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!)

Think Theologically

Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry

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

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


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

The Shift

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

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

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

How You Can Think Theologically

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

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

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

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

Movement 1: Describe the situation

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

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

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

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

Movement 2: Interpret the situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movement 4: Do something.

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

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

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

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

Try it!

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

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

How to Think Theologically About Youth Ministry

About the Author: Wes Ellis

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


Ministering in the Face of Tragedy

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

“I hate the man who did this!”

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

Ministering in the Face of Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

It Happens Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. People want Jesus

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

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

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

3. People need to be led into peacemaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a Journey

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author: Jeremy Penn

Jeremy PennJeremy Penn is the founder and pastor of The Crowded House Network ( 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.

Burn the Boats: Embracing Ministry Transition

This summer we made a significant move from a place I’d lived longer than any time in my life. It was not an easy decision to leave both people and careers that had been firmly established.

As we listened for God’s voice in our decision we sensed being led to this new place where we live and serve now. A gut wrenching surrender was required of us – one that I could not and have not fully absorbed yet. I would vulnerably confess that I am still in a season of grieving the move, and I am also celebrating this new place we’ve been planted.

Burn the Boats

This new place, while so thankfully familiar, is also brand new to us as we learn how to negotiate our life here with teenagers and rebooting ourselves in familiar forms of ministry. I am a Christian Counselor launching a new counseling practice in this new city. My wife is the Young Life Area Director still wrapping her arms around this amazing ministry. Even though she has 20 years of experience on the Young Life staff, this is a really big job.

Validating Grief

A friend of mine recently validated my grief. He described that he did not know many other people who were as deeply integrated into the life of our former city as I was. While I could argue whether or not that is accurate, he put his finger on something that resonates deeply. I am/was integrated into our community in some lovely ways that I will miss deeply.

I’ll spare you the details of all the many dimensions of integration but trust me when I say that I was fortunate to have been engaged so deeply with a diverse community of activists, entrepreneurs, artists, creatives, counselors, spiritual directors, pastors and priests. My wife grew up in that city and her parents were also deeply integrated in many forms of service, both professionally and civically.

Just last week I was back officiating a wedding when a couple in the same outdoors store struck up a conversation. They instantly knew my father in law from some business they had done together.

So we sailed away from the familiarity of our shoreline there, away from our “known world”. We pointed our vessel perpendicular to the coastline for the oldest city in the United States.

Our arrival was marked by celebrations with new and familiar friends. I took a much-needed sabbatical. Ruth Ann cannonballed into her work here while our kids spent the summer navigating the penetrating heat playing in both sand and surf.

We worked so hard to get here. What a gift to have this time over the summer to rest our way into the fall. And then the kids went back to school and my days are not as full. I’m more aware of the white space in my calendar than ever.

Then it hits me. We’re not on vacation. This is our new home.

No Turning Back

“Burn the boats” is a phrase I’ve overheard for years when referencing how to make a successful transition. The reference is to the French navy who, when arriving to the shoreline of a battle, would burn the boats to illustrate to their fleets that retreat was not an option.

This morning, in worship, we sang “No Turning Back”. And without warning, this past week, as the new signage went up in front of my counseling practice, a friend texted me, “no turning back, no turning back.”

Tears come forward as a refreshing reminder of what was and is a special place to have been given these last 13 years. And they honor what is happening as we attempt to open ourselves up to what God might do here in this new place, in each of us, in our family, in our respective ministries of evangelism, discipleship, spiritual formation and counseling.

Establishing a New Foundation

There are a handful of things that are helping us get grounded as we transition in this new place and we highly recommend them to you as well;

1. Cultivate a local community around you

For some this is dialing in your involvement in a local church while for others this may look like inviting an intentional group to get together, kids and all, for scheduled community time (pray, eat, laugh, play, sabbath, sing, commune).

2. Grieve well

Just like I allowed the tears to come forward, we can catch ourselves feeling the pain of what we’ve left or lost. Honor the pain and seek out someone to help you process the pain. For me, it has been immeasurably helpful to sit with a seasoned therapist who I’ve known for a couple decades. We’ve never met for this reason until recently but her willingness to sit with me as an attentive listener is helping. Tears are your friend as they will tell on you when you won’t tell on yourself.

3. Take self-care seriously

I shared this last week with a friend as I shared that I’ve experienced some evidence of depression in the transition. “I would say that self care is both to get outside yourself while remaining attentive to the inside of yourself.”

A great book by Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak masters the tension of these. Parker describes a clinical depression that he experienced and that may be helpful.

He describes going on outward bound at 40 in the middle of the depression. They went repelling in Maine and as he started his descent he got stuck … like froze on the cliff and could not move another inch. The guide yelled to him “you ok Parker?” He describes that a childlike voice spoke back “I don’t want to talk about it.” After a pause, the guide said something that helped unlock his brain…”Remember, if you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

That was the password apparently for hyper leaping his brain and making the remainder of the scary descent. He did not write about his depression for a decade just because it had been so painful and deep. “If you can’t get out of it, get into it!”

There is no bypassing hard, so don’t avoid it…embrace it!

Embrace the Pain of New

So, whatever transition you find yourself in (new job, new city, new baby, new marriage, new ministry…), I would encourage you to embrace the pain of new. One of my friend’s mentors and spiritual directors invites people to answer the question, “In all of your gaining, what’s been lost?”

Maybe honoring what’s been gained demands us to honor what’s been lost. Many people will discourage you to see only the gains but I would invite you to allow yourself to honor both.

So, in all of your gaining, what’s been lost? Or in all of your loss, what’s been gained?

About the Author: Hayne Steen

Hayne Steen - Kindred Youth MinistryHayne Steen is the Director of Counseling and Care at The SoulCare Project as well as a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice with Elbow Tree Christian Counseling. Hayne grew up on surfing on the northeast Florida coast where met his wife Ruth Ann while attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where they were both students and Young Life leaders together. Since then they both have been serving in full time ministry with Young Life and the local church all over the state of Florida, in Atlanta and most recently serving on the ministry staff of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church and the Chattanooga Youth Network. Hayne and his wife continue to live on Signal Mountain with their three children where they enjoy living, playing and worshipping in an amazing community of family and friends.

Encountering God in the Stories of Others

Mike is the drummer for the praise team at our church. He’s a young guy, a teacher at the local high school, a drum line instructor, and—perhaps most importantly—a drummer in a band that plays venues up and down the Jersey Shore. Mike is cool. And the young people in our youth ministry know he’s cool. They see him drumming on stage just about every Sunday morning, providing the real cool-factor to the otherwise baby-boomer-style praise team.

Encountering God

Heike is the chair of the finance committee at our church. She attends the traditional service where, instead of a praise team, we have a choir and an organ. Heike comes in the church office, usually when no one else is around, to do the books and make sure the church is in a decent financial position. Heike is also cool, but the young people at our church are less likely to know Heike than Mike.

What do Mike and Heike have in common? They hang out in different crowds, they occupy different generations, and they shop at different stores. But both Heike and Mike have had experiences of God. Both have stories to tell about how they’ve been encountered by God. Their stories may be about as different as they are from one another. But both of them have felt, in some way, the mysterious sense that God is present in their lives.

An Approach to Storytelling in Youth Ministry

This summer, in our youth ministry, we invited Heike, Mike, and a bunch of other people in the church—people who usually don’t go to youth group—to come talk about those kinds of experiences. Each week someone new was invited to come in and talk about a time when they experienced God. As we listened to these stories we discovered that different people encounter God in different ways but God is active in each person’s life.

What we also realized is just how rare it is to hear someone actually talk about his or her experience of God. This is probably explained by the fact that, in our rationalistic and secular society, it is increasingly difficult to talk about faith, let alone an encounter with the divine.

One question I asked each person who told of their experience of God was, “how did you know that it was God and not just indigestion?”[1]

The most common answer was, basically, “I don’t know… somehow, I just knew.” And it was remarkable how “ok with it” some people were with not knowing for sure. Mike, for example, just said, “I guess I don’t really know for sure that it is God, it just feels right to think it is.”

How can we expect young people ever to recognize God in their own lives if they’re not confronted by the stories of God in ours?

While many of us are uncomfortable with this kind of answer, the honesty behind it is compelling. And it was especially compelling to the young people in our youth ministry.

One young man in the group said to me afterward, “it’s nice to know that you don’t have to know.” He was relieved to discover that even these adults, these people who were up front talking about encountering God, were as uncertain as he was. The uncertainty these adults confessed made him more comfortable thinking about his own experiences as experiences of God.

Hearing people talk about their experiences of God gave the young people in our youth ministry a new perspective each week. As common as it is to hear a preacher or youth pastor talk about God, it’s rare to actually hear about people’s personal experiences of God. But it’s extremely important that we find ways to do just that, to tell stories of God’s action in our lives.

Mundane Events as Sacred Narratives

The theologian, Eberhard Jungel wrote, “If thinking wants to think God, then it must endeavor to tell stories.”[2]

It is in God’s action in our lived experience that we are met by God, not just in a feeling or a philosophical position.

So it simply won’t do for young people to have only an emotional or rational concept of God in their toolbox. If we really want them to be able to talk about God, they’ve got to be able to talk about their experiences of God.

It is in God’s action in our lived experience that we are met by God, not just in a feeling or a philosophical position.

According to veteran youth worker and practical theologian, Amanda Hontz Drury, “Narrative does more than describe; it also constructs.”[3] Our identities and the ways we carry ourselves in the world are often shaped by these stories.

Whether we tell them as stories of God’s action or we write them off as mundane events or peculiar dramas will profoundly affect the world we live in and how we live in it. As Drury writes, “While articulation may not affect my status before God, it may affect the way I understand God to be at work in my life and subsequently how I respond to God.”[4]

But what if young people never hear others, particularly (though not exclusively) adults, tell those stories? What if young people see Mike at the drums every week but never hear the story of how he feels God’s presence with him while he’s drumming? What if they pass Heike in the hall between services but never hear the story of how God was with her during her childhood?

They’ll likely mistake these sacred encounters for merely ordinary happenings. How can we expect young people ever to recognize God in their own lives if they’re not confronted by the stories of God in ours?

In our youth ministry, we are striving to learn from the Bible… but we also want to learn from Mike and from Heike. We want to learn from one another, to hear one another’s stories of God, so that we can begin to recognize, even in our uncertainty, the mystery of God’s presence in our own lives.

            [1] I stole this question from Kenda Creasy Dean.

            [2] Eberhard Jungel, God as Mystery of the World, p. 303.

            [3] Amanda Hontz Drury, Saying is Believing, p. 25.

            [4] Drury, p. 44.

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.

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!)

Rhythm, the Woods, & YM

Rhythm, the Woods, and Youth Ministry

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Henry David Thoreau wrote those words 170 years ago.  And it seems to me that, over the last two centuries, desperation’s volume has well surpassed any semblance of “quiet.”  A brief survey of the average Instagram account screams fearful discontent.  Thoreau, in response to his own contemporary situation, promptly headed into the wilderness.

Rhythm, the Woods, and YM

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

This past summer, I visited the very pond where Thoreau penned those words in his seminal book, Walden.  Sitting there among the trees, his thoughts and actions seemed to press several questions upon me.

“Where do I experience the nagging voice of desperation in my own life and in the lives and culture around me?”

“Why do I often retreat into the wilderness, and why do I think it important for others to do the same?”

“What does it mean to live deliberately and what is to be gained?”

“Is a deliberate and balanced life even possible?”

The Wilderness

For the past 20 years, I have been leading and guiding wilderness trips and have experienced the profound transformation that happens there.  Through the hiking of miles, the telling of stories, the chopping of wood, the silence of solitude, and the sharing of meals, I have witnessed the redemption and reconciliation of fractured lives and relationships.

Yet, the questions raised above push me to get at the heart of why and how this all comes about in places far from the comfort of french fries, central AC and a strong wifi connection.

I believe that one possible reason is that of rhythm.

Rhythm in the Wilderness

In the woods, as I’ve experienced it, days are governed by the movement of the sun far more than the movement of the clock.  When enough time is spent away from the tyranny of deadlines, soccer practices and “Dancing With the Stars” marathons, there develops a pattern of work, play, reflection and rest that is intrinsic to the physical environment and to those who have chosen to dwell there.

And in this pattern, mind, body, and soul become integrated in a way that is often absent in regular living.  For some, the virtual world dominates their modern lives and the body is neglected.  For others, the busyness of work and frantic activity make reflection impossible.  Some are consumed by worry, others by unrelenting schedules.  Most long for a place and a time to be still, to sit with a friend, to laugh at the day’s events, and to enjoy an unhurried drink.  It is in the wilderness, then, where many experience for the first time a life lived deliberately.  Or, as Eugene Peterson would say it, the  “unforced rhythms of grace.”

For many of the high school and college folks that I take on trips, the initial shock of being without phones, car keys, and hair straighteners immediately besets them with symptoms of withdrawal.  However, as the week progresses, the ever-present anxiety of regular life begins to dissipate.  They sleep well.  They take time to enjoy simple meals.  They spend hours talking, working, resting.  Days are emptied of technological and psychological distraction, and, instead, become filled with joy.

This is, of course, what we encounter in the life and person of Jesus. 

He moved effortlessly between activity and rest, community and solitude, prayer and silence, work and Sabbath, the miraculous and mundane, city and wilderness.  His life was true Incarnation where there existed no false dichotomy between body and spirit.   Wholeness and holiness dwelled together in His sacramental life.  And it is in this sacramental life which we are invited to participate.

It is in the wilderness, then, where many experience for the first time a life lived deliberately.

The Spirit pushes us into the wilderness to experience, with the Son, the words of the Father saying, “You are my beloved, so take a nap.  Walk and work in the garden.  Reflect on the suffering you have witnessed and come to me for healing.  Look at the stars.  Experience life the way it was meant to be lived.  Welcome to the kingdom of God.”

Want to Lead a Wilderness Retreat for Your Students?

If you think the wilderness could be a place where you students could grow in their relationship with God, check out David’s video guides on how to lead a wilderness retreat. To find out more about the full guide, visit The Wilderness: A Retreat Guide Focused on the Spiritual Life.

About the Author: David Johnson

david johnson - kindred youth ministryDavid Johnson has been working with students over 20 years, and leading wilderness retreats for almost as long. A former YoungLife leader, David is also the author of the Kindred Youth Ministry Wilderness Retreat Guide.


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.


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.

The Dangerous Grace of Doubt - Andrew Zirschky

Video: The Dangerous Grace of Doubt

Andrew Zirschky gave this presentation, titled The Dangerous Grace of Doubt, 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 Andrew’s content, as well as images and links from the presentation.


So her name was Alexia but all her friends knew her as Lex, and Lex was really one of the success stories in my ministry when I was in Idaho. The story was, basically, she had a come with a friend during one of those crazy outreach events that we always say draw kids in but never really do and yet her she was. And she found faith in the midst of the ministry. The only person in her family, even her extended family that was Christian at all. She literally came from a place of having no understanding of faith to a vibrant faith. And one of the last things that I did in youth ministry before I l eft to go to seminary, was I had the opportunity to baptize Lex in the Salmon river, the rushing waters of the Salmon river surrounding us, her friends were there and it was just this amazing celebration.

And then 4 years later, while I was doing a project on doubt and disbelief among teenagers and young adults, I sent out questionnaires to people I knew and one those came back from Lex, and she was in the significance place of doubt in her life. And I didn’t un-anticipate that in some ways, I kind of did anticipate it, because she was a pretty bright kid. She in fact had gone off to college a year early to double major in Political Science and Philosophy and some like, okay I know how these goes right, she’s bright kid, she’s been in philosophy class, she’s having some questions.

The Dangerous Grace of Doubt - Andrew Zirschky

But I was kind of shock to look down the questionnaire that she filled out for me, because the list of faith practices that she had was rather staggering for somebody that I thought was in the midst of doubting her faith. She was going to church weekly as a college student, like involved in the congregation going to potlucks even. I mean that takes a lot of faith right there, right?

She was involved in devotional Bible reading daily, she was involved in a women’s Bible study on campus, she was at a Christian college, she went to chapel 3 times a week, she was volunteering at a soup kitchen, she had, like, this enormous body of faith practices, and she was also in this place of significant doubt. And so I’m like, of course, she has this intellectual doubts to these faith practices that she’s undertaking. I know what’s going on here, so I called her up.

Having an interview with her is part of the research project and I was shocked what I found. I was shocked what she said to me, because she said actually, not real, nothing came up in Philosophy class at all. It was in the midst of praying and the midst of going to church and the midst of going the chapel and Bible study and all of this things, she said “all of those things that you think that my practices of faith, are actually my practices of doubt, because every time I do them, every time I pray, every time I go to bible study, every time I open the scripture and I don’t feel the presence of God, and the peace of God that I have been told I should, it reminds me again that God is not there.”

I was shocked. Doubt is maybe a little different than what we thought. And in some cases, in fact, can be dangerous in the case of Lex. But maybe doubt can only be a grace. A grace as well, that can do something to our faith, other than untangle it.

See, doubt happens. We know that doubt happens; this is clear in all the research that’s done. In fact, Sticky Faith, the research that was done at Fuller, found that 70% of conservative evangelical kids who are still in youth group as juniors and seniors – and you know it’s a subset right there, right? – 70% of those kids said we have significant doubts about our faith. 70% of them, and yet few of them had ever talked to anybody about their faith. In fact, I think the statistics are somewhere in the low single digits among the number of these students that have actually talked to anyone about the faith that they had.

Doubt is maybe a little different than what we thought. And in some cases, in fact, can be dangerous… But maybe doubt can only be a grace.

Doubt happens and it can be dangerous, but not only does doubt happen to this kids, we know that it happens beyond that as well. In fact, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who wrote Emerging Adulthood, found that really anyone in their early- to mid- to late- 20’s all the way along there, had come through or was in the process of some kind of searching out questioning of their faith, even those that returned to their kind of conservative roots, he said they went through this process of questioning and doubting.

Doubt can be dangerous, it happens all the time and yet Douglas John Hall, who I think says it really well, next slide, Douglas John Hall says ‘Hey one of the things that happens in the church that we do so well is we don’t doubt well, but we suppress doubt very, very well.’ We’re in fact experts at expelling doubt and suppressing it.

Doubt is toxic, it can be dangerous, but not when it arises. Doubt is toxic, we find, when its actually, as Kara Powell says, not expressed in a caring and loving environment. When doubt has to be internalized and can not be externalized in a community that understands the process of doubting, what it involves, what it feels like, then doubt becomes dangerous, then doubt ultimately becomes toxic. But maybe doubt isn’t just dangerous maybe it can be a grace as well?

Part of our problem, I think, that we encountered with Lex along the way is that we didn’t understand doubt well. We don’t understand doubt well in the church.  We have all this research we’ve done on the nature of faith, if you’ve been to seminary along the way you’ve probably read Fowler’s “Stages of Faith“. We talk about the different patterns and parts to faith. We have theology of faith.

But for the most part, the church has not spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of doubt, or what doubt feels like, or how doubt arises, or how doubt is resolved, or how doubt and faith actually fit together. You’ve probably said somewhere along the way ‘oh yeah doubt isn’t opposed to faith, it’s a part of it.’ But we often don’t understand how that works. We kind of say ‘yeah. You know it’s there, it happens.’

We haven’t understood that well and one of the things we haven’t understood most especially about doubt that it’s culturally conditioned. The historical period in which you doubt and the community within which you doubt, changes the nature of the kinds of doubt that you have.

So the Sociologist Peter Burger tells us really in the 15th century and 1500’s, 1600’s run around there it was really impossible in Europe to doubt the existing of God. There are of course a few people around that did, but for the most part, it was impossible to doubt God’s existence because everyone around you believed in God. And he calls it this sacred canopy of sorts, that kind of flowed all over European society, this sacred canopy in which, when people got sick or when something good happen, they all had this kind of common explanationable, you know devils, angels, or demons, or God was involved in some former fashion.

There was this of idea of magic that over took the 15th century, European culture as well. This sacred canopy that was common explanation for faith, for life. There wasn’t a lot of room for religious doubt. In fact, if the people did doubt during this time, says Burger, what they often doubted was if God loved them or not.

We are in a different epic, all together. In fact, moral philosopher Charles Taylor says this,

“We’ve moved from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace…. We cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith in the condition of doubt and uncertainty.”

And what he means by this idea of living our faith in the condition of doubt and uncertainty – it’s almost like our faith is growing in the midst of our cultural soil in which doubt and uncertainty is embedded into our experience. Not just in terms of religious things, but in terms of everything. We are in constant doubt about what news is real and what news is fake? I mean, open up news browsers right now, we don’t know what to believe right. We live our faith in this epic, not of a sacred canopy where we all agreed, but in the condition of doubt and uncertainty.

Kids like Lex, don’t need a copy of “The Case For Christ“. Maybe along the way somewhere they do, that’s kind of our normal ‘Hey you’re doubting? Let me handle this, let me figure out, here’s the pill to take.” But when we don’t understand well, actually the doubting experience, we end up giving remedies that are the wrong remedy, that don’t take to an account the complex nature of the cultural landscape on which we live and the very individualize experience of doubt that we have.

There is a guy in the 16th century, named Saint John of the Cross, but did something very unique that I think we have to reclaim. He understood that doubt is a dangerous grace. Not just that doubt was dangerous, but maybe it could be a grace but he put those together he understood that the doubt was a dangerous grace, and here what’s interesting about what he did. He was a monk and he watched these young monks coming into the monastery and he just was interested on their development along the way, because he started to notice was that 2 or 3 years into their journey of prayer and work and devotion, some of this young monks will get to a place where they could no longer feel God. When they said ‘Wait a second, I’m praying and I’m worshiping and I’m working and I felt like God has turned away from me, God turned back on me.

And he saw this young monks responding in such a way, that he was shocked and concerned, many of them left the monastery all together and went into secular jobs. And some of them even left and committed suicide, because they had come to the conclusion that God has decided that they were reprobate. That God has decided that they were not to be saved. And so they literally left the monastery, there is no hope in my life, I pray, I feel nothing, God is not there and so therefore, I might as well just end my life now.

And John said “wait a second, there is another way to interpret what’s happening here.” This period of doubt and unfeeling and all of this things that you are experiencing don’t necessarily mean that you have done something wrong or that God is turned away at all, but in fact his explanation was this; you can’t feel God, because God has taken away the feeling of God from you. And the reason that God has taken away the feeling of God from you is that you’ve learned to love the feeling of God, rather than God in God’s self.

He said it’s a dangerous grace. You are being visited upon by the work of God to withdraw God’s presence to you, to bring you into this period of questioning and doubting because you’ve learned to love the feeling of God and God wants you to learn to love God in God’s self. But, we need an exegete, a guide, someone to walk us thru that dangerous grace, because it can go one of two ways: it can either go to a place where we loose of faith altogether or in a case of some of his young monks losing their lives, or we can be guided well to the experience of doubt by someone who is a patient guide, who understands what we might be experiencing and feeling and going through and weaves that into a place where the grace of this dangerous grace truly comes out and forms our faith and who we are.

A dangerous grace. I don’t think we’ve done very well in youth ministry at being exegetes and guides of the dangerous grace of doubt, of trying to understand well what doubt feels like, of all the diversity of the experience of doubt in our culture, and yet we know some of our students are experiencing it, so many of us are as well because our faith in the condition of doubt and uncertainty. So instead of responding as exegetes and guides, which I think we have to learn to do…

I don’t think we’ve done very well in youth ministry at being exegetes and guides of the dangerous grace of doubt…

Some of the research I did a research I did at Princeton found that really there are two main ways tend to respond to doubt in the church. And the first one is kind of a pushing away response. We see this mostly in more conservative churches, evangelical churches, but not all the time. There’s kind of this “you know doubt’s ok, but you know your significantly questioning your faith… and maybe you just need to take that copy of “Case for Christ”… and like maybe step off the worship team for a while… and maybe not be on the student council team anymore… and maybe take some time away…” -almost like doubt is contagious. And we kind of like want to quarantine you over here because we don’t want  doubt to kind of seep into the rest of the student ministry. And so we saw that coming up in some of the research that we did, as opposed to saying “Hey we need to be patient guides, and exegetes of doubt, and walk with kids individually, this kind of pushing away response.

But the second thing we saw, in more of mainline, liberal churches, was kind of this embrace response.It’s like “Oh man, everybody down, is everybody down is that okay, like I’ve doubted, he’s doubted, she’s doubted a whole lot. Just come have some pie with us in the fellowship hall, we will get you some coffee, it will be okay.”

And next thing you know you have kids that are sitting there with their piece of coffee cake on Sunday mornings, amidst the community that says that they all doubt, but guess what they’re not talking about – they are not talking about their doubt they’re just talking about the pie and the kind of “everybody’s okay, but we’re not going to talk about it either.”

And what we found actually is that both of those responses led to this, kids doubting alone. Whether it’s was the push away response or the embrace response, teenagers largely were spending their time, whether in main line churches or evangelical churches, they were doubting alone, rather than having patient guides and exegetes of the experience of doubt in our own culture in time. They ended up doubting alone.

I think there is a third response. And I think it’s the biblical response, that the response to take a look at this afternoon in the workshops that I’m going to do. What does it look like to embrace those who doubt in the midst of the community? What does it look like to have a responsive community that understands the nature of doubt and the diversity with which young people experience it? Because sometimes it’s very intellectual and sometimes very experiential ,and sometimes it’s very situational, it can change. And how do we actually walk with young people? And how do we walk with one another thru this experiences of doubt?

I love this painting. You know what it is, it’s Doubting Thomas, right? The painter here is literally like putting his finger in the side of Jesus, it’s almost like your 12 year olds were like painting this “Oh yeah Jesus really got this finger like stuck in the side and really like looking at the wounds.”

But the most amazing part of this painting I think is you’ve got this two people looking on… Peter and John, the ways that we have always looked at Peter and John, there they are. And they are interested as well, they want to see, “Yeah what’s going on here? Is Jesus real?”

One thing we recognize when we read the story of Doubting Thomas, well it’s not the Thomas doubted, you know Thomas he doubted, but one of the things we don’t recognize, is that he doubted in the midst of the community of Christ. He doubts and then it says, the very next week, he was still there, and the doors were locked. There wasn’t a pushing away, it wasn’t just like “you know, hey you can hangout and not talk about this.” But in fact, the community together embraced the doubt he had, because doubt is a dangerous grace. It is a grace that can be visiting about us by God and it needs someone to guide it along and it forms our faith rather than deforms it.

I’m giving eight things these afternoon, help you figure out how you and your context, in your cultural situation, might become a community that embraces young people as they go through the dangerous grace of doubt. Thanks.

About the Author: Andrew Zirschky

Andrew ZirschkyAndrew holds an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Practical Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He oversees the development of Center for Youth Ministry Training’s academic program and also teaches many of their youth ministry courses offered through Memphis Theological Seminary. He has 20 years of ministry experience as a youth and college minister at churches in Idaho, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. He has also been named a Timothy Scholar by the United Methodist Foundation for Evangelism based upon his research emphasis in youth and young adult ministry.