I dont apologise for the questions this post might provoke. They are based upon the well meaning encouragement that has been directed my way at a few points over the last few years. The challenges in my current place of ministry are too numerous to mention, but they have led to its pending closure. However, generally in youth ministry, one of its benefits, and dangers is that its practitioners can have a strong sense of calling (Ord, 2012) and ongoing interwining of personal faith its practical outworking and also the ‘faith’ of the organisation, such as a church. Ordinarily that ‘faith’ is a key motivating factor (Ward, 1997). But what happens when things start to be challenging? difficult, damaging even?
What i find strange is that over the last year or so, at least three people have said to me, when things have been particularly tough, in their eyes, a phrase, that has meant well, it has been;
“In all of whats going on, dont lose your faith”
or a similar one
“Try not to lose your faith”
There is no doubt that the people saying these things to me were well meaning. Some i know more personally than others, and so to a point I am not questioning the genuine nature of the sentiment. Writing about this subject, and writing at time when I have been involved for 3 years in a challenging ministry that is about to close, amongst other personal and professional challenges, in undoubtedly difficult. Because of the closing allignment of personal faith and professional vocation, then situations of professional challenge, could, can have a personal impact. And this clearly is noted in this statement. Full time ministry challenges, in some areas, lead to personal faith dilemmas.
But it is only when working within what might be considered one of the evangelical youth ministry organisations that the phrases of ‘not losing your faith’ have been uttered to me. And it is this that has caused me to reflect, on the phrase and its use.
- The first thing i reflect on, is that the phrase “try not to lose your faith” seems to be used at a time of suffering, of personal or even during a personal/professional challenge – ie when a persons vocation in ministry is under threat. Now call me an evangelical, or at least an evangelical that has read the Bible, but it does look like suffering is part and parcel of life, and ‘ministry’. It affected the church in Smyrna, Paul, and was mentioned in most of the letters, not to mention Jesus’ own suffering. There are countless examples in the Old testament too of those who suffer being given the specific attention of God, through it, from Naomi, to Moses, to Joseph, to Job. This isnt western Christian persecution syndrome being described, but the more Biblical reality is that suffering is an inevitability. The problem is that, as Kevin Vanhoozer suggests, Suffering doesnt make a great advertising slogan. Suffering as part of faith doesnt feature very much in the Moral Therapeutic Deism rife in western evangelical churches ( Christian Smith, 2005, Shepherd, 2016). Yet it is Suffering that produces endurance and endurance hope – thats in the Bible. So – what is quite odd then, is that it seems like there is a trend in evangelical culture, that suffering and challenges might lead to a loss of faith. when the reality might be the opposite. It might strengthen it! Yes it might cause deep anguish, prayerful reflection and a crying out of new purpose – but that isnt ‘losing faith’ – its being true in faith to God. (This isnt true for everyone, i realise, somethings are so damaging, the questions so raw, that faith is lost. I am aware.)
- On a similar point, but the opposite. But one that I wont experience in evangelical circles. Does the ‘dont lose your faith’ ever get said when things might be actually going well? . But of course, no one loses their faith when things go well do they. No they might, like Rob Bell, and others, get so successful, so busy, that they get burn out, and that then becomes a personal issue to deal with, but would anyone have the temerity to say to a success preacher, teacher, pastor, minister or youth minister, at the ‘height’ of when things might be going well ‘try not to lose your faith’ – it would seem ridiculous, wouldnt it. Faith is only feared to be lost, apparently when suffering is being endured. Not when things are thriving in a ministry. Because of course, that wouldnt happen would it. When someone is ‘so professionally successful’ that them actually having a crisis of faith at the same time is highly unlikely… – what is more likely is that it become significantly for other people to understand that a crisis of faith is happening ; “because your ministry is thriving” , behind the scenes. Now i am in self-care, and accountability territory. And that is true, but so might a successful ministry not give someone the space to ask themselves the deep questions of ongoing meaning, of faith, destiny and purpose, because the successful activities of faith keep them at bay. No one would expect a crisis of faith during successful ministry, that would make it harder for others to deal with. During a period of suffering and challenge – oh yes. Those are the ‘dont lose your faith moments‘
- As I said I am speaking ‘in the middle’ of challenging situations. Not the first ones either, especially not in the world of christian ministry. It could easily be that other people might react differently. It would be easy to say that someone younger in the faith might react differently (and I have heard this said). What has been noted, that people have been quick to say ‘dont lose your faith’ – but to actually follow that up and do something to help has been less forthcoming. Its almost like giving someone an idea they hadnt thought of such as ‘dont run near the cliff’ and not take away their trainers and keep them on the low ground. Yes of course, that could just be the rebellious teenager speaking, – just doing the opposite to what someone says – but if in our pastoral or friendship moments to support others the question about their personal faith is questioned- shouldnt/couldnt we do more that just pronounce that they dont ‘lose it’? As I said, I am convinced that it isnt a phrase said without genuine well meaning. But, it might become, in evangelical circles as cliched, as ‘Ill pray for you’.
- Because this has only been said in certain evangelical circles, does it imply that the evangelical tradition in youth ministry has a track record of not only losing youth ministers through professional ‘endings’ but also because they have ‘lost their evangelical faith’ – not their faith perhaps, but they have left questioning their once held faith, and found faith that doesnt fit the evangelical box – but from those within the box it might be seen to be ‘lost’. or worse – liberal. Or even worse – academic and critical. But if losing evangelical faith becomes the ‘norm’ within the practices of evangelical youth ministry – then theres good reason why pronouncing that ‘not losing faith’ has a vocalised norm about it within that culture. Its a fear, because its been seen before. Systems and cultures arent changed to prevent it happening again. No, its the individual that ‘loses their faith’. and maybe more.
So, that all being said. Personal faith can take a pelting in a wide variety of situations, having it restored might need the support of those who have had similar experiences of losing evangelical faith, of falling off that denominational cliff edge, something i wrote on 6 months ago here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Kz. Maybe in a way, it can be helpful to separate to a point the personal faith, with the practiced faith of an organisation, but that its difficult and dangerous ground. As there are times the two are intertwined. Often in Christian youthwork we pride ourselves with being persons who are able to bring the values of God and our organisations to life, through our actions with young people. So, seperating the personal from the professional is an unlikely challenge.
But in the times ‘when organisations go wrong’ because of their culture, their history, or even the policies that they have they need to stick to for internal or external reasons, then it may be easier from a personal faith point of view to make a kind of separation. If only to protect yourself. Which I am sure is what we do in ministry from time to time anyway. Understand it, and our own human frailty even in the ‘christian organisations’ – and not take things personally, not easy. no ministry, no christian life in general is. In another way, being true to a calling might not equate to needing to stay true to the faith position of a proponent of that calling. A calling might be for life, not just a three, four, or two year contract.
I think if have lost faith, what i have lost is faith in the practices of those who might make such pronouncements, and the organisations they represent, and dont back it up. Losing faith in evangelical youth ministry. Which isnt a shame, as this isnt something ive had so its not something i feel i have lost anyway.