The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Youth Ministry (page 1 of 15)

Self-Denial in a Self-Discovery World

One of the advantages of being a youth minister is that I have the opportunity to read and hear a lot of good teaching from a variety of different sources. Some of these are basically available to anyone (books, sermons, podcasts), while others I gain access to by traveling to different youth events and hearing gifted and thoughtful speakers.

A while back, I was blessed to listen to my friend Shannon Cooper, who made the point that we live in a society that is obsessed with self-discovery: for many, the central goal of life is to “find out who we are” so we can “be true to ourselves.” Self-help books constitute a lucrative industry. Discussions related to sexual and gender identity become issues of the utmost importance. We seek to define ourselves by our hobbies, or the music we listen to, or our peer groups.

There is a problem with this, though: self-discovery leaves us with no point of reference beyond ourselves. Fundamentally, it is limited, subjective, and, ultimately…selfish.

It is also not Christian. A more Christian way of thinking about identity is not based on self-discovery, but on self-denial and the imitation of Jesus.

And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.

(Matthew 10.38-39)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”

(Matthew 16.24)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

(1 Corinthians 11.1)

 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2.20)

As Christians, we cannot force our worldview on nonbelievers (nor should we try to), but we should certainly hold ourselves and one another to that worldview. And the way of Christ is not about finding purpose and meaning through discovering “who we really are,” which is another way of saying “doing what we want to do.” Rather, it is about denying the urge to do what we want to do and instead to prioritize what Jesus wants us to do in partnering in His work to reconcile the world to Himself. This is where purpose and meaning is found.

Unsettled (And Why That Is A Good Thing)

It has been just over three weeks ago that my family and I moved to begin a new youth ministry work at a different congregation in a new city. Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming, and we are so excited to be where we are. We were in a great place before, working with a great church, but ultimately, we decided to move because we became convinced that it was God’s will that we do so, and that decision has been affirmed and reaffirmed in so many ways since our move.

Having said all that, it has been challenging as well. One question I keep getting over and over is, “How are you settling in?”, and the best answer is probably that I am still very much unsettled. I knew this before, but I have come to realize just how much I am a product of routine, and virtually all of those routines have been interrupted. The familiar faces have changed, I am not sure which keys unlock which doors, and I have swapped a host of activities and trips that I could plan and lead in my sleep for others I have not experienced before and know little about.

For a person who likes to be in control, it’s all a little unsettling.

I suspect that I am not alone in this—either my desire to be in control, or my feelings of discomfort when I realize that I am not.

But what a valuable reminder this season of life is providing me! God does not ask me to construct a façade of control around myself seeking to find comfort in routine. Rather, He asks that I give up the notion of control itself, and place my trust, and indeed, my life, in His capable hands.

The heart of man plans his way,
but the LORD establishes his steps.
(Proverbs 16.9)
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
(James 4.13-15)

It is unsettling…but I think the life that Jesus asks of His followers is supposed to be exactly that.

Preparing for Ministry in Small Churches

Several days ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a class of ministry students at Harding University who are near the completion of their degrees. While my primary task was to speak to them about youth ministry, I was also supposed to give them some practical tips for doing ministry in a congregational setting.

I offered several tips, some of which were likely more helpful than others, but some of my advice was focused on the reality that Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches.

Consider some of the following information from the 2015 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States, compiled by Carl H. Royster. Of 12,303 congregations of Churches of Christ in the United States:

  • 1,932, or 15.7%, are congregations of 0-24 people
  • 3,351, or 27.2%, are congregations of 25-49 people
  • 3,556, or 28.9%, are congregations of 50-99 people
  • 2,159, or 17.5%, are congregations of 100-199 people
  • Combined, this means that roughly 89% of congregations are less than 200 people in size

The congregation where I currently serve doesn’t seem overly large to me, but at 230, it is in the top ten percent of congregations in our fellowship by size.

Again, Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches. With this reality in mind, I offered a couple of suggestions to the Harding students I talked to who were about to graduate and head into ministry roles in Churches of Christ.

First, it is important to develop a diversified skill set. If you want to work in a church of Christ, and what you really, really want to do is be an adult education minister and do only that, there just aren’t that many jobs like that out there. The reality is that in smaller churches (i.e., the vast majority of churches of Christ), you have to wear a lot of hats, and you need to have a diversified skill set to be able to do that.

In my current position (and remember, we are over 200 in size, so we are larger than 9/10 churches in our fellowship), in a given week I might find myself planning a youth retreat, writing adult Bible class lessons, designing our church website, preaching, and negotiating a new contract with our copier company—and that’s not an unusual week!

Out of necessity, you have to wear a lot of different hats. You might have a specialized skill or skills that you are really good at, and that’s great, but you need to develop general skills as well.

Second, it is important to develop humility about your role. I was speaking that day to Christian college-trained ministry students, which means that in many ways, they are the upper echelon, the elite. They have spent lots of money and countless hours receiving training in biblical languages, intensive Bible study, ministerial skills, etc. Simply put, there are things that they have been trained to do that a lot of people in the congregations where they serve won’t be able to do, and it’s important that they prioritize and do those things.

But at the same time, that doesn’t mean they are too good to do less glamorous, more menial things. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I have spent straightening up chairs, taking out the trash, or putting things away in storage closets while at work. I didn’t need an M.Div to do that work, but it was still a vital part of my job. A couple of years ago, we had a major problem with the sewage line at our church building. Toilets backed up, and foul water flooded the hallway. And our preaching minister got out the mop and went to work. Ultimately, ministers are servants, and they step up to serve where it is needed; they are not too good to do the “small” things.

I am sure there are many more ideas that could be added, and again, this is coming from a guy who isn’t really at a small church. But if these lessons are true for me, how much more they must apply to even smaller congregational contexts. There are some real blessings that come with working with small churches, but it requires a certain type of minister as well.

Judging by demographic realities, many of the ministry students I spoke to will find themselves (at least at some point) working in smaller congregations. I hope what I shared with them will prove to be helpful.

A New Chapter

Yesterday was one of the most challenging days of my life, as I announced that I would be leaving the Farmington Church of Christ, my home and family for the last 13 years, to beginning working with a new congregation at the end of May/beginning of June.

Here was the statement that I read:

In June, Caroline and the kids and I will be moving to Searcy, Arkansas, where I have accepted the role of Youth In Family Minister at the Cloverdale Church of Christ. This is not a decision that we have made lightly, but over the last 18 months and with a great deal of prayer, Caroline and I have become increasingly convinced that this is God’s will for our lives.

Working with the church at Cloverdale will also make it possible for me to teach some youth ministry courses at Harding on occasion, and will also give me the opportunity to work year-round in training college students who are interested in going into youth ministry. This position would also put us close to Kinsley’s neurologist in Little Rock, and would be a great financial blessing for our family as well.

As excited as we are about this opportunity, we are equally sad about the notion of leaving Northwest Arkansas, and especially, our Farmington family. That word—family—is frequently thrown around when discussing church, but I do not use it lightly. Over the last 13 years, you all really have become our family. You celebrated our marriage and the birth of our children; you have wept with us during difficult times, rejoiced with us during happy times, and have supported us throughout. Words fail me to describe the love we have for this family of God’s people, and the sadness we feel at moving.

I have been blessed to work with two preachers while I have been at Farmington, and they have both been great friends to me and have taught me much. Mike is one of the finest ministers I have ever known, the most generous person I have ever met, and I will greatly miss working side by side with him. I know that he will continue to be a wonderful blessing to the congregation here.

I have been blessed to work alongside great elders in my time here. They have always been supportive of me, and I have always felt valued and trusted. They have always valued the young people of our congregation, and have made hard decisions at times (like hiring me in the first place!) to make sure that our young people were taken care of. I know they will continue to do that moving forward.

There are so many others who I would like to mention by name, but I won’t, in fear of overlooking someone. The reality is that this room is filled with people who have blessed our lives, and I thank you for it.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to say how blessed I have been to work with dozens and dozens of teens of the Farmington church over the last 13 years. It is such an honor to be invited alongside our young people and develop close ties with them. One of the greatest joys of my life has been to watch them grow up, marry, have children, serve as deacons and Bible class teachers, and remain devoted to their faith in Jesus. To all of my former students and my current ones, I love you, I will always be cheering for you, and nothing will make me prouder than your continued faithfulness in God’s kingdom.

I spend my life trying to teach teenagers that the most important thing in life is to figure out God’s will for your life and then to do that thing. For Caroline and I, that’s what this is about. If we aren’t willing to step out in faith to do God’s will in our own lives, then I have no business telling others what they need to do.

Of course, we’re not moving just yet, and the next three months will be busy as we seek to make healthy transitions for the future of the church here at Farmington. And even after we’re gone, you won’t really be rid of us, because you visit your family—and that’s what you are to us.

Thank you.

Everyone was very loving and supportive, but it was a very challenging and emotional day.

Over the next couple of months, one of my primary tasks is being involved in the process of finding the man who will replace me as the Associate Minister at Farmington. Toward that end, if you (or someone you know) might be interested in the role, you can find a full job description (with contact information) here.

Amidst all the sadness, Caroline and I look forward to the next chapter in our lives with a lot of excitement, and trust that God will be with us on this adventure, as He always has been in the past.

Small Church Strengths

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of doing a Youth In Family Ministry Seminar at the Nicholasville Church of Christ, in Nicholasville, Kentucky. The Nicholasville church is a small (Sunday attendance in the 90s) but vibrant community of believers, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them.

Also, my time with them prompted me to reflect on church size, and how congregations of different sizes have different strengths and challenges. We live in a society that tends to default to the “bigger is better” mentality, but I don’t think this is necessarily true. On the contrary, I think small churches have some real advantages.[1] I don’t pretend to be an expert on small churches by any means, but I wanted to share some of those thoughts with you:

  • Small churches naturally foster relationships. This is maybe the characteristic that people think of first, and I think it is true. It is much easier to get to know people and establish close relationships in smaller groups. This is why a lot of larger congregations begin some sort of small group ministry—they realize that they have lost a feeling of intimacy, and so they intentionally become smaller to make that intimacy possible again. One of the key components of the youth ministry philosophy I believe in is that it is vital that young people form genuine relationships with as many mature Christians from the congregation as possible. This happens with a great deal of care and planning in larger congregations; it happens naturally in smaller ones.[2]
  • Small churches can more easily focus on what they’re good at. I work with a wonderful congregation of about 230, and we have grown quite a bit over the last five years or so. We have a lot of talented people and a lot of big ideas. Sometimes, though, we can get distracted by trying to do too many things at the same time, rather than just focusing on a few things that we do really well.[3] Alternatively, in my experience, because smaller churches know they don’t have the resources and manpower to try everything, they can focus instead on doing fewer things better. I am aware of small congregations that have been remarkably effective at supporting missions, training preachers, reaching out to their surrounding communities, and more.
  • Small churches can be very generous. As churches grow in size, they tend to require additional staff and additional space, and both of these can be very expensive. When a sizeable portion of the church budget is tied up in salaries and building payments, it is hard to be as giving to others as you would like. Because smaller churches tend to have smaller, older facilities that are often paid off to go along with a small paid staff (supported by many volunteers), they frequently have a higher percentage of their communal funds to give away in support of missionaries and those who are in need.

I am sure there are other benefits as well, but these were some that quickly came to mind for me. What did I miss?

Small churches come with their share of challenges as well, so I don’t want to idealize them and make it seem like small churches are perfect or that larger congregations are somehow inferior. But in a cultural moment where it can be easy to overlook small things, I wanted to highlight some real strengths.


[1] How big is a “small church”? It depends on who you ask. For the purposes of this post, I am thinking of churches that are smaller than 100 people or so, but I am not thinking in terms of rigid categories.

[2] As I met with members from the Nicholasville church over the weekend, one of the endearing characteristics that I kept noticing was how everyone kept referring to different young people in the congregation by their first names, and everyone else knew who they were talking about. There was no need for clarification because the adults knew the kids and teens. This would not be the case in larger congregations.

[3] When it comes to this particular problem, I (to channel the apostle Paul) am the chief of sinners.

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