Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Action of Inactivity: On Spiritual Practice and Divine Action

[Another version of this post was originally published in October, 2014 on The Institute For Youth Ministry blog]

Spiritual practices (like prayer, sabbath, silence, and solitude) have fundamental significance for the practice of ministry. But perhaps not in the way we're accustomed to thinking about it. It seems we primarily imagine spiritual practices as ways in which we can experience God. They are primarily a tool we employ to foster an encounter with God. And while we may indeed have significant experiences with God in and through spiritual practices, I think we may be putting the cart before the horse.

Spiritual practice can become just another thing we do, another compulsion of life and  of the felt need to do something spiritual. I remember when I was in high school. The thing good Christians were supposed to do was to have "devotional time"—time (usually in the morning) that was dedicated to the reading of scripture with the expectation of meeting and hearing from God. Either out of some spark of spiritual maturity or out of some form of frustration (not sure which one), I decided to give up my devotional times for a while. I decided that it would actually be better for my relationship with God if I just quit pressuring myself to be more spiritual. I was quitting devotionals for Jesus.  I remember telling my youth pastor and getting a strange look. "You're giving up your devotional time!? ...for Jesus!?!?"

That devotional time, that spiritual practice, had become such an obligation and an expectation, I was trying so hard to create an encounter with God and I was apparently failing at it. I was rarely feeling like God was there or speaking to me in those pages. The real problem was that I was missing the point of spiritual practice. I thought that the terms for spiritual practice were set by my own action, my own ability to create an experience of God. What I missed is that the importance of spiritual practices is not in what humans do, not in the practices themselves, but in the action of God. God is the primary agent and spiritual practices are supposed to focus us, direct us, orient us toward God's action. 

With my devotional time in high school, I was placing God's action and the divine encounter on the wrong side of spiritual practice. I thought that the role of spiritual practice was to create a divine encounter, that divine action (if God had any agency at all) really was on the other side of my endeavor to be spiritual.
Human action is only secondary. God's action is primary, and God’s action is saving action. The fact is, none of us can be our own savior. All human beings are subject to death. What we do, then, will never resolve death, it will never be able to produce an encounter with the living God who has taken death into God's very self and turned it toward life. In Douglas John Hall’s words, “[death’s] resolution is only God’s possibility” (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, 214). Incarnation, resurrection—these are God's activities. Crucifixion is what human action looks like. It is only by God's grace that we are met by God. It is only God's action that sets the terms for human participation. We can never earn or create an encounter with God, all we can do is respond to it. So spiritual practices actually belong on the other side of the divine encounter. God always makes the first move and determines the shape and quality of our response.

But it doesn't stop there. If we've determined that spiritual practices come out of the divine encounter, as a response to divine action and a receiving of God's grace, we've yet to say where these spiritual practices lead us. Andrew Root writes “Our response…is not to harvest spiritual experiences like a religious consumer, but rather to be led by the Spirit to participate in Jesus’ own praxis…” (Root, Cristopraxis, 93) The Spiritual practices ultimately lead to ministry. They are not meant to produce anything (again, when spiritual practices are oriented toward productivity, they become just another human work and compulsion), but they are meant to allow God's action to set the terms for our participation in ministry and thus the impulse of this spiritual response to the divine encounter will be ministry itself. As Henri Nouwen writes, “When we have found rest in God we can do nothing other than minister” (Nouwen, The Way of The Heart, 90).

The Spiritual practices become, in essence, the actions of inactivity. In this way, we might even be able to name my action of refraining from devotionals for a season as a spiritual practice in and of itself, a practice which served to remind me that my relationship with God does not hinge on what I can and cannot do but on what God does. Spiritual practices are ways in which God’s action is placed in the drivers’ seat. When, through spiritual practices, we embrace the impossibility of our action to produce something, to produce an encounter with God, and when we allow God’s action to set the terms for our participation in ministry, we may find the rest that Jesus was talking about when he said, “…you will find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11:29).

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Giving Voice... and Really Listening

“The first duty of love is to listen.” -Paul Tillich
There's some buzz in youth ministry about "giving voice" to young people, offering space for them to speak up and be a part of the larger church (think "intergenerational" and "integration"). But giving voice is only half the battle and, in its own way, it's fraught with problems. The other indispensable half of the battle is how we actually listen to that voice. The presupposition behind "giving voice" is that "voice" is ours to give. In some ways this is true. While young people are not without agency, they live in an adult-centered "gerontocentric" society where the experience of the adult is privileged over that of the young person. Children's voices are not trusted, even if we permit them to be heard. Even Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist to whom practical theologians are deeply indebted, has suggested that "accounts of childhood can only be given by people who are no longer children" (as quoted by Bonnie Miller-McLemore). Thus children's experience, as children, is obscured. Adolescents are in no less ambiguous a situation. The adolescent experience is obscured by the same distrust but it is even more pronounced by the attribution of "transition," "immaturity," and "selfishness" that is so readily employed in description of adolescent experience. For an example of this, just read the first couple of chapters of Thomas Bergler's latest book, From Here to Maturity. You'll find that he is deeply suspicious of adolescence, using it as sort of a catch-all adjective for anything that doesn't measure up to his definition of spiritual maturity (thus introducing the even greater danger of conflating spiritual maturity with developmental maturity).

Think also of all the "teen brain" articles that get passed around the internet, studying teenagers as though they're of a different species. While neurological differences are sure to be found, it is presumptuous for us centralize these differences as though they are causal and determinative. The ulterior motive of such studies is usually to confirm our gerontocentric biases--namely, that rationalism and adulthood are objectively desirable and that young people's strangeness to us can simply be chalked up to their neurological deficiencies. (I wonder if the pharisees would have appreciated such an explanation for Jesus' impulsive and irrational activity in the Temple. Maybe he just wasn't accessing his "white matter," or else he'd have acted more like them).

As Chris Jenks has said, "given the dominance of particular models of child development... children [and adolescents] are rarely seen as competent advocates of their own experiences." Even if there have been great strides in sociology toward seeing young people as "social actors" and not just potential adults, Wuthnow's bias toward the adult experience is representative the world in which our young people live--the world they must share with us and we with them.

So what happens, then, when we "give voice" to young people? What happens when you, the Youth Pastor (use your imagination if you have to)--having just read and swallowed an NPR article about how undeveloped teenagers are or having just read a chapter by Erik Erikson about the transitory adolescent "stage of development"--ask a young person about their experience? What really happens when you put them on the "leadership team" of the youth group and ask them say what they think you should do? When you give them a voice but presume to have the normative perspective, are you actually able to hear them? When we listen to those voices, we'll be paralyzed from actually hearing what they're saying. The voice we'll hear will be what fits into the cast of our own experience (either positively or negatively). It will be a slightly underdeveloped version of our own voice.

When we "give voice" to adolescents, we need to complete the task by translating (and we're always translating) that experience in a way that honors their lived experience and listens not just for what corresponds to our experience. We cannot do that if our hermeneutic is suspicion and power. As Clifford Geertz has put it, “‘Translation’… is not a simple recasting of others’ ways of putting things in terms of our own ways of putting them (that is the kind in which things get lost), but displaying the logic of their ways of putting them in the locutions of ours; a conception which gain brings us closer to what a critic does to illumine a poem than what an astronomer does to account for a star" (Geertz, Local Knowledge, 10). When we listen, we cannot listen as though they are just not-as-well-put-together versions of ourselves. If our experience is so obscuring of their own, if such preference is given to adulthood, then we'll never hear young people as young people. But neither can we listen as though they are some different species. They are neither potential humans nor savages, they are humans being human in a different way than we are being human.  We need to find a way to listen and really listen. It is only when we can make this hermeneutical shift that neurological, biological, and psychological descriptors will be helpful to us, and it is only once we've made this shift that we can actually listen to the voices of young people once we've amplified them. As Geertz has said so eloquently,"we are surrounded (and we are surrounded) neither by Martians nor by less well got-up versions of ourselves; a proposition that holds no matter what 'we'... we start from" (16).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Not a Fan of Not a Fan

For Lent, my church community is going through the book Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman. While I am enjoying the conversations we've been able to have through this book, I can say with confidence that I am not a fan.

Don't bother with this book. It is theologically incoherent. In regards to salvation, Idleman consistently vacillates between the prioritization of divine agency and human agency, but finally lands the ship in human agency. When it's all said and done, for Idleman, divine agency in salvation is made contingent upon a faithful human response. For Idleman, it's what we do that finally determines our status with God, but the gospel says precisely the opposite. While he leaves himself exits from this rationale every few pages with something about grace, he has, by and large, conflated the distinction and importance of God's action into human action. Again, this is theologically incoherent.

The gospel does not distinguish fans from followers. Human response to the gospel may warrant such a distinction, but the very point of the gospel is that God's grace goes before us. God's grace precedes our response to it and renders our action meaningless in regards to our salvation. Our action finds its distinction, meaning, and importance only as it is subject to God's grace (not the other way around!). Human action is not what saves us. It is important because of what it can do to the people around us--either making life better or more miserable for them--but it does not determine our "eternity." Thus, we are invited to follow Christ not out of necessity for salvation, but as a response to the divine invitation to participate now in that future which has become ours through Christ's resurrection, even as our present impossibility and brokenness have become God's through Christ's death.

Don't bother with this book. Read something by Henri Nouwen or N.T. Wright if you're looking for something accessible.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Practical Theology and Pragmatic Theology

For many, the discipline of practical theology is summed up in the question, "What do we do now?" There's history, there's theology, there's social sciences... and once they do their thing, practical theologians can come in, take the baton, and make it all "practical." This pragmatic move, however, is only one slice of the pie. Practical theology is, in my understanding, a bit more complicated than that. Asking the "what now?" question is certainly part of it, but it's not the only part nor is it the definitive part.

To assume that practical theology is just about making theology practical is to reduce the stakes of practical theology. What's at stake is reality itself, not just the question of how we live in it. Andrew Root has written about the problems of "applied theology" in his book Christopraxis. As another bright Andrew (Andrew Zirschky) writes,
"...when we engage in practical theology it leads to the active and intentional entanglement of our theology and our actions. This weaving together is not a top-down approach where we start with abstract theological concepts and then distill them into acontextual or universal principles of action. That would be a form of applied theology that fails to respect the difficulties, realities, and subtleties of ministry in a complex world. Rather, practical theology is a true dialogue, a fluid dance, between the concrete, messy reality of our situation, and our theological understandings..." (Practical Theology as the Foundation of Youth Ministry). 
The truth is, the pragmatic questions of practical theology are just the last steps of a complicated and nuanced approach to theological reflection on human experience and divine action. Pointing a way forward is something done only as a "fluid dance," in connection to a careful description of concrete reality, interpretation of conditions and contributing factors, and theological resources and reflections which are necessary to give that way forward its shape and character (if you're interested in a more detailed description of the tasks of practical theology, check out Richard Osmer's work, especially Practical Theology). If it's just about taking a lesson from history or from dogmatics and making it "work," or gleaning a strategy, then I would not necessarily call that practical theology, I'd call it pragmatic theology.

Pragmatic theology assumes that the defining question for its task is, "how can I make this practical?" It is on the lookout for the practical in everything and it rejects the things that aren't practical. It searches for the "practice" we can exegete from a given "theory" and outsources the work of theorizing. "What can we learn from this?" it asks. "What's the lesson for today?"

While the questions of pragmatic theology are really important, even fundamental to practical theology, there is a distinctly different approach. Practical theology doesn't, first of all, insist that the theological must be practical--it's not fundamentally on the lookout for the practical in theology. Rather, it insists that the practical is theological. Practical theology is on the lookout for the theological--the stuff of divine action--in the world of human experience. It looks to exegete the theological from practice and, in doing so, to point a way forward. It assumes that theory belongs to practice and that practice belongs to theory and thus, it does not just generate new practice from theology but new theology from the interdependence of theology and practice. It names God's action in people's lives and looks to participate in it. Therefore, practical theology is actually ministry.

This is all, of course, how I want practical theology to be defined. Not everyone who calls themself a practical theologian would agree with every nuance of what I've just said. But I hope we can all agree that we're not just the last leg of the race. Practical theologians are not just waiting for social scientists, ethicists, and theologians to do their job so we can apply it. Practical theologians are about attending to every task as practical theologians.

I hope that every discipline has a pragmatic edge, even dogmatic theology. Practical theology certainly does. But it is no more defined by that edge of its work than any other discipline. Practical theology is not just pragmatic theology. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Are Teenagers Human?

I hope this question strikes you as odd, especially if you’re working with young people in the church. At first, the answer may seem simple: Yes! Of course, yes! But as articles are released (as they seem to be every 5 years or so) examining the “teenage brain” as though the “teenager” constitutes a different species, as books are published flaunting the superiority of “maturity” and the inherent immaturity and selflessness of young people who haven’t yet progressed to the coveted status of “the adult,” we are hard pressed to account for adolescents as full persons. One writer for The Dallas Morning News, just so you know what we’re up against, recently claimed that “people are what children are supposed to become…” and continued to argue that adults live “…more real lives than those who have yet to grow up.”  It seems that there is a trend toward locating humanity in the social space (or “developmental stage”) we call “adulthood.” Even while we pay lip service to the humanity of the young people with whom we work, they may, in fact, be forced to look to adulthood for the true value and definition of their humanity.

Theologically, this just won’t do. In theological terms, maturity is somewhat illusory anyway—since life at any stage will end in death—and its desirability is no forgone conclusion. Jesus himself implied that spiritual “maturity” may look more like childhood than adulthood. He said, “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, NIV). Christian Noval, a Danish catholic priest and practical theologian in Germany, has argued that “…children and youth are complete human beings in their actuality and their value can’t just be seen in their potentiality.”* In other words, we don’t just have to look at what young people are becoming to find their humanity. We are free to look to their actual, concrete and lived experience just as they are. As the theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann has written, “…fulfilled life is not measured by the number of years that have been lived through, or spent in one way or another. It is measured according to the depth of lived experience.”

It is in the “depth of lived experience” that Christ encounters us and ministers to us. If ministry is, fundamentally, discovering God’s activity and participating in it, then the importance of seeing young people not only as potential persons on their way to maturity, but as full persons in their own right cannot be exaggerated. We have to answer—with an emphatic “yes!”—the question, are teenagers human?

* Christian Noval, “Youth and Creation: A Biblical Theology of Growth & Development” in The Journal of Youth & Theology, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2013), 44.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Does 'Spiritual' Always Have To Be 'Formation'?

I've been hung up on this term, "spiritual formation." It's an old concept. I can't even tell you how far back it goes. A sense of "formation" or "growth" has been associated with spiritual practices and habits since long before anyone said "spiritual formation." But now that's the term that gets thrown around as though everyone knows what it means and, more importantly, as though its desirability is a forgone conclusion. But I'm afraid I don't know exactly what people mean when they say it. And I am not convinced that it's necessarily something to be desired.

What's my hangup? Well, when I really stop and think about the "spiritual" and the so-called "spiritual practices" in which I have engaged with various levels of commitment throughout my life, I'm not totally convinced that "formation" is all that spiritual. The spiritual practices are ways in which we turn our attention to the grace of God and to the justification we have received in Jesus Christ. In so doing, we are turned away from our compulsions toward status and our obsessions with accomplishment and acquisition. By, for example, turning toward silence, we find that in Christ we are enough without words. By turning toward solitude, we discover that we are enough without the approval of others. By turning to God in prayer, we discover that we are enough without having to take the credit for achievements and without having to accomplish anything on our own. "The spiritual" as it appears to be implied in such spiritual practices, is precisely the space in which formation--moving from point A to point B, or acquiring some status with God that we had not possessed prior to the practice--becomes unnecessary, for we discover in the Spirit that we are enough (justified) without it. If the "spiritual" is co-opted and instrumentalized for the purpose of formation, then I fear that instead of freeing us from the compulsions of life, they actually just shift the audience. Instead of being obsessed with our place among people, we just become obsessed with our place with God... which, after all, misses the point of grace.

I'm pretty sure this is the great lesson of the classic film, Cool Runnings. There's a culminating scene in which Derice Bannock, the team captain of the Jamaican bobsled team, on the eve of their final olympic race, builds the courage to ask his coach Irv Blitzer (played by John Candy) why he cheated years before. The coach answers, "...that's a fair question. It's quite simple, really. I had to win..." Irv goes on to say, "Derice, a gold medal is wonderful thing. But if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."

Spiritual practices are ways in which we discover that we are "enough without it." If that's what people mean when they say, spiritual formation, then I'm ok with it. But if we "need" formation, progress, or status with God, then we haven't truly understood the grace which God has given us. Growth, formation, and being a better Christian might be wonderful things, but until we discover that we are enough without them, then we'll never be enough with them. To put this in more theological language, if our sanctification is not a category of our justification, then it's just legalism. The fact is, this encouragement from Irv doesn't deter Derice from running the race at all. He does run it the next day, and he runs it hard. But he runs it for the joy of running it, not for the need to win. As Moltmann put it, "whoever lays hold of the joy which embraces the creator and his own existence also gets rid of the dreadful question of existence: For what?" (Moltmann, Theology of Play, 19). Of course we should engage in spiritual practices! But we should do so out of joy which needs no goal of formation. Spirituality (which has many sorts) is the natural impulse of having been justified by God. But we do not need to be improved by them. We do not need growth or progress; and if that's what we mean by "formation," then we don't need that either. We are enough, in Christ, whenever we meet with God in prayer, solitude, fellowship, silence, lectio divina, "reverent studying" (which is a spiritual practice I've been trying out), or any other spiritual practice. We are enough even without the spiritual practices. We are enough. And however that truth may shape us or form us as we enter into it, it is a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Living Theologically in The UCC

A friend asked me a question the other day.

"This might be an offensive, question..." he said, "I hope it's not, but... how do you, as a theologically-minded person, handle being in a denomination which trends the other direction?"

I took it as a fair question. After all, he was only asking the question because he felt he was facing a similar trend in his own denomination. How should someone who cares about theology--who not only cares about the diversity of the church, but truly cares about what unites the church, namely the revelation of God in Jesus Christ--navigate their relationship to a denomination which seems to come to its conclusions by means which ignore or even avoid the normative (perhaps even doctrinal) theological sources implied in the name, United Church of CHRIST? How does one who truly appreciates theology and considers it to be indispensable to the church (if the church indeed wishes to be the Church of Jesus Christ) feel at home in a denomination which appears, in at least some of its circles, to roll its eyes at the mention of dogmatic, systematic, or confessional theology of any kind?

I assured my friend that I have struggled with the question at times. Even though I usually land right where the UCC has landed on specific social issues it seems that I take a very different path to get there. For example, I am passionate about affirming the ordination of LGBTQ people, supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage, advocating for environmentalism, and ending racism, sexism and discrimination of all kinds. But I come to these conclusions not by sidelining questions about the divinity of Christ and the justification of humankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I come to these conclusions not despite Scripture and theological reflection, but precisely because of and through Scripture and theological reflection. It is only because of the future of Jesus Christ, the resurrection, that we have a future and anticipate a future and engage in activities which correspond to some notion of progress. It is not because we can do it or because it's the right thing to do, per se. It's because these things are part of the ministry of the triune God--the ministry of Christ in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.

And the fact is, theological reflection is not alien to the heritage of the UCC. Indeed, theology (even Reformed theology) is indigenous to the UCC's theological tradition.

John Williamson Nevin
There is indeed, according to Gabriel Fackre, a "...disdain for theological matters found in some quarters" of the UCC (Believing, Caring, and Doing in the United Church of Christ, 127). But despite the UCC’s ambiguous relationship with theology, there is actually a strong theological heritage in the UCC. Fackre represents one theologian who has called for more disciplined theological reflection in the UCC. Lillian Daniel, as a Pastor in the denomination is another important voice in calling the UCC to a more defined theological position. In response to the cultural trend toward a spirituality without theology, Daniel has written, “…in an age of spiritual people who are not religious, we need religion, and its dearest expression to this particular religious Christian person, the church” (When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough, 11). Both John H. Thomas and Fackre point out the strength of the Mercersburg theology of John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff (both Calvinist/Reformed theologians) in the UCC, imported through its Evangelical Reformed heritage (See Paeth, Who Do You Say That I Am?, 96-114). The UCC's heritage is a reformed heritage and, as Dorothy Bass put it, “if our Reformation heritage is called into active participation in our present quest for identity… it can remain one fresh and provocative source for theology in this denomination” (Bass and Smith, The United Church of Christ, 13.). This "Reformation heritage", it seems to me, is the unifying element which can balance the diversity of the UCC and can remedy the UCC’s apathy to theology. We do not need to sacrifice diversity for theology, but we certainly do not need to sacrifice theology for diversity either. As Lillian Daniel has written, “you can be open-minded and still know what you think… You can rejoice in the many diverse paths to God and still invite your neighbor to Church” (Daniel, 164). The UCC is a rich and trinitarian theological tradition with deep historical roots--a church!--and not just a club for social activism. It is what it is and does what it does only by virtue of its being of Christ.

So my answer to my friend's question... how do I handle being in a denomination which seems to have, in some of its circles, forgotten the importance of theology, even its own theology?... I simply enjoy being part of a denomination which doesn't see itself as the theology police of the local church. I enjoy being part of a denomination which will never kick me out for being "too liberal," and I continue to point to the theological heritage of the UCC, reminding it of its own resources as the church of Christ, not letting those with a more negative posture toward theology set the standard for the UCC's identity.

Monday, January 26, 2015

One of My New Favorite Youth Ministry Books

I just finished reading Benjamin T. Conner's Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities. This is one of my new favorite Youth ministry books! And It's got to be my new favorite "missional theology" book too! Drawing from the best minds in practical theology and missional theology (including Richard Osmer, Andrew Root, John Swinton, and Darrell Guder), Ben Conner takes a huge step toward the construction of a theological rationale for youth ministry that includes those who are not subject to development or the common expectations which adults without disabilities extend toward adolescents. If you read books about youth ministry, immediately add this one to your list. It deserves to be read and wrestled with.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Worship and Worshipers: Thoughts on 'The Prayers of The People'

How often are people given the opportunity to share their story in church?

I wonder if it's a problem that, in every church I've ever been to, one could experience worship without ever turning their attention from the pulpit to the person next to them. Sure, we have our passing of the peace, our "30-seconds-of-friendliness" (as Andrew Zirschky calls it), where we turn to the person beside us and say, "good morning" or (as I prefer it) "peace be with you," but the service is all about the show up front. That's where the lights are pointed (in churches that have them), that's where our symbols of holiness sit, that's where the Word of God lives--up on an alter or on a stage. It'd be easy to miss, in such an environment, the holiness and the presence of God's Word in the lives and experiences of the people in the pews (or chairs). The irony of this is that, if we take the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ seriously as a theological rationale for worship, our worship should emerge from the action of God and from the experiences of God's action in the lives of our neighbors. Worship is, at some primal level, the responsive awakening to the active presence of God in the life of the people of God. Therefore, the sharing of stories, the sharing of the relationships that make us who we are, and ultimately the sharing of persons' encounters with the living God, should be the catalyst and content of congregational worship. Our eyes simply must turn from pulpit to person. Worship comes from worshipers, as a response to God's presence among them. And what comes from the pulpit must be the proclamation which emerges from the Word of God which lives in the lives of the people.

There is one space carved out in most worship services which lends itself to the possibility of people actually turning their attentions to the action of God in the lives of their neighbors, whether or not it gets taken advantage of as such. The "prayers of the people," as we usually call it, would be a logical moment at which persons should share their stories, their joys and their concerns. Unfortunately, we usually miss the opportunity. Instead of offering and facilitating a space for people to share themselves and for worshipers to empathize with their neighbors and encounter God in their stories, we read the prayers off like a grocery list and the best that even an intentional worshiper can do is sympathize... with their attention still intently fixed in front of them.

But Andrew Root writes about the possibility of doing things a little differently:
In our little church Kara [the Pastor] decided to move the ‘prayers of the people’ to a more central location in the worship order…So now people came forward, lit a candle or dropped a stone into a clear font, and shared their prayer request…. As people came forward they began to actually share their person, by telling the story of their prayer request. …It was radically different when someone would stand, come to the front, drop their rock into the font and say, ‘I’d like to pray for people who have lost their jobs, because this Saturday night we went over to my brother’s house for dinner and he has worked for General Mills for twenty years, and just Thursday they laid him off. When his daughter answered the door, I could see the fear in her eyes and then after dinner my brother shared how lost and depressed he feels….’ This changed everything. Prayer was no longer the relaying of information—people need jobs—but the story of persons… (The Relational Pastor, 187).
Where there is space for people to share their stories and for their story to be heard, there is a fundamental shift from sympathy to empathy. People are no longer the objects of ministry, nor are they simply agents of the church’s mission. People are embraced as persons, social actors, humans in their own right, who are preceded by dignity. By listening to people’s stories, we are opened to them and God’s action in their life. And that is an act of worship.

What if, instead of the liturgy and music all centering around and heading toward the sermon, with the 'prayers of the people' being treated as a short interruption, the service centered around people's encounter with God and their experiences of God's active presence? What if the sermon itself was a Word of God proclaimed and spoken from and into the joys and concerns of the congregation? What if worship had something to do with worshipers?

Friday, January 23, 2015

I Don't Care If Kids Are Being Good

Part of what has made me an oddball in some youth ministry circles is that, in general, I'm not interested in how young people behave. Success stories about young people who do better in life because of their faith have never been all that compelling to me. But youth ministry, at least in some circles, has been pretty preoccupied with behaviors. We want kids to read their bibles, pray, get good grades, stay away from drugs, brush their teeth, and wear deodorant (and that last one's no joke...). We celebrate those kids who conform to such behaviors as the successes of youth ministry. Of course, few of us would admit to this. We all posture and struggle to articulate some deeper spiritual goal for our ministries, but time and again, the kids who get toted to the front of the church as representatives of Christian maturity are those kids who do good things and don't do bad things. Youth ministry is about "formation" (of a particular sort) and education, but is it really ministry if it's just about behavior?

Many would say that our preoccupation with behavior has actually paid off. Even those who are after something more than behavior will cite research to admit that youth ministry has been successful in developing better behaved young people. My friend Marcus Hong recently pointed out a quote to me from Kenda Creasy Dean's book, Almost Christian. She writes,
On the whole, teenagers who say religion is important to them are doing "much better in life" than less religious teenagers, by a number of measures. While religious youth do not avoid problem behaviors and relationships, those who participate in religious communities are more likely to do well in school, have positive relationships with their families, have a positive outlook on life, wear their seatbelts--the list goes on, enumerating an array of outcomes that parents pray for. (20). 
Kenda is certainly less interested in these behaviors than she is in vibrant faith which can actually be disruptive of social norms. She's quick to point out that Jesus' act of turning over the tables in the temple would not likely have been described as "religious maturity" by researchers (20). But, even if she's not compelled by such things, she cites the research as though it reveals that youth ministry has worked to foster good behavior among young people. But I am suspicious. Perhaps it's not that youth ministry has worked to create good behavior, but that it has worked for those young people who conform to such behaviors anyway and thus has decidedly not worked for those young people who do not bear the qualities which correspond to "doing 'much better in life.'" Perhaps it's not that kids do better because they go to church, but that kids who do better are the only ones who have a place at church.

The reason I'm not motivated by behavioral success stories, even if they include good spiritual practices, is because what does motivate me (or, at least, what I hope motivates me) is God's action in people's lives, people's experiences of that action, and our participation in it--which is what we call "ministry." And I am convinced that God's action is real and, therefore, ministry must be real in the lives of people regardless of their behaviors. I am convinced that God is active in the life of the young person who isn't reading their bible and wearing their seatbelt. And since I am motivated by ministry, why would I tote anyone else as the success of youth ministry? The success of youth ministry, if we're going to measure it, should be in the number of young people who do not conform to the standards of "Christian maturity" and are yet given a space to see and to experience God's action in their lives. Behaviors, I trust, will follow, but they are certainly less interesting than the ministry which precedes them. We should be ashamed by the fact that there are, apparently, so many young people "not doing so well" who are counted among the outsiders.

So go ahead and share your stories of kids who are really good. I'll continue to be interested in God's action in the lives of kids, even (if not especially) in the lives of those kids who have not been celebrated by their Youth Pastors.