Tag Archives: life

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?

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,

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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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.

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

Upcoming Youth Retreat: Growing in the Image and Likeness of Christ

Hello, all!

On Friday, December 30, St. Luke and St. Mark will be hosting a mini-retreat at St. Luke Church in Garden Grove. The theme of the retreat is “Growing in the Image and Likeness of Christ: Yours, Mine, and Ours,” and it will include several speakers, one of whom is myself. The other two are the priests of St Luke and St Mark, Fr Michael Tassos and Fr Michael Laffoon, respectively.

The retreat should be a fabulous time that is full of food, fun, and fellowship.

The cost is a suggested donation of $10, which is a pretty good deal, I’d say!

All of Southern California is invited, of course, and I hope that as many of you as possible can come!

Please spread the word to the teens at your church, and save the date!


Check out the event page on Facebook!