Monday, August 13, 2007

Faith Works 8-18-07
Jeff Gill

Youth Groups Serve Many Purposes

School begins this week, and faith communities of all sorts also launch their youth ministries.

“Youth groups” aren’t in the book of Acts for Christians, or called for in any other sacred writings that I know of, but having a youth fellowship of some sort these days is right up there with having a door. Ya gotta have one.

I’m not going to question this particular conventional wisdom (not this week, anyhow), but for members of the Youth Council or Christian Ed committee or Young People’s Programming group, there is a question worth asking as you prepare to launch off into a new fall season.

Is your youth ministry mainly about formation and discipleship, or is it about evangelism?

The cries will echo immediately off the newsprint or computer screen: a false choice! You cannot choose; you must be both.

Yeah, yeah. Tell it to the choir.

My counsel to church leaders and youth pastors is that an effective youth group will always have elements of both evangelism and discipleship, but knowing which end of that spectrum is most important helps keep clarity in planning and prioritization.
Wait, there’s a hand up in the back. Yes? Oh, there’s a reader who asks “what’s up with those two long words, anyhow? I hear you church-y people using them, but what exactly do you mean?”

Good question. Some church-y words get so polished with use that they can slip right out of our hands. What do we mean?
What I mean by evangelism is the effort to reach out to the unchurched; the process of bringing people to an awareness of what it means to believe, and where that belief leads.

Formation or discipleship is the work of taking someone who has made a basic decision to accept or affirm a belief system, and showing them how to apply their faith to the questions and challenges of everyday life.

For most Christians, evangelism is getting people to the point where they say “yes” to Jesus as Lord of their life, while discipleship is learning what their tradition teaches about how to follow Jesus, and steadily following Jesus more closely.
Is that clear?

What makes this an even sharper question for youth leaders is that, in the process of dealing with bringing large groups of young people together for fellowship, the older members of a Christian community often find that carpets get stained, light fixtures get cracked, and stuff gets left in the fridge. ‘Nuff said.

But those older leaders will say that they can deal with the wear and tear and outright damage to property because “when you get the children, the families follow.” They see youth ministry as an evangelism tool.

The problem with that is you rarely see the families following, in practice. Yes, it does happen, but not as often as you think. The bottom line is that a youth program will rarely “pay its way” in terms of bringing new members to a church. Even when large numbers start showing up at activities and Bible studies, there’s no guarantee that youth group numbers translate into membership numbers.

When everyone understands that a middle or high school program is about forming them as stronger, more committed Christians, you are better situated to celebrate those times when youth work actually does bring someone to a confession of faith, but you aren’t waiting for so many more of those, just to justify the commitment to a youth program in your church.

As you can tell, I think that for most churches, a basic orientation to formation and discipleship should motivate church leaders to support their youth programming. Your own members’ children and grandchildren will grow in maturity as part of your tradition, and they will bring friends who will often need some extra support and mentoring, helping them understand new approaches to faithful living they may not have grown up with. There is evangelism going on, but it isn’t the whole reason you’re onboard.

If you believe your church is called to take on a youth ministry that is specifically aimed at evangelism, that is a unique calling which will be rewarding to all concerned, but will shape every element of your group. You won’t just be able to pick up the latest cool ideas going around at workshops, because formation is a very different human process than evangelism.

And if you’re wondering, I think that mission trips or work projects are really most effectively about formation. Can people make a first step towards faith by ending up along on a work trip? Sure, but they can also end up with skewed ideas about grace and “earning” God’s love. What a mission experience is best at is building powerful discipleship in the workers when they return home with a radically new vision of the Kingdom of God at work in their world.

Is your youth group really all about discipleship, or evangelism? Clarity on this question can make many more decisions more straightforward further down the road.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s been a youth minister and Fifth Quarter chaperone and young adult advisor over many years. Your views on how youth groups can be more effective are welcome at

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 8-19-07
Jeff Gill

Durable Goods and the Disposable Consumer

Here at Sycamore Lodge, the Lovely Wife and I take pride in the number of appliances and housewares we have from our wedding presents, some decades ago.

We’ve bought a new toaster, the blender and food processor have died, and there’s been a dozen coffee makers, but we still have all the pots, most of the glass cookware, slow cooker, and colander, plus my great-aunt Chloa’s wok and hot plate.

We use the dining room table and sideboard my parents started married life with, and a bed, dresser, and kitchen table from LW’s childhood home.

With enough older household gear around, we have reference points for a very simple observation. Stuff is getting cheaper, but it is also getting cheaper, as in, well, cheap.

Wood products are interesting in that the older American made goods that were made for the basic family market are manufactured from wood that is very high quality, with fine grain, few knotholes, and a great finish.

Those kinds of workmanship touches are now only found on the very high end stuff, while a set of new chairs can be gotten much more cheaply in real, let alone adjusted dollars. When you flip them over, you’ll see that they come from fascinatingly exotic corners of southeast Asia.

When you live with them a few months, you realize that little wedges drop out as the tropical woods dry and contract, flaws filled with putty show their outlines, and the material itself just can’t take a bump or scrape without significant damage.
These chairs won’t end up in the Little Guy’s home when he’s our age, trust me.

And plastic isn’t what it used to be, either. Thinner, more brittle, slightly off seam in contact points. Add to that the natural degradation of most plastic . . .

As I’ve mentioned here before, the curators at the Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian and over in Dayton at the USAF Museum know that the cloth, wood, and leather artifacts of the early days of flight are remarkably durable with a bit of shining and tending, while the suits and masks and stuff of the early Space Age are crumbling to plastic dust even in environmentally sealed cases.

There’s some yard equipment I bought four years ago that seemed durable and carried a respected brand name. It felt solid and lasting, and had a good rating from a consumer group. The low price helped, I’ll admit, but it didn’t define the deal.
Yet I’m not holding the broken bits of a crumbling artifact that might as well have come from an Egyptian tomb. Chunks of the casing are flaking off, and key parts broke in use which led to the breaking of other parts, all of which are no more made today, four years later, than replacement parts for Henry Ford’s grandfather’s buggy whip. Cogs and clips and reels which are necessary for the unit’s operation are snapped, and their equivalent pieces on today’s models, externally identical, and internally a whole new ecosystem of parts.

Which means I have a bunch of useless junk, including un-useable rechargeable batteries which are perfectly good, but can’t be snapped into the models sold now, which can be fixed with today’s parts. The parts are a dime’s worth of plastic, while the batteries are most of the weight and (I’d think) most of the cost.

My one bright spot, if you know the dilemma I face: next Saturday is Hazardous Waste Disposal Day at OSU Newark. On Aug. 25 from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm, you can bring by your old batteries, rechargeable or used up commercial, mercury thermometers, household chemicals, and just about anything but paint (put some kitty litter in it and stir, then set it out for your regular trash). Antifreeze, fire extinguishers, metal primers, oven cleaners, furniture stripper, brake fluid, all that kind of nasty stuff you know you can’t put down the storm drain anymore (you do know you can’t do that, right?).

If you have questions, Luellen would love to hear from you: call 349-6308 . . . and Licking County Recycling and Litter Control would love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, do we shop around and buy something that costs an arm and a leg, but is made somewhere within this hemisphere, and will last a few decades – or get the cheapest, knowing now that it won’t even make it five years?

These are going to be important choices for all of us in the coming years. Think about it, and dispose of what you have to safely.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about your household durable good at