By Dave Rhodes
Last week was an interesting one here on the Wayfarer Blog. When my good friend Chris Brooks released his blog post Is youth ministry subtly sabotaging college ministry?, I knew it would create a response. I was pretty sure it would get people talking. But the question that stands in front of all of us right now is this:
Will it keep us talking?
I hope that it will.
Defining reality is a tough job. It is a job that requires stating truth, not only in ways that are pleasant for everyone to hear, but also in all its extreme forms. When we speak truth in this relentless manner, we get to the bottom of what the true situation actually is. This is the real gift Chris’ blog gave us last week.
Chris stated his opinion brashly. He is a college minister who is experiencing the ramification of unformed or malnutritioned students brought up in youth ministries that do everything but disciple students. We need him to give voice to his frustration. We need to feel the extreme reality that he deals with and lives in every day.
To confirm the reality of Chris’ voice, we saw many comments from lots of people who feel the exact same way — some who have even dropped out of church or discontinued faith because of the reality Chris wrote about.
But Chris’ blog also generated another response. This was the response of youth ministers who felt blamed for the problem, even though they have given and laid down their very lives for something exactly opposite of what Chris described. Exasperated by the desperation of the current generation, they felt undercut and unappreciated by one more person telling them how they were not doing their job — or at least not doing their job well enough.
They too used strong words and brash language to prove their point. And their words also gave voice to others who feel overworked and underappreciated, misunderstood and mislabeled. These youth ministers continue to press into the work and calling that they feel God has placed in front of them. I believe we need to hear their words too.
The truth lies not between these extremes but in both of these extremes. Until we hear the truth at both extremes, we won’t be able to define what the reality that all of us are staring at and working in truly is.
In my view, we must have venues where we can bloody each other’s noses a little, so to speak, in order to get to the bottom of the situation. It’s not that we act unchristian or mean-spirited toward each other; instead, we create room and space to vent our real frustration so that we can move toward reality and the solutions it requires.
Unfortunately, the truth that we all are staring at is that just 4 percent of the millennial generation is in church each Sunday and that many who are in church are dropping out the moment they get their car keys or go off to college. Even more, unlike past generations, this generation isn’t coming back when they have their kids.
There is plenty of blame and sin to go around. The truth is that there are many youth ministries committed to ministry models that leave students malnuritioned and unformed. It is also true that there are many youth ministers giving their lives away every day for ministries that want to see something different happen.
Some are caught in systems that undermine their best intentions. Others are misinformed and need the space to consider a different side of truth or a different way altogether. Still others are doing incredible work and the biggest problem they face is that no one has ever heard of them and too few have had opportunity to imitate their model of ministry.
(By the way, what is true of youth ministry is also true of lots of college ministries, and other age group ministries as well.)
Here’s the reality: The problems that Chris, and those who have responded to him, described this week is not a youth problem or college problem — it’s a CHURCH problem. Now that we have done the hard work of venting our frustration and defining reality, the real question is whether we will move out of our polarities toward a better solution.
We must recognize that everything in our society will try to keep us from doing so. We live in a world that thrives off of polarization. Polarization rallies. Polarization makes money. But polarization rarely provides real solutions. Polarization is not the answer.
The answer is not balance either. Balance fails to articulate the frustration of both extremes.
So what is the answer? I believe the answer is to start speaking paradox again. When Jesus was asked whether people should pay taxes to Caesar, what people were really asking him to do was choose sides. One side said yes. The other said no. Each had its theological reasons. Each was entrenched in its own polarity.
In this situation, Jesus was pressured to give an answer, and Jesus chose not polarity or balance but paradox. He saide, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God.” (Matthew 22:21) As he did, Jesus elevated the conversation and created space for a whole different kind of imagination to take place.
Last week we asked the question, “Is youth ministry subtly undermining college ministry?” Some of us have said yes! Others of us have yelled back no! We have heard the truth of both of these extremes. This question has helped us sense and feel the depth and breadth of the conversation. We have pulled the quiet murmurs out of the closet and out into the open.
Now we must work just as diligently to move out of our polarities to hear the paradox that Jesus is speaking to all of us. My hope is that the Wayfarer Blog will be devoted to this endeavor and that you will continue to join us in the conversation.
Some have suggested that the test of Christian love is the tone we speak in. But I think maybe the best test of Christian love is whether we just keep talking.