Thinking Out Loud

October 27, 2015

Finding Your Church’s Comfort Sweet Spots

Sometimes we don't realize the way first-time visitors see things when the walk into our buildings, or maybe, like this Community Baptist Church van, we're just not thinking ahead.

Sometimes we don’t realize the way first-time visitors see things when the walk into our buildings, or maybe, like this Community Baptist Church van, we’re just not thinking ahead.

I’ve never actually been in a church where the color of the carpet was an issue, but the topic stands in for a host of other topics when people are discussing superficial things they don’t like about a particular place of worship.

Still, there are some superficial environmental details which impact how effective ministry can be. For example, why is sometimes the pastor seems to really connect with people during the sermon, and other weeks when people are less responsive. It may have to do with things you don’t think about.


  • If the sound is turned up too high, people feel like they are being shouted at. It’s the live equivalent of me typing a sentence in CAPITAL LETTERS, back when people actually interacted in groups. Of course, there are some Pentecostal and Charismatic churches where the preacher’s words are amplified at rock concert volumes, but I think we have natural defenses that want to shut off any message bombarding us at high decibels.
  • If the sound is turned down too low, I believe that even if you’re hearing every single word, you’re using some mental processing capacity to strain to catch those phrases and sentences, at the expense of being able to use that capacity to process the actual content of the words, and their applicability to your situation.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle, and find a way to keep it consistent week-to-week.


  • If the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system is turned up too high, people feel sticky in the summer and sleepy in the winter. If the temperature makes you feel comfy and cozy like you’re lying under a couple of blankets, you will indeed nod off.
  • If the thermostat is turned down too low, people are squirming or perhaps even needing to use the restrooms. Preservation instinct takes over, and the message processing capacity diminishes.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle. Sometimes, if you’re not sure, you need to take 15 seconds to survey the audience on this one.


  • The modern church spends a fortune on stage lighting, which includes something called “backlighting” which helps give definition to people on the platform. However, depending on where you are sitting, these lights can be shining directly into the audience seating. After the first five minutes it gets annoying and after as little as fifteen minutes you have a headache.
  • On the other hand, some churches are so dark it’s creepy. (We covered this topic in the list link a few days ago here.) Combine the absence of light with a high temperature and you have a perfect recipe for slumber once the sermon starts.

What you want is to find the sweet spot in the middle. One church I know turns up the lights for the sermon so people can follow along in their Bibles and make notes. Trouble is, in other auditorium contexts, when the lights come up it means the show is over! 


  • Some churches smell like a church; there’s no other way to say that. Is it the wooden pews? Something given off by old hymnbooks? Stale air from a sanctuary that’s sat relatively idle since the previous week’s service? It could also be something not quite so neutral. Maybe it’s the smell of sweaty socks from a sports night the youth group had downstairs the night before. Or the smell of food from the potluck taking place after the service. It might even be the smell of perfumes worn by mostly female adherents who are mostly above a certain age; a scent many are allergic to. (We’ve discussed that last one in this popular post.)
  • Of course, you can try to compensate for any and all of the above with products that prove the adage that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. The result can actually cause some people to wince as they enter, or after prolonged exposure.

Although we would never admit it, some of us who attend older church buildings have a subconscious affinity to the smell of the church building, but no clue how it impacts first time visitors. Maybe the Episcopalians and Roman Catholics have the cure: Just burn off any transgressing smells. You can read more about that in my next book, The Case for Candles.

So what superficials have affected worship in your past experience?

From last week’s link list, here’s an excellent article dealing with the exterior that greets first-time visitors:


October 26, 2015

Church Office Tech Support

Here is a sample of actual calls* to our church office support desk…

We’re trying to run audio copies of the pastor’s Sunday sermon, and the duplicator isn’t going into the record mode properly.

We’ve had a number of calls about this recently so we did some investigating and discovered there’s a bad batch of product out there. Basically, the cassettes you are using have had the little tabs on the top left of the cassette shell punched out — as is done with commercial albums so people don’t accidentally erase them — and you need to block off that space with tape so the machine will properly record the audio. If you’re recording both sides, you’ll need to cover over the other hole as well.

The typewriter in the church office has a fairly new ribbon, but everything we type is coming out blank. You can see an image of the letters on the paper, but it’s not dark enough to photocopy.

Fortunately, we get this question all the time, as this takes place often in the modern church office. If you look on the typewriter for the ribbon selector — the one where you choose between black and red — you’ll discover that someone has left it in the stencil position. When you’re cutting stencils — which we’re going to guess someone was doing — you need to let the letters tear the paper, so the ribbon is completely disengaged.

I’m filling in at the office this week and the Cross and Crown Sunday School attendance pins arrived, but one of the children’ can’t figure out how to attach his third year bar to his existing pin.

Those pins can be complicated. Our own children, now in their late 20s, still wear their pins to church each Sunday. I’m guessing that the child in your story has lost the Second Year wreath to which the bars attach, and perhaps doesn’t want to admit this. We’ve provided a picture to make it easier to explain:

Sunday School attendance pinsDon’t forget if you have questions, Church Office Text Support is here for you. Call us anytime at 1-800-CHURCH

*Questions from actual calls which were received or which we made up ourselves. Church Office Text Support does not take responsibility for damage to your cassette duplicator, typewriter, Gestetner machine, or the clothing on which Cross and Crown pins are worn.

September 13, 2015

The One Where Paul Makes a Salad for the Church Potluck Lunch

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:01 am

With four of us planning to attend the church potluck lunch, I knew we couldn’t come empty handed, but with my wife on crutches, I couldn’t really ask her to help, and my two twenty-something sons who have far more culinary skills than I could ever dream of just didn’t see anything wrong with showing up with nothing. With my wife injured and off work, someone in the church family was bound to make us a casserole, and by not bringing anything we could just call it even. But I wasn’t buying into that logic.

So it was time for me to make a salad, because I figured this was something I could basically not screw up. Also, it had to involve chopped up bread and butter pickles, because once I come up with an idea, I get really obsessed. Also, we had a surplus of these at the time and despite the fact they were, by definition, pickled, I thought they were starting to go rancid.

Paul’s Pickle Salad

Romaine Lettuce
Pickled Turnip
Bread and Butter Pickles
Lemon Juice and Vegetable Oil


  1. Emerge from shower only to find out that wife on crutches has already chopped the Romaine Lettuce for you.
  2. Vacillate between shredding the radishes or chopping them, and opt for a mixture of both techniques as a nod to fusion cooking.
  3. Shred some celery. Most people would chop, but I am not as other salad makers. Watch fingers as stalks get smaller or keep bandages close by.
  4. Chop pickled turnip. The reason we have this is that we do some Middle Eastern cooking and it’s an ingredient in shawarma. We also make our own Tebouleh. (Google it.) And Falafel wraps. Not bad for white people, huh?
  5. Search refrigerator for some chopped onions. There are just about always leftovers of these in our fridge — probably not more than a week old — and the people at my church certainly deserve the best.
  6. Chop up some bread and butter pickles. This is the heart of the whole recipe. I wondered about actually revealing this today, but I feel I can trust you. If I had been born a girl, I might have come up with this idea for a Home Economics class in Grade 7, but as a guy, the process of getting to this point took several decades little longer. Do they still teach Home Economics? (Note: Do not leave a comment that chopped up bread and butter pickles basically constitutes relish. You obviously don’t possess the esprit de salad needed for a project like this.)
  7. Pause to be thankful the church is providing hamburgers and hot dogs, as people could starve if they were depending on people like me to cook for them.
  8. Stir in ingredients and bake at 375° for one hour. But not the baking part. Don’t do that.
  9. Ask Mrs. W. for an appropriate dressing idea, since I have not thought that far ahead. Collaboratively, we come up with the oil and lemon juice idea. Realizing I haven’t shaved and we need to leave for church in five minutes, she mixes these in proportion. (Yes, you ask, in proportion to what? Do you see any other quantities in this recipe?)
  10. Consider crunching some saltine crackers on top for that faux crouton vibe, but think better of it. Also time was running out.

…And then, came the moment two hours later when my salad appeared on the table along with the handiwork of all the other ladies, and I slowly poured my dressing on top and joined the ranks of generations of potluck providers. I know pride is a sin, but inside I was glowing.

While this recipe may not impress some (or all) of you, I want you to know that for me, once described as culinarily impotent by a former roommate, it was a personal triumph.

…I’m combining this blog post with the one from earlier in the week on candle-making when I start my mommy blog.

We have not heard of any serious illnesses since the potluck, so I have to assume it was a success.

Nobody brought us a casserole. 

We’re having another potluck next week, the instructions read “A-M bring desert, N-Z (but not W) bring a salad. W bring napkins.”

September 4, 2015

Friendships Come and Friendships Go

friendshipsIt is said that one of the finest blessings you can experience is to have one friendship that lasts a lifetime. I’m not sure if the writer had your spouse in mind, but I believe that was not the context, which is better since it allows singles, separateds and divorced to play the home version of the game.

In reality however, many friendships last for only a season. In Christian ministry, some turn out to be task oriented. As long as you continue to manage the church nursery, play the guitar or be a youth group sponsor, you’re in. Step down from those positions and watch your social life die. My wife and I have experienced this over and over.

Some friendships are geographically based. Move away and promise to keep in touch and you’ll find it’s a promise that doesn’t always get kept. You’ve been told absence makes the heart grow fonder? Try out of sight, out of mind. You might hear the classic, ‘I think I accidentally blocked you on Facebook.’

But some simply die out. Again, because this is a Christian writing platform, I want to deal with a few that have a church or ministry context:

  • You’ve been a mentor to a person who is growing spiritually by leaps and bounds and you’ve reached that stage where the student has surpassed the teacher. They are now acutely aware of inconsistencies in your life and thus disillusioned, find it best to dump you.


  • You came alongside someone at a particularly low point in their life, but now that they are back on their feet, their renewed personality makes them attractive to other people and they receive attention from a far greater pool of people in the church family.


  • You taught Sunday School with someone for years but decided in the Spring that you’d like to audition for the worship team. You made it in, but now that person has distanced themselves from you.


  • Your friend is part of a church culture that feeds on new blood, and some people have arrived on the scene that are simply more interesting that you are.

or finally,

  • You yourself have been at a particularly low point in life. It may be spiritual, or it may be circumstantial, but now your ‘friend’ just doesn’t want to have to prop you up during a time of challenge.

There’s also a dynamic that takes place in churches — and in life in general — that reflects the nature of the people being unfriended. Some people are simply gregarious. We don’t use that word much today, instead we talk about extroverts. Others are introverts and much has been written about how church culture can mitigate against such people (but also about how they can thrive just the same.)


  • Dan is a single dad with ties to people in the Men’s group. So is Bruce. But Bruce has six really close relationships to other guys in the group — going to sports events, working on model planes and drones, playing in pick-up bands, etc. — while Dan is really just friends with Bruce. So when Bruce and Dan start to connect on fewer occasions, it still leaves Bruce with five really close friendships, but leaves Dan with none.

And then there is the “couples complication.” Remember the line from Frasier? “When you get the one, you get the other one.”

  • Jennifer and Mark are good friends with Wanda and Jason. Dinners, shopping trips, and watching each others kids when one couple wants a night out. But then Mark gets into a major fight with Jason. Suddenly, Jennifer and Wanda have fewer contexts to connect.


  • Rob and Jocelyn are longtime friends of Ben and Katie. But now Ben and Katie have decided to migrate over to the new church plant that’s meeting at the high school. Nothing can kill a friendship as what happens when someone leaves a church.

So…relationships are complex and church life probably complicates this even further. What can you do?

When circumstances change, you need to work twice as hard to nurture the relationship. You also need to be aware of the vulnerability of the relationship during times of change.

Personally, I believe that if superficial circumstances are all it takes to fracture a relationship, it was never there in the first place.

August 24, 2015

Heresy for the Rest of Us

Would we call Buddhism a heresy? (p. 148)

Counterfeit Christianity - Roger OlsonThere is a striking difference between heresy and heretics, and as the question above illustrates, much depends on where you’re standing when you ask it. Theology and Ethics professor Roger Olson has written a book which occupies a middle ground between the usual academic text and a popular survey of cults and isms. Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church (Abingdon) makes examining the plethora of Christian beliefs and doctrines accessible to the common parishioner, but is in no way light reading.

Olson has written many hardcover textbooks, but with this 176-page paperback seems to go out of his way to make this sideways look at church history more appealing to a broader readership, using some colorful imagery:

The Nicene Creed means that Christians are to believe in a God who is “one what and three whos.” The Chalcedonian Definition, hypostatic union, means that Christians are to believe that Jesus Christ is “one who and two whats.” (p.32)

Got that?

Or in the contrast between the Protestant and Catholics views of doctrinal authority, he quotes Modecai Kaplan:

Tradition always gets a vote, but never a veto. (p.39)

The approach is fresh, and some of it helps explains areas where non-theologians get stuck trying to untangle complex concepts:

In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity can be explained; the Trinity cannot be explained. The doctrine of the Trinity was never intended to be an explanation of God; it was intended to be a model that helps people think about God in a way that does not destroy the mystery of God, is faithful to God’s self-revelation in Christ, and protects God’s triunity from misunderstanding and distorted explanations. (p. 90, italics added)

And again,

Folk religion is to historic religion what astrology is to astronomy… Not all folk religion is totally wrong or heretical, but it’s a fertile seedbed in which heresy can grow and flourish. (p.140)

Organizationally, the book begins with two chapters outlining heresy and orthodoxy, five chapters dealing with what we might consider classic heresies, and three chapters dealing with modern, unofficial heresies; those not condemned by a particular historic council.

Many chapters offer prescriptions for confronting flawed teaching:

The only way to have it in its full and true reality is to delve deeply into the Bible and Christian history by studying the whole Bible, not just passages that support our values and desires, and all the great voices of the Christian past – especially those who suffered for swimming against the stream of their cultures.

[There is] a need for American Christians to receive missionaries from Christian movements in the Global South where Christianity is thriving and, by all account, God’s involvement in day-to-day life is evident. (p.152)

Overall, I feel this title is something needed in the religion/apologetics/church history book market at this time. Again, this is not a textbook — though it could certainly serve as an undergraduate text — but has great potential for the average churchgoer who wants to go deeper into an understanding of false doctrine in the Christian era.

Review copy provided by Augsburg-Fortress Canada

August 18, 2015

Kickin’ Off the Fall Season at Your Church

fall ministry season

Like the school year, unless your church is glued to the liturgical calendar, the days leading into Labor Day are critical as many programs which were suspended for the summer kick back into high gear. Here are a few things for your consideration.

1. Connecting with the community: Inbound – Think of something you can do that is going to attract — yes, attractional, getting people through the doors — people from the broader community in an area within a zero-to-five miles radius of your church. (If that doesn’t get you past your parking lot, your church is too big; but make it ten miles.) A one-night program to help parents (while their children attend a mid-week mock up of what you do for kids on Sundays, if you can pull this off securely) or an all-family event such as a concert artist or a magician or a movie. Make sure it’s free; print tickets and distribute them widely (at least ten times more tickets than your auditorium can hold.) Include distribution to businesses in your catchment area, as many business owners and employees don’t live where they work, but they see your building all the time and would be open to bringing the family to something. Send press releases to the local media. Adjust this plan if your neighborhood as a high concentration of singles so your event isn’t too family oriented and it excludes them. And don’t sell it to your congregation as a great show or great concert; promote it as the best church invite opportunity they’ll have this fall. 1

2. Connecting with the community: Outbound – Find something you can do for your church’s immediate neighbors. If you have a lot of seniors, perhaps your youth group has gone door-to-door and offered to rake leaves. That’s the idea, but I’m thinking here of something more on a mega scale if you’re a mega church, and involving more than just the youth group. A community dinner in a park is another idea. One church suspended its morning service entirely so that everyone could participate in a charity walkathon. One smaller church put a Bible in every residential mailbox in the entire town; over 10,000 addresses.

3. Explain to your congregation where you’re going this year – Don’t just get up and say, “Today we’re starting a series on…” Rather, outline your entire series map for the next 12 months. We know a church that does this; giving people the big picture of planned teaching series and missions foci a year ahead. It also gives them lots of time to think of a target individual or family for the type of event described in (1) above.

4. Debrief last year – In a similar vein, don’t just jump back in without gathering people from various departments of your ministry who can sit at a board table and bring critical thinking to what it is you do. End with some brainstorming for the future. Let them know that no question or comment is off limits, no matter how insane it looks.

5. Develop the means to connect with people connected to your core members and adherents – Everyone in your church is part of a neighborhood, they work or go to school, or they have friends, or they have extended family some of whom live near your church as well. Offer the means to your people to share their faith with those contacts. For the last several decades The Alpha Program has served this purpose, as has similar programs such as H20. 2 But perhaps your greatest need and best initial contact is simply a sewing circle for moms, or a ‘hanging out’ opportunity for men who work shifts and are looking for daytime human contact.

6. Reach out to the people whose attendance is waning – Some churches have done a homecoming weekend, another popular format a few years back was called Back to Church Sunday. This works better in a small-to-medium sized church where people can strategize who is going to get in touch with whom. Sometimes this type of focus — thinking in terms of particular people instead of broad form programs — may reveal that there has been illness, or financial reversals or there is difficulty with transportation to church.

7. Find out what happened to lost adherents and members who haven’t been seen in the last one-to-five years – Obviously some have moved to other cities and states, but for the most part, these are people with whom contact has been broken but you want to reach out and let them know they are remembered and that you care. I think that one way to approach this is as a survey, one which many will cooperate with if you keep it to 90-seconds and make it clear that you’re calling because they attended the church in the past. Find out if they are going somewhere else. (You might want to ask them to name that church, because some people say they go to church, but can’t remember what it’s called.) If not, ask if they are still engaged in prayer or Bible reading. Ask what they see as the one or two key factors that keep them away from church at the present time. Invite them back to something described in one of the above sections. You might get some people slam the phone on you, but many will be glad you cared. You can offer a dedicated web-page for these people to follow up with, and perhaps communicate more in writing than they’re willing to do by phone. (Call it ‘Reuniting with Your Church Family.’ Don’t call it ‘Prodigal Page.’)

8. Create a context for ministry to happen organically – There are some good concepts here, but sometimes the Holy Spirit just needs room, or in this case, a literal room. In an era where hospitality is waning, perhaps people are reluctant to invite people to their messy house, or offer that intimacy of fellowship with people they’ve only just met. So… even if your church wouldn’t dream of serving coffee on Sunday — but especially if it does — open a room a few days a week with tables and chairs and offer free coffee, donuts and something healthy. See who comes. See what happens. People can arrange to connect at the church instead of a coffee shop, and you can have a box for donations. Make the room and chairs comfortable and have some Christian music playing in the background. If you can afford it, have a free literature rack with booklets that connect people with felt needs and issues, or explain the basics of faith. 3

Note that the focus here is people.

…Please forward the link to this article (click on the title at the top) to anyone in your sphere of influence who is a decision-maker at a local church.  Ideas4 and additions are welcomed in the comments.

1Read just the opening paragraph (above the picture) to this article.
2If you’re not familiar with Kyle Idleman and H20, read this review.
3Check out the Hope for the Heart booklets from June Hunt and Rose Publishing
4We’ve run it three times already, but if you missed it, here’s Pete Wilson’s fall priorities.

August 17, 2015

The Perils of Being the Guest Speaker

guest speakingI was coming to my third point when I noticed my mouth was getting dry from all the talking. Sometimes at work, I just push past this, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the glass of water that had been placed there.

I paused, picked up the glass, hesitated, and took a small sip. You guessed it. It was water that had been sitting there from the previous Sunday. Were some in the audience aware of what had just happened? Should I acknowledge the distraction? With the adrenaline rush that you get when you’re speaking before a group of people, I simply continued on in my message.

I did not get sick that day. I’ve often wondered if in this denomination, it’s the pastor’s responsibility to refresh the water glass himself. As a guest speaker, it’s certainly an occupational hazard.

0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Over the course of a couple of years, I had become the default speaker when the pastor, who had ministry interests both in Europe and Central America, needed to be away.

The first Sunday I arrived wearing a dress shirt and dress pants, but no jacket or tie. I was fairly certain this wasn’t normal for that church, but I wanted to make a statement.

The second time I spoke there I also went business casual, but this time, in my introduction, I explained how my work and my writing put me in contact with dynamic churches and pastors across North America and how the church is changing, being very careful to emphasize changes in church architecture, ministry philosophy, music and dress. I think I even acknowledge my own lack of a tie as example of this.

The third time — or just before the third time via email — one of the members told me that a few of them had been part of a discussion resulting in the decision that they would chip in and buy me a suit. “Where else would I wear it?” I asked. Even at the last wedding and funeral I attended, a sports jacket had been sufficient. “I think I do indeed own a suit;” I told them, “But that’s not the direction the North American church is moving.”

The fourth time I simply donned the sports jacket as I was leaving the house. When I arrived at the church, I noticed a few smiles.

…We got to hear John Wimber a couple of times in Southern California in 1989. They were both Sunday evening services, and he was wearing a track suit. Actually, he played with the worship band and then got up to preach, and if someone had said to you, ‘One of the people in the band is the pastor and tonight’s speaker; now guess who it is;” unless you’d seen his picture on his books, I guarantee you would have gotten it wrong.

Andy Stanley wears jeans for the most part, though not yesterday. In the south, it’s all very natural. Rick Warren has his trademark Hawaiian shirts. Bill Hybels is always very corporate, but I’ve never seen him in a suit, and not sure if I’ve seen him in a jacket and tie. (A quick scan of Yahoo Images bears this out, but for the one shot that I’m sure was taken at a banquet.)

The church in question now has a new minister so my guest-speaking and clothing-paradigm-smashing days there appear to be over. What I hope they remember is that the messages were good, but if my name is mentioned, what I think they may remember will have nothing to do with the Bible expositions I brought.

August 16, 2015

The Divorce Effect – Part Three

Jeff-SnowThis is the third and final of three parts, click to read part one which dealt with the effects of divorce. Part two was a focus on the theology of the topic, and today we look at practical suggestions for the church to minister to teens of divorce.

divorce effect3Jeff Snow has spent the last two decades working in youth and young adult ministry in Canada, both in the context of a local church and a parachurch organization. The three articles are taken from his masters thesis on the impact of divorce on middle-school, high-school and college youth.

by Jeff Snow

In the first of our articles on the effects of divorce on teens, we explored the findings of many studies that pointed to the fact that divorce is not a benign event in the lives of teenagers. It should not be seen as a “cold” that knocks a young person for a loop for a time but which they eventually get over. Rather, it should be seen as a chronic illness, with many effects that will be flare up at various stages in life. These effects do not have to define the young person or doom them to a difficult life, but they must be understood and managed, like any chronic condition.

In our second article, we focused on some less tangible effects that are characterized by a sense of loss. Teens of divorce deal with a sense of loss of community, loss of identity, loss of a positive view of God as Father, loss of a family structure within which to safely develop morals and values. These multiplied losses lead to an anxiety which negatively impacts a young person’s life. We ended by suggesting that God has provided the church as a reflection of divine community that can come alongside teens and help them deal with loss and anxiety.

The effects of divorce are far-reaching, and with almost half of the students in an average student ministry dealing with those effects, it is important for youth pastors and leaders to be aware of the particular needs of these students and develop characteristics within their youth ministry that will minister to these needs.


Every youth pastor works to build strong bonds of unity within their youth group, unity that goes beyond simple friendship. A strong youth ministry will have a sense of being united in the Spirit (Eph. 4:3), of being a safe community where students are drawn together by God’s love and presence as well as by their natural kinship. While this atmosphere is important for every teen, it is that much more important for teens of divorce.

youthminstryDouglas Adams, in his book Children, Divorce, and the Church, for teens of divorce, “what they lack in life is a caring community around them. They need help in dealing with past and present pain in their lives. Most need restoration of their self-esteem. The local church is one place where young people from divorced families should be able to find a supportive, loving community.”

What I am advocating as part of ministry to teens of divorce in this area is not so much a distinct program of ministry to them. In fact, very little of what we will discuss points to a specific program that would single out teens of divorce from the group. Rather what is needed is a heightened focus on the importance of nurturing a supportive community within one’s youth ministry, with the equally heightened awareness of the importance of that supportive community in the life of a teen of parental divorce.

The good news is that there already exists in many churches at least the beginnings of this community in the youth groups and youth Sunday school classes that are in place. The goal of the youth pastor is to work to intentionally foster community within these already existing structures so that teens of divorce can know they are not alone and begin to find a community that will help replace what has been lost in the dissolution of their family community.

Andrew Root, in his book The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as The Loss of Being, proposes five practices that should be part of any church community that ministers to teens of divorce. The first is accompaniment. This simply means that peers and adult leaders in the church are willing to walk alongside teens through their journey through divorce, regardless of how long it takes, or how painful and messy it can become.

The second practice is the provision of sanctuary. A youth ministry needs to be a place where a teen suffocating in the throes of familial upheaval can simply come and breathe. It needs to be a place where they know they belong, and where they know they are safe.

The third practice of community is convening. The youth ministry will provide contexts for people, youth and adult leaders, to get together, form community and build relationship. Practically speaking, this means the youth pastor must avoid the temptation to over-program and leave youth as mere spectators. Give the teens and adult leaders the opportunity to hang out together and see what kind of community the Holy Spirit develops.

middle school youth ministryFourth is connecting. It is important for teens of divorce who have lost so much adult influence in their lives to make meaningful connections with the adult leaders of the youth ministry. This is where the youth pastor must train and surround herself with adults who love Jesus and love teens, and who are willing to make connections with teens when the community gathers.

Root contends that a big part of the youth pastor’s job is to “convene spaces for intergenerational conversations to occur.” This is why, though I firmly believe that youth need a weekly gathering to call their own, I am not a believer in a parallel youth church that meets on Sunday mornings, or that in any other way takes the youth away from opportunities to convene and connect with Christians from other generations. Teens of divorce, in particular, need the influence of and connection with older, more mature believers.

A final practice in building a community that will minister to teens of divorce if that of blessing. A teen of divorce needs to know that they are wanted and accepted by the church and youth group. They need to feel that they belong, and that the community is glad that they are there.

Ministry people

Besides clergy, there are four types of people in a youth ministry that can be of benefit to teens of divorce. The first is their peers. Teens, especially teens of divorce themselves, need to be encouraged to reach out to each other to provide support.

A second group can be termed an “adult friend”. This is someone who is willing to welcome a teen of divorce into their life and spend time with them, both in the context of the church and youth group, and beyond. The home life of a teen of divorce can be difficult. It may not feel like home anymore. Families within the church can develop a relationship with a teen where their home can become a refuge where the teen can be invited to help them to get away from it all for a while.

The third group is the adult role model. This includes spiritual modelling, giving the teen of divorce someone to guide them through their development of godly morals and values. Though teaching in a youth ministry is essential and important, teens will often learn more from observing how Christianity works in the real life of a real person.

Modelling for teens of divorce is also very important in the area of marriage and relationships. In my ministry, I have two young couples who have dated, become engaged, and are now married with small children, all while serving as leaders in the youth ministry. Their example is invaluable in terms of modelling God’s plan for relationships, dating and marriage. Teens of divorce need to know that what they have seen in their families is not the only way to live. Providing them with role models who demonstrate healthy relationships is very important.

discipleshipA final category of adult-teen ministry would be a mentor. This is a more intentional and intensive coming alongside of a teen by one adult who is willing to walk with them through the divorce years. Douglas Adams describes a mentor as someone who “took the time and, in some cases, made the sacrifice to help these children of divorce see a better tomorrow.” Teens of divorce need to see hope that things can be different.

These relationships are very important in ministry to teens of divorce, yet in today’s world, it must be acknowledged that this type of relational ministry is becoming increasingly difficult. Some churches and youth ministries simply don’t do this kind of ministry anymore because of the potential risks. Others have put good policies in place to make it work. I believe churches must do all they can to do formulate structures that will allow for safe ministry between adults and teens, especially teens of divorce, who need an adult influence in their lives. Teens will be looking for that support and influence regardless of what we do, and if we don’t provide safe people to be part of their lives, they will find that support and influence in the very people that our policies are trying to protect them from.

These relationships between adult leaders and teens of divorce must not be forced or assigned. They must happen naturally. This is where the youth pastor can use discernment and the context of “convening” events to observe the connections between particular youth and adult leaders, and gently nudge them together.


Teaching is an essential part of any youth ministry. For teens of divorce, it would be important to focus some teaching on issues of identity. Divorce strikes at the heart of a teen’s identity, exacerbating low self-worth and complicating the already difficult search for who they are. In community and through teaching, youth ministries can help teens re-discover their real selves, help them see the image of God in themselves, and come to know that they are worthy of love, both from their fellow humans and from God. A series such as “Who I am in Christ?” can help teens of divorce begin to define themselves less and less by the divorce, and more by their relationship with Christ.

ymin mentoringAnother important area of teaching is in basic morals and values, helping teens distinguish between right and wrong. We have said that teens of divorce are left to forge their own values independent of their parents. This provides a great opportunity for ministry. I have found that teens of divorce are much more spiritually inquisitive than many teens who have grown up in the church in intact families. We have the opportunity to answer their questions and teach them God’s direction for their lives.

A third area of teaching is in dating and preparation for marriage. This is a standard topic in the youth pastor’s tool kit, but it is all the more important for teens of divorce, who are more sexually active as teens and get divorced more as adults than teens from intact families. The “sleeper effect” of divorce shows itself when teens and young adults begin to develop their own romantic relationships. Youth ministries can provide teaching as early as mid-adolescence that will help teens of divorce prepare for healthy relationships.

A final area of teaching is focusing on the nature of God, helping to correct the misconceptions of God teens of divorce develop because of their experiences. We need to teach them that God is a confidant they can talk to about their pain; that He is a source of stability and a comforter; that He is a true Father who is sovereign and has all things under control, even when it seems like all is falling apart. The teen of divorce needs to hear that they are safely in the palm of God’s hand, that He loves them and protects them.


How can youth ministries speak specifically to the spiritual lives of teens of divorce? We said last time that many teens of divorce, while losing interest in organized religion, still have deep spiritual interest. They define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This has two positive implications for youth ministry. First, the less formal, less “churchy” nature of most youth ministry can be attractive to teens of divorce in particular. Secondly, we recognize that teens of divorce have not given up on their spiritual journey. They are full of questions. They want to connect with God. They may not like the church, but they are willing to pursue knowledge of God and Jesus. Youth pastors need to not be turned off by their disinterest in the organized church, but rather encourage and nurture the deep spiritual hunger that they have.

Divorce Effect Part threeWe pointed out one study last time that found that divorce often drives committed teens away from the church in anger and disillusionment, while drawing fringe youth closer to God and the church as a means of coping. The youth pastor needs to be aware of these possible reactions. Youth leaders must be OK with the questions and anger and even rejection these committed students may display towards God and their parents, and gently walk beside them on their journey away from a faith that relied on their parents, and towards a faith that will hopefully be stronger and their own. Youth pastors also need to pay attention to the students on the fringes of the youth group whose experience of divorce will heighten their desire to find a coping mechanism in faith in God, and come alongside them in their walk towards God.

In both cases, youth leaders need to realize that the window of opportunity for ministry may be small as deepening family conflict and parental moves may take the teen out of the group.

Support groups

We haven’t discussed support groups much yet. They can be an important part of ministry to teens of divorce as they find healing through shared experience. But one must be careful that such a group does not label or isolate the teen from the rest of the group. The church must also caution against any mindset that a 12 week course will solve all the teens’ problems and that the presence of the group does not discourage others from getting involved. A support group must be seen as part of an overall ministry to teens of divorce, not as an end in itself.

One support group curriculum for teens that seems effective is “Spectrum”, produced by an organization called Rainbows. The curriculum has a faith-based component for use in churches, and one for use in schools if a youth ministry finds itself with an open door to reach into the school system.


In my research, I have noticed one common theme that arises again and again as an important element in ministry to teens of divorce: The importance of listening to them. This may seem rather simplistic, but it is something that is essential and astonishingly neglected and overlooked.

The most disturbing statistic I found in my research pertaining to ministry to teens of divorce was found in Elizabeth Marquardt’s book, Between Two Worlds. She writes, “of those young adults who were regularly attending a church or synagogue at the time of their parents’ divorce, two-thirds say that no one – neither from the clergy nor from the congregation – reached out to them during that critical time in their lives, while only one-quarter remember either a member of the clergy or a person from the congregation doing so.”

Let that sink in. This is not a survey of people outside the church, nor is it referring to teens of divorce where the divorce happened to them as a child. For teens who are regularly in the church and who are in the midst of experiencing a divorce, 66% of them said no one paid any attention to them. This is a sobering statistic for youth pastors and the church as a whole. The church needs to be aware of the teens involved in a divorce and needs to find ways to reach out to them. And the simplest way to begin to do that is to listen to them, because having someone who will listen is at the core what these teens are missing. No one asked them if they wanted to live through a divorce. Most of the decisions made in the divorce are made without consulting them, yet they severely impact their lives.

Those involved in youth ministry have the opportunity to create a safe place for teens to talk about their experiences, and assure them that they will be listened to. When that is done, they are valued and deemed important. They are shown their worth in God’s eyes.

The key to awareness of the needs of teens of divorce, and as a result the key to ministry to them, is quite simply to listen to them, not just for a short time, but over the long haul, for divorce is a long and difficult journey for a teen. As youth ministers listen and gain knowledge of the pain and needs of teens of divorce, they will be more equipped to meet those needs in their ministries, and to share with the broader church community what can be done, and what needs to be done, in order to help these adolescents grow into the person God created them to be.


If you’ve found this series helpful, and would like to send Jeff a message off the blog, use the contact form on this page and we will pass it on for you.

August 7, 2015

Life at the Church is Kinda Laid Back: How our Preaching Sounds to Newcomers

Two years ago we went on a farm tour. I think the purists among the farming community call this ‘agritourism’ or even ‘agritainment.’ The owner guided us around her property consisting entirely of one ‘crop’ a somewhat obscure herb that some reading this might never have had contact with.

As we stood in one place in the hot sun for nearly 30 minutes, and in the field for about 60 minutes overall, our guide was oblivious to any potential discomfort. She speaks well and clearly. She is obviously intelligent.

More important are two qualities: She has a passion for what she is doing. It constantly leaks from the overflow of her heart. And she knows her subject down the last detail. I can’t imagine a question she couldn’t answer.

In the church, we generally give high place to those two criteria among the people who act as our guides, particularly those who teach us at weekend services. The formula looks like this:

genuine passion + extensive knowledge = audience engagement

In most cases, the sermons you remember because you’d like to forget them (there’s a phrase!) either lacked passion (a dry monotonous delivery) or lacked substance (the speaker hadn’t studied or had no depth).

The problem was, the farm owner had both, yet in our little group of six, I’m not sure how engaged we were. One person out of the six asked several questions however; this would represent the 15% of people in our local churches that some estimate are really into what is going on and are committed to lifestyle Christianity.

Bible teaching and preaching(I should also add that both my wife and I picked up the parallel between what we were experiencing and its application to church life. As soon as we were out of earshot of the rest of the group, it’s the first thing we mentioned.)

Now, we knew going in what the subject matter was going to be. We just didn’t know how that would be presented. For nearly an hour in the hot sun, we were presented with answers to questions we weren’t asking, details only a solid aficionado of the subject would want to know.

Now I know how preaching sounds to an atheist. We weren’t dragged to this event against our will; in fact we paid an admission to be there. So there was some interest, but not in the type of things that were presented. My wife noted a couple of things that were absent in the presentation; I’ll let her explain.

If the medium is the message, is the storyteller the story? Our credibility is born out of who we are, and our storyteller told us a story that communicated nothing of herself, or any other people. She shared an expert stream of hows, of dos and don’ts, of whens and wheres and hows, of so many centimetres apart and deep and high, of percentages and techniques, of days and weeks and months and years – but no who. We were told that the plant was native to the Mediterranean area. So who brought it over here and why? We were told that there are 57 varieties of the plant, examples of each to be found in a separate plot of soil. Who created the variants? One little nugget that dropped was that her family had, until a few years ago, been market gardeners (implying a varied and multi-seasonal crop). She never explained how they’d made the leap from something so practical and communal to something so esoteric and exclusive. Where did this passion come from? There was no history, no personality. No identity.

So basically, all of our passion and all of our knowledge does not guarantee that our presentation will become infectious, or frankly, that anyone is listening at all.

I know that some people read blogs who are very distrustful of churches that try to make the gospel relevant. I like what someone once said on this: We need to communicate the relevance the gospel already has. I know in my own life there have been times when I was passionate and detailed about things that my hearers may have had a mild interest in, but I wasn’t addressing their felt needs.

Spiritual passion + Biblical knowledge does not necessarily result in audience receptivity, even if you’re the best orator in the world.

August 4, 2015

An Alternative Worship Menu

Filed under: Christianity, Church, music, worship — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:57 am

I don’t get to lead worship now as often as I once did, but enjoy writing on the subject from the perspective of someone who has been on both sides of the platform. Recently Worship Links contacted me about doing a guest post for them, which ran last week. (I told they they’d have the first chance to run it.) Now it’s time for y’all to have a look at it here.

article for Worship Links

The Hidden Menu

The Roland keyboard our church bought more than twenty years ago had 32 basic sounds, but if you held the “A” bank key down at the same time as you turned on the power, a larger, 128-sound hidden menu unfolded. While we didn’t use them all, we used them frequently, though most of the time Piano-1 was the default setting, as I suspect it is at most churches.

In our family, the term “hidden menu” became synonymous with a whole lot of things. When the car CD player quit on a road trip, we were forced to scan the FM dial from top to bottom, and finding nothing to our liking, I said, “Where’s the hidden menu?” We don’t have cable or satellite and don’t watch a lot of television, but on one search throughout a rather large number of broadcast signals, my wife turned and said, “Try the hidden menu.”

Sometimes I find myself in a worship service where I keep thinking there’s something else we should be doing with that time. As someone who has spent years leading worship myself, I think I approach this time with a positive attitude, but there are days when I consider the possibility that just listening to the original recordings of the compositions and singing along might be an improvement on what the worship team is attempting. Or doing a morning of classic Christian camp and retreat songs. Or rediscovering some obscure hymns. Or getting all liturgical and mixing readings with chorus or bridge sections of songs for which we don’t need projected lyrics.

Then, a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that perhaps I had already found the hidden menu.

About a year ago I wrote a blog post titled Who Says Youth Groups Won’t Sing? It centered around an eight-minute video posted by the Rural Hill Church of Christ, who operate a summer camp, which has a section at the front of one of their buildings called The Singing Porch. With no musical instruments, these kids were singing with a passion and energy that would be foreign to many churches, especially those small to medium churches trying to do today’s modern worship songs but without the luxury of Hillsong’s or North Point’s band, and thereby forced into a situation where the audience stands politely but is afraid to truly sing out.

I did some further exploration of the Church of Christ, and particularly their a capella music tradition. I listened to YouTube videos for hours. I kept coming back to the above mentioned video, especially “Let it Rise” and the part at the six-minute mark where they show a few seconds of “Get Right Church.” I know I might not be able to sell this at your church, but I kept wishing I could bottle some of this and take it to my church. Honestly, our relationship to many of the songs we sing on Sunday morning can only be described as passive. These kids were engaged.

Another way is possible.

That got me thinking about another experience we had, visiting an alternative service in an Episcopalian church and being introduced to the music of Taizé. This form involves taking very short lyrical fragments and building them into short pieces which are then sung in very easy-to-learn parts. It’s what we call a round in children’s ministry, but it wasn’t so long ago — recall “Father, I Adore You” — that this was part of weekend service sets. Taizé is more liturgical and more meditative. Call it soaking music for Anglicans. You can learn more at the movement’s website, or through a simple YouTube search.

Both the a capella style of the Church of Christ and the liturgical-flavored form of Taizé may seem too traditional for you, but studies over the past year seem to indicate that Millennials are looking for something more than what our Top-40 worship songs and bland contemporary Church architecture have on offer. The late Robert Webber proposed a model of blended worship that gave rise to the term ancient/future, but some of the surveys suggest some twenty-somethings are willing to just explore ancient.

I would wager to say that some of them are looking for the hidden menu, and I think you can consider other musical options without sacrificing the relevance of your preaching or the programs and ministries that everyone assumes are provide a younger demographic appeal.

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