Mockingjay Song

**Please note that this post contains SPOILERS for both the book and upcoming film Mockingjay, Part I.**

MV5BMTcxNDI2NDAzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM3MTc2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Mockingjay, Part I premieres tomorrow in theaters around the country.  As it does, I aim to continue a set of posts that I’ve written with the release of each of the films.  (Only one entry this year, however.)

The popularity and themes of the Hunger Games series have made it a particularly useful conversation piece.  Over the past two years I’ve taken the opportunity to use the films/books to write about theology, adolescent culture, and youth ministry.

As the story of Katniss and her struggles begins to wind to a close with this film, many of the motifs of the first two installments continue: the co-option of her agency by a dysfunctional adult world, a world structure built mostly upon violence, the use of artifice and/or deception as a means to survival, etc.  As I’ve argued before, Katniss’ story mirrors the perceived journey of many adolescents.  While our students are not forced to fight to the death against their will in a vicious set of games, their lives can feel that way sometimes.MockingjayCover

There are no games in Mockingjay, however.  Now things have become real.  At the end of Catching Fire Katniss is whisked away from the playing arena and enters into a larger struggle.  Her adolescence, we might say, is over.  The adult world now beckons.  Heady stuff for a young person looking forward to putting the nonsense of youth behind her.

And yet, the more time she spends in District 13, the more she realizes that the broken system that led to the Hunger Games and the societal mechanism’s that co-opted her youth persist.  As the symbolic leader of the rebellion against the Capitol she is forced to become “The Mockingjay.”  She has little choice in the matter.  Her young adulthood, therefore, is just as trapped in this broken place as was her adolescence.

Being forced to play a role in a world that seems to know only one way forward is not unique to Katniss Everdeen, however.  It is a reality felt by many young people as they strain at the B0t35sTIUAMBW3G.jpg largetension between their dreams and hopes and the strictures placed upon them by outside forces.  It can be a difficult place to live.

And yet: as much as the Hunger Games saga is about the ways in which young people are forced to fight for a broken system, it is also about how that system can be changed or subverted.

Katniss Everdeen is never just a passive participant in the brokenness around her.  Rather, she is always thinking about how her actions in the midst of it might work to change things for the better.  These efforts at subversion and resistance to the prevailing status quo are tested in Mockingjay, and I look forward to seeing how the two films based upon the book will address these issues.

 

Questions About Student Missions Trips (Part II)

pbauteeback_147104aYesterday I shared some of my concerns about student missions.  Over the last 24 hours I’ve received some thoughtful feedback and considered more deeply how we might rethink the way youth ministers work with students in this area.

As a clarification, let me say this: my critiques yesterday were neither a rejection of missions as a concept nor the work and efforts of missionaries on the ground.  Instead, my words were offered as a potential corrective to certain practices or thoughts about missions here in the United States.  A caution to youth pastors, if you will.  After all, missionaries by and large are aware of the dangers and realities of cross-cultural ministry.  They understand the principle of indigeneity and the empowerment of national believers.  Telling them about some of the risks of youth missions is like preaching to the choir.

We youth pastors, though, can have all sorts of heroic, idealistic, and impractical ideas of what missions is about.  Or, at the very least, we might let erroneous ideas persist in the minds of our students.  Such things can lead to the problems I shared yesterday.  My questions, therefore, are meant to lead American youth ministries to reconsider the way they do mission trips.world map

Here, then, are four thoughts to point things forward:

Proposition 1: Providing a Frame.  In order to avoid the problem(s) of cultural insensitivity or unhelpful ideas about the purpose and aims of a missions trip, it makes sense for youth pastors to prepare their teams effectively.  This means more than just learning skits, developing your testimony, or learning how to do basic construction.  It rather involves focused discussion of what the intercultural missions experience is about, what the aims are, and what one hopes to do/learn.

Particular emphasis should be given to learning about the culture to which the team is traveling and discussing how such encounters with the global church are so powerful.  The emphasis needs to move from, in other words, “we are going to help those poor helpless people” to “we are going to join together with the Church in this place for the Kingdom of God.”

Two resources that might be helpful in this preparation process are Deep Justice Journeys and Serving With Eyes Wide Open.  By utilizing such a training process, students will hopefully have a better sense of the mission in which they are engaging, why they are really doing it, and what God might do in them and others through it.

serving_with_eyes_wide_open_coverProposition 2: Fencing the Table.  While I know that a number of students sacrifice in order to go on a student missions trip, I also know that the problem of “repeat customers” can run the risk of making it more about the trip than the mission.  Christian tourism is something I want to avoid.  As such, I’d encourage youth pastors to think about limiting the number of times a student can go on a missions trip during their high school years (maybe even letting them go only once).

At the same time, I’d like to make it easier for every student to be able to go at least once.  I believe strongly in the place of intercultural experiences and the opportunity for students to see God at work beyond their normal existence.  As a missionary friend of mine said, it is on these kinds of missions journeys that God can powerfully impact students’ lives and outlook.

Perhaps the answer, then, is providing a way for trips to be cheaper for first-timers and/or making the application process a bit more difficult for those who’d like to go a second or third time.  I realize there are exceptions to every rule, but in order to keep the focus where it needs to be this might be helpful.

Proposition 3: The Consistent Locale:  In some circles, the missions trip “flavor of the year” only increases the risk of the tourism idea taking effect.  Though God can and does use the one-and-done weeklong efforts of groups that change locations every year, I’m increasingly interested in the church partnership model of missions.  This is where an American church–the whole congregation, not just the youth–partners with a local church community and/or missionary team in another culture for the long term.  Missions efforts and trips are therefore about joining together in numerous ways.Hands_In_400-253x162

By not scattering missions efforts across the globe, real connections are formed and growing community and mutual dialogue can take place.  Both sides in the equation can learn more about what God is doing and understand more of the mission of God.  I know that some churches are already living this type of model, and I applaud them for it.  It both provides opportunity for more sustained work and change, and also helps us think of missions in terms of partnership for the Kingdom rather than a top-down type of aid effort.

Proposition 4: The Reverse Missions Trip.  This is my most “outside the box” idea, but I think it has potential.  As I’ve said, so often missions trips paint us (often white) Americans as the heroes and those (often non-white) to whom we travel as those who need to be recipients of our help.  The mission, in other words, only flows in one way.  While this is the situation in a number of cases, I know as well that there is much that Christians around the globe have to offer us.  More, I think, than we might realize.

tile_6x3_140212_PH_0006Why not try this, then: instead of raising money so that we can go there, what if we gathered resources that allowed people from another culture to travel to our hometowns?  Especially if their background intersected with immigrant groups in our communities, they could help our churches with evangelism, outreach, and service to demographics that we might have great difficulty connecting with otherwise.  So too our visitors could teach us more about their lives of faith even as they learn about the way our churches serve God in our daily lives.  They could partner with us in efforts in our communities, and we together would embrace the idea that we’re on mission with God no matter where we are.  Such a trip would be especially powerful if done in conjunction with the idea of a consistent locale.

Obviously, these four brief ideas aren’t complete, and they don’t answer all of my concerns or others you might have.  They are, however, a start.  As with yesterday’s post, I welcome your responses and thoughts as I continue to reflect on how American churches and youth ministries might best engage in missions.

Questions about Student Missions Trips (Part I)

mission-tripMy time as a professor of youth ministries has allowed me a significant amount of space for reflection that was not often available during the busyness of full-time church ministry.  During a conversation over the weekend, I was reminded of one of the topics I’ve been considering over the past few years: missions.

The high school foreign missions trip has tended to be a staple of the youth group experience over the past few decades.  So many of our students have been able to expand the vision of their world, travel to a new place, serve the needs of missionaries and nationals, and leave transformed by the encounters and spiritual experiences they have had.  It is no wonder such trips persist.

I myself am no stranger to missions.  My grandparents served as missionaries for over a decade.  I was 14 during my missions trip, and have been on five since.  As a leader in the Assemblies of God in New Jersey, I helped coordinate and lead missions efforts for our district youth department.  My denomination has historically embraced the call to share the gospel around the world, and I am “on board” with their continuing efforts.  My wife and I support a missionary couple who are serving in Latin America.

And yet: as I have been thinking about the way we do missions with youth, I’m worried.  Some of it has to do with post-colonial questions.  Some of it has to do with finances.  Still more has to do with what Andy Root has referred to as “the mission trip as global tourism.”  And then, of course, I’m worried that in some sense the missions trip may be perpetuating a lie or–even worse–a somewhat concerning truth.5-Reasons-Every-Teen.2

I’ll ask some questions today, and invite responses.  Some of these queries are born from reflection and others from experience.  They are not representative of every missions trip, but they do point to some structural issues that I think we ought to address as they appear.  No doubt there will be disagreement, and that’s OK.  I welcome discussion on the topic.  Tomorrow I’ll share some of my thoughts about what we might do moving forward.  I still believe in missions, in other words.  I just want to make sure the way it all works at the youth ministry level represents our best and most faithful efforts.  Most of my concerns, then, are not with missions itself, but rather the way we might think about and enact it.

Problem #1: The White Man’s Burden and the World Church.  There was a time, in ages past, when nearly the entirety of the non-Western world was non-Christian.  There was little Christian presence in certain areas and the name of Jesus was a foreign one.  In many ways, these days are gone.  While there are places on our globe that are significantly un-Christian (think, for instance, parts of the Middle East), there are fewer and fewer places around the world that have no Christian presence.  Christians impelled by God’s Spirit the world over have helped make this a reality.

But here’s the thing: as Christianity becomes more and more indigenized, it makes less sense to keep relying solely on the (often white) missionary for evangelistic work.  Instead, their efforts of the Church should be to empower the (mostly non-white) indigenous believers to minister in their own context.  This is an axiom in most missionary circles.  Yet the way missions is presented at the youth ministry level can perpetuate the old and somewhat discredited idea that “we” are going to help “those people” (whether spiritually or with regard to infrastructure, education, etc.).   Ouruganda2 efforts at missions can therefore oversell what we do at the expense of what God is already doing.  I believe in a Church that exists all over the world and a Spirit who works in all believers.  Surely, then, the mission of God is not a one-way street?

Problem #2: The Inequities of Money and Missions.  While there are missions trips of all shapes and sizes, the “sexiest” among them tend to be the international ones.  This often means airplanes and accommodations, and this translates into money.  Depending on the locale of the trip, this can mean a lot of money.  When we’re asking for potentially multiple thousands of dollars from students, churches, and families in order to take part in projects like this, are we comfortable with the price tag?  In other words: is our money best spent this way?  These are good questions.

To be sure, the presence of American teens ready and willing to help missionaries and nationals on the ground can be a big “shot in the arm” for their efforts there and provide an effective albeit temporary means of assistance.  I wonder, though, whether the cost(s) associated with such help aren’t sometimes just too high.  Further, if getting together the money for such trips might exclude certain students or families for socio-economic reasons, are we not creating some kind of missions/spiritual hierarchy by doing so?

Problem #3:  Missions and Tourism.  In many ways this problem flows from the previous one.  In my time as state missions trip leader, I would be asked “where are we going next year, Pastor Josh?” An innocent and excited question, surely, but one which speaks to the larger implications of missions as tourist adventure.  After all, every missions trip tended to involve a fun shopping/tourist/relaxation day for our students.  youth group mission trip 2010-7

Students who can afford to go on missions trips year after year can and do.  They’re engaging in service, surely, but they can also be buying into a kind of mentality that values experience and excitement above all else (not to mention the fact that the “repeat customer” phenomena favors those with more money).  This is dangerous.

Problem #4: The Mission Trip as Either Fib or Fancy  I wonder whether the way we sometimes sell missions to adolescents isn’t a bit deceptive.  And even when we’re being honest, I not sure the reasons we provide should justify all we do.  First, the fib.  In some circles, missions is promoted to students as them “making a real difference” in the world by means of evangelism and relief.  They’re going over there to rescue/save/etc.  And to be sure, a work project they’re involved in can help others.  A soul that accepts the gospel as presented by a team of students makes a difference.  These are realities.  But: students are only there a week or two.  In the grand scheme of things they’re not making a monumental difference.  The resources and time they are spending to go overseas might be just as well utilized making a difference in their backyards.  The real work of missions is done by those–nationals and outsiders alike–who are continually on the ground.

The fib, of course is recognized by many youth pastors, who instead own up to the main reason we take students on these trips: for the transformative experience it has on their lives.  Broadening their horizons, having them encounter other cultures, engaging them in spiritual work and reflection; all of these are part and parcel of the missions trip experience.  Students’ lives are changed on these trips, callings are day-2-guat-jkr-1discerned, and God’s voice is truly heard.  I rejoice in this.  But only a few get to experience it.  And it costs a lot of money to do so.  Further, using such trips for the effect they have on students’ lives–the ends, in other words–deeply devalues the people, lives, and situations around the world that constitute the means by which we achieve these goals.  Stated bluntly, if missions trips are about changing our students’ lives we are just using those to whom we ostensibly are going to serve.  And this seems problematic.

So there you have it.  Some thoughts and questions.  I’ve admittedly taken a rather dim view of a certain approach to missions here, and I realize that there are good responses to each of the concerns I’ve raised.  Even so, I think that if we’re not willing to consider the dangers inherent the way(s) that we can think about the student missions trip, we could be causing some real problems.

I believe in students.  I believe in missionaries.  I believe in the work of the Holy Spirit and the mission of God all around the world.  It is because of these things that I ask questions, and ask how we might improve.

I look forward to your comments and thoughts.

Matthew 12

“Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”

-Matthew 12:49-50

families-1This is, admittedly, a familiar passage.  Jesus reminds his disciples (and us too) that being a part of the family of God is not something limited to blood relations.  To be with God means to be with God: following and living in the ways to which God calls us.  This new life is not easy, yet is as simple as Christ describes it.

In announcing the new rules for what it means to be in the family of God, He is of course telling His hearers that in Christ they are not just family with each other. They are family with Him.  With God.  They share the same lineage and family tree.

Jesus’ disciples try to tie him down to one family on earth, replete with mother and brothers.  That is, of course, too limited.  While certainly a flesh-and-blood member of the family of Mary, Christ’s being is much more.  He is the Son of God.  And, miracle of miracles, as we follow God we are daughters and sons of God too.

The significance of our new familial relationship with Christ is underlined by something he says earlier in this chapter when he describes himself as the “Son of Man.”  In verse 42 he reminds everyone that now “something greater than Solomon is here.”  Greater than the most powerful king in the history of Israel.  Greater than all his fame.  Greater than all his riches.  Greater than all his wisdom.

And yet, even in the midst of all his greatness Christ claims that we who trust in God are his own siblings.  His own family.  All of us children of one God.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

wallAs a 34-year old college professor, there are days when I still feel close in age to my twenty-something students.  Then there are other times when I realize that I am simply…older.  Yesterday was one of those moments.

It is now 25 years and one day since the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.  It is a date symbolic not just for what happened in West and East Germany, but for the changes that it augured and helped initiate.  Not too many years after that fateful November day Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union would be no more.  The Cold War would be over.  The world would be changed.

I was only nine years old when the Wall fell.  I have what may amount to be only vague or inaccurate recollections of that time.  I had not–like my parents–grown up with the Cold War at 80er_mauer_akg_gmy back.  I had little understanding of world politics.  And yet: something great was happening around me.  As the son of a man born not long after his parents emigrated from Germany as refugees in the 1950s, my connections to Germany are strong.  My grandparents, Christian ministers, had returned to their ancestral land in the 1980s and were pastoring in West Germany in 1989.  Within a few years of reunification they relocated to the East to continue ministry there.

The impact of all that was taking place in Germany and the world in those days affected the two generations above me in ways I had no way of knowing at the time.  But I still lived through it.  I remember a bit of that time.  I had lived in an era when Germany was two.  When the Soviet Union was one.  I had lived in a different world…and then I got to live through the days of hope that followed when that world began to shatter.

Few of my college students remember these days.  They can’t.  Most weren’t born yet.  To them the Berlin Wall and Communism in Eastern Europe is as far off as the Nixon impeachment or Kennedy assassination is for me.  They can read about it and hear parents talk about it.  But they weren’t around in the days before and after.  And what days they were.  The fall of Communism in Europe happened with such rapidity and in such an unexpected way that there was a dreamlike sense of shock.  It would be as if Isis, Al Qaeda and others simply ceased to exist by the next presidential leninstatue1election, and the sometimes hostile Arab world suddenly became our allies.  The change was that dramatic.

The end of Communism in Europe and the burgeoning 1990s filled the world with a sense of hope it had not felt in a very long time.  I realize in retrospect that this hope was in many ways a false one and that born on its back was a host of problems…but still: they were optimistic days.  These were formative years for me.  They saw me through junior high, high school, and even into college.  In that decade we felt that despite the problems, our post-Cold War world had changed for the better.  This is the legacy of my generation’s youth.

When I consider my students, however, I am reminded that in addition to having no memory of the Berlin Wall’s fall , they also didn’t experience the immediate years that followed.  The 1990s for them are vague if remembered at all.  Like me, their political and global consciousness wasn’t awakened until the latter part of their childhood.  Much more rudely than mine, however, and with a much darker era to follow.

For while I was privileged to live through times of optimism and hope, my college seniors had a rather different youth.  In the fall of 2001 many of them 9-11 would have turned eight or nine.  On a certain September morning their televisions were filled with images that have defined their lives ever since.  A terrible day followed by years of war and fear.  This is the persistent legacy they’ve been living down through junior high, high school, and now into college.

What a difference indeed.  I mourn that this has been their world, and I pray that the we see 9 Novembers again with increasing frequency even as the 11 Septembers fade from view.

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done: on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Things I Would Like To See (Part XV)

anthonyMore women in Congress.  This is one of the things I’d like to see.  The news broke this Tuesday that there are now 100 women in Congress for the first time ever.  This is up from ZERO in 1916, so that’s definitely some progress.  Even so, it is a far cry from equity.  There are 535 seats in Congress (the House and Senate combined).  100 represents less than 19% of that figure.

Considering that women represent somewhere around 50% of the American population, we as a society will have to elect more than twice as many women to these roles if balance is to be achieved.  Hopefully, we will.  And soon.  Both for fairness and representation’s sake, but also to balance out the rather male-dominated outlook in the halls of national leadership.  The perspectives that women bring can be much different from those of men, and I think it is high time that their wisdom–individual and collective–should find its place as an equal member at the table of Congressional power.

While one woman served in Congress starting in 1917, women have only been allowed (a crazy word to use which, while accurate, is still astounding) to vote in national elections since 1920.  It is now nearly 100 years later and we still haven’t come close to equal representation in Congress.  Times are changing, though–and quickly.  I just hope and trust it won’t take another 100 years to get to where we should be.

At least 267 women in Congress.  That’s one of the things I’d like to see in my lifetime.

Areopagitical Lessons

Mars hil basic for webThe “takeaways” from Mars Hill are as many as the situation is sad.  Today, two thoughts related to its unfortunate demise.

The first has to do with structure.  From what I understand, Mars Hill was–like a number of up-and-coming churches–an exemplar of the video-based multi-site model.  What this means is that while each “site” around the city of Seattle and elsewhere had their own meeting place and pastor, they were all a part of the same larger church.  For a number of services each month, Mark Driscoll (or someone else) would preach the sermon through a videolink.  No matter where the parishioners were, they would be getting the same message.  Other weeks, I assume, the local site pastor might speak or preach.

The basic logic of the multi-site model is that if the central church has a healthy system, it makes sense to expand that system through the launching of a new location.  Rather than simply plant a church and set it free to fail, the mother congregation offers oversight and shares its resources to help the new site succeed.  Such as it is, this is not a bad model. In my church, for instance, a pastoral teaching team plans sermons together and shares the same message at each of our two sites via a live in-person speaker.  Though we’re only a month into this preaching system, I think it makes sense.  If implemented another way, however, there is danger.  102013_multisite_graphic

For Mars Hill, the multi-site approach meant (among other things) benefiting from Mark’s preaching and teaching skills by adding a vide0-based component.  The problem with such a model is that it can centralize focus upon one person.  If that main person is a celebrity and/or head and shoulders above the rest, it can begin to make the church rather single-minded.  For as long as that person is there and doing their job right, it is all well and good.  But if things go off the rails in any way, there can be trouble.  At least one of the reasons Mars Hill is now splitting up, I think, is that the system it built can no longer be maintained without the centralizing focus and skill of Mark Driscoll.  In other words, without the central draw, there is no need for a central draw.

The video-based multi-site model can therefore be dangerous, and I think that the collapse of these past few months should make churches who use it pause in their tracks.  Though not every congregation will suffer the scandal of Mars Hill, whenever there is a “main draw” preacher via video there needs to be the realization that there will always come a time when they are not around.  This may not be for years down the road.  It may be within a few weeks.  No matter the case, building a church around one celebrity is a dangerous proposition.

182My second “takeaway” from Mars Hill is both analysis and hope.  Though we do not (and may never) know in exact detail what led to the church’s downfall, it seems fairly clear that bullying from their lead pastor had something to do with it.  Even by itself, this is not good.  When coupled, however, with the hypermasculine rhetoric and approach that Driscoll embodied together with an overtraditionalistic model of male-female hierarchy, it is even more unfortunate.

While I don’t want to be too quick to say that all of these things (bullying, hypermasculine rhetoric, gender ideology) were necessarily connected in a cohesive whole, it seems like they formed a sort of matrix out of which Driscoll operated.  Bad things resulted.  Understand me: I’m not saying this all happened because Driscoll thought wives should be submissive.  I’m simply say that something like this was a piece to a larger puzzle.

When it comes to Driscoll’s project, I have sympathy for what I perceive to be its genesis: the problem of extended adolescence.  I picture him beginning to minister in Seattle in the later 1990s into the 2000s and coming to realize what many societal commentators have discussed: people aren’t “growing up” as fast as they did in generations past.  For the contemporary young person, the adolescence that ended for their parents at age 18 is now extended as far as 30 or beyond.  This is frustrating for many to see.  As Mark Driscoll observed this in the young men to whom he ministered, he not ActLikeMen-Quote-MarkDriscoll1inappropriately called upon them to “step up.”

The advance he sought, however, was not simply one of maturity, but rather wed to his own conception of masculinity combined with a certain reading of the Scripture. This, among other things, involved (my own airquotes) “being a man’s man,” “drinking beer and talking theology,” and “leading the family and church.”  Driscoll of course accepted the idea that women cannot be pastors, and for a number of years  we who support the call of God in our sisters’ lives have had to grapple with him.

Though not causing it, all of these ideas connected to what seems to be Driscoll’s pugnacious nature.  The unfortunate result of this mixing has been in the news now for some time.

Whatever I have suggested above is admittedly conjecture, but I think it has some merit in explaining part of the Mars Hill/Driscoll ideology.  This leads me to my hope: that because some of the same problems that led to Driscoll’s resignation are (at least) thematically linked to such a hyper-masculine ideology, it may fade in influence as a discredited notion.  A kind of “guilt by association,” if you will.  Even though such rhetoric and a failure to support women in ministry was not itself the presenting cause of Driscoll’s problems, that it was connected to them may cause many to rethink their stance on such issues.

A1029-11ATo close, an historical example.  Mere days after JFK was assassinated the new President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed the assembled Congress.  As he stood before the nation and that august body, he said this: “All I have I would have gladly given not to be standing here today.”  Clearly, there are some lessons we’d rather learn and some realities we’d rather achieve by any other means.  So please understand that as I’ve shared some thoughts about celebrity pastors and vide0 sites, I’m not happy about the way this lesson was learned.

So too I don’t dance on Mars Hill’s grave, even though with its burial some of the things I liked least about it may now fade.  Though the takeaways I’ve shared may be helpful, how they came to be does not make them unmitigated goods.  May we remember this as we pray for the Church universal and local.