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.

Release

We hear a lot about the need to release others to do ministry. As youth pastors we are told how important it is to allow our volunteers to do ministry. “Delegation is one of the most important skills a pastor can have,” I was once told. Several months ago one of my adult volunteers mentioned that she had really enjoyed teaching the middle school students back during the transition period between the previous youth director and myself. After some more discussion we decided that she’d join me this fall and we’d create a kind of teaching cycle. I still do most of the teaching (though I wouldn’t mind allowing others the opportunity to teach!), but she now handles some of it as well.

Last Wednesday was her first time up to the plate this year. I know she was nervous, but she did a phenomenal job. We’ve been talking about faith. Things have been going well, students seem to be connecting, asking good questions, and hopefully integrating things into their lives. We’ve talked about what faith is, how one can be open with God even when you’re angry, how our faith centered on the incarnate God, and several other things besides. But this particular adult leader has a story, and because of her background she could say to our students, “When tragedy strikes, you can be angry with God. But keep the faith. He has a plan. You may not feel like it in the midst of tragedy, but he does work things out for good.” I could say the same thing, of course, but it would lack to authenticity that she brought to it.

She’s a widow.

She knows what it is like to go through tragedy, to be angry with God, but to keep the faith. She has experienced that pain. But she has also experienced the love of God as he continues to lead her through life. Releasing allows our students to see that the only people who know God aren’t the paid youth professionals, but the regular adults in our churches. By releasing some of the teaching (which I love doing) I’ve allowed my students to hear another voice, a voice that comes at things from a different angle. My students will benefit from this. It’s worth it.

Youth Group as Seminar

Forgive the title of the post. I dislike the term “youth group” but it was the most concise way to title the post. Let me give a brief explanation of what I mean by the title. When referring to “youth group” in this context I am referring specifically to the mid-week program that we run at IBC. I’m not referring to the “youth ministry” as a whole, or any other event, meeting, gathering or program which we run. Now, on to what I want to say.

I’ve been having a variety of interesting conversations recently, most of them spawned by my post on preaching. This is all to the good, although they have failed to completely sway me from my views. I have, however, begun to think about the possible implications of my thoughts on preaching as it relates to youth ministry. Someone recently posed the question to me, “How does preaching differ from lecturing in a classroom?” The answer is, of course, that any good course will not only include lectures but assignments that complement the lectures. As I thought on this more I began to wonder if there was a way to translate any of the pedagogical principles that are used when designing a college course to a youth ministry. It is fairly unlikely that students would read textbooks, write papers, take exams, prepare timelines, or other activities normally deemed “school-like.” But, I think I have at least one viable idea.

As my thoughts on the subject outlined above converged with my thoughts on how to help students take ownership of the youth ministry without overwhelming them I came up with the following idea:

Perhaps we could run the teaching time of our Wednesday night meeting as a seminar. A seminar obviously has sound pedagogical principles behind it which I need not delve into here. But it doesn’t necessarily have a school-like feel. I also think that by being a bit more informal than a normal seminar style course typically is I can remove any last vestiges of said feel (leaving aside the question of why our culture has deemed that feel so repugnant). If I were to try this, our Wednesday night teaching would look something like what follows. Students would pick topics or passages for us to discuss ahead of time. I’d then ask for volunteers/assign students to particular passages/topics after I had set a schedule. Those students would be responsible for coming up with some thoughts on that topic or passage. Some students, no doubt, will put only a minimum of thought or time into this. Others, I believe, might really grasp the concept and enjoy it. An example may help to shed some light on the idea.

Let us say the topic is justice. Let us also say that two students are responsible for this topic, the first is Steven, the second is Emily. Steven is pretty busy and so doesn’t spend too much time thinking about the topic and what he thinks about it. He manages to look up a few verses before our meeting though, and decides he’ll say something about the Lord’s Prayer, and how if God’s kingdom comes on Earth, then that must certainly mean justice would happen. Emily, on the other hand, takes things a little more seriously (or maybe she’s just less busy?) and talks to me about what might be a decent passage to look up. I give her some ideas, and even suggest a few websites. She checks these out and finds she’s quite interested in the topic. She asks if I have anything else she might read. I give here The Little Book of Biblical Justice by Chris Marshall.

When Wednesday roles around Steven gets up in front of the group. He nervously shares his thoughts on the Lord’s prayer, anxiously answers a question while managing to only look partially confused, and then sits down. Next, Emily gets up and talks about how the topic really excited her, so she went overboard in preparing. She stumbles through her presentation (due to nervousness, not any lack of preparation), talking about the poor, widows, and orphans and how we need to help them. She doesn’t make all of her points clearly, but she seems to enjoy it. After this, I get up and spend a few minutes tying things together and sharing some of my thoughts on the topic of justice.

I hope by doing this that students will be given a chance to get excited about a topic. It also involves them in taking ownership of the youth ministry and helps give them ways to learn that don’t simply involve me talking with them. I’m very interested to hear people’s thoughts on this idea. Do you think it has merit? Is there a chance it might work? Am I being too idealistic? If I wasn’t clear enough please ask and I’ll attempt to clarify.

A break from reading…

I’m taking a brief break from working my way through Kingdom Prologue by Kline. It’s required reading for Theology of the Pentateuch.

I happened across this post on Scot’s blog (by which I mean to say it was in my feed reader). I think that the author of this email has some excellent question. I’ve often asked “why do we preach?” In all honesty, I find little use for it. I think that if we feel a need to “learn” or do “discipleship” during a Sunday morning worship gathering that a format more similar to teaching (complete with questions from the congregation) would be far more effective at helping people learn what a passage is saying. Of course, I’m not sure if learning is the point.

In Southern Baptist circles, and other churches belonging to the group we call Evangelicalism™, the Sunday sermon has taken on an almost sacramental quality. Which I find extremely ironic, in a way, since most Southern Baptists that I know disavow any type of sacramental theology. Yet, the Sunday sermon is supposed to be everyone’s weekly encounter with God, or God’s word, or what God desires for them. I’m not saying that that can’t happen. But it’s still not an overly clear explanation of what it is that preaching is supposed to accomplish. I have several preaching courses that I’ll have to take at GCTS. Perhaps I should ask that question and see if Scott Gibson or Haddon Robinson (assuming he’s back to classroom teaching by that time) have an answer that makes sense.

One thing that I was incredibly disappointed to learn is that so many emerging churches still make extensive use of a basically unchanged model of preaching. At least that is the impression I’ve gotten from talking with people, reading Emerging Churches and Emerging Worship. I’m not saying that preaching is a tool of the devil or anything quite so dramatic. But I do think there are far more effective ways to teach. If our goal isn’t teaching, but an encounter with God, I think there are far better ways to accomplish that (if such words as “accomplish” are even close to what we mean in that context)–and one such way is called the Eucharist.

Regardless of my own questions on the matter, it should be interesting to watch the comments on Scot’s blog over the next day or two.

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.

Chris Folmsbee on Storying

DISCLAIMER: I have a pretty bad head cold today, so the following may be absolutely incoherent, though it makes sense in my head at the moment.

As any long time reader of this blog well knows, I am a huge fan of letting the Bible speak for itself. I tend to want to move away from systematic theology, and simply allow the stories of the Bible to speak for themselves, contradictions and all. Of course, this can be difficult to do because it often requires a change in what people are used to when it comes to youth ministry, but it is vitally important. Chris Folmsbee has an excellent post on his blog about the topic of story and youth ministry. Chris is CEO of Sonlife (or whatever its called now). I was first introduced to Sonlife by Chris Seavey when I was doing my undergrad at Davis College.

Chris F. (as opposed to Chris Seavey) asks a few questions at the bottom of his post, and he also explains a few of his concerns. One of his concerns is that youth ministries will simply use storying as another method, instead of embracing its ramifications for the way theology is done. I agree with this concern. I see many, many people talking about the Bible as narrative, but then quickly (I think, too quickly) moving to the work of systematizing those stories so as to add equilibrium. My own thoughts on systematic theology can be seen here. I think that we need to really think through this kind of thing. It deserves our attention as youth pastors/ministers/mentors.

Another issue that storying brings up for me, and I believe this is related to Chris’ concerns, is that I often see people attempting to read the Bible as a narrative, and they are very excited about this new way of doing things. But, as part of this excitement they often jump, I think, too quickly to Jesus. They, in their teaching, start seeing Jesus everywhere in the Old Testament. As John Hobbins recently revealed, some times a little knowledge can be a very bad thing (for those ignorant of Hebrew, the word את is not unknown. It is the marker of the direct object (that is, the accusative), or a preposition meaning “with”).

This leads me into something that some readers may find over the top, or out and out wacko. If we are going to story the Bible then we need to learn the Hebrew Bible well. We need to be content on leaving Jesus hidden until the proper time (much like God did as he created this amazing story). We need to know the history behind the story. For some of us, that means dusting off some old text books, for others it may mean learning some new vocabulary, and for still others it might involve taking a class. That’s the easy part. I also think that if we are going to read the Bible as narrative, and with integrity, we need to know Hebrew and Greek. Not only for our own enrichment (and it does enrich ones life, and that alone should be reason enough), but so that we understand the flow of the narrative, the way the Bible works, from a literary perspective, in a better way. Knowing Hebrew can also help us have a better appreciation for the history and culture in which the Bible was originally written. In addition, knowing both Hebrew and Greek is essential in being able to read the best commentaries. Perhaps most importantly, knowing Hebrew (and Greek!) helps us to know when quacks like the one I linked to above are teaching falsely.

Now, I may have lost some people with the commentary bit. But some of the best critical commentaries also have some of the most impressive dialog on the issues of the Bible as literature, the literary form of the book the commentary is on, etc. So, I agree with Chris’ concern, and I add a concern of my own: if we are to teach the Bible as narrative we must be capable of doing so — and that means learning some things that may be difficult to learn.

On entering a new youth ministry

It’s been quite a while since I’ve sat down and tried to blog about something related to youth ministry. This is partially because this semester has been so busy, and also because youth ministry has been so busy. It’s not so much that we’ve been busy with events in the youth ministry, though we’ve had those, but I’ve been busy trying to settle in and figure out how things work here, etc. Now that I feel like things are finally getting on track I wanted to take a few moments away from typing papers and post a bit about what my experience has been so far.

First, some history. I hold a Bachelor of Religious Education with a major in Bible/Theology and a minor in Youth Ministry. I’ve served at a small, rural church plant as the Pastor of Student Ministries, and at a larger established church body as their Youth Ministry Intern (read: unpaid youth pastor). I’ve also served in a number of other youth ministries as a volunteer/mentor. In both of the ministries above I came in at a time when not much was happening in the ministry. In the case of the church plant the youth ministry had just been started. In the case of the larger church there was an established youth ministry but it wasn’t doing much, aside from a Wednesday evening event and Sunday School. Because I was the new guy, and because I was asked to be the point person for both ministries, we were able to bring cohesion to the ministries and move forward with discipleship, etc. Now, fast forward several years.

I took a position this past July at Immanuel Baptist Church in Ipswich MA. The people have been wonderful. They have welcomed Mandy and I, loved us, helped us, been concerned for us. It has been an excellent experience, especially given some of my former experiences with churches – but I digress. This youth ministry was different. My first week was only two weeks after the former youth pastor had left. He was a good guy, from all I’ve heard, and so there wasn’t a feeling of the youth ministry being stalled. I was aware of this, and so wasn’t interested in immediately changing things. I figured we could just continue to do what we had been doing and move along with that. Two problems!

1. The church/youth ministry was very used to having new youth pastors come in and change things, putting their own unique skills and gifts to use. The youth pastors at IBC are normally seminarians, so they tend to “rotate” every 3-4 years.
2. What I thought was the way things were done wasn’t, strictly speaking, the way they were done. I got the wrong impression because of the fact that I never actually saw how the former youth pastor ran things.

Add to this that at the beginning of the school year the entire youth ministry team from over the summer departed (some to college, some to grad school, and Mandy because she had Akkadian on Wednesday nights), and you have a recipe for…well, “disaster” would be melodramatic, but a recipe for something that isn’t positive.

As the fall got rolling it became increasingly apparent that something was not working. We had left the schedule of Wednesday nights largely intact, and I had changed the teaching style to be more discussion based, which is really how I prefer to teach. However, it became clear as the Fall moved on that something wasn’t quite clicking. Now, how did it become clear? A variety of ways. First, some students who were very committed to the former youth pastor began coming less frequently. Other students began wanting to discuss less and less the topics we were trying to discuss and more and more whatever they wanted to discuss (ie, Jeans, holes in shoes, soda, etc). There was also just a feeling of unease and tension.

So, by the time October was halfway over, I knew something had to change. As a stop-gap measure I moved to a much more “I talk, you listen” style of teaching. Amazingly, this has seemed to hold the students’ attention more than having a discussion did. We also began planning a “redesign” of our Wednesday night program, as well as figuring out why on earth we do our Wednesday night program. I should point out that I don’t believe a “redesign” of things on Wednesday nights is going to do us a bit of good in the long run. But it needs to be done in this case. Still, redesigning a program is not the answer to all youth ministry problems, and I don’t want to give that impression. It can, however, be helpful.

So, where do we sit now? In a couple weeks (December 5th) we will implement the redesigned Wednesday night program. This will include changes such as: less time just “hanging out,” a scripture reading, short lesson/”homilies” teaching through the Bible at a “somewhat” in depth level (I say somewhat because I don’t view it as that in depth, but some others might), a greater focus on prayer, activities to try to connect what the reading and lesson talked about to the students in a tactile or emotional manner, and a debrief time to tie everything together and give students a chance to interact and ask questions. No doubt by February some of this will have been tweaked, but this is what we’re looking at at present. Overall we’re trying to create an environment that will be conducive to students experiencing the Faith. To this end we’ll also hoping to use lamps instead of the overhead lighting, and each week we’ll have a prayer room set up for students to use, if they desire.

That’s not the real reason I set out to post today though. Rather, I wanted to take a few moments and point out some things I’ve learned through this whole experience.

1. In the words of Mad-Eye Moody, “Play to your strengths!” – Many youth pastors overdo this, forging youth ministries that rise and fall on their own personalities. However, you can’t go to the other extreme where you refuse to recognize that you have unique gifts, abilities and talents that should influence the ministry of which you are a part. Because of this, it’s okay to modify things so that you are using your strengths in your ministry. Be sensitive to the students. You may need to make changes slowly (or more quickly). But don’t be afraid to make changes if they are needed.
2. The importance of a team to minister to students cannot be overstated. Mark Yaconelli has some excellent thoughts on calling a team to serve students in his book, Contemplative Youth Ministry, I highly recommend the entire book, actually.
3. Involve students in planning. This really goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway.
4. Don’t let your past interfere with your present. This is a lot easier to say than to do. But it needs to be said. I know of many, many, many youth pastors who have been hurt by churches. I have been hurt. When we are hurt we want to avoid any mistakes on our part that may have lead to that hurt. However, if you are like me you overcompensate and become frightened of doing anything that might give someone the wrong impression and thus cause them to have some vague reason for not liking me which could lead, eventually, to me being hurt. At the same time, don’t go to the other extreme and think this is some kind of license to be a jerk and be the one hurting people.

You could look in the archive and find some of what has happened in my past. I could make a post about it, and perhaps some day I will. But I think for many of us, the best thing to do is forget our pasts, at least somewhat. We need to type of forgetting, I think, that Miroslav Volf talks about in Exclusion & Embrace, a kind of forgetting that is ultimately eschatological, but which still has real power here in the present (at least, I think that’s what Volf is getting at).