Literacy (23 weeks). This is the bigger picture piece of the puzzle. One of our church values as a whole is Biblical literacy, and our concern that as a culture we are becoming less and less familiar with the scriptures. Towards that end, over the course of seven years we will give students an overview of the whole Bible, working our way through every book (in varying degrees of depth). If you look at the plan,, you’ll see that we’re working our way systematically through the Old Testament while bouncing around the New Testament.

Our Crooked Ways

12 Aug
August 12, 2017

A nationwide deja vu, what my people ‘posed to do?
Go to schools named after the Klan founder
Word ’round town is y’all don’t see why we frownin’
Native American students forced to learn about Junípero Serra
How is that fair, bruh?
Some heroes unsung and some monsters get monuments built for ’em
But ain’t we all a little bit a monster? We crooked!
Man, your heroes are worthless
And man can sure try, but only God gives purpose
You crooked!
Be humble or be quiet
Your kingdom can catch flames as effortless as riots
Entire empire’s a card castle, chill
And the strength of your whole team is crumbled with one meme
It’s crooked!
Your whole works is twisted

I was listening to Propaganda’s latest album this afternoon while running errands with the boys, and was completely caught off guard by how spot on his song ‘Crooked Way’ is to the events of this weekend. We live in a horrifically broken world with twisted values. Until we can begin to show the love of Christ, to put other’s first, these tragedies will only increase and grow.

People are so perplexing
Perpetuating the same hate they out protesting

I hate cherry picking lines; the song is long and full of powerfully convicting stuff that would overwhelm this post. There is a growing tension in our country when it comes to issues of race and the church has been far too silent in this arena. As a group, we need to grow both in empathy and in speaking out. The explosions this weekend did not happen overnight, they are the result of growing hate and abuse. If we fail to speak out and advocate for change in the every day moments, we will never see the unity we need.

You can read the full lyrics here. He’s part of the Humble Beast label, which makes all their music available for free online; you can download the album here. His music is consistently challenging, thought provoking, and beautiful to listen to.

Me – just an Allstar Chuck Taylor rhyme sayer
And the fact I ain’t get lost on the way here is amazing
Me – just a crooked stick in awe of His goodness

Youth Ministry Longevity

04 Aug
August 4, 2017

I’m going to try this again; yesterday I wrote a blog post, used some undependable stats, and ultimately, distracted readers from the point I was actually trying to make, which is that longevity brings deeper perspective and awareness of the long term impact of student ministry programs.

There are tremendous benefits to longevity in youth ministry; both in regards to total ministry experience, as well as long tenures in one church. It brings stability, deeper roots in the church, greater depth of relationships, and a host of other benefits. For me, somewhere around my sixth year at my current church, and going forward, I have really begun to see a lot of changes in my perspective and attitudes about student ministry.

In 2016, Barna and Youth Specialties teamed up to release The State of Youth Ministry, a fascinating look into the world of American student ministries. Based on their research, they found that the average youth pastor is at his or her church for just over five years (p.55). The graph below reflects youth pastor tenures currently throughout the US (p.56):

They did note that 39% were in their first three years at a church, reflecting a “plurality [that] moves on within three years” (p.56). There are a lot of variables that can factor into that percentage, and it is only a portion of the broader youth ministry field. What I find myself wrestling with is the challenge for myself, and youth pastors in general, to plant deep roots into my/their churches and congregations long enough to really see the rewards in longevity, as well as some of the deeper perspectives that help youth ministry as a whole that come with being in a place long enough to see multiple groups of students move through the entire program, into college, adulthood and beyond. On the flip side, the challenge is also for churches to have the long term vision to keep staff in place long enough to see these benefits.

I was at my first church for two years. I saw the program double in attendance in my time there. It was exciting and validating. I was at my second church for just over five years. I started with less than five middle school students; five years later I had seen almost every teen in our region come through our doors at some point and felt my influence was rooted both in the church and the community. These are meant as boasts, rather, to contrast my changing opinions on what success looks like.

Honestly, I’ve heard the statistics over the incredibly large drop off in faith from students graduating from church, heading off to college, and essentially graduating from the faith. And for the most part, I assumed that was a problem with other churches.

I’ve been at my current church for nine years this month. That’s long enough for many teens to have not only graduated from our program, but to have also graduated from college, start careers, marriages and families. I actually do believe that we have seen a higher percentage of graduates maintain faith after graduation, but I’ve seen a lot of students disappear. Too many. And on the one hand I’ve read the articles pointing out that many do ultimately return to faith in their 30’s, I would still prefer to see them not wander to begin with.

Nine years of watching students fade away begins to add up. It is a sobering thing to see. It has made me question a lot of things I used to assume were effective. What good does it do if we can pack out an all-nighter if we’ve lost the connection a few years later?

Research by people like Christian Smith, Kenda Creasy Dean, Kara Powell, Chap Clark, and others, all point to the same thing; one of the most critical ingredients in long term faith is being plugged into the larger church. It’s why in recent years we have shifted so much of our focus at Brandywine Valley Baptist Church to make it easier for families to attend worship services together, to serve together, to grow in faith together. I’m hopeful to see the payoff to these changes in the years to come.

Which brings me back to my point; to me, one of the critical benefits of youth ministry longevity is seeing and feeling first hand the weight of this need. With each year it brings a deeper sense of priority to the big picture of ministry. A youth leader needs to be in one place long enough to see the long term results of the approach their church is taking with adolescents if there is going to be any kind of change in this trend of losing young people after graduation. I think that 9% of youth pastors who have been in the same place for twelve years or more represent volumes of experience and insight all of us could benefit from.

Peter Enns’ “The Sin of Certainty”

02 Aug
August 2, 2017

Peter Enns’ The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs is an exploration of what it means to follow God, wrestle with doubts, and find peace in faith in God. At its core, the book is a challenge to a Christian lifestyle rooted in trust, marveling at the power and wisdom of God and its impossible to fully know or comprehend nature on this side of eternity. At the same time, it is a rebuttal to the approaches to faith that put too much confidence in knowledge and “knowing” for sure exactly what to believe. It’s a somewhat explosive title to some; can’t we know some things about God for certain? But Enns’ goal is not to undermine faith, rather, it is to shift the focus to trust in God instead of human knowledge.

“Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain a healthy faith – these do not make for a healthy faith in God. In a nutshell, that is the problem. And that is what I mean by the ‘sin of certainty.’ It is sin because this pattern of thinking sells God short by keeping the Creator captive to what we are able to comprehend – which is the very same problem the Israelites had when they were tempted to make images of God (aka idols) out of stone, metal, or wood.” (p.18)

Enns weaves his personal story throughout the book, mapping out some his own struggles, doubts and questions, and the responses of those around him. Part of his point is that it is natural for any follower of God to see their faith grow and evolve over the years – it must if we are actively pursuing God, but in the process of that doubts and questions are sure to arise. For those that value certainty, these questions are often viewed as an assault or a danger, something to be swatted down. I loved his comment the “Adam and Eve story is about what happens when knowing is elevated above trusting.” (p.104) In that moment in the garden, it was more valuable to them to have the knowledge than it was to trust God and His wisdom.

Ultimately, Enns is not challenging the reader to ignore growing in knowledge. In fact, his challenge is the opposite; continue to study the Word. Learn and wrestle through all that you can when it comes to God, but beware of the dangers of overconfidence in your own opinions and interpretations.

“It is so easy to slip into ‘right thinking’ mode – that we have arrived at full faith. We know what church God goes to, what Bible translation God prefers, how God votes, what movies God watches, and what books God reads. We know the kinds of people God approves of. God has winners and losers, and we are the winners, the true insiders. God likes all the things we like. We speak for God and think nothing of it.” (p.159)

We can so easily become just like the Pharisees we have so long reviled without even realizing it.

Enns has written a powerful book, one that asks the right questions, guides the reader through a process of both understanding the value and dangers of knowledge and certainty, and challenges American Christians to questions whether we have put our confidence in our knowledge or in trust in God. It is easy to read, but incredibly deep. Definitely worth checking out.

Biblical Illiteracy and the Canaanites

31 Jul
July 31, 2017

USA Today recently reported that the Bible was proven incorrect through genetic research that revealed descendants of the Canaanites still existed in spite of what they reported was the Bible’s “claim” that they were exterminated.

The article is fascinating and frustrating. On the one hand, the genetic research is incredibly interesting; it is fascinating to see where the descendants of the Canaanites ended up. Especially given, as the article correctly points out, how little we have in the way of historical records about them.

HOWEVER.

The reporter didn’t do his homework. The verse cited, Deuteronomy 20:17, does not claim the Canaanites are destroyed. Instead, it is a command to wipe them out – one which the Bible clearly points out the Jewish people, under the command of Joshua, did not follow. The story of the walls of Jericho gets the most press with the narrative recorded in Joshua 6. In that instance, they did kill and destroy everything following a dramatic story of marching, trumpets, yelling, and walls collapsing.

But just a few chapters later, a different type of story is recorded. In Joshua 9, the story of the Gibeonites is described. They were Canaanites as well who managed to trick Joshua and the others into thinking they were from far away. Scripture notes that Joshua did not go to the Lord about it, but instead agreed to a treaty and made a promise to not wipe them out. When they realized the deception, that they were actually from nearby and one of the cities they were to wipe out, Joshua honored his promise and did not wipe them out. In fact, the story ends with this comment:

“So Joshua saved them from the Israelites, and they did not kill them. That day he made the Gibeonites woodcutters and water carriers for the assembly, to provide for the needs of the altar of the Lord at the place the Lord would choose. And that is what they are to this day.” (Joshua 9:26-27)

So, to sum up, not only does the Bible NOT claim that the Canaanites were totally destroyed; at the time of its writing, it notes their continued existence. Which ultimately points to the importance of carefully researching scripture before jumping to conclusions.

Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible?”

14 Jul
July 14, 2017

What-Is-the-Bible 2Rob Bell’s latest book, What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, is both insightful and maddening. Bell has always intrigued me; he’s an incredible communicator with an often times unique perspective on the Bible. His goal with this latest book is to convey all of the excitement, passion, and thrills that come with reading the Bible – something he observes (correctly) that so many miss.

Bell does a great job of paying attention to the Jewish culture, both during Christ’s time and during the times the Old Testament books were written, as well as the Roman culture and other ancient middle eastern cultures and religions. He eloquently paints a picture of the connecting threads throughout all of scripture pointing to an exciting message from God. I loved his observations about Abraham’s covenant with God, the struggle Jonah went through, as well as the writing styles and priorities of ancient writers. I also thought his notes on how modern day Americans process and interpret scripture through our cultural lens conflicts so often without us even realizing it with the culture and writing styles of those who wrote these books so long ago.

But Bell is also maddening.

I feel so pretentious for even writing this, but his books have grown increasingly intellectually lazy. He makes bold claims about meanings of words, culture, theories, and explanations – and footnotes none of it. He doesn’t cite anything! Even half of the scriptures he quotes he does without even giving a reference; and the other half of the time he only mentions the book and maybe the chapter. I found myself doing keyword searches to try and find what verse he was quoting and what translation it was to find the context because of his tendency to prooftext and play fast and loose with his scripture quotes. Some of his theories I was able to find in commentaries, however, they tended to be alternate understandings of a passage’s interpretation rejected by most scholars.

His theology on salvation, revealed in his book Love Wins, returns in the third section of this book. Because of his conviction that ultimately all are saved regardless of their faith in this life, the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death and resurrection is at the very least minimized in this book if not removed all together. He contends that the sacrificial system at large, and therefore the perspective of interpreting Christ’s death through that lens, is purely a human creation made in response to pagan sacrificial systems. His chapter on whether or not scripture is authoritative was also troubling to me; while he believes scripture does have authority, he seems to view it as equal to a number of other sources, which is a dangerous approach at best. From his perspective, he is genuinely advocating for scripture’s authority; and his love of the Bible comes through on every page of the book, however, in his assertion of a variety of other authoritative sources he ultimately both reduces scripture’s power and opens the door recklessly putting faith anywhere and everywhere.

Ultimately, I was fascinated by the book, but because of his pattern of making claims without citing evidence or sources, his loose use of scripture, and his reckless theology when it comes to salvation and authority, it’s not one I would recommend to others. He’s given me a lot to think about, and he does bring the scriptures to life in a way that few can do – but unless the reader is well versed in scripture and theology, it becomes too easy to accept the dangerous theology sprinkled throughout the book.