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.

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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.

The Bible and Youth Ministry

Somehow (YouthWorker.com’s twitter feed?) I stumbled across this article the other day. Now, it comes as no surprise to me that more than half of graduating students wish they had had more Bible in their youth ministry years. My own experience has been that students desire greater depth, even when it doesn’t seem like they do.

However, I’d like to push back a little on Barry’s proposed solutions. Essentially his solution to this dilemma is to start teaching the Bible more, and specifically helping our students to understand and apply it to their lives. That’s an excellent goal, and something we surely need to be more concerned with in youth ministry. However, I think the actual problem is deeper.

Let’s take a step back. Students want more Bible. Awesome. But we need to first ask why they aren’t currently getting enough. Then we can worry about how to correct the lack. I’d suggest that we don’t help our students engage Scripture thoroughly enough for two reasons.

First, in many youth ministries, the idea of teaching the Bible in any depth is reserved for the truly committed students. The rest, we assume, don’t actually want to learn about God. We’re just happy they come for the entertainment. So, we need to adjust our philosophy. If our philosophy of youth ministry is to attract a ton of students with games, video, lights, lasers, pizza, t-shirts, electronic dance floors and cupcakes we probably aren’t going to have the time or energy to help guide them toward a serious engagement with Scripture (or, ya know, God). I’ve blogged elsewhere about attractional youth ministry, so I won’t further belabor the point here.

The second reason I’d suggest students in youth ministries don’t engage Scripture as deeply as they might like is that we–as youth workers–don’t engage it as deeply as we should (I’d actually propose a third reason, which is that sometimes students only realize they wanted more Scripture in retrospect, thus they don’t take advantage of the opportunities they do have, but that’s more an issue of statistics and the limits of self-reporting). We don’t know Scripture that well ourselves, and so the idea that we might actually delve deeply into it can be disconcerting. I know I’ve probably beaten this horse to death already, but youth pastors ought to have a strong education in Bible. If we don’t know the Story, there is no way we can help our students to know God’s story.

I realize that the idea of formally studying Bible is all good for those who are just now entering the field, but somewhat harder for those of us who already have our degrees and are doing youth ministry. To those of you who are deciding what to study in college, let me plead with you: study Bible. At least minor in it. Even better, major in biblical studies or theology and minor in youth ministry. Then go to seminary. For those of us who are already past that stage, let me plead with you: study the Bible. Buy good commentaries and consult them regularly as you prepare lessons. Read through the Bible, and then do so again. Read scholars, not only other pastors. Push yourselves, don’t simply remain comfortable. Learn to use tools like Logos or Accordance. Devote substantial amounts of time to studying. Take a class on the Bible at a seminary, especially if your church provides you with money for continuing education. Do anything realistically possible to give yourself a better grasp of Scripture.

I know all of this takes time. I know we are already short on time. But maybe that gets back to my first point, we need to change the philosophy that governs our ministries. If we don’t have time to devote ourselves to prayer and studying Scripture, maybe we’re missing the point of ministry. If we want to help students delve deeply into Scripture than we need to delve deeply into Scripture for ourselves. We can’t teach what we don’t know.

Once we’ve confronted our own philosophy of ministry and our own study of Scripture, then it will be time to actually teach students the Bible. The statistics don’t lie, students want to learn the Bible. They want to confront the difficult questions. As the ones who serve as spiritual mentors and guides to students, we ought to be prepared to help them do exactly that.

Help, I’m a youth worker!

Since I’ve started blogging more regularly again, I’ve had a few requests from those who find themselves doing youth ministry in the church but who have little or no training. They’ve asked a variety of questions, but often a question they have is how to get a better handle on youth ministry without heading off to get a degree in the subject.

Ideally, if someone is a full-time youth worker, they’d have some type of formal education in Bible, practical theology, counseling, and programming. But our world isn’t an ideal place. There are also a large number of people who simply love students and volunteer in the youth ministry at their local church. For people in that situation there are a number of options. Some great conferences and training opportunities are around, and I’d highly recommend many of them.

For today, however, I’ll simply list five must-read books for anyone who wants to do youth ministry. This is probably the height of hubris since plenty of other bloggers have far more experience than I do. Nevertheless, what’s the point of blogging if not putting your own two cents out there?

Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli – This book really should end up on nearly anyone’s list. Mark proposes a way of doing youth ministry that values downtime instead of activity, prayer instead of entertainment, Scripture instead of our pet peeves; in short Jesus and his way of life over our own culture and the empire of this world. I constantly revisit this book, not because I agree with everything in it, but because it always helps me to reevaluate how I am doing ministry. It encourages me that, if I’m going to help my students encounter God, I need to be encountering him myself.

Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean – If you know me, it’s really no surprise this book is on here. It might be a surprise that I didn’t list it first. Kenda’s book brings together a variety of statistics and seeks to answer the question “Why?” in an accessible manner. It does all of this and more. It is a challenge not only to youth workers, but to parents, senior pastors, church boards, and–really–Christians. Our students are almost, but not quite, Christian because we are almost Christian. Perhaps the best aspect of this book is that, although Kenda recognizes the enormity of the problem, she manages to hold out hope that change is possible.

Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry by Andrew Root – This is perhaps the most theologically nuanced youth ministry book I’ve ever read. Trying to summarize even a part of what’s discussed is probably impossible. This book has challenged me, encouraged me, and caused me to revisit (!) how I think about relationships in ministry. In truth, this book would probably be beneficial for senior pastors and other ministry workers to read. Simply put, this is a must read.

Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns – Hardly a youth ministry book, this makes my list because it is a huge help in answering some tough questions about the Old Testament. Pete helps explain why the Bible has theological diversity, why we get different accounts of the same event, and how we can reconcile all of that with a high view of Scripture. If you already have some experience in biblical studies or theology, I’d encourage you to pass this by in favor of Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words. But for the uninitiated, Enns’ short book really is a huge help.

The Bible – No, I’m not cheating, and I’m not trying to be cliche either. Too few of us have actually read the Bible. I don’t mean cover to cover in one of those Bible-in-a-year reading plans. I mean actually read through the stories, digested them, thought about them, and learned from them. Do we understand how the prophets fit in with the deuteronomistic history? Do we get the cycle of sin-judgement-repentence throughout the book of Judges? Do we recognize that David is introduced twice in two mutually exclusive accounts in 1 Samuel? Have we wrestled with this book that we want to teach to students? If we haven’t, we need to. Wrestling with Scripture will help us be better youth ministers than any other book. I’m going to cheat and, in conjunction with this, encourage you to read Shaped by the Story by Michael Novelli. Michael’s book helps us learn how to help students understand and enter God’s story. But it’s certainly no replacement for actually wrestling with that story ourselves.

Honorable Mention: Middle School Ministry by Mark Oestreicher and Scott Rubin – If you’re working with middle school students specifically, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s pretty much one of a kind, and is jam packed with helpful information for those of us who minister to and with middle school students.

One final note, there are so many other books that would be helpful for those working with students. This is really just a place to start. I also need to mention that it’s always possible I might change my mind. I might read a book next week that I think just has to go on this list. That’s the beauty of the Internet, I can always come back and update my list. In the meantime, happy reading.

Being Shaped

One thing that has always fascinated–or, more honestly, frustrated–me about youth ministry is picking a curriculum. In fact, I’m normally so frustrated by the process that I simply design my own. This isn’t overly efficient, however, especially when I am not the one solely responsible for teaching. Teaching is a hugely important part of ministry, and what and how we teach is a vital aspect of how we do ministry.

In youth ministry, I want my students to be shaped by the Bible. I want them to discover this amazing story of which they are a part. I want them to own that story, and I want them to get to know the God who is revealed in that story. The problem with this is that sometimes the story is messy. Sometimes we don’t understand the God who is revealed in it. Perhaps worst of all, for a society that thrives on instant gratification, it is often difficult to see how we are being shaped by this story until we look back from a vantage point miles down the road.

So, it is no surprise that most curricula–and, indeed, many youth pastors–throw out the story in favor of topics. We know students want something relevant so we teach about sex and dating. Maybe we feel that our students need to learn more about service, so we teach on service. We determine what our students need and then we fish around our holy book and find what we think best meets that need. This is the worst possible way for our students to be shaped by the story of God. In doing this, we forget that if we teach the story as a story, we’ll get to all those parts eventually anyway. What’s more, all those parts will make infinitely more sense and fit into a larger whole.

I had a professor in seminary who argued constantly and persuasively against topical teaching and preaching. His argument was very simple: if you preach topically, no matter what you do, you will always spend most of the time on your own soapboxes. Instead, he encouraged students to teach or preach through whole books of the Bible. That’s a step in the right direction, though I think we need to go a step further still. I’d like to suggest that as youth workers we need to leave aside our precious topics, turn from our idol of relevancy, and teach the story.

If we want the story to shape us and our students, then they need to know what that story is. Not what disparate parts of that story say on an assorted range of topics, but the story itself. The best way to do this is to start in Genesis and continue until we get to Revelation. I’m not proposing that the canonical order is the best order to teach in, but it would–more or less–communicate the story. It would certainly communicate it better than we generally do. Sadly, even some curricula that are supposed to do exactly this jump from one big ticket Bible story to the next, leaving the story feeling disconnected at best and impossible to follow at worst. Even if we don’t go through every single book in the Bible, we ought to move through the Pentateuch, former prophets, some of the writings, the gospels, Acts, some of the epistles and Revelation; and we ought to move through them without skipping huge chunks just because we find them odd or irrelevant (I will except here the census data in various books, as well as the legal codes–those are all important, but it’s a fight I know I won’t win).

This is all good in theory, but it presents two difficulties in practice. The first is how we manage it programmatically. The Bible is a rather large book, after all. How do we realistically create a space in our youth ministries to teach it as a story, from beginning to end? I have always found it helpful to devote one of my main teaching programs to going through the Bible. Normally this is our Sunday morning program, but it could work just as well at a midweek small group or a Sunday evening large group gathering. The point isn’t the venue as much as that we actually work our way through the story. At the same time, I also understand that sometimes our students really do need a topic addressed with some immediacy. Most youth ministries have at least two teaching times a week, whether one is large group and the other small group, or one is “Sunday school” and the other “youth group.” The point is that in my experience, I’ve found it helpful to devote one of these times to helping students learn the story, while allowing the other time to be more topical, or to touch on sections I might not touch on in the other (such as the Psalms, or the wisdom literature).

The second problem is that, sadly, many of us aren’t familiar enough with the story to actually facilitate others. I’ve met youth pastors who wouldn’t even begin to know who Joab or Jael were, let alone Ahitophel or Athaliah. This creates an issue: if we aren’t familiar with the story ourselves, we can hardly tell it to others. We might even think that some of those stories in the Hebrew Bible aren’t actually that important. After all, we’re Christians, and we follow Jesus. Let’s get to those parables, because those are stories, but they really touch on some great topics! The problem is that Jesus shows up toward the end of the story. He’s the plot twist, as it were, the big moment. Without him, the story unravels. But we still have to get there first. Those stories in the Hebrew Bible teach us a great many things about God, about human beings, and about how the one relates to the other. In short, they teach us who God is and who we are as humans and as his people. We need those stories, now as much as ever.

As youth workers we need to do the hard work of learning the story ourselves so that we can tell it to others. It won’t be easy. But most of us have already realized that being a Christian isn’t supposed to be easy, and being a youth worker even less so. If we want our students to be shaped by the story of God, we need to start sharing the story with them, from beginning to end. We need to avoid splitting it into easy bits or proof texts, but allow them to experience it whole and uncensored. That might require us to do some hard work ourselves, but it’s worth it. After all, this story is our story and without it we miss part of what it means to be us.

MERGE

If you are a youth worker and you take your students on summer trips to conferences or retreats, then you need to consider MERGE. I am somewhat skeptical of many summer trips for youth ministries. I think they can be very manipulative. They also, in my experience, tend to make big promises and fail to deliver. MERGE isn’t like that.

We took a fair number of our high school students to Grand Rapids this past July to attend MERGE. The drive was long, but it was entirely worth it. I could spend hours talking to you about all the wonderful aspects of MERGE. But I’ll stop myself at outlining what a typical day looked like, and then listing a few of the reasons MERGE is, hands down, the best conference for students I have ever attended–as a leader or as a student.

Each of our days began with breakfast. Pretty standard for a conference, right? Except that at MERGE all of the leaders, from various groups, gathered for breakfast together with the event organizers. We talked about how the previous day had gone, how our students had been impacted, what seemed to connect and what didn’t and any concerns we had. Then we spent a few minutes talking about what the current day was going to look like. After breakfast we headed to our story gathering, which consisted of a retelling of a core story from the Bible (Creation, the Fall, Jesus, the Church, etc). After the story gathering we would break into smaller(ish) groups (but youth groups stayed together in the same group) and spend time discussing the stories and what God had revealed to us, about the story, ourselves, the world, etc. I heard some of my students share amazingly profound thoughts during this time. Were some of them trying to share something they thought we’d approve of? Absolutely. But on the whole I believe these times were filled with authentic sharing. As leaders, we were constantly encouraged to enter the stories ourselves and participate in these discussions as participants, not as teachers. This was one of the most refreshing aspects of MERGE because I was freed to grow with my students. The benefit to them and to me simply can’t be overstated.

After this gathering time we’d head to noon prayers, then to lunch and then to an afternoon experience that reinforced or otherwise intersected with the story. One day we walked around outside, recreating the wilderness wandering of the Israelites. Another day we walked through the “Journey to the Cross,” an experience which included various interactive aspects in the broad tradition of the stations of the cross (though reimagined). During still another experience we all participated in a Messianic Seder. This led into some free time and then dinner.

Following dinner we would gather together once again for a time where we responded to God. We (students and leaders alike) were encouraged to use art to respond to what God was doing in us, or to write a poem, journal our thoughts, spend time at a body prayer station, write a letter to God, or participate in other ways. Some of the students from our group wrote a rap, while others produced some very touching pieces of art, sculpture, poetry, or other personal pieces. After this gathering we had time to be together as church groups or relax before heading to bed.

That gives you an idea of what MERGE was like. Now let me share why MERGE is unlike any other conference I’ve ever been to or heard of for students.

1. MERGE asks leaders to participate. At too many conferences the staff essentially want me and the other adults from our group to chaperone our students and talk with them after the evening meeting, but otherwise leave them in the hands of the event staff. At MERGE we were encouraged to participate in all areas of the experience. Yes, we were there to supervise and care for our students, but in a very pastoral manner. I don’t think any of the leaders from our group, or any of the other groups, left without being changed ourselves.

2. MERGE focuses on the Story. I’ve never been to a conference that has such an intense focus on the story of God. That isn’t to say that other conferences don’t have entertaining or engaging speakers. They do. But they often focus on a theme or topic, as opposed to helping students encounter the Bible in a new and fresh way. MERGE is entirely about helping students to take a fresh look at the story of God and, whats more, MERGE encourages students to realize that the Christian faith is about how our lives merge with the story of God, today.

3. MERGE is fun without being all about entertainment. The organizers of MERGE know that students want to have a good time. But, from my observation, they also understand that the story of God is the most exciting story ever written. They aren’t there to entertain students for a week, but to help those students experience God and his story in fresh ways.

4. MERGE isn’t about the emotion. Too often I’ve seen emotion used to manipulate students into making a decision that lasts for a couple days, or a few weeks, at most. MERGE isn’t about manipulating students. It’s not about calling for a decision in an emotionally charged service. There were elements of MERGE that were very emotional. I saw my students shed tears and even shed a few of my own. But the point wasn’t the emotion, and the emotion wasn’t used to call for false decisions.

5. MERGE calls students to participate in the story. Bearing in mind #4 above, MERGE still calls students to change their lives and the world. The final experience on the final day included a time to brainstorm with your group about ways we could join in the mission of God throughout our communities and the world. This caused us to think, a lot. I know it challenged some of the students in our group to think seriously about their goals in life. The thing is, it wasn’t a one night episode. Some of my students are still, two months later, processing through those questions. They haven’t yet completely made a decision, or they have made smaller decisions that lead on a particular trajectory. This is what I want to see after a retreat.

MERGE is amazing, but it isn’t a cure all. Just like any summer trip, it is highly dependent on what you do week to week before and after. But perhaps that aspect of summer trips is best left for another day.

If you’re still interested, take a look at this highlights video from MERGE 2011. Look close and you’ll see me and several of the students from our group.

German Bible Society

The German Bible Society has created online versions of their ancient language resources. I, for one, am excited about this. These resources, although searchable, really aren’t going to be a replacement for dedicated programs like Accordance, Logos or Bibleworks. However, the fonts are very nice and display brilliantly (something that is normally lacking in complex-text language Bibles on the internet). If I just need to look something up quickly and I’m not near my own computer, I imagine this might be a helpful resource.