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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.

13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why:
A Youth Ministry Response

It was an average youth group meeting, plates with pizza crust were strewn across the floor, kids were loud and chattering, sneaking peeks at their cell phones. I overheard a group of girls gushing about “13 Reasons Why,” a show I had briefly, though with curiosity, scrolled past on my Netflix account.

After listening to them rave, it was clear to me that “13 Reasons Why” was the next “binge watch” fad. So in an effort to connect more with my kids, I decided to give it a watch.

13 Reasons Why

Disappointment

I was disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed because it was yet another adolescent show that played into the teenage television trope of high school melodrama, sexual tension, jocks and loners, and forays in drinking and snogging. I expected all of those things (and, let’s be real, even adults still maintain a fascination with teenage culture. My own teen years were filled with “My So Called Life” viewings and Nirvana blaring through headphones. And I still own, and wear on the regular, a pair of original black Doc Marten boots).

No, I was disappointed by just how much this show got suicide so wrong.

“Everyone is just so nice, until they drive you to kill yourself,” is one of many definitive statements made by Clay, the 17 year old protagonist in the series. “13 Reasons Why” is a story about Hannah Baker, the new kid in school, who takes her own life and leaves behind a recording of 13 tapes detailing the people and events that drove her to her death. The story follows Clay as he deals and interacts with the people mentioned in these tapes.

I was disappointed by just how much this show got suicide so wrong.

But the show isn’t really about Clay. It’s about Hannah. And its entire plot structure is about unraveling the mystery of the why of her suicide. When that’s the premise of your plot, you better do your due diligence in getting it right.

But the show is almost assuredly more harmful in its message than helpful. The series presents Hannah’s death as the product of cyber bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of victimization, all perpetuated by her own classmates.

There is no mention of mental illness.

This leaves the viewer with, as my students told me verbatim, the “lesson that we should be kind to one another and not bully each other.” Because it is, as depicted very obviously in the show, bullying and harassment that drive young people to commit suicide.

Every 17 Minutes

13 Reasons WhyEvery 17 minutes in America, someone commits suicide, and it is more often than not a young person, a kid (it is the second leading cause of death for older adolescents). In 1995, for example, more young people died of suicide than of AIDS, cancer, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, birth defects, and heart disease combined. And that rate has steadily gone up over the past decade — 260 percent in the last 30 years.

We are so uncomfortable and afraid of this epidemic, however, that oftentimes we cling to our misguided belief that it is mostly the kids who “have a rough time” and are victims of their peers’ harassment and alienation that are the ones who kill themselves.

Narratives like “13 Reasons Why” play into that misguided belief, leading my students (even after the advent of brain imaging, the new research in genetics, and the impressive gain of scientific understanding regarding the organic brain disorders that cause mental illness) to parrot “if we would only be kind, we can help people. We can save lives.”

Which, the flip side of this statement is, of course, (and Clay claims this as much in the series) that “we all killed Hannah Baker.” We are somehow responsible for another’s suicide. Survivor’s guilt, experienced by the people impacted by the suicide of their loved one, is one of the most unfortunate consequences of this widespread tragedy.

The Myth

Kay Redfield Jamison, author of Night Falls Fast, and a psychiatrist who herself suffers from Bipolar disorder, perfectly and succinctly sums up just how untrue this popular myth of “be kind and save lives” is.

Jamison recounts her own suicide attempt, explaining how her disrupted thought was equally as disrupted as her mood: ”No amount of love from or for other people — and there was a lot — could help. No advantage of a caring family and fabulous job was enough to overcome the pain and hopelessness I felt; no passionate or romantic love, however strong, could make a difference. Nothing alive and warm could make its way in through my carapace. I knew my life to be a shambles and I believed — incontestably — that my family, friends and patients would be better off without me. There wasn’t much of me left anymore, anyway, and I thought my death would free up the wasted energies and well-meant efforts that were being wasted in my behalf.

What Now?

If the answer is not as simple as “be nice,” then what can we church volunteers and pastors, who work specifically with young people, do to help? What can a Christian community offer that is unique from school assemblies and public service announcements?

For starters, the church can be a resource, connecting people with trusted mental health professionals.

But on a more theological level, Christianity has long been familiar with “the dark night of the soul.” In the traditions of the church, the liturgy of the worship service, and the verses of lament within the pages of scripture, Christianity offers a unique voice to those who are suffering from mental health conditions and despair.

The Gospel compels us to seek out those who are hurting, and to provide not just empty niceties or small acts of kindness but, rather, a community, a consistent group of people who live in relationship with the sick.

Not only does our Christian faith have a long and intimate relationship with suffering, thereby helping us to be more comfortable with hard stigmatizing topics, but our faith also places suffering in a larger redemptive narrative. It’s a narrative that tells us that suffering does not have the last word. The protagonist in our story, Jesus Christ, does not depart from us after his prayers at Gethsemane or his cries on the cross. Our savior departs from us after he has resurrected and defeated death, heralding a new season of advent, of waiting for the reconciliation of all things.

Jesus also teaches us how to behave toward those who are suffering, who are on the margins, who are sick, who are alienated. The Gospel compels us to seek out those who are hurting, and to provide not just empty niceties or small acts of kindness but, rather, a community, a consistent group of people who live in relationship with the sick.

“13 Reasons Why” is good entertainment for some. It resonates with the angst of kids trying to grow up in an increasingly complex world of mass text messaging, video capability in the palm of your hand, and split second social media posting.

But it gets the why wrong.

And so, may we be ministers of the right why, which will then powerfully enable us to be committed disciples of the right how. The right how of being a resurrected people reaching out to a dark and hurting world…in a well informed way.


About the Author: Megan Cullip

MeganMegan Cullip currently serves as a youth minister in Connecticut. Her first call in ministry was as a chaplain at a state psychiatric hospital. She is also a trained substance abuse counselor. Megan loves music, cheeseburgers, deep conversation, laughing with friends, and hikes in the woods. Her favorite theologian is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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.

The Pain We Carry

The Pain We Carry:
7 Strategies for Supporting Hurting Teens

Kids, Concrete, and Care

Ten years ago, while on church staff, I helped to initiate and co-lead a $4 million building program to build a state of the art youth ministry wing. One of the key aspects of the final design was a stained concrete floor.

Once the building construction was underway, I eagerly anticipated the day when the concrete floor would finally receive that deep mocha stain. Painters initially arrived with sand blasters and not paint rollers. For the next two full days they blasted every square inch of concrete.

The Pain We Carry

When a surface is placed under that kind of dynamic intensity it becomes unbelievably porous. Whatever is poured onto the surface of the concrete sinks in and fuses deeply.

Let’s play with this metaphor for a minute.

Humans are incredibly porous. We have a dynamic capacity for absorbing the hurt and trauma of others.  When we enter into the mix with hurting teenagers and their families who have experienced trauma, we can expect to carry it with us.

Being needed is very seductive. Don’t be fooled by an abyss of opportunity to respond to hurting people in crisis. It is not your job to fulfill every need.

The more intense and enduring the trauma we enter into, the more deeply we can expect it to sink into us.

If we are not careful we can get awfully lost in the trauma of those we seek to serve. Their trauma can quickly become our trauma.

I would like to suggest 7 strategies that have been helpful as my wife and I have walked with deeply hurting individuals for the last 20 years together.

Strategy #1: Show Up

There really is no need to think through helpful strategies for entering into human pain if you are not actually showing up in the life of someone who is hurting.

When you show up, be fully there. Enter into the messiness.

Practice the lost art of listening. Sit down. Relax. Breathe in deeply. Breathe out slowly. Lean in with an open posture. Make eye contact and reflect back what you hear and understand people are sharing with you.

So, be gentle. Be warm. Be curious. Be near. But be there.

Strategy #2: Move Slowly

When you orient your life toward those who are stuck in pain, move in slowly. More than likely, trust has been compromised in the life of the hurting individual. We honor their pain well by not spooking them by need to be needed.

Ease into relationships with hurting people at a pace that your own life can handle. There will be moments of overwhelm when we overestimate our capacity. We are served well when we pay attention to those feelings and make adjustments accordingly.

Don’t over-program. It’s easy to sell your soul to the devil of busyness.  Hurting people need men and women who are grounded.

“Slow” is the only way forward.

Strategy #3: Practice Saying NO

Believe it or not, it’s not cruel to tell someone NO. In fact, it may be the most loving thing they have ever been offered when it flows from a healthy heart.

Strategy #4: Don’t Go Alone

Build an infrastructure of others who will help you discern when to say NO. Invite people in around you who care more about your flourishing than what you can produce.

Cultivate a network of highly specialized clinicians skilled at entering into trauma in an ethical and competent manner. Ask other therapists who they respect in this arena.

Read. There is a wealth of wisdom available now in the area of trauma. We’ve learned so much about how the body heals. Adopt a spirit of teachability and receptivity in this area. Don’t just externalize it. Allow it to form you as well.

Strategy #5: Take Self-Care Seriously

Self-care is not selfish. It’s good stewardship. If you destroy your “self” then you really have nothing to offer.

Before jumping into the hurt of another, be willing to dive into your own. Meet with a counselor. Have lunch with a spiritual director. Seek out silent spaces for quiet reflection. Go on a soul care retreat. Hang out with monks. Incorporate play. Live!

Strategy #6: Cultivate Healthy Boundaries

Being needed is very seductive. Don’t be fooled by an abyss of opportunity to respond to hurting people in crisis. It is not your job to fulfill every need.

My brother in law says, “You have to teach people how to treat you.” My therapist told me, “No one will value your time more than you.”

Become unavailable to need. Practice sabbath keeping. Isn’t it interesting that of all the commandments God handed down to us, “Remember the Sabbath” is the only one that includes the word “remember”? God knew we would ignore this one.

Strategy #7: Prepare Yourself for Feelings of Inadequacy

It is inevitable that you are signing up for intense feelings of inadequacy. You will let people down. Accept that you can’t fix it. It simply comes with the territory of working with hurting and wounded people…which could be you or me on any given day.

We Are Called to Deal with Pain

As caregivers, we need to be surrounded by a healthy community of wise men and women who are not so impressed by us that they forfeit concern for the well being of our souls.

Over the course of the last twenty years, kindred friendships have sustained us as we have entered into the depths of pain with students and their families. Sometimes these friendships have cheered us on as we have taken those necessary risks to really be there with kids. Other times those same friends have confronted us to let go of our need to be there.

The reality is that “being there” and “not being there” are both really hard. Lingering in pain or leaving pain is the tension that we live in as those called to care for others.

Who are a handful of people who really know you and care for YOU more than your work?


About the Author: Hayne Steen

Hayne Steen - Kindred Youth MinistryHayne Steen is the Director of Counseling and Care at The SoulCare Project as well as a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice with Elbow Tree Christian Counseling. Hayne grew up on surfing on the northeast Florida coast where met his wife Ruth Ann while attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where they were both students and Young Life leaders together. Since then they both have been serving in full time ministry with Young Life and the local church all over the state of Florida, in Atlanta and most recently serving on the ministry staff of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church and the Chattanooga Youth Network. Hayne and his wife continue to live on Signal Mountain with their three children where they enjoy living, playing and worshipping in an amazing community of family and friends.

Macho Jesus

Macho Jesus, Lent, and Youth Ministry

“…when we attempt to think of God as the one who communicates and expresses himself in the person Jesus, then we must always remember that this man was crucified…” -Eberhard Jüngel

The Good News of Suffering

If there is one ministry in our churches that is associated with fun and happiness, it’s youth ministry. This is no bad thing. After all, the gospel of Jesus is “good news!” Joy and happiness should be at the heart of youth ministry.

Macho Jesus

But the season of Lent is a good time for youth workers to remember that, even to the God of joy, suffering is no scandal in ministry. During Lent, youth workers should focus not only on their fantastic spring retreats (ours was last week—it was awesome!) but also on the theology of the cross.

The theology of the cross makes the bold claim that Jesus on the cross is the deepest and fullest expression of who God is. God isn’t any less God when God is in the dying Jesus. It is there that God is revealed to us, most fully, as the God of promise and resurrection. The cross is a lens for all other theological reflection, not just a pesky event that happened before Easter Sunday.

The Glory of the Cross

The theology of the cross is a contrast to the so-called “theology of glory,” as Luther called it, which “prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 21). The theology of the cross sees God “hidden” in suffering, in self-sacrificing love, rather than expecting God to show up in glory or in our ambitious actions.

This does not negate God’s power, glory, and might—but it does mean to redefine them. The suffering of Jesus on the cross redefines glory. As the theologian Eberhard Jüngel has put it, “God’s mightiness is understood as the power of his love. Only love is almighty” (God as Mystery of the World, 22).

The theology of glory misses all the irony of this redefinition. And thus, the theology of glory has been wielded throughout history to perpetuate authoritarian power and to justify the use of coercion by those who have power. The theology of the cross is a theology of resistance, a theology which opposes such expressions of power and calls instead for the power of love. Even such a statement as “the power of love” sounds absurd and silly to those who are convinced by the theology of glory. But why else did Paul say, “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18)?

The theology of the cross is a theology of resistance, a theology which opposes such expressions of power and calls instead for the power of love.

Macho Jesus!

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to see the theology of glory at work in our culture and in our churches. We can look to the various appeals of Christian politicians to justify war. We can look to the apocalyptic anticipations of some who seem to think Jesus was just kidding when he came the first time—when he comes THIS time, he means business. We can also look to what I like to call the “macho Jesus” phenomenon.

“Macho Jesus” is a reaction to some popular historical images of Jesus as a gentle shepherd, an introspective sage, and a poet. The macho Jesus contends that Jesus was tough. Real tough. Emphasizing Jesus’ anger, especially the passage in which Jesus drives out the money changers in the temple (again, they seem to have missed the irony), proponents of the macho Jesus argue that Jesus was manly, proactive, and even aggressive in his mission to save the world.

Saving Jesus from Himself

Concerned that the “traditional” notion of masculinity and the male “gender role” is fading in our culture, macho Jesus proponents present Jesus as a man’s man. He’s presented as triumphant …and usually with big muscles. There’s even one image I’ve seen where Jesus is on the cross, breaking its crossbeam with his huge biceps.

This Jesus can’t be the same guy who prayed, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Jesus’ association with those who aren’t tough enough to go on—with those who have lost the strength to muster a defense—is utterly lost in the macho Jesus phenomenon.

In youth ministry and in the church at large, the danger we face every Lent is that we’ll skip Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday—or, even worse, that we’ll divorce the resurrected Jesus from the crucified Jesus. After all, “the one who was raised from the dead is the Crucified One…” (God as Mystery of the World, 218). Jesus is actually the crucified Jesus, even in his resurrection, and only as such is he the God of glory and power. So we can look with hope not only in our moments of strength but even (especially!) in our moments of weakness. This is good news!

Jesus is actually the crucified Jesus, even in his resurrection, and only as such is he the God of glory and power.

As we arrive at Holy Week, let us remember what Jesus told the apostle Paul: “…my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). This is good news not only for us as individuals, but also for our youth ministries! How can you integrate the crucified Jesus into your ministry this week?

Recommended reading:

The Promise of Despair, by Andrew Root

The Cross in Our Context, by Douglas John Hall


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.

the worst youth pastor ever

The Worst Youth Pastor Ever

I used to think I was the worst youth pastor ever.

the worst youth pastor ever

When I was a young youth worker, fresh out of college, a small church took a chance and hired me as their Director of Youth Ministry. But about two years into the job, I started to feel burnout.

I began to feel like I just wasn’t doing a good job. Though I tried my darnedest, the young people at my church just weren’t developing the way I wanted them to. They didn’t really know a lot about the Bible, they weren’t into doing their “morning devotionals,” and no form of bribery could coerce them into praying out loud. It seemed like all the youth pastors at other churches had young people in their groups who had the Bible memorized and sang Hillsong music in the shower.

But no matter what I did, my group just wasn’t changing into the super Christians I saw at the other churches. I figured it was mostly my fault. If I was a better youth pastor, I’d be influencing these kids to become better Christians. So, under the weight of my own standards and under the pressure of what I thought was the “goal” of youth ministry, I was being worn down.

When I was beginning to question my calling to youth ministry, I picked up a book called Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root. I can distinctly remember how deeply Root’s story resonated with me.

He wrote of being a youth worker reared in a tradition that saw influence as the end-goal of youth ministry, desperately trying to influence young people toward participation in the church and its faith. “I didn’t blink twice at the expectation,” Root writes, “…[but] I was clearly failing to get them to commit themselves to the importance of the church and (more significantly) the faith” (p. 14).

What’s the Point?

Root’s big question in the book turned out to be my question: “What is the point of our relationships with kids?”

I’d been trained and educated to believe that the point of relational youth ministry is to influence young people, to develop Christian maturity in them, to make them into better Christians. I thought success in youth ministry was measured by how well young people know the bible, how eager they are to pray, how enthusiastically they engage in evangelism.  In other words, I thought the point of youth ministry was to influence, to get something out of young people. But through deep theological reflection, Root opened a new possibility. Taking his cues from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Root suggests that the point of a relationship… is the relationship.

It is in relationship for the sake of the relationship that we discover God and learn the heart of God’s ministry. Grounding relational ministry in the incarnation itself, Root suggests that

“…a more honest theological understanding of the incarnation is to assert that God entered our foreign world not to convince or save it but to love it even to the point of death… In this perspective salvation is not being convinced of a certain perspective, but coming to recognize that we have been deeply loved and so are given the power to live as children of God… This means relational youth ministry is not about convincing adolescents by influencing them; rather, it is about loving them by being with them in the messiness of their lives. It is about suffering with them.” (p. 41)

It is in relationship for the sake of the relationship that we discover God and learn the heart of God’s ministry.

A Weight Lifted from my Shoulders

As I read these words in my burnout, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. I remembered the faces of the young people in my group… those same young people who just wouldn’t become the super Christians I thought I was supposed to make them.

I remembered the faces of the young people in my group… those same young people who just wouldn’t become the super Christians I thought I was supposed to make them.

I remembered Eric, a young man who was tossed about in the foster system, separated from his sister who’d been adopted without him.

I remembered Samantha, a seventh grader who was cutting and struggling with suicidal thoughts.

I remembered Chris, a bright and clean high school senior who got all the best grades but suffered the stress of believing his life’s value was in what he could achieve.

I remembered Harper, a high school sophomore who came out to me that same summer but confessed she could not come out to her conservative parents for fear that they would reject her.

I remembered all the suffering of the young people in my group. I remembered the hard questions, temptations, and fears they faced. And I remembered all the times I’d sat with them in those questions, temptations, and fears. I remembered honest conversations we’d had, stories I’d been told, and I began to imagine a new “goal” for my ministry.

Perhaps what made me a good youth pastor was not my ability to create mature Christians but my patience and willingness to sit, to “place-share,” with young people just as they are, in “the messiness of their lives.” Perhaps what made me a good youth pastor wasn’t the change I could conjure, but the love that I could give.

All of a sudden, I began to think that, just maybe, I could keep going. Perhaps I wasn’t the worst youth pastor ever.

 


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.