Part 2: when spiritual formation clashes with student ministry in church-world
After writing some on a rule of life, it’s a bit shameful to have to admit that such has not been the case lately. There’s an upside and a downside to that. The downside is that I’m pretty humbled to be offering anything here, since I’m all too aware of the gap between what I say and what I do (or don’t do). The upside is that I’m aware of the challenge that we pastors and youthworkers face – we as people – and I know something at this point of what I need.
Student ministry in church world plunges you into the world of doing. You are constantly planning, preparing, writing talks, hanging out with students, making endless attempts at communication (calls, facebook posts, texts), with parents, leaders, busy office work, etc. The work never ends. There is always more you can do at the end of the day. And you know it matters. Lives are at stake. You can work yourself to the bone and still feel haunted by Jesus’ call in Mt. 11 to come to him – but you can’t see how his burden is light and easy when to you it seems so hard. And you have to want it.
Let me assume that you do want it: you want a close fellowship with Christ in the midst of a busy life and work in church world. When I first wrote about a rule of life, it seemed good on paper … but perfect plans on paper never survive first encounters with real life. So let me share with you a few key elements, knowing that how you or I observe them must remain flexible and may often change.
- Scripture and prayer. Indispensible. We have to begin and end here, for both what fuels us and what we have to offer others flow from the same source. My usual pattern has been to read, study and try to pray through a different gospel each month, plus taking some time in Psalms and other parts of God’s word. This year I want to read/pray the gospels again, particular seeking Jesus’ leadership through the Spirit, and read through all of Scripture. To this end, we youth workers shouldn’t hesitate to teach out of our personal learning OR let our teaching (if pre-determined) be an opportunity for our personal, prayerful learning. Calvin once called “prayer is the chief exercise of faith.” If kingdom-living is the with-God life, then prayer from a worshipping heart occupies the central place. This is probably my #1 need and desire in 2012.
- Read theology and read for fun. What? Read theology in a disciplined way? Isn’t that soul-killing, straight-jacketing academic stuff? It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s amazing the way some of the older writers (who started and ended their days on their knees in the church) fuse devotion and exposition and exploration. And if you don’t get what the Trinity has to do you with your life in the Spirit, you are missing out on the great resources of the gospel. Theology is essential to student ministry because in our actions with students the very character, heart, and intention of God is meant to be on display! If you don’t believe me, be convinced by 2 Cor. 3-4 or reading Kenda Creasy Dean or Andrew Root or Christian Smith or Kara Powell). The fundamental question we are facing now is “what is God really like – and what does that mean for me? for us? for our world?” You need heavy stuff to help you with that. And read for fun. Read stuff outside ministry: fiction, biography, culture stuff – whether novels or magazines or websites or stuff related to a hobby. It keeps your mind sharp and it widens the circle of stuff you know. Plus, you’d be amazed how it works into conversation and teaching.
- Community. I had an experience this fall that drove home to me the necessity of really living and loving and ministering in community. I cannot recommend enough the words of Henri Nouwen here: ministry is always communal and mutual. For me, that means four primary things. First, with Robin (my awesome wife). Second, with close friends – honest conversations, and (if not local) solid letters/email and seeing each other during the year. Third, community within your church. I am a strong advocate for finding real spiritual friendship and community among the people with whom you minister, whether leaders, parents, friends, or even a small group. Fourth, you must have a team of leaders who you equip for ministry. Nothing is as anti-Jesus and soul-killing in student ministry than to bear the burden and shoulder the work alone.
- Body. I am more and more convinced that we live in a gnostic culture (read theology for that) and how we practice life in the body is going to be more and more a part of our Christian witness. Now the paradox is that our culture worships health and we obviously don’t want to go that far. But working yourself to the bone and neglecting you body isn’t healthy or God-honoring. Our eating, our sleeping, and our physical exercise matter if we want to run the race of the ministry that God has entrusted to us. I cook a lot and try to eat well. I exercise most weeks. Since you have to start somewhere, my minimum goals for this year are 6 hours of sleep a night and at least 10 miles of running each week.
- Sabbath. Where to begin … through a teaching series last spring I got convinced that we need to recover a practice of the sabbath. I’m no strict sabbatarian, but the practice matters and Jesus makes it clear that it was made for us. There’s a negative/abstinent dimension to this (stuff you don’t do) and a positive/engaging one (stuff you intentionally do). Figure out a way to take a day off of your work. For me that means a day off of technology, too – no facebook, twitter, phone, email, and laptop (as much as possible, they stay on the desk and powered off). Stuff I do – read for fun, try to talk with friends, exercise, cook a lot, and spend as much time as possible with my family. The tough thing for me is that the only day I can really do this is Friday – and when you are youth worker, that doesn’t always work.
Up next: pt. 3 – where do you start with all this?