Saturday, June 29, 2013

Massanetta Middle School Conference: What the Church Can Learn from Middlers

"Because and to the extent that he is mighty in the community by His Spirit, that which [the church] does can and must be done with joy; its worship, its order, the fellowship of Christians, its mutual service, the celebration of the Lord's supper, even its teaching and theology can and must take on the character of a festival; and in it all God can and must be thanked and worshipped."

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV: Doctrine of Reconciliation, p. 152

I love middle school ministry. Sure, there are quirks, drama, hormones, and attention spans of a millisecond (if you're lucky), but there is also a zeal for life and an untamed energy unable to be replicated by other seasons. They will ask thoughtful questions of faith and, within the same breath, ask if a giraffe throws up (yes, once and then they die) or a panda farts (also, yes...lots of bamboo). Their imaginations have yet to be co-opted by the daily grind and pressures of adulthood (or even high school).

I spent the past week at Massanetta Springs, a PCUSA conference and retreat center in Harrisonburg, VA, with over 400 middle school youth from around the country. We played, laughed, worshiped, confessed, learned, conversed about justice, practiced generosity, extended hospitality, and energized together as a collection of God's people from 12 years old to...well, I am not sure how old some of these adults are...

We embodied an intergenerational community that looks more like a festival than a church.

Or maybe the church is supposed to look like a festival in all it says and does?

Barth would agree. Middle school youth and all those gathered at 'Netta would probably agree, too.

Here's more of what I learned while surrounded by some of the youngest of Jesus' disciples.

Church- take notes :)

Worship as Joyous Festival

If a stranger were to walk into the open-air amphitheater and see what was taken place during one of the keynote sessions, Presbyterian worship would probably not be their first guess. Youth and adults alike danced, clapped (in rhythm, no less), shouted, and moved out of their rows as though liturgical prisoners set free from centuries of captivity. Worship was a Jesus-centered party. What was better, adults and those "of the cloth" were not the only ones getting face time. Youth were the key players in the pageantry of this worship celebration and liturgical jubilee. Worship at 'Netta was a festival whose energy generated from the Spirit dwelling within the youngest members of Christ's body.

Order as Joyous Festival

Art, drama, paint, story, video, music, instrumentation, and dance all played a role in the liturgical rhythm of the Massanetta worship gatherings. Everything was fresh and pointed God's people to the beauty and wonder of the One who makes us, claims us, calls us, and sends us. Yes, even the order of the church can be a youthful festivity of creativity. My only question, why can't the larger church practice this same sort of festivus mentality with regularity? We can and must do better as "back home" churches. Youth must be invited to serve as frequent participants in the order of service and congregational leadership beyond segregated youth groups and token youth Sundays.

Middle School Fellowship as Joyous and Communal Fesitval

Everyone had a place at Massanetta Springs. There were no strangers and all were assured they belong. Recreation time and small group interactions were powerful displays of community, youthful reminders that everything from slip-n-slides to face paint can draw us into the worship life and festivity rooted in being called the church. I am working on my love to participate in energizers, but there is nothing like watching others join in the absurdity.

Mutual Service as Joyous Festival

The theme for the weekend, Do. Love. Walk. (Micah 6:8), reminded youth over and again of their call to extend Christ's love to one another and those beyond the walls of the church. I was impressed by how middle school youth served their peers, adults served youth, and especially how high school "enablers" (or counselors) served the middle school youth as though they were their little brothers or sisters. Maybe that's because they were told they actually were family....

There was a contagious spirit of mutual service at Massanetta, reminding all of us that we are called to practice this mutual service beyond the confines of this camp and into the world. Youth grasped, some for the first time, the call and commission Jesus has given them to love their neighbors victimized by hate and injustice. It was a fresh declaration that the gospel is in no need of being watered down for adolescents. Instead, we have a responsibility as the church to pass down Jesus' risky mandates to the next generation. They yearn for it. They long to discover this festivity of generosity that invites them to play.

Lord's Supper as Joyous Festival

The entire week culminated with the Eucharist. Youth gathered and scattered from the sacred and sending table, a reminder to all youth and adults alike that, "God goes with us on on our journey to do, love, and walk into the world" (see theme song below). The body and blood of the crucified and resurrected Jesus sustains even the most anxious, awkward, uncertain, and timid middle schooler in their quest to say and do all their Savior said and did.

Teaching and Theology as Joyous Festival

What was the most beautiful element of this middle school festival was the creativity of the teaching and theology. Middlers were taught, in their own language, Scripture, the Reformed tradition, and what it means to be called a disciple of Jesus. Micah 6:8 was interwoven with Jesus' call to love God and love our neighbor as ourself. Youth were ultimately dared to claim the Jesus story as their story, even as portions of this story were illustrated right before their eyes by high school mentors.

The proclamation of the Word at Massanetta was a festivity God's love and grace in Christ, unable to be tamed by any sanctuary pulpit. I only wish more attention was given to how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are God's once and for all proclamation that justice and kindness will one day reign over all the world. We need not respond to Evangelical obsessions with altar calls with a skirting around the primary reason we claim Jesus as Lord and Savior of all people, especially those who suffer at the hands of injustice and unkindness. But that's subject for a different post.

I am grateful for my time with not only the 400 plus middle school youth and adults at Massanetta Springs, but also and especially the incredible representation from Imago Dei Youth Ministry. Our small group of youth and wonderful adult leader reminded me over and again of how much I love middle school youth ministry.

Middle School ministry is a party many in the church have been missing out for far too long.

But its never to late to join in the festivities.

I also plan to return to those hosted at 'Netta. Maybe I'll see you there.

See also reflections on 2010 PCUSA Youth Triennium.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Abercrombie, Youth Ministry, and Clothes Everybody Can Wear

I know this post makes it seem as though I'm late to the current event conversation, but I promise I was participating from the beginning. I do not live in a cave or under a rock, although I do find myself much more versed in toddler culture than adolescent culture of late. It's just that life gets in the way of this blog sometimes...or maybe this blog gets in the way of my life sometimes. Either way, it's about time I muse about Abercrombie CEO, Mike Jeffries, and his bigoted remarks that went viral and trended on Twitter this past May.

Warning: these musings do not hinge on Jeffries, as though we should be surprised at the exclusive nature of his company's marketing schemes. After all, based off what you see in catalogues and malls across the country, Abercrombie is so consistently exclusive that even their wash-board stomached models are not allowed to wear their clothes. Instead, my musings are targeted at all of us- churches, youth ministries, youth pastors, youth, and faith-based ministries.

Here are some modest, pun intended, questions for us to ponder:

Who Are We Targeting with Ministry Programs and Communities?

There are many youth ministries and youth ministry-ish programs whose strategy sounds a lot like Jeffries, "If we can reach the cool kids we can reach anyone." We then observe these programs and participate in these faith-based communities and realize they are pretty vanilla. While they are quite good, actually excellent, at reaching this popular, in-crowd demographic, it is often to the alienation of others.

Yet, when we look at Jesus and his cast of followers, the Crucified One did not exactly start with the cool kids or attractive All-American prima-donnas. Instead, Jesus' ministry began with fishermen who didn't make the cut, women with shady reputations, children whose worth and witness were undervalued, Syrophoenician refugees looking for table scraps, oppressive and short-in-stature tax collectors, and those who doubted the entire three-plus years they followed their teacher and friend. Jesus' ministry was all about and hinged on those on the social and religious fringe.

Jesus himself was a first-century, marginalized, Palestinian Jewish rabbi. It's safe to say that the Messiah did not exactly register high on the cool meter, and neither did his ministry.

So why do youth ministries assume we have to start with the cool factor? Is it really that important to convince youth and (young) adults alike that to follow Jesus is to be "cool?"

Is it not more important to lead others to follow Jesus because it is the Way to a real life that lasts?

And speaking of lasts, this Way often begins there- with those who are last.

Let us not replace Jesus' kingdom mantra with a trendier one that further isolates those relagated to the end of the social line from from those who are perpetually ushered to the front.

Who Really Belongs in Our Faith Communities?

The beauty of the church and the hope of the gospel is that everyone belongs, even the cool, attractive, All-American kid and those skilled at reaching them with the good news. There's also and especially a place for those who don't feel cool enough to pal around at their gatherings and those gifted in creating hospitable environments for these sorts of youth. There is a place for everybody in the body of Christ. My own tradition says it beautifully:

"The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone." (The PCUSA Book of Order F-1.0302a).

"The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church's membership. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unifies persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theologcal conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person" (The PCUSA Book of Order F-1.0403).

As we craft ministry calendars, develop weekly Bible studies, innovate missional partnerships, imagine new programs, and meet with youth in our congregations and beyond, my prayer is that we exclude no one. My prayer is that in the church all would find a place to call home and all ecouraged to discover opportunities to exercise their gifts and talents for the sake of others. When the church and related youth ministries embody unity and inclusivity, the diveristy is everything but vanilla!

What's the Real Risk and Trouble?

I read somewhere that Jeffries is misinformed (thanks, Captain Obvious). The growing market is actually not for the industries with cookie-cutter clientele, but for companies who advertise to those commonly labeled as ordinary, average, and plus-sized. In other words, the Abercrombie model is a dying business model that's really in trouble.

Is it possible that some of pop-culture is beginning to see that ordinary is beautiful?

I won't hold my breath. Still, I will take on the Jeffries Challenge and risk the supposed trouble that comes when all are invited to put on the soaking-wet baptismal clothes, granted access to gather at the sacred and sending table, and challenged to follow Jesus in and for the world.

What about you? What about your congregation? What about your youth ministry?

Who are you going after? How do those on the margins feel about your community and witness?

Is it all inclusive or exclusively vanilla?

May disciples of Jesus be forever clothed in the compassion, kindness, humility, welcome, and love of Christ. These are clothes everybody can wear (Colossians 3:11-17).

"Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful..."

---1 Corinthians 12:11, The Message

"The Church of the Holy Spirit is full of variety. Sameness and conformity are the demands of alien spirits."

---N. Gordon Cosby in Elizabeth O'Connor's, Eighth Day of Creation


Quote in image above is from Business Insider,

Monday, June 10, 2013

Psalm 23, Youth at the Beach, and Discovering a Shepherd's Love that Doesn't Quit

This past weekend, Imago Dei Youth Ministry ventured to Ocean City, NJ for our annual retreat at the beach. Middle School and High School youth, along with incredible adult leaders, crammed into the Ocean City Tabernacle and worshipped together, prepared meals together, prayed together, played together, walked the boardwalk together, reenacted DaVinci's Last Supper together (above), and conversed together about one of the most familiar biblical texts- Psalm 23.

We were led to the not-so-quiet waters of the Jersey Shore to contemplate the imagery of the ancient song and be refreshed by God's esed, "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life...":

"'Mercy' here is God's ḥesed, [Hebrew for] the love that never quits. It is a love that doesn't just follow, but always pursues us. To perceive God's love as pursuing rather than begrudged deepens our ability to trust."

---Howard R. Macy (The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible)

We concluded the weekend by anointing youth with oil. We considered the age-old invitation to follow Jesus as our Good Shepherd, who restores our souls, comforts us in dark valleys, prepares a feast of reconciliation in the presence of enemies, and anoints us with the Holy Spirit to live into the undying love of Jesus, God's ḥesed, found at the cross and resurrection. The oil was a symbol of taking a risk and saying yes to this invitation and divine calling.

My prayer is that all that took place this weekend, be they playful interactions, development of new friendships, or fresh encounters with a timeless text, would lead them to follow right paths as Christ's sheep. I pray they would know God's ḥesed goes with them and never quits on them. I pray they extend the same sort of love to others.

"The LORD is my shepherd..."

Here is a video of the weekend:

Here are the small group discussions for the weekend, feel free to use.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Blogging through the Book of Order: Polity as Platform for Mission

Let's be honest, the Book of Order is not always the most enticing read. The acronym, B.O.O., is a self-fulfilling prophecy, scaring away lay readers all over the country. Maybe it's because when we think of the foundation, purpose, and function of Part II of our denomination's constitution, the mission of God in Christ is not what immediately comes to mind? Maybe it's also because marginal congregations and/or Presbyteries have provided space to wrestle with related leadership paradigms and contemplated what it means to innovate new expressions of the church while maintaining a fidelity to our tradition and the One who is sovereign over all?

The Book of Order can be a daunting and deadly book. The Book of Order can also be a platform and resource for innovative, faithful, and sustainable mission.

Throughout the month of June, a group from our congregation will be working through a playful practicum I developed, Presbyterian Leadership as Platform for Mission. This course not only serves as a final capstone to my ordination requirements, but also is a means to revamp vehicles of preparation for those called to serve within the ordered ministries of elder and deacon.

"When persons have been elected to the ordered ministry of ruling elder or deacon, the session shall provide a period of study and preparation, after which the session shall examine them as to their personal faith; knowledge of the doctrine, government, and discipline contained in the Constitution of the church; and the duties of the ministry." (G-2.0402, or p. 28)

The first week's goal, reclaim the mission of God in Christ as the focal point of all our forms, structures, and governing patterns. Yes, PCUSA polity is deeply missional in nature.

"The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church. In Christ, the Church participates in God's mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news o God's love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ. Human beings have no higher goal in life than to glorify and enjoy God now and forever, living in covenant fellowship with God and participating in God's mission." (F-1.01, or p. 1)

How easy it would be to assume the above statement as from the pages of a seminary textbook written by the likes of Darrell Guder or John Franke. Yet this comes from the opening lines of Part II of the PCUSA Constitution. The church is about God's mission in Christ. We are participants in that mission.

I wonder what can happen when we reframe the remainder of BOO, despite its frightening acronym, as an invitation to playful yet faithful, creative yet accountable, risky yet relational participation in God's dreams for the world? What can happen when we engage the outlined vision and definition of ordained positions in ordered ministries so that those in leadership can reclaim their missional vocation?

I am not sure, yet I am deeply hopeful.

I have fallen in love with the language and structure of the PCUSA Book of Order, which is good given my calling. Yet I pray the love for such language does not transform into frivolous idolatry of stagnant systems. Instead, may the Book of Order bring life and movement to a church called not only to reformations in theological convictions, but also in our beloved institutional and ecclesial structures. May we do so as disciples of Jesus, reminded that we are but a provisional demonstration, versus sovereign and eternal entity, of what God intends for the whole world.* The goal is not an eternal church. Instead, the church paves the way forward with radical incarnations of the kingdom until the day comes when there will no longer be a need for a church, for God will make God's home among all people's (Revelation 21).

The Book of Order can help us do just that. When it does not, we will need yet another revision.

Here are the resources I provided in Week 1, God's Mission as Foundation, to include the keynote presentation:

Course Synosis and Recommended Resources

Presbyterian Leadership as Platform for Mission Slides (PDF | Keynote)

Foundations of Presbyterian Polity Handout and Worksheet for Leaders

What Is Missional Ecclesiology? by Paul Hooker

*I love the old language from earlier edition of BOO, "The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity." (G-3.0103). Provisional is defined, arranged or existing in the present, possibly to be changed later.