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.

Sometimes…

Ministry is hard work. I know far too many youth workers who are consumed by calendars, meetings and programs. Truth be told, I often look at my own ministry and wonder what went wrong. When did pastoring youth start to mean planning a calendar so dreadfully full of events that there is no time left to simply be together? When did being a professional youth worker start to mean that all of our time is devoted to maintaining programs (Sunday morning, Wednesday night, fun nights, lock-ins, fundraisers, bible studies (if we’re lucky), fall retreat(s), spring retreat(s), winter retreat, mission trips, week-long summer conferences, etc) instead of devoted to seeking where God is working in the lives of our students? When did our students stop seeking the living God and start seeking a program that gives them an emotional high–or maybe we never showed them a God worth seeking in the first place?

In the midst of our broken world, it can only be expected that our youth ministries will be broken as well. But I wonder if sometimes our ministries are more broken than they need to be? Youth ministry books will often talk about helping students find a passionate faith, or helping students slow down and contemplate God, or being pro-student as Jesus is pro-us. These books are wonderful, and they talk about dealing with staff members who don’t understand why the youth ministry is suddenly interested in theology; they talk about how to help parents who just want a youth ministry that is fun see that their children need more than good morals; but these books never talk about what to do to help students realize that a jam-packed calendar and a well-maintained program aren’t the central pieces of youth ministry.

Maybe students intuitively realize this. But I think this intuition is on the same level as staff people and parents: sometimes it needs some help coming out. Ministry is tough. But sometimes we just need to turn around, seize the bull by the horns, and see what happens.

Dovie’andi se tovya sagain.

Research Interests or My Dream PhD Program

Last week I realized something. At the beginning of September, in roughly 6 weeks, I will begin my second year of study as a graduate student. More over, I intend to earn a PhD in Hebrew Bible or a related field. As I was thinking of this I experienced an epiphany. In one year I will be taking the GRE and within the next 15 months I will be applying to PhD programs for admission in the Fall of 2010 (assuming that all goes according to plan).

Some of you have watched me walk this path (outlined here, here and here, among other places). After this epiphany, Mandy and I began talking about which PhD programs we liked the best. Throughout this process it became apparent that I need to do some thinking about specifically what I’m looking for in a PhD (Mandy has the jump on me here, which you can read about beginning here). This post is my attempt to do that. I realize that to some extent my research interests may end up being fluid. But I need to pin down my broad interest areas. You’ll find this post to be filled with my ramblings, perhaps it may benefit some of you; or at least induce a laugh or two. Feel free to comment on my ramblings with thoughts or suggestions.

I have two areas in which I’m sure I’d enjoy doing doctoral work, and another in which I think I’d enjoy doctoral work. Before I get into those areas though, I want to think out loud about the more general focus or type of program that I want. For instance, do I want a religious studies program at a university? A Biblical Studies program at a divinity school? A NELC program at a university (and if so, what do I want such a program to focus on)? It might be easier to start by talking about what I don’t want.

What I do not want in a PhD program:
1. Theology. I’ll come up with my own, thanks.
2. An unapproachable faculty.
3. Anything vaguely resembling conservative scholarship.

These things are countered by what I do want…

What I do want in a PhD program:
1. Lots of focus on languages (specifically Northwest Semitic languages).
2. Obviously, an approachable and helpful faculty.
3. Lots of work in the Hebrew text of Scripture.
4. A focus on the culture and history of Israel and her neighbors.
5. Did I mention text and languages?

That gives a fairly broad idea of what I’m looking for in schools, departments, and programs. Obviously some of that is quite subjective. I think its safe to say that my desire to avoid theology basically removes most (though probably not all) divinity schools from consideration. At least the ones I’ve looked at (Yale, Harvard) seem to take a more theological track in the divinity schools. I think this is perfectly acceptable, but it is not what I’m looking for. Religion departments probably aren’t completely ruled out, but I find that they tend to focus on comparative religions or similar things. Again, this is fine, even good, but not what I’m looking for, well at least not modern comparative religions. Nevertheless, there could be some programs out there in religious studies that would suite me. So it stays on the list, for now. I think where I probably need to focus the majority of my attention is on NELC/NES programs. My only worry is that such programs may tend more towards archeology and comparative semitics (the latter of which is very cool, the former..eh..in the words of one person, “If what you dug up doesn’t have writing on it, I’m not interested”) than towards Northwest semitics and the Bible specifically.

As for those two or three areas of particular interest that I mentioned earlier. The first is the Wisdom Literature of Ancient Israel. I find Hebrew Wisdom to be absolutely fascinating. There are various facets of this corpus that interest me, but perhaps the most interesting is the poetry and language of Job and Egyptian parallels to the Hebrew Wisdom corpus. The second is the early and pre-monarchic periods of Israelite history. I should quickly note here that I am more interested in the literature that views this area as a kind of “heroic age” than I am with the actual material culture of the Late Bronze and Iron I ages. I’d love to do some work with Hebrew discourse analysis in Judges-1 Samuel (possibly including Joshua). This is one of the areas where I’m not sure a NELC program is the best fit…but that could be my ignorance of such programs speaking. Literary criticism can be somewhat interesting as well, but much of what I’ve read on that has tended to deal with English translation, rather than the Hebrew itself. I’ve yet to see an analytical comparison of Hebrew narrative with narratives of neighboring cultures. Of course, this might be because we have a comparative lack of prose in those other cultures (no pun intended). The third area, and one in which I’m not 100% sure I’d like to do doctoral work yet, is text criticism. The problem is this is a pretty broad area, and I don’t have enough knowledge of the breadth of it at present to really pinpoint if I want to go in this direction.

So, that’s my thinking out loud for this evening. I’m sure I’ll revisit these thoughts at least once in the not-so-distant future. I have quite a bit of pondering to do over the next 15-18 months.