Posted in Learning

Do Less: A (No)Programmatic Answer to the Spring Slump

I had the opportunity through a CYMT connection to contribute to the Youth Specialties blog. Youth Specialties is a big youth ministry thing you would know about if you cared about youth ministry things.

Speaking of youth ministry things – here’s my first post as a contributor for Youth Specialties, you can tell its important because its tagged as “uncategorized”- actually though, its about spring programming, self-restraint, and breaking the temptation to program our way into relevance as youth pastors.

You can read it (oooh or like or tweet it!) at this link!


The Importance and Normalcy of Doubt

Last week’s blog post for work: Doubt.

I gave a talk oriented around these ideas to a group of around 20 of the youth I work with, and had giant sticky notes on the wall with the 3 questions (Today, what can’t you believe? Today, what can you believe, but doubt? and Today, what can you believe?”) written on them. The answers that emerged were powerful, heart-breaking, and poignant, as teenagers often prove they have the capacity to be.

They doubt God’s providence in death, they doubt their own forgiveness, but they believe that it will get better and they believe that this family will be there for them through it all.

Posted in Learning

From the Justin: 2 Timothy 2:8-15

I’ve had some friends ask that I keep posting about what I’m learning in seminary and in my new world of youth ministry. I’m excited to! However, between writing curriculum, talks, and papers for seminary, I already write a lot. So I’m going to be intermittently sharing things I wrote for other purposes. I hope it is useful for people in the youth ministry community, or at least fun for my mom and 6 friends that read my blog.

Here’s the talk I gave to middle and high school students, on Oct. 9 on 2 Timothy 2: 8 -15, which was pulled from the lectionary. Disclaimer: this was written for 12-17 year olds, and I am not an early church scholar. 


The other day, I saw an article online about the “Instagram Bible” – talking about how teenagers today most often see scripture quotes in cool fonts over scenic pictures in nature. People use a lot of different verses for these, but they’re all basically the same bent: trust in the Lord for He is good, sing praise to the Lord of all creation, my soul finds rest in God, etc. You know, instagram-able stuff. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with celebrating and loving the words of scripture, isn’t there something we miss out on when we take verses so radically out of any socio-cultural, historical, or even narrative context?

Don’t we think that by cutting and snipping and sanitizing the Bible, we’re not making it more, but less? The Bible is not a collection of fortune cookies stapled together, but a collection of works by different writers, editors, and genres, assembled together over thousands of years, and shaped by all of the contexts of all of those time periods.

So before we talk about today’s scripture – I want to spend a second zooming out and talking about context.

After Jesus dies and is resurrected, he tells the disciples to “go out and make disciples of all nations” and then ascends into to heaven. The Holy Spirit comes in the Pentecost, and the disciples can now speak all languages, perform miracles, cast out demons, etc. They go around, spreading the good news of Jesus, and the church grows like wildfire. Things are going according to plan.

Then, in 57 ad, about 25 years after Jesus died, a new Roman emperor takes over, his name is Nero. Nero, looking to consolidate his rule as emperor, seeks the fledgling church as an easy target. Persecution against the early church intensifies. Church leaders are thrown into jail, and killed, church meetings go underground. The church is scattered, frightened, and unsure. This can’t be what Jesus wanted? I thought his kingdom was coming? I thought that his word was supposed to spread all over the earth?

Paul is back in prison, but this time its different. In his earlier imprisonment, he was treated as sort of a guest of honor, but now, he’s in chains, in a dungeon, where even his closest friends struggle to find him. He knows he’s not going to make it out of this one. He knows he’s dying.

I imagine the letters being read, I imagine the people of the church gathered in someone’s house, by night, so they wont be discovered. I imagine one person standing up front holding a candle close to the letter to read it out loud to the group

“Guys, guys! Be quiet, hush, its from Paul, its a letter from Paul! “… Dear church in Ephesus, stop with all your internal fighting (yeah, Carol. Oh come on, you know its about you, please) support and build up each other…” 

I imagine a young guy standing in the back of the room. He’s nervous, shifting his feet, not really listening. His name is Timothy. Paul has chosen him as his successor to lead the baby church. He’s not an obvious choice, he’s young, and timid, and inexperienced. But there weren’t a whole lot of other options. He’s received a special letter from Paul, addressed just to him. Timothy doesn’t know it yet, but that letter is the last recorded writings of Paul before he dies.

I imagine Timothy’s hands shaking a little as he opens the letter. What’s Paul going to say? Is he getting out of prison soon? Does he know how they’re going to avoid getting stamped out by Nero? Does he have a plan?

Timothy reads:

My dear son, Timothy…

Remember Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead and descended from David. This is my good news. This is the reason I’m suffering to the point that I’m in prison like a common criminal (in chains). But God’s word cannot be imprisoned (God’s word is unchained) .  This is why I endure everything for the sake of those who are chosen by God so that they too may experience salvation in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. This saying is reliable:

“If we have died together, we will also live together.
       If we endure, we will also rule together.
        If we deny him, he will also deny us.
 If we are disloyal, he stays faithful”
    because he can’t be anything else than what he is.

It’s an encouragement. Paul, dying in a prison cell, uses his last letter to send Timothy words of encouragement.

Paul says, “this is my good news.” That Jesus is resurrected (v. 8), God’s word is unchained (v. 9), we are part of the story (v. 11), and the glue that holds it all together? God can’t help but be faithful because God can’t help but be God (v. 13). 

Paul’s message to Timothy is essentially this: ‘I know you’re young and scared and you feel like the world is coming down on your shoulders. I know you’re afraid of being a disappointment and you don’t know what’s ahead, but have hope, be brave, Timothy. God can’t help but be God. I know it all seems like its falling apart but God can’t help but be God, God can’t help but be faithful to us, have hope.’ 

This letter, at its core, is a message of hope. Paul’s hope is not in himself, or even in Timothy, but in the Kingdom of God. Paul’s hope is not that Timothy will do everything perfectly, or even that they’re even going to see their situation get any better, but that God is perfect regardless.

Paul knows he’s dying but writes words of hope regardless.

Can you imagine Timothy? Can you imagine him looking around the room nervously? As they finish reading the letter to the whole church, eyes gradually turn towards him. People are chattering, they know that he’s the chosen successor of Paul, and he got a special letter! What did it say? Was he coming back? Did he have instructions on how to escape this nightmare? Can you imagine him slowly stepping forward, looking at his feet. What was he going to tell them? What was he supposed to say?


I believe that hope is the bravest form of faith. Maybe I picture Timothy so clearly because I also struggle to hold onto hope. I can imagine he was scared. I would have been scared too. I’m scared when I speak to my church now, when I speak to teenagers and say, “hope.” I can’t imagine how Timothy felt, especially in a context when he had so little to be hopeful about.

Back when  I worked in Northern Thailand,  I had a case where the client was 12  and around 5 months pregnant. (I’ve talked about her, and her baby, before in this blog, so this may sound redundant). I did my job. I mean, I did what I could. We got her set up at part time school, took her to doctors appointments, tried to get her parents the vocational support they needed to make a stable enough income that she would be safe from further exploitation. The legal team prosecuted her case successfully, but her abuser was sentenced to one year of probation. But this was a situation where it all seemed pretty hopeless, nothing I could do was enough. I felt like Timothy left to lead a fledgling church with no instruction and no way out of the desperate situation they were in. On February 9th, 2015, she had her baby, and she named him Daniel. 

Daniel. Daniel who was thrown to the lions and survived, Daniel who survived the furnace. Daniel who, right before he was thrown into the furnace said ‘my God is strong enough to deliver me, but even if he does not, he is still God.’ Even if He doesn’t deliver us from this furnace, even if I die in this jail cell, He is still God. I will still have hope. 

I was so busy worrying about all the ways I was inadequate, that I almost missed a 12 year old mother and a baby named Daniel who turned 20 months old last week. I was so busy worrying about all the ways that I was trying to do a good job, to bring hope in a hopeless situation that I almost missed the inexplicable truth that hope was already there. A 12 year old trafficking victim was the Paul to my timothy, calling from struggle like I couldn’t know – saying this is my good news: Jesus is resurrected, God is truly unchained. 

Hope is the bravest form of faith. Hope like a baby named Daniel, hope like a dying man in a prison cell. And sometimes, we the Timothys, need those who seem like they should have the least hope of all, to remind us to be brave.

I imagine that Timothy shook out his hands, and stepped up in front of everyone, and said “this is my good news” even knowing that hard days lay ahead of them.

We are called to lead the church, to be the church, to sing hope from jail cells and say “this is my good news – Jesus is resurrected, God is unchained, and we are part of the story, even if we’re not sure why. Because God is God and he can’t help but be faithful to us”

I imagine as Timothy said it, he started to believe it. We may not see how things are getting any better (he may not rescue us from the lions den, from the prison cell) but we are called to hope regardless, because God cant be anything but God is. And God is good, and powerful, and bringing the kingdom on earth. And that is my good news.

Posted in Learning

Inadequacy: A Defense

I am now 3 weeks into my job as the Associate Director of Youth Ministry for a large, downtown, DFW-area church. Although I was objectively qualified for this job, and have learned a lot more already, I will admit that I have spent a fair amount of my time feeling sort of lost.

I tried to ease in, checking my natural proclivity to burst into situations as a tidal wave of unsubstantiated self-confidence and enthusiasm that usually leaves me having to apologize and course-correct within a couple weeks. On that front I think I’ve done decently well, listening and trying to fit into the already-established dynamics and culture.  But other than, ‘try not to be annoying,’ I haven’t really had much of a strategy in any of this. Around February, I felt a call to youth ministry. I’ll admit I responded with something more like ‘Ok, Jesus’ than the Magnificat. I did all the right things. I got a youth ministry job, I’m going to seminary, I’m reading the right books.

But when I sit with my cohort of youth ministry newbies in my training program, or read these books, and they talk about not burning yourself out in the first couple years so that you can have a 20 year career with your ministry, I find myself scooting back a little in my chair. I’m not sure I’m a “youth ministry person” – I’m just a person who happens to be doing youth ministry right now. Just like when I worked at IJM, I wasn’t a “anti-trafficking person,” that was just what I was doing right then. Yeah I mean, when I heard this call, it sounded like it was for life in ministry, but I’m not sold. This isn’t all I’ve wanted to do since I was kid, like some of the people in my program, or my boss.

But these teenagers have made my easing, my halfhearted commitment, challenging. Within my first week, wonderful teenage girls poured out their heartbreaks and brokenness into my hands, not because I had said the right thing or established the right environment, but simply because God decided this was what he wanted to use me for. So I met them with open hands and absolutely no motive or agenda. Not because I’m selfless or my motives are pure, but because I simply hadn’t been there long enough to even decide what my agenda was.

‘Ok, Jesus.’ I thought to myself on my exhausted drive home from spending time with these girls.’You clearly did call me here. So here I will be.’ I thought of Old Testament prophets and kings, who heard the voice of God and said, ‘I will go, but only if you go with me.’

I feel lost because I have no idea what version, or fragment of me is right for this. I have changed and grown so much in the past two years that I’m not longer sure what I even bring to the table. The nineteen and twenty year old me that first confidently barreled into youth ministry is long gone. I can’t rely on the skills learned or strategies developed then any more than I could rely on ones learned out of a book. They’re equally irrelevant.

At our program orientation, our director wrapped up a session by assuring us “if you fear you are inadequate, don’t worry. You definitely are.” But Jesus is so much greater than our inadequacy. Grace comes into own in our weakness. The message of our lives is told through our weakness.

So I’m 3 weeks in, and plagued with inadequacy, lukewarm commitment, and lack of direction. But Jesus has already used those broken places, using inadequacy to keep me humble, my lukewarmness to keep me constantly evaluating myself and everything around objectively, and even my lack of direction has quieted my ruthless ambition and made me a more honest and present sister in Christ to those around me. My story is not one of the superstar youth leader, but of a broken sinner, a follower of Jesus, who for the time being is blessed to join what God is doing here.

I will watch with wide eyes and a hungry heart to see what Jesus does next.

Posted in Reading

Sustainable Youth Ministry: Pay no Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Youth ministry may be one of the only professions that has settled into the pattern of handing over total responsibility for running an organization to young people just out of college. Far too often, anxiety, not wisdom, drives us. – Sustainable Youth Ministry

Sustainable Youth Ministry was one of those books recommended to me by three separate people before I read it. I will admit when I got the third recommendation, from my boss-to-be, I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. The issue is not the content, I am about to start a career in youth ministry, and I have experienced the incredible burnout rate of youth workers first-hand.

The issue is the author. I don’t have a problem with Mark DeVries, in fact, quite the opposite. Mark joined FPC Nashville, my home church, in the 90’s as the youth pastor, and only officially retired in the past year or two. He was the man I met when I was on my first youth retreat at 12, the one who coached me through my sermon on youth Sunday at 18, who was my boss when I interned at the church at 19, and who performed my wedding two months ago, at 24. I worked for, or with, all 3 of his children. He introduced me to International Justice Mission, the organization I used to work for, and founded the youth ministry training programming I’m in (the Center for Youth Ministry Training, CYMT). He is the one who first encouraged me to go into ministry in the first place.

Can you even imagine the “of course” laugh I had when my boss-to-be told me their youth ministry uses Youth Ministry Architects, the coaching service Mark started? When he recommended the book he said, “You should read Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries, you know him, right?” Yes, we’ve met.

All of that is to say that I can, in no way, give an objective analysis of this book. I leaned a lot from it, but I was most captivated by comparing the pitfalls and successes described in the book to my own youth ministry experience, having not only crystal clear mental images of the leaders and programs he described but also understanding Mark’s behavior by hearing it describe his own why.

As a part of the youth ministry at FPC Nashville, my peers and I were always vaguely aware that we were always part of some experiment. By the time I was a teenager, Mark was rarely involved in the day-to-day of youth ministry, but often seemed much more like the man behind the curtain, the wizard handing down wisdom. Don’t take any of this as a criticism of the man, he is very wise and kind and has been a huge influence on me and many of my peers, but I have one pretty fundamental question about his ability to put what he wrote in this book into practice.

The whole concept of Sustainable Youth Ministry is that its a handbook on building long-term youth ministries that aren’t built around cults of personality, but can continue to build and thrive after the youth minister moves on. From an outsider perspective, Mark’s perspective on this issue seems well-founded, he made a fairly seamless, gradual, transition out of leadership at FPC Nashville. But I am not an outsider.

I did a summer internship in 2012 leading high school mission trips, and when people found out I was from FPC Nashville, the most frequent comment I got was, “that’s Mark DeVries’s church, right?” – never mind that not only was Mark not the senior pastor at our church, he was actually only working there part-time. I spent some time working as the receptionist at FPC Nashville early this year, and I got at least 3 or 4 calls a week asking for Mark DeVries, despite the fact that he hadn’t had an office there for over a year. And when I trained my replacement, an outsider,  I had to explain to her that Mark could reserve any space he wanted, no he’s not on staff, but he doesn’t need to fill out a reservation form, and no one needs to approve it.

While Mark was the youth pastor, his son, his son-in-law, his son-in-law’s best friend, his daughter, and at least three other guys who grew up in his youth ministry were on full-time staff. And when Mark finally phased out completely from being the youth pastor, his  son took over, having just graduated from the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Mark also went, where our senior pastor is on the board of trustees, and which is a founding partner of CYMT. I think its worth considering that Mark’s unspoken secret ingredient in the recipe for sustainable youth ministry is a pipeline of people trained in identical schools of thought as you, who want to work for you, and follow your lead.

Adam DeVries is a friend of mine, and don’t take his family connection as a knock on his qualifications. He is a gifted, daringly compassionate, wise man who I absolutely adore spending time with, and who has done amazing things for FPC Nashville’s youth ministry.  But I sometimes wonder if he could be an ever better pastor somewhere else, where he isn’t constantly surrounded by people who look at him and expect him to be his father. Mark warns against the pervading anxiety in youth workers. You try taking over for a legend in your field, and who happens to be your father, and see if makes you a little anxious.

You can imagine that its hard for me to look at our youth ministry and see how it serves as a model of a style of youth ministry that is not centered around the youth minister. While Mark is not there on the day-to-day level, the youth ministry, and sometimes the whole church, feels like it operates in his shadow. That’s not to say he’s not a wonderful, benevolent, influence, he definitely is, and he has built a great program that gets along fine without his management. But it still invokes his name. FPC Nashville’s youth ministry is sustainable in the sense that Mark has managed to establish the continuation of his legacy into the next generation.

So I don’t know. I love Mark, I think he’s a legend for a reason. There’s a lot I did learn from this book, Mark’s discussion of playful detachment in petty issues, and of emotional health and creating climates of friendship, are not only all useful advice but things I can point to as difference-makers in my own experience of youth ministry under his leadership, but the hand-off that is so central to this book? I’m just not sure it ever happened. Mark lays out his model for having workers, contractors and architects, and how shifting strategic responsibility to the architect provides continuity when the workers come and go, but doesn’t address the question of himself, the architect.

How does an architect leave?





Posted in Reading

Kenda Creasy Dean’s “Almost Christian”

The blase religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel…  –Almost Christian

This book was more interesting than I expected (I posted an introduction to the book last week). The book is split into three basic sections, first dissecting the issues with the American church, second, identifying potential solutions through outliers and sociological tools, and last, presenting a vision for a different church.

Takeaway 1: We Get What We Are

The issue with Youth Ministry may well be not that teenagers don’t care about God, but that adults don’t care about God. Social psychology has repeatedly proven the importance of role models, particularly ones we see as “like us.” So, Dean points out, you can point to Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, or the apostles, all you want (and you by all means should) as what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, but without a model of what devoted Christian faith looks like now, in their community, for someone “like us,” how are children supposed to grow into it?

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? (Romans 10:14)

Dean then lightly touches a follow-up question that could easily be the basis of a whole second book. Is the faith we’re passing on to young people lifeless because we adults have accidentally strayed from what we know we are meant to be? Or have we passed on dead faith on purpose to make sure our children are successful in a culture that frowns on zealotry? Did Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cripple our God or did we?

Gary Haugen, my old boss at IJM, wrote a book called Just Courage about the bravery inspired by Jesus, especially as to how it pertains to IJM’s (sometimes dangerous) work. He wrote a section about the parents of young people who go overseas to work in field offices, I read it to my mom when I left. His basic proposition is this: good Christian parents raise their children to love God whole-heartedly, to not seek material wealth, to serve the poor and suffering, to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, and then are mortified when their children actually do.  Are parents and churches guilty of teaching children only as much faith as they think will be convenient? If so, that is the greatest possible form of robbery.

Takeaway 2: No one Actually Wants to be Left Alone

For a striking number of teenagers, our interviews seemed to be the first time any adult had asked them what they believed, and why it mattered to them. –Almost Christian

This book, for any person who was in youth ministry, almost begs reflection. What was my defining experience? Would I have counted as a ‘highly devoted’ youth? What circumstances set the stage for me to have the faith I have?

There is one point that caused me more reflection than any other though. Dean points out that in the NSYR, teenagers consistently mention adults they enjoy talking to in their churches, and respond positively when asked about mentors, coaches and teachers. There is a pervading misconception in our culture that teenagers want adults to leave them alone. They don’t. Yes, maybe they push away certain adults (their parents) as a part of growing up, but they crave validation, encouragement, advice, and support from people they respect, like everyone does. I remember finding excuses for hanging around youth events late as a teenager just because I wanted to talk to my youth leaders for a few minutes. Maybe I wanted to debrief a problem I had at school, maybe I had read something and had been waiting all week for a chance to talk to them about it. I wasn’t uniquely without adult figures in my life, I grew up in a Christian, loving, two-parent household, but I was still so hungry for adults to tell me that I was seen, and heard, and loved.

In a different section of the book entirely, Dean talks about the importance of conversation about Jesus as a part of faith, how American teenagers are strikingly inarticulate about faith. Dean proposes this is because no one ever taught them how to talk about it, they’ve never tried. She also mentioned that teenagers, in a rush to conjure all the “God-talk” words they know, said things that were considered heretical in their own traditions. Things they may very well not have known were heretical because no one ever taught them.

I see these two issues are bound together, teenagers’ need for attention, respect, and validation from adults, and their need to exercise their spiritual muscles by discussing faith, have, after all, one solution. For adults and teenagers to spend time together talking about faith. This is a terrifying prospect for many adults. Because they’re afraid that a teenager will ask them a question they wont know the answer to, or because they’re afraid the teenager wont like them. The first fear is no big deal, they know you’re not an expert. I actually remember being consistently frustrated with my high school Sunday school teacher because she insisted on clean, unambiguous answers and frequently quieted questions that couldn’t produce them. The second fear is remedied through honesty testimony. Once you know someone’s story, its really hard not to like them. Address teenagers as people, and let them see you as a person as well.

Takeaway 3: God’s affection for Dis-orientation

The visitors feel themselves losing their grip; or better, they feel the world losing its grip on them. What world? The world made up of important people like us and unimportant and poor people like their hosts. As the poet Yeats says, “things fall apart”; the visitors’ world is coming unhinged… I’m on unfamiliar ground, entering a richer, more real world. – Dean Brackley

This book does, at times, use a little too much clunky academic language, particularly in its sections about liminality and reflexivity (which my spell check isn’t even recognizing as words). Liminality simply means the state of being between things, to be metaphorically standing in a doorway, like the space between waking and sleeping, or that fleeting, and somehow eternal, moment after someone tells you bad news but before you can react. Its an uncomfortable, free-falling feeling where all of your brain’s capacities to predict what happens next have failed you. Sociologists argue that adolescents experience liminality as a more or less permanent state.

Reflexivity, as described by Andrew Wall, is “choosing to change seats in the human auditorium” to be able to critically examine your own position and understand the world differently by stepping in to someone else’s. Liminality and reflexivity are related in the sense that moments of liminality almost beg us to take a step back and reconsider who we are and what led us there. Worked in alongside both of these concepts as the trigger for these feelings is, as Dean calls it, the “disorienting dilemma.” The moments in our lives that shake us, rattle us, uproot us, and cause us to question everything we thought we knew about God, ourselves, and our world. Teenage life is full of disorienting dilemmas, and the Holy Spirit just loves them.

These nerdy concepts all jell together to make sense of something we have all experienced as true. When we, or teenagers, are uncomfortable, off-center, and outside of our comfort zone, we are way more open to the transforming power of the Spirit, and much more attune to the voice of God and presence of Jesus in our lives. This is the psychological and sociological codification of the ancient truth that God’s voice is more clearly heard in the desert or in the wilderness or on a mountaintop than in our day-to-day. The more uncomfortable we are, the more intense our feeling of liminality, the more of our souls are exposed to the changing power of Jesus. These “de-centering experiences”  and “disorienting dilemmas” can’t be crafted by the church, the Holy Spirit moves as it will, but we can send teenagers into the wilderness and trust that God will move within them the same way he did for so many prophets.


My next read will be Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries (who is actutally my old youth pastor). As much as this book was a helpful profile of where we are as an American church, I hope the next one will help fill in my understanding of the role and practice of Youth Ministry. I also, as a point of curiosity, am interested in what the man who ran my youth group has to say about why he did it that way and what he might do differently.