The World Below is on Ancient Faith Radio!

Hello, all!

Exciting news! “The World Below” seminar is on Ancient Faith Radio! Please give it a listen if you get a chance! Here’s the link: The World Below – Ancient Faith Radio.

The seminar took place on June 30, and the speakers included myself, Fr. Patrick O’Grady, and David Paddison. Give the seminar a listen, and then join the conversation by commenting on this post!

In Christ,
Christian

Advertisements

Youth Are Not The Future Of The Church

Seriously. They aren’t.

Last week, I (with four other adult leaders) had the opportunity to spend five days on the streets of Skid Row, working alongside and training 17 incredible young people from all across the United States. They all came to Los Angeles for the express purpose of being trained to be leaders in the YES (Youth Equipped to Serve) program, a youth service learning ministry under FOCUS North America. These young people were unbelievable.

Before they arrived on Wednesday, few of them knew one another, but by the time they left, they were clinging to one another, loving each other with a love the source of which could only be the Kingdom of Heaven. For five days straight, they cared for one another, listened to each other, embraced one another’s eccentricities, and lived in a community full of acceptance and loving confrontation. They told the truth with love, and they even showed us leaders a thing or two about what it means to be member of the Kingdom.

The group was comprised of many different personalities and quirks, but for some strange reason, they all seemed really to like one another. Friday night, one of the young men demonstrated for the group his fine ballet-dancing skills. He truly is a gifted dancer. While I was excited at the prospect of watching him dance, I must admit that there was part of me that feared how a ballet-dancing young man might be perceived. I admit that it was my human weakness that assumed these young people would ridicule him. To my delight, however, they were enthralled by his ability. After he finished his dance, he was flooded with praise, hugs, and requests for instruction on how to execute such difficult dance moves as he displayed. As I watched this, I thought, “This isn’t normal.” While any other group of young people might have mocked a young man for being a “ballerina,” these ones embraced him.

The youth also had the opportunity to lead the rest of the group in various capacities, briefing and debriefing certain aspects of a YES trip. As we gathered around these new leaders and listened to them speak, it struck me how talented, spectacular, and well-equipped these young people are for leading ministry. Of course, I was not alone in this realization; the program director and the three other adult leaders all agreed with me, even adding unanimously, “They are better at this than we are!” These young people demonstrated the love of the Kingdom and leadership skills better than any other group of people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. They were kind, loving, considerate, repentant, forgiving, and deeply passionate about the ministry opportunities that they were given. It was unbelievable.

But why was such a thing unbelievable? Doesn’t it reflect a deeper insufficiency on our part that such ministry by youth is considerably exceptional? I had to ask myself why this wasn’t normal, and I was left only with more questions.

Table fellowship or an icon of the world to come?

How often do we speak about young people as though they are the objects of our ministry? Those for whom we must do something? How often do we say things like “Young people are the future of the Church” or call them the “leaders of tomorrow?” After this weekend, I take issue with these things.

Young people are not the objects of ministry; they are ministers themselves. They are not the future of the Church; they are the Church’s present. Youth are not the leaders of tomorrow; they are the servants of today.

Our theological stances shine forth all too brilliantly when we think this way and use this kind of verbiage. By leaving young people to be the inheritors of a faith or the leaders of the Church tomorrow, we eviscerate the Gospel of its power today. We thus imply that leadership is something that is simply developed along with facial hair, social standing, or relational/vocational commitment, but when we do this, we buy into the heresy that the Church is headed by strong leaders who are somehow remarkable, rather than by people inspired by the true head of the Church: the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is true that young people need formation in order to become the leaders they are meant to be (adults need this, too). But if we look throughout the Scriptures, we see time and again that the Lord chooses the most unlikely people to be his voice and his servants.

The Lord calls the young Samuel in the middle of the night. St. Paul encourages his young disciple, Timothy, not to let anyone look down on him as a leader simply because he is young. David, a teenage shepherd who was too small for the armor of Israel, who kept the Lord’s people out of bondage to the Philistines by striking dead the giant not with swords and spears, but with the Name of God.

Young people are called to prophetic ministry within the Church. They are called to be participants in what the Lord wants from us. Yet we often treat each young person as if he or she is a tabula rasa which we must fill with our agenda, our thoughts, and our way of doing church. When we tell them they are the leaders of tomorrow, it becomes to easy for them to respond, “Great. See you tomorrow.”

Is it any wonder that they leave? Our rhetoric says that the Church needs them, but our actions and way of being with these young people says otherwise, and they are wise to it.

We need to stop thinking about how we can get young people to our events. We need to stop treating them as if we have all the answers. When we do this, we will probably be shocked to find out that when it comes to Gospel and Kingdom living, they are better at it than we are. We should focus our efforts not on instructing teenagers to dress, talk, and act like Christians, but we should instill in them the reality that they are the ministers of the Lord in this broken world. Though they aren’t clergy, they have a priesthood, and they must be invited to participate in the work of the Lord; this is true Church life. When we do this, I’m certain that we will be shocked at the results.

So, no. Young people are not the future of the Church. They aren’t the leaders of tomorrow. They are God’s chosen ministers and ambassadors today, and we need to get out of their way.

Watch out, world.
They’re taking you by storm.

5 Reasons To Say Yes To Relational Ministry

Having explored 5 Reasons To Say No To Program-Driven Ministry, I think it is only fitting to offer an alternative. I’m now going to offer five reasons to approach ministry as a more relational endeavor than a programmatic one.

1. Relational ministry is personal. One of the great things about a relationship between two people is that the relationship can only be experienced by the two involved. It is a unique, beautiful, and organic expression of Christ’s love for us. When I was 16 and developed a relationship with my high school English teacher, I was blessed because in the smallness of our relationship, I experienced his raw, broken humanity, and he experienced mine. We got to know each other well, and our relationship took on a life of its own, and that life was and continues to be experienced only by me and him. That reality has left an indelible mark on my understanding of God’s love for humanity. While God’s love for humanity is universally true, it is specifically experienced. This is what we attest to in our relationships with others.

2. Relational ministry is a ministry for everyoneThe great thing about relational ministry is that the only credential you need is a birth certificate. If you are a human person, then you are capable of engaging in relational ministry. By opening your humanity and experience to another person and by allowing them to open their humanity and experience to you, relational ministry occurs. Since everyone is capable of entering into relationships and meeting Christ within that context, we become less reliant on a single person (like a charismatic, connectable youth director, for example) to “keep our young people in the Church.” With everyone bearing the load of this ministry, that brings me to my next point.

3. Relational ministry is sustainable. Since relational ministry is the work of the entire Church, then this frees the youth director to think of ways in which she can facilitate relationships between young people and adults. Instead of running around, desperately trying to make connections with young people herself, the youth director can bring other adults into the ministry and not be so prone to burnout. If all people in a congregation embrace their roles as relational ministers, then youth ministry can be sustained indefinitely. The youth director, like any other adult in the congregation, is then able to invest in journeying closely alongside 3 or 4 young people. This might beg the question, though, of why a church should have a youth director at all. My thought is that the youth director should know enough about the young people in the church and enough about the adults in the church to be a functional relational ministry “matchmaker.” In this way, every young person is taken care of, and the ministry of such a congregation will not only thrive, but it will last.

4. Relational ministry is eternal. When I say it will last, I mean that it will last eternally. Unlike programs, relationships do not have to end upon graduation. While many do (and this is clearly the non-eternal part of relationships), I think we do injustice to relationships when we fail to understand that when we open our humanity to one another, we meet Christ concretely within the context of that relationship. In Orthodoxy, we confess, “Christ is in our midst,” but we fail to act as though we believe this when we concentrate our efforts on developing programs, curricula, and other things by which we well-meaningly intend to convince our young people about the Faith of the Fathers. As we enter into relationship with one another, however, we transcend the temporal nature of this world and touch the eternal hands of Christ in our midst. Relationships are a mystery for this reason, for in entering into them, we enter somehow into the eternal mystery of the person of Jesus Christ (“Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Mt. 18:20)

5. Relational ministry trains minds. If program-driven ministry is highly programmer-oriented, then relational ministry is highly other-oriented. If we step away from program-driven ministry and enter into relational ministry, we make room for young people to struggle openly with their questions, doubts, concerns, fears, and desires. In doing so, we can discuss these things with our young people and challenge their thinking much more effectively. Rather than simply conveying the message of “Get with the program,” we offer a sort of training ground for young people to learn how to dialogue about their Faith in a way that is constructive and non-threatening. Within the intimate context of relationship, these young people will develop the capacity to think critically and clearly when they are later faced with something that, in their youth, they simply had been told not to do. We need to be focused not on simply instructing our young people about what is and what isn’t Christian-y, and we must focus more on training young people to begin thinking Christianly. Relational ministry allows this to happen.

Don’t get me wrong. I certainly think that programs have their place. I would say that programs and relational ministry can be compared to baseball stadiums and baseball games. The baseball stadium is a place that has been set aside to give room for the baseball game to occur. So with programs, we must remember that they are the place in which relational ministry ought to occur. When we wonder why our young people are leaving the baseball stadiums, however, the answer isn’t simply to build more baseball stadiums. The answer is to offer them games. It is, after all, the game that is compelling, and not the stadium (although, some stadiums are much more appealing than others). But let’s not get confused and focus on the stadiums of our programs; instead, let’s get more intentional about entering into the beautiful, eternal, small game of relationship.

Baseball: An American Tradition
Relationship: A Christian Reality

Image sources: http://www.harpyness.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Law-of-Friendship.jpg

5 Reasons To Say No To Program-Driven Ministry

It is no great secret that I am duly adverse to program-driven ministry. I think I have made this abundantly clear in my post, Moving Toward Relational Ministry. While I do not think that programs are evil or will lead to the death of the Church, I do think that they are useless unless they act as platforms for young people and adults to engage one another in life-sharing relationships that are open and available to the presence of Christ within them. Programs have their place, to be sure, but I will use this post primarily to speak to some of the problems inherent in program-driven ministry.

1. Programs are impersonal. Programs by their very nature take away the human element. They are based in producing a system by which personal qualities are removed from the playing field. The idea of a program is such that any clever or well-trained individual might step in and lead the program. They do not need to have a gift or talent, and while such a gifted individual might make the program more fun, personal charisma has little to do with the success of any given program. Those for whom the program is designed are expected to show up, have the program do its work on them, and to leave edified. Programs take out the spark of spontaneity that is so natural to the rest of our human lives. Because of this impersonal element, programs demand harsh metrics of success.

2. Programs demand quantifiable success. A program is only as useful as the end-product it creates. If a public school, for example, is not successful in producing good students, then its funding from the state will be cut. If we are to hold to this standard in the Church, however, it isn’t a far stretch to look at Jesus and suggest that his “program” was a failure since Judas was a “church dropout.” Ministry, while hoping for the best, simply cannot demand such metrics of success.

3. Programs become primarily concerned with self-perpetuation. While most programs are started to help participants, they eventually become about keeping themselves alive. For example, one could look at the standardization of American education and suggest that it is a good thing. In some ways it is as it aims to raise everyone to a certain standard. Unfortunately, when reaching that standard becomes the goal, then eventually all that matters is the standard and the needs of the young people it served take a back seat to the school trying to preserve itself by teaching how to take a test. Instead of finding ways to educate each student to the best of his or her ability, we suggest that the test and the program are the key to success, even though all signs point to their failure. We can do the same thing in the Church, suggesting that a program we have come to love does not contribute to the problem of church dropout. Instead of thinking creatively how this program can be retooled, changed, or (if need be) discarded, we end up inventing new programs that do not solve the issue at hand. We simply have kept the programs alive.

4. Programs are temporary. Programs come to an end, and they thus do not echo the eternal nature of the relationship-based Trinity. Of course, we are not eternal beings apart from the Divine Life that is given to us, but the things that impact us the most resemble some part of this Divine Life. Programs may be successful at keeping young people in attendance to church or church functions, but once our young people graduate high school and these programs, they leave. This is not because our program has not done the job, but it is because it did exactly what it was supposed to; it filled a temporary gap. When we treat programs as if they are the answer, we fail to see that the Trinity is not a program; the Trinity is a community. The Trinity is relationship. Programs come to an end, and they must. If we continue to treat them like they are the answer to church dropout, then we’re in for more young people leaving the Church.

5. Programs do not teach critical thinking. “Get with the program.” It’s not too hard to imagine a well-intentioned adult saying this to a young person, but ultimately, what does it convey? “You cannot think for yourself. Trust the program. Get with it, and simply follow along like everyone else.” In our programs, we instill in our young people the virtues of going with the flow, keeping the status quo, and not thinking outside the box in order for them to belong to our program. The problem is that we are not tailoring the Christian Faith to help young people see where the Faith intersects with their lives. When they go away to college having learned the value of “getting with the program” in order to belong, then I don’t think we can be surprised when “getting with the program (or fraternity)” involves binge drinking, sleeping in on Sundays, and sleeping around.

“Getting With The Program” College-Style.
It isn’t binge-drinking if it’s a tournament. Right?

In my next post, I will explore five reasons to say, “YES!” to relational youth ministry. Be excited. Be very excited.

Image sources: http://image.stock-images-men.com/em_w/02/77/90/640-02779083w.jpg

A Seminar For Parents, Youth Workers, Pastors, and Teens

Greetings, all!

His Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH, has given his blessing for a seminar for parents, youth workers, pastors, and teens.

The seminar is titled, “The World Below: Engaging the Hearts and Minds of Today’s Teens.” In it, Fr. Patrick O’Grady of St. Peter Church in Pomona, David Paddison (psychology student and youth worker extraordinaire) of St. Luke Church in Garden Grove, and myself will be addressing these questions:

  • What does the world of young adults look like today?
  • How did it come to be like this?
  • Why are so many young adults leaving the Church?
  • And how are we to respond?


I have a great deal of confidence that this gathering will be useful to all those who wish to attend as we will be discussing the real world that teens face and will be laying out a vision for an Orthodox Christian approach to youth ministry.

All jurisdictions are welcome to attend, and I highly encourage people of all ages to attend as the youth of our Church are not simply a group to which only a select few are called to minister. It is the job of the Church to care for her youth, and we will begin to discuss exactly what that looks like and how it can be done. It should be great.

If you wish to print out the event flier, you can access it HERE. Please spread the word about this event, and do all that you can to attend!

In Christ,
Christian

Flier image source: http://www.simpleinsomniacures.info/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Multiple-Factors-Hurt-Teen-Sleep.jpg

Top 10 Things Every Adult Should Know About Teens

I came across this list in Missional Youth Ministry by Brian Kirk and Jacob Thorne. The only thing I took issue with was the last on their list, so I have eliminated it, and replaced it with my own! Enjoy!

1. Teens are people, too. Resist calling them kids (unless you mean it as a term of endearment) or talking about them as if they aren’t in the room.

2. Teens need time. It takes teenagers some time to think about what they want to say, particularly during discussions. Resist the temptation to jump in with the right answer and don’t feel you have to fill every moment of silence with talking.

3. Teens like adults. Despite what you may remember from your younger days, teens do enjoy the companionship of adults. They just aren’t always sure if we like them back, so they can seem standoffish at times. The truth is many teenagers are at a point in their lives when they’re trying to put a little distance between themselves and their parents. So they often seek other caring adults to serve as mentors and role models.

4. Teens have a lot to teach us. In many ways that ’80’s film The Breakfast Club got it right: Young people are unique individuals with unique talents, gifts, attitudes, and perspectives. It would be a mistake to lump them all together as one homogenous group.

5. Teens’ body clocks are different than ours. Most teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night, yet they often get much less than that. Most teens aren’t at their peak until late morning, and many of them are night owls. That means they have a ton of energy in the evenings and can be hyped up just when you’re settling down. Keep in mind that they aren’t being hyper to bug you. They’re just experiencing the high point of their day.

6. Teens are passionate. The first part of the teenage brain to fully develop is the emotional center. That means teens can have high highs and low lows all in one day. They’re sensitive to the pain of others and can be very passionate about the things they believe in.

7. Teens want to own their experiences. When teens talk about their struggles, we adults are tempted to say things like, “Oh, I went through the same thing at your age,” or “I had the same problems and I survived that just fine,” or “Here’s how I handled that problem.” In many ways the experiences of teens today are quite different from when we were young. Their struggles are real and they want them to be taken seriously, not dismissed with an “I survived that and you will, too.” Oftentimes the best approach with young people isn’t offering advice but just listening.

8. Teens are fun to be around. Adults may think that hanging with adolescents will make them feel old, but it’s just the opposite. Teens offer a perspective on life and the world that’s refreshingly honest, hopeful, and new. That sense of hope and possibility can be contagious.

9. Teens can be a great source of frustration. Yes, teenagers are great. But let’s be realistic: They can be incredibly frustrating to work with…unless you are willing to be flexible, can take a little good-natured ribbing and criticism (have I mentioned the girl who always tells me when my tie doesn’t match my suit?), and remember that they still have a lot of growing up to do. This leads to the final item on this list.”

10. Teens are young adults. This means exactly what it sounds like. Teens are not children. They are navigating the world of adults relationships in newly adult bodies, and they are still trying to make the transition fully out of childhood. This means that they may still have childish habits to release, moments where they don’t understand the complexities of friendship, and they may forget to honor their commitments and responsibilities. They are new to the adult life, and with that comes inexperience. We can thus “expect them to act like young people who are still growing, adjusting, stumbling, and trying to figure it out,” but they don’t have to do it alone.

Comment below!

Check out this bunch of non-threatening and happy teens. Don’t be scared of them; they clearly like reading the Bible…well, at least one of them does.

(Material Source: Missional Youth Ministry, by Brian Kirk and Jacob Thorne. Publisher: Zondervan, 2011. Pgs. 98-100.)

Image sources: http://www.bucketlistidea.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/bucket-list-ideas-for-teenagers-2.jpg

Moving Toward Relational Ministry

In case you missed this post on my personal blog, here it is for you now.

I have had a lot of time lately to think about a right approach to ministry. One of the big problems that we face is that we have become too reliant on the use of programs. We need to reclaim the smallness of the Gospel and the world of discipleship. We need to abandon the idea that we are going to “influence” kids. They aren’t looking for “good influences” any more than they are looking for “bad influences.” With so many voices competing for their attention in their social settings and in the commercial world, we cannot simply assume that since our voice is “reasonable” they will hear us. Rather, we must abandon the idea of influencing them at all and enter relationship for the sake of relationship and remember that the community of Christ is the concrete context in which the Holy Spirit moves, and ultimately, it is the Spirit of God, not us nor our programs, that causes transformation and has influence on the hearts and minds of people.

Our call must be to enter into the crypts of young people’s hearts and to invite them into ours. We are to share suffering with each other, for this is what the Lord Jesus does. He shares our life and offers us his. His teachings are not abstractions nor can they be separated from who he is. When we teach our children about the Christian life, we must remember that these things are not abstractions, but they are (or ought to be) inextricably bound to our lives. This is the same reason for the wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous in asking recovering addicts to participate in the struggles and suffering of less experienced recovering addicts. They are able to speak to the life of a recovering addict precisely because they know it from the inside. So, too, Christ speaks to us from his experience of the divine and human life. His word is him.

If we are to encourage young people to embrace their lives as Christians and to take hold of the things to which they are called, then we must be prepared to open our own lives to them and share our own struggles and joys. This is different than sharing our piety and our teachings; we are simply sharing life with young people, and this is the path to true Christian discipleship. We don’t learn to be Christians by being told to practice the Christian virtues and to avoid sinning anymore than we learn to swim by being told to paddle hard and to avoid drowning. We need someone to get in the water with us and to hold us as we struggle to stay afloat. There is safety in the struggle of learning to swim at the hands of a patient teacher; so, too, there must be safety in the struggle of learning the Christian life at the hands of patient mentor.

This does not necessitate a perfect teacher, but it demands the hard work of sharing life with teens. In these moments, we can share the things that excite us and that move us, inviting young people to “come and see.” However, this must be seen as different than influencing teens; we are simply opening up our own hopes and sufferings in the context of relationship. Is not this the core of the Gospel message anyway? When does Jesus or the apostles tell people, “Go and see.” It is not this way, but rather, it is an invitation into a shared experience. “Come with me, and let us see what it is that Christ has for us.” It is true that the Lord commissions his apostles at the end of Matthew, but he does so with the end idea being to “make disciples,” and disciples are defined by their proximity to one who disciples them.

Ministry is no great puzzle to be solved. It is, however, a simple mystery to enter. We need to share our lives and hearts with people. In a postmodern world, this is the only thing that moves souls. Modernism’s pedagogy of (more or less) “See this the way I see it” has been replaced by a pedagogy that asks, “How do you experience this thing that I see, and how can my perspective be shaped by yours?” With shows like American Idol and Survivor where viewers can vote to make the show they want; with websites like Facebook and YouTube where users comment on the lives of others; with applications like Instagram and Twitter where subscribers update the world on the present happenings of life, the Church must respond to the participatory inclination of many of these young people who engage such things. Young people crave community and dialogue, not simple regurgitation of Church creeds and moralistic platitudes. We must offer a forum for true knowledge of the other, and this forum must be small, immediate, and authentic.

One of the great things about postmodernity is that it suggests that every story matters. The flaw of this, however, is based in the assumption that each story marks its own truth and reality. With the abandonment of the metanarrative (that is, one, large unifying narrative of human existence), the only mark of truth becomes the individual experience. Where Christianity must counter this attack on Reality is by showing that each story matters while also fitting squarely within the Grand Metanarrative of God’s love for his people; I (and St Irenaeus) would probably title this story The Recapitulation of All Things. Survivor, Facebook, and Instagram are all desperate pleas to be noticed and have lives affirmed; yes, you matter, and to prove it, I’m going to take the time to comment on your status. The Church must not criticize this movement in the souls of her young people. Rather, it must affirm that each young person does matter and that she fits within the larger framework of the Lord’s Metanarrative. But this takes work.

Too often, we convey the message to our young people that what matters is their attendance, their adherence to a lesson that is being taught, their obedience to authority, etc. This must stop if we are to reach the postmodern young people (after all, postmodernity isn’t going anywhere simply by wishing it away). We must stop the insistence that kids “show up.” We must stop insisting that they “get something out of it.” We must simply slow down and say, “You matter, and I am here for the journey. Even if you screw up everything. Even if you never quit sleeping around. Even if you never stop using drugs. You are not alone, and I will never forsake you.”

Is it any wonder that so many of us feel forsaken by God when our fellow humans (frequently those who speak about the eternal love of God) forsake us in our folly? I would suggest that it is not. We learn about God from others. We learn that the grace of God is big enough to handle us by how our fellow persons experience and externalize that all-encompassing, sufficient grace. Our relationships are the concrete context of Christ’s presence in this world, and we must begin taking this seriously.

[Much thanks to Dr. Andrew Root as his works Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry and Relationships Unfiltered have shaped much of my thinking about ministry.]

Image sources: http://cyberlens.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/friendship.jpg