Thursday, October 16, 2014

Scot McKnight on Andrew Root

It's a small world.

I remember the first time a "famous person" recognized me and said my name before I said theirs. It's petty, I know, but when I was a high schooler, just getting into theology and biblical studies, it was a significant moment for me when I walked up to Scot McKnight and and he said, "Wes Ellis," and reached out for a handshake. Scot was a guest speaker at a conference for which I was a staff member. I started reading his blog way back when he first started blogging and, through his blog, he actually recognized me when we met at the conference. Scot remained an important voice for my spiritual and theological formation.

Fast forward to about four years ago.

My theological and ministerial trajectory ran from Scot (and others like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell), through N.T. Wright, through Stanley Hauerwas, through Jürgen Moltmann, and eventually to Andrew Root. At this point, I can name few (if any... maybe Moltmann) who have been more formative than Andy of my whole theological and practical framework for ministry. And though it feels like so much has changed and though it feels like Scot and Andy should be on different planets because I've moved so far since I first read Jesus Creed about ten years ago, it's funny how things stay in the same stream and eventually come back around.

Scot McKnight has been posting on his blog about Root's latest book, Bonhoeffer As Youth Worker. The latest post, "Who Owns Bonhoeffer" is an especially helpful little introduction to what Andy is up to in the book. I encourage you to check it out: 

Monday, October 06, 2014

Youth Ministry and Development: Beyond Gerontocentrism

"...true identity is ours by redemption, not by development." -Kenda Creasy Dean
This weekend I went to the IYM's Youth Ministry in Small Churches event at Carmel Presbyterian Church near Philadelphia. The event was wildly successful and thoroughly insightful. As a new member of the IYM staff, it was a real pleasure for me to be a part of the event.

As I said, the content of the event was thoroughly insightful. I think youth workers and Pastors walked away with some real perspective and tools for their ministries, whether they be from larger or smaller churches. And, truly incidental to the wonderful success of the conference was a basic assumption that was made about what youth ministry ultimately is. In one of the opening conversations, a working definition was offered "that we can all pretty much agree with." It said that youth ministry is " disciple adolescents into mature Christian adulthood." Now, this was merely offered as a definition with which we could work in order to discern between experiences that are essential and those which are "very helpful" in youth ministry (an important distinction to make!), and it served that function quite effectively. But I wonder if that definition is really the best one for us to be operating on. It was perfectly fair to assume that we'd agree on that definition. I am sure, from my experience, that most of our ministries either explicitly or implicitly aspire to such a definition quite faithfully. But is that really the best one for us? Is youth ministry really about making "mature Christian adults"?

In the following few thoughts I'll be criticizing this perspective. I think, for the sake of clarity, I should mention that I'm not criticizing the fact that the definition was used, per se, but the implicit culture of youth ministry which I think he insightfully identified in his definition. I am criticizing the fact that it's fair to assume that everybody's using this definition. And it'll be helpful, too, for me to mention that my criticisms are internal. This is the definition by which I've operated at every stage of my own ministry experience, so I am complicit in the very perspective at which I'm throwing a very big question mark.

Erik Erikson
What's interesting about this definition--" disciple adolescents into mature Christian adulthood"--is that what lies at its center, as its ultimate concern, is not the youth, as such, but the Christian adulthood into which we are trying to develop them. Ministry becomes fundamentally goal oriented... not just goal oriented, but normatively so. We have inherited this focus on development and maturity from the world of developmental psychology, particularly from the "stage theories" of folks like Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget. While we owe much to these theorists, perhaps we've taken their fundamental assumptions a bit too seriously. The basic presupposition of the models of developmental psychology which we've inherited is that life itself can be understood as development through stages. For example, Erikson understood life as consisting of eight stages; each one leading to the next. Childhood or adolescence, then, is defined and scrutinized not so much on its own terms but according to its effectiveness in developing from itself into something else. Each stage of the life cycle receives its core value from its capacity to develop and contribute to development from one life stage to another, until it's goal, maturity, is reached. Youth is only of concern as a stage on its way to adulthood and thus it is judged according to the standards of adulthood. Childhood receives a somewhat apophatic definition. It is what it's not. Since maturity is where it's all headed, each stage is essentially understood according to its basic immaturity. It's all about "entering the adult world," so the value and importance of adolescence, as such, are co-opted by and instrumentalized for adulthood. The ultimate concern, when the eye is turned to adolescence is not adolescence but adulthood.

We've definitely taken this bait of developmental psychology in youth ministry--hook, line, and sinker--because, well, how else should we see it? How else can we understand youth ministry but as making Christian adults?

Not to say that there aren't critical apparatus built in, at some level, to the basic perspective of deleopmental psychology, but according to its popular application, it has fundamentally centralized adulthood and maturity at every stage of development. Sociologists and anthropologists in the world of childhood studies have offered perspectives that can definitely be seen as criticisms of these basic assumptions of stage theory. While admitting that immaturity is a "biological fact," some sociologists have suggested that childhood, as "a fact of culture," is to be understood as a social construction (see Allison James and Alan Prout, Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood). And, as a social construction, we must wonder if childhood must be understood according to its biological immaturity and we must consider what implications emerge from allowing adulthood to set the terms for our concern for childhood (or adolescence). In rethinking the "ideology of development" implicit in traditional perspectives on developmental psychology, Chris Jenks coined the term "gerontocentrism," (stemming from the greek word "geron," for "old man") likening the ontological prioritization of adulthood in sociological study to ethnocentrism (which is the "evaluation of other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one's own culture" according to my Google search). It will be helpful to quote Jenks at length here:
"Childhood receives treatment as a stage, a structured process of becoming, but rarely as a course of action or coherent social practice. The type of 'growth' metaphors that are readily adopted in discussions about childhood all pertain to the character of what is yet to be and yet which is also presupposed. Thus childhood is spoken about as: a 'becoming'; ...taking on; growing up; preparation; inadequacy; inexperience; immaturity, and so on. Such metaphoricity all speaks of an essential and magnetic relation to an unexplicated, but nevertheless firmly established, rational adult world. This adult world is assumed to be not only complete, recognizable and in stasis, but also, and perhaps most significantly, desirable. It is a benevolent and coherent totality which extends a welcome to the child, invites him to cast off the qualities that ensure his difference, and encourages his acquiescence to the preponderance of the induction procedures that will guarantee his corporate identity. For the anthropologist to proceed from such a stance would be for him to invite the charge of ethnocentrism." (Chris Jenks, Childhood, Second Edition, 8). 
When childhood or adolescence is seen from a gerontocentric vantage point, as is the case in the worst manifestations of "stage theory," it carries with it a distinct, though implicit, dehumanizing quality. As Alan Prout and Allison James write, "The dominant developmental approach to a self-sustaining model...rationality is the universal mark of adulthood... childhood is therefore important to study as a presocial period of difference, a biologically determined stage on the path to full human status i.e. adulthood..." (James and Prout, 10). With the standards of adulthood setting the terms for the value and humanity of children, the standards of failure and achievement are thereby also set. "Failure to be harmoniously socialized into society's functioning meant, in effect, a failure to be human" (14). The success of childhood, and therefore adolescence as well, is contingent upon it's development. And from this gerontocentric vantage point, the value of ministry, too, becomes contingent upon its ability to develop; in this case, its ability to develop "mature Christian adults." So, since our success in ministry depends on it, either implicitly or explicitly, we are forced to prioritize those adolescents who have the best potential and those kids who exhibit the qualities which best correspond to the adulthood into which we are developing them. We are forced to set goals which prioritize the success of the adolescent to mature, and thus we are forced to set goals which prioritize the most likely to succeed, the superstar of the youth group.

In Youth Ministry, all our goals--or to put it in theological language--our eschatology has been hijacked by a normative gerontocentrism. Our ministry to young people is determined by and centered upon not the young people themselves in the reality of their present, but upon the adulthood into which we want to "disciple" them. What should be normative in youth ministry, is neither a developmental psychology of the "life cycle" or an ethical sociology or anthropology but, in fact, the gospel of Jesus Christ which has, at its center, the incarnation of God in the broken body of Jesus Christ on his cross. Every goal of ministry and every Christian eschatology must be determined by and articulated according to this gospel. I could say a lot more about the relationship of gerontocentrism and eschatology here, but suffice to say for now; eschatology is not about the development of the present stage of the world into some other more important stage, it's not the extension of the world's present potential into future realization, and it's not the resurrection of those parts of the present which are not subject to death. Eschatology is the interruption of God's grace, God's resurrection, God's future into the reality of the very present in which the cross of Jesus stands, announcing to that present not a future into which it must be developed but a future, Jesus' future, which becomes our future. The present is not becoming the future. In Jesus Christ, God's future becomes our future. (This, I suggest, is one way to understand the two-sided coin that is Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope and The Crucified God).

Ministry, then, determined by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not contingent upon the success of development into maturity. In essence, it's not primarily about 'growth.' The object and center of ministry must not be the Christian adulthood into which adolescents are developing, but the adolescents themselves, as legitimate humans and social actors in their own right. We need not set goals external to the youth themselves. We need not set goals which prioritize the superstar with the greatest potential to reach the goals we (or God) have set for them. We are free to define youth ministry according to the ministry we extend--i.e. things like "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23)--in the present moment, not just to the kid most likely to develop those attributes (I am willing to contend that "the Fruit of the Spirit" are not to be conceived as attributes at all), but to the "weary and heavy laden" (Matthew 11:28) who are desperate to find rest for their souls. Growth may follow, and we trust that it will, but the success of our ministry does not depend on growth. The success of our ministry depends on our love for people, regardless of their ability or inability to mature into Christian adulthood. Ministry, ultimately, depends on the encounter with God which occurs in the life of every child and adolescent, the divine and human encounter which Christ descended into hell to pursue.

Friday, October 03, 2014

"A More Interesting God"

Lillian Daniel is one of my favorite preachers. Period.

But I especially appreciate her as a member of the UCC. In a denomination which has, as one of its greatest strengths, an ethos of acceptance and inclusivity, these strengths can also be its greatest weakness. There are times when inclusivity becomes normative to the point where theological reflection (and the particular ecclesiological identity of the church as the church of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit) takes a back seat. In this context, Lillian Daniel is an important (sometimes even prophetic) voice. She's certainly not a "conservative," she holds up the basic values of inclusivity and acceptance, but she never forgets why she does.

Last year at the IYM Forms on Youth Ministry, Rev. Daniel was a keynote speaker and this clip was recently shared on the IYM "Weekly Forum."

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Somewhat Raw Thoughts on the Future and Youth Ministry

What is the future for youth ministry? Or, to put it differently, what's the role of the future in youth ministry? This has been the question on my mind lately. I'm not so anxious to ask, what is the future of youth? I think that question is important and many people are thinking about it, trying to innovate and respond to contemporary issues. But what I'm more concerned about is how we think about the future. What is the future's relationship to the present? Does the future have some ontological authority over the present? What authority (and what kind of authority) should we give it?

On Wednesday mornings I lead a small Bible study at my church. Currently, the group consists of me and six or seven "little old ladies" from the church. You might think that, as a youth worker, I'd be out of my element in a group like this. But, in fact, I find myself feeling right at home with these ladies. We are going through the book of John. We've only been doing it for a couple of weeks, but we've already had some really lively and enlightening conversations. 

Today, we read the story at the end of John's first chapter in which Jesus gathers his first disciples. When Simon comes to Jesus, Jesus says to him, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas [or Peter]" (John 1:42). From there on, we know Simon as Peter. Peter is his new name, his new identity. Peter, as you may know, means "rock." Jesus alludes to this in Matthew's gospel when, upon giving Peter his new name, Jesus says, "...on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).  One of the ladies in our group insightfully pointed out that Peter, throughout the gospels, proves to be just about anything but a rock. He's a bit unpredictable, often opening his mouth when he shouldn't and proverbially tripping over his own shoelaces. But, in the book of Acts, he's different. He truly becomes a leader for the church and a rock on whom people can rely. It seems that there's a change in him after the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus named Peter and identified him not for who he was, suggested the lady in our group, but for who he would become. What she was really pointing out to us was that we too are not identified by God according to what we do but according to who we will become through God's gracious salvation and redemption. We take our cues not only from what we are now, but from what we will be.

Now, there's certainly good news in that! I am not loved and valued by God according to what I can accomplish in the present in order to reach into the future, but according to God's future which reaches back upon itself and speaks into the present. I am whole and new now according to God's word of promise which is an ontological reality in the present because of its revelation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The future happens to us now in Jesus Christ and in our encounter with God through him in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this sense, the future has an authority over the present. But when that authority is limited only to those good things of the present which have the potential to be extended into the future, this becomes bad news. And when, by the future, the present is judged according to its ability or inability to realize that future, then hope and grace are reserved only to those things which have the "potential" to reach from the present into the future.

This is all quite technical, perhaps, but I think it's important for youth ministry. Many times in youth ministry we get caught up in the present, desperately grasping for the future. We set goals and standards by which we can measure our success. We measure the success of our ministries according to their ability to develop kids into spiritually mature adults. The future, rather than authoritatively proclaiming the value and dignity of the present on its own terms, becomes that thing toward which the present is doomed to strive.

My hunch is that when our goals rule our ministries, we are subtly and perhaps ironically not giving the future the authority it deserves. My hunch is that when ministry is about extending and developing the present into the future we imagine for it, whether or not that future is Biblical, then it's actually the present which is getting the real authority. The present is imposing itself on the future, reaching toward and imagined future, rather than the other way around.

The Christian hope for the future is not the extension of the present into the future. It's not about progress--neither through "stages of life" or "stages of faith." Christian hope is resurrection hope. As Jürgen Moltmann has written,  Christian hope “...sees in the resurrection of Christ... the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died. That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth.” It's not the preservation of the good parts of the present. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see the future resurrection of the "very earth on which his cross stands," not just the parts of earth that aren't subject to death.

The present must not be abandoned to the future. It must not be judged according to its potential to extend itself into a future which corresponds to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is, in fact, nothing that has that kind of potential, so we'd actually be selling the future short in doing so anyway. We must be able to see the present in its own dignity, with all its faults and virtues, aside from whatever goals we may have for it. Only then can the future say what it must say about that present. Only then can everything be made new, even those parts of creation which do not have the potential to defeat death. Only then can we begin to identify the the world as it is according to what it will become with the grace required of us to do so. What we must do is liberate the future from the myth of progress and allow God's future to speak to the dark and unexposed parts of the preset. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Christian Arrogance and Godly Power

"If the decline of the Church is ultimately caused neither by the irrelevance of Jesus, nor by the indifference of the community, but by the Church's failure to respond fast enough to an evolving culture, to a changing spiritual climate, and to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, then that decline can be addressed by the repentance of the Church." (Mission-Shaped Church, 14)
We Christians are an arrogant tribe. It's proven every day by complaints about the public school system and accusations of the backwardness of "culture" contributing to the decline of the church's numbers and influence. It's before us with every Fox News report on the "War on Christmas." In a culture that, historically, has so privileged Christianity that not even a political election can be won without the candidate at least pretending to be a Christian, we still think we're the victim of society. In this country, every time we place the blame on the people who don't go to church for not going to church, and every time we present ourselves as a persecuted minority, we reveal our arrogance, our privileged entitlement to be the dominant voice and to set the terms for every engagement. Regardless of the fact that, sure, we did used to have more influence, the underlying (and often subconscious) assumption that the church should have the power in America is nothing but arrogance.

Drawing from the church's own normative theological sources (particularly the Bible), such arrogance is incompatible with Christianity in the first place. We value power, we value authority, but the only kind of power and authority the church (if it is the church of Jesus Christ) should value is the power and authority of Jesus--a power revealed in the weakness of self-sacrificial love, an authority demonstrated by the incarnation and the washing of feet. We miss all the irony of mightiness for we lose the fundamental truth "only love is mighty." Eberhard Jungel wrote, “...godly power and godly love are related to one another neither through subordination nor dialectically.... God's lordship is to be understood as the rule of [God's] mercy and God's law is accordingly the law of [God's] grace” (God as Mystery of The World).

Therefore, the terms are set for the church's engagement with the world, not by its own mission or message, but by the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

This kind of mightiness is exemplified in the incarnation in which Jesus comes to us, encounters us, on our own terms and in our own experience. Rather than call the world to ascend to God, God descends to the world. So the church according to the Word of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, rather than calling the world to ascend to it, expecting the world to enter its doors and listen to its voice, must descend to the world and allow the world to set the terms for the church's engagement.

That means then when people stop "coming to church," the primary blame must be placed not on the people who aren't coming, but on the church itself for missing the presence of God outside its walls and outside the presupposed understanding of its mission to the world. By our sense of entitlement to the position of authority in our culture, we have missed our own calling to ministry, our own calling to be the church to the people who don't accept our authority. Rather than telling the story as, "they rejected the church's invitation," we need to start telling the story of the church's failure to see that the invitation itself is to the work that God is already doing in them. We must repent of this failure and begin to look for God in the lives and hearts of the people who have rejected us. In doing so, we may discover that it is we who have rejected them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Good News of Church Decline

I've been gathering a little data for a group with which I'm working, to see if we can't get a bird's-eye view of the state of the church in the United States. Yesterday, I put together a few charts to try to show the general decline or growth of various denominations over the years. Taking data from The Association of Religion Data Archives and other places, I put together a list of denominations in the U.S. and tried to compare their growth and decline since the 1980's (pretty much since I was born). I left out some denominations whose overall membership were so small or so large that they threw off the scale (for example, I left the ELCA off, since their numbers were so much larger but their decline followed pretty much the same pattern as the ABC and the UCC). I was also pleased to discover that some denominations are actually growing--generally very small Evangelical denominations (such as the Evangelical Free Church) as well as the Unitarian Universalist denomination (which is, ironically, similar in size and following the same pattern as most conservative Evangelical denominations). The data can be found just by browsing the ARDA website, but here's what the charts look like when you just lay them out.

Of course, charts can be manipulated to make things look better or worse than they actually are. I did my best to keep things objective. And I don't know what your reaction is, what you might have expected, but I was actually less discouraged than I had expected to be. The mainline churches in America aren't falling into the pits at the rate that I might have expected. The UMC's decline looks the most drastic, but even it hasn't fallen below 7 million members nationwide. The data doesn't seem to support the perception that the church is going to die within the next ten years. The decline is relatively mild... indeed, some mainline denominations have even experienced growth spurts over the decades, and at least one has actually grown since 1980 (the AME denomination). Many smaller denominations are growing steadily, and I imagine that non-denominational churches are likely following similar patterns.

As a student at a Mainline (PCUSA) seminary, and as a Member In Discernment in a Mainline (UCC) denomination, I hear a lot about the decline of the church. The consensus seems to be that the church's future is bleak, if not totally hopeless. Going by the way some people talk about it, I had expected to see those lines on the graph pointing almost vertically down to the right. But the actual numbers just don't seem as hopeless as the rhetoric. I'm not saying that there's blue skies ahead. Not at all. I'm not promoting optimism. We need to take the present realities seriously and be realistic. But it's very realistic to consider the possibilities to which the future is open in the provisionality of the present. There certainly is a decline occurring in American church membership, and there's certainly a need for people to think creatively and theologically about what our response might be and what a solution might look like (assuming we agree that it's a problem that people aren't going to church... which I don't necessarily presume). But what I'm saying is that the decline need not create panic. Urgency is fine, but it's pointless to freak out just yet. It can be debated whether or not we have the appropriate funding to continue as we are, but in terms of membership, the church seems at least to be doing ok (and people are more important than funding).

So since we don't have to panic yet... since we're still going to have people in the pews this Sunday, let's stop and think about this Mainline decline phenomenon. Why is it happening? Is it really a problem? Will it stop? Why do churches on the left (the UU church, for example) and on the right (the PCA, for example) of us seem to be growing?

Let me suggest two responses to this phenomenon which may point to some answers to these questions.

1) The Church is not conventional anymore. Unfortunately, it's not because the church has awaken to the unconventionality of the gospel itself. It's not because we embody the radicality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church should have never been conventional in the first place, had it really understood its own message. But the church is becoming less conventional because conventionality itself is becoming less conventional. Church used to be that thing you did when you were a kid and continued to do once you had your own kids. It used to be just one component of being a good American citizen. That's not the case anymore. The conventional lifestyle no longer assumes that "first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage." People wait longer to get married, they wait longer to have kids, and they find their identity in all different places, not just in family and church life. Church is no longer 'just something you do.' This is one reason why we might look at this Mainline decline more as an opportunity than as a threat. The church is now being stripped from its confusion with American identity. Going to church is no longer part of being a good American. This affords the church the opportunity to wholeheartedly agree with this perception, to say out loud that the gospel is not conventional and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to own the prophetic voice of critique and speak truth American power. We can be clear that the Kingdom of God is not America and that Christianity is not about what America is about. By being disconnected from convention, we can be the radical witnessing community of the reign of God which we are gathered and sent out to be. This divorce of the church from the American perception of conventionality may itself be a present (but provisional, of course) anticipation of God's reign in the world.

2) Our society is becoming more inclusive of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. This is a less directly
connected observation, so it requires a little more explanation. Why should the acceptance of LGBTQ people contribute to the decline of Mainline denominations (especially those that seem now to be coming around to the same position)? The connection between the discrimination that LGBTQ people have experienced in American history and the traditional position of the church on this is undeniable. Whether we like it or not, the traditional American presumption against the inclusion of these people is predominantly a religious one. When the church was pretty much part of what it meant to be a good American, Americans took their cues regarding sexuality from the church, and the church was still pretty sure that the Bible was against homosexuality. Now that we've moved away from the church as conventional, people no longer feel they need to take their cues from the church on this issue, so they're becoming more inclusive (how sad it is that leaving the church has made America more accepting!). But why haven't inclusive denominations (such as the UCC and the PCUSA) grown along with this change? Perhaps the answer is this: too little, too late. America found that is could be inclusive without the church, so the churches that identify themselves by their inclusiveness aren't really giving people a reason to show up on Sunday, even if they are giving people a reason to like them. They still aren't distinct from the conventionality that so many Americans are abandoning. Evangelical and Unitarian churches, however, are growing precisely because of their distinctiveness. Unitarian Universalists are distinct in that they represent a spirituality that is intuitively and essentially inclusive. Inclusivity of LGBTQ people (not to mention theological and spiritual diversity) in Mainline Christianity, as American Mainline church history seems to suggest, is somewhat counter-intuitive and external to the dogmatism that seems to sit closer to the center of its essential nature. Evangelicals (the conservative kind we're talking about) are distinct in that they seem to be "holding their ground" in opposing the inclusion of LGBTQ people and maintaining the simplicity of a biblicist dogmatism in which you can "know" the truth. I imagine that these conservative Evangelical denominations are picking up many of the crumbs from the Mainline table, enlisting many of those who aren't yet ready to embrace the complexity of diversity toward which culture and many Mainline churches are moving. Conservative Evangelicalism will be appealing to people who aren't moving along with the society on this issue. This is not to suggest that this is the only reason that Evangelical churches are growing, it's not as though they're just filling up with everyone who's too homophobic to accept a gay pastor, in fact, I imagine that there are a lot of more positive reasons, but it does demonstrate one possibility regarding the Mainline church's decline. Again, we can be encouraged by this. For we are afforded the opportunity to take a close look at ourselves, to learn from our own message, and to identify ourselves not by the inclusiveness which is, thank God, becoming more normative in our society, but, even better, by the distinctiveness of the gospel itself (which will challenge all those things which do not correspond to the gospel, including exclusivity). We can say with confidence that the inclusion of LGBTQ people is indeed an element of God's reign in the world, whether or not it contributes to the growth or decline of church attendance.

So all this is to suggest that we don't need to panic because the Mainline church is shrinking. In fact, we have reasons to be thankful that it is! We have reasons to affirm the good reasons that people are leaving the church and to claim those reasons, not as possessions of the church or grounds in themselves for people to go back (although some of that might be in there), but as elements and aspects of the Kingdom to which the church is only a witness. By looking soberly upon the declining church, we are reminded to hope not for the future of the church but to hope instead in Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Our future, whether we grow or not, is God's future (hint: it includes the salvation of the world and God's becoming "all in all")... and it is to that future that we are ultimately called to be faithful.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Who is Youth Ministry For?

Youth ministry isn't always rainbows and butterflies. Anyone who's actually worked in youth ministry for more than five minutes could tell you that. When I was a Youth Director in Ramona, I faced a lot of discouraging situations. That's gonna happen even (especially!) when you're doing it well. But we can also get discouraged for the wrong reasons.

I helped coordinate a network of youth workers in Ramona when I was there. We gathered once a month to support one another, share resources, and maybe even partner in ministry together sometimes (this was always optional because we wanted to remain open to diversity and not everybody's ready to do ministry together, but we still ended up doing it a lot). As a result of this networking, I had several opportunities to come and speak or lead conversations with kids from other church youth groups. For whatever reason, it seemed like all the kids from every other church were more spiritually healthy than the kids from my church... or perhaps I should say, they were more religiously formed or socialized in their behaviors. They knew the Bible better than my kids. They could pray out loud more articulately than my kids. Every group had leaders in it who wanted to evangelize to their friends. Sure, more often than not, their theology was terrible (read: super conservative) but at least they knew who I was talking about when I talked about Paul or even Jeremiah. My group was basically apathetic when it came to the Bible, they didn't want or know how to pray out loud (in fact, they were terrified by it), and they thought sharing their faith with their friends was just some obnoxious thing their Calvary Chapel friends tried to do (I may have agreed with them on at least one level). In short, everyone else's kids just had higher potential than mine. Theirs were spiritual superstars, mine were Sunday School dropouts. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong!

(Of course, this was just my perception. In reality, I had some incredibly talented and passionate kids with a deep Christian identity and spiritual passion. And of course there were kids in other groups who were just as "delinquent" as some of the kids in mine. But you always exaggerate things when you're comparing yourself to others)  

Because I thought that I was supposed to tap into the potential of my students to form them into some version of myself, or some version of what I thought it should look like to be a good Christian. I thought that I should be able to measure the success (or failure) of my ministry based on how well my kids behaved, how quickly they could cite Bible passages, and how great their prayers sounded. So obviously, I felt like I was failing in ministry. So I tried to focus and build my ministry around those few kids who seemed like they had the potential to be leaders, to be the spiritual superstars of the other youth groups in town. Implicitly, I was beginning to create a youth ministry that was for that kid who had the right stuff, the stuff I could preserve and expand into the future.

This is what so many Youth Pastors build their youth ministries into. This, in fact, is what so many Senior Pastors build their churches into--ministries for the 'most likely to succeed.' But what happens to the least likely to succeed? What about the people who just aren't going to be the walking Bible concordance or the people who aren't ever going to feel comfortable or interested in voicing their prayers out loud? What about the people who, according to our standard, just don't have potential? Aren't our ministries for them too, if not especially for them?! There's at least some Biblical foundation for thinking that it is--think of Matthew 25 or the Beatitudes. It says "blessed are the poor in spirit" not "blessed are those who've got the potential to be rich in spirit."

There was a turning point in my ministry. This was about the time in my ministry when I started reading Andrew Root and Kenda Dean. And this was when I first heard Bart Campolo speak at a conference at a camp in Southern California. I don't feel the need to describe the specifics of these contributions to my formation as a minister, but suffice to say, I was opened to the possibility that my ministry wasn't about tapping into potential, but loving and serving those who don't seem to have any potential, and trusting God to do the work of formation. My job isn't influence or formation, that's God's job. My job is to love. My ministry is not for the most likely to succeed. My ministry is for the least of these. And the invitation which we have all received according to the raising of Jesus from the dead is to identify ourselves with the crucified Jesus, to minister to the least of these and to find ourselves as the least of these. We're free to judge our success or failure according to whether we loved and served, not just according to how well we formed, the kids in our ministries.

Here's the deeper theological rationale for this [bear with me for this next paragraph]. There is a deeply eschatological orientation to this perspective. The first shall be last, the last shall be first. Everything in the present is subject to death. But the resurrection of Jesus allows us to see that death does not have the final word even for those things which are subject to death. The final word--that future word which says, "God will be all in all"--has been spoken now in the resurrection of Jesus, the first fruits of the world's redemption now present among us as the anticipation and promise of the coming of God. The word of promise has been spoken on the cross for the one who hangs there is one who has resurrection as his future. God, in Jesus, is made subject to suffering and death, joining us in our present experience and thus bringing us into God's resurrection. Because our experience is God's experience, God's future (which has already occurred in the raising of Jesus, occurs provisionally in those actions and revelations which correspond to that resurrection, and is coming to this world in the coming of God when God will be all in all) is our future. That means that the future is not the prolongation of the present, the preservation of the good parts of now, or the expansion of the potential that the present holds to become the future. The present is not the thing we need to form into the future, but the present gets its meaning from the future, from God action, from the resurrection, from the new creation and the world's redemption. This allows us to see the present on its own terms, not just for the potential it holds. The resurrection of Jesus, which is present now according to promise, was not the resurrection of those parts of Jesus which were not subject to death. It is the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, the dead Jesus, so it is death which is healed, the future is the resurrection of the dead world, the world which has no potential. The meaning of the present comes from the future, not from its movement into the future. Seeing the future as the truth about the present rather than seeing the present as the thing we'll bring into the future, subtle and semantic as that shift may sound, actually allows us to look for life in the present not just in the parts that don't seem subject to death. It allows us to hope also for and proclaim hope to those places which don't seem to have potential--places like Golgatha and the cross. In the division and contradiction of life and death, in Jesus Christ, the crucified God of the resurrection stands. How much of our ministry simply becomes the preservation and expansion of the 'good parts' of the present rather than witness and insistence upon the radical interruption of God's future into the darkness of the present? Ironically, the ontological prioritization of the present (looking at the present as the thing which gives meaning to the future) perpetuates the division of darkness from light, hope from hopelessness--leaving the crucified on their crosses--rather than identifying hope with hopelessness through the identity of Jesus in the total contradiction of the cross and resurrection made possible in the ontological prioritization of the future over the present.

All this is to say, with some theological precision (though I don't claim too much of that), our hope is in Jesus Christ and his resurrection. It is a hope which exists not only among the most likely to succeed but even (if not especially!) among those in whom we see little potential, little enthusiasm for the gospel. Indeed the resurrection of the crucified Jesus claims the "potential" (with nuanced definition) and the present dignity of those kids who don't want to pray out loud and aren't ever (ever!) going to bring their bible to school or witness to their friends. All this is to say, our ministry is for and with the doubters and the skeptics, the weary and heavy laden, the least of these, and the poor of spirit. We're invited to look for the presence (and action) of God in the pain, doubt, apathy, ignorance, and whatever else frustrates most Youth Pastors of those least likely to succeed. We're invited to join in what God is doing, simply by being with and loving those kids who aren't going to be the Christian club president on their campus. And we're free from having to interpret ourselves as failures if we can't single handedly coerce the present to become the future. You know the kids who don't fit the modern myth of potential, those kids who don't like to pray out loud or witness to their friends. Youth ministry is for them too.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Quick Review of 'Liquid Church' by Pete Ward

This is a good book! Pete Ward gives a thoughtful and imaginative image of a flexible, missional, and relational identity for the church. Centralizing relationships, "fellowship," and encounter, Ward takes "congregation," church buildings, and worship services out of the center of church life and identity. Instead of identifying church with what happens in the four walls of the church building on Sunday morning, Ward identifies church with "informal relationships." As he writes in the introduction, "...the first move in imagining a liquid church is to take the informal fellowship, in which we experience Christ as we share with other Christians, and say this is church" (2). This seems to be the right move. Centralizing the person-to-person encounter over against the church program or worship service (and especially putting the latter in the service of the former instead of the other way around) is not only an appropriate contextual move, given the consumer culture of the US and the UK, but it is a throughly biblical and theological turn. Ward shows this by weaving together interpretive sociological examination of his context with normative theological claims. Ward attests to the missional shape of ecclesiology, orienting relationships towards participation in the mission of God.

This book, however, is not without its problems. It warrants all the appropriate cautions of missional theology and, most significantly, in its pragmatic applications, Liquid Church has perhaps too optimistic a view toward the culture at large, particularly consumer culture. Responding to the church's knee-jerk reaction against consumerism, I believe Ward is too quick to baptize consumerism and social media without giving significant attention to the pitfalls of these cultural phenomena. Although the pragmatic applications of Liquid Church raise questions, there is a critical apparatus built into Ward's normative move that allows us to accept the book's overall direction even with proper caution.

Again, this is a good book. Wonderfully practical and refreshingly theological.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Of Wrath and Love: a review of 'Theology of the Pain of God' by Kazoh Kitamori

Theology of the Pain of God by Kazoh Kitamori should certainly be appreciated for its place in history, as a precursor of sorts to later and better formulations of the theology of the cross (I think, in particular, of Eberhard Jungel's God as Mystery of the World, Jurgen Moltmann's The Crucified God, and Douglas John Hall's The Cross in Our Context), and for its particularity as a Japanese contribution to the conversation (even if Kitamori "remained outside of Japanese theological circles"). But despite the gratitude with which it should be received, it seems to me that it should also be received with some suspicion. I am open to the possibility that I may have contextual and hermeneutical differences with Kitamori which make it difficult for me to fully embrace his project but I should still name two specific issues that I must take with Theology of the Pain of God.

First, while I agree with Kitamori's assessment that "everything hinges on the cross... the essence of God can be comprehended only from the 'word of the cross'"(47), I believe that he fails to make the resurrection of the crucified Jesus explicit from this axiom. Indeed, "the cross is in no sense an external act of God, but an act within [God]self"(45), but in what sense does the resurrection help us interpret this act of God and the pain of God on the cross? If the ontological priority is given to the past and the present, then the experience of Christ's future as normative is either rejected or obscured. In other words, while Kitamori rightly sees the cross as God's taking of death into God's very self, God's "eternal essence," the taking of death into God's self in Theology of the Pain of God is never explicitly for the "sake of life" (as Jungel would clarify). Something is left to be desired in Kitamori's eschatology in this regard. It is not Moltmann's eschatology of the resurrection whereby God identifies Godself with the crucified Jesus. It is rather, an eschatology "fused with this pain" (144). We are not, by the resurrection and the ontological priority of the future, put at odds with the injustice of the cross in the present (as we are in Moltmann). Instead we are ourselves to find joy in the pain, "pain must be our function" (64), and thus, it seems to me, pain itself is sacralized. This is problematic.

The second issue is related to the first and is, perhaps, more fundamentally problematic. Kitamori is preoccupied with human guilt and God's wrath, preoccupied with seeing Christ's death on the cross as the execution of God's wrath exacted upon Jesus on the cross. Under the spell of this guilt theology, Kitamori operates on the axiom of divine wrath and divine love. The pain of the cross is the pain of God's wrath and God's love finding themselves together in Jesus. "God who must sentence sinners to death fought with God who wishes to love them. The fact that this fighting God is not two different gods but the same God causes his pain" (21). It's unfortunate that it is here that Kitamori places the dilemma and root of God's pain, for it presupposes a notion of divine justice which demands wrath from God as a necessity. Not only this, but it obscures the more real and potent pain of a man crucified at the hands of human religious and judicial powers and God's identification with him. God, for some reason, must be the cause of Jesus' death in Kitamori. It is God who executes Jesus (again, sacralizing and also justifying the torture and execution of Jesus). "The God of the gospel causes his Son to die and suffers pain in that act" (47). I consider that bad parenting. I do not find it necessary or helpful to see God as the cause of the death of Jesus, at least not in this strong sense. Rather, God, in Jesus, opened Godself so fully in love for creation that God gave to creation, humankind in particular, all that it needed to destroy its creator. This is the vulnerability of love. The father experiences the death of Jesus, not as its cause, but as the victim, the one who must endure the death of a child. That is the way in which God fights with God on Golgatha--as one experiencing death and one experiencing dying. Here, I am inclined to think that Dorothee Soelle's famous criticism of The Crucified God in her book Leiden--that it was a theology of a "sadistic God" who kills his own son--albeit a misinterpretation of Moltmann, is actually accurately applied to parts of Kitamori. Obedience to Kitamori's God, and the joy he describes in this obedience, sounds tragically similar to the loyalty of the abused to their abuser.

All this criticism does not negate my aforementioned appreciation for this book. Again, I am grateful for it and cannot speak more highly of certain elements of its expression of the theology of the cross and rejection of the "theology of glory." But with such a preoccupation with divine wrath and human guilt, and without explicitly holding resurrection as the other side of crucifixion, it is certainly a good thing that later theologians offered fuller articulations of the theology of the cross.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Is Youth Ministry Pastoral Care?

Yesterday I noticed the UCC shared on their Facebook a link to a Red Letter Christians article titled, "Should Churches Hire Youth Pastors?" by Tony Campolo. One friend of mine commented that the the post was mostly just "click bait"--with little substance but a provocative title. And apparently I took the bait. Given the fact that I will likely be looking for youth ministry jobs in the not-too-distant future, of course the title caught my attention (plus, I was interested because the UCC was posting something about youth ministry). But I thought the article was a lot more than just click bait.

Of course Campolo knows and understands the importance of youth ministry. I'm sure he'd have no problem encouraging churches to invest in their youth ministries and hire youth pastors (how many years has he been a guest speaker at Youth Specialties?). But he's right to raise the question, if we're gonna hire pastors for a specific age group, why not hire pastors to care for the people that make up such a large portion of the congregation? Does not the pastoral care of the elderly constitute a hired staff position as much or more than pastoral care for kids? But there's the real question... and the real reason I'm interested in this article... do we actually even associate youth ministry with pastoral care?

By comparing the need for pastoral care for the elderly with the pastoral care for teenagers, Campolo (consciously or not) forces us to think of youth ministry primarily as pastoral care. This chafes, I believe, for many youth workers and pastors who prioritize youth ministry in churches. I think many who took the bait and clicked on this article (like I did) probably had the knee-jerk reaction of, "well, we need to reach the next generation to keep the church alive...." or, "if old people are already going to church, that's exactly why we need youth pastors!" These are not bad reactions. But what's the fundamental presupposition behind them? Why prioritize youth ministry over care for the elderly? Is it about pastoral care or growing the church? Or, to put it more pointedly... do we care more about self preservation than meeting the spiritual needs of the people in our congregations?

Youth ministry is still quite steeped in its history as a "technology" for the church (Andrew Root has used this terminology). We employ youth ministry to help solve the church's problems. The church is dying, so we revive it by getting more kids to come (and we get more kids to come by making it flashy and "relevant"). Young adults are leaving the church, so we turn to youth ministry to solve the problem. So youth ministry becomes more about growth and behavior than it does about actually engaging in the lives of the kids who are there. It becomes more about evangelism for the sake of preservation than sharing in the lives of young people as the location of divine and human encounter. With youth ministry as a technology (i.e., "if old people are already going to church, that's exactly why we need youth pastors"), pastoral care takes a back-seat to "reaching the next generation" and "keeping the church alive."

Of course I think we need to hire youth pastors in churches! I might run into some problems in the future if we stopped hiring youth pastors. But I think that youth ministry needs to learn something from its' parent discipline, pastoral care. As my teacher, Dr. Kenda Dean has said, youth ministry is still ministry. We need youth ministries that prioritize not just reaching the next generation or advancing kids to the next level of spiritual growth, but truly caring for the kids inside their walls--wherever they are on life's journey, with all their doubts and frustrations, even when they're not going to convert or "grow" spiritually. The pastoral care of youth, however few or many there may be, needs to get back in the front seat of youth ministry.