Yesterday I finished teaching one of my favorite courses – Discipleship and Vocation in Children, Youth and Family Ministry. Not a sexy title, and there are no gimmicks in the class. In fact, the class is pretty simple, it is about exploring Christian discipleship and vocation. In everyday language that translates into what does it means to be and live Christian? It’s about identity and way of life.
Now just because a course can be summarized in a sentence does not mean its subject matter is easy or simple. In fact, each week we gathered we discovered some things can be reduced to a simple statement, but putting such statements into conversation with our everyday experience is often complicated. Life is messy. There is brokenness and pain. People are selfish, and self-centered. The world is noisy and vying for our attention. But there is hope, and promise. We all do have a purpose, gifts and agency. And while there are BIG things in life to figure out, there are also little ways we can make a difference everyday. Knowing the basics can be really helpful. And having conversation partners along the journey really matters.
But there is another thing we discovered. Some of the ways we have been “doing” church (or at least practices those of us in the class grew up with) are not actually helping people get at what it means to BE Christian and LIVE Christian.
Perhaps that’s troubling news. It once was for me. But now my attention has shifted from being disappointed to being curious.
Why am I curious? Because I know, at least the way any gut knows things, many of our current ministry practices are not going away. In fact, many have a very long track record. Take worship, for example. It would be very surprising if worship suddenly became meaningless for Christians. Why? Because as I look back across time, I can’t think of one Christian community that didn’t exercise some worship practice. Does it look like the worship I am familiar with? No. But they drew on many of the same elements we do today. The same can be said of prayer and serving others and telling the Christian story. In addition, I think Christians are more open to asking questions these days. And I find that encouraging. Like the two-year old who wants to know why or the teenager trying to discover the deeper meaning of family practices, many Christians are hungry to know why congregations do what they do, and they are not content being passive participants. They want more, they not only what to know the meaning, they want participation to be meaningful.
So what does this mean for ministry? As I play with, and imagine, ministry in the years ahead, it seems more critical now to ground ministry in the basics of what it means to BE Christian and then help people discover how such an identity IMPACTS and SHAPES life. For preschoolers that might include reading stories about God’s people in the past, telling stories about Christians today and helping them wonder about what it will mean in their life. For adolescents it might be reminding them, day in and day out, that they are a child of God…loved as they are…gifted and capable, with the ability to make a difference in the world and impact the lives of those around them. For young adults it might include helping them form really good questions about life, and love, and relationships, and work, and the world. And it’s questions shaped out of an honesty about our limitations and selfish desires, yet full of possibility and with an eye to the future. It could include learning about prayer, as one prays, or engaging Scripture with an eye to the world and an eye to God, or serving others, not to fulfill our needs, but because someone else needs us to. And the list could go on.
Ministry today, for people raised in the church or new to the Christian faith, is both more basic…starting and ending at who we are as Christians…and more organic….in that it takes seriously the lived experiences and questions of each person and their communities.
This summer I turn 50. And, like many, am going to need to be reminded of who I am and what it means to live out of that identity in this time and place (and at this age). I hope the communities I am apart of will remind me of the basics, as they also join me on the journey. And I hope to do the same for them, curious and open to whatever the future brings.