Saturday, November 25, 2006

    Christ the King

    In doing a little background research for this coming Sunday's liturgy, I came across this timely quote from an essay by Barbara Brown Taylor in The Christian Century, referring to Good Friday:
    One of the many things this story tells us is that Jesus was not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out. Someone is about to have no king but Caesar.

    Wednesday, November 22, 2006

    Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

    The National Survey of Youth and Religion has some fascinating things to say about who these teenagers are that roam the hallways and youth rooms of our mainline churches. One of the most significant findings of their in-depth research is that Christian teens, by in large, seem to subscribe to what the researchers call "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." The MTD creed goes something like this:

    (1) "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."

    (2) "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."

    (3) "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."

    (4) "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."

    (5) "Good people go to heaven when they die."

    I think that hits the nail on the head. And this isn't just the viewpoint of many teens. It has permeated into the adult ranks of the Church as well. In the text that summarizes the studies findings, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, the authors argue that MTD has replaced a more traditional version of Christian belief and practice:

    We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity's misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith" (page 171).

    This "different religious faith," perhaps not by accident, happens to be a perfect bedfellow with our modern consumer culture that sells happiness as the goal of life and supplies consumer products that promise to satiate our unending appetite for feeling good. The researches argue: "Therapeutic indvidualism's ethos perfectly serves the needs and interests of the U.S. mass-consumer capitalist economy by constituting people as self-fulfillment-oriented consumers subject to advertising's influence on their subjective feelings."

    None of this should be a big surprise. I recall when I started serving at my current church several years ago and early on held a meeting with the adult and teen leaders of the youth group. When asked how they understood the purpose of our youth ministry program, the general response was something along the lines of "We come together to be nice to each other and have fun." In essence, youth group as "The Nice People's Club." Here's the problem: there are lots of "Nice People's Clubs" out there in the secular world. Does the Church not have an identity distinct from secular culture? One of my favorite texts in seminary, perhaps suprisingly as it was written by conservative authors, was Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. In it they strongly argue that when the Church ceases to have an identity separate from the secular culture, it ceases to be the Church. The authors write: "...both the conservative and liberal church...are basically accommodationist (that is, Constantinian) in their social ethic. Both assume wrongly that the American church's primary social task is to underwrite American democracy." (p. 32)

    Of course, it goes without saying that if all we want our young people to learn is that God wants them to be good citizens -- to be nice to each other and to live a happy life -- it doesn't take long to teach that message. They pick that up pretty early on. So, once they get it, what use is the Church to them -- unless of course the Church is working to make them happy, too.

    So, here's what I'd suggest. Go to the teens of the church, present them with this notion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and ask them what they think. Is this how they understand God and faith? If so, are they willing to risk going deeper with their faith? And if they don't see themselves reflected in MTD, are they willing to try to articulate what it is they do understand the Christian faith to be about? Maybe it's time to just sit down with kids and start having these conversations -- to ask them what they really think about God, sin, death, salvation, the afterlife, justice, and love. We might be suprised at what they have to tell us.

    Tuesday, November 21, 2006

    The Biggest Mistakes I've Made in Youth Ministry - Part 1

    What are the worst mistakes you can make in youth ministry? Here are a few suggestions:

    1) Posting Youth Group attendance numbers in the church newsletter - This may seem like a good idea when you've got a ton of kids coming. But when the number takes an ocassional dip, as it inevitably will do from time to time, you "got some 'splainin' to do." Not to mention, posting these sorts of numbers just communicates that you think it's the size of the ministry, not the quality, that counts.

    2) Playing "kiddie" versions of college chug-a-lug games - Early in my career, I came across a game in a youth ministry book that looked like fun. The directions said to attach pieces of rubber tubing to the mouth of several 2-liter bottles of soda and then invite several students to compete to see who could be first to drink their entire two-liter through the tube while the bottle is held above their heads (imagine an IV-drip attached to a hospital patient). The time I tried this, one teen realized it was just for fun and let the soda pour out of her mouth and all over her shirt. But the other teen, a boy who was visiting that night, really made an attempt to drink the entire bottle through the tube. He drank about half the bottle when he discovered that all that carbonation was too much and he promptly puked up on the church parking lot. It was not too long after that when I discovered that this game is actually a non-alcoholic version of a fraternity drinking game! Yes, I was naive and innocent. No, we never played that game again. Yes, that boy did actually come back to youth group for another visit! No, I never told his parents about the little "incident" on the parking lot!

    3) Assuming parents won't mind if youth group runs 15 minutes late - They do mind--they mind enough to come and yank their child out right in the middle of closing worship! So much for "Go in Peace." Punctuality goes a long way in fostering good youth minister-parent relations.

    Friday, November 10, 2006

    The Church You Know

    The Church You Know appears to be a relatively new website that takes an honest but humorous look at the traditional church and some of its shortcomings (and God knows it has plenty of those!). I especially appreciate the faux-promo video shorts that deal with the ironic and sometimes hypocritical side of such issues as church attendance, tithing, worship styles, and the ubiquitous WWJD? Oh, and who wouldn't want one of their "Body of Christ" t-shirts (though, in my experience, the youth minister usually ranks even a little lower in the anatomy!).

    From the site:
    We are not really promoting a specific church structure or model (house church, simple church etc.). Our passion is to see people come into the freedom, joy and peace of intimate relationship with Jesus and fellow members of His Body. We realize this can happen within literally any of the structures or systems found under the umbrella of Christendom. At the same time, we believe most of the systems and structures create stumbling blocks to this goal of relationship with Christ and His Body – and these are what we hope to draw attention to.

    Tuesday, November 07, 2006

    The Questions...

    I was talking a week or so ago with Josh, one of the talented and devoted adult leaders of our youth program. It was shortly after seeing "Jesus Camp" and I was commenting that one thing that distinguishes fundamentalist evangelical teens from our teens is that the evangelical youth really know what they "believe." Those "jesus camp" kids can tell you exactly what they think about God, sin, the afterlife, salvation, etc. Our youth, on the other hand, probably couldn't really articulate any definite thinking on those subjects. Josh's response: "I'm not sure a teenager should be able to give you a definite answer about those things." Though a part of me wants to provide youth with a basic set of Christian fundamentals, a greater part of me agrees with Josh. Teenagers don't necessarily need answers about faith. Rather, they need to be shown how to asks lots and lots of questions. And, just as importantly, they need a safe space in which to ask them.

    Monday, November 06, 2006


    Currently the news is full of stories on the sad turn of events for Rev. Ted Haggard who appears in the new documentary "Jesus Camp" making comments in a sermon -- comments which have taken on new meaning due to recent revelations. Haggard has admitted to being involved with a gay prostitute and using drugs, all while preaching to his church members the dangers of temptations and the evils of homosexuality. In a final letter to his church, Haggard states:

    There is part of my life that is so repulsive and dark
    that I've been warring against it all of my adult life"

    I can only imagine the pain being felt by his wife and children, not to mention the demons that Haggard is dealing with at this time. I also can't help but wonder what is going through the minds of the young people in his church, and you know there must be some, who themselves have struggled with their sexual identity. How are they to understand this turn of events? Here is a religious leader who preaches that homosexuality is a sin while he himself acts on his sexual orientation in destructive ways.

    I have to wonder how this whole picture might be different if Rev. Haggard lived in a world where his sexual orientation was simply seen as another expression of human life -- if he had felt free to be the person he truly is, rather than living a lie. It is not Haggard's sexual orientation that led to these unfortunate events. It is the "closet" he felt forced to hide in and a religious viewpoint that deems a part of a person's biological makeup to be sinful and immoral. One of the great sins of the Church today is that many so-called Christians still feel perfectly content to condemn faithful young gay people to the the same damnable "closet" that has destroyed Haggard's ministry and damaged his family life.

    Christian fundamentalism ceases to be a "just another variation of the Christian message" when it twists the teachings of the gospel to force people to hate themselves or others for being the person God created them to be. Persons can agree or disagree on what the biblical authors thought about same-sex relationships thousands of years ago. But ultimately we are called to love one another, to invite one another to the table, and to help one another live into a life centered in God's justice and peace.

    I can imagine a fundamentalist eagerly approaching Christ on his "return" and saying "At last, Jesus, you're back. Now, settle this question about the homosexuals once and for all!"
    To which Jesus replies. "The what now? Any way, back to what I was saying about love, peace, justice, grace, and forgiveness. Maybe you'd better start writing this down. You folks seem to have a knack for being easily distracted by trivial matters. By the way, I've only got a few more minutes. I'm having lunch in a half hour with some of my friends at the GLBT church down the street."

    Some more reactions to this story at

    Thursday, November 02, 2006

    Time Magazine & Youth Ministry

    Time Magazine has printed a article on the current shift happening in youth ministry away from consumer-culture centered programs to ministries centered in spiritual formation and mission:

    Youth ministers have been on a long and frustrating quest of their own over the past two decades or so. Believing that a message wrapped in pop-culture packaging was the way to attract teens to their flocks, pastors watered down the religious content and boosted the entertainment. But in recent years churches have begun offering their young people a style of religious instruction grounded in Bible study and teachings about the doctrines of their denomination. Their conversion has been sparked by the recognition that sugarcoated Christianity, popular in the 1980s and early '90s, has caused growing numbers of kids to turn away not just from attending youth-fellowship activities but also from practicing their faith at all.

    The shift described in the article is encouraging, but the author seems to equate success in youth ministry with how many youth are attracted to your programs. Is not this focus on numbers a by-product of the consumer-culture we are trying to resist? Is a small country church with a five-member youth group necessarily less effective than a 500-member youth group at a mega-church? Years ago I stopped reporting in the church newsletter the number of youth present at our various activities. I realized that it sent the message that we were judging the value of our ministry by the number of youth who walked in the door.

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