gospel culture

One thing I’ve learned in the last few years, it’s that creating and maintaining a Gospel culture within a church can be easier said than done. So many things get in the way of the mission of the church (to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world). Egos, pride, passion, personal interest, lack of focus, focusing on the wrong things, etc. all get in the way of creating a church culture where the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the main focus. Both within the church I serve as well as the American Church overall, I have seen so many things step in front of the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

The church I serve has struggled the last few years to transition from an inward focused church (my priorities, my passions, my projects) to an outward focused church (reach the community with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, i.e. a Gospel culture). We have made a lot of progress and are heading the right direction, but there is much work to do. The road has not always been easy, but we are still on the right path.

The American Church has had some obvious potholes in it’s path to having a Gospel centered culture. Most recently, the “fall” of Pastor Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church. Mars Hill was a church that did some incredible things in it’s almost twenty years of ministry, as was Driscoll, unfortunately sky rocketing growth combined with arrogance and ego led to a culture that was no longer Gospel centered and the church’s inevitable collapse.

Both in my church, and the American Church, I have noticed one important fact. Much of the values and priorities of a church can hinge on the lead/senior pastor. My church transitioned pastors a few years ago and we have seen the values of our church shift, in a good way, toward things like outward focus, prayer, affirmation etc. In the global church we’ve seen megachurches rise and fall on the personality, charisma, teaching ability and vision of a single man. So much of the culture within a church depends on the character and integrity of the lead pastor (or ministry leader). A couple quotes from an article I read recently on the collapse of Mars Hill Church…

…a gospel culture is created when the pastor is the most submissive to Jesus in the culture itself. When he models discipleship the most, he will never suffer from creating a toxic culture.
~ Scot McKnight

You need to realize the fact that you are going to reproduce your soul in your church, whether you intend to or not. And if you are sarcastic and defensive and arrogant, that’s going to be reproduced in your people. Your soul, the fruit of the Spirit that’s in your life, your strength and weaknesses as a leader, are going to be reproduced in that church.
~ Rene Schlaepfer

As a ministry leader myself I have learned a lot from our current senior pastor. He is a man that models to our congregation and staff the best qualities of the two quotes above. That is evident in the culture that is slowly appearing within our church. It proves to me that when a leader is loaded with the gospel and a large amount of integrity and heart it changes the people around him or her.

I’ve also learned a lot from guys like Mark Driscoll. I spent the last few years listening to a lot of his messages and paying close attention to the way he led his church. I always have said, “to listen to Mark Driscoll you need to have a lot of spiritual maturity, because he says a lot of great things, but there is also a lot of junk to wade through in the process.” I learned from Driscoll that there are right and wrong ways to lead. Sometimes you are right, and you know you’re right, but the heart behind your message matters just as much as the message itself and has to be evident in the presentation of the message. Even though there were lots of times where Driscoll was right, both publicly through preaching and privately through staff leadership, the heart behind his delivery of the message ruined the message itself. It doesn’t matter if you know where to go if you flatten people on the way there.

I am a ministry leader; even if only part time in a student ministry. Regardless of the level of leadership I have now, or in the future, I don’t want to be known as being right, but an arrogant jerk. I want to be known as a leader that is the most submitted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the most humble, the most loving. If I’ve learned nothing else in the last few years it’s that Gospel focus, humility and love are the qualities that distinguish a great leader. Arrogance and pride may actually create a flash of quick numerical growth in your church or ministry, but it cannot sustain it.

Sometimes arrogance and pride are my default. I have a lot of work to do there.

Pride in our ministry

“Do you think that God rescued you because you’re awesome and God needed you on the team to succeed?” Paraphrase of Matt Chandler

There is one thing I’ve noticed about youth workers over the last ten or so years since I started college, graduated, and have worked as a youth worker in a church…youth workers are a cocky bunch. Especially male youth workers. We tend to (think we) have it all figured out! We know exactly how to do everything the best way possible. We DEFINITELY don’t need anyone’s help. If something isn’t working…it’s probably someone else’s fault and there is no reason to reach out for help. I lump myself into this category…at least externally. I took the first two years after college to work at a hotel front desk, investigate personal injury cases, and collect debt for the family law firm, running from what God has called me to do because I felt I wasn’t good enough to lead teenagers spiritually. On the outside though, I have it all together of course!

The last four years have taught me a lot about ministry. Namely, that I am pretty much worthless on my own. My mindset for ministry has gone from thinking I’d lead a youth ministry on my own, to getting hired as the lesser (by hours and responsibility) member of a two person ministry team, to realizing that two isn’t enough and we need dozens of adult leaders to do effective ministry, to now being a part of a Family Ministry team and working together to lead families with kids of all ages. Most importantly though, I’ve learned that no ministry can be done without God and the power of the Holy Spirit…a fact that many of us seem to forget.

I’m not sure where us youth ministry types get this overblown sense of pride in “knowing” that we can do it all on our own. We spend so much time critiquing other ministries and leaders, believing that we can “do it better” while often not spending nearly enough time seeking exactly how God would like us to lead in our own ministry context. Have we forgotten that, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Romans 5:6. We once were the ungodly, and often still are very weak.

I have to be conscious of this attitude within myself. I’m genetically wired to believe I’m always right…I mean…I did grow up with lawyers in my immediate and extended family. It has taken a lot of intentional work and prayer to ask for help in ministry as often as I have (probably not enough still). Yet, through that, I have found a lot of joy in seeking out wise counsel on any number of personal and professional issues over the last few years. God has begun to surround me with great Pastors, ministry partners, and friends that help guide me and keep me in line. They tell me when I’m dead on, and when I couldn’t have missed the mark by more.

We’ve seen where an overly cocky and arrogant attitude in ministry can lead us in the example of Mark Driscoll. Driscoll is an incredibly gifted speaker and teacher. He has the gifts to speak to the exact people that the American church is missing in a way that changes lives. Unfortunately, he all but disqualified himself for ministry by his own arrogance. While it may be a breath of fresh air that someone in his position wasn’t disqualified for illegal or theological matters per-se, it can still be just as damaging to the people who looked to him for leadership and spiritual guidance.

I pray that our generation of youth leaders and pastors would begin to lead in a new way, that we would set ego aside and be willing to admit our weaknesses and surround ourselves with people that both compliment those weaknesses and hold us accountable when we fall short. I pray that we would lead out of the knowledge that we can not do this on our own, but only by God’s grace can we succeed in the mission He has given us. I am thankful for those that have modeled this to me in my life.

The Hope Within

It has been a rough year for teenagers in Central Indiana. We have seen a string of suicides, deep depression, and now news that a local teenager has been arrested as a suspect in a violent murder of an elderly man in what is typically known as one of the safest towns in Central Indiana.

Is it just me or are we seeing a dramatic increase in depression and mental illness in teenagers in the last few years? I can’t remember a time in my life where more teenagers claimed to be “depressed”. As a youth worker I find myself asking, “How can we offer our teenagers a greater hope?”

I read this article recently from fellow Indiana youth worker Aaron Helman. Helman talks about how as youth workers, “We’re dealing with the most stressed-out, over-scheduled, under-slept generation of teenagers in history, and it’s starting to show.” Students are pushed to their breaking points in the name of academics, athletics, music, and even CHURCH (just to mention a few). We’re almost literally over-scheduling our teenagers to death. Teens today live in a world where it is absolutely impossible to live up to the expectations put on them. They have to work harder than ever and spend more time than ever trying to “stack up” to the “competition”, because if they don’t they won’t “succeed in life” and they’ll be letting everyone down. NO WONDER THEY ARE DEPRESSED!

As Christians we claim to offer a type of hope that no other religious or secular group can offer. A hope that is not based on how one “stacks up” to the competition. A hope that is not based on how hard one works. A hope that is not based on one’s economic or social status. We claim to offer a hope that, in spite of how far we fall short in life, comes from a God that freely offers forgiveness and grace in the midst of our brokenness.

What troubles me is that we are not effectively sharing that hope with anyone, let alone our teens. We find ourselves afraid of rocking the boat, afraid of offending another person, afraid of coming off as “judgmental”, and any number of other reasons for keeping the hope of Jesus Christ to ourselves. We’ve convinced ourselves that it is not our place to share Jesus. We’ve convinced ourselves that “everyone has their own way” and it’s not our place to offer another option.

Here’s the deal. It’s painfully clear that not every one’s “own way” is working. If it was, we wouldn’t be seeing the depression rates of teens (and adults) climbing, we wouldn’t have teens committing violent murders, we wouldn’t have so many teens claiming to be depressed.

It’s time for Christians to step up and live out the faith we hold inside. It’s time for us to step up and share the hope within.

I was encouraged last week when, at the suggestion of a youth parent, a handful of parents and youth leaders met Steph, Pastor Billy and me at Hamilton Southeastern High School to pray for students, administration and our role in the lives of the teens in that school and others in central Indiana. Requests and pleas were lifted up to God, tears were cried, and a group of people prayed that spiritual renewal in that high school would begin with us as parents and youth leaders.

Nothing will really change until each of us makes a conscious decision to live out Matthew 28:19-20 and invite the Holy Spirit to empower us to do so. Let’s make that decision now.

Living into the Vision

Since I was a Freshman Christian education student at Taylor University I knew that I never wanted to be “that guy”. I never wanted to be the guy that made ministry all about himself. I never felt the pressure to be the BEST speaker or the COOLEST guy in the room. I never wanted a student’s faith to be based on merely the attention I was giving him or her. From the beginning I have wanted so much more for students. I always wanted them to know two things: Jesus loves you, and the Church loves you.  To be sure, I love them too, but that is far less important than the first two points.

Youth ministry as we’ve known it can be dangerous and damaging to youth. We’ve set up a culture where one person (other than Jesus) is the focal point of teenagers’ faith. Teenagers are made to believe they can (and should) get everything they need from one person. Then, they get out of high school and realize they’re alone. Their youth director has dozens, or even hundreds, of other teenagers to connect with and by pure necessity leaves the new college student abandoned and stranded in their faith. There is a better way…

Team Ministry

Recently we held our annual Phao Student Ministries Adult Leaders Retreat. A weekend where we both celebrate the things God has done within student ministries and the church, as well as look to the future and where God is taking us.

This year we had almost 30 adult leaders and potential leaders (pictured above) join us for a day of training, reflection, planning and vision (and a handful that couldn’t make it). These people are small group leaders, Sunday school teachers, P58 leaders, special event crews, parents, friends and interested newcomers. All with a passion to see Jesus made known in the lives of teenagers.

That, to me, is the ministry I was called to; equipping adults to pour into the lives of teenagers. Helping them to know that each one of them has God given gifts to impact students’ lives eternally for Jesus. You see, it is these adults that will make a lifelong impact on students’ lives. It is these adults that will be there for them in 5, 10, and 20 years. It will be these adults that coach them through college, encourage them as they enter the “real world”, and advise them as they start families and raise their own children.

I believe in the importance of youth directors. I believe that significant growth within student ministries relies on leadership that can equip adults within the church to come alongside teenagers and live life with them. I believe, however, that the days of the “rock star youth director” are gone. I believe that the days of youth directors “equipping the saints” for the work of ministry in the lives of teens is here. That makes me excited! Paid youth staff are important, but if we’re not equipping the adults of our church to live life alongside teenagers I believe we’re doing it wrong.

Special note: Thanks to all of our Phao Student Ministries adult leaders for sacrificing all that you have, and will, to be that lifelong influence in the lives of our teens. Thank you for leading small groups, showing up to events, leading sunday schools, and living a life that is worthy to be an example of Jesus to teenagers. You are the ones that make ministry and growth possible.

Thank you for helping us live in to the vision!

This song has been ringing in my head for days now. It may be one of the best Christian songs I’ve ever heard. I know…bold statement, and it’s not even written by Chris Tomlin (slight jab at the Christian Contemporary Music Industry).

The lyrics are so rich and robust. It drives a spike into the heart of who we have become as people. It hints at the quest we all have for money, fame, fortune, and power and just keeps singing “It’s not Enough”. The deep desire we all have for “status” in our world leaves us empty and broken. Nothing we can attain on our own in this world will fill the void in our souls for something deeper, and more powerful. Jesus. 

Here are the lyrics…

Though all the wealth of men was mine to squander
And towers of ivory rose beneath my feet
Were palaces of pleasure mine to wander
The sum of it would leave me incomplete

Though every soul would hold my name in honor
And truest love was always by my side
My praises sung by grateful sons and daughters
My soul would never still be satisfied

It’s not enough, it’s not enough
I could walk the world forever
Till my shoes were filled with blood
It’s not enough, it’s not enough

Though I could live for all to lift them higher
Or spend the centuries seeking light within
Though I indulged my every dark desire
Exhausting every avenue of sin

It’s not enough, it’s not enough
I could walk the world forever
Till my shoes were filled with blood
It’s not enough, it’s not enough
I could right all wrongs, or ravage
Everything beneath the sun
It’s not enough, it’s not enough

To make me whole
It’s not enough, it never was
Awake my soul
It’s not enough, it never was

It’s not enough, it’s not enough
I could walk the world forever
Till my shoes were filled with blood
It’s not enough, it’s not enough
I could right all wrongs, or ravage
Everything beneath the sun
It’s not enough, it’s not enough
Though all would bow to me
Till I could drink my fill of fear and love
It’s not enough, it’s not enough

© 2014 @JoeGGarrison