A Letter To My 22 Year Old Self

A letter to my 22 year old self.

Dear Geoff,

In 2014 you’ll be 30 years old, have an amazing wife, and have two awesome kids! You will have experienced a lay off and find yourself serving parents and students in Texas. You will have seen a lot–suicide, drug addiction, leadership conflicts, and more–in student ministry, but will have more to learn.

Why not go ahead and get a jump on things? I want you to do four things: Serve. Learn. Read. Grow.

Serve, serve, serve. Serve everywhere you get the opportunity. Lead a small group–maybe even a small group of students you wouldn’t think you would connect with. Disciple a student. Plan an event. Clean coolers, clean the bus. Ask what gaps you can fill. Serve wherever there is a need.

Learn. Learn all you can, any way you can. Set up meetings and ask questions. Learn from past experiences and best practices of veteran student pastors and volunteer leaders. Ask parents what it’s like raising a teenager today and what they need from you as a student pastor.

Read. Read often. Follow quality ministry blogs, not just student ministry blogs. Read books, again, not just books about student ministry. Don’t worry about reading what is trendy, read quality.  I am sure these (non-comprehensive) lists will change, but here’s a start…

Grow. Grow as a Christ Follower. Read and study your bible constantly, buy a journal and jot down thoughts and prayers. If you’re not growing, you won’t be going.

Grow as a man. Take responsibility. Assert independence. Leave behind the things of your childhood and college years. Step up. Lead. There will be a time where the little boy needs to sit down and the man needs to stand up.

Grow as a friend. Don’t just acquire friends; be a friend. Be loyal. Love. Give. Listen.

In 2014 you will not be where you thought you would be, but you wouldn’t have it any other way.

 
What would you say to yourself at 22?

795 Weeks and Counting (Down): Leveraging Your Influence as a Parent

795 WEEKS AND COUNTING (Down): LEVERAGING YOUR INFLUENCE AS A PARENT

Do you have kids?  Are they as crazy as mine is?  My three year old little boy is….well…ALL BOY!  If it’s sports equipment or if can he manipulate it into a makeshift gun or rocket launcher he’s all about it.  Just the other day we had to take him to the doctor to get his eyebrow glued back together after splitting it open at school—he was running after a basketball and tripped over a giant rocking chair/glider.

I have just 795 weeks until he graduates from high school.  That’s it.  795.

How many weeks until your kid graduates from high school?

Time is our most valuable resource.  We are constantly giving it away, without the option of getting more back in return.  It is the definition of a non-renewable resource.  As each Sunday rolls around I lose another week. 795…794…793…792, never to get them back again.  Maybe this seems too nebulous.

Here are some alternative angles:

  • Each year as a parent—if you work full time, get eight hours of sleep per night, and do not homeschool your kids—you get 3000 hours per year with your child.  At best the church gets about 40 hours per year with your child.
  • Or, using the same math, parents get over 57 hours per week with their child, compared to the church’s 1 hour per week.

I wasn’t a math major…not even close.  In fact, I hate math with a holy passion.  Which I find ironic and humorous considering I wanted to go into financial planning.  I didn’t and you’re welcome.  And yes, I was that kid, you know the one who slept through high school geometry every single day.  Even though math never suited me, I can do this math: 3000>40 and 57>1.

This tells me that I have the greatest influence on the faith development of my child. Period.  This also tells me, that I must learn to leverage my influence for the thing that matters most.

Not far from the place where God will let Moses see the Promised Land, from atop Mount Nebo, and near the end of his life, Moses does something that sends waves throughout history.  He casts a vision for the nation of Israel—for the People of God.  In Deuteronomy 6.4-9 Moses begins by speaking to the hearts of the Israelites.  He warns them that what he is about to say will be huge…history changing, life altering, eternity impacting.  Moses also leaves no room for loopholes: Hear O Israel…not listen up moms and dads.  He addresses the whole nation of Israel.  If Moses made this speech today, I believe he would begin saying: Listen up church, this is going to be huge!

His next statement is revolutionary given the spiritual climate of the region.  He tells them that their God is true, strong, and one.  The Canaanites, the people who occupy the Promised Land, worship several wicked gods.  Least of which is Molech, whose altar was a furnace with the torso and outstretched arms of a man and the head of a bull.  Drums and flutes would play to drown out the screams of the child sacrifices made to Molech.  Canaanites had a god for amost everything.  Moses says: Our God is one.  Our God is true.  Our God is strong.  Our God is the Creator, not created.

The next statement Moses made would become one of the most recognized phrases in the entire bible: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Jesus would echo this phrase in the gospels.  Here, Moses makes a movement from the inside out with his instructions to love God with our total self.  Moses also knew, as we should recognize today that this is a big deal.  If we don’t love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, then we leave room for mixing in false gods into our worship of the true God.

Moses continues to address the church in general, and parents in particular, telling us the things he has said must to be woven into the tapestry of our lives.  The point he is making is that we should leave a lasting mark of our faith on our kids.  But here’s the kicker: what you learn in your own time with God, repeat that again and again and again to your kids.

Moses not only tells us what, but he tells us how, too.  He urges us to find the rhythm of our family, of our day.  Then to use that rhythm to strategically leverage our influence as parents as we weave faith into our every day lives.  Reggie Joiner and the guys at the Think Orange Group suggest the following rhythm:

Orange Rhythms SLIDE-2

The rhythm for my family will look different than the rhythm for your family and your rhythm will change as your kids get older.  What is the rhythm for your family?

Talk with your kids about who God is, what He does, and the difference He makes in your everyday lives as you…

  • Drive to practice
  • Watch TV
  • Do chores and yard-work
  • Eat at the table
  • Pick up your kids after school

Moses knew that for faith to be vibrant and life giving it has to infiltrate every part of our daily lives.

As a parent you have the greatest influence over the faith development of your child.  Period.  Now, we must learn to leverage that influence for the thing that matters most.

Check out these resources for faith conversations and passing down your faith to your kids:

Three Conversations Every Parent Must Have With Their Teenager

When you hear the phrase: “Family Meeting” do you get chills, do you roll your eyes, or do you hide?  Family meetings don’t always get the reaction they should.  They don’t have to be ominous and fear-laden.

I bring up family meetings because when I was growing up that was the cue for a serious conversation.  I think that there are three vital conversations that parents need to start having with their teenagers; and the younger the better.

THE SEX TALK

Dun, dun, duuuunnnn.  Sweaty palms. Cotton mouth.  Avoiding eye contact.  Stumbling over your words.  Fear. The parent feels awkward; the student feels grossed out. (I even feel a little awkward writing this.) This is how the typical sex talk begins…but it doesn’t have to be this way. Sex is a gift from God that we treat as taboo.  Let me say that again, God created sex; and what God creates is good.

Any conversation you have with your teenager about sex should begin there: Yes, God created sex, but God created sex to be shared in the context of marriage between husband and wife.  But if you wait until your child is a teenager to talk about sex you may have waited too long.  Did you know that the average age of first time exposure to pornography is 11 years old?  11. Not 18.  11.  That’s the average sixth grader.  With the onset of mobile technology what was once restricted to behind the counter at a convenience store is now in their pocket!  I would not be surprised at all if the number of younger children with smartphones increases that the average age for first time exposure to pornography becomes younger and younger.

Here’s the million dollar question: How do I talk with my teenager about sex? I think it’s vital to remember that this is more than just a conversation about sex; it’s a conversation about biblical love, making wise choices, and open communication between parents and students.  It is also not just one conversation, but the opening conversation in an ongoing dialogue between parents and teenagers.

  • Be honest.
  • Be real.
  • Listen.

Before you have the sex talk with your teenager it is wise for the parents to get together to make sure they are on the same page. You may disagree, but I believe that it is best for the same gender parent to initiate this conversation (if possible); I also think there is an appropriate time to have the opposite gender parent join the conversation as well.

Harvest USA and XXXChurch have some resources that could be very helpful.

The sex talk seems obvious, right? In theory, parents have been having this conversation with their little raging ball of hormones (teenager) for generations.  However, the next two conversations may not be as obvious, but they are nonetheless important.

THE TECH TALK
When was the last time you asked your teenager spell “kick?” Do you know what #tbt or #mcm or #wcw mean? What is an IGFollower?  What does #s4s mean?  If you’re asking any of these questions, you may have some homework to do…

If the sex talk is characterized with sweaty palms and cotton mouth, then the tech talk is marked by overwhelming confusion.  There are several social network and social media apps available for smart phones.  Here are a few off the top of my head:

I doubt many teenagers are on the last three networks.

As many as 25% of teenagers get their primary internet access via mobile device.  That means having the family computer in the living room isn’t enough. This conversation is greatly needed.  One of our obligations to teenagers is to help them navigate the digital terrain.  In a lot of ways we are like Lewis and Clark blazing a trail for others to follow on the digital landscape.

Here are someone suggestions for the tech talk:

  • Establish the desire for open communication between parents and teenagers
  • Once it goes online, it’s there forever
  • Go over the laws for your state for sexting
  •  Have a family charging station for mobile devices and tablets each night
  • Get all usernames and passwords
  • Establish criteria for the “friends” or “followers” on social networks

Do they know them?
How do they know them?
Are they friends in real life?

X3Watch

Covenant Eyes

I would have this conversation before they get their first smartphone.

The last conversation in my list is in that position intentionally.  Ideally the previous conversations would happen early on in the teen years.  But this next conversation is a sort of manufactured 21st century rite of passage.

 THE DRIVING TALK

I would guess that this is the conversation parents are most comfortable having with their teenagers.  But that doesn’t mean that it is any less significant.  There are huge ramifications for how your student drives–their lives and the lives of others are at stake.  This conversation should happen sometime between the 15th and 16th birthdays.

Here are some tips for the driving talk:

  • Driving is a privilege
  • Safe driving is an expectation
  • Don’t text and drive
  • Limit phone calls while driving
  • Text blocking apps while driving
  • Who pays for the ticket
  • Who pays for insurance increases after tickets or accidents
  • Who pays for accidents
  • Who pays for the car
  • Who pays for gas
  • How many strikes are allowed
  • How do grades impact driving privileges

Do you have older teenagers?  Have you not had these conversations yet?  It’s not too late! Carve out time this week to talk with your teenager about sex, tech, and driving.

Even though these conversations cover some serious content that can affect teens for the rest of their lives, try not to be too serious. Share some of your mistakes and funny story or two.

  • What was your first ticket for and how much did it cost you? In case you’re wondering mine was $395 for going 75 in a 60 construction zone from state trooper Billy Brown (his real name) in 2003.
  • How awkward was your first date?
  • What was the most embarrassing picture of you from high school?  Show them!

The key thing to remember in these three conversations is that you, as the parent, are trying to open–and keep open– the lines of communication with your teenager. Don’t worry about having the perfect script; just talk.  Ask questions. Listen.

Be real.

Be honest.

Listen.

Market Driven Youth Ministry by Dr. Richard Ross

The following article was originally posted on September 10, 2013 from Theological Matters, a blog of SWBTS. The article is written by Dr. Richard Ross, student ministry professor.

Teenagers and Market-Driven Ministry

Three documents have crashed into each other on my computer. Their composite message is both troubling and hopeful.

First

Christian Smith is the researcher who coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) to describe the “faith” of most church teenagers. His seminal National Study of Youth and Religionresearch sent shock waves through the youth ministry world.

A church teenager might express MTD this way: “God exists. He is nice and wants us to be nice. He doesn’t bother me about my life. But since I’m very special, He’ll show up whenever I call. But as soon as He does something to make my life happier and easier, He goes away again—so I can live my life my way.”

Smith and his team of researchers have continued to research the students who made up the original sample. They have just completed Wave Four interviews with those subjects, who now are ages 20-24.

Last week Christian Smith emailed me with the initial results. Even with their church backgrounds, Smith found that about 90%:

  • “Know absolutely nothing about what the [churches] they grew up in believe theologically,
  • Have no understanding whatsoever of the ways that faith is not just an instrumental help but is something that might drive and transform one’s life, and
  • Think religion is totally about the basic moral orientation it gives (most of which they agree with but say they are not living by).”

He summarized by saying, “Only about 10% remain what we called ‘committed traditionalists.’” To use the vocabulary of evangelicals, that means about 10% can express their core beliefs, can lead someone else to saving faith, and embrace Christ’s mission for their lives. Ten percent!

Second

Blogger Matt Marino has generated lots of conversation with his post, What’s So Uncool about Cool Churches? Marino wrote, “What is the ‘pill’ we have overdosed on? I believe it is ‘preference.’ We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they ‘prefer’ is a road that, once you go down it, has no end. … In an effort to give people something ‘attractive’ and ‘relevant’ we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church.”

Near the end of that post, Marino says, “In summary, ‘market driven’ youth ministry gave students a youth group that looks like them, does activities they prefer, sings songs they like, and preaches on subjects they are interested in. It is a ministry of preference. And, with their feet, young adults are saying ‘Bye-bye.’ What might we do instead? The opposite of giving people what they want is to give them what they need.”

Third

Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Larry Alex Taunton summarizes a study performed by his Fixed Point Foundation. They conducted extensive interviews with collegiate members of atheist organizations that Taunton calls “the atheistic equivalent of Campus Crusade.” He found that almost all the young atheists had backgrounds in the church and in youth groups. Here are some of the conclusions of the study:

  • The mission and message of their churches was vague.
  • They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.
  • They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.
  • Ages 14-17 were decisive. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.

Taunton wrote, “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed [much respect] for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he is drawn to Christians like that, adding: ‘I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.’”

Eric Metaxas adds, “Much of what passes for youth ministry these days is driven by a morbid fear of boring our young charges. As a result, a lot of time is spent trying to devise ways to entertain them. The rest of the time is spent worrying about whether the Christian message will turn kids off. But … young people, like the not-so-young, respect people with conviction—provided they know what they’re talking about.”

In the last two years I have read 60 books from the clearest thinkers in youth ministry. I have studied summaries of 14 research projects related to youth ministry. The major themes that emerge are these:

  • Teenagers are transformed primarily through their relationships with adults who themselves are deeply transformed. Teenagers begin to live for the glory of Christ as they walk beside others who live for the glory of Christ. Baptist Press editor and youth volunteer Art Toalston recently tweeted, “Even middle school boys drop their silliness and tune in when Scripture flows from our souls.”
  • Teenagers are transformed through heart connections. The stronger the relationship is between a teenager and an adult, the stronger will be the transmission of transformation.
  • Teenagers are transformed by the Spirit through the truth and power of God’s Word. Teenagers respect and are drawn toward adults who joyfully proclaim with full conviction, “Thus saith the Lord.” The youth leader who spends 15 minutes preparing his Bible talk and two hours on a creative video might actually increase attendance by reversing those time allotments.

I celebrate any church willing to spend a million dollars on a youth building. It can be a useful tool. But no one should assume that’s the key to getting teenagers willing to live or die for the cause of Christ for a lifetime. The key is:

  • Leading parents, youth ministers, and disciplers to fall more deeply in love with Christ and to transparently exude their passionate desire for His glory and the coming of His kingdom on earth. Who in your church is gathering parents and youth leaders with the specific goal of leading them into a deeper relationship and walk with King Jesus? How often do they meet?
  • To equip parents, youth ministers, and disciplers to know how to build deeper heart connections with teenagers. Busy adults can have life-on-life discipling relationships with about three teenagers. What is the adult-student ratio in your church’s Bible teaching groups? Who is regularly challenging adults to put down their lattes, leave their comfortable adult groups, and invest in the next generation?
  • To equip parents, youth ministers, and disciplers to know Scripture, assimilate Scripture, and confidently proclaim Scripture to teenagers. When your average dad pictures himself with his family and Bibles open, does he feel competent to share the Word? Who is taking the lead in equipping him for this role? When do they meet and how often?

Churches that have depressing answers to the questions above—BUT have some great facilities, programs, and trips for teenagers—should NOT expect most of their teenagers to walk in faith for a lifetime. Facilities, programs, and trips have a role and they are a helpful supplement to ministry, but they are not the core issues. If we do not shift much more of our focus to the core issues, we will continue to lose most of a generation after high school.

Challenge Your Youth by Dr. Alvin Reid

The following post is taken from The Gospel Coalition by Dr. Alvin Reid

 

CHALLENGE YOUR YOUTH

 Posted By Alvin Reid On September 3, 2013

Morgan introduced herself after I spoke at her church. She enthusiastically described the ministry she and her friends had started to fight the blight of human trafficking. They were seeking to offer gospel hope to girls vulnerable to the industry and those rescued from it. At the time I met her, she and her friends had raised almost $4,000 to send overseas to rescue young women. Now, nearly two years later, they’ve raised more than $40,000 to build a safe house in Calul, Moldova, a nation whose number one export is trafficked women.

[1]

Did I mention Morgan was only 14 when I met her? Morgan and her friends Brianna, Maleah, McCall, Claire, Kristie, and Elise launched a movement propelled by the gospel. A bunch of middle school girls decided not to waste their high school years in order to make a remarkable impact for Christ.

Open Your Eyes

Morgan gives credit for this ministry to her family and to her church—a congregation serious about taking the gospel to the nations. At 13, she and her mom went on a church trip to India. Morgan would be the first to admit their ministry never could have taken off without their parents, student pastor, and congregation encouraging and supporting them. The ministry these girls birthed (Save Our Sisters Today) is just one example of believers living the mission while they’re young. Virtually every church has youth like Morgan. But are the churches doing what they can to find these youth, direct their passions, and commit to encouraging them?

Parents who love Jesus yearn for their children to love Jesus as well. Student ministries seek to engage students with the gospel and help them live out the gospel. But there’s a problem. Too many churches assume a posture toward youth more reflective of MTV than of the Bible. Too often, and with little reflection, we view teens as adolescents in a timeout between childhood and adulthood. “They are just kids,” we say. “Boys will be boys.” Youth ministries are often pressured to offer events more than engagement, trivia more than truth. But if students can learn trigonometry in high school, they can certainly learn theology in church.

Extended Boyhood Epidemic

Our culture today teems with immature young men: the average 21-year-old male in the United States has played 10,000 hours of video games [3]. When you consider, as Malcolm Gladwell has shown, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at something, no wonder so many 20-something males struggle in the adult world. Moreover, the National Study of Youth and Religion found young adults in churches have often been taught the Bible from the perspective of what sociologist Christian Smith has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” The cumulative result is a generation of churched youth marked more by activity and moralism than by the mission of the living God.

But what if we stopped this trend? What if we challenged the youth in our churches to live missionally?

Often in Scripture we read of remarkable young people. Sold into slavery at 17, Joseph lived for God regardless of his circumstances. Samuel heard God’s voice as a lad when God’s word was rare. David killed Goliath as a teenager, the youngest and scrawniest of many sons. Josiah led a revival, and God called Jeremiah, each while they were young. Daniel and his friends were possibly as young as today’s middle school youth when they were deported to Babylon, yet they stood for their faith. And in the New Testament, we encounter Jesus’ disciples—young men themselves—as well as Paul’s specific exhortation to Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because of his youth. This array of evidence must not be ignored.

Jonathan Edwards said the Great Awakening was essentially a youth movement. Less than a century later, in 1806, college students sitting under a haystack sparked a worldwide missions movement. Near the end of the 19th century, a student volunteer movement saw thousands of young people take the gospel to the nations.

So, granting the vast changes in the past 200 years, how should we see youth today? Not as children finishing childhood but as young adults entering adulthood, capable of understanding and living out the gospel as missionaries in an increasingly unChristian culture. We who lead youth as parents and student pastors must see ourselves as missionary strategists equipping students to live on mission now, not later.

Five Suggestions

What does this transformation look like?

1. Build your student ministry and your parenting on the gospel. Show them, as Tim Keller observes, that the gospel isn’t merely the ABC of salvation but the A to Z of Christianity. A missional vision that doesn’t arise out of response to the gospel leads to legalistic activism, not biblically driven ministry.

2. Involve them in the mission locally. We’ve tried to help our own children, now grown and married, to see how this mission looks through simple things—from how we engage our next-door neighbors to how we treat servers at restaurants.

3. Don’t keep them in the dark about the mission globally. One of my mantras is, “Get your children out of the country before they finish high school.” By the time our daughter Hannah was 18, she’d been on mission trips to four continents. Our son Josh has traveled to three continents and done mission work in several major U.S. cities. These trips help teenagers see that the gospel isn’t just their parents’ home-brewed superstition; it’s true and worthy of proclamation to everyone, everywhere.

4. Demonstrate missional lives. Let them see you living missionally while you teach them how to do so. Discipleship is usually more caught than taught.

5. Believe in them. Youth need three things: a vision for their lives as big as the gospel, encouragement to live radically for Jesus Christ now, and the permission to do so.

Missionary statesman Stanley Jones was asked once how he helped so many young people become effective missionaries across the globe. “I take a young person,” he replied, “and I put a big crown over their head. Then, I help them to grow into it.”

If we’re centered on the gospel and committed to living missionally, we can do the same with today’s youth as well.

Mission Trip Bingo

Now that the summer is winding down and students are getting back into their routines, I thought we could have a little fun.  Keep this in mind for your next mission trip.

Enjoy!

Image

Things I Didn’t Learn In A Classroom

After ten summers in student ministry I thought I would write down a list of the things I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way. Here we go……

  1. You will always get weird looks buying supplies for the next event from Walmart. Who else buys pool noodles, shot glasses, a slinky, pickled pig’s feet, spam, and 100 ping-pong balls in the same purchase?
  2. Always. Point. Them. To. Jesus.
  3. Camp still works. When you’re at camp with your students join them during rec and don’t be too cool to lather on some face paint to rep your squad during rec. Have fun; don’t take yourself too seriously—even if you did get hosed in a Singing Bee competition.
  4. Dodgeball is still a fan favorite. Sometimes students don’t need an over produced event that you’ve been planning for 6 months; they need a pool or slip-n-slide and hot dogs. Don’t just plan an event, participate. Ask for help. Don’t do it alone.
  5. Don’t take the summer off just because you’re students are out of school. Be intentional; both planned and spontaneous. If they have a job, stop by to see them. If they play a sport, show up after conditioning with an ice chest full of Gatorade. Never underestimate the impact a cherry-limeade can have. Students like food and their friends do too: invite them to lunch.
  6. Coffee. Lots of coffee.
  7. Getting on school campuses is still effective. Build relationships with students, administration, teachers, coaches, and resource officers.
  8. Don’t forget the parents. Build trust by building relationships.
  9. Connect your graduated seniors to the college-aged ministry in your church BEFORE they leave for school in the fall. Also, give them the names of some churches near where they will be living to get plugged in to.
  10. On a mission trip something unexpected always happens.
  11. Students can change the world, like Jack Andraka. God still uses students to impact and influence the church, Like Zach Hunter.
  12. Spend quality and quantity time with your family when you’re not traveling. Set a quick pace, but don’t forget to Sabbath. In the hectic pace of the summer schedule don’t forget to carve out time for you and Jesus.
  13. Make sure students understand what a red flag warning means at beach camp. No joke. Seriously, not a joke.
  14. Students are more likely to respond positively when you ask them to do something rather than bark orders at them like a drill instructor at Paris Island.
  15. Don’t shy away from having the tough conversation with a student. After all, our job does not afford us the luxury of skirting the tough issues.
  16. Sometimes the best way to learn is to jump into the deep end.

Here’s to many, many more summers investing in the lives of students, parents, and families.

What’s on your list?

A Chemistry Refresher

Go back in time with me for a minute, will you? It’s your sophomore year of high school. You’re sitting in your chemistry class zoning out. Did your chemistry teacher hate you too? Remember that giant, wall-sized periodic table? You probably remember elements H & O; but do you remember which element is W?
W = Tungsten
H = Hydrogen
O = Oxygen
What on earth does the combination of elements W, H, & O have to do with Jesus?

If you get enough Tungsten and heat you can fashion it into a ring, like my wedding ring. If you get the right combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms you get water.

Now, what do a wedding ring and water have to do with Jesus?

Yesterday, maybe a lot.
Today, not as much as yesterday.
Tomorrow, maybe nothing at all.

Since I have mentioned the word “wedding” I feel like I should also mention two things:
First, this is not a commentary on the latest United States Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or California’s Constitutional Amendment Proposition 8 (Prop 8).

And secondly, “Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam…and wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva…so tweasure your wuv. Have you the wing?”

For millennia the Church has celebrated believer’s baptism or baptism by immersion as one of the central ordinances of the Church. It followed the new convert’s vocal confession of “Jesus is Lord” and signified membership and alignment with a local congregation. Not much has changed. And I am not suggesting that it should.

There’s nothing quite like seeing a new believer come up out of the baptismal waters. A few weeks ago I was asked to assist my pastor in helping him baptize people (a first for me); I’ll never forget those moments.

In fact, one of the best parts of my “job” is seeing and being a part of the light bulb moments in the lives of students. The other day I was having a conversation with a student who went to camp. While we were at camp she experienced the most pivotal lightbulb moment of her life: she put her life in Jesus’ hands. She’s a new believer! Our conversation on this particular day was about next steps, specifically about baptism.

Typically when I speak with students about baptism I use my wedding ring to help explain the significance, symbolism, and meaning of believer’s baptism. Well, after speaking with this student I realized that this illustration may no longer mean what it used to.

My spiel usually goes something like this:
Me: Do you see my wedding ring?
Student: Yes.
Me: What does my ring mean?
Student: It means that your married.
Me: You’re right. My wedding ring tells the world a few things: (1) that I am married, (2) that I love my wife, and (3) that I am committed to my wife forever. Make sense?
Student: Yes.
Me: Baptism is a lot like a wedding ring. It shows the world and the church that (1) you’re a Christ follower, (2) that you love Jesus, and (3) that you’re serious about this relationship and committed to him forever.
Me: Now, there’s nothing special about the water. It’s literally the same water you take a shower with at home. We don’t sprinkle anything into it. It really is just tap water. The reason we call it believer’s baptism is because getting baptized doesn’t save you, Jesus does. Since, you have put your faith in Jesus and given him control of your life, the next step for you will be baptism. What other questions do you have for me?

Again, this is not a commentary on DOMA or Prop 8. On this particular day, after the student and I were done talking I remembered that their parents live together, they are not divorced, have had 4 kids together, but have never been married. They are committed to each other, but not married. So what did my illustration mean to my student?

My ring as an illustration may not mean as much to a student like this one or to a student from a broken/blended family. However, it means and signifies a great deal to me. You see, my ring is a symbol of my love and commitment to my wife and my wife to me.

Even though a wedding ring might not mean what it once did, and even though it feels like nearly half of my students come from broken or blended families I will continue to use my wedding ring to explain baptism. Because, like baptism my ring signifies:

Eternal, unconditional love
Unwavering commitment
Complete trust
Covenant relationship

Also, my ring, like baptism, is a symbol of life change. I went from being single to being married–for the record I enjoy married life much more than bachelor life. I went from being an outsider to being an insider with Jesus; from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus personally; from having a relationship with the church (religion) to having a personal relationship with Jesus.

Our government will probably continue to redefine things; it may even redefine marriage yet again. In spite of all this, a wedding ring will continue to symbolize a covenant relationship between fallible humans; baptism will continue to symbolize a covenant relationship between an infallible God and redeemed believers.

Student pastors: keep using the wedding ring to help explain baptism and above all else, keep pointing students to Jesus.

The Hardest Week In Student Ministry

One unavoidable aspect of ministry is walking with people during dark days. It means that when they “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” we are walking beside them. In student ministry this is amplified when it is the unexpected death of a teenager by suicide.

In less than six short months the small community I live in has experienced teenage suicide twice. One boy. One girl. Both high school sophomores. Different schools. Same hurt.

As I heard the news of the second suicide last week my heart sank. It brought up memories from six months ago: countless conversations with hurting, grieving, angry, and confused students. I cleared my schedule and spent three days in the high school library talking with any student who needed someone to listen. That Wednesday night we partnered with some local churches and opened our door to the community–parents and students alike.

That night I shared the gospel with over 200 hurting students. In each of these cases both students were believers and that is where we find comfort.

That night I spoke from John 14.1-8, a familiar passage read at funerals. It is a passage that I tearfully read at my grandfather’s funeral six years ago. The hook for my talk that night was: “Jesus is our hope. Jesus is our strength.” These truths are what we and our students must cling to when we face tragic, hurtful circumstances.

Many of my students (I view myself as having a multi-site student ministry: church campus, middle school campuses, and high school campus) were hurting, confused, and grieving. Many of them were looking for hope and strength…believer and unbeliever alike. Most of them were looking for answers to tough questions–I know because during my days in the library I was asked several of them. And here’s the thing, the beauty of the bible is that it speaks to many issues. The bible doesn’t mention sexting, it does tell us that there shouldn’t be even the smallest hint of sexual immorality amongst us (Ephesians 5.3). It may not talk about the speeding, but it does address obeying the laws of the land (Romans 13.1-2). The bible does not speak directly to suicide, but it does talk about life and death and heaven and hell.

John 14.1-8 begins by telling us to trust in God. By calling on us to trust in God, Jesus is making three succinct statements:

  • We can COUNT on God.
  • We can RELY on God.
  • We can LEAN on God.

A few verses later Philip, who’s brother Nathanael was the disciple who’s initial response to Jesus was bewilderment that anything worthwhile can come from podunk, backwoods Nazareth, speaks up. Philip states that he wants to see God and that will be enough. Indeed, it would. What Philip is saying is that he believes that if he can just see God, for a moment, that all of his problems will disappear. While this seems certainly true, Jesus’ response is intriguing: “Philip you have seen God because you have seen me!”

This passage reminds us, student pastor, student, and parent alike that Jesus is our hope. Jesus is our strength. You see, hope is the ability to see beyond right now. We have to remind our students that there is more to life than the next fifteen minutes and what seems like an apocalyptic catastrophe will only be a blip on the screen of life. We have to be honest with them and inform students that there are going to be tough days ahead. But it’s a process…sometimes they will have to take it second by second…others, day by day. They will get through it. Strength is the ability to get through today. And this strength doesn’t come from a bench-press. This strength comes from resting in the grace, mercy, and peace of God that is beyond our understanding. Remind students to get back into a routine. Go to bed that night. Wake up the next day. Eat breakfast. Shower. Go to school. Go to extracurricular activities or a job. Come home. Eat dinner. Do your homework. Go to bed. Repeat. And yes, you may have to get that basic with a grieving student.

I love how Jesus reminds the disciples that they know the way. He reminds them of all they have done with him and seen him do. He then tells them: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Again, succinctly Jesus makes three statements:

  • He is our LINK to God.
  • He is COMPLETELY RELIABLE in who he is and what he does.
  • He is our EXAMPLE for life on earth, but also the GIVER of eternal life.

And for these two sophomores in high school death, although as tragic as it was, was not the end of the story for them. Not in the least! No, they are now face-to-face with Jesus in heaven for eternity. This is not to glamorize suicide, but to provide comfort in grief. I believe that there is no situation for which suicide is a viable option. Yet, that does not mean that God, in his infinite wisdom and sovereignty, cannot turn tragedy into beauty. As pastors to students that is our job in every situation: point them to Jesus.

You see, these students realized several things about a relationship with Jesus.

  • They realized that Jesus loved them and wanted a relationship with them.
  • They realized that they were sinners…rebels instigating a coup against God.
  • They believed in who Jesus is and what he does and that he is the only one who could pay the penalty for their sin (death on a cross).
  • They gave control of their lives to Jesus.

And because of this they are in heaven with Jesus, right now.

Seminary did a great job of teaching me the content and theology of the bible as well as how to teach it faithfully and accurately. However, one area where I feel that seminary needs improving is in training ministers in ministry. I learned theology in the classrooms and ministry in the trenches. In the last six months I have been increasingly frustrated with this void in seminary instruction. I have come to the conclusion that the reason seminary education lacks a course or even a lecture in counseling people in the wake of a suicide is because it is literally impossible to recreate in a lab/practicum format. I would have gladly given back my degree for some talking points; things to say and not to say, questions to ask and not to ask.

Walking with students. “through the valley of the shadow of death,” I discovered the following and I pray they will help you should the day come in your ministry:

  • Find out if the student (or person) who committed suicide was a believer. More than anything this vital information will determine the direction of your conversation. In my context, fortunately both students were, in fact, believers.
  • Explain to the person you are counseling that Gods grace is sufficient; i.e., it covers all of our past sins, present sins, and future sins once we place our faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. They need to know that the method of death has no bearing on their eternal security.
  • Ask them how they are feeling.
  • Ask them what is going on in their heads.
  • Ask them if they could paint a picture of their heart and mind right now, what would it look like.
  • Ask them to describe the person who committed subside to you in 3 words.
  • Ask them to give you their favorite memory of the person. Then have them give you a second.
  • If they are an introvert, consider that they may prefer one-on-one counseling.
  • Again, if they are an introvert it may be easier for them to express themselves through journaling. Encourage them to journal for the next 24 hours, then meet with them again and discuss what they have written.
  • Learn everything you can about teenage brain development. You can check out a blog I wrote titled: It’s Like TNT or read A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the Teenage Brain.
  • Remind them that everyone grieves at a different pace. And that’s ok. Give them a heads up of what they’ll likely face in the grieving process (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross):

DENIAL. Shock. This didn’t happen. This isn’t real. They’ll walk down the hall any minute.

ANGER. How did this happen?! Who caused this?!

BARGAINING. What if…. Or I’d give “x” to have that person back. Or why not me? Or I should’ve done “y.”

DEPRESSION. Too sad to focus. No hope.

ACCEPTANCE. It’s real. It happened. I won’t forget, but I can get through this.

  • Encourage them to get back into a routine as soon as possible.
  • Do not use the word “successful” in context with the suicide. Rather, use “completed” so as not to glorify the act.
  • Ask them if they are thinking about hurting themselves. Even if they say “no,” probe this for a moment to be sure. If they are thinking of hurting themselves refer them to a professional counselor immediately. Also, see if you can find out their plan and even take possession of the item that they intend on using to take their life.
  • Pray with them.
  • Pray for them.
  • Follow up.

Lastly, some additional resources:

Confronting suicide in student ministry is never easy, but our job does not afford us the luxury of skirting difficult issues.

“We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too.” 1 Thessalonians 2.8 (NLT)

IT’S LIKE TNT

What is the most volatile substance in the world today? TNT (Trinitrotoluene)? Plutonium? North Korea? A teenage girl? The answer is none of these. In fact the answer might surprise you.

brain

Think about it: a raging torrent of hormones and abstract thinking are bombarding a physiologically changing brain like a blitzkrieg. It’s no wonder that the teenage brain is unstable, unpredictable, and volatile.

One of the many reasons I enjoy working with students is that they are always changing. And the most significant change going on in their rapidly growing bodies are not zits, or arm pit hair, or voice changes, or even those pleasant odors that accompany teenage boys going through puberty. The most significant change a student experiences is the one we cannot see: the brain.

If you have ever taken an intro psych class or ad psych class or watched an episode of Criminal Minds then you’ve probably heard of these two guys: Piaget and Erikson.

Piaget is known for defining Concrete vs. Abstract Thinking. Piaget claims that at the onset of puberty students shift from understanding the world in a concrete reality to that of an abstract understanding. Essentially, students begin to think about thinking.

  • They start asking what if and why might that be questions.
  • They begin the process of speculation and utilizing a third person perspective.
  • They ask questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” And the question every adult who works with students dreads: “How can I trust that God is real or that the bible is accurate?” Essentially everything about faith is abstract.

Approaching the same issue from a different angle (See the use of abstract thinking there?). Erikson claims that students are in the life-span stage of Identity vs. Identity Confusion. Beginning around the onset of puberty and lasting until the early twenties students are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit. This is a journey that they must initiate and discover at their own pace. Otherwise they will not feel like they know who they are. The hard part for parenting is not forcing the identity we desire for them on them. You know this kid. In fact, she was probably in some of your college classes. This is the girl who wanted to be an art major or teacher but caved into the pressure to be a pre-med major to take over the family practice some ambiguous day in the future. All the while never liking medicine.

Take for example a former student of mine. One year he wore a Texas A&M t-shirt and hat with Wrangler jeans and ropers (boots). After summer break he comes back dressing like a trendy/goth kid wearing dark clothing, vests, fedora style hats, and a chain wallet. That look lasted a semester and after Christmas break he was dressing differently again. Do you see what he was doing? He was trying to figure out who he was and where he belonged.

This is why so many of my current students play four or more sports per year. They fancy themselves athletes, they’re just trying to figure out are they a football, soccer, or baseball player. What are they the best at?

As if this wasn’t enough we’ve found out exponentially more about the teenage brain in the last 10-12 years than we thought we knew for the last 100 years or more. Let’s take a look at some of the new findings.

Temporal Lobe
The temporal lobe serves as the center for emotional response and interpretation. The temporal lobe is underdeveloped in teens, and significantly underdeveloped in guys. This is why when a teenage couple that is dating get into a fight the girl turns into a sobbing puddle of emotions while the guy gets on Xbox live and plays Call of Duty like nothing happened. It’s not because the guy doesn’t care, in fact he probably does; his ability to interpret and express emotions is not fully developed yet.

Frontal Lobe
Do you want to know why your student frustrates you to no end and leaves you scratching your head? Do you want to know why they do such stupid stuff? Meet the reason for your frustration: the Frontal Lobe, more specifically the Prefrontal Cortex.
The Prefrontal Cortex is responsible for:

  • Decision making
  • Organization
  • Prioritization
  • Focusing
  • Planning
  • Impulse control

Do you feel like your student is deficient in these areas? This could explain several of the stupid things I did in college (ok, so stupid is an understatement).

In relation to this, CNN published an article in October 2012 entitled: Why The Teen Brain Is Drawn To Risk. They concluded:

  • If the risk is unknown teens are more likely to engage in risky behavior.
  • If the risk is known teens are less likely to engage in risky behavior.
  • Teens seem to love the unknown.
  • It’s the opposite of what adults do: if the risks are known teens engage in risk taking less than adults; but if they are unknown teens engage in risk taking more than adults.
  • The more vague the consequence the more likely teens are to engage in risk taking.

Oh, did I mention that we now know the brain is not fully formed at age 6 like previously thought; it actually isn’t fully developed until the age of 25. And yes, this includes the Frontal and Temporal Lobes.

Neural Pathways
Neural pathways are groupings of neurons (brain cells). Now, get this: research has shown that in the 2 years or so leading up to puberty the brain goes into warp speed producing millions of new neurons. Then, when puberty goes into full swing the brain starts to kill off neurons. Weird huh? Here’s why: the brain has a use it or lose process for neurons. The neurons from the parts of the brain that are stimulated or used are kept, while the neurons from the parts of the brain that are not used or stimulated are killed off. This tells us that during the teenage years the brain is crafted and molded for how it will function in adulthood.

I want to leave you with two questions to chew on from Inside the Teenage Brain by Mark Oestreicher:

  • How can I best steward the opportunity I have to permanently shape my teenagers’ brains?
  • And more specifically, how can I best steward the opportunity I have to shape their brains for a lifetime of robust faith?