Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Good News of Church Decline

I've been gathering a little data for a group with which I'm working, to see if we can't get a bird's-eye view of the state of the church in the United States. Yesterday, I put together a few charts to try to show the general decline or growth of various denominations over the years. Taking data from The Association of Religion Data Archives and other places, I put together a list of denominations in the U.S. and tried to compare their growth and decline since the 1980's (pretty much since I was born). I left out some denominations whose overall membership were so small or so large that they threw off the scale (for example, I left the ELCA off, since their numbers were so much larger but their decline followed pretty much the same pattern as the ABC and the UCC). I was also pleased to discover that some denominations are actually growing--generally very small Evangelical denominations (such as the Evangelical Free Church) as well as the Unitarian Universalist denomination (which is, ironically, similar in size and following the same pattern as most conservative Evangelical denominations). The data can be found just by browsing the ARDA website, but here's what the charts look like when you just lay them out.

Of course, charts can be manipulated to make things look better or worse than they actually are. I did my best to keep things objective. And I don't know what your reaction is, what you might have expected, but I was actually less discouraged than I had expected to be. The mainline churches in America aren't falling into the pits at the rate that I might have expected. The UMC's decline looks the most drastic, but even it hasn't fallen below 7 million members nationwide. The data doesn't seem to support the perception that the church is going to die within the next ten years. The decline is relatively mild... indeed, some mainline denominations have even experienced growth spurts over the decades, and at least one has actually grown since 1980 (the AME denomination). Many smaller denominations are growing steadily, and I imagine that non-denominational churches are likely following similar patterns.

As a student at a Mainline (PCUSA) seminary, and as a Member In Discernment in a Mainline (UCC) denomination, I hear a lot about the decline of the church. The consensus seems to be that the church's future is bleak, if not totally hopeless. Going by the way some people talk about it, I had expected to see those lines on the graph pointing almost vertically down to the right. But the actual numbers just don't seem as hopeless as the rhetoric. I'm not saying that there's blue skies ahead. Not at all. I'm not promoting optimism. We need to take the present realities seriously and be realistic. But it's very realistic to consider the possibilities to which the future is open in the provisionality of the present. There certainly is a decline occurring in American church membership, and there's certainly a need for people to think creatively and theologically about what our response might be and what a solution might look like (assuming we agree that it's a problem that people aren't going to church... which I don't necessarily presume). But what I'm saying is that the decline need not create panic. Urgency is fine, but it's pointless to freak out just yet. It can be debated whether or not we have the appropriate funding to continue as we are, but in terms of membership, the church seems at least to be doing ok (and people are more important than funding).

So since we don't have to panic yet... since we're still going to have people in the pews this Sunday, let's stop and think about this Mainline decline phenomenon. Why is it happening? Is it really a problem? Will it stop? Why do churches on the left (the UU church, for example) and on the right (the PCA, for example) of us seem to be growing?

Let me suggest two responses to this phenomenon which may point to some answers to these questions.

1) The Church is not conventional anymore. Unfortunately, it's not because the church has awaken to the unconventionality of the gospel itself. It's not because we embody the radicality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The church should have never been conventional in the first place, had it really understood its own message. But the church is becoming less conventional because conventionality itself is becoming less conventional. Church used to be that thing you did when you were a kid and continued to do once you had your own kids. It used to be just one component of being a good American citizen. That's not the case anymore. The conventional lifestyle no longer assumes that "first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage." People wait longer to get married, they wait longer to have kids, and they find their identity in all different places, not just in family and church life. Church is no longer 'just something you do.' This is one reason why we might look at this Mainline decline more as an opportunity than as a threat. The church is now being stripped from its confusion with American identity. Going to church is no longer part of being a good American. This affords the church the opportunity to wholeheartedly agree with this perception, to say out loud that the gospel is not conventional and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to own the prophetic voice of critique and speak truth American power. We can be clear that the Kingdom of God is not America and that Christianity is not about what America is about. By being disconnected from convention, we can be the radical witnessing community of the reign of God which we are gathered and sent out to be. This divorce of the church from the American perception of conventionality may itself be a present (but provisional, of course) anticipation of God's reign in the world.

2) Our society is becoming more inclusive of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. This is a less directly
connected observation, so it requires a little more explanation. Why should the acceptance of LGBTQ people contribute to the decline of Mainline denominations (especially those that seem now to be coming around to the same position)? The connection between the discrimination that LGBTQ people have experienced in American history and the traditional position of the church on this is undeniable. Whether we like it or not, the traditional American presumption against the inclusion of these people is predominantly a religious one. When the church was pretty much part of what it meant to be a good American, Americans took their cues regarding sexuality from the church, and the church was still pretty sure that the Bible was against homosexuality. Now that we've moved away from the church as conventional, people no longer feel they need to take their cues from the church on this issue, so they're becoming more inclusive (how sad it is that leaving the church has made America more accepting!). But why haven't inclusive denominations (such as the UCC and the PCUSA) grown along with this change? Perhaps the answer is this: too little, too late. America found that is could be inclusive without the church, so the churches that identify themselves by their inclusiveness aren't really giving people a reason to show up on Sunday, even if they are giving people a reason to like them. They still aren't distinct from the conventionality that so many Americans are abandoning. Evangelical and Unitarian churches, however, are growing precisely because of their distinctiveness. Unitarian Universalists are distinct in that they represent a spirituality that is intuitively and essentially inclusive. Inclusivity of LGBTQ people (not to mention theological and spiritual diversity) in Mainline Christianity, as American Mainline church history seems to suggest, is somewhat counter-intuitive and external to the dogmatism that seems to sit closer to the center of its essential nature. Evangelicals (the conservative kind we're talking about) are distinct in that they seem to be "holding their ground" in opposing the inclusion of LGBTQ people and maintaining the simplicity of a biblicist dogmatism in which you can "know" the truth. I imagine that these conservative Evangelical denominations are picking up many of the crumbs from the Mainline table, enlisting many of those who aren't yet ready to embrace the complexity of diversity toward which culture and many Mainline churches are moving. Conservative Evangelicalism will be appealing to people who aren't moving along with the society on this issue. This is not to suggest that this is the only reason that Evangelical churches are growing, it's not as though they're just filling up with everyone who's too homophobic to accept a gay pastor, in fact, I imagine that there are a lot of more positive reasons, but it does demonstrate one possibility regarding the Mainline church's decline. Again, we can be encouraged by this. For we are afforded the opportunity to take a close look at ourselves, to learn from our own message, and to identify ourselves not by the inclusiveness which is, thank God, becoming more normative in our society, but, even better, by the distinctiveness of the gospel itself (which will challenge all those things which do not correspond to the gospel, including exclusivity). We can say with confidence that the inclusion of LGBTQ people is indeed an element of God's reign in the world, whether or not it contributes to the growth or decline of church attendance.

So all this is to suggest that we don't need to panic because the Mainline church is shrinking. In fact, we have reasons to be thankful that it is! We have reasons to affirm the good reasons that people are leaving the church and to claim those reasons, not as possessions of the church or grounds in themselves for people to go back (although some of that might be in there), but as elements and aspects of the Kingdom to which the church is only a witness. By looking soberly upon the declining church, we are reminded to hope not for the future of the church but to hope instead in Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Our future, whether we grow or not, is God's future (hint: it includes the salvation of the world and God's becoming "all in all")... and it is to that future that we are ultimately called to be faithful.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Who is Youth Ministry For?

Youth ministry isn't always rainbows and butterflies. Anyone who's actually worked in youth ministry for more than five minutes could tell you that. When I was a Youth Director in Ramona, I faced a lot of discouraging situations. That's gonna happen even (especially!) when you're doing it well. But we can also get discouraged for the wrong reasons.

I helped coordinate a network of youth workers in Ramona when I was there. We gathered once a month to support one another, share resources, and maybe even partner in ministry together sometimes (this was always optional because we wanted to remain open to diversity and not everybody's ready to do ministry together, but we still ended up doing it a lot). As a result of this networking, I had several opportunities to come and speak or lead conversations with kids from other church youth groups. For whatever reason, it seemed like all the kids from every other church were more spiritually healthy than the kids from my church... or perhaps I should say, they were more religiously formed or socialized in their behaviors. They knew the Bible better than my kids. They could pray out loud more articulately than my kids. Every group had leaders in it who wanted to evangelize to their friends. Sure, more often than not, their theology was terrible (read: super conservative) but at least they knew who I was talking about when I talked about Paul or even Jeremiah. My group was basically apathetic when it came to the Bible, they didn't want or know how to pray out loud (in fact, they were terrified by it), and they thought sharing their faith with their friends was just some obnoxious thing their Calvary Chapel friends tried to do (I may have agreed with them on at least one level). In short, everyone else's kids just had higher potential than mine. Theirs were spiritual superstars, mine were Sunday School dropouts. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong!

(Of course, this was just my perception. In reality, I had some incredibly talented and passionate kids with a deep Christian identity and spiritual passion. And of course there were kids in other groups who were just as "delinquent" as some of the kids in mine. But you always exaggerate things when you're comparing yourself to others)  

Because I thought that I was supposed to tap into the potential of my students to form them into some version of myself, or some version of what I thought it should look like to be a good Christian. I thought that I should be able to measure the success (or failure) of my ministry based on how well my kids behaved, how quickly they could cite Bible passages, and how great their prayers sounded. So obviously, I felt like I was failing in ministry. So I tried to focus and build my ministry around those few kids who seemed like they had the potential to be leaders, to be the spiritual superstars of the other youth groups in town. Implicitly, I was beginning to create a youth ministry that was for that kid who had the right stuff, the stuff I could preserve and expand into the future.

This is what so many Youth Pastors build their youth ministries into. This, in fact, is what so many Senior Pastors build their churches into--ministries for the 'most likely to succeed.' But what happens to the least likely to succeed? What about the people who just aren't going to be the walking Bible concordance or the people who aren't ever going to feel comfortable or interested in voicing their prayers out loud? What about the people who, according to our standard, just don't have potential? Aren't our ministries for them too, if not especially for them?! There's at least some Biblical foundation for thinking that it is--think of Matthew 25 or the Beatitudes. It says "blessed are the poor in spirit" not "blessed are those who've got the potential to be rich in spirit."

There was a turning point in my ministry. This was about the time in my ministry when I started reading Andrew Root and Kenda Dean. And this was when I first heard Bart Campolo speak at a conference at a camp in Southern California. I don't feel the need to describe the specifics of these contributions to my formation as a minister, but suffice to say, I was opened to the possibility that my ministry wasn't about tapping into potential, but loving and serving those who don't seem to have any potential, and trusting God to do the work of formation. My job isn't influence or formation, that's God's job. My job is to love. My ministry is not for the most likely to succeed. My ministry is for the least of these. And the invitation which we have all received according to the raising of Jesus from the dead is to identify ourselves with the crucified Jesus, to minister to the least of these and to find ourselves as the least of these. We're free to judge our success or failure according to whether we loved and served, not just according to how well we formed, the kids in our ministries.

Here's the deeper theological rationale for this [bear with me for this next paragraph]. There is a deeply eschatological orientation to this perspective. The first shall be last, the last shall be first. Everything in the present is subject to death. But the resurrection of Jesus allows us to see that death does not have the final word even for those things which are subject to death. The final word--that future word which says, "God will be all in all"--has been spoken now in the resurrection of Jesus, the first fruits of the world's redemption now present among us as the anticipation and promise of the coming of God. The word of promise has been spoken on the cross for the one who hangs there is one who has resurrection as his future. God, in Jesus, is made subject to suffering and death, joining us in our present experience and thus bringing us into God's resurrection. Because our experience is God's experience, God's future (which has already occurred in the raising of Jesus, occurs provisionally in those actions and revelations which correspond to that resurrection, and is coming to this world in the coming of God when God will be all in all) is our future. That means that the future is not the prolongation of the present, the preservation of the good parts of now, or the expansion of the potential that the present holds to become the future. The present is not the thing we need to form into the future, but the present gets its meaning from the future, from God action, from the resurrection, from the new creation and the world's redemption. This allows us to see the present on its own terms, not just for the potential it holds. The resurrection of Jesus, which is present now according to promise, was not the resurrection of those parts of Jesus which were not subject to death. It is the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, the dead Jesus, so it is death which is healed, the future is the resurrection of the dead world, the world which has no potential. The meaning of the present comes from the future, not from its movement into the future. Seeing the future as the truth about the present rather than seeing the present as the thing we'll bring into the future, subtle and semantic as that shift may sound, actually allows us to look for life in the present not just in the parts that don't seem subject to death. It allows us to hope also for and proclaim hope to those places which don't seem to have potential--places like Golgatha and the cross. In the division and contradiction of life and death, in Jesus Christ, the crucified God of the resurrection stands. How much of our ministry simply becomes the preservation and expansion of the 'good parts' of the present rather than witness and insistence upon the radical interruption of God's future into the darkness of the present? Ironically, the ontological prioritization of the present (looking at the present as the thing which gives meaning to the future) perpetuates the division of darkness from light, hope from hopelessness--leaving the crucified on their crosses--rather than identifying hope with hopelessness through the identity of Jesus in the total contradiction of the cross and resurrection made possible in the ontological prioritization of the future over the present.

All this is to say, with some theological precision (though I don't claim too much of that), our hope is in Jesus Christ and his resurrection. It is a hope which exists not only among the most likely to succeed but even (if not especially!) among those in whom we see little potential, little enthusiasm for the gospel. Indeed the resurrection of the crucified Jesus claims the "potential" (with nuanced definition) and the present dignity of those kids who don't want to pray out loud and aren't ever (ever!) going to bring their bible to school or witness to their friends. All this is to say, our ministry is for and with the doubters and the skeptics, the weary and heavy laden, the least of these, and the poor of spirit. We're invited to look for the presence (and action) of God in the pain, doubt, apathy, ignorance, and whatever else frustrates most Youth Pastors of those least likely to succeed. We're invited to join in what God is doing, simply by being with and loving those kids who aren't going to be the Christian club president on their campus. And we're free from having to interpret ourselves as failures if we can't single handedly coerce the present to become the future. You know the kids who don't fit the modern myth of potential, those kids who don't like to pray out loud or witness to their friends. Youth ministry is for them too.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Quick Review of 'Liquid Church' by Pete Ward

This is a good book! Pete Ward gives a thoughtful and imaginative image of a flexible, missional, and relational identity for the church. Centralizing relationships, "fellowship," and encounter, Ward takes "congregation," church buildings, and worship services out of the center of church life and identity. Instead of identifying church with what happens in the four walls of the church building on Sunday morning, Ward identifies church with "informal relationships." As he writes in the introduction, "...the first move in imagining a liquid church is to take the informal fellowship, in which we experience Christ as we share with other Christians, and say this is church" (2). This seems to be the right move. Centralizing the person-to-person encounter over against the church program or worship service (and especially putting the latter in the service of the former instead of the other way around) is not only an appropriate contextual move, given the consumer culture of the US and the UK, but it is a throughly biblical and theological turn. Ward shows this by weaving together interpretive sociological examination of his context with normative theological claims. Ward attests to the missional shape of ecclesiology, orienting relationships towards participation in the mission of God.

This book, however, is not without its problems. It warrants all the appropriate cautions of missional theology and, most significantly, in its pragmatic applications, Liquid Church has perhaps too optimistic a view toward the culture at large, particularly consumer culture. Responding to the church's knee-jerk reaction against consumerism, I believe Ward is too quick to baptize consumerism and social media without giving significant attention to the pitfalls of these cultural phenomena. Although the pragmatic applications of Liquid Church raise questions, there is a critical apparatus built into Ward's normative move that allows us to accept the book's overall direction even with proper caution.

Again, this is a good book. Wonderfully practical and refreshingly theological.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Of Wrath and Love: a review of 'Theology of the Pain of God' by Kazoh Kitamori

Theology of the Pain of God by Kazoh Kitamori should certainly be appreciated for its place in history, as a precursor of sorts to later and better formulations of the theology of the cross (I think, in particular, of Eberhard Jungel's God as Mystery of the World, Jurgen Moltmann's The Crucified God, and Douglas John Hall's The Cross in Our Context), and for its particularity as a Japanese contribution to the conversation (even if Kitamori "remained outside of Japanese theological circles"). But despite the gratitude with which it should be received, it seems to me that it should also be received with some suspicion. I am open to the possibility that I may have contextual and hermeneutical differences with Kitamori which make it difficult for me to fully embrace his project but I should still name two specific issues that I must take with Theology of the Pain of God.

First, while I agree with Kitamori's assessment that "everything hinges on the cross... the essence of God can be comprehended only from the 'word of the cross'"(47), I believe that he fails to make the resurrection of the crucified Jesus explicit from this axiom. Indeed, "the cross is in no sense an external act of God, but an act within [God]self"(45), but in what sense does the resurrection help us interpret this act of God and the pain of God on the cross? If the ontological priority is given to the past and the present, then the experience of Christ's future as normative is either rejected or obscured. In other words, while Kitamori rightly sees the cross as God's taking of death into God's very self, God's "eternal essence," the taking of death into God's self in Theology of the Pain of God is never explicitly for the "sake of life" (as Jungel would clarify). Something is left to be desired in Kitamori's eschatology in this regard. It is not Moltmann's eschatology of the resurrection whereby God identifies Godself with the crucified Jesus. It is rather, an eschatology "fused with this pain" (144). We are not, by the resurrection and the ontological priority of the future, put at odds with the injustice of the cross in the present (as we are in Moltmann). Instead we are ourselves to find joy in the pain, "pain must be our function" (64), and thus, it seems to me, pain itself is sacralized. This is problematic.

The second issue is related to the first and is, perhaps, more fundamentally problematic. Kitamori is preoccupied with human guilt and God's wrath, preoccupied with seeing Christ's death on the cross as the execution of God's wrath exacted upon Jesus on the cross. Under the spell of this guilt theology, Kitamori operates on the axiom of divine wrath and divine love. The pain of the cross is the pain of God's wrath and God's love finding themselves together in Jesus. "God who must sentence sinners to death fought with God who wishes to love them. The fact that this fighting God is not two different gods but the same God causes his pain" (21). It's unfortunate that it is here that Kitamori places the dilemma and root of God's pain, for it presupposes a notion of divine justice which demands wrath from God as a necessity. Not only this, but it obscures the more real and potent pain of a man crucified at the hands of human religious and judicial powers and God's identification with him. God, for some reason, must be the cause of Jesus' death in Kitamori. It is God who executes Jesus (again, sacralizing and also justifying the torture and execution of Jesus). "The God of the gospel causes his Son to die and suffers pain in that act" (47). I consider that bad parenting. I do not find it necessary or helpful to see God as the cause of the death of Jesus, at least not in this strong sense. Rather, God, in Jesus, opened Godself so fully in love for creation that God gave to creation, humankind in particular, all that it needed to destroy its creator. This is the vulnerability of love. The father experiences the death of Jesus, not as its cause, but as the victim, the one who must endure the death of a child. That is the way in which God fights with God on Golgatha--as one experiencing death and one experiencing dying. Here, I am inclined to think that Dorothee Soelle's famous criticism of The Crucified God in her book Leiden--that it was a theology of a "sadistic God" who kills his own son--albeit a misinterpretation of Moltmann, is actually accurately applied to parts of Kitamori. Obedience to Kitamori's God, and the joy he describes in this obedience, sounds tragically similar to the loyalty of the abused to their abuser.

All this criticism does not negate my aforementioned appreciation for this book. Again, I am grateful for it and cannot speak more highly of certain elements of its expression of the theology of the cross and rejection of the "theology of glory." But with such a preoccupation with divine wrath and human guilt, and without explicitly holding resurrection as the other side of crucifixion, it is certainly a good thing that later theologians offered fuller articulations of the theology of the cross.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Is Youth Ministry Pastoral Care?

Yesterday I noticed the UCC shared on their Facebook a link to a Red Letter Christians article titled, "Should Churches Hire Youth Pastors?" by Tony Campolo. One friend of mine commented that the the post was mostly just "click bait"--with little substance but a provocative title. And apparently I took the bait. Given the fact that I will likely be looking for youth ministry jobs in the not-too-distant future, of course the title caught my attention (plus, I was interested because the UCC was posting something about youth ministry). But I thought the article was a lot more than just click bait.

Of course Campolo knows and understands the importance of youth ministry. I'm sure he'd have no problem encouraging churches to invest in their youth ministries and hire youth pastors (how many years has he been a guest speaker at Youth Specialties?). But he's right to raise the question, if we're gonna hire pastors for a specific age group, why not hire pastors to care for the people that make up such a large portion of the congregation? Does not the pastoral care of the elderly constitute a hired staff position as much or more than pastoral care for kids? But there's the real question... and the real reason I'm interested in this article... do we actually even associate youth ministry with pastoral care?

By comparing the need for pastoral care for the elderly with the pastoral care for teenagers, Campolo (consciously or not) forces us to think of youth ministry primarily as pastoral care. This chafes, I believe, for many youth workers and pastors who prioritize youth ministry in churches. I think many who took the bait and clicked on this article (like I did) probably had the knee-jerk reaction of, "well, we need to reach the next generation to keep the church alive...." or, "if old people are already going to church, that's exactly why we need youth pastors!" These are not bad reactions. But what's the fundamental presupposition behind them? Why prioritize youth ministry over care for the elderly? Is it about pastoral care or growing the church? Or, to put it more pointedly... do we care more about self preservation than meeting the spiritual needs of the people in our congregations?

Youth ministry is still quite steeped in its history as a "technology" for the church (Andrew Root has used this terminology). We employ youth ministry to help solve the church's problems. The church is dying, so we revive it by getting more kids to come (and we get more kids to come by making it flashy and "relevant"). Young adults are leaving the church, so we turn to youth ministry to solve the problem. So youth ministry becomes more about growth and behavior than it does about actually engaging in the lives of the kids who are there. It becomes more about evangelism for the sake of preservation than sharing in the lives of young people as the location of divine and human encounter. With youth ministry as a technology (i.e., "if old people are already going to church, that's exactly why we need youth pastors"), pastoral care takes a back-seat to "reaching the next generation" and "keeping the church alive."

Of course I think we need to hire youth pastors in churches! I might run into some problems in the future if we stopped hiring youth pastors. But I think that youth ministry needs to learn something from its' parent discipline, pastoral care. As my teacher, Dr. Kenda Dean has said, youth ministry is still ministry. We need youth ministries that prioritize not just reaching the next generation or advancing kids to the next level of spiritual growth, but truly caring for the kids inside their walls--wherever they are on life's journey, with all their doubts and frustrations, even when they're not going to convert or "grow" spiritually. The pastoral care of youth, however few or many there may be, needs to get back in the front seat of youth ministry.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Swinging From The Chandelier: On Regret in Youth Ministry

In the church, alcoholism (in its various forms) is usually somewhat coldly approached as primarily a moral issue, especially when it exists among teenagers. Too often our ministry to young people is dominated by a kind of moralistic fear. Christianity is made into a moral code (including the reading of scripture as a moral virtue), and youth ministry becomes about making sure kids behave morally (though, instead, we use the word "Biblically" or "Christ-like").  In our preaching to youth and in our communication to adults as well, we use partying and alcoholism as typologies for sinful living. The person who drinks too much is synonymous with someone who's life is a mess. And while it's true that alcoholism does make one's life into a mess, by framing it the way we do, the guilt of the alcoholic individual is solely emphasized. But what if, instead of criminalizing alcohol and partying by focusing our vision on guilt, we considered the deeper, more ontological, issue of shame--the issue of the person desperately trying to hold their identity together?

I'm not usually one to get obsessed with pop-music, and it might just be because my family is out of town and I have too much time on my hands, but lately I've been addicted to Sia. My wife, Amanda, introduced me to her music pretty recently and I wasn't that interested at first. But lately, I find myself clicking from one youtube video to another, captivated by her music and her voice. Her video of "Chandelier" has been wildly popular, featuring 11 year-old Maddie Ziegler of Dance Moms. I'm not sure how much thought most people are putting into the song and the video--many, I'm sure, hear it as just another pop-song about partying--but with its serious (even dark) tone, it's far deeper than just a cool video with impressive choreography. The relevance to youth ministry should be unmistakable, not only because of the subject and content of the lyrics but also because of the implications of an innocent 11 year-old dancing to it. This is not someone on whom we would be compelled to pass moral judgement, and yet here she is, swinging from the chandelier, as it were.

I'm surely not qualified to analyze this video too technically, but I do think we have a lot to gain from thinking about it. There's a tragic sense to it, even in the facial expressions of Ziegler. There's this sense of pain and shame that bubbles beneath the surface of each smile, each stare. There's vacillation between joviality, innocence, and desperation. The choreography is a blend of beauty, sadness, and silliness. And the lyrics match these sentiments. It's worth mentioning, too, that when Sia performs this song live, she hides on stage, her face invisible to the audience (either hiding in the corner or face down on a bed while someone dances in the foreground). Not only does this shift the focus away from her as Sia and onto the child or the drama under the spotlight, but it points to the detachment of the performer from her audience, the detachment of the person from community. Through all of this, she highlights the problems of alcoholism, but quite differently than we normally do in youth ministry--centering not on guilt (indeed, decidedly not on guilt) but on shame--not morally but, in a sense, ontologically. The issue is alcoholism, but the issue really isn't alcoholism. The issue is shame, the depletion of self, and the refusal to regret.

In my own experience in ministering to kids in the church, I've noticed a propensity to detachment from regret, a detachment from community, a suppression of deep feelings of shame. I can remember specific times, in discussing with kids some of the less positive choices they've made,  when talking about forgiveness of guilt just didn't seem to be the right antidote because they didn't really feel guilty.  In fact, while they could admit that their decisions may have been poor, they refused to really deal with them at all as burdens. "I did what I did. Mistakes are how you learn in life. So I don't regret it. YOLO." It was another way of saying, "I don't want to deal with regrets, I don't want to bear the burden, so I'm just not going to regret." And thus, they disconnect themselves from the people with whom they should be in community, dealing with problems and bearing one another's burdens. They turn, instead, to more and more mechanisms of detachment, suppression, and isolation (i.e. the party scene or narcotics or maybe even online gaming).

In the second phase of a longitudinal study of youth and religion, researchers encountered this refusal to regret and the subsequent disconnect from any depth of community. In his forthcoming book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, Andrew Root mentions this. Taking cues from Christian Smith, he writes,
[Young people] told many stories to the interviewers, tales of incidents and episodes that led to brokenness, pain, and devastation. But as Smith says, they refused to say they regret these happenings...It seems this generation, for cultural reasons, has chosen to regret nothing, saying things like, 'yeah, I got pregnant, had an abortion, became addicted to alcohol, and lost a job before moving in with a guy that was totally bad for me, and all this hurt my relationship with my mom. But honestly, I don't regret it; it's just what it is.' This very mentality shows that there are significant events to regret but that the young person has chosen not to. But choosing not to...takes her farther and farther from community (207-208). 
Perhaps the "cultural reasons" to which Root refers are precisely the dominant insistence upon treating these things all primarily as moral issues, thus piling guilt on top of shame. In order to avoid the guilt, they suppress the shame.  Sia--not only in her intentionally and beautifully crafted choreography in the video but also in her live performances of the song, facing away from her audience--testifies to both the shame and the subsequent disconnect that happens in the suppression of shame. In churches we perpetuate the refusal to regret when we oppose all sin as immorality and when we elevate superstar spirituality over brutal honesty. We create spaces in which bearing one another's burdens is actually counterintuitive, where moral perfection and conquest of sin is the goal. Instead we increase burden by communicating that, in fact, they should have no regrets because regrets morally wrong.

What I think we in youth ministry can learn from Sia and, more importantly, from kids themselves, is that the issue with alcoholism and things like it is not so much the alcoholism itself. It is not, at least in this context, to be treated as a static moral choice. Rather, the real issue is shame... more importantly, the suppression of shame. Perhaps, above all, what we need from our youth ministries is not new mechanisms to keep kids sober and well behaved. Perhaps, instead, we need our youth ministries to become safe places for kids to regret with one another, to share their regrets and to bear one another's burdens. What we need is for youth ministries to be communities of confession (not just sharing lists of the bad things we don't regret, but actually confessing them as regrets), where shame is real and grace (not just forgiveness) is proclaimed, where we are accepted and affirmed even in all our weakness. All in all, we need youth ministries to be communities--real communities where honesty is valued above any ideal of good behavior or moral purity--where young people are invited out from the corner and into the foreground.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Collection's "Ars Moriendi"

I don't write about music very often. I'm certainly not qualified to be a music critic. But every once in a while an album or an artist comes along and I can't help but say something. I've written about The Collection at least once before (here). Ever since their music was first introduced to me, I've been captivated by it and intrigued by the complex blend of theological depth and sheer honesty in their lyrics. Their newest album, Ars Moriendi ("The Art of Dying), is an sustained reflection on death and is as deep and captivating as ever.

From their Kickstarter page:
Why do we die? What happens to us when we die? Why do we have life? How do we make the most of the time we have? None of those are new questions, but they have been recently and frequently brought up in our minds. At the same time, we see ways that, in our world, things get reborn and re-used for new and beautiful purposes. A tree cut down can be a violin making beautiful music. Spent fruit becomes fertilizer for more living things. Nothing stays dead; it all resurrects! Through the tough wrestling of death, we've started to see ways that new life has sprung.
Having recently read Jürgen Moltmann's reflections on death and dying, I have a fresh appreciation for the ethos of this album. Moltmann writes,
…Christian hope is the power of resurrection from life’s failures and defeats. It is the power for the new beginning at the point where guilt has made life impossible… Through his divine raising from the dead, Christ’s hope-less end became his true beginning. If we remember that, we shall not give ourselves up, but shall expect that in every end a new beginning lies hidden (In The End—The Beginning, ix). 
Christian hope, in other words, doesn’t avoid or deny the reality of death and the impossibility of the present, but it does look toward resurrection. It takes death quite seriously for what it is, even accepting it as an end, but in the midst of death it sees God’s identification with the crucified Jesus in his resurrection, it sees the presence and promise of the God of resurrection, and thus sees in every end, a beginning. Hope, properly understood, does not demand of us an ascent from hopelessness but itself descends with a word of promise into the reality of death and hopelessness. It promises resurrection. With hope dripping from every note, Ars Moriendi descends with a word of promise. 

In their reflections on death, The Collection's lyrics are not without their political overtones. They press against the impulses of any kind of hope which intends on avoiding or denying death. The kind of hope which justifies the perpetuation of power through violence, for example, a hope which wields death in order to avoid death is rejected. In The song "Garden," for example, they sing, "So I shot a man in Afghanistan... he said his name was Jesus and he never had an army. As he took his dying breath, the last thing that he thought he’d tell me is 'Its better to die for nothing than to kill just for your country.'”

The themes of the album point to the theology of the cross and not without the appropriate and ironic sense of hope. We're asked to look in the unexpected places, the dark and dirty places to find the presence of God. One pointed lyric says, "You walked around and you planted seeds, your kingdom came up from among the weeds and the men all cried while staring at the trees saying, 'what are we supposed to see?'" The whole album carries in it a somewhat ironic but altogether appropriate tone of hopefulness, even in naming and reflecting on death. A lyric which may, in a sense, capture the ethos of the album says, "And the weight of the world does not rest on your shoulders. No, it strains and it bends on the same arms that hope sends.  So don’t carry it now! Lower it down! When faith dies and hope flies, then love must prevail or else this all means nothing."

Ars Moriendi is a beautiful album, musically as well as theologically. 

A Review of "Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker" by Andrew Root was recently able to read Andrew Root's forthcoming book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (coming out this October)In this book, Andrew Root--a pioneering theologian of youth ministry--once again takes a courageous step by offering a book that will appeal both to youth workers and to theologians (particularly, in this case, Bonhoeffer scholars). For the Bonhoeffer scholar, he offers Bonhoeffer's ministry to young people as a hermeneutical lens for interpreting his life and work. Conscious of the "Bonhoeffer phenomenon"--in which everybody tries to claim Bonhoeffer as their own (as the ultimate evangelical or the ultimate political radical, or the ultimate liberal) by zeroing in on one aspect of his thought or experience of his life--Root looks to present Bonhoeffer's youth ministry as a consistent lens for understanding his development of thought. Bonhoeffer's theology didn't develop out of the ether, but emerged from his relationships and from his engagement in the concrete lived experience of the young people to whom he ministered throughout his life. Bonhoeffer scholars who read this book will see Bonhoeffer in a new light. Reading him as a youth worker allows for a fresh perspective on the great German theologian which gives potential to new contextual interpretations of his theology.

To youth workers, Root offers Bonhoeffer as the "forefather" of the "theological turn in youth ministry." Identifying the theological turn specifically as ministry which "seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God," Root shows how Bonhoeffer pioneered this turn in his own youth ministry and, in so doing, Root offers Bonhoeffer to youth workers as a great teacher, their forefather. Youth workers who read this book will find in the life of Bonhoeffer examples of relational youth ministry that will enhance and challenge contemporary youth ministry strategies. The final two chapters of the book will be of significant importance (in fact, they could be read on their own) for youth workers as Root walks through the implications that Bonhoeffer's two most popular works have for the practice of youth ministry. He will challenge the ways we typically think of discipleship and community and challenge us to new ways of ministering to the young people in our churches.

Andrew Root says in his introduction that "this books comes out of great joy." This was not, first and foremost, a book written out of necessity, but a book that Root simply wanted to write. On each page, Root's joy in the project comes forth and it's truly a blessing to the reader who shares in this joy. The book is just seeping with insight and it's truly a pleasure to read.

You can preorder your copy of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker now and get it as soon as it comes out in October.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Feed Truck?

Innovation and creativity are not highly valued in every church setting. Many will pay lip service to such things, but most churches are quite comfortable in conventionality. They might have some interest in painting the walls a different color, but the structure is altogether fine. Now, I am, in fact, fairly comfortable with convention and I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with that. I'm totally fine with a church that just wants to worship God together and participate in God's ministry, and if that doesn't involve "thinking outside the box" so much, then so be it. You can be creative in ministry without being "original," as it were. But the church needs expressions of ministry that don't fit the norm of conventional church structures. The church needs people who are willing to do crazy things and really think outside the box. The church, especially now, needs innovative people to do innovative things.

Well, the church of which I'm currently a part is doing some interesting things in terms of its mission/ministry to the community. I'm sure it's not the first church to take up something like this, but given the fact that it's a fairly traditional United Methodist Church in New Jersey, I think starting a Food Truck is a little outside the box. They're not just starting a Food Truck as a way to covertly evangelize the community. They're doing it, I think, in order to be a witness of ethical business, ecological responsibility, and healthy social engagement. Check out the website and read about their hopes for their ministry. The folks who are behind this are some of the most genuine and creative people I've ever worked with.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Why Jüngel for Andrew Root?

After reading Andrew Root's Christopraxis a couple of months ago and talking through it with some friends, there was a question that lingered for me. Why Eberhard Jüngel?

In the past, Root's clearest influence has been Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Of course, he displays that his theological sources are manifold in his various works, drawing off of Kiekegaard, Barth, Douglas John Hall, Kathryn Tanner, Ray Anderson, and even Moltmann with consistency (not to mention the folks to whom he looks in his interdisciplinary turns; such as Christian Smith, Jeremy Rifkin, Martin Buber, and others). But in his book Christopraxis, something of a foundation defining work for Root (if not a field-defining work for everyone who does practical theology like he does), Root introduces in full force what most readers will see as a new conversation partner. Before Christopraxis, unless I'm missing something, Root only used Jüngel in one section of one chapter in The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, and only a few times in the later chapters of The Promise of Despair. With all these other more familiar conversation partners, why turn to Jüngel? Why, especially, turn to someone so extremely technical? After reading Christopraxis I went and read Jüngel's God as Mystery of the World and I'll just say, it was no easy read (I read God's Being is in Becoming last summer and it wasn't much easier). Also, why turn to someone to whom readers of practical theology in the United States are likely oblivious? Why, when Moltmann and Bonhoeffer are sitting on the sidelines, would you start Jüngel? Was Root just flexing his theological muscles or was this choice more intentional?

Without getting too technical with Jüngel's theology, I wanna offer a perspective on why it was not only rational for Root to engage Jüngel, but pretty brilliant.

In Christopraxis, more than ever before, Root situates himself in the broad spectrum of practical theological reflection. While in previous works, Root has had one clear opponent (whether it be "influence" in Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry or "Individualism" in The Relational Pastor) against which he clarifies his position. But in Christopraxis he positions himself between two extremes (and, as always, it's for the reader to decide on the validity of the cosmology). Where by positioning himself against influence in Revisiting, Root may have lead people to criticize him for being of the opposite extreme, in Christopraxis he makes sure the reader won't make that mistake. Positioning himself in a "critical realist" perspective, Root rejects both "upward" and "downward" conflations of reality. Neither reducing everything into epistemology (i.e. the "epistemic fallacy," 194-197), nor negating the epistemological into the ontological (perhaps by speaking of reality only from the "divine side" as Root seems to think Andrew Purves does, 75-83). For Root, practical theology is about divine and human encounter. It favors ontology, the real, over epistemology, but does so with clear attention to human experience (particularly, human experience of divine action). As Root writes, "...practical theology should reflect deeply on human action, but it should do so as ministry, exploring empirically the shape of human ministry as encounter with distinct human subjects that witness to participation through action in the divine being itself" (170). Human experience is thus, in a sense, the text to be exegeted, but only within a framework in which "reality [or ontology] always overspills our epistemological conceptions" (192). Or to put it another way, "critical realism heightens the importance of practical experience and yet does so by opening avenues for practical experience to actually be true experiences of divine encounter" (221). To put it simply, Root never wants to confuse human action with divine action or God's freedom with human freedom. Mobalized by the theology of the cross, which positions God's being squarely within human experience but also confesses the impossibility of human action, Root is able to do what practical theology has had a hard time doing--namely, attending both to "time and eternity" or divine action and human action in proper relation. Thus, his practical theological method is defined neither by the narrow application of doctrine, nor by the mechanical focus on human practices, but by attendance to divine and human encounter.

We can see this pattern throughout Root's work. In giving credibility to youth ministry as a theological endeavor (or "taking theology to youth ministry"), which has been, I believe, his most significant contribution to the practical theological world, he's never been about simply teaching theology to kids nor has been about creating strategic and effective systems or practices. He's always been about the theological. In his forthcoming book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, he describes this theological turn.
"A youth ministry that turns to theology seeks to move young people into forms of formal knowledge (to assimilate to the doctrinal). A youth ministry bound in the technological seeks to increase numbers and behavior. A youth ministry that turns to the theological seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God."
Again, we can see the insistance upon the importance of concrete lived experience (i.e. his rejection of the "theology" turn, or applied doctrine), but also insistence upon the centrality of divine action (i.e. his rejection of youth ministry as "technology"). And we see this throughout his work (one could say that he saw both the turn to "theology" and the "technological" in the influenced-based relational theology with which he took issue in Revisiting).

So, again, why Jüngel?

While Bonhoeffer is certainly the most important conversation partner in discussing the shape of the pillar of youth ministry and its theological rationale, Jüngel offers a structural framework on which the pillar can stand--one which profoundly resonates with Root's anxiety to preserve divine action and human experience in proper reference and relation. Since, as I said, Jüngel is such a hard read, I'll take my cues from John Webster (his book Eberhard Jüngel: an introduction to his theology) who says of Jüngel that "...above all he is anxious to avoid a reduction of the two-foldness of God and man to a single, self-consistent stratum" (4). While Douglas John Hall's and Moltmann's (not to mention Bonhoeffer's) theologies  of the cross are certainly (at least broadly) consistent with Root's, the anxiety of preserving divine and human identity is perhaps less explicit. Moltmann, for example, certainly with Theology of Hope and The Crucified God representing two sides of the same coin, resonates with Jüngel's motif of "the unity of life and death in favour of life" (see 71). But rarely is this underlying anxiety to "...elude any polarisation of divine and human freedom" (63) so explicit and technically constructed as it is throughout Jüngel's corpus. Webster writes of Jüngel's anthropology, "properly to distinguish between God and man is to affirm that they constitute irreducible duality in which neither is to be absorbed into the other" (93). It is from this vantage point, this theological commitment, that both Andrew Root and Eberhard Jüngel launch their theological projects. And it is this commitment to maintain the importance of human action without conflating it with the divine (and vice versa) that defines and pervades Jüngel's theology of the cross more explicitly than perhaps anyone else. "He puts down a challenge..." one which Root takes up, "to demonstrate on the basis of a theology of grace that human agency is interesting and important" (129). This makes him not only a logical but a brilliant conversation partner for Andrew Root. Employing Jüngel, Root avoids both of the extremes between which he wishes to situate himself, allowing him to remain biblical without being biblicist, personal without being impositional, and theological without being "doctrinal."