On the Importance of Challenge

I remember sitting at a conference once when a prominent youth ministry professor went off on our propensity in youth ministry to want to “challenge” students. His argument was essentially that students are stressed enough. The last thing they need is us adding another expectation to their plate. It’s a good caution, but I ultimately disagreed with this youth ministry luminary.

On the other hand, I have encountered a number of youth workers over the past several years who seem to want to go to the other extreme. For them, we must constantly challenge students. Unfortunately, that challenge typically takes one form: learn more theology…or perhaps better, learn my theology.

I’d like to maintain challenge as an important element of ministry–indeed, an important element in our lives. However, I think that we need to be careful that, as we challenge folks to greater faith, we don’t make the mistake of challenging them to be more like us. The Christian life is about becoming more like Jesus. It is not about becoming more like me, or the other Calvin, or a favored pastor, teacher, or theologian.

When we are not challenged in life, we tend to sit still. We reach a certain equilibrium and we stop moving, growing, changing (I am overstating here, since we still change, just normally not toward anything helpful). We need for folks to challenge us, to encourage us to change and grow. In my own life I have often been most thankful for those people who challenge me to think differently, or to consider something from a different angle, or to make some change. Iron sharpens iron.

At the same time, when we talk about challenge in youth ministry we must be especially careful because, as adults who care for students, we wield a great deal of influence in their lives. When we challenge a student to do something, we can often end up adding a great deal of stress to that student’s life as they try to add our expectation on top of the many they are already juggling. Challenge is important, but it is also powerful, and so we have to think about it in those sorts of terms. Very rarely in my life does something declare “You must do X!” and receive a positive response. I don’t need more expectations! On the other hand, those closest to me often encourage me to process something in a new way, or to try something I haven’t, or to devote more energy to a particular area of my life.

Too often I think that in the church we can become hesitant to challenge folks. We are nervous that if we talk about something like our enslavement to a consumerist culture, that people will become upset and leave. We worry that we must not expect too much of our people, or else they may leave their seats. Yet it is part of our job as a community to challenge one another. Certainly as followers of Jesus it is proper for us to–within relationships–process with one another our own enslavement to a culture that demeans life, seeks to make people less than they are, elevates violence and the rights of one nation against others, and a whole host of other vices. When we fail to challenge one another, we often sit thinking that we are in the right and can comfortably rest in our own righteousness.

There are students in my ministry who need to be challenge in a variety of ways. Some need to take more seriously their faith. Some need to worry less about acquiring knowledge and more about reflecting on and contemplating what they have already acquired. Some need to pray more, others need to read Scripture more. Some need to be more humble. Most of them need to be more loving and accepting of people who are not like them. They need challenged. They need to know that Jesus calls them to be more like him in the fullest sense possible.

So challenge is vital. But challenge must occur within relationships and as adults speaking into the lives of students we must always be careful that we are allowing the Holy Spirit to challenge and transform students into Jesus’ image, as opposed to into our own.

Calvinism and Pantheism

Wesley Walker has a guest post over at Scot McKnight’s blog where he takes aim at Calvinism. While I think the post is interesting and helpfully points out some of the strong problems with Calvinist thought, it probably goes too far. Ultimately there are problems with a strongly Reformed theology of sovereignty because it essentially makes God the author of evil–which is problematic to say the least. At the same time, however, there is as much variation within “Calvinism” as within any other theological camp. Plenty of Calvinists do not follow the theology to it’s logical (reductio ad absurdum?) and final conclusion. Thankfully.

At the least, you get some controversy for your new year.

The Bible as God

“But when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” 1 Corinthians 13.10

Over the past month I’ve been reflecting on how very often Christians become obsessed with the Bible. You would think, as a pastor and someone with two Masters degrees in Biblical exegesis that I would be thrilled with such a development. But I’m not. Because what I’ve noticed is that people who become obsessed with the Bible tend to elevate Scripture and learning what it says (and thus, in their estimation, acquiring “correct doctrine”) above an encounter with Jesus. This is seen in many small ways. For instance, the verse quoted above. In my younger days I attended churches that were strictly against sign gifts. I often heard 1 Corinthians 13.10 quoted as meaning when Scripture (i.e., “the perfect”) was completed, then there would be no more need for tongues and prophecy and so they would cease. The problem, of course, is that in no way is that what the context means. When we encounter Jesus, then our partial knowledge will be done away. When the kingdom arrives, our partial embodiment of it will pass away. The Bible? No where within Scripture is Scripture given such beatific language.

Or take another example: “you just need to stay in the word of God!” By which folks mean, read Scripture a lot. Now, reading and memorizing Scripture is an important practice for the Christian life. But, when the New Testament talks about the word of God it almost always refers to Jesus. Even, arguably, in Hebrews 4.12 “word of God” refers not to the Old Testament (remembering that for the early Christians no New Testament Scriptures existed) but to Jesus himself.

When I talk to folks about spiritual formation, the conversation often turns to Bible study. “Oh, I’m trying to read my Bible more,” or “I don’t know if I understand this passage fully,” or “But what does the Bible say about this?” None of these statements are wrong, per se. The problem is when these statements take over for following Jesus. Spiritual formation is not chiefly about learning more doctrine or diving deeper into Scripture. Spiritual formation is about yielding our lives to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this means learning more from Scripture so we encounter Jesus or understand more about God. Sometimes it means learning to see God not only in Scripture but in creation. Sometimes it means yielding our busy lives to more prayer, silence, solitude, and contemplation. Sometimes it means realizing that Scripture is about connecting you with God, not teaching you what to believe. If you are trying to grow in your Christian walk, but all you do is study the Bible and you never pray, or journal, or paint, or sit outside in nature, or talk with Christians who don’t think like you about what you read, or read the Bible in ways other than for Bible study (devotionally, lectio divina, as part of an ignatian examen, or some other way), then you are doing it wrong.

One time, when Mandy and I were visiting a church, the service included a hymn which was addressed to the Bible and essentially praised its various traits. There is no other way to say this: such is idolatry. The Bible is not the perfect thing. The Bible is not the end. The Bible is merely a means to understanding and encountering God and continuing to tell the story of how he interacts with humans–with all the complications, difficulties, and joys that entails.

What’s it all about?

For those who have followed this blog for years or who know me personally, it comes as no surprise that I’m always thinking. Whether I’m pondering the wonders of the latest Brandon Sanderson novel or reflecting on some aspect of theology or parsing Hebrew verbs or considering some aspect of youth ministry I’m constantly thinking. It’s the last one in that list that I’ve been processing over the past couple of months. In my role as a youth pastor I have occasion to discuss youth ministry with folks from all sorts of different backgrounds and perspectives: parents, other staff, youth leaders, teens, other youth pastors and ministry leaders and a host of others. I also read a great deal about youth ministry. I find it helps me to constantly be sharpening myself through reading and processing other folks’ thoughts on youth ministry (or ministry and theology generally). Recently my thinking on youth ministry has focused on the widely differing perspectives various people have on why we have youth ministries in churches. What are we trying to accomplish? What is the point of youth ministry? In short, what’s it all about?

One explanation I often hear–or at least hear implied–is that we have youth ministries because we want students to be safe. For conservatives, this means attracting students to ministries so that they hear the gospel and become Christians (which is variously defined, but normally involves saying a prayer). For mainliners the goal isn’t so much for students to say a prayer but for them to become involved in the denomination. In both cases, part of the goal is that students would be at youth group rather than at other, more worldly entertainments. Success is measured by how many students came and whether or not they had a good time. On another level, success may include not just how many students came, but how many of those students are now leading moral lives (variously defined, but normally meaning no drugs, sex, or alcohol)

A second explanation I often hear flows out of this first one. Folks see the drawbacks of an attractional approach. They are nervous about making success about numbers and fun. These people rightly feel like students want more than some cool games and a chance to hang out. So, they think youth ministry must be about helping students acquire a deeper knowledge of the Bible and theology. The method becomes intense Bible study, or having students read Piper, Wright, or Tillich depending on one’s theological persuasion. A youth ministry is successful when students can reproduce information. When they can pass the test. In short: orthodoxy (however a particular church or group defines it) becomes the goal. Yet too often this way of looking at youth ministry runs the risk of elevating the Bible and theology to the place of gods. We teach our students the Bible as an end, rather than as a means to encountering Christ.

These are the two largest camps. Though there is a third that argues that because of the dismal track record of youth ministry in producing lifelong faith we should abandon the whole enterprise because, by nature, youth ministry subverts the role of parents and the wider church in discipleship. While this group has some helpful critiques to offer, I think they are trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In truth, I think each of the approaches above misses some important facets of youth ministry. So, where do we go? If youth ministry isn’t about packing teens in the building, and it isn’t about teaching them theology or the creeds, but we don’t want to get rid of youth ministry, then what is left? A book–books!–could be written answering that question, and there are no shortage of just such books. I find a great deal of what has been written recently very helpful though.

Youth ministry is not chiefly about getting students to attend our programs, believe our doctrine, repeat our creeds, or love our pet theologians. There may be appropriate times in youth ministry to have a program, to engage with the creeds, to challenge students to greater knowledge of the God we claim to serve, but none of those are the point. The point of youth ministry is the point of all ministry: to join as a community in what God is doing in the world. That is, youth ministry has a necessarily missional shape (as does all ministry). But it also has a communal, or relational shape. But we must always keep in mind that relationships are not a means to an end, but rather an end in and of themselves. We encounter God as we encounter other image-bearers. When I sit down with a teen (or with anyone!) it is not for the purpose of teaching them correct doctrine, or keeping them entertained so I can slip in a Gospel presentation or trick them into being a part of my denomination. When I sit down with another person it is to be with that person as Jesus is with me. And in that relationship the Holy Spirit is at work and makes things happen.

Certainly, I want students to know Jesus as revealed in Scripture more. I think the ancient creeds are a wonderful way of encountering God. I think Christian practices shape us in some amazing ways. Learning to reflect theologically is essential to the Christian life. But none of those things is the Christian life. Simply put, the Christian life is following Jesus within the community he has setup.

In short, youth ministry is not about what we can cause students to become or what we can teach them or how we can shape their behavior. Youth ministry is about encountering the Holy Spirit in the midst of our relationships with one another and–together–working out our faith in Jesus.

When Kids Hurt by Chap Clark and Steve Rabey

When Kids Hurt is excellent. If you’ve read Chap’s book Hurt or Hurt 2.0 you won’t necessarily find anything new. All the research is still the same, and even where it is updated it is largely the same: the shared experience of adolescence is hurt, pain, abandonment. I loved Hurt when I read it, and I like When Kids Hurt even more. The reason I like this book more than the original (if you will) is that the tone of this book is different. When many folks read Hurt they came away feeling discouraged. They had had their eyes opened to the pain of adolescents but they didn’t know the way forward. The criticism has been heard loud and clear by Chap and Steve, and so When Kids Hurt not only has a very different tone throughout the entire book which I think will help folks greatly, it also includes a great chapter on what adults can do to help adolescents. Spoiler warning: it involves authentic relationships. In fact, this final chapter really makes the book as far as I am concerned. I’d highly recommend this to anyone doing youth ministry.

I’ve been in youth ministry for more than a decade now, and my experiences line up exactly with what Chap describes in his book. Adolescents share a deep experience of systemic abandonment. They hurt. Sometimes they find ways to hide their hurt from their parents, from their friends, even from themselves. Some think that if they can just purchase the next song, the next video game, the next outfit, the next pair of shoes, the next car, the next phone, the next hit, everything will be OK. Others acknowledge their pain, loss, and suffering but only to a select group. As adults it’s sometimes too easy to think that our kids are “good kids” (by which we mean they get good grades, don’t do drugs(at least that we know about), don’t get into trouble, and are generally rule-abiding young citizens). It may be true that our kids are good kids, but that doesn’t insulate them from a society that abandons them to a ferocious, broken world.

As much as this post serves as an endorsement of Clark and Rabey’s book, it serves as more of an endorsement to be there for students. As Jesus stands with and for each of us in our own suffering, let us stand with and for young people in the midst of their pain and abandonment. Pick up a copy of When Kids Hurt, read it, and don’t be discouraged but act on it, providing an authentic presence in the midst of the lives of the adolescents around you.

New Theme

You’ll notice that I’ve updated the blog theme from that ancient layout that was heavy on black and grey. We’ll see how everyone likes this one.

I’ve several book reviews and a few other thoughts I’d like to get up on the blog, but time is at a premium. That’s my polite way of saying it probably isn’t going to happen. Who knows though? Anything I possible, I suppose.

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.