When youth ministry meets real life – an excerpt from Rebooted

The following is a small excerpt from my book, Rebooted, which was released a week ago. This is the section – which comes from Chapter 5: ‘Youth work through the Prophets’ – that was read by my wife, Katie, at the official launch. Hope you find it helpful!

Youth work is not always pretty, it doesn’t always follow the rules, it doesn’t always show up on time, and it doesn’t always play fair.

I remember getting a phone call at 6am from a local school in London to explain that a very popular sixteen-year-old boy had tragically lost his life in the night. He had been out with some friends, came home late, and – complicated by an undiagnosed heart problem – choked on his own vomit in his sleep. I was asked to attend a memorial assembly that very morning, then asked if I would stay behind afterwards to ‘counsel’ some of his friends.

I got up, donned my suit, and headed through the morning London traffic. The assembly was heart-breaking. Two thousand students, many openly weeping, a confused and unsure shell of a head teacher trying desperately to find words of comfort, and the boy’s parents, fresh from the hospital on the front row in each other’s arms. It got very real very fast. This was nothing however, compared to what came next.

Myself, a local church minister, and a school councillor were taken to a small temporary classroom outside the main hall. This had been set apart for any young person or teacher that wanted time to reflect, or someone to talk to. Students were also told that it was ok to write some messages or stories on the walls inside if that would help them.

Over the next couple of hours, we saw hundreds of students come through that building, almost all of whom left a message. By the afternoon every piece of wall, inside and outside, the carpet, the tables, the chairs, and the ceiling were covered (and I mean covered) by writing:

 

There were funny stories of times when friends had gone out and done stupid things together.

There were shared dreams and aspirations of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

There were heart-wrenching, deepest apologies – the guilt of which you cannot imagine.

 

Myself and the other two counsellors walked around like lost sheep. We tried, very carefully, to talk to some of the young people; but that’s really not what they wanted. I shared a hug with a young lad I knew from my youth club at the time, tears lining his face. I had no idea what to say and no idea what to do.

You learn about these times in college and through books, but nothing prepared me for it. I remember tangibly thinking, God please help me take my youth ministry more seriously.

Of course, this is not youth work going wrong, this is youth work working! This is youth ministry at its most pertinent. The creativity of the school gave the young people an uncommonly valuable way of moving thorough their pain as a community. It was amazing. I was there, at best, to facilitate the safety of the activities and the tone of the room. God was obviously, however, in their midst.

Youth ministry is, of course, not all lock-ins, nerf wars, and happy teenagers ‘getting saved’. There are times when real life just happens; the question is whether we have created a youth ministry context where real life is welcomed, and projects that embrace the fullness of this life – even when it ‘goes wrong.’

When the rubber meets the road and things get real, the question left on the table is ‘have I built a youth ministry that can weather this’?’ Or – even better – ‘have I developed young people who thrive in the midst of suffering?’

Life, ministry, and certainly youth work, can get very messy.

 

The Book of Daniel

I – according to my entire team – have a serious defect: I do not like Disney films.

This isn’t entirely true. I still have a soft spot for The Lion King, I don’t mind the new Star Wars, and I could quote Cool Runnings all day long. However, I cannot make it through almost any other Disney film – especially the ones with cartoon animals that wear hats, but not pants! My problem comes down to formula – I think they are all basically the same. This is probably where I lose some of you. Thanks for reading this far!

Each film starts off with a happy situation. Good friends, cosy family, feel-good music and glitter everywhere. Then ‘the thing’ happens. The thing could be anything that introduces a tragic separation into the film (usually the death of a parent): Mufasa is killed by Scar, Bambi’s mum meets the hunter, Dumbo is separated from his mum by the circus… after being rocked like a baby in tears through the bars of a cage, Nemo’s mum and unborn siblings are eaten by a freakish barracuda, Tarzan loses his parents, Chance, Shadow and Sassy get lost in the middle of nowhere, Cinderella is emotionally abused by her sisters, Bell gets kidnapped, Andy gives away his toys, and that whole opening scene from Up!

Once the thing happens, and all the watching children are traumatised for life, there is usually a ‘thrown far from home’ bit. This is then followed by an ‘amazing journey’ bit, a rapid race through the five stages of grief while ‘accompanied by new streetwise friends who you first thought were jerks’ bit (think Timone and Pumba, Buzz Lightyear, sassy candlesticks, a load of kitchen utensils, or a boy scout and demented Labrador). Eventually they find their way ‘back home’ and ‘find themselves’ in some existential way in the process. The evil protagonists die in a brutal way (they usually fall to their doom), and everyone lives happily ever after. The prophecies are fulfilled, the world is saved, there is sometimes ice cream or toast, and so on. Disney in a nutshell. I thank you.

Interestingly, that however, is also really the story of Daniel. A young lad, happy in the promised land, then the thing happens – which is the Babylonian conquest. He is dragged far from home, meets a ragtag group of friends, finds his way, and helps a king (somewhat) connect with God and (kinda) lives happily ever after. If I could sum up the story of Daniel in one line it would be: Trust in God, because everything else is a nightmare!

It’s likely that Daniel (alongside Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) were teenagers because they were taken from Judah and trained to serve in the king of Babylon’s court (Dan. 1:4-6). They were also specifically called ‘young men’ in v.4.

The fascinating thing we see in these young companions, and especially Daniel, is their immense faith, and connectedness to God’s Word in the middle of a destitute world of sin and godlessness. They would not ‘defile’ themselves with food God had forbidden (1:8), they were divinely given all kinds of knowledge by God (1:17), including the prophetic gift of dream interpretation. They are also kept safe from a fiery furnace (3:6-28) and a lions’ den (6:10-23).

Throughout this whole story Daniel is able to worship his God, speak his word, and challenge the King of Babylon to do the same. Incredible!

Daniel trusted in God, and God raised him up to both speak truth and remain pure Babylon, which probably still rates among the worst cultural environments of all time. Babylon is the metaphor God uses for the Godless world that would be cast into the sea in Revelation 18:21. Young people are immensely resilient, especially when they have a firm foundation of faith and conviction.

We need to do all we can to help young people to thrive under pressure by standing them firmly upon their faith in God. We cannot teach purity, holiness, spiritual disciplines or even a passion for evangelism legalistically or abstractly. We need to continually point them back to God in the midst of tragedy, struggle and grief. We need to help them find God in the midst of pants situations. This is to objectively ‘speak God’ into where He might otherwise have been missed in the middle of the mess. Then they will be equipped in faith to thrive supernaturally.

 

What about you?

What do you do to help your young people thrive supernaturally? Does this only work in good times, or do you point to it in the worst times too?

 

Is Bonhoeffer really the ideal role model for youth ministers?

Recently I wrote a critique of Andrew Root’s approach to incarnational youth ministry, to which he graciously responded.

In many ways, however, Root’s understanding of the Incarnation is not his own. The ghost of Dietrich Bonhoeffer walks each and every page. Even the phrase Root uses, place-sharer, is Bonhoeffer’s (Stellvertreter). Root said that Bonhoeffer’s part in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was driven by the belief ‘that it was the only way that he could truly (truly = in the imitation of Christ) share the place of those crushed by the wheels of the Nazi political machine’ (2007:85). This would have been the ideal place for Root to have added some words of caution about using Bonhoeffer as a de facto position on Christology, however we are left wanting.

With this in mind I think it’s worth taking a minute to ask whether Bonhoeffer really is the best role model for youth workers. As much as I respect him as both a compassionate minister and a deep thinker, there is another side that is rarely discussed.

Bonhoeffer’s Christology was born out of a very turbulent life experience. He emphasised the this-world focus and concrete nature of Jesus becoming flesh which was then very heavily outworked in a strongly social gospel.

Abstract or internal knowledge of God was almost entirely dismissed by Bonhoeffer. He intended that ‘all Christian doctrines be reinterpreted in “this world” terms… The only way to find God, then, is to live fully in the midst of this world. Christians must participate in Jesus’ living for others’ (Godsey, 1991). This affected his approach to both prayer and worship.

Bonhoeffer, during the later period of his life, also discontinued his daily Bible reading, denying that Scripture contained any timeless principles. He said, ‘we may no longer seek after universal, eternal truths’ by reading the Bible (Bonhoeffer and Krauss 2010:71). Further, as someone who leaned towards universalism, Bonhoeffer also lacked a coherent theology of the atonement or even of salvation itself (Weikart, 2015).

Although Bonhoeffer brings much needed humanity to a sometimes very overly ‘functional’ and ‘formulaic’ evangelical Christianity, his work cannot and should not be used uncritically. Yet this is precisely what Root and others in the modern youth work world do by building on his theology of incarnation. It is little wonder then that Root deemphasises the divinity of Jesus, rarely speaks to any experience of Him outside of concrete relationships with people, and expresses a muddy view of salvation.

What is continually missing from Bonhoeffer is any sense of ‘it is finished‘. There is little to no talk of victory, glory, heaven, Jesus as divine, or the eternal nature of salvation. These have no real presence in his work leaving a heavily dis-balanced gospel.

Bonhoeffer is an inspiration personally, but I don’t think he makes a great role-model theologically when it comes to the practice of youth work. At least, I’d like to see him used more critically.

References (in order of appearance)

Root, A. (2007) Revisiting relational youth ministry: from a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books

Godsey, J. (1991), Bonhoeffer’s costly theology. Available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-32/bonhoeffers-costly-theology.html

Bonhoeffer, D. and Krauss, R. (2010). Letters and papers from prison. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.

Weikart, R. (2015), The Troubling Truth About Bonhoeffer’s Theology. Available at http://www.equip.org/article/troubling-truth-bonhoeffers-theology/

Youth Work and the Gravity of the Bible

When I was growing up, my brother was big into mountain biking. He made his own bikes, had all the right gear, and wore ‘biker’ clothing. One of his t-shirts had a picture of an upsidedown guy who had just fallen off his bike with the caption: ‘GRAVITY. I fought the law, but the law won.’

You just can’t fight gravity! Think about the amount of money NASA spends on rockets, fuel and propulsion systems to fight gravity. Gravity is incredible. It’s a powerful force that draws things together, keeps things sound and solid, and it helps things move healthily. If gravity was suddenly just a little different on Earth, then we’d lose the integrity in our joints and bones and even basic movement would become painful. Gravity is a big deal. The Bible has its own gravity: it draws everything together, keeps you on the right track, and holds your ministry accountable. We need to surrender to its pull (it is God speaking after all) and let everything we do be shaped by it.

When we teach young people, we don’t need to be afraid of actually opening and digging into the Bible. Over the past few years I have opened the Bible in every style of youth project I’ve done and – when I properly let them engage with it rather than just spoon-feeding it to them – it is always amazing.

I’d summarise what Peter was doing back in Acts 2 (and the Apostles throughout the rest of the story) as gravitating towards to the Word. They opened it up at every possible opportunity. They used object lessons, full-on speeches, little chats, supernatural miracles – everything they could think of – to illustrate what the Word is saying. These things always accompanied their speaking of the Gospel; they never watered it down or replaced it.

If in doubt, gravitate towards the Bible and use all your considerable creative talents to bring what it actually says alive relevantly. It really works, and I guarantee you that if you can say something well – God can say it better. Remember, it’s His mission.

 

This was a sneaky-cheeky excerpt from my upcoming book Rebooted. Pre-order a copy from IVP here.

 

Should Dr. Jordan Peterson be a role model for Christian youth workers?

Jordan Peterson. Is he the opium for the masses of yesteryear – fighting a last hurrah for traditional masculinity before it plunges into the abyss? Or is he the the national self-help coach, strapping a pseudo-understanding of a plethora of human interest topics onto his otherwise robust portfolio of clinical psychology (with grey tape and bungee chords), and hoping that no-one noticed? Is he a misunderstood messiah, or troubled and troubling? Who is he, and do we really want to learn from him?

Upfront I want to say that I like Jordan Peterson – mostly. I’m not a lobster t-shirt wearing ‘bucko’, as his more effusive fans are affectionally called. I’ve read ‘The 12 Rules for Life’ and, despite being written in uninspiring prose, it does have a lot of well-tested, sensible ideas to take away. I’ve also listened to many of his interviews and lectures, and have learned much in the process. Some of it I liked straight away, other parts challenged me directly and won me over eventually. I respect that, however unpopular his ideas might be, he engages in calm and collected reasoning, allowing anything to be discussed on the table as long as it is presented respectfully.

I think Dr. Peterson is helpful on the legal issues surrounding gender pronouns, helpful on the need to do stuff and not just yell about stuff, helpful on compassionately responding to suffering, and helpful on taking responsibility. I think he is less helpful on conspiracy theories, less helpful on equality (although that’s a mixed bag), less helpful on social order, and less helpful on developing community.

From a Christian perspective, there are some specific problems to navigate through. These are issues that need to be taken on board very carefully before we surrender our own reasoning abilities to his. Dr. Peterson is becoming a role model for many ministers of the Gospel, but some caution is needed before getting too caught up in his approach.

Tread Carefully

I’ve just finished an MA in the hopes of soon starting a PhD, and – although I did well – one of the most consistent pieces of feedback that I received from professors is that my analysis is good but my conclusions are often overstated. I wonder if the same can be said for Dr. Peterson?

When you listen to Dr. Peterson question, dig, differentiate, clarify, and present clinical studies as evidence – he is on fire! His critical reasoning abilities, especially in the line of hostile debate is incredible. His analysis is often spot on, sourced properly, and undergirded with a startling, well-honed talent for critical thinking.

His conclusions, however, often jump wildly to something that can be completely left field. His credibility was built during the analysis, which – guard now dropped – makes us accept his conclusions all too readily.

The underlying problem is that he is looking for the ‘true’ meta-narrative of the universe without actually knowing God. He is attempting to find this ultimate truth in the orbits of myth, legend, ancient story, classical philosophy, and even the Bible. These, however, all surround an aura of an idea that he hasn’t properly grasped or digested, thus are all held with equal weight.

Dr. Peterson is looking for an ultimate ethic; an absolute foundational set of principles to guide humanity, but without a living relationship with the living God. This means that he is working from the outside in – getting close, but misunderstanding the weight of his evidence, and thus missing the truth.

Without a fundamentally Christian ethic he can only get close, but not actually get on point.

What does this look like?

His idea of the divine results in an Eastern balance of equal and opposite forces – almost karmic. The yin-yang is his meta-type metaphor that he uses to explain the chaos and order which battle in the world. This stems from a serious lack of understanding of the nature of sin (the actual bringing of chaos), and the character of God (ultimate order).

His conclusion is balance (over equality), and with this comes an acceptance of suffering as a part of life, helped only by the masses individually trying to correct unjust situations.

There is a lot of admire in this, but ultimately it is a pure form of humanism, and not compatible with Christianity.

Aspects missing from Dr. Petersons worldview – but clear in Jesus’ – are things like:

  • Ultimate sacrificial love
  • Servant-hearted leadership
  • An honour in humility
  • Seeking to be last in order to be first
  • Dependence upon God
  • Seeking the goodness of others above personal success
  • An end to suffering – ultimately
  • Chaos solved by surrender to, not creation of, order

This is not to say that Dr. Peterson isn’t immensely compassionate, and fiercely ethical. I believe he is. Christian ethics, however, cannot be tamed by conventional wisdom, or dammed by conventional fears. The God-man, Jesus, demonstrates the perfect picture of leadership that runs counter to the ideas of self-actualised success as presented (at least in my understanding) of Dr. Peterson’s work.

Some of this comes down to him being a traditional scientist, measuring all evidence with equal weight as is responsible to the method. Thus the Bible is put alongside other sources rather than above it. Some of this, however, also comes down to a poor understanding of the Bible. When he does quote from Scripture, he seems to cite odd scholarship and rather mess up fundamental exegetical methods. Finally, I think some of this comes from a dark worldview that is strongly reactionary (and rightly so) against the Communist atrocities of the last century – particularly in Russia and China. He sometimes just seems a little without hope.

We do, therefore, need to tread carefully when mirroring Dr. Peterson’s worldview. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn from him.

What can we learn from Dr. Peterson

Going back to his analysis, I think that the most important takeaways from Dr. Peterson is both his critical thinking ability and his calm response to conflict.

Critical Thinking

I believe that critical thinking is one of the most undervalued aspects of early education. Throughout high-school (in the UK at least), the emphasis is placed on the memorisation of facts, rather than on the discovery of them.

This in turn has deeply effected our evangelism. I guess that almost half the questions that I’m asked by young people would never have been asked in the first place if they were taught how to think. Misplaced stereotypes and new-atheist propaganda has been swallowed hook, line, and sinker, as if it was candy rather than a barb.

When we are asked a question, our natural response is to answer it – either as stated or as categorised as something we’ve heard before. Neither of these, however, might actually answer what the asker was interested in.

Instead, when asked a question, Dr. Peterson, clarifies the question. He asks a question back (or twelve), not to avoid, but to focus. In doing this he better understands the question, shows more respect for the person asking the question, and he starts to find holes in the assumptions given within the quesiton.

Take this question for instance:

‘If God exists why is there suffering and evil?’

There’s a question we’ve all heard many times, and we probably have a stock answer ready to roll. However, using critical thinking and being a little Socratic about it, we can have a much more effective answer. How about responding to that with one of these:

  • Why do you think suffering and evil means God can’t exist?
  • What kind of God are you talking about?
  • What kind(s) of suffering and evil are you talking about?
  • How would you do it?
  • Can you think of any way suffering happens for a good reason?
  • Are you struggling with something right now? Do you want to talk about that?

A little bit of critical thinking reveals that this question doesn’t challenge God’s existence at all. Instead it brings up whether or not someone likes the idea of God, which is a much weaker – but more honest – position.

This effects our Bible studies and talks too. If we only ask closed-ended questions, or speak at young people, then we won’t be training them to discover truth for themselves. What about printing off Bible verses, and letting young people try their hand at some exegetical tools for themselves? What about getting them to first write a Bible study and then deliver it?

Critical thinking is gold, because we love and serve a reasonable God. He wants us to think, and He wants us to discover Him.

Calm under Conflict

If you watch Dr. Peterson when he comes under fire in an interview or debate, you’ll notice a few things.

First, his posture doesn’t change. He stays leaned back, with his hands folded.

Second, he doesn’t loose eye-contact. He stays connected at a personal level.

Third, his tone, although firm and direct doesn’t gain an overly aggressive edge. He remains respectful.

Fourth, he listens critically, doesn’t interrupt, and takes a minute to understand and clarify. He processes his answer carefully.

If you watch me, however, especially at my worst, then you’ll see me do all the opposite of these things! I lean in, I fidget, I interrupt, I look anywhere but at the person’s face, I speak erratically and defensively, I say off-the-cuff things or placating things, and I speak too quickly without digesting properly. Bad!

This is one of the main reasons he wins his debates, but is also one of the main reasons he is respected. He shows respect and remains calm and thoughtful when under conflict.

He can be slightly less reasonable when the person attacking him is rude and unnecessarily aggressive – which is fair enough really. However, as we work with teenagers and in churches, we may need to dial up our tolerance for this kind of behaviour.

So what?

Dr. Jordon Peterson, I believe, is a helpful figure in public discourse. He’s thoughtful, compassionate, helpful, and articulate. He thinks before he speaks and he listens carefully. He doesn’t dismiss the supernatural out-of-hand, and he believes in the power of story.

He does not, however, represent a Christian worldview, or present a complete picture of Christian leadership values as displayed in Jesus. Thus we need to tread carefully around his conclusions.

Dr. Peterson does provide us a wonderful role-model for critical thinking, and remaining calm under conflict. Both of these traits will, I believe, serve us very well in our ministries with young people. For that we should be thankful for him, and pray for him to come into a living relationship with Jesus.

A Call for More Careful Reading of Dr. Andrew Root.

This is just a gentle post asking for some care when reading Dr. Andrew Root. He is well worth the effort and he is invaluable to interact with. I am personally challenged by his experience working with so many hurting and broken young people throughout his career. I’m inspired by Root! I like him, and he has a lot of value to add to the conversation.

However, his densely written work is easily accepted as completely correct because it is written a head higher than most other youth work literature is. Many of us in the youth ministry world are simply not used to reading academics, and therefore we don’t bring the level of conversational critique required when engaging with the convincing and well-cited prose that academics, like Root, writes in.

Before publishing this, I sent a copy to Dr. Root and asked for his thoughts. He graciously and very gracefully replied. On the whole he saw it as a mostly fair critique, noting that we probably do come from different theological angles. Agreed! However, he did also clarify a few areas. Some of these have been incorporated into what I’ve written below. The main thing, however, is that his thinking has developed in more recent publications, particularly in his book, Christopraxis (2014). However, I have not yet read this, so cannot comment on it. This may make some of the critique below moot, however, as Root said in his email, ‘I’d imagine some of your concerns will remain.’

As this post is designed to encourage more critical thinking and careful reading, it’s not important that readers necessarily agree with my critique, so much as they simply engage with critique. For this reason, I have asked Dr. Root for permission to publish his response. If he is agreeable, then I will do so as soon as possible.

Dr. Root brings us a massively useful set of perspectives that we should carefully consider in our work, but that doesn’t mean that he is completely, one-hundred-percent on the ball, or that his views should be appropriated in their entirety. Academia works by moving conversations forward in micro-increments, with hypotheses tested, and attempts made to falsify. That’s how iron sharpens iron in the academic world. However, as Root’s books tend to skirt the middle ground between academia and populous, that context can easily be lost through no fault of his own.

I’m sure Root himself, from an academic background, would fully support me by encouraging us to engage in these kinds of innovative conversations with critical thinking and great care. Nothing should be swallowed hook, line and sinker, without some real thought – especially when it is at this kind of level.

This post isn’t written to target Dr. Root, but to use him as an example of taking care when reading literature that sits on the line between dense academic work, and popular practical materials. Root has become this example because of the number of blogs and groups currently reviewing him are in complete agreement and offer total support. It concerns me that reviewers and interviewers don’t ask critical questions of some of his more abstract or innovative ideas. They may simple not be aware of how unorthodox some of his claims are.

I recently wrote a paper analyzing the last few decades of ‘incarnational’ youth ministry theory (mainly looking at Pete Ward, Dean Borgman, and Andrew Root), and – after reading everything Root has published specifically on the subject – I was left with a few concerns that I’d like to outline here:

Approach to Evangelical Youth Ministry

First, Root’s own analysis of evangelical youth ministry is a little bit reductionist at times and comes with a tendency to erect a straw man in its place. He may, therefore, simply be fixing the wrong leak!

There is plenty to agree with in his survey of youth ministry. For instance, he says that there is a ‘dangerously high reading of cultural influence its blood stream’ (2007:23, 81) and it has settled into a pattern ‘that is more embedded in individualism’ (2013:110-111). Amen to that and let’s get on it!

He then, however, reduces evangelical youth ministry into a formulaic or purely functional approach, that makes ministry ‘goal-orientated rather than a companionship-orientated’ (2007:23). He, using this false dichotomy, writes as if any kind of potential influence is unhealthy, and thus any youth ministry that is trying to influence a young person to become a Christian is depersonalized and dishonest (2013:113-114). He sees this as manipulative leverage (2007:17; 2011:151).

There is very little nuance in Root’s critique. He doesn’t, for instance, differentiate been healthy and unhealthy influence. Talking someone down from the ledge before committing suicide would surely be an example of healthy influence? Many evangelicals would argue that this is exactly the type of influence they exercise by trying to help young people know the Gospel. Root, however, doesn’t consider these potential perspectives. Because of this, academic reviewers such as Dr. M. Dodrill (2013:12), Dr. B. Bertrand (2013:46), and Prof. R. Haitch (2013:38) believe that Root misunderstands evangelicals.

Root provides an important cautionary tale about manipulating young people through inauthentic relationships. However, he would do well to read other evangelical youth work theorists less as strawmen. Further, his sweepingly negative comments about influence cannot stand under scrutiny. Relationships are by their nature influential and contain a variety of moving goals.

In Root’s reply to me, he said this is fair critique, however should be placed in dialogue with his affirmation of evangelicalism in Christopraxis (2014). I will update this after I have read it.

Place-Sharing in Practice

Second, Root’s view of ‘place-sharing’ is dangerous if improperly applied. As much as I love Root’s compassion-driven model which focuses on empathy with the pain of young people, I’m troubled about what that could look like in practice.

For Root, we most deeply encounter the nearness of Jesus in His crucifixion, so Jesus empathised with our pain deeply that we – using the crucifixion as our base line – should likewise share in the pain of young people. Place-sharing requires us to indwell or inhabit another’s pain so completely that it becomes our own (2007:129-130; see Smith, 2009:113). This is not about getting young people to ‘accept… the gospel message’ it is about ‘sharing in suffering and joy, about persons meeting with persons with no pretence of secret motives’ (2007:15). One begins to wonder what the distinctives of the ‘gospel message’ are under Root’s theology (a point we’ll return to in objection four)?

Root’s approach puts the youth minister into very vulnerable positions. In his impassioned plea to place-share in the pain of young people, Root has encouraged muggy boundaries (Hickford, 2003:111). An immersed relationship cannot extend to a group of young people, twenty-four hours a day. This is a recipe for burnout — and sets a precedent for young people to allow themselves into unsafe situations. In Root’s response to me, he reminds me that he does say on several occasions that the youth minister can only be a place-sharer to perhaps five young people and should see it as a responsibility to ‘ordain’ other adults to do the same. Root also talks about openness and closeness and claims that place-sharing has starker boundaries than other methods (although this I believe points to the poor practice of those other methods, rather than to the soundness of his). Root does, however, indeed give more boundaries than I initially suggested. That granted, I think my problem remains. Empathising so deeply with a young person that their pain becomes our own is dangerous with any number of young people. It doesn’t provide a healthy relational dynamic where the hurting party can develop without attachment, and where the outside party (now the equally hurting party) can detach and remain true to their own identity and responsibilities. I recently shared this concept with both a Christian psychotherapist, and a PhD in child psychology. They both were deeply troubled and saw this as a fundamental gap in Root’s knowledge of counselling theory

This reveals another significant problem in Root’s writing. His relational examples are only between equal partners (marriage and friendship). This ‘leads to an overly simplistic and gendered divide between instrumental and expressive relationships’ (Betrand and Hearlson, 2013:49). Frankly, expecting a teenager to be an ‘equal partner’ and carry the baggage of a much older youth minster is a recipe for relational abuse – if not actually abusive in itself.

Root has responded to Betrand’s and Hearlson’s critique in the Journal of Youth Ministry (2013). Where they believe Root is ‘not interested in in young people hearing the Gospel’, Root responds that he wants ‘nothing more, than for young people to encounter and respond to the gospel’ (59) and says that this is not encountering an idea but Jesus himself. This Jesus is met, Root believes, in the revelation of ministry, thus Jesus is genuinely present within place-sharing. Salvation, he says, is found in encountering Jesus through participation in relationships. He concedes that he has ‘little concern for people converting to the idea of Jesus’ (60). Again, there is much to agree with here. Surely encountering the active person of Jesus is essential to the gospel. However, reducing the gospel narratives and Pauline materials on salvation to simply ‘encountering Jesus’ without doctrinal subtext is simply too small a picture of Jesus. It seems that for Root, salvation is little more than relational closeness to Jesus, rather than any atoning consequence of dealing with sin on the cross to win our forgiveness. Two people being close does not make them married. Covenantal promises, commitments, and sacrifices to adopt a whole new way of living is also important for a couple. Further, leaving that encounter necessary for salvation to be contained within the practice of human relationship feels very much like remoulding Jesus into our image, rather than seeking His. Root’s response is worth a read as it does clarify his position somewhat, however I was left with more concerns than less, as both the focus of salvation and Root’s very particular approach to Bible interpretation became starker.

Place-sharing, if clearer boundaries were applied, could be a helpful way to talk about the value of interested adults in the lives of young people. However, Root’s presentation of it as the Incarnation’s continuous form is unsound, and as a practical approach it is a recipe for burnout and abuse.

Theological Basis

Third, Root uses Dietrich Bonhoeffer as his de facto foundational thinker, but he also sees Bonhoeffer through rose-tinted lens. As much as I would agree that we have a plethora of helpful things to learn from Bonhoeffer, it is also worth noting that there are problems and nuances in Bonhoeffer’s theology which are heavily influenced by his context.

Bonhoeffer’s Christology was born out of a very turbulent life experience. He emphasised the this-world focus and concrete nature of Jesus becoming flesh (words used by Root) which was heavily outworked in a strongly social gospel. Abstract or internal knowledge of God was almost entirely dismissed by Bonhoeffer. He intended that ‘all Christian doctrines be reinterpreted in “this world” terms… The only way to find God, then, is to live fully in the midst of this world. Christians must participate in Jesus’ living for others’ (Godsey, 1991). Bonhoeffer, during the later period of his life, discontinued his daily Bible meditation, denying that Scripture contained any timeless principles. He said, ‘we may no longer seek after universal, eternal truths’ reading the Bible (Bonhoeffer and Krauss 2010:71). Further, as someone who leaned towards universalism, Bonhoeffer lacked a strong theology of atonement or soteriology (Weikart, 2015).

In many ways, Root’s understanding of the Incarnation is not his own. The ghost of Dietrich Bonhoeffer walks each and every page. Haitch sees Root’s work as little more than a ‘cut and paste’ approach (2013:13-14). Even the phrase place-sharer is Bonhoeffer’s (Stellvertreter) (2007:83). Root said that Bonhoeffer’s part in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was driven by the belief ‘that it was the only way that he could truly (truly = in the imitation of Christ) share the place of those crushed by the wheels of the Nazi political machine’ (2007:85). This would have been the ideal place for Root to have added some words of caution about using Bonhoeffer as a de facto position on Christology, however we are left wanting.

It’s not that Root using Bonhoeffer is a problem. Bonhoeffer is a legend with much to teach us! However, Root uses him uncritically, and that is what causes issues. This is the same difficulty that I’m having with popular reviews of Root. There is much for value, but it must be read carefully and in balance.

In balance to this, Dr. Root would like me to be aware that in his later work, particularly in Christopraxis, (but also Faith Formation in a Secular Age, and Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs and Zombies) that his thinking has developed and shows deeper engagement with orthodox and Pauline conceptions – and particularly with Luther. I concede that not reading these yet puts me at a disadvantage, however, Root also concedes that despite this some of my concerns ‘will remain.’

Understanding of Salvation

Fourth, Root’s theology seems to miss key creedal components. He seems to go out of his way, for instance, to avoid talking about the atonement in any distinctive form, which makes me wonder what Root’s theology of salvation really is? He writes as if he is trying to unstick the incarnation from any kind of soteriology (2013: 132-133, 148-149; 2007:91-94), and avoids it being the way in which God’s wrath is appeased (2013:128).

From my reading of Root, salvation is reclassified as ‘finding your person bound to God’ (2013:70; see Bertrand and Hearlson, 2013:47); sin is re-understood as ‘antihumanity’ (2007:90-91); and new-creation is deemphasized in favour of individual, world-bound empathy (2013:99, 149). He does not cogently discuss victory, God’s glory, heaven, obedience, or proclamation in mission. He, I believe, marginalises the Father and subtly remoulds the classical understanding of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (2013:147). Finally, Root neglects to properly unpack essential views that emphasise the historically understood divine aspects of the Incarnation (such as Athanasius or the Nicene Creed) – and favours writers like Barth, Torrance, and Bonhoeffer, all of whom lean towards the Incarnation being something in itself salvific.

I find it difficult, in how Root has written, to see much effectual reason for Jesus to have died for sins apart from fulfilling some kind of ultimate act of place-sharing in our death. Root frequently moves the ‘goal’ of incarnation from a divine action to a participative human action (2007:89-94).

Summary

Do I think these objections result in an insurmountable problem with the work of Dr. Root? Certainly not – and in many ways I don’t like nit-picking someone whom I respect so deeply. It’s easy to find problems in anyone, and I’m sure Root could answer or clarify his approach to all of the above. Many of these are probably just misunderstandings, or rabbit holes that needed a little more clarification and nuance at the time of writing.

The problem is I – as a reasonably well-informed, theologically-educated, and experienced youth leader – after reading all of Root’s work, came away with these issues. It worries me greatly, therefore, that in the youth work populous, little, if any, critique is being offered. Why is it that the only real critical questioning has been relegated to the academic realm?

Let’s please read innovative work carefully, and appropriate it into our contexts with great attention to the young people that God has placed in our lives. It’s important to engage with deep thinkers, but deep thinking alone doesn’t make something correct or adoptable. In the case of Root, there is I believe, enough serious divergence from orthodoxy to require great care in reading.

My absolute best to Dr. Root, who I think is an invaluable thinker in our times. My hope for all of us, however, is that we can gracefully look deeper and more carefully at what we adopt.

 

References:

Bertrand, B., & Hearlson, C. (2013), ‘Relationships, personalism, and Andrew Root’, The Journal of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 45-55

Billings, J.T. (2012), ‘The Problem with ‘Incarnational Ministry.”, Christianity Today, 56, 7, pp. 58-63

Bonhoeffer, D. and Krauss, R. (2010). Letters and papers from prison. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.

Dodrill, M. (2013), ‘A call for more critical thinking regarding the ‘theological turn’ in youth ministry’, The Journal Of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 7-20

Glassford, D.K. (2016), ‘Bonhoeffer as youth worker: a theological vision for discipleship and life together’, Christian Education Journal, 13, 2, pp. 435-437

Godsey, J. (1991), Bonhoeffer’s costly theology. Available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-32/bonhoeffers-costly-theology.html

Haitch, R. (2013), ‘Response to ‘Incarnation and place-sharing’ by Andrew Root’, The Journal Of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 37-43

Hickford, A. (2003) Essential youth: Why your church needs young people. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications

Root, A. (2014) Bonhoeffer as youth worker: a theological vision for discipleship and life together. Grand Rapids: Baker Books

Root, A. (2013), ‘Evangelicalism, personalism and encounters with the person of Jesus: a rejoinder’, The Journal Of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 57-67

Root. A. (2013), How we talk about sin in youth ministry. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7I4gHCKElw

Root, A. (2011), ‘Participation and mediation: a practical theology for the liquid church’, International Journal of Practical Theology, 15, 1, pp. 137-139

Root, A. Relationality as the Objective of Incarnational Ministry: A Reexamination of the Theological Foundations of Adolescent Ministry in Griffiths, S. (ed.) and International Association for the study of Youth Ministry (2004) Journal of Youth and Theology Vol.3 No. 1 April 2004. pp.97-113

Root, A. (2007), Revisiting relational youth ministry: from a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books

Root, A. (2013), ‘The incarnation, place-sharing, and youth ministry: experiencing the transcendence of God’, The Journal of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 21-36

Root, A. (2013), The relational pastor: sharing in Christ by sharing ourselves. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP

Root, A. and Dean, K.C. (2011) The theological turn in youth ministry. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books

Smith, F.J. (2009), ‘Revisiting relational youth ministry: from a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation’, Theology Today, 66, 1, p. 109

Weikart, R. (2015), The Troubling Truth About Bonhoeffer’s Theology. Available at http://www.equip.org/article/troubling-truth-bonhoeffers-theology/

White, D.F. (2008), ‘Toward an adequate sociology of youth ministry: a dialogue with Andrew Root and Anthony Giddens’, The Journal of Youth Ministry, 7, 1, pp. 91-100

Winstead, B. (2016), ‘Bonhoeffer as youth worker: a theological vision for discipleship and life together’, Wesleyan Theological Journal, 51, 1, pp. 230-233

When musical tastes become the preconditions for worship

The time of musical worship can be a nightmare to crack! With so many tastes and values in the room it’s amazing that we ever get through it without broken teeth, flying drumsticks, or choral tantrums.

Part of the issue is we’re just so darn picky!

I, for instance, am really cynical about 90s-00s contemporary worship music. I find it simplistic, boring, messy, boring, poorly written, boring, rubbish to play, boring, and theologically… quirky. Is this a fair assessment of all worship music from that era? Probably not. Does it summarise all of that era’s worship? Definitely not! Does it tell me something about my heart? Very yes!

And here’s the problem: The straight line we draw from ‘does this please me’ to ‘does it please God’ is logically absurd! Worship was never primarily designed for me.

Our worship should reach in three directions:

  1. Upward. We’re to love and honour God.
  2. Outwards. We’re to serve and uplift each other.
  3. Inwards. We’re to encourage our silly hearts and tired minds to respond.

The problem is we tend to add a fourth step; something like, ‘we’re to like the music’. This totally reverses the process which ends up looking a little like this:

  1. Double Inwards. Am I properly entertained by, and comfortable with the music provided?
  2. Inwards. Do I feel that I can now respond to God?
  3. Outwards. Do I feel that I can encourage others to get stuck in?
  4. Upwards. Do I feel that God likes what I’m doing?

The problem here is that every one of these steps is now governed by ‘do I feel…?’, which makes worship self-serving rather than God-serving. This is a huge problem when you consider that worship in the Bible always included sacrifice and making ourselves lower than Him.

If our ability to worship is governed by our acceptance of the music provided, then everything stops working.

Put another way: if worship must first meet our conditions, then we won’t fully be worshipping when they do.

If the music fits us so perfectly that we ‘switch on’ our worship mode, then it’s likely that is it isn’t always worship that we’re doing. It’s not that we can’t worship to our music preference (of course we can), the problem is making our worship and adoration of God conditional on our music preferences.

Our love for God shouldn’t be conditional upon anything but His love for us.

How many times have you heard (or thought!) something like:

  • I can’t worship to an organ
  • The music is too loud to worship
  • I can’t focus on God because the singer was off-key
  • God can’t get through to me though a guitar solo

For me – I always lose it if a drummer goes out of time!

Now some of this is simple human distraction – worked on with time and patience. However, these things can be heart issues. It’s a heart issue when we won’t try to worship if our preferences aren’t met. This then ends up being subliminal and habitual. The symptoms are things like:

  • Constantly grumbling about the music wherever you go
  • Easily snapping in and out of worship
  • Connecting better at conferences than your home church
  • Not connecting with God musically when at home alone

I want to nuance this slightly as there’s other reasons that the above can exist, and God takes whatever worship we give Him, even if it’s conditional or a bit self-centered. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we’re never worshipping in music when we’re conditional, but I would challenge all of us that if we are conditional, then our worship will quickly hit a maturity plateau. And when our worship plateaus, so does our faith.

We need to love God so dearly, and long to worship Him so fully that the music style will not stop us from doing so! We should all strive for a place where if all we have is a set of lungs and some rattling paint cans, that will be enough.

My encouragement here (and my challenge to myself) is to worship God regardless, and not to make our adoration of God dependent, or conditional on our tastes. We’re not a vending machine that only pays out with the right coins; God shouldn’t have to tease it out of us. Let’s overflow to Him, however off-key, out-of-time, or poorly written the music is. God is always worth it!.

Why we need Sync – a new resource from Youth For Christ – by Grace Wheeler

Grace Wheeler is the National Evangelist at Youth for Christ. You can explore the free Sync resources here and see the Youtube channel here.

 

As a communicator, one of the things I’ve always used to connect with people is stories. I tell stories about dogs, about inspiring people, but mostly about me! This is not because I love myself, it’s because I know me best and when I share something of my life it connects with my audience.

Stories are powerful.

I don’t know about you, but I can remember the stories I read as a child, curled up with my mum on the sofa or fighting sleep as I settled down for the night. And I do so for a very good scientific reason. When we hear stories, our brain secretes powerful chemicals: cortisol, which makes us pay attention, oxytocin (the same hormone that bonds mother and baby), which makes us feel empathy for the story’s characters, and dopamine (the chemical abused by ‘fun enhancing’ substances), which makes us feel good when there is a happy ending. Moreover, brain scans during storytelling reveal that the same chemical patterns are observed in both teller’s and hearer’s brains. It’s as if you sync your mind to the other person’s using the power of story. It’s as if Jesus knew what he was doing when he used parables to communicate the deep truths of the cosmos.

And in youth culture stories resonate even more. When you use Snapchat or Insta these days you are not just invited to capture a moment in time but to tell a story. Our music videos and computer games have evolved. The story is central to them.

‘It’s as if you sync your mind to the other person’s using the power of story.’

What does this have to do with evangelism?

Recently I have been captivated by the idea that in evangelism, three stories collide. We have a story, God has a story, and our friend who does not yet know Jesus also has a story. Great evangelism is about bringing these stories together through the power of relationship. One of the first steps here is to know your own story.

Purpose, forgiveness, friendship, belonging, change, hope, life, love, adventure, guidance, mission. All these words help young people tell a story of the difference Jesus makes in their life. St Peter writes, ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3:15). One of the best things we can do for our young people is to prepare them to tell their story.

As an evangelist, I am compelled by the idea that if every Christian young person knew their story, God’s story, was praying for a few mates, and was committed to intentional relationships with those around them – then the viral potential for the Gospel could be unleashed in a new way. That’s why at Youth for Christ we have created Sync, a Youtube channel to help young people know their story and be inspired to share it. I would love you to check it out and run it for free with your young people.

Let’s stop telling future youth ministers to skip training!

(Sorry – slightly ranty post)

Over the past decade, Bible Colleges in Britain have really started to struggle getting people to apply. This has been most clearly seen in youth work courses. Not only have several large and well-established youth work training centres now closed, but many of the biggest Bible Colleges in the UK don’t even have a dedicated youth work teacher.

I find this really weird, because also over the past decade, loads of deep-thinking books and resources have come out on youth work. There is now a plethora of relational practice books, educational theory journals, and theological youth work PhDs published each year. The knowledge base is constantly growing. I thought we were just starting to get it?

Ministry Lite?

Youth ministry has been seen as ministry lite for a while now. From the outside it looks like underpaid, entertainment-driven purgatory, where a Nike-sporting young wannabe is waiting for ‘real’ ministry to start later. Only a cursory glance into the youth work world, however, would reveal just how many areas youth ministers need to be carefully developed in.

Youth ministers need to be trained theologically for sure; but they also need to understand HR, safeguarding law, project management, team development, conflict resolution, additional needs, mental health, and a mountain of other very specific, and vocationally professional areas.

Youth ministry is no joke. Done badly it can bring down a church, done really badly it can bring the entire Gospel into genuine disrepute. It’s now easier than ever to make these huge mistakes without even being aware of the issues that cause them.

So why are we so blasé about formal training?

Paediatric doctors will train for years. As will mental health nurses, psychiatrists, counsellors, sports coaches, and of course teachers. We see these as professions which require real training efforts. We take these seriously because they are all involved with the care of vulnerable young people. But wait – isn’t that exactly what we do in youth ministry?

Taking Youth Ministry Seriously

Youth work is no joke. It involves holistic care and theological security. Youth workers – especially those in lead ministry positions – need training. Experience alone simply doesn’t cut it; theological illiteracy is too epidemic, laws change too quickly, and young people vary too widely.

I’m not saying that youth workers need to be more intellectual or more academic. Not at all! We’re not running a school after all… but come on! A little hard effort into understanding complex issues and deep truths about young people goes for miles in ministry.

In most of my posts I’m totally on the youth worker’s side – but in this one I’m asking the impertinent question: What are you doing to show that you take your own ministry seriously?

Are you enrolling on courses, reading books, going to training regularly, and asking for a bigger budget to do just that? Do you know the options for degrees, further professional development, or even research? Do you know the gaps in your knowledge – and where to go to fill them? Are you intentionally putting yourself in situations where you’re challenged? Do you surround yourself with people smarter than you?

I really believe that youth workers should see their role as a calling – something long term. If you believe that’s you, then taking a few years (yes, years) out to do proper foundational training should be seen as an obvious thing to do.

Training doesn’t replace experience of course, nor should it eclipse your own reading, but you can build concurrently and afterwards. The first time I did a theology degree, I spent my free time volunteering in several youth projects – and worked part-time. It’s much easier to gain experience while training than it is to train while working.

Why would you not?

There are several routes into youth ministry, and many of them don’t require any formal training: Internships, apprenticeships, or graduating from voluntary work are often the most regularly travelled paths.

I love these options and I’ve seen some great youth workers come out of these routes too. However, these options often (if not always) leave signifiant holes that need to be plugged. They tend to be too particular, too basic, or too unaccountable.

When someone asks me about youth work training – and specifically about getting a degree – I always ask: why would you not?

Yes, some people hate the classroom and really don’t do well with traditional academic methods – but there is now so much choice in the UK for youth workers who feel just like this. There is also a wide range of funding options, distance learning courses, and timeframes to consider. You can usually discover a good fit if you are willing to put the effort into finding out.

There is also a lot of criticism levied against formal theological training: It’s not worth the money, universities are too hampered by their awarding bodies, youth don’t need another pasty-faced academic, I’d rather just be doing it, I can get all the same information from books etc. However, I’ve only ever heard these arguments from people who decided not to train. The Dunning-Kruger effect comes to mind.

The fact remains for me that the best youth workers that I’ve ever met personally are both well-experienced, and formally-trained. They didn’t feel like they we’re already ‘good enough’ to skip it and move on, and they didn’t feel like youth work didn’t deserve the time or the effort. They are all doing amazing work today that will long outlast them.

Is it always necessary to get a degree?

It probably sounds like I’m saying that right? Well, no it’s not… but I’d like us to start seeing degree-level-trained youth ministers as the norm rather than the exception. At the moment there are a lot less formally trained youth workers out there, and I’d really like to see that balance tip.

So there are genuine ways you should be able to go into youth ministry without getting formally trained – but I’d love to see that as the exception, not the rule. And I’d hope, if you are in that position, that you’d be looking for options as your ministry develops.

There are experiences, information, and learning environments that you just cannot get any other way – from people who are paid to stay up-to-date and informed – in a space designed for you to make lots of mistakes and ask lots of questions. Why would you not see that as the first option?

I kinda think about it like cyclists legs. Cyclists legs really creep me out; it’s like they have a chicken, or half a ham wedged into their calf, while the rest of their leg is super skinny. Experience might build a couple of big solid muscles, but training should give you what you need to develop everything in balance.

So get on it!

Formal theological and practical training in youth ministry is worth every minute.

Rather than asking ‘what else could I do’, start looking at formal, foundation training as the first option. You wouldn’t want a doctor working on you without proper training, or a mechanic working on your car with big gaps in their knowledge. Lets take youth ministry at least as seriously.

😛 That is all.

Rant over.

 

Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

Can you be a Christian and watch Game of Thrones? 5 Better Questions to Ask.

I’ve had a lot of these ‘can you be a Christian and…’ questions recently. Although they usually come less in the form of the genuine and curious, and more in the form of the judgemental and arrogant, thus ‘how can someone possibly be a Christian and…’

So lets’ break this down. Can you be a Christian and…

  • Watch Game of Thrones
  • Watch Deadpool
  • Read Harry Potter
  • Read Twilight
  • Like Rob Bell
  • Listen to Iron Maiden
  • Smoke
  • Swear
  • Not go to church
  • Have ginger hair
  • Support Blackpool Football Club?

Yes. Yes you can. The only action that can actually and effectually make you ‘not a Christian’ is denying Christ. We are saved by grace through faith, not by any other peripheral actions that we might or might not do.

Paul was a murderer who was saved by grace. David was a murder and a rapist, and saved by grace. I’m an ass – saved by grace.

So yes – it’s possible to ‘be’ a Christian and do all kinds of things. So let’s think about some other ways of considering the question:

1. Could it eventually steal your salvation?

Well, without getting into the ‘once-saved-always-saved’ debates, it’s worth noting that the Bible does distinguish salvation (coming into relationship with God) and sanctification (growing in that relationship with God).

In the same way that the wedding it not the marriage, and your partner might still marry you after knowing your darkest issues… she might reject you eventually if you make no effort to change them and grow once married.

Being addicted to pornography, for instance, can steadily pollute and corrupt a relationship, first through secrecy, then by objectifying your partner, and finally through rejecting their comforts in favour of the internet abstract. Thus the intimacy and commitment of marriage breaks down.

Indulging in areas that pollute your relationship with God can do exactly the same thing; leading you to know Him less, and eventually either reimagining Him into something He is not, or just rejecting Him altogether.

Does Game of Thrones do that? After reading the parents guide on imdb, I decided it would not serve my personal relationship with God, so I decided not to watch it.

2. Is it helpful?

Twice in 1 Corinthians Paul says that all things are permissible (saved by Grace right?), but not all things are helpful.

‘“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.’ (1 Cor. 6:12, ESV)

‘“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.’ (1 Cor. 10:23, ESV)

Both of these appear in the context of honouring God and not giving over to idolatry – including sexual immorality (ch. 6).

In the first verse Paul hints at becoming mastered, or under compulsion, or even addicted to something. There’s a lot of stuff that we indulge in that places us under compulsion and easily leads to addiction. This list includes porn, drugs, and gratuitous violence to be sure, but it also includes simple and mostly innocent things like sugar, exercise, food, cartoons, and action films. Anything that gives us a isolating comfort or an unnatural spike of dopamine in our systems can become addictive – and needs to be held accountable to our worship of God. Does Game of Thrones do this for you? It might – it might not. But it’s a good question to ask.

Another way of putting it might be like this: if it seems that giving something up for a while (fasting) would be a really hard, then you might be under its compulsion and possibly might need to be without it for a while.

In the second verse, Paul opens the net wider, pulling in the community in which we live and serve. Our passion, he said, should be to love and serve the world around us and support our neighbours. If watching or reading something subtly shifts our priorities consistently away from serving others to serving ourselves then it needs to be pulled back on.

I think you can add this to serving your partner too. Does my wife want me to be entertained by another woman simulating passionate sex acts? Is she served by me spending time enjoying the intimacy of private relationships with someone that is not her? Does this serve her or serve our marriage in any legitimate way? For us – I don’t think it would.

3. Can you honour and worship God with it?

Staying in 1 Cor. 10, Paul says that everything we decide to do should honour God as an act of worship:  ‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (v.31, ESV). This idea is again repeated in Colossians; ‘And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ (Col. 3:17, ESV).

So, crux time should be asking yourself whether or not you are able to engage with God at the levels of honour, worship, and self-sacrifice, for the building up of His glory, as you engage with something.

Again, I decided that I wasn’t able to do this by watching Game of Thrones. However, I also decided that it was doable for me reading Harry Potter. What do you think?

4. What if I’m just a ‘stronger brother’?

This comes from 1 Cor. 8, which is one of the more woefully mismanaged and misapplied verses in the Bible.

Paul is saying that those of you who have accepted grace enough to understand what food will and won’t effect your salvation should eat away – but not if it causes others still working through that process to struggle. The focus is not on you, but on your ability to love, serve, and help those who are working through different issues than you.

Frankly, its not for us to decide what we can get away with based on how ‘strong’ we think we are in comparison to others. The focus of that passage is on serving others. Deciding how much your faith can ‘tolerate’ before it corrupts is just a spiritual car crash waiting to happen.

5. What is I’m just trying to be relevant?

There’ll be a longer post on what actually makes us relevant coming soon, so watch this space. For now I’ll just say that the peripheral things that we think make us relevant actually give our relevancy a shelf life. Things that make us genuinely relevant don’t require us to expose ourselves to corruption, but more to the Holy Spirit.

So what?

We shouldn’t ever chose to do something because we can ‘get away with it’ – we should choose it because it draws us closer to God, builds up others, and helps us honour Him.

This, honestly, might include Game of Thrones for you. I, personally, cannot imagine how it could; but I know myself and not you.

Sometimes sacrificing something we enjoy is just the right thing to do if it means giving God that extra devotion, love, worship, and time. The question should never be ‘can I watch/do/read…’ but should always be ‘will this help me worship Him…’

Food for thought.

The Selfish Gospel by Freddie Pimm – Well worth the time!

In ‘The Selfish Gospel’, Freddie Pimm does an outstanding job of presenting a raw challenge to an apathetic church in a me-centred society.

Using the diagnostic tools Pimm gained as a doctor, he roots out a problem at the heart of our understanding of the message of Jesus; that we have made the acts of the selfless saviour a selfish comfort.

This countercultural perspective lifts us out of the mire of humanistic selfishness, and into a radical and transformational ideal – that to give everything for Jesus is the only way to live fully alive.

Pimm explores the discipleship model of Jesus with his apostles and encourages us likewise to be an imitator of Jesus first and foremost. It was Jesus of course who said that if anyone would follow him, they should deny themselves and take up their cross daily. Pimm challenges us to look that full in the face and embrace it as a genuine way to live.

He expands this idea by contrasting the locked in and closed down nature of churches against the transformative and relevant mission of Jesus.

Pimm does well at weaving the Bible into his analysis and gives a layman’s way into understanding more difficult conversations on contextualised local mission, and the true nature of the Church in relation to God’s Kingdom.

This quick, yet challenging read is well worth it.