Ministry Journey Blog

Thoughts on Ministry

15 Apr

Book Review-Sacred Meal by Nora Gallagher

Posted in Uncategorized on 15.04.11 by Merlyn

Book Review

Published on Book Sneeze & Amazon

The Sacred Meal by Nora Gallagher

This book by Nora Gallagher is part of a series on Ancient Practices put together by Phyllis Tickle. In this book, Gallagher examines the nature of communion or Eucharist, which is where the title of Sacred Meal comes from. Having a deep passion for communion I was excited to read this book. Gallagher uses story and deep, honest personal reflection to discuss the various realities of the practice of communion. The term practice is important in this book as Gallagher talks about communion as a practice, highlighting throughout the book the significance of the word practice. Without diving into many of the theological nuances of communion, Gallagher shares her journey and story as she invites all to participate in the sacred meal.

I had high expectations and found myself enjoying the book very much even though there were some pretty disappointing aspects to the book. It was a very easy to read book and I found the stories to be meaningful. Gallagher relies heavily on the use of story in this book, but the stories are not anecdotal in nature, rather they are deeply personal and reflective. Gallagher touches on many of the key aspects and realities of communion, bringing it to life in many refreshing ways. Early in the book, Gallagher admits that she is not dealing with the theology of communion in this piece. This is problematic because it would seem dangerous if not impossible to talk about communion without theology entering the discussion in a significant way. Gallagher does not address theology much, other than to criticize until the later part of the book where theology comes into her writing in a very scattered and inconsistent way. Even though it is an enjoyable read, I am not sure it meets the criteria of examining communion in a way that is consistent with spiritual practices or disciplines. This book is a perfect reflection or devotional on communion, but it does not have the theology, organization or the strength that I had hoped. Overall, I would recommend the book to those interested in the topic of communion, especially those who are looking for a devotional on communion. It offers wonderful stories and powerful quotes. For those looking for a book that looks both at the practical and discursive elements of communion while addressing practice and theology in a meaningful way, you may be disappointed.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Rev. Marcus J Carlson


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08 Apr

Published Article-Power of Youth

Posted in Uncategorized on 08.04.11 by Merlyn

Published in Connections Magazine (May/June 2011)

Learn about Connections here

The Power of Youth

By Rev. Marcus J Carlson

It would be easy to talk about all of the issues surrounding youth, families and youth ministry today. There is no question that the world has changed, and our youth are facing more issues than ever before. The statistics related to youth and families are discouraging, but the stories of the real and often painful lives of our youth are even more disheartening.

It would also be easy to talk about the changing nature of adolescence. There is no question adolescence has changed, and being a teenager is different than it has been. It would be easy to focus on the negative. When it comes to today’s American teenager, there appear to be more negatives than positives. I have great news—even though there is much to be concerned about, there is even more to celebrate.

While the world is in many ways in terrible shape, I have never had more hope in youth ministry than I do today. There are many reasons to celebrate, and there is more potential in youth than perhaps ever before. There is no question in my mind that there is great power in our youth today. God is working in, around and through them—in spite of all of the challenges they face. Here are some of my observations over the years about the power of youth. Celebrate with me— perhaps we all will begin to see these amazing (yet strange) creatures known as teenagers the way that God sees them.

Observation #1:

Jesus is a big fan of youth (and children).

There are several instances in the Gospels where Jesus encounters children. In each case Jesus not only affirms the children, but also encourages us all to be more like them. We forget that Jesus was a youth once Himself. I often think of the story of Jesus leaving his parents to go learn at the temple. We can only hope that if our kids run away, we’ll find them at church! In more than 12 years of youth ministry, I have had countless encounters with youth where I realize the fondness Jesus has for teenagers. In our culture we can easily see youth as a stage to grow out of, a group of strangers to be tolerated or as a culture we reject. These approaches to youth would never enter the mind of the Christ. It may just be the raw authenticity of teenagers that is most like the true character of the Christ.

Observation #2:

Youth have a faith that is more than what we see. They have a great capacity for authenticity and passion in their relationship with Jesus Christ.

It would be easy to assume that youth have an immature faith. If we already assume they are immature in other areas of their life, it is even easier to assume the same about their faith. At the risk of being offensive, in general I have found a deeper faith in youth than in many adults. For youth, faith is generally newer, fresher, deeper and more personal. While they do not express their faith in the way that many adults do, there is far more to their faith than what we are able to see.

I recall a youth weekend at my church several months ago. Prior to my arrival, the church had experienced a lot of pain and turmoil in the area of youth ministry. We had already had one youth weekend since my arrival, and it had gone very well. I wanted this next one to be orchestrated perfectly so the congregation could see the amazing things that were happening in the youth ministry. The weekend went well, but this time around my youth leadership team (made up of 12 youth) told me that I needed to allow them to take the service and lead. I went with their suggestion, but I have to admit I was very nervous. I had no idea what they were going to say. I had forgotten about the depth of their faith. The youth led us all in worship that weekend in a way that changed the whole congregation. Adults of all ages lined up to talk with me after services—many in tears—to share with me how they were moved by our youth. Over and over again, these adults shared with me it was the depth of the faith of our youth that moved them, offering great encouragement in their own faith.

Sometimes as adults we fail to be authentic in our faith. We fear authenticity and see it as immature or inappropriate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Somewhere along the way, we start to believe that following Jesus is about having it all together, or at least pretending we do. Somehow our faith turns into something where we feel the need to pretend, focusing on saying and doing the right things, instead of walking in spirit, truth and authenticity with Jesus. Youth have an amazing capacity for the kind of authenticity we should all aspire to. This authenticity goes hand in hand with their deep, raw passion for life and for faith. This passion is expressed in joy, in doubt, in victory and in pain. Faith is not a set of beliefs, practices or habits; it is a real, passionate relationship with Jesus Christ. Youth remind us of this with their own faith.

Observation #3:

Teenagers are capable of more than we realize.

Hopefully the previous two observations have already highlighted this reality. We assume that youth are just children (while ironically expecting them to act like adults or at least mini-adults), and are limited in what they can do. This assumption leads us to treat youth differently, even looking down on them at times. There is no question that teenagers are complicated, imperfect, unpredictable creatures. How could they not be in the midst of a very complicated time developmentally in every area of their life? They live in a world where the expectations continue to grow while their support systems are falling apart. Even in the midst of these challenges, youth manage to achieve things many adults never could imagine achieving themselves. There are countless stories of youth who are changing the world, doing things we adults often wish we had the courage to do. I look back with great pride on my own career as I remember all of the stories of youth doing ministry in creative and powerful ways that exceeded anything I could have ever dreamed or done myself.

Observation #4:

Youth are truly missional and get what it means to ‘be’ the church instead of just ‘doing’ church.

It is easy in our North American culture to get into the habit of doing church instead of being the church. We can easily concentrate on our church programs, events and ministry instead of focusing on being the church in our community and the world. While programs, events and ministries are great tools to help us be the church, they should not be our focus. Youth understand this, and that is why they are often cynical towards the church—especially when they see us more focused on the institution than the purpose. Youth tend

to be very missional, which means they are focused on the purpose of the church and the need to be about the business of Christ instead of the business of the institution. As adults, we need the help of our youth so we do not lose sight of what really matters when it comes to the church.

Observation #5:

Youth have a greater capacity for compassion than most adults.

Sweeping generalizations like this one may come off as offensive. If that is the case, let me offer my apology and blame it on some of my mentors. The reality is that this statement has proven true throughout my career and I include myself in the adult category here. Something happens in our journey toward adulthood where we become very judgmental and cynical. I wish I could go back to that moment in my own life (if it is a moment), and turn that switch off.

Each time I go on a mission trip or engage with a service project with youth, I see this observation in action. I have also observed this in our schools as well. Youth care deeply about others and the world. They have a raw, genuine ability to demonstrate compassion in a wide variety of settings, and are not nearly as concerned with image and social expectations as they are with compassion and caring. As adults, we often reverse this, limiting our opportunity to demonstrate compassion toward others.

Observation # 6:

The youth are not the future of the church.

I know people mean well when they say it, but every time I hear this, it is more painful than the sound of fingernails scraping across a chalkboard. I often have to catch myself before I respond in an unhelpful way. On a logical plane, certainly youth are the future key leaders and key givers of the church, so I get what people are trying to say. On a theological level, this statement is more than problematic.

The church is a body, an organism and not an institution. This organism is made up of all people of all ages, genders, races and perspectives. There is no generation (or other group) that is solely the past, present or future of the church. When we say youth (or children) are the future of the church, we are saying that someone else (not them) are the present of the church. The youth are the present of the church, and we need them now in the American church more than ever. Our youth should be a part of every aspect of the life of our congregations. We should have a youth on every committee and team within the church, and they should be sharing in the leadership of worship on a regular basis, not just on special weekends.

Observation #7:

Youth have more potential than we can ever know.

Hopefully, I have already made the case for this observation; if not, I would really encourage you prayerfully to think it through. I could offer countless stories here from throughout my career (including my own life story). In the midst of all of the issues facing youth, it can be hard to see the scope of their capabilities. In our attempts to make them good, Christian, contributing members of society, we often overlook the gifts, passions and dreams God has given them—not only for the future, but for the present. We (and our churches) miss out when we do not see and embrace the potential of our youth.

Recently, I had the opportunity to go and visit our partner church in El Salvador for the first time. In addition to being able to meet the three Compassion children our family sponsors, I was able to spend several hours meeting with their youth leaders, along with one of our own youth who came with me. We had a wonderful conversation that was clearly filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. It made me realize what it really means to be a unified church. I saw in their youth leaders and youth a deep passion for God, and unlimited potential in the midst of having very few material possessions.

Our youth and youth leaders are changing their world. They are doing things beyond what most would assume they were capable of, and yet there is more to come. There is more potential to be explored, more ministry dreams to be lived out. There is more that God is going to do in, around and through

them. I cannot wait to see all that God has in store for these youth, and all that He will do through them. I can only begin to imagine what our partnership will look like, and how it will change each of us and our world.

Working with youth has been an honor and privilege for me. They have changed me and taught me much about God. They continue to amaze me and make me proud, but more than that, they humble me. For all of the youth who have engaged in ministry with me over the past 12 years and to all of the youth who will engage with me in the future, I say thank you.

The next time you see that odd-looking teenager in the mall or the grocery store, don’t look with a critical eye. Don’t be confused by their appearance, attitude or even behavior, because in each teenager lies the image of God. God is doing something in their lives, and wants each of us to see them as He sees them and to partner with them to change the world. In each of these teenagers lies power and potential that comes from the very being of God.

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01 Apr

Youth Pastors

Posted in Uncategorized on 01.04.11 by Merlyn

Being a youth worker of any kind (volunteer or paid, a youth minister, director, pastor etc) is not an easy job. There are times where I feel this more than others. I also do not want me or any other youth worker to have a defeatist mentality, so it is a tricky balance.

Lately I have been spending time with a lot of youth workers both in my town and from across the country. It has been wonderful and powerful. I have enjoyed the dialogue and relationships, especially the new ones. I am passionate about youth ministry and I also want to see the whole church move towards a family ministry model in one form or another. I am however very sad to hear some of the painful stories and experiences of my colleagues and partners in ministry. The church can be very difficult. While there are politics everywhere, (see my theology blog) church politics can be especially mean spirited at times, especially towards youth workers. I am thankful that I have not had that experience in my current setting, but sad to hear others who are having it. I have had that experience far too often and as I see others go through it I am realizing a couple things. First, churches need to be kinder towards their youth workers. You do not have to feel bad for them, you can hold them accountable, but you must be realistic and gracious. Many churches wonder why they go through youth workers so often, and yet they do not examine their treatment of those youth workers. Secondly, youth workers need each other. We need to pray for, encourage and support each other. There is no need for us to compete, but there is plenty of need for us to commune.

I have decided to start a youth workers group in my city after many months of wrestling with it. So far the response has been far better than I would have expected. There is a need and I sense if we do this with the right spirit and attitude, amazing things will begin to happen. So far its been all the work of the Holy Spirit and I pray that it would continue. I pray that this would be an amazing thing with much power and that this group would be come the community that God desires it to be.

Remember, be kind to your youth worker, they deserve it no matter what.

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