Twenty Years

Twenty years. It goes by fast.

In March, 2001, I became a full time youth pastor.

Heather and I had been married for a handful of months and had just found out we were expecting our first child. He would end up being two days old at our first anniversary – definitively NOT part of our five year plan, but we like him so it turn out okay. My youth group at the time thought they had input in naming him and seemed to think “Cletus the Fetus” was a legitimate option. We politely declined. You’re welcome, Micah. Now he’s in college and some of those teens have kids closing in on youth group age. It goes by fast.

We have four sons total. There was a brief window last summer where they were all in the youth group at the same time; our youngest moved up to sixth grade, our oldest hadn’t left for college yet. Having my own kids in the group is amazing. I like to joke with other youth pastors that it’s like having my own brutally honest focus group.

I feel like I should be listing all of the things I’ve learned over the years. Honestly, though, it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. I’m still learning, I’m still figuring it out, I’m still wrapping my mind around what youth ministry is.

As a parent of teens now, I have to confess that young youth pastor me would have driven current me crazy. Lousy communication, last minute notice about events, a little too confident at times. I had a lot to learn.

But there’s also an incredible nostalgia that comes with watching the old videos from those days and looking at the photos. It was such an exciting, new time.

Probably the biggest difference now is perspective. Youth ministry is a long game. I think I used to believe too much rode on each meeting, I took it too personally when kids were kids and broke the rules, I thought too much hinged on me. It’s really about being a stable, consistent presence, gently pointing young people to God, showing grace, not panicking over things that may seem huge in the moment but in reality fade away quickly. I love that I still love doing it.

Youth ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.

But it does go by fast.

Book Review Roundup

Some short takes on four books I’ve read over the last couple months:

God and the Pandemic, N.T. Wright. I really wish I had read this when it first came out! Wright does such an effective job of both navigating scripture and addressing the real pain of the pandemic. He challenges the reader to respond like Christ, while cautioning that sadly, for too many “the coronavirus is providing people with a megaphone with which to say, more loudly, what they were wanting to say anyway.” (p.7) He challenges readers to be humble, to have perspective, and live out God’s calling to love our neighbors even if it means sacrificing our preferences. He askes the questions, “Who is going to be at special risk when this happens? What can we do to help? and who shall we send?” (p.32) I really appreciated the heart in this short book; definitely worth checking out!

Gay Girl, Good God, Jackie Hill Perry. Perry’s book was not what I expected; it was much more than a discussion about her transition from being a lesbian to marriage to her husband. It is the story of her life, the abuse she endured, how she navigated sexuality, the story of her coming to know Christ, and eventually the story of the relationship with her husband. She writes that “being born human meant that I had the capacity for affection and logic. Being born sinful meant both were inherently broken.” (p.21) I thought how she told the story of addressing her brokenness was beautiful. My one frustration was that for much of the book it came across as though becoming a Christian meant a natural transition from gay to straight. It wasn’t until the end of the book that Perry acknowledged that while that was her experience, it certainly isn’t true of everyone. Rather than being a book about sexuality, Gay Girl, Good God, is the story of Perry’s faith journey, and as such it is moving to read. I highly recommend.

Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say, Preston Sprinkle. I’ve enjoyed Sprinkle’s writing over the years (Erasing Hell is one that stands out), but I was frustrated with this one. Sprinkle’s strength is in humanizing the stories of transgender people, but by his own admission, his weakness is that he is neither a doctor or a psychologist. Too often I felt he was either picking the research he agreed with and ignoring the ones he doesn’t, or attempting to interpret complex medical research that is above his pay grade. Having said that, I was surprised on his stance on pronouns and names (given the preceding chapters and his conclusions in general about transgender issues). I appreciate the argument he makes from scripture on why using someone’s chosen pronouns is both respectful to the person and in line with scripture. Overall, though, if someone is going to read just one book on this topic, then I would recommend Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria. As a theologian and a practicing psychologist, Yarhouse does an incredible job of balancing both scripture, science, and his decades of direct experience working with people.

Engaging Generation Z: Raising the Bar for Youth Ministry, Tim McKnight. I found myself highlighting a lot of passages in McKnight’s book. It’s a great resource for learning more about Gen Z, how they think, and ways to reach them. I appreciated his comments on page 83 that teens want to be challenged with spiritual meat; that we don’t need to be dumbing down the material for them. He addresses an issue that I think is particularly relevant for churches to confront; he points out that Gen Z is the most “racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history.” (p.36) As such, they are that much more aware of how the church responds to race issues – and it has become a major stumbling block for them. I know I’ve seen this directly with the teens in our church and their frustration on how they’ve seen many adults in our congregation interact around this topic and other topics over the last year on social media. McKnight gives a lot of great insight on healthy approaches to student ministry, practical tips, and more. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are in student ministry.

Talking Back to Purity Culture [book review]

Rachel Joy Welcher’s Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality takes a look at the Purity Culture many in Gen X grew up with, the impact of it, and discusses how Christians could have a healthier approach to conversations and teachings around sexuality. I think she presents a strong case for the weaknesses and damage caused by a legalistic approach while at the same time giving great insights on how believers can both hold to scripture while letting go of the judgement and damaging rhetoric.

I loved this particular quote from the book: “Purity culture’s main problem is not that it is too conservative but that it is too worldly. Sex is not about self, and abstinence is anything but sexy. Dressing it up as such is not only confusing, it’s discouraging. When our children realize that pursuing sexual purity is incredibly difficult, they will wonder why we didn’t prepare them. Sometimes we think God needs us to dangle carrots in front of people in order to make his message palatable, when he has called us to preach a gospel of foolishness to those who are perishing, a message so offensive to our pride that we must either reject the Son or fall at his feet.” (Kindle location 2722)

From my own experience, the legalistic, purity culture approach to teaching on sexuality lays a foundation that sets young people up to believe that they are either choosing God or sexual activity. Statistically, we know that Christian young people tend to be sexually active at similar rates to non-churched young people. This legalistic approach to teaching on sex does not scare them into good behavior; it instead leads them to believe that they have fundamentally rejected God and now it’s too late. Welcher writes powerfully on this, exposing the damage and ramifications of such an approach.

Unlike many books that just focus on the negative aspects of purity culture and leave the reader wondering if there is anything they can do instead, short of giving up and allowing for a sexual ethic that is indistinguishable from the world around us, Welcher does give far healthier approaches to viewing sexuality and discussing it based on scripture. Overall, I think she has written an important book for anyone in a position of leadership – whether as a teacher, youth worker, pastor, or parent. Definitely worth reading!

 

 

Under Pressure [book review]

Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Dr. Lisa DaMour is an important book. Just from my own anecdotal experience of being a youth pastor for what will be twenty years in a couple months, I have noticed anxiety skyrocketing in adolescent girls in the last five years.

Drawing on her training, research, and years of experience working with girls, DaMour effectively lays out the challenges for adolescent girls, the rise in stress and anxiety, and a lot of insight on how girls handle it and its impacts on them. I think she also does a great job on giving insights on how to help girls navigate their stress and anxiety.

The most surprising thought she put forward? “Here’s the first thing we can do to help our daughters take control of anxiety: we can teach them that anxiety is often their friend.” (p.13) Surprised? So was I, but as she goes on to explain, anxiety is our natural alert system – when we learn to trust it rather than fear it, it can be a great tool for giving us insight on what’s going on around us or issues that we need to deal with. At the same time, it can also be a concerning issue. DaMour does a great job contrasting the two and giving tools for recognizing when it’s healthy and when it’s concerning.

Overall, I thought it was an important book and definitely worth reading for parents and those who work with girls. My one frustration was that at times it almost seemed like DaMour painted boys with a broad brush that suggested they don’t have struggles or that adolescence is far easier for them. As with girls, over the last five years I have seen surprising rises in stress, eating disorders, self harm and suicidal tendencies with boys as well – it just manifests differently. All that being said, it’s definitely an important read.

2020 Writing in Review

2020 has had a lot of challenges … but it was a fun year for being published! I had a chapter in a book, saw sixteen curriculum resources release, and had nineteen games and other media type resources release. I should probably clarify that I did not create all of this in 2020; some of these were resources I had submitted in 2018 and 2019. It takes anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple years for things to go through the publishing process. Another fun development this year was teaming up with different family members; both Noah (Hua Mulan) and Zach (Guinea Pig Party) had ideas for games that we put together during quarantine. Heather was the brains behind the Caption Challenge and Hashtag games, both of which have been far more popular than anything I have come up with, as well as the one who came up with the idea for Insta Devos. And Micah helped me with Actin’ Sus, which will probably retain the title of best selling youth ministry resource by a McNutt until the end of time. Anyway, if you’re interested, click on them to check them out!

The Book:

Available at Download Youth Ministry:

Curriculum

                

Games & Media

                                    

Published with The Youth Cartel, now available at Download Youth Ministry:

         

Seven Year Teaching Plan

In the most recent episode of my podcast, “Kinda Interesting: Thoughts on Youth Ministry,” I talk about our seven year teaching plan. 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 more than a decade 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 for several years now, 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 SpecialtiesThe Live CurriculumThe 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.

Zach’s Insta Devo

Our student ministry has been posting short devos called “Insta Devos” to our Instagram and Facebook pages. It’s been a fun way to see students interact with scripture and share their insights with one another. This week, our youngest – Zach – who is moving up into the youth group in a few weeks, did one as well! I’m super proud of him … it’s my favorite Insta Devo!

First Testament: 1 Kings resource

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My ninth First Testament curriculum resource was released last week by the Youth Cartel, this one on the book of 1 Kings! First Kings is a fascinating book to study; the historian in me loves the stories of the different kings of Judah and Israel. It is history with a purpose; the stories are chosen by the author(s) to demonstrate God’s power and His desire for us to follow Him alone. It is very applicable to today – and each lesson has connections to the book of James. Like the other First Testament curriculum, it is a four week small group guide full of discussion questions and lesson ideas. They’re only $5.99 each, or you can grab five of them for only $19.99 (that’s twenty weeks of material for a buck a week!). Here’s the official description:

First Kings is history written with a theological purpose; the author(s) wanted the readers to know there is one true God. Despite the covenant between God and His people, the Israelites fell into a downward spiral of increasing sin and death. Their constant selfishness, idolatry, and fighting with one another, resulted in the nation splitting in two, Judah and Israel, and a long list of evil rulers. Only a handful of the kings followed God, but even through all the failure, First Kings is an important book for believers today.

Through the stories of the different kings, students learn important lessons about God’s power, our dependence on Him, the hope we have in spite of failure, and the incredible love God has for each of us.

  • Week 1, Solomon the Wise (1 Kings 3): A challenge to look to God for wisdom.
  • Week 2, Solomon the Fool (1 Kings 11): Solomon allowed to sin to creep into his life; this lesson challenges students to keep their focus on God.
  • Week 3, Asa the Good (1 Kings 15): In spite of failures, Asa was able to be righteous before God.
  • Week 4, Ahab the Evil (1 Kings 16-18): Idolatry was not just a danger for the ancients, it is a real danger today as well.

First Testament: Lamentations resource

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My eighth (!!!) First Testament curriculum resource was released last week by the Youth Cartel, this one on the book of Lamentations! I’ve always loved the book of Lamentations; in many ways I believe our culture pushes us towards unhealthy ways of handling sadness, grief and suffering; Lamentations models a far healthier way to process difficult times. It’s beautiful poetry, haunting and terrifying imagery, and fascinating that it doesn’t have a happy ending. I think for many, this current season is a perfect time to embrace the five laments of Lamentations and work through them. Like the other First Testament curriculum, it is a four week small group guide full of discussion questions and lesson ideas. They’re only $5.99 each, or you can grab five of them for only $19.99 (that’s twenty weeks of material for a buck a week!). Here’s the official description:

Lamentations is a collection of five poems, or laments, that wrestle with the pain, grief and horror the ancient Israelites experienced at the hands of the Babylonians. Their nation conquered, their temple destroyed, and their children taken captive, they were a devastated people. Lamentations was written and/or collected by the prophet Jeremiah and read in unison every year on the anniversary of the destruction of the temple. Lamentations teaches the reader how to grieve. It also teaches lessons about God’s judgment, compassion and sovereignty.

Included with this study is a collection of 60 images to be used as a discussion opener for each study. Lamentations uses word images to convey message and meaning. In the same way, use the photos to get the participants to think abstractly, to identify and communicate message and meaning.

  • Week 1, Family (Lamentations 1): The importance of family and connections in the grieving process.
  • Week 2, Judgment (Lamentations 2): What does God’s judgment mean? What is its place in our lives?
  • Week 3, Compassion (Lamentations 3): Even when the end is not in sight, it is possible to see God’s compassion and hope in our suffering.
  • Week 4, Sovereignty (Lamentations 4-5): God’s power and authority is absolute; what does that mean when we suffer?

Tale of Tamar

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Download Youth Ministry recently released a one-off message resource that I put together called Tale of Tamar. I’ll be honest, this is one of my all time favorite messages I have ever done. In the message I use the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1 as a launching point, noting that the gospel is proclaimed through the names chosen. In spite of tradition and expectations, as genealogies were used to enhance the purity and dignity of the person being traced – in this case Jesus – some shocking names are included. One of which is Tamar; a foreign woman from ancient Jewish history, whose shocking story of sexual mistreatment is actually a beautiful story how God sees each of us. In God’s story, Tamar’s presence enhances the purity and dignity of Jesus’ lineage.

All that to say, I love this resource. It includes the message manuscript, powerpoint, handouts, and a small group discussion guide. Doug Fields wrote about it, “I’d teach this tomorrow… actually, I probably will. Ha. Seriously, who wants to teach on Matthew chapter 1? Well, now I do. Well done.” If you want to check it out, here’s the link. Check out DYM’s description:

Are genealogies even important? In Matthew 1:1-17, we see the gospel proclaimed through the genealogy of Jesus. Shockingly, four women are mentioned, including Tamar, a Canaanite who was taken advantage of and abused by the men in her life. We read her story in Genesis 38. In God’s economy, Tamar’s presence enhances the purity and dignity of Jesus’s lineage. In this one-off message, you’ll challenge your students to find their identity and value in Christ’s story, not in their past.

Tamar’s tale, often forgotten, is a powerful one that is incredibly relevant today.