Friday, September 4, 2015

8 Questions to Ask Before Leaving a Ministry

I recently left a ministry role at a church. It wasn't an easy or simple decision to make, but it's also not the first time I've stepped away from a ministry. In volunteer and paid ministry roles, I've served at five different churches, meaning I've had to leave a church on five occasions. Each time has been incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing, but each time has also led to new relationships, opportunities, and lessons God had in store. Over the last decade, I've also had numerous ministry friends go through transitions into new roles, usually in locations and positions they probably next expected. Sometimes it was a healthy move; other times it proved to be a painful decision.

If you choose to enter full-time ministry as your vocation, you'll eventually have to face this question: should I stay or should I go?

It could be due to all sorts of factors--a new job offer, a family crisis, lack of chemistry in the current ministry, serious conflicts with boss or co-workers, or it just feels like "it's time."

How do you know when to leave a ministry position and when to stick it through? Do you need to move on to something else, or should you remain faithful where you are? It can be difficult to discern what you need to do and what questions to ask.

Here are 8 questions to ask yourself before deciding whether or not to leave a ministry position:

1. How is your relationship with Christ? Are you sure you're hearing him, or just your own inclinations and desires? What have your recent prayer conversations with God been like? What passages of Scripture has he been guiding you to read and contemplate? Is there any underlying sin in your life that requires confession and repentance? Are you in tune with the Holy Spirit?

2. What are your motives? Fear? Frustration? Financial burdens? Desire for greener pastures? A new vocational direction? To be closer to family or friends? Has something drastic or painful happened recently? Being honest and clear about your motives--all of them, good, bad, and ugly--will help in the discernment process.

3. Have you been led somewhere new? Has God pointed you in a different direction, opened up a new role or church, or given you a vision for the next season? Are you headed in a clear direction, or is there just a sense that you need to stop what you're presently doing?

4. Have you been released from where you are? Has God given you a sense of peace when it comes to leaving your current ministry? Or is there a lingering sense that you need to stay there, even when it's difficult or counterintuitive?

5. How well is your fit? Are your values and the church's/other leaders/elders values and mission in alignment? If they're not, even every so slightly, you'll find yourselves headed in different directions and drifting from each other, creating long-term frustration. What needs to change in your own habits, desires, and passions in order to find alignment?

6. What is God telling your trusted community? Your spouse, your mentors, your faithful Christ-following friends who know you best--what do they think of your decision? If they bring up a number of red flags or concerns, those are worth paying attention to. Especially listen to your spouse--you should be making this decision together, and only with whole-hearted unity. I highly recommend the clearness committee, a Quaker discernment process for making big decisions.

7. What is the healthiest choice for your self, your family, and your long-term vocational goals (in that order)? Maybe the ministry position seems like a great fit with good pay and lots of opportunities, but your children hate the church. Maybe your spouse has found great friends in the community, but your soul is being drained by the ministry role you're in. Maybe you and your family love the neighborhood, but you'll never fulfill the ministry call God has given you in that position or community. My friend Brian Berry wrote this in his excellent book, As For Me and My Crazy House:
  • The best gift you can give your marriage is a healthy self.
  • The best gift you can give your family is a healthy marriage.
  • The best gift you can give your community and ministry is a healthy family.
Care for your own soul so that you can serve faithfully for the long haul. Even if you're single or don't have children, the above still applies--love others well out of a healthy self.
8. What was the last clear direction God gave you? When I was discerning whether or not to step away from my position in my last church, I made two lists. The first was a list of the things God was clearly guiding me to do--and when I say "clearly" I mean, I can't shake this thought and feeling, others keep affirming this direction, my readings in Scripture seem to point this way, and I feel like I would be acting in disobedience to *not* act accordingly. Clarity doesn't always mean absolute surety or absence of doubt, but it does mean that there's a strong sense of God's will in the matter. This first list is typically quite short; for me, it was only three brief sentences. The second list includes all your dreams, hopes, options, and intuitions about what God might be up to (emphasis on might). This list was much longer--about 15-20 items--but they were all just prayerful hunches and conjecture. I had to go back to the first, clearer list: what was God prompting me to do, and was I willing to obey?

More than anything, Jesus's prayer in Gethsemane applies here: "Not my will but Yours be done." Find alignment with God's desires and relinquish your own plans to His good, pleasing, and perfect will. The decision to leave a ministry is always a struggle, but it's also an opportunity to draw nearer to the heart of Christ.

Which question resonated with you the most? What questions would you add to the list?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Do Not Worry About Your Life

Do not worry about your life.

Easier said than done, Jesus.

I think "do not worry" is the most difficult command in Scripture to follow.

I found myself half-sitting on an uncomfortably stiff mattress underneath the stark glow of the fluorescent lights of the ER. This unexpected visit was prompted by the sudden dizziness and numbness accompanying a lingering chest pain I'd been experiencing over the weekend. If you Google the signs of a heart attack--an exercise almost certain to cause personal alarm--my symptoms fit the description well enough. Except I'm 30 years old with zero history of heart anything. After hours of tests and waiting, the doctors told me what I wanted to hear: your heart is fine. A clean bill of health. Maybe some acid reflux? Take a Pepcid.

Then a nurse asked a question: Have you been stressed lately? Are you sleeping okay?

Yes. No.

I suppose in some ways I'm not as stressed as I was 9 months ago in the midst of burnout. I've experienced a significant amount of healing and joy, and a renewed sense of where God is leading our family. But this season hasn't been without its stressors. Most recently, our 5-month-old son was diagnosed with congenital heart disease soon after his birth, and this past weekend had open heart surgery to patch the holes and scrape out the extra tissue buildup in his tiny heart. He is recovering well, but the six hours during his surgery, filled with pacing and prayers and tears, were some of the most difficult and stressful of my entire life. My boy's heart was stopped and hooked up to a machine to keep him alive while skilled surgeons cut and stitched inside his chest cavity. My own chest has carried this lingering hurt--empathy pains?--and my two oldest children are under my care as my resilient and confident wife beautifully cares for our recovering son.

So, yes. I have been stressed. I have not been sleeping well. What parent of three kids, ages 6 and 3 and 5 months, is getting adequate sleep?

I am stressed. But in this stress I am learning to pray.


I was reading Kenneth Morefield's analysis and critique of the faith-based film industry in light of the recent release of War Room, the latest movie from the Kendricks (Facing the Giants, Fireproof). The film's thesis seems to be this: "prayer is good." Which is true. But it doesn't account for the methodology and motives behind the prayers. Much of the prayer in the film seems to be directly addressed to Satan (!) as a spiritual combative tactic, and prayer does appear to fix all the character's problems (which are minor flirtations or temptations and a somewhat strained marriage). As Morefield observes, the wife's practice of prayer for her husband "...sees him not so much as a man emboldened and encouraged through prayer but as the prize given to Elizabeth when she pulls the prayer lever." She prays in her special prayer room--a luxury most Christians, myself included, cannot afford--and gets exactly what she wants. There seems to be little suffering or waiting involved, and any sort of prolonged agonizing can be easily reduced to a montage.

I contrast this sort of prayer--self-preserving, individualistic, moralistic, easy--with the vast number of people who have been praying for our son and our family during this surgery and recovery. The prayers are genuine, communal, petitionary, and hopeful. I have been overwhelmed by the amount of people who are praying for us all over the world, and the genuine gift of social media in moments such as these. These are life-and-death prayers practiced as the community of believers comes around a family as spiritual support. This is proactive waiting, listening for God's voice in the midst of the stress, clinging to the reminder of His kingdom reality in the midst of our personal suffering. It's praying with gumption and gusto, with tears and trembling, with deep groans and sighs and wonder. There is no "war room" here because all of creation resonates with God's good presence, and I know He listens while I cry in the car or wander the hospital halls or attempt to calm my daughter during our bedtime routine or as I sip coffee in the stillness of the grey mornings.

Perhaps all prayer isn't created equally. Perhaps there are better, healthier, more life-giving and genuine ways to pray.


When Jesus says, "do not worry," I have to imagine his tone.

If he is commanding me with a gruff and angry "Suck it up! Be a man!" with tinges of disgust, then this is not very helpful to my situation. I don't think Jesus tells us "don't worry" in the manner of a bullying drill sergeant, trying to get us to toughen up and push down any pain or fear. This is shaming, but it often can be how we imagine God's heart towards us, always disappointed that we didn't trust Him more.

Neither is Jesus's tone a cheery, saccharine, everything-is-awesome buoyancy. This isn't the false optimism and plastic smile of that one lady--you know the one--in the church lobby on a Sunday morning. This is not high-fives and hugs Jesus, pretending that our genuine worries are better off ignored, covered up by a mask of optimism.

I hear Christ's exhortation with the tone of humble confidence. He knows we stress and worry and suffer. He experienced the same in the garden of Gethsemane and on his way to the cross. But his command of "do not worry" is likely in the same tone as "not my will, but yours be done." An act of surrender, a hopeful obedience, a determination to trust.

Do not worry. I don't think it's by mistake that these words closely follow Jesus's teachings on prayer, to pray that the kingdom would come and God's will would be done, that our daily bread would be provided as we forgive and are forgiven. I am learning that stress and worry may not completely disappear on this side of heaven, but there is genuine hope and peace to be found in the prayers of the saints.

The prayer I have been clinging to in this season of stress and hospital visits and sleepless nights is one I think every parent will find comforting. To be calmed and quieted like a child with its mother is an image that brings hope and joy in the midst of stress. To be content, to be humble, to be hopeful in the Lord--this is my prayer in moments of stress. Psalm 131, a prayer of ascents:

My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lose, Gain, Repeat: My essay on "Something, Anything" for Christ and Pop Culture

I recently had the opportunity to write a feature article for Christ and Pop Culture, one of the best websites on the Internet. CAPC is an insightful, amusing, and diverse cache of all things culture and Christianity. You should definitely become a member for $5 a month; it's absolutely worth it, and this is a website worth supporting.

Here's an excerpt from my essay on Paul Harrill's hauntingly beautiful film Something, Anything (now streaming on Netflix) and my own spiritual journey into depression and hope:

In Paul Harrill’s quietly haunting film Something, Anything, the opening title is a poem from Christina Rossetti:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
With this brief meditation on the power of invisible spiritual forces in our world, Something, Anything sets the contemplative tone for its narrative, a story of personal loss and the journey toward healing and wholeness. While she doesn’t say much in the opening scenes, we can tell that Peggy (Ashley Shelton) is, by all accounts, successful. The scenes flash before us as snapshots of her wonderful life—a marriage proposal from a handsome man in a trendy setting; a beautiful wedding surrounded by friends; the enormous and well-decorated house in the hills of Knoxville, Tennessee; the joyful news of a pregnancy. Harrill chooses to tell Peggy’s story in near-silence, and she rarely speaks throughout the film. Quiet piano music accompanies the beautiful, intimate cinematography, eliciting comparisons to Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue in its affecting and melancholy portrayal of a woman walking through a season of grief. Peggy experiences a terrible loss early in the film, the painful and often-unspoken incident of a miscarriage. Her tears elicit pathos and empathy, and she is clearly deeply wounded by her loss. Yet those wounds do not define nor defeat her as she navigates the unfolding season of reconstructing her very self after such a loss.
As I watched Something, Anything, I found an unlikely partner in my own loss. Here was a fictional story about a young woman who experiences a miscarriage; I was a pastor and husband without a job or direction, a man experiencing a crisis of vocation and identity in the midst of depression. Our stories couldn’t be more different, yet I found myself weeping on the couch in my mother-in-law’s living room, deeply moved and comforted by Peggy’s spiritual odyssey and her process of healing.

Read the rest of Lose, Gain, Repeat here at Christ and Pop Culture.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Unplanned Parenthood: On the Hopeful Choice for Life

The recent stream of increasingly disturbing videos about the practices of Planned Parenthood and their trade in fetal tissue and body parts leads me to write my own story in response, and perhaps a call to action. This is a story about choice, about life, about the unplanned nature of it all.

The false dichotomy created by the labels of “pro-life’ and “pro-choice” seems unhelpful in the abortion debate. The pro-life folks are not anti-choice in every respect, nor do I imagine the pro-choice advocates being anti-life. In fact, I would consider myself “pro-choice” in the sense that I believe in human freedom and flourishing, and I have genuine hope regarding the human heart and its potential for making good choices in our world. While I recognize the brokenness and depravity human beings are capable of inflicting, I also have an optimism about people.

I think part of that optimism about human choice stems from my origins. I am here, in this world, because of a choice a young woman made at age 21 to carry her child for nine months in her womb, the choice to move in with a host family to care for her needs while she was pregnant, the choice to push and breathe and cry and give birth to a baby boy, the choice to hold that child for only 10 minutes and pray for his future care, the choice to give up her baby boy for adoption in the hopes that providence would sustain him and his life—the life she chose to birth—would bloom and flourish. Her choice was motivated by her sacrificial nature—my birth mother is a remarkably humble person who puts others’ needs ahead of her own—and by her deep faith in the Savior, Jesus, who was also born to a young unwed woman under indecorous circumstances.

Christ parallels to my own person aside, I am grateful for the choice my mother made. Imagine the other option: an abortion. It’s an entirely legal decision and a path many would encourage her to take, given the circumstances (unmarried 21-year-old with absentee boyfriend and lack of finances). Instead, she took the harder-but-better path of choosing life for her unborn child. She opened the door to numerous possibilities and potentials, a choice marked by hope.

I am adopted. Imagine the alternative:

I am a son. Had my mother aborted me, my adoptive parents would have one less member in their family, and certainly a totally different family altogether.

I am a sibling. Had my mother aborted me, my adoptive sister would grow up alone, without her annoying-yet-protective big brother.

I am married. Had my mother aborted me, my wife and I would have never met. Of course, she’d have married someone else, but the marriage we share would never have been.

I have three children of my own. Had my mother aborted me, they wouldn’t exist. The unique combination of our DNA as father and mother—these unique and beautiful human beings would never have been created.

I have been a pastor at three churches. Had my mother aborted me, well…. The mentoring, the conversations, the prayers, the sermons, the counseling sessions, the life transformation…maybe it would have happened anyway by God’s grace, but I would never have been there to see it.

I am a writer. Had my mother aborted me, the very words and ideas and story you’re reading would never come into being.

I am a living, breathing, made-in-the-image-of-God human being. The countless other lives I have encountered and impacted, the people I’ve befriended and conversed with, the moments in time that I have long forgotten but have had a sense of meaning and significance and eternality—all due to the choice for life through the act of adoption. I am not a remarkable or noteworthy person, but I am a person. That is enough.

This is not just advocacy for the potential of life, though that is important too. The act of abortion decimates both a potential and an actual life, a real human being who is worthy of dignity and respect, and not the atrocity of having their facecut open in order to harvest their brain.

The Kazuo Ishiguro novel Never Let Me Go contains some weighty moral issues that have strong parallels with the current Planned Parenthood scandal. Young men and women are clones raised in order to extract their healthy organs and give them to human recipients. The clones are treated somewhat humanely, even seeming to value their impending death-by-donation with honor and dignity. Two clones expressing their love for one another try to break free from the cycle, try to plead with the system, try to experience a sense of freedom before they are dismantled and distributed for the benefit of others. They are robbed of choice; their future is stolen from them, body part by body part. It’s tragic and horrifying when our dystopian science-fiction novels start to look more and more like present-day reality.

Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon suggest in their book Resident Aliens that all ethical questions are ecclesial questions, that Christian ethics “are made credible by the church.” When we primarily address moral dilemmas through demanding new legislation, pressuring Congress for tax money or revised laws, it misses an opportunity for the church to be the colony of heaven. The response to abortion could look instead like this:

“So our response to an issue like abortion is something communal, social, and political, but utterly ecclesial—something like baptism. Whenever a person is baptized…the church adopts that person. …Therefore, we cannot say to the pregnant fifteen-year-old, ‘Abortion is a sin. It is your problem.’ Rather, it is our problem. We ask ourselves what sort of church we would need to be to enable an ordinary person like her to be the sort of disciple Jesus calls her to be. More important, her presence in our community offers the church the wonderful opportunity to be the church, honestly to examine our own convictions and see whether or not we are living true to those convictions.”

To be honest, I am less interested in fighting against abortion through the political avenues of the powers and principalities of this world, and more interested in entering into the world of human poverty and brokenness, of loving the unwed teenage moms and dads, of increasing funding for foster and adoption programs, and of adopting children into my own family some day. I’m unsure that only writing a blog post or an article, or clicking “like” or “retweet” on various social media sites will truly make a significant difference (though it certainly may help raise an awareness and inspire a personal imperative to act). Sacrificial, compassionate action from the local body of Jesus-followers is the primary way God has chosen to express His salvific action and kingdom values in this world, values that declare children to be vital and necessary members of the kingdom where the King declares, “Let the little children come unto me.”

The very moniker of Planned Parenthood reveals the faulty ethic behind the choice of abortion over adoption. Brett McCracken writes:

Ending a life because its timing doesn’t line up with our plans and preferences assumes a God-like right to power that the name “Planned Parenthood” implies. It casually asserts that the greatest, most mysterious reality of existence – the creation of a new life – is something that can be planned, manipulated, defined and controlled according to our convenience. It celebrates our sovereign autonomy and refuses sacrifice, symptomatic of man’s worst tendencies going all the way back to Eden. 

The choice of adoption is decidedly unplanned and sacrificial, but it is a hopeful choice. Hauerwas and Willimon offer good reasons for having children beyond the American consumer “planned” notions about children giving parents personal fulfillment: “We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth living—and not because ‘Children are the hope of the future,’ but because God is the hope of the future.”

After thirty years, I recently had the beautiful and cathartic opportunity to meet my birth mother in person, to hug her and thank her for her unplanned parenthood. To see, face-to-face, the person that gave birth to you after a lifetime apart, well...let's just say it was a deeply affecting experience. I wanted to thank her for her choice, and she wanted to extend thanks to my adoptive parents for raising me, caring for the little baby she entrusted them with. I am not a conglomeration of cells and body parts, only worthy of life because I was allowed to grow a bit bigger than my fetal brothers and sisters. I am not a mistake or an object or a burden to be cast aside. I am alive because my birth mother made the choice to give me up for adoption, and my adoptive parents made the choice to take a little boy into their home. I'm not sure there were many *plans* involved, but there certainly was plenty of grace.

Christians: We are called into a life of sacrificial compassionate action, which means going beyond reading/sharing online articles and having private conversations about the latest disturbing Planned Parenthood or abortion news. Let us take up not the posture of lobbyists and the outrageous Facebook ranter, but as people of justice and grace, inviting hurting women and children into our homes and lives, adopting them into the family of God, the church, the hope of the world. Let us serve others for the long haul with quiet confidence and commitment, not just in knee-jerk reaction to recent media attention or a viral video. When we are truly living into our identity as citizens of the kingdom of God, living as a colony of heaven here in our broken world, the seeds of compassion will bloom into new life as we choose the unplanned, messy, but better life of faithfulness to the God who acts justly and loves mercy.

Monday, August 17, 2015

On Marriage

I spent this past weekend in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles celebrating a wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony set in the hills of Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean, followed by an extravagant reception at a picturesque venue right on the beaches of Santa Monica. From the tuxedo rental to the bachelor party to the rehearsal dinner to the end-of-reception clean up, I was surrounded by friends and family of the bride and groom, these incredible people who had traveled from all over the world in order to be present to witness this extraordinary event.

Extraordinary? A wedding? In our culture where marriage is increasingly delayed or avoided, the divorce rates are climbing alongside the ratings of petty entertainment shows like "The Bachelor," and the hookup culture of our youth appears to be normative, the concept of marital fidelity is, at once, antiquated and highly exalted. It's a relational covenant which has existed throughout human history, something so incredibly common and necessary for human flourishing that it can almost feel unexceptional. Marriages begin every single day with the celebration of a wedding, an event so ubiquitous that there is an entire industry devoted to these gatherings--there was another wedding in the same chapel mere hours before I stood in a tuxedo off to the side and witnessed the sharing of vows, the mutual admiration and love, the pronouncement and kiss of two beloved friends. Two different couples, two wholly different stories, sharing the same date and location for the beginning of a radically new chapter in their lives.

I suppose I'm struck by how marriage, this incredibly ordinary everyday occurrence, is also a profound and continually life-transforming relationship. Marriage is both ordinary and extraordinary, both commonplace and exceptional. Even in the culture I described above, where romantic love and commitment are often muddled or misunderstood, marriage is still our ideal to strive for. I think of the whole SCOTUS decision and gay marriage debate, how both conservatives and liberals actually agree on more than they might realize. Both sides are placing marriage in a venerated position--the conservatives are trying to protect the sanctity of this beautiful covenant, and the liberals are trying to expand this beautiful covenant to everyone. Both agree: this marriage thing is worth fighting for.

And it is worth the fight. It's worth all the time and energy and effort two people must exert over a lifetime of experiences, failures, triumphs, joys, pains. I was having a conversation with a friend last year at his wedding about how many Christian marriage books seem to paint the relationship as this necessary slog, filled with conflicts and frustrations and difficulties, but all in order to make both spouses more holy before God. The way these books made it, marriage sounded more like a trip to the dentist--a painful-yet-necessary thing for one's health, and probably expensive or complicated. He told me, "Someone needs to write a book about the joys of marriage, how awesome it truly is." Because it is awesome. Yes, it does require patience and wisdom and loads of grace. But it is deeply life-giving, restorative, and loads of fun. My marriage is characterized by a deep authenticity I have never experienced with anyone else, as well as a committed friendship and mutual understanding. I get to hang out with my best friend every day! (Also, sex. That's pretty great too.) Apart from becoming a disciple of Jesus, becoming a husband and father is the best decision I've ever made, and by God's grace I continue to embrace those identities on a daily basis.

So it's fascinating to me that the chosen image of the kingdom of God is a wedding banquet. In many of his parables, Jesus uses the example of a wedding to describe the nature and character of the hope for creation, the renewal of the world by God's grace, the place he would go to prepare a place for us. In the epistle to the Ephesians, Paul draws strong parallels between Christ's relationship to the church and a husband's love for his bride. In the final chapters of Scripture, the future city of God is described as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband, approaching with dignity and wonder, inspiring awe and reverence and (I imagine) tears of joy. The thing is, the wedding is just the first step into the marriage, the celebratory beginning of an ongoing forever-and-amen relational journey. The wedding feast in the kingdom of God is just the opening number in an eternity of unconditional love and marital bliss with the Savior.

Marriage is a wonder, a gift, a mystery, a discipline, a joy. I still get teary-eyed at weddings. Can't help it. It's a beauty to behold. To quote Casablanca, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Even better, the apostle Paul, "Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."

Photo Credit: Dave Smith (Creative Commons)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Jesus Goes to the Movies is Here!

My new book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide, releases today! Here's what awesome youth ministry and film people are saying about it:

"Students love movies. A lot. This is good because movies can teach us a thing or two about our world. In Jesus Goes to the Movies, Joel Mayward helps youth workers understand how film can be a tool for teenagers to better love God. As a film critic, I love this book. As a youth pastor, I love it even more."
-Wade Bearden | @wadehance
Student Pastor, Houston, TX
Staff Writer at Christ and Pop Culture
Cohost of Seeing and Believing (film and TV podcast)

"Joel Mayward and I both love movies and, more importantly, love Star Wars with all of our hearts. Jesus Goes to the Movies will help you more deeply understand what you’re seeing on the silver screen and how to help connect your students to the teachings of Jesus in the media they consume."
-Josh Griffin | @joshuagriffin
High School Pastor, Saddleback Church

"For anyone working in youth ministry, as well as parents and teachers of Christian young people, Jesus Goes to the Movies is a resource you will want to study and share. Joel Mayward presents a balanced, thorough, discerning, and eminently practical overview of how Christian young people can receive movies in a manner that grows them in their faith. Every church and youth group and Bible study should have a copy of this resource!"
-Brett McCracken | @brettmccracken
Author of Gray Matters and Hipster Christianity

I'm so excited about getting this book out there into the hands of youth workers, pastors, parents, and young people, as well as anyone who loves--or even just sorta likes--movies. I'm terrible at self-promotion, but I genuinely believe this book could make a significant impact not only in how you view movies, but in how you view Jesus.

If you read Jesus Goes to the Movies, can you do three things for me? First, I'd love to hear how the book impacts you, your family, or your ministry, so please send me your encouraging feedback and stories via email. Second, take a minute and leave a positive review on Every review helps! Third, go and like the Cinemayward Facebook page and follow Cinemayward on Twitter. It's a way to keep up with ongoing content building off what I've written in JGTTM.

Order your copy today at The Youth Cartel or Amazon
Here's how you can get a free copy of Jesus Goes to the Movies:

1. Go and "like" my new Facebook page, Cinemayward. is the new home for all my film-related writings and reviews. Read more about Cinemayward here.

2. Post a comment on the "Win a Free Copy of Jesus Goes to the Movies" comment thread with the name of your favorite film of all time.

3. Share the Cinemayward Facebook page on your own Facebook wall or with a movie-loving friend.

The contest ends on Wednesday, August 12, at noon, Pacific Daylight Time. Remember: you've gotta do all three steps to get a free book! I'll announce the winner on the Cinemayward Facebook page, and contact them about receiving a copy of Jesus Goes to the Movies. Good luck!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Coming Soon:

With my new book releasing tomorrow, August 11, I wanted to let you know about another exciting development: my new website,

I've been writing about movies on my blog here since its inception in 2007. You can read my first Mayward Blog movie review about the documentary, God Grew Tired Of Us, here. My blog's original intention was to be about the Mayward family's everyday life, musings, and experiences, just an online journal for friends and family. Since then, it's evolved to become an online outlet for my writing about faith, film, youth ministry, leadership, culture, theology, and all sorts of other stuff. The audience has widened to include newfound film- and ministry-loving friends. There's honestly been little focus to the blog's content and themes, apart from my authorship--I just write about the stuff I like to write about!

Over the years, I've wanted to develop a film-only website. This site would be a film-related cache devoted to writing reviews, essays, and provide film-related resources, such as film discussion guides for families, youth groups, or small groups to use. The site would explore the intersection between film and spirituality--particularly Christian spirituality--and critically examine films through that lens. I recognize that my audience would most likely be evangelical Christians to begin with, but would hopefully also include any cinephile or film-lover interested in exploring the spiritual dimensions of film. I'd also hope to feature fellow film critics' reviews and point people to other excellent articles and resources about film and spirituality. This website would be more than a series of Joel's thoughts on movies--though it would certainly include those!--and expand to become a reservoir of resources for those interested in the theological dimension of movies.

That website is now here in the form of Cinemayward. The current tagline is "Reviews, essays, resources, and musings on film and spirituality." The final website isn't ready to launch yet, but there is a Facebook page you can like and follow. On the page, I've been posting my capsule reviews of films I've recently watched, and hope the Cinemayward page will grow to include full reviews from in the near future, as well as links to other great online content from excellent film critics. I also plan to include film discussion guides on the website, just like the 50 guides included in my new book.

This website,, will remain as my personal blog, filled with the same musings on all the same stuff--film, youth ministry, leadership, theology, culture, and life. There will just be unique film-related content at, so you'll want to subscribe to the website and check back often for when it's fully launched (I'll announced it here on my blog and via social media). And thank you, dear readers, for continuing to read, like, and share my writings. I hope to continue to be an encouraging and thought-provoking voice here on the Internets.

Tomorrow, I'll be sharing how to win a free copy of my new book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide. For now, go to the Cinemayward Facebook page and like it in order to participate in the contest.

Photo Credit: Alex (Creative Commons)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Jesus Goes to the Movies - Boring is Better

My upcoming book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide, releases on August 11. You can purchase it through Amazon or The Youth Cartel. I'll be posting excerpts in the days leading up to the book. Be sure to buy your copy today!

Boring is Better

Young Life founder Jim Rayburn once said, “We believe it is sinful to bore kids with the gospel.” As youth workers, we’ve each struggled with the entertainment-driven program models, attempting to keep teenagers engaged through a barrage of games, videos and fun-filled events. Youth want what they want, and they want it now, and we surely don’t want to make Jesus appear boring. If we as pastors and mentors cannot keep them engaged for longer than a few minutes, their attention is immediately elsewhere. Yet pandering to this mindset and creating a program of entertainment only fosters more cynicism and consumerism. Teens quickly see through the marketing technique of trying to keep them entertained, yet paradoxically seem to insist on more entertainment, not less.

With the advent of portable technology and wireless Internet, young people don’t have to wait for anything. When answers to difficult spiritual questions can be Googled, authentic community is replaced by Facebook and Bible study methods can be found on an app, what does a long obedience really look like? I think of my friend who rejected the foreign film because he doesn’t “go to the movies to read.” When reading and joy are clear opposites in his mind, how does this affect one’s approach to reading the Scriptures?

Why is it, though, that we avoid the slow and boring? What’s really wrong with boring? Clearly people have not always balked at the quiet and meditative; our culture of immediacy is a relatively recent one. Were folks just more immune to boredom a thousand years ago? Or perhaps people’s lives were a continual stream of misery before the advent of CGI fighting robots. In any case, boredom is a current cultural anathema; we simply won’t tolerate it. You can entertain me, scare me, humor me, even offend me; just don’t bore me.

When I am slow and still and quiet, the true stirrings of my heart surface from the depths. They burst forth in those seemingly random thoughts that appear once you let your mind actually wander. I’m just quietly sipping coffee here at Starbucks; why am I wondering about my relationship with my mother and whether I can trust God with it? It is only when I fill my mind and heart with noise that I can distract myself from those inner pains and struggles. Many movies will gladly be that noise for us.

This is escapism in the worst way. We are trying to escape our own painful reality through the diversions these films offer. We don’t even have to worry about our own emotions because the Hollywood blockbusters are all too ready to take our emotional steering wheels from us through the use of sweeping soundtracks and conspicuous imagery. No wonder we need movies to be as fast-paced and energetic as possible—we wouldn’t want to actually experience a true feeling on our own or be forced to confront the reality of our own brokenness. It is the filmic equivalent of an awkwardly long pause in a dinner conversation. We have to fill it with something, or we are confronted with our own souls.

What if these slow and boring films could save our souls? What if we viewed films as disciplines instead of diversions, as edification instead of entertainment? Could we begin to take movies as opportunities to experience the transcendent?

I was recently struck by this quote from John Stackhouse in the opening of his latest book: “Christians are supposed to think.” What he meant was that Jesus called us to love God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds. Thinking is not just an obligation, a painful-but-profitable exercise akin to flossing; it is a gift from God and a central part of our ability to love. Regarding films (and all of culture), we need to be better, more loving thinkers. What if Christians were known as the most thoughtful, self-aware people around, especially regarding arts and culture?

The dichotomy between thinking and movies needs to be destroyed. We are doing young people a disservice when we equate spiritual formation with entertainment, and I think our approach to movies can be a reflection of our discipleship. Following Jesus is an often tedious, painful and—dare I say it—boring endeavor. Reading the Bible takes discipline. Prayer takes discipline. Healthy community takes discipline. All are slow and patient endeavors. It’s not always fun and games and fireworks and fog machines. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen in a microwave; it is a seed that sprouts and matures slowly. It is not easy by any means, but often the best things we experience in this world are those intensely cathartic moments that come after extended slow seasons.


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Jesus Goes to the Movies - "Christian" Doesn't Equal Good

My upcoming book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide, releases on August 11. You can purchase it through Amazon or The Youth Cartel. I'll be posting excerpts in the days leading up to the book. Be sure to buy your copy today!

Just Because It’s “Christian” Doesn’t Mean It’s Good

You might be thinking, Are there any good movies that have a Christian worldview? Let’s stop there for a second. When we frame the question this way, we may equate “Christian worldview” with “good movie.” If this is true, then the negative must be true too: Any “other” worldview equals “bad movie.” When we watch a movie with overtly Christian morals, values, and understanding of reality, then we’re watching something “good.” If the movie doesn’t line up with our Christian worldview, then it must be mistaken (at best) and deceitful (at worst), which makes it a “bad” movie, right?

I can understand and appreciate this reasoning, especially when it comes to our young people. Why would we want to consume or promote anything other than a Christian worldview? Yet I would challenge this particular approach to movies—and to all culture—as lacking receptivity to the truth and beauty sometimes hidden in movies. Just because a movie’s story is told from the perspective of a Christian worldview doesn’t mean it’s a well-crafted, interesting, or thoughtful movie. Similarly, just because a film or filmmaker doesn’t wholly embody a Christian worldview doesn’t mean we can’t find truth and meaning within its imagery and narrative. Movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Truman Show, The Dark Knight, and Inception are all examples of great movies that have immense value for the discerning Christian viewer, yet don’t fully embrace a Christian worldview. Some of these very movies are in the spiritual discussion guide included in Part Two of this book. We simply need to have a clear lens and a healthy discernment filter in order to sift and grasp hold of the truth these films have to offer, even when their overarching worldviews don’t align with the worldview presented in Bible.

If a movie’s worldview doesn’t align with your own, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie or the worldview is inherently wrong. You might be wrong! Instead of judging films based only on their worldview, we need to have the willingness to openly receive the film and its worldview before us, just as we would receive the person who carries that worldview. It’s a posture of openness, a willingness to be vulnerable and listen to the person’s beliefs and stories, even if you ultimately disagree. There may be danger in completely ignoring or rejecting films that don’t align with our worldview, just as there is danger in blindly accepting all movies and worldviews without critical thought or discernment.

Let me give you an example by comparing two films with strikingly different approaches to a similar plot: God’s Not Dead (2014, Harold Cronk) versus The Sunset Limited (2011, Tommy Lee Jones). Both films center on conversations between two men. One is an atheist professor with a bitter disposition who dismisses religion and spirituality. The other is an uneducated Christian who does his best to convince the professor of his spiritual need and worth before God. The filmmakers’ approach in God’s Not Dead is heavy-handed and makes their agenda very clear: The atheist worldview is wrong, while the Christian worldview is right. Yet it does so through the humiliation of the professor, who ultimately dies having been trumped by his own student. The Christians win, right? This is the approach of judging a film—and a person—based entirely on their perceived worldview, an approach that typically results in shallow thinking and broken relationship. The Christians proved their argument right, which justifies the filmmakers’ decision to kill off the atheist.

In contrast, The Sunset Limited offers a much deeper intellectual argument between the two men. The atheist attempts to commit suicide on a train platform, and the Christian man saves him, taking him home and trying to convince him to continue living. Both the atheist and Christian are challenged and forced to wrestle with their convictions, but ultimately part ways with a mutual respect, and with both men still alive. We are unsure of the destiny of both men, but both men (and the audience) have certainly been transformed by the encounter. The Christian doesn’t “win” the argument, but neither does the atheist leave without having heard the good news of who God is. Rather than creating an unnecessary “us vs. them” mentality, The Sunset Limited chooses to emphasize each man’s connection with the other, a sense that we are in this crisis together.

When it comes to understanding, evaluating, and appreciating the worldviews of both films and people, I would encourage you to take the approach of The Sunset Limited over God’s Not Dead. It’s a posture of openness, humility, and dialogue rather than a combative stance, which only leads to destruction and dogmatism.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Jesus Goes to the Movies - Worldviews

My upcoming book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide, releases on August 11. You can purchase it through Amazon or The Youth Cartel. I'll be posting excerpts in the days leading up to the book. Be sure to buy your copy today!

Philosophy 101

Everyone is a philosopher. We all have our own beliefs about metaphysics (the nature of reality), epistemology (the nature of knowledge), ethics (the nature of morality), logic (the nature of reasoning), and aesthetics (the nature of beauty). Even if we would never use those big philosophy words, and even if we couldn’t articulate our beliefs aloud, we still act and operate on these convictions about the world around us.

Here’s an example of philosophy at work in the real world: If you are standing in line outside the movie theater waiting to buy your ticket, and someone cuts in line in front of you, you may get upset. Why? Because everyone should know (epistemology) that it’s wrong and disrespectful to cut in line (ethics). If everyone cut in movie lines, there would be a lack of order and no one could get in the theater on time (logic). You buy some popcorn at the concessions, because you have to eat popcorn at the movies (ethics) in order to make it a genuinely fun experience (aesthetics). Finally, you get into the theater and choose (logic) the center seat seven rows back and at least two seats away from everyone else, because everyone knows (epistemology) that this is the best seat (aesthetics). You see a sci-fi horror movie, but you know the scary aliens aren’t actually real (metaphysics), and that the good guys will ultimately save the day, because good always triumphs over evil (ethics and metaphysics).

As I said in chapter two, a worldview is the lens through which we see reality around us. Everyone has a worldview. Your worldview is formed through the information and experiences you absorb every day, and is further shaped by your own heart and mind as you interpret, analyze, and respond to that information. Even though you and I might encounter the same idea or experience, our interpretation and response to that idea might be completely different due to our worldview. It addresses both how the world is and how the world ought to be. A worldview is the proverbial water in the fishbowl we’re swimming in—we can’t really see it, because we see everything else through it.

How we view the world matters in our approach to watching movies because every movie is communicating a worldview. It’s not just the indie art films or heavy-handed documentaries that are trying to really say something. Every story is a vessel for a worldview; every narrative is a conduit for how to view reality.

Let’s think about some movies and the impact of worldviews. If a the primary passion in a romantic comedy focuses on two people who aren’t married—or they’re married, but not to each other—and concludes with a happy ending and a big kiss between the couple, what does that communicate about marital fidelity, the nature of love, and what makes us fully human? When a protagonist is driven by violence, bloodlust, and revenge against an enemy, such as in films like Oldboy, Kill Bill, Gladiator, or Braveheart, it says something about reality and morality, what is right and wrong and justifiable. What concerns me is that these latter two films are typically used in Christian circles as examples of what true Godly masculinity looks like—courage, honor, leadership, etc. Yet these films also promote an ethic of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a slit throat for a slit throat.” Justice is done when vengeance is enacted. For example: A leader disagrees with William Wallace’s plans and leadership, so Wallace rides a horse into the guy’s bedroom and smashes his skull with a mace. This is portrayed as justifiable, even heroic. Much of Wallace’s underlying motivations have little to do with freedom for his people—he is driven by vengeance for the murder of his wife. This is a model of Godly masculinity? When we start to ask questions about ethics, logic, aesthetics, and metaphysics, Wallace’s actions often don’t line up with a Christian worldview of masculinity, morality, and meaning. This doesn’t mean the entire film is a waste or deceitful; it simply means we need to be aware of the worldviews in the movies we watch.

I’ve shared that we must look at movies through a theological Jesus-colored lens. In philosophical language, I’m promoting watching movies through a biblical worldview and understanding the various other worldviews being presented. Guided by the Holy Spirit, when I have a clear frame and lens for my own worldview, I can better recognize, understand, and respond to worldviews other than my own. I can also discern truth and beauty in the movies even when the film or filmmaker has an opposing worldview.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

On "Inside Out" and the Necessity of Tears

Confession: I'm a fairly emotional guy. The feeling of tears entering the corners of my eyes, wetting the surface with empathy and pathos--this is a normal sensation for me. (In fact, one of the strongest indicators I was experiencing burnout months ago was due to an emotional numbness and lack of such tears.) So it was both surprising and affirming to walk out of Pixar's latest film, Inside Out, and send the following Tweet:

Inside Out follows the five primary emotions--Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust--inside the mind of Riley, a girl navigating two painful transitions: the external transition of moving across the country, and the internal transition from childhood to adulthood.

The film, to use a cliche film critic term, is a triumph. It celebrates strong and intelligent female protagonists, both inside and outside of Riley's mind. The creativity expressed in the world-building is remarkable, and scenes inside the memory and subconscious of Riley are witty and enjoyable, with plenty of "cognitive" and brain-related jokes; I particularly loved a brief sequence in a tunnel for "abstract thinking" involving deconstruction and various dimensions. And who doesn't love a kids' film that makes allusions to film classics like Chinatown and Vertigo in its humor? (Side note: the short film Lava preceding Inside Out in theaters is just about the worst film Pixar has ever made. I nearly cried at how terrible it was.)

Inside Out is an excellent film about coming of age, the gift of being a parent, and the power of community and friendship. All of these themes are brought together in Inside Out's primary idea: the gift and power of all our emotions, even the ones we tend neglect. The emotion of Joy is clearly the leader inside Riley's mind, with Sadness often relegated to the margins in order for Joy to keep Riley happy. Yet when Riley is confronted with a very difficult situation--moving across the country to a new home--Sadness and Joy need to become co-laborers in serving Riley.

In his insightful essay on Inside Out, Matt Zoller Seitz offers a defense of sadness:
This movie is saying, "Listen to Sadness. Sadness is important. Sadness has something to teach you." "Inside Out" stands in opposition to an entire culture that tells people that happiness is the highest, best and sometimes only permissible emotion, and that sadness is an obstacle to being happy, and that we should concentrate all of our emotional and cultural energy on trying to eradicate sadness so that everyone can be happy.
As an advocate for sadness, Inside Out is a prophetic call to our "everything is fine" culture, inviting us to embrace the wisdom of our tears. In this film, while the two are initially foils, ultimately "Sadness is not the opposite of Joy, she's her partner." We need both happiness and sadness to be holistic beings. Tears are not only natural, they are deeply healing and vital to our spiritual lives. Professor MaryKate Morse writes the following about the power of tears in her helpful resource, A Guidebook to Prayer:
Tears reflect the entire human gamut of life experiences: grief, connection, despair, joy, frustration, anger and even physical stress. Crying is a significant human function.... Tears cannot be ignored. If someone is crying, everyone notices. Crying is an expression of powerlessness, if it is authentic and not manipulative. When we cry, it is a defining moment.... Tears uncover our life. Pretense is not possible. Masks fall off. Tears connect with the most primal part of our lives and tears connect us with others. Tears soften our hearts and open our minds.
I'm still struck by the simple profundity of her words: tears cannot be ignored. If a person is quietly sobbing on the subway across our way, weeping into their knees on a curb as we stroll past, or wiping their eyes at any social gathering, we cannot help but notice. Tears--particularly, tears due to sadness and grief--elicit a remarkable empathy. When we cannot cry, we cannot wholly love. When we authentically weep with those who weep, we practice the self-giving love of Christ.

Inside Out recognizes the value and necessity of all emotions and desires. I grew up in a conservative family context where conversations about emotions nearly always turned to the verse in Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Emotions were not to be trusted, and being overly emotional was paralleled with being sinful or self-deceived. For an emotional guy like me, this always rang false, and led more to shame and sin management than genuine spiritual freedom. So it was refreshing to read the same prophet, Jeremiah, wrote about God's covenant love for His people, and how He would write His law on their hearts, this prophet who is called "the weeping prophet." Ezekiel writes, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh" (36:26). The psalms of David reveal a wide range of emotions, from joy to anger to fear to disgust to sadness. When reading the gospel accounts, it turns out Jesus is also an emotional person--he gets angry, he becomes saddened and distressed, he is joyful and excited, he is determined, he may even be fearful. As one reads the whole canon of Scripture, it appears that the full range of human emotions are normative, even healthy. Certainly they can lead us astray into sinful territory, but the profound example of Jesus allows us to embrace our emotions as good gifts from the Creator, not unnecessary cognitive baggage we need to stuff away.

I am learning to embrace my own emotional propensity, to allow myself to cry when the tears form in my eyes. We can neither stuff the feelings down into the recesses of our subconscious, nor can we allow ourselves to be overtaken by emotions, led along like a crazed roller coaster of passion and sentiment. That's the unique beauty of Inside Out--the emotions never fully control or dominate the person they inhabit. The human being is ultimately responsible for their actions and choices. The emotions react to Riley just as much as Riley reacts to her emotions; it is a beautiful dialogue between emotion, thought, action, and contemplation. We're not to ignore or disregard our emotions, but neither are we to simply "follow our feelings" without any sense of personal accountability or self-control.

Like Inside Out, we can recognize the goodness of emotions and desires, embracing the whole gamut--Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness--as a family of feelings residing inside our minds and hearts. We can laugh because we have a Creator who also expresses joy. We can cry because we have a Lord who is heart broken when His people turn away from Him. We can become angry, because while the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in love, His sense of justice often piques a righteous anger when the weak and marginalized are oppressed. We may experience fear, but we have a God who calmly and graciously reminds us in Scripture, "do not be afraid." We must become disgusted with our own sinful desires in order to repent and turn towards the one who will never look at us in disgust.

If you end up crying when you see Inside Out, it's okay. Embrace the tears of empathy. Jesus wept. We can, too.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review of Mission: Impossible for Reel World Theology

I recently reviewed the original Mission: Impossible (1996, Brian De Palma) for Reel World Theology as a lead up to the fifth film in the M:I franchise:

The Mission: Impossible film franchise, with each sequel each promising bigger and more dangerous stunts for its star, Tom Cruise, to attempt, began less with a loud bang and more with a slow burn. Brian De Palma’s 1996 film is more of a spy thriller than a straightforward action film. Through mind-bending plot twists and some interesting cinematography and directorial decisions, De Palma takes the audience along for a thrill ride with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) as a young IMF agent trying to discover whodunit.

The opening sequence features the now-iconic scene of Ethan pulling off the mask to reveal the truth. This mask-removal trope—present in each of the sequels—serves as a sort of symbol of the entire franchise, a multi-layered mosaic of identity and styles, with each director giving the next film their own personal thumbprint. The audience is unsure where the film will be headed next, or what sort of identity this particular Mission: Impossible film holds. De Palma’s style is certainly present, with canted angle shots, split focus shots, and slow tracking shots all making for a very stylized action thriller. Some taut sequences–especially the Langley infiltration and the fish tank restaurant scene–are exhilarating, and Mission: Impossible is certainly never dull.

When the IMF team’s mission in Prague falls apart, leaving Ethan on the run and trying to pick up the pieces of the puzzle, it feels like a bold choice for so early on in the film. A stellar supporting cast with the likes of Kristin Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez are killed off rather quickly and brutally, leaving the audience wondering who is truly alive or dead, and where this film is really headed. The first time I saw Mission: Impossible, I’m quite sure I didn’t know what was going on—the plot became so convoluted and confusing at times, I couldn’t keep up. The mask trope comes into play here—it’s difficult to tell the various identities and motivations of the primary characters, and the plot changes their tone from scene to scene. Ethan is capable and confident in one moment, scared and unnerved in the next; he is witty and charming, romantic, intellectual, brooding, a people person, a loner, etc. It’s hard to tell if he’s in control of a situation or simply going along for the ride. He’s a cipher, enigmatic and only serving as the carrier for the audience’s own queries and intrigue.