Posted in Reading

A Nouwen Double-Hitter: “Life of the Beloved” and “In the Name of Jesus”

Over the past 2 weeks I have read 2 of Henri Nouwen’s better known books: In the Name of Jesus and Life of the Beloved. I read them in very different places of life, thinking about very different things – but I needed them both.

In the Name of Jesus is Nouwen’s book on Christian Leadership going into the 21st century. He lays out the temptations of leadership, the cures, and the practices to help you get there, its a a-b-c/a-b-c/a-b-c structure. The temptations – to be relevant, powerful, spectacular, are a fascinating starting point for Nouwen because they are not particularly  malicious temptations. A non-Christian reader would find this a deeply strange book because it is a powerful refutation of every other leadership book on the market. A simple 150 pages reminding you that Jesus never asked you to be a great leader, and if you will lead in his name, you must lead like him. I would recommend it for people going in to ministry roles. I would suggest it as one to revisit every so often. Nouwen’s language is simple and clear and straight-forward. It is hard to misunderstand him, even if occasionally we might want to.

I read this book in two sittings. The first was from 3-5 am on a Wednesday. Tortured by anxiety that wouldn’t let me sleep, anxiety from the very leadership Nouwen writes about, I found his words true but unpleasant. A reminder of how far I was from where I wanted to be. Nouwen can be like that.

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A week  later, I read Life of the Beloved on a plane flight home. It was Christmas Eve. My husband napped on my shoulder, as did most of the other passengers on the 7am flight. If In the Name of Jesus coincided with my restless anxiety, it seems only fitting that Life of the Beloved was a book I opened to the sound of slumber of everyone around me. Nouwen wrote the book to a dear, non-religious friend, trying to explain what it means to be a spiritual person in a secular world. The core thesis is this: You are the Beloved. Everything else hinges on you believing that. He (always so structured, I love that about him) orients the book around the four verbs of the breaking of the bread: taken, blessed, broken, and given. The book moves slowly but powerfully through the four movements, and is laced with the heartfelt urgency and compassion of a man trying to explain to someone he loves that he is so much more than this secular and cruel world tells him he is. This book is almost unbearably gentle, and kind. It whispers compassion in every page. Its a powerful, intimate thing to read, and one which I will hold on to.

So my Christmas was framed by a conversation with my dear friend Henri. First with his confrontation of how my anxiety was so clearly not what God wanted. How all I could hear was all that I was not. And then a soft voice, telling me, as much as I was willing to believe, that I was beloved.

 

 

Posted in Reading

Sustainable Youth Ministry: Pay no Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Youth ministry may be one of the only professions that has settled into the pattern of handing over total responsibility for running an organization to young people just out of college. Far too often, anxiety, not wisdom, drives us. – Sustainable Youth Ministry

Sustainable Youth Ministry was one of those books recommended to me by three separate people before I read it. I will admit when I got the third recommendation, from my boss-to-be, I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. The issue is not the content, I am about to start a career in youth ministry, and I have experienced the incredible burnout rate of youth workers first-hand.

The issue is the author. I don’t have a problem with Mark DeVries, in fact, quite the opposite. Mark joined FPC Nashville, my home church, in the 90’s as the youth pastor, and only officially retired in the past year or two. He was the man I met when I was on my first youth retreat at 12, the one who coached me through my sermon on youth Sunday at 18, who was my boss when I interned at the church at 19, and who performed my wedding two months ago, at 24. I worked for, or with, all 3 of his children. He introduced me to International Justice Mission, the organization I used to work for, and founded the youth ministry training programming I’m in (the Center for Youth Ministry Training, CYMT). He is the one who first encouraged me to go into ministry in the first place.

Can you even imagine the “of course” laugh I had when my boss-to-be told me their youth ministry uses Youth Ministry Architects, the coaching service Mark started? When he recommended the book he said, “You should read Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries, you know him, right?” Yes, we’ve met.

All of that is to say that I can, in no way, give an objective analysis of this book. I leaned a lot from it, but I was most captivated by comparing the pitfalls and successes described in the book to my own youth ministry experience, having not only crystal clear mental images of the leaders and programs he described but also understanding Mark’s behavior by hearing it describe his own why.

As a part of the youth ministry at FPC Nashville, my peers and I were always vaguely aware that we were always part of some experiment. By the time I was a teenager, Mark was rarely involved in the day-to-day of youth ministry, but often seemed much more like the man behind the curtain, the wizard handing down wisdom. Don’t take any of this as a criticism of the man, he is very wise and kind and has been a huge influence on me and many of my peers, but I have one pretty fundamental question about his ability to put what he wrote in this book into practice.

The whole concept of Sustainable Youth Ministry is that its a handbook on building long-term youth ministries that aren’t built around cults of personality, but can continue to build and thrive after the youth minister moves on. From an outsider perspective, Mark’s perspective on this issue seems well-founded, he made a fairly seamless, gradual, transition out of leadership at FPC Nashville. But I am not an outsider.

I did a summer internship in 2012 leading high school mission trips, and when people found out I was from FPC Nashville, the most frequent comment I got was, “that’s Mark DeVries’s church, right?” – never mind that not only was Mark not the senior pastor at our church, he was actually only working there part-time. I spent some time working as the receptionist at FPC Nashville early this year, and I got at least 3 or 4 calls a week asking for Mark DeVries, despite the fact that he hadn’t had an office there for over a year. And when I trained my replacement, an outsider,  I had to explain to her that Mark could reserve any space he wanted, no he’s not on staff, but he doesn’t need to fill out a reservation form, and no one needs to approve it.

While Mark was the youth pastor, his son, his son-in-law, his son-in-law’s best friend, his daughter, and at least three other guys who grew up in his youth ministry were on full-time staff. And when Mark finally phased out completely from being the youth pastor, his  son took over, having just graduated from the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Mark also went, where our senior pastor is on the board of trustees, and which is a founding partner of CYMT. I think its worth considering that Mark’s unspoken secret ingredient in the recipe for sustainable youth ministry is a pipeline of people trained in identical schools of thought as you, who want to work for you, and follow your lead.

Adam DeVries is a friend of mine, and don’t take his family connection as a knock on his qualifications. He is a gifted, daringly compassionate, wise man who I absolutely adore spending time with, and who has done amazing things for FPC Nashville’s youth ministry.  But I sometimes wonder if he could be an ever better pastor somewhere else, where he isn’t constantly surrounded by people who look at him and expect him to be his father. Mark warns against the pervading anxiety in youth workers. You try taking over for a legend in your field, and who happens to be your father, and see if makes you a little anxious.

You can imagine that its hard for me to look at our youth ministry and see how it serves as a model of a style of youth ministry that is not centered around the youth minister. While Mark is not there on the day-to-day level, the youth ministry, and sometimes the whole church, feels like it operates in his shadow. That’s not to say he’s not a wonderful, benevolent, influence, he definitely is, and he has built a great program that gets along fine without his management. But it still invokes his name. FPC Nashville’s youth ministry is sustainable in the sense that Mark has managed to establish the continuation of his legacy into the next generation.

So I don’t know. I love Mark, I think he’s a legend for a reason. There’s a lot I did learn from this book, Mark’s discussion of playful detachment in petty issues, and of emotional health and creating climates of friendship, are not only all useful advice but things I can point to as difference-makers in my own experience of youth ministry under his leadership, but the hand-off that is so central to this book? I’m just not sure it ever happened. Mark lays out his model for having workers, contractors and architects, and how shifting strategic responsibility to the architect provides continuity when the workers come and go, but doesn’t address the question of himself, the architect.

How does an architect leave?

 

 

 

 

Posted in Reading

Kenda Creasy Dean’s “Almost Christian”

The blase religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel…  –Almost Christian

This book was more interesting than I expected (I posted an introduction to the book last week). The book is split into three basic sections, first dissecting the issues with the American church, second, identifying potential solutions through outliers and sociological tools, and last, presenting a vision for a different church.

Takeaway 1: We Get What We Are

The issue with Youth Ministry may well be not that teenagers don’t care about God, but that adults don’t care about God. Social psychology has repeatedly proven the importance of role models, particularly ones we see as “like us.” So, Dean points out, you can point to Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, or the apostles, all you want (and you by all means should) as what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, but without a model of what devoted Christian faith looks like now, in their community, for someone “like us,” how are children supposed to grow into it?

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14)

Dean then lightly touches a follow-up question that could easily be the basis of a whole second book. Is the faith we’re passing on to young people lifeless because we adults have accidentally strayed from what we know we are meant to be? Or have we passed on dead faith on purpose to make sure our children are successful in a culture that frowns on zealotry? Did Moralistic Therapeutic Deism cripple our God or did we?

Gary Haugen, my old boss at IJM, wrote a book called Just Courage about the bravery inspired by Jesus, especially as to how it pertains to IJM’s (sometimes dangerous) work. He wrote a section about the parents of young people who go overseas to work in field offices, I read it to my mom when I left. His basic proposition is this: good Christian parents raise their children to love God whole-heartedly, to not seek material wealth, to serve the poor and suffering, to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, and then are mortified when their children actually do.  Are parents and churches guilty of teaching children only as much faith as they think will be convenient? If so, that is the greatest possible form of robbery.

Takeaway 2: No one Actually Wants to be Left Alone

For a striking number of teenagers, our interviews seemed to be the first time any adult had asked them what they believed, and why it mattered to them. –Almost Christian

This book, for any person who was in youth ministry, almost begs reflection. What was my defining experience? Would I have counted as a ‘highly devoted’ youth? What circumstances set the stage for me to have the faith I have?

There is one point that caused me more reflection than any other though. Dean points out that in the NSYR, teenagers consistently mention adults they enjoy talking to in their churches, and respond positively when asked about mentors, coaches and teachers. There is a pervading misconception in our culture that teenagers want adults to leave them alone. They don’t. Yes, maybe they push away certain adults (their parents) as a part of growing up, but they crave validation, encouragement, advice, and support from people they respect, like everyone does. I remember finding excuses for hanging around youth events late as a teenager just because I wanted to talk to my youth leaders for a few minutes. Maybe I wanted to debrief a problem I had at school, maybe I had read something and had been waiting all week for a chance to talk to them about it. I wasn’t uniquely without adult figures in my life, I grew up in a Christian, loving, two-parent household, but I was still so hungry for adults to tell me that I was seen, and heard, and loved.

In a different section of the book entirely, Dean talks about the importance of conversation about Jesus as a part of faith, how American teenagers are strikingly inarticulate about faith. Dean proposes this is because no one ever taught them how to talk about it, they’ve never tried. She also mentioned that teenagers, in a rush to conjure all the “God-talk” words they know, said things that were considered heretical in their own traditions. Things they may very well not have known were heretical because no one ever taught them.

I see these two issues are bound together, teenagers’ need for attention, respect, and validation from adults, and their need to exercise their spiritual muscles by discussing faith, have, after all, one solution. For adults and teenagers to spend time together talking about faith. This is a terrifying prospect for many adults. Because they’re afraid that a teenager will ask them a question they wont know the answer to, or because they’re afraid the teenager wont like them. The first fear is no big deal, they know you’re not an expert. I actually remember being consistently frustrated with my high school Sunday school teacher because she insisted on clean, unambiguous answers and frequently quieted questions that couldn’t produce them. The second fear is remedied through honesty testimony. Once you know someone’s story, its really hard not to like them. Address teenagers as people, and let them see you as a person as well.

Takeaway 3: God’s affection for Dis-orientation

The visitors feel themselves losing their grip; or better, they feel the world losing its grip on them. What world? The world made up of important people like us and unimportant and poor people like their hosts. As the poet Yeats says, “things fall apart”; the visitors’ world is coming unhinged… I’m on unfamiliar ground, entering a richer, more real world. – Dean Brackley

This book does, at times, use a little too much clunky academic language, particularly in its sections about liminality and reflexivity (which my spell check isn’t even recognizing as words). Liminality simply means the state of being between things, to be metaphorically standing in a doorway, like the space between waking and sleeping, or that fleeting, and somehow eternal, moment after someone tells you bad news but before you can react. Its an uncomfortable, free-falling feeling where all of your brain’s capacities to predict what happens next have failed you. Sociologists argue that adolescents experience liminality as a more or less permanent state.

Reflexivity, as described by Andrew Wall, is “choosing to change seats in the human auditorium” to be able to critically examine your own position and understand the world differently by stepping in to someone else’s. Liminality and reflexivity are related in the sense that moments of liminality almost beg us to take a step back and reconsider who we are and what led us there. Worked in alongside both of these concepts as the trigger for these feelings is, as Dean calls it, the “disorienting dilemma.” The moments in our lives that shake us, rattle us, uproot us, and cause us to question everything we thought we knew about God, ourselves, and our world. Teenage life is full of disorienting dilemmas, and the Holy Spirit just loves them.

These nerdy concepts all jell together to make sense of something we have all experienced as true. When we, or teenagers, are uncomfortable, off-center, and outside of our comfort zone, we are way more open to the transforming power of the Spirit, and much more attune to the voice of God and presence of Jesus in our lives. This is the psychological and sociological codification of the ancient truth that God’s voice is more clearly heard in the desert or in the wilderness or on a mountaintop than in our day-to-day. The more uncomfortable we are, the more intense our feeling of liminality, the more of our souls are exposed to the changing power of Jesus. These “de-centering experiences”  and “disorienting dilemmas” can’t be crafted by the church, the Holy Spirit moves as it will, but we can send teenagers into the wilderness and trust that God will move within them the same way he did for so many prophets.

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My next read will be Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries (who is actutally my old youth pastor). As much as this book was a helpful profile of where we are as an American church, I hope the next one will help fill in my understanding of the role and practice of Youth Ministry. I also, as a point of curiosity, am interested in what the man who ran my youth group has to say about why he did it that way and what he might do differently.

Posted in Reading

Monday, June 13th

Have you ever tried to power up a machine that hasn’t been turned on in a while and you can almost feel it having to break through the crust of stagnation to get moving? That’s sort of how I feel right now.

Reading: Almost Christian by  Kenda Creasy Dean

(Pre-reading expectations) This book is a follow-up to Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, which used large-scale data to profile the state of Christianity in teens, and introduced the concept of “moralistic therapeutic deism*” as the sort of fake religion many teenagers practice, (and youth ministers teach).  This book uses the same aggregate data as Soul Searching to seek out a better alternative. My hopes: this book is a recommendation from my soon-to-be boss, and I’m happy to be doing something that feels like work. I like data, so this book already has points in that category. My concerns: that the 2010 publication may feel dated because teenage culture changes so quickly, and that a book about the data of Christianity, instead of its Gospel, has a potential to focus attention to quantifiable outcomes of faith, instead of its honest practice.

*That phrase is a fancy term for the type of feel-good gospel that tells you that you’re special and perfect and expects nothing of you. But it turns out, this version of the Gospel isn’t only incomplete, its also driving people away from discovering real faith.