Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Understanding Your Context

A lot is made of understanding our cultural context. There are magazines like Relevant and people like Walt Mueller who help us in that area. There are web sites about how to use movies, music, Facebook and other cultural phenomenons to further God's kingdom. To all of them I am thankful, and I have learned a lot from many of those sources. There is another kind of context we must consider before we close the door on understanding out context. It is our church context.

In every church there is a culture that church has developed whether they have done so intentionally or not. There are values which have been lifted up above other values, commitments to programs or strategies, and a host of other cultural commitments. A lack of understanding in this area may be one reason that youth pastors sometimes have short stints at a given church. There are all kinds of ministry philosophies and strategies. For instance the church I am currently serving in talks about being "attractional" and "a real church for real people". These two things work themselves out in a variety of ways in our context. It is essential for me to make sure what I am doing with the students is consistent with these two principals.

This is important for a few reasons. The first is that my Senior Pastor will have my back if I am being consistent with the philosophy and strategy that he is implementing in the overall church. Second, this creates a consistency that help students integrate into the rest of the church. Third, when it comes to making changes I have an understanding of what kind of changes would be acceptable in this context and which changes would not be. This gives me a pretty big head start in making programing and strategy type decisions.

Context is not just about what students experience when they are not at church, it is also about the kind of experiences they need when they are at church. Here are some questions that will help you determine the culture at your church:
  • What phrases are repeated conistantly by the staff and expecially the Senior Pastor at your church?
  • What values or strategies consistently show up in other programs throughout the church?
  • How does my Senior Pastor run the ministries he has his hands on?
  • Has the church put printed values anywhere? What are they?
  • Are there values that I have that are inconsistant with the culture of the church?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Learning to Use Ministry Models

My Freshman year at Oak Hills Bible College in Bemidji (otherwise known as Buuurrrmidji), MN I began my paid youth ministry career. I was hired (along with the woman who is now my wife) to do youth ministry in a small town. At the age of 17 I began a quest to change the world for Jesus. I had huge dreams and a lot of energy, but I had no idea what I was doing. There were "kids" in the youth group that were older than I was. My model of youth ministry was to do whatever my uncle told me to do (he was a pastor in the area) and have a Bible study with the "students". Looking back that was probably a pretty good youth ministry model for that time and place. Ya, I said model.

You might be thinking, "that's not a model." It wasn't an intentional model, but it was a model. I didn't put a lot of thought into it. I didn't sit down and try to figure out what our mission statement was, what our ministry philosophy was, or what values we were trying to incorporate into the ministry. That was way beyond me! Still that model isn't that much different than what I have done for most of my ministry experience (except the part where I do what my uncle tells me to). Over the years I have become more strategic in how I approach ministry which has caused me to tweak and mess with various models of ministry in order to best accomplish the great commandments and the great commission in my context.

For the first five years of my ministry experience I really didn't know what I was doing. I was simply making it up as I went. The first time I received training that really helped me begin to think strategically was at a Sonlife Strategies Seminar (no longer offered). Many people don't look at what Sonlife taught as a model, but models were presented as a way to carry out the strategy which was being proposed. Later I would be exposed to the Willow Creek model, the Purpose Driven model, the Student Led Cell Group model, and others.

Recently "ministry models" as a whole have come under attack. This attack shows a lack of understanding when it comes to the value of models themselves. There is no perfect model which can transcend every cultural context. Chap Clark makes this very point in chapter six of Starting Right, "No one model should ever be revered as the model. In reality they all have weaknesses and strengths."

So what do we do with all of these ministry models? Can any of them be helpful? The simple answer is yes. Models are wonderful for the following reasons:
  • They provide focus.
  • They provide a way of thinking about ministry.
  • Good models are based on good theology and strategic thinking in relation to the context in which they were developed.
  • They provide a starting point for developing a model specific to your context.
A good youth pastor learns how to exegete his context for ministry and develop a strategy or model that will help him be successful in that context. This is not a new concept, but it seems that it is often forgotten. The incarnation of God the Son is based on this very concept. God had a specific mission in mind (Redeeming mankind) and a specific context in which it must take place. God then decided on a model (the incarnation) through which to accomplish His purpose.

"Every model, whether involving sweeping changes or prescribing minor adjustments, began with someone asking important systemic, structural, programmatic, or strategic questions in the light of a given need or setting." (Chap Clark, Starting Right, p. 110) Ministry should always be relational, but there will always be programs. Ministry should always be contextualized, but there will always be models.

The question is not whether we follow a particular model of ministry but whether or not we have rightly understood our own context and made the appropriate modifications to make a particular model work for us, making that model our own.

In my own experience understanding how others have approached youth ministry in their context has equipped me to think more strategically about how to approach ministry in my context. I have used bits and pieces from a variety of models over the years and it is my familiarity with these models that has allowed me to better use the tools available.

Use the following questions to help you begin to think through what your model of ministry will be in your particular context:
  • What is the model of ministry my church has subscribed to? (This is essential there should be continuity throughout all the ministries of your church)
  • What is the strategy behind that model? Will that strategy work with the youth?
  • What are the core theological and philosophical principals upon which you are building your model?
  • What needs to be tweaked in order to make that strategy work? (Don't confuse strategy with programming. There should be continuity in programming as well, but that does not mean the programs will not be executed differently i.e. music, drama, location, atmosphere, etc...)
  • What programs will make the overall strategy work? (small groups, large group, leadership structure, etc...)
These questions will just get you started. Don't stop questioning what you are doing. Every year I examine what we have done the previous year and how well that worked. I usually do this in the spring so I have time to make the necessary changes before the fall arrives. There is no perfect model and you can always make changes that will help you be more effective.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Essential Elements of the Gospel

Occasionally I try to put myself in the shoes of a non-believer who is "checking out" God and this whole "religion" thing. I wonder what goes through their mind as they drive into a parking lot full of cars at a place they at one time thought they would never go except for a wedding, funeral, or when their parents made them (Easter and sometimes Christmas). Maybe a friend invited them and they are looking around as the exit the car and walk into the building. The greeters welcome them and they aren't sure what to say back so they just smile and continue looking for their friend.

Eventually they find their friend. In a church that is paying attention they are introduced to 7 or 8 people who's names they will undoubtedly forget. So far things are good as they could be anyway. The non-believer (let's call her Angie) is nervous, her heart is beating a little faster, her breathing is slightly elevated, and just a tinge of adrenaline is flowing through her veins. Angie really isn't shy, but a crowd like this is a little overwhelming so she is relieved to sit down so she doesn't have to meet anyone else. Of course she only gets to sit for a minute and then it's time to participate in a game (which the regulars love, but she is kind of scared) or the worship starts in which case the people around her are singing and she doesn't sing well. After the music comes the message. She is thinking, "here comes that wacked religion stuff". Instead she becomes engaged in the message and hears about the difficulties of following the negative messages of the culture we live in. The speaker quotes some lyrics from a popular song to make his point. He opens the Bible and reads a passage that actually makes some sense. Angie had thought the Bible was irrelevant, but apparently there is some good stuff in there.

The message is coming to a conclusion and the speaker at the end of a stirring message about making good decisions in the face of a negative culture simply adds this:

Bow your heads and close your eyes; if you would like to accept Jesus
raise your hand and put it right back down. God bless you, you,
you, and you
and you."

The evening is ended with a prayer and Angie goes home wondering why she raised her hand. As she goes to bed that night she recaps the evening. It was fun, after being so nervous she actually enjoyed herself and thought the speaker made some good points. Still she isn't even sure what she committed to. She wonders what the big deal is about church, she has heard the same kind of message (minus the Bible) from her school teachers and commercials on TV. She wonders who Jesus is and what it means to accept Him; further what does accepting him do for her? Oh well, she had fun so maybe she'll give it another try if her friend invites her back.

  • Is this the kind of experience you would want a visitor to have if they visited your church or youth group? Why?
  • What good things happened in this fictional story?
  • What things didn't go the way they should?
  • What is wrong with how the speaker ended the message?
  • What are the essential parts of the gospel message? What does a person need to understand in order to make a decision to "accept Jesus"?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

What is Theological Ministry?

"Youth ministers have been on a long and frustrating quest of their own over the past two decades or so. Believing that a message wrapped in pop-culture packaging was the way to attract teens to their flocks, pastors watered down the religious content and boosted the entertainment. But in recent years churches have begun offering their young people a style of religious instruction grounded in Bible study and teachings about the doctrines of their denomination." (Time Magazine)

Some things never change and some things shouldn't. Ministry isn't about being able to keep up with the latest fads in an attempt to be relevant or using the latest and greatest curriculum it is about fulfilling the mission God has given to the church. Theological ministry is about making God's mission our mission and it is about staying true to those things that never changes. Just as God does not change so the truths of God do not change. In Mt. 7 Jesus the story of the man who built his house on the Rock and the one who built his house on the sand. In order to have a long lasting ministry or to last long in ministry it is essential that we build a good foundation for our ministry.

The first question that must be answered when we think theologically about ministry is this, "What are the foundational truths upon which a disciple and ultimately a ministry is built?" That is a loaded questions that demands a well thought out response. Time magazine made some great observations. Ministry and ministers are definitely becoming more focused on the deeper foundational truths of the faith, but they also made a mistake. The foundational truths of the Christian faith never changed and healthy ministries have always realized the significance of doctrine in faith and in practice.

The first step in building a theological ministry is answering the question I asked in the last paragraph. In my last post I mentioned something called a DDP (Discription of a Discipled Person). This document is one way of answering the above question.

For a practical approach to this issue begin by answering these questions:
  • What doctrines are non-negotiable? (This should not a be a long list, it is not a doctrinal statement)
  • What does a fully devoted follower of Jesus need to know?
  • What does a fully devoted follower need to be able to do?
  • How can we help students know these things and develop these skills in our ministries?