Good questions for the church – and from the church

What’s best for the church?” As a pastor I try to make decisions based on the best answer I can muster to that question. It’s one of the best and most important things my mentor and friend, the Rev. Linda Misewicz-Perconte, taught me. Seeing decisions through that lens helps me to keep the wider context in mind, helps me to remember we’re not just planning a worship experience or a youth retreat or a meeting for its own sake. We’re trying to help a community of people live a faithful, authentic life of faith. We’re trying to follow God in the Way of Jesus. We’re trying to further God’s Way of justice, peace, and love.*

While she doesn’t use that phrase, “doing what’s best for the church”, Dr. Terri Martinson Elton seems to me to be getting at a similar hope for the church in her post today. Dr. Elton, Director of the Center for First Third Ministry at Luther Seminary,** asks:

Church, will our interaction matter? To you or to us? Will our time together be meaningful?

As a pastor I very much want the time I spend with people in worship, in youth ministry, in meetings, in meals, in every way that we gather, to matter. The world is full of real people with real problems, real pain, real need. I believe the church can, should, and does have something to say to those real people, something to share with those real people. I’ve been known to ask of our congregation, “When, where, and how in the life of the church can we have deep conversations about things that matter?” Elton says it like this:

Can you give routine and ritual, not just keep me busy? Can you create space for meaningful conversation, not just surface chatter? Can you proclaim God’s good news in a world of cluttered messages in a way I can hear it? Can you tell me, again and again, I am a child of God loved as I am, even when I don’t feel loved? [read the rest]

I think we’re both striving for essentially the same thing: engaged people. People living as the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus in the world. Because that is what is best for the church: living for and with Jesus in the real world.

But, as I read Elton’s post, I sense that she thinks it is all up to the church to make interactions matter. Maybe I’m being too defensive here. Please, tell me if I am. I can’t help but think that it is a two-way street, that it takes both intentional church leaders and engaged parishioners to create space and fill it with meaningful conversation and action.

I absolutely agree that as a pastor it is incumbent upon me to create space where meaningful interactions can happen. But I need your help. My question for you: what are the roles and responsibilities of the people in all this?

*I fear sounding like a long-irrelevant ’60’s hippie phrasing my understanding of God’s Way like that. But I can’t help it. Those three things – justice, peace, and love – best describe who I understand God to be. They best describe what I understand the life of faith to be about. They best describe the Jesus I love and strive to follow.

**A couple of years ago I attended a youth ministry conference put on by First Third Ministry and JoPa Productions. It was a terrific event: innovative in the technology used, in the content presentation, and in its participatory spirit. I haven’t been to any other First Third Events, but I respect the work they do. (Full disclosure: Tony Jones, who makes up the Jo part of that company, is a friend and my D.Min cohort professor.)

Theological Dialogue on Youth Ministry #2

For me, what separated this conference from most all others I’ve attended in 15 years of ministry is how well the organizers knew their audience. I expect nothing less from Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Kenda Dean and Andrew Root, but still, it was refreshing to be told, “get up and leave the room when you need to. Go get coffee or take that call or chat wander and chat with other wanderers…we understand important things are happening outside this meeting space.” These things always happen anyway, might as well acknowledge them from the outset. Plus, we youth worker types tend to have trouble sitting still for long. Hey, what can I say? Sometimes stereotypes are based on truth. Or maybe that’s just me and I shouldn’t generalize.

Anyway, the really important way FirstThird demonstrated audience recognition was through all the many avenues for, well, dialogue. I mean, it was built right into the conference name after all.

Monday night the medium for dialogue was that staple of youth minister tricks from time immemorial: show a movie and then force ask those gathered to talk about it. I’d never heard of the documentary American Teen before that night. Now I can’t wait to show it to the parents of the youth in my church. It’s funny, poignant, honest and devastating.

A couple of money quotes (without giving away any spoilers, if such a thing is possible for a documentary. Which I think it is. Some of the discussion revolved around the film having too much editing in an attempt to force stories…but I’m getting ahead of my self. Back to quotes…)

“I wish life was more like video games because then I’d always get the girl,” says the Geek. Yes, the film is populated by stock characters – which provided much discussion fodder as well. As you might expect, the Geek gets most of the funny lines, including what has to be The Worst Thing to Say to Your Date Ever.

Hannah, the Rebel character, goes through the hardest ordeal in the film. But she also seemed most in touch with her hopes and dreams. “I want to do something that will touch people, that they’ll remember. I don’t wanna stay here and work some shit job. Going to Indiana [University] sounds awful. I wanna go to school in California and work in films.”

Parents get in on the act too. The Jock’s Dad serves up this gem “prepping” his son to play in front of college recruiters: “You better get 12 rebounds tomorrow night. Dad doesn’t have money for college, but you get 12 rebounds tomorrow and everything else falls into place.” No pressure though, thanks, Dad. Yeesh. In Dad’s defense, we learn early on that he is an Elvis impersonator. So it’s not like we’re expecting him to be a bastion of stability and good sense.

One more. This is from the Geek again, but it could have been said by any one of them. And was, I think, in one form or another at some point in the film. “I want somebody I can talk to; somebody I can be with and be who I really am.”

It seems to me that the main theme of this film is the search for identity and the search for belonging. I know, I know, that’s no major insight. After all, isn’t that just exactly what adolescence is all about? Of course. But that’s where the church can and should come in. The community of faith, the fellowship of the followers of God in the way of Jesus should have the best response for all the kids in this film: you belong here for in this place you will be welcomed as you are. In this place we see you as a beloved child of God, worthy of dignity and respect. And here we will help you draw close to God and help you hear God’s call on your life, a call to love God by loving others. Here, in this place, you can bring your despair because God meets us in our despair and transforms us, brings life out of that dead place. (See Andy, I was listening!)

That’s my dream for who and what the church should be for young people. For all people, for that matter.