1 Eric Clapp CYF 4510 Dr.

Root December 13, 2010 Theological Foundations for Continued Ministry The most important thing to remember in addressing issues in ministry with children, youth and family is that all theological assertions are contextual. No matter what constituency the congregation serves, contextual theology must then, by definition, speak to that particular context. Even though this is how it should be, we are frequently reminded that this is not how it often plays out in the actual congregation. If we take senior high school students as the prime example, at least for this case, then a number of different assumptions arise as we begin to think about how to do ministry in that context. There are a lot of different issues that are confronting people in high school that have a great impact on how they view God. For many teenagers in today’s society, the church exists either as a heritage site or a place of refuge. It exists either to remind us of who we are, or keep us safe from the real, “secular” world that exists outside of the church community. This plays out largely in the way that adults relate to kids within the church. Along with this, there is a growing sense among the youth that there really is not anything at stake for these kids. The kids have a lukewarm response surrounding

2 all things church and the church is not necessarily doing anything to confront these issues that are clearly bubbling to the surface in the interactions between the adults and kids that surround life in the church. By using the four core tasks of ministry, it becomes clear to see that all of these are problematic because they fundamentally keep teenagers from being participants in the ministry that God is doing in the world through their community. Empirical Task My church is a fairly large congregation in suburban Minneapolis. The surrounding community is largely middle class. There are a lot of young families around that attend the church with varying involvement in the programmatic ministries of the church. There are a few parents who seem to be over-involved, in some cases detrimentally. These are the parents who interrupt youth group to ask their kids if they are having a good time. The constant check-in is not only embarrassing for the kids, but is also quite annoying as the leader as well. This sort of “helicopter parenting”, as it is called in sociological circles, is growing evermore present in the lives of youth and the adults who interact with them. In many ways, the church is seen as a place to shelter the youth from a lot of the bad things that are happening in the world. The common view among the parents is that there are a lot of bad things that are in the “real world” that threaten the faith of their children. Because they are so pre-occupied with this terrible

3 misconception of a real world, the youth have a very stunted view of who God is and how God acts in the world. If God exists only as a shield from all of the bad forces in the world, that puts some pretty strict limits on the extent of God’s action. Another one of the main problems that faces this church is that the staff and ministries are very segmented. The youth room is far down one corridor, seemingly the furthest distance possible from the sanctuary and fellowship hall. One of the three full-time pastors may stop by occasionally just to see how things are going. Otherwise the rest of the full-time staff steers clear of the youth wing. A great way of understanding this is the Mickey Mouse model of church leadership that was discussed in class. The church exists as an entity in and of itself. The youth group exists as a kind of satellite group that is a separate grouping and orbits the main group of the church, but never is conceived of as a full, participating group in the congregation. The fact that the church is so programmatically segmented and the parents are involved in the lives of their kids, but not in a way that is proactive or encouraging to the ministry of the church actually does a lot of damage to the potential ministry to the youth. The operating definition of ministry within the church is so segmented that it becomes difficult to do any kind of relational, accompanying ministry within the confines of the “way they do things”. This is the shorthand way to discuss the program that has been in place for the last twenty

4 years of ministry with youth. It is reaching a point where it becomes crucial to cast a new vision for moving forward alongside the youth in the congregation in a way that fully includes them in the mission of the church and equips them to go out as the ones who are sent into the world to do the work of God. Interpretive Task There are a number of different things that go into the motivations for the ministry of the church. One of the current pastors began at the church as the youth pastor and implemented programs that are still in use today. When I first began doing ministry there, I was told very clearly that this was the model that was most effective for reaching out to the kids who came and that I was merely supposed to run the program. It operates a lot like the curriculum of a classroom at school. It is methodical and covers quite a bit of material, but it has very little to say to any kind of modern context where social media has taken over as the number one way of communicating. One of the main reasons for the parents acting the way they do is because the program is so close to that of a school curriculum. The parents have learned to see it that way so they need to check up on progress. There have been a number of interactions I have had that sound like an informal parent-teacher conference. I keep trying to stress that there really is not a charted progress that the kids must be on. The point of ministry is not to teach to a test.

5 The problem with programmatic ministry (and there are many) is that it often has very little to say when a tragedy happens in life of the youth. They have been going through this program of learning the faith and yet still their dog has died or their aunt has cancer. Where the program-based ministries of influence break down is that they can be entirely alienating when facing the pain and suffering that often accompanies the journey of life and faith. This kind of ministry of influence cannot be corrected by a bulleted list of things to do. It requires an entire shift of perspective. This is where the practical issues from class can be re-conceptualized and brought into practice for the youth to gain a better understanding of who God is and what God is doing in the world. More importantly, they can be equipped and empowered to join in that ministry as they live their lives as high school kids. Normative Task In his work Christ the Center, Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls for a significant shift in how we see Jesus in our ministry. Often in the context of programmatic ministry we ask the question ‘How’. How will we get more kids here? How will we have enough money to even have a youth ministry? How will the kids respond to this? Bonhoeffer saw this in ministry all the time. He calls for a shift in our questioning so that we are not asking ‘how’ so much as ‘who’. Questions that seek to answer ‘who’ are about transcendence. Who is the God that calls us to

6 be the servant to our neighbor? Who is the God that comes down to experience all things human so that we would not have to do it alone? Who is the God abandoned and forsaken at Golgotha for us in 21st century America? These are the questions that get to the core of what we are trying to do as co-creators in God’s ministry to a broken and suffering world. So our quest begins with the minor shift of asking questions of ‘who’ rather than ‘how’. As is the case with the majority of questions we ask relating to God, the answer is often something less than concrete. However there is one stipulation that ministry with youth calls for in its answers: honesty. There is no room for a youth ministry that does not seek to honestly deal with the questions that are being asked of it. This is not to say that there is a concrete answer to every question asked. Rather, what it asserts is that every question, no matter how insane it may seem, often comes from a place of wonder within the imagination of the youth that honestly yearns to know these answers. It is within these questions of the imagination that genuine faith and wonder can be born. A friend of mine has a son who is two years old who recently asked his dad why we are not dogs. On the surface, this question seems very silly and it would be easy for youth directors, who have a perpetual pile of tasks to do, to blow off this type of a question. But on a deeper level he is struggling with some considerably deeper issues.

7 In asking the question, he is trying to figure out why he is the way he is. Why is he human and not a dog? What does it mean to be a human and not something else? Often times these kinds of questions come into youth group but are veiled in layers that disguise them as what we could dismiss as stupid and immature. There is a certain sense of mystery that comes with asking questions as children that hints at a great engagement with the stories of a tradition. As people working with youth in ministry, we should try to engage them in these questions of mystery. Television producer J.J. Abrams was once quoted as saying that mystery offers a better road to imagination than knowledge does. This is a key point for people working in churches with youth. The ministry of the church, the ministry of God in the world, should engage a sense of wonder and mystery in every member of the body of Christ. It is through this wonder that we are then free from offering concrete views of what God is or is not. By opening up avenues of wonder, we are enabling children to make sense of who God is and what God is doing in their lives within the realm of their own language and understanding. All of this is rooted in a sense of honesty that seeks, not necessarily to answer every question asked but to engage a sense of wonder in the lives of the youth in our youth groups. Another interesting facet of the conversation that ought to be present was displayed in no better place than on the television show

8 Glee. In last season’s finale, the members of the glee club were dealing with their defeat at the regional competition and the consequential disbanding of the club. They were gathered together in their teacher’s living room to celebrate the year. Instead of doing that, one character asked if they could skip that and go around the room to talk about what being a part of the group meant to them. Another member said that before joining the glee club she had 2 Facebook friends, her mom and dad. After the group disbands, the cohesive group they have become will go back to existing in their old social structures. The jocks will hang out with jocks, band kids with other band kids, theatre kids with theatre kids. But for a lot of these kids, they would go back to living a lonely existence, which is sadly the case for all too many kids in our youth groups. Facing this reality was too hard for most of these characters. So they wanted to share stories with each other as they faced the daunting task of returning to an identity-less existence. In that moment, they were a group of people that came together and faced their anxieties and insecurities together by sharing their stories. Something that is important to remember is that all of these relationships were established through a glee club at school. It would be interesting to see what could happen if the church and youth group operated as a place to deal with these doubts and insecurities. What would happen if youth group became a place for kids to share their stories of pain and anxiety with one another as a community of suffering? In leading this endeavor, it is imperative that we see the inner relationship of God in the Trinity as a similar community of suffering.

9 This is the basis for a Trinitarian way to view community. Through our experiences of suffering and pain we are brought into the heart of God. By looking at the aspect of community through the lens of the cross, we see the death of Jesus, the fully human and fully divine second person of the Trinity dead on the cross. It is through this identification of suffering and death that God calls us into community. What binds us together as Christians is suffering. God identifies with our experience of suffering and brokenness on the cross. The death that is marked by the cross is subsequently marked by life in the resurrection. It is only through becoming a community of suffering that we know what it truly means to be a community of hope and life. This is what binds us together. By inviting youth into the space of wonderment as a community of suffering also brings them into a space of life in its fullness as we continue to do ministry with the God who calls us to be those who are sent. Pragmatic (how should we act?) The question of how we move forward is always hard to locate because there are so many variables in the life of ministry. However, there are three very concrete things that are to be done beyond the larger paradigmatic shifts. The first is to make sure that in every retreat or special event you have, make space for down time. This time can be spent playing games, throwing a football, or simply talking with one another. By leaving space that is not bogged down in

10 programmatic events, we are leaving space for natural social interaction, in which many youth will claim is the real highlight of the retreat. It gives them time to exist in a realm that is not structured. A time away from church, school and home life. The lack of structure will actually serve them well because it gives them space to spend time as they choose. The second thing to be done is to use a pedagogical style that is based in wonder. During lessons with youth of any age, engage their imaginations by using statements that begin with the phrase “I wonder….” By doing this, it allows kids to break out of the normal structures of interpretation in which they are free to give the answer that resounds most closely with their experience. A professor of mine once told a story of a children’s sermon where the pastor sat up front and asked the kids to name what he was going to describe. He then started to describe a squirrel. When he was done, the kids looked utterly confused. Finally, one kid said, “I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel.” This is all too common for our youth. They have been socialized to think the answer to every question posed by an adult in church is either God or Jesus. By using “I wonder” language, we are able to engage the imagination in a way that brings back a sense of wonder and awe that has been lacking in many cases, not the least of which is my own. A third and final practical action that we can take is to integrate

11 the life of youth with the life of the church. By understanding the ministry of the church as a whole (youth included) we are inviting the youth into a broader understanding of mission and purpose. We are teaching them significant things about the ways in which God moves and acts in the world by incorporating them into the life of the church, the life of the people of God. Along the way, we are freed to form bonds and relationships with the youth beyond simply a tool of influence that seems to pervade most action in church climate these days. If we see them not as the separate Mickey Mouse ear, but rather as an integral part of the church, we trust them with the responsibility to do the work of God in the world. We are also walking alongside them as we all live into the communities of hope out of suffering that God ultimately calls us to be. Because of this, we are then the ones who have suffered, been resurrected and are sent into the world as the heart of God’s ministry.

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