Thursday, June 30, 2011

How Do We Get Teenagers To Love the Church?

I want to thank everyone for the overwhelming response to yesterday's post, How To Ruin a Teenager's Faith.  Apparently the topic and the content struck a chord with many of my readers, and I heard from a lot of you.  I was basking in the sweet glow of success until I got an anonymous comment late yesterday afternoon that complimented my post and then posed the following question- How do we get teenagers to love the church?  I thought my head might explode.  Why, you ask?  Because that is the absolute WRONG QUESTION to be asking.  It's like asking, "How do I get my kids to love Pizza Hut?"  You don't- you get them to love pizza!  Let me explain.

Many churches spend a lot of time and money hiring professional youth pastors to join their staffs and try to convince teenagers to love the church.  We (I was one of them for many years!) youth dudes & dudettes come on board and plan creative lessons, outrageous events and the occasional Egg & Armpit Relay.  We do these things with one goal in mind- get teenagers to show up at church.  We know that we want them to love Jesus, so maybe if we can get them in our building it will just happen. In the process, we are usually trying to subconsciously plant one or more of these thoughts in the minds of those reluctant church goers... 

  • Jesus is cool.  With all of the crazy things we do we do in his name, he must be cool- right?  We want them to think "this is not your mother's Jesus!"  The thing is, Jesus has always been cool.  We don't need to change his image to make him seem relevant.  No one has ever been more relevant than Jesus!
  • We are cool.  We get it in our heads that if students are not yet ready to follow Jesus, then maybe they are ready to follow a groovy, gotee growing, guitar playing, flip-flop wearing surfer dude.  In fact, if students are really drawn to us, it is not for any of those reasons. It is because they feel loved.  More on that in a minute...
  • Church is cool.  With our rocking praise bands, 50 foot projection screens, high resolution videos and youth friendly sermons, many of our churches do everything they can to keep teenagers entertained.  And this is appreciated, because for many years churches did everything they could to help them catch up on their sleep.  But is a rock'n'roll worship service really enough to get teenagers to love the church?  Can our churches "out-entertain" our society?  Highly doubtful...
Any of those concepts may work for a short time, but none of them will solve our long-term issue.  The problem is the question.  It's great when kids love the church, but it is crucial that they love Jesus.  And how do we get teenagers to love Jesus?  Relationships. It's not really about getting them to show up at church; it's about helping them understand that Jesus is already showing up in their lives! They may be drawn to church through their relationships with friends or a youth pastor.  The may experience Jesus through the relationships gained in passionate worship or a supportive small group.  But it is only when they encounter the love of God whose name is Jesus that their lives will truly change.  Once that introduction is made, they will understand that Jesus has something we all need- teenagers included.  If our goal is getting youth to love the church, then next week's Bungee Tower Free Fall event might just work.  If it's getting them to love Jesus, then we have to love them first.  Remember this old cliche, which got to be an old cliche because it is absolutely true- "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."  And once they understand how much God cares, their lives will change. I'll close with these magnificent words from Ephesians 3:14-19:
"My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you'll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ's love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God."

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How To Ruin A Teenager's Faith

Chrissy Weaver, typical teenager.  NOT!
WARNING: Contains Sarcasm!

Anyone who spends anytime around middle school and/or high school students knows that they face many challenges in their day-to-day lives.  Some of those challenges involve their faith.  They are deciding who they believe, what they believe and how to live out those beliefs in the world they live in.  You would expect the church to be at the forefront of helping these fragile followers of Jesus discover their true selves.  And often it is.  But on occasion the church (and the adults who "make the rules") actually provides more confusion than help.  Today I want to take a look at 5 rules we use to turn teenagers away from God and towards a Double-Life Faith where they simply go through the motions of Christianity.  These rules can also apply to new adult believers, so beware!

#1)  They must dress differently for church than they do for anything else.  In my early days as a youth pastor most students were still being coerced into wearing their "Sunday Best" to every event at church- from weddings to worship.  I myself wore a tie on Sunday for years and wore one on almost no other occasion.  I was always told this was because we should wear our best for God, but I have come to believe it was a disguise we wore in the hopes that Jesus would not recognize us on Sunday after the way we had behaved all week...
#2)  They must talk differently at church than they do anywhere else.  It's important for church youth to learn to speak in a language no one can explain.  I'm not talking about the swearing- that probably should be different.  I'm talking about "Christianese."  At church, they can tell you that a worship service was "Spirit-filled," or that someone was "Saved" or "washed in the blood of the Lamb"- and give you a "Hallelujah" or an "AMEN" to back it up.  If you ask a youth at school on Monday how the church service was, about the best you can hope for is "whatever."  We teach them to describe their faith journey in a language they will never use outside of church.
#3)  They must learn that we don't talk about "those things" at church.  Teenagers must learn that some subjects are just unsuitable for church.  Jesus may be LORD of All, but he obviously cannot deal with subjects like sex and evolution.  If students hear often enough that "we don't talk about that here," then guess what?  They'll quit talking about it with you and with God- and go back to gathering their info from the highly enlightened 17 year old who lives next door.  Muuuuuch better....
#4)  They must learn to act differently at church than they do everywhere else. At church it is important to act happy and be nice. You must pretend to share a fashion sense (see #1) and musical tastes with people 4 times your age.  As a real life teenager, your job is to be moody, grumpy and occasionally outright Gothic.  Learning to pretend you are someone different at church than you are in real life is the basis of a good Double-Life Faith.
#5)  They must learn that Christians are perfect, and so are they!  At church, you never admit sin, defeat or failure, because everyone knows that Christians are perfect.  Those sins you committed during the week are best hidden away on Sunday, because goodness knows Jesus doesn't want to hear about them.  If our kids hear often enough that our goal is to get to heaven, and that heaven is for perfect people, then they will understand the need to NEVER confess their sins- at least not when anyone in the church might hear them.  Grace?  That's for losers...

History has shown us that if we teach these things well when our kids are young, we can be fairly certain that they will grow up believing that Jesus is "that one guy who lives in that one building."  They will have learned that faith has no place in the real world, and that God lives in a tiny little box kept under the pulpit.  They will have learned to live a Double-Life Faith.  It is a lesson far too many adults have learned far too well- and now they know how to play church.  Want to ruin the faith of a teenager?  Maybe you should just send them to church.  It's time to stop the madness.  It's time to get real with our kids about faith.  Quit giving them "church."  Start giving them Jesus.  

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Your Resume Ain't Worth Skubala!

"It's all about You, it's not about me- wherever I go I want people to see your light is shining like the sun in everything that I do; it's all about You."  - Nate Sallie

We live in a world that often seems dominated by resumes.  Status is achieved based on the places you were educated, the positions you have held and the the things you have accomplished in life.  Church is no different.  We want our staffs to have significant pedigrees; we want our volunteers to have rich backgrounds in what ever area of ministry they may serve.  In church as in the "real world," it's all about who you are and what you've done.  But today we remember that the Jesus Revolution says, "Not so fast..."

In Philippians 3:2-11 (The Message) the Apostle Paul reminds us of an eternal truth: It's not about us and our accomplishments, it's all about Jesus.  Paul is explaining to the church at Philippi that they need to be on the lookout for people who think they can align themselves with God simply by the things they have on their resumes.  He is specifically warning them that assuming that someone has become a Christ-follower based on the fact that they have followed Jewish law is a bad idea.  He lists his own very impressive Jewish resume, from circumcision right through his willingness to persecute those who followed Jesus, and points out that if anyone had reason to be confident that the law could make them right with God, it was him. But then he writes this: (Phil. 3: 8-9; NIV):  "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him..."   In other words, his resume- everything of note he had ever been or accomplished- was junk.  Only knowing Jesus mattered.  My pastor told us several weeks ago that the word "rubbish" used in the NIV is watered-down from the original Greek.  So is the term "dog-dung" found in The Message.  The actual Greek word is skubala, and the closest translation is a vile 4-letter word- and it's not poop. (Pastor Matthew made us all repeat the word, the admonished us for swearing in church!). Paul is reminding us that all of the things we do to try to build ourselves up and attain a relationship with God on our own are just one big, steaming pile of skubula unless we know Jesus.

I spend a lot of time on this blog telling stories about people I know, places I have been and things I have done.  Most you you know my resume- the good and the bad.  And the truth is it's all skubala.  The good will never be good enough to earn my way into the Kingdom of God. The bad has already been forgotten and forgiven through the love of God whose name is Jesus.  It's simply not about us- it's all about Jesus.  Do we need to seek to live holy lives and do good deeds in Jesus' name?  Certainly.  Should we seek to avoid sin?  Absolutely.  But in the end it's not about the past.  It's not about being "good enough."  It's about walking every day with Christ, living so that his radical love can be seen in our lives.  As Paul wrote, it's about "pressing on," and never forgetting that the "prize" is a relationship with Jesus.  It may not look as good on your resume as a Harvard education, but trust me- it's ain't just skubala.  The question becomes this: What is it that defines you?  Welcome to the Jesus Revolution, where the answer is obvious.  Jesus defines us.  

Because of Jesus,

Monday, June 27, 2011

Youth Ministry Heroes: Tim Vestal

My Hero
My dear friend and former student Ashley Goad Broadhurst departs today on another mission trip to Haiti, and I am her prayer partner for the day.  Please join me in praying for her!

Today I want to tell you about one of my heroes of Youth Ministry.  His name is Tim Vestal (pictured- I confess to swiping this from his Facebook page), and unless you are a Quaker living in North Carolina you may never have heard of him.  He hasn't written a book.  He doesn't speak at national conferences.  He doesn't do podcasts and he's not on Twitter.  He's not even really Batman- at least not as far as I know.  He is simply a youth pastor who has dedicated his life to serving teenagers in the name of Jesus.  And nobody does it better.

For over 20 years now Tim has served local churches (only 2 in all those  years) in NC.  He has often been a Youth Pastor, Children's Minister, Choir Director and Sunday School/VBS guru all rolled into one.  His youth groups thrive and grow because of his faithfulness, creativity and dedication and willingness to share his life with his students.  But that's only one part of Tim's story.  I first met him when he was a student himself, one of the leaders of the Young Friends Yearly Meeting (conference youth) in NC.  Since those days he has been involved with a youth choir called Serenity.  This is an ever-changing group of youth that gathers from all over the state for 2 weeks each summer- one week to rehearse and one week to tour.  In fact, they are touring even as I write this post.  This group has toured for 29 years now, and Tim has participated in 24 of them (according to his wife).  And for the past 19 years he has been their director.  In addition, for many years he has led the Young Friends Activities Committee that plans numerous events throughout the year for the conference, including a winter camp called Youth Tremors and the annual Yearly Meeting each Fall.  He does these things because he loves teenagers and he loves Jesus.  He does not get paid for these conference events;  they are his passion.  And I can tell you from personal experience that there have been literally hundreds of youth (including some of my own) over the years who have been impacted by his work outside of his own church.  Tim Vestal is a ministry superstar.

I have known Tim for many years and consider him to be a dear friend.  We shared many great moments at the National Youth Workers Convention over the years (see The Banana Splits).  He brought me to NC as a guest speaker several times and we always had a blast.  I know that he is an expert on the Muppets.  I know that you rarely catch him without a toothbrush somewhere on his person.  I knew of his feelings for his lovely wife Sarah way before she became his lovely wife Sarah.  :)  I have loved him as a friend for a very long time.  But it has only been since my ministry ended that I have realized that Tim is my youth ministry hero.  And here's how I know- I wish so badly that my son could be in his youth group.  He does it well, and he does it right.  He's the most creative person I know.  He has built so many relationships and helped so many students discover the love of Jesus.  So here's what I want you to do today- whether you know Tim or not, I'd like for all of you to be praying for Tim and Serenity.  Better yet, leave an encouraging word for Tim as a comment here and I will make sure he gets them.  The world of ministry could do with fewer celebrities and more Tim Vestals.  In fact, now that I think about it...maybe he is Batman. Tim has a special place in my youth ministry Hall of Fame!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Max & the Big Boo-Boo

This past Thursday night when I asked for "requests" for old stories to write about here, my former student Laurie Rees (that's her in 1989- or at least that is the date on the back of the picture- stopping by our house on the way to the prom!) suggested that I write a funny story about her grandfather and my former Senior Pastor, Max Rees.  I was blessed to serve under Max for 8 years and he and his entire family had a major influence on my life and ministry.  During my years at Springfield Friends Meeting (1986-1994) I did a "Children's Moment" in worship most every Sunday morning.  When I was away that quite often meant that Max would fill in.  This is the story of one such Sunday.

In June of 1990 I took the youth group to Orlando for a week.  We left on a Saturday and so our first full day in Florida would be a Sunday.  As usual, there were many members of Max's family with us on the trip.  His daughters Barbara and Cathy were chaperons, along with his sons-in-law Butch and Robin and his daughter-in-law Judy.  Approximately 15 of his grandchildren were also with us. Max didn't like it when we were gone on a Sunday, but with so many of his family along for the ride it was hard for him to complain.  Our group had worship at the motel (the Gold Key Inn) that Sunday morning before heading over to Walt Disney World, and sometime in the midst of all that Cathy got a phone call from High Point.  This is the story she was told- as best as I can remember it.  If anyone who was there has corrections, I welcome them!

Max (at right) with the Quaker Kids Club-
Ann Saunders, Mandy Beggs, Emily Beggs,
 Natalie Whitaker, Marie Allen, Jill Gilbreth,
Beth Brown, Allison Rees, Erin Moran
Max called the children down front for their special time and began to teach an object lesson of some sort- the content of which has long since been forgotten.  As part of the lesson, he was talking about Boo-Boos.  For those of you may not speak the language, a boo-boo is a scrap or a cut one gets while playing.  Max was expecting some of the children to show him a scraped knee or an elbow with a raspberry on it.  Max knew these children well.  We ran an after-school program every Wednesday during the school year called Quaker Kids Club, and Max and his wife Avis were huge parts of the program.  As he asked to see their boo-boos, he knew they would have some to show him.  But he had not counted on his own grandson, Zack (or Zach?) Brown- Cathy's 4 (?) year old son.  Zack spoke up quickly and said, "Papa, I have a boo-boo."  Max responded by asking where the boo-boo was.  Zack responded with a booming "it's on my butt!"  Again, I only heard about the aftermath, but what I remember is this- the congregation broke out in uproarious laughter.  Max moved quickly, apparently afraid that Zack might just show everyone the boo-boo.  Zack's father Garry was sitting in his spot in the back of the church trying to make his 6'7" frame invisible to the rest of the congregation.  There was a moment of total chaos.  But I have no doubt that somehow Max rescued the moment by saying the exact right thing- because that was Max.  He just had a knack for handling whatever situation presented itself.  I'm just sorry there is no video...

We love and miss the Rees clan, although we keep up with many of them through my wife Marilyn's Facebook account.  Max & Avis are retired and living in Illinois these days, and his health has not been good lately.  Our prayers are with the entire family.  And Laurie, thanks for the request.  It's a great memory.  Have a blessed Sunday, everyone!

Because of Jesus,

Saturday, June 25, 2011

By Request: More Jerry Hanbery

Butch & Sundance
Happy Birthday today to 3 awesome people- Lisa Kraus Spires, Sara Thacker Reiter and Max Rees.  Tomorrow's post will feature a funny story about Max at the request of his granddaughter, Laurie Rees!

If you go to the little box labeled Search on the upper left-hand corner of this page and type in the name Jerry Hanbery, it will return to you several dozen posts (and a Hall of Fame listing!) from this blog that feature my good friend and former Summer Intern.  And yet when Marilyn and I asked on Facebook Thursday night if anyone had any requests for stories, the overwhelming response (from alumni of our 1st UMC Kissimmee group, who always chime in even when it's not about them!) was "More Jerry!"  I have told so many stories already, and there are some that I cannot tell now that Jerry is a big shot attorney with possible political ambitions.  He is already worried that this blog points out many of the skeletons in his closet.  But still, not wanting to disappoint my public, here we go. I have chosen to do this in the style of the great Chris Farley Show from SNL, as if I was asking Jerry these questions...

*Remember when you shaved your head that summer and then when it started to grow back on an Atlanta trip and you let those middle school girls convince you to use Nair?  And your head turned red and your scalp burned for 3 days?  That was awesome...

*Remember when you dressed up in a Chewbacca costume and went into people's homes and grabbed them out of bed, threw them over your shoulder and carried them out to the church van?  Remember how terrified Erin Augenblick was?  That was awesome...

*Remember how when it would get really late at the Ocoee Inn and you would go outside and...oh wait.  I can't tell that story.  But it was awesome...

*Remember how every summer we would build the World's Largest Banana Splits in those wallpaper trays, and while other people would eat with a spoon you would just stick your whole face in the tray?  And people would get grossed out and not eat any more, which left more for us?  That was awesome...

*Remember when we would take groups to the Florida Mall for Mall Madness, and you and I would just wander around and...oh wait.  I REALLY can't tell that story.  But it was totally awesome...

*Remember the time in New York when the subway doors were closing and you stepped in and rescued my Mom?  Remember how she claims she'd still be there if you hadn't saved her?  Remember how she holds that over my head to this day?  That's just awesome...

*Remember when we drove the group 10 hours to Myrtle Beach, stayed there about 18 hours, and then drove back?  Remember how tired we were and how cool the kids thought it was that we would do something that wild & stupid?  That was awesome...

*Remember the summer that Teresa Reep worked with us?  Remember how we never got anything done in the office because we were laughing too hard?  Remember how she made us eat lunch at Macaroni Grill all the time?  Remember how I always had to pay?  That was...uh...yeah, it was awesome...

I never had more fun doing youth ministry than I had those summers I worked with Jerry.  And contrary to what you might think after reading this post, we accomplished a lot.  Jerry has been a great encouragement and a great friend these past few years, but he's actually been affirming me for years.  The picture you see at the left is of a banner he had made at a National Youth Workers Convention we attended together.  It was later moved into my office closet at FUMC-K (remember the Wendy's cups?  Wow!).  That's the Jerry I will always remember.  So Sundance, if this blog has indeed put the kibosh on your dreams of being the next Sarah Palin, I apologize...maybe.  But please know that you have already made a difference in the lives of 100s through your barely compensated work as an Intern.  Now please- don't sue me!

Ok- I'm done.  Who else wants to share a Jerry story?

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Blurry Vision

"Are we human?  Or are we dancers?  I'm on my knees looking for the answer..."  - The Killers

I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about how we complicate Christianity.  I read several articles and blogs over the past few weeks that left me feeling (more than ever) like we've replaced following Jesus with political posturing, business meetings, Christian celebrities and inane theological debates.  I've had a couple of conversations with friends about the stagnation that occurs when churches count on leadership by committee rather than the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  The more I read and chatted, the more frustrated I grew.  And finally, on Wednesday, I found myself joining some friends in lashing out with cynical and sarcastic Tweets.   Here are some of the worst- many of them directed at fellow fed-up Christ-followers...
  • A friend offered his opinion that church choirs seem outdated.  Now I have sung in many such choirs, but my response to him was this bit of sarcasm:  What??? Outdated? Have you not seen the rush to purchase church choir & organ music on I-Tunes? :)
  • Every time I mean to type the word "Methodist" I instead type "methodsit." Coincidence? I think not....
  • Q: How many church leaders does it take to change a light bulb? A: CHANGE! Who said anything about change!
  • My friend Robert tweeted this: They would have to have a committee form a committee to see about that committee, then the final committee answers.  I responded: LOL I think I have served on that committee in 4 different denominations!!!
  • I'm feeling very anti-establishment this week- in case you can't tell! LOL
  • I think I need to overthrow something. :) You know, a coup'd'etat of some sort. Just need a target! Suggestions?
  • No, you guys are safe. It's the people doing business & politics in the name of Jesus that need to duck... grrrrr
  • YO, Leadership Gurus: Christian leadership's not about how U lead, it's about WHO U follow. If that's not Chapter 1, then I'm out! 
I think you get the picture.  I was in a bad state of mind.  But also from this plethora of negativity came a vision for something very cool.  The vision is still quite blurry, but it's taking hold of my heart.  And here's how I introduced it to my Twitter followers: I think I'll start a new event in Tampa next Feb. No meetings. No famous speakers. No cost. Just Jesus, worship & the beach! :) Who's in?  

About a dozen friends responded over the first 24 hours with excitement- and several requests for reservations!  It seems that I am not alone in my frustration.  People from all over are excited about Jesus and irritated with the institution of the church.  They want to see the teachings of Jesus restored as the central message of our faith.  Just like on the hillsides of Galilee all those years ago, they want to gather with other Christ-followers and share with one another.  And maybe- just maybe- God is calling us to gather groups to explore what the church would look like if we actually lived out Acts 2:42. What would a community of faith look like if we simply loved God and loved each other like Jesus commanded?   Like I said, the vision is still blurry.  So here's what I need from you- all of you!  Pray for me and for my blurry vision, and offer your insights and feedback- positive & negative.  I love the church, and I want to do everything I can to restore it to what God wants it to be.  If this is a path God has chosen for me to follow, then I want to dive in head first and stir things up for the Kingdom.  If not, then I will eagerly await any opportunity to change my little corner of the world in the name of Jesus.  In the words of Third Day, "Don't give up faith, don't give up hope.  There's always something better waiting around the corner..."  Praise God for that truth!  Have a blessed weekend.

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, June 23, 2011

CCM Thursday: Steven Curtis Chapman Top 10

Any list of the most faithful, successful, influential and award winning Christian artists of all time will feature the name Steven Curtis Chapman (SC2) right near the top.  Since the release of his first album in 1987, SC2 has dominated the charts and the Dove Awards with his music.  His 1992 project, The Great Adventure, was one of the albums that got me believing that Contemporary Christian Music could be great.  I took youth groups to see him on a couple of occasions, and one of my favorite concert events ever was seeing SC2 and my friend (and his best friend) Geoff Moore share a stage and tell stories about their relationship and song-writing.  I have used his music in worship (Speechless and Let Us Pray), to teach lessons and to inspire action in students.  His catalog is so huge that this Top 10 list is limited to songs from albums released before 2003- but there are still some HUGE hits left out.  As always, I'd love to hear from you.  And be sure to scroll down past the list to hear a special medley of Steven's early hits.  It was a bonus track in The Great Adventure Fan Fun Pack, which also featured a video.   Dive in!  :)

10)  I Will Be Here - (from the album More To This Life, 1989)  I sang this song in at least 3 weddings, so it has to make the list!
  9)  Fingerprints of God - (from the album Speechless, 1999)  I gave my son Will a t-shirt with lyrics from this song and "God's fingerprints" on it when he was little.
  8)  Facts Are Facts - (from the album Heaven In the Real World, 1994) Amazing chorus with an amazing promise.
  7)  The Walk - (from the album Signs of Life, 1996)  Micah 6:8 "It all comes down to the walk..."  
  6)  No Better Place - (from the album For the Sake of the Call, 1990) "Jesus came to bring us life in the here and now..."
  5)  Live Out Loud! - (from the album Declaration, 2001)  "Wake the neighbors!"
  4)  For the Sake of the Call - (from the album For the Sake of the Call, 1990) If you are in ministry (professional or otherwise), this song should be close to your heart.
  3)  Dive - (from the album Speechless, 1999) One of the great "GO FOR IT!" songs ever written.
  2)  Lord of the Dance - (from the album Signs of Life, 1996) "I am the dancer, I need the LORD of the dance!"  And the instrumentation- simply brilliant!
  1)  Prologue/The Great Adventure - (from the album The Great Adventure, 1992) The soaring instrumental Prologue sounds like the soundtrack of a great western and leads straight into the classic "Saddle up your horses!" opening.  Check out the video of my 28 years in youth ministry to hear it all together!

So there's my list.  What did I leave out- I mean besides his rap duet with Toby Mac, Got 2 B Tru? Now THAT is a song for the Jukebox of Cheese!  Let me hear from you!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

One Super Sunday

Quite possibly the biggest day in the history of Tampa Bay (other than the day Gaspar the Pirate first invaded) was January 26, 2003.  On that day our beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII by a score of 48-21.  All of Tampa was in party mode for weeks following the event, and Jon Gruden was hailed as the unofficial King of the World. It was a wild time to to live by the Bay.  

In April of that same year Marilyn and I attended the wedding of a former youth in High Point, NC.  We would miss Graceland on that Sunday evening, and as was my habit I asked a member of our Youth Ministry Team to step up and teach the lesson in my absence.  On this particular occasion that responsibility fell to George Woods.  George had been chairperson of the committee that hired me at Wesley Memorial UMC, and we had become good friends.  He was also the marketing director for the Bucs.  He and his wife Jennifer had been in San Diego for the Super Bowl, and their son had stayed with us.  George was very comfortable in front of the youth and they loved him, so I knew he would do a great job.  I just had no idea how great...

I spoke with George that Sunday morning (this time our son Will was staying with them) and he assured me he had something special planned.  I discovered later that he went around church that morning telling everyone not to miss Graceland that afternoon or they would be sorry.  I often tried that strategy; the difference was this time it was REALLY true!  When the students arrived for youth group, George talked about the Super Bowl, and how some of the players had thought that winning that trophy would make them feel complete.  He made the point that if you feel incomplete without the awards and "stuff" of this world that you would never feel complete with them, either.  The only thing that fills those holes in our hearts is Jesus.  And then...George Woods broke out the Vince Lombardi Trophy.  The REAL one, straight from 1 Buc Place.  It was such a big deal that he couldn't tell anyone ahead of time it would be there; it was all very hush-hush.  He and Jennifer took individual pictures of everyone with the trophy, and a week later gave them to the kids in a frame with a scripture verse.  It was just simply awesome!

When I began getting calls telling me what had taken place at Graceland that night I simply couldn't believe it.  One of the greatest events in the history of  student ministry had just happened at MY church- and I missed it!  After harassing George a few days, he brought the trophy back by the church one afternoon so I could get my picture taken with it.  It was an evening and a lesson those kids will never forget.  And I learned a lesson too- not only could Graceland survive with me away, it could THRIVE!  This story always reminds me of how blessed I was through the years to have so many adults who loved Jesus and loved students serve side-by-side with me in youth ministry.  God gifted me and used me in student ministry, but He didn't need me to do it all.  He blessed me with lots of help.  Thanks, George!

I have to admit, posing with the trophy was just plain cool.  Here's a pic of me with Vince.  Now tell me the truth- are any of you coveting right now?  :)  Be blessed, my friends! 

Because of Jesus, 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Through the Roof!

Most of you are probably familiar with the story found in Luke 5:18-26 in which 4 friends carry a paralytic to see Jesus.  Unable to get to him through any normal route, they cut a whole in the roof of the house and lower their friend down to Jesus.  The story had many layers, including the divinity of Christ and the Pharisees complete lack of faith and understanding. But primarily this story is about the faith of a man and his 4 friends- and how that faith led to major moment in the Jesus Revolution. Today, as we continue to seek our own personal revolutionary moments, I invite you to spend some time with these two questions:

  1. Who brought you into the presence of Christ?  This question is not so much about who preached the sermon or sang the song as it is about who dropped you through the roof to get you there.  For me, it was my best friend from 8th grade on, Steve Semmler.  And just like with the friends in the scripture, there were obstacles to overcome.  He had invited me to go to summer camp with him and to attend his youth group, but I kept coming up with excuses.  And he kept asking.  He finally got through to me when I found out that the right girl would be at a youth group skating party.  The mats our friends use to take us to Jesus can take many forms.  I didn't know that Steve was changing my life forever- and I'm not sure he did either.  But he did.  He brought me into the presence of the Christ who would say to me over and over again in my life, "Get up!  Your sins are forgiven."  And trust me, there are still plenty of Pharisees who scoff at that today.
  2. Who is it in your life that you need to lower through the roof?  I was taught a long time ago that it is important to have at least one specific person in your life that you are praying for in the hopes that they will come to know Jesus.  In my youth groups we often spoke of praying for the Empty Chair- lifting up our friends who needed to be there and were not.  And while the praying is important, I think sometimes we let ourselves off the hook too easily.  Sometimes we need to physically bring them to the feet of the Savior.  We need to invite them to church, or to a small group, or a concert, or dinner at our home- someplace where they will encounter the living Christ.  We may need to put them on a mat, or in a car, or on a boat- whatever means necessary- to get them to Jesus.  For the friends in Luke's gospel, it was about having their friend healed.  It is no different for us.  The healing may not be physical.  It may be a relationship.  It may be emotional.  It is certainly spiritual.  They need to see the Great Physician.  They need to experience the Jesus Revolution in their lives.  And it is our task as their friend to make sure they have that opportunity.
Take some time today to be still and think on these questions.  Remember who it was (and it may be many people on more than one occasion) that brought you to see Jesus at a time when you desperately needed Him.  And who is it that God is calling you to bring?  Even if you need to go through the roof...

    Because of Jesus,

    Monday, June 20, 2011

    Hall of Fame: The Gastler Family

    One of the great things about having my very own Youth Group Hall of Fame is that I get to make up all the rules about who and how I induct old friends.  So far there have been students from four different churches and Quaker Lake Camp.  There have been entire graduating classes inducted at once.  And there has been one entire family added to my HOF as a unit. Today we make that two...

    My experiences at Wesley Memorial UMC would have been completely different without the presence of the Gastler family.  Hal, Joanne, Jennifer and Christine were all very important to our student ministry and to me personally throughout my 4 years there,  and they are also one of the most loving and supportive families it has ever been my privilege to watch in action.  I could easily have inducted each of them individually, but it just felt right to bring them recognition as a family.  I could go on and on about their contributions to Graceland, but I'll try to limit myself as I talk about each of them- beginning with Jennifer.

    Christine, Nina, Jennifer and I-
    Myrtle Beach 2004
    Jen was a high school student when I arrived- a very active participant and one of the most popular girls in the ministry.  She probably doesn't remember this, but on our first big trip together, the 2002 Ski Camp, she was the one who gave me all sorts of inside info to help me sort out the cliques and relationships in this youth group that was new to me.  Her friendship was so important as I began to re-build the group.  Later on she went to Myrtle Beach with us in 2004 after her graduation and we became close all over again as she helped make that trip so special. I went to see her and some of the others after she went to FSU and we had a great dinner- at Olive Garden, of course!  Now she's teaching high school here in Tampa.  It's a no-brainer to add Jennifer Gastler to my Hall of Fame.

    Christine collecting for the Souper Bowl of Caring!
    Christine was in middle school when I arrived, but she was already a leader.  She was a gifted soccer player, which led to some heated "discussions" between us, as you may know my feelings about that sport!  She went on most all of our trips, was with us for Graceland most every Sunday, and always- ALWAYS!- wanted input on what songs we would sing.  I particularly remember her always wanting to sing the verses of Sometimes By Step, the great Rich Mullins song, and being disappointed when we would only sing the chorus.  And not quietly disappointed, either! :)  She provided leadership, friendship and character to our ministry.  Her spot in the HOF has been waiting for her...

    Hal & his group on one of our legendary
    Digital Scavenger Hunts!
    Hal & Joanne are just one of my favorite couples ever.  Hal is a sports nut, loving UConn basketball (men and women), Red Sox (and Rays) baseball, soccer, Bucs football, Lightning hockey and pretty much everything else you can think of.  He is a true fanatic.  And Joanne may be worse!  They both chaperoned our 2002 Myrtle Beach trip, and Joanne joined is 2004 as well.  Hal was a regular at our Sunday afternoon football games before becoming a very important part of the Graceland Youth Ministry Team.  He and I had some great discussion about every topic you can imagine, and his input on one of our famous Student Leadership Retreats was a great help to me.  Joanne saved us from a major financial snafu on the 2004 Myrtle Beach trip by paying for the group meal at Captain Benjamin's Seafood Buffet (as I type that sentence I am realizing that with all the happened over the months that followed, chances are excellent she never got paid back for that...Wow.  The Gastler's were always going above and beyond the call of duty...) after the church credit card was declined.  She is also the Mom who famously once told me that the greatest gift I could give her on Mother's Day was to have youth group and "get her family out of the house for a couple of hours."  There are so many great memories.  And Hal, we still need to sing Screen Door together some day...

    So welcome to my Youth Group Hall of Fame, Gastler family.  When it opens (after someone buys me the Betsy B) I promise to make your section a sports bar!  Love you guys and hope to see you soon.

    Because of Jesus,

    Sunday, June 19, 2011

    Happy Father's Day!

    "My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man.  I'm just a living legacy to the leader of the band."  -Dan Fogelberg, Leader of the Band.

    My two favorite guys- my now 15 year old son Will and my dad, Bill - at their favorite place; Walt Disney World.  I am so thankful for my son, who is at his grandmother's house this week.  And I was so blessed by my amazing father, who passed away in 2006.  My thoughts and memories of the two of them make Father's Day one of the best days of the year.  I thank my Heavenly Father every day for placing them in my life.  Have a wonderful day of celebrating your dad!

    Because of Jesus,

    Saturday, June 18, 2011

    The Never Ending Story

    My Surprise 30th Birthday Party
    Since I began writing this blog in August of 2009 I have talked about praying for God to show me what is next in my life of service to Him- when in fact He was already placing  me smack dab in the middle of it!  I have spent the last 4 years telling myself I am no longer a youth pastor, when in fact that is simply not true.  It's just that the "youth" are all adults now...

    I have received a number of emails and other messages over the past few weeks that have reminded me that my life as a youth pastor is a never ending story.  In my mind the picture of what my student ministry looked like is very much like the one you see here.  I was surrounded by youth who cared about me, needed me and looked to me for support and guidance.  And you know what?  I still am.  Instead of gathering in a youth room, we now gather in a digital community.  Instead of stopping by my office to discuss dating problems or complain about their parents, now they e-mail to tell me about their marriages and their children.  People who are now older than I was in that picture write to ask for advice and to make prayer requests.  And they say (some spoken, some unspoken) that I will always be their youth minister.  While I was waiting for a new ministry, God was bringing me an old one.  

    As I have reconnected with many of my old friends for youth group days gone by, God has been adding to my ministry through my new friends on Twitter.  They encourage me and pray for me. They have helped me to remember that my primary spiritual gift has always been that of encouragement, a gift I try to share with them and my old friends on a regular basis.  Through this great community of faithful friends- both old and new- I am rediscovering the person Jesus calls me to be.  I cannot praise God loudly enough for these old connections and new beginnings.  It's time to heed the words of Paul in Philippians 3:13-14-  "But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."  Or in the words of Bill Murray in the movie Meatballs- "FORWAAAAAAARD HOOOOOO!" I look forward to sharing the next chapter of this never ending story with all of you...

    Because of Jesus,

    Friday, June 17, 2011

    What Does a Christian Look Like?

    Jen & Erin Augenblick Shannon
    Marilyn, Will & I had dinner this past Sunday night with Jun and Jennifer Minnigan Kuramochi at their home.  Jennifer (also known as Bob) was a Hall of Fame student in my youth ministry at 1st UMC- Kissimmee back in the 90s, and now they live about 5 miles from us here in Tampa.  It's always great to see them.  Bob made a wonderful dinner (featuring homemade crab cakes) and then beat us all at Trivia Pursuit (her punishment for beating me is this picture from her younger days- she's the crayon on the left!).  But it was Jun who really make my night when he told me the following story.  My memory may be a bit shaky because I was laughing so hard, but this is the general idea...

    Jun & Jen help his parents operate a sushi restaurant in Clearwater, and they always have great stories about their customers.  On this occasion Jun (whose family is Japanese) was in the restaurant when he sneezed.  An older woman looked at him and asked him this awkward question: "What do you people say after a sneeze?"  Jun assured her that "God bless you" was fine.  She was a bit surprised, offering up the opinion that perhaps he would prefer "Buddha bless."  Seriously.  Jun then further surprised her by announcing that he was, in fact,  a Christian who attends church weekly and is part of a praise team.  Her response to that was this unbelievable statement:  "You don't look like a Christian..."

    The 5 of us were laughing hysterically at this, and I immediately asked Jun if I could use his story.  But the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder:  How many self-proclaimed Christians are out there profiling people as non-believers because of the way they look?  We don't wear uniforms, so how do you know a Christian when you see one?  I mean, what does a Christian look like, anyway?

    This is not a new issue. In fact, the root of the problem goes back many generations.  My grandparents had a very clear image of what Christian should look like.  In those days, it was assumed that everyone went to church on Sunday- and that they wore "the uniform."  Conservative hair cut, no facial hair.  White shirt and tie (and most likely a jacket) for guys,  or a dress for the ladies.  White churches were all white, black churches were all black.  Anyone who didn't fit the image obviously didn't get it.  And they were shunned by the "good" Christians.  Later on, the standards changed but the judgement didn't.  Those with long-hair, tattoos, tattered jeans and sandals were considered ragamuffins. They were allowed in church, but never truly accepted.  And in far too many places church remained the most segregated hour of the week.  The uniform might have changed to khakis and polo shirts (or shorts and flip-flops here in Florida), but people were still judged by how they looked.

    So where are we today?  What in the world would cause this lady to assume Jun was not Christian because he is Asian?  Let's just cut to the chase.  I believe our basic problem is that we expect Christians to conform to the expectations of "church people" rather than the person of Jesus.  I am a 51 year old white male who attends a church full of people who are very much like me.  Some are younger, some are older and some are from different ethnic backgrounds- but mostly they are like me.  I suspect most of you do the same.  If we are not careful, we begin to see all Christians- and Jesus- in our own image, when what we should be doing is re-making ourselves in the image of Jesus.  Now THAT would scare people!  Imagine being part of a church full of Jesus Freaks running around offering love, grace and mercy to everyone they meet!   How we dress, our age, the length of our hair, the color of our skin and nationality of our parents would cease to matter.  All that would matter is loving people as Jesus taught us to love.  Who cares what a Christian looks like;  Jesus already explained what a Christ-follower is like.  The team jersey that identifies us is found in John 13:35: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."  It's pretty simple.  No dress code, no judgement- just love.  

    By that standard, my friend Jun certainly "looks" like a Christian to me.  He and Jennifer welcomed my family into their home, fed us crab cakes and sat and shared stories both old and new for hours.  They showed us love.  Best.  Uniform.  Ever.

    Because of Jesus,

    Thursday, June 16, 2011

    Written On My Heart

    Welcome to another CCM Thursday.  Let's get this straight right from the beginning- I don't like boy bands.  Even though in the mid-1990s A.J. from the Backstreet Boys had a number of direct connections to my youth group in Kissimmee, I was NEVER a BSB fan.  Even though I think Justin Timberlake is one of the 2 or 3 most talented people on the planet, I had no trouble telling N'Sync to go "Bye, Bye Bye."  I don't even know what NKOTB stands forSo in 2000 when I began to hear of a Christian boy band - Plus One - that was being put together, I couldn't have cared less. And that's the way it should have stayed...

    Then my friends at Interlinc- THE source for new Christian music for youth pastors- included a Plus One song on one of their video loops.  I didn't mean to watch it.  It's all Interlinc's fault.  I certainly never intended to like it.  But Written On My Heart was just so catchy...   The kids had incredible voices and it was the #1 Christian song in the country for 2 months!  The video really spoke to me about telling the world how much Jesus loves us, and the lyrics are a wonderful reminder that God has loved us since before we were born.    Think about these lyrics:
    You game me Your love,  lifted me up
    Now I'm looking at forever 
    when I never thought I'd ever see that far
    You, you're in my soul wherever I go
    Now I know right from the start
    Your love was written on my heart

    So go ahead.  Make fun of me.  Tell me to hand over my "Man Card" yet again.  At least it's not on my Ipod (OK, that's a lie- it IS on my Ipod, and I love it!).  But like I said last week about Testify to Love, this song is a guilty pleasure that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it because it is such a positive, upbeat testimony to the love of God.  So enjoy it.  And if you find yourself liking it more than you want to, don't blame me. Blame Interlinc!  :)

    Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    True Family

    Nina, Justin, Cory & Zach at Portillos
    At the conclusion of our 2004 mission trip we had scheduled in a day of sight-seeing and fun in Chicagoland before starting our trip back to Tampa.  I had several purposes in mind when I did this.  First, I wanted the youth to see a little of downtown Chicago. Secondly, one of our adults, Ross Hurt, was tacking a family vacation on to our trip.  His parents lived in Illinois and his wife (Kena, part of our Youth Ministry Team) and daughter were flying up to meet him.  In addition, Ed and Robin Smith (more of our YMT) and their twin girls were also in the area visiting Ed's famous sister.  So we would head downtown for the day, then drive out to my former stomping grounds in the western suburbs and spend the night in a motel.  One with actual beds...

    Dinner Time!
    We took a train downtown to Union Station and walked around a bit until we arrived at the Sears Tower.  We did the tourist thing and went to the top, soaking up the observation deck and the history of that amazing city.  Afterwards we all ate stuffed pizza for lunch at Giordano's.  Some of the girls knew of an H & M store on Michigan Ave, and so we began to search for it.  It turned into a death march.  We walked MILES before finding that silly store- but we did find it.  Then we headed back to the CSM site, picked up our van, and headed out to the suburbs for a night of relaxation before our long drive back to Tampa.

    Ohana Means Family
    We checked into our motel in Lombard, IL and immediately hit the pool.  We had a great time cooling off, harassing each other and just generally having fun together.  Then we headed across the highway to the Yorktown Mall (former home of the Veggietales studio) and a Chicago institution called Portillos.  Famous for Chicago-style hot dogs and Italian beef, it was an old favorite of mine.  It was also where we met up with the Hurts and the Smiths.  We had an amazing meal and a great time of fellowship.  It occurred to me as we were sitting there that this was what the family of God was all about.  We had adults, youth and babies sharing a meal together.  All of us had worked together in the name of Jesus.  We had given praise to Him and given ourselves to Him in worship.  We had played, prayed and broken bread together.  And the best part was we had done it all TOGETHER.  We were living Acts 2:42.  I can look at this group photo taken outside of the restaurant and KNOW that we loved each other in God's name- and that is amazing love indeed.

    Ross and Bree
    We almost ruined the whole thing by going to see the newly released Spiderman 2 that night- I fell asleep- but we eventually made it home.  I still have an orange t-shirt from the trip that was "customized" for me by Lexi and Christine (with messages of love) using paint from the synagogue work site.  Each time I wear it I am reminded of the best mission trip I ever led.  It may not be my favorite trip- but it was the best.

    Because of Jesus,