Monday, September 27, 2010

Program or Relationship

I'm in a season of my life where my learning curve seems pretty darn steep. Everywhere I turn, I am bombarded with new insights regarding my own inadequate definitions of relationship, success and community. Perhaps that greatest thing that seems to be cleansing the palate as of late is this whole concept of relationship and program.

I'm knee-deep into my tenth year as a youth pastor, and I think I know less now that I did as an eager, young, fresh-faced college grad! I can remember thinking I had this whole ministry thing figured out before I had even began working with people in an "uncontrolled" environment (the church) instead of theorizing in class (the controlled environment). Everything I thought I knew about how to build and sustain a successful youth ministry has changed over the last 10 years, and I am so thankful for that!!

Early on, youth ministry was built upon the premise of program...the field of dreams mentality: "If you build it, they will come." Success was defined as providing the next best thing in terms of event type activity for youth to connect at. As youth ministers, we played the role of pied piper, but our end goal wasn't to have them follow us or necessarily make disciples, but to somehow pad our measurable stats in order to be able to justify our role in the church at the next congregational meeting!!

What I've learned about building ministry on a program is that it is simply unsustainable. One day, when resources are not easily available, the program will suffer...that and the fact that there will always be better entertainment available at one's fingertips. Maybe this is why so many marriages fail? We seem to set our relationships up for failure when the relationship itself is built on program and dependent on program for its' sustainability. I can remember when my wife and I first started dating...dinner out once a week (at least) at some new place to eat. Over time, we realized this was simply an unsustainable "program" element to our relationship that we couldn't afford. So we became creative in how we built upon our relational connection and detoured away from the dangerous program-based relationship.

Sadly, what has happened in youth ministry over time is that we've created a culture that is dependent on program. Thanks to the recent recession in North America, youth ministries all over our continent have been forced to be more re-create themselves and to reshape their value system and philosophies to reflect this shift in our culture. The crazy thing is that this shift is more geared towards where youth are today than the days of program-driven connection type ministry. Instead of relying upon the program to create the relationship, we are now recognizing that it is the relationship that creates the program (the system & philosophy). Consider your own family rhythm. There is a program quality to family life, be it vacation, extra-curricular activities or schooling of some sort. When the program qualities of a family rhythm are the foundation for the formation of relationship within the family unit, the relationship itself suffers. If, however, the pre-existing, non-program dependent relationship foundation informs the creation of program elements such as vacation, the relationship structure within the family unit flourishes. It's merely a question of motivation. Instead of using language like "Must I or Do I have to?" we begin to ask use terms such as "I want to and Can we and should I?" when we allow relationship to dictate the pace and flow of our lives.

Ministry that is sustainable is ministry that recognizes, protects and fights for relationship. When our focus shifts towards the program, the relational connection we so desperately crave will suffer.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ideas that Change the World

The most inspiring observation that God has shown me about this emerging generation is that the capacity for caring, compassion and change they possess is incredible! This is the first real generation that is embracing this concept of a global village with renewed vigor and passion. If I were to try to assign a label to the youth of today (of which I still consider myself to be a part of even though I will turn 30 in a couple of months!!) it would be the term "Cause Generation."

If the youth of today have a mission, cause or crisis they can identify with...they mobilize their entire being to get behind it and the world around them changes as a result. You can see this dynamic play out in simple things like fashion trends or social cues, but even at a greater capacity when you find something that unlocks and engages their caring, compassion and appetite for change.

Today I stumbled upon another upstart organization that is bent on making a difference in our world...specifically targeting the end of poverty and the injustices that are a result of this pandemic. It's an organization called One Day's Wages. Built on the premise that with the simple donation of one person's daily working wage can change the world at large, ODW has gained an incredible amount of momentum in the war against poverty. The beautiful part about this not-for-profit company is that they are engaging all generations in their mission of change.

As the church, we can learn something about how ODW and other change agents are empowering people towards mission. The Cause Generation possesses all the gifts that are needed to impact our global community for Christ, but what they need are cheerleaders, guides and willing partners to help them realize how they can make a difference in the world at large. A Paul, for their Timothy.

As followers of Christ, I think we must find new creative ways (or older ways with a cultural twist) in which to empower this generation to lead the larger church. From food drives to intentionally caring for local communities, to raising money and awareness for global, national & local causes...we must tap into the pre-existent God-given gifts of this Cause Generation. I believe we stand on the premise of a turning point in our world's history. One thing I know for sure is that this emerging generation, the Cause Generation, will be leading the charge. If the church is unwilling to follow, the world around us may change, but the Christ we represent will no longer be viewed as relevant to the world at large.

Our youth are budding with ideas that change the world. Let's not stifle their creativity by offering them a perspective of a realist. Instead, may we fall ever more in love with Christ, and allow our love to see how inspiration for change and radical living isn't a curse, but a gift that we can observe and learn from in each other's lives.

The world is changing...will we grow, mature and change with it for God's honor and glory?

For more information about One Day's Wage, visit their website: One Day's Wage

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Made for Relationship

What if I told you that the purpose of the church is rooted in one word, what would you say?

I've been thinking about this subject off and on over the last several years, and I am more convinced each passing day the the focal point of what the church should be about is relationship. I recognize by saying this I open myself up to criticism from all kinds of different sources. Yes I do agree that we need to teach sound doctrine and provide meaningful worship experiences while seeking to remain relevant in the emerging culture around us. But I believe we can thrive in these three areas (and more!) when we root ourselves in relationship.

About a year and a half ago my family and I stepped away from the church we had served at for 8+ years. Not knowing where we would be headed next, we were drawn to prayer unlike we had been before at this particular moment in our lives. After several months of uncertainty and impending financial crisis with loss of income headed our way, God illuminated our next step and provided another ministry setting in which He asked us to serve. We found ourselves to be overwhelmed with thankfulness and gratitude, and we were greatly anticipating this next phase of our journey with Christ. It's been over a year since this transition time, and I still feel as energized and excited about serving Christ in our current ministry context as I did back on the first day I entered into this new position. I recently had the chance to share with my uncle about this transition that occurred in our lives. During our conversation my uncle asked a very pointed question which has again brought me back to this theme of relationship in church. I had mentioned that finding a new set of friends has been the most difficult part of the transition to serving in a new church, to which he replied: "but the church should be able to help with that, right?"

The interesting part about this conversation is that to my knowledge, my uncle has not surrendered his life to Christ, but yet he still could see the value of being connected to a group of people that supposedly shared the same set of values and potential priorities as a huge asset in regards to developing a new relational support network. But, in all honesty, is that what we currently find in the church itself? Do we find relationship and friendship in the church, or do we find the emphasis to be on preaching & teaching?

To this day, the teachers that have had the most impact in my life are those that I could identify with relationally. When a teacher would simply attempt to download information into my brain, I found myself to be apathetic in the learning process. However, if the opposite occurred and a teacher demonstrated a vested interest in seeing me be able to grasp a new learning concept, I would have a much easier time and much greater success in the learning experience itself.

I think the question we need to ask ourselves when it comes to this issue of what the purpose of the church is, is what did Jesus tell us we should be about? There are two great statements made by our Lord which are contained in the gospels. We affectionately refer to them as The Great Commandment and The Great Commission. These two statements are foundational pillars for the Christian faith. The first, the great commandment, mentions that we as followers of Christ should devote ourselves to Loving God and Loving Others (Matthew 22:37-39). When you think about love, in what context does it occur? Love cannot exist devoid of relationship. Whether this relational act is one of service, random kindness or some other more intense friendship like marriage, love outside of relationship is not possible. The second statement, which we call the great commission, provides for us the road map of the Christian faith. In this declaration, Jesus empowers us as His followers (the church) to go and make disciples. Typically we as the church have defined a disciple to mean a follower of Jesus. Unfortunately it is how we have defined a follower of Jesus that has clouded our purposed and detracted it from its' original intent.

As the church, we have focused on developing the knowledge base of our components. Our emphasis on teaching should be commended, but remember that teaching devoid of relationship does not have the same lasting impact as that which has occurred within the bonds of friendship. Take Jesus' original 12 disciples, for example. What was the purpose of this team? I truly believe the purpose of the 12 disciples was to experience what true relationship in a human context was all about, so that as they built the church they would be able to offer this same sort of relational connection (discipleship) to others. Jesus made disciples of His disciples by being their friend and teaching them everything God asked Him to (how to have relationship and how to pray). Jesus did not offer Peter any lessons on preaching or dynamic teaching seminars; Andrew wasn't asked to draw up a 12 month strategic process and learning curriculum for the early church; nor was Matthew asked to create a moniker or acronym, mission statement or set of values for this new wave of Christianity. Instead, Jesus asked these 12 men to make relational connections with others by demonstrating what living life to the full is all about.

Now to be fair, all of these things like mission statements, vision documents and other strategic processes are helpful...but devoid of relationship as their foundation, they don't amount to a whole lot.

Looking at the early church from Acts 2 & 4, there is a common theme that is weaved throughout its' dynamic experiences...relationship. Knowing that we as humans have been created for relationship, if we could rediscover how changing the world begins with a firm relational foundation, we may see the sovereignty and grace of God flood the North American church with the rich blessing of more souls being added into His kingdom each day in an unprecedented fashion. What is certain is that followers of Christ are called to demonstrate and proclaim the gospel of Christ within the context of relationship. It is God who is in ultimate control of the universe, but it is us who can control how we represent Him in our world through our relational interactions with our neighbors. Let us never forget that we were made for relationship.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I don't like being told what to do

During my hangout night with my kids we pulled out the guitar and were dancing around in the living room like clowns. I just started singing random lyrics and landed on a catchy phrase that I then sung over and over again in the presence of my children. It went a little something like this:

I don't want to be what you want me to be
But I do want to be what you don't want me to...yes I do

In these few simple words I found language to describe my own rebellious nature to a T!! As human beings we simply do not like being told what to do or how to do it. Unfortunately much of our society is based upon this very same premise that we have a love/hate flirtatious affection for. We like when someone is in charge, but we don't like when those in charge begin to dictate how or what we should do. We like safe things that don't push us too hard and don't demand too much from us. It's this very same portion of our human character that we bring with us into our relationships, our church and the world at large. We may not find working hard, but we enjoy when things are simple and easy to understand and to long as they don't ask us for too much.

Take this same sort of mentality and bring it into the world of faith and you can see the new dichotomy that is now represented. We don't like being told what to do, but to follow Christ we must be willing to live life according to his rhythm and design in a whole-hearted fashion. Our natural human tendency is to begin searching for compromise and concession, and in doing so we literally vocalize the very same thing that I was singing with my kids during our random dance mob!!

We like to have our cake and eat it to. We like to identify ourselves with Christ when it is safe and convenient to do so, but what it begins to ask too much from us, we shy away from embracing our faith to the full. The ironic thing is that when we embrace a life of complacency, we forfeit a life to the full and we doom ourselves to follow the perpetual pattern of strive, reach, learn, fail, repeat absent of a solid foundation from which to build our hopes, dreams and passions on top of. If the foundation is leaky...the whole structure will come down.

So what makes our foundation strong if we simply don't like to be told what to do. It boils down to question of what some call semantics. Jesus talks about relationship, which is based upon things like trust, friendship, forgiveness and love. Yet our default human programming marred by sin is set to pursue a do and do not mentality and use this foundation from which to build relationship. The foundation that is firm is that which is deeply rooted in the person of Jesus Christ in a relational fashion. The foundation that is easily shaken is that which is utilized a legalistic approach to define terms of success in living life.

I am far from having this all figured out, but tonight I gained greater insight into the fact that I simply don't like being told what to do. What's said about this light bulb moment is that I can see when I reject Christ because I feel He may be asking too much from me, instead of recognizing that simply being where He is will inspire me to become more like Him. My behavior is no longer on trial, but my willingness to call Him my friend is.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The New Wave of Education

Every day we use a vehicle to help us get from one place to the next. Sometimes these vehicles are tangible machines that we ride in, and other times they are figurative strategies and processes we use to help us achieve our defined success or goal.

The issue with any vehicle is that it needs maintenance and upgrading over time. Just like each of us will not drive the exact same vehicle for our entire lives, we will not use the same strategy, process or methodology all of our lives either. 

The education system we know is changing. The way we teach and instruct in church must change also. This video contains some creative thought and research behind this new wave of education, and I think the ramifications for discipleship in the Christian church are huge. The question is, will we catch the wave, or miss it?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Multi-Generational Question

Today I had the opportunity to sit in on our Senior's luncheon at the church. I listened to stories, music and laughter and thought to myself how much value this age group has a part of our larger congregation. During a break between the program & lunch, I slipped into the washroom only to be stopped by an older-gentlemen, one of my senior friends. While exchanging pleasantries, our conversation quickly drifted towards a shared passion of ours...ministry. This man's grandson had grown up in the youth ministry I was a part of, and he was now in ministry role as a worship pastor in BC. We shared a little bit about how we were praying for his success and joy in ministry, and then my old friend shared a piece of insight with me that has really got me thinking today. He shared with me that his grandson was recently given some encouragement by his Sr. Pastor in which this pastor admitted to my friend's grandson that as a church they didn't realize that quality of character they were getting in him as a pastor because of his age (he's only in his 20s). My older friend beamed with pride and uttered, "sometimes us old guys don't give you young guys enough credit."

That simple statement has hit me like a ton of bricks. The trend of the church in recent history has been to compartmentalize ourselves from one another due to age, affinity or status of some kind. In doing so, I think we've weakened the body of Christ unintentionally. When you think about a herd of zebras roaming the African plains, it's those animals on the fringe of the community (the lame, the sick, the weak, the young or the old) that are often attacked and killed by predators. As a body of believers, we've created these silos and rigid structure that have allowed us to do some wonderful things, but I'm left asking myself this question of at what cost?

With this younger generation rising up to lead the world around us and the church itself, have we created an organism in which they are now questioning their fit? If you look back at the history of the church in general, you will find defining moments in our history that have become pillars in the process of spiritual formation for the church at large (Luther's 95 theses, the Reformation, etc.). I think we are entering into one of these defining moments as a church and I believe that it is the younger generation (the teens and young adults of today) that are leading this charge. This emerging generation is the first generation that views Christianity in a negative light, not because of who Jesus is or what the Bible says about truth, but because of what Christians have chosen to be known for over the last 40-50 years.

I can't help but think that segregation has brought us to this point. We have yet to learn that discriminating others due to race, age, culture or preference is not the language of love, and quite frankly is not the language of Christ. Instead we seem compelled to continue the cycle of repackaging old shoes and trying to pass them off as new ones.

If companies do not hire people with the same birth year, why do we believe that doing ministry in this way would be any more civilized or powerful than that ridiculous notion? We have got to find the common ground, meet each other there and learn to celebrate our differences with mutual respect, love and mercy.

I don't know what the answer to the multi-generational question is, but I wonder if it simply begins with all of us getting together and figuring out how we are going to move forward together.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Thoughts on Discipleship from a Cashier

Most Fridays my family and I head off to Superstore on our weekly quest to replenish our cupboards, fridge & freezer with nourishment. Today was no exception. We meandered our way to our local stop and shop, all the while planning what sort of creative fun we may find for ourselves on this long weekend.

After wandering through the aisles and selecting a variety of goods, we ventured into the chaos that can be checking out from any grocery store...the cashier. We, however, selected what we thought would be the most efficient lane, only to found out our cashier was in training. Normally I would be frustrated by this mental blunder, but today I saw this as an opportunity to observe a scenario that should impact the way I think about discipleship in church, particularly in youth ministry.

What struck me the most was how this cashier's supervisor would calmly and adeptly step in to guide her fellow employee in training when prompted to do so...and in that moment lies the key to my lightning bolt experience for today. This supervisor wouldn't hover around the person in training, but would remain at a relatively close distance in order to lend a hand and provide some guidance when prompted to do so. This supervisor understood that unless she allowed her in-training co-worker to succeed (and fail) on her own, she may not learn how to be effective in her role as a cashier. Wrong numbers may have been punched, or entire orders cancelled along the way, but all the while, this in-training professional was learning how to succeed in her vocation.

I began to think about the shift that is taking place in the church today, and how I see it as a positive move towards true discipleship. More and more churches and youth ministries are beginning to focus on creating relational environments that spawn intentional disciples for Christ. Gone (or should be gone) are the days of emphasizing a program driven, activity oriented made to order "recipe for success" and ushered in is this new era of collaborative learning experiences in which mentors, mentorees and multi-generational expressions of worship are the focus. In this shift, discipleship is seen more as an organic response to deepening relationships with God and with others than any sort of program based teaching environment. Like this Superstore supervisor, as pastors, leaders, parents and others, we must seek out opportunities to engage, empower and stimulate this next generation in practice of spiritual formation. What is difficult about this new approach to discipleship is that it is far harder to measure success in terms of numbers, or guided curriculum study. Instead, our quest for success hinges upon seeing the development of spiritual fruit over time in the life of an individual. We are no longer able, nor should we be, to celebrate "check-list" success with our tangible measuring devices (conversion, baptism, discipleship class, etc.).

What's crazy to think is that there is actually no guarantee that the "system" will produce an authentic disciple of Christ. At best, we could hope for success in the form of downloading information into the brain of another person. Unlike our cashier friend, emphasis on the application of knowledge is not the focus at times of discipleship systems based on practice or habits. Instead, we must put our hope and trust in the relationship that is created between the disciple, the disciple-maker and God. In this unique relational connection is where true spiritual growth happens...within the bonds of community (two or more). When we create moments where community connections happen, discipleship is evident. These experiences provide us with teaching moments to communicate the "why", refine the "how" and de-emphasize the "what." The questions of who, when and where are predetermined as we connect people together in the bonds of relationship for the purpose of discipleship.

At the end of the day, this Superstore supervisor will end up with a disciple of her own...a competent cashier who is able to navigate the waters of the service industry with confidence and clarity. And in her moments of need, the cashier will be able to rely on the relational infrastructure that provided her with the experience she needed to find success.

I never thought I would learn to much from standing in line at a Superstore...but I did. My hope is that I will continue on this journey of discovery and remind myself that the process of being a disciple is an unending adventure, but one that truly does provide a full life.