Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Youth Ministry Values (Part 5): How to Think Over What to Think


Everyone has values. Whether they're clearly articulated or tacitly underlying every action we take, our lives are defined by them. Ministries have values too. Two years ago, I created a set of ministry values that have stuck with me and my ministry. Some of them have been refined or matured, but all remain the core DNA and ethos of the ministry I want to embody. This blog series will unpack each value in the following way: where the value comes from, why it's important, and how it's practiced in my ministry.

The fifth value: How to Think Over What to Think
This is about asking the right questions over giving the right answers, fostering spiritual disequilibration, offering experiences requiring faith and risk, giving tools and skills over pat answers or pre-made conclusions.
Where the value comes from: I think Jesus was the greatest teacher who ever lived. His teaching went beyond information to transformation, radically changing the lives of people around Him and offering them both strength and hope. Jesus is repeatedly referred to as "Teacher" or " Rabbi," which are both terms for someone with knowledge and authority, having the ability to teach those willing to learn. People were generally stunned at the wisdom and authority He displayed, and the leading teachers of the day felt threatened by His abilities. So what were some of the defining characteristics of Jesus's teaching methodology?
  • Questions: Whenever someone asked Jesus a questions, He often responded with His own questions for them. Very rarely in Scripture do we see Jesus giving a simple pointed answer or just responding how He feels at the moment. Instead, He responds with a question that forces the learner to think about what they're asking, to dig deeper into their hearts and motives and desires.
  • Stories: Jesus often used stories and parables to communicate deeper truths. He didn't use stories as illustrations, examples, or filler; He simply shared a story and challenges His followers to find the deeper meaning. He spoke in metaphors, comparing Godly truths with everyday objects or places--mustard seeds, gardens, banquets, etc.
  • Informal: Many of Jesus' greatest teachings were not planned-out sermons, but conversations or everyday events that turned into teachable moments where He revealed beautiful truths. He allowed for dialogue in His teachings and allowed for every moment to be an opportunity for growth and life transformation.
  • Challenging: Jesus' teachings seemed to leave people at times confused, at other times angry, and even other times made them choose to stop following Him. But for the ones who chose to continue following Him, their lives were radically transformed by His teachings. He never gives a simple, 3-point answer. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turned everything on its head, challenging past interpretations and pointing people to deeper truths. I imagine it was difficult to forget what Jesus talked about because it was either controversial or so profound, it was hard to stay neutral and unchanged.
Why it's important: In an Internet culture where information is ubiquitous and thousands of mixed messages are being told/sold to teenagers every day, young people don't necessarily need to be handed the right information and facts about God. Everyone else is spoon-feeding them answers to difficult questions, often with shallow or false claims about life and purpose and truth. Christianity can just become one of the many voices in a teen's life if they're not taught how to discern what is healthy or unhealthy, true or false. Young people need to be equipped to know how to process the information, how to seek out and find the truth about God, how to make wise decisions, how to pray, how to read the Bible, how to share their faith, etc. The what is easily accessible; it's the how that often goes unchecked.

How it's practiced: Some of the best ways to foster this kind of education/discipleship value is to create teachable environments where discussion is possible, questions can be asked, and wisdom can be shared. One way we're doing this in our ministry is through mingle time:

Right in the middle of our ministry program, I put an open question on the screen, then invite students to talk about it for 15-20 minutes. For those 15-20 minutes, students and leaders will actually discuss real issues, sharing stories and insights that might not come up in a regular conversation. The question is just a catalyst for further spiritual discussion. I don't split them into groups or assign an adult leader to them. There are some larger discussion groups that have organically sprouted and some smaller individual conversations that occur, but they all tend to engage with the question. We also give about 15 minutes before and after our program to continue the conversations.
I've also had to rethink the way that I preach and teach, choosing to leave more open questions and focusing on offering practical wisdom and tools to implement. We have teens do experiments, try things out, be challenged in their faith beyond a youth program. Preaching a 45-minute sermon giving lots of solid theological information really doesn't matter if students walk away thinking "I have no clue how that applies to me." Preaching a 15-minute sermon filled with funny stories and Christian-sounding "good advice" also doesn't matter if students aren't learning how to think theologically for themselves.

Finally, I've had to give myself and my leaders permission for young people to fail. I remember a youth ministry prof in college making the comment (and I'm paraphrasing): let your students fail when the consequences are small so they don't make the same mistakes when the consequences are large. He was saying that sheltering young people from their own mistakes and failures could potentially stunt a student's growth. Instead, give them the space and time to help them navigate, learn, and recover from those failures.

Questions to ask: How does your discipleship process foster asking questions instead of just giving answers? What are the practical tools that young people need in order to navigate the confusing world around them? How are you allowing young people to fail and make mistakes in safe ways? Do young people feel the freedom to ask tough questions in your context?

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