Friday, February 03, 2017

"Untamed Friendship" Interviews and Lecture

In November, Kenda Creasy Dean and I were invited to Yale Divinity (to the Yale Youth Ministry Institute) to be interviewed and to give a lecture on joy and friendship in adolescence for their Joy and Adolescent Faith and Flourishing project. Below, you can watch some of those interviews along with the lecture. And on February 11th, Kenda and I will be talking about some of this stuff with youth workers at the Ignite Youth Leaders Day in East Brunswick, NJ.

Kenda was gracious enough to invite me, along with Abigail Visco Rusert (of the Institute for Youth Ministry) and Justin Forbes (Flagler College and Kindred Youth Ministry), to represent Princeton Theological Seminary as researchers and writers for this project. There's more to come, including a lecture by Kenda and Abigail on March 1, 2017.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Practicing Passion in Youth Ministry

“If adolescents and Christianity are both so full of passion, then why aren’t young people flocking to church?” (Practicing Passion, p. 4). This is a central question of what is to be considered one of the most important books on youth ministry ever written.

Kenda Creasy Dean’s Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church marks a turning point in youth ministry—away from just trying to get young people to stay in church and toward learning from and partnering with young people in ministry.

Dean ushered in a new conception of youth ministry as coming alongside young people and listening for the voice of God in their experience. Instead of locating the problem somewhere in the young person or in the “culture” in which they are situated, Dean locates the problem of youth ministry in the church itself. Dean argued that God is already at work in the lives of young people, whether or not they come to church, and that “if youth invest their passions elsewhere… the church must receive this news as a judgment not on adolescents, but on us” (p. 25).

The church, through youth ministry, should not assume itself as the norm to which young people must assimilate, but should discern that God is doing something in the lives of young people and that we can be a part of it. Dean’s great discovery was, in essence, the theological discovery that youth ministry is ministry—active and faithful participation in God’s passionate action in the world. [Read More]

This article was originally published at Kindred Youth Ministry in January, 2017.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thanks, Obama

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, I posted on my Facebook wall (in 2008 fashion), "[Wes] likes the President of the United States... it can't last..."
I remember how good it felt to say that, for the first time, I actually "liked" the President, meaning I didn't feel threatened by him. Yet I also remember how apprehensive I felt about saying it. As a Christian, I have long believed that my first and only real allegiance is to Christ and that this allegiance essentially puts me at odds with systems of violence and greed and any of their beneficiary institutions or governments--including the American government and its leaders. I believe that Christians should have a tensional relationship with nations and governments, for the kingdom of God has no borders and, as J├╝rgen Moltmann has written, "peace with God mean conflict with the world..." (Theology of Hope p.21).

But when Obama was elected I actually felt hope that, while our system was still imperfect and I still would have to somehow protest against it, perhaps we were headed in the right direction. Perhaps now our system would not be so bent toward the rich, so abandoning to the poor. Perhaps now our foreign policy would be more built on mutual understanding than fear of one another. I think that when Obama was elected was probably my proudest moment as an American.

Now, in a way, my optimism didn't last. I quickly discovered the militaristic thread that ran through Obama's foreign policy. I discovered that our President didn't share all my criticisms of capitalism and that he was far more compromising on certain issues -including immigration - that I was counting on him to remain principled. So I have spent the last eight years being critical of Obama. But I never stopped being sympathetic.

In that way, somewhat surprisingly, my "like" did last. My admiration for him as a person and as a person of faith continued to grow. No great scandal emerged to disillusion me about his character. In the way he carried himself, the humility he displayed, I gained new respect for the difficulty and magnitude of his position and the conflict he himself must have often felt between his power and his faith.

I remain sympathetically critical. I remain un-enamored by the promises of America in the light of the promises of Hope in Christ. I remain skeptical of patriotism. But on this day, when the reigns of power will be passed to someone new, someone who has long thrived on an ideology toward which I cannot be optimistic and at which I feel strikingly at odds, I want to say: Thanks, Barack Obama. I want to say thank you for the humility you showed in leadership and the care you so often took with the decisions you had to make. Thank you for the subtle ways you have reshaped our country's imagination and my own imagination regarding the office you held. Thank you for being our President.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Friends of Time: Youth Ministry and the Clock

Youth workers come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to have at least this one thing in common: they are busy!

Youth workers are some of the busiest people on the planet, trying all the time to navigate the busy schedules of young people while also maintaining their regular scheduled programming and, in many cases, their full-time “side” jobs. When it comes to time, there’s just never enough of it. In fact, one of the most effective marketing strategies for youth ministry resources is to sell time–“Think about all the time you can save if you buy our product!” Our relationship to time has hardly been what you would call a friendship... [Read More]

This article was originally published on the Progressive Youth Ministry Blog on December 22, 2016

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Modest is Hottest: on un-evangelism

“…a modest church that is still under the spell of an immodest theology has not yet begun to deal with the fact that ‘Religion Kills.’ …A religious community that believes itself to be in possession of “the Truth” is a community equipped with the most lethal weapon of any warfare: the sense of its own superiority and mandate to mastery.” -Douglas John Hall (The Cross in Our Context, p.5)
Do you talk about evangelism in your youth ministry? I know I do. In fact, throughout my career in youth ministry, I have made a point to teach a series on it at least once a year. But, ironically, every time I get around to talking about it, I feel self-critical, like I just don’t talk about it enough. That’s a thing in American Christianity, I think—to feel like you don’t talk about evangelism enough, even while you’re talking about evangelism. Almost every talk I’ve given or heard in church about evangelism has started out with some apology about how neglected the topic is. We think to ourselves, “Common. Why aren’t we more bold in sharing our faith?” And woven into this question is our anxiety—anxiety about the future of the church, anxiety about the size of our churches… maybe even anxiety about the size of our paychecks (of course, not you, though. You’re far too pious to be concerned about money)

But ask yourself, has Christianity in America ever really been anything other than bold. I mean, in America, ours is not a shy religion. If you think about it, we’re sorta everywhere. We’ve got t-shirts, mega-churches, televangelists, radio stations, publishing companies, theme parks (yes, theme parks), credit unions, and even cruise lines. Every American president in history has professed Christianity. And, despite the so-called “war on Christmas” (it’s really not a thing), no other religion gets to hear music about their holiday in the grocery store.

We’re everywhere. We’re about the most immodest religion in the world. And yet we still feel guilty that we’re not evangelizing enough? How does that even happen!?!?

We think the church is dying because of a lack of evangelism, but what if evangelism is the thing that’s killing the church in the first place?

In this day and age, the problem is not that people don’t know about Christianity. The problem is that they know exactly what Christianity has been about—better than many Christians—and they’re horrified. They’ve watched a religion unabashedly push itself on society. They’ve watched America, a “Christian nation,” start wars in the Middle East. The world outside the Church knows the obvious fact that religion kills, even the one that centers itself on a crucified God. So how do you think the world would feel about our anxiety that we’re not talking about evangelism enough? The world might actually need us to cool our jets a little.

To use the language of Douglas John Hall, even “modest” churches find themselves “under the spell of immodest theology.” Capturing, I think, the urgency of the situation, at least from many people’s perspective, Hall writes, “...there is no place in a world on the brink of self-destruction for a religion that is driven by the quest for power and glory, or even survival” (p.7).

We are under the spell of a theology that supposes that we should be the ones in power, that we have the market cornered on truth, that our God is better than everyone else’s, and that people who don’t like our religion are somehow deceived or just plain faithless. But Christian theology should be theology of the cross of Jesus Christ, theology that calls to the humility and weakness of Christ and not the strength and dominance of “divinity.”

Remember what Paul wanted for us? In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

In short, Christian theology should be modest. It should be marked with the humility of love, not the anxiety of survival.

So maybe this year, instead of a series on evangelism, you might try a series on un-evangelism.

Disclaimer: I realize the importance of “taking back” evangelism from perversions of it. And I realize the beauty (and modesty) of proclaiming “good news,” which is really the root of evangelism. I understand the need for mainline and progressive Christians to evangelize and to clarify the difference between the gospel of Jesus Christ and Evangelicalism, the fundamentalist sect of Christianity in America.

But instead of teaching young people to convert others to their religion, to be “bold in their faith,” and to “share their faith,” perhaps we should teach them how to listen, how to engage the world without assuming we have “the Truth,” how to have faith shared with them from someone else for once, and how to live life faithfully—having enough faith to trust that the gospel will survive without us having to “defend” it. In other words, try teaching a series on modesty… you can even call it, “modest is hottest.” Admit it, it’s a good title.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Zechariah's Song of Hope

I am a sucker for Christmas carols. And yes, even during Advent (I know some people who would shun me for conflating Christmas and Advent). I look forward to Christmas music as early as Halloween, although I have just enough self control to wait until November to start listening to it. I used to try to wait until after Thanksgiving, like everyone else, but then I figured, “who am I kidding?” I am the victory of American marketing.

On top of my already lively enthusiasm for Christmas music, being a father adds even more value. I get a kick out of inserting my children's names into Christmas carols… you know the classics, like, “I Saw Bonnie Kissing Santa Clause” and “Henry the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It’s hilarious (at least to me).

But I get that there something wrong with our “Christmas spirit.” I get that Christmas should do more than just give us warm feelings by the fireplace. I will freely admit the cognitive dissonance in my superficial enthusiasm for Christmas music and my conviction that we have allowed the real anticipation of Christmas in Advent to be domesticated by our nostalgic yuletide glee and “everything’s bright and merry” attitude, and in doing so, we have missed the revolutionary claims of Advent.

How different are our Christmas songs and advent hymns from the songs of anticipation sung by Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1? Listen to what Zechariah sang when his lips were opened to sing the hope of Christ’s coming to be heralded by his child, John.

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79)

This is more like a battlecry than a Christmas carol! Zechariah isn’t singing “have a holly jolly Christmas,” he’s crying out and saying “God is rescuing us from our enemies so we can fearlessly serve and worship God!” It’s anything but domesticated and it’s anything but superficial. Zechariah’s song is drenched in hope.

Why is it, though, that even after reading this song, our experience of Christmas still resonates more with Rudolph than with Zechariah? Perhaps it’s because we’re too comfortable to understand the real unbridled hope of Advent.

Let’s rewind a little and widen our lens to the larger context in which Zechariah’s song shows up. Zechariah was a good guy and a successful guy. He was a priest and an important one, at that. He was married to a good woman, Elizabeth who herself, a defendant of Aaron, was born of a priestly line. The text says that, “both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Luke 1:6). So, he’s living large, you might say… at least for a priest. He’s got it going for him. And on top of that, Zechariah was just chosen to burn incense in the temple. It says, “he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9). This was a rare and prestigious responsibility a priest could only expect to receive about once in a lifetime. It musty have been a great honor. So Zechariah’s an important priest with important responsibilities, married to a woman from a respected priestly family. How much better could it get? How much more faithful could someone be? You could see how it might only make sense that John, the herald of the coming Messiah would be born of this family.

But just in care you were beginning to think that John’s birth was gonna be just another natural product of Zechariah’s high standing or good fortune, there’s a hitch. The story is interrupted. Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, is “barren.” They can’t have children. Culturally, this was a real mark of shame, even for a family with so many other honors in their life. Their barrenness would have been, for them, an immanent and constant source of anxiety and grief. With all the other things going on in their life—the blessing of high standing, the honor of offering incense in the temple—this is where the angel meets him. While he’s offering incense by himself in the temple, possibly unable to be fully present in the moment because of his grief, the angel greets him there and addresses his shame.

The angle does not meet him in all the possibility surrounding his life, but in the impossibility. The angel says to him, “do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. ...even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God..." (Luke 1:13-16). The angel interrupts what was a story about Zechariah with a story of promise. Not only will Zechariah have a son, impossible as that is, but this son will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Zechariah is silenced.

This great priest, faithful as they come, is speechless (literally!) in disbelief.

Now widen the lens, one more time, to the story in which this story appears—the story of Israel. Israel is the chosen people of God, chosen to be the people from which the salvation of the world will come, chosen to be the people from whom the Messiah will come to bring peace and wholeness and the presence of God to the world. But, again, in case you thought the coming Messiah and salvation were just gonna be natural products of Israel’s faithfulness and chosen-ness, in case you thought that the Messiah was just gonna be the end of a straight line running from Abraham through David, by the time this promise if made to Zechariah, Israel is under Imperial oppression… and not for the first time. Israel’s history is hardly a story of progress. It’s really a tragic story of a people moving from one form of oppression to another. Whenever it seems like the people are making progress, when it seems they’re being faithful, they regress and revert and end up right back in the same hopelessness all over again.

Just in case you were tempted to think that the coming of the messiah and the kingdom of God were just extensions of Israel's history, the story is interrupted! It is interrupted, for Zechariah, with the announcement that his son is coming, "...to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17).

It is in this hopelessness that the promise is made and the anticipation of salvation is proclaimed.

This is where Zechariah's song enters the story; not in the possibility of Zechariah's faithful action and not in the power of Israel's religious commitment, but in the silencing of God through Roman occupation, the silence of Zechariah, and the impossibility of human action. It is not in what is becoming in the world, but what is coming into the world!

What Zechariah is given, and what makes his song so powerful, is hope. And this hope is not optimism.

Optimism is about “potential,” the potential of the present to become the future we want. Optimism is about progress. Optimism looks at the situation and tries to find the silver-lining, to find the parts of the present that might contribute to the future. It is forced to look around or behind or beyond the hopelessness. But the gospel is not a story of progress. In fact, whenever it seems like the people are making progress, it gets reverted and things regress. The gospel looks the darkness of the present right in the eye and calls it what it is. The gospel is about hope.

Hope shows up where there is no potential.

Cornel West once said, “I cannot be an optimist but I am a prisoner of hope.” Hope is about God’s coming into the world, not the world’s potential for becoming. The gospel is about hope… hope not for progress, but for interruption… for resurrection.

You see, resurrection is not a natural development. It doesn’t come through progress. Resurrection happens when death and failure are as real as can be. Resurrection is a word spoken where silence is all there is. And it’s out of that kind of silence that Zechariah sings his Advent hymn.

"God has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them."

"Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors.”

"...To grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

"By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The Advent season is filled with words like "Joy" and "Hope." And these words are essential responses to the reality that we anticipate. But in this Advent season, let us remember that it is in weakness that God meets us. It is not that God expects us to ascend from our pain into joy, or to simply muster some hope from within ourselves. Instead, the joy and the hope of the coming of God breaks upon us and interrupts our pain and our weakness with the announcement that we will be saved. Advent is the unbridled hope of God’s coming into even the worst and most hopeless of situations. In this sense, Advent is truly revolutionary. And if we believe it in our bones, that God is coming into this messed up world, we might cry out the same way Zechariah did.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Trumped-Up Generational Division in America

There has been a lot of focus on the divisions in our country that have been revealed through the presidential election. With Donald Trump winning really only one demographic (namely, white people, especially uneducated white males) while performing dismally among so many other minority demographics (example: a staggering 8% of black voters voted for Trump), plenty of attention has been given to the divisions in this country--between white and black, male and female, rural and urban, etc. There is one division, though, that has yet to be satisfyingly addressed: the generational division. And yet, it has been one of the most explosive divisions in the few days following the election. 

In the Anti-Trump protests that have drawn thousands upon thousands to the streets of cities all across the United States, the dominant distinction is generational. I have not seen any data on this, but it appears that the protestors are diverse in all demographics--gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.--save for one. The overwhelming majority of those involved in the protests are young people, under the age of 35.

Now, given that most protests are dominated by young people, one could shrug off this observation. But the ubiquity of young people in the various protest movements we've seen in recent history-- whether it be Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, or the Dakota Pipeline protests--is exactly the reason we should be paying attention to this division. That, and the fact that 63% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted against the President-Elect.

These youthful protests have produced a lot of condescension from older generations, especially but not exclusively among those who voted for Donald Trump. Memes have been created, some more mocking and dismissive than others, associating the protests with immaturity. Conservatives as well as Liberals have lofted critiques of the protests that subtly, if not explicitly, presuppose their own more "experienced" and stoic perspective to be the more wise and rational approach.

Now if any other hegemonic demographic called out against another with such presumptuous criticism (and it happens all the time), there would be an outcry, a moral charge of discrimination. When white people criticize, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement with statements like, "why don't they just obey the police," we can easily recognize the problems with which the criticism is fraught. We see that the criticism is racially charged and nuanced. But when older generations criticize younger generations, we rarely address it on the same level.

Why is this? Perhaps it is because many of us have embraced that fact that white people are, in a sense, cultural outsiders to the black experience. Men are cultural outsiders to women's experience. But, we assume, because we were young too once, we are insiders to their experience. Our own nostalgia is our window into their world. We understand them, but we grew out of that phase.

Think about it. How often is Black Lives Matter compared and criticized according to the standards of the Civil Rights Movement? How often do people compare the protest movements of contemporary America to those of the 1960's and the vietnam era? ALL THE TIME!

How does such a presupposition emerge? It has something to do with how we interpret human experience in general. The dominant viewpoint, at least since the beginning of the 20th century, is that human life progresses through stages from childhood to adulthood, generally speaking, on a scale of improvement... we call this "maturity." Now when we say "maturity" in this way, we're not just talking about the biological fact that human bodies get older. Through the wisdom of developmental psychology and its neurobiological analogues, we have ascribed a much more qualitative value to our notion of maturity. Maturity, as we have come to see it, is actually metaphorical--it speaks beyond the brute fact of growth and points to an ascending rationalism and a particular mode of cultural existence. According to Chris Jenks, "Such metaphoricity all speaks of an essential and magnetic relation to an unexplicated, but nevertheless, firmly established adult world. This adult world is assumed to be not only complete, recognizable and in stasis, but also, and perhaps most significantly, desirable." Jenks continues on to say that, for someone to continue with this assumption would be "to invite the charge of ethnocentrism, and deservedly so!" (Later, Jenks coins the term "gerontocentrism" to specify his term... all this is in his book, Childhood 2nd edition, pp 8-9). This adult-centered "ethnocentrism" is a real safeguard against having to risk taking young people's perspective seriously on its own right.

In treating childhood and youth as a "stage of development" we can always assume we know all about young peoples' experience because we were there once.

Adults' presumptive cultural-insider-ship has protected them from having to truly consider the disruption of these youth movements as a source of new meaning to inform new policy and new direction for the country. But we old folks (I'm 31 now, so I can say that) need to stop protecting ourselves with these assumptions. We need to start opening ourselves to the possibility that we can no more understand young peoples experience than a white person can actually understand a black person's experience. This will, perhaps ironically, allow for more empathy. Without our presuppositions, we are forced to listen charitably. Defamiliarizing ourselves from our own nostalgic presuppositions, taking young people seriously in their own right, will allow movements like this to have a real and constructive affect on our political imagination. And, if you're paying attention, you know our political imagination could use a little help right about now.

A Prayer for an Honest Unity

[A portion of the Pastoral Prayer from November 14, 2016 at First United Methodist Church of Toms River]

This has been a long season.

We just went through a presidential election that has left us exhausted. We were worn down by negativity, fear mongering, specters of corruption, and dismissive condescension.  And on the morning of November 9th, when we ALL wanted for it to just be over, we woke up in a country even more divided and reeling than it already was.

Some are grieving and some are celebrating, and in the midst of our plurality of reactions, God, our trust in and toward one another--in the church and perhaps even in this congregation--is compromised.

But God, you have called us together. It was you who prayed that we would all be "one." So bring us together. Bring us together as salt and light in this world. Breathe into us the life we need so that we might be patient with one another, that we will learn to validate one another and not mock… do what must be done so that we will be united… and so that our unity will be honest and genuine. Let our unity include the marginalized and not only our "tribe."

Reconcile us.

Convict us, comfort us, but do not let us lose sight of the fact that you have called us to follow YOU… and no one else. You have called us to serve YOU and no one else, for we cannot serve two masters. You have called us worship YOU, in joy and in sorrow, trusting in faith that yours , and no one else’s, is the power and the glory FOREVER.

Help us to get that right, this morning. Help us to worship you together.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Joy of Untamed Friendship

Yesterday, I had the great privilege of giving a lecture alongside my friend and mentor, Kenda Creasy Dean, on "The Joy of Untamed Friendship" at Yale Divinity School in New Haven Connecticut. The lecture was part of the "Adolescent Faith & Flourishing" project, part of a larger research project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, being done at Yale through the Yale Center for Faith & Culture.

You can watch the archived feed of the lecture below. Enjoy!


Also, keep an eye out for the forthcoming video interviews of Kenda and me on the YMI YouTube channel.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

How to Think Theologically About Youth Ministry

Youth workers haven’t always been famous for deep theological reflection.

 In fact, youth ministry has been blamed by some for the bigger problem of the church’s lack of theological depth. But even though youth ministry is more famous for games like “Chubby Bunny” (which, if I’m not mistaken, has been mostly banned) and other strange games involving food, there has been a shift—a “theological turn,” if you will, in youth ministry (see Kenda Creasy Dean and Andrew Root’s The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry).

Thinking theologically is more commonplace in youth ministry than ever before in the United States, as more and more youth workers are realizing the theological nature of the task of ministry. It’s not strange anymore for a youth pastor to know something about John Calvin or Paul Tillich or to find youth workers having theological conversations at their conventions and conferences.

 But the theological turn in youth ministry is more than just a revival of theological interest. It’s not just about youth workers reading more theology and applying it to their situation. It’s about youth workers seeing their youth ministry itself as theological—as a place to learn more about God, and as an opportunity to attend to and share in what God is doing in the midst of what young people are actually experiencing.

 To be a good youth worker is not just to know what Karl Barth’s answer would be to a practical problem, it’s being able to see what God is doing and to participate in it, inviting young people to do the same. [Read More]



This article was originally published on Kindred Youth Ministry in October, 2016.