A Letter to the Church of Christ

Dear Church of Christ,

I know you’d rather not believe it some days, but I am your daughter. Church of Christ through and through, I was born into your welcoming arms, taught in your Sunday school, and baptized into your family at the age of nine. Some of my earliest memories as a three- and four-year-old are of coloring in Sunday school, playing Mother May I up and down the center aisle of the auditorium, excitedly reciting the books of the Old Testament to anyone who would listen. It was you who raised me, and you to whom I owe my formative upbringing and my love for Christ. It was you who made me who I am today.

It was you who taught me a deep love for the church. I even played church when I was little – my siblings and I called our church “Bellwood Church of Christ,” an amalgamation of the names of the two churches that had been part of our life. I remember copying music from the hymnbook to make my own, filling out attendance cards, serving my siblings crackers and grape juice, as I could not serve in “real church” because I was a little girl and not a little boy. This love for the church is why I am still here – why I still sit in your pews, even though tears stream down my cheeks some Sundays and the anxiety turns my stomach in knots.

It was you who taught me to love Scripture. I participated in Bible Bowl every year, I asked for a new Bible for multiple Christmases, and in middle school I memorized the book of James on my own volition. I remember sitting on the wrought iron bench down by the creek, closing my eyes and reciting it over and over: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” It was that love for Scripture you taught me that led me to study it, to question it, to come to new understandings of it. It was my love for Scripture that led me to study theology and biblical exegesis in college and pull all-nighters writing papers on obscure passages, to minor in Greek so I could read the New Testament in its original language, to move across the country to go to seminary for 3 years, then to go through the rigor of a Ph.D. in religious education to write a dissertation on biblical theology in youth ministry – falling more deeply in love with Scripture all the time. Imagine the shock and confusion I feel when you tell me, over and over, that I disrespect the Word of God and that if I actually read the Bible, I would “get it.”

It was you who taught me of the priesthood of all believers – that one does not need to be ordained to be a minister, that everyone can preach the gospel, and that everyone has equal standing in the body of Christ. It was this doctrine which made me question why I was not included as a full member of the community. I would sit in the pew as a young girl, watching the “young men” lead worship, and wondering why I could not, as I certainly had more enthusiasm for it. You taught me that I did not need to go through anyone to speak to God, which made me wonder why I could not pray in church except through the leadership of a man. It was you who taught me that I am equal in God’s eyes, and when I acted equal, then told me, “Not like that.”

It was you who taught me to seek unity. Isn’t that how the Church of Christ came to be – with Presbyterians, fed up with sectarianism, who wanted to extend an ecumenical hand to all who profess Christ? But when I speak positively of my experience at a Presbyterian seminary or talk about what I learned from my United Methodist friends, you question my commitment to the church. And when my theology or politics differs from yours, you tell me you wish I would “just leave.” But how does one “just leave” their family? How does one “just leave” the only church they’ve ever known?

It was you who taught me to follow the call of Christ even if people mocked me, discouraged me, excluded me, and tried to prevent me. I always thought you were talking about the “worldly others,” so I stepped out boldly in faith, hoping when those worldly others came for me, you’d have my back, you’d be there to catch me. I never expected that you would be the one to mock me, discourage me, exclude me, and call me names. Shameful. Deceived. Modern-day Eve. Satan’s puppet.

I am a daughter of the Church of Christ, through and through, yet somehow, I am an embarrassment to you, the black sheep you can’t claim as your own. I belong so much that somehow, I don’t belong at all.

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Why Your Church Should Offer Adulting Classes

A strange phenomenon has popped up across the country in the last five years: adulting classes. A quick Google search reveals that they’ve become more popular since I first heard about them two years ago. Now there have actually been news write-ups about them, like this CBS article: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/adulting-classes-teach-millennials-basic-skills-like-sewing-cooking-and-how-to-deal-with-relationships/.

If you haven’t heard “adult” used as a verb before, it typically refers to the practice of responsibility, or perhaps more specifically, to the household tasks that comprise the daily life of adults. One might say, “I actually made a meal from scratch today! #adulting.”  This is largely a Millennial (and now Gen Z) phenomenon.

The most substantial reason that young adults don’t know how to “adult” is because they haven’t been taught how. In the early 1900’s and before, parents passed on these skills to their children in a home environment. In the 20’s-30’s, public school became more of the norm, but the schools took on the responsibility of preparing students to be productive citizens. Part of that education included basic “adulting” skills: there were Home Economics and Shop classes. But as the education system has expanded – college became the norm, and now a masters degree – the purpose of middle and high school has increasingly become not to prepare for life, but to prepare for more school. So the more practical aspects of education had to be cut – why waste part of the school day teaching 15-year-olds how to cook, when they could be bulking up their college application resume with AP classes and extracurriculars? Yale doesn’t care if you know how to fix your own car. And Yale certainly won’t teach you to do it, either.

So now we have whole generations of people entering “adulthood” without being equipped for its everyday tasks. In light of this, we’re beginning to see young adults seeking out opportunities to learn basic skills – managing money and balancing a budget, cooking a simple healthy meal, changing a tire or oil, doing laundry or ironing. There are youtube videos and online classes and actual classes hosted by libraries or community centers. Don’t make fun of them for it – no one taught them how, and they’re trying to learn. Be part of the solution.

If churches recognize this need and can organize to fill it, hosting adulting classes is a great opportunity to become involved in your community and mentor young adults. I hesitate to suggest it, even as I write this, because of a very important caveat that needs to be made: this idea is not an “outreach opportunity” in the bait-and-switch method of making them “pay” for the classes by sitting and listening to a “message.” Nor should it be a manipulation strategy to guilt young adults into attending your church. Like meeting any need – running a clothing closet or food pantry, for instance – adulting classes can certainly be exploited for the church’s gain, but should not be. Instead, they should be offered freely, with no expectation of ever seeing the young person again, or pressure on them to come back. Instead, view it simply as a way to offer God’s love to a community.

With that said, here are some reasons your church should consider offering adulting classes:

  • It meets a need in the community that empowers people and enables them to flourish. Adulting classes make young people more confident in their skills, it helps them save money by no longer outsourcing basic skills (i.e. cooking instead of eating out), and helps them to be more well-rounded people who engage in activities that are about making a life, not just making a living.
  • It creates the opportunity for intergenerational relationships to form and flourish. How often do 70-year-olds and 25-year-olds spend time together – or think that the other age group has anything to offer them? Young adults need the mentorship of older adults, and if your church doesn’t have any young people ruffling its feathers with their youthful ideas, it could probably use some (if they attend a cooking class and suggest a way to do it more sustainably, like using reusable grocery bags, listen to them and learn from each other!).
    • Also, the loss of life skills isn’t the only thing that has happened with the evolution of schools. Young people have also lost adult interaction (see Chap Clark, Hurt 2.0). I find that teens are starved to hear from adults, even inexperienced ones like myself: How did you know your spouse was “the one”? Have you ever doubted your faith? How do you parent? They don’t have any guidance for navigating these experiences, and they crave it.
  • It makes the church a welcoming community space. Like Divorce Care and AA and literacy classes, it helps the church be something other than a place of worship. How much did your church spend on its building? Shouldn’t it be used more than once a week? How much did it spend on that industrial kitchen? Shouldn’t it be used more than once a quarter? Make it a place that is inclusive of the community, rather than an exclusive space focused solely on Sunday morning activities.

So, what might it look like for a church to host adulting classes? Ideas can easily be sourced from other spaces that have pioneered this work, but I tend to envision Saturday afternoon classes focused on a different skill every week, or month, or however often they’re hosted. Choose the skills you want to teach (basic sewing to fix a button or hem pants, how to make a vegetable soup, how to change a tire, what credit scores mean) and get congregants involved who know how to do (and teach) those things well. Invite high school students from your church, college students and young professionals from your community. Have a 2-hour workshop, perhaps share a meal, and send them home with resources (a small sewing kit, the recipe you taught, a diagram of what’s under the hood of their car) and maybe even your phone number. As my father-in-law suggested when I first mentioned this, “What about an adopt-a-mom-or-dad hotline – when you need to learn to fix a dripping faucet or a running toilet or a dead lawn mower?” As an overwhelmed Millennial myself, I can’t even imagine how it would make me feel for someone to offer such a thing – to call them if I need help with my car?? Unheard of. (But let me say again, if I found out it was bait-and-switch, I wouldn’t feel loved, and I wouldn’t come back.)

So, the idea is out there, the need is out there, and the opportunity is out there. Go love some young adults.

 

The Reflective Youth Pastor

In one of my recent posts, “Why Your Next Youth Minister Might Should Be a Spiritual Director,” I wrote about the importance of holy listening in youth ministry. In this post, I want to build on that idea by focusing on a specific aspect of holy listening: the neglected practice of reflection.

Busy is a status symbol in our culture; we measure how important we are by how many demands we have on our time, and if we don’t have enough on our plate to look sufficiently important, we manufacture more. And as thoroughly enmeshed in culture as our churches are, ministry has not escaped the pressure of workaholism. In Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark Yaconelli writes about the pervasive disease that is “anxiety-driven youth ministry.” Youth pastors are always going, going, going, trying to do more, more, more. We feel guilt and shame if we are not constantly doing something. There are more problems with this mindset than I can address in this post – at the very least, our sense of pride and self-reliance rather than faith, and the way in which our anxiety and insecurity is passed down to our workaholic teens – but here I want to focus on just one: a lack of reflection in youth ministry.

In his book The Skillful Teacher, educator Stephen Brookfield writes that over the course of his career, he has become convinced that “the key” and “the essence” of good teaching is evaluation and reflection. This idea is perhaps counter-intuitive and certainly counter-cultural: that the essence of good teaching isn’t what happens in the classroom. It’s what happens when you’re by yourself or reflecting with others, scrutinizing why something didn’t work, reading over student evaluations, remembering a comment or question, reflecting on what your students need, remembering the expressions on their faces that betrayed excitement or anxiety. That is the backbone of teaching, what gives your teaching its substance and heart.

The same is true for ministry: at its heart is the discipline of reflection. If you’re always going and going and going, from one thing to the next, you don’t have time to process. But margins are vital to give you time to reflect on the way your student dropped their eyes when you asked a question, or suddenly became silent. To remember a question someone asked, to dwell on it, to perceive how God is working in their lives. To see relationships that are forming, or falling apart. To mull over a seemingly mundane encounter, holding it like a diamond, turning it over in our minds to see how the light illuminates the facets.

Good ministry requires us first to notice, and second to reflect. And to do that, we need space. We need to rest enough to be attentive enough to notice. We need to take time after every ministry experience to jot down some notes, even if it’s just 5 minutes, even if it’s just a sentence. But how can we do that if, in order to feel like we’re doing “enough” ministry, we’re packing our schedules so tightly we can’t breathe?

It is the assumption of many pastors and many churches that good ministry is characterized by constant activity. Instead, I would dare to propose that good ministry is characterized by thoughtful activity. We can put in 80-hour work weeks, but if it’s not guided by the Spirit, what’s the point? We can pull out all the latest attractional ministry fads, but if we never stop to think about the needs of the actual youth we’re serving, what good is it? We can go from one activity to the next and amaze our congregation with our superhuman energy and productivity rate, but why bother if we haven’t even stopped to consider how our youth are responding? Without the disciplined practice of reflection, youth ministry becomes a lot of frenzied, directionless activity.

So the first step toward becoming a reflective youth pastor is to learn to notice – which in itself requires us to slow down. When we’re not actively engaging our skills of observation, we tend to let moments slip by us and disappear – moments that were full of spiritually formative potential, if only we’d reached out to grasp them. The act of noticing is a spiritual discipline, and we can practice it in two ways. 

First, we can stimulate our powers of observation by actively practicing it – by looking up and taking in the world around us, and by lingering on what catches our gaze: people-watching instead of looking at our phone in line at Starbucks, taking 10 seconds to look at a flower that caught our eye to see it in more detail.

But, second, we also need to practice really noticing and holding on to the moments that happen to us by accident. Moments when something sparks anxiety or joy deep inside you, moments when beauty suddenly arrests you, moments when a student’s split-second facial expression struck you – don’t let them go. Pause to feel them, name them, and hold them in your mind as a treasure trove of opportunities for later reflection.

The next step is to make time for reflection. Determine to do less, and do it better. Schedule time for reflection before and after events. When you come into the office, before you check your email, take a moment to breathe, pray, and allow ministry moments from the past week to come to your mind. Choose one and think it over. What was going on in that moment? Reconstruct the scene. Who was there? What were the sights, sounds, smells? How did you feel? Allow yourself to feel it deeply, even it is sorrow or regret. How was God present in that moment? What can you learn from it? Sometimes there’s something very concrete to learn from these moments, and sometimes we can merely appreciate them, wonder about them, enter into the mystery of them.

After your lunch with a student, build in a 10-minute margin before your next meeting to reflect on how the interaction went. Were there moments you felt tense? Why? Allow yourself to explore that feeling. Was it because you weren’t sure what to say? Because there was an awkward silence? What can you learn about yourself as a minister? Reflect on the young person you met with. What is something they said that you found curious? Don’t let it slip away. Think on it. Pray about it.

In the moments before starting youth group, look around. Who is here? How does the room feel? Who is sitting with whom, and who is sitting alone? In the moments after youth group, when the lights are out and everyone is gone, sit for just five minutes and allow yourself to settle. At what point did people seem the most engaged? At what point did they seem the most distanced?

We have to be making time to ask ourselves these kinds of questions and giving ourselves time to reflect if we want to be thoughtful, engaged youth pastors whose ministry is grounded in a life of prayer and contemplation.

If we can learn to do these things – to learn to notice and to make time – we’ll find that there are unplumbed depths in every ministry encounter, if only we made the effort to explore them. And from those depths comes a wisdom that can shape and guide our ministry in a way anxiety-driven activity can never do.

Why You Should Consider Having Parent-Youth Pastor Conferences

Parents have often been considered a perennial “problem” that plagues youth ministry discourse. If our primary ministry is to young people, what sort of relationships do we need to have with their parents? Youth ministers often complain about and try to avoid parents, and youth ministry educators try to convince youth-ministers-in-training that they need to be “partnering with parents.” But the question remains: how? How do we partner with parents? I’ve seen creative strategies from sending parents discussion questions every week, to getting parents to chaperone youth events, both of which are great. But I think the biggest obstacle to having good relationships with parents is that we don’t know how to facilitate one-on-one conversations with them – and, unfortunately, I also think that those conversations we’re not having are a vital part of partnering with parents in their teens’ faith formation.

Typically, our conversations with parents happen in one of three ways: parent meetings, problem meetings, and popcorn interactions. All three of them have their place, but if we’re after relationships in which we work together for the spiritual formation of a young person, all three types of interactions fall short of that goal in vital ways.

Parent meetings are those obligatory quarterly meetings wherein we give parents next month’s calendar and discuss upcoming events. Perhaps we get some feedback on how their teens enjoyed last month’s retreat, or what they would like to see taught in Sunday school. There may also be occasional parent seminars dealing with topics like social media, self-harm, sexuality, etc. These meetings address “youth group parents” as a whole rather than one-on-one, and they deal with topics and events rather than the youth themselves. So while they are a good way to get parents more engaged in the youth ministry, they are not a way to talk to parents about their teens.

Problem meetings are about – well, problems. Either the parent comes to meet with you about worrying behavior from their teen (“I think Michael has been doing ___! What should I do? Can you talk to him about it?”), or you have to make a dreaded phone call about it on your end (“Hi Mrs. Smith, something happened in youth group last week that I think we need to talk about.”). These meetings are important and need to be had. However, they are by nature reactive rather than proactive. Sticking to problem meetings creates the expectation that we only have meetings when they are necessary, and when something bad has happened, making relationships with parents crisis-driven and anxiety-inducing. It drives all the energy toward teens who are obviously in trouble and away from those who are (or appear to be) doing well. These meetings are also more focused on outward behavior rather than on the teen’s inward spiritual development. Managing crises just addresses the outward manifestations of whatever might be going on inwardly, without actually investing the necessary time to care for their souls.

Popcorn interactions are when we run into parents at church and we think to tell them, “By the way, I just wanted to tell you that Ari made some really good comments in Sunday school. You’ve got a great kid, and we love having her in youth group!” This sort of brief interaction is a good habit to have, but because it is casual, often rushed, and rarely private, it keeps us from having a more in-depth conversation. We don’t expound on the positive observations, telling them more specifically that it seems like Ari is thinking really deeply about the meaning of discipleship, or that she seems most engaged when the youth group worships together, or that you’ve been impressed with the ways she’s grown over the past year. While it may encourage a parent, it doesn’t really give them meaningful information to work with.

All three of these parent interactions are important and necessary, but they are not sufficient. If we really want to “partner with parents” in their teens’ spiritual development, we need to be having conversations about their teens’ spiritual development – not youth culture, not our ministry agendas, but about their own children. Youth ministers and parents don’t see their teens in the same way; they see them in different settings, with different friends. Parents and ministers can learn a lot about any given young person from each other, and use that shared knowledge to better nurture the spiritual development of that young person.

So what would happen if we borrowed from public education and modeled our interactions with parents on a (slightly longer) form of the parent-teacher conference? Pick a month or two out of the year to focus on routine annual meetings and really encourage parents and guardians to sign up for a 30-45 minute slot of your office hours. Be prepared to tell them how their teen is interacting in youth group, how you’ve seen them grow over the past year, the kinds of questions they’re asking about faith. Suggest questions and ideas they might want to discuss with their teen. Ask them how things have been going at home or school, and how you can be supporting their family. Pray for them and with them.

Yearly parent-youth pastor conferences are a needed model of parent conversations because:

  • They are proactive, giving you a chance to talk with parents before a crisis arises. And even if you have had problem conversations with parents, ongoing meetings that are focused on something other than the issue show that the young person is more than the issue, and there is more to their spiritual life than their behavior.
  • They occur regularly, so that you are able to talk about progress and development. You can revisit and build upon previous conversations, and track how a young person’s faith has changed over time.
  • They invite everyone to participate, so that all of your teens and parents receive equal attention – not just the ones who are exceptional in some way. It also won’t cause anxiety for parents when you ask, “Hey, can we get together to talk about Meredith?”, because they know that you’re asking everyone.
  • They are specific, focusing on the spiritual life of a particular young person and their needs. Parent seminars on general topics are great, but it’s even better if you can talk to them about their specific teen.
  • They establish a true partner relationship with parents, in which you’re not just trying to keep them up-to-date on activities. Rather, you understand that you are playing different roles in their teen’s life, and that you’re mutually sharing information in a way that can help both of you nurture the spiritual life of their teen.

The parent-youth pastor conference model is of course not without issues. Top among them are the following:

  • Confidentiality is an issue that needs to be treated very sensitively. If your teens think of youth group as a safe space to share their real feelings or ask questions they can’t ask at home, it could be devastating to them to overshare with their parents. Therefore, it is very important to be sensitive to the family dynamics at play, and also to check in with your teens to see if there is anything they specifically don’t want shared.
  • This would be very difficult to do in youth groups larger than 50 teens, unless your small group volunteers were willing to participate and facilitate meetings.
  • It would be difficult to interact with parents who are not very involved, or the parents of teens who don’t attend often. Nevertheless, extending the invitation is an important step.

Another important part of parent-youth pastor conferences is the task of preparation. It requires that we pay attention to our young people, and spend time reflecting on how we see God at work in their lives. Imagine how our ministry with young people might change if, in addition to praying for them, we regularly took time to dwell on our interactions with them, to recall where we saw them most engaged, to meditate on a comment they shared.

And then, imagine how our relationships with parents might change if we shared some of these insights with them; if we asked them for their own insights on their teen’s spiritual life and trusted them as partners in our work of faith formation; if they knew that the care of their child’s soul was important enough to us to make it a priority in our ministry. Perhaps we might even find that parents’ souls could use some pastoral care, too.

 

Why Your Next Youth Minister Should Be a Spiritual Director

It’s past time that churches gave up on the stereotype of the young, cool, Energizer Bunny youth minister. It’s an old trick that Young Life popularized more than fifty years ago – get someone with the “cool factor” who can be an influencer and attract people to the ministry (see Gretchen Schoon Tanis, Making Jesus Attractive: The Ministry and Message of Young Life). So for most of the history of modern youth ministry, search committees have sought that charismatic personality who can plan exciting events that attract a crowd. The only problem is, over the years, research has consistently shown that nearly everyone in the crowd disperses. Youth ministry provided fun and games for the high school years…and little else that would spiritually sustain them beyond those years. We have let thousands of young people come through our churches and have missed the opportunity to nurture their spiritual lives and theological imaginations.

In the years that I have studied and worked in youth ministry thus far, I have become convinced that one of the most important things we can do for the spiritual lives of young people is not to create exciting or fun experiences for them. It is not even to teach them – at least, in the way we often think of teaching. Instead, the most important and transformative thing we can do is to listen to them – to listen attentively to their stories and their lives, to ask perceptive questions that take them deeper, to name how God is at work in their lives, and to help birth their vocation to love others and heal the world. This may seem counter-intuitive, as we tend to assume that spiritual formation occurs when we teach young people biblical stories and doctrinal principles. But what if the deepest formation occurs when we listen first?

On the importance of listening, consider the following quote from youth ministry scholar David White about graduate students conducting research interviews with high schoolers:

“In a recent summer program sponsored by the Youth Theological Initiative at Emory University, sixty youth from around the country gathered to engage in practical forms of Christian discipleship and an elaborate program of study, worship, recreation, music, service, and spiritual direction. To the surprise of the staff the activity that consistently ranked highest on youth evaluations was a one-hour interview with a graduate student for research she was gathering. These interviews were very open-ended and allowed youth to speak about feelings and thoughts they had never spoken about to anyone. These researchers found that creating space for these youth to speak did not simply represent an opportunity for them to say what they knew, but in the process of speaking, they found themselves actively making sense of their lives, speaking themselves into identity. Rarely in this culture do youth experience the full and prolonged attention of a significant adult who wants simply to listen to them – to hear about their loves, hates, gifts, families, hopes, and dreams for the future. Creating such space for listening to youth is vital for them and for us.” (David White, Practicing Discernment with Youth, 112.)

Working at the same program years later, I experienced the same thing. When I asked my group of students during covenant group one evening what had most surprised them about the Youth Theological Initiative so far, they said they were most surprised that the adults actually seemed to want to listen to them – and they thought if parents and teachers and youth pastors listened in that way, maybe fewer youth would feel so alone and maybe the suicide rate would drop.

In their book Lives to Offer, Dori Baker and Joyce Mercer also have a chapter on listening with youth. Based on similar experiences interviewing young people, they note how interviews provided a space for young people to voice aloud some of their deepest fears and hopes, and in the speaking, begin to construct meaning. I have seen this play out in my own interviews with young people, hearing them comment with surprise at their own words, “I guess I’d never thought of it that way before until I said it!” Giving young people space to process their developing beliefs and ideas is crucial for their faith formation (see also Amanda Drury, Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Development).

Joyce and Dori refer to this practice in youth ministry as “holy listening” – which is a term often used in spiritual direction. A spiritual director is a wise and contemplative person – who is deeply rooted in their own spirituality and relationship with God – who listens prayerfully and attentively to another person and to the Holy Spirit to discern the work of God in a person’s life. They are different from a counselor or a life coach in that their primary goal is not to give advice, but rather to point to the Holy Spirit. They might suggest a Scripture or a theme for the directee to meditate on, or ask a probing question for them to consider prayerfully.

This kind of holy listening requires a skill set far beyond what we typically want from a youth minister. It requires the following characteristics:

  • A deep relationship with God. A youth minister who is not spiritually deep cannot nurture spiritual depth in your teens. Ask your youth minister candidate about their prayer life, about their spiritual disciplines, about how they make decisions in their life. Ask them how they’ve seen God at work in their life lately and how God was working in their previous ministry. For more on rooting youth ministry in the minister’s own spiritual life, read Mark Yaconelli’s Contemplative Youth Ministry. This book was life-changing for me and still ranks as one of my top two books on youth ministry (the other is David White’s book quoted above).
  • The capacity to listen deeply and attentively. They need to be able to ask good questions and never interrupt; to be comfortable with silence; to listen to what is not said; to self-differentiate and not emotionally react in a way that distracts from the young person’s own sharing.
  • A quality that I can only describe as wisdom – to be able to connect dots in young people’s stories, to meditate on them, to see what themes surface and how they connect to what is going on their life, to hear how God might be speaking to them and be able to name it for them.

The person who embodies these characteristics may be super charismatic and be able to plan an amazing lock-in. But more often than not, the people who are wise and careful listeners move through life without attracting much attention to themselves. If they are interested in youth ministry, they’ll likely be overlooked because they don’t have the “wow” factor in the interview. But my hunch is that few of these people would apply for a youth ministry position because they know they aren’t what a church is looking for; because the stereotype of the “youth ministry personality” is pervasive enough to discourage them; because the job description looks more like an event planner than a spiritual director.

But if it’s true that holy listening is one of the most important things we can do for a young person’s spiritual life, and if cultivating their spiritual life is what will give them resources to tap into after they graduate, perhaps the best youth ministry hire is not a cool 22-year-old camp counselor. Maybe it’s a 56-year-old woman whose career has been in spiritual direction. She’ll be totally out of the loop on youth culture, and although they’ll good-naturedly laugh at her, I guarantee that none of the teens will care. She might not plan the most knockout events, but I truly believe that a young person would trade all of it – the games, the snacks, every single attractional gimmick we can come up with – for the rare chance to be heard, known, and loved by someone who was really gifted in holy listening.

What if we could radically re-envision the way our youth ministry worked? What if we could calm down and slow down enough that the primary task of ministry was listening? Imagine it with me. The youth minister still teaches Sunday school and plans some events, but the bulk of her time is spent in mentoring and spiritual direction relationships with her students. In the afternoons after school, she makes appointments with her youth to come in and spend some time with her. She asks them, “When is a moment in your life lately that really made you come alive?” She watches their eyes light up as they share about their niece’s first steps, and she says, “Wow, that sounds like a really sacred moment. What do you think it was about that that made you feel that way?” Over time, she comes to recognize a theme: for this student, they feel most alive when they see other people learn and grow. She names this for the student, who begins to look for God’s presence for themselves in those moments. Instead of letting those moments fall by the wayside, they begin to remember them, to dwell on them, to see them as sacred. Ultimately, together they discern that perhaps the student’s vocation is in teaching.

She facilitates small groups, using her skills to help young people practice holy listening with each other. They share stories from their lives and discuss together how it reminds them of stories from their faith tradition. They name for each other where they see God at work in each other’s lives. A seemingly mundane story that would have been a passing moment becomes an opportunity for theological reflection. (See Dori Baker, Doing Girlfriend Theology: God-Talk with Young Women.) And in the process, they begin to interpret their lives through the lens of faith.

At the end of each day, instead of quickly moving on to the next project, the youth minister takes some time to really reflect on what she has heard today. She thinks about what John shared in conjunction with a passing comment his mother made last week, and she senses that perhaps there is tension in their family right now. She noticed in Bible study how Hannah grew silent when someone else mentioned sexual assault, and she wonders about it, mentally filing it away to inform future encounters with Hannah. She notices how Deborah kept using the word “alone,” and although Deborah was saying she likes being alone, the frequency of its mention makes her wonder if it’s not true. She takes a mental note to think of a Scripture to give Deborah next time that can remind her that God is with her. She dwells on all these things, wondering about them, praying over them, giving thanks and sitting with the sorrow.

This would be a very different kind of youth ministry than we typically imagine, but everything in my experience and intuition tells me that it’s a kind of different we need.

Young people can play sports at school, go on vacation with their family, and have fun with their friends. But where in their lives can they have adults really listen to them, take them seriously, and reflect on their stories enough to be able to offer the gift of spiritual direction? In our society, young people are isolated from caring adults, and the adults who are in their lives seem more interested in lecturing them than listening to them. We live in a society where social media is increasingly replacing face-to-face encounters, making human interaction a “luxury good” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/23/sunday-review/human-contact-luxury-screens.html). And our hurried pace never leaves us the margin to dwell on the moments of joy and sorrow in each day to hear how God might be speaking to us. In light of this, perhaps hiring someone trained in spiritual direction as a youth minister – or at least someone with the gift of contemplative listening – is the greatest gift your church could offer your young people.

If that’s the case, you’ll need to seek one out, as they likely don’t think of themselves as youth ministers. And you’ll need to change your job description and expectations accordingly. But I have a hunch that having a relationship with a wise and contemplative person could be life-changing for students and revolutionary for the practice of youth ministry. I have a hunch that maybe, just maybe, spiritual directors might make better youth ministers than youth ministers do.

The In(creasingly) Dispensable Youth Pastor

When I was studying youth ministry in college, one of the books I was assigned was The Indispensable Youth Pastor: Land, Love, and Lock In Your Youth Ministry Dream Job. The book itself is filled with helpful tips and insights from veteran youth minister Mark DeVries, but I’ve recently been mulling over the title and what it reveals about latent anxiety in the youth ministry profession. The title is eye-catching, because many of us know (or are!) youth ministers who have had a rough go of it, received scathing criticism, or been let go, not to mention the constant belittling of them and the value of their ministry (see my last post, 5 Steps Your Church Can Take to Begin Valuing Youth Ministry). So to be an indispensable youth pastor? #goals.

But when I think about pastors of various kinds who are truly indispensable to their churches, it’s not because they’ve followed the suggestions of being a good pastor outlined in Mark’s book. Instead, it’s because they’ve consolidated power in an effort to make themselves indispensable. They become indispensable by creating unhealthy dependency on themselves. One of the hallmarks of “indispensable pastors” is their seemingly unsustainable level of busyness and involvement. They take all responsibilities on themselves, which seems selfless, but the end result is that no one else really knows what they do or how to do it. And without them there, there’s a risk that the ministry could fall apart altogether.

In terms of youth ministry, here are the logical results of an indispensable youth pastor:

  • They’re so indispensable that they’re the only meaningful adult relationship in their teens’ lives. But studies like the NSYR show that involved adults have a significant impact on the faith lives of teens, so their attempt to be indispensable is actually hampering their teens’ spiritual development.
  • Their ministry is so indispensable that it further segments off the youth ministry from the rest of the church, solidifying that “One-Eared Mickey Mouse” model that Stuart Cummings-Bond wrote about in the 80’s.
  • They’re so indispensable that they have trained the members of the church not to be involved in the ministry.
  • They’re so indispensable that they can’t be let go, even if they’re harming the ministry (cases of sexual misconduct, anyone?).
  • They’re so indispensable that when they quit or are let go, the ministry suffers because no one else knows how to run it.

If these aren’t the results we want, we need to rethink whether we really want to make ourselves indispensable to a church. If I truly want to empower the church and care for my teens instead of running the Lauren Show, I need to take a different approach – one that sacrifices my ego for the sake of the ministry. I need to become, not indispensable, but increasingly dispensable.  

Think about the parent of a healthy, well-adjusted young adult. They have parented with the end in mind, parented in such a way that they are increasingly unnecessary. When their child leaves home, their child will succeed without them, because they have provided them with the tools they need to do so. These are the parents who watched their child perform a task that they themselves could have performed in half the time – because it was vital to their child’s future success that they could do it independently of their parent. And in fact, people in everyday relationships who behave like indispensable pastors – who isolate their children or partners from other people in order to foster an unhealthy dependence on themselves – are, well, abusive.

The in(creasingly) dispensable youth pastor comes into a church and, instead of consolidating power for herself, immediately begins to distribute it. Instead of capitalizing on his unique skills and keeping his methods a secret like the family barbecue recipe, he immediately begins to train volunteers in those same skills. The increasingly dispensable youth pastor knows what needs to be done in the church – and teaches other people how to do it. 

Delegating tasks to others is something that I struggle with in ministry. It’s part control – I want to make sure everything runs the way I envisioned it – and it’s part Enneagram 2, as I hate putting people out and feel the need to do everything myself. (In fact, as a 2, at my unhealthiest, I’m ripe for being an indispensable youth pastor: help others so that they’ll love me, not so that they’ll succeed.) But when I confessed this to my field education supervisor in seminary, he didn’t spare me the truth: “Well, you’re not doing that church any favors.”

The increasingly dispensable youth pastor:

  • Is so dispensable that she is not the only adult a teen can call if they’re in crisis.
  • Is so dispensable that the teens fit right in with the rest of the church – so much so, that they may be attending choir practice instead of youth group.
  • Is so dispensable that he has mobilized the entire church to be doing good youth ministry.
  • Is so dispensable that when she leaves, the ministry can run just fine without her.

The ultimate goal of the increasingly dispensable youth pastor is to work himself out of a job, to do it so well that he is no longer needed.  Unglamorous, isn’t it? But instead of burying his talent in the ground where he alone knows where it is, out of fear that it will be taken from him, he has deposited it so that it will multiply. Instead of fostering dependence, ignorance, and isolation, the dispensable youth pastor has nurtured resilience, creativity, and community. Happy is the dispensable youth pastor, because they have planted something  healthy that can continue to grow. And that – a ministry that can thrive rather than crumble, rejoice rather than weep, in your absence – is a legacy worth leaving.

Five Steps Your Church Can Take to Begin Valuing Youth Ministry

We all know that youth ministry has a reputation. Often viewed as lighthearted at best, shallow and immature at worst, youth ministry is something that many churches treat like the proverbial kids’ table: slightly annoying, yet also amusing and endearing. The lock-ins and crazy games keep youth ministry from being taken seriously, while the church continues to expect and demand them. Churches hire young people to do youth ministry and then joke about their immaturity. Youth ministry’s reputation is not the fault of the teens or the youth minister. It’s the fault of the church.

One of the biggest, most pervasive, and most deeply-rooted problems at the core of youth ministry is with the attitude church leadership takes toward their youth minister. It boils down to the fact that youth ministry is treated as an entry-level position. Youth ministers are hired quickly, they have no education or experience, and they are overworked and underpaid. They are hired for personality and charisma, rather than skills. They are often treated as hired hands to be plugged into the existing system, rather than as pastors in their own right and visionary co-leaders of the church.

Why is this a problem? When youth ministry is treated as an entry-level position, two things happen. First, people have to do youth ministry who don’t want to do it. Those who are cut out for preaching ministry have to serve time in youth ministry first to work their way up the ladder. Youth ministry ends up as a lower rung on the ministry ladder that keeps getting stepped on. It is often not valued as an end in itself. This both contributes to the high turnover rate in youth ministry, and also cements the idea of youth ministry as a second-tier ministry profession, to be taken less seriously than preaching or pastoral ministry. Second, people who want to make a career out of youth ministry often can’t actually get the job. I’ve been told by congregants serving on search committees that people like me, with M.Div.’s and D.Min.’s and Ph.D.’s in theology, and people over the age of 35, actually lose out to people with less education and experience – both because we don’t fit the young, fun, and hip youth minister stereotype, and because churches would rather pay less.

This isn’t the case across the board at every church, but generally speaking, youth ministry ends up being run by people who aren’t interested in studying and perfecting their craft, because they’re not planning to be there long-term. That doesn’t mean they’re not good ministers. But it does mean that instead of investing years in creating a healthy youth ministry culture, they end up just trying to meet the congregation’s expectations for a few years, and do some good work in a closed system that treats them like hired hands.

If churches are truly concerned about the nurture and education of their young people, they have to begin taking youth ministry more seriously and treating it as a legitimate long-term vocation rather than a role to be filled. So here are 5 ways that your church can begin to invest in, and value, youth ministry.

  1. Double your youth minister’s salary. If it pays like an entry-level position, that’s the kind of youth minister you’ll get. Think I’m joking or exaggerating? Many youth ministers make less than half the salary of the preaching minister. I know at least one youth minister who made a third. Low salary ensures high turnover, because youth ministers have to quit and find better-paying jobs once they grow their families. If the idea of a youth minister getting paid anywhere near the senior minister seems ridiculous, ask yourself why: because they work less? Because there’s less pressure? Many youth ministers work 60+ hours a week, and in the summers they are away from their families for several weeks. They deal with sexual harassment, drugs, and suicidal ideation. If you want to treat youth ministry as a legitimate ministry in its own right, not subordinate to pastoral ministry, the salary needs to reflect that. Alternatively, if it seems like a shocking amount to double the youth minister’s salary, perhaps you should be shocked by the pastor’s salary.
  2. Value education. I say this not to be elitist about education, but it seems like common sense to have training in one’s field. When you go to the doctor, you expect that they’ve studied medicine. Hire someone with ministry education, and encourage continuing education. Allow money in the budget and time in their hours for your youth minister to attend youth ministry conferences, seminars on mental health or curriculum writing, classes at the local seminary. Give them a budget to buy books. You want your pastor to continue reading and studying and learning so that they have something to share from the pulpit, so why should youth ministry be any different? It’s not all fun and games; youth ministers need to be theologically trained so that they can teach, and so that they know how to handle sensitive pastoral situations. It’s frankly shocking to me that churches hire 21-year-olds with business degrees to pastorally care for minors, and make no provision for continuing education. If the 21-year-old is the preacher, at least the congregation has the wisdom to judge whether what she says is true. Sixth graders, on the other hand, are highly impressionable, and bad theology or bad counsel is very formative at that age. Perhaps youth ministers should be more, not less, educated than preachers.
  3. Search long and hard for the right person. When a church is looking for a preaching or senior minister, they’ll often hire an interim while they search for the right person. Not so with youth ministry. Youth ministry searches are often very briefIt’s less about getting the right someone, than getting someone quickly. I looked at two brand-new job postings recently – one wanted to fill the position within the month, the other within two weeks. A short search communicates that a church is looking for an entry-level position to plug into the existing system. They want someone to fit the mold, not to cast a vision or demonstrate leadership. If your church cares about getting the right person, take your time with the search.
  4. Respect their position. Youth ministry is just as real and important as any other ministry of the church, youth ministers actually work quite a lot, and the work should be taken seriously. Youth ministers are not gofers or flunkies. Of course everyone on a ministry staff should be willing to be team players and help each other out, but youth ministers have their own ministry to run. They shouldn’t be the senior minister’s go-to for pick-ups or deliveries. Don’t ask them to volunteer at a fundraiser or pick up the catering for the seniors’ ministry or whatever if you’re not also asking the preacher or the worship minister. Youth ministers need to be treated as equal partners in the work of ministry, and the whole staff should collaborate together.
  5. Ignore age and personality stereotypes. A 50-year-old youth minister might not have the energy of a 22-year-old or be able to ride the roller coasters at Six Flags, but she might be an incredible and wise teacher. An introvert may not come across as the charismatic personality you were hoping for, but he may be the best mentor to young people your church has ever hired. A serious theologian may not be the coolest event planner, but she may be able to make middle schoolers look forward to Bible study as much as they look forward to lock-ins. And all three of those people are likely to make a more significant long-term impact on the faith life of your teens than someone who is generally young, cool, and relatable, but not passionate about nurturing the spiritual lives of young people. Instead of hiring a “youth ministry personality,” take stock of what your church needs and be open to hiring someone who has those strengths, even if they don’t fit the stereotype.

If your church does any one of these things next time they’re hiring a youth minister, they’re already making a significant stride toward valuing youth ministry more. And investing in youth ministry ultimately means investing in the spiritual development of the next generation – so it’s not something to be taken lightly.

Turning Questions into Conversation

My last post, “Any Questions?”, was about leading youth small groups based on student questions rather than our own discussion questions. The first step in having great small group conversation is getting students to ask questions. The second step is to turn those questions from student-teacher Q&A into group conversation.

To do that, we have to develop the skill of not answering the questions. Sound counter-intuitive? It depends on the goal. If your goal as a teacher or small group leader is to disseminate information – and sometimes it is! – answering questions is good. There may be some factual or vocabulary questions that need to be answered. But if your goal is to facilitate theological discussion among the group, answering questions directly shuts down the conversation. Student questions can very easily turn into a Q&A with the teacher where each student takes a turn, the teacher responds, and the next student speaks. Instead, if we want to facilitate a conversation among the students themselves, we have to treat student questions like boomerangs, immediately throwing the question back to the group for further reflection. Here are three tips for turning questions into conversation.

First, for questions other than basic facts (“what does ___ mean?”), don’t be the first to share. The quickest way to shut down conversation is to answer the question immediately; by virtue of my position of authority, students will tend to think my word is definitive and that they have nothing to add. But silence doesn’t work either; because I am the teacher, I have found that students will always look to me first and will rarely jump in to answer another’s question before I give the go-ahead. So I give it quickly! My standard, go-to response is some version of “Ooh, hmm. That’s a good question. What do y’all think?” It has become such a trope that people laugh at me about it, but it works! Each part of that response does something important. 1) “Ooh, hmm,” indicates a pause, that the question is worth wondering about and pondering, and that it has more than one right answer. 2) “That’s a good question” is a basic way to affirm that the question is worth asking, and that the student can be proud of it and not embarrassed by asking the wrong thing. Simple question affirmation greatly increases the chance that students will continue to ask questions in the future. 3) “What do y’all think?” gives the question back to the group and further communicates that it is a good question for us to discuss together.

Second, when you do share, share your opinion as a helpful contribution, not the definitive answer. By virtue of your position as the teacher/leader/facilitator, your students already see you as an authority figure, so you need to make it clear to them that your word is not the final word on a subject, and that they are welcome to share other viewpoints. You want them to engage with what you’re saying and think about it critically, not accept it as the gospel truth just because you are the teacher. Hedge your contributions with “Well, the way I understand it…” or “Different people think different things about this, but I think…” It’s not downplaying your knowledge or denying your authority. It’s simply acknowledging that your opinion isn’t the only one, and inviting others to continue the conversation. If you are disagreeing with a student comment, neither say that they are wrong, nor just smile, give fake affirmation, and ignore it. Instead, trust and respect your students enough to help them think critically about their own ideas: “Well, what about such-and-such a situation, though? Would it still hold true then?” or “A lot of people do think that. Other people think, though, that…” or “That could be right, but let’s also think about how other people might hear that.”

Third – and this one requires the most practice – try responding to questions with a question that can take it deeper. Instead of assuming that you understand a student question fully and can answer it satisfactorily, model critical thinking by probing its assumptions and implications. If you answer a question instead of probing deeper, you miss a valuable opportunity to learn more about your student – where the question is coming from, what’s important to them, how they think about certain concepts – as well as the opportunity to continue and deepen the discussion. I recently had an opportunity to lead a workshop on discussion with M.Div. students, and we practiced writing responses to actual student questions that I have gotten over the past few months. Here are some of their ideas:

If Jesus said his disciples would have peace in this world, why isn’t there peace?

  • What do you think Jesus meant by peace? [This question explores their understanding of the concept and also gets deeper into the text.]
  • What do you think a peaceful world would look like? [Like the question above, this one explores the concept of peace, but in a wondering way – and could easily lead to a conversation about ethics.]
  • What are you thinking of when you say there isn’t peace? Is there something you’ve been thinking about lately? [This question gets at what lies behind the student’s question and what emotions or experiences may be driving it.]

If it was God’s plan for Jesus to die, was it Judas’ fault that he betrayed Jesus?

  • Tell me more about what you mean by God’s plan. [This question gets at assumptions behind the question and also opens up a deep theological can of worms.]
  • Let’s think through both sides. Why would it be his fault? Why or how would it not be? [This question plays with different options and stimulates critical thinking.]

Did Habakkuk doubt God? Is that ok?

  • What makes you think it’s not ok? [This question gets at embedded theology and perhaps student experiences that are driving the question.]
  • Where do you see doubt in this story? [This question points them back to the text and helps the whole group read more deeply.]

For each of these questions, it would be all too easy for the teacher to launch into a lecture about their own theology of doubt or providence, but it might miss what the student really needed from the question, and it would miss the opportunity to hear from other members of the group.

There are few things more exciting than seeing deep theological conversation happen among a group of middle schoolers as they discuss and debate and pore over the text together. Sound impossible? It takes work, but it’s not impossible. Conversation doesn’t just happen – it takes thoughtful and intentional facilitation. Creating a space that feels safe enough for young people to discuss honestly and disagree openly takes time and effort, but it can be done…and when it happens, it is incredibly rewarding.

Here are the three suggestions in brief for responding to student questions in a way that opens conversation:

  1. Don’t be the first to share.
  2. Share your opinion as contribution, not as the definitive answer.
  3. Respond to questions with another question.

Hopefully these three suggestions will help as you facilitate discussion with your teens!

Any Questions?

“Show patience towards everything in your heart that has not been resolved and try to cherish the questions themselves, like sealed rooms and books written in a language that is very foreign. Do not hunt for the answers just now – they cannot be given to you because you cannot live them. What matters is that you live everything. And you must now live the questions. One day perhaps you will gradually and imperceptibly live your way into the answer.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Mark Harman [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011], 45-46.)

Curious Christians

Last night in my girls’ small group, one of my 7th graders suggested, “We should just call ourselves the Curious Christians.” Indeed. Over the past couple of months, my small group has come to consist of nothing but questions. And while I cannot claim credit for this phenomenon – at the very least, the Holy Spirit and my brilliant young women themselves have significantly more to do with it than I – I can, at least, trace it back to one particular Wednesday night.

John 3 was the text – you know, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus from whence arises Everyone’s Favorite Bible Verse. But the discourse itself is long, dense, and complicated. After reading through it, I asked, “Okay, did everybody understand that? Any questions?” They all nodded their heads. Yes, they understood. No, no questions. “Really?!” I asked. A few began to waver: “Well, there were maybe a couple things I didn’t understand.” I tried a new angle: “Cause I don’t really understand much of it at all.” At this point, the whole group confessed: “Yeah, I didn’t understand any of it either.”

At this point, I passed around a stack of index cards and pens and asked them each to write down a question they had about the passage. It took them an entire 5 minutes to come up with one question. And the first one I got was: “What does this entire passage mean?” I had them try again. Be more specific this time, I told them.

Then, the questions started to flow: Why did Nicodemus come at night? Does Nicodemus ever come up in the Bible again? Who are the Pharisees? What does it mean that Jesus is God’s son? As we delved into them, more questions arose: If Jesus is God, when Jesus died, does that mean there was no God for three days? Where did God come from, anyway? Why do we believe Jesus was God? Why don’t Muslims believe that? How different is Christianity from Islam, anyway, since we all trace back to Abraham? The next week, there were more. “This may be an irreverent question to ask, but…” “I don’t know if I’m allowed to ask this, but…” We left the text far behind and ended up in a discussion of the Trinity. It was like the floodgates had opened.

Asking questions is just what we do in small group now, and every single week I go home bursting with excitement and amazement at the way they’re engaging. Sometimes they stay in the text, and sometimes they go far afield. I try to just go with it and be okay with the fact that “the Spirit blows wherever it pleases” (Jn 3:8, ha). Overall, I’ve noticed that their critical thinking skills for wondering about Scripture have deepened substantially in just a few weeks.

We get vocabulary questions: What is stoning? What is circumcision? What is adultery? Well, if you don’t know those things, you’ve missed a substantial part of what people are arguing about in the text. So if you’ve heard this story your whole life but never knew what it was even about, how can you understand it?

We get historical questions: One week, when we were talking about Jesus claiming to be the Messiah, a question was: “Had anyone else claimed to be the Messiah before? Because if so, that may be why everybody was like ‘Oh yeah right.'” This was from a 17-year-old. This is seminary exegesis level work.

We get wondering questions: From John 8 last night: “What do you think Jesus was writing in the sand?” “Do you think the woman did go and stop sinning?” Wonder is such an important part of learning to meditate on Scripture, so we wonder about them together.

We get questions about what’s not in the text. Another of my favorites from last night was a 7th grader’s question: “Where was the man she was having an affair with? Why didn’t they want to kill him too?” This is some really strong critical thinking for a 12-year-old. Think about what had to happen in her mind for that question to come out. First, she reads in the text that the issue was an affair. Then, the recognition that it takes two people to have an affair. Then, the realization that the second person isn’t mentioned in the text. Then, the association that his absence means they don’t care about his sin. Then, the implicit question about why the woman is blamed and not the man – which led to a conversation about the ways they experience that reality even today. At the end, when we talked about what we could learn from this story, someone offered, “Jesus doesn’t blame women more than men – he treats them equally.”

When we first started, it took them 5 minutes to even come up with a question. They simply didn’t know how to ask questions of Scripture. Now, they jot down questions while we’re reading. More than one of them.

They’ve also become amazing at answering each other’s questions. If it’s a historical question with a factual answer, I’ll usually answer it. But if it’s a wondering question, I turn it back to the group and just ask, “What do you think?” The more I’ve asked that, the more I see that questions are asked to the whole group, not to me. And they deliver.

“Why did the people want to kill Jesus?”

“Hmm, that’s a good question. What do you all think about that?”

“I think they thought that Jesus was trying to trick them. That he was lying about being the Messiah.” (7th grader)

“I think it’s also because they wanted to hold onto their power, and he was challenging that.” (8th grader)

Why don’t our young people know how to ask questions?

I remember learning to do exegesis in college, and I had a similar experience to my youth group girls. A professor told us to write five questions about a passage for our homework. I read over the text and, like the girls, thought I had no questions. I read over it again. And again. And suddenly there were at least 15 things I had questions about. So why don’t our young people, at least at first, know how to ask questions of Scripture?

First, I think when young people are implicitly (or explicitly) taught that they “shouldn’t question Scripture” – meaning that Scripture is authoritative – I think it gets conflated with the idea that we shouldn’t ask questions about Scripture, and it stifles their ability to even understand what they’re reading.

Second, I think it’s really tempting for us as teachers to read a passage and then highlight the important things that we think they need to know. But the teens themselves are the experts in what they need to know. If you just teach what you think is important and hope it sticks, it often doesn’t. I know JP and I have tried to teach on theological topics like the divinity of Jesus, and they didn’t remember any of it. But when we have a discussion about it based on their questions, they’re deeply invested and thus deeply engaged.

So in light of all this, I offer a few “best practices” for encouraging questions in Bible study.

First, no question is off-limits. I mean that. None. Not awkward questions, not scary questions. Of course when someone asked what circumcision was, I felt awkward and hoped nobody’s parents would be upset that we talked about it. But just as quickly I realized how damaging it would be if I acted awkward, snickered, or told them to ask their parents at home (which a Sunday school teacher did to a student when I was in middle school). What kind of message would that send? That their question was stupid? And do you think the girl who asked would ask another question next week? Probably not. And if somebody asks whether Jesus was really resurrected or something similar, I don’t think the best answer is “of course.” The best way to answer, I think, is to say, “That’s a good question. What do you think? What do the rest of you think?” You can, of course, add at the end that you personally believe that he was, but then you haven’t shamed them for asking, and thus kept them from asking important future questions.

Second, intentionally leave space for questionsAs you can see from the story of the first Wednesday night, related above, when you ask “Any questions?” – and I know you can hear the tone in your head – it kills questions. Instead of asking it as a yes-or-no – “do you have any questions” – ask it as an open-ended question: “What questions do you have?” And then wait at least 20 seconds before moving on. Not even joking. Count it out while you wait. Twenty seconds. Introverts certainly aren’t going to bare their soul to you in the panicked second-and-a-half of silence between “any questions?” and “okay, moving on.”

Third, have them write down their questions. That way, even if someone doesn’t feel like sharing, they’ve still done the homework. They have a question they can carry in their heart, ask later, google the answer to, etc. They don’t get to check out of the conversation, even if they don’t feel like talking.

Fourth, questions are more important than answers. I have told them this explicitly, and I practice it. If an answer doesn’t exist, as in a wondering question, I don’t say “we don’t know” and leave it there. I say, “That’s a great question. What do you think?” (You might be noticing a pattern. I say those two things a lot.) There are some questions, too, that just can’t be answered factually. Questions like “what does the death of Jesus mean” have be to stewed on and chewed on for an entire lifetime. To those I say, “That’s a really important question. Keep thinking about it.” I try to remind them to “love the questions,” as per Rilke’s quote above.

So fifth, let them answer each other’s questions. De-center your authority. Turn it back to the group and ask, “What do you all think?” That way, it can truly become a discussion rather than just a Q&A with the teacher. If you do this enough, you’ll start to see them make eye contact with people other than you when they ask. And if a 12th grader kindly and thoughtfully answers the question of a 7th grader, maybe the 7th grader can ask them another question sometime, and boom, you’ve got a mentor.

What other suggestions/strategies/best practices do you have?

 

Shaking Out the Wicked Like Bedbugs

“Have you commanded the morning, and made the dawn know its place, that it may take hold of the bedskirts of the earth, so the wicked are shaken out of it?” Job 38:12-13.

What an obscure analogy! God the Master commands God’s housekeeper Dawn to shake the wicked like bedbugs out of the sheets. In context, God is talking about the control of chaos (“Who shut up the sea with doors when it came bursting forth?”). The barring of the sea sounds like a grand victory in the cosmos, but then comes this remarkably routine analogy of… housekeeping.

Every morning, Dawn comes in to shake out the covers and send the bedbugs scattering. There is no exterminator, no diatomaceous earth to sprinkle on the baseboards, and so the bedbugs are there to stay. They can’t be done away with entirely; they can only be managed. The chaos can only be controlled with a daily effort.

Shaking out the wicked becomes as routine as washing the dishes, sweeping the floors. Doing it once doesn’t solve the problem; it’s housekeeping, those mundane and routine activities that we have to do every day. You might ask, What’s the point? Why make the bed when it just gets messy again? Why sweep the floor when more dirt will be tracked in? The answer, of course, is obvious – we can’t eliminate the chaos, but we can control the chaos.

What an appropriate analogy in the ever-present struggle for human rights. We take care of one issue, only for another to crop up, like a cruel game of whack-a-mole. Slavery is abolished, and here comes Jim Crow. Once Jim Crow is gone, the prison industrial complex takes over. A dictator is overthrown, and another arises in their place. Wickedness is always among us in its various, insidious forms, and it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed every morning when you wake up and the bedbugs are back.

But chaos and wickedness can’t just be done away with in one fell swoop. Cosmic housekeeping is patience and perseverance. It’s waking up every morning and showing up to write, to vote, to preach, to march, to love. It’s putting on your apron and going to turn on the lights, dust the dark corners, shake out the sheets. It’s looking to your fellow housekeepers with an encouraging smile and knowing that the powers are not ultimate after all; they are only bedbugs. And they will be back tomorrow, but even if just for today, we can shake them out.