Saturday, July 11, 2020

'Delighted' in Lectures and Interviews

Before Delighted: What Teenagers Are Teaching the Church about Joy was actually written, its authors gave a series of lectures at Yale Divinity School for the Yale Youth Ministry Institute's Joy and Adolescent Faith and Flourishing project (part Yale University's Theology of Joy and the Good Life project). I've decided to pull links to these lectures and interviews together here for anyone who's interested in going deeper with the content of the book and seeing some of its ideas (some of them still in their embryonic stages) being worked out in front of a camera.

These lectures and interviews correspond to the core chapters of the book (the chapter links below will take you to playlists that include the videos that correspond to the content of that chapter from the book):

Chapter 2: "'Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me': Rethinking Friendship in Youth Ministry" by Wes Ellis and Kenda Creasy Dean 

Chapter 3: "Wonder and Onions: Reframing Celebration in Youth Ministry" by Abigail Visco Rusert and Kenda Creasy Dean

Chapter 4: "Trace My Hand: The Promise of Confession in Youth Ministry" by Justin Forbes and Kenda Creasy Dean

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Talking Joy with Bradon French

I was honored to get to sit down and talk with Bradon French about Joy and youth ministry on the Work Experience Podcast. Check it out!

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Presbyterian Outlook's Review of Delighted

Sarah Dennis wrote a delightful review of Delighted for the Presbyterian Outlook.
"When you begin reading a youth ministry book, you might expect references to C.S. Lewis, Aladdin and Katy Perry — but not often J├╝rgen Moltmann, Thomas Merton and Miroslav Volf. However, as I was reading through this incisive book, I was continually struck by the graceful weaving of practical application and deep theology." ...KEEP READING

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

The Mark of Christian Hope

The Christian vision for the world has never been a nostalgic vision. It remembers history as God's work of liberating creation from slavery to sin and death. Thus, it is not about preserving some old order for society or getting back to our former "Judeo-Christian values." It is and always has been about being open to the novum ultimum of the coming of God, the banquet feast of the resurrection, wherein God will be all-in-all. It sees the evils of the present world, scoffs at the so-called achievements of a society that was built on the backs of slaves, and it looks to a new society, a new world, a new heaven and a new earth.

But while this vision for the world mustn't be nostalgic, it also cannot be mistaken for "development" or "progress." The story of God is not a story of the world getting a little better all the time, slowly waking up from a slumber. It's the story of a dead world being brought to life--a world without hope being rescued by the God of hope. So while we cannot resign ourselves to preserving some romantic past, we must also guard against the seduction of a "progressivism" that fetishizes potentiality and worships the "new" and the "next." The demand of constantly 'becoming' instrumentalizes and comodifies our very 'being.' Desperately scraping for the future will leave us anxious and empty, unable to delight in what is because we're too obsessed with the wish-dream of what might be.

This is why, as Moltmann put it, "patience is the greatest art of those who hope." Waiting on the coming of God--actively waiting so as to share the place of God in the world with those who hunger and thirst for justice--without anxiously clamoring for the future, and without nostalgically romanticizing the past, is the mark of Christian hope and activism.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Prophesy of the Tik Toc Zoomers

"Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry 'Peace' when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths. Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God. But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin." (Micah 3:5-8)
I woke this morning to news that young people all over the country had essentially sabotaged a particularly controversial campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was dismayed by the imagery of white supremacists gathering in Tulsa to celebrate "Keeping America Great" in the mist of the ongoing protests and demonstrations taking place throughout our country calling for transformation and repentance.

I cannot help but think of the passage from Micah 3 where the prophet speaks against the powers that be and the false prophets that lead them, referring to them as those "who cry 'Peace' when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths." While people are literally in the streets crying out for justice, there is a whole contingency of people saying "Peace." There are still millions of people who, thinking America is great the way it is, would say that protesters should just go back home and stop making a fuss. They don't see that while they think things are basically going just fine--there's no such thing as systemic racism, the economy is fine, etc.--their rallies are actually a way of waging war on "those who put nothing into their mouths." There is no "peace" and America is not "great" right now. And the suffering of the world still faces the ignorance of the powerful.

Going to sleep pretty dismayed by this image and the division that it represents, I was pretty inspired to wake to the news that the rally in Tulsa had actually been sparsely attended and, while Trump and his prophets tried to blame it on people blocking gates, it was because young people all over the country had sabotaged the event by reserving thousands of tickets, leaving an enormous swath of empty seats in an arena that was supposed to be packed to the brim (in fact Trump had prepared a second stage that he didn't end up needing). According to Steve Schmidt, in a Tweet, "The teens of America have struck a savage blow against @realDonaldTrump. All across America teens ordered tickets to this event. The fools on the campaign bragged about a million tickets. lol."
My first reaction was, "why didn't I think of this!?" And, as a youth pastor, "what a great youth mission opportunity this would have been!" But I think that's part of the point here. I didn't think of it. We didn't think of it. They did--these prophets among us. All I can think of as I reflect on this is Micah's prophesy.
"Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God."
Under the noses of the thousands of MAGA hats and Trump campaigners in Tulsa, young people all over the country, without any fanfare of their own, had quietly put them to shame. God, as it turns out, is not with those who cry "Peace," but with those who, "with justice and might," declare the transgressions of the comfortable and put their blindness on display.

It may be a bit dramatic and even superficial to compare this Tik Tok sabotage with Micah 3... I'll admit, it might be a stretch... but I am inspired by the passion of these young people and their ingenious--though unconventional--political activism, their courage to stand up to power even while they themselves are marginalized by virtue of their age. "God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (1 Cor 1:27). I am reminded that God is active in the world even while I am tempted toward cynicism, even while I am too defeated to think of an idea like this myself, there are still prophets among us and they are not who we might expect them to be.
"But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin."

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Whose Christianity is Really Christianity?

When we talk about Christianity, whose Christianity are we talking about? Is Christianity Donald Trump's, as he waves his (sorry, not his) Bible around in front of a church building he’s never attended? Or is Christianity with the demonstrators who hunger and thirst for justice, washing tear gas out their eyes?

Much has already been said about President Donald Trump’s controversial photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House. I don’t want to go over the details here, many other articles have covered them. But, needless to say, I was as disturbed and frustrated as anyone else by Trump’s manipulative use of religion, namely my own religion, Christianity, as a prop to bolster his divisive and destructive political position. For him to stroll across Lafayette Square and hold that Bible he’d likely never held before, containing words with which he’s likely unfamiliar, in order to implicate the church in his stance against black lives and against social change for justice (remember that all of this is happening at a peak of what may be considered the largest and most diverse civil rights movement in American history)--just that, in itself, would have been enough to frustrate most of the people who actually do read what’s in that prop he was waving. But add the fact that, in order to execute this dubious political stunt, his police used tear gas and rubber bullets to forcefully clear peaceful demonstrators including the clergy from the very church that was to be his backdrop, off of Lafayette Square, and now we’re in new territory.

Many Presidents have used Christianity as a tool for accomplishing some pretty terrible things. George W. Bush was among the worst offenders. But there was some tact and subtlety (in 2006, I would not have believed you if you’d told me that someone would be less subtle in their manipulation of the church than Bush) to these efforts. These Presidents at least pretended to be prayerful people themselves. These Presidents, in fact, spent time worshiping (even just a little) at St. John’s Episcopal Church. This is how it got its nickname, church of the Presidents. And these Presidents never once tear gassed the clergy to use the church as a prop. And to this day, Trump has never set foot inside the church of the Presidents.

By all of this, a question is raised. What is Christianity anyway? More precisely, perhaps, whose Christianity is really Christianity? This question comes up all the time, but it seems to have come up uniquely over the past 5 years or so. I remember asking how the values of George Bush and Barack Obama can be so different and yet both of them claim the same faith. I remember wondering about this in 2015 and 2016 as I watched people who I think to be Christians offer enthusiastic support for a man who I found to be so offensive to Christianity in so many ways (and I’m not just talking about his crude and offensive speech, but his substantive xenophobic policy platform as well). The question has only grown larger over these years, but in that moment and with that image, now seared into my memory, of Trump holding someone else’s bible in front of someone else’s church, I think we’ve reached a symbolically climactic moment for this question.

While Trump was awkwardly holding a bible for the camera, Rev. Gini Gerbasi, the Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, was busy washing tear gas from her hair--the very tear gas that was used to clear her and other demonstrators from the porch of the church she serves. In an interview with Phil Picardi, Rev. Gerbasi tells us that there was nothing strange about the demonstrations that day. They were exceptionally peaceful ("quiet," even), as they often are. As a member of the clergy of that church, she knew the drill. Demonstrations are often held in Lafayette Square and during those demonstrations, St. John’s porch is often used as a respite, a place where clergy are present and where water is handed out and people can find safety. She was joined that day by lots of other clergy from the area, but as the day drew on most of her colleagues had gone home. Later in the day, as Rev. Gerbasi was joining the demonstrators and providing a presence of faith in the protests, things started to change. The otherwise relatively quiet protesters began to shuffle around and she began to hear yelling followed by what sounded like gunshots. She began to see people running. Then people with swollen faces emerged from the crowd, running to her church’s porch, this time not for a water bottle but for help. The peaceful protest was transformed into a “war zone.” A little confused, she hurried to rinse tear gas out of people’s eyes and help people who had apparently been shot by rubber bullets. She realized that the gunshots she thought she’d heard were coming from the police and that tear gas had been hurled into the crowd of people who were, ironically, there to demonstrate against police violence (especially violence against black bodies). As the crowds dispersed and as she finished washing chemicals off of people’s faces, she fled her church and hurried home to wash herself off and to rinse the chemicals out of her hair. She would later discover what turned a call for justice into a war zone--a photo-op for the President.

So which Christianity is the right one? Trump’s or Gerbasi’s? You must already know where I will come out on this, but consider the question, because how we answer it is as important as the conclusion we draw.

We know there is something wrong with Trump’s version of Christianity. We at least know that there is a huge difference between Trump’s Christianity and the Christianity of Rev. Gini Gerbasi. Christianity can’t really be both, can it? In a certain sense, we must admit that Christianity is, in fact, both of these expressions. Trump’s Christianity, though it may look nothing like Christ, belongs to the history of Christianity and, as Hunter Bragg helpfully suggests, “Christianity is no more than what it has been historically.” Bragg goes on to say, “Christians must own up to the reality of what Christianity has been. Trump’s photo-op lays this bare for us.” It’s not going to be as easy as just saying, "well, that’s not my Christianity." Like saying #notmypresident, it may be true on some level, but distancing ourselves from the truth that Trump is a symptom of a larger and pervasive cultural perversion, and that his Christianity is part of Christianity’s history, might actually make it more difficult to address root causes and to see our own complicity in the crisis.

But, we are not left dangling in the wind. We are not left with only a “both-sides” construction of the Christian faith. True, if all we had to work with was the work of human beings, we’d be left to settle for the confession that Trump’s Christianity is Christianity, even while Gerbasi’s Christianity--and the Christianity of the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators in Lafayette Park--is Christianity too, rendering the term Christianity operationally useless. If our ecclesiology and Christology is only “from below,” then Christianity has no way of truly offering a corrective because it can only confess its sin.

Confession, however, is never the last word. In any church service, confession is usually something that happens early in the liturgy. We confess that we are sinners, that our history is indeed ours, and that we stand guilty, shamed, and broken before God. This is part of our worship precisely because we believe that we are, at some level, our histories. But confession is never the last word. Guilt and brokenness and shame are never final. After confession comes assurance and pardon. In our church services at First United Methodist Church of Toms River, we never say “amen” after our prayer of confession, we always wait for the assurance of pardon, which goes something like this: “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” THEN we say “Amen.”

Confession does not only stand against the backdrop of chronological history, it stand even more decisively before the backdrop of Christ’s history, which includes Christ’s future and the proleptic promise of resurrection. An ecclesiology from below always stands next to a Christology which is both from below and “from above.” These stained glass terms simply mean that when we talk about Christianity and its history, we are talking about Jesus Christ and his history. Bragg is right, “Christianity is no more than what it has been historically,” but this history of which we speak is Christ’s before ever it is our own. Resurrection is historical but it also determines history (see Moltmann, Theology of Hope).

As James H. Cone put it, “There can be no Christian theology which does not have Jesus Christ as its point of departure” (A Black Theology of Liberation, 24). When it comes to discerning Christianity, we are not left to our own devices. “If God is not involved in human history, then all theology is useless, and Christianity itself is a mockery, a hollow, meaningless diversion” (26). While human action leads us down a path of confession, the path to “pardon” and to liberation is discovered through God’s action. And while human action confesses that Trump’s Christianity is Christianity, God’s action proclaims release to the captives (Luke 4:18). God's action is kerygmatic and liberating (see Cone, 20), and insofar as God’s action is liberating action, it provides the decisive backdrop for discerning what side Christianity must take. According to Cone, “Either God is for black people in their fight for liberation and against white oppressors, or he is not. He cannot be both for us and for white oppressors at the same time” (27). As Karl Barth put it, "God always places himself unconditionally and passionately on the side of the poorest and only on that side: against the proud, always in favor of the humble, against those who possess and defend their rights, and on the side of those to whom those rights are denied."

So even while we confess that Trump’s Christianity is Christianity, we are assured--by the God whose actions in history are the fundamental determination of the church, its discipleship, and thus Christianity itself--that Christianity’s history is the history of Jesus Christ. Christianity is not really in the image of waving bibles as props of political power and manipulation, but in the image of people crying out for justice and washing tear gas from their face. Christianity is necessarily and decisively on the side of the oppressed, and not the powerful, precisely because Christ is on the side of the oppressed. Indeed, Christ--who was actually and historically tortured and crucified by the powers and principalities of the age--is the one who bids us to follow him and no one else. Christianity, therefore, belongs not to both sides, or to some abstract concept of the “essence of Christianity” that stands outside of history, but to Christ who is both in history and also determines history.

Because Christianity is not ours but Christ’s, we can speak boldly and with conviction that it is Christianity’s position that Black Lives Matter, not merely because of a set of ethical or theological norms but because the history of black lives is the history of the crucified, risen, and reining Lord, Jesus. Christianity isn’t Trump’s, and it isn’t really even Gerbasi’s, it’s Christ’s.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

'Joy: A Guide For Youth Ministry' Available Now

Joy: A Guide For Youth Ministry is the product of years of work and collective decades (upon decades) of youth ministry experience from some amazing youth workers and theologians including Kenda Creasy Dean, Andrew Root, James K. A. Smith, and Miroslav Volf. I am proud to have helped contribute a chapter to an anthology of contributions from some of the greatest minds in youth ministry today. It's humbling to have had a small part in such an important project. Check out the book.

"Published in partnership with Yale Universtiy, this book points to a Christian faith grounded in a consequential way of life, including substantive moral virtues and a sacramental vision in which all of life participates with God.This "who's who in youth ministry" focuses on practices that enhance joy by pointing to the contingency of human life and our participation with God's redemption work for all creation. At root, a Christian life is ordered by worship and practices that recognize, celebrate, and respond in joy in light of humanity's contingency and God's gratuitous liberation of all creation."

Contributors: Steven Argue, Kyle David Bennett, Kenda Creasy Dean, Michal Beth Dinkler, Amanda Hontz Drury, Fred P. Edie, Wesley W. Ellis, Sarah F. Farmer, Nyle Fort, Christian Gonzalez, Pamela Ebstyne King, Alaina Kleinbeck, John Leedy, Stephanie Paulsell, Andrew Root, James K. A. Smith, Miroslav Volf, David F. White, Anne E. Streaty Wimberly, Almeda M. Wright, Vanessa Zoltan

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

FormationCast Podcast: "Ministry and Friendship In the Age of Covid-19"

I was recently on a new Podcast, The FormationCast, hosted by Andrew Esqueda. In this interview, Andrew asked me to reflect on my own spiritual formation. He also got me talking about some of the research I've been working on for my Ph.D. as well as my work on friendship in the book Delighted. This conversation happened about a month or so into the Covid-19 pandemic, so much of our conversation sort of hovers in that space. I hope you'll enjoy listening.  Check out The FormationCast, and listen to the episode.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Embodying Youth Available in Digital

I am pleased to announce that Embodying Youth: Exploring Youth Ministry and Disability (Routledge, 2020) is now available on Kindle or as a VitalSource e-book.  This is exciting news because it makes this great research by youth workers and theologians, exploring the intersection of youth ministry and disability theology, much more affordable and accessible.

 What is youth ministry? And who is it for? Christian youth workers and ministers in the West have been answering these questions either implicitly or explicitly for decades. The ways we answer these questions, and the ways in which we go about answering them, have huge implications with regards to the faithfulness and effectiveness of the church’s ministry with young people. These questions have not always been pursued with the experience of disability in mind. In fact, it is often excluded, not only from the academic field but from the church’s practice of youth ministry as well.

In this book, scholars and youth workers seek to attend to the questions of youth ministry by putting the experience of disability at the forefront, with hope not only that the church might include young people with disabilities, but also that our very understanding of what youth ministry is, and who youth ministry is for might be transformed, for the sake of the gospel. This book was originally published as a special issue of the Journal of Disability & Religion.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Meet This Book: Delighted

The following article was originally published on EerdWord on April 27, 2020. (Find the full article here)
There are a lot of books about what we do in youth ministry, and Delighted: What Teenagers Are Teaching The Church About Joy is about that too. But first, it is a book about what God does in youth ministry.  
When Kenda Dean, commissioned by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture as part of their “Joy and the Good Life” project, recruited our small team of youth workers to write this book, it was with the intention of understanding joy and its place in youth ministry. We wanted to understand where joy lives in the core elements of young people’s experience, in their need and desire for fidelity, transcendence, and intimacy. We wanted to know how youth ministry could cultivate joy in young people’s lives and how we could create the conditions for young people to find and experience joy. What we learned, however, from our collective experience in youth ministry and in our reading the pulse of the young people we serve, is that we were signing on for an impossible task. [READ ON...]