The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Book Review: Youth Ministry In A Post-Christian World

I recently completed Brock Morgan’s Youth Ministry In A Post-Christian World: A Hopeful Wake-Up Call, and wanted to write a brief review.

Morgan’s basic premise is that the America we live in is now a post-Christian society and as such, requires different patterns and practices of youth ministry to be successful. Morgan is not an ivory tower speculator, but a youth ministry veteran who is in the trenches, and speaks from his own experiences.

There were certain elements of the book that didn’t connect with me. First, as a youth minister in semi-suburban Arkansas, the students I work with are less post-Christian than those Morgan describes in Greenwich, Connecticut. That doesn’t mean Morgan is off-base or an alarmist (more realistically, the trends he describes are just 5-10 years around the corner for me), but it did make part of his material seem foreign to my context.

Second, the author seems like a great guy, and the stated subtitle of the book is “A Hopeful Wake-Up Call,” but the reality for me was that as I read the book, it made me feel incredibly inadequate as a youth minister. I’m sure this was not the author’s intention and is probably more of a reflection of my own tendency to be overly hard on myself, but the repeated feeling of, “This is not the way I do youth ministry; I must be terrible” was not a pleasant one.

Third, a few times throughout the book, the author used some course language that I didn’t have a lot of patience for. It wasn’t pervasive, and some might be inclined to roll their eyes that I even mention it, but I have never had much use for Christian leaders using bad language—especially for those who work with teens.

Finally, there were some statements and sentiments sprinkled throughout the book that I wasn’t crazy about, and I’ll give a couple of examples. At one point, Morgan relates a story where he and another minister teach a student that religion is man-made, while spirituality is from God. There are certainly a lot of man-made trappings that can obscure and distort religion, but this is a tired, false dichotomy that gets on my nerves, and is contradicted by Scripture (James 1.27). In another place where Morgan discusses how grace should lead us to act, he makes the statement that grace teaches us to say no to discipline. One thing I have found as a youth minister is that there are a lot of times where I can show grace by not responding harshly to every instance of misbehavior. But grace is not antithetical to discipline; discipline is an essential element of discipling people (see the connection in the two words?!). These are just a couple of examples, but represent that there were several times throughout the book where I read something, narrowed my eyes, and thought, “I’m not too sure about that.”

Having gotten the negatives out of the way, I want to clearly say this: Morgan is an insightful thinker and there were many places in the book where I thought he hit it out of the park. Here are some of my favorite quotations:

Our students are growing up in a pluralistic society that’s much different than the world in which you and I grew up. And if you’re smack-dab in the midst of adolescence and your top goals are to fit in and not stand out, to be different by being just like everyone else, then the acceptance of all things is an important value to have. (27)

Christendom is now dead, and we need to get over it. (30)

In a post-Christian world, no value is placed on the Sabbath, so our children have some scheduled activity seven days a week. This has created the most anxious and stressed-out generation in history. (41)

I’d hate to think that people aren’t open to Jesus because we’re perceived as not being open to them. (82)

For many people, the church is a place that says, “If you don’t believe what we believe, vote how we vote, and take the same stand on issues that we take a stand on, then you don’t belong.” I believe God is calling us to bigger things and a more humble posture. He is calling us once again to trust the Holy Spirit. To trust that he will work out the minor things of the faith in the lives of our students.” (83)

Unanswered questions open us up to the bigness of God. When we offer pat answers to complex questions, we shrink God down to our level. (89)

Hiring a 22-year-old and paying that person an extremely low amount of money to disciple students apart from the church has an effect. Many students graduate from the youth group and simultaneously graduate from their faith. (127-28)

What if students began getting their identities from being a part of the church rather than being apart from the church? (129)

All in all, this is a work that I would certainly recommend to youth ministry workers. The reality is that 21st century America is increasingly a post-Christian society—if your context (like mine) isn’t quite there yet, it will be soon. We can pretend this isn’t reality, continue to do things in the same old ways, and then wonder why we are increasingly ineffective, or we can begin to think through the issues that Youth Ministry In A Post-Christian World discusses. I would prefer to do the latter, and was thankful for this guide.

Gifts & Contentment: A Thanksgiving Message from Ecclesiastes

This is an adapted version of a sermon a preached this past Sunday. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. I enjoy spending time with family, and I enjoy the good food that you get to eat at Thanksgiving. I’m also a big fan of Christmas, and to me, Thanksgiving always kicks off the Christmas season, so I like that about it too.

But most of all, as a Christian and a minister, I really appreciate that we have this time built into our yearly rhythm where we are encouraged to stop, reflect, and give thanks for what we have. That is an incredibly biblical thing to do. Thanksgiving is the basic response that God’s people should have in light of what God has done, and although this may be something that we lose sight of at times, this holiday, anchored on our calendars, helps remind us of this action which is central to our lives as followers of Jesus.

This particular Thanksgiving meditation comes from a somewhat unusual source: the Book of Ecclesiastes. I say “somewhat unusual” because the Book of Ecclesiastes is not something we focus on too much. Many people have a quotation from Ecclesiastes that they like, but they don’t really study the book in detail. A big part of this, I think, is that a lot of people think that the Book of Ecclesiastes is really depressing! Many people (including biblical scholars) suggest that Ecclesiastes has a very pessimistic view on life.

I disagree with that, though; I don’t think Ecclesiastes is pessimistic, I just think that it is very realistic. My wife would laugh to hear me say this, because all the time she tells me that I am a pessimist, and I disagree and say that I am a realist. I am just very aware that the world is broken, that people are deeply flawed, that we tend to get let down a lot, and that there is a lot of disappointment in life. I don’t always walk around with a scowl on my face or imagine the worst possible outcome of every situation, but I acknowledge that there are a lot of things that happen in life that are out of our control, that we don’t understand, and that we wish didn’t happen. And I think that is exactly how the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the world. I love Ecclesiastes.

And in this very realistic book, I think we are given a great perspective on Thanksgiving.

Real Talk About Money

I want to look specifically at the last half of Ecclesiastes 5, but to give a little bit of context, Ecclesiastes starts off with the author (who calls himself the Teacher or Preacher depending on your translation) saying that life is vanity, like chasing after the wind. And what he means by this is not that life has no meaning, but that life is brief and it’s hard to grasp, both literally and metaphorically—we don’t get to determine how long our lives are, and there are things about life that we simply can’t understand. It’s like trying to catch the wind or smoke.

And then the Teacher talks about all of these things in life that he sought after to find meaning, and he says that none of it lasts. We could say more, but that’s sufficient to give us an idea of what is going on in Ecclesiastes. Picking up in Ecclesiastes 5.10-17:

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

The Teacher begins by talking about money, and he has some important things to say about it. The harshest feedback I ever got from a sermon came once when I preached about money, but here’s the deal: the Bible talks about money all the time! The Law of Moses discusses it in detail, it is addressed repeatedly in wisdom literature (like Ecclesiastes), the prophets deal with the (mis)use of money, Jesus talks about it frequently, etc. If we want to be biblical, we will talk about money a lot—not because we worship it, but because we want to make sure that we don’t!

From earlier chapters in Ecclesiastes, we know that the Teacher was incredibly wealthy. He knew all about what money could buy, and he said it was vanity—vapor, smoke. It doesn’t last, and therefore doesn’t provide real significance. Here he goes on to list some of the problems that can come with money: addiction (v.10), it attracts the greedy (v.11), it promotes worry and lack of sleep (v.12), it leads to hoarding (v.13), it can easily be lost (v.14), and it cannot follow us after death (vv.15-17).[1]

Here I am, thinking that things would be a lot better if I just made a little bit more, but the Teacher doesn’t seem to agree. What a downer!

I should be clear here that money is not inherently a bad thing, but Scripture has a lot to say about wealth that should make us very careful in how we view it. Money can very easily become bad for us. It can compete with God for our devotion, twist our hearts, and destroy our lives.

To combat that, we should consider our money and indeed, all of our material possessions, as being a loan from God. All that we have belongs to God, but He gives us our possessions so that we can use them for His glory. Therefore, we should take care of our money and be good stewards of it, but we should always remember that it isn’t really ours. This perspective will help us to not get too attached to our money, and also to look for ways we can use it which will glorify God.

Everything Is A Gift

If this sounds pessimistic (first, it’s not; it’s realistic!), keep reading in Ecclesiastes 5.18-20:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5 ends with a summary statement emphasizing the importance of enjoying the blessings that God has given us (cf. Ecclesiastes 2.24-26).

Work is a good thing; we were created to be workers. When God created Adam, He placed him in the garden and told him to tend and cultivate it. From the beginning, we were intended to be workers. Think about those who are disabled and cannot work, or those who need jobs to provide for their families but can’t find them; those are unfortunate situations. If you are able to work and have a job, that is a blessing. If you enjoy your work and enjoy the people you work with, that is an even greater blessing.

In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher doesn’t understand everything about life (and if you go through the book, he is very clear about the parts of life that don’t make sense to him), but he does know that work, food, and family are blessings—gifts—from the Lord and should be enjoyed as such.[2] It is incredibly important that we view these things as gifts rather than achievements; if we do so, it completely changes our perspective.

Gifts are not something that we deserve. They are something that we receive because of the gracious nature of the giver. When you think about things in terms of gifts, it really changes your perspective. And here’s the secret, according to the Teacher of Ecclesiastes: everything is a gift! Life—as confusing as it is, as filled with heartache as it can be—is a gift. Work is a gift. Our food, our families…all of it: gift. If we look at the things that we have as gifts, it changes everything.

These are blessings God bestows on us to enjoy, not objectives for us to obsessively strive after. There is a lot of joy to be found in living a simple life that is satisfied with meaningful work, sufficient food, and edifying relationships.[3]

Content No Matter What?

This is all tied very closely to the idea of contentment, and if you’ll allow me, I want to jump to the New Testament for a minute to say a few words about that idea.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a favorite for a lot of people; it is one of his more positive letters, despite the fact that he wrote it from prison. He begins it by sharing his thankfulness for the Christians at Philippi. As Paul contemplates the possibility of his impending execution, He speaks of his great concern for spreading the Gospel and how Christ is at the very center of his work and identity regardless of what happens to him. He talks about the humility of Jesus and how He serves as an example to us, how as followers of Christ we are to be lights in the world and seek the standard of Jesus.

And then as Paul is closing the letter and encouraging the Philippian Christians, he says this in 4.10-13:

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

I think contentment is less about what you have and more about your attitude of thankfulness toward what you have. Paul says that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstance he finds himself. That confirms to me that contentment is an internal quality rather than an external one; it does not depend on what is going on around us. Paul had a lot of difficulty in his life (he was beaten, imprisoned, scourged, left for dead, shipwrecked, etc.), but he was able to find contentment regardless.

This also helps us better understand what Paul means in his famous “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” quote. This verse gets taken out of context and abused a lot, but Paul isn’t talking here about passing an algebra test or getting a job promotion or winning a basketball game. Instead, what he means is that Jesus Christ empowers him to find contentment in all situations.

And to me (and to tie this back to Ecclesiastes), one of the simplest and most powerful ways of finding contentment in all situations is to remember that our blessings are a gift from God.

Our world is filled with people who are chasing after the standards and achievements of the world in some obsessive quest for significance. As Christians, though, we are not to live lives of hopeless desperation; we find our significance and our meaning in the God who gives us all things. Our identity and purpose is not based on achievement; it is based on gift from our Creator.

And that is a cause for great Thanksgiving.


[1]See Chad Landman, Wisdom for Life: 6 Weeks in Ecclesiastes (Hashtag Media, 2013), 18.

[2]Phillip McMillion, Wisdom Literature Class Lecture Notes (Memphis: Harding University Graduate School of Religion, Fall 2010).

[3]William P. Brown, Character In Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 136.

Youth In Family Ministry Launches Today!

A couple of weeks ago I announced that my new ebook, Youth In Family Ministry: A Handbookwas available for preorder, and today is the day it releases! I have been honored and humbled that so many of you have bought it, and I greatly appreciate you for doing so.

It is nice to sell a few books, but more than that, what I am interested in is sharing the information that is contained within this book. I am not an alarmist, but research shows that youth ministry is in trouble in some pretty significant ways, and I have come to believe very deeply that there is a more biblical (and more effective) way of passing faith on to the next generation than what we have typically done. That is what this book is all about.

If you would be willing, I would greatly appreciate it if you would help me get the word out about this book. Towards that end, I have created the images below for you to share on social media. You should be able to just hover over the image and share it to the platform of your choice.

Thanks so much for your continued support!

Asleep In The Storm

There are a couple of different instances recorded in the gospels where Jesus and His disciples are caught up in a storm while on the Sea of Galilee. Both of these are fascinating stories, and they have a way of captivating the imagination.

Matthew 14 recounts the story of Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s stumbling efforts to walk towards Him. He succeeds for a moment, but then, overwhelmed by the waves and the wind around him, takes his eyes off of Jesus and begins to sink. Jesus rescues him, rebukes his faith, gets into the boat, and the storm ceases. It is a fascinating event from the life of Jesus, and one from which we can undoubtedly learn much, but it is actually the other “storm” story I want to focus on.

This one drawn from Luke 8/Matthew 8/Mark 4 is likely familiar to you as well. Jesus and His disciples are out on the sea when a storm arises. The disciples are alarmed, and seemingly with good reason—the waves were breaking into the boat so that it was filling (Mark 4.37), swamped (Matthew 8.24), and they were in danger (Luke 8.23).

But Jesus was unconcerned, even unaware (or so it seemed) of their plight—He was asleep on a cushion in the boat. Asleep in the storm.

In such circumstances, the apostles do what seems sensible to them in the moment. They awaken Jesus, and in the face of His seeming lack of concern, ask, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

In light of the life, teachings, service, and, ultimately, the sacrifice of Jesus, it seems like a ludicrous question, but imprisoned in the circumstances of the moment, it seemed like a fair question to the disciples. Jesus was asleep; He didn’t seem to care. He seemed absent from their sufferingOf course, we know the truth: He was there all along.

•  •  •

If I am honest, I can identify with the apostles here more than I might like to admit. As I have written recently, this has been a tough year for my daughter. She has experienced seizures for most of her life, but this year they have gotten worse, and we have struggled to control them. What’s worse, the frequency of the seizures and/or the many medications she is on to try to control them has led to a lessening of her energy, a muting of her (delightful) personality, and even some regressions in the abilities she has worked so hard to develop over the last few years.

Some days are better, with fewer seizures, more energy, and more personality, but other days are really hard. The emotional roller coaster is exhausting. This has been our situation for several months, despite the constant prayers of Caroline and myself and the faithful intercession on her behalf from countless friends and family (both physical and spiritual). You could say that we are experiencing our own “storm” right now, and have been for a while.

At times, it feels like we are drowning with grief, about to capsize, and the question the apostles asked Jesus seems like an appropriate one: “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?” It can seem that God is absent.

The other day, I read through Luke’s version of the story recorded above, and it struck me in a way I had never thought of before (which, by the way, is one of the remarkable things about Scripture—as you read it and reread it, new insights constantly avail themselves to us; it is a transformative book!). So often in life, when we are living through a storm, we ask God to take it away from us, and when He doesn’t, we are left to wonder whether He cares about us at all.

But I think Luke 8 offers us a different perspective—in the midst of the storm, Jesus is neither distant, nor uncaring. He is right there with us, in the boat, riding out the storm. His seeming absence obscures His glorious presence. And while He certainly has the power to take the storm away (and we earnestly pray that He does so!), He asks us for faith, faith that His presence will protect us from being overwhelmed by the storms of life.

New eBook: Youth In Family Ministry: A Handbook

I am excited to announce the completion of a project that I have worked on for the last couple of years. Youth In Family Ministry: A Handbook is the culmination of years of research and personal experience, and sets forth a model of youth ministry that, I believe, is both biblical and effective.

Research shows that a lot of our young people walk away from their faith after high school, and what’s worse, research also indicates that a lot of the things that we have traditionally done in youth ministry are actually weakening the ties that young people have to the church rather than strengthening them.

In Youth In Family Ministry: A HandbookI take an in-depth look at the current crisis in youth ministry, examine in detail what Scripture says about passing faith on to the next generation, and also suggest practical ways that this can be done. The book is about 100 pages long, and is thoroughly researched and footnoted, and is filled with important information.

This ebook releases in two weeks, on Wednesday, November 15, but you can pre-order your copy here.

I believe this is an important project, because I deeply believe in the importance of helping our young people to develop a faith that will stick with them throughout their lives. I would love for it to be read widely so these ideas can spread and more and more churches can practice youth ministry in what I believe is a more biblically-grounded and, ultimately, better way.

There are two big ways you can help:

(1) Buy the book. 🙂

(2) Spread the word. Share this post, and tell others you know who you think might be interested. I think it is an important resource for youth ministers, church leaders, youth group volunteers, parents, and more.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your support!

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