Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Gift Book Recommendations...

For those of you who are looking for last minute gifts for your bookworm friends and family, I offer a list of my current favorite books (and book related products).

  • Kindle Wireless Reading Device--If you are looking to spend a little more cash, I actually do recommend the Kindle. I know what you are thinking, but hear me out. I originally thought the same thing. However, consider the following benefits: There's a ton of free content available. The innovative screen technology is very easy on your eyes, as opposed to computer screens. Free web browsing. Text-to-audio feature for most books and documents via internal speakers or headphones. MP3 (music on random shuffle) and Audible (audiobooks) supported. I am very impressed with this device.
  • Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder--This was singularly the most engrossing book I read this year. I literally couldn't put it down. This is not a particularly "Christian" book (for those who care about such a designation), but there is something so inspiring and true about this book, that it strikes me as "holy". Read my full review HERE.
  • God's Dream by Desmond Tutu--This is the only children's book on my list...but what a book! This simple and beautifully illustrated book is a poignant expression of the Christ-like love that characterizes the great man who wrote it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Seth Godin gets it right...

Reposted from Seth Godin's blog:

The problem with cable news thinking

Not only the networks of all political persuasions that come to mind, but the mindset they represent...

When I was growing up, Eyewitness News always found a house on fire in South Buffalo. "Tonight's top story," Irv Weinstein would intone, "...a fire in South Buffalo." Every single night. If you watched the news from out of town, you were sure that the city must have completely burned to the ground.

Cable news thinking has nothing to do with fires or with politics. Instead, it amplifies the worst elements of emotional reaction:

  1. Focus on the urgent instead of the important.
  2. Vivid emotions and the visuals that go with them as a selector for what's important.
  3. Emphasis on noise over thoughtful analysis.
  4. Unwillingness to reverse course and change one's mind.
  5. Xenophobic and jingoistic reactions (fear of outsiders).
  6. Defense of the status quo encouraged by an audience self-selected to be uniform.
  7. Things become important merely because others have decided they are important.
  8. Top down messaging encourages an echo chamber (agree with this edict or change the channel).
  9. Ill-informed about history and this particular issue.
  10. Confusing opinion with the truth.
  11. Revising facts to fit a point of view.
  12. Unwillingness to review past mistakes in light of history and use those to do better next time.
If I wanted to hobble an organization or even a country, I'd wish these twelve traits on them. I wonder if this sounds like the last board meeting you went to...

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Video: Psych--High-Top Fade Out

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I present my favorite episode of my favorite show currently on TV:

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Drops Like Stars by Rob Bell (Book Review)

I was really excited when I recieved Rob Bell's new book Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering in the mail. I have a great deal of respect for Bell, and I've enjoyed his other books. I was a bit surprised by the sheer size of the book. I don't mean that it's particularly thick (its not). However, the book's dimensions are similar to a coffee table book. Additionally, the book is very artistic/conceptual, making use of photography and strategic placement of text.

Honestly, for the first few pages, I found the weird text placement sort of irritating and cheesy. Some pages include merely a word, a phrase, or no text at all. Normal black text would abruptly transition to much larger red text. In the beginning, it felt sort of contrived.

However...something happened several pages in. Something clicked, and it began to strike me as quite beautiful. Bell offers an innovative take on the intersection between creativity and suffering by way of an intersection between art and the written word. The text is vintage Bell and, if you've heard him speak, it is written exactly like he talks. After reading the entire book, I think this format may frankly be more Bell's style than traditional print books. I regard the reading of this book as beautiful and enlightening experience. I highly recommend it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Strength In What Remains, A review

Strength in What Remains

This book is a masterpiece. It is possessed of a haunting beauty that gets inside you and won't let go. Pulitzer Prize winning author, Tracy Kidder recounts the true story of Deogratias and his harrowing escape from the genocide that ripped his country apart and his subsequent struggle to build some sort of a life in America. After arriving in the United States with $200 in his pocket with no grasp of the English language whatsoever, Deo, a former medical student in his home country, finds himself homeless, sleeping in central park, and delivering groceries for a living.

The horrors that Deo endured in his home country of Burundi are almost unimaginable. The mere fact that he survived is astounding. However, the true beauty of this book lies in how it cultivates hope. For all of humanity's darkness that threatens to close in on Deo, it is the kindness and compassion of strangers that saves, time and time again. I'm tempted to recount some examples of this, but I'd honestly hate to spoil it for you. It is often said that it is in despair that hope matters and it is only in the darkness that light makes a difference. That is the best way I can think of to characterize this book. It will restore your faith in humanity (even while reminding you how ugly we can be), and posses your heart with a beautiful ache to be a living conduit of hope to the world around you.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Donald Miller's New Book

I freely admit that I love Donald Miller's writing style. Since I first read Blue Like Jazz, picking up one of Miller's new books has felt like sitting down for a good conversation with an old friend. His new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, is no different. Written in his typical memoir style, Miller invites us into a soul-searching re-examination of his own life. Apparently, after the success of Blue Like Jazz, Miller floundered a bit. He wrote a few other (in my opinion, excellent) other books, that did not sell nearly as well. He seems to have felt as if his life had lost its direction and momentum. His self-examination began after he was contacted by a movie production company who wanted to turn Blue Like Jazz, into a movie. As he began to work on the script with a couple of guys from the production company, he discovers that they must develop a "narrative arc" for the story. Miller began to learn about what makes movies compelling, and even attended a seminar on "story" by Robert McKee. As the book proceeds, Miller begins to apply the principles of Story to life, and even faith. The results are profound and compelling. Miller's keen wit and unflinching honest will take you from laughter to tears and back again...often in the same paragraph. You will be drawn in as he attempts to find his estranged father and deals with relational commitment issues. I could not put this book down (even as I was scrambling to finish the coursework for my Masters Degree). In short, I loved it. I think you will too.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Brian McLaren's Open Letter to Conservative Christians in the U.S. on Healthcare

Reposted from http://brianmclaren.net


Dear friends,
Although today I would not call myself a political or social conservative, I am grateful for my heritage as an Evangelical Christian: my faith is rooted in a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, I honor and seek to live in harmony with the Scriptures, and I love to share the good news of God's love with others. Since my teenage years when I decided to follow Jesus, I have pursued wholehearted discipleship, and my life has been shaped by that commitment. After completing graduate school and teaching college English, I became a church planter and pastor and served in the same congregation for twenty-four years.

But for almost that many years, I have been growing more and more deeply troubled by the way so many from my heritage in conservative Christianity – in its Evangelical, Charismatic, and Roman Catholic streams - have allowed themselves to be spiritually formed by various conservative political and economic ideologies. It's been disturbing to see how many Christians have begun to follow and trust leaders who live more by political/media/ideological codes than by moral/spiritual/biblical ones.

As a result, I sometimes think that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Fox News may now influence many conservative Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Catholics even more than Billy Graham, Rick Warren, T.D. Jakes, Pope Benedict, or even the four gospels.

Now in a free country, people certainly have the right to choose their ideology. But Christians of all sorts, I think we all can agree, have a special calling - to increasingly harmonize our lives (including our lives as citizens) with the teaching and example of Jesus. My concern is that many of my sisters and brothers, without realizing it, have begun seeing Jesus and the faith through the lens of a neo-conservative political framework, thus reducing their vision of Jesus and his essential message of the kingdom of God. As a result, too many of us are becoming more and more zealous conservatives, but less and less Christ-like Christians, and many don't seem to notice the difference.

Thankfully, many Christian leaders are far more thoughtful and nuanced in their integration of faith and public life. They don't jump on talk-radio's latest conspiracy theory bandwagons, nor do they buy flippant talk of "death panels" or inappropriate comparisons to Hitler and so on. But still, so many of them remain silent about what's going on, and thereby grant it tacit approval.

I too was silent for a long time during my years as a pastor. But during the lead-up to the Iraq War, as I saw how little discernment was being exercised regarding the moral logic of pre-emptive war, I began taking risks that I hadn't taken before. I was similarly moved to speak out when, in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, relatively few Christians in America took a stand against torture. (In fact, according to survey data, Southern White Evangelicals were the group most likely to support doing unto others as they would never want done to themselves.) And when I heard Christians (mis)using the Bible to argue against environmental responsibility, again, I could not be silent.

Now, in the debate about health care, I am similarly disheartened to see the relative silence of thoughtful Christian voices as counterpoint to the predictable rhetoric of the more reactive voices. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been getting mass-emails and weblinks from Evangelical and Charismatic organizations that present frightening and outlandish claims about what President Obama is planning to do regarding health care. I’ve checked into these claims, and in case after case, they are simply false. They’re based on rumors spread by certain dramatic radio and cable-tv personalities, but they are not based in truth.

Again, people are free to disagree humbly and respectfully with their fellow Christians and their government. (As readers of my books know, I take this freedom seriously in my own life). But we Christians, it seems to me, have a high calling – to be radically committed to integrity and civility, even (especially) with those with whom we disagree. God, after all, is merciful, generous, and kind to "the just and the unjust": how can we not have that same obligation regarding those with whom we disagree? Even if others resort to dirty political tricks and distortion of the truth through exaggeration and fear-mongering, we simply cannot. At the very least, we should be seekers of truth, seekers of wisdom, not consumers (or purveyors) of propaganda – even if it comes from members of our own political party and people who quote a lot of Bible verses (often out of context). We have a higher calling.

So, without going into health-care reform specifics (which is still difficult to do, since there are many fast-changing proposals in play and the process of developing a vote-able proposal is far from over), I would simply like to plead with conservative Christians – conservative Evangelicals, conservative Charismatics, conservative Catholics, and so on – to take a stand for integrity and civility in the health care debate, alongside and in solidarity with those of us who love Christ just as you do but do not rally around the conservative political banner.

If you take this stand, you will be heard by your fellow conservatives in ways that some of the rest of us can’t be heard. And lives could be saved as a result of our joint calls for Christian integrity and civility: we've already seen what happens when people translate religious and ideological passion into violent action. Recalling the words of that great 19th century British conservative Edmund Burke, think of what could happen in the next few years if too many good conservative people sit back and do nothing ... while less scrupulous and more desperate conservative people whip their followers into a frenzy through fear and inaccurate information.

I will continue to speak out on these issues as I have done in the past. But I don’t expect the most extreme Christian conservatives to listen to me much. Since I was an outspoken supporter of President Obama’s candidacy, and since before that I was equally outspoken against torture, against the invasion of Iraq, for environmental stewardship, etc., many of them have written me off (sometimes with quite spicy language). But if you are a conservative Christian who cares about integrity and civility in communication and debate, perhaps they will still listen to you when you call them to a higher standard. I hope you will take the risk of speaking out with that in mind.

As my friend Jim Wallis recently said so eloquently (http://blog.sojo.net/2009/08/06/truth-telling-and-responsibility-in-health-care/), we may have honest differences with our fellow Christians on the issue of health care and many other issues too, but even in our differences we can agree that debates should take place in the light of truth and civility, not in the shadows of misrepresentation and prejudice.

Be assured, I am no uncritical supporter of health care reform. I am no more in favor now of rushing into expensive health care reform without sufficient debate than I was a few years ago when we rushed into an expensive pre-emptive war without sufficient care and discernment. I’m eager, like many of my conservative friends, to see the kind of reform that encourages small business and entrepreneurship. I'm interested in the kind of reform that reduces the power of both unaccountable mega-corporations and unaccountable government bureaucracy. I’m eager to see the kind of reform that doesn’t pave the way for powerful health insurance companies to do to the public in the next few decades what "too big to fail" Wall Street debt-repackagers did to us over the last few. I’m eager to see the kind of reform that in the long term reduces rather than increases our growing national debt and that truly helps our poorest neighbors without creating reductions in real service for our more prosperous neighbors.

Getting the kind of reform we need won’t be easy, especially with so many powerful interests spending huge amounts of money to achieve their own ends, with too little concern for justice, the common good … or the truth. That’s why, for there to be the kind of debate that produces good results, we who call ourselves Christians - conservative or otherwise - need to stand for full integrity in communication, whatever our political leanings. We need to be sure that the best arguments on both sides are heard ... not being satisfied to compare "our" best with "their" worst, as unscrupulous politicians and media personalities so often like to do, and not reducing the views of others to absurdity, even if we disagree with them vehemently.

The moral authority of Christians has been severely compromised in our culture in recent years. The most serious kinds of sexual scandals have rocked the Catholic, Evangelical, and Charismatic communities, not to mention financial scandals, ugly denominational lawsuits, and high-profile divisions. Studies have shown that some kinds of Christians are not only more likely to support torture - they are also more likely to hold racist views, to engage in domestic violence, and to end their marriages in divorce. No wonder young people are turned off as never before to a hypocritical face of Christianity that radiates shame, anger, and judgment rather than grace, love, and truth.

Even if we disagree on health care reform and other political issues, I hope we can agree that it is time for us to start walking - and talking - more worthy of the calling to which we have been called, to use Paul's words, to speak the truth, and to do so always in love. Or as James said, we must remember in this fire-prone political climate that the tongue can set off tiny rhetorical sparks that create huge flames of unimagined and unintended destruction. It can spread a false wisdom that sounds good on the surface, but beneath the surface is driven not by love but by bitter envy and selfish ambition. In contrast, he said (3:13 ff),

"The wisdom that comes from above is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise of harvest of righteousness."

Wise and needed words to guide us in the weeks and months ahead as health care reform is debated for better or for worse. May both the debate and the outcome bring us to a better place.


By the way, if you’d like to do some fact-checking about the health care debate, here are some faith-based sources that I believe can be trusted to avoid uncritical and inaccurate reporting about health care. I understand they will be offering correctives to rumors and misinformation in the months ahead.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Quoted in an article on MJ and Heaven

I was quoted in an article by Jason Boyett today on "Is Michael Jackson In Heaven?" on The Daily Beast. You can read the article here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2009-07-10/is-michael-in-heaven/?cid=hp:beastoriginalsL1

I'm not unhappy with the segment of my larger statement that Boyett used in the article, and I think he did a great job with the article (despite most of the commentary, because...wow). Still, I thought I might post my full statement here, for whatever its worth.

My friend Matthew Paul Turner forwarded me following request from Boyett:
I'm working on an article assigned by the Daily Beast (www.dailybeast.com). The angle: ask pastors what they think about the faith of Michael Jackson. Raised a Jehovah's Witness, married to a Scientologist, converted to Islam. The big question: Is Michael Jackson in heaven? How do you -- as a pastor and Christian -- look at him in regards to eternity or the afterlife?

Here's my response:
I'm a Christian and a full time preaching minister for a faith community in South Carolina. I think I'd respond to the question by pointing that Biblically, I don't find it to be a terribly helpful question. What I mean is that I can envision absolutely nothing good or helpful, in terms of God's mission in the world, resulting from pursuing that question on its own terms. Biblically, I think that those who follow Jesus are actually prohibited from definitively attempting to answer it. Scripture is quite clear that judgment is above our competency, and is frankly inappropriate for those who have accepted grace, mercy and unconditional love from God. Theologically, I think we are called to view "the other" through the lens of possibility...to view them from the standpoint of a creative imagining of their future as one redeemed by God, regardless of what we are presented with in the moment we live in. Understand, I'm making no comment and engaging in no speculation on the "eternal destiny" of Michael Jackson, and I believe it would be inappropriate for me to do so. That being said, if we who would follow Jesus celebrate Michael Jacksons' pain, his death, or some presupposition of eternal torment, I think we discredit the very Gospel we proclaim.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

A Perspective on God’s Mission

For at least 2/3 of my life, I had an easy answer to the question “What is God’s mission in the world?” I thought the answer was obvious. I honestly can’t remember anyone overtly teaching me the answer I would have given. It was easily assumed, and commonly held. After giving a blank stare and blinking a few times, I would have responded, “Saving souls.” If I had been asked to unpack my simple answer, I’d have wondered what rock you had been hiding under, and then said something like:

People have an immortal spiritual essence (component) called a “soul”. Because of the bad choices that all individual humans make, this spiritual essence is bound of an eternity of after-life torment in Hell. However, God has made a way through Jesus for our “souls” to be saved from this fate, and instead experience an afterlife of disembodied bliss in Heaven. One need only believe, follow the prescribed “steps” to accept one’s salvation, and stay out of trouble to change their eternal destiny. That’s all God’s really after in this world. He wants individuals to agree with the right ideas, and behave themselves, so that their “souls” will have a desirable afterlife.

My handy little definition of God’s mission served me well for a while. The really nice thing was that my main responsibility in regards to the mission was to make sure that I personally agreed with the “right” ideas, followed the “right” steps and reasonably behaved myself so that my fate in the afterlife was secure. Everything else seemed irrelevant. Even the idea of somehow participating in God’s mission to others, while a “good” thing to do, was rendered superfluous. I was oblivious to the more holistic Jewish understanding of a “soul”, and more oblivious to how much the definition that fed my spirit/matter dualism owed to Greek philosophy.

Eventually though, my simple and self-serving definition began to crumble. Among other things, as a sophomore in college I accompanied my father on a month-long mission trip to Ukraine. It was a paradigm-shifting, life-altering event that shook me to my core. Upon my return to the United States, I found my self-absorbed, afterlife-centered faith to be unsustainable, and the anemic, ethereal “god” it served to be unworthy of both worship and devotion. Unfortunately, both that version of faith and that understanding of God appeared to be prevalent in the church in North America. I thus came to a fork in the road: one path led away from Christianity and church altogether, and the other was the rocky and dangerous path of an active catalyst for change. One was a path of abandonment, while the other was the path of exploration. I chose the later.

My exploration of Scripture, Theology and history has led me toward a different understanding of God’s mission in the world. Theology enabled me to begin to see the narrative of scripture as a whole. No longer content to mine scripture for propositions and steps, I began to see a thread that ran throughout the entire story. In the Creation narratives, God tasks the human beings He created with bearing his image to the rest of his creation. Those humans make a selfish choice that throws the harmony of God’s creation into fractured chaos. Prior to that choice, creation is characterized by perfect harmony; between God and humans, between humans and other humans, and between humans and God’s creation. Human beings were able to find their value from the harmony that characterized their existence. After the choice was made, that harmony was shattered in all of its dimensions, and the world became a very different place. However, God would not be undone. As the world descended into chaos, God called a man we know as Abraham into a special relationship. Through Abraham, God would bring forth a people for Himself. God would bless them, and they would BE a blessing to the nations. In short, they were to bear God’s image; to reflect who God is. In spite of their noble calling and miraculous beginning, the people of God tend to be more interested in getting blessed than being a blessing to anyone else. Things don’t go so well for them in general because they tend to see their election as indicating favored status rather than as a commissioning. Even so, God does not give up on either his people or his mission in the world. God delivers them again and again, that they might live into their destiny. Eventually, God acts in a way that defies their imaginations, in order to move beyond the impasse. As his people cry out under the iron-fisted oppression of Rome, God became a human being. The Creator of all that is came into the world as an embryo in the womb of a teenage girl. Her song in the gospel of Luke, proclaims the redemptive work that she believed was being enacted by this incarnation. She believed that things were being set right; that the powerful would be torn down from their thrones while the humble are exalted; that the overfed would be left empty while the hungry would have their fill; that God was remembering His people and His promise. Her son grew into the man we know as Jesus, and powerfully proclaimed and enacted the Good News that God’s Kingdom is at hand; that it is “near”. He looked forward toward a time when “all things” would be “renewed”. Eventually, he was executed by the empire and the religious leaders of his own people. However, the grave doesn’t hold him. Whereas his life modeled the Way God intended His missional people to live, his death and resurrection open the door for all humans to become a part of this missional community, and free them from both the cycle of their sin and the threat of death. Liberated from guilt and fear, they are thus enabled to partner with God in His mission of the restoration of all things to the harmony that was lost in all of its dimensions. They are free to join God in reconciling the world to Himself.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Recommendation: The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

Every once in a while, I encounter a book that breathes life into me by the way it communicates profound truth. The interesting thing is that books like this almost always take me by surprise. Zondervan sent me David Dark's new book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, with the request that I review it if I liked it. I had heard of Dark, but had never read anything by him. The title intrigued me, so I opened to the table of contents...which intrigued me all the more:

Table of Contents
1. Never What You Have In Mind--Questioning God
2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being Brainwashed--Questioning Religion
3. Everybody to the Limit--Questioning Our Offendedness
4. Spot the Pervert--Questioning our Passions
5. The Power of the Put-On--Questioning Media
6. The Word, The Line, The Way--Questioning Our Language
7. Survival of the Freshest--Questioning Interpretations
8. The Past Didn't Go Anywhere--Questioning History
9. We Do What We're Told--Questioning Governments
10. Sincerity As Far As The Eye Can See--Questioning the Future
End Note: That Means To Signal a World Without End

That was enough to get me to start reading immediately. Halfway through the first chapter I was hooked. Dark artfully articulates faith in the context of what Lesslie Newbigin calls "A Proper Confidence"...faith that is not (cannot be) the equivalent of certainty...faith that recognizes our finite nature, our tendency to re-craft God in our own images and religion into self-justifying dogma. At times, he seems to be virtually channeling Kierkegaard in the context of 21st century Western culture. Dark offers us a thing of beauty, a life-giving breath of fresh air. His book invites us to take God a lot more seriously by taking ourselves a lot less seriously. Drawing from diverse voices (from Augustine and Aquinas to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to U2 and Arcade Fire) and various disciplines (Theology, Philosophy, Literature, Film, Music, etc.), he revives the Biblical tradition of questioning...as an act of humility in the pursuit of truth. He calls for us to cut through the propaganda, and resist any "powers that be" that would seek to subvert or co-opt the Way of Jesus. He beckons us to journey down a path that is characterized by faith, hope, and love (rather than certainty).
Pick up this book. You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Amen, Methodists. Thank you.

Wow. Check out this new ad campaign from the United Methodist Church. Seriously...Wow.

May more churches, including ours, catch this kind of a vision.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Memories on our wedding anniversary

My amazing wife put together a cool online slideshow of our life together so far. CLICK HERE if you'd like to watch it...if for no other reason, you might enjoy how dorky I look in the earlier years...and you might enjoy wondering how a girl that beautiful fell for such a dork. I wonder that myself all the time.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Choosing to Err on the Side of Grace

Within the last couple of decades, many in our fellowship began to rediscover the concept of grace. In my opinion, this was a fascinating and much needed conversation that didn't go far enough. Many of us moved from a version of Christianity that often devolved into an earned and maintained salvation, to a version of Christianity that received salvation as a gift...that can often devolve into a subculture of entitlement, who's mantra is "I don't have to!" It never occurred to us that the question we were seeking to answer, might actually be a poorly framed question, suggesting a limited selection of anemic answers. We didn't notice that we were simply selecting the other side of an inadequate coin. We focussed on what grace freed us from, but stopped short of exploring what grace freed us "to".

Biblically, grace seems to be a proactive, transformative reality. It is a gift, but it is a gift that, once received, must be reflected and modeled to the rest of the world. As Scot McKnight suggests in his book, Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us, once we embrace grace, we are to become an "embracing" people who exhibit grace toward the other...precisely because it is unmerited. It is less a benefit for members of a club...and more a new reality that they have bought into. To accept it for myself and refuse to extend it to others betrays both the gift of grace and the Giver. Don't just take my word for it, Jesus actually has quite a bit to say about this in the gospels (i.e. his comments on forgiveness after "The Lord's Prayer" and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant...just for starters)

It's usually at this point that the fear impulse kicks in. What if we're wrong? This is the fear that haunts those raised in our tradition. Let me clear it up for you. We are. We have 3 pound brains and we dare to speak of an infinite God. When asked if he would fellowship a "brother in error", Fred McClure used to routinely respond "I don't have any other kind. We're all in error on something." N.T. Wright regularly begins his lectures by saying something to the effect of "I'm wrong about roughly 1/3 of what I'm telling you. I just have no idea which 1/3 that is." And thank God for His grace that washes over sin and "error" as he is actively working to form me into the image of His son... into the future where His dream for me and the world are reality.

The Bible is quite clear that the measure of judgment we apply to others will be applied to us. While I highly doubt that the Bible's concept of judgment is as equivalent to the American judicial system as we tend to presuppose in these discussions, the implications are hard to miss. We are going to be wrong about some things, but if, when it comes to judgment, "the measure I use" will be "measured to me", I want to "err" on the side of grace.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Reflections On Leaving Youth Ministry Part 3

For many reasons, including some of the statistics I have already mentioned, many youth ministers can become consumed with a defense-oriented approach. They believe that "secular culture" is fundamentally opposed to faith... especially as it pertains to teenagers. Further, they know that on many "secular" college campuses (and even high schools), faith is overtly challenged in the name of "secular science". Because of these assumptions, many youth ministers adopt a multi-pronged strategy to counter these influences.

1) Alternative Christian Activity--The minister attempts to turn the students' attention to "christian alternatives" of all of the things that can be so attractive in "secular culture". Teens like parties...so we throw "safe" social gatherings like all night "lock-ins" and "fifth quarters" after the local high school's football game. Some go so far as to throw alternative banquets for Christian students to attend in lieu of their prom or homecoming dances. Additionally, the youth minister knows that simple idle time can be filled with the pervasive influence of this alluring secular culture... so we attempt to counter with a flood of our own safe, "Christian" activity. Keep them busy in our sanctioned and sanitized activity, and they'll "keep the faith", or so goes the conventional wisdom of youth ministry.

2) Alternative Christian Media--The minister attempts to turn the students' attention to positive music, movies, etc. produced by Christian artists and Christian companies. Special attention is payed to the details...emulating particular musical styles, and even in some cases going to great pains to emulate a particular band or artist. The idea is to isolate our students from the negative influence of all of that "worldly" entertainment, and intentionally surrounding them with the positive influence of media that knocks-off the worldly stuff in terms of style, while retaining control of content.

3) Alternative Answers to "Secular Science"--The assumption has generally been that since "the world" will be asking really tough questions of faith, we had better develop concrete arguments to refute the questions and claims of science. In many cases, much energy is put into the development, propagation, and indoctrination of these "answers", with the added implication that no ground can be surrendered or faith is no longer viable.

As common as it is, there are many problems with such an approach. First of all, the assumptions that support it are faulty. If Christianity is actually based on the Way of Jesus (as told in Scripture) then we would do well to note Jesus' engagement with his culture. As counter-intuitive as it seems to us, God seems to have sent his "only-begotton Son" because he loved the "world". Jesus' primary engagement seems to have been to those who the religious looked down on. To Him, they seemed to be very much the point. His engagement with the religious people seems to have been primarily to challenge them to become more than they had settled for and to engage with God's mission. In short, isolating students from the world around them in the name of Christianity is as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus as it is ineffective.

Students do not need a standardized set of answers and counter-arguments to the questions of secular science. Frankly, a) the scientific community remains unconvinced and unimpressed, b) it serves to maintain both a dualistic worldview and a false perception that there is an either/or choice that must be made between faith and science or, on the other side of the same coin, that all things pertaining to faith must be explained in scientific terms...c) a casual study of history will show how the church's assumption that new scientific revelations were threats to faith has frequently led to our looking silly at best, and being brutally un-christlike at worst...d) when we promote the idea that this is an all or nothing choice, frequently our students actually get this message, and choose to abandon faith when the fallible extra-biblical systems and constructs we handed them begin to prove inadequate...and e) Frankly we are pouring our energy into answering questions that fewer and fewer people are even asking...and debating strawmen that no one is arguing anymore (particularly at the quantum level, science can be very friendly to faith again, as it turns out).

In truth, I suspect that on the intellectual level, the pressing questions that must be engaged are coming from the social sciences and philosophy, and that what students actually need is to learn how to use the narrative of scripture as an interpretive lens...that we must teach them to interpret and engage the world around them in light of Jesus. Even so, there is a much larger problem. All of this presumes that faith is primarily intellectual and taylored exclusively to the individual. It seems to me that faith is inherently relational and missional. In scripture, faith is spoken of primarily in relational terms...both in relationship to God and in community. Most of the New Testament letters are addressed to communities of believers, and most of the "you" pronouns are plural. We must figure out ways to help students cultivate community, rather than sending them out "against the world". However, this is not to suggest a bunker mentality. They are to cultivate community that actively seeks to partner with God in what he is doing in the world. We tend to talk about "faith" as if "having faith" is a matter of mentally agreeing with a list of concepts. What a bizarre definition! Faith has to do with confidence. Faith leads to proactive engagement. I think that character and mission may be the most powerful apologetics of faith, for good or ill. If we neglect these for the sake of intellectual coercion and defending the "rightness" of our arguments, we may find that we have lost everything we were trying to protect and ensure. If we settle for creating a bunker-mentality subculture rather than cultivating a life-giving journey of proactive engagement, we may find that many of our students leave us precisely because they are seeking Jesus, and can't reconcile his mission to the world in scripture with ours.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Reflections On Leaving Youth Ministry 2

Effective Youth Ministry will work with the desired end result in mind. This sounds very intuitive and one might wonder who could possibly disagree with such a notion. The truth is, that most of us would...if not with our words, then in practice.

There is an extraordinary temptation in professional youth ministry to cater to the pressures of the moment and the perceived needs of those we work with (parents included). These pressures combined with our culture's pervasive consumerism subtly but surely lures us towards an "attractional" model of youth ministry. We build youth ministry around events...events that will draw a crowd...events that center around the dynamic personality of our youth minister...events with lots of bells and whistles...events that serve as exciting and interesting alternatives to what "the world" is offering. This is precisely our downfall. We instill a version of "faith" that is dependent on the constant flow of these activities, events, personalities, "bells" and "whistles". In short, it is unsustainable by its very nature. It isn't true to the complexities of life. It doesn't prepare them for the isolation they may face or the painful questions they WILL face. It doesn't challenge them to be more than they are, or call them to something greater than themselves. Instead, it markets one more product (albeit a religious product) for them to consume. Of course it fails for the vast majority of them when they graduate and the personality (youth minister) of the is gone, the activities/programs are gone, and they are left with "just church".

What would it look like to develop intentional ways of cultivating a sustainable faith? How can we design approaches that begin with such an end in mind? I have some ideas and opinions about what that could look like, but they would be limited to my context and experience. These questions are yours to answer, but I'll argue that if you are going to "do" youth ministry, they are questions you must wrestle with if your ministry is to be in any sense "effective".
(to be continued)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reflections on Leaving Youth Ministry 1

So, I know I'm late with these promised blog posts, but I honestly haven't been slacking on it. In actuality, I've already written two posts...and deleted both of them. The first post was frankly too emotional and dealt with frustrations that I had apparently not even processed yet (they sort of came to the surface as I wrote). After I finished it, I re-read it and asked Dana to read it. She confirmed what I was already thinking: it was very therapeutic for me, but frankly wouldn't be helpful to anyone else. In my second attempt, I tried to write a "What your youth minister wishes you knew" post. It really just didn't work.

So here's the thing...youth ministry is in trouble. For all the attention and resources devoted to youth ministry, the "retention" stats are abysmal. Roughly 75% of teens abandon their faith between high school graduation and College. (oddly enough, smaller churches with no organized youth ministry tend to have roughly a 75% retention rate) Those stats are actually pretty well known. Many people aren't aware of the fact that youth ministers are also burning out at an alarming rate.

I could lob out criticism about all of the problems in our current approach to youth ministry. However, I think it would be more helpful to simply propose some ideas about potential ways forward. Watch for my totally subjective thoughts on this next week.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Reflections on Leaving Youth Ministry: Introduction

I am currently working as a preaching minister, though I was a youth minister for roughly 10 years. When I first got into youth ministry (which is another story altogether), I passionately refuted any suggestions that youth ministry was some sort of a "stepping stone" to becoming a preacher. I sincerely believed that I would do youth ministry forever. While I still disagree with a perspective that relegates youth ministry to a mere rung on the ministry "success ladder", after 10 years I felt a pull towards preaching that eventually led to my career move last May. I loved youth ministry and still have a deep and abiding respect for anyone who sincerely engages in the Spiritual formation of teenagers. However, I am now roughly 7 months removed that particular vocation, and I'd like to offer a few admittedly subjective observations about the current state of youth ministry, for whatever they are worth. Over the next several days, I'll present a series of posts along these lines. If you think I'm wrong on any of these observations, you may very well be right, and I have no particular interest a debate (though you should feel free to comment, and I'm always up for dialogue). I'll post the first observation soon.

Note: I had originally thought I would not post anything new on this blog after this series is completed. However, I have since reconsidered, and decided to keep this blog as a place to write about my life and family. I will also be launching a new blog that will focus on theology, and I'm planning on inviting several other bloggers who resonate with a "Post-Restorationist" ideology to come on as co-authors. I'll post a link to the new site at the end of this series.