Families and Ministry

If we could come up with an ideal for how a person’s faith formation should look like from birth through death, what would that look like?

This is a question that nags at me as I discern how to lead the youth and family ministry at my church. I ask this question when I begin a discussion or seminar on family-based ministry. The reason I begin with this question is because I do not think we as Christian youth workers spend enough time studying scripture and theology with a student’s faith formation in mind. Much has been said in the past few years and decades on the importance of family in youth ministry. After all, we as youth ministers and youth workers usually spend very little time with students and have very little influence on their lives compared to their parents. As a professor of mine has noted, a thorough study of Scripture will reveal that the Bible does not contain a “job description” for a youth minister. Now, I do believe that a biblical case can be made for being a minister to students. However, if I am an honest youth minister, I will affirm the fact that God seems to communicate in the Bible that ideally parents and families are expected to be the ones who are the primary spiritual caregivers of children. The church’s place and a youth minister’s place is to support this ideal. Of course, there are many situations where this idea is difficult and even impossible, but we will deal only with God’s ideal for now. If the family is indeed to be the “first church” and the primary place of a student’s spiritual nurturing, do our youth ministries reflect this? If we examine how we “do” ministry, is there something that should change? I believe the answer is “yes,” but I have only begun to work through this issue. I suspect I will write more on this and that many have thought through it more thoroughly than I have, but for now, I will do my best to study scripture and think through my opening questions as best as I can.

Student Priorities and Youth Ministry

Tim Schmoyer has posted an article by Greg Stier on his blog (see Greg’s article on his website here). Greg suggests that we should learn from Mormons and expect more commitment from our youth. I recommend you check it out as well as the discussion on Tim’s blog.

Happy Feet

This weekend, we (our church’s youth ministry) headed to the dollar (well, actually the three-dollar-fifty) movies for a dinner and a movie out. Out of a lack of good choices of movies that would be entertaining as well as appropriate for grades 6-12, I chose Happy Feet for our group to watch. It certainly was a fun movie (my wife and I would like to adopt a dancing baby penguin now). However, I have a professor–Dr. Doug Groothuis at Denver Seminary–who has almost ruined movies for me, especially children’s movies. The reason? I now test just about every movie for its underlying worldview. (Not all movies, however. Sometimes a movie is just a movie.) I would have to see the movie again and take notes to really get its worldview down, but two beliefs of the worldview stuck out: belief in something greater than ourselves is juxtaposed to using our mind, and the opinions of elders should be distrusted because they’re stuck in their old-fossil like ways, which ultimately harms the greater society.

Now, you might find yourself saying, “C’mon, Benjer, it’s just a movie!” Maybe so. But all forms of communication communicate something, and I didn’t like what this movie was communicating. I believe that their are sensible reasons for believing in a higher power, namely the trinitarian God of the universe that has revealed himself–among other ways–in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A also happen to believe that people who are significantly older than me might have a bit to say about our world that I need to listen to. By the time the youth I was with graduate from high school, I hope that they’ll have learned that every movie does indeed present a worldview and to wonder if the worldview presented correlates to truth. But I also hope I don’t ruin all movies for them.

Raising Up Thinking Christians

Nancy Pearcey in her book Total Truth (Crossway, 2004, 2005) spends a couple of chapters on the history of evangelicalism and how this affects the current identity of evangelicalism. Pearcey notes that there are two main lines of evangelicalism: the populist line and the scholarly (or rationalist) line (p. 256 in the Study Guide edition). The populist line, from its beginnings (and especially after the Second Great Awakening in North America) had the characteristic of rugged individualism, a trait that has been highly prized throughout the history of the United States. This individualism includes an anti-institutional sentiment. This should not be surprising, since the evangelical movement was born out of a need to call pew-sitters (nominal church-going Christians) into a genuine faith in Jesus, something that was not typically preached in North American churches. In short, local churches were not doing their job, and so revivalist preachers such as George Whitefield (in the first Great Awakening) and Charles Finney (in the second Great Awakening) took to preaching the gospel across the United States and into the frontier.

Along with rugged individualism and anti-institutionalism came anti-intellectualism. Pearcey notes that there was indeed a strain of evangelicalism (scholarly evangelicalism) that dove into scholarship just as passionately. It is not fair to suppose that there the early evangelicals were all either “populist” evangelicals or “scholarly” evangelicals. However, the brand of evangelicalism that seemed to draw more people was the populist brand, since it resonated with the individualism of North Americans at the time. While the populist brand of evangelicalism did well to encourage a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, anti-intellectualism is certainly one of its downfalls. The result is a lack of knowledge among evangelicals regarding what should be included in a well-thought out Christian worldview. Studies suggest that most who identify themselves as evangelicals do not even hold to (or know about) most traditional evangelical beliefs, such as the fallenness of humankind, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the existence of hell and Satan. One Barna survey reveals that almost three-quarters of people who identify themselves as evangelicals do not even consider themselves as “born again,” a traditional hallmark of evangelical Christianity!

Relating this to youth ministry, I wonder often if I–as a youth minister–am doing my part in teaching students how to actually think about Christianity. I am often guilty of presenting Christianity as only a relationship with Jesus with no mention of ethics, suffering, and what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. This mostly is a sin of sloth; it takes a lot of time and work to encourage youth to develop a Christian world view and struggle with what it means to live out such a worldview. While I certainly am delighted when a student accepts Jesus as his or her personal savior, I should not just leave the student there. Youth should also have a basic knowledge of Christian apologetics, hermeneutics, ethics, and the like. I am not suggesting that these disciplines should somehow take precedence over a personal, genuine relationship with Jesus. Rather, these should be a part of a student’s learning what it means to be a faithful Christian in a fallen world.

Many Episcopal parishes at one time adopted the slogan “Don’t check your brain at the door.” This, as far as I can tell, means not always accepting at face value the claims of Christianity or Christian leaders, but rather testing and thinking through any claims that are made. I fear that we are in danger of not thinking at all. Have we in a way “dumbed down” Christianity, thinking that we were somehow making it more accessible to youth? If any have been experimenting with actually teaching students to think about their faith, I would love to hear about it, so please share your thoughts.