Spiritual Baseball: the unlikely path to intimacy with Jesus

Babe-Ruth-at-bat

Snark MeterrealMID.003Every once in a while you meet someone and immediately sense they are wise and grounded. One of those for me was a Roman Catholic youth pastor. We met some fifteen years ago at an outdoor cafe. While the coffee cooled he made small talk by mentioning the Protestant activities his children were involved in: Awana, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Young Life, and attending a Christian high school. I laughed and probed just a bit: Was he a wanna be Protestant? He laughed back and said, “Absolutely not. It’s just that it is pretty hard to come to faith in my Church.” His answer baffled me. Why, I asked, would he choose to be involved in a church in which it was hard for his children to come to faith? How, I wondered, did he not see himself as making my point for me? The jovial youth minister grinned again, handed me a pen, pushed a napkin toward me and said, with the hint of a smirk, “Make a list of your ten favorite authors.”

I scratched names on the napkin until he reached over and grabbed the pen, and said, “Ok, I’m stopping you at fifteen. I notice that of your fifteen favorite authors, thirteen of them are liturgical Christians.” I had never heard the word ‘liturgical’ and didn’t want to admit it, so I glossed over that detail and asked him what his point was.

He asked, “Why do you like those authors: Nouwen, Lewis, Temple, Wesley, Chesterton, Wright, Manning, Stott?”

“I guess because they write as if they have intimacy with Jesus,” I said.

He answered without hesitating, “Exactly,” he said, “I’m in my Church because it is how you become intimate with Jesus.”

“O, come on!” I objected.

He pointed at the napkin and reminded me it was my list. He then said something that took me a decade to understand, “If you want true intimacy with Jesus, it will probably happen in a liturgical church: Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian, old-school Lutheran.”

We sat there another half hour and I decided that what he was saying is that if the spiritual life were a game of baseball, then first base is a relationship with Jesus. If one does not get on base, nothing else matters. That was why his kids were in evangelical activities. Second base might be knowing the Bible. Third, giving your life away in service for God and the Kingdom. But a “home run,” in the Christian life, is intimacy with Christ…what the Orthodox masters call “theosis” – a fulfillment of the image of God. I left that meeting wanting to “make it home,” but without the least awareness that, for millions over the last 2,000 years, the “home run” I longed to experience has been a common one in liturgical traditions.

And yes, I do realize that statement sounds arrogant and just plain incorrect to evangelical ears. After all, every evangelical church in America has a healthy collection of members who left the liturgical world precisely because they hadn’t gotten “on base” in a liturgical church.

What you may not realize is how non-normative the American 4 song/sermon worship format is in the scope of things. For 3/4 of Christian history, the liturgy was the only form of Christian worship. Even today, nearly 3/4 of the Christians on the planet worship God in the ancient pattern of Word and Sacrament. That doesn’t make the liturgy better, worse or more or less biblical, it does say that what most Christians know as “worship” is a bit of an outlier.

I am not saying that liturgical churches are perfect or have more holy people or that there are not dead liturgical churches…I’m fairly sure that dead liturgy might be the worst sort of dead. Just that for the lion’s share of Christians who have ever lived, worship was not song and sermon but Scripture and Supper.

…for the lion’s share of Christians who have ever lived, worship was not song and sermon but Scripture and Supper.

I didn’t understand what my Catholic friend was talking about precisely because I had been to a liturgical church a few times and found it repetitive and, frankly, numbing. What I discovered was that the power is precisely in the repetition…that, as a rough rock in a stream becomes a smooth stone from years of water flowing over it, the Christian is formed into the image of God when we surrender ourselves to the three-fold pattern of daily immersion in the Scriptures, weekly feeding in the Eucharist, and the annual cycle of the Christian year, combined with contemplative practices like those of the desert fathers. I have found that these are re-orienting my perception of reality, the way I view time, life, and the world around me, in ways that words on a page cannot fully capture. It is freeing me to love those who oppose me and work for the good of those who seek my harm.

You may not be interested in walking the path to the ancient Church, known in Anglicanism as “the Canterbury trail.” I was not either. Ironically it is a journey that has given a depth to my walk with Christ that I never imagined. Like someone who has never tasted ice-cream, I didn’t know what I was missing.

What about you? If you have walked with Jesus for several decades, is intimacy/spiritual union something the church you worship in is nurturing in you? In what ways, corporately and individually are you finding intimacy with Jesus? Or have you, like many, given up on intimacy with God as having a corporate expression? If so, I invite you to the sandlot to play ball.

Batter up.

About these ads

Life After “Cool Church?” Ancient-Future Youth Ministry, Part 3.

His name is Iliya. He was an atheist. At least he had been two weeks earlier when he had first come to youth group and (somewhat politely) mocked it. This night he stands up and passionately describes the love of God that has flooded his heart and passionately urges other students to give themselves more completely to Jesus. The most beautiful part: he was led to Christ, not by an adult leader, but by a student. In fact, he was the fifth generation of student to be led to faith by other students in the group. It is an example of remaking youth ministry as youth who do ministry.

Let’s continue the dialogue about a youth ministry that starts from a new center: The view of what we want our students to be and do (both as individuals and as a community) when they leave us. This stands in stark contrast to attendance and conversion numbers as our primary goals for students. I have called it ancient-future youth ministry. Feel free to call it something else. What I am proposing is not new to me…or to any of the other authors that have been saying much of this same stuff. It is really the church for 2000 years called back to it’s roots, but embracing our place in our current cultural context. Here are the core values that we program from in our context…

Our Mission: To raise up a faithful Christian generation that is leading the church and changing the world.

Our Vision: To be Christ-centered youth ministers who use our spiritual gifts to build and equip teams of volunteers who join us in going where youth are to proclaim the gospel of Jesus and to guide, serve and disciple youth in the Anglican tradition.

Our core values are that our ministries will be…

  • Incarnational: We GO! We start in student’s world. We follow the Great Commission and “go” engage students. (Matt. 28:19-20, John 1:1-14, Col. 1:21)
  • Transformational: We Proclaim the transforming message that “Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again. (Eph. 2:8-10, 1 Pet. 3:18, 1 Cor. 15:3-5, Rom. 1:16)
  • Formational: We Walk…along side and teach students by our lives. Connected to the historic body of Christ, we stand on the shoulders of giants-back through time. As part of God’s family, we utilize the ancient wisdom and experience of the church…spiritual disciplines, the Christian year, monastic practices, etc.
  • Integrational: We Work to see youth fully integrated into the life of the local parish and the world. (Eph. 3:19-22, Eph. 4:12-14)
  • Sacramental: We worship with students and artfully engage students in worship, using both ancient and modern forms, to engage with God on the basis of his great narrative that rewrites both our very view of life as being birthed from (Baptismal) and sustained (Eucharistic) by God in Christ as revealed in Scripture.

Imagine what would such a group create in student’s commitment to the faith: In their commitment to the Scriptures, the unchurched in our communities, and the broader church community.

As a result of our Christian convictions we will do the following…

  1. Evangelize - We will Share
    1. Meet unchurched students in their world.
    2. Clearly proclaim a relationship with Jesus.
    3. Give regular opportunity for students to respond.
    4. Believe and teach that knowing God is the best, most joyful, purpose-producing gift we can give students! Way better than soccer.
  2. Disciple - We will Teach
    1. Theological method: Scripture,Tradition & Reason
    2. God-filled lives…taught by God-filled worship: shaped by ancient patterns, rhythms and liturgies.
    3. Sacramental understanding
    4. Prayer (all seven types, BCP)
    5. Scripture and being shaped by the narrative

-Open it & use it. (Get the same Bible for everyone!)

-Memorize it. (Ps. 119:11)

-Understand it. (Exegesis & hermeneutics)

-The Big Picture of God’s story starting in Genesis

-Teach passages rather than cherry picking topics

-Give them tools to read daily at home.

F.  Integrity: have “one life”

G.  Growth is joy producing and enjoyable (fun)

3.  Serve - We will Act

    1. Servant hearts: family, school, church, ‘hood, world
    2. Work for justice (Luke 4:16-21)
    3. Teach students to use their spiritual gifts
    4. Appreciate & celebrate other Christian traditions

4. Develop Christian Leaders - We will replace ourselves

A. Recruit leaders (from within and without the church)

B. Develop, train, serve and equip Christian leaders

With these principles in mind We will run high grace/high expectation groups in which:

-All are Welcome. A multi-ethnic, multi-economic community (John 17:20-23, Acts 11:19-26; 13:1ff.)

-All can be Transformed- Discipleship is for all (Matt. 28:19)

-All should become Evangelists (Rom. 1:16 )

-Our attraction will be the power of God on display. (Acts 2:42-43, 2 Pet. 1:16, 2 Cor. 2:4-5)

What might this look like?  I am not exactly sure. I would guess that it will be contextual and be a bit different in every different church. It wouldn’t be easily packaged as a model. Did the Apostle’s follow a script?

Swing for the fence- your students and leaders will surprise you!

It’s up to us.  What will you do?

Life After “Cool Church?” A New Vision for Youth Ministry, Part 2.

If you have been following this conversation feel free to scroll down and begin reading at “What we could do instead?” In case you are just joining the conversation, this post begins with an introduction to the problem: The current “relevant” youth ministry model has led to the abandonment of the church by 20-somethings.  

Twenty Five years ago Stuart Cummings-Bond predicted in a Youthworker Journal article (1989) that ghettoizing youth away from the rest of the church would have disastrous results. He called it “the one-eared Mickey Mouse.”  Today we see the fruit of this model in the abandonment of the church by twenty-somethings. Will we do things differently for the next generation arriving to our programs? Or is it ok with us that young people leave the church when they leave our student ministries?

Churches continue to invest heavily in youth ministries that are parallel to and “cooler” than the adult church – The youth pastor’s vision of what the big church could become. This model gave us the youth service as a place of evangelism for the young and learning lab for the larger church. In this model, the larger church first opposes then ignores the “radical” things happening in the youth room. At least for a time. That time typically ends when we call a new pastor. Then the new pastor, invariably a former youth pastor who learned attractional ministry in the youth room, redesigns the main sanctuary and re-packages the worship model to resemble what he was doing in the youth group a decade earlier…only with a larger budget and fully-functioning coffee house. Has it occurred to you how remarkably similar your new sanctuary looks to your old youth room? Similar decor, similar music, similar technology, similar dress, identical message.

And we wonder why youth grow bored with the adult church, or perhaps worse, remain in church but as shallow and self-absorbed as they were when they arrived in youth group as 15-year-olds 15 years ago. As the Mormon bishop referenced in a previous post “We make givers. You make takers.” (http://thegospelside.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/mormon-bishop-to-the-mega-church-thank-you/)

Why did we do this? Because it built fast numbers. Segregationist youth ministry is pragmatism at its worst. We used to be able to say, “Well it is working. God is using it, so who are you to judge?” However, the data has piled up: Cummings-Bond was right. Segregationist student ministry is a short-term, non-solution that threatens the very future of the evangelical church movement.

What could we do instead?

Research tells us that by segregating students into homogenous age groupings we are emptying our churches. What if instead of giving students what we think they want, we gave them what they need: A praying, confessing, Scripturally faithful, Father trusting, Jesus following, Spirit surrendered, faith-practicing community that wants to help them get their hands dirty for God?

As Youth Ministers we are first and foremost practitioners. We usually want to start with “How-to.” However, it is important that we start with the philosophical change of directional we need to make. Here are four research-supported places we could start…

1. Change Our Questions: Move from “Is this effective?” and “What are the people at ____ Church doing?” to “Is this biblical?” and “Does this produce disciples who love God enough to make other disciples?”

2. Change Our Priorities (Steve Wright, Rethink, 2008) Do we want to build a youth ministry or youth ministers? As Detroit pastor Harvey Carey says, “Youth ministry should be youth who do ministry!” What would we have to change to have Kingdom priorities? Here are four priority shifts I think most of us need to make…

A. God: Shift from self-centered (God for you) to God-centered (“God. I. We. They”). God is our starting point. It is God who is Glorious and worthy of all praise. Salvation is at God’s initiation and at God’s Expense. We are welcomed into God’s family…the community through which God’s realm will be revealed. Our welcome of others comes from God’s welcome of us and should always result in a passion to serve a lost and hurting world. We start with God and move toward the world. Our calling from God drives us in mission rather than the world’s need.

B. Family: Shift from separation from parents -to- a partnership that equips parents. View parents as the primary spiritual influence on kids- because God does. (Deut. 6:6-9)

C. Church: Shift from…

  • Segregated ministries–to-championing the church. Youth participate in every aspect of the church. When “big church” meets, the youth are there.
  • Cultural relevance-to-Scriptural faithfulness.Why do we do what we do? If it is “because it works” rather than because it is Scripturally faithful, let it go.
  • Student ministry-to-student development. This is about relationships: A life on a life, 7 day a week program.
  • Excitement as dominant emotion-to-Wonder.

D. World: Shift from mission is something I do “for me” -to- “I am an unashamed proclaimer of God’s Kingdom in word and deed.”

3. Change the outcomes we work toward in our ministry: disciples that make disciples. “That we may present everyone complete in Christ.(Col. 1:28)

Is our first motivation to create high numbers or highly committed disciples? A group must be large enough to be a group, but what would happen if we grew by being the deepest thing rather than the widest thing?

What does discipleship look like? Kenda Creasy-Dean, in Almost Christian, describes the characteristics of committed disciples.  Highly committed students have:

  • A Creed they know and believe
  • A Testimony of God’s action in their lives
  • A Community they are supported by
  • A Mission t0 give their life to
  • A Hope for the future

Does your youth ministry program toward developing those characteristics in students?

4. Change our programs so that they build students toward our goals

  1. Equip families.
  2. Teach (parents, leaders, kids) the excitement of historic, life-changing faith in Christ.
  3. Use games & humor purposefully. *By all means, enjoy yourself in church. I am not saying faith is not enjoyable, just that it isn’t entertainment.
  4. Use the youth group experience to create environments where the energy is in the students experiencing God (vertical) and loving and challenging one-another (circularly) rather than toward the leadership on the platform (horizontally). After all, Even their teachers don’t spend the hour lecturing any more!

Next up: Principles & Core Values for the Ancient-Future Youth Ministry

Questions about Confirmation

What is Confirmation? “Baptism is God saying, ‘You are mine.’ Confirmation is our agreement back, ‘I am yours.’” In other words, Baptism signifies you are a Christian and Confirmation that you have chosen to be a disciple, and as such, are committed to your local parish.

Age of Confirmands?

  • Confirmation is a person’s adult faith decision, so older is better than younger.
  • Students experience their life so much differently after starting high school than before that they tend to discount their very real childhood faith experiences. Youth leaders will always help students to honor their previous concrete-operations faith decisions, but we are swimming against their experience of themselves.
  • They must be old enough to have experienced life’s challenges in order to have a faith experience that sustains them through those challenges.
  • Students must have the developmental maturity to make a lifelong adult decision…when thought of in those terms, 7th grade is pushing it. Please start no earlier than that!

Goals?

  1. To make sure students are evangelized not just catechized. Best practice: Begin Confirmation with summer camp! Our Chapel Rock junior high youth camp has a “What is a Christian, and will I be one?” message sequence. The camp program was specifically designed to be a Confirmation pre-retreat.
  2. For kids to own, “This is my God (Christian), my tribe (Episcopalian/Anglican) and my family (parish).” Best practices:

        -Connect old and young. “Adopt a granny/grandy/prayer-partner/buddy programs leave generations connected to one another in ways that give momentum to the entire church.

-Integrate kids into worship at every level possible…segregating in worship builds religious consumers.

-Make church family-friendly. Church exists for the glory of God and the building up of the body of Christ. (Eph. 4) The guiding principle is that those stronger and wiser in the faith serve the weaker and newer. Blend musical forms and instruments.

-Resource the parents to be Christian leaders in the home: Make Confirmation a parent program as well as a student one!

-Make sure the curriculum teaches “why” rather than simply “what.”  We want students to understand how Anglican traditions, sacraments and liturgy deepens people’s walk with Christ. Confirmation should be evangelism that leads to a life of discipleship. Even the best curriculum needs translation into your context. Currently many are using Confirm Not Conform.

-Give them the tools to sustain a lifelong faith: walking with God, living a life shaped by faith, serving others, being able to deal with life’s challenges.

Planning Priorities?

  • Plan Confirmation as part of the larger “Roadmap of Faith” to take an un-churched person to mature faith:  1) Meet people, 2) Tell them about Jesus 3) Help them to grow, 4) Plug them in to church, 5) Train them to join us.
  • Plan your program around experiences: Start Confirmation with camp. End with a service trip. The parishes with the most retention when students become adults came from the our churches doing start/end programs.
  • Make Confirmation at least a school year in length.
  • Teach a positive message. Often we use language that intentionally differentiating us from other Christians. When students get to college we often lose them to evangelical and RC churches when our kids don’t know how to respond when asked, “Do you know Jesus?” (In Arizona, RC youth programs have adopted evangelical language.) When we start with the universal Christian message and emphasize: “We are like other Christians, but with the following distinctives that will bless you,” we teach our uniqueness without having students think we kept something from them when they get to college.
  • Create ownership. The local Catholic diocese is moving towards students having a drivers’ license before starting Confirmation. They put it on the student to drive themselves to the meetings to insure ownership. Find ways to create ownership in your Confirmation program.