YOUTH MINISTRY IS A MISNOMER, or at least it has become one. Youth ministry has, I am learning, become synonymous with “fun and games at church,” for that silo in the church where entertainment and snacks are provided for kids until they mature enough to sit through a real worship service, until they are able to hear those disillusioning words that “Man does not live on snacks alone.” And while many youth ministers start out with great ambitions, determined to provide a theologically rich, spiritually saturated service grounded in Scripture and tradition, their ambitions are soon met with fidgety kids showing early signs of SPW (Smart Phone Withdraw) and parents who are concerned because their kids have left the service without being fed, that is, because there were no snacks. Soon enough, all those faithful ambitions get weighed down with the pressures of students and parents alike with the result that they eventually get watered down with powdered donuts and other such pleasantries in the name of meeting the felt-needs of the families.
The church has a fancy word for this—contextualization—but there is a razor thin line between contextualizing and compromising when it comes to church ministry, precisely because there is an infinite line between the felt-needs of human beings and their actual needs. After the feeding of the 5,000 the crowds “tried to make [Jesus] king by force” when he met their felt-need of hunger (Jn. 6:15), but Jesus ran away. For they had sought him “not because of the sign, but because [they] ate the loaves and had [their] fill” (Jn. 6:26). Besides, there’s another word for a person who is made a king by force. The lord of our desires, if he is simply that, is merely the slave of our desires. But Jesus did not come to be the lord of our desires; he came to be the Lord of our lives.
I am suspicious of the doctor who asks me what medicine I prefer after giving me the diagnosis, even more of a doctor who asks me what I think about the diagnosis, but I frankly will walk out of the doctor’s office if he tells me nothing’s wrong. I’m dying. I know it. I don’t want to admit it, but beneath this insatiable appetite for pain killers and distractions, there is a deeper, constant ache that nothing seems to totally numb, that I’m desperate to hold at the distance of distraction. The author of Ecclesiastes speaks of eternity in the human heart (Ecc. 3:11), but that eternity does not feel like the divine but like the abyss. Shakespeare said that “the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.” The demands of felt-needs are in such high and constant demand because of the reality of the futility of the supply. We suffer from infinite heartache in a finite world, and that truth is as close to us as the breath in our lungs, but its solution seems as far from us as the last breath in Adam’s lungs.
And though our people don’t want to admit it, they know its there, deep down at the center. I know it’s there and knew it was there well before I believed there was an adequate supply. What I needed from Church was not more distraction and beating around the un-burning bush. I needed fire.
“Please don’t give me a pill or a nice, helpful therapy session. I want something new. I don’t want to leave unchanged. I don’t want to leave numb. Open up my chest if you need to. Does anyone have a heart to spare? Is there anyone who would sacrifice that much for this need?”
That is what I really thought.
“Here, have some Doritos and a couple Vicodin. See you next Sunday.”
That is what I really got.
The difference between contextualizing and compromising in church ministry, I believe, is this: compromising seeks to make the Gospel relevant to people, while faithful contextualizing seeks to make people relevant to the Gospel; compromising speaks the language of the people, while contextualizing does the same but does so in order to teach the people a new language, to teach them Good News. Jesus goes to people as they are, but he doesn’t leave them as they are. Jesus came for the sick as a doctor, not a patient (Mk. 2:17); to the captives as a liberator, not an inmate (Lk. 4:18), to the sinner as a sanctifier, not as Barabbas, offering grace on the other side of repentance (Lk. 5:32), offering a pure heart to broken sinners, and he calls them to live in accord with their new DNA. He came to contextualize, to be sure, but not to compromise, to meet our deepest need, even at the expense of our surface needs. “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” Yes. But she who has sinned, “Go and sin no more” (Jn. 8:7-11).
So in the wake of his first successful mega-church plant, Jesus tells his 5,000 member church that they have to “eat [his] flesh and drink [his] blood, because [they] have no life in [them]” (Jn. 6:53). He thereby grows his 5,000 member mega-church down to twelve, those who recognize that he “has the words of eternal life,” which are of course predicated on the words of imminent death. Jesus would rather build his church on twelve people in hospice than a multitude in congress–those few on the narrow who discover life only through death, innocence only through guilt, the good news only through the bad news–than help the multitude create a comfortable deathbed on which to die peacefully in their sleep…and remain in their sleep.
As such, I believe it is necessary among all the other activities of youth ministry, all the fun and games and Frito Lays, to have a designated time and place that has an air alienness to it, a time and place that does not seek to provide a seamless transition between culture and church, which inadvertently communicates that there is no difference between culture and church, but rather seeks rather ostentatiously to emphasize the seam, to say and do and expect things that are not intelligible to culture precisely because they are only intelligible to the Gospel, precisely because culture cannot offer them. This is the appropriate context for revelation, for the living God to reveal himself ever and again as his Gospel is heard for what it is and what it is not, where it is heard as something like news, that is, unheard everywhere else, so that it can be Good News, which is indeed unheard everywhere else.
So shouldn’t our worship gatherings seek first and foremost not to be familiar ground but sacred ground? Shouldn’t we seek to create a sacred time and place, when and where we can rehearse life in light of the reality of the Gospel, where we worship like the saints in Revelation, where we share in the holy Eucharist, where we regularly sit under the authority of the Word of God in an unabashed acknowledgment that Jesus is our Lord, not our “homeboy;” a time and place where we say and do and expect things that are only intelligible if it is true that this world is God’s world and that God is none other than the one who has revealed himself in the crucified and risen Christ, who is present and active by his Spirit in communities that gather in his name (Mt. 18:20) and cooperate with his mission (Mt. 28:16-20)? What am I missing? Where are my blindspots? Why isn’t this normative, why not the expectation? I’m bothered by my own self-doubt here, so I really am looking for a good reason to think otherwise. And if there are none, then I think repentance is necessary, and we need to get on with preparing our worship gatherings something like wedding rehearsals, where the community of believers dramatizes the reality of heaven in anticipation of heaven, almost as though heaven has already begun to break into this world, because heaven has already begun to break into this world (Matthew, Mark, Luke , John, Acts).