Sunday, March 29

Setting the Compass

This is an expanded version of an article I posted on Crux - a blog for those in campus ministry.


I'm a collector, of sorts. I collect compasses. It's not a very big collection. I only have about six of them. And though some of them look pretty cool, none of them are too expensive. But I do like compasses. I have a couple setting on my desk at the office. I have one on my desk at home. I have others sitting at various spots throughout the house.

A compass is all about direction. It's not so much about where you are at this moment in time, but about the direction in which you are heading to get to the place where you want to be. I need that reminder. In a world ruled by full inboxes, crowded calendars, and over-flowing "to-do" lists, it is easy to lose sight of where you want to be and wander from the direction that will get you there.

The longer I am in campus ministry, the more convinced I am that destination and direction are vital. One reason is that they can keep us from the comparison game: Is my ministry as big, as cool, or as effective as another? Many of us will never have large ministries with hundreds of people in attendance. But effectiveness in ministry isn't always determined by numbers. Though healthy ministries usually grow, there are many factors that influence the size of a ministry. A clear sense of destination and direction will help us focus on that to which God has called us.

Destination and direction are also more important than what is happening at any given time or in any specific year. If you have been in ministry very long at all, you have experienced the cyclical nature of the work. Some years you grow and some years you don't. Some years your leaders step up and do a great job and some years they get distracted or lazy. Some years you baptize people by the dozens and some years it seems that all the students you share the Gospel with have hearts of stone. Some years you will feel like you have this whole thing figured out and you should write a book about how to really do ministry. Some years you write about a half dozen different letters of resignation. But if I am more about destination and direction rather than the success or failure of the moment, I am better able to navigate the roller-coaster of ministry. I will be able to say "no" to the temptation to re-invent the wheel every year, trying to find the right formula. I will be able to express a clear and compelling vision of the purpose and progress of our ministry. And that vision will help me communicate to students, supporters, and potential supporters what the end goal is and how we are going to get there.

So how are you in defining the destination and direction of your ministry and casting a clear and compelling vision of it? What is the primary purpose of your ministry? Can you state it in a sentence that will excite and stir the imagination? If you fulfill God's vision for your ministry, what will that look like? What strategies will help you reach your destination? Are the programs and activities you are now doing moving you in the right direction? How will you know if you reach your destination? How will you know if you accomplish your purpose? What kind of qualities will let you know that you are fulfilling the mission to which God has called you?

So set your destination toward God's vision and purpose for your ministry. Keep moving in that direction.

And maybe put a compass on your desk.

Monday, March 23

Interesting News on Religious Life in America

Interesting data from the Ivy Jungle Report:

Less Religious in America: A widely reported study by Trinity College (Connecticut) shows the US becoming less religious with 15% of Americans reporting no religious affiliation. Those without religion are the only group to have gained numbers in every state in the union. For the last 20 years, the percentage of Americans who consider themselves Christians has continued to drop. Denominational affiliation has taken an even greater hit. Now more than 8 million Christians claim to be non-denominational; up from 194,000 in 1990. The decline of religion can also be seen in the fact that 27% of the interviewees did not expect to have a religious funeral and 30% said their wedding was not a religious service. ( March 12, 2009)

Creating Their Own Religion: A recent Barna update shows that Americans are more likely to create their own religious beliefs than follow an established set of beliefs from a church or denomination. By a margin of 3 to 1, (76% to 24%) respondents said they choose from a blend of ideas to describe their faith. This often leads to contradictory positions. 82% of those under 25 take this approach. Among "born again" Christians, 61% say they do so. (Barna Update 1/26/2009 quoted in Mission America Update February 2009)

Paths to Eternal Life: 65% of all Christians say there are multiple paths to eternal life. According to the Pew forum survey, a majority of Christians believe other religions such as Judaism, Islam, or no religion at all can lead to salvation. (Christian Post December 08 quoted in Mission America Update February 2009)

Saturday, March 21

25 Years of Spring Break Trips

I'm home and my suitcase is unpacked from another Spring Break Mission Trip. From the first Christ on Campus trip in March of 1985, we have taken at least one Spring Break trip every year for the past 25 years. This was at least our 13th trip to Vida Nueva Ministries in Piedras Negras, Mexico.

This year's trip provided some unusual difficulties - especially a US State Department warning against traveling to Mexico! The University of Arkansas "helped" our cause by forwarding that to UofA students. All of that prompted some understandable parental concern. But after reading the warnings and talking with friends in Piedras Negras, we were confident that we were not taking any undue risks. The decision, however, did prompt some coverage by the local newspaper.

So why go? Is the cost, effort, inconvenience, and occasional risk worth it? Here are some of the reasons we feel these trips are important:

1. Some admittedly inexperienced help to the mission. Though we can't always accomplish much, we can provide manpower to advance some projects.

2. Some personal experience with an impoverished culture. Though Piedras Negras is in much better economic shape than it was fifteen or twenty years ago (thanks to NAFTA), as soon as you cross the border you realize that things are completely different than in the US. Driving through the outskirts of town to the ministry site provided a first-hand glimpse of life in poverty. Even though it is a short glimpse, and not close to what much of the world endures, it does begin to open the eyes of students to those in need and allows them to evaluate their standard of living.

3. Extended time away to focus on God and what he is saying to us. The highlight of this trip was the nightly times of worship and the devotions that students shared at lunch and each night. Removed from the distractions of classes, work, facebook, and television, we were better able to worship and listen and share and refresh ourselves spiritually, even while we were wearing ourselves out physically.

Most of the time, we breeze through our daily life and weekly worship and Bible study times without much thought. We don't reflect and we don't apply. We just go. We are most open to what God is saying and doing when we are taken out of our usual context and begin to look and listen in fresh ways.

These trips provide those opportunities. Over the past 25 years, students have been touched by God in dramatic ways. Some have accepted Christ. Some have changed their career goals. Some have gone into ministry or missions. Some have made choices to sacrificially use their resources to care for those in need and advance the work of Christ.

Students this week made some significant decisions that will affect their lives and the Kingdom of God for years to come. That's why we go. That's why we will continue to go.

Tuesday, March 17

After ten years away ...

This week I'm back in Vida Nueva Ministries in Piedras Negras, Mexico for Spring Break. I first brought students here in 1987 when there was nothing but an empty field. We came back every year through 1999, digging and building and loving the people and the work they were doing.
But for a number of reasons, this is the first year we have been back since 1999. And so much has changed: more buildings, more children, a clinic, a school. But every where I turn on the campus, there are memories. Those who made decisions for Christ while we were here. Those whose hearts were opened to ministry and missions while we were here. Those who served with us here as students and are now with the Lord.
This year's group got here with some fear and trepidation. The US State Department didn't make it easy by posting a travel alert for Mexico. The University didn't help by forwarding it to our students. I dealt with several phone calls and emails from concerned parents (and understandably so). But we are in a safe place with people I trust completely. And God is blessing the trip. The weather has been great. The group has worked hard and have a great time together. This is the 25th year I've led a Spring Break mission trip and I can promise you that those aren't always the case.
Keep praying for us. Pray for our safe travel. Pray for the work of Jair and Norma Castillo and Vida Nueva Ministries. And pray for God to work in the hearts of our students as he has done in this place so many times in the past.

Thursday, March 12

Making the Cut

I always hated those days when my girls were in junior high and high school. There may be no more "cruel" process than how most schools handle cheerleader and pom squad tryouts. The winners (and losers) were revealed on a list posted on the gym door for all to see. I can still remember the faces of those crushed by not being chosen - some of them year after year. Most of the time by girls made it. But not every time. And my heart hurt for their broken ones.

The daughter of a friend of mine experienced that last week. She had worked hard for years as a dancer to make her college's dance squad. And she is a great dancer - one of the best in the state. She had worked hard to be in the best possible condition. Everything was geared for success. But her name wasn't on the list.

While that drama was being played out last weekend, a series of Last Chance track meets were held around the nation. They serve one purpose - to give track and field athletes one last chance to qualify for the limited number of spots at this weekend's NCAA Indoor Championships at Texas A&M. They do the best they can, wait to see how everyone else does, and then wait some more to see who makes the cut and whose names are on the list. When the list came out on Monday, many discovered that their best wasn't good enough. They weren't on it. Some missed the cut by one-hundredth of a second or one centimeter.

These kinds of things make me appreciative of the grace of God all the more. No limited number of winners. No missing it by just a little. Because it isn't about how good I am or how perfect I become. It is about how perfect Jesus was and his death for me. It isn't about pleasing a God who is looking to only accept a few but about drawing near to a God who desires none to perish and all to be saved. Christianity isn't about what I do to be perfect, but about what Christ has done for me. It is about the grace of God expressed to us in Jesus. It is about my trust and faith in him, my obedient submission to him.

There is no cut to make. Just a gift to accept.


I'm not going to take my computer with me over Spring Break, so there probably won't be a blog post for a week or so. But I will be posting to Twitter, so look for me there!