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.

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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.

On Turning Ships

My senior pastor has an analogy that he constantly brings up to those of us on staff: making changes at a church is like turning a super tanker, it takes time. This couldn’t be more true. It’s also very true for a youth ministry, though youth ministries are–by nature–more agile than entire churches.

Andrew Root has recently written on the idea that youth ministry may help churches to reclaim theological thinking. Much like many of the changes to churches in the ’80s and ’90s can be traced to youth ministry, so too a sort of turn back to the theological. I agree with the idea, in theory, but I’m not convinced that the so-called theological turn in youth ministry is quite prevalent enough at present (N.B. On twitter Andrew Root acknowledged this as an issue). Ironically, when once upon a time senior pastors would have longed for more theologically astute youth pastors, now we have youth pastors who are recognizing a need for theological nuance and their senior pastors are staring at them and arguing for a more basic, unnuanced approach. There is a certain twisted poetic justice to this.

I’m thankful that those in my current ministry support my own quest to continue learning and thinking. I’m also thankful for the parents and others in my church who are willing to give things a try. Moving from an entertainment-based model of youth ministry to a more theologically nuanced ministry is not exactly easy. Turning ships takes time. Turning ministries takes time and is often painful on various levels. Ultimately, turning the ship is still worth it because our students deserve to be taken seriously. It’s one of the things for which they’re longing. It’s worth it because the church needs youth ministries (indeed, churches) that have more depth than a dodgeball game and a thrown together devotion are likely to provide. Ultimately it’s worth it because Jesus has called us to something more than a culturally-bound consumeristic expression of his Kingdom.

But it can be very, very hard.

Young Women, Driscoll and the Church

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I dislike much of what Mark Driscoll says. I’m unwilling to completely write him off. He has some good things to say, but he also has plenty of stupid things that he says. Brian, over at Rethinking Youth Ministry, has recently posted on this subject (you can see a video of Driscoll from awhile back and a response to it, complete with verses taken out of context, at the link). I also happen to agree with him, the majority of committed Christian teens that I see are girls. Now, I do agree with Driscoll that we could do with singing a few less love songs to Jesus. I wouldn’t mind stone churches instead of fuchsia ones with flowers.

But that isn’t the issue. No one is saying you can’t take students mountain climbing. What Driscoll is doing is drawing an entirely arbitrary line between “masculine” and “feminine” and then saying that you want to get the masculine guys (I assume those would be the ones with trucks, women, and businesses) into church because if you get them you “win it all,” (ie, the women, babies, businesses, etc). To be honest, it’s a stupid argument. Women are quite capable of disagreeing with their husbands. Beyond that, women are often more capable then their male counterparts at running companies, organizing things, and customizing their ride. At the same time I’m forced to wonder where the quiet, shy men who prefer books to football fall in Driscoll’s paradigm.

Stereotypes are not helpful. When Mark Driscoll talks about women (EDIT: let me add here, “in any public context in which I have heard him speak”), he engages solely in stereotyping. What Mark Driscoll says about women is not helpful. Conversely, what he says about men really isn’t helpful either. In the end I’m quite glad that the girls in my youth ministry have no idea who Driscoll is.

Posts worth reading, Vol 1

Over the past week or so I’ve read a number of excellent posts on other blogs that I’ve wanted to comment about. However, some of them I don’t really have enough to say to warrant an entire post. Most of them I simply don’t have the time to give a full post to. So, I’m going to lump them all into a single post, with links, a few observations from yours truly, and an overall encouragement that you read them.

The Thoughts of a Medialist – Kevin Wilson has a good read with a nice little anecdote about his own time at Johns Hopkins. What is perhaps most interesting in this entire debate is that almost everyone wants to say they are in the middle. William Dever does not consider himself a maximalist. Of course, Kevin doesn’t consider himself one either–though perhaps he considers Dever one, I don’t know. He also has some good thoughts on what amounts to demonizing people in order to “win” the debate. Which reminds me of a recent post by Art.

demonizing: the leading tactic in christian debate – Art is absolutely right. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve seen this all too often. Even recently, I’ve seen this take place. Honest questions are easily dismissed when the questioner can be made out to be something less than a person, or at least the type of person that one normally associates with.

Pensive Thoughts on Faith and Calling – Earl has some open and honest thoughts about calling. He and I have had many a discussion over coffee on this very topic. It’s always fascinating to watch as a person’s thinking on a topic develops, and Earl’s has developed greatly. As my comment on his blog indicates, I think the two of us are in a very similar boat. Regardless of all that, it’s a post worth reading and you should really check it out. It brings up some excellent topics, not least of which is the separation between the laity and academia in Christendom.

Not really a radical… – On a somewhat related topic, Wezlo waxes eloquent about how he’s not really a radical. I say he just needs to keep telling himself that. But in all seriousness, Wezlo brings up some good topics. The idea of seeing the way forward through the past isn’t new, but it’s always good to think about. Furthermore, Wezlo tries to differentiate between an activist and an idealist, a discussion that is worth having.

Sadistic Approaches to Teaching Biblical Languages – This is simply a brilliant post by John Hobbins. You should read it, twice. I have a few professors here at GCTS I’d like to force to read it. I’ve long been of the opinion that languages are best learned inductively. Memorizing endless paradigms, although helpful at points, is an extremely boring way to learn a language. The textbook I used for Hebrew I and II introduced each lesson with a sentence from the Hebrew Bible. Each time we learned something, we were learning it in context. It was a great way to learn. I’m taking Aramaic this semester, and although the language isn’t that different from Hebrew, the professor I have is much different from my Hebrew prof in undergrad. I was never made to learn paradigms, beyond the basic ones, in my undergrad Hebrew courses. Regardless of how one might feel on the necessity of learning paradigms, I managed an A+ in Intermediate Hebrew Grammar last semester. That means I did better than most of the people who had memorized all the paradigms. Yet, in our first Aramaic session of the semester, the class was assured that if one did not memorize a plethora of paradigms, one would not be able to achieve above a C in Hebrew, and likewise in Aramaic. All of this to simply say that there is no excuse for making a language boring and cold to your students.

At this point I’ll stop. Some great posts there, and I recommend you take a few moments to check them out.

Emasculating Men

Over the past couple years I’ve heard more about how the church is emasculating men than on any other church topic. It comes primarily from the blogosphere, or various conversations. Partially I think Mark Driscoll is to blame for the constant talk about it, though that stupid Wild at Heart book also deserves some of my ire. I’ve even heard it in some youth ministry circles. How as youth ministers we need to defend teenage guys from their mothers. We need to teach them, I assume, to belch, laugh at others’ pain, and defend themselves through physical violence. I find such things to border on genuine insanity.

However, my friend Art has recently posted an excellent critique of an article that basically rehashes the same things I’ve been hearing for two years, only the article throws in some horrid exegesis about Jacob and Esau.

I really can’t say things better than Art has, so I will let things rest by reiterating something I’ve said many times before. I have more hair on my body than any “manly man” you’re likely to find, yet I take the Scriptures’ exhortations to love, kindness, gentleness and self-control very seriously. These “feminine” qualities seem to be deeply a part of who Jesus was, and I’ll stick with those, you can keep the trucks and cheap bear.

Article published

I’m very excited to announce that an article of mine has been published at Youthworker.com. It’s not the print magazine, but it’s a step in the right direction. Apart from the excitement of having an article see the light of day on something other than my blog, I’m excited because I think the topic that the article focuses on is worthwhile, and needs to be discussed in youth ministry circles. Now, I don’t have any delusions of grandeur. I don’t think a single article is going to start a revolution in youth ministry circles. But hopefully it will cause some of us to begin thinking.

I’d love to hear any thoughts you all may have on the article.