But What Stays the Same?

(Continued from Monday.)

When I consider the forces that have influenced and continue to affect world Christianity, I am reminded that such developments need not always be negative.  While the dangers of illegitimate religious types-of-theology1combination (i.e. so much mixing or religious syncretism that Christianity adopts practices, outlooks, or beliefs which at heart contradict key aspects of the faith) are real, this is not the only narrative at work.  For inasmuch as Christianity can be derailed from its broadly held orthodoxy it can also be powerfully impacted by cultures, customs, and ideas without losing its path.

Translation is the name of the game here.  As the Church is adapted into other languages, styles, places, and people groups, it by necessity is translated into those contexts in myriad ways.  As Christ is apprehended in such places, He is understood as unchanging Truth by means of new language.  Missionaries have engaged in such work for centuries.  They continue to this day.  Sometimes such work can, far from “polluting” the faith, actually illumine some powerful realities others have forgotten.

And yet: the translation inherent in cross-cultural work brings with it a unique set of challenges.  For while such a process can help newcomers understand what Christianity is all about, the very process of translation almost by necessity changes things.  No two languages or cultures are alike, and different languages have words and nuance that are not replicated in others.  Translation is therefore a “best guess” or approximation of meaning.  Because it is inexact, it leaves, adds, and alters meaning.static1.squarespace.com

Can we accept this?  Well, I submit that we have to.  After all, I’m a beneficiary of such translation (language and culture) as I live out my own Christianity.  I, like you, read the Bible in a language and in a culture drastically different from the world from which it derives.  I’ve studied some Greek and Hebrew, certainly.  But I am far from an expert.  Even then, I do not understand it as a native speaker would in that time and place.  As I read the Bible, my context necessarily alters some of its meaning.  While I trust the divergence is so great that I’m at risk of departing from orthodox Christianity, I would be a fool to deny that my language and culture does not affect my faith.

While most believers’ (myself included) day-to-day interactions with Christianity can be discernibly orthodox, there is always the danger that things could diverge too far.  One of the reasons we need Bible scholars, teachers, and preachers is to help us understand more about the teachings of Scripture–both as connected to the language and culture in which they were written and with regard to their present-day implications.  But even they cannot perform this work perfectly without flaw or limitation.

HolyTrinityWhat I’m talking about here goes beyond culture and language.  I believe that humanity itself–regardless of learning–is simply unable to understand certain divine realities as they actually are.  We are limited and God is infinite.  We are bounded and God is transcendent.

Consider the Trinity–a complex doctrine if there ever was one.  Trying to explain it feels a bit silly at times, always careening between denying distinction in the Godhead, asserting some kind of created Jesus/Holy Spirit, and/or developing a doctrine of three gods.  Because we know from Scripture that God is three in some way while still one, we have developed the idea of the Trinity to explain it.  Does our theology describe exactly how God works?  Almost certainly not.  It is our “best guess”.  I think it is a fair one, but even so is limited.

Translation in language and culture–or at a more basic level from the divine to human–is a part of the tension at work in a faith that is both particular (i.e. Jesus) and universal (evangelistically open to all) at the same time. Such translation can pollute, forcing us to ask real questions about whether or not our perceived faith is close to the heart of God.  Even so, an endless and obsessive search for some Platonic form of Christianity to the detriment of the good and faithful ways it is practiced and embodied the world over is, I think, unfortunate.  Many of these ways are–like our articulation of the Trinity–limited and imperfect, but they are nevertheless representative of our “faith seeking understanding”.  As they remain grounded in Scripture and orthodox tradition and aware of the movement of the Spirit of God in our world, they can be powerful aspects of our shared faith.  light_clouds

Difference can mean heresy, but it need not always.  Sometimes it is just difference.

In the end, Church history helps me by aware of the diversity with Christianity, both in terms of its dangers and potential.  It also reminds me that, from Day One, Christianity has been about translation.  This means I need to be comfortable with it, at least at a certain level.  As missiologist Andrew Walls has written, “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity.  Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation…”

Some Things Do Change

Pelikan BookI’m teaching Church History again this year, and alongside my work in the course I’ve decided to read through Jaroslav Pelikan‘s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.  As I write this morning, I’ve only just begun.

In the initial book of the series, Pelikan discusses early Christianity through the first six centuries AD.  While he does so, he addresses the culture within which much of the young religion arose: the late classical world.  To this end he writes the following:

The victory of orthodox Christian doctrine over classical thought was to some extent a Pyrrhic victory, for the theology that triumphed over Greek philosophy has continued to be shaped ever since by the language and the thought of classical metaphysics (44).

Christian theology as we know it, in other words, was profoundly touched and affected by outside forces fairly early on.  Such a statement might elicit a number of responses.  Some might deny that it is true, assuming that every bit of the Church’s teaching is exactly how the Apostles framed it.  Others, taking a typically modern perspective, might decry such additions and seek to purify the faith by removing them.  Postmoderns by contrast may simply yawn, asserting that since there is no such thing as “true” Christianity and hinton st marythat the faith has always been first defined through the lens of cultural metanarratives, there is no point in trying to discover what the earliest Christians believed.

As a Christian historian, I find myself in the midst of these questions when I consider the early Church.  It would be nice to assert, as per the first position, that Christian theology has always been understood by the Church in the same way.  While I would assert that one can trace a stream of orthodoxy through the centuries, even the most basic read of history reveals that the way the Church has reflected upon the “deposit of faith” has changed over time.

What of the second position?  Well, I am an historian.  I am interested in digging into the past.  The lure of understanding what the earliest believers understood about their faith is there.  I am reading the first volume of Pelikan’s work, after all.  But even so, I’m not ready to jettison all the nuance time and space have given to Christian doctrine and the language we have used to describe it in favor of some nascent and (likely) historically irretrievable arh430-530earlychristianartgenesis.  If it is possible to understand Christian theology completely untouched by the Roman world, we will still be understanding it from only one point of view and–unless new sources are available–likely incomplete and in need of further explication.  Besides, in the process of understanding it from our perspective, we might very well be doing the same kind of culturally-conditioned doctrinal alterations that proponents of this position would decry in the first place.

All of this points towards those holding the third, more relativist position.  Clearly this has its appeal.  Christianity is and has always been shaped by its historical and cultural location: first in the Jewish world, then in the Greco-Roman world, and on and on.  This to me is a largely agreeable line of thought.  But then there’s more.  With so many kinds of Christianities–both in Antiquity and today–it is easy to give in to the belief that it is all subjective.  There is an almost nihilism in the furthest extremes of this position.  If none of it matters ultimately, why does any of it matter?  Is heresy really heresy or just another “version?”  As an orthodox Christian historian, I have a difficult time with some of this thinking.

History as a discipline, aware as it is of the many narratives in which we are involved, still carries with it a certain connection to objectivity.  I often feel this pull as I engage in my work.  There is an actual historical record with which we have to deal, and the investigation of said record reveals both details and insight even as it bounds us.  It Archbishop's_Chapel,_Ravennatells us, I believe, that there are some basic things about Christianity that have persisted from the earliest days. It also reveals how doctrine has developed and changed over time.  To admit what Pelikan does in the quotation above is simply to state a fact.  How we interact with such facts vis-a-vis the three positions I’ve laid out is up to us.

Christianity has been influenced by the world(s) in which it has lived.  That’s a fact.  But it is Christianity that has been influenced.  The Church’s lively debates, factions, reforms, and reframing over time have always been with reference to the core ideas–and Person–around which it is based.  Though articulated very differently, I believe these can still be discernibly Christian.

To Be Continued.

A Small Reform

If youth ministry needs to change as much as I have been discussing, size needs to be mentioned.  To put it simply, we should consider how youth ministry might be smaller.  More personal and face-to-face.  More relationally close.

ym3Thinking about the need for smallness in youth ministry is a theme suggested by Mark Oestreicher in his book Youth Ministry 3.0.  It is further corroborated by youth ministries across the country that have turned to “small groups” to help address needs in the youth ministry.

While small groups that are a part of a larger “big-box” style youth ministry are often the model we have defaulted ourselves to, I’m wondering if that goes far enough.  In some (if not many) cases these small groups are not as central to ministry to adolescents as they could be, instead serving as appendages to a ministry still focused upon the youth pastor et al.  Ministry to teens that is small needs to go beyond the simple “program” of small groups and begin to consider a full-scale revision and rethinking of such efforts that lets go of the need for the big group approach.  Perhaps there don’t need to be any more regular youth group meetings; just small ministry efforts and whole-church gatherings.

Just writing that feels risky.  That’s how I know I’m suggesting change.

All ministers and churches are tempted by matters of size.  Gauging our human level of success by numbers is a far tooyouth-bible-study common occurrence, despite our stated principles.  While growth is a natural development in Christian ministry centered on the good news of Jesus Christ, such change need not happen in an “accumulating towards the center” fashion.  Instead it could mean a proliferation of smaller ministry moments and opportunities within the local congregation that are connected to the unique developmental and pscho-social realities of adolescence.  Like churches that grow to a certain size before planting or opening a separate campus, so too youth ministries, as they engage new individuals, can simply open new doors for engagement on the part of teens and adults alike.

51KkCpkHDIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Where is the youth pastor in all of this?  Well, that’s a good question.  But, considering my comments the other day, perhaps a bit of an anachronistic one.  If we are to consider the option I’ve mentioned today, it implies a new direction for such ministry.  No longer should “small groups” be fit into an existing and traditional youth ministry model.  Instead, the desire to work in focused and face-to-face ways with young people needs to take the lead.  The rest of the things that we’ve come to know and expect?  Well, perhaps we should consider putting them away or adjusting them in favor of trying something new.  It certainly won’t give us the optics of the large group…but it might just develop disciples in a way we can often miss.

Just some thoughts, friends.  I welcome your comments.

Questioning the Youth Church

Youth-1In the third installment in my “Coming Youth Ministry Reformation” series, I’d like briefly touch on the topic of integration. Specifically, how youth ministries and churches alike should not operate as separate entities but as the Body of Christ.

For too long many of our youth groups have functioned somewhat autonomously, drawing resources and staff from the larger congregations of which they are officially a part while having little other connection to the local church.  In this model, budget, curriculum, pastoral leadership, activities, and even vision can tend to be very distinct from the rest of the church.  While there are sometimes moments of “coming together” for youth group and adult congregation over the course of the year, many of these can be superficial and few are lasting.

Youth ministry experts have long referred to this model of ministry as the “one-eared Mickey Mouse” and raised questions about its practice: disconnecting youth from the life of the entire Church, modeling an unbiblical picture of the body of Christ, and eschewing multigenerational opportunities in favor of more peer-based activities.  While the separate one-eared-mickey-mouse1“youth group” setup we’ve developed has risen out of a desire to do some important age-specific ministry, the effects have been that we are potentially limiting opportunities for discipleship and ministry.

The gap between “big church” and “youth group” can be so wide in so many ways that students can have little desire to be a part of the former, whether they are 15 or 25.  Inadvertently, then, we may be sowing the seeds for faith frustration and immaturity in adolescents, all while thinking we’re doing a good job because we have what appears to be a successful youth ministry.

I’m not really saying anything new here.  The problems and danger I’ve mentioned have been known and discussed for some time.  Sadly, I don’t feel that many of our churches have done enough about it.  (I know I didn’t when I was a youth pastor.)  If anything, some have embraced a flawed model even more–at least in terminology.  I have to admit that every time I see the phrase “youth church” to describe a local church’s ministry to adolescents, I have to cringe.  I mean no disrespect to those who have such a name and am not trying to attack any fellow ministry laborers, but I do want tomulti-generational ask a few questions.  Is this representative of how you understand things, with a separate church for teens and adults?  Does this make any sense, biblically or theologically?  Even if you would say that “it is just a name,” doesn’t the phrase itself set the stage for unhelpful and potentially damaging ways of thinking about the Church?

Some, so frustrated with the modern youth ministry enterprise, have decided to forgo all age-segregated ministries in favor of what they call a family-based model.  While I do not endorse their approach because I think there is some importance to life stage ministry, I understand what they are reacting against.  The traditional youth ministry model has created a lot of “one-eared Mickey Mouses.”  The outward success of such ministries has made youth-church-copy-500x200a lot of youth pastors feel satisfied with their work.  But the cost of such developments—to the body of Christ and to the students under our care–may be far more than we realize.

It will be hard for many churches in this persistent model to being to think differently, but they must.  The church belongs together.  “Youth church,” in name and actuality, should fade in favor of a more integrated and body-like pattern.

No More Youth Pastors (Part II)

(Continued from yesterday‘s post.)

6070198_origWhat, then, to do?  That’s a good question.  What will it mean for congregations to think outside the box of the past forty years and consider what makes most sense in their context?  We need to have the courage to make big changes–even ones that might be uncomfortable.  This might mean a less hierarchical structure amongst pastoral staff.  It could involve a complete rejection of the term youth pastor in favor of “family pastor” or “discipleship pastor”: roles that should not be mere name changes, but shifts in thinking and acting.

It is hard to see beyond what we are currently doing. It can even feel wrong to consider not hiring a youth pastor.  I know.  But shouldn’t we countenance different things for the sake of the Church?

Such new approaches could involve churches considering how not just one “professional,” but a team of co-laborers (pastors and laypersons alike) might interact and work with adolescents in the midst of their service to the whole congregation.  Youth ministry would then be of the church, not hired out to one person, as it were, by the church.  Think about it: what if the youth, together with everyone else in the congregation, had the same pastor(s)?  In this scenario, diverse ministers and servants in the church could work with young people, but in a way more integrated with each other, families, and the larger church.f6743e6ce445c443ec25bffe579994df

All of this means that more, not less, people ought to be taking courses and getting training in youth ministry.  Those studying for all kinds of ministry should be able to reflect on what adolescence is about so that they might serve together with the rest of the church. No longer, in other words, ought there just to be one “expert” in the church that does all the ministry with a single group.  While a “point person” or coordinator still makes sense…maybe no more than that is needed.

Build_YouthMinistriesSo, those are my few thoughts today.  Many thanks to the youth pastors out there who even now are faithfully serving in our churches.  This post is not meant to reject the work in which you are engaged, but rather as a challenge for our churches to consider as we minister to those within and without our walls. May the result of changing times not be less ministry to young people, but a deeper awareness of the way ministry, discipleship, and evangelism is a part of the life and work of the whole church.

Today and yesterday’s brief thoughts represent only the beginning of a conversation.  Please feel free to continue the dialogue as you respond and comment.

No More Youth Pastors? (Part I)

eBook___The_youth_pastor_471383682 Last week I announced I was going to spend some time this Fall talking about youth ministry.  More specifically, how I think it needs to change.  Today represents a further effort in that direction.

So: let’s think about youth pastors.  In most Protestant churches of a certain size, there is a person on staff whose job it is to provide spiritual guidance and direction to adolescents.  The title can vary, from “youth pastor,” “youth minister,” “minister to youth, or even “nextgen pastor” and so on.  They have become so common that most congregations accept their role as a given in any hiring strategy.

Youth pastors, of course, have not always existed.  While the church has always ministered to its people–younger ones included–the innovation of having a full-time minister for youth is only around thirty to forty years old.  A relatively short time when one considers the two thousand years of Christian history.

The need for youth ministry in our current state rose out of perceived changes and needs in American youth culture.  The Church had to adapt to changes over time, and in this case it did.  But now, a number of decades into this, I would suggest that our experience with youth pastors and the needs we see displayed calls for a new way of thinking about things.  As my title suggests, perhaps it is time to bid farewell to youth pastors.539272_286878791417822_1609029950_n

Before you stop reading, please hear me on this.  I myself was a youth pastor for six years.  Since August 2011 I’ve been the Associate Professor of Youth Ministries at my school.  I attend my own church’s youth ministry meetings and serve in a kind of advisory role to youth pastors in our region.  Please understand, in other words, that I’m not speaking out of ignorance or any kind of desire to watch the world burn.

When I think about “getting rid” of youth pastors, I’m not saying that we delete the role and subsequently ignore the adolescents in our midst.  Far from it.  Instead, I believe that churches should rethink the title and responsibilities of youth pastors and their place in our congregations.  For too long, hiring someone in this role–while a sign that the church cares about young people–has nevertheless carried with it some problems and limitations.

youth-ministry-cartoonFirst, it has meant that working with teenagers has been “outsourced” to the professional, so to speak.  The rest of the church need not worry about teens if their resident expert is doing so.  Second, the title of “youth pastor” has not been taken as seriously as it should.  Instead it is often perceived as a training ground for “real” ministry.  Third, having a youth pastor has not only made the congregation more apathetic about its own work with teens, but it may be having the effect of absolving parents and families of their spiritual responsibilities.  After all, why do they need to worry about things when Pastor Josh and his college-aged volunteers are doing it all?

Lastly, the existence of the youth pastor can send the silent message to students that he or she is their pastor–not the lead pastor of the entire congregation.  In addition to cutting off ministers and youth alike from deeper interaction, this can contribute to an unintentional division within the body of Christ and a continued silo-ization of ministries that is troubling.

To Be Continued…

The Coming Youth Ministry Reformation

youth-wordleIn my role as Associate Professor of Youth Ministries here at Northwest University, I am afforded more time to reflect on the way we pastor adolescents than I ever had during my years as a youth pastor. As I think about what we’re doing as a Church, I’ve come to the realization that there is change on the horizon.  Or at least there probably should be.

I’m not saying anything new, of course.  Thoughts of this type are writ all over the associated literature: an argument for the rejection of program-based models, a completely new version of youth ministry more in tune with the shape of youth culture, the desire for a more theological approach to youth ministry, a push to eliminate all age-based ministries in the local church in favor of family-based ministry, etc.

And yet, in what I perceive from many churches (and, indeed, my work as a youthyouth-ministry pastor in the mid-2000s), attention to the need for change is not as thorough-going as it could be. In essence, the momentum of a system of traditional “youth group”–in its current iteration only about 30-40 years old–has kept us going back to the same well time and again.

Dominating our collective fields of vision is the model of the traditional youth pastor, a youth group with a mostly separate existence from the larger congregation, and a program-driven existence, all of which can take their cue from the largest youth ministries around. These influences can affect us so much that we don’t think to go outside that box.  For many it is simply all we know.  The “system” is right in front of us and we buy into when we first enter ministry.  By the time we are experienced enough to start to question it, we have been doing it so long we either don’t see the need for change or are so caught up that it is difficult to get out.

quotebeachWe’ve invested an awful lot in getting youth ministry where it is today.  And I’m glad the Church has understood the vital need that is out there.  I simply worry that in so doing we have baptized one model or way of doing things as a final destination rather than a temporary stop on the ever-progressing journey of adolescent ministry.  Both the role of the youth pastor and the shape of youth ministry are going to change.  They should change.  The question is, are churches and church leaders ready for it to do so, no matter the cost or disruption this may involve to our systems, our budgets, and ourselves?

This Fall I’ll hope to explore some of the changes I think we should consider.  I hope that you’ll offer some feedback along the way.  For right now I’ll just ask this: what needs to change in the way we do youth ministry?