What Do You Want?

I think we are spending a lot of time asking God to tell us what to do when the whole time He’s asking us what we’d like to do instead. I think He’s asking us what’s in our hearts, what makes us come alive, what ignites our passion and saves many lives.

Donald Miller, Storyline

If my life is supposed to matter, if my time here on earth is supposed to amount to something (I’d argue that it is)… then what exactly is my role in all of that and what results are only attributable to God? I know I’m accountable for using the resources God’s made available to me in life, but aren’t there supposed to be some kind of instructions included when I dump out the box? What exactly does He want me to build with all of this stuff? What if there are pieces leftover?

My kids sometimes play with Leggos – you know the plastic blocks that cripple you in the darkness of night when you step on them. I’ve noticed something, though. Occasionally, they’d get a kit that’s specially designed for building a particular character or ship or building of some sort. These kits are expensive, which is why ‘occasionally’ means only when someone else gives it to them as a gift. Every piece is specialized, every sticker with it’s own place to go, and a sheet of instructions to make sure everything gets to the right place. They never come back to those kits. We have a little Leggo graveyard for all the flags and swords and axles and windshields that don’t fit with anything but their kit.

They do, however, spend hours connecting and rearranging the plain square and rectangle blocks. We bought a truckload of them on ebay a few years ago. No instructions. No blueprints. Just a bunch of blocks. They make all kinds of things! One of their favorites was to make these 8-bit looking replicas of Mario & Luigi and make stop motion videos with them. They’ve gotten the most enjoyment out of the freedom to play like that, and I love it. I love seeing them create something that was only imaginary moments earlier.

I wonder when we stop engaging our imaginations and just start asking which piece goes where? What is it that paralyzes us in life to the point where we just keep going through the routine because that’s what someone told us the instructions said? I wonder if that’s really the way God wants us to live our lives, fearing that we’ll miss an assignment or something? I wonder if we’re really honoring God while we wait around for the writing on the wall to tell us what to do? Are we saving lives, or are we living scared? Afraid we’ll miss out on His plan…

But look at this:

His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to Himself through Jesus Christ. And this gave Him great pleasure.

Paul, in his letter to the early church in Ephesus

What gives Him pleasure is bringing us into His family! What kind of Father do we think God is? Back up from that question a moment… What kind of art would my kids create if I only let them paint by numbers? Will I be more proud of them or take greater pleasure in the lives they live if they never make any messes and only build what the box says to build? No. I love it when they think for themselves and come up with something new… or at least something they think is new. I love to watch them figure stuff out… to sort through the Leggos life has given them and make something!

And I think God likes that, too. I think, when I was adopted into His family, He reminded me of all the stuff He’d put in me. Then He added to that the power and presence of His own Holy Spirit and cleared out all the stuff I shouldn’t have picked up along the way that was cluttering the place up. I wish I could say that I immediately started to make something that mattered and never looked back. But too often, I’ve dug around looking for clearer instructions to lean on, or to blame when things didn’t work out quite right.

Maybe you’ve been digging, too. Maybe it’s time to stop asking for the blueprint and live like His kids. Let God play around in your imagination and bring Him pleasure by coming alive! What do you want to do to ‘save many lives’ and bring God pleasure?

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so that we can do the good things He planned for us long ago.

Paul, in the same letter to the Ephesian church

So He did plan something! More on that later…

Vindication of a Pack Rat

Last week, I offered my Confessions of a Pack Rat. Today I offer this… my vindication! What you see below is an amalgamation of a branch of an aspen tree, a trunk of pine, and a few feet of old twine that I had not thrown away (you know, just in case).

The aspen branch was cut from our back yard because it was grating on the patio roof. I really like aspen, so I decided to keep it. I remember thinking as I propped it against the wall in our shed/workshop… (To maintain a clear conscience, I have to call it a shed because no real work actually gets done in there very often!) Anyway, I remember thinking, “I should strip this and sand it down into some kind of club. Yeah, it’s the perfect size for a club. Not quite stout enough for a bat, but it’ll make a nice club.” I’m not kidding. That is actually what I was thinking when I made the decision to not put the branch in the yard waste bin. For the record, I’ve never stripped & sanded anything into anything in my entire life. Though I have whittled a stick down to a nice pile of wood shavings a time or two!

So… on to the pine trunk. It was the first Christmas tree we bought in this house. Ok, maybe not the first, but it was several years ago. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure it was the first. As the decorations came off (a couple weeks too late) and the dry needles made their way out the door (and into the carpet) an idea sparked in my innermost synapses! With all the branches off, this thing would be as straight as an arrow! No, it was way too big for one arrow – maybe a spear or a javelin… I decided to strip off all the branches and keep the trunk. I thought, if I could do this for a few years, I’d have several trunks to fashion together into some kind of artistic endeavor. Maybe a cross or a tipi frame for the back yard. What kid wouldn’t want a tipi to play in, right? Or an arsenal of spears and javelins… Right…

As for the twine… No story here. I think my dad shipped something to the kids a couple years ago and tied the box up with it just for fun. Wherever it came from, it was tucked away in a little nook in our laundry room. And on Monday, it was just what I needed. For this:

Squirrel Fishing Pole
Sticks and twine will work just fine, but snares will never catch him…

Last weekend, as I headed out of town for Winter White Wash, an annual ski trip I enjoy with our students, a squirrel decided to take up residence in our chimney! Why he would do this, I’ll never know, but needless to say, once the shock of his rapid descent wore off, our furry little intruder was slapped in his chubby little cheeks with the fact that our chimney is incredibly clean and smooth tin and there was no way out! (It really is clean, I was sort of amazed…) Since I was a couple hundred miles away, his banging and scuffling in search of escape didn’t bother me at all, but LuAnn felt it best to make sure the squirrel ceased and desisted before he just deceased-ed!

So Monday I was tasked with the job of getting the squirrel out of the chimney. The flue was shut, so he couldn’t get down into the fireplace, which is a little unfortunate, since that sort of deranged mammalian aquarium would’ve been at least a little entertaining. I thought about lighting a fire, but no amount of motivation would have changed the fact that there was nothing for the squirrel to sink his claws into in an attempt to flee. Plus, if I lit the fire, I’d have to open the flue a little bit to let the smoke out, also opening the slight possibility that the squirrel could get in. The thought of flaming squirrel tearing around our living room was enough to keep that idea at the bottom of the ‘things to try’ list. (Hey, have you ever tried to get sooty squirrel tracks off the walls!)

I thought about lowering down a little bucket and raising him to safety, but wasn’t sure how I’d get him to climb in and stay there. Plus, if I did get him to the top, I’m stuck with a deranged squirrel in my face as I precariously dangle on the edge of the roof! No thanks. I tried unsuccessfully a couple times to snare him with a thin rope, but that would have resulted in the same fur in the face dilemma as the bucket so it’s probably for the best that that didn’t work out.

I finally settled on some sort of “ladder” I could leave in the chimney for him to climb out on his own. Obviously, I don’t have a little squirrel sized chimney ladder, but I was confident that I could come up with something. When I was a kid I received a lot of specialized training in gadget making via MacGyver and the A-Team. (Which also explains why a few possible solutions revolved around turning our chimney into the world’s first flaming squirrel cannon! Could those guys blow stuff up, or what!?)

So I tied the branch and the trunk together with the twine to make the escape route you see above. I lowered it down into the chimney (which almost made the squirrel go as berserk as he did when I dangled a flashlight in his face!) and left it there overnight. 24 hours later, the squirrel is gone, no doubt bragging to all his wire-line buddies about his harrowing escape from the tunnel of death without a hint of gratitude.

Ungrateful little nutbag jerk.

Confessions of a Pack Rat

Digging through my office desk drawer in search of a few pins to stick a calendar on the wall, I came across an old padlock. It’s the first padlock I ever used – for my gym locker in 7th grade.

Maybe I'll need this...
Maybe I’ll need this…

Why is it in my desk drawer? Mostly because I save things, just in case I ever need them. Evidently, I’ve done so at least since I was 12 years old! I always feel like I’m losing out when I have to get rid of something because then I won’t have it if the need arises. But why would I have saved this Master lock for all those years? I remember my new wife asking me that question as we set up our storage closet at our college apartment years ago.

“Just in case I ever need it.” I smiled. (We were newlyweds, so I still could get a little traction out of that grin.) And it turns out, we did need it to secure a few things in a storage space. But now? What am I going to need it for? I don’t know. But it’s nice to know it’s still there if I do. (And just for the record, after all the years spent mostly in boxes and drawers, I still remember the combination somehow!)

I’ve kept other stuff, too.

A notebook full of Sophomore Comp & Grammar assignments from high school… (and several others from most of my other classes)

A piece of the root I saved from a tree that was pushing in the foundation of our first house… We pushed back. And won.

A box of baseball cards from my collecting stint in ’87 & ’88… (about the same time I got that padlock)

A couple cases from old glasses…

A bunch of boxes and manuals from just about every piece of electronic wizardry or software that I’ve ever owned… (Probably not going to need that Handspring Palm Pilot box again!)

A few remnants of a large collection of Jones soda bottles…

I wonder sometimes, if I keep stuff because I can’t keep people. Every spring, there is an exodus that happens in my life as graduation hits and students that I’ve loved and cared for finish their high school years. Every year, the majority of the part of my ‘congregation’ that has had the most time to grow near and dear… leaves. This is one of the difficulties of youth ministry. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to hold them back. I want them to leave. I want them to be launched from our student ministry into lives of ministry of their own. But that doesn’t make it easy to watch them go.

Or maybe I keep stuff because I’m a sappy bag of sentiment and I get some kind of emotional stability from holding on to stuff (which would be a pretty big problem eventually). I moved a lot when I was a kid, so maybe I developed some kind of coping mechanism to maintain some connection with who I was and the people associated with all the stuff. Or maybe I just got really good at packing things and forgot how to stop.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve kept hanging on to?

Why do you think you keep the things you keep?

Who Cares if You’re “Youth Ministry Famous”?

Josh Griffin at More Than Dodgeball wrote a post last week asking the question “Who Cares if You Are a ‘Youth Ministry Lifer’ or Not?” He raises some great thoughts for youth ministers to ponder (we do ponder, you know) regarding a struggle that many of us have: the question of how long to stay in youth ministry, and in what capacity. The post also brought to mind another struggle that I see in youth ministry: a desire to be “famous”. It seems a lot of us want to be known for something – a great event, a book or two, some great video or other resources we’ve produced, the massive size of our group or the coolest youth room/building around… It doesn’t really matter, we just want to be known as that guy. Sometimes, that gets in the way of making a deeper impact.

What if you can't fill these seats with the drop of your name? Does it matter?
What if you can’t fill these seats with the drop of your name? Does it matter?
(Img via Patrick Hajzler at RGBstock)

Let’s back up a minute. Look around the taco shop or coffee bell or mcWhatever you’re sitting in and ask anyone to tell you about a youth pastor. I’ll bet you a McDouble they’re not going to tell you about anyone you might think of as a famous youth pastor. Outside of youth ministry world, we’re pretty much all anonymous. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing for youth ministry. What they may be able to tell you about is a youth leader who impacted their own life. So instead of aiming for the giant platform to amplify your considerable gifts, set your sites on impacting a few students up close and personal. Disciple them to make disciples and watch God multiply His message. In the process, maybe he’ll bring about a stage and a measure of notoriety – or maybe not. If He does, make sure to turn the accolades toward the greatness of His Name, not yours. But if He doesn’t, faithfully trust that He knows what He’s doing and keep following His lead into students’ lives. Here are some ideas for making an impact that goes beyond the stage:

  1. Lead a small group committed to discipleship. Be careful not to set this up as some elite clan in your student ministry, but follow Jesus’ lead in choosing 2 or 3 students with whom you’re a little more intensely involved. Dig deeply into the Bible together and help each other put God’s Word into practice.
  2. Let students into your lives. One of my favorite youth ministry memories is catching a kid off guard while I was putting my daughter to bed. He was hanging out at our house as I tucked her in. I pulled the blankets up, asked him to pray, and bowed my head. Before he realized the potential awkwardness or that he might want to say ‘no’, he was praying for my little girl and our family with us. I hope he still does the same thing with his little girls!
  3. Take a few kids out for a soda once in a while. I have two seniors graduating this year who formed a tandem early in life that would send more Sunday School teachers into early retirement than public school budget cuts. Obviously, I’m exaggerating, but I could see very early on that these two had enough energy to power Justin Bieber’s light show. They come from great families and I have no doubt that they’d both still be involved without my invitation to the shiny diner, but they still remember a day years ago that I picked them up after school and we sat and ate cheesy fries together. One of them recently asked me, out of the blue, “Why’d you take us out that day?” Because it works! Making that connection has helped me lead them to put their energy into creative, Kingdom work instead of testing the limits of humanity’s patience.
  4. Never underestimate the power of the little things. Last week, a former student who is now a youth minister related to me the story of how he recently met his childhood sports hero, Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers. He’d written the NFL player a short letter several months before thanking him for his involvement in Samaritan’s Feet, a ministry that gives shoes to people that need them. At a recent pre-game foot washing and shoe distribution event in Kansas City, my friend was helping someone with some new shoes when Smith came in. “You’re here! It’s you! You’re the one that sent that letter.” If a short note of encouragement can make enough of an impact on an NFL player that he keeps it through training camp and remembers it in December, what do you think a short note like that could do for an 8th grader trying to find something, anything to tell them that they matter?

Don’t settle for “sorta-kinda-almost famous in the youth ministry bubble.”

What other ways are you precision aiming for a deeper impact?

Should the Youth Minister Preach to the Whole Church, Too?

After posting Why Preach in Youth Ministry and Better Preaching in Youth Ministry I’ve had a couple discussions crop up elsewhere that take this issue of preaching and youth ministry in a little bit of a different direction. Since it keeps coming up, I thought I’d address the issue here, too. The thought keeps coming up that the youth minister should preach to the whole congregation from time to time, not just to the students.

First, a little personal history.

My plan as I entered Bible college was to be a teacher. Youth ministry was important to me, and I wanted to be a well-equipped volunteer youth leader, but it wasn’t a viable career option in my mind. I planned to transfer to another school after a year or two. Within a matter of weeks, I began to see things very differently and committed to youth ministry as my priority. A few months later, however, as part of an Intro to Ministry class project, I was asked to preach at a small church for the service our class was planning. The affirmation of a faculty member and some other follow up to that assignment got me more interested in preaching, and I started taking all the preaching classes I could.

During a weekend internship, the lead minister moved away to another church, and I was able to fill in often during a few months of searching. In my first youth ministry, when the senior minister retired after I’d been there about a year, thinking of my internship, I volunteered to fill in as I’d done before. Little did I know that I would be preaching nearly every week for almost a year and a half in addition to helping lead worship and lead the youth ministry.This experience gives me a fairly unique (or maybe just odd) perspective of preaching in youth ministry (to students) and of the youth minister preaching to the congregation as a whole.

There are several reasons I think it’s been beneficial for the youth minister to preach to the whole congregation. (I would also extend this to include associate pastors of other stripes as well – i.e. worship, children’s, missions, etc.)

  • The congregation hears a variety of styles and perspectives, which raises the likelihood of engaging those who don’t necessarily connect as well with the lead pastor.
  • They are exposed to a passion for the next generation that doesn’t usually come from the lead pastor.  This is good for the congregation, but it’s great for the student ministry itself, too as the adults have more of an opportunity to catch the vision for discipling the next generation.
  • They can begin to see the youth minister as more than a fixer of broken kids – more than a nice guy who’s not quite ready for ministry without training wheels. I don’t mean to denigrate other youth pastors here, but I’ve often come across people in the church who think of youth ministry as a proving grounds of sorts. It’s a really unhealthy perspective that’s uncritically shared by too many people. Unfortunately, it’s an obstacle many youth ministers will face. Preaching to the whole congregation is one means we have of tearing it down. Of course, if you’re a youth minister who’s preaching a biblically weak or unprepared message, you’re not going to be making any gains in this department.
  • The lead pastor gets a break. One of the keys to staying fresh in preaching is to be able to get out of the weekly routine once in a while. Having the youth minister preach can be a refreshing pause in the preaching cycle.
  • The adults of the congregation learn more about youth culture and what they could be doing to share hope to the young people around them. During my year of preaching, the church shifted in mindset toward youth because they heard stories of the transformation God was working in the students of our community and wanted to do something to be a part of that. This kind of shift won’t happen just because the youth minister preached on New Year weekend, when the lead pastor and 31% of the congregation were out of town. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the most of every opportunity that presents itself.
  • The students feel like they have a voice in the congregation, too. There is too much of a gap between ‘the church’ and ‘the youth group’ in most cases. Students often don’t really feel like they’re connected to the church. Hearing ‘their guy’ speak to everyone can help them feel valued by the church as a whole.
  • The youth minister can become a better communicator. Preaching to a group that’s different than our norm can force us out of our normal preparation and delivery patterns. We think through our process with a fresh perspective. Sometimes, this can free us from the unhealthy parts of our patterns.

The bottom line (assuming well prepared and delivered Biblical preaching) is that it’s good for the church, good for the youth minister, good for the student ministry, and even good for the lead pastor. This may seem a little skewed, since I’m a youth minister who likes to preach. And my experience is admittedly way out of the norm for youth ministers, so I’m definitely open to correction. Am I missing obvious, good reasons you can think of for not having the youth minister preach to the congregation a little more often?

Take a Chance in 2013

2013 begins for me with the funeral of a man who played a larger role in my life than I anticipated. Frank Zimmerman was the first minister I worked with full time in Auburn, NE. He passed away last week after a lifetime of faithful service that has been a great example for me and many others. There is so much about Frank that I wish I could say, but I’ll try to limit myself to a couple aspects of Frank’s life that I want to continue to emulate. (Also, a lot to say about a small town church that’s paying attention to the possibilities of technology, allowing me and a couple dozen others to be ‘there’ via the webcast, even though we can’t be there.)

My life in full time youth ministry began because someone took a chance on a kid that didn’t know what he was doing. I’d learned all kinds of things in class, and had a tiny bit of experience through an internship and a weekend ministry, but doing youth ministry all day, every day was a whole new world. And I’d never spent a minute there until someone took a chance and invited me into that world.

It started with a phone call that I answered at home in Loveland, CO. In a way that I came to know as a trademark of his low baritone voice, I heard Frank draw out his “Hello…” with a hint of question in his voice, before he introduced himself and asked if I’d come interview for the open youth ministry position at the Auburn Christian Church. Frank was the pastor there in Auburn, and had been for a long time, I found out. Longer than I’ve been alive, as a matter of fact! In a world where it seems that some churches can chew up and spit out preachers, and some preachers seem to install a back door on their first day in ministry so they can make a quick exit, a bond was forged between this pastor and the church that marked them both in ways that last well beyond the 40 years of Frank’s employment there.

He was the definition of a pillar to the small community in SE Nebraska. Whether it was a community event or just walking around town, I quickly recognized that Frank’s influence reached beyond the church membership list into just about every family in town in some way or another. After over 30 years in the same small town, he was known by just about everyone, and knew most of them by name, as well as where they fit in the tight-knit network of area families. He knew the histories of houses and families and friendships, of businesses and buildings and organizations. He was a chaplain to the whole town and the surrounding farm families as much as he was a preacher at a congregation in that town. He also knew certain passages of Scripture that were special to just about all of them, or passages they needed to hear in a moment of comfort or guidance or correction.

I was a recent Bible College graduate that knew how to find stuff in the Bible – and just about nothing else. But after we interviewed and met some people, Frank and the youth ministry team asked us to come work with them anyway. Despite my lack of experience, they took a chance. They saw some glimmer of potential there that they thought, just maybe, God could do something with. Thanks, Frank (and the rest of the Auburn Christian Church) for taking a chance on me. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to lay the foundation for my life in ministry. I learned so much in my years with you.


I wonder… as 2013 begins, who will you take a chance on this year? Who can you invest in this year, to jumpstart the potential you see in them? Get in touch with them this week and let them know what you see and that you’d like to help. And take a minute to thank someone who’s taken a chance on you.