Thinking Broadly, Going Deeply

When thinking about the state of youth ministry in theological education, I cannot help but think about the state of theological education as a whole. I keep hearing that it is in crisis (which is not something a newly minted Ph.D. wants to keep hearing). Theological schools are closing, some are holding on by a thread, and others are changing their curriculum in hopes of remaining “relevant.” In their desire to not only survive but thrive, schools are also rethinking theological education so that we don’t end up simply rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

The question many congregations are asking is, “How do we get youth and young adults to come to Church?” Instead, we should be asking, “How do we meet youth and young adults where they are?”

What is Theological Education For?

One of the things I find particularly interesting is the growing trend of providing a theological foundation to those who will work with nonprofits doing community organizing or other social justice work. There is growth in the number of theological degrees offered for those who do not seek to enter the academy, to be a pastor, or to go into congregational ministry at all. I find this interesting, because many of those who have seen youth ministry as their vocation have been seeking theological training as non-pastors for years. I also find this growing trend interesting because, in many pockets within urban ministry and within Black Christian traditions, social justice work, community organizing, and congregational ministry have often been one in the same, even when the theological resources coming from mainline Protestant theological schools were scarce, especially within the field of youth ministry.

Who is Theological Education For?

 As more theological schools turn toward explicitly equipping this vision of ministry, I wonder what texts they are going to use. Much of the youth ministry material being produced by mainline Protestant writers still pretends that the bulk of youth ministry is being done by suburban White churches with a paid youth minister. With the dwindling state of mainline congregations and seminaries, it is really necessary to think about the contexts for which we are preparing our students. This is not a call to abandon congregational ministry, but it is a call to affirm the vocation of a youth minister in its broadest sense.

Beyond All the Walls

Thinking more broadly about defining Church has always been a part of my vocational identity. As one called to the diaconate of the United Methodist Church, I am committed to a ministry beyond the Church walls. This does not mean being outside of the Church, but connecting the Church to the world and seeing the Church as much larger than the building in which I worship on Sundays or the denomination to which I belong. As the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley proclaimed, “I look upon all the world as my parish.” Having a broader understanding of Church and ministry allows us to look at youth ministry more dynamically. In a world where youth and young adults are increasingly finding meaning outside of the Church, the question many congregations are asking is, “How do we get youth and young adults to come to Church?” Instead, we should be asking, “How do we meet youth and young adults where they are?”

Searching for the Spirit

What would it look like if theologically-trained youth ministers filled our schools, after-school programs, sports organizations, community organizing agencies, grassroots organizations, and the many other places that youth and young adults are finding meaning? What would it mean to be a minister whose main ministry is not inside the walls of a church? These are not new questions—several Christian traditions have been ministering this way for years. However, these questions are relatively new in White mainline Protestant theological education. While the number of young people’s Church attendance may be declining in mainline Protestant congregations, these young people’s search for meaning is not in decline. Their desire to be a part of something bigger is not in decline. Nor is their search for the spirit—and what is spiritual—in decline. We can help them find what they are looking for, but we must stop waiting for them to come to us. We need to go to them, and we need to be theologically-trained as we go.

 


Rev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. is currently the Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew Theological School. She has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her Ph.D. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.

The Real Win: Friendship

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM. This is the third of a three part series. Read the first part here and the second part here.


When I was witnessing to my friend on the track team, it never occurred to me to ask my own questions instead of answering every question. And not just facetious or rhetorical questions, but actual questions, my own deeper questions that I didn’t have answers for. I wasn’t trained in my youth group to ask questions in these conversations. I was taught to “defend the faith.” To ask questions would be to give up the high ground. Implicitly, I was taught to remain in the immanent frame when defending the faith, only bringing up what was empirically verifiable. Yet in the immanent frame we are haunted by transcendence―by what can’t be verified―we cannot escape the vulnerability of not knowing everything, we are always in the shadow of our own uncertainty. We are haunted by the sense that what’s true is not just objects but subjects, not just things but people and relationships.1 Truth is not contained simply in measurable data and verifiable results, and by restricting what I knew of truth to facts and figures, I neglected to tend to the truth of my teammate’s personhood. And in missing the opportunity to encounter my teammate as a person I also missed the opportunity to invite God into the conversation.

The truth is, the mystery is much more compelling than the explanation. If we want to open people to an encounter with God, we need to invite them into the mystery of uncertainty, not just offer them an explanation. I had a friend in college who was also a kind of mentor to me. He was in the Master’s program at Azusa Pacific University while I was working on my Bachelor’s. He had years of ministry experience and a ton of theological insight. I brought many of my theological questions to him (of which I had many in my first year of college), always hoping he had an explanation for me. But even though I am sure he could have offered explanations, he always chose to ask his own questions too. I always left our conversations with more questions than answers. He had a disarming way of saying, “I don’t know” that made me feel at ease. It made me feel that, finally, it was okay not to know, it was okay to accept some mystery even while using my brain. Most of all, his “I don’t know” and his willingness to share his own questions somehow reminded me that what was important was not just the questions and answers we shared, but the relationship itself. It was no failure if we couldn’t come up with an answer because the real “win” was that we were willing to share in the mystery.

If youth ministry wants young people to know God, then instead of proving God’s existence and offering immanent answers to immanent questions, and instead of training young people to win arguments with their peers (and their teachers too, sometimes), perhaps it should engage in the practice of friendship and teach young people to be good friends.

What I have learned from my friend is that relationship is the bridge between immanence and transcendence. And not just a superficial or instrumental relationship, but a real friendship. Friendship, as a theological category, is not bound by immanent laws of necessity or obligation. It is reciprocal and voluntary. In this sense, it is never strictly a bridge from here to there but must always be a bridge from there to here too. What I’m talking about here is not a superficial kind of friendship. I’m not just talking about being buddies. I’m talking about a relationship that challenges our preconceptions of self and our predispositions toward only befriending those who are like us. John Swinton, the Chair of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, writes,

…Christian friendship, as modeled and lived out in the life and death of Jesus, offers a radically different interpretive framework, within which human relationships are to be understood and worked out… When Christians enter into Christ-like friendships they become ‘new persons,’ who view the world in new ways…2

For friendship to be real, someone has to invade our buffered self and break into the immanent frame. Friendship, then, is a transcendent experience, an encounter with other human beings as persons and subjects, not as objects or instruments. Friendship opens us to mystery and encounter and in so doing, it opens us to reality. Swinton writes, “…friendship forms an integral part of God’s coming shalom.”3 It is in friendship that we find meaning in the world. The world of law, explanation, and reason provides, at best, only a context (or a description of a context) where actual encounter happens. Friendship, as a sort of foretaste of God’s friendship with the world, is the truest meaning of human encounter. While we may know plenty about humans through scientific experimentation, the person can only truly be known in friendship. Friendship exposes the reality of transcendence that can never be contained in the immanent frame—“…friends know each other’s ‘real selves’…”4 In friendship, the stuff of immanence meets the mystery of transcendence, there is a real experience of transcendence in immanence.

This is not pure transcendence. When we encounter someone as a person in friendship, we still encounter them in immanence, the very immanence that cannot contain them. When we encounter God, we encounter God in our experience. This is what led Jürgen Moltmann to claim that, “anyone who stylizes revelation and experience into alternatives, ends up with revelations that cannot be experienced and experiences without revelation.”5 Immanence and transcendence are not to be neatly separated (as they are in the immanent frame), but experienced alongside one another. They are two sides of the same coin. A person is an individual—even a buffered self—in a world of objects, but their meaning (and the meaning of objects too) cannot be contained in rational explanations. An encounter with a person is always a transcendent experience, even in its particularity and immanence. How often do we miss out on the transcendence of encounter (the transcendence of ministry!) when we find ourselves engaged in rational arguments for the existence of God, arguments like the one I was “winning” and was trained to win in high school! How often do our attempts to win an argument for God obscure our ability to encounter others in friendship and thus to encounter God?

What I am talking about is friendship as ministry, friendship that unites our human relationships to God’s relationship with us in Christ through participation. In friendship, my neighbor becomes an “unexpected place to meet God” as, according to Martin Luther, “my neighbor is Christ to me.”6 In a real way, when we encounter one another as friends, we encounter Christ.

Emil Brunner wrote, “…philosophical knowledge of God… does not create communion with God, because it is not knowledge of the God who—since He makes Himself known—creates communion with Himself… God is Person: He is not an ‘It.’”7 The immanent frame cannot contain God. God is not an object,8 but an acting subject who encounters us.9

In teaching young people to “defend the faith,” and to answer every question, we may in fact be teaching them to exclude God from their conversations. If youth ministry wants young people to know God, then instead of proving God’s existence and offering immanent answers to immanent questions, and instead of training young people to win arguments with their peers (and their teachers too, sometimes), perhaps it should engage in the practice of friendship and teach young people to be good friends.10 I was not trained to think this way when it came to “witnessing” and “defending the faith.” Had I, it is doubtful that I would’ve found myself “winning.” Instead, I may have found myself encountering the living God.

—–

Footnotes:

1. Moltmann writes, “According to mechanistic theory, things are primary, and their relations to one another are determined secondarily, through ‘natural laws.’ But in reality relationships are just as primal as the things themselves…” Moltmann, God in Creation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), 11.
2. John Swinton, From Bedlam to Shalom (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), 84.
3. Ibid, 78.
4. Steve Duck, cited in Ibid, 79.
5. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 7.
6. Sharon G. Thornton, Broken Yet Beloved: a Pastoral Theology of the Cross (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), 84.
7. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, Vol 1: The Christian Doctrine of God (London: Lutterworth Press, 1949), 121.
8. see Ibid, 117.
9. “…God is Subject: addressing us, making Himself known to us.” Ibid, 139.
10. Again, we are not talking about superficial friendship. Instead, we’re after a deep practice of friendship not unlike the practice of “place sharing.” See Andrew Root, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2007).

 


Ellis 2

Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PCUSA settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.

Imitation and Innovation in the Secular Age

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


I hear the same story routinely from members of my congregation. It goes something like this. “I raised my kids in this church. They were baptized, confirmed, and highly involved here. But then in college or shortly thereafter, they decided that it didn’t work for them anymore.” This week, I hear the story from Mike. Each of his three boys has walked away from a life of faith and the church in which they were raised. He tells me they’re neither bitter nor angry, just disinterested.

When I ask Mike to tell me his story, he recalls that he was raised in the church but checked out during college and his young adult years. When I ask him why he returned he tells me that when he and his wife were expecting their first child it was the “thing to do.” By contrast, Mike’s sons have grown up in a world where the “thing to do” is “to do your own thing.” No pastor or church has the power to reverse the social, political, and economic changes that have created this world, but understanding these shifts can help us find a faithful response. I want to sketch out here a brief account of how we got this ethics of individualism and personal authenticity, and offer what I hope is a faithful response in the intentional practice of imitation.

Every instance of actually and voluntarily following the example of others involves imitation and innovation, both following and going in a new way…We may not be able to control whether or not young people like Mike’s sons will find faith in God believable in a secular age, but we can connect them to significant individuals who have responded to Christ’s call and walked the path of faith ahead of them in ways that might tempt them to believe themselves.

Charles Taylor helps us understand that maintaining a particular religious identity is no longer the “thing to do” in the modern, Western world. Whatever social pressures or expectations that pushed Mike back into the household of faith thirty years ago do not exist today. We live in what Taylor calls the secular age, an age of contested belief, where all faith endures the cross-pressures of doubt and suspicion. In his award-winning book, A Secular Age, Taylor questions why it was “virtually impossible not to believe in God” 500 years ago in Western society when today many “find this not only easy, but even inescapable.”1 According to the story Taylor tells about how we arrived where we are today, the secular age is much more than simply the evacuation of God from public spaces or the decline of religious belief and practice.2 Rather, on Taylor’s view, the secular age describes “a move from society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”3

Taylor’s account is immensely rich, covering 500 years in over 700 pages. What matters for Mike and his sons, however, is this: In the secular age, there are more compelling reasons than ever before not to believe, and combined with the social pressure to “do your own thing,” young people are often left on their own to create the frame for a life of meaning and purpose. This is the result of what Taylor calls the buffered self. If premodern selves were “porous,” which is to say, open and vulnerable to the enchanted world of spirits as well as to the collective good of the community, the modern self is “buffered,” protected from the outside world and capable of autonomy.

But the same buffering that protects us and helps us to construct our identity can also isolate us. The result is a kind of individualism built upon the assumption that we each have our own way of realizing our true self (i.e. do your own thing), which we must do without conforming to a model imposed on us from the outside – by society, a previous generation, or a religious or political authority.4 This is how Taylor describes the age of authenticity in which we currently live. But it leaves us with an impoverished account of faith formation, which in the Christian tradition involves receiving God’s grace from outside of ourselves and learning to be part of a community striving to follow Jesus Christ. Part of belonging to such a community entails imitating others who have learned how to follow Christ in powerful and exemplary ways. In the closing chapter of his book, Taylor suggests that what it means to belong to a church is to be put in regular contact with exemplary figures who tempt us to believe through shared religious language and practice.

In his book, How (Not) to be Secular, James K.A. Smith wonders whether Protestants such as myself will follow Taylor’s celebration of exemplars. According to Smith, this bubbles up from a uniquely Catholic imaginary.5 While it is true that Protestants loathe to think about hierarchies of excellence among those who follow Christ where some are elevated to an exemplar status, the truth is that some will follow better than others, imitating Christ and the lives of the saints the scriptures make known with a higher degree of excellence than others. Some will do so in ordinary ways while others will do so radically and thereby fundamentally transform what we take Christ’s call to be. Protestant theologian Karl Barth argued that the health of the Christian community depends on such exemplary witnesses to rescue it from its own mediocrity. For Barth, while none of these exemplars are “by a long chalk a second Christ,” each can be received with gratitude because they represent God’s action in the community to “awaken interest” or “arouse respect.”6

Still some might say that imitation will not work in the age of authenticity. If authenticity is the virtue of our age, and authenticity is defined by a kind of autonomy which is buffered from any outside authority or relationship, how does one cultivate a faith in the language of a received tradition? One possible way is to highlight innovation’s role in imitation. Every instance of actually and voluntarily following the example of others involves imitation and innovation, both following and going in a new way. It has to be because the circumstances responded to will always be slightly different. Without innovation, imitation becomes hypocrisy. Historically, the Church has been more comfortable with imitation than innovation. But in a secular age, we need both. We may not be able to control whether or not young people like Mike’s sons will find faith in God believable in a secular age, but we can connect them to significant individuals who have responded to Christ’s call and walked the path of faith ahead of them in ways that might tempt them to believe themselves. We can also encourage them to innovate on those examples and Christ’s own example thereby enriching what we understand faith in the modern world to be. Perhaps if we do both well, their faith as well as our own will hold steady in the cross-pressures of the secular age.

—–

Footnotes:

1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 25.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Ibid., 3.
4. Ibid., 475.
5. James K.A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 133.
6. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Trans. G.W. Bromiley, IV/3.2 (Peabody, Mass: 2010), 888-889.

 


Wasson

Jon Wasson is ordained in the PC(USA) and serves as the Associate Pastor for Discipleship at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. He earned his M.Div. and M.A. from Princeton Theological Seminary and is primarily interested in Christian ethics and formation. He also cheers regularly for Arsenal. You can follow him on Twitter @jonwasson.

The “Real” Argument

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM. This is the second of a three part series. Read the first part here and the third part here.


In his wonderfully comprehensive work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes how we moved from a world where it was difficult not to believe in God to a world where it’s difficult to believe in God—where “belief in God is no longer axiomatic.”1 In doing so, he pushes against what he calls “subtraction stories” which try to explain this shift as merely a subtraction of God or transcendence—that is, things we can’t know based on rules and laws—from the equation.2

In many ways, I was operating with a subtraction story in the way I responded to my teammate at the shot put ring. For Taylor, it’s not just that God has been subtracted. Certain obstacles have also been added. When we operate using subtraction stories, we tend to add certain faith commitments as well. This addition and subtraction creates conditions in which we can contest the existence of God.

In our concern over objects and verification, we were only haunted, at best, by the subject outside the conversation (namely, God)… Even though I thought I was introducing my teammate to God by offering explanations for everything, I was pretty much just rearranging the furniture.

For Taylor, the emergence of subtraction stories comes from a shift in the way humans perceive themselves and reality. Instead of seeing ourselves as beings who are influenced by a transcendent reality, we have built walls to shut out transcendence. Taylor calls this the “buffered self”3 because the self has become “buffered” from being influenced by the transcendent. Instead, the buffered self creates rational explanations for reality in order to keep a safe distance from the “supernatural.” The mind and our ability to apprehend correctly the reality of the physical world in front of us has become what is most important. The immanent—the reality which can be found in the physical world—has surpassed the transcendent. Instead of seeing reality as comprising both the supernatural and the natural, the buffered self can only see the natural because of its frame of reference. Taylor calls this frame of reference the “immanent frame.”4

In the immanent frame, the immanent is “real” and the transcendent is just strange. The buffered self in the immanent frame thrives on the separation of immanence and transcendence, natural and supernatural. The buffered self is still “haunted by transcendence,”5 but nevertheless prefers what can be verified and measured over what cannot. This doesn’t mean the immanent frame excludes transcendence, but it is much happier to relegate it to a secondary position and speak of its “effects” in the world of experience. Think of love, for example. The things we love are more real to us than love itself. Love, we think, is emotional and not rational, so it has to be secondary. But love haunts the lover. We know in our bones that this thing we cannot explain, this idea that we cannot verify is still somehow real.

The transcendence that haunts us is as real as the immanent frame, but in the immanent frame we flatten both transcendence and immanence into objects that we can manipulate, control, and—if we’re just rational enough—understand. Of course it is appealing to imagine that we can apprehend reality in this way. As Taylor writes, “Objectification of the world gives a sense of power…which is intensified by every victory of instrumental reason.”6 If we could just objectify the transcendent—just wrangle it to use in our arguments—then, maybe, we could win. But when we use the transcendent as an instrument of the immanent, it loses its transcendence. It feels good to win the argument, but when we think that “winning” an argument about the existence of God is winning indeed, we risk leaving God out of the conversation altogether.

Taylor helps us see that my conversation with my teammate at the shot put ring was not actually a two-sided battle between theism and atheism. No. It was a domestic dispute, a civil war, between two people living in a world of immanence. In our concern over objects and verification, we were only haunted, at best, by the subject outside the conversation (namely, God). In this sense, as opponents in a debate, we were still very much teammates, and not just on the track team. Both the questions and the answers were warmed within the (mostly) insulated walls of the immanent frame. Even though I thought I was introducing my teammate to God by offering explanations for everything, I was pretty much just rearranging the furniture.

—–

Footnotes:

1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 3.
2. Ibid, 22.
3. Ibid, 38.
4. As he explains it, “..the buffered identity…moves in a constructed social space, where instrumental rationality is a key value, and time is pervasively secular. All of this makes up what I want to call ‘the immanent frame.’” Ibid, 542.
5. See James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 3-10.

 

Read the first part here and the third part here.


Ellis 2

Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PCUSA settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.

Winning?

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM. This is the first of a three part series. 

Read part two and part three.


In high school I was on the track and field team, throwing shot put and discus. Most of us throwers got to the track early and just hung out waiting for our coach before practice. As a bunch of bored high school throwers, our conversations were rarely substantive. But one day, the conversation reached a little deeper level.

One of the guys on the team, a freshman, was an atheist. I was a Christian. And not just any Christian—I was the Christian club president, a leader in my youth group, and an aspiring pastor looking forward to going to Christian college. You can probably guess where this is heading. We found ourselves in a little debate. You could say it became an argument (at the time, I would’ve I called it “witnessing”). Our debate ranged from the historicity of the apostle Paul, to the scientific plausibility of the resurrection, to the “intelligently designed” creation of the world. My teammate (my opponent in this debate), raised some big challenges, but I’d read my Josh McDowell, so I had an answer for everything! Every challenge my atheist teammate brought to the table, I met with unbridled confidence (the best confidence that ignorance can buy). This is how I had been taught to engage in these conversations.

Winning!? Is that what was going on? Is that what we should call it when someone can answer every question? Is that the win?

My teammate tried to refute the bodily resurrection of Christ, claiming its scientific implausibility and bringing up other possible rational explanations for the historical data, and I quickly shut him down—“if you’re willing to believe these outlandish explanations, why can’t you believe the one that says God did it?” He brought up evolution and I shut him down by giving him some odds (Lord knows where I got them)—“life springing up randomly from lifeless material is as likely as putting 1,000 monkeys in a room of computers and having them invent Microsoft” (I still wonder where I heard that one).

As the conversation went on, another member of our team showed up. Behind the sound of my arrogant rambling, I heard him ask a bystander, “What are they talking about?”

“They’re arguing about God… and Wes is winning.”

This has stuck with me ever since—“…Wes is winning”—and even at the time it struck me as problematic. Winning!? Is that what was going on? Is that what we should call it when someone can answer every question? Is that the win?

I would like to suggest that having the answer to every question is not, in fact, the win, but the problem. We, as Christians, should be concerned when we find ourselves too confident and too quick to respond to every question. We believe, after all, in a transcendent God—a God of mystery who runs deeper than any of our rational and immanent explanations. By “immanent,” here, I am talking about the world of material objects—things we can “know” according to rules and laws. The immanent is the side of reality that can be verified, falsified, and generalized. However, reality includes not only immanence but also transcendence—that part of reality that doesn’t consist of material objects and rules of verifiability. Natural sciences that take their bearings only from what can be verified and/or falsified in the physical world, cannot speak fully of reality. But when it comes to challenges and questions from science and rationality, we are far too eager to offer scientific and rational explanations. Confronted with immanent questions, we offer immanent answers.

When we try to respond to these immanent questions by offering proofs for the existence of God, then transcendence—that which is beyond neat explanation and eludes the categories of “proof”– is excluded from the conversation. Indeed we conflate the transcendent—we conflate God—into the immanence of what human beings know and construct, and in doing so, we cast God in our image. This is exactly what was happening in my conversation with my teammate by the shot put ring. My teammate had immanent challenges—“prove it!”—and I had immanent answers—“here’s some odds and statistics that prove the resurrection happened!” As I saw it, he’d taken God out and I was simply going to put God back in. But the truth is, I wasn’t just facing the absence of God, I was facing a whole matrix of epistemic obstacles to the very thought of God—a matrix of beliefs (not just unbelief) and ways of seeing the world from which I myself was not exempt but to which I was blind. I was facing a way of thinking—a way we’re all prone to think, really—that univocally associates the “real” with the immanent. By indulging immanent concerns without any transcendent response, I was not “winning” anything. I was, in fact, reifying the very structure of knowledge that gives rise to the contestability of faith in God in the first place. Though youth ministry taught me to defend God’s existence, in reality, I wasn’t faced with the immanent problem of the existence of God, I was faced with the transcendent problem of meaning.

So what is the real win? Even though I “won” the argument with my teammate, he remained an atheist and I remained arrogantly protected from his doubts and concerns. We talked a whole lot about God, but nothing in our debate was open to an encounter with God. How did we get to this place? How did God get excluded from the conversation about God? And how can youth ministry find its way back to God in its conversation about God?

 

Read part two and part three.

 


Ellis 2

Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PCUSA settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.

You Don’t Have Time Not To Read: Books to Read in 2016

One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself, and one of the most underrated responsibilities we have as youth workers, is to read. And yes—you heard me correctly. Reading is a responsibility we have as youth workers—not to know everything there is to know, but to be willing to continually educate ourselves and learn from other people who’ve labored on our behalf to discern the obstacles we face in ministry, the questions we should be asking, and the practices that will enable us to faithfully participate in Christ’s ministry to the world.

Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “But who’s got time to read? I’m too busy getting stuff done to sit and read a whole book.” I’d like to suggest that you may not have time not to read. As youth workers, we extend ourselves—often, to our limits. We rarely have time to analyze everything on our own and do our own research. We need each other. We need other people who are passionate about faithfully engaging in the task of ministry. Perhaps especially, we need those who’ve dedicated years of their lives to researching the questions we don’t have time to answer on our own. Enter the practice of reading.

So my challenge to you, in 2016, is to start a reading list… and, more importantly, starting reading the books that are on it! To help you get started, here’s a short list of books you may not have gotten around to reading quite yet.

Woo: Awakening Teenagers’ Desire to Follow in the Way of Jesus
by Morgan Schmidt

Morgan Schmidt should be considered one of the most creative up-and-coming minds in youth ministry. In Woo, Schmidt teaches us what it might mean for us to actually honor the desires of young people and to trust that God has something to do with why those desires exist in the first place. This book doesn’t offer a lot of methods or strategies. What it does offer might be even more valuable: a posture for ministry that takes the youth in youth ministry seriously.

Saying is Believing
by Amanda Hontz Drury

In youth ministry, we spend a lot of time talking to young people. At youth group gatherings, camps, conferences, and church services, we’re really good at telling young people about Jesus. But we’re not so good at listening. Generally speaking, we don’t spend enough time actually allowing young people to talk about their experience of God… nor have we really figured out how to do that. In Saying is Believing, Amanda Hontz Drury—who is truly one of the top minds in youth ministry right now—teaches us the importance of testimony: allowing and helping young people share their story and talk about God’s action in their life.

The Theological Journey Through Youth Ministry
series by Andrew Root

Reading is a responsibility we have as youth workers. Whatever you do decide to read, may you continue to learn and to discern your role in God’s ministry to the world—especially to the young people in your life.

Theology can be tough reading. And sometimes it’s not obvious how theology would (or should) impact the way we do ministry. In this series of short books, Andrew Root helps us think theologically about ministry… and he does so not through dogmatic sketches or explanations of doctrine but though story telling. In this series you’ll follow a young youth worker named Nadia as she navigates the common but challenging theological questions of youth ministry. It won’t take long for you to see yourself in Nadia’s experience and to begin thinking through your own theological questions about ministry.

Beyond the Screen
by Andrew Zirschky

This book is on my reading list for 2016. I haven’t read it yet, but I am familiar enough with Zirschky’s research and his ability as a writer to confidently say that this book will profoundly impact the way you think about the role of technology and social media in your ministry. Zirschky approaches the challenges posed to us by technology with a level head. He doesn’t demonize technology, nor does he demonize the young people for whom it is so ubiquitous. Instead, he sees young people’s use of technology and social media as a real source of meaning and a real location of divine action. If we can patiently look through the screen, to the real desires and passions beyond it, we may discover that the church has something to learn and something to offer.

In The Name of Jesus
by Henri J. M. Nouwen

This is not, strictly speaking, a “youth ministry” book. Nor is it as new as the other books on this list. But In The Name of Jesus is one of the greatest contributions from one of the greatest pastoral guides in history. Nouwen surprises us on every page as he helps us navigate three great temptations in ministry: relevance, spectacle, and power.

 

I offer these books as a suggested starting place for your ministry reading list. There are a million other books that would help you to discern best practices and to think theologically about your ministry. Whatever you do decide to read, may you continue to learn and to discern your role in God’s ministry to the world—especially to the young people in your life.

 

 

Ellis 2Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PCUSA settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.

Bulk Up Your 2015 Reading List!

Bulk Up Your 2015 Reading List!

The Age of the Spirit – Phyllis Tickle & Jon M. Sweeney

Matt Laidlaw recommends this book as an alternative reading about the rise of the nones, as gift from the Holy Spirit rather than a threat to the church.

Why Be a Christian (if No One Goes to Hell)? – Daniel Meeter

Millason Dailey worked through this book with college students and it brought up great discussions about all of the positive reasons that someone would want to be a Christian.

The Dream Giver – Bruce Wilkinson

Nathaniel Brooks loves the way this book draws readers out of the land of the familiar.

Leading Congregational Change – Jim Herrington and Mike Bonem

Tamieka N. Gerow recommends this book to help ministers prepare their congregations for change.