In the Drama of your youth Ministry, does God have a speaking part?

Have a think about this for a moment…. Where is God speaking to you through your youthwork practice?

Might it be easy before, or after, but what about through and in midst of it all?

This post will look at how God speaks, Biblically, divine action and then what it might mean for God to speak through our practices of youth ministry. For those who have a memory for these things, this is the post that i was about to write a few weeks ago, after writing this one in which i started the conversation on conversation, speaking and their lack of mention in youth ministry writing. So this is a long awaited part 2…

Image result for god speaking

So, Starting with God speaking. How does this happen?

It might be too extreme to say that God only acts through communication, as Vanhoozer suggests in Faith, Speaking and Understanding (2014) but it is as equally fair to say that the Biblical God does an awful lot of speaking to his created humans, whether that is directly – to Adam, Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, about leaving his home, and crucially in a lengthy dialogue over the destination of Sodom (Genesis 18) . God who speaks to Moses, to Eli, Samuel and David, through Angels who pass on his messages, and ultimately in the communicative act of sending Jesus into the world, to communicate God in person, speaking, acting and communicating God in this one location. And where Jesus does more that speak, he communicates through action, non action, miracle, question, parable and behaviour. ¹

but looking at google, and images, it looks as if God only speaks through sunsets,

silence and reflection and prayer. But God in the bible seems much more practical and conversation than that…

So does God continue to speak?

And if so, where, when and how might God be speaking through your youthwork practice? and who to?

Is God saying something when the ‘numbers are down?’ or up? Is God saying something through the disturbance by a young person? is God saying something when the group reacts to a local poverty issue? is God saying something when people leave? Is God speaking through the young people themselves?

For so long the model of youthwork has been the key. Having the right motivated by faith – might be considered theological practice (Ward, 1997) , but God is no Model, or strategy or even process. God is first of all community and second of all communicative. But models of community might be overstepping the mark, trying to emulate being like God by a community orientated approach and we could get tied up in circles trying to make a practice model itself on community for the sake of a theological perspective. But we could be accused of trying our best, or too hard to find the right model, instead of being open and creating opportunities for God to speak in the present in what is going on in the youth work practice.

Image result for youthwork model

Of course it may be particularly important to ask where God has spoken in the past, how God speaks and what it might be that God is likely to say, and with that maybe comes developing a kind of biblical intuition into the way (s) of the speaking God. The God who provokes his own people that theyre not worshipping properly, the God who welcomes children, the God who has high ideals, the God who guides through the wilderness and who sets people free – the God who speaks to his people through it all, what might that God be saying to you?

Yet strangely, how often might we stop and reflect on where God is speaking through our practices – What is God saying to you about the young people you met last night on the streets – what might God be provoking you with what they say? what story is the parable of tonights youth work, this afternoons mentoring session, or this mornings classroom activity. As reflective practitioners, and theological reflective practitioners, God might be trying to speak to us more that we might think.

Discovering the divine action of God and our relationship to the divine action of God in human practices is one of the key questions that Andrew Root wrestles with in ‘The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry’ , his wrestling continues in ‘Faith Formation’ . However, thinking through the divine action of God, is a topic barely considered in UK youth ministry, at least not the books I have seen. It makes something of an appearance in practical theology, but even then the relationship between human action and theology is the most common, not necessarily what is means that God as communicative agency is the theological perspective overall. So – where might God be speaking through your youthwork practices? – and how might we be open to God speaking through our own actions, and there being ongoing participation in the divine acts of God, on our part too.

So, lets ask the question more often – where is God continuing to speak in and through your actions, in and through the actions of others and in and through the interactions between others in your youthwork practice?

If we take the metaphor of the theatre as one that is plausible, then we might act along with Jesus incarnate on the stage, performing an improvised drama with the script, trinity, church and eschatology as guide, and be in response the similarly ongoing prompting and directing by God². We do not act alone, God acts and prompts in this way in the present. Through our ministry and in it, speaking and directing, and going ahead to prepare the stage for the drama of our obedience.

It is only one metaphor, but in a way it encapsulates how were are both free to act and responsive to act, obedience and yet attempting to participate in something larger than ourselves. And where God is in the ongoing, the present, not just a model to copy, or an ideal to aspire – but a character in the ongoing drama that is prompting in the very midst.

The Bible depicts the living God, the Holy Author acting as an agent in our midst (Vanhoozer, 2014, p481)

Where does God continue to speak in youth ministry? In your ministry with young people? From the midst, from the action, and in the action itself. God as the Holy Author prompts and directs the drama towards redemptive purposes, edging and nudging along. Its our job to be open to hearing, improvise and take up the challenges of those nudges.

For Andrew Root, Ministry or being ministered to is one key aspect of participating in divine action (Faith Formation, 2017, p201), I might suggest that divine action is in the communication of God and his divine action is in communication, and yes, we do communicate the Love of God through the acts of ministry and being ministered too – but it is also about hearing God in the midst and responding in the moment to the prompts to act in a loving way, strategic ministry might not be as loving as the in the moment prompt to take a risk and do the most loving, caring compassionate thing in that moment, despite the risks to reputation. It might be seen as ministry, but if God acts in the present, then it is present obedience and in the moment love, generosity, mercy, forgiveness, hope that might be the moment where God is also at work. And that might be when we see God at work through young people as they do these things. Additionally,

Where might God be speaking in your youth ministry? – Might be where young people are being prompted by God to be ministers…

References

Root, Andrew, Faith Formation, 2017

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Remythologising Theology, 2012

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014

Vander Lugt, Living Theodrama, 2016

Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997 (others propose models too, Doug Fields, Steve Griffiths, Richard Passmore)

¹For a detailed look at the communicative agency of God, from a Biblical perspective – do engage with Kevin Vanhoozers, Remythologising Theology (2014)

²Vander Lugt (2014) suggests that there are a number of factors, these included, that human actors use to be guided in their performance, though ultimately there is much improvisation.

Advertisements

In Christian youth ministry – is God conversational?

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

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

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

I began to look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the exception of Brierley above, there are few.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whose up for a conversation about faith and conversations?

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) 

 

What might a theology of strategy look like?

Last week I posted a lengthy piece on developing strategy within organisations, for those who read it it got many positive reviews and comments, a link to the piece is here   if you want to read that one first  , but please remember to come back…

Over the course of thinking about strategy and planning, it occurred to me to ask the question, Might there be a theology of Strategy? The reason being, is that there is something critical to be thought of further in regard to the developing of strategies as a theological task with theological intentions and underpinnings. Theologically where might we start with thinking reflectively about strategy?Image result for strategy

What is a strategy in the first place?

Is it a plan, a way of working, a development of ideas? could be all of these things, and a bit more. It is a commonly used word, in sport, business and games.

A Broader conversation, theologically, might start with thinking about planning, and this is an overdone topic in a way. Talk of ‘Gods plan’ and perfect plan, are common, and especially in regard to free will, predestination and also how someone might live their life, and some of this I might come back to later. Before thinking about the content, it might be good to think about the theological method, or what might be meant by a ‘theology of’ something.

A simple, helpful start to think about developing a theology of something is Paul Nashs Grove Booklet – What Theology for youth work? For, whilst youthwork is his object in this – his subject matter is the different theological positions that could be taken. It is a starting point, and worth a quick read to reflect on the different theological starting points, or at least some of them.

Practical Theology and Qualitative research (Swinton) describes how there might be a critical conversation between theology and social science research, one that informs each other, again this is helpful, in thinking how the ‘on the ground’ practice of strategy development converses with what might seem to be the metaphorical and narrative artistry of the Biblical scriptures, written in a vastly different context.

For the purposes of the remainder of this post, I want to focus on Helen Camerons (et al) work Thinking about God in Practice (2010) for thinking theologically about Strategy.

Within her work, Cameron suggests that in the process of theological action research that we might be attentive to FOUR voices within theological reflection;

The Formal: Theological reflection discovered from the Institution, the university or academia, the product of hard study, interdisciplinary work and conversation.

The Espoused: This the Thei=ology that is discovered through the artifacts of an organisations literature, so for example a written constitution, statement of beliefs, creed.

The Operant: The Theology that is uncovered through observation of an organisations actions – it is what is implied in what people do

The Normative: These are the theological positions that are considered as default within the Christian (or any faith) tradition, and encompass the creeds, liturgies and what might be considered official church teaching on the matter.

Cameron is keen to point out that these voices are not invariably distinct or separate, and each voice is not simple. It may even be these as a tool are not helpful on this basis, but for the purposes of this discussion it might be good place to start.

It feels like the use of strategy within organisations is almost normative as practice. Ways of scientifically organising people to tasks and work go back a long way, from the industrial revolution, to the advent of factories and processing people into order to create an environment where tasks are completed. Strategy thinking of one form is almost normalised, to the point where ‘bad strategies’ are critiqued not ‘not having’ strategies. Not having a strategy is frowned upon. Though this isn’t a history lesson on the development of strategy within organisations. What I am saying though is that there is a considerable weight of pressure from businesses and organisations to develop strategies – it is their normative position. Standing counter to this, is going to be difficult.

So, if we started to think theologically about strategy, against the weight of normativity of this in other organisations – where might we start?

We might ask the question – is the church an organisation? And if so what is its type, purpose and nature? In that way we glean something about how a church especially might become inclined towards the normativity of other organisaions in strategy development. Another question we might asked is what is faith? Especially for a church- considered a faith-based organisation. Faith as a definition, ‘to be hopeful in what we cannot see’ might in itself be contrary to strategy planning at all, especially iif strategy planning might be considered as the thinking ahead to mitigate risks. If church instead was created as a movement – its possible intention – then does something need to be rethought again?

So, to continue on this vein, What might be some of the normative teachings on planning and strategizing from church traditions, the Biblical text even? In his work Leading, Managing, Ministering Nelson outlines some of these, though focusses on leadership and management. There are a few others – to be found via this link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leading-Managing-Ministering-Challenging-Questions/dp/1853112380/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521800521&sr=1-3&keywords=nelson+leading (and the other similar titles)

Often God plays the role of the great disruptor of Human plans. Abraham has it all in one place, probably his life, and pension all worked out, and then God calls him and his family to something and somewhere new.

Joseph seems to follow God in the midst of an unplanned out life where things are put in front of him to react to, Moses might be similar. The plans of God were hidden, and when disclosed weren’t always obeyed. When there were plans, they seemed to be thwarted. The God has plans, people disobey them is carried through in Jonahs tale, and is indicative of Amos’s warnings of Israel. Through prophecy, Isaiah brings to the attention a pictoral glimpse of the plans that God might have – but this certainty leaves the space within it for Human planning to be minimal. All we have, to a point, is knowledge that God might also have a plan for us, in the oft taken out of context Jeremiah 29:11 verse. In a way this might be reassurance that a human plan and strategy is less required, than it is to trust and have faith in God who knows these things.

Then strategy might be considered in the New testament. In the parables faith is not seen in the man who builds bigger barns – again planning for the future. Stability is in the house built on obedience, not the barn built on planning. When Jesus sees the people of Israel like sheep without a shepherd (might considered as ‘without a plan’) it is a compassionate response, not a desire to organise. Again, many of the livelihood of the disciples is interrupted, temporarily by Jesus call to follow – though some might have used their skills and income in the ongoing movement of faith. Saul/Paul is another whose strategy in life is interrupted, and this continues as the journeys taken by these early missionaries is thwarted by acts of nature, sometimes attributed as active resistance to Gods plan, and other times as Gods plan. The closest we might get to thinking about strategy=ie and organisations , rather than individuals is through the epistles which are letters to new churches, and also to the letters to the churches in revelation.

So, we are beginning to build up a picture of some of the biblical precedents for and against developing strategy, and a part of the overall drama of scripture and the path towards redemption, these should be heard and reflected on.

However; An espoused theology of strategy needs to drill down to the actual practices. Where there are plans and strategies, there also is a belief that strategies are the implied way to do what the tasks in hand require, and a belief in strategy planning as a process. From a fundraising strategy, to safeguarding, mission strategy or youth strategy – by having a strategy as an artefact within an organisation is its own testament to how it should be organised. Whatever might be normative – through biblical theology, could be usurped by an espoused way of doing things that has become the norm. From plans and strategies, can come order and control – and actions, results and behaviours brought in line to the pre determined plan and strategy. The espoused theology might regard highly the biblical warnings – (is a parable a warning?) about ‘without vision the people perish’ or the ecclesial determination that Jesus loves the church and wants it to succeed. (then there is the success narrative) But this in itself is problematic, as it can merely use strategy as a way of ‘keeping the church open’ through planning – and endorsing this as the right way to maintain an organisation. Even the most realistic of plans might not be the best way of causing change to happen. The strategy itself might lose the intention, or virtue of the action.

An Operant theology might be determined by how an organisation behaves. So – actually – what is the talked about theology or reaction to the strategy? (just new flangled ideas..?) does the church congregation act in a way about the strategy that endorses, or deliberately objects the desires of the strategy itself? There might be opposition socially or politically to the strategy – but there may also be prophets who disagree theologically and spiritually too. But I wonder whether at its heart churches aren’t a place theologically where strategies and plans sit very easily. So an operant theology of strategy is one that whilst exemplifying compliance within a structure – usually- is also reluctant to embody the normativity of strategy thinking, causing active disruption. But thinking about what might be the operant theology of strategy is to look closely at somewhere specific. The point of Camerons research method in the first place. So – what does your church or practice operate as – in regard to plans and strategies? Does strategy seem to be ‘the way out of a crisis’ or the ‘way to do things’ – and how is this viewed? How is strategy justified theologically through those who adhere or dispute its implementation or necessity?

Finally, there might be a formal theology of strategy. Through the few published works on this subject, the working practices of theological academia, and the dissemination of research, hypothesis and ideas on this subject all contribute to a formal theology of strategy, that probably, with the weight of normative use in the business and commercial world, contributing to a general endorsement that strategies are a positive and necessary thing. Nelson book seems to endorse planning and strategizing and notably the transformation leadership culture that underpins the strategy thinking in the first place. Others in different discipline to ‘church leadership’ have been less enthusiastic of ‘strategy planning’ especially where is contravenes values and approaches. What is interesting is that the ‘secular’ youthwork approach dismisses strategy planning as something that is against values, and ethics, yet the church – which could have stronger values – does not always. Maybe church sees itself as a stronger organisation and culture- than the youthwork profession.

What if theology itself was more of an improvised play than a planned action? What might that mean in regard to trying to develop a theology of strategy?

Martyn Percy says this:

The belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not an arid set of directives, but rather a faith that is embedded in a community of praxis which makes beliefs work and gives shape and meaning to the lives that believe. So religious belief is not some kind of arcane metaphysics; it is rather, performed-much as one might perform a play. Indeed the beliefs must be performed in order to comprehend the drama. Simply reading the scriptures as a text is about as effective as reading a play as a text. To understand the life of the drama and the intention of the author , the play needs to be witnessed as a performance. Christian faith is, first and foremost the performance of God’s drama”Image result for passion plays

And others the same. Im not going to rehearse these again (just see the Theodrama link on the right)

Do plays need strategies? – they need scripts (we have one its the Bible), they need actors, directors and an audience. There is planning in the acting as actors respond to the cues and know how to respond. Training to act might be more repetition of action than planning of action. Yet whilst the great theatrical performances of the bourgeois need promotion and strategy – the improvised theatre and the mystery plays had word of mouth and reacted in the moment – live. Does the production of the drama of Gods redemption need strategy? Goodness is slightly less good if its planned isnt it – its strategic and false. Authentic reactions in the moment cant be pre planned or strategised. In the great drama of Gods redemption that we are part of – does strategic planning have any place at all? Where there was Chaos – God brought order into creation – but ever since doesnt it feel as though God is continually disrupting the order we try to make ourselves?

I caught a glimpse of ‘Scruffy Vicars’ recent post this week on ‘The Ideal and the Ordeal’ it is here: https://scruffyvicar.wordpress.com/2018/03/21/the-ideal-and-the-ordeal/  and practically this is a problem with aloof strategising. It is to envision the outcome, and not be ready for the actual, normal and effort required. It took me to think about not only what Jon Ord talks about in Critical issues in Youthwork Management – that we should plan for opportunities and not outcomes. But also that when Jesus told the seventy two or twelve to ‘go out’ he gave them instructions to create the right scene – what he barely said was what to do when getting there (except to stay when welcomed) neither was the outcome part of the plan. (aside from leave if unwelcomed). But these instructions we to his own people. In Matthew Jesus’ instructions are that the 12 go to the lost people of isreal. So in effect, Jesus was saying, go and try and find a  welcome in your own land, with your own people. Be receivers of service. It was not outcome strategising, but strategising – or preparing for opportunity.

We need to strategy with an emergence and a readiness on one hand, as well as some thinking and dreaming on the other. In ministry we can be disillusioned with too much dreaming and no reality, or too much thought about strategy before anything is done. Its like in the BBC2 series Red Dwarf, Rimmers Revision timetable takes 4 weeks to put together all colour coded, and only gives him 1 day to actually revise. i digress, let me close. (if youve even got this far)

The four voices of might be needing to be attended to, for the purposes of doing qualitative research into a practice and to work out what a local theology of strategy might be. Here it might be enough to reflect on strategy theologically and critically from a few different angles to begin a conversation. Where there are organisations there might also be strategies, but where there are disruptions – is this the voice of God calling us out from the order we think we have created? God might be in the strategising, but that in itself is action on the stage of the world, and it needs to be performed with the same love and goodness of all the play.Calling to perform his improvised play that is emerging on the stage of the world?

What might a theology of strategy begin to look like…?

References

Cameron et al: Talking about God in Practice – 2012

Nelson Leading, Managing Ministering, 1999

Martyn Percy, Shaping the church, 2012

On Theodrama – Vanhoozer, 2005, 2010, 2012 and many others

Ord, Jon Critical issues in youthwork Practice.  

 

 

Theres nothing comfortable about doing mission with the risk taking God

It is a fairly well known story, even to those who didnt have to colour in pictures of sheep during sunday school. The story of the Lost sheep. Jesus, when being complained to by the Pharisees about who he spent time with, told them it, and it goes like this:

So Jesus told them this story: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! (Luke 15: 3-7, New living version, taken from Bible Gateway.com) 

What this, and the two other remaining parables in this chapter of Luke illustrate is something about God. Something about what God is like is described to us by Jesus. And what is God like?

God becomes the risky sheep owner, who leaves behind the ones he knows where they are (barely safe themselves on in the wilderness of isreali country fields) , to go alone and find the one that he doesnt know where it is. God is shown to leave those he knows, to take action to find those apart from the community.

I wonder what the 99 felt – when their owner left them? – couldnt hear his voice, or smell his scent- would any inquisitive sheep tag along- following their leader in the path of finding the lost, being protective or inquisitive- taking a risk themselves.  Image result for israeli sheep

A few years ago I penned this piece on ‘Dancing with the Hide and Seek God, in Mission: A post i was reminded of as a I rethought this parable. See, for the ‘found’ – God becomes intentionally absent, he leaves them to act for and with the lost, the action of God is elsewhere- and for those who want to act with God – he is ahead, he is channeling a path, creating opportunities, and encouraging an action through an emptiness of his non active presence in the place of the found. To act with God, in the picture of the lost sheep, is to be as focussed on being active in the process of searching, and finding God active looking for the alone sheep. To Join in with the risk taking acts of God. God, who is concerned about losing 1%, that he calls out in the wilderness and hopes for responses to that call.

What is God like, and what does that mean we are called to do in continued action with him – to leave conformity, leave comfort, and follow God already prompting and already at work with others.

When the sheep is found, he isnt reprimanded, he is carried. It is only Luke that infers the sinfulness of the lost, from the parable- Jesus describes that man (a picture of God) just carries a sheep home on his shoulders and brings it to the rest of the community. Those who have been isolated, need carrying. Those wondering are to be lifted and receive the strength and support of others, and loved back into community. Luke throughout his Gospel is shows the inclusiveness of Jesus to those unexpected to be – so here its a slight on the pharisees, and their sinfulness.

The physicality of the actions reminded me of being involved in the kind of youthwork for the last 15 years that hasnt focussed on the ‘found’ young people – but to be involved in walking and meeting young people in their lost spaces, places of feeling alone and ‘lost’ to the church. There is nothing more spiritual that connecting deeply with someone in a place and space where Gods prompting and provoking is evident. The prompting with God is that he loves beyond the known, and those already feeling ‘included’ and ‘part’- he leaves them to love others. This parable is a challenge to expand a vision of God and realise that Gods priorities reflected in this parable are the one. If church growth is about the numbers game – then the 99% arent important – one is. God shaped mission is about risky love for others, risky love for the world, risky love that requires us to do the same.

Theres nothing comfortable about doing mission with the risk taking God. There may even be curious or questioning looks from the other 98, as we follow the coat tails of God at work.

 

Youth Ministry stuck in a rut? try this resource, reflective practice (Part 1)

Its the new academic term, and my guess is that you’re beginning to think about developing new programmes, topics and activities for youth work for the new term. Excited much? probably, tired of the same old ideas and need a spark? possibly. You could pick a resource off the shelf, like every year. However, why not do something different, why not try developing reflective practice instead?

This is the first part of two, maybe three, posts on developing reflective practice in youth ministry. For the simple reason that i have a feeling it is something that is given lip service at best in practices of youth ministry.

Yet, Characteristic of all courses in youth & community work is the ongoing prerogative to get into the habit of reflective practice. There are rumours that go around that students pick courses on the least frequent reflective forms that need to be submitted. Yes its that popular, usually. especially as many students are die hard activists.

However as Characteristically, many many conferences that appeal to volunteers, student and non academic youth work/ministry people is the lack of any time devoted to reflective practice. Seminars are on action, programmes, experts appealing on behalf of their chosen ministry, or ethical subjects like lgbt, diversity and gender, which in themselves are all perfectly good and needed. But ‘developing reflective practice’ as a seminar topic at a youth ministry conference? maybe the odd one, and is it ever well attended? Something this important requires more than lip service.

Image result for reflective practice

But as a volunteer, as someone who attends youth work conferences to get some training and refresh skill or get some new resources – when was the last time you had the option to go to a seminar on ‘developing reflective practice’ ?  when was this a tool or resource in your youth ministry ‘kit bag’? 

There might clearly then be a gap. 

The gap might clearly be felt when the new youthworker turns up at the local church group or youth project and suggests that all the volunteers start filling in ‘review forms’.

or when the professional youthworker suggests that in regular supervision that a volunteer ‘reflects on the situation’ – and theres a blank response back from the other side of the desk.

Up until now the volunteers had got on with what they needed to do. Up until now the youth worker had possibly presumed that facilitating reflective practice would be welcomed with open arms.

However, often ‘reflective practice’ is not always part of the culture of the church in which the settings of youth ministry occur. And without it being featured at conferences, in youth work magazine – where else might volunteers begin a process of this- with personal external help.

 

Image result for reflective practice

The question is ‘ whatever happened to reflective practice?’ 

If the concept of reflective practice is something new to you, then I am afraid I’m not going to write a long piece to educate on what it is.

Instead here are a few links for you to explore yourself, developing your own knowledge and resources on reflective practice:

A beginning page on reflective practice, for you then to explore further is here:  This is on the excellent encyclopaedia of informal education site ( http://www.infed.org). In the piece i link to there is a discussion on reflection in action, and reflection on action. It is worth looking at the difference.

Grove books have produced a couple of dedicated pamphlets on reflective practice. which are here.

Theres also brief descriptions of some of the key aspects of reflective practice and professional development in their ‘Ten essential concepts for Christian youth work’

And, whilst there are only a few dedicated books on the subject, what you will find is that many core titles on youthwork, informal education, supervision have reflective practice embedded within them.

The problem with this is that for many of us, we want something instant and a ‘how to do reflective practice without having to work at trying to find the resources to do it’. It is also faitrly evident that it feels like in youth ministry we are borrowing from other disciplines like education or social work, and ‘borrowing’ from other disciplines seems wrong, if its not in the bible, then why do we need to do it?

Of course, the other thing about developing reflective practice, is that it is counter cultural, it challenges the way of the thinking & acting already established in the culture of the church, in the organisation, and even, sometimes in the vague overarching umbrella that is ‘youth ministry’. Stopping to think, ask questions, might be provocative. It is so much better to just keep the ‘hamsters on the wheel’ and if the hamsters fall off, well its only their own fault. Just get on a different wheel. That the wheel is faulty…

On one hand, doing reflective practice is part of who we are. We make interpretations of all the information around us all the time. As the philosopher Paul Ricouer argues, we are interpretative beings. So on one hand we are making assessments and reflecting all the time. We will have some intuition during the time that something isnt right, something is, or that there is something under the surface that needs pinning down. So, to talk about ‘reflective practice’ is only, on one hand to give space for these questions and scenarios to get an airing, as they are thought during the time spent with young people.

Reflective practice done badly, it to reduce it to scientific pragmatism, and reduce the practice of youth ministry to ‘sessions’ , ‘activities’ and ‘programmes’.  It will become a consultation exercise for volunteers on the ‘programme’ on the ‘activities’ – and this leads to questions like ‘ what do you think the young people enjoyed’ or ‘what went well’. It can lead to merely endorsing the leaders. And it is worth reflecting here on the power dynamic of the lead youthworker leading times of reflection on sessions of youthwork that they have themselves been involved in. Dare a volunteer speak up? Power within the room is worth reflecting on.

This can happen when there is no flexibility for the reflection to make any difference, the culture, style and nature of a programme is set, so reflection merely acts to conform volunteers to the way of thinking within the practice. At worst. This rigidity is the main inhibility for nursing, teaching and possibly social work to develop reflective practice. even if its recommended as such, the main issue is that the market drives practice. It is not from the ground up with practitioners.

My next post will provide a few helpful hints for developing meaningful reflective practice in youth ministry. The remainder of this one will suggest 6 reasons why reflective practice is needed in faith based youth ministry.

  1. Reflective practice acknowledges that we are on a similar learning process that young people are. Although we might want to define ourselves as ‘leaders’ or ‘ministers’ we are also ‘disciples’ and ‘learners’ too.  Imagining what we ‘do’ in youth ministry is a ‘performance’ then we also need to cultivate space to ‘form’ as actors. We ourselves are on a process of similar formation, even an old dog has to learn new tricks. Youth ministry might seek relevancy, but it is only in the specifics of the young people that we are connecting with that we can be truly relevant, learning of their culture, needs and interests, groups and social dynamics. In youth ministry we need to be open to learn and reflect in the context we are in and maintain this.
  2. Reflective practice helps us to stop and recharge ourselves. It validates that youth ministry practice is not just about activity, it is about education, about thinking and learning. And that needs spaces in conversation to be cultivated. Time for us to splurge out stuff thats on our minds. It helps identify training needs, gaps, opportunities, and also with building a team out of ourselves as we reflect together.
  3. Reflective practice might help us develop new ways of practice, through new ways of being. We might spot things, acknowledge needs and gifts of young people and adapt accordingly. It isnt always about change, but it might be part of it.
  4. Are you seriously telling me that Jesus didnt do reflective practice?  For a good amount of time, what might have Jesus and the disciples talked about on the roads, in the upper rooms, in the fields – we only get a snapshot. Helping the disciples to learn from the parables, helping them develop similar ways of ministry would have required asking questions, thinking about experiences, and developing other ways of being.
  5. If reflection is part of our being, and we believe that we are created in the image of God, then we need to attend to the space where our imagination, where our questioning being, where our interpretations get an airing. In the same way we create interesting spaces in working with young people to help them learn, we also create suitable spaces of reflection in youth ministry for ourselves to reflect in an appropriate way. God might be speaking to us through the conversation with young people, and this needs space. We should expect God to be speaking to us all the time. Reflection gives us space to collectively acknowledge this, share it and discern.
  6. If poor reflective practice is to focus on ‘the tasks’ – then developing Theological reflective practice is in order. I will expand this in a later piece this week. However, if we’re serious about theological reflective practice, and also enabling youth ministry to be actions that reflect God, his mission and the faith we hold to, then the question will be less:

how do we make this activity even more exciting so that young people tell their friends?

and more

What is the Mission of God, and how do i embody Jesus’ call to minister to ‘the least of these’ in this work with young people? 

Where do young people encounter God in our youth ministry? 

If Jesus is here, what role is he playing in the action? 

Good theological reflection prompts us to start with our Theology. The God we shape in our own image can always be fitted into our own practice. And that goes for ‘just praying’ about something. It doesnt make it theological, just becomes an abuse of power.  If you’re serious about Thinking Theologically about youth ministry then try these books, theyre not cheap, and the questions within them are similarly not cheap or easy either. Product Details

Without giving time to reflect, and do this outside of the power structures of organisations, of churches, where we need to distance ourselves from ‘outcomes’, ‘power’ and ‘money’ then we might miss the glorious riches of God speaking to us through reflection, our imaginations and young peoples intertwining on something amazing, on developing practices that embody Gods call for us in the world.

The alternative is the hamster wheel.

Whatever happened to reflective practice in youth ministry?  

Its probably worth reflecting on, and make time, in our new season of youth ministry, starting in August and September, to give it priority.

 

Maintaining Young Peoples Joyful Curiosity

*boring start of blog alert….I dont listen to alot of Radio 4, although because my car arial is a bit rubbish and Radio 5 is a bit crackly I have started listening to it a bit more and today I was heading to the local supermarket and heard about 3 minutes of a discussion on education. What they said resonated alot with some of the other stuff I have listened to or writte about recently, especially if an of you have watched any of Ken Robinsons TED talks. What they said was that ‘the education system has been reduced to what can be measured by testing, and testing then shapes what the education system is all about’. Of course its easy for a discussion on Radio 4 to sound like this. What they also went on to say was that because of this, there is ‘no Joy in the discovery anymore’  the joy of discovering stuff, of learning, of find out the whys, hows and whens of things has been reduced to a test, and made meaningful out of a test.

Ken Robinson would go further and say that this shape of education reduced the validity of other forms of intelligence outside of an academic one.  Some of you may know Gardners 9 forms of intelligence, where the academic/information type is only one, more is explained here: http://fundersandfounders.com/9-types-of-intelligence/. 

9-types-of-intelligence-infographic

That was the slightly long winded way of reflecting on the how youth ministry might maintain the Joy of curiosity for young people. In a way it has a luxury to be able to do this, because it is doesnt have the restrictions of formal education, tests, exams and the policies that shape them.

So, when it comes to helping children and young people be formed in their faith, what is that has been done that causes the vast majority of young people even in churches, to think that faith is boring.

It has been said that over stimulation to visual screens has caused a detrimental effect on young peoples ability to be creative and constructive. What if the same might be said within some methods of youth ministry, which have over stimulation, games and activities, but then the ‘God’ bit is the ‘boring’ bit, because it feels like a school bit.

The question then is, How might we enable children and young people to rediscover the joy of discovery, when it comes to learning about faith. And, might a broader understanding of intelligences help?

But the first thing. Ive got to admit, even before starting academic study 13 years ago, i loved learning, and developing deeper thoughts of faith through reading theology, such as Tozer, Jim Packer, David Watson and Philip Yancey, and other books by Wimber, Yaconelli and Max Lucado. Maybe i was a faith geek, regardless I had an apetite to learn more, and deepen an understanding of faith, which catapulted onwards ever since starting my BA in youthwork and theology in 2004. Some people might say that none of this is necessary. That young people just need a simple faith. A simple faith might not always be able to respond to difficult questions. There are only so many helpful verses that are included on fridge magnets.

Because I am a Theology learning geek, it is difficult for me to suggest how otherwise to help young people discover the joy of discovery in their faith outside of reading and reflecting on those whose faith and stories may have inspired them. And this may work for some young people, give them access to the popular theology books that you yourself have been inspired by, like Rob Bell, or Yancey, Tom wright or Tozer. It seems daft, but what about raising their game..

This is where the multiple intelligencies help. It is easy to find the resources to help young people explore academic learning in regard to the faith, but how might they explore using other aspects of intelligence? How might their joy of discovery be active, peformative, emotional or social experiences, or even those that help them connect with the outside natural world. Even if ‘multiple intelligencies’ is of dubious science, helping a young persons journey of discovering faith be of variety can only be a good thing. Not all of the young people in your group are naturally information intelligent, some are socially or interpersonally intelligent and so it is worth reflecting on holistic spiritual discovery, and enabling a joy of discovery to be longer lasting.

Theres a possibility that the problem is broader. We might be asking young people to find a joy of learning and discovering the faith, in a broader culture of where we ourselves have grown tired or bored of the learning aspect of church itself. (usually the sermon)  And valuing ongoing learning is almost dumbed down in churches when the activity of church is emphasised.  If we have a culture or even concept of faith that ‘becoming a christian is it’ and ongoing learning isnt a requirement, then there is no joy in onging discovery, because the Jesus of the fridge magnet is all that is required.

In the recent research in 1400 churches in the USA, (a copy of it is here:  http://wp.me/p2Az40-NP     )  They discovered that it wasnt games, fun, camps, or residentials that kept young people in church. It was that faith was meaningful and challenging. It tackled the deep stuff, mysteries and complexity. And by doing so it gave seriousness to the capacity of young people to be learners, explorers and capable of handling theology. Here is what it said :

During the Growing Young project’s interviews, 40 percent of young people specifically mentioned “challenge” when they talked about why their church is so effective with their age group. They appreciate challenging teaching in their churches, even when it makes them feel uncomfortable and invites them to make changes based on scriptural principals.

40 percent of young people specifically mention wanting to be challenged by their church. Tweet that

Contrary to popular thinking that young people today want it easy, many told us they love their churches because their churches inspire them to act. This inspiration flows from leaders who model authenticity and humility and extend the challenge of following Jesus not from a place of superiority or power, but out of an invitation to pursue the way of Jesus together.

We dont have an example of How Jesus kept the disciples interested for 18 years in his ‘church’ . We know that he kept a faithful following along with him for at least 3 years, even though suffering was pending. Discipleship was about discovery, imitation and performing. It was about learning, questions, mysteries and complexities. And it took place in the backdrop of a society that there was oppression and roman rule. Jesus didnt make things easy for them. Maybe there is a lesson there.

As I was reflecting further on the Joy of discovery, I came across this from Richard Rohr:

We’ve turned faith into certitude when, in fact, this Trinitarian mystery is whispering quite the opposite: we have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding; it seems to me it’s only this ongoing search for understanding that will create compassionate and wise people. (Richard Rohr) 

What might it mean in youth ministry to create compassionate and wise young people, who fit their lives around the requests of God to love, show mercy and justice. If young people have been given a Godly spirit of questioning ( Acts 17:27) then it might be only right that in youth ministry we create spaces open for that quest.  We are born curious, how might that curiosity remain joyful and ongoing in exploring faith and discipleship.

Image result for joyful curiosity

What if young people are viewed as Theologians?

When it comes down to it, language is a powerful tool. How the church, amongst other organisations constructs practices and policies is often due to the implications caused by the descriptive language of people, from disabled people ( people with a disability, thus need ‘special help’ to be ‘able’), people deemed poor, or specifically Young people. In a previous post here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Np I critique the more common language descriptors that young people seem to have inherited in churches, these include ‘learners’, the ‘not there yet’ and the ‘deficit’ or ‘development’ theories. I conclude in that piece that young people should be considered as Saints in the present church, not only heroes and leaders for the future one.

What descriptors like ‘anti- social’ or ‘adolescent’ do is provide the church and youth ministry with a whole host of descriptors or views of young people. From Sociological, educational, psychological, social, economical, generational ( Gen x, that sort of thing- sigh), these seem to be common in trying to understand young people, or be common disciplines to draw from in the pursuit of trying to find the next best strategy, model or method for youth ministry and endless search to find the one way to keep or prevent young people leaving the church.

Much from a faith perspective is made of creation verses like Genesis 3, which describe the making of man in Gods image. But that seems to be regarded in substance and soul, rather that it inform the practices of youth ministry, which seem to use the above disciplines as the starting point. Within youth ministry also, there are a whole host of task orientated descriptors, when it comes to tasks that are expected of them, they are often to ‘evangelise’ to their friends, to go on ‘mission’ trips, to ‘attend’ groups, to ‘lead’ sessions, to ‘learn’, to be ‘disciples’. Yes often they are to be ‘disciples’. And this can be contentious. The discussion about the order of  salvation & discipleship is tiresome, but relevant, as it often just means that young people are subject to shallow messages to reaffirm a conversion, rather than experience something actually deeper. Discipleship is a complicated concept, one to leave for now. but one that can often appear absent in the drive to reach and connect with young people. Or even in the pursuit to enable them to conform in christian practices.

What i want to suggest is that a theological view of young people, might conclude that young people are theologians. 

Whoa, hang on a bit, am I serious?  Young people as Theologians? 

Theologians are the geek guys who do dull sermons, theyre the book writers and the academics. Image result for theologianThats who the theologians are, and we dont need them, ‘we just need a simple faith’ , the easy stuff, something relevant, attractive… and theres no way young people want to be theologians, no they want to be nurses, sports physios, teachers and artists, not theologians… 

the trouble is, young people are already theologians. Its too late. 

Thats the problem. Theology is deemed to be for the experts and the geeks or clegy and academics. Theology is in everything we do in churches in youth ministry, we operate as theologians, we speak theology, it is in the every day.

But not only from a creative point of view are young people made in the image of God, but those made in the image of God, as part of the human condition is a continual striving for searching, finding out and curiosity, this is borne out in Pauls speech in Antioch, in Acts 17;27, where Paul reiterates that there is a continual searcImage result for theologianh after God in the hope that he might be found.

A person is on a continual search. They might not study God, per se, but be consciously and unconsciously studying the world to find a source of meaning, a crumb of comfort. Or a way to make sense of the purpose in their life, to adopt a story that enables everything they know to fit together, and this might be a God story ( a sacred myth) or a different one. It is where sacred myths are helpful for young people. But what it means is that young people and all of us, are on the look out for something to believe in to help us make sense, or in a continual state of denial of the need for a story, and be possibly deeply troubled, confused and be struggling.

So what I want to suggest is that it might be more helpful to reflect on the possibility of young people, not as disciples, or converted or evangelists, but as theologians. 

If in working with young people in our churches and organisations we consider young people to be theologians, what might that mean to how resources, programmes and practices are for and with them? How might they be treated differently as a result? If nothing else it means that forms of youth ministry are a theological, and practical task.

It is worth breaking it down a little bit, when I suggest that young people are theologians, they could be one of or all of the following, and what I plan to do over the next few weeks, is to expand further on these concepts of young people as theologians, some I have mentioned above. They might be a combination of the following, rather than these in linear development.

Children as innocent theologians, for whilst age might be a social construct, there is undoubtedly an innocence to the curiosity and intuition of a child in their spiritual awareness, it is from their pure heart that often truths flow out of innocent connections with God.

Curious Theologians, This might be all of us, but maybe most notably in those who deliberately search, who ask questions, who find God in the process of the search, the depth of the soul. This ties in with the references above, but curiosity is part of being human, ongoing life long learning, ongoing life long theologising and being brought into new understandings and expansive understandings of God. Image result for curiosity

Intuitive Theologians;  This thought is common in youth ministry, and my next post will develop this further. So, in the mean time, it might be worth thinking about the creative spaces where young people are intuitive, make intuitions and interpretations, and have the desire for deep meaning, of sense made in the world, for something to believe that might be true. But also that it is in the ‘how’ of something being done that young people might discover the ‘why’.  Anyway, this is a teaser for a post on young people as intuitive theologians later in the week.

Practical Theologians. Young people not only want something to be true. It needs to be Useful. Faith mot just a crutch. But also a hope. Not a self help guide to doing anything ( MTD, Christian Smith, 2005) , but the daily encounter with God in the midst of the ordinary that directs, guides, prompts action and is in dialogue. Its not in the arguments over truth and apologetic where God might be found, but in the everyday spaces.

Performing Theologians. This is part of my subject for my dissertation, and ive written about this previously, follow this link: Helping young people perform, not just learn theology. But it might be worth exploring more, the concept that not only might young people be intuitive theologians and practical theologians, but that how might we enable them to perform theology. For what i am convinced we are good at in youth ministry is creating a whole load of christian practices, such as services, youth events, festivals and concerts, yet often these entertain, reach and make faith relevant. When it comes to performing the kind of life Jesus asked of us, and young people, what might that be like to perform, to perform acts of sacrificial love, mercy , justice – performing out of love for God and in the world to transform it. To be hope in communities, not hope in holy spaces. Young people as public performers of theology. Again, ill develop this further in the next few weeks. But safe to say, that performing theology is not the ‘end game’, performance enables intuition and formation and vice versa.

So, this might be teaser or a turn off. My concern is that even in Christian faith based youth ministry, a theological understanding of personhood, and young people is rarely talked about, or even the starting point for developing approaches to mission, church or youth ministry. Context often rightly does, cultural studies (less rightly), church growth ( less said the better) or ‘what we used to do, or have always done’ , and so the writing a few posts on these in more detail in the upcoming weeks will be to look at them from a range of angles, and consider their implications for working with young people. Thinking theologically about young people, might just enable them to be viewed as theologians. I think this is a better starting point. And lets develop language and ministry, mission and practice around the ongoing belief that young people are theologians first and foremost, and that spaces and practices are created to form them as theologians, who find, interpret and perform out of the faith in the everyday, in the practical and the prophetic. Young people as Theologians first and foremost in youth ministry, a starting point.

 

References

Von Balthasar, A Reader – (his reflection on Persons as searching)

Dean, Kenda (et al) Starting right, Thinking Theologically about youth ministry

Dean, Kenda, & Root A, The Theological turn in youth ministry

Shepherd, N, Faith Generation

Smith C , Soul Searching, 2005

Vanhoozer, K  The Drama of Doctrine (2005), Faith Speaking Understanding ( 2014) 

 

 

‘Your talk was great! – im sure the young people got ‘something’ out of it….’

How many times in youth ministry (or even any Ministry) might we either hear this statement, or say it to someone else with a little more hope and assurance than expectation in our tone?  You can picture the scene, crowd of young people, all a bit sweaty after playing games for a while. Or it the evening of a Summer Camp, and theyve all had a nice tea after a day of rock climbing, high ropes and canoeing. And it is time for the talk.

It is the talk that helps us to make the environment in our view something ‘more than just a youth club’ or residential experience. It is the talk that is a time for educating. For helping the young people learn something mentally and spiritually. It is time to ‘do theology’. Image result for boring talk

Yet how often do we, even as volunteers, start to lose focus when the person doing to talk is going on a bit, and we’re the volunteer!

Of course, theres the enthusiastic types, and theologically minded types, who have actually prepared ‘The talk’ . And drafted in greek words a plenty, atonement theories , and illustrations from the church fathers. Or theres the overly trendy types of talk, every latest technological gadget is a metaphor for salvation, and the film clips all contain Jesus somewhere. The young persons are very switched on, they get the cultural references, but at what cost to actual theology? God is as immediate as my whatsapp group? on these occasions, young people do get something out of the talk – but what..?

The temptation is that we continue the same practices until young people are grounded in a culture that they accept this as a way of learning, but in voluntary spaces, like the youth group they walk out with their feet. or ‘They get used’ to practice, and it asks young people questions and places expectations on them to stay and cope within our poor theological practices of youth ministry. 

If you have got this far and think, great, you’re now going to get some ‘how -to’s’ for doing a good talk with young people. Then I am afraid you’re mistaken. If you want alternatives to a talk, I put them on this article here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-NG 

First things first:

1. we need to think of young people as Theologians! 

The question to be asked, is not what kind of talk do we do, but if young people are theologians, as well as disciples, evangelists and humans (my next post will expand on this)  – then we really do need to think about ‘how’ they construct theology from within the practices of the faith community. They might get ‘something’ from a talk, but is hearing someone talk to them, even with stories and anecdotes a way of developing young people as theologians?

Andrew Root relays a story of how after a pretty dreadful talk by someone keen on imparting theology for 40 minutes to young people, one of the elderly volunteers said: ” Maybe it is not that young people do not care about Theology, it is that what we gave them, this evening, wasnt theology” Image result for theology

The question then for us, in youth ministry practices, is the same ; “Is what we give young people in our faith practices , theology?” 

Andrew Root suggest that for too long the starting point for thinking about theology is Dogma or Apologetics, or on the other hand, where i might put myself, it starts with the social action or the community. So theology becomes learning about a Biblical theme, or becomes about finding God at work in the actions of the community as it cares. Andrew Root takes a different view;

2. Theology is constructed with others, it is not something we give

Theological construction that means that anything to young people is theology that dwells in questions with no easy answers – not a theology that provides answers to questions not even being asked. 

What this means is that we dont ‘do’ theology when we talk at young people. We do theology when we talk with young people. It is when we accompany young people on the walk, in the game of football, on the high ropes course, in the woods, and in conversation we create safe spaces in our interactions so that meandering questions of the crisis of life, the purpose of life and the reality of future are brought to our attention. We walk the crisis of their reality- and seek God in the questions raised. 

If you’re not sure, take your mind to the crisis confronting the two disciples who were walking away from Jeruslam late on Sunday that first easter, how did Jesus do Theology with them, by responding to their moment of crisis, their questions. He gave them tradition, out of conversation, he shared with them hope and purpose, in conversation. In the moment of existential crisis. So much of the reality of our ‘teaching theology’ in youth ministry might be uninteresting, meaningless, shallow or even boring – because it doesnt start in the perplexity and reality of the crisis. But this causes a problem, because we daredent go to the point of crisis with young people, because that in itself might challenge us and our own theology. The safe option is the program, and keep activity the focus that hopes that excites young people enough to stay, and the hook for our uninteresting theology.

So, how might we help young people and ourselves face the crisis, and develop theology from that point? Well, we have to give the opportunity, and create the spaces where young people articulate the things that they fear, the things that haunt them. The personal, societal, global, local fears and worries. Theology becomes from a point of reality, it is also itself incarnated, it is significant because it doesnt appeal to moral behaviour, or provide a bullet point of knowledge, but needs little case for its significance. It appeals because it has meaning. It might be judged as wrong, but it isnt benign or irrelevant.

For, it is from these depths and walking with young people through the story to enable it to be faithful and trustworthy in the intuitive crises that young people articulate. It is not about providing information that young people ‘make a decision’ it is that the Tradition is constructed theologically in order that young people can make sense of the reality of the world that causes crisis. McAdam suggests that young people start searching for an ideology to believe in and shape their personal narrative around from the ages of 10. Where I depart from Root is that Vanhoozers metaphor of ongoing Drama enables heightened interaction and purpose for the young person as a theologian, and not just that their story is yet to be written, it is also to be performed and added to the myriad of plotlines. However, it is in the historic and future story of Gods creation, covenant, incarnation, church and consumation that addresses questions of crisis and reality. Of hope, forgiveness and participation. Theology doesnt start with crisis just to tell young people that they can be successful in the kingdom, and winners for Jesus. It is that crisis and suffering are intrinsic to the call of faith, it is our context that is the cause often of the crisis.

It is other stories in culture that try and write away the crisis. From materialism, to celebrity, and Tv and Film. However worthwhile, their common root is to distract from the crisis, but they all fall short, and ultimately lead to numbing of the crisis or believes it can answer to it. It is often why Ecclesiastes is helpful as a starting point with young people, they get helplessness and the void. 

Forming Theologians is the key task of youth Ministry, and that means forming young peoples theology. Christian theology is not about rightness and morality, it is about being encountered by truth. It is a call for faith to seek understanding, to love the curious search for the mystery, next to God who acts (dramatically) in the world of death, the thin spaces, and in the yearning.

The best Theology we do with young people is in the conversations with young people, for theology itself is a conversation, between where we are in the moment and the crisis and the overall tradition and the Theodrama.  I notice that after a period of time where Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber ruled the airwaves, and love and identity shaped songs, that the rage of society and personal purpose have found their root, as Fall out Boy, Panic at the Disco and singer songwriters are popular with young people. The tide might be changing that young peoples music is prompting them to think deeply about their existence in the world. But these might be avenues to begin the conversations with young people. How might their films, their music, their writing and artistry help them, or provide messages which help them deal with their crisis.

If we want our talks to do theology, then we might be off the mark. as per Root: “Theology can only be constructed within the lives of people yearning for God in a world of death, love, life and brokenness” 

Young people might get something out of ‘the talk’ – at best it might be moral guidance, but to kid ourselves that it is theology..? Boring young people in their pursuit of their knowledge of God and theological yearning is the greatest crime commited in our churches and youth ministry. Its in our talking rather than our talks where Theologising happens.

References:

Andrew Root, Creasy Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 2011   

Dean + others, Starting right, thinking theologically about youth ministry, 2001

McAdam, D The Stories we live by, 1997

Vanhoozer, K, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: