How does God speak to you?

In my line of ministry, and because of the events I attend, I meet Christians from a diverse range of backgrounds.  This means that I encounter a variety of prayer and worship styles because of all the different churches and denominations that I work with.  Yet the interesting thing to note is that God speaks to people in every church, in every prayer style and in every worship style.  The key to hearing from God is to know how God speaks to you.

In my line of work I have met people who hear from God through praying the rosary, reading the bible, listening to podcasts, contemporary worship music, social justice, working with people, teaching and many more.  It would be unfair to say that God doesn’t speak at least someone through a particular prayer or worship style.  However it is fair to day that most people hear from God in the style that is dominant in their denomination:

  • Pentecostals in contemporary worship
  • Catholics in the Liturgy
  • Anglicans in preaching
  • Salvation Army in service of others

Most of us have a favourite prayer and worship style and so we think God speaks to almost everyone in that style.  For example, some of my most profound moments with God have been in the four or five songs of contemporary praise and worship service, yet my wife wants it to finish half way through the opening song to get on with the preaching.

Two people at the same even can have very different reactions.  For example, when I visited a monastic prayer service with a group I was working with, someone said it was the most profound experience of God in their life, yet I could not understand a single word of the service as it was in Latin.

We are all different and so God uses different prayer and worship styles to speak to people.  Here are three things to keep in mind when listening for God:

  1. Not everyone listens in the same way:  Perhaps a friend of yours listens to God using one style but you might be more comfortable with another style.  Look at how you normally take in information (audio, visual, experiential, individual, communal etc) and see if you can find a prayer and worship style suited to that.  Don’t just stick with what is natural in your denomination, experiment with other styles until you find one that helps you listen to God.
  2. Don’t rule it out until you’ve tried it:  some people rule out styles of worship because it isn’t from their denomination.  Perhaps you need to experience something to see if you find God in it for yourself rather than listening to someone else’s negative opinion.  Once you have tried it then you know if it is for you or not, just like I now know that monastic prayers services in Latin are not for me.
  3. Your preferences change as you get older: be aware that as you grow older and as you grow more mature as a Christian your preferences will change.  When you were younger you might have liked more communal prayer styles but as you get older you need more personal time with God.  Perhaps as you get more mature in your faith you need to listen for God through serving others and putting your faith into action.

In your searching you will encounter some styles of prayer and worship that can be forced rituals or superstitious if you don’t enter then the right way.  Check with a trusted leader, pastor or priest who might be able to help you, but be aware that people hear from God in almost every prayer and worship style.

Before we finish here are two words of warning:

  1. God’s Word:  if you don’t ever hear God speaking to you when you read the bible then perhaps you need more detailed advice than this blog post can give.  God’s Word in the bible should be like air to our lungs; it should inspire us, comfort us, challenge us and makes us feel loved by God.  If you never hear from God when reading God’s word then see your spiritual advisor, pastor or priest.
  2. Service:  the bible says that faith without works is dead (James 2:26), so if all you do is sit by yourself listening for God without ever serving others then get out into the world.  As a Christian it is not just about your own personal relationship with God, you must be out in the world serving and ministering to others.

I hope that helps you learn to hear from God.  If you have any advice then please leave a comment in the section below.

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How many people does it take to start a youth group?

How many people does it take to change a light bulb? This is often a joke told where the answer gives an insight into a particular stereotype. Whenever I hear this joke, I wondered how many Catholics does it take to start a youth group? Whilst I am sure that there are many humorous answers that we could give if we were telling a joke, the number one issue that people ask me about is how many people do you need to start a youth group?

Let me tell you my answer with a real life story, you may even guess the group.  About five years ago three Catholic young men were interested in starting something in their parish for young people. They wanted to lay a solid foundation for youth ministry in their parish and “get it right” from the start. So they decided to come together every Thursday night for prayer, to ask God for guidance, vision and direction.

Their next step was not to launch into a mega ministry or try to entertain the “youth”, the three young men thought “who can we invite into this group for prayer?” As they added the next person then the next person, the group began to grow. This was training the group in the evangelical spirit which characterises the group today. Not “Evangelical” by denomination but the group has a heart for evangelisation or to put it simply they want to share this with their friends.

Five years later those three young men have gathered 50 or 60 other young people to meet for prayer on a Thursday night. The group looks different from what it did five years ago but the element of prayer is still present. If you ask me what makes this group successful, the prayer element and evangelistic spirit would be it.

Sometimes as an intern, volunteer or youth minister, you may want to copy the program of a successful youth ministry that you admire. Instead copy the heart and culture of the ministry. Many people think that Hillsong is successful because of their music, yet it is the culture of small group discipleship that drives the ministry. Some people might thing the group mentioned above is because they have a supportive Priest, but it is more than that.

So next time you ask yourself how many young people does it take to start a youth group, know that it only takes three.


This post first appeared in February 2010 and people still ask me about how many people it takes to start a Youth Group.

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Bible reading plan for parent with little kids – Part 2

In a previous post about a bible reading plan for parents with little kids I suggested how you might find 20 minutes in your day for spiritual reading.  The post was so popular that I thought I should add a few quick thoughts about what parts of the bible to read first.  Whilst any spiritual reading is worthwhile, it is always important to come back to God’s word in the bible.  So here are four thoughts about where to begin your bible reading:

  1. The Gospel of Luke:  it is great to get into the life and ministry of Jesus.  Many of the stories will be familiar to you but often we don’t read the gospels “from cover to cover” so we miss the connections and how the stories unfold an image of Jesus.  Also many scholars see the Gospel of Luke as Act 1, see the next suggestion.
  2. Acts of the Apostles:  this is the unfolding story of the early Church and it reads like a narrative so it is a bit of a page turner.  The continuing story will help you pick up the theme each night as you come back to the text.
  3. Psalms: many of the Psalms are like the mind of a parent; one day is great, the next day is difficult.  Hearing David praise God in one verse and lament that God is nowhere in another verse might resonate with you.
  4. Proverbs:  these are one or two lines of wisdom that might hit the mark with you.  Instead of reading chapters of text this is one book to stew over, maybe read four or five proverbs and let one speak to you.

One style of bible reading is to get through as much as you can in 20 minutes.  Another style of reading is to read one section or one chapter at a time.  A third method is to read sentences and reflect on the text as you go; sometimes you might take 20 minutes to read one paragraph.

Whilst all of the bible is God’s inspired word, the reality is that some passages are harder to understand than others.  There are passages which have great significance to the overall theme of the bible but are hard to capture in just 20 minutes in your day.  As a parent you have a lot going around in your mind so you want to read something that encourages your rather than make you feel like you can’t understand texts.  Remember that many bible scholars struggle to understand some texts and spent years in research so go easy on yourself.  So here are four areas to be cautious of:

  1. Numbers – parts of it explain how Israel became a nation during the Exodus but there are huge sections that describe details and numbers.  Perhaps read the narrative but skip the details and numbers.
  2. Leviticus – parts of the book establish the laws for the new nation of Israel during the exodus and may be hard to understand without a bible commentary so save that for another season in life.
  3. Romans – even St Peter said that some of Paul’s letters were difficult to understand.  You might find yourself reading Romans and not understanding a single paragraph, so again save that for a different season in life where you have more time to digest the text.
  4. Revelations – the imagery may be interesting but this is another book that needs a bible commentary and not suitable to sitting in the doorway of your child’s bedroom.

I hope this has been a helpful addition to the topic of spiritual reading for parents with little children.

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Who was praying for you?

If you have the Mark of Faith on your life then no doubt somebody was praying for you long before you knew Jesus.  There are just too many stories of people who were supported with prayer long before they achieved greatness to believe that nobody was and is praying for you.  Who was praying that God would touch you long before you even knew God?  Who was praying for your ministry long before you started in your ministry?  The prayers of the previous generation have influenced this generation more than we could ever understand, but believe me when I tell you that somebody was praying for you.

We even see this principle in John’s gospel with the story of Nathaniel, read John 1:43-51.  Long before Nathaniel knows Jesus, Jesus knew and loved Nathaniel.  It is in the conversation with his friends who have met Jesus that Nathaniel first hears about the Messiah from Nazareth.  It is with the encouragement of his friends that Nathaniel overcomes his prejudice to go to see Jesus.  It is this encounter that teaches us all that God knows us and loves us long before we come know God.

Recently I have heard a few stories from people who discovered that someone was praying for their mission years before they started their mission, here are just two:

  1. Archbishop Ben Kwashi – Ben Kwashi grew up in a church going family in Nigeria but rebelled against the faith for most of his teenage life.  In the rebellious young adult years a man talked to him about Jesus and Ben was radically saved.  In order to turn around his life he went back to his mother to share his conversion.  His mother was pleased that he had turned his life around but couldn’t see Ben as a minister.  So Ben went to his grand mother to tell her of his conversion.  His grand mother listened and responded that she had been praying since his birth that he would enter into ministry.  In the years before Ben was even a Christian there were people praying that he would become the great man of God that he is today.
  2. Matt Chandler – Matt was preaching to young adults in universities across America when the Highland Village church asked him to be their Senior Pastor.  Matt thought the church needed a lot of changes so tried his best to turn down the job.  After many meetings Matt took over the church of 150 people as their Senior Pastor.   After he took on the job one of the key elders shared with Matt that he had been praying for 15 years that God would send a Senior Pastor who could grow the Highland Village Church to influence others.  Today that Church reaches over 8,000 people in three campuses every sunday and over 50,000 people download Matt’s sermons every week.

Sure these are famous people and you might think that nobody is praying for you.  Yet I doubt that any of us come to faith without someone praying for us before we even know who God is.  Whilst I know that someone must have been praying for me I wonder who it was.  Was it my grand mother went to church every week and who used to give me 20 cents every time we visited?  Was it my mother who took me to Church every Sunday, was it my father who taught me the value of reading the bible?  Was it a De La Salle brother who encouraged me to think about religious life in Year 7?  Who else would have been praying for me?

So who was praying for you?

  • Parents: most parents pray over their kids when they are babies, even if they aren’t that Christian.  Almost every parents wants a great life for their child and God listens to those prayers.
  • Teachers: did you have a special teacher who looked after you?  did you have a teacher who encouraged you to learn and discover more?  God values teachers and uses them to build us up to enter the mission of Christ.
  • Friends:  that friend of yours who was a Christian was probably praying for you long before you became a Christian.
  • The Previous Generation – whilst we might not appreciate the older generation in our church today, they have been faithfully praying for this generation to continue the work of Christ through the Church.

So who are you praying for?  Do you pray for the next generation as much as the previous generation prayed for you?  If we slip in our understanding of this concept then we can start to think that it was our effort that saved us.  We can start to think it is our effort that makes our ministry grow not the prayers of others.  We can start to believe that God and I are alone in the task of building the Church and we forget that people help us through prayer as much as time or finance.

So thank those who prayed for you and please pray for the next generation to be stronger, even bolder and more passionate than we are.

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5 things I learnt from Taize

There is a small village a few hours’ drive from the city of Leon in France that has become known around the world for it meditative chants.  This village, known as Taize, has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of young people every month.  These young people join the Religious Community in the chapel for christian prayer services seven times a day.  Its prayer style involves singing chants that repeat one line of scripture. There are also long periods of silent prayer which is not typical of what many people believe “attracts” young people.  Perhaps Taize is so counter cultural that is grabs the hearts and minds of the young people who visit.

Taize started after the Second World War as a prayer community for people from a range of cultures.  It was symbolic for a German man, Brother Rodger, to move to France after the Second World War to begin the healing process.  The prayer community soon took over the village and the centre prayer space or chapel has been expanded over the years through a serious of rooms that can be opened or close depending on the size of the gathering.

Today the meditative chants of Taize are used around the world in churches and chapels.  People will gather for Christian meditation and use Taize chants to remind them that God is always communicating.  Many communities will use Taize prayer regularly, however some people only use the chants once a year on retreat.

In the year 2000 I had the privilege of spending a few days at Taize.  After years of singing their chants in English, it was amazing to visit this place.  There are so many parts of my experience at Taize that stayed with me over the years, the biggest one being that God can use a variety of forms to reach young people.  Here are five things that Taize reminds me to consider in ministry:

  1. Simple decoration – The decoration of the front part of the original chapel in Taize is quite beautiful but it is simple.  The rest of the chapel is very basic (there are no seats) yet in this environment people encounter God.  When ever I hear people in ministry talk about needing lights, dynamic PowerPoint’s and elaborate sound systems to reach young people, I remember that Taize didn’t need any of these to help people encounter God.  Perhaps the move to make youth ministry events into mini rock concerts has not been as necessary as many would think.
  2. Simple Liturgy – One of things that struck me about prayer at Taize was that everyone transitioned between chants with ease.  How can two thousand people finish a chant together without any leader?  Some of our ministry events have become too “wordy” with an MC or service leader announcing every little detail.   When planning your next ministry event remember some of the basic liturgical principles and reduce the announcements.
  3. Volunteers – everywhere I went in Taize there were young people who would volunteer to serve the rest of the people gathered.  People would serve in the kitchen then others would volunteer to hand out the simple meals.  There were musicians who volunteered to play during the prayer sessions even if they were there for a few days.  There were a large number of volunteers who cleaned dorm rooms, showers, toilets and the chapel space.  Sometime our events have a very small team doing everything because we don’t break down the tasks.  Taize was very good at breaking down tasks to a manageable size and had people to show you how to help out.
  4. Party – After a really moving night time prayer session I remember leaving the chapel in silence, you could hear a pin drop.  As the two thousand people left the chapel many moved down to the cafe and food area.  Within in an hour there was singing and dancing many different languages.  It is important to remember that even though Taize encouraged meditation and silence, these young people had the freedom to have an unstructured party.  Remember that young people can’t be serious all the time, they need time to break out of the program into self-directed party time.
  5. Once off – whilst some people return to Taize several times, many people go to Taize only once in their lifetime.  Sometimes in ministry we are looking for a program that we can run every week for years without changing.  Taize has taught me that some great events should be used in moderation.  Perhaps in your ministry you need to consider a variety of styles and use some style once or twice a year.  Instead of the usual youth ministry event consider a counter cultural experience like Taize.

There were some forms of simplicity that I struggled with at Taize, especially the basic accommodation and even more basic food.  But there are many things which were so out of my comfort zone that they drew me deeper into reflecting on my relationship with God.  In a time where churches are moving away from doing liturgy with young people, Taize reminds me that some experiences need to be counter cultural.

So the next time you are planning to run an event for people in your church how about keeping the music and decoration simple, develop a good liturgy that doesn’t need an MC, empower people to offer their little bit as a volunteer and finish with a big party.

Please comment about how you may have used Taize in your ministry.

markoffaith, MarkofFaith, mark of faith, Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald, Mark McDonald