10ST – 2nd Rate Worship Experiences

10ST will be an ongoing series digging into Geoff Surratt’s Ten Stupid Things that Keep Churches from Growing and how those stupid things keep youth ministries from growing as well.
This chapter, the third, had 10 practical suggestions for “improving your weekend experience.” While, Surratt’s suggestions focus on the Sunday morning worship time, I think there is a lot to glean about the role worship plays in a growing student ministry. As a youth pastor, you may or may not have a whole lot of influence on what happens from one Sunday morning to the next, but applying a few of those suggestions where you do have influence could be critical to your ministry’s health:
  • Ask the hard questions. What exactly are we trying to accomplish?
  • See the guest’s perspective. What’s it like for a new kid to walk in to your ministry?
  • Improve your music. (see below for more thoughts regarding this issue)
  • Update your technology. You don’t have to rob a bank to get the latest and greatest, but if your sound system (or lighting, computers, projectors, etc.) limps along like the Frankenstein that it is… find a way to make improvements. Don’t be stupid about spending, but don’t just settle for the crappy old equipment that’s no longer good enough for the adults to use anymore. Set your priorities, decide on a budget, and do what you can to sharpen your tech-tools.
  • Overhaul your preaching. Call it teaching, leading discussions, facilitating… whatever. The method you use to communicate the truth God reveals to you… get better at it. Always.
  • Get creative. As Surratt says, “Americans don’t do boring.” Enlist the help of a team of your students to creatively approach topics, passages, messages, etc. in your youth ministry. Why be lazy and just rinse & repeat?
  • Create an atmosphere. What can you do to make your place of meeting, a place where students want to be? (Ask them, they’ll tell you…)

Within my first week of being full time on a church staff, I recognized a problem that I knew I’d have to address quickly: my students were not engaging in worship when the church met together on Sunday mornings. They were mostly quiet and polite, but they were enduring a service, not worshiping the Savior. Recognizing this problem was one thing, finding a solution was another.

I had quit piano lessons in second grade and read music about as fast as an average chimpanzee reads braille. I could sing, but how many middle school kids do you know that are just begging for some more a capella sing a longs? I had received a guitar for Christmas my senior year of college and had practiced enough that I could play along with any song that restricted itself to the 5 chords I actually could manage. (That guitar warped and was generously replaced by friends at the church we attended in Loveland, CO even though they knew we were leaving for my first ministry and had no responsibility or obligation to me or my guitar – an investment in the Kingdom for which I’ll always be grateful!) But whenever I tried to sing and play at the same time – everything fell apart. 
This was a huge problem. I knew that I needed to lead my students to worship their Maker and genuinely engage with Him together. I also knew that music was going to be a big part of facilitating encounters between the two. But I couldn’t lead music, and I didn’t know anyone else well enough to know who might be able to engage our students and God musically, either. I have a decent internal metronome (I keep it next to my compass), but the coordination was just not there to control my vocal chords, my left hand, & my right hand all at the same time. So I quit.
I quit trying to control myself musically and asked my Father for another gift. I don’t have a lot of supernatural provision type of stories in my life, but this is one. I remember putting down my guitar after a frustrating couple hours of trying to sing and play at the same time and telling God I was failing (He wasn’t surprised). “I can’t do this – would you coordinate my fingers and voice, or do I need to find another way?” After a few moments of depression at not being able to do what I was convinced needed to be done, I picked my guitar back up. I have no other explanation for what happened than that God fixed whatever was dysfunctional in my timing, I sang & played simultaneously to lead music for worship with my students, then I held on for an amazing ride in which God re-engaged the young people in that church to worship Him not only with a few songs each week, but with their lives.

The music wasn’t always great, but it was better. When we bought a trap set (another great story for another day), it improved even more… When we stopped hiding the trap set, God provided a great drummer to take turns and spur on a proficient drummer… Then a few kids started coming who were really good lead guitar players… Then more… Someone wondered why the kids got all the cool music, “Those drums are up there, someone should play them on Sundays, too…”

My students happily (though sometimes cautiously and even fearfully) obliged. Not only were my students engaging in worship, they were using their gifts to help others engage as well. It was so awesome to be able to see God work the way He did. When it comes to worship, don’t cut corners.

10ST – Misappropriating Your Family

10ST will be an ongoing series digging into Geoff Surratt’s Ten Stupid Things that Keep Churches from Growing and how those stupid things keep youth ministries from growing as well.

This summer, for the first time, my oldest daughter will be a student at a week of camp that I’m leading. She’ll be hanging out with our Middle School and High School group a lot more. (I’m suddenly rethinking our “6th graders as dual citizens of children’s and youth ministry” approach… maybe I can just let Joe keep them all to himself for one more year!) It seems a little strange to me that I will have a child within the primary age group that I’ve been working with for the last decade plus. Like a penguin that realizes that egg on my feet just hatched and now I have to teach it something… ok, it’s not really like that at all, but I thought this post could use a penguin in it.

The second chapter of Geoff Surratt’s 10 Stupid Things is about establishing the wrong role for the pastor’s family.
He explores the various ways that ministry can tax the pastor’s spouse and children – and even wreck both the pastor’s family and his ministry. As I think about Emily being part of our middle school ministry group, I’ve been thinking a lot about the roles I’ve asked my family to fill as the youth minister’s family.

One key to overcoming this stupid thing, according to Surratt is to not allow “my ministry” to swallow up “my family.” Let your family be who they are. My wife is not my automatic super-volunteer whenever I need something done in the student ministry. She’s amazing with kids who still drool and chew on furniture, so that is a primary area of service for her. We’d have huge problems if I said, “No, no, I’m the youth minister, so get out of the nursery and come hang out with the Jr. High kids for a couple hours every week. She is awesome with other young mothers and their babies, so it would be incredibly stupid of me to steer her away from that.

As strange as it seems to be at this point, I’m actually excited to have my own kids in the trenches of youth ministry with me… like take your child to work day every day! But I know I’ll need to be careful about the expectations I place on them. (I’ll also probably have to stop telling so many stories about them!)

The bottom line is this – your family is a gift and it is gifted. When we force those gifts to be shelved in deference to some youth ministry protocol or outside expectations – no one wins. Our families begin to resent our ministries, we become more and more torn between both, and God receives less than what He deserves.

In addition to helping our families maximize their gifts for their ministry (as opposed to forcing them to take a backseat in ours) we need to make sure our ministry doesn’t take precedence over our family. I have to admit to letting my priorities skew from time to time, but my family is my first ministry. Andy Stanley explores the management of this tension between ministry and family really well in Choosing to Cheat. Another resource that LuAnn has found really helpful is Leading and Loving It from Laurie Wilhite. Laurie is the wife of Jud Wilhite, pastor of Central Christian Church in Las Vegas and she’s put together a team for “connecting, encouraging, & equipping pastor’s wives and women in ministry.” Really good stuff.

10ST – Doing It All

10ST will be an ongoing series digging into Geoff Surratt’s Ten Stupid Things that Keep Churches from Growing and how those stupid things keep youth ministries from growing as well.
Surratt starts off with what may be the most common of all the stupid things that keep churches from growing: the pastor trying to do it all. Just to be clear, it’s not the pastor himself who is the stupid thing, but rather the action of trying to do it all that’s the stupid thing… well, usually at least. For a variety of reasons, many pastors are compelled to do way more than what is healthy, both for themselves and for the churches they serve. It didn’t take long in ministry for me to get a harsh introduction to this stupid thing.

Less than two years into my first ministry, just when I had the perfect rhythm to youth ministry figured out (right!), the long time pastor of the church (and really of the whole small community) retired. After 38 years of ministry in that place, he needed (and deserved) a change of pace. In the first meeting with the elders after his retirement, we were talking about how to go about searching for a new pastor and what to do in the meantime. As a bunch of great guys who hadn’t placed a ‘pastor wanted’ ad for almost 40 years, there were a lot of questions and a lot of decisions to be made.

One glaring query that demanded an immediate answer was, “Who’s going to be doing the preaching until we hire a new pastor?” With all the wisdom and savvy inherent in the sum of a public school education, a Bible college degree, and next to zero experience, I wondered (out loud), “Have you guys considered just taking turns preaching? Each of you elders could preach one week for the next couple months while we search and…” I don’t remember how I finished the thought, but it doesn’t matter anyway – the sound of their laughing drowned out whatever else I said.

So as an alternative, I offered to dig into the vast reserves of my Biblical expositionary wells and preach until someone was hired. It’s only a couple months, right, how hard could it be? With a few exceptions for guest speakers from NCC and tryouts by a couple hopeful applicants, I ended up preaching each week for the next 70 weeks or so. In addition to my regular youth minister duties, with almost two whole years of experience, I was allowed to speak to the whole congregation every week!

I’ll be completely honest and tell you… I loved it.

Planning and leading worship most Sundays that went hand in hand with the messages I’d prepared with my own two wits (I had two back then), teaching youth and leading worship with them on Wednesday nights, teaching a Sunday school class, participating in small group… all while being the high school girls soccer coach. Did I mention that for about half that time, there was no church secretary… and we put out a weekly newsletter in addition to the Sunday bulletin.

As I look at the to-do list now, my stupidity is almost overwhelming, but in the moment, it was a rush! I was being productive and it felt good. And in all honesty, I think the time was good for the congregation as well. They heard stories every week about how awesome their students were and how God was working in the young lives they’d been praying for. They began to see youth and youth ministry a little differently. It was good.

But it was not sustainable. The grace of God is sufficient to fuel every move of God, and He was moving, but I was doing way too much. The results of carrying that load long term would have been disastrous for me, for my students, and for the church.

Today, I still struggle with the ‘do it all’ mentality. I am terrible at asking for help… I feel like I’m imposing, asking someone to do what I should be doing. I still have a long way to go, in practice, but I’m learning, by God’s grace, that it’s better all the way around when I don’t do it all. Youth pastors, we need to stop robbing the church of her ministry by doing it all for her. (Check out Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries for more on how a church can build it’s ministry to students.)

  • Students need to see themselves as vital contributors to the church’s ministry to the youth of their community, not just spectators & consumers.
  • Families need to be networked into webs of influence for the benefit of each other’s kids.
  • Students need adults in addition to their parents who will love and mentor them.
  • Students need to have a safe place to learn new ministry skills and try them out without the burdening expectation of perfection.

None of these occur when I plan everything, when I drive everything, when I make every meaningful decision for the student ministry. If you’re making all the decisions for your youth ministry, picking all the songs, running all the games, teaching all the lessons… I know it may feel good for a time, your ego will be stroked greatly if you keep all the plates spinning well, but it will kill the growth of your ministry (not to mention the negative impact on your own growth and the welfare of your family).

Don’t do it all.
That got a bit long, didn’t it?! Sorry… I’ll try not to make each post as long as the 10 Stupid Things chapters themselves!