Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Ministry of The Next Big Thing

Scott, Robbie & evidence from a
Polaroid Scavenger Hunt- 1982!
Early on in my ministry at New Garden Friends Meeting (1978-83) I began to understand that the missing link in most youth ministries at the time was communication.  Letting students and parents know what was going on, what was coming up, and what they needed to do about it was a new concept in the fly by the seat of your pants world of youth work.  Sometime in the year after David Stone turned me on to the concept of Wholistic Youth Ministry (that is ministry to the whole person- body, soul, mind and spirit) I began to actually plan months in advance for YFYF  (Young Friends Youth Fellowship) programs.  As part of that planning, I began doing a monthly newsletter that we mailed to the home of every youth on our roster- active or not.  Doing a newsletter was not easy in 1979. Those were the days of cut and paste clip art, rub on letters and mimeograph machines. But I felt it was that important.  The first objective of this newsletter was to inform.  My theory was that it would inform much better if it was actually something the students wanted to read, so I set out to make it creative and exciting.   No matter how great a youth ministry you build, it is worthless if no one shows up.  So we needed to build a buzz! I used lots of names of active youth in the articles; I hid inside jokes and contests in the body of the letter; and I tried to give catchy, creative names to everything I could.  For instance, one Sunday a month we would go to a local fast food restaurant instead of just having snacks.  We just said we were going to Burger Doodle, and that name stuck no matter where we went.  We also tried to keep sameness, tameness and lameness (with apologies to Jesse Jackson) out of our ministry.  We hoped the kids were never quite sure what would happen each Sunday afternoon.  I soon discovered it was working.  We were almost hip!  Do you know how hard it is for Quakers to be hip?  Even students who rarely showed up for YFYF were talking to me about the newsletter and hoping to see their name show up in it!

The second objective was to get them excited about things that were still to come, things that we wanted them to look forward to.  I began to think of this as the ministry of The Next Big Thing.  Did we have a trip or retreat coming up in a few months?  Were we going to see Ghandi or having a Marathon (lock-in) soon?  Did we have a Polaroid Panic planned or a guest speaker coming?  Anything I could think of that we could plug as a way to keep students anticipating was featured in the newsletter.  This, in turn, forced us as leaders to plan in advance.  It all seems so basic now, but at the time youth ministry was just coming of age and this was pretty radical stuff!  And it worked...

Over the years the methods of communication changed.  There would be summer booklets, telephone hotlines (like 847-XLAX in Kissimmee) and websites.  But they all served the same purpose- to keep parents and students up to date, and to hype The Next Big Thing.  I was always looking for ways to inject my sense of humor into these things, and in the New Garden years I did it by ending each newsletter with "And remember..."  I looked back through some of those letters, (Yes, I still have them- I know, I am pathetic!) and here are some of the actual things I wrote for those students to remember:

  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away...but an onion takes care of everybody!
  • It is better to give than to receive...unless,of course, you are Darek Newby!
  • He who lives in a glass house...should dress in the bathroom!
  • A bird in the hand...BITES!
  • March 20-26 is International Youth Leaders Are Great People Week.  It is also International Pickle Week.  So in another YFYF first, we proudly bring you International Buy Your Youth Leader A Pickle Week!  We prefer dills!  And a happy April Fools Day to all of you!
  • A day without sunshine is like...NIGHT! (Thanks, Steve Martin)
Those early days were exciting, and I will never forget what it was like to grow up right along side my students.  They taught me so much about effective youth ministry.  But I still had lots to learn.  It would be several more years before I figured out that if I made a newsletter the right size to fit on the back of a toilet, even more people would read it! Communication is a critical element of any student ministry. In this day of texts and social networking youth pastors have more opportunities than ever to stay in touch.  Use them. I'd love to hear what you are doing to bridge the communication gap. In the meantime, here's a final thought for all of you...

And remember:  This blog is like toilet paper.  You may not need it every day, but it's always here- and if it's not, you will really miss it!

Because of Jesus,

Friday, March 30, 2012

Summer 101: The Chain of Prayer

My Summer 101 series continues today with a very special event that every student ministry can do.  I have written here before that summers were the busiest time of year for the student ministries I served, beginning in 1986.  I always felt that the best way to start a summer was the same as the best way to start a day- with prayer.  After a few hit & miss ideas, I decided to try a Chain of Prayer as our summer kick-off- and I never looked back.

The Chain of Prayer is not an original idea, and there are lots of ways to do it.  Today I will share with you the things that worked best with my groups over the years.  We would pick a set number of hours on a day at the beginning of summer vacation and set them aside for our COP.  We did as many as 24 hours and as few as 6; it really depends on the size of your ministry and how many students you can get involved.  The hours would then be divided into half hour sections.  Students would be asked to commit to 30 minutes of prayer in a specific location at the church.  The idea was that for whatever number of hours we chose, there would be someone praying for our church, our youth ministry, our summer programs and our people.  It's a very powerful idea.

I know of groups who have done this and allowed students to pray at home and just call in at the beginning and end of their session, but I don't feel like that has quite the same impact.  If everyone comes to the church (sanctuary, chapel, youth room, your office- you make the call!) then there is a greater connection.  Plus it allows you to provide the pray-er with devotional materials and a conducive atmosphere, such as a darkened space with candles.  Thirty minutes can be a long time for a teenager, and it helps for them to be in a place that feels like a sacred space for that time. Also, everyone coming to the same spot allows you to keep an ever-growing list of prayer requests as each person adds their own joys and concerns.  And finally, everyone coming to the church allows for you to greet and thank each participant and pray for them, as well as walk each person in and out of the space to keep the chain connected. That was always my favorite part...

I have a couple of final tips for leaders.  It's fine to have more than one person praying at a time, but try not to have best friends sharing a time slot.  They may have difficulty with focus.  Secondly, do NOT play music in the prayer space.  We need to to teach our youth the wonders of "being still" and enjoying silence. If they want to sing a praise song or break out a hymnal, that's wonderful!  But don't just provide background noise. And finally, be willing to fill the gaps.  If a student (or adult volunteer; they can sign up too!) doesn't show or no one signs up for any specific time slot, you need to fill that 30 minutes.  The whole idea is that for those hours, your group is in a unbroken chain of prayer to the Father.  As Fleetwood Mac would say, "Never break the chain."

So give it a try!  Start small and see the amazing things that can happen to your group when you teach your students to pray.  I'll be back next Friday with more tips on ways summer can change your ministry!  Join me!

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Today's Lenten devotion is a simple reminder not to forget.  When Jesus was with the disciples in the Upper Room, He broke bread and drink wine with them and told them that from that day forward each time they did that they should remember Him.  The Apostle Paul later began the Sacrament of Communion based on the events of that night.  I love sharing the eucharist with my church family, but in my days as a Quaker I also learned that Jesus was imploring us to to think of Him EVERYTIME we sit down to eat (in fact, Quakers believe communion with Jesus can take place anytime in any situation, should you be willing to be still...).  Bread and wine were not a special meal; they were part of every meal! The message of the Lord's Supper is not found in the elements; it is found in the remembering. So today, I invite you to turn one of your meals into a time of personal communion with the Christ.  As you eat, whatever you eat, remember His body that was broken for you.  As you drink, remember the blood that was spilled for the forgiveness of our sins.  Share your thoughts with the people with whom you are eating.  The events of Holy Week are almost upon us.  Be open to the realization that Jesus is always present, and always loving us- a fact we far too often forget to remember. 

Because of Jesus,

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It Was Just So Cold

Welcome to entry #2 in my 49 Days of Grace series, which will be featured every Wednesday for 7 weeks. To catch up on my story, check out the My Journey tab at the top of this blog.

It was just so cold. With everything that was swirling around me, with all of the confusion and fear and hopelessness and anger, that is the thing I remember most about the first night I spent in jail in March of 2007. It was just so cold.  

I mentioned some of this in a previous post, but it bears repeating here for the purpose of clarity. When I was booked, I was given an orange and white striped jumpsuit that was way too small for my 6'4" inch frame. The pants were Capri length. Actually, because of how old and tattered they were, a better analogy might be that they looked like the Hulk's pants following his transformation. I was wearing white ankle socks that I was allowed to keep, but I was allowed no shoes. I was given 2 thin sheets and a towel that was the size of a hand towel from the linen closet at home. I was in a room by myself, but it had a bunk bed in it. I am not sure why this next fact surprised me, but it turns out that all the movies are correct- the toilet was a stainless steel bowl sitting in the middle of the back of the cell. It didn't take long for me to become very aware that the air vent was blowing like it was cooling an entire house, when it fact it was only a 10 x 8 cell. As I looked up at the vent, I noticed that there were giant globs of toilet paper stuck to the ceiling all around the vent grate. Previous occupants had wet toilet paper and thrown these masses at the vent seeking to block the air. It didn't work, and several times that first night I was startled at the sound of the globs falling from the ceiling. It seemed that the temperature continued to drop as the night wore on. I was shivering and freezing and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't sleep. I had previously lived in Massachusetts and Chicago, but that night was the coldest I have ever been. I am known for being someone who is never cold. But that night, it was just so cold...

And then it got worse. I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that when my skin finally made contact with the stainless steel for the first time it was actually painful. Remember the scene in A Christmas Story where the kid licks the metal pole? I  was afraid I was stuck. It was awful. Going back to bed was no better. I usually sleep on two pillows. I had none. I used my folded towel as a pillow, leaving me one sheet for cover. I laid in bed, starred at the bunk bed above me, tried to avoid the falling TP- and contemplated how I had arrived at such a place in my life. It was hard to believe that night that there was anyway I could be forgiven by my family or my God. The grace I had taught about for so long seemed like a bad theological concept, not a reality of the love of God's whose name is Jesus. It was difficult to imagine that anything could be worse that that moment, freezing in a jail cell, separated from everyone I loved and feeling like a total failure. My only consolation  was that everyone I had encountered told me I was only there for one night. I held on to that hope as I tried to stop shivering and go to sleep. It turned out to be a false hope, as 48 more night lay ahead of me. You can read more about that next week. But I can tell you this- it never got warmer.  It was just so cold...

Because of Jesus,

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Peculiar People

Have you ever noticed that Christians are strange? We fight like cats and dogs about things Jesus never even talked about.  We spend way too much time trying to impress each other.  We worship a carpenter. Christians are a pretty peculiar bunch.  In fact, the Bible even says so.  1 Peter 2:9 tells us that we are a "peculiar people" who have been "called out of darkness into His marvelous light."  But in this case, peculiar doesn't mean strange, as it so often does when our society describes us.  It means special.  More specifically, in this instance it means we are special to God, who loved us so much He sacrificed his only Son so that we might spend eternity in communion with Him. Jesus died so that we could follow his example and show others how to walk in the Light.  What a peculiar thing to do...

Demonstrating God's love is the whole reason the Church exists.  It isn't a private club where members go to uphold sacred rituals and traditions. It isn't a place to argue about whether my way of worshiping is better than yours.  It isn't a building where people who think they have all the answers and are better than everyone else hang out.  It isn't a place where we attempt to dictate the politics of our nation. The Church was designed by God to be a living organism- a body of believers - who bring the light of Christ into a dark and hurting world. When the church gathers our message should not be "we are right and you are wrong."  Instead, we should resonate with a message of hope and love.  Our very lives should scream that God is love, and that He is worthy to receive all the honor and praise we can possibly give Him!!!  We worry so much about "converting" people to our way of thinking.  Our job is to love them and show them Jesus. God still handles all the conversions...

When our churches are truly being the Church, working as God planned, then we are like lighthouses.  When we worship God through our music, our messages, our giving and our service it is like we are shining the Light, showing all of the world what a glorious and mighty God we serve.  It is true that people cannot see God.  It is also true that they can, if we choose to be lighthouses, see Jesus shine thorough the Church and through each of us.  It is not our light, not our wisdom and not our love that the world needs. It is his.  Through Jesus, we are God's Plan A for lighting this dark world.  There is no Plan B.  

I have heard so many people lamenting lately what a terrible place this world has become.  The darkness is thick and heavy all around us.  But John 1:8 reminds us that "the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it."  The question, Church, is this:  are we still peculiar enough to believe that?

Because of Jesus,

Monday, March 26, 2012

Something To Think About...

I read this a long time ago, but came across it again last night while doing some research.  It says so much about so many of the struggles of the modern church, and it is a reminder of the tag line at the top of this page- It's all about Jesus!  And is also very controversial.  I invite you read and react.  

“If the gospel isn't good news for everybody, then it isn't good news for anybody. And this is because the most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people and convince them to join. It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display. To do this, the church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the "un" and "non", they work against Jesus' teachings about how we are to treat each other. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, and our neighbor can be anybody. We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sacred, valuable creations of God. Everybody matters. To treat people differently based on who believes what is to fail to respect the image of God in everyone. As the book of James says, "God shows no favoritism." So we don't either.”     ― Rob Bell 

Agree or disagree?  The floor is open for discussion...

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Saturday Shout Outs- Sunday Edition!

So here they are- a day late but never a dollar short- my Saturday Shout Outs!  Things have been a little crazy here at the blog for the past few days, but we are hopefully back on track now. So let me offer up a hearty Go Tar Heels and let's get on with the show!!!

  • Last Sunday I blogged about Sally Hollingsed (FUMC-Kissimmee) and her ongoing battle with cancer. The fundraising efforts on her behalf will continue through July, and I will continue to post a reminder each time I do these shout outs.  To read more of her story and make contributions, just click here.  Thanks in advance for showing Sally the love of Jesus in action.  
  • Jeremy Godwin (Springfield Friends Meeting) did indeed have surgery to repair a torn tendon in his elbow.  He is doing well and recovering nicely while wearing a heavy cast on his arm.  I would suggest staying out of his way!  You are in our prayers, Jeremy!
  • If you have struggling lately and need a word of encouragement, I hope you caught my post These Times.  If not, go watch the amazing music video right now.  "These times are hard, but they will pass."
  • We are so happy that we will have Hal & Joanne Gastler (Wesley Memorial UMC) back as full-time neighbors here in Tampa! Looking forward to some more Taco Tuesday visits in the near future.  And it was great to have Linda Wehr join us last week!
  • Cyndi Reep Browning (FUMC-K) was in a bad car wreck last week.  She is ok, just beat up from the wreck and dealing with the insurance company afterwards.  Keep her in your prayers.
  • My favorite quote on Twitter this past week comes from John Newton ( the man who wrote Amazing Grace) via @OceanofGrace "I remember two things; that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior."
  • I mentioned this on a previous post, but since the last time I did the shout outs Jerry & Melissa Hanbery (FUMC-K) welcomed baby Juliet Ruby to the family.  They are doing well, but I hear from both parents that sleep is at a premium.  They can all use our prayers!
  • I am thinking a lot of Keri Vinson Johnston (Springfield) as she closes one chapter in her life (a business) and looks forward to whatever is next.  Our prayers are with you, Keri.
  • My son Will is headed to the Big Apple on April 5 with his high school band as they see the city and perform at Carnegie Hall on Easter Sunday.  Please keep that group in your prayers - and Marilyn and I as well!
  • My Twitter sister Jenn Ganley asked for prayers for her dad last night.  Join me right now, won't you?
  • In the March 10 edition of shout outs I asked if anyone reading was old enough to remember seeing me without a moustache. My old buddy Carl Semmler came thorough, sending me a lovely picture from my 10th grade yearbook.  Ouch...
  • More and more old friends are joining the party on Twitter.  I have been told by the staff at Tijuana Flats that with almost 2100 followers I must be "Twitter famous."  This is not true, but I sure am having fun! Come join the party and follow me @youthguy07.  I promise to follow back!
  • The next #CommentDay in coming Thursday, April 5th.  Mark your calendars now!
That's it for now.  As always, keep the comments, emails and texts coming.  And Teresa, I think it's time to start planning that reunion....

    Because of Jesus,

    Saturday, March 24, 2012

    The Night We Closed EPCOT

    I know it's Saturday, but my Tar Heels zapped all my energy last night, so  we are going to pretend we are having a Friday Flashback!  Today I want to flashback to the first time I took a youth group to Walt Disney World.  The year was 1987, and the group was from Springfield Friends Meeting.  The trip was an adventure.  The lat day was nothing short of EPIC...

    The last full day of our stay in central Florida we were headed to EPCOT for the first part of the day, and then planned to finish our Disney time at the Magic Kingdom that night.  We parked our Chevy Suburban and our rented van in the EPCOT lot.  At the time, I was a Disney novice.  In later years I would have laughed and made fun of people for making the mistake I made.  EPCOT was closing at 9 PM, while we would be at the MK until around midnight. This would come back to haunt us!  We had a great time at EPCOT, then took the monorail over to spend our final hours with Mickey.

    Everything was fine until we met for the last time at midnight to begin the journey back to our motel.  It seems that Jennifer Welch had become ill and was at the First Aid Station getting some attention (In case you are wondering, First Aid is located between Casey's Corner and the entrance to Adventureland.  We try to be a full service blog!). In hindsight, we were lucky it was just Jennifer- many of the youth had decided not to eat because they were running short on cash.  In any case, by the time Jennifer was released, it was nearly 1 AM.  The monorail to EPCOT (and our vehicles) was no longer running.  It appeared we were stuck at the MK.  After much inquiry, we were finally told we could catch a bus from the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC) that could drop us at EPCOT.  This bus stopped everywhere, including a whole lot of places we had never seen before.  In fact, as Marilyn and I became true Disney Freaks over the years, there were some places we stopped that night that we never managed to find again!  The bus finally dropped us at the EPCOT bus stop area.  If you know that park, then you may know how far away from our cars we still were.  We still had to cross to the entrance and then make our way across the ENTIRE parking lot to our vehicles.  The good news was that they were going to be easy to spot- we were the only ones left!  It was around 2 AM when some guys driving trams and picking up trash gave some of our group a ride to the van.  All in all it was quite a night.  It gave that group a shared history that helped bond us together.  It's not very often you can be the last ones out at Walt Disney World!  I took a couple of pictures of our lonely vehicles, but I no longer know where they are.  They would be classics! 

    I wish I could tell you that the trip home the following day was smooth sailing.  That would be a lie.  For that story, check out The Long Ride Back.  Come back tomorrow (Sunday) for our Saturday Shout Outs! I am so out of whack...

    Because of Jesus,

    Friday, March 23, 2012

    Summer 101: The Schoolzout Blowout!

    Many of my youth pastor friends look forward to the end of the school year so that life can slow down and they can have a little less demand on their time.  From 1987 on, I was always just the opposite.  I could not wait for summer to begin because that was the time when my student ministries simply exploded!  Beginning in February and March I would put together a booklet of events, gatherings and programs that would often cover all but 4 or 5 days of the summer.  We did not worry about who wouldn't be there; our focus was on who could be there- including the friends of our own students who are often bored and looking for something to do in the summer.  For the next several Fridays I will be sharing some of the purpose and and some of the events that helped turn summer into the backbone on our youth programs at several different churches.  Today we begin with a bang- The Schoolzout Blowout!

    We always tried to begin each summer by planning something major the first weekend after school let out.  The actual event varied quite a bit.  Some years we took weekend trips.  Some years we did a "lock-in" type event at the church.  But the most excitng, fun and effective events were the ones we eventually called the Wonderama.  The idea was very basic and pretty simple- plan a street festival at your church specifically aimed at teenagers.  We would try to find new and creative ways to publicize the event and include the community.  In various years we had students carry invitation cards with them to school the last week.  We ran special contests on our website.  One year I developed a whole new website for summer, with a name like, and we publicized it without letting on it had any connection to a church. One year we had what we called a Hot Spots Night the Friday before the event on Saturday.  Small groups of our students and leaders were at local youth hang outs like the mall and movie theaters, handing out flyers inviting everyone to join us the following day.  We tried very hard to begin our summer with this fun outreach event in the hopes that once they had a taste of our ministry, they would be back for more.  And quite often it worked.

    Sometimes the youth pastor has to
     take one for the team!
    The event itself was pretty standard youth ministry stuff.  It varied from year to year, but there would often be a live band (with some connection to the community or youth group), games, contests, giveaways and usually something special, like Velcro Wall (see pic) or a Bungee Run.  There was usually some sort of short devotional message, often from a youth or through a skit.  And there was always- ALWAYS! - food.  Some years we worked out a deal with a local pizza place to "cater" the event.  Other years we grilled our own hot dogs.  But there was always plenty of food and excitement, and always plenty of publicity for upcoming events that would give us a bigger chance to talk about Jesus.  And perhaps just as importantly, it was always free.  Churches are so guilty of turning outreach events into fundraisers. Fight the urge. Make your Schoolzout Blowout a gift to the youth of your community.  

    Youth pastors (and many of you are my dear friends) tend to moan and complain about how busy our students are during the school year.  At the risk of being rude, I invite you to shut up and start planning ways to use their spare time this summer.  It can change your ministry forever.  Join us next Friday as we follow up with an important beginning to our huge summer- The Chain of Prayer.  Have a blessed weekend!

    Because of Jesus,

    Wednesday, March 21, 2012

    49 Days of Grace

    If you have never read the first three posts listed under the My Journey tab at the top of this blog, you may want to before proceeding. It will give you the background info you need.

    Five years ago today my life fell apart. It wasn't without warning; I had been expecting it for nearly a month. But on March 21, 2007, a couple of Waycross city police officers stopped by my house and asked me to take a little ride with them. I had no way of knowing that the next 49 days were going to be the most miserable days of my life. I had put myself in a terrible situation through my own actions and sin. And now I had to live with it.

    Those 49 days were also the beginning of a spiritual rebirth for me. While in that horrible place I discovered a new understanding of God's love and grace. I have read since that when we walk with Jesus there is nothing wrong with being in a low place- because grace flows downhill. I have written before that after so many years of teaching others about grace, it was not until I hit the bottom during those 49 days that I truly understood what grace is. I learned from my family, who responded with unimaginable compassion and grace. I learned it from God, who made it clear that His grace would be enough to get me through. And I learned it - sometimes in bizarre ways - from the people I met on the inside during those 49 days. It was quite an experience.

    I was incarcerated for 7 weeks. For the next 7 Wednesdays I am going to share some stories of my time on the inside. Some will be stories of of faith. Some will be humorous. Some will just give you a little insight as to what my life was really like for those 49 days. I hope that these posts will speak to any of you who may be struggling with thinking that your sin is too big or too bad and that grace is not meant for you. It is my prayer that this will remind us all that God's love is not conditional.  God is a God of second chances, and Jesus died for ALL of our sins. Amazing Grace indeed...

    This blog is now a huge part of the new ministry God is growing in my life, and I hope my openness about my past in no way leads you to believe that I do not know that what I did was wrong and was significant. But as I seek to follow Christ, I am trying to adhere to the first rule of Italian driving as given in the totally forgotten movie Gumball Rally- "What's a behind me is a not important!" Or to use a far better source:
    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. ~ Philippians 3:13-14

    Come with me on this journey and discover the lavish, ridiculous, astounding and amazing grace that is available to all who walk with Jesus. I am so excited to share these stories with you.

    Because of Jesus,

    Tuesday, March 20, 2012

    Goin' Retro

    Last weekend my wife Marilyn and my son Will headed north (an hour north!) to spend a few days with my Mom. If you read Marilyn's Facebook you know that upon arrival Will began to explore a closet he usually avoids.  In it is a lot of stuff that used to belong to my Dad, who passed away 6 years ago. While exploring, he found a old turntable and some records.  For those  of you who may not remember, a turntable was a method of playing music by placing a arm with a needle on a large piece of vinyl with a hole in the middle.  This technology predates 8 track tapes, cassette tapes, compact discs and the I-Pod.  Anyway, Will found the turntable, a couple of ancient speakers, and hooked it up. Moments later he was listening to some of Dad's albums.  He listened to such contemporary greats as Andy Williams, Jim Croce and The Kingston Trio.  And he was loving it.  

    His next discovery prompted a phone call to me.  He found what appeared to be a 4-string guitar hiding in the back of that closet, and he called wanting to know what it was.  I knew immediately what he had found. It was indeed a 4-string guitar- the very guitar that I had first learned to play when I was a teenager.  This excited him to no end.  This magical closet had become a sort of retro Toys 'R' Us for my son, and his new play things quickly became an obsession.  He played the guitar (and another old ukulele he found) and listened to the albums.  He began to search for places that sold albums, hoping to acquire some new ones. Eventually we ordered Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town and My Chemical Romance's Danger Days from Amazon.  We are currently in search of a record store in Tampa.  The stereo and the guitar both came home with him and have moved into his room.  This is serious business...

    The world changes at such an alarming rate these days.  There is something truly magical about nostalgia and things that connect us to the past.  I am glad Will discovered the turntable and the 4-string guitar.  They were such a huge part of my past.  They are now a huge part of his present.  And that is comforting to me.  Some days being a dad is just a really cool thing...

    Because of Jesus,

    Monday, March 19, 2012

    The Magic of a Youth Ministry Summer

    Summer- it turns me upside down
    Summer, Summer, Summer
    It's like a merry-go-round...
    Oh, Oh it's magic when I'm with you...  -The Cars

    For many churches, the approaching end of the school year means the end of another grueling season of student ministry.  You've been consumed with teaching, outreach and trying to learn the latest worship songs.  You've survived a retreat or two, and, if you're old school, maybe even a lock-in.  You've struggled with planning your schedules around the 6 different high schools and 7 different middle schools your youth attend, and you've felt like you never get enough time with the kids.  If any of that applies to you as a youth pastor, then I'd like to offer you some FREEDOM!  Welcome to Summer!

    Everyone has heard the stories of the students who are bored to tears by the third day of summer vacation- and those stories are very true (I know- I have a 16 year old)!  Summer is a time when many of your students have more spare hours than at any other point in the year.  As a youth pastor, I was always one to plan huge summer programs, including a mission trip and a "vacation" trip- but that was never the best part of summer for me.  It's just a great time for a youth pastor to hang out with their students and build relationships- often in ways that are far superior to anything you can do during the school year.  Whether you meet on a regular basis all summer long or cut back on programming, there are things you can do that will give you the opportunity to gather smaller groups of students for times of fun, fellowship and any other purpose you might have in mind.  And these events and programs can be done with minimal preparation and effort- and at almost no cost.  They simply require your time.

    For the next few Fridays I am going to share (one at a time) a bunch of things I did over my 28 years in youth ministry to make summers magical.  I share them at this time because I know in many cases it is time to start nailing down that final summer calendar.  All of these ideas are so simple and easy to plan that you could add any number of them to your schedule this summer if you so choose.  They are not earth-shakingly creative or unique.  But they worked for me in a variety of situations over almost three decades of ministry.  It seems to me that everyone has a choice to make about summers and student ministry.  You can slow down your ministry and give your youth the freedom to watch Jersey Shore marathons all summer.  Or you can plan a few extra events that give you the freedom to really get to know your students in ways you might not have thought possible.  Summers can should be the most magical part of the year for youth ministry.  It is time to get excited...

    Because of Jesus,

    Sunday, March 18, 2012

    Sally Needs Our Help

    My very first Wednesday night in Kissimmee. Sally is in red, sticking
    her tongue out at me.  Business as usual!

    July 11, 2012: I just learned that Sally's suffering has ended and she has lost her battle with cancer. Our prayers go out to her family and friends.  Sally is now in the hands of the great healer.

    One of the first things I remember from my arrival at FUMC-Kissimmee in 1994 was meeting the Soccer Girls.  The Soccer Girls were a group of 7th grade students (among the crew were Jill Souther, Cindy Franklin, Erin Bay and Carla O'Dell; I am sure I am missing someone!) who had quite a reputation in the youth group.  They were considered a bit unruly and perhaps a bit spoiled.  They had been the favorites of a previous youth pastor and were used to getting away with doing whatever they pleased.  They weren't sure they were going to like me.  But I loved them.  They were full of fire and passion and energy- which often drove me crazy. Over the following years some of them would drop out, some would become infrequent visitors to youth group, and some would become leaders in the ministry.  That is just how it works.  But today I want to talk about one of the Soccer Girls in particular.  Her name is Sally Hollingsed. 

    Sally was one of those middle school kids who just simply couldn't sit still.  She was never really into the whole of idea of programs and music- she loved the games and the fellowship.  She (for lack of a better description) "dropped out" of youth group a year or so after I first met her, and I didn't really have much contact with her after that.  I do remember having a group at a local water park one day a couple of years later and running into Sally, and spending a long time visiting in the wave pool.  I saw her play high school soccer a few times.   I spoke at her classes' Baccalaureate service in 1999 and attended her graduation.  But we never really ever connected, and I have not had any contact with her since.

    Then late last week I received word from Ben Thompson and Lisa Harrison that Sally was having serious medical problems.  She has been fighting a very aggressive form of head and neck cancer that has already claimed most of her tongue.  She has undergone many treatments, and has reached the end of the options that insurance will pay for.  Sally needs our help.  She certainly needs our prayers, but at this point she also needs our money.  The website is providing us with the opportunity to give.  They are trying to raise $50,000 by July 12 to help Sally receive the treatments she needs. I know that most of my readers do not know Sally.  But you do know me.  I have never once on this blog asked for you to give money to a specific cause, but I am asking now.  Put hands and feet on your prayers- and give.  To read more of Sally's story and to contribute to her fund by credit card or PayPal, click on the link below.

    I believe that God is an Almighty God, and that he wants us to pray for miracles.  I believe that God still works miracles.  I believe that our prayers matter.  So I am praying for a miraculous healing for Sally.  I also believe that God uses people like us to change the lives of hurting people.  Let's make a difference.  Thanks in advance for your prayers and your gifts.

    Because of Jesus,

    Saturday, March 17, 2012

    Funniest Movies Ever- The Sequel!

    Yesterday I gave you the results of a week of conversations, primarily on Twitter, about the funniest movies of all time.  The top 5 vote-getters in that very unofficial poll left me wanting to make a few changes.  Actually, it left me wanting to change the entire list!  So today I have! These are the movies that make me laugh over and over again, no matter how many times I see them- and I own them all!  I have left out many classics (how does Stripes not make this list?), including some of the ones mentioned yesterday.  But a definitive list must be made- and so I have made it.  Here are my personal top 10 funniest movies ever.  Let the arguments continue...

    10) Wedding Crashers
    9)   Fletch
    8)   Airplane
    7)   The Jerk
    6)   Raising Arizona
    5)   Anchorman
    4)   Caddyshack
    3)   Animal House
    2)   Young Frankenstein
    1)   Monty Python & the Holy Grail

    Friday, March 16, 2012

    The Funniest Movies Ever!

    So for the last few days I have been polling my Twitter followers and Marilyn's Facebook friends and asking them the following question:  What do you think is the funniest movie ever?  I was overwhelmed by both the quantity and the variety of the answers I received, and surprised at a few of the top vote-getters.  I was perhaps more surprised at the lack of love for many all-time favorites.  Much to the chagrin of my son Will, Animal House and Young Frankenstein were shut out, as were AirplaneStripes, Fletch and Ghostbusters.  No votes at all for Wayne's World, Naked Gun or Talladega Nights. Classics like Spaceballs, Office Space, The Jerk, As Good As It Gets, Wedding Crashers, Happy Gilmore, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, Meet the Parents, Anchorman, Major League, Elf, Uncle Buck, The Great Outdoors, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Hot Rod, The In-Laws, What About Bob? and Raising Arizona all received the same number of votes- 1 - as did Gladiator.  Yes,  THAT Gladiator.  That vote was later changed to Nacho Libre.  The great Caddyshack, the fairly recent smash The Hangover and the culturally iconic Ferris Bueller's Day Off each only received 2 votes.   The film that had Twitter going wild on Wednesday night with some people quoting dozens of great lines and others confessing to have never seen it was Monty Python's Holy Grail.  Yet for all of that activity, it too got only 2 votes. I even got a text from my old friend Beth last night telling me she didn't know what the funniest movie was, but she sure knew what it wasn't- Holy Grail!  Comedy is a very personal thing.

    So with all of that in mind, here are the top 5 vote-getters. These do not represent the views of the management.  If fact, these results have caused me to make my own list, which I will feature tomorrow.  But the people have spoken, and this is what they said...

    5)  Dumb And Dumber - At one point this was winning. I would have never published those results.  
    4)  Christmas Vacation- An absolute classic.  Now we are getting somewhere.
    3)  Blazing Saddles - Another great movie, but not even my favorite Mel Brooks film.
    2)  The Princess Bride - One of my favorite movies for sure. But funniest?  Hmmmm...
    1)  Tommy Boy - A hilarious movie, with Chris Farley at his absolute best. But funniest ever?  Really?  I mean have you seen Fletch?  

    So there you have it.  As the master comedian George Carlin once said, "Everyone is entitled to their opinion. It's just that some of you are wrong!"  It's not too late to re-write history with me for tomorrow.  Leave your thoughts on this list and attempt to sway my opinion before tomorrow's list appears.  Surely we can do better.  And don't call me Shirley...

    Thursday, March 15, 2012

    An Act of Service

    We continue our Thursday Lenten devotionals with a little something different.  Today's Act of Service will give you a glimpse into the world we live in.  It will require a bit of bravery on your part.  Stop by your local grocery store.  Wait until you see someone who may need help carrying their groceries, and then offer to carry some of their bags.  Almost certainly you will be told "no."  They may look at you with fear and uncertainty.  In extreme cases they may even call for help.  We live in a world in which random acts of kindness and service are so out of place, so foreign to people, that they strike fear in their hearts.  Become WIDE OPEN to this fact;  understand that it is only by living life with a servant's heart that we can change this.  Be aware of every opportunity to serve others.  Remember Jesus said if you want to be great you must first become a servant.  Keep trying and and see if anyone will let you carry their bags!

    Because of Jesus,

    Wednesday, March 14, 2012

    One Tin Soldier

    Jerry, Melissa and Lorelei Hanbery welcomed Juliet Ruby to the world on Monday, and everyone is doing well.  Also please pray for for buddy Jeremy Godwin, who is having surgery today!

    I am not sure why, but we seem to be having a week of blog posts themed around music.  I first wrote about this particular song back in October of 2009.  I never saw the original Billy Jack, yet few movies have ever had as much influence on my youth ministry career.  The hit song from that movie was One Tin Soldier, written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter and performed by Coven.   We sang it at camp when I was a camper, and continued to sing it off and on my first few years on the Quaker Lake Camp staff.  We sang it so much, in fact, that we got sick of it. In fact, like many great youth group songs, it at some point made it to the Youth Group Jukebox of Cheese (Songs that are cheesy, but as some point became popular with a group).  But you can't keep a good song down, and it would make comebacks during my time at Springfield Friends Meeting, and, after another hiatus, at First UMC-Kissimmee.  The reasons it kept coming back are simple; it has a wonderfully catchy melody and a message that resonates with students in every generation- peace and love.  And it hits the nail on the head on the number one reason for violence in our world- greed.  I offer this thought:  the arrival of the Christ-child was heralded by angels singing "Peace on earth; good will to all people."  Why, then, do we still have war, famine and injustice?  A bumper sticker says it all:  Know Jesus, Know Peace;  No Jesus, No Peace.  Here are the amazing lyrics to One Tin Soldier.

    Listen children to a story that was written long ago
    about a kingdom on a mountain and the valley folks below
    On the mountain was a treasure buried deep beneath the stone
    and the valley people swore they'd have it for their very own

    So go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend
    Do it in the name of Heaven you can justify it in the end
    There won't be any trumpets blowing, come the judgement day
    On the bloody morning after....One tin soldier rides away

    So the the people of the valley sent a message up the hill
    asking for the buried treasure, tons of gold for which they'd kill
    Came an answer from the mountain with our brothers we will share
    all the secrets of our mountain, all the riches buried there


    Now the valley cried with anger "Mount your horses!  Draw your swords!"
    So they killed the mountain people and they won their just rewards
    Now they stood beside the treasure on the mountain, dark and red
    Turned the stone and looked beneath it...
    Peace on earth, was all it said.

    All of our armies and weapons and technology and fear have not made the world a safer place.  "Why don't you look into know He's got the answers...     -Larry Norman

    Because of Jesus,

    Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    These Times

    This past weekend I was watching the VH1 Top 20 Video Countdown with my wife and son when I encountered one of the most uplifting, hopeful and spirit-filled songs I have heard in a very long time.  The band is called SafetySuit.  I cannot speak to the religious convictions of the band members.  I know it is is not "Christian" music.  But if you are a Christ-follower, this song speaks to the condition of so many of those around you.  People are hurting. Times are hard. And one of the most precious commodities the church has to offer is hope.  If you are in student ministry and have not yet built a message around this song, then get busy.  This video will inspire you, because whether intended or not, Jesus is all over it, just oozing from each frame.  I hope it will move you as much as it did me.  So here is the official music video for These Times...

    "Throw up your hands and believe it. These times are hard.  But they will pass..."

    Because of Jesus,

    Monday, March 12, 2012

    Where Everybody Knows Your Name...

    Heather, part of the Flats family!
    Remember the great 80/90's sitcom Cheers?  It was a great show about the merry mishaps of a crew of misfits who gathered in a bar in Boston, and for a number of years it was one of the most popular shows on TV.  The adventures of such characters as Sam, Diane, Rebecca, Coach, Carla, Woody, Cliff and Frazier became part of our lives. It featured a marvelous little theme song, which if for some reason you don't know or don't remember you can listen to below...

    One of the recurring gags on the show was when the overweight, down-on-his-luck accountant Norm would walk into the bar, everyone present would yell "Norm!"  It was in recognition of his importance to them, and of the theme of the show- everyone likes to go to a place where everybody knows their name.  And this is true for all of us.  Lately I have found my own place to "take a break from all my worries."  Every Tuesday Marilyn, our friend Lisa (and sometimes other folks) and I head over to the local Tijuana Flats for Taco Tuesday.  The food is good and the staff is great, and they take very good care of us.  And over a period of time, they have all learned my name.  I had never thought about it being a big deal until last week, when as we left the building after dinner pretty much every employee began shouting, "Bye Carl!"  I couldn't help but smile and feel special.  And I couldn't hardly wait until it would be time to go back again.  It's always good to go where everybody knows your name...

    Wouldn't it be great if more of our churches, ministries and youth groups were that place?  I know I always wanted my student ministries to be like that- a place where people couldn't wait to come and be with one another because they knew they were loved, appreciated and called by name.  No one should understand better than the church that we should be a place where it is recognized that "people are all the same."  Yet it seems one of the primary complaints you hear about the institutional church is that it can be cold and impersonal.  It can be elitist.  It is a place where we often feel guilt rather than love.  And it is far too often a place where people feel left out rather than included.  We shake hands and greet people during worship, but do we ever learn names?  Do we ever seek to truly build relationships?  Do we understand that one of the best ways we can model the love of Jesus to our hurting world is by making everyone feel like Norm (and me!)- special and noteworthy?  We are sending a mixed message to the world when we say that Jesus loves them, and then do absolutely nothing to prove that we do too.  My son's relationship with the church was forever damaged when a youth pastor prayed for him using the wrong name.  We have to do better.  I know the church is meant to be so much more that a social club.  But part of that higher calling is showing people the love of God whose name is Jesus.  Fellowship is crucial to sharing our faith with the world.  And that starts when we learn each others names...

    Tomorrow night I will be headed back to Tijuana Flats in Tampa/Westchase (around 7 PM if you care to join us!) with the gang, and I go with a sense of expectation and excitement, because the people there will be genuinely glad to see us.  I will hear my name. I will learn some names.  And I will feel part of a community.  Shame on us if our churches do any less.

    Because of Jesus,

    Sunday, March 11, 2012

    Salty People

    Today, I have a question for us all.  When people come into contact with us, are their lives changed?  Do our lives speak to them in ways that make a difference, or do we just help maintain the status quo?  To understand more of what I mean, try the following devotional activity.

    Get some salt.  Taste it.  Read the scripture below from Matthew 5:13.  Now taste the salt again.  When people "taste" you do they get the "flavor" of Jesus?  Salt changes the taste of everything it touches.  Do you?  This world we live in is in need of change.  Are you an agent of change for Jesus?  Or have you already been "trampled underfoot?"  Are you open to letting God use you to bring a better "flavor" to this world?  And remember these wonderful words from Maya Angelou: "People may forget what you say. People may forget what you do. But they always remember how you made them feel."  How will the people you encounter today feel when they leave your presence?  Will they have experienced the love of God whose name is Jesus permeating your words and your actions?  Will they feel loved?

    Today, this is my prayer:  God, make me salty; make me an agent of change in your world.  Amen

    Because of Jesus,