Monday, May 28, 2012

Content and Context

In offering some alternatives to the state of american youth ministry, I think it might be most helpful to get very basic so that we can focus on what is important.

Several years ago, in trying to simplify the teaching I was doing on youth ministry in a few different places, I boiled it down to two dimensions. Content and Context. So, I ran it past the excellent group of youth ministers that I work with and found agreement on the idea that this was a helpful way to think about youth ministry. I later ran across a book called Total Church in which the authors suggest that all ministry boils down to content and context. Wow! Was I on to something big? I loved how they unpacked these two dimensions from within scripture. The book goes on to detail their particular church model (house church), but I could see the application of content and context in a very different setting to my own, which was helpful.

Content is without a doubt most important. Our content is the gospel but I qualify that by saying - the gospel as we see it from Genesis to Revelation. The reason for that is to emphasize that our content is the entire word of God. This is what we teach and proclaim the gospel from. We ought to engage students in scripture, teach them how to interpret and apply it to their lives, and encounter Christ within those pages. Youth ministry with solid content should be really exciting! However, I have seen groups that do nothing but focus on content. They have no fun, no social gatherings, they miss opportunities to build deep and lasting relationships and evangelism is less common. I would describe such a ministry as one dimensional.

Context is the other dimension to ministry. Our context is community. By this I am specifically referring to the qualities of relationships built within a group. Community became something of a buzzword at one point and then took on a variety of meanings. So, I would define this context as relational, creating a sense of belonging, pursuing unity in the body (Ps 133), and helping people to learn to be the body of Christ. It must be outwardly focused to be consistent with being gospel people (rather than being a holy huddle). It should also be diverse, reflecting the local population. We are not looking for uniformity here. In this context we learn to love one another deeply. Not all students are going to become best friends but they can learn to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

If these are our two dimensions of ministry, then all that we plan and do should fit into one or the other. Our time at weekly meetings should be guided by building our content and context. This means we set aside time each week to get to know each other more deeply and learn to trust one another, work together, etc. We pray together, discuss together, and generally grow together in Christ. We are no longer thinking as much about an individual faith but a community of believers, the body of Christ.

Our teaching and bible study should be helping students engage with scripture. Long ago I moved away from the traditional youth talk that consisted of my ideas supported by a few verses. I started teaching from passages, allowing God’s word to speak more directly to students. If you have not experienced the difference, you might not get what I mean here. Expounding scripture can be done in a variety of ways yet the end result is the same - people getting a clear sense of the meaning and figuring out how it applies to our lives.

So, where does “chubby bunnies” and messy games come into play? Well, I don’t think it has a place in our regular youth group meetings when we are centered around content and context. That sort of silliness gets relegated to camps, retreats, and times when we have already done a lot of teaching in the day and just want to have fun for a bit. Our weekly meetings are too precious, meaning we have such limited weekly time with students, to give away to silliness. Some of my youth ministry friends would argue that we need humor to help students drop their guard or to break the ice. I would suggest that lively interaction where students are getting to really know each other does this. If our teaching and discussions are lively and we are not inhibiting our own sense of humor, then even our content is fun and their guard is dropping.

Think about content and context next time you plan a youth group meeting or plan your calendar. If you run everything through those dimensions I believe your ministry will take on new depths. If we look at the early church in Acts 2, we can easily see they gathered around content in a context of community and the Lord added daily to their number. A group where truth is being proclaimed, lives are being changed, and people love one another deeply is the most attractive youth group we could imagine!

Dave Wright is the Coordinator for Youth Ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.  This article is cross-posted with permission from Fusion Musing, where Dave regularly blogs.

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