Modeling Good Ministry

As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!


Hypocrisy and Ministry

There are few words that Christians shudder at more than the “H” word… “hypocrite.” We assume the wider world already sees us that way so we do everything in our power to avoid the connection. We have seen far too many of our “brothers and sisters” preach one thing and then get nailed for doing the exact opposite. Most of all, we desperately want our faith practice to be more than just words.

Yet while we are directing our energies to avoid one problem, we are unintentionally creating a new one. Sure—you may be successfully evading the mortal sins that get your name in the news (i.e. lying, cheating, stealing), but are you modeling the life-giving practices that sustain a healthy ministry and a healthy existence?

Learning to Rest

What I find shocking is not only the fact that most of my colleagues are working seven days a week—but that they are proud of it.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have with fellow ministry folks that end up in comparing how much time we take off. What I find shocking is not only the fact that most of my colleagues are working seven days a week—but that they are proud of it. They view it as a sign of their commitment to their call, devotion to their community, and proof of their value to the church.

Ironically, if you were to do a study on any of the major scandals that have hit the church in the past century, they would be preceded by a pattern of unhealthy habits. Working too hard. Not taking time off. Not spending time away from the church. In short, there is no way to avoid bad ministry without practicing good ministry.

To be fair, a ministry job is probably the hardest profession in which to develop and maintain good habits. After all, our work is of eternal significance. We are dealing with matters of life and death. Major life events don’t schedule their occurrence around our days off. It is far easier to give this line of work everything we have than to figure out how to balance it all.

Modeling Good Ministry

Being a good Christian isn’t just about NOT doing what we say we shouldn’t do, it is also about DOING what we say we should do.

But not only is it bad for us to devote our entire beings to our jobs, it is also bad for those we minister to. Being a good Christian isn’t just about NOT doing what we say we shouldn’t do, it is also about DOING what we say we should do. Things like remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, honoring our relationships with time and attention and loving ourselves enough to do things we enjoy. Taking care of ourselves requires work, but just like the work of the church, it is work worth contemplating and work worth doing.

Consider the following questions:

-When was the last time you took an ENTIRE day off?
-What is something, outside of your work, that gives you joy?
-Who is someone you love and care about, outside of the church, that needs your time and attention?
-When is it hard for you to step away from work physically, mentally, and spiritually? Why is this?

 


The Rev. Dr. Charlene Han Powell is the Associate Pastor for Education & Engagement at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. Charlene is a second-generation Korean American, honored daughter of immigrants Wha Lim Han and Dr. Hye Kyung Kim, devoted sister of Christine and Luis Perez, Cheryl Han and Sebastien Gagnon, beloved wife of Jordan Powell, and adoring mother of Amelie and Noa Han Powell. She holds a BA in religious studies from the University of California-San Diego, an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a D.Min. from New York Theological Seminary. Her passion is helping people understand and articulate their faith in our diverse, multicultural, multifaith world. When she is not at FAPC, there is a good chance you will find her in Central Park chasing after her girls, or catching up on one of her (many) TV shows. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @TheRevHanPowell.

The Days After Easter: What the Times Declare about Leadership, Youth, and the Church

As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!


We have just now ended Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday. We had time to abstain, reflect, and dress nicely as we ran to church and prepared picnics to celebrate that “He is Risen!” What’s next? I believe preparations for Mother’s Day celebration are coming up on the calendar, right?

This year the Forum for Youth Ministry invites us to focus on the word “declare.” In doing so, I want us to take a look and reflect on our “days after Easter.” What do the days look like? What are we declaring with our words? What are we declaring with our actions? What are we declaring with our outlook? I invite you to make this connection in relationship to our role as leaders and our desire to reach the heart of young people. One of the basic principles of leadership is to be highly aware of one’s actions and perspectives in everyday activities. All that we say and do, inevitably sends a message

We are living through times of constant and rapid change and redefinition of the basics, all of which declare the persistent need for fresh solutions. There seems to be a crisis, a disorientation, and sense of hopelessness in every sector of society ranging from the family unit, to the economy, to politics; the church, religion, and spirituality are not exempt. It is not news that a topic often addressed in our youth ministry circles, especially pertaining to mainline Anglo churches, is that young people are “leaving the church.” Experts tell us about the “spiritual but not religious,” the “nones and dones,” and the apparent menu of viable solutions in sight.

We are living through times of constant and rapid change and redefinition of the basics, all of which declare the persistent need for fresh solutions.

This is not new. Nearly 20 years ago, sociologist of religion Wuthnow pointed out that the glory days of American approach to religion and spirituality had profoundly shifted from “dwelling” (i.e., institutions, set places of worship) to “seeking” (i.e., open, transient) – and yet, our ministerial and leadership approaches remain mostly unaltered, struggling to reach the heart of youth. In light of this, what are the times declaring? What is required of us as leaders? What do young people need to see and receive?

I want us to pause and imagine the very first Easter and the “days after.” Sadness, hopelessness, disorientation, disbelief, and crisis were looming. Jesus is dead, now what? Where are all the promises he made? The hope he gave us? We see in Luke’s Gospel that early on Easter day, a few women had found out first-hand – “he has risen!” – and they were off to let the apostles and everyone else know the amazing news. Jesus’ words came true! There is hope! He is alive! The tomb is empty!

However, no one believed them, because their words, what they said, seemed like nonsense. Peter was somewhat moved by the news. He was stirred and ran to see for himself the physical evidence tied to this unbelievable story – yet, this was not enough for him. He was still in disbelief and wondering what had happened and what it all meant.

It was later that day that something extraordinary happened, which began to change the scenario and help people see the importance of what was truly taking place in the midst of what seemed to be crisis and hopelessness. Jesus himself came up, and walked along side the two who were on their way to Emmaus. Jesus reached out to them and asked for their account of the situation. As expected, the two travelers described the events taking place in those days as grim, confusing, and unexplainable. Yet, Jesus took the time to listen to them, to give them the space to express their confusion, disappointment, and disbelief. He then proceeded to remind them of what scripture said about the process of the suffering he had to endure before glory – and that he indeed had risen.

The two travelers could feel fire in their hearts as Jesus spoke directly to them. Later that evening, upon seeing Jesus’ actions, it was then that they fully recognized him! In being with them at the table, in breaking bread, in giving thanks, and in freely distributing the elements – it was then that their eyes were open and they could finally recognize Jesus because of his actions!

Those present could not deny the fire that was burning in their hearts after being in the presence of the resurrected Jesus, after such a powerful experience and encounter, after being convicted and liberated from their disbelief and hopelessness. It was essential that they disrupt their plans, and return at once to Jerusalem to tell the others! It was impossible to hold the truth back, everyone had to know what had just happened in their lives and hearts – that Jesus had risen!

In being with them at the table, in breaking bread, in giving thanks, and in freely distributing the elements – it was then that their eyes were open and they could finally recognize Jesus because of his actions!

Is it so with us today? On these “days after Easter”, are our hearts burning? In these moments after days of spiritual focus, have we seen Jesus act in our midst in such a manner that it is impossible not to recognize him? Are we so full of hope, belief, and the eagerness to tell others the news that Jesus is risen? Is our daily schedule altered by the need to reach out to others? Or are we focused on the next program to prepare, while our burning conviction takes a back seat?

Another basic principle of leadership, is having the ability to see a time of crisis not as failure, but as an opportunity to be seized! As we listen to what the times declare, we look for ways of reaching young people and see that this is the time to keep hope alive and bring about fresh steps that birth something new. This is a time to remember that all systems face challenges, and it is imperative we remember that people matter.

Today all people, are hungry for depth and connection and for leaders who seize opportunity and convey hope! In changing times, in times of crisis for the church, what are the first “days after Easter” declaring to us about where our focus ought to be? About what our leadership needs to reflect? About how our ministries need to be structured and carried on? We can, and we must, rethink our ministerial models and concerns.

Thus, in these “days after Easter,” may our leadership steps be like those of Jesus and the two travelers. Marked by our willingness to accompany young people, space to express their confusion, in-depth exposure to scripture, and a tangible example of a life lived in faith. Young people are hungry to see Jesus is risen, not only in our words, but in our actions. May our encounters with the risen Lord ignite our hearts so that neither us, nor the young people we mentor, can contain the need to let others know about him too! And, may these experiences provide us with the initial stages for our renewed steps within our leadership perspectives and practices, so that our churches and ministries can respond to what the times declare.

 


Elizabeth Tamez Méndez is founder and executive director of New Generation3, an international organization dedicated to training leaders, conducting research, and providing consulting services. She is an ordained minister with over 25 years of ministerial experience, a specialist in multicultural youth development and strategic planning, and will soon conclude her Ph.D. in Leadership. Her dissertation focuses on youth leadership development, and she is also co-authoring a book on Latin@ Youth Ministry. Formerly a high-rise architect, she is now helping build lives by serving as adjunct professor of Youth Ministry, along with exercising leadership roles throughout various non-profit organizations. When she needs to disconnect, she likes to skydive, swim with sharks, and paint murals.

 

Making the “Accidental” of Worship Intentional with Teenagers

As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!


Let’s assume we knew one another ten years ago and you asked me over coffee, “Eric, what do you want to do with your one, wild, and precious life?” Peering into the unknown future, I would have responded, “I want to teach in a seminary, and I want to be the liturgical theologian for Baptists in the United States.” Had you inquired further or expressed interest, I would have gleefully articulated my five and even ten-year plan for what such a vocation, centered in the academy, might look like.

An Unexpected Rhythm

Tomorrow is Friday, and I will board a bus with forty college students, most of whom are in their late teens or early twenties. We will drive two hours away to a Baptist church camp for a weekend retreat where we will worship, play, and learn how to minister through a summer camp for teenagers that focuses on worship and worship leadership. When I return Sunday evening, I will drop my luggage off at the house, greet my dog, and kiss my wife before dashing out the door to church. There, I will spend the next two hours working with 100 high school students who are preparing for a summer mission experience together. After a few hours of rest Sunday evening, I will begin my Monday with robust coffee and a classroom of college students waiting to be engaged in reading and assignments.

I have slowly stumbled my way into youth and college ministry over the last ten years. I did not get a college degree in piano performance hoping to be a youth minister. Working with college students never crossed my mind in seminary, and not once while pursuing a PhD in Theology did I believe my academic career might revolve around studying the worship practices of teenagers.

So, how is it that now, when I see the faces of teenagers like Milligan, Wesley, Alexa, Walker, and Racquel, I think about that C.S. Lewis quote that says, “Next to the blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses”? Could it be that teenagers have become neighbors to me in the sacramental way that Lewis wrote about? Could teenagers be those immortals with whom I joke, love, snub, and even exploit? The ones in whom Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden?

Selah.

Stumbling into Identity

Like I have stumbled my way into youth ministry, teenagers in the church stumble their way in and out of public Christian worship week after week. Teenagers attend worship for reasons we don’t like to admit: because their parents make them, because their friends are there, or because worship is “the thing to do” on the Lord’s Day. Some teenagers have even stumbled their way into worship leadership. They are interested in leading worship because they enjoy music, excel in public speaking, or are intrigued when an adult notices their gifts and invites them to participate.

They don’t walk into corporate worship thinking, “Because of the things I do and say in worship today, I will grow deeper in my relationship with Christ,” any more than you or I think about the good dental hygiene that occurs when we brush our teeth.

In either case, teenagers aren’t necessarily programmed to think first about the long-term value of corporate worship on their Christian journey. They don’t walk into corporate worship thinking, “Because of the things I do and say in worship today, I will grow deeper in my relationship with Christ,” any more than you or I think about the good dental hygiene that occurs when we brush our teeth. Yet, we know from our own experience what philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith has written, that

being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly – who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.  We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship – through the affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.1

Teenagers aren’t programmed to think about the mechanics – the nuts and bolts of worship – unless an adult encourages it and takes the time to explain an otherwise affective experience to them. When we encourage young people to make their “accidentally showing up to worship” intentional, their actions on the Lord’s Day – praising, confessing, lamenting, giving thanks, and dedicating themselves to a lifetime of following Christ in the world – have a significantly increased chance of becoming purposeful and intentional in the ways and places that matter most: in hallway at school, around the family table, on the sports field, or lying in their bed late at night.

Selah.

Formed by Worship

In The Rhythm of God’s Grace,2 Arthur Paul Boers shares the story of a Jewish boy who insisted on running off into the woods every day, even though the activity was strictly forbidden. His parents were dumbfounded by this, because they knew him to be a very obedient child otherwise. Frustrated, they called on their rabbi for help. The rabbi came and talked to the boy, explained his parents’ fears, and told him why he should not run off into the woods any longer.

The boy listened attentively, but without fail the boy did it again. So, the next day, the rabbi decided to follow him from a distance to see what he was doing. What he found was the boy walking about in the woods reciting Jewish prayers. When he finished, the rabbi questioned him, “Why do this? Why do you go into the woods to pray? Is God not everywhere and always the same?” Without hesitation, the boy responded. “Yes, that is true. God is everywhere and always the same. But, unfortunately, I am not.”

Teenagers are immersed in a culture that values an inside to outside expressivity. Yet, when the church engages them in the right ways as worshipers and worship leaders, worship apprentices teenagers into a way of being that transforms them from the outside to the inside. Teenagers get to “try on” practices in worship, and adults in the faith community encourage them with perspective ensuring those practices fit in all the right ways, providing a wardrobe of habits that teenagers can begin to wear in the right place at the right time. And, their “accidentally showing up” to worship becomes the very act that propels them into a life characterized by their baptismal vocation: returning back to the God from whom they came, living as a disciple of Christ, and witnessing to the work of Christ in the world.

Selah.

Footnotes:

1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 32-33.

2. Arthur Paul Boers, The Rhythm of God’s Grace: Uncovering Morning and Evening Hours of Prayer (Paraclete Press: MA, 2003).

 


Eric L. Mathis, PhD, is a former youth minister and worship leader who teaches music and worship at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. At Samford, he is founding director of anima: the Center for Worship and the Arts, whose mission is to empower teenagers to connect their enthusiasm to all the possibilities inherent in worship and the arts. Mathis has degrees in music and theology, the most recent of which is a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

A Royal Priesthood

Priesthood of ALL Believers?

I get a lot of different responses when I tell people I’m interested in pursuing youth ministry as a vocation. I get responses along the lines of:

Oh man, you must be some sort of saint!
Are you going to do that until you become a
real pastor?
Aren’t middle schoolers the worst?

I often find myself either apologizing for the plight of the pre-teen or offering a psychological defense of their strange, awkward adolescent years. Most of the time I smile and shrug my shoulders. From the outside, working with young people is some sort of insurmountable challenge to conquer, a strange calling, or some sort of penance.

Recognizing we belong to a priesthood of beautiful, oddball, hyper, reflective, shy, and outgoing believers means that we are all doing ministry together. Every single one of us.

Yet shouldn’t church be a space where all feel welcome to be who we are, a place where we can celebrate the oddities, hilarity, and absurdity of life? Especially the odd, hilarious, and absurd in the life of our youth? Church is where we all collectively come to meet God, not something to tide the kids over until they “grow up.”

Recognizing we belong to a priesthood of beautiful, oddball, hyper, reflective, shy, and outgoing believers means that we are all doing ministry together. Every single one of us.

Regardless of whether your title is “director” or “leader,” you are a pastor to young people. And pastoral ministry doesn’t happen you try to impart wisdom on unsuspecting victims, but when you work together with those you pastor. The pastor is not meant to “do stuff” for people. According to William Willimon, pastoral care is “the reestablishment of broken relationships among people and between people and God” (Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, 175). We do church and faith together before God.

Bringing Our Burdens

Recently at youth group, we had eight middle school boys and three girls. It was tiny, yet wild. It was one of those evenings where you walk away after wondering, “What just happened?”

We read Matthew 11:28–29, where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

The plan was to look through magazines and find pictures that reminded us of the burdens in our lives, and some that reminded us of restfulness. Then we would make a collage of each and talk about what we saw.

We started the discussion by talking about burdens, with examples from their lives. The unanimous chorus was, “SCHOOL!” I paused, and wondered aloud, “Oh, that’s interesting. What about school is a burden?” I was trying to dig deeper, to the underlying reality they were naming.

This led to a long tangent focused on every teacher who had ever wronged them, followed by a lament about homework, tests, and ways to seek revenge. “Okay, this is valid and important, but what does this mean for you in relationship to each other?” We never quite got there.

What we did get was a long silence where one boy loudly dropped the F-bomb, followed by uncontrollable laughter. The evening quickly devolved into madness.

Gifts of God, People of God

The activity, though well intentioned, did not succeed in the way I had planned. The “burden collage” we made had, strangely enough, a picture of Jesus, and someone had put multiple pictures of knives on the collage to symbolize “rest.” I stopped and talked with one of the kids who was in the midst of cutting out pictures of alcohol. At the end of the hour, all I saw around me was a mess and a failure.

It was time for pizza and they all raced each other to get seats. My co-leader walked in with the pizza and soda; loud cheers erupted.

We stood around the table, and my co-leader tried to start a camp prayer and forgot the words halfway through. He turned to the group and asked if anyone remembered the words. The same kid who dropped the F-bomb earlier in the evening jumped up and down saying, “I do!”

This perfectly imperfect young man led us in prayer, helping us connect to God by singing a tune based on the Jaws theme song. And as we all sat around the table, they took turns filling the cup of their neighbor, and passing the plate of pizza around. We broke bread (and sauce and cheese) together and continued laughing and celebrating each other.

Making Connections

As I walked out the door that evening, after picking up the little pieces of magazine someone had so carefully cut and placed all around the youth room, I realized this prayer tonight was the reason we do ministry with young people. This night wasn’t a failure at all.

The things I thought weren’t “important” like their struggles at school, the immense pressure they feel to be doing everything, their drama, or their obsession with the newest app—these are important components of their reality. These are their lives.

The things I thought weren’t “important” like their struggles at school, the immense pressure they feel to be doing everything, their drama, or their obsession with the newest app—these are important components of their reality. These are their lives. It is vital to see their reality as real, for all their joys and frustrations. And the prayers we pray together, though sometimes silly, help us to see God in our lives. Our practices together speak to our shared reality in Jesus.

Come as You Are

If we hope to tame our young people so they fit our idea of church, we will miss incredible opportunities to see their leadership potential, and validity at all stages of life. We cannot discount them because they are loud, energetic, easily distracted, require patience, and sometimes curse loudly (and honestly, are people over fifty really all that different?).

We have the opportunity to create spaces for young people to do the leading. They can, and will continue to meet the expectations we set for them. If we believe that all young people are good for is games and pizza, then for them all church will be is games and pizza. We need to engage and honor the value of the life and spirituality of our young people right now.

How do we expect young people to connect to God if the adults are doing all the talking? Praying together, in any and all forms, is a way of entering into relationship with God. When we say we have a priesthood of all believers, it doesn’t mean that at some point we are good enough to become a member and are worthy. It means we belong as we are, blemishes and all. Even the youth who curses in church; the ones who talk loudly during the service or run loose in the hallways. Our salvation is not dependent on our understanding or right action, but on God, who is constantly drawing us closer into the life of the Trinity.

Expectations of Priesthood

When we say we have a priesthood of all believers, it doesn’t mean that at some point we are good enough to become a member and are worthy. It means we belong as we are, blemishes and all.

As youth ministers, we have the amazing privilege of living life with young people in their journey of understanding and knowing the incredible love of Christ. We know that some of the most insightful conversations are with young people. Their perspective is refreshing and honest in ways we don’t find everywhere. Yet for some reason, we still wait for them to be something else—older, more mature, more acceptable—before asking them to be leaders.

Asking young people to pray, to read Scripture, or to take part in the life of the church is vital to participating in Christ’s ministry to the world. Andy Root confirms how “it is in persons sharing in each other through sacrifice, intercession and confession—in other words, through sacraments, prayer, and preaching, given to us by our brothers and sisters, that we encounter the living Christ among us; this is the church community” (Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, 122). This is especially true for our young people.

As youth workers, we are called to challenge the expectations that working with young people is something “only a saint would do” or “isn’t real pastoral ministry.” One of the ways we can do this while also building up the church is by demonstrating how capable young people can be. How can we begin lifting up the young people in our congregations as full-fledged leaders of our church?

 


Julia Boudrye is a dual degree student (M.Div/MA Christian Education and Formation) at Princeton Theological Seminary. She likes to watch The Office, drink coffee and quote The Office.

Intergenerational Ministry: Participating as Partners

Intergenerational Encouragement

When I was a boy, I was invited to participate in the anniversary celebration for our Senior Pastor. I attended a fairly large church, so it was a big deal to me that I had been asked to participate in an event that was for the whole church and not just kids my age. On the Sunday of the celebration another boy and I were dismissed from Sunday school early. We were led to a special dressing room where we were provided with robes, wigs, beards, and staffs to make us look like Moses and Aaron. At the appropriate time, we were to walk out into the sanctuary, make our way onto the stage, and say our lines as we presented our Senior Pastor with a decorative copy of the Ten Commandments.

He was an important senior adult, and he made me feel like an important participant in the ministry. He made me feel like his partner.

In the moments leading up to our performance, I quickly went from excited to terrified. The magnitude of the moment came crashing down on us like a ton of bricks. As we stood in the hall quietly and anxiously fidgeting with our costumes and props, an older, well-known man in the congregation noticed us and came over to encourage us. He asked if we were excited for to play our parts in the service and if we were nervous. We said that we were. He told us that he was nervous every Sunday as he participated in the ministries of the church. He explained that he too had a costume that he wore every Sunday and with a flip of his head he popped his toupee up on end. He prayed with us and thanked us for having the courage to be a part of what the church was doing.

A Real Partnership

All of these years later, that moment is still very precious to me. Mr. Sowers, the man who was constantly surrounded by children, the man who first invited me to come to church through the church bus that he captained, the man who, in my young eyes, was a big deal in the church, made me feel like more than just a child in a silly church program. He was an important senior adult, and he made me feel like an important participant in the ministry. He made me feel like his partner.

Interestingly enough, it was children like me who made Mr. Sowers seem so important. He always wore suit coats to church and he had what appeared to be a bottomless pocket full of Jolly Rancher candies that he passed out whenever he was at the church. I believe the children of the church gave Mr. Sowers a sense of purpose and productivity. Being able to minister to children was in itself a ministry to him.

And the Research Says…

What I experienced with Mr. Sowers seems extraordinary and unusual. It certainly wasn’t the norm when I was a youth and it hasn’t been the norm during my time as a pastor. Most of the stories I hear concerning senior adults and young people involved conflict and misunderstanding. However, through a yearlong experiment involving senior adults and youth at First Baptist Church of St Albans, we discovered that it is possible to foster the development of intergenerational relationships between senior adults and youth like the one described above. We further learned that these relationships are indeed beneficial for all involved parties.

Here are our four key findings:

1) Shared space results in shared stories

The church is one of the last places in society that has regular access to multiple generations. With minimal planning and communication, opportunities for shared space and activity can be created. Through spending time together doing things like eating food, playing games, or simply talking, shared stories are experienced. Those stories represent connections that lead to various levels of mutual understanding and appreciation between the generations. To quote one of our participants, “These activities woke up the church to the value of our youth and created a desire for ALL generations to be involved.”

2) Youth provide energy and encouragement for senior adults

During our project, one senior adult said, “We’re hungry for new ideas and energy. The youth energize us and help us move out of our comfort zone. The youth have helped us to grow in our faith.” I believe the church has a fountain of youth and it is the youth, themselves. Many times, senior adults fear that they won’t be able to “keep up.” Amazingly, once senior adults spend some time with youth and engage them in various ways, they often walk away encouraged and energized. They are energized and encouraged to pursue and serve Christ in ways they previously believed beyond their abilities.

3) Senior adults are incredible advocates for youth in the church

As the patriarchs and matriarchs of many of our churches, senior adults hold a very special place of influence in the local church. They are often perceived to be the biggest givers of the church and hold many of the positions of power on boards and committees. When they begin to experience the energy and enthusiasm of the youth of the church, they begin looking for ways to engage that energy in the life of the church. They begin to see that youth have potential for the present as well as the future. One senior noted, “I find myself cheering for them to succeed and have a strong desire to see them take leadership in the church.” The more senior adults and youth spend time together the more the talents and abilities of youth become apparent and the more senior adults advocate for youth involvement and ownership within the broader church context.

4) Intergenerational ministry is about partnership

If youth are the church of today, does that mean senior adults are the church of yesterday? That is certainly not the case. We, all of us, are part of the body of Christ. Each of us has a part to play and each of us needs the others.

“Youth are not the church of tomorrow. They are the church of today.” I understand and respect the idea this oft-quoted phrase intends to communicate. Youth are often treated as passive bystanders who are supposed to wait their turn. However, I believe this quote unintentionally communicates a less positive message as well. If youth are the church of today, does that mean senior adults are the church of yesterday? That is certainly not the case. We, all of us, are part of the body of Christ. Each of us has a part to play and each of us needs the others. When generations learn to play nice with each other it becomes much easier to work effectively together. As one senior adult noted, “We won’t be here forever. We have to make room for youth to come along beside us… This church needs to be theirs too.” We each have a purpose in the body, so we each need a place.

Intergenerational ministry is an exciting and intimidating proposition. To one extent or another, in each of our churches, we are practicing it—but are we doing it well? What opportunities for intergenerational ministry exist in your church? What benefits might your church experience from greater involvement between generations?

 


Jeremy MyersJeremy Myers is a 15-year veteran of youth ministry. He and his wife Robyn live in Indiana with their children Mikayla and JJ. He loves drinking coffee, playing music, and dreaming about what the church could and should be with fellow church nerds. Jeremy has an MA in Ministerial Leadership from Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, a D.Min. in Church Missional Renewal from Palmer Theological Seminary, and is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA.

Doing Too Much

As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!


A Day in the Life

Alarm goes off. Scroll. Rush through breakfast. Fight with a parent. Fight with a sibling. Forget something, go back inside. Scroll. Text friends. Crack jokes, text crush. Whine, compare, gossip. Text parent. Go to class. Go to practice. Text more. Flirt. Go to band. Text for a ride. Video games. Post. Tweet. Homework. Scroll. Part-time job. Netflix. Get home from the game. Lie about grades. Shoot, we forgot youth group is tonight. Hulu. Do homework. Stress out about homework. Text more. Post. Scroll. Sleep.

The lives of our students can be a big jumble of going from here to there, doing many things that matter and plenty of things that don’t. We know they’re busy but we also really need them to come to Sunday school or pay attention during tonight’s talk. Sometimes we’re not exactly helping.

Too Much Noise

I declare we talk too much. We’re going, doing, making, being, buying, selling, or showing. We’re always talking, with an endless chatter. We text too much, we go out too much, we post too much, we practice and we perform too much. Whatever it is, we do too much.

Our youth especially do too much. Whether activities are good or bad, all of our business is rudely interrupted by the season of Lent. We began this time before Easter by imposing ashes with a refrain about dust as if to say “You’re going to die, here’s a cross so you don’t forget.” Our limits are all put on display with the knowledge that despite our best efforts, ultimately there is nothing we can do. And we all chatter on.

Facing Finitude

Perhaps we do so many activities and errands because of the fact that we will die. Older European philosophers like Heidegger or Kierkegaard, along with Anglo-American thinkers like Ernst Becker, suggest that human action is driven by the “denial of death.” The ways in which we are distracted, anxious, active, controlling, dominating, fearful, proud—or anything, really—are driven by our inevitable end. To an extent, this isn’t wrong. The Christian faith doesn’t deny this truth that people act out in a variety of ways because of their limited time upon the earth.

Our youth are just as driven by death as we are, whether they’re aware of it or not. We create the culture of numbing, achievement, entertainment, or acquisition they imbibe.

Yet the Bible clearly labels death as a problem. Romans 8:21 says creation is “in bondage to decay,” while in 7:24 Paul cries out to be saved “from this body of death.” Like sin, death is one of the powers that Jesus is openly in conflict with. For in Romans 6:9, Paul claims, “Death no longer has any dominion” over Jesus because of his resurrection. For the New Testament, says Fleming Rutledge, death is “experienced as a condemnation and defeat at the hands of God’s Enemy” (The Crucifixion, 405). Death is a power not only as it claims people at their end, but death is also “an annihilating agency capable of commandeering humans agents to do its work” (The Crucifixion, 203). Co-opted as agents of death, perhaps this brings to mind the more outrageous instances of violence and injustice. It could also be far more mundane.

The Pressure of Performance

Denying death causes busyness and distraction. Our youth are just as driven by death as we are, whether they’re aware of it or not. We create the culture of numbing, achievement, entertainment, or acquisition they imbibe. If they’re anxious, driven, overly distracting or entertained, it is because we were before them. This is why they do too much.

The closest thing we have to an answer for this constant movement is Sabbath. Not a hard stop, but a rest for a short while. Sabbath plays a large role in our faith and story. In the Exodus story, God hears the cries of the oppressed Israelites and liberates them from Egypt. God not only liberates the Israelites, but in particular God saved them from the cruel amount and conditions of work put on them by Pharaoh and his anxiety (Exodus 5:1–14). When the people are freed and gathered at Sinai, the Lord gives the people the essential commandment to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8–11). This new commandment is a gift they didn’t receive in Egypt. God gives them the Sabbath as a way to stop in order to be “an alternative society that stands outside of the predatory anxiety that requires endless production and performance” (Walter Brueggemann, Ice Axes for Frozen Seas, 272). Our youth are entirely aware of this production and performance in their own lives.

Sitting with God

There is nothing we can do about our death, yet there is nothing we need to do for God’s favor either, and we practice this in the Sabbath.

We are invited to stop and rest in the Sabbath, setting this time aside as holy to spend with God. The Sabbath is a time where we do not have to perform, earn, control, or attempt anything and we stop checking our phones, not worry about grades, refrain from checking ourselves in the mirror. We are invited to no longer curate our Instagram posts for attention, vie for love or respect, be attractive, prove our worth, or struggle to protect ourselves from any vulnerability. We are invited not to be made anxious by death, but to spend time with the Creator of our limited lives. We don’t have to work so hard to keep anxiety at bay. We instead have the chance to be still and realize the Lord our God is there in the silence, caring for us no matter what we do or how long we live. There is nothing we can do about our death, yet there is nothing we need to do for God’s favor either, and we practice this in the Sabbath.

It’s hard for anyone to sit still at first, or to be quiet when we’re used to talking or doing. Whether the need to constantly check the phone, check our looks in the mirror, or constantly try to be the most popular person in the room, there’s a sense of searching. Are these searchings not longings for God? In the Sabbath, in silence and reflection, or prayer, we can rest in the presence of the God who is near, and the God who loves us so much as to undergo death in Christ Jesus.

Sounds of Silence

I practice this in ministry by leading my students in worship through Taizé-style music. After teaching a simple melody, we will sing one or two refrains about our longing for God, over and over again. It’s unhelpful to demand an abrupt silence, so it’s a good practice to get quieter and sparser as the song goes on, winding down with a capella refrains, and ending with a prolonged time of quiet. Some kids understandably struggle at first. I’ve found that the kids who need it the most are the ones who respond most positively.

During Lent, because there’s nothing we can do about death, we’re reminded our death is worth pondering, because this season points towards the time when Christ is going to do something about it. Our anxiety about death could actually be a reminder about our longing for our Creator.

Commenting on this anxiety and our search for God, the poet Christian Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss:

It is as if each us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music that, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we give to other things. It is not hard to hear this as music, but it is very difficult to learn to hear it as music. (92)

The anxiety of death could be overplayed by the music of God’s grace seeking us out, and what our youth yearn for. May we all stop and rest in the presence and love of God, the Maker and Sustainer of our limited lives.

 


ogg

Adam Ogg has his M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He loves investigating how theology interacts with the world and informs our faith. Adam is particularly passionate about finding a good coffee shop to read in.

Don’t Forget to Oil Your Chain

This post is the final post in a four-part series on the story of Pres House. You can find part one here,  part two here and part three here.


The Business of Ministry

If you have been reading my other posts about organizational leadership and growth, you will have noticed that I include a lot of references to budget numbers, technology, newsletters, databases, and other administrative details. You might wonder what all that stuff has to do with ministry. Isn’t ministry all about relationships with God and people? The church isn’t a business so why should we spend energy on budgets, facilities, and operations? Can’t we just “love on students”?!

Taking care of the business of your organization is not a distraction from real ministry.

I get those questions. I resonate with the sense of unease that many in the church and nonprofit world experience when talking about revenue, marketing, investments, and so on. I’ll never forget a confrontation I had a with a church business manager in my first internship where I brashly announced, “The church is not a business!”

While I had no idea what I was talking about back then, and I deeply regret the insult that my comment was to him, I still agree with that basic statement. The church is not a business. Because, yes, ministry is all about relationships. Effective nonprofits are all about fulfilling their mission. The treasures in heaven that we care about are people—not money or buildings or websites. We care about people.

But I have learned during my work as Executive Director and Pastor at Pres House that if we don’t attend to the “business” of ministry, our ministry will not be effective. Put another way, if the business is managed and run well, then the real work of mission is much more fruitful. The business operations of a nonprofit or ministry are its skeleton. If the skeleton is strong, then the flesh that is laid on top of it—the programs, people, relationships—they flourish and the organization succeeds. So yes, we do this work in order to love and serve people. But we have to tend to the business in order for our work with people to… well… work!

Like Bike Maintenance

I hang out with college students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They often use bikes to get around our large campus. Even in the winter! But I am always dismayed by how poorly many students take care of their bikes. They leave them outside, uncovered in the snow for months at a time. They ride to class with totally flat tires. And they almost never, ever oil their chain. You can always tell when a bike needs some oil on its chain by the horrible creaking and grinding sound it makes as it goes by. These same students often wonder why it is so hard to ride to class and are shocked that I ride 60 miles before 9am each Wednesday.

But I treat my chain and bike very differently. I clean and lube my chain almost every day. I pump up my tires every time I take my bike outside. I change my cables, bar tape, brake pads, and tires multiple times per season. If I had an orange rusty chain on my bike, I’d find it hard to ride a mile to class, too. You must take care of a bike if you want it to work well. If the chain is rusty or your tires are full of holes, you won’t make it very far and you’ll end up spending all your time dealing with the problems with the bike rather than riding anywhere. In addition to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with students, I often feel like an evangelist for bike maintenance!

Little Details Matter

The big picture is important. As I’ve written in earlier posts, it is vital to look ahead to where you are going and let go of the brakes so you get moving. But it is also essential to attend to the little details that make a huge difference. To put oil on your chain and pump up your tires. To take care of the “business” of your ministry. If the operation is rusty and the business has holes in it, then the mission will not go anywhere or you’ll end up stopped on the side of the road, changing a flat tire instead of getting on with loving people. I don’t oil the chain on my bike so that I have a shiny chain—I oil the chain so that my bike works well and I can get to where I am going. In the same way, I don’t attend to the business of Pres House just so we run a “well-oiled machine”—I attend to the business so that our mission of transforming the lives of students is successful and we get to where we are going.

Let me share a few examples:

– We try to run the best student housing community on campus with excellent customer service, cleanliness, and amenities so that students want to live with us and will have the opportunity to experience the grace of Jesus Christ as a member of our residential community.

– We send handwritten thank you notes to every donor, every time they donate, because we believe we have a relationship with our donors that extends beyond the online transaction or check they write.

– We produce high quality print publications so that people can clearly see what we are about and be inspired to participate or support our work.

-We are always looking for ways to improve our computer systems, databases, phone systems, sound systems, and facilities so that our people and programs can flourish and do their best work.

– We engage in rigorous financial modeling and budgeting in order to best leverage the gifts that God has given us for our mission today and into the future.

– We take surveys throughout the year and collect data on all our programming to evaluate what we are doing and make changes to be more effective.

Expertise in Community

Often small nonprofits and churches have limited resources, and leaders and pastors do not have all the skills necessary to attend to all this business. Seminary, after all, doesn’t train pastors to do marketing or negotiate legal contracts. Pastors, church leaders, and nonprofit leaders are increasingly asked to be experts on so many things we might as well start trying to walk on water.

I am not suggesting we need to manage everything on our own. Often there are people and resources available that can help. As much as I have enjoyed continuing education in theology and preaching, some of the most useful post-seminary education I’ve done has been in nonprofit leadership, fundraising, human resources, and legal issues. I have leaned on and learned from all the board members I’ve worked with over the years. I ask lots and lots of questions of every attorney, consultant, contractor, and acquaintance I can think of! Give me a call; I’d be happy to share some of what I’ve learned that might be useful in your particular context.

Taking care of the business of your organization is not a distraction from “real” ministry. It is a vital part of the ministry and essential to fully realizing the mission and vision of the organization. So, as you get on your bike, look ahead to where you want to go, let go of the brakes, and ride—don’t forget to oil your chain. You’ll be much more likely to get to where you are going and you’ll enjoy the ride a whole lot more along the way.

 


Mark Elsdon Mark Elsdon has served as Executive Director and Campus Co-Pastor at Pres House and Pres House Apartments since 2004. Born in the Midwest to immigrants from England, Mark has also lived in the Southern, Western, and Eastern parts of the United States. He is married to Rev. Erica Liu, and they have two daughters. Mark has a BA in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and will graduate in May 2017 with an MBA from the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. When not hanging out with college students, Mark can be found training and racing his bike in the hills surrounding Madison or trying to keep up with the silliness of his daughters. Mark is available for consulting and coaching conversations with ministry and nonprofit leaders, boards of directors, or organizations seeking support to launch, grow, or rebuild.

Is it Any Wonder Young People are Confused About Grace?

“It doesn’t matter where you have been…,” the speaker said. “It doesn’t matter what you have done.” On he went. “God loves you, right where you are, and for who you are!”

It was cry night at camp, and I was hooked by a modern retelling of the Prodigal Son. I wanted to be immersed in the grace being advertised that night. No more masks. No more pretending to be someone I wasn’t. No more being ashamed to come to God for fear of what I had or might have done. I could simply be me.

Want to Be Christian?

Then I went home.

To waiting expectations. Adults in the congregation wanted to hear testimonies of how God moved at camp. I was quickly made aware a decision made for God came with new expectations:

– Read the bible, and oh yeah, read it every day.
– Pray daily, even better if you can do it without ceasing whatever that might mean.
– Attend church weekly.
– Listen predominantly, if not only, to Christian music.
– Avoid parties because parties can “only” have drugs and alcohol.
– No R-rated movies.

Want to be a Christian? This was it. I was handed a blueprint of expectations by which I was to achieve discipleship. For a mature disciple is one who can, as quoted from the Bible, “go, and sin no more!”

Gone was the grace I had experienced at camp. Gone was the God who met me where I was in life. God had been replaced by one of those advertisers who acts innocent as he or she asks, “What’s the matter? You didn’t read the fine print?”

Grace invites me to see myself as I truly am, with all my imperfections.

How was I to add all these expectations to an already overcrowded schedule of school, homework, soccer practices, and other activities they expect to see on a college scholarship application? It didn’t take long to come off the mountain from camp, to question whether the experience was real or all imagined in my head.

Go and Sin No More?

In over fifteen years of youth ministry, I know my experience isn’t unique. I have seen many young people go through the same experience. They encounter this God who, in the midst of grace, encounters them right where they are. And then they lose sight of God in the midst of the expectations of grace.

Is it any wonder young people are often confused by what we mean by grace?

The phrase “go and sin no more” comes from Jesus’ face-off with the religious leaders in the gospel of John. Jesus writes in the dirt as they bring in a woman who was “caught in act of adultery.” The leaders think they have Jesus cornered. Jesus is slow to respond. Perhaps he wants to buy some time to think about his response. Maybe he stalled for dramatic effect. Either way, when Jesus responds, he stuns the crowd. One-by-one they drop their rocks and leave. The story closes with Jesus telling the woman that he will not condemn her either. Or maybe he does.

I am convinced this popular refrain of “go, and sin no more” is one of the most narrowly interpreted passages in all of Scripture. In the church tradition I grew up in, this was seen as the sign of a mature Christian. To walk with God and sin no more. This was the apex of Christian discipleship. No more cursing. No more lewd thoughts. No more selfishness. No more sin.

The problem with this interpretation of sin and the idea that grace sets us free to sin no more is it leaves the woman standing at the end of the story condemned—not by the religious leaders—but by Jesus.

Still don’t buy it?

Rewind and think about this unique story found only in the gospel of John—a story not even found in the earliest manuscripts of John.

Before Jesus told this woman to go and sin no more. Before Jesus and this woman were left alone in the middle of the street. They were surrounded by a group of people who were prepared to stone this woman. That is, until Jesus reminded them of their hypocrisy. There wasn’t one person in the crowd who hadn’t sinned—rephrase: there is not one person in the crowd who won’t sin.

So if Jesus knows this, and the crowd knows this, then there has to be more to what Jesus means at the end of the story when he tells this woman to go and sin no more. Otherwise, this story doesn’t end in grace and redemption. It ends with Jesus casting the stone himself.

So what does Jesus mean when he tells her to go and sin no more?

Embracing Grace

Theologian Rowan Williams offers an understanding of sin which perhaps gets us closer to what Jesus intended at the end of this story. William writes, “To say alleluia for sinners is to say alleluia for the beginnings of honesty.” As Williams goes on to describe, sin isn’t limited to being disobedient or being immoral, it’s better understood as going against our nature—the nature God created. So in effect, with this larger understanding of sin, Jesus isn’t telling the woman to go and never make another mistake. Jesus is inviting her to embrace grace, to embrace herself, to see the value of who she is—fractured self and all.

After one walks into the front doors of a church, it only takes about five minutes to hear grace defined as an underserved gift. I can’t help but wonder if we like to put that tagline on it because we are uncomfortable with what grace’s invitation is really about. Because when I think about what grace really means, it makes me uncomfortable, and really, I want to push it away.

Grace invites me to see myself as I truly am, with all my imperfections. It’s hard in our culture to embrace grace because it means admitting I am less than perfect. I might not be the success story everyone idolizes. Or the success story which looks good on a college application.

This is grace, it takes the blinders off and encourages me to see the world as it really is and to see myself as I really am—faults and all.

This is the invitation Jesus offered this woman. Jesus was inviting her to see herself as he saw her—a woman of value who didn’t need to sell herself short or let her life’s story be defined by a crowd. A crowd full of imperfect people who were probably thankful grace was not bringing their imperfections into the spotlight that day.

To help flesh this out a little more, I close with a quote from one of my favorite authors— who I am convinced is secretly a theologian—Brené Brown. She writes, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” In churches, too often grace falls into the former category and never gets to the latter.

Ministries and our faith practices are designed to help young people fit in. To be a part of the Church. To be a Christian, you have to read the Bible, pray daily, and sin no more. This is how the Church knows grace has impacted your life.

What if we did the opposite?

Rather than advertise grace as a way to fit in, what if we created ministries that invited young people to see how grace shows them who they are?


 Rev. Seth M. Vopat is an ordained member of the clergy, writer, and 15-year youth ministry veteran who currently serves in the Kansas City area. He has an M.Div. from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and a Certificate in Youth and Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. His Twitter feed is @svopat.