Getting Jesus Wrong

Getting Jesus Wrong:
Dealing with the Unknown in Youth Ministry

Mark 8:27-30

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Getting Jesus Wrong

Shhh…It’s A Secret

There’s something troubling about this little text.  Jesus’ questions get right to the heart of his identity, yet he seems to be okay with a lot people being wrong about him.  If we evaluated Jesus as a youth pastor from this passage alone, we’d probably say he’s doing it badly.  How should we deal with the unknown in youth ministry?

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is. Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite?

Jesus’ response to Peter’s correct confession is part of a larger theme in Mark’s Gospel, sometimes referred to as “the Messianic Secret, ”1 which has largely mystified New Testament scholars.  Readers of Marks Gospel are often struck by Jesus’ repeated commands not tell anyone about him or what he did.  We see other examples of this in 1:44 when Jesus heals a man with leprosy and promptly tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone” (see also Mk 1:24-25; 1:43-45; 3:11-12; 4:10-12; 5:43; 7:36-37; 8:25-26; 9:9).

Who Am I?

Very often in Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ secrecy follows questions of his identity, like in the passage we began with.  Jesus appears unfazed by others misidentifying him as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, but responds somewhat harshly to Peter’s confession of his messianic identity.  Theories abound as to what’s going on here in Mark’s Gospel and why it doesn’t seem to show up as much, if at all, in the other Gospels.2

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is.  Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite? After all, if people aren’t spreading the word about who he is, how will others know what to think about him? What if they continue thinking the wrong things about him, like some of the gossip that wrongly identified him with John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets?

Programming People

It seems that so much of the way we teach youth (and children…and adults) in the church centers on programming correct confessions into them.  We probably (hopefully) wouldn’t articulate it that way, but our Christian education programs often have to do with passing on the proper particularities of the faith, especially for young people who already identify themselves as Christians.  We want them to be the right kind of Christians—to believe the right things about Jesus.

Whatever we think about what’s going on with Jesus’ secret identity in Mark, it is interesting to notice that Jesus was willing to let people be wrong about him and his identity.  Are we willing to let our youth be wrong about Jesus? Are we willing to let ourselves be wrong about Jesus?  (Hint: we’re wrong about Jesus all the time—we need to come to terms with that.)

Notice that Jesus only gets two lines in this brief story, both of which are questions.  Might we see this as a model for how we talk to youth about Jesus, the Bible, and all sorts of other matters of life and faith?

Knowing (About) Jesus

Perhaps we can use this text as an opportunity for listening rather than depositing what we think is the right kind of knowledge about Jesus.  Who do they say Jesus is?  Who do their peers say Jesus?  Where else are they hearing about Jesus and how does that shape their understanding of who he is?  Perhaps it’s a matter of what we hope to achieve.

Do we want little orthodoxy robots into which we program proper theological responses that they can then reproduce,3 or young people who are engaged with the biblical texts and the world around them in meaningful, even if critical and challenging, ways—even it means getting it wrong?

Our task should be to cultivate faith characterized by questions, not answers, and the humility to let ourselves and our youth get it wrong from time to time.

That’s the danger with this approach, of course: they might get it wrong more often than they get it right. But I can’t honestly say that’s not already true about me (and you).

Facing the Unknown

This week, what would it look like for you to allow a young person to “get Jesus wrong?”  How much might you be able to learn from who they say Jesus is? While it might feel scary, when we think we’ve figured God out and don’t need to deal with the unknown in youth ministry, we’ve missed the point.

Let God be bigger than you are this week, and let a young person explore who Jesus is, even if they seem to be missing the point entirely.  You may be surprised where they lead you!

Footnotes

1 This term was first coined by German scholar Wilhelm Wrede in 1901 and has been an enormous topic of scholarly conversation since.

2 Matthew and Luke both contain similar phrases, but typically only when they have directly borrowed a story from Mark. John has no comparable statements from Jesus.

3 This is essentially what Paolo Freire refers to as the “banking” model of education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

 

Are you interested in reading more about Marks Gospel? Check out Marks Discipleship, our five-week study guide for the Gospel of Mark!

Mark's Discipleship


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.

Letting the Bible Read You

Letting the Bible Read You

There’s this interesting story in the book of Luke that we can easily gloss over.

Letting the Bible Read You

In chapter 18, Jesus tells a short parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. In the context of first century Israel, the Pharisee is part of the religious elite and the tax collector is a Jewish traitor, working for the enemy and extorting money from his own people.

In the parable the two men go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee begins first thanking God that he isn’t a dirty, rotten sinner like the tax collector. He’s quite pleased with himself.

The tax collector, on the other hand, won’t look at heaven and can’t bring himself to be around other people. He merely utters the short prayer, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

We read this story and conclude that God wants us to be humble and to not exalt ourselves and then we move on to other things. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps there is more to the story and more to what Luke says about the story itself.

Read the story if you have a moment, Luke 18:9-14. Now, let me ask you a question. With which character do you most identify? Are you closer to the Pharisee or the tax collector? Why?

If you’re like me you probably think something like, “Well, I’m not always the best guy, but I’m not like that Pharisee, I mean, I don’t look down my nose at people and don’t judge people and…” And about that point you start to realize that you sound kind of like someone in that story and it isn’t the tax collector.

I was at a conference about 15 years ago where theologian Stanley Grenz was teaching a seminar on reading the Bible. He used the exercise above with us and it just blew me away. His point, and I think the point of the story, and maybe the Bible as a whole, is that the Bible wasn’t given to us to merely mine for facts, morals, and ideas to which we can give our assent or ignore completely. The Bible is there to reveal us as we truly are, beauty and warts and everything else.

The Bible is there to reveal us as we truly are, beauty and warts and everything else.

If we start looking down on the Pharisee by believing we are the tax collector, we actually reveal ourselves to be the Pharisee. Just as he looked down on the tax collector, we look down on him and think to ourselves, “At least I’m not like that.”

But when we recognize our inner Pharisee and admit that we judge, we are hypocritical, we are arrogant… well, we admit we are sinners and we start to sound a lot like the tax collector.

Notice that Luke begins retelling this parable with verse 9:

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.”

Who is Luke talking about here? The crowd? Maybe.

What about us, his readers?

Do we ever consider that Luke might have wanted to be sure that just as the early crowds surrounding Jesus were challenged or even offended by Jesus’ teachings, that we should be too? Could we be so sure of our own goodness and righteousness that we look down on other people, thinking that somehow we are above them?

The Bible can and will expose us if we let it. It can wreck us if we let it. But it can also, by the power of God’s Spirit, speak new life and redemption into our lives. When our arrogance, sin, and pride are exposed, God can then begin working on building a new foundation.

I encourage you to approach the Bible this way. More than that I encourage you to teach the Bible this way. Let us not give into the temptation of taking the easy road when it comes to the words of Christ, to the words of Paul, or to the words of any of the authors in the Bible. Let us be leveled by what we read, let us be willing to let the Spirit level other people as they read it, and let us seize that opportunity to let Scripture shape and form us as disciples.


About the Author: Bryan Amerling

Bryan AmerlingBryan Amerling has been a youth pastor for 18 years.  He has been married to his amazing wife Sheridan for 18 years as well, and has two children; Rebekah, 13, and Ethan, 10.  He holds a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Florida, and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  When not playing with his family or working with the youth in his church, he enjoys Florida Gator football, reading, and playing guitar.  You can email him at bryan.amerling@gmail.com

Jesus, Suffering & Good Friday

Jesus, Suffering, and Good Friday

Closer to God

If you have attended a funeral, chances are that you have listened to a reading of Psalm 23. This is probably one of the most well-known and frequently quoted passages in the Bible so it is easy to gloss over it. However, if we examine it just a bit more closely, we can consider a deeper truth about God and God’s call on our lives when it comes to times of suffering. Take a look at the Psalm again and pay attention to the shift that occurs from verse 3 to 4.

1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside the still waters,
3He restores my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil,  
for you are with me.

Jesus, Suffering & Good Friday

Initially the psalmist is telling us about God, using third person language, repeatedly writing “he” in the first three verses to refer to God. But then, in verse 4, he begins to refer to God using the pronoun “you”—a shift in voice from the third to second person. God becomes familiar and personal, drawing close to the psalmist, guiding him, leading him. And when does this occur? When the psalmist walks through “the valley of the shadow of death.”

In the most difficult and trying moment, he understands God as one who draws near, becoming more known and personal. God does not stand at a distance on the next hill. He enters the valley and goes through the pain with the psalmist.

God does not stand at a distance on the next hill. He enters the valley and goes through the pain with the psalmist.

Journeying Through Suffering

In terms of pastoring, what can we learn here? First, we must always communicate to the people that we serve that God is close, personal, intimately aware of our struggles and pain and unafraid of our suffering. Second, and perhaps just as important, we are called to mimic this behavior. Though suffering is complex and painful and even awkward, we must not be afraid to journey with those whom we serve through their dark moments.

In his book Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Eugene Peterson writes, “One of the commonest ways to deal with another’s suffering is to make light of it…to attempt shortcuts through it.” We can understand this temptation, can’t we?

Simple answers like, “God has a plan,” and, “Everything happens for a reason,” seem to be something that might encourage and give us an easy way out, but to those who are in pain such phrases ring false and speak of a God who cares not for those who suffer but rather tells them they should “get over it.” The intention might be good but the result usually isn’t. People are left questioning their faith and their God.

There is no suffering that we experience with which Jesus is not already familiar.

We must resist the temptation to avoid suffering. Instead, as Peterson writes later, “When a pastor encounters a person in trouble, the first order of pastoral ministry is to enter into the pain and to share the suffering.” This is where things get more difficult, but also where we have the humbling opportunity to do as Jesus did and suffer alongside another, to bear a burden.

The God Who Suffers

We find this Jesus who suffers fully realized in what we now refer to as Holy Week, specifically on Good Friday. We know how the story goes and that Easter is coming, but we do well to pause at Good Friday. Consider that in our sin, Jesus came to us. Consider that in our brokenness, Jesus offered us love and grace. Consider that in our suffering, Jesus drew near.

Good Friday is the ultimate revelation of that love, grace, and nearness. It is the story of Jesus going to the cross to suffer in every way possible: physically as he slowly drowned while his lungs filled with fluid; emotionally as he faced betrayal of his friends and the mockery of those who hated him; spiritually as he even faced his Father turning from him.

There is no suffering that we experience with which Jesus is not already familiar. And there is no suffering that he does not call us to engage in some way. When he said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he was inviting his followers to do as he did, to be willing to die to themselves, to suffer, and in doing so to be agents of hope, grace, love, and redemption. We have that sacred opportunity to enter into the suffering of our students, our church members, and our communities, as God leads us. Let us not be afraid to do so but rather embrace this holy work.

As God draws near to us in the dark moments, we can draw near to others in their dark moments. What a privilege to do for others what Jesus has already done for us! As you walk with Jesus through Good Friday into Easter Sunday, consider how you might join your youth in their lives through suffering alongside them.


About the Author: Bryan Amerling

Bryan AmerlingBryan Amerling has been a youth pastor for 18 years.  He has been married to his amazing wife Sheridan for 18 years as well, and has two children; Rebekah, 13, and Ethan, 10.  He holds a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Florida, and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  When not playing with his family or working with the youth in his church, he enjoys Florida Gator football, reading, and playing guitar.  You can email him at bryan.amerling@gmail.com

John Wesley

4 Reasons John Wesley Matters to Your Youth Ministry

Do you care about your youth ministry enough to ride a horse for 250,000 miles?! One Anglican minister, roughly 300 years ago, cared enough. That man was John Wesley, who accidentally started Methodism. Here are four reasons his ideas matter to youth ministry.

John Wesley

1) Go Out!

Wesley made his name by leaving the ornate pulpits of his time to preach large revival series in the fields to common folks. Later in life he began ordaining his own preachers because he didn’t want to wait for the Church of England to allow colonial Americans to take communion (note: DO NOT begin ordaining your own ministers, please). John Wesley was focused on helping people get connected to Christ, and he didn’t wait for them to come to church.

Wesley relentlessly pursued the overlooked and the lost. The world was his parish.

..above all, remember Wesley’s three simple rules:
do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.

2) Bring Together!

Another revival preacher, George Whitefield, was a contemporary of Wesley. As Whitefield reflected on his own ministry, he said: “Wesley acted wisely (his converts joined groups)-—this I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.” Wesley would not ride in to town and preach if there were no small groups there. Wesley knew that the big event would never produce lasting spiritual change. Long-term, relationship-focused small groups did that.

Wesley’s idea of salvation and Christian living was tied to small groups.

3) Show Grace

Wesley rejected the idea that sin had completely cut us off from God. Prevenient grace is the term he used for the work of the Spirit that draws people to recognize and connect with God before they are believers.

We Methodists baptize infants. Before they know how to believe, when they only know about milk and sleep, we baptize them. We recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in every person’s life; even before they have the capacity to recognize it themselves—, even if they never recognize it.

Wesley talked about justifying grace as the work of the Holy Spirit that draws us into a conscious relationship with God through Christ, a kind of short hand for “believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior.” But it didn’t stop at that.

Sanctifying grace was the term Wesley used to describe the way the Holy Spirit continually shapes our lives to make us live and love more like Christ.

Grace starts before we are aware, and continues on until we die.

4) Expect Works

The central theme of Wesley’s preaching was grace, there is no question about that. However, for believers, Wesley placed a strong emphasis on holy living. Wesley was a vegetarian teetotaler who believed that the power of the Holy Spirit could help a Christian to live in perfect love.

Wesley expected the lives of Christian disciples to be marked by personal and social holiness.

Now Build a Movement!

Go get kids connected to Christ, find teenagers no one is looking for, who don’t care about your programs.

Don’t let your teenagers live their faith alone, get them connected to accountability and community. Preach grace and look for it in kids before they see it themselves. Encourage your kids to live in perfect Christ-like love.

And above all, remember Wesley’s three simple rules: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.


About the Author: Tyler Fuller
The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doingtyler fuller Young Life and church Youth Ministry. I am now the Missions Pastor at a mega church in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)

Mark’s Gospel:
Every Single Penny

The Need for Good News

As we sweep up the memories of a long year, full of polarizing, political headlines, the rise in the death toll among innocent black lives, stomach wrenching international conflicts, and the loss of music’s most magical performers, 2016 feels like a mess. Where do we even begin? For many who carry a laundry list of concerns about this previous year, the outlook of a new year feels gloomy at best.

Every Single Penny

Stories of corrupt political regimes, rumors of turbulent social climates, and struggling, disenfranchised voices are not new. For followers of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark provides us with a relevant starting place for approaching the new year.

Why Mark?

Mark’s Gospel often gives attention to minor characters; fringe figures who are otherwise ignored or forgotten. If we imagine Mark as a live performance, the character on center stage would be Jesus, who in turn directs our attention to God. As the spotlight follows Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, the place of his death, the viewer will notice that he often shares the spotlight with characters found in the shadows.

Mark draws our attention to people and places we may otherwise overlook.  We marvel as Jesus’ irresistible call pulls these shadowy characters into the spotlight, often over and against society’s more talented showstoppers. One of these figures in Mark is a poor widow with a generous heart (Mark 12:41–44).

As followers of Jesus, we continually divest ourselves from the powers of this world, the institutions of money and power—this is one lesson we learn from the faith of the widow. Like her, we are called to give God everything we have even if it means giving to institutions that will not last.

Mark’s prelude to this widow is a brief denouncement of the scribes. According to the Evangelist, the scribes puff out their chests and demand respect from the masses in the market place (12:3840). They are society’s elite. They are the moral and religious majority. They have partnered with the political powers to build an empire for themselves on the backs of figures much like the lowly widow.

This is not the first time Jesus has condemned this elite posse either (1:21–22; 2:1–12, 15–17; 3:22–30; 7:1–15; 9:14–19); in fact, these are among the very troublemakers Jesus said would reject him (8:31; 10:33). Mark’s Gospel even begins by telling us that Jesus’ new teaching is different from the scribes’ teaching (1:22); Jesus has authority, the scribes don’t. The main offense in this present scene, according to Jesus, is that they “eat up” the houses of widows. In other words, they fatten themselves off of the poverty of others.

A Penny for Your Donation

On the heels of Jesus’ criticism of those overly pious keepers of the Temple, a poor widow appears. Jesus, in the meantime, sits near the temple treasury, watching from afar (12:41). As readers, we share Jesus’ view of the story, eager to see who puts how much into the temple funds.

Imagine for a moment the theatrics involved in public donations. The elite who put in large sums of money are greeted with cheery-eyed smiles and shouts of praise, as they turn around to the gathered crowd. Others, with less money, are at best ignored and at worst silently judged.

After some hefty donations, the widow deposits two small coins, the lowest denomination available at the time. Breaking from the silent gawks of the crowd, Jesus calls over his disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury” (12:43). It is the widow and her donation that Jesus lauds. Immediately after this episode, Jesus predicts the fateful end to the Temple (13:123). The irony is that the widow’s coins were cast into a system that would not last.

Christians’ Responsibility

This story’s complexity is one worth sitting with as we begin a new year. Many may feel that they, like the widow, have invested in a system bound for disaster. What can we say to them? This story also leaves us wondering about political powers that take advantage of the poor. How are religious entities complicit in the devouring of society’s most fragile?

Mark’s snapshot of this widow leaves us with more questions than answers. However, Jesus’ attention to this widow as well as to her gift demonstrates an important lesson for the ethics of God’s Kingdom.

On the one hand, Jesus, quite uncomfortably, demands everything from his followers. As followers of Jesus, we continually divest ourselves from the powers of this world, the institutions of money and power—this is one lesson we learn from the faith of the widow. Like her, we are called to give God everything we have even if it means giving to institutions that will not last.

On the other hand, that lesson should not leave us satisfied with regard to how the widow is treated. The story quickly moves on, not assuaging our craving for justice for the widow and her money. We return to our initial bewilderment, wondering, where do we even begin?

The God of the Oppressed

It is in this moment that we must pause and take up the mantle of Mark’s story. Jesus highlights for us the power dynamics in the kingdom of God by leveling a harsh critique against the scribes, representative of society’s elite. He characteristically forces the reader’s attention to the impoverished widow and locates God’s power in the powerless.

If we couple this scene with the Temple’s coming destruction, in the very next chapter and verse (13:1–2), we see how the widow’s act of faith topples the powers oppressing her. The widow remains, while the institution oppressing her does not. More so, we find that the power is not in her investment, but in the God who infinitely invests in her. This God has a vested interest—indeed, has invested every single penny—in the powerless according to Mark (7:2430; 10:1316; 14:39), the pinnacle of which is a powerless, crucified Jesus (15:2132).

Caring for the Least of These

Mark’s little vignette requires us to think critically about the “widows” in our own lives and the systems, especially the religious and political systems, oppressing them. We must turn our own attention, as Mark’s Gospel encourages us, to these same characters and to their stories. Who in the coming year will be most at risk, most marginal, or most frightened?

Mark teaches us that these are the people in whom God chooses to invest. God invests in the powerless often right under the noses of the powerful. Who might these figures represent for you and I today? God invests in the Syrian refugee, God invests in the undocumented immigrant, God invests in the Muslim American, and God invests in many more. God even invests in the high schooler who tests your patience, week after week—more than that, God asks you to invest in this person as well.

God’s investments may not produce the successes demanded by Wall Street, but they are the investments that last. This week, join God in caring for the least of these, participating in bringing good news to a world that needs to hear it. Make an investment that lasts, and care for the widows in your life as we begin 2017.


About the Author: J.P. O’Connor

JP O'Connor

M. John-Patrick O’Connor is a PhD student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He earned his MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and BA from Northwest University (Kirkland, WA).

He currently serves as a Program Coordinator for the Certificate in Theology and Ministry Program at Princeton Seminary. His primary research interests include apocalyptic literary themes in the New Testament, and Pauline anthropology.

Prior to seminary, he served as a family pastor in Lakewood, WA. He is happily married to his wife, Krista, and has been a Seattle Seahawks fan from birth.

J.P. is the author of Kindred Youth Ministry’s newest Youth Ministry study, Mark’s Discipleship.

Getting Jesus Wrong

Getting Jesus Wrong:
Dealing with the Unknown in Youth Ministry

Mark 8:27-30

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Getting Jesus Wrong

Shhh…It’s A Secret

There’s something troubling about this little text.  Jesus’ questions get right to the heart of his identity, yet he seems to be okay with a lot people being wrong about him.  If we evaluated Jesus as a youth pastor from this passage alone, we’d probably say he’s doing it badly.  How should we deal with the unknown in youth ministry?

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is. Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite?

Jesus’ response to Peter’s correct confession is part of a larger theme in Mark’s Gospel, sometimes referred to as “the Messianic Secret, ”1 which has largely mystified New Testament scholars.  Readers of Marks Gospel are often struck by Jesus’ repeated commands not tell anyone about him or what he did.  We see other examples of this in 1:44 when Jesus heals a man with leprosy and promptly tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone” (see also Mk 1:24-25; 1:43-45; 3:11-12; 4:10-12; 5:43; 7:36-37; 8:25-26; 9:9).

Who Am I?

Very often in Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ secrecy follows questions of his identity, like in the passage we began with.  Jesus appears unfazed by others misidentifying him as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, but responds somewhat harshly to Peter’s confession of his messianic identity.  Theories abound as to what’s going on here in Mark’s Gospel and why it doesn’t seem to show up as much, if at all, in the other Gospels.2

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is.  Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite? After all, if people aren’t spreading the word about who he is, how will others know what to think about him? What if they continue thinking the wrong things about him, like some of the gossip that wrongly identified him with John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets?

Programming People

It seems that so much of the way we teach youth (and children…and adults) in the church centers on programming correct confessions into them.  We probably (hopefully) wouldn’t articulate it that way, but our Christian education programs often have to do with passing on the proper particularities of the faith, especially for young people who already identify themselves as Christians.  We want them to be the right kind of Christians—to believe the right things about Jesus.

Whatever we think about what’s going on with Jesus’ secret identity in Mark, it is interesting to notice that Jesus was willing to let people be wrong about him and his identity.  Are we willing to let our youth be wrong about Jesus? Are we willing to let ourselves be wrong about Jesus?  (Hint: we’re wrong about Jesus all the time—we need to come to terms with that.)

Notice that Jesus only gets two lines in this brief story, both of which are questions.  Might we see this as a model for how we talk to youth about Jesus, the Bible, and all sorts of other matters of life and faith?

Knowing (About) Jesus

Perhaps we can use this text as an opportunity for listening rather than depositing what we think is the right kind of knowledge about Jesus.  Who do they say Jesus is?  Who do their peers say Jesus?  Where else are they hearing about Jesus and how does that shape their understanding of who he is?  Perhaps it’s a matter of what we hope to achieve.

Do we want little orthodoxy robots into which we program proper theological responses that they can then reproduce,3 or young people who are engaged with the biblical texts and the world around them in meaningful, even if critical and challenging, ways—even it means getting it wrong?

Our task should be to cultivate faith characterized by questions, not answers, and the humility to let ourselves and our youth get it wrong from time to time.

That’s the danger with this approach, of course: they might get it wrong more often than they get it right. But I can’t honestly say that’s not already true about me (and you).

Facing the Unknown

This week, what would it look like for you to allow a young person to “get Jesus wrong?”  How much might you be able to learn from who they say Jesus is? While it might feel scary, when we think we’ve figured God out and don’t need to deal with the unknown in youth ministry, we’ve missed the point.

Let God be bigger than you are this week, and let a young person explore who Jesus is, even if they seem to be missing the point entirely.  You may be surprised where they lead you!

Footnotes

1 This term was first coined by German scholar Wilhelm Wrede in 1901 and has been an enormous topic of scholarly conversation since.

2 Matthew and Luke both contain similar phrases, but typically only when they have directly borrowed a story from Mark. John has no comparable statements from Jesus.

3 This is essentially what Paolo Freire refers to as the “banking” model of education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

 

Are you interested in reading more about Marks Gospel?  Sign up now to learn more about Marks Discipleship, our five-week study guide for the Gospel of Mark!

Mark's Discipleship Study


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.

Pluralism - a new youth ministry imperative

Pluralism: A New Youth Ministry Imperative

My relationship with Rabbi Mark inspired me to understand religious pluralism differently and inspired me to make interfaith dialogue and cooperation not just an important part of my career, but also an imperative part of my Christian walk. It is my hope that youth leaders and ministers also begin to see pluralism as a youth ministry imperative.

Pluralism - a New Youth Ministry Imperative - Kindred Youth Ministry

Pluralism takes on different meanings depending on its context, but what I’m referring to here is Religious Pluralism. It often gets confused with unitarianism or universalism, or Unitarian Universalism, or other theological terms. Religious Pluralism, however, is not a theological term; rather, think of it as a social term.

Pluralism ≠ “Diversity”

Religious diversity exists, not just globally, but in the United States in particular. It’s important to remember that the U.S. is not just the most religiously diverse country in the world, it is likely the most religiously diverse country of all time.

So, while understanding that diversity is a fact, pluralism insists that we engage positively across that diversity.

You can contend that diversity is in and of itself valuable—and I would agree with you—but, diversity doesn’t naturally lead us to positive interactions. All sorts of conflict and violence are caused by diversity; or better put, caused by individuals or groups who are unable or ill-equipped to handle difference.

According to Pluralism.org (a resource I would highly recommend),

“…pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.”

Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes, with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.

We don’t have to peer too far into our history to find examples of Christians not only complacently living in isolation from those who are different religiously (or non-religiously), but actively defending the mistreatment (rather, maltreatment) of those who believe differently.

On the flip side, we can also look into our history to find stories of Christians who chose to risk their lives for others, even though they did not profess Christian faith. Surely we want our youth to be the latter.

The Pluralism of Jesus

In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is asked by a lawyer, “What is the greatest commandment.” As you well know, Jesus affirms, “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

If we’re not addressing religious diversity without fear and without defensiveness, then we’re setting the Church up for failure. How do we love people who believe differently than us without patronization, condemnation and judgment? How do we teach our youth to do that?

The lawyer asks in response, “Well then, who is my neighbor?” The lawyer thought he was pulling a fast one on Jesus, but Jesus responded, of course, with a parable. He talks of a man who was robbed on his way to Jericho when he was suddenly robbed, beat up, and left for dead.

Two different religious elite walk by, and neither one stops to help the man. In fact, their religious obligations kept them from doing so. The Levite, being obligated to stay pure, could not touch a person if that person was bleeding or dead. Likewise, the priest would also be prevented from touching and therefore assisting the man.

And so it was a Samaritan—not only a person despised by first-century Jewish people, but also a completely different religion from Jesus—who stopped to help the man. Jesus, in the story of the Good Samaritan, holds up someone of a different religion as a moral superlative.

Not only that, but the parable seems to insist that we refrain from allowing our religious or spiritual obligations and positions to keep us from serving. Even further, the Good Samaritan gives us permission to be inspired by those of a different faith. Yes, those who believe differently from us have a moral compass, even those we are inclined to see as evil or deplorable.

Pluralism Is Imperative

Do we as Christians want a plurality of religions? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Surely, for most of us—youth ministers in particular—what we want is for young people to be in relationship with Jesus. Pluralism may seem in direct conflict with that desire, but I don’t believe it is necessarily, because (for the most part) in order for anyone to be in relationship with Jesus, they must first be in relationship with Christians.

Whether we like it or not, traditional evangelism sometimes does more to harm relationships than build them up; sometimes even ending a relationship before it’s begun. Yes, we are to go out and make disciples of all nations, but we are also supposed to bear witness to the love of God, and guess how we do that?

By being in relationship with others.

Building Relationships

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because 33% of American young people are atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated, and approximately two-thirds of the Earth’s population are not Christian. Interestingly enough, all of this diversity of religious and secular worldviews seems to get a lot of blame for the violence and war on the planet. Given that part of our identity as Christians is to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), then making pluralism part of your ethos as a youth ministry leader seems to be a no-brainer. After all, God has made us the ambassadors for the Prince of Peace (2 Corinthians 5:20). An ambassador’s job is to serve as a go-between, and without pluralism, who would we go between?

Speaking Generously

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because the ninth commandment says not to bear false witness against our neighbor (Exodus 20:16). It is so easy to misunderstand and speak untruthfully about those who believe differently from us when we don’t know them.

Nothing is easier to misunderstand than the belief systems and ideological frameworks of others. Teenagers are curious about the world and the people around them. Inevitably, you will get asked a question about another faith—will you be able to answer in a way that does not bear false witness against another person?

Living Missionally

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because we’re raising up the next generation of pastors, deacons, lay-leaders, bishops, worship leaders, youth leaders, and tithers. The world is a changing place and the question stands for our youth—what does it mean to be a Christian in a religiously diverse world?

Does it mean we should build walls around ourselves, surrounding ourselves only with other Christians? Does it mean participating in interfaith cooperation and interfaith dialogue in order to learn more about our neighbors and to serve our communities alongside them? What does it mean?

Remember Paul’s words about Jesus in Ephesians 2:14—“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Engaging with Pluralism

If we’re not addressing religious diversity without fear and without defensiveness, then we’re setting the Church up for failure. How do we love people who believe differently than us without patronization, condemnation and judgment? How do we teach our youth to do that?

These questions regarding intentional relationships with people of other religious and secular identities are new for the Church in general and youth ministry in particular. So while we may not have the answers, that’s okay—asking the question helps us get the conversation going. Feel free to leave comments below with your thoughts and reflections.


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.

When Scripture Talks Back

Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” There’s a certain simplicity to this sentiment that no doubt adds to its appeal.


Statements like these represent a common strategy for reading the Bible and reveal a perspective that understands that Bible as speaking with one voice, with absolute clarity, on nearly every question we could ever have. This kind of perspective seeks to offer black and white answers to black and white questions, ignoring the world of deep greys in which we live. There are certain questions to which the Bible does not give a black and white answer, and to pretend that it does is dishonest.

Questions such as these complicate the way we think and talk about Scripture; and if we continue to wrestle with these questions we also should assume that our youth do, too. Reading and wrestling with the Bible ought to mean more than simply making the biblical texts “relevant” to their lives. Memorizing the books of the Bible in order and mastery of Bible drill games, while useful, are far less important than discussions of how we read the Bible. 

This is why I suggest moving from seeing the Bible as a monologue delivered from on high, to an understanding of the Bible as a divine dialogue that speaks with multiple voices. The Bible is a vast conversation, often messy and muddled, into which we are invited to listen and to speak, and this is precisely where its beauty is to be found.

Diverse Voices

The primary issue with the way of reading the Bible highlighted above is that is assumes one-way communication from God, to the biblical authors, to us. The Bible essentially becomes one massive monologue, and the whole book is meant to communicate the exact same thing. Again, I understand the power of this perspective, but I also find it deeply problematic. If this our model for teaching the Bible in youth ministry we are teaching unhealthy and unsustainable reading practices.

For starters, this perspective unnecessarily obscures the diversity of voices and perspectives preserved within the biblical witness. When we think of the Bible a single book rather than a collection of books written by distinct people in disparate times and places, we lose something crucial. Our task should not be to smooth out all tensions in the biblical texts, but to grapple with those tensions and hold them up as model for the life of faith.

The Problem of Exile

A number of examples could be raised to highlight the internal dialogue of the Bible, but one that I find particularly helpful is between Isaiah 5 and Psalm 80. Both texts deal with the same basic problem, but in drastically different ways: the problem of exile.

The respective defeats of Israel and Judah at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians and subsequent banishment of many from their homes and land was more than a national disaster; it was a theological catastrophe. The violence of exile rendered God’s covenantal promises dubious. What happened? Why were they being punished so? Were they no longer God’s treasured possession? Or, worse still, had God failed to protect them? Had God been defeated?

These are perhaps some of the questions rattling in the minds of the people as they wrestle with the problem of exile. Indeed, the experience and catastrophe of exile haunts much of the Hebrew Bible. But, perhaps surprisingly, not all biblical authors answer the basic question of exile quite the same way.

Isaiah’s Vineyard

The prophet Isaiah, for instance, offers an allegorical song about a vineyard. The vineyard is called “beloved” and is planted by the vintner with care “on a very fertile hill” (v. 1). Because of the care and precautions taken by the vintner he expects the vineyard to produce a bountiful crop of grapes, but instead “it yielded wild grapes” (v. 2).

Through some clever rhetorical maneuvering the prophet uses the allegory to declare the culpability of the people for their own exile. For Isaiah the answer is simple: the people were disobedient. This is our lot because we were unfaithful. We disobeyed God and this what we deserve.

The Psalmist’s Accusation

The Psalmist, however, has a slightly different take on this question. In Psalm 80, instead of a penitent prophet crying for repentance from the people, we see someone who is deeply troubled at the idea of a God who could allow such an atrocity.

Contrary to Isaiah, the Psalmist does not call for repentance from the people, but instead calls for God to change because, according to him, it is God who broke down the wall. The overarching sense of the Psalm is that the people are being punished unjustly, and that God needs to be stirred to action. The Psalmist even seeks to strike a deal with God, bargaining that if God will again look upon the people, “Then we will never turn back from you; give us life and we will call your name” (v. 18).

When Scripture Talks Back

A Divine Dialogue

The beauty of the texts from Isaiah and the Psalm is that they don’t see eye to eye; they fundamentally disagree regarding what for them was a major theological issue. Yet, both are allowed to stand side by side in the same sacred corpus; somehow we consider both true.

We could try to harmonize these accounts; we could offer a reading of the Psalm that assumes its author shares the same perspective as Isaiah, but that would seem to do a disservice to the raw honesty and emotion of the Psalm. Or we could pit the perspectives against each other and try to decide which one is right. Which one more accurately represents the God we know?

The beauty of the texts from Isaiah and the Psalm is that they don’t see eye to eye; they fundamentally disagree regarding what for them was a major theological issue. Yet, both are allowed to stand side by side in the same sacred corpus; somehow we consider both true.

Instead, I think a better, and more fruitful, reading strategy would be to hold both texts side by side, preserving both voices in this divine dialogue. Our goal should not be to decide which one is right, and to present them in perfect harmony, but to highlight the diverse theological perspectives within the biblical witness. This kind of dialogical approach ought to be fundamental to the way read and teach the Bible.

How Now Do We Read Scripture?

Teaching and embodying a dialogical approach can help shift the way youth interact with the Bible for the better in at least three ways:

  1. A dialogical approach allows for richer engagement with the Bible, and helps give a better sense of the diverse voices preserved within our sacred literature. It gives a more honest image of the Bible that doesn’t seek to smooth out every tension, but deals with the texts as they are.
  2. A dialogical approach emphasizes the process rather than the end. Hopefully none of us would claim to have all the answers. While we generally know on some level that faith is a constant wrestling with big issues, we tend to teach that faith is black and white. If we began to care less about the answers and more about the dialogue we might be surprised by the value we find in the process itself.
  3. A dialogical approach better prepares youth to engage the world around them and to be more open to dialogue with folks who think differently. We are so bad at disagreeing, especially in the church. We need to teach our youth the value of listening and learning to disagree more hospitably. A dialogical approach allows them to see diverse perspectives existing side by side while still being invited into the same sacred space.

 


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.