Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Don't Rush Them to Jesus!

"How many youth were saved?" It's the question burning on a lot of people's hearts after a Christian youth camp.

And let's be honest. We have a primary goal at Christian youth camps for youth to commit to Jesus.

Our heart behind this goal is good. We desire for young people to experience Jesus as we have. We want them to find the life-giving hope of the Gospel. We love young people, after all. Otherwise, we wouldn't be involved in this whole youth ministry regime (at least not for very long). For those out there like me, who have been in the trenches of youth ministry for over a decade, we are in it because we love Jesus and we love teenagers. We want what is best for them. And we know that ultimately, a transforming encounter and relationship with Jesus is for their best.

However, those of us who have been around for a long time have also seen the dangers of rushing youth to Jesus through emotive atmospheres and sleep-deprived decision-making. We see that these rushed, shallow commitments might provide a high for everyone involved at camp, but they don't last. And the fallout can sometimes be devastating.

Jesus talks about this kind of rushed, shallow decision to follow Him in Luke 14.

27 And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. 28 “But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it? 29 Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you. 30 They would say, ‘There’s the person who started that building and couldn’t afford to finish it!’ 31 “Or what king would go to war against another king without first sitting down with his counselors to discuss whether his army of 10,000 could defeat the 20,000 soldiers marching against him? 32 And if he can’t, he will send a delegation to discuss terms of peace while the enemy is still far away. 33 So you cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own.

In other words, the decision to follow Jesus should be, to some extent, a calculated one. The costs (though truly minimal in comparison to the cost Christ has paid for us and all that is to be gained by us in following Jesus) need to be taken into consideration. This is an informed decision, not a rushed one. Conversion is a process rather than a moment. For some youth, a camp might be the beginning of conversion rather than the culmination of it.

This doesn't mean youth don't make life-long decisions to follow Jesus at camp. Not even! Many young people come to a Christian youth camp on a journey, and that journey leads them to the perfect catalyst for commitment at camp. Their conversion becomes complete. And it's awesome. Life and eternity are changed. Salvation experiences will always be a primary goal of any evangelistic youth camp I am involved in as a leader. Unashamedly.

But what about the ones who aren't yet at that point in their journeys? Is our goal for them, in that weekend, still "conversion" in the traditional sense? Or could we set a different type of goal and celebrate when God brings it to fruition?

One of the lessons I have learned through being involved with IGNITE Camp in New Zealand is how to think about setting and celebrating these different kinds of goals. Many youth in New Zealand come to camp with very little journeying behind them in relationship to Christianity. They come with heaps of questions about Jesus, the Church, and more. The work God desires to do in them during camp is often much less than a commitment to become a follower of Jesus, and yet He still desires to do a HUGE work in them in relation to their process of conversion.

It thrills my heart when I read on our evaluation forms from camp that a camper has decided to "give God a go," to"look into Christianity more by connecting to a local church," or "to begin looking into becoming a follower of Jesus." These are works of the Holy Spirit to be celebrated!!!!

So how do we approach camps in such a way that we encourage this calculated decision-making? How do we provide opportunities for those who are ready to commit to Christ without pressuring those who are at a different place in their journey?

To be honest, these are questions I (and many other people) are still asking--and ones I believe we need to ask constantly as we plan and pray for camps. We will often disagree on the nitty-gritty details of how this works out practically. But here are a few insights I've begun to accumulate personally.

1. Cast the broader vision to the whole leadership team and speakers. 

This is key. Everyone involved needs to know that the camp is after the whole of God's desired work in individual young people's lives--nothing MORE, nothing LESS. Speakers need to be in on the vision so that they help reinforce that no one should feel pressured to make a decision they are not yet fully ready to make, as well as providing opportunities for response that might be shy of salvation. Worship leaders need to be in the loop so they can be careful not to pressure people into mob-response in worship rather than responding in ways appropriate to their current journey. Maybe this means a disclaimer of "Don't feel you need to sing these words if you don't mean them yet. It's ok to listen or to pray." Cabin leaders need to know to be patient with those in their cabin who may be at varying levels of the journey. Youth leaders need to know whether or not it is safe for them to bring along "un-churched" young people to camp. Everyone needs to be on the same page. Again, the details of how this plays out in different areas of a camp might vary from situation to situation.

2. Be sure local leaders take responsibility for knowing the individual journeys of their young people. 

This is huge. Local leaders need to know they have the freedom to act on their own awareness of where each of their young people are on the journey. This could mean reassuring a student that he does not have to take Communion when it is offered or helping a youth process through what they are witnessing as Christian young people are expressing their worship to God.

3. Use language which is inclusive of varying levels of commitment. 

Again, this is something a speaker who knows the vision can help with heaps, but we should be speaking to the fact that God is calling people to take various types of steps toward Himself at camp. Examples should be given that are within reach of people at different stages, such as, "Maybe you need to make the decision tonight that you will connect more with a local church youth group and start seeking to understand more who Jesus is and what He has to do with your life."

4. Give freedom to "opt out" of responding. 

In my most recent experiences as a camp speaker, I think I've spent more energy trying to talk people out of responding to an altar call than to get them to respond. I want to make sure that youth are not responding because "Amber asked me to" or because "everyone else was doing it." Rather, I explain in specific detail what a particular response means and plead with people to do it only if they are in alignment with those specific details. General calls for response will get general response--and this will often confuse young people afterward. "What did I just do? Did anything happen to me when I went forward?"

5. Find ways to identify and celebrate varying levels of commitment. 

If you use commitment cards or follow-up evaluations for a camp, include the possibility to celebrate varying levels of commitment. At IGNITE, we currently ask the following very open ended questions. "Did you make any personal decisions/commitments at IGNITE? If so, what were they?" We get responses to this question which are all across the spectrum, and I feel it is a much clearer reflection of the breadth of God's work at camp than asking, "Raise your hand if you gave your life to Jesus tonight" in a rally and counting the hands. If commitments are gauged publicly in this kind of manner, again, provide different, specific categories. The young man who committed to explore Christianity after camp should be given the opportunity to place a stake in the ground just like the young lady who sought to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Both are journeying toward Jesus--both are seeing God draw them closer to Himself--and both will need to point back to that point of commitment.

So, I'm still happy to give a foggy answer to the question of how many people claimed to have met Jesus for the first time at a camp. I'm thrilled to share with people that God is drawing youth to Himself. And I love that camp provides such an awesome opportunity for young people to have a salvific encounter with the God of the universe. But I also love to share these non-conventional stories of how God journeys with people through significant experiences at camp. And I want to continue to foster this powerful work of God in the lives of the young people He loves.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Faces of 28 Months

The room was not as emotionally charged as might be typical of a closing youth camp service. Rather, a climate of serious reflection settled in during those precious moments of honest accountability and powerful, public decision-making. I sat in the back of the closing rally of IGNITE Youth Camp 2014 and watched the slow but steady trickle of campers making their way to the front where a line of youth leaders stood facing them. Each young person who responded took the hand of their local youth leader, looked them in the eyes, and said, “God has made everything right between me and Him.” This was followed by embraces, whispered conversations, and prayer.

From my vantage point at the back of the room, I could not see the faces of the campers as they responded. Instead, I could see the faces of the phenomenal youth leadership team of WMCNZ. I saw the faces of my co-labourers, most of them with constant tears streaming down their faces. Some of the most valued people in my life stood at the front of that room, leaders I whole-heartedly believe in and long to resource, champion, and celebrate. I have the privilege of mentoring several of them; many of them have become my closest friends. They ranged vastly in age and ethnicity, but not in heart. No, they shared one heart as they embraced their young people, as they heard testimonies of transformation and breathed prayers over the precious lives God has entrusted to their leadership and care.

In that moment, tearfully watching these incredible leaders, the Holy Spirit reassured me yet again of just how blessed I am to spend this season of life and ministry in Aotearoa New Zealand.

It was very personally significant for me that our IGNITE Leadership Debrief took place a couple weeks later on the exact date of my two year anniversary in New Zealand. And as I write this article, I am anticipating having much of the team together again at our EMERGE Leadership Retreat, only two days before I board a plane for my first trip back to the USA. Returning to North America to raise financial support for my second and final term as the National Youth Consultant of WMCNZ has caused me to reflect a lot on the past 28 months. I could write endless pages about my journey so far: learning lessons about culture (and making plenty of mistakes along the way,) visiting our churches across the country, preaching to young people, helping plan youth rallies and camps, offering training to youth workers... But ultimately, my reflection boils down to people. Faces. Of course, I see the faces of young people who have stolen my heart; I have been passionate about teenagers since I was one myself, and this has certainly not changed. However, through this time in the South Pacific, God has highlighted a new group of faces to me. The faces of youth pastors, youth leaders, and youth workers who have poured themselves out as drink offerings in the name of Jesus for the young people whom He loves. The faces of young and developing leaders who will shake the South Pacific and beyond with the Good News of God’s Kingdom. The past 28 months are summed up in your faces. To this incredible team of leaders and some of my closest friends, I want to say “Thank you.” Thank you for allowing me to journey with you and be part of your team. Thank you for the privilege of ministering to you and and alongside you. Thank you for serving Jesus selflessly in your local contexts and youth communities. You’re my heroes. And I look forward to our next season together.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Too Young?

I Timothy 4:12 "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity."  Paul wrote these words to Timothy, a very young preacher in a culture that looked to elders for wisdom.  God has a habit of choosing young people to make a difference for His Kingdom; He calls them to live extreme lives of faith in front of a world that doesn't understand them.  In the Old Testament, Jeremiah was another of these counter-cultural, young leaders.  God called him to be a prophet to his people, but Jeremiah protested, "I do not know how to speak; I am too young" (Jeremiah 1:6).  God's response was clear, "Do not say, 'I am too young.'  You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you" (Jeremiah 1:7-8).

It was shocking and exciting for me when I discovered something about the twelve disciples.  It is very likely that most of them were only teenagers or young adults when Jesus called them to follow Him.  It's funny for me to picture Jesus as the first youth pastor of sorts, but it shouldn't be too shocking when we think of all the other young people God has used throughout salvation history such as Joseph, Samuel, David, Mary the mother of Jesus, and others.

What should this mean for you as a young person today?  I think it should mean a few things.  (1) The idea that people aren't meant to get serious about their relationship with God until they are old is a lie. Don't wait to go hard out for Jesus!  (2) God has incredible purposes for you NOW, today, next week, this month, and this year!  Don't miss out on this God-sized adventure by settling for a life that conforms to the patterns of this world (Romans 12:1-2).  (3) God believes in young people enough to give them important roles in His Kingdom.  If He believes you have that much value, you should too!  Be willing to set an example and lead others toward the things of God while you are still young.  "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth" (Ecclesiastes 12:1).

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Ways We Respond

I've just been reading over evaluation forms from IGNITE Camp 2013, and one particular idea stood out to me.  Different campers responded most to different messages/speakers/workshops.  I am, as always, amazed by how God chooses to work through His servants, and it's really cool to see how He uses each of us to fill a different niche in different people's lives.  I love the diversity of the Kingdom of God and how we are all uniquely equipped to minister to different people.  God is so good. :)

Monday, November 12, 2012

My Life in a Movie

I ask for forgiveness ahead of time for the slightly girly/non-spiritual nature of this blog post. :)  Today I was watching (for the millionth time) the Anne of Green Gables movies.  I grew up on these movies and books, largely because of the influence of my Grandma Maxine who shared her love for the movies with me.  Every summer, she and I would watch the movies at least a couple times together.  I brought the DVD's with me to NZ because I knew I would be homesick for time with Anne.

Today, I started to realise something about the movies.  Throughout every stage of my life so far, I've found specific connection and inspiration from different parts of Montgomery's fictitious story of Anne Shirley.  As a kid, I loved the first bits of the first movie, when Anne is a 12 year old imaginative misfit.  I always related and aspired to her incredible imagination and sense of being a bit odd (yet being ok with it).  As a teenager, I loved the school day adventures of Anne, Diana, Ruby, etc.  I sought to build friendships that were as deep and cultivating of the imagination as Anne's friendships.  I discovered Diana's in people like Trina, Tiffany, Emily, Mandy, and more.  I also loved watching her interactions with the teacher that inspired her, Ms. Stacy, and I found a few of my own Ms. Stacy's during my school experience (including but not limited to Ms. Minear, Mrs. Liddle, and Mrs. Davis).  And of course, I started to keep an eye out for real, live Gilbert Blythes. :)

During my university and seminary years, I looked to Anne as she excelled in her educational endeavors, winning the Avery Scholarship and performing at the top of her class.  She completed her teacher's course in one year instead of two, and I wished my work ethic was something like hers.  I also started to see how Anne influenced the people around her.  She cared for people in a way that was transforming.  As I began in ministry, I learned a lot from how Anne built and nurtured relationships.

Now, as I'm far way from home, I suppose I'm in the Kingsley Ladies College phase.  Anne goes off on her own on a great adventure where she learns about the world and herself.  She finds new challenges, but she handles them with grace and courage.  She makes a difference.  I hope I can do the same!

Of course, the movie then ends with Anne realising the love of her life--Gilbert.  I'm not exactly anticipating that scene in my own life in the near future--I certainly have no clue who he is if that's the case.  SO right now, it seems the comparisons stop there. :)

Still, I've just been reflecting on the power of such a story to connect with a life on so many levels at so many stages.  I wonder--anyone else have a fictional book or movie that has played such a role of helping you to "read" your own life?  Please don't think I'm a freak who believes Anne was a real person or worships these stories in some way.  Anne is no Savior, and I'm fully aware of that.  But tonight I'm thankful for people like L.M. Montgomery who could craft a story and a character in such a way to make me feel as though I've had a friend and role model in her books to walk with me through my early life and into adulthood.  Pretty awesome in my opinion.  Anyone else have any such experiences?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Never Lonely

At the recommendation of my spiritual director, I've been working through Dallas Willard's book Hearing God:  Developing a Conversational Relationship with God as part of my personal devotional time lately.  Today, I came across the following questions in the book.

"Have you known people who were so close to God that they were never lonely?  What do you think of the prospects of such a relationship for you?"

This really made me stop and think.  I've asked a lot of questions about loneliness over the past nine months.  Having left all of my deep relationships in the US and moved into a new country and culture, loneliness has been a struggle at times.  So I started to reflect...

Of course, God created us to be in community.  While we can sing, "All of You is more than enough for all of me," we don't totally mean it in a literal sense.  God did create us with a need for other people.  Even with that fact established, though, many of us struggle with loneliness even while we are IN community!

  • Sometimes no one will answer the phone or respond to a text, and not a soul is on Facebook chat--and just in an hour or so of isolation, we feel lonely.
  • For singles, we can be blessed with the most incredible relationships in the world and yet give in to loneliness for a significant other.
  • In the context of community, we can still battle loneliness when we are not in close proximity to those who know and understand us best.
So what does our loneliness say about our relationship with God?

1.  Feelings lie.  Just having a feeling of loneliness doesn't mean my relationship with God is on the rocks.  Let's not take this to an extreme.  However, perhaps a life characterised by loneliness would be an indication of a spiritual need.

2.  Maybe loneliness is a God-given reminder of our need for communion with HIM. The truth is, only God knows and understands us perfectly. Only He is always available and always present.  He can always "answer the phone" to listen to our needs or "give us a text" through His Word in response to our cries.  He is the most faithful Friend.  At any point that human relationships are unsatisfying, we should be reminded that our sole satisfaction MUST indeed come from our relationship with God.  He desires for us to live in His presence--if we do, we are never alone.

So have I ever known someone who was so close to God that they were never lonely?  I'm not sure... Do I want to be the kind of person who is so close to God that my life is marked by satisfaction and contentment through my relationship with Him?  Absolutely.  Anyone have some thoughts on how to progress toward that end?  I'd love to read them.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Does God Change His Mind?

 A church recently asked me to share with them my thoughts on the question, "Does God change His mind?"  After writing my response, I thought I would share it here as well in case anyone is interested.  I'd love to hear your thoughts in response!  Please disagree with me if you like! :)
 1. If we take the narratives of Scripture "literally," then the answer is yes. God is said to have "repented" or "changed His mind" in several places in Scripture. For example... when Abraham "bargains" with God about whether or not He will destroy Sodom, He makes it clear that He would change His mind based on Abraham's stipulations; when the Ninevites repent after Jonah's message, God relents from destroying their city as He had proclaimed that He would do.

2. God's foreknowledge makes this tricky... If we believe God knows everything, even the future (though without determining the future since He has given mankind free will), then God changing His mind becomes a bit problematic. If God already knew, for example, that the Ninevites would repent and He would then "change His mind,"
is this really God changing His mind??? Some Christians have dealt with this by saying that God actually chooses to limit His own future knowledge by giving us free will, that He chooses not to know what we will decide and therefore is actually able to change His own mind based on what we decide. (This is part of a belief system called "open theism"--it is a very new idea, however, and most of orthodox Christianity has denied its possibility). Most of us, however, choose to live in the tension that, yes, God knows what will happen and yet has given us totally free will. Thus, God is "practically" changing His mind in response to human decision, but He is "technically" not changing His mind since He already knew what we would do and how He would respond. (Does your brain hurt yet? lol)
3. God's promises are trustworthy. God does not flippantly change His mind in that He does not revoke His promises. Thus, Numbers 23:9 reads, "God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?" In this sense, no, God does not "change His mind."

4. I believe the best way to approach this whole topic is that (a) God is truly and personally relational, meaning that He actually responds to us (our prayers, our decisions, etc.) in a perfect yet relational way. (b) The Scriptures about God changing His mind highlight this real interaction in a way our human minds can comprehend. They are meant "pedagogically," meaning they intend to teach us about the reality of our interactions with God, rather than "scientifically," meaning they are a technical representation of how God works in His inner mind--His psychology. (c) The mystery of God's perfect knowledge makes it hard for us to systematize what it means for God to "change His mind," and that's ok. The point, again, is that how we live and interact with God actually affects the way He works in the world.

Hope that helps rather than confuses!