My First Talk In The Big Boy Church

I mentioned the other day that I had spoken for the first time at our evening service and if it had been recorded I would pop it up on here. Well it turns out it was recorded so I am indeed popping it up. Unfortunately it does seem that the first few minutes got cut but I think all I said in that time was that we can sometimes look at those in church leadership, the big bible teaching and preaching types and think they’re the ones really making a difference for the Kingdom and think that our practical ministries are a bit insignificant. Then I go on to say what I think the passage has to say about that, complete with a 24 based example!

The talk was on Acts 6:1-7 and can be heard here.
Thoughts and comments appreciated.

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Reports, Breakfasts & Sermons

Last week I had to face the PCC. Every 2 years or so I’m required to write a report about how youth work is going at church. This is actually quite a daunting thing. Whilst certain areas might be going well it’s hard not to wince as you have to detail the areas that are perhaps weak, especially as you know that if questioned on it, the best excuse you’ll be able to muster is that you just haven’t quite got round to it yet! Still, writing it was also quite a helpful exercise in getting me to think about the varying stages that different groups are at as well as individuals. It probably didn’t hurt that I had to write it during a period of changing some areas of my work, which I was able to detail and which probably gave the impression that I was more forward thinking than maybe I am.

The face to face reporting turned out not to be quite as daunting as I thought it might be. Everyone had already had the report emailed to them prior to the meeting and so all I really had to do was field some questions, which really wasn’t that bad. I felt I was able to give a good account of where we were at and some of the reasons behind changes being made and people seemed to be happy with what I said. It was nice too that there were a couple of parents there who were able to vouch for me by saying how much their teenagers enjoyed the groups and thus far hadn’t gone off the rails on a cocktail of sambuca and class B drugs all whilst under my influence. And on an even more positive note, once I had finished answering questions, they let me leave! Back home by 9pm and not feeling even the slightest bit of sympathy for the rest of the PCC who were most likely going to be there until 10.30pm!

On a different note last  Saturday was the first Saturday I was working under my new timetable and I’m pleased to say it was a great start. I met one of our teenagers in the morning for breakfast (hello full English on expenses!) I felt it was a really productive time together, talking about everything from music, schoolwork, plans for uni and quiet times. I was also really pleased that he agreed to start meeting for One2One bible reading beginning in April, which I think will be really good for both him and me.

Saturday afternoon was primarily spent playing table tennis, Mario Kart and Goldeneye and humiliating my teenagers as I quickly trounced them at all of the above. I’ve still got it! The curate, who line manages me, said that he was once told that you should always lose at games to your young people so as to build them up or something. We both agreed this was a completely ridiculous idea and really  there are only so many ways you can throw a game of Connect 4 before they realise you’re up to something! It’s fine to win but just be a gracious winner. And if any of my young people ever read this I just want to say “HA, in your face losers!”

Our evening service last night was led by our 14-18’s group, or at least those who weren’t off on holiday. Half term is not a good time to schedule a youth led service! Anyway, one of our older boys led the service for the first ever time and he was great. He was clearly a bit nervous about it but he got up there and did brilliantly, even in the face of some failing technology which meant a quick re-shuffle of the service on the fly. It was all the more encouraging to see him up there as a year ago I don’t think he would have said boo to a goose. He even said afterwards that he’d quite like to do it again. Top stuff.

The service was also the first time I had preached at an evening service. I’d done a couple of 10 minuters at one of our smaller services before but the evening service is generally supposed to be a bit more meaty. We’re talking 25-30 minutes here. It was a pretty nerve wracking experience in the build up, again as it’s easy to fear man and not God, but it came together really well in the end. I’m not sure if it was recorded but if it was I might pop it up on here. I’ve only had one email so far from someone telling me they interpret the passage completely differently but I’m not too concerned as my thoughts tied up with the commentaries and my line manager was really pleased with what had been said as well so I’ve just got to trust God knew what He was doing. He’s got a pretty good track record so far.

Now just a couple of days off before a manic end to the week in the form of preaching at our cafe church and taking part in an evangelistic music cafe. Who said half term was a chance for a break?

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.

Conference Day 2

Another challenging day at the conference with lots of food for thought, some of which I’ll jot down now with a mind to expand on them a bit when I get home.
Some thoughts from Phil Moon & Dave Fenton on how youth work has changed since they started out. Conclusions:
More work, less progress.
More focus, less sacrifice.
More training, less practice.

I’ll expand on those later. There was also a lot of talk about how our focus on the word has been to the detriment of relationships with our young people. We’ve got two things to do: preach the word and care for the flock but often one slips in favour of the other.
Definitely got me thinking.

The Adventure of Discipleship

A few days ago I received my latest copy of Youthwork magazine. It’s always a good read with plenty of interesting and insightful articles which give me plenty of food for thought.

Today I felt I wanted to write about an article called “The Adventure of Discipleship” by Kenny Wilson who is the Senior Tutor in Youth Work with Applied Theology at the International Christian College, Glasgow (Youthwork Magazine, February 2011). I’ve read it through a couple of times now and I find what he says interesting but ultimately I’m not sure I agree with what he says. Initially I did but after processing it a bit more I’ve kind of changed my mind.

If possible, I suggest you read the article yourself although I’ll do my best to convey what I think he’s saying. He suggests for the earliest Christians, discipleship was a daily adventure of discovering how they might share the love of God with others. He goes on to suggest that we have lost the idea of discipleship as an adventure and he poses the question “where has the adventure gone”

He thinks there are a number of reasons. The one I want to concentrate on is that he feels that as evangelicals we have emphasised the Great Commission over the Great Commandments. When Jesus is questioned as to which is the most important commandment he says the most important is to:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31.

Wilson says these sum up the law and are the foundation for the Kingdom that Jesus was ushering in and I think he’s quite right. He’s also probably quite right that as evangelicals we are perhaps guilty of emphasising the Commission over the Commands. But surely real love for others, for the lost, is to tell them about Jesus and their need for a salvation and forgiveness? The Great Commission is part of the fulfilment of the Great Commandments.

I believe that many evangelicals have gone too far in overemphasising the Great Commission, even to the point of almost completely rejecting social action or good deeds which are divorced from gospel proclamation. For example, I know of some people who are extremely critical of Soul Survivor’s “Soul in the City” initiative in 2004. They argue that it had no real long term effect in terms of bringing people to Christ as it was just social action without proclamation. I don’t know how much truth there is in this in terms of the effect it had. I would imagine that it opened doors that were previously closed, and so even though it’s initial phase wasn’t about speaking the word it was still a positive step for the gospel, and had long term gospel proclamation in mind. However, some evangelicals would reject this type of action completely as it doesn’t explicitly set out to speak the word. But if it leads to opportunities later then I think it can be a good thing. The question is really whether we are looking for those opportunities and whether we take them.

This is where I struggle with the articles  view. Wilson uses an example of some young Christians who wanted to live out their faith  amongst their friends. The group of friends in question all had bikes which they used a lot. In order to live out their faith they went through a period of “liberating” their friends bikes, doing them up, before returning them to their owners with only a card saying “From the Nice” left in the spokes. Throughout the whole time the young people remained anonymous but word of “The Nice” spread like wildfire around the school.

Now I really think what they did is brilliant and so does Wilson. It was an act of loving their neighbours. But what Wilson really likes about the act is that it was done by stealth.

“What attracted me most to their actions was the fact that they wanted to remain stealth disciples….Despite (and I suspect because of) the fact they kept their actions secret, the power of their actions spread far and wide.”

The problem for me is this. How does this bring people into relationship with Jesus? How do these actions tell people of their need to repent and come to Jesus? Quite simply, by themselves, they don’t. They’re just good deeds done by anonymous people. It doesn’t point to Christ because no-one knows it’s Christians that are doing it. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, you’re just over-emphasising the Great Commission. These guys were loving their neighbour like they should be.” Yes they were loving their neighbours to an extent but surely the most loving thing we can do for our neighbour is to tell them about Jesus. To do these things as stealth and deliberately decide to remain anonymous doesn’t point anyone to Jesus. What they did was brilliant, but wouldn’t it have been even better to use that as an opportunity to tell people why they wanted to do that for them, to tell them about Jesus and their need for a saviour? Isn’t it more unloving not to tell people about Jesus? It seems they had no intention of doing that in the long run either or at least it is never mentioned.

I don’t really agree with this mindset and it reminded me of the words of Penn teller, the famous atheist magician. He that he has no respect for Christians who don’t evangelise. He says if you believe that there is a heaven and a hell and that people might be going to hell, you’d have to hate someone a lot not to try and warn them about it. You can see the video of him talking about this here.

But Wilson clearly thinks the example of stealth set by those young people was a good one. He goes on to say:

Was it not Jesus who told us not to proclaim our good deeds, our ‘righteousness’ from the hilltops as the Pharisees did? Was it not Jesus who asked some of those he healed to ‘say nothing’ and not broadcast what he did? Perhaps we should take his advice more seriously and involve more stealth discipleship in our work, and so create that frission of adventure, that ‘who dunnit mystery’?”

I can’t really agree with this at all. Firstly, by not mentioning any other alternatives, Wilson seems to suggest that the only other alternative to stealth discipleship is to proclaim your deeds from the hilltops. This isn’t true. It is possible to do loving deeds for our neighbours with the motive of blessing them as well as creating an opportunity to tell them about Jesus. It’s not a choice between stealth and self-righteousness. Secondly, I think it’s an illegitimate use of scripture to apply Jesus’ commands to people/demons to stay silent about his identity, to us today. That was part of the specific plan of the incarnation, not a command for all believers for all time. The Great Commission is itself a command to make disciples by spreading the good news of Jesus, not by doing loving but ultimately anonymous deeds. I think Paul sums up the need for telling people the gospel in Romans 10:13-15:

for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Let me quote Wilson again:

” When it comes to working with young people I think that we’ve got things the wrong way round. In our evangelical desire that others should know how wonderful it is to know Jesus, we have emphasised the Great Commission over the Great Commandments. In a strange sort of way, what we have done is to ask young people to go and share their faith often before they’ve had the chance to live out their faith. We’ve encouraged them to go and make disciples before they’ve discovered what it means to be a disciple.”

There’s a few problems here for me as well. Firstly, lets remember that the Great Commission is itself a command. Secondly, is not making disciples part of being a disciple? I think Wilson creates a false dichotomy between living out your faith and sharing your faith. As far as I can tell, they are inextricably linked. At what point do we know enough about what it means to be a disciple to allow us to think about sharing our faith? I feel that if you know why Jesus died for you, then you know enough to begin sharing your faith. He goes on to say:

“I can’t help but wonder that if our emphasis on discipleship followed biblical chronology: to love God first, our neighbours second and then the Great Commission of ‘making other disciples,’ we would see more discipleship among young people.”

Obviously God must come first, but I just don’t agree that there is a distinction between loving our neighbours and the Great Commission. Nor do I really agree about there being a right order (apart from loving God first). It’s not so much that we’ve put the cart before the horse but more that the two must always be together. If one appears without the other we are lacking as disciples.

What I’m saying is, we need both love for our neighbour and sharing our faith. This is what Wilson concludes in his article but I think we use the same words meaning two different things. I get the impression that he thinks we need both but that they can be separate, just like in the example of the teenagers who fixed their friends bikes. I think we need both because the two must always be linked. If you love your neighbour with no intention of ever telling them the gospel, then it’s not really love. If you fix someones bike with no intention of ever telling them the gospel, then it’s not really love.

That’s why I can’t agree with stealth discipleship. I think the problem is this. There are a number of Christians who are very focused on preaching the good news. The over-emphasis on this often leads them to dismiss ever doing any other kinds of loving acts for their neighbours. A kind of ‘if it isn’t preaching then it’s not worth doing approach.’ These would be the kind of people that dismiss Soul in the City but I think this really misses a trick to show distinctive living to non-believers and to build respect for the Church. At the other end of the spectrum are Christians who think they can just do good deeds and so never need to tell anyone the gospel. This is equally flawed. The two are inextricably linked. It’s not a matter of one way or the other and I think to suggest to our young people that it is one way or the other seriously impoverishes our discipleship.