Things I Would Like To See (Part XIV)

cyoa022A “Choose Your Own Adventure” television show.  Now there’s an idea.

For anyone of a certain generation, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books need no introduction.  These were a series of adventures on a variety of themes which involved reading a few pages, being faced with a decision, and turning to different pages within the book depending on one’s choice.  Each option affected the progression and outcome of the story in interesting ways.  Sometimes you would die.  Sometimes you would discover treasure.  Sometimes you would be abducted by aliens.  It was a truly unique experience.

In a world where television is king, social media is all the rage, and reality shows persist, I think a partially crowd-sourced drama would be fascinating.

There would be logistical details to work out, of course.  For instance, the show could not really pause for input on decisions every few minutes.  Multiple timezones would disalloindexw this and it would require far too many permutations to have been pre-recorded.

More likely would be something akin to a decision point at the end of every episode or two.  Near the end of the week’s presentation, the show would present viewers with a choice of sorts.  We’d have a 24-hour period to vote, and the decision and its effects would be revealed at the start of the next episode.  The story would be altered because of our input.  Showrunners would have to have multiple options sketched out or filmed and/or be willing to move quickly to work on additional material for the next week.  It would be taxing on writers, actors, and production crews alike…but it has potential.

enhanced-buzz-21507-1361290970-1I would imagine the yearly run of episodes for  a show like this should be relatively short.  More like the 9 or 12 episode seasons of today’s top cable dramas.  So too like True Detective or American Horror Story, it might make sense to have a completely new storyline every season.  The benefits of this would be threefold: 1) to keep a viewer-directed story from going too far off the rails; 2) to limit the pressure on those making the show; and 3) to allow for different kinds of stories to be told each season.

All of this is admittedly a gimmicky approach, of course…but so were “Survivor” and “24,”  and they did pretty well for the themselves.

Whether or not such a participatory dramatic experience could be a viable form of entertainment remains to be seen.  But all the same, it is still one of those things I’d like to see.

A New Day

imagesI’ve now lived in the world of ministry for some time.  I’ve held credentials with a major American denomination since 2005.  For the few years before that I served in a local church in an unofficial capacity.  During my adolescence I was active in my own church’s youth ministry.  Though I was not thinking about ministry from a leadership point of view in those earliest days, I was still deeply connected to the work of the church.

All of this to say that I have a relatively long history with the task of ministry, especially as it relates to youth.  In my now 20+ years in the faith, I’ve seen a lot of things and there’s been a lot of change.  Some of this is simply cultural (Michael W. Smith no more, my friends).  But then there are also changes which have been much more substantive in nature.

In the past year or so I’ve discerned one of these shifts, at least out here in the Pacific Northwest.  At both the youth ministry and children’s masthead_imageministry levels, I have heard leaders share with our pastors that ministry is not about “behavior modification” but about a relationship with the living God.  Phrased just so, it is a statement that will definitely preach.

More than that, however, it speaks to a level of reflection and development within the field of ministry practice that I’m just not sure was there in a generation past.  To be sure, few if any were going around in 1995 saying that youth ministry was only about behavior modification.  All the same, I’m not sure how critically any of us were thinking about such issues in the first place.  And besides, one doesn’t have to say something out loud for it to be operationally true.

I think modern youth ministry and children’s ministry have both had to wrestle with the fact that a not insignificant part of their existence has to do with the church’s fear for the next generation.  Keeping kids safe and moral has been a hidden and sometimes overt goal with which we must grapple and ultimately reject as the main goal of our ministries.

the_theological_turn_in_youth_ministry1The recent discussions I’ve heard rejecting behavior modification as a goal are therefore interesting.  They are not happening only at the academic level or in books of practical theology (see, for instance, the work of Andy Root and others), but from pastors to pastors.  It is here, of course, that the real difference can be made.

The relevance and importance of this issue for ministry to rising generations within the Church has been something that I have reflected on as well from an academic platform.  It is a topic in which I believe and, I hope, an issue upon which our churches will continue to reflect.

Notable in all this has been the chance to observe the difference that can be made by those who write, reflect upon, and teach about youth ministry.  So often what we do–while ostensibly in the service of the church–seems a little disconnected from the everyday life of ministry.  To see and hear reflections at the level of pastoral encouragement on some of the same topics I’ve been writing or teaching is exciting.  Not because I made them up (I didn’t) or RHP_4430-low-resbecause I’m that important (I’m not), but because it might just mean that we who do what I now do may be part of making a difference.

As encouraging as it is, this is also a reminder that people who do what I do need to be careful and thoughtful about what we say.  Our words actually matter, and as such I need to make sure that I am being faithful to the Scripture, the Church, and those to whom I am called to serve.  Theological reflection needs to be married to practicality, all of which is to be done in service of the kingdom of God.  May I and others like me continue to remember this as we engage with and teach those who are serving our teenagers day in and day out.

Matthew 10

 “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

-Matthew 10:7

kingdomofgodseries-e1344704455581And so Jesus asks them to go, moving forward into the world in His name.  Healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons.  Something new is afoot, it seems, and the disciples get to be in the forefront.

I like what I see here, this manic picture of the effects of God’s kingdom when it breaks in on the world.  It’s strange.  It isn’t normal.  It is shocking.  But it is God.

As this new reality approaches, things start to get turned around.  The effects of sin, death, and darkness begin to be radically and powerfully reversed.  The ways of the world are suddenly turned back.  For a flickering moment, we get a picture of something radically different.

It doesn’t take more than a moment for me to be reminded how much I yearn for this kingdom to break into my life and our world in a lasting way.  How much I need it.  Yet I’m also reminded how far off it can sometimes seem.

Experiencing such a moment of brightness can cause us to look back on our present darkness with more than a tinge of sadness.  But before we despair, remember: this isn’t the end of the story.  What Jesus describes here is merely what happens when God’s kingdom comes near.

Imagine what will happen when it actually arrives.

Don’t Call It Persecution

christian-persecution-rosary-martyrs-bloodA friend’s Facebook recently alerted me to an article from concerning American Christianity and the concept of persecution.  More specifically, it discussed the seeming inanity of the use of the word “persecution” for anything Americans experience when compared to the dire religious threats and danger are faced by our fellow believers on the world stage.

The main target of the article’s ire was an upcoming study trip/luxury cruise with R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries.  The topic?  “Christ’s call to endure persecution and suffering faithfully.”


The Daily Beast article appropriately excoriates the nonsensical combination of thinking about suffering while sipping pina coladas in sun-bathed excess.  As the author notes in his conclusion, “It’s unclear if this latest seaborne iteration of American Christian navel-gazing makes the attendees oblivious twenty-first century Marie Antoinettes or if this is just one big [expletive] to those non-American, non-white Christians being killed in the Middle East. Either way, it’s in tremendously bad taste.”  iraq-christiansWhile I’m pretty certain the truth lies with the first of these reasons, I agree it is bad no matter what.

The main issue here, of course, isn’t Sproul himself, but any notion that perceived “persecution” of American Christians deserves to be called that in the first place.  And–if you take my meaning–it doesn’t.  Among the sad lessons that ISIS has taught us, one of the most important for American Christians is that we don’t have the first idea what real persecution is.

When the stories of persecution in Iraq broke a few months ago, I hoped that the reality of religious violence against Christians and others would finally put to rest American Christians’ use of the persecution language and orientation.  And I do think that, by and large, there is greater understanding about the inappropriateness of such thinking.  So–the Sproul cruise notwithstanding– I hope that in a certain sense the criticisms The Daily Beast makes are outdated by at least a few months.  Perhaps the recent chain of world events, tragic as they are, has made us begin to own up to our reality and start to care more about those who are really persecuted.  Or maybe not.

atheistThough it is certainly true that Christianity (whether in forms orthodox or largely superficial) no long occupies the same role in American society that it has at points in ages past, this does not mean we are persecuted.  God on our money, “Merry Christmas” on our lips, respect and preference given to churches and ministers?  These things may pass away, but the simple fact of their passing does not persecution make.  Just because Judeo-Christian privilege in our society is beginning to fade does not necessarily mean that we are being attacked.  It might just mean that we are started to be treated without any preference.  After 1800 years of favor in the West, Christianity is entering a new day as secularization is on the march in the centers of cultural power.

For people of faith such developments can be a cause for concern.  But this is not the same as persecution.  Call it something else.  But don’t look Iraqi Christians in the eye and dare call it persecution.

The Daily Beast article notes: ” Rev. Sproul says that “wherever you find God’s people, you will find persecution to some degree,” he may be right, if we take “to some degree” to its absolute extreme.”  I agree.  It can be a little tough for Christians in an America that cares less about traditional Christian morality.  But that toughness does not equate to the endurance of persecution.  And even in those places where 9elements of government or society are legitimately attacking the actions of some religious people or wanting to curtail perceived rights, must we really place this in the same category as the saints of Iraq who are being devastated and murdered by a ruthless regime?  If a minister  is denied a housing allowance benefit, a church has to start paying taxes because they disagree with governmental policy, or a Christian is called an ignorant obscurantist and derided by her culture despisers, is this the same thing as persecution?  Losing rights and privileges is not a good…but living with constant fear of destruction is much, much worse.  I’m not saying American Christians don’t face any challenges.  I’m just saying it isn’t persecution.

Ultimately, the questions engendered by articles like that in The Daily Beast should reveal to us the danger of language defining a reality that isn’t even real.  Our Christianity is in a dangerous state indeed when we gaze inward so much that we make our own plight ppp-4as important as (or, the case with this cruise, more important than?) our brothers and sisters.

We are rich and comfortable here, so sometimes–indeed, most of the time–the first thing we need to do is shut up.  I know that some American Christians are frustrated with hand-wringing over our wealth and position, saying that we just have an overdeveloped guilt complex. OK, fine.  Maybe so.  But something like this cruise, so apparent and flagrant in its excess, calls into question not just this little study tour and its poor, poor choice of topics…but points some big questions at all of us who sit and complain in relative comfort while the world burns.

Who Runs the World?

indexIn just one week, my recent post on the Jennifer Lawrence photo situation has become my most popular  of 2014 and the second most-viewed of all time.  It seemed to strike a nerve.  Lawrence is a star, of course, and the issue has been percolating for a while.  So it makes sense that such reflections might catch fire.

Even so, I think there’s more to it.

Jennifer Lawrence is not merely an actress but a symbol of a rising new kind of female empowerment.  Both widely accessible and confident in identity, this new feminism finds its foundation not at the periphery of pop culture but rather at its center.  Lawrence, then, is just one in a vanguard of voices like Beyonce’s and Taylor Swift’s whose careers and trajectories make them heroes to many women.taylor-swift-money-makers-990

I realize, of course, that these women are pop stars.  That they do not carry deep philosophical or political weight on their shoulder.  That they have no graduate degrees and have authored no lengthy tomes.  But therein, perhaps, lies their widespread appeal and accessibility.

They are a highly visible part of a new generation who have been able to build upon the advances of their mothers before them, stepping forward in confidence even while they advance the cause further.

As I think about the lives of such women, I understand their main influence to be in modeling what an empowered person might look like.  To be sure, there are very few young women out there who will rise to become a top musical act or win an Academy Award.  But the fact that those with such lofty achievements can inspire others onward is vital.  While it is legitimately to be debated whether everything these women do should be imitated, they at the very least provide confident and self-assured options for women to consider.  Wilting submission to older societal conventions and unfortunate silence on important issues need not apply.

b87b8a1ee88366ecc1ceea9487a4fd77I think about the power of such modeling when I consider the young women of the Church.  For while broader society has its Beyonces, Lawrences, and Swifts to look up to, the Church has not done a very good job providing a wide range of options for its women.

To be sure, there have been some notable figures throughout the history of Christianity and–thankfully–we now live in an age when many denominations support and affirm women in ministry.  I laud both of these facts.  But masked behind history and present understanding is the hard truth that there aren’t nearly as many heroes available for Christian women to admire as there ought to be.

Women have not often been allowed–by society or Church–the same kinds of leadership roles as men.  Church historians of the past have focused upon men, sometimes exclusively.  And in today’s world of churches, even denominations (like my own, the Assemblies of God) that support women in ministry have relatively few serving in pastoral roles.  It is one thing to say we support the ordination of women; it is another thing to have their ordination be realized in service to the local church.

The effect of such realities continues the tacit limitations placed upon women within Christianity.  Think about it: if a teenage boy feels called to ministry, he will probably come to understand some of that call through the lens of all the male ministers he knows.  Maybe he’ll feel led to live into his purpose in youth ministry, missions, or church planting.  There are lots of men in those imagesfields for him to imitate.  For the 15-year old girl, however, the picture looks much different.  If she discerns a call to ministry and looks around for models of what that might look like at the pastoral level, all she might see is a room full of men.  Even though all of those men might philosophically agree that women can be ministers, the tacit message we send is somewhat different.

Ministry roles for women in many churches–even those that support the ordination of women–can take the form of ministry spouse, women’s group leader, Sunday School teacher, stay-at-home mother, and the like.  For young girls called to serve, those might be some of the only options deemed worthy of consideration.  Now please: don’t get me wrong.  None of these things is bad.  I affirm anyone called by God to live in these roles.  My point is not to criticize them.

Rather, I’m simply saying that they should not be the only roles open to women.  That when God leah-at-the-pulpitcalls a young woman to full-time ministry she should be able to reflect upon all her options as she discerns which direction that call to ministry might take.  I’m convinced there are probably many women out there that could and should be serving in lead roles in our churches who have not embraced that potential simply because it never even seemed  like an option. This is not just unfortunate; it is tragic.

I’m not going to spend time here debating the idea of women in ministry; as a matter of fact, I grow tired of debating it at all.  As a Pentecostal, Acts 2:17 tells me that the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh; I’ll just leave it at that.  As a seminary graduate and academician, I have studied with and know women who are serving our churches faithfully.  As a professor I teach ministry classes to many gifted, mature, and empowered women.  And, to be honest, I tend to be more impressed with the quality of my female students’ work and personal maturity than I do their male counterparts.

I’m excited for their potential, and I don’t for a second want them to feel limited in their options. (Which, sadly, they do.)  In light of this, questions persist.  Which of their fellow students will actively and vocally support them008_exploring_woman in their call?  Which churches will hire them in visible roles?  Which organizations will e-mail me looking for a candidate, and not specify that they only want a male?

There are great women serving in our churches today, but there are few if any Jennifer Lawrences, Beyonces, or Taylor Swifts out there in terms of ubiquity and influence.  I’m convinced that the generation of women ministers represented by the students in my classes can be such leaders.  We need to help them do so; not just for their sakes, but for the sakes of our daughters and their daughters after them.

There is still a lot of work to do, of course.  But it is work worth doing.  Work that is achievable.  After millennia of male dominance by means of tradition, brute strength, and biology in basically all parts of culture, I will welcome a coming age of women.

Not that 49.6% of the world’s population needs my permission or blessing.


An Historian’s Hope

HistorianWe are now deep in the middle of the college term, which means (among other things) that semester projects ought soon to start taking shape.  This is the case in my “American Religious History” course, where each student has recently submitted a prospectus for an original research paper.

As I was working through each of their proposals, I began to appreciate the varied topics students were interested in discussing.  Because I let them choose whatever they wanted relative to American religion, there are a really wide range of themes to engage this semester. Among their selections are:

  • Buddhism and the Beat poets
  • Indigenous peoples and colonization
  • A. B. Simpson and the Christian Missionary Alliance
  • Mormonism
  • George Whitefield and slavery
  • Swedenborgianism and American culture
  • John Witherspoon and the American Revolution
  • New Age religion and America’s postwar generation
  • Islam in modern America

funI am excited about this diversity.  My hope is that by allowing students to write so broadly, they will be able to connect the main contours of the course to their own passions.  Moreover, the unique research into a number of areas not even covered by our lectures or readings will help them engage in active learning far beyond what I could do by myself.  And lastly, of course, if done well these papers might also represent a learning experience for me.

While I realize that my idealism will likely not be met by reality in all cases, even the steps they have taken in proposing such topics encourages me.  Any opportunity for learners to actively engage with history is a “win,” however small, for me.  May such engagement continue as we move forward.

Matthew 9

But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…”

Matthew 9:6

paralytic-9It is a familiar scene: a paralytic being brought in on a mat.  We know what he is seeking.  What most, if not all, in his situation would seek: physical wholeness.  And yet Jesus chooses not to acknowledge that tacit request at first, instead telling him in verse 2 that his sins are forgiven.  An unexpected initial outcome both for paralytic and reader, but there it is.

Some of Jesus’ opponents took umbrage at such a divine claim to mercy, however.  Blasphemy, they call it in verse 3.  And blasphemy it would be were this not Christ.

Yet rather than extensively debating this point with those arrayed against Him, he offers only a few words before simply upping the ante.  He does something undeniable: he heals the paralytic.  What gets me about this is not so much the healing itself (miraculous as it is), but that Jesus almost seems to do it as an afterthought.  Kind of like: “OK, fine.  I’m not up for debating this today, folks.  How about I just show you?  See.  How about that?”  I paraphrase humorously, but the point is taken.

God in Christ has so much power at His disposal that even things which are completely impossible for us are done by Him without the bat of an eyelash.  His relatively nonchalant healing of this man implies the rich wellspring of God’s authority and might.  Knowing as we do from the rest of the Scripture that this is all tied to the deep love of God for His broken Creation makes it even better.