Thursday, March 29, 2012

MTD: Upside-Down Youth Ministry

In the proceeding series on MTDRooted hopes to explore the implications of the religious atmosphere amongst our teens and ask the question, “What does the gospel have to say about this?”

When I was in college, I visited several churches from one particular denomination (which dominated the area) and found the same message in 90% of them. Until I found the exception, I kept looking for a different church. The sermon in most of them was essentially “be a good person and you will go to heaven”.  I refused to go to a church preaching mere moralism.  The truth is that I cannot succeed at being a good enough person to get into heaven and deep down I knew this. Moralism leads to attending Sunday services because it’s part of being a good person rather than out of a desire to worship the One who saved them.

Moralism has been in the mainstream church for ages. Christian Smith’s study just a few years ago suggests that moralism is a major part of the religious views of teens in mainstream churches today.  What I mean by moralism is the notion that Christianity is about being a good person.  It is antithetical to the gospel because we see in scripture that we are incapable of being good enough for God.  The righteousness of Jesus saves us, not our own goodness.

Why is moralism such a prevalent perspective amongst the younger generations? Clearly someone has been teaching it.  Smith (in ‘Soul Searching’) concludes that today’s teens have simply picked up the faith of their parents.  Kenda Creasy Dean concurs in her book ‘Almost Christian’.  Yet, we cannot ignore the influence of youth ministry on the generation in the study.  They had access to youth groups in towns all across the country.  If youth pastors were providing a consistently different message than moralism, surely students would have the chance to decide which gospel they were going to buy into.  Given the rebellious nature of teens, they would have rejected the nominal faith of their parents in favor of a robust creed.  I certainly have seen this amongst a number of students.

Let’s look at what many youth groups across America have been teaching over the course of the past several decades.  We had a desire to raise up good Christian students.  We figured that topical teaching would scratch where teens itch.  So, we did a lot of teaching on relationships, drinking, drugs, sex, dating, and more.  If we could attract students and appease parents, we had a win-win situation.  Add some messages on the importance of daily bible reading, prayer, worship, etc and we have a “good program” in the making.  (Notice how many resources and curriculum cater to this?) We effectively defined Christianity by what we do and do not do.  We got good at behavior modification, which fosters moralism.
I believe this is a top down approach. Look at the pyramid diagram to the right. Moral behavior is at the top.  The next layer is Christian practices.  These would be daily devotions, worship, Church attendance, etc.  Below that is theology, the beliefs that support or undergird both practices and behavior.  At the bottom is scripture, the ultimate source of all that we believe. Now, consider where the bulk of teaching is aimed in the typical youth ministry.  Youth groups driven by topical teaching pour into the behavior level and scratch the practices level.  We quote scripture to support our teaching but our message is not really about the Bible, it’s about behavior.  That effectively shapes students to conclude that Christianity is about being a good person.  Now of course, we have that percentage of students who “get it” and want to go deeper.  For them, we offer the small group Bible study. Somehow we left out teaching doctrine.  In some churches, we do that in Sunday school.  Yet many would not describe the Sunday school as the most effective hour of the week.

What’s the solution?  If our top down approach led to moralism, it seems only logical to turn that upside down.  What if we taught scripture, getting students engaged with God’s word, and let that speak to the topics that students face?  When we teach the bible in an engaging way so that the gospel is clearly seen from Genesis to Revelation, students find Jesus. Their love for him leads to a change in their behavior over time. This is a shift in thinking about youth ministry. For too long we believed we needed a program to attract students and tell them about Jesus, then those who are serious can go deeper.  Why not seek to disciple all who come in the first place?  If our first priority is to engage students with scripture, then we can help them form a good theology.  From that we develop practices for engaging with God.  Spiritual disciplines only really make sense when they come from a solid theology.  Perhaps they will begin to see corporate worship as something deeper than an emotional experience.  In the end, students will grasp what it means to live as Jesus wants us to live... not because we have to but because we want to.

Dave Wright is the Coordinator for Youth Ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and blogs at

Monday, March 26, 2012

Deeper Youth Ministries

Check out the 2012 Rooted Conference - "Adoption: The Beauty of Grace" - which will explore how the theological concept of Adoption speaks to this generation of teenagers.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Family Discipleship As Law

Christopher Schlect, Critique of Modern Youth Ministry (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1995). 21 pgs., paperback.

Christopher Schlect has written—what many would undoubtedly argue—a “timeless” critique of youth ministry by shifting the burden of training youth in the faith back to the family, especially to the fathers.

Schlect begins by giving various reasons why there exists an age-segregated youth ministry within the church today:  (1) the intentional age segregation of public education in the early-to-mid twentieth century and (2) the rise of para-church ministries that have targeted teenagers, such as Youth for Christ and Young Life.  Churches, to meet the challenges of these “competitors,” developed their own age-segregated and anti-family youth ministries.

He points out, rightly, that youth ministries today communicate an unhealthy message when they entertain teenagers instead of engaging them in biblical discipleship or modeling the importance of family.  Schlect also, rightly, argues for cross-generational ministry, one that places the responsibility of training younger members in the faith primarily on older people, especially parents.

He is also right in saying that parents, and especially fathers, are largely abdicating their responsibilities of raising their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  He maintains that youth ministers should seek to point students back to their families for godly instruction.

While the above points are helpful, I have four critiques of the book: 

First—and most disappointing—the book is law-driven and offers mere behavior modification as the solution.  There is no gospel.  He offers nothing about the role of justification, imputed righteousness, or the atoning work of Christ that would encourage families and youth ministers to adopt his thesis.  Thus it lacks the proper motivation for family-based youth ministry.

Second, Schlect advocates a Christ-against-culture model of ministry that is foreign to the Christ revealed in the Gospels.  Our task should be about the transformation of culture by the power of the gospel, not complete avoidance of culture—being in the world, but not of it (John 17:11-16).

Third, Schlect offers very little advice (he touches on it briefly on the last couple of pages) for youth ministry with regard to the overwhelming trend of children being raised in non-Christian homes.  Obviously, we should reach out to those families, but are we to wait until those families are saved before “biblical” youth ministry can take place?  I agree that parents have the primary responsibility to train their children in the instruction of the Lord.  But the fact that children are raised in truly non-Christian homes is now the majority report in America rather than the minority one.  The book is nearly 17 years old, which might explain why this element is not drawn out a little more.

Fourth, he seems to de-value the role of the church body.  While he doesn’t explicitly say this, it is implicit in the pages.  Rather than advocating an either-or approach (family or church), it would be better to advocate a both-and approach—one that emphasizes the importance of both the church body and the family in instructing youth in the faith.

Schlect does a fine job at helping us understand the misguided and unhealthy state of youth ministries today.  And his solution is also helpful:  godly parenting.  But the absence of the gospel makes such a call an impotent, moralistic plea.  We are to trust in the merits of Christ on our behalf.  He took the penalty for our parenting failures and gave us his righteousness so that we now, with grateful hearts, are enabled to strive for student ministry and parenting that pleases God.

Brian H. Cosby, the Rooted blog's newest contributor, is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, Associate Pastor of Youth and Families at Carriage Lane Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City, Georgia, and author of Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture (P&R Publishing, 2012).

Monday, March 19, 2012

About Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry

Check out the 2012 Rooted Conference - "Adoption: The Beauty of Grace" - which will explore how the theological concept of Adoption speaks to this generation of teenagers.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Using the Kardashian Trainwreck to Teach Teens About Marraige

Disclaimer: I am in no way meaning to make light of or exploit the collapse of the short marraige of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries. I honestly am trying to extract some good life lessons from the intimate and raw look at a what is truly a painful, real disappointment. Furthermore, I acknowledge that all we know of the situation is what producers allowed viewers to see. 

If you have suffered through Kim and Courtney Take New York like I have for the past season, you have seen the makings of marital disaster. Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries had a seventy-two day marriage, all of which was televised on their reality show. I do not encourage my students to watch reality television, but I also recognize that most of them do. If your high schoolers have watched the Kardashian / Humphries tragedy (or debacle, depending on your perspective), here are some biblical concepts and lessons that can be taught to help kids better understand biblical marriage.

1.)  Marriage is a covenant and decision, not an emotion. 
Early in the marriage, Kim and Kris fell on rocky times. As the difficulty increased, the possibility of divorce quickly entered the equation. When they (Kim in particular) analyzed the relationship, talk of “feelings” dominated discernment about the marriage. Kim often said, “my heart is telling me that I got into this too fast.”   Kids need to understand that love is a  decision and commitment first. Emotion is a part of marriage but not what drives the decision making. Everyone has times in their marriage when they are not into it, or when they question whether they made a mistake. It does not matter how you feel. Marriage governed by feeling, instead of covenant, almost always will end in divorce. 

2.) Marriage means surrendering all of your rights and independence to another person.
From the beginning, Kris seemed determined to protect his independence and rights to go to parties, make appearances, and have friends over to the Kardashian suite. Kris fixated on not  appearing “whipped” and on showing Kim “who’s boss.” A good husband and wife are both “whipped.” They deny their desires and rights for the service and comfort of their spouse. For Kris, if Kim did not want him to have a party at the suite or for him to go to Toronto, then that meant joyfully complying with his wife’s wishes, not obstinately protecting his rights.  

3.) Surrendering all of your rights to another person gives you life, freedom, and joy. Worldly independence does not. 
The idea which neither Kris nor Kim understood is that the way to experience life to the fullest is to sacrifice your own desires in service of another. While both Kris and Kim identify themselves as Christians, the teaching of Christ they never seemed to understand was that Jesus said that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Mt. 10:39). Christ tells us that the best that life has to offer comes through washing the feet of and serving others.  

4.) Leave and cleave, baby.
The Humphries / Kardashian experiment faced many challenges from the beginning when the couple lived with Kim’s sister and brother-in-law (sort of), Kourtney and Scott. Meanwhile, Kim’s mother serves as her business manager and close confidant. When you get married, especially in the early days, you physically and emotionally leave your father and mother (and extended family) and become one. Genesis prescribes this and Jesus reiterates it in the Gospels. Kris and Kim lived under the scrutiny of her siblings every day. The two never had an independent identity as a couple by moving away and living by themselves. Failure to separate from families in marriage- both physically and emotionally- creates great strain on a marriage. 
5.) Marriage is not a priority, it is the priority. 
In the last episode, Kris admitted to spending too much time conditioning for his NBA career, to the point of neglecting time with Kim. Kris said, “You are a priority to me.” What both Kim and Kris did not seem to understand is that your wife and marriage are THE priority, not just one of many. If an NBA career or a job as an international reality star infringes on your marriage, you make major adjustments or your drop them altogether. Yes, I said that. If the NBA gets in the way of being a good husband, then drop the career as a basketball star, get another job, and focus on your wife. If flying to Dubai, LA, etc. every week for hundreds of thousands of dollars prevents you from dedicating sufficient time to your husband, then drop the career. Marriage is far more important than career satisfaction and monetary gains. Biblically speaking, everything in your life, including your kids and career, subordinates to your marriage. God comes first, then marriage, then other matters.
6.) You really become one through marriage and sex. 
You would think after a short courtship and 72 day marriage, that getting divorced would be no biggie. Surely, such a short and seemingly casual relationship would mean that getting divorced would not be too painful, as compared to a long term marriage. Watching this marriage erode and ultimately split was excruciating. Both Kim and Kris suffered mightily. The reason for this revolves around the biblical description of the oneness sealed by marriage and sex. As cavalier and short as their marriage may have been, Kim and Kris became one through marriage and consummation, as scripture describes.  This is why divorce is so painful and creates such a life-altering wound. Kids need to understand that marital oneness is powerful and, consequently, divorce has deeply painful results. 

Above all, the most important lesson one can derive from the Kardashian / Humphreys reality marriage is the difficulty of marriage. Many students have Hollywood-based view of marriage as a blissful escape and perfect entrance into love and acceptance. Like all things the world has to offer, marriage does not solve the problems of humanity and cannot satisfy our deepest desires. Only Christ can make us content. Furthermore, marriage is incredibly hard and shows us our selfishness and sinfulness. Before entering into marriage, kids need to be reminded of the rhythm of the Christian life: God breaks us by showing our sin, and we cling to Christ and depend on him for everything. 

Cameron Cole is the chairman of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry and the Director of Student Ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL. He is a candidate for a Masters in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Rooted In and Through Adoption

Consider attending the 2012 Rooted Conference - "Adoption: The Beauty of Grace"- which will further explore how the theological concept of adoption speaks to the present youth generation.

Sometimes it is difficult for kids (and the rest of us) to grasp what the love of God looks like.  In a world saturated with skewed portraits of love at every turn, I’ve often found that kids bring almost as much baggage to the table as my friends and I do when the word ‘love’ is mentioned.  The majority now come from broken families, and friendships are becoming so laden by technology-culture that there is less and less face-to-face struggle, forgiveness, vulnerability, and communication which often yields deeper personal understandings of love.  More than ever, we need to be pointing kids to the scriptural metaphors and descriptions of this real, meaty, mysterious, identity-founding, life-giving Love who is actually at work currently revealing and redeeming.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. …For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!   
-Romans 5:8,10

Adoption in one of the predominant ways God reveals His love for His people in scripture.  Not only do we come to understand Him as a good father who goes to any length (and the ultimate length) to reconcile His children to Himself, but we get to understand ourselves as the beloved sons and daughters of the Creator of the Universe.  We are given a new identity in Christ- one that reorients us toward Love instead of ourselves.  We are welcomed into a family that has connections that run deeper than blood and wider than a lifespan.  We are transformed from enemies of God into cherished family by Jesus’ work on the cross, and not by anything we do.  How mind-blowing and counter cultural is that?!

…because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.  Now if  we are children, then we are heirs- heirs with God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.   
-Romans 8:14-17

One of my favorite ways to facilitate understanding of God’s people (Israel) in the Old Testament is to explore what it means that God ‘created a family to share His inheritance with.’  Over and over again, He provides for His people, rescues them, and invites them to trust and worship Him.  He pursues them, He fights their battles for them, and He constantly reminds them of His goodness- of how much He loves them.  When we think about the above scripture that describes our sonship in and through Jesus, we recognize that we go from being rebellious enemies of God to being made family with God.  This news can (by God’s grace) transform every way we think about and relate to ourselves and others.  We can be mercifully freed from focusing on ourselves (and our abilities) as the center of the universe and recognize that the Father is the head of our lives, the connection to deep purpose, meaning, and hope.  He gives us our identity, and He never changes even though many of the circumstances in our lives do.  Our adoption as sons and daughters roots us in the One who invites us to receive always His love, His forgiveness, and His blessing,  And our ministry is the outflow of this gift: we get to share with and remind those around us of this reality.  Praise God!

Liz Edrington is a Youth Minister at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA. 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Adoption: God as the Available Parent

We are excited about the theme for the 2012 Rooted Conference - “Adoption: The Beauty of Grace” - which will explore how the theological concept of adoption speaks to the present youth generation.

By God’s grace I have a clean record as far as the law is concerned.  Now, since this is a theology blog, you may be thinking of ‘law’ as the apostle Paul uses the term...but I’m just talking about the regular American legal system use of the term ‘law’....But what would happen if I saw President Obama and ran up to him to give him a hug, tell him about my day, and ask him for some personal help with a problem I’m having?

As the youth I work with responded when I asked them this question, I would be “neutralized”.
But why?  I’m an American Citizen in full standing.  I’ve never even been accused - let alone convicted - of any crime.  Why can’t I boldly approach the President in such a manner?
Sometimes we think that our justification gives us full access to God.  Jesus removes all of our sin and clothes us with his righteousness so that we can stand before God with full confidence.  And AMEN - certainly this is true!  We can stand before God with full assurance that his wrath won’t smite us - that’s the teaching of Hebrews 10:22.
...But God is God.  He’s King of Kings, Lord of Lords...and President of Presidents.  If my righteousness according to American law doesn’t give me full access to the President of the United States, how is it that I have full access to draw near to the President of Presidents?
The answer isn’t in our justification, but in our adoption.  You see, there are two people who have unfettered access to President Obama: his two daughters.  Nobody’s going to stop them from hugging him, talking with him, or seeking out personal help - because they are family.
The real good news of the gospel is that God doesn’t just want our righteousness.  He wants us.  He doesn’t just want the youth we work with to be “good”.  He wants them.  
For a generation struggling with issues of abandonment, isolation, and insecurity, this is good news.
“[W]hen the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Gal 4:4-6)
Justification makes way for our adoption into the household of God, and our adoption gives us hope.
We need to remember and teach to our youth the grace given to us in our adoption.  For the more we understand God as Abba, the more we can understand the freedom we have as loved children to draw near to God Almighty - and we need to draw near, for only in him is the fullness, abundant life, and security we all crave.
And the more we draw near to Abba God in prayer, through Scripture, in the sacraments, and in the fellowship of the saints, the more we will learn to rest in and receive from his powerful and redeeming love.  
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (1 John 3:1)
Mark Howard is the Youth Director and Assistant to Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Covington, GA. Mark has a Masters in Theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. 

Monday, March 05, 2012

How Do Youth Ministries Change Lives?

Check out Ray Ortlund's take on how churches change lives in his article, "Gospel + Safety + Time".

"This is what our churches
 must be: gentle environments of gospel + safety + time.  It’s the only way anyone can ever change."

Dr. Ortlund will be the keynote speaker at the 2012 Rooted Conference, "Adopted: The Beauty of Grace".  Find out more about the conference and register here.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Adoption: God as the Empathetic Parent

We are excited about the theme for the 2012 Rooted Conference - “Adoption: The Beauty of Grace” - which will explore how the theological concept of adoption speaks to the present youth generation.

A while back, my wife and I attended a parenting conference hosted by the La Leche League of Georgia.  As expected, I found the teaching and discussions to be rather thought-provoking and practical as a parent.  I did not, however, expect to find my faith built up and encouraged the way it was over the course of the two days.

All throughout the lectures and seminars, I kept seeing parallels between what was being taught about parenting and scripture’s teaching about God as our adoptive Father.  One quote in particular from the keynote touched my heart with its beauty.

In one of her handouts, Sharifa Oppenheimer (author of the best-selling book Heaven on Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children) wrote the following:

“The single best gift a parent can give their children is to be attuned to them, to know what it feels like inside their skin, and to respond interactively from this ‘knowing.’  The only way a child can learn to know who they are is by having been ‘known’ in this way by a parent.  The only way a child can ‘see themselves’ is by looking into the mirror of the parents’ heart, and see themselves reflected back.”

This is a beautiful picture of a parent’s empathy for their child - but what struck me as truly awe-inspiring was when I saw the quote from the perspective of my adoption into the household of God (Ephesians 2:19) and the incarnation of God in Jesus.

What a gift that our God went to such great lengths to ‘feel inside our skin’!  As the author of Hebrews proclaims, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

God became fully human only to be fully rejected by humanity, so that he might identify with us in our struggles, offer himself as a sacrifice to redeem humanity and give us the high privilege of becoming children of God.  Such a notion is too great to comprehend!  

What’s more is that because God so identified with us in Jesus - counting his righteousness as our own -  we no longer know ourselves by looking in the bathroom mirror; rather, it is only by gazing into Christ, where we most fully see the Father’s heart, that we can rightly see our true selves reflected back.  Redeemed.  Holy.  Pure.  Made new.  Perfect.  Loved.

In a ministry environment where many youth harbor harmful self-identities shaped by a culture saturated with false perceptions of the ‘self’, there are few messages more timely than our adoption by the Father, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

As we minister to today’s youth in whatever format, our call, as Paul magnificently declares in Colossians 3:2-4, is to encourage them to “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

For in Christ, we have become God’s beloved children...and he knows and cares what we are going through.

Mark Howard is the Youth Director and Assistant to Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Covington, GA. Mark has a Masters in Theology from Wheaton College Graduate School.