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Making youth ministry exciting

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Youth ministry has dramatically changed in its format over the past few decades, because ministry as a whole has changed.

It is no longer assumed that people are churched throughout their lives, and so introduction to Christianity courses have had to be made available to adults and students. The Alpha course and similar curricula aimed at seekers have taken an ever larger importance in modern churches. Their story is one of (at least perceived) success. I think the reason behind that is simply that the purpose for these courses is clear and acknowledged: introducing interested people to the core beliefs of Christianity. Both clarity of purpose and acknowledgement thereof are missing from Sunday youth ministry.


Original photo: Peter Mercator, reused under CC License

Are youth ministers meant to provide a broad Biblical education, telling the young ones about a variety of Bible stories (but carefully avoiding Song of Songs or Ezekiel 23)? Or are we meant to provide the spiritual milk that will then allow the young ones to feed themselves? As preachers have stopped assuming the congregation know the Old Testament backwards, the former aim loses relevance, but keeps on being followed because there has been little transition from the former model to a hypothetical new one.

In order to ease that transition, two facts are worth remembering.

1. Youth ministry is not a glorified children-minding service.

That means two things: firstly, that when we approach youth ministry, we shouldn’t ask ourselves how to fill the schedule with things to do for every week. Rather, we should look at this time as an opportunity to do something with the youths. It might be worth taking an Alpha-like approach to youth ministry and have medium-length series to go through. Say, 4 weeks to explain sin and forgiveness; with that cycle repeated as many times as necessary as new youngsters come along; and studies going deeper, still in short or medium-length cycles spanning more than one week.

Secondly, the provision of youth ministry for all, week on week should not be a given. The default should be for children brought to church to stay in church rather than be taken away as soon as the service proper starts. Because unless there is a true purpose to going away with groups, then the children might as well stay with the adults. That way, at least, we might all learn something from what they say. So, say we’re in the third week of that 4-week series with a group of youngsters, and a new family comes to church – or a regular absentee is here for once. There should be no stigma associated with suggesting that they stay in the service rather than go away with the groups.

Similarly, there should be no stigma associated with adults wishing to join in the module (as long as it is from the start); although things such as age-appropriateness and group dynamics need to be kept in mind.

2. What we’re talking about is, in and of itself, exciting. (aka: there is no call for gimmicks)

In educational research, there’s a lot of talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The aim is generally to teach students to do maths because it is enjoyable and interesting of itself, not because there is a good grade in it for them at the end of it. Now, it is difficult to be excited about the use of a protractor, or about surds or Bidmas (although it is, I’m told, possible).

But what we’re talking about in youth ministry is exciting. It is because it is exciting that we chose to talk about it and share it with the young ones. I love talking about Gideon because I find that I relate to his story a lot and that through it, I find out about my relationship with God. Because I do, I don’t need to start with a silly game when that story is the topic of the week, but I can share this passion.

When we are structuring our session on three tenuously linked pillars – game, chat, God stuff – of course, the latter will appear slightly less fun; and so it will look as though we are ashamed to talk about God (especially if we feel like child minders…). But if the core of the session is the subject matter, then that becomes visibly worth it in itself!

Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for games and chats. Definitely. And this blog has tons of great ideas. But these should only be used when they have a purpose that fits in with the rest of the session: making a specific point more memorable, or explaining a particularly difficult point. Not simply for the sake of making the session more exciting.

Let me put this a different way: if, while planning, I’m asking myself “How do I make this exciting?”, then I’m doing it wrong. What I should be asking myself is “Am I excited about this?”. If not, then I have no place teaching about it. If so, then the planning question is “Why am I excited about it?”

No gimmicks, but personal conviction: that is the way to make youth ministry exciting.

10 ways stripping wallpaper is like getting rid of sin

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If you’ve ever redecorated, you’ll probably have had to go through the tedious experience of removing the garish wallpaper left by the previous tenants or by yourself. In many ways, this is like getting rid of sin:


1. Some of the wallpaper you remove will have been left as an inheritance: not all of it is a result of your own personal poor taste. However, blaming it on the previous owners/tenants will not mean it’s not there: it needs to be removed even if it’s not there through your own fault.

2. In some spots, the old wallpaper may come away very easily in huge strips. Yet in other spots, you need to use the scraper and work at it more. It would be rather pointless to only remove the wallpaper where it comes off easily. There are some obvious habits that are easier to get rid of than others.

3. In those particular spots where the old wallpaper had been too well glued, it comes away little bit by little bit, through repetitive motion. It’s a slow process and it can be tiring and frustrating, especially when you don’t see the results coming in as fast as they did when that huge pane just came off. But while progress is less visible, it is still there and you gotta keep at it.

4. It is greatly helped by the application of water. But simply applying water, with no resolve to then apply the scraper, is rather useless. This application can come in a variety of forms (steamer, sponge…) which are sufficient to the removal of the stubborn wallpaper.

5. It is easier to do with outside help – friends, family, professionals. Yet this does not mean that you should go into other people’s homes and strip their wallpaper without their say-so, no matter how well-meaning you might be!

6. The whole process is made far more enjoyable with an ample supply of tea. (Come on, this is Ed’s Slipper after all). More seriously, though, removing wallpaper does not have to be sad and solemn: friends, music, conversation: all these can help!

7. Getting rid of the old wallpaper shows the wall to be bare and rough and imperfect. It can reveal some deeply hidden secrets, some glorious, some shameful, and some we weren’t even aware of. If the wall had feelings, it probably would feel exposed and vulnerable.

8. This bare state is not an end in itself: it is preparation for the application of new wallpaper – for a new identity. But it is necessary to remove the old – and to remove it thoroughly – before the new can come in and stick. Otherwise it’s no more than a facade!

9. Once the old wallpaper is removed, there is no point in keeping the strippings as though you were going to reapply them! The old wallpaper is gone, once and for all: no point being sentimental about it!

10. It is a process that is easy to put off until “you have time to deal with it”, or until “you have the right equipment”. So enough with spiritual procrastination already!

Liturgy Month: Peace be with you

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My strongest memory of a Catholic church I once visited was the sharing of The Peace. At the time, it was the warmth and the sense of community that exuded from it that struck me. In that one moment, church stopped being a bunch of individuals following the pulpit, and it became an assembly that cared visibly for one another, including the rather uninterested visitor that I was. As I then went to more charismatic churches, it was a long time until I followed any traditional liturgy, but I still reminisced upon that Sharing of The Peace fondly. I was very pleased when I found it again in an Anglican church, but, unbeknownst to me, it wasn’t done “properly”: The Peace was shared right at the end of the service, before tea and coffee; and so it felt just like a greeting.


Photo: Charles Clegg, reused under CC License

There is definitely a social function to the Sharing of The Peace; and it would be a mistake to downplay it. Through it, we are bonding with one another, using the strongest bond possible: the Peace of Christ (which, as we know, passes all understanding). And that is true regardless of where in the service this handshaking happens. For that reason, all forms of greeting are appropriate: it does not have to be a handshake; it can most definitely be a hug. Hugs are cool.

But, normally, the Sharing of The Peace happens right before communion – in preparation towards it. Obviously, this reduces the social function, as it is not quite as easy to remain chatting then as it would at the end of the service; so why put it there? Is it somehow necessary to be at peace before receiving communion? In that case, the sharing of the peace is making us worthy to approach the table… er… yeah, maybe not. As, even when we approach it, we are not worthy to do so in our own strength, regardless of our feeling the peace of God.

Therefore, the Sharing of The Peace is gearing towards the same thing as communion. It is (at least symbolically) an expiatory moment, linked with the recognition and conviction of our own sins before our acceptance at Christ’s table, not as people who are worthy of coming into His presence, yet as people who can do so without hiding their baggage.

When we say to others “Peace be with you”, at least in the context of communion, it’s  not merely a greeting: it is a prayer that, much like Zacchaeus or the woman at the well, we would find our eyes open to our own sin and be ready to confront them, dismiss them and find peace.

This time, the recorded sermon below is not a perfect match with the “summary” above, although there is significant overlap.

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Download link (right click, hit download) – Notes

Liturgy month: Have mercy on us

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God’s mercy is something that we seek, often, in our prayers. It is etched within traditional liturgy, between the kyries and the misereres. We seek it when we confess our sins (“have mercy on us”), we rely on it in intercessionary prayers (“in your mercy”).


Photo: Charles Clegg, reused under CC license

These small words of liturgy have always been slightly difficult to me, because they reeked of false humility, and of false repentance. It felt like we were forcing ourselves to feel sorry and small, in that very very short window of time in the service; and that introspection itself was cut short by the prayer of absolution.

Worse than that, it seemed that I was only pretending that God’s mercy was something I didn’t deserve, because I knew that absolution was to come.

And I was doing it all wrong. The fact that the kyries jarred for me is, I believe, down to the wrong perspective I was adopting. That the confession was about me. About my sins.

While it’s not hard to understand why I could think in that way (after all, we are invited to recollect our sins during that confession time); it’s also easy to realise that this perspective is not consistent with our attitude during the rest of the service – of turning to God.

God who knows us (and thereby knows our sins, too), but God who is merciful, too. During the time of confession, we should not as much be focusing on our selves as we should be focusing on God’s mercy. The only point of recollecting our sins is that they are collected, wrapped up in God’s mercy.

Therefore, confession is not as much a matter of purging of sins (against some sort of virtual tally) as it is a matter of adoration and of turning to God. Therefore, it is not about humility, false repentance, or feeling sorry; and the feeling of inadequacy is uncalled for in this particular context.

When you seek God’s mercy, know that God is merciful and that you can expect it. This will change your act of contrition into an act of worship.

Listen to the sermon on the topic here:

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Download link (right click, hit download) – Notes

Liturgy Month: the Prayer of Preparation

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This month, at Ed’s Slipper, we’re celebrating liturgy. This is because it is a rich part of both the Catholic and the Anglican heritage – and probably other denominations too, I’m just not quite as acquainted with them! Liturgy, which means literally “public worship”, refers to the way services are ordered. It includes vestments, structure, but, in a more restricted sense, means the set of prayers we read in worship.


Photo: Charles Clegg, reused under CC License

The first prayer in the Anglican communion service is called the prayer of preparation. It goes like this:

Almighty Father,
to whom all hearts are open, all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit
That we may perfectly love you
and worthily magnify your holy name
through Christ our Lord

This prayer is designed to put us in the right mindset for worship: with clean thoughts in our hearts. But while cleansing is the only petition in this prayer, a lot more happens, especially in the first three lines.

In them, we are coming into the presence of God: we are describing him as almighty – as someone greater than all of us. We are also abandoning all pretense at making ourselves look righteous, because we describe God as all-knowing. Yet this description is not one that is cold and objective: we don’t say “Almighty and all-knowing God”. No, we are saying, in this, that God knows all desires – and through this, that he cares for them. That he cares for us.

In three lines, we have expressed the amazing fact that God who is so powerful, so much greater than all of us, is also someone who cares for us, in whose presence we can enter. We have made this theoretical fact personal – at least if we meant the words behind the prayer and did more than consider them a mere introduction to the apparent meat of the prayer, the petition itself. This is, I believe, one of the purposes of all the liturgy: to help us to make those truths about God and about our relationship with Him deeply personal and heartfelt, rather than just known intellectually.

Therefore, the meat of the prayer of preparation is not the petition. Still, this petition is important too: it is a declaration of our willingness to become pure in our thoughts and a recognition of due reverence to God. More than that, though, it is asking God to cleanse us, recognising that we cannot (or at list will not) do it in our own strength. This completes the revelation from the first three lines that we cannot hide our sinful condition from God.

Finally, the prayer of preparation is completed by looking back up towards God. The aim here is not to be selective in what we are allowed to pray for, but to lift our hearts back up to God. In this, we are truly prepared for worship.

Below, you will find a sermon I preached on the topic.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Audio download link (right click, hit download) – sermon notes

Other posts on specific pieces of liturgy

For us and for our salvation

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. In the name of Christ, amen!