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Author Archive | Duffy Robbins

Doing Ministry Between “If Only…” and “What if…?”

It started with a conference (Christian Camp & Conference Association) back in early December. Not only was I one of the speakers for the conference, I was part of the team that planned the conference. And as we dreamed about what God might say to us at that event, we kept coming back to two phrases – one, a phrase of regret: “IF only…”, and the other, a phrase of expectation: “What IF…?”.

As I prayed and prepared for that conference, it dawned on me that most of my ministry happens between those two phrases, and God began me to prompt me to give that idea some thought. Somewhere between devotional study of the life of Jacob, and some sermon prep around disappointment with God (see 2 Kings 4: 1-7 and John 11: 1-44), I found myself coming back to this basic truth: We are not limited by our “If only’s…” and our “What if’s…?” are as limitless as the promises of God.

If you’ve spent much time doing ministry between “IF only…” and “What IF…?” I invite you to read what follows. It’s probably more of a poem, than a blog…and as you read it through, you’ll discover that it’s not much of a poem either. Whatever it is, my prayer is that you might hear it as a word of encouragement as we all start out a new year of life and ministry together:

We are not limited by our “if only’s”. And our “What If’s” are as limitless as the promises of God.

“If only’s” tell a lie.

  • They tell an incomplete story.
  • They point to a shortfall, a lack, a deficit.
  • They add up the circumstances and come up with a negative.

Because they don’t add in God.

  • “If only” is Jacob scheming and conniving to get a blessing from God.
  • “If only” is Israel grumbling in the wilderness lost in disappointment.
  • “If only” is the spies who think Canaan can’t be won.
  • “If only” is the army that cowers in the face of the giant.
  • or stops its march at the foot of the wall.
  • “If only” is the widow who has only one jar of oil (2 Kings 4:1-7).
  • “If only” is the counselors of Job giving easy answers to hard questions.
  • “If only” is looking at a multitude of people and a very small amount of fish.
  • “If only” is a beaten band of disciples locked behind doors of fear and discouragement (John 20: 19).
  • “If only” is saying, “Lord, you should have been here”…and you weren’t (John 11:21).
  • “If only” traps up, slaps us, and wraps us in grave clothes of surrender and despair.

And it tells us a lie

Because with God…

“if only” is never the final word.

Our “If only”‘s simply set the stage for God’s “What if…”

What if God meets us in a place we don’t expect,

in a whisper we weren’t listening for,

with a gift we never expected,

through circumstances we would never have chosen

with a promise we don’t deserve,

in a way we never imagined?

What if we changed our stories – so that instead of ending the story with “if only”, we opened a new chapter with “What if?” What if we chose not to give in to hard questions …

…big walls,

…small thinking,

…difficult people,

…dry places,

…tight spots,

….inadequate resources,

….unmet expectations,

“What if” we chose to believe that God isn’t finished with us…

…with our families

…with our church

…with our ministries

…with our students?

What if we wait and watch and hope and believe for God’s “What if”?

We are not limited by our “if only’s…”. And our “What If’s…?” are as limitless as the promises of God.

This is my prayer for you (and for me!) as we begin the new year. Thanks for what you do, and for the privilege of allowing guys like me to share in your ministry!


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A New Kind of Modesty

I’ve been thinking lately about modesty.

I know: after the Miley Cyrus episode on the MTV Awards, we’ve all been thinking a little bit more about modesty lately!

But, I’ve been thinking about a different kind of modesty.

I had been scheduled to speak at a large youth event out west, and about two weeks prior to the event I received a phone call from a woman on the design team who wanted to review with me some basic details of conference schedules and travel plans. All in all, it was pretty routine.

That was when she added, without any hint of irony, this additional word of direction:

“Please, when you give your talks to the kids, we’ve decided as a design team to ask that you not mention the Name of Jesus. We don’t mind if you talk about God, in fact, we hope you will. But we hope you’ll understand that talking about Jesus will offend some of our young people, and we don’t want to do anything that will make them feel uncomfortable….”

I tried to imagine a doctor who refused to tell her patient of his disease because it might upset him. Or, the spelling teacher who didn’t have the heart to tell his students that they were consistently misspelling certain words because she didn’t want to discourage them. Or, the traffic cop who couldn’t bring himself to ask the driver to please keep his truck off of the sidewalk because he didn’t want him to think policemen unfriendly. We can almost imagine the furrowed brows as this Design Team wrestled with what they must have considered “the Jesus problem”.

A New Kind of Modesty

In an age in which modesty seems as out of date as Pong and penny loafers, in an age in which no topic is taboo, no indignation un-televised, no truth held back, it is striking that we, in the church, have finally found a modesty that we can feel good about: We can be modest about Jesus.

Now, please understand, I am completely sympathetic with the motives that must have led these good folks to “design” The Designer out of their youth event. After all, they wanted to make the conference a safe place for kids to ask questions, to feel accepted, to feel comfortable. I agree with that. That’s important. But just because we want all patients – no matter how sick – to be welcomed into the hospital, that doesn’t mean that we have to be hospitable to every sickness and germ, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we have to be modest about the cure.

It was supposedly an Archbishop of Canterbury who commented several years ago that the Church of England was “dying of good taste”. I hope it isn’t in poor taste to say so – and it certainly isn’t often that youthworkers are accused of exercising too much good taste – but sometimes I feel like I see the same thing happening on the youth ministry landscape.

There’s a very important and a very fine line between being bold to speak the truth and speaking the truth in such a way that we just sound rude and cranky. I suspect that’s what Paul had in mind when he asked his friends in Colossae to pray that he would proclaim the Word with clarity, “as I should”, he wrote (Col 4:4). But, he also counseled them to “Be wise” in the way they act toward outsiders – to “make the most of every opportunity” (Col 4:5).

Paul doesn’t want to sound rude and cranky, but that doesn’t mean he wants to sound sweet. What he wants is to sound clear.

For Paul, good teaching was a combination of grace and salt (Col 4:6), and for good reason. Salt without grace has a bold taste; but it can be so strong that not many “outsiders” will come back for more. On the other hand, grace without salt is sweet and appealing – everybody loves it – but it isn’t a clear proclamation.

Lord, keep me from being “modest” when I ought to be bold. And may my “boldness” never provoke outsiders with over-exposure (Think: evangelistic twerking). I want to be gracious without being sweet, and salty without being sour.

Which tendency is greater in your own teaching?


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Healthy Soil, Better Harvest


Farmers don’t get into agriculture so they can put nutrients into soil. They put nutrients in the soil so that their work as a farmer will be fruitful.

As youth workers, we want to be fruitful, but it’s easy to get so focused on sowing and weeding that we neglect to nourish the soil. One of the ways I try to build nutrients into the soil of my ministry is by intentionally fertilizing my mind. Now, I don’t want to draw too close a connection between my brain and truckloads of manure. But, I think we all know the frustration of trying to coax a harvest out of a dried-up, under-nourished imagination.

Quick thoughts about how I try to replenish through reading:

  • Be Focused: Different seasons of my schedule bring different demands. So, my reading tends to focus on those demands. Right now it clusters around topics that will bear fruit in my teaching this Fall, specifically: (1) technology (just finished Dyer’s, From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology) ; (2) sexual integrity – what it means in an age when it seems to mean nothing (currently Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How pornography hijacks the male brain); (3) the church’s response to the LGBTQ lifestyle (example: Gagnon’s Homosexuality & the Bible: Two Views). I don’t agree with all I’m reading, but it breaks new ground in my thinking.
  • Be Broad: Sure, be focused. But even a beginning farmer understands something about crop rotation and airing out the soil. While my focused reading is usually in a format that allows me to study (take notes, underline), I’ve usually got one book (typically audio format) that has no direct connection to ministry (currently it’s 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created, but then I’m intrigued by earthworms, mosquitoes, cockroaches and viruses).
  • Be Deep: I always have one book that’s focused less on the soil of ministry and more on my soul as a disciple of Jesus. I usually read this book  (currently, Peterson’s Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ) as part of my devotions.

Don’t take my suggestions as either an assignment or a reading list. But, for the sake of the harvest, I hope you’ll take some time – even if it’s just one book – to plow back into the furrows of your brain.

Or maybe you already are! What books are you reading? What is your approach? Let us know!

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