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 Jürgen 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.

Monday, January 19, 2015

When I Found Out King Was a Christian

One of the most important things that ever happened for me in my theological and intellectual formation was being introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. ...as a theologian.

I was a Freshman theology student at Azusa Pacific University. The class was "Contemporary Christian Thought," taught by Dr. H. Adam Ackley (who went by a different name at the time), and in it we explored several theologians and perspectives from the last several decades. I don't honestly remember much at all from the class. But I do remember reading 55 extraordinary pages--The Measure of A Man--and being introduced to Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first time as a theologian. It's difficult to grow up in the United States without hearing about Martin Luther King, Jr.... we even have a holiday dedicated to him (which has its irony). But it is not difficult to grow up without realizing that he was a pastor, a theologian, or even a Christian. Before reading him, I may have known that he was a political activist, a key figure in the struggle for civil rights, even a profound orator, but I had no idea the extent to which his theology and his faith in Jesus Christ shaped his political and social action. I had no idea that he wrote his PhD. Dissertation at Boston University on Paul Tillich and I had no idea that he could be considered a theologian in his own right.

Dr. King would not have been any less important if he were not a theologian. He does not need theology to give credibility to his actions (though it doesn't hurt). If anything, it's the other way around. What was important for me in seeing him as a Christian and as a theologian was that it was my first introduction to him as a human being. When I read his theology and discovered that he actually thought for himself, and thought with such depth and conviction, I was introduced to someone who was more than just an American stained glass saint whose actions got us all a day off of work. I was introduced to someone who challenged the very system and ideology which now venerates him. I was introduced to a radical whose struggle was not for American prosperity, per se, but for social justice on the basis of nothing less than the reign and dominion of God in Jesus Christ. And perhaps for the first time, thanks to Dr. Ackley, I was introduced to a Christianity that was not of the world but was surely and unapologetically in it. I was introduced to a theology that did not settle for "pie-in-the-sky," otherworldly, postmortem escape but truly hoped for the salvation of humankind and the healing of the world here and now.

Among all the debts we owe to Dr. King's legacy, I am personally indebted to his theological legacy. When I found out that King was a Christian my own Christianity, my own devotion to Christ, changed its shape.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Best Books of 2014

I like making lists. I'm just one of those people. Sometimes I even find the exercise to be a helpful mode of reflection. I thought it would be helpful to catalogue the most important books (for my personal formation) I read in 2014. These aren't the best books written in 2014, as most of them are older, but they are the best books I read in 2014. In years past, I've picked up books, read them, and set them down again without keeping much track of when I read them nor really thinking about how they affected me and shaped me. This year I kept track, as best I could, of the books I read throughout the year and have decided to list the Best Books of 2014. I chose these books for the lasting impact I think they'll have on my own life and thinking.

#15: Woo by Morgan Schmidt 
Woo:Awakening Teenagers Desire to Follow in the Way of Jesus is wonderful! It's a book about youth ministry that locates ministry not in some external, preconceived notion, but in the lived experience of teenagers themselves. If there were no other reason to read this one, it'd be enough that it's just fun to read! Morgan Schmidt is a great writer.
In terms of content, it's a light read compared with most of the other books here. But one reason this book has made this list is because in it I have found my new favorite book to recommend to beginners in youth ministry. This book will be life-giving for people who are actually engaged in the church's ministry to young people.

#14: Eccentricity by David Arthur Auten 
I blogged about Eccentricity when it first came out ("The Other Side of The Coin") and it has had me thinking ever since. While the ecclesiological and anthropological emphasis has been on community and relationships, Auten's book points to the individual and locates personhood not in what humans have in common but in what makes them eccentric. It's a great and challenging book and I truly enjoyed reading it.

#13: After Crucifixion by Craig Keen
Craig was a professor of mine in undergrad and ever since then I enthusiastically anticipated a book like this one. Previously, he had only published essays and articles, but After Crucifixion is his real first full length book. Keen is a poetic and inspiring theological voice who writes in a doxological style. Poetic as his thoughts are, they are also sharp and theologically rich--open to a variety of theological conversations.

#12:  The Trinity and The Kingdom by Jurgen Moltmann 
This is one of Moltmann's most important theological works. This is also where he most clearly develops his social trinitarian theology. Grounding his trinitarian thinking in the theology of the cross and the doctrine of revelation, Moltmann creatively articulates trinitarian theology, beginning with the three-ness of God and moving toward its one-ness. If you want to understand Moltmann's trinitarian theology, this book is essential.


#11: Christ The Key by Kathryn Tanner
Any good Christology will be trinitarian and any good trinitarian theology will be fundamentally Christological. Christ The Key explicitly turns to Christ and to Christology to unlock the larger theological system. This book is a wonderful contribution to theology, from creation to consummation. I have only just begun my acquaintance with Kathryn Tanner's work, and I am thrilled to continue to learn from her. She is, without a doubt, one of America's most capable and important theologians.

#10: Bonhoeffer As Youth Worker by Andrew Root
Andrew Root is one of the most prolific young theologians in America and has become one of the most important practical theologians of this generation. He has helped give real credibility to the field of youth ministry as an academic and theological discipline. There are theologians, practical theologians, and youth workers and Root is on a very short list of people who legitimately qualify as all three.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been one of Root's primary theological influences since his first book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, and where most of Roots books are written with the sharp edges of conviction, as responses to real problems and needs in practical theology, this book seems to be written out of pure enjoyment. With joy, Root introduces Bonhoeffer to youth workers as their forefather in the theological turn in youth ministry and he introduces youth ministry to Bonhoeffer scholars as a legitimate lens for interpreting Bonhoeffer's life and work. This book was fun to read!

#9: The Humanity of God by Karl Barth
Don't tell my obsessively Barthian friends about this, but I actually think Barth is pretty great. How could I not!? Barth is one of the greatest and most important theologians in the last few centuries. In this short and relatively accessible book by Barth, he argues that God's divinity and God's humanity are not at odds with one another. He writes,
"God's deity is thus no prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself. It is rather His freedom to be in and for Himself but also with and for us, to assert but also to sacrifice Himself, to be wholly exalted but also completely humble, not only almighty but also almighty mercy, not only Lord but also servant, not only judge but also Himself the judged, not only man's eternal king but also his brother in time. And all that without in the slightest forfeiting His deity! All that, rather, in the highest proof and proclamation of His deity! He who DOES and manifestly CAN do all that, He and no other is the living God.”  
#8: Jesus, The Bible and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers
After moving from being strongly opposed to homosexuality and LGBTQ inclusion, for the past several years I have been convinced that scripture supports the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the life of the church and society. Each year I try to read at least a book or two about this issue. Jack Rogers' book is one of the best on the issue and provides a personal and theological argument for openness and inclusion.

#7: God as Mystery of the World by Eberhard Jüngel 
I picked up God as Mystery of the World in order to better understand Andrew Root's theology. And after my first read, I wasn't sure that I'd actually understood what I had read. Jüngel is a tough and complex read. It actually took the help of John Webster's book, Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to His Theology, for me to feel confident with Jüngel. And even still, I feel I have only scratched the surface. This book was important for me and it will continue to be an important theological resource for me from now on. Jüngel is an important voice in practical theology because he is profoundly concerned with the importance of human action but he grounds this concern fundamentally in God's action and the impossibility of human action. As Webster puts it,"He puts down a challenge to demonstrate on the basis of a theology of grace that human agency is interesting and important" (129).

#6: The Teaching Ministry of Congregations by Richard Osmer 
Richard Osmer has become one of my primary influences in the method of practical theology, particularly when it comes to interdisciplinary methodology. I had read his Practical Theology: An Introduction and found it profoundly helpful in sorting out the shape and character of practical theology, but The Teaching Ministry of Congregations was even more important for me. Osmer demonstrates a unique ability in both empirical research and theological reflection. It was important for me to read this book, not only to understand the church's educational ministry and the theology of Jurgen Moltmann (he has a wonderful chapter on Moltmann in this book), but to see how to actually do practical theology--how to think through the descriptive, interpretive, normative, and pragmatic tasks. I will continue to use this book, especially its epilogue.

#5: The Depleted Self by Donald Capps

I never realized how Narcissistic I was until I read The Depleted Self by Dr. Donald Capps. Capps writes about narcissism--perhaps the emerging dominant affliction of human identity--in a fresh perspective, liberating it from conflation into individualism and mere selfishness. He looks at narcissism as a depletion of the self, a self that is barely being held together by the need for approval and achievement. Capps' example of “…a student who ordinarily expects an A and receives an A minus…” and expresses “…the view that he or she is thus revealed to all as a failure” and “…conversely, having gotten an A, the student may feel fraudulent, and unable to take genuine pleasure in a real achievement…” all sounds like me (p. 13). I can definitely see in myself this vacillation between failure and fraudulence and all the despair and shame associated therewith. If I get an A, the class must have been easy, if I get an A-, I feel I have let myself and everyone else down. In a culture of narcissism, Capps calls for a theology of shame while so much of our hamartiology has been oriented toward and around guilt. Simply having a category of shame in Christian theology provides a paradigm shift in the way we talk about sin and salvation. Salvation is no longer just about the forgiveness of guilt, but about grace and acceptance offered to those who are ashamed.

#4: The Coming of God by Jürgen Moltmann   
Moltmann's theology has always been eschatological, but until he waited until relatively late in his career to actually write an eschatology. The Coming of God is a truly eschatological eschatology, rooted in his deeply trinitarian and Christological commitments laid out in his previous works. This book marks the culmination of Moltmann's second and (probably) final major theological project which began with The Trinity and the Kingdom. Moltmann lays out an eschatology which looks to the coming of God's future into history rather than the becoming of the present into the future. This book is indispensable to Moltmann's work as a whole.

#3: What is a Person? by Christian Smith
Christian Smith is arguably the most important sociologist for practical theology. His contributions to the youth ministry world, in understanding the dominant religious perspectives of young people in the United States, have been paradigm shifting. In What is A Person? Smith argues that personhood can be approached ontologically, not merely epistemologically. In other words, we are not forced merely to understand the conditions and circumstances to which persons are subject, but we can approach and understand persons and personhood in themselves as emergent reality. This is a very important book, not only for practical theologians but for anyone who wishes to engage the concept of personhood.

#2: The Cross in Our Context by Douglas John Hall
Douglas John Hall is the most important theologian I never knew about. Hall, who is part of the United Church of Canada, a cousin to the United Church of Christ, is a contextual theologian with a deeply robust systematic theology. The Cross in Our Context  is a wonderful example and articulation of the theology of the cross. Hall takes up the task of articulating theology both apologetically and kerygmatically, as the theology of the cross seems to demand, and he does real justice to a variety of perspectives. This is a book that every theologian needs to read.

#1: Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross by Andrew Root
And the best, most important book I was able to read in 2014 was Andrew Root's Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross. This is Andrew Root's most important contribution yet... and if you know my bias, you know that's saying a lot. Root, who has long been an established voice in the world of youth ministry makes his mark on the larger conversation of practical theology and offers a uniquely theological approach to the discipline. Positioning his approach among the approaches of others, Root lays out a practical theological method which takes seriously people's experience of God's action and refuses to diminish the importance of divine action or conflate it into epistemology. Attending to the concrete and lived experience of divine and human encounter--in the face of the impossibility which surrounds human action--Root exegetes the text of human experience through the lens of God's being as becoming, through the lens of ministry itself. As such, Root gives us a theological method (indeed a theology of the cross) that is practical, interdisciplinary, but utterly and fundamentally grounded in the normative task of practical theology. Through the (perhaps counterintuitive) lens of justification, with the help of Eberhard Jüngle, Root shifts the ground on which practical theology stands, orienting human action toward reception of the ministering presence of the living Jesus within the impossibility and death of the human condition. Root puts the 'theology' back in practical theology and turns 'practice' back toward participation in the person of God through the ministry of God. Christopraxis may be the most important work in the field of practical theology in the last several years.

Friday, December 19, 2014

We Hate Youth

Over the past few months I've been reading a lot of "intro to youth ministry" kinds of books, to sort of reorient myself to what most people mean when they say "youth ministry." I suspected that I would discover (again) that the dominant approach to youth ministry is to view it as a task of development, as the church's endeavor to create mature Christian adults who do ministry and pray articulately and read the Bible a lot. But I've actually been surprised at just how strongly this suspicion has been confirmed. Even if some frame it in the less dubious (though still somewhat dubious) category of "spiritual growth," the dominant approach to youth ministry is to develop people from one thing to another and to foster maturity from immaturity. (Some have argued, of course, that youth ministry has failed at this... but if that's so, it's not for lack of trying!) And even those who've tried to see value in adolescence can't seem to help themselves from defaulting back to a developmental assumption.  

Youth ministry, as I'm rediscovering, is more about adulthood than it is about youth. It's more about the expectations of maturity than it is about locating God's action in the concrete and lived experience of adolescents themselves. It's more about where they're headed than where they are--it's about getting "from here to maturity." 

But for me, this begs the question: do we even like youth? Do we like young people? Or are we so in love with adulthood that we can't tolerate seeing adolescence as a desirable social practice? Are we so in love with maturity that we just have to influence the immature toward our standards of maturity? We seem to love youth about as much as we love a lump of clay before it becomes a pot. 

My suspicion has been that youth ministry is more about adulthood than it is about youth. This suspicion seems to be getting confirmed around every corner. And while I do not wish to contend with the fact that development is gonna happen, I wonder if our obsession with development--our preoccupation with "growth" and "formation"--has kept us from actually valuing young people. Girding ourselves in the concrete shoes of condescension, we're slow in seeing where God is at work in those places we've pre-identified as stagnant, immature, and un-adult. I fear, by grafting ministry into the work of development, we're missing out on the action of God in the location we've so arrogantly called "immaturity."