Getting out of God’s Way: Freeing Our Inner Theologian

October 10th, 2009


By now, I've been to dozens of these: celebrations of ministry, specifically youth ministry; and the room pulses with passion for young people, Jesus, and relationships aimed at earning the right to be heard. I'm deeply committed to all of these things. I'm grateful, both personally and professionally, for the ministries of the people in this room. Still, I am flinching—I hope not visibly—at the earnest testimonies of leaders who fondly recall meetings where kids smeared chocolate pudding over each other and dressed the adults up like toilet bowls. This is to be commended, the speaker reminds us, because it's a strategy for ministry that “works.”

Well, yes. It does work, at one level. The Wesleyan in me longs for my kids to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, the kind of faith fostered in a web of belonging cultivated by faithful adults who place themselves at God's disposal. The room tonight teems with adults like this, the kind of people God uses to love teenagers in a way that gives them palpable glimpses of God's mad love for them.

I'm grateful for the implicit theology here that makes a personal relationship with God (which I am convinced is the kind Jesus had in mind when he showed up on earth in person) front and center. The strategy that works in these volunteers' ministries is genuine interest in young people and a willingness to take the gospel beyond the four walls of the church building and into the world where kids live.

Last I checked, that's the only strategy for ministry that has ever worked…with anybody, and for two thousand years the church has used it, not because leaders must earn the right to be heard (danger, Will Robinson: we're not the ones young people need to hear), but because this is the way Christ calls us to treat each other, and it's the way Christ chooses to be present in the world. This deserves, to use the word suggested by one of tonight's presenters to keep us all relevant, a resounding “boo-ya.”

Coming Clean

So what's gnawing at me? Maybe it's academic snobbery: I've been paid to think a lot in my career. These youth workers barely have time to breathe, much less sit back and reflect on what they're doing and why. Maybe it's ecclesial envy: apart from our youth staff (who are amazing), the leadership at my church doesn't invest in relationships as intentionally as these people do.

But I think what bothers me runs deeper, for I recognize myself in these volunteers. I've planned— I do plan—meetings and Bible studies “on the fly” without giving adequate time to prayer and percolation. While I've never been dressed up like a toilet bowl, I have done my share of stupid pet tricks in the name of making it fun for the middle highs. Like the volunteers around my table, my relationships with teenagers tend to be extremely positive.

Yet there have been times I've left the gospel unsaid so I could “earn the right to be heard”—an excuse I give myself when I trade in truth, God's truth, for affability. While my deepest desire is to get out of God's way so the Holy Spirit may rush into the youth room unimpeded, my most common failing is becoming God's speed bump.

When this happens, it's usually because I've insisted on doing ministry that “works”—all in the name of Jesus, the one whose ministry on earth looked for all the world like a failure.

Converting Jesus: The Problem with Pragmatism

How do we save pragmatists like me, and maybe you, from youth ministry that works? In the first place, we have to acknowledge our frame of reference. Those of us raised in the U.S. have grown up in a country shaped by pragmatists— C.S. Pierce, William James, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes—and most of us, to a greater or lesser extent, bear some resemblance to our cultural family tree. Life on the American frontier fostered a spirit of inventiveness, an ideal of “making good,” and a general confidence that Americans could make just about anything happen, even salvation, if we worked hard enough. The ends quickly come to justify the means in such a value system. For the pragmatist, truth is what works, so whatever works must be good (or at least it can't be all bad).

This pragmatic spirit, of course, also shaped American Christianity. Pragmatism has much to commend it: It helped bridge the science-religion gap during the Darwinist controversies, and it made a good springboard for the social gospel's platform of social transformation. Yet theologian H. Richard Niebuhr—himself raised in this pragmatic landscape—warned against substituting American pragmatism for the gospel. Niebuhr observed what he called “utilitarian Christianity” that highlighted the social and spiritual benefits of the Christian faith. The sales pitch, said Niebuhr, goes like this:

[People] in our time desire some things very much—escape from suffering war and other disaster, freedom and a sense of their dignity, abundance and peace. These values they may have if they will turn to the Christian faith, if they will repent and lay hold of the sources of spiritual power that Christianity offers. The church will also benefit, for the demonstration that Christianity can provide these goods will cause [people] to turn to it. i

To put it crudely, pragmatists love Jesus, not out of gratitude but because Jesus is useful. Apparently, Jesus wants what we want. Christianity is good because it solves the world's problems, and the church benefits as well; as people realize that Christianity helps them achieve their goals, the church grows. It's an appealing pitch, but a dishonest one. As Niebuhr points out, nothing in Christian teaching supports the conclusion that Christianity solves the world's problems, helps people self-actualize, or lessens suffering. As C.S. Lewis allegedly put it, “If you want a comfortable faith, I certainly don't recommend Christianity.”

God for Hire: When Christianity Starts Working for Us

Here's where I start squirming. I'm sure I've heard myself say to teenagers that walking with God makes life easier. That would be Pragmatic Lie #1. Maybe life with God seems easier when your team is winning and you're getting into the college of your choice, but try telling that to the kid whose mom just died of breast cancer. Of course, I didn't mean to imply that Christianity would spare teenagers from hardship, only that Jesus would be helpful to turn to, sort of like State Farm, when life's hurricanes hit.

when life's hurricanes hit. Pragmatic Lie #2—Jesus as insurance agent. Every teenager knows that relationships for the sake of insurance— important as they may seem—don't count as real friendships. So, I hang out at lunch with them, and I go to their games and play guitar to convince these young people that my friendship is the real deal; that, unlike others, I'm the friend who can be trusted. After all, I work for Jesus, so I won't let them down.

Pragmatic Lie #3. Of course I will let them down! I'll forget to call them. Try as I might, I'll miss somebody's crucial game, somebody's senior play, somebody's need to talk “right now.” I have a family whose needs I will prioritize over theirs. I can never be there for them 24-7. So while God is using me to make a difference in this young person's life, it's also true that I'm using this young person, befriending him not because I intend to lay down my life for him, but because I know this is how to do ministry that works.

Let me be clear. Befriending teenagers isn't the problem here; we must befriend teenagers. Significant caring adults—a critical ingredient in adolescents' developing faith identities—are increasingly hard to come by. At issue is why we befriend them, and whether we inadvertently manipulate ministry by converting Jesus into a butler, insurance agent, or guidance counselor along the way. To convert the God of suffering love into a God who works for us requires serious tinkering with the gospel, as Niebuhr points out.ii He minces no words here.

For example, no honest reading of Christian history can credit the church with a significant role in peacemaking; the church is rarely at peace with itself, notes Niebuhr, much less with others. Nor can we read Scripture and conclude that following Jesus alleviates our suffering. It alleviates the suffering of others, but the sacrifices of those who sincerely follow Christ are painfully apparent. Niebuhr concludes that we must shed our utilitarian Christianity and repent of ministry calculated to achieve certain results: “Repentance is called for not because we have chosen false means to the achievement of our ends but because our ends themselves are idolatrous.” And here is the redemptive surprise: such radical repentance, though not designed to have consequences that work, may yield a more consequential ministry for all.iii


Converting Youth Ministry: Moving from Pragmatism to Practice

If the first step in moving away from a ministry that works is weaning youth ministry away from unreflective pragmatism, the second step is replacing our pragmatic assumptions with some practical ones.

Instead of focusing our energy on winning young people's trust so they won't flee when we mention Jesus, a less anxious strategy would be to accompany teenagers in their lives as far as they will let us, and invite them into the practices of faith—actions that embody the sacrificial love of Christ in the church and in the world—namely, God's work instead of “what works.”

Practical theology approaches relationships with teenagers as a practice, a way Christ chooses to be present in the world and us—not as a strategy designed to lure teenagers into trusting adults. In other words, instead of winning teenagers' trust for the sake of presenting a Christian message (think, playing crazy games with teenagers for an hour before hitting them with a God-talk at the end, or hanging out at a skate park to gain enough street cred to invite skaters to church), we befriend teenagers for the sake of Christian friendship, because this is a time-honored way Christ chooses to reveal himself to us (Matthew 18:19).

God uses these practices—what Christian tradition calls “disciplines”—as means of grace that mold us into disciples and catapult us back into the world so God can use us to change it. In short, God uses these practices to accomplish God's purpose in the world, and through these disciplines, God uses—and changes—us.

At some level, we know this, which is what keeps most of us from becoming card-carrying utilitarians. When the hismintoric disciplines of the church form the primary curriculum for youth ministry, ministry is no longer something done to teenagers; rather, ministry is also what teenagers do. Christian practices are, after all, actions that enable us, individually and as a church, to “imitate Christ,” as Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) put it.

Of course we conform to God in surface ways at first, but over time, these practices make us pliable to the Holy Spirit and receptive to God's call to identify with Christ's self-giving love in deeper and more significant ways. In this process, youth ministry really becomes youth's ministry.

Young people take part in Christ's sacrificial love—directly, perhaps, in the “dying and rising” ritual of baptism or participation in the Lord's Supper, or less directly in self-giving practices like serving the poor, extending hearts in worship, or offering hospitality at the lunch table. In so doing, young people simultaneously proclaim who God is, how God loves us, and what God is up to in the world and with them.

What I'm suggesting is that youth ministers take seriously our role as practical theologians—people who are intentional about shaping communities, including hiscommunities of young people, that echo the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Theology literally means “reflection on God,” so practical theology means “reflection on practices that reflect God.”

I like Dallas Willard's no-frills definition: “Practical theology studies the manner in which our actions interact with God to accomplish [God's] ends in human life.” iv Add to this the historical data that God chooses the church—both its formal and informal manifestations—as the usual context for divine-human interaction, and you have the parameters for youth ministry that focuses on God's work rather than our own.

This approach to young people is messier than ministry that works, of course; since God is in the driver's seat, we never quite see where we're going. There's no one-size-fits-all strategy for ministry as practical theology, since every context calls forth a slightly different response. Being a practical theologian has been compared to being a jazz musician. Every riff is different, but you have to master the technical skills—the notes, the instrument, the fingering, the chord progressions—before you gain the freedom to innovate and wander around a melody without losing track of it.

This is how we become practical theologians too. The more familiar we are with the stories and practices that tether us to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the more creative and innovative our faith life becomes. When young people take part in these practices of faith– whether in the full-bodied life of a congregation or in the partial bodies of youth groups or parachurch clubs–teenagers begin to exercise God's freedom in ministry, being gathered and being sent out in God's name.

We don't invite young people to practice faith alongside us solely to shape them into disciples. We invite them to practice faith because we're called, all of us, to take part in the mission of God.

But the corollary of mission is transformation, for any time we exercise the Body of Christ, the Body is re-shaped. In short, young people experience God's transformation when they do ministry, and not just when they have ministry done to them.

As a result, practical theologians approach youth ministry with this question: “Do our actions with young people reflect the self-giving love of God?” This is a very different question from the pragmatic one: “What works to win young people to Jesus (or maybe to us)?” Tempting as that question may be (and we've all asked it), it puts the ball in the wrong court.

Young people are never won to Jesus because we did something that worked. They're won because God has laid claim to them, wooed them in Christ, loved them enough to suffer for them, died on a cross, rose from a tomb, and has called them to lives of sacrificial love as well.

But wait. Where does the progressive dinner fit in?

Four Tasks of Practical Theology

Just because youth ministry as practical theology isn't essentially pragmatic (i.e., evaluated according to what works in terms of achieving certain results) doesn't mean that youth ministry is not fundamentally strategic (concerned with what people do to reflect Christ). The church, after all, is the body of Christ and bodies do things, and when they do, they slowly change shape and become stronger and more efficient.

Practical theology studies that messy arena of human action, where our practices embody our deepest convictions about God. Over time, these disciplines do work in the sense that they yield certain fruits—habits of mind and heart, virtues and character, conviction and trust—but these are very different outcomes from the immediate results we've learned to expect in a consumer society. Christian practices don't “work” in the immediate sense of procuring outcomes, nor do we take part in them for this reason.

So the frantic question, “What are we going to do at the youth meeting on Sunday night?” turns out to be our last, not first, question. To be sure, we sometimes jump headlong into the “do” question even when we have our theological wits about us, but this comes with a cost: it short-circuits our ability to live what we believe and forces us to crowbar our convictions into actions that may or may not reflect the God we want young people to know.

Practical theologian Richard R. Osmer reminds us that practical theological reflection consists of four dynamically related tasks that ought to form the spine of youth ministry and, indeed, of all ministry. v We can summarize each task with a question:

What's happening?

According to Osmer, this is the “empirical/ descriptive” moment, when our job is to engage in what Roland Martinson described to me as a “hermeneutic of suspended judgment” and listen to the lives of young people, searching for God-clues, signs of where the Holy Spirit is already at work among these youth, without issuing evaluations. vi

Instead of earning the right to be heard, which presumes that young people should listen to us, the first moment of practical theological reflection humbly listens to young people—their lives, their culture, their place in the lifecycle—to discern where God is already on the move and what's happening that calls for a gospel response.

Why is it happening?

Osmer calls the second task of practical theological reflection the “interpretive” task because it tries to make sense of the situation above. Here we step outside our youth ministry box and marshal every resource we have—knowledge from social sciences like psychology and sociology, familiarity with the social context of the youth we serve, insights from Biblical, historical, and systematic theology—to knit together an explanation for this particular situation and for God's presence in it.

Are we responding to this situation with the good news of Jesus Christ?

The third task of practical theology is the “normative” task, when we hold our present actions up to the light of the gospel and ask, “How do these actions mirror Christ?” For example, do our practices of forgiveness, hospitality, and prayer reflect the self-giving love of God to, and through, young people? Are we helping young people imitate Christ or are we settling for less? The normative task of practical theological reflection is, literally, the “come to Jesus” moment of youth ministry. This is where we do our best reading of the gospel, our most honest listening to God, and ask, “Is ministry at my church embarrassing Jesus?”

What can we do so our practices reflect God more clearly?

Ironically, Osmer calls this final task of practical theology the “pragmatic” task (no relation to philosophical pragmatism, but the term does demonstrate that the church is on speaking terms with our context for ministry). This is the task of figuring out what to do as a faithful disciple, and how to do it better.

How might our practices of ministry be even more transparent to God? How might our actions prepare the way for the Lord more fully? What must we do to allow God to use us completely?

The question is not, “Is God present in our practices of faith?” God is always present. Instead, it's, “How can we sharpen our senses, clean out our ear wax, correct our vision (and help young people correct theirs) so we can perceive God's presence and heed God's direction more clearly?”

Back to the Progressive Dinner

So where does the progressive dinner fit in? Where do any of the things we do in the name of building relationships with young people enter into youth ministry conceived as practical theology? They might fit anywhere. For to the outside eye, ministry that works and ministry that participates in God's work can look very similar.

Where these ministries differ is in the quality of their taproots: Are our roots sunk deeply enough into Christian tradition to nourish life-long faith? Is our theology lithe enough to stretch across many different frames for ministry and many different forms of Christian life? Do young people experience God as synonymous with particular people (like their small group) or a particular practice of ministry (like singing with a praise band) or a particular context (like camp)? Or have we helped them develop a repertoire of faith practices supple enough to take Christianity beyond any single faith experience? Do teenagers view themselves as objects of someone else's ministry, or as agents of ministry for others? Do the practices that characterize our ministry with young people help cement their sense of belonging to Christ, to an intimate community of companions, and to the people of God everywhere, wherever they may find them? And here's the acid test: If our kids were to walk out of our Christian community and into another one, would they recognize that the story told there includes them?

So let's return to our progressive dinner, since we have it on the calendar. Now that we're practical theologians, we're more aware that the meal should reflect the church's practice of table fellowship—providing a space for teenagers to let down their defenses so they can recognize Christ among them as they break bread together, something the exclusivist rites of the school cafeteria usually block.

Presumably, we wouldn't plan a progressive dinner if our listening to “what is happening” (task #1) disclosed that some families would be embarrassed to reveal their circumstances in such a public setting, or if our interpretation of the situation (task #2) led us to conclude that transportation to and from various settings would be dangerous. Both of these scenarios would pose serious obstacles to recognizing God's grace at the table, which would preclude such an event from our youth ministry curriculum.

We might also avoid a progressive dinner if, as we held it up to the light of the gospel (task #3), we determined that the meal somehow compromised Christ's call to young people in this particular instance, maybe by tempting excess at a time when simplicity is called for. Or perhaps we would conclude, on the basis of the same gospel, that lavishness is precisely what this particular group of beleaguered teenagers needs so they can taste God's unquenchable grace, God's surprising providence, and the unconditional embrace of being part of a family meal. And if, as we plan what we'll actually do during this progressive dinner (task #4) we find ways to make it a holy meal as well as a wholesome party, we'll have moved beyond ministry that works towards ministry that participates in God's work.

To plunge first into the strategic moment—deciding to have a progressive dinner without considering its relationship to the historic practices of the Christian community, or without attending to the full circle of practical theological thinking—risks one-dimensional ministry. Fortunately, God redeems both us and our work with young people in spite of ourselves, which is why we've lasted this long.

Grace doesn't depend on ministry that works or on ministry approached as practical theology. But if we're ever going to move past the pudding races, we need to broaden our practices of youth ministry to embody our understanding of God and our understanding of the church, and not simply rely on our understanding of young people and the strategies that win them. Jesus' ministry didn't depend on strategies that worked (in fact, he often seemed bent on strategies that failed).

Not once did anybody dress Jesus up like a toilet seat. Yet, go figure, somehow this carpenter from Nazareth changed the world with acts of radical, self-giving love, and not much else.

Boo-ya. Amen.


i H. Richard Niebuhr, “Utilitarian Christianity,” Christianity and Crisis,July 8, 1946. Prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=399

ii Niebuhr, ibid.

iii Niebuhr, ibid.

iv Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 14.

v Richard R. Osmer, The Teaching Ministry of Congregations(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox), forthcoming.

vi I am indebted to Roland Martinson for pointing out the “hermeneutic of suspended judgment.” Personal conversation, June 6, 2004.


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