Spiritual Gardening

Youth Specialties
September 30th, 2014

We are excited to share this post from Mike Langford and we're thrilled that he'll be at NYWC Sacramento

Original photo by Lisa.

According to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Forum, more people than ever in the U.S. identify with no religion. The so-called “nones” make up a fifth of the national population, and that percentage rises to one-third of adults under age 30. In other words, in this country, the chances are increasing that, after graduating high school, adolescents will also “graduate” from their faith (if they had any religious commitment to begin with).

But all is not gloom and doom. Christianity is growing rapidly in the Global South and East. South America, Africa, and parts of Asia will soon boast a majority of the world’s Christians if they do not already.

Why the disparity? Why is Christianity decreasing in the Global West, and increasing elsewhere? Some claim the answer is socio-economic, that development breeds secularism as certain needs become domesticated. Others claim that it is cultural, that the West is too focused on individualism and materialism to allow for transcendence. And I think that both of those answers hold merit. But I’d like to suggest a theological answer to this question.

The Holy Spirit.

The reason why Western youth – a microcosm of their larger culture – have less interest in Christian faith is because the God about whom they are told is uninvolved in their lives. It is a God who is distant. Predictable. Impotent. It is a God of principles and passivity rather than presence and power. In essence, it is a God who is not Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, in the non-West, Christians are very comfortable with understanding God as Holy Spirit, as a God who is radically active.

When we speak of the Holy Spirit, we are speaking of the notion that God engages us. I tell my students that when we say that God is Spirit, we are saying that “God is here doing stuff.” Breathing vitality into lifeless clay. Blowing reconciliation across dead communities. Wildly upending our expectations. Restoring lives. Restoring the cosmos. Theologically speaking, the Holy Spirit is the “connective tissue” whereby creation – including you and me – becomes bound to the source of goodness and truth and beauty and justice. The Holy Spirit binds us to Jesus, and through Jesus, to one another. Succinctly, the Holy Spirit binds us to life itself.

So what happens when adolescents are led to believe in a God who is not Holy Spirit? They imagine a God who is, bluntly, lifeless. Or at least a Life to which we have no hope of connection. So, instead, youth seek other sources of life (sometimes even through the church), none of which are enduring and some of which are damaging. By the time they graduate high school, if an adolescent has not experienced in some way the presence and power of God, they will find little use in centering their identity on being a disciple of Jesus. And I can’t blame them.

What’s the way forward?

Well, what if we took out the middle man? What if, instead of thinking of youth ministry as a place for us to teach or lead or organize for God, we thought of it as making space for adolescents to relate to the Holy Spirit? Now, I am not saying that youth ministry does not involve teaching or leading or organizing. Rather, I am saying that the purpose behind our programming becomes different. Everything we do is making room to connect adolescents to the movement of God, to God’s presence and power.

We youth ministers toil in a nursery of the Holy Spirit. We are not the gardeners (John 15:1). We are more like caretakers, custodians, making sure that the proper resources are at hand for the growth of the branches – light, space, water, nutrients. But we do not make anything grow, nor can we predict how that growth will happen, nor do we even really know what the full growth will look like. All we do is make room for the Spirit to work, put students in a position for God to breathe upon them, and then get out of the way. This realization is humbling and frustrating and freeing.

Of course, there are lots of ways for us to make this space, for us to create means by which youth can experience the movement of the Holy Spirit or realize the movement that has already happened, but that is a subject for another time. For now, let us just remember that if we want to help in the formation of generative faith in adolescents, we must help them to know God as Holy Spirit. And perhaps the very best way for that to happen is for us to know that for ourselves.

Mike Langford (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry at Seattle Pacific University and Seattle Pacific Seminary where he teaches doctrinal theology and spiritual formation and coordinates youth ministry education and training. Mike is also an ordained pastor and has been involved in youth ministry for 25 years. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Kelly, and their four kids, Hannah, Seth, Caleb, and Chloe. Hear Mike speak at NYWC Sacramento!


Youth Specialties

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