Doing Too Much

As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!


A Day in the Life

Alarm goes off. Scroll. Rush through breakfast. Fight with a parent. Fight with a sibling. Forget something, go back inside. Scroll. Text friends. Crack jokes, text crush. Whine, compare, gossip. Text parent. Go to class. Go to practice. Text more. Flirt. Go to band. Text for a ride. Video games. Post. Tweet. Homework. Scroll. Part-time job. Netflix. Get home from the game. Lie about grades. Shoot, we forgot youth group is tonight. Hulu. Do homework. Stress out about homework. Text more. Post. Scroll. Sleep.

The lives of our students can be a big jumble of going from here to there, doing many things that matter and plenty of things that don’t. We know they’re busy but we also really need them to come to Sunday school or pay attention during tonight’s talk. Sometimes we’re not exactly helping.

Too Much Noise

I declare we talk too much. We’re going, doing, making, being, buying, selling, or showing. We’re always talking, with an endless chatter. We text too much, we go out too much, we post too much, we practice and we perform too much. Whatever it is, we do too much.

Our youth especially do too much. Whether activities are good or bad, all of our business is rudely interrupted by the season of Lent. We began this time before Easter by imposing ashes with a refrain about dust as if to say “You’re going to die, here’s a cross so you don’t forget.” Our limits are all put on display with the knowledge that despite our best efforts, ultimately there is nothing we can do. And we all chatter on.

Facing Finitude

Perhaps we do so many activities and errands because of the fact that we will die. Older European philosophers like Heidegger or Kierkegaard, along with Anglo-American thinkers like Ernst Becker, suggest that human action is driven by the “denial of death.” The ways in which we are distracted, anxious, active, controlling, dominating, fearful, proud—or anything, really—are driven by our inevitable end. To an extent, this isn’t wrong. The Christian faith doesn’t deny this truth that people act out in a variety of ways because of their limited time upon the earth.

Our youth are just as driven by death as we are, whether they’re aware of it or not. We create the culture of numbing, achievement, entertainment, or acquisition they imbibe.

Yet the Bible clearly labels death as a problem. Romans 8:21 says creation is “in bondage to decay,” while in 7:24 Paul cries out to be saved “from this body of death.” Like sin, death is one of the powers that Jesus is openly in conflict with. For in Romans 6:9, Paul claims, “Death no longer has any dominion” over Jesus because of his resurrection. For the New Testament, says Fleming Rutledge, death is “experienced as a condemnation and defeat at the hands of God’s Enemy” (The Crucifixion, 405). Death is a power not only as it claims people at their end, but death is also “an annihilating agency capable of commandeering humans agents to do its work” (The Crucifixion, 203). Co-opted as agents of death, perhaps this brings to mind the more outrageous instances of violence and injustice. It could also be far more mundane.

The Pressure of Performance

Denying death causes busyness and distraction. Our youth are just as driven by death as we are, whether they’re aware of it or not. We create the culture of numbing, achievement, entertainment, or acquisition they imbibe. If they’re anxious, driven, overly distracting or entertained, it is because we were before them. This is why they do too much.

The closest thing we have to an answer for this constant movement is Sabbath. Not a hard stop, but a rest for a short while. Sabbath plays a large role in our faith and story. In the Exodus story, God hears the cries of the oppressed Israelites and liberates them from Egypt. God not only liberates the Israelites, but in particular God saved them from the cruel amount and conditions of work put on them by Pharaoh and his anxiety (Exodus 5:1–14). When the people are freed and gathered at Sinai, the Lord gives the people the essential commandment to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8–11). This new commandment is a gift they didn’t receive in Egypt. God gives them the Sabbath as a way to stop in order to be “an alternative society that stands outside of the predatory anxiety that requires endless production and performance” (Walter Brueggemann, Ice Axes for Frozen Seas, 272). Our youth are entirely aware of this production and performance in their own lives.

Sitting with God

There is nothing we can do about our death, yet there is nothing we need to do for God’s favor either, and we practice this in the Sabbath.

We are invited to stop and rest in the Sabbath, setting this time aside as holy to spend with God. The Sabbath is a time where we do not have to perform, earn, control, or attempt anything and we stop checking our phones, not worry about grades, refrain from checking ourselves in the mirror. We are invited to no longer curate our Instagram posts for attention, vie for love or respect, be attractive, prove our worth, or struggle to protect ourselves from any vulnerability. We are invited not to be made anxious by death, but to spend time with the Creator of our limited lives. We don’t have to work so hard to keep anxiety at bay. We instead have the chance to be still and realize the Lord our God is there in the silence, caring for us no matter what we do or how long we live. There is nothing we can do about our death, yet there is nothing we need to do for God’s favor either, and we practice this in the Sabbath.

It’s hard for anyone to sit still at first, or to be quiet when we’re used to talking or doing. Whether the need to constantly check the phone, check our looks in the mirror, or constantly try to be the most popular person in the room, there’s a sense of searching. Are these searchings not longings for God? In the Sabbath, in silence and reflection, or prayer, we can rest in the presence of the God who is near, and the God who loves us so much as to undergo death in Christ Jesus.

Sounds of Silence

I practice this in ministry by leading my students in worship through Taizé-style music. After teaching a simple melody, we will sing one or two refrains about our longing for God, over and over again. It’s unhelpful to demand an abrupt silence, so it’s a good practice to get quieter and sparser as the song goes on, winding down with a capella refrains, and ending with a prolonged time of quiet. Some kids understandably struggle at first. I’ve found that the kids who need it the most are the ones who respond most positively.

During Lent, because there’s nothing we can do about death, we’re reminded our death is worth pondering, because this season points towards the time when Christ is going to do something about it. Our anxiety about death could actually be a reminder about our longing for our Creator.

Commenting on this anxiety and our search for God, the poet Christian Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss:

It is as if each us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music that, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we give to other things. It is not hard to hear this as music, but it is very difficult to learn to hear it as music. (92)

The anxiety of death could be overplayed by the music of God’s grace seeking us out, and what our youth yearn for. May we all stop and rest in the presence and love of God, the Maker and Sustainer of our limited lives.

 


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Adam Ogg has his M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He loves investigating how theology interacts with the world and informs our faith. Adam is particularly passionate about finding a good coffee shop to read in.

How Prayer Works

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.


The Effects of Prayer

After my encounter with Lord B., I was convicted. I couldn’t remember ever praying about the environment. Was that something I was supposed to do? Surely these were matters that belonged within the walls of government, or perhaps just left alone to the heavens. There was a reason we called things like earthquakes “acts of God,” right? But something about this boy’s prayer rattled me. I could feel myself getting drawn into this bigger world he was speaking of.

Within the church today there are multiple Christian truisms concerning the ways in which prayer changes the one who prays—often said with an element of surprise: I prayed that God would change my neighbor but I found that I was in fact the one who changed! We might be praying about an external situation, but often we find that we are the ones who are changed. The early twentieth century evangelist, Oswald Chambers, writes on the purpose of prayer, claiming: “To say that ‘prayer changes things’ is not as close to the truth as saying, ‘Prayer changes me and then I change things.’”

How Prayer Works

Pope Francis has a more active understanding of what prayer does. He made headlines recently with his explanation: “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them, that is how prayer works.” While Christians have a rich history of praying for God to intervene, we are continually reminded with quotes like Pope Francis on how prayer changes us. So perhaps Pope Francis and Oswald Chambers together give us the clearest understanding of prayer: when we pray, we are changed. Both through implicit internal forces at work within us, as well as explicitly chosen actions to compliment our prayers.

Pope Francis has a more active understanding of what prayer does… “You pray for the hungry, than you feed them, that is how prayer works.”

This amalgamation of Christian thought might be explained differently by various threads within the social sciences. J. L. Austin speaks of the “speech act,” whereby one’s words actually create a new reality. Herbert Simons uses “persuasion theory” to explain how we talk ourselves into what we think. My research has focused on testimony and how the words we use don’t just describe the past but actually help construct our present identities.

Can Prayer Change the World?

It’s with these understandings in mind that I began to wonder: Could praying about the environment really make a difference? Sure, I can pray that God would miraculously keep icebergs from melting, but is it possible my prayers for the environment could turn me into a more mindful steward of creation? And if so, what would it look like to invite young minds to join me in this prayerful endeavor? What would it look like for our teenagers to pray about the environment? And to pray in such a way that they are changed?

In my small world of youth ministry we pray about a lot of things. And other than occasional prayer requests that revolve around natural disasters, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a request made for the environment. We pray for safety, we pray over exams, we pray for fragile relationships, but matters concerning the stewardship of creation seem more properly relegated to Washington, D.C., than in the youth room.

I volunteer at the youth group of my local church. Every week our youth pastor collects prayer requests from the teenagers and distributes them to volunteers like myself. Over the past year alone, 1,740 prayer requests were recorded.1 The kinds of requests they made are seen below:

Type of Request Number
Prayers concerning school or work situations 713
Prayers concerning relationships (family, friends, etc.) 458
Illness/death related concerns 220
Travel/safety requests 166
Prayers to grow closer to God 85
Prayers concerning future decisions (i.e. where to go to college) 66
Praises or thanksgiving 19
Prayers directly or indirectly related to the environment 13
TOTAL 1740

Here’s a snapshot of what these prayers for the environment look like when broken down further:

Type of Environmental Request Number
Simple requests for “the weather” 5
Prayers that we would have warm weather 4
Prayers for houses that burnt down 2
Prayer for a house flood 1
Prayer concerning general flooding 1
TOTAL 13

Bringing God into the Picture

Teenagers hear about environmental issues in various educational settings, but how might we integrate their knowledge with a prayerful spirit? How might knowledge prompt both prayers and actions? Educational insights do not necessarily morph their way into our prayers, and we now know from experience that scare tactics concerning California disappearing or extinct polar bears are not effective. In fact, many of these tactics simply backfire.

Teenagers hear about environmental issues in various educational settings, but how might we integrate their knowledge with a prayerful spirit? How might knowledge prompt both prayers and actions?

A 2014 article from The New York Times explains, “More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization.” This is particularly true among religious Americans. “Messages focused on extreme weather events,” the Times explains, “made many Americans more likely to view climate change as an act of God—something to be weathered, not prevented” (which one might argue is a throw-back to the fatalism tied up with linking the Bubonic Plague as an act of God—something to be weathered, not prevented).

Additionally, it’s one thing to be aware of environmental concerns, it’s another thing to act upon those concerns. The New York Times story continues:

“Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern,” the researchers wrote, “they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.”2

What if we could speak of the environment in such a way that it prompts mindful prayer and responsible action? What might it look like to cultivate a practice of prayer and the environment?

Prayer and Stories

My teenagers pray about the things they care about. These prayer requests are birthed within and passed on in narrative form. A story arrests our attention and creeps into our prayers. My hunch is that all of the prayer requests shared have a story attached.

Pray for my grandma. Ever since my grandpa died she hasn’t wanted to eat.

I’ve got a big test coming up and there’s no way I can study everything.

Stories help us identify what we care about and why it matters. We are formed (or malformed) by narratives. It’s stories like “Cinderella” or “Snow White” that paint for us a mental image of the cruelty of stepmothers.3 This leads me to the question: What if we could turn science into a story?

Sharing Stories

I care about the polluted soil in the food desert of Camden, New Jersey. However, I pray about the polluted soil in Camden, New Jersey, when I hear the 17-year-old boy explain how his family can’t even grow vegetables in their own backyard. And I become downright incensed when I hear the story of the large, million-dollar corporations responsible for the hazardous toxins, which have since relocated, leaving poisoned soil in their wakes.

I care about the inefficient energy zones within my hometown. However, I pray and I act when I hear the stories of the people within these houses. In May 2011, The Vectren Foundation partnered with my city to identify the least energy efficient parts of the city. Ultimately, they focused their attention on a part of the city stretching out across roughly 30 blocks and geographically shaped like a giant “7”.

I can comprehend the problem of inefficient energy. But my attitude towards the problem changes when I hear the stories of the 844 children who are living within “The Magnificent Se7en” and have holes in their roof so large they can see the sky without stepping outside.

Stories Transform Prayer into Action

When we take a storied approach to our environment, we organically find ourselves in a richer landscape that goes beyond the physical terrain of the land.

I watched as a whole church full of congregants went from consumers of educational information to advocates for making our town better by insulating 100 homes within the region designated by Vectren. Stories change how we pray. Stories change how we act.

When we story our land we care for the environment differently. We also care for our neighbors differently. When we take a storied approach to our environment, we organically find ourselves in a richer landscape that goes beyond the physical terrain of the land. We also find ourselves bumping into complex issues of race, economics, religion, and gender.4

When we expose our youth to the stories embedded within our land, we are implicitly, and perhaps explicitly, calling them to be both prayerfully present to what is occurring as well as to become involved in attempting to answer those prayers. Because first we pray about our carbon footprint, and then we actively work to reduce that footprint. This is how prayer works.

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Footnotes:

1. Thank you to Pastor Matt Beck for compiling these requests, and to Pastor Anderson Kursonis for cataloguing them as well as offering fantastic suggestions and assisting me in the writing process.

2. Originally published in Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, “‘Fear Won’t Do It’: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations” Science Communication, March 2009, 30:355–379, first published on January 7, 2009. Quoted in The New York Times:

What works, say environmental pollsters and researchers, is focusing on popular solutions. Climate advocates often do this, arguing that solar and wind can reduce emissions while strengthening the economy.

One recent study, published by Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project, found that conservatives become less skeptical about global warming if they first read articles suggesting nuclear energy or geoengineering as solutions. Another study, in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2012, concluded that “communication should focus on how mitigation efforts can promote a better society” rather than “on the reality of climate change and averting its risks.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 9, 2014, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: “Global Warming Scare Tactics.” http://cstpr.colorado.edu/students/envs_4800/oneill_2009.pdf, Accessed March 1, 2017.

3. Alisdair McIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, third edition. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

4. For more, see Jennings’ work on linking landscape and race. Willie James Jennings. Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

 


Amanda Drury (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) has been in youth ministry for about fifteen years. She serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University where she lives with her husband and three children. She is the author of Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Formation, and is currently serving as director of Examen, a summer theological institute for high school students, and The Brain Kitchen, a non-profit organization in Marion, Indiana serving children with after-school mentoring and cooking classes in a trauma-informed environment.

Adventures with Lord B.

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.


Prayer Walk

In July 2006 I found myself in Niagara Falls, NY, with my middle schoolers for a mission trip. Prior to our trip I was told that the New York side of Niagara Falls was poverty stricken. I was given the statistics that between 70–80% of all buildings in this area were abandoned. Quite honestly, I assumed this statistic was an exaggeration—it wasn’t. I’ve been in a lot of big cities. I’ve come to expect the run-down neighborhoods, the crime-infested sections of the city, etc. What made Niagara Falls so different was that the entire city was run down. There were no nice areas. No thriving areas. Just deserted building after deserted building.

After working in a soup kitchen, my youth group and I went for a prayer walk. The concept of a prayer walk is simple. As you walk, you pray about the things that catch your attention. This was something new for my teenagers, as the majority of them had never even prayed out loud before. Mysteriously, their prayers seemed to reflect their current needs. So with a soaring heat index, the teenagers began to pray, “Please let people here have air conditioning so they’re not so hot.” And as our feet grew tired: “Lord, please give people cars so they don’t have to walk everywhere.”

Lord B.

Ten minutes into our walk, we met Lord B. At least, that’s how he introduced himself. Lord B.

“I’m sorry, what was your name?” I asked.

I couldn’t remember ever praying about the environment. Was that something I was supposed to do? Surely these were matters that belonged within the walls of government, or perhaps just left alone to the heavens.

“Lord B.”

“Uh, could you spell that?”

“L-O-R-D space B period,” he said.

“Oh.” I continued, “What does the B stand for?”

“Nothing. It’s Lord B. Just Lord B. L-O-R-D space B period. Lord B.”

“Got it.”

Lord B., a skinny black kid who lived in the neighborhood, claimed to be eleven, though I had a difficult time believing he was older than nine.

“Do you want to walk with us?” I asked him.

“Lord B. doesn’t pass up a chance to hang out with chicks.” He declared with confidence. I took it as a yes.

Unexpected Muscles

Only five feet into our walk Lord B. posed a question: “Do you want to see my muscles?”

“Sure,” the girls giggled. He pulled up his shirt and the laughter stopped. Though he was flexing his abs with abundant force, our eyes were drawn just above his belly button where a thick tube measuring about four inches was protruding from his skin.

“What is that?” one girl asked. He made a face as if she had just asked him what that fuzzy black stuff was on top of his head. “It’s my feeding tube. I used to be sick, but not anymore.”

“Why do you still have it?” she continued.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. They just haven’t taken it out yet.”

And that was that.

An Inconvenient Prayer

The praying and walking continued. And after listening to the students pray for the government and that people would find jobs, Lord B. announced that he wanted to pray. And so he did.

With his eyes wide open he looked to the sky and shouted—I mean shouted—“Dear Lord! Please get rid of all these cars. Get these cars off the street so we don’t ruin the atmosphere. Get rid of cars so we can get rid of the pollution and save our ozone layer…” Lord B. went on and explained to God how pollution worked in a way that would have made Al Gore proud.

After he shouted his “Amen!” we were strangely quiet. The students were a little rattled that this scrawny kid from a shack of a house and a useless feeding tube was praying about the environment.

“Lord (B.), Teach Us to Pray”

That summer of 2006 I was convicted. I couldn’t remember ever praying about the environment. Was that something I was supposed to do? Surely these were matters that belonged within the walls of government, or perhaps just left alone to the heavens. There was a reason we called things like earthquakes “acts of God,” right? But something about this boy’s prayer rattled me. I could feel myself getting drawn into this bigger world he was speaking of.

I’m glad all of my prayers don’t get answered. I’m glad that most of my prayers don’t get answered. Because sometimes, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be praying for.

 


Amanda Drury (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) has been in youth ministry for about fifteen years. She serves as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University where she lives with her husband and three children. She is the author of Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Formation, and is currently serving as director of Examen, a summer theological institute for high school students, and The Brain Kitchen, a non-profit organization in Marion, Indiana serving children with after-school mentoring and cooking classes in a trauma-informed environment.

I Do Declare

As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!


Declaration

What does it mean to declare? The first thing that came to my mind was a huffy southern belle saying, “I do declare!” as she dramatically throws her scarf over her shoulder. I don’t know where that image comes from. I tried to Google it to see if it was a thing, but to no avail.

Yet, somehow this image has permeated my thoughts. When we talk about how things are declared, we often talk about presentation. And even my feminist mind first came up with a caricature of a woman’s presentation. Yet, to declare is one of the most important things a person can do. Making a declaration says, “I’m here! I matter! And you will SEE me!” A declaration says that what one has to say has value.

A declaration from a Christian says even more. It recognizes that the reason we matter is because the imago Dei lives within us. And as bearers of the image of God and followers of Jesus Christ, we have particular responsibilities. We must declare the love of Jesus Christ. We must declare truth to the lies in the world. We must live a life that declares that Jesus is Lord and help bring forth the liberation of all people.

How do Christians empower teen girls to make declarations? After all, there is no age or gender requirement. Teen girls also have the responsibility of Christian declaration. When doing so, it is important not just to focus on how, but to go deeper. Here’s one way to do so, with three statements of encouragement for girls that are struggling to find their declarative voice:

Take Thou Authority

It is a beautiful thing to watch a UMC ordination when the bishop lays hands on the one being ordained and says, “Take thou authority . . . ” In this instance, the notion of authority focuses on leadership, the power to command and determine or adjudicate over disputes. Church leaders have a particular role they need to play that requires them to take their authority.

So, don’t ask, “Who am I to say this?” You are God’s daughter. Make declarations. You matter, your voice is worthy of being heard, and God has given you important things to say. Declare them with authority.

However, I often think about this charge in another way, a way that makes these words a command for all Christians—understanding authority as a person who has been authorized or given a charge. Someone who has been given a task from a greater entity. All Christians have been given a commission to spread the love of Christ and to be God’s hands and feet on this earth. So, don’t ask, “Who am I to say this?” You are God’s daughter. Make declarations. You matter, your voice is worthy of being heard, and God has given you important things to say. Declare them with authority.

Take Thou Passion

We live in a world where there are so many things that need to be declared. So much wrongdoing exists in this world. If one sought to declare truth to every lie told, one would have “declare fatigue.” So, girls should ask themselves, “What is it that God has tasked me with? What are my passions? What resonates or speaks to me in a particular way?” We ought to be teaching girls how to identify these things.

When I taught high school, my favorite assignment was the protest project. This project has taken on many different forms, but usually, I presented tons of topics, encouraged students to read the paper for a week, and ask them to talk to their parents about things that were problematic in the world. They would then pick an issue, research it, explain why it was a problem, tell me why I should care, identify an organization that is working on the problem, and present one small way we (in the room) could contribute to the solution. If we were in a Christian setting, I would ask students to show how fighting against this helps to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Why do Christians need to be concerned about this (other than because we are people that should care about things)?

The passion that arose from some of those projects was palpable. It often derived from shock that something they could not fathom was happening. Being exposed lit some students on fire. Information and knowledge kindled passion, and some declared the important of a particular issue long after the project was due. Some of the ones who were set on fire might move onto something else later. Many of those who did the assignment and went onto the next thing might ultimately find a cause that speaks to them. We aren’t always passionate about the same things for our entire lives! But we all can have something to say about something, and we should encourage girls to be prayerful about what God desires them to declare.

Take Thou Personality

We are not all public speakers. Some of us are organizers. Some of us are solid foot soldiers. We declare with our actions depending on our God given personalities. So we ought to teach girls to trust in the personality that God has given them. What are the gifts they have? What are their strengths? God may call Nia and Rosa to declare similar things, but in very different ways. We should teach girls to lean into that and model the value of both Nia and Rosa by highlighting diverse personalities as valid methods of declaration.

You: Declare!

Teen girls are often given cookie cutter ways of making their declaration or being in general. Let’s throw the cookie cutter away. One’s declaration is as unique as the person making it. What you have to share is important and it is a unique declaration that God has given you for your context in your time. So say it loud. Or say it softly. Either way, declare it! And make space for teen girls to do the same.

 


Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. 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.

To Whom Does My Body Belong?

This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.


When embracing embodied theology and embodied pedagogy with teens girls, a key question to ask is, “to whom does your body belong?” I have asked this question to girls and women, and the response I usually receive is, “me…I guess.” Then, I ask a follow up question: “What messages do you get about who your body belongs to?” The conversation tends to provide fertile ground for unpacking the many dangerous messages that girls hear about their bodies and its rightful owner. Girls receive very different answers from both the Church and wider culture about who their body belongs to.

The General Public

Women’s and girls’ bodies are often treated as public property open for critique. People make their careers judging the style of some women (mostly celebrities) going about their day and deciding who wore a particular outfit best. Entire articles are written on the weight, body structure, or new hairstyle of a famous woman without seeking her permission because, after all, why would you need to obtain it since her body belongs to the public? This is seen as a normal part of being in a woman in the public eye, no matter her profession.

In 2014, The Representation Project launched #askhermore preceding the Oscars. On a night supposedly dedicated to celebrating the best craft of actors, the questions to female actors were mostly about their appearance. Men were also asked who they were wearing, but rarely got asked to pose for the shoe cam, the nail cam, or asked how long it took to decide on their outfit for the evening. For the men, the question about their clothing was a segue into deeper discussion and a way to advertise the designer. For the women, it was the entire discussion.

Tired of this, the Representation Project charged interviewers to have a conversation about what a woman was doing or working on—to have a conversation about her craft and not her body or the adornment of it. This is one of the ways that groups have fought against the notion that women’s bodies belong to society in general and are therefore available for others to peruse, admire, discuss, and critique. In the usual way society treats women, even if a woman were to win an award, we would talk only briefly about the performance that got her there, and then spend much more time on the dress she wore as she reached the epitome of career achievement.

Women preachers often talk about the many comments they receive about their clothing as parishioners shake their hands on the way out of the door—comments that their male counterparts do not hear as a matter of course.

This happens often in Christian congregations as well. Women preachers often talk about the many comments they receive about their clothing as parishioners shake their hands on the way out of the door—comments that their male counterparts do not hear as a matter of course. I think that very few people would actually verbalize that one’s body belongs to the wider society, but their actions say otherwise. The female body as public property is not just about high profile women. Recently, women have been talking more about cat-calling and street harassment, only to be told that they should take these events as compliments. When a woman’s body is seen as public property, then it is perfectly within any man’s right to respond to her body however he feels fit. She, in turn, is expected to be grateful that her body is appreciated by the public because it is, after all, theirs.

The Men in Her Life

The story is told so often that it is cliché. The teen girl or young adult woman has a date, and waiting on the porch is the father (or uncle, older brother, or some other male authority figure) with a shotgun (literally or metaphorically). The male authority figure interrogates the male date until the latter is able to prove himself worthy of the date with the female. It is a negotiation between men, as if the young woman has no say at all in who she chooses to date. This type of negotiation has even been done by the sons of single mothers, thereby giving a level of ownership to a male who is not only much younger than the adult woman, but who, in actuality, she has authority over. This stems from a time when women were the legal property of their fathers or male elders before they were the property of their husbands—a tradition that still lives on in different cultures around the world.

While this tradition doesn’t legally exist in mainstream American culture, many men (and some women) still act as if it does. Worse, they act as if this tradition still should exist because they perceive it as better than a woman making her own choices. In faith traditions that celebrate Purity Balls and the like, the message is clear: Your body, and more specifically, your virginity belongs to your father or another male authority figure. He is responsible for it until you get married, and then it will belong to your husband. Either way, the decision of who a woman shares her body with is up to the men in her life.

It’s Her Body!

On the other hand, there is the mantra: “It’s her body. She can do with it whatever she wants.”  This mantra  seems to appear most when a woman is choosing to flaunt her body in a particular way. When a woman chooses to dress provocatively, there will be those who disagree with her choice of dress. Then, someone will come to her defense and say, “It’s her body. She can wear whatever she wants.” But this is often not a true recognition of her ownership because, in the same spirit, it will be said, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” This goes back to a woman’s body belonging to society. Because you have beautiful legs, you should flaunt it because the public has the right to see it.

If people really meant the phrase, “It’s her body,” then much of the conversation would not be engaged at all. There would be no need to embark on the conversation of whether a woman should flaunt it, cover it up, or paint it blue.

The same cries of “It’s her body” that apply to a woman in a barely-there outfit does not always seem to apply to a woman who chooses to dress conservatively. She, in contrast, is told to be a little less “frumpy,” to “show a little skin.” Why? Because it really isn’t her body as much as it is for the aesthetic pleasure for everyone around her. If people really meant the phrase, “It’s her body,” then much of the conversation would not be engaged at all. There would be no need to embark on the conversation of whether a woman should flaunt it, cover it up, or paint it blue. Instead, we would focus on empowering women and girls to decide how they want to show up in the world.

The Body as a Gift from God

What would I propose as the right answer to my question? The desire of many Christians is to say that the body belongs to God. While I see this as a step in the right direction, it is missing the mark because it does not give personal ownership. Instead, I choose to say that my body is a gift from God, but it is very much mine. As an analogy, I use my engagement and wedding rings. Of all the material things I possess, they are my prized possessions. I love and care for them because they are gifts from my husband and represent our love. But they are also very much mine. I can choose to hold them dear and treat them as precious, or I can choose to hock them at the local pawn shop even though I am not in financial turmoil. One is a better decision for me than the other, but the decision is mine because the rings are mine. However, it would be heartbreaking for me to hock them because I value them, and the main reason I value them is because I value the person who gave them to me. I value the relationship they represent, and how I care for them is a symbol about how I care for the relationship.

We all have different items we consider our prized possessions. Whether it’s the piece of jewelry that was passed down through generations and that you will pass down to a following generation or a gift given by a loved one before they passed away, we recognize its importance and may take extra special care of it because of our relationship with the giver. Even so, we recognize this prized possession as ours, and so it is with our bodies. My body is important. It houses the image of God. It houses my hopes, dreams, intellect, and it allows me to show up in the world. I care for my body and treat it as special because of all those things and because of the relationship I have with the God who gave it to me. When people see this body, I want them to see a representative of Jesus in the world. I want people to see this body as one that is supportive, one that stands up for justice and against oppression. This may mean that sometimes I place my body in harm’s way to protect another—a decision that may really frighten those who love me, but a decision I get to make because this body is mine. So, I do with it what I believe I am called to do.

Teaching Girls to Own Their Gift

We can empower girls to own their bodies from a very early age by not forcing children to hug people they do not want to. Whether at church or family functions, children should not be forced to hug people with whom they are not comfortable. And when we force a child to hug Aunt Becky, Minister Dave, or Santa Claus, we are teaching that child that they do not have control over their body, that they cannot stay within their comfort zone, and that what they do with their body is not completely up to them. This is a bad precedent to set. In more severe cases, children have been forced to embrace their abusers because they happen to be a member of their biological or church family. But even if the person we want our child to hug is completely safe, the child should still be able to make that decision on their own. At the very least, we should not teach a child not to trust her own instinct.

Opportunities for lessons on body ownership also come in elementary and middle school. When a girl complains about a boy hitting her or snapping her bra, the common societal reaction is to explain it away by telling the girl that the boy probably likes her and just can’t express it another way or by saying that “boys will be boys.” These responses send yet another lesson that a girl’s body is accessible for any boy to touch because he deems her worthy, and what’s more, she should feel flattered for being invaded in this way. In fact, she should not feel invaded, because her body is public property.

Teaching girls through discussion and giving them information to make their own decisions are great ways to have girls know how to own their God-given gift and treat their bodies well.

Instead of making decisions for a girl’s body, let’s make age-appropriate decisions with the girl. These decisions can be about dressing, activities, how she carries herself, her medical treatment, and so many other topics that range from benign to serious. Let’s teach each girl to grill her own dates so she can be in discussion with the elder men and women in her life after they have met the person. Teaching girls through discussion and giving them information to make their own decisions are great ways to have girls know how to own their God-given gift and treat their bodies well. Remind her that God gifted the body to her, and walk with her as she prayerfully discerns how God is calling her to show up in the world.


Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. 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.