In Christian youth ministry – is God conversational?

‘Conversation is central to our work as informal educators, yet we often undervalue it’ (Jeffs and Smith, Informal education, 2001, p27)

I appreciate sometimes that keeping up with my trains of thought is a little on the random scale. I do sometimes think I say the same things over and over again, on other occasions I jump from one serious topic to another without too much reasoning. A few weeks ago I published a piece that gave 10 ideas for developing conversations with young people in the youth club , before that I wrote a piece that showed how using reviewing and evaluation, conversation could become more meaningful and encouraged,  turning the activity space of a youth venue into a place where the magic of youthwork can emerge from . I have recently led a few seminars with volunteers on developing conversations with young people. Conversation is clearly on my mind.

I then thought. If I want to develop thinking and learning about conversation in youth ministry – where do I turn to?

I began to look.

I confess, I dont have many books that I would say are on youth ministry, probably no more than 10-15. With the addition of some grove booklets, a few journals.

In ’10 essential concepts for christian youth work’ (Grove booklet Y40) – is one example where conversation is not mentioned, not even as an essential concept.

In ‘The Theological turn in youth Ministry’ (Root, Dean, 2011) there is a small section that contrasts the conversations between people as the space where theology develops – rather than the ‘God talk/epilogue’ (p79-82) But its hardly valued as concept in itself, more a reality of ministry.

Ashton and Moon suggest that communicating is done through relationships and shared experiences (1996, p54) Which i kind of get as it, like Root below, contrasts to the evangelist who communicates like a scatter gun (their words not mine) yet conversation is not explored further.

I could go on. And I know there are gaps to my survey, I am not sitting in a university library right now, but scanning the books on my bookshelf… What is promoted instead, and pretty much all the writing in youth ministry is about is on ‘relationships’.

I wonder whether in youth ministry we have fixated our glance on relationships because for many that is the heart of the gospel. Dont mishear me, there is undoubtedly a relationship aspect to salvation, but the question is whether in youth ministry fixing our eyes on relationships has meant a neglection of something other. For example; Steve Griffiths ‘models for youth Ministry’ (Learning from the life if Christ) is almost pained to go against the flow of relationship thinking when he says; ‘ it is clearly a myth that Jesus spent three intensive years with his disciples. He did not’ (I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth now). Its as if there needs to be a justification that there is an alternative to ‘relational’ youth ministry, given it prominence. To have a look at why it became prominent, have a read of the first chapter of Andrew Roots, Revisiting relational youth ministry , whilst having an american emphasis its is worth engaging with.

So, where does that leave my thought process. Where might I go to next to contemplate, from withing youth ministry, something about conversation.

Before thinking theologically,  I must disclose that I have managed to find two references to ‘conversation’, the first is in ‘Joined Up’ by Danny Brierley . On pages 89-91 he at least, gives some reference to Jesus being in conversation with many people, 125 recorded incidents, in which other people he claims initiated 54% of these, he then goes on to reference Maxine Greens work on the Emmaus road episode as a classic example of conversation and informal education. I quite agree, But I think it deserved more than 2 pages. But maybe more than 2 pages on this is enough in a book of 200 words for the youth ministry audience. And given that Brierley has been provoked by having to think about conversation as he is dialoguing with ‘youthwork values’ its almost though it has to be included.

I discovered also that there is 4-5 pages on developing conversations in ‘Here be Dragons’ (Youth work and ministry off the map) – which isnt surprising as a) its all about detached youthwork and conversation is a key focus, and b) because I wrote them. (you can buy a copy in a link above)

Instead, what if I looked at the theological writing within youth ministry, again, from the books that I have – could there be some hidden gold dust on the subject of God and that he/she spoke and continues to speak, in conversations?

With the exception of Brierley above, there are few.

In Pete Wards ‘Youthwork and the Mission of God’ God is many things missional, is incarnational, crucified, immanent and transcendant , God is all knowing, – but when it comes to God speaking – the only mention of this is that Jesus spoke Arameic (as an example of being incarnational, being ‘with’ the culture) and so whilst Ward is right to suggest that our faith is based upon our revelation of God in Christ (p34) – that God written in this piece is relatively mute.

A similar pattern is repeated in  ‘Starting right’ (Dean, Clark, Rahn, 2001) and a few others, including Griffiths (above) – Developing an incarnational youth ministry, or a relational one, that follows the path of Jesus, seems to be all about being located in a space, like Jesus was located in a space, At least in ‘Starting right’ there is reference to the disciples ‘listening’ to Jesus – therefore he did at least speak. (p130-131), but that Jesus spoke, seems to be a rare event.

It is as if youth ministry focuses on methods of trying to do ministry, or places greater significance on other aspects of Gods nature and character, promises and blessings, such as ‘God is there to forgive young people’ or ‘God is urging young people to develop eyes of the kingdom’ all phrases I have read in these books above, though cant remember which ones. Or whether its assumed that communication and conversation was happening, and so this is undervalued, or ignored. What does seems to be is an inclination away from communicating outside of relationships, as though it was done a few times, Jesus ministry seemed to be recorded as being more about the few, the individual or small groups of conversations. But there is a reluctance to focus on conversation itself – because its as if there has to be something more.

This is a pretty lengthy piece, I realise, that is a bit of a splurge of my thought processes so far, and a little bit of research. If you think I have missed something somewhere in a youth ministry book, that I havent got, then do tell me. From where I have got to, it appears to be that the speaking God doesnt figure much in the formalised accounts of what youth ministry is all about, and yet, for many young people and ourselves – I repeat the addage that Kevin Vanhoozer exclaimed – ‘Only the speaking God can help‘ – and it is from this point that I will be focussing this week on a few pieces. For, I am wondering some of these questions:

  1. What might a theology of conversation look like?
  2. How might a speaking God, a conversational God, be needed in Youth Ministry?

These are fairly large questions, and so not for a Saturday morning (today) – they will be what I am going to try and write about over the next few weeks. A warning, they will, or they might go deep. So if you want to raise your game, click the ‘follow’ button so you can peruse these pieces as they are published. We have a responsibility to think theologically about our youth ministry practice, as Pete Ward has urged for quite a while, and unless I am much mistaken, an understanding of the God who spoke, who speaks and communicates seems to have been maligned in youth ministry, and valuing conversation as a result has been as undervalued for the sake of relationships. Which kind of seems odd, doesnt it, for i know that relationships do not always need conversation for them to occur – but some kind of communication, affection and connection is required (outside of family bonds).

So, thats my thinking process, how I have got the edge of the pool, ready to dive into thinking theologically about conversation, about God who speaks and communicates in conversation with humans, created beings. As you might imagine, these might take a bit of time, so be patient with me on these. I am also aware that theres a part 2 on the LGBT story piece to write. It is on the way, but taking a bit of time.

Whose up for a conversation about faith and conversations?

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