Monday, September 25, 2017

Encountering God in the Stories of Others

This post was originally published at Kindred Youth Ministry


Mike is the drummer for the praise team at our church. He’s a young guy, a teacher at the local high school, a drum line instructor, and—perhaps most importantly—a drummer in a band that plays venues up and down the Jersey Shore. Mike is cool. And the young people in our youth ministry know he’s cool. They see him drumming on stage just about every Sunday morning, providing the real cool-factor to the otherwise baby-boomer-style praise team.

Heike is the chair of the finance committee at our church. She attends the traditional service where, instead of a praise team, we have a choir and an organ. Heike comes in the church office, usually when no one else is around, to do the books and make sure the church is in a decent financial position. Heike is also cool, but the young people at our church are less likely to know Heike than Mike.

What do Mike and Heike have in common? They hang out in different crowds, they occupy different generations, and they shop at different stores. But both Heike and Mike have had experiences of God. Both have stories to tell about how they’ve been encountered by God. Their stories may be about as different as they are from one another. But both of them have felt, in some way, the mysterious sense that God is present in their lives. ... READ MORE

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Right Tool For The Job

You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s hammer metaphor: "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This metaphor rings true when it comes to how we think about the young people with whom we minister. The tools we have for interpreting young people’s experience will largely determine how we treat them and, ultimately, the shape of our ministry. This works the other way around too. If all we see are nails, we’ll never see the point of using anything but a hammer. This is why it’s really important for us to think about how see the people in our ministries—to wade into that sometimes monotonous debate about what we call young people. Should we call them “kids,” “youth,” “adolescents,” “young people,” “students”? Do we need to make up some new term? Most of us, I imagine, are ready to move beyond this debate. But I think we need to keep coming back to it, otherwise we risk using a hammer when we should be using a wrench… or perhaps a stethoscope or a mirror.

So let’s look at a couple of the terms we use to refer to the people in our youth ministries and what tools they invite us to use.

Students - Some of us use of the term, “students,” to refer to the people in our youth ministries because we think it has more dignity than “youth.” Perhaps we saw something pejorative or maybe just a little awkward about the term “youth.” Many of us started calling our ministries “student ministries” and we started referring to ourselves as “student ministers” or something like that. And while this might avoid some pitfalls of “youth,” it comes with its own problems. Besides the fact that not all young people are “students” in the traditional sense (some young people find themselves in socioeconomic situations that force them to drop out or not to enroll in school), and not to mention that young people with learning disabilities may have a complicated relationship with the term, there’s a more fundamental problem. As Andrew Root pointed out in his short but important article, “Stop Calling Them That,” “student” is a function, not a person. A person can be a student, but a student is not a person. This limits the tools we’ll use in ministry. If all you see are “students,” then you must be a “teacher” and your tool will be “teaching.” However, if it’s ministry we want to be about, not just education, we have to see the youth in youth ministry as persons. “Student” is about doing, person is about being and being-in-relationship. The young people in our ministries don’t just need us to teach them, they need us to minister to and with them. And we don’t just need to teach students, we need to learn from the young people in our churches, because the Holy Spirit at work in them is the same Holy Spirit who’s at work in everyone else.

Adolescents - This is a complicated one. While few would wish to suggest that we call our ministries “adolescent ministries” (though I would venture to guess that there are a few churches out there that do), we are often trained to think that adolescence is just the technical term for youth. But as I have written elsewhere, not all youth is “adolescence.” What I mean by that is, adolescence is not always the best diagnosis for what young people are experiencing. Adolescence, from the Latin adolescere, means “to grow to maturity.” The term took on its technical meaning and its contemporary form after G. Stanley Hall made it famous as a psychological interpretive category within the framework of developmentalism (a framework that really came into its own through the work of Erik Erikson). All that’s to say, adolescence is not actually a thing, it’s an interpretation of a thing. Specifically, it’s an interpretation that sees the young person’s experience as, at its core, a transition to adulthood. The danger in seeing all youth as adolescence is that we will see ourselves—the adults—as the gatekeepers of what young people need. We’ll see our experience, the adult experience, as the best account of what it means to be human and we’ll think our job is to get young people from where they are to where we are. Some youth ministry thinkers have even identified the whole goal of youth ministry as developing adolescents into mature Christian adults. Again, the hammer just sees nails—we see balls of clay to be molded instead of people in relationship. The only tools we’ll see necessary are the ones that can influence young people and move them from A to B. If every young person is an adolescent, we risk turning youth ministry into a Christian adulthood factory instead of a chance to encounter God.

So what should we call them? It’s not perfectly clear. I’m fine with “young people” or just “youth,” even though I would guess that those terms also have their dangers. In the end, we have to recognize that terms like these are just training wheels… we’ve got to be able to ride without them at some point. In the end, ministry is about God and people—persons-in-relationship with God. The tools we need are whatever will help us to participate in what God is doing in young people’s lives, to be present in that ministerial event. This means that the tools and even the terminology will change with what God is doing in that moment and we can’t limit ourselves to just one. We need to be receptive enough to the Holy Spirit to discern which tool is right for the job.

Friday, June 23, 2017

4 Reasons Not to Engage in Missional Entrepreneurship

The church’s energy around missional entrepreneurship and innovative approaches to ministry is encouraging. While there is no shortage of complacency and while fear still too often precludes real creativity in our churches, more and more church leaders and clergy are beginning to discover new ways of engaging in the mission of God in the world. A movement is afoot. But as you consider being a part of that movement—as you consider taking the plunge into a journey of innovative missional entrepreneurship—consider your motivations. Why innovate in the first place? It may seem like a silly question to ask (like, “why breath?”) but I would argue that it’s the most important question for this journey. There are all kinds of good reasons to engage in missional entrepreneurship, but here are four reasons NOT to engage in missional entrepreneurship: READ MORE

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT MINISTRY INCUBATORS ON JUNE 22, 2017.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

How Should We Think About Young People?

I talked a little with the guys from Kindred Youth Ministry about adolescence and how we should think about young people when I was in Florida for the Flagler Forum.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Abigail Visco Rusert and Kenda Creasy Dean on Youth Ministry

Last month my friends Kenda Dean and Abigail Visco Rusert were interviewed at Yale Divinity School on "awe" and "transcendence" in youth ministry. Take the time to listen to what they had to say, you won't be disappointed.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Thought on Being

To say, "you are what you love" (see James K.A. Smith) is not actually all that far from saying "you are what you do"--which is the hegemonic claim of a capitalistic anthropological imaginary. The two claims both emanate from some autonomous interior self, outward--perhaps from an ego or super ego. The two claims were, after all, side by side in Freud's mind. When he was asked, "what must a 'normal' person be able to do well?" Freud answered, "lieben und arbeiten" ("to love and to work," see Erik Erikson, Identity Youth and Crisis, 136). The really dramatic shift, therefore, would not be for us to move from "you are what you do" to "you are what you love," but instead to insist, "you are a child of God" and to answer Freud's question by saying, "a person must BE loved."

"A person's humanity is defined and maintained by God's gracious movement towards them in love." -John Swinton (From Bedlam to Shalom, p. 31). 

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Friendship, Joy, and Youth Ministry

Meet Bobby... Bobby is one of those high achieving kids. At school, he’s an “A” student who sits in the front of the class, actually does his homework, and (gasp!) studies for tests. Bobby’s also a pole vaulter on the track and field team. He’s always among the first to arrive and the last to leave. His coaches consider him to be one of the team’s leaders and an example to his teammates. They hold him to a high standard and, just like in his event, he works hard to clear the bar.

For Bobby, church is no different. When he comes to Sunday School, he always brings his Bible with him and is the first to find the Bible passage when the youth minister calls it out. At youth group, he loves to play games, but when it’s time to sit down for Bible study, he never hesitates. He shuffles to the front couch in the youth room and when the youth minister asks, “Who wants to pray for us?” the fingers of most of the other kids in the room often point to him. When Bobby is a senior, he’ll be a shoe-in to preach on Youth Sunday, and his youth minister is just sure he’d be a great pastor someday if he wants to be.

Meet Sarah... Sarah is what we call a problem child. She’s not interested in school. She sits in the back of the class and rarely has what she needs with her. She knows what her teachers expect of her—she’s been made to know, all too well, through compulsory visits to the principal’s office and angry lectures from her parents—but she’s become numb to those expectations through a few too many failures. She’s on the drama team, but finds it pointless to audition for the lead roles, since those seem to always go to the same kids anyway.

For Sarah, church is no different. She goes to church because her parents want her to be there… and she knows her parents are really only there because they want her to be there too. In vain, her youth minister has invited her several times to sing with the worship team or start a drama club in the youth group. She’s been told that God wants to “use” her. Sarah is tired of being used. She politely smiles and declines.

She sits through the Bible studies, listening to all the expectations God and her youth minister have of her. But she knows a thing or two about expectations. She listens while she texts her friends on her cell phone—a safe haven to which she must discretely retreat from the barrage of “calls to action” … until her youth minister takes the phone away, of course. Sarah will never preach on a Youth Sunday, as even praying out loud would be just short of traumatic for her, and she’ll never live up to the standards to which she’s told her God and her youth minister seem to hold her.

...CONTINUE READING...



This article was originally published at Kindred Youth Ministry in February, 2017.

Friday, February 03, 2017

"Untamed Friendship" Interviews and Lecture

In November, Kenda Creasy Dean and I were invited to Yale Divinity (to the Yale Youth Ministry Institute) to be interviewed and to give a lecture on joy and friendship in adolescence for their Joy and Adolescent Faith and Flourishing project. Below, you can watch some of those interviews along with the lecture. And on February 11th, Kenda and I will be talking about some of this stuff with youth workers at the Ignite Youth Leaders Day in East Brunswick, NJ.

Kenda was gracious enough to invite me, along with Abigail Visco Rusert (of the Institute for Youth Ministry) and Justin Forbes (Flagler College and Kindred Youth Ministry), to represent Princeton Theological Seminary as researchers and writers for this project. There's more to come, including a lecture by Kenda and Abigail on March 1, 2017.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Practicing Passion in Youth Ministry

“If adolescents and Christianity are both so full of passion, then why aren’t young people flocking to church?” (Practicing Passion, p. 4). This is a central question of what is to be considered one of the most important books on youth ministry ever written.

Kenda Creasy Dean’s Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church marks a turning point in youth ministry—away from just trying to get young people to stay in church and toward learning from and partnering with young people in ministry.

Dean ushered in a new conception of youth ministry as coming alongside young people and listening for the voice of God in their experience. Instead of locating the problem somewhere in the young person or in the “culture” in which they are situated, Dean locates the problem of youth ministry in the church itself. Dean argued that God is already at work in the lives of young people, whether or not they come to church, and that “if youth invest their passions elsewhere… the church must receive this news as a judgment not on adolescents, but on us” (p. 25).

The church, through youth ministry, should not assume itself as the norm to which young people must assimilate, but should discern that God is doing something in the lives of young people and that we can be a part of it. Dean’s great discovery was, in essence, the theological discovery that youth ministry is ministry—active and faithful participation in God’s passionate action in the world. [Read More]

This article was originally published at Kindred Youth Ministry in January, 2017.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thanks, Obama

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, I posted on my Facebook wall (in 2008 fashion), "[Wes] likes the President of the United States... it can't last..."
I remember how good it felt to say that, for the first time, I actually "liked" the President, meaning I didn't feel threatened by him. Yet I also remember how apprehensive I felt about saying it. As a Christian, I have long believed that my first and only real allegiance is to Christ and that this allegiance essentially puts me at odds with systems of violence and greed and any of their beneficiary institutions or governments--including the American government and its leaders. I believe that Christians should have a tensional relationship with nations and governments, for the kingdom of God has no borders and, as J├╝rgen Moltmann has written, "peace with God mean conflict with the world..." (Theology of Hope p.21).

But when Obama was elected I actually felt hope that, while our system was still imperfect and I still would have to somehow protest against it, perhaps we were headed in the right direction. Perhaps now our system would not be so bent toward the rich, so abandoning to the poor. Perhaps now our foreign policy would be more built on mutual understanding than fear of one another. I think that when Obama was elected was probably my proudest moment as an American.

Now, in a way, my optimism didn't last. I quickly discovered the militaristic thread that ran through Obama's foreign policy. I discovered that our President didn't share all my criticisms of capitalism and that he was far more compromising on certain issues -including immigration - that I was counting on him to remain principled. So I have spent the last eight years being critical of Obama. But I never stopped being sympathetic.

In that way, somewhat surprisingly, my "like" did last. My admiration for him as a person and as a person of faith continued to grow. No great scandal emerged to disillusion me about his character. In the way he carried himself, the humility he displayed, I gained new respect for the difficulty and magnitude of his position and the conflict he himself must have often felt between his power and his faith.

I remain sympathetically critical. I remain un-enamored by the promises of America in the light of the promises of Hope in Christ. I remain skeptical of patriotism. But on this day, when the reigns of power will be passed to someone new, someone who has long thrived on an ideology toward which I cannot be optimistic and at which I feel strikingly at odds, I want to say: Thanks, Barack Obama. I want to say thank you for the humility you showed in leadership and the care you so often took with the decisions you had to make. Thank you for the subtle ways you have reshaped our country's imagination and my own imagination regarding the office you held. Thank you for being our President.