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Pluralism - a new youth ministry imperative

Pluralism:
A New Youth Ministry Imperative

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

Pluralism - a New Youth Ministry Imperative - Kindred Youth Ministry

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

Pluralism ≠ “Diversity”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pluralism of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pluralism Is Imperative

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

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

By being in relationship with others.

Building Relationships

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

Speaking Generously

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

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

Living Missionally

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

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

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

Engaging with Pluralism

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

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


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

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

9 Ways to Cultivate Community

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

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

9 Ways to cultivate community

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

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

1. Share life stories.

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

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

2. Get away together for an overnight.

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

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

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

3. Have them over for a meal.

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

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

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

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

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

6. Read The Following Article Together

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

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

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

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

8. Lead in transparency and vulnerability.

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

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

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

Summary

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


About the Author: Zach Gurick

Zach Gurick

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

The Stories We Tell

The Stories We Tell

In youth ministry there is a lot of storytelling going on.

The Stories We Tell - Kindred Youth Ministry

Some of these stories are told around campfires, over a coke, or while taking a drive together. Often we have the chance to stand before kids we love, open stories from the Bible, and tell them in ways that allow the characters to leap off the page. The words we use are powerful, and the stories we tell can often land in the hearts of those we love in ways more impactful than we were ever aware.

However, our scripted efforts to invite young people into the reality of God’s love are only part of our storytelling.

Implicit Storytelling

I’m convinced the talks we give are only one aspect of the opportunity we have to tell of God’s love. What if we began to reframe every aspect of our youth ministries through story?

The stories that often go unchecked are the ones we tell with our actions. Every aspect of youth ministry could be understood as one more element of the grand story we are placing on display. The moment a middle school kid is dropped off they experience a story—we just hope it’s one of welcome, love, and acceptance.

The games we play and the songs we sing are another element of our storytelling. Were kids humiliated? Did we only call upon popular kids, or our youth group heroes to come up front? What kind of story does that tell?

Who are the youth ministry volunteers and leaders? Are they all young, beautiful, and “with it,” or is the whole body of Christ represented by this group of adults?

We have an opportunity to tell far more stories than just the ones in our talks if only we would pay attention.

Stories and Place-sharing

In my early years of youth ministry I was trained to walk the halls of the local high school and pray for kids. I would show up at practices, games, plays, and just be around. I was told that this was part of the proclamation of the good news and that somehow the relationship between my actions and my words would enable the young people I loved to understand more about the God I was pointing towards. I still believe this today.

We read of storytelling like this in 1 Thessalonians 2:8 where Paul describes the love he has for the church in Thessalonica as being on display both in their words, but in their actions; “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our very lives as well.” Here we understand that while our words indeed matter, the ways in which we put those words on display are also an important part of this announcing of God’s love. There must be continuity between our message and the means, or said another way—continuity of word and deed.

We never want to fall into the trap of either extreme, thinking that we need only words or just deeds. This would be a misunderstanding of the whole endeavor! Instead, we must understand that our words offer an explanation for our deeds, and our deeds put our words on display. When the two work hand in hand, both our words and our deeds, we are able to communicate with those we love more faithfully.

Actions Speak Loud(er)

I’m convinced the talks we give are only one aspect of the opportunity we have to tell of God’s love.

I’m convinced the talks we give are only one aspect of the opportunity we have to tell of God’s love.

What if we began to reframe every aspect of our youth ministries through story? What if from the moment a student arrived the storytelling began? What if our games, our songs, the people we involve, our leaders, even the spaces in which we meet all pointed collectively to the truth we so long to share?

What could this look like in your ministry? I’d love to see some ideas below in the comment section!

May we all be faithful storytellers, pointing with our words and deeds to the good news of Jesus Christ!


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.

ubuntu - Kindred Youth Ministry

UBUNTU: An Invitation into Full Humanity

When I was 19 years old, I sensed a distinct call to full-time professional youth ministry. All of the seasoned youth workers in my life at that time were like superheroes to me. I wanted to be just like each of them. Good grief, if I am really honest, I still do. 

ubuntu - Kindred Youth Ministry

  • One couple launched Young Life in Florida and purchased property so kids of every ethnic variety could go to camp without being discriminated against. 
  • One of our professors was the first ordained woman in the entire history of the Presbyterian church. She graduated as the valedictorian of her seminary class. 
  • Another couple launched the youth ministry program at our college. He was our city’s first Young Life area director and eventually he became a repeat national championship collegiate tennis coach. She led the youth ministry program for 30 years. 
  • One area director went on to manage and develop Young Life properties. He eventually became the Vice President for all of Young Life’s properties. 
  • Another area director became the Chief Development Officer for Young Life. 

As you can see, I was surrounded by giants. Here’s the thing though. They did not even know it. They were not trying to be superheroes. They were each living out their respective calls from a place of quiet strength. They are people of epic humility. 

Bigger and Better

I am embarrassed to confess that I spent the better part of 15 exhausting years trying to become a superhero chasing the illusive carrot of “bigger and better.” Bigger crowds and better programming. Bigger budgets and better buildings. 

I chased after “bigger and better” until it revealed an underlying addiction…to affirmation. If I’m honest, I’m suspicious of why I even agreed to write this blog. 

Since childhood, I have lived with an accusatory voice in my ear reminding me that I am not enough. Not smart enough. Not creative enough. Not attractive enough. Not powerful enough. Not wise enough. Not wealthy enough. And somehow I believed the lie that “bigger and better” would slay the dragon of “not enough.” 

When I was 19, in the sweet spot of my formation as a young leader, God generously surrounded me with men and women who were so approachable, so honest and willing to express vulnerabilities, so authentically broken, so connected to one another, so willing to listen. 

I did not know that what they were actually offering me was quite simply permission to be human…to be myself, the truest version, to lay down striving, to rest in my inherent unearned value as a son deeply loved by the Father. This is what it means to be human. To be Ubuntu. 

Ubuntu Humanity

One South African proverb states, “Ubuntu ungamuntu ngabanye abantu. People are people through other people. In other words we need each other to be fully human and alive. It is in our interaction with others that our humanness flourishes.” 

Now, at 43, I am tempted, once again, to believe the lie that surfaces even as I craft these words. “You are not being human enough.” Thankfully I have continued to surround myself with men and women who help me hold onto what is the most true about me. 

These days, I am a professional counselor and a spiritual director. Most of my work is now done very slowly. One person at a time. One hour at a time. In an obscure office with the door closed. Bigger and better has no place in the work I am involved in now. One of our mottos is “We need a whole lot of slow to grow.” 

If 20+ years of youth ministry and client work has taught me anything, one of the greatest gifts we can offer one another is permission to be fully human. 

Permission to be fully human is simply permission to let our guard down, to allow another person to enter into the mess with us, to risk allowing another to feel with us. 

One of the greatest gifts we can offer one another is permission to be fully human.

Unfortunately, many people may never have the opportunity to experience this kind of full living. Why? Shame. 

Shame: Healthy or Toxic?

There are two kinds of shame. One we need. One we don’t. 

Healthy shame reminds us that we are human. It is, in other words, a much needed reminder that we are not God. It is lets us know that we are finite and possess the ability to make mistakes. Healthy shame allows us to feel guilt and therefore seek out forgiveness. 

Toxic shame, on the other hand, seeks to rob us of our humanity and the healing influences that we all need. Toxic shame whispers lies that are so seductive. It reinforces lies about who you really are. Not that you MADE a mistake, but that you ARE a mistake. 

When we are stuck in toxic shame, we need a way out. 

Ubuntu Undoes Shame

In certain regions of South Africa, when someone does something wrong, he is taken to the center of the village and surrounded by his tribe for two days while they speak of all the good he has done. They believe each person is good, yet sometimes we make mistakes, which is really a cry for help. They unite in this ritual to encourage the person to reconnect with his true nature. The belief is that unity and affirmation have more power to change behavior than shame and punishment. This is known as Ubuntu—humanity towards one another. 

What if we could adopt this ancient practice of restoring one another into wholeness? 

This actually seems to be purpose of community as I am understanding it. 

Jesus’ Invitation to Ubuntu 

Jesus cultivates raw and unfiltered feedback from his closest friends. It’s as if he invites his own community to practice Ubuntu with him, to speak to the essential nature of his truest identity. 

“Who do people say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13)
“Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
“Why are you looking for me?” (Luke 2:49)
“Why are you trying to kill me?” (John 7:19)
“Have I been with you so long and still you do not know me?” (John 14:9)
“Do you love me?” (John 21:16) 

Maybe that is why I love this familiar beach scene where Jesus gathers his disciples for breakfast after a handful of major failures on their part. On that particular morning, Jesus zeroes in on his friend Peter. Jesus offers Peter something akin to Ubuntu around a home cooked meal to offer him his full humanity back. 

Little does Peter know that Jesus has gathered them with Ubuntu on his mind. He has a fire cooked. Soon they will gather all of the disciple in a circle around that fire, around a meal, and more specifically around Peter. 

Jesus: Peter, do you love me?
Peter: Yes, Lord, you know I do.
Jesus: Then practice Ubuntu. (i.e. feed my lambs)

We know that after Jesus was crucified, the disciples made the decision to gather in a home and essentially commit themselves to what I am coming to understand is the ancient practice of Ubuntu. Those were moments marked by learning to rest in their truest identity. 

Questions to help you consider the practice of Ubuntu

1) How can I first offer Ubuntu to myself? 

2) How can I begin or continue to cultivate a community of others around me who are committed to offering me and one another Ubuntu? 

3) To whom is it hardest for me to offer Ubuntu? 

4) How could I explore offering them Ubuntu and maintain a) a boundary of what is and is not acceptable that allows me to b) remain in my integrity (true self) while c) orienting myself generously toward that person with the assumption that they are doing the best they know how to do? 

5) When have I experienced even just small, subtle hints of Ubuntu in relationships with other adults (friends, family, God)? What did that feel like or stir in me? 

6) When I imagine a consistent rhythm of Ubuntu being more present in my life, what is different about me? What is different about other people in my life? 


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.