Monthly Archives: August 2012

Why Are You Doing Ministry?

I recently read Taking Theology To Youth Ministry by Andrew Root. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, and this entire post is greatly inspired and informed by his book. Again, I recommend it whole-heartedly. While all of his theology might not be the fulness of Orthodox Christianity, I think he does hit home on some very valuable points for those of us who are engaged in ministry to the young. One of the most powerful points in his book is that we who minister need to take a good hard look at our motivations behind ministry. Often, he states, youth ministry is well-intentioned, but that which truly motivates us compromises our intent. So the question for us that stands is simple: why are we doing ministry?

In this light, it becomes important for us to consider the differences between intentions and motivations. Our ministries are almost always undertaken with only the best intentions. We want to see kids become real followers of Jesus; we want to see kids become active and faithful Christian adult members of the Church; we want to spare them the misery of life without the Lord. All of these are good intentions, but often what motivates us is different and driven by other things.

We want them to be good Christians because we’re afraid of the choices that they might make apart from the Lord: drugs, alcohol, or (God forbid) premarital sex. We want them to be faithful members of the Church because we get scared about what it would be like if they rejected Orthodoxy and instead became non-denominational Protestants. Don’t get me wrong; these are things that we ought not want to happen, but as long as these are the things that motivate our ministries, we actually may not be doing ministry.

I’m not suggesting that our ministries should not be geared toward passing on certain moral and ecumenical convictions; this should happen. It is rather the manner in which we go about doing ministry and the theological quality of what we pass on to our young that ought to lead to understandings of morality and ecumenical convictions. Ministry, is after all, not about what we do in the lives of people, but it is about what the Lord does in the lives of people through us. We buy into a great error if we believe that our programs and curriculum (human action) are going to have lasting effect on the formation of the hearts of the Church’s young; we are deluded into the age-old sin of trusting our own convictions about what is good if we do this, and we trust human wisdom to pass on these truths.

Again, I’m not saying that abstaining from premarital sex is not good – it is – but if we are offering this basic Christian moral action in a vacuum (often citing different Scripture verses (proof-texting) or throwing statistics at kids (which they don’t care about because statistics, after all, don’t apply to them)), then we are failing to avail youth to the reality of God’s presence in their lives and His desire for them to trust Him with the various moral and ecumenical crises they face. Moreover, these crises that they face are often not simply issues of morality and ecumenicism; they are issues that confront their very being and the meaning of their being.

So all this begs the question, “What is ministry?” If we can articulate a satisfactory answer to this burning question, then perhaps we’ll see where ministry to the young might begin to fit in the greater scheme of the Church’s Mission in the world. Before this, however, I think it is important that we first understand the basis of the Church’s ministry, which is, namely, the Ministry of God to the world. If our ministries are disconnected from His Ministry, then what we are doing is not ministry at all; it is empty human action that exists for no other reason than to make us feel good about what we are doing for the kids, and while encouraging kids not to have sex may be a good thing, we need to ask whether this is the thing that God would have us do.

God’s Ministry in the world can be summed up in one word: Reconciliation. For St. Irenaeus, this was called recapitulation, but the gist is essentially the same. In the beginning, God created humanity, and humanity chose life apart from God and God’s gifts. To choose existence apart from God is to choose death. After all, what can life be without the Breath of Life flowing in and out of that which is? For humanity to choose life apart from God sent humanity into a spiral toward nothingness and non-being; St. Athanasius agrees with this, by the way, saying that “sin is non-being.” It is a willful return to the void from which God spoke the world into being.

To choose existence apart from God is to choose the nihilo (nothingness) from which God brought all that is. But God, in His mercy, becomes a human being and descends into those very places of nothingness that face our own humanity every day, thereby reconciling those places of darkness, nothingness, and death to Himself in His humanity. God is, after all, a God who brings something out of nothing, possibility out of impossibility, and now new life out of death. This is the Ministry of God: to work in places of nothingness and to make them into something by His Word, Who is Jesus Christ Himself.

If our ministries do not reflect a God who works alongside human nothingness to fill them with His own presence, then we are not doing ministry, for no ministry stands apart from God’s Ministry. To choose action apart from God’s action in the world is to choose the void, even if that action seems to be good. After all, the tree from which Adam and Eve ate in the beginning is the tree of the knowledge of both evil and good. The problem is that we choose “goodness” apart from God’s goodness. Talking about drugs, alcohol, and sex, making kids into people who know all about the ecumenical councils and sacramental theology of the Church, and teaching kids how important it is to feed the hungry and reach the poor are all good things, but if they take place apart from God’s action in the world (His Ministry), then they are not ministry; they are death.

This is why we should – no, why we must – check our motivations for being involved in ministry. If our motivation is to participate in the various ways that God works possibility against the impossibility of our life apart from him, then this can be said to be ministry. If we are looking for God’s action up against the various places of nothingness that manifest in the lives of young people, then this can be said to be youth ministry. If our work is geared toward teaching kids about the academic-esque theology of the Church so that they can defend their faith, then we are doing something wrong. If we are teaching them about how bad it is to cheat on tests or to do drugs, then we are missing the point of God’s action in Jesus Christ on the Cross.

Up against the threat of nothingness and death, the temporary solace and illusory promise of fidelity and life meaning that comes from premarital sex and other illicit deeds will continue to win if young people perceive they follow a God who wants them to be good boys and girls rather than a God who works new life out of their experiences of death. If their perception of God is not a God who faces the void of existence with these young people, then they will keep choosing deeds that stave off the anxiety of returning to the void from which God brought forth all which is. If we, however, see ministry as participating in God’s own action to bring forth something out of nothing, if we see God in the midst of the void by His death on the Cross, then we offer young people a life with a God who is with them and for them in the scariest depths of their existence.

It’s time for us to check our motivations. Are we doing youth ministry because we want kids to be “good?” Are we doing ministry because we want them to be Orthodox for the rest of their lives? Or are we doing ministry because we believe in and follow a God who went to the Cross to fill all of human longing, despair, and nothingness with His own presence and because we want young people also to know this God who works new life out of death? Is the God we present one that wants things from kids (good behavior, service, and worship) or one that wants things for them (eternal life, participation in His Ministry, and participation in His own Community of Love)?

So let’s get real. Why are we doing ministry?

Commencement Address To The Youth of St. George, San Diego

Hello, all!

Here is the transcript of a commencement address that I gave to the youth of St. George in San Diego, for what it’s worth. Hope you enjoy it!

In Christ,
Christian

Very Reverend Fathers, Reverend Deacon, Graduates, Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I am very honored to have this opportunity to be with you today as we celebrate the accomplishments of this graduating class.

Thank you for inviting me to be here.

I know that none of us really knows each other, so allow me just briefly to introduce myself.

I am the Southern California Deanery youth director, and I was appointed to this position by His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH, in October of last year.

Since that time, I have had the privilege and the honor of meeting and interacting with teens, young adults, parents, pastors, and youth workers all throughout Southern California. When I meet people who are concerned with youth in our world, they often say things to me like, “We need to find a way to keep our young people in the Church.” While I appreciate this sentiment and for the most part agree, I think this view is somewhat limited.

As I was growing up, I remember my father saying to me nearly every day, “Today is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need .”

It was a big statement to be sure, but it is one that left a big impression on me as I grew up.

The Christian life is one that is marked by such a statement.

Graduates, today is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need.

As Orthodox Christians, we often become complacent in our faith, not because we don’t care or because we somehow think that it is boring, but because we think that simply being a member of the Church or attending liturgy is the extent of a Christian’s activities in life.

I speak to this from firsthand experience, knowing that it is easy to get into the rhythm of simply attending church services, feeling like I have fulfilled my religious requirement for the week.

But today, I want to encourage you to see that the life of an Orthodox Christian is one that does not end at the liturgy; the life of an Orthodox Christian begins at the liturgy, and it invades the world beyond the doors of the church.

When we Orthodox Christians think about the historical line of our Church, it is easy to become proud or overly confident in the fact that we can claim to have been in existence for nearly 2,000 years. Our uninterrupted line of apostolic succession. The rich tradition of our liturgical worship. The use of our icons…all these things are certainly cause for celebration and love for the Church, but I encourage us to think of Church in a new way. Rather than seeing it as something that is an heirloom to preserve; let’s see the Christian life as a world to explore.

In the middle of Christ’s ministry, he asks his apostle, “Who do you say that I am?” St. Peter responds rightly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” From here, Jesus commends Peter’s belief and says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it.”

As we consider our rich tradition and the 2,000 years of our Church, it is easy to look at this verse and consider it evidence that Orthodoxy is the church. The Lord has built his Church, and it still stands. It is almost evidence that the Lord himself has defended the Church against the attacks of hell, but might this be an incomplete reading of the text?

Notice that the Lord says “the gates of hell” shall never prevail against it. Gates are not weapons, but rather, they are defensive measures. The Lord here is suggesting that the Church is on the offensive, invading hell, and hell’s gates will not be able to keep the Church out.

The life of a Christian is one that is marked by continually invading hell. This is the job of the Church. The gates of hell have already been broken down by the Lord who has descended to the depths of human death and despair. He has paved the way for the Church to follow him and fill hell with life.

Every day is an opportunity for you to invade the hell of broken relationships, diseased bodies, unjust political systems, corrupt businesses, abusive families, mislead cultures, and the hurting world and to fill it with the light of Christ.

The Church is an army, and today is the opportunity to find out where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world.

The Lord and the Church are on a mission, whether you realize it or not. Today you are being invited to join that mission. Today in the Gospel we heard St. Peter say that he followed the Lord and the Lord commended him and any one else that would follow him.

Today I encourage you to follow the Lord, understanding that his life lead right to breaking down the doors to hell, and now it is our job to populate hell and fill it with the Church.

We are Christ’s presence in the world. We are his hands and feet, and by us, he hopes to invade the broken, dirty, diseased, deformed and lost parts of the world and to reclaim them with his love. We are being invited to participate in reconciling the world to God.

Today is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world.

For some, this may mean becoming a doctor. You may be able to offer the love of God as you mend a broken leg. For others of you, this may mean going into the streets and caring for those who have been neglected, forgotten, and abused by the rest of the world. You can offer someone humanity just by sharing a meal with them. Or maybe you are particularly moved by the suffering caused by abusive parents, and maybe you can be the loving the presence in a child’s life that they never would have received otherwise. All of these things are opportunities for you to prove that the gates of hell will never prevail against the life of the Church. And it is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world. And it is also where the great passion of your heart intersects with the Lord’s desire to bring all things back to himself.

The thing is, though, that this means that God has a different metric for success than a good paycheck. He may have created you to be a fireman or a policewoman. The hells of this world need men and women who will care for nature and righteously uphold the law. Not everyone who sets out to be a doctor will become one. And that’s okay. The hells of this world are in the sanitation business as well, and the world will always need janitors, garbagemen, and plumbers. With “good jobs” becoming less and less readily available, we need to shift our thinking from being about consumeristic success and instead think about Church military force. Our job is to help the Lord reconcile all things to himself, and this is our primary task. More than you are Americans, more than you are the children of your parents, more than you are students…you are servants of the King, and the King wants his world back.

You are on the invasive. Now, go.

And as you go, remember that you are journeying forth from a community. You are surrounded here by adults who know you and love you. Take a moment to reflect on those adults in your life who have made a difference for you. Consider those who you believe really know you and care about you and commit today to keeping them in your life.

No one is alone on this mission to invade the hells of our world. We are the Church, and we must do this together.

Surrounding you are those who have begun to walk the path of invasion and they have some more experience than you. Get to know them. Let them know you. Share with them your desires, your fears, your longings, your passion. Share with them your heart.

Adults, welcome these young people into the church. Encourage them in their gifts. If you think one of these young people is particularly strong in some way or another, let them know. Take time to help them figure out what they care about. Take time to let them share their hearts with you. You won’t be disappointed. Help them see how they can join the Lord’s work in the world. Show them the ways that you have sought the Lord and seen yourself as invading hell for the sake of the Lord.

If the Church sticks together, and if we can know and love one another in the presence of Christ in the world, then we sincerely stand a chance of invading the hells of our world with the brilliance of God’s love.

But it takes work. And it takes time. And it takes knowing the landscape of whatever hell you hope to invade.

It means that you must remember that today, like every other day, is your opportunity to see where the great passion of your heart intersects with the world’s great need and God’s Mission in the world.

An Address to the Order of St. Ignatius

A couple months ago, I was privileged to address the Orange County chapter of St. Ignatius of Antioch at one of their dinners. The night was such a blessing for me, and I truly felt honored to be a guest speaker. Below is the transcript of the talk I gave. I ask, in advance, forgiveness for any grammatical, spelling, or other errors that it contains.

In Christ,
Christian

Your Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH, Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers, Very Reverend and Reverend Deacons, Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I am deeply honored and very grateful to have the opportunity to stand before you tonight.

Since September of last year, I have had the privilege to serve the Southern California Deanery as the youth director. One of the main questions that I get asked when I tell people that this has been my work and ministry is simple enough: “So…what exactly do you do?” This is a good and fair question. It is also a question that I have asked myself on several occasions. What is it that I do?
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