Posts

Getting Jesus Wrong

Getting Jesus Wrong:
Dealing with the Unknown in Youth Ministry

Mark 8:27-30

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Getting Jesus Wrong

Shhh…It’s A Secret

There’s something troubling about this little text.  Jesus’ questions get right to the heart of his identity, yet he seems to be okay with a lot people being wrong about him.  If we evaluated Jesus as a youth pastor from this passage alone, we’d probably say he’s doing it badly.  How should we deal with the unknown in youth ministry?

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is. Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite?

Jesus’ response to Peter’s correct confession is part of a larger theme in Mark’s Gospel, sometimes referred to as “the Messianic Secret, ”1 which has largely mystified New Testament scholars.  Readers of Marks Gospel are often struck by Jesus’ repeated commands not tell anyone about him or what he did.  We see other examples of this in 1:44 when Jesus heals a man with leprosy and promptly tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone” (see also Mk 1:24-25; 1:43-45; 3:11-12; 4:10-12; 5:43; 7:36-37; 8:25-26; 9:9).

Who Am I?

Very often in Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ secrecy follows questions of his identity, like in the passage we began with.  Jesus appears unfazed by others misidentifying him as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, but responds somewhat harshly to Peter’s confession of his messianic identity.  Theories abound as to what’s going on here in Mark’s Gospel and why it doesn’t seem to show up as much, if at all, in the other Gospels.2

Christians today tend to spend a lot of time and energy telling and showing people precisely who they think Jesus is.  Isn’t it strange that Jesus apparently spent a good amount of time doing exactly the opposite? After all, if people aren’t spreading the word about who he is, how will others know what to think about him? What if they continue thinking the wrong things about him, like some of the gossip that wrongly identified him with John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets?

Programming People

It seems that so much of the way we teach youth (and children…and adults) in the church centers on programming correct confessions into them.  We probably (hopefully) wouldn’t articulate it that way, but our Christian education programs often have to do with passing on the proper particularities of the faith, especially for young people who already identify themselves as Christians.  We want them to be the right kind of Christians—to believe the right things about Jesus.

Whatever we think about what’s going on with Jesus’ secret identity in Mark, it is interesting to notice that Jesus was willing to let people be wrong about him and his identity.  Are we willing to let our youth be wrong about Jesus? Are we willing to let ourselves be wrong about Jesus?  (Hint: we’re wrong about Jesus all the time—we need to come to terms with that.)

Notice that Jesus only gets two lines in this brief story, both of which are questions.  Might we see this as a model for how we talk to youth about Jesus, the Bible, and all sorts of other matters of life and faith?

Knowing (About) Jesus

Perhaps we can use this text as an opportunity for listening rather than depositing what we think is the right kind of knowledge about Jesus.  Who do they say Jesus is?  Who do their peers say Jesus?  Where else are they hearing about Jesus and how does that shape their understanding of who he is?  Perhaps it’s a matter of what we hope to achieve.

Do we want little orthodoxy robots into which we program proper theological responses that they can then reproduce,3 or young people who are engaged with the biblical texts and the world around them in meaningful, even if critical and challenging, ways—even it means getting it wrong?

Our task should be to cultivate faith characterized by questions, not answers, and the humility to let ourselves and our youth get it wrong from time to time.

That’s the danger with this approach, of course: they might get it wrong more often than they get it right. But I can’t honestly say that’s not already true about me (and you).

Facing the Unknown

This week, what would it look like for you to allow a young person to “get Jesus wrong?”  How much might you be able to learn from who they say Jesus is? While it might feel scary, when we think we’ve figured God out and don’t need to deal with the unknown in youth ministry, we’ve missed the point.

Let God be bigger than you are this week, and let a young person explore who Jesus is, even if they seem to be missing the point entirely.  You may be surprised where they lead you!

Footnotes

1 This term was first coined by German scholar Wilhelm Wrede in 1901 and has been an enormous topic of scholarly conversation since.

2 Matthew and Luke both contain similar phrases, but typically only when they have directly borrowed a story from Mark. John has no comparable statements from Jesus.

3 This is essentially what Paolo Freire refers to as the “banking” model of education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

 

Are you interested in reading more about Marks Gospel? Check out Marks Discipleship, our five-week study guide for the Gospel of Mark!

Mark's Discipleship


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.

Youth Ministry Games - Kindred Youth Ministry

Youth Ministry Games: Play As Ministry

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

Youth Ministry Games - Kindred Youth Ministry

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

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

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

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

Augustine and Joy

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

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

Luther and Joy

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

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

Calvin and Joy

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

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

Joy as… Worthlessness?

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

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

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

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

Moltmann and Joy

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

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

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

We Need To Play

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

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


About the Author: Wes Ellis

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

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.

 

“Um, How Do I Pray?”

“Ms. Rachael, may I pray us out?”

I looked at David blankly for a moment, a bit in shock. Never in my year of knowing him had I ever heard him ask to pray. Even more, I’ve never even heard him share any prayer requests. I wasn’t even sure if he believed in God.

Um, How Do I Pray?

I quickly shook off my shock and responded, “Of course! Please, please pray us out. I’ll get us started and you can finish.” So I prayed for some of the prayer requests offered up then handed it over to David.

He paused for a moment, seemingly nervous. He then squeezed my hand, leaned in, and whispered, “Um, how do I pray?”

I looked around the room at the 22 other middle schoolers who, rather than seeming to judge David for his lack of knowledge, seemed to be waiting for the answer. How do we pray?

I work for an Episcopal church, which at its very center is The Book of Common Prayer. It seems as young Episcopalians who have been in church their whole lives, these kids would know without hesitation how to pray. As a person who has been praying for so long, I take for granted my ability to pray. It’s been important for me to remember that I actually had to learn how to do it.

In fact, an important part of my spiritual formation as an adult, has been to learn different ways to pray. 

I was reminded of the story in Luke of the Lord’s prayer in which Jesus’ disciples – those closest to him – asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.”

In fact, an important part of my spiritual formation as an adult, has been to learn different ways to pray.

And so we have the Lord’s prayer, which we mumble off in Church on Sunday mornings or at home. We almost take for granted that Jesus taught us this prayer not as something only to be said verbatim, but as a tool for understanding what prayer is and how to do it.

Teaching Youth About Prayer

With that in mind, I thought I’d offer you the ways in which I have been teaching youth about prayer.

1. Visuals

We are blessed enough to have a whole Youth House. An entire house devoted to the youth of our church. It has all the usual markings of a youth space – a ping-pong table and a pool table. It is always stocked with plenty of snacks and soda. Even with all these youthful fixtures, it felt like something was missing. I finally realized, other than a few crosses flung here and there, there was no real visible sign that this was indeed a sacred space, or a place where as a community we pray together.

So I hung up three peg boards in our gathering room. One for hanging prayers, one for hanging words of gratitude, and one for words of encouragement. On the first wall there are tags in a basket that students can take to write prayers and supplications on. They then hang it from the wall and know that I, or another leader, will pray for those requests that week. The tags stay up as a visible reminder that we are a praying community.

On the second wall, there is a similar basket with blank tags on which students can write words of gratitude. What are they thankful to God for that week? They can write it on a tag and hang it on the wall.

On the third wall there are tags with encouraging scripture verses or quotes from theologians hanging from string. If a student feels they need a word of encouragement for the week, or a friend might need one, they can take one of the tags. My hope is that eventually the room feels like it’s full of prayer not just because we pray in it, but because we can see the prayers for ourselves.

2. Listening for God

I think one of the most valuable things we can teach youth is that God is always speaking to them; that there is always a word from God to be heard.

A few weeks ago, I read the story of Jesus’ baptism to my high school group. I had them close their eyes for a moment and told them to imagine that the words of God to Jesus in the baptism story, were God’s words to them. I said aloud “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.”

I then passed out envelopes and paper and pens and asked them to spread out throughout the youth house and be quiet for 5-10 minutes as they to wrote a letter to themselves from God. I promised I wouldn’t read them, and had them put the letters in sealed envelopes and to address the envelopes to themselves. I then promised to send the letters out in a few months. I told them I’d love for them to get in the practice of sitting and listening for God speak to them – that this in and of itself is a form of prayer.

3. Praying for each other

What does it mean to be a praying community? It means to be together in prayer. Part of the value of youth group is providing a community of peers for our youth. A true community that shares in one another’s joy and sorrows. We share highs and lows at each youth group – but to be in Christian community means that we’re praying for each other’s lows and praising God for each other’s highs.

I share a story with my youth about a time when I was struggling to pray. I couldn’t quite find the words, and was afraid that my prayers wouldn’t be answered. But I had a wonderful community around me lifting me up in prayer and I depended on them saying the words I didn’t have the courage to say.

I told my students I’d like them to be that for each other. I gave them each two pieces of paper and asked them to think of one person they know who needs some prayer – maybe they’re sick or sad. Maybe they’re lonely or have a hard test coming up. Whatever the prayer was, I asked them to write the name or the initials of the person they wanted to pray for and to hang it up on the prayer wall I mentioned earlier. Similarly, I told them to use the other piece of paper to write the name of a person they’d like to thank God for, or to say a word of thanks for something good that’s happened for someone they know and to hang that on the wall.

4. Praying for yourself

Prayer of ExamenSome people feel just fine listing off a list of petitions for God. Other’s feel to self-focused. We’re taught to be humble and to lack self-interest. But the truth is, God wants us to depend on Him; to rest in God and the truth that God will cover our needs. It can be helpful for youth to sit in quiet and examine where they sense a need.

Give them examples to help start this practice. Oftentimes some of our young people haven’t been taught to understand there are needs that aren’t material. In a wealthy community kids sometimes feel they have everything they need – water, food, shelter – what could they possibly ask for?

With this in mind I introduced my high schoolers to St. Ignatius’ Daily Examen. We lit candles, and I dimmed the lights. I had them take a couple of deep breaths and get comfortable, then I walked them through the Examen (this is a good resource if you are unfamiliar with the Examen). I did an abbreviated version which was about 7 minutes long. Then I passed out an Examen guide so they could practice it on their own if they chose.

Have Faith

Sometimes when we think of asking teenagers to pray, there’s some anxiety. Surely a 14-year-old boy can’t sit still long enough to do an Examen exercise. Well, have some faith in your youth. Prayer lightens our burden and yokes us to Christ. It is an essential part of Christian identity. We see Jesus going off to pray all throughout the Gospels. But prayer can be intimidating, so offering your youth tools and most importantly – encouragement is essential when you are the spiritual leader of youth!

What tools have you used to teach your youth about prayer? I would love to read about them in the comments!


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.

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.

11 Books to Read

11 Books Every Youth Leader Should Read

Every once in a while, the team from Kindred Youth Ministry wants to point out great resources available for youth workers. So, we have decided to put together a list of books we think every youth leader should read.

11 Books to Read

Now, if you know me personally, you know it was challenging to keep this list short. In fact, I’ve decided to do another post in the future about books we should all read that aren’t specifically about youth ministry, but are incredibly helpful. This list is short – only 11 books! And that means we won’t cover everything, but instead will offer a great list of books we think are really important.

The kids we love and serve deserve our best. They deserve pastors, leaders, and mentors who are thinking critically about life, culture, and ministry.

They deserve to have voices in their lives who have done the work trying to understand how to speak faithfully about the Lord, the Kingdom of God, and their lives.

Reading might be one of the best way to cultivate that kind of leadership in our ministries. We must be students of scripture, always pointing back to the work of Jesus, to the love of God, and to big ideas like creation, sin, justification and many more.

We must also be students of culture, able to offer developed thought on how to see the work of God in the world, how to discern what is happening through our own lived experience, and what it means to be faithful witnesses in and through our lives.

Reading great books and working through them, together, might be one of the most accessible ways to do this work. What if you picked one of these books each month and read them with other youth pastors? What if you read them with your volunteers, staff, and leadership teams? We don’t promise you will agree with everything mentioned in each of these books below. That simply isn’t the point of reading.

Somehow, Christians seem to have fallen into a trap where we believe we have to agree 100% with an author in order to learn from their work. This seems foolish to me. I imagine it keeps many of us from reading authors who might challenge our presuppositions, push us to think through our commitments, or simply read a book from another perspective.

The Plan

So here is the plan… I am going to offer these 11 books as resources I think we should all struggle with. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means. I haven’t covered every perspective or theological background and my biases will show, I’m sure. But… I think these books are great gifts to the larger church. Over the next few months, we will release in depth blog posts on each of these books in order to further invite you into the work of these authors. We hope to interview some of the authors as well.

So, in no particular order, here are 11 great books!


Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry:

From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation 

by Andrew Root

Revisiting Relational Youth MinistryThis book is a must read. Andrew Root invites the reader to reconsider what it means to be in relationship with kids. Helping us understand a theology of the Incarnation; Root rejects influence as the primary goal of ministry, as often seen in relational approaches to ministry, and helps us move towards a more faithful vision of what it means to be with and for kids. This book was convicting, helpful, and is a graduate level piece of work on theology and youth ministry.


Practicing Passion: 

Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church

by Kenda Creasy Dean

Practicing PassionWe could probably make a top 10 list of books just by Kenda Dean, but this one has to be included here. Dean is convinced that the church has lost its first love – a deep theological understanding of Jesus – and settled for educational approaches to working with kids. The problem is that kids are wondering if there is anything out there worth living for, and not experiencing that in the church. Dean helps us learn how to recover the art of cultivating this passion in the lives of the kids we so dearly love.


Sustainable Youth Ministry: 

Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do About It

by Mark DeVries

Sustainable Youth MinistryThis book is a must read if you want to do ministry for more than just a few years. Mark DeVries is the founder of Ministry Architects and brings a wealth of insight into the long-term health of a youth ministry. This book is simple, straightforward, and incredibly helpful not just for a youth minister, but their supervisor as well. If you want to stick around for any length of time, read this book.


Amplifying Our Witness:

Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities

by Benjamin Conner

Amplifying Our WitnessAlmost 20% of adolescents have some sort of developmental disability, and I would say youth ministry, in large part, is failing these kids. We can do better. These kids, and their families, have so many great gifts to offer the church, belong in the church, and are sadly rarely even seen. Conner offers this excellent book that helps us re-imagine what it could mean to be a church that offers hospitality and friendship to every kid out there. This book has changed my own personal experience of youth ministry and church; I can’t recommend it enough!


Almost Christian: 

What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church

by Kenda Creasy Dean

Almost ChristianGrounded in the largest study on adolescents to date, Dean takes the data and gives us a front row seat to the kids we know and love. Taking a hard look at the apathetic faith lives of kids, Dean exposes “do-good, feel-good spirituality”. The scary thing about this book is Kenda suggests kids are doing exactly what we, the church, have shown them! This phenomenal books helps us recover an accessible yet deeply theological response to this crisis of youth ministry today.


Contemplative Youth Ministry: 

Practicing the Presence of Jesus

by Mark Yaconelli

Contemplative Youth MinistryThis book is a must read for those of us trying to invite kids into a deeper relationship with Christ. Yaconelli helps us move beyond a consumer model of youth ministry and goes further than a content model focused on a transfer of information. He, instead, suggests we should invite kids to walk with us as we experience and follow Jesus. This is an excellent book.


Beyond the Screen: 

Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation

by Andrew Zirschky

Beyond the ScreenAs we try to figure out what it means to faithfully minister to millennials, we must learn to engage with technology, social media, and the ultra-connected world that we live in. Zirschky does the work of theological reflection and cultural engagement, showing us a way forward that offers more than the run of the mill frustration about cell phones. This is an important and timely book for today’s youth minister.


Presence Centered Youth Ministry: 

Guiding Students into Spiritual Formation

by Mike King

Presence-Centered Youth MinistryPlacing the presence of God at the center of all things Youth Ministry, Mike King helps us reframe the work of the youth minster. Knowing and being known by God replaces the typical obsession with frantic busyness and programs. I think this is good news for youth ministry! King suggests a return to the ancient spiritual practices of the church and shows us how to carry this out.


Hurt 2.0: 

Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers

by Chap Clark

Hurt 2.0Grounded in his sociological tool-belt, Chap Clark shows us that todays adolescents have been systematically abandoned by society, the church, and their parents. Left to figure life out on their own, kids develop two worlds- the world they share and the world beneath where real life happens. This book is a helpful introduction to the reality of kids today, offering a framework for how we can better understand their lives and how we as youth ministers can relate.


Sticky Faith, Youth Worker Edition:

Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers

by Kara Powell, Brad Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford

Sticky FaithPowell, Griffin, and Crawford face off with the challenge every youth minister and parent wrestles with… what happens when our kids leave high school and head off to college. The terrifying number of kids who abandon their faith and fellowship warrant a read of this book for sure. Sticky Faith looks to invite parents and youth ministers to partner in more faithful practices to address these issues.


Family Based Youth Ministry

by Mark DeVries

Family-Based Youth MinistryMark DeVries wrote this book out of his own experience raising kids and ministering to hundreds of kids over the years. Here is the big idea… get more adults involved in your kids lives and embrace a larger view of family as grounded in the family of God. With an “extended family” point of view, DeVries invites us to surround our kids with people who will love them, support them, and point them to Christ.


Ok, there you have it! 11 books that are important, helpful, and easily accessible by all. Now pick a few, and get started!

But first… a question… what did I miss? Which books have been most helpful for you and your ministry? Tell us why and lets all keep the conversation going… Thanks!


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.

Letting the Bible Read You

Letting the Bible Read You

There’s this interesting story in the book of Luke that we can easily gloss over.

Letting the Bible Read You

In chapter 18, Jesus tells a short parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. In the context of first century Israel, the Pharisee is part of the religious elite and the tax collector is a Jewish traitor, working for the enemy and extorting money from his own people.

In the parable the two men go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee begins first thanking God that he isn’t a dirty, rotten sinner like the tax collector. He’s quite pleased with himself.

The tax collector, on the other hand, won’t look at heaven and can’t bring himself to be around other people. He merely utters the short prayer, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

We read this story and conclude that God wants us to be humble and to not exalt ourselves and then we move on to other things. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps there is more to the story and more to what Luke says about the story itself.

Read the story if you have a moment, Luke 18:9-14. Now, let me ask you a question. With which character do you most identify? Are you closer to the Pharisee or the tax collector? Why?

If you’re like me you probably think something like, “Well, I’m not always the best guy, but I’m not like that Pharisee, I mean, I don’t look down my nose at people and don’t judge people and…” And about that point you start to realize that you sound kind of like someone in that story and it isn’t the tax collector.

I was at a conference about 15 years ago where theologian Stanley Grenz was teaching a seminar on reading the Bible. He used the exercise above with us and it just blew me away. His point, and I think the point of the story, and maybe the Bible as a whole, is that the Bible wasn’t given to us to merely mine for facts, morals, and ideas to which we can give our assent or ignore completely. The Bible is there to reveal us as we truly are, beauty and warts and everything else.

The Bible is there to reveal us as we truly are, beauty and warts and everything else.

If we start looking down on the Pharisee by believing we are the tax collector, we actually reveal ourselves to be the Pharisee. Just as he looked down on the tax collector, we look down on him and think to ourselves, “At least I’m not like that.”

But when we recognize our inner Pharisee and admit that we judge, we are hypocritical, we are arrogant… well, we admit we are sinners and we start to sound a lot like the tax collector.

Notice that Luke begins retelling this parable with verse 9:

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.”

Who is Luke talking about here? The crowd? Maybe.

What about us, his readers?

Do we ever consider that Luke might have wanted to be sure that just as the early crowds surrounding Jesus were challenged or even offended by Jesus’ teachings, that we should be too? Could we be so sure of our own goodness and righteousness that we look down on other people, thinking that somehow we are above them?

The Bible can and will expose us if we let it. It can wreck us if we let it. But it can also, by the power of God’s Spirit, speak new life and redemption into our lives. When our arrogance, sin, and pride are exposed, God can then begin working on building a new foundation.

I encourage you to approach the Bible this way. More than that I encourage you to teach the Bible this way. Let us not give into the temptation of taking the easy road when it comes to the words of Christ, to the words of Paul, or to the words of any of the authors in the Bible. Let us be leveled by what we read, let us be willing to let the Spirit level other people as they read it, and let us seize that opportunity to let Scripture shape and form us as disciples.


About the Author: Bryan Amerling

Bryan AmerlingBryan Amerling has been a youth pastor for 18 years.  He has been married to his amazing wife Sheridan for 18 years as well, and has two children; Rebekah, 13, and Ethan, 10.  He holds a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Florida, and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  When not playing with his family or working with the youth in his church, he enjoys Florida Gator football, reading, and playing guitar.  You can email him at bryan.amerling@gmail.com

YM in a Post-Christian World

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Two Corinthians

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

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Preaching Was Easy in My Day!

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

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

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

1) The Harvest Is Plentiful

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

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

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

2) Watch Your Language

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

Quick Case Study:

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

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

3) Don’t ASSume

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

4) Rise To the Occasion!

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

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


About the Author: Tyler Fuller

tyler fuller

The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doing Young Life and church Youth Ministry. I am now the Missions Pastor at a mega church in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)

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

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

Abraham Heschel, Who Is Man?

The WonderFull God

Science, Faith, and Wonder

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

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

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

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

The Battleground of Youth Ministry

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

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

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

Wonder and Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging Ignorance

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

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

Addressing Ignorance

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

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

The Need for Expertise

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

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

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

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

When Utility Overshadows Wonder

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

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

Good Pragmatism: Responsible Humanitarianism

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

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

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

Bad Pragmatism: Profiteering Oppression

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

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

Pragmatism Neuters Wonder

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

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

Pragmatic Faith?

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

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

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

God Is No Pragmatist

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

God was never interested in being simply a principle.

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

Mountain or Molehill?

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

Education: How Can I Apply This?

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

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

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

Congregations: Challenged to Wonder

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

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

Wonder as Respecting the Other

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

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

Real Living Requires Wonder

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

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

1) Wilderness

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

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

2) Wrestling

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

3) Widening

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

The Capacity for Wonder

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

 


About the Author: Blair Bertrand

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

Macho Jesus

Macho Jesus, Lent, and Youth Ministry

“…when we attempt to think of God as the one who communicates and expresses himself in the person Jesus, then we must always remember that this man was crucified…” -Eberhard Jüngel

The Good News of Suffering

If there is one ministry in our churches that is associated with fun and happiness, it’s youth ministry. This is no bad thing. After all, the gospel of Jesus is “good news!” Joy and happiness should be at the heart of youth ministry.

Macho Jesus

But the season of Lent is a good time for youth workers to remember that, even to the God of joy, suffering is no scandal in ministry. During Lent, youth workers should focus not only on their fantastic spring retreats (ours was last week—it was awesome!) but also on the theology of the cross.

The theology of the cross makes the bold claim that Jesus on the cross is the deepest and fullest expression of who God is. God isn’t any less God when God is in the dying Jesus. It is there that God is revealed to us, most fully, as the God of promise and resurrection. The cross is a lens for all other theological reflection, not just a pesky event that happened before Easter Sunday.

The Glory of the Cross

The theology of the cross is a contrast to the so-called “theology of glory,” as Luther called it, which “prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 21). The theology of the cross sees God “hidden” in suffering, in self-sacrificing love, rather than expecting God to show up in glory or in our ambitious actions.

This does not negate God’s power, glory, and might—but it does mean to redefine them. The suffering of Jesus on the cross redefines glory. As the theologian Eberhard Jüngel has put it, “God’s mightiness is understood as the power of his love. Only love is almighty” (God as Mystery of the World, 22).

The theology of glory misses all the irony of this redefinition. And thus, the theology of glory has been wielded throughout history to perpetuate authoritarian power and to justify the use of coercion by those who have power. The theology of the cross is a theology of resistance, a theology which opposes such expressions of power and calls instead for the power of love. Even such a statement as “the power of love” sounds absurd and silly to those who are convinced by the theology of glory. But why else did Paul say, “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18)?

The theology of the cross is a theology of resistance, a theology which opposes such expressions of power and calls instead for the power of love.

Macho Jesus!

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to see the theology of glory at work in our culture and in our churches. We can look to the various appeals of Christian politicians to justify war. We can look to the apocalyptic anticipations of some who seem to think Jesus was just kidding when he came the first time—when he comes THIS time, he means business. We can also look to what I like to call the “macho Jesus” phenomenon.

“Macho Jesus” is a reaction to some popular historical images of Jesus as a gentle shepherd, an introspective sage, and a poet. The macho Jesus contends that Jesus was tough. Real tough. Emphasizing Jesus’ anger, especially the passage in which Jesus drives out the money changers in the temple (again, they seem to have missed the irony), proponents of the macho Jesus argue that Jesus was manly, proactive, and even aggressive in his mission to save the world.

Saving Jesus from Himself

Concerned that the “traditional” notion of masculinity and the male “gender role” is fading in our culture, macho Jesus proponents present Jesus as a man’s man. He’s presented as triumphant …and usually with big muscles. There’s even one image I’ve seen where Jesus is on the cross, breaking its crossbeam with his huge biceps.

This Jesus can’t be the same guy who prayed, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Jesus’ association with those who aren’t tough enough to go on—with those who have lost the strength to muster a defense—is utterly lost in the macho Jesus phenomenon.

In youth ministry and in the church at large, the danger we face every Lent is that we’ll skip Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday—or, even worse, that we’ll divorce the resurrected Jesus from the crucified Jesus. After all, “the one who was raised from the dead is the Crucified One…” (God as Mystery of the World, 218). Jesus is actually the crucified Jesus, even in his resurrection, and only as such is he the God of glory and power. So we can look with hope not only in our moments of strength but even (especially!) in our moments of weakness. This is good news!

Jesus is actually the crucified Jesus, even in his resurrection, and only as such is he the God of glory and power.

As we arrive at Holy Week, let us remember what Jesus told the apostle Paul: “…my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). This is good news not only for us as individuals, but also for our youth ministries! How can you integrate the crucified Jesus into your ministry this week?

Recommended reading:

The Promise of Despair, by Andrew Root

The Cross in Our Context, by Douglas John Hall


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.