The Summer Camp That Never Ends

velocity2009I’ve gone back to my spiritual roots this week.  I’m in Gambier, Ohio on the campus of Kenyon College speaking to 300 high school students at an annual regional youth conference now called “Velocity.”  It began for me 27 years ago when I attended this very conference at a place called “Miracle Camp” outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Back then it was much more laid back and had more of a “camp feel” to it, but in the summer of 1982, I began attending a youth camp that has played a major role in my life and in my spiritual development even to this day.

Back in the early 80’s, the camp was started by a few youth pastors from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio who had no denominational summer camps to take their kids to each summer.  These friends formed an organization called Evangelical Youth Fellowship (EYF) and decided to hold their own youth camp each summer at a rented facility.

e_cabins1In 1984, they moved to Camp Mack near Warsaw, Indiana where the summer camp was held for the next 14 years.  I attended Camp Mack until I graduated high school in 1988 and then attended there as a camp counselor a couple of times while I was in college.

It was at Camp Mack in 1990 that a youth pastor from Dayton, Ohio named Tony Plummer pulled me aside and challenged me to pursue full-time ministry after I graduated from college.  He had observed me all week long interacting with the students and felt compelled to challenge me to change my major from mass communication (radio broadcasting) to Christian Education (youth ministry).  I was pretty offended at his boldness at first, but after a while, I realized that the Lord had used Tony to affirm an eventual ministry call of my life.

That interaction with Tony proved to be more than just a one week event in my life as I was called by FairCreek Church in Dayton, Ohio (Tony’s church) in 1994 to come serve as their youth pastor.  Tony had moved into an associate pastor role at the church, and I was brought in to continue his work in youth ministry.  One month after I arrived at FairCreek Church, I found myself at Camp Mack once again – but this time I was a youth pastor leading my own group of kids.

In 1996, the baton of leadership for EYF was handed to me as the “old guard” – those who started the organization in the early 80’s – were all leaving youth ministry one by one.  From 1996-1999, I served as the president of EYF, and in 1998, I – along with a new crop of youth pastors – moved the camp from Camp Mack to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  It was at this point that the camp transitioned from less of a “church youth camp” to more more of a “summer youth conference,” and it was at this point that the number of churches involved in EYF and the number of students attending the conference each summer began to really grow.

When I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1999, in addition to leaving my church in Dayton, I also left my post as president of EYF.  But, in 2001, I was asked to come back as a main session speaker.  The conference had been moved from Miami University to Taylor University in Indiana, and when I arrived that summer to speak, I discovered that the conference was as strong as ever.

In 2005, I was back in Ohio and was asked by my home church to go to the conference as a leader.  The conference had moved once again to its current location at Kenyon College, and I discovered when I arrived that many of the youth leaders and youth pastors serving the kids that week were alumni of past summer conferences themselves.

And then this year, I was asked to come back as a main session speaker once again.  Including mid-high students, high school students, and leaders, there are nearly 500 people in attendance.  There’s an incredible praise band that plays at each main session and the lights, video, and sound during these sessions are top-notch.  Students from all over the Midwest have come together to enjoy a week of friendship, worship, and to be challenged by God’s Word…and it all started nearly 30 years ago.

I’m blessed to be a part of EYF’s summer youth conference once again this year, and I’m blown away by the longevity of it.  For almost three decades, God has used this summer camp experience to impact the lives of thousands of students, and I’m one of the fortunate ones who continues to be impacted by it as an adult.

Do you have any EYF memories you’d like to share?  Some experiences aren’t appropriate for sharing here, so keep it clean (especially you Lacy boys)!

16 Years Ago Today

Michelle_2

16 years ago today, I married the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.  We met five years earlier at Taylor University.  It was the second day of school, and I was sitting in a classroom when she walked in.  From the moment I saw her, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her.  We were each other’s first dates in college, and we ran in the same friend-circle for four years.

On June 26, 1993, Michelle Matheny became Michelle Potter…and Emily Matheny became Emily Potter: two for the price of one!  I am a blessed man, and I thank God for my beautiful bride of 16 years.

Vows_2Us_1Wedding Party_3

Keeping Kids from Leaving the Faith

come-back1It’s a statistic that haunts Christian parents all across the country:  65%-85% of churched kids will walk away from the Christian faith during their early adult years.

These are kids that have grown up in the church. Anywhere from six to eight out of every ten kids in your church youth group will wander away from their Christian faith once they enter adulthood.  As a parent with four teens living in my home, this is a grave concern of mine.

Britt Beemer, a former senior research analyst for the Heritage Foundation and founder of the American Research Group unveiled for the first time in a scientific fashion the startling reasons behind this statistic.  His research included 20,000 phone calls and detailed surveys of 1,000 20 to 29 year olds who used to attend evangelical churches on a regular basis.

The survey found that children who faithfully attend Bible classes in their church over the years actually are more likely to question the authority of Scripture.  Among the survey findings, regular participants in Sunday School are more likely to leave the church, believe that the Bible is less true, defend the legality of abortion and same-sex marriage, and defend premarital sex.

Why is this?  And what can be done to combat this?  A few years ago, I asked two nationally-known ministry leaders these two questions, and their answers were surprisingly simple yet incredibly profound.

I interviewed Brian McLaren, one of the foremost experts on the effects of postmodern thinking on the church.  He’s the author of several books that have powerfully impacted the evangelical church over the past ten years including, Everything Must Change, A Generous Orthodoxy, and More Ready Than You Realize.

We spent considerable time talking about the troubling trend among church kids to leave the faith after they graduate from high school.  When I asked him what can be done to combat this trend, he said this:

“What we need to do now is for all of us parents to do what it says in Deuteronomy. We need to learn to talk about our faith in a natural way when we’re walking along the way, and when we’re sitting in our homes.”

I didn’t expect him to say this.  I expected something deeper.  Something more complex.  Something with at least three steps.  Instead, his solution for halting the mass exodus from the Christian faith among young adults is for parents to do what Moses commanded the parents of Israel to do 5,000 years ago:  Talk about the Lord when their kids wake up, as they’re going about their day, and before they go to sleep.

I also spoke with Barry Shafer about this problem.  Barry is the founder of InWord Resources – a ministry he established in response to the widespread biblical illiteracy among teens.  His strategy for combating the problem is much like McLaren’s: Kids MUST be saturated with the Word of God in a natural and relevant way from a young age.

However, Barry’s focus is more on helping the church (namely youth ministries) do this.  His approach is to strengthen youth ministry with inductive methods, tools, and materials for personal Bible understanding and for small group settings.

Either way you slice it, both men see the centrality of Bible teaching as being essential in helping kids enter adulthood with their faith intact.  Maybe the key to combating the mass exodus of churched young adults from the Christian faith is a two-front offensive: natural and relevant Bible teaching at home and in the church, with both recognizing the incredible importance of the other and with both striving to work together.

Regularly attending Sunday School and youth group is evidently not enough for at least 65%-85% of the churched kids today because that’s how many regular attenders are bailing on the Christian faith after high school.  Parents need to be working just as hard as Sunday School teachers and youth leaders to effectively communicate God’s Word to their kids in natural and relevant ways.

If you’re a parent, may God grant you the strength and wisdom to play a major role in the faith training of your children, and may your kids defy the statistics when they leave home.

I Learned about Fatherhood from Oprah

oprahI do not watch The Oprah Winfrey Show. Let me repeat: I do not watch The Oprah Winfrey Show!

I’m a man, and men are not supposed to watch Oprah. However,a while back, I was made aware that Oprah would be doing a show about fathers…and so with great reluctance, I watched.

It did feel weird. I swear I could smell the fragrance of women’s perfume as I watched. I turned the volume down low, closed the blinds, and joined in with millions of other women from across the country to watch the show entitled, “The Secret Thoughts of Fathers.”

I watched as fathers who were from different backgrounds, races, social status, and beliefs shared their thoughts and concerns about being dads. As I watched these diverse men talk about fathering, I discovered one thing they all shared: they all wanted to be good dads but felt like they often failed in the task.

The more I watched, the more I identified with these dads. Then something weird happened…I began to actually feel strange emotions stir inside of me. No! I didn’t cry! Women cry while watching Oprah; men don’t. Men are supposed to laugh and poke fun at the show – which I do often. But I felt the emotions stir because I could relate. The men on the show desperately want to be good dads, but they are often overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy. I feel the same way. I love my kids and want to bless them by being a good dad, but sometimes, I feel like I fail them.

Like most dads, my work week is full, so I’m not home a lot during the week, and sometimes even my weekends are consumed with work. One father on the program talked about this when he said, “I worry everyday that my kids are going to grow up and think that I spent time away from them because I wanted to get away.”

Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” This means that we fathers have a huge responsibility. We are to oversee the training and instruction of our children, while all along making sure that the family is provided for and running smoothly. One of the dads on the program said, “[The difficulty of parenting] is a culmination of a number of things. Besides the job, besides what’s going on at home and what’s going on with the economy, I often wonder, ‘How am I going to progress my family from point A to point B to fulfill our dreams?’ Sometimes you just feel like you’re caught up in the day-to-day, and you lose sight of life.”

God has given us fathers strong shoulders for handling all of this pressure, but what I learned from watching Oprah that day was that many fathers feel like I do sometimes: tired, anxious, and overwhelmed. Another dad on the program said, “Every dad has a dream, and a lot of times you can’t pursue the dream as energetically as you want to. You have to balance pursuit of the dream with stability of the family. We have to make sure that every lily pad we step on is a firm one.” Our dreams and passions outside the home pull us in one direction, and our deep love for our wife and kids pull us in another. It’s hard striking the balance.

Another interesting aspect of the program was the way in which the wives of the men featured on the show responded to their husband’s vulnerability. Many said that they felt frustrated with their husband’s shortfalls in the home until they heard their husbands heart. One wife said, “I realized that when I complain that my husband only sees the kids for 45 minutes each morning, I see it as a short amount of unproductive time. The children see it as Dad eating breakfast with us, tying their shoes, and kissing them as they walk out the door for school. They take a positive memory from the situation that I was seeing as flawed.”

Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, said, “One of the key focuses for women to understand is it’s important to focus on the what and not the how. Pick your battles, because if there are multiple ways to do [a task], but he’s doing it differently than you would have, let him do it how he’s doing it because you want him to be involved in his kid’s life.” It was encouraging to hear this, and it was equally encouraging to hear women say that they needed to lighten up a bit on their husbands, understanding that they are doing their best to love and nurture them and their children.

Roland Warren says, “One of the key things you have to do is get in your child’s world and invite them into yours. To be the father you want to be, you have to know your children.” So dad’s…do it! Look for ways to connect on a heart level with your kids. Also, understand that wives view life, marriage, and family, a bit differently from you. Listen to them, and learn from them. Keep struggling to strike a healthy balance between home and work. Pray. Seek God daily for the strength and wisdom to be the kind of dad and husband God has called you to be.

And finally, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Take the risk to talk about your struggles with another man. There are dads in your office, at your church, and in your neighborhood who feel just like you do. How do I know? Oprah told me so.

So You Think You Can Preach?

crazy-preacherI’m sitting here with my family watching So You Think You Can Dance, and I’m thinking: “What would this show be like if it were called So You Think You Can Preach?”  Here are some ideas…

Premise

So You Think You Can Dance is a show that allows dancers (and wanna be dancers) to audition before a panel of judges in several major cities across the country.  The judges whittle the dancers down to 20, and then the real competition begins.  Each week, the dancers dance for votes from the television viewing audience, and the last dancer standing is labeled “America’s Favorite Dancer” and receives several perks including lots of money and national dance opportunities.

In the same way, So You Think You Can Preach would allow preachers (and wanna be preachers) to audition their preaching before a panel of judges in several big churches across the country.  Eventually, the judges would whittle the preachers down to 20, and the television viewing audience (God TV? TBN? CBN?) would then be called on to vote for their favorite.  The last preacher standing would be labeled “America’s Favorite Preacher” and would receive a cash prize along with invitations to preach at national rallies and big churches all across the country.  He would be famous but would – of course – give all the glory to God.

Judges

So You Think You Can Dance has three judges: 1) the dance veteran who’s usually pretty serious; 2) the yelling woman who once danced but has lost her step; and 3) the current dancer/choreographer who’s not afraid to say it as it is.

I envision the So You Think You Can Preach judges being 1) John MacArthur (the veteran preacher who’s often too serious for his own good); 2) Becki Tirabassi (the national speaker who’s not afraid to scream every once-in-a-while); and 3) Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill in Seattle (a nationally known “fresh” preacher who’s not afraid to say just about anything).  Guest judges would include Donald Miller (for his humor), Beth Moore (for her looks), Benny Hinn (for a ratings boost: people would watch to see what he would say or do), and Joel Osteen (for his toothy smile…chicks dig it).

Auditions

I envision So You Think You Can Preach holding preaching auditions in select big churches across the country like Willow Creek in Chicago, Saddleback in Los Angeles, Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York, Lakewood Church in Houston, New Life Church in Colorado Springs, and First Baptist Church in Orlando.

Preachers (and wanna be preachers) from all over the country would gather at these locations where they would audition with a five minute sermonette.  The judges would decide whether or not their preaching is worthy of moving them forward in the competition based on biblical accuracy, cultural relevance, humor, visuals aids, goatee shape and form, and dynamic communication skills.  If he impresses the judges, the preacher would receive a ticket to Jerusalem where the rest of the show would be filmed.

Jerusalem Week

The dancers that are good enough on So You Think You Can Dance are handed tickets to Las Vegas.  The singers that are good enough on American Idol are handed tickets to Hollywood, but the preachers that are good enough would be handed tickets to Jerusalem.  Just like with the other shows, judges would deliberate and then – if the preacher is good enough – they would scream something like, “Welcome to Jerusalem!” or “You’re going to Jerusalem!”  The preaching contestant would then jump up and down with joy (Holy Spirit joy, of course) and yell uncontrollably, “I’m going to Jerusalem!” or “I’m going to the Holy City!”

The Finale

The show’s finale will be the high point of the entire series.  Not only will the winner of the show be announced, but the show will feature cameos by world-renowned Christian personalities like Ravi Zaccarias doing a Greek translation demonstration, Todd Bentley raising someone from the dead LIVE at a south Florida morgue, George Foreman and his sons, George, George, George, and George doing a pro-family, pro-children spot, Kirk Cameron in a fireman uniform giving acting lessons, and M.C Hammer doing a rap-gospel presentation in his trademark purple parachute pants.  And just before the winner is announced, disgraced television evangelist, Bob Tilton (aka “The Farting Pastor” from YouTube who appears late at night now on BET), will give a quick seminar on how to multiply your “seed of faith” money.

I’m pretty confident that these ideas would make So You Think You Can Preach an instant hit – not only among Christian TV watchers – but among non-Christian reality TV show watchers as well.  Family-friendly, good competition, winsome celebrities, supernatural occurances, and inspirational messages.  TV can’t get much better than that!

God On Demand

img00429We Christians can really be goofy sometimes.  Take this local church for example.  My church is near this one, but for some reason, the Lord never told me that He was going to show up in the neighborhood to heal people and perform miracles between June 11 and June 14.

I really wish He would have told me because I could have planned for our own healing and miracles service on Sunday, June 21.  He could have stayed at my house in the spare bedroom, and we could have hung out together.  Instead, we’re just going to have a regular old worship service where I’ll be limited to just talking about Him rather than having Him show up in person.

I guess I just wasn’t aware that I can have God show up and do supernatural things on demand.  I didn’t know that He was just one click away, much like my Movies on Demand feature on my TV.  I suppose I should have realized this earlier, because I’ve known churches to be rather demanding of God all my life.

When I was a kid, my church scheduled God to show up and bring a revival to our town.  We advertised it in the newspaper, made a huge banner and hung it outside the church, and even made bumper stickers for all the members to stick on the backs of their cars.  We then brought in an evangelist who evidently has a direct line to God.  I’m pretty sure we paid this guy fairly well to bring the entire town to its knees.  He preached long sermons each night at the church, told stories I know were mostly lies, and then made us sing all 29 stanzas of Just As I Am because evidently there was someone who needed to come to the altar who was refusing.

I’m pretty sure revival didn’t come to my hometown that week, but the hype was good for my church.  Offerings went up, and through the bumper sticker ministry, more people than ever became familiar with the name of the church.  However, no one said anything after the fact about how there wasn’t a revival during our revival.

I suppose the same will be true of the church in my neighborhood.  There will be a lot of hype among spiritually gullible people but no true healings and miracles will happen inside the walls of that church between June 11-14.  God will not allow Himself to be “on demand” by His people.

Some reading this will call me a man of little faith and question whether I should even be a pastor, but I imagine that most will chuckle with me and feel a bit embarrassed for this poor church.

Church Hierarchy Nonsense

img00416I recently visited a church where the best parking spots were marked “reserved.”  These spots were not reserved for visitors, widows, orphans, the poor, or visiting missionaries serving heroically in faraway lands.  Nope.  They were reserved for the senior pastor and his wife (whom the church refers to as the “First Lady”).

Michelle and I got such a kick out of it that I discreetly took a picture of the parking spaces before I left.  While it struck me as funny at the time, the more I think about it, the angrier I get.  I know that reserving the best parking spots for the pastor and his wife may seem like no big deal, but what it represents is a huge biblical misunderstanding that leads to a lot of problems in the church today.

As I read my Bible (which by the way is the same as yours!), I can’t find anywhere anything about a hierarchy in the church.  Nowhere does the Bible instruct churches to be led by a “senior” pastor along with his “first lady.”  As a matter of fact, the church is not supposed to be led by any man or any woman.  Instead, according to Ephesians 5, Jesus Christ is to be exalted the “head” of the church, and those that serve the church under Him are called elders and deacons.  Without a proper understanding of the way churches are to be ordered biblically, serious problems result that often lead to spiritual disillusionment and a mass exodus of church members and dangerous pride and an abuse of power by the clergy.   (Read Who’s In Charge of Your Church?)

When I was hired by my church, the position I was offered at the time was “senior pastor.”  While I was tempted to keep the title and enjoy my position of ultimate power and authority (mwah ha ha!), I couldn’t do it.  So, one of the first things I did upon being hired was to change my title to “lead pastor.”  This may not seem like much of a change to most, but to me, the elders, and my church, it’s huge.

The title “lead pastor” recognizes my position of leadership, but hopefully removes the false idea of church hierarchy.  I serve as an elder with six other men, and while I’m recognized as the primary teaching elder, I’m trying to show the church that I’m leading with six other equals.  The seven of us elders recognize that Christ is the head of our church, and we lead together under His authority as the Scriptures teach.

So, among other things, this means that the best parking spots at my church will continue to be reserved for visitors.  I’ll continue to park on the loading dock among the weeds, and Michelle will continue to park next to the dumpsters.  No “first lady” treatment for her!