Tag Archives: relationship

Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry: Jesus is a Person! Pt. 1

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
http://www.dst-corp.com/james/PaintingsOfJesus/NoJS.htm

http://christianbackgrounds.info/7-word-of-cross/
http://catholicphoenix.com/2011/04/21/“the-passion-of-the-christ”-an-aid-to-meditation-on-the-sorrowful-mysteries-of-the-rosary-part-v/
http://josephpatterson.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/resurrection.jpg

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?

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

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.

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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