Guest Post: Seeing Our Place in the Story

Have you ever felt like it is a challenge to help students understand the Bible, let alone get them to open it?  They will often argue that the Bible is ancient and doesn’t deal with the things they deal with.  That, however, is because they have often missed the story it tells.  Students (or anyone for that matter) will say that it doesn’t make sense or it’s boring.  Again, they may have missed the story it is telling.

I have taught students for almost a decade now, all of which was in a student ministry setting up until this past year when I made the transition to teaching Bible at a Christian high school in Grand Rapids.  I teach Old and New Testament Survey for freshman, which means I get the privilege (and challenge) of teaching an overview of the entire Bible.  And the more and more I teach it this way, the more and I believe every person needs to hear the story this way.

The reason we get stuck or confused or bored when we read the Bible…the reason it appears most Bible reading plans run out of steam somewhere around Leviticus 13 (skin diseases – yes!)…the reason students don’t want to pick up the Bible, might just be that we don’t understand what to look for.  So as we venture to help students read the Scriptures seriously or even as we read it ourselves, consider a few simple thoughts.

The Bible is first and foremost God making himself known.  Many religions or teachings are built around the idea that god is someone or something that you must find, like a cosmic game of peek-a-boo.  But the story of the Bible is the story of a God who says, “Here I am.  I do not hide and I am not far off.  In fact, I am coming to where you are.”  God’s Story is, well, his story.  That means before we ask what God wants us to know about Moses or David or Paul, we must ask what God wants us to know about himself.

The Bible reveals the divine drama that is unfolding before our eyes.  It is a collection of stories that ultimately tell one big Story.   This is nothing original to me, but I teach the Scripture as God’s Story told in four acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation.  I won’t unpack each here, but teaching the big Story of the Bible reveals something essential and yet often missed – the Story is not over yet.  This leads to the next crucial idea:

We can be a part of God’s big Story.  Each one of us has the opportunity to take our individual story and bring it into God’s glorious Story.  We live in the wake of Christ’s great act of redemption and the explosion of the first church to the ends of the earth and we now await (with all of creation!) the glorious conclusion when Christ will come and set things right.  This is God’s Story, and he graciously and gently invites us in.  We get to be a part of a story that has not yet come to its conclusion, and yet the author has given us a glimpse of how the story will end (which looks remarkable similar to how the story began…).

In a world where kids are desperate for something compelling to give their lives meaning, I can’t think of anything more compelling.  With more distractions and shorter attentions spans than ever, I can’t think of anything more captivating.  This is the story we get to invite students into.

Now, go and tell the Story.


Matt Bell | Matt is a Bible teacher at NorthPointe Christian High School in Grand Rapids, MI.  He previously served as a student pastor at Ada Bible Church. He is a husband to Lyndsay, a father to Codyn, Laila, Jaben, & Violet.  Jesus is the pie pan to all of these delicious slices.


Image credited to On Being


Equipping Graduates for the Next Step

Senior High Map-01

Roughly half of youth group kids are walking away from faith in college.  This map shows where the 50 graduates who were under my care this past year are headed in the fall.  If you’re wondering, I stole the idea for the map from HSM at Saddleback Community Church.  You can see their version here.

All I know is that I refuse to accept that 50% of my students will walk away from faith.  I’ve made it my mission to reduce that percentage among LifeLine students.  Over the last 3 years, we have revamped our approach to the senior year experience.  Here’s a glimpse of our strategy.


We love to make a big deal about our seniors.  We give them a lot of stage time, put on a retreat just for them and give them their own house group–no underclassmen allowed!  In our ministry, being a senior is special and you get access to opportunities that are only for seniors.  We do this to help retain our seniors.  We want our students to have something to look forward to.  Typically, seniors seem to disappear from youth group but by offering them unique experiences and the spotlight we are able to keep them involved.  And, this is very important to us because we have a lot we want to teach them.


In our ministry context, half of our programming nights take place in homes.  For seniors, their home is only for seniors and the curriculum is designed for them.  We talk about how to choose the right college (or not), what college will actually be like, debt, politics, partying, dating, apologetics, calling, mission, and a bunch of other stuff that we feel will help them navigate the challenges of life beyond high school.  Again, by offering them a curriculum that hits them where they are at, we are able to retain our seniors through the year.


Rather than a book and a handshake, we attempt to hand our students off to both a mentor and a new ministry or church.  The mentor is actually from our ministry–the same mentor they’ve had for the last four years.  We just encourage the relationship to continue through the first year of college.  I stole this idea from the Sticky Faith book.  They call it 4+1.  If you haven’t read it, you really should.sticky faith2

We also want to hand our students off to a new church or campus ministry.  During their senior year we constantly talk about how important it is to find a church or campus ministry with the first two weeks of college.  Most students who don’t connect within the first two weeks never will.

We identify churches and ministries for our students and then contact the ministry leaders and ask them to connect with our graduate before college begins.  We also send our graduates a care package in early September to encourage them and remind them to plug into a church or ministry.

So that’s a brief explanation of how we highlight the senior year and attempt to equip our students for the next phase of their lives.  How do you do it?


Guest Post: 1 Catastrophe>50 Youth Groups

I’m the most organized person I know.  If you know me you probably agree.  If you don’t know me, let me send you an outline and schedule of how and when we can get together to become friends.  This is why I hate when things go awry.

After 7 years of working in student ministry I have learned that there is no amount planning that can prepare you for the things that can (and will) go wrong when you’re working with students.

Anytime I hang out with high school students who have been around our student ministry for a while, the conversation tends to drift toward those chaotic events we all want to forget.  “Do you remember when…

…when we got lost in Canada?”
…when everyone on the bus puked the whole way back from NC?”
…when Sean busted his face open on the tubing hill and his eye was falling out?”
…when they served us raw chicken at camp?”
…when the police showed up?”
…when you lost the Hecht family’s cat?”

Sigh.  Yes, I remember.  I recall every ridiculous thing that has ever gone wrong at every camp, mission trip and event we’ve ever done and so does everyone else.   Why can’t anyone ever bring up the time we flawlessly served 350 cupcakes to our graduates and families?  Or the time we came back from a mission trip on schedule with no injuries?  No one remembers the brilliant teachings, artistically perfect worship sets or flawlessly executed events.

But, even with all of my type ‘A’ tendencies, I am completely fine with that.  Students are going to remember the catastrophes.  That’s where stories get interesting and memories are made.  When it comes to building relationships, one catastrophe is worth 50 nights of youth group.  So instead of freaking out, capitalize on the good fortune!

When things go wrong and you manage to right the ship and carry on, you build an extra supply of relational equity with your students.  They will remember that you took control, made it work, and didn’t freak out (ok, maybe you freaked out a little).  In the end, the crazy times reveal who you really are.  When students see you in the midst of struggle and chaos it breaks down barriers and opens the door for greater ministry.

So, the next time all of your buses get stuck on the way to snow camp (not that it has ever happened to us…..twice) try to remember that you’ve hit the jackpot!  You’re creating memories and experiences that will connect you to your students for a lifeline.


Christina Thelen has been involved in student ministry for 7 years.  That’s 49 dog years.  For the last 4 years she has served as the Department Coordinator of LifeLine–the student ministry of Ada Bible Church.


The Day I Almost Got Fired

I can honestly say that over 10 years and two churches, I have been a pretty good employee.  I actually work 40+ hours, show up on time and even dress semi-appropriately.  In fact, I’ve almost been fired only one time.  Personally, I think that one time over 10 years is pretty good.  So, why did I almost get fired?  I’m glad you asked.


Before the days of Twitter, Facebook ruled the Internet.  Before Facebook, MySpace was all the rage.  Before MySpace was Xanga.  If you remember this you’re borderline old—like me.  As a young youth pastor, I took to Xanga like a fiend in an attempt to get on my students turf.

Gone Emergent

At this same time I opened a new vein of study.  I randomly picked out a new book because I liked the cover.  The book was Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.  For the record, I read this book before you did.  I WAS A TREND SETTER!!!

I read it in one sitting.  It still remains one of my favorite books.  The Salinger style and the fresh approach to faith blew my mind.  I quickly read The Art of Prayer and Volkswagen Maintenance and moved on to other authors of what would later be dubbed the Emergent  Movement—Rob Bell, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren and many others.

At this point in my life, I was just a few years out of Moody Bible Institute and I found this new theology to be incredibly intriguing.  All this reading and thinking needed a processing outlet so naturally I began writing on my Xanga account.  And this is where I got in trouble.

Not that kind of Old School

Did I mention that I was working at a Baptist church—A Baptist church that had been a stalwart in baptism theology for over 100 years?  100 year old Baptists aren’t down with Emergent theology.  I guess I didn’t put together that people actually read my Xanga and considered my theological exploration to be hard and fast positions.

I was exploring, thinking outside the box and deciding where to settle theologically.  In the end I adopted new language, a much more relational understanding of God (Thank you Searching for God Knows What), a more missional approach to church and a theology not that far from where I started in the first place, but at the time it sounded to my Baptist employers like I took a swan dive off the deep end.

One fine afternoon, my boss took me for a walk.  We’d never done this before so I sort of thought maybe I was getting a raise or something.  I was surprised when instead I got reprimanded.  To his credit, my boss gently explained why it was a problem that I was processing theology and church practice in such a public place.  Instead of getting upset he applauded my curiosity and exploration and at the same time explicitly warned me of what my current employment would look like if I kept processing the way that I had been.

Process Appropriately

That conversation had a profound impact on me.  The lesson I learned is that we as pastors need to be careful where we process.  Our exploration can deeply impact the people who follow us—especially if they are adolescents.  We also need to be sensitive to the historical and cultural settings in which we are employed.  At some point, God may call us to challenge the norm but how we go about that is incredibly important.

I’m thankful that my boss was gracious and yet direct.  At a time when I was struggling with organizational church, if he had mishandled the situation I may have reacted negatively and been fired or left the church.  Instead, I was simply almost fired and went on to continue to grow and explore in more appropriate environments.

How about you?  Ever been almost fired?  Do share.

Bono and the Gospel

I just read a fascinating interview with U2’s Bono.  Bono has often been accused by American evangelicals of adhering to nothing more than a “social gospel.”  I think he understands the Gospel a bit more than evangelicals have given him credit for.  In fact, he may understand and live out the Gospel better than most of the Christians I know.  Here are a few excerpts from the article:

“It’s very annoying following this person of Christ around, because he’s very demanding of your life,” he said while chuckling. “You don’t have to go to university and do a Ph.D. to understand this stuff. You just go to the person of Christ.”

“We have a pastor who said to us, ‘Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing, Bono.’ Which by the way, I constantly do. He said, ‘Find out what God is doing, ’cause it’s already blessed,’” Bono said. “And when you align yourself with God’s purpose as described in the Scriptures, something special happens to your life. You’re in alignment.”

The article is a great read.  Check it out here.

Image Credited to

Adoption Series Finale

A Ginormous thank you to everyone who read my series on adoption.  If you missed it, you can start here.    I have appreciated all the feedback and encouragement.  I thought this video would be a great way to cap the series.  Check it out.

If you think of it, please pray for me and my team.  We are leaving for Ukraine on Sunday morning.  It will be an emotionally difficult experience for me after all that has happened with our failed adoption.

When Injustice Gets Personal Part 4

I believe the Devil is real.  Why?  Because I have experienced evil.

After winning legal approval to adopt, I contacted the girl we hoped to adopt in order to find out if she in fact wanted to be adopted.  As I mentioned previously, I had already developed a relationship with her through 2 mission trips and almost daily communication through Facebook.

After convincing her that we were actually serious, she exploded with joy.  She was so excited about being adopted and moving to America.  She called us mom and dad and constantly asked about her soon to be brothers and sisters.  We put our house up for sale in order to get a bigger house that would accommodate a teenage daughter.  We made plans for her schooling.  We all got passports and made preliminary travel plans.  And then everything blew up.

One day, out of nowhere, our soon to be adopted daughter sent me a long and formal message explaining to me that she was very sorry but she no longer wanted to be adopted.  She said that she was Ukrainian and belonged in Ukraine.  And that was it.  We were shocked.  I tried over and over again to convince her that she was making a huge mistake but she would not budge.  Her writing style was so different that I was convinced it wasn’t even her.

Desperate for answers I contacted a Ukrainian friend who regularly visited the orphanage in which our prospective daughter lived.  Through her, I discovered what had happened.  The director of the orphanage had somehow talked her out of being adopted.

In that moment I remember how a girl from the same orphanage had told me that when she was 4 an American couple wanted to adopt her but her orphanage director had told her that the Americans would take her away, kill her and sell her organs.  Terrified, the little girl said no to the American couple and 13 years later she still lives in the orphanage.

I learned that over the last decade the director of the orphanage had not permitted a single adoption—not even to Ukrainian couples.  Why?  Money.  He receives money from the Ukrainian government based on how many children are in his school and how many of those children graduate.

Fury can’t adequately describe what I felt.  We tried every method possible to change her mind but she would not budge.  She would not even discuss it.  Then our adoption appointment with the Ukrainian government came and went.  Somehow, in spite of all that God had done to open the way for us we had failed.  We did not get our precious girl.  Now she is too old to adopt and she’ll soon be released from the orphan school to the streets.

What do you do with that?  I don’t have many clear answers.  The best I can offer is that now I have glimpsed the pain God feels when His children reject Him.  Evil clouded our orphan’s judgment and she rejected a family that would have provided her with love, protection and opportunity.  In the same way, evil clouds my judgment on a daily basis and I reject God’s best.  Out of one of the most painful experiences in my life, perhaps that is the lesson.  I’m not sure.

I take comfort in the reality that as much as my heart breaks for this orphan girl, the love I feel doesn’t even compare to God’s love for her.  I know that His heart breaks for her too.  I trust that He is present in her story and that He will never stop pursuing her.

Somehow in the failure and the pain God is present and He’s not finished.

When Injustice Gets Personal Part 3

I don’t believe in closed doors.  I believe in smashing through them.  Let me explain:

Growing up in church I repeatedly heard phrases like these:

“I was going to become a [insert occupation] but God closed that door.”

“I am unsure what direction to go but God keeps opening up doors so I keep walking through them.”

“We wanted to get involved with [insert opportunity] but God closed that door.

I was taught that when an opportunity seemed to close it was a sign from God that I needed to move in a different direction.  If this is true, what we are saying is, “If it’s hard then it must not be God’s will.”  This doesn’t jive with the practices of the early church at all.  At the risk of offending people, I think the open/closed door concept is bad theology and a terrible way to make decisions.  If we had taken this approach in our pursuit of adoption we would have given up after a few hours.

Because we knew jack-nothing about adoption, one of the first things we did was call a large and reputable American adoption agency.  An agent explicitly told me that the girl we wanted to adopt was too old and it would be impossible to adopt her.  Disappointed, I called the branch of the US government that processes international adoptions and was told that the adoption was impossible because by law the adoption needed to be complete before the girl’s 16th birthday which was only 2 ½ months away.  There just wasn’t enough time.

The door had closed.  I was distraught.  I went for a run to process the news.  Was God telling us that adoption wasn’t His will for us?  I don’t think that’s how God works.  We already knew God’s feelings on injustice and orphans in particular.  We weren’t out of bounds in pursuing adoption.  I believe that sometimes God allows us to run into a closed door so that we can experience His power when He smashes through it.  And so we decided to do some smashing.

As my feet pounded out the last leg of my run, I decided that we would not take no for an answer.  If it meant flying to Ukraine and bribing government officials we would do it.  Be warned, this is the sort of crazy behavior that happens when injustice moves from abstract ideas to real relationships.

And so, I kept pushing and calling and eventually found the loophole we needed.  Because of the audacious determination of a pastor and his wife in Colorado, there was an addendum to American adoption law that would permit us to adopt an older orphan.  I guess that couple doesn’t believe in closed doors either.

So here’s my challenge: pay no attention to closed doors.  If you’re pursuing something that you already know God cares about and if your community is behind your pursuit don’t give up!  Smash through that door!  If you’ve recently smashed through a closed door I would love to hear about it.

Tomorrow I’ll finish this series by sharing how everything fell apart.


Photo by percivalsmithers

When Injustice Gets Personal Part 2

Crazy is uncomfortable.  We in suburban America like safe and normal.  There are social penalties to doing things that rock the boat.  You get talked about and people say things like, “Bless your heart,” which when translated from Christianese means, “You’re an idiot!”

I’ve discovered that when you tell someone that you’re going to adopt an orphan teenager they usually try to talk you out of it.  Go ahead, try it for yourself and see how people respond.   People will tell you that you’re putting your family in danger.  They’ll tell you horror stories of adoptions that were so bad that the parents tried to send the kids back.  They’ll tell you that you don’t have enough money.  They’ll tell you that older orphans are irreversibly damaged.

I understand that one of the key functions of good community is to help us process decisions and uncover blind spots in our thinking.  Our community and family helped us immensely in these ways during our adoption process.  In fact, every family member and close friend immediately or eventually supported our adoption which helped confirm our decision.  And yet, outside of our inner circle, I could sense immense skepticism and discomfort.

Christians in the West—specifically, suburban mega-church American Christians like me–have replaced normal with abnormal.  In the early church, crazy was normal.  The first generations of Jesus followers were known for extraordinary acts of compassion and love.

Throughout the ancient Roman world, human life was not valued.  Unwanted babies were left to die in “baby dumps” outside the city gates.  The early Christians opposed this practice and were known to rescue these babies and raise them as their own.

When plague struck Caesarea in the early 4th century everyone who could fled the city.  However, the Christian community stayed behind and put themselves at risk to care for the sick and dying.  The sacrificial love of the early Christians is well documented.  We could tell stories for days.

Throughout history, when Christianity has been at its best, it has been characterized by radical compassion and sacrificial love.  It has never been by any other influence that Christianity has spread and become stronger.  However, when Christians get comfortable we lose our influence (Andy Stanley has spoken powerfully about this phenomenon).

My point is this:  attempting to adopt a child who is at risk of sex trafficking should be considered normal behavior for Christians.  But instead, normal has become comfort and luxury.  We love to talk about sacrificial love but we rarely act in sacrificial love.  And please understand I’m talking about myself as much as anyone else.  It took 17 years of following Jesus before I ever acted on radical compassion and sacrificial love.  I’m not exactly the poster boy for my argument.

The thing is, stepping out in faith and actually doing something crazy in the name of Jesus has been exhilarating.  My faith has exploded and God has met me and my family in so many ways.  Maybe it’s because that kind of love can only come from the heart of God.

So if your faith is stuck, find a place to serve.  Give something away.  Get more involved in a ministry at your church or a local mission.  Support a child through Worldview or Compassion International or start looking into adoption.   By loving sacrificially your faith will grow and so will the influence of the church of Jesus Christ


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