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.

Students Leaving the Church

That students tend to leave the Church when the graduate high school is no secret. It’s recently made it’s way into the GOP primary field. Tim King is right that the fact that college students walk away from the faith has nothing to do with colleges. However, I still think Tim misses the point.

He argues that the reason many college students leave the faith isn’t because of what they’re taught in college, but because of the hypocrisy they see among Christians. Yes, hypocrisy turns people off to the church. Yes, hypocrisy is painful. But it also tends to be the favorite gripe of those of us who have felt it’s sting. In the end, however, hypocrisy is only part of the reason students walk away from the Christian faith. There is now plenty of data out there which suggest that the problem is more broad than simply hypocrisy.

So, in addition to hypocrisy, it would have been nice to see Tim discuss the following in his op ed:

1. Parents – Now, he almost touches on this with his comments on hypocrisy. But he still misses the bull’s eye. Yes, sometimes parents are hypocrits, but not always of the type Tim imagines. Instead, sometimes parents simply don’t model a robust faith. They model of faith that is comfortable and sterile, and their children simply inherit the same faith that they see their parents enacting. If we want to see fewer students leaving the church, than we need to help parents develop their own faith at much deeper levels.

2. Youth Ministry – Lest I be too hard on parents, I actually think a greater part of the blame lies with youth ministries (and churches, generally). We have not helped to disciple parents and we’ve given students exactly what they (sometimes, sorta) ask for: a faith that is comfortable, but not one that’s worth anything. Because many of us are either A) young and naive or B) worried about numbers and our jobs or C) woefully untrained, we end up running youth ministries which do a great job of keeping kids away from drugs, sex and alcohol, but a pitiful job of forming life-long disciples. We separate students into a age-specific ghetto in the name of giving them something that will connect with them, but in the end we simply end up cutting them off from the life-giving Body of Christ, no matter how broken and deformed that Body might be.

3. Questions – Going right along with #2 above, in my experience (and here we leave what is fairly well established by surveys and move into more conjectural and anecdotal territory), a contributing factor to students leaving the faith is that they haven’t been deeply challenged and taught. We tend to teach students within a narrow theological framework (either denominationally, or in terms of assumptions about what a good Christian does). So, we teach students they can’t question God (because, I guess, we’ve never read about Moses, or the Psalms, or Job). But when bad stuff happens, what do we expect them to do, remain silent? Or we teach them a narrow interpretation of a passage, for instance, that one must believe in a six literal day creation to be a good Christian. When students realize they don’t know if they can do that, they figure they must have to stop being a Christian. Or we teach them a particular theological point as a litmus test, for instance, God’s sovereignty, and when they aren’t quite sure if they can believe it like we’ve explained it, they figure they have to walk away from the faith, rather than turn to other traditions within the faith.

We could talk about several other factors that often contribute to students walking away from the faith, but I think I’ve made my point: we can’t limit it merely to hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is sometimes an issue. Sometimes it’s questions students have about faith. Often they’ve never had a robust, passionate faith modelled for them, and perhaps even more often they’ve had a shallow youth ministry that–inadvertently–did everything possible to make sure they weren’t connected with the larger Body.

So, this discussion obviously braves the question: what do we do about it? On the one hand, the problems seem insurmountable. But, on the other, we can tackle one thing at a time. There are many in the youth ministry would that are realizing these issues and thinking of ways to address them. To say it’ll be an uphill battle is probably an understatement, but at least it’s a place to start.

More on fun…

Early today I mentioned the importance of fun in youth ministry. I mentioned that we don’t need to focus on programming every moment. We don’t need to entertain students, we just need to be together. This evening I came across this article. It is well worth reading, but one quote in particular stood out:

That led to an obsession with their children’s safety in every aspect of their lives. Instead of letting them go outside to play, parents filled their kid’s spare time with organized activities, did their homework for them, resolved their conflicts at school with both friends and teachers, and handed out trophies for just showing up.

This gets very close to what I was talking about earlier. We have a tendency to think we have to hyper-schedule our youth events. I’ve actually had it suggested to me in the past that if we don’t have every moment of an event scheduled, students will just get into trouble. But that is the opposite of what we need to do (see my comments on our Fall Retreat for middle school students). Instead, as I mentioned earlier, we need to model Sabbath and simplicity to and with our students. There really is a way to live that is different than the surrounding culture and more like Jesus.

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.

Youth Ministry and Family Ministry

So, Adam Mclane is at it again. He can’t help being provocative. What may surprise you is that I agree with the main thrust of his argument. Allow me to explain.

Adam is absolutely right that if we want to do youth ministry well we need to have a realistic integration strategy at all levels. It’s not only the youth ministries job to be part of the larger whole, it’s also the larger whole’s job to have a space within itself for youth. If we simply try to pull youth ministry into the larger church and make it nice and tidy we haven’t done youth ministry any favors, and we certainly haven’t done the church any favors.

Ministry–to any group of people–is messy. It isn’t about being tidy. It isn’t about making things clear or acceptable. Quite the opposite. It’s about helping others. It’s about, as Adam puts it, helping all the wrong kinds of people. This is what Jesus did and this is what his Body ought to do.

Let me hasten to add that I would actually nuance things quite differently from Adam. I think he sees that the larger church is often not doing the work of helping the wrong kinds of people. At the same time, he sees youth ministries genuinely trying to do that (or, at least, sees that as the historical purpose of youth ministry). His solution is that maybe youth ministry needs left alone to do its thing. He’s wrong there. The solution is to alter our churches–which includes radically altering our youth ministries–if we’re to reach people. As I’ve pointed out time and again, our youth ministries haven’t been doing a great job of reaching people, at least on the whole. We’ve certainly gotten the wrong type of people into the church building, but they are quick to leave it as soon as they graduate high school.

This is why on the one hand youth ministry cannot continue as it has for the past thirty or more years. We have to change. At the same time, becoming a sanitized part of the family ministry isn’t the right answer either. Adam is right, if we’re just doing family retreats, and everything is about family, then how are we going to minister to youth without traditional families (obviously, children with only one parent come to mind, but what about first generation immigrant children, whose idea of family is much larger than our own idea of nuclear family)? I’m not saying there is anything wrong with doing a family retreat, but we have to full process our strategies.

No, the answer–I think–is to fully integrate the entire church. We will always need a youth ministry that reaches students where they are at. But our youth ministry also needs to disciple students, and part of that means introducing them to the larger church. This introduction can’t be the out hanger in our ministries either. Arguably, introducing someone to Jesus involves introducing them to his people here on earth, and that includes more than just adolescents playing games and hearing an inspirational devotion. Our students need a fully integrated youth ministry that helps them know they are part of a huge family that cares and loves them, and our churches need to be fully integrated so that students can help them to realize that ministry isn’t tidy and it isn’t easy.

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.