Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Christian Tabloids, or YOU'LL BE SHOCKED BY WHAT I SAY NEXT

Photo Credit: PinkMoose (Creative Commons)



Since joining Twitter a few months ago, these are the kinds of links and statements that stream into the world of social media. Similar links and statements appear on Facebook, some of them church-related, while Buzzfeed quizzes and Fox News "reports" vie for the rest of our attention span.

It's the Christian version of tabloid journalism.

You know, those magazines in the grocery store aisles that have little relevance to your actual life, but are fascinating due to their invasive and sensationalist articles. See who George Clooney is dating now! Will Prince William and Kate have another baby? What cereal did Ryan Gosling eat this morning?!*

Tabloid journalism tends to emphasize scandalous crime/legal stories and gossip about the personal lives of celebrities. They use aggressive tactics and volatile story-of-the-week moments to get more readers to indulge. With the advent of social media and instant information, the innate human desire To Know More About Everything is piqued. We read about Driscoll being asked to step down from Mars Hill, or about Gungor not believing in a literal Genesis, or about John Piper bidding farewell to Rob Bell** and we feed on those links like it's Shark Week.

Twitter and Facebook have become online Christian tabloid sources, increasingly becoming more volatile, reactionary, and temporary.

To be fair, not everyone I listed above as examples should be considered a Christian tabloid journalist. Many are writing and creating excellent content intended to inform, challenge, and encourage the online Christian community. Yet many in their audiences are the quick-sharing, quick-clicking, quick-liking or -favoriting folks who feed their minds primarily on what they read on the Internet. I know this because I'm doing my best to shepherd many of these social media-driven people, particularly the emerging generation of teenagers and young adults.

Why do we do this? I offer two possible reasons: 1) the cult of Christian celebrity, and 2) our culture of immediacy.

When we place Christian pastors, leaders, and writers on pedestals--or they place themselves up there by building their platforms--we can quietly and eagerly anticipate the moment when they'll fall. We also place a significant amount of weight to their words and actions, a weight they cannot carry as fallible people. Add this cult of celebrity to a culture that values receiving everything NOW--food, coffee, information, love, success, etc.--and we can begin to see the beginnings of the Christian tabloid phenomenon.

I'm writing this because I'm part of the problem. I quickly give in to my impulse To Know More About Everything and end up neglecting the important things I actually would need to know and experience. I can quickly give in to scanning RSS feeds over and above reading the Flannery O'Conner or Marilynne Robinson novels I'm attempting to finish. I can check on my feed instead of being present with my wife and children. More than anything recently, I've been convicted at my lack of prayer for the individuals and churches--real people--involved in these articles and posts. Instead of just critiquing or sharing links about Driscoll, Evans, Gungor, et al, I need to pray for them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, real people with real stories, real wounds, and real hearts. I wonder what would happen in my heart (and theirs) if I devoted my impulse to scan online feeds towards prayers of encouragement, peace, grace, and joy for others.

The title of this post is misleading; you may not be shocked at all by my musings. I only hope they'll lead to a more thoughtful, prayerful, slower pace and posture in our culture of immediacy.

Why do you think the Christian tabloid phenomenon exists? What can be done to improve our use of social media in order to be salt and light?

*Answer: Honey Bunches of Oats
** Wait, that was, like, 3 years ago, which is essentially the medieval ages in social media.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Guardians Of The Galaxy

Not so long ago, in a galaxy fairly close in proximity to our own....

Guardians of the Galaxy.

Cue the music: Awesome Mix Vol. 1.

I realize the parallel between Guardians and Star Wars may be reaching. Is Guardians really *that* revolutionary of a film? Not really. But that doesn't mean it isn't a wonderfully quirky and entertaining film. It's the expansive universe of Star Wars meets the action-packed quirkiness of The Fifth Element, with a dash of an Indiana Jones quest. Unlike many of the previous Marvel superhero films, Guardians capably walks the line between visually-stunning blockbuster action and hilariously savvy humor. It takes common elements from sci-fi and superhero films, building upon them to create something at once familiar and unique.

The story follows the human Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who after being abducted from Earth as a boy has developed into a not-so-infamous outlaw bent on making some quick cash, particularly from the macguffin of Guardians: a mysterious orb everyone in the universe apparently wants. Trying to avoid the evil Ronan the Accuser and his minions, his former partner-in-crime Yondu, and the Nova Corps, Quill finds himself in cahoots with a diverse cast of ruffians--Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is the daughter of Thanos and a highly capable assassin; Rocket and Groot (Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel) are violent bounty hunters and social misfits as a talking/walking raccoon and tree, respectively; Drax (Dave Bautista) is a literal-thinking knife-wielding tank of rage.

What makes this lineup stand out from previous iterations of the "we've got to work together as a team!" superhero movie (Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc.) is their individual dysfunction and brokenness overcome by a sense of fellowship. While the other stories feature brooding loners (Logan in X-Men) and narcissistic one-man shows (Tony Stark in Iron Man), the Guardians feel much more like a band of misfits and outcasts, the rejects and losers of the world brought together for a singular purpose beyond themselves. Sure, X-Men also has the central theme band of outsiders, but they are trying to find peace and integration within their society. The Guardians just don't give a crap; while the X-Men want integration, the Guardians just want enough money to get away from it all. Quill is an orphan and abductee raised by a band of thugs. Gamora is also an orphan of sorts, adopted by the evil lord of the cosmos that destroyed her family. Rocket is the result of a science experiment gone wrong, an abused mistake left to fend for himself. Groot is a talking tree. Drax is fueled by the grief and rage from the death of his wife and family. As they work through their pain and confess their own brokenness, a community begins to form out of the remnants of their pain, a mosaic of broken pieces coming together to make a new whole. This team ultimately sacrifices their own individual agendas and risk their lives for the sake of a galaxy that has really given them nothing but pain, grief, shame, and bitterness. What begins as a group of selfish, isolated miscreants becomes...well...the guardians of the galaxy.

I once compared The Avengers to the church, summarizing the plot as "a group of individuals must save the world from an evil invasion led by a deceptive spiritual being from another world." Allow me to make a similar comparison with the Guardians--a group of broken-yet-gifted individuals are united by a common mission to save the cosmos from destruction by a malevolent threat. Even a summer blockbuster with a talking gun-toting raccoon can point us to our need for a savior. Perhaps the contemporary appeal of these superhero films stems from the deep cry within our collective soul--we long for Someone to come and redeem this broken world for the better, making the wrong things right and bringing justice, peace, and salvation for all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fear or Love - Two Perspectives on Engaging Culture

Photo Credit: dryhead (Creative Commons)
I was hiding. The coffee shop in Fort Langley was supposed to be a sanctuary of sorts, a place where I could quietly study, my headphones and americano protecting me from distraction and sleepiness. I was finishing the final chapter of Richard Mouw's When the Kings Come Marching In, a brief theological study of the vision of the heavenly city in Isaiah 60. Mouw identifies this city with the same heavenly vision from Revelation 21 and 22, examining the city's description and the implications for our present cultural engagement. Mouw contends that the kingdom city will be filled with redeemed culture--art, commerce, technology, politics, race relations, all redeemed by the salvific power of Jesus.

This is when I noticed her talking to me. The woman at the adjacent table was looking at me, her mouth silently moving in the rhythm of speech, drowned out by my in-ear headphones and the latest album from The War on Drugs (a fantastic record, and one worth purchasing). I removed my headphones and apologized. "Sorry, I couldn't hear you."

Apology quickly accepted, she began her speech again, sharing about the article she was reading about the pending economic crisis. Interest rates would spike, houses would be foreclosed, food would be in scarce supply, and no one sees it coming. She introduced herself as Mary, and asked me what I was reading. I shared that it was a theology book, and she wondered aloud if I was a Christian. I said I was a pastor, and she shared her own brief testimony of faith, how she had been connected with a local church, but currently was searching.

At first, I quietly considered her words with a calm understanding and propriety, though I honestly was looking for an opportunity to place my headphones back in and continue my studies. Then the conversation took a strange turn as she moved from the economic crisis and her faith to the need to hoard food and supplies, buy stock in gold, sell our homes, and move to the north of British Columbia to escape the impending tragedy. She spoke of concentration camps being built in California intended to round up the majority of the population; how electric hydro meters were instruments installed by "them" in higher government agencies to cause cancer; how she met a former Pentagon agent in South America who confirmed all her suspicions, that the conspiracy goes "right to the top." She had "connected the dots" and passionately implored me to tell the church so we could take care of our own. Would I tell my church? Would I help save the Christians from the impending disaster?

My articulate response: "Uh....."

While she shared her paranoia and fear with increasing fervor, I silently prayed, "Jesus, what do I say to her? How can I respond with grace and truth?" Her mindset was such a contrast from the book I had before me. While Mouw was speaking about the beauty of the heavenly city, with its rich heritage of art, language, and commerce, Mary was frightened by the very powers of the city and technology (ironic, as she was reading her articles on a MacBook in a coffee shop). She stared at me with frantic eyes, searching mine for a sense of fraternity, hoping for a kindred spirit in her fear.

Then the answer came to mind, a passage from 1 John:
This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
I looked into Mary's eyes and said, "I hear a lot of fear from where you're coming from. And I don't think Jesus calls us to be afraid. Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. So, I'm convinced nothing can separate us from this love. And I hope you'll experience the love and peace God gives us in Jesus. I think if we're seeking the kingdom of Jesus and entrusting Him with our lives, deep down we have nothing to fear."

She silently nodded, then sighed with a sense of defeat--I clearly hadn't been convinced. I packed my things and turned to go. She thanked me for listening, then turned back to her articles of fear.

I want to be more like Mouw and less like Mary

I believe we're called as Christians to engage and redeem our culture, not condemn or flee from it. I want to be a part of what N.T. Wright calls "building for the kingdom." This requires recognizing that we'll never full bring the kingdom of God to Earth, but that doesn't mean we're to be passive or paranoid about culture. Instead, with grace and humility, we work hard to create and promote justice, beauty, and truth in our world as signposts for the kingdom of heaven. This means moving past the fear, recognizing it's still present, and choosing to allow the love of Christ to be our primary motivation behind all we do. 

We don't avoid the fear; we redeem it as we step out in love. Let's live by love, not fear.

What is your primary motivation--love or fear?

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Giver

What makes us human? Is it our intellectual capacity? Our use of language to communicate? Maybe it’s our genetic structure, something in our DNA that makes us different from other living beings. Perhaps it’s our conscience and ability to make moral decisions, or our emotions and capacity for love. Are we just a mashup of atoms and cells that move and breathe in a particular way? Or are we creations with a soul, filled with meaning and purpose and design?

In The Giver, the filmic adaptation of Lois Lowry’s acclaimed novel, this anthropology question is the conspicuous motivation behind an urgent search for young protagonist, Jonas. Unlike the novel, where Jonas is only a boy turning the age of 12, Jonas is now 18-years-old, an emerging adult in his Community. In the Community, there is no suffering or pain, no choices or emotions. Everyone submits to the code of Sameness, having never experienced joy, loss, family, courage, or love. Even death is disguised as being “released to Elsewhere,” and there is no mourning for the released person.

Upon his ceremonial entry into adulthood, Jonas is chosen by the elders in the Community to become the Receiver of Memory. This important role comes with unique responsibilities—Jonas is, somehow, to carry within him the memories of the past transferred to him by the Giver (Jeff Bridges), an elderly man living on the edge of the community. As the Receiver of Memory, Jonas’s eyes begin to open to the possibilities of joy, love, family, and the freedom of choice. Simple memories—riding on a sled through the snow, dancing and laughing at a medieval wedding, the sunset viewed from the bow of a sailboat on the vast ocean—begin to awaken something within Jonas that feels more human. Even ordinary things, like the leaves on a tree or the rainbow reflection of sunlight through water, begin to captivate Jonas’s attention. He starts to feel more awake and alive to the world around him, which becomes a threat to his Community, most notably embodied in the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) and her mission to keep Jonas and the Giver under control.

While the filmic adaptation feels true to the essence of the book, The Giver is missing some of the pathos, consequence, and mystery that makes the novel so intriguing. Lois Lowry has been quoted saying the film is “very good” but lacks something on screen that is more fully captured in the novel: mystery and discovery.

…I had a little trouble with the ending: In the book, it’s ambiguous, but the movie-­people…felt that the ending should not be so ambiguous. You know, I’m a writer, I like to retain subtlety and nuance.”

While readers delightfully discover quite late in the novel that the world of the Community is seen through black-and-white, this is obvious from the beginning of the film (though the filmmakers do some remarkable and interesting things with the color scheme and tones, where the palette is less of a true grayscale and more of muted colors and tones, growing brighter or duller with the presence of Jonas and his increase of memories). It’s all a bit too on-the-nose, and the allegory sometimes feels like it’s being told more than shown. This could be due to the inclusion of Jonas’s voiceover narration, a first-person sharing of his story from the point of view of the future, leaving little wonder if he survives or escapes his perils. Hopefully I don’t sound too harsh; the book is nearly always better than the movie, and while this isn’t a great film (though a great novel), it’s certainly a good one. The final moments, while lacking in the intensity and weightiness of the novel, are still affecting and cathartic, and the film is a worthy entry in the recent batch of YA dystopian films.

Thwaites as Jonas is solid as a na├»ve teen discovering emotions, memories, and love. Akin to the characters in a similar filmic black-and-white alternative culture, Pleasantville, Jonas and his Community has the sheltered innocence of someone lacking exposure to the darker realities of our world. I was also pleasantly surprised to find this was the first collaboration between Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, who both give the strongest performances in the film—their conversation about the nature of humanity in the climatic scene is thought-provoking and affecting as they each defend their positions. Taylor Swift's role is mercifully short, lasting only brief moments in a particular scene involving her playing the piano (of course!).

Ultimately, The Giver explores the unique beauty of humanity by posing a number of questions to Jonas, and thus the audience—what is the nature and power of memory? Of emotion? Of morality? Of love? Of faith? There is plenty in The Giver to elicit spiritual conversations, but the tragedy of The Giver is in its timing and release: in a world where young adult dystopian novel-to-movie adaptations are a dime a dozen, The Giver ironically falls into the trap of Sameness it so readily condemns. See the film, but before you do, pick up the novel and dive deep into Lowry's intriguing prose. There's a reason her book is a modern-day classic in the children's literature pantheon, and she says it herself--subtlety and nuance. 

It is this subtlety and nuance, this mystery and creativity and diversity--this is central to what makes us human. We were never meant to all be exactly the same, robotic and static in our development. The Sameness utopia revealed in The Giver isn't the paradise of Eden. From Eden onward, we were always meant to breathe, expand, create, dream, and flourish in a world of colors and vibrancy. We're works of art, invited by the Creator to continue in His creative endeavors. The Giver, both novel and film, are such worthy endeavors...yet I imagine we'll only find one of them in the future heavenly city, when the kings of the earth bring in their splendor--the beautiful, mysterious, nuanced, creative endeavors of the human race.

Monday, August 4, 2014


Every few months, in a moment of whim and nostalgia, I'll stop and look at the pictures and videos from the early days of our children's lives. I recognize that having a 5- and 2-year-old doesn't allow for many "early days" yet. Nevertheless, it always astounds me how much they have changed and grown in such a short period of time. Limbs and hair grow and expand. Motor and verbal skills transform in a matter of moments, from rolling-and-cooing to running-and-singing. The nature of time fascinates me. Time passes slowly and silently, treading constantly forward in a cycle from past to present, transforming our world in progress and decay. The book of Ecclesiastes says that God has placed eternity in the human heart, but in the meantime we are very time-bound beings. People grow, change, adapt, react, and mature in time. Richard Linklater's fascinating and affecting experiment with Boyhood offers a unique picture of this progression through time. Over the course of twelve years, filming short scenes using the same actors portraying the same character, Linklater has created an authentic experience of seeing memories unfold on film. The film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from a daydreaming 6-year-old into a quiet and artistic college freshman at age 18.

Boyhood portrays Mason as a silent observer of the world around him. Opening with an iconic shot of him staring into the clouds, he never loses this head-in-the-clouds mentality as he navigates the ups and downs of his childhood and adolescence. He doesn't engage much, choosing to be a passive listener and spectator, surrounded by adults whose own decisions and advice drive his destiny forward through time. His mother (Patricia Arquette) tries to do her best as a single mom of two children, but continues to make poor choices regarding the men she marries and often seems overwhelmed by the cards life has dealt her. His father (Ethan Hawke) transforms from an impetuous wanderer and risk-taker into a mustachioed actuary (a business professional who deals with the financial impact of risk and uncertainty), eventually trading in the GTO for the minivan. 

While both parents are mature adults with their own experiential notion of wisdom, both are often floundering in life. Mason observes later in his boyhood that his mom is just as confused as he is. His father reduces the entirety of the meaning of life as, "None of us know what we're doing anyway. We're all just winging it." Mason is the quiet recipient of advice, wisdom, and unsolicited input from the adults in his life, adults who often don't actually have their own lives together. Do this. Be that. Try this. Trust me. But Mason doesn't seem to do much with their counsel, either with rebellion or devotion. He's a fairly passive character who doesn't much either right or wrong--he simply is, he just does, and Boyhood doesn't seem interested to present him as anything further.

A related aside: one observation I'm pondering is this--Mason never cries in Boyhood, at least not that I can remember. For a young man who feels deeply and has a brooding artistic side, he seems strangely aloof to his own emotions, rarely laughing and (apparently) never crying throughout his entire adolescence. Even in powerfully emotional scenes where key characters are injured, either physically or emotionally, Mason remains ever the stoic. Why is this? If Boyhood is partly auto-biographical from Linklater and Hawke's childhood experiences--both had divorced parents, and Linklater in particular has noted the biographical similarities--was this the experience the filmmakers wanted to express, a tear-less protagonist? It's not just the tears; Mason simply doesn't emote much at all, making him a somewhat intriguing character to observe, but not one to stir empathy. As an emotionally-driven man who experienced the ups and downs of my own boyhood, I recall many tears in my own experience, both from laughter and pain. Maybe I'm forgetting a crucial scene of pathos in Boyhood. If so, please remind me.

Boyhood is like a series of scenes that flash before one's eyes in the moments immediately prior to death, one's whole life in an immediate glance. Episodic and often with little context, each moment plays out with both ordinariness and profundity. Watching Boyhood is like opening up a stranger's family photo albums and glancing through all the pictures, trying to make sense of the person's life in the images. This can be both a beautiful and a boring exercise, and Boyhood is often both at once. It has its moments of insight and beauty, but by the third act of Boyhood, I was beginning to become fidgety from the tedium, hoping for a moment of catharsis that never fully came. I suppose real life is like that. Our personal narratives are a series of events, some more influential and transformative than others, yet simply a series of interconnected moments linked in time. Mason stares into the sky. Mason moves across the country. Mason gets a haircut. Mason walks and talks with a girl. Mason goes camping with his father. Mason talks in the car with his mother. These are everyday moments, but they are also unique scenes in a person's story. The conversations, the unsolicited advice, the dramatic scenes--they are all moments etched in a person's memory, and I can imagine that Boyhood is like a glimpse into the memory banks of an elderly Mason reflecting upon his past, much like The Tree of Life is a mediation on the memory of a Texas summer from the perspective of Sean Penn's character. As Mason's mother reflects upon her son as he leaves for college, "I thought I'd have more time." We all do. Let's make the most of the time we're given today, being fully present and open and thankful for the time we have.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Youth Ministry Soapbox: Stop Trying to Build Your Platform

Photo Credit: psgreen01 (Creative Commons)
*Rant Alert*

I keep seeing folks in the youth ministry tribe spending loads of time promoting and building their platforms

Whether it's guest blog posts on a big-name youth ministry blog, creating a blog and website to offer brand spankin' new services and advice for youth ministry folks, becoming youth ministry consultants or coaches or speakers (instead of pastors or full-time youth workers), writing and selling self-published books and/or e-books...the amount of social media platforms in the youth ministry world feels like it's exploded.

With the increase of technology and a globalized world, more and more voices are being added to the cacophony of the Internet. With so many voices on so many platforms, all vying for position and followers and clickbacks and links, it feels akin to having thousands of individuals standing on their elevated towers with bullhorns and fireworks, trying to draw attention to their idea/service/product/self.

Here is my contention:

Everyone can build a platform. Not everyone should.

We are a tribe that is both often at the forefront of new technology and cultural advances; we're the early adopters, the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the risk-takers. We are also a tribe that often feels like our voices aren't heard in our own contexts--the elder board/senior pastor/parent/student didn't care to listen to our wisdom or idea.

Do you see how these two characteristics could lead to a pandemic of platform-building in the youth ministry world?

Yes, I am questioning your motives. I am also questioning mine. I've seen the log jammed in my own eye, the mixed motives of my own heart when it comes to social media. I know the brief euphoric rush of getting a few hundred "likes" or "clicks" or "favorites" for a blog post. As an author, I know the tension of wanting to promote my books because I genuinely believe in their message and content, but also not wanting to become a salesman. I recognize the irony of sharing this post on Facebook and Twitter in the hopes that it exhorts and stirs up some conversation. Yet any platform I have in the youth ministry tribe is simply God's grace; it's a gift that I want to steward well, to be a voice of encouragement and wisdom and hope for our tribe. This soapbox moment is simply meant to question our focus in youth ministry and draw us to what matters most: making disciples of the emerging generation.

Are we striving to please God or people? Are we called to be a shepherd and teacher and discipler of young people, or social media mavens? Do we spend as much time in prayer for the people we disciple as much as we spend writing and honing a blog post or tweet? Will God be more pleased about our impressive Google analytics stats and strong Twitter following, or our quiet faithfulness to our vocational calling and His leading?

Is Jesus calling me to be a better social media specialist or a better pastor?

This rant is not meant to be discouraging or demoralizing. The individual voices and stories of the youth ministry tribe ARE valuable, and worth sharing. Many of the best wisdom and ideas will likely go unnoticed by the crowds. That's okay; Jesus warned us about things like that. This is why I love movements like Open, a localized gathering of youth ministry voices with less platform-building and more kingdom-building. It's why I love youth ministry network gatherings (find your local network here) where local youth workers can share ideas, share life, and pray for each other as peers around the table.

I'm not asking you to shut down your blog or close your Twitter account. I'm just wondering about our hearts, individually and as a collective. I'm hoping Jesus can heal them of any motive of self-promotion and an unhealthy obsession to be noticed. Shut off the technology, sit in the silence, listen for God's quiet voice stirring in your soul. Where is your heart today?

*End of Rant*

What did this post spark in you? Share in the comments.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reflections on Colima: 4 Ministry Insights from a Missions Experience

We frantically hurried through the lively exterior of the Guadalajara airport, a teeming network of taxis, buses, and vans all skirting around each other while idle drivers waited on the curb for their next client. Our bus left from the station in 25 minutes; the drive to the station would take at least 30, and the tickets weren't refundable or transferable. Our two hired drivers had been waiting for us outside instead of looking for the large group of semi-confused Canadians expecting them inside in the airport. (I found out later, our hosts had miscommunicated about this particular portion of our journey to the van rental company; hence, our nervous idling in the airport terminal.)

As we piled our rolling bags into the back of the two vans, I glanced at the darkening sky and prayed a quick prayer: "Lord, protect us. Get us onto our bus safely." Our group got in, the doors slammed shut, and the drivers took off. Completely ignoring any driving or safety regulations, Mexican or otherwise, the drivers navigated the Guadalajara traffic with a strange combination of frenetic energy and complete ease. The driver casually chatted in Spanish with my friend, Liliana, while he tore through the now-rainslicked streets. The two drivers were somehow communicating with each other through a Morse-like language of flashing their lights and turn signals in particular ways. As the traffic came to a complete halt, their lights flashed back and forth until our driver turned and drove onto the shoulder, passing the stopped traffic. Liliana turned around and informed me with a look of hesitation in her eyes, "they're going to take a short cut." Of course they are, I thought.

I gripped the seat in front of me and spent the next twenty minutes on the ride of my life, flying down tiny Mexican cobblestone streets transformed into rivers of brown water from the continuing rain. We passed onlookers and VW Beetles, water spraying from our wheel wells like muddy fountains. The driver kept telling Liliana, "cinco minutos. Only five more minutes." Curbs, stop signs, passing lanes--they took second fiddle to our need to get on our bus. When we arrived twenty minutes late for our bus, I was still strangely calm, particularly after such a terrifying and intense shuttle ride from the airport. We thanked our drivers--they had done their job and transported us to the airport safely and quickly, all nerves aside--and went up to the desk to check on our status. Gone. The bus had left on time, and we were left in the station. We had been told that the bus company never offers refunds or transfers; our group's need of 17 transfers was an impossible request. So when the ticket agent casually nodded and allowed our group onto the next bus leaving for our destination in only 35 minutes, completely free and without hassle, I realized a small miracle had happened. The prayer had been answered--we were safe and we were getting on our bus.

Thus, we had arrived in Mexico.

For the latter half of July, my time and energy has been spent leading a short-term missions trip of 19 people to Colima, Mexico to partner with a developing church plant, Pan de Vida. It was a full trip--full of people, full of ministry, full of food, full of the Holy Spirit and moments where the kingdom of heaven broke into our midst. I will admit, it was not an easy missions trip for me. With my substantial food allergies and the potent heat and humidity of central Mexico, I was often feeling drained or empty. Yet Jesus did some incredible things in the lives of our team and the people of Colima, and I am hopeful that each person in our team returned to Canada with a remodeled heart for God's mission in this world.

As I reflect upon the trip, there are four particular themes or insights that keep coming back to my mind. Perhaps they are relevant to any short-term missions trip, but they certainly were key lessons for me and my experience for the past 10 days. While these aren't exhaustive, and really don't give a full narrative of the experiences we had, they are the repeated rhythms in my memory. Here are the four insights I gained from our time in Colima:

1. The value of partnering with instead of doing for. Often, North American short-term missions looks like this: an eager team shows up in a poorer country, does a quick-fix work project or a rapid-fire outreach program, then leaves with a sense of accomplishment. Often relationships with the locals are left in the wake of such blitz-like trips, and relationship can become secondary to accomplishing the project. This is a doing for missions experience; the North Americans do for the locals what they likely can (and should) do for themselves. Much of the ministry we did in Colima was relational; we simply hung out with the people of Pan de Vida, particularly the jovenes (younger generation). It was also in collaboration and partnership with a local church and its ministries. We went along with them to do the ministry they were already doing in an orphanage, a soup kitchen, and a youth detention centre. It was a true partnership, a locking arms in the gospel and focusing on deepening our relationships rather than doing a particular project.

2. The emerging generation has much to offer its elders. The group of young people on our team was exemplary. I was never really worried about the teens on this trip; I was more concerned about the adults. Both the Canadian and Mexican young people took the lead on ministry initiatives--they led worship, they performed skits, they created art, they had conversations, they served faithfully, and they led others to Jesus. It's not that the older generation (myself included, I suppose) doesn't have anything to offer. Their wisdom, experience, counsel, and leadership are absolutely essential for the body of Christ. Yet we have so much to learn from the passion, ingenuity, faithfulness, and beauty of the emerging generation. This is why I'm so passionate about intergenerational ministry, why I believe there is no kids' table in the kingdom of God. As the family of God, we each have a role to play and gifts to bring to the table. I saw glimpses of this kingdom paradigm in Colima this past week.

3. Discipline and flexibility are partners. A ministry friend once commented to me that he thought I was one of the most disciplined people he had ever met. His affirming words have stuck with me, an exhortation and encouragement to keep pursuing discipline in my life. I'm not naturally disciplined, but I deeply value the practices of rhythms and habits, both spiritual and otherwise (though, in my mind, every discipline is spiritual). With my food allergies, I have to be disciplined about what I eat. With my growing knowledge that I am more introverted than I ever realized, I have to be disciplined about getting reenergized for social situations. I am growing in disciplines of prayer, silence, mediating on God's words in Scripture, Sabbath, and fasting (more from technology than food). Yet being disciplined does not equate with rigidity or a static lifestyle of monotony and boredom. It's not self-flaggelation or denial of desire. Discipline leads to freedom, a freedom to relax and flex and roll with what life brings, recognizing that the unforeseen and unexpected won't sway my soul away from the furrows of grace etched into my heart and mind. It's practicing submitting my desires to God's desires, allowing Him to woo me and shape my heart. Without discipline, flexibility is simply wishy-washy impulse. Without flexibility, discipline is legalism. Both are necessary for a robust spiritual life.

4. I will shepherd even when I cannot lead. This was the first international missions trip I co-led with someone, and the first international trip with my church. There were particular decisions, schedules, and values that were different from my own, and I found myself often trying to lead a trip where I wasn't truly the leader in that moment. Both leading up to the trip and while on it, when questions were asked about what was happening next, I would often have to honestly reply, "I don't know." As a leader with a vision, experience leading international missions trips, and a personal value for honest and clear communication, I found myself often having to lead and guide others even when I didn't know what was going on. Regardless of whether or not I should have been the leader in those moments, there are plenty of arenas in my life where I am not the leader in a situation, where I'm not "in charge." Yet I'm still a shepherd of others; I am still a spiritual guide, a caretaker of the flock, a disciplemaker. A leader isn't necessarily a shepherd; a shepherd is always a leader. A person with the spiritual vocation of pastor will find themselves as a spiritual model, measure, manager, and motivator, regardless of job description, title, or experience.

Overall, it was a personally challenging, uplifting, and inspiring missions experience in Colima. We saw prayers answered and witnessed people enter into the kingdom of God. Yet even as I reenter my everyday life in British Columbia, I'll be meditating upon and attempting to practice the ministry insights God has given, seeking His kingdom in the ordinary rhythms and moments.

Which of the four insights resonates with you? What is God teaching you this summer?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What I'm Working On

Photo Credit: Daniel Walsh (Creative Commons)
All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.
-Proverbs 14:23

The first half of 2014 has been a full season.

Full = Busy. Exhausting. Joyful. Frustration. Adventure. Burnout. Endurance. Fruit.

Full means there's been a lot of hard work. Sometimes it feels like a slog up a muddy mountain, slippery and filthy and draining, where my legs and heart are barely able to sustain my life. Other times it feels like an exhilarating run through the forest, dodging and leaping forward with enthusiasm, a smile on my face and sweat on my brow.

I'm typically challenged and thrilled with the presentation of hard work and new challenges, but I also know I struggle with Sabbath-keeping. Thus, in the midst of all this hard work, I'm taking a few vacations over the summer to play, read, write, and sleep, to simply be present with my family.

Here's what I'm working on, both in these past few months and in the season to come:

Open Vancouver:

I'm part of the organizing team for this unique and exciting youth ministry gathering coming to Trinity Western University on September 26 and 27. You can read my post about Open Vancouver here, and check out the website for details. My friends Marko and Adam from The Youth Cartel will be present, there's a lunch included in the price of $25, and we have a fantastic list of proposals for presentations. Registration should open in the next few weeks!
When the Game Stands Tall:

When the Game Stands Tall is an upcoming sports movie releasing August 22 about the high school football team led by coach Bob Ladouceur and their 151-game winning streak, the longest for any American sport. With it's focus on the coach's faith and the presence of spiritual themes and truths, this film could replace Remember the Titans as the primary sports film for youth ministry. I viewed an early version of the movie in March, and wrote two curriculums for the film: I created a small group discussion guide for Athletes in Action, and I wrote a 7-day devotional guide for 30 Hour Famine (World Vision), which you can download for free here.

The Giver:

Based on the phenomenal children's book by Lois Lowry, The Giver is an upcoming young adult dystopian movie about a unique teenage boy chosen to carry the memories of the past for his seemingly-ideal community. Starring Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites, Meryl Streep, Taylor Swift, and Katie Holmes, the film releases August 15. I had an opportunity to fly down to Los Angeles to see a pre-screening of the film (my official review will come in early August), and loved seeing Lowry's novel come to life on the screen. While some significant details have been changed in the adaptation, the heart and themes of the film are present, and the story is brimming with spiritual themes and interesting ideas about human emotion, freedom, and faith. I wrote a three-part small group Bible study and discussion guide on The Giver for The Youth Cartel, which should be releasing in conjunction with the film in August.

My Third Book:
I've dropped hints here and there that I've been at work on a third book, and it's true--I am. The process for writing it has been slower than anticipated due to all the other things I'm working on, so I won't let this blog post be the big announcement about the book's details. Here's the teaser: it's a book about movies and youth ministry. Essentially, this book will unpack my theological framework for how and why I engage with movies, and how to practically and positively utilize films in the spiritual formation of young people. It's probably the most excited I've been about writing, and I'm going to have to work hard to keep the content under the publisher's word count--I could just go on and on about movies and theology!

Plus, I am...
  • Taking a John Stackhouse class at Regent College. I'm still pursuing a master's degree at Regent; it's just going to take five more years! Just finished this class about heaven, hell, and eschatology, and now I have plenty of books to read and time to rethink my position on hell (I'm now leaning towards the belief of conditional immortality, aka annihilationism.)
  • Hiring three people for our youth ministry team. We're finishing up the completion of our youth and young adults ministry team with an admin assistant, a full-time intern, and a full-time young adults pastor. (read more about it here).
  • Overseeing and discontinuing an evening service at our church. Yes, discontinue. As in, I helped lead the difficult decision to close one of our church services after being "in charge" of it for about six months. There's a long story behind this, and maybe it'll manifest itself in a blog post, but suffice to say that I was part of the process.
  • Overseeing the renovations for our church's youth room. I'm not doing a lot of hands-on work--that would lead to disaster--but it's always in my mind, and I'm constantly checking on progress and how our budget is looking.
  • Co-lead an international short-term missions trip to Colima, Mexico. Our team of 19 people will be in central Mexico for 10 days, July 18-28, to serve with a sister church, Pan de Vida. We'll be serving in orphanages, leading a youth group, visiting a local detention center, and going on prayer walks. It'll be a full 10 days, so please be praying for us.
  • Speaking for a week at Stillwood Camp. I loved speaking at Stillwood last summer, and I'll be with the older teens in mid-August this year. I'm still working on what I'll be sharing, but I'm eager to see how Jesus works in the lives of young people that week. You can check out where else I'm speaking here.
Finally, I joined Twitter. I know, I know, I said I wouldn't do this. But, I did. People change their minds; it's part of what makes us human. Twitter has been a fascinating new social media experience for me. I follow a lot of movie directors and film critics, as well as youth ministry / church friends and leaders. Follow me, @joelmayward.

That's what I'm working on. It's hard work, yet the spiritual fruit is profitable, and I love what I get to do! What have you been working on?

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Immigrant

I know what it means to be an immigrant. Having only moved to Canada less than two years ago, I am still living in the liminal state of being a temporary resident in this beautiful country. While my experience has not been without stress, anxiety, and jumping through bureaucratic hoops, my immigration story is not filled with the emotional turmoil and ethical quandaries presented in James Gray's affecting period piece, The Immigrant. Presented at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Gray's film has received only a small distribution in North America, making it a hidden treasure of 2014 worth pursuing. While much of this summer's blockbusters will be filled with monsters, robots, and aliens (or monster alien robots), The Immigrant is a quiet and dramatic morality tale that feels at once familiar and unexpected.

Opening in 1921 on Ellis Island in New York, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is a Polish nurse seeking a new future in America with her sister, Magda. With both parents dead, their sisterly bond is clearly evident--they only have each other in this world. When they are separated in the immigration process--Magda to the infirmary, Ewa to the line for deportation--it appears their hopes of a better life seem dashed. Enter Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the conflicted and quietly dangerous man who offers to help Ewa be reunited with her sister. Ewa only has to work for him and earn some money first. His line of work is slowly revealed to be a pimp, "saving" young immigrant women from deportation and taking advantage of their plight to stay financially afloat. He is clearly infatuated with Ewa, only making their tumultuous relationship more complex. She's uninterested in his romantic pursuits, but she needs him to remain in the country and gain income to save her sister. He needs her because he believes he loves her.

This "love" of Bruno is tested with the entrance of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a charming magician and Bruno's estranged cousin. When Emil notices Ewa--and subsequently notices Bruno's desires for her--he strives to woo her with visions of a new life in California or beyond. Between Bruno and Emil, and still set on being reunited with her sister, Ewa finds herself caught making difficult moral decisions. "Caught" is the best term for it--she doesn't look for these plights or situations. They are thrust upon her in intrusive and violent ways. She knows she is not an object, yet she also knows that it requires money to obtain freedom for her sister, and she knows she'll do whatever it takes to be reunited. Bruno knows this too, and uses this knowledge to his manipulative advantage, all while internally wrestling with the subsequent guilt of placing the woman he loves into the hands of other men for money.

An aside: for a film set in the context of brothels and prostitution, there is not a single unnecessary scene of sensuality. While there are brief moments of nudity, none feel inappropriate to the narrative or objectifying to women in general. These places and the men that inhabit them are never portrayed in positive tones; it is the women here who are strong and resilient, who overcome their horrendous circumstances.

What makes The Immigrant such a well-crafted and powerful film is not only the acting (though Cotillard and Phoenix give perhaps their best performances of their already-stellar careers), or the images (haunting shadows, amber tones, and exquisite details transport a person into 1920s New York)--it's the complexity, the layers of depth and wondrous insights into the nature of humanity, freedom, morality, and forgiveness. While this film easily could have slipped into expected tropes of the genre--a love triangle, melodramatic performances, nice costumes, etc.--it defies convention without becoming inaccessible. In his expansive and insightful essay on The Immigrant, Jeremy Purves writes the following:
I believe one of the reasons The Immigrant will only grow in our estimation is that it rejects any simplistic or one-sided views about good and evil.  Its portrayals of both good and evil are completely sincere, but sincerity does not necessarily deny complexity.  Based on this, I do not believe it to be a spoiler to say that neither Bruno nor Emil are portrayed as wholly evil or wholly good.  Both men have some good intentions.  Both men, like the rest of us, have their own selfishness to deal with.  And both of their characters ask us to question our own motivations and capacity for blindness.  When a character in the film has to learn something about “the power of forgiveness” and then to make the decision whether to practice it as an act, it is difficult to see how deciding whether to forgive or not to forgive will not be heartbreakingly human in either case.
Without going into spoilerish territory, I can say that this film offers one of the strongest pictures of grace and forgiveness in a film this year, or perhaps the past ten years. The more I think about each character's choices--their spoken promises to one another, their decisions, their knee-jerk reactions and defense mechanisms, their confessions--I find there are further depths I have yet to mine for gems of truth and insight. The two scenes of confession between Ewa and Bruno are particularly noteworthy, and each are transformative for both characters, bringing about repentance and freedom and healing. These confessions are moments of revelation, where the interior struggles and shame of one's heart is poured out into public hearing. These are explicitly Christian confessions, as Ewa's faith is weaved throughout this story as a source of strength for her character, a moral anchor in the waves of her tumultuous circumstances. It's refreshing to see a film portray faith as a strength without brow-beating or cynicism. By the end of the film, Bruno may not be a convert to Christianity, but he certainly has experienced the healing described in James 5:17:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
The Immigrant is a strikingly honest film. Though characters are duplicitous and behave with mixed motives and questionable morals, they are nonetheless themselves, wholly authentic and raw, in a story that feels like it could only be birthed out of reality. The entire narrative rings true, from opening to close, and the final scene is entirely satisfying with a beautiful closing shot that could be framed in an art gallery. This isn't a film meant for two hours of escapist entertainment, though viewers will certainly not be bored. It's one of the more thoughtful and thought-provoking films to come along in a great while, and while my story as an immigrant cannot directly correlate to Ewa's story, there is something here beyond immigration that captivates the human mind and heart.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Doing With - Finding Kindred Spirits for Your Team

Choosing teams on the playground during elementary school recess is essentially a childhood rite of passage. There are two team captains, typically the kids who have the appearance of being natural leaders (i.e. they're bigger and louder) while the rest of the potential players line up and the ritual begins. If I ever found myself in the rare position of being the captain, I typically took a posture well-known by the other kids: I would pick my friends first. It didn't matter if they were good at the game or not; they were my friends. Some captains picked the strategy of choosing the biggest, most athletic kids, regardless of relational equity or quality of character. They just wanted to get the most points. But I found myself drawn to the people I liked, the people I knew I would have fun playing the game with, the people who gave me joy, the people I trusted. Even if we didn't win, we'd have a blast doing it together.

We choose the teammates we love to do games with.

Now as a pastor, I have the task of hiring for three different positions for my church's youth ministries leadership team, including a full-time young adults pastor. It's been an enlightening, exciting, and daunting endeavor as a leader. Choosing a leadership team requires a great deal of discernment, humility, patience, and a knowledge of one's vision and values. Finding the right team chemistry is vital, and I've been blessed to be a part of some incredible church leadership teams where the team dynamic is defined by mutual trust and shared values. I know what I want in a team because I've experienced it before.

A few weeks ago, I attended an evening lecture at Regent College featuring author and pastor Mark Buchanan. He shared that he would choose leaders based on what he called the "Numbers 11 Principle." In Numbers 11, the people of Israel are complaining to Moses so strongly that he eventually pleads with the Lord to kill him at once rather than continue to face the criticism and whininess of the people. Instead of killing Moses, God gives him the following command:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone. (Numbers 11:16-17, ESV, emphasis mine)
God takes some of the Spirit on Moses and places it on these trusted leaders. It's interesting that God doesn't just give His Spirit directly; He gives it through Moses, a sharing of His Spirit that mingles with Moses's spirit. This is more than just team chemistry or synergy or alike personalities--these are kindred spirits, shared hearts, what Buchanan called "deep calling to deep." There is something mysterious and beautiful and complex here, a sharing of the Spirit of God to stand together and bear the burden of the people. Buchanan encouraged his listeners to seek out these kindred spirits and do ministry together.

One of my ministry friends, Brian Berry, uses the language of locking arms or stacking hands together. I love the image of interlocking limbs as teammates, the intertwining partnership it embodies. And when people on the same team or project aren't kindred spirits, there is an underlying tension behind every decision, a fumbling of locked arms and an awkward de-stacking of hands. It's akin to the feeling of going for a high-five with someone and completely missing; we're not fully with each other in this.

Kindred spirits. Stacked hands. Locked arms. Partners in the Gospel. Whatever the phrasing, these capture something I've experienced in the past decade of ministry: there are certain people you just love doing ministry with. It goes beyond personalities or interests--this is the experience of shared values, shared hearts, shared minds, and a spiritual connection permeating it all. It's the reason I moved to Arizona years ago--I was following the call of a kindred spirit, someone I loved and trusted. It's the reason I came to British Columbia--I found kindred spirits here that I didn't even know existed until the Spirit of God brought us together. It's the reason I married my wife--she is a kindred spirit, a person I eagerly want to do life with, no matter where God leads us together.

We choose the people we love to do (fill in the blank) with.

As I'm hiring for positions and looking to build a team, I'm looking for kindred spirits. I'm looking for people to do ministry with for the long haul. That withness is essential for any team, whether on the playground, together as parents, or a pastoral team.

Who are the kindred spirits in your life? How do you know?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Top Youth Ministry Movies: Part 5

(Links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Link to Top Youth Ministry Movies You Can Show To Your Youth Group)

I love movies and I love youth ministry, so when the two interconnect, it's a beautiful thing. Here is part five of my top youth ministry movies: ten more films about adolescence, youth culture, discipleship, and identity formation, listed in alphabetical order. These aren't films for showing to your youth group; these are films for youth workers and parents to explore youth ministry themes. Use discretion and wisdom when deciding to watch any film.

Breaking Away (1979, Peter Yates) The Oscar winner of "Best Original Screenplay" in 1980, this affecting sports film is about four friends and the summer after their graduation from high school Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher spend much of their days lazily swimming in a nearby flooded quarry, unsure of their futures and taking out their adolescent frustrations on a local university gang. Dave stands out from the group for his passion for Italian competitive cycling, a passion that frustrates his pragmatic father but inspires his lackadaisical friends. Breaking Away wrestles with the post-high school graduate's vocational anxiety, embodied with the inspirational idealism of Dave and his participation in the Little 500, a local Indiana bike race. The film features a very young Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley in their teen years, and has become an American sports film classic.

Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma) I hesitate to list any scary supernatural film (see my theology of horror movies blog series for more thoughts on a Christian response to the horror genre), but this seminal horror movie based on Stephen King's novel is more than just a frightening film--it's cautionary tale about repressed sexuality, the effects of teen bullying, and an exploration of separatistic fundamentalist religion. When mousy Carrie (Sissy Spacek, in a career-defining role) experiences her first menstrual period in the middle of the gymnasium locker room showers, the subsequent ridicule she experiences at the hands of her peers is humiliating and infuriating. Her psychotic and abusive mother (Piper Laurie) keeps Carrie under her thumb through the authority of a fundamentalist religion akin to Christianity, but missing all aspects of Christ's grace and love. Carrie's realization and exploration of telekentic powers is a parallel to her adolescent experience of puberty--she realizes she has power and the ability to make her own autonomous choices. A young John Travolta and others plot to expand their humiliation of Carrie at the prom, leading to catastrophic results. (Caveat: Carrie is an R-rated horror film, with frightening scenes and nudity/sexuality. It's not an easy film to watch, so please don't consider its inclusion in this list as a blanket recommendation for its content or similar films.)

Frances Ha (2013, Noah Baumbach) Full of an ironic twist of wit and anxiety, Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha is the best filmic portrayal of the millennial generation's emerging adulthood phenomenon. Frances (co-writer and indie hipster romantic comedy veteran Greta Gerwig) is a feisty misfit, running through urban streets with abandon, spontaneous and full of life, passionate about her hopes and dreams, yet struggling with the whole idea of growing up. Shot in stark black-and-white while set in 2012 New York, Frances Ha pays homage to early Woody Allen comedies (Manhattan, Annie Hall) and the French New Wave films of the 1960s, Godard's Breathless, in particular. Frances Ha is filled with beautiful, cathartic moments which happen in fits and spurts: Frances sitting with the crying college girl in the dorm hallway; Frances' monologue telling the woman at the dinner party about her ideal romantic moment, where two eyes catch across the room and there is a "knowing" of each other that is beyond sexual or emotional longing; Frances running and dancing through the streets of New York with a reckless freedom. It is this last image--Frances running--that sticks in my mind the most. The world around her is a blur as she rushes forward, uncertain about the obstacles or opportunities that lie ahead, yet running at full speed. She is the poster child for the millennial generation's struggles and hopes, rushing with abandon into the future. (My review)

Frozen (2013, Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee) Disney is reconstructing its princess romantic identity. Beginning with Tangled, then Pixar's Brave, and now with this past year's Frozen--a wonderfully charming film featuring two princesses, sisters caught up in a magical adventure of danger and love--the concepts of love and femininity are taking some significant and positive shifts. Rather than portray passive princesses overwhelmed with temporal feelings-driven love, true love is embodied by sacrificial action. In Frozen, this definition of love is explicitly stated by Olaf, a magical snowman created by Elsa, who shares simple wisdom with Anna in a key moment. Frozen deconstructs the act of "true love's kiss" and replaces it with a sacrificial act of Anna saving her beloved older sister from impending death. Anna and Elsa are the Disney princesses of a new generation, portraying younger women who find their strength and voice and vocation without sacrificing their femininity. Frozen is a powerful story of teenage autonomy, the value of familial relationships, and the nature of authentic love. (My review)

The LEGO Movie (2014, Phil Lord, Chris Miller) Without spoiling anything, The LEGO Movie wonderfully explores the spiritual nature of creativity and our relationship with the Creator. More than anything, it sends a deeper message of moderation and discernment, where the abundant life is experienced by neither "following the rules" or "just doing what feels right." The LEGO Movie offers a Third Way, a way between polarization and politics, a way that is far more difficult to navigate but offers copious rewards when embraced with wisdom and discernment. Creativity and imagination are part of the created order--and there is order here--where we partner with the Creator in the making of culture. Even the portrayal of God is unique, where Father and Son create together in harmony and unity, while the mysterious Spirit guides and comforts as the world is built anew. The imagination and world-building in The LEGO Movie are par none; the humour is the most laugh-inducing I've had in a year; and the surprises in storyline, character cameos, and direction the film takes are all delightful. There strong parallels between this film and The Truman Show, the Toy Story films, and even The Matrix trilogy. The LEGO Movie, like the best Pixar has ever offered, manages to capture both the imaginative heart of a child and the thoughtful maturity of adulthood, capturing an audience in a holistic manner. As I've reflected upon the movie, I keep recalling more ideas, more delightful memories, more nostalgic moments. I'd be hard-pressed to find much I didn't like about this film. Everything is definitely awesome about The LEGO Movie. I feel like a kid again. (My review)

Mud (2013, Jeff Nichols) In the heart of the American South, two adolescent young men--it just doesn't feel right to call them "boys"--find a fugitive man hiding on an island in the middle of the immense Mississippi river. No, this isn't a Mark Twain story. It does hold on to the timeless character of Twain's tales--an innocent sweetness wrapped up with weighty moral and spiritual issues, all carried along by the great river. Ellis and Neckbone, two fourteen-year-olds from small-town Arkansas with a weathered motor boat, are seeking adventure in the form of a boat lodged high in a tree. What they find is Mud, the titular character of Jeff Nichols' latest American filmic masterpiece. Mud is aptly portrayed by Matthew McConaughey with a dangerous Southern charm and rugged idealism. Mud is a man on the run, and the boys decide to help the magnetic absconder. Ellis is one of the best embodiments of a young teen I've seen on film. Portrayed by Tye Sheridan (the youngest brother in Malick's The Tree of Life), Ellis is idealistic, naive, rash, and courageous. He strolls into adult situations with a quiet confidence beyond his fourteen years. He asks out the senior girl without a drop of insecurity or insincerity. He still says "ma'am" and "sir" to his parents, but also talks about girls with Neckbone. Ellis is a romantic, pining for true love, outraged when he cannot seem to find it for himself or in the adult relationships he observes. Questions begin to surface, like who am I? and what is love? and am I capable of giving and receiving love? and where do I fit in this world? Autonomy from his parents, affinity with Mud, and the boldness to make ethical decisions and take action to carry them out all stream from this boy like a slow-moving unstoppable river, driven and shaped by the currents. (My review)

Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford) Probably most famous for winning "Best Picture" over Scorcese's Raging Bull in 1981, Redford's Ordinary People is nonetheless a quiet and meditative exploration of the effects of loss on a normal American family. The accidental death of a beloved eldest son brings incredible turmoil to the Jarrett family, particularly with Conrad, the younger brother and survivor of the accident that cost his brother's life. After a suicide attempt and rehab in a psychiatric hospital, teenage Conrad ends up in regular meetings with a counselor, Dr. Berger, a compassionate and blunt man who can handle Conrad's painful feelings of loss and brokenness. The mother, Beth, also can't handle the brokenness in her heart, and her bitter refusal to forgive or show love for others comes out in painful and explosive ways. Though she cannot admit it, she holds Conrad responsible for the death, and the pain seeps out of her like liquid through fissures in a cracked dish. I recall watching Ordinary People in a high school religion class and being struck by the portrayal of a distraught and dysfunctional family that looked perfectly ordinary on the surface. Now as an adult, I see the underlying pain of families often in my experience as a pastor, the dysfunction both consistent and unique for each family. Tolstoy said it well: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Cretton) Filmmaker Destin Cretton has crafted a world that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming--it's certainly emotionally moving, and I found myself wiping my eyes numerous times. Short Term 12 is one of the most affecting and honest portrayal of youth work I've seen on film, sitting alongside The Kid with a Bike and About a Boy. While the youth workers in Short Term 12 are facility employees and therapists, there are strong parallels to Christian youth ministry, both in the church and the community. (I wish there were more Christian films that expressed the pathos and artistry and spirituality of Short Term 12. We need more of those films.) The young people of the facility are wounded by abandonment and abuse, frightened and cautious about opening up their souls to the adults around them. They reveal their pain through their art. A rap song from a troubled young man named Marcus is devastating as he reveals his past through the profane and affecting lyrics. Jayden shows Grace a children's story she wrote and illustrated in her notebook, a tale about an octopus being slowly eaten by a deceitful shark. Mason and Grace just listen and weep and empathize. It's a typical day in the life of a youth worker. This may, in fact, be the best contemporary film portraying youth ministry in a post-modern, post-Christian world. (My review)

The Way, Way Back (2013, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash) The Way, Way Back falls in line with typical summer movie themes--awkward teens, miserable experience in a beautiful vacation spot, hilarious side characters, etc.--without slipping into cliches or sentimentality. The opening scene features 14-year-old Duncan (perfectly portrayed by young actor, Liam James) sitting in the back of a Buick. A brief conversation with his mom's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), is incredibly demeaning--when asked what he'd rate Duncan on a scale of 1 to 10, Trent gives him a 3. Duncan's awkward eyes and iPod earbuds designed to block out the world reminded me of so many other young teens with the same internal question--am I really just a 3? Do I really matter? Is life always going to be this difficult? After discovering a nearby water park and suddenly becoming a member of the staff, Duncan begins to live in two different worlds. In the world of Trent and the vacation home, he is aloof, ignored, and viewed as an annoyance to be tolerated. In the world of the water park, he has authority, autonomy, responsibility, and community. With Trent and his friends, Duncan is inferior and boring. With Owen,  (the hilarious water park owner portrayed by Sam Rockwell) and the water park employees, Duncan is a beloved peer. With Trent, Duncan is a 3. With Owen, Duncan is a 10. It's not that Duncan is being hypocritical by living two different lives; he's embarking on the adolescent journey of autonomy, finding his own sense of self in the world, trying on a variety of identities to see which one truly fits best. And water park Duncan is winning the identity contest, thanks to Owen's invitation into his world. (My review)

Waiting for 'Superman' (2010, Davis Guggenheim) In the documentary Waiting for 'Superman,' filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud) tackles the broad subject of public education by looking at five individual children whose futures will be largely defined by the schools they attend. If they go down one path--specialized charter schools funded by public finances--they are nearly guaranteed the chance to go to college. If they head down another--public schools determined by their zip code--they enter a system seemingly designed to guarantee their failure in high school. Guggenheim's big question--what is wrong with public education and how do we fix it?--is one with simple-yet-complex solutions. There are a variety of factors in play here, such as the educational system, the policies, and the educators' priorities and values about what is truly important. These factors raise important questions for the American church. Whose preferences are more important, the older or younger generation? How can the older lovingly guide the younger? Is there such thing as a 'bad' youth pastor--or at least poor youth ministry practices--that could be hindering the spiritual growth of students?  (My review)

What youth ministry films would you add? Share in the comments!