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This week, youth pastor and blogger Jon Coombs helps us consider how we relfect on what we do from a theological perspective.

Theological reflection, the idea of being able to reflect on our experiences in life and ministry through the lens of faith, can often go missing in youth ministry. It takes effort to stop, think, and articulate what God might be doing within our own lives, let alone through the ministry we might be involved in. We can find ourselves more focused on ‘doing the program’, or ‘getting the task done’, than taking the time to reflect on the ways God seems to be working in our midst.

In my last post I outlined four reasons why you’re not wasting your education by seeking to work toward a rigorous theological degree for the purposes of youth ministry. If there was a fifth point, and possibly of highest priority, then this is it.

In the pastoral situations we find ourselves, and through ongoing work in youth groups, camps and retreats, God is at work. Often, we need to deal with the immediate, and this is the reality too. However, it is still important to step back from time to time and observe where God is working in the hearts and lives of our young people. We, as youth ministry practitioners, are able to highlight God’s work to our people, to our leaders, to the parents, and to the wider church.

In some respects, no formal theological training is necessary for this. After all, through the interaction of the Spirit, the Word of God, prayer, and listening to others, we are given the tools and ability to understand God’s divine action. Yet as it happens, the deeper training I took part in through my Master of Divinity degree taught me to be more reflective upon the way God works through his people. In learning more of God’s action through the Old and New Testaments, and his continued power through Church History, I’ve found my ability to reflect theologically strengthened.

Applying this to my local church setting, and particularly in the youth and young adult ministries I’m the leader of, I find I have to be intentional in asking the questions of myself and other leaders. Questions like, ‘Where did we see God at work tonight?’, ‘What seemed to connect to the hearts of our young people through the talk or discussion groups?’, and even ‘Did we have any significant conversations with others today?’. One could argue these questions aren’t particularly difficult; but in the context of seeking to observe God’s divine action they become meaningful, intentional, and important for the people of God to reflect on.

And so, if there is anything to take away from this post, and in combination with my previous one, then it is this: continue to do the work of God through the youth ministry opportunities you’re involved in and keep seeking to grow through the training opportunities you are able to undertake.

All the best.

Jon Coombs is the Associate Pastor for Youth & Young Adults at Rowville Baptist Church in Melbourne, Australia. For over 15 years he has been working with youth and young adults in churches, schools, mission agencies and not-for-profit organisations. He holds an MDiv from the Melbourne School of Theology and writes regularly at joncoombs.com. You can find and connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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This week, youth pastor and blogger Job Coombs shares his experience of being a Masters-level, theologically trained youth worker.

When working in youth ministry it doesn’t take long to realise that training is simply a must. In recent weeks Tim has been highlighting the need for more training within youth ministry, and I agree wholeheartedly. As someone who started out in ministry with absolutely no training, other than watching my Youth Pastors do their thing as I volunteered beside them, I am persuaded that the more training the better.

I started out in ministry in 2005 by heading to the Middle East to work in a school with the majority population. I was excited to be ‘on mission’, recognising my role as somewhat teacher, somewhat youth worker, and somewhat missionary. Within six months I knew it was time to get more training for ministry, and chose the Masters of Divinity (MDiv) program through my local theological college as a start. Now 15 years in, I’m more convinced than ever that the MDiv has provided me with a solid foundation for pastoral ministry to young people and the wider church.

It hasn’t been said to me explicitly, although perhaps in subtle undertones during conversation, but I gather there are some who would consider working in youth ministry with an MDiv a waste of money and education. You see, in my home country of Australia (and I believe it is the case in America as well) the MDiv is held up as the foundational theological degree for pastoral ministry. It is a degree which more than likely leads those who have one into a senior church leadership role soon after graduation. While this degree has been foundational for me, if I’m truly honest it didn’t teach me everything I needed to know for pastoral ministry, and really, who would expect it to?

There are aspects of this education, however, that have enabled me to be better equipped in my role in youth ministry. So here are four reasons how my degree has helped me for youth ministry.

First, it helps me to think clearly about Scripture

One of the main aspects to an MDiv is the deep dive into Scripture. Learning at a level that requires concentrated thought about various books of the Bible, and understanding the Old Testament and New testament as a comprehensive whole, has enabled me to think. I would never have investigated the various debates around authorship, textual criticism, or understood the progressive theological thought that has occurred through Christian history had I not undertaken this training. This, and more, has helped build up my understanding of God and his Word, while also providing helpful ways to think about Scripture and its interpretation.

We want our young people to understand and think clearly about Scripture as well. And so, the more I can understand that and (hopefully) teach it clearly to them, the more it provides an excellent foundation for youth ministry.

Second, it helps me deal with tough questions from teenagers

Everyone has questions, that’s part of life and part of wrestling with faith. Questions around good and evil, about God and who he is, about the world in which we live, about our own feelings and ideas, about sex, sexuality and relationships. During the teenage years and into young adulthood these questions come thick and fast.

Closely aligned to our first point is the ability to answer the tough questions with confidence. This is not answering questions because I know I am right; it is more the ability to think clearly and talk deeply about the questions teenagers have. These answers are to be wrestled with and taught through the lens of Scripture, and so with the biblical training provided through my degree I am able to answer more in line with God’s Word than I would otherwise.

Third, it helps me have confidence to teach, rebuke, correct and train others

2 Timothy 3:16-17 says,

“All scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, and that the man (person) of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (Christian Standard Bible)

There are times, whether it is in a Bible study, in a leaders meeting, or in a youth group talk where I may need to teach, rebuke, correct, or train others. Knowing more of Scripture, and being able to think clearly about it, provides a greater ability to do these things. I think of some of the youth talk drafts my leaders produce in the weeks leading up to being delivered at youth group. I have confidence, and I’d like to think my leaders have confidence in me too, that I can read through the talk and give good reasoning as to why there is the need for a change in language or understanding or theology. This is putting this verse into practice, and I guarantee my training has helped me with this.

Fourth, it helps me contribute to the wider church, not just a niche ministry

There is no doubt that some youth ministries and Youth Pastors are typecast. They are locked into their niche role and the wider church doesn’t truly see them as a pastor for the whole congregation. This is a shame.

I have found, possibly because of my education, that I am not viewed solely as the Youth Pastor but as one of the pastoral team. This could be unique to my church of course, but I suspect that because of the wider training I have, I can be a voice and make respected theological contributions to conversations the church is having. There is a sureness in my thinking and preaching because I am able to wrestle and converse with various aspects of Scripture. I’m not just seen as the guy who can run a good game of dodgeball and deliver a sex talk when needed.

These four points may not be the case for everyone, and I can’t say that working through the third semester of NT Greek was a particular joy! However, now seven years since graduation, the ongoing benefits of such foundational training are paying off. I’d encourage you not to view your training as a waste, because it never is. And I’d like to suggest you think about undertaking some rigorous academic study yourself and use it in your youth-focussed pastoral ministry.

Jon Coombs is the Associate Pastor for Youth & Young Adults at Rowville Baptist Church in Melbourne, Australia. For over 15 years he has been working with youth and young adults in churches, schools, mission agencies and not-for-profit organisations. He holds an MDiv from the Melbourne School of Theology and writes regularly at joncoombs.com. You can find and connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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This was first published on the IVP blog

One of the most memorable fairy tales from my childhood was ‘the princess and the pea’. The way I remember the story, an overly-entitled bratty millennial princess couldn’t get comfy enough to fall asleep, and so her wealthy, avocado-farming parents called upon every dashing bloke in her kingdom to fix it.

They tried specialised ear-plugs, whale song, white noise machines, hypnosis, and even narcotic massages. Eventually, however, they resorted to dumping her on a huge pile of old mattresses. The problem came to light when they discovered a tiny pea under her sheets. #middleclassproblems

An unhealthy team culture is very much like that pea. In the vastly rich landscape of leadership dynamics, the culture (that’s the tone or the mood) of a team may seem tiny and insignificant, and yet – left unaddressed – it will leave you awkward and unsettled. When projects aren’t working, you can almost always trace source of the problem back to an unhealthy team culture. Whatever else you try to fix in your leadership style or projects, the pea will remain an issue until you tackle it directly.

What is team culture?

Team culture is basically how the team ‘feels’ to be part of. What does it mean to belong to that team? What are the banter levels, how included do you feel, how easy is it to raise objections or provide ideas? All of this is subversively managed by the team culture. Some kind of culture will always develop in a team, the question is whether that culture will be healthy, and if it will genuinely serve the people involved.

Some team cultures are highly collaborative, with lots of opportunities given to develop ideas together. Others are more authoritarian, with a superhero leader driving the motivation. Some team cultures place a high value on initiative, giving each person a spot in the driving seat, whereas others place a high value on compliance, making sure everyone is pulling in the same direction without mismanaging resources. There is no ‘globally ideal’ culture, only the best fitting culture for the needs of a given context.

When a team culture works, you find much greater synergy between members, conflict resolution will be more natural, recruitment will be easier, and – for want of a better way of putting it – it will just ‘feel’ better. People need to belong in order to commit, and it’s much easier to belong in a healthy team than an unhealthy one.

When a team culture doesn’t work, the resulting traits include lethargy, apathy, a revolving door or short-term volunteers, an undercurrent of gossip, and possibly even safeguarding risks.

Starting to steer the health of culture

Team culture is organic rather than mechanical, which means it needs growing rather than building. Thus, intentionally cultivating a healthy and functional team culture should take real time and genuine patience. However, here are a few ideas to begin to steer the ship into the wind, and get your team culture going in a healthy, direction:

1. Communicate better

Volunteers need information in four main areas: what’s happening when and where; what’s expected of me; what’s the overarching purpose; and what’s the plan for my development? It’s your job to provide answers to these in a flow of communication that is clear without being bombarding. Consider the frequency of communication carefully, and gear the methods towards the people involved, not just your favourite app!

2. Resolve conflicts

Ignored conflicts don’t go away and dominating in conflicts creates stalemates. Learn healthy methods of conflict resolution and deal with problems appropriately, amicably and quickly.

3. Supervise

Find time to meet individually with each team member a few times a year over coffee. Ask direct questions about their struggles and fears, show specifically where they add value, and make a plan for their growth.

4. Train

A regular expectation for training helps team members stay teachable, while giving you a platform to directly address weaknesses in the projects.

5. Let socials be socials

It’s great to get together as team socially, but these pizza nights and bowling tournaments should be free from business. Don’t mix them with strategy meetings and use the time to informally propagate healthy relationships. When socials remain social, you should be able to more clearly define the purpose of your other meetings and stick to your agendas with greater focus.

6. Run briefings

Briefing for fifteen minutes before a project and debriefing afterwards can provide a weekly project with twenty-five hours of carefully facilitated team training and conversation a year. A quick check on who is doing what, how things went, and whether there any things that need to be watched out for provides both security for the team and objectivity for the projects.

7. Say thank you

Small cards, gifts, and quiet affirming conversations go a long way, as do annual public acknowledgments and prizes. Your team are valuable – make sure they know it!

Setting the tone for a healthy culture

All of these tips rely on you approaching your leadership position with your game face on. If you come to projects and meetings with a bad attitude, poor preparation, or a wildly different set of expectations for your team than they have, then it will bleed through like chocolate ice-cream in a sock. If your attitude stinks, so will your team culture.

It’s important to be authentic and genuine, but equally important to take your role as leader seriously. Be a servant, learn active listening, stay teachable, work hard, and trust Jesus. The rest will follow, and your team culture will thrive.

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This was first published here on the IVP blog.

When I was 14, one of my best friends was Daniel. I didn’t know Daniel was clinically depressed or that his random outbursts were actually early signs of bipolar disorder. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t normal that Daniel’s room only contained a mattress, a guitar and a pile of black hoodies. All I knew was he was fun and unique to be around, and that he had an unusually broad talent for music.

We drifted apart over the years, so it came as a huge shock to me when he was found in a flat, dead at age 23, after swallowing a mix of alcohol and methadone.

Daniel was a disruption to the classroom environment. He was always in trouble and – as far as I know – had no-one working with him to identify or work with his root causes. To me though, Daniel was just a mate who I’ll never see again.

I’d like to think that I’m a passionate advocate for mental health. At least I believe that we neither spend enough or research enough to develop treatment for those who really struggle.

The NHS says that one in four adults and one in ten children will experience mental health problems, however only a small amount of the NHS budget has been historically set aside for mental health research, diagnosis or treatment. This is getting better (£11.9 billion in 2017/18), but the waiting lists are still too long, and the medical opinions between departments are still too rampantly inconsistent.

Could we, as youth workers and as Church, develop programs that genuinely support young people with poor mental health? After all, this is not something we might encounter as youth workers; we will encounter it and we should be prepared.

This is a vast landscape, and anything we can do needs focus, so let’s start with what we are not.

1. We are not doctors

As mental health is dialled up to 11 in the media, and the – much-needed – mission to re-educate the public on its seriousness is highlighted, pop-psychology has been dialled up too, and genuine illnesses are in danger of being sensationalised as almost fashionable.

Some have become reactionary to basic terms and there are thousands of websites and videos where you can be ‘self-diagnosed’. Some of these are helpful, but many are not. With the internet being the shape it is, we have no way of knowing if the guy at the other end of the keyboard is an actual MD, or a college drop-out sitting on his parents’ couch with a can of Monster and ill-fitting pyjamas.

With this as our main source of information, and without medical training, we too could fall into to the trap of cavalierly ‘diagnosing’ young people with mental health conditions. Even if we have been through clinical treatment ourselves, we shouldn’t be telling kids what they do and don’t have as if we were trained experts.

We’re not psychologists, psychiatrists, key-workers, or mental health nurses. Our job is not treatment, it’s support. We should follow medical advice, and refer young people to professionals.
We should help them get the help they need, and sometimes that help is simply not us.

2. We are not them

Empathy is a powerful tool in ministry. Being able to legitimately say, ‘yes, I’ve been in that hole and I know the way out’ can be really helpful. However, assuming we understand a young person’s mental health just because we have had a similar experience is not always the best route to take. It can easily lead to unhealthy over-dependency at one end of the spectrum, or a blank wall of rejection at the other.

Every young person struggling with mental health is different. We should let young people speak freely about their own condition, and help us to understand what they need and how they like to talk about it.

Our job is to support each young person’s individual needs as best we can, and partner up with family, key-workers, teachers, and doctors to create a consistent experience of boundaries and support.

3. We are not alone

It’s easy to get frustrated by conditions that we can’t understand, but our job isn’t to fix young people – it’s to lead them to Jesus. There are few things that do this better than creating a safe place of love and security in our ministries.

We’re not in this alone. We live in the community of faith surrounded by quality, compassionate people who – when we truly serve each other – create a unique place of acceptance and healing.

As youth ministers, it’s important that we don’t hold burdens for young people alone. We should have accountability in place where we can debrief and share with a select group of trusted people. This could be pastors, line-managers, counsellors, or a network of other practitioners.

We also have the Holy Spirit living in us; the very presence of Jesus. We are not in this alone, and we can love as He first loved us, and create safe places for struggling young people. We should begin by trusting God, supporting each other, and from that place of strength – loving young people.

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Game of Thrones. Is it the gloves off, gruesome, grim and gristly opiate for the masses – or the fantastical story that grapples with the true complexities of human experience? Is it right for a Christian to watch it for entertainment, or perhaps missional research – or should they steer clear of it all-together?

Could this be a random cracking of the whip? Like Sabrina prompted last year, Deadpool three years ago, or Harry Potter ten plus years ago? It’s topics like these which become convergence points of fixation from both the heavy-grace (everything is permissible!) and heavy-law (not everything is beneficial!) extremes of the evangelical wings.

These debates create new heroes and villains, they scratch some deep itches, and they rehash the prohibition controversies from our protestant histories. They can also be quite sad.

We do love a good ‘what should we eat, drink, wear, watch, play, read, listen-to’ dispute, don’t we? I wonder if we would just get bored without them – what would we do without a pointy wedge issue on what we should consume? Paul said, ‘do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink’ (Col. 2:16), and Jesus said, ‘do not be anxious… is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?’ (Mt. 6:25). It’s almost as if they knew, go figure.

Without these debates, we might have to actually talk about Jesus more directly, which oddly makes us squirm just a little more than is entirely decent.

The gauntlet

A few weeks ago, British Youth for Christ National Director Neil O’Boyle wrote a post on relativism and our media consumption titled ‘why youth workers shouldn’t be watching Game of Thrones’ (GoT). The big take away was to respect the enormous amount of responsibility that comes when leading young people. It’s all too easy for them to take our actions as their permissions.

That’s a hard-hitting challenge that needs to be grappled with at every level of leadership. That’s the responsibility that any parent or leading adult has for the development of young people. Neil said:

‘I’m sure by now I have jarred you. I didn’t mean to. I guess all I’m asking as influencers and culture setters is: Are we inconsistent? And are our inconsistencies unhelpful to a younger person’s walk with Jesus?’

Even if we’re someone who likes to binge-watch Baywatch while chain-smoking – tell me we heard that? We want to fiercely pursue holiness and invite young people to join us on that journey, even if it means giving up something that we like. What Christian among us really wants to challenge this idea – isn’t sacrifice and humility at the very centre of our faith after all?

Cards on the table – I know Neil. I’m one of the 50-80 youth workers he mentioned in that article that benefits directly from his rich experience and considered example. Full disclosure: I think Neil is a ledge.

Sure, Neil’s article didn’t solidly settle in too many places. It was, after all, a gentle challenge on a hugely sticky topic. I’m suspicious that the title was actually an editorial addition, rather than Neil’s original? (Correct me if I’m wrong, Emily!). I think this is really unfortunate as that title colours the whole post, and it changes the way it reads – especially if you already have a strong opinion on the show.

The reaction

In response, Youth and Student Pastor, Alan Gault essentially wrote what is known in journalism as ‘a takedown piece’ in order to counter Neil’s view. It was a little blunt. If all I had got to go on was the tone of the two pieces, then I’d warm to Neil’s and recoil from Alan’s. The real issue though is that Alan’s article didn’t grapple with that central gut-hitting challenge from Neil about our inconsistency.

Instead, Alan reached around Neil, and clung to the title ‘why a Christian shouldn’t…’ Alan said, ‘I find the majority of reasons given by Neil to have their own problems and I find his blanket ban unnecessary.’ Which reasons and what ban? Other than the title, GoT is only mentioned once in Neil’s article, and just as an example of a much wider issue.

Alan battled a monstrous, legislative ‘They’, and caricatured Neil (as representing this force) as putting down a ‘blanket ban’ rather than carefully considering what he really wrote.

Relativism is a cultural phenomenon which goes far beyond simple moral subjectivity. Neil was calling us to consider our example to those we lead in the middle of such a vulnerable and uncertain culture. This wasn’t legislative, it was, however, a deliberate challenge.

I believe that Alan wrote a reaction to a strawman, rather than a response to an idea. It may have galvanised the GoT-loving side of the fence, and rattled those who abstain, but I don’t think it promoted any real dialogue outside the respective echo chambers.

As Christians we need to talk and listen to each other with generosity. Without this there’s no edification or building one another up in Christ happening at all. Before we get to the content then, let’s start with respecting that we’ll know each other in heaven, and disagreements should come with brotherly affection.

The thing behind the thing

What’s a shame about this is that I think Alan was on to something. Once you concede he wasn’t really responding to Neil, there were some real nuggets of gold in his post.

Alan was trying to make us think about grace. We can’t legislate people into the Kingdom, nor can we set strict universal boundaries over our growth – especially when triggers may be very different for different people. Alan reminded us about the wildly varied contexts that are involved in individual walks, the complexities of messy lives, and the primacy of the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the changing of those lives. He encouraged us to think upon the Jesus who hung out with the dregs of society. Fab! This too deserves to be grappled with, and I imagine Neil would heartily nod along with all of these things.

If Alan focused on these pieces and wrote that post convincingly, I think it might have added to the conversation here – and iron would have had a chance to sharpen iron. He didn’t, however, and it hasn’t.

What was the problem?

For me, the main issue is I think Alan’s post accidentally cheapened the Bible in favour of entertainment. I’m sure he’d be horrified that I thought that but let me explain.

Alan identified passages in the Bible that contain explicit and graphic sex and violence. He said we shouldn’t, therefore, use sex and violence alone as a reason not to watch similar content in GoT. Some of these passages were implied rather than graphic (Noah and his son from Gen. 9:18-27), and others were metaphoric rather than explicit (Song of Songs throughout). None of them were qualified or discussed and all of them needed to be given in context.

If I was marking Alan’s post as an undergrad theology paper (which it wasn’t), then I would push him quite hard on proof-texting. He selected a group of somewhat random passages that contain what he said was gratuitous sex and violence and then presented them together with false cohesion.

Ek. 23:20, for instance, needs to be read in light of Ek. 14-23: The storyline is the adulterous woman (Israel) and the lover (God) against adulterous lovers (other nations), the issue being idolatry and worship (23:49). Song of Solomon is a dramatic and intimate exploration of the love of God and the worship of His people. The Conquering of Canaan sits in a context of God’s promises to Moses and Abraham, against idol-worshipping pagan nations. The David and Bathsheba story needs to be approached in tension with Ps. 51 and 2 Sam. 12. All of these passages need to be read while keeping the Bible’s full perspective of heaven and redemption in mind. This is the unique worldview of the Bible lived out in the person of Jesus who we aspire to in all our choices today. This is not the general worldview of TV.

You can’t, therefore, just pluck stories out of the Bible for containing similar ideas, ignore the original contexts, group them together indiscriminately, and then present them as a whole to justify today’s consumption choices. That’s hermeneutically naughty! *Slaps wrist.*

Then there’s the logical issue with the argument.

Even if we grant the premise (the Bible is full of [unqualified] stories of gratuitous sex and violence), the conclusion doesn’t then follow.

I once had a young person use exactly this same argument including some of the very same Bible references to explain why it was ok for him to watch pornography. This is unfortunately what happens when you draw too straight a line between two very different things like the Bible and TV. Philosophers call this the fallacy of false equivalence.

For the argument to work as presented, we would need to assume that reading and viewing are the same thing and that both would affect people in the same way. We would need to assume the acts of sex and violence are treated in the same way in both the Bible and GoT and then assume that Paul’s call to purity (Eph. 5:3) along with Jesus’ call to holiness (Mt. 5:28) doesn’t directly apply to those racy and brutal Bible stories. Putting that another way, we would need to isolate those verses from the wider voice of the Bible. We would probably need to assume that there’s no real distinction between art and history as well. Mostly though, I think we would need to assume that both the Bible and GoT were made by the same type of creator with the same kind of purpose.

The issue here is not elevating GoT to the same place as the Bible, but rather depreciating the Bible to be comparable with GoT. This is the Word of God – it’s not just another piece of media. They are simply not comparable.

Sex and violence in the Bible are not enough to warrant viewing sex and violence for entertainment today.

Isn’t everything permissible?

Alan misquoted 1 Cor. 6 as saying ‘everything is permissible, but not everything is helpful.’ We can’t get at him too much, however, because almost everyone misquotes Paul here! What’s missing is the quote marks, but oh boy do they make a difference.

Paul is playing devil’s advocate by slightly sarcastically pseudo-quoting his Corinthian reader saying ‘hey, but I’m saved by grace, so I can do whatev, right? Who are you to tell me no?’

The examples Paul gives for this are cheating someone (v.7, 10), wrongdoing (9), sexual immorality and promiscuity (9, 18-20), stealing, getting drunk, and mocking (10). Because of these things church members were taking legal action against each other (1-6) and the terrible result was increasing division (vv.1-6, 7, 14-16).

On one side of the division there was a misapplication of grace and on the other a misapplication of law. Paul was directly addressing the issues on the first side in the beginning of his pseudo-quote, ‘everything is permissible’. It might just as well read, ‘Hey, I can steal, get drunk, and mock people, right? Who are you to tell me no?’

Alan said ‘is watching Game of Thrones permissible? Yes! Is it helpful? That is for you to figure out’. Is that a legitimate way of using this passage? Only as much as saying something like ‘is murder permissible? Yes! Is it helpful?’ A murderer isn’t barred from the Kingdom of God, but that doesn’t mean crack on.

Using a devil’s advocate quote of Paul as a propositional way for us to measure our consumption choices is altogether the opposite of what Paul was trying to do.

Yes, it’s about grace, but it’s about holiness too. The word ‘helpful’ here (συμφέρει) is exactly the same word used by Jesus in Matt. 5:29 when he tells us that it’s better (more helpful) to pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands if they could possibly cause us to sin. Thinking about Neil’s original post, it’s also the same word used in Matt. 18:6, when Jesus said it would be better (more helpful) for us to be drowned than cause a ‘little one’ to sin.

And there’s the point. What standard do we set for holiness, and what things will we sacrifice for it? Is it permissible? Sure – in the broadest possible way in that it won’t block the gate to heaven. But does it ultimately bring glory to God, unity to His church, and provide a consistent standard to His children? Do our actions – including what we watch on TV – bring the waveforms of our hearts more in line with God’s, or do they clash? Do our habits resonate with or detract from the strength and clarity of our full-throated pursuit of worship? This is the truer reading of 1 Cor. 6.

So…. can a Christian watch GoT?

I wouldn’t and I don’t. I know my issues and my temptations and by spending two minutes on IMDB Parent’s Guide I decided that it wouldn’t be good for me. I love fantastical fiction, but I decided to take a pass on this. My wife, however, is a whole other person and – although she doesn’t watch it either – her own set of triggers and values would be different to mine and these would inform her differently too. I don’t want to be overly prescriptive, therefore, although I would take some convincing that watching GoT would be actively helpful for a Christian’s walk with God. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone legally too young to watch it, which would be most of my young people.

I don’t imagine it’s an easy watch for a Christian, or a helpful watch for pursuing purity, although I concede it’s probably entertaining and interesting. I think it’s always worth asking the question: can I worship God with this? I think, in fact, that there are a few much better questions to ask than ‘should you’? (You can read an old article of mine on ChurchLeaders about this here), and we could converse together over this and other topics much better than we do.

As British Telecom famously said: It’s good to talk.

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This post was first published on Premier Christianity. See the original here.

Tim Gough urges church leaders to resist the temptation to outsource all the youth work to their youth pastors

Dear Pastor,

It’s your job to minister to young people.

Since the close of the Second World War your duty of care over the spiritual well-being of young people has been siphoned off, segregated out, and surrendered to the biblically fictional role of the “Youth Pastor.”

A youth pastor’s calling is not examined with the same level of scrutiny as yours probably was; they get a job, you get ordained. Youth ministry training is often missing the depths of theological grounding you likely had. Youth pastors are not so frequently exposed to the wide and complex tapestry of human experience as you. Finally (and frankly), youth pastors don’t tend to last all that long.

They need you.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in youth ministry. I am in fact one of these youth pastors – so please don’t fire me! However, the Bible tells me that the best ministry breaks down walls, crosses boundaries, dismantles segregation, and reaches across the gap. The desire for this is crucial to the definition of church, and it cannot be done without unifying figures.

In the Bible the spiritual care of young people is the purview of the entire worshipping body of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:1-9, cf. 5:1). Today that’s the church, and (under God) you have spiritual oversight of this body. In the same way that you don’t have segregated pastors for every homogenous people group in the church, you shouldn’t just dump young people at the door of the youth pastor. You can’t drop the grenade and run; there are consequences.

Since the 1940s ‘church’ and ‘youth’ (as if they were meant to be separate things) have grown further and further apart, and I believe that as a direct result, both are now waning. These young people are your young people. If you cut off your arm and place it in a box 20 feet away, then – once the twitching stops – neither you nor that arm are going to function particularly well again. There’ll be blood, bad feelings… it would suck.

We need your pastoral oversight and your birds-eye view of the development of the whole church family. We need you to honour the calling you were given. And frankly, you need our energy, innovation, risk-taking nature, and unparalleled ability to connect with the pace of culture. We need each other.

I believe in youth ministry and, as with all ministry, it’s best as a collaborative and community-driven effort, intrinsically one with the rest of the church. It’s also about Jesus, and not about us. It’s self-sacrificial, servant-hearted, and counter-cultural.

We don’t need any more lone-ranger rock-star youth pastors with God complexes and edgy haircuts

Youth ministry was never meant to be run by isolated superstar heroes in their own sequestered ecosystems and echo chambers. We don’t need any more lone-ranger rock-star youth pastors with God complexes and edgy haircuts – but we also don’t need any more bumbling and blissfully ignorant pastors without any clue about what is happening with a huge swath of their congregation.

Let me ask you an honest question or two: How much do you know about the content and methods of spiritual formation happening in your church’s youth ministry? How many individual young people in your community can you intelligently talk about? How many of them know your name? 

Now, it’s ok. Don’t panic – I’m not trying to get at you, and I know you’re not prepared for this. I’ve spent the last year touring Bible Colleges across the UK talking about it. I know youth ministry wasn’t part of your ‘mainstream’ pastoral education, but we can fix this together!

You don’t need a set of skinny jeans or oversized neon sunglasses. We’re not asking you to start organising our nerf battles or – heaven forbid – our lock ins. And we definitely don’t want you to try and ‘be down wiv da kids… bruv!’ We don’t need just another one of us, we need you, and we need you to be more attentive, invested, and directly involved – as yourself.

Let’s start with some obvious easy steps: attend some youth project sessions, read some youth ministry handbooks, and ask lots and lots of questions. Be curious and alert. Don’t be a jerk, but don’t be afraid to challenge and provoke either. These are God’s people under your care, including the youth pastor. Speaking of which, start meeting more regularly with your youth pastor to do mutual training with each other and collaborative thinking together.

Together, start designing growth pathways that take your congregation members from infanthood to adulthood. Map out maturity journeys that cross generational gaps. Pioneer missional projects with joined-up thinking from across the age spectrums.

Our youth ministries are disappearing and our jobs are vanishing. We’re reaching out to you because we need you to step up and take responsibility for the healing of the whole body. ‘Youth’ and ‘church’ need to be one thing again.

Use us as specialists – believe me we’re worth every penny (in fact we’re worth more than we’re paid) – but please don’t indiscriminately hand over a significant chunk of your pastoral responsibility to us. We can share in pastoral care, but we defer to you as pastor.

That’s you, bucko, so don’t let us down. Our young people need you. God has called you for such a time and purpose as this.

Thanks,

Tim

This post was first published on Premier Christianity. See the original here.

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A couple of years ago I conducted an informal survey of fifty-seven full-time youth ministers who considered themselves to be ‘incarnational’ in their approach. 66.7% of them gave out their personal phone number to young people, and 52.6% gave their personal address. Of these 59.6% said they did not give any boundaries for when a young person could contact them. One respondent said he had an open-door policy: ‘For the most part, our door stays unlocked and they know they have the freedom to come in even if we are not home.’

This post is all about the practical dangers with those incarnational methods.

As the discussion so far has had a theological focus, it seemed unwise to give too much space to the practical implications in the middle of the previous posts. As with all poor theology, however, poor practice is sure to follow.

Outlining the practical issues Unchecked openness

Going back to the survey I mentioned at the beginning, this open door and always on assumption in youth ministry clashes mightily with the need for healthy boundaries. Forgetting for a second that we’re neither God nor parents, what is the realistic risk-reward of making ourselves potential targets of dependency while burning out in the process?

This is exactly the kind of openness that is cautioned against by person-centered therapists, precisely because of the boundaries it rejects and dependency it creates. Modern councilors are  trained to look for these signs so they won’t be this unaccountably open. We might in fact be surprised that a lot of what is specifically suggested by incarnational youth ministry is flatly rejected in modern counseling theory.

I think this might just be this one of the key reasons that many youth workers burnout and most don’t last past one contract, and I’m not alone.

Burnout

Renfro in Perspectives on family ministry says the reason youth workers burnout is ‘because our ministry models are fundamentally flawed’ (2009:10). Bertrand and Hearlson in Relationships, personalism, and Andrew Root, agree saying incarnational youth ministry ‘sets up problems of intimacy between unequal partners and exacerbates the problem of youth worker burnout’ (2013:50).

Todd Billings (who we’ve talked about in previous parts) draws a straight line more specifically between poor incarnational theology and practical complications. He says

Yet because they take the Incarnation as their “model” of ministry, these evangelicals often assume that they—rather than the Holy Spirit—make Christ present in the world… “you and I may be the only Jesus that others will ever meet” …The burden of incarnation—and revelation—is on the shoulders of the individuals. Such a theology often leads to burnout (2012:60).

Pete Ward in Youthwork and the mission of God does address this somewhat, saying that the worker needs to learn to help young people become independent of them (1997:66). Darren Pollock, however, was unconvinced and in The church’s mission to youth, he criticised Ward directly saying his leader-centric model was still likely ‘to foster burnout among leaders’ (2014:299).

Dr. Andrew Root goes further and says we are to us to indwell or inhabit the pain of another so completely that it becomes our own (Revisiting relational youth ministry, 2007:129-130). He calls this ‘place-sharing’. I wrote to Dr. Root about this and he responded saying ‘you can only be a place-sharer to about 5 young people.’ Isn’t empathizing at this complete level this with even just one person dangerous? This is especially true when that one person is at completely a different stage of life and when the openness (according to Root) should go both ways. This is a recipe for burnout for sure, but also quite close to a text book definition of abuse: When two unequal parties share their own respective weights of experience and pain and needs, what will happen to the ‘weaker’ party?

Blurred lines at home

Herein lies the problem with an unchecked incarnational model of youth ministry. It has an inherent mugginess of boundaries that creates a lot of potentially unsafe situations.

You don’t want to argue with a family member at two in the morning, because you’ll both say things you don’t mean. Always being on is something parents do for a set number of years and they make a lot of mistakes, as we all know.

That close family relationship, all-warts exposed, cannot extend to twenty-some young people twenty-four hours a day. It’s a recipe for the happening of terrible things — and it also sets a precedent for those young people. We might be inadvertently teaching them to fall into unsafe behaviours and practices with other people in their lives who perhaps they shouldn’t trust.

Safeguarding concerns

While always being open to young people is a drain on health and family, robbing the worker of their effectiveness, it also creates safeguarding vulnerabilities. Being alone on the phone to a young person at all hours, having them come into the house alone, regularly meeting in quiet spaces, and prolonged private conversations can create unhealthy levels of dependency and exclusivity. Things are easily misconstrued in concealed spaces, especially with hurting and vulnerable young people.

Personal boundaries and healthy safeguarding practices are necessities for today’s youth worker to be in their post for years to come. Longevity demands healthy practice and accountability – things that are often neglected by incarnational models of youth ministry.

An ‘always on’ youth worker is a ‘sometimes off’ husband, or a ‘partially available mum’, or ‘too busy doing ministry’ dad. We really need another way.

So, Tim, you don’t like incarnational youth ministry?

Why, no. No, I don’t. I don’t think it’s theologically grounded, logically consistent, biblically sound, or practically helpful. I think as a theory it has a lot to answer for, and that we as the next generation of youth leaders need to move away from it.

I know ‘incarnational’ is unwritten into our methods. For some of us it feels part of our blood, it’s become a key part of our ministry identity. I don’t want – in any way – for this to pull the rug out from someone’s feet.

There’s goodness to retain, therefore. We might want to consider renaming our approach as relational-contextual­ rather than incarnational, rediscover the importance of proclamation – even without having foundational relationships – and create a wider base of ministry that happens outside of our purview and inside our boundaries.

I think burnout is a main reason youth ministers don’t last long, and that one of the reasons for this is our oppressive links to incarnational theory. Let’s be more sensible, more theologically grounded, and more spiritually helpful. We can still be incredibly compassionate without giving ourselves up to the worlds of young people.

Let’s do better folks.

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Here we are at day 4 of Incarnational youth ministry week on YouthWorkHacks. Part 1 checked out the basics, Part 2 dug into the terms, Part 3 looked at the Bible, and today – Part 4 – we’re looking at the wider doctrine. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with some more practical things to think about.

Onto the doctrine then!

The Incarnation is primarily a unique work of God. It is not one that we are actually directly instructed to imitate because realistically to do so would be idolatry. We can work with it and even learn from it, but we can’t dress up in it like a onesie or a superhero costume.

A historic doctrine

Although history provides many theological interpretations of the Incarnation, we’re going to spend time now on what is widely accepted as the orthodox position. This is the unwritten view of the Incarnation that has been supported by the creeds most widely used across mainstream denominations.

Back in 325 AD and 451 AD, respective councils at Nicaea and Chalcedon met to debate what the Incarnation really was. They poured over the Bible together, debated for hours, and then arrived at two of our most important creeds. These two creeds have been used to establish orthodoxy ever since.

Digging into these creeds we find six essential aspects of the Incarnation. If you remove one of them, the doctrine collapses, and if you significantly over or underemphasise one of them, then the doctrine gets a serious dent. It would be enough to fail an MOT.

Let’s look at the six of the pieces in turn, then check out a little diagram that I made (and am excessively proud of).

Pre-existence

The Son existed in eternity as the second person of the Trinity before he was ‘enfleshed’ in Jesus. He ‘was’ before he was Jesus.

For Jesus to be Incarnate, it was important that He existed first. In fact, under a wider religious view of incarnation, it’s actually impossible to become incarnate at all without pre-existing in some form first.

In Heb. 1, where the divinity of Jesus is emphasised, there is a solid and unmissable affirmation of the pre-existence of Jesus. He existed in eternity before He was incarnate in the flesh.

Hypostatic union

Now there is a fabulous term to throw out at parties!

A central discussion at both the council of Nicaea and Chalcedon was on how Jesus could be presented as one hypostasis (substance) between God and human. How could He be both?

It’s a bit complicated in the details, but what the creeds are saying here is that Jesus was both divine and human – at the very same time. It’s like being both fully wet and fully dry – at the same time. Yea, I can’t do it either! That’s kinda the point though.

In the person of Jesus, the fullness of God (Col. 1:15) dwelt in human form (Jn. 1:1-18). Two complete, distinct persons, fully united in one ‘hypostasis’. Neat eh?

Humility

Athanasius of Alexandria (an absolutely early legend) said, ‘the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world’ (318, 1993:33).

Commentator Ben Witherington says ‘Jesus’ greatest temptation was to push the “God button,” to draw on his divine nature in a fashion that obliterated his true humanity’ (Witherington, 2016:125). That’s an awesome quote! Phil. 2:5-11 teaches that Jesus, the pre-existent God, humbled himself to both human reality and ultimately death.

Phew! Humility is not just how low can you make yourself, it’s from how high did you start off. This is why it’s more impressive when a tall guy limbos! We cannot full grasp the level of Jesus’ humility, because we began nowhere near his great height.

Atonement

Ok. Big one now! Jesus came to save us, and He needed to be both human and God for this to work:

As human, Jesus was the required sacrifice for the human condition of sin (2 Cor. 5:21). He was a human solution to a human problem. If He was just human – even a perfect one – then He would only be able to pay the price of one other human. This is where His epic God-ness comes in.

As God, Jesus was able to become both perfect sacrificial lamb (Lev. 16) and mediating High Priest (Heb. 4:14-18). This made His sacrifice eternal! It worked for all of potential humanity in the one event of the cross (Heb. 10:1-18; 2 Pt. 3:18).

‘For Athanasius… Jesus’ atoning death was the central purpose of the incarnation; the immortal Son of God needed to become man to die’ (Athanasius, 318, 1993:35, cf.:26; also check out Steve Jeffery, Ovey and Sach in Pierced for our Transgressions, 2007:172).

Eschatology

Here’s another fun party word. So, Adam was the assumed head of humanity being the first born of creation. Jesus, however, has become the new head of humanity being the first born of the new creation. Where Adam sucked, Jesus got it right (Rom. 5).

The Incarnation makes Jesus the undisputed King of the world, baby.

Jeffery says ‘The Son became incarnate in order to bring completion to creation. For God intended his creation to be ruled by a perfect human being, and without such a ruler creation is incomplete, lacking, defective’ (Pierced for our Transgressions, 133).

Revelation

Last but not least, Revelation.

Revelation is the translation of God to His creation, both primarily as the ultimate or ‘true’ human to humanity, and secondarily as a 1st Century Aramaic-Jew living in that particular culture. He is the true ‘Word of God’ (Jn. 1) that has been ultimately spoken in these ‘last days’ (Heb.1).

This piece is a really important part of the puzzle, but it is not the whole picture of the Incarnation. Let’s summarise these six points in a diagram before we move back to the point, which is incarnational youth ministry.

So, what’s your point, Tim?

My point is that the incarnational theory of youth ministry misses five out of six aspects of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and seriously dilutes the sixth. That’s like 85% of the doctrine bypassed! Gaaarraggghhhhh!!  *cough*… sorry. It’s not that they always miss these in other areas of discussion, but they don’t come up when talking about the Incarnation.

Most of these aspects can only work if you happen to be God. They are unique, divine, and saving actions that cannot be emulated by humans. We don’t save right?

The incarnation primarily is a unique aspect of God. Saying that we incarnate into culture like Jesus incarnated into culture is to take one very small part of the Incarnation, ignore all the others, and then make it the whole – and then its twist what remains slightly to be about us rather than Him.

This is why it’s a big deal. It’s taking a tyre off a car then trying to fit it to a bicycle and that calling that a ‘car’.

I’m happy to say something like, ‘when God was Incarnate in Jesus, He was contextualised to a specific Aramaic-Jewish culture, so we too must consider how to contextualise into other cultures.’ That’s fine. I’m also happy to say something like ‘when God was Incarnate in Jesus, He became a relatable human being, so we to must focus on building relationships with those we serve.’ But I’m not happy to call what we do ‘Incarnational’.

When using any foundational doctrine as a basis for praxis, we should always ask whether the praxis flows healthily from the original doctrine without confusing or diminishing it. Incarnational theory uses one small part, morphs it into a thing we primarily do, then completely bypasses the other aspects of the doctrine.

My big big problem here – other than the fact that we keep thinking of the Incarnation through the lens of incarnational theory and thus diluting who Jesus is and what He did is… no, wait. That is the big problem. Let’s not do that any more.

Photo by Clint Adair on Unsplash
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Welcome back to Incarnational youth ministry week. We looked at the definition in Part 1, and we unpacked the importance of the meaning of the word in Part 2. Tomorrow we’ll dig deeper doctrinally, and on Friday we’ll look some of the practical dangers with some incarnational methods.

Today we’re looking at the Bible! Woohoo!

Quick caveat. I’ve had a message from someone who was a little upset with my tone on the previous Part. I’m really sorry! I guess I came across like a bit of a know-it-all. Totally not my intention. Those of you who know me know that I hate upsetting anyone. I don’t mean to come across poor, but I do want to be clear that I think this is a really really deep problem. I really think that this needs to be challenged because it does represent a Gospel issue that cuts to the center of who Jesus is and why He came. My caveat is please trust my heart is motivated by desire to help youth ministry and honour Jesus. We’re in this together. Back to Part 3.

What we can tell from method

Incarnational theory sounds theological, not just because of the word, but because of the texts that – at least at first glance – seem to back it up.

As with any theological issue, the problem stems from how we interact with the Bible. As is endemic in youth ministry culture, I think that the problems arise from a general lack of confidence in, and competence with handling the Bible itself.

How someone uses the Bible itself should be a key indicator of the surety of their theological conclusions. What this part is intending to do is gently poke at the exegetical methods used in incarnational theory to answer the question does the Bible really support it?

Throughout the youth ministry volumes that advocate for incarnational youth ministry, three passages of Scripture are used almost exclusively: Jn. 1; Phil. 2; and 1 Cor. 9. These are all used sparingly and, honestly, in some cases just very poorly.

Before we move on to look at these verses specifically, we should stop for a moment and consider which passages are often (if not usually) used in theological discussions about the Incarnation. Sorry about list, but Ex. 25:8; Is. 7:14; Mic. 5:2; Mal. 3:1-5; Matt. 1:18-23; 3:17; 17:5; Mk. 1:24; 10:17-18; Jn. 5:18; 6:29; Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-14; 20:28; Rev. 19:11-13 all are seen by systematic theologians to be significant passages in the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Now I know that systematic theology and youth work books are different genres, but when a theorist of any stripe appeals to a well known and particular doctrine for their practice, then technically they are doing systematic theology. This is especially true if they take the same name and describe the practice as the same thing.

There are many staple Bible verses (including all those above) that incarnational youth ministry theorists don’t use at all. I don’t expect youth work books to use all relevant passages, but I think the selective way they have picked their verses is a little telling. It’s almost like they had a point ready to go, and then looked for verses that fit it – rather than the other way around.

That said, I’m not sure the verses they’ve picked actually do always support the points they make. I think their idea is too easily read into the verses, rather than derived from them. Let’s have a look.

John 1

Almost every Incarnational writer that I read (in both youth ministry and contemporary missiology) used The Message version of verse 14, which says Jesus ‘moved into the neighbourhood’ (for instance Dean Borgman, Agenda for Youth Ministry, 1998:10, and Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 2006:131).

I’m actually a fan of the Message and this is absolutely a helpful interpretation at one level, but it’s also quite misleading and limiting at another. It is a partial interpretation of the whole, focusing on just one piece of the doctrine of the Incarnation. There are several other important aspects of the Incarnation spoken about in Jn. 1, but they get missed by this translation, and as such are all but left ignored by most of the writers I looked at.

A much better example would be Dr. Sally Nash, for instance, who uses the Message and also does a good job with the verse (as you’d expect) by pointing to the LXX to discuss the etymology of the word ‘incarnation’ as sarx egeneto (becoming flesh) (What Theology for Youth Work, 2007:13). This was a good read, but doesn’t unfortunately go beyond this revelation idea. Mostly, I assume, because of the limitations of only having 9000 words to work with.

Liz Edrington (a Young Life worker) also does a better job, spending 150 words opening both the divine and human side of the incarnation from vv.1-18. This was the most I’ve seen written about the verse in a youth ministry book, and a rare breath air of theological engagement (in Gospel Driven Youth Ministry, 2016:69-75). Her good work on the verse, however, was then not then used to formulate her conclusions. She looked closely at the text, then left it behind. Her summary was God empathised with humanity, which she called ‘presence sharing’. She then said that we are called to do likewise. This is a case of the conclusion not flowing out from the exegesis – or putting the cart before the horse.

I found very little actual textual engagement in any incarnational theorist beyond mere allusions to a purely cultural mission that we could then emulate.

You could summarise almost every discussion of this passage in incarnational books with the following line: Jesus became a relatable human, immersing himself specifically in 1st century Jewish-Aramaic culture… go therefore and do likewise to various cultures today. Todd Billings, after attending an incarnational training day, put it this way,

‘If moving into the neighbourhood and immersing oneself among the people is God’s strategy for ministry, I was told, then certainly it must be ours… But there was apparently no need to mention Jesus any further’ (Billings, Incarnational Ministry in Christianity Today, 2012:60).

In contrast, Jim Packer, when looking at the same passage on the same topic, works through each section sequentially, relating it to the broader context of John and the wider doctrine of the Incarnation. He showed actual exegesis. This resulted in a clear textual understanding of the incarnation before any applications were made (Knowing God, 1973:62).

It should be very difficult to come away from Jn. 1 without a clear sense of the uniqueness of Jesus as the Word, both eternal and creator (M. Driscoll and G. Breshears, Doctrine, 2010:212-214). Incarnational youth ministry advocates unfortunately pass over both of these aspects in their rush to make it about what we should do instead.

Making what Jesus does in Jn. 1 primarily about what we should do today is just a little bit weird. We do feature in Jn. 1, but as His creation (v.2), needing His light (vv.4, 9), and made to be His children through faith (vv.11-13). Jesus is our way of knowing God (vv.1, 7, 14, 18) and our place in this story is to believe in God by accepting Jesus. It’s not that we can’t learn from the life of Jesus, of course we can, but to focus on that in Jn. 1 and miss all the pieces about who Jesus is as our faith-given way to salvation is a tragic misreading of the passage.

Philippians 2

Packer again gives a good example of what handling the Bible carefully should look like Knowing God, 64-65). He draws Phil. 2 out exegetically to demonstrate the Christology of Jesus, as divine and born to die, drawing a straight line from the complete uniqueness of Jesus to the atonement won by His death.

This was a ‘loving act of humility’ (S. Jeffery, M. Ovey, & A. Sach, Pierced for our transgressions, 2007:133), but one which is made to show Jesus’ headship over creation by demonstrating perfect obedience to the Father (135).

Incarnational youth ministry advocates (for instance Andy Borgman, When kumbaya is not enough, 1997:xv), however, don’t spend any time on the salvation aspects of this passage.

That’s a significant oversight considering it’s the central part of the passage. Instead Borgman (and many others) used it solely as a blueprint for our own humility and work today. Using Phil. 2 without mentioning salvation won through Jesus, however, is missing the very core of its message.

Quoting this verse Pete Ward says, ‘in doing these things we will actually be doing exactly the same thing Jesus did when he became a human being’ (Liquid Church, 1992:31). No, we won’t. Not really anyway, there are aspects that we will be doing a little bit like Him would be fair, but the central place of salvation (and the central point of this passage) belongs to Jesus alone.

Billings reminds us that our place in Phil. 2:1-11 ‘means displaying a life of service, obedience, and harmony in Christ—not imitating the act of incarnation’ (2012:61).

1 Corinthians 9

This is another verse that is thrown into the mix without any real unpacking or discussion on the central ideas it contains (again, Borgman, 1997:30-31). Sometimes, things were even added to the verse to make it say it’s about us today. Steve Gerali, for instance, uses the verse by adding a likewise clause, drawing a straight line from what Paul did to what we should do, without any explanation of why. He says

‘In 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, Paul addressed what it means to become like. Paul became a student of the community and culture of those that he was trying to reach. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (v.22). Our goal is to become all things to all adolescents so that we might reach them.’ (Gerali in Starting right: thinking theologically about youth ministry, 2001:286).

In the very next chapter Paul unpacks exactly what this looks like, and it is largely about being full of grace and patience, and communicating clearly. It is not about indiscriminately immersing himself in the culture or becoming just like a teenagers to reach teenagers.

At one level that’s really unhelpful and could even be dangerous – what, for instance, would you do if you would needed to sin to enter into a particualr culture? What if you needed to flaunt safeguarding policy? At another level, however, it’s just creepy – teenagers aren’t looking for adults who dress like kids and can quote box sets, they’re looking for deep authenticity and genuine realism.

This verse is often used as scriptural basis for the accommodation principle – meaning to ‘oblige or adjust oneself to another’ (K. Creasy-Dean in Starting right: thinking theologically about youth ministry 2001:74). Richter says

‘Youth ministry must be guided by this accommodation principle. We must not expect teenagers to bear the primary burden of accommodating themselves to our agenda, schedule, and program design.’ (Richter in Starting right: thinking theologically about youth ministry, 2001:75).

The problem here is twofold. First, as A. Thiselton explains, accommodation is poor translation of the verse (1 Corinthians, 2000:706), and moves too far from the context of engaging people from a specific religious and socio-political spectrum (703-707). Second, it seems that accommodating oneself to God’s agenda is precisely what humans are called to do when accepting salvation.

There’s goodness in here, but I’m not convinced it flows out form the verse, and making it do so adds obligatory weight to our practice making muddy our boundaries. More on this in Part 5.

What does the Bible say?

To decide if something is theologically sound, we start by asking if it’s biblically grounded. To find out if something is biblically grounded we need to do more than bounce off heavily interpreted proof-texts. We need to grapple with their original meanings.

Through this exploration of the key verses used by incarnational youth ministers, we see that the Bible-reading method is to proof-text and then apply, with very little discussion or explanation of the texts in their contexts first. Exegesis is not just found wanting, it’s almost entirely absent.

I’m not saying you need to be a Bible scholar to write practically or even theologically, but all of us should start by giving more respect to the passages themselves if we’re going to use them. If, however, we are going to appropriate significant theological terms (like Incarnation), then we set ourselves up to be biblically robust.

In no case can we detect serious theological misinterpretations within the usage of these passages,  there are, however, some very serious omissions, especially in regard to who Jesus is and how He saves.

Tomorrow we will draw this out in more detail.

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