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 its 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.

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.

Chubby Bunny

I have an article currently posted over at ImmerseJournal.com wherein I interact with Alain Olivo’s Chubby Bunny with Pinto Beans article in the current issue of Immerse.

In addition to encouraging anyone who doesn’t already read Immerse to read it, why don’t you head on over and take a look at my response article? I’d love to interact further with people on the issues Alain’s article raises.

More anon.

Fun…

Every so often I find myself reflecting on the programs and initiatives that make up a youth ministry. Those who regularly read this blog know that I constantly try to think in new ways about youth ministry, and encourage others to do the same. Even so, the temptation to jump into an entertainment centered style of ministry is difficult to avoid.

But trying to avoid an entertainment centered ministry doesn’t mean that we don’t have fun. In fact, for the students in many of our youth ministries the best thing we could probably do is give them space to have simple fun. We don’t need to go play laser tag, or go to a baseball game, or have a dance party, or rent a bouncy-castle to have fun. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with any of those activities, but they aren’t requirements for having fun. In fact, when we jam our calendars full of events like those, we often play right into a consumeristic society that values entertainment above engagement.

We’ve recently begun a new format for our Wednesday night gathering at our ministry. For the first three Wednesdays of the month we undertake the standard stuff: discussion, small groups, prayer, etc. But now on the fourth Wednesday of the month we just come and chill. We hang out and talk, play games, relax. In short, we spend time being together. I don’t feel any necessity to entertain people during this time. Instead, I talk with students, joke, laugh, relax, play games, listen to music, run around, and otherwise have fun. Last night, because of a couple (unrelated) program snafus, we ended up with a much larger amount of time to hang out. I don’t think anyone minded. In fact, it may have been just what the doctor ordered for some of our overstressed students (and adult volunteers!).

Fun is a necessary part of being human, and it therefore ought to be a necessary part of being the Church. But it is only our modern, consumerist culture which has equated fun with entertainment. Our students need time to be together; time to be with God; time to get to know each other and the adults in our ministries. But this doesn’t mean that every second of that time needs to be programmed to keep students entertained. We need to think differently. We need to be careful that we don’t teach students that life is about feeding whatever entertainment craze is currently in vogue. We need to teach them that Sabbath and simplicity are deeply biblical concepts that have huge application to our own lives.

Here’s the hard part: we have to find ways to do this, even when our students are convinced that what they most need is another thing to entertain them. I’ll let you know when I’ve figured that out.

Correcting some misconceptions

As I’ve talked with more and more people about attractional youth ministry and my own reasons for striving to find a different–better–way of doing ministry with students I’ve realized something. When I say I don’t like attractional youth ministry, or I have misgivings about it, or I’m concerned that it puts the focus on the wrong things what people tend to hear is, “I don’t want fun.”

This is actually furthest from the case. Fun–whatever form that takes–is a vital part of a healthy church, and a healthy youth ministry. Sure, if the only thing we ever do is “fun,” and we never do Bible study, or prayer or service then we’re missing the fullness of things (I should be quick to note that all of those things can and should be “fun,”). The problem isn’t with having fun, the problem is with replacing Jesus and his kingdom with fun.

One of the most successful youth ministries I have ever been a part of spent huge amounts of time being together, hanging out, talking, playing games, walking around town, going to a family’s cabin, playing games, going out to eat, going to movies, and playing games. These kinds of “social” times weren’t merely fun for us, but they allowed us to build trust with one another and enter into shared life–what we might call, community–on a very regular basis. The point of this stuff, however, was not to attract new students to the ministry. The point was for the Body of Christ to live life together.

As I told a student recently, regardless of how they might feel, the last thing their friend wants or needs is more fun. What their friend needs and wants (even if they aren’t at a place to articulate this yet) is something that goes beyond a culture that demands we be concerned with getting ahead. Jesus offers that. We need to stop being embarrassed by the counter-cultural nature of Jesus. At the same time, this isn’t to say that one should never spend time simply hanging out and being together. That is as much a part of enacting Jesus’ mission on earth as studying the Bible, praying or building homes; in our over-stressed and over-worked society, time to simply relax and be together is a vital spiritual practice.

Reading the Bible

So, Marko and the Youth Cartel have partnered with Biblica to produce CBEmini. You can get the scoop here.

I’m intrigued by the concept. I love the idea of removing chapter and verse numbers and allowing students to read the Bible without those helps distracting them and proving very unhelpful. One of the reasons I like Robert Alter’s translation of the David Story is because the verse numbers hang out on the sides and don’t distract nearly as much from just reading the text. The idea of reading in community is also something that I can get excited about with this resource. It’s worth checking out.

At the same time, however, it always makes me nervous when we try to get students reading the Bible and we start with the New Testament. I know, I know, we always want to get to Jesus. But that’s like reading the Lord of the Rings and starting with the Battle of the Pelennor fields. You really have no idea what is going on, but wow it’s exciting. I’d be far more excited about CBEmini if they were starting in the Old Testament. I know it’s supposed to be a short 9-day study, so–of course–we want them to get Jesus, right? I’m not so sure that’s the best idea and I’m almost certain that it isn’t the way to help students engage deeply with Scripture.

I’m not saying CBEmini is a detrimental thing. Far from it. It probably fills a niche. But the gaping hole, as I see it, is still that we aren’t helping student process the full story of Scripture and, in all honesty, we probably don’t know the story all that well ourselves. Still, I’d love to see more resources like this, and perhaps a year-long plan like CBEmini that started students in Genesis. Any publishers interested in doing something like that? I’d be happy to consult on laying it out. Seriously.

Encouragement

This has been one of the most encouraging thoughts on youth ministry I have read recently. The idea that in ministry we sometimes just keep plugging away is an important one to be reminded about. I was recently talking with a number of staff people from my church and we were discussing how ministry is often tough. You often end up feeling like you aren’t really accomplishing much. Our encouragement came from Isaiah 49.4, knowing that even the servant/Deutero-Isaiah/whoever feels that he has labored in vain. Ironically, God’s response appears to be to give a larger mission to the servant. Be that as it may, it’s encouraging to know that people who have ministered to others throughout history have also struggled with the seemingly impossible task before them.