Ministry Journey Blog

Thoughts on Ministry

30 Aug

Online Article-Making Mission Trips Meaningful for Parents and Families

Posted in Uncategorized on 30.08.12 by Merlyn

Published at Youthworker Online (A part of Youthworker Journal)

Read the online article here

Making Mission Trips Meaningful for Parents and Families

The impact of a mission trip in the life of a student never ceases to amaze me. If I am honest, every mission trip I lead also has an impact on my own life. There is something so powerful in serving others that I often feel guilty for getting more out of serving than I feel like I give. Over the years I have learned a lot from leading mission trips, more often from mistakes I make and stealing the good ideas of others rather than my own creative insights or brilliant revelations. In fact, I am not sure I could name one. I have found that one of the great gifts I can give a student, their family and the church I serve is to do things that make the mission trip experience meaningful for parents (and families) as they send their students off on this adventure with me. Here are some things that I have done over the years that have enhanced the mission trip experience for parents and families.

Practice #1: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

I tend to be an over communicator and while that can be annoying to some, many parents are appreciative of this aspect of my personality, especially when it comes to mission trips. Our mission trip process starts with information meetings, which anyone who would like to go on the trip must attend with a parent. This expectation alone has not only enhanced my relationship with parents and made the mission trip more meaningful for all, but it also has prevented a lot of stress and headaches. In addition to our informational sessions, I make sure to send regular email communication about the mission trip to parents. This includes giving parents a copy of the itinerary and the packing list at the very least two weeks ahead of the trip, but in most cases three to six weeks before the trip. After the trip, I make sure to send out a follow up email so everyone knows about the expectations, events and other follow up that happens after the trip.

Practice #2: The Follow-up Breakfast

Teenagers are notorious for the lack of information they share with parents. I had one student refuse to tell their parents anything about the mission trips for months after the trip. In fact, I had to tell the student that I would ban them from any future trips if they did not talk about the mission trip with their parents. Every summer I have a breakfast where we invite parents (and depending on the church, the whole congregation) to come and hear about the mission trip. I usually prepare a simple slide show and have some youth (and occasionally adult leaders) share about the mission trips from that summer while also sharing a few words myself. Parents are always thankful to see and hear about the mission trip experience from the perspective of their youth as well as others. The great thing about doing this is it is very little work for a lot of return.

Practice #3: The Prayer & Packing Meeting

One practice I stumbled upon due to my own need to plan is what we call the prayer and packing meeting. For every mission trip, the youth and adults going gather the night before we leave. During this time, parents come with their youth and the youth bring their luggage (except maybe for their pillow and personal bag for the ride/flight) to the church. After checking all the bags (for size or weight depending on whether we are flying, driving or both), we load the bags up in the vehicles we will be using the next morning. Then we share a time of meeting and worship. We cover final details, answer questions, and hand out emergency numbers. Then we spend some time in prayer and pray for those going on the trip by inviting parents and family members to come and lay hands on the youth going on the trip. It is a very meaningful send off. We then share communion before disbursing. It is not only a meaningful experience; it’s a gift to parents in another way. It prevents the late evening (or 1:00am) argument between parents and their youth when the procrastinator packing has not started and the parent is running to Wal-Mart to get deodorant. I remember one parent thanking me for this evening when I first came to the church stating, “this is the least stressful day before the mission trip we have ever had.” Sometimes it is the small stuff that has the greatest impact on parents.

Practice #4: Letters

A meaningful tradition for youth, families and friends is to have families and friends of youth going on the trip write secret letters of encouragement to them. Every year I ask parents to help provide 2-4 letters (without their youth knowing) to give them just past the halfway point of the trip. This is always an emotional and powerful experience as I give the letters to students and give them some time and space to read the letters from home. Parents have very little opportunity to tell their children how they fell, especially when they are teenagers. Most of our students have no idea how their parents really feel about them, so reading a heartfelt letter from home is always meaningful and has a great impact on students, parents and families. I have seen siblings moved in powerful ways just by being able to write a letter to their brother or sister. One of the most powerful experiences with this tradition came on one mission trip where I got word that a student’s grandfather had died. I shared the news with the student who was heartbroken. The next evening I passed out the letters as usual, knowing that one of the letters this student was going to receive was from his grandfather who had passed away. Word cannot express the power of that moment for the student and his family.

While none of these practices are complicated or deeply profound, they can have a powerful impact on your youth, parents and families. Thinking carefully about how to involve parents and families in the mission trip experience will not only enhance the mission trip experience, but it will also serve parents in a way that will benefit your ministry more than you might ever realize.

Rev. Marcus J Carlson has worked with children and youth for over 14 years and is a spiritual director. He current serves as Associate Pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, CO. (

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25 Aug

A Theology of Suffering for the Family

Posted in Uncategorized on 25.08.12 by Merlyn

Published in Connections Magazine (Sept/Oct 2012)

Learn about Connections here

A Theology of Suffering for the Family

by Marcus J. Carlson

Nobody enjoys suffering, and our human nature avoids it. One of the great failures of the American church is our lack of a theology of suffering. For a faith that hinges on the greatest torture device in the history of the world—the cross—we do not know how to think, talk about or embrace suffering. For a people who seek to follow Jesus Christ—who embraced suffering for us—we often assume that His suffering means that we should not have to suffer.

Suffering is a reality of life that cannot be avoided. As Lutherans, our love for the cross, for Lent and for other symbols of suffering should lead us to a more thoughtful theology of suffering, but this is often not the case.

As followers of Christ, our entire faith hinges on the life of a man, Jesus Christ, who embraced suffering, not for the sake of suffering, but out of love for us all. Jesus did not shy away from suffering; instead, He embraced it.

Additionally, Jesus calls all of His disciples to “take up [their] cross daily” as they follow Him. Our churches and our families desperately need a theology of suffering that is consistent with our faith and the reality of suffering. Pain avoidance has become high in value in both our culture and our churches, but it is not a value consistent with Scripture and the story of God’s people. It is not consistent with the life and message of Christ.

As a parent, I do not want my children to be in pain. Many times I wish I could take their pain on myself so that they do not have to experience it. In this way, I catch a tiny glimpse

of the love of God for all people. Parents often want to fix things for their children. We want to find solutions to their problems and help them avoid pain. While these intentions are good, we must stop, think and reflect carefully (and theologically) about the role and nature of suffering in the lives of our children, youth, families and churches.

Suffering is a reality we are called to embrace by the words and life of Christ. Our children and youth desperately need to learn and have modeled for them a theology of suffering. Our children and youth need to learn how to deal with suffering so that when they face it as adults, they can be drawn closer to God.

We cannot put our efforts into ignoring suffering, expecting our children and youth to face it alone. Nor should we try to avoid or fix the suffering in the lives of our children. Instead, we need to find a way to teach them about suffering, and help them to embrace it as we walk with them through their times of suffering. As I work through my own theology of suffering, particularly when it comes to children and youth, I try to keep the following five key points in mind.

No suffering is too great for our God

Talking about suffering is very difficult, especially when in the midst of it. We know in our hearts and minds that there is no amount of suffering that is too great for our God. In the midst of suffering, it can be hard for us to embrace this reality. When thinking about suffering, and when helping our children and youth, we must remind them of the power and love of God. Our children and youth need to know that they do not have to walk alone in the midst of their suffering.

No suffering will ever be as painful as the suffering of Christ
Our own suffering often feels so significant that we think nobody can fully understand how much we are hurting. The nature of pain is usually overwhelming, and suffering creates a sense of loneliness in us. It even caused Jesus to cry out, asking the Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” While comparison is often the basis of all unhappiness—and comparison can be especially dangerous in the midst of suffering—perspective is crucial.

No amount of suffering that we will face as human beings will ever be as painful as the suffering of Christ. The amount of suffering Christ endured, not only on the cross, but in His life and ministry as well, will always be more significant than anything we will face. Part of the beauty of the cross is that Jesus embraced the worst of suffering and rejection so that we would not have to. The cross does not rid the world of suffering, but it does change our experience with suffering.

No suffering is the end of the story

God has written the most beautiful love story that can ever be told, and yet it’s a love story that is also filled with pain and suffering. God’s story continues to be written in our lives and in the world, and God’s Kingdom is still fully present and unfolding in, around and through us. Suffering is a part of our story; it shapes us in powerful ways, but it does not define us. It is not the end of the story that God is writing in our lives and in the world that He loves.

No Suffering Can escape the power of God’s redemption
Our God is a God who can (and does) redeem all things, making all things new. We believe that God can take any situation and any suffering we face and make it good. Some of the most significant parts of my own faith life have come in the midst and aftermath of suffering. While God does not cause our suffering, God can take our suffering and turn it into good, making all things new. This is the powerful story of redemption we must share with our children and youth as we walk with them through their suffering.

No Suffering Can Separate us from the love of God
Romans 8 reminds us in a powerful way that nothing in the world can separate us from the love of God. While suffering may be a painful, lonely experience, it does not keep us from God’s love. I believe that it is in the midst of suffering we can experience the love of God in the most profound ways. While we may feel a sense of punishment, abandonment or isolation from God in the midst of suffering, it (and any feelings suffering causes in us) cannot separate us from God’s love. Our children and youth need to hear this truth in order to embrace suffering as followers of Jesus Christ.

While suffering is a painful reality of a broken world that we wish were not a reality, God’s redeeming power is bigger than any amount of suffering we will ever face. God speaks to us in the midst of, in spite of and because of suffering. Max Lucado once commented: “The next time that you are called to suffer, pay attention, it may be the closest you ever get to God.”

We know the end of the story: on the other side of suffering is hope and victory. While the cross is an important part of the story that can help us understand, accept and find life in the midst of suffering, the cross is not the end of the story because of Jesus’s victory over death.


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25 Aug

Lutheran Heritage: The Church and Family

Posted in Uncategorized on 25.08.12 by Merlyn

Published in Connections Magazine (July/Aug 2012)

Learn about Connections here

Lutheran Heritage: The Church and Family

by Marcus J. Carlson

It is easy to lose sight of our Lutheran heritage. After all, there are many other things we must think about in our day-to-day living as followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, Luther himself admonished that we must first consider ourselves Christians and not Lutherans. Today in North America, denominational affiliation is not nearly as significant or important as it was even ten years ago, and certainly not as important as it was 50 years ago.

While these realities are in many ways healthy, it would also be unfortunate to lose sight of our Lutheran heritage and connection. I have come to believe that the best understanding of our denominational connection and heritage is to view our denominational affiliation as a theological home. We are called to be Christ followers first and foremost.

One of the most significant aspects of our Lutheran heritage is baptism. As I think about family ministry, I find that baptism offers a critical picture and perspective of what it means to be a church embracing and supporting family, and focuses on a family model of life and ministry.

For the first time in the history of the church, we have at least six generations coexisting within the church. These six generations are equally important and very unique, and there are important differences in each.

When we think about the church, we must view it as a family. The church is the family of God, adopted by the God of the universe through the love and grace provided through Christ Jesus. We are God’s children, brothers and sisters in Christ. This is more than just an affiliation or a cliché expression, as we recognize we truly are the family of God.

The generational divide in the church can be challenging as each generation fights to find value, meaning and significance in the church. Stereotypes, division, hurt and misunderstanding can be more common than a sense of unity, love, community and understanding in the midst of diversity. We are an intergenerational church, but many times our intergenerational identity is limited to diversity of our membership instead of being an expression of life, worship and community.

We still hold the view that the older members of the church are the ones who fund ministry, while those of middle age lead the various ministries of the church. We assume that the youth and young adults are the labor force and missionaries of the church, while the children are at best seen as consumers to be nurtured—or at the worst, a nuisance.

While this may be true in a practical sense, it is not at all consistent with the Biblical notion of community, church or family. It is not at all the intergenerational expression of the church Christ envisioned, and it falls short of the picture of unity provided by Paul in many of his letters to the early church.

In the midst of our generational diversity we have lost sight of the unity we have in Christ. We have lost sight of our Lutheran heritage of what it means to be the church, the adopted family of Christ that is saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The challenges we face as an intergenerational church in North American are significant, but our potential is far greater than our challenges. We must look to Christ as the source of life, the model of the Christian life and image of what the church is called to be. As Lutherans the answer to these challenges can be found in our theology, understanding and heritage, specifically in our understanding of baptism and the language we use in our baptismal vows and order of service for baptism.

In our baptismal liturgy there are words the pastor, parents, sponsors and congregation share as a part of the baptismal service. These words are rich and intentional. They not only speak volumes about the sacrament of baptism, but also about the nature of God and His church. The parents and the congregation both make promises as a part of this liturgy, and are reminded of the covenant God has with His people.

Our theologically rich baptism liturgy is deeply rooted in the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testament. The parents promise to bring the child up in the Christian faith and the church. The parents commit to teaching their children about the Christian faith, to provide them with the Scripture and to nurture their faith that they might know, trust and love God.

The congregation also shares in a commitment—not only to their own faith in the words of the Apostles Creed, but also to the person being baptized. The congregation welcomes the new member of the family of faith (the adopted family of God to which we all belong), and also promises to provide for their nurture and instruction. Our baptism liturgy reminds us of some very important things about our relationship with God, our families, our church and each other. Our baptismal service provides some beautiful reminders about who God is and who we are as His people and His church. They are a key part of our Lutheran heritage and practice.

There are three things that strike me when I reflect on our baptismal liturgy. First, I am reminded once again that God has a covenant with us, His people. It is a covenant that we did not and cannot earn. It exists only because of who God is, what God has done, is doing and will continue to do. In short, it is not about us. What if we grabbed hold of this piece of our Lutheran heritage and theology and embraced the notion that church is not about what we have done or do, but about who God is?

The second piece of this liturgy that causes me to reflect is found in the promises of the parents of the child (or the adult) being baptized. Here we find a commitment to be connected to the body of Christ, the church, and to be raised in the Christian faith. In this way we are reminded that parents are the spiritual leaders of their children. This language is important. At a recent meeting, I heard a youth minister share that parents were the disciplers of their children based on what the Scripture says. The problem is that this is not accurate to the Scripture and runs counter to our Lutheran heritage and understanding.

The third piece of our baptism liturgy that causes me to stop and reflect provides some clarity to this issue. It is the response of the church during the baptismal service reminding

us about the purpose of the church and the order that God has set up for His community of faith and His people. It is the church that takes ownership for the discipleship of the child. While the spiritual leadership of a child belongs to the parents, it is the community of faith, the church, that is responsible for pointing this child to Christ. Our faith is not an individual effort, rather our faith is something that is learned, expressed and lived out in community. Our liturgy, theology and heritage remind us that the church is the family of God responsible for leading, caring for, and pointing one another to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

What would happen if we began to live out this understanding in our families, our homes, our work, our church and our communities? I suspect that the challenges of being an intergenerational church would fade away and we would not have to worry about attendance, giving, membership or outreach because we would not have church buildings big enough to hold all the people that would love to be a part of a family like that.

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