Conflict in Youth Ministry

During my years working in youth ministry, I have come to have a certain disdain for other youth pastors. Sometimes it is their look... trying to look cool while obviosly looking odd to the rest of society. Sometimes it is their attitude... either 1) I am irresponsible and that is why I hang with youth; or 2) I am too cool for church even though I work in one. Sometimes, usually most of the time, it is their whining-- not enough students, too many hours, parents, pastors, elders, etc. Now this isn't to say that I don't have an occasional fit of whining myself. However, what I do know is that the conflict that comes from working with these groups ultimately has the capability of building us as leaders and our ministries. For example, a few years back we had a conflict regarding an upcoming mission trip. Several people were questioning a decision that I made regarding the trip. In response, I became much more organized, got all of my ducks in a row, and made a communication blitz. I created a case for the decision I made and in the process signed on board all of the parents and leaders of the church. The conflict was created because I did not supply enough information to ease the fears of others that so easily rises when a leadership gap is created. I had created the gap by not supplying the needed information. I have learned much about youth ministry from this experience. Now when I am faced with a conflict, even though I don't always enjoy it, I do see it as a challenge... and in the process I create a stronger youth ministry. The fires of conflict do in fact refine us and make us stronger. I do occasionly whine; however, I rarely find other youth pastors willing to look at the conflicts as ways of building their ministries. This is a needed art in church and in society.


Polarized Out Of Heaven

My friend Jaded CM wrote recently about rewards and heaven. He was saying that he didn't really believe in a material rewards system for kid's ministry. To this, someone responded that he must not believe in heaven. The funny thing is... Jaded CM is probably the most conservative person on our church staff... he definately believes in heaven. Our society has become so polarized. Whenever someone disagrees, people just throw names and labels around instead of engaging in true debate and conversation. In this particular case... a jump from rewards in the classroom to a belief about heaven. Whoa! And the thing I see is that it is often Christians that are doing much of the polarizing. What have we become? How can this be changed?



I recently posted a comment on Adam Cleaveland's blog regarding his post on Calling. I found it very interesting. Calling is something that I grew up hearing and believing in a certain way. It was the idea that God had something very specific for your life-- a specific careeer, a specific school, etc. We need to abandon such an idea of call... frankly because it has been taken too extreme and misses the greater call of Scripture... our communal call as the Church. We need to leave behind the individualist era that sees God carrying whether I go to Cal State Univ. of Cal. when people all around the world do not have such choices to make (so what of their call?). We seem to think God cares in particular for our small choices in life at the same time he seems to ignore major problems in the world-- this individualist centered calling results in this kind of thinking.

How in the world do people still understand call in this fashion? We have a communal calling in the church, and it is the church that assigns us to a particular place or setting as it is engaged in prayer and discernment-- that communal calling should lead us to an eschatological goal-- the same eschatological goal that drove Christ-- reconciliation of creation-- which led to a challenging of the system, which led to his death.


Contents & Containers

A few years ago, Len Sweet in his book Aqua Church described the gospel as contents (like a liquid) and our ways of delivering the gospel as the container (like a cup). He was advocating that we must find new ways to deliver the liquid of the gospel to the various cultures that we are in.

At the time, I thought this was marvelous. I grew up believing that the gospel message (which was very marred) was to be delivered through any means. Ask people if they knew for sure they were going to heaven and launch into a full Evangelism Explosion presentation. So Len Sweet's ideas were fresh for me... they allowed me to see the need for good delivery methods that were relevant to peoples lives.

However, over the years since then, I have come to see how such a view of containers and contents is impossible. And if I would have understood Len Sweet better, I would have realized that my rudimentary understanding of his writings were in error. McLuhen said that the medium is the message. Indeed, this is somewhat right. Every method we use shapes the message that is heard, in fact, the method is a piece of the message. There is no way to separate the two from one another. I have been reading Jacques Ellul lately. He states in his book Reason for Being:
The truly creative poet forges his
language at the same time as his message. There can be no separation
between form and content. The poet does not have an idea to communicate,
which he then puts into verse. By no menas! We are faced here with
something welling up from a deep spring; there is no distinction between the
properties of the water and the underground path it has carved out to reach the
daylight of expression. The poet is not a person who thinks and
has a nice style. His thoughts cannot be expressed in any other way.
He thinks as the words themselves come and evoke his thought.

Such an understanding is what is often missing in the evangelical church. Often they have the rudimentary understanding of communication and contextualization that I used to have. They also think they are more advanced because they are not offending people and people are responding to their message.
With the writer of Ecclesiastes, we need to be poets whose language comes from down deep in the soul and bubbles up and flows over into the world. Such a message when forged in the fires of cross, community, and new creation (using Richard Hay's language) will produce a fleshed gospel-- truly good news-- that turns our world inside out-- and perhaps creates some tension in society as well.


Master's Thesis

Today, I completed the rough draft of my Master's thesis-- it has been a long process and it is almost over. 100 pages-- certainly not my best writing. Could never find my groove with it. It is very technical and choppy as a result. I explored the affect of consumerism on church practices, specifically by studying perceptions of stewardship by leaders at my church. My research shows that our leaders are aware that consumerism affects them; however, they are mostly unaware of the many ways in which it does. However, UPC is on a journey and new languages and practices are beginning to take hold. They are making incredible progress and the leaders I interviewed were so delightful. I am sure they will learn over time though. Even the interview process was helpful in developing framework and language for these leaders.


Why Love Is Not Enough

Richard Hays in his now famous book The Moral Vision of the New Testament believes that three focal images are needed in order to understand Scripture. These three images are 1) community, 2) Cross, & 3) New Creation. He argues that Love and Liberation are not effective focal images. The reason for this is that community, cross, and new creation are the lenses that allow us to interpret what love and liberation should be. Left by themselves, love and liberation can devolve into many definitions and ideas. The focal image of community gives perspective to all of scripture by focusing us on the formation of a reconciling community. This stands in such contrast to our hyper-individualism. The focal image of cross gives perspective to our mission and what is called for. Christians are to walk in the way of Christ. The cross allows us to see the absurdity of what most people live for. The focal image of new creation reminds us that we have an eschatological vision of the world to come. God is trying to form a certain kind of world and we are called to act as if that world exists. Without such images, love turns into self-gratification and being nice. Liberation turns into violence and anarchy.


Learning the Art of Story

Several questions regarding narratives within a group of people and accessing organizational culture: What stories are told? Who tells those stories? Why are those stories told? What alternative or discenting stories are being told to counter the dominant stories? What stories are not being told? Why are these types of stories not being told? What alternative methods could be used to communicate the current stories? How would these methods change the story? (Questions adapted from pg. 147 of Michael Warren's Seeing through the Media). Such questions are helpful whether conversing with teenagers in a one-on-one meeting or leading a discussion with the entire leadership team of a large church,etc. Such questions help one to begin understanding what is going on in the organization and where it might be going in the future. As well, it helps the leader begin to develop a strategy for helping the organization evolve. As well, such questions can even be brought to Scripture. What story is being told in Genesis 2 and by whom? Why is this story in chapter 2 rather than 1 or 3? Why is it told in this way? Are there alternative stories? (yes, chapter 1 tells a slightly different story as well as the Psalms, John 1, etc.). Also such narratives can then be compared to narratives from other books, cultures, etc. Such a way of looking at Scripture or an organization allows one to see into it better.


Neo-Denominationalism: Emergent vs Missional

How absurd! Just when we though denominationalism was almost dead, here comes division in Emergent. Now some are claiming to be Missional and not Emergent (something I would content is possible but not the way it is being characterized). My real problem is the use of labels and name calling-- some are calling the Emergent folk theological revisionist. It is denominationalism all over again. Recently, Robby Mac has been posting about how he is a friend of Missional now. He wrote about Len Sweet and containers and content (something from Aqua Church). Here was my response to him:
I find it very interesting that you quote
Len Sweet with his content & container idea. Indeed in Aqua church, Sweet
makes such an assertion; however, elsewhere in Sweet's writings Len seems to
indicate another point of view-- something more like Marshall McLuhan's classic
idea. It is impossible for the content to not be affected by the container.
Every method impacts and even changes the message in some way. As McLuhan said,
the medium is the message. I think this is the point of Emergent (revisionist as
you call them-- not sure why you call them that since they are just picking up
on less than dominant themes from Christian history). Many at Emergent Village
realize that the container does change the content in some way. The Missional
concept also acknowledges such a viewpoint as well. Indeed, the grandfather of
the missional movement-- Leslie Newbigin-- definately realized that there is no
universal content and that every context changes the gospel in some way (whether
positive or negative).


Qoheleth & Absurdity

Qoheleth is the name or designation of the person in the book of Ecclesiastes. Jacques Ellul (a person that has made a large impact on my thinking) writes the following regarding Qoheleth's perspective:
If we give Qoheleth a serious hearing... we come to an entirely different conclusion: recognizing that my life is subject to vanity means that in the final analysis I cannot place myself in the center; not in the center of the world, not in the center of my circle of relationships, not in the center of history, action, or culture. We need to reflect on the importance of this shift of perspective. It does not amount merely to a rejection of egoism and egotism.... Such a shift also implies rejecting the belief predominant in the West that once we have asserted our culture and our economic concepts as the only valid ones, we can destroy other cultures and economic systems. Remember your culture and political system are vanity! And then listen to others and respect them! (p. 115 of Reason for Being)

My wife did a project recently over Ecclesiastes analyzing it from an integrative perspective of theology and psychology. I became very interested in it after reading her work. This book of Ecclesiastes helps us to look at the vanity (I would translate it "absurdity") of our own self and our own culture and world. How absurd that we place so much trust in ourselves, our way of life, our way of thinking, etc. Instead, we must give up this way of power and embrace the weakness of the cross.


Predestination In A Faith System

Because I grew up in a fundamentalist church, I have often avoided topics such as predestination because of the fundamentalist debate surrounding such a topic. However, as my concept of faith has transitioned over the years, I realize that such a topic is no longer that hot. If faith is a linguistic system of sorts, then it makes sense that those who have faith will be conformed to the image of the Son of God-- the linguistic system will lead anyone down the same path that Jesus took. Those who do not have faith are, of course, being conformed to the images of this world/society-- a path we know that causes and leads to destruction in so many ways in our world.


A Systemic & Semiotic Understanding of Faith

I am a big fan of semiotics and understanding our reality in a semiotic way (for an intro to semiotics click here). I am in the middle of writing my thesis for my MA- Leadership & Organizational Studies degree. Over the past 10 years, semiotics has found its way into organizational behavior/dynamics and religion. I wrote the following in my thesis recently:
Faith at a fundamental level is a shared vision of life for an individual and group. The symbols and vocabulary that are used, the methods that are employed, the rituals that it enacts, and the ways it approaches daily functions such as problem-solving and decision-making all convey a shared meaning—a shared narrative. As such, when one looks at a particular function of the organization (e.g. stewardship practices, communication strategies, methods of communal worship), the language and methods it employees give clues about the real shared vision and narrative of an organization whether it be a corporation, a church, or even an entire culture. Such an understanding of culture, faith, narrative, and shared vision and meaning sheds light on the contemporary state of affairs of Corporate American and American Christianity.

Most people do not view faith this way. They see it as some inner experience. George Lindbeck, who wrote the now classic seminary text, The Nature of Doctrine, discussed how many people see and describe their faith in an experiental-expressive way. This experiental way is very focused on thoughts, feelings, emotions, and existential orientations. As I talk with many Christians (both conservative and liberal), I find them discussing faith from the experiental-expressive view. However, faith is indeed a linguistic system. Such an understanding of faith will revolutionize every aspect of how one does ministry. The truly simple and profound conclusion from this is: most Christians do not realize that Christianity wants to make a claim on every aspect of their lives!

My Article

Well, I recently posted about an article I wrote being published. It was entitled "Doctrine as a Scripting Agent." This past week, I discovered that Youth Specialties had picked it up and was featuring it on the top of their home page. Very cool! I think it has cycled away by now... however, here is a link to it being featured in their YS Update and here is the link to the article. It was first published by the Journal of Student Ministries. Thanks to Will Penner for all of his help and work.