Youth Ministry Matters

indexI still feel somewhat new to the world of teaching youth ministry, even though this begins my third year in the role.  I’m glad to work with future ministers, but let me tell you: it requires me to be on my toes and keep a lot of things in mind at once.  On top of that, it is nearly always connected to the daily lives of my students, many of whom are serving as ministry volunteers or leaders even as they are enrolled at our university.

This semester I’m teaching a class entitled “Family Ministry Development,” vaguely titled but importantly focused upon the task of curricular goals, planning, and supplementary special events in youth and children’s ministry.  To begin with, I asked students to come to the second day of class with two things in mind: 1) the most effective long-term curricular strategy they’ve ever experience in a youth/children’s ministry setting and 2) the most impactful such ministry event they’ve been a part of.

My initial thought as the group shared was that we could hear of a  wide variety of experiences and methods as well as think about the deeper goals and objectives inherent in such efforts.  The added benefit of getting to know each others’ story and spiritual journey was important as well.

The classroom experience was that and more.  As we sat yesterday and students shared about ministry times with young PMYM-Wordlechildren, camps and missions trips that deeply impacted their lives, not to mention youth group efforts that helped them and others continue on the path of faith, I was inspired.  I even shared a story of my own.

By the end of the conversation, I summed it up like this: all of us have some powerful stories and experiences that brought us to where we are today.  While we understand that all of these developments are, ultimately, the works of God, they are nevertheless things that God allows us to participate in.  What a privilege, honor, and calling to be able to learn how to think about, plan, and execute ministry activities and teaching strategies that may powerfully impact those whose “most effective” ministries and “most impactful” events are yet to come.  Those whose lives will be open for change and redemption.  Who will speak and live forth the love of God in the world.  Who, perhaps a decade or more from now, will sit in these very seats and share stories of their own.

That’s my Friday thought.  Have a great weekend.

Forget the Cherry Tree

220px-Lies_my_teacher_told_meWhen we’re young, we often learn about people who are supposed to be our heroes.  We’re told about their lives, their deeds, and the various ways in which they’ve accomplished their heroic task(s).  It is a mythic time, and we enjoy the fun.

Then of course we get a little older, and we learn in school or college that the supposedly heroic people of history we used to worship were flawed.  Made mistakes.  And, in many cases, we find that the stories we learned about them were either heavily nuanced and simply fabricated.

For the professional historian, this kind of disillusionment can be even more profound.  It is a part of our academic discipline to be suspicious about narrative that are too cute by a half.

This past summer, however, while reading through the volumes of The Oxford History of the United States, I was able to reclaim a classic American hero: George Washington.

Our nation’s first president is so ubiquitous and revered that I had largely ignored him, thinking that no one man could live up to the legends surrounding him.  Visions of cherry trees and truth-telling were a bit too much for me, I thought, and while Washington did help our nation at the start, he was simply a popular symbolic placeholder in the role of our nation’s first President.

While it is true that Washington–at that time and since–was a popular symbol of the American spirit, he was no dimwitted placeholder.  What I’ve learned this summer is that he was a very thoughtful man, carefully inhabiting the office of our nation’s executive branch and realizing that every action he took or decision he made would be creating precedents that would be following over the long course of our nation’s history.george-washington-portrait

While the popular notion that Washington turned down an offer to become “king” seems a bit of a stretch, what is true is that as a popular general in the aftermath of the Revolution he probably could have gotten whatever he wanted.  When elected he could have assume near-royal trappings, could have become President for life, and in general run roughshod over everyone else.  He didn’t.  Purposely.  With thought and care, he realized that the new government was fragile and the Republic uncertain, so he therefore shepherded it well.  For that, I think, he is a real hero.

Washington wasn’t perfect, and towards the end of his administration and his final years of life he was a bit more politically partisan.  Even so, the helpful actions he took in the years after the Revolution and as President to lay down the track upon which the train of state and the course of our nation would follow are something for which all of us ought to be grateful.

This notion of precedent setting and pattern establishing is worth remembering today, not only in politics but in our own lives as well.

The Next Time We Hang Out, Can We Redeem Ourselves?

cyrusUnless you’ve been living under a bit of a rock the past week, you’re aware that MTV’s Video Music Awards were on…and they featured some rather interesting dance antics from singer and former child star Miley Cyrus.  I haven’t seen the video myself, just a few pictures posted here and there on news sites and Facebook.  Suffice it to say that the dancing was overtly sexual, rather provocative, and seen by most people as somewhat tasteless.  Plus, it introduced me to a whole new word: “twerking.”  (Maybe don’t Google search that one.)

The episode has caused no small amount of handwringing amongst members of the media, Facebook peers, and the general public.  Issues ranging from the dancing’s overt sexual content, criticism of both Cyrus and her dance partner Robin Thicke, and questions about our culture’s objectification of women have been raised over the past few days, making this single event a touchstone for a lot of societal reflection.

At least some of the dismay at Miley’s performance has to do with the fact that most of America first got to know her (not s-inn-g-p2-3-3002too long ago, mind you) as a child star on the television show Hannah Montana.  To see her go from such perceived innocence to…whatever that was the other night, is traumatic, to say the least.  Further, it must deeply concerns those parents of adolescent girls who fear that this is a harbinger of this generation’s potentially devastating abandon of propriety, dignity, and morality.

While the events of these VMAs were, like most years, rather extreme, this question of a loss of innocence on the part of Miley Cyrus is interesting.  For those parents who look at what took place, shudder for her, and run to protect their children from such a loss, I understand.  I think few parents want their children to do that.  I too mourn for the fact that Cyrus and any part of our culture felt that this was OK, desirable, or wise.

But at a deeper level, consider this: growing up has always meant a sort of loss of innocence.  Our fallen world allows no other way.  To be blissfully innocent into adulthood about the messiness of our shared human culture is naiveté, not virtue.  We all, in other words, have lost our innocence as we’ve grown up.  It is not good, but it has happened to every person since that day in the Garden.  To try to protect children from this is quixotic at best.

While our shared and individual loss of innocence (and hopefully those of our children) have likely not been as extreme as that of Miley Cyrus, her life might be seen as a signpost of our own.  We don’t stay stuck in the childhood world of Hannah overprotectiveMontana forever.  We can’t.  For most of us the loss is not as public as hers, but for all of us it is no less fraught with tragedy.  As the poet would say, our songs of innocence inevitably fade to songs of experience, in the process wounding us yet, hopefully, making us wiser about the way this world works.

Thinking theologically for a moment, it would seem to me that Jesus did not come to protect us in innocence or, as we might sometimes prefer it, ignorance.  It is far too late and we have far too much free will for all that.  We are not an innocent people.  What Christ came to do was redeem us in the midst of our post-innocent lives.  Save us from our sinful selves and transform a degraded world.  As parents and in youth ministry and church settings, if our goal for young people is simply to preserve the innocence of children forever, we are, I fear barking up a very wrong tree.

Trying to stop our children from dancing half-naked on national television?  Well, that’s another story…

War and Consequences

wilsonI’m going to offer a few thoughts on foreign policy today, which ensures that A) there will no doubt be a number of facets of the situation that I’ve failed to consider, and B) because of this and for other reasons, number of you will disagree with me.  Nevertheless, here I go.

This past summer I’ve been making it my personal discipline to read through each of the seven published volumes of the Oxford History of the United States.  I’m almost finished, and let me tell you: it has been an enjoyable and enlightening journey.  Written as narratives by master historians, they are well worth digging into.  I’ll no doubt be reflecting on a lot of their content here.

The monographs cover a lot of material, including the various wars in which America has been engaged.  With regard to the 20th century, questions of war, realism, morality, and idealism rise to the fore both implicitly and explicitly.  There is some question, for instance, as to whether or not Woodrow Wilson’s wartime ideology about “making the world safe for democracy” was helpful or successful.  Whether moralism in foreign policy helps or hurts.  Wouldn’t, after all, more of a sober Realpolitik make more sense?  So too Vietnam, a war entered into because of national pride and international political maneuvering.  And we all know how that one ended.

At the same time, however, there are clear questions about America’s tendency to react against “the last war,” pushing us to severe isolationism following World War I and leaving a very bad taste in our mouths after our long Vietnamese misadventure.war

Which brings us, of course, to Syria.  There is strong evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons in their country’s civil war.  The administration is talking about options.  Morality and decency would seem to cry out that something be done.  And yet.  Iraq and Afghanistan weigh on our minds.  A distaste for intervention and “the last war” hangs heavy over us like a shroud.  A recent poll, quite unbelievably, asserts that only 9% of Americans support military action in Syria.  Less than 1 in 10 of us want to take quick and decisive action to intervene with force.

I realize that getting involved in Syria would be messy.  That it might involve loss of life.  That it might cause other unintended problems.  But what are we supposed to do?  Dither more while people die?  Grant tacit permission for literal and obvious “weapons of mass destruction” to be used with impunity?  Or do we do something, and quickly?

rwandaFor those who hesitate, I’d encourage a view towards history.  As much as it can at times make us shrink from international engagement, so too it can help us reflect on what is at stake here.  Every situation is different, but consider: who among us would if given the chance not intervene in 1930s Germany to avert the Holocaust?  In Rwanda to stop the “ethnic cleansing” there in the 1990s?  Many agree that not getting involved earlier in these places was, to say the least, unfortunate.

I am no military expert, and cannot say how or in what fashion our engagement in Syria will work, but I do have the feeling that it needs to happen.  Diplomacy and other means have had months to progress, and it seems that nothing has happened.  Indeed, things seem to have gotten worse.

I look forward to being corrected on any facts by those who are wiser in military and diplomatic matters than me….but at the end of the day, isn’t entering into a war for a moral reason a legitimate option in this case?  And know this: this is not just a topic for consideration by world’s most powerful nation, but by the entirety of the world community.  This is not just a Syrian or American problem.  This is our crisis.

I welcome your responses.

Another Adventure

tumblr_mh75iieTjY1rt93y0o1_500After over five months of radio silence, the forthcoming semester has drawn me forth once again.

Today is the first day of classes here at Northwest University.  Another year of teaching–and learning–await us all.  This will be my third year as a full-time professor at the school.  I’d like to say I have finally figured it all out and that the semester will be a “breeze,” but that’s not the case.  At least not this year.

Lots of challenges await, and I welcome them.  The challenges of teaching, reading, writing, learning, growing, knowing, and so much more.  Forgiving and being forgiven.  Humbling and being humbled.  Reflecting–sometimes quickly, sometimes deeply on the things that cross my path.

By means of an opening to this new season of reflection, let me relate a scene that played out in my front yard just this pastP1011375.JPG Saturday.  My wife and I were stacking some firewood in the garage, when all of a sudden a very well-dressed pair stopped by to chat with us about their church.  I figured they were members of an LDS (Mormon) congregation, but I wasn’t quite sure after a few minutes.  By the time they were on their way and had left me some of their material, I discovered that they were actually another somewhat heretical offshoot of Christianity: Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Putting aside for the moment the theological differences represented that morning, the episode mostly makes me think about evangelism and what it means to “share your faith.”  Though the Jehovah’s Witnesses and my own co-religionists differ in their beliefs, what they share is a desire to reach into the world and make disciples.

How we go about this task is important, though.

Flash back to the moment in my front yard when they walked over.  I was busy.  I was working.  This was the weekend.  I didn’t want to have this conversation.  My guard went up instantly, and I have at least some fascination with the historical and theological background of religions, cults, and sects.  Imagine how the rest of the neighborhood felt.  Was this really the best way to share their faith?

Though orthodox Christians have a life-changing gospel to offer, many of us don’t do much better.  We can mistake just telling people about Jesus–whether they want to hear it or not–as having best represented Him.  We take pride, at times, when people reject us.  EvangelistGoing door to door, passing out tracts, street preaching….these are time-honored approaches.  But do they make a difference?  They have had, for some, no doubt,  Very positive differences.  But on the whole are they helping?  Do they simply make us feel better about ourselves for having taken some fire and checked a box in the “Christian responsibilities” list or are  they actually what we are called to do?

If we’re just annoying people with our tactics, irrespective of our message, are we really sharing the full gospel?  Is the way we might go about such things antagonistic to those who hear or genuinely genuine?  Because if my guard went up when I saw those erstwhile missionaries that morning, wouldn’t others respond similarly if they saw me walking over with a Bible and a far-too-easy smile?

Understanding that our responsiblity as Christians is to share the love of God in all ways, I wonder what the best approach to doing so really is.  As we all continue to progress to the middle of the 21st century, we ought to take some time to consider this.

I welcome your responses.  Here’s to a new year of reflection!