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Sex, Love, and Science:
Let’s Talk About Talking About Science

Sexy Time

“So what should I say?”

I felt like a real jerk. I was hosting a discussion for parents trying to think Christianly about sex and their teenage kids. After about an hour of convincing these parents they needed to talk with their kids about sex, Melissa raised her hands and in an act of desperation, asked for the words to share with her 13 year old son. I felt bad because of course I had no simple answer.  Instead, we decided the best thing to do was to continue the discussion with one another as a community.

Parents who want to talk with their kids about sex. Impressive, right?

At my little Presbyterian church, a group of parents wanted to have an ongoing discussion about faith, sexuality, and parenting. Collectively we knew our kids needed us as parents to walk with them through their becoming sexual people- but almost none of us knew how to even begin doing this. With changes in technology, a seemingly hyper-sexual culture, and busier schedules than any of us had ever experienced- we were supposed to navigate this wildly intimate and important conversation. How could we make sense of that?

So, the parents did the most natural thing possible- they sent me to ask college kids for help.

I gathered a few rocking chairs on the porch of the church office with half a dozen college students and took out my yellow note pad. So…. How old were you when you first watched pornography? Who first told you about sex? How did that go? Did you ever hear the church comment on sexuality? What did they say? Who can you go to for questions about sex? What does being a Christian have to do with your sexuality?

The conversation was amazing! I was worried that they wouldn’t want to talk about sexuality at all, but in reality- they were desperate for someone to ask the questions and create a space for conversation. We laughed at funny moments and sat in silence with each other in a few moments of pain. They thought it was hilarious that a group of parents wanted to know what they thought, how their experience was, and if they had any parenting advice for these middle aged terrified adults in their church. At the end of our time the college students asked if we could do this again.

What a win!

Hard conversations are all around us and most of the time we avoid them like the plague. But how interesting that both the adult class on parenting and the college students gathering were hungry for more at the end of the hour. We actually agreed to schedule two more focused conversations next semester!

A common thread… no one is talking.

One big idea that both groups observed was that there was an implicit understanding that the church and sexuality had much to say to one another, but that rarely was there any helpful or productive dialogue. Most experienced nothing more than silence. Both groups, the parents and kids, left sexuality and faith as parallel but rarely intersecting aspects of our lives. The message most often communicated to kids was you shouldn’t touch, think, or talk about sex and if you do… there will be a miserably uncomfortable conversation to be had… so watch out! 

Sometimes we just need to open the door to these conversations and trust that we can take a few steps.

But these experiences described above have proven otherwise. Sometimes we just need to open the door to these conversations and trust that we can take a few steps. I was forced to also consider what other hard or scary conversations are out there for parents. While sex clearly belongs in this category- so does the relationship between science and faith. But first, Love.

Lovely Mixed Messages

We are always being formed (and de-formed).

The question, however, is this: to what (or whom) are we being formed?

Over the years in youth ministry I came across a helpful question grounded in a story. We always tell stories, right? I would recall the evening I decided to tell my girlfriend (now wife of 15 years) that I loved her. I paint the picture of a nervous 20 year old with sweaty palms trying to find the right moment to announce his love. I set up the scene and invite those listening to imagine the tension, the fear, the excitement of the moment: “Bethany, I have something I want to say to you. I love you.” Then I leave people in the horribly awkward silence… and ask them… what is the only response that I was hoping for?

Of course the room shouts out “I love you too!”

God’s “I love you” is on display in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our “I love you too” is the only response that makes sense. “I love you too” is the beginning of spiritual formation, and love then begins to take shape in our lives. This expression of love offers a trajectory of formation, an object of our affection- namely Jesus. Saint Augustine alerts us that our loves need to be managed, intentionally oriented towards God again and again:

“But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.” (1)

Having “Ordered Love” means keeping our eyes on Jesus.

When our hearts are ordered towards God our actions should begin to follow suit. The ways in which our love is on display are what we call virtues. Virtues, as simply defined by Smith, are moral habits internally orienting us to the good. (2) The goal is to live our “I love you too” towards God and neighbor with as much continuity of word and deed as possible. To have developed virtue would mean carrying out these habits without much thought as if they were natural. To respond to a false accusation with patience would be evidence of such a virtue and the hope would be that the development of such virtues would enable the Christian to more faithfully express love as a response to the love of God.

It’s important to keep this conversation in perspective- the development of virtue is not a human achievement. Rather, we are discussing the ways in which we participate with God in the shaping of our hearts towards God.

This is a work of the Holy Spirit, a gift!

We desire to embrace these virtues and ultimately, through imitation and practice, (3) begin to integrate these ideals as part of who we have been made to be in Christ. These habits, and the implications of our orienting our hearts and minds through them, create what James K.A. Smith calls “formative love shaping rituals”. (4)  In short, this is his working definition for liturgy. Liturgies can be formative, or de-formative, love shaping rituals that draw us towards or away from God. Smith points out that our hearts are always discerning between what seems to be competing liturgies in culture.

Smith explains this experience almost as a dichotomy. Liturgies that lead towards a faithful ordering of our hearts desire and secular liturgies that lead away. His concern is surrounding habituation- the ways in which these secular liturgies might de-form the Christian, disorder their loves away from a central and exclusive focus on Christ. While I think there is value to this concern, it also seems worthwhile to remember that God’s goodness to the Christian isn’t bound up in their ability to remain faithful, but rather in the work of Jesus Christ. Still, the task of having clear eyes in order to name these liturgies is of great importance.

And here is our problem with science.

Science is not liturgy.

There is trepidation concerning conversations about science and faith because we have experienced the discipline of science as something far more than it was ever intended to be. What was a method for discovery was pushed into being understood as an all encompassing cultural liturgy- a narrative to define all narratives. Backing up we see the internal logic of cultural liturgies and how they come to be: (5)

Step 1. Love leads to Response

Step 2. Response leads to Expression (Virtue)

Step 3. Virtue gathered becomes Liturgy

A birth story: Science as cultural liturgy…

Our pursuit of understanding has given us a love for the empirical (step 1). This embrace of the empirical has lead to a response found in the scientific method as the epistemological method par excellence (step 2). This epistemic goal, grounded in the scientific method, is exercised across multiple disciplines and universalized as the filter by which all of reality is understood and evaluated (step 3). Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Science saved my son’s life

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the scientific advances of today. I like my iPhone, and our family of 7 drives a suburban. We are all for science! The gifts of the scientific age have been amazing, and no one wants to go back to a time before the enlightenment. My son needed a heart surgery at 18 months, I sure was a fan of science the day we brought him home from the hospital. It is clear that science and the scientific method are to be appreciated, utilized, and not treated with such skepticism in conversations regarding the faith.

But…

The disciplines related to science were never meant to be universalized as virtue in total, much less an all encompassing cultural liturgy by which we measure everything. Andy Root calls these cultural liturgies social practices. He then points out that the tension between faith and science is more about the swollen place of science in culture as a “comprehensive social practice” rather than the discipline or methodology of science in it’s original form. (6) Once we distinguish between the scientific findings and theories gifted from the discipline of science versus experiencing science as the comprehensive social practice- we are able to have helpful conversations about the intersection of science and faith as constructive.

Back to Love

Once we name the temptation to choose the “comprehensive social practice of science” as a secular liturgy, then we are able relativize this misunderstanding in light of our ordered loves towards God and neighbor without losing science all together. This simply means that when science is placed in service of ministry- encountering God and the other- then we are engaging it properly and can enjoy all that it has to offer. I was grateful for science when my son needed heart surgery because I love my son! I am grateful for my suburban and iPhone because this last thanksgiving we drove down to be with family and our iPhone helped us navigate the traffic as well as listen to some great podcasts (in particular a kid friendly NPR science podcast called “Brains On!”). 

Science and Rocking Chairs…

Science doesn’t need to be scary. Those hard conversations on the porch in a rocking chair can take place now because we aren’t talking about competing ideologies- but rather questions about findings and theories and how they relate to the work of God in the world. This will still be challenging- but this is good news!

One of the major concerns of youth ministry today is that all we have invited kids into what Dr. Kenda Dean calls the “church of benign whatever-ism” where we teach “that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on folks like us.” (7) This indictment is echoed by Dr. Ben Conner who claims that “youth ministry, at it’s worst, is about creating sober virgins who go to college.” When Youth Ministry withdraws from difficult conversations about things that matter- like sex, or science, it’s no wonder that young people dismiss the church!

So we practice…

In the same way that my community is wrestling with how to have healthier conversations around sexuality with our teenagers, we must learn as communities of faith how to properly engage conversations about faith and science. So far, most of the time, this has been to embrace the “comprehensive social practice of science”, drinking the Kool-aid, and fighting full stop against what is perceived to be a direct affront. But this is a false dichotomy! Understanding that we are talking about placing scientific findings and theories into conversation with the work of God in the world- we are able to take a different approach. An approach of hope and joy as we seek to understand this wild gift of life and creation and one another!

My goal here has been to entice you towards the conversations that so many kids wish they could have… maybe it’s about sex, but I also think they want to explore holding science and faith together. So far… most of the time, the church has done everything it could to keep these apart not knowing how to handle the situation. My guess is that this is driven more by fear than anything. So lets be better than that- fear gets no say in a ministry held up by Jesus.

We have a chance to be intentional and thoughtful when it comes to having these conversations. My good friend and colleague in youth ministry, Rachael McNeal, has written a great blog post about this very thing. Go check it out!   

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


(1) Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28.

(2) Smith, You Are What You Love, 16.

(3) Smith points to imitation and practice as the primary means of acquisition for the virtuous life. This will come back into play at the end of this blog post when we discuss practices that might enable a healthier engagement with the so called “competing liturgies” of science and faith.

(4) Smith, You Are What You Love, 22.

(5) I realize that I am creating all sorts of problems in this massive reduction of understanding. My goal is to help us begin, to move towards, connecting with this much larger and more complex idea. Baby steps!

(6) Root, Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies, 55.

(7) Dean, Almost Christian, 12.


About the Author: Justin Forbes

Justin Forbes - Kindred Youth MinistryJustin serves as the director of the Youth Ministry program at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL and has been involved in youth ministry since 1998. He’s also a co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry. His passion is teaching and mentoring youth ministers. Click here to read more about Justin.

From Fear to Hope:
Embracing Fear

(Article Originally Posted December 1, 2016)

Fear, Hope, and Politics

Even after our yearly ritual of stuffing our faces and spending tons of money we don’t have on things we don’t need, many are still reeling from one of the most vitriolic political seasons in recent memory. And as we learned from the 2016 campaign season, fear can still weave a powerful and compelling narrative. The politics of fear and othering are still very much alive and well. Hope remains a precious commodity and at times can feel more like blind naiveté than anything else.

From Fear to Hope

But Advent is a season of hope—a season of affirming that God is with us in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  However, this hope can never be divorced from fear. After the election was over and we all knew the results, I saw a swath of posts from people reminding those in shock and fear, “Jesus is still on the throne,” or, “God is still in control.” While I can appreciate the sentiment on some level, it’s insensitive at best, and dismissive of the very real (and I think very justified) fears that many people have following the election.

You may have written off the some of the things that happened during the campaign season as “just talk.” But if you don’t feel that fear right now there’s a good chance you’re not spending time with the right people.

God Chooses Those Who Are Not

While in our election we chose between two absurdly wealthy people hailing from seats of enormous power and influence, in Advent we celebrate God’s choice of an unwed teenager from the backwoods of Galilee to carry God’s own self and continue the story of salvation. Mary was no one important, nor was she of particularly noble stock.[1] When I think of Mary I think of so many kids I’ve met in youth ministry, raised in neighborhoods that feel so devoid of hope.

I think of the girls whose lives changed drastically because they got pregnant in middle or high school. I think of the boys who, in trying to grow up too fast, embraced the toxic cultural narratives of what it means to be a man. I think of one kid in particular (now an adult) whom I used to tutor at an after-school program my wife ran.

I visited him in jail a few weeks ago as he awaits a trial that will likely result in him spending too much of his life in prison. “He was such a good kid,” I repeated to myself, as if ritualizing his goodness and value would somehow transfigure his bleak future. And if I’m being honest, the pessimist in me wonders how many of those kids had any hope to begin with because of the powerfully intersecting systems designed to keep the lowly in their lowly states and the powerful on their thrones.

Be Not Afraid…?

In the midst of my pessimism emerges a messenger from God who brings good news of great joy. The angel greets Mary and, noticing her confusion, offers a word of comfort, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” The angel’s exhortation here feels a bit dismissive—a bit like those “God is still in control” social media posts—especially given the loaded political language of the birth announcement. The angel tells Mary not only that she will bear a son (1:31), but also that he will take up the throne of his ancestor David (1:32), and that he “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (1:33). In other words, she has pretty good reason to fear even beyond her angelic visit.

Peace Through Conflict

In the midst of our harmonized and sanitized Christmas pageants we easily overlook just how charged the language is here. It echoes some of what we know about Jewish messianic expectations, especially regarding the restoration of the Davidic throne.[2] The news heralded by the angel is one of an alternative kingdom and a new king who will restore Israel to its former glory . American Christians tend to spiritualize this proclamation, but we shouldn’t lose sight of just how politically loaded it is. The Advent of the one called the Son of God is supposed to signal peace on earth (2:14).

And if we’re still unclear about what this all means, the unwed pregnant teenager parses it for us. The Advent of this child is supposed to signal for us a great upheaval of how we order ourselves and our societies. Mary’s Magnificat (1:46–55) extols God as the one who “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:48), whose “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (1:50), who “has scattered the proud” (1:51), “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (1:52), and who “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). Quite simply, if this isn’t our understanding of who God is and what the coming of the Christ child means, we’re doing it wrong.

Hope Meets Us in Fear

Advent is about moving from fear to hope, but notice where the movement begins: fear. You may not understand the fear that some are feeling right now because you don’t belong to a community that has genuine reasons for concern. You may have written off the some of the things that happened during the campaign season as “just talk.” But if you don’t feel that fear right now there’s a good chance you’re not spending time with the right people. The movement from fear to hope means wading through the deep waters of fear to mine for hope, no matter how fragile it might be. It means listening, really listening, to the fear of those relegated to the margins and those for whom rhetoric has already become reality.

I think this Advent season should be an invitation for us to embrace fear rather than simply dismissing it—unless you’re an angel, dismissing people’s fears is not your job. If you don’t feel that fear right now, go find a community that does and spend some time there.  That’s where God is born and hope might be found.

 

Footnotes

[1] However one solves the tensions between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies, Mary is never explicitly connected to the Davidic line in either.

[2] The best scholarly treatment of Jewish messianic expectations during this period is from John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2 ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).


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.

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!)

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.
9 Ways to cultivate community

9 Ways to Cultivate Community

Is it possible to have a team that cares deeply for one another, shares life together, encourages and supports each other, and loves each other so well that ministry naturally flows out from within?

That’s a tall order, but one that we should all strive to make a reality amongst the teams we work with.

9 Ways to cultivate community

What if our big goal was that kids, other leaders, church members and the community around us would all say about our teams, “Look at the way they love each other, I want to be a part of that!” Loving our team well, and putting into practice with one another what we’re asking students to do may be the best witness we have to offer!

So, how can we work to cultivate missional community on our team? Here are nine very practical things you can start doing now that will move you and your team in that direction.

1. Share life stories.

Over the course of a month, semester, or year, depending on the size of your team, start off every meeting by giving team members a chance to share their story. Take 15 minutes to do this—ten minutes of sharing followed by five minutes of questions. It’s helpful to set a timer at the nine minute mark so people know to wrap it up soon. Be the first to go to set the standard of how you want people to share.

This will allow everyone on your team to have deeper insight and understanding into one another’s lives. It allows for grace and understanding about choices, actions, and motivations that team members bring to the table.

2. Get away together for an overnight.

Just do this. Spending time doing an overnight retreat can dramatically strengthen a team. The best parts are the unscheduled, late-night conversations. Plan some time to celebrate what God has done or is doing in your ministry. Play a game or two, or make up a new team tradition like a corn-hole tournament or whiffle ball game.

A team that can play together will grow deeper as a missional community. Plan some time for strategizing and planning the year together as well, of course…

Loving our team well, and putting into practice with one another what we’re asking students to do may be the best witness we have to offer!

3. Have them over for a meal.

There’s real power in breaking bread together. Great conversations happen around a table. Practice hospitality when you do this and show your team what it means to invite people into your life. Break out the good dishes, prepare some good food, and go all out to make it a great time together.

4. Start every meeting with five minutes of silent, centering prayer.

This is a great way to practice praying together. For starters it allows you and your teammates to be more present in the meeting by letting go of all the distractions and things you’ve had on your minds leading up to the meeting. It also reminds you all that you’re God’s beloved, chosen and called according to His purposes, and teaches you to listen for His one voice to speak to all of you collectively. I’ve found that even in silence God draws us together as one in Him, sometimes moreso than when we’re speaking.

5. Encourage one another on a regular basis in your team meetings.

Every couple meetings, take five minutes towards the beginning of the meeting and ask team members to share ways they’ve seen God at work in and through one another. Doing this will help to cultivate a culture of encouragement and gratitude on your team. Team members will be empowered and uplifted as this becomes a regular practice. Encourage team members to do this outside of meetings as well.

6. Read The Following Article Together

Read Henri Nouwen’s article, “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry,” together and discuss it as a team.

This short article outlines a template for how ministry should naturally flow, starting with our internal, loving union with Jesus. Through our solitude with Jesus we should be naturally driven to long for and move towards community and fellowship with others. Out of community and fellowship, ministry should naturally flow. Read this together and teach your team to live in this way!

7. Start and end every meeting by circling up and holding hands or grabbing a shoulder in prayer.

Our physical posture points to and represents what we want to simulate or create internally or emotionally. If we are physically joined together this will help us think of ourselves as one unit, one body, working together. I’ve done this with groups of as few as three or four, and with groups of as many as 150—it’s always a powerful picture of what we are really after. It’s so simple, just make it a point and give it a try!

8. Lead in transparency and vulnerability.

Have time in your team meetings to share what’s happening in your lives and lead that off by being honest, transparent, and vulnerable about real struggles and joys that you are experiencing. Invite your teammates into the realities of your life and ask them to do the same. We are after authentic relationships and authentic ministry. You have to lead this with your team to make it okay for others to do the same. Create a space that welcomes vulnerability and honesty.

9. Have a giant late-night nacho party after an event!

Cover a table with nacho chips and pile on the cheese and toppings, then invite your team to share stories, laugh, and play games as you try to take down the whole table of nachos. Be creative and create fun memories of warmth, hospitality, and authentic friendship.

Summary

These are nine practical things you can start doing today! Go try at least one of these ideas and see how God brings your team together so ministry can naturally flow out of community. Add a comment to the section below about your experience with one of these nine tips! Also, we’d love to start a dialogue below about other ways you’ve cultivated community. Let these nine tips be just a starting point for a conversation and add your own ideas to the comments section below. Let’s see how many ideas we can come up with collectively to spur on missional community for the Kingdom!


About the Author: Zach Gurick

Zach Gurick

Zach started in youth ministry in 2001 and has developed ministries for middle school, high school, and college aged students in cities throughout the state of Florida. He’s also the co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry. He loves to study theology, leadership development, and is especially interested in spiritual formation. Click here to read more about Zach.

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.

YM in a Post-Christian World

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Two Corinthians

In the 2016 presidential primary race Donald Trump bungled the name of a book of the Bible. I heard the story over the radio in my car. It began with the quote “Two Corinthians 3:17…that’s the whole ball game…” I was alone and I laughed out loud. The follow-up to the story was an explanation of why evangelical voters would notice the gaffe. The commentator did not assume his audience would hear the difference between “second” and “two.” He laid it all out. We should be more like him.

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Preaching Was Easy in My Day!

I once heard a preacher at a Pentecostal revival explain how it was so easy to lead people to Christ when he was younger. He talked about how they already knew the Bible and had a sense of how to live, they were just running from their “default-Christian position.” He went on to about how now when someone comes to Christ their lives are a wreck and they have no sense of who God is or how to have relationship with God. That was in 1997, you can only imagine how that guy feels now.

But one thing is for sure: if American culture was ever Christian, it is no longer… America is in a post-Christian age.

I hear him, I get what he was trying to say. But I also doubt its veracity.  I mean, really, I’ve seen Mad Men…they weren’t all that holy. Just how Christian we were in the past, or what it means for a whole culture or country to be Christian—these are ideas worth exploring. But one thing is for sure: if American culture was ever Christian, it is no longer. Newsweek told us about it, The Washington Post agreed and National Geographic affirmed that the rise of “No Religion” is a world wide trend. The Christian press began wringing their hands and dreaming of new strategies in light of the stats. No one is arguing this fact, it’s just true: America is in a post-Christian age.

1) The Harvest Is Plentiful

You have to have a strategy for evangelism. You can’t just open the doors to the church and read the Bible. You are ministering to a generation raised by parents who started our monumental cultural shift away from a default-Christian faith. How exciting is that? You have the opportunity to reach students who aren’t burdened with all of the complex and morally murky trappings of cultural Christianity.

If you are doing ministry with teenagers, You are a missionary. Even if you’re in the South. Even if your kids have parents who come to church every week. Especially if you live in a city. You are surrounded by kids who have no concept of relationship with God, kids whom God loves deeply, kids who are being drawn in by the power of the Spirit, kids who have no language to talk about faith and no sense of their place in the grand biblical story. That is exciting!

You are ministering to a generation raised by parents who started our monumental cultural shift away from a default-Christian faith. How exciting is that? You have the opportunity to reach students who aren’t burdened with all of the complex and morally murky trappings of cultural Christianity.

2) Watch Your Language

Back to “Two Corinthians.” You would do well to shake loose the technical and loaded language the church has grown so accustomed to. You’ll need to work a little harder, but if you do you’ll communicate more clearly. Grace, Redemption, Sin, Fellowship, Accountability—these words are important to us, but you’re speaking to a generation who has been raised without ever hearing them. Explain the concepts clearly, and they’ll pay attention. Although they may not understand the words, they’ll recognize the concepts.

Quick Case Study:

If you step up in front of kids and say, “Turn to 1 John 4:16” then you are about to talk about a really great and beautiful passage. But if you immediately read the passage you have invariably lost some kids in your group. While it might sound like a silly question, ask yourself: is anyone turning? Or are they all holding phones? If they are turning, are you helping them get there?

While it may seem cumbersome, adding some simple instructions (e.g., “1 John is near the very end of the Bible, page 1,335 in this Blue Bible we are using,” or, “If you are using a smartphone just search ‘First John,’ then go to chapter 4.”) can really help young people to track with you.

3) Don’t ASSume

We shouldn’t assume kids share our common language of “Christian-ese.” We also shouldn’t count on them knowing Bible stories or theological concepts if we don’t help bring them along. When I write talks for students, I only use one or two Scripture references and I refer back to them repeatedly through the talk. This isn’t because I don’t love the Bible, but because I don’t think students keep pace the way mature Christians do. For those of us who have heard most Scriptures hundreds of times, we can hear a reference, plug it in, and keep moving. “Post-Christian” teenagers will need some time and work to get there. So go deep, using fewer stories and references.

4) Rise To the Occasion!

It’s not a value judgment to recognize that our teens are living in a post-Christian culture. It’s just a statement of fact. We have the opportunity to teach theological ideas, from the ground up. If it’s true that kids are mostly unfamiliar with the Bible, we have the opportunity to make them familiar. We are at the front lines with brilliant students, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

That Pentecostal preacher in 1997 was a fool to complain about his lot in ministry. He should have been celebrating the opportunity to live and preach the Gospel to a generation who does not take it for granted. That is our lot, let’s celebrate and get to work!


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!)

The Wonder-Full God: Science, Faith, and Wonder in Youth Ministry

Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe. Awe precedes faith; it is the root of faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the world becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the avoidance of insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God.

Abraham Heschel, Who Is Man?

The WonderFull God

Science, Faith, and Wonder

Curiosity, awe, reverence—wonder. All of these are tied up in wonder. Together they are the desire and ability to encounter something simply because it is interesting, awesome, or holy. In my understanding , wonder is a virtue, something that we should help young people cultivate over time. Sadly, North American society disagrees with me.

A peculiar pragmatism rooted in the material reality around us structures our lives in such ways that we are not only blind to wonder, we actively avoid it, going so far as denigrating it. Shoving aside wonder and settling for its enemy, willful ignorance, leaves us with bald anti-intellectualism and a reduced sense of reality. This kind of reduction hurts us as individuals and as a church because wonder is at the root of both science and faith.

Sometimes science and faith get pitted against each other as if they are antagonists in some cosmic MMA fight. Science gets reduced to solving material problems and faith gets reduced to solving our spiritual needs in this battle royale.

To defeat willful ignorance, to overthrow anti-intellectualism and expand reality past the mere physical, science and Christianity must band together and use the power of wonder in active battle.

The Battleground of Youth Ministry

While there are many fronts to this battle, one where there is a natural overlap is in youth ministry. Young people of high school age are both discovering God at a deep level and engaging in the deeper questions of science. And isn’t it the hope of every teacher to inspire their protégés to love science so much that they pursue it all the way down? Isn’t it the prayer of every youth worker and faithful parent for their loved young person to be so enraptured with God that they become a disciple?

At the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry must pay attention to wonder for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.

At the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry must pay attention to wonder for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.

Wonder and Language

Language  of battle and wonder and anti-intellectualism can sound more dramatic than the prosaic reality. Take a conversation between two middle-aged men I overheard. I was sitting in a hospital waiting room and they entered having a loud conversation.

Blue Flannel Guy: “…there you go again using a $50.00 word, spending money like you’ve got tons. Can’t you just use a $1.00 word instead?”

Green Flannel Guy: [Awkward chuckle.] “Well it is pretty early in the morning, I’ll have to think of something.”

Blue Flannel Guy: “Seriously. Who uses ‘all-e-gor-ay’ and expects other people to understand what they mean?”

Green Flannel Guy: “Well, you know, I was just talking, you know, just…”

There are a number of problems with this scene, not least of which are sartorial. Now, stop. Really stop and honestly answer whether or not you know the word “sartorial” in that last sentence? Could you intuit its meaning? Did you look it up?

Acknowledging Ignorance

Both of those responses, contemplating the meaning of “sartorial” or researching it, call for creativity and curiosity. Ignorance can lead to wonder which in turn calls forth creativity and curiosity. Sadly, Blue Flannel Guy exhibited neither of those traits. Instead, Blue Flannel Guy made fun of his friend for using a literary term that a society that has near universal education should likely know. For Blue Flannel Guy, his ignorance was not the problem; Green Flannel Guy’s discussion of something that he had worked hard at understanding was the problem.

This kind of anti-intellectualism isn’t particularly noteworthy except that there are consequences when we, as a society and as a church, let these kinds of exchanges go on without remark or critique. Consider the number of unfamiliar terms that Blue Flannel Guy, Green Flannel Guy, and me, Know-What-”Allegory”-Is Guy will encounter as we step into the medical doctor’s office.

Addressing Ignorance

For example, I was in the doctor’s office because a friend was having an electroencephalogram. Because I know some Greek I can see that “electro” and “encephalo” and “gram” are distinct words and can piece together that an EEG, what the test is usually called, is really an electrical picture of the brain. And this is how it was described by the technician to my friend.

The technician was a student herself and was being apprenticed by another trained staff. The technician-in-training hooked up 29 different sensors to my friend’s head and upper body, all the while holding two conversations. One, with my friend, was describing in accessible ways what was going to happen.  She used words that were precise but not technical like, “I’m placing these sensors so that they can create an image of your brain in that computer there.” The other, with the supervising staff member, was filled with hard words that I would need to look up. She was clearly referencing different parts of the brain and methodically working through a process that involved a great deal of precision and technical expertise.

The Need for Expertise

I did not begrudge the technician her use of $50.00 words. I would never think to denigrate her for knowing them. Truth be told, I would have been scared if she hadn’t used them. She was, after all, hooking up electrical sensors to my friend’s brain. I wouldn’t want her to be ignorant of what she was doing when I have no idea what the health consequences might be for my friend.

Ignorance can lead to wonder which in turn calls forth creativity and curiosity.

I wonder if Blue Flannel Guy would be calling out his doctor for using $50.00 words rather than $1.00? Later I overheard him talking about why he was there. He had cancer. He needed a blood test to see how the treatment had gone. He was facing a 50/50 chance of dying soon and only medical science, with all its $50.00 words, could save him.

Lucky for Blue Flannel Guy, at some point someone had to wonder how the human body worked. At some point we knew very little about the human body but we wondered what made it move. We ate and wondered how that worked. We had sex and then nine months later had babies. This was a mysterious process that prompted us to wonder. The human form fascinated us and so we began to sketch it, to poke it, to prod it, to test it, and eventually dissect it so we could take our sketching, poking, prodding, and testing down, down, down, all the way to the molecular level. Once we learned some things we had to unlearn them and discover new things and then we could build knowledge from there. And in the process of wondering and studying and searching we saved millions of lives. Millions.

When Utility Overshadows Wonder

But science, when combined with capitalism, has denuded the wonder that founded it. We don’t value wonder; we value utility. Science is a tool that we use to get something that we want. We want longer life and so we invest heavily in research and development and then sell the results of that research as drugs to those who are dying.

At some level this is actually a good thing. Again, note the millions of lives saved. Science, when understood in relation to capitalism, always leads to a kind of pragmatism. This pragmatism can be the good kind or, as often is the case, the bad kind.

Good Pragmatism: Responsible Humanitarianism

The good kind poses questions that are germane to the broader human experience of life together. It uses wonder and instead of inquiring about the object—say, cancer or tuberculosis—it inquires about the humans that suffer from cancer or tuberculosis. Science is a tool to solve problems broadly held to be morally and practically important.

For example, we can think of Paul Farmer and the organization he helped found, Partners in Health. Farmer’s quest is nothing less than the eradication of tuberculosis and AIDS from the poorest of the poor in the world. His story, as told by Tracy Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, is one of deep, and good, pragmatism.

Farmer saw his patients dying from tuberculosis, which science had dealt with in parts of the world that could afford treatment. The problem: drugs exist to save lives but the current system means that millions will needlessly die. Besides using science to solve the problem of tuberculosis, he used science to answer a deep wondering—what would a country of Haiti be like if they did not die of tuberculosis?

Bad Pragmatism: Profiteering Oppression

In contrast, the bad kind of pragmatism limits the scope of the problem to the immediate beneficiaries. That is, it focuses strictly on those who financially benefit from a new drug rather than those who would physically and emotionally benefit from a new drug.

For example, we might remember Martin Shkreli, who raised the price of an AIDS drug by more than 5,000% overnight. When defending this decision before the United States Congress, he repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights to cover up the fact that he knew that this was immoral. Shkreli’s company maintains that they lost money on Daraprim, the AIDS drug—yet they approved $685,000 in raises for three highly compensated executives the month after raising the price and spent $23,000 to charter yacht service for a night, $6,500 in fireworks, and $250,000 on entertainment, listed on the receipt as a “celebrity performance.” This is an instance of bad pragmatism: using science to solve an immoral problem, namely, how to line the pockets of CEOs.

Pragmatism Neuters Wonder

This combination of science and capitalism that leads to pragmatism, either good or bad, is one of the main culprits of the willful ignorance that leads to anti-intellectualism in our society. We risk fundamentally misunderstanding science when we reduce it to its pragmatic benefits for us, however good those benefits might be. We willfully look past the fact that the giants of the science world have moved well beyond a simple mechanistic vision of the universe because we can easily see the benefits of that simple mechanistic view.

What has quantum mechanics done for making my life better? More than four dimensions are possible? So what? Does it make my phone get a better signal? If not, it’s too hard. Too much deep thinking for so little pragmatic benefit. As long as the doctor can cure us of cancer or find out what is wrong with our brain, we don’t care what words they use, what got them to that point, how the body fits into the rest of the matter of the universe. We just want results. Because we conceive of science pragmatically, we miss that a science rooted in wonder isn’t asking the same questions.

Pragmatic Faith?

If we are honest, Christianity falls victim to the same dangers as science does. Christianity plus capitalism  equals a certain kind of pragmatism. Our faith becomes something that helps us to do something else, but does not have value in and for itself.

God can help us when we struggle. We search the Psalms and find comfort knowing that God is our rock and our fortress because we really want God to be that in our life at that time. God becomes a cosmic soother or blankie because we are scared and frightened.

God can help us when we have an ethical dilemma. We think and meditate on the Ten Commandments or the double love commandment that Jesus gives us, distill them to life principles, and apply them to whatever situation we face. God becomes an ethical principle because we need to do the right thing. Whatever the case, God is anything but God, since pragmatism will always start with our problems, our needs, and our wants.

God Is No Pragmatist

This reduction of God to something based on us as humans inherently reduces the role of wonder in our faith. We cease to be captivated and awed by God as God, we stop wondering how the divine can take shape in the material world, we cease our search for understanding how God and time interact or how atonement works or how sanctification really plays out or … well you get the picture. We find answers and settle for them because they work. Providence becomes palliative and grace transforms into an ethical principle.

God was never interested in being simply a principle.

It turns out that God was never interested in being simply the answers to our needs. God was never interested in being simply a principle. God insists on being so much more—the power that creates, sustains, and accompanies all things. That God does not come to us as a principle but as a person—namely, Jesus Christ—is far from pragmatic. It is wonderful and lavish.

Mountain or Molehill?

Presenting it this baldly likely has some protesting. “Hey, I read my Bible! I let God be God!” And this may be true for you. But consider whether it is easier to lead a youth program based on God being God or on the pragmatic God?

Education: How Can I Apply This?

Two experiences jump to mind for me. First, for a number of years I taught youth ministry to undergraduates. Many of those students were amazing and it was a privilege to be present with them as they started out their university education (I taught an Intro to Youth Ministry course). However, I am sure that many of them would tell you that they struggled to see how some of what we discussed “applied” to what they imagined youth ministry to be.

When discussing youth culture, “postmodernism” was a catch-all phrase meaning all things bad. Universally the students had learned in their churches that postmodernism was antithetical to the Gospel, that Jesus had nothing to do with it, and that it was dangerous. I took that as a challenge and assigned Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard. To a student the response was, well, incredulous. “Why are we studying this! How can I apply this!”

Any time someone skips straight to application, you know you are deep in the grip of pragmatism which cannot wonder about reality outside the narrow criteria of utilitarian value. And this was my response. We study these thinkers because they are asking deep and significant questions about reality, a reality that young people live in. We might disagree with their answers but unless we wonder alongside them, how do we really know that Derrida is the devil? Wonder was not a virtue that their churches had inculcated within them.

Congregations: Challenged to Wonder

The second has less to do with youth ministry and more to do with the church culture at large. I sit on a committee of my denomination charged with considering church doctrine. It is largely made up of academics, ministers who have graduate degrees, and lay people with advanced education. These are not dumb people.

Yet, when I used the word “apophaticism” in a paper meant for them, more than one essentially pulled a Blue Flannel Guy. “While I have access to a dictionary right here on my computer, this is an unfamiliar word and should be excluded.” Really? Apophaticism is a form of mysticism that approaches questions of God through the negative. If you have ever uttered the phrase, “dark night of the soul,” then you have uttered an apophatic statement. There are large chunks of Scripture that witness to God in an apophatic way (think Wisdom literature). Throughout Christian tradition there have always been those who have wondered about God this way. Yet, in a forum filled with educated people discussing theology, I am instructed to dumb it down?

Wonder as Respecting the Other

Wonder, at least as I am presenting it, requires that we encounter the other as a subject and an agent in its own right. We don’t wonder about an object without respecting that it is other than us, that its existence is complex, that there is a mystery inherent because we can never wholly capture it, that there are limits to our own knowledge and therefore limits that the object we encounter cannot transcend as well. If this sounds a lot like what Andy Root argues in places like Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry or The Relational Pastor, then good. Where Andy focuses on our relationships with each other and therefore with God, I am extending part of that logic to science and Christianity.

Andy’s critique of youth ministry is that it has been captured by a certain kind of pragmatism, the same kind that I tried to describe that has also captured science. There are better and worse forms of it, but at the end, it is all problematic because it reduces something that is far more complex, mysterious, tragic, and wondrous to an expression of our own perceived needs. Frankly, we don’t know ourselves very well when we reduce our own needs to that which we can easily understand or articulate.

Real Living Requires Wonder

Both science and Christianity, at least in their best forms, reject a kind of pragmatism infused with capitalism. Rather, both science and Christianity beg for an encounter that starts in wonder and leads to curiosity and diligent study. When pragmatism reduces us to our own poorly understood needs it also reduces the possibility of wonder as wonder.

So how do we “apply” this? How can we inculcate wonder? I have three suggestions:

1) Wilderness

First, I think that we do not make sufficient use of North American wilderness and young people. It takes days, perhaps weeks, of exposure, but we can help young people get close to wonder by removing them from the distractions of modern convenience . To sit on rocks as a raging river rumbles at your feet, to cross over a pass among the Rockies, or to contemplate the intricacy of a spider web—all can induce wonder, awe even. This is not some kind of natural theology, but it does force someone to take the natural world as it is and not as it serves us.

We have a God who is ceaselessly, unpragmatically creative, so let yourself be formed in the image of this God, rather than the God of American pragmatism.

2) Wrestling

Second, we should not shy away from pushing young people to grapple with some of the great questions of faith. This includes grappling directly with Scripture. Of course not everyone will become great theologians or scholars; however, programs that push young people not only to make a commitment to Jesus Christ, but also to think broadly about what discipleship means in their context, can only help dispel the anti-intellectualism that permeates much of youth ministry.

3) Widening

Third, we can model an alliance between science and Christianity. By broadening our own understanding in the areas that we are weak in, either science or Christianity, we can exercise our own wonder. If we are not curious, if we are only interested in applying whatever we learn, then how can we expect young people to do anything but? Clearly, we operate within a world dominated by economic pragmatism, so wholesale rebellion is not likely, perhaps not desirable. But it is a worthy goal of wondering broadly, of searching for answers to questions that entice us into areas of ignorance, and for appreciating the mystery of science or Christianity. The reality of both depends on it.

The Capacity for Wonder

So don’t be satisfied simply with application. Model wonder for your young people, drawing them to the tremendous God you love and want them to learn to love as well. Be willing to explore those vistas of ignorance in your life, and cultivate your capacity to wonder. We have a God who is ceaselessly, unpragmatically creative, so let yourself be formed in the image of this God, rather than the God of American pragmatism.

 


About the Author: Blair Bertrand

Blair BertrandBlair has been doing youth ministry since he was a youth, a time when his beloved Montreal Canadians were still winning Stanley Cups. While working in churches as a youth director, he discovered that he wasn’t bad at school. He now has an M.Div., and M.A. in Youth Ministry, and a Ph.D. in Practical Theology, all from Princeton Theological Seminary. His last call was to be the minister at congregation doing a big building project in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and his next call is overseas; Blair, with his wife and three kids, are all moving to Malawi so he can teach at a seminary and consult in the denominational youth office.

How Should We Think About Young People? - Wes Ellis

Video: How Should We Think About Young People?

In this video, Zach Gurick of Kindred talks with Wes Ellis about how we as youth pastors should think about young people.

Transcript

Zach Gurick: Alright so we’re here with Wes Ellis, just finished up the Flagler youth ministry forum, we have these amazing people all gathered together, so we had to take the opportunity to hear from Wes who is somewhat of an expert of bringing together youth ministry and theology, studying for your Ph.D. at Aberdeen right now. Maybe you could tell us a little about, how should we as youth workers think about young people? We call them youth, kids, teens, adolescents; tell us about that because you’re one of the leading experts on this.

Wes Ellis: Haha well thank (you). First of all I don’t know if I’m a leading expert but yeah there is… there has been, always been this debate about, what should be call kids? Obviously a bias right there, but how should we think about young people, what we call them and does that matter. I think it matters because I think there’s a sort of an impulse in youth ministry to think about young people as sort of potential adults, and that’s sort of what adolescence is all about, what adolescence means.

How Should We Think About Young People? - Wes EllisThat has been, kind of the running theme and the strongest paradigm in how to think about young people in youth ministry, and it’s been helpful to us in so many ways, but I also think that when youth ministry is about developing young people, developing adolescents, into mature Christian adults, what tends to happen, is we as youth workers feel like we failed when our young people in our churches aren’t developing the way we think they should. Also, we tend to leave behind those young people who aren’t developing the way we think they should.

So we elevate the kids who fit our paradigm, the kids who model those things in the present that we look like what we want to exist in the future. And, as youth workers with limited time having to choose where to invest that time, we tend to leave some kids behind.young people - kindred youth ministry - 1

And I think it would be powerful for us to begin to think about young people not as adolescents in a stage of development toward adulthood, but actually to think about them as human beings who are engaging in a practice, in a social practice of youth, and teaching the church some things about the way God is working in their lives. The fact is, the God who’s working in the lives of young people is not a junior Holy Spirit, this is not… this is the same God who is working in you and me, is working in 13 and 15 year olds, and we have some profound things to learn from that.

So youth ministers can think of young people as people, as human beings, and expect to find not just a ball of clay to be molded into an adult, but someone who can actually reveal to us something that God is doing in the church.

Zach: That is a fantastic paradigm shift for us, and I think that as you are talking I’m thinking about kids in my mind that I have learned so much from by doing this and I’m getting just as much out of it as I’m giving to them.

Wes: Yeah it’s a two way street like we are…

Zach: … God is revealing to us through them as well and us.

Wes: Absolutely, we always sort of co-mentoring each other. And the church, we can think about all the ways youth people can transform and give energy, we don’t even know all the potential for what they can teach us because I think we’ve been so set on what the path of development should look like. So maybe let’s just get out of this… let’s stop thinking about a path of development and start thinking about ministry. And I think there is a difference.

young people - kindred youth ministry - 2

Zach: Yeah. That’s fantastic, I think that’s an amazing overview of who you are and what you’re working on and I can’t wait for more to come.

Wes: Cool. Thank You.

How should we think about young people in 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.

Stop the Chaos

Video: Stop the Chaos

Emily Felgenhauer gave this presentation, titled Stop the Chaos, at the annual Youth Ministry Academy conference in Orlando, Florida. This event was presented in conjunction by the Youth Ministry Institute and the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and was sponsored by Kindred Youth Ministry.

Below the video you can find the transcription, if you prefer to read Emily’s content, as well as images and links from the presentation.

Transcript:

Good morning everyone!

I’m so excited to be here, I love talking with youth ministers cause you get it, we get it, not a lot of people get it. So I’m so glad that we are all here together this morning.

This documentary called Race to Nowhere was done in 2010 and it calls us to challenge current thinking about how we prepare our children for success. It features heartbreaking stories of students across the country who’ve been pushed to the brink by over-scheduling, over-testing, and relentless pressure to achieve. Race to Nowhere points to a silent epidemic in schools through the testimony of educators and parents and educational experts. It reveals an educational system where cheating is the common place for our students. Students have become disengaged they have stress related illnesses like depression and burn out is rampant among our students and young people arrive at college and the work place unprepared and uninspired.

Stop the Chaos - Emily Felgenhauer

So I want to ask you guys, I need some audience participation her, I want to give you some scenario’s I’ve encountered in the 10 years that I have been in ministry and I just want to see if you’ve encountered them to with your families and your students. So if this is you, if you relate, if you can stand.

So the first one is – How many of you have noticed that your youth program dwindles in attendance in as the school year goes on because kids are in extracurricular activities and they have taken over? Okay, alright thanks.

Here’s the second question – Do you often hear your students tell you that they have too much homework or need to study for a test and that’s why they can’t make it church? Wow, okay.

And the last one – Do you have students who seem to be going a million miles a minute trying to keep up with the pace that has been set by them, by their parents, their peers, their schools, and the colleges that they are applying to? Please stand.

This is our America. This is what’s happening to our students. Thank you so much for participating and honestly it made me feel lot better because I’ve gone through the ringer about this and I’ll get to why.

How does the church fit into the chaotic schedules of our students? Are we part of the problem? We’re going to discuss today, and today my workshops I’m going to be talking at 2 and then again at 3:45 about some ways that we can help stop the chaos that our students are going through.

So it is clear chaos that ours students have little to know down time, right? Because they have so much going on. So many youth are over achievers and they strive to have several above average classes like AP classes and IB classes, it’s more unheard of now to hear of students not in extracurricular activities.

How does the church fit into the chaotic schedules of our students? Are we part of the problem?

So according to a survey done in December of 2015 by PEW research center about 7 in 10 parents, 73%, with at list one child the age 6-17 say that their children participated in sports or athletics in the last 12 months prior to the survey, okay. So most of the time, school activities take up several nights in a week and especially weekends too while we are doing programming.

A group of professors from Stanford and Villanova had been collecting data since 2007 on the issue of ‘how much is too much’ when it comes to managing after school activities. They surveyed 8,838 students attending 15 different schools, 9 were private schools and 6 were public. The magic number is 20 hours. That’s where they started to see some health issues with our kids. The kids spend an average of 9.6 hours, Monday thru Friday on outside activities and that is an average, meaning half of those students were over that number. And this with private schools putting in 20% more time than the public school students.

When do they study? When do they get their homework done? When do they have social life? And when do they actually get alone time just to be with themselves? When do they get family time?

You know if you’ve got programming and Sunday nights like we do, that’s when I hear the most push back for families and from parents saying, this is the only time we get to spend as a family. It’s hard.

So, according to US news report in June of 2015, the national sleep foundation recommends that adolescence get 8-10 hours of sleep each night. However, High School students, drawn from dozens of high performing High Schools from across the country, report an average of 6 hours during the week nights. Again, an average, meaning half of them get less than that.

I know that you feel the stress of your kids and your parents and I have heard many from my youth director friends that it makes them want to pull their hair out at the thought of the constant battle of trying to make church a priority with families, when the reality is success has become the priority of our kids.

Harvard Graduate School of Education released a project in 2016 called, Turning the Tide. It’s a report that has concerns for students going to the college admissions process. It says that Generation Z, students who were born from 1995 to 2010, are obsessed with personal success over their own common good. Which means that they are involved in extracurricular activities and higher level classes in order to find personal success over balance of what we truly now is good for them, for their heart and their soul which of course we say ‘it’s church and Jesus.’

It’s becomes so obvious that our students are completely stressed out and over worked with their busy schedules, even colleges are responding with solutions to help our children chill out. So let’s take a look at this clip from Today’s Show, it was done in January of last year, and it addresses the pressures that High School students have and how it’s getting greater and greater and greater. And several ivy leagues schools are calling for some stunning changes, let’s take a quick look.

Alright, so this is a three year process that just came out last year. We’ve got two years still to go to see colleges actually making significant changes and getting the word out to our kids that they don’t need to be doing so much. So, colleges are noticing our depressed students as they’re coming in and colleges are adjusting. So, it’s time we as the church that we take knowledge of this and we adjust as well.

You know I will get so frustrated at my parents and our you know our students, why aren’t they making church a priority? Why aren’t they making God a priority? So I aired my frustrations to my leadership team one day and they’re made up of parents and small group leaders and I just shared, you know, like ‘what’s going on with our kids, our attendance is going down?!’ like ‘why are they in so much many extracurricular activities? …all this kind of stuff.’

Colleges are noticing our depressed students as they’re coming in and colleges are adjusting. So, it’s time we as the church… adjust as well.

And I have one of my parents, one small group leaders, her name is Anne Crownan, and she has students that are in my programming and she shared the frustration that she felt as well as a parent. And, you know you know sometimes her kids, she’s always there on Sunday night, she is always a faithful volunteer but sometimes her kids miss church, they miss programming, they miss events but her mom is usually there, her mom’s made the commitment, but their kids has such crazy schedules.

You know, she’s got two daughters; one’s a freshman, her name is Julia, and the other is a junior, and her name is Suzanna. Both of them go to two different magnet schools to specialize in their fields, so eventually major in college. Julia the youngest, precious little thing next to the tree, she wants to be a professional trumpet player, and Suzanna, standing by her daddy, wants to be a veterinarian.

So, Anne shared with me in the meeting that night the real struggle and frustration of the expectations that those two girls’ schools have put on their family, have put on their family. She’s not excited to run her youngest daughter back and forth to marching band practice, and she’s got an ankle injury that she has to hurry up and get ready for marching season to make sure Julie can do it. Suzanna doesn’t drive yet and she has to do experience for veterinarian school, at farms, at veterinarian offices, at pet stores. All that kind of stuff. And she babysits to make some money too – to eventually buy a car. So you know their driving all over!

You have the exact same families in your youth program. You know exactly what I am talking about.

So after they get home from logging for hours, for their specific fields, then they have to still do homework, right? So their up until the middle of the night and Anne and her husband are like ‘our daughters aren’t getting sleep, their like malnutritioned.’ Like you know they’re going through the ringer about this.

This is not a choice that Anne would have chosen for her daughters, but this is what expected of them to the school system.

You know this was really enlightening to me to hear Anne’s story because I don’t have kids yet and you know at the end of the day, just like all of us, I just want to do a good job at youth ministry. I do! You know, and honestly, there were some hard adjustments that I needed to make, and how I was viewing family priorities.

There was also some program adjustments that I wanted to talk to my leadership team about, you know with how do we make quality programs and a time with our students really matter? We need to stop the chaos of over-programming and we need to start helping parents escape the success driven pressures that society has created.

You know through the years after I referred myself as Martha in scripture. You guys know the story, Marian Martha was sisters and Jesus comes and spends time with them and Martha is busy in the kitchen and you know she was doing stuff around the house. She wants to be the “hostess with mostest”. And their her sister Mary sitting on Jesus’s you know feet, listening to him, taking in every word and Martha’s like ‘I need some help Mary.’ You know and she goes to Jesus, ‘Can you please ask Mary to help?’ and Jesus says ‘No, but Mary’s doing is a good thing.’ It’s a good thing.

We need to stop the chaos of over-programming and we need to start helping parents escape the success-driven pressures that society has created.

I know the truth of the matter for me is I needed to own that I was making students attendance to our programming and the church more of my priority that the success of our students growing in relationship with their Savior. Ouch. So I could relate to them, I could relate to them.

My success is my career right? Youth Ministry. I was wanting our families to make church a priority because that’s how I would look successful, and I needed to own the reality that I related with our students in this area. I want to look successful in my life and career. Would guilting them work? No. Would complaining about them work? No.

It’s our job as the church to work with families to help unify them with God. We as a church need to look at our programs and how we are creating space for families to strengthen and grow. It’s our job to come alongside them and be their cheerleaders and not guilt trip them, which I was doing.

You know according to Miriam Webster, success is labeled: the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect or fame. Our students and parents are being groomed by our higher education that if they take the harder classes, they take more curricular activities, which causes them to stay up later, sleep less, and aim for perfection in grades and competition amongst their peers, that this will lead them to a successful life. We as the church can come alongside them and offer our families, parenting classes on how to relieve stress and be the bright light to them in their future.

We can stop over programming and look at our programs to be more quality oriented than quantity. We can be their cheerleader even when they’re too busy to come to church and help them feel valued, loved and wanted without putting pressure on them. They’re getting pressure from everywhere.

You know Jesus told Martha, the fact that Mary was sitting with Him and just being with Him was right instead of being too busy and over stress and chaotic. This is contrary of what American success driven culture is telling our families and our students. I’m naturally an A type personality and I’m detail-oriented I’m a doer by nature. So my next step of wanting to make some real changes for our program and for our families wants to answer the question of how? ‘How are we going to be a participant in stopping the chaos?’

During my workshops today we will be exploring more of implementing these things and discussing practical ways for any ministry and any minister to be part of the solution and not the problem of our society’s chaos and drive for success. Thank you.


About the Author: Emily Felgenhauer

Emily FelgenhauerEmily Felgenhauer is a graduate of Olivet Nazarene University in Kankakee, Illinois, with a degree in communications and the Youth Ministry Institute in Orlando, Florida. At a Chrysalis retreat her freshman year of high school her life changed. From that point, “I understood what a ‘relationship with Jesus’ really meant,” she says. Emily is the proud aunt of two nephews, She has a chocolate lab, Bear, “who means the world to me.” She currently is the youth minister at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida. Emily teaches Delivering an Effective Message for the Youth Ministry Institute.