My Storyless Story

I was almost literally born and raised in the church.  I was born around 9:00 am on a Sunday morning and my mother brought me to the 6:00 pm service that same day because my sister was receiving an award at church.  The same day!  
As I grew up in that church for the next 18 years of my life, I was surrounded by a community of believers, who raised me in the faith.
But one of the things that always bugged me as I got into high school and college was that I could never point to the moment that I became a Christian.  I was actually kind of secretly ashamed that I didn’t have a really cool story.  I had some friends who knew the exact day and time that they had decided to follow Jesus, and some even had a plaque on their wall commemorating what they called their second birthday.  
I would get really nervous that one day someone was going to ask me point blank when I had been saved and I wouldn’t be able to answer!
This really bothered me.  
The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, was a huge proponent of the idea called assurance of faith.  This is simply the feeling that the Holy Spirit gives you to assure you of your salvation.  Wesley talked about his heart feeling “strangely warmed” the day he knew he would spend eternity in heaven.  
I had that.  In my heart of hearts, I knew that I knew Jesus.  I knew that I had a relationship with my Creator, but I could not tell you when I had crossed that line between not being a Christian and being a Christian.  
I heard stories like Saul’s conversion in Acts 9, of lives being instantaneously transformed, and I felt my like my storyless story just didn’t measure up.
Until… I got to seminary, and I took a class on evangelism.  The professor talked about the difference between the conversion experience of Paul and the experience of Jesus’ own disciples.
Whereas Paul’s experience was sudden and drastic, the disciples’ experience was gradual and messy.  This professor used the Gospel of Mark to show how Jesus’ disciples slowly came to the realization that he was the Messiah.  They didn’t start off knowing that.  They simply recognized him as a Rabbi and decided to follow him.  But the longer they followed him, the closer they grew to him, and the more they realized that this Jesus guy was waymore than they had initially thought.
And I bet, that if you were to interview the disciples at the moment that Jesus spoke his last words to them on earth and ask them, “So, when did you officiallybecome a follower of Christ?  When did you make that transition between your former life and your new life in Christ?” they probably would have looked at you and said, “I don’t know… I knew he was important when I started following him, but I didn’t know howimportant he was.  I can’t point to a specific day and time—I’ve just been following him and slowly realizing more and more that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world!”  
And at that moment in that class in seminary, I finally had language to describe my experience.  I didn’t have a story like Paul’s.  I had a story like Jesus’ disciples! I had been following Jesus my whole life.  And sure, there were times when I was following more closely than other times, but I couldn’t tell you the specific day and time that I made that transition from my former life to my new life in Christ because it had been slow and gradual.
Some of us have stories like Paul.  And that’s awesome!  

But some of us have stories like the disciples, and that’s okay too.

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Why Everyone Should Go on a Confirmission Retreat

This past weekend our youth group held it first ever “Confirmission Retreat.” It was a retreat to welcome our confirmands into the youth group, mixed with a mini-local mission trip.

Prior to the weekend that involved “kidnapping” the unsuspecting 6th graders, I had several conversations with parents about their particular child’s anxieties about being in our youth group, particular personality traits to beware of and other disclaimers as to why their child might not be quite as ready as the others.  Unbeknown to those parents, there were other parents having the same conversations with me about their own children.  Regardless, I assured each parent that their child would be well cared for.

When it came time for the kidnapping on Friday, I told our youth group that the point of this entire weekend was to make the 6th graders feel like a part of our “family.”  I knew the group would embrace the motivation, but I had no idea how well.

One by one, as we stopped at each house with our caravan of youth, with silly string flying everywhere and pots and pans being pounded together loudly, the smiles told the story.  After dropping the youth off in front of each house, I didn’t have time to park the church bus and head toward to the front door before the youth group was already emerging from the house with a new friend in tow, grinning from ear to ear, one even being carried out on someone’s shoulders as if he had just hit the game-winning home run in the World Series.

Friday evening was spent at a family-fun center with putt-putt, bumper boats and arcade games.  On Saturday morning, everyone woke up, donned their work clothes, and we headed out to work with Amigo’s Days, a missions initiative of the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Our particular project was in Oak Cliff, painting the house, garage, shed and neighboring wall of an elderly gentleman.  Working side by side with people of all ages from four different churches, this was yet another intentional opportunity for intergenerational ministry, something that has become an emphasis of our youth ministry.

Following a full day of work, we went to Tyler Street United Methodist Church and stayed at their facility for missions, “C2K” (Connect to the Kingdom).  The hospitality we received from their coordinator, Jamie, and from the entire TSUMC was incredible.  Never before have I been handed a key ring with 50 keys on it and told, “Feel free to explore!  If a door is locked, you’ll find a key for it on this ring.  Please make yourself at home in our entire church!”

That evening we worshipped together in TSUMC’s chapel.  What was particularly special about Saturday evening’s worship was the opportunity for our youth group to teach several of our “worship traditions” to the incoming 6th graders.  These included such things as hand washing and communion, several a cappella songs that are special to our group, the familiar way we use small groups, our arms-crossed, hand-holding circle of “joys and concerns,” and of course, the benediction that ends with “…and give y’all peace!”

Sunday morning we woke up, worshiped with the good folks of TSUMC and then headed out to play Whirlyball.  For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, it’s a mix between basketball and lacrosse and takes place in bumper cars.

The greatest moment occurred when we returned to the church to everyone’s parents waiting for them in the parking lot.  As we piled out of the church vans, hugs began to be exchanged.  The best part, though, was that before the hugs were being given to the waiting parents, they were being given from youth to youth, with our brand new confirmands in the middle. 

The looks of relief and joy on the faces of the parents were priceless, as they realized that their child had been successfully welcomed and accepted into our youth “family.”

After telling these stories to our church staff at yesterday’s staff meeting, one person raised the question, “Why can’t adults do that?”  And my answer is, “Good question.  There is no reason we can’t!

Can you imagine if our churches welcomed the “stranger” with as much enthusiasm as our youth group welcomed these confirmands?  What if the moment someone stepped foot onto our church campus we gave them the feeling of being hoisted onto someone’s shoulders as if they were a hero?  They wouldn’t be able help but feel like a part of our family!  And then, what if we didn’t stop there, but began a process of assimilation in which we taught them the traditions and norms that help to define who we are as a community? 

We should be doing everything we can to create an atmosphere of inclusion and unconditional love.  It shouldn’t matter if someone is anxious, or has a quirky personality trait or is different from us.  I know not everyone can experience a Confirmission Retreat like we did this past weekend, but we need to be pulling out all the stops when it comes to welcoming people into our church families!

 

 

Lessons from Bubble Gum: Learning to Slow Down

I have the pleasure of working as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes “Character Coach” for the softball teams at Duncanville High School.  Each week I get the attention of 40 high school girls for 10 minutes at the end of one of their practices.  I talk to them to about different aspects of leadership and responsibility as athletes, etc.

This week was particularly significant because it was a lesson that I walked away from asking myself, “Well, Josh… now that you’ve told them all about it, how well are YOU practicing it yourself?”

I had each girl take a piece of bubble gum, as I announced that the first person to blow a bubble was the winner.  They all immediately went into a fury of chewing as their jaws worked as quickly as possible to soften the hard piece of gum.  Many of them began to try blowing bubbles before their gum was soft enough to actually form one, resulting instead in a chewed-up mess leaving their mouth for two seconds before returning to be chewed even further and softened even more.

After someone finally blew a successful bubble, I asked them if it was easy to blow a bubble under the pressure of time, to which they all agreed that it was not.  This opened the door to talk about how we try to do so many things, at such a rapid pace, that we actually end up doing nothing really well at all.  After encouraging them to slow down in life, I gave them my full “youth pastor permission” to really enjoy their upcoming Christmas breaks by sleeping in and being OK with being bored (for a bit!).

I then asked them all to chew the gum as quickly as they could.  And again, their jaws started working like crazy.  I stopped them and told them, “Ok, now try to chew in slow motion–on the open as well as on the close.”  And they all kind of giggled as they began to chew their gum slowly.

I told the story of a tennis coach I once had who told us that when we were all worked up and nervous on the tennis court we should pop a piece of bubble gum in our mouths and chew it in slow motion.  You can’t help but focus and concentrate on what you’re doing when you intentionally chew your gum slowly.  Try it! 

As we make our way through Mike Slaughter’s “A Different Kind of Christmas” this year at FUMC Duncanville, I catch myself asking, “Am I really taking this to heart?”  If I truly am, then I need to chew some bubble gum in slow motion this Christmas season and breathe, focusing on what is truly important during this incredible holiday. 

If you’ve made it through this entire blog post without putting a piece of gum in your mouth, then you have my full “youth pastor permission” to stop everything you’re doing and go get that piece of bubble gum!  Try it.  I dare you.  And give yourself permission to enjoy the results.

How Speed-Dating Changed Our Church

In youth ministry we’ve begun to notice that two things occur as our youth programs become increasingly self-sustaining and disconnected from the rest of the church: The adults in our congregation feel left out, uninformed and unappreciated, and the teenagers in our groups fail to become a part of the larger church family as God intends.

Having taken classes from youth ministry leader Chap Clark while pursuing my M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary, I decided to attend a learning lab on “Sticky Faith,” led by Fuller Youth Institute’s Kara Powell and Brad Griffin at the National Youth Workers Convention in November 2011.

 

As soon as I returned home I began to see this phenomenon of separation in our own church, and began to talk about it with our parents and adult leadership team. Together we agreed that an intergenerational approach to our youth ministry would be a win-win for everyone.

One way we’ve begun to create more intergenerational connection is by regularly hosting what we call a “Ministry Mixer,” an event to bring together our youth ministry with the various adult ministries of our larger church family. Our very first Ministry Mixer was a joint mission project creating sleeping mats for the homeless population of downtown Dallas, using “plarn,” or yarn made by cutting and connecting the scraps of plastic grocery bags.

I had very high hopes for the first mixer event. I printed out pages with discussion questions to place at each table and dreamed of the lengthy conversations that would take place between youth and adults. I was a bit disappointed when the natural seating arrangements of the room became a microcosm of our church: The adults sitting together and chatting freely on one side, and the youth sitting together and listening to their music on the other. Though I encouraged them to mix and mingle, each time I looked away the room would naturally regain its homeostasis. Everybody had a great time and the event was chalked up as a success, but I knew that there was so much more potential for interaction.

So we reflected, re-evaluated and decided to try again with a more intentional approach. I recalled a fellow youth pastor telling me how he incorporated the model of speed-dating as a fun way to get adults and teenagers to carry on conversations face-to-face. We decided to try it by inviting one particular adult Sunday school class to join our youth group for a potluck lunch and an afternoon of speed-dating-style storytelling.

I asked each member of the adult class to bring a single item associated with a story or memory. Following our lunch together, I had all of the older adults sit in a circle around a large room. I had an inner circle of chairs directly facing each adult chair. This inner circle was filled by our teenagers. I explained that I would be sounding a chime every three minutes to signal the end of a round, at which point the adults would remain seated while the youth would rotate one chair to their right. By the time we were finished, each teenager had rotated around the entire circle, experiencing two dozen different show-and-tells, and each adult in the circle had told their story two dozen times. (I made sure to tell them to bring an item that they wouldn’t mind sharing about over and over and over!)

 

To conclude the afternoon, we held a jeopardy-style quiz and gave Starbucks cards to the teenager who could answer the most questions about all of the stories, the teenager who could name the most adults, and even to the adult who could name the most students.

Every once in a while in ministry there is a moment when you unexpectedly realize that the ground on which you are standing is holy. Looking around the room that afternoon, seeing the smiles on the faces of the participants, listening to the stories being told, the questions being asked and the memories being shared, I recognized that the Holy Spirit was moving amongst us. From the model of a plane flown in the Vietnam War, to the wood plank of the razed house that someone’s great-grandfather had built, to pictures of grandchildren, high school letterman jackets and everything in between, the wide eyes of our young people said it all.

Our teenagers need adults in their lives. Our adults need young people in theirs. When the body of Christ is operating as God designed, the church is a gathering of family. It takes all shapes and sizes, all ages and generations.

I cannot tell you how many positive comments I have received from both youth and adults who participated in that Ministry Mixer. Everybody is already talking about the next one!

Whether this intergenerational event—or the other elements of the Sticky Faith initiative that we are continuing to incorporate—will increase the number of young adults who remain involved in churches after high school graduation, is yet to be seen. But I can tell you this: When each of those students looks back on their time with our youth group, and they recall the adults who cared enough about them to share their own stories, they will have a picture of the church as a family that values and needs each of its members.

It’s my prayer that those who remain active in the faith will be encouraged, and that the hearts of those who have drifted away will be pulled back by these memories, to a congregation they can again call family.

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*The great people at Fuller Youth Institute recently invited me to write this guest article for their “Sticky Faith” website.  It was originally published here: “How Speed-Dating Changed Our Church.”

*Additionally, the United Methodist Reporter decided to publish it as well, under a slightly different title: “How an Intergenerational Mixer Changed Our Church.”