Good or Better?

What with camps and holidays, it’s been a while since I posted on here, but now that the start of term is only a few weeks away I thought I’d try and out down some thoughts.

Well the new term isn’t far away and with it will come a phenomenal amount of things to do as well as many hectic and busy days. When I think about it, I can’t honestly say that I’m filled with joy at the prospect. But I feel that the passage I read for my quiet time today speaks into this situation. The passage was Luke 10:38-42. You’re probably familiar with it.

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

   41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

There is no bad guy in this story. Martha is a good woman and her actions are not bad actions. There isn’t a choice between good and bad here, but rather between good and better. Martha’s intention is to serve Jesus and she shows this by her actions. But yet she is distracted by her preparations to such an extent that her focus ceases to be on Jesus. They actually distract her from the very person she was trying to serve. This makes her irritable and grumpy and she even tells Jesus what he should say to Mary: “Tell her to help me!” She just needs someone to share the burden with. But Jesus’ response indicates that this isn’t the real issue. Martha made a choice to become distracted by her preparations rather than to sit at Jesus’ feet. Mary made the right call, Martha made the wrong one.

This got me thinking about this new term. Things will be busy and it’s easy to slip into an attitude that if we’re busy then we must be doing something right, especially if you work for a church. “I’m busy with the Lord’s work,” we say to ourselves. But whilst we busy ourselves with preparations for Sunday services or the next youth group, it’s easy to omit making time to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he has to say to us. And when we do that, it’s a choice. We often don’t realise we’ve made a choice. We think we’re doing the right thing because we’re serving Jesus. But in our desire to serve Jesus, we can let our serving become a distraction, so that our focus is not actually on Jesus at all. I guess this means that sometimes (most of the time?) we have to actively make a choice to sit at Jesus’ fit and put our preparations aside, even though that can feel counter-productive.

This applies to more than just church workers though. It’s just as relevant to anyone who serves in church in some way. How easy it is for us to immerse ourselves in serving at church whilst neglecting to spend any real time with Jesus. We sing in the music group, we do a reading, lead the prayers, move the chairs or serve tea or coffee. All good things but they’re not a substitute for sitting at Jesus’ feet.

And we’re just as guilty of this outside of a church context. It’s easy to justify our busyness. “I need to revise for my exams. God want me to honour him in this so I haven’t really got time to read my Bible at the moment but it’ll still be there after my exams.” “Work is really hectic right now so I’ve got to put in the extra hours. It means missing church for a bit & I won’t make home group but I’ve gotta honour God at work too.” OK, so those are extreme examples, cliched up to the hilt but they still make a point. Of course God wants you to honour him by working for your exams and of course he wants you to honour him at work, but not at the expense of spending time with Jesus. That just misses the point.

In honesty though, I’m being a bit easy on us here. I’m making out that most of the things that distract us from sitting at the feet of Jesus are things we do with good intentions, intended to honour God. In reality, most of our distractions are not like Martha’s, they’re more like this:

I have actually had someone tell me they’ve had a busy week because they got a new computer game that took up all of their time. That’s not being busy. That’s being at at a huge loose end and just doing what you want to do. And if we’re honest, more often than not, it’s stuff like this that distracts us from sitting at Jesus’ feet.

But regardless of whether or not our distractions have good intentions behind them, they’re still distractions and distractions that we often choose to continue in. In a world that constantly tell us that busyness is good, we need to be more like Mary, stepping away from those distractions and making time to sit at Jesus’ feet.

Preach the Word & Care for the Flock

I’ve just got back from my second year at the Bible Centred Youth Work Conference run by the Good Book company. It’s been a really encouraging few days and it was great to be able to meet with other youth workers who are in the same position as I am and who are facing similar struggles. It was also a useful time to be able to gather my thoughts on my ministry and where it’s strengths and weaknesses lie.

The teaching at the conference has been really helpful in focusing me back onto what I’m actually here to do and really helped in getting some perspective on my situation. Basically, I like a bit of a grumble, and whilst my church is far from perfect, hearing about the situations that some people are in made me realise just how good I have it.

In many ways, I still haven’t had much time to really process what I heard at the conference and so anything I say now may just be reactionary, but there was a lot of food for thought, some of which I referenced in my mini-blogs during the conference. It’s the comments of Phil Moon and Dave Fenton in relation to how they’ve seen youth work change over the years that have really stuck in my mind and I’d like to make some comment on what they said and how I feel this speaks into my situation.

Firstly,

More Work, Less Progress

This was something I could immediately identify with as it’s something that a number of us have often said plagues our own church. I personally associate the ‘more work’ with a couple of different things. Firstly, busyness. It’s an incredibly worldly idea to think that you can only be doing things properly if you’re busy and rushed off your feet. That’s not to suggest that we should be sitting around doing very little; of course we need to work very hard at what we do and give our all to it. But when your youth group or church starts to decline or growth slows, the temptation is to start thinking about what new things we can add to the calendar and eventually we end up with a weekly schedule where we just rush about from one thing to the next in a state of heightened stress. There’s a lot on offer but it’s not really moving anyone forward, just stressing us out and putting pressure excess pressure on us (and probably everyone else too).

Secondly, I think this shows that we can be working really hard, but if there’s no progress, perhaps the work we’re doing isn’t the right kind. Maybe we’ve got our priorities wrong. I marvel at churches whose young people are never taught the Bible in any real depth and yet  they can’t understand why their youth ministry isn’t growing. It’s cause you’re working hard at fun and games but not teaching the word.

I think both busyness and our work being misdirected, actually hinder progress and are the reason so many youth workers burn out. Apparently the average UK church youth worker lasts 17 months before they burn out which is shocking. I was definitely struck by that and I need to examine what parts of my week are actually things which are just clogging up the diary and actually hindering the youth work at my church. Anyway, the next thing was:

More Focus, Less Sacrifice

Being, for the most part, a conservative evangelical and part of a solid Bible teaching church, it’s unsurprising that my ministry has a heavy focus on preaching and teaching the word. If you’ve read some of my other blogs you might have picked up on my conviction that it’s the word of God that speaks to people and opens their eyes and that basically, youth work without the Bible is pretty much unthinkable to my mind. However, what Phil Moon seemed to be saying, was that as conservative evangelicals we have prioritised the word so much, that it’s actually been to the detriment of our relationships with our young people. We’ve become so embroiled in knowing how to handle the Bible correctly, how to give good talks that are faithful to the word etc, that we just don’t have much of a focus on sacrificing our time and selves to be with our young people and really get alongside them. Both Phil and Dave recounted various outings they’d gone on as young people and later with their own young people, and how important those times were. Even those times were teaching times because ministry is incarnational. We have to share our lives with our young people, not just an hour and a half at bible study each week. 1 Thessalonians 2:8 says this:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.

Paul is saying ‘there was more to our ministry that just telling you the gospel. We lived amongst you, we laughed with you, we cried with you, we shared every part of our lives with you. Why? Because we love you.’ We all know (or should do) that youth work is relational, but somehow, despite knowing that, we’ve gradually pushed that out due to our heavy focus on the word. The key for us now is to keep that evangelical word focus but also get back to sharing our lives with our young people; making sacrifices for our ministry. Sharing the gospel and our lives with our young people because we love them. I think this is a real weakness in my ministry and one that needs addressing. We do have some great relationships, but they could be so much more. And making that a reality can be a lot simpler than we might think. An example was mentioned of how one leader used to take her kids to the shopping centre. She was going shopping and asked if anyone wanted to come, so she drove them in and they simply went about their shopping. They didn’t have to spend the whole time together. They went their separate ways and then re-grouped for refreshments and such like, but it was a great time of relationship building and an opportunity to have some really good chats in the car and over coffee. I’m already mulling over what I can do with my kids and I think adding more of this kind of stuff in could make a huge difference. The third change was:

More Training, Less Practice

Basically we have a generation made up of a vast number of people who have been heavily trained in how to handle the Bible and lead Bible studies, and somehow an attitude has grown up that you basically have to have a PhD to teach the Bible. It’s all become quite academic and we’ve become training reliant. We’re afraid to let those without the right qualifications get up and teach. But the reality is that we now have a lot of people who have been taught how to do things, but haven’t actually done many of those things in the real world. They’ve been taught how to do it but they’ve never really done it. When I look back over the years and the various things I lead at, I know I got up and made a real mess of stuff sometimes. But if I hadn’t been given the opportunity to have a go, mess it up, learn from it and try again, then I wouldn’t have had any chance of moving forward or growing. The challenge for me now is to not be afraid to let others have a go and fail. We still want to support and train our leaders as best we can, but we need to realise that they don’t have to have done three years at Bible college before they can get up and lead. Sure, they won’t be the finished product, but then who the hell is? I’m certainly not. I’m thankful I was given the opportunities to try and to fail and so now I’ve got to learn to trust God enough to let others do the same.

The way Dave Fenton summed up Christian youth work was this: Preach the word and care for the flock. Those are the only two things we need to do. It’s really that simple but yet we often make it so much more complicated. When someone sums up our ministry so succinctly and so concisely, we can’t help but look at our ministry and realise that we just need to go right back to basics. All we are to do is to preach the word and share our lives with our young people. We show them Jesus and we care for them, we listen to them, we laugh with them, we cry with them, we pray with them, we support them and we have fun with them. Why? Because we love them.

That’s what will make a great youth ministry.