Sunday, February 23, 2014

Youth Are Not the Future: Four Cliches to Eliminate in Youth Ministry

Youth pastors and all who work with youth are way too familiar with the well-intentioned remark, usually delivered by some precious elderly member of the congregation, "youth are the future of the church."

I am not the first to say it's time we retire this phrase or at least add the jargon to the great hall of fame of phrases that mean well but do not sit well with teenagers. The suggestion that youth are "the future" assumes their role in the present is not what counts. What counts is what is yet to occur, when they grow up. This is when they can really contribute. After they learn the language, rhetoric, and corporate lingo of the institutional church they are then charged to preserve the future of the church's property, polity, and assets. But right here, right now, that's nothing compared to the future. Right now they are to be tamed and trained and taught to be nice, good, kind, and not take too many risks that will jeopardize theirs or their parents' dreams of future success.

Yet if the same sort of remark was made to the older populous, only in reverse, I am not sure the sentiment would be appreciated. What if a teenager said to an older member of the congregation after a morning worship service, "The elderly are the past of the church?"

That's precisely the point of Micah Bournes' brilliant spoken word piece, "I Am Not the Future."

So next time you hear, or worse, are tempted to say "youth are the future," politely respond with an alternative. Suggest the possibility to the contrary, "I love youth because they are the present, which makes for a beautiful and hopeful future God is beginning right now."

Then dare youth to dream about how God may be calling them to practice the dreams of God in the here and now. Spur them to act in the present, refusing to wait until the future to follow Jesus as extraordinary witnesses of love, justice, peace, and promise to make all things new and right again.

While we are at it, here are three other phrases, cliches, and terms to retire when working with youth:

1. Calling youth "students." If we truly believe youth are not defined by what they do between the bells of their middle or high schools, we should probably cease to refer to them as students. Call them what they are, "youth." There is nothing wrong with embracing their identity as young people. Actually, there is everything right about it. Jesus didn't say the kingdom of God belonged to students, but children, youth, young people whose significance and worth is all too often limited to what they do or fail to do as students. See a great piece on this by Andrew Root, "Stop Calling Them Students"

2. Youth Volunteers: This one is a pending post, "We don't need more volunteers," which is not to suggest we do not need support or a variety of folks to contribute time, talents, and energies. Rather, the title "volunteer" suggests donating time to an organization and people not your own. What youth ministry needs are those who are willing to view youth as their own, as those who belong to their family of faith. When you serve in youth ministry you are not acting as volunteer, but as one committed to living out your baptismal vows or living up to promises made to the very kids you witnessed being sprinkled with the sacred waters. Consider these alternatives: mentor, leader, partner, worker, etc.

3. Any name for a youth ministry that stems from assumption of all adolescent life being high energy. Think "Fusion," "High Voltage," "Kaos," or use of acronyms like "TNT." Instead of these cheesy and lame titles most youth hate anyway (and the artwork that goes on related t-shirts), find clever ways to introduce the biblical story and identity God has given to us all. This way, when they share about the ministry, they also learn to communicate the good news. Our ministry is called "Imago Dei." I have a friend who named his ministry "Poiema,'" based off Ephesians referring us as God's "work of art." These names and others refrain from generalizing youth, excluding more introverted youth, and also prevent adopting violent and destructive metaphors already pervasive in adolescent culture. They also sound way cooler, too. And they do not have to be in Latin, either.

What are some other sayings worthy of dismissal from youth ministry lingo and praxis?

*Image above is from the famous graffiti artist, Banksy:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Confronting Jesus: What Happened When the Messiah Encountered the Syrophoenician Woman

Was Jesus racist? Did the Messiah perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices of first-century Palestine?

Is it possible that Jesus had to be reconciled with his own neighbors before he could even begin to reconcile and redeem the whole world?

The writer of the Gospel of Mark thinks so.
"From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone." (Mark 7:24-30)
I am not sure I have ever heard a sermon, let alone a Bible study, on this text. I am quite certain this has never been engaged in youth ministry circles or preached at youth retreats I have attended.*

I know I have often glossed over this story, simply dismissing the awkwardness as though what was happening in this little tale was not really one of the most significant encounters in all of the gospels. I treated these seven verses as though they were not really as complex and border-line offensive, especially to those who first read them aloud.

I blame this on the reality that we do not like it when our Jesus calls a woman a "dog," similar to a variety of racially charged and slang terms we still toss around in the 21st century, and initially refuses to heal her little girl because of ethnicity.

Mark 7 flies in the face of all we have been taught about Jesus' love for all people, especially little children. So we don'd dare discuss this text. Yet, we should be put off when we read this story. If we are not, Mark would challenge us, have you really been listening to my gospel at all?

Mark 7 proposes, rather audaciously, the greatest news of all the gospels: all will be delivered and made whole just like this foreign mama's little girl. The good news of the kingdom of God, inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is for the whole world. The gospel is not only for the children of Israel, believing Israel, the modern church, or all those who profess a particular brand of Christian theology labeled true and biblical.

The good news of what God has done and is doing in and through Jesus Messiah is for the whole world. Syrophoenician women included. This blogger included. My Hindu neighbor down the road and across the ocean included.

This is something even Jesus apparently had to learn. After all, he was growing in wisdom and stature. You could say Jesus was challenged to rethink his mission and invite those who were used to picking at the scraps beneath the table to sit at more prominent positions around the table.

Maybe that's why Mark's next major pericope is another, albeit different, feeding story. Mark 6, five loaves to feed four-thousand, leaving twelve baskets of left overs. Five. Twelve. The Jewish story satisfied.** Mark 8, seven loaves for four-thousand, leaving seven baskets of left overs. Seven. Perfection. Completeness. The Gentile and whole world's story satisfied.

"Do you not yet understand?" (Mark 8:21)

And in between the feedings is a determined mother who doesn't give two rips about ethnicity or gender or the Hebrew Scriptures. She simply has a sick daughter who needs healing and is bent on Jesus being the difference maker. So she confronts Jesus' own racism, elitism, and exclusionary kingdom.

And her persistence pays off. Like Moses in the desert, changing the mind of God, Jesus is transformed and the gospel breaks open for her little girl and all those so used to being pushed aside by any religious story or socio-political system.
"This woman- marginalized by race, gender, and class- taught Jesus something about the inclusivity of God's realm. Jesus comes to see more fully the radical inclusivity of the gospel he proclaims through the trust and daring of this woman. He is moved from the social norms o first-century Mediterranean 'honor culture' that limited his vision and compassion. He is moved from a stance of excluding to one of including." (Ched Myers, "Say to This Mountain": Mark's Story of Discipleship, 84)
This Messianic move all started with a Syrophoenician woman's courage to confront.

So I wonder, what about the Jesus story do we need to confront? What about the witness of the gospel do we need to challenge? What about the mission of the church do we need to reimagine and broaden for the sake of our most vulnerable neighbors?
What does the kingdom really mean in the wake of pervasive poverty that cannot possibly be a part of God's plan? 
What does the good news mean for the gay community, who are so frequently relegated to the fringe or forced to sit in silence in our congregations?
What does the gospel look like for teenagers who fear walking down their hallways, uncertain who may be lurking around the corner?
What does God's dreams for the world look like in the midst of economic inequality and sexist pay scales?
What does the Messianic message mean for homeless veterans, unjust wars, illegal immigrants, dysfunctional school districts, on-going genocide, uninsured persons, or even who is granted access to pulpit, pew, or platform in a variety of religious and political conversations?
How does Mark's story of deliverance and salvation pertain to our own understandings of who is in and who is out both before and after the grave? How does the persistence of the Syrophoenician woman confront our own theologies of resurrection, eternity, and the scope of God's grace in the age to come?
I am not sure. I know I do not fully understand.

I also know that we all need confrontations here and again.

I also pray we all have the courage to confront when even the most sacred seems so desperately wrong.

*This past week we taught this story with high school youth using the Re:form: Ancestors Curriculum. Be sure to check it out:
**Many believe "five" referred to the Pentateuch, i.e. first five books of Hebrew Scriptures, and "twelve" referred to the tribes of Israel. Seven is an ancient, and still today, number of completion and wholeness. This may be the origins of "lucky number 7."

Friday, February 7, 2014

Ken Ham and Bill Nye's Dead-End Debate on Creation and Evolution: Can We Please Change the Conversation?

I have a confession: when it comes to the debate between Bill Nye, yes, The Science Guy, and Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis and The Creation Museum, I was initially disinterested. Actually, when it comes to the larger debate between Young Earth Creationism and Evolution Theory, I am even less interested.

I believe it is time we moved beyond this dead-end debate that supposes evolution and Christian theology cannot co-exist. There are far greater and more pertinent human and ecological questions we must be asking other than where is Noah's Ark and how long was each of the six days of creation.

Another confession: I really only tuned in to the debate because, let's be honest, who can pass up an opportunity to see The Science Guy on t.v. again.  Aside from a recent cameo on The Big Theory, I have not seen him since I was making model cells in middle school.

After watching the two icons of their respective fields battle for over two hours, my interest in this supposed "debate" failed to peak, not even a little.

That's because Ken Ham is right.

Not in his young earth creationism. Ken Ham is right is in his observation that this scientific tug-of-war is really a battle between two framing stories. Ham's biblical hermeneutic supposes Scripture, especially Genesis 1-3, serves the purpose of providing scientists billions of years, correction, thousands of years later the data necessary to compile a theory of beginnings and existence of life.  Nye's narrative, on the other hand, is filtered through a different lens and does not see Judeo-Christian Scripture as foundational necessity for scientific discovery pertaining to the age and evolution of the earth.

As Ham said, they both have the same evidence, the battle is purely over worldviews and starting points. And I don't see Nye or Ham willingly undergoing an evolution of worldviews anytime soon.

When I was in high school, I would have rallied behind Ken Ham. Evolution was a direct attack on my flat reading of Scripture.

When I was in college, I nearly walked out on the presentation by a representative from The Creation Museum* who forcefully proclaimed to our congregation the existence of dinosaurs as a conspiracy against the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

My own worldview has evolved over the years and I have begun to see Scripture as a much more complex and sacred text whose existence is not to underscore scientific theory, rather an invitation extended to all of humanity to participate in God's unfolding story of love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and promise to make all things new and right. 

Yes, God is Creator. But the Bible was written neither for elementary school children studying the plants and origins of species in Eden or CEO's who founded scientific museums in Kentucky.

The Bible is a collection of stories. Genesis is a hodge podge of religious narratives. In the beginning is doxological poetry for Levitical priests, ancient liturgy for the worship of YHWH. Adam, Eve, Noah, and others are not even unique to the Judeo-Christian imagination, rather adaptations of Ancient Near-Eastern religious stories co-opted and contextualized by those proclaiming YHWH as Lord in the midst of oppressive captivity.** The Genesis stories preserved Jewish/Hebrew allegiance to the shalom of YHWH in contrast to the violent narratives of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and beyond. They were illustrative beckons to covenant fidelity.

Tragically, these stories are slowly becoming new building blocks for ideological and theological towers, whose brick layers are bent on the ascent towards absolute certainty about this or that scientific theory of evolution or young-earth creationism.
"That’s why I’m an evolutionist.  I’m an evolutionist because I believe that the best way to reclaim the gospel in times of change is not to cling more tightly to our convictions but to hold them with an open hand.  I’m an evolutionist because I believe that sometimes God uses changes in the environment to pry idols from our grip and teach us something new.  But most of all, I’m an evolutionist because my own story is one of unlikely survival." (Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town) 
My prayer, as this Nye-Ham debate continues to gain viral status, is for the conversation to change.  My prayer is for an awakening of the Spirit whereby the Bible is reclaimed not as textbook but as drama.  My prayer is for the faithful to unroll the script, with an ending yet to be fully written, and rediscover fresh opportunities to incarnate the love and justice within as together we follow Jesus' embodiment of God's dreams for the world.

This is the very world God made good, somehow, someway, in the very beginning, and now calls us to an evolution of generosity and grace as we love, serve, and bless our most vulnerable neighbors in need.

And that's a much more perplexing and interesting conversation. Actually, this conversation is more rooted in Scripture than anything that took place between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.

So who is going to host this conversation?

Check out the Justice Conference: 

Reflections from 2013 Conference

* I did not organize this event, I swear. I still am in awe of the slippery slope arguments and straight lines drawn.
**Check out a post I made related to teaching these ANE stories to youth and our contemporary need for rest: Atrahasis and Ancient Longings for Rest .  See also a cool way to teach the story with youth.