Two Questions that Change the World: Moses, Jesus and our Students’ Search for Identity

We make choices every day that have small and large impacts on the world around us. Most of us, if we’re honest, live lives that lack critical thinking or space for helpful reflection. We live lives that are trapped in the day-to-day rhythms and routines. We do good. We do evil. We do small tasks. We do large tasks. We speak kind words. We speak meaningless words. We spend money. We spend time. Yet most of us don’t have any idea why we are who we are and why we’re becoming the kind of people we’re becoming.

As the ancient philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Here’s the reality of Socrates’ statement: An intentional life doesn’t happen by accident. There is no greater example of this reality than the life of the average adolescent. The high demands placed on our young people, along with the around-the-clock schedules imposed on them, make it nearly impossible for an adolescent to live any other way than reactively. When you ask a young person why he or she has made certain decisions, they likely will respond immediately with, “I don’t know.” Adults often are able to interpret this as a dismissive or disrespectful response when, in fact, it could be one of the most honest statements our students ever make…


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High School Service Trips, Part 3: Reflecting on the Experience

At several points throughout each day, and during an extended time of debriefing each evening, students and volunteers reflected on what they were experiencing. They shared how they were being challenged to rethink some of their assumptions about life and faith. Several students shared the following reflections:

  • A storm destroyed Mississippi, but people destroyed Detroit.
  • We are the story of the “Good Samaritan,” but most of the time we’re the religious people who didn’t help the suffering person.
  • The love of Jesus is a beautiful, unique thing.
  • The historical connection and conflict between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is anything but simple.
  • It’s not okay to take your experience with a small number of people and project that experience onto their entire religion or culture.
  • I didn’t feel “welcome” where we were working today, but then again, if a bunch of people who looked different than me showed up in my neighborhood uninvited, I might not want to welcome them either.
  • We didn’t accomplish much this week. The problems here are bigger than a few people giving money or time. The system is messed up. That’s what needs to be fixed. […]

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High School Service Trips, Part 2: Innovating and Executing the New Service Trip

Once we figured out the why of our trip, the what flowed naturally from there. It became much easier to sort through the possible partners, locations, and causes we could join. After having conversations with individuals and groups from around the country, we realized that we really didn’t know anything about our neighbor two hours to the east. We had a growing sense of confidence that Jesus was inviting us to take a step towards a relationship with our brothers and sisters in Detroit, Michigan.

Our church is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is approximately 160 miles west of Detroit. Although a two-hour drive doesn’t sound like an insurmountable distance to travel, aside from attending a sporting event or concert, many of our students and volunteers had never really experienced this part of our state…

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High School Service Trips, Part 1: Navigating transitions from one experience to another

Too often in youth ministry, we tend to jump from one cause to the next. This gives our students missional whiplash, and I suspect prevents us from supporting the “cause” as much as we think we are.

I wouldn’t be able to recognize this reality except for a relationship that our ministry stumbled into nearly eight years ago. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, our church began an immediate and active presence in Waveland, Mississippi – the community most devastated by the storm. As an extension of the initial disaster relief Mars Hill provided, our high school ministry sought to get involved in any way we could…

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It’s Under Water: Youth Talks Gone Wrong

Chapter 11 of It Happens:  True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry, edited by Will Penner.

In order to generate some enthusiasm around teaching the Prophets of the Old Testament to our high school students, we began our Wednesday evening together with a game we titled, “Jonah’s Revenge.” One student from each grade was invited to join us on stage, where we had four giant plastic tubs filled with gallons of water. The plastic tubs were clear, so that everyone in the audience could see the countless number of sardines that had settled to the bottom of each tub. The object of the game was for each contestant to retrieve as many sardines as possible from the bottom of the water-filled tub using only his mouth. The person who collected the most sardines would exact the most revenge on Jonah’s behalf and would be declared the winner. Brilliant game, right?

Almost immediately after the game began, I noticed from my vantage point in the back of the room that a considerable amount of water was flying out of each tub as our four contestants dove for mouthfuls of sardines. I ran on stage and politely instructed all of our contestants to be “a little less violent” as they dove, because they were spilling too much water. Almost immediately after returning to my place in the back of the room, our sophomore contestant (who is exceedingly large and strong for his age) decided to stand-up, lift his plastic tub over his head, and dump out all of the water because, logically, diving for sardines would be much easier if there was no water left in the tub. Now, however, gallons of standing water covered our stage, guitars, microphones, drum kit, and keyboard! All instrument cables, extension cords, and plugs were completely submerged.

All at once I was confronted with the reality that my students on stage were in immediate danger of electrocution, that thousands of dollars of band and tech equipment could be damaged or destroyed, and that we still had nearly 90 minutes of programming ahead of us.

Most youth ministry mishaps will be preventable based on your experience and intelligence, the nature of your students and programming, and of course, the grace of God. But nothing is foolproof, so we must make sure we’re as prepared as possible. We need to accept the fact that there will be metaphorical floods that come our way. And we need to be ready to bail water during any potential situation in which our volunteers and students find themselves.

In order to minimize risk (and in youth ministry there is always some risk), ensure that you are prepared by doing the following:

Plan Ahead. Outline basic policies and procedures for your students and volunteers to follow in case of severe weather, fires, security threats, or health related emergencies. Have other ministries and leaders in your community check your information to make sure nothing is missing and to confirm that everything you’ve outlined is consistent with other church policies. Compiling this information in a manual or training document with several hard copies located around the space where you most frequently gather with your students and volunteers isn’t a bad idea.

Share the information. Being prepared means that you shouldn’t be the only one who knows what to do if things get crazy. Hopefully you’ve already discovered that whether your ministry has 10 students or 300, you need to share your leadership responsibilities with eager interns, trusted volunteers, helpful parents, and high-capacity student leaders. Requiring training on the information outlined above (and hopefully much more) and sharing leadership responsibilities with other invested individuals ensures that you’re not the only one responsible for making things right and you’re not the only one who has something to lose when disaster strikes. When our stage flooded that evening, the three volunteers in our tech booth helped save day—not only because they were empowered to act through trust and our trainings but also because they had a personal investment in caring for the submerged equipment. Because our adult volunteers share ownership of our ministry, they shared ownership of cleaning up our mess.

Expect the worst (and know what to do). Members of our ministry team roll their eyes whenever I say, “How might someone die if we decide to do this?” during our planning meetings. It sounds like an extreme and gruesome question, but after “Jonah’s Revenge,” a competition between our high school students that involved crowd surfing the most junior high students from point A to point B, and a watermelon eating contest that ended with a female freshman student’s face covered in blood, I’ve learned the hard way that doing the work of asking critical questions about safety might save the life of a student or volunteer I love—along with saving my job. If we’d asked these kinds of questions as we planned “Jonah’s Revenge,” we likely would have decided against it. Just to be clear, asking these questions doesn’t automatically eliminate ideas. It might just provide you with the safest possible version of your idea. We will have a watermelon-eating contest again this year, but we’ll definitely enforce a rule against using your head as a hammer to smash the watermelon. (Because sometimes the watermelon moves and a kid ends up using his head to hammer the picnic table.) We’ll also have a fully stocked first-aid kit close by.

Protecting People and Property
The parents of your students and the families of your volunteers have extended you the trust of providing for the safety and care of the people they love most in the world. You and your team must take this sacred trust seriously and act urgently to protect the physical safety of everyone present once you realize there is a flood. Thus, plans for your program, or the disappointment of your students and volunteers cannot take priority over what will actually provide protection.

After our stage was drenched, the game was ended immediately and all of our students and volunteers were removed from the stage until we could turn off the electricity to that area of the room and clean up the water. Much to the dismay of our student band, we chose to postpone the next portion of our evening until we could guarantee everyone’s safety.

Your community also trusts you to steward and care for your church’s resources. You and your team must take this seriously and act urgently to protect church property and equipment once you realize there is a flood. Minimizing the fiscal cost the church might incur because of the disaster will help minimize consequences you might face with your boss or other church leaders. You won’t be able to prevent all of the damage, but you can’t let your desire to keep your program or event moving cost your church more money.

If you can’t demonstrate responsibility with what you’ve already been given, you likely won’t be trusted with more resources in the future. This will be a problem when it’s time to submit next year’s budget proposal to your leaders. We refused to turn our stage’s power back on until we could guarantee that it wouldn’t come at the cost of the church’s or our volunteers’ band equipment. This was a short-term disappointment but a wise decision in the long run.

Acknowledging the Flood without Drying out the Program
Everyone who is present at your program or event will be fully aware of how disastrous the flood really is. In the chaos of the moment you might convince yourself that you can somehow hide the severity of the situation. This is a lie. Trying to gloss over the mess you’ve found yourself in will only cause you to lose credibility with your students and volunteers.

Once you’ve ensured the safety of the people and property that have been threatened by the disaster and you’ve decided not to send everyone home, you have to trust yourself enough to move forward with confidence. Acknowledge the reality of the flood and calmly direct your students and volunteers in a positive and productive direction with an alternative way forward. If you’re constantly pointing students and volunteers to what went wrong earlier in your program or event you’ll be giving them permission to dwell on the flood and not move forward with you.

In our situation with the drenched stage: we made the quick decision to eliminate a portion of our program; I made fun of how short-sighted our game was and how they might have a new high school pastor next week; I gave my talk on Jonah without a microphone and in more of a discussion format; and we dismissed students to their small groups earlier than normal. The night didn’t go as planned, but it still served a purpose in spite of our unexpected disaster.

We’ve All Felt Like We Were Drowning
You need to go to bed every night knowing you’re as prepared as possible so that you’ll be able to sleep well on the night things go horribly wrong. When there is a flood in your ministry remember that you’re not alone and that all of us have encountered a disaster of some kind. During the drive home on the evening we drenched our stage I couldn’t help but tremble at the thought of how much worse things could have turned out, who could have gotten hurt, and how irresponsible I was. These kinds of thoughts quickly lead us to question our calling and ability to serve as pastors.

During floods you will likely be your greatest critic. Forgive yourself, and remember that our students and volunteers are more forgiving than we generally give them credit for. My students like to remind my team and me about “Jonah’s Revenge” and the chaos of our waterlogged stage. When they do this, they remind me why I love my job and why it’s so important to take it seriously.

Questions to Consider
How “bought in” are the adult volunteers to our ministry programs? If disaster struck, would they take the initiative to bail it out?

In what ways could we mitigate potential damages from unexpected floods with a little preplanning?

In what ways do we allow fears of unexpected disasters to inhibit creative events?

Beyond “people” and “property,” are there other things we need to protect from potential disasters in our ministries?


You can purchase It Happens:  True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry here.

Going Deeper with Jon Huckins’ “End Times and Global Immersion”

During the past eight years, I have made four trips to Israel. I have participated in two six-month undergraduate and graduate study experiences and have co-led two short-term pilgrimage experiences for high school and college students. I’ve taken classes and shared meals with Jews, Muslims and Christians and have seen and heard uncounted stories of suffering and injustice. During my short amount of time living in Israel, I experienced many of the complexities of life in the Middle East.

Through all of the difficulties of adjusting to living in a new culture, the greatest was the confusion I faced as a white American evangelical. As Huckins states in his article, “Rather than immersing myself in the living narratives, I had been content with a theology and narrative that had been formed for me.”

As my life intersected the numerous narratives being told by the diversity of people living in Israel, I understood that I needed to seriously reconsider both the eschatology and the ecclesiology I’d been handed.

In North America we have the luxury of being highly selective and particular about whom we participate with in the life of a local faith community. Our freedom has provided us the ability of being able to divide ourselves by all kinds of denominational, theological, liturgical, political, racial and economic differences. We clearly delineate between who is in and who is out, who is one of us and who is one of them. Sunday mornings in North America more closely resemble tribal gatherings—each group closely gathered and facing inward—than diverse and interconnected expressions of the body of Christ.

As an American Christian living in Israel, all the ways I had been trained by our culture and my theological education to differentiate myself from other Christians no longer mattered. Participating in a community with other followers of Jesus meant more to me than it ever had before. The small church I experienced was diverse, strange and filled with beautiful tension. American evangelicals, Pentecostals, Messianic Jews, Christian Zionists, Palestinian Christians and followers of Jesus from various other countries and political persuasions all called this community home. Though there was plenty of bickering and arguing, I never witnessed it leading to actual division, neglect or hate. The truth is, we all needed each other to survive the daily struggle of life in Israel. As a legitimate follower of Jesus in the Middle East, you either accept the body of Christ for what it is—a diverse community that transcends race, theology and politics—or you choose to live in isolation.

The problem with the Western understanding of what it means to be a part of the church is that it really only helps our students understand what it means to be a part of a church. Living in Israel transformed my understanding of what it means to be part of the church because I realized that in the United States we have constructed our religious institutions in such a way that we don’t really need each other.

As much as we all needed each other in the community I was part of in Jerusalem, this community also needed connection, support and encouragement from followers of Jesus around the world and in the United States. And, though I never realized it, followers of Jesus in the United States needed connection, support and encouragement from this small and unique community in Jerusalem and from other Christians around the world. We have failed to remember the words of Jesus—that our brothers and sisters are anyone who does the will of God,[i] not just people who look and think like us. This includes Huckins’ friend Mildad, the Palestinian Christian who lives in Bethany.

The kind of ecclesiological isolationism that many Western Christians practice leaves room for our other theological understandings to get distorted. We have allowed ourselves to get in trouble by practicing a weak ecclesiology, especially given the popularity and sensationalism of end-times prophecy and eschatological beliefs that include violence and despair. Our communities haven’t modeled what it means to hold ecclesiology and eschatology (regardless of our specific set of beliefs) in tension and have therefore indirectly taught our students that eschatology trumps ecclesiology.

As Huckins reminds us, according to a dispensational understanding of the eschaton, the existence of the nation of Israel is a necessary part of the sequence of events leading to the return of Christ. Therefore, many evangelical Christians support the nation of Israel in their cause against the Palestinians. As Huckins points out, what many of us don’t know (or don’t care about) is that American Christians are financially and politically supporting the oppression of not only the Palestinian people but other followers of Jesus—Palestinian Christians.

What dispensational theology states in practice is that it is more important to prop up the nation of Israel as a pawn in our end-times game than to stand with, suffer with and support other followers of Jesus who are being oppressed. This is not only one of the reasons dispensational theology is practically untenable but also why our students may not have a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.

God confronts Cain after a dispute involving religion, jealousy and the murder of his brother.[ii] In a rapidly changing world filled with confusion, tension, violence and possibility, all of us in the Western church are confronted by the asking and answering of Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” If we’re to be the kind of Christians who can hold our theological convictions in tension while modeling and practicing an appropriate ecclesiology, we have to answer this question with, “Yes.” And if we say yes to this question, even if it is only in a whisper, we have no choice but to embrace followers of Jesus from around the world as our brothers and sisters and to actively pursue ways mutual connection, support and encouragement can be experienced.

This brave response will undoubtedly lead to the rethinking and reorganizing of our theological, political, racial and economic opinions, which might be exactly what God wants us in the Western church to do. For the sake of our own souls, for the well-being of followers of Jesus around the world, for the sake of our students—both now and in the future—we have to find the courage to take this step.

1) Invite leaders from other Christian traditions to speak at your youth group, or invite your students and leaders to join you at a gathering of followers of Jesus that looks different from your own.

2) Challenge students to scour internet blogs and news sites looking for stories (both positive and negative) about other Christian communities from around the world. Set aside a few minutes in your weekly gatherings for students to share what they’ve found and to collectively pray for your newly discovered brothers and sisters.

3) Don’t avoid difficult theological, political, racial or economic conversations during your gatherings. Inviting students to hold differences with others in tension will go a long way in the future toward them knowing how to exist in connection with followers of Jesus who are different from them.

[i] Matthew 12:46-50.
[ii] Genesis 4:9.

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Student (micro)Enterprise

I’ll never forget the November evening in 2007 when we put $1,000 cash in the hands of 200 high school students and volunteers.

Why is that a good idea?

Several years ago the Mars Hill community was in the midst of refining the language we use to describe our mission and vision in order to effectively point the energy of our community in a more precise direction.[1] The words “joining the God of the oppressed” became part of the mission of our community, which challenged and inspired us to respond to the question, Who are the oppressed in our world and in our community?

The simplest and broadest response, of course, was humanity. We are all born into the circumstances of personal spiritual oppression and in need of Christ’s redemption. The more complicated response involved identifying whom we would actively serve as a missional community to try and bring about measurable change in oppressive circumstances.

We made a five-year commitment to Turame, a micro-enterprise bank in Burundi, Africa.[2] At the time, Burundi was one of the poorest nations in the world and still faced the religious, political and economic effects of the genocide that took place in Rwanda and Burundi during the previous decade. Well-meaning aid agencies have at times indirectly abandoned the poor through creating a dependency on handouts, and traditional banks across the world have abandoned the poor because they’ve been unwilling to lend to them without capital.

However, micro-enterprise functions based on two revolutionary beliefs that counter these two problems.[3] The first belief is that, given the proper resources and support, the poor can lift themselves out of poverty through their own effort, energy, creativity and entrepreneurship. In many cases, a loan of less than $100 is enough for a widow in Burundi to start her own small business (micro-enterprise), begin to provide for her own family and eventually pay off her loan. The second revolutionary belief behind micro-enterprise is that the poor can, in fact, be trusted. Whereas most banks require financial capital, micro-enterprise functions on the belief that shared humanity between the bank and the client is reason enough to extend trust.

Who Are the Oppressed?

Our faith community responded to the question of identifying the oppressed in our world through our work with Turame. But, as the high school pastor of our church, I still stumbled over how to be honest about the question, Who are the oppressed in our community?

I finally thought of the faces of my students.

Adolescents in western society are victims of systemic abandonment.[4] The systems and institutions created to support and encourage adolescents on the path toward adulthood now exist more for an adult agenda than for the adolescents. The traditional family, educational, religious and political systems that once supported adolescents now in many cases exploit them. We’ve left our young people to try to answer life’s greatest questions alone. Today’s adolescents face a historically high level of expectations while receiving a historically low level of systemic adult support.

These systems of abandonment and oppression are alive and well in many of our churches. We’ve segregated our communities by age. In our attempts to provide age-specific and relevant programming, we’ve damned our young people to student rooms and kids’ ministry rooms on separate campuses or at opposite ends of the building from the sanctuary and have made it clear to them that the main service belongs to the adults.

We use mission and service as opportunities for adults to feel better about themselves and their church rather than opportunities to empower and trust our adolescents. In many of our communities, the only time adolescents are a focus in the main service is when some achievement can be paraded among the congregation for adult approval. But once the celebration is over, we dismiss our young people back to their separate spaces and programs.

The more time I’ve spent with the Bible, the more I’ve come to realize that throughout the narrative of Scripture we see that God is always with the oppressed and the young. Today’s teenagers fit into both of these categories. If that’s where God is, than that’s where I want to be. This is why I’m more convinced than ever that being a youth pastor must also mean being a youth advocate. Our young people need shepherds who are willing to stand with and for them as they suffer through an existence that has become unjust and unnecessarily difficult.

Joining the God of the Oppressed

Until our communities recognize the plight of our adolescents, we won’t be able to effectively pastor them with credibility toward serving others. The way we engage mission and service with our students cannot further perpetuate their own oppression. We damage the development of our students and the sustainability of justice efforts by continually jumping from one cause to another. We fail to help adolescents understand the complexity of systemic injustice, and we treat them as stereotypes, believing their attention spans to be too short to stay committed to one cause. We’re more faithful to our adolescents when we remain faithful to a cause for the long term.

I suspect American teenagers have raised thousands of dollars for a good cause only because they felt compelled to serve an adult agenda. Although this money is useful, it comes at the expense of an opportunity to empower, encourage and trust our adolescents. Using tactics of guilt and shame to compel a person toward compassion is manipulative and reprehensible. We can hold ourselves accountable to this by being aware of how we measure success. Are we only counting dollars raised or homes built? Or are we telling the stories of service? Are we emphasizing students’ journeys along the way—their successes and failures—as well as the stories of those we serve?

If we invite our students into an opportunity to serve, we have to also offer them the support they deserve in order to participate. Without support that is free of an adult agenda, the opportunity will likely become one more instance when adolescents will engage only to perform for and meet the expectations of the adults involved. Providing adequate support from adults means not shaming students who opt out of participation (they might not be lacking compassion; they likely have many other expectations to meet) and allowing adults and students who do want to participate a say in what participation really looks like.

Micro-Enterprise with Macro-Impact

At Mars Hill, joining the God of the oppressed meant building a bridge between how we answered the question, Who are the oppressed? on both a local and global level. Although the circumstances of an American adolescent and an impoverished Burundi woman couldn’t be more distinct, the oppressive circumstances of abandonment and a lack of trust bind them together.

Every November and December, our high school students are invited to take a hands-on approach to our microfinance initiative by borrowing $5 from our church to start their own small businesses. They sign loan agreements, agree to pay back a $1 a week and work hard with other students and leaders to create profits that can be donated to Turame. Students can pool their money or work alone. However, everyone holds everyone else accountable, and everyone supports everyone else’s micro-enterprise.

Together (sometimes with adult volunteers), students have started t-shirt, yard work, jewelry, ornament, greeting card and baking businesses. They’ve produced viral videos, held video game marathons and hosted art auctions. Adults and adolescents have strengthened relationships, built trust and discovered creativity, and students have embraced their distinct and creative role in our community. The stories of our students have become a prophetic catalyst to spur people of all ages toward compassion and ingenuity.

Since that memorable night in 2007, our students have taken out 634 loans from our church ($3,170). Their hard work and ingenuity have led to nearly a 100% repayment rate and almost $12,000 in profits, all of which have been donated to Turame.

Our students have proven that, given the appropriate support, they can accomplish remarkable things on behalf of others. They have proven that adolescents can be trusted with the resources and mission of our churches. They have invited our churches to understand that addressing issues of injustice and oppression can begin with youth ministry.



[3] Yunus, Muhammad. Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty. PublicAffairs: 1999.

[4] Clark, Chap. Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Baker Academic: 2011.