Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How To Use Social Networking Tools More Effectively In Your Ministry. . . .

Social Networking. . . good or bad? It depends on the person using it. Like everything in life, we can use things to the glory of God, or we can use them to the glory of the world, the flesh, and the devil. With our default setting locked in on sinful self-promotion and narcissism, we really need to be careful. . . . and our kids are watching. We must be very, very intentional about modeling healthy and redemptive social networking habits, thereby nurturing kids into faithful use of these potentially great and potentially destructive tools.

It's these realities and a host of horrible stories that have prompted us to launch our Digital Kids Initiative here at CPYU. As we've been spreading the word, we've had some youth workers step up and share with us some ways that they've been intentionally redemptive about their use of social networking in their ministries. Kevin Vinay is one of those youth workers. Kevin's been very intentional and careful about how he integrates this stuff into his youth ministry at Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. In fact, Kevin stepped up and sent us some great stuff that I want to share with you today. Here's what Kevin's come up with. At the end, you'll find a link to a pdf Kevin put together that you can download and reference as you seek to integrate social networking into your youth ministry redemptively. Thanks Kevin!

The vast majority of teenagers in our ministry (and across our nation) use Facebook and text messaging as their primary forms of communication with peers. Because of this, our youth ministry staff makes great efforts to reach teenagers from our community by using these popular communication tools to their fullest potential. Here are few basic ideas to begin using Facebook and text messaging more effectively in order to proclaim the gospel to a greater number of students:

First, create a Ministry “Like” Page. Tell students from your ministry to “LIKE” your page (do this at every major event!), and continually remind them to invite their Facebook friends to do the same. As the number of students who LIKE your ministry’s page grows, the more free on-screen advertising you’ll have.

Second, post with purpose! Consider the specific reason for each post. Right now, our ministry has committed to two scheduled posts each week. We post an “I Am Second” video at the beginning of each week (purpose: evangelism) and we post pictures and videos directly after our weekly youth group event in the middle of the week (purpose: outreach). “I Am Second” videos share the gospel. The pictures and videos entice students to TAG, LIKE, or COMMENT on our content. This makes our ministry more visible to all of their Facebook friends. We do create posts outside of the weekly plan for special events. But, even these posts have specific purpose and plan, and are high-quality.

Third, post routinely at specific times. Develop a schedule for specific weekly posts. This point is crucial to the effectiveness of your Facebook page! Be as consistent as possible with the day and time of your weekly posts. This creates a rhythm for your content. Once students realize that rhythm exists, they may begin looking for the Monday night video (our “I Am Second” video) or Wednesday night photos (our mid-week event content). Create and share your posts at a time when the majority of your students are online – probably later in the evening – so that there’s a better chance they’ll see it in their newsfeed.

Fourth, make sure your posts are high quality. Content should be clear and creative, fun and informative. Attach a picture to the post. Make a short, funny video instead of just typing out a message (flip-cams are a good investment). Catch their attention. It doesn’t have to win an art contest or a Grammy, but it should be worth viewing.

Fifth, tell students to give feedback in your post. Studies show that people will give more feedback on Facebook if they’re told to do so. Tell students to LIKE the video, TAG the photos, COMMENT and/or SHARE the content in their profile. This increases your ministry’s visibility to more of their friends.

First, purchase a group text messaging service. “But it’s expensive,” you say. It’s not too bad, and we’ve found that it’s worth the monthly cost. Plus, if you use texting and Facebook effectively it will reduce the money you spend on postcards and newsletters (and time creating/sending them).

Second, tell your students to sign up (again, at every major event). Our students have signed up for the service, and now we can contact almost ALL of them instantly, and at the same time. We have a sneaking suspicion that students don’t always read their snail-mail (call us crazy!), but we can guarantee they read our text messages!

Third, send event information and reminders. Students are notorious for giving the excuse, “I forgot.” So, remind them about the event just hours – or even minutes – before it begins.

Fourth, consider the timing of your message. Send messages out when you know your students are with friends who aren’t part of your ministry (right after school, during sporting events, etc.). Encourage them to invite those friends to the event that’s coming next.

Lastly, integrate texting with Facebook. So you actually want to spend time with your family on a weeknight instead of sending out a new Facebook message? Fine. Post your info while you’re at work, then schedule a text message for later in the evening that encourages students to check out the Facebook page. Text messaging services should give you the option to schedule future texts.

If a new student comes to an event, inviting them to LIKE the Facebook page or sign up for the text messaging service is easy and it connects them to your ministry faster. Communicating with parents can still be done via snail-mail when necessary, although we do have a growing number of parents who look at the content online as well. But, it seems to us that the best way to reach students is to meet them where they are.

We are very cautious about what goes on our page, and several leaders are automatically notified by email as soon as a comment is posted on our page. This helps us delete negative comments very soon after they're posted. I've also followed up with students who have posted negative comments (in person) as a way to foster discussion about online integrity.

You can download Kevin's pdf here.

You can see how Kevin's integrating Facebook into his ministry here.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Blessed Christmas to You All! . . . Listen and Ponder. . .

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Story. . . Narrated by Kids. . . Nice. . .

Thanks Mike Flavin, for sending me a link to this. Done by the kids at St. Paul's Church, Auckland, New Zealand. To the rest of you, enjoy. . .

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christopher Hitchens Is Dead. . . How Did You Respond? . . .

In today's fast-paced media-driven world, the news about atheist Christopher Hitchens' death is old. He died last week. We mentioned it in the CPYU office. Then yesterday, Derek Melleby - director of our College Transition Initiative - blogged on Hitchens' death and how atheists have been helpful to him over the years. Derek's blog post is worth a read.

I've been thinking today about Derek's post. Very thoughtful and challenging. In fact, it challenged me in a roundabout way. Just Derek's mention of Hitchens' death reminded me of what I said in the office when I heard that Hitchens died. I remember saying something like, "I wonder what Hitchens believes now?" Fair question. But I'm trying to remember what kind of tone I used when I wondered out loud. Was it a sober and inquisitive tone that reflected grief over the death of someone who as far as we know died without coming to faith in Jesus Christ? Or, was it the more arrogant, proud, and compassion-less tone we so often use when someone who is not for us but against us breaths their last breath? In other words, was I saddened as I pondered the fact that Christopher Hitchens may have gotten what we all deserve? Or, was I gloating in the fact that I believed Christopher Hitchens got what he deserved? I hope it was the former.

We might not talk much anymore about the culture wars. Personally, I think that's a very good thing. But the years so many Christians spent fighting the culture wars (or paying mercenaries to fight the culture wars for them!) have indeed left some remnants that leave us looking less like Christ than what our calling requires. Perhaps that kind of response to Hitchens' death leaves Jesus grieving twice. . . one for Hitchens, and then for us.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Messing With The NHL. . . Or, How I Could Have Screwed Up The Winter Classic. . .

We took a little trip to Philly yesterday. Our humble and small CPYU staff loaded up for a road trip that included lunch and a tour of Citizen's Bank Park. That's the home of the Phillies in case you didn't know. It's also the home of the NHL Winter Classic, the new hockey tradition that's turned into a marketing bonanza for hockey and for all kinds of merchandise. In fact, it was the Winter Classic that made the tour even more interesting.

The field was buzzing with workers assembling the rink. Fascinating to watch. On prior Winter Classic telecasts we've been treated to a time lapse view of the rink assembly process. I can guarantee right now that if you tune in, you'll get to see it again this year. I know because as part of the tour, I went into the Phillies radio broadcast booth. Gone were Scott Franzke and Larry Andersen. They'll be back once the season starts. Sitting on Andersen's desk spot was a TV camera positioned to record what was happening on the field. . . and it was recording. On the camera was a note. You can read the note for yourself. . .

Now, you have to understand that our tour guide was already way down the hallway. Out of sight. I was in the booth with Chris and Derek. Then, something crazy happened. I was magically transported in a moral maturity time machine back to my college days. Once there, all sorts of devious thoughts went through my mind. I even wondered if sticking a small handwritten note of my own in front of the camera for a few seconds would yield some powerful subliminal messaging for the millions of folks who watch the Winter Classic in a little over a week. Don't worry. . . we kept our hands off.

When I got home, I posted this little ditty on Facebook with the picture of the camera: Oh man. . . this was far too tempting!!!! First, the NHL places an unsupervised camera in the Phillies radio broadcast booth to film the construction of the rink for the Winter Classic. Second, they put that sign on it. (It's like saying, "Don't eat the cookies that are in this cookie jar.") Third, they let me into the booth unsupervised! Are you kidding me?!?! I guess you'll just have to watch the time-lapse of the rink setup that the NHL broadcasts on the day of the game. . . .

Ron, a buddy of mine from college, was one of the first to respond. . . with this: You are a man of integrity. I'm sure you would not disobey the sign. Of course, if you need to be reminded that you're a man of integrity you might have some integrity issues! Good call Ron. The two of us exchanged a few more posts, some of them recalling felonious behaviors (felonious now, not then. . . of course!) from those college days.

Ron's little reminder got me thinking about integrity. . . especially in light of everything else I posted this week (Abercrombie&Fitch, Ellen, Sophia Grace, etc.). God made us as complete human beings. The Shalom he built into "all things" (including us) at Creation is the most perfect picture of integrity one could imagine. Now, in the midst of our brokenness and undoneness, we are called to pursue integrity in all things. The dictionary defines integrity as "the quality or state of being complete and undivided."

Divided. . . that's what we are amongst ourselves and within ourselves. It needs to stop. Jesus came into the world to make it stop. That's what we celebrate on Sunday. As His followers, we should do all we can to make it stop. One day, He'll make it stop for good. Until then, we need to humbly and gracefully expose and deal with the lack of integrity. . . without and within.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cultural Hypocrisy. . . and Abercrombie. . .

Yesterday I blogged about Ellen Degeneres, Nicki Minaj, and the appropriateness of encouraging and celebrating the "Super Bass" worldview among eight and five-year-old kids. I question the appropriateness of the "Super Bass" worldview for anybody.

Yesterday long-time Philly sportswriter, Bill Conlin, stepped down from his job after being accused of sexually abusing children back in the 1970s. The accusations against Conlin are serious - very serious - and so they should be. Sadly, law enforcement agencies across our country are burdened with sexual abuse cases involving children. . . . and it's getting worse.

And yesterday my adult daughter texted me this photo. She took it in an Abercrombie & Fitch store while shopping near Philadelphia. It's a photo of a photo that sits on a fragrance display in the store.

This all got me thinking about just how mixed up and messed up we are as a culture. We stand up and intervene - as we should! - when children are violated and taken advantage of by sexual predators. But then we joyfully and without batting an eye let others prey on children's hearts and minds through imagery, art, song, film, etc. At times, we even applaud it and call it "cute" (see yesterday's blog). I wonder too, if a steady diet of this stuff during the "wonder years" doesn't socialize, nurture, and even create the kind of stuff that law enforcement has to deal with when those children become adults.

The A&F ad should make us think. Kids of all ages paraded through that store the other day. Some were with their parents. Some weren't. Who knows how many glanced at that photo. It's become so common that few, if any (I'm guessing) even stopped to stare. Did anybody even care? But what would have happened if - let's say - a man my age was sitting alone on a bench in the mall just a few feet from the entrance to the A&F store. . . and that man was holding a small copy of that photo in his hand. . . and that man was calling children and teenagers over to the bench to take a peek at his photo? See what I mean?

Perhaps the greatest irony of it all is that A&F has been filled of-late with scores of people buying gifts for others in celebration of the coming of Christ. . . the one who came to undo this mess and bring Shalom.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Crossing The Line With Ellen Degeneres. . . .

I've been thinking about and processing this since October. That's when I first saw the YouTube clips from earlier in the month. Initially, we gathered around our family computer and laughed at the viral clip of little eight-year-old Sophia Grace Brownlee and her five-year-old cousin Rosie. After all, they're cute. . . really cute. But the more I watched the more I squirmed. I kept watching. . . over and over again. . . and the squirming got even worse.

The effervescent little Sophia Grace wound up on The Ellen Degeneres Show after Ellen caught a YouTube clip of Sophia Grace singing away to Nicki Minaj's hit song "Super Bass." Ellen had the two girls perform live on her stage. Hmmmm. . . isn't that song a little naughty??? In true Ellen fashion, Nicki Minaj showed up, sending the little girls into a hysterical fit of joy. Their parents - in the audience - cried tears of joy as well. Then, the trio sang "Super Bass" together. You can watch it all below.

To be honest, you feel like a killjoy when you start to question stuff like this. But we still need to stand back and ask the hard questions. Did Ellen cross a line? Did the parents cross a line? Do we cross a line when we ignore what's really going on to enjoy the cuteness of a couple of little kids, justifying it all by saying, "Come on, they're only little kids"? Do we allow our emotions to trump responsible thinking and critique? I'm afraid we're losing our ability to think critically and Christianly about all of life, a reality which requires us to recapture and relearn skills that evidence discipleship of the mind.

I took some time to think more intentionally about this whole thing. I wrote up a 2-page 3(D) review of these videos of Sophia Grace with Nicki Minaj for our latest edition of ENGAGE. You can download the pdf of my review here. Use it to provoke your own thought. If you're a parent, talk about it with your kids. If you're a youth worker, spend an entire evening looking at, talking about, and thinking through the video clips.

After you read it, I want to know. . . Am I over-reacting? Should we be concerned? Is this evidence of deeper issues in our culture? If so, what are those issues? What do you think?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tim Tebow Lost. . . . Phew!

I'm glad Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos lost yesterday. I know. I know. How dare me attack a Christian brother. . . especially when that Christian brother is St. Tim. Please. . . hear me out first.

Am I alone in thinking that Tebow-mania was getting out of hand? Am I the only one that wanted it to stop? How can I say that? What's wrong with me?

I've been watching and listening as the media world and the church have been obsessing over Tim Tebow and his last-minute heroics over the course of the last few weeks. With each victory, the frenzy grew. As I've watched, I've tried to process what I've been seeing through theological and cultural lenses. I've come to a few scattered conclusions that I'd love to develop further in the coming weeks, but let me pass on some observations.

1. Tim Tebow is an incredibly gifted athlete. No clarifier or explanation needed here.

2. Tim Tebow is a gifted leader. He's proven that at a variety of levels. You have to be a good leader to be an NFL quarterback and to get your team behind you in the way that Tebow has. Right now, those leadership abilities have combined with his athleticism and talent in a combination that has him right where God wants him to be. . . for right now. Who knows where the journey will end for Tim Tebow.

3. Tim Tebow has been fun to watch. We all love the "Rocky" stories, don't we? This has been a little bit like that. I, for one, have enjoyed it.

4. Tim Tebow may not be a conventional NFL quarterback, but for now, he's the Denver Bronco's quarterback. The critics need to leave the guy alone and let him play. Just because he doesn't play the way others who have gone before have played, doesn't mean he can't play the way he can and does play. Make sense?

5. Tim Tebow got his talent from God. . . just like every other professional athlete out there. Tim Tebow's athleticism is no more and no less a gift from God than the athleticism of a guy like T.O. . . . really. Just because one guy is more of a gentleman, good sport, and role model than the other. . . well. . . that doesn't make his athleticism more of a gift than the athleticism of the other. I say that because many of my Christian brothers and sisters seem to have forgotten that. Watching either (or all for that matter) run, jump, tackle, catch, pass, etc. . . . any and all athletic ability "sings" praises to the Creator of athletic ability.

6. Tim Tebow verbally and consciously gives glory to God. That's the way it should be. We can celebrate and learn from that.

7. Tim Tebow has become the Christian celebrity du jour. . . and that's not a good thing. Sure, it's nice to have followers of Jesus talk about their faith in ways that the world can see. But I'm always afraid that we church people latch on to stuff like this too much, too soon, too loudly, and with way too much enthusiasm. That's why I'm glad Tim Tebow lost yesterday. We need to stop the Christian celebrity thing. We need to stop wearing the Christian celebrity as "our guy." We typically do that with a chip on our shoulder and it's really not very attractive. Not only that, but when we adopt all the lingo ("tebowing," etc.) I think it tends to trivialize and cheapen our faith.

8. God doesn't need Tim Tebow, he doesn't need me, he doesn't need any of us. Really. God is the sovereign Lord of the universe. He is in control. He is working out His will. We need to know that will and humbly ask Him to use us as He sees fit as He reveals His Kingdom in us and through us. But let's never forget. . . we are flawed human beings. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. That keeps us in our place.

Tim Tebow. Let's not think too lowly of him. Let's not think too highly of him either. But by all means, keep watching and enjoying the remainder of the NFL season. Make sense?

Friday, December 16, 2011

OK Boys. . . We're Burning Your Trophies. . . .

So my nephew - who was a pretty decent football player himself a few years ago - texted me this morning. "Google new canaan football team burns trophies." My nephew lives in Connecticut near New Canaan, which is how he caught wind of this crazy little story that's a sign of the times.

Here's the story. . . . It seems that the New Canaan Black 8th grade football team made the playoffs. They reached the semi-finals but lost. That left them in third place. A few weeks after season's end, the team had a little party at one player's home. The players' parents decided to celebrate the team's season and success by presenting their boys with trophies. . . third place trophies. The coaches then gathered the boys up and took them and their trophies to a local park, where the coaches then proceeded to have the boys burn the trophies. All three coaches lost their jobs after the incident went public. One coach apologized, saying the message they intended to send was positive one. Residents of the town are concerned that the message that was sent was all wrong - that not finishing first is the same as failure.

As I think about this story, there are a couple of things to ponder here. As a parent of kids who were athletes and as someone who coached for years, I value a positive athletic experience. Athletics is about learning, putting forth an effort, cooperation, and having fun. I never believed that "winning is the only thing." I know there are coaches that scream, yell, and coach for nobody but themselves. Not good.

On the other hand, we live in a world where kids are coddled, hovered over, and buffered from consequences by parents who are far too child-centered. Everybody needs to get a trophy, a pat on the back, and a "you're awesome!" even when the effort is mediocre or sub-par. Not good as well.

So, while I don't fault the parents in this story (I don't really know. . . I wasn't there nor do I know the families), it does serve as a reminder that 1)we've placed too high a premium on winning, and 2) we coddle our kids way too much. Both are threads running through the fabric of today's youth culture. In this story the threads cross. . . and look what happened.

What do you think?

Next week I'll blog a little "show and tell" on the trophy that I proudly display on my desk.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Youth Ministry Hero. . . .

Ever get asked about who your youth ministry hero is? I've been asked, and I've asked. When asked, I've had a standard answer since the day I graduated from high school. It's not one hero, but three. They happen to be the three youth workers who invested in my life during high school. I know God used each of them to lead me to the point where I'm at today, vocationally and spiritually.

First there was Phil Douglass, a Tennessee boy who as a seminary student came to the Philly suburbs every weekend to lead a rambunctious group of teenagers at Supplee Presbyterian Church. I was in ninth grade. I quickly decided I wanted to spend time with Phil and to be like Phil. I also liked Phil's Firebird! Today, Phil is on the faculty at Covenant Theological Seminary, influencing young people like he did forty years ago.

Then there was Mike Barbera, another seminary student who spent loads of time with me during my sophomore year. Mike is now pastoring at Church of The Good Shepherd in New Orleans. I love Mike as I loved Phil. Oh, did I mention that Mike drove a dark green Kahrmann Ghia convertible?

Finally, there was Chuck Wiggins, another Philly boy who was with us for two years! Same thing . . . loved being with this guy who loved being with me. Chuck brought along an extra benefit to our youth group. . . his wife Kathy. Together, they made a great team. Both are now pastoring in Florida. And Chuck drove a VW Beetle. . . I guess you have to when you have a wife!

There they are. . . my three youth ministry heroes. They loved Jesus and they loved me. In recent years, I've added a fourth. I blogged about her a couple of weeks ago. She loves Jesus, she loves kids, and she's 81-years-old! Today, I want to share with you why she's my youth ministry hero. I don't have to write anything. You'll know why she's my hero when you watch the video of the little surprise Tic Long threw on her in Atlanta. Thanks Verna. . . for being a hero to us all!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cohabitation. . . 14-Fold Since 1970. . . .

The latest edition of ByFaith Magazine includes an article by Susan Fiske on "The Spiritual Costs of the Missing Family." It's an article about marriage and its demise in our culture, citing the fact that marriage is now occurring less frequently and much later in life. At the same time, there's been an increase in cohabitation, also known as "living together." The article reports that children today are far more likely to spend part or all of their childhood in a cohabitating household, than they are to see their parents divorce. Makes sense since cohabitation has increased 14-fold since 1970. (Amazing fact to ponder, isn't it?)

Researchers have been busy crunching the numbers to see just how many people are choosing to cohabitate in today's culture. All we need is a set of eyes to know that marriage continues to decline and more and more young adults and older adults are choosing to live together. As Christians, we must remember that while "it's not good for man to be alone," God's intention was for a committed and exclusive monogamous relationship between a married man and woman. A "marriage" without the commitment is really not a marriage at all.

Susan Fiske looks at just how wrong and dangerous the cohabitation alternative really is. In a sidebar in the article, she cites a report from the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project and five themes that illustrate current trends. Here they are:

1. Children are less likely to thrive in cohabitating households, compare to intact, married families.

2. Family instability is generally bad for children.

3. American family life is becoming increasingly unstable for children.

4. The growing instability of American family life also means that contemporary adults and children are more likely to live in what scholars call "complex households."

5. The nation's retreat from marriage has hit poor and working-class communities with particular force.

There are deep implications here for our families and for youth ministry. Are we building our marriages? Are we spending too much time focusing on things other than our children? Are we communicating a Biblical vision for marriage and trumpeting it's great mystery, wonder, and blessings? Are we challenging cultural conventions - like cohabitation - from a Biblical perspective? Are we calling sin "sin?" Are we preparing our students to honor and glorify God in every area of their lives as they move into adulthood?

Friday, December 9, 2011

You Write My Blog. . . .

When I saw this very creative yet sobering Christmas card that's been circulating through the world of social media, I sat in silence. . . just staring at it. I'm curious about what the rest of you think. I've taken some time to think about the card and what it says about us as individuals and a culture, but I've decided to hold back until hearing from you. So, go at it. . . write my blog. . . what do you think?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

I'm Too Sexy For An . . . iPad?

Thanks to a very generous friend of CPYU, now I've got a dilemma. While making a point about the speed of technological advances, I mentioned publicly during a seminar that the iPad 2 is out and I don't even have an iPad 1. A couple of days later I get an email from this friend who was at the seminar announcing a donation to our ministry that is to go towards the purchase of two. . . count them. . . TWO! . . . iPads for use at CPYU. Wow!

Since we never had the funds for an iPad, I never took the time to research them or to look at how to best utilize one here at CPYU. After all, why feed info to a covetous nature?!? But now that the money's there, it's time to get to work. So I start to research. Apple versus Android. iPad versus Galaxy. Oh man. . . this is getting complex.

At this point, I know my "Jobite" friends are going to come at me full steam ahead. "Why are you even taking the time to ask the question?", they'll tell me. (Go ahead. . . post your comments!). I know I'm setting myself up here as most of my friends in the youth ministry world have volunteered. . .no, paid! . . . to be spokespersons for Apple. Why in the world would I ever even consider anything but an iPad? Sounds a little bit like iDolatry to me.

Some might say I'm asking all the wrong questions in preparation to make a decision. Which platform meshes better with a PC? . . . after all, that's what we run here at CPYU. Which device has the most versatility? Which device can we best employ for our research, presentation, and travel purposes? Which one is less likely to break when - not if - I drop it? I've got lots of questions.

So, the other day a young computer wizard comes in to our office to talk about some other tech issues with Chris Wagner. I walk through the room and notice he's clicking away on an iPad. He obviously knows scads more than I do about technology so I ask him if he would be willing to stick around when he was done so that I could ask him a question. The question? . . . "Why should I get one of those (as I point to said iPad) as opposed to. . . let's say. . . a Samsung Galaxy?"

He responded by thinking out loud and offering an objective comparison of the two devices. Then he smiled and giggled a little a bit. That was before he said something like this. . . "If you walk into a Starbucks holding this (as he pointed to said iPad), more people are going to notice." In other words, my "sexy cool" factor would increase exponentially. . . which in my case really doesn't matter that much at all. . . since 10 times zero is still. . . well. . . you get the point.

The fact of the matter is that I'm way beyond worrying about amping up the sex appeal and cool factors. . . at least I hope I am. If I'm not, I should be. Which got me thinking again about the constant battle our culture throws us into over pursuing style rather than pursuing substance. It's happening big time in the church. It's happening big time in youth ministry. It's happening in our very lives. And, we wear sometimes pursue and choose brands/technology not based on what it will do for us, but on what it will do for us in the eyes of others. Make sense? Come on. . . we all do this at some level.

A few years ago my buddy Jay Delp said something that opened my eyes to this stuff. We were standing on a Denver street outside our hotel at the National Youth Workers Convention. Jay had his ever-present video camera hoisted onto his shoulder as he walked towards us. "Hey Jay," I said. "We've got some money to buy a nice high-quality video camera at CPYU. Why would I need that big thing you've got as compared to the smaller camera we're looking at?" After hearing about the camera we were considering, Jay simply said, "They're almost identical. Cameramen, however, think this one will make you look more important when you walk into the room."

OK. . . so this is not intended to be an indictment of the iPad and those who use them. Not at all. It is intended, however, to be an indictment of our lust for style at the expense of substance. . . no matter what brand we choose to adopt as our own in any aspect of our lives.

Still. . . I have a decision to make. iPad or Galaxy? How about a little help here. . .

And while you're thinking, this commercial captures a little bit of what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Priority #1 - She Must Be Hot! . . . .

There it is! That's the Zits comic I saw in Monday's paper. Zits is my favorite comic strip. It follows the adventures of a teenager named Jeremy as he finds his way through the maze of adolescence in contemporary youth culture. His clueless parents try to "find" him while he's immersed in his own journey. It bothers me just a little bit that his clueless father is named. . . Walter.

Every now and then Zits gets me thinking about cultural realities that deserve our attention. Things like trends that we should notice, respond to, and perhaps even work to reverse. Our growing obsession with "hot" as the central goal of personal identity and as a prerequisite for relationship. . . that's a big issue these days. Ever notice those Facebook photos? The self-obsessed self-portraits? The attempts to not only be "hot," but to be seen and liked and commented on as "hot"? It's pervasive.

"Hotness" is so destructive. For one, the standard for "hot" is so high that no human being is able to achieve it. We're always trying to get there, but always left wanting. "Hotness" leads us to objectify others and ourselves. People are not people. They are commodified. "Hotness" is killing marriage. When a person's "hotness" is what draws us to them, the inevitable forthcoming "cool down" period makes marriages go cold. If all we're committed to is having a "hot" spouse. . . well, time and gravity will some day ruin it all for us. . . and for our spouse as well. On the upside, it just might be our commitment to "hot" that saves our economy. We spend billions of dollars every year to remain "hot" in the eyes of ourselves and others. And when we start to "chill," we spend even more money to cover it up and fool the world into thinking that we're still "hot."

Could it be that a powerful apologetic for the truth and reliability of God's Word is found in I Samuel 16:7? "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." Wow. . . that sure tells the truth, doesn't it?

How'd we get here? One of my heroes is Jean Kilbourne. She's been unpacking, explaining, and challenging our obsession with "hotness" for years. Her book Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising rocked me when I first read it years ago. It's worth a look.

Yesterday, one of my Facebook friends posted this video clip of Kilbourne speaking on a college campus. She does that quite a bit. Students need to hear her message. Maybe this is a clip you should show to the kids you know and love.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is Jonah Telling the Truth? . . . .

Over the course of the last couple of days, the video I've embedded below has been spread far and wide courtesy of YouTube. I watched it a few times yesterday. Yep. . . it's been there for awhile. I know the song - Sia's "Breath Me" - a song that has quite a compelling video itself. Give Jonah's video a look. . .

After watching, I had some questions and responses that are indicative of what it means to be alive, living, and growing up in today's culture.

First, I wondered if this is real. With social media allowing anyone and everyone to jockey for an audience and their 15 minutes of fame, I'm always wondering if this kind of stuff isn't just a ploy concocted by a real or self-made-online persona starved for attention. I hope it's real because I don't want to believe that there are people out there who would try to fool us on this kind of stuff. I hope it's not real because I don't want to believe that there are people out there who are getting hammered like this. Who can know for sure?

Second, real or not in this case, the story is all-too-real in all-too-many real cases. Jonah speaks for a growing percentage of our population. Granted, his story may be nuanced. But his very real pain is increasingly generic. Identity formation is a battle-field. Kids feel abandoned and alone. Bullying is real. The support systems that should be holding kids up are largely absent on non-functional. Being fourteen in today's world isn't at all like it used to be. Jonah is telling the truth. . . if not for himself, for somebody(s).

Third, I wonder if we're listening. Whether we realize it or not, we all have Jonah(s) living in our midst. And if we're hearing and seeing, we can't be like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan. Instead, we need to be like the Samaritan, willing to give of ourselves in every possible way to meet the needs of others, regardless of the cost we might incur personally. When we see him or her, we should take pity on him or her. We must be people who "go and do the same."

As I watched Jonah in his video, I couldn't help but think about my dear friends Marv Penner and Rich Van Pelt. They've devoted their lives to equipping us all to love and minister to kids like Jonah. Today, I want to say thanks to Marv and Rich for all they do to stop, look, listen, and respond as the hands and feet of Jesus. . . and for teaching us to do the same.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Smells Like Christmas. . . Or It Should! . . .

We're late. . . again. Still don't have a tree. No lights up outside. I haven't even gotten them down from the attic yet. Maybe tonight. This all reminds me of something that happened a few years ago when we were late with our Christmas preparations. When my then 19-year-old son arrived home from college, our lack of preparation caught him by surprise and got him a little bit irritated. The fact that the tree wasn’t yet in the house and we hadn’t baked any cookies caused him to verbalize his disappointment in us with this: “It doesn’t smell like Christmas!” He had just come off a difficult finals week and he was looking forward to the comforting sights, sounds, and smells of our family Christmas that he had come to treasure before heading off to college. We had let him down.

His statement got me thinking beyond the scent of pine needles and fresh-baked ginger cookies, to another way so many of us are letting our kids down these days. Not coincidentally, it has to do with Christmas. We’re reminded every year at this time of the coming of the Savior, Jesus Christ. As a Christian father, I’ve been entrusted by the Savior who came and who transformed my life, with the awesome privilege to embody the message that He is savior and Lord in all my comings and goings with my kids. That Christmas, with my son just home from college,yet ready to move out of his teenage years, I wondered if my life had served him well, “smelling,” if you will, like Christmas as he grew up under my care.

I often wonder how well we – Christian parents - have lived out this God-given responsibility. Generally speaking, today’s teens are a consciously spiritual bunch. Perhaps more than any other generation in recent time, they are on a deliberate quest to understand and embrace faith. While this is good news, it comes with a set of distinctive issues related to our unique culture and times. Because swimming in the soup of our times is pushing more and more kids away from a belief in absolutes and transcendent truth, orthodox biblical Christianity is not only not embraced, but is often looked down on with scorn. Christianity is rejected because Christians believe they alone have spiritual truth. Consequently, more and more kids struggle with Christianity’s exclusivity. In addition, the emphasis on feelings over and above rationality leads our teens to look for a faith system that is emotional. Globalization and immigration have opened the door for a variety of previously foreign and unfamiliar faith systems, especially various forms of eastern spirituality and mysticism, to find a new home in North American youth culture. All this has combined to create an environment where our kids step up to the spiritual buffet table to load their plates with a personally created faith system that combines a variety of elements into a personal mix put together to satisfy their spiritual palate and hunger. Because each individual has the freedom to choose what they want for themselves, varied day-to-day tastes allows them to change and adapt from day to day. Every plate is custom made by the individual consumer. No two meals are alike. To those observers who are more rational and logical, the ingredients on individual plates are often seen to be incompatible. But to young people, they have been given the freedom to be consistently inconsistent and they see no contradictions.

This individualized spiritual journey has had a profound effect on the faith adopted by our self-described Christian teens. Christian Smith’s groundbreaking research on teenage spirituality reports that 84 percent of teenagers in the United States believe in God. At first-glance, that encouraging number seems to indicate that our efforts to lead our kids to faith in Christ have been working. But a closer and more careful look at the study’s data indicates we should stop congratulating ourselves, and start getting concerned. Shouldn’t we be thrilled that more than 8 out of 10 teenagers believe in God? Not after reading the results of Smith’s research. The real question is who or what is the God they believe in? The research concludes that their God and their faith isn’t in the God and faith of the Bible, the one who sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world. Rather, it is what Smith labels as “Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism.” In other words, kids believe that to be a Christian means that they are to be good people. They believe that God exists to serve them by helping them to feel good, happy, secure, and at peace. And, they believe that even though God made the world, he’s only active and involved in our lives when we need him to resolve a problem. In reality, only 8 percent of teenagers “believe in God, attend religious services weekly or more often,” hold faith to be “important in their lives,” regularly “participate in religious groups,” and “pray and read the Bible regularly.”

The reality of emerging teen spirituality is that “the majority of American teenagers appear to espouse rather inclusive, pluralistic, and individualistic views about religious truth, identity boundaries, and the need for religious congregation.” This explains the rise of teenage interest in New Age mysticism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Kabbalah, Wicca, and other spiritualities. When it comes to those who claim to be “Christian,” that brand of Christianity is becoming distorted and secularized. Smith says that “Christianity is either denigrating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.” More and more teens who have been raised in Christian homes or who have embraced Christianity are adding other spiritual elements to their plates. It’s not uncommon to encounter a teen who believes that Jesus was the son of God, believes in the virgin birth of Christ, believes the Bible is the word of God, and also believes in reincarnation, reads and follow their horoscope, and sees no contradictions between any of these beliefs. In addition, many who hold to a more orthodox and biblical Christian faith have embraced it as something they do from time to time, rather than someone they are all the time. Instead of integrating their faith into all of life, they live a dis-integrated faith that only touches select parts of who they are. Consequently, their stated beliefs may be separated from how they view and respond to authority, how they conduct themselves in dating relationships, who they are as a student or athlete, etc.

Why is all this so important for us to know? For the simple reason that we are getting ready to celebrate the coming of the Savior, and because our greatest responsibility to our teens and the surrounding culture is to consistently talk about and live out the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. They were made to follow Him. Are you spending time each day in God’s Word, building your relationship with Him? Are you spending time every day in prayer, asking God to change you and your teens into His image and likeness? And, are you prayerfully living out the will and way of God in every area of your life with dependence on God’s Spirit? If you are, then your house “smells” like Christmas all year long.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hey Central Pennsylvania Youth Workers! . . . Host A College Transition Seminar. . .

“A few summers ago I was roasting a marshmallow at a family picnic. Seated next to me was my wife’s younger cousin, David. David was about to head off to college, and at one point in our conversation he said, ‘All the advice I was given at graduation only told me what not to do: don’t get drunk, don’t have sex! I need to know what to do.’ I took a bite out of my s’more and thought, He’s right.”

These words from my friend and co-worker Derek Melleby’s amazing book, Make College Count, capture the essence of the horribly negative and way-too-minimal message most kids get from the adults in their lives before heading off to college. That short conversation has played a significant role in Derek’s mission to equip young people to make the most of the college years to the Glory of God. That mission is at the heart of Derek’s ministry with our College Transition Initiative here at CPYU. I love what Derek’s doing. I love what Derek’s saying. I love seeing the fruit of his work.

While I believe that every youth worker I know should be addressing this issue and inviting Derek in to speak to their students, CPYU is offering an exciting opportunity for youth workers here in the Central Pennsylvania area to host a College Transition Seminar. The College Transition Seminar provides a great opportunity to bring families together to have meaningful conversations about college life, and to equip students to live out their Christian faith during the college years. Dozens of churches that have already hosted the College Transition Seminar have found it to be a great event to invite community members to attend.

In the coming few days, we are seeking venues here in Central PA to host a 2-hour College Transition Seminar on the following dates:
-March 22 (Thursday evening)
-March 27 (Tuesday evening)
-March 31 (Saturday morning)
-April 12 (Thursday evening)
-April 14 (Saturday morning)
-April 17 (Tuesday evening)

Here’s how it works. . . CPYU will waive the normal $800 honorarium. CPYU will handle all registrations online through our website.

What we’d like the host to do is. . .
-Provide a room that holds at least 100 people
-Provide AV support
-Provide light refreshments (if possible)
-Welcome guests and introduce Derek before he speaks
-Assist in marketing the event at your church and with other local youth workers/churches (we provide the materials)
-In addition, the host will receive a nice thank you pack of CPYU resources ($100 value)

If you’re at all interested or would like more information/clarification, please get in touch with Derek as soon as possible.

Thanks for considering partnering with us to serve future college students and their families!

Watch a clip of Derek Melleby speaking.
Read an overview of the College Transition Seminar.
Hear what others are saying about the College Transition Seminar.
Learn more about CPYU’s College Transition Initiative.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kids and Plastic Surgery. . . .

There she is. . . smiling at me from her perch on the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble. Everything about her looks absolutely perfect as she stares off the cover of the December 2011/January 2012 edition of Seventeen magazine. Her name’s Nikki Reed. She caught my eye because she was the co-writer and co-star of the semi-autobiographical 2003 coming-of-age film, Thirteen. The irony is that her cover photo captures the hair, eyes, skin, nose, lips and chin every pre-teen and teenage girl covets as they struggle through their pre-teen and early-teenage years. Her face is framed by teasers trumpeting this month’s Seventeen content. They direct readers to look inside to learn about fashion, beauty, and "your perfect party look." This and every other teen girl magazine cover sets the “appearance bar” higher and higher for our kids.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that a growing number of kids who are developing physically during the transition from childhood to adulthood compare what they see transpiring in the mirror with what they see on the covers of the magazines. Of course, that’s the way the marketers want it. The sad result is a generation of kids who buy the lies that “I am what I look like” and “if I don’t look like that I’m worthless.” This reality is not only feeding the epidemics of eating disorders and depression among children and teens, but is also feeding the dissatisfaction that’s leading a growing number of kids to pursue cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery in an effort to improve their physical appearance.

Plastic surgery is certainly nothing new. It’s a legitimate branch of medicine that is dedicated to restoring or altering the human body. It is used to reconstruct and correct abnormalities caused by birth defects, developmental problems, injuries, infections, or disease. It’s also used to cosmetically reshape body structures in an effort to improve appearance and feelings of self-worth. According to The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there has been an over 155% increase in the total number of cosmetic procedures. In 2010, over 2 percent of cosmetic procedures were performed on children 18 and under with the most popular procedures being otoplasty (cosmetic ear surgery), rhinoplasty (nose jobs), and breast augmentation. In addition, teenagers are seeing cosmetic surgeons for liposuction, otoplasty (reshaping of the ears), breast enlargement, breast reduction, breast lifts, collagen injections, microdermabrasion, and chemical peels. Teens in South Korea are flooding cosmetic surgeons with requests for procedures that enlarge the eyes. And believe it or not, there are reports that a growing number of girls here in the U.S. are getting breast enlargements from their parents as high school graduation gifts!

What’s fueling this growing trend that’s not expected to slow down anytime soon? A look at today’s youth culture reveals several reasons for our teens’ love affair with cosmetic procedures.

First, there is the intense and pervasive presence of image pressure. In a Bliss magazine survey among British girls with the average age of 14, two-thirds of the girls surveyed said “the pressure came from celebrities with perfect bodies and boys.” Girls who compare themselves to the never-ending onslaught of images know that to be acceptable is to be young and to be beautiful. The boys have bought the lie as well. If they see themselves as not good enough and there’s the possibility of getting better, they’ll pursue it with little or no regard for the cost. Cosmetic surgeons report that more and more teens are showing up holding celebrity photographs that capture the appearance they want for themselves.

Second, our kids are growing up in a media culture where an endless number of shows - especially "reality TV" - trumpet and glorify the possibilities and merits of cosmetic alteration. They know it can be done.

Third, our teens live in an instant fix society. If something’s broke, hurting or not right, there’s a pill, prescription, or procedure available to make it right. Because they want to avoid emotional and physical pain, they’ll opt to do anything that makes them feel and/or look better.

Fourth, our culture is extremely narcissistic. This reality is certainly not limited to today’s youth culture. We’ve all learned to selfishly do “what’s best for me.” If I’m growing up with my eyes focused on myself and my needs, it’s not at all surprising that I’d want to fix anything that I don’t like about me.

Fifth, peer pressure is extremely powerful. When our teen’s peers, boyfriends, and girlfriends buy into the appearance pressure, they will in turn pressure our kids to buy the lies that so easily lead to the desperate and vain measure of cosmetic procedures.

Finally, parental pressure plays into the mix as well. It should come as no surprise that many teens who feel the pressure to change their appearance have learned from parental example. Liposuction and breast augmentation are the top surgical procedures, and botox injections are the top non-surgical procedure for both men and women alike. That example, coupled with our criticisms of our teens (“You look like you’re gaining weight.”, “You’re skin looks so pale.”, etc.) can lead our teens to desire and choose the plastic surgery option.

What can youth workers and parents do to instill a healthy sense of physical self in children and teens so that they will avoid the growing obsession with plastic surgery?

First, we must communicate that plastic surgery, while sometimes necessary for one’s physical health, is not the road to redemption. Our dissatisfactions with ourselves are rooted in a yearning for God and His gift of new life. No surgeon’s knife, Botox filled needle, or miracle cream can fill the God-shaped hole in the soul. Plastic surgery is a redemptive dead-end that leaves you feeling empty.

Second, we must teach our kids that aging and death are theological realities that can be fought, but never beaten. Humanity has been cursed to physically age and die since the rebellion of Adam and Eve. Try as hard as we like, those realities can never be reversed on this earth. It’s a fact that time and gravity are not especially kind to the human body. Consequently, they need to realize that a growing number of people in our culture are locked into an anti-aging exercise in futility.

Third, we must shoot straight with our teens about the risks related to plastic surgery. A simple search of the Internet uncovers stories and warnings about the very real dangers of some of the most popular cosmetic procedures sought out by teens.

Fourth, we must teach our kids about the seductive power of advertising. They need to know that marketing is designed to seize on and magnify their insecurities. Then, marketers make product promises that translate into “needs” that lead to purchases. This vicious cycle is formulated and reformulated every day for one reason. . . .getting our kids to spend their money. As parents, we must teach our kids to recognize and understand the lies ads tell and sell. (Here's a link to a helpful list of questions you can use with students to filter ads "Christianly").

Fifth, we must never lose sight of the fact that in God’s grand scheme, suffering builds character. Even though the “perfect appearance” is an always changing cultural construct, our kids still buy the lie, feeling like they don’t measure up. But if we heed the words of James, we soon realize that the suffering of not measuring up or being “imperfect” is part of the growth and maturation process: “Consider it all joy. . . . whenever you face trials of many kinds. . . . the testing of your faith builds perseverance.”

And finally, we must affirm kids' value and worth as God has created them. When I was a teen I never liked what I saw in the mirror. Sure, the pressure wasn’t nearly as great back then. But when we were kids the pressure was there. Nothing meant more to me than to know that even though I felt I fell painfully short in the eyes of the world, I was loved and accepted by my parents and youth worker. Over time, that message finally got through and I came to realize that my “flaws” were really only unique differences (please remember that next time you look at my picture!!).

A few years ago I ran across this ad for Botox that features a middle-aged married couple locked in an adoring embrace. The ad wants me to believe that they were “perfect” in appearance. The ad’s text reads, “We promised to grow old together, not look old together.” What a tragedy. If I can communicate God’s radically different message on appearance to students, I trust that the growing obsession with plastic surgery won’t hit home for the kids I know and love. I pray the smiling young faces I see around me will reflect the image of Christ, and not the images on the front of the magazines.

Oh, and if you're not convinced. . . take 27 minutes and give this horrifying video a look. . . .

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Kids Who Cheat. . . And The Now and Future of Marriage. . .

I wonder if they really think they did anything wrong. And, if they think they did something wrong, what degree of wrong do they think they did? I'm talking about the 20 students from the New York suburbs who find themselves in trouble for charging between $500 and $3,600 to take the SAT and ACT for others. The last two students just turned themselves in. Some could face prison sentences of up to four years.

This is a multi-layered story in terms of the cultural forces at work. Sure, there's the cheating. But there's also academic pressure, life goals, parental pressure, societal expectations, misplaced priorities, and idolatry in the layer beneath the cheating. There's other stuff I'm sure.

What struck me as I read the news this morning is that this story offers just a small peek through a window into what we've become, who we are, and where we're headed as a society. We've got some heart problems, for sure. And if left unchecked, the roots of cheating will continue to snake their way through the soil of our lives. If we look ahead and ponder the fruit our lives will bear in the future, it becomes obvious that we need to whack away at the roots where we seem them growing in ourselves and in our culture.

One reality we should consider in all this is how cheating at a young age in the simpler and smaller things of life, sets the table for us to grow up willing and able to embrace cheating in the larger and more significant things of life.

As I pondered that this morning, I opened Scotty Smith's Everyday Prayers to find the November 29th "Prayer for Marriages." I love how Scotty reminds us not only of our own brokenness and bent, but for our need to seek protection from the evil one, as his plan is to undo Shalom in every area of life, including the high and holy covenant of marriage. We know this to be the case because cheating is not only prevalent in marriages outside the church, but also within. That's something we need to hear and receive as a somber warning.

Scotty Smith's "Prayer for Marriages" is one worth sharing and praying today. Perhaps it echoes the yearnings and realities of your own heart, as well as the concerns you have for your friends. It does both for me. . .

"No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery-but I am talking about Christ and the church." (Ephesians 5:29-32)

Lord Jesus, I’ve been greatly saddened lately over the growing number of my friends who are disconnected from, despairing of, or dying in their marriages. I’m saddened, but not shocked, for two reasons. It makes all the sense in the world to me that the one relationship meant to mirror your love for your Bride would be under constant assault by the powers of darkness.

Why wouldn’t Satan want to do everything in his power to keep us from showing and telling the stunning story of your great affection for your Bride-how you have sought and bought a most ill-deserving people, like us, to cherish, nourish and cause to flourish… forever? Of course marriage is going to be a war zone-the front lines of spiritual warfare until the Day you return, Jesus. Of course, Satan doesn’t want the gospel to take root and offer the fruit of your redemption and restoration in our marriages. He hates you, he hates the gospel and therefore he hates your Bride.

But I’m also not shocked over the great percentage of marriages that are struggling, because I know my own heart, Jesus. Like most of us, I came into marriage, as you well know, with little gospel and big naiveté. I had no clue about the depths of my brokenness, the degree of my selfishness, or the devices of my sinfulness. I had no clue about what it would mean to love one person well the rest of my life, someone who needs the gospel just as much as I do.

And I certainly had no clue that your love alone is better than life… that your love alone can slake the deepest thirst of my heart… that your love alone can provides the depths of intimacy I crave and for which I have been made… that your love alone can free me to love another sinner-spouse the way your love me as your spouse-for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish… forgiving and forbearing… accepting without acquiescing… doing the hard and heart work of the gospel.

So, Lord Jesus, I pray for my friends, as I pray for myself, protect us from the evil one, and restore us to gospel sanity and gospel reality. Give hope to the hopeless, conviction to the foolish, nourishment to the famished… grace-filled wisdom to the betrayed and godly sorrow to the betrayers. So very Amen, I pray, in the loving and restoring name of Jesus.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Discipline Gone Aright! . . .

Once every couple of years I leave church in tears. Today was one of those days. As our worship service began, our pastor informed the congregation that any visitors or friends would be excused as we stood to sing the morning's last hymn (yep. . . we still sing hymns!). The reason. . . a church discipline announcement that was good news. He made the announcement two more times. Each time, he sounded more and more excited.

One of the reasons I love my church is the seriousness with which we take the matter of church discipline. It's seriousness bathed in grace, evidenced in heartbreak, and designed to keep guys like me in check. Sometimes we not only need to know what we should do, but we need to be deterred from doing what we shouldn't through our submission to the discipline of the church. As I write those words I realize just how antiquated, old-fashioned, and legalistic they sound in today's world. Maybe that's because so many of us grew up seeing discipline administered with the law rather than with grace. Maybe that's also because the culture has somehow convinced us that nobody. . . NOBODY. . . has a right to tell me what to do and how to live unless that somebody is me.

Back to my pastor. On a handful of occasions I've seen him preface an announcement of discipline with a solemn declaration of our shared brokenness. That's followed by an explanation of a long process of showing love and grace that's been rejected. A name and offense are stated. Everyone in the room knows that they are no better than the one named. In every instance, I've left personally challenged and very broken. Not today. Our pastor told us that he had not one, but two good bits of news. We then heard the announcement that two men who had chosen a lifestyle of unfaithfulness to their families and their God. . . and who had been excommunicated from the church. . . had truly repented of their sin. We welcomed them back into the fellowship of the church! Restored. Again, I left with tears in my eyes. This is the way it's supposed to work.

We need church discipline. I need church discipline. The challenges we face in the world are pervasive and compelling. I need my church. We all need a church like that. I'm glad I'm there.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Praise and Thanksgiving. . . .

Something for today from my favorite little prayer book, The Valley of Vision.

O my God,

Thou fairest, greatest, first of all objects,

my heart admires, adores, loves thee,

for my little vessel is as full as it can be,

and I would pour out all that fullness before thee

in ceaseless flow.

When I think upon and converse with thee

ten thousand delightful thoughts spring up,

ten thousand sources of pleasure are unsealed,

ten thousand refreshing joys spread over my heart,

crowding into every moment of happiness.

I bless thee for the soul thou hast created,

for adorning it, sanctifying it,

though it is fixed in barren soil;

for the body thou hast given me,

for preserving its strength and vigour,

for providing senses to enjoy delights,

for the ease and freedom of my limbs,

for hands, eyes, ears that do thy bidding;

for thy royal bounty providing my daily support,

for a full table and overflowing cup,

for appetite, taste, sweetness,

for social joys of relatives and friends,

for ability to serve others,

for a heart that feels sorrows and necessities,

for a mind to care for my fellow-men,

for opportunities of spreading happiness around,

for loved ones in the joys of heaven,

for my own expectation of seeing thee clearly.

I love thee above the powers of language

to express,

for what thou art to thy creatures.

Increase my love, O my God, through time

and eternity.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Faces Change. . . The Youth Worker and Pornography. . .

When living out your calling includes hour after hour spent standing at the front of a room, your intuitive ability to read the faces in the crowd sharpens. Are they with me? Are they bored? Am I connecting? Do I need to shift gears? Did I just say something that struck a nerve? The answers to those questions are sometimes written all over the faces in the room.

This last weekend I got to indulge in one of my favorite things - spending time with youth workers, this time at the National Youth Workers Convention in Atlanta. The youth worker world is a world I love. I know how important they are to the Lord, to parents, to the church, to kids. I've not only been a youth worker, but I've been shaped and blessed by so many youth workers over the years. . . something I need to consciously be thankful for on the day before Thanksgiving.

Fortunately - and unfortunately - the discussions in our youth ministry world increasingly include talking about pornography. It's a good thing to be talking about pornography because it's one of the greatest threats to the spiritual and relational health of ourselves and everyone we minister to. It's an unfortunate thing because it's so pervasive and enticing in today's world. The statistics tell us this. Our own experience tells us this. Common sense tells us this. The sheer number of stories we see, hear, and find ourselves in tell us this. And, the faces I see in the room tell us this.

I'm noticing that every time I mention this horribly twisted and fallen expression of the sexuality that God created and enthusiastically declared as "GOOD". . . something happens in the room. Postures and expressions change. The quiet in the room moves to a new dimension. You can sense an increased uneasiness that comes with having to talk about something that we need to talk about that's been hushed and hidden - corporately and individually - for far too long. That all adds up in a mix that offers convincing evidence of our need to talk, talk, and talk some more about something that's destroying kids, families, culture, and even some of us.

At one point this last weekend, the faces I saw in the room combined in a moment that screamed urgency. In fact, what I saw as I talked briefly about pornography made it difficult for me to concentrate on the task at hand for the next few minutes. It wasn't what I would call an epiphany. Rather, it served as a strong kick in the pants to be more deliberate in my quest to dig more deeply into this social and spiritual scourge. I've said it before: It's a different world. I was a 12-year-old boy when I first saw the inside of a Playboy magazine. We found it. . . it didn't find us. It wasn't readily available. To be honest, it's frightening for me to think about who I might be today if my 12-year-old self was 12-years-old in 2011. . . seriously.

When I walked out of that seminar room this last weekend, there was something else added to my "to do" list. I've been pondering what my focus should be for my 2012 reading theme. Every year I choose an area of focus. This last year it's been books on Christian/Biblical justice. Next year, I'm going to read about marriage, family, and sexuality. Sure, that's been the overarching focus of my reading since the day I was 18-years-old and set foot on the college campus as a Sociology major focused on issues related to marriage and family. But these issues are nuanced in today's culture and we need to deal with them, at both a corporate and individual level. My 2012 reading focus was clarified last weekend.

One more thing. . . with Thanksgiving causing us to focus on the good gifts God's given, how about thinking tomorrow about more than the gift of daily bread. If you're a youth worker, think about God's gift of love, marriage, family, and your sexuality. . . and say "thanks.": And as you think, ponder how each of those relational threads is woven together in your own life. What does that tapestry look like? Does it reflect the glory of God? Or is it a mess that needs to go through some cleaning up? We'll all see some of both.

Last night I was sitting and watching the news with my 19-year-old son. He commented on the disgusting nature of some of the new allegations and details coming out in the Penn State sex-abuse scandal. After that story, there was a report detailing how the average weekly number of sexual-abuse reports in our state had doubled during the week after the Penn State story broke. I mentioned that I believed a multiplicity of factors - including the growing pervasiveness, presence, and nature of pornography - are combining in a perfect storm that will only make these stories more common as the years pass. That's the way we need to act now - corporately and individually - on the uneasiness in the room and the expression on our faces. I think we know. . . we've got to start dealing with this stuff as it impacts our culture, our kids, their families, and even ourselves.

Youth worker. . . if the uneasiness is rooted in what's happening in your own life, speak up to someone you trust as the first step in getting the help that you need.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Desperate Sign of Our Crazy and Empty Times. . . .

You could call this news of the weird or just too crazy to be believable. Still, my newspaper says it's true. . . and it got me thinking. It's one more sign of the times and our complete obsession with what we look like. I guess that when it comes to our identity, it's what's on the outside that matters. Keep reading. . . and then ask yourself. . . "Is this a result of our appearance obsession?" . . . "Is it a peek into what the future of our appearance obsessed culture is going to look like?" . . . or, "Is it both?"

It seems there's this woman living in Miami who wanted to get a job working at a nightclub. These days, it isn't just your people skills that gets you jobs serving drinks or waiting tables. . . or maybe anything else for that matter. Nope. It's highly likely that your first and most lasting impression is made and sealed with your looks. That's what's emphasized in today's world. Qualification is only skin deep. At least that's what this lady must have come to believe. So, she starts looking for a doctor who can perform some plastic surgery. . . specifically, some curve enhancement in the posterior area. This relatively recent development - by the way - has always been surprising to me. It used to be that people wanted to de-emphasize that part of their bodies if it was a bit over sized. Trust me. . . I know! Yep. . . cultural standards change and they do shape the way we look at ourselves and others.

Back to our female friend. She finds a female doctor to perform the surgery, or so she thinks. The story takes a strange turn in that the female doctor is neither a doctor nor a female. The supposed female doctor has - however - performed posterior enhancing surgery before. . . on herself . . or himself. I'm not real sure what to say here. Using some type of tube, the man who's not a woman or a doctor proceeds to use a tube-like device to inject a crazy mixture of cement, tire-sealant, and mineral oil into the job-seeker's backside. What results - as you can imagine - is great pain that has led to a need for further corrective surgery, an inability to work, and a criminal case.

OK . . . this story is extreme. But it is also a reminder. We long for relationship, for significance, and for love. And then in our desperation, we do desperate stuff to try to find any or all of the aforementioned things for which we've been created. So widespread and common is this universal human trait that most of our attempts to have these voids filled go unnoticed and are not the least bit newsworthy. But when something like this story comes along, maybe it's time to pause and look at ourselves and the unique traps that we fall into over and over and over again.

Augustine knew the Scriptures. He knew the secret of what it means to find one's significance in the arms of a loving God. He wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” When we are filled with Him, we don't need anything else to fill us. . . not cement, not mineral oil, not tire sealant, not "the right" shape, nothing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Shhhh. . . It's a Secret. . . Don't Tell Verna. . .

I've got a friend you need to meet. And if you're in Atlanta at the National Youth Workers Convention tonight, you will. . . but you have to keep it quiet. Verna Kline is in her 80's. She drove to Atlanta from central Pennsylvania yesterday along with the rest of the crew that staffs the On Fire Youth Center in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. Verna's been doing youth ministry for over 60 years! She loves Jesus. She loves kids. I've seen firsthand - over and over and over again - how much kids love Verna.

The amazing thing about Verna is that in an age where style is pursued over substance and relevance is believed to be a pre-requisite for effective youth ministry, Verna and her ministry prove just how faulty those assumptions and beliefs are. Verna knows that it's most important to be yourself, love Jesus, and love kids.

I first met Verna years ago. I live in central Pennsylvania. Verna is one of the prototypical Mennonite/Brethren women who populate our area and who pursue the most important things in life. Whenever I see her I want to ask her, "Verna. Can you bake me a pie?" In fact, I usually do! Verna's so busy spending time with kids that she passes that duty off to her daughter. Because CPYU is located in Verna's neck of the woods, I see her at our many area training events. She's a mainstay. Just two weeks ago I did a day-long training event and there was Verna for the entire day. . . sitting and paying attention. . . taking notes like there was no tomorrow. . . concentrating on everything I was saying. Verna is a living example of the Psalmist's commitment as written in Psalm 71:17&18:
17 Since my youth, God, you have taught me,
and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
18 Even when I am old and gray,
do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
your mighty acts to all who are to come.

Verna doesn't know it, but there's a surprise waiting for her in the big room tonight. At some point, my buddy Tic Long is going to call Verna up on the stage to be honored for her years of youth ministry. When that happens, thousands of youth workers are going to get to see what youth ministry is all about.

If you're here in Atlanta, would you please do two things. First, don't let Verna know about this. I know she won't be reading my post because she doesn't use a computer or a smart phone. We're safe. And second, let's let Verna see and hear how much we appreciate her.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanksgiving, Drought, Famine. . . and Ibrahim. . .

Thanksgiving is one week away. I thought about that this morning. Sadly, the thought was sparked by knowing that there's only a week to get any preparation finished. . . and there's lots to do. Realizing I needed to re-focus on giving thanks rather than the tyranny of the urgent, I started to scroll through the Rolodex in my head for a list of things to be thankful for. The Rolodex paused as I pondered a couple of things that happened yesterday.

Lisa and I had the privilege to go into our daughter's sixth grade classroom to talk about our trip to Kenya and Rwanda with Compassion International. She has her students studying the geography and culture of those two countries. She gave us a half hour to share some pictures and experiences related to the geography and culture. Her students paid close attention and asked some very insightful questions. Many of those questions centered on the nature of poverty, which afforded us the opportunity to help them understand the contrast between being a young person in America, and being a young person in Africa. While the morning wasn't about Compassion International, we did show them a couple of pictures of our sponsored child Ibrahim, who was their age when we visited him in Nairobi's Mathare slum a little over two years ago.

It was a great surprise to find a letter from Ibrahim when we returned home. Corresponding with your sponsored child is one of the great joys of Compassion sponsorship. Ibrahim's words at the beginning of his letter capture what the letters mean to him: "First and foremost, I thank the almighty God for helping us continue communicating together and you continuing supporting me." Those words mean so much to me.

After catching us up on what's been happening in his life (school, music, running races, etc.), Ibrahim ended with this request for prayer: "I hope you have the news that our country is in a disaster of drought and famine. I request your prayers so that we can come out of this disaster. I hope you will pray for my country Kenya. May the almighty God bless you."

Thanksgiving is one week away. I realize how much I've been given. Like you, I'm in the top 1% to 2% of the world's population in terms of my wealth. I am reminded of the responsibility I have to steward the Lord's resources. To whom much has been given, much is required.

Ibrahim and children like him all around the world have little to nothing. Sponsoring them through Compassion International gives them food, medicine, an education, and an opportunity to hear the Gospel and be nurtured in the Christian faith. Not only am I thankful for what I've been given, but I'm thankful that Compassion International can take the "loaves and fishes" of our gift of $38 a month and multiply it in ways that God uses to transform young lives. Because of $38 a month, Ibrahim and a million other kids like him have a present and a future.

I would like to invite you to give thanks this year by considering sponsoring a child through Compassion International. . . just click here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Invitation into Praying Deeply. . . .

I've found a new morning companion in Scotty Smith's recently released book, Everyday Prayers: 365 Days to a Gospel-Centered Faith. Scotty invites us to pour our hearts out to God each morning in ways that are truly transforming. I am grateful for this book and want to pass it on to you as a recommendation.

This morning, Scotty had me pray this prayer entitled "A Prayer About Beloved Thornbushes". . .

"I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way. She will chase after her lovers but not catch them; she will look for them but not find them. Then she will say, ‘I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.’" Hosea 2:6-7

Lord Jesus, I’ve praised you for the fall foliage of western North Carolina, the panoramic wonder of Cape Town, SA, everything about Switzerland, the Eden-like echoes in Butchart Gardens on Victoria Island, and the azure-blue waters kissing the sugar-white beaches of Destin, Florida. But today, I praise you for the gift of thornbushes.
Lord Jesus, you love me so much that when I love you less you come after me with tenacious uncomfortable providence. You are unrelenting in your commitment to rescue my heart from all illusions, mirages, broken cisterns, idols and wanna-be lovers. I so wish you didn’t have to be, but I am so grateful that you are so doggedly committed to us.
Oh blessed and beloved thornbushes, ever block my path when I begin chasing after lesser gods and other lovers. Hedge me in like a formidable fortress. Cause me to lose my bearings and my way when I set my GPS for an affair of any kind. Frustrate my every attempt to look for more or settle for less than Jesus…
That you are jealous for me and the affection of my heart is the greatest compliment you could ever give me, Lord Jesus. Who am I that the Lord of glory would make me a part of his bride for eternity? Who am I that you would rejoice over me with the festive joy, the impassioned delight, and the desire-filled gaze of a bridegroom?
How I long for the Day when I will never again have to say, “I will go back to my husband as at first…” Until that Day, Lord Jesus, that consummate wedding day, keep me sane, centered and settled through the gospel. So very Amen, I pray in your holy and loving name.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sexual Predators. . . Some Facts from the Penn State Case. . .

I'm sure there's much that hasn't been said that's going to surprise lots and lots of people. What has been already been said is quite horrifying. . . almost too horrible to digest. Have you read the grand jury report from the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case? If you haven't, you should. It recounts - in vivid detail - what every human being is capable of. I want to encourage all my youth worker friends to give it a good look. Consider it preparation for the inevitable. If you haven't already had to deal with this in your church or community, you will.

As I read the report, I was reminded of other cases with which I'm more familiar. It's eerily similar. Since being thrust into some difficult circumstances and situations in the past, I've learned this about predators. . .

1. They are careful and calculating cultivators. They know exactly what they are doing. They are drawn to those who are vulnerable. They dance, dance, and dance around some more with great care. Their careful attention serves to keep them from getting caught.

2. They are conniving. They're masterful - MASTERFUL - at weaving lies and deception. They are not only good at deceiving their victims, but they are especially good at deceiving their closest family and friends.

3. They are convincing. You can't believe how convincing they are until you sit with a young victim and hear them say, "I just assumed that what they were doing to me was normal." They convince their victims that they have the victim's best interest in mind. All they have in mind is satisfying their own twisted needs, desires, and perversions.

I've also learned some things about the closest family and friends of predators who have been exposed. . .

1. You just can't believe the accusers or the accusations. The evidence can be right under your nose, and you just don't believe it. How many times have we heard people say of a predator, "He/She is just not capable of doing something like this!"?

2. You just won't/don't believe the accusers or the accusations. Even after confessing guilt in a court of law, there are predators whose closest family and friends still refuse to believe the truth. It's a combination of wanting to believe the best of those we love, along with the power of the predator to deceive.

3. Lack of belief sometimes leads to complicity.

If there's anything good that come out of what's happening at Penn State it's the wake-up call that might lead to preventing some horrible stuff from happening to a host of kids in a variety of places. It's the realization that not only is this stuff real, but that we need to have systems and protocols in place in our youth groups and churches to both prevent and redemptively deal with it all.

Keep listening. Jerry Sandusky's story will continue to unfold. There's much, much more to learn.