Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Youth Theology - an Invitation

Youth ministry is often viewed as a side dish of the church. It is a way of dealing with a problem.  The problem is that young people are not involved in church.  This problem-oriented approach to youth ministry is bound to fail. What lies at the heart of profound ministry to youth is an unfettered proclamation of the gospel: "the Kingdom of God is at hand." If one concedes that youth do in fact have brains, and are capable of comprehending sermons, and Bible studies, then the uncomfortable question emerges: is there a theology worth captivating their attention? Is there truly a gospel message that speaks to them? If so, what is it?  If there isn't one, then what might it be?

Here are some potential theological launching points:

To be young is to be fully human.  Adulthood is not a destination, but another step on a journey of faith.  Babies, children, adolescents, teens, young adults, adults, and seniors are all human beings. One is not better than the other. Each has specific gifts that it offers to the community of the church at large. Language that puts down teenagers is just as oppressive and inappropriate as racist or sexist language.  Furthermore youthfulness is a state of being that crosses boundaries of race, gender, class, etc.  The experience of adolescence varies from person to person and group to group, and having dialogue among young people from various social locations can contribute to a richer church.

Bringing young people together in conversation, and adopting a theology that prioritizes their experiences will help contribute to living out the Kingdom of God hoped for by many people around the world. Because young people have an innate sense and experience of what it means to be both privleged and oppressed they are natural bridge builders between disparate groups. In other words, it may not be enough to teach young people how to serve the poor, for example.  Instead, placing a mirror in front of adolescents so that they might see how they are at times oppressed, and at times the oppressor would help them see the larger issues of justice and righteousness in the world today.  This will lead to a solidarity with people who greatly oppressed in the world. Solidarity will lead to social action and the building of a more just world.

What are the needs of youth?  What matters most to you? Creating justice with youth begins by creating justice for youth.  This is youth theology.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Empowerment of Youth...a Dangerous Cocktail

I just finished reading "Flickering Pixels" by Shane Hipps.  What a compelling exhortation for people of faith to take a sober account of how "technology shapes your faith." I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the confluence of technology and faith, especially folks in the Theology After Google conversation.

Hipps' peace-making Mennonite Christian faith overlaps with his background in marketing/advertising/media.  He has a profound respect for community: face to face interactions, and makes their primacy clear for Christian faith.  Yet, he engages media and technology head on, with plenty of cautionary tales, but also a realistic conceit as to how they affect theology!

Hipps argues that the advent of the printing press and the proliferation of printed media were as influential to the Reformation as the content of theologians like Luther and Calvin.  He also argues that the ubiquity of images today with TV/internet changes the way persons think and theology too.  Here is a priceless quote: "The Internet makes a flat stone of the mind and skips it across the surface of the world's information ocean.  A book, by contrast, is a sturdy submarine, diving the mind deep into the sea" (pg 146).

Most fascinating of all was Hipps' insight into the “empowerment of youth.”  Because they learn and adapt to technology faster, argues Hipps, they become the ones in control--the adults, and adults become the marginalized—the young; thus a reversal of power.  He then goes on to highlight some forms of encrypted language people use for drug use and other illicit behavior. Another quote: “This unprecedented empowerment of youth, along with our image-fueled obsession with beauty, is a dangerous cocktail.  In a culture that worships youth, what incentive do our kids have to ever grow up?” (139)

What’s wrong with empowering youth?  I would argue that the problem exposed is not empowerment of youth; the problem/danger is the exploitation of youth. If young people are given the chance to be full participants in the body of Christ, they will. Youth are human beings. They are not deranged beings with insatiable appetites for drugs, sex, and rock and roll (ok maybe rock and roll). They have insatiable appetites for community! If kids invent language for drug use, this is in large part because they are being exploited by a network of drug dealers (probably with influential adults at the top), and not given proper oversight and boundaries. I agree with Hipps whole-heartedly that boundaries are essential for youth, just as they are essential for adults. I think that an emerging theology of the 21st century that openly recognizes the influence of media is one where young people are empowered to be full members of the body of Christ. The gospel for youth is that Jesus at 12 years old was in the temple teaching the adults.* Youth, who are empowered by technology have an opportunity to teach adults something about God, just as Jesus did, and Mary, David, Samuel, Ruth, Abel, Hagar, Ishmael…

Hipps’ cautionary notes are still perfectly valid. Technology can liberate, but can also be used to enslave. The task of the church is to take the advice of McLuhan seriously, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (182).

*Thank you Angelina, for reminding me of the story of 12-year-old Jesus.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

youth and interreligious conversation

Last night at hs youth group, a super cool guy, by the name of Rami shared his faith with us.  He is a Muslim, which means he practices Islam, or as he describes it: submission to God.  Rami was very honest and articulate about his faith, and shared openly about what he believes and why.  He was generous and kind, not judgmental in the least, and open to questions as well as eager to learn more about the Christian experience.  At the end of our time together, Rami prayed, one of the the five times during the day that he does an intentional form of prayer.

His prayer was at least five minutes long, and in mostly complete silence.  Everyone at our youth group was totally silent, respectful, and observant.  But what struck me most profoundly was the openness and inquisitiveness of our young people.

This is week four in a multi-week series of inviting people to come and share their faith with our youth group.  I have found that the youth are so curious!  They really want to know about the religious experiences of these people.  Sometimes biases come out, in both directions, but never in a seldom to never in a condescending tone.  This is led me to a hypothesis:

Young people are specially equipped to have religious dialogue.  Their brains are more plastic than adults.  They are not "locked" into one way of looking at the world.  They themselves are more likely to be honest about still figuring out their own faith, so the conversation tends to be more candid.  As they begin to understand their faith in the context of a wider spectrum of religion, they gain insight and wisdom.  This wisdom allows them to observe their own assumptions critically, and critical self-reflection is essential to authentic religious experience.  I'm going to go reflect on that for a while. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tila Tequila & Theology After Google

I read this article in the LA Times today about Tila Tequila.  I had never heard of her before, but maybe that's because I live in a salt mine (self snark).  She had her own show on MTV, and a cultish following on Twitter.  The story was a very provocative follow up to the recent Theology After Google (TAG) conference, also covered by the LA Times - which gives you a taste of the spectrum of life in southern California.

Sex.  It's a huge issue on the internet and in the post Google world, but I am just now realizing that the TAG conference mostly avoided it.  The Times article highlighted how Tila's sexuality had been exploited from an early age first by the online version of Playboy, then the magazine, Twitter, and MTV.  Tila very successfully built a loyal fan base, but seemingly at the cost of her own identity.  This is an extreme example of the dangers of becoming absorbed into online social media.  Tila said that she would be feeling horrible in the middle of the night, then get on twitter and reveal extremely personal information and images, which was a "temporary high."  The next day she would have to answer to the media who were having a heyday, sending her into another depression.

Tila is only 28 years old.  She is quite young.  I am concerned about how life after Google, can so easily exploit and enable young people to exploit themselves on the internet.  Theology After Google should speak prophetically, by that I mean: speak truthfully, honestly, and critically, to the places of power on the internet that enable this kind of exploitation.  Theology After Google should also speak words of Gospel to young people who geot caught up in such schemes and offer them an alternative way of living.  This means being honest with young people and exhorting them to have boundaries and value their sexuality as a sacred gift, not as a commodity.

Young people have the skills and the desire to make connections on the internet.  The church must ask itself if we are inviting the voices of young people to be a part of our conversation.  Are we?  What can the church do to offer a positive interaction and online community that values young people as children of God and vessels of grace?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Crazy Deal at Buca di Beppo

This blog post is dedicated to finding a cheap meal for your family/friends.  We just did it, and it worked!  Today only Buca di Beppo has a promotion: a free personal size serving of spaghetti along with an order of a small or large pasta or entree.  But to maximize your saving you should also use this coupon: $10 off of $20 spent.

The best bang for buck is to order two small spaghetti's with marinara sauce (10.45 each).  A "small" can easily feed two people.  With each of those smalls you get your free serving of spaghetti (with or without meat sauce).   That means you get enough spaghetti for six people for 20.90 minus 10.00 (from your coupon), for a total of 10.90 (pre-tax)!

Dinner for six at Buca di Beppo for $10.90 can't be beat!  Let me know if you take advantage!

Good Luck,


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Today our youth and young adults read Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel.  Abel is the younger brother and gives a better offering to God: the choice fatty cuts of firstborn livestock. Abel, however, just gives fruit of the Earth - not first fruits and not the best fruits.  God acknowledges Abel but not Cain.  Cain is jealous and angry, and despite a warning form God to master sin, kills Abel.

Many of the youth at the study were older brothers.  They shared what it is like to have the responsibility of being the older sibling.  One described it as being, "the Guinea Pig." I asked what it felt like to be "shown up" by a younger brother or sister?  Response: Depressing, because the older is expected to get things right and show the younger how to do it.  But I ask: Why can't the younger sometimes teach the older?  Everyone present acknowledged that they had at one point learned something significant from someone younger than themselves (myself included).

Later, God wonders where Abel is and asks Cain.  The response is classic: "Am I My Brother's Keeper?"  Even though the language is biblical, everyone present at the study knew what it meant, and admitted uttering the very same words about something similar to their parents.  I asked: What was your parents' response?  The answer was unanimous: Yes, as a matter of fact you are your brother's keeper! So God punishes Cain, but it was so severe that Cain requested mercy, and God showed mercy.

Why is it assumed that the only the old must teach the young about God?  God accepts Abel's offering and rejects Cain's because the one is appropriate, not because the person who gave it was older/younger.  It is tempting for some to think that age, sex, race, language, etc. entitles favoritism by God.  But this is not true.  All creatures are precious to God. Youth have just as much worth in the eyes of God as do adults.  Young people have a critically important role to play in the world.  What we do matters!  This is clear from the story of Cain and Abel: the choices and consequences of young people are widely felt.

If you are reading this blog right now, I hope you realize just how important you are.  The choices you make affect everyone around you.  If you think what you do doesn't matter, you are wrong!  It matters a great deal, young or old you are a child of God!

Note: Picture is from "Brick Testament."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Google isn't Evil?

I invite you to help me think about “youth theology” or a you(th)eology according to some of our presenters so far by TAG, #tag10:

Jeff Jarvis – “Youth used to be something you had to get over.  Now youth is an asset.”  Amen.  Unfortunately Google, Facebook and others mine information for targeted adverising of young people, to make money, that is exploitation of their value.  Shame on them! Don’t be evil?  What about being good?  Google should give 1% of their funds to end extreme poverty and starvation of children around the globe.  That would be good.  To not do so is evil.  Is Google is in violation of their “mission statement”?

Roger asked, “How can I teach my children about a God who waits, when they are used to instant results"?   Great question! And what about the converse?  “What can adults learn about God from young people?”  Youth have a particular experience that adults do not.  They are natural waiters.  Youth are always waiting for something: waiting to be a teen-ager, waiting to be able to drive, waiting to be able to vote, waiting to be able to drink (hopefully waiting), and waiting to be an adult and therefore know something about God (sarcasm).  Let the generations learn from each other!

Philip Clayton said Gen X and Millennials are not jointers.  Is this because youth culture has changed their social behavior, or is it because they are not treated as full human beings?  What if churches invited youth to teach adults about God just as much as adults teach youth?  Then they might become joiners!

Monica Coleman – Yes thank you for witnessing to the community that can form online.  Why does resurrection matter?  Young people can teach us about this too.  They embody transformation.  They live in the midst of fear drenched world in perpetual angst about death, yet everyday they offer hope for the world. 

Adam Walker Cleveland hosts conversations.  This is youth theology.  He allows a plurality of voices to participate in theological conversation.  This is a theological practice that brings youth/adults to church.  Thank you!

Callid Keefe-Perry – You want to bring the margins to the middle.  Adolescence is itself a marginal space between childhood and adulthood.  Jesus was a teenager at one point in his life.  God called Samuel the boy prophet, Esther the young woman, and many others in the prime of their youth.  Did they conform to the status quo?  No they did not.  They challenged social structures to bring about justice and righteousness.  We need justice and fairness for young people, who are co-workers in the Kingdom of God.

What say you?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

“Progressive Christianity” is Meaningless

A friend of mine had recently graduated from a Pentecostal College in Minnesota, majoring in Biblical Studies, and was thinking about Seminary.  I suggested Luther Seminary in the twin cities.  “No,” he said, “they’re too conservative.”  I was taken aback (shock on my face).  He went on to explain, “Lutherans have one set way they like to read the Bible, and it’s to fit their theology.  You can take one little step to the left, or the right, but there’s no freedom to read scripture on your own.”

That conversation rattled my theological assumptions. My professor, Philip Clayton, would say that was the work of the Holy Spirit. A Pentecostal was condemning a Lutheran for interpreting scripture too narrowly!  But my friend had a good point.  Lutherans do prefer to use scripture that supports our favorite theology: saved by grace through faith.  Luther openly admitted that he preferred some passages of scripture over others and had major issues with at least one book of the Bible, James!  Yet Luther is the godfather of “Sola Scriptura!”

What does this mean? (That’s also Lutheran by the way.)

The categorical boxes we put on ourselves, or try to put others in are heretical.  It is possible for a Pentecostal to exhort a Lutheran to read and use scripture more liberally, or for a justice seeking Catholic to exhort an Evangelical to interpret Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount more literally.

Christians cannot be divided between “conservative” and “progressive.” 

Calling oneself a “Progressive Christian” is like trying to say, “I’m a Good Christian.”  It’s a defensive move that tries to justify the positions one takes as being “good.”  It’s also unlikely that one is truly progressive across the spectrum of beliefs on every issue.  And who gets to decide what is progressive?

Tonight begins the conference, “Theology After Google.”  If everyone in attendance thinks they are “progressive” and are meeting to advance a “progressive agenda,” then I will be greatly disappointed.  I hope the presenters and participants are geared up to dig into theology that has a scope and depth that will challenge all Christians and perhaps even extend out beyond that to religious persons of various stripes.

I hope new technology will be leveraged to bring Christians together, not further divide them. 

So once again my compatriots - Bring the Theology!

This post was inspired by a class discussion we had on “Thy Kingdom Connected,” by Dwight Friesen, a cool book that explores these issues in great detail.  Dwight challenges the readers from either/or thinking to both/and thinking.  He uses network theory as a metaphor for the Christian life and theology.  He will be speaking at the Theology After Google conference starting today!  It’s not too late to register!  If you don't want to spend three days in sunny southern California then you can watch the conference live video streamed.  You can also participate via twitter at twubs.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Bring the Theology!

Did you see the recent findings of the Pew Forum on the Millennium Generation?  This generation has an even higher portion of young people who identify as athiest/agnostic/non-religious than ever before!  So take that Gen-Xers!  You thought you were so non-religious...well it turns out you're quite conventional.  In fact, the study indicates that every generation is conventional.  The older people get, the more religious they get.  The myth that people will "come back to church" when they are older isn't totally untrue!  The problem is that not everyone comes back.  And with that means as time goes on the attrition rate compounds like a sick investment you don't want to be in, but can't pull out of.

This report affirms what I already knew after reading a book everyone who works with youth in a religious capacity should read: Soul Searching by Christian Smith.  That book lays out in scientifically rigorous detail the cold hard facts of religious inculcation in America it is spectacularly conventional!  Young people almost always echo the beliefs of their parents.  In other words, it's not difficult to instill religious sensibilities in young people.  It happens naturally!

The phrase, "Spritual but Not Religious" is meaningless.  Yound people don't say that, don't claim that, but we like to think they do.  Religous leaders like to think that there is a whole generation of "seekers" out there who are just waiting to find a slick blog, connect on facebook, or watch a compelling youTube video and be "saved."  But guess what?  It ain't gonna happen.  That's not what young people want, and its not what they need.

So what do we need (I am a young person after all)?  What will stem the tide of each generation becoming slightly more non-religious?


Theology is the way a group of people talk about God.  But communication doesn't happen merely with words.  So theology is more than words.  It is the way in which God is communicated.  How is God being communicated?

In the upcoming conference, Theology After Google (TAG), a lot of people will be weighing in on this question in light of new technologies.  This is great.  I hope that the very talented and gifted (tag) people who are speaking at TAG will raise the bar.  I truly hope nobody spends too much time on the supposedly "spiritual but not religious" generation that doesn't exist in any demonstrable way.

Rather, give your best theological pitch.  Throw something out there that is risky but imaginative.  Get to the heart of what matters: theology!  Don't waste our time trying to sell a bunch of already mostly tech-savvy people on Web 2.0, or even worse, don't attempt to convince already hard working pastors that if only they use Facebook they can save their churches.  Let's be real.  Facebook won't save the church.  We need theology.  So bring it!

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Great [Computer] Cloud of Witnesses

Cloud Computing is Theology After Google computing.  Users depend on a network of servers, but then accesses and modify information from a user station.  In other words the millions of people doing Facebook don't depend on their computers and mobile devices to contain and do the computing required to run and sustain Facebook, they merely access the Computer Cloud that does it. 

Does "Theology After Google" rely upon a network/cloud of servers/witnesses?  Yes!

"Therfore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of wintesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..." Hebrews 12:1

On Tuesday our class skyped with Brian McLaren about his new book, "A New Kind of Christianity."  It was a good conversation, and Brian shared a lot of anecdotes.  I left with the distinct feeling that Brian, as well as everyone else in the room depended on a network of connections or a cloud of witnesses that have helped in developing one's faith.

With the internet, the people with whom one can connect, and the witnessing that help to form one's faith are different than ever before.  There can be no doubt that the cloud of witnesses literally surrounds each person.  Faith in this context, is to rely upon the cloud of wintesses, to let go of the heavy things that slow one down and to run with perseverance.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A New Kind of Christianity - A Summary from the Blogosphere

Summation/conglomeration of Blog postings on Brian McLaren's new book, "A New Kind of Christianity." From the class, and soon to be conference: Theology after Google. Another summary can be found by Jon Visitacion.

First off - my thoughts - not unlike editors of certain canonical books I am the redactor so I get to insert my theological spin using everyone else's.  Brian has positioned himself in a tenuous place.  If I may totally oversimplify: on the right he may be criticized as a heretic.  (Which I was, by the way for giving a favorable blog post.)  On the left he may be criticized as "too late" or not radical enough.  But here's the deal - Mr. McLaren has been at this for a long time.  These criticisms are pase.  The grey area is precisely where Brian likes to be.  Brian is very clear that he is putting forth the questions that people are already asking.  At this, I think, he is spot on.  His responses to these questions may not be to everyone's liking - but just putting forth the questions and getting people to discuess is fantastic.  Brian never claims to be constructing or systematic theology for the 21st century.  Though there is some substantial fodder to get that project underway.

So On With the Questions...
The Narrative Question - Is there a monolithic theological narrative that dominates the canon of sacred scripture?  If so, is it necessarrily imbued with the theology of Augustine and Aquinas (Plato & Aristotle).  If not, how do we respectfully and reverently read sacred scripture?  I took a stab at this from a youth ministry perspective.

The Authority Question - How do Christians appropriately read the Bible? James Kang offers compelling thoughts in his blog. He lifts up the long tradition among mainline protestants of wrestling and studying the Bible and not settling for a surface level literalistic reading.  James also pushes forward with a question.  What would it mean to read the Bible 2.0?

The God Question - Jae Seon Seo gives a nice historical perspective here. Brian succinctly articulates four aspects to the nature of God (as humans understand it) that have changed - 1 - monotheism over henotheism, 2 - ethical social justice over ritualistic/cultic sacrificial, 3 - God of the universe not just of a tribe, 4 - immanence over transendence (qualified version).  Brian also suggests that the four Gospels are the most important parts of the Bible.  As a Lutheran I sympathize with this, as Luther had a nuanced understanding of what the "Word of God" meant.  It means God's particular revelation through Jesus Christ.  Yet, I believe that the Word of God is present and revealed in all of sacred scripture, so I cannot fully get behind the proposed metaphor of how to read the Bible.

The Jesus Question - Mr. Charles Dorsey blogged here.  He asks the question (this is something Charles does a lot), who is the 'Real Jesus'?  By asking this questions Charles raises the issue of casting Jesus in one's own image - which is idolatry.  Brian adresses this in his book too. So who is the real Jesus?

The Gospel Question  - What's the good news? An ontological salvation from a state of total depravity?  Or the proclomation that the Kingdom of God is at hand?  Whence faith?  McLaren is unclear if faith is defined as a specific belief in Jesus Christ.  Or if Jesus Christ makes possible faith/trust/fidelity in God in general.  Romans is at the heart of this argument.

The Church Question - Minho Chung posted his blog here - which has generated quite a bit of conversation.  Everyone (including myself) is weighing in on what is the church, what needs changing, why does it need changing, etc.

The Sex Question - Bob Rhodes posted his blog here.  Lots of interesting thoughts and conversation on this topic.  Brian challenges the reader and the church and Christianity to participate in conversations about sex without condemning.  From a youth ministry perspective, this is really important.  So much is at stake for a person's identity and life outcomes by the choices they make.  The conversations need to happen, and they must happen in a safe space.

The Pluralism Question - Two posts on this topic: Ruth Marston and Rev. Jan Chase.  Ruth gives a nice summary of the pluralism conversation along with some thoughts inspired by Brian's book.  Rev. Chase compares "New Christianity" to "Old Christianity" before it partnered with Roman Empire.  She talks about the oneness of God.

The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question - Angelina Duell writes her blog on this topic here, then here, and finally here (with other commentary on the book here.)  McLaren outlines a progression or evolution of religious thought.  There is also a notion that change will come from young people.  Angelina raises some questions about assumptions made about young people and "formal training" as well as questions about this linear view of human progression.

So there you have it. The major questions of "A New Kind of Christianity."  Feel free to post your own questions or thoughts.  Thanks, -Wes