“Who’s Driving the Bus and Where Are We Going?”

church busBlessed to have served as youth pastor in only two church ministries from January 1979 to September 1995, I have been on more than my share of bus trips!  A flood of happy memories rushes through my thoughts when I reflect on a majority of those trips.  I recall driving a school bus from Sterling Heights, MI to winter camp in northern Michigan, traveling from Tampa, FL with two busloads of teens to the WILDS of Brevard, NC, and most insane of all, a mission trip from Michigan to Tamazunchale, Mexico (a destination several hours south of the border and praise the Lord, without incident)!

teensOne bus trip stands out above all the others as a nightmare of lore and is my record trip of nearly 40 hours in the late 1980’s.  What should have been a routine twelve-hour trip became a saga that began with a dozen teenage boys repelling dinner from the side of a mountain road, two blown tires on Interstate 75 south, an emotional crisis brought on by physical weariness that landed a busload of girls in an ER while I sat in a truck stop parking lot in north Florida with a blown engine and a busload of boys waiting for a third bus to travel from Tampa to bring us home (remember, this was before cell phones).  In spite of the arduous demands of long bus trips with teens, I loved “my teens” and we wept together when I transitioned from youth pastor to the senior pastorate in October 1995.

Traveling with two busloads of 80+ teens and at least one van chasing the buses required not only a road map, but also a well planned, coordinated effort to plot bathroom breaks, fuel stops, restaurant breaks for meals, a clearly stated list of rules and expectations, and most importantly, a staff that shared my heart and vision for youth ministry.  With a youth group around 100 teens and activities that would sometimes swell to well over 150 teens, I could not wait for a crisis to lead; I had to have a well-developed philosophy of youth ministry that was Bible-directed, Christ-centered and taught to “my teens”, their parents and sponsors.

Les OlillaI was privileged to be a youth pastor in what I believe was the “Golden Era of Youth Ministry” from the early 1980’s to the mid-1990’s.  I was a fresh-out-of-college “know nothing” youth pastor in 1979, but I had the privilege of following and sometimes sitting under the tutelage of Dr. Les Olilla, a top youth ministry expert before he became the president of Northland Baptist Bible College, and Dr. Frank Hamrick (the Founder of Pro-Teens known today as Positive Action for Christ).  Both men emphasized the necessity of having a philosophy of youth ministry grounded in the precepts of God’s Word and guided by spiritual principles.  I read youth ministry books, went to seminars, devoured Frank Hamrick’s taped sessions on ProTeens and most importantly, meditated on the Word of God to set a spiritual foundation for life and ministry that I follow to this day.  Many of “my teens”, most of whom are today in their mid-30’s to early 50’s, might remember an annual series I taught titled, “Why we do what we do” (taught in the summer when 6th graders were transitioning to the teen department).ProTeens

“Why we do what we do” was a study in youth ministry philosophy shaped by spiritual principles that were fundamental to the precepts (rules, not suggestions) I followed in my ministry to youth.  Rather than allow “rules” to become baseless irritants, I wanted “my teens” to know there was a reason, a scriptural basis, for the disciplines we taught.  I wanted to communicate to “my teens” the timeless truths that would serve as a spiritual compass and guide to their lives.  It was my passion that they would know in the youth group not only Who’s Driving the Bus, but also Where We Were Going.

That brings me to another reflection on the current state of Bible fundamental churches, Bible colleges and seminaries.  It is my observation that ministries are generational, meaning they go through a natural ebb and flow of change in leadership; however, changes themselves are not negatively impacting as long as there is a shared philosophy of ministry and devotion to principles derived from immutable precepts.  Sadly, because we live in a fallen world, the natural inclination of every organization, regardless of its heritage, is one of decline.  First generation founders of church ministries and institutions are visionaries whose lives and ministries are testimonies of radical transformation characterized by spiritual growth, sacrifice, and service.  Second generation leaders are benefactors of the first generation’s faith and sacrifices, often plotting their own high ground and aspiring to leaving a godly legacy for others to follow.  Who's Driving A leadership crisis often befalls the third generation leaders who lack the faith and vision of the first generation and the confidence and convictions of the second generation. The third generation struggles with its own spiritual identity and, lacking the benefit of trials that test and solidify the principles and precepts of the generations before them, too often experience the propensity that, “Familiarity breeds contempt!”   Inevitably, spiritual apathy leads to dead orthodoxy and a rejection of the convictions of the previous generations.

It is my proposition that many of our Bible fundamental churches, colleges and seminaries are grappling with the reality of third generation leaders who are “driving the bus”, but having rejected the precepts of their forebears and their guiding principles, do not know where they are going.  They are quick to speak passionately about “The Gospel” and discipleship, but veil the carnality and spiritual apathy of their generation in a cloak of piety that does not call the church to “be holy” and sanctified (1 Peter 2:13-15).  I believe the apostle John’s diagnosis of the church in Ephesus has become the great sin of this generation (Revelation 2:2-4).

Revelation 2:2-4 – I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
3  And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.
4  Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.”

In my next post, I propose to identify four spiritual failures manifested by third generation leaders who are leading our failing churches, colleges and seminaries.

With a shepherd’s heart,

Pastor Travis D. Smith

Copyright 2016 – Travis D. Smith