Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dr. Capps, You Will Be Missed

Last night the world lost one of its greatest pastoral theologians. Professor Donald Capps was killed as a result of a car accident in Princeton yesterday. Capps joined the Princeton Theological Seminary faculty in 1981 and has been prolific in his writing and influential in his thinking ever since. Capps loved to teach and he loved his students. Even after his retirement, Capps taught courses at his leisure (I was registered to take his class on Ministry and Mental Illness this Fall... it was supposed to begin in just a couple of weeks). I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know him a little and to study under him. He was known by all of his students as someone who invested an incredible amount of energy into responding to them and helping them get better at what they do. You could bet that Capps put at least as much energy into responding and giving feedback to his students' papers as the students put into writing them. And he was extremely constructive and charitable in doing so. If you wrote a 7 page paper, it wasn't uncommon to get 7 pages of thoughtful feedback from Dr. Capps.

I wrote a paper for his class on "Pastoral Care and The Life Cycle" which, unsurprisingly if you know me, was critical of stage theory - an approach which Capps himself found very helpful. He didn't get defensive. He was much too comfortable in his own skin to do that. And he didn't take the opportunity to school me on all the problems with my critique, though I am sure he could have. Instead, he helped me. He gave a charitable reading of what I was trying to do, sympathized with my motives, and helped me strengthen my own argument. His feedback helped me construct a major section of what became my first published article. I will forever be grateful for Dr. Capps.

A model of his own work, Dr. Capps embodied in his teaching the pastoral attentiveness, patience, and grace about which he wrote. The Princeton Seminary community is better for having had him him among them.

Dr. Capps, you will be missed.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reading the Bible With Youth

The following post was published on the Institute for Youth Ministry Blog:

Many of my youth ministry colleagues know me as a bit of a theology nerd. I definitely have a lot more patience with abstract theological questions—you know, the stuff that’s not immediately “practical”—than a lot of my friends who work with young people. When I am feeling insecure, I like to curl into a corner and read Moltmann or Tillich (because it’s a world I understand!). But before you figure, “this guy’s got issues” and stop reading, hear me out. Read More

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Presenting at #PYM16

For the past year or so, I've been working on the intersection of Youth Ministry, Eschatology, and Childhood Studies (I've got one article coming out in the next issue of Journal of Youth and Theology and another article, co-authored with Erin Raffety, that's been submitted). I don't want my work to be merely academic, so I've been looking for opportunities to share it with actual youth workers and regular church folks. I've had a couple of those opportunities. But perhaps the biggest opportunity I've had yet is to present at the 2016 Progressive Youth Ministry Conference. I went to this conference in Chicago a couple of years ago (it's first year) and was impressed. This year I'll be leading a seminar called "Human Beings and Human Becomings: Adolescents and Eschatology." It's pretty cool of PYM to take a chance on someone who hasn't yet presented at a conference like this. It's gonna be a good time.

So, if you're looking for a good youth ministry conference to go to next year, consider the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

'Student' Ministry or Youth Ministry?

I was talking with someone in Corner Bakery the other day. Obviously well oriented to the social world of church, he was asking about my experience of seminary. (I think my Princeton Seminary T-shirt must have tipped him off.) When he asked what I was studying I told him, "practical theology... youth ministry, mostly." He nodded in approval and after a short pause he responded, "isn't it better to call it 'student ministry' these days?"

Without wanting to get into too deep a discussion, I said, "I still prefer 'youth'... not every kid is a student..." I'm sure he wasn't convinced by that and he probably assumes I'm getting a pretty archaic theological education... but if I could have, I would've just made him read Andrew Root's Article, "Stop Calling Them Students."

The fact is, it's not just that "not all kids are students" (and not all kids who aren't students are dropouts... young people with sever developmental disabilities can be exempt from this as well). It's also that to refer to someone as a student is to reduce them to what they do, their function. And in the Christian tradition, where ministry is concerned, this is a theological fallacy. As Andy writes,
"When it comes to defining the human being, the Christian tradition has claimed that to be human is to be a person. And to be a person is to be your relationships. It is not in instrumental functionalism that you are but in the relationships in which you are bound. We are in and through relationships of sharing love."
Young people, as people, are not what they "do." This is not necessarily to say that there is some "ideal" version of them that lives outside their actions. But it is to say that people are not just "it" they are "thou." I'm referring here to Martin Buber's classic work I and Thou. The question in what we call people is really not about what they are (sure, most young people are students, so if you've only got young people in your group who are students, why not call them that?)... the question is about how we are "bound" to them, how we orient ourselves to them. Are they just a function, a "student"--one who learns and to whom things are taught, an object of the pedagogical process? Again, Andy says, "Whatever we call them, it should bear the fundamental relational depth of our confession of who they are and how they are connected to who God is with and for them." And Andy might be right that it'd be better to call them "children," but I still say it's even better to call them "youth" or "young people." Because, like it or not, socially (not just biologically or psychologically), there is a distinct location, a "social practice" even (I'm referring here to Chris Jenks' Childhood), with its own creative dignity that is really neither adulthood nor childhood. "Youth" is still the best word... and it is nothing short of an imperative of justice that we do whatever it takes to rid that word of its pejorative and paternalistic stigmas.

Beyond simply being a poor theorization of "who" young people are, "Student Ministry" misconstrues and obscures our (adults') orientation to them (youth). To re-theorize and to re-define young people (are they "adolescents"? are they "teens"? are they "students"? are they "youth"?) is not enough, and it is not the most important question. We have to re-theorize ourselves! We must think about how our words and definitions affect our orientation to the other. Youth ministry--as MINISTRY--is one of the only places where adults are afforded the opportunity to encounter young people as persons, not just as objects for pedagogical or developmental processes. To call them "students" is, from the very beginning, to orient us to the young people as a teacher to a pupil--as one who is to affect the other--rather than as one who is open to being affected, one who anticipates the potentially disruptive encounter of one person (adult) to another person (youth).

Saturday, August 08, 2015

5 Youth Ministry Books You Haven't Read Yet...

I think most people who are close to the Youth Ministry world would know about books like Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries,  Practicing Passion by Kenda Creasy Dean, and Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry by Andrew Root... not to mention the various works of folks like Mark Oestreicher, Doug Fields, and Duffy Robbins. I hear a lot about these folks and these books (and rightfully so!) but there are a few other Youth Ministry books and authors you should probably know about. Here are five Youth Ministry Books you probably haven't read... and should probably read.

5. The Adolescent Journey by Amy Jacober
Jacober is a great youth worker and practical theologian. In The Adolescent Journey, Jacober pushes youth workers to understand the practical theological dimentions of their work with adolescents, interpreting the experience of adolescence through a theological lens so that youth ministry can participate with what God is doing in the lives of young people. It's a great introduction to practical theology for youth workers and a critical theorization of adolescence. If you're interested in thinking theologically about youth ministry, you should know that this book exists.

4. Saying is Believing by Amanda Hontz Drury
When I saw that Amanda Hontz Drury's research was being published for popular consumption, I just assumed that everyone would get it and read it. Drury is really one of the best theological minds in Youth Ministry right now, but I am amazed at how few of the people I know in Youth Ministry seem to know about her work. Saying is Believing, which just came out this year, examines the ways in which encouraging and helping young people to articulate their experience of God--to "testify"--helps them in their spiritual development. As such, this is also is a wonderful contribution to the endeavor to awaken the church to the voices of its young people... and you should know about it.

3. Woo: Awakening Teenagers' Desire to Follow in the Way of Jesus by Morgan Schmidt
Morgan Schmidt is truly one of the up-and-coming thinkers in Youth Ministry and her book Woo showcases this fact. Woo reads like a manifesto on Youth Ministry and, to me, represents a new standard for what beginners in the practice of Youth Ministry ought to be thinking about. It's sorta like 'Kenda Dean light' meets 'Andy Root light,' and in no way do I mean that pejoratively. She holds the same high regard for the voices of young people and their potential to change the church that Dean holds while she also shows us how to 'place-share' the way Root wants us to, with those young people who don't feel like they have a voice... but Schmidt goes down a lot more smoothly for the novice reader. There's something in here for every youth worker, and you should have heard of it by now.

2. Toward a Prophetic Youth Ministry by Fernando Arzola Jr.
Toward a Prophetic Youth Ministry was perhaps the first book that encouraged me to believe that Youth Ministry could be theological. The book prescribes a paradigm shift away from "traditional youth ministry," away from "liberal youth ministry," away from "activist" youth ministry, and toward "prophetic" youth ministry. It's a call toward a holistic ministry, grounded in a holistic theological anthropology, which starts from the ministry of Christ rather than from any narrow agenda. This book has been around a while now... and you should know about it.

1. Amplifying Our Witness: Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities by Benjamin T. Conner
I hope you have heard of this one. This is one of my new favorite Youth Ministry books! And It's got to be my new favorite "missional theology" book too! Drawing from the best minds in practical theology and missional theology (including Richard Osmer, Andrew Root, John Swinton, and Darrell Guder), Ben Conner takes a huge step toward the construction of a theological rationale that can actually include those who are not subject to "development" or to the "normal" expectations which adults often have for young people. By grounding his approach in disability, Conner avoids the pitfalls of normative anthropologies that reduce humanity and personhood to a set of "capacities" and "roles." Thus, Conner points the way forward for Youth Ministry as ministry and not just as "development" and "religious socialization." This is a good book and you should have read it by now.

Don't get me wrong. Just because I'm endorsing these books here doesn't mean that each of them don't have their own problems (and some have more than others). I just think these books have within them the beginnings of some conversations we should be having in Youth Ministry... and it'd be a shame for us to miss out on those conversations.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What's Matuirty Got To Do With It?

I sometimes wonder how old I'll have to be for people to stop telling me, "wait 'til you're older and you'll think differently." I've received this prophesy from people over a myriad of topics--politics, theology, education, nationalism, etc.--and I cannot recall one wherein the prophesy actually came true. I still think violence is wrong, being gay is ok, and being happy is more important than making money. And being a father, being a little older than I was (30 this year), and perhaps not a little wiser, I have certainly changed but not in the way people seemed to have expected. "Wait 'til you're older and you'll think differently" is really just code for, "you disagree with me now because you're young, and I'm smarter cause I'm older, so when you get older you'll agree with me too." And as far as I can tell, it's usually the mistaken assumption of someone who believes their nostalgic experience of being young makes them a cultural insider of youth and that the only real separation is chronological progress. It's a mistake implicit in using maturity as a qualitative term. 

You've heard people say it. 


It's used as a way of saying that someone is not handling themselves or a particular situation appropriately. "OH, VERY MATURE!" is the sarcastic battle cry of relational superiority. According to common usage, growing up and being more mature means being courteous, being fair, caring about other people's feelings, taking courage, being independent, and taking action, among other things. The way we conceptualize it, maturity is inherently positive and preferable to immaturity. "Mature" is an adjective that's synonymous with "better." We associate maturity with a whole myriad of things we want society to have, but are any of these things actually necessarily products of maturity? Could we leave maturity out of it and still talk about being good and kind and intelligent and appropriate? What's maturity got to do with it?! 

Maturity is associated with age. Being older correlates with maturity. Maturity is associated with adulthood. This is explicit when we accuse someone of "acting like a child." I can't think of a time that I've head that offered as a compliment. It's really no different that saying, "you throw like a girl." It implies that throwing like a boy is better. Saying that someone is acting like a child when they're behaving poorly implies that being an adult is better, that being a child is qualitatively inferior to being an adult. Childhood is, fundamentally, just a stop along the way to adulthood. We have nothing to learn from it, it doesn't challenge adulthood, it just needs to be overcome. 

But this is simply unethical. It's unjust. It is marginalization. Some people used to think that men were superior to women. Some people used to think that white people were better than black people. Some people actually used to think that the wealthy were better than the poor. Of course I'm being tongue-in-cheek here... I'm fully aware that we have't overcome these hegemonic inequalities yet. But for the same reason that we consider these things to be unjust and immoral, it is unjust and immoral for adults to presuppose their own superiority over children. If you think I'm going too far in saying this, at least consider the analogy. This is why we should stop using "maturity" as though it has intrinsic value.

I go back and forth, though.

What if we had a definition of social maturity (and spiritual maturity) that transcended chronological maturity? What if we could imagine a maturity that is indigenous not only to adulthood but to childhood as well? We'd definitely still have to stop using maturity and "growing up" as synonyms. But perhaps we could still use the term! 


Maybe it's just better that we stop assuming that maturity is inherently good. Maybe we should stop using mature and immature as value judgements and consider what it would mean to be a-mature. What if we dispensed with the value judgements and talked about the actual content of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as distinct social practices with distinct qualities and values? What if adults actually considered what we could learn from children while we considered what they can learn from us? What if we shared the responsibility for being human and dispensed with the superiority implied in our use of the term maturity? What if we could actually imagine saying, "you're acting like a child," and meaning it as a compliment?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Is "Maturity" A Useful Category?

This has been a busy summer for me!

Just to fill you in, I've been working three jobs: a job at the mailroom at Princeton Seminary, at the Princeton Institute for Youth Ministry, and for Hopewell Presbyterian Church (I'm sorta their "Summer Pastor," doing pastoral care and preaching for the Summer while their Pastor is on sabbatical). I'm also doing some writing... not on the blog, obviously... My good friend, Dr. Erin Raffety, and I have been writing an article on Youth Ministry and Ethnography (fun stuff!!!). And on top of all that, I'm trying to study for the GRE (a test I have to take in order to apply for PhD programs, ugh.)... Oh, I am also husband and a father of a high-energy toddler...

Yeah. It's been busy.

I hope that explains why I haven't been blogging as much lately.

But, if you're interested in what's been on my mind lately, I've been thinking about maturity (yes... still). I have been reading a lot on Childhood Studies, which essentially tries to deal with childhood in its own right, without reducing it to a stage on the way to adulthood and thus without presupposing the rubric of maturity in conceptualizing and interpreting the content of childhood. However, I am also reading Susan Neiman's book Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age which, so far, has me perplexed because of it's pejorative title (apparently "infantile" is bad and "growing up" is a choice). Neiman thinks our culture is immature and privileges immaturity and she really wants people to mature... which, at first glance, just looks like a fallacy. You can't just demand that one social group (childhood or adolescence) conform to another (adulthood) as though they are separated by nothing more than chronology. But she may, in fact, be on to something. If her notion of maturity turns out to be something that can be discovered in children and adults alike, then she may actually be breaking some ground. I've only read the first few pages... but she hints that someone's maturity may have less to do with cognitive capacities or social rituals than with depth and courage. She writes, "growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge..." (6). And while she may overemphasize agency as normative for personhood, she (ironically) describes "being a grown-up" as something that even children do: "Doing what you can to move your part of the world closer to the way that it should be, while never losing sight of the way that it is..." (8). Children, incidentally, are probably better at this than adults. And although the developmentalist narratives of 20th century psychology might implore us to believe otherwise, I think adolescents hold this balance pretty well within themselves. Of course, adults can do this too but they, perhaps no less often than children, miss the mark. Children might be more attune to how things really are than adults (they're certainly better at enjoying it), and if one is ignorant of the ways in which children act upon and shape their realities... well, they haven't been paying attention to the actual social content of childhood. So, by Neiman's definition of maturity, I might be able to learn more from my toddler than I can from many adults. This is an exciting notion of maturity! But is it maturity?

The question that's raised for me in all of this is, "what's the use of maturity?" If what we're after are certain qualities that are often associated with adulthood but are also indigenous to childhood and adolescence--qualities such as agency, courage, and morality--then why don't we just talk about those and leave maturity out of it? Why do we have to cast our cultural critiques in implicitly pejorative references to adolescence and childhood? Why bother with maturity if what we really want is for people to be good? Any child... indeed also any person who has disabilities which preclude them from the "normal" processes of maturation... can be courageous (indeed, they are almost certainly MORE courageous). Any child can act upon their reality to make it better and more harmonious (some call it playing). Any teenager can make empathic moral decisions. Why do we place these qualities on a scale of advancement, especially one that so often implies chronological advancement? Why grow-up, indeed?

I'm afraid that our notions of maturity only serve to obscure the actual content of human experience... and this is especially disconcerting to me as a practical theologian because I believe that God is part of that content. And if that's true, then what we're obscuring when we obscure people's experience is the God whom they are experiencing and thus the ways in which we can participate in God's action... we're obscuring ministry itself!

This is what's on my mind. Hopefully, I'll have more thoughts on this stuff (and thoughts on Neiman's book) in the next few weeks.

Friday, June 26, 2015

There is No Design

Today, the US Supreme Court made a decision to affirm what has always been true--that there is no crime in being gay. For me, this has been a day of celebration. For most of my friends on Facebook, either by virtue of the changing of the tide in the United States or by virtue of my more conservative friends "un-friending" me, this has been a day to proclaim support and express relief. But there is another side of the tracks of this occasion, to put it one way. There are those who are not celebrating, not feeling relief, not proclaiming support. There are those who are filled with fear, distress, and contempt. And this is a time when Christians, particularly those of a more fundamentalist or biblicist persuasion, begin their strange and paradoxical language of "love the sinner, hate the sin" and "I love gay people but I cannot support gay marriage." The rationale is historically complex and multi-layered (even if the claim is that it's one-dimensionally "biblical"), but one part that seems to consistently expose itself is the rationale of "design." "It is against God's design for marriage," they might say. This is the theological way of saying "it's unnatural." "Homosexuality is not God's design."

People talk about a "biblical design" but the fact is, the concept of "design" is theologically alien to the doctrine of creation. The metric of "design" is not indigenous to the Christian doctrine of creation or of the Imago Dei. God's creation of humankind is not just about drawing up plans and putting pieces together. It is about God's breathing life into dust, in loving creativity and ultimately in freedom. The doctrine of creation is about God's turning toward creation, the Imago Dei is about God's friendship with humanity. This precludes the mechanistic notion of "design." There is no "design" which determines or limits God's orientation toward humanity. God did not create a design, God created people... people are the "design"--male female, slave or free, Jew or Muslim, gay or straight, gender conforming or non-gender conforming--and God loves people. God's relation to humanity is primal, and God's relation to humanity is summed up in the phrase, "we are all one in Christ" (Gal. 3:28). This relationship does not follow a pattern like a design, for what is centralized is not an order of the relationship but the characters in it. And as it turns out, some of the characters happen to be gay. What's at stake here, which distinguishes this from conversations about morality, is the characters themselves, not simply their conduct.

A couple of days ago I heard Will Willimon (in the spirit of Karl Barth) say, "we don't have to devise means of turning toward God because God has turned toward us." This is the first move in all creation. Therefore, what makes us human is not a design to which we must conform, whether it be sexuality or even rationality (or notions of maturity). As John Swinton writes, "There is a necessary degree of uncertainty, openness and mystery inherent in all human understandings of God and humanity, which makes definitive propositions and comprehensive systems impossible" (From Bedlam to Shalom, 17). What makes us human is God's grace toward us in all our inadequacy. This grace is expressed in love. As Swinton puts it, "a person's humanity is defined and maintained by God's gracious movement towards them in love" (31). Humanity comes first because love comes first... whatever "designs" there are can only come second. Thus as the sabbath is for people not people for the sabbath (Mark 2:27), so is marriage for people not people for marriage. The characters precede the plot. If the characters are gay then marriage is for them. Dispense with notions of preceding design.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Moltmann at Princeton Seminary

A couple of days ago I had the rare privilege of hearing J├╝rgen Moltmann give a lecture at Princeton Seminary's annual Karl Barth Conference. Moltmann gave an impressive lecture on Barth's theology of election and predestination. In true Moltmann fashion, he offered not only a charitable and insightful reading of Barth but also added his own questions and proposals. At 89 years of age, Moltmann is still remarkably witty and incredibly sharp. No one has influenced my theology quite as thoroughly as Moltmann has and it was truly an honor to share space with him and actually (though briefly) meet him. He was kind enough to sign my copy of Theology of Hope. I thanked him for his lecture and for all that he has done. But I wonder if he knew how much I meant that.

Have a listen to his lecture:
Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Entrepreneurial Pastor

"In a society that overvalues progress, development, and personal achievement, the spiritual life becomes quite easily performance oriented: ‘On what level am I now, and how do I move to the next one?’…but it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit. Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves." -Henri Nouwen
Pastors in America have this innate temptation to think like entrepreneurs, like CEO's even. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, if entrepreneurship implies creativity and forward thinking, then it's gotta be a good thing! But when the entrepreneurial values of progress and achievement take hold of the Pastoral imagination, danger lurks. The pastor falls prey to all kinds of assumptions and expectations that should be alien to the practice of pastoral ministry. The concept of spiritual growth can be confused with spiritual achievement. The fruit of the Spirit can be choked by the weeds of self-fulfillment and successful advancement. The church's ministry can be replaced by the church's expediency in society. And the result is pressure... pressure on the Pastor... pressure on the congregation... pressure to do better, do more, be more faithful, grow, mature, and do all the other things a good business is supposed to do. This is the Western (the American!) thing to do!

This kind of entrepreneurial ambition is fine in some places, but it's not fine in the church... it's never unambiguously synonymous with good ministry, and it's never synonymous with healthy spirituality. Spirituality and human ambition fall on opposing sides of a spectrum. Spirituality, I would say, is a continuous practice of returning to the futility of human ambition and the supremacy of divine action. If there is a spiritual version of ambition, it is only the ambition of discovering Christ in us, ourselves in Christ, and discovering Christ in the wounds of the crucified God. As Jurgen Moltmann has said, "prayer is not an athletic sport..." (this was said in the question and response period following his lecture at the Princeton Karl Barth Conference in Miller Chapel just last night).

Ministry is about God's action (ministry, after all, is not ours but God's). God's action is about relationship. And relationship, as it concerns God insofar as we can discern from Jesus' words, is about friendship. We are made friends of God in Jesus Christ (even as we remain God's enemies in so many ways). So if we can apply the principles of entrepreneurship and ambition to ministry, we can only do so to the extent than we can apply it to friendship. But while entrepreneurship implies a concern for strategy and strategy is birthed in anxiety (and I do not mean this pejoratively) over our place in the system, our success in maintaining our relevance or influence, friendship necessarily precludes this anxiety. Friendship does not fret over its place. It's temperature does not need always be taken. It is a sign, in fact, of trouble in our friendships when we are concerned with the status of them. We can be entrepreneurial in many things, but we cannot be in our friendships... so we cannot be in ministry. We can be creative, yes. We can be purposeful. We can even take up a strategy (if we're careful). But we cannot centralize our concern for success or status. We cannot shape our ministry around the desire for an outcome (read: profit). We must not be so concerned to do things for God. We must, instead, be concerned with God--the God who is love and loves us. We must centralize our own weakness and need for God, our friend. It is not upward mobility that marks ministry and spirituality, but downward mobility. It is not by the metric of a successful business that ministry is measured but by the servanthood that returns no profit, even the washing of feet.

Entrepreneurship implies a desired outcome--call it influence, development, "transformation," or whatever. Ministry is its own outcome. Friendship is its own outcome. For it is in friendship that God encounters us... and ministry is all about God's encounter with us.