Bonhoeffer, Youth Work and Absence

It has been far too long since I’ve given voice to my thoughts on this blog. There are probably many reasons for that, but at least one reason is that I’ve been busy. In any case, I can’t promise that regular updates are suddenly going to resume, but I do hope to slowly pick up the blogging again. This will take a variety of forms, most notably interacting with books and articles about youth ministry. I’ll also blog about other interests of mine. Don’t expect anything profound.

I recently picked up and began working my way through Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker by Andrew Root. It’s an excellent read so far, as all of Root’s books tend to be. Today I want to make just one or two observations about the first chapter or two of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker. Scot McKnight is blogging his way through the book, and his own summary and thoughts are worth the time it would take you to read them.

Observation #1: the idea that Bonhoeffer is a sort of forefather to those of us who want to take a theological turn in youth ministry is intriguing. I have mentioned before how, in college, I hated my systematic theology courses because they seemed to be focused on an abstract system that had no room for experience. When theology didn’t match up with life, your life was wrong, not the theology. I began reading Bonhoeffer in college and in Bonhoeffer I found two things that have irrevocably shaped my own journey of faith. The first thing I found was a willingness to talk about and stand firm on grace, but accompanied by an acknowledgment that grace is costly. Of course, Bonhoeffer is well known for this and it’s probably the thing most American Christians know most about him. The Cost of Discipleship is his most well known work, though the actual title is merely Discipleship. I imagine it would be perplexing or at least frustrating to him if folks thought the cost could somehow be separated from discipleship, as if they were two separate things. Grace is, by it’s very nature, costly. But, the second thing I learned from Bonhoeffer is that theology is not static or removed from the world (in fairness, my reading of Barth also helped me with this idea). Rather, theology interacts with life on the ground. The priority is not to attain knowledge and understand facts, but to live the Christian life. Theology serves the church, not the other way round.

Observation #2: Bonhoeffer being a potential forefather of the theological turn in youth ministry does not make that turn any easier to make. There are plenty who still see youth ministry as a pill to be prescribed to the wayward youth of America. Most mean well by this, but it doesn’t take adolescents seriously and it doesn’t take Jesus seriously. We reduce the gospel to behavior and miss the whole point of grace. But I digress. The theological turn is no more easy for the modern youth worker than Bonhoeffer’s own convictions were for him.

Hollow Faith by Stephen Ingram

There are a plethora of books in this world. The problem, as one of my college professors used to say, is that you have to read all of them. I’m attempting to make a dent in my enormous reading list, and I completed Hollow Faith by Stephen Ingram the other day.

Hollow Faith will be familiar territory for many. Stephen is working with the same data (the Nation Study of Youth and Religion) that Kenda Creasy Dean worked with in Almost Christian. Stephen’s book, however, focuses more narrowly than does Kenda’s. Almost Christian really looks at the big picture, how parents and the church are modelling a faith that is almost Christian to the students in our youth ministries. Hollow Faith, while acknowledging the truth of this, focuses on six related areas in the lives and faith of students. It’s not a long read, and in my opinion is well worth it.

The Good
Each of the first six chapters are written with youth workers in mind. After laying out the argument of each, and presenting the evidence, Stephen moves on to offering practical advice on how we might combat these negatives in our lives and ministries. The entire thing is quite helpful.

I also found Hollow Faith to constantly push the boundaries of conventional thinking in terms of theology and praxis. In one section, tucked away in a chapter on meism, Stephen says:

We have to stop being “pastoral” in these situations [one's in which students focus on what they get out of a mission trip, e.g., wanting to feel satisfied, or have a meaningful experience] and in goo and loving ways help our people and youth understand that disaster relief is not about how they feel or what they get out of the work. Unfortunately in the modern church this attitude switch rarely happens. We have to begin to construct theologies with our youth that regularly put them into unsatisfying situations, give them work that does not give them a “mission high” and all along the way help them understand that the work of God is referred to by Jesus as a cross we are to bear. The last time I checked, carrying a cross was not very fulfilling, satisfying or a good experience. It is important to reframe our work and mission as something that is much bigger than ourselves, our desires and our plans. We need to help our students see that God was at work in the situation before we got there and will continue to be at work long after we leave.

That is just one example of the helpful, against the grain thinking that Hollow Faith is filled with.

After the first six chapters, however, Hollow Faith also includes lesson plans for each of the six areas on which it focuses. I found the lesson plans to be understandable, easy to follow, and I imagine I’ll use them in the future with minor modifications–which is saying something. I hate using other people’s lesson plans. Each of these lessons are challenging without being preachy. They push students to think more deeply about their faith and the presuppositions they have, without coming off as being holier-than-thou. It is a difficult balance to strike, and I’m rather impresses that Stephen was able to walk that tight-rope with such aplomb.

The final chapter is written for parents. I found it, once again, helpful.

The Bad
There isn’t a great deal to list that is bad. Most of these things are simply nit-picky. I would have preferred the parent section to be longer and more robust. A chapter on how to navigate through the difficulties of students who want to focus on themselves, and essentially be moralistic therapeutic diests also would have been helpful. But these things are omissions, not things that negatively impact the book that is there.

The Ugly
Throughout the book there are a number of typos and editing errors. It seems to me that another copy edit wouldn’t have hurt the book before publication. But this is really, honestly something most people won’t notice. I simply have my attention attuned to such things because of my own writing.

All in all, I can heartily recommend Hollow Faith. It may not be as groundbreaking as Almost Christian or Christian Smith’s original study, but it covers some ground that neither of those books cover. For those involved in youth ministry, it is well worth the read. I’ve already begun using some of the ideas in Hollow Faith to help prepare our team of students who will be travelling to Guatemala next summer. That may be the highest praise I can offer a book on ministry.

Sometimes…

Ministry is hard work. I know far too many youth workers who are consumed by calendars, meetings and programs. Truth be told, I often look at my own ministry and wonder what went wrong. When did pastoring youth start to mean planning a calendar so dreadfully full of events that there is no time left to simply be together? When did being a professional youth worker start to mean that all of our time is devoted to maintaining programs (Sunday morning, Wednesday night, fun nights, lock-ins, fundraisers, bible studies (if we’re lucky), fall retreat(s), spring retreat(s), winter retreat, mission trips, week-long summer conferences, etc) instead of devoted to seeking where God is working in the lives of our students? When did our students stop seeking the living God and start seeking a program that gives them an emotional high–or maybe we never showed them a God worth seeking in the first place?

In the midst of our broken world, it can only be expected that our youth ministries will be broken as well. But I wonder if sometimes our ministries are more broken than they need to be? Youth ministry books will often talk about helping students find a passionate faith, or helping students slow down and contemplate God, or being pro-student as Jesus is pro-us. These books are wonderful, and they talk about dealing with staff members who don’t understand why the youth ministry is suddenly interested in theology; they talk about how to help parents who just want a youth ministry that is fun see that their children need more than good morals; but these books never talk about what to do to help students realize that a jam-packed calendar and a well-maintained program aren’t the central pieces of youth ministry.

Maybe students intuitively realize this. But I think this intuition is on the same level as staff people and parents: sometimes it needs some help coming out. Ministry is tough. But sometimes we just need to turn around, seize the bull by the horns, and see what happens.

Dovie’andi se tovya sagain.

Summer Waning

Summer always flies by. This might be an indication of a too programmed ministry. It’s also possible that it’s just the nature of good times to go by quickly. More than likely, it’s a combination of the two. In either case, summer is at a close. In my current context we’ve had our final summer youth events, pulled off Youth Sunday, and finished with our Mission Shareholders Banquet. Today my interns left.

It’s always a tough time of year. These individuals, who I have invested into and who have invested into our ministry go back home and prepare for another semester of learning in a different context. Certainly the interns we hire impact our students, and we impact them. Sometimes I really wish the internships didn’t end at the end of the summer, because with another few months, the benefit to interns would be even greater than it already is. Of course, at other times I want to throttle interns, so.

In a couple days I leave for vacation, and I’m very much looking forward to getting away and not having responsibilities staring me in the face. Mandy and I will get to see some friends we haven’t seen in a while, and spend some time with the greatest people on the planet. I’ll probably read a fair amount (Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice on the fiction side, and Schillebickx’ Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God on the non-fiction side. Of course, if I can convince Mandy to let me grab this and this on Kindle, I’ll plow through some more Andrew Root), hang with friends and otherwise relax.

In a couple weeks school starts, and that means our first Youth Advisor training, our back-to-school parent meeting, and the kickoff of our Midweek program for the year–made that much better this year because some of our student leaders have suggested some changes that are going to make it awesome. But it’s still a time of transition. Summer wans and I find myself planning for the Autumn. The office is quieter. There’s a feeling of preparation, waiting.

I like it. But in some ways it’s almost as tiring as the activity of summer.

Felt Needs and Rule Books

I finally read through Tash McGill’s article in the current (July/August 2012) issue of Immerse. A quick digression: if you’re a youth worker and you don’t subscribe to Immerse, change that. As most of my readers might notice, I’m into changing the way we think about youth ministry, but I’m not sure changing in the way Tash suggests is best.

I have the same basic concern that Jason Chenoweth mentions: it seems like Tash is suggesting we base youth ministry on the felt needs of students. Now, maybe that isn’t her intention at all, but the article makes it sound like changing the rules means responding to whatever the felt needs of the moment are in regards to our students. We certainly need to be aware of the felt needs of our students, but we also need to challenge them to look beyond those felt needs to something deeper. After all, I’m pretty sure the massive programs and light shows that Tash mentions negatively came about because of our attempts to minister to the felt needs of students.

Jason may go a little far in his criticism, however. He suggests that we can’t actually do youth ministry that isn’t program-based, and that’s just wrong. In smaller youth ministries, a non-program based model is entirely attainable. In larger youth ministries it would be much more difficult, but by stripping out the doing, and instead simply being together (which is part of Tash’s point) we can radically change the type of programming we’re producing and move from a youth ministry of doing and producing to a youth ministry of being and caring. The later is, I think, the more biblical model.

Both Tash’s article and Jason’s response are worth reading. I can’t say that I entirely agree with either of them, but this is the kind of honest dialog we’re sorely in need of in youth ministry circles. We do need to think about changing the rule book, I’m just not convinced that Tash’s suggestions–as I’m understanding them from her article–are changes in the right direction.

Of Chick-Fil-A and Boycotts

I’ve tried to keep my mouth shut about this whole CFA thing. I’ll probably regret this post in a few days, but–as the students in my youth group tell me–you only live once. Which is apparently code for, “I’m about to do something incredibly stupid but I’m going to do it anyway…”

Fair disclaimer, I’m a huge fan of Chick-Fil-A. I’ve known for some time that CFA is owned and operated by some very conservative individuals. Those individuals are, as far as I am concerned, entitled to their opinions, no matter how I may disagree with them. So, first let’s tackle the conservative response.

Some people get upset about comments made by the family that owns CFA, and the conservative wing of Christianity runs to their rescue. Making it look like we think the biggest issue on the planet is preventing homosexuals from getting married. Because, you know, after genocide, robbery, empire building, etc homosexuals getting married is going to be the thing that tips the scales and makes God destroy us? All conservatives succeeded in doing was driving a further wedge between Christians and the homosexual community. It was a stupid move.

Not that the liberal side is any better. They’ve decided they won’t eat at CFA because of comments made by the owners to the effect that homosexuals shouldn’t be able to marry one another. Last I checked the countries we get our oil from were killing homosexuals. But my liberal friends aren’t about to stop buying gas. This just makes them look like hypocrits. They like a protest of convenience, but it’s hard to see where they are being principled. When they stop buying Apple products, stop wearing shoes made in sweatshops, and stop purchasing gasoline for their vehicles, then we can talk.

So, both sides are at fault. Both sides are injuring one another by their actions, and both sides continue to be unable to talk to one another because both refuse to allow that their position might not be 100% correct. The solution? I’d say it’s to place Jesus at the center, but both sides think they’re doing that. I’d say it’s to love, but the conservatives say they’re loving God (while deeply wounding their Christian brothers and sisters) and the liberals say they’re loving homosexuals (well, US homosexuals anyway, the ones being killed in OPEC countries don’t count, I guess). So maybe the solution is that we need to all stop being so self-righteous and instead get over ourselves. Supporting CFA is a dumb move, boycotting CFA–while still purchasing gas, sweatshop shoes, and various other products that exploit people–is an equally dumb move.

The ironic thing is that in a couple months most people will have forgotten about all this. I don’t agree with Cathy’s comments and I wasn’t out buying CFA yesterday. My conservative friends can be mad at me. However, I’ll stop buying CFA when my liberal friends stop buying gas, and those friends can be mad at me too.

Fun and Youth Ministry

I think it’s time for me to talk a bit about fun in youth ministry. Regular readers will know that I think attractional youth ministry is a bad idea on various levels. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we need to expunge fun from our youth ministries. In fact, I think fun is a vital element to a healthy youth ministry–just like fun is a vital element to a healthy family.

This isn’t to say that fun is the vital element, however. There are appropriate places for fun. Also, I should distinguish between fun and entertainment. It’s pretty common for youth ministries to be in the business of entertaining students. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Entertainment is often non-interactive, or when it is interactive, it isn’t communal. Entertainment seeks to keep busy. By contrast, fun is interactive and communal. Fun isn’t about being busy, but rather about enjoying the moment.

What we shouldn’t use fun for:

Let’s start with the negative side of things. There are instances where we really ought to avoid using fun in a youth ministry. For instance, we shouldn’t use fun as an evangelistic strategy. That isn’t to say that Jesus should be boring (far from it), but we shouldn’t be working to “draw people in,” with fun. We should be working to draw people in with the love of Jesus and his message. Anything else misses the point. Anything else risks winning converts to something other than Jesus. After all, what you win them with is what you win them to. Our job isn’t to offer students fun and then sneak in a devotional. Fun should not be why teens come to our youth ministries. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have fun at youth group meetings, but rather to say that we play a dangerous game when we use fun as bait to lure students into our youth groups. Students don’t need more fun. They need peers and adults who will love them, support them, welcome them, and walk the road of life with them introducing them to this amazing guy named Jesus. In fact, maybe the biggest problem with “fun” is that we somehow think that if we can just do an event that’s more fun, more students will come to our youth ministry. We use fun as an excuse so that we don’t have to do the hard work of changing our attitudes, being loving and open toward the stranger, and taking our focus off ourselves and putting it squarely on Jesus.

We should also be careful that we don’t use fun as an excuse for laziness. Sometimes it’s easy to say, “Oh, we’re doing this event to build relationships and be together.” That’s an awesome thing, and vitally important to youth ministry. But if what we mean by that is, “We’re going to have fun, because I was too lazy to think through what our youth ministry needs,” it isn’t a good thing. We’ve started using fun as an excuse.

What we should use fun for:

So, if we should avoid using fun as bait to pack teens into our youth rooms, what should we use fun for? The possibilities are nearly limitless. To begin, having fun with one another really is a great way to get to know someone. Part of living life together is having fun. Fun is a phenomenal way to reduce stress and practice Sabbath. Perhaps a practical example will be helpful. Last summer we did several “Days of Rest” with our youth ministry. These events were essentially times when we told students that we wanted them to practice Sabbath. We blocked out six or so hours at the church, and had students join us. We told them ahead of time that we weren’t going to have any “program.” We invited them to bring a book, a game, a frisbee, whatever. We spent the day simply relaxing, playing games, talking with one another, laughing, telling jokes, etc. We had a great deal of fun. But fun wasn’t the point, and we weren’t trying to keep students busy. I’m not so naive as to think all of our students really practiced sabbath that day. Many of them just came because they thought it would be fun. That’s OK, but our narrative wasn’t to come because it would be fun. That can make all the difference.

So, fun can be used for sabbath. I think fun is also a vital part of creating shared memories together. We tend to remember the good times, the fun times, as opposed to the bad times. You might be noticing at this point that fun is first a tool, rather than an end in itself. But you might also notice that fun is directed towards what we’d typically think is the “internal group,” those students who already attend our ministries. That isn’t to say that we should be solely focused on fun. Really, it’s important but should never be our focus. Most of the time, we have plenty of “fun events,” and what we need is more welcoming and support between the students in our ministries, more opportunities for them to wrestle with faith, more opportunities to pray, more adults who love them, more times of silence, more Jesus, not another chance to play kickball.

At the end of the day though, we should never try to avoid fun. Fun is part of the human experience, and certainly ought to be part of the Christian experience; it just shouldn’t be the only part of that experience. Where we need to be careful, however, is in attempting to use fun to draw students into our ministries. Fun doesn’t draw students in. It might get them there for a night (if they don’t have something more entertaining to go to), but it isn’t a long term solution. That way of thinking ends up making youth ministry into a series of programs we do to keep students busy, rather than a life we live out alongside students. What we need to do in our youth ministries is welcome students of all backgrounds, support them, and care for them–even when it’s their first night.