(This June, I led a nine-day mission trip to Greece, visiting the historic city of Athens with a team of 15 leaders and young adults. Our role was to support a strategic partnership between Global Service Initiatives (a US-based short-term mission group) and Streetlights (a Greek-based mission in the Kypseli neighborhood of Athens). The experience was eye-opening, surprising, and thought-provoking, and did not lend itself easily to the question, “How was it?” To help others understand the trip, and to help me make sense of what I experienced, I invite you to process the journey with me through a series of 7 blogs called THE GREEK DIARIES.)
I’ve always considered myself a pretty laid-back guy.
I thrive on procrastination. I’m good at winging it. I get more inspired when the pressure is on. I get a shot of adrenaline when plans change and adjustments need to be made on the fly. Those fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, let-the-chips-fall moments give me a sense of focus and satisfaction.
This is part of what drew me to youth ministry. Over the years, I've become better at planning, and I try hard to be organized and professional out of respect for others and my own desire for excellence. But I’ve often told people that the number one characteristic needed to be a successful youth worker is flexibility. As I bestowed my great wisdom, I would inwardly pat myself on the back with a slight spirit of superiority over my uptight brethren. “We youth ministry types are good at going with the flow, dude.”
Then I went to Greece and realized I’m practically a Certified Public Accountant when it comes to my need to control the outcome.
My paradigm was under attack immediately. As we drove away from the Athens airport, it seemed like any other city, but soon, the streets narrowed, the graffiti enveloped us, and the civilized rules of traffic were abandoned. Driving through the streets of Kypseli is like driving through a carnival fun-house, with dangers and surprises popping up everywhere--car doors opening, old ladies with walkers, dogs crossing, children dashing--all with mere inches of available space on each side of the mirror of our tiny car. Put a rope around the city limits of Frederick, then pull the rope 2/3 tighter, and you’d have streets the width of those in Kypseli. Put a 15-passenger van in there, and you have madness.
My inner control freak began to show itself Thursday evening when we were whisked into the street to play Hokey Pokey with strangers two hours after we arrived. And on Saturday, when we showed up at a new “squat” (refugee camp), only to discover that nearly everyone was asleep from the ongoing Ramadan celebration. And on Sunday, when we found ourselves caught up in the impromptu street party at 10:00 p.m, holding hands with the United Nations. It pushed me to my limits on Monday when we wanted to find some time alone as a team but had no privacy because we were sharing our living space with the Streetlights team, and on Tuesday and when I spent two hours trying to clean and organize the youth room of The Hive (an impossible task). My frustration reached its peak on Thursday afternoon as we prepared for a massive street party were were leading. It was 4:30. We were just now being assigned our roles. The party was supposed to start at 6:00 (more or less). Over 300 people were going to attend. I was frantically trying to learn how to tie balloon animals, grumbling to myself, “We would have had this planned out weeks ago. We would have been prepared. I need some order. I need some structure. I need some preparation.”
“I need some control.”
While I was thinking about details. Philemon was dreaming of possibilities. I watched him during that final party--with activity all around him and the responsibility to see it all come together--intentionally engaging specific teenagers that he wanted to reach for Jesus. It was beauty in the midst of chaos. And right in front of me, clamoring for a balloon dog from my fumbling fingers, were dozens of beautiful children from Albania, Syria, Egypt, Russia, and who knows where else. They were all that mattered at that moment. They were the chaos.
And that’s the word I brought home with me. CHAOS. The Hive was chaos. The streets were chaos. The schedule was chaos. The plan was chaos. The whole trip was chaos. I’ve heard it said that God is a God of order, but I don’t think he got the memo that we were coming to Greece. Even as someone who prides himself on being able to thrive in the chaos that youth ministry brings, I found myself stretched and challenged by my Greek friends and their approach to life. They live inside a chaos that rattled my paradigm and forced me to evaluate my secret need to control everything. I hadn’t realized how little I rely on God, and how domesticated my faith had become.
Our youth ministry “program” at our church is impressive. We've created systems and structures worthy of the best-run organizations. We have a powerful Mission Statement, six beloved Core Essentials, well-conceived strategies and programs, incredible resources and facilities, intentional training and equipping of volunteers, and a host of unspoken organizational values that drive us. We program down to the minute, and we schedule months in advance. We do things with excellence. I’m proud of it, and thankful for it. But as I watched Streetlights carry out their calling, amidst the chaos and cacophony of Greek culture, I realized that what we lack here at home is room for the Holy Spirit to do unexpected things. The Holy Spirit thrives when we don't try to control everything. In our desire for structure and excellence, I fear we may have programmed him out.
And it’s not just our youth ministry that suffers from this problem, but the American church in general. I swear, we have church leadership seminars about where to find the best church leadership seminars. And we fret about every decision. I think I lost the best years of my life in staff meetings talking about the pros and cons of changing our service time from 9:30 to 9:15. We take longer to decide where to go for lunch than our Greek friends took to decide to form a new financial partnership and sign a 5-year lease (see blog #2).
Streetlights relies on the Spirit, which leads them into serendipitous encounters that prove God is the only one who knows what he’s doing. It's chaos, and it's beautiful.
So chaos was my word for the week, and chaos is my word for the future. I’m determined to inject some “chaos” into the youth ministry I lead. I want us to find ourselves in situations we can’t control, so that the Holy Spirit can work and God alone can take the credit. It won’t be easy, even for a laid-back guy like me.
How about you? Perhaps you need to stop controlling everything, and see what happens.
Let’s reclaim the surprising value of chaos.