Archive for month: April, 2016
This is a question that will stick to the heels of your apologetic discussions with students like a hungry dog convinced that you’re hiding a dead pig in your pocket.
Our culture’s scientific zeitgeist is incredibly dogmatic because of a very specific philosophy of science that’s constantly alluded to in our education system.
In the West, science is seen as the ‘ultimate discipline’, the only true way to find verifiable facts. Bertrand Russell famously said, “Science is what we know, Philosophy is what we don’t know.” Putting this in it’s context, he continued with:
“We may say that, on its theoretical side, philosophy consists, at least in part, in the framing of large general hypotheses which science is not yet in a position to test; but when it becomes possible to test the hypotheses they become, if verified, a part of science, and cease to count as “philosophy.”” [Philosphy For The Layman]
Questions of science, he believed, would eventually replace much of philosophy. For instance ‘philosophy of mind’ would become purely psychology, and astrology would become astronomy.
This is the very particular and oddly peculiar context that our young people brew in every day.
The Definition and Limitations Of Science
Science is not religion’s enemy – far from it! Christians should love scientific research and seek it out. We should fund it, support it, read it and worship God in it. Its quest for discovery should lead us deeper into our understanding of God. This is worth nailing to the door from the off!
Science however, does need clearly defining and putting into it’s proper place if we are to step away from the cultish undertones of science in our culture.
If we go back to Russell for a moment we will find that he is passionate about challenging overly dogmatic philosophers who assert too much absolute certainty. He says:
“In order to judge of such attempts, it is necessary to take a survey of human knowledge, and to form an opinion as to its methods and its limitations. On such a subject it would be unwise to pronounce dogmatically.”
I think he is right – but that this also holds true for Science. We need to consider its limitations and methods too.
1. When we talk about Science, we are actually referring to The Scientific Method (observable, measurable and repeatable experiments with results expressed as ‘the best current hypothesis from the data collected to date’). The best hypothesis from this data once told us that the world was flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, and that humans couldn’t fly (enter Wright Brothers).
2. Many things we experience daily cannot be explored using The Scientific Method – such as the existence of abstract principles like mathematics or aesthetics; the assertion that you have a separate and independent mind to mine which is located on your person, and not somewhere behind Mars; or the idea that our memories exist, and that the universe isn’t just five minutes old created with the illusion of time.
3. The Scientific Method is limited to what we can experience with the five senses. If every one of us throughout humanity’s existence was born without the ability to see, what would that do to the idea of colour? It couldn’t categorically deny the existence of varying shades in reality, but we couldn’t prove or even test that hypothesis using The Scientific Method. If our senses form a box around us (or a Cave, courtesy of Plato), then all of our Science is limited to that box too.
Where Has This Come From?
Since the Scientific Revolution, there has been an underlying idea that smart people are science driven, and religious people are somewhat unintelligent or misinformed. This polarisation of worldviews and intelligence is sadly naive.
Considering the limitations of the scientific method, the highly naturalistic (and oftentimes atheistic) worldviews that flow out of it are incredibly faith based. So much everyday experience and phenomena cannot be sustained objectively using science – including the very basis for The Scientific Method itself.
The more recent renaissance in the atheistic agenda within the science worldview can be traced to the New Atheist movement, and most specifically to Richard Dawkins.
Responding To Richard Dawkins et al.
I always feel nervous in Dawkins conversations. On one hand, he is a scientist who hasn’t been involved in published research since the beginning or his career – and he seems to have a very loose grip (at best) on Philosophy, which (in fairness) is not his discipline.
If we are going to say ‘in fairness’ though, we should also point out that he is constantly talking about philosophy and making hugely sweeping and broadly fallacious philosophical statements to back up his – largely indefensible – claims.
On the other hand, though, he is a fantastic communicator and gifted writer who is incredibly good at distilling truths into easily digestible units for the public. As a science populariser, he has been incredibly effective at channeling funds and interest back into the struggling research arenas.
His arrogance and fallacy-ridden approach to questions of theology make me very grumpy(!) – however we need him to keep doing what he’s doing, which makes me feel very conflicted. Research is dependent on funding and public intrigue (far more than it used to be / than I think it should be). Science popularisers, like Dawkins are great PR people for the research effort.
I think Christians tend to use Dawkins as a strawman as his arguments are far too easy to dismantle. This makes us feel very comfortable responding to scientific arguments without knowing the whole lot about science itself.
I’d rather we were able to talk more intelligently about the limitations of The Scientific Method rather than waste our time and credibility taking down a strawman who just doesn’t have the legs for it. We need to make sure we can respond to the best possible versions of the arguments.
All this said, it is Dawkins rhetoric that we often hear in our conversations with young people.
Where Does This Leave Us?
In conversations about science, we should celebrate research and not make ourselves enemies of a fantastic method of finding truth. We don’t want to fall into the stereotype of ‘smart people are scientists, but dumb people are Christians’. Here are five specific takeaways:
1. We should be armed with knowledge of the limitations of The Scientific Method including a clear definition of what The Scientific Method is.
2. We should have a strategy of asking epistemological questions that help us to move away from the rhetoric to actual problems with God’s existence. I have a post on this here.
3. We should gracefully and generously remember that New Atheists like Dawkins are not the best versions of the argument, while holding in tension the rhetoric they have given to culture.
4. If it’s within our ability and delight to reason, then we should enjoy reading and researching science ourselves and marvel at the wonders of God contained within its grasp.
5. We should remember that God is not a scientist. A scientist has questions, not answers. A scientist looks for truth but has – at best – hypotheses and theories. God is the creator; He knows all truth, holds all truth and has all truth. God does not hypothesise; He knows and He reveals. We are the scientists. We study, search and inquire, but to be the best scientists, we must pray and listen to the leading of The Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
Epistemology, technically speaking, covers one third of all philosophical enquiry, and it is the branch most concerned with faith.
Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is always asking questions like, how do you know that, how do you know anything, what is knowledge, what signifies knowledge as fact as opposed to an opinion? How to you get to fact from opinion?
I use epistemological questions to level the playing field across all my work. Here are some examples:
In Broad Apologetic Theory
When entering a new classroom, I often get the students to describe their worldview. I do this by giving everyone a blank sheet of paper and asking a series of questions that determine what they know, what they think they know, what their priorities are, and what they truly care about deep down.
These questions range from ‘who is the most important person in the world’ to ‘why are you here’ and each question is followed by an epistemological question such as ‘how do you know that,’ ‘why do you think that,’ or ‘how can you be certain that’s true?’
The result of this exercise is a wide variety of worldviews (or dare I say religions) that hinge on a varying degree of faith. Even those who thought that they had an incredibly naturalistic, empirical or scientific approach to life need to admit a large reliance of faith.
In Specific Apologetic Questions
When responding to specific questions about God’s existence, such as, ‘how can you believe in a God when evil exists’, or ‘hasn’t Science disproved God’s existence’ I often start with some epistemological follow-ups. These can really narrow the scope and power of those initial questions.
Take God and evil: Why does evil dissuade you from God’s existence? What is it about suffering that makes God’s existence impossible? Can you not think of any possible world where God and evil could exist?
Or on the question of science: Which scientists and what research have you read to lead you to that conclusion? What do you mean by science? Can you think of anything in your experience that science could not prove or disprove? For their help with that last one, consider that the scientific method cannot provide evidence for the existence of mathematics, distinct minds, the reality of time, aesthetics or beauty, or even the scientific method itself!
Always follow a question with who, what, when, where, why, how, or which. Find out what they really know, what makes them think they know it and you’ll on your way to not only answering the question, but finding the real question behind it.
In Exegesis and Bible Studies
It’s certainly important to dig specifically into what does the text say, but it’s also important to analyse what presuppositions and assumptions we might be reading into the text as we examine it. Where did you get that opinion? Who told you that was true? What other possibilities could be going on? How do you know that is what God is like? If you we’re a 96 year old blind lady, what would you think then?
We will get further into the text if we examine (in the hope of somewhat suspending) our own epistemology, and what makes us think we are reading a passage correctly.
It’s also important when we start to apply a Bible passage to remember that the facts of the Bible – which I do believe are inerrant and infallible – are being filtered through my sinful perspective. Thus I will need God’s grace to help me understand, and faith to trust the Holy Spirit’s guidance as I read.
In Talks and Presentations
If you want to engage with a wide range of learning styles, then you will need to ask a wide range of questions. These questions need to be broader than just application, but should dig deeper into the specifics of how different personalities engage with knowledge.
Considering four or five different epistemological perspectives before you work out your applications will help you speak to a wider variety of people.
Some people’s epistemology will only allow them to assimilate a new truth if you can hang it on to experience they have already had. Others may accept what you say to readily because they believe you are a legitimate authority on the subject. Yet others will ignore you completely until they have seen it for themselves through working the problem step-by-step. Some people’s epistemology will only allow them to accept concrete ideas, and will outright reject abstract or open principles.
In Conflict Resolution and People Management
Knowing how to work with different epistemological perspectives is just as important as knowing how to work with different personality types. How people think and assimilate knowledge, and how seriously they take new information will affect how they receive communication.
This will of course change how you resolve difficulties and conflicts, and what language you use in public and private settings.
Epistemological lines of questioning can also help different people consider points of view otherwise removed from their own. Again, simple questions like ‘how do you know that’s what she was thinking when she told you that?’ can go a long way in lowering the temperature of a room.
Youth work has a long tradition of using food. We love to use it for eating, especially. The Bible gives us great encouragement to use food for eating with one another. Celebrating, fellowship, parties, and communion. Food is a wonderful tool for authentic ministry.
But there is another use for food that Youth Workers revel in. It’s particularly fun, often messy, and our young people, on the whole, love it.
Except that I don’t.
And it’s not because it’s messy. Messy is great. In fact, the messier the better. My problem is the context I find myself in. Food is expensive, and we are surrounded by poverty.
Therefore, I struggle to find any joy in using food in a wasteful manner, because there are people in my congregation who don’t have any. As a church we have limited resources, and we use it as wisely as we possibly can. I don’t think I can have a young person coming into my youth, who has yet to eat that day play a game where food is wasted, and not enjoyed as it was intended. Does this mean I’m a buzzkill? Sure. But you can imagine what the kids in my context feel when they see food being used in such a manner.
I think part of our problem as youth workers is that we prioritize fun/entertainment over deeper concerns in the lives of our young people. Perhaps, we can structure our group times differently.
If Jesus used food to bring people together and share the gospel, then maybe that could be a great model for our youth ministries too?
Ok, I lied: there are only really 11 here! Each one, however, will morph dramatically 4 different ways depending on whether your main driving focus is to bring people in, build them up, link them together or send them out.
These 11 (or 44) models of youth ministry are not exhaustive – but you’d be hard pushed to find one that doesn’t broadly fit into one of them. Usually we blend a few together with mixed success.
I’m not really critiquing or endorsing any of them at this point. They are, however, worth considering at both the creative and the strategic level, so have fun!
1. The Funnel Model
The Funnel Model – which was more recently made famous by Doug Field’s Purpose Driven Youth Ministry – has been around since the dinosaurs. The idea is to run several specific projects with different focuses and to funnel people through them as they mature and learn.
The idea is to slowly move people through the projects at a comfortable and accessible pace so they can first feel comfortable, then hear the gospel and accept it.
This is probably what most youth groups use. If you have three projects, such as a large youth club, a mid weak smaller group and Sunday morning Bible study, and you have a goal to eventually see youth club attendees come to the Bible study, then you’re probably using this yourself.
Take care to not play bait and switch by being honest in every stage with your intentions to share Jesus.
2. The Hour Class or Full Circle Model
This is a slightly more modern variation on the funnel model. As the hourglass shape would suggest, once you funnel them into the point you then equip them to be the evangelists and team leaders of the initial projects – thus taking them full circle.
The trap here is a closed circle that has only limited appeal and limited application – thus gets smaller over time.
3. The Incarnational Model
The incarnation was God becoming man in Jesus and living among us. In the same way the youth worker immerses themselves in the lives and culture of young people as a way of living among them.
This is a very widely used model in America and is driven by the compassionate idea that we need to be involved in every aspect of young people’s lives and look for every opportunity to speak gospel truth. Obviously watch out for safeguarding issues!
4. The Cell Model
Organic cells split and multiply – as do Cell Models of youth work. The idea is to start off with one small group and to put all your energy and resources into making that work. It inevitably grows (because of your care and attention) and gets big enough to split into two groups. These groups continue to grow and split exponentially, and your ministry grows.
If not fully committed to this model then it’s easy to end up taking a side road and end up blurring into another model. The key is to make sure that you are constantly multiplying resources and training people to take on leadership roles.
5. The Hub Model
All projects and ministries effectively flow into and out of one central hub. This could be a youth gathering, drop in club, or established centre. I used to run a high street youth cafe which did just this.
A Hub Model is one of the best ways of creating community, but it can also be a stretch on your resources when you inevitably need to branch out into other areas.
6. The Grassroots Model
Very effective in smaller churches! You simply pour all your energy into discipling and equipping a few young people who you are already connected with (most likely though church families), then train them to be incarnational peer evangelists in their schools.
Make sure that these young people are well supported, and be prepared to create something for them to bring friends to.
7. The Institutional Model
The institutional model relies on basing ministry around an already established institution. Usually this will be a school, but it could easily be a library, community centre, sports team or scout troop.
The idea is to serve the needs of the institution first, then sow into it with Gospel truths, thus cultivating a Christian culture from within.
Care needs to be taken that you are honouring the institution by being transparent and servant-hearted.
8. The Enterprise Model
These often work well as social enterprises or social projects. You take an easy business model such as cafe, charity shop or community service project and then develop a Christian ethos into it. You then use young people to staff it as a way of doing vocational training. You use Christian business principles and share the Gospel through the work.
If done properly, this can be an incredibly powerful self-sustaining model. Done badly, it will drain your resources and will not be able to compete in a local market.
9. The Equip Model
Ideally suited to rural areas where young people turn 18 and leave, The Equip Model is purely focused on preparing them for adulthood. Rather than trying to connect young people to the church community for the long haul, you teach them what they will need to successfully find a healthy church community later. This model has a lot of footfall, and can awkwardly need reinventing every year.
10. The Family Focus Model
Currently being trialed by a few large evangelical churches, The Family Focus Model is driven by the conviction that youth segregation is not biblical. Instead of running particular and specific youth projects, it runs things that work for the whole family unit and trains everyone to take care of each other.
This can create an incredible seeker-friendly family environment for a church, but can also make young people on the outside feel isolated and rejected if not watched carefully.
11. The Mentor Model
More charitably this is probably a blend of the Family Focus Model and The Grassroots Model. The idea is to pair up young people with committed individuals in the church that will specifically mentor them personally. You will create projects that get all of young people and mentors together, and you will do training and debriefing with the mentors themselves.
Watch out for safeguarding issues, and know that this will only ever grow as large as the available mentors.
Looking at cultural differences and similarities in worldwide youth work, we continue with our ‘Around The Globe’ series with Dave Fagg, in Australia. Check out the first in our series, on Hungary, here.
1. Where are you based?
Bendigo, Australia. I live in the suburb of Long Gully, which has a high percent-age of public housing (‘council housing’ I think the UK calls it).
2. What unique challenges do you face?
How do I spark hope in young people whose parents and role models are living in despair? Long Gully struggles with inequality: many people are jobless, ill, poor, isolated and struggling with the stigma that all of these things bring.
In the bigger picture, Australia is divided between ‘youth ministry’ (done in and by churches) and ‘youth work’ (done in and by secular organisations). There is suspicion on both sides.
3. What shape and format do your youth work projects most often take?
I train youth workers with Praxis, an experiential diploma course which emphasises getting practically involved in young people’s lives. More than a course; it’s a learning community. I know most educators would say that, but it’s true!
My youth work morphs with time: I’ve led church youth groups, done high school outreach and teenage foster care, and spent a year overseas in the US and South Africa, learning from youth workers who served young people in gangs, and in poor communities. Until recently I coordinated a leadership program. At the start of 2016, I began volunteering as a youth worker at my local high school.
4. What do you enjoy most and what are you most proud of?
I love teaching! My greatest joy is seeing young people and youth workers gain new insights, and then go beyond what I could ever have taught.
5. What is your most valuable local resource?
My local state high school opens its arms to outside groups. Some Christians find ‘getting access’ to high schools difficult. But ‘getting access’ is the wrong way to think about it; it implies that the students are ‘materials’ for your ‘real’ program, which takes place elsewhere. When Christians talk to schools about the real needs of the young people, and then offer to help out, then schools are usually welcoming.
6. How often do you meet up with other youth workers? How easy or difficult is that and how valuable do you find it?
I would not have lasted 20 years in the youth sector without encouragement, discussion, and questioning from other youth workers. Praxis values connecting youth workers together, so I have a coffee budget! I frequently buy a coffee for someone, and chew the fat about our work, but also our dreams and struggles.
7. Tell us a story about something significant that has happened.
This morning I had a coffee with a young youth worker that I coach. Four years ago he started Praxis and knew everything there was to know. He was convinced that by knowing all the theories he would be a good youth worker. Our holistic approach to education struck him as ‘soft’. He left the course one year in, still dissatisfied but with some good questions stirring his pot. This morning, I asked him what I could pray for. He said he needed to have his heart broken; that he had realised, on their own, the theories weren’t enabling him to genuinely help people.
I was punching the air inside!
8. What gets you through difficult or stressful times in your ministry?
A few years ago I led a team from two organisations. The team was unpaid, apart from myself, and we didn’t have much time to communicate and build trust: we ran the weekly program, had a hurried chat about next week, and then left. I didn’t make sure we were communicating properly and inevitably, the team fell apart. It was difficult time; I lost a friendship which is only now recovering. I take failure to heart, and often ‘process’ things completely internally. This time, I spoke openly with trusted mentors about my failings, and then sought reconciliation with the people I’d hurt. It was so helpful to ‘get out of my head’.
9. Any final thoughts that you would like to share?
About 3 years, child protection agencies removed all the children from two related families in our neighbourhood who were connected to our church. My wife and I advocated with the family to the child protection agencies, but the children were removed nonetheless. One of the teenage children is now fostered by a family in our church, which has been fantastic for her, and them. The other children live all over the state. It’s complicated.
Youth work is often complicated, murky and we encounter all kinds of injustice and sadness. God makes no guarantees that things will fall into place in our time-frame. I take heart from the story of the crestfallen disciples, walking along the road to Emmaus. Their revolution in ashes, their Messiah executed, they pour out their heart to the strange companion on the road, who turns out to be the very one they mourn. When things don’t make sense, maybe we need to be open about it with others; we never know what might happen.