youth ministry 3.0 is the working title of a book i’ve mostly written, which is expected to release this fall. it’s an attempt to name where and how we’re missing the mark in youth ministry, and what needs to change in order to more truly live into our calling as youth workers.
we’ve decided to open up the book a bit and solicit youth worker contributions as sidebar comments, and i’m going to use my blog for this purpose. until late april, i’ll be posting a series of snapshots from the rough draft of the manuscript. i invite lots of comments — questions, disagreements, ideas, very short stories or examples, reflections — which will be considered as additions to the book.
by posting a comment, you are giving permission for your comment, with your screen name, to be added to the print book.
so, here’s the seventeenth bit, from chapter 6:
Help students experience God
Maybe you’ve seen this diagram before:
In the second half of the last century, as our systematic, scientific, rational modern mindset calcified into theology that was assumed to be complete and timeless, this little diagram was used by many to explain the relationship of facts and feelings to faith. The explanation goes: facts – objective truth – are the engine of the faith train. Facts are trustworthy, and will propel us down the track, in the right direction. Of course, faith is the coal car, and that provides fuel to the engine. Feelings are the caboose. A caboose isn’t really necessary. It can be helpful; but it’s not essential. Feelings cannot be trusted, and should not inform faith or facts.
This mental map was not unique to the church. This typified the modern mindset, dominant in the western world from the time of the Enlightenment, propelled by the Reformation and the rise of science, and continued into the 20th century (until things like quantum physics, mistrust of authority, and other factors slowly began to pull at this worldview’s king-of-the-hill status).
You can hate postmodernism all you want, call it every sort of nasty name you like, but the reality is completely indisputable: we live in a postmodern culture. Scripture calls us to be in the world. If we have any hope of engaging real teenagers in their real world, we simply must understand, and minister in the context of, a postmodern mindset.
Here’s how the little train of modernism has had its cars reshuffled:
Faith is still the fuel. But in a postmodern world, most teenagers (not all) come to a place of faith through their experience of the Divine: in others, in themselves, in nature, in spiritual community, in Scripture, in popular media, in pain, with the poor and mistreated, and all of the other myriad places God can be actively found. This experience (which always has an intimate relationship with feelings) becomes a pathway to faith. Facts are still there: it might be fair to say the caboose is more important in this scenario. But facts support faith and validate experience.
With this reality in mind, Youth Ministry 3.0 needs to be intentionally proactive about providing teenagers opportunities to experience God, not merely hear facts about God. What does this look like? In a word: worship.
But let me remind you of a little scriptural gadfly about worship:
Yes, worship includes the experience of raising our voices together in songs to God. And, yes, worship involves prayer. But a broader – scriptural – view of worship is about serving the poor, righting injustice, caring for those in need. When teenagers – already followers of Jesus or not yet – experience this kind of worship-in-action, they have an enormous opportunity to have a tangible experience of God in their lives. This leads, often, to faith (or more faith). More importantly, this leads to a sustainable faith.
Funny, the first train told us that feelings do not lead us to a sustainable faith, since they can’t be trusted. Maybe that was true 50 years ago. I’m not sure. I’m sure of this, though: for today’s teenagers, experience is what they trust. And, if we’re really honest, this is how we all live.
These experiences of the Divine become sustaining markers in the journey of an adolescent, more than a robust factual knowledge base can ever be. When she’s sitting in third-period science class, and hearing arguments that might undermine her factual knowledge (as strong as that may be), it will be her experience of God – last week in her spiritual community, last month in the soup kitchen, and last summer on the mission trip – that sustains her faith in the face of seemingly objective facts to the contrary.