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?