Monthly Archives: October 2012

Why I hate messy games

Published at Youthworker Online (A part of Youthworker Journal)

Read the online article here

I hate messy games. All of them. Messy games, gross games, crud wars, I hate all of it. It’s certainly a personal preference and belief, and I do not look down on my colleagues who engage with these kind of games and activities, but you won’t catch me leading one of these activities anytime soon (at least I hope). My problem with messy games is certainly based on personal preference, personality and experience, but there is more to it than that. So here are the seven reasons besides my own personal preference that I hade messy games.

#1 They are mess to clean up and can be unsafe. Youth ministry requires a lot of time and effort on the part of staff and volunteers. While we should be open to any task no matter how large or small, I am not sure the best use of our time is cleaning up messy games. I could have a conversation with a high school student about their calling or pray with a middle school youth instead of cleaning up chocolate sauce. These games can also be unsafe, whether it is the risk of choking on marshmallow bunnies or having an allergic food reaction, there is often a risk with these games that we do not think about.

#2 They are not edifying. Sure messy games are fun, but are they edifying? While I might enjoy slamming a student’s face with a rotten banana, rarely have I seen a messy or gross game or activity that edified. In fact, many of them embarrass. While not everything we do in youth ministry is or has to be edifying, I think it’s worth considering. The nature of living in community and the sarcastic tone of many youth groups bring enough challenge to edification that I am not convinced messy games are worth another.

#3 They leave out certain youth out. Realistically our students care a little too much about their clothing, but if we are playing messy games and a student is wearing a $100 pair of jeans and the $50 shirt that their parents worked four jobs to give them (just so they did not have to feel guilty about never being around) we instantly leave that student out (put their relationship with their parents at risk-or better yet, OUR relationship with their parents). These games also leave out youth who might get sick from these games and those with food and other allergies. I know that I have a hard enough time getting my youth to play games that won’t hurt or ruin their clothes. Sure, almost every game could exclude a youth, but shouldn’t we make our best effort not to do that? The more we leave youth out of games and other activities, the more we become one more place in their life where they cannot fit in.

#4 More often than not, they waste resources. While contradiction is a part of life and great for creating tension that incites learning, messy games can be too great a contradiction. One week we spend hundreds of dollars on supplies (food etc) that we use to smear all over each other and just a week later we are off to a third world country to serve people that receives less food in a month than we just wasted in the annual crud war. While I am sure Jesus’ disciples wasted some food after a meal, I doubt that the abuse of resources (again food in particular) fits in the Kingdom narrative. The idea that a messy game might help a kid come to Jesus is fine, but as my youth ministry professor, Duffy Robbins was fond of saying; ‘what you win them with is what you win them to.’ Is Jesus a fun, unpredictable, easy-going God? I sure hope so, however I am not sure that Jesus would prefer we waste $500 on an ice cream fight instead of using $500 to supply a homeless shelter with food for a week.

#5 They are immature. Youth workers hate that word, and for good reason. Misunderstanding often leads others to see youth ministry (as well as youth and youth workers) as immature. I recognize my own immaturity and accept it. That said, there is immaturity that makes sense in youth ministry (being playful, childlike etc) and immaturity that does not make sense (dating youth, car surfing etc). I would argue that most messy games fall in the immaturity-that-does-not-make-sense category. While messy games are fun, they are often more obnoxious than they are childlike. While immaturity is good from time to time, it should not be the primary mode of operation for our youth ministries. While adult maturity is overrated, a mature faith is not.

#6 They do not portray a healthy image of youth ministry.  This point may be redundant in light of the other reasons, however it’s not a point that I would want to miss either. There is so little that is healthy about our culture and the church today. With the changing nature of adolescence and the challenges that youth ministries across the North America face, ministry health is not ideal, it is essential. Creating an emotionally safe environment for youth and their parents builds the kind of trust that is necessary to lead the parents and youth of your church and community. While messy games usually end in a good laugh, they do nothing sustainable to create health in your ministry. Youth ministries must not look perfect, but they must be healthy enough that those who are sick would find healing rather than more illness.

#7 They are not rooted in theological reflection. Youth ministry must be a theological enterprise. Ministry leadership born out of personality, giftedness, program or philosophy alone is shallow. Everything that we say and do should have a theological basis, even though all human theology is imperfect. It is difficult to find a strong theological basis for messy games and activities. Having fun, relaxing, and letting go are all valuable and I believe that the promise of abundant life includes enjoyment, but messy games are not critical to enjoyment. If our theology is that messy games will bring students to Jesus, then I would suggest we need to reexamine our understanding of the person of Jesus Christ. If we are winning our kids to a Jesus who comes in the form of a 43 year old man trying to eat pudding and bananas through a stocking as a version of practical theology, then perhaps we need to spend some more time living in the scriptures.

I respect those who use messy, gross games and activities as a part of their ministry. While I personally do not enjoy or support these kind of activities, I believe we are called to work together in the midst of the diversity that exists in the kingdom of God. I would suggest however that we use discernment and caution before making messy games a staple of our ministries.

Rev. Marcus J Carlson has worked with children and youth for over 14 years and is a spiritual director. He current serves as Associate Pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, CO. (

The us has become them

Published at Youthworker Online (A part of Youthworker Journal)

Read the online article here

The ‘Us’ has become ‘Them’

I remember early on in my youth ministry career, besides being young, immature, arrogant and having a chip on my shoulder; I was also part of a mindset that seemed to be prevalent in youth ministry: the battle of ‘us’ verses ‘them.’ The us refers to youth workers and the them refers to the senior pastors, adults and others that just did not get youth ministry. It was not just the youth workers that were young that thought this way; you heard it from almost everyone in youth ministry. Mike Yaconelli was constantly critical of those in the ‘them’ crowd in the church for not understanding the nature of ministry. While there was (and still is) plenty of arrogance in youth ministry, I believe there was some truth to the idea that it was youth workers who really ‘got it.’ The church was resistant to new ideas, unconventional thinking, creativity, and outside the box thinking. Youth workers attempted to lead the way in helping the church think differently. I remember so many conversations around this topic as recently as 2005, but something has changed.

Hopefully some of us (present company included) have grown up and matured (some would say ruined). Youth ministry has changed. It does not have the importance, power or influence that it once did. The busyness of culture, the lack of youth and adult participation and the economic realities that have changed the church staff market in general are all part of the equation. The world has changed, the church has changed and youth ministry has changed. Maybe it all makes sense, or maybe it’s just me. Yet I think there is something else going on. The ‘us’ crowd, the creative, innovative youth workers that used to lead the way, have become ‘them.’ It’s no longer the senior pastors, adults and other leaders of the church that are resisting change. It’s now those of us in the youth ministry world. I am not sure what happened; perhaps we are just comfortable or maybe even tired. We have lost some of our power, leverage and influence. I don’t think youth ministry has matured though. In fact our youth ministries seem more theologically immature than ever. I see some of the same games, strategies and mindsets that I experienced as an intern in the late 1990’s. Youth workers seem more resistant than ever to ideas from parents and those outside their circles, especially senior pastors.

While I have yet to hear a single youth worker utter the death phrase ‘we have never done it that way before,’ I see so many youth workers operating out of that very mindset. What happened to our innovation? What happened to our thoughtful, cutting edge, rebellious nature? Where has our sensitivity and discernment to the changing needs of culture gone while trying to engage the Holy Spirit? While I would say that we have lost our way (and we did need to grow up), I also believe youth ministry has become a victim of its own success. We have fallen into the trap of being professional ministers. We have lost sight of the mission and have found comfort in our own empires (no matter how large or small). Much like the church leaders of the past (and perhaps the present), we are unable to challenge our own thinking, especially if what we are doing is appearing to work.

The problem is that I am not so sure it is working anymore. Sure we have amazing youth ministries with fun games and messages that change lives instantly (or at least we think). Yet, in a world where our teenagers hide more of their lives from us, we have created an alternate world that looks more like a Christian bookstore than the Kingdom of God. Our youth are coming to faith and experiencing radical change, and moments later they are off to the parking lot to have sex in their cars. Our student leaders are not the youth that are ‘sold out for Jesus.’ They are the youth that are able to manage multiple selves and pretend better than others. Everything has changed, and the problem is that we have not changed with it. It’s now those in the ‘them’ crowd that are leading the way and it’s those of us in the ‘us’ crowd that are stuck in our own comfort.

Rev. Marcus J Carlson has worked with children and youth for over 14 years and is a spiritual director. He current serves as Associate Pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, CO. (

When a leader falls

Published in the Nov/Dec 2012 Edition of Youthworker Journal

Read the online article here

The combination of anxiety and mistrust can create a very reactive environment. A congregation member may get upset when he suddenly finds out you have a couch in your office. A mother of one of your students may question your sexual integrity when she finds out you travel to a different city in the state once a month to meet with other ministry leaders.

While post-betrayal youth ministry settings are complex and characterized by anxiety, distrust, drama and reactivity, they are also full of potential. It is often in the midst of pain, suffering and conflict that God’s redemptive work can be most profound. Settings where a leader has fallen are ripe for redemption, and out of the misconduct and betrayal of the past can come great healing and hope.

Making the most of this potential depends on how a leader understands his or her role. In addition to all the important roles a leader typically has, those of us who serve in a post-fall context must embrace our role as healers.

Those who have witnessed a leader’s failure are suffering, and without healing they may continue to live in the pains of the past. Leaders who want to help people heal must focus on building trust at all levels. We also must carefully examine our words and actions to make sure everything we do builds trust and healing.

Tips for Picking Up the Pieces

If you find yourself in a post-fall youth ministry setting, there are some practical steps you can take in practicing things leaders can do to lead effectively while caring for those they serve and for self and family.

First, leaders must practice ferocious personal discipline in every area of life. Some youth workers are known for their lack of personal and professional discipline, which while endearing at times can be deadly in post-betrayal settings. The consistency that comes with personal (and professional) discipline is essential for youth workers and those they lead in these contexts.

Spiritual, physical, emotional and relational disciplines are critical. Additionally, leaders in these complex settings must establish, guard and maintain personal boundaries, especially as it relates to time management, Sabbath observance, personal availability to students and dedicated time with family.

Youth workers in these settings also must learn to manage and live within an anxious and reactive environment while keeping their focus on healing. One of my past supervisors loved to talk about being a non-anxious presence. What she meant was this: In situations where there has been misconduct, leaders need to accept the anxiety of their situations and encourage people to express their feelings without allowing the ministry to be dominated or held captive by people’s fears.

Leaders cannot forget or ignore the history of betrayal in their communities or allow this dark history to dictate the ministry’s future. Ministerial misconduct is a part of the story and history of the youth ministry, but because of the redeeming power of God, it does not have to be whole story.

Youth workers in post-fall contexts also should lead the effort to ensure the ministry adheres to appropriate, healthy policies in order to prevent further misconduct of any kind by ministry leaders. In some cases, this means giving existing policies greater prominence. In cases where current policies are nonexistent or lax, tough new policies must be developed and honored throughout the organization.

These crisis situations also demand that youth workers must think, lead, program and operate theologically instead of operating solely out of natural ability, giftedness or personality. Being a charismatic leader with great speaking and teaching abilities may have worked in the past; but in scenarios of pain and anxiety, natural gifts alone will not cut it.

Finally, leaders must communicate well and often. It is better to over-communicate in a post-betrayal setting than to under-communicate, especially when it comes to your personal, professional and ministry boundaries.

Brokenness is a destructive and powerful reality in churches, ministries and youth ministry settings. The key to being effective leaders and healers in communities that have experienced ministerial misconduct and betrayal is to think carefully about the unique challenges we face while remembering the great hope Jesus Christ offers for our healing and redemption.

Marcus J. Carlson has worked with children and youth for more than 14 years. He currently serves as associate pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he lives with his wife, Jessica, and two children, Micah, 7, and Abby, 4. Marcus also serves as a spiritual director, volunteers with community organizations, and teaches at a community college. In his spare time, he contributes to and writes a column for a denominational publication. Learn more at

Product Review: Greater

Published at Youthworker Online (A part of Youthworker Journal)

Read the online article here


Greater Product Pack


This product included Steven Furtick’s new book, Greater, a DVD and discussion guide. The book is well done and very motivating. I could see it used for adults, young adults, or more mature high school youth. It too comes with discussion questions. The DVD and discussion guide are meant to compliment the book, but can also be used independently. The discussion guide is also well done, although it may be geared towards more mature believers and older youth/young adults. The DVD is phenomenal and can be used in almost any youth ministry or adult ministry setting in the church. The best use of this product for a youth ministry would be for the youth leader to get all three pieces, read the book and then use the DVD for youth group or small groups. I would recommend utilizing the discussion guide and the book for small group or youth group discussion along with the video. Greater can motivate anyone to a God sized vision and help provide the confidence needed to achieve those visions.

Rev. Marcus J Carlson has worked with children and youth for over 14 years and is a spiritual director. He current serves as Associate Pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, CO. (