Monday, December 2, 2019

New FOJ Study and it's Giving Tuesday - Let's Keep FOCUS Growing!

Giving Tuesday - Keep FOCUS Growing 

Today is the day! We have $36,000 in matching funds on
the table if you'd like to give a special gift. If you give on Facebook, they will cover all of the fees and we'll receive 100% of your gift, but feel free to give at or make a pledge for later. I'm so thankful for all the ways you guys partner with me in ministry, so don't feel any pressure!

New "FOCUS on Jesus" Study

This summer we completely overhauled our signature one-on-one Bible study to meet new needs and reflect what we've been learning in the 15 years since we originally wrote the study. The old FOJ has been and continues to be an amazing tool to make and mature disciples, but we realized that a growing number of students, even those raised in church, were completely unaware of the biblical story and how it should be shaping our lives. 

The new study, rather than going topic by topic, starts in Genesis with creation and moves through to the new creation at the end of Revelation. It still explores the same topics of faith and sin and discipleship and community, but it does so as they emerge in the narrative, with students reading larger chunks of scripture along the way. The feedback has been almost entirely positive, though we know we'll be debriefing and refining the study in the coming months and years. If you're interested in checking it out, you can find it by clicking on the new cover below:

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Encouraging Notes from FOCUS Alumni

I consistently get messages from past students highlighting ways that their time in FOCUS continues to shape their lives. It's very encouraging! I wanted to share a couple of recent ones so you can get a glimpse into some of the fruit of our partnership.

From one of our young men:

Have you ever read The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind? It made me think about how glad I am for the summer school of ministry, and for you introducing the scholars from Regent College and elsewhere to me. I seriously think it saved my faith. I don't think I could follow God if I hadn't had that mental and philosophical help. - Matt

I haven't read the book, but I've definitely come face to face over and over again with young men and women who are asking the question, "can I be an intellectual AND a Christian?" How did we get the reputation of being anti-intellectual? It's especially ironic given the role of great Christian minds over the past 2000 years who have advanced civilization in basically every area. 

This coming weekend, we will be hosting Dr. Mary Poplin, a professor from Claremont Graduate University, to speak at our fall Pizza Theology on "Is Reality Secular?" Please pray that the Spirit will shape the minds of young disciples through events like these so that they lead in their various fields as thoughtful, committed Christians.

From one of our young women:

After our annual Leadership Conference, planned this year by Laurence Glenesk and my wife, Sarah, one of our young graduates who has become a teacher sent them this message:

Hey I know you two put all this together, and I wanted to let you know what an immense blessing it has been.

Coming out of vocational ministry and into education, one of the struggles I have felt over and again is the lack of specific training for how to hone my ministry in the context I am in. In FOCUS, I had staff directors pulling resources for me, asking me challenging questions, and generally supporting my desire to grow as a creative minister. In teaching, I’ve found the same efforts (Professional Development) to be largely a waste of time and money, and not anything related to spiritual training, obviously. Last year, FISD’s topic of focus was “innovation.” They pulled some famous, charismatic person to speak at our convocation, who gave a presentation that was both entertaining and alienating. The disconnect between my day-to-day interactions with students and this man’s urgent cry for innovation didn’t help, and it mostly ended up in our staff having to create forced lessons “using technology” that would have gone better on paper, if we’re honest. But hey, it’s “innovative.”

So today I was not excited about our topic, though I am always excited about what God’s gonna do at our leadership day. Boy, was I wrong.

Today’s sessions have been the best—THE best—training for my job that I have ever had. I spend about 85% of my waking hours with Gen Z kids and I love them. My thoughts when I go to bed are consumed with those kids. My prayers are full of hope and heartbreak for them. I desperately want to learn to love and serve them better and to show them the heart of God. Today I have learned how to, and it was free.

I am blown away at the quality of this conference, and I know it is driven by attention to the Spirit’s leading and a love for God’s children. What an honor to call you both friends and share in the gifts God has given you in ministry. Thank you so much for all you’ve done!

We are continuing to invest in our alumni, as well as our students, through events like these, equipping them to live out the mission of God in their various spheres. I'm so encouraged to hear messages like this one!

2 More Things

Our annual Keep FOCUS Growing fundraiser will be coming up on giving Tuesday after Thanksgiving on December 3. Please pray about whether the Lord might lead you to give a special gift during this year-end season. We are currently projecting a loss for this year, but we're trusting God to make up the difference!

Here's a sneak peak at the theme this year!

And here's a sweet testimony from one of our students. Thanks for investing in young men like Johnny!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Meet Our New Apprentices at UTD

Each August we accept a group of college graduates onto our staff for one school year. They come to serve the community, to learn and grow in their own faith, and to explore the possibility of becoming a campus pastor long-term. As usual, we have an outstanding group this year! There are 12 in all, but 7 of them are serving at UTD. I'm going to let them introduce themselves. There's also a student testimony and a picture from Fall Camp below. We had a great turnout!

Thank you to all of you who pray for this mission and to those of you who give financially to support it. I'm so encouraged by your partnership!

My name is Cort Thomas. I graduated from UT Dallas with a BFA in Arts & Technology. I am very excited to be doing the FOCUS apprenticeship at my alma mater. I am excited to get to grow as a person, to serve the community at UTD, and above all to deepen my relationship with Christ. Something interesting about me is that I have been married since August of 2018!

(Another Fun Fact is that Cort is our only male apprentice at UTD this year.)

My name is Ashley Obregon. I graduated from The University of North Texas #GMG with a bachelors in Social Work. I love being with people, the enneagram, and being loud. I have always been someone who felt like they needed to advocate for people so social work made sense to me. When I was a student in this ministry, I saw the way people loved and fought for me. When it comes to the apprenticeship, I am excited to have the opportunity to learn the things that I loved most about social work within the world of ministry. My life would be very different if people hadn't fought for me, and I look forward to getting to be that for someone else. I pray that this year God uses me to be a fighter for someone.
My name is Erin Campbell, and I am from Plano, Texas. I recently graduated from The University of North Texas with a degree in integrative studies concentrating in social work, psychology and women studies. I am very excited to be doing the FOCUS apprenticeship! I loved being in FOCUS as a student at Collin and UNT, and I am thrilled to be able to serve this ministry and the people in it. I am also looking forward to learning from talented ministers and to deepening my relationship with God. God used FOCUS and the people in it to change the trajectory of my life. I cannot wait to see what He does with the staff and students this year.

My name is Kylie Von Runnen. I am a Texas native and graduated from UTD this past Spring with a degree in Business Administration. It is super special to get to be on staff at this campus that was so integral to my growth in my relationship with God throughout college. I'm using this season to learn more about God and fall more in love with Him as I love His people on this campus. I am so excited to be at UTD and can't wait to see what God does in and through me in this season of life! Fun Fact: I love Disney and cats.

My name is Maria Stufflebeem! I’m originally from Recife, Brazil but have grown up in the Dallas, Texas area. I graduated with a BS in General Studies with a double major of Nursing and Business Administration from TWU. I felt a fire in my heart for the FOCUS apprenticeship, and am so excited to be a part of it! I absolutely love the opportunity to dive deep in our classes, readings, and discussions as well as study with and mentor students, putting into practice what we learn from our classes! It’s an exciting experience getting to grow in the knowledge of the Lord and see Him at work in the campus!  I’m so honored to get to do the apprenticeship this year! Fun fact: I’m fluent in three languages and love listening to other languages, even if I can’t understand them.

I'm Hannah Diaz, a native Texan. I completed my B.A. in English at Texas Woman’s University in 2019. It was there that I found Christ through college ministry. After going to my first core at the beginning of my freshman year, I knew I had found a home with FOCUS. Since then, I've committed my life to discipleship and haven't looked back! I decided to apply for the apprenticeship with FOCUS, knowing that I want to spread the amazing news of Jesus and love other students the way I had been loved throughout my years in college.

My name is Hanna Mason! I graduated from UNT with a bachelors in Special Education, and have been teaching for the last two years. I chose to do this apprenticeship because I felt God calling me to explore campus ministry as a career. I hope to learn how to better minister to college students, how to think pastorally, and how to grow in my faith and trust in God. A fun fact about me is that I am the youngest of around 36 grandchildren.

The crew from our UTD Fall Camp! We had a great weekend talking about making decisions and persevering through obstacles and challenges.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Welcome Week 2019 was STRESSFUL and SUCCESSFUL!

Welcome Week is a bit of a misnomer since it basically stretches from the beginning of freshmen moving in on August 13 to our last welcome event this past Sunday, September 1. UTD has it right: they're now calling it Weeks of Welcome!

FOCUS at UTD hosted 3 board game nights, 2 nights of zombie tag, 2 Field Day events (Ultimate Frisbee, Speedball, Bubble Soccer9-Square in the AirSpike Ball, and more!), Take A Freshman to their Classes (campus tour), carpools to church on 3 Sunday mornings, a United Worship night with the other ministries on campus, Games on the Mall (with 4 square and frisbee and spike ball), our FNF and TNF kickoffs, and 2 ethnic specific outreach events. We also helped with 2 huge international student outreaches, the Garage Giveaway furniture drive and the Big Howdy, which had over 1000 international student in attendance. We got 350 interest cards at that event alone!

The 2 ethnic-specific outreach events were a new experiment this year, and they went great! On the first Tuesday of school, we hosted a Latin American social. Then, on Thursday, we hosted an Asian American social. We had over 70 students come to each! Our hope was to communicate to the campus that we are a diverse ministry with a desire to welcome all ethnicities into our community. We also wanted a chance to tell them that while we know being in a monoethnic group might be more comfortable, participating in a diverse group like FOCUS has the potential for greater growth all around.

Part of the circle at our Worship & Boba Tea Asian American social.

Part of the crowd at our LatinXplosion event playing a Mexican Bingo game.

Some sweet stories from our core leaders after the LatinX event.
Looking back, our weeks of welcome were a huge success, and both our large fellowship night and our cores are off to a great start! We took some time as a staff to go out on Lake Lavon and play for a morning--no work involved! It was really relaxing and rejuvenating. My good friend John Von Runnen was kind enough to take us all out on his boat.

The full-time UTD staff members and apprentices right after we got off the lake.

Student Testimony

And just in case you want to see a pic from our FNF Kickoff...

Thanks for all you do to make this mission a success! We couldn't do it without many prayers and generous donors!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Introducing our 2019-20 UTD Pastoral Staff!

This is our amazing staff team for UTD this year! 5 full-time staff, 4 adjunct staff, and 7 apprentices!
Back row: Erin, Peter, Maria, Kylie, Hanna, my beautiful mother Tana, and me
Front row: Amy, Sarah, Hannah, Ashley, Rhett, Cort, Jesse, Melissa, and Mandy
I spent last weekend on retreat with our new and improved staff team for UTD. This year brings a number of changes:

  1. First off, the Richland and SMU and TWU Dallas staff members have formed their own team working independently under Sirak's leadership. It's sad to not work as closely with them, but it's exciting to see those ministries flourishing and becoming self-sustaining!
  2. We made the decision to pull all the apprentices back to UTD and Collin and Richland. We hope this will give them an improved experience--more consistent, more access to our most experienced staff, and MUCH less time in the car! The result is our largest ever group of apprentices at UTD.
  3. We are continuing (and refining!) the Tuesday night service that we started last school year, so our staff and student leadership will be split between Tuesdays and Fridays. The topics will be the same week to week, but they'll be taught by pastors who are present in those services and know those students.
  4. Melissa Kenfield, who was an apprentice way back in 2012-13, is coming back to volunteer a few hours of her time weekly to working with our student officers, the ones who manage all of our many room reservations, event approvals, service projects, and campus staff relationships. We're so excited to have someone who is excited to mentor those students and help them be successful.
  5. Briefly about our apprentices: 
    • Kylie Von Runnen and Cort Thomas grew up at Northeast Church. I remember holding both of them in the church nursery! They were both great leaders in FOCUS, first at Collin and then at UTD. 
    • Hanna Mason came from the Northeast Church teen ministry and went through Collin and UNT as a student leader. She's been teaching special education in a public school for the past couple of years.
    • Maria (Lefki) Stufflebeem has served at UTD and TWU Dallas. I once went on a 2-week road trip across the western half of the US with her and her brother! She loves God's word and will be an amazing addition to our team.
    • Erin Campbell and Ashley Obregon were leaders at Collin and then UNT. Hannah Diaz also comes down from Denton but from TWU. I don't know these 3 as well, but I'm excited to have them on the team. I know God has big things in store!
  6. As for the other adjunct staff, Tana will continue supervising apprentices, Amy will be mentoring corefas, and Jesse will be driving evangelism along with the apprentices. They've set a goal to go out one on one with every single corefa and returning member to do conversational evangelism on campus at least once a semester!
  7. (In case you're curious, Mandy and I will continue to co-direct and oversee UTD as well as our staff across all 12 campuses. Peter is our assistant director and manages the week to week operations of our UTD ministry on top of leading a core and mentoring some corefas. Rhett and Sarah will mentor many of our student leaders and will also be leading the Tuesday night service.)
If you have any questions about the team, I'd love to answer them. With our biggest pastoral team ever, we have some exciting plans for the year!

Thanks for all you do and give to make all this possible!

Alumni Testimony

In August, with no students around, we usually do a testimony from an alum about the long-term impact of campus ministry. Chelsea continues to be a blessing to our students in Denton!

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Partnership in the Gospel

I've been reflecting on the partnership I share with many of you who pray and financially support this mission to the campus consistently. I'm reminded of Paul's words:

"So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building." 1 Corinthians 3:7-9

The mission to change the lives of college students with the good news of Jesus is truly a team effort. People have been praying for these campuses and these students for decades by the time they reach us, and many more join in those prayers as they arrive. God blesses some with financial resources to share, and they send and resource campus pastors like myself to be on campus full-time. We get to not only reach out to new students but also equip students who are followers of Jesus to be pastors and evangelists to their peers. They go out every day into classes and residence halls and dining areas to be the presence of Christ. And I could go on with parents and grandparents and siblings and pastors and youth pastors and teachers and so many others who live out some part of God's mission. We each play multiple small parts, but none of us deserves the real credit. We've all been invited into this work by God, the same One who used others to bless us into his kingdom. Thank you for the myriad ways you love and serve people, and thank you especially for the ways you invest in the lives of university students through FOCUS. I'm so thankful to have you as co-workers in God's service!

Student Testimony

SMU is a tough campus for many reasons, but God is answering our prayers to raise up leaders for the harvest! Please say a prayer for Brandon and his friends as they prepare to go out on campus this fall!


I'm getting to spend this week in Breckenridge, CO, with 4 staff guys and 3 student leaders. It's been a great time to share in the Lord together, experience some beautiful creation, and take some time off before we start gearing up for 2019-20 on August 1.

A few of us went on a long hike yesterday. We may have gotten lost, come partway back down, and then actually found our way to the top.
I walked about 20 feet from a huge moose today! We were very careful to slip by without disturbing him.
And for those of you who are concerned, my wonderful wife Sarah is on a cruise with a couple of friends this week. She planned her trip without me first. :)

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Hello Summer!

As of Friday night, our FOCUS staff officially ended year 9 of our apprenticeship! We had 12 wonderful apprentices this year who were faithful ministers to their various campuses. Two of them have made 3+ year commitments to our staff team, five of them have made a commitment to stay at least 1 more year, and 5 of them are going out as ministers in the marketplace! In addition, we have 10 new apprentices planning to join the team on August 1 for year 10! Please say a prayer for their support raising season this summer.

I had the privilege of mentoring Drew Cleveland this year. He's a phenomenal young minister with huge potential. It's a bittersweet ending--he's staying on staff but transitioning (along with his wonderful wife Darby) to serve on our Denton staff team. UTD's loss is their gain!

Drew and me at SICM this year.
We also said goodbye to 4 of our senior staffers who are moving on to new opportunities. Brittany Tydlacka will be focusing her attention on motherhood and ministry within the Denton North Church. Aaron Hollingsworth is planning to engage his passion for art and creativity, starting his own interior design business. Sloan (Cannedy) Asfaw is going to serve in the women's ministry at the Northeast Church. Kelly Schlitz is off to law school at UT in Austin.

Each one has been an incredible blessing to this mission and will be missed. They've also all raised up multiple leaders to replace them during their time with FOCUS, so the mission will continue advancing!


The UTD group at May SICM. We're sending a couple more with the June crew!

SICM was once again a wonderful experience. We have so many bright young disciples who have caught the vision for reaching their peers on campus with the good news about Jesus! Right now we're in the middle of all the conversations recruiting student leaders for the fall. Please pray for us!

Student Testimony

Thanks for your gifts and service and prayers toward the end of reaching these campuses with the gospel. It's making a difference and does not go unnoticed!

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Wrapping up 2018-19

I finished up a year of mentoring this great group of guys alongside my apprentice Drew.
They've done some really meaningful ministry this year!
This time of year is always bittersweet for me as students graduate and transition out of FOCUS. The relational style of ministry we do means we often form deep connections with students over the course of years, and then those relationships have to change. But it's also exciting in that it opens the door for new relationships when thousands of new students flood our campuses in just a few short months.

Thinking Ahead

We're already in planning mode for the next school year, and to that end, we've been debriefing some of the experiments we tried this year. We've been reflecting on our second weekly service at UTD on Tuesday nights (a big success!), but also on whether we have the staff in place to sustain it. We've looked at how our goal of being a more visible community on campus through conversational outreach displays has gone (another big success!), but also whether some of the time we put into that might be better spent in other types of evangelistic outreach.
One of our biggest questions for the long-term is how to grow a ministry without losing the relational element that we value so highly. When a group gets about 200 or so, it's so much easier for students to hide in the background, coming to things but remaining unnoticed by leaders. It's so much harder to pick out the visitors in a crowd. Doing the second service this year has helped with that, but also created new challenges with maintaining unity and direction when we're never all in the same room at the same time!
One idea we've considered over the years is splitting into more than one ministry on the same campus and allowing them to grow independently. Until recently, I'd never heard of anyone trying it, but then we found out that Chi Alpha at Sam Houston State did just that this year. They actually split their 800ish person ministry into FIVE ministries on the same campus!
Last week, my senior UTD staff went down to ask them a million questions about the experience. They were so sweet to us and excited to share what they are learning. We aren't looking at trying this out next year. In fact, we may still be years away from taking such a major step (if ever). But these are the kinds of conversations that put more tools in our toolbelt for the future and that forge new connections with others who share our mission and values.
We had some good BBQ in an HEB with Jason Bell and a couple of key people from his Chi Alpha team!

Spring Showcase & SICM Update

We raised around $22,000 to help send students to SICM, up from around $16,000 last year! Thanks to all of you who participated, prayed, or attended, and to all who give and pray regularly to make this possible. Please be in prayer for the SICM trip that leaves this Friday!

Monday, April 1, 2019

Baptisms are so cool!

This past week I had the wonderful opportunity to baptize one of the guys I've been studying the Bible with for about a year. I met Pieter last March when he moved to the US from Belgium to get married to one of the girls in UTD FOCUS. Pieter's parents don't believe in God, so he was raised without any biblical teaching whatsoever. He met Marla, his now wife, online and they started having spiritual conversations. Over the internet, she taught him our Foundations of Faith study that we use with international students as well as much of Focus on Jesus. After Pieter decided he wanted to follow Jesus, they got engaged and he moved to Dallas a couple months before the wedding.

Pieter and me after the baptism. I had already changed back, but the family was taking the opportunity to have a pool party!
I got involved to help with pre-marital counseling and to officiate the wedding, but I quickly fell in love with Pieter. He has such a sweet spirit and is so eager to learn. Each week I would give him a book of the Bible to read (or multiple if they were short), and he consistently shows up having read it all and with a list of written questions for me! He's read well over half of the Bible at this point and we're still going strong! He's been thinking through baptism for the past couple months, but he wanted to wait until his sweet parents would be in Dallas so they could be a part of it and see the gospel in action.

Don't Forget about Spring Showcase!

This Month's Student Testimony is So Sweet

Monday, March 25, 2019

Spring Showcase on April 6!

If you are looking for a low-cost-high-impact way of investing in God's kingdom on college campuses, this is it! Coming up in less than 2 weeks, this is an amazing show every year. It's $20 for adults, $15 for students. OR, for a very special VIP experience, there are a limited number of $50 tickets available. There will also be art and various artisanal goods for sale in between the shows.

Everything is to defray the cost of sending about 110 young students with high leadership potential on 2 separate SICM trips this year in May and June. This is where they catch the vision and come back ready and eager to missionaries to their peers until they graduate. There's no more strategic thing that we do! Over 17 years, SICM has proven its worth over and over.

I hope you and your family can make it! It will be a wonderful afternoon or evening of entertainment.

If you can't make it, you're always welcome to give a little toward SICM scholarships as well.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Loving God with Our Minds

In late February, we put on our most recent Pizza Theology event. About 450 students came out to hear 4 hours of teaching on "Exploring Exodus." Some of our staff members taught it, and they spent so much time researching and learning themselves in order to share something that would bless our community. The goal was not just to gain insight into the book of Exodus, but to frame and shape the way we read Scripture as a whole, and the Old Testament in particular. You can find the audio, along with the slides and handout, here.
Creatively working pizza's into the theme advertisements is a Pizza Theology staple.
Last week at our UTD Friday Night Fellowship meeting, one of the students shared this vision with our community, and I think it captures why we put so much time and energy into events like Pizza Theology. You would have been so encouraged to see him stand in front of everyone and share this humble and powerful message.

"When I came to college I had an extremely simplistic view of Scripture, if even that (basically, what you could learn from a Children’s Bible). Also, I had this idea ingrained in my head that God was this distant, foreign entity that was so complex that any attempt to try to understand Him was pointless. As I started to get plugged into FOCUS, my views on seeking God intellectually changed, but I still held onto this idea that because I was never going to fully understand God that I shouldn’t put in my full effort to seek him intellectually. But I remember one of the staff members speaking at an FNF, and they said that Christians should have a knowledge of God at least at the level of their academic education. That is to say, if you are a college student, which we essentially all are, you should not settle for a middle school or high school level understanding of Scripture. I remember hearing that and feeling quite convicted, not only because I did not have a college level understanding of Scripture (I still don’t have a college level understanding of Scripture) but because I had placed the bar so low for myself in my pursuit of knowledge of God. The fact that I had such high expectations for myself in my academics and failed to do so in my walk with God showed me that I really needed to reorganize my priorities. Matthew 22:37 says “Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'” So, I’d come to realize that even though I may not know all of the answers to the questions people have been asking for ages about God, I should still keep seeking, so that I can love God with all of my mind. And, this idea of pursuing God intellectually is a huge part of FOCUS’s vision, that we would be a community that not only loves God with our hearts and souls but also with our minds. I’d encourage all of you to find a way to invest your time to seek God intellectually, (through researching Scripture, reading commentaries, listening to podcasts, etc.), because if we were to be more intentional about that, I think it would be honoring to God."

Student Testimony

After many years of building momentum as a branch of the UTD ministry, our Richland ministry is off and running on its own. Some neat young leaders like Evan have made that possible. Evan is so personally kind and affectionate and encouraging toward me every time I see him. It makes me excited to think of him spending time with young men at Richland College each week!

Thanks for your ongoing love, encouragement, financial support, prayers, and example! I'm very blessed to be a blessing to the campus on your behalf.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Effective AND Efficient?

With the ten-year challenge trend floating around on social media, some of you may have noticed this post on our Facebook page. It's encouraging to the see the growth, and it's clear God has done so much in our little corner of his kingdom!

But growth alone doesn't really tell us much. I teach a class to our apprentices that we call Strategic Leadership. It gives me a chance to share things I learned in my graduate degree in strategic management and how those things intersect with ministry leadership. We have some great discussions! Today we were talking about the ideas of effectiveness and efficiency. Efficiency can be a wonderful thing. We find ways to minimize the waste of time and money and other resources. It can help churches and nonprofits carefully steward donations, help us all care for the world we live in, and help us maximize the time and money we have leftover when our work is done.

But efficiency has a dark side when it isn't sought in the service of true effectiveness. If we forget our original goals, the things we want to be truly effective at, efficiency can become a goal in itself. We've all been victimized, right? A favorite product suddenly isn't very good quality anymore when the manufacturer starts cutting corners to save money. A store that once had great service gets rid of half their employees and service suffers. You know the drill.

So when I look at our ten-year challenge photos, it raises the question in my mind, "what have we given up in the name of growth?" As I reflect, I am confident that we haven't sacrificed effectiveness in our calling on the altar of efficiency. We still try to study the scriptures one-on-one with every student who will agree to it, and most of those studies take 6 to 12 months to complete. We still invest about 120 hours per school year of teaching and personal coaching into every student that steps up to lead a core. We still celebrate real, meaningful friendships as the best context to live out the gospel on campus.

Our Winter Camp speaker, John Stackhouse, asked a lot of questions about how the FOCUS community approaches faith and ministry. His response (which was very complimentary) began with something like "How very inefficient. It sounds biblical!" 

I don't think it's actually inefficient. I think it's as efficient as we know how to make it (so far!) while still being effective at making and maturing disciples to God's glory. We haven't let go of that mission in the name of growth. I'm confident that we are BETTER at it today than we were 10 years ago. We have a better understanding of the gospel to share with students who need to hear good news. We are better at developing young leaders for God's kingdom and giving them the skills to succeed both in and beyond college. We are better at equipping young people to have real, meaningful relationships in an increasingly disconnected culture.

I'm excited about the next 10 years, and my prayer is that we will always be efficient enough as good stewards as we pursue maximum effectiveness in what the Lord has actually called us to!

Student Testimony

Stackhouse Talks

John Stackhouse (more info on him here), our Winter Camp speaker this year, did an amazing job communicating about the faith to our students. He's a top theologian who has been on ABC and NBC News, been interviewed by the New York Times, and has lectured at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.  But his humor and wit and ability to clearly explain things broke through the students' expectations of what a theologian would be like! (aka boring) He also pushed their buttons and challenged their thinking on many things. Lots of great conversations are still happening as they process the weekend in community.

He did five talks and two 1.5-hour Q&A sessions. If you'd like to listen, they're up on our website

Thanks for your support in realizing this vision. Here's to whatever the picture will look like in 2029!

Friday, January 4, 2019

Suffering and Spiritual Growth

It's easy to lose perspective as a middle-class, 21st century American. I'm reminded of a quote I heard years ago from a persecuted Christian in Romania: “Ninety percent of Christians pass the test of adversity, while ninety percent of Christians fail the test of prosperity.”

As ministers, we don't have a magic exemption from this challenge. As I talk to the campus pastors on my team, I hear mostly the same middle-class American anxieties and worries that our peers and our students are expressing. We want to be well off and comfortable. We want rights and security. We often find true sacrifice and real suffering out of reach.

Each January, we prepare for the return of the students by retreating together as a staff to reflect and encourage one another. This year, we each read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in preparation. It was a chance to gain some perspective from a different time and situation. If you aren't familiar, Frederick Douglass was born a slave in the American South. He lived in slavery for over 20 years before escaping and becoming a prominent abolitionist leading up to the Civil War. He was a Christian, but he was also enslaved by those calling themselves Christians, and so he became a prophetic voice that still speaks today. He wrote, "I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others."

He exposed the hypocrisy of the church, a church that was all too often either silent or complicit in slavery. "Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference," and "they are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy."

As a staff, we reflected on what our own blind spots might be and whether repentance is in order. We reflected on men and women like Douglass who truly suffered for doing what was right, and how different their suffering is from what most of us experience.

We also spent time pondering and discussiong a number of scriptures that speak to our attitude and perspective on the difficulties and suffering we do face. James says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4). Paul writes "we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Rom 5:3-4). And in Hebrews, "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children... If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all... but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (12:7-11).

These and others tell us that some of what God wants to do in us is only accomplished through pain and not comfort, calling into question how diligent we are in trying to create comfort and avoid pain in our day to day lives.

Suffering is integral to the Christian life. It's a part of our identity as people who follow and imitate a suffering Messiah. This is something we as pastors want to do a better job of communicating to our community and to ourselves. I highly recommend reading Frederick Douglass' book if you haven't before (or maybe haven't read it since high school :). I know this older brother in the faith would minister to you as well.

Student Testimony

Tim is such a neat young man. He's someone I've had the privilege of spending some time with along the way, and I've watched him take his stand on the gospel, willing to pay whatever it costs. Like so many others, he has a strong Christian heritage from his parents, but at the university, he's had to choose Jesus and get to know him for himself.

Thank you for supporting and praying for the mission to reach college students like Tim. Great things are happening!

Developing Our Pastoral Team

We are back in August and ramping up for the school year! We have an amazing pastoral staff, and an outstanding group of student leaders. At...