LGBT and the Christian Story (Part 2) – Might drama make for a better evangelical story?

A few weeks ago I penned a piece that began with Peter Oulds assertion that ‘Evangelicals need a better story’  in regard to how situations of LGBT are dealt with, and the piece ended with my own story of growing up evangelical, and the predominant silence on the issue, a silence which meant that as a young person I had no way of assessing the few perspectives floating around that were predominately negative, and where the churches were represented as being guilty of committing spiritual abuse against individuals. If you want to read that piece it is here: ‘On LGBT and growing up Evangelical- the Silence’

This is the follow up, and tries to respond to Peters original question. One key motivation for me in regard to this piece, is that I was in conversation with a young person recently, and in asking them about ‘difficult issues that they face’ they said ‘well i have my spiritual beliefs over here, and my personal ones here, I go the Pride march locally as I want to support it and am for it, but its as if i have to hide being a christian, or keep my spiritual beliefs separate’. I paraphrase a little. But isnt it a shame that this was how a young person in a local church, growing up evangelical, dealt with what they saw were a divergence of beliefs and values? A better story for them would bring coherence. And i realise coherence isnt everything. But it might help young people growing up evangelical today. Amongst other things.

So, If there needs to be a better Evangelical story ;  Might that story need to be a bigger one? If the only evangelical story in town is to denigrate those who stand with pride marches as having a cartoon faith, and creating an either/or argument, then Peter is desperately right. The tone of the debate continues to sound nasty, and it is evangelicals playing the doom drums.

Where the conversations have been about Vicky Beechings book ‘Undivided’ which is getting alot of positive and dismissive comments.

But if I am brutally honest, when the battle lines are drawn in this debate both lived experience and good humanity become sidelined to bit part players in the great theological conversation. The lived experience, personal ministry and horrific experiences of oppression in the church do have to be wrestled with, are valid, dont mishear me.

If the lines are drawn as ‘lived experience’ vs ‘what the bible says’ then the rut might be stuck in for a while. The tools in what seems a battle have barely move on since i was a teenager. To be evangelical is to still believe in the Bible, yet no evangelical believes in the whole bible anyway, all is culturally appropriated. Thats still not, quite the point.

Yes it has taken 1000 words of preamble, and so this might be the first of a number of posts, but in terms of a framework for using the Bible, and also exploring inclusion, acceptance and participation in the faith – does a Theodrammatic framework help?

Of course, in thinking like this, we have to ask whether we want to find a way that accepting a theological premise that offers acceptance and inclusion with the LGBT community is what we want – if this isnt what is wanted, then no premise will have any affect anyway – because the heels are already dug in and no fancy 2000 word blog is going to change that. But if you humour me a little, and want to work with me to think about a better evangelical story, then read on…

How the Bible is used – is a question that doesnt as often get asked as ‘what does the Bible say’ , neither ‘what is the role of the Bible’ in this or any debate- and this may well be where thinking about Theodrama might also be helpful, in not just providing us with a better story, but also a way of understanding how the bible is to be used.

And one key aspect at stake is the use of the Bible, which, according to the critical piece above is phrased as having no need for interpretation, for only a literal one will do. How the text of the Bible is used is undoubtedly an issue. An issue that isnt picked up on by Ian Paul in this piece, but he does helpful highlight the potential factionary nature of the debates.

but moving on…

Can there be an evangelical story that is the different one that Peter Ould is trying to find?

I am wanting to believe there is.

I wonder whether the limitations described by Peter in his piece on ‘The Christian story’ are also related to the notion that ‘Story’ itself has limitations as a descriptor, its something I have talked about before here in this piece: ‘Does a 3 way Drama help?’ and I suggested that the limited nature of story is that it restricts the participative nature of God in the current story of humanity. It can feel as though what is described is as if the separate story of man and God only connects at certain points. And I am not sure thats Biblically or theologically accurate.

I wonder whether Theodrama helps to create a better story? Where it is not Story, but Drama that is the descriptor, and metaphor that is used to describe the Christian narrative, mission, expectation and purpose.

There will be references to Theodrama at the bottom of this piece, if you want to read further, but for the content of this piece I will try and keep things as fairly simple as possible. Thats if you’re not lost already, please try and bear with me on this.

In thinking about Drama, Balthasars original descriptions evoked Shakespeare (all the worlds a stage) and also Greek Philosophy, in which theatrical language was used to describe the human condition and place in the world. What Balthasar did with it, in 5 volumes was to suggest that the field of Theatre was both underused and devalued by the church, and that it had much to offer that had been sidelined. In particular Balthasar focussed on the nature of the relationships that occur between the script, the author, the playwright, the director, the audience and also the actors on the stage. Principally describing that the actor has both the freedom to perform on the stage, with knowledge of previous performances, the written script, (thats been tailored from the original piece of literature), their relationship with the author, relationship with the director – and also that their performance is being realised on a stage in front of the audience. I think we can get this in terms of a metaphor for the Christian life, in which the human responds in freedom to the author, director, audience, fellow performers and tries to act in a way that brings the audience closer in awareness to the script. (Wells 2004, p49, and Von Balthasar, Theodrammatic 1, The Prolegamma). Shannon Craigo Snell (amongst others) have alligned the various aspects of a theatrical performance to that of the Christian drama, with, the world being the stage, God the director/producer, and performer, and humans/christians as also actors on the worlds stage.

As with this analogy, different methods of theatre in your mind make give this metaphor variety. If you have improvised or interactive theatre, then audience participation and improvisation is high (as is the skill of the actor to incorporate massive disruption and divergence), the more bourgeoisie theatre with clearer boundaries (except when the audience is involved in a panto scene) permeates a different image of what performance is expected. Boals descriptions of Theatre for the Oppressed are helpful here, and I have not done theatre studies. But there’s a glimpse here on how Theatre has possibilities for a metaphor, especially as interactive and improvised theatre suggests that drama as Wells suggests celebrates and embraces an open and social future in a time to be explored. Theology in the Drama engages with time in its openness. (Wells 2004, p50)

A number of people have written further, using the metaphor of theatre as a way of bringing together free will, the creator/creature relationship, the answerability of Man to God, (Balthasar), the church (Nicholas Healy, Craigo-Snell, Wesley Vander Lugt), Trinity (Balthasar/Vanhoozer) calling and salvation (Vanhoozer, Balthasar), Ethics (Samuel Wells) and maybe as importantly for the discussion about the christian story, The bible itself (Craigo-snell, Balthasar, Vanhoozer, Wells, Vander Lugt, Trevor Hart)

Imagine for a moment that the Drama is the descriptor for the Biblical narrative and not story. And so, in that dramatic imagination, think about the historic and present timeline of the Biblical action, whilst there is a bit of a small dispute (and its not worth a discussion) on how many acts there are to play in the drama, for me its easier to think of the framework as five acts of God, four that have happened, and one that is in the future. These being

  1. Creation,
  2. Covenant,
  3. Christ,
  4. Church, and
  5. The Consummation

Hopefully, this still feels evangelical. The Bible contains reference to all of these in the canonical text, and what this time line also does, as Samuel Wells describes, is that it put us is in our place  – being in act 4 of 5 – and thinking about this is below. God is at work in all 5 of the ‘acts’, they are the acts of God that permeate through the Biblical text and these key moments. Though in this description Wells described adequately the chronology of the Biblical narrative, it is laking reference to the Biblical themes, and an alternative is suggested by Vander Lugt who presents it as:

  1. Formation (creation)
  2. Deformation (Fall)
  3. Transformation emerged (Isreal)
  4. Transformation Embodied (Jesus)
  5. Transformation Empowered (church)
  6. Re-formation (new creation)

This carries with it something of the impetus of our current situation. For, as people in the ‘church’ act of the drama, our prime role is of having been empowered to witness, empowered to sustain the faith, empowered in christlikeness and empowered to cultivate and make disciples. And transformation is expansive enough to include other salvific acts such as reconciliation, ransom, adoption, victory, liberation and justification..

This post is not about a theological understanding of LGBT per se, It is meant to be a way of re thinking the Christian story, to drama, and Gods Drama (Theodrama) that might ensure that the Evangelical Christian story, does itself have a better and i hazard a though, more accurate story.

So, for the remainder of this already length piece Ill focus on the question – If there is such a thing as a 5 part Theodrama – what part in this metaphorical drama does the Bible play? And as a result, what is the Bible for, especially given that literal uses of texts (albeit subjectively used) are often weaponised in an LGBT theology-off.

Within the Theodrama, it might be that the Bible is easily determined as the script. But not so fast. For the script of the Bible rarely corresponds to current events, neither do the current actors regimentally act it out. Indeed, the whole theatrical methaphor might itself be under threat in the questioning of whether the Bible is a script or not (Vander Lugt, 2014, 92-93) Although there are many compelling reasons for suggesting the bible as the script, Vander Lugt suggests that it is better to think of the Bible as  a Transcript and a Pre-script. Vanhoozer himself deviated from his original thinking on the bible as a script between Drama of Doctrine (2005), and Faith Speaking Understanding (2014).

With the Bible as a transcript, Vander Lugt paints a picture of God (the playwright) who has a comprehensive view of the whole drama, but guides certain writers in transcribing a long series of improvised performances in interaction with his own performance. Not all is recorded, only those which are events, interactions and notes that contribute to a cohesive story (the OT), and this theme continues by the disciples who improvise with earlier performances and then interact with God playing a lead role (Jesus), and then following this the playwright includes letter from assistant directors ( peter, john, Paul)  to their companies who provide creative ways of performing  in various situations guided by the producer (Holy Spirit), and all these become adapted for future performances, and some even include how the play will end – so actors are required to reincorporate by memory what is transcribed while pre-incorporating with hope and imagination elements from the ending. (A slight rephrasing of Vander Lugt, 2014, p94)

Actors therefore have freedom to improvise within the structure provided by the playwright, protagonist and producer, with God also involved in the ongoing, immediate and present – as he is and was always (it was only written down afterwards) . Scripture may not be a script, but a transcript of what was that serves as a pre script for ongoing fitting and appropriate performances in the future.

I cannot continue this piece any further. It will get longer than the Bible itself.

What I hope that thinking of the Christian story as Theodrama does is bring expansiveness of thought to the concept of the biblical narrative, using theatrical language that has this potential, and uses terms that many people who are adept at film/theatre or music fields can understand. It might be accused of over complicating what for decades evangelicals have harped on about making faith simple. The christian religion as Max Harris describes is a religion of the stage, and not just a religion of the book (Harris, Theatre and imagination) . This is not the place to discuss what it might mean to ‘perform’ the text in an improvised way, and neither is it the place to think about passages that are used in the heat of the LGBT text warfare.

In conclusion, The Bible is a central aspect of Gods own performances by which he reveals to us the theodrama and invites us to be participants in it. The Spirit speaks to, and with ongoing performers who respond to the directions and who are capable of fitting performances. Scripture records particular performances that taken individually and collectively provide a trustworthy transcripts of the theodrama and prescripts for continued participation in the theodrama today. Simple… ?  So what does this mean for the christian story? Its a drama where transformation is the impetus and we are improvisers empowered to perform it, in the everyday of now and tomorrow.

Conceived as a drama that requires participation, Theodrama is a drama that has a transcript written and has elements, themes and examples that form a prescript for todays performances- which are to be improvised in the current context, with the actors freedom, creativity and ongoing responsiveness to, as Vanhoozer describes, the Holy Author in the midst. What does this mean for inclusion, for participation in the drama- well its then a matter of who God speaks to and calls, who is directed and prompted, its a drama of participation in the mission and kingdom that requires Christlikeness and childlike responsiveness to obedience to that call. Is gender important? or transgender important – maybe thats for part 3…

Its Theodrama – with God still speaking and acting in the very present – its more that an old old story – but a present that has ongoing participation, responsiveness, action and transformation as its directives. Its a drama yet to be performed. How do we play the next scene? Is it love that compels or judgement?

To many young people- including the friend of mine – drama might bring coherancy, and expansion, to christian beliefs that remain evangelical, in its overall framework, provide insight into how we are participating in Gods drama that is in need of attentive and fitting performances that take into account the script beforehand, as well as the current context, trinity and the theodrama itself, the drama of Gods covenantal love for the world.

 

References

Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, 3rd edition 2005

Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine 2005, Remythologing Theology 2010, Faith Speaking Understanding 2014

Shannon Craigo-Snell Command performance, rethinking performance interpretation in the context of divine discourse, modern theology, (16/4, 2000) pp 475-94

Samuel Wells, Improvisation, 2004

Wesley Vander Lugt, Living Theodrama, 2014

Hans urs von Baltasar, Theodrammatique 1-5, 1980

 

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10 threats and opportunities for churches as posed by Detached youth work

Recently I was in a conversation with someone who was asking about my working experiences (no it wasn’t a job interview), and having talked a little about my experiences in working in a call centre, then making the leap to begin youthwork and theology training, I then mentioned that I have been involved in detached youthwork for the best part of the last 12 years, in one shape or another, either through coordinating a project, trying to start detached work, or managing and volunteering detached work back in the north east. The person, seeming knowledgeable about detached youthwork (for I didn’t have to explain it, there’s a surprise) said;

Detached youth work, Thats a real threat to the church – isnt it?

Image result for 6 and 9
Picture of image of the number 6 or 9 realised differently depending on how it is viewed

I kind of hadn’t thought of it in this way before. But in the subsequent couple of weeks I have realised that aspects of detached youthwork that are threats to the church, are also aspects that present churches with opportunities. I guess its where it depends on how the threats are viewed, as threats or opportunities.

So, what might these threats/opportunities – or thropportunities be?

  1. Detached youthwork deals with the reality. Countless times I hear about the perceptions of young people in the local community, their behaviours and issues that are occurring. But the reality of being out on the streets is a whole different scenario. Its not always like this, but the reality compared to the perceived reality, or talked about stories is very different. A reality discovered about young people from them, is usually far different to what people who dont know them make it out to be. Especially in terms of situations like ‘boredom’ or ‘alcohol use’. A threat to church is that detached youthwork is about a reality of a situation. Also, it threatens the universalisms of ‘gen x’ and ‘millenial’ thinking for ministry that are used to shape programmes, detached youthwork deals in the local and reality. And this is also an opportunity. An opportunity to learn and listen from the local and real. There are no millenials on the streets of your town, trust me, just young people who want a bit of time and respect, and to be treated for who there are, and not what people expect them to be.
  2. Detached youthwork shifts the big idea. The threat here is that the source of the big ideas about developing work with young people gets shifted from the corridors of power erm ‘youth ministry planning meeting’ which is when adults talk about young people and try and discover an idea to work with them, and shifts the idea making space to the young people themselves. The threat is the loss of power, the opportunity is that young people become invested in and the opportunity for high participation and creativity into the nature, practices and regularity of next provision. Its a threat because the assumed knowledge held in churches gets shifted. ‘Why not find out what young people like, want and could contribute’ is a both an opportunity and a threat, isnt it?
  3. Detached youth work opens up the empty space. The threat here is that pandoras box of the local community may be opened up and the church may feel provoked as hasn’t been as vulnerable or willing to open it before , to experience the reality, or face its own cultural boundaried edges. But this is also an opportunity, of course it is, an opportunity to be provoked into cultural change, an opportunity to listen and respond, an opportunity to realise that the empty space is already a God at work in it space, and therefore an opportunity to join in the party already happening. Image result for empty stage
  4.  Detached youth work makes the relationship ministry. A report the other day suggested that clergy like being clergy because they cant stand being with people, that its a way of being able to stand aloof, now I imagine that might be the same for a number of professions. In youth ministry, with the exception of the summer camp or weekend residentials, there can still be a temptation to the let the game, talk, activity, do all the ‘talking’ and that it not be about personal conversations and educating through them. The Ministry could do all the talking. In detached youthwork, the gloves are off, for, aside from what might be spontaneous activities like a game of football on the park, detached youthwork threatens as it is about personal rapport, personal conversations, and developing a purposeful relationship with a or a group of young people. It is a threat because it asks more than ‘new skills’ but asks that we become closer to who we are with young people, we do the talking (and listening). There is only the possiblilty of relationship that exists in detached work, rather than the offer of a next game, activity or session. Its why young peoples questions on the street, whilst sometimes challenging, are versions of ‘can I trust you?’ Its the young people that are testing us and whether they can trust us in that place. The threat is that ministry doesnt do the talking, and that we as workers and people who are out there do relationship building as ministry. This makes it still an opportunity- doesnt it… ?
  5.  Detached youthwork does not raise any money. Sorry, I had to mention the ‘m’ word. But no its pretty difficult to make detached youthwork pay for itself. Given that its about vulnerability, reality and conversation, its kind of difficult to charge young people for it, unlike subs or tuck shops or other ways in which churches generate small amounts of income from young people in the clubs and groups. But that means that detached youthwork is free at the point of access, and that, makes it an opportunity for young people who cant attend groups, who feel awkward about paying.
  6. Detached youthwork values young peoples group making. Have you ever noticed how group work develops in churches, usually its a mix of people who like an activity, gather together to do it, so the choir, the homegroup, the bible study. In working with young people, often young people have to try and develop group work even though they can be a dispersed group for the rest of the week (not unlike a sunday morning congregation at times) , so any group work is slow because it has only an hour or so a week to occur, and normally most Sunday nights are ‘storming’ events in the group cycle, and only over a weekend residential, or some collective activity does further group work happen. I wonder whether we attribute God to nights when good group work happened… ‘look how they worked well together, im sure God did this’ , it could be more sociology than spirituality as to why a group of young people functioned. Image result for group developmentDetached youthwork meets and tries to work with young people in the groups they have already chosen, spent time with and created for themselves. They are not created groups through a ministry practice, but groups in which young people have already found an identity, role, space and support from, and so detached youthwork if we do it well, forces us to recognise the possibility and strength of this already established group and try ourselves to become accepted as part of it in the way they might want us to be. But detached youthwork values that young people can make their own groups, find sanctuary and space to be in their own groups and as an opportunity to meet and connect in and with them, taking the pain out of trying to force group work upon a gathered group of young people.
  7. Detached youthwork connects churches with the other 95% of young people. (Scripture union suggest that churches are only connecting with 5% of the young people in the UK) I guess that’s the opportunity. It is more of a reality that detached youthwork may help connect churches with the 10% of young people who are out on the streets. It is almost guaranteed that none of these young people are the usual sunday youth fellowship young people. Its also as guaranteed that even if the church is involved in local schools assemblies or groups, there’s likely to be better conversations with young people on the streets, and this is where there’s the greatest likeliest long term ministry to be started from. There are projects in the UK who now have a small number of voluntary and paid leaders who were all the ‘destructive’ kids in school, but who with a dollop of patience, listening and availability for conversation over a long period of time from detached workers have flourished as part of a faith community. Far more than any in the ‘schools groups’. Detached work threatens the church, as it says, young people who no one else hopes for have value. It threatens the church because it asks the church to believe differently about young people and believe differently about the future leadership of the church and where it resides from. Its not the ‘other 95%’ of young people, but the 10% who have been left behind. Detached youthwork can be the standing in the gap people, the borders and margins, the opportunity to lift others and cause them to fly, even with previously clipped wings.
  8. Detached youthwork is a threat, because its unpredictable and open ended. Sadly in a world where the church has opted into ‘value for money’ ministries in which outcomes and outputs have to be tightly negotiated and planned for. Detached youthwork is a threat, for, like chaplaincy, it doesnt play that game. Detached youthwork may be the chaplaincy to young people on the streets, but it is a threat because it challenges the outcomes agenda. Yet it is an opportunity, because it challenges the outcomes agenda. It has the possibility of opening up the space, the empty stage and creating something new, improvised, that wasn’t thought of before, because that’s the tangent that young people trusted us with.  We might want to predict the number of sessions, hope for the number of conversations, plan for recruiting volunteers and measure the training hours, but to know whats going to happen with a group of young people in a period of 6 weeks? hmm… its a threat because it is open ended, but its also a possibility that being open ended might allow a church to follow and not lead, to be responsive and less in control, to challenge ‘value for money’ with values of ministry. It is therefore an opportunity of space creating within existing places instead of planning created spaces of expectations. Its not A + B to make C happen, but A + B and why not C what does…   Being open ended is an opportunity, but its also definitely a threat.
  9. Detached youthwork present a new lens for theology. When we explore, observe and feel the reality of life on the streets, when we’re in conversations and hear stories – we give ourselves a new lens with which to view scripture and the theology we held to. (and I know all experiences will do this) there is something about the fluidity of detached work and the same street occurences that we read about that Jesus and disciples had, that take on a new meaning through the lived experiences of detached work. It is also a lens from reality, from developing new conversations, from being involved in young people where they are, a lens where we ecounter God in the midst of the action, in the dark spaces on the streets. A lens of hope. It makes faith seem a whole load different and different from a Sunday shaped view of buildings, rows and order, or academia, reading and reflection (all valid, just different). Theology from the context of the streets, not just contextual theology for the streets. An opportunity and a threat.
  10. Detached youthwork is everyones game, not just young families and the young leaders. Having bought into the attractional game of youth ministry, where only Mr or Miss trendy can work with young people, detached youthwork is a threat to this. Image result for trendy youth leader

 I want you to think about when you were a young person. seriously. What kind of person did you want to connect with? Someone like you, or someone who liked you, someone who respected you and gave you time, or someone still trying to find themselves, someone who listened, or someone who wanted to only tell their own story?  Did it matter to you what age they were?  Detached youthwork is a threat, because its not for the young leader. No it really isnt. Its for those who are willing to be vulnerable and take a risk. Its for those who are good at talking and listening, for those who have a deep call to hope for young people. It is not a young persons game, because it is not a game, it is real. It is a threat to the gravitational pull to the attractional youth leaders, and an opportunity to take years of experience, life wisdom and patience, and even deep maternal or paternal instincts out onto the streets. It is an opportunity to be surrogate uncle and Auntie, and respected as an adult for being an adult. The best detached youthwork volunteers i ever had – they were in their 40’s and 50’s. And i have had some good 20 year olds too. With churches that are ageing, 50 year olds – come on, do more than be a street pastor once a month, get out and connect with young people on a weekly basis.

So, 10 aspects of detached youthwork, and maybe also open club work and chaplaincy type work, that feel as though they both present threats and opportunities to churches in the current context of missional practice. The good thing about threats is that they cause us to rise to a challenge, to take a risk, and provoke, the mission field of the streets is still pretty much open, and young people are still there. Some of these threats may help to take churches to a new place, should they be vulnerable to go and learn, some may be opportunities to do good in a local community, just being in the place of reality and opening up the streets as a space of opportunity is an opportunity in itself. Its a threat to often how mission has been ordered before, but thats not a bad thing. Surely?

If you’re up for starting this opportunity, and want some training or help with it, let me know, contact me via the menu above. Thank you for reading and sharing, and I apologise for the adverts below:

 

Lets get Theological! On making Theology, not models & strategies first in Youth Ministry

You wont read this post. I guarantee you, no one will read this post. Even with a sneaky reference to an Olivia Newton John lyric in the title, you wont read this, because its got Theology in the title as well. I should have put sex, or masturbation, or something witty, clever or clickbaity, but no, in the spirit of honesty this piece is what it says it is. It is about theology and youth ministry, and I am aware no one will read it.

So, in that case I am going to go full on, deep and thoughtful, safe in the knowledge that it wont be read. I know this because nobody attends seminars on youth ministry and theology. Or conferences on theology and youth ministry. Very few people talk about theology when it comes to solving the problems of young people ‘leaving the church’. Instead its about practices, making practice better, trying to find a missing piece, a magic formula, a new way, or method. It can be that there isnt a conversation about theology, that doesnt only exist in place of formal theological conversation, the college. And for many others thats where it often stays.

So, because there is no grafting, searching and desire from the ‘top’ to do theology about youth ministry, there can be very little appetite from the ground to see it as being worthwhile. Its easier to drag a resource off the shelf, or do what we think works, or uptake business models like ‘develop strategies’. If you want to read the part one to this post, it is here in which i suggested that youth ministry needed to turn to performance theology, rather than business strategy. This is the long awaited, and probably grossly under-read, post that follows that one.

We have inherited a practice of trying to get things right to save and keep young people, and this puts practice and strategies first over and above theology.   Image result for theology?

Youth Ministry needs Theology first. – and that takes work.

However.

The first thing to say is that we are all theologians. Thats every volunteer, youth pastor, helper, leader involved in youth ministry in a church/faith setting. We are all theologians already, because, and this isnt the only reason, young people are reading us and our practices to glean theological insight through them. What we do is a theological act – it is being performed as youth ministry is done. Theology is transmitted in the way we operate.

So think about that for a second. Everything? yes…

In the way we talk about young people behind their backs, in the way we give responsibilities, in the way we decide, in the way we hold or give away power, in the drive to the bowling, or how we stay in the kitchen and dont get involved, in everything to do with youth ministry, every act is theological already. Our beliefs are already affecting our behaviour, but regardless of those beliefs, young people are reading us as if we’re the book. Our Theology is implied in what we do.

We are already in one extent performing it.

But that doesnt mean we get away with just acting it out. For, how do we know we’re acting out theology appropriately, or fittingly?  (its not about effectiveness, effecacy is a reductionist business term that we should ban in churches)

Thats where at least ‘thinking theologically’ about youth ministry also is important. If we’re in the ‘business’ of doing theology. The two go hand in hand. Theres also the theology within our institutions… however,

So, what do we need to thinking theologically about?

We need to think theologically about young people. Who they are in the sight of God, how they are created and loved, accepted and made in his image. And so much more besides….

We need to think theologically about discipleship. If this is the game of the church – to make disciples- then its not a bad idea to think theologically about what being a disciple is all about, and how a disciple is ‘formed’ and what a disciple does ‘performs’ .  What kind of discipleship? Action first or learning first, or both? So we need to think theologically about learning, about study, about actions (and the actions of God in our actions) Theres some stuff of discipleship in the categories section, and resources below.

We need to think theologically about Culture. About the place of the church in the culture, and what the role of young people is participating in the church in the culture – for, against, within, above or to transform it (Neibuhr) or something else – to offer an alternative, creating something new… What is Christ offering young people in discipleship? (and how might the church follow this)

We need to think theologically about Mission – and what we do and what young people do, what is Mission, What is God like if she is missional? How might young people play parts in mission, and who decides whether they can or cant?

There needs to be thought around theology of worship – what is it? Is only ‘christian’ worship worship? What worship doesnt need a band, a stage or a PA system, what worship is pleasing to God? What worship creates opportunities for young people to transform the world? Is worship a gathered experience or an emerging one, a public one or private one?

We also need to think theologically about how young people have faith; What is faith, how is it tested, how do they use it, act on it, and practice it in the every day, – where do they do faith?Related image

We need to think theologically about sex and relationships, about gender, about LGBT, about mental health, depression,  about drugs and alcohol, about education and ambition, about power, greed, globalisation, about politics, about technology, communication, about inclusion, money and fame. Because young people arent looking to us for the answers anymore, because half the time these are difficult subjects that we leave to one side. It is not and never enough to pick stuff up on these subjects off the shelf. Young people also dont want us to give one answer, and presume that culture has another answer, theyre far too clever for that. We need to know how to answer these things, and give tools for interpreting and navigating. There is no ‘one thing’ the bible says, or ‘one thing’ the world says about these things. To say this to young people would be patronising. But that doesnt mean to say we dont have responsibility to think theologically, biblically and ethically about these things to help young people share in and lead us in that exploration of learning.

What about what we do with young people? Might we stop and think about the activities and think theologically about these? About Residentials, gatherings of worship, games, gap years, funding, about festivals and the like, about group work, if everything we do implies theology, then what kind of God is being transmitted through these – what kind of church is? God of attendance and watching? God of large groups (where God is communicated as ‘always being’) God of challenge and risk, God that is ‘felt and experienced’ away from home, away from the local church – Thinking theologically about these things might mean that taking young people to an experience might create a view of God that might actually be unhealthy or even unbiblical. But then, if theology isnt important, then it doesnt matter..does it?Image result for theology?

Thinking Theologically about youth Ministry, might mean more than being motivated by the faith. Though its a good start. Working out how Faith and Beliefs motivate us in youth ministry is definitely a first step, we can spend too long busting a gut to get this bit right, and in reality, we’re never going to get this perfect (theres no such thing). What we need to do in youth ministry is live with the imperfection and the ongoing drama of it, but theologically thinking about youth ministry, given that as youth ministers, volunteers, pastors, workers and leaders, we are urged to be both theological and practical, reflecting and active. Part of the tool kit for us is Theology, our story, our church’s story, and the story we are called to live, the story which we perform and encourage others to. It shouldnt just motivate us like a bad head teacher with a stick (thinking Miss Trunchbull in ‘Matilda’) – but well at us from the deep, call us to something higher, take us (and others) to the margins, where likeness of Jesus is an ongoing task.

Theology emerges from the deep, from the margins. Theology might emerge through conversation between friends (Emmaus), might visit unexpected to give peace, might be present in space of the unlikely. We dont need to try and think theologically if what we’re doing is already good, loving, kind, faithful, generous, and working towards peace, wholeness and restoration – these marks of the kingdom need no law. But we might need to develop new theological language, reflection and resources for the road on which these travels take us. Theology from the streets, like St Francis’s ‘Sidewalk Spirituality’ or Ignatius, or other Saints of the Past. Thinking theologically about ministry might itself call us in new directions, new learning, new faith, thats where we might need to take risks, having experiences of God in the space of the margins, might cause us never to go to the gathering to find God – and thats ok. Youth Ministry is, like any ministry, an ongoing dramatic act. And in the drama, what kind of God is needed for the ongoing walk? One that Speaks and Acts – one that is present and urging, as Kevin Vanhoozer describes – is the holy author in our midst. 

Always speaking. Always giving us reference points. Always giving us things to relate to. Always prompting and provoking.

Image result for theology?

Where is the space for the Holy Author in the Midst of Youth Ministry? In every conversation – possibly, in every approach – possibly, in every action – maybe. The truth is we cant model our Youth Ministry on God – we’re not perfect enough for this. God isnt a model to be copied. God is a mystery who speaks, a creator who does as he pleases (Daniel 4:35) and is not restrained. We need to think and act and listen theologically. Its that Holy Author who will communicate and save. Its that Holy Author who is happy for an ongoing communication, whether this is ragged or poetic, praiseworthy or problematic. Its that Holy Author who is present in, with and amongst. God who might, just might not be white, distant and male – and that might change everything.

In conclusion, Theology needs to go first. Not just because we’ve tried everything else, but because thats where it should be, and not even because by doing this ‘it will work’ – no- because ministry is a risk taking endeavour not an exact science. We dont need to just ‘get on with the job’ of youth ministry, and neither is theology ‘just for the college’ and no one can avoid being theological. Putting this off does a disservice to young people, it does a disservice to ourselves. We can try and find a perfect method, strategy, model, process and practice. And that could consume us (and we can nearly always ‘do’ better) but that search is a painful one and full of frustration, comparison and frailty. Lets ditch the models, and have meaning, mystery and mission first.

Oh and some of this is only the tip of the iceberg….. directions to start, not journeys of discovery along the way hence some resources below:

References and Resources

Talking about God in Practice (2010) by Helen Cameron

Youthwork and the Mission of God (1997) by Pete Ward

What Theology for Youthwork?  by Paul Nash (Grove Booklet Y8)

Faith Formation in a secular age by Andrew Root (2017)  

When Kumbaya is not enough by Dean Borgman (1997)

Models for Youth Ministry by Steve Griffiths (2013)

Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry by Andrew Root (2007)

Starting Right – Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry by Dean, Clark et al (2001) 

Remythologising Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer (2010) (more on theodrama in the categories section)

Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer (2014)

The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean/Andrew Root (2013)

Faith Generation by Nick Shepherd (2016)

Here be Dragons; Youthwork and Mission off the map by Lorimer & Richard Passmore (and me) (2013)

Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf (2007) 

 

FYT Streetspace Gathering 2018; feeling the movement

The pressure was on.

After raving about it every year, writing blog pieces on it each year (including this post, my second most popular in 2017), This year, I, as part of the staff team was part responsible for planning the FYT Streetspace gathering, The national gathering of pioneer youthworkers. The pressure to make it work, or make it better, or make it more original, more radical, more provocative and be what people needed, wanted and would want to come along to. Before as a punter, a project leader i could come along (and bring my son) for a ‘ride’ take part and enjoy it. This year, it was going to be different.

This year, the gathering was also different, for me at the end of challenging month, with the job itself ending, my wife having an operation, and then also at the same time the dog getting ill.  Head and Heart space was severely distracted away from doing the last minute, stuff, (and I am so thankful for John and Dan for picking up alot of my slack on this) , this year i struggled to want to go to the gathering, because I knew it occured at the end of a month that i was already shattered, being practical all day every day in the house, and trying to do work, and even apply for new jobs. I neednt have worried. But i was, worried too about the awkward conversations like, so what are you going to do be doing on monday? when theres nothing in the diary. The pressure, though, to make something good, still good, make something meaningful, still meaningful, was kind of on.

 

The themes of the weekend were to reflect on the current strategy of FYT, create a Home for pioneer youthworkers, improve practice and encourage risk taking with practice and be prophetic raising a voice to challenge structures, oppression and stand up and stand with those in the margins. It had also been agreed, and pushed that we wanted to continue the conversations that had started in 2017 (and before) on gender, sexuality and inclusion/participation, pinning the colours of FYT to the rainbow coloured flag both metaphorically and literally.

Thats the background. The reality was that everything, and more that was good about the previous weekends happened again and more.

A place of home was stated and created, with cushions and lights, and coffee and comforts. Like crumble and custard, and board games and mealtimes. Yet that held a space of challenge, of hurt, and reality. We should be sick of pretence, when the real is far more beautiful. The pretence might want to be bouyant and hopeful, but it is false hope. Real hope is found in the ditches of the margins. When compassion meets determination. The cross is where hope is found, and that cross was dug deep into the ground. In the dirt and soil and mud. Hope goes deep. Starts deep. Foxes have homes, ‘I have friends’ said Jesus. His friends were his home. Friends make homes.

A place of family was created, as the home had practical things to do like cooking, and washing up, outdoor spaces, the sound of babies, toddlers, children and a couple of teenagers. Not grumpy sullen teenagers, but people who raised their game for the occasion where they were given the space in the home to be able to. Space to raise their game, space to try and fail, space to take a risk. Not excluded, given something ‘instead’ teenagers. But young people given the chance to be youthful and adult, to dream the possible. Space to share a personal story, a personal prophetic challenge, or to play the comic at the evenings entertainment and hold an audience. Teenagers who could raise their game, and at 15 weren’t barred from a youth workers conference. (fancy that) A place of home where toddlers has space to be free, and parents kept a long ish lead and a watchful eye was maintained, by 35 other surrogate aunts and uncles for the weekend. But the noise of a joyfilled toddler filled the room that they occupied.

The real got shit real

The youth participation cranked up considerable notches.

The provoking came from the young people.

The needs of the oppressed was told by their voices

The provoking came from being present.

A session to learn about LGBT and diversity, wasnt enough.

For ‘theyre’ not a token. ‘Theyre’ not an ‘other’.

they needs to become we.

 

It was a place to cry and dream

A place where the magic happened in interactions

Where the movement took off its masks

and shoes

and was served by those used to being pushed down.

The young, the queer, the female, the new

but that wasnt enough. no it never is.

 

For the movement of friends is not service and served

and many are missing, who we want to include

in the home of the movement, the pioneer dreamers

make the movement not ours, but yours to be part of.

Im not sure I could do emotional this weekend, friends. Many did. And many who grieved, and wept, went deep. A movement of pioneer dreamers, with feet in the mud. With hearts made of soft stuff, the clay of the earth. A group of youthworkers whose default chip wasnt frustration or angst, or pie in the sky. But dealing with tough stuff, the stuff to ignore. The stuff to push down on and hope it goes away. So the corks were opened. The bubbles emerged. Shit got real.

There was just empty space. No music or drums. No carrion call or manipulation. But silence and space. A place to grow up in, to grow out in, to grow deep in.

Like the seeds in my shed, that on thursday were nothing and today: 

Just space, silence, food, light. Growth happens. In the dark, with light poking through, and warmth.

From the deep came the song, the poem, the voice. The margin spoke, and not spoken for, and it felt.

The movement was felt.

Step up was the call.

That rose from the deep.

Do better.

Take risks.

Stand with.

Love courageously.

Step up.

Step was was the call, the rose from experience

and called us do better.

And say that we mean it, and take risks and challenge, ourselves to a new place.

 

And as we tidied away, the yurt was folding down. The kitchen was a mess of left overs, and the plan for take away lunch was crusting at the edges (though i dont think anyone went hungry all weekend, just death by midgie bite). Nature came knocking, reminding, provoking. As from the distance, one by one, three Red Kites started circling above us.

So over that yurt was a pocket of air, that was thermal and warmed. Where Kites came and played. For a while, then they soared. Stopped off for a breather, then went back on duty. Our eyes looked above, we stopped all the rushing. And paused. Again.

Our path from gathering was not feathers and flight. Though step up to the plate is the task that we might. The kites did not land, for their task was too great, to stop off too long.

They felt the movement, the warmth in the air. And us on the ground. Our flight path all wonky, and broken and beaten, But homes are all messy. And risks can be taken.

I write this on Monday, and life does not stop. The future still blank and open, uncertainty raging. But back to the living and dealing and busy of coping. May was a tough one. But im not alone. Our kites felt the movement, and are now soaring away. And Jesus, he washed the feet of his friends, their feet full of sand, taking the mud and the dirt with a cloth, and making them free, clean and able. To step up to the challenge. Yet its love that cleanses.

And this love is not selfish. It gives it away, and away and away. It gives and it gives. It loves from the deep, and the tough and the real. It loves in the risk.

What is Frontier Youth Trust? and what does ‘Frontier’ mean? lets not get stuck in the wording, stuck in that mud, but be a movement of dreamers who love to the depths – of our faith and our being.

Thank you all, in the small, in the significant and stupid.

Now to Step up.

 

To read of Streetspace gathering 2017 click here: Gathering 2017 , and FYT click the link above.

To buy Gemma Dunnings resource on Pastoring LGBT teenagers click here: http://www.gemmadunning.com/p/4-views-on-pastoring-lgbtq-teenagers.html?m=1  as a way in to start thinking about LGBT and young people, the language and develop understanding, start here. Step up might be your call too.

 

‘No ones ever given me Mission training before’; Should mission training be for everyone in church?

No ones ever trained me for Mission before, I have just asked to bring friends to event, or its been assumed i know what to do

This was a comment I heard when I was delivering a session of detached youthwork training to a group of volunteers in a church setting a few years ago, and it has stuck with me. This was a person who had been involved in church all his life, he was and still is in his late 60’s, a church elder. And yet in his lengthy church-life experience, no one had ever sat him down and gave him instructions on how to do mission. At the time we were thinking through developing conversations with young people on the streets. But it neednt have been.

It is worth a reflection – dont you think?

Should there be deliberate training for ‘ordinary’ church goers in ‘How to do mission?’ 

I note with positivity that a local theological college is doing a ‘theology for everyone’ seminars in the north east. Maybe Mission needs to be for everyone too.

Its not always a given that people know what mission is, from the pews/comfy conference seats, either, unless there is a special mission week, or event. It can be that mission can be about attracting people to events, or being there to serve them in food banks or toddler groups, and these things do provide a structure and purpose for missional activity, and theres nothing wrong with these. But i am saddened that the activity is seen to be important and getting people to it. And the leaders then just spend all their time in the kitchen avoiding people. sounds awful doesnt it – well it happens..  Its times like this, and others when i think how easy it is that mission has been equated to being present in an activity, and the hard work has been done. No the real work starts when people are talked to and in conversation.

But some of the rest of it is implied, isnt it.?

Many a good sermon has an element of application, though this is usually moral and personal, rather than practical, and series’ on How to do Mission – might be rarer in a sermon planner than a week without a church of England controversy. Being Called to Mission, and being a witness – might require more than imperative and deep down vocation- actually thinking about how mission is done, and how mission needs to be translated in todays communities that are working class, digitalised and distant from the church, (though not not spiritual) is one to really get our heads and actions around.

Its not appropriate that one person might feel this calling, and then receive vocational training to be ‘in ministry’ leaving many others behind. Mission, like theology, needs to be for everyone, and part of the life of the church. Its not as easy as ‘how do we do mission’ we just do mission! ( Wittertainment reference)

It might be that you completely disagree. That training people to do mission in a local setting takes away all the spontaneity, mission would become forced an unnatural. And that would be a downside. Yet as i do detached youthwork training, there are many skills and practices to harness, but not actually use – the skill is in improvising, not repetition, being prepared to use and be informal in the moment, with some readiness of what might happen. Agreed, no one wants artificiality. But what is more likely is under-preparedness and fear. One of the good things about a gap year, is that there’s some training alongside it, that is usually practical, but not everyone does a gap year, and young people themselves shouldnt necessarily wait till they are 18 until they have participatory skills in the kingdom. And most people on a gap year, do a whole load of stuff, and then reflect afterwards..

It was an interesting comment, that does need further consideration. Much of the church discipleship internally is the enlargement of fat christians, fed on faith formation and head knowledge – the bible study for example. Less is on the practical getting on with and doing mission – and thinking through and being prepared for it. And it is hard work, undoubtedly. But that doesnt make it wrong. Its just hard. Bible studies and prayer meeting are ‘easy’ and also the lifeblood at times, but mission is what the church is called to be.

So – might training for mission, the actions and behaviours of it, – might churches invest in training people for it – before it is assumed that they know what this is, or what is expected of them. Maybe it was ok to have 60 year olds in churches who werent trained in mission. But I am not sure whether that ‘luxury’ is available to churches now. If the church doesnt grab hold solely its missional purpose in every community, for every context and culture within the UK, then there really are going to be issues. Doing what we’ve always done is yielding the same results – we can re arrange the deckchairs on the titanic – but what if we put those deckchairs to better use? making mission part of the culture of the church. The dangerous risky stuff.

Maybe training for mission should be for everyone?  We need to invest in the people the church has even more. Should the lay/clergy mission training divide be removed?

Most of the time its about maintenance, but if we could shift the conversation to be more about mission, and give everyone a clue about what to do, we might be onto something.

 

(NB, I mention detached youthwork training, if this interests you, or even, if training for mission is something you’re interested in, see the menus above and contact me, thank you)

 

Nothing more, nothing less, love is the best…What if ‘love is the way’ in Youth Ministry?

Theres a madness in the air and its all about love, this evening its the remembrance services and commemorations of the one love, Manchester concerts to mark the year since the tragedy at the concert. But its love that caught the imagination on Saturday lunchtime, yes the love between Harry and Meghan, their looks, glances and lip-read comments (thanks ITV for this detail). Though the media might want the story to be about the dress, the gowns, the crowds and the dance (their first dance was Witney, apparently they did want to dance with somebody), the stand out performance on the day was of the sermon given by Bishop Curry of the US Episcopalian church.Prince Harry and Meghan Markle listen to an address by the Most Rev Bishop Michael Curry, primate of the Episcopal Church, in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle during their wedding service in Windsor, Britain, May 19, 2018

By now you will have surely read the transcript of Bishop Currys address, if not a link to it is here, and highlights are:

“That’s what love is. Love is not selfish and self-centred. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.

“If you don’t believe me, just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way.”

“Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighbourhoods and communities where love is the way.

“Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way.

“Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.

“When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.

“When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.

“When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.

“When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.

…Dr King was right: we must discover love – the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.

 

One of the points that seems to have been made subsequent to Bishop Curry, certainly by the few comments on social media by the ‘non christians’ is that he made Christianity look attractive, sound passionate, and mean something, and be about love that changes and transforms, love that frees and love that creates a better world. It appears a surprise to many that this is what Christianity is all about. And maybe theres reflection to be done on why this message hasnt been heard before, or been allowed to be heard. Its not as if the church hasnt talked about love, but maybe it hasnt done in public, maybe a message of love and social justice has become too separated, or maybe, its the only time a 14 minute sermon is heard in its entirety in the public stage and so, it can be more than a soundbite or the interpretation of the news reporter (ie ‘the pope used his christmas message to say X, the archbishop Y’) .

However, this blog is about youthwork and youth ministry – and where is the love in that? Well quite. We could be mercenary at times, but more rarely that we might be passionate, dedicated and over committed, usually going beyond the call of duty to accomodate, help, support, and journey alongside a young person. But has the language of love, passion and dedication gone a little out of fashion?

A glance through some of the recent youth work & ministry books, and there are models, methods, ideas, theologies. processes, practices, thinkings, approaches, philosophies and venn diagramms, how tos, not to’s and go to’s. But little on feelings, on emotions, on compassion, on love. The greatest of all. Dig a little deeper and thinking theologically, or philosophically about youthwork and ministry and love, compassion and respect figure. And undoubtedly many youthworkers and ministers burn out through over commitment and passion. And leave posts potentially because their respect for young people might not translate into strategies of growth and attendance – where views of love differ.. Love does seem to motivate youth workers, more than calling – dont you think? 

In ‘Starting right; thinking theologically about youth ministry’ Dave Rahn writes:

These words of Jesus ( Mark 12: 29-31) provide the definitive and final job escription for the youth worker, and for anyone in christian ministry, we are to be guided by love, and only guided by love. What is our role with our students to love as we would be loved (SR, 2001, p379)

going on to say; ‘in response to this rush and passion and longing, we are invited into the intimacy of the trinitarian fellowship, we allow ourselves to encounter the incredible love that God personifies’ (p381) God is love. Love, in a roundabout way also features when we talk about incarnational relationships in youth ministry, but without love this can just mean being in the location of where young people are. Love requires action that involves, interacts, empathises and is compassionate. Incarnationally present is not vulnerable and love if it is just a statement of kudos, and as Root suggests, developing relationships for strategic purposes is not love either. (Root, 2007)

But what if love is the way in youth ministry. Well, there is someone who talked about this a long time ago, someone, outside of these pages who is largely ignored- stating that;

“The situation in which the community of the Church is set, asks questions of it about the age structure, the class structure, the openness to go out into the world and receive the world, The crucial thing at this stage is that all of us who have this concern (for young people in the community) deeply in our hearts should recognise that any remedial christian action will emerge only out of painful, searing, physical and mental acceptance, in love, of a generation which is painfully different. What we need to know about the strategy of action must be learned at the point of personal involvement, of ourselves or of other groups” (Lecture given to World christian youth commission in May 1964, Rev HA Hamilton, taken from Working with the unnattached, a review is here: )

We, the church, really has at times messed up with young people, not loved them enough to be more inclusive, to be more patient, to ready ourselves for the challenge of youth ministry (thinking it was easy, or about keeping things simple), and on other occasions we ban, prevent, exclude the kind of young people for whom love might be absent, yet the plea for a searing compassion, a love for young people who are intrinsically different to the many in the church, or the adults in society is still to be sought for. Love plays its part in thinking theologically about youth ministry thats for sure, for God is love, and this must be the motivation. Yet love might be hidden behind so many of the things that we talk about , that it might be hard to find – especially when talk is growth, strategy and institution – where is the love?. 

If we love young people – would we judge them?, would we clump them together as a generation?

If we love young people – would we talk about them – without them? 

If we love young people – do we blame them, shame them, or find a way to exonerate them? 

If we love young people – are we with them, for them, and alongside them? 

If we love young people – do we fear them, or hear them? 

If we love young people – are they trusted? 

If we love young people – do we challenge them, push them, prize their gifts open? 

If we love young people – what might youth ministry be like with them? 

 

I would hope that in the vast majority of situations young people who encounter youthworkers leave feeling more positive, different and changed for the better, and this surely is the case. But talk of love has been thrust square and centre this week. Maybe its time that love became more central to even more of what youth ministry is all about. Maybe on another hand, young people might know that the church is about love because of the actions they have experienced from a youthworker, the time, effort, energy and space provided, given at personal cost. Maybe its just the community at large and the media that didnt realise that christianity was about love. Maybe, love is what youthworkers have been sharing with and telling young people about for years and decades. Maybe that ‘loving relationship’ with Jesus, hasnt been made meaningful enough through transforming actions that change the world – and many young people would be up for world changing (often its parents and consent forms that prevent it). When love is the way… who should stop young people? When love is the way, young people might need to be participants of it, not just recipients of it. When love is the way, it needs to be given away.

 

References

Clark, Dean, 2001 Starting right; Thinking theologically about youth ministry, 

Goetschius and Tash 1967 Working with the unnattached

Root, 2007, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry

 

Is our concept of participation, in youth ministry, too small?

Why is it that young people are often involved in committees at schools, as young as primary school, given responsibility in ‘anti-bullying’ campaigns, tasked with being peer mentors, and encouraged to have their view on school councils within school – and yet in churches they’re often just given a picture to colour in and an activity to do? 

Thats a statement I say alot. And it is not completely true of course. Sometimes children and young people do have some responsibility in a local church. But it must be dis-orientating for them, and or the rest of us, that they are respected and given space to have participation in one space, and then a group of adults in their social gathering ( who aim to be even more righteous/holy) close the spaces down. It must feel weird. Thats just the introduction, and if you havent thrown your device against the wall so far, then great, the rest of this piece asks whether our view of participation in youth ministry is too small – or at least- there is a view of participation that encompasses something mysteriously large to fathom, that has been chosen to ignore.

The situation above one of the key moment in youth ministry where we might have a conversation about the role young people have in the faith community, I have written extensively on this before, (just search ‘participation’ in the categories) and the common framework for this theoretically is Harts Ladders of youth participation, (again not to be repeated here – see other posts), in which the sliding scale from token participation (or non participation)  to ‘young people decide, adults follow’ is at point 9. But this is classic and basic to the practice of youth work, and so these other posts might be worth your time (theyre in the references below). Its when only token participation is repeated and young people find meaning they can participate in elsewhere, that they leave any form of non-participatory faith group/event for something more meaningful elsewhere.

But I wonder – is our view of participation too small?

For, its one thing thinking about the way in which a young person ‘participates in’ the culture, structures and process of an organisation, to the point in which they are influencers, creators and contributors (in no particular order)- but is this enough?

Andrew Root puts the nail on the head when writes this, in faith formation in a secular age (2017): 

‘we seek strategies and practices that plug the drain in the sink, hoping that there are pragmatic actions we can use to keep young people from subtracting church participation from their lives’ (Root, 2017, p98-99)

In short, the dilemna faced in the church is to prevent the leakage by keeping young people involved, helping young people not subtract church, leaving it. For the church is that these strategies enable us to experience less loss. Yet in reality, the issue is not, as Root says, that people have a God-gap that needs filling. Participation has become the plug, the ultimate aim of all the faith forming programmes and activities – get them in, belonging and so they can be involvedParticipation becomes the end game of a strategy, (if it exists). But as Root discusses, what does this say about Faith – and for us, here, has this made participation too small? 

There used to be a book (its still around) titled is your God too small? – I wonder if this is the same with the use of and concept of participation.

From the very beginning, the human person was a participant in the actions of God. Tasked with naming the animal and tending to the land, creation pictures involvement in the divine action and a need that God had, or at least space within the action of God for human to be involved. This continues throughout – from conversations between Abraham and God, then Moses, David, Ruth, Mary (spoken to by an Angel no less), and then the ongoing participative requirements that Jesus gave the disciples. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the drama of the Biblical narrative is about the ongoing participation of humans in it, to the point in which they may be involved in as a fourth person in the trinity. But these thoughts are not new.

Both Pete Ward, and Danny Brierley pick them up in their work, Youthwork and the Gospel (1997), and participation in ;Joined up, (2003). An attempt to understand participation theologically is not new, but it might be worth reflecting on further if it is new for you reading this. What might be new is to think of faith as participation, and develop what this means for young people. (and us all)

A way of thinking about the ongoing narrative of the Christian story, is that of a drama, and as continual ongoing performances within the closing act (4) of a five act play that has the prophecies of revelation as the fifth act to be played out. Again I have written on this before, and the resources for this are in the ‘Theodrama’ category, but unlike story which only has tellers, drama has participative performers – who in word and deed perform interpretation and improvisations of the gospel in the every day, doing so along with God who participates in the ongoing act. Drama ‘just’ adds a encompassing level to the ongoing need to be involved and participating.

Roots view of Faith, is taken from emphasising Paul who emphasises not subtraction, but deduction of a personal nature to participate ‘in Christ’ – Faith is an act of deduction, of giving up. It is not just about participating ‘in’ the activities of a local church, (as these culturally have been negated, (p134-140) , faith is about being a participant in the ongoing story of God (Root, p145).

Participation then, is something far far bigger that institutional involvement.

Faith, true faith, for young people is not sufficient if it is about an add on to their lives (back to MTD)  It is that they become deducted of their own life, giving up, to become performers and participants in the actions of God in the whole world. 

In a way, this is no different to what Pete Ward was saying in 1997.

But what we’ve tended to focus on is how to keep young people in church through participating activities – and not think for a moment what faith is about, and how this has a larger view of being a participant in Gods ongoing actions.

So – what might all this mean? – If young people are given the keys to unlock the stage, and realise their role and ongoing performers, what might this look like for being faithful in those actions. For Root, this about helping people be ministers and be ministered to. And this then includes, for us, about how we might help young people be ministers in the kingdom, how we might help them ‘reduce’ their reliance on the stuff of daily life (and fasting/monasticism/meaningful faith is becoming more popular), giving up prophetically in a world of stocktaking and increasing – and ministering to others – all activities planned or spontaneous being prompted to by God in the midst. Faith formation and participation is about recognising the voice of God in the midst, who has the ongoing speaking part, and acts alongside. We participate in, as God participates in us.

Young peoples acts of social justice are not an aside to faith – they are faith. 

Young peoples response to God in their context might mean risk taking and be dangerous and prophetic – and who knows what it might look like. 

What would it be like to give this away – to help young people see themselves as meaningful performers in Gods drama, and that their participation in the world (and the church in the world) is the task of faithful meaningful performances of the gospel?

Its not enough that God loves young people, but that God might also think them worthy of participative parts in his play- and for many young people, they might not have had the opportunities in school to be ‘special’ or involved. Our task is as acting coaches to help young people find their parts, to find their location in the drama, and to recognise the voice of God prompting in the midst. Faith is about participation, and Gods drama is mysterious and massive, and young people, all of us, are invited into it as participants.

If our view of God is too small, then the stage needs to be expanded,

If our view of participation is too small, then young peoples faith suffers as a result.

Theres an expansion of Godly participation required in Youth Ministry.

 

References

For all my other posts on participation click here  if you’re interested in Theodrama click the category above.

Root, Andrew, 2017 Faith Formation in a Secular Age

Shepherd, Nick, 2016, Faith Generation

Ward, Pete, 1997 Youthwork and the Mission of God

Brierley Danny, 2003 Joined up; Youth work and Ministry

Vanhoozer Kevin, 2005, The Drama of Doctrine, 2010 Remythologising theology, 2014, Faith Speaking Understanding.

 

If young people are offered a relationship with Jesus – should it be a working one and not ‘just’ personal.

All those who have put on Christ are equipped to play the part. To act out our being in Christ is to practice the new life and new covenant we have in him (Kevin Vanhoozer, 2014, based on 2 Peter 1:8-10)

There were many distinguishing elements in the way Jesus ‘discipled’ his 12 disciples, as opposed to the order of the day, the discipleship in the Rabbinic tradition of Israel of its day. Not just that Jesus chose his disciples (invited them), who he chose (often those rejected by Rabbi’s already) and these two are key. Jesus discipleship if offered to all, the condition is to accept the invitation, and it is free.

And it is free. That in a way is the point.

In a re-read of the gospel records, another interesting aspect is the level of functionality of what being a disciple of Jesus was all about. There were undoubtedly tasks that any potential disciple of a Rabbi might have needed to do to curry favour with a Rabbi in the temple, in order to become acceptable, but this was an ongoing burden of slavery. But being a disciple of Jesus also involved practical work. From getting donkeys, arranging room space, rowing, crowd control, and probably a myriad of other tasks unsaid. There must have been, because effectively 13 people and entourage were on the road for the best part of 3 years. The point being, that discipleship was practical, the ongoing formation and learning was done through the practical. But it was practical in the walk, in the journey discipleship. And work was done within a relationship that promised much, that gave the disciples acceptance (even though theyd been rejected previously). In short accepting the invitation was free, but discipleship involved work.

The task of the disciple, according to Jesus, for every one who identifies as a disciple is to ‘make disciples’ (Matthew 28:18) it involves participating.

One of the features of youth ministry in the 1940s and 1950s with Billy Graham, was the offer of an intimate relationship with God, an intimate relationship that in particular young people at the time, and ever since craved and lapped up in their droves. Though ironically, as Andrew Root writes, what the large rally lacked for young people was also the intimate relationships of others. If the mass Rally of Graham lost its cultural signicance by the late 1950’s (Andrew Root) – what wasnt lost, in some quarters, is the influence of the Billy Grahams theology and simple message, that reduced faith to a moment, that would make measuring numerical success easy to do.  What was offered to young people (specifically but not exclusivey) was a ‘free relationship’ and acceptance into the family of God, sins forgiven and a ticket to eternal life. All free.  Salvation was offered without much of a catch, all that was needed to was accept and believe. Christian faith became an individual free-will choice that was presented through a self-chosen relationship (Root, A, 2007;58)

The problem was then, and still is now, is that this is not what the great commission says. It says ‘make disciples’ , and disciples are those involved in the tasks of God, are on an ongoing process of learning and doing, or forming and performing.

Salvation was offered by acceptance. What is needed instead is Salvation as participation.

A personal relationship with God is not enough, it makes faith too easy, it also doesnt tell the full story. If we’re going to offer anyone the opportunity to have faith in, and an ongoing relationship with God, then we at least need to say that it is a working relationship. We might as well have a 28 day cooling off period as the original ‘contract’ doesnt give all the details.

In this way, from the outset, any who take up the challenge, know that they are taking up a challenge, and that they have work to do, or at least have some responsibility to be joining in with or doing the practical (often in the normal day to day life). They know from the outset that it involves work, effort and dediction to a cause. It is not a free ride. Or a free ride than then has unexpected effort required afterwards. Oh and neither is it ‘faith by works’ – it is accepting a working relationship with Jesus as a disciple, not just the offer of belief (with less strings attached). The oft-quoted research by Christian Smith, that reveals MTD (moral therapeutic deism) rife in American protestant churches, showed that belief was evident, though this belief was in a deism who didnt have any direct impact or involvement on a young person. Faith was a useful add on to current existence and a confidence giver in case of trouble.

Salvation as participation changes the dynamic. What is offered is a part to play. A working relationship with God changes the dynamic, from free personal relationship, to having practical tasks to do anf fulfil as part of an ongoing ‘job’ in the kingdom. If the workers are indeed few – then at least it should be workers who sign up knowingly to being one. Lets make ‘signing up to Jesus’ more difficult, more challenging, and something that might realistic, communicating the costs, and the work involved. Making faith easy, when it is nothing less than an ongoing drama, shoots it too low, and gives an unreal expectation.

It might be easier to declare that the good news is good news to all, especially good news to the rejected, and marginalised.  It is of course a free gift to be accepted, yet faith is more than belief, or at least, belief is more than cognitive, it is something that is done, and acted. The difference between the wise and foolish builder was ongoing obedience. It was obedience that experienced fisherman Peter led him to toss the net over the boat on its other side. It was practical obedience in the every day.

In his recent book the American Youth Minister Andrew Root talks about Faith acceptance being a process of deduction. Saying that in Union with/in Christ, St Paul himself realised that this was a process of denying himself, and personal death to life experience. A part played in the divine action of God is to deny oneself, for the other, to deny possessions for simplicity, to deny the pull of selfishness. All of these require work, as in they are not easy. They are not done alone, but that still doesnt make them easy.

Faith is about being called to participate in the life and saving activity of God by becoming ministers (Andrew Root, 2017, p130)

What we need to offer is not a free ticket to heaven on a free ride of belief. And not a personal relationship in which God can dangerously be reduced as a concept who meets the needs of the human, the divine Santa claus who gives only abundantly to satisfy the greed of human requests. But as Volf describes, God also makes demands as he also gives generously ( Volf, Miroslav, 2005: 28). Whilst God gives, writes Volf, he gives in order that others might flourish through us, again, they involve work on our part, to share, to give ourselves. Not only that :

But we were created to be and act like God, participating in Gods gift giving is what Gods gifts oblige us to do (Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 2005, p49)

Of course there is human freedom to choose to give a gift away. But the intention of God in giving is that we do so, and its that costly obedience, and practical and mental effort to do so that is the task of the disciple. Merely keeping a faith to oneself, is impossible for the christian, even more the disciple. But again, it is disciples we are called to make. A movement of disciples being prepared for the hard graft of kingdom building, through acts of grace, love that cause the denial and deduction of themselves.

But participation in the activity of God, through a working relationship with God, who prompts and guides and acts in the ongoing Drama of Redemption.  (yes that Theodrama gets in here again). Salvation as participation suggest that everyone arrives having a part to play, and part is to be performed and discovered, and involves the process of ongoing learning and formation. Preparing like any actor- by understanding the plot, script and developing an attuning to the likeness of Christ and playing likewise. Working for the Kingdom of God requires both understanding and action, and these aid each other. Formation is also about being ready to act, ready to participate in the tasks a position that Vander lugt describes as Disponibilite – the awareness of the action in the present needed to be made. Being ready to work as well as being at work.

As Bonhoeffer said:

‘Our Task (as disciples) is simply to keep on following, looking only to our Leader who goes on before, taking no notice of ourselves or what we are doing’

If one of the tasks of being as disciple is to be encouraged to make disciples, then it stands to reason that we should do everything possible in all that we do in youth ministry, in churches to create spaces where discipleship, the radical, propehetic, dangerous discipleship can occur. If our young people are hoping for an easy ride in a culture so consumed by technology that  makes things easy, then we might just have to be blunt and say that being a disciple of Jesus just isnt for them, as they’re not ready for the practical and costly work that is involved.

To follow Christ is to go after Christ along the way of Christ (Vanhoozer, K, 2014, 1)

 

References

Root Andrew, 2007 – Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry

Root, Andrew, 2017, Faith Formation in a Secular Age

Vander Lugt, 2014, Living Theodrama

Vanhoozer, Kevin, 2014, Faith Speaking Understanding.

Bonhoeffer, D The Cost of Discipleship, (Taken from Vander Lugt, 2014, p139) 

 

Why its Justice and not justi.c.e thatll give youth ministry a future

Prayer is like a telephone sang the old childrens song, that helps us talk to Jesus, it went on. Whilst the spiritual discipline of prayer, fasting and meditation seemed to be absent for much of my developing faith practice as a young person, the concept of ‘arrow -prayers’ was fairly common. That pray in an emergency type way, when theres a stressful moment going on. I grew up evangelical, it was about the busyness of attending things in a church. Image result for telephone

You will no doubt have a mobile phone, and a list of contacts as long as your arm, one of the ways in which we can help emergency services to know who to ring from our contacts is for us to write I.C.E before or after the persons name. For then they know who we want to ring in case of emergency. 

 

Developing a faith that causes God to be ‘an emergency’ call away, and not involved in the every day of life itself is one of the key findings that Christian Smith identified in his research of over 12 years ago in American youth ministry. God was more aloof, and only used when required. For many young people in evangelical/mainline youth groups – God was an add on to western living, and peripheral at best, contacted when there was an emergency. Or there to help me, a young person, feel good. In the UK, ‘the happy midi narrative’ was coined as an equivalent – in which God is to be for the good times, and helping a young person feel good about themselves. (Theres tons of other stuff on MTD in the archives) . Image result for i.c.e mobile phone

In a way – what does this say about discipleship for a young person – within a faith that seems to only exist around making them happy – or where God is nothing better than another contact in their phone, to call In case of emergencies. Its not the fault of young people. Its what they have been brought up in the faith to believe, and implicit in their faith formation. It is a faith of superstition, rather than a faith of action, and along with the M of MTD it is a faith of morality ( be good as God is watching you).

The Christian faith is not just in case of emergencies, surely?

God is described as a God of Justice, not just.i.c.e.

And we have a responsibility in youth ministry to ensure that the God of Justice of mercy and righteousness is the one for whom young people have an ongoing working relationship with. The personal relationship with Jesus their friend is almost a given. Its the faith in God who calls them to tasks, and requires us to join in within his actions in the world that is dynamic and dangerous.  Theres nothing tame about God….

And its not just the old testament, many many examples in the New testament where ‘good works’ are the responsibility of the faithful, good like God is good, good and just. One of the 7 churches in revelation was commended for it too.

There are some examples of young people across the UK involved in justice projects, from Tear Fund, Christian Aid and World Vision – but often these seem to be on the international scale. They are good none the less. They also seem to be the ‘one off’ thing in a youth group programme – or not at all. So, young people dont get experiences of ‘working’ with God on the stage of the world for themselves or in their groups – merely hearing about God and trying to live a moral life. I know its not always been top of my agenda when i have planned a youthgroup curriculum. Their faith would be about joining in with Gods actions in the world, rather than a discipleship that is about God in case of emergencies.

Helping young people to be ‘just’ in the world, rather than ‘good’ might help them to be energised by faith, by being part of a working relationship with God, rather than hope that God might rescue or help in times of emergency ( and leave life to be got on with).

In faith formation Andrew Root tries to get to grips with the MTD issue in an age of secularism. Ultimately he, and those like Kevin Vanhoozer are saying when they talk about Theodrama, is that Justice and social action on the stage of the world are not seperate acts by humans that might be acts of worship – but that in these human and divine act together in an ongoing relationship, where God prompts in the midst to do good works (as these are not always the natural thing to do). Youth ministry and Theology are both talking about Justice. When Millenials are asked about church, its performing the faith – not just hearing it that they want to do. Performing the faith – now what might that mean for young people?  Its less just i.c.e and more justice. More help to help them work with God to change the world.

Young people arent losing their faith, or losing out on being faithful by doing ‘social action’ it is an integral part of it. It is practical and prophetic in the local community that young people make a stand or protest or act in a way that is about Gods goodness in the world, prompted by God in the first place. We want to see a generation of young people make a stand for Jesus, then its not going to be at the £130 Jesus festival where there are 200 of them, it will be as in every youth group, every town, every church begins to help young people play an active part in working with God to seek justice and righteousness in every community.

Faith for young people should not be in case of emergencies. It is about life in all its fullness (that means giving up some for death) and life in its fullness for everyone.

If young people are only buying T shirts for Jesus, but not helping share their T shirts for Jesus at the clothing bank, then we might reflect in their faith. Faith isnt just bought like a T shirt, it is given away. Its not for emergencies, its to help prevent the emergencies of others.

Heres a few questions that might help reflect on this further.

What might Social justice look like in your community? 

How might young people be spurred on to think beyond themselves, and for others- through collective action? 

How might your youthgroup be both practical and prophetic in the world ? 

How might young people act along with God on the stage of the world- in your part of it?

How might young peoples prayer for others be acted upon, and they then read the bible as a guidebook for continuing social justice in the world? 

 

 

References

Faith Formation – Andrew Root, 2017

The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer, 2005

Faith Generation, Nick Shepherd, 2016 (on MTD and UKs youth Midi Narrative)

Soul Searching; Christian Smith , 2006

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