The Church as a Community of Hope and Honesty: A theological vision for youth ministry

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Editor’s Note: This article stems from the author’s final paper in Theological Foundations for Youth Ministry, a graduate course offered through the Center for Youth Ministry Training and Memphis Theological Seminary, taught by Dr. Andrew Zirschky.

by Neal Wilkinson

“God is bringing life from death.”

This is the crux of how I understand the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God is doing something, actively working in our world to bring about a new reality, where death is overcome and life prevails. Throughout the Scriptures we see God’s redemptive action, which is fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We must be willing to confess and encounter death in order to encounter the God who joins us in and overcomes our darkness, rather than simply adhere to a shallow theology of glory and optimism that “everything will be OK.” As a result, I find myself asserting along with Andy Root, that honesty is the key mark of discipleship. Honesty that “calls a thing what it is,” identifies sin as the presence of darkness and death, because in the cross, this is precisely where Jesus is found.

When Honesty is Hope-less

Honesty is something that Erica* does not lack. In a recent devotional series during a youth trip, I highlighted how the gospel speaks hope to those who self-harm. I referenced a non-profit organization[1] that provides support to people struggling with depression, self-harm, and suicide, and later that evening I posted their logo on several social media posts. It was in response to these that Erica tweeted me, asking why I posted the logo and expressing excitement that I had.

The next day, she asked if she could call me. Little did I realize that she would be calling me from a specialized treatment unit for eating disorders where, unknown to anyone other than her family, she had been for the past five weeks. Over the two years prior to the phone call, she had developed a severe eating disorder and habitual self-harming behaviors, all of which had gone undetected until recently when her parents became concerned with her weight. Throughout the past year I have been in conversation with Erica as she receives intensive specialized support for her behaviors. She freely confesses the darkness and brokenness of her present reality. As she develops a new vocabulary in relation to her behaviors, she is more able to fully articulate that brokenness with medical labels and reasons. Yet what Erica has articulated time and time again is this: “I have great shame around so much in my life, but I’m not really seeing the hope.”[2] She can easily identify death—things that aren’t as they should be, in her self, and in the world around her—but her understanding of God leads her to believe that she has disappointed a God who has given up on her.

Erica’s honesty is indeed a marker of her discipleship. Rather than feeding deep problems with simple answers or treating them with the shiny glaze of optimism, she is willing to honestly name the perceived absence of God. Yet at the same time, there is something deeply problematic about the absence of hope from her rhetoric. Though we have explored together Scriptures that speak of abounding grace, forgiveness, mercy, and love, she cannot fathom or imagine a God who gives her another chance.

It is this experience that has led me to think carefully about the assertions I have made in my philosophy. The confession of darkness may be honest, but unless it is accompanied by the proclamation of redemption, and an understanding of that redemption, we are simply wallowing in the dirt. The following is a theological rationale that I believe can hold my philosophy in balance, by bringing the saving work of Christ (soteriology) into conversation with the future, final work of God (eschatology).

The Heartbeat of Hope in Adolescence

I was following the Twitter feed on a soccer game in which the opposition team had scored against my team to tie the game with only five minutes to go, only to concede a goal in the final minute and lose the game 3-2. Having seen his team come so close to earning a vital point, one of the opposing supporters wrote: “It’s the hope that kills you…”[3] As a soccer fan, I know all too well the sinking feeling in your stomach of hope stolen and expectations crushed.

A simple anecdote highlights something much more profound about the human experience: the absence of hope is death to the soul. Hope defines how we see the future, and without hope, our future is bleak. In The Hunger Games, President Snow asks the game maker, “Why do we have a winner? I mean, if we just wanted to intimidate the districts, why not round up 24 at random and execute them all at one? It would be a lot faster.” The game maker’s response: “Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.”

According to Antonio Damasio, hope has a significant impact on our identity. How we view ourselves is a weaving together of our past, present, and anticipated future into a unified whole. Damasio refers to “memories of the future” which function in defining who we are by what we expect to be.[4] This becomes even more significant when consider what James Loder notes about what happens during the dawning of formational thought in adolescents. They are able to challenge world views and revisit the major conflicts and issue of their lives, encountering new capacities for faith, for possibility and dread. They are, as Loder puts it, “thrust into the abyss of nothingness underlying the ego.”[5] Adolescents are no longer bound by the concrete solutions with which they were satisfied as children, but are now testing and revisiting how they view their lives, in ways which both excites and terrifies them. Most crucially, Loder says they become aware of the reality of death, and our “tragic existence”[6] as humans, clinging to life in the face of the void. The adolescent quest in light of this revelation is an answer to the question “what shall I hope for?”

Hope: Here or Heaven?

The gospel is fundamentally about hope—the hope of God’s redemptive activity in restoring life to a world dead in its brokenness. However, this work primarily has been seen as a work that God will do, rather than something that God is doing. N.T Wright notes that “the one mention of ‘the Kingdom’ in the creeds gives people the distinct impression that it is something that will only happen right at the end of time.”[7] The de facto position for North American evangelicals is to view eschatology as Jesus coming again to decide who goes to heaven.

This kind of eschatology is undoubtedly bound up with a distinct view of soteriology. Eschatology is popularly viewed as a doctrine about heaven and hell, because Jesus’ crucifixion was primarily about sin and forgiveness. Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world, bearing our punishment, so that we wouldn’t have to, therefore freeing us from bearing the consequences of our sin. This view of soteriology can indeed give us memories for the future that produce hope, because our sin is not held against us, but it has little to say about our present reality and our future in this present life. It is almost solely concerned with the after-life, and being approved of by God. It also does little other than to confirm the abyss and the meaninglessness of this life; instead, it simply offers hope for another.

The kind of eschatological thinking that I envision for my ministry is indeed concerned with the end, but the journey to which has already begun. “We know how the story ends—God wins.”[8] In God’s future, sin, brokenness, and death will be no more. What defines my eschatological view is that this Kingdom is already at hand, breaking into our world in the present.[9] N.T.
Wright charges Protestant evangelicalism of reading the gospels as “the dispensable back story for the ‘gospel’ as preached by Paul,” and that the life of Jesus does not bear anything theologically significant other than proving he was the sinless son of God.[10] Andy Root attests to the claim that Jesus’ life and ministry act as signs of a new reality, which is breaking-in in the present, but yet to be completed in the future. Jesus is not simply proving he’s God, but is enacting and embodying the new reality of God’s coming Kingdom.[11] Read in light of the Old Testament, Jesus is the continuation of God’s promise through Israel, that through them the world will be “put to rights.”[12] Rather than simply a transaction situated in the middle of the Christian narrative, Jesus is enacting a new phase of God’s Kingdom on earth, continuing God’s redemption story. The Christian gospel is therefore deeply hopeful, not just of an afterlife, but of God’s Kingdom bursting forth in the present, yet to be fulfilled in the future.

Hope for the Abyss

Yet in spite of this hope in the promise that God is redeeming the world and bringing about the Kingdom here on earth, the abyss remains. The inevitability of our impending nothingness is ever-present, and the pain of our present brokenness remains. Though reshaped in our eschatological understanding of the Christian story, the ontological reality of our present state is not denied. Is hope only for a future day when darkness will be no more?

Root says that we often view of the crucifixion as “a ritual that earns Jesus the magic to free us from having to live in a world of suffering, a world where sin, brokenness, atrophy, and death surround us and cannot be escaped.”[13] The Christian faith is often referenced in the realm of optimism that if we believe in a Jesus who overcame death, then we are going to be alright. Of course, this is true, in the eschatological sense that we know how the story ends. What we have often done is uncritically apply this rhetoric to the present ontological reality. Perhaps we’re motivated more by the resurrection than by the crucifixion. By optimism more than honest hope.

The God who is bringing about a new reality is also the God who witnesses “the loss of his believed son into the dark night of death,” and it is this son to whom we pray.[14] “The cross reveals Jesus: not a magical one but a suffering one, not a God who takes away pain but a God who joins us in it.”[15] Jesus joins us in the abyss. Yes, in Jesus’ resurrection, the darkness of death has been defeated as the ultimate preview and promise of God’s future reality,[16] but the cross is not a promise that darkness nor the abyss are no longer. Rather, Root claims the cross reveals that it is normal to suffer, and that God’s presence is not just found in healing, but in the feelings of pain and abandonment we can claim just as fully, that God is with and for us.[17]

Eschatology and soteriology are bound up in one another. Jesus’ life and work on earth were enacting God’s in-breaking Kingdom and the restoration of our broken humanity. In his death, Jesus takes on and breaks the power of our darkest enemy, the abyss, death itself. Our hope is then both that God is active at work in the redemption of the creation, but also that God has joined us in the abyss as we await the fulfilment of the Kingdom when death will be no more.

Meaninglessness: When Hope is Unattainable

Erica is not alone. In my ministry within a affluent and successful community that has high expectations for its teenagers, there is an increasing rate of reported depression and selfharm. Hope in this context comes in the form of becoming who teachers, parents, and peers expect us to be. The abyss is avoided by socialization and the value which we have constructed in order to deal with the fear of nothingness.[18] What happens when these teenagers cannot attain the lofty expectations of this socialization? As an eighth grade girl articulated to me, she is alone and cannot be helped. They fear that their lives are meaningless.

Too often, the church has simply an institutional foundation for the socialization of adolescents, offering humanly constructed solutions for the abyss. The hope we offer them is a way to avoid the abyss through human effort, that ultimately only serves to keep at bay the inevitability of our nothingness. We have failed to provide a safe space where adolescents can be honest about the darkest aspects of our existence, but rather provided a theology of hope that is little more than thinly guised optimism.

Hope is Not Blind Optimism

My theological vision for youth ministry is that eschatology and soteriology will work together, leading hope and honesty in a delicate dance with each other. Honesty is a key marker of discipleship, and confession a primary practice. Hope is another key marker, and the proclamation of that hope is a necessary partner to honesty and confession. Andy Root describes discipleship as the “tasting of a new reality, recognizing that God is active and present, bringing forth God’s future in the here and now.”[19]

My vision is for teenagers like Erica to feel that the Church is a community of honesty where they can bear their pain, confess their hurt and suffering, expressing the absence of God. That they may have a place to name the abyss, rather than be socialized to avoid it.

Yet the Church should not be a place for simply wallowing in the dirt. The Church should be a place where hope is proclaimed, and the good news of God’s present and coming Kingdom is told and the signs named. The Church should be fundamentally a community of hope, because of what God is and has been doing throughout time, redeeming a dying world to life.

Yet this hope should not be a blind optimism. It should be a gutsy, brutal honesty in the knowledge that God is suffering with them, rather than providing a magical escape plan.

*****

Neal Wilkinson is in his third year as a CYMT graduate resident. He serves as the Middle School Youth Minister on Brentwood United Methodist Church’s Student Ministry Team.

*****

[1] To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA)
[2] From a text message with Erica* (name changed)
[3] @andrewgillan, Dec 7, 2013
[4] Andrew Zirschky. Formative Memories: The Transformation of Adolescent Identity in Eucharistic Anamnesis and Implications for the Practice of Youth Ministry in the Church of the Nazarene. Presented at the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry, Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, January 3, 2009, 3.
[5] Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean. The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove. 2011, 69
[6] Andrew Root. Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry. Zondervan: Grand Rapids. 2012.
[7] N.T. Wright. How God Became King: Why We’ve All Misunderstood the Gospels. Podcast from “January Series” at Calvin College, January 24, 2012, accessed at http://www.calvin.edu/january/2012/NTWright.htm.
[8] Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry. Zondervan: Grand Rapids. 2012, 204.
[9] Andrew Root. Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry. Zondervan: Grand Rapids. 2012, 32.
[10] How God Became King.
[11] Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry. Zondervan: Grand Rapids. 2012, 32.
[12] N.T. Wright. Simply Christian. HarperOne: New York. 2006.
[13] The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 140.
[14] The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 140.
[15] The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 141.
[16] The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 141.
[17] The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 143.
[18] Andrew Zirschky. Lecture notes from Theological Foundations for Youth Ministry at Center for Youth Ministry Training, Friday September 20th 2013.
[19] Unlocking Mission in Eschatology in Youth Ministry. Zondervan: Grand Rapids. 2012, 34.

COMMENTS


Lynne Taylor11:48 am

Good work Neal :-)


Sally Nash6:03 pm

Really enjoyed this - very thought provoking and relevant to our UK context too


Dietrich Deech Kirk10:50 pm

Neal, great theological reflection and challenge. May God continue to use you to bring honesty and hope to the journey.


Rich Jones10:05 pm

Good blog post for those of who love working with students.

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