Editor’s Note: The following article is a summary of material presented at the Center for Youth Ministry Training’s conference From Txt2Speech: Proclaiming scripture to youth in a digital age, held Nov. 30 – Dec. 2, 2012 in Nashville, Tenn.
by Stephen Ingram
The days of up front proclamation, assumed authority, and prescribed theological fences are slowly fading into the background of the ecclesial landscape. For hundreds of years the church has been built on these foundations and we are beginning to see the foundations of that structure crumble. As usual we are seeing the first major cracks in this foundation forming in youth ministries all around the county.
One of the primary catalysts of this paradigm shift are the major changes in how we receive information. If we look at history closely we know that, in the past 1,000 years especially, authority is given to those who have the ability to receive and disseminate knowledge. Take the love affair between Guttenberg’s printing press and the reformation for example. We are in a new era where, through technology, information and therefore authority is no longer a centralized entity. Through the Internet and the World Wide Web we now know that information is dispersed within the masses. If we want to move into the future as the church and into the present as youth ministries, we have to understand and practice these principles in our ecclesial settings.
A Practice of Leading from the Center
We live in a polarized world. Extremist and fundamentalist ideas dominate our airwaves and frame our political and theological dialogue. When these factions set the parameters for our conversations and learning environments, it should be no surprise when the conversations end in shouts and gridlock.
This does not have to be the standard by which we operate.
We can begin to create chaos in this paradigm by forcing our theological conversations to happen from the center, no longer allowing the extremes to set the pace, tone, and narrative for these dialogues.
One of the techniques I have found for creating this kind of chaos is to originate the conversation from the center of a perceived linear argument. The best way I have found to do this is by starting off with the perceived linear dichotomies. I will usually draw a line on a white board with the standard extremes bookending the line. I will then ask the students, 15 to 30 in number, to go to the board and mark their place on the line and initial it. What I have found is that this process usually produces a pretty even distribution across the board. It is interesting because it shows the students, often times much to their surprise, how varied are their opinions about a certain subject. Then, I will draw two vertical lines on the horizontal line. I draw the two lines to divide the horizontal line into perfect thirds. I then tell the students that those with their initials on either the left or right thirds are not allowed to enter the conversation until the 10 minute marker in the conversation. Then I give those in the center third the mandate to discuss not the reason why they are where they are but the unanswered questions that do not allow them to be in the other two thirds. An example from one discussion about homosexuality is, “I could not go either way on the spectrum because I do not understand where hermaphrodites fit into the equation.” These are the sorts of observations or questions that cause the kind of chaos that we desire and that produces a dialogue from the center. The result, more times than not, is that the conversation is re-framed into a series of asking more and more difficult questions, usually leaving the horizontal line and entering into the three dimensional world of theology.
When we refuse to let the extremes inform our conversations and begin our work from the middle with questions instead of positions or defenses, not only is our conversation more civilized but it takes us into realms and planes our students have never considered.
A Practice of Asking Better Questions, Not Giving Easier Answers
I have found that this works best in smaller group settings. While I believe we have the ability to prod, agitate, and ask honest questions in a large group or worship setting, the most conducive places to institute these sorts of pedagogical techniques are either in small groups or in a classroom setting. I have personally found these conversations happen best in informal talks with my students on any afternoon in my office or in a sort of seminary for high school students we do as a part of our student ministry. There are three stages in which I work with students to help them ask difficult questions in these groups. The first is helping them become comfortable with hard questions, uncertainty, and coming out on the other side with more questions than answers. I do this especially through narratives of my own journey. I will often do this with my journey especially if we are discussing a subject that I have spent a lot of time working through.
I also always make sure to not tell them where I am on a subject but end the narrative with the questions I am currently asking about the subject. This technique helps them understand that asking questions does not kill your faith and that in fact they can bring great amounts of joy and fulfillment. It also gets them used to the idea of questioning as a life practice.
The second step is to begin to play “devil’s advocate” to their ideas. I try to do this gently at first and slowly amp up the pressure. This is a delicate practice that I admit I have not perfected yet! It is importance to remember a pastoral ease through this process. It helps to remember that this is not the final step so there is no need to rush this.
Finally, I work on getting them to ask difficult questions, not of the arguments that are being made but more of the questions that are being asked. I try to lead them to ask the questions of the original question. I do this as an exercise of thinking beyond the current paradigms and structures that are given to them. This practice often helps them reshape their ideas and shows them how to think about the problems from angles other than the ones presented to them. I often start this by simply asking, “Are we asking the best questions of this problem?”
Beyond Prescriptive and Proscriptive Theology
Prescriptive: to set down an authoritative direction
Proscriptive: to prohibit or limit
In the theological realm I do not believe we should be putting up the same types of boundaries. Generally in youth ministry we function in one or two ways. We either provide prescriptive or proscriptive theology for our students. We either set out a system or series of beliefs that we believe is the way and then authoritatively tell our students, either overtly or subconsciously, that in order to belong to our community or sometimes even the community of Christianity you have to
- Learn these prescriptive imperatives,
- Subscribe to them, and
- Propagate them to others with little to no deviation.
Other groups, believing the prescriptive method too rigid, will function out of a proscriptive theological framework. In this framework they do not set an authoritative direction that must be followed but rather gives the students a more open area to “play” in theologically. The catch is that while this is not a rigid path that must be followed it still has some very concrete and distinct boundaries that when pushed up against are held in place and are much more concrete in nature.
Think of it like this: prescriptive is a narrow road that leads to a destination and the adherents are told that this road must be followed exactly and any movement away from this road is prohibited because this is the correct road. The proscriptive idea is more like a field where the adherents are allowed to run and play and do as they like until they come close the edge of the field where there are very distinct high walls with warning signs that warn the participant danger, do not proceed. More conservative denomination like evangelicals and non-denominational churches usually follow the prescriptive plan, while more moderate to liberal denominations like mainlines tends towards a proscriptive approach.
I believe both are lacking.
We have the opportunity to move from a prescriptive/proscriptive approach and into an agrarian mindset.
Moving Towards an Agrarian Theology
The agrarian approach explores, learns the land, and discovers and utilizes the fertile grounds wherever they may be. Agrarian at its most basic definition means to cultivate naturally. We have the opportunity to look, seek, and explore both inside and outside the walls and paths of the institution and learn to be cultivators of faith wherever it may grow. We have to be apt and aware of these possibilities as we journey alongside our students as we show them fertile places for spiritual and theological growth, and we also allow them to show us where they have been able to see and cultivate the growth of beautiful things. We have the opportunity to not only enable exploration and growth in our students but experience it in our own lives as well.
I encourage you to trust that God is not confined to our narrow paths and is confined within our walls. I encourage you to seek the full expanse of God, trusting God as you seek and help others seek, that God will not leave you stranded, alone and wanting. The God we seek also seeks us. Even on the other side of the wall.
Stephen Ingram is a dad, husband, and foodie. He serves as the Director of Student Ministries at Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala. He has a BA in Religion from Samford University and a Masters of Divinity from McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. Stephen has worked as a student minister for over 13 years and also serves as a consultant with Youth Ministry Architects. He lives in Birmingham with his wife Mary Liz and their three kids Mary Clare, Patrick, and Nora Grace.
Stephen’s book Hollow Faith: How Andy Griffith, Facebook and the American Dream Neutered the Gospel is now available from CYMT Press. He blogs at organicstudentministry.com.