In my last post, I spoke a lot about the difference between motivations and intentions for doing youth ministry, or perhaps more accurately, a lot of motivations and intentions not to do ministry. Given that I spent a lot of time focusing on what were probably terribly theoretical concepts (a God that faces the void with young people, et al), and as a few readers pointed out, I didn’t really write too much about what this means or where to begin in understanding our own participation in God’s action in the world. This post is (hopefully) going to offer some better insight into how we actually ought to begin ministering to our young. Since I can think of no better beginning point for such a dialogue, I figured I’d begin with the Alpha Himself and discuss preliminarily the importance of understanding Jesus as Person.
Say what we will about Protestants, but when it comes to the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus,” they really do have us Orthodox beat on that point. I was talking with Mary, a young woman who had grown up in the Orthodox Faith, and she was telling me about her experience in the Church. For Mary, the Jesus Christ of her youth was more or less the Judge who is coming in the last days in order to dish out rewards for a life well-lived or punishment for a life squandered. The implication: you best mind your P’s and Q’s, otherwise…well…you know.
Moreover, Mary’s understanding of the Church itself was that it was largely a cultural or ritualized version of aesthetic enjoyment. She wanted to invite her friends to church with her, but she was uneasy at the thought of it, fearing that her friends wouldn’t understand why-this or why-that given that she herself didn’t understand why-this or why-that. She believed the Church’s actions to be “perfunctory” (her word. She is quite brilliant.), lending no real credence or clarity to the purpose of the Church in the world or greater understanding to who God actually is. The practices of the Church, in her mind, were of the utmost importance and God became a God who was primarily concerned with making sure that people performed the Liturgy correctly and fasted strictly, and if they didn’t…well…you know.
For Mary, the big issue at hand is not that she had an understanding of the fact that God is coming into the world to judge all humanity; it is not that she understood the Church’s Liturgy to be the singularly defining action of the Church in the world. These things are true, but the problem for Mary was that (until recently, thank God) these understandings had been divorced from the basic Christian truth that God is personal.
Here’s what I mean.
To understand that God is personal is not to say that each of us is able to take God in his or her hands and make of Him whatever each wishes. This may be where the Protestants (some, not all) get it wrong. What ends up being verbalized as a “personal” relationship is often an individualized relationship with God. When I am free to perceive God however I wish, then I have begun to form Him in my own image (usually after my own likeness) and He ceases to be God; instead, I have become the creator of this god, which actually is a hollow attempt to make myself God, all while supposedly allowing me to remain a faithful disciple of the one Lord Jesus Christ. This is wrong.
Instead, to understand God as personal is to understand that God is Person (as opposed to substance or essence (more to come on this)), and He reveals this to us most concretely in the Person of Jesus Christ. If we remove this core understanding of God as a Triune Community of Three Persons existing together in Love, then everything within the Christian faith falls apart, and God becomes only a Judge who will reward some and punish others, and the Church simply becomes a social club for people who are gathered together to perform some time-honored rite that strangely brings the earthly into contact with the heavenly. All of this is true (in some ways), but such an understanding that becomes the primary Christian narrative is rooted in what simply amounts to bad theology. This is why it is important – no, essential, imperative, a matter of life-and-death that we begin to think theologically about Jesus as Person and from this make our own movements into youth ministry. So let’s start talking about what it means for Jesus to be Person.
God, in Jesus Christ, reveals that He is a distinct Other. One of the coolest things that happens in Jesus Christ’s Incarnation is that for 33 years, humans could (didn’t, but could have) concretely point to a human body and say, “There is God.” (God!) The only way that these humans could have done such is by understanding that Jesus was (and remains) a person distinct from themselves. They could only say that Jesus was Jesus because they knew He was somehow other than themselves; I can only know that there is a “You” when there is a “Me.” I know your body is different from mine because I see where my body ends and yours begins. The same is true for Jesus, then and now.
In order for Jesus to be met, He has to be located somewhere, and in His own humanity, God reveals to humanity that He is a distinct Person and must be approached as such. This means that with the same respect and care that we share for other human persons, we must approach Jesus. We don’t go up to strangers and make up stories about them and who they are, but rather, we seek to know other humans on their own terms, understanding and accepting that they are distinct and other from us. We give them room to be themselves; Jesus demands the same respect, and He truly desires that we know Him on His terms, the result of which is eternal life (John 17:3).
But, Christian, what are the implications of this for youth ministry?
Good question. Since all of ministry must be incarnational (embodied), we need to begin to respect and approach each adolescent as a distinct other. We must continually be seeking to know each individual on their own terms. We cannot make up stories about what each young person needs, thinks, or hopes for. We cannot make assumptions about each young person; we need to know them truly. The question that Jesus asks his disciples (Who do you say that I am?) must inform our approach to young people. “Who is this young person before me? What does she like? What does he fear? What does she hope for? What does he find funny?” These questions and their answers respectively respect and concretize each young person’s otherness and individuality. It is in their individuality that Jesus calls them, and we must meet this individual that Jesus calls. As we do this, our own otherness to them becomes a testimony to the otherness of God. When we become interested in the otherness and distinctness of young people, we bear witness a God who is interested in them and meets them Person-to-person. It is in this Person-to-person encounter, then, that we learn more about the significance of Christ’s own Personhood.
Jesus as Person means that He is capable of interaction and encounter. One of the problems that occurs in the minds of young people when we pray things like “Heavenly King,…who art everywhere present and fillest all things” is that young people begin to imagine that God is substance through which they move rather than a Person (or Three…) in Whom “they move, live, and have their being.” To paraphrase Andrew Root (read his books), if God is everywhere, then this is essentially saying He is nowhere, for if God is to be perceived as everywhere (in this substance mindset), then He ceases to be a person that can be encountered. In order to know the light, I have to have had an experience of the dark. The reason I knew I was hanging out with Mary today is because before I was hanging out with her, I wasn’t hanging out with her. I encountered Mary in such a way that is borne out of my not encountering her. In order to feel her presence, I needed to have felt her absence.
The same is true with Jesus, I think. While He may never be absent from us in the same way that Mary was absent from me or light from darkness, He often remains hidden. Jesus as human-divine Person reveals to us that God has a clear location in which one can meet him. St. Paul knew the Lord when He met him on the road to Damascus, “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:5a). It is only after this that the Lord responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5b). Because Paul had known the hiddenness of God, he was able to recognize God when he actually encountered Him. In this, Paul interacts with the Lord in the midst of the encounter. Since Jesus is Person, He can be met. He can be talked to, and He can talk back: “I am Jesus.” For Paul, the Lord’s hiddenness was a necessary pre-condition in order to allow for Jesus to knock some sense into him, and it is in this encounter that Paul’s conversion occurs. Had Paul believed the Lord simply to be a vague substance that was hovering over and around him all the time, then Paul would not have recognized the Person of Jesus when His Light blinded him. This is crucial for us to remember in youth ministry.
But, Christian, don’t I want kids to know that God is always with them? Don’t I want them to know that He is always watching over them?
Wow. You really do ask good questions. Of course we want young people to know that God always loves and cares for them, indeed, that He is always with them. The question at hand becomes about precisely how we go about doing this. It is out of His own hiddenness that Jesus reveals Himself to St. Paul; for young people, this is going to be the same. As those who minister to the young, we often want to promise them the joy of the Kingdom and the presence of God without fully exploring with them the places that God seems to be hidden, but to offer them a God who is not hidden, is to offer them a God that cannot be met.
When youth ask, “Why does God let bad things happen?” there are very few answers that seem to be satisfactory, especially considering that this question usually amounts to something like: “Where was God when my dad died? Where was God when my sister got raped? Where was God on 9/11?” All of these are heavy questions, and they are ones that we who do youth ministry usually like to dance around. We may offer answers like, “God just wanted to take your dad home. God allowed this to happen to your sister to make her stronger. 9/11 shows us that God has enemies and one day, they will cease to be!” All these answers are totally unsatisfying to the teenager in pain. For them, God is hidden and obscured by the total absurdity of suffering in this world; and understandably so! But the problem that arises when we offer that “God has a plan in the midst of this crap. God is trying to make you stronger” is that we convey that we are unwilling to enter into the scariness of life that these young people face. Moreover, this reflects, to them, a God who is completely uninterested in the scariness of life that these young people face.
In the Cross, we see a mangled, disfigured, dehumanized Jesus. In this broken human dangling from the Tree, however, also exists the hiddenness of God. Yes, we see crucified humanity on the Cross, but we also see (or, rather, don’t see) the Crucified God. Jesus on the Cross is the fullness of God’s Self-revelation, but when we look at the Cross, all we see is a bloody peasant from the ghetto-town of old. God is present in the one place that He most clearly appears not to be.
When we skirt the darkness and run from the absurdity of pain, we also miss an opportunity to encounter the God who is hidden in the crucified humanity of Jesus. If we truly believe that God is “everywhere present and fillest all things,” then this means that we can bravely look at the clear brokenness of life and assert that God, though hidden, is present. We rightly state that God has a plan, but the plan is not to make them stronger; the plan is to reconcile these young people to Himself in their own weakness. If we, however, are unwilling to enter the weakness, the hiddenness of God, and stare it down with them, then we are showing young people that God is also unwilling to enter the weakness and hiddenness. And this is a tragedy, because in the Cross, we see that God is most fully present in His own hiddenness in the midst of human weakness, which is most clearly exemplified by the Crucified Christ.
If we are going to convey to these young people that God can be encountered, then this means we need to embrace the hiddenness with them. We need to explore their questions. We need to explore their doubts. We need to make room for their pain. We need to go looking for God in the places where He most apparently is not. If He’s everywhere, as we assert, then He also is there. If He is there, then why don’t we go looking for Him bravely? The questions of God’s purpose for allowing bad things to happen are important, but we misstep when we suggest that God’s purpose is one that will “be for the best.” Suffering is not for the best! It sucks! But the good news is that we have a God who is present in the midst of His own hiddenness in the human Person of Christ, and it is in His own suffering on the Cross that He comes close to our suffering. This is the purpose of our suffering: to meet Christ upon the Cross.
Youth workers need to release need to have answers to the darkness and the hiddenness of God. Instead, through relationship and asking these hard questions along with young people – “Yeah. You’re right. Life is crappy; where is God in all this?” – youth workers must be prepared to face these scary places of reality. Offering simple platitudes of “God will work it out” or “God is testing you to make you stronger” will not satisfy young minds or hearts. All this will do is shut them up until they leave the Church, having not been offered a God who faces reality with them because they have had youth workers who are unable to face reality with them.
Youth workers, in all that we do, reflect who God is for these young people. Jesus shows us that He is not afraid of human grotesqueness, disease, deformity, or death by going to the Cross, and He also shows us that where all that can be seen is destruction and despair, God is working behind the scenes to enact salvation and reconciliation. We just have to have the eyes to see and the ears to hear this. Youth workers, with Christly courage, must be prepared to enter the darkness with young people so that the Light of Christ can knock them around a bit, ultimately to the point of their conversion.
Mary was not offered a Jesus who could be encountered. She was offered a Jesus that she needed to keep happy by being on her best behavior. She was offered a faith that had come down to liturgical accuracy, rather than a faith that was to empower her to face reality bravely and go looking for God in the places that, by all evidence, He appears not to be. If Mary had been in relationship with an adult who was with, for, and committed to her personally in the midst of her confusion and despair, then she would have had a category for a God who is with, for, and committed to her personally in the midst of her confusion and despair.
It is essential that we see our own relationships with young people as completely reflective and instructive of the nature of this Jesus to whom we commend ourselves, one another, and our whole life. By being there for them, we reflect a God who is there for them. By looking bravely for God in the places of His hiddenness, we reflect a God who is not afraid to go with them into the places of darkness and despair, and when we do this, I am convinced that we, too, along with the young people, will be shocked to find the Lord knocking us off our own high horses of moralistic and liturgical piety. Lord, grant that this would happen.
Christ Himself bravely enters the darkness of death to take humanity by the hand and lead them to life. Would that we had the same courage.
Image sources: http://m.zimbio.com/Wallpaper/articles/aO-ah_mx7vm/quotes+about+jesus