Back to School

It’s that time of year! Many of our ministries are beginning to surge with new activities, fresh approaches, and renewed passion and direction. This time is filled with promise and expectation.

Remember that, for many of the young people in our ministries, the way they begin their academic year is important. They will make decisions and judgments that will impact their attitudes, efforts, habits, and focus. In light of that, I encourage you, your church, and your youth ministry to help young people see their academic lives as integral parts of their pursuit of Christ (Colossians 3:15-17).

With that in mind, here is a prayer you might use or provide for your students as they dedicate their academic pursuits to God’s glory.

Almighty God,

We are grateful that you sent us your own son, Jesus. He came to earth as one of us, and also as a rabbi, or master teacher. He called us to be diligent students and to grow as he did: in wisdom, stature, and having favor with God and our neighbors.

Forgive us for too often allowing boredom, lack of discipline, laziness, and entitlement to keep us from excelling in our studies as students. May we turn from this status quo approach and bring you glory and take advantage of this opportunity in our lives to gain knowledge, wisdom, maturity, and favor with our God, our teachers, and fellow students.

We pray you will bless our schools. May they become places of lively learning, discovery, and healthy development. By your strength and mercy, grant that we devote ourselves to careful study, diligent effort, and discerning attention in our academic studies today and each day.

We ask this in the name of our master teacher, friend, and Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

[Photo credit: krcla]


Killing or Keeping?

The memory of the night I had to tell a father, over the phone, that his daughter had been murdered only hours before, is embedded deeply in my mind. Nothing prepares us for having to say such words. It is both the privilege and the burden of being invited into the joys and crises of each others’ lives (Galatians 6:2). No one comes away from such an encounter unchanged.

Over the following days I asked all the classic questions: Why? Where were you, God? Where are you God? How can we move on? I can’t say that I came to any new revelations or eureka moments, but God did remind me of an image that was a place of comfort. In the dark moments of my life I often wonder with the Israelites, “Did you bring me all this way to allow me to die?” (Exodus 14:11) In those moments when I can’t tell what is up or down, whether the next step is off a cliff or leading me into a glorious new day, God seems to whisper, “Remember the cloud.”

You remember the cloud that led the people of Israel by day, right? (Exodus 13:21-22)

I recall that cloud, and it strikes me that God still leads. The image of a cloud is fitting during our more difficult days. In times of darkness and despair (when God is near to the broken ones [Psalm 34:18]), I find comfort in the image of the cloud. For when our Maker and Molder is so near and is leading us, our experience is being in the midst of the fog and vapor of God’s presence.

While God is close and at work, we can encounter it as blinding and disorienting, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This image of being in the cloud, once I understand it, can kindle my faith. Despite my lack of understanding or ability to know what comes next, I can choose to trust that God’s nearness has enveloped and consumed me in the overwhelming presence and comfort of the cloud that leads us.

To my friends who are struggling these days and to anyone who is reading this simple post, remember, God has not brought you this far to kill you but to keep you. He keeps you close during these difficult days in the shelter and embrace of his presence. A cloud to lead you to the place that is best for you. We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

 

[Photo credit: schristia]


THINKING THEOLOGICALLY ABOUT YOUTH MINISTRY

As a youth ministry professor, I sometimes do consulting for churches. Often what the churches tells me goes something like this: “Our youth group just isn’t reaching students like we think they should be. What are we doing wrong?”

When I meet with the leaders of the youth ministry, invariably they are looking for a specific answer to their problem. They will show me all their programs, have me talk to the youth staff, parents, and maybe even the teenagers, and then we will all sit across the table. All eyes will peer expectantly at me, waiting for me to give them the answer they need to revitalize their ministry. They want me to tell them something like, “Well, it’s apparent that your youth room is the problem. If you will just paint it alternating stripes of neon orange and lime green, and if you will put in a kicking sound system, that should take care of your problem. You’ll soon have teenagers flocking to your church.”

The preceding may stretch the facts just a bit, but only a bit. The truth of the matter is, most of the churches are looking for quick answers to their youth ministry woes. What they aren’t looking for is what I want to help them find—a theological and biblical rationale for their youth ministry. Follow that up with a close examination of how that rationale is played out in their programs and ministries. In other words, I want them to examine why they do youth ministry. Only when they honestly confront that issue is it possible to then examine how to make the ministry more effective in reaching students for Christ.

Why is a biblical and theological rationale important to have? It is important because it allows us to shape our ministries on the very nature of the Godhead. For example, if we believe that God is love, how does our ministry reflect His love in all of its many facets? Similarly, if we believe that God is justice, how does this idea impact what we do and why we do it?

Unfortunately, far too many youth ministries practice the reverse. They allow their ministries and programs to shape what they know and teach about God. For example, one youth ministry I am familiar with routinely does a ritual hazing during its fall retreat with incoming seventh graders. The students are made to feel humiliated during this “ceremony” which officially adopts them into the group. While the youth pastor defends the practice, stating that, “It’s just a fun way to show them just how much we love them,” theologically this experience sends a distorted message to those seventh graders. “If this is love and acceptance,” they inwardly ask, “why should we be a part of it?” These students are experiencing cognitive dissonance because what they hear proclaimed—“love and community”—is not matching up with what is practiced. That is the result when we fail to start with theology and allow it to shape the ministry.

When we start with a theological and scriptural foundation, we can have assurance that what we do in ministry (our practices) appropriately reflects what we believe about God (our theological convictions) rather than just our whims, cultural trends, or the expectations of others.

Another church with which I’m familiar has chosen to allow their ministries to emerge out of their theological and scriptural understanding of God. This church, which does not have a professional youth pastor, takes seriously their theological tradition which is based on grace in its many forms—prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. This concept of grace is married to their understanding that all people (including adolescents) are made in the image of God which gives them unconditional value.

Very few adults in the church could verbalize these concepts, but they are deeply engrained in their very being. They understand that their role is not to convert students but to faithfully proclaim the gospel, creating regular opportunities for students to encounter God’s grace, and ultimately to allow God to do the converting. After students encounter the transforming power of grace, they are shown what it means to live Christlike lives as they in turn show grace to others.

This is one congregation that takes seriously the idea that their children and adolescents are a vital part of their community of faith. Their programs and ministries affirm this by allowing the students to be equal partners in ministry. This church has built its youth ministry on a theological and scriptural foundation. As a result, their ministry to youth is both wholistic and full of integrity.

Truth be told, it’s much easier to build and run a youth ministry that is not built on a biblical and theological foundation. We can go with the latest fad, follow the recent trend, and adopt the philosophy of the current hot speaker. But doing this only ensures that our students will never gain a true understanding of God and what He wants to do in their lives. It’s playing spiritual roulette with the lives of our students, hoping that one of the things we try will eventually work. Why would any youth worker want to follow this fast paced mad gamble of faith? Who would want to found their ministry on a blown-by-the-wind philosophy, that tries to bound from mountain top to mountain top until we are exhausted?

The purpose of this article is not to call you out if you are one of those folk. Rather, it is to encourage you to begin thinking about how your theological tradition and your personal beliefs about God can and should impact your ministry. I believe that through this practice you will discover a new sense of freedom in ministry. More importantly, you will help create a ministry that is faithful to your students and God. May it be so in your ministry.

Going Deeper: If this idea is new to you, here are some ways to get started Thinking Theologically About YOUR Youth Ministry:

  • Get by yourself or with all of your youth staff in a room with a white board. Brainstorm together and write your answers on the board. Start by asking these questions: What is our theology? What do we believe about God? If our youth ministry was to reflect God’s character, what would we change? What would stay the same?
  • When you sit down at any planning meeting, always ask “What is the purpose of this event/program?” “What is the underlying theological foundation?” “What does this event teach our youth about God and community?”
  • Rediscover your own theology. Read some basic or challenging theological works (such as Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, or The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard). As you reflect, ask yourself—how does what I am reading affect the youth ministry I am involved in?

James K. Hampton is an author, speaker and veteran youth worker who serves as Assistant Professor of Youth Ministry at Asbury Theological Seminary.

 

[Photo credit: matt1125]


Dear World

I was recently at a conference for my day job, representing our company in the exhibit hall for an industry trade show. The conference sponsors invited a photojournalist from Dear World to be part of the activities and to allow conference attenders to share messages with their families, friends, and communities. It was a great diversion from long hours of talking shop to watch folks get excited about their passions by sharing their messages with the world, through a single snapshot.

Dear World was a photo project that started in New Orleans after Katrina. It was a simple way for everyday folks, sports figures, celebrities, and politicians to share their messages with the world. In the simple gesture of writing a few words on their skin and the snap of a shutter, each person who desired could share their message in a powerful way with all who saw the picture. In a real way, many of these photos share a profound poetry and striking image of determination, joy, hope, and power. The idea that began in New Orleans has spread far and wide, including people from all over the world. You can see many of the images in the galleries at dearworld.me.

On the last day of the conference, I overcame my reluctance and pulled up my sleeves to share my message through Dear World. I chose to share the motto of the Benedictine Order, ora et labora. In those three Latin words, the Benedictine tradition of prayer and work is offered. Make prayer your highest work and your everyday work prayer.

If you had Dear World show up at one of your events, what message would burn within you to share with your friends, family, community, and world?

 

[Photo credit: dearworld.me]


What Are You Reading?

On a recent trip to do youth ministry training, I had the pleasure of hanging out with two youth workers from the Seattle, Washington area.  Their love for Seattle sports aside, they were great company.  We spent an evening watching the final four together and enjoyed great discussion about our families, our growing up, ministry experiences and what we were currently reading.

One of the youth workers was a bit reticent to mention his current reading and so I kept pushing ‘til he confessed, “All I have been reading is a bunch of fiction.”  He then went on to say he had started reading some books mentioned by kids in his youth group, thinking it would help him relate to and understand the culture of his students (which it probably did); but what he wasn’t expecting was how much he enjoyed the books.  This led to what has now been a two-year journey reading all kinds of fiction.

For years I have spent the first hour and a half each morning reading.  For the past fifteen years with few exceptions I was reading exclusively non-fiction books.  But about two months prior to the conversation with my two Seattle friends; I began binging on fiction.  I had become (and still am, mind you) consumed by reading great fiction

After my new friend confessed to his latest reading habits – we began a heated and excited discussion of all the latest books and authors we were enjoying.  We wrote down recommendations, shared plots and premises and relived some of the common stories and plot twists with which we both were familiar.  Our impromptu book club didn’t end there we both had observed a change in our lives since we started the journey into fiction.  We noticed:

  1.  We both seemed more human.  Fiction had helped us connect to not only our mental lives, but captured our imagination (our fears and hopes) and our emotional lives (our regrets, feelings about loss and gains, etc.).
  2. We were becoming better storytellers.  We both noticed an improvement in our public speaking.
  3. Our writing was better, less technical, easier to read and a bit more winsome.
  4. It helped us unplug from our status quo and helped us explore new vistas and horizons and in each of our lives we discovered new interests.
  5. Great stories fed our imagination and awakened within us wonder, hope, adventure, and romanticism; and that is a good thing.

Have you read a good story lately?

Want to share a title we should explore?

Is fiction regularly on your reading list?

Is there value in escaping into a well-written book of fiction?

 

[Photo credit: colemama]


All New Youth Worker Training

One feature of the new and improved Barefoot Online subscription (launches September 1) is the video training resource.

Here is lesson 2 from the Conflict Management series. This series will help you gain an understanding of how to successfully navigate conflict as you work with teenagers, and your counterparts in youth ministry.

With a Barefoot Online subscription you’ll have access to hundreds of training videos for you and your team including topics like:

  • Speaking with Youth
  • Advocating for Youth with Church and Family
  • Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry
  • Retreat Planning 101
  • Social Media and Connecting with Teens

Each video will have a participants guide [download here] for groups, 1-on-1 mentoring, or through an online community.

If you sign up for a subscription by August 31st you’ll save $100!
Learn more here.

 


Free disciple.me lessons!

Greetings from Barefoot Ministries!

We are excited about the new Barefoot Online features and content launching on September 1.
We’d like to give you a taste of 6 Middle School small group lessons from our new disciple.me curriculum [download here].

disciple.me was written and designed by people who understand the dynamics of leading small group discussions with teenagers. You can follow the 7-year plan or arrange the lessons to best fit your group. We hope this resource will guide your students into spiritual formation for the mission of God.

*disciple.me will be available on September 1st for all Barefoot Online subscribers. Save $100 off a year subscription if you order by August 31.


Encircled

A caim is a form of Celtic prayer that has been used since the late fourth or early fifth century. Caim is often translated circling prayer, or Celtic encircling prayer. The idea of an encircling prayer is often believed to be couched in the understanding of Psalm 125:2: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.”

A classic caim would go something like this:

 Circle me, Lord. 

Keep peace within

and anxiety without.

Encompass me, God.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

shield me on every side.

Amen.

 You can pray this for yourself, and as you do, slowly turn and embody the prayer, involving not only your mind and mouth but the motion of your body, as well. You can also use a caim as a way to pray for one another in a small group, for your family, or for retreat participants. I have found that using the following steps helps folks warm up to the idea and receive the most from this prayer exercise:

  • Provide a background and introduction to the Celtic encircling prayer.
  • Share a model caim that your participants will pray.

Model Caim  [you can change the wording as necessary: protection/danger; hope/despair; light/darkness; mercy/sin; wholeness/sickness; etc.]

Circle (name), Lord.

Keep (comfort) near

and (discouragement) afar.

Keep (peace) within

and (turmoil) out.

Encircle (name), God.

Encompass (her/him), God.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

shield (her/him) on every side.

Amen.

  • Invite each person to be quiet and distill their greatest need to one word. Then have each person enter the center of the group and share the one word that represents their request. This will be inserted into the caim.
  • Have those who are not being prayed for join in a circle around the prayer recipient and pray the encircling prayer. Each person can in turn pray one line of the prayer. It can help slow the process to pass a candle, representing God’s presence, and as each person receives the candle, they pray their line.
  • Repeat this process for each person requesting prayer.

One More Time

I remember being part of my high school marching band and those hot afternoon practices under the southwest Florida sun. They were, in a word, brutal. The heat and humidity sapped our will and strength in short order, making the two-hour practices feel like marathons. The words I think were most often spoken at such events were, “Do it again, one more time.” It often caused me to have to summon the will, attitude, and ability to perform to my utmost, even though I just wanted to find some shade and Gatorade. The ingredient of every successful band, team, or artist is the discipline to do it again, one more time.

The same is true in our lives with God. We have thousands of years of Christian testimony from those who have gone before us who show us the value and critical need for spiritual discipline. Performing spiritual exercises softens our lives and prepares the ground of our innermost parts, allowing us to be formed and shaped by God’s hand. We can hear our spiritual ancestors calling from that great cloud of witnesses, “Do it again, one more time.” Praying, fasting, meditating, studying, serving, worshiping, keeping silent, and many more disciplines have been practiced to help us be available to the working, ways, and will of our Maker. It is hard work and some days difficult to persevere in “training ourselves to be godly” (1Timothy 4:7).

My wife and I tend some small gardens and planters on our property. We daily water, prune, and pull weeds, making it one more chore to keep up with. Yet we do it, day in and day out, nurturing the flowers, plants, and vegetables, providing all they need to flourish. There are days I don’t want to face the heat, the dirt, or the work. It is about that time when I turn the corner and am faced with the beauty of a shasta daisy in full bloom, or see a tomato plant full of fruit, and it takes my breath away.

Do it again, one more time.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. (2 Peter 1:5-7)

 

[Photo credit: rcweir]


Being a Theologian in Youth Ministry

I was nearing the end of a full day of consulting a large church on the state of their youth ministry. I had listened, taken notes, asked questions, and read their materials. I was now feeding back to them what they had said God was asking them to be and do in their youth ministry. I was not selling a specific program or particular philosophy, I was going deeper with them, to the heart of what the church means for kids and families.

The more I reflected with them on some of the specifics I had heard during the day–like God calls us to be a family of families, people are always more important than programs, we are always to seek unity, and our primary mission is to love God, each other, and the world–the more frustrated several of the elders and senior staff became. “Give us the model . . . and . . . find us the person to run it, and we’ll be fine!” When it came down to it, even after a day of dreaming, praying, reflecting on the mission statement of the church and the youth ministry, what the leadership wanted was not a thoughtful, theologically driven vision and strategy of serving the needs of the students and their families. They just wanted a model, and a program that “works”!

What does it mean for a youth ministry program to work? Or, to put it another way, what is the criteria for deciding if a ministry program works, and how does a church therefore measure success, evaluate staff, and plan for the future of the program? The answer lies in how what we do (and are) lines up with our theological convictions and calling. Every one of us has theological convictions, but it is more than common for what we believe and what we do to go in two different directions. The call of the Gospel is that God has invited us into His Kingdom work, and therefore the alignment of what this means with how we do youth ministry is central to our call.

Theologically-driven vision and strategy – When we don’t, When we do!

Theology can be a scary word. It is also such a common one that most people in ministry think they are supposed to know what it means, but when pressed they stumble for a concise definition. Simply put, theology is the process of considering what God thinks. It is bringing our story (work, life) in line with God’s revealed story in Christ’s Kingdom purposes and work. “Doing” theology, as some describe it, is when we go through the process of trying to figure out why and how God speaks to and counsels us toward the most appropriate response to a given situation, need, or circumstance. Thinking theologically means that our first criteria for success is not what “works,” as it is typically defined, but rather how what we do and how we live are in sync with God’s call to ministry and service (which, by the way, includes such issues as what makes sense in a given community, meets both real and felt needs of students, what honors family structures and issues, and yes, works!). “Theological reflection,” then, as Kenda Creasy Dean says, “keeps the practice of youth ministry focused on God instead of on us.”

When We Don’t Think Theologically

When we spend our time trying to be successful, to blindly implement a “successful” model, or to “grow” a ministry (none of which, by the way, are automatically not theologically appropriate) at the exclusion of first asking what God has revealed, thinks, and wants, we may ultimately undercut the very thing we are trying to accomplish. What sets youth ministry apart from other forms of youth work is our commitment to helping adolescents come to trust Christ and assimilate into the church. Concentrating on the looks or observable results of youth ministry before or instead of prayerfully working through a theological grid can sometimes make us look and even feel successful, but we may not be doing youth ministry.

Some things that can happen when we ignore the need to think theologically:

  1. Games are competition, and many kids, discouraged, check out;
  2. Trying to connect we end up spending our energy as a leadership team with those we like more, communicating to the fringe that they don’t matter;
  3. Our events do more damage than good, like announcing an “awesome” Father-daughter night in front of many girls who do not know their fathers.

These and other examples of how ministry can miss our intentions can happen to anyone, but a leader who takes the time to think theologically they will be far less common.

When We Do Think Theologically

Prayerfully seeking God’s intent for our ministry will provide a guide for everything from hiring staff to deciding on a mission trip to giving announcements. Using the above examples, here’s how a theologically committed youth ministry may look:

  1. Not wanting to do anything that excludes kids because of physical differences, games are used that levels the athletic playing field;
  2. A team will strategically assign leaders to kids, and constantly be on the lookout for any student that may be feeling ignored or marginalized;
  3. Exclusive events are advertised with sensitivity and creativity, so every person knows that, regardless of their particular situation, they belong as members of God’s family.

Summing Up – Be a Theologian!

Theology starts with the Bible. As we read it we ask, “What does our experience teach us, what has the Church said, and what is the reality of people’s lives today?” After these questions, theology goes back to the Bible to make sure what we are affirming God says is in fact true.

Step back, ask some hard questions, and give your kids a theologically aligned youth ministry!

[Guest Post by Chap Clark]