Monday, November 17, 2014

A Short Reflection on Eschatology

"A promise is a declaration which announces the coming of a reality that does not yet exist... If it is a case of a divine promise, then that indicates that the expected future does not have to develop within the framework of the possibilities inherent in the present, but arises from that which is possible to the God of promise. This can also be something which by the standard of present experience appears impossible." Jürgen Moltmann (Theology of Hope, 103).
An eschatology which is projected from the present into the future, as a goal to be developed from the potential which exists in the present to fulfill it, is forced to work from possibility and reject the impossible. It is forced to harvest potential and reject that which has none. It begs for glory and rejects the cross. But an eschatology which is constructed "in light of its future goal" (Moltmann, 18), which does not correspond to but contradicts the present, which does not project itself into the future from the present but speaks judgement back upon the present from the future, gives hope not just to that which in the present has potential to be developed but has "hope for the whole of reality" (34). It depends not on the possibility of human action, but on God's action born from impossibility. It is the eschatology which can only be promised to the world through the event of God's raising the crucified Jesus to life from death. It "...sees in [Jesus] the future of the very humanity for which he died..." the humanity which does not escape but suffers death. "That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth" (21). Therefore, as Paul concluded, "...your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58), even when that labor finds its object in the hopeless and broken present. For it is not the impossibility of our present but the possibility of God's future which sets the terms for our hope.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Youth Ministry As Ministry

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the Youth Cartel Summit conference in Nashville, Tennessee. This was my first time in Nashville, so it was a fun experience just for that! Besides being in a fun city, the conference had a lot going for it. It was a creative format that allowed for deeper conversations. Rather than offering a bunch of seminars with "big stage" lectures dispersed throughout, Summit offered sessions featuring five or six short presentations (like mini-lectures) followed by a "digging deeper" session in which you were able to choose which speaker you wanted to engage more fully in a smaller group. You got a gist of what each speaker wanted to offer and then you got to pick one offering with which you wanted to get deeper. It was a really nice format with some really great speakers!

I've been to a lot of youth ministry conferences and seminars about youth ministry. And after this one, I've been reflecting on how we in the youth ministry world tend to talk about youth ministry. I'm not implicating the Youth Cartel in anything here. It's just a reality in youth ministry that I noticed again this weekend. We define youth ministry in so many different terms. If I were to survey the people at Summit, Youth Specialties, or the Princeton Forum, for example, and asked them to fill in the blank: "youth ministry is ________" I'd get a plurality of responses. We define youth ministry according to "mission," "formation," "discipleship," "teaching," "growth," even "development"... and there's nothing fundamentally wrong with all of these things. Most of the terms we use to describe and define youth ministry are appropriate, they're at least an important part of youth ministry... but why don't we think to define youth ministry according to the very word by which we refer to the practice--"ministry"? Why do we feel we have to find other words when youth ministry is, in fact, ministry

We define our youth ministries according to what we want to get out of them, according to the "telos", the place we want to lead the kids in our care. But if youth ministry is indeed ministry, then why isn't it defined as ministering to youth, meeting them where they are, loving them as they are, and leading them from there (if leading is still to be appropriate)? Why is youth ministry, in academic institutions such as Princeton Theological Seminary, designated under the heading "Education and Formation" instead of "Pastoral Care"?

I think what has happened is youth workers and leading thinkers in the world of youth ministry have reacted against the archaic ethos of youth ministry as "ministering to youth" as passive recipients of Christian ministry. Appropriately, they've advocated for youth as active members of the church and agents of Christian ministry (they're right to do this!). They wanted youth ministry not just to be the church's ministry to the youth and for the youth, but ministry of the youth. Appropriately, they wanted youth to see youth ministry as their ministry in and as the church. The problem, however, is that the pendulum has swung too far. By putting the ministry of the youth at the fore, the ministry to the youth has suffered and ministry's demands and claims upon the lives of young people have become normative.

When the church's ministry to the youth puts the ministry of the youth--the expectation that youth will be formed into mature Christian adults or active agents of Christian ministry--before itself in such a strong way, then it tends to its own destruction. Let me say it another way: when ministry is so fundamentally about forming and "discipling" (whatever people mean by that term), then it no longer has a reason to apply to those who are not being formed, who will not conform themselves to the patterns of Christian ministry, or to those standards by which the church measures the success of its "mission." We must not forget that youth ministry is still ministry!--ministry to and not just of  the youth.

If we allow youth ministry to be ministry, then we are free to measure our success not by the output (the telos) but by the input (my friends Justin Forbes and Marcus Hong both helped me articulate it in this way). The "fruit of the Spirit" become just that--fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of our labor. We can measure the success of our ministry not by the fruit we produce, but by the fruit the Spirit produces in us when we love kids, share their joy, nurture their peace, are patient with them (even if they don't want to do what think they should do), show them kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If ministry to the youth is normative, then there is "no law against these things" (Gal. 5:22-23). We are free to minister to the kids in our care and trust God that formation and development will emerge therefrom.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

The Ontological Priority of the Future and the Dignity of the Present

I've been toying with how we can and should think about the future in theology and ministry for a while now. I've vacillated between speaking of the future as having "ontological priority" over the present and giving the present its own dignity by reserving from it any normative subordination to the future. I am trying to somehow strike a balance not by weakening the claim on either side but by saying both of these things strongly. I think that incarnation is the key to unlocking the dignity of the present under the ontological priority of the future. Here's me trying it on:

Since God's revelation of Godself always corresponds ontologically to God--since, as Ray S. Anderson says, "God's act of reconciliation is simultaneously God's Word of Revelation"--whatever new action or experience was taken into the life and being of God in Jesus Christ was true of God already according to the word of promise. Whatever new action or experience is taken into the life and being of God in the future is only new according to epistemology. Ontologically, however, the new corresponds wholly to God as God's very being and has always been descriptive of God. Whatever will be true in the future is true in the present according to promise. It is in this way that the future has ontological priority over the present. If God is revealed in history, then God is revealed in the transcendence of the future over the immanence of the present. If God is revealed in history, in the history of Jesus Christ, then the full disclosure of God is ultimately provisional as long as the present is open to the possibilities of the present. As long as the future is undisclosed, the revelation of God includes the hiddenness of God and a hope which relies on promise. As Andrew Zirschky just said, moments ago at the youth ministry conference from which I'm writing this post, "While the doctrine of Revelation is about the knowledge of God, it is also about the hiddenness of God."

Jesus Christ, therefore, as "...the image of the invisible God..." in whom "...all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Col 1:15-19) is truly "the first fruits" (1 Corinthians 15:20) of the new thing that God is doing and will do in the world. He is God and therefore brings the future into the present in body and in spirit. He is the ultimate word of promise through whom we receive birth into a "living hope" (1 Peter 1:3). The Revelation of God in Jesus is without provision or reservation, but it is a revelation which has not only come but is coming. In Jesus' coming, in his death and resurrection (do not miss that this includes death!), the hiddenness of God is revealed. In Jesus, hiddenness is not resolved, but it is revealed. He comes to us as a promise, the disclosure of that yet-to-be-disclosed future.  Jürgen Moltmann wrote, " is proclaimed that [Jesus] is himself the resurrection and the life and that consequently believers find their future in him and not merely like him. Hence they wait for their future by waiting for his future" (Theology of Hope, 83). There is no future of God or for Christians but the future of Jesus Christ, there is not a future which does not correspond to the future of the crucified man from Nazareth. So now, the revelation of God is hope. We are liberated by hope to reject those things which do not correspond to the future of the crucified Jesus. War, famine, racism, sexism, discrimination, hunger, tyranny, dominance, poverty, death--we cannot hope for a future with these things. The expectation of these constitutes the sin of despair. The Revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the future of promised in resurrection.

To say "Jesus Christ" is to speak of transcendence in particularity (the "scandal of particularity"!). A universal promise is made in the life, death, and resurrection of one particular human being. This is, therefore, a promise not just for a cosmic ideal, but for the very ground on which the feet of Jesus walk, the very ground on which the cross of Christ stands. Therefore, hope if not exclusively about potential. When we orient our focus toward the potential which the present has to extend itself into the cosmic ideal of the future, we strip the present of its dignity. Not our true present, but only that present which can be developed into the future has value, and therefore the crucified are damned to their crosses. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ extends a different relationship of the future to the present. As Moltmann writes,“[Faith] sees in the resurrection of Christ not the eternity of heaven, but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died. That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth" (Theology of Hope, 21). And as he says elsewhere, "Hope accepts the 'cross of the the present' in the 'power of the resurrection.' It takes upon itself the real unredeemed state of the present as it is, the torture and the pain of the negative, without resignation and without illusion." (Hope for the Church, 11). The present, therefore is not ruled by the future, but embraced and accepted by it. It does not demand the development of the present into the future, but proclaims the present's true dignity as not the future of its potential, but the future of Jesus Christ who dies in the darkness of the present. The future hope, therefore, has very little to do with optimism, development, or the work ethic of those who strategize to achieve a future for the present. It has, however, to do with the redemption of the present according to the power of the Holy Spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Can the Gospel be Tweeted?

Several days ago I asked people to tweet the gospel. It was supposed to be an experiment of sorts, just to see how and if it could be done. In thinking about the dominance of social media in our culture as the vehicle and catalyst of human interaction, even as a location for community and communion, my friends and I wanted to know if the gospel could be shared there as well. Of course, if community and communion can happen on Twitter, then surely the gospel can too!

I didn't get a lot of response--perhaps people were as hesitant as I would be about trying to put the gospel into 140 characters or fewer--but some of the ways that this has been done include tweets like:
"Jesus is risen!"
"God gave life, sin brought death, man fell, Jesus came, death died, Jesus lives, and you can too!" "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so."
"God is love"
"Jesus is God, God loves you, you can be forgiven."
"No Jesus, no heaven. Know Jesus, know heaven"

Now, entangled in this is the question, what is the gospel? What is the good news to which we sometimes so casually refer? Is the gospel something that can be summed up in 140 characters or even a whole book? Can it fit in a tweet? Can it fit on a bumper sticker? Is it something we can put into words at all?

When the gospel writers of the New Testament endeavored to offer the gospel, the good news, they didn't offer a statement or a thesis or even Creed. Instead, the gospel writers wrote stories. They described relationships, they made it personal because when they wanted to tell the gospel, they wanted to tell a person. They didn't merely want to offer information about Jesus. They wanted to offer Jesus.

See, we can sympathize with information. We can even become inspired by and passionate about information. But we cannot empathize with it. We can only empathize with persons. The fact is, even the gospels themselves aren't the gospel. The point of a story is never the story itself. The point of our stories is not the information they convey about us. The point is us. The point is the person. And we tell stories of persons in their relationships with other persons because persons are their relationships. The gospel narratives are not the gospel, they are stories about a person because the gospel is a person. The gospel is Jesus Christ himself whose very person is the person of God. Eberhard Jüngel wrote, “if thinking wants to think God, then it must endeavor to tell stories.”

That's what we miss when we "tweet the gospel." In a tweet, and in social media in general, we can share information. If we dig deep enough there the stories can be found and the persons can be encountered, even if only in some provisional way. But we usually satisfy ourselves with sympathy when what we really need is empathy. We satisfy ourselves with the safe distance of pictures and posts, when to truly encounter a person we need the person themselves--their relationships, their history, even their body. Social media will always only be a provisional form of encounter because every element of presence we can capture from a computer screen will always be conditioned and shrouded by the absence of the persons themselves.

So when we endeavor to tweet the gospel, we must endeavor to tell stories because stories point beyond themselves. Whatever we say when we say the gospel must always recognize that the gospel cannot be said. It must be encountered. Jesus is the gospel. 

Monday, November 03, 2014

Christology Matters: A Brief Review of 'The Jesus Gap'

This weekend, since I have so much extra time on my hands (not true!), I decided to read Jen Bradbury's new book The Jesus Gap.

To be honest, it took me a couple chapters to appreciate what she was up to with this book. I was, first of all, tempted to nitpick all her theological points and demand stronger development of the Christology she considered to be "orthodox." But then I realized that while I think the questions I have regarding the theological presuppositions of the book are important, they really only distract from what's really happening here.

Jen Bradbury is not a professional theologian, per se, but she thinks that theology actually matters. And that's no small thing. In a field/profession/practice that has dominantly operated on the pragmatic and methodological level, reserving its theological reflection to the halls of the academy, Bradbury reminds youth workers that what our kids confess concerning the person of Christ actually matters. Bradbury turns the dial, even if just a notch, in the right direction. This book will help youth workers. She's not trying to build a Christology from scratch, but with the conviction that Christology matters, she uses some key Christological perspectives to expose a gap between what churches think they're teaching and what kids are actually learning and believing. Academic theologians will have to extend grace if they're going to appreciate what this book is actually about. Bradbury is a practitioner. She's not offering a new theological paradigm for youth ministry or anything like that. In fact, I'd say she's still operating largely on the methodological level. But she is inviting us to reorient our strategies away from merely getting kids to stay in church and toward the normativity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. She asks a wonderful and welcome question, "Why is it that we're more concerned with people leaving the church than we are with the church leaving Jesus?" (207). A great question, indeed! 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Practical is Theological

The reason I switched majors from Youth Ministry to Theology when I was in college was not that I didn't care about youth ministry. I never really stopped caring about youth ministry. It was and always has been my passion. However, because it was my passion, I couldn't stand it when people refused to see or dismissed the fundamental theological nature of the practice. I was frustrated by a program which centralized social sciences (psychology in particular) and even the methodological over against theology and the theological. At best, the dominant voices in the program used theology as justification, but there was a general anxiety to rush past any theological question that didn't seem practical, or to only illuminate those parts of the theological conversation which were obviously and immediately practical. The assumption was that theology must be practical and if it wasn't, then it was irrelevant. Theology, in its own right wasn't taken very seriously. Rather than allowing the practical to emerge from the theological, in some sense, the round peg of the theological was forced into the square hole of the practical... and when it didn't fit after being pounded with a hammer, it was tossed out.

My young peers in the practical theology department were probably as frustrated with me as I was with them. When they wanted to skim past a theological question, I was stubborn in staying with it. I insisted that it mattered how we perceived, for example, the divine presence in creation (was it really just a vertical relationship while human relationships are horizontal? I can remember one professor rolling his eyes at me when I stopped the class to question this assumption. He wanted to move on to the "real" point of the conversation). By and large, theology was a sort of obstacle, a speed bump (and, I should say, the people with greater theological affinities probably saw it as a necessary speed bump) we had to pass over, because we're good Christians, on the path to the practical. But I couldn't help but think that it had to be more important, it had to be essential, it had to be not just a speed bump on the path but the path itself as well as the destination.

If aspiring practical theologians don't stop seeing the theological as a speed-bump on the path to the practical, then they should admit that they are not practical theologians. They might be practitioners with certain theological affinities, but practical theologians don't merely insist that the theological must be practical (and thus roll their eyes at theological discussions which don't make themselves immediately applicable or accessible) but that the practical is fundamentally theological.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tweet the Gospel?

I am currently participating in an "independent study" with several friends (conceived organized by Joshua Rodriguez) on "Preaching To Youth." It's generally about preaching in the context of youth ministry, taking seriously the realities of contemporary adolescence and the cultural influences which should and must condition the way we communicate the gospel. We've been benefitting from the academic contributions (i.e. dissertations) of Andrew Zirschky and Stephen M. Cady to help inform our discussions.

In discussing the dominance of social media in American (Western) society, a thought came up amongst us (mostly, I think, from Ted Jordan). In exploring how (and if) the gospel can be communicated through social media, "let's see what people would say if we asked them to tweet the gospel." How could the gospel be communicated in 140 characters or less? I'm planning on blogging a bit about this in the next several days, but I'd like to see what others would say... consider replying to my tweet:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Future is Ours by Redemption

“Ever since the beginning of the middle-class era, with its faith in progress, belief in progress has dominated the upbringing of children too. Childhood now came to be understood only as the preliminary stage on the way to the full personhood of the adult… Every lived moment has an eternal significance and already constitutes a fulfilled life. For fulfilled life is not measured by the number of years that have been lived through, or spent in one way or another. It is measured according to the depth of lived experience.” -Jürgen Moltmann (In The End--The Beginning, 6-7).
I've been doing a lot of thinking about childhood lately. Not in some nostalgic sense, so much, but as a "stage" of development. Understanding how society looks at childhood is a key to understanding how society looks at adolescence (for some people, the difference is insignificant). While there are distinct and important differences between childhood and adolescence, what the two have in common is that, according to society's commitment to development and progress, they both receive their definition from the normative standards of adulthood. They are both measured against the standard of maturity and thus are judged as inherently immature. They are what they are not. And this is so because we have allowed the future, in some sense, to determine the value of the present.

I want to critique this progressivist/developmental commitment on the basis of the true humanity and dignity of childhood and adolescence in their own right. Rather than measuring them against the standards of adulthood, I want to affirm their dignity according to their own terms. This seems reasonable to me, given the theological reality of the incarnation (the cross). But I have a dilemma. In theological terms, the future does, in some sense, determine the truth about the present. The future of God (the resurrection) interprets the present. There may be better places from which to quote Moltmann on this, but one quote comes to mind: "Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present" (Moltmann, Theology of Hope). If the future of God, in some sense, gives us a lens through which to interpret the present, then how can we give the present the dignity it deserves?

I think that what allows Moltmann to write both Theology of Hope and The Crucified God (a book about the hope of the future and a book about God's solidarity with the present), what allows him to say, "Every lived moment has an eternal significance and already constitutes a fulfilled life," is that he separates eschatology from development and progress. Eschatology is not progress or development. The coming of God, promised in the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, is not something we achieve or construct from the potentiality of the present. That future in which God will be "All in All"--a future which is for every crucified person and which in some sense interprets the present on which the cross of Jesus stands--comes to us by redemption, not development. We are free to live according to the promised future precisely because its fruition does not depend on our action. The meaning of our present, every present, even the ones that don't have the potential to develop, comes from God's future. And so, "...fulfilled life is not measured by the number of years that have been lived through..." or by the degree to which that life is able to progress in its correspondence with goals for the future.  "It is measured according to the depth of lived experience."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Andrew Kellner on Mentoring in Youth Ministry

At the Youth Ministry in Small Churches event from IYM, I had the privilege of interviewing Andrew Kellner, the Canon for Family & Young Adult Ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. He has some wonderful insights on mentoring and the advantages of small church youth ministry. Check out the video... and check out IYM's "Weekly Forum" blog.

Mentoring - Andrew Kellner from Princeton IYM on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Scot McKnight on Andrew Root

It's a small world.

I remember the first time a "famous person" recognized me and said my name before I said theirs. It's petty, I know, but when I was a high schooler, just getting into theology and biblical studies, it was a significant moment for me when I walked up to Scot McKnight and and he said, "Wes Ellis," and reached out for a handshake. Scot was a guest speaker at a conference for which I was a staff member. I started reading his blog way back when he first started blogging and, through his blog, he actually recognized me when we met at the conference. Scot remained an important voice for my spiritual and theological formation.

Fast forward to about four years ago.

My theological and ministerial trajectory ran from Scot (and others like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell), through N.T. Wright, through Stanley Hauerwas, through Jürgen Moltmann, and eventually to Andrew Root. At this point, I can name few (if any... maybe Moltmann) who have been more formative than Andy of my whole theological and practical framework for ministry. And though it feels like so much has changed and though it feels like Scot and Andy should be on different planets because I've moved so far since I first read Jesus Creed about ten years ago, it's funny how things stay in the same stream and eventually come back around.

Scot McKnight has been posting on his blog about Root's latest book, Bonhoeffer As Youth Worker. The latest post, "Who Owns Bonhoeffer" is an especially helpful little introduction to what Andy is up to in the book. I encourage you to check it out: