Almost everything about a mission trip stretches youth toward growth, which is why I continue to find value in them. They stretch me too.

Sleeping on a floor stretches one’s ability to endure discomfort, just as sitting with a homeless person and listening to their story stretches one’s understanding of success and one’s assumptions about their own future.

Sharing simple meals tugs at one’s stomach, while trying to lead a class of 30 swearing fourth graders pulls one’s patience to near breaking.

Words like “solidarity” stretch your notions of help and service and make you wonder how you might need to change in order to justify your time spent doing things “for” the needy.

Here’s the thing, though. Comfort is relative. The teenager who volunteers at a food bank today may be receiving food bank donations back home. Many youth on mission trips know all too well how needy people live; they don’t require a trip to an inner city in another state to show them hunger or abuse or isolation.

Yet they show a remarkable ability to endure mission trip-type strain and to grow beneath your nose, moving in every challenge toward a vision of the just and the good and toward a future where they are the agents who bring that about.

Thank God for the strain and the stretch.

The Wheels on The Bus

11 teams of five fanned out across the Mile High City yesterday on foot, bus, and train to pull weeds, play with children, clean sheds, serve food, and set to work on just about anything else they were asked to do.

One day down. Three to go.

The public transit piece of this experience has already proved very significant to our learning. I sat on a west Denver bus yesterday afternoon with four youth from Southern California who had never ridden public transit. One student is certain that nobody back home where he lives takes the bus. I live there. I ride the bus.

Riders piled on as the bus made its way downtown. A man boarded with a woman in a wheelchair and two small children and sat next to one of our youth. He then began to curse without ceasing. The youth sat frozen.

A woman shouted updates about her sobriety and her upcoming court date into her phone for the whole bus to hear. Our youth looked straight ahead.

A car cut off our bus, and our driver honked and honked and honked in retribution. At the next stoplight, she swore at the driver. Youth’s mouths open.

Wherever you live, you should get on the bus and see who’s there and what you might learn.

I was wrong

Yesterday our work trip team travelled by plane to Denver. Kids arrived at LAX at 5:30 am and spent the day comporting themselves like champs. Flight? Champs. Bus ride? Champs. Walk into downtown? Champs. Project orientation? Champs. Bedtime? Well, you can’t win ’em all.

I have been insisting for three months that nobody check a bag on our flight, an insistence almost completely honored by youth and adult leaders who crammed six days worth of clothes, a sleeping bag, pillow, mat, and toiletries into carry-on bags and backpacks. I desperately wanted to avoid checking on 51 suitcases.

I was wrong to insist on that. Check in was smooth as butter (kudos, Southwest), but our glut of carry-ons made boarding a nightmare. Poetically, my bag couldn’t fit and had to be checked.

So we’re underway, and I’ve already learned an important Mission trip lesson: don’t fear the checked bag.

You know what though? My fellow leaders and our youth we’re exceedingly gracious.

Leader makes us do something unnecessarily taxing and then is shown definitively to have been wrong, but we don’t give him a word of grief about it?


Miscellany Before The Mission Trip

The binder for liability waivers has gaping holes in it that we’re patching with trust that teenagers will bring those forms with them to one of the busiest airports in the world at 5:30 in the morning.

Me: “Pack for a week, including a sleeping bag, pillow, and towel, using only a carry-on suitcase and backpack. No checked luggage. It can be done.” But if it can’t, what watery chaos promises to descend upon us?

The breakup of 44 youth from seven different churches into smaller working groups must meet specific criteria. Joey and Sarah do NOT get along, and Steven won’t do any work if he’s not with Brian.

The instructions for meeting the charter bus at our arrival airport are hieroglyphics.

18 pizzas await for dinner hours after our arrival, half pepperoni, half tomato. They will murder me for this. Drinks as yet unplanned.

The carrot we’re dangling is a trip to the amusement park on the final day. The blade hiding in that carrot is that we must walk a mile to get there.

Short term mission trips are either exercises in self-congratulation and colonialism or transformative experiences for teens that open them up to long-term relationships and vocational direction.

Stop Not Talking About Jesus in Public

A group in our church is working through this tool for exploring a new worshiping community (“new worshiping community” is what we used to call “new church development”). It wants to ground any exploration of a new worshiping community in the identity of the people discerning it–their experience of God and the way they talk about who Jesus is for them–because those will be the foundation of whatever is being built. For many of us in mainlineish churches, this is a high, high hurdle right out of the gate.

Even with all of the requisite qualifications implied in the prepositional phrase “for me,” and even when taking every precaution to avoid being coercive, many of us get stuck trying to articulate our personal experience of God’s love and our sense of who Jesus is.

It is almost baked into the DNA of mainline American Christianity to take seriously the demands of a pluralistic environment and to respect the views of others by not pushing our private religious convictions in a public space. This is a great strength; mainline Christians are, as a rule, highly committed to activities like interfaith dialogue and community service for their own sake and without any expectation of conversion.

But I wonder if we haven’t set up a false choice between engaging the public sphere respectfully and talking about our faith. I wonder if we haven’t uncritically accepted a relegation of religion to the private sphere of our lives to the point that we simply don’t know how to talk about it outside the walls of our church–and very often not inside those walls either.

How do we fix this? Who do you know who does this well? How do you talk to people about Jesus when you’re not at church?

Or do you?

Rob Bell And The X-Files

John Vest got to see Rob Bell last nightAdam Walker Cleaveland heard him at the National Youth Worker’s Convention. Chad Andrew Herring used Bell’s Nooma videos for youth groups.

Bell was a household name a couple of years ago after he published a book saying that “Love Wins” and everybody gets to go to Heaven, a book that saw him definitively ousted from the inner circle of evangelicalism. For a while there, everybody and their Associate Pastor had an opinion about Rob Bell.

This is not a post about Rob Bell, though. This is a post about skipping a phenomenon simply because it is a phenomenon and whether that’s a good or bad quality in a leader.

I never read a Rob Bell book. I never used Nooma. I’ve never been to one of his events, and I’ve never weighed in on the controversies that surround him. And that’s almost entirely because Bell attracted so much attention. I didn’t jump on board because the boat was already really full, and I fancy myself more of a kayak person.

It’s the same reason I never saw The Passion of The Christ when it was the talk of every church and every talk show.

I used to hold a superior kind of posture towards phenomena like these, as if I was occupied with more serious matters and couldn’t be bothered to read Harry Potter or get into The X-Files or start listening to Kanye West. But I wasn’t really.

I realize now it’s more about fear, fear that, having once experienced the thing that everybody is raging about, I’ll need to have an opinion about it, and the requirement to hold an opinion makes me nervous. People will ask what I think, and I better have an answer. Better to just skip the whole thing and feign distraction.

That’s just a chump move, right? I mean, people who want to lead meaningful communities can’t just opt out of the things that are on everybody’s minds, can they?

Behold The Teen

I got to talk to Mark Oestreicher of The Youth Cartel yesterday, and he reminded me what I love about ministry with adolescents: the beholding. Marko wants the church to relate to teenagers less as a problem to be solved and more as a wonder to behold.

He immerses himself as much as anyone I know in the literature on adolescent development, including the scientific stuff about brain development. That field of research is far from settled on some pretty important questions about teenagers’ decision making abilities, the propensity towards risk, and all those other quirks that make people in their teens so unique–and challenging.

The standard thesis for a generation has been that the teen brain is problematically malformed or underformed or not-yet-fully-formed. But a new generation of researchers are actually looking at the adolescent stage of human development as one full of wonder and advantages for thriving that we’ve been overlooking.

Behold then the teen. Behold the risk taking. Behold the drama. What gifts are there to make up for what all of our grown up, risk-managed institutions are lacking?

I Blew It, Daughter Stood Tall, And It All Worked Out in The End

My daughter’s bestie went on vacation to Chicago and sent a postcard. It said, “I am in a big city you are great.” It arrived as I was on my way to collect Daughter from dance class, and I retrieved it from the mailbox along with the new issue of Harper’s and then slipped in inside the magazine’s pages.

We had returned home by the time I remembered it. “Oh, Bestie sent you a postcard!” I announced and strode across the room to retrieve it. But it wasn’t there. While Daughter stared blankly at me, I flipped through the magazine, held it by its spine and shook it, but nothing was in there. It had fallen out. I lost Daughter’s postcard from her best friend.


I swallowed hard and admitted that I had lost it. I apologized. I told her what the postcard said. She smiled and said, “That’s okay.”


Then the postcard made a return appearance in our mailbox over the weekend. Some solid citizen must have found it on the ground and dropped it in a mailbox. It arrived–no joke now–while Bestie was at our house for a playdate.

Sometimes it just works. Even when it doesn’t.

Should Pastors Embrace The Gig Economy? Should Churches?

Side hustle. Freelance project. Gig: the way pastors talk about our work is changing in ways that reflect the changes happening in the workforce our congregants are navigating. Long-term jobs are disappearing and many people are turning to Uber and Airbnb as a way to make money independently.

People like Seth Godin are preaching the opportunities hiding in those changes for workers who have ideas and can overcome their fear of failure or of not being picked. I’m convinced by that argument, and my work has changed appreciably in light of it.

But not everybody is buying it, at least not without some caveats. Hillary Clinton expressed concerns this week over traditional worker protections in an employment landscape where more and more of the tools a worker uses to make money for a company are paid for by the worker, and with no benefits to speak of. I’m concerned about that too.

What reservations ought pastors and churches to have about embracing this move toward independence in work? One comes to mind right away. The nature of an installed pastoral relationship has as much to do with the congregation as it does the pastor. It provides protections for the pastor (especially in a Presbyterian system, where congregations can’t simply fire their installed pastors but must ask the presbytery to dissolve the relationship), but it also protects the congregation too–pastors can’t just quit. The presbytery has to dissolve the relationship from our end as well.

Last Sunday the congregation I serve approved changes to my terms of call that make my role there 3/4 time, so that I can take on a 1/4 quarter time role doing new ministry development work with our presbytery. I know that causes anxiety for some, but mostly I’m hearing a sense of support and collaboration; the congregation feels like my new work is its work too (envy is an appropriate response here).

That’s the piece, I think, that is missing in the gig economy, some sense that my work not only matters to a community larger than myself but is also owned and claimed by it too.

You Have A Name

I had a conversation with someone recently in which the person addressed me by name repeatedly. Every time he did it, I snapped to attention. I even started to feel self-conscious.

I was being called by name, and it changed the nature of our conversation. It changed me–from some vague entity on the other end of a chat line into a human being with a name.

Try this in your conversations today. At least once in every conversation, address the person you’re speaking to by name. See what it does for them.

I bet it will be good.

(h/t to Ashley Goff and God of The Sparrow)


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