Self-Injury Part 3 – Recognizing the Signs

Disclaimer – I write “Leadership Moments” for the volunteers at my church who work in the youth ministry. Each Leadership Moment is meant to equip the everyday youth worker with the knowledge and skills they need to help teens as best as they can. Because these articles are for people I know personally and meant for my own church and city context, they may not always be relevant to the wider public. However I put them here for anyone who might benefit from their content.

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[This is part 3 of a series summarizing the book “Hope and Healing For Kids Who Cut” by Marv Penner.]

Because of the shame-inducing nature of self-injury, most people engaging in this activity try to hide it. It is a dark secret that they wish no one else to be in on. Because of this, it is important for those working with youth to be on the lookout for common signs that a teen is struggling with self-injury. It is our job to keep our eyes open and be attentive to the signs. We may very well be the only adults in their life who care enough to pay attention.

Marv lists the following as common signs of self-injury. Any one sign by itself may be a fluke, but repetitive signs or multiple signs together may be pointing to a bigger problem.

  • Scars, cuts, bruises, or burns. These marks can happen in innocent ways. We should not be too suspicious, but repeat marks on a teen or ones that have questionable excuses for can send up a red flag.
  • Long sleeves or pants in warm weather. Some teens dress this way to make a fashion statement. For others it is a convenient way to cover up their secret. We should keep an eye on a student who dresses this way when it doesn’t make sense to.
  • Multiple bracelets or bandanas. Again, this can be a simple matter of style, but it also makes a great way to cover up marks on the wrist.
  • Tangible evidence. This would include things like cutting objects (razors, knives, or virtually anything sharp), bloody tissues, lighters (for a non-smoking teen especially), or anti-septic ointment. If any of these are found in unusual places, such as a teens bedroom, bathroom, or on their person, it should be mentally noted.
  • Traces of blood on clothing. Some concealed wounds will seep through material. Most students are careful to make sure this doesn’t happen, but from time to time it does.
  • Rubbing the skin through clothing. When a cut is healing and scabbing over, it can get very itchy. If a student is rubbing an area on their body through their clothing like they are itchy, it could be from a self-inflicted injury.
  • Emotional roller coasters. This evidence is not physical but important nonetheless. Self-injurers are struggling emotionally, and it can manifest in ways other than in cutting. Depression, mood swings, general crankiness, or acting out can all be signs that a student is going through a difficult time.

It is important to reiterate that we should not be paranoid and feel that any one sign is evidence enough to assume the worst. As a general rule we should assume the best. But we should be careful not to stick our heads in the sand either. When any of these signs come up more than once, or if more than one shows up together, it is time to look into the matter more. Just how we can do that is the topic of a future post. For now, try and make a mental note of these signs and keep your eyes open for any warnings that could be right under your nose.

Self-Injury Part 2 – What Self-Injury Is and Isn’t

Disclaimer – I write “Leadership Moments” for the volunteers at my church who work in the youth ministry. Each Leadership Moment is meant to equip the everyday youth worker with the knowledge and skills they need to help teens as best as they can. Because these articles are for people I know personally and meant for my own church and city context, they may not always be relevant to the wider public. However I put them here for anyone who might benefit from their content.

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[This is part 2 of a series summarizing the book “Hope and Healing For Kids Who Cut” by Marv Penner.]

It is important that we have an accurate understand of what self-injury actually is. First, let’s dispel some of the common myths about self-injury. Here is a list of what self-injury is NOT:

  • It is not just a fad. The wrong way to think of self-injury is that it is merely a passing trend that will fade with time. The statistics would prove otherwise. It is not fading over time but rather becoming increasingly common and being portrayed as normal in the media. We cannot believe it will simply go away on its own. It won’t.
  • It is not an extreme form of body modification. Tattoos and body pierces are pretty popular these days. But this is not the same as self-injury. Tattoos and body piercing are artistic and stylistic in nature, and most people who have these display them proudly. However, self-injury is more like therapy than art, and most injurers hide their marks in shame.
  • It is not a suicide attempt. At least, not yet. Some self-injurers will spiral down into depression and attempt suicide. But self-injury is actually much different. The point of self-injury is to NOT give up hope. The self-injurer is hoping their wounds will help them escape the pain they feel and want to live.
  • It is not demon-possession. In the Bible there is at least two occasions (1 Kings 18 and Mark 5) where there is definitely demonic activity leading to self-injury. However, this does not mean that every person who cuts is demon-possessed. Certainly they are under Satan attack, but we should not assume that an exorcism is required for their healing.
  • It is not just an attempt to get attention. True, some injurers want attention. They are craving for love and acceptance. They just want someone to notice them! But self-injury is more than that. Typically adults respond to obvious cries for attention by withholding attention, thinking they will break the cycle of neediness. This is a dangerous thing to do with someone who is hurting themselves.
  • It is not reckless behaviour. (This point is not in the book). I would add that a teen who is wild and willing to try crazy stunts, whether it be on a bike or skateboard or jumping off high places, or doing things like are shown in the “Jackass” videos, are not self-injuring teens. At least, they are not injuring themselves on purpose the same way a teen who cuts is, though their recklessness can be a sign of masking pain too.

So if that is what self-injury is NOT, what exactly IS it? Marv defines it in simple terms:

Self-injury is an attempt to alter one’s emotional state by inflicting physical harm on one’s own body without the intention of committing suicide. Self-injurers seek to change how they feel by hurting themselves.

Self-injury can take on a variety of forms.

  • Cutting. This is the most common form of self-injury, where a person cuts themself with a sharp object. Common cutting places are on the arms (especially the non-dominant arm), legs, and sides. Often cuts are made in places easy to cover with clothing.
  • Carving. This is a variation of cutting where a person cuts a specific image or word into their skin. Usually the word or image has significant meaning to the cutter that is related to their own identity (words like “ugly”, “worthless”, and “loser” are common).
  • Burning. A self-injurer may choose to burn their skin instead of cutting it. It can be done of the stove, near a furnace, or with a lighter. Sometimes an injurer will heat a metal object with a lighter and then press it onto their skin.
  • Bruising. Still another form of self-injury is inflicting pain on the body by any means possible. This can be by hitting oneself with an object or even their own fists.
  • Branding. Branding is a form of burning similar to carving in that the person brands their skin with sometime to mark their identity or express what they are feeling.
  • Refusal to heal. Many self-injurers interfere with wounds that are healing. They do this because as long as the wound is “active”, it still helps them to feel the relief they are seeking.

In the next post we will learn how to recognize the common signs of self-injury.

Self-Injury Part 1 – Intro to Self-Injury

Disclaimer – I write “Leadership Moments” for the volunteers at my church who work in our youth ministry. Each Leadership Moment is meant to equip the everyday youth worker with the knowledge and skills they need to help teens as best as they can. Because these articles are for people I know personally and meant for my own church and city context, they may not always be relevant to the wider public. However I put them here for anyone who might benefit from their content.

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[This is part 1 of a series summarizing the book “Hope and Healing For Kids Who Cut” by Marv Penner.]

Welcome to a world of hurt. Even though I am not that much older than the teens I work with, I must recognize that they are growing up in a much different world than the one I did at their age. The challenges they face are unique to any other generation. It is important as adults not to look down on students struggling with emotional issues. We have no idea what they are going through, until we take the time to listen.

Self-injury is just one of the many confusing and disturbing trends surfacing among the next generation. Most of us don’t understand it. Some of us are repulsed by it. But the truth is that teens need the presence of caring adults who will encourage them, listen to them, and support them as they face the challenges of everyday life. We must take their world – and self-injury – seriously, especially those of us in direct contact with young people.

A lot of adults are tempted to think that self-injury is really an uncommon occurrence that happens among only the most disturbed and troubled young people. Yet this is not the case. In the book, Marv says “The issue of self-injury has become increasingly visible in the world of adolescence and young adults in recent years…self-injury is going mainstream, and is likely to remain part of the cultural landscape for the foreseeable future. We can no longer pretend this is a fringe issue that occurs only in the most extreme cases.”

A 2006 study by Princeton and Cornell Universities found that 17% of the young people they surveyed (of 3,000) had self-injured at some point in their lifetime. Technically it is 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 7 guys. The numbers may have even gone up since then. It is highly likely that for every cutter identified, others remain hidden in the secret world of their addiction.

I say all this because as youth workers, we must take seriously the struggles of the teens we work with and seek to grow in our understanding of them and how to address them. It is not a matter of “if” you will come across this, but “when”. Therefore, we ought to do our best to be informed and ready so we can offer genuine help. After all, we are called by Jesus to show his love and compassion to a world so desperately in need of hope. The responsibility lies on our shoulders.

Lyrical Theology: In Christ Alone (Part 6)

In Christ Alone – Newsboys (see full lyrics here)

There in the ground, his body lay / Light of the world by darkness slain / Then bursting forth, in glorious day / Up from the grave he rose again / And as he stands in victory / Sins curse has lost its grip on me / For I am his, and he is mine / Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:17 says that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” In other words, if Jesus died but did not rise again, then Christianity is a giant hoax and believers in Christ are foolish people who have built their life on a lie. The death of Jesus is meaningless without the resurrection. If the story ended with Jesus’ lifeless body lying in a tomb, then there is nothing worth celebrating.

But the story did not end there! I love the way the Newsboys put it here: “Bursting forth in glorious day, up from the grave he rose again!” The day Jesus rose from death indeed was a glorious day! By coming back to life he proved that he had conquered sin once and for all. Jesus truly was able to stand in victory, and as a result those who put their trust in him no longer are enslaved to sin. Jesus took our sin to the grave and rose to give us new life. This is the beauty and power of faith in Jesus. Our sins are wiped away and we are made new, infused with new life and made friends of God.

This happens because the sin that kept us from a relationship with God is removed by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. No longer are we unqualified to be in God’s presence. Jesus makes us holy and gives us access to the Father. Our lives are no longer our own but are turned over to God. Jesus bought us at the price of his own blood, for that is what it cost to bring us freedom. Satan, sin, and death no longer own us. Jesus does. And in him we have been given life eternal and joy everlasting. Receive this good news!

Lyrical Theology: In Christ Alone (Part 5)

In Christ Alone – Newsboys (see full lyrics here)

Till on that cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied / For every sin on him was lain / Here in the death of Christ I live

Contained within these few verses is the very essence of Christianity. The big idea is that Jesus is our substitute; that is, that he died in the place of sinners to remove the wrath of God and give eternal life. This is the good news of the gospel. But perhaps it may not seem clear to you, so let me break it down in a way that might explain better.

God’s Wrath Towards Sinners

The wrath of God is mentioned some 600 times in the Bible. It references God’s burning anger towards sin and rebellion against him. God is not acting unrighteously in his anger. It is right for him to be angry when his own creation rebels against him. Each and every person has chosen to walk as enemies of God. We make that choice every day in our sin, and God is right to have extreme anger about it. The Bible says in Ephesians 2:3 that all people are by nature “objects of wrath” to God, since each and every person has chosen their own way in rebellion against God.

God’s Wrath Leads to Death

As sinners, God is right not only to be wrathful towards us, but to execute that wrath in the form of judgment. In fact, if God did not pour out his wrath for sin, he would not be a just God. In Romans 6:23 we are told that the fair punishment for sin is death. This would include physical death, but also spiritual death. To make it plain, if you commit treason against God by sinning, then you earn yourself the death penalty. And since all people are treasonous sinners and repeat offenders, all people are standing in the path of the wrath of God and destined for their fair punishment in the place called hell.

Jesus Saves the Day!

But God did not leave us in this hopeless, wretched condition! Instead, he sent his Son Jesus into the world. Jesus lived a sinless life (like we all should have) and then died on the cross as a willing substitute for sinners, taking their place and punishment as a once-for-all payment for sin. On the cross, God poured out the full measure of wrath for sinners on Jesus instead. The sacrifice of Jesus payed the penalty for sinners, so that if they trust in him, they are no longer “objects of wrath” but “friends of God”. Their sin is no longer counted against them, and they pass from death into life. This beautiful, life-changing truth is why Christians can sing:

Till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied. For every sin, on him was lain; here in the death of Christ I live!

20 Reasons to Believe that Jesus Actually Rose from the Dead

In 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, the Bible states what the results are if Jesus has not risen from the dead. If Jesus is still dead, it means that:

  • Our faith counts for nothing (vs. 14)
  • We are misrepresenting God (vs. 15)
  • We are still in our sins (vs. 17)
  • Those who have already died did not go to a better place (vs. 18)
  • Our faith is good only for this life, which makes us people to be pitied (vs. 19)

In other words, if Jesus did not really rise from death, it is bad news for Christians! A lot is hanging on this one event. Did Jesus come back from the dead? Is there any evidence that this actually happened? There is a lot of things that could be said, here are some significant points to consider.

  1. The body was missing. There is virtually no doubt that Jesus was killed by Roman execution on the cross. Yet three days later, his body was missing from the guarded tomb. Some have said that it was stolen by grave robbers, or perhaps by the disciples themselves (more on that later). Interestingly, the government even acknowledged that there was no body. This doesn’t prove that Jesus rose, but it does at least show that everyone knew Jesus’ body had disappeared.
  2. The testimony of women. In Jesus’ day, the word of a woman carried very little weight. So little, in fact, that a woman could not even testify in court because she was not believed to be reliable. Yet the Bible states that it was women who first discovered the empty tomb and saw the risen Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10). If someone were trying to fabricate Jesus’ resurrection, they most certainly would not base their lie on the claims of women, because it would be less credible. The only way that someone would record that women were the first to see Jesus is if that’s how it really happened.
  3. The transformation of Jesus’ brothers. Contrary to what some say, Mary and Joseph had other children besides Jesus. On one occasion, Jesus’ family showed up to take him home because they thought he had gone crazy (Mark 3:31-35). Yet these same brothers, who here are hard skeptics, became worshippers of Jesus. In fact, at least two of Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude, went on to write the books of the Bible that bear their names. In addition, James became the lead pastor of the church in Jerusalem. What would it take for someone to worship their own brother as God? What would make James and Jude go from thinking their brother is crazy to believing he is God? A resurrection would.
  4. The transformation of the disciples. Jesus’ followers had gone into hiding after their leader was crucified (John 20:19) for fear that they would lose their lives. Yet these same men, just a few days later, are boldly proclaiming that Jesus had risen in public, even at the cost of great persecution and ridicule. It makes sense that actually seeing the risen Jesus would give them cause to come out of hiding and courageously put their lives on the line. Nearly all of the disciples suffered brutal martyrs deaths because they would not stop proclaiming they had seen Jesus risen. There is no way they would have done this if they knew it was a lie.
  5. The change in “doubting Thomas”. One of Jesus’ 12 disciples is famously known as the “doubter”. After the disciples come and tell Thomas they have seen Jesus, he declares he will not believe it unless he can place his own finger into the nail-pierced hands of Jesus (John 20:25). Yet Thomas too becomes a hard believer that Jesus resurrected. The only thing that could explain this is if Jesus really did appear to Thomas, just as the Bible says.
  6. That change in Peter. Perhaps the disciple whose change was the most dramatic was that of Peter. This disciple, who is famous for denying even knowing Jesus three times (including to a little girl), later is preaching in the streets of Jerusalem for all the people to repent of their sin and trust in Jesus (Acts 2:14-41). How could Peter go from being afraid of a little girl to facing hostile crowds unless he had a really good reason to do so?
  7. Jesus is seen by a crowd of 500. In 1 Corinthians 15:6, we learn that a crowd of 500 people saw the risen Jesus at one time. This could not have been a hallucination, since visions of that sort are personal and not experienced by multiple people. We also learn that most of those 500 people were still living at the time 1 Corinthians was written. Since 1 Corinthians was a public letter, the author (Paul) was essentially saying to the reader that they could go and ask these people if they really saw Jesus alive. Had Paul been making it up, he could not have made such a bold, public claim. Not only this, but there is zero historical evidence that anyone even tried to refute Paul’s claim of the 500 seeing Jesus. Apparently, no one who looked into it found any reason to doubt.
  8. Jesus appeared for 40 days. It was not like Jesus appeared to only a handful of people on one or two occasions. Historically, Jesus appeared to hundreds of people over a long period of time – 40 days to be exact (Acts 1:3). This kind of hoax is next to impossible to pull off. Many people saw Jesus multiple times. By sticking around for 40 days before ascending back into heaven, Jesus left no doubt that he had indeed risen from the dead.
  9. Mary prayed to her son as God. Again, this is not strong evidence by itself. Some might say Mary was simply crazy or deceived. But put together with the rest of the evidence, it cannot be taken lightly that someone would truly believe their own son was God (Acts 1:14).
  10. Jesus ate food and had scars. Some claim that Jesus rose not in a physical sense but only in a spiritual sense. This does not make sense since his body was missing. It also does not make sense because Thomas felt the scars of Jesus and there is at least one occasion where Jesus eats breakfast with his disciples (Luke 24:42-43). He could not have been a ghost if he had a body with scars and the ability to eat food.
  11. Jesus walked for 7 miles. Some say that perhaps Jesus didn’t die on the cross but merely passed out and was later revived. This would account for his appearances since he had not actually died at all. This is medically unsound, since the trauma Jesus received by flogging, crucifixion and stabbing would have certainly killed him, especially without medical treatment in a cold tomb. Not only this, but the risen Jesus was said to have walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus with two men, a distance of 7 miles (Luke 24:13). There is no way Jesus could have walked for 7 miles only days after having his feet pierced with giant spikes. So the claim that Jesus didn’t actually die makes no sense.
  12. The lack of motive for the disciples. If the disciples had not really seen Jesus but were making the whole thing up, what was their motive? Most people lie to gain something, but their “lie” only brought them pain and persecution and death. It makes sense instead that they weren’t lying but simply willing to die for the truth. Some might push back and say that they were genuinely deceived. But how can these men, who spent over 3 years with Jesus daily, be mistaken that they had seen and talked with Jesus numerous times? They would have had to be absolutely convinced, otherwise their boldness makes no sense.
  13. The conversion of Saul/Paul. Saul was essentially a terrorist. He literally travelled from town to town killing or throwing Christians into jail. It was his job to stop the Jesus movement. He even was present at the killing of the very first Christian martyr, a church leader named Stephen (Acts 8:1-3). Yet this same man suddenly became a follower of Jesus and began to travel to world, proclaiming that Jesus had risen. He started dozens of churches, wrote 13 books of the Bible, and suffered greatly for the forward progress of Christianity. There is nothing that could explain such a dramatic transformation, except that Saul had met the risen Jesus himself and changed his mind, just as the Bible records (Acts 9:1-19).
  14. Jewish people worshipped Jesus as God. In the Jewish tradition, it is strictly believed that there is only one God and that you should worship him alone. The concept of idolatry was extremely significant to the Jewish people. So the fact that thousands of them began to worship Jesus as God, knowing full well that they would be committing idolatry against their God if they were wrong, speaks volumes. Something very convincing would have had to happen for them to change their beliefs so significantly. A resurrection would do that.
  15. The change of the holy day. Jewish culture holds to Saturday as the Sabbath, or holy day. It is the day of worship. Yet suddenly people started worshipping on Sunday (the day of Jesus’ resurrection). This is no small change. This would be like going to church on a Monday; it would require gathering at the crack of dawn or very late at night, a great inconvenience, unless one was convinced that day held significant meaning. The cultural shift from worshipping on Saturday to Sunday gives weight to the fact that Jesus truly had risen Sunday morning, just as the story goes.
  16. The growth of the early Christian Church. These days, some people say that Christianity is good for society because of it’s moral teachings. If that’s all Christianity was good for, it most certainly would not have grown as it did during the early years. Remember that Christians were heavily persecuted! Simple moral values are not worth losing your family, house, or life over. The early church did not see Christianity as good for society because of moral values, but as the truth that needed to be fought for at any cost. Only a risen Jesus could provide that kind of motivation.
  17. Jesus’ tomb is not enshrined. In a religious society like that of Jesus’ day, his tomb most certainly would have been enshrined by his followers. Yet this is not the case. It makes sense only if the resurrection took place, since a tomb is meaningless if the occupant has risen.
  18. The account of Josephus. Josephus is an early historian who was not a believer in Christ. In his book The Antiquities, he records the devotion of early Christians and says of Jesus “on the third day he appeared to [his disciples] restored to life.” This is Josephus’ journalistic, historical, unbiased report. Keep in mind that he would have had access to many first-hand eyewitnesses of the resurrection.
  19. The account of Sosthenes. Sosthenes, a Roman historian, accounts the intense persecution of early Christians, whom he calls a “class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition”. By this he is referencing the fact that Christians believe Jesus is God because he came back from the dead.  This “superstition” he describes as “mischievous” because it was against Roman law to have any authority higher than the Emperor. Christians would not obey the Emperor over Jesus, because they believed Christ was the higher authority. This lead to great conflict and persecution. In other words, Sosthenes understood that Christians were convinced that Jesus had risen from death to the point that they were willing to pledge their allegiance to him even if it cost them their lives.
  20. The account of Pliny the Younger. Pliny, who was a prominent governor, wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan in 111 AD which recorded his investigation into the Christian movement. Among his findings that Christians would  gather on Sunday to “chant verses alternately among themselves, in honour of Christ as if to God”. Pliny saw that Christians believed Jesus to be God as evidenced by his resurrection on a Sunday.

In short, there is a ton of evidence that point to the historical truth of a risen Jesus. What does it mean? I close with the words of Jesus himself in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Top 10 Rules for Small Group Discussion

small goup
One of the things we do at our midweek youth meetings is break into small groups after the teaching time for discussion and prayer. Here is a top 10 list I put together for my youth leaders to help them make the most of small group time.
  1. The leader must facilitate. All groups have different personalities represented. It is up to the discussion leader to allow those who are quieter a chance to speak while sometimes restraining those who always dominate the conversation. If the leader doesn’t set the tone, then the most naturally outgoing people will rule the entire group.
  2. Set a comfortable atmosphere. Try to be laid back and make everyone feel safe. Use humour and get to know people’s names. Don’t force anyone to speak who doesn’t want to. Group time is especially scary for first-timers, so give them a chance to settle in and observe without having to contribute.
  3. Less talk, more listening. The worst thing a leader can do is talk too much. The leader’s job is not to recap the study time but to help the students think through how it applies to their everyday life. Draw out their thoughts and help them engage the material. The less a leader needs to talk, the better.
  4. Know when to jump in. Inevitably there will be times the leader needs to cut in. Sometimes it is to stop an overly-talkative person. Sometimes it is to get the discussion back on track. Sometimes it is to correct someone’s misunderstanding of the material. Whatever the case, the leader must know when to exercise their authority.
  5. Encourage. Letting students know they are on the right track or thinking well is a good thing. Commend their contributions and insight. Leave them feeling good for having shared positively with the group.
  6. Lead by example. Your own thoughts or examples are sometimes needed to get the ball rolling. Also, being respectful and knowing when to laugh and when to be serious will set the tone for the rest of the group.
  7. Be flexible. Sometimes the conversation will veer from the listed questions. Use discretion to let it go that way if the conversation is still helpful. Remember that the questions are a guide, but the let the conversation develop naturally.
  8. Ask open-ended questions. Questions that require a yes/no or right/wrong answer stunt conversation. Ask open-ended questions and feel free to get a student to expand on an answer for clarification.
  9. Pray simple. Avoid lengthy and wordy prayers, especially with Junior aged students. When a leader prays, the goal is for a student to hear the simplicity of it and think to themselves “I can do that!”
  10. Follow up. Some things said in group should be followed up on. It might be in the form of encouragement, instruction, inquiry, or discipline. But it is good for students to know that we care about them inside and outside of youth settings.

Cupcake Day & Discussion Recap

Every Thursday I visit one of our local high schools to help run a student ministry called ISCF (Inner School Christian Fellowship). For the last three years we have put on an event called Cupcake Day where, during lunch, we give away hundreds of free cupcakes to the students and staff. This past Tuesday we gave away 1,300 cupcakes during the 45 minute lunch period…awesome! It’s such a great way to make someone’s day a little brighter and show the love of Jesus in a simple, practical, and enjoyable way.

Along with free cupcakes, we handed out a flyer inviting people to our Thursday ISCF meeting which was scheduled to be an open discussion on the topic of the afterlife. I thought I would jot down a few thoughts from that discussion today and share them for whoever is curious to know what went down. Here are a few things I noticed.

Everyone loves free food. We gave away free cupcakes on Tuesday and for our meeting today we gave away free pizza. Not the healthiest of food giveaways, but everyone seems to love it anyways. Hey, who says ministry can’t be fun?

There is a lot of diversity in beliefs. Obviously on a world-wide scale, religious views are all over the map. But even in a smaller school of about 900 (do the cupcake math…yup, more than 1 per student) there was a good variety of opinions about the afterlife. Views included heaven and hell, reincarnation, purgatory/place of the departed, and annihilationism (once you’re gone, you’re gone). So the discussion was lively and varied, which made for great conversation.

You’d be surprised at some people’s insight. I’ll be the honest one to say that a lot of Christians believe in their own views so strongly that they assume others who disagree are simply naive. This was shown not to be the case. In fact, those who differ from Christian views at today’s discussion were able to articulate their beliefs clearly and confidently. I think this surprised some of the church-going teens.

Apologetics is important! Apologetics (the practice of defending one’s faith logically) is a skill that every Christian should grow. If you truly believe your faith is the truth, as pretty much any Christian would confess, then you should be able to show how it makes sense to other people. Our young, Christian students gave this a stab with mixed results. Some were able to defend the Christian view well while others struggled to back up their points with logic or evidence. We will have to work on this 🙂

The focus needs to be Jesus. My role in the discussion was as moderator, so I never injected any of my own thoughts into the conversation (though at times I really wanted to!). What I found was that the Christian students missed a few key opportunities to bring the topic back to Jesus. His resurrection and teachings were not mentioned, although the Bible was referenced. I was waiting for a student to say something like “Our opinions don’t really matter, because none of us have ever experienced the afterlife. So let’s turn to the one person who has tasted death and came back – Jesus – to see what he had to say about it.” It didn’t happen, unfortunately, but that’s okay. I will have a chance to follow up with our students and help them see where they can improve.

The discussion rages on. The students really want to continue the conversation, so we will do it again next Thursday. I’m hoping to see an extra degree of thoughtfulness and some provoking questions. I’m glad that the conversation was respectful and no one stormed out of the room offended. So next week we’ll get back at it and see where it goes. Please pray for our young believers as they try to be faithful witnesses. It’s a tough gig and they are pretty new at it. But God can use anything to grow his Kingdom and open the eyes of the lost.

The Power of an Organized Youth Leader

This post also appears on the great youth ministry blog morethandodgeball.com.
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One of the joys of working with youth is how spontaneous and creative the ministry can be. It feels so free flowing and easy going. Most youth pastors cherish this aspect of the ministry, but there is another side that a lot of us youth leaders fear and struggle with: administration.

The stereotype for youth leaders and youth pastors is that they are wild, free-for-all types who lack organizational skills. Often, this stereotype is closer to the truth than we’d like to admit. Yet this is unfortunate because there is power in being organized. Some examples from Scripture come to mind. Joseph’s knack for planning caused Egypt to become the most powerful nation on earth. Nehemiah organized the impressive construction project of rebuilding the walls in Jerusalem. Paul led a network of churches that spanned hundreds of miles even before the days of technology. None of these great feats could have been accomplished with a leader who was disorganized.

I know that organization is a skill that comes easily for only a handful of people. But it is something we all must address. An organized youth leader is able to accomplish more because he/she is on top of things. Events go more smoothly because they are well prepared for. Less students fall through the cracks because we can track their participation. Growth is easier to measure. Volunteer leaders become more dependable because they are not always frustrated. Students are better cared for because you know where they are at. Teaching is more well-rounded because you have a scope and plan for your material. There is a whole host of benefits to being well organized.

If you are not very good at being organized, you need to learn from or delegate to someone who is. It is too important a skill to be careless with. Here is a list of questions to help you get thinking about being organized:

  • Is your event schedule planned at least three months in advance?
  • Do your volunteers have job descriptions?
  • Do you have mission, vision, and value’s outlined on paper?
  • Are you keeping track of attendance?
  • Do you have a way of contacting parents at a moments notice?
  • Are you aware of exactly how much money you’ve spent from your budget, and on what?
  • Have you set any short and long term goals?
  • Are you keeping track of your Bible teaching so that you can confidently say you are teaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27)?

Hopefully these questions will give you an idea of where you need to improve organizationally. It might feel at first like the task is too daunting, but the truth is that once you do the hard work of putting the right systems in place, being organized is a lot more enjoyable than winging it all the time. It is freeing. So get organized and get ‘er done!

Three Views of Church

In North America there typically seems to be three ways people view church in relation to culture. Having only three categories may be oversimplifying it, but the more simple we break it down, the easier it is to see the differences.

View 1: Church as a Bomb Shelter

This view sees the primary purpose of a church as keeping God’s people unstained by the world. A Bomb Shelter church is one that is inwardly focused. It sees the culture as full of filth and desires to keep it outside the walls of the church. Most Bomb Shelter churches have been around for a long time, but they usually haven’t seen a ton of growth. It feels to some people like a Christian club. The Bomb Shelter church often is old fashioned and loves tradition. It is slow to change and sees other churches that go “contemporary” as sell outs. They teach sound doctrine and emphasize living a holy life.

View 2: Church as a Mirror

This view is pretty much the opposite as the Bomb Shelter. Rather than going against the culture, the Mirror church flows with it. They believe that in order to reach new people, new methods are necessary. They attempt to assimilate, or mirror, the culture around them in order to seem more relevant to non-church goers. A Mirror church sometimes holds loosely to doctrine and tradition. They use technology and terms that are up-to-date. A heavy emphasis on social relief is present and the pastor preaches like a storyteller.

View 3: Church as a Missional Outpost

This view sees the church as existing within culture in order to transform culture. A Missional Outpost church mixes historical Christian doctrine with current methodology. They view every church member as a missionary, and the purpose of the church is to gather and train it’s people in order to send them back into the culture to reach and transform it for Christ. In this view, culture is not the enemy, nor is it to be copied, but it is the mission field to be reached.

Which View is Correct?

Again, knowing these descriptions are overly generic and stereotypical, I would still put forth that a Missional Outpost model is the best approach. It is, to me, the view that best reflects the church portrayed in the Bible. One verse to highlight is Ephesians 4:12, which states that leaders are given to churches to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry”. This means that every Christian is seen as a missionary to be trained for ministry work. The purpose of church is to gather and equip them in order to send them back out to their families, workplaces, and communities and bring the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The ministry of Paul seems to be the same. His strategy was to go into a city, learn the culture, preach the gospel, start a new church by establishing leadership, and then move on to the next city to do the same thing there. Then, each church was charged with reaching the lost in their own community. This is essentially how Christianity has spread across the world for roughly 2000 years. I say, let’s keep the trend going!