WORDS: “Youth Group” vs. “Student Ministries”

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“Youth Group” vs. “Student Ministries”

Right now we’re making some changes at the church where I work, including the language we use to talk about our ministry to and with teenagers. When I was in high school, I loved “youth group.” We got together at least twice a week, played games and learned about faith. We had a name for our group, dabbled with a logo, and when you brought a friend to church you were inviting them to “youth group.”

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But without meaning to, the way we spoke about our ministry to teens communicated something to outsiders. Our language created an unspoken and unintended boundary that outsiders had to cross. We had defined ourselves as a group with the language we used for ourselves, and for an outsider, you were immediately placed outside of this unspoken group, until you crossed some unspoken boundary that made you “one of us.” A similar boundary exists even when we refer to our group with a specific brand or logo or ministry name. It becomes something I am either in or out of, in the midst of an adolescent world that is obsessed with identity and belonging.

“Student ministry” conveys a different image, and an image that, for teenagers who already feel excluded from church and society, is a needed an appealing way of thinking of ministry to teenagers. Whereas “youth group” suggests both an age limitation and a defined set of people, “student ministry” suggests both learning and action.

To be a student is to be learning and growing. And while the focus of our “student ministries” is on adolescence, it’s not limited to that age group. “Youth group” communicates an age-defined set: a group of young people. Yet the deeper reality is that working with adolescents as a leader will cause YOU to learn and grow perhaps even more than it will cause students to grow. For many, helping with the student ministry of the church is the first step toward leading in other ministries. If you can successfully lead a small group of sixth grade boys, you can lead anyone anywhere. So the “student” of “student ministries” is about teens; but beyond that, it’s about being a place where anyone can come to learn and grow and be challenged and equipped to lead in other places.

Referring to what we as a church do for our adolescents as “ministries” rather than as a “group” is even more important than whether we refer to them as “students” or “youth.” As long as what we do for our teens is defined as “youth group,” our language communicates that what we do only happens as long as we are gathered as a group. I can choose to join the “youth group.” I don’t “go to youth group” when I am getting ice cream with my small group leader and talking about life. But when we refer to what we do as “student ministries,” it becomes less about our group and more about what we are doing, in big ways and small ways, to connect our students with God and with His community. You never “go to student ministries;” you are taking part in student ministries. It implies direction, action, purpose. And it’s open for interpretation as to who is doing the ministering. Our small group leaders lead the charge in our “student ministries,” connecting with and mentoring our adolescents in the faith. But our students also engage their friends and their world on mission, sharing their story and living out God’s kingdom. It is a ministry of and for adults and students together, seeking the same thing.

The words we use matter. And the language we choose to speak of things that matter shapes our perception and our understanding of those things. The message of inclusion and direction within the language of “student ministries,” for adolescents in the midst of massive and confusing changes in their lives, is too valuable to pass up.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! What language barriers have you wrestled with in ministry?

Lent: Maundy Thursday in Woodbury

Lent

I finally picked back up in season three of The Walking Dead, and as I’ve continued reflections during Lent and now Holy Week, season three is blowing my mind in a ton of ways. Spoiler alert: I’m through the mid-season finale, so if you’re catching up like me and aren’t quite there yet, wait to read on.

As I write this it’s late Maundy Thursday. According to the church calendar, this is the night where the Last Supper takes place, where Jesus, having all authority, lets go of all power, washes his enemy’s feet, and is willingly arrested. Tonight is the beginning of the end.

Knowing this, on top of just how enthralling the show is in it’s own right, I haven’t been able to stop watching tonight. Episodes 5 and 6 were in my opinion the best of the show to this point. And in them, I’ve never seen a clearer portrayal of the two ways of life presented in the Passion narrative: the way of power and the way of suffering.

Two Ways

The Way of Power
On the one hand, there is the man known as simply “The Governor.” He rules his Romanesque town of Woodbury with a cunning tongue and the pretense of civility. Yet behind his silver tongue and civilized town standards lies a tyrant who seeks to gain power over death. The experiments on the dead and dying to understand what makes people turn, the propaganda of honorable deaths that were actually murders, and even the Colossieum in which the Walkers – the embodiment of death – are used as violent entertainment; the way of power, the way of Empire, is to manipulate death to maintain control.

This was seen most clearly in the Gladiator game in Episode 5. Walkers, the image of death itself, are turned into a way of entertainment, of pleasing the masses, and of indoctrinating them into believing that there is nothing to fear. What Andrea, who was formerly in another eay, describes as “barbaric,” the Governor describes the games as simply a “way to blow off steam.” The way of power controls death for its own ends and purposes, a means to manipulate and dominate people into submission.

Yet as the Colossiuem game concludes, we return immediately to the prison, where we are met with Daryl leaving a flower at a grave. There is another way, a way in which death returns us to who we truly are, in the full weight and glory of our humanity.

The Way of Suffering
As we are being introduced to Woodbury, we are also mourning the loss of Lori through the eyes of Rick. This is Rick’s first true experience with the death of a loved one (Shane, while still close, was Rick’s choice). While the way of power laughs and cheers at death, the way of suffering enters into it. Rick literally and figuratively descends into the “tombs” of the prison (as some characters have described the lower cells), his will broken as he finally comes to grips with his own inability to control life. He wrestles with the embodiment of death to the heart of the tomb, where he faces the one responsible, in a way, for taking his wife’s life. Where Lori was pregnant with new life, this Walker is pregnant with death.

In the heart of the tomb, a phone rings; an omniscient outside voice offers hope. Lingering in the room where his greatest suffering took place, with the walker who stole his wife just a few feet away, Rick must confront and embrace his suffering. In voicing the reality of his pain and acknowledging his inability to control and prevent death, Rick finds redemption. He emerges from death to embrace new life in his daughter Judith. (Judith, interestingly enough, is the heroine from the non-canonical Book of Judith, who used her weak position as a widow to gain access to and overthrow the tyrannical leader of Israel’s oppressors).

The Way of Jesus
And then we have Jesus, who this night, in the face of the Empire, willingly lays down his life, embracing death. At the hands of the Romans, and the “governor” Pontius Pilate, he makes no protest, but willingly enters into death. And, in embracing suffering and death, Jesus emerges from the Tomb carrying with Him new life.

The way of power was what people expected, all the way up until His arrest; Peter swings his sword before Jesus reprimands him: “those who use the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

The way of suffering is the way of Jesus. And it is the way we who follow Jesus must take as well. Paul, quoting the earliest of church creeds, would put it this way:

“Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.”

Lent: The Walking Dead II

Lent

In my last post, I made the claim that the underlying question posed by The Walking Dead is this: What does it mean to be human? Over and over again, faced with death at every turn, the main characters (the true “walking dead”) must maintain their humanity when the world has twisted and is twisting the answer to that question.

Near the end of the first season, a group of survivors makes their way to the CDC, assuming that they will find a cure or, at the very least, some answers as to why bodies are coming back to life. The only answers they get come from a solitary scientist and a brain scan of a victim. The scene is oddly spiritual, as the light of human life – “everything that you are, and everything would be” as Jenner puts it – provides the only light for the dark room.

Jenner never says that those neural impulses or firing synapses ARE life, only that “somewhere in them” is life. Rather than defining this in a deterministic, naturalistic kind of way, that which is human is somewhere in all of that light. It is this light which goes dark,  leaving only flesh and instinct to drive the walkers.

Whatever this light is, it separates the humans from the walkers. Those of us who accept the viability of a spiritual dimension of life might even go so far as to call this the soul. But the underlying premise, and the partial answer this episode provides, is that there is something more than flesh and blood to being human. Whether that is called the soul or the “something in the synapses,” whatever it is, it is not physical.

And this is why the gore and violence of the walkers is so important to the show. The antagonists of the show’s plot, the walkers are all body, to a greatly exaggerated extent. Some may see this as just a grab at the shock value for the sake of ratings, but I’m of the persuasion that writers do things with more intention than we usually give them credit for. Where nearly every walker is killed in some bloody, ridiculous way, the deaths of the human protagonists are (with a few exceptions) almost understated in their violence and gore. Throughout the show, the walkers serve as a foil to the humans, their presence serving to reveal the true nature of the main characters.

In their extreme gore, they draw us to consider that the death of a human character is somehow different than the “death” of a walker. Their intense physicality contrasts with the spirituality of the relationships and life of the main characters. In hyping the gore, the writers have actually shown us that we are more than our bodies and more than our instincts. We are spiritual. And what becomes of our souls when faced with the pursuit of death becomes the central driving question for the main characters of the show.

And for us. As we consider Lent, and embrace our mortality, what will we allow our souls to become? As we embrace the bodily nature of our spirituality through fasting and penitence, we are reminded that we are more than flesh and blood, and that we are in need of a spiritual resurrection just as much as we are in need of a physical resurrection.

Lent: The Walking Dead

LentI’m mildly obsessed with The Walking Dead lately.

I’ve never been one for scary movies or suspense thrillers, but after a group of friends coerced me into watching Night of the Living Dead last Halloween I haven’t found zombies to be quite as terrifying. So I tuned into a random episode of The Walking Dead back in November out of curiosity. Hooked, I’ve since gone back and watched it from the beginning, and have gotten as far as Netflix will allow me. If you know where I can catch old episodes of Season 3, please let me know.

Working my way through The Walking Dead during Lent has been a fascinating experience. The thematic push of the show and the reflective focus of Lent run parallel  While I wouldn’t go so far as to call watching The Walking Dead a Lenten discipline, it has served to highlight the universal need for the serious reflection on mortality that Lent is designed to inspire.

What does it mean to be human? This seems to be the central and underlying question of the show. When the lines between life and death are blurred, and dead bodies get up and walk, what is it that separates these animated bodies from the essential human character that was known and loved by friends and family? The answer it seems is surprisingly spiritual for a show known for its blood and guts.

The characters in the show are in a very literal way being chased by death. The walkers in the show are not the main characters, nor are they the “walking dead” of the show’s title; they only serve to act as a foil, highlighting the remaining humanity in those who still live. The focus is on those few remaining humans who have, so far, escaped death at the hands of death embodied, and who are wrestling with their impending demise, their belief in God, and their need for one another. They are always dodging death, frequently losing loved ones, questioning the meaning of life with death so certain. And, as it was revealed late in the second season, the problem is not only death out there, but also death within each of us.

Daily reminders of mortality, facing questions of life and death and God, needing a community for meaning and safety, dealing with death around us and within us? Sounds a lot like Lent. More thoughts to come…

Lent: Rest

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I’m terrible at resting.

Not sleeping. I think I’ve got that down. But taking the time to stop and just be, or just close my eyes and breathe, is hard.

The caffeine headaches finally wore off this past weekend. They weren’t as intense or as long lasting as I had anticipated. I was struck, however, by just how difficult it was to be fully present with others. Fluorescent lights and loud noises have become my enemies.

While the headaches have worn away, I’m still adjusting to getting through a day caffeine-free. If you had asked me a few months ago whether caffeine affected me, I would have laughed and said no, citing my late-nite coffee intake and relatively stable sleep patterns. But now close to a week free of caffeine, I’m finding myself dead tired at odd times, falling asleep reading, going to bed earlier.

I don’t do well with not doing things – just sitting and being still, allowing myself to take a nap, going for a walk for no reason other than I can. Even when I’m sick, I feel a need to accomplish something. I’ve always got a list in my head of things I need to do, and rest is rarely on the agenda.

I wonder if this pressing need to accomplish something is universal. Perhaps we spend billions on coffee and energy drinks to give us enough to get through our overworked days, all in hopes that we might accomplish something beyond ourselves, somehow validating our existence and giving us an edge in the world.

Lent, then, is about crushing our belief that we are validated by our accomplishments. In sacrificing and fasting we are reminded of just how weak we are, and just how much we need life and purpose and resurrection from somewhere or someone outside of ourselves. We acknowledge and embrace the death of all our good intentions with the imposition of ashes, and enter a time where our fasting pains bring to the forefront of our lives the longing for validation and acceptance we have been filling with menial achievements in the rat race of life. We rest from our striving after God and man’s acceptance, knowing that resurrection is coming.

So I rest, knowing that the world will not end while my eyes are shut, because the world isn’t in my hands to begin with.

Lent: Ashes

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Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday.

I knew Lent before I knew Ash Wednesday, but now that I know Ash Wednesday, Lent is all the more meaningful. Every year, I find myself returning to T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name. As I read it this morning, I was reminded of the nature of the season through Eliot’s stammering exploration of religious experience:

“This is the time of tension between dying and birth”

As I noted in yesterday’s post, I’ve been challenged to give up coffee, of all things. It’s not the first time someone has pointed out my incredible addiction to the stuff. But as I’ve reflected on the past year, I came to the conclusion that this would be the most meaningful discipline for a number of reasons. Lent is a teacher, and as I consider what 40 days without coffee means, I see at least three lessons I need to learn:

Before I can receive the gift of new life, I must first embrace death.

The imposition of ashes is my identification with my own inability to conjure up the righteousness and joy that are required. These aren’t your fireplace ashes. Last year’s palm branches, waved in joyful celebration to welcome Christ, have been kept and have slowly faded and wilted over the year, in the same way our lives and faith have faded since singing of resurrection power just shy of a year ago. We need resurrection again.
My response when I was first challenged to give up coffee was, “No way! I would die.” Coffee gets me going in the morning, keeps me going in the afternoon, and helps me finish the day at night. It’s not a terribly hard sacrifice compared to many, but the fact that my initial response assumes coffee is vital to my life points to a need for reevaluation, a reevaluation this Lent season will provide.

I need to embrace my dependency as a created being.

Lent is about reminding ourselves that we are not God. As we enter our fast and the pains of hunger, the desire for chocolate, or the headaches of caffeine-free living, we are reminded that our bodies are finite, and that we, along with creation, are dependent on God for life.
How often do I turn to coffee to get me through an early morning, a drab afternoon, or the after-effects of a late night? Rather than accepting my limitations and my need for rest, another cup offers me a level of immortality which God never intended. Over and over again, God commands Sabbath rest, a reminder of Israel’s complete dependence on God. Without coffee, I am left to the strength which God gives each day, and nothing more. Whatever else my day requires beyond that, I must learn to leave in God’s hands.

I need to experience longing.

Lent culminates with Easter, when our fast is broken and we now return to those things we’ve missed. For Israel, even though they didn’t get it, Christ was the fulfillment of all for which they longed. For humanity, Christ’s resurrection brought new life to our world and our bodies wracked with death. As Paul writes in Romans, all creation groans for redemption, awaiting that day when resurrected life is made manifest in its fullest. John would finish his apocalypse with a cry of longing for this to be true.
It’s been less than a day and the headache is already growing. As I drove past my usual Starbucks this morning, I wanted to stop and experience the warm embrace of the Green Lady. I enjoy coffee as much as I’m addicted to it, and as I long for the day when my headache ceases and I can sit down with a book and some coffee, I am reminded that I must even more so long for embrace of Christ, and pray and watch for that day.

I wasn’t able to join in a corporate observance of this day, but as I end my day in prayer, I join in the prayer of the Church for the start of this season:

  Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the
earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our
mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is
only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

 

Lent: Before We Begin

Lent

Growing up, I was the kid who always benefited the most from the season of Lent. Every Friday my Catholic friends in high school, in a moment of weakness, would pick up a few pieces of pepperoni pizza or a cheeseburger, only to remember their Lenten fast just in time for me to show them Christlike grace by taking their sin upon me into my stomach. In my mind, Lent was another way those Catholics tried to earn salvation, one of their many misguided “works of the Law” from which Christ came to set us Protestants free.

I’m approaching my third year of observing the season of Lent. Through a small community of believers in a tiny urban church in Springfield, Ohio, I discovered the beauty and symbolism of the ashes and the liturgy and the season. Contrary to the guilty faces of my peers passing me pizza in high school, the ash-covered faces of these believers were reflective, even joyful. This was a time with a purpose, a time to be trained and to be reminded of who were we made to be, and how we are still in need of remaking. A time when our bodies can tell us the truth and teach us to be who we were made to be. A time for returning and remembering, a time to embrace death so that we can receive life.

My first year was full of good intentions and failures. Last year I gave up social media… sort of. Taking an online class which required some use of social media was a convenient excuse to check out a few status updates, like a few photos, and by Passion Week I had forgotten all about my Ash Wednesday intentions.

This year I have decided to fast from coffee and to take up consistent times of journaling and reflection. I hope to share some of my experience here, both as an outlet for my own reflection and to avoid becoming isolated in my introspection during the season. The thought of giving up coffee, knowing how addicted I am to it, makes me very nervous. But I’ll discuss that later.

Others have explained the beauty and purpose of this season far better than I could. Tim Gombis, my former professor and one of those who introduced me to this season during our time together at Midtown, has written on the way that Lent trains us to be Christian here. Mockingbird has a piece here correcting the false belief that Lent is an exercise in asceticism and futile piety; rather Lent allows us to embrace our helpless position and prepare for the gift of life that is on its way.

Tomorrow I’ll talk more about coffee. For now, I’ll leave with a verse and enjoy my last cup.


“Who will rescue me from this body of death? 
Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

jesus | student ministries | creating | coffee

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