Uncommon Wisdom From the Other Side A Senior Pastor Talks Youth Ministry © 2013 Tony Myles group

.com simplyyouthministry.com All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without prior written permission from the publisher, except where noted in the text and in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, visit group.com/customer-support/permissions. Credits Author: Tony Myles Executive Developer: Jason Ostrander Chief Creative Officer: Joani Schultz Editor: Rob Cunningham Cover Art and Production: Veronica Preston Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ISBN 978-1-4707-0458-2 Printed in the U.S.A.

CONTENTS Acknowledgements........................................................... 1 A Handshake................................................................... 3 An Ugly Introduction.......................................................... 6 A Beautiful Introduction.................................................. 11 Before You Move On….................................................... 15 SECTION ONE: UNCOMMON PERSONAL CHARACTER..... 17 What I Want…and What I Really Want.............................. 23 Prayer—Because It Always Comes First (Allegedly)............ 31 Why You Need to “Quit Your Job” Right Now..................... 41 Ear Pollution.................................................................. 49 Authority, Credibility, and the Temptation to Fake Both....... 57 Before You Move On….................................................... 62 SECTION TWO: UNCOMMON CHURCH STUFF................. 65 Casting a Contagious Vision............................................ 69 BRAP: A Checklist for Your Checklists.............................. 77 The Assist..................................................................... 85 Feed Up or Fed Up.......................................................... 93 Before You Move On….................................................... 99 SECTION THREE: UNCOMMON MINISTRY STUFF.......... 103 Pregnant Guys and Topless Girls................................... 109 From Life-Change to Life Changers................................. 115 This Is How We Do It.................................................... 123 The 50/100/200 Principle........................................... 131 Before You Move On….................................................. 138 Another Handshake..................................................... 141 Endnotes..................................................................... 146

I was 16 years old the night I first walked into a student ministry. A month later, I took ownership of my faith in Jesus Christ. To thank any one person responsible for that would be to miss a thousand, and so I humbly thank anyone who has ever been a part of the student ministry of Willow Creek Community Church. I’m equally thankful to every congregation I’ve ever ministered in (including the ones that gave me more heartache than happiness). You allowed me to serve God and undergo some growing pains. I continue to pray for your growing pains, too. Wise mentors have helped me navigate it all, especially Dan Webster, Bo Boshers, Larry Mitchell, Bud Bence, and Mike Yaconelli. You’re indirectly present in this book, as are many ministry peers I admire and am grateful to know…especially my amazing friends at Group Publishing and Simply Youth Ministry. Thanks also to Connection Church for asking me to be your lead pastor. You are the kind of rag-tag community of Christ-followers I’ve always dreamed of finding. BE the church. My favorite people are the ones I get to call my family. You keep me laughing and in awe of God, and I simply don’t deserve your love. Joshua, Daniel, and Johanna—you are world changers who rock my world 1

every day. Katie—you are my bride, and my one true love. Only you and God know the full story behind every short story I share, and I think we’ve kept each other sane following the Lord. None of this would be possible without Jesus, for whom there are no words to adequately thank for saving me and giving me new life. What I offer is all of who I am, for all of who you are. …so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:5).



Hi, my name is Tony. I used to be a professional youth worker able to “do youth ministry in my sleep.” (I actually said that out loud once.) God woke me up one day and I quit snoozing in my own arrogance. Occasionally I still get this wrong, but I’ve realized a truth attributed to Will Rogers: “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.”1 We all have strengths, but we also have gaps. Some of my hardest growing pains in ministry occurred when another person explained how I dropped the ball with something I should’ve known or handled better. That’s given me some hindsight that can help your foresight, but not because I’m an “expert” behind a desk. I still have skin in the game as a lead pastor, volunteer youth worker, and dad of a youth group kid. I regularly come alongside students on road trips, camps, small groups, and events so they know there’s a church family beyond their youth group who loves them. I’ll at times give up preaching on the weekend so I can serve a shift teaching youth. I know that what I’m describing isn’t common in a lot of churches.


Then again, that’s why the title of this book is what it is—instead of recycling what’s common, we’ll reclaim what’s uncommon. Let’s start with a handshake, as I’m a real guy who is trying to figure out as much as you are about what it means to serve God and students. I came to Jesus Christ as a teenager, and have always felt like I’m playing catch-up to everything I “should’ve known” about God and church but didn’t. Most days I still feel like I’m that ignorant kid—it’s why I’ve often struggled with feeling like I needed to prove myself. This book is thematically retroactive for me, meaning it’s full of things I wish I could’ve told myself years ago. Much of what we’ll be covering will give you the chance to change the typical youth ministry conversation happening at large and in your church. It’s not my hope to critique the conventional thinking that has gotten us where we are, but to instead offer you an equally flawed alternative. You may need to reread that last sentence. You’ll also want to note that I structured this book with a handful of character issues upfront. We’ll get to some nuts-and-bolts takeaways later, but don’t overlook the initial sections and skip to the programming insights. Honestly, if you don’t deal with who you are, you’ll just become another “dog and pony show” youth worker. You’re capable of more than that. 4

Read this with others as you can, and keep a Bible handy. We’ll process through the life of a guy named Nehemiah and hear wisdom from fellow youth workers who are on the same journey you’re on. Double-check every thought against God’s thoughts. Make no mistake, this is important. Judges 2:10 reveals that we’re always one generation away from becoming a godless culture: After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. That’s why I’m as passionate about students today as I was when I served for two decades exclusively as a youth pastor. God’s placed me in medium-sized congregations, suburban megachurches, tiny rural communities, and urban areas. I’ve done this with churches, nonprofits, schools, and community centers. In all of that, the Lord’s enlarged my calling today to help the church have a healthier future, which includes caring about what you’re sorting through. Email me anytime so we can chat: tonymyles@hotmail.com. Now…let’s get this party started.


Thank you for signing up to reach the next generation.

Your heart will gain scars. You’ll be misled by others. Close friends will seemingly abandon you. The resources may run out. You may fake your faith some days for the sake of others. Simple things Christians say will annoy you. The church you serve may appear two-dimensional in your three-dimensional stress. Students will let you down. You will disciple at least one Judas. People will say all kinds of unkind things about you and your family.


And it is the best possible way to live.

It would be easier to start things out by patting you on the back, but you need to know what you’re being patted into. The reason it’s called “ministry” is because someone is needed to “minister.” That implies a gap exists that needs filling. You may occasionally get applause for doing this, but if you’re looking for applause you have things backward. Trouble will hit. Relational blood will be spilled. People you expect to be medics will at times be holding the knife. And you’ll at times be one of the guilty parties. If you can see this for what it is and enter the chaos glued to Jesus, you’ll unearth questions about church and ministry you didn’t realize existed. You’ll also see some things about God you’d like to change, such as how he gets to call the shots on good days and bad days. You’ll later treasure these things because when you aren’t able to answer the “what happens next” question, you’ll start focusing on the “who can I love who is in front of me now” question. 7

That’s the question that really matters more, anyway.

It’s going to be ugly. Anytime something full of life is born, there is a big, bloody mess. Why do we forget this and whine about it when it happens? Then again…perhaps you feel OK with ministry today and are nodding, assuming you’re ready for whatever comes next. Will you keep nodding when your spouse is about to experience a nervous breakdown because of your “calling”? How about when your own walk with God feels drier than it’s ever been and you have another message to deliver? What will you do when the bliss of working inside the four walls of a church starts to feel like solitary confinement? Such hardships may not dominate, but there will likely be seasons when everything seems crazy and Jesus will need you to help redeem even the “redeemed.” This is where what you preach finally gets owned. This is where your faith moves from practical ideas about living to oxygen for your suffocation. This is where you take on Satan, not out of adrenaline but out of Jesus. 8

Consider this line from C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters where one demon counsels another on wearing down a man who has given himself to their “enemy,” God: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” 2 It’s not my aim to destroy your faith but to ground it in the Lord before it gets destroyed. Ministry will give you every circumstance to abandon what you’re doing because there’s always a seemingly nicer job at a store or restaurant down the street where you can clock in and clock out. Then again, perhaps you weren’t made to clock in and clock out. Maybe (just maybe) you will deny yourself, carry your cross, follow Jesus, and experience a resurrection in this generation. (Note the order of that sentence.)

Doing that will unearth more of God than you feel prepared for, which in turn will make you run off screaming or surrendered on your own cross because you finally see students like he does. 9

Because youth ministry is ugly. Welcome to a book filled with uncommon wisdom.


Thank you for signing up to reach the next generation.

You will have good days in ministry. Amazing days, in fact. Your insides will illuminate when teenagers have lightbulb moments because you’re shining Christ into them. You’ll experience breakthroughs from time to time that make you feel as if you just won a major sports championship. You’ll have such spontaneous joy that you’ll be tempted to break out into song, like some kind of ministry musical. Keep in mind that these days of celebration will be as common as and as rare as they are in the Bible. Chew on that a moment. A mentor of mine pointed out Jesus said one out of four seed-planting efforts may end up producing anything good.3 One out of four. Factor in that you may on this side of heaven only sense a 10th of that as it happens.


Yet down the road a future young adult may tell you how when you sat next to them at a church lock-in and learned their story, you helped God change their world. For all you know, that’s it—and that’s enough. Then again, maybe it’ll become contagious in their generation and the next:

P.T. I’m here because of you. I’m watching sixty teenagers cannonball, dive, and belly smack into a pool at 10 o’clock at night. Yes, because of you, I’m a youth pastor and district youth president mixing with teens, parents, and other pastors by co-directing a family camp. Everything that could possibly be associated with “here” for me right now has its derivative in you: My wife, church, ministry, and faith all stem from the common root of my pastor, “P.T.” So many of my breakthrough moments with Jesus occurred because of your wisdom and wit. You taught me about the difference between dating the world’s way versus relationships God’s way; you helped me ponder what Jesus will first say to us in heaven; and I’ll never forget the inchworm climbing up a tent on a youth trip when from behind me you stated in a Napoleon-esque voice, “I shall take the castle by force!” You’ve influenced my life through specific moments, as 12

well as your consistent lifestyle…from what you wrote, prayed, said, and chose not to say even when I was being a punk. I’ve been changed by your integrity, passion, and unconditional love, in all the times both obvious and secret. It’s only now, as a pastor myself, do I realize what it takes to make those specific moments occur. There are one hundred different directions you were being pulled…one thousand reasons you should’ve been too fatigued. That didn’t stop you from making a message relevant to us, being personal with me on a car ride, or leaving the note that launched me into ministry with no looking back. There is also no way I could’ve known what it takes to walk a consistent life of integrity until now. Last year a close friend of mine buckled under temptation. That could easily be any one of us who leaves a hole in his or her armor or pridefully skips a meeting with an accountability partner. You could’ve absolutely destroyed my trust in the Lord and his church. Instead, I was able to grow into enough maturity that even when I now see saints fall, I hold fast to the Savior, and his call. Thank you, Pastor Tony. There are over fifty churches influenced by the ministry the Lord 13

has called me to. If any fruit comes of this by the Spirit, it’s because I’m available to the Lord by the ministry you poured out to me. I’ve struggled all my life to believe I was worth much. You taught me the Word of God promises I’m made in his image, and you treated me according that promise. Who knows the amount of fruit you’ll one day rejoice over with your Best Friend, because you humbled yourself? Thank you, thank you, thank you, Pastor Tony Myles, for what you have done, but mostly for being who you are. Pastor Brian Scramlin Brian wrote this to me in his mid-20s…which means I had to see the future potential for that letter when he was a teenager. It’s why Hebrews 11:1 says faith is the evidence of things still unseen. You join God in working possibilities in impossible situations. Will they see what you see? Students are worth it. Church is worth it. Jesus is worth it. Because youth ministry is beautiful. Welcome to a book filled with uncommon wisdom. 14

Whether you’ve been in youth ministry for a day or for decades, you’ve learned something. Maybe it’s about how the way you used to do something was less productive or life-giving than you thought it would be. Perhaps you’d give yourself a good talking-to about your attitude or how you let ministry take the place of your own journey with God. If you could send a message back in time to yourself right before you agreed to get into this, what would you say? • • What hard, ugly wisdom would you offer yourself to prepare for what you might face? What inspiring, beautiful concepts could you use to cast vision for why it’s all worth it?


I was cupbearer to the king (Nehemiah 1:11).


The book of Nehemiah introduces us to a guy named Nehemiah (now that’s some amazing marketing). He was a “cupbearer to the king” and tasted the best drinks in the land to see if they were poisoned.4 This was a great gig for anyone, let alone a Jew whose people spent more than a century exiled in a foreign land. Nehemiah literally consumed what was prepared for the most powerful and important man in the kingdom. Imagine working as a taste-tester at the only buffet in a third-world country. Around this time, the king decreed the Jews could start returning to their homeland. An initial wave of 50,000 people took him up on it to start rebuilding their temple. It seemed like everyone would want to leave, but not everyone did. Nehemiah stayed. Maybe it was because he was blessed with a secure job in a challenging economy. Why in the world would you want to quit that to head back to an old land full of broken buildings in the middle of the desert? Then again, his reason for staying may have been something more profound and spiritual. Honestly, we don’t know why Nehemiah stayed put— we just know that he did.


Then one day Nehemiah got word that the walls of Jerusalem were in shambles: When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven (Nehemiah 1:4). Which is right about the moment that God unraveled everything he knew.


“You’re no longer the youth pastor of the church.” This is what my senior pastor told me in a meeting I didn’t see coming. Which is right about the moment that God unraveled everything I knew. Apparently, I was being moved into a different role and being given a new job description. In reality, my pastor was incrementally firing me by moving me out of my youth pastor role to make me a creative arts pastor—a new role he budgeted to last for four months. It felt like church politics disguised as compassion. Maybe this way the church wouldn’t complain if he spontaneously let me go. I wanted to quit on the spot. 19

The only problem is that God had called me to that church—and God hadn’t released me. I could pretend he had and say, “This is tough, so the Lord must be calling me away from here.” It would’ve been a lie. A creative arts pastor. No offense to that role, but while I could make clever videos, I showed up to serve as a youth pastor that day. “Those kids need me,” I thought. “What will they do without me?” My pastor asked if I was going to take the job. I told him I needed to go home and talk with my wife. So I did—I sat down with my family and ate an intentionally slow lunch until finally sharing the news, including how I had discerned I wasn’t yet released from the church. My wife nodded her head, but her faith began to sift, and would continue to sift—as would mine. I drove back to the church building in a daze, and even got a ticket on the way, but I took the job—not because I had a mortgage, but because following Jesus means following Jesus. The next day I began a routine outside of the church building that I’d repeat each day that followed. I’d pause, breathe, and then say, “Tony, you’re no longer the youth pastor of the church. If teenagers come by today, redirect them to their new youth pastor. You are this church’s creative arts pastor—deny yourself, carry your cross, and serve the Lord.” 20

Pause. Breathe. Serve. That discipline helped me give my best, which stretched the four months into nine months. Eventually, the job ran out, and I continued into a raw season of life that suffocated my faith and family. I remember feeling emasculated after moving in with my in-laws and working four part-time jobs to provide some type of income. My wife took a job at a restaurant, and one day even had to serve the wife of the very senior pastor who fired me. I got angry with God, grew jaded about churches, and wrote blog posts as therapy. The Lord seemed to respond by pouring salt on my open wound. I was offered several church roles I could have easily settled for. One was even my dream job, only when the offer came I found myself wrestling with vague whispers from the Holy Spirit that said God had a different dream for me. When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. And in the vacuum of it all, I reread how Jesus trusted his church into the hands of imperfect people. If he has that kind of faith in it, how could I not? Especially since Hebrews 11 describes Christians who


were tortured…faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them (Hebrews 11:35-38). One day in heaven those martyrs will ask us what kind of persecution we faced. People who were sawed in two will listen as we reply, “Yeah, my senior pastor was mean and insecure.” Someone who lost their child for Christ will hear us say, “I didn’t get a youth budget. People gossiped about my family. Someone else got my office. They said I’d get this one thing in my contract, but they never gave it to me. A key leader or elder lied to me, and I can handle anything except a lie.” I don’t know what you face, but I know from personal experience that at some point everything you know will unravel. Perhaps it will be professionally, or maybe it will come at you emotionally, physically, spiritually, or relationally. You’ll feel like you’re literally unlearning everything you’re sure of. The good news? This is right about when the King leans over and says, “What is it you want?”


Ever wish your ministry hindsight could be your foresight? Sometimes you don’t know what’s about to happen next—or how to prepare for it. Other times you can almost glimpse the lessons you’re about to learn the hard way before they happen, like you’re peering through the tiny panels of a fence. You can barely make out what you see, but you know something important lives on the other side. What if someone was on that side of the fence? What if it was a senior pastor who truly understands what you face as a youth worker—and who not only understands, but wants to offer wisdom to help you in your journey? Tony Myles speaks from a unique perspective: a former youth pastor who remains deeply engaged in his church’s ministry to teenagers. He still has skin in the game as a lead pastor, volunteer youth worker, and dad of a youth group kid. He regularly interacts with students and sometimes even gives up preaching on the weekend so he can teach youth. Instead of recycling what’s common, this book reclaims things that are uncommon—thought-provoking questions, risky challenges, and uncomfortable ideas about personal character, church life, and youth ministry. And you’ll process all of this through the life of Nehemiah—with extra insights from youth workers who are on the same path you’re traveling.

Uncommon Wisdom From the Other Side will give you the chance to change the typical youth ministry conversation happening at large and in your church—all with the goal of remaining glued to Jesus and reaching a generation of young people.

tony myles
Tony Myles is the lead pastor of Connection Church, an incredible move of God in Medina, Ohio. With over 20 years of experience and advanced education in youth ministry, he is also a volunteer youth worker in his church, national ministry coach, book author, and columnist for a Cleveland-area newspaper. Mostly, Tony is a “messy Christ-follower” with an overflowing love for God; for his amazing wife, Katie; for their two awesome boys and one beautiful girl; and for the church in all its imperfect, redemptive beauty. Follow him on Twitter: @tonymyles.

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