Blog – Day 1

It’s amazing the way that going to two four day conferences over a four-year period (in 2007 and 2009) can mean that turning up today meant the joy of connecting again with friends. One of the best things about this conference over the years has been the opportunity to get to know other delegates over meals and at the pub in a way that enables robust discussion about youth ministry in the main sessions. Already today I’ve shared meals and conversation with South African Methodist Christians, a Swedish Pentecostal Christian, a Lutheran Norwegian Christian, a Lutheran American Christian, and an English-living-in-South-African Baptist Christian among others. There are all sorts of things that are different about us all – from nationality to theology, but I have a great sense of being family together, and co-labourers for the glory of Jesus among young people and their experience of his blessing across the world.

Meeting in South Africa rather than England has significant advantages – the flight is 10 hours shorter, and even though I still have to battle against jet-lag at least I don’t have to change climate! The place we’re staying in is lovely – it’s pure joy! Really, that’s it’s name: Pure Joy Conference Centre in the north of Pretoria.

Highlights then from day 1:

Christo Thesnaar from the Department of Practical Theology, Stellenbosch University in South Africa spoke on Youth Ministry and Reconciliation in a South African Context.

16 years on from the end of Apartheid and there has not been much progress in addressing the socio-economic divides in South Africa. Thesnaar asked the question, for young people battling crippling poverty how much do we really think they are interested in issues of reconciliation? The most interesting challenge he made was the need to restore the sense of human dignity among the people of South Africa: “What we as South Africans need is a discourse of human dignity.” He urged the Church to take seriously our calling to engage actively in addressing the challenges of reconciliation noting that local congregations can do much to change the life of a few instead of just being overwhelmed by the insurmountable challenge of trying to solving the problem for all.

My thought was that the main goal is to instill in young people an identity in Christ that surpasses racial and economic identities. How to do so within the challenges of each local context is the big question for youth ministers (and youth ministry educators). The tool for the task must be the word of God – the word that will not return to God empty but will achieve the purpose for which he sent it forth (Isaiah 55), the word that grows all by itself like a seed planted in the ground (Mark 4), the word that is at work in those who believe (1 Thess 2).

In the afternoon break-out session I heard Karen von Lunkhuyzen from Brisbane talk about how we respond to critical literacy education in secondary schools. She made the really interesting point that Sunday Schools used to reflect the teaching in secular schools (historically of course the Sunday Schools preceded state education, but when education was taken over by the State, the Sunday School programs continued in the same style of teaching). Over time the educational practices of the classroom changed but the practices of the Sunday School stayed the same – i.e. we in the church haven’t learnt from and connected with the advances in pedagogy seen in schools.

The burden of her paper was about the need to help Christian young people respond to critical literacy education of the type that suggests that there is no definitive meaning, but rather a reader brings their own ideologies and worldviews to the text that they are reading in order to create a meaning individual to them. So a Christian might read The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe as a Christian allegory, but others can quite legitimately read it as a comment from C. S. Lewis on bad parenting (“Why did the parents leave the children alone in that big old house!?”). When critical literacy is ingrained in students at school, if we’re not engaging with this at church it will have significant implication for how young people interpret the Bible; and will leave young people ill-equipped for dealing with what they’re learning at school.

I appreciate the challenge for youth ministers to have a greater understanding of what goes on in the school classroom. I wonder though whether young people really are taking critical literacy theory on board, or whether they’re just learning how to play the HSC game and write what the markers want to hear?

The third paper was from Bård Norheim, research fellow at MF Norwegian School of Theology and an ordained pastor in the Church of Norway (Evangelical-Lutheran). (His name is pronounced ‘Bored’ – he introduces himself as ‘I am Bård, I am not bored’). I’ve met him at the past two conferences and really appreciated hearing from him again today.

His paper was on Confessionality in Youth Ministry which forms part of a larger project on ‘How to raise Lutherans in the 21st century’. The main idea I took from the paper was the opportunity to draw deeply on our respective confessional traditions in order to give young people a particular shape to the life of worship rather than leaving them to reinvent a confessional shape all over again.

The question time recognized the need for a thick description of our confessions that we hold with a lot of modesty in our relationship with believers from other confessions. Rather than looking for the ‘lowest common denominator’ in Christian expression, we live boldly within our confessions and consider what there is in my confessional tradition that has value for other traditions?

The discussion made me think of the fellowship in the Soul Revival Jesus Movement – we are all from a conservative evangelical tradition but from various denominations. Rather than aiming for a non-denominational fellowship (which becomes it’s own new de facto denomination in time) we are explicitly aiming for a post-denominational fellowship. Within our common commitment to Jesus, local church, leadership and movement we will each have different local expressions of those commitments and also have denominational/confessional networks within the movement.

Finally, Len Kaegler and Amy Jacober from the US presented the results of an international survey of female youth workers. There was a lot of data and a lot of further research questions that the results raised.

They identified four categories of attitudes from the women surveyed:

(1) Gender Not an Issue – those who think gender issues aren’t important; it’s a non-issue.

(2) It’s just the water in which we swim – a sense of resignation; this is what it’s like.

(3) I’m Feminine, Not Feminist

(4) Feminist and facing hostility – they felt deep anguish; and were very glad that the conversation was being raised.

The survey asked women what sort of training they wanted for themselves and what training they wanted the men they worked with to have. For themselves the number one answer was mentoring, second was leadership, and third was biblical and theological training. For men, they wanted them to learn skills in LISTENING! Second place was Bible and theology, third was team ministry and collaborative learning.

The final word for today can go to one of the women in the survey – when asked what was needed to overcome the tensions between men and women in ministry her answer was, “trust, relationship and time”. Not a bad recipe for overcoming tensions between youth ministers and people in general!

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