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YM Out of Mission Community

Youth Ministry Out of Mission Community

Kindred’s own Justin Forbes gave this presentation, titled Youth Ministry out of Mission Community, at the annual Youth Ministry Academy conference in Orlando, Florida. This event was presented in conjunction by the Youth Ministry Institute and the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and was sponsored by Kindred Youth Ministry.

Below the video you can find the transcription, if you prefer to read Justin’s content, as well as images from the presentation.

Justin Forbes:

I know it’s me and then lunch, so let’s get after it…

I believe the real work of youth ministry is to build mission communities around our middle schools and our high schools.

A mission community is a group of people who follow Jesus, love each other well, genuinely care for one another, and then they look around and invite kids to participate in that experience.

This community is defined by their love of God and of one another, but they just can’t help themselves. There is this relentless impulse to go out and invite kids to come in and taste and see this experience. You know this. This is probably your story. You can’t help yourselves you want kids to experience the beauty and the fullness that you know.Youth Ministry out of Mission Community - Kindred Youth Ministry

This mission community is dedicated to practicing with one another the gospel, which they hope to proclaim to kids. They practice it themselves and hope to put in on display for kids.

The community defined by mission becomes in and of itself the medium by which they get to show people the very thing we talk about. Here’s what I mean by that.

Let me talk to you about love – and then let me come over here and show you love. Let me teach you forgiveness – and then I’ll show you what it looks like when the rubber hits the road. It’s hard. But it’s beautiful. Come. Check it out.

Our stories that we tell become embodied, enfleshed, lived out by this community instead of just spoken.

A few years back, I had an experience in youth ministry in a community just like this. I sat about 3 rows back in a mostly empty sanctuary. Everyone else had cleared out, and just in front of me, and a couple seats over, was Cameron’s mother. And just in front of her was Cameron’s empty casket. Cameron was lying there wearing this ridiculous Chicago Bears t-shirt that he would – I mean this guy wore it to school at least once a week and he was buried in his Chicago bears t-shirt. I’ll never forget that.

And he’s lying there and I’m sitting with his mom, eventually sitting next to her, just thinking what in the world just happened? How did we end up here? How is it that I’m sitting in this empty sanctuary with Cameron’s mom and Cameron’s lying in this box?

Just outside in the fellowship hall and scattered across the parking lot were hundreds and hundreds of high school kids and youth ministers the young life volunteers I was there with. We were all shocked by what had happened. Saddened and devastated. Questioning the goodness of God in the midst of such suffering. Our little community of people doing youth ministry together was hurting…badly…and but were there together.

We had known Cameron for almost four years and he had just graduated a few weeks earlier. This was in early June. He had just graduated from high school and Cameron was a wild kid, loved by everyone, especially our group of folks.

He was the first kid to show up, the loudest, most obnoxious, definitely the most inappropriate kid. He was easily one of my favorites. I know we aren’t supposed to have favorites, but I loved this kid. I had a picture of him on my desk for almost all 4 years of high school and had prayed for him often.  There was something about this kid that wanted nothing to do with the gospel, but just kept showing up that drew me to him.

Just a few weeks shy of Cameron’s graduation he walked up to me in the courtyard of Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine and he had this big announcement. He was really excited. He was like, “Justin!” And I’m like, “Yes?” “I’m going to camp!” I’m like, “Ok!”

I think he wanted me to like break out into applause you know, but truth be told, I was really excited because I knew He was about to graduate and we were going to have this amazing experience together. And you know those conversations that take place at camp and I was really excited about getting that uninterrupted time with Cameron.

And so we were super excited and he was thrilled. You know, he said, “I want one more experience as a kid before I have to adult.”  And I was like, “Alright. Let’s do that together.”

But just a few days, just days, before we left for camp, he broke his wrist and decided going to camp with a cast on wouldn’t be any fun. We missed having Cameron at camp, of course camp was great. And as we ended the week and loaded up on the bus and started to come down the mountain, we passed out the cell phones.  And that’s when the buzzing began. Just this relentless buzzing, Text message after text message… voicemails started to land. And then tears and kind of this whimpering started to come from the back of the bus. And this kind of shock hit everyone on the bus together. We had just learned together that Cameron the night before had gone to a party and mixed just too many drugs with just too many drinks and died in the arms of a friend while overdosing.

It hit while we were on the bus together. Cameron’s cousin, Dylan, who I am still friends with, was on the bus. Many of Cameron’s friends were on the bus. And so together, we were learning, oh my gosh, this guy who was right in the middle of our community, died just a few hours ago.

The leaders came up to the front of the bus and began to talk and pray. How are we going to handle this? We are locked in the bus for the next 10 hours, what are we going to do? So we just said lets spread out and just be with kids. We prayed and everyone spread out and it was just a long bus ride home.

When we got back, we invited kids to come to my house and tell stories about Cameron. I invited them to come over and be sad, be happy, to tell stories and laugh, be angry if you need to be angry. Just come and be together.

I said come over around 6 and I told the leader why don’t you come over around 4 and we will get ready. Well, our leaders showed up at 4, spent some time praying together, and we were just kind of say, “Ok, how are we going to handle this?” Probably 20 or 30 kids at least will show up. By 5, not 6, by 5 almost 100 kids were there. And we were overwhelmed, oh my gosh, kids really wanted to wrestle with this. By 6 o’clock there were almost 200 kids there and by 7 the police were there because for over 300 kids had shown up and they were all across the backyard and front yard, every room of my house, up and down the street. They were sad, they were tell stories and laughing, they were crying, they were angry they had questions, it was a beautiful sight. Painful but beautiful, Cameron’s aunt and uncle came, they were there for us in awhile, his sister came, and I cannot believe she showed up. She was so brave.

Justin Forbes - Kindred Youth Ministry

It was truly a sacred time, At the end of the night, around 11 o’clock or so, after the last kid left, I sat on the floor on my living room with about seven other leaders. We were just exhausted, were whooped, and we just looked at each other and wept and cried. It was just an intense night. I’ll never forget seeing there, looking into the eyes of this amazing people who were giving their lives away, to kids who were suffering. I truly love this men and women, we are doing life together, we have played together, worship together, been to the high school together, gone to way more football games and practices together, all of those things we’ve been doing those things.

We’ve been doing life and ministry together, our love for one another was on display, but our love for one another was not just bound up and being just together, it was born out of our shared commitment and calling to the ministry of high school. We were called to one another, yes we were, but called to one another in such a way, that naturally led us to go. And for us to go, meant showing up in High School. You know these type of people, they can walk along side lonely kids, popular kids, wild kids, church kids, whatever kind of kid and they see someone who simply needs to be told how much loved by God.

I’m that kind of person, you are that kind of person, we can’t stand the idea that the kid wouldn’t know that God’s love for them is far greater that their contempt for themselves. I want them to know that God is here, that God is present, that God loves them and Jesus has this really annoying invitation to follow that just don’t go away. This are the kind of people we were been given to be loved and loved by, us we go to the ministry together, this is the community.

This is the kind of community to be called the part of one another, this is what mission community looks like, our little team of people doing youth ministry shared the suffering of all of those kids that night, we shared the suffering of  Cameron’s family that night and at the funeral and for weeks to come. We spoke of God’s presence of love put then we put that story on display through our actions.

This is the work of mission communities. We have to figure out what it means to give our very selves away. And we need each other to figure this out. This is where we wrestle with what it mean for our community to be faithful.

So what kind of stories do mission communities tell? The story that I have shared about Cameron will forever be etched on my mind and heart because of Cameron and the stinking Chicago bears t-shirt and the buzzing on the phone and the 100 of kids spread across the street in our lawn and in our house.

But it will also be in my mind and heart because I experience a rich love and fellowship in my mission community that I really haven’t known before; the depth of suffering took us to a new place. The depth of ministry and love took us to a new place, and redefined how I understood ministry to happen to take place, it spokes to a gospel in a way that no message ever could.

So what kind of stories do your mission communities tell? Here what cracks me up, we know full well that the worst way, (little ironic) for us to teach and for people to learn is to sit back passively and just receive things thrown at them right? To be talked at? Irony… It’s not even like a thing, an educational theory anymore, we know this, we’ve grown, we’ve learned. And yet, the majority of our proclamation we think happens in our messages, in our talks and in our sermons.

So let me ask you this by show of hands… I do want you to show your hands. By show of hands, how many of you have been to church in the last 3 or 4 weeks? Oh good. Ok good. Alright… How many of you can recall the main points of a sermon from 2 weeks ago? A couple of hands… Ok, good… How many of you can recall the scripture passages and the main points of a talk given yesterday here? A couple more… Ok fine, maybe you’re an exception to the rule.

Here’s my point, I was a church going kid, actually just across the street, Presbyterian, Orlando, I grew up here. I was a church going kid as much as possible and I couldn’t tell you one thing, it’s been a few years. But I couldn’t tell you one thing that my youth ministers have said in a talk. But, I remember the other stories that they told. I remember the other stories they told that they told with their lives.

These stories weren’t talks given upfront but these stories were lived out in front of a watching little punk middle school kid named Justin. I was paying attention, I was listening and I was testing the boundaries. These stories were told by Neil and Rich and Kirsten and Matt and Beamer and Grant and a beautiful cloud of witnesses, a whole bunch of folks that walked with us. That walked with me.

Here’s what those stories spoke to me. Here’s what I heard. Justin, you matter. We notice when you’re here. We notice when you’re not here. We care about you. We think you’re gifted. We think you’ve something to offer. You are loved by God and as you follow Jesus, we want to do that with you. Wow!

I look back now and I’m so grateful for this cloud of witnesses to have surrounded me and carried me through such a crazy time of middle school and high school and to tell me those stories.

I’m sitting in a different seat now as a Father. Just last night, the reason I was not here last night, I was at a middle school information meeting. Oh my gosh! Like I saw a friend there and she goes you’ve talked a big game in youth ministry and now you’re in it and I’m like, “Oh no!”

My son is in fifth grade, this guy… A good looking little dude and there’s nothing I want more than for there to be a mission community of people that love each other, that love Jesus and invite him to come along with them. Nothing I want more than that. I would give just about anything for that to be true in his life.

When it comes to the stories we tell in the youth community, the mic is never off. Your proclamation doesn’t end after a short prayer at the end of a talk, in fact, it may have just begun. The stories you tell are not just the talks you give but in fact the stories we tell are found in our lives as we share them with one another and as we share them with kids.

1 Thessalonians 2:8 “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our very lives as well.”

Because we have such a great affection for you, because we care so dearly for you, yes, we share with you the gospel of God, but we share our very lives. We give you ourself. We share the gospel of God, yes — but we give you ourselves.Kindred Youth Ministry - Justin Forbes - 1 Thessolonians 2:8

This is the work of mission communities. We have to figure out what it means to give our very selves away. And we need each other to figure this out. This is where we wrestle with where it mean for our community to be faithful.

Our love for kids will lead us. It will drive us to this conversation. Our dear affection for them, the way we can’t stop thinking about them, the way that you walk through a hallway of a school and you have different eyes to see. You know what I mean by that? You have different eyes. You see things that other people don’t see.

That sort of affection and love will drive us but we have to do the work of figuring out what does it look like to put the rubber on the road here. What does it look like to be present in the lives of these kids we we’ve been called to love and serve? This is the mission side of mission community. Collectively giving ourselves away…

So, back to the empty sanctuary, I’m sitting with Cameron’s mother, and wondering, what in the world is going on? What is happening in this moment? How did I end up here? And I’m praying, asking where God is in the midst of such suffering? But looking back now, I see this beautiful story being told in the mist of this dark experience. There was a great lose and a great sadness, yes. But at the same time a community of people holding faith for those who couldn’t have shown up, they show up when they were present in the mist of doubt and anger and hurt feelings and sadness and they simply offered love. They simply offered their very selves.

Christ was present with  Cameron’s family and with his friends that day and one small but significant piece of evidence to that hope, was the youth ministers and volunteers that it were in the parking lot sitting with kids in their suffering. That small community of believers were faithful to show up, faithful to hope, faithful to be present and that faithfulness was born out of there love, for one another but for God, but also born out of their shared sense of call, their shared sense of mission, their sent-ness. And to be sent that day meant to be showing in a parking lot and being with an angry devastated kid for however long. You know those moments.

The mission community held each other that day. They enabled each other to be faithful and they did that hard work of showing up. What a beautiful story. What a beautiful witness, a story that points to the faithful and present love of God.

Justin Forbes - Kindred Youth Ministry

So for you, and for me, this is our work. We need to be with people who build mission communities. As you consider the middle schools you’ve been given and high school kids that you love so dearly, I beg you to consider teams of people you have called to cultivate in that ministry.

Give yourself to the fellowship of that community, invest the time and energy and doing life together, play, celebrate, rest, do the stuff of life, and then let your proclamation of the good news, flow out of the love that you have for one another. Let the proclamation of good news flow out of the love that the internal community has because together you understand your sentness. Do the hard work of discerning how it is you must give yourselves away, and Do that work in the community.

May we youth ministers build beautiful mission communities, mission communities that are deeply committed to Jesus Christ, deeply committed with each other and deeply committed to our clear sense of call to the kids that we are giving to love. Amen.


About the Author: Justin Forbes

Justin Forbes - Kindred Youth MinistryJustin serves as the director of the Youth Ministry program at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL and has been involved in youth ministry since 1998. He’s also a co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry. His passion is teaching and mentoring youth ministers. Click here to read more about Justin.

Pluralism - a new youth ministry imperative

Pluralism:
A New Youth Ministry Imperative

My relationship with Rabbi Mark inspired me to understand religious pluralism differently and inspired me to make interfaith dialogue and cooperation not just an important part of my career, but also an imperative part of my Christian walk. It is my hope that youth leaders and ministers also begin to see pluralism as a youth ministry imperative.

Pluralism - a New Youth Ministry Imperative - Kindred Youth Ministry

Pluralism takes on different meanings depending on its context, but what I’m referring to here is Religious Pluralism. It often gets confused with unitarianism or universalism, or Unitarian Universalism, or other theological terms. Religious Pluralism, however, is not a theological term; rather, think of it as a social term.

Pluralism ≠ “Diversity”

Religious diversity exists, not just globally, but in the United States in particular. It’s important to remember that the U.S. is not just the most religiously diverse country in the world, it is likely the most religiously diverse country of all time.

So, while understanding that diversity is a fact, pluralism insists that we engage positively across that diversity.

You can contend that diversity is in and of itself valuable—and I would agree with you—but, diversity doesn’t naturally lead us to positive interactions. All sorts of conflict and violence are caused by diversity; or better put, caused by individuals or groups who are unable or ill-equipped to handle difference.

According to Pluralism.org (a resource I would highly recommend),

“…pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.”

Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes, with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.

We don’t have to peer too far into our history to find examples of Christians not only complacently living in isolation from those who are different religiously (or non-religiously), but actively defending the mistreatment (rather, maltreatment) of those who believe differently.

On the flip side, we can also look into our history to find stories of Christians who chose to risk their lives for others, even though they did not profess Christian faith. Surely we want our youth to be the latter.

The Pluralism of Jesus

In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is asked by a lawyer, “What is the greatest commandment.” As you well know, Jesus affirms, “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

If we’re not addressing religious diversity without fear and without defensiveness, then we’re setting the Church up for failure. How do we love people who believe differently than us without patronization, condemnation and judgment? How do we teach our youth to do that?

The lawyer asks in response, “Well then, who is my neighbor?” The lawyer thought he was pulling a fast one on Jesus, but Jesus responded, of course, with a parable. He talks of a man who was robbed on his way to Jericho when he was suddenly robbed, beat up, and left for dead.

Two different religious elite walk by, and neither one stops to help the man. In fact, their religious obligations kept them from doing so. The Levite, being obligated to stay pure, could not touch a person if that person was bleeding or dead. Likewise, the priest would also be prevented from touching and therefore assisting the man.

And so it was a Samaritan—not only a person despised by first-century Jewish people, but also a completely different religion from Jesus—who stopped to help the man. Jesus, in the story of the Good Samaritan, holds up someone of a different religion as a moral superlative.

Not only that, but the parable seems to insist that we refrain from allowing our religious or spiritual obligations and positions to keep us from serving. Even further, the Good Samaritan gives us permission to be inspired by those of a different faith. Yes, those who believe differently from us have a moral compass, even those we are inclined to see as evil or deplorable.

Pluralism Is Imperative

Do we as Christians want a plurality of religions? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Surely, for most of us—youth ministers in particular—what we want is for young people to be in relationship with Jesus. Pluralism may seem in direct conflict with that desire, but I don’t believe it is necessarily, because (for the most part) in order for anyone to be in relationship with Jesus, they must first be in relationship with Christians.

Whether we like it or not, traditional evangelism sometimes does more to harm relationships than build them up; sometimes even ending a relationship before it’s begun. Yes, we are to go out and make disciples of all nations, but we are also supposed to bear witness to the love of God, and guess how we do that?

By being in relationship with others.

Building Relationships

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because 33% of American young people are atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated, and approximately two-thirds of the Earth’s population are not Christian. Interestingly enough, all of this diversity of religious and secular worldviews seems to get a lot of blame for the violence and war on the planet. Given that part of our identity as Christians is to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), then making pluralism part of your ethos as a youth ministry leader seems to be a no-brainer. After all, God has made us the ambassadors for the Prince of Peace (2 Corinthians 5:20). An ambassador’s job is to serve as a go-between, and without pluralism, who would we go between?

Speaking Generously

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because the ninth commandment says not to bear false witness against our neighbor (Exodus 20:16). It is so easy to misunderstand and speak untruthfully about those who believe differently from us when we don’t know them.

Nothing is easier to misunderstand than the belief systems and ideological frameworks of others. Teenagers are curious about the world and the people around them. Inevitably, you will get asked a question about another faith—will you be able to answer in a way that does not bear false witness against another person?

Living Missionally

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because we’re raising up the next generation of pastors, deacons, lay-leaders, bishops, worship leaders, youth leaders, and tithers. The world is a changing place and the question stands for our youth—what does it mean to be a Christian in a religiously diverse world?

Does it mean we should build walls around ourselves, surrounding ourselves only with other Christians? Does it mean participating in interfaith cooperation and interfaith dialogue in order to learn more about our neighbors and to serve our communities alongside them? What does it mean?

Remember Paul’s words about Jesus in Ephesians 2:14—“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Engaging with Pluralism

If we’re not addressing religious diversity without fear and without defensiveness, then we’re setting the Church up for failure. How do we love people who believe differently than us without patronization, condemnation and judgment? How do we teach our youth to do that?

These questions regarding intentional relationships with people of other religious and secular identities are new for the Church in general and youth ministry in particular. So while we may not have the answers, that’s okay—asking the question helps us get the conversation going. Feel free to leave comments below with your thoughts and reflections.


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.
Ministering in the Face of Tragedy

Ministering in the Face of Tragedy: What One Pastor Learned from Pulse

“I hate the man who did this!”

My daughter spoke them early in the morning as we watched the chaos of the Pulse shooting unfold on the local news station in Florida. Over a year later, those words still haunt me.

Ministering in the Face of Tragedy

I am haunted by her words because I knew that we would have to move her past hate. As followers of Jesus, we aren’t allowed to hate even evil men who do evil things. The words haunt me because it was such a natural reaction for her. She simply hated.

Most of all, her words haunted me because I was feeling the same hate. I also hated this man.

I have urged people to love their enemies, as I believe it is the highest good and yet I was seething on my couch with hatred for a man who had done horrendous things in my city to my neighbors.

So we began the long journey of learning not to hate. We prayed. We cried. We preached. We served. We questioned our theology.

We have spent a lot of time reflecting as a family and a ministry over the last year on how we welcome strangers, spend time with those not like us, and love our enemies. It has been hard and painful, but it has also been good.

It Happens Again

Part of me was hoping that the Pulse shooting, just like Sandy Hook before it, would wake us up and we would find a way to move past our cultures obsession with violence. I was hoping we would figure out how to care for those suffering from mental illness or how to have and use weapons responsibly.

And then it happened again. We woke to the news of another mass shooting. The worst in US history, surpassing the Pulse shooting a little over a year alter. Close to 60 people dead and over 500 wounded.

Sandy Hook, to Orlando, to Las Vegas – we are once again witnesses to the capacity humans have for evil.

All we knew is that a man attacked our city and killed our neighbors, and for this we hated.

As ministers of the Gospel, we have the responsibility to walk with our students and parishioners through these moments. We have a responsibility to help our families move toward reconciliation and action in the world. We must lead our people toward the Prince of Peace so that we can live under His rule and reign in a culture that exchanged peace for violence, love for hate.

As a family and a ministry that lives in a city that experienced such violence and served people who lost loved ones in a mass shooting, we stumbled often and have learned a lot along the way. As we have raised our children through the backdrop of terror and led our church through such pain, here are some things we have learned.

1. People respond to tragedy, both near and far, differently… and this is good

After the Pulse shooting, I led a small staff meeting at our church and I picked up on three responses to the tragedy.

Some people wanted to sit and mourn. They just wanted to cry and talk about the lives lost. This was good and right. These moments are appropriate moments to mourn.

Others wanted to take immediate action. They wanted to take water to victims, give blood, pray at hospitals, and more. Again, this was good and right. People needed help immediately and this was an appropriate time and place to meet those needs.

As we walk with our students through this time of pain and confusion, let us speak life into them and let us love those we consider enemies and “the other.”

And still others took the long view. In the midst of the chaos, these people asked big questions like “why?” and “how?” They wanted to talk philosophy, theology, ethics, and politics so they could wrap their minds around what seemed to be meaningless violence. Again, this is a good and appropriate response. These big ideas need to be explored and wrestled with.

As we minister to our students and families in the backdrop of such evil, we will come across all three of these responses and more. It is important to not value one response over another. All of these responses are good, normal, and worth validating. Our responsibility is to honor the value of each response and help each person work through it in ways that are healthy and life giving.

2. People want Jesus

In the wake of the Pulse shooting, I remember a friend asking if we could just be with Jesus. All she wanted was to sit at His feet. So we opened up the book of Matthew and read the Sermon on the Mount. We talked about His teaching, His care for his people, and His ability to calm storms. We prayed and sang songs of praise.We welcomed Jesus into this moment and in His presence we found hope and peace.

As ministers, we cannot overlook the simplicity of this life-changing act. No matter how people are responding to tragedy, all of us need to be with Jesus.

While we sit with our church family and process the evil we have experienced personally or witnessed on the news, make sure we sit with Jesus. Read from the Gospel, open our prayer books and pray corporately, sing songs of lament and praise, and let us be the body of Christ together.

3. People need to be led into peacemaking

After the initial shock and pain grows dull, people continued to ask us what was next. They wanted to engage their community in ways that would move us past hate and anger. They wanted to love their community and bring peace to a community in fear. We spent a lot of time talking and teaching on how to be sent into our communities as agents of peace and love. How to be relational and care for people with no agenda.

We spent our time focusing on two practices that would help us being peace to our community.

First, we developed the practice of speaking life and not death. We refused to use “us versus them” language. We avoided calling people foolish, bigots, and idiots. We tried to transcend the conservative and liberal divide by validating the real emotions and ideas of others and by using the words of Jesus (particularly the Sermon on the Mount).

Where there was fear, we spoke life. Where there was hate, we spoke life. Where there was confusion, we spoke life. Speaking life brought peace and opened honest dialogue in a community that was hurt and scared.

Second, we made an intentional effort to love “the other” and our enemies. We encouraged our Caucasian members to spend time with our minority brothers and sisters. We encouraged straight people to take members of our LGBTQ community out to lunch. We encouraged liberals to hangout with conservatives.

Our approach was to love our enemies and those we deemed “other than us” until enemies and others became brothers and sisters. We called our people to it and then we did it. We spent time in neighborhoods and cafes that we never would have in the past. We took our church members with us and we lived as witness to the kingdom God in these spaces.

As we walk with our students through this time of pain and confusion, let us speak life into them and let us love those we consider enemies and “the other.”

This is a Journey

This started with the story of my daughter and I processing our hate for a man neither of us knew. All we knew is that a man attacked our city and killed our neighbors, and for this we hated.

As we sat on our couch, I knew we couldn’t stay here. We couldn’t sit in our hate. I also knew it would be a journey to move past the initial response to a place of being faithful followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Just as it was a journey for my daughter and I, it was a journey for our church. It has taken us a long time to move through our initial response. We have had to spend much time processing our thoughts and emotions. We have had to spend countless hours in the presence of Jesus as we have cast our fears and doubts upon him. And we have had to commit to being present with people we never imagined as we have attempted to be peacemakers in a hurt community.

Our nation is hurt right now. We have experienced natural disasters that have taken homes and lives. And bringing even more pain, we experienced another mass shooting that is forcing us to reflect on the posture of our culture and question our personal beliefs.

I pray for all of us as we minister in this climate. As we engage a people who are hurt, angry, and defensive may we crate space for a variety of good and important responses. May we journey with people, as they desire to be with Jesus. And by our words and example, may lead people into our communities as ministers of reconciliation serving as peacemakers in a broken and conflicted world.


About the Author: Jeremy Penn

Jeremy PennJeremy Penn is the founder and pastor of The Crowded House Network (www.thecrowdedhouse.net). The Crowded House is a network of missional house churches that serves dechurched and unchurched communities.  Prior to this Jeremy served as a youth and young adult minister at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, FL. He earned an MA in Theological Studies from Talbot School of Theology. He is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary that focuses on The Church and Post-Christendom. Jeremy and his wife, Crystal, have a daughter, Riley, and a son, Phoenix.

“Um, How Do I Pray?”

“Ms. Rachael, may I pray us out?”

I looked at David blankly for a moment, a bit in shock. Never in my year of knowing him had I ever heard him ask to pray. Even more, I’ve never even heard him share any prayer requests. I wasn’t even sure if he believed in God.

Um, How Do I Pray?

I quickly shook off my shock and responded, “Of course! Please, please pray us out. I’ll get us started and you can finish.” So I prayed for some of the prayer requests offered up then handed it over to David.

He paused for a moment, seemingly nervous. He then squeezed my hand, leaned in, and whispered, “Um, how do I pray?”

I looked around the room at the 22 other middle schoolers who, rather than seeming to judge David for his lack of knowledge, seemed to be waiting for the answer. How do we pray?

I work for an Episcopal church, which at its very center is The Book of Common Prayer. It seems as young Episcopalians who have been in church their whole lives, these kids would know without hesitation how to pray. As a person who has been praying for so long, I take for granted my ability to pray. It’s been important for me to remember that I actually had to learn how to do it.

In fact, an important part of my spiritual formation as an adult, has been to learn different ways to pray. 

I was reminded of the story in Luke of the Lord’s prayer in which Jesus’ disciples – those closest to him – asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.”

In fact, an important part of my spiritual formation as an adult, has been to learn different ways to pray.

And so we have the Lord’s prayer, which we mumble off in Church on Sunday mornings or at home. We almost take for granted that Jesus taught us this prayer not as something only to be said verbatim, but as a tool for understanding what prayer is and how to do it.

Teaching Youth About Prayer

With that in mind, I thought I’d offer you the ways in which I have been teaching youth about prayer.

1. Visuals

We are blessed enough to have a whole Youth House. An entire house devoted to the youth of our church. It has all the usual markings of a youth space – a ping-pong table and a pool table. It is always stocked with plenty of snacks and soda. Even with all these youthful fixtures, it felt like something was missing. I finally realized, other than a few crosses flung here and there, there was no real visible sign that this was indeed a sacred space, or a place where as a community we pray together.

So I hung up three peg boards in our gathering room. One for hanging prayers, one for hanging words of gratitude, and one for words of encouragement. On the first wall there are tags in a basket that students can take to write prayers and supplications on. They then hang it from the wall and know that I, or another leader, will pray for those requests that week. The tags stay up as a visible reminder that we are a praying community.

On the second wall, there is a similar basket with blank tags on which students can write words of gratitude. What are they thankful to God for that week? They can write it on a tag and hang it on the wall.

On the third wall there are tags with encouraging scripture verses or quotes from theologians hanging from string. If a student feels they need a word of encouragement for the week, or a friend might need one, they can take one of the tags. My hope is that eventually the room feels like it’s full of prayer not just because we pray in it, but because we can see the prayers for ourselves.

2. Listening for God

I think one of the most valuable things we can teach youth is that God is always speaking to them; that there is always a word from God to be heard.

A few weeks ago, I read the story of Jesus’ baptism to my high school group. I had them close their eyes for a moment and told them to imagine that the words of God to Jesus in the baptism story, were God’s words to them. I said aloud “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.”

I then passed out envelopes and paper and pens and asked them to spread out throughout the youth house and be quiet for 5-10 minutes as they to wrote a letter to themselves from God. I promised I wouldn’t read them, and had them put the letters in sealed envelopes and to address the envelopes to themselves. I then promised to send the letters out in a few months. I told them I’d love for them to get in the practice of sitting and listening for God speak to them – that this in and of itself is a form of prayer.

3. Praying for each other

What does it mean to be a praying community? It means to be together in prayer. Part of the value of youth group is providing a community of peers for our youth. A true community that shares in one another’s joy and sorrows. We share highs and lows at each youth group – but to be in Christian community means that we’re praying for each other’s lows and praising God for each other’s highs.

I share a story with my youth about a time when I was struggling to pray. I couldn’t quite find the words, and was afraid that my prayers wouldn’t be answered. But I had a wonderful community around me lifting me up in prayer and I depended on them saying the words I didn’t have the courage to say.

I told my students I’d like them to be that for each other. I gave them each two pieces of paper and asked them to think of one person they know who needs some prayer – maybe they’re sick or sad. Maybe they’re lonely or have a hard test coming up. Whatever the prayer was, I asked them to write the name or the initials of the person they wanted to pray for and to hang it up on the prayer wall I mentioned earlier. Similarly, I told them to use the other piece of paper to write the name of a person they’d like to thank God for, or to say a word of thanks for something good that’s happened for someone they know and to hang that on the wall.

4. Praying for yourself

Prayer of ExamenSome people feel just fine listing off a list of petitions for God. Other’s feel to self-focused. We’re taught to be humble and to lack self-interest. But the truth is, God wants us to depend on Him; to rest in God and the truth that God will cover our needs. It can be helpful for youth to sit in quiet and examine where they sense a need.

Give them examples to help start this practice. Oftentimes some of our young people haven’t been taught to understand there are needs that aren’t material. In a wealthy community kids sometimes feel they have everything they need – water, food, shelter – what could they possibly ask for?

With this in mind I introduced my high schoolers to St. Ignatius’ Daily Examen. We lit candles, and I dimmed the lights. I had them take a couple of deep breaths and get comfortable, then I walked them through the Examen (this is a good resource if you are unfamiliar with the Examen). I did an abbreviated version which was about 7 minutes long. Then I passed out an Examen guide so they could practice it on their own if they chose.

Have Faith

Sometimes when we think of asking teenagers to pray, there’s some anxiety. Surely a 14-year-old boy can’t sit still long enough to do an Examen exercise. Well, have some faith in your youth. Prayer lightens our burden and yokes us to Christ. It is an essential part of Christian identity. We see Jesus going off to pray all throughout the Gospels. But prayer can be intimidating, so offering your youth tools and most importantly – encouragement is essential when you are the spiritual leader of youth!

What tools have you used to teach your youth about prayer? I would love to read about them in the comments!


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.

Encountering God in the Stories of Others

Mike is the drummer for the praise team at our church. He’s a young guy, a teacher at the local high school, a drum line instructor, and—perhaps most importantly—a drummer in a band that plays venues up and down the Jersey Shore. Mike is cool. And the young people in our youth ministry know he’s cool. They see him drumming on stage just about every Sunday morning, providing the real cool-factor to the otherwise baby-boomer-style praise team.

Encountering God

Heike is the chair of the finance committee at our church. She attends the traditional service where, instead of a praise team, we have a choir and an organ. Heike comes in the church office, usually when no one else is around, to do the books and make sure the church is in a decent financial position. Heike is also cool, but the young people at our church are less likely to know Heike than Mike.

What do Mike and Heike have in common? They hang out in different crowds, they occupy different generations, and they shop at different stores. But both Heike and Mike have had experiences of God. Both have stories to tell about how they’ve been encountered by God. Their stories may be about as different as they are from one another. But both of them have felt, in some way, the mysterious sense that God is present in their lives.

An Approach to Storytelling in Youth Ministry

This summer, in our youth ministry, we invited Heike, Mike, and a bunch of other people in the church—people who usually don’t go to youth group—to come talk about those kinds of experiences. Each week someone new was invited to come in and talk about a time when they experienced God. As we listened to these stories we discovered that different people encounter God in different ways but God is active in each person’s life.

What we also realized is just how rare it is to hear someone actually talk about his or her experience of God. This is probably explained by the fact that, in our rationalistic and secular society, it is increasingly difficult to talk about faith, let alone an encounter with the divine.

One question I asked each person who told of their experience of God was, “how did you know that it was God and not just indigestion?”[1]

The most common answer was, basically, “I don’t know… somehow, I just knew.” And it was remarkable how “ok with it” some people were with not knowing for sure. Mike, for example, just said, “I guess I don’t really know for sure that it is God, it just feels right to think it is.”

How can we expect young people ever to recognize God in their own lives if they’re not confronted by the stories of God in ours?

While many of us are uncomfortable with this kind of answer, the honesty behind it is compelling. And it was especially compelling to the young people in our youth ministry.

One young man in the group said to me afterward, “it’s nice to know that you don’t have to know.” He was relieved to discover that even these adults, these people who were up front talking about encountering God, were as uncertain as he was. The uncertainty these adults confessed made him more comfortable thinking about his own experiences as experiences of God.

Hearing people talk about their experiences of God gave the young people in our youth ministry a new perspective each week. As common as it is to hear a preacher or youth pastor talk about God, it’s rare to actually hear about people’s personal experiences of God. But it’s extremely important that we find ways to do just that, to tell stories of God’s action in our lives.

Mundane Events as Sacred Narratives

The theologian, Eberhard Jungel wrote, “If thinking wants to think God, then it must endeavor to tell stories.”[2]

It is in God’s action in our lived experience that we are met by God, not just in a feeling or a philosophical position.

So it simply won’t do for young people to have only an emotional or rational concept of God in their toolbox. If we really want them to be able to talk about God, they’ve got to be able to talk about their experiences of God.

It is in God’s action in our lived experience that we are met by God, not just in a feeling or a philosophical position.

According to veteran youth worker and practical theologian, Amanda Hontz Drury, “Narrative does more than describe; it also constructs.”[3] Our identities and the ways we carry ourselves in the world are often shaped by these stories.

Whether we tell them as stories of God’s action or we write them off as mundane events or peculiar dramas will profoundly affect the world we live in and how we live in it. As Drury writes, “While articulation may not affect my status before God, it may affect the way I understand God to be at work in my life and subsequently how I respond to God.”[4]

But what if young people never hear others, particularly (though not exclusively) adults, tell those stories? What if young people see Mike at the drums every week but never hear the story of how he feels God’s presence with him while he’s drumming? What if they pass Heike in the hall between services but never hear the story of how God was with her during her childhood?

They’ll likely mistake these sacred encounters for merely ordinary happenings. How can we expect young people ever to recognize God in their own lives if they’re not confronted by the stories of God in ours?

In our youth ministry, we are striving to learn from the Bible… but we also want to learn from Mike and from Heike. We want to learn from one another, to hear one another’s stories of God, so that we can begin to recognize, even in our uncertainty, the mystery of God’s presence in our own lives.

            [1] I stole this question from Kenda Creasy Dean.

            [2] Eberhard Jungel, God as Mystery of the World, p. 303.

            [3] Amanda Hontz Drury, Saying is Believing, p. 25.

            [4] Drury, p. 44.


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

9 Ways to cultivate community

9 Ways to Cultivate Community

Is it possible to have a team that cares deeply for one another, shares life together, encourages and supports each other, and loves each other so well that ministry naturally flows out from within?

That’s a tall order, but one that we should all strive to make a reality amongst the teams we work with.

9 Ways to cultivate community

What if our big goal was that kids, other leaders, church members and the community around us would all say about our teams, “Look at the way they love each other, I want to be a part of that!” Loving our team well, and putting into practice with one another what we’re asking students to do may be the best witness we have to offer!

So, how can we work to cultivate missional community on our team? Here are nine very practical things you can start doing now that will move you and your team in that direction.

1. Share life stories.

Over the course of a month, semester, or year, depending on the size of your team, start off every meeting by giving team members a chance to share their story. Take 15 minutes to do this—ten minutes of sharing followed by five minutes of questions. It’s helpful to set a timer at the nine minute mark so people know to wrap it up soon. Be the first to go to set the standard of how you want people to share.

This will allow everyone on your team to have deeper insight and understanding into one another’s lives. It allows for grace and understanding about choices, actions, and motivations that team members bring to the table.

2. Get away together for an overnight.

Just do this. Spending time doing an overnight retreat can dramatically strengthen a team. The best parts are the unscheduled, late-night conversations. Plan some time to celebrate what God has done or is doing in your ministry. Play a game or two, or make up a new team tradition like a corn-hole tournament or whiffle ball game.

A team that can play together will grow deeper as a missional community. Plan some time for strategizing and planning the year together as well, of course…

Loving our team well, and putting into practice with one another what we’re asking students to do may be the best witness we have to offer!

3. Have them over for a meal.

There’s real power in breaking bread together. Great conversations happen around a table. Practice hospitality when you do this and show your team what it means to invite people into your life. Break out the good dishes, prepare some good food, and go all out to make it a great time together.

4. Start every meeting with five minutes of silent, centering prayer.

This is a great way to practice praying together. For starters it allows you and your teammates to be more present in the meeting by letting go of all the distractions and things you’ve had on your minds leading up to the meeting. It also reminds you all that you’re God’s beloved, chosen and called according to His purposes, and teaches you to listen for His one voice to speak to all of you collectively. I’ve found that even in silence God draws us together as one in Him, sometimes moreso than when we’re speaking.

5. Encourage one another on a regular basis in your team meetings.

Every couple meetings, take five minutes towards the beginning of the meeting and ask team members to share ways they’ve seen God at work in and through one another. Doing this will help to cultivate a culture of encouragement and gratitude on your team. Team members will be empowered and uplifted as this becomes a regular practice. Encourage team members to do this outside of meetings as well.

6. Read The Following Article Together

Read Henri Nouwen’s article, “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry,” together and discuss it as a team.

This short article outlines a template for how ministry should naturally flow, starting with our internal, loving union with Jesus. Through our solitude with Jesus we should be naturally driven to long for and move towards community and fellowship with others. Out of community and fellowship, ministry should naturally flow. Read this together and teach your team to live in this way!

7. Start and end every meeting by circling up and holding hands or grabbing a shoulder in prayer.

Our physical posture points to and represents what we want to simulate or create internally or emotionally. If we are physically joined together this will help us think of ourselves as one unit, one body, working together. I’ve done this with groups of as few as three or four, and with groups of as many as 150—it’s always a powerful picture of what we are really after. It’s so simple, just make it a point and give it a try!

8. Lead in transparency and vulnerability.

Have time in your team meetings to share what’s happening in your lives and lead that off by being honest, transparent, and vulnerable about real struggles and joys that you are experiencing. Invite your teammates into the realities of your life and ask them to do the same. We are after authentic relationships and authentic ministry. You have to lead this with your team to make it okay for others to do the same. Create a space that welcomes vulnerability and honesty.

9. Have a giant late-night nacho party after an event!

Cover a table with nacho chips and pile on the cheese and toppings, then invite your team to share stories, laugh, and play games as you try to take down the whole table of nachos. Be creative and create fun memories of warmth, hospitality, and authentic friendship.

Summary

These are nine practical things you can start doing today! Go try at least one of these ideas and see how God brings your team together so ministry can naturally flow out of community. Add a comment to the section below about your experience with one of these nine tips! Also, we’d love to start a dialogue below about other ways you’ve cultivated community. Let these nine tips be just a starting point for a conversation and add your own ideas to the comments section below. Let’s see how many ideas we can come up with collectively to spur on missional community for the Kingdom!


About the Author: Zach Gurick

Zach Gurick

Zach started in youth ministry in 2001 and has developed ministries for middle school, high school, and college aged students in cities throughout the state of Florida. He’s also the co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry. He loves to study theology, leadership development, and is especially interested in spiritual formation. Click here to read more about Zach.

Becoming Communities of Reconciliation

BECOMING COMMUNITIES OF RECONCILIATION:
NOT ANOTHER ARTICLE ABOUT THE BROKENNESS OF AMERICA

There have been plenty of articles, memes, and social media posts detailing the fractured culture we in the United States find ourselves in. The reality is that the state of culture hasn’t changed much. It has always been fractured.

Becoming Communities of Reconciliation

Racism has always been inherent in our systems of power and in the lives of individuals.

Sexism and misogyny have always been present in boardrooms and bedrooms.

Fear of the liberal agendas and hate for conservative agendas are part of our culture’s fabric.

We are a nation fueled by antagonism and violence. It is who we are.

The major change is that these realties are erupting on our TV sets, and in our cities, neighborhoods, homes, and churches.

The fractured culture is front and center. What was once talked about in hushed tones and behind closed doors is now shouted from every news agency, political voice, and person with a smart phone.

Conflict as Opportunity

It is impossible to keep such conflict out of our churches and our youth ministries. Churches are made up of people who come from a plethora of backgrounds and beliefs. When these people gather in sacred spaces, the chance of conflict because of these differences is high.

One approach to coming conflict is to simply avoid it and not allow for it to be expressed in our faith communities. This is an awful idea. It actually works against the way of Jesus.

Jesus calls us to confess to one another, to carry each other’s burdens, to reconcile with one another, and to bring truth into light.

Submitting to these practices will naturally bring these conflicts to light.

As followers of Jesus and minsters of the Gospel we are to be peacemakers and actively seek reconciliation in our communities of faith.

Because of this we must begin to look at this time of great conflict and anger in our culture as an opportunity for reconciliation. David Fitch rightly notes that times of disagreement and conflict “are opportunities for the kingdom to break in and change the world.”[1]

Youth Ministers and Youth Ministries Have a Responsibility

As agents and ministers of reconciliation, we cannot run from our responsibility to open space for healing, truth, and forgiveness to be experienced. As followers of Jesus and minsters of the Gospel we are to be peacemakers and actively seek reconciliation in our communities of faith.

Our students are rapidly developing their sense of justice and morality. They are learning how to live in right relationship with God and others. They are also soaking up cultural norms and modes of dialogue.

We have a responsibility to help shape this process and to reconcile broken relationships due to ideological differences as our students move through these pivotal developmental moments.

Four Practices for Reconciling

As we work toward forming reconciling communities, we must begin to develop practices that will help ensure we are moving from antagonism toward reconciliation. Preaching a great sermon on unity or reconciliation is necessary, but we also need repeatable disciplines as our communities develop.

1. Cultural Exegesis

There are dozens of issues and tragedies that our students and churches can be divided over. Race relations, political positions, immigration issues, the use of violent force, LGBTQ+ rights, and more.

Part of our role as ministers of reconciliation is to exegete our specific culture and community. We do this by asking questions like these:

  • What antagonisms are dominating my students’ lives?
  • What are people talking about at Starbucks?
  • What images and headlines are on my local paper’s front page
  • What are my students responding to on social media?

As we are asking ourselves these kinds of questions, we also remain present in the lives of our students so we can discern what God is doing. From this location we can begin to identify areas of conflict and unrest in our students and the church.

2. Open Dialogue

Most of our students are not jumping into healthy discussions around these difficult issues. The usual approaches are to post behind the safety social media or send texts to like-minded individuals.

Very few adults, let alone students, have the maturity to have open and honest dialogue when conflict is guaranteed to present itself.

As leaders of our ministries, we must create environments to have these difficult conversations. We must tackle them straight on. If your community struggles with racism, have a round table discussion about God’s design for a diverse humanity.

Be prepared for disagreement, and be prepared to steer conversations toward mutual understanding, conviction and repentance when necessary, and forgiveness and grace always. This approach leads students toward inner processing and self-discovery.

3. Submitting to the Other

A difficult practice that we should begin to model and encourage our students to follow is submitting to the other. You and I also hold strong beliefs about many difficult issues. Part of being a mature adult, and a mature Christian, is realizing that others disagree and often have good reasons and/or life experiences that drive them to opposing views.

Learning to submit ourselves to the experiences of others does not require us to abandon our own deep convictions. Rather, it recognizes the other as fully human, intelligent, and worthy of respect.

Simple statements such as, “I see truth and goodness in what you are proposing” or “I can see how that experience has influenced your beliefs” gives dignity to those we strongly disagree with.

As we do this in our own lives, we can begin to lead our students in similar practices. We can ask our students carefully consider another person’s view. Not necessarily to change one’s mind, but to better know and be known by others. In submitting to others in this way, we open the possibility of understanding and peacemaking.

4. Sharing Meals

It is exceptionally difficult to remain in conflict with one another when tacos are on the table. If you are working with young adults, swap out the tacos and share a beer or good bourbon.

In a culture driven by antagonism and violence, we must become people of the table.

As we dive into these necessary conversations, the practice of meal sharing will stir-up moments for reconciliation. Around the shared table we are reminded of the Eucharist – where people of all walks life and persuasions share the body and blood of Jesus.

Around the table we can discern God’s activity in the hearts and minds of our students. We can help usher in moments of forgiveness and grace.

In a culture driven by antagonism and violence, we must become people of the table.

Knowing our Community

It is our job as youth pastors to know our faith community. We must know our students and the culture they are navigating. We must be present in their lives to know how they feel on pressing cultural issues and how their families, schools, and neighborhood are shaping them.

With this relational knowledge, we must begin the long process of reconciliation within our churches. While differences on theological issues, political issues, and relational issues will remain, they need not be points of division.

By patiently walking our students through various practices and with much prayer, we can usher in the grace necessary for relationships to be reconciled and our communities can more accurately reflect the fellowship of diversity that is the Kingdom of God.

[1] David Fitch, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 78.


About the Author: Jeremy Penn

Jeremy PennJeremy Penn is the founder and pastor of The Crowded House Network (www.thecrowdedhouse.net). The Crowded House is a network of missional house churches that serves dechurched and unchurched communities.  Prior to this Jeremy served as a youth and young adult minister at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, FL. He earned an MA in Theological Studies from Talbot School of Theology. He is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary that focuses on The Church and Post-Christendom. Jeremy and his wife, Crystal, have a daughter, Riley, and a son, Phoenix.

Ministering out of Community - Les Comee

Video: Ministering Out of Community

Youth Ministry veteran, Les Comee, teaches about how we practice Youth Ministry out of a place of community. This interview took place after Les’ presentation at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.

Excerpts:


Community

“Jesus begins with calling a group of people – instead of being alone.”

“‘Encourage – stand beside’ God’s people will know they’re saved when there are people standing beside them… Salvation equals community standing with each other.”

“Kids AND leaders want to belong.”

“We’re going to get together, and we’re going to eat, we’re going to enjoy food, we’re going to enjoy each other, and then we are going to share our lives… if you’re going to have a community or a real team – somebody has to hear the call of God and articulate this is what God wants us to do.”

Ministering out of Community - Les Comee

“We learn about community or team from our first community – our family.”

Les’ Childhood Family Rules 😉

  • If you have a problem in your life, there’s only one answer – you just work harder.
  • You never ask anyone else for help, you did it on your own
  • All boys in the family have to eat their peas.
  • If anybody needed a place to stay, our house was always open.

Community begins with the call. Jesus says to the disciples – come follow me. Pretty simple. My wife said let’s eat together and lets share our lives… Community begins with the call. Community continues with people standing beside each other. The community decides how they are going to do that. Not just the leader, but the community decides this is what that is going to look like…”

Community begins with the call. Jesus says to the disciples – come follow me.

Slowing Down

“We got this group of people and I still remember our first meeting when someone really listened to me. I thought – wow! What else I found out was as I listened that there were a lot of volunteers that were just about as tired as I was. And we needed to listen to each other and we needed to figure out how are we going to do this so that everybody isn’t burned out, tired, exhausted all the time. You know what amazing thing they came up with? We’re going to start playing with the kids. We’ll take them to the beach. We’ll jog with them. We’ll do all the stuff we like to do, but we’ll do it with the kids!”

What else I found out was as I listened that there were a lot of volunteers that were just about as tired as I was.

“Our problem as leaders (and I’m quoting Mike Yaconelli) our problem wasn’t sin, our problem was speed. We were going all the time. And we weren’t slowing up. And we weren’t listening. We weren’t paying attention to God. We were performing.”

“The Hebrew word for breath is the same word for Spirit – Ruah. So when you take a deep breath, you are breathing in God’s Spirit, God’s life. You’re having a mini sabbath, you’re renewing yourself. I know that’s true and I don’t do it enough.”

“Your team needs to learn how together to slow up, listen to the Lord, depend on God, play, relax.”

Conflict

“If you are going to be in a real community, you are going to have conflicts. You are going to have different expectations, different hopes, different dreams, people are not going to come through for you… so you are going to have to learn how to deal with conflict.”

“If you’re going to help you team grow, or help your kids grow, speaking the truth in love makes a huge amount of difference.”

If you are going to be in a real community, you are going to have conflicts. You are going to have different expectations, different hopes, different dreams, people are not going to come through for you… so you are going to have to learn how to deal with conflict.

“Then, you walk with them, and walk with them, and walk with them, while they deal with what you said. And you ask them how they are doing with what you said. It’s not a one time ‘speak the truth in love’.”

“‘Speak the truth in love’ then you walk and walk and care and talk and listen. That’s how kids grow. That’s how your leaders grow. You shoot straight with them.”

“Transformation is a part of a process and you are a part of a process.”

Ministering out of Community - Les Comee

VIDEO: Ministering Out of Community – Interview with Lester Comee

In this video, our own Zach Gurick talks to Youth Ministry veteran, Les Comee, about how we practice youth ministry out of a place of community.

This interview took place after Les’ presentation at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.

Transcript:

Zach Gurick: So we are sitting here at the Flagler Youth Forum, with Lester Comee. He is a legend in youth ministry because, you have been doing it for so long and you have influenced and impacted so many lives in the last 47-48 years that you’ve been walking with youth, standing beside them and you have just spoke about mission community and doing ministry out of a sense of community. So rather than having a team where you’re just focused on pushing them out to perform, reach more kids, grow, do more, you’re saying- we need to share life together. We need break bread together, have a meal together, focus more…

Lester: …many meals together.

Zach: And out of that ministry natural flows, we go out in this community together, we go, enter into kids lives together. And a lot of time we are going to need each other. So we talked about, Ruah –the breath of God and being reminded of being renewed with every breath that we take and helping our volunteers especially our leaders that we work with, to so slow down, to take a Sabbath, to take rest, to play together. And the other thing that really came out was, when you have this sort of community, this team, there is going to be a lot of conflict and so maybe tell us a little bit about how you work with that on your own leadership and in your life.

Ministering out of Community - Les Comee

Lester: One of the things I have talked about in the seminar, Zach, was, in my family growing up, we didn’t learn how to deal with conflict, so here I am in the leadership position and they’re all people like me broken, hurting, lonely. And so we’re bumping heads with each other all the time, without skills. We maybe have a theology out of Matthew 18 says ‘Care for one another, talk to one another, one at a time, two at a time’ but we don’t know how to do that, so we talked for a little while in the time about dealing with conflict, and who can help us deal with conflict.

So, rather than having a team where you’re just focused on pushing them out to perform, reach more kids, grow, do more, you’re saying- we need to share life together…

I went to a couple of people that were my mentors and just watched them and then asked them ‘how do you deal with conflict?’ Cuz’ that’s different. I had to learn, I have to learn all those skills to help work with the community. And you read in “Life Together” about community and Bonhoeffer is very honest about people not getting along. Cause’ we don’t. And we’ve had pro’s come in when I didn’t know what to do. I go online on Youtube and look for conflict, what is Brene Brown had to say about conflict? And actually she, for some National Management forum, has some incredible stories, that’s great stuff on YouTube. You just do a little research, but the hard thing is spending the time to take it into yourself. And how’s it been for you learning how to deal with conflict? – I’m dead serious.

We maybe have a theology out of Matthew 18, it says ‘Care for one another, talk to one another, one at a time, two at a time’ but we don’t know how to do that…

Zach: That is a struggle of mine as well and I feel similar (you and me brother). I would much rather avoid, deny, run away from conflict and so it’s a lot of internal work for me to really shoot, shoot straight for someone. A classic two on enneagram, a classic people pleaser. I don’t want to upset anybody, so having those hard conversations is so challenging. Something that, I see as I grow and as I’m transformed then, I’m able to lead others in that much better. So you mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer for life together, Brene Brown fantastic resources, you mentioned Bill Hybels…

Lester: … Intervarsity has numerous books on building a team that deals with all kind of stuff and conflict is one of them. I don’t remember the titles, but a lot of Intervarsity books on that. But as much as anything ,it’s finding somebody who can help you understand who Zach is, or who Les is, as a denier or as a run from person and then how do we deal with that? How do we work with that, it’s a slow process, for sure.

Zach: Yeah! Well thanks a lot for sharing with us today and thanks for continuing to pouring into the lives of young people.

Lester: Thank you Zach.

youth, volunteer hours, and social media

Youth, Volunteer Hours, and Social Media: A Service Conundrum

Finding a Safe House

In 2015, my husband and I found ourselves briefly living in Ronald McDonald House. The previous nine months had been riddled with anxiety as I visited specialists two or three times a week throughout my pregnancy. After a series of complications and tests, doctors were preparing us for the worst.

youth, volunteer hours, & social media

In September, however, my beautiful baby boy was born with an unexpected capacity to breathe on his own. After a minor surgery, they monitored him in the NICU. They couldn’t tell us how long we would be there while they gave him medical attention—a couple of days? A couple of weeks? Probably more like several months. And so, we found ourselves living away from our daughter, in Ronald McDonald House, trying to keep it together. This was the hardest time in my life. I was fatigued, depressed and on edge.

Ronald McDonald House was a safe house for my husband and me in many ways. Without it I’m not sure how we would have managed. The staff was immensely supportive and it really felt like our home away from home. We spent most of our day at the NICU, being with our son. When we came back to Ronald McDonald it was usually for meals. Daily, folks donated dinner to Ronald McDonald House. It was usually pizza or sandwiches.

Service with Strings Attached

On one particular day, we arrived in the kitchen to find an entire Moe’s buffet complete with queso. We were beyond excited—in times like this, the littlest thing is worth celebrating. As we made our way into the kitchen, however, we noticed that there was a group of six or seven people we didn’t recognize standing around with name tags. It became clear that a department from a local corporation had donated the food and had decided to stick around. We tried to smile politely while making our way to the food—but as we sat down, we were joined by one of the visitors.

Dinner was usually our time to check-in with one another as husband and wife, to make plans for the next day—should we ask one of our parents to bring our daughter up for a visit?—and to make crude and inappropriate jokes (when we’re in survival mode, we revert to humor neither of us are proud of). But this particular evening, dinner was a time to answer a stranger’s list of inquiries about our son. Things that were so raw and sensitive for me, that it was painful to discuss with a stranger (add in post-partum hormones and you have yourself all sorts of fun). She was well-meaning, and I knew that, but remember that Ronald McDonald House was our home. Imagine a stranger walking into your home, sitting down at your dining room table, and asking a long list of personal questions. And because she had volunteered her time and money, we felt obligated to answer. It felt, well—icky.

A Service Conundrum

It’s been nearly two years since that experience, and Friday night I found myself with a group of seven middle and high school students from my youth group preparing and serving dinner to folks experiencing homelessness. We do this on a monthly basis and every time I’m asked to be sure to take photos either for social media or for school projects—and I always feel… stuck.

The clients congregate in a room outside of the kitchen at the shelter. There is a large opening that serves as a window into the kitchen. This is where clients line up for their meal, and as we cook the meal, we can be seen. As the kids prepare the food and I meander around the kitchen interacting with them and supervising them, every time I think about lifting up my phone to take a picture, I notice our guests on the other side of the barrier, and I stop myself. In many ways, this, at least for the day, is their home—their safe place, their refuge. Just like Ronald McDonald House was mine. This shelter is their place to stay warm or to cool down, depending on the time of year. A place to get a meal or get a shower. A place to be in community with people going through something similar. For many of them, this is the hardest, lowest, darkest time of their life.

Obligatory Service

Something about taking a picture of a 15-year-old kid who skipped his golf lesson to come serve dinner, or the 17-year-old kid who is adding up her service hours for graduation, feels like I’m trivializing the experiences of those we are there to serve. It feels dehumanizing in many ways—and isn’t the point of serving this population to add dignity to their lives? Not take it away even more?

At this particular shelter, after dinner is done, there are always two clients who are responsible for cleaning the floors and taking care of the trash in the kitchen. While we finish up dishes and do some cleaning up, those on duty come in to start taking care of their responsibilities. On this particular night, as we’re wrapping up the evening, three or four kids come up to me to ask me to sign for their volunteer hours… in front of people we just served. For the person mopping the floor nearby, this night is about surviving; for the kid two feet away, it is about an obligation.

And so I struggle. What is a youth minister to do? Not sign for volunteer hours? Refuse to take pictures?

For the person mopping the floor nearby, this night is about surviving; for the kid two feet away, it is about an obligation.

When Service Becomes about Us

Especially during Lent, I am reminded of the passage from Matthew, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (6:1).”

Is turning in service hours practicing your righteousness in front of others? What about sharing a photo on social media of smiling kids prepping some food? On the one hand, these photos are a handy tool for engaging parents and parishioners from the church in what the youth are doing. On the other hand, it feels, well—icky. Further, allowing kids to participate in service projects for the youth group so that they can turn in their required service hours for school and other programs is a great way to pull kids into what you’re doing. On the other hand, it feels, well—icky.

Is turning in service hours practicing your righteousness in front of others? What about sharing a photo on social media of smiling kids prepping some food?

Living as Disciples

Don’t get me wrong—providing opportunities for our youth to serve their community is essential to their spiritual development. I want to know how we can provide these experiences for our youth so that they’re truly living out their lives as disciples, while adding dignity to the lives of others instead of taking it away.

How do you keep this balance? I don’t have any answers; at least not yet, but let’s get a conversation going and maybe we can come up with some helpful solutions together!


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.