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Category: Youth Ministry



I’ve worked with youth for a long time now, and as fun and rewarding as the job can be, it’s often just work. Hard work.

Like the time – while teaching in a public school – that I returned from lunch to find that a student had broken into my classroom and urinated on another student’s project. Like the time one student hacked into another student’s school network account in order to alter a book report and leave a collection of threatening images. Like the time a student lied to me – in the face of four witnesses and a mountain of physical evidence – claiming he knew nothing about the broken lock, the ruined (and stinking) project, the compromised account, the death threats.

Sometimes you face a student whose will is stronger than your own. Sometimes you just feel stuck. Sometimes you think about a life where people treat each other with respect and wonder whether you’re in the right field of work, whether there might be enough time to go back to college and start over. Sometimes you just give up. Call the student’s parents. Ask for help.

Sometimes you find that their job’s even harder than yours. And that they need help too.

It’s in cases like these that I face a decision: 1) get rid of the student or 2) get closer to the student. Because that’s how it is in people-related work. You can get rid of the people. Or you can get closer to them. I don’t know of any other way to solve people problems.

And I wanted to get rid of the kid. That would have been easier. Simpler. Cleaner. But I’ve learned that you never really solve the problem that way. There’s always another student – even more creatively destructive than the first. So I’ve developed a philosophy of work with one important boundary. There is no such thing as a throw-away person.

Which is where the work comes in. If there are no throw-away people, then I have to figure out how to connect with the people I’d like to throw away.

In one case, I might have given a student a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex to clean up a project as best he could. In another case, he and I and his parents may have spent several afternoons negotiating a long-term behavioral contract. Those parents might have started having me over for dinner once a week for good food, a TV show or two, and regular conversations about how things were going in the classroom. Over time, it’s possible that I actually started to like that student.

It’s also possible that as the student grew up, we became friends.

There was a Bible quiz program in which he helped coach a team of younger boys. There was a work trip to the Dominican Republic. There was the time when he left college to volunteer in a drug rehabilitation program in Mexico, using his language skills and his limited medical training to help desperately poor people with serious addictions. I was proud of the work he was doing and of the person he was becoming.

It’s in times like these that it’s tempting to think the hard work is done, that now’s the time to enjoy the fruit of that earlier labor.

But the work’s never really done.

Sometimes you hear from the wife of a friend. Or see a newspaper article with that friend’s name. Or get asked to speak at a funeral.

Which is a completely different kind of work. Though the results are similar. I felt stuck (and a little bit lost). I thought – ever so briefly – about a life where I wouldn’t have to get close to people, a life where I wouldn’t have to lose them, a life where I wouldn’t have to hurt.

Unfortunately, my philosophy of work has another important boundary. There is no such thing as a throw-away experience.

Which is where the work comes in. If there are no throw-away experiences, then I have to figure out how to connect with the feelings I’d rather not have. I have to learn how to face into the experiences that bring suffering and pain. I have to learn how – each day – to keep moving forward in the work to which I’ve been called. To trust that I’m being shaped in ways that are shaping others. To know that this hard work is work worth doing. And to hope – always to hope – because there’s no other way I know to keep on going.

Sometimes, though, even that’s not enough, and the only thing that really helps is to call that friend’s parents. Because they need help too. And the work isn’t really mine.

It’s something we do together.

And to hope – always to hope – because there’s no other way I know to keep on going.



I was in an accident the Saturday before last. And it was bad.

A flash of water over the road, and we were spinning backwards and sideways. Crossed two lanes of traffic. Jumped the ditch. Plowed up a steep bank of grass, gravel, and dirt. The back end caught, whipping us back toward the interstate, where we flattened two aluminum reflectors before slowly settling to a rest on the road’s shoulder.

My sister and I – both wearing seatbelts – were rattled but healthy and whole. Her Kindle was under my feet. My camera was in her lap.

She let go of the door, handed me my camera and took back the proffered e-reader.

“Mom would have been mad if you’d let anything happen to me.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help feeling elated.

The engine was still running. The gauges looked good. I jumped out and checked the tires. A family in a Ford Explorer had stopped on the side of the road up ahead. A man ran toward us. Wanted to know if we were OK. Seemed surprised. No blood. No bruises. No broken glass. I shook his hand. Thanked him for his concern. Promised to stop at the next exit and take a look underneath. Then I climbed back in the car.

And I wanted to shout, “We’re alive!” But I used my inside voice.

We both could have died. But we didn’t. And I was overcome with gratitude. With relief. With adrenaline. With joy. We survived!

Then, almost two hours later, after dropping off my sister, I realized that I’d been going through all the what-ifs and that I couldn’t remember exactly how long I’d been stuck in that loop. Or when I’d started crying.

I was sad. Ashamed. Afraid. Angry. Exhausted. Tense. And I still wasn’t home because I was driving so slow.

On Monday. Roughly 48 hours after the accident. Some high school kids gathered at my house to read a chapter in Psalms and to pray for each other. I had lunch over at Friendsview with Charles and Jean Hanson, and Jean’s brother, Clynton. That night, Geraldine Willcuts invited me to speak to Friends Women about our upcoming mission to Mexico. And I wrote this essay.

I don’t understand the emotions I traveled on the day of the accident, let alone what I’m feeling right now. But I needed someone to know. And I trust you. And I hope – more than anything – that we can figure out each day how to face whatever happens together. Because it’s just too much for anyone to go through alone.

I don’t understand the emotions I traveled on the day of the accident, let alone what I’m feeling right now. But I needed someone to know. And I trust you.



Ministry is mundane.

I plan and prepare an event. I write about the event. I talk about the event. People come. We spend time together.

Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we play. Sometimes we drive to Idaho. Or build a house in Mexico. Or walk along the beach. There is singing and scripture study. A check-in question. Games. Prayer. And stories. There are always stories to tell.

When everyone’s gone home, I vacuum. Wash the dishes. Turn down the heat. Turn off the lights. Sometimes, someone else puts away the tables and chairs. Sometimes we’re setting up chairs. Or putting pictures on a bulletin board. Making a collage. Sending a card. Reading. Talking. Questioning. Arguing. Laughing.

Every once in a while, there are chocolate cupcakes. Chips. Cherry tomatoes. Doughnuts and good, strong coffee.

Sometimes, when people show up, they are barely awake. Or a little bit sick. Or WAY TOO LOUD for Sunday morning. Sometimes, they are hungry. Heart-sick.

Sometimes, people don’t come. Sometimes we wonder why. Sometimes we know. Sometimes we take time to pray. Or send a text. Or save a doughnut in a Ziploc bag (to be delivered). Sometimes we get busy. Distracted, we forget to follow up. We find the stale doughnut on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Sometimes we eat it.

Sometimes it seems like everyone’s come. It’s noisy. Joyful. Chaotic. Sometimes it’s only me. Or just a few of us. Almost always, it’s enough.

And in the midst of the mundane, we are reminded.

Again and again.

And again.

That God is with us.

Sometimes, people don’t come. Sometimes we wonder why. Sometimes we know.

To Wait


A few years ago, I spoke at this camp on the Oregon Coast. There were lots of kids there whose parents I knew. But most of the kids didn’t really know me. And they had plenty of friends at camp. And I was one of the old people.

Except at the end of the week, one of those kids got left at camp. His parents didn’t show up to take him home. I saw him sitting in the gravel next to the Meetinghouse. Looking out at the highway. Waiting.

I decided I’d wait there with him. I walked over to where he was sitting. Sat down in the gravel. And we talked. About his best friend at camp. About his cabin. About whether his parents loved him (that was a joke on my part, but he took the statement seriously). About his sisters. And life the way an elementary-school kid thinks about life.

I think I told him that because of who his dad was, he was growing up with a lot of expectations. I think I told him that his ability to be honest was going to be pretty important, especially when he made mistakes. I think I told him that effort mattered more than ability. And that I thought his parents actually did love him. A lot.

He told me a lot of things as well. But I kept trying to read between the lines and didn’t end up hearing much. I got the feeling, though, that he enjoyed talking, maybe even needed to talk. That walking over and sitting down in the gravel was a quality decision.

Later that year, I ended up on a planning team with that kid’s dad. We had meetings in Newberg, and on at least one occasion, I stayed at their house. They put me in what one of their daughters called “The Pimp Room.” The kid was playing percussion. Showed me some things he’d learned. Talked about the school he’d missed (quite a bit of school as it turned out). And whether he’d be at camp the next summer.

For a few years, this was the pattern. We’d run into each other during a week of camp or at Yearly Meeting. Maybe sit down once or twice. Not for long, though. Too much happens at camp. I had responsibilities. He had lots of friends. We’d talk about school. About his family. About a book he’d been reading but hadn’t finished. About a theory he had. About religion. About people’s expectations. About whether I thought he could learn how to be happy. Or how to care about someone (not just for them). Or how to let people care for him.

Every year his questions got a little more serious. He was smart enough to know he couldn’t get answers to most of his questions. Which was part of the problem. He really, really wanted answers.

As far as he could tell, other kids either hadn’t figured out how to ask important questions. Or their answers had shown up. Right on time. At the end of camp. And he was still sitting here in the gravel, next to the Meetinghouse. Looking out at the highway. Waiting.

A few years ago, I moved back to Newberg. The kid had really grown up. He’d developed into a first-rate high school musician. He was a decent athlete. He had a gift for bringing people together, for creating community, for making people feel safe and accepted. He made mistakes, and those were bigger than they’d been when he was in grade school. And we talked more. About music. About poetry. About his dreams. About his questions. About his relationships. About his mistakes. About God.

I told him that he had value. I told him that he was doing good work (in spite of the mistakes). I told him that the questions might be a lot more important than the answers. I told him that it wouldn’t hurt to listen to his parents. Or to catch up on his schoolwork. Or to be patient with people. And I told him that no matter what he did, I’d still want to be his friend. That no matter what he believed, I’d always be up for a cup of coffee and a talk. That no matter what I heard, I knew the truth of who he was and of who he’d always be.

Someone who cared deeply about how. Someone who cared deeply about why. Someone willing to sit down in the gravel when the rest of the world was driving home. Someone who was willing to look out at the highway and wait.

As far as he could tell, other kids either hadn’t figured out how to ask important questions. Or their answers had shown up. Right on time.

Negative Attention


They called me names. They mocked my appearance. They scoffed at my opinions, disdained my attempts at humor. They sometimes threatened violence. A kick to the face broke my glasses once. They called it an accident.

Considering what I might do, I realized that I could leave. I didn’t have to stick around, and I didn’t have to take it; so I resolved that I would show up one more time, if for no other reason than to announce my intention to quit. Mind made up, I felt good. But that night, I made a discovery that changed the way I see. And instead of leaving, I stayed.

They needed me too much.

It was my freshman year in college. I was volunteering with middle school students at a local church. They were horrible, and they wouldn’t leave me alone.

That was the key to my epiphanous moment: they wouldn’t leave me alone.

Other adults in the room didn’t get punched in the back during worship. Other adults in the room didn’t suffer sotto voce critiques of their facial features. Other adults in the room – as far as student behaviors indicated – weren’t even visible.

It wasn’t fair.

That I’d been given so much power.

Edwin H. Friedman claims that “people can only hear you when they are moving toward you,” and for absolutely no good reason, these students had decided to move toward me. They had given me the power over what they heard and how they heard it.

If what has value is like a radio signal in a sea of static, then these students had decided that I was the signal. Other adults in the room were just noise.

I have to admit that, along with the students, I too suffered serious and prolonged bouts of immaturity. In other words, I recognized the power I’d been given, but I didn’t use it well. And the next year, a new group of volunteers – younger and demonstrably cooler – joined the work, so I had to learn to share attention, to be part of a team.

Fortunately, I mostly grew up over the intervening years without growing too “old” to relate. But that time of my life – that discovery I made on a Wednesday night in October, 20 years ago – pointed to a truth that has opened ministry doors in dozens of contexts.

What, exactly, did I learn? That negative attention is attention. When people are moving toward me, whether from loving acceptance or annoyed engagement, they are also attuned to the signals I send. They choose to hear me.

It’s a truth that has helped me to re-perceive what feel like attacks, to see them as opportunities for relationship, as indicators that I have value.

When a parent sends me an email, questioning my judgment, I can rejoice that this parent trusted me enough to start a conversation, to tell me what she really thinks, to give me the opportunity to respond.

When a retired college professor invites me to coffee, sits across from me, and proceeds to tell me why I’m an idiot, I don’t have to hear the isolated critique. After all, I don’t have to take it personally.

I get to.

He has a Ph.D., national recognition, decades of academic experience, and he’s decided that I’m worth his time.

When an elder at my church questions my character in an embarrassing, semi-public, quasi-accusation, I look up and see that she’s looking into my eyes. That she’s not angry. Just afraid. And that thing she just said might be more about her than about me.

What do I do? It depends.

Mostly, I try to receive the gift of attention as a gift, to truly be thankful for the influence I’ve been given, for the value that’s been communicated. I try to listen and really understand. I try to give back.

I’ll admit, it doesn’t always end in raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But more times than I can count, that parent has volunteered to work in my classroom, that retired professor has shaken my hand and asked if I would be his friend, that elder – in tears – has called to talk about her son and to ask for my forgiveness.

And I pray: God, help me to have the grace to see a world filled with opportunity, a people filled with potential, fields white for harvest. Help me to love my neighbor as myself. Help me also to recognize when my neighbor is trying to love me.

Help me to love my neighbor as myself. Help me also to recognize when my neighbor is trying to love me.



I find that much of my work as a youth pastor involves helping students to live in rather than evade the tension of authentic living. Within my own denomination, for example, there are emphases on both simplicity and stewardship. Should I carefully steward what I have for the future? Or give away everything, taking a vow of poverty in order to live simply?

It’s human to want to resolve the tension, to want to move in one direction or the other. But that kind of resolution almost always ends in an extreme (making me an extremist). It’s much harder to live in the tension, to daily struggle with balance, with paradox, with the between-ness of never quite getting it right and never giving in or giving up.

It’s human to want to resolve the tension

Breath Prayer


On a Sunday night in October, the regular worship leaders for high school youth group both had other plans, so I took advantage of the opportunity created by their absence to try something new. I asked students to choose one of about 60 different “breath prayers” I’d created by taking short phrases from Psalm 119. Students worked for 45 minutes on collages of photos, words, colors, and other images cut from magazines while focused on the breath prayers they had selected. My plan was for the collages to give us something to do with our hands in order to cut down on distractions during the time of worship, but many of the finished pieces were complex and beautiful representations of the prayers themselves.

During the exercise, I encouraged students to experience the time of prayer as a time of freedom; so even though I wanted them to have an experience akin to what Alonius called “only myself and God,” I made it clear that getting up for a snack, answering the door for trick-or-treaters, conversation, laughter, simply being together were all completely appropriate activities during our worship experience. Even so, our time together was a time of almost complete silence. Students were completely absorbed in their prayers and their creations. In fact, as parents arrived to pick up their children, many students had trouble finding a clear stopping point. They wanted to continue, longed for completion. Most left in silence.

The next afternoon, I had coffee with one of the students who’d been part of our worship experiment. We discussed homework and parents, music and poetry, philosophy and the Church, all of the usual topics. But we also touched on the proximity of God, the experience of Christ, the power of a phrase both breathed and lived, an experiment with prayer that had changed us both.

the power of a phrase both breathed and lived, an experiment with prayer that had changed us both

Success in Prayer


Nearly a dozen years ago, I made a serious mistake in my position as a youth pastor in a small Idaho church. In spite of my carelessness (and stupidity), I had not been fired; but I faced painful truths about my character, questions about my place in the community, confusion about my future calling. I took a week away from work and drove to Oregon for a spiritual retreat at a primitive cabin near a private lake in the Willamette Valley.

And I prayed.

Or at least I tried to pray. One morning, I read Psalm 119 over more than a dozen times. Then I waited in silence. I wrote out a question for God. And another. And another. But each time, as I waited in silence, I had no peace, no sense of God’s presence. I went for a walk. I climbed a tree. I ate. I slept. On the next morning, I tried again. And the next morning. And the next.

At the end of the week, I felt just as confused as at the start. But I was convinced that God had been present, that God was waiting for me to work through the problem I’d been given, that God trusted me to learn and grow from the struggle.

In Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster recounts a similar situation from his own life: his attempt to solve a long-standing problem at the university where he taught. And I recognize my experience in his claim that “we often pray in struggling, halting ways. . . . We do not know what to pray. We do not know how to pray.”

Roberta Bondi builds on this truth in To Pray and to Love with the story of a friend who discovered that “‘Success’ in prayer finally has nothing to do with how we feel, not even whether we feel the presence of God.”

That week I spent in prayer was the beginning of a journey that led me out of ministry (I resigned my position a year later) out of church (I stopped attending another year after resigning) and then back. And even though the journey was painful and lonely, it was a process that led to both perspective and maturity. It was a journey that brought me closer to God through hardship, heart-ache, and humility.

We do not know what to pray. We do not know how to pray.



In much of the Church, there’s a cultural divide, a kind of gap between adults and adolescents. Psychologists suggest that adolescents are undergoing a process of identity formation — figuring out who they are and what they’ll stand for — that causes them to question their parents, their friends, themselves. Sociologists suggest that these questions — something we often label “doubt” — make us uncomfortable, that they can create conflict.

Here’s the issue; doubt is dangerous. First, because it’s disconcerting. The right question in the wrong place can throw everything and everyone off rhythm. Second, it’s deviant. People who challenge the status quo identify themselves as not fitting in. They’re outsiders. They’re weird. They don’t belong.

But these questions — these doubts — reveal something important about the young among us. Many of them simply want a first-hand experience of Christ. Their faith isn’t going to be (can’t be) based on someone else’s beliefs.

What, then, might happen if church were a different kind of place, a place where questions could be asked openly, a place shaped by freedom not fear, a place with plenty of room for doubt?

My sense is that God has been shaping us into just that kind of community for a long time now. My sense is that it’s not just the young who have questions. My sense is that we’re in this together.

People who challenge the status quo identify themselves as not fitting in.

Playing Games


Playing games opens up a world of possibilities in worlds that don’t exist. Because that’s what games are – alternate realities – and that’s what games do. They do away with what is real and ask us to do the same. It follows, then, that in the perfect game, players perform foolish acts for no good reason. And in playing out these harmless fantasies, game players discover reality, what it is to live without inhibitions, what it means to finally be real.

The game is central to identity.

God made man in his image, and although we identify God as the source of love, joy, peace, and other virtues, what lies at the bottom of God’s character is creative power. So it is in creative play that we discover God’s image within us, waiting to break free from the oppressive propriety and maturity required in our day-to-day lives.

Imagine a 10-year-old boy teaching adults to wriggle around on their stomachs in a round of Snake-in-the-Grass. Imagine two friends on a road trip, reading billboard messages backwards, pretending to speak in a foreign tongue. Imagine a group of middle school students using dictionaries and a long cafeteria table to create a contemporary version of shuffleboard.

When we create and play new games, we discover God’s creative power in our minds, his presence in our midst. We discover what God created us to do and be: fellow creators.

The game is central to community.

Jesus prayed that God might make us one with each other in heart and mind, unified with the Father so that we might truly worship him in spirit and in truth. But we live in a dog-eat-dog world where people are valued for what they accomplish, not for what they become. Our success-oriented culture pushes people apart, demands that each man and woman be an island, self-sufficient. Reliance is weakness. Need is next to sin.

But the game turns topsy-turvy the world as we live it. In British Bulldog, the strong and the fast become victims to the cooperative efforts of smaller and slower players. Tops and Bottoms – like Lemonade – is designed around the goal of getting everybody on the same team. And no game is complete without an after-opportunity for sharing stories.

When we play together, we create shared experiences that break down barriers to vulnerability and transparency in other areas of our lives. When we learn how to play all out – hard, fair and nobody hurt – then we cease to be islands. We tag shoulders in Elbow Tag, strip off socks in Knock Your Socks Off, wrestle each other to the ground in Whomp-Em or Bloody Wink Em. And every time we touch, we demonstrate that God is forming us into a living breathing body of believers.

The game is central to worship.

First, some background. Dualism is the ancient heresy that claims spirit is holy while the flesh harbors sin. In Western Christianity, we’ve given new life to this system in our practiced separation of sacred from secular. Why else would we believe (or live as if we believe) that worship is only worship if it occurs in a certain place (church) at a certain time (Sunday morning) with a certain group of people (other Christians)?

And what good does worship do as a shot in the arm, a kind of holy inoculation intended to keep us safe from the dangers of greed, sex and road rage? Shouldn’t worship be central rather than tacked on? And must it always include music? Or a sermon?

Here is the problem. We cannot know God unless we know ourselves. We cannot celebrate God’s goodness if we fail to recognize his beauty reflected in the lives of our fellow humans. In order to worship in spirit and in truth, we must know ourselves, and we must have community. Everything else is false.

But our churches too often engage in little more than parallel play. We are in the same place and doing the same things as other believers. But we are alone.

Games bridge the gap.

I once took a group of youth and adults to a grassy hill on the edge of town where we spent hours speeding down the slopes on blocks of ice. As the sun set that evening, we gathered at the top of the hill, recounting stories of close calls and heroic deeds. We dreamed up new adventures. We marveled at the orange-topped buildings in the city below set off by deepening shadows and fiery clouds that shifted from red to pink to purple to blue. We spoke of secret longings and of God. That night, we stumbled down that hill in the dark, drunk with the joy of connecting, of trusting, of being known. That night, we experienced worship.

We are in the same place and doing the same things as other believers. But we are alone.

Crap Detectors


A lot of people go through life accepting just about anything they read or hear.

And most of it’s just crap.

I’ve been thinking about that, thinking about whether I’m actually making a difference. Am I making the world a better place? Am I helping my students to wade through the lies, half-truths and just-plain-nonsense? Am I giving them thinking tools and challenging them to actually use them or just filling their heads with more of the same?

Work hard. Smile. Don’t do drugs.

The world doesn’t need more go-getters. What it needs is people with healthy crap-detectors, people who have an idea where they’re going and whether the getting is even worth their time, people who want the truth and won’t settle for anything less (no matter how comfortable and safe the status quo).

The world doesn’t need more go-getters. What it needs is people with healthy crap-detectors

Not Jesus


Sometimes, it’s good for me to be reminded that I’m not Jesus, that it’s not my job to save the kids in my care, that I don’t have to worry about controlling the direction of conversations. To keep myself on track, I try to review the following concepts before any interaction with a small group of students:

  1. I will only ask open-ended questions. If a question has a right answer, it’s not open-ended.
  2. I will let kids be honest rather than “right.”
  3. I will remember that conversation time isn’t my time.
  4. I will not be tempted to respond to what kids share unless it is to clarify, to make sure I understand what they mean.

If a question has a right answer, it’s not open-ended.

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