On Tweens Theologizing the Plagues

Yesterday we talked about the Plagues with our 5th & 6th graders. We did it interactively, where our adults leaders were the Pharaoh and Egyptians, and our students acted out the plagues. After we covered our leaders in stickers, silly string, and killed all of their livestock and firstborns, we sat down to talk about it.

In my last post, I talked about scary stories. It can be hard to see God in the Bible stories that we read–how can God, a God of love and grace, send these plagues on people?

I explained first that our actions have consequences–when I was in first grade, I kept forgetting to turn my bedroom light off before I left the room. So my mother, being a creative consequencer, took away my light-bulb for a week. You could say that I had the plague of darkness.

Although that consequence may seem extreme, it was an appropriate and direct consequence for what I did. When I worked in a group home, I did the same thing: If you were late from curfew, you had that amount of time deducted the next day. If you get an F, you have to do an extra hour of studying each day per class with an F. These are direct, natural consequences.

The same happened with Pharaoh and they Egyptians: Each plague symbolized something that they idolized and put before God.

But this story isn’t about the plagues: It’s about God protecting the Israelites.

The Israelites weren’t perfect, but they did seek to honor God. So God protected them.  God went out of his way to protect them, and that’s the point of the story when talking with this age group.

So on one hand, we have a God that gives consequences when your heart is hardened and unwilling to acknowledge and turn away from your sins. God gave Pharaoh many chances. But on the other hand, when your heart recognizes when you’ve done wrong and you desire God first and foremost, he goes out of his way to protect you. God proved this through all of Exodus and again on the cross.

Our fifth and sixth graders interacted with the story in ways I couldn’t even begin to predict. They asked the hard questions:

  • If God sent plagues, then what is the difference between Him and Pharaoh?
  • What if Pharaoh had no other option but to keep the Israelites? What if, in the back of his mind, he was thinking about what he was going to lose if he let them go? I mean, I know slavery is bad and all, but if they left then who was going to do all of their work?
  • What if Pharaoh wasn’t the bad guy? What if he had a lot of people telling him what to do, and so he just did what they said?
  • Why would God hurt all of the Egyptians and save all of the Israelites? What if there were some good Egyptians? What if there were some bad Israelites?
  • How do we know that the Bible has the whole story in it?
  • How do we know the Bible is true?

We affirmed their questions and told them we had the same. We also let them give their own answers.

Some of the things they came up with blew me away:

  • In ancient cultures, they worshiped everything and had an idol for everything. So by doing so many different kinds of plagues, God was showing he had power over everything.
  • Maybe God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because He knew Pharaoh wasn’t going to budge. So He hardened it so Pharaoh would go, “All right–GO!”
  • This is what faith means: trusting even when you don’t understand.
  • The story is bigger than what we read.

I love tweens because they aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions. Unlike older students and adults, they won’t not ask questions because they’re afraid of what other people will think of them. They are unashamed and will shout it out because they feel like they have this urgent need to know.

At the National Youth Worker’s Convention of 2013, one speaker said, “Teens are natural theologians. . . adults often have this natural gift socialized out of them.”

I’m so blessed to be in a field where I theologize with tweens.

Oh, and PS, after all those hard conversations, a new student says, “Wait, I have a question! …What is livestock?”

Stay humbled, my friends.

Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. 1 Timothy 4:12

Scary Stories

I’m a horror movie fan, I must admit.  But I’ll take a slasher-movie any day over some of the real-life scary stories that happen. I think that’s why I’m drawn to them–because if I can tolerate Saw, then I can tolerate doubt.

This week in Confirmation, I’m teaching the “Scary Stories” lesson of the year.  Confirmation is a time when our students realize that the Bible consists of more than fluffy stories; it’s a book that threads throughout history into our own personal story.  And what that means is that sometimes the Bible is scandalous, because we deal with scandalous things in our lives.

One of the stories that confuses me the most is the story of Elisha and the bears. Have you ever heard this story?  Elisha was a prophet, and he’s walking along a path.  Some youth boys, probably the age of my junior highers (it just makes sense), jump out and start making fun of him. They say, “Hey baldy! Baldy baldy baldy!!!” Like, seriously says that.  Then Elisha calls out to God, who sends a pack of Bears from the forest to come out and maul the boys.

I mean, what?  Why is that in the Bible?  What does it even mean?! Why would this happen?  Does this mean that whenever you talk back to a prophet—or a youth pastor—you could get mauled by a bear?  That’s difficult to digest.

What do we do when we encounter something difficult and scary in the Bible?

This brings us to the story of Noah.  You probably know Noah from children’s church growing up.  Once upon a time, God was going to flood the earth. Noah built an ark and put his family and two of every creature on there. 40 days later, a dove brought back an olive branch, and voila! Happy ending!

There’s so much about that story that’s just plain innacurate.  But the key verse of that passage is Genesis 6:6-8:

“The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. . .But Noah found favor with the Lord.”

I can’t imagine how God felt: He made us in his perfect image, yet we desired chaos.

Noah is a story about how God loves us so much, that he cannot just dump us.  Even thought we’re sinners, we belong to him.  Noah didn’t find favor because he was perfect, but because he sought after God with his entire heart.

And that brings us to the most important part: Noah is about the covenant that God made with us; a binding agreement that if we follow God with all of our hearts, He will walk with us.  Following God does not mean being perfect, it means that we find our hope in God.  And even when we mess up…

“If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13)

Life is scary sometimes. But God is with us throughout all of it.

4 Steps to Training Volunteers

With a new school year comes a new team of volunteers. Here is one of the simplest ways to view training volunteers.

I do it, you watch.

Have a volunteer watch you do the task for a while. To expect a volunteer to jump in on certain activities, such as teaching for example, without seeing how your specific ministry does it would be careless and would result with less than success.

The best way to teach someone how to do something is to show them how to do it. Just as you can’t jump behind the wheel of a car without watching someone drive first, you cannot lead a small group without shadowing someone first.

We do it together.

Do the task with the volunteer. This allows you time to coach them through it. If they just watch you, they ma have the knowledge but not he experience to do it practically.

Walk through lesson-planning with them. Greet with them on a Sunday morning. Do a team approach to teaching together. Invest a lot of time in this category.

You do it, I watch.

Now’s the time to let them sprout their wings.  Allow them to take control, and coach them when necessary.  Affirm their strengths and provide feedback on things they need to work on. Allow them to perfect.

You do it.

Trust that you have done everything you can to do, and trust that they have complete control of this!  Take this opportunity to move on and train another volunteer.

What are some ways that you train your volunteers?

A Woman in Youth Ministry

Gina Abbas has published a book through the Youth Cartel titled, “A Woman in Youth Ministry.” Gina contacted me over a year ago telling me about this book, and I was stoked!  There are very few books about women in youth ministry, and as Gina points out in her book, the few that are, are written by men.

Trust me–I’ve purchased every book out there about being a woman in youth ministry, and although I treasure them, few are as practical as Gina’s.  What I love about this book is that it isn’t a book of whining or joking about all the problems we face.  I also love that it isn’t a book of exegetical arguments for the role.  It’s a book of practical, real-life stories and advice. Advice that Gina has been sharing on her blog that inspired me as a young youth pastor.

Here are some of the best excerpts:

Gina empowers women to not only overcome male-dominated church structures, but even work from within them. Gina is appreciative of the churches she has worked in that were hierarchical, but also knew when to move on.

In really conservative (male-dominated) evangelical circles that hold a very narrow hierarchical or complementarian theological view of women in ministry, leaders still always find a way to lead.

So yeah, the church can call us “directors,” “coordinators,” “pastors,” or whatever title they prefer. But never forget that whether you’re paid, volunteer, or bivocational; whether you’re single or married, God can use you as a woman in youth ministry.

Being boycotted for being a girl kinda sucked, but I sipped my coffee and reminded myself that it was their hurt speaking.

Gina gives advice on looking for a position in youth ministry…which is difficult.

So my advice is don’t take on a ministry role or volunteer position that ends up being the equivalent of singing up to play baseball without every being allowed to bat. It’s a disappointment I could have avoided if I’d spent more time discerning my own theology and leadership style. But I was never taught how to do that in Bible college, nor did a ministry mentor ever talk me through that process.

I wouldn’t have had any of the youth ministry positions I’ve landed without being willing to move or try something outside of my won theological framework.  Like any job or new ministry venue, you have to knock on a lot of doors and sometimes step out in faith, trusting that it’s going to be a good long-term match.

Gina doesn’t let women get away with being called bossy, but empowers them to be bolder!

I get the whole “I’m an introvert–please don’t ask me to pray out loud” thing. But when women are given a chance to lead or an opportunity to speak up, we need to shrug off our insecurities and lead–and lead well.

Gina gives great advice that’s not just for mothers, but translatable for anybody who wants to balance a healthy life apart from ministry.

If your senior pastor and ministry colleagues rarely take their day off, come in every Saturday, and have terrible boundaries with their time, watch out. It’s going to be difficult for you to have a healthy work schedule with set times for ministry and protected time for yourself, your marriage, and your family. Pay attention. If your colleagues are terrible workaholics, it will be tough for you to maintain good boundaries on your own time.

Gina’s book is incredibly well-resourced. She has links and alludes to many different sources for information pertaining to all topics. Gina also asked people–including myself–to contribute parts to the book. I love it, because people of all backgrounds are represented in the voices!  I really appreciated Rachel Blom’s excerpt, because Rachel is typically very professional in her writing, but she was very vulnerable and shared a great story.

Relational ministry is bae. If you haven’t heard the term bae before, it stands for “before anything else.”  Relational ministry is so incredibly important. We can plan events and preach awesome sermons all day long, but relationships are what make everything click. –Chelsea Peddecord

Please, people, if you’re dead set on having a godly young man be your new youth pastor, then express it clearly in your job description so I don’t waste my time dreaming of how I can love and serve your teenagers and their families. –Morgan Schmidt

Therefore, I need to trade my lack of self-confidence for the image of God who says to me, “I have created you to lead with a beauty that is bold and not bossy; a strength that is secure and not sassy; a valor that is vibrant and not vindictive.” Leading with courage and assurance will be contagious to everyone who watches you lead. Trust me–this is why look to the women who lead me. –ME!

Tips for Male Pastors Interacting With Girls

If you know me, you know I am a MOMMA. BEAR. I am protective of my teenagers, especially my girls.

Don’t be stupid.

As you read the rest of this article, I’m going to tell you to drop your guard a little. Don’t read that as “I’m the only person who can/needs to do this in their life” because that will lead to “I’ve just been fired and am on a sexual offender list.” Am I being dramatic? Of course. I’m a female.

Always have another leader with you, especially if you are meeting with a girl in private. Always gauge where a girl’s personal boundaries are, and don’t cross them. If you feel that a relationship is getting inappropriate, always get another leader involved. There are many things that your female leaders need to lead on in their lives…but this article isn’t about female leaders. It’s about male leaders interacting with female students.

Don’t be afraid to be appropriately affectionate.

Girls need love from men. It’s like ingrained in us. When we get it in a healthy way, we don’t feel the need to seek it out otherwise. It is perfectly okay to give hugs or pats on the shoulder–whatever you are most comfortable with. Be fatherly. Be appropriate. Be affectionate in a way that is comfortable for both you and others.

I think there is this notion that guys have to stick with guys and girls have to stick with girls–but that’s totally off. Everyone needs both genders in their life. There are many girls who don’t have redemptive relationships with their fathers, so many of them may look to you for that. Hear me out: Know your boundaries. But also listen up: My girls need appropriate men in their life. 

Be consistent.

Whoever you are in your relationship with your girls, just be consistent at it. Don’t be the typical youth worker who stays at a church for 18 months–that hurts more than you may realize. Teenagers feel like people come and go as it is, don’t add to that dramatization by making it a reality. And even if you don’t leave physically, here’s another one that you may not have thought of:

Don’t be awkward when puberty hits.

When they grow breasts and their shorts get shorter overnight, don’t put them at an arm’s length. Don’t get scared when teenagers’ bodies change. They’re pretty aware that they’re looking different. When you take away the affection and consistency you once offered, they notice that. And if YOU pull away from them, they WILL look for that affection somewhere else.

Do have women invest in them, shepherding them through this process. Your role is to stay consistent.

Be sensitive.

This seems like a no-brainer, but I am constantly reminded that it’s not. Sometimes girls get upset about things, and then guys think it’s funny…and then girls get even more ticked off because guys just don’t understand. This will be a theme throughout your entire life, so take heart: When a girl says be serious, time to get serious. If you can’t handle all the emotions, have another leader help you out.

Don’t shame them.

They’re not always going to want to play messy games, and you need to be okay with that. They are going to sin, and you can’t cast them away for that. Girls over-think things. If you say something rude to them, comment on their outfit, or do something else that is dumb, they will remember that. And they will replay it over and over. No pressure.

Just be affirming. That’s really all this sums up to.

What SBC Life Taught Me

Now that I’m in a mainline church, whenever I talk about growing up in the Southern Baptist Convention (and earning my degree from an SBC school), it’s not rare to get side looks or the occasional “you poor thing…”

As I reflect over the 18 years of life in the SBC, and how that shaped me as a person, I’m quite thankful for growing up in the tradition. Sure, religion is messy in general, and that particular faith tradition carries the stigma of exclusive theology. Yet, it shaped so many beautiful things about myself and how I see the world.

It taught me to value God’s Word

Conservative church tradition holds the Bible as God’s word and puts it above all else. This means that no man is the ultimate authority, but the Bible is. Of course, it takes a lot of faith to believe in a written document as the last authority on earth; yet because of the weight it holds, it’s learned that every answer to life can be found in there. This enriches life, because it brings a sense of simplicity that life never has.

Plus, I can quite scripture like mad-crazy, and Jesus juke any situation.

It taught me to center everything on Christ

Many conservative churches teach the art of self-reflection through altar calls that ask you to examine how you’re living your life.  Every week, you are reevaluating your relationship with God, keeping it centered, and staying focused on the process of sanctification. Done right, this means you become incredibly self-aware and humble. Philippians 2, a beautiful passage on how Christ lived on earth, becomes a ruler for life.

It showed me how to live in an authentic church community

In SBC life, everything revolves around the church. It can be obnoxious at times to be at church so much, but it forces close community with those you’re around. I loved having ten grandmas at church, potluck dinner every Sunday, and being a part of “life group.”  Many times, Millennials with more mainline theology will ride it out in a conservative church, primarily because of the community that is there.

It taught me to follow the rules

I can’t lie: I’m a severe rule-follower.  Many people in my life tell me that I need to loosen up, and I’m getting there!  But you have to understand something: Fundamentalism saved my life.  I don’t mean that to sound melodramatic, for I truly believe that.  The world we live in is very grey, and I learned to put up boundaries.  Because I value God and His Word, I try to follow both as closely as possible.

It demonstrated a missional life of inclusivity

Southern Baptists are the best at sending missionaries in the world, and my SBC university sent out more missions teams than any other college.  With that comes the gift of sharing your faith with anyone and everyone. The best gift that comes with a missional life is the gift of inclusivity towards the poor and disenfranchised. Sure, conservative church culture has much to learn in terms of inclusivity in general, but because missions is often part of its DNA, so is taking in the orphans and widows.  That was me: a child who was thirsty, and they took me in and met my physical needs as well as my social and spiritual ones. 

With all of these, I can pick out the negatives that went along with them.  I learned to be close-minded and think that my way was the way.  Something I’m noticing, however, is the increased humility among many conservative church leaders.  There are some beautiful things about how I grew up, and I seek to bring these things into my Mainline church community.  Why wouldn’t I want my students to learn to put God and the Bible first, to live in genuine community with one another, to follow God’s commandments to love Him, and therefore, love one another with a missional and inclusive life? 

So now, when I tell people my background, I don’t have to duck my head and hide from it: Where I came from had beauty. And I can bring that beauty everywhere.

Willow Creek Leadership Summit, Day 1!

I’m very excited to join the Willow Creek Leadership Summit at the Grace Community Church satellite site in Indianapolis for the first time!  My church brings almost 100 people to this summit, and I love being able to do this with almost our entire staff team, as well as many of our dedicated volunteers.

Here are some of the highlights of the day that will stick with me:

One theme that was talked about was the idea of “visions” as part of being a “legacy leader.” If you want to leave your mark on an organization and leave a legacy, then Bill Hybels said:

  • What God treasures most are people…even more than visions.
  • Nobody drifts into being a legacy leader
  • The grander the vision, greater the price tag.
  • Legacy leaders will ride out the rough patches because they are working for the grandeur vision.

Another thing I loved is that the conference on our campus was full of young people.  Older leaders were inspired to give younger emerging leaders a chance, and by increasing the realms of responsibility, we can entrust emerging leaders with more.  One of our volunteers, who is active throughout the church and is an empty nester, pulled me aside and said, “The whole time I was thinking of you.” Mmm. So powerful.

None of us are “born” leaders, but have a passion and a vision and put it into action.  Carly Fiorina said, ” The highest calling of leadership is to unlock the potential in others.” This means that one of the greatest parts of being a leader is being able to groom new leaders. Leadership doesn’t happen top-down, but bottom-up–you can’t change an organization by changing the heads, but by getting the “grunts” on board. She said, “Jesus didn’t go to the poor because they needed help. He went to the poor because he knew the potential they had.” Yes yes yes.

Susan Cain’s talk on introverts was very inspiring. I’m a pretty middle-of-the-line kind of gal, who is extremely outgoing, but gets drained and needs pajamas and her cat. I loved that she was willing to challenge the status quo of organizations run by extroverts, and explain that we need to give space so that every person can work within the stimulation they’re capable of handling. We live in a world where everything is so loud, that we forget the beauty of quiet; therefore we forget the beauty of introverts.  She also pointed out that we need to think of “networking in terms of service.” Instead of sweet-talking, I could prove myself through my actions (a model I’m way better at).

The idea of self-sacrifice as a leader was important to Patrick Lencioni; “I’m tired of hearing about servant leadership because I don’t think there’s any other kind of leadership. . .A true leader sacrifices themselves for the well-being of others without a guarantee of a return on investment.”

There’s much more than I can write here, but day one was inspiring!

I’m going to stock my bookshelf tomorrow…

(PS–I LOVE conferences, but I cannot sit still to save my life…Millennial problems.)