Monday Morning Quarterback

Monday Morning Quarterback

Stuff I learned on Sunday

There was an altar call during worship at the youth retreat, and I was totally okay with it. That’s a change for me. Here’s how it went down.

The preacher was a woman from a Spanish-speaking Presbyterian church where altar calls must happen all the time. Her sermon built up to a time where she invited students (vaguely at first, but with increasing urgency) to “surrender” to God to “step forward,” and even to “kneel.” A couple of students, the ones from the preacher’s church, did exactly that. And it was fine. But you could tell the preacher was used to more of a response than this and was discouraged. She invited the music leader to come up and play some music while she reiterated the invitation a couple more times. He did, but nobody else moved. Finally, the preacher said “Amen,” docked the microphone, and sat down. The students looked around, then sat.

The music leader cleared his throat and looked apologetically at the preacher. “I’m sorry,” he said, “But I just need to add something here.” He noted that several students seemed to be confused about what they had been invited to, that many seemed to him to want to respond but nervous about how. So he carefully reissued the invitation in terms that teens from mostly white Presbyterian churches could understand.

“We Presbyterians like to live in our heads,” he explained. “We work from the inside out. But it also works the other way around. Taking physical steps can get our heart in a different place.” He told them he would play another song and that they had a “second chance” at taking a step of commitment to God by walking up to the front and allowing their peers and pastors to surround them and pray for them.

He’d hardly begun playing before students were moving. I stepped out of my seat to join another adult leader in receiving them. She knelt. I stood. We placed our hands on students’ shoulders. She whispered prayers for them. After a few minutes I noticed several students crowding behind me, so I turned around and offered to pray for them. Yes, they wanted that. The song ended and everybody sat back down without any air of awkwardness or embarrassment.

Time was when this would have rattled me and I would have participated very hesitantly as a careful observer and analyst rather than as a leader. I’ve got issues with alter calls from my childhood church and college evangelistic rallies where coercion and guilt reigned to everybody’s detriment. But this was careful and sensitive. I know the people who were leading it, and I trust them.

Also, youth need moments like this. Adults need moments like this, where we are invited to say “Yes” and to take a concrete physical step right now, right here, in response to God. This has been a major blind spot in my pastorate. Thanks to a group of friends and colleagues from diverse churches and the immovable youth retreat, something about that is changing.

Other yorocko youth retreat posts:

Ownership: The Annual Youth Retreat Post

The Ecstacy And The Agony of The Youth Retreat Revisited

The Ecstacy And The Agony of The Youth Retret

Youth Ministry

Ownership: The Annual Youth Retreat Post

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Last weekend was the annual youth retreat run by our regional camp and conference center. This was the third one I’ve taken students to (read my posts about the first two retreats here and here). After wrestling with the message and the atmospherics of these retreats for two years, this year I was much more focused on the mechanics of who was in charge and how they related to my students.

The Director of this year’s camp was returning from last year, and he was just as impressive. He’s energetic without being silly, thoughtful without being professorial, and in control without yelling. The unifying theme he prepared and the graphic that tied it together all weekend was relevant and interesting. Seriously, I’m a fan.

The thing I appreciate most about this retreat, like the last one, is the self-directed nature of what students are asked to do. There’s a central Biblical text driving the weekend, but smaller cabin groups led by adult counselors take ownership of a small part of that text in order to explore it with depth and then share their learning with all their peers.

[The unifying text was Colossians 3:12-14. My cabin group (8th-11th grade boys) chose to wrestle with “meekness.” Think about that for a minute.

What they found and shared will certainly stick closer to them than anything any speaker could have told them. Of that I’m confident.]

It’s the students’ ownership of their own learning at these retreats that is producing my one nagging . . . critique? The substance of it is this: as a person with a high level of ownership in my relationships with these students, I want more ownership of their retreat experience.

Tell me if this is bad. It suddenly feels off to me that the people pulling the levers of the retreat experience are young adult youth workers and musicians who don’t know the students–mostly (many of the students have been to the retreat or to summer camp before). They don’t know them at the start of the weekend, and since the heavy small group lifting is born by small group leaders (the students’ pastors and youth leaders), they don’t really get to know them by the retreat’s end.

Here’s what I’m feeling: it would be a good move to either involve more of the pastors and youth leaders from the churches sending students in the conception and planning of the retreat. It would also be a good move to structure the event to force more interaction between youth and these dynamic, smart, compelling young adult leaders.

Retreats are a valuable supplement to my Christian formation program. I want my students taught by people other than me. I want them interacting with peers from far away. Part of my un-ease feels like a lost opportunity–either for my kids to really get to know the paid staff leaders or for their pastors to inform more of what they do at the retreat.

What do you think? Which is more valuable: the exposure to new adult teachers and leaders or a program designed by the people who know students best?


Monday Morning Quarterback

Monday Morning Quarterback

Note: Monday Morning Quarterback is a weekly post reviewing Sunday, the busiest, most stressful, most gratifying day in the week of a pastor/parent/spouse/citizen.

Song of the Day:


6:20. Awake to the sound of snoring from a junior high student in the bunk above me. Ahh, the spring youth retreat.

6:58. Switch off the alarm two minutes before it’s set to ring. Take that, technology.

7:02. Out of bed, testing the ankle I tweaked exhibiting my Elway-esque spiral skills to a crowd of adoring youth the day before. Ouchouchouch!

7:07. Put on the most wrinkled flannel ever. Camp attire, man.

8:15. Talking with another pastor I met here as we wait for breakfast. He tells me he wrote a doxology to a Lady Gaga tune and has seen the Pet Shop Boys in concert five times. I am much less cool than I’ve been giving myself credit for.

9:36. Youth covertly dumps a gallon of Tobasco into unsuspecting compatriot’s drinking glass. Compatriot gets three healthy gulps down before the fire hits him. Gasping. Coughing. Laughing. My gawd, the laughing.

10:44. Sitting through retreat’s closing talk. Resolve to revisit my two year-old blog post about youth retreats.

10:53. Fist-bumping my students as they offer closing reflections to about 50 of their peers. Confronting my terrible tendency to underestimate my students.

11:03. Serving communion with another pastor here. Unnecessarily adding words: “This cup is the new covenant–the new relationship, the new arrangement–between you and God. And it’s sealed–completed, made real–in my blood–in my life.” You know, because the words of institution are . . . incomplete?

12:53. As the dining hall clears after lunch, three students stand looking out the window and shifting anxiously. Suddenly, they erupt with cheers, and then check to see who’s watching them. I guess immediately that they’re applauding two of their peers who are kissing outside. Momentarily lose my breath as my first kiss flashes before my memory. It was a hurried event behind the transformer box at Mrachek Middle School. Now you know.

12:54. Kissing youths return to the dining hall to the applause of their peers. Breath back. Memory gone. Mad.

2:23. After withholding phones from students for almost 48 hours, I return them for the drive home on the condition that they use their internet connection to tell me the start time of KU’s NCAA tournament game. They happily oblige.

2:34. Twisting and turning down the mountain. Student in the back with a history of vomiting en route to youth retreats asks me to take the turns a little more slowly. Practically slam on the brakes. Whatever you say, man. Just don’t hurl on me, okay?

2:57. The car is quiet. Everyone’s asleep.

3:02. Student behind me surveys eastern Los Angeles county and concludes, “It’s good to be back in the city.” Nod in agreement.

3:37. Back home. Wife texts that she and daughter, along with visiting sister-in-law and 11 year-old nephew and niece, is going to a movie at 4. Turn on the KU game and settle in for some badly needed alone time.

4:56. Trying to take advantage of the rare chance for a Sunday afternoon nap. Failing. Making coffee instead.

6:02. Fidgety. Too much time alone. Need family to get home. How long is this movie, anyway?

6:30. Family returns home. Blissfully happy.

7:24. Nephew showing me a YouTube video about Space Unicorns while I chop lettuce. Wonder what my knife would do to his iPod.


8:43. Making plans for tomorrow’s outing to the beach. In under three minutes, wife has bags packed with towels, sunscreen, and assorted reading materials.

9:13. Inflating air mattresses for nephew and niece. Happier by the minute they’re here.

9:55. In bed, composing Monday Morning Quarterback while wife scrolls through Pinterest on the iPad. Domestic bliss.





Youth Ministry

The Ecstacy And The Agony of The Youth Retreat Revisited

About a year ago I wrote a post that openly fretted about the prospects for students in mainline, progressive congregations to have an experience of camp-based youth retreats that didn’t feel completely out of step with the theology and worship of their home church.

We’ve just returned from our annual experience with the retreat that gave rise to that post, and I want to diverge from my series on Diana Bulter-Bass’s new book to revisit the things that felt funny to me about church camp a year ago.


However positive our students’ experience of the last retreat, their experience of this one seemed even better. The stock and trade of the church youth retreat is so for a reason, because those mixers, songs, and games have a proven track record of helping students make connections and feel comfortable. The staff at this retreat did those things proficiently and with characteristic gusto. I watched with admiration.

The retreat was structured around the beatitudes, and the staff very creatively helped small groups of students choose one with which to spend the weekend. Our students talked at length and in depth, guided by their volunteer adult counselors, about the blessedness of meekness, purity of heart, and poverty of spirit. I’m good right there. Full stop.

But on top of that the staff and counselors led students both in presenting their beatitude to their peers in a creative way and in “sharing” what significance the beatitude had gained for them. What struck me about this was how open-ended the process was and how unresolved many of the outcomes were. The students who presented on “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for example, did a skit that followed two brothers who lose their mother, get disowned by their father, become criminals, and end by wondering if God cares about them at all.

The whole thing allowed for a posture of honest questioning and exploration without expected “Jesus-y” answers. In fact, with the ideas of Christianity After Religion ringing in my ears, the whole thing seemed to be after “how” students believe these beatitudes much less than “what” they believe about them. I was totally digging it.

As for the songs and the King-Jesus-God talks and the altar calls, I’m kind of over my dis-ease. Those things are the wheelhouse of church camp, and if you have a problem with those things then you kind of have a problem with camp. There are better and worse ways to do those things, for sure, but church camp is evangelicalism’s undisputed terrain, so if you’re going to get bent over an guitared avalanche of “Hims” and no hymns then you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.

That battle might be worth fighting at the youth retreat, but immersion in the conventions of a different expression of Christianity than my students are used to is a benefit that I think outweighs the cost of screwy pronouns.

For my part, I was primarily a parent of a four year-old at the retreat and not a counselor, so please excuse this gratuitous exhibit of cuteness.