06 Jun

Rooted, built up and established in the faith

A wee maple seedlingI recently attended a conference in Washington, D.C., Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity, on the Christian formation of children and youth. One of the most common responses to my sharing with folks there about our congregation was, “Wow, your church really does that?”

I took this opportunity to write a letter to the Mennonite Church of Normal in the style of the epistles of the Apostle Paul, to both celebrate what we’re doing right and to challenge the congregation for the next era of nurturing faith in our young people.


Rooted, built up and established in the faith [mp3 download]

Mennonite Church of Normal Sermon: Sunday, June 3, 2012. The text is Colossians 1:21-2:10.

25 May

Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity: Bibliography on Faith and Violence

Bible grenade

© 2008 Robert The

The Wednesday evening panel on violence at the Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity conference included keynote speakers John Westerhoff, Almeda Wright, Ivy Beckwith, and Brian McLaren along with emcee Melvin Bray, facilitated by Carl Stauffer, professor of Development and Justice Studies at Eastern Mennonite University.

My gift here will not be a summary. Read More

25 May

Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity: Info-Saturation Nuggets

CYNKC LogoBy the Wednesday afternoon of the Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity conference I had reached a saturation point. The content and speakers incorporated into the conference were amazing, but as I shared before I agree with the sentiment of another participant who equated it to drinking from a fire hose. My notes got far more sketchy as Wednesday rolled on into Thursday. Read More

24 May

“Ecology Evangelism” and the Prairie Rain Garden

Prairie rain gardenThis post is intended as a public theology case-study/response to the keynote lecture by Almeda Wright at the 2012 Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity conference held in Washington, D.C.

In the spring of 2010, an intergenerational group of volunteers undertook the task of turning our church parking area drainage ditch into a native prairie rain garden with the hope of engendering wonder in children and presenting to the community our Christian virtues of hope and stewardship.

For reference, Almeda Wright in her keynote lecture cited Scottish theologian Duncan Forrester and his definition of public theology:

“Public Theology, as I understand it, is not primarily and directly evangelical theology which addresses the Gospel to the world in the hope of repentance and conversion. Rather, it is theology which seeks the welfare of the city before protecting the interests of the Church, or its proper liberty to preach the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments. Accordingly, public theology often takes ‘the world’s agenda’, or parts of it, as its own agenda, and seeks to offer distinctive and constructive insights from the treasury of faith to help in the building of a decent society, the restraint of evil, the curbing of violence, nation-building, and the reconciliation in the public arena, and so forth. It strives to offer something that is distinctive, and that is gospel…” (The Scope of Public Theology, 2004)

“Ecology Evangelism” and the Prairie Rain Garden

Early in my ministry at Mennonite Church of Normal, I was part of a brainstorming session to generate sustainability ideas for the church in the categories of gatherings, grounds and community engagement. One idea that came out of that session was the suggestion to plant a native plant garden in the stormwater swale/ditch adjacent our parking lot; a “rain garden.”

The idea had merit on its own because it filters pollutants from stormwater, in fact decreasing the amount that ever makes it to storm sewers, and provides food and shelter for our creaturely neighbors, promoting biodiversity.

Intrinsic or aesthetic value, purely for its own sake, can be a hard sell in our congregation. Read More

24 May

Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity: Almeda Wright Keynote

Almeda Wright

American youth understand personal faith in Jesus Christ, but when it comes to connecting faith to the public sphere they are rather inarticulate. Youth are not apathetic by any means. They are passionate, but lack models for public engagement. Mennonites, having a 500 year history of both discipleship and sectarianism, get squirmy about presenting faith in the marketplace. John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian, provided a handle on the matter with his notion of middle axioms.

Almeda Wright, Assistant Professor of Religion and Youth Ministry at Pfeiffer University (Misenheimer, NC), gave the Wednesday keynote at the Children, Youth and New Kind of Christianity conference. In addition to her Ph.D., Almeda also has an undergrad degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT, so it was no surprise that her presentation was on a topic that is “directly current”! That’s an electricity joke…because direct current…nevermind.

Almeda’s presentation addressed the tension between a personal Jesus and public faith in young people and asked how we might cultivate a generation of young public theologians.

Personal Jesus and Tension of the Public Sphere

Focus on individual commitment to a personal Jesus permeates the religious language of American Christianity and deeply affects the spirituality of young people. Many youth pastors and youth workers struggle with this question: “What happens if a young person commits to a personal relationship with Jesus and then stops there?” Almeda suggested that postioning “personal” as the primary mode for faith is inherently limiting.

The Youth Theological Initiative of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University is an ecumenical program of religious inquiry and service for high school juniors and seniors. YTI has conducted surveys with their students, a small, highly-selective population, on the matter of personal religion and public life. Though 80% of participants report themselves as very involved in a religious community, their responses surprisingly parallel the responses of their age-cohorts nationwide.

YTI participants noted several communal concerns: 35% noted violence as a primary concern, 25% cited division among groups (religious, ethnic, cultural), 16% were concerned about racism.

When asked about God’s activity in the world, though, they could only name for certain that God was at work in their personal lives and severely doubted whether God was at work in their community or in government; answers were peppered with “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure.” Read More

15 May

Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity: Westerhoff Keynote

Rev. Dr. John H. Westerhoff, IIIJohn Westerhoff, the godfather of Christian Formation, was our second day keynote speaker. This man is winsome and wise, humble and humorous. He said that a professor is someone who professes what they believe at that moment in order to stimulate people to think for themselves. He said we should take our notes and not his notes, because the notes we take are what we hear, anyway, and not what he says. :) Even so, my notes were so extensive I think that you will see why it took so long to summarize them!

John began by reminding us that it is important to remember the past in order to envision the future. Revisionist history, as an aside, is the history of history. We ask, “is this something I ought to follow; is it beneficial to my faith?”

Truth, John said, comes when two counter opposites are held in tension, or equilibrium; like the tension between Christ-fully-human and Christ-fully-divine, neither being the whole apart from each other . The whole is seen by us then, when we seek out the people who hold the piece we do not hold; everybody has a piece. Heresy, then, is a truth gone mad, a piece absent the tension.

Historic ages and their transitions

The church has moved through ages, along with the rest of the world; from Apostolic, to the Christendom era, to the Age of Faith (Middle Ages), and the Age of Reason. The Age of Faith had intuition as its guide, and was immersed in the arts. The Age of Reason was a response to the prior in which intellectualism ruled the day.

The key to understanding an age is to understand its transitions. We are in a transitional phase at the end of the Age of Reason, or Modernity. This transition, Post-modernity, began in 1950 and may very well end by 2050.

In every age, something is lost and something is gained. We must ask ourselves how much should we keep and how do we keep it? What is needed in the next age? John posits that we are in an age of great loneliness which can only be countered with intimacy and community. The world has gotten smaller, and at the same time more isolated with the marriage of globalism and technology. Interaction is very different across social realities and “our” reality is not necessarily desired by others anymore. We find ourselves greatly challenged. Read More

08 May

Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity: Day Two Summary

Day two of the Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity (CYNKC) began with a ragged assembly of participants slumping into morning worship , tired from the good, but intense work of the first, half-day. One person equated the conference so far as “drinking from a firehose.” This summary will be a bit more spartan than yesterday’s. I’ll summarize John Westerhoff’s talk in a separate post.

Morning worship
Regarding the Emmaus road “Bible study,” Bryan Moyer Suderman said that these were people who knew the scriptures, but who needed to have their eyes opened to new understandings. The notion of Messiah crucified did not fit into their interpretive key. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 2 reflects the “enlightenment” which occurred in the conversation on the Emmaus road.

Morning panel of practitioners
Erika Funk, Youth Initiative Minister at Broad St. Ministry in Philadelphia spoke of the model they have of “social justice immersion” experiences; an incarnational focus on relationships with a significant component of expressive arts.

Rebekah Lowe, Director of Children’s Ministry, Brentwood Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles shared about the children’s choir, made up of kids in grades 1-5, which incorporates multi sensory learning: singing (auditory), demonstration (visual), and creating (kinesthetic). I liked her idea of “task cards” as a way to give kids a role in the formative experience.

Catherine Maresca, of Christian Family Montessori School, encouraged us to get out of the way and to let our children become directly engaged in learning the story of Jesus. She tells incarnational stories, and provides materials for manipulation which augment the story among which children may choose to interact with what they will.

Greg Bolt and Donna Jacobson, Bend Youth Collective, told the great story of how three churches’ youth groups (Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopalian) came together for mutual expriences. Read More

08 May

Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity: McLaren Keynote

Brian McLaren, whose book A New Kind of Christianity lends its title to the CYNKC conference, was the first day’s keynote speaker. Brian began by sharing about visiting the Czech republic after the fall of communism and the dismantling of the Berlin wall. The early 1990s was a time of such rapid change and the youth and young adults were the ones to most fully embrace the new freedoms. That the church survived communism was to be celebrated; it had such courage and endurance. But change was coming so quickly that church leaders were paralyzed and unable to adapt. Missionary facilitators of a local youth program with whom Brian visited said that their gathering of tattooed and pierced young people might look like a traditional youth ministry, but it was really a seminary for the church of tomorrow!

In the United States, Mainline denominations have been in a narrative of decline for 50 years. Evangelicals have been in a narrative of growth, perceived to be caused by increased conservatism, but they are beginning to mirror mainline decline. Catholic statistics are worse than Protestants, if one doesn’t count immigrants. Everybody is in the same boat, losing young people in droves, and preservationism of the old way of doing things is becoming a typical response; case in point, look at the appeal of Catholics to return to pre-Vatican II polity.

The result is that we are inducting children into a form of Christian faith that no longer works for an increasing number of adults! Read More

07 May

Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity: Day 1

What a great, full HALF-DAY on the opening day of the Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity (CYNKC) conference hosted by Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.! If a half-day was this awesome, the full days are going to be phenomenal.

CYNKC gets part of its name from the book by Brian McLaren, “A New Kind of Christianity,” and focuses on the work of Christian formation of youth and children.

CYNKC founder and author Dave Csinos kicked off the conference and handed things over to emcee Melvin Bray who “grows kids.” Melvin retold a Biblical story and had us guess what story he was telling…

…seeking counsel in the dark of night, worries about the future…must be Nicodemus? No, he was telling the story of Saul seeking to summon the dead for advice. Melvin encouraged us to not let what we anticipate get in the way of what the Spirit has to teach us.

Opening worship was led by Rev. Amy Butler and Bryan Moyer Suderman and focused on the Emmaus road text from Luke 24. Bryan emphasized, with his playful Biblical song-smithing, that Jesus walks with us even though we may not recognize him and that he asks us, “what are you trying to make sense of?”

After a break, our first slate of presentations began with Janell Anema. Janell shared her story of growing up in the church and asked, “what happens when the Sunday School Superstar grows up?” Janell found her childish faith unraveling when she experienced a world that was too big and too broken for her to make sense of with the faith she had at hand. Read More