The 2003 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
We cross bridges all the time in everyday life. They get us over obstacles, whether river, valley, road, or railroad tracks. Some bridges are as simple as a plank or log laid down over a stream by a child. Others are feats of strength and grace, with high suspension structures bridging the waters of a bay or the steep expanse of a canyon.
All of us in ministry are about the business of constructing bridges. We build bridges between youth and adults, between the youth group and the congregation, between the church and the community. We build bridges across cultural and racial divides, bridges of reconciliation, bridges of healing and hope. Like those we cross by foot or car, some are simple and others seem like impossible feats of engineering and balance. The good news is that the support for all the bridges we build in ministry is the cross of Jesus Christ. We build these bridges not by our own strength and ingenuity, but by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Those of us engaged in youth ministry help young people cross over from childhood faith to adult faith, bridge the generational gap to welcome youth into the church, and walk alongside youth as they build their own bridges across cultural and racial boundaries. The 2003 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture explore the dynamics of building bridges in ministry.
Robert C. Dykstra suggests that adolescence is a necessarily lonely time of life and that those of us in youth ministry should not be too eager to herd the youth of the church into groups. We all know young people who are loners, on the margins of the fun and camaraderie of youth group, and we are often pressured to bridge the gap to these youth by inviting them to join the crowd. Dykstra instead affirms the importance of solitude in adolescence as the point from where a young person can learn to love, to think, to speak, and to listen for God’s call. The task of the youth minister, says Dykstra, is to provide a safe space for adolescents to discern God’s call and to coach them in how to listen. Dykstra suggests that one way we create such a place for youth is by paying intense attention to the individual young people in our care.
Rodger Nishioka looks at the theological practices of constancy and disruption in youth ministry. If we are hoping to build bridges with young people and to accompany them through the transitions in their lives, says Nishioka, then we are called to practice constancy. Many of us have appropriated misconceptions that youth ministry is supposed to be about “making a difference” and that our work should always feel fulfilling. Nishioka challenges this assumption with a call to stay involved with youth ministry, and with a particular congregation, not because we see impressive results or because we get something out of it, but because it is what we are called to by God. In his second lecture, Nishioka argues that youth ministry should be more concerned with disruption than with protection, for without disruption there is no growth. Our job is not to keep young people as comfortable as possible, but rather to welcome the disruption of the gospel and to accompany young people as they encounter it.
Vivian Nix-Early suggests that the arts are a natural resource for building bridges with and among young people. She discusses the importance of arts as a redemptive vehicle in reconciliation and demonstrates through case studies how groups and individuals are using the arts in mission and ministry. When used for ministry, the arts, persuades Nix-Early, reach to those youth who might never enter a traditional church on their own. Nix-Early explores the role of the arts in bringing about what she terms the NU JERUZ, the kingdom of God here on earth. Her lectures demonstrate the personal, societal, and community transformation that ministry through the arts can bring and give us a blueprint for building bridges through art.
Mark Yaconelli explores the matrix of fear and desire that lies beneath youth ministries. He calls us to build bridges founded on our desire to love youth rather than on our fears about youth. Yaconelli looks to the gospel story of Jesus blessing the children for insight on how we might approach the task of youth ministry. He challenges us to stop our busy activity, to be amazed by young people and God’s presence in their lives, to let go of our anxieties, and to resist the oppressive forces that seek to destroy life. These movements prepare us to receive and bless the youth among us, just as Jesus blessed the children brought to him.
May these lectures feed your mind and your soul and give you new and useful tools for ministry.
Director of Leadership Development
Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry
- Out of One’s Depth: Seeking Soul in Solitude
- Out of One’s Depth: Finding Faith on the Fringe
- Keepin’ On, Keepin’ On: Constancy as a Theological Practice in Youth Ministry
- Breaking In, Breaking Out: Disruption as a Theological Practice in Youth Ministry
- Art: A Naturally Occurring Resource for Building Bridges to the NU JERUZ
- Art and Transformation: Using Art in Mission and Ministry
- A Bridge Demands a Life
- A Life Creates a Bridge
Breaking In, Breaking Out:
Disruption as a Theological Practice in
In her introduction to philosophical inquiry methods, educator and philosopher Maxine Greene highlights a passage from Albert Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus. The passage begins with an account of the routines of daily life and describes the lurch into a new mode of awareness, or what Greene terms "awakeness." 1 Greene uses this passage as evidence of what Camus names as the "mode of awakening." She argues that this mode of awakening is necessary for growth. It is the moment, Greene writes, that "everything begins."
I liken this mode of awakening to disruption, and I argue that one of the essential practices of youth ministry is one that of late tends to be ignored, even prevented: the practice of disruption.
Twenty years ago, David Ng, professor of Christian Education at San Francisco Theological Seminary, wrote a book titled Youth in the Community of Disciples. 2 Ng argued for ultimately including young people in the whole life of the church and for a focus on discipleship in youth ministry. He wrote that youth ministry is not four things: it is not fellowship, it is not maintenance, it is not entertainment, and it is not protection.
By saying that youth ministry is not about "fellowship," he explained that too many youth ministry programs were focusing on relationship building for the sake of relationship building. The church is not simply a social club of attractive, well-adjusted people who enjoy being together, he reminded us. We do not build relationships for the sake of relationships. The goal of the church is not to serve as some lonely hearts club. Youth ministry is not simply about fellowship.
Nor is youth ministry about maintenance. For Ng, maintenance is the mistaken idea that the goal of youth ministry is to just keep young people in a holding pen called "the youth room" until they mature and are less destructive and are able to tithe and contribute to the church's mission. In my work with various congregations throughout the country, I have seen congregations page 38 that were trying to maintain, and what they did not realize is that while they were trying to just hold on until the new head of staff came or whatever, they were actually losing ground because everyone and everything else was still moving—passing them by.
Ng also wrote that youth ministry is not about entertainment. This kind of youth ministry is expressed by those who are convinced that if you simply purchase a better sound system or wide screen television or call a more attractive youth leader or . . . you can see where it ends. Actually the point is that it never ends. That is the problem. Viacom or Murdoch or AOL Time Warner or whoever will always be able to do better than the church at delivering entertainment. Youth ministry is to be engaging, but the goal is not entertainment.
Finally, Ng wrote that youth ministry is not to be about protection, which he defined as the mistaken belief that the church's task is to somehow inoculate young people against all the evils and temptations of the world—to keep them safe in an insulated place where they might thrive and prosper. This idea of protection is the main culprit in our neglect of disruption as a theological practice in youth ministry. It seems that we have misappropriated the concept of safe. We know the world is a frightening place, so we have misconstrued our job in youth ministry as one of creating a "safe space" for young people, and sadly we have confused safe with comfortable. Safe cannot be equated with comfort and complacency. It is entirely possible for the church to be a safe space but for there still to be discomfort.
Certainly our search for comfort is understandable and, perhaps, human nature. In fact, among developmental theorists, there is wide agreement that what we desire ultimately is comfort and balance. The cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget in his development of stage theory described this as a desire for equilibration. The natural direction of development, according to Piaget, is toward states of equilibrium—that is, states of balance among different elements of cognition, balance between processes of what he termed "assimilation" and "accommodation," and balance between the cognitive system and the outer world. A state of equilibration or equilibrium implied a synchronized, smoothly running, comfortable cognitive system, one that yielded ready and consistent answers to the problems one encountered. In contrast, a state of disequilibrium, or cognitive conflict, implied some imbalance or discomfort, some lack of fit, some uncertainty in the solutions that the cognitive structures offered. Interestingly enough, Piaget said that we need disequilibrium because such states were motivating and because in seeking to resolve the page 39 disequilibrium and achieve equilibrium again, the child would move to a whole new understanding or mode of awakening to use Camus's term. Without disequilibrium, there is no growth. 3
Some of us think it is our job to make our young people as comfortable as possible, but if we try to we are doing a disservice to them. Youth ministry is not about protection, and it is certainly not about comfort, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is not about protection and it is certainly not about comfort. Earlier this spring, at a lecture at Columbia Theological Seminary's Colloquium, J. Louis Martyn, professor emeritus of biblical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, called the advent of Jesus Christ, God's great interruption into the history of humankind. Surely our Lord practiced a ministry of disruption. He sought to disrupt the money changers in the temple, the comfortable lives of the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day, the Roman authorities, his parents, even his disciples.
Our trying to protect our young people is ultimately insulting to them and reductive of them. Our young people know disruption. They know sadness and pain and suffering already.
Educator Kevin Kumashiro in his book Troubling Education writes that to challenge oppressive structures, one needs disruptive knowledge, not simply more knowledge but disruptive knowledge. This disruptive knowledge, like Piaget's disequilibrium, is what leads us to change and grow. 4
I confess that I too often have fallen into the protection trap. Years ago when I was working in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.'s youth ministry office, I was serving as one of several denominational staff members for the design team, a group of young people and adults whose task was to plan and implement the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, a triennial gathering of more than seven thousand youth and adults from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America. One of my colleagues, another staff member from the PC(USA), was new to the process. She was staffing the global partners work group. I had heard rumors that things were not going well, that she was being autocratic with and dismissive of the young people in her work group. During our third and final design team meeting before the event, at about 2:00 a.m., I was awakened by someone knocking on my door. I opened it and found two of the young people from that work group in tears. They had been talking with each other and were obviously distressed. These were two incredible young women—one of them was from the page 40 Presbyterian Church in Canada and the other was from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. I invited them in, called the staff person from the Cumberland Church, and asked him to come over. We sat together for an hour while they relayed to both of us their experiences in between sobs. They talked at length about how they did not think they were being respected by my staff colleague. They said they knew that other young people on other work teams were getting real assignments and were listened to and taken seriously, and they wanted to transfer to other teams. I went into rescue mode. I began to tell them that I was sorry and that I would take care of it, but before I could finish, the other staff person, Frank Ward, who was older and certainly wiser than me, invited us to take some time and pray. He said we were all tired, and it was very late—by then early morning. And then Frank said something I will never forget. He said, "I am not so sure that what you both are experiencing is such a bad thing. I am glad you came to talk to Rodger and glad he called me. I am glad you have each other. Let's sleep on this and see if we can work this out. Let's talk in the morning." We prayed together, and they left. I told Frank that I was sure it was a bad thing and that I was embarrassed and I was going to fix it. Frank smiled and told me that it was probably best for all of us to get what little sleep we could. We talked over breakfast, and the two young women agreed to try it for the last day of the meeting. At the end of the day they assured us that it was not a whole lot better, but they had decided they were going to stay with it, to persevere. They did. And they grew and spoke up and took charge of the international program and worked with the international delegates. And they learned. And so did my colleague. And so did I.
A significant part of bridge building is disruption. We are called to allow it. I even believe we are called to enable it to happen.
Rick Osmer, who now teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote the following in an article for the journal of Union Theological Seminary when he was still teaching in Richmond, Virginia:
An important part of the dissatisfaction of today's young people with the mainline churches stems from the absence of a spiritually challenging and world-shaping vision that meets their hunger for the chance to participate in what Stanley Hauerwas has termed "a worthy adventure." Instead, our efforts have focused on devising strategies for keeping young people in the church because it is a place page 41 where they will be safe from the terrors of the streets or the seductions of the shopping mall. Our hopes for them are modest and reasonable. For the most part, they mirror the expectations we have for ourselves. We ask no more than that they grow up to be "good" people—decent, law abiding, successful in their jobs and happy in their marriages. To this end, we program activities which are certainly wholesome, sometimes edifying, and almost always fun. Conscientious youth ministers work hard to find ways to involve youth in worthwhile service projects, and often such projects—which yield concrete results to which we can point with pride—are very successful. Of course, some youth do remain in the church, and most of these do turn out to be "good" people. But many more do not. They leave the church because it asks nothing significant of them. They leave the church because it is spiritually innocuous. 5
Tony Campolo's perspective on the biblical concept of the kingdom of God is that people committed to Christ are called to do more than be "good" persons. Rather, God is calling them to transform the current social order. Campolo believes that a critical mass of committed Christians is needed to call for the end of the consumption of unrenewable resources, the pollution of the environment, runaway military spending, and the support of oppression upon which the United States' economy thrives. In his book Growing Up in America, Campolo concludes that if the current generation of teenagers is not present in the church and is swallowed up by the culture, it is not because leaders in the church demand too much from them, it is because we demand too little. 6
In the film The Truman Show, Jim Carey plays the role of Truman, who unbeknownst to him is actually the focus of a television show. His whole world has been constructed, and all of the people around him are actors. Truman goes about his day with every moment scripted, and he is oblivious and content, certainly comfortable in his world. Some of the viewers and the cast members believe it is unfair to Truman that he does not know that everything in his world is a façade, and they conspire to somehow tell him. In a scene illustrating Truman's mode of awakening, his easy life is disrupted by a cast member who tries to communicate to him that he is actually part of a television show. Truman then begins to understand that what he knows to be true is actually not true. Before this disruption, Truman is content to go on page 42 about his comfortable, safe life. Once he is disrupted, everything changes for him, and the movie really begins to get interesting. Disruption does the same for our young people and does the same for us.
In this way, I also believe that part of our task is to enable our young people to disrupt us. It was the spring of 1991, Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and we were on the verge of what is now known as the first Persian Gulf War. I was staying in a hotel in Albuquerque preaching and speaking there for the presbytery of Santa Fe, and I remember having the television tuned to CNN and, the next moment, hearing the voice of one of my young people from the Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church in Louisville. Perhaps you remember this, too. I remember coming out of the bathroom and looking at the television, and there was Corey. At the time, she was an eighth grader at Noe Middle School in Louisville, and she had made the news because she was the organizer of a walkout at her school protesting the impending war. When I got back to town, I talked to her and told her about my seeing her on television. I asked her about why she did it, and Corey told me that she had been reading her Bible, a dangerous proposition to be sure, and, over and over, it seemed to her that to be a Christian meant that we had to seek peace. While she was not sure about this just war stuff, as she called it, she was sure that the United States was not seeking peace enough. She organized a protest, and in the middle of third period, respectfully, she led much of Noe Middle School's student body out of the building and walking for peace, interrupting traffic. Corey was not stupid. She had also sent faxes to the Louisville Courier Journal and to the three network affiliates, who all sent reporters and photographers and camera crews. When I asked how she was doing, she said she was O.K. She was a little frustrated though because she had been surprised by some of the name calling and some of the telephone calls her parents had received. Someone had written "fag" and "commie" on her locker, and she didn't understand what that had to do with wanting peace. I told her that her witness was powerful and that when you read the Bible, it changes you. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "Yeah, I guess so."
That young people, out of their faithfulness in studying Scripture and discerning the Holy Spirit's call, might disrupt us surely is one of their most generous gifts to the church. That we would squelch that in any way is one of our most egregious sins.
My colleague Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Psalms and the Life of Faith, building on the work of Paul Ricoeur, proposes the sequence of orientation page 43 then disorientation then reorientation as a helpful way to understand the use and function of the Psalms, and he organizes his theological commentary, The Message of the Psalms, around these themes. 7 Brueggemann likens disorientation to displacement. He writes that "a person in disorientation is one who has lost one's old equilibrium and is precisely the one who has the freedom and vitality to face the openness of lament language. Those who are safe and settled in an old equilibrium are the ones who want to identify the enemy and all the other figures in this poetry. Interpreters must be freed of our closely oriented habits of exegesis if the psalm is to have the freedom to fully articulate the experience of disorientation." 8
Without disruption, there is no growth. As a practice in youth ministry, we allow it, we welcome it, and we are called to do it. Not in a cavalier way and not with the intention of being hurtful and abandoning these young people to their own survival, but as a means of discipleship—as a means of taking up the cross and following Jesus Christ. I believe we are called to it, together, in this worthy adventure of ministry with young people.