An argument for youth ministry

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Is youth ministry that important? Do we even need it? I wanted to give a few points on why I think youth ministry is in fact important and needed:

There are some who feel that the biblical mandate for discipling children is a relegated only to the parents. Now, you certainly won’t find me downplaying that importance, the centrality even, of the family. Paul tells parents to bring their children up in the “training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Parents are held responsible to God to do this. Parents are the first and foremost disciplers of their children. No denying. However, what I want to argue is that the responsibility of the family doesn’t leave out the importance, the need even, of the church community. Ideally, the two should go hand in hand.

Just to give an example, why do churches have men’s and women’s ministries? There isn’t a biblical command to have them. In fact, Paul commands husbands and wives to grow together in the Lord in their respective roles (Eph 5). So what rationale do churches have for women’s Bible studies, men’s breakfasts, retreats, etc? The logic is simple: men’s ministries are there to help men in their respective roles: husband, father, son, worker, etc. Same with the women’s ministry. The point of those ministries is to serve men and women in their roles, not to detract from them.

What I want to argue here is that the same goes with youth ministry. The point of youth ministry is to strengthen teenagers in their respective roles, not to detract from the responsibility of parents or families etc. Teenagers are commanded to be godly students, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends, disciples, leaders etc. The end goal is that they would be better in all those areas by being involved in a youth ministry.

In addition to this, I also want to say that there are some biblical commands which are darn near impossible without the presence of some sort of youth ministry. Here are a few examples:

  • John 13:34-35 — Love one another
  • James 5:16 — Confess your sins to one another
  • Ephesians 4:32 — Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another…
  • Romans 12:10 — Be devoted to one another
  • Galatians 6:2 — Bear one another’s burdens

Now, no one is going to deny that these verses apply to teenagers as much as adults. These are communal commands and disciplines that all Christians, not just adults, should grow in. That’s not up for debate. What is up for debate is this: how can students grow in their love for one another? Where can students confess their sins to one another? In what context can teenagers bear one another’s burdens? Hopefully you see what I’m getting at. There must be a communal context for teenagers to apply these commands. My vote is for a youth group.

I want to consider one last thing. The Bible assumes that older Christians should disciple and counsel younger Christians. This assumption is all over the scriptures. Just to give you an example from Titus 2:

But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled,pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled

Now, I realize that the passage commands older women to train younger women to love their husbands and children. That makes these “young women” a bit older than teenagers! But the overall point here is that within the church there is a context of older women, who are not biological parents, discipling and teaching younger women. We can assume that Paul would urge the same of older men and younger men. Now where does this teaching and discipling take place? Well, it could take place really anywhere and in any context. But youth ministry sure is a good context for it!

There is much more that could be said on this topic, but I hope you can see the rationale behind why we do youth ministry.

 

 

 

 

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Taking a Systems Approach to Student Ministry

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So I barely ever do ministry blogs on here….figure it’s time for one, right?

As of lately in my ministry, I have become aware of the need to focus not solely on pastoral issues, sermons, problems, etc, but on creating systems in and through which students can (hopefully) grow and mature.

I’ve been reading a book called Sustainable Youth Ministry, which says in essence, that this is the focus the student pastor needs to take. Step back from the pastoral issues, or sermons and lessons, and first ask: am I creating a system in and through which students can grow? Am I fostering a system where leaders can increasingly plug in and lead?

Mark Devries says this:

In this chapter and the three that follow, I invite you into seeing (and doing) youth ministry with a systems perspective. More and more, we are discovering that sustainable youth ministries are led by systems leaders. The day of the camp counselor youth minister who focuses only on students is over.

Sustainable youth ministries make the leap from a short-term, patchwork ministry to ones based on established systems that last long after the current leadership team has moved on.

(Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do About It, p. 53)

Devries goes on to explain that there are two ways to do youth ministry (really any ministry!!): you can focus on content problems, or focus on sustainable systems.

He explains:

As I have tried to get my head around the power of a systems approach to initiating strategic change, family systems theory has been immensely helpful, particularly in its distinction between “content issues” and “system issues.”

A content issue involves a specific topic, usually a topic of conflict. In youth ministry, typical content issues can be anything from a problem with cliques to a problem with the seventh-grade curriculum. System issues, on the other hand, are those processes that take place beneath, around and within the particular topics of concern, things like trust among the leadership, clarity of expectations for staff and volunteers, or ownership of the ministry beyond the staff.

Trying to initiate change while staying solely focused on content issues is like sprinting up and down the aisle of a speeding jet, believing that the sheer force of effort will speed up the plane. Too many youth workers are wearing themselves out, completely unaware of the fact that they are a part of a system that is carrying them (and their ministries) in a direction that may be completely independent of their exhausting labor. (p 53-54)

Put another way, reactionary planning will exhaust the ministry and the leaders. Focusing on processes that initiate students on the path of discipleship are best. “[D]ramatic, sustainable change happens in youth ministries only when we take our focus off the ‘presenting issues’—the obvious concerns that seem to be creating so much anxiousness—and put our focus on the system patterns that keep us locked into unproductive ways of doing things” (p 54).

What structures can you put into place to begin this process? Devries suggests 5:

  1. Directories: lists of students and volunteers, who’s going, who’s not etc
  2. Annual events calendar: “There’s no reason for a youth ministry not to have its major-events calendar mapped out at least a year in advance, except laziness. Every September, parents should be able to plan around events, including trips, for the upcoming summer (nine months away). Too many youth ministers complain about the lack of committed volunteers and youth who don’t sign up for programs, when those programs are announced less than six weeks before they happen. It’s almost impossible to recruit volunteers to take load-bearing responsibility for programs less than six weeks away” (p 61)
  3. Job descriptions: Who’s who and what’s what of leadership and volunteers
  4. Recruitment list
  5. Curriculum Template: “We call the final control document a curriculum template, a six- or seven-year game plan of how the teachings in the youth ministry will be structured” (p 62)

Beyond this, Devries suggests having a vision, mission, and values statement through which to evaluate calendar, events, teaching, etc.

In later chapters, Devries encourages pastors to set these systems into place, and wait. Longevity is the key, he says. He goes on to say:

Longevity simply works—on all kinds of levels. It forces us to face up to the patterns within ourselves that keep our youth ministries less than effective. It forces us to continue relating to people who have let us down. In a world of disposable relationships, longevity creates a durable Christian community that keeps on loving in spite of disappointments, failures and manipulation. Longevity gives us the chance to learn from our mistakes and to do our part to build it better the next time around. But longevity isn’t easy.

My first five or six years at my current church almost killed me. But as I passed the seven-year threshold, something happened. I started to observe movement I didn’t initiate; I began to see our ministry carried along by a momentum that had been slowly, imperceptibly building for years. (p 125)

Devries does on to say that incremental change is good. Each year, tweak and make the systems better. Critique things, make necessary changes. But overall, the longevity, the waiting, produces change.

Put systems into place, and wait for the change. It doesn’t happen over night!

The Value of Work (Sermon)

Here is a sermon I gave the on the purpose and value of work, from Fellowship Bible Church in Batesville AR. I gave two points from Genesis 1:26-31:

Work is imitation — God created us in his image, and calls us to be and act like him. Part of what it means to be like God is to work. The Genesis creation narrative presents God working 6 days, and taking a sabbath day. He calls us to imitate him in that

Work is participation — When God created mankind, he gave us the earth to tend. The animals, plants, everything therein. What this meant, was that God wanted to include mankind in his creation project. He didn’t want to do all the work himself. He wants to bless his creation through mankind. Through farmers, cooks, artists, musicians, gardeners, et al. God wants to use every profession for the flourishing of his creation!

Planned Parenthood and the 3% Abortion Statistic

So I have had multiple conversations about the 3% statistic that Planned Parenthood (PP) publicized about their abortion services. According to their calculations, only 3% of all of their services is abortion. This would mean that PP is not mainly a place to receive abortions, but mainly a place that offers pregnancy tests, pap smears, STD tests, et al.

But is that 3% stat true? That statistic is confusing at best, and misleading at worst. Why?

The reason is because that 3% stat considers all services rendered in general; it does not consider the patients who receive those services.

The problem is that each patient that goes to PP receives multiple (3-4) “services” per visit. So in one year, PP might perform 11 million services, but ONLY on 3 million patients. This immediately makes the 3% statistic misleading. Because while the abortion might be 3% of the services, the percentage of patients who receive abortions is much higher. If we take into consideration the actual patients rather than the services, about 1 in 9 patients receive abortion (source).

Even worse, if you take into consideration ONLY the pregnant women who receive services from PP, 93% of pregnant women get an abortion (video below). PP is purposely conflating the statistics to make abortion look like one of the “many services” offered. When in fact, abortion is the MAIN thing that PP does for their pregnant patients. And we now know they are profiting off of these abortions.

To get a visual glimpse into how PP conflates their stats, what the video below:

The Work of the Pastor

Eugene Peterson gives us a good glimpse into the work and duties of the pastor, in his Working the Angles. Word and Sacrament, in a wreck of a world. How are we to do this?

Peterson explains:

The definition that pastors start out with, given to us in our ordination, is that pastoral work is a ministry of word and sacrament.

Word.

But in the wreckage [of life] all words sound like “mere words.”

Sacrament.

But in the wreckage what difference can a little water, a piece of bread, a sip of wine make?

Yet century after century Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history but a participant in it. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material that God is using to make a praising life. We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, of adults who once made love and plans, of believers who once brought their doubts and sang their praises in church – and sinned. We don’t see the dancers or the lovers or the singers – at best we see only fleeting glimpses of them. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looked that way to Ezekiel; it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think; and it looks that way to us.

“But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected, sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe that it happened the way Ezekiel preached it and we believe that it still happens. We believe it happened in Israel and that it happens in the church. We believe that we are part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God’s word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe that the most significant thing that happens or can happen is that we are no longer dismembered but are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.

Eugene H. Peterson. Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Kindle Locations 217-231). Kindle Edition.

What I want my students to know about gay marriage

So SCOTUS ruled last week that gay marriage will now be accepted by the government. And I’ve stayed off social media about it for several reasons. But I did want to write something about it from the perspective of a youth pastor (which I am), because I believe it’s incredibly important for students to have a biblical and loving stance toward this issue. With that said, here are a few things I want my students to know about gay marriage:

First of all, I believe the Bible is incredibly clear on issues of sexuality and marriage. What the scriptures say is that God was the one who invented marriage, and he designed it to (1) be between a man and a woman (Mark 10:7-8, Eph 5:31, Gen 2:24), and to (2) be a life-long relationship of sacrificial love that images the gospel of Jesus (Eph 5:25-31). Biblically, marriage is not just about love. It includes gender. It includes the gospel. Man and woman together, imaging Christ and his bride. The Bible is clear on this point. What this means is that anything outside of those boundaries is inherently not biblical. This includes gay marriage, but it also includes sex outside of marriage, live-in relationships, pornography, prostitution, etc.

Second, the ruling from our government in no way changes this definition of marriage. While the government may have redefined marriage in their eyes, it’s not changed in God’s. God has spoken, and no man can change that ruling. For this reason, we shouldn’t react as if it has changed the biblical definition. That’s impossible.

Third, our attitude toward this bill should be nuanced. Why? Well, first, the bill is not a threat to the biblical definition of marriage. And so we shouldn’t fear, or panic, or worry. In many ways, the game has not changed. Christians are on the same mission and plan: go make disciples of all nations. But at the same time, this doesn’t mean we should be indifferent. We live in a relativistic society: “Whatever works for you” is the mindset in America. And it would be easy to say to this bill: “whatever works for them. Just don’t take away my religion”. The massive problem with this, is we worship a Man who not only rose from the dead, but now reigns over the universe at God the Father’s right hand. And he calls all men to worship him or perish. Psalm 2:10-12 says this

 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
 Serve the Lord with fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Philippians 2:8-10 says this:

Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus calls kings and rulers and men from all nations, “kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish”. “Confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”. This applies to everyone. And as America whole-sale enables people their sin, we should grieve. Relativism or indifference is not an option (much less celebration!). Jesus is the risen King, and he calls everyone to allegiance to him.

Lastly, and most importantly, we must remember that homosexual practice is not a special sin. It certainly is a sort of the taboo topic right now, especially with all the media buzz. And we are forced to address it for that reason. But let’s not forget the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 

Notice the sins that Paul lists along with homosexuality. And, notice that all of them are equally condemnable. The “greedy” are no better than “idolaters”. “Revilers” are no better than “men who practice homosexuality”. The point here is that all sin is grievous in God’s eyes. Homosexuality is not any worse than the rest. Every type of sinner is on equal ground. The trouble is that it is often our temptation to “tame” sin. Greed is bad, but it’s not as bad as that sin over there. Stealing is pretty bad, but at least I’m not that guy over there. The Bible simply doesn’t allow us to rank our sins. All sin condemns. And Christ redeems every type of sinner. This is the humbling power of the gospel. And so, as we are forced to look at this issue of homosexuality and marriage, we simply cannot forget that God loves every type of sinner. And we are called to love them as well.

Life of the Trinity: Self-giving love

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Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his Theo-Drama IV: The Action, has an excellent (beware, Balthasar is deep!) explanation of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. For him, life in the Trinity is the starting point of all theology.

In explaining the life involved inside the Trinity, von Balthasar centers on the “generation of the Son” by the Father. This, to him, is the starting point of the Trinity; it explains and reveals everything else.

Balthasar explains the “generation of the Son” as the eternal action of God the Father in giving of himself in love. Because God is love, he is constantly pouring himself out in love. As a result, this pouring of oneself out demands a Beloved — this beloved One is the Son, who is eternally begotten as a result of the Father’s eternal love.

von Balthasar explains*:

The action whereby the Father utters and bestows his whole Godhead, an action he both “does” and “is”, generates the Son. This Son is infinitely Other, but he is also the infinitely Other of the Father…

So, God the Father’s outpouring of love eternally generates the Son. And this outpouring is such that the Son is eternally begotten, and other than of the Father (other in Person, one in substance).

von Balthasar goes so far to say that,

God the Father gives… his divinity away in such a manner that it is not merely “lent” to the Son: the Son’s possession of it is “equally substantial”

And so, God the Son, as God the Father’s beloved, is consubstantial with the Father. von Balthasar describes this outpouring as the “kenosis” (emptying of oneself) of God the Father. He gives of his divinity, empties himself, such that the Son is equal with the Father as a result of that love.

von Balthasar then explains that the Son, as a result of this love, cannot help but give back:

It follows that the Son, for his part, cannot be and possess the absolute nature of God except in the mode of receptivity: he receives this unity of omnipotence and powerlessness from the Father. This receptivity simultaneously includes the Son’s self-givenness… and his filial thanksgiving (Eucharist) for the gift of consubstantial divinity.

What Balthasar explains is that as the Son receives this “powerless” outpouring, this kenosis, of God the Father, he cannot help but give of himself in an act of eucharistia (thankfulness). And so, the Son pours of himself in kenosis back to the Father. Thus, the Father and the Son give of themselves to one another eternally.

Consequently, this expression of kenotic love between the Father and Son is the Holy Spirit. He is the unity of love between the Father and Son.

Balthasar says that the Spirit is a

seal of that self-expropriation that is identical in Father and Son… [He is] the pure manifestation and communication of the love between Father and Son

So this is the life of the Trinity. It is a Lover, a Beloved, and Love which seals the two. We may call the Trinity a kenosis of love. For each person empties himself for the other. The Trinity is radically other-centered. The Father gives, the Son receives and gives, the Spirit seals and glorifies the other two.

von Balthasar goes on to explain that this doctrine of the kenotic Trinity is the starting point for the rest of Christian doctrine. The doctrines, broadly, of creation, covenant, and cross, are all seen as coming from the Trinitarian life of God.

von Balthasar explains,

We spoke of a first “kenosis” of the Father, expropriating himself by “generating” the consubstantial Son. Almost automatically, this first kenosis expands to a kenosis involving the whole Trinity. For the Son could not be consubstantial with the Father except by self-expropriation; and their “We”, that is, the Spirit, must also be God if he is to be the “personal” seal of that self-expropriation…

This primal kenosis (Trinitarian life) makes possible all other kenotic movements of God into the world; they are simply its consequences. The first “self-limitation” of the triune God arises through endowing his creatures with freedom. The second, deeper, “limitation” of the same triune God occurs as a result of the covenant, which, on God’s side, is indissoluble, whatever may become of Israel. The third kenosis, which is not only christological but involves the whole Trinity, arises through the Incarnation of the Son alone: henceforth he manifests his eucharistic attitude (which was always his) in the pro nobis [for us, in place of] of the Cross and Resurrection for the sake of the world.

This is a favorite passage of mine, because in it, Balthasar ties Christian theology to the life of the Trinity.

For Balthasar, creation itself is seen as an over-pouring of Trinitarian love, in which God creates and gives of himself to free agents. Creation, for him, is “a new ‘kenosis’ on God’s part, since he is thereby restricted, implicitly by creaturely freedom and explicitly by the covenant with its stated terms”. In giving implicit freedom, and explicit covenants, God is thereby binding and limiting himself (even limiting his own freedom) to his creation. Thus, the creation is an act of self-giving love from an overflow of the Trinity itself!

On a deeper level still, the cross is an expression of Trinitarian kenosis; because in the cross, Jesus pours himself out — he empties himself (Phil 2:7) — on behalf of mankind. He gives himself as a sacrifice for the sin of mankind, which is a pleasing aroma to the Father (Eph 5:2). Balthasar explains that the the Son’s surrender to death on the cross is a “representation of the Father’s trinitarian, loving self-surrender”. This fits especially with Christ’s words: if you have seen Me, you have seen the Father (Jn 14:9). Thus, when we look to the cross — this kenosis of Christ, this atoning surrender — we see the Father in his essence.

And so, Trinitarian self-giving love — kenosis — is the grounding of all Christian theology!

*All quotes come from section III, C, 1