The Question I want to ask

I have the privilege of walking with people through life’s tough seasons. While my official role places me most often with college-aged young adults, I have been invited into the lives of adults of varying age, life status and perspectives. This is an honor. Often, I’m asked how I am able to handle listening to the grief and sorrow of people while maintaining my own positive outlook. Truth is, I find myself mourning and grieving deeply with those I am listening to – but I mourn differently than most. My grief leads me to questions, those questions keep me thinking, and thoughts are the fuel of my life. Yes – over-thinking is what keeps me from burning out. Maybe I’ll blog about that one day. Back to the questions.

As I attempt to love and support those around me who are suffering, the questions sprout up in my brain like wild flowers. I rarely ask the questions I really want to ask because I’m not sure it’s the right time or if I’m the right person. But when my friends and colleagues are experiencing tough moments of dysfunction and anxiety with people in their lives, I desperately want to ask one question: how have you contributed to the state of things?

It’s a tough question to ask, and I often don’t ask because I sense they aren’t ready to own any hurtful language or passive actions they have done. But man — isn’t this the root of the issue? I can confidently say that in my life almost every struggle I have had with another human being includes something I said or did that hasn’t helped the situation. Once I muster the courage to acknowledge my part, I’m capable of figuring out what to do next. That kind of self-reflection isn’t pretty. The apology that comes as a result leaves me feeling vulnerable and losing the argument seems inevitable. But I also find myself freed to dive deeper into the problem and solutions become easier to find. I want this for so many of my loved ones. If only they would be willing to process that one question.

I’ve been running to the prophet Isaiah for years. Personal and broader historical events of 2016 have given me a fresh motivation to seek the wisdom found in this book. The first chapter doesn’t offer much comfort at first. The prophet, speaking Yahweh’s heart, says in verse 2,

“Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.”

Then again in verse 4,

“Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly!”

My honest response is, “you couldn’t be talking about me; I can’t imagine you’re saying that to me.” At the same time, I begin to think about the people Yahweh must be talking to: those folks whom I deeply disagree with on a variety of issues. They are the reason why things are so bad; they are the ones who need to open their ears to these words. It probably goes without saying, but listening to the prophet in this way is a lesson in missing the point.

When Isaiah spoke those words, he wasn’t talking to pagan nations or hard-hearted foreign leaders. Isaiah was talking directly to the people of Yahweh, those ransomed by the hand of one true living God and called to be a worshipping people for the sake of heaven’s justice in the world. He was talking to people who knew the ancient words by heart, and sang the spiritual songs on key. The prophet’s words were directed to a people whose actions have been right in their own eyes, and have turmoil and chaos as a result. Isaiah essentially says to them, you are part of the problem – time to own up to it. Isaiah believes that the problems of war, famine, dysfunction, and anxiety the people are facing are directly linked to their estrangement from the Holy One of Israel. If they want things to change, Isaiah tells them they have to change first:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

Yahweh’s heart appears to be, “things aren’t great right now, and you have contributed to some of it, own your stuff and repent.”

When I think about the state of our nation and the last election, I wonder if all Americans are willing to ask the question: how has my group, on either side of the aisle, negatively contributed to the state of things?

When I think about my denomination, the UMC, I wonder if we’ll pause our social media rants long enough to ask the question: how has my group (read: caucus) negatively contributed to the state of things?

When I think about the status of longtime friendships in my own life, it’s difficult but necessary for me to ask the question: how have I negatively contributed to the state of things?

Many of us in Jesus’ family are celebrating the first Sunday of Advent today. Although Isaiah 1 isn’t a part of this week’s lectionary text, I wonder if the Spirit is asking the people who are waiting on the coming of the Lord: how have you rebelled against Yahweh and negatively contributed to the state of things?

Through the voice of the prophet, Yahweh says:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson,  they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land…”

It’s a call to own up to our role in the mess we are in right now. The rebellious will always reject and deflect this question. The repentant will greet the question with courage knowing there is freedom in confronting the truth. In the day you hear the voice of Yahweh, do not harden your heart.

The Question I want to ask

That time I was placed on academic probation…

CCW Spring Retreat ’16

I started my journey of undergraduate work in the Fall of 1998. I was a music education major at Jacksonville University. Music seemed like the one thing I was made to do on this planet. I was excited to start freshman year and have the college experience by living on campus. It wasn’t long, though, that I become disinterested in the academic discipline of music. Going to the practice rooms felt like a cruel chore and eventually, that feeling made going to class in general feel like torture. Maybe it was immaturity, or I just needed a new major. My scholarships were linked to my major so I felt stuck.

By the end of the spring 1999 semester, I heard my advisor say those two scary words: ACADEMIC PROBATION. It wouldn’t be the last time I heard those two words, but the first time was dramatic enough. Probation meant my scholarships were placed on immediate hold. Since I had already taken out a couple of loans, my options were limited as to how I would remain at JU. After it was all said and done, I decided to transfer to UNF – where my undergraduate journey would include many highs and lows (more lows than I am ready to admit) for the next 6 and half years. But on that April day in 1999, I honestly believed my life was over.

This is the moment that every young adult fears: the consequences of your actions being more severe than you realized. Yes, I had issues with JU’s music department, but I knew this was my fault. On the outside, I probably appeared confident and care-free. On the inside, I was reconciling myself to the idea that I had failed at life.

What I needed at that moment was someone to tell me this is not the end. I needed someone to remind me that while these mistakes were significant, they weren’t strong enough to predict my future. I needed someone to reassure me that I could overcome – that I was not the first person to be placed on academic probation or to be forced to transfer because of it. I did NOT need someone to make sure I understood the gravity of my situation – I was already doing a great job of that whether anyone knew it. I needed a unique voice that could speak into my college/young adult experience. I needed a voice of hope that my future was still secure in Jesus; and I found that voice in the guy who was basically my campus minister: Kendall Hunt.

Don’t get me wrong – I have amazing parents who have always cheered me on and they were very supportive throughout my undergraduate journey. I also had strong friendships with other young adults on and off campus. And I had a beautiful church family who continued to create a loving and merciful environment for me. But no one spoke to my life the way Kendall did in that season. Kendall’s job was to pastor college students, and that specific emphasis made his words ring so much louder than all of the others. I got through that season (and a few others) because God sent Kendall to be my college pastor. Years later, Kendall would take me to a leadership conference in Atlanta where he encouraged me to consider pastoring college students alongside my friend (and his future wife) Alison. I don’t think you need a degree to figure out why I told him yes.

I’m starting my 15th year leading ministry to college students this fall. Right now, young adults are driving up to UNF and starting to move in. Others will be heading to Flagler this weekend and JU next week. They are all hoping to have the best experience of their life on campus. But the truth is, some of them will hear messages like “academic probation”, “C grade for the first time”, “you were not accepted into the program” and “the funds have run out.” Friends, I am still in campus ministry because when this happens, I want to be the first person they call. I want to be the voice of hope through the seasons of their college experience.

Some folks think campus ministry is unnecessary – calling it simply “youth group 2.0”. Not only does that diminish the great work of youth leaders, but it also shows a clear misunderstanding of the importance of campus ministry. Ministry to campus students is a unique opportunity where fun and games fill up less than 5% of our time. We are missionaries and counselors who have the grand privilege of loving and leading emerging adults as they figure out where their life is heading. Campus ministry is vital to the continued development of young adults and critical for the future of Jesus’ Church. And I am humbled to work with an amazing team of people as we serve college students on three campuses in Northeast Florida.

Campus to City Wesley Foundation turned 5 in August 2016. As we head into our 6th fall semester, we are stronger and busier than we have ever been. We are convinced that serving college-aged young adults is important for the Church and the world. On Saturday, August 27 we are gonna celebrate all that God has done in the last 5 years and anticipate the miracles that await us in the future. I’ll be reflecting on that April day in 1999 when I thought my life was over and I heard that voice of hope from Kendall. And I’ll be re-committing myself to be that same voice for college-aged young adults for as long as the Lord allows.

5th_Anniversary_Instagram_PostPS Everyone (especially the older than college crowd) is invited to join us for the Anniversary worship night at Mandarin UMC on August 27. For more information, click here.

That time I was placed on academic probation…

Pastoring Millennials

This moment is all too familiar to local pastors: you are standing in front of the congregation, giving your best sermon and you look out to see that millennial in the pews. Someone’s daughter home for the summer or someone’s grandson who came to church as a birthday gift. You can tell by their body language & their facial expression that they would rather be anywhere else but there. This moment frustrates some leaders and discourages others. The disengaged millennial gets under your skin because you really want to reach them. You’re the kind of leader that wants to make space for them in the church. How are you supposed to do that when you can’t get them to simply raise their eyebrows during your message? Some keep trying to reach them (and I applaud you for that). Others just give up (and I get you too).

Hoping that the following words may help.

There are many reasons why millennials aren’t listening to older-generation leaders. It’s a decent sized list that includes irrelevance, judgmental rhetoric and condescension. There are many blogs and articles out there; google millennials and you’ll find them. I would like to offer one more that I think gets overlooked. It’s less an action and more of an assumption. It is the assumption of trust.

Once upon a time, a leader could assume that their congregation trusted them. Their education, their ordination or even their track record was all that was needed to win the attribute ‘trustworthy’. It isn’t that way anymore, and it definitely isn’t that way when it comes to millennials.

For this generation, trust is not an entitlement – it is earned. That might be a shock to some of you because you were raised to respect your leaders and take their word for it. And yet, in our own country we have a crisis of leadership and its root is trust. From classrooms to Congress, our leaders have made too light of the trust we placed in them. They can no longer assume that 20 years of experience or political incumbency is enough.

I can tell when a pastor is walking into the pulpit assuming that we trust them – and they will be wrong every time.  If pastors want millennials to listen, they are gonna have to do the hard work of cultivating their trust. You can waste time complaining about adding this to your long list of pastoral demands, or you can reconcile your heart and mind to reality: if you want millennials to trust you, you’re gonna have to earn it. But wait, there’s more!

Earning trust is not like getting a degree. There isn’t a certain number of meetings or kind words or likes on Facebook that give you long-term trust. With millennials, you earn trust everyday. Yes, every time you step into the pulpit, you have to earn it all over again. Granted, it gets easier when you are consistent. Trust with this age group is fragile and short-lived. You can spend time trying to figure out why this is case and who is to blame, and (in my opinion) you’ll be wasting valuable time doing that. With millennials, you are always earning the right to speak into their lives and point them in the right direction. And here me on this – millennials want to be led. But they also need to know that you genuinely want to lead them. The only way that message is heard is by earning their trust, little by little, every time you see them.

As a campus minister, this is my life. Every message, every one-on-one meeting, every weekend trip is an opportunity for me to earn the chance of pastoring college students. It’s hard work and it comes with a lot of listening, responding, more listening, serving, a little more listening, absorbing pain, some more listening and a few humble apologies. These students owe me nothing and I owe them everything. They do not have to listen to me, they do not have to follow me – but I am obligated to pour my life out for them regardless. After 5 years of CCW, I think it’s working. And guess what, I’ll spend the next 5 years earning their trust. I believe it to my bones that this is the most effective mindset for pastoring millennials.

So if you have read this far, you may be asking ‘how do I build trust with millennials?’ And I’ll respond with two points. One is not so charitable, and the other is more practical.

1. Really? Have we devolved this much as a culture that we no longer know the basic steps of building trust? Have we become so entitled to it that we view it as a transaction where I give you 30 minutes of a coffee chat for 5oz of your trust? Forgive my anger, but come on people! Trust is not a commodity to be purchased.

2. How do we build trust with millennials? It looks like listening. It sounds like honoring their journey and it feels like humility. It grows by asking for permission to speak into their life and remaining open to hearing their opinions without judgment. It becomes consistent when you thank them for the pleasure of knowing them and make genuine efforts to support them.

I’ve directed these thoughts at pastors, but it easily applies to all leaders of millennials – even parents of adult millennials. And let’s get real honest now – it’s not just millennials whose trust has to be earned right? I’m not sure why we played the game so long in church. I cannot figure out why we let decades go by letting the pastors (and other leaders) assume that simply showing up was enough to garner our trust. We are a society that longs to be led, and yet find so few leaders willing to prove they’ll treat our trust as more precious than their title. Regardless, today is the day to start afresh. So the next time you look at those seemingly disengaged millennials, ask the Holy Spirit to give you the courage and compassion to humbly offer yourself to them by earning their trust. You never know friends – doing this could make a positive change in a millennial’s life.

Pastoring Millennials

Steps of Faith

Let’s get right to it – this post is about church membership. And as it is with most things, this is about that. When I was 17, I left the church I grew up in (Tabernacle Baptist Institutional Church) to participate in a growing United Methodist congregation in the Baymeadows area of Jacksonville. It was my love for Jesus and commitment to His mission that catalyzed that move. Tabernacle raised me, baptized me, gave me opportunities to lead from age 9 and created an environment where the Word of God could live inside of me. My spiritual roots are deep because of the women and men (mostly the women to be honest) of that church. However, there was a day that my faith led me to leave, and I think God blessed that decision. I would spend the next several years at CrossRoad UMC.

FB_IMG_1469620468389I was raised at Tabernacle, but I matured at CrossRoad. I started leading worship at CRC before I joined the church. Gee, Sandy, Mike and Cathy gave me opportunities to explore my calling and my gifts. They hired me and gave me room to dream and innovate. They tolerated me as I was learning (sometimes reluctantly) how to make a positive contribution to the team. CRC Roadies believed in me, supported me, prayed for me and even wrestled with me. Today, I am in campus ministry because the leaders at this church saw something in me that I didn’t see. If you think I am an effective leader, it’s only because of the lessons that I learned at CrossRoad. I will always love the House that built me.

Once again, I sense Jesus inviting me to employ my faith and continue on the journey of pouring my life out for God’s mission.

This summer, I am moving my membership to Swaim UMC in the San Marco area. It’s a bit weird for me to be honest. Changing churches has always been a tough subject for me. I can remember having issues with family when they were thinking about leaving Tabernacle and friends when they were struggling with membership at CrossRoad. In fact, I’m sure there are some old blogs and fb posts on this subject that I might have to roll back. Again, church membership, I have found, is often about more than where you hang out on Sundays and even worship style. What I didn’t know when I was 17 was that I’d be a different person almost 20 years later, and those changes affect every area of life – including church membership.

UrbanSoulJuly28(4)I am joining Swaim for similar reasons that I joined CrossRoad – my role in the mission of Jesus. In the last 5 years, I have poured my life into building Campus to City, but I’ve also been living in the Avondale area. Not surprisingly, I have made beautiful friendships with the folks I have met in the urban core neighborhoods of Jacksonville. It’s been these relationships that led me to start Urban Soul.

So when I felt the Spirit’s challenge to consider worshipping in my own area versus driving across town, Swaim UMC made sense. Their support of CCW and their ministry to the homeless were compelling. The sense of community and use of liturgy during worship rang true for me. And their openness to young leadership (reminiscent of my days at Tabernacle and CrossRoad) inspired me. But most of all, I really believe Jesus has led me to Swaim for what I can give this faith community, not really what they might give me. This point is a huge shift in my thinking around church membership.

I spent the first half of 2016 praying about this decision. I sought counsel from trusted friends. When I made the decision, I made space to talk to Gee and a couple of the leaders at CRC. I’m gonna miss being a part of CrossRoad as they continue their work in the Deerwood/Windy Hill area. But I am excited about what lies ahead.

I am blogging about this for a few reasons. One is just to make it clear why I am changing churches. I’m not mad or hurt by anyone at CRC. If anything, I am indebted with gratitude to them. I wanted to fill the vacuum as friends and colleagues learned that I was changing churches. But there’s another reason I published this post.

I want to encourage all who are reading this to continue to allow the Spirit of Jesus to lead you. Following Jesus is active and dynamic. If you pay close attention to the major characters of the New Testament, you’ll find that they were constantly on a journey. Faith in Jesus does that – it continues to move you from place to place. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll change churches. But something has to change from year to year right? There must be some outward sign that we are moving, like Peter, from fishing in the Sea of Galilee to preaching in the middle of Jerusalem. If we’re gonna follow Jesus over decades, there has to be some tangible sign that we are moving from faith to faith and glory to glory.

In response to a question about risk taking, Andy Stanley once replied, “Do the thing that requires the most faith in Jesus.” For me, moving to Swaim is one of a few faith steps I am taking as I follow Jesus. I hope you’ll also hear Jesus’ invitation to follow Him on your faith journey.

Steps of Faith

Let me not be put to shame

“Let me not be humiliated” (Psalm 25:2) – That’s the prayer of many today; especially those who have history with Jesus but don’t know what to do with it. (Let’s call them the de-churched for now). These are the people who are afraid to walk into church – not because the ceiling will fall on them, but because some of the people there think shame is a pathway to Jesus. Maybe it is, but I’m not convinced it’s the best one.

It is not odd to see a banner in North American churches that says, “COME AS YOU ARE”. Some congregations do not mean it though. Some of the now de-churched have paid the high price of figuring this out the hard way. We [the Church] didn’t really want you to come as you are, we wanted you to fill our pews, increase our monthly budget and give us a nice story to tell the church across the street.

This isn’t all churches, but it happens more than we want to admit. We can’t ignore it. The fine print of “COME AS YOU ARE” is “but don’t stay that way”. Fair enough. But the platitudes often forget to mention that restoration and healing is a difficult and decades-long process. Too few Christians have the stomach for it.

It’s not just the de-churched who prays ‘let me not be put to shame”. We’ve all got our stuff right? Most Christians have enough doubt in them to withhold the tithe and offering when finances are tight. Veteran Christ-followers are still skeptical enough to ignore the scriptures that ask too much of them. We are all afraid of being humiliated. The difference is, those of us who hold the “COME AS YOU ARE” banner have learned how to hide our shame. We give online now so you don’t really know if our cheerful giving is also sacrificial. We’ve learned how to interpret the scriptures in such a way that our comfort is now a theological imperative affirmed by tweets from other comfortable Christians. For those of us who missed Cover Your Shame 101, we continue to pray: “don’t let me be humiliated”.

The good news is that God hears the prayer of the shamed and insecure. When the Greatest Human returns in power and glory, the humiliated will find mercy, the shamed will find restoration and the insecure will find a home. We’re all waiting for that.

In the mean time, I think Jesus desires spaces on earth where we can experience tiny glimpses of that kind of safety — spaces where we experience the warm hand of a loving Creator that affirms “you have nothing to be ashamed of here.” That place starts with people who know we are all walking around with our own shameful stories. That warmth is felt in groups of Jesus-people who refuse to humiliate those still on the journey to who they are meant to be. Truth is, if no one is confessing humiliating stories to you, it’s not a good sign.

PS This post is humiliating to write. I am the Christian who holds the “COME AS YOU ARE” banner and I am still learning how to really mean it. It’s a long, arduous journey to being more like Jesus. I have a long way to go. So if you read this post and felt like there was a finger being pointed somewhere, just know I am pointing at myself. You see — we’ve all got our humiliating stories. Let’s have coffee and I’ll tell you a few more.

The prayer of those who have history with Jesus is, “do not let me be humiliated”. Jesus hears the prayer, and I hope we [the Church] do as well.

Let me not be put to shame

Starting Something New

Friends, Next week, I am launching a new project called Urban Soul. I’ll explain in a bit what Urban Soul is and why I am adding yet another thing to my busy schedule. I actually did a soft launch of Urban Soul at the end of 2014 and hosted 3 house worship nights last Spring. Those small gatherings helped me discern if this was something that I was truly being called to do. After months of prayer, conversations with my leaders and friends, I know that Urban Soul is something I need to do.

Okay…full disclosure: when you ask me what Urban Soul is, I don’t have a really good answer. There’s an entire conversation happening in my denomination around fresh expressions of the Church and Urban Soul is a part of it. But what is Urban Soul? A ministry? A monthly worship gathering? A ‘theology on tap’ small group? Well, no…none of those things. But maybe one or a combination of those things. Or something totally different. I cannot honestly answer the ‘what’ question when it comes to Urban Soul. But I can answer the why question.

Why Urban Soul? Because there are thousands of young adults in the urban core (and surrounding areas) of Jacksonville who are not sure about organized Christianity (ie traditional local churches – liturgical, non-denominational, evangelical or other). Some of them just can’t see the connection between following Jesus and becoming a member of a church. Others grew up in a local congregation, but emerging adulthood and all the associated issues have created distance between them and “Sundays”. But I would argue that most of them are just burned out on church life – crushed by the often unintentional, yet impossible expectations of other Christians. Some want to come back to church, and they need time and space. Others are pretty sure they will never be back.

Whether or not you agree or identify with the above profiles, everyone reading this post needs to understand one thing about this group of young adults I just described. Just because these people are skeptical, distant or ambivalent when it comes to organized church, doesn’t mean they have completely rejected faith community, spiritual meaning or theological reflection. In fact, my experience is that this group of young adults are extremely curious and open to Jesus and His mission. While many in local churches shake their heads at this group, or wring their hands at failed attempts to get them back, I feel called to create an alternative space for them.

Urban Soul is, at the very least, a safe space for young adults who live, work and hang out in the urban core of Jacksonville. I can’t say what our events and gatherings will look like going forward. It might be a creative worship experience on a Tuesday night. It might be a Sunday brunch and open discussion on some thought-provoking Bible question. Or maybe a wine, cheese and popular science party. Again, I can’t answer the ‘what’ questions very well at the moment. But I am committed to creating a safe space that is patient, judgement-free and low on expectations for young adults 21-40ish, regardless of where they are on their faith journey. If that’s not you, no worries. If that’s you, someone you know, or something you wanna know more about – read on.

Next Tuesday, October 20, Urban Soul will have its official launch with our first public event at Intuition Ale Works in Riverside. It will be a night of songs and stories featuring my good friend Justin McRoberts. I’ll also share a little more about the next steps for Urban Soul and how folks can get involved. While our target for Urban Soul is ages 21-40ish, anyone who wants to come to this event is welcome. (Those under 21 are welcome to come as well, and we’ll have coke, diet coke, sprite and water for you! We’ll be checking all IDs). Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Doors open with light hor d’oerves at 7pm. I would love to see you there.

Urban Soul is huge step of faith for me. Along with CCW and my participation in UMC initiatives in Florida and beyond, my plate is full. But it’s worth it. I can honestly say, I love my life.

Be well friends!

Starting Something New

13 Years and counting

In many ways, I am a totally different guy because of college and campus ministry.

CCW Boston Launch
CCW Boston Launch 2015 with Nelson & Samantha Cowan. (Photo Cred to Kate Slack)

In August 2002, I started co-leading college ministry with my good friend Alison Hunt at my local church. I was sure it would be a short-term thing. I wasn’t really a preacher and I had much to learn about leadership back then. A dozen plus years later, I have learned a ton about ministry, serving, and organizational leadership. I’ve been blessed with experiences that have stretched my heart and mind in ways that I never thought possible. In many ways, I am a totally different guy because of college and campus ministry. That’s one reality that I did not expect – life changes who we are.
I used to think “you’ve never changed” was the greatest compliment. Consistency and dependability through the seasons of life are amazing qualities to have. But the truth is, we are all being shaped and formed (even transformed) by the events of our lives. Responsibilities change a person. Family dynamics change a person. New opportunities and blessings change a person. Crisis and loss change a person. There is almost no way to truly respond to the seasons of life and stay the same.

Accepting that life changes us is one major lesson. But I think the real lesson is that we can’t fight the change. The number of people I know that have a really hard time moving on is striking. I am finding that it is the resistance to personal change that often makes it difficult for people to work together and make a difference in their world. Regardless of age, many find it painful to allow the transitions of life to make them into different people. Yet its changes like defining new personal boundaries, the evolution of friendships, healing from emotional trauma and even the process of grieving that not only makes us different people, but possibly BETTER people.

In my own personal life, the changing of seasons and God’s call on my life have been deeply related. Even as I write this post, I am aware of small, yet significant changes coming my way. These changes feel very costly, and I have learned to greet them. While change can be big deal, it is not bigger than the God who carries us by great love revealed in Jesus. I can embrace change because my trust and security is in the One who holds my life. God is the one who works all things (including change and transition) out for our good. So I can trust that in whatever ways the seasons of life are changing who I am, God will somehow weave those changes into a beautiful story.

Change isn’t easy to deal with, but is necessary if we are going to get all that God has purposed for us.

13 Years and counting