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I’ve Seen a Thing or Two,
Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies

“We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.” This is the tag line of what I believe is one of the most effective marketing campaigns over the last year. A veteran State Farm representative always delivers the line after highlighting an interesting, almost unbelievable story of a mishap that State Farm has faithfully covered in the past.

“We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two,” is a tag line I can identify with after 42 years in youth ministry. Over four decades, there were times when I was convinced that I had seen it all only to be surprised, once again, by cultural shifts or movements which seemed newly birthed by the Holy Spirit. At these times, I knew I could resist or in humility be open to change. I’m still trying to learn that if you are not willing to change, you love yourself more than the truth. One thing I’m certain about is that there is never an arriving.

Life with Christ is always a journey requiring continual and relational discernment and openness to God’s future breaking in on us. Few would disagree that our current cultural realities are not fraught with confusing dissonance and stressful civil conflict. Yet, it is in the midst of this very cultural milieu that we must work out our faith, seek understanding, engage in serious theological reflection and passionately proclaim a hope-filled Gospel.

As a youth minister, I am extremely grateful for theological conversation partners and resources that help me navigate through what it means to practice youth ministry in our cultural context in a way that leads to Christian formation of young people. Andy Root’s book Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science couldn’t be more timely or relevant.

In the genre of youth ministry books two of the following three things are normative. 1) A quirky, clever title that is culturally relevant. 2) Important content providing help in dealing with the emerging generation of young people. 3) A theologically robust, conversation-moving discourse that is really for the whole church, not just youth ministry.

While many youth workers are ok with two out of three ain’t bad, more and more of us are not. Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is a theologically robust, conversation-moving book important for the whole church, not just youth ministry. And yet, I wonder, will Andy’s book be accessible to youth workers? After all, that is the targeted reader. I don’t wonder because I think youth workers aren’t intellectually curious or committed to the discipline of study. I wonder because too often the youth ministry environments in which we minister are pragmatically focused, program driven and action oriented, leaving little time for theological reflection and face to face encounter with the young people we minister with.

I’m concerned about the state of youth ministry and youth workers when we don’t give serious attention to books like Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies. While I’m proud that a book of this caliber is written for my vocation of youth ministry, I actually wish this book were titled, Ministry to Emerging Generations in a Scientific Age, or something like that so more people in ministry would read this important work, instead of just youth workers. And I’m concerned that a youth worker drawn to read it because of it’s catchy title might stop reading when the challenging content unfolds in the book.

This book is really critical for all youth workers to read, contemplate and learn. The issue of the relationship between science and faith is really important. We have been confronted by many studies revealing the perceived conflict between science and faith as a leading reason why many young people feel that the church has become increasingly irrelevant for them and the broader culture. When a church community articulates a narrative that either science or the bible is true but they can’t both be true, it leads to an unfortunate exit ramp for many. Too many young people have either been escorted out of the church community for their unwillingness to embrace a blind faith that contradicts with the way they view reality.

For many others the apparent conflict between science and faith, or the way they interpret the bible, results in a plan to avoid the subject and pretend a tension between science and faith doesn’t exist. This course leads to a faith that looks foolish to the broader culture for all the wrong reasons.

Too many young people have either been escorted out of the church community for their unwillingness to embrace a blind faith that contradicts with the way they view reality.

I am grateful that, Andy Root, whom I believe to be a world-class practical theologian and Christian thinker, has continued to write books and engage in theological reflection for youth ministry. Along with new theological work concerning faith formation in a scientific age, Root also strives to make it accessible and practical to youth workers by weaving a storyline of youth ministry life in between chapters on science and theology.

The narrative woven throughout the book focuses on Jared, a 12-year youth ministry veteran who is trying to determine if he is going to continue in youth ministry or move into a new role in the church.

Aly is a 24 year old, who Jared watched grow up in his church but who is now in a full blown crises of faith feeling that science is more reliable and logical than the idea of a God that we can’t see.

Martin is a current high school youth group kid who has a vivid imagination and believes that mass extinction is on the horizon because ecological science, evolution and The Walking Dead point to a coming apocalypse. He wonders if God will intervene.

Sasha is a middle school student who is super smart and wrestling with how to integrate faith and physics. Sasha doesn’t want to embrace a belief system so feeble that science has to be viewed as an enemy of faith.

Sarah is a youth worker from another church who is dealing with the issue of Science and Faith in a different manner than Jared, so we get to consider other youth ministry contexts.

Jared also has to deal with a host of parents who often have a quite different way of seeing the world than their child. Those of us who have been in youth ministry for any length of time know what it’s like to encounter an anxious parent. Anxious parents of the kids in our churches can range from the parent who hopes that you can help their kid through this stage of life without falling off the deep end to the parent whose anxiety leads them to blame the youth worker for all that is wrong in their world. Often this doesn’t go well and the horror stories youth workers tell are legendary.

Few issues, except maybe sexuality, can stir up a parent like science, especially if you find yourself in a church where creationism is a view held by many. Root’s book is more geared toward a post-liberal mainline and a progressive evangelical context. Should evangelical youth workers read Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies? YES! If you are in a typical evangelical church you might be trying to convince yourself, “The youth I work with aren’t asking these kinds of questions.” If you believe this, I think the reason why is that your youth for some reason have chosen not to raise these kinds of critical questions in the place where they should – your church. They may hold their questions because they know how politically incorrect it is in your church. And yet, few issues are more important for the Christian formation of young people than the relationship between science and faith, and science and the Bible.

Why Young Christians are Leaving Church

David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group wrote a book entitled, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church. The book was based on research pulled from eight national studies. According to the Barna Group, the national studies, included “…interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.”[1]

Kinnaman’s book focuses on six themes that he thinks most impacts the disengagement of late adolescents with their churches. I think four of the six themes are directly related to the content Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies deals with. They are:

Churches seem overprotective.

Kinnaman argues that the reality is that today’s adolescents and young adults have unparalleled exposure to worldviews. When a narrow-minded, overly contextualized and limited view of faith restricts their understanding of a broader world context this is deemed irrelevant and parochial by the emerging generation. While they feel disappointed with their churches, they often believe that God has a more gracious view of the world than their church. According to the research cited, “one-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said, Christians demonize everything outside of the church.”

Teens’ and twenty-somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

Young people want to engage in a faith that deals with real life issues. They are not afraid of issues that are not clearly black and white. They are drawn to a faith that encounters the other with love and inclusion. Many don’t feel that the Bible is hanging by a literal thread and therefore requires us to defensively ignore new information that is constantly emerging.

Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

From a summary of the findings of the Barna Study and the content of Kinnaman’s book  “a big reason young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is ‘Christians are too confident they know all the answers’ (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ’Christianity is anti-science’ (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’ Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.”[2]

The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

For youth workers who have focused deeply on classic Christian formation of young people, we know that there is no strong faith without good doubt. Good doubt that is properly wrestled with is vital to the Christian life. There is so much fear in so a majority of our churches today that the idea of creating an environment that is a safe place for young people to express their doubts is very threatening to many church leaders, parents and grandparents. This unfortunately leads to an inability to walk with young people through their intellectual doubts and the struggles they are having trying to make meaning out of their lives and the reality they are experiencing.

Of course, the above statistics stated by Barna research could and should be challenged. And for every study that states that the conflict between science and faith leads to young people feeling disillusioned about the church or concluding that faith is irrelevant, there are opinions or studies stating the solution to fix the problem is to double down on discipleship in order to turn these trends around.

Our youth are asking lots of questions, important questions. They are not just looking for the answers but for those who will engage them in serious dialogue with a curiosity and wonder for this thing called life.

Root works hard in this book to present real youth ministry complexities in a scientific age. He engages in deep scholarship to present philosophical and theological dialogue with science.  He spends a lot of time carefully helping the reader understand that while many in our culture define science as “objective” and faith as “subjective” the reality is that both science and faith are socially constructed. Root knows that one of the most powerful statements in our culture is “Science says, …” The Social Practice of Scientism declares a position of “non-biased objectivity.” The Social Practice of conservative Evangelicalism declares a position of “Objective Truth.” A rigid social practice of Christianity smirks at the “objectivity of science” position and believes that the absolute truth of the bible always forces a checkmate on science. Root goes after both of these arrogant positions and invites us out of the battle between scientism and a faith built upon certitude.

The most wonderful part of Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies, however is the truly extraordinary section of the book where Root explores reasons the Scientific Revolution occurred in the Christian West and not in another part of world civilization. Root fleshes out the story of Athanasius dealing with the challenge of Arianism and the consequent development of the Nicene Creed describing Jesus Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” The Nicene Creed is the most widely accepted orthodox Christian statement of faith, embraced by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and most forms of Protestantism.

Root takes considerable care to describe how the work of Athanasius, a Doctor of the Church, is picked up by the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, his younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory Nazianzus were able to profoundly and creatively work out the theological basis for the Nicene Creed, particularly how Jesus Christ could be fully human and fully divine. Root, building on the work of Scottish Theologian Thomas Torrance, fleshes out the brilliance of the Cappadocian fathers working out the hypostatic union, Trinity as the three in one and one in three, while showing how Jesus Christ could be fully human and fully divine of one substance (ousia) and being with the Father but differentiated by a being that is constituted relationally. This formula developed by the Cappadocian’s is beautiful, paradoxical and mysterious all at the same time. But Root shows how this kind of thinking, which shaped the imagination and mental constructs of the western mind, ultimately led to an epistemological framework that gave birth to the scientific revolution.

Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is ultimately about faith, seeking understanding. A flourishing faith is one that passionately seeks deeper understanding. I don’t believe this book is just about helping young people find answers to their big questions and seek understanding for the formation of their faith. I want youth workers to read this book because I believe it will also expand their faith in the midst of this scientific world in which we live.

Our youth are asking lots of questions, important questions. They are not just looking for the answers but for those who will engage them in serious dialogue with a curiosity and wonder for this thing called life. Of course, not every conversation with young people will focus on the finely tuned universe or the big bang but when these conversations happen they are often seminal, epic, shaping the imagination and faith journey for a lifetime. Are you prepared for these moments?

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church/ accessed November 26, 2017

[2] Ibid.

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.

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.

Science, Youth Ministry, and Prayer

Recently Andy Root wrote Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science, an interesting and timely addition to an ongoing conversation surrounding the relationship between faith and science.  Root’s charge to us in youth ministry is simple: we stay silent on this contested relationship to our own peril.  Kids have questions about the universe—micro- and macroscopically—and we in youth ministry have not only an obligation to attend to those questions, but with Andy Root’s help, also a unique and exciting opportunity to share the gospel in relevant ways.

But why talk about science?

No doubt a few of you reading this need some encouragement.  Let’s name and respond to some of the reasons that might keep you from picking up this book:

But none of my kids are asking science questions of their faith…

Yes they are.  Maybe not to you, but they are asking these questions.  Would you really rather they went elsewhere to get the answers?

But I’m not a scientist, I’m not equipped to handle the conversation…

You’re likely also not an economist, but I bet you’ve talked to kids about how to use their money.  You’re likely not a licensed sex therapist, but I bet you’ve talked to kids about sex.  There are an endless number of things outside your training that ministry requires you to weigh in on.  Science might be more intimidating or confusing than others, but it’s still something we’ve got to address.

But we’ve already got a policy at our church/institution that clearly states what we should say

The most successful folks in ministry are those that keep digging deeper.  This doesn’t mean your opinion ought to always change.  There are things we ought not budge an inch on.  This also doesn’t mean you should be insubordinate with those you work under.  Even so, continuing to come back to important topics by reading and interacting with thoughtful folks is always a good tactic in ministry.  This is an important topic.  And this is a thoughtful account of how to talk about it.

There are an endless number of things outside your training that ministry requires you to weigh in on.

Put another way, Root is not so much telling youth pastors what to say (as in, the “answer” to questions surrounding Noah’s arc and the theory of evolution) but how to have the conversation.  The latter is often a much, much more difficult thing to do.

So how do science and faith relate?

Convinced?

Let’s assume you are, that you’re past the threshold of wondering if you should read about science and faith.  Let’s move on, then, to what it is that Andy’s telling us (of course it’d be infinitely better for you to simply read this book on your own or as a staff, but here’s a rough sketch).

Move #1: Getting us on the same page regarding science and ‘science’

Andy Root gets his project off the ground with some much-needed brush clearing.  There’s a lot of unhelpful talk surrounding science and faith and he wants to make sure we’re all on the same page.  As is the case in all good arguments, Root reminds us that in this debate it’s often the case that folks are using the same terms but in different ways.  In other words, Andy tells us that often times when we talk about science, we don’t actually mean, science.  Let’s explain.

According to Root, there’s a world of difference between scientific findings and ‘science.’  Contrary to much popular belief, there is no essential rivalry between science (as a method for the pursuit of knowledge regarding some material reality) and faith (an encounter with God).  As a methodology, science isn’t a good or a bad thing, it isn’t necessarily for or against faith.  That there are scientists all along the spectrum of belief testifies, in some sense, to this reality.

‘Science,’ however, is a different story.  According to Root, what most of us have in mind when we talk about “faith and science” are not specific scientific findings.  Instead, we’ve got ‘science’ in mind: to borrow his phrase, a “comprehensive social practice.”  In other words, often when we talk about science we’ve got in mind something that more closely resembles a religion-like thing insofar as it makes claims on what we ought to live and do and why.  Which is to say that religion and ‘science’ both require loyalties and, unlike (neutral) scientific findings and faith, these two are at odds.

At its most basic, the Christian faith tells us we live in a personal universe, one made and sustained by a God who is intimately related to what He makes.  ‘Science,’ on the other hand, promotes and assumes an impersonal universe.  See the bind?  These two ways of seeing and participating in the world—faith and ‘science’—are diametrically opposed when it comes to describing that very world, and so anyone caught in their crosshairs must make a choice: faith or ‘science.’

The effects of this dilemma in the church are obvious and often polarizing: should I choose faith (and thus downplay the import of scientific findings) or should I choose science (and thus downplay the import of faith)?  At its worst, the first option leaves a church on a lonely, overly skeptical island, completely cut off from the insights of entire scientific community.  And the second option, at its worst, leaves individuals with a withered or non-existent faith.

By making a distinction between scientific findings and ‘science,’ then, Root helps us to get the heart of the matter.  The issue is less one between faith and science.  There are a host of ways that we can make meaningful connections between the findings in biology, chemistry, and physics, for example, and our faith.  The issue, instead, is with the assumption of ‘science’ that since the universe is impersonal, to be a faithful Christian is to intentionally choose to be mute, immoral, or childish when it comes to dealing with how things really are.  Without making this distinction, then, we see far too many kids thinking they must make a false choice between believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ or believing in the Big Bang theory, for example.

Move #2: Getting a picture for how faith and science do relate, then

To put it far too briefly, ultimately Root ends up arguing for an asymmetrical but generally harmonious relationship between science and faith wherein the claims of the former can and do fit quite nicely within the broader context of the former.  It’s an asymmetrical relationship precisely because once we get straight what it is we’re doing in faith—“seek[ing] the face of God in mystery”—we’re poised to be able to rightly weigh in on the “faceless answers” of science. 

The bulk of the book is thus devoted to exploring just how it is that the faithful can, have, and perhaps ought to relate to a small sample set of scientific claims that intersect with core Christian beliefs.  That Root does this through both argument and imaginative conversations between a youth pastor named Jared and a host of his youth group attendees keeps the book lively and engaging.  I could imagine a church or lay leadership team taking up the narratival portions of the book as a focus for discussion: reading the fictional conversations that prompt Jared’s own journey and reflecting on how his conclusions/foibles/confusions do or do not mirror the their own.

A friendly critique

As much as I would recommend this book as a source for churches and faith-based organizations working with kids, I’d still like to offer a friendly challenge to the essential distinction Root draws between faith and science.  According to Root, what best accounts for the salient difference between faith and science is seen when their aims or goals are made explicit.  Whereas faith “seeks the face of God in mystery (this is its soteriological goal),” the scientific “can only offer faceless answers” (139-40).  Elsewhere, faith has a “moral goal” (144) whereas the “goal of the scientific is to empirically deliverer results, solutions, answers.  But faith has little of this as its pursuit.  Faith reaches out not for results, solutions and clear answers, but for encounter with a transcendent personal reality that remains always shrouded in mystery” (112).  Generally speaking, Root’s claims are sound.  There’s an intuitive logic nicely captured in his image of “faceless answers.”  So to be clear, I am not saying that what Root claims here is wrong, per se.  I am saying, however, that at important points his rhetoric runs the risk of outpacing his argument.

Take prayer, for instance.  As a reminder, Root tells us that the “goal of the scientific is to empirically deliver results, solutions, answers.  But faith has little of this as its pursuit” (112; emphasis mine).  To drive home his point Root returns to the life and death (fictional) drama surrounding Gena and her cancer:

The health sciences see Gena mainly as her illness, and see her illness as the problem of low white blood cells.  But faith sees Gena as a person who must be ministered to.  The goal for the scientific in relation to Gena is to functionally overcome her sickness (something Jared, Aly, and her family yearn for).  But faith, on the other hand, asks, Who is Gena, and how does she live and participate in this personal world?  What kind of life and death upholds her personhood in love and mercy?  And in life and death, how might we help her commune with this personal God and those she loves?  These are quite different aims. (112)

In laudable effort to distance faith from mere instrumentalization (I pray X and I’m guaranteed Y) and emphasize its personal, experiential aims, Root runs the risk of blunting the scandal of petitionary prayer.  In other words, petitionary prayer—where we ask for things we do not have, for things to be different than they currently are—is certainly more than functional in its goal, but it is never less than that. 

Indeed, the practice of prayer perhaps pushes back even further on Root’s essential distinction between faith and science as one of aim or goal.  From the ancient world to the present, prayer has been described—with rare monotony!—as a dialogue between God and humanity.  Importantly, our prayers are always a response to a conversation God prompts (by the teaching and example of Christ), maintains (by the Spirit who speaks when we cannot (Rom 8)), and answers (by the Father to whom we direct our pleas).

If prayer is, as Robert Jenson argues, a distinctively human act, then perhaps one way of accounting for the difference between science and faith (as both human endeavors) rests not so much in aim as in object.  For in faith—of which prayer is its principal act, so says Augustine, Thomas, and Barth, for example—we approach truth (as an aim) in, through, and by our interaction with God as Truth (as Object).  In other words, what accounts for the most important distinction between faith and science is that in the former, its Object talks back.  In faith our truth-seeking is a response and so a secondary, not principle, move.

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.


About the Author: Lindsey Hankins

Lindsey Hankins is a PhD candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary with previous degrees in Historical and Systematic Theology (MA) and Christian History (MA) from Wheaton College and Biblical and Theological Studies from Bethel University, MN (BA). Her MA thesis, Making Martyrs Male: A Reappraisal of Gendered Rhetoric in Ancient Martyrdom Accounts, was written under the support of Wheaton’s Center for Early Christian Studies fellowship grant. She is currently completing a dissertation on Thomas Aquinas and prayer.

Encouraging Curiosity in our Youth

“Rachael, can I ask you a question?” I looked up to see Michael standing there wearing a look somewhere between concerned and curious. All the other high school kids had left youth group for the evening and Michael was not usually one to stay behind.

“Of course, Michael. Of course, you can ask me a question,” I replied.

“Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath, “I need to ask you….okay…it’s just that..I’m wondering…” I held my breath, doing everything I could to keep a smile on my face; Michael’s nerves were contagious and were putting me on edge.

“It’s just that I need to know something. If Noah’s boat landed in like Afghanistan or something…how the heck did the penguins get to Antarctica?” I paused. It was one of those moments in youth ministry where you know you have to tread lightly. The answers to such questions, weirdly, mean a lot to a young person’s understanding of who they are, who God is, and our origins. These questions actually get to the core of our existence. On the surface, it seems like a silly question, but it’s not – Michael’s question is, actually, a rather serious one.

What Michael was really asking me was – does the Bible make sense? Is it really true? Is it fact? Because it’s hard to fit it into a modern understanding of the world.

Michael has been part of the church a long time. He has gone to Christian schools his entire schooling. He knows the Genesis story front to back. Michael was also raised in the Episcopal Church, a denomination that leans a little more progressive and is constantly living atop a three-tiered stool of reason, faith and tradition. His adolescent brain and earnest Christian heart were doing their best to bring it all together.

With college less than a year away, Michael told me that he knows he’s going to leave his comfortable bubble and enter into an unknown world. He will likely go to a large public university and he’s afraid that once he gets there, people will be all around him with different understandings of how the world works. In light of new information and new experiences, he worries he’ll leave his faith behind.

“So, I feel like now is my time to ask all these questions I thought were too stupid or silly to ask before. Because maybe they actually matter, ya know?” he asked.

If only all seventeen-year-olds were so articulate.

What not to do

It could be tempting to shrug Michael’s question off as silly. It could be tempting to try to give him all the answers. It could be tempting to insist Michael be careful when asking questions because it could lead down a slippery slope of doubt and loss of faith. It would have been simpler for me to say to Michael, “Michael, you don’t need to worry about these questions. God will take care of you! You just need to trust that God’s Word is true and hand it over in prayer.”

What we don’t want to do is create a Jenga Tower of Faith.

The problem with that response, is that Michael would have missed out on some much better lessons, and I would have missed out on an opportunity to pastor Michael through his questions. And, ultimately, this response is about as unhelpful as they come. This kind of response provides nothing for Michael’s spiritual development, and nothing for Michael’s struggle to reconcile faith with reason.

What we don’t want to do is create a Jenga Tower of Faith. If we encourage our youth to build their faith on a black and white understanding of scripture – one that fully depends on a literal Biblical worldview – then we are creating a lot of opportunity for instability in our youths’ faith foundation. Imagine one block of your youth’s faith tower is “don’t be curious,” and another is “evolution is false” and “the Big Bang theory is antithetical to a Biblical understanding of the world,” and so on and so on. Then imagine they learn compelling evidence which supports evolution – that block gets pulled out of the tower. Then imagine they hear compelling evidence for the Big Bang Theory – now that block has been pulled out. As more blocks get pulled out it’s easy to imagine the whole tower crumbling.

Asking the Big Questions

Michael has a point. Eventually, the youth we are walking with grow up, and go out into the world. If we’ve done our jobs, they know Jesus loves them; they know we love them; and they know a thing or two about following Christ. But did they have an opportunity to ask the big questions? Was your youth group a safe space for them to truly wonder aloud?

Andy Root in his new book about youth ministry and science, “Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs and Zombies,” articulates well the idea that science and faith, in many ways, are asking the same questions. We use science to understand the world around us, just as we do faith. Andy writes, “The overlap between faith and the scientific happens at this epistemic level. It was indeed the epistemic drive, born from their faith, that led Galileo…to passionately seek the shape of reality (p. 123).”

We use science to understand the world around us, just as we do faith.

Science asks big questions, and seeks out answers using a system of methods. Our middle and high schoolers sit in science class – whether it’s biology, chemistry or anatomy – and learn a lot about our universe and world. They are being given a lot of opportunities at school to ask big questions about our world, and are then given tools to answer those questions. I believe our faith communities should be doing the same thing – but how? Below are four suggestions on how to get the ball rolling.

1. Be curious

In his book Brainstorm, Dan Siegel writes that one of the marks of adolescence is curiosity. As adults, we tend to lose our sense of curiosity and settle into what we know (or what we think we know). In fact, healthy adults maintain their curiosity. While as youth ministers we should not be childish, I would insist that it is equally important to be child-like. Wonder at the world; wonder at scripture; wonder at God. Wonderment is a wonderful way to venture into curiosity. Wow those stars are amazing! What are they? How far away are they? Do you remember learning about stars in school? Do you remember learning they are millions of lightyears away? Do you remember learning that when we see the stars we are literally looking at the past? How amazing is that?

We know all these things because someone was curious enough to ask the question and scientifically found the answers. Your adolescents are curious about the world, the universe, God, existence – all of it. And so I would encourage you to be curious too. Meet them where they are at in their curiosity. Let yourself wonder and then create opportunities for you and your community of youth to wonder out loud together.

2. Talk don’t tell

It can be tempting as youth ministers to tell, not talk. What I mean is, we can fall into a pattern of trying to teach and directly influence kids, instead of walking alongside them in their adolescent journey. There’s of course nothing wrong with teaching our youth. Especially teaching them Biblical literacy, or about the traditions of our denomination, but we miss out on a different kind of learning when we spend all our time giving lesson after lesson.

For the youth community I lead, some of our most meaningful times together have been open discussions about the big questions. Recently, our high school group discussed creation. Instead of going straight to scripture, I asked them what they are taught about creation through science, and what they think scripture teaches us about creation. I had a senior in high school say she doesn’t think you can be a Christian and believe the Big Bang in the same conversation with a freshman who said she thinks you can believe the Big Bang Theory and still believe God is our creator. We started our discussion there, then I gave them time to read through Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4b-25.

I prodded the conversation with more questions, but they also came up with more questions on their own, and I mostly got out of the way. We ended with a discussion on what to do with the two creation stories in Genesis. “Even if you don’t believe the stories about creation in Genesis are fact, what do these stories teach us about God? And what do they teach us about ourselves?” I asked them. I believe one of the greatest favors we can do for our youth, is to teach them how to ask questions. If you want to be a youth community that asks big questions, provide opportunities for discussion amongst your youth. Not only will everyone learn a lot, it’s a lot of fun.

3. Set some guidelines for discussion

If you’re going to encourage open discussion in your youth group, it’s helpful to have some guidelines. I did interfaith work at the University of North Florida for four years, and we used the same guidelines at each of our dialogue events. I find the following especially helpful in a youth ministry setting, but encourage your youth to come up with their own!

One mic, one diva: Maybe it’s just my youth (though I seriously doubt it), but listening to others is still something they’re learning and aren’t always good at. It’s helpful to remind them that whoever is speaking “has the mic” and they are the diva for that time. Everyone’s eyes should be on them. Using a talking stick or “mic” can actually be helpful if your group is into it. Some people also call this the “two ears, one mouth” guideline. Everyone has two ears and one mouth, so we can listen more and talk less.

Vegas Rule: Sometimes in these open discussions people are afraid of sounding dumb, or asking a dumb question, or sharing an unpopular opinion. Assure them that everything that is said in the room, stays in the room!

Disagree, don’t debate: Don’t be afraid of a little disagreement. We learn so much when there is disagreement. Just remind everyone that a little disagreement is great, but when it turns into a debate, it has stopped being productive. We’re here to share our ideas and questions as a community, not convince each other of our point of view.

I-statements: Using I-statements helps many people in the room from being defensive and it also helps encourage healthy disagreement. For example, say, “I disagree,” not, “you’re wrong.” Statements like “I believe,” “I think,” or “I wonder” can be more helpful than stating opinions or positions as facts.

These are just a few – ask your youth what they think would be helpful guidelines for discussion in your group!

4. Don’t be afraid of doubt

Sometimes I think we can be so afraid of the doubt in our kids that we shy away from any questions at all. We teach so much because we’re afraid of their conclusions. We might insist the Bible has a singular thing to say about creation, or about our origins, in order to avoid confusion. Here’s the truth – your youth can handle nuance! They can handle multiple truths! They can handle complicated ideas! Here’s the other truth – they still might doubt a little!

When we read about Peter walking on water, we tend to focus on his doubt rather than his curiosity. He was the only one in the boat who wanted to know if it was Jesus out there on the water bad enough to risk stepping out. Ultimately, his curiosity gave him the opportunity to walk on water (something that is scientifically impossible by the way!).  Then the waves got big and he thinks to himself “Oh no, I am walking on water in a storm!” and he begins to doubt, only then does he start to sink. But you know what is amazing about that? Jesus catches him! Peter’s doubt is not too big for Jesus. Allow your youth to know that even if all their questions spark a bit of doubt in them – Jesus is there the whole way (and so are you!).

Ultimately, help your kids embrace mystery. They’re not going to understand everything at once, and neither are you, and isn’t there beauty and joy in that? Part of our role as youth ministers is to create a community of youth who grow in Christ together, and to empower them so that when they leave youth group they have all the tools they need to follow Christ in the world. What better way to do that than to explore questions of science and faith together? To give them a safe space to doubt and question? Allow their curiosity to grow, to flourish – allow them to see that a wonderful way to be in relationship with God is to wonder at the expansive universe God created.

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.


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.

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!)

Think Theologically

Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry

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

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

ThinkingTheologically

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

The Shift

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

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

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

How You Can Think Theologically

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

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

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

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

Movement 1: Describe the situation

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

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

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

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

Movement 2: Interpret the situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movement 4: Do something.

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

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

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

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

Try it!

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

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

How to Think Theologically About Youth Ministry


About the Author: Wes Ellis

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

 

Ministering in the Face of Tragedy

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

“I hate the man who did this!”

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

Ministering in the Face of Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

It Happens Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. People want Jesus

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

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

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

3. People need to be led into peacemaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a Journey

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

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

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

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

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


About the Author: Jeremy Penn

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

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.