Life Is Not Just Moments

Today I’ll close out mHertwecky recent series on the need for reform in youth ministry with a corollary to my last entry.  Beyond the need for smallness is the reality of authenticity, immediacy, and consistency.  For this reason, the emphasis on “coolness,” high production values, and accompanying affective moments that can characterize some youth programs and events ought to be reevaluated.

Today in one of my courses we’ll be Skyping with David Hertweck, author of a new book called Good Kids, Big Events, and Matching T-Shirts: Changing the Conversation on Health in Youth Ministry.  I’m a big fan of his work here and commend the book to you.  As the title suggests, Hertweck is also looking for a new way forward in ministry to adolescents.  Speaking on “big events,” he says the following:

“When we tell ourselves that success and health in youth ministry means delivering high-energy emotional moments, we run the risk of manipulating kids’ emotions to get them to feel something…the problem is, the moment passes, and if it wasn’t an authentic work of the Spirit, there won’t be any lasting fruit.”

Though Hertweck may approach the topic a bit differently than me, his attention to what we youth pastors and leaders hope to do with our biggest efforts comes through.  Surely, after all, there must be something more to this than what we can accomplish with a well-crafted moment or worship set or lights show or experience or whatever. worship

Focusing on “big events,” key moments, and sometimes calculated coolness is not limited only to the biggest days on the calendar or the largest youth ministries.  Trying to tie everything up into such realities can and does become a cultural shift in ministry efforts (big and small) that are modeled on this pattern.  Such undertakings can make leaders and others proud of what they’ve done, create a great optic for participants, and fire our emotions and energy level.

Despite these momentary wins and their outward appearance, I’m not sure such a strategy will actually help in the long-term. As David Hertweck notes, “You can’t sustain a moment, but you can sustain a conversation.”  Youth ministry needs to be about God’s work amidst youth and their being now and over the course of many days to come, not about cool production values or sets of spiritual moments.  Dialogue, close-knit community, and ministries spending more and more time investing in mentoring IPE-mentoring-headerrelationships will therefore be a part of my suggested future.  It will mean stripping away a lot of the big box approach in favor of smaller and more incremental work with students.

When big things come–and they will, and that’s not bad–these episodes need to be shepherded by those working with students over the course of the many small moments and non-moments that make up their faith and life.  Hertweck reflects on the notion of Spirit-dependency being key to they non-events driven youth ministry, and I have affinity with his idea.  I appreciate even moreso his holistic philosophy: “Our students need to live in the Spirit in every single arena of life.”  If whole-life discipleship is what we are trying to accomplish, many big events–even if they are high-quality and strung together pathendlessly–are not what is needed for our students. Integrated discipleship demands more.

We youth pastors should strive to be good stewards of the many tasks we are called to undertake, including the occasional events, retreats, camps, and moments where good things can and do happen.  Even so, we cannot let our center of gravity remain in these brief oases or rest stops on the way instead of in deep presence and fellowship on the long road ahead.  We need to stop getting excited about the “exciting” things many have come to get excited about and instead turn to the “boring” work of everyday discipleship, because that’s where life is lived and deep faith is formed.

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On the Multiplicity of Religious Intelligences

orlando-espinosa-seven-kinds-of-smartThis week in my “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation” course we are discussing the theory of multiple intelligences.  The idea that there are, as one book claims, Seven Kinds of Smart makes good sense to me as I look out at the world.  People simply process things differently, with some naturally favoring certain ways of learning and thinking over others.

As laid out, the seven basic intelligences are: verbal, visual, musical, logical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.  To this list two or three others are sometimes added.  But even by looking at just these seven, one can see the rather wide diversity that can exist.  (If you’re interested, take a little online test here or here.)

Educationally, of course, the existence of multiple intelligences is both a great reminder and a definite reminder.  It helps guide us to be more understanding of those we teach and their particular thought patterns.  Yet it also means that much of the structure of traditional education is so heavily focused on a few of these intelligences that it can leave others by the wayside.  By favoring the logical and verbal over the others, we imply that those intelligences are best and subsequently ignore the profound ways that people think and learn in other areas.

At some level my thoughts about the intelligences and the process of discipleship follow a similar pattern.  Like most educational models, we in the Church can too often favor certain means or methods of conveying the content of the gospel, the teachings of the Scripture, and the basic tenets of the faith.  As I first considered the problem, I reflected on the fact that churches–like schools–can often be very “word-heavy.”  After all, just look at how long we spend on things like the sermon in our corporate time togetMultiple-Intelligence-wordleher.  For those whose intelligences are different, this is an issue and a clarion call to change our ways.

In thinking more about the intelligences, however, I’m beginning to come to a second conclusion.  For while it is true that church life can favor one intelligence or the other, I don’t believe I can claim that “all churches” do this in the same way.  As a matter of fact, I’m sure they do not.  Some denominations, for instance, may be very big on the sermon.  They spend an hour or more each Sunday expounding the Scripture through oral presentation.  This is a verbal approach if ever there was one.

But what about congregations in the charismatic tradition?  There the sermon has its place, no doubt, but so too does the kinesthetic, musical, and intrapersonal by means of participatory and emotive forms of worship.  And if you’re Presbyterian or Reformed, it may be that theological reflection favor logical intelligence.  A Catholic or Orthodox church with its stained glass, icons, liturgy. and genuflexing may very well favor the kinesthetic and/or visual approach, while the laid-back fellowship and mutuality of a non-denominational hipster/emergent church would very much fit the mold of the interpersonal approach.

196372-new-mass-translationAs I think about the intelligences and modern church life, I am fascinated by the ways in which they come together in the various ways that we live our religious lives.  While above I have clearly painted with a broad and somewhat stereotypical brush, it is still the case that different congregations and denominations can and do favor certain ways of thinking over others.  While on the one hand this can be a reminder that each of these churches needs to be aware of the other kinds of “thinkers” in their midst, it also says something else.

People sometimes ask why the Church is so divided into so many different groups.  Indeed, why Christianity is denominational rather than organizationally united is a real stumbling block for some.  It simply doesn’t seem right.  And insofar as such division can lead to recriminations, bickering, and malice, it is most definitely not.  While I believe legitimate theological differences do exist, this is no excuse for all those who adhere to orthodox Christianity not to exist in cooperation with one another even while maintaining their own denominational distinctives.

All this to say that while theology matters, I think that a major and often obscured reason that so many different churches and denominations exist is that people live and express their faith in ways quite similar to the multiple intelligences.  If one is emotive-intrapersonal, a certain kindimages of church life makes sense.  A logical or verbal person may choose another group altogether.  For the visually intelligent among us, another religious experience is preferable.

Christianity, therefore, while united in Christ, might be expressed and lived out in subgroups of believers not simply or perhaps even primarily because of theological disagreement, but because our spiritual intelligences are simply different.  Denominations could simply be a sign of our unique ways of processing the truth of God rather than–as often perceived–a sad sign of Christian division.

  It’s an optimistic vision, surely.  But it does point to some interesting truths.

What Do You Remember?

7245260242_763278bfec_zI was invited to speak at a weekend retreat for one of our dormitory floors this past weekend. In one of my brief messages, I chose to focus upon an intriguing passage from the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John.  Within it, we return to a familiar scene in the life of Christ: the Last Supper.  As the story begins, Jesus grabs a towel and starts to wash feet.  Peter is confused by the strange turn of events and does not seem to want his master performing the role of a servant.  Among the ways Jesus responds is this:

You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.

A powerful statement, for we know what comes later.  Arrest.  Fear.  Denial.  Trial.  Crucifixion.  Burial.

In just a few short hours, Peter will come to realize that Jesus came not to control but to serve.  Before long, Peter will understand that the way he looked at the world was completely backwards.  He’ll begin to comprehend what the gospel of our Lord is all about.  Redemption will come for Peter after the Resurrection, but even then I think there is more for the Apostle to learn.  The years he lived after that poignant moment at the Supper will stay with him the rest of this live.  And at that life’s end–whether hanging upside-down on a cross as 006-jesus-washes-feettradition tells us or expiring in some other way–is when I think he fully understood what Jesus was all about.  For Peter a life of service and sacrifice suddenly came into focus, and all because of something Jesus said and did for him years before.

Though it wasn’t the main theme of my retreat message, a passage like this makes me think about  youth ministry.  So much of what we do as youth ministers is not understood by the students we serve.  They chafe at rules.  They can resist teaching.  They don’t understand why some things are good ideas and some things are bad ideas.  It can be frustrating.  If only behavior modification or simply giving up were part of what the gospel was about.  At least then we could have an answer.

But Jesus’ actions here speak to something different: word and deed offered in relationship.  The washing of feet for a confused soul.  Truth and love to someone who needed it far more than they realized.  An act done with little initial return.  As a matter of fact, if one is to judge the effectiveness of Jesus’ mentoring in the twenty-four hours after this event, he ought generally to be considered a failure.

indexThis is often true as we work with students.  The time and energy we put into walking with them through life.  Living the gospel in front of them.  Discipling and teaching them.  Sometimes it can just come to naught.  They fall in with a bad crowd and off they go.  They graduate high school and drift away.  In college they decide that their previous faith was just so much smoke and mirrors.  Like Peter, they seem to have failed to learn anything.

Jesus, of course, has a longer view of Peter than just that day.  When we think about our students, we ought to as well.  I really believe that when we think about the effectiveness of youth ministry, it has relatively little to do with how many students you can get running forward to an altar or raising their hands in worship.  Seeing them take abstinence pledges and wear Christian t-shirts might make use feel better in the moment, but in the end that isn’t what matters.

What matters is where they are later.  What they understand one day.  If–even when they don’t realize what we are doing or why we are doing it during their teen years–they understand later LateAdolescenceon.  Like Jesus, youth ministry must take the long view.  For some of our youth, serving Christ will be an uninterrupted story. For others it will be a more punctuated one.  For both latter and former, I hope and trust that some of what we do (and, Lord willing, some of what I did those six years in New Jersey) will be grasped one day.

Ultimately, this ought to be both an encouragement and a challenge to us.  It should hearten us when it seems like we’ve failed miserably with our students (remember: Peter didn’t start out so well either).  But (and this is important): it should also remind us that taking the long view may very well mean changing the way we operate in ministry. Eschewing the immediate optics or ministerial sense of satisfaction in favor of what is much more lasting.  Difficult, perhaps, but worth it.

The Mediator is the Message

one_mediatorThis week in one of my classes we’ll be discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-known The Cost of Discipleship.  It is one of those unique little books of profound theology that is accessible to both the layperson and scholar alike.  Moreover, the stark picture it paints of “cheap” versus “costly” grace and the notion that “when Christ calls a man He bids him come and die” are teachings I suspect will reverberate throughout the ages.

On both an intellectual and deeply spiritual level, the book is a challenge for me.  Bonhoeffer’s thought requires thought, but more importantly it confronts me with my own life and actions–calling them into question through Christ.  While reviewing the book for class today I came across the following idea:

Since the coming of Christ, his followers have no more immediate realities of their own, not in their family relationships nor in the ties with their nation nor in the relationships formed in the process of living. Between father and son, husband and wife, the individual and the nation, stands Christ the Mediator, whether they are able to recognize him or not. We cannot establish direct contact outside ourselves except through him, through his word, and through our following of him. To think otherwise is to deceive ourselves.

For Christians, the understanding of Jesus as the mediator between God and humanity has long been considered an axiom.christ-in-front-of-pontius-pilate-henry-coller  Here, though, Bonhoeffer (if I interpret him correctly) takes this principle a step further:  Christ is the One who mediates the Christian’s relationship to everything.  We only live, in other words, as we live through Christ.  We only love as we love in Christ.  We are only a spouse or friend or citizen as we are through Christ.  We only see, act, and speak through the person of Christ.  For Bonhoeffer this is the reality of the Christian life of discipleship.

The implications of this understanding, if correct, are as profound as they are challenging.  It makes sense in a lot of ways that Christ ought to be this kind of mediator.  Even so, thinking of the Christian life is such terms requires, I think, a radical reorientation of our everyday perspective on how the world works.  A continual process of humility, self-denial, and dying-in-order-to-find-our-life that Christ speaks to so powerfully in the gospels.  Allowing Christ to be this kind of mediator means a final surrendering of the same control that we first acknowledged at the moment of salvation.

Yet just as the life of faith is about Christ being our mediator to all things, we very well know that we can refuse this reality.  That we can reject this path of discipleship.  Convince ourselves that following Christ means not having Him as mediator, and continuing to live as if there need be no change in the way we encounter and interact with reality.  But then of course we can convince ourselves of a lot of things about the Christian life that are patently false.

imagesFor Bonhoeffer, Christ’s call to humanity is to follow Him.  With our words and with our lives.  It requires surrender.  It requires a radical reorientation that only Christ can bring.  It requires completeness.  Allowing Christ to so permeate our lives so that we only interact with the world as through Him is something, I think, in which I have fallen short.  I want to see things my way, blind as I may be.  I want to do things in my wisdom, foolish as I am.  I want to interact with others according to my preferences, flawed and selfish though they may be.  Yet it is only by moving beyond these limiting elements, Bonhoeffer would say, that we (and I) will enter into true and costly discipleship.

A discipleship, in other words, with Christ as the center and ground of all things.

Curriculum Scholae

latin-churchOne of the projects for our “Faculty, Faith, and Learning” course  is as follows:

Select two courses you will teach during the upcoming year and develop one assignment for each course in which content is informed by faith.

I cheated a little by choosing four, but I think they have some potential.  Tell me what you think.

1. Church History I: Students will consider the issues involved in the Christological debates of the early Church and work to design their own creed to answer the complicated questions of Christ’s divinity and humanity.  This creed may be no more than 250 words, and should address the major concerns of the various parties involved.  Students should supplement their creeds with 1-2 pages explaining their choices with regard to historical and theological issues as well as their personal beliefs.Luther2003FilmPoster

2.  Church History II: For this assignment students will imagine themselves to be a Christian believer during the Reformation.  Though born into the traditional Roman Catholic Church, over the course of their lives numerous changes will have taken place.  Among the new Reformation options include: the Lutheran Reformation, the Zwinglian Reformation, Calvin’s Geneva, the Radical Reformers, the English Reformation, and Tridentine Catholicism.  Based on their personal beliefs, students will be asked to place themselves in the midst of the reforming options of the 16th century by means of a three page personal narrative.

Students should be prepared to stake out their opinion on a variety of issues including, but not limited to, the relationship of Church and State, faith/works, Church tradition, humanism, communion, heresy, baptism, Scripture, salvation, and sanctification.  Students are not required to align themselves wholly with any one historic Reformation option, but must be prepared to justify their personal beliefs in light of the theological and historical climate of the era.  On the date the assignment is due, students will come to class and, based on their beliefs, align in small groups for dialogue and debate with believers of other persuasions.  Students will be evaluated on both the strength of their essays and participation during in-class discussion.

Saint Cecilia, in Saint Louis, Missouri - confessional3.  Discipleship and Spiritual Formation:  Early in the semester, students will be assigned a small gender-based group of 2-3 individuals with which they will regularly practice the practice of confession (see Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, for more).  Students are expected to meet weekly with their group and keep a journal of their experience and evaluation of its place in the practice of Christian discipleship.  Groups discussions are expected to remain confidential and journals will be reviewed in kind by the professor at the end of the semester.  During the last week of the course, a class session will be devoted to a discussion of the experience from students’ perspective.

4.  Family Ministry Capstone: Students will review their “Philosophy of 1295101748_157386121_1-Pictures-of--Creative-ministryMinistry” projects from your earlier ministry courses and be prepared to illustrate that philosophy in action.  Students will be expected to design an activity/event/curriculum/message that exemplifies their assumed priorities.  Assignments are expected to be written professionally and must both align with their stated philosophy and explain the nature of that alignment.  Students will present their projects for peer review and, following revisions, will include these as a part of their professional online ministry portfolio.

Yes, That’s the Book For Me

Sometimes in my classes I place a book on the syllabus that I haven’t read before.  It gives me a chance to incorporate fresh new material and learn a new perspective together with my students.  There is certainly the potential for some “misses” here, but as long as an assigned text is notable and/or well-reviewed, it probably won’t be that bad as a pedagogical tool.

In my “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation” course this semester I have assigned MOVE: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth.  Coming out of research done by Willow Creek Community Church (megachurch and early leader in the seeker-sensitive movement), the survey touched upon over 250,000 individuals in more than a thousand churches.

Though I do have questions about the details and reliability of their methodology and conclusions (as do others), one cannot argue with the sheer size of the undertaking…and the willingness to admit that their own church needed to change the way it was operating.  One of their ideas that I really find fascinating is this: “not only do we find the same top priorities for the dissatisfied and satisfied….[but] helping people understand the Bible in greater depth is one of the top two priorities for those who are dissatisfied across all the believer segments.”  Their study lifts up the Bible as of prime importance through all stages of a believer’s movement towards becoming a mature Christian.

The Bible.  Imagine that.  After all the time, money, and energy dedicated to a study of this sort we come right back to the basic building blocks of Christianity: the story of God.  If this study’s information is accurate, it fills me with great hope as I continue to encourage ministers to engage others with and in the biblical narrative.  Even if the findings aren’t at 100%, I agree that a renewed emphasis on the Word is essential.  Far more than simple memorization of Scripture, this kind of engagement should seek deep identity with the themes, teachings, and story of the Bible.  If the holy narrative is truly alive by the power of the Spirit, it is then not simply something “out there,” but something which must rather be deeply interior– not just to our minds, but to our worldviews and corresponding actions in our daily lives.

As my students are presenting on the findings in the book this week and next, I’m excited for the direction it will take our discussions of spiritual formation and discipleship.  We’ve been utilizing the false dichotomy of discipleship as “what you know” vs. “what you do” as a way of framing the discussion thus far, and it seems that the findings and conclusions of this study will only serve to further our reflections as we consider what it is for our whole lives to be spiritually formed.

Prodigal-Based Youth Ministry

I’m working through the book Sticky Faith with my Youth Discipleship students right now.  Reading it always draws me back to the story of the “Prodigal Son.”

The central premise of our textbook is this: a large majority of students who embrace Christianity during their teenage years and follow the traditional “youth group” experience walk away from their faith in the early years of college and/or young adulthood.  In an effort to create a faith that is more “sticky,” the authors encourage churches, parents, and youth ministers to build deep and diverse relationships with teens even as they help them ask real, deep, and complex questions about their faith.

I think about the story of the Prodigal Son in this mix because it is about two young men.  One is the stay-at-home do-gooder.  The other lives the wild life.  Yet at the end of the story, the one with the better relationship with his father is the son who left to explore the “far country.”  The faithful, stay-at-home child has, it turns out, a somewhat stunted view of what it means to be a son.

In some ways the story from Luke 15 supports the complexifying of faith that the Sticky Faith people urge.*  For instance, while making us contented youth ministers in the here and now, having a group of students who are seemingly “safe” and apparently obedient at all times (like the elder son) should not be our goal.  Yet the implications of the biblical story are more haunting then that.  The younger son doesn’t just consider tough questions about his relationship with his father.  He actually leaves it behind.  Only after he discovers the bankruptcy of life outside his family does he return.

The implications of this for modern youth ministry are…unsettling.  Amongst the Amish, after all, some young people roam free in the wide world before entry into religious adulthood.  Most of them choose to take their place back home after their time in the world.

Am I suggesting we encourage students to roam free and deny themselves no worldly experience because maybe it will make them holy?  I don’t think so…but there is the possibility that this approach could be more beneficial than operating a youth ministry out of fear just to keep students safe.  As it turns out, staying at home didn’t mean the elder son knew what it was all about.  Being a “good” youth group student doesn’t guarantee lasting faith either.

While the answers are-as usual-probably somewhere more towards the middle, I believe strongly that students and young adults must ultimately make their own decisions.  Hopefully we will have prepared them to think through things with godly wisdom, but the choices they make in their lives must be theirs.  We cannot force them to make the right decision every single time.  To do so is ultimately foolish, for it is both an untenable practice and accomplishes nothing but rigid adherence to a set of external rules.  Authentic personhood and authentic Christianity requires more.

Sticky Faith and approaches like it are pushing us in the right direction.  We just need to have the courage to let students-mentored and guided by loving parents, teachers, friends, and ministers-begin to make decisions on their own.

Even if sometimes they are the wrong ones.

*My good friend and colleague Will Cosnett has offered some helpful exegetical points about the passage in question (see comments section), and I’ve edited the post in response.  I still think there are some ways that it may connect with the main theme here.