As we prepared for the 2017 Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we asked various practitioners 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 and disruption into our lives and yours as we consider this calling together.
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.
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.
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.