Monday, September 25, 2006

    "Jesus Camp" in the news...

    Saturday, September 23, 2006


    I just returned from a relaxing weekend at our area campgrounds. I was there for a God @ Center retreat for adults who serve in ministry with youth. It's been awhile since I've had the privilege of gathering with others involved in youth ministry and spend time in conversation and discernment about what ministry with teenagers is all about. The retreat was led by Rev. Randy Kuss. Once upon a time, Randy headed up our DOC denominational office for youth ministry and he has been a part of the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project (YMSP). Randy now devotes his free time to traveling the country and presenting spirituality retreats for youthworkers based on the YMSP findings and his own 30+ years in youth ministry.

    The focus of this particular retreat was being attentive to the presence of God. Our time together included prayer, an art experience, conversation, meditation, singing, worship, shared meals, and an opportunity to try our hand at such ancient Christian practices as the Awarness Examen. I think those at the retreat would agree that we enjoyed the opportunity for sabbath and left with a renewed understanding that we have to be attentive to our own spirituality if we expect to ask youth to be attentive to their connection with God. More on my learnings from this event soon.

    Thursday, September 14, 2006

    Jesus Camp (updated)

    Recently one of the youth at church mentioned seeing this preview for the documentary Jesus Camp and she was clearly disturbed by what she saw and asked if we could go as a group to see the film and talk about its implications.

    A synopsis of "Jesus Camp" from Rotten Tomatoes:
    A growing number of Evangelical Christians believe there is a revival underway in America whereby Christian youth must take up the leadership of the conservative Christian movement. JESUS CAMP, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka), follows Levi, Rachael, Tory and a number of other young children to Pastor Becky Fischer's Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, where kids as young as 6 years-old are taught to become dedicated Christian soldiers in God's army. The film follows these children at camp as they hone their prophetic gifts and are schooled in how to take back America for Christ. The film is a first-ever look into an intense training ground that recruits born-again Christian children to become an active part of America's political future.

    My initial reaction to viewing the trailer was to remember that the first region of a young person's brain to fully develop is the emotions center. This explains much of what I have witnessed at Christian teen events where the adults seem particularly astute at working the young people up into an emotional frenzy ending in tears rolling down their faces and declarations of devotion to Christ. This emotional high, of course, quickly wears off as the youth return to their regular lives and that devotion to Jesus is subsumed by the next thing that grabs their emotional attention.

    One homeschooling site include this unattributed observation about the film:

    The problem liberals encounter with ‘Jesus Camp’ is that it’s a challenge. These kids are smart and motivated and know what they’re fighting for. Liberals, on the other hand, generally aren’t absolutists about their beliefs. They tend to let their children come to their own conclusions.

    I think there is a great deal of truth in that statement. Fundamentalist youth are taught early on what is true and truth and what a Christian believes. Liberal youth, like the ones I tend to work with, are much less likely to be able to articulate Church doctrine, quote supporting scripture for their positions, or say unequivocally what they believe "the" Christian position to be on hot button issues. But is this a problem? What I do notice in liberal Christian youth is that they tend to have a well-developed understanding of justice and what it means to care for the "least of these" and to accept and love those who are different.

    Though I'd be interested in showing "Jesus Camp" to my youth, I'd be more likely in the near feature to watch with them this film from the PBS P.O.V. series: The Education of Shelby Knox. In this documentary, a senior high girl living in the Bible belt goes on a crusade to bring sex-ed to her school where a disproportionate number of teenage pregnancies are occurring. She is met with opposition from every side: the school faculty, board of education, town leaders, local pastors. Yet she persists because for her it is a justice issue. In the second half of the film, Shelby gets caught up in another controversy when she is asked to support the founding of a gay/straight alliance in her school and she finds herself in more ambiguous territory about what she thinks is the right thing to do. This film would provide an excellent spring board for a youth group discussion on issues of justice, left/right politics, the diversity of Christian thought in America, leadership, and what it means to stand up for those you consider to be "the least of these."

    Wednesday, September 13, 2006

    Does God Want You to Be Rich?

    Check out this post and the corresponding comments at the blog Between Two Worlds regarding Time Magazine's lastest cover story on Americanized- Christianity and the prosperity gospel being preached in the mega-churches and by so-called evangelists on TV. I'll have to admit to finding Joel Osteen engaging when I flip by and catch him "preaching" on TV, but after a few viewings you realize he's preaching the same sermon over and over and it's all about self-empowerment and feeling good. The fact that Osteen is now a multi-millionaire and helms a church so large that it has to be held in the Compaq Center, an 18,000-seat arena in Houston, only seems to support his proclamation that God rewards positive thinking.

    Why doesn't he just drop the religious angle and become a self-help speaker? Our young people already have enough trouble prioritizing their faith over the cultural enticements of wealth, popularity, comfort, and success. They don't need pastors watering down the scandal of the gospel from the pulpit.

    Do Something

    Every week AIDS kills more people than all the American casualties in the Viet Nam War. What can be done to stop this pandemic? Check out World Vision's One Life Revolution for tangible ways to involve youth groups in making a difference. Another great outreach event promoted by World Vision is the 30 Hour Famine, an international youth movement to fight world hunger.

    Thursday, September 07, 2006

    Writing "On the Way"...

    Last summer I had an opportunity to be part of the team of writers crafting the Summer 2007 church camp New Earth Outdoors curriculum, put out by New Earth Publishers in cooperation with the Committee on Outdoor Ministry of the National Council of Churches. Our ecumenical team met for several days in St. Louis to walk through the selected scriptural texts, wrestle theologically with the biblical themes (and with each other!), and attempt to begin the process of crafting a summer camp curriculum that would be accessible to churches up and down the theological spectrum. We then went our separate ways to write our portion of the curriculum in time to ship it off to the editors last November. My sections included activities for younger youth and the ideas for mission/outreach. I have to say it was a fun project to work on and it was a blessing to serve with such an engaging writing team. The full curriculum, centered around the theme "On the Way," and the journey of faith, is now out and available and I think it's pretty darn good! You can check out a pdf sample of the text here.

    Wednesday, September 06, 2006

    Winners and Losers in the Kingdom of God?

    I love the Diane Rhem show on NPR and today she featured an interview with Jamie Lee Curtis, actress and now author of children's books. Curtis was promoting her newest work, Is There Really a Human Race ,which explores issues of competition and the global culture. Curtis really got worked up talking about how crazy we are about competition. Elections now are treated like football games between hated rivals, the most-watched programs on TV all feature a weekly "loser" who gets kicked off the show, and have you heard those stories of parents having fist fights at little league games?

    Many years ago I concluded that competition just did not fit into my understanding of Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of God so I phased out competitive activities in my youth group programs. Yes, I kept in some of the silly games, but we played for the sake of fun and we didn't bother to keep score. Of course, some suggested I was being ridiculous since our youth live in the "real world" which is supposedly based in competition. Actually, for most of us cooperation is the main skill needed in our jobs. But if competition is what makes the world go 'round, I see part of my role as pastor is to help youth catch a glimpse of the world not as it is, but as it could be--a world where love and community are the focus rather than self-sufficiency, independence, and competition. (I suppose it's a good thing I don't work at a church with a youth basketball league!)

    Are there winners and losers in the Kingdom of God? Not in my reading of the synoptic gospels (though, admittedly John seems to take a different approach). Now, I know someone could proof-text to me all sorts of scripture to show that some people aren't going to make it into the Kingdom. But, taken as a whole, the teachings of Jesus depicted in the New Testament speak clearly (to me, anyway) that we are all God's beloved, we all live within God, and our task is to open our eyes and realize this amazing truth. The Gospel of Thomas says it nicely: the Kingdom of the Father is already spread out on the earth, and people aren't aware of it.

    And yet some do know the truth that Luke shares: The Kingdom is within you.

    But I can't Draw!

    Do you integrate art into your ministry with youth? I've always felt that the visual arts are given short shrift in ministry. When we do engage the visual arts, it is often as passive observers rather than creative participants. It ocurred to me recently that I've made a habit in recent years of engaging my youth in the process of art-making as a spiritual practice to engage our God-given creativity and explore our faith story. A few projects I've tried with good success:

    1) Mosaic: I take an image/photo that relates to the theme or scripture to be considered. The image is divided into equal squares ("pixels") and each person is given a square and asked to reproduce just their square onto a larger scale, using whatever art medium they choose. The pieces are then all reassembled into a large scale artistic mosaic of the original image. The final image can be quite beautiful and represents the unique efforts of the whole community brought together. Check
    here to see how some folks turned their group photo into a mosiac work of art.

    2) Mask-making: It never fails that when I suggest this project some of the adults involved are always dubious ("It's too messy! The youth won't want to do it!") and then the kids end up loving it. Youth create life-masks of their own faces using plaster bandage (available in most art/craft stores) and then decorate the masks to represent their personalities/spiritual gifts/hopes for the future, etc. The great thing about this project is that it requires teens to work in pairs, each building up the mask on the other's face. This project requires a lot of trust and care on the part of the person building the mask, so it is a great way to build community and develop intimacy within the group. Best of all, the finished products become part of the decor of the youth room.
    Here is a quick and simple description of the whole mask-making process.

    3) Mural: Each year our youth develop a mural theme based on our biblical studies and then work together to paint a holistic work of art on the walls of the youth room. Last fall our focus was on "The Way of Christ" so they created images that represented peace, love, forgiveness, hospitality, and risk.

    4) Personal Shrines: At camp this past summer, a group of the youth created mini-shrines centered around our theme of "Peace Talks." The shrines were an example of assemblage art-- three dimensional art made of found objects and images. Youth chose a shadow box or other container and created within it a 3-D "collage" of natural objects, words, photos, candles, fabric, etc, to create unique portable "sacred spaces" that spoke to their understanding of Christ's way of peace. These shrines were added to our worship space for the week so they could inspire the whole camp. Here are some examples of mini-shrines including some cool travelling shrines made out of old breath mint tins.

    Now...I just have to come up with a good idea for this fall. Any suggestions out there?

    Saturday, September 02, 2006

    Bread and Circuses

    Ingrid Schlueter at the blog Slice of Laodicea reveals the dark underbelly of contemporary youth ministry that seems particularly prevalent in the mega-church mentality of today:

    The old Romans had a Latin phrase, panem et circenses (literally, bread and circuses) that was used to describe a decadent citizenry that could be pacified with free food and circuses. Today, much of youth ministry consists of bread and circuses handed out by youth leaders eager for
    large numbers.

    Schlueter goes on to describe a literal "traveling circus" extreme sports youth event dubbed
    The Freedom Experience that promises "freedom from sin, freedom from darkness, and freedom in Jesus." Here is a consumer culture-driven orgy of distraction that will supposedly bring kids to Christ through a 2-3 day event of "dramatic stunts, amazing illusions, loud music, exciting school assemblies, and death-defying escapes"! Check out the promo videos here and here if you don't believe me. Pay particular attention to what the teens say as opposed to the adults interviewed.

    Schlueter goes on to lament that:

    The bread and circuses will only have to get bigger and better to draw the kids. You can hear the youth leader [in the video] say that pizza at church doesn't cut it any more. I have news for him. Pizza at church never did cut it when it came to the teaching and preaching of the Word, which is the only thing God has ever promised to bless.

    (Bonus points if you have any idea what the above photo has to do with this entry!)

    Post-Colonial Youth Ministry

    I just stumbled upon this post on the notion of "post-colonial" youth ministry by a blogger in Australia. Interesting stuff, and follows right along the thread of thought that our work in youth ministry is not to "make teens into Christians" or convert them to Christianity. We can leave the transformation up to the holy spirit, which I admittedly believe is found only within community with others. Like the missionaries of olden times hubristicly believing they were "bringing God" to places where God surely had already been present since the beginning of time, so likewise who are we to think that because we are older or "wiser," we are in a position to bring Jesus to teenagers. Does age have something to do with the depth of one's spirituality? Not in my experience. I've met children more in tune with the Spirit than many adults I know and I've certainly encountered young people who had a deeper sense of God's call on their lives than I felt at the time. This gets back to my thinking that my work in youth ministry is less to teach kids that "Jesus is the way" than it is to help them learn more about how they can live out "the way of Jesus" in their lives.

    Friday, September 01, 2006

    What Would Jesus Say?

    Mike Yaconelli was one of the great voices in youth ministry and his legacy lives on despite his untimely death in 2003. He was co-founder of Youth Specialities and served as editor of "The Door," an irreverent magazine that took on religion and culture. Mike used to joke that he pastored the slowest-growing church in the U.S. because it had few members now than when he started. When Mike wrote or spoke about ministry with young people, he was always completely candid and honest and spoke from the heart in no uncertain language. There was no "B.S." in his theology, and here is great example of why his teachings still continue to guide my own ministry.