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.

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.

Ooze Book Reviews: A Short and Easy Method of Prayer

I had the opportunity last month to become a member of the Ooze Select Blogger network. If you aren’t familiar with The Ooze, just click here. I enjoy many of the articles and discussions that take place over there. I’ll admit I’ve had less time than I’d like during the semester to keep up to date, but I digress. As part of this network, I receive books to review, which is an absolutely incredible thing. The first book review that I’m doing as part of this blogger network is A Short and Easy Method of Prayer by Madame Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon. Now, the question is: does this book have anything going for it beyond the incredibly cool name of the author?

The answer is: sorta. First, any reader needs to keep in mind that this is a translation of the original French. Beyond that the original book was written in the 17th century, so to say that it is legacy would perhaps be an understatement. I’ve developed an interest in reflective practices over the past several years. In that regard, Madame Guyon’s book serves as a decent introduction to contemplative prayer. She has several absolutely pithy statements throughout the book. One of these is plastered on the back cover: “Prayer is the application of the heart to God, and the internal exercise of love.”

I found myself vacillating as I read the book as to whether or not it was worth reading. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that it is worth reading as an introduction to contemplative prayer, though perhaps that really isn’t the correct designation as she advocates a complete ceasing, and normally contemplative prayer, although advocating ceasing, at least begins with some type of contemplation of, er, something. There are a few things I do disagree with strongly:

1. She likes the internal a bit more than I do. That is to say, I think reason and contemplation work together, hand in hand, each informing the other. Madame Guyon would like us very much to throw reason out the window, or so it would seem. Take for instance, this comment, “Compose catechisms particularly to teach prayer, not by reasoning nor by method, for the simple are incapable thereof; but to teach the prayer of the heart, not of the understanding; the prayer of God’s Spirit, not of man’s invention.” Strong words indeed! Words that I fundamentally disagree with. I think the heart and understanding, reason and contemplation, can — indeed must! — work hand in hand as we live our lives. I think it is simply wrong to draw such a strong dichotomy between the head and the heart.
2. She was thrown into prison shortly after this work was originally completed. Normally that would be an almost immediate “buy it yesterday” in my book. However, my guess is that she was thrown into prison for her views on union with God. Those views are, shall we say…interesting. To be concise, Madame Guyon basically says we need to get rid of our own soul and be filled with God’s. To some extent I agree. We do need to give up ourselves, and in so doing allow the Holy Spirit to mold and shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. However, I got the feeling that Guyon didn’t mean what I want her to mean — though I could be wrong.

I need to mention some of the positives of the book though. Not because I’m required to, but because I think that some really do exist. For starters, the manuscript really encourages the reader to rest. To just stop being, stop doing, and rest in God. I think there are few things that the American church needs more than learning to stop and rest in God (I suppose one of those things would be getting a bit of that “reason” and “understanding” that Madame Guyon dislikes). For that bit alone the book is worth about half the Amazon price. She also has a section that is insightful in regards to confession. It’s almost, though not quite, insightful enough to make up the rest of the Amazon price.

Ultimately, should you buy this book? Eh. That depends entirely on what you’d like to read. If you’ve an interest in contemplative prayer or 17th Century French mystics, than sure. But if you already have a basic idea of what contemplative prayer entails, there are probably better books out there to purchase.

Voices of the Virtual World receives award!

Many of you will remember that this summer I was one of the authors in a book that was an experiment in e-publishing. I have some exciting news, and I haven’t been able to share it until now (well, yesterday, but I was in class most of the day). Voices of the Virtual World has won a Society for New Communications Research Award of Merit. From the press release:

The Society honors innovative individuals, corporations, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions and media outlets that are pioneering the use of social media, ICT, mobile media, online communities, virtual worlds and collaborative technologies in the areas of media, marketing, public relations, advertising, entertainment, education, politics and social initiatives. The award winners were announced at the Society’s awards gala at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston, Mass on December 5th, 2007.

This is extremely exciting. If you haven’t already, you can purchase the book here. I was unable to attend the awards gala, which was somewhat disappointing. Nevertheless, I am proud to have been a part of this effort. All proceeds from the sale of the book go to the Not For Sale campaign. You can read my thoughts on the book in the post linked above. Obviously, I think it is a good book, and I’d encourage you to purchase it. Beyond that, it’s absolutely amazing that this compilation has received such high praise. The book went from inception to publication in a matter of months. It was a fun time working with some of the other authors. Many of them have blogs which can be accessed here. You’ll also have heard of some of them, no doubt. As one of those authors, I am proud to display the following badge on my blog:

SNCR Merit