Witness to an Adventure


Michael had it written all over his face. He was done. Ninety minutes into our four-day hike, he was whipped. Michael was not really an athletic kid, a tad overweight and sweating profusely. He was wearing blue jeans and seemingly unprepared to climb a mountain. As an at-risk high schooler on our 12-day adventure called Leadership Pursuits, Michael already had accomplished way more than he probably dreamt he could. He’d gone whitewater rafting and kayaking. He belayed off a rock face, ridden horses, built a campground, and now was on a four-day ascent to the summit of Mt. Adams, a 12,280-foot volcano in Southwest Washington, adjacent to the infamous Mt. St. Helens; and he was ready to quit.

Greg Johnson, the trip leader and our most seasoned mountaineer in Youth Dynamics Adventures, pulled the group of 12 into the shade of some old-growth cedars for a short break and went over to Michael to assess the situation. Michael plopped his 60-pound pack onto the ground and collapsed in a heap onto a log. After we had rested for 10 or 15 minutes, we needed to get back on the trail, but we had a decision to make. Should we continue on with Michael or without him? It was to be a four-day hike to the summit and back. We really only had two options: Either we could pull one of our leaders off the trail, and he and Michael could sit in the parking lot and wait four days for us to return, or we could try as a team to get Michael through the next several days. We let the team decide. They rallied. The team wanted to help Michael complete the journey to the summit and back.

Greg immediately began to rummage through Michael’s pack. He discovered a family-size Bible, some blue jeans, some other heavy items he wouldn’t need, and promptly buried them. (We retrieved them on the way back.) Other members of the group volunteered to take some of his other gear so Michael’s pack would be lighter. Would it be enough? Would he last the day? Would he last four days? Only time would tell.

Our little caravan started back on the trail with me in the lead, followed by six high school boys, with three leaders interspersed, and Greg planted directly behind Michael bringing up the rear. What followed was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. From one pit stop to the next, Greg was right there with Michael chirping in his ear. “You can do this. It’s just around this next bend.” Or, “Let’s make it to that big tree. Just 10 more minutes, then we can rest.” Sometimes Greg would encourage Michael; other times he was stern with him, prodding him forward. Step by step, Michael walked up that mountain. We hiked through the trees in the morning; beautiful forests of pine, cedar, Douglas fir and blue spruce. We emerged through the tree line just after lunch. We were encouraged, spirits were high. Then we encountered a section of the mountain that might as well be Mordor. Straight out of Lord of the Rings, it is a large field of lava rock, and it is brutal. Michael persevered and made it to our campsite above the lava rock at the base of mountain’s face. We spent the night at the snow line with our tents pitched mostly on rocks.

We took most of the evening and the entire next day with lessons about life and leadership and how God fits into the whole picture. We also spent a significant amount of time in snow school, learning how to climb safely in the snow with boots and crampons, how to properly use our ice axes, and most importantly how to stop ourselves if we fell, while not stabbing ourselves with our axes in the process!

The morning of the third day, we awoke early for a mountain ascent, leaving at 2 a.m. so we could summit and climb back down before the snow got soft and dangerous in the afternoon sun. We set out with our headlamps in the dark of the early morning, climbing in a line, one after the other, in a zig-zag pattern up the steep face of Mt. Adams. The face itself is about 1,500 feet of vertical, and it feels as if it’s straight up. Each step was taken carefully, with our ice axes in our uphill hands, planting them firmly in the snow, then scraping out a level foothold before taking our next step—then repeating the process. After three or four hours of climbing, we reached the top of the face, exhausted, coming to grips with the reality that we had only reached a false summit. False because if we hadn’t known better, we would have thought it was the summit while we were climbing only to reach the top and realize the summit was still beyond us, and we couldn’t see it from where we were climbing. While we waited for Michael and Greg to join us, we enjoyed a snack and took in the expansive view of the mountains below us as the sun had risen during our ascent. After a good rest, the team was eager to take on the final push. We set out on a free for all, traversing horizontally across a ½-mile flat field of snow and reconvened at the base for a final ascent of the last couple hundred feet of vertical. The team decided to wait and let Michael lead the team up from here. As we made the final push, here was Michael, the kid I thought was going to quit an hour into our hike, leading the team to the top. As he reached the summit first, a wide smile came across his face as he jumped up and down and shouted at the top of his lungs. It was in all aspects a pinnacle moment in his life. He had accomplished something well beyond what he believed he could do, something no one ever would be able to take away from him, and learned some things about himself that no doubt will stay with him for the rest of his life.

I have witnessed moments such as this again and again with teenagers while climbing mountains, whitewater rafting or rock climbing. The medium really doesn’t matter as long as the elements are the same. Take someone outside his or her comfort zone, include challenge and some risk, create an environment where he or she must exercise faith and dig down inside him or herself to accomplish something that previously seemed impossible, while a team of people surround and support the person. It’s an amazing thing to watch.


Originally Published in YouthWorker Journal, March/April 2016


Growing Leaders

Yes. I feed them both my leftover coffee. It's a little cannibalistic, I know.

The bamboo plant in my office used to be the size of the coffee plant on my desk…

So, I have this bamboo plant in my office…

It sat on my desk for several years in a 4” pot. It grew to a certain height and stayed that way forever. Then one day I had an idea. What if I put it in a bigger pot? Would it grow? Would it die? I decided to give it the opportunity to grow. And did it ever!

Today that bamboo plant is too big for my desk. Actually it sits on the floor and is now taller than my desk by a foot or more. All I did was give it room to grow, (and a lot of cold coffee).

In Youth Dynamics (YD), we try to do the same thing with teenagers. It’s easy for people to get stuck.

Teenagers especially get put into a box, told by someone that they are this or that, defined by words that people threw carelessly at them.

In relational youth ministry we give students an opportunity to break out of those molds. As we build relational trust with kids, we challenge them to grow beyond where they find themselves.

Adventure ministry often times gives us a framework for those break-out moments.

It’s so great to see students step outside themselves, to risk failure only to find that they can do way more than they ever thought they could, and grow in the process.

In the 6 years that I’ve been with YD, I’ve seen our YD kids blossom and grow. Some have grown to the point where they’ve become interns, others have joined our summer staff teams and a few even have joined us as full-time missionaries. We try to do the same thing with our staff. Create a culture where they can step outside themselves and grow. We desire to create an atmosphere where it’s okay to make mistakes, to dust yourself off and to try again.

Parents and organizations alike would benefit from creating a culture that provides enough relational security for people to feel safe to step out and try things; to know that their acceptance does not depend on perfection.

One must do this with an open hand however, and a Kingdom mindset.

Your staff may outgrow your job and your organization. Is that okay with you? Your child may grow to become something that you did not have in mind for them to be? Are you alright with that? If you have a Kingdom mindset you will be. You will recognize that Christ has designs and plans for their life that likely differ from your hopes and dreams for their life. Hold them loosely. Develop people anyway. It’s what Christ calls us to do. “Go and make disciples.” And let them go take their place in God’s Kingdom, wherever that may be.


Youth Dynamics – Scholarship Video

Take 3 min to watch this and help a teenager. Other than a missions trip, nothing in my 28 years of youth ministry has as much impact on a teenagers life as an extended adventure trip in the wilderness!

Click to Donate

Youth Dynamics Infographic

Youth Dynamics Infographic

Here is a brand new infographic with some very interesting stats about teens. Did anything surprise you? Help YD with their scholarship campaign to get 2500 teens in need on adventures this summer.

Are you in your “Sweet Spot?”

“The Sweet Spot”

If you are a baseball fan you know what “The Sweet Spot” is. It’s the fat part of the bat where you get the most “pop” if you hit the ball there. To hit the ball period is a good thing. Even the very best baseball players only get a hit once out of every three times at the plate. But if you hit the ball in the sweet spot, the ball will literally jump off the bat. It goes faster and further than hits on other parts of the bat.

In our ministry, we’ve had more than our fair share of hits over the 43 seasons that Youth Dynamics has been in existence. We strike out occasionally, but we always try to put the ball into play. Over the years our ministry has tried to reach teens in a variety of ways: Teen Moms, Native Ministry, Family Counseling, the list goes on and on. Over 10 years ago we paired our ministry down to 2 anchor branches: Communities and Adventure.

We decided that, while the other things we were doing had value, they were not what we were best at, or what God had called us to do. We often talk about our “sweet spot” as an organization. From the first moment I came to YD, I heard about this “sweet spot.” It’s simply this: taking a teenager we are in relationship with on the Communities side of our ministry, and getting them on an extended Adventure Trip.  This is where the magic happens; the “pop” off the ministry bat as it were. If you wonder where we are headed as an organization, this is it. We are trying to make this happen frequently, so that we can operate in our “sweet spot,” more often than not. It’s where our organization really leverages our unique giftings for maximum Kingdom Impact.

Have you ever wondered where you’re “sweet spot” is?  It’s worth discovering, because you’ll come alive when you do.

Teenagers are my mission field.

Today I am leading a team from Youth Dynamics to Urbana 2012 in St. Louis. With 16,000 young adults in attendance, it is certainly the largest missions conference of its kind in the U.S.

But why would Youth Dynamics be at Urbana? We are a stateside youth ministry. What business do we have at a missions conference? Conventional wisdom might say we don’t belong, that we should be at Youth Specialties or some other youth ministry conference to recruit staff. So why are we at Urbana? Simply this… we are missionaries. Here’s why:

1.       The U.S. is a legitimate mission field; the Northwest is as dark as any region in the States.

We are constantly battling with the Northeast as the most unchurched region of the U.S. In fact, the Northwest is called “The None Zone” because of it unbelievably high % of people who have no religion or religious affiliation at all. (See our new 3 min video on the “Rise of the Nones”)

2.       Teenagers are an unreached tribe.

I just finished reading a book by Vincent Donovan, the first missionary to work with the Masai tribes in Tanzania. Another one of my heroes is Jim Elliot, missionary martyr to the Auca Indians in Ecuador. I imagine I see Northwest teenagers in the same way they both saw the people God called them to reach ….  I see them as lost tribes. Teenagers need missionaries to live among them, to be Jesus with skin on, to a people who have never met Him.

3.       We raise our own salaries.

I speak at regional and national Youth Ministry Conferences. When we try to recruit staff there, youth workers come from a paradigm that says: “How much will I make?”  “What will my salary be?” However, at a missions conference, those who are answering God’s call to missions have already crossed that mental barrier. They know that they will have to raise their own salary to follow God’s call on their life. The questions then become… “Could God be calling me to be a missionary in the U.S.?”  “Could I see myself using adventure ministry to reach lost teenagers in the Northwest?”

4.       We are all about the Gospel.

Yes, we take teenagers on all kinds of amazing experiences. White-water rafting, kayaking, rock-climbing, hiking, mountaineering, etc., and I would contend we have some of the best adventure guides in the wilderness industry. But for us, adventure ministry is not an end to itself. It’s a tool. Our aim is NOT to convert young people from being indoor people to being outdoor people. Our staff uses adventure ministry to introduce teenagers to Jesus and to go deeper if they know Him already. Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if they love the outdoors, they still go to Hell without Jesus.

5.       Lastly, the Church has stopped seeing youth ministry as missional.

It used to be that pastors and church boards saw youth ministry as a key strategy piece in reaching lost families in our local communities. That’s changed. Tragically, some are even questioning its legitimacy in the local church. This may be a bit of an overstatement but I contend that for the most part, youth ministry in the church used to be a place where we reached the lost; now it’s become a place where we take care of the saved.

Missions has always been my first calling. I remember the service as a Bible college student where I went to the altar, knelt, surrendered my will to His, and said “Wherever you send me, I’ll go.” I fully expected that meant I would be living in a mud hut in Africa soon after. But surprisingly He never asked me to go overseas to do missions. He asked me to do youth ministry in the States. And 27 years later He continues to ask me to reach lost tribes of teenagers in the unchurched Northwest. I’ve taken students all over the world on short-term mission trips. And every time God rocks their world. Inevitably on the ride home some of them begin to ask the questions… “What if I knew their language?”  “What if I understood their culture?”  “How many more could I reach then?”

Then I remind them, “You do know a language. You are a native to a tribe and a culture that others do not understand, the American Teenager.”  And I challenge them:  “Whatever your end up doing with your life, wherever you end up… Be missional with your life.”

We are all missionaries, we just all don’t get paid to do it.


­­Is 52:7 “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.”

You’ve never seen stars like this! Yosemite’s night sky in timelapse.

I think I just added something else to my bucket list. I discovered this clip on another blog today. It’s unbelievably amazing just to watch this on your pc, let alone to experience this in person at Yosemite, I imagine. To quote my Pinterest friends: “I’m so doing this.” Isn’t it almost tragic how much time we spend indside these days? Kids are being raised almost exclusively indoors. And I get it, we need to keep our children safe. But wow, what we’re missing. Newsweek’s Tony Dokoupil’s recent article “Is the Internet Making us Crazy?” looks at some of the current trends and poses some great questions. I just discovered a new book called “Your Brain on Nature.” A scientific look at nature’s impact on our brains. I suspect that as I read it this week I”ll find what many of us in Youth Dynamics and YD Adventures know anecdotally, that nature is the antidote to tech. Obviously, I’m more than just a fan of tech, seriously, I know this. But getting outside helps keep my life in balance. It de-stresses and unwinds me where tech tends to add stress and winds me up. We’re finding this in our working with teenagers as well. We haven’t done any hard studies yet, but many of the 5,000 teenagers we work with each year have not been outside much at all. My staff know that being out in God’s creation gives you a fantastic platform to discuss the deeper issues of life. People relax when they are surrounded by nature. It’s significantly easier to believe in a Creator God when you’re watching a sunset, or looking up at the stars, or sitting on top of a mountain. In fact, I have a friend who as a teenager, was a complete atheist, who did not believe God could exist, until he experienced Him during a thunderstorm high up on a mountain while on an adventure trip. He is now a Christ-follower and is interning with us. We’ve been doing Adventure ministry for over 30 years here in the Northwest, and I feel like what we’re doing is more relevant, more necessary than ever. How many significant conversations have you had around a campfire late at night?If you’re a parent or a youth worker, do you kids a favor and get them outside!

Why the Church needs Parachurch youth ministry.

.Photo: 1st day of Rock Club

You need to know a little about me before you hear what I have to say

I love the local church. I was a youth pastor at 4 churches over 18 years. I spent 9 years at churches under 250 and 9 years at churches from 2,000-5,000. I was a youth pastor with an evangelistic heart for the lost. I still volunteer weekly in our church’s youth ministry. (See my blog post “CEO Volunteer“).

For many years as a youth pastor, I used to think that parachurch youth ministries did not need to exist.

  • I used to think that the parachurch was great at reaching teens but was usurping the role of the church by discipling them as well.
  • I used to think that parachurch youth ministry was redundant; and that money, volunteers and students that were going to a parachurch all belonged in the local church

That’s changed.

For the past 4 years, the Lord in His great sense of humor has seen fit to place me in charge of a parachurch youth ministry called Youth Dynamics. We have 50 youth workers in the Northwest that work with 5,000 teenagers a year. What is a youth pastor’s youth pastor doing in charge of a parachurch youth ministry? It crack’s me up sometimes; but God knew what He was doing when He placed me in this job. What better way to bridge the gap between the two?

Why does the parachurch need to exist? Here are some of my conclusions to this point.

#1. The parachurch is reaching teens churches don’t want to reach.

  • Let’s face it. Most of the teens we reach wouldn’t fit in most church youth groups. Many churches have lost the stomach or the expertise to reach unsaved teenagers. They are disruptive, they swear, they smoke pot… they are exactly the type of teenager that parents do not want their kids around. It is part of the reason they as parents have chosen to Home School or send their kids to Christian School. Youth groups that reach these types of students have to have a Sr. Pastor with a strong backbone who has lots of confidence in his Youth Pastor and believe in what they are doing missionally. These types of congregations are becoming increasingly rare.

#2. The parachurch can do things churches can’t do, don’t want to do or shouldn’t be doing.

  • It’s so much easier to get into the schools as a parachurch youth worker. And you can understand from a School’s District’s perspective why that is. They live and die by public opinion. It’s much safer for the school to embrace a non-denominational parachurch than to open doors for a single church or denomination. It happens, but to do so risks outside criticism and charges of favoritism. As a youth pastor I did have success in working with the schools, but mostly as our Youth Pastor’s Network. Again it was because we represented the entire cities’ youth workers and not a single church or denomination; and because we earned the right to be heard by blessing the schools over and over again, and by respecting their boundaries.

#3.  Churches are not valuing youth ministry like they should these days.

  • As church budgets tighten, they are looking at shrinking High School ministries and concluding that their ROI (return on investment), is not good enough. Many pastors and board members remember the heyday of church youth ministry… “We use to have a 100 teens here every Wednesday night!”  That ship has sailed people. It’s possible but not nearly as common. There are pockets in the States where large group youth ministry still works but our culture has changes since the 80s and 90s. And it’s going to continue to get worse. Event based youth ministry is dying in the states, and is dead in Australia, England and in Canada, from what my friends in those countries tell me. It’s alright though. We can still continue to make disciples. And maybe even do it better. But churches need to stop getting rid of older youth workers. As we shift gears to a more relational model, it will become increasingly important for churches to keep old guys around who know how to make disciples, and who can recruit and train parents and volunteers with more veracity and ease. I shudder to think where youth ministry would be without the parachurch. I can count on two hands the number of youth workers I know in their 40s that are still being paid by a local church. Almost everyone I know that is helping shape the youth ministry world on a macro level is not in a local church. It’s sad but true.

The criticism of the parachurch that holds the most weight in my opinion is that the parachurch is horrible about connecting students they reach back to the local church. There are many factors that make this difficult. It is however, one of YD’s corporate values, and we fight for it, because it’s the right fight. We have church partnerships with some churches where they work for both Youth Dynamics and for the church. In addition, most of our staff are volunteers in their local church’s youth ministry teaching Sunday School or leading the youth group all together. A few weeks ago YD in Burlington, WA baptized 5 teenagers in a local lake. These included a couple of homeless teens we’d been working with for over 1 1/2 years. There were about 50 people there from 3 local churches to celebrate and embrace these kids in their new faith.

We are not in competition with the local church.  We are in partnership with it. I love Mike King’s term “church assisting organization.” We aim to be that, but unfortunately many parachurch youth ministries are just that. “Para” = Separate.

But as legitimate as this charge may be, it is my contention that many church’s youth ministries are just as disconnected from the main congregation as if they were subletting the building to a parachurch youth ministry. They meet on a night when no one else is there; they do not come on Sundays, the style and content of the youth ministry looks nothing like the main congregation.

Just because the church pays the salary of the youth worker doesn’t make the ministry connected to the local church.

I challenge churches to strategically connect their youth ministries to the main body life of the church. There are plenty of reasons that our student’s faith is not sticking after high school; this is one that is largely overlooked.

Could it be that one of the reasons students leave the church is because they were never connected to the church where their youth ministry was located in the first place? It was just a building they used for youth group.

It may just be that your church’s youth ministry is just as guilty as the rest of us.

Young Life or Youth for Christ “What’s the difference?”

we love young life too...I run a parachurch youth ministry called Youth Dynamics. And although we’ve been around for 42 years, there are lots of people who’ve never heard of YD. When I tell them what we do often times the follow up question is always something like: “So how are you guys different from Young Life or YFC?”

One of my good friends works for Youth for Christ and I asked him one day if he got that question a lot and he told me this awesome story.

One time the president of YFC was out with a donor who gave substantially to both Young Life and Youth for Christ. In the course of their conversation, he asked the President, “So what’s the difference between Young Life and YFC?” The President said: “Oh that’s easy.” “If Young Life was a car, it’d be a BMW. If Youth for Christ was a car it’d be a F-150.”  Then my friend asked me. What kind of car would “Youth Dynamics be?” I immediately responded. “A Subaru.” No question.

Youth Dynamics is the youth ministry that has that outdoorsy distinction to it. We do all this adventure stuff. Rock Climbing, River Rafting, Kayaking, Hiking, Mountaineering, Horses… I would say that the teenagers we work with are a little different as well. They aren’t the kids from in-tact families, they don’t often play sports, they haven’t ever been to church, some could be called “at-risk” but not all of them could be defined that way, but what teenager isn’t “at-risk” these days, right? I think that most of the teenagers we work with could be aptly called “fringe” kids. They don’t fit in for the most part.

“How do we differ from Young Life or YFC?” That’s the question people most frequently ask… what my church friends don’t ask, but what their thinking is: “Why do you even exist at all? You guys should be doing this in a local church… not taking money and students from us.”

I think I just found my next blog post.


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