I'm being challenged by what I've learned during a two-day course on the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study at the beginning of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza. I've been bowled over by a new paradigm of youth ministry – from program-centered to formation-focused, from event-based to outcome-oriented (see yesterday's post). This is a youth ministry model that begins by articulating what kind of outcomes it wants, what kind of faith it wants to form in young people. It is a radically different approach to youth ministry than the "traditional" (or, if not traditional, the de facto) model of loading up with programs and hoping that kids have fun, get something out of it, or at least stay out of trouble. Because of this wonderfully overwhelming experience, I'm loving this conference. Indeed, the remainder of this conference could be lousy (but I'm sure it wont be) and it will still have been worthwhile.
However, I find myself wresting with two theological issues that are embedded in this paradigm of youth ministry. For one, the operative definition of "church" in this workshop had much more to do with faith formation than it did with Word and Sacrament. Indeed, Word and Sacrament were discussed as essential parts of that process of faith formation. But for a guy who has Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession ringing in his ears, it is hard to hear church defined in ways that don't explicitly or primarily name Word and Sacrament as central.
The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.
– From Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession
Once we shift to defining church as the place of faith formation, we can speak of any place of faith formation as being "church." "Families, homes are church," I heard at this workshop, and I've seen in Faith Inkubators materials and elsewhere. Though I don't discount in any way the vocation of the family and the centrality of homelife in the process of faith formation, I do not view the home as a "church." Why not? There simply ain't no Word and Sacrament happening in the homes. There's prayer, Bible reading, thanksgiving, admonition, comfort, forgiveness … there's lots of great faith-stuff that happens (or could happen) in the home. But the home is not church. The home has its own God's-blessed vocation of providing roof and food, love and nurture, and yes, Christian formation. There's no need to saddle the home with the responsibilities and tasks of the church, too!
Church is different, it seems to me. The primary calling of church is not to provide shelter or food or clothing or basic rearing. Church is that unique gathering of God's people around Word and Sacrament, that broad community of people called in faith to be the Body of Christ, fed and nourished by God's promised presence in water, wine, bread and simple spoken words. What I fear is that when we start speaking of the family or the home as church, its not too far a leap to ask, "Who needs the congregation? We have church at home!" The leaders of today's workshop went to some lengths to emphasize that the home does not trump the congregation. But the language used surely can take us in that direction.
The other theological problem I'm wrestling with is this tendency to put descriptors before the word "faith." Throughout this workshop we spoke of "mature faith," "vital faith," and "vibrant faith," among others. I get nervous when we start putting adjectives before the word "faith,"
– whatever happened to faith alone? – for I fear that in so doing we put more stock in the adjective than we
do in the faith itself. That is, if we're striving for a "vital" faith, we
risk devaluing someone's faith that might otherwise be sincere or
deeply-held simply because it lacks what we call "vitality."
Certainly, I know what they're talking about. I have no interest in arguing against the importance of homelife in faith formation, or of denying that there is a certain level of "maturity" or "vitality" in the ways that some people practice their faith. I accept their study findings and their proposals for ministry.
But to use their findings and proposals I would need to use slightly differently language. I would not refer to family as a "church," but would instead lift up the blessed and holy vocation of the family in its own right. When speaking of faith I would avoid using adjectives to describe faith, but would instead describe ways that their faith take on flesh in Christian living, in patterns of Christian practice. Such simple semantic changes might avoid some of the theological problems I noted above … but I need to put more thought into this.
I'm looking forward to continuing to learn in the next three days. The learning next will be different – no intensive multi-day courses, but instead a series of workshops on everything from postmodernism to integrating community service into youth ministry; from the ELCA's ecology to understanding relational ministry. It should be fun.