When I was in junior high and high school, I was part of a youth group at my small Presbyterian church in my small hometown in northern Illinois.
I most remember the endless ping-pong games we played. Surely there was something deeply theological about that. What I also remember is Grace Kerr. She was the wife of a retired Baptist pastor our church hired to lead the youth ministry. Grace's great gift was the ability to listen to the hopes and dreams of the kids who attended youth group.
The activities began to move from repetitious games to discussions of issues that interested us, including how to overcome various kinds of difficulties that life threw at us. To help explore that, Grace asked her brother to come speak to us. He had difficulty speaking because he had had a tracheotomy and had to talk through his throat in raspy words. The man was an inspiration.
If Grace still were around, she would almost certainly be happy to endorse the thinking behind a new book called To Mend the World: A New Vision for Youth Ministry, by Jason Lief and Kurt Rietema.
They want youth pastors today to pay deep attention to the needs and dreams of young people so they can more readily discern how the systems (educational, economic, justice and more) in the world work and how they can draw on core moral values to challenge those systems when they oppress people instead of lifting them up. In other words, they want youth pastors to be more like Grace Kerr.
"The problem," they write, "is that youth ministry fails to speak to the lived experience of young people. While the packaging has changed, youth ministry remains stuck within a biblical and theological perspective that misses the point. As a result, youth ministry affirms the very cultural trappings it's trying to help young people navigate. This is why youth ministry must die -- so it can be transformed."
Lief, who teaches theology at Northwestern College in Iowa, and Rietema, who serves on the staff of YouthFront in the Kansas City area and also teaches at two area colleges (disclosure: One of my daughters is YouthFront's vice president of development), outline an approach to youth ministry that, in fact, can be a model for many of the other types of ministry churches do.
"The time has come," they write, "for Christian faith to be more than a guarantee of the life to come; it's time for youth ministry to reclaim the message of the early Christian communities and call young people to wake up and embrace this finite, embodied life. It's time for youth ministry to become less spiritual and more human."
The authors (who write separate chapters, though I'm using quotes here simply attributed to them jointly) pay special attention to how youth ministries can use something called social entrepreneurship to give young people a vision for what Martin Luther King Jr. called the "Beloved Community," in which members use such systems as the economy to make sure the focus is on social good and not simply on profits at any cost.
In a chapter that Rietema writes, readers learn about how young people in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, began to get a vision of some ways to create a deep sense of community among the youth of the area. Eventually these young people created (with some help and guidance) the Snack Shack KC, which, as its website explains, "is a safe and fun place for young people to gather, play games, do homework and, of course, snack."
As Rietema explains in this new book, "They were high school students who created their own brick-and-mortar business, giving life to a lifeless main street. . .We've been sold a story that teenagers don't have an attention span that lasts any longer than a three-minute YouTube video. But that night (of the Snack Shack's grand opening), these kids proved that they'll stick with something for months, even years, to make their dreams into reality."
What the authors conclude is that "youth ministry must become less spiritual and more human by helping young people see how, in Jesus Christ, God embraces this created life. Youth ministry must turn away from abstract forms of spirituality in which salvation is some sort of transaction for a future heavenly life by calling young people into a Christian way of life that centers on the particularity of God's love for the world.
"To do this, youth ministry needs to obliterate the wedge driven between this temporal, created world and spirituality. This begins by helping young people see how the gospel addresses the immanent forces of secular culture (politics, technology, science, economics, etc.) that shape their lives." After all, kids are inevitably soaked in the surrounding culture, and elements of that culture can be -- and often are -- destructive in countless ways. "(O)ur humanity," the authors write, "is grounded in the resurrection life of Jesus Christ that transcends the cultural patterns of this world."
In fact, the authors ask this foundational question -- foundational for all faith traditions: What does it mean to be fully human? Their Christian answer is drawn from the creation accounts in Genesis in which humans are made "in the image of God": "To be made in the image of God, therefore, is to be made in the image of the triune God. Theologically speaking, to be human is to be fundamentally relational." What matters is whether we are part of a loving, supportive community that seeks first the common good and not, first, individual achievement or aggrandizement.
That's the Beloved Community. And it's what so many of the cultural systems at work today either ignore or work against. For instance, the authors note that "capitalism has become the dominant discourse undergirding the institutional lives of young people. Every day they are bombarded with messages about jobs, competition, branding and so on. Increasingly they are encouraged to participate in the capitalist emphasis on commodification, abdicating their responsibility as human creatures to love and care for others."
Christianity, they write, "should invite young people to see economic life as a word God speaks to us by inviting them out from the distortions of economic life that misshape our identities and into new practices that seek the flourishing of all creation."
Faith communities, thus, are called to use their prophetic voices to undo systems that perpetuate injustice. And that work includes -- but cannot be limited to -- youth ministry. I see, in retrospect, that Grace Kerr understood that and I'm grateful that she did.
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THE DEVIL'S POLLS ARE ON THE WAY DOWN
New polling confirms that Americans' belief in God is sliding, but so is the belief in Satan, this RNS story reports. So it's no surprise that the percentage of adult Americans who say they believe in hell is also down -- from 71 percent two decades ago to 59 percent now. Perhaps people have been reading the fascinating book by Christian Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart: That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation. I wrote about that book here in 2019. Or maybe they think, reading a lot of the daily news, that they already live in hell and that whatever is in store in an afterlife can't be worse.
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P.S.: Speaking of faith-based books, as I was above here today, you might be interested in knowing that Fortress Press has just published a 40th anniversary edition of Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, by Ted Loder. There are good reasons some books have anniversary editions printed. Have a look.