Today I spent another day at the youth ministry forum. I think it was a day well-spent!
First I returned to my extended seminar on "What Christianity is Not." The teacher, Douglas John Hall, suggested that what it is not is a religion. Instead, it is a faith. Religion is something that is aligned with a culture, with specific rules for living, taboos, etc. "Jesus didn't come to start a new religion, but to end religions once and for all." He talked fairly extensively about "established" religion as against everything Jesus stood for. I thought he was fairly "Quakerly," until I realized on the back of one of his books I've read, it says, "Hall is Karl Barth's type of theologian, with the Scripture in one hand and a daily newspaper in the other." I'm definitely not a Barthian, but I do appreciate that about Barth, and I like Hall. (I think I probably would have liked Barth if I met him, too, but I just don't like all of his theology.) Anyway, so I appreciated this lecture, although it still was not explicitly connected to youth ministry. I guess that's what the rest of our brains are for. (What, you mean we have to actually think???!) I've been thinking a lot lately about how to get someone to pay me to do ministry that breaks down the establishment who's paying the bills...something about not biting the hand that feeds me keeps coming to mind directly after, for some reason...
But as Friends, or at least as Friends who pay some of our ministers, how do we walk that fine line between "releasing" people to be ministers, and paying people to do what we want them to do? How do we ensure that the people we're paying are serving a prophetic role rather than being false prophets who tell us what we want to hear? I see this critique that early Friends warned against, and yet...it would be really nice to do ministry and get paid for it adequately. We'll see what happens.
Then I went to an elective workshop called, "Saying No is Not Enough: sexuality, teens and religion." It was led by Kate Ott, who works for the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing. She spoke practically and helpfully about how to present sexuality education in youth groups. She suggested helpful resources, gave us good statistics, and presented important insights. One of these insights is that we need to be careful about even our implicit sexuality education. An example she gave was prayers that focus completely on God transforming our minds and/or spirits. Do we neglect the body completely in our prayers? Do we think God is present in our physical beings as well as in the parts of ourselves that we call "mind" and "spirit"? Or are we basically Gnostic, thinking that it is only through transcending evil physical existence that we can come close to God? Another important insight, which I've heard before but was helpful to be reminded of, is that sexuality is more than just "who does what to whom." It is a part of our whole selves: our desire for intimacy, our senses, our identity, our health, and the way we act toward others. In the church if we either treat it as only an issue of learning about "plumbing," or just tell youth to "say no" without providing ways to meet needs in all those areas, we are not really being helpful.
After lunch I went to an elective workshop called "Youth Ministry Amidst the Culture of Youth Violence." I thought that sounded interesting in light of my views on the way violence is portrayed in our culture, and the way it is emulated. But unfortunately the teacher spent about an hour convincing us that violence is on the rise in the world, the United States, and youth (we probably don't have to be convinced of that if we're at the workshop--or at least we don't have to be convinced that violence is a problem that needs to be addressed), and then the last half hour trying to fly through PowerPoint on some ways to pick up on violent tendencies in youth, and Bible verses that help us address those issues. There wasn't much about how to actually go about addressing these issues in the context of youth ministry.
I think one of the main reasons there is so much violence in youth culture today (besides violent movies and video games, etc.) is the systems of domination and hierarchy that are in place, and a simultaneous undermining of authority. It's funny, because I think the fact that authority is being undermined is contributing to people feeling less accountable for their actions and therefore they can justify violence more easily; but at the same time, the systems of domination and oppression create a space where people see no choice but to enact violence against those more vulnerable. Also, the situation of being in high school often leaves youth feeling powerless and oppressed, low on the pecking order, and therefore some lash out with violence (through anything from bullying to mutual fights to school shootings). I would have liked to have gotten into more of this systemic stuff and how the church can be a countercultural force for youth, providing meaning and identity, and refusing to live within and put others under a system that oppresses them.
Then we had small groups and a break, and then we heard Andy Root, the keynote speaker. For my youth ministry class we read his book, "Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry." It's excellent. Did I already write about it? It doesn't look like it. Anyway, it was excellent, although I would take it even further. He says the traditional way youth ministry has been done is through "relational youth ministry," where the youth minister tries to build a relationship with a young person for the purpose of getting them to become a Christian. Although this is usually done with good intentions (wanting to share the joy/hope they've found), it ends up being manipulative, so that the relationship is a means to another end. Instead of delighting in being with that young person, the youth worker is really just using that relationship to coerce the youth to perform in a certain way. Therefore it is not a real relationship, but a tool to try to get kids to do what we want. In this kind of ministry we actually don't need a living God. All we need is a model. We look at the life and ministry of Jesus and try to do ministry from that model: using the tools we think he used to achieve our ends (or the ends we think Jesus wants us to get to).
But what if it is the relationship itself that is the place where we meet God? What if it is only in that willingness to act as a "place-sharer," as Root puts it, that we are able to participate in the incarnation, the fleshiness of God in Christ? By place-sharer he means one who is present, listening, loving, challenging, reflecting, hurting and acknowledging the other's hurt...in short, being truly human. Instead of just following a pattern, we are participating with the living Christ in the lives, especially the suffering, of adolescents (and sometimes the suffering FROM adolescents). We can't do this with every kid in our youth group (unless there are only about 2-4 kids), but we can foster an environment where everyone in the worshiping community takes part in this ministry--mentoring as well as learning from youth, being real humans together who are struggling to encounter Christ in the midst of mundane and/or painful life circumstances.
Root will speak again on Thursday, and I have to get some sleep now, but that's a very brief synopsis of my experiences in the forum today.