Bugattis

Bugattis, Disability, and Youth Ministry

Happiness from Things

“A million dollars will not make you happy.”

“Zach, a million dollars will buy me a Bugatti, and that will make me happy,” the youth quipped.

“A Bugatti will not make you happy.”

“Have you ever driven a Bugatti?”

Bugattis

I had not. There goes my credibility. Not an auspicious beginning to my start as part time youth pastor. I was struggling to persuade the youth of even the most basic and hackneyed lessons: Jesus > Money. Thanks for nothing undergraduate degree in philosophy and religion. Thanks for nothing M.Div. from a prestigious seminary. I felt despondent. I looked up where I could test drive a Bugatti.

Happiness from Relationships

Thank God for Chris. Chris is a young man with Down’s syndrome that I knew well from my other job with Young Life Capernaum, the wing of Young Life’s ministry dedicated to reaching adolescents with disabilities.

Chris started coming to our church at my invitation. Chris met the youth. They go to the same school. Then some weeks later:

“I’m thinking about joining Best Buddies (an organization that partners neurotypical youth and peers with disabilities).

“Oh?” I asked with thinly veiled surprise.

Yeah, I only want Chris to be my buddy. I won’t be buddies with anyone but Chris.

“Sure,” I mumbled profoundly, mystified yet grateful.

They began a friendship which marked a period of spiritual growth and development for the youth that I can take little credit for. By his senior year he was president of his schools Best Buddies program, and his younger brother had started up a chapter at his middle school. Chris had taught them much more effectively than I had been able to.

You Cannot Serve Two Gods

Youth pastors can be more like our youth than we would like to believe. If I asked youth pastors what would spell success for their youth groups, they might not say a million dollars or a Bugatti (although even I would give it a try if someone offered), but they may have on their mind people or things the world values rather than what Jesus values.

There are kids that walk into your youth group and you can’t help but notice their gifts. They are funny, athletic, and popular. They are the kids other kids want to be around. If you put enough of them in a room, add pizza, games, and a lesson you will be set.

Then there are the kids I work with in Young Life Capernaum. If you put enough of them in a room, you’ll have many youth pastors stammering sagely about boundaries and prudent stewardship of time. Not that those things go out the window, but there are always noble reasons to avoid the bewildering and uncomfortable values of Jesus.

We usually don’t take Jesus seriously when he tells us he values the invisible, marginalized, and needy.

What Do You Value?

We usually don’t take Jesus seriously when he tells us he values the invisible, marginalized, and needy. However, if money could help our youth groups live into God’s Kingdom, these poor ones would be reckoned as spiritual millionaires. The students with disabilities I work with may be socially awkward, or have more accessibility needs than our pre-ADA church can accommodate, but without them my youth group and I see a much dimmer picture of the Kingdom. If we want our youth to grow up with a vivid picture of God’s Kingdom, then we need to start valuing these students like they are handing out million dollar bills.

Where in your youth group would young people with disabilities be welcomed? This week, how can you begin widening the circle of young people who would be welcomed? Challenge yourself, your leaders, and your young people to love whoever might walk through your doors, embodying the welcome we hope to receive in God’s Kingdom.


About the Author: Zach Grant

Zach Grant

Zacharias Grant works as the Youth Pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in St. Augustine, FL and as coordinator for Young Life’s disability ministry in St. Augustine. Zacharias got his undergraduate degree from Flagler College studying philosophy, religion and youth ministry. He received his M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is most passionate about increasing the contact and conversation between the church and folks with disabilities for their mutual transformation.

Church vs Culture

Church vs Culture

I was a 16 year old, trained to battle the world… 

I have spent a lifetime in church. I was baptized as an infant. I was the perennial second place winner of Sunday School Bible memorization. I was unflinchingly committed to my youth group, a hard-core every week kid. And sometime in 80s and 90s, with the rise of the religious right, I was drafted into the Evangelical culture wars.

Church vs Culture

We built our camps… 

In my formative years of youth ministry history, in the Evangelical Deep South, we had a well defined war strategy: Copy-Replace. I think I was in ninth grade when I realized that “Christian” was an adjective that could be applied to anything (thanks Rob Bell, for the language to describe that phenomenon).

You like punk rock? Try Christian Punk Rock! You play basketball?  Try Church League Basketball! Your breath stinks? Don’t use those worldly mints, use these! We sat together in the lunch room, we wore WWJD bracelets and carried Bibles in the hallway. We skipped prom… well I didn’t actually skip prom, but my buddies did! Like dating? Kiss it goodbye—Christians court! You get it, we did things differently.

We lost… 

I feel like it would be counter productive to lay out all of the specific issues that we chose to be our “hill to die on.” If I defined the battle lines, I think we would be in danger of missing the point. Suffice to say the issues that were paramount in my context—at the conferences I went to, in the music I listened to—are no longer a part of the wider cultural discussion.

Since we build culture, it seems safe to say that culture needs redemption. We cannot call culture holy in a sweeping, uncritical way. We can find God in grimy places, and we can call out sin in places that look all put together. We are blessed with God’s Spirit that allows us to live in tension.

Fifteen years later the dust has settled and across the board we have lost or fallen out of relevance in the conversation. We’ve got some stragglers like the Japanese soldiers who were still fighting  in the 1970s, but the culture as a whole has moved on, with or without us. So what do we do?

Christ and Culture

Richard Niebuhr started a conversation about this 60 years ago, and the church has been fumbling through it ever since. He lays out five possibilities for Christian engagement in culture:

The “Everything is evil, let’s get out of here” approach (Christ Against Culture)

My experience was close to this approach. “Christ against Culture” draws a thick black line between church and culture, then backs as far away from that line as possible. It looks like total separation: Mennonites and monks. In youth group terms, this is the purest form of the “Christian bubble.” I’m not here to tell you which approach to choose… but don’t choose this one.

 The “This is fine everybody, nothing to see here” approach (Christ of Culture)

This one is pretty rare, because it’s nuts. Essentially this view understands the incarnation of Christ as an affirmation of humanity and human aspirations. Therefore human culture is celebrated, taken as fundamentally good in an un-critical way. No tension, no difference between Christian values and cultural values. In short, culture is goodan extension of God’s Kingdom. Please don’t teach your students to accept culture as holy without using the Spirit-guided critical senses. That’s nuts.

The “Let’s get real, guys” approach (Christ above CultureSynthesis)

Recognizing that the first two approaches are extremes, Niebuhr offered the Lite version. In short, culture is not fundamentally evil, but it needs Gospel influence. That may sound like common sense, but the implications may go further than you’re comfortable with.

When missionaries affirm pagan practices as reflections of God’s truth they are practicing the synthesis approach. When you quote the Bible in your talk, then use a movie clip to say the same thing, you are doing a tame version of synthesis.

The “It may not be evil, but I am uncomfortable” approach (Christ above CultureParadox)

The only difference between this view and synthesis is a healthy dose of skepticism. Or perhaps a more honest assessment of the effects of sin. Christ is Lord of the church and culture. Culture is good. Well it’s pretty good. The synthesis view may still sound like a celebration of culture. The paradox view is characterized by tension. The world isn’t fundamentally evil, culture is not bad. However, it is broken and so are we. God’s Kingdom is breaking through in beautiful ways right now. But it’s hard to find and the night is dark and full of terrors.

The “It’s kind of evil, let’s change it’ approach (Christ above CultureTransforming)

Add one more dose of skepticism to the paradox approach and move two steps towards your sense that the world is really broken. That is where the transforming approach is born. Culture may not be totally evil; like us, it was designed by God. However, it is fundamentally broken and our energy should go into changing it, not celebrating or co-opting it. This is different than the “against” approach because it believes culture can be changed. It isn’t broken in a way that puts it beyond redemption or the authority of Christ. This was my late 90s wheelhouse.

So What Do I Do with My Students?

If the world were somehow fundamentally evil, then what is the Incarnation about? Did God inhabit an evil shell? No! And because God created the world, the world reflects God’s nature. God’s Kingdom is peeking around the corners of our culture. Also, kids are swimming in culture. You cannot remove them, or yourself! We aren’t doing kids any favors when we teach them to shut it out and push it away. And we ignore our own blind spots when we pretend we are not part of culture.

It’s also clear that we are broken in some way. Since we build culture, it seems safe to say that culture needs redemption. We cannot call culture holy in a sweeping, uncritical way. We can find God in grimy places, and we can call out sin in places that look all put together. We are blessed with God’s Spirit that allows us to live in tension.

We have the power to find God in the culture and find places in need of redemption. We are charged with giving our teenagers that same power—to recognize the world they are immersed in, and begin to critically engage it for the sake of the Gospel.

Interested in more? Comment, or read Niebuhr!


About the Author: Tyler Fuller

tyler fuller

The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doing 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!)

Youth Ministry Games - Kindred Youth Ministry

Youth Ministry Games: Play As Ministry

Some of us youth workers have found ourselves in the habit of compartmentalizing the games we play from the theology we teach. And that’s not all unhealthy. It’s good that youth ministry is shifting away from some of its more frivolous entertainment strategies to something more meaningful.

Youth Ministry Games - Kindred Youth Ministry

But in our search for meaning and spiritual depth in youth ministry, games have become, for some of us, just a pesky means to an end. We’ve got to play the games because kids like them (and we like them!) but, beyond that, they’re fairly superficial. The real ministry is the worship time and theological discussions…especially when they get emotional and people start crying.

But what if I told you that play is not just a pesky means to an end, but a vital element of our ministry and of our theology itself? What if I told you that, from a theological standpoint, play might be central to ministry, not superficial?

The games we play in youth ministry, when they are truly playful, will offer a space that anticipates young people’s liberation from the need to be useful, the need to constantly worry about status, the constant pressure to improve and mature… Our play can be our ministry.

To think theologically about how we play, we’ve got to think about play’s conceptual counterparts: joy and happiness.

Augustine and Joy

Joy and happiness have been important to Christian thought throughout church history (and they aren’t peripheral to Scripture either!). As early as the fifth century, people have been trying to figure out joy. What is joy? How do we get it?

You could say that these questions were important to Augustine, one of the church’s first and greatest theologians. Augustine determined that “happiness is knowing, loving, and enjoying God securely.” But throughout history, human beings have tended to look in all the wrong places for joy.

Luther and Joy

By the time Martin Luther started writing, about a thousand years after Augustine, this tendency found a home in people’s fear and anxiety about their status with God. People were afraid of God’s wrath and were longing to relieve that fear by finding their joy and happiness through whatever means the church offered them. But Luther, a faithful reader of Scripture (and of Augustine), insisted that the gospel proclaimed freedom from this kind of anxiety, from this preoccupation with “the law.”

Luther taught that justification through Christ and freedom from the fear of wrath is our real joy. Happiness comes from the assurance that “divine mercy will overwhelm divine justice on judgement day.”

Calvin and Joy

John Calvin thought this tendency to look elsewhere than God for joy was located in human arrogance. People have a tendency to search for joy by elevating themselves, by putting themselves first, and seeking their own temporal interests. As Calvin saw it, the search for joy could not end in such prideful self-seeking, but only in total humility before God.

For people to authentically find their joy in God, they must know their place before God and perceive the great chasm between God’s goodness and human sinfulness. This means, instead of coercing our circumstances to serve ourselves, we are to search for God’s goodness even in the worst circumstances. Even when bad things are happening to us, we can, according to Calvin, humbly look away from our own powers and rest instead in the assurance of God’s love and sovereignty.

Joy as… Worthlessness?

Later, a genius by the name of Blaise Pascal would come on the scene and double-down on Calvin’s call to humility. For Pascal, real joy came not only through humility before God but through utter self denial and even downright self-hatred. To put God, the true source of joy, at the very center, meant to put yourself completely on the outside. For Pascal, our joy comes through being “worthless” before God.

It’s a little counter-intuitive, isn’t it? The search for joy in Christian history, at least the strand of it we’re talking about here, has lead further and further away from the concern for the self. It’s especially strange to the ears of this generation, perhaps, that has been told over and over again, in myriad and subtle ways, that happiness comes through what we can own and what we can achieve. We, and the young people with whom we do ministry, are told to search for happiness in ourselves. This is, again, the wrong place to look.

But while Luther, Calvin, and Pascal can help us think through these things, perhaps we should reframe how we think about the search for joy. Self-denial is hardly helpful to a generation that’s already plagued by the brokenness of the world. And humility can be easily manipulated into a weapon for people with power to use against people suffering under their oppression.

And what on earth does this have to do with games at youth group? The joy Pascal described is hardly compatible with our current understandings of dodgeball and four-on-a-couch. Who can help us reframe our understanding of joy?

Moltmann and Joy

Perhaps no living theologian has had as much to say about joy and play as Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann shifted the conversation about joy away from “self-denial” and toward playfulness. In the face of the horrors of this world, the horrors to which the young people in our youth groups have almost immediate digital access through one screen or another, Moltmann asked the question, how can we play in the midst of suffering? He suggested that, through play, “we can anticipate our liberation and with laughing rid ourselves of the bonds which alienate us from real life.” Playfulness is the mark of human beings finding the true source of their joy in God. And thus, the recovery of faith itself depends on the recovery of joy.

In a world stricken by the need to achieve and produce, a world so anxious about purposes and improvements, a world where human beings are so often reduced to their function and usefulness to society, Moltmann offers joy as a gracious interruption of our compulsion.

Essentially revisiting Luther’s perspective on joy as freedom from the law, Moltmann argued that “Where everything must be useful and used, faith tends to regard its own freedom as good for nothing. It tries to make itself useful and in so doing often gambles away its freedom.” In joy, a person comes before God not because they’re useful to God, nor out of necessity or obligation, but out of delight. Joy “abolishes the intent of such questions as: …for what purpose am I here? For the answer does not indicate ethical goals and ideal purposes but justifies created existence as such.” The question of a person’s worth, a person’s value to God, is not a joyful question. In God’s joy, “our existence is justified and made beautiful before we are able to do or fail to do anything.”

We Need To Play

So Pascal was right! Real joy does come from being “worthless” before God… but probably not in the way Pascal thought about it. Embracing Luther’s doctrine of joy as freedom from fear of the wrath of God and Calvin’s doctrine of happiness as humility before God, we can say that real joy comes from being “worthless”… that is, being in such a relationship with God that “worth” has nothing to do with it. We call this relationship friendship.

The games we play in youth ministry, when they are truly playful, will offer a space that anticipates young people’s liberation from the need to be useful, the need to constantly worry about status, the constant pressure to improve and mature. When we have fun, and discover that God is there in the playfulness of joy, we are inviting young people into the experience of true spirituality, a coming before God in the “worthlessness” of free joy and friendship with the God who is joyful in God’s very being. Our play can be our ministry.


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why:
A Youth Ministry Response

It was an average youth group meeting, plates with pizza crust were strewn across the floor, kids were loud and chattering, sneaking peeks at their cell phones. I overheard a group of girls gushing about “13 Reasons Why,” a show I had briefly, though with curiosity, scrolled past on my Netflix account.

After listening to them rave, it was clear to me that “13 Reasons Why” was the next “binge watch” fad. So in an effort to connect more with my kids, I decided to give it a watch.

13 Reasons Why

Disappointment

I was disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed because it was yet another adolescent show that played into the teenage television trope of high school melodrama, sexual tension, jocks and loners, and forays in drinking and snogging. I expected all of those things (and, let’s be real, even adults still maintain a fascination with teenage culture. My own teen years were filled with “My So Called Life” viewings and Nirvana blaring through headphones. And I still own, and wear on the regular, a pair of original black Doc Marten boots).

No, I was disappointed by just how much this show got suicide so wrong.

“Everyone is just so nice, until they drive you to kill yourself,” is one of many definitive statements made by Clay, the 17 year old protagonist in the series. “13 Reasons Why” is a story about Hannah Baker, the new kid in school, who takes her own life and leaves behind a recording of 13 tapes detailing the people and events that drove her to her death. The story follows Clay as he deals and interacts with the people mentioned in these tapes.

I was disappointed by just how much this show got suicide so wrong.

But the show isn’t really about Clay. It’s about Hannah. And its entire plot structure is about unraveling the mystery of the why of her suicide. When that’s the premise of your plot, you better do your due diligence in getting it right.

But the show is almost assuredly more harmful in its message than helpful. The series presents Hannah’s death as the product of cyber bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of victimization, all perpetuated by her own classmates.

There is no mention of mental illness.

This leaves the viewer with, as my students told me verbatim, the “lesson that we should be kind to one another and not bully each other.” Because it is, as depicted very obviously in the show, bullying and harassment that drive young people to commit suicide.

Every 17 Minutes

13 Reasons WhyEvery 17 minutes in America, someone commits suicide, and it is more often than not a young person, a kid (it is the second leading cause of death for older adolescents). In 1995, for example, more young people died of suicide than of AIDS, cancer, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, birth defects, and heart disease combined. And that rate has steadily gone up over the past decade — 260 percent in the last 30 years.

We are so uncomfortable and afraid of this epidemic, however, that oftentimes we cling to our misguided belief that it is mostly the kids who “have a rough time” and are victims of their peers’ harassment and alienation that are the ones who kill themselves.

Narratives like “13 Reasons Why” play into that misguided belief, leading my students (even after the advent of brain imaging, the new research in genetics, and the impressive gain of scientific understanding regarding the organic brain disorders that cause mental illness) to parrot “if we would only be kind, we can help people. We can save lives.”

Which, the flip side of this statement is, of course, (and Clay claims this as much in the series) that “we all killed Hannah Baker.” We are somehow responsible for another’s suicide. Survivor’s guilt, experienced by the people impacted by the suicide of their loved one, is one of the most unfortunate consequences of this widespread tragedy.

The Myth

Kay Redfield Jamison, author of Night Falls Fast, and a psychiatrist who herself suffers from Bipolar disorder, perfectly and succinctly sums up just how untrue this popular myth of “be kind and save lives” is.

Jamison recounts her own suicide attempt, explaining how her disrupted thought was equally as disrupted as her mood: ”No amount of love from or for other people — and there was a lot — could help. No advantage of a caring family and fabulous job was enough to overcome the pain and hopelessness I felt; no passionate or romantic love, however strong, could make a difference. Nothing alive and warm could make its way in through my carapace. I knew my life to be a shambles and I believed — incontestably — that my family, friends and patients would be better off without me. There wasn’t much of me left anymore, anyway, and I thought my death would free up the wasted energies and well-meant efforts that were being wasted in my behalf.

What Now?

If the answer is not as simple as “be nice,” then what can we church volunteers and pastors, who work specifically with young people, do to help? What can a Christian community offer that is unique from school assemblies and public service announcements?

For starters, the church can be a resource, connecting people with trusted mental health professionals.

But on a more theological level, Christianity has long been familiar with “the dark night of the soul.” In the traditions of the church, the liturgy of the worship service, and the verses of lament within the pages of scripture, Christianity offers a unique voice to those who are suffering from mental health conditions and despair.

The Gospel compels us to seek out those who are hurting, and to provide not just empty niceties or small acts of kindness but, rather, a community, a consistent group of people who live in relationship with the sick.

Not only does our Christian faith have a long and intimate relationship with suffering, thereby helping us to be more comfortable with hard stigmatizing topics, but our faith also places suffering in a larger redemptive narrative. It’s a narrative that tells us that suffering does not have the last word. The protagonist in our story, Jesus Christ, does not depart from us after his prayers at Gethsemane or his cries on the cross. Our savior departs from us after he has resurrected and defeated death, heralding a new season of advent, of waiting for the reconciliation of all things.

Jesus also teaches us how to behave toward those who are suffering, who are on the margins, who are sick, who are alienated. The Gospel compels us to seek out those who are hurting, and to provide not just empty niceties or small acts of kindness but, rather, a community, a consistent group of people who live in relationship with the sick.

“13 Reasons Why” is good entertainment for some. It resonates with the angst of kids trying to grow up in an increasingly complex world of mass text messaging, video capability in the palm of your hand, and split second social media posting.

But it gets the why wrong.

And so, may we be ministers of the right why, which will then powerfully enable us to be committed disciples of the right how. The right how of being a resurrected people reaching out to a dark and hurting world…in a well informed way.


About the Author: Megan Cullip

MeganMegan Cullip currently serves as a youth minister in Connecticut. Her first call in ministry was as a chaplain at a state psychiatric hospital. She is also a trained substance abuse counselor. Megan loves music, cheeseburgers, deep conversation, laughing with friends, and hikes in the woods. Her favorite theologian is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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.
Think Theologically

Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry

Youth workers haven’t always been famous for deep theological reflection.

In fact, youth ministry has been blamed by some for the bigger problem of the church’s lack of theological depth.

ThinkingTheologically

But even though youth ministry is more famous for games like “Chubby Bunny” (which, if I’m not mistaken, has been mostly banned) and other strange games involving food, there has been a shift—a “theological turn,” if you will, in youth ministry (see Kenda Creasy Dean and Andrew Root’s The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry).

The Shift

Thinking theologically is more commonplace in youth ministry than ever before in the United States, as more and more youth workers are realizing the theological nature of the task of ministry. It’s not strange anymore for a youth pastor to know something about John Calvin or Paul Tillich or to find youth workers having theological conversations at their conventions and conferences.

But the theological turn in youth ministry is more than just a revival of theological interest. It’s not just about youth workers reading more theology and applying it to their situation. It’s about youth workers seeing their youth ministry itself as theological—as a place to learn more about God, and as an opportunity to attend to and share in what God is doing in the midst of what young people are actually experiencing.

To be a good youth worker is not just to know what Karl Barth’s answer would be to a practical problem, it’s being able to see what God is doing and to participate in it, inviting young people to do the same.

How You Can Think Theologically

So here I want to give you a very basic outline of how, if ministry is theological, youth workers can think theologically about their youth ministry.

(If you’re up for the challenge of reading some more academic material, the stuff I’m about to talk about comes mostly from Richard R. Osmer’s Practical Theology: An Introduction and Andrew Root’s Christopraxis.)

It’s about youth workers seeing their youth ministry itself as theological—as a place to learn more about God, and as an opportunity to attend to and share in what God is doing in the midst of what young people are actually experiencing.

According to Richard Osmer, practical theology—the kind of theological reflection that attends specifically to human experience and practice—includes four movements. Good practical theologians are already in the habit of moving in these four movements, not necessarily always in the same order, and I think that youth workers would do well to get in the habit too. I would encourage you to try thinking through these four movements, or “tasks,” whenever you’re trying to figure out how to handle a situation.

Movement 1: Describe the situation

The first movement is the descriptive movement. Ask the question, What’s the situation? What’s going on?

You can imagine any situation you are facing in youth ministry—conflict between people in the youth group, the overuse of social media among teenagers, a young person with a mental illness, whatever. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a “problem,” per se. It just has to be a situation or an incident worth your attention as a youth worker.

The hard part about this movement is to do your best not to assume too much. In other words, don’t start interpreting the situation just yet (leave your psychology text books at home for this one). Just be a good listener and listen carefully to what’s actually going on.

I should note at this point that this is already a theological movement. When we come to any situation as youth workers, we come with the expectation that God is moving. Our starting point is God… and the conviction that when we listen carefully, we’re listening to the Holy Spirit.

Movement 2: Interpret the situation

After you’ve listened carefully and can describe the situation in a way that would be familiar to the people in it, it’s time to ask the question, “Why did  this happen?” or “Why is this happening?”

This question will lead to the question, “What kind of problem is this?” (Hint: now it’s ok to bring your psychology text book… or your anthropology textbook… or your philosophy book… just depends on the situation).

Maybe it’s a psychological issue. Maybe it’s something you can understand better if you understand culture. Maybe it’s got something to do with how the world perceives truth. Maybe if you knew a little more about the history of the church you’re working in you’d understand why a conflict exists. Trust the situation, and the Holy Spirit in it, to guide you. This is all happening because…???

Movement 3: Name God’s action in the situation.

As I’ve already said, these movement are theological from the start, but this third movement, what Osmer and Root call, “the normative task” is the most explicitly theological task. If I was forced to rank them (I’d resist, but…) I’d say this is the most important movement if ministry’s really what we’re up to.

This is also the task that people are most likely to skip. It’s natural to say, “I know what’s going on, I know why, now I’m gonna fix it!” But before we move to strategizing and fixing things, we’ve got to be clear about what God is doing or wants to do. That means we have to spend some time talking about God.

Osmer says that the question of this movement is, “What ought to be happening?” Andrew Root adds a caveat: “What ought to be happening… now that God has encountered us…” (Christopraxis, p. 26).

This movement is all about figuring out what God’s presence in a situation says about the situation. Although I already said that the theological turn in youth ministry is not about applying theology to things, reading theology and understanding the bible will be really important for this movement—it will help us attend to God’s presence in the experience. The simplest question of this movement, I would say, is, “What theological questions does this situation raise” (tip: it’s helpful to go ahead and name what kind of theological problem we’re facing… is it a Christological problem, an eschatological problem, an ecclesiological problem?… and start from there).

Movement 4: Do something.

Now for the part we’ve all been waiting for (or at least the part that most youth workers are eager to get to)… now do something. The fourth movement is the “pragmatic” or the strategic movement.

Now that we know what’s really happening, why it’s happening, and what ought to be happening, we can make something happen!

You might discover that you need to make a real changes in your youth ministry. You might still decide that food games are the right thing to do in your youth ministry.

You’ll still be doing what you signed up to do, but this time you won’t just be doing it because it sounded fun or because everyone else is doing it. You won’t even being doing it just because it works. You’ll be doing it because it’s what God’s doing. (tip: it might be tempting, but do not forget what you learned from the normative movement!)

Try it!

Next time you’re facing a tough situation (or even an easy or good one), you can still crowd source your favorite youth ministry Facebook page, but also try thinking theologically through these four movements. There aren’t really any rules. You don’t have to do everything in perfect order. In fact, you can enter the process through any of the four movements.

I’d also recommend doing this with a group. It’s a great way to organize your conversations with your youth ministry volunteer leaders. The most important thing is that you’re thinking theologically… you’re looking for God and participating in God’s action, and you’re part of the theological turn in youth ministry.

How to Think Theologically About Youth Ministry


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

 

Ministering in the Face of Tragedy

Ministering in the Face of Tragedy: What One Pastor Learned from Pulse

“I hate the man who did this!”

My daughter spoke them early in the morning as we watched the chaos of the Pulse shooting unfold on the local news station in Florida. Over a year later, those words still haunt me.

Ministering in the Face of Tragedy

I am haunted by her words because I knew that we would have to move her past hate. As followers of Jesus, we aren’t allowed to hate even evil men who do evil things. The words haunt me because it was such a natural reaction for her. She simply hated.

Most of all, her words haunted me because I was feeling the same hate. I also hated this man.

I have urged people to love their enemies, as I believe it is the highest good and yet I was seething on my couch with hatred for a man who had done horrendous things in my city to my neighbors.

So we began the long journey of learning not to hate. We prayed. We cried. We preached. We served. We questioned our theology.

We have spent a lot of time reflecting as a family and a ministry over the last year on how we welcome strangers, spend time with those not like us, and love our enemies. It has been hard and painful, but it has also been good.

It Happens Again

Part of me was hoping that the Pulse shooting, just like Sandy Hook before it, would wake us up and we would find a way to move past our cultures obsession with violence. I was hoping we would figure out how to care for those suffering from mental illness or how to have and use weapons responsibly.

And then it happened again. We woke to the news of another mass shooting. The worst in US history, surpassing the Pulse shooting a little over a year alter. Close to 60 people dead and over 500 wounded.

Sandy Hook, to Orlando, to Las Vegas – we are once again witnesses to the capacity humans have for evil.

All we knew is that a man attacked our city and killed our neighbors, and for this we hated.

As ministers of the Gospel, we have the responsibility to walk with our students and parishioners through these moments. We have a responsibility to help our families move toward reconciliation and action in the world. We must lead our people toward the Prince of Peace so that we can live under His rule and reign in a culture that exchanged peace for violence, love for hate.

As a family and a ministry that lives in a city that experienced such violence and served people who lost loved ones in a mass shooting, we stumbled often and have learned a lot along the way. As we have raised our children through the backdrop of terror and led our church through such pain, here are some things we have learned.

1. People respond to tragedy, both near and far, differently… and this is good

After the Pulse shooting, I led a small staff meeting at our church and I picked up on three responses to the tragedy.

Some people wanted to sit and mourn. They just wanted to cry and talk about the lives lost. This was good and right. These moments are appropriate moments to mourn.

Others wanted to take immediate action. They wanted to take water to victims, give blood, pray at hospitals, and more. Again, this was good and right. People needed help immediately and this was an appropriate time and place to meet those needs.

As we walk with our students through this time of pain and confusion, let us speak life into them and let us love those we consider enemies and “the other.”

And still others took the long view. In the midst of the chaos, these people asked big questions like “why?” and “how?” They wanted to talk philosophy, theology, ethics, and politics so they could wrap their minds around what seemed to be meaningless violence. Again, this is a good and appropriate response. These big ideas need to be explored and wrestled with.

As we minister to our students and families in the backdrop of such evil, we will come across all three of these responses and more. It is important to not value one response over another. All of these responses are good, normal, and worth validating. Our responsibility is to honor the value of each response and help each person work through it in ways that are healthy and life giving.

2. People want Jesus

In the wake of the Pulse shooting, I remember a friend asking if we could just be with Jesus. All she wanted was to sit at His feet. So we opened up the book of Matthew and read the Sermon on the Mount. We talked about His teaching, His care for his people, and His ability to calm storms. We prayed and sang songs of praise.We welcomed Jesus into this moment and in His presence we found hope and peace.

As ministers, we cannot overlook the simplicity of this life-changing act. No matter how people are responding to tragedy, all of us need to be with Jesus.

While we sit with our church family and process the evil we have experienced personally or witnessed on the news, make sure we sit with Jesus. Read from the Gospel, open our prayer books and pray corporately, sing songs of lament and praise, and let us be the body of Christ together.

3. People need to be led into peacemaking

After the initial shock and pain grows dull, people continued to ask us what was next. They wanted to engage their community in ways that would move us past hate and anger. They wanted to love their community and bring peace to a community in fear. We spent a lot of time talking and teaching on how to be sent into our communities as agents of peace and love. How to be relational and care for people with no agenda.

We spent our time focusing on two practices that would help us being peace to our community.

First, we developed the practice of speaking life and not death. We refused to use “us versus them” language. We avoided calling people foolish, bigots, and idiots. We tried to transcend the conservative and liberal divide by validating the real emotions and ideas of others and by using the words of Jesus (particularly the Sermon on the Mount).

Where there was fear, we spoke life. Where there was hate, we spoke life. Where there was confusion, we spoke life. Speaking life brought peace and opened honest dialogue in a community that was hurt and scared.

Second, we made an intentional effort to love “the other” and our enemies. We encouraged our Caucasian members to spend time with our minority brothers and sisters. We encouraged straight people to take members of our LGBTQ community out to lunch. We encouraged liberals to hangout with conservatives.

Our approach was to love our enemies and those we deemed “other than us” until enemies and others became brothers and sisters. We called our people to it and then we did it. We spent time in neighborhoods and cafes that we never would have in the past. We took our church members with us and we lived as witness to the kingdom God in these spaces.

As we walk with our students through this time of pain and confusion, let us speak life into them and let us love those we consider enemies and “the other.”

This is a Journey

This started with the story of my daughter and I processing our hate for a man neither of us knew. All we knew is that a man attacked our city and killed our neighbors, and for this we hated.

As we sat on our couch, I knew we couldn’t stay here. We couldn’t sit in our hate. I also knew it would be a journey to move past the initial response to a place of being faithful followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Just as it was a journey for my daughter and I, it was a journey for our church. It has taken us a long time to move through our initial response. We have had to spend much time processing our thoughts and emotions. We have had to spend countless hours in the presence of Jesus as we have cast our fears and doubts upon him. And we have had to commit to being present with people we never imagined as we have attempted to be peacemakers in a hurt community.

Our nation is hurt right now. We have experienced natural disasters that have taken homes and lives. And bringing even more pain, we experienced another mass shooting that is forcing us to reflect on the posture of our culture and question our personal beliefs.

I pray for all of us as we minister in this climate. As we engage a people who are hurt, angry, and defensive may we crate space for a variety of good and important responses. May we journey with people, as they desire to be with Jesus. And by our words and example, may lead people into our communities as ministers of reconciliation serving as peacemakers in a broken and conflicted world.


About the Author: Jeremy Penn

Jeremy PennJeremy Penn is the founder and pastor of The Crowded House Network (www.thecrowdedhouse.net). The Crowded House is a network of missional house churches that serves dechurched and unchurched communities.  Prior to this Jeremy served as a youth and young adult minister at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, FL. He earned an MA in Theological Studies from Talbot School of Theology. He is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary that focuses on The Church and Post-Christendom. Jeremy and his wife, Crystal, have a daughter, Riley, and a son, Phoenix.

Becoming Communities of Reconciliation

BECOMING COMMUNITIES OF RECONCILIATION:
NOT ANOTHER ARTICLE ABOUT THE BROKENNESS OF AMERICA

There have been plenty of articles, memes, and social media posts detailing the fractured culture we in the United States find ourselves in. The reality is that the state of culture hasn’t changed much. It has always been fractured.

Becoming Communities of Reconciliation

Racism has always been inherent in our systems of power and in the lives of individuals.

Sexism and misogyny have always been present in boardrooms and bedrooms.

Fear of the liberal agendas and hate for conservative agendas are part of our culture’s fabric.

We are a nation fueled by antagonism and violence. It is who we are.

The major change is that these realties are erupting on our TV sets, and in our cities, neighborhoods, homes, and churches.

The fractured culture is front and center. What was once talked about in hushed tones and behind closed doors is now shouted from every news agency, political voice, and person with a smart phone.

Conflict as Opportunity

It is impossible to keep such conflict out of our churches and our youth ministries. Churches are made up of people who come from a plethora of backgrounds and beliefs. When these people gather in sacred spaces, the chance of conflict because of these differences is high.

One approach to coming conflict is to simply avoid it and not allow for it to be expressed in our faith communities. This is an awful idea. It actually works against the way of Jesus.

Jesus calls us to confess to one another, to carry each other’s burdens, to reconcile with one another, and to bring truth into light.

Submitting to these practices will naturally bring these conflicts to light.

As followers of Jesus and minsters of the Gospel we are to be peacemakers and actively seek reconciliation in our communities of faith.

Because of this we must begin to look at this time of great conflict and anger in our culture as an opportunity for reconciliation. David Fitch rightly notes that times of disagreement and conflict “are opportunities for the kingdom to break in and change the world.”[1]

Youth Ministers and Youth Ministries Have a Responsibility

As agents and ministers of reconciliation, we cannot run from our responsibility to open space for healing, truth, and forgiveness to be experienced. As followers of Jesus and minsters of the Gospel we are to be peacemakers and actively seek reconciliation in our communities of faith.

Our students are rapidly developing their sense of justice and morality. They are learning how to live in right relationship with God and others. They are also soaking up cultural norms and modes of dialogue.

We have a responsibility to help shape this process and to reconcile broken relationships due to ideological differences as our students move through these pivotal developmental moments.

Four Practices for Reconciling

As we work toward forming reconciling communities, we must begin to develop practices that will help ensure we are moving from antagonism toward reconciliation. Preaching a great sermon on unity or reconciliation is necessary, but we also need repeatable disciplines as our communities develop.

1. Cultural Exegesis

There are dozens of issues and tragedies that our students and churches can be divided over. Race relations, political positions, immigration issues, the use of violent force, LGBTQ+ rights, and more.

Part of our role as ministers of reconciliation is to exegete our specific culture and community. We do this by asking questions like these:

  • What antagonisms are dominating my students’ lives?
  • What are people talking about at Starbucks?
  • What images and headlines are on my local paper’s front page
  • What are my students responding to on social media?

As we are asking ourselves these kinds of questions, we also remain present in the lives of our students so we can discern what God is doing. From this location we can begin to identify areas of conflict and unrest in our students and the church.

2. Open Dialogue

Most of our students are not jumping into healthy discussions around these difficult issues. The usual approaches are to post behind the safety social media or send texts to like-minded individuals.

Very few adults, let alone students, have the maturity to have open and honest dialogue when conflict is guaranteed to present itself.

As leaders of our ministries, we must create environments to have these difficult conversations. We must tackle them straight on. If your community struggles with racism, have a round table discussion about God’s design for a diverse humanity.

Be prepared for disagreement, and be prepared to steer conversations toward mutual understanding, conviction and repentance when necessary, and forgiveness and grace always. This approach leads students toward inner processing and self-discovery.

3. Submitting to the Other

A difficult practice that we should begin to model and encourage our students to follow is submitting to the other. You and I also hold strong beliefs about many difficult issues. Part of being a mature adult, and a mature Christian, is realizing that others disagree and often have good reasons and/or life experiences that drive them to opposing views.

Learning to submit ourselves to the experiences of others does not require us to abandon our own deep convictions. Rather, it recognizes the other as fully human, intelligent, and worthy of respect.

Simple statements such as, “I see truth and goodness in what you are proposing” or “I can see how that experience has influenced your beliefs” gives dignity to those we strongly disagree with.

As we do this in our own lives, we can begin to lead our students in similar practices. We can ask our students carefully consider another person’s view. Not necessarily to change one’s mind, but to better know and be known by others. In submitting to others in this way, we open the possibility of understanding and peacemaking.

4. Sharing Meals

It is exceptionally difficult to remain in conflict with one another when tacos are on the table. If you are working with young adults, swap out the tacos and share a beer or good bourbon.

In a culture driven by antagonism and violence, we must become people of the table.

As we dive into these necessary conversations, the practice of meal sharing will stir-up moments for reconciliation. Around the shared table we are reminded of the Eucharist – where people of all walks life and persuasions share the body and blood of Jesus.

Around the table we can discern God’s activity in the hearts and minds of our students. We can help usher in moments of forgiveness and grace.

In a culture driven by antagonism and violence, we must become people of the table.

Knowing our Community

It is our job as youth pastors to know our faith community. We must know our students and the culture they are navigating. We must be present in their lives to know how they feel on pressing cultural issues and how their families, schools, and neighborhood are shaping them.

With this relational knowledge, we must begin the long process of reconciliation within our churches. While differences on theological issues, political issues, and relational issues will remain, they need not be points of division.

By patiently walking our students through various practices and with much prayer, we can usher in the grace necessary for relationships to be reconciled and our communities can more accurately reflect the fellowship of diversity that is the Kingdom of God.

[1] David Fitch, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 78.


About the Author: Jeremy Penn

Jeremy PennJeremy Penn is the founder and pastor of The Crowded House Network (www.thecrowdedhouse.net). The Crowded House is a network of missional house churches that serves dechurched and unchurched communities.  Prior to this Jeremy served as a youth and young adult minister at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, FL. He earned an MA in Theological Studies from Talbot School of Theology. He is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary that focuses on The Church and Post-Christendom. Jeremy and his wife, Crystal, have a daughter, Riley, and a son, Phoenix.

the worst youth pastor ever

Worst Youth Pastor Ever

I used to think I was the worst youth pastor ever.

the worst youth pastor ever

When I was a young youth worker, fresh out of college, a small church took a chance and hired me as their Director of Youth Ministry. But about two years into the job, I started to feel burnout.

I began to feel like I just wasn’t doing a good job. Though I tried my darnedest, the young people at my church just weren’t developing the way I wanted them to. They didn’t really know a lot about the Bible, they weren’t into doing their “morning devotionals,” and no form of bribery could coerce them into praying out loud. It seemed like all the youth pastors at other churches had young people in their groups who had the Bible memorized and sang Hillsong music in the shower.

But no matter what I did, my group just wasn’t changing into the super Christians I saw at the other churches. I figured it was mostly my fault. If I was a better youth pastor, I’d be influencing these kids to become better Christians. So, under the weight of my own standards and under the pressure of what I thought was the “goal” of youth ministry, I was being worn down.

But no matter what I did, my group just wasn’t changing into the super Christians I saw at the other churches.

When I was beginning to question my calling to youth ministry, I picked up a book called Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root. I can distinctly remember how deeply Root’s story resonated with me.

He wrote of being a youth worker reared in a tradition that saw influence as the end-goal of youth ministry, desperately trying to influence young people toward participation in the church and its faith. “I didn’t blink twice at the expectation,” Root writes, “…[but] I was clearly failing to get them to commit themselves to the importance of the church and (more significantly) the faith” (p. 14).

What’s the Point?

Root’s big question in the book turned out to be my question: “What is the point of our relationships with kids?”

I’d been trained and educated to believe that the point of relational youth ministry is to influence young people, to develop Christian maturity in them, to make them into better Christians. I thought success in youth ministry was measured by how well young people know the bible, how eager they are to pray, how enthusiastically they engage in evangelism.  In other words, I thought the point of youth ministry was to influence, to get something out of young people. But through deep theological reflection, Root opened a new possibility. Taking his cues from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Root suggests that the point of a relationship… is the relationship.

It is in relationship for the sake of the relationship that we discover God and learn the heart of God’s ministry. Grounding relational ministry in the incarnation itself, Root suggests that

“…a more honest theological understanding of the incarnation is to assert that God entered our foreign world not to convince or save it but to love it even to the point of death… In this perspective salvation is not being convinced of a certain perspective, but coming to recognize that we have been deeply loved and so are given the power to live as children of God… This means relational youth ministry is not about convincing adolescents by influencing them; rather, it is about loving them by being with them in the messiness of their lives. It is about suffering with them.” (p. 41)

It is in relationship for the sake of the relationship that we discover God and learn the heart of God’s ministry.

A Weight Lifted from my Shoulders

As I read these words in my burnout, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. I remembered the faces of the young people in my group… those same young people who just wouldn’t become the super Christians I thought I was supposed to make them.

I remembered the faces of the young people in my group… those same young people who just wouldn’t become the super Christians I thought I was supposed to make them.

I remembered Eric, a young man who was tossed about in the foster system, separated from his sister who’d been adopted without him.

I remembered Samantha, a seventh grader who was cutting and struggling with suicidal thoughts.

I remembered Chris, a bright and clean high school senior who got all the best grades but suffered the stress of believing his life’s value was in what he could achieve.

I remembered Harper, a high school sophomore who came out to me that same summer but confessed she could not come out to her conservative parents for fear that they would reject her.

I remembered all the suffering of the young people in my group. I remembered the hard questions, temptations, and fears they faced. And I remembered all the times I’d sat with them in those questions, temptations, and fears. I remembered honest conversations we’d had, stories I’d been told, and I began to imagine a new “goal” for my ministry.

Perhaps what made me a good youth pastor was not my ability to create mature Christians but my patience and willingness to sit, to “place-share,” with young people just as they are, in “the messiness of their lives.” Perhaps what made me a good youth pastor wasn’t the change I could conjure, but the love that I could give.

All of a sudden, I began to think that, just maybe, I could keep going. Perhaps I wasn’t the worst youth pastor ever.


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

Youth Ministry Games: Do We Need Them?

Keep the games. Youth in Hong Kong need to play.

This was the first advice I received from Dale, one of my parents-volunteers, as we were chatting over a plate of sushi about my arrival as the new Youth Director. It was a few weeks ago in Lai Kwan Fung, one the busiest neighborhoods in Hong Kong. “Gotcha,” I replied.Do we need games?

But inwardly, I was not convinced. As I went back home that day, I recalled all my experiences being a youth leader in churches and scout troops. “I have always played with youth,” I realized. Games are not only needed for the youth in Hong Kong. All youth need to play. We all need to play. But why?

We all know that games are great tools to be used when working with youth. Games are the best icebreakers, they create a good atmosphere within a group, they help to tire out our super-energized teens, and—let’s be honest—games are also an easy way to fill empty time.

All these arguments are legit. But they are also superficial. Could we try to go a little bit deeper into our theological understanding of games?

In order to offer a theological frame to the action of playing, we must look for our underlying motivations beyond just the utilitarian use of games.

To Be in the Present Time

A recurring theme that I have observed in many parts of the world is our human nature to worry about the future. In Western Europe, where the economic situation is depressing, I have seen young people starting to think of their retirement as soon as they got their first job. In Asia, I have seen parents worrying way too much about the future of their kids.

Games do not answer questions… Games are a proclamation that our actions should not always be utilitarian, useful, and relevant.

Games do not answer questions… Games are a proclamation that our actions should not always be utilitarian, useful, and relevant.

Therefore the first theological theme that I see about games is time. When playing games, we don’t usually worry about the future. Games represent a “time-out,” when no one needs to answer the dreaded question: “What’s next?

When they play games, kids are allowed to forget for a few minutes what they want to do in the future or who they want to be. Games are about enjoying the present moment. And I believe that the enjoyment of the present time is a value we need to rediscover.

Jesus talked about it long before me, and more beautifully, in the famous parable of Matthew 6:25-34, when he asks us to consider “the birds of the air.” The conclusion of the parable turned out to be not advice, but a command: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”

We play because games help us to be in the present time, and not to worry about the future.

To Feel Joy

Close your eyes for a few seconds and try to recall the best games you ever experienced. What do these games have in common? For me, the best criterion to differentiate a good game from an “okay” game is the level of joy that is felt during the game. The more laughs there are, the better.

Maybe we ought to play games with youth simply because it makes us laugh a lot and have fun. Games are important for everybody because they inherently provide joy. If we believe that joy is at the heart of the Gospel, then games become a way to share Christ’s love and joy authentically with others.

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Joy is a spiritual practice. The more we play, the more we are transformed into the joyful people we are, in part because we train ourselves to see real life as a wonderful game.  Slowly, repetitively, the joy that is developed in the games starts to spread to other parts of our life. Maybe that is what Mother Teresa had in mind when she told us: “Life is a game, play it.”

To Affirm Irrelevance

I am a newbie in Hong Kong, but it did not take me long to realize how this society is heavily driven by material success. It is a place where kids have very few opportunities to play because worried parents who aim for their kids to triple-major in an Ivy League University a few years from now see games as unproductive and useless.

I have been told many times that the calendar of a 12-year old kid in Hong Kong is just as jam-packed as a senior executive. Therefore I fully understand Dale’s visceral attachment to games.

But sadly, this situation is not just the case here in Hong Kong. Most of us are doing youth ministry in content-oriented cultures and performance-driven environments. In all these places, irrelevance is not welcome.

The theologian Paul Tillich, in his great lecture The Irrelevance And Relevance of The Christian Message, defined irrelevance as not answering “the existential questions of the humanity of today.” Games do not answer questions. They do not provide any measurable content and knowledge to the kids. Unlike competitive sports, music or volunteering activities, games cannot be added on a résumé. Games are irrelevant by nature.

Henri J.M. Nouwen based his book on Christian leadership, In The Name of Jesus, on the encounter between Jesus and Satan in the desert. For Nouwen, the first temptation that Jesus had to face—to change rocks into bread—was the temptation to be relevant.

By turning down Satan’s invitation, Jesus refused to be useful to the world. Of course,  Jesus was ultimately relevant to the world! But he also knows that one cannot always be relevant.

Games are more than time-killers.

Relevance and irrelevance are both needed, but each in its own time. What we need is a healthy blend of relevance (trying to answer the questions of the world) and irrelevance (not answering these questions).

Games are a proclamation that our actions should not always be utilitarian, useful, and relevant. Games help us to overcome a temptation that Jesus himself went through: to always make things relevant. Irrelevance becomes a virtue to develop, and games a great way to develop this virtue.

Keep the Games!

Games are today usually limited to a very narrow segment of our church population: children and youth. After a certain age, we stop playing games, falsely believing that older teenagers and adult would find them childish. But that should not be the case.

Games are more than time-killers. They help us to be anchored in the present moment, they are amazing tools to develop joy, and even more importantly; games can be used to reclaim the spiritual virtue of irrelevance.

So please—fellow youth workers, parents, volunteers, youth—follow Dale’s advice: “Keep the games. And not only in Hong Kong. Everywhere.


About the Author: Antonin Ficatier

Antonin Ficatier - Kindred Youth Ministry

Antonin Ficatier studied in three different continents and holds two Master Degrees in Business and Education. Born in France, Antonin is currently based in Hong Kong, where he works as Youth Director for an international and interdenominational church.