The 2008 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
“And You Will Be My Witnesses…”
The Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture are designed to foster original scholarship pertaining to youth and the contemporary church. The lectures are delivered as a series at the Princeton Forums on Youth Ministry and are published annually. Lecturers include scholars who are not directly involved in the practice or study of youth ministry but who can bring the fruits of their respective disciplines to bear on ministry with the young.
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Acts 1:8. nrsv
The era of Christendom is over and Christians throughout North America are wrestling with what it means to be the church today. The 2008 Princeton lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture explore the implications of Acts 1:8 for the church and for youth ministry. These lectures examine what it means to bear witness to Christ beyond the walls of the traditional church today. Missional theology and Missional models of church are unpacked and our understanding of Christ and culture is examined. These lectures stretch our imagination and prepare us to walk with young people as they seek to bear witness to the activity of God in the world and in their own lives.
- In Witnessing Christ in the World
- Witnessing Christ in Tradition
- Lectures Forthcoming
- Lectures Forthcoming
YE SHALL BE MY WITNESSES †
Witnessing Christ in the World
The Nature of Witnessing
So when [the apostles] had come together [after Jesus' resurrection], they asked him, "Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight (Acts 1:6-9, NRSV).
There are a couple of interesting aspects to Jesus' prediction and command that his apostles will be his witnesses. The first is the implication that witnessing is linked to the kingdom of God. I have usually read Jesus' response to the apostles' question about the timing of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel as a gentle rebuke to them, and it seems it was that. God will restore the kingdom to Israel in God's own good time. But I have come to believe that Jesus' words were more than a rebuke: he was also indicating that the apostles' deep desire for the kingdom of God in their native land of Israel would be fulfilled to a certain extent by their witnessing, which would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. And the kingdom would not be restricted to Israel: it would encompass the ends of the earth. So witnessing to the ends of the earth has something to do with the establishment of God's reign through the power of God's Holy Spirit. In the Acts of the Apostles, when Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit engage in witnessing to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the kingdom of God comes near, and is among the people. I do not think it would be amiss to ponder with youth the claim that as they witness to the life of Jesus in the power of the Spirit, they are manifesting the reign of God on earth. Indeed, often as one listens to youth talk after a productive mission experience, one hears them testifying that during the experience they could sense in a very real way that they were involved in the reign of God, even though they may not use those words (perhaps because they have not been taught those words and they do not hear those words being used regularly in the life of the church). So being witnesses of Jesus is connected to the coming of the reign of God on earth.
The second interesting aspect of Jesus' final words to his apostles is that witnessing to Jesus in some ways is a substitute for Jesus himself. "You shall be my witnesses," Jesus says, and then he is lifted up, and taken out of their sight. From then on, the presence of Jesus is made known through the witnessing of his apostles. Indeed, Jesus does reappear from the heavens in Acts, but it is to call and equip Saul of Tarsus to be his chosen instrument to bring his name "before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel" (Acts 9:15); in other words, so that Paul will be a witness as well. Bearing the name and message of Jesus across the earth is akin to bearing the power and presence of Jesus himself across the earth.
So, Luke seems to be saying in Acts 1, the people who are witnesses of Jesus bring together the presence of Jesus and the presence of God's kingdom on the earth and the power of the Holy Spirit through their acts of witnessing. Notice how the witness to Jesus is simultaneously a witness to the work of the triune God. This is a third interesting dimension to page 2 Jesus' statement that his apostles will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Luke is making quite an audacious claim for witnessing—namely that it manifests the presence and power of the triune God—but it is a claim that needs to be taken seriously by those who are witnesses of Jesus in the world, no matter what their age or manner of witness.
At this point let me share one of my assumptions about youth mission and witnessing. Following my colleague David White, I would make the claim that, in essence, youth participate in the same mission and ministry as the rest of the body of Christ, the church. 1 The forms that the mission and ministry take are different for youth than for other members of the body; youth have a special charism to live out; they have particularities and peculiarities (such as boundless energy) that need to be accounted for and used wisely; their generation will have something new to articulate about the gospel that was not articulated in the previous or perhaps in any generation. Yet the youth are not doing one kind of ministry while the rest of the church (or the adults at least) is doing another kind: everyone in the church is involved in ways that are appropriate to his or her stage and station and gifts in life in one ministry of Jesus Christ. Here I am doing nothing more than asserting a principle found in 1 Corinthians 12: "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone" (12:46). Thus while the form of witnessing done by youth can be and in some ways should be different from the witnessing of children and adults, what they witness to in essence is the same for everyone in the church: through the power of the Spirit all witness to the presence of Jesus and of God's kingdom in their lives and in this world.
The Qualifications for Witnessing
What is it that makes someone a witness? The clue in the book of Acts is given when a substitute is being sought for Judas Iscariot. Peter said, "So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection" (Acts 1:21-22). In other words, we can only be witnesses of Jesus when we have actually witnessed Jesus ourselves. That is why Paul's apostolic claims are based on his having seen the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. He had witnessed Jesus, and therefore he became a witness of Jesus.
While this criterion would imply that witnessing died out in the church after the death of the first generation of apostles—those who had actually seen Jesus—in fact witnessing did not die out. Rather, the witnessing continued. Why? Because witnesses could continue to see Jesus in his body, the church. This is another way in which the witness of the youth is part and parcel of the witness of the larger church: the youth most clearly and tangibly see Jesus Christ in the working body of Christ of which they are a part. They will witness to the Christ they have experienced firsthand in Christians they know. Youth act out their Christianity in response to the Christianity they have witnessed in their congregations or in other Christian communities and persons.
In my two lectures, however, I am not going to dwell on how all of us, youth included, witness to the Christ we have ourselves witnessed. In fact Darrell Guder has written eloquently and extensively on that topic, and there is no need for me to repeat his ideas in a less compelling way than he does. What I do want to talk about is how in our witnessing, we cannot be content simply to tell in word and deed about Jesus Christ whom we have experienced ourselves. Rather, our witness in word and deed takes place in a context where Christ is alive and active in the world beyond our experience of him (the subject of my first lecture), and Christ is alive and active in Christian tradition beyond that which we know (the subject of my second lecture). Therefore our witness to the Jesus we know and have experienced must also be shaped and formed by the Christ we witness in the world around us, and in the traditions of the church at large.
If I were to pick out two stories in Acts to undergird my argument in these two lectures, I would point to Peter's experience with Cornelius and Philip's experience with the Ethiopian eunuch. In Cornelius, Peter is shocked to find that the God who page 3 sent Jesus to Israel also sent an angel to a Gentile quite unconnected to the infant church. Peter's witness thus needs to take into account the fact that the Holy Spirit is at work not simply in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, not simply in the life of the Jewish Jesus movement that he knows, but also in the life of the pagan Cornelius's household. In the workings of the triune God, Christ is present in the world beyond the church, and Peter needs to witness—to see and hear and believe—this presence of Christ if he is going to be a faithful witness of Jesus.
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is another one where the Holy Spirit intervenes rather dramatically in the life of the witness, Philip. When Philip reaches the desert in order to witness, he finds an Ethiopian eunuch returning from Jerusalem reading the scroll of Isaiah. Whether the Ethiopian is a Gentile, a god-fearer, or a Jewish proselyte, it is obvious that he already has been introduced to Judaism, and has some sort of history with the religion. He is continuing to develop his own reading of the Jewish tradition, and asks Philip to assist in that endeavor. It is interesting that when Philip witnesses to Jesus Christ, he does not begin with the words, "Let me tell you about this man named Jesus from Nazareth, whom my comrades personally knew." Rather, Philip starts his witness with the portion of Jewish scripture that the Ethiopian had been reading. So Philip's witness to Jesus Christ must take account of the Christ he witnesses in religious tradition, even when that tradition does not explicitly speak of Jesus of Nazareth.
What I am arguing in these two lectures, then, is that as we engage in the practice of witnessing to Jesus Christ, however we construe that practice, it is not enough to have witnessed his power and presence in our lives. We also need to witness his power and presence in the world around us (and especially the secular or non-Christian world around us), and his power and presence in the Christian tradition very broadly conceived, a tradition of which we and our youth are often woefully ignorant because the tradition that we know is such a narrow and focused one.
Since I am a historian, I shall use two historical examples in these two lectures to show the difference that witnessing Christ in the world and witnessing Christ in tradition can make to our own witnessing. The examples are of young people—not adolescents, but young adults—who over time changed the kind of witness they gave because of a developing recognition of Christ's presence in the world in the one instance, and Christ's presence in certain Christian traditions in the other. The first example is the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM), and the second an Indian Christian activist, Pandita Ramabai.
Changes in the SVM Witness from 1886 to 1914
The Student Volunteer Movement was a collegiate Christian movement that began in 1886 and officially ended in 1969, although its heyday ran from about 1890 to 1920. 2 The purpose of the SVM was to recruit students to support the foreign missionary movement of Protestant churches in North America, which comprised the United States and Canada. Let me read to you the purposes of the SVM, as put forward in its second international convention in Detroit in 1894:
To lead students to a thorough consideration of the claims upon them of foreign missions as a lifework.
To foster this purpose, and to guide and stimulate such students in their missionary study and work until they pass under the immediate direction of the missionary societies.
To unite all the volunteers in a common, organized, aggressive movement. The ultimate, yet central purpose, is to secure a sufficient number of volunteers, having the right qualifications, to meet the demands of the various mission boards—and even more, if necessary—in order to evangelize the world in the present generation.
Essentially involved in all this is the further object of the Movement—to create and maintain an intelligent, sympathetic, active interest in foreign missions among the students who are to remain on the home field, in order to secure the strong backing of this great enterprise by prayer and money. 3
One can note in these goals of the movement the signature emphases of the SVM. The primary goal was to lead students to volunteer for foreign missionary service. From the very beginning of the movement in 1886, volunteers signed a pledge card committing themselves to foreign missionary service. At first the card read, "I am willing and desirous, God permitting, page 4 to become a foreign missionary." In 1892, the wording of the pledge card was changed to read, "It is my purpose, if God permit, to become a foreign missionary." The new wording cleared up ambiguity inherent in the first pledge: to be willing and desirous could encompass a wide degree of commitment; such latitude was laid to rest when one clearly stated one's purpose was to become a foreign missionary, should God permit. 4 The goal of recruiting foreign missionary volunteers was further highlighted and undergirded by the watchword of the SVM, "The Evangelization of the World in This Generation." What did this phrase, "The Evangelization of the World in This Generation," mean? According to John R. Mott, who was the greatest and most effective proponent and disseminator of this watchword, "It does not mean the conversion, or the Christianization, or the civilization of the world, no matter how much the volunteers may believe in each of these. It does mean that the Christians of this generation are to give every person of this age an opportunity to accept Jesus Christ." 5 And the way in which "every person of this age" had the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ "and to become His real disciples" was through the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed, through work with individuals and through work in societies and nations. 6
While the primary goal of the SVM was to garner recruits for church boards of foreign missions, it also supported foreign missions in other ways. Financially, the SVM provided direct monetary support to mission boards. The SVM also set up, over the years, an extensive education program having to do with foreign missions on college and university campuses. It commissioned books to be written, encouraged the building up of campus mission libraries, and organized thousands of study groups. Besides education, the SVM undergirded foreign missions by developing among young Christians a sympathy and devotion to the missionary movement. Thus while many student volunteers did not end up going to the mission field, as it was called, they did become active missionary supporters in the congregations they joined, providing money and prayers for the missionary endeavor. A number of volunteers went on to seminary and then to pastoral ministry, and from there they used their influence to further build up the foreign missionary movement.
The success of the SVM was nothing short of phenomenal. By the year 1913, the SVM had placed at least 5,882 missionaries in foreign countries through a number of Protestant denominational mission agencies. 7 That is an average of more than 225 missionaries a year. And these were recruits that were known to have gone into missionary work; probably hundreds more went overseas without telling the SVM offices that they had left. The report of the 1914 Kansas City International Convention contains a twenty-six-page bibliography of books on missions displayed at the convention, each page containing a list of approximately thirty books, or more than 750 books in total. 8 In the year 1913 alone, $220,804 was raised by the SVM, about half of that from student volunteers and half from professors and friends. 9 In the same year, more than 40,000 students engaged in mission study classes organized by the SVM on more than 700 college campuses. About 90 percent of those students were not members of the SVM, but interested collegians. 10
One can see that the Student Volunteer Movement was one of the foremost organizations mobilizing young adults to be witnesses of Jesus Christ in the world. Like any Christian movement, it was the product of its particular context, which was an America that was by and large self-confident (often to the point of being arrogant), optimistic, and aggressively expansionist. It is not without good cause that Sydney Ahlstrom in his magisterial work on the religious history of the American people discusses the SVM and other missionary endeavors of this era in a chapter titled "Crusading Protestantism." 11 From the late 1880s until the First World War, nothing could put a chink in the armor of invincibility donned by the American SVM crusaders. With World War I, of course, all hell broke loose, and the SVM was rapidly undone in the 1920s. 12 Yet leading up to 1914, nothing in the world seemed to indicate that the SVM's crusading spirit was not justified.
The needs of Japan are many and great; but above all, Japan needs Christ. The leading men of Japan have been carried away with your civilization, and the Japanese government has adopted one system of your civilization, and has introduced one improvement after another, the last thing being the adoption of the representative form of government; and our first parliament is in session now. But what is the rest of the civilization without the religion of Jesus Christ? Indeed, it is a serious question if the introduction of Western civilization into Japan without the religion of Christ will not be a positive injury. 16
A man needs intellectual training in order that he may distinguish between the essentials of Christianity and the non-essentials, so that he may know how he is to preach Jesus Christ as St. Paul preached Him. He may have to meet the stoics of China and Japan in the market place and on Mars Hill, and ought to be prepared to do it. You may meet none of their prejudices with scorn; you may obscure no light which has come to them from God; but, understanding their teachings, you may from their own Scriptures proclaim, like St. Paul, Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Unless a man is prepared to discriminate and to understand his own teaching he would far better stay at home than go into the great empires of the East. 18
Here is an explicit statement that God's light not only can be found among people of other faiths, but that "Jesus Christ and him crucified" can be found in the scriptures of non-Christian religions. Our own witness, George Knox says, is not only incomplete but futile unless we are ready to witness, to see Jesus Christ, also at work in the world beyond the world of our own experience of Christ. By the way, George Knox also says that the missionary must have had personal experience of Christ; as he puts it, "a vision of Jesus Christ," "a glimpse of the glory of the Son of God." 19
I share one final quote from the 1894 convention. Luther D. Wishard, the Foreign Secretary of the International YMCA, started his report on "The Volunteer Movement among Students in Non-Christian Lands" with the following two sentences: "Three years' study of missionary problems in twenty foreign mission lands satisfies me that the evangelization of those countries depends largely upon their own educated young men and women. If this be true, it follows that if we realize the purpose of our battle cry, if the world is evangelized during this generation, there must be a Students' Volunteer Movement for Home Missions in every non-Christian land." 20 Notice how Wishard turned the SVM watchword on its head: if we are serious about the evangelization of the world in this generation, he argued, we cannot use it as a rallying cry simply to send Americans to evangelize the world. Wishard could make this argument because he himself had taken a four-year trip with his wife from 1888 to 1892 to visit the YMCAs all across Asia. 21 He saw first hand that Western Christian witness needed to take account of the presence and work of Christ outside the orbit of Western Christianity and the Western church.
I do not have the time, nor you the patience, to show how the SVM, over time, had to take account of the presence of page 6 Christ working in the world that it had set out to conquer spiritually and save. Let me instead give you a couple of snapshots from the Executive Committee's report from 1906 and then again from 1914. What these snapshots will show us is that the SVM's witness modulated in response to the ways in which it witnessed the triune God's presence and activity in the world.
The fifth international convention of the SVM took place in Nashville, Tennessee, in early 1906. The publication holding the addresses of the convention is more than 700 pages long. In it one finds the traditional harangues against non-Christian lands and religions. 22 Perhaps surprisingly, though, one finds increasing references to the strengths of non-Western cultures, and especially to the importance and vitality of the church in so-called non-Christian lands. 23 In the report of the Executive Committee, crafted and delivered by John R. Mott, there is a frank acknowledgment of the problems of Western civilization. The Western world is pervaded by a "spirit of mercantilism and materialism;" 24 and the perils of Western student life include "selfishness, intellectual pride, tendency to growing luxury and ease, materialism, and skepticism." 25 The formation of student Christian movements in various countries of Asia is called "one of the most significant steps in the enterprise of world evangelism." The report goes on to say, "The student Christian movements in non-Christian lands, in helping to raise up an army of native workers, are striking at the heart of the problem of missions; because, if Christianity is to be rapidly and firmly established in these lands, there must be not only an adequate staff of foreign missionaries, but also strong, resourceful, self-propagating native churches." 26 The militaristic imagery is inescapable here, and in fact that imagery gets more strident and violent later on in the report. 27 Yet there is at least a recognition that bearing witness to the Christ we have experienced is not an adequate witness: we need to pay attention to the presence and work of Christ in the world around us.
Finally, let us turn ever so briefly to the seventh international convention of the SVM, held from December 31, 1913 to January 4, 1914 in Kansas City, Missouri. 28 Nearly 5,000 representatives from 755 institutions attended the meeting. Of the 130 leaders who gave speeches, twenty were from Asia. 29 Thus the speech titled "Japanese Students and Christianity" was given by a Japanese man, and the report on the Chinese Students' Christian Association was given by a Chinese man. 30 Later on, a Chinese speaker lectured on "China's Desire to Retain the Best in Her Own Civilization" and said, "I believe that the very fact that other civilizations have reached the status they have attained, shows that God had a hand in them. Our conception of Christ should be comprehensive enough to include all races; and if He is the fulfillment and perfection toward which all humanity is evolving, it would be unwise, and totally against His will, for us to give up the good in the Chinese civilization, or in any other." 31 The report of the Executive Committee, which again is the work of John R. Mott, still calls for "a much larger number of well-qualified volunteers" to go out as missionaries. 32 Yet the rhetoric of the SVM acknowledges that the volunteer now enters a world where the Western church's great dominance is diminishing, and the strength of the non-Western church is increasing. An example is given from India, where students had recently gathered in a conference, "which did so much to Indianize the Christian Student Movement in that vast field," where an Indian National Missionary Association had been formed, and where for the first time an Indian was consecrated bishop. 33 In fact, one might detect a note of anxiety in Mott's report about the flourishing of the non-Western church: he says, at one point, that the "very enlargement of the native Christian community requires an enlargement of the missionary staff, that these rising, plastic, native Churches may be wisely developed at this most critical stage in their life." 34 Mott was also deeply concerned about the "corrupt influences of the so-called Western civilization" that were "eating like gangrene into the less highly organized peoples of the world." 35
All in all, the witness of the SVM over its first twenty-five years had become more global and less parochial, more international and less American: in other words, more ecumenical in the largest sense of that word. As the SVM volunteers had endeavored to be Christ's witnesses, they had discovered that they could not faithfully bear witness to Christ unless they were willing to witness the work of Christ in the world to which they went. Nevertheless, the SVM's collapse after the First World War demonstrated that it had not gone far enough: that the overall optimism in Western civilization and Christianity had not been tempered enough by a witness of Christ outside Western Christianity.
Youth Witnessing Christ Today
What does this story of the SVM have to say about the witness of youth in the world today? My argument is a very simple one: youth need to learn the habit of discerning the presence and activity of Christ in the world to which they go, and to offer their witness in conversation with that presence and activity. Take, for example, the still popular mission trip. Mission trips have their advantages and disadvantages, but they are with us at least for a while, and as long as they are with us we need to think about how to shape them appropriately. So, a youth group goes on a mission trip to Mexico. How much do the youth know about the religious history of the place to which they go? How much do they know about the Christian history of that place? What do they know about the character of the church in that area, about Mexican Catholicism or Pentecostalism? Once they go and work, how do they discern and talk about Christ's presence in that place? But then, and this is the hard part, how do they begin to shape their own witness in dialogue with the work of God they witness in the place to which they go? If they find that the people, though materially poor, are spiritually extremely rich, how does that make an impact on their lives and witness not only in the mission field, but also at home, if I may use some anachronistic terms?
We can raise similar questions about other kinds of witnessing. If the youth help to serve food at a downtown soup kitchen, what do they know about the Christians in that area, of storefront churches or social service agencies? Have they been taught to look for and begin to discern the presence of Christ in Christian communities of the poor? What would it mean, after long and careful thought, planning, and education, to join in worship and fellowship with the congregation of a storefront church? Perhaps not only once, but once a month? Are the youth being taught to catch glimpses of Jesus Christ in the work of secular organizations that are assisting the poor? And just as importantly, how does their witness of Jesus Christ in the world into which they have been sent influence and shape and change their own witness to Jesus?
Or let us think, finally, of witnessing as a way of life, and not only as a project. As our youth try to live out a Christian life in their schools and neighborhoods, what of Christ do they see in their Muslim and Hindu and Jewish schoolmates? Do we as church leaders ask them, how do you witness Christ in the life of Fatima and Mohammad, of Rachel and Ben, of Mohan and Lakshmi? Could it be that as a dedicated Christian youth ponders such questions, she may discover that she has more in common with her observant Muslim classmate than with many of her other classmates? Then how are we going to help the youth to ponder what that means for a life of specifically Christian witness?
Youth cannot, and should not, carry on such conversations and dialogues themselves. This is the task of the whole congregation. But perhaps the congregation is not strong enough to witness to the Christ they know in conversation with the Christ that is to be witnessed in the world. But then again, perhaps the youth can use their special charism, their special gifts, their special location in society and the life cycle and the congregation, to start the congregation at least thinking about its witness in relation to the work of the triune God in the world to which the congregation is sent to give witness.