This Labor Day weekend requires an end-of-summer jump stop and whirl-around to face the fall. I’m grateful. I am slow clapping for the Lord. I’ve loved the travel free, relaxed rhythm and been fulfilled by writing and reflecting. My golf game had a moment or two of hope, but it largely failed to meet my expectations again. Kind of like the Cubs. But in a strange way, these disappointments are reassuring. My world will unsettle if I actually get into a 3X weekly golf routine that improves my scores. It will unravel to the core when the Cubbies get to the World Series.

Now I’m ready to move on.

It feels like I just had a great sleep. Now I’m stretching, grabbing my coffee, and revving up for a big ol’ season switch. The stuff ahead looks so compelling, so invigorating, so challenging I can’t wait to get into it!

There may come a day when the only thing I look forward to is the results show on America’s Got Talent. That will be sad for me. I think it will be a loss for the world, too. No brag; just fact. God has me on Planet Earth for a purpose and every day’s adventure is to bend my decision-making, use my hours and engage other people around what Jesus wants. I’m glad he leans in to provide strength and guidance as I strain to lean away from my own tendency to go it alone.

Back in the day when I played noon basketball twice a week I was a slow-moving big man. As I strolled from the defensive end of the court to where our team shoots the ball I would plant myself on the block (a box marking on the floor next to the free throw lane), butt up against my opponent, and pivot around with my arms outstretched, looking for the ball to be passed to me from a teammate. If I was ready and having a good game, the basketball would come into me and my team would expect me to score. 

This weekend marks a seasonal pivot. The ball is coming my way. I expect to score in the months ahead. 

I think it’s also possible to plant and pivot each week…and even each day. When I’m on a roll there’s nothing better than getting a perfectly timed pass from the Lord and knowing in my bones that he thinks I’ve got something important to offer in this moment.

Lord, help me power into the pivot to be ready for whatever you want from me. Thanks for believing in me. 


A Fish-Flopping Rescue Moment

Adults who work with young people are accelerating down the on ramp into a new season. Those in my Youth for Christ family toss their biggest nets during this time of year, seeking to make connections with kids they don’t yet know, eager to move from introductory acquaintances into authentic Christ-sharing relationships.

For many of us a stadium full of adolescent strangers is more intimidating than energizing. If the assignment is to ‘work the crowd’ we are naturally wired to panic. I have a vivid memory of my first appearance in the high school cafeteria where I launched a new Campus Life ministry some years ago. In spite of having decent social skills and feeling pretty secure about myself I felt the dismissive stares of hundreds of eyes, all locked onto my feeble heart like so many S.W.A.T. team rifle lasers. I was an extra in Mean Girls right then.

In the heat of the moment I lost my keys to all things cool. Feeling the need to say something…anything…I quick-stepped to the nearest table and asked in a haltering voice, “So…how’s the food today?”

Apparently my haltering voice is not exactly a whisper. From a table 10 yards away a kid hollered above the din: “It tastes like sh**!” Laughter erupted, but only momentarily. There was still sh***y food to be eaten in a short amount of time.

Romans 8:26 propels Christ’s followers into the chapter’s fantastic finish, a wondrous consideration of how the love of God overrules every other reality. “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” My cafeteria culture cluelessness had me awkwardly fish-flopping on the tater tot-tatted floor. But I was not for a moment alone.

What follows next is simply lost footage on my memory reel. I recall moving toward the food critic without really having a plan. My follow up effort with the outspoken dude was anything but James Dean artistry: “Don’t like the food, eh?” After that, I’m a blank. All I remember is that after a few minutes of conversation Monty (that was his name) and I were the only two in the cafeteria and it seemed like I had made a new friend.

During these months of meeting teens some may be tempted to rely on their well-honed relational skills. At a deeper level I recommend trusting the Holy Spirit, who tethers us to the amazing love of God with a bungee cord that’s secure enough, long enough and flexible enough for any cafeteria, anywhere.

An American Twist on Paul’s Mars Hill Message

(NOTE: I swapped words and thoughts from Acts 17:22-31, especially thinking of the research conclusion that young people largely practice a twisted version of Christian faith labeled ‘moral therapeutic deism’. Would love to hear from others if they think a different contextual rendering of Paul’s message to the Athenians might be more fair. – DR)

    “People of America, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23for as I was driving along I saw your many churches. And on each of your coins is this inscription: ‘In God we trust.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.
    24“He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made churches, 25and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. 26From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.
    27“His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 28For in him we live and move and exist. As one of our own songwriters has written, ‘God bless America.’ 29If this is the true desire of our hearts, we shouldn’t think of God as our un-intrusive butler: never so involved with us so as to be meddlesome, available for the occasional moral coaching should we ask, alert to our needs and safeguarding our happiness.
    30“God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. 31For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”

The (surprising) Blind Spot of Relational Ministry

My middle school math teachers assured me that I would eventually see the value in what I was learning. On some level they were right.

It’s clear to me that LOVE ≠ RELATIONSHIPS. More than an empirical observation, this is a theological truth. Love is bigger than relationships. If you’re math-obsessed the following formula works: LOVE ≥ RELATIONSHIPS.

Our Youth for Christ Unified Focus is to move 20,000 followers of Jesus into authentic, Christ-sharing relationships with 100,000 lost kids by 2015. As one of the architects of this goal it’s fair to say I’m all in when it comes to believing in relational ministry.

Jesus taught and modeled the value of relationships. His command to make disciples is informed by his own practice of inviting 12 followers into an inner circle of friends. They did life together and, along the way, learned to live like Jesus. Disciple-forming is fundamentally a relational proposition.

Launching his disciples was arguably the focus of Jesus’ mission on earth (see John 17:4), but our Lord did so, in part, by showing his boys how to love everyone, no matter how small the encounter. For instance, the gospel of Mark–not usually given to embellishments–observes that Jesus ‘loved’ the rich man when he told him to sell all his possessions and follow him (Mark 10:21).

Jesus had plenty of other interactions without ongoing relationships that changed people forever. Love was always in the mix. We dare not turn into relational ministry snobs who don’t know how to love a stranger in a one-time encounter.

Our relational capacity is limited because we’re humans. But by God’s grace we can channel his limitless love to everyone we meet.

I fiercely believe in our YFC Unified Focus. But in the wake of such activity I would not want us to forget that God’s love is always transformational. Authentic, Christ-sharing encounters matter in a Kingdom economy where the Great Commandment is our currency.

Teens in Crisis & a Boston Bomber

“Crisis” seems like a strong word, doesn’t it?  When we youth specialists urge others to reckon with the evidence that adolescents are in crisis, aren’t we over-reaching a bit?  Certainly there must be plenty of young people whose normal journey through their teen years doesn’t warrant such a label.

It depends on what domain we’re talking about.

Not every kid needs to think carefully every day about when and which route they will take to school because their own safety is at risk.  Only one in five live in poverty, after all.  Though drug and alcohol use is high, those who are dangerously dependent on them comprise just 8% of teens between 14 and 17 years old.

If we reserve the label “crisis” for headline-grabbing statistics it is probably true that it shouldn’t be applied to most kids.  But headlines are not written by dads and moms in anguish.  When most families simply don’t work like they were made to…when teens are floundering and flailing as they try to figure out who they are and what they will do with their lives…when spirituality is a preference rather than a quest for life-centering truth…the word “crisis” fits.

Last week’s events in Boston has had me thinking about the trajectory of a 19 year old bomber. His high school friends and teachers cannot imagine that he committed the atrocities he is being accused of.  When did his “crisis” begin?  

Here’s what I know.  When YFC adults come alongside kids we love them and listen deeply to them.  YFC student leaders do the same.  We discover where they’re coming from and engage them in conversations about Jesus.  Something amazing happens when our relationships are safe enough for such an exchange.  We hear about their crises, the life-disrupting challenges that they can’t seem to overcome.  And we stand with them, urging them to trust Jesus whose triumph over death through the agony of the cross proves HIS GREAT LOVE for them.

There will be plenty of pundit-talking in the days ahead about solutions that work.  We who live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ have something to offer at this moment in time: ourselves.  We can jump into authentic relationships with kids while others are commissioning task forces to study the problem.  Christ’s love urges us on.  His hope is as certain as his resurrection from the dead.  “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person.  The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NLT)

When Ministry Feeds My Soul

I just spent 2+ hours sitting with a friend who is in gut-wrenching pain. He’s adrift in the consequences of his own poor choices, fearful that his marriage is over. Everything is up for grabs in his life right now as he claws through the wreckage to grab hold of Jesus in a way he’s never had to in the past.

I cried with him and did my best to help him move through the rubble. I listened intently to him while running a simultaneous dialogue with the Holy Spirit, begging the Lord for discernment and wisdom. This posture of ministry consumed me during our time together. Now I’m a bit numb and certainly exhausted.

But something else is true about how I spent these early morning hours. I’m invigorated by new vitality in my own walk with Jesus. Somehow, in the midst of fighting for my friend’s faith my own heart got a boost. I could not ‘preach’ to my brother without preaching to myself.

This is not rare for me; quite the contrary. We often imagine that we should gain our nourishment to serve others during sweet private devotional times with the Lord or as a result of some turbo-fellowship experience with burden-bearing brothers and sisters. Mine is a different storyline.

I have, without a doubt, surged forward in my own faith most often during moments when God uses me to minister to someone else. My personal growth is a collateral benefit experienced while I serve. And it’s consistently resulted in the most penetrating and pervasive invasion of the Holy Spirit into all areas of my life.

Maybe it’s because the moment requires my fully abandoned attention such that I ‘lose myself’ in the work Christ wants to do, only to find new life in the process. Can anybody relate?

Follow the Glory

I have spent my entire adult life in not-for-profit Christian ministry. I’m still a student of the socio-organizational side of what we try to do.

Organizations like Youth for Christ (nearly 70 years old) and Huntington University (over 100 years old) were formed to leverage the gifts and calling of some of God’s people for some of God’s work. It has always made sense to me that like-missioned people should band together to accomplish great things. But I wonder if the tail is so huge that wagging is impossible for the dog.  According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, more than 93,000 Protestant charities were registered in August of 2012. They represent $3.78 billion in assets as reported on their 990 forms.

The question on the table is ‘what organizational forms help God’s people to live faithfully into the mission he has called us to?’ For purposes of this reflection I want to include local churches in the conversation. If something had a birth-date it will presumably have a death-date.

Here’s my working assumption.  Temporal structures of God’s people for God’s work should always be fair game for scrutiny. 

Against this backdrop I don’t know how it came to pass that the lesser thing became more important than the greater thing. Why would anyone in Christian ministry ever insist that organizational job performance is more important than Kingdom faithfulness? If faithfulness to Jesus is not a sufficient standard for a Christian ministry’s operation it seems to me the ministry might be out of whack.

I know some ministries that claim the high ground by asserting their organizational supervision is a form of stewardship. If supervision’s sole purpose was to safeguard an employee’s faithfulness to Jesus I would agree. But if we don’t begin with this first obsession how are we not guilty of distracting those we hire from the work that God has called them to? I would call that organizational sabotage, not stewardship. The shelf-life of any enterprise that’s working against the plans and purposes of God can’t be very long.

I am grateful that the mission of my employer (Youth for Christ/USA) offers me the chance to be substantially aligned with my assignment from the Lord. If that ever changes we should part company.  They would sacrifice their own missional faithfulness by accommodating my divergent interests or I would abandon my first commitment for the sake of my employer’s interests.

For the glory of God every Christian ministry–especially the local church–should bend their organizational forms so that their highest priority is to fit people into the role God has assigned them in the Body of Christ.  This places all of us in the confessional posture of trusting Jesus’ Lordship expressed through his gifts to direct how we spend our time.  It elevates his plans and purposes, however yet unclear to us, above all else.

Without such a priority it’s hard to see how we seek first the Kingdom of God or trust the Lord with all our hearts.  When we follow the glory, carefully tracing who gets credit, the Holy Spirit may lead us to discover how much repentant re-alignment our ministries need.