What if parents actually read the books Christian youth ministry encouraged young people to read?

I thought I’d imagine a parent writing a letter to the local vicar about the newly published book ‘Under Construction’ (2019) by Neil O Boyle, national director YFC, its a brand new book, and a number of young people might be about to read it.

Dear Reverend/Pastor,

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, you may not know me, but I am the parent of Harry, who goes to the youth group in your church hall every Friday night. Tell you the truth Harry loves it, and as a parent its great that he gets the chance to meet up with other kids his age, and not the same ones he goes to school with, I think he goes because he fancies one of the girls but dont tell him I told you. Anyway, the church thing is new to us all as a family, I guess we’re ok about it, were not religious at all, but sympathetic to it, it’ll help Harry growing up im sure.

Actually Reverend, there was something more I wanted to thank you for. I dont know whether you realised it, but Harry went with the youth group to a camp in the summer with the other kids in the youth group, he had a great time, there was a band on and he loved the music, said it was nothing like church (hope you dont mind me saying) and there were other adults there who were being cool and friendly, and Harry was impressed. So, thank you for giving him that opportunity. Theres another thing too, whilst Harry was there there was someone who gave him a free book and said it was about developing a deeper relationship with Jesus. Now as you might imagine, Harry spends most of his time on a video games, and even though he showed me at the time, a few weeks ago, I was sure the book would stay on the bookshelf.

To my surprise, and a bit like the Bible one of your volunteers gave him a year or so ago, Harry tells me how much he is enjoying the book, if you want to give your children a copy its called ‘Under construction’ by Neil O Boyle, as a parent I wholly recommend it. The change in Harry since he has been reading the book has been amazing, he used to not have any decent conversation over the dinner table about things, just shove his food down, and be sullen, but not any more, he’s offering opinion on things like abortion, sexual assault, child killing, bullying and asking us over the dinner table about how good our prayer life is, also about watching too many video games, saying that these things are wholly shameful and God wouldn’t want people to do these things.

To my surprise he’s asked me to give his copy of Grand Theft Auto to the charity shop, when I asked why, he told me that if he played it too much he might end up killing a child on a railway line. As a parent I am just so proud that he is making these decisions based upon such diligent thinking and consideration of the facts of such high profile cases in British crime history. If this is what this book has been able to do for Harry, then I am just so pleased.

I must tell you this, The other day Harry and his older sister Matilda were having an argument at the dinner table, Matilda currently has a boyfriend and they’ve been together 2 years, and Harry quite abruptly asked her whether she had had sex with him (the book told him that sex was for having babies) and whether she was going to save having sex for her future spouse, because that’s the most important relationship. Now, Im sure Harry didn’t mean to say it in such a judgemental manner, but Matilda reacted bad to this. As a parent we tried to love both of our children, and so we’re thankful that Harry has helped us out by saying this, yes he may have destroyed any relationship he has with his sister, but as a mum I couldn’t be more proud that he’s learning a new perspective and without any critical thinking using it to help his sister be shameful about her sex life, saves her father trying to say it.

So Reverend, I was intrigued, what was this book all about? Forgive me ( are you the confession ones?) , but I kind of had to know what this genius book was all about, so one day when Harry was at school, I thought I would go and have a read, after all its just a book not a diary isn’t it.

Well what a surprise I got.

You see, not only is it a book, but it has exercises and activities in it, and Harry had filled some of them in. I thought, should I look.. but, a book for teenagers and about christianity what is it going to have in it, draw a picture of Jesus or some kind of bible story quiz, but no Reverend, not at all.

This is why you need to get copies of this book to your children Reverend.

I know I shouldn’t have done it, but there were reams of notes written, as Harry, usually not that diligent in school according to Parents evenings, had completed the activities. I bet you want to know what they were. Ill try and tell you, because what I discovered shocked me at first, but then I realised that all the information would be great to use as bribery against Harry if I needed it, you know as they say, knowledge is power.

I just started with the activities and where Harry had written, at 13 he’s already realised that he needs to make big changes in his life, he’s drawn what the foundations of his life are, he has a series of dots to draw the nature of waves in his life (any ideas what the waves of your life are Reverend?) , and on page 38 described the things that make him panic, now, Harry has always been pretty chilled and nothing phases him, but like a good boy, he managed to write a few things, Donald Trump and Climate change, they are what makes him panic, and on page 62 he’s asked the same thing again, there seemed a lot on this.

On page 102 Harry was asked to write down the principles that guide his life, now I dont know about you Reverend, but I wasn’t surprised Harry left this blank to be honest, though he had a go at it.

Harry made a good job of drawing something that symbolises his exercise (a football, what else) , and then Harry described his prayer life – do you have any idea there Reverend, that my 13 year old has been asked to describe his prayer life, he said it was ‘fine, but not as good as the leaders he met at camp’.

I was so thankful too, that on page 119 and 120, I was able to read about the internal labels of shame, rejection, guilt and other that Harry says have carried around with him, all his life. I thought I knew everything about my boy, but when I discovered how he’s felt guilty for the death of our family pet dog, and rejected because he thinks his sister gets more attention, and shame because he masturbates and there’s been conversations about girls, underwear and porn at school, but at least now I know some of the things he is going through. And Im going to tell his dad later too. If you want to find out the inner shame of your kids, then this book is amazing.

You’re going to think this book is amazing aren’t you, well sadly reverend, I think there are some not so good points. I think its great that there’s just so many opportunities for Harry to write down all the areas in his precocious little 13 year old life where he feels he is a failure, feels guilty, feels like he needs to change, there’s even a section where he is made to feel so bad about one of the things, its likened to a weed, on page 135. Harry said his weed was ‘masturbating’ and he didn’t feel it would ever go away or be removed, it looked as though there’d been tear stains on the page. Well as a parent, if Harry feels so shameful about his body now, then its unlikely he’ll end up doing anything like his sister has. He’ll probably never get married or be able to talk about sex with anyone, and as a parent, that’s far easier to cope with.

Reverend, there is a bit on page 80 that might shock you if you gave it a read, no its not the stories of sexual assault, rape and abortions, no, they’re all told as if its the woman fault, and in this PC culture, its refreshing to have some traditional women shaming attitudes, men cant be at fault for their penis at all, and im glad now that Harry can grow up thinking that he doesn’t need to take responsibility for what he does with his penis, a relief, given that now that he’s so embarrassed by what it does.

No, the bit you have to watch out for, is a little section where Harry had the chance to rate how good Dave and I have been at being his parents. And the little shit, sorry, darling Harry, gave us a grade of only 7 out of 10, and for some reason, and I looked in the text, an anticipated grade of 8? what’s that about then – what’s Harry expecting? an Xbox for christmas, is that what he’s anticipating, well not now…

When I read the chapter it was talking about abuse in the family, and men and women having sex to have families, I thought that was a bit weird, I mean Harry is 13 not 8. He was told that some couples its painful to not have children and God wants people to be together to have children. Well that’s a bit awkward for Harry as his Grandad recently remarried, if he has kids at the age of 75 there’ll be a shock. In the book I read that following Gods instructions about what to do when there’s abuse in the family or a parent leaves us. Im just so glad Reverend that in the Bible there are instructions for Harry when this happens, can you tell me which book in the bible is specifically for 13year old boys and what to do if a parent leaves, im so thankful the bible is so specific and helpful.

So, yeah, keep a watch out for the family pages, you might get a shock, especially if you’re expecting a high mark, this book doesnt have much positivity in it, so be ready for a low score.

Before I go, I am going to need to ask you for some help Reverend, as I said in the beginning, I haven’t ever been to church, but I would love to be able to discuss some of the questions that Harry is about to read and know what is going on so I can at least help him. So would you mind getting back to me, I note that you have an MA in theology, and this book is being for 13 year olds, so I guess these are standard questions. So could you give me a few hints on how I might answer these questions please?

  1. What its the Hallway of my life? – Because I am asked whether Ive left Jesus there
  2. What is the MY version of the Bible, and can I get a copy of it, I used to have a bible with weird drawings in it, think it was the good news, but what’s the MY version?
  3. What might the dry rot in the walls of my life be, and Reverend, these affect how I view my life – so as a Parent Id like to know- and Jesus exposes dry rot, so can you tell me what’s going on there please?
  4. This one is in the book, Can you understand this reverend? when the storms hit your metaphorical house (your life) does the roof leak and cause further damage by the manner in which you panic, react or stress, or is the roof watertight because you find yourself able to draw close to God, whether you sense him or not and find his peace? Reverend can you explain this one please?
  5. Do people who wear provocative clothes have no self esteem Reverend? (Thats what page 75 says)
  6. Reverend, does your life have a dining room and has Jesus walked round in it?
  7. Whats your prayer life out of 10 Reverend? – just so I can help Harry know what the vicars score is and compare, thank you.
  8. Reverend, how might I respond to the question whether I have an undeniable weed growing in my life?
  9. Why is this book all about bad things, shameful things, about introspection for 13year olds – yet nothing about God being about love – like I heard at Harry and Meghans wedding? Its almost a completely different faith to that one?
  10. Lastly – Reverend – I notice there’s a whole load of assumptions and claims made in the book- about girls having abortions, about video games and that they lead to being a child murderor – is this kind of amateur reading of society to make young people feel shamed what I might expect more of in Harrys life? If so, ill keep the real study in our house out of bounds, I wouldn’t want him to actually think critically about these things or discover research, like my own psychology degree papers to challenge it.

So, thank you Reverend, its been a long letter I realise, and you dont hear from parents very often I guess, if you could help me out with these questions I would be grateful, this whole house thing seems a bit weird but if thats the basics in christianity for 13year old then I really am going to have to pick it up quick. Oh and the sex before marriage thing, try not to tell Harry that his older sisters date of birth was only 2 months after our wedding date, keep that a secret, otherwise my score will probably go down to 3.

Thank you again, as I said Harry loves the youth group. And this book is going to really help me to discover all his hidden secrets and fears, its like a dirty diary full of sex and shame, just let me know if he talks to you about it, I can even give you a heads up.

Your Parishioner

Joanne, Harrys Mum.

PS, there’s some resources for the youth group available, I think you should get the youth group to do them. They’ll be a nervous shame-filled wreck of a group, and dead easy to parent.

Oh, and reverend, I thought id copy a few pages for you, just so that you can see for yourself how good this book is.

(after contemplating these words the Reverends response is here  )

 

The Man you’re Made to Be (Martin Saunders, 2019) – A review

Even though I met Martin at the National youth ministry weekend last week, my view of his book has increased in favour since, but not because i forgive him for not taking me out for a coffee, that boy Martin was pretty busy all weekend, and the conference was a good one… (;-))

Back to the book….

Martin has written an engaging, self deprecating at times, accessible book on 11 principle aspects of growing up male in the UK, from emotions, to sex (there was always going to be at least 1 sex chapter..) , about temptation, identity, adventure and a few other aspects, most of which are written with the christian faith in the background and sometimes foreground.

It is a book that has challenges itself to looking at the individual male, and the male in society who, if Martin is right, is almost determined to be a certain type (page xv) – and so attempts to be a counter narrative to this. Though this presupposes that young people aren’t critical of the culture they are in… and some really are.

The Man You're Made to Be

I like this book, though i think, i wanted to like it more, and yes thats even though it frustrated me at times. But i like it even more since the NYMW19 weekend.

The bits i liked

I liked it because Martin isn’t afraid to be personal, and at times real and maybe vulnerable, there’s plenty of personal references, of situations in his own childhood and teenage years, and quite crucially, if he points the finger elsewhere, its at the world of cinema, music or culture, and not a real person he knew or a real situation in a group of young people, this is to be commended. I read the book before I met Martin, though we had conversed via Social media, the book feels like he is having a conversation with you, its a casual chat about some important aspects of life, and comparing this to some of the equivalent books I read as a christian teenager (the teenage survival kit – anyone?), this is less a moral treatice on how to behave – but an encouragement to be a man, a real man growing up in the world and what that’s all about. Its not just about surviving a moment (teenage years) – but attempts to point forward – and ask – ‘what is it you’re made to be’? – and in addition, to have a gentle conversation about some of the alternative views of what being a man is all about.

I like the sense that Martin asks the questions, it is a conversation, and there’s encouraging advice (to reflect on your purpose, to give yourself some moments in silence) , and not necessarily assumptions (‘if you’re someone who, ‘if you’re the sort of person who…., ) , this may reflect that Martin hasn’t got someone in mind as the audience, or a more nuanced reality that he is leaving this a little more open, this is also reflected in that he doesnt make the assumption that the reader is a christian, or a type of christian – yet most chapters do have something about faith in it, and 99% of the time its about the Christian faith, and there’s a whole chapter about Jesus too, yet whilst this book isn’t going to achieve awards for Theological nuance, Martin brings into the conversation stories from the Bible to use as examples, in a way that he also uses his own stories, and movie storylines to reflect on, its what it is, and Martin is good at it. It makes for easy reading.

The bits I wanted to be better

The bits I wanted to be better, were that I just wanted such a book, written for young men, and as someone with a teenage Son, to have something in it that had something like an actual proof, or evidence, or even, references to places where young people could get other help. I liked the conversational tone, but if Martin had stated where such things as ‘the biggest killer of young men is suicide’ comes from, to give it weight. And that same weight, proof, evidence, could be included elsewhere, *and I know this is the kind of thing an academic would say, i realise, but if something as important as alot of what is said in this book, about emotions, about health, about then psychology and sociology, then to say ‘ this comes from research from ____’ – a point being that on a few occasions Martin references the Bible exactly (p61).. so it feels like an opportunity missed, big time.

The other thing, is that by the time I got to the end of the book (and I read it all) I started to get a little tired by the moments like this where Martin left the page and started talking to me, *if you’re reading this, its called breaking the fourth wall like this. And it just got a little irritating, maybe because it wasn’t that necessary, and then it sort of got a bit patronising, especially if i put myself in the place of a 15yr old boy reading it, definitely an 18yr old – because they might feel as if theyre not being talked to at that point..

But then thats another thing, I was trying to work out who the book is directed for…. if it was for young men who have been brought up in churches and christian homes – then theres a distinct sense in the book that each Bible verse and theme needs explaining – and yet many should be familiar to them, even a cursory look at many sunday school teaching materials and most of the stories are covered that Martin uses. Theres very little in the book about a purpose that doesnt involve God – and i will be critical here, if the whole premise of the book is whats said in the conclusion, that ‘The relationship (with God) is above all else , what you’re made for. If you embrace that, everything inevitably falls into place’ – seems quite a trite ending, and is the voice of someone who has had the privilege of now being able to look back (and recount stories of Hollywood) – but what if the young person reading this isnt feeling like ‘everything is fitting into place’ even though they have faith? – they could live in poverty, experience childhood alcohol abuse, be a young carer, and for many adults reading that sentence.. doesnt that suggest that Jesus is the answer? – yet as Martin also suggests throughout, there is work to do in life (like discovering being introvert, or reflecting on purpose, or other activities) … but then – in regard to audience.. is this said to affirm someone who is a christian (the target audience) or said to encourage someone? – given that Martin is tentative initially with faith references, he probably does have a broader audience in mind, but thats a bit confused then with the ending.

I’m glad Martin has written a chapter about Sex (which got all the attention when this book came out), im more glad that Martin has written a chapter about Women, about objectification of women, and how this is endemic (at least in the coffee shops Martin goes to), it may have been good to have a female voice included in this chapter, given that by the 9th chapter the boys reading it, might be interested in hearing it. I guess, also, there’s something Martin could say about women that isn’t said, though its to be applauded that he has written something that is targeted at boys that encourages them to think about equality, just not sure where they themselves go with this if they challenge their all male church leadership team… but hey.. that’s #churchtoo for you – and Martin steps a long way short of encouraging the boys who read the book to share platforms, or to stand aside in the youth group if there’s a girl who is more gifted..

There’s one other problem. I’m not sure whether Martin has written half of a good book. This one is the reactive one. Its as if Martin has looked at some of the issues facing young people today, rightly, and written a response to help young people navigate them, reflect and even grow as a man through them.

What would have been good, is actually, the good. I wanted Martin to suggest what might be good for young people *you mean use actual research that shows whats good for young people yes that. During the process of 2019, young people are taking to the streets in protest for good things, young people are volunteering in politics, young people are having a say- or wanting to. Maybe this could have been encouraged a bit more- and yes, even having a relationship with Jesus permits/encourages these… (As ive said in this blog, psychology suggests that belonging, competence and autonomy are good for us all, including young people, and developing these themes further may have developed the ‘what we’re created to be’ )

Though, I do, generally like this book. It is not without flaws *wittertainment reference for ‘the film podcast’ listeners, its heart is in the right place, and Martin is engaging, yes heartfelt, self depreciating and comes across real and honest. Its real and honest and tries to treat the young person reading it with respect, with a reality that life isnt perfect, and that he isn’t trying to tell the reader what to or not to do (p125) – and for this reason, easily, I would recommend it to any youth leaders who have 13-16 year old boys who might be interested in reading it, as a positive encouragement to thinking about being male, growing up male and being critical of the accepted messages about whats expected or accepted.

Martin Saunders – The Man You’re made to be (2019) can be purchased here:

I have amended my Review, in a previous version, I compared Martins Book, with Neil O Boyles book ‘Under construction’ which was given away free at Youthscapes weekend youth ministry conference. There is no comparison, Martins is light years better. However, whilst i retain an opinion that Under Construction is not just poorly written, potentially damaging and theologically all over the place, I should not have communicated this in the way I did. It does make Martins book look a whole lot better though.

 

Full of Character (Frances Ward, 2019) – A Review – Do the characters obstruct the education on offer?

Full of Character (2019) – A review

Although there may not be a rush to get book reviews out into the public space, this book is still only just released and is 2019, writing this review has felt as though it has been on my ‘to do’ list for over 4 months. I read it when i was relaxing and basking in the sun in Tunisia, in June, and so, was fairly chilled and relaxed in reading it, indeed, my copy now has a few suncream finger prints in it, and has been well travelled.  My other perspectives that i come to this book are as a parent of an 18 and 16 year old, who have experiences both Scottish and English Education systems, as a youth and community worker for 15 years and more recently as a worker for the Durham Diocese and involved in supporting a poverty proofing schools programme.

Opening the book itself, doing so, on day 2 of the holiday (it wasnt first book on the list), the contents page that includes sections on Thankfulness, Character education, Playfulness, Fruitfulness, and Hopefulness, I am immediately intrigued as to the angle that this book is about to take, given a wade into thinking about what seems Christian Virtues and how they might relate to Education, it brings to mind Danny Brierleys attempt to join up Youth and community work Values with Christian practices in 2003 (Joined up, Su Press, 2003)  So, given the breadth of the topics this book is about to cover, I am intrigued.

Following this. I would consider the strengths of this book to be, that it does make a useful, practical attempt at times to appeal that the christian values is extols are regarded higher in the process of education in the UK. My only misgiving with the list of 12 things that have been chosen in the 13 chapters (chapter 7 is a focus on the digital age, half way through) – there is an element that all of the 12 feel a little individualist, and about a persons individual process through life, so, whilst references like Community are featured within a few chapters, this seems lacking (especially as the whole platform of the discussion within is a community of people), as do aspects of the Christian story, including Justice, Peace, and Story itself.  This aside, and Ward does say that the book could be easily extended to include others.

What Ward does do successfully, is provide an accessible, easy to read (it is easy to read) text that gives insight into the 12 aspects that she has selected. Setting the context is done through a look as the cultural situation pretty much defined by the political news, so Trump and Brexit effectively, the digital revolution, and a number of films that the characters in the book have recently watched. Again, its all a matter of perspective, but there is a sense that the overarching media is the dominant lens of culture in this book. We hear little of local contexts of towns, cities, volunteering, the positive news that is easily not taken into consideration. This does mean that there is a sense that the book is rebalancing, or articulating an alternative to fear, a fear which has been said to dominate from the news, and the view of culture which is stated. It is the same in regard to the section on the digital age, it was as if only the negatives were realised. If only one of them had read Bex Lewis book Raising children in a digital age – instead of worrying about AI…the rest of the chapter may have been different…

Frances Ward then describes that Human Flourishing is at the core of the book. This is undoubtedly welcome, it has felt like Human Flourishing has been an ongoing topic to define, for well, the dawn of time.. but its is often proclaimed as a great unifier within youth and community work across the sacred/secular mythical divide (cf Smith, Stanton, Wylie et al, 2015), and theologically this is suggested by Vanhoozer as one key aspects of the entire Christian drama (Vanhoozer, 2005, p15) ‘Following the christian way promotes human flourishing (shalom) and leads to the summum bonum, life, eternal and abundant’ – The question I continue to have, and the book doesn’t address is how much of this is an individual venture or a community one. For, whilst Ward critiques Rousseau, proponents of critical and community education have been ignored within the development of these ideas. (Giroux, Freire to name two) and yet they also propose community and human flourishing through education.

It feels like I am already criticising, and these are the aspects of the book that I appreciated the most. There are other nuggets within this book that are useful. A chapter on self forgetfulness in an age of ego proclamation – is pertinent – and i wonder how this might lead to a broader self awareness of persons in education, the systems and structures – and how a school might self forget being competitive? not laying all the responsibility with the individual child. There are others.

However. Though it was an easy read, it is accessible. I struggled to like it. The problem for me is that, whilst it is easy to read, whilst it is accessible, and whilst a number of philosophies, theories, ideas and concepts are brought to the attention of the reader in a relatively simple way. The wider premise of the book was far too irritating. And i’m not sure why, overall it was needed.

The premise of Character Education is set at a New Years eve party, a party in which 6 ‘characters’ – apologies if they are real people – gather having had a year of watching movies, the news, and being super amazing people – though none with any children, except Maddy (who had just put Emily to bed). The premise for this book is their hopes and fears and the conversation that ensued (over ‘sweet potato and bean chilli and sticky toffee pears’, p12). Much of the book is framed as if its a conversation, activities and insight that each of these 6 people have brought to it. For me it irritated.

Craig and Maddy are very much in favour of free education and Maddy went to see the headteacher who ‘looked harassed’ (the thought that her conversation was about to be noted down and written about didn’t cross Maddys self awareness, and the headteacher was tired of avocado eating middle class parents helping her with educational discourse and having to regail the latest from the national headteachers conference and Ofsted- just so Maddy could add her post university insight on character education – page 80-81)

On other occasions, Craig would go to onto google and look up a theme, Maddy would research an idea, hear a lecture (p143), then they would get excited about what they found out, and be unable to have a lovely conversation about it, because the other ‘was engrossed with Emily, planting seedlings’ (p204) . Maybe its me, but this dinner party seemed to go on all year, and the book feels like an out-working of 6 peoples privileged to access meetings, research and have the time to do this. Call me an inverted snob, but poverty doesn’t seem to feature in their lives, they don’t have to go to the public library, and none of their friends loses their job, or needs a food bank handout. Whilst they have hopes and fears, they have considerable agency. And a privilege they seem blind to. I cant imagine a group of people in areas of the north east, south wales or (pick an appropriate town) acting in this kind of way. They don’t spend a lot of time in the queue at Asda or volunteering – other places to learn.

I’m left with the thought that the characters in the book Character Education are the main parts of it that let it down. They just appear to be floating on air and have all the time in the world to share and talk about these ideas, whilst also having perfect lives with time to do so, probably between dissecting an avocado. They couldn’t be more millenial or middle class sounding if they tried.

The problem… is that all this feels completely unnecessary, and for me, what Ward proposes has some merit, in terms of values, fruitfulness and human flourishing. The characters get in the way… and this context leaves me thinking that the Character education proposed might be more middle class and academic than it need be – merely because it is framed by these 6 people who go on a self learning adventure to benefit us all. Its like Eat Pray Love – but on education at times.

There are, within some fascinating insights into aspects such as resourcefulness (not that different from agency)

It is an ongoing seeking after wisdom (p137)

Resourcefulness is stronger than resilience, in enabling more creative engagement with what challenges people of all ages (p137) – though Ward steps short of challenging a resilience narrative (something youthworkers are keen to do) – there is merit here in suggesting an alternative.  Other chapters on Truth, Fullness and flourishing combine the theological, with the sociological and psychological, and are, generally, accessible, useful, provoking and pertinent. Ward proposes thinkers from a wide range and not all academic. Its because of these good solid theoretical chapters where I wonder if the whole book could be written like this, and the platform of the 6 characters is an unnecessary distraction.

The most frustrating when we are indulged in hearing an entire lecture that Maddy once heard which forms the basis of the chapter on fullness and receive her insights of it.  I just found the tone set by the 6 people irritating throughout, and clouded my view of what were some valid accessible concepts, and some theological thinking that would be useful in creating an education system that had at its heart, not fear, numbers and outcomes, but the kind of character, values and kingdom aspiration that might be considered christian.

It was that i didn’t want to offend Craig, Maddy, Sam, Natalie, Benji and Dan, that i struggled to write this review. Its probably 18 month since their new years party, and so they can probably take the criticism now…

This book is written for parents, according to Ward. I think the problem with this, is that a countless number of parents do not have the capacity to read something like this, with 3 children, trying to work, getting dress up ready for world book day, exam stress and merely survival on the next food bank handout to consider a future of education shown to us through the lens of toffee apple eating Craig and Maddy. As a parent reading this, and having had two children now complete education (at least to 16) i would know than in my deepest desires i might have wanted an education that could look something like what is described. The reality is that academies, the extensive data collecting through multiple series of exams in 4 years, and limitations of choice, mean that reality is so far from this ideal. Yet, as i have reflected before, i might have thought that some of these ideals were possible in my own education 30 or more years ago, when at least an individual child was the focus, not school competition and organisational survival, schools run as businesses.

Back to the book, if you can cope with these 6 people, and want an accessible book that looks at aspects of a christian education that has values and principles at its heart, then this will be a good starting point for that conversation. There is enough in here for that to begin.

References,

Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Freire, P, Horton – We make the Road by walking, 1990

Giroux H – On critical Pedagogy, 2012

Smith, Stanton, Wylie, et al – Youthwork and faith Debates, delights & Dilemnas 2015

Brierely – Joined up, SU. 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can buy a copy of Frances Ward’s ‘Full of Character here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Full-Character-Christian-Approach-Education/dp/1785923390/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=frances+ward&qid=1571393767&sr=8-1  (other book sellers are available)

 

New: Heres where to get access to summaries of youth work and mission books

Interested in developing your bookshelf, especially on youthwork, mission and theology titles and not sure where to start? 
Over the next few months I will be adding summaries of books I have enjoyed reading, some I have enjoyed more than others, with 10 quotes from them and a short sentence. So that they ‘sell’ themselves and give you an opportunity to buy them yourself, if you feel that you want to. Ill do some of the hard work for you on this, read them in full, and give you access (via subscription) of a summary. 
To read my first Book Summary, on Youth work Ethics (2010) , by Howard Sercombe – have a look via this link: https://www.patreon.com/posts/24152051/edit
The second is also available, and its on ‘Young people and church since 1900, by Naomi Thompson. Follow the link here
If you’re too busy to read books in full, or need a few quotes from one, then this may be a good opportunity for you to become a member, and receive regular book summaries (10 quotations) on some new, some not so new titles. Ill try and do at least one per week and try and do a variety of youth ministry, youthwork, theology and mission texts. Each will also include a link as to where you will be able to buy them. (I am not on commission, honest)

A practical prod to help churches be places where young people flourish, my review of ‘Adoptive Church’ (2018)

I have had a copy of Chap Clarks ‘Adoptive Church’ for over a month now, sent to me to write a review of it, for this blog, its a bit of an odd book to try and write a review of, that’s not to say that it is without merit, some very interesting points, but I guess for me, a book that only has a few references, and only 12 Authors are listed in the Index (though they do include Barth, Bonhoeffer and Calvin) then you might understand why this is a book that I have struggled with. I had hoped in one way that the last three books I had read on youth ministry were bucking a trend somewhat ( Nick Shepherds ‘Faith Generation‘, Roots ‘Faith Formation in a secular age‘ and even the ‘Theological turn in youth ministry’ by Root and Dean) towards attempting more thorpugh examination of youth ministry practices. This book makes no mention of these previous pieces (or Root/Dean/Shepherd/ as influences) In comparison this is skin deep, and possibly why I have struggled with writing this review.

However, that’s the pre amble for the review, and possibly reveals my own prejudices. As I said this book is not without merit.

Adoptive Church (Chap Clark)

 

Chap Clarks ‘Adoptive church’ is the third of his ongoing series on developing family orientated churches in which young people can flourish. Previously he has written in two publications the importance of family for the nuturing of young people[1], and in Adoptive youth ministry this approach was developed further. In Adoptive Church, Chap Clark changes the focus from developing a nurturing youth ministry, to providing guidance for the whole church as to how it be adoptive in doing so be an environment where the nuture of young people occurs. This book is squarely for those youth ministers who are working in a church context, little is mentioned of mission activities and outreach work, but despite this it does ask pertinent questions and gives practical suggestions on how a church, a faith community might develop an adoptive way of being that can be of benefit to all, and not just young people.

Outline

In part one Chap Clark explains what he means by an adoptive church, in addition he suggests three crises that he identifies are befalling the existing programmable approaches to churches working with young people , chapters three four and five describe further the requirements for creating an adoptive church including what this means for discipleship, and how a church might develop a strategy for being adoptive, and then the goal of what an adoptive ministry might mean for young people and the church itself. The implementation of an adoptive church is Chaps main concern in part 2, a number of case studies, questions and processes are considered and primarily these relate to the nature of leadership required , with two different styles considered. The final section describes the characteristics of an adoptive church and how to encourage churches to develop an adoptive approach. The main shift for chap is that he directs most of this conversation to the whole churches rather than the specifics of the youth ministry departments. His passion is that the whole church is the soil for the nurturing, empowering and participation of young people and a culture of family who adopts young people is what is required for this to happen.

Strengths

Universality of context – Chap suggests that an adoptive church approach can be considered for churches in ‘Atlanta, Ontario and Nairobi (p21)’ and in the main I agree with this sentiment. Describing how churches to have a better environment for nurturing young people in the faith community is critical for all churches, yet I cant help but think that the setting of a large church and the challenges that this proposes shape Chaps thinking and concerns in the main. Its almost as though Chap is responding to the problems in large church youth ministry where young people might well be cyphened off into age groups and never to be seen again by other supportive adults in a church, almost.

That discipleship is described as a process, rather than an end game, is another strength (page 49) – and Chap challenges the notion of ‘a mature’ disciple – when as he says, it is a movement and trajectory towards maturity that everyone in faith is undertaking. It is from this sense of movement that Chap orientates the solution to the three problems he suggest that are at the root of the issues in youth discipleship (stated below).

His solution to the three problems (and which encourages the movement of discipleship) to use a biblical analogy, is to focus on the soil.  The solution isnt the programmes, professionalism of youthworkers, the excitement of the residential. It is the culture of the church. For Chap, the solution is that the soil – that is the culture of church, which all of us are part (whether paid, clergy, laity, congregation) is in need of a rethink.

we need to create environments where seeds can grow and shoot down deep roots that will last a lifetime (Clark p50)

For Clark, creating the right environment for the flourishing of disciples (the seeds) – involves cultivating the following:

  • Knowing Christ leads to following (p51)
  • Love for God increases knowledge (p51) (Quoting Tozer)
  • Knowing about God so that they (young people) can know God personally (GF Hawthorne) (I might critique this ‘knowing God personally’ relationship notion, and Root does this already in 2007 Revisiting Relational youth ministry)
  • Keeping the content about Jesus, using every opportunity to use a Jesus phrase..(p52)
  • Loving God/Christ back – in how young people express love back – ‘Teaching young people to love Christ is not about introducing more content, but rather providing environments and experiences that enable young people to slow down their lives and receive Gods love. Instead of taking prayer requests devote more to times where young people can be drawn into a tangible sense of Gods care and presence’ (Clark, p53, last sentence paraphrased)
  • Following Christ – Helping young people use their gifts, helping young people be generous, helping young people do Gods work in the world

Student leadership may be fine for the youth ministry but rarely actually leads young people to feel like they are contributors to the body. (the main church) The same goes for singing and teaching four year olds. Whilst these are sound expressions of using a gift in the body, to truly feel important and valuable contributors, the young need to connect to adults while they are following Christ as he brings in his kingdom (Clark, p55)

Whilst I can agree with the sentiment, I am not sure practically how the latter might occur, if as in many churches, there might be a discipleship deficit amongst adults, who spend more time maintaining churches through meetings, that being as active in ‘following Christ as he brings in the kingdom’ – young people might in effect be doing more of this themselves than adults are anyway. The learning might need to be the other way. Though the sentiment of greater participation/contribution is definitely valid, but in the UK, talk of participation and contribution is barely new. Neither is using the gifts of young people in Ministry – in fact this is the crux of Roots Faith Formation (2017) – though the repeated call for cultivating a better soil, for the seeds to grow is one that is particularly important.

Before moving further into the book, and developing Clarks key theme – creating an adoptive church. I want to mention critically the assessment of the state of churches that Clark identifies in Part 1. Not unlike many youth ministry book, there has to be a stated problem in part 1, to then be given the response and solution in parts 2-9. Where many youth ministry books have focussed on MTD, and the UK happy ‘Midi-narrative’ – (Root & Shepherd respectively) as the problem, Clark avoids both of these issues completely, and puts no work into thinking about the contexts in which the churches find themselves. Clarks focus is purely on the church as a whole. And church that is existing almost without any recognition of the context around it. On this basis, this is why the three issues that Clark raises as the problem with church youth ministry are:

  1. We (the church) is losing young people
  2. Students are unprepared for secular society
  3. There is more hurt than we realise. (pages 25-30)

He is right on one hand to suggest that strengthen what is broken is a good way to start. However, I cant help think, that from a UK perspective, barely any church in the UK would be immune to the hurt in the students that they have, or the students/young people it is doing mission with, given the effects of austerity, young peoples mental health, etc etc – a church that doesn’t get this, especially in the UK must have its blinkers on. And to think that its own young people aren’t facing these, well…  On the point that Students are unprepared for secular society, then again, this possibly represents something of the culture of a type of youth ministry that in the UK might only be a dream.  Yes, there is much to be done of creating flourishing youth ministry and churches so that they balance a distinctive following of Christ, whilst ensuring that young people are world ready too. But not many churches in the UK offer the kind of 5 nights a week youth ministry that might shield young people from culture and the world around them. Yes preparing young Christians for following Christ in the long term is an ongoing real task – but in the UK im not so sure that many of them are non-world ready. However, giving them tools for mission and doing Gods work in todays world agreed, this is almost lacking. Especially if MTD (Christian Smith, 2005)  is still pretty much the order of the day in regard to teaching, hearing and attendance is the one thing valued. For the US audience, these 3 issues probably ring true. Though there is minimal research into the causes of this problem given by Clark, albeit reference to some research by Fuller institute, one example of a young person, and a reference to David Elkinds work as a total sum of source material for making these three statements of the problem. Whilst they may be accurate assessments of a problem, and many might agree, they do lack the rigour of an academic piece. I guess in a way thats part of the problem with this book, where Root asks the question ‘what is faith’ and how might faith be formed in a secular age/world? Thinking about the nature of the secular world and its influence, Clarks finger is pointed more towards the church without too much of a deep diagnosis of the secular world that the students will be trying to face. Its as if the church on its own can sort out the problem. It will help no doubt, but if you’re looking for a stronger argument about the nature of the secular world, and how faith and ministry can be meaningful in it, then its Root that gives the answer to this, and not Clark. 

The response by Clark is for church to do better, and be better at enabling, encouraging and supporting young people to flourish. I can get this, I honestly can. But if churches arent made more aware of all the issues that this is about, including the effect of the secular age on young peoples faith, then its only a one-directional solution, to what is a complex problem. Fixing discipleship is going to take more than creating good spaces for discipleship, though there’s no doubt (and dont mishear me) that this is definitely a step in a right direction. Because its complex, i might suggest that this is why Clark largely ignores the issue, compared to Faith Formation, Adoptive church is definitely a practical book.

And a practical book, Adoptive Church continues to be, in Chapter 5, Clark begins to address the ‘church’ with a number of questions: ‘Is it a warm or a cold place’, is it a place where young people are given eye contact? is it a place where adults know the names of young people? (again i think the majority of small churches in the UK, this isnt an issue- well maybe not the warm/cold issue) , and then chapters 6-8 share further the practical ways (a process not a programme) of being an adoptive church. In chapter 6 this feels like using a business model of using ‘outcomes’, ‘intentions’ and ‘goals’ to create adoptive churches, and this is translated into sharing vision (p71), communication and training and creating opportunities where people can outwork the commandment to ‘love’ . Analysing the context is seen as important, so that churches intentionally work harder at being more welcoming (nothing worse than a church that says ‘all are welcome’ when actually no one is aside from those who know people already) – yet Clark is right in that even the most welcoming church that seeks to be ‘youth friendly’  rarely reaches out to young people, walks alongside them, or actively seeks to adopt in community young people as siblings in ministry. (p73). As he says, every church is unique, and every church might describe themselves in a certain way- but in analysing the context ‘how are churches for young people?’ . Clark then goes on to talk about resources, structures, reflection and evaluation- and much is useful, though it is worth being reminded of the American church context in which much of this is directed.

Clark then looks at the leadership style required for developing Adoptive churches, and whilst I can picture the kind of ‘Im in charge’ type leadership he describes (to avoid) – I think, generously, that many UK church leaders (whilst there might still be ego etc) are closer the the partnership models that he describes, given the rise in ecumeicalism in the UK and profligate attempts to share resources across churches for a variety of mission and community practices. Though what Clark is also getting at is trying to encourage an ongoing learning partnership approach to discipleship within a church instead of ‘hear me I have the answers’ , is the alternative ‘thanks for joining in this great and glorious effort, we’re all in this together’ (Page 86) – this might appeal to the ‘High School Musical’ generation who have, through Disney been exposed to the miracle of team work thanks to Troy, Gabriella and co, there is a deeper sentiment here, that developing adoptive churches requires an ongoing humility and respect for each persons worth, value and contributions (Ministry in the whole body). (p87) Clark then considers how a journey might be made from a managerial style to a partnership style. I can see the benefits of this, and wonder personally whether community approaches might be increased in clergy and ordination training to enhance partnership and educative approaches to leadership. However, that is not for today.

In the final section (pp129-176)  Clark describes the ‘fundamental practices of adoptive churches’, these are said to include :

  • Nurture and the Ministry of going – Chap describes a sense that Ministry occurs between the programmes (even though its a programme leader that most churches want to employ as a youthworker) , and that Ministry is as a result of the programme. Stating that ministry is to be relied on to help with young peoples participation in Gods work/ministry and his Family. Adoptive church is also about Going, about following God in the travel, the journey and the mobility of God, the kind of mobile, travelling ministry evident in the Biblical narrative (p134-135)
  • Nurture is about Familiarity – creating a place where young people feel at home. It is gentle, caring and loving, involves sharing the gospel of God and sharing life experience (p137), it is also Communal, therefore more than a mentoring (121) approach which is sworn by in many situations (p137) an adoptive approach is a community one and is akin to the family and all need to nurture each other (p138)
  • Nuture is strategic. It does require effort and intention, as though Clark doesn’t admit it, the default is not necessarily communal but individualistic (because of wider culture and individualism) so, some strategy is required to create communal nurturing spaces, to use language of community, sharing and encouragement.
  • It is about building trust, building warmth and gathering to explore the gospel together. But lets do this, as Chap Clark says, to build community and family, not just to ‘hear one person tell lots of people something’ but to create places of warmth that encourage learning together and learning spaces that encourage warmth. (p141)

Chapter 10 is about the Golden rule in most of what Youth Ministry has been all about in the last few years, at least in the UK (and the last three books mentioned above virtually say the same) – Youth Ministry, and in this case Adoptive churches, are all about participation. Or at least, Empowerment, which is beyond participation according to Clark, and in the main it is – for Clark it is about participating and contributing, and going beyond the ‘just getting the kids to do something’ type of participation.

‘Adoptive churches seeks more than minimal participation’ (Clarke, p146)

However, this is the sting (for many) . As Clark says, Empowerment is about realising that young people have a wealth of gifts, abilities, resources themselves that currently churches (and I will also argue schools) are not making the most of or are overlooked. Empowering contributing young people (in the task of Gods ministry) will enable these gifts to be used in ministry, and be ministers themselves. ‘Empowerment is the goal’ states Clarke, ‘we want teenagers and emerging adults to be embraced not only as younger siblings but also as valued ministry partners’ (p147). To achieve this, Clark suggests that churches need to be intergenerational, particular, incremental and intentional. Im not going to elaborate here on these, as they make sense. Though each of these might be counter cultural to what has gone on before, and even against attempts for universalism & quick fixes. However, his one idea of a ‘Youth Advisory Board’ is pretty weak as an idea, though not because having young people form a group to guide and advise in the ongoing preaching styles and content wouldnt be a good idea, but that it feels like the participation and contributions are merely to be Gods ministers within the institution. This is something he himself has argued against earlier in the book, and something Root certainly does, however, it would be a bold first step in many churches as to give power away to young people to help shape the preaching rota and content does require initiative, courage and risk taking. Its a step beyond creating a committee to help run the youth club, its participation and making contributions in the whole church. (I guess where there is a lectionary, this is going to be a challenge…)

Clarks final chapter considers the resistances and challenges awaiting those who take hold of these ideas and want to make steps towards creating adoptive churches, especially in organisations like churches who can be notoriously resistant to change, even in the face of decline. (if anything this brings about more fear and an entrenchedness). And do you know what, there are some gems in this chapter about language, persuasion and confronting the need to change in a church, and the effort it takes. So, again, on a practical level, Clark gives some sound advice, even in a UK context, the stuff on history, ownership and belonging is relevant, as is trying to be an agent of change even if you’re not in charge, youth worker and clergy might be united in this common cause. Clark does suggest that experimenting, and taking risks on the edges is one way, including family or community meals (something popular in the UK) . He contrasts family meals as a time for being together and sharing, and the deemed ‘inter-generational’ trade of having drums in the service, something that strategically doesn’t bring people together or relationally connecting people, its almost a trade off to ‘keep people happy’.. His tips for experiments, and cautions are worth a read. Its why change might be incremental, and working from the edge inwards might be key.

In effect that’s how the book ends. There is an appendix and a few bit n pieces in the index. But there isn’t really a conclusion, a final rallying cry, or some lengthy stories of how this worked in a few situations. Its a curates egg of a book, good in parts, an idea that has appeal, and a few practical hints and tips as to how to make it happen. His ideas are described simply and accessibly and will appeal to many, and I think for churches who want to do better ministry with young adults, and children, thinking through the culture of the church as a place of nurture, flourishing, family and learning are important, especially if the end goal is to help them be participants and contributors in Gods ongoing ministry. For me it lacks some of the depth and rigour, and even research that other recent books has, but thats probably unfair to judge it in this way. Overall I would recommend this book to the UK audience, even if there are aspects in which might not apply, there are churches who might not want to answer some of the questions truthfully that Clark asks, and this might not be a bad think, for the sake of young peoples ongoing discipleship.

You can buy a copy of Adoptive Church (2018) here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adoptive-Church-Youth-Family-Culture/dp/0801098920/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1544093694&sr=8-1&keywords=chap+clark

[1] Starting right, 1999, four views of youth ministry, 2002

Also

Shepherd, Nick Faith Generation, 2016

Root, Andrew Faith Formation in a Secular age, 2016

Churches should be the safest place for LGBTQ young people (A review of ‘4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers)

That is the bold confident claim and dream in the recent book ‘4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers’, by the Youth Cartel, that includes contributions in this edition by Gemma Dunning, Shelley Donaldson, Nick Elio and Eric Woods, this is my review of this piece of work.4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers: Effective Ministry to Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer, and Questioning Students Among Us by [Oestriecher, Mark, Donaldson, Shelley, Dunning, Gemma, Elio, Nick, Woods, Eric]

There is much to be commended in this book. Though in one sense, the writers readily confess that their four views share a whole lots of commonality, three of the views are from a US perspective, all bring to the table personal and/or professional experience of shared lives and practice with young people, some of whom would identify as LGB or TQ, and each of their views brings together the realities of how this experience of young people affects parents directly, churches and also the specific dynamics of groups of young people in church activities. What the contributors share also is that there is a complexity to trying to ‘work’ out a particular standpoint, perspective or set of coherent statements to this concern that they have and share with us. The contributors recognise the complexity of trying to juggle what appears to be the conflicts within the theological position of conservative evangelical youth ministry and churches, with ecclesial politics and also the lived experience of young people growing up in societies in which they as LGBTQ identified need to be given an abundance more of intentional inclusion than other young people.

As I say there is much to be positive in this book, and I mean this, its not a prelude to a long ‘but’- This is a detailed if not personal exploration of how four people in Ministry came to revelations about the faith, their practice, the world of young people and their struggle, challenges and culture doing so in christian ministries that caused them to have to dig deep, make sacrifices and begin a process of education and change within churches (that they were employed within) to enable young people to receive the kind of welcome, support and space to be that their dream for every LGBTQ young person might need.

If you want to be a church community that has the desire to offer this kind of welcome and space for young people – then this book is for you, as there are many practical tips, and also pointers to the challenges that this might bring, especially in terms of trying to gain consensus on a particular view of LGBT (and if even Consensus is what is required). As they say, though, dont try and be inclusive if you dont mean it, and arent prepared to be it. I specifically enjoyed that when churches say ‘All are welcome’ some who identified as LGBT may still want to know if they  are included in the ‘all’ – and so without having to make an extra phone call to the church office, the church should go out of its way to specify that it a welcoming space for those in the LGBT community. It would be  simple thing to say, but might need considerable conversation so that a church might mean it. This is one practical tip, there are others, that specifically relate to young peoples activities such as residentials and small groups, all of which might give reason to not know ‘what to do’ but each is given due mention in this book, and ultimately many of the issues that might be raised are solved through respecting all young people and giving them all opportunity to contribute to how a situation might be ‘resolved’. This ultimately is good youthwork practice.

It is ‘this good youthwork practice’ that leads me to the ‘however’ of this review.

What is revealed in this book is that little preparation was available for youth ministers in the UK or USA to start ‘dealing’ with (and i use this phrase lightly) this concern. It is as if there has been a dawning of the reality of LGBT as a possible identifier for even christian young people is a recent thing, what is of concern is the underpreparedness that it seems each of the four persons were – at least Christian ministry training did not prepare them for. For Gemma, it was the approach of Informal education (youthwork) that enabled her to bring an approach of inclusion in conversation with the christian faith, and then this gave her a language and framework in which working with young people might mean in this way. Young people in this book are absent. To a point though one young person, whos is known to the writer exclaims

Why are you still talking about this?

As if the world and her have moved far on, but the church is still having to continue having conversations about this issue. The conversations itself that highlight that the complexity that the church might face in the ongoing to act meaningfully and inclusively with young people in the way the writers dream for in this book. But for youthwork in the UK, (not youth ministry) this conversation is a non-starter, there have been LGBT groups, conversations and friendly spaces for years, the LGBT youth clubs in Scotland have been active a long time. Because it is inclusion and anti-oppression first – (without conservative or evangelical theology in its way). It is telling that youthwork/informal education is absent in the US youth ministry context and conversation, and it is sadly absent in this book. But for youthworkers there is a sense that why are we talking about this? – its 2018 for crying out loud. On the other basis – No one has been talking about this as nothing has been in print on this concern, within youth ministry. 

It is the ongoing voice of young people that is however sadly lacking in this book. Some of these stories are painful, some are brave and some complicated. But this book has alot of is the voice of youth leaders who are shaping ministries, churches and lives to accomodate and be inclusive to LGBT and all young people. It is a shame therefore that the table is not extended to hear directly from LGBT young people themselves. We hear statistics of LGBT young people and recommendations of churches to young people, but it is their voice that is absent. There is not a story of how LGBT young people have found the desired welcome in a church. It is a minor thing, on one hand as there are not many youth ministry books that include the actual voice of young people, they tend to be the cumulative experience of youth leaders and academics. But a personal story and one from an LGBT young person in this book about inclusion might have been helpful.

Churches should be the most safe place for young people to ‘be’ LGBT. I wonder. This might reveal that youth leaders feel that other spaces arent safe. I would say in the UK that there are inclusive spaces for young people to ‘be’ LGBT are common and a church is lower in the pile that a young person might go to. However, a young person who has grown up in the church who identifies as LGBT at a time during their child or teenage years, needs to know that the relationships they currently have with supportive adult in their christian upbringing are going to stay the same when their LGBT identity is known. If the church is serious about being with and for young people, then this dream has to be a reality. If you want tips on churches being safer places for young people to be LGBT then this book is for you. If you want to use it to start a conversation that should have already been had, then use it, If you want it to have all the answers and something concrete for you in your situation then its not for you, there is much to be worked out in each situation, and much to i think do in order that churches might live up to the dream of being safe that this book aspires churches to be. Though- better to start a conversation about this, than only react later.

To buy a copy direct from Gemma, here is the link http://www.gemmadunning.com/p/4-views-on-pastoring-lgbtq-teenagers.html?m=1

A kindle edition is available via amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Views-Pastoring-LGBTQ-Teenagers-Questioning-ebook/dp/B079YJ61QS/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1521663465&sr=8-3&keywords=youth+cartel (here its slightly less at £10, but you cant share it as easily around the church leaders compared to a hard copy..)

 

Without theology- can youth ministry keep the faith?

For those who keep up with these things, this is the fourth of my posts that is loosely related to ideas that emerge from Andrew Roots book, Faith formation in a secular age’ a book which is going to be discussed and referred to quite a bit over the next year within the corridors of youth ministry brand UK, possibly because we cant in the UK get enough of what the Americans think about youth ministry (even if their context, ecclesiology, missiological practices and political context, and spiritual context are vastly different), and that there can be a tendency to give a free ride to anyone intellectual that isnt that critical themselves. What Andrew Root does do is tell it like it is to his own audience. What we need to do in the UK is discover whether the message needed is the same. And there are questions. But for now, I have a different question. In a book so concerned about the formation of faith, and the context within which faith is formed – why does Root only spend a short time reflecting on what faith is, why faith might be important for young people?

In Chapter 8 of faith formation Root, after finishing an exploration Charles Taylor, sets to work on developing a framework of what faith is, in accordance with , essentially, Gormans view of The apostle Pauls salvation. Stating that faith is about negation. It is that Jesus entered negation, and that Saul (Paul) saw faith as

a transcendent experience born out of negation (death, brokenness and longing) . Faith is to experience the encounter of Christ, through the negation of the Cross, faith is not just an act of trust, but to ‘enter’ into Christ and have our own being taken into the being of Jesus’ (Root, Andrew, 2017, p119-120)

Faith, in this description Root gives is about negating, about giving up, and it is about participating in the actions of Christ, divine action, which Root goes on to say is a cause for a believer to become a minister, to become one who minister to others, and this is explored by Root in the next chapter, 9. Stating that Faith is about the experience of ministry, and in that ministry which arrives through negation, comes the divine action.

What this means is that Faith is something practical (ministering to others) and Prophetic (causes a giving up, negation, a simplicity) and also transcendent (in an age of ‘realism’ and ‘authenticity’). This links significantly with Healys view of a Theodrammatic framework for ecclesiology, church within the Theodrama is to be practical and prophetic, and not worry about its blemishes, history or ideals.

And culturally talk of faith is cheap. The key conversations surround growth as an antidote to decline within organisations, and this can be reduced to over reliance on the business models that spawned successful or profitable businesses. But Jesus wasnt about being a successful business. Jesus was someone who recognised faith, and asks of us that his return ‘how many will he find on earth who have faith?’ (Luke 18:8)

Faith has 55 references in the Gospels, many directly the words of Jesus who commends or rebukes those who do not have enough, or have enough of it, faith to be made well, faith as much as a mustard seed, faith as much as this– many, many references to the faith of those around him. Often rebuking those who think they have it, and commending those for whom their actions show more faith than they thought. So what might this mean for the ‘faith’ of churches, the faith of people around us in our communities and churches. Are the faithful the large – or the faithful the invisible?

However, Can we take what Root argues for without critique? – after all – Faith will be what the Son of Man comes back to see, and faithful ministry, (that might also be growing) might be the call of the minister of faith. Yet still- talk is about faith- without really pinning down what faith is. Often it can be a tag line, a descriptor- such as ‘faith-based’, or ‘faith motivated’ especially for youth work practice.

Referring to the Bible, Faith is described by the writer of Hebrews as : ‘Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen, it gives us assurance about things we cannot see’ (Hebrews 11;1) Then follows a log line of people who acted according to faith. What they reveal about God is that he communicated and spoke to these people in the midst of day to day and called them to action. Action, that Root might suggest, caused negation – the giving up of a home (abraham), the challenge to build a boat, the giving up of a child (Moses), a welcome to the spies (Rahab). Faith requires action, and God seems to be present in that action. It is as Vanhoozer and others might say, a Divine Drama of Gods being present in ongoing communication (Vanhoozer, 2010, Remythologising Theology)

In The Hermeneutics of Doctrine Anthony Thiselton, refers to Wolfgang Pannenburg who writes:

There is no separation between history and faith; we must reinstate today the original unity of facts and their meaning’, Knowledge is not a stage beyond faith, but leads into faith.

For Thiselton, ‘faith as based on the trustworthiness of that to which it is directed, hence ‘christian faith must not be merely subjective conviction that would allegedly compensate for the uncertainty of an historical knowledge about Jesus’. Jesus stood himself in a horizon where people expected a Saviour, and did not demand trust in his person without giving reasons for it. (Thiselton, 2007, p411-412)

Faith then is inextricably linked to knowledge, for without knowledge of an idea, a situation and belief system then there can be no faith. As Root himself says, young people within evangelical settings (especially youth ministry) now know very little about the tradition, but have been taught over and over about how to get high on the idea of Jesus. The need for knowledge within faith played down, only simple knowledge was enough, and within a vacuum of knowledge (of God) dangerous theologies and the idolatorous worship of these theologies reign free (prosperity gospel etc) , but it is also Knowledge of God and Theology that Vanhoozer brings as his anti-dote the dangers of MTD, the disease often said to infect american youth ministry. (Vanhoozer, 2014)

From both Root and Vanhoozer, Theology must come first, then practical ministry and action. (In the UK, Pete Ward was arguing for the same in 1997) Faith is inextricably linked to knowledge of God and knowledge of the story of God and accepting an ongoing role in the drama of it all.

When talk is of growth and growing youth ministry, what effect might this have on faith when real faith requires slow knowledge, self sacrifice and denial, living a radical deducted (even simple life) and not just Jesus as the great confidence giver and permisser of a materialist life. Faith seems to be more than belief, it is an act of the will to live a different life. Can growing and growth be detrimental to depth because the emphasis might be on quantity, efficiency and speed.

A faith based ministry or church- what might that mean, based on a faith and acting like the faith that is required. Without a theology of faith, what are young people having faith in? An experience that makes them feel good or gives them a high? Or the kind of dangerous self giving generous discipleship which loves their neighbour and in obedience hears the holy author prompting in the midst, to act in faith towards human and community flourishing? (And it’s not too young to start)

Andrew Root has put faith formation back into the youth ministry headlines, what is as required is to contemplate the life of faith that is required of those who accept the challenge to take on Jesus discipleship.

References

Root, Faith formation in a secular age, 2017

Thiselton A, 2007 the Hermeneutics of Doctrine

Vanhoozer, 2005, The drama of doctrine

Vanhoozer, 2010; Remythologising Theology

Ward, Pete, 1997 Youth work and the Mission of God