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We struggle with youth ministry. And I say this not because of all the youth who are leaving the church. I say this because when I look at young adults, I see people who have been drenched with theology which are really harmful, in my humble opinion. We’ve sent our kids to 11 years of Sunday school, and if you’re in a super congregation, 11 years of whichever other youth activities, sometimes amounting to 3 events a week, and after 11 years they are stuck with theology which are really harmful. And here we are, me and you, and probably we’ve been through this process as well.

I get my confirmation class last year, and they are somewhat terrified of challenging God. But then they dig into Genesis since they have to make a sermon from it, they struggle with the narrative of Jacob fighting the man and then being told that he has fought with God (Gen 32). The theme of there sermon by the end of the year was that people may challenge God and ask God questions. And this isn’t some wild and wonderful insight. This is the tradition we’ve been in, but which we seem to be suppressing through the models we present to kids in youth ministry.

This year they get into the confirmation class, absolutely sure that God is on our side and not to be found with anyone whom ain’t a Christian. So we were reading 1 John 4. And we read it again. And we are still reading it, and then sharing what we see. And it’s challenging the popular theology that we were fed for so long in school openings, classrooms, CSA meetings, Sunday schools, and also church.

The task of youth ministry should then be to get youth to play, to fiddle, with God, or at least ideas about God, in such a way that they can grow up to have useful skills in doing theology in their daily lives – this meaning that they can bring the resources concerning God into conversation with that which face them in their lives.

I remember one comment from a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago distinctly. I cannot remember what we talked about, but one phrase has stuck with me ever since: “We are more middle-class than Christian”. It was a critique that I could work with. Even though it was a critique that I realized has drastic implications for my own personal life. And I agree with what he said. Sometimes we are more middle-class than Christian. Our actions are shaped more strongly by our economic position than our religious identity.

But thinking back on my experiences of church as a kid, being middle-class (or rich) was not an all-encompassing identity in our congregation. Although the critique that the Dutch Reformed church is mostly a middle-class church would probably have held for the congregation I grew up in, we had some poor people in the congregation.

I remember one lady who always attended church with her kids. Her husband didn’t make life easy for her, and even as a young teen I knew that she really struggled. She was really poor. I know that I could sense the discomfort in her involvement in the congregation, people didn’t really know what to do with her, but she was there. Year in, year out. And she was involved with the congregation.

Maybe an even stronger memory was from the kids that was in my youth group whom I sometimes got to know, and sometimes even had the opportunity of visiting there homes. The one was the neighbor of the above mentioned woman. I remember walking into the small pre-fab home she shared with a father and sister, and there was nothing in the living room. Not a single piece of furniture.

Those who were truly poor were a minority. The poor mostly attended other congregations. But at least I can remember sharing faith with some poor people.

My friends comment isn’t that difficult to find in our churches really. I guess we don’t really change anything after recognizing this, but I’ve heard similar thoughts in other places. Sometimes our denomination would be described as a middle-class church, and it would be generally accepted, sometimes as something inevitable, sometimes as something that should change.

But I’ve never (or at least outside of a small group of people focusing on this specific issue) hear anyone saying: “We are more white than Christian”. Yet,whiteness was the most-shared characteristic among those attending the congregation in which I grew up in. Not middle-class, not Reformed, not even Christian (and I’m talking about people understanding themselves as Christian, not making judgments on what “real Christians” would look like) was as common a mark as being white. We were primarily a white congregation, above all else. We had diverse sexual orientations (although not admitted at that stage), diverse spiritualities, diverse theological presuppositions, diverse income-groups, we even had people who weren’t 1st language Afrikaans speakers (very few, but they were there), but all of us were white. That characteristic was primary. (Let me just make a note that I grew up in a very small town, which probably caused the congregation to be even more diverse, since you didn’t have the wide variety of specializing congregations, and closed suburbs, that my current city context offers)

It’s 2010, and in most places this has not changed much. So I want to suggest that if I want to understand my own church. The one I grew up in, even the one I’m currently attending and pastoring, and the denomination I’m part of, I should start by understanding it as a white church. I am part of a white church. And if for us anything is more dominant that being Christian, then it must be being white.

A few weeks ago a group of church leaders from the Congo visited our congregation. They could speak only French, so we had to work through an interpreted. Over lunch I shared the table with about 8 of them and the interpreted, and we started asking each other questions concerning church and theology. At one point one of the Congolese pastors said that he noted that our church was only white, and wanted to know how that was. I started my answer with the first phrase: “I am sorry, we are wrong”. I stopped so that the interpreted could translate, and would then have gone on to explain some of the complexities I experienced around race in South Africa, and why I think our church, as a white church, is still struggling to live that which I firmly believe is part of the heart of the gospel.

The interpreter had a doctorate in theology, although he has left the field of theology for business. He was also from the Congo, but has been in South Africa for about 20 years or so now. He refused to translate my answer. He reprimanded me, saying that I should say that I’m sorry, and went on to explain, and from what I could hear, justify the white congregation which I pastor. I felt betrayed. I didn’t want him to tell me  not to say sorry. I don’t experience deep feelings of guilt over pastoring a white congregation, but I need the space to acknowledge that this is not the will of God, and the space to honestly struggle with working through our past, and creating  a new world through this congregation (really a long term task I know, but one that we need to be busy with).

Then yesterday I read Eusebius McKaiser’s article on Antjie Krog and Rian Malan. He talks about an “embarrassing Krog-like yearning to be black”, critiquing Krog’s use of “begging”. Although he appreciates Krog’s acknowledgement of the continued privilege of being white, in contrast to Krog’s attempt to rather make blackness a stronger part of her identity, he seem to prefer the strong sense of “unqualified entitlement to speak” found in the likes of Malan. I realized today that I had a similar experience from McKaizer that I had with the interpreted. They both would seem to be very forgiving of our past, and both call for strong white perspectives to be raised withour the “sorry” and the serious quest to become part of an inter-racial community where we not only participate in the public of our democracy, but also in the private world of inter-racial relationships, and developing a culture more in sync with Africa. I know many white people crave this kind of legitimizing of being white from a black voice, and I also know that it could be seen as taking the moral high ground in racial relations, but still it doesn’t seem to be helping me along on my own quest.

What does however help me is black colleagues opening their hearts and homes to me in a space where I can be honest and be friends. Where I can talk about my perceptions about black people (and I experience them to also appreciate that they can talk about how they experience white people), where I can honestly say that I’m sorry, and these words can lie on the table without me needing to feel guilty, but where they know that my honest struggle with my own past require that I need to verbalize the fact that I am sorry. This is the space where I can be white, and acknowledge being white, while at the same time seriously taking on Krog’s struggle to decenter some of the white constructions in myself, and one way of doing this is by learning from black constructions. The words of the interpreter, and that of McKaizer, feels like they are taking away my chance of deconstructing my own whiteness. And if they take away the opportunity to say sorry from me, and take away the change to decenter my whiteness, to become African, I feel like they are in a way telling me that I’m not allowed to work through the emotions and thoughts that I currently experience as a white man in Africa working to become a white African.

I had these two pictures in my sermon yesterday, and asked the congregation to recognize them.

I wondered whether anyone would recognize the first. But within a few guesses one of the high-school girls had it: Auschwitz.

Later the second was shown. But no matter what, no one could recognize this. My colleague, had to point it out: The Apartheidmuseum.

We seriously need to get in touch with our own history…

I started out my theological training 6 years ago with the sole intention of being the worlds greatest youth pastor. OK, so theological training has a way of taking ideas like becoming the “greatest”anything out of you, which is a good thing. Theological training also opened up the world for me, and over the years my eyes was opened to know that there is more to ministry than youth, and more to following Jesus than ministry.

I still remained involved with youth camps all through my studies, but since June 2007 I’m back into youth ministry. The challenges has changed since I was at school, or maybe all the years of theology just opened my eyes to a world more complex than I thought, opened my eyes to all the kids who don’t care for what we youth ministers are doing. But OK, I’ve been back for a year, and I’m slowly starting to find my feet again, I think.

I found this quote a few days ago in a book I use frequently when planning camps, well, actually I use it much less nowadays, because I practically know it by heart by now. But I printed this quote in 2005 and pasted it into the front of the book:

I look back over my years in ministry and ask what has actually helped people change and deepen spiritually: (1) youth retreats, (2) short-term mission trips, (3) some small groups (I say some – others were a waste of time), (4) many one-to-one relationships, (5) getting people involved leading something or serving somewhere.

It’s from A New Kind of Christian, p122. Maybe I need to do some checks more ofter, to see how much of my time I spend on these activities, and how much on keeping kids busy.

Must add though, I just got back from an AMAZING conversation with one of the young leaders in our congregation. She is roundabout 15, and we talked theology, I explained the worldview of Biblical writers, the process in which the Bible came into being, how it was canonized, and most importantly how I see Jesus. Great conversation, she is currently reading The Secret Message of Jesus. Remember the post of a few days ago? Well, I think today might have been part of the reaction to it.

A question: What books would you recommend for high school kids? I’ve been realizing lately that most books I read I’m either not comfortable with, or I fear they are too complicated. Blue Like Jazz is a good idea, but what else?

I’ve heard the arguments about curricula in Sunday school and youth programs over and over again. Honestly, I’m not very interested in them, and usually I just get myself out of them with the sharpwitted (or maybe not so much) comment that a good teacher or leader with a bad Sunday school book will still have a great group, while, for a bad youth leader you can give any book or material you like, and the group would still fail. OK, I’m aware that there might be exceptions to this, but you get the point.

But still, I’ve been thinking about what we are supposed to do in our youth groups lately. The two sides of the argument is usually: (1) should we address issues from the context of our youth, or (2) should we teach theology. In our church this usually mean an argument between: “we should address topics like friends, parents, drugs, drinking etc”, and “we should teach the teachings and dogmas of the church, the creeds and the Bible”. A compromised is then often found by saying that we should teach the Bible stories to kids, and address life issued with teens. And obviously you always have the smart people who claim that you should do both.

In a number of conversations with young people I’ve been shocked the past months by the total lack of theology in our young kids. They don’t have the tools to articulate their faith in God, neither to make God part of everyday life. When they talk about faith it’s usually by using slogans learned from some guru, or otherwise with words like “sin”, “faith”, “convert” etc of which they have no idea what it means. They fall for creationism, crazy ideas about demonology, and every charismatic revivalist preacher that’s new to the block. Now, don’t get me wrong. This is beautiful young Christians I’m talking about. People I trust to be leaders at camps, and who even sometimes give me hope for the church. But I fear for their faith when crisis strikes, and I fear that their lives will become compartmentalized, because they don’t know how to integrate faith and life, something which a good doze of theology might have helped with.

So, where common logic taught us not to discuss theology with kids, because it might just rock the boat, or because it’s not cool, and they aren’t interested, I’m becoming more and more convinced that we need to discuss theology, deep deep theology! with our youth. We need to help them to think about faith, give them tools to integrate faith with everyday life. Gavin again brought this thought into my head, reminding me of the fact that our society have become so outcomes based that we forgot that we need to learn because we can. And really, oughtn’t the task of the church be to help young people grow in faith, and not just survive the next party or relationship? Also the chapter titled The Theology, Stupid! in Tony Jones’ The New Christians brought along some thoughts on the neccesity of this.

Maybe one difference between what I’m saying and the traditional Sunday School programs is that I’m not talking about the recitation of creeds and learning of one-liner Bible verses, but of helping young people think about their faith. To use the title from a book of Wentzel van Huyssteen, theology is a critical reasoning of our faith, and I believe that in our society today we need to help our kids in this quest.

Dialogue in Preaching

June 2, 2008

In the Reformed tradition we talk about the dialogical nature of the liturgy. God speak, the congregation speak, and the preacher speak, sometimes on behalf of the congregation, sometimes on behalf of God. In practice, only the preacher speak, doing a monologue, and the congregation sometimes get a chance so say what the preacher want them to say.

I don’t have a problem with high-liturgy services, and especially like participatory liturgical expressions more and more. So what I’m writing is not really about liturgy, but only about the act of preaching. Preaching, more than any other part of our church tradition, has been only monologue. We attempt to bring in some dialogue into our informal church service, but usually it’s only the kids who take part. Now, it’s an amazing way to make the kids part of the service, but it’s actually just an add-on, and not really a dialogue starting.

Dialogue is not an easy thing. I’ve had many thoughts in this in the past (see posts on the round-table church here or here), but more and more I realize that the utopian ideal of having 57 people coming together in a round table conversation and everyone sharing an equal amount is just that, utopian. More than that, I don’t neccesarily think that the “postmodern” which we like to talk about neccesarily want to always say something, sometimes listening is OK. I’m learning this more and more from friends who I consider natural experts on a postmodern worldview.

But still I get this very uncomfortable feeling when doing another monologue, another sermon. Yes, good things happen, I sometimes get good feedback, and yes, sometimes (as one of the people on our church council said the other night) people actually do what we preachers say. But for me it’s personal, I simply can’t get this nagging feeling that I don’t like doing a monologue out of my system.

Last night Tiaan visited, and myself, Tiaan, and my flatmate again started talking about various possibilities or having some kind of discussion (we don’t really like the idea of starting churches currently) going between 20/30-something people. This resulted in this group being created. So again I started thinking about my monologue discomfort.

Suddenly I had this revelation, not yet sure whether it was one of foolishness or wisdom, or maybe the logical result of past experiences. Abvout two weeks ago by collegue and friend, Roelf, came in to visit us at our 17-20 year old youth discussion group. We were talking about what our task is on earth, and in a very natural way, myself and Roelf started discussing this. The group of young people listened to our discussion, and when Roelf left we continued the conversation.

Maybe this would be a good preaching style. Never having one person preach alone. Always use two or more, and let them have a dialogue which can serve as base for large-group conversations if you’d like. These two people would plan there sermon together, but not as a little drama, simply talking about the issue at hand, maybe putting some ideas on paper which they would consider important. By asking each other questions, and responding to each other, and adding to each other, they would introduce a topic in a conversation style, a style I think I’ll be much more comfortable with than the monologue we are used to.

Have anyone tried this? Could this work for preaching?

Another idea I had a few weeks ago, and which would hopefulle be used somewhere next term, is to get some people together for coffee before a sermon. Talk about the topic, explain the idea, formulate some questions, and at the end make a 5 minute video conversation where some of these questions and thoughts are talked through in dialogue. Then use this as a started in church.