The 1997 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
“At-Risk Youth, At-Risk Church:
What Jesus Christ and American Teenagers are
Saying to the Mainline Church”
Webster's has two meanings for the term "mainline." The one teenagers know is the practice of injecting narcotics directly into the bloodstream to get a quick high. The second definition means the principle route a train takes to reach its destination.
Pick your metaphor. The term "mainline church" was coined when trains, like churches, were a principal means of getting somewhere people wanted to go. Today, teenagers' understanding of "mainline" paints an ominous portrait of who we are as a church: once-‐able bodies who, after years of steady injections of American culture into our veins, have a dulled sense of who, what, and where we are.
We have reared a generation of teenagers to "just say no" to such behavior, and they're saying "no" to mainline Christianity in favor of visions of vitality elsewhere, many that endanger teenagers. According to a 1991 study released by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, one in four teenagers is "at risk." The church must work with others to create communities of health and hope for young people.
Young people are also making another point. Their exodus from our pews and programs is a form of "tough love" to our denominations, telling us to shape up, to be who we say we are, and to let Jesus be who we say He is -‐ the Savior, even of the mainline church.
In our "I'm dysfunctional, you're dysfunctional" world, it is easy to settle for therapy when resurrection is at stake. Maybe being "at risk" as a church isn't bad if it calls us back to the authenticity young people expect, and the Gospel requires. Maybe mainline churches and teenagers have something in common: a need to be saved.
These assumptions unite the lectures in this volume. The lectures in these pages provide an outline of "what Jesus Christ and American teenagers are saying to the mainline church" from the perspectives of systematic theology, practical theology, sociology, education, and American religious history (and futurism).
These lectures point to a theological foundation for ministry with young people that views youth as part of the mission of Christ and not as objects to be "won" for the propagation of the church. We approach this direction with humility and hope. The future of the church, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted when he himself was only twenty-‐seven years old, depends not on youth, but on Jesus Christ. Still, we are confident that young people are prophets in our midst, and that by attending to the "risk" that accompanies adolescence in 1997, we will be better prepared to take the risk that accompanies Christian faith in any era.
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary
- “Something to Believe In”
- “Youth Ministry: Historical Reflections near the End of the Twentieth Century”
- “Getting to All God's Kids”
- “What Jesus Christ and African American Teenagers Are Telling the African American Church”
- “Walking with Youth: Youth Ministry in Many Cultures”
- “Volcanic Eruptions: Eruptive Youth Ministry”
- “Promises and Practices for Tomorrow: Transforming Youth Leaders and Transforming Culture”
- “At-‐Risk Youth” “Today's Spiritual Quests”
- “Ministry to Youth Today”
- “Living in an Ancient Future Faith”
- “Youth Ministry: A Celebration and a Challenge”
ERUPTIVE YOUTH MINISTRY
In this second lecture, we continue walking with youth, but with particular attention to the eruptive landscape across which we and they walk and to the transformations that flow from the movement of Christianity and the movement of youth across the land.
Christianity is itself an eruptive tradition, born from the eruptive tradition of Judaism. Both traditions are filled with reversals, such as Jacob's stealing the birthright of Esau and wrestling with an angel, only to be blessed and renamed Israel and finally forgiven by Esau. Another reversal occurs when God appears to Moses in a burning bush, beginning a simple conversation that will finally lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Reversals continue. Jesus is born in a stable and dies on a cross. We are told repeatedly throughout the Gospel narratives that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The Christian tradition is eruptive through and through, but much effort is used to disguise the eruptions. This theme will be pursued here by analyzing one particular case and the disguises that have accompanied it.
We can walk into this eruptive tradition by walking back into the Gospel of Mark. (7:24-30) Jesus was walking through Gentile territory on the way to Tyre. He went into a house, seemingly to get a break and hide away for a while. But people saw him, and immediately a woman came up and fell at his feet. She explained to Jesus that her daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit. She had heard of Jesus, so she begged him to come and cast out the demon. But the page 64 woman was Greek-Syrophoenician. She was not just a woman (which would have been bad enough), but she was a foreign and Gentile woman. Jesus responded to her quickly, "Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." The woman answered, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." He said, "For this saying you may go on your way; the demon has left your daughter." The woman went home and found her daughter in bed, with the demon gone.
This story is an embarrassment to the Christian church. The woman just would not keep quiet. Her behavior was very inappropriate for Jesus' day, not to mention ours. The woman was correcting Jesus, reminding him that the Gentiles should be given God's blessings, as much as the dogs under the table deserve a few crumbs. Jesus seems very narrow in trying to keep his message just for the Jews. He was not even polite; he called the Gentiles "dogs." Much of Jesus' ministry in Mark is among the Jews, but Jesus did do two other healings of Gentiles in Mark's Gospel. One comes right after this story of the Syrophoenician woman, and some think that Jesus may have been more open to the Gentiles after his encounter with this persistent woman, or that Mark wants the readers to think so.
Most biblical commentators begin by talking about this story as a problem text, one difficult to interpret. The encounter does not fit with the stories of Jesus' overflowing compassion and wisdom. People have tried to explain this away by saying that his crude words, like calling Gentiles "dogs," were probably added by later Christians, maybe even by Jewish Christians who were prejudiced against Gentile Christians. Or perhaps the words were added by Gentile Christians who wanted to make the Jews appear exclusivistic. Other people have tried to explain the story by saying that it did not happen the way that it is recorded. They say that actually someone else had met the woman and cast out her daughter's demon, and later, people simply remembered this as a Jesus story.
But however embarrassing this story is, it cannot be avoided because Mark includes the story, and so does Matthew. (15:21-28) The story actually communicates much about Jesus, especially as understood in Mark's community. It communicates that Jesus was willing to listen to a woman, even a foreign, Gentile woman who would not keep quiet — a woman who was not of his tradition and who was more than a little pushy. The story communicates that Jesus could see the faith of the woman, and that he admired her courage. He said to her, "For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter." (7:29b, NRSV) The story also communicates that Jesus was willing to be corrected, even by someone who had low social status, and that he was willing to share God's gifts with her by healing her daughter.
The story also communicates much about the woman. It communicates that she loved her daughter and wanted to do her best to get help for her child; that she had faith in Jesus' ability to heal; that she had enough courage to break all social rules and to risk complete rejection for herself and her daughter; and that she did not give up easily.page 65
So we have an eruptive meeting with Jesus. The healing event disrupts social conventions and what people think of Jesus. At this point in the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 7), Jesus was performing miracle after miracle. In this story, readers meet Jesus as vulnerable and willing to be corrected, as open to the words of a strong woman outside the mainstream, and as willing to transcend himself and to enlarge his own sense of mission. Might the hearers of this story today — especially hearers who are engaged in youth ministry — be inspired to speak out bravely, especially for the young people we love, to transcend ourselves, and to enlarge our own sense of mission?
Certainly the story places us face to face with the eruptive nature of the Christian tradition. However you interpret the narrative, its power is comparable to a volcanic eruption, impossible to understand fully, but shocking in its ability to change the world and our way of seeing the world. The story is a reminder that, sometimes, volcanic eruptions take place in the ordinary moments of ordinary days, like the day the Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus.
ERUPTIVE YOUTH MINISTRY
Reflecting on young people in the six congregations we studied has also been something like experiencing a volcano. Volcanoes represent enormous power under the surface of the earth — power that erupts from time to time in a great show of light and color, and power that sometimes appears in a more gentle, gradual emergence of hot lava or in swelling of the earth. Whatever the form of a volcanic eruption, it reveals only a small picture of the great movement of heat and minerals under the surface of the earth. Similarly, the work of our research team has led us into many encounters with movements in youth ministry, facing us with dramatic transformations in our perspectives, as well as more subtle transformations akin to gradual flows of lava and a slow swelling of the surface of our understanding.
At times, our understandings of youth ministry and of ourselves have erupted with such force that long-held views have been called into question. At other times, our long-held views have been confirmed, deepened, or enlarged, and we have been able to enjoy the excitement with far less dramatic reshaping of the familiar landscape. All of our experiences, however, have called us to practice youth ministry with awareness that God's Spirit is always working anew and in unexpected ways.
So what kind of youth ministry is called forth by these volcanic movements? What is called forth is what I will call responsive and transformative youth ministry. In the remainder of this lecture, we will explore these two themes: responsive youth ministry and transformative youth ministry. We will explore the first through a suggested process for observation and discernment, and the second through a presentation of transformative insights from the youth and communities we studied.page 66
RESPONSIVE YOUTH MINISTRY
Responsive youth ministry is ministry that serves with and for youth; it is ministry that is attuned to the young people themselves, meeting them in relation to their life situations and their communities of faith. One way to attune ourselves to youth is to engage with them in studying the congregation or community. The questions below are suggestive of what you and the youth in your church might ask in order to understand your church better. These questions could be asked of the youth, or asked by the young people of members of the congregation, or both. Such a congregational study could guide you in knowing what would be responsive youth ministry in this particular community of faith.
Phase One: Preparation
The purpose of preparation is to launch a self-study of your congregation. This phase can be done by a team of interviewers and observers as they organize themselves, study the congregation's background, and identify their own preconceptions. Consider the following questions:
- 1. What do you already know of the socio-economic context and historical background of this church? What do you need to know to understand the church better?
- 2. What preconceived ideas do you have about the congregation, the culture(s) within it, and the larger culture(s) influencing it?
Phase Two: Story Collecting
The purpose of this phase is to listen, watch, and record stories. Consider your congregation or parish, and reflect on the questions below. Write descriptive phrases and words in response to the questions. Also, interview others and ask them to respond to the questions.
- 1. What is the impression created by the building and grounds? What are the major symbols in the sanctuary (including architecture, art, furniture)? in other parts of the physical plant (meeting rooms, hallways, offices)?
- 2. How do people interact in informal times, such as social gatherings, church dinners, and coffee hours?
- 3. What are the ritual events in this community? Who is involved and what are their roles?
- 4. How would you describe this community in regard to sex, age, social class, occupation, and education?
- 5. What are the gifts or strengths of this community? What are the limitations?
- 6. What hopes for the future do you have for your community?
Phase Three: Anaylsis
The purpose of the analysis is to seek and interpret patterns in the stories you have collected. Reflect and write words or phrases that describe the common page 67 patterns in your particular context. Consider everything that you recorded during Phase Two.
- 1. Common words and phrases
- 2. Common symbols
- 3. Common actions, activities, and patterns of interaction
- 4. Themes — As you study the answers you recorded for questions 1-3, what themes or patterns do you see?
Phase Four: Storytelling
The purpose of this phase is to gather your many stories and interpretations of stories into a collective story of your congregation. This may be an actual story, or it may be a simple listing of insights for youth ministry in your setting.
- 1. What stories of your congregation best represent or symbolize the realities of your community?
- 2. What does your congregation teach you about youth ministry?
Phase Five: Critical Reflection for Future Action
The purpose of this last phase is to reflect critically on the congregation's life and its ministry with youth. This includes identifying strengths and limitations of the congregation and also drawing out insights that inform theology and the practice of youth ministry.
- 1. As you reflect on the strengths of youth ministry in your community, what insights do you have about effective youth ministry?
- 2. As you reflect on what is missing or destructive in your community, what insights do you have for youth ministry?
- 3. As you reflect on insights from other communities, what clues do you gather for transforming the youth ministry in your community?
- 4. What theological insights are revealed by the study of your congregation?
The study conducted by our research team followed a similar format to the one described above, although our design was more complex and elaborated. Among our findings regarding responsive youth ministry, several values were shared among the six congregations that we studied. 1 One of the common values was to inspire and support spiritual relationships, suggesting that youth ministry needs to be responsive to youth in their relationships with God. Another common value was to provide a bridge between conflicting cultures, thus responding to the cultural influences and struggles that young people experience. Yet another common value was to encourage the gifts of youth, responding to the values, abilities, and perspectives that youth themselves bring to the ministry of the church. In these three values alone, one sees many dimensions of responsiveness, including responsiveness to spiritual relationships, to cultural relationships, and to relationships of youth among themselves and with the larger world where they serve in ministry.page 68
In a sense, Jesus' encounter with the Syrophoenician woman was a responsive encounter, albeit a terse one. Jesus recognized and responded to the faith of this Gentile woman who came to him trusting that he could heal her daughter. He responded very directly to her when he replied, "For this saying you may go on your way; the demon has left your daughter." Her own faith had influenced the healing of her daughter, and Jesus was responding to the woman simply by naming the power of her faith. Other responses of Jesus to the woman were more indirect, but he was recognizing the difference between their two cultures — Jewish and Syrophoenician — and was even recognizing his mission to people of his own culture. Perhaps this was not an extraordinarily sensitive response to the woman, but it was honest about the realities of culture, rather than ignorant of them. And Jesus was responsive to the strength of this woman's plea — her passion for her daughter. He heard her story, engaged with her in the exchange about crumbs to the dogs, and let her know that her words had marked the healing of her daughter. The gift of this woman's love and courage was being acknowledged.
The early Marcan community may have found in this story a picture of a Jesus who was human enough to get into a very entangled conversation with a foreign woman, but a Jesus who responded all the same. He responded by being chastened himself, by changing his mind, and, finally, by addressing the woman not as a category (a race or culture or religion), but as a person deeply troubled for her daughter. What an image of responsiveness!
TRANSFORMATIVE YOUTH MINISTRY
Now we turn to transformative youth ministry and to the insights for transforming human communities and theology that come from our studies. Just as Jesus was responsive to the Syrophoenician woman, he also was transformed and transformative in his encounter with her. So what have we learned from the youth and their communities about transformation?
Transformation of Human Communities
What we discovered in our research was that communities are continually being transformed, and that within the eruptive movements of community life are clues for youth ministry. I will share three of these to identify some important guidelines for practicing transformative youth ministry.
Deepening Cultural Roots Is a Pathway to Healing. One of our discoveries was that youth ministry grounded in the culture of a people can contribute to healing brokenness. The communities we studied revealed the value of communities exploring and drawing upon their cultural roots, as seen in the Norwegian Lutheran Church's resistance to joining with a German-rooted Lutheran Church nearby, for example. Such findings do not answer the debate between culture-specific churches and integrated churches, but they do suggest the importance of a community reaching toward its roots and having freedom to value, embody, critique, page 69 and reform the values of its ancestors, whether or not it is a multicultural or a more nearly monocultural church.
Understanding Relationships Is a Foundation for Planning Youth Ministry. The starting point for planning youth ministry is the field of relationships in which youth live. This is very obvious, and you who work in youth ministry are already aware of it. I am becoming increasingly aware, however, of the richness and complexity of those relationships. Congregations are human communities in which people are related with one another, with their ancestors, with their cultural traditions, with the movements of economics and history, and with other cultures of race, class, and nationality. All of those relationships are important in planning youth ministry. The young women from Tonga (at the United Methodist School of Missions) were comfortable because intergenerational gatherings and respect for elders are part of their culture. The Korean American youth felt pulled between cultures, not just for obvious reasons, but also because they lived in a very complex mix of relationships — related to their parents and school friends, but also related to their ancient Korean traditions, the political and economic movements within Korea today, the complicated political and military relationship between the United States and Korea, and the long history of Korea's occupation by other nations.
Every community is a living organism, a web of relationships, and these relationships need to be taken into full account in planning for youth ministry. To plan youth ministry without sensitivity to the traditions of a people is to encourage youth to deny who they are, and perhaps to repeat the past unconsciously and uncritically. To plan without awareness of immediate economic and social influences is also to deny some of the life-giving and life-destroying relationships that shape young people's lives. The difficulty or ease that youth have in getting jobs, the quality of their schools, and the safety of their neighborhoods all shape young people's relationships with the world and the people in it. These are all important in planning youth ministry.
Negotiating Is a Pathway to Resolving Conflict. Another discovery is that communities are continually negotiating religious culture, and this negotiating process can either be facilitated or resisted and blocked. In some churches, this negotiation process is very obvious, such as in the Korean American congregation where first generation immigrant parents and 1.5 or second generation youth constantly negotiate regarding their beliefs and values. In other churches, the negotiation process is less obvious, but it may take the form of negotiating the values of people who have come into a church from diverse denominational backgrounds and have different perspectives on how the church should be organized and governed, how worship should be conducted, or how the congregation should respond to issues in the larger community.
In negotiation, the resolution may be a middle ground, which may be a new way of organizing the larger community to allow for differences to coexist. The Navajo parish that we studied negotiated culture by celebrating confirmation page 70 with the traditional Roman Catholic service followed by a Navajo-style festival. Neither the traditional mass nor the tradition of the Navajo festival meal is denied; both are celebrated in one grand event. The intertribal Native American church in Los Angeles negotiated culture by singing hymns and songs from several tribal traditions in its gatherings, and by working actively with other Native American churches and agencies to address common concerns regarding the poverty, alcoholism, and discriminatory experiences that Native Americans face in the region. In short, they are honoring the diversity of tribal cultures in their congregation and finding common ground upon which to work together for the common good of all Native peoples. This is a form of negotiating culture — celebrating and working for justice, recognizing diversity and unity.
Churches will face conflicts of many kinds, but these conflicts may generate creativity in youth ministry if we approach them in the spirit of negotiation rather than in the spirit of division. Churches that identify themselves with a particular ethnic community may be more aware of this than churches that see themselves as "generic," but all churches face conflicts, whether the conflict centers on how retreats are conducted, how the youth leader intervenes in the youth's dating relationships, or how money is spent. How might youth ministry be transformed if you who are leaders in youth ministry could value the conflicts in your churches as opportunities for negotiating the deeper issues of people's lives and, at the same time, teaching the art of negotiation to youth?
Transformation of Theology
What have we learned about God, and what have we learned about God's relation with the world? Even to ask such questions is audacious, and we say these words with considerable daring and humility. On the other hand, to ignore the movements of God in communities such as the ones we have studied would be a denial of the presence of God and the preciousness of these communities. In these communities, we catch a vision of the God who is real to the people, who is experienced and understood in many different ways, who responds to the longings and prayers of people and inspires action, and who is active and responsive to the movements of the world.
We will focus now on views of God expressed by the young people themselves, lifting up some of the theological themes that were lifted up by the youth. By listening to the voices of the youth, we can hear some of the theological affirmations that are important to them, thus opening ourselves to being transformed, as Jesus opened himself to the Syrophoenician woman.
Theology of Presence. The youth repeatedly witnessed to the sureness of God's presence and the possibility of a personal experience of God. This was expressed not only in words, but also in the abundance of praise offered to God in many of the communities we studied. One young Navajo woman said that God was like a "secret friend." In the Roman Catholic parish in Los Angeles, a young woman said that she hoped people would "really know God," and another youth page 71 in the same parish described prayer as a time when people "ask for help or just say 'hi.'" The awareness of God's presence and accessibility runs deep for many of these young people.
At the same time, the experience of God's presence is more muted for other youth. The reality of God's presence was not a major theme for the youth in the predominantly European American United Church of Christ congregation, for example. In that church, the youth talked more about what they believe about God. When they reflect on the experience of God, many of these young people say that they know God primarily through other people or through what God does in the world. This leads naturally to the next theological theme, a theology of response.
Theology of Response. One sees a basic trust among the youth whom we studied that God is responsive to the world. This trust is evidenced in a variety of ways, especially in prayer. In the African American parish, prayer is a regular practice among the youth, and they frequently ask one another to pray for their relatives and friends. One young woman told the group about her grandmother's knee-replacement surgery; she also asked everyone to pray for her sister because no one knew where she was, and they hoped she was not on the streets. Some of the youth were quite explicit about the mystery of prayer. One Korean American youth told about a time when the younger brother of one youth fell off a fence and was placed on life support. The boy described the group's response: "The youth group had daily prayer meetings that really brought everyone together." The younger brother died, but the boy was struck by the closeness among the youth who prayed together.
Youth in our study not only spoke of God's response to the world, but also of the importance of human response to God. They frequently explained that God gives instructions or makes requests of us, and we are expected to respond. For some of the youth, these requests from God are very direct, with God's giving very particular directions. For others, the expectations of God are more general, such as the expectation that people will respond to the problems of injustice and environmental destruction in the world.
Theology of Surprise. The youth often seemed unsurprised by surprise; they expected that God would act in unexpected ways. They described their wonder at the largeness of God, and they were more in awe of God than interested in the particulars of church doctrine or the differences between their churches and those of other denominations. Several of the youth actually described themselves as looking for surprises in their understanding of God. This was a dominant pattern in the UCC suburban church, where one youth said that he was "always questioning and challenging." He added that "this attitude makes you a better person or better believer than people who accept whatever they are told like sheep."
Some of the youth were more troubled by faith questions than others. In the Native American intertribal church, for example, the youth expressed some tension in trying to discern their beliefs and to find themselves when they felt pulled between Christianity and Native American religious traditions. Even the youth page 72 who expressed this tension, however, persisted in their questioning.
Theology of Vocation. One other theological theme that was professed frequently by the young people was a belief that human beings in general, and they in particular, are called by God to act in certain ways. Some described their work as feeding the hungry and participating with their churches in serving ministries; others spoke of times when they were clear about what God wanted them to do or not to do in a particular situation. At times, they explained, the sense of right and wrong is communicated through other people, such as parents or friends. The particular callings among the different young people were understood diversely — to be a Christian, to be a better person, to work out one's own beliefs, to participate in the work of one's congregation — but the sense of calling was vibrant and strong.
I began by talking about volcanoes and eruptions, recognizing that Christianity itself is an eruptive tradition and that youth ministry is an eruptive movement in the life of most churches. When one considers volcanoes, one can imagine a variety of movements beneath the earth's surface. No two volcanoes are alike, of course, and no two churches are the same in the way they practice youth ministry. When we talk about transformations, therefore, we are not referring to one kind of transformation but to many. We cannot predict what God will do in and through the youth in our diverse contexts, but we can expect that God will act, and that the youth of our churches will continually be on the move.
Ironically, the most dependable expectation in the movements of youth is the bursting forth of surprises. We can expect that youth will be transformed in the flow of surprises, and we can expect that they will also contribute to our transformation. Though we are called to give leadership in youth ministry, we can expect that the young people will transform our lives as much as we transform theirs. The fact that we are known as leaders in youth ministry cannot protect us from transformation, anymore than Jesus' being known as a healer could protect him from being transformed by the faith and courage of the Syrophoenician woman. What is perhaps more surprising is that the movements of our shared ministries — adults and youth together — will lead in directions that none of us can fully foresee, no matter how carefully we set goals and establish plans. What we can hope is simply this: that the Wisdom of God will guide us and our young colleagues in ministry as we seek to follow God's call — as we experience the eruptions of responding, transforming, and being transformed!