A Little Comedy…

September 15, 2014 — Leave a comment

It’s been a while since we had a good laugh.  Here’s a video we made for Camp Lifeline.  I hope you enjoy.

 

Octo Mini from Lifeline Student Ministries on Vimeo.

I read a couple of great books last month.  Check them out…

Son-of-HamasIt was really hard to put this book down!  If you’re unfamiliar, this is the autobiography of the son of a Hamas founder.  He shares about his upbringing, conversion to Christianity and defection to the West.  The insider perspective on Palestine and Hamas in particular was fascinating, particularly in light of what is going on in Israel and Palestine right now.  It’s definitely worth the read.

bookpicI found Freakonomics to be entertaining and insightful.  This, the authors’ second book follows in the same vein.  They spent a lot of time applying economic principles to the phenomenon of prostitution which was enlightening but also probably not for everyone.  My favorite section of the book was on global warming and how to reduce the power of hurricanes.  Genius.

c8807460d81413a43d81144acafc6735_largeI loved this book and the entire series.  Peterson is incredibly creative with his creatures, settings and characters.  I was also impressed with how he wove in biblical themes without sounding cheesy or like a Jesus-juke.  Like always, I got completely wrapped up in the narrative and didn’t see the ending coming.  It hit me like a freight train.  It happens every time.

I thought the book was excellent.  You should probably get the entire series right now.

 

Tag Team

September 9, 2014 — 1 Comment

My friend Seth introduced me to WWF when we were in elementary school.  I’m not talking about the World Wildlife Federation.  I’m talking about classic wrestle mania–Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Superfly Jimmy Snooka and Hacksaw Jim Dugan.  Absolutely classic.  Look, I know big time wrestling is a joke and terribly fake but when I was 9 I thought it was the greatest thing ever so just back off!

The best WWF wrestling matches were tag team matches because these superstar wrestlers would team up together and battle it out.  When one guy would get cracked over the head with a chair, the other guy would step in a bail him out.  That’s some friendship right there.  We would watch that stuff for hours and then reenact it when it was over.  We didn’t have DVR back then so you had to replay the action yourself.

I know it’s crazy but I’ve been thinking about tag team matches lately.  You see, I’ve realized some things about myself.  When I was in my early 20s, I basically thought I was awesome at just about every aspect of student ministry.  Over the last few years I’ve come to see that I’m definitely not awesome at some areas of student ministry.  It was a big step for me to admit that I’m not an A+ at everything.  Maybe you can relate.

For the last 6 years I’ve worked closely with a co-worker and friend named Jon.  Jon is essentially amazing at everything I’m terrible at and not so hot at some of the things I’m good at.  We’re dead opposite in every way–gifting, wiring, personality, and guitar skills–he’s amazing and I suck unless there’s a capo involved.

What I’ve come to see is that together we are a pretty phenomenal team.  When we are united, we’re good at everything we need to be good at.  We are capable of high caliber leadership when we are on the same page.  We’re like a good ole’ classic WWF tag team.

I’ve noticed that many strong leaders don’t work well with others.  I’ve seen this sort of thing over and over in churches and businesses.  Strong leaders usually possess a compelling vision, which is awesome and necessary, but often struggle to work well with or empower others.  In addition, they often do not recognize or acknowledge where they are weak.  The thing is:  everyone is weak.  None of us is gifted in every area.  You might be a fabulous speaker but I bet you are a D+ at organization.  You may be able to create amazing systems but I bet you struggle with envisioning the future.  We are all finite and only capable of awesomeness in a few skills.

A breakthrough moment happened for me when I realized that together Jon and I could be an A+ leadership team but alone I would only be a B.  It was a critical moment for me.  Like most of us, I have aspirations of greatness.  I want to do phenomenal work and build a successful student ministry but I’ve realized that I’m not capable of this on my own.  I would rather work together and be great than work alone and be decent.  Because of this, I’m all about tag team.

My guess is that there is someone in your professional or ministry environment like this.  You have one set of strengths and weaknesses and they possess the opposite.  There is potential for greatness in teamwork but the gatekeeper is humility.  If you want to part of something great, realize that you’ll never get there on your own.  The truth is, if you make everything about you, your organization will only be a strong as your weakest weakness.  Tag team may just be the key to moving forward and accelerating toward greatness.

 

image credited to Greg O’Connell via Flickr

It’s taken me a long time to figure this out but I recently uncovered the secret sauce to great student ministry.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a degree from a prestigious Christian university.  It’s not great curriculum, a killer band or an epic student center.  It’s not even hipster glasses.  It’s collaboration.

I’ve realized over the last few years, as we’ve added more and more staff to our student ministry team, that what makes our student ministry programming great is teamwork.  I consider myself to be a smart guy, a good curriculum writer and a solid youth pastor but our team consistently makes me and what I do better.  When I write a new teaching series and feel that it’s really good, it always comes back from team edits with better wording, more vivid imagery and more focused application.  The truth is, as much as I want to say I’m a great curriculum writer, what our team creates together is consistently better than what I produce on my own.

For our summer camp this year, I asked a few members of our team to create a worship experience for our students.  I had personally done this the previous three years, and I thought what I produced was pretty awesome until I experienced the worship night our team created.  It was phenomenal.  It completely blew me away.  Team is just better.  Collaboration creates a stronger student ministry.  Our programming, curriculum, trainings, events, trips…everything is better when our team collaborates.  I’m completely sold on team.  I’m done trying to be awesome on my own.

Here’s the thing:  I understand that not everyone has the luxury of working on a large team, whether your field is student ministry or something else.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a team.  Make one.  If I could rewind the tape and go back to my first student ministry job, the first thing I would do is recruit a team.  I would invite volunteers to edit my teaching scripts and critique film of my teachings.  I would gather together with a group of local student pastors on a regular basis, study together and brainstorm ideas on how to do student ministry amazingly well.

I believe that one of the major weaknesses of student ministry across the nation is that youth workers are far too isolated from each other.  There is so much we could learn from each other if we were willing to share and listen.  Our students deserve and need great student ministry.  Let’s move toward collaboration.

Recently my family was hit with a tragedy.  My younger brother was involved in a bad car accident.  Receiving a call from the police on the scene was terribly difficult.  At that point, he was barely conscious and trapped in the car.  Even more difficult was having to call his wife and tell her the news.  It was a very bad night but thankfully he survived the crash.  As I told his wife repeatedly as we drove to the hospital, “He’s one tough kid.  He’ll be alright.”  He is a tough kid.  He’s been through a lot and he’s always pulled through.  I wouldn’t dare wrestle him either.  He’s probably 4x as strong as I am.

Although he escaped injury to most of his body, he sustained a serious brain injury.  It’s been incredibly emotional and difficult for us to watch him struggle through the confusion and the fog.  Thankfully, he remembers who everyone in my family is and who he is.  He can complete basic motor movement tasks and eat and drink with a little help but getting himself back to the wickedly athletic, strong and hilarious self that he was before the crash is going to take a long time.  He’ll be in in-patient or out-patient rehab for months.  I’m confident that he’ll make it though, he’s one of the hardest workers I know–full of grit and determination.  But, it’s going to be a long a difficult road.

Through this ordeal I’ve learned a few important lessons.  I’ve learned a little about what strong and sacrificial love looks like.  My brother’s wife has been an incredible servant through this ordeal.  She hasn’t left the hospital yet.  She is constantly present when he awakes to help him understand where he is and to relieve his anxiety.  She has been a pillar of peace and strength for him.  Her kindness and strength has been beautiful and inspiring to watch.  Sometimes tragedy brings out the best and people and all I know is that she must be one of those people.  I’ve rarely seen more selfless and sacrificial love.

Secondly, I’ve been reminded of the importance of family.  Through this ordeal our family has pulled together.  My sisters, parents and all our spouses are functioning like a team right now, caring for each other, watching each others’ kids and carrying each others’ loads.  Family matters.  Sometimes I wish extended families functioned like they did in ancient times or still do in some parts of the world–with extended families living and working together.  All of our American individualism isn’t always a good thing.  There’s no one like family to care for you and rescue you when life falls apart.  This tragedy has reinforced this reality for me.  Family is worth investing in.

Lastly, I’m learning that life is fragile.  My brother was inches from death.  I saw his car after the crash and the image struck fear into my heart.  I don’t know how anyone could have survived, but thankfully, God spared him.  I’m realizing that what James said about life is true:

“How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog–it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.” (James 4:14)

We can never foresee the plot twists that will unfold in our lives.  Our lives are fragile.  I want to learn to live life to the fullness, take advantage of opportunities, say the words that need to be said, invest in what is worth investing in, and to be with the people I care about the most.

So, this is where I have been lately and where I’ll be for a while.  I may not get to my blog for a bit while my family and I care for my brother and help guide him back to health.  If you find a spare moment, pray for my brother–that God would bring his mind and body fully back.  Thanks.

Orange Books!

August 21, 2014 — Leave a comment

My friends at reThink have launched Orange Books!  I’m super pumped about this.  Many of the books by reThink authors like Reggie Joiner have deeply influenced the way I think about student ministry and family ministry as a whole.  I’m a huge fan of the Orange philosophy of ministry–it’s all about churches and families partnering together to promote and elevate spiritual growth in our kids.  I love it and we’ve done our best to implement these ideas in our church and family ministries.

You can check out their latest books at orangebooks.com.  Also, they are running a promo that runs through tomorrow in which you can score sweet prizes for buying one of their books.  You can check out the promo page here.  All the books at the site are great but If you’re looking for a recommendation for student ministry, I would tell you to read Creating a Lead Small Culture.  Here’s a little blurb about it.

 

Creating a Lead Small Culture from Orange on Vimeo.

Earlier this summer, I did something rather crazy.  After a 10 day mission trip to Malawi, Africa, I flew directly down to Knoxville, Tennessee to check out a camp.  I mean, I flew from Malawi to Johannesburg to New York, ditched my team, flew to Atlanta and then on to Knoxville where my boss Brian picked me up in a rental car.  Then, we drove to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  If you’re keeping score, that’s 15+ hours of layovers and 20+ hours of flying.  I was beyond exhausted and I’m sure I smelled beautifully.  Oh, and I’m pretty sure our team made it home safely.  I think.

Normally, after a long mission trip I fly directly home, climb into my bed and sleep for three days but I just had to get down to Tennessee to check something out.  What was that, you ask?  High School Camp.  Starting this summer, reThink started putting on their own high school camp and I just had to see it.

I was impressed.  So impressed, in fact, that I’ll definitely be bringing a coach bus or two of high school students with me down to Tennessee next year.  Here’s why:

1.  reThink gets the power of small groups.

I love reThink as an organization because they are smart and strategic.  They are driving next gen. ministry forward.  They are helping us all think better about what we do.  They understand that small groups are the backbone of student ministry so everything about High School Camp is built around small groups:  housing, meals, programs, activities, experiences, etc.  It’s the perfect camp to elevate groups and capitalize on existing relationships or, to forge new ones.

2.  The Orange Tour for free!

If you’ve never been to the Orange Conference or the Orange Tour, this is your year!  The Orange Conference is the best conference out there for student ministry and children’s ministry.  Also, if you plan to be at the Orange Tour in Troy, MI, look me up!

My favorite thing about High School Camp is that the Orange Tour is essentially built into the camp schedule.  Youth pastors and volunteers get an hour a day with Reggie Joiner.  His content in these sessions is fantastic.  I’m pumped for my volunteers to receive some of the best training out there as part of the High School Camp package.

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3.  Zero Prep

We put on our own middle school camp and it is amazing.  I can say that without feeling like a bragger McBraggerson because I have very little to do with it.  Our team did an incredible job putting on the best camp I’ve ever been a part of.  With that said, we’re all in a coma now.  I don’t think we have the capacity to pull off another camp for our high school students.

The awesome thing about reThink’s High School Camp is that you show up with your students and volunteers and simply pastor them.  No prep required.  Beautiful.

4. Ginormous Water Slides

Spoiler alert:  The camp isn’t housed at a camp, it’s at a resort with ginormous water slides.  The resort also includes a huge arcade, several mini-golf courses, a mini-bowling alley, a rock climbing wall, a for reals grown up golf course, a ropes course and a million other fun elements.  Pardon my terrible photography…

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5.  Dollywood

Did I mention that Dollywood is right down the road?!?  Actually, that’s probably not helpful.  My bad.

6.  Epic Lights

Maybe it was because I hadn’t slept in 2 days or that I had just returned from Africa but the light show that accompanied the large group programming blew my mind!  What I mean is that the stage and production quality was on par with what you would experience at an Arena concert.  The students were LOVING it.

7.  Professional grade communications

I’ll be honest, at first I wasn’t sure about the teaching quality because I kept falling asleep.  I assure you it wasn’t the teacher!  It was that I hadn’t slept in 30 hours and I was sitting down in a dark room.

However, I did listen to a second teaching after a good night’s sleep and it was fantastic.  reThink writes the curriculum for High School Camp (think XP3) and it is delivered by a national level speaker.  It was great, and of course, it is designed for great small group conversation.  I love this because, in the past, it has seemed like any time I take my students to a camp, I either get great music or a great speaker.  Here, both were A+.

8.  I can worship to that!

Speaking of worship, if you’ve been in church work for a while you can probably relate to how critical I am.  It’s hard for me to really engage church services without evaluating the programming or noticing what is wrong or cheesy.  It’s one of the curses of working at a church.  What I loved about High School Camp is that the quality of music and production was so phenomenal that there was nothing to complain and I could relax and just engage in worship.  Maybe now you think I’m a horrible person.  Or, if you work at a church, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.

9.  Limitless Options

Pigeon Forge, the closest town to High School Camp is one of the strangest places I have ever been to.  There are literally limitless options for things to do…go carts, music, restaurants, giant dinosaur statues, shopping, a Titanic museum, amusement parks, theater, golf, and weird combos of all the previously listed options–think dinosaurs living on the titanic which is actually a large amusement shopping mall.  You really have to see this place to believe it.  My point is that if your group gets bored with the ridiculous amount of options at the resort, there are a bazillion things to do in Pigeon Forge.  Or, you could plan a fun excursion before or after camp.

10.  I thought the Smoky Mountains would be a lot more smoky.

I love mountains, camping, hiking, and natural beauty.  Pigeon Forge is situated in the Smoky Mountains.  First off, the scenery is amazing and secondly, if you or your group hate touristy things, there is plenty to do in the Smoky Mountains.  You could take your group camping after camp for crying out loud!

All this is to say that I’m going to High School Camp this summer.  I’m wickedly pumped about the impact the experience will have on our students and volunteers, and how easy the experience will be to plan for.  Maybe I’ll see you there.

If you ant to check it out, here’s a link to reThink’s High School Camp page.  Fear not, if everything I said about camp in Tennessee sounded terrible, they are holding camps in Florida and Texas as well.

What I Read in July

August 18, 2014 — Leave a comment

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This is the best book I’ve read in a long time. I could go on and on about it’s sheer awesomeness. I’ve been annoying my friends for weeks with stories about Pixar’s organizational culture. As a creative thinker who leads a team of creatives this book was right up my alley.

Because I’m a big fan of Pixar’s movies, I thoroughly enjoyed the back story on Pixar’s origins, where the ideas for their movies come from and also a different perspective on Steve Jobs. I can’t recommend this book enough for leaders and creatives.

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My friend Matt is a big fan of Scot McKnight–his books and theological approach, and that’s how this book found it’s way to my reading list. To be fair, Matt told me I chose the wrong McKnight book but oh well, I enjoyed the book. For one thing, it helped me survive a 15 hour flight to South Africa.

I appreciated McKnight’s argument about how we are to interpret the Bible today.  The story of God doesn’t end with the pages of the New Testament.  We, as followers of a Jesus have been granted the privilege and responsibility on carrying the story forward.  This is a vision that draws out my most passionate and driven self.

On a side note, to my discredit, I have continuously ignored the “women in ministry” debate because, well, it’s difficult–not a very compelling reason, I know.  You see, I hail from very theologically conservative roots.  I was raised in a group of churches called the IFCA, Independent Fundamental Churches of America–the name sort of speaks for itself.  Anyway, the good news is that I’m finally beginning to think deeply about the subject and engage in the debate.  As I think things through, I found McKnight’s arguments to be very helpful.

 

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If you read my blog regularly, you know I’m a huge fan of reThink. I love the Orange philosophy of ministry. This book is a fantastic blueprint for how to build a lead small culture–that is, a culture in which small groups are the primary mode of discipleship and small group leaders are empowered to be the spiritual mentors of students. I deeply believe in this philosophy.

As always, reThink books are fantastic–elegant, strategic and artistic. If you’re involved in children’s or student ministry, this book is simply a must read.

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This book wrecked me. I read it while living in a creepy hospital room in Malawi, Africa, perhaps that had something to do with the level of emotion in which I engaged the story.  I was terrified!

The story is deeply moving. I hesitate to inform you that I cried like a sissy. It’s the kind of story that motivates you to live a more meaningful ife.  You should probably just read the book.

 

Earlier this summer, I co-led a team of students on a mission trip to Malawi, Africa.  Here’s the third installment of what I learned:

LESSON 3:  RELATIONSHIPS TRUMP EVERYTHING

Things move slowly in Africa.  By that I don’t mean that Africa is backwards or inferior.  What I mean is that conversations, business exchanges and encounters with people on the street move at a slower pace.  You might say they linger.

I’ll be honest, there’s part of me that hates slow, and if I’m honest that part is the larger part of me.  I’m very task oriented.  I don’t like it when people trap me in conversation when I have places to go or things to do.

While we were in Malawi, the CURE hospital staff assigned us the task of redesigning and decorating a playroom for the children.  We really enjoyed painting cartoon animals on the walls and creating a warm and embracing environment (when I say “we,” I mean the students who had artistic talent).  However, in my estimation, the entire project took about three days longer than necessary.  The reason was that every little decision had to be consulted by 19 different people.

“Have we decided on where to hang the TV?”

“Hello Aaron!  How are you?  How was your evening?  Did you sleep well?” …15 minutes of conversation later…

“So, where should we hang the TV?”

“Well, we really need to consult with Joe because he is the one who leads the ministry with the kids.”

So, I go and find Joe.

“Hey Joe, where do you want to hang the TV?”

“Hello Aaron!  How are you? [shakes my hand and then continues to hold my hand throughout the rest of the conversation] How was your night.  Did you sleep well….” 15 minutes of conversation later,

“So, where should we hang the TV?”

“Well, we should consult so and so because of some random reason.”

For the record, we never actually hung the TV.

The funny thing is that the Malawians actually care about listening to everyone’s opinions and truly care about the questions they are asking you.  And, if you don’t reciprocate the questions you are perceived as a jerk because you aren’t valuing the conversation and therefore the relationship.  Which, if I’m honest, is probably true.

For crying out loud, even the peddlers in the market asked me how I was enjoying their country, told me their names, shook my hand for about 50 minutes as they inquired about my family all the while gently leading me to the stalls containing their mahogany wares.

I learned that Malawians value relationships more than anything else.  When a Malawian invites you into their home, they literally wash your hands for you.  In everything, task is secondary and relationship is first.  So what if the playroom is behind schedule?  We connected and cared for each other.  That’s what friends do.  And, if you’re wondering, the project was completed on time…ish.

Like I said, at first I hated the pace of everything but then we began to recognize the value of their way of life.  When asked how she planned to change her life based on her experiences in Africa, one of our students explained that she planned to take time to actually answer her mom’s questions after school instead of spitting out a quick “Fine” before running to her room to watch Netflix.  She realized that Malawians value relationships in ways that we as Americans don’t.   That realization alone is probably worth the cost of the plane ticket

I can’t help but think that we, in the US, have some things to learn about listening, asking good questions, putting people first and valuing relationships.  I’m attempting to slow down, listen a little more and value the relationships God has gifted me with.  Just don’t interrupt me while I’m doing something or try to hold my hand while we talk…

LESSON FIVE:  LOVE

I experienced something profound in Malawi. I treasure Jesus’ commandment, “Love one another.”  I believe that it truly is the greatest commandment. It is the pinnacle of what Jesus embodied and taught.

I vividly remember an Andy Stanley sermon from the Orange Conference a few years ago, in which he stated that whenever the church leverages love it advances and whenever it leverages something other than love it gets off-course. I’ve observed the Church “leveraging something other than love” over and over again in American culture as churches align themselves politically or engage in cultural wars over various issues. It seems that we too often get sucked into leveraging “being right.”

This time, though, at a small hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, I observed the church leveraging love.

You see, I spent a week serving at CURE hospital.  CURE International in an amazing organization. It is overtly Christian. It unabashedly promotes Jesus as Savior and King but it leverages this message through the gifts of physically healing children and treating people with dignity and respect.

CURE in Malawi employs several Muslims and they love working for CURE. There are prominent Muslim families who support CURE financially because they believe in their values and mission. Did you catch that? That just doesn’t happen! They donate their hard earned money to support an infidel hospital because it loves children so well.

Muslim families have become Christ-followers because CURE representatives came to their villages, professionally and relationally demonstrated how they could heal their child’s club foot or cleft palate, and then did so–caring for their family with dignity and love throughout the entire process.

Across the world, Islam and Christianity are at war.  The news in Iraq is particularly disturbing.  And yet, here is an overtly Christian organization in Africa, a region that has repeatedly been torn apart by religious wars, that employs, services and receives financial support from Muslims and in the process, has demonstrated the beauty and power of the Gospel in such a way that it has become compelling to Muslims. This is an incredible story and we have much to learn from it.

As Andy Stanley said at the Orange Conference, when we leverage love, the church grows and advances. What if we just loved? What if we simply served with no strings attached?

What if Christian organizations were the type of organizations that Muslims or, perhaps a better example in American culture, homosexuals wanted to work for them because they were treated so amazingly well? What if, because we loved homosexuals so well that Jesus became compelling? What if Christian organizations behaved so lovingly that Muslims or homosexuals willingly donated their hard earned money to supported their operations?

What if we simply loved people so tangibly and powerfully that they couldn’t help but notice our good deeds and worship Jesus? I think there’s something about that in the Bible…

 

image credited to Michiel Van Balen via Flickr