Two voices of vocation

Two stories of two lives in the last few days drew me to think of two voices in our search for our vocation. They reminded me of the importance of knowing and following our true calling. One was of a young person who trained for a profession and then realised  she had followed that path to meet the expectations of her parents and woke up to the fact that it wasn’t right for her. She was able to leave and start a new career that better suited the gifts she had. The second, of a respected colleague who spoke of being strongly encouraged to consider ordination instead of her current role in youth ministry. After much discussion and heart-searching she was no further forward. and then she had an unexpected encounter with God whilst sitting at her desk at work. She felt God clearly affirming her vocation to youth ministry.

Two stories and two voices that influence our choices. The voice of others can be strong and compelling, always worth listening to but never as reliable as the voice of God, sometimes heard through others of course but also as we recognise our passions, gifts and identity and sometimes when we just know that God has spoken.

The second story resonated with me as I too had been on a similar journey, exploring ordination after resisting it for many years, partly in response to the encouragement of others. But then coming to an even stronger recognition that God has called, and is still calling, me to ministry with and for young people.

It also made me think of two other voices – one calling us to ordination and one to youth ministry. The voice calling us to ordination is a powerful one in the Church of England right now. As the church needs more clergy and especially younger clergy, there are several high profile programmes supporting ‘young vocations’.  I am pleased to be involved in this and helping young people to discover their calling, which may include the priesthood. Yet it often feels as though this is the ‘higher calling’ and even the only one for some people. Thankfully we are recognising the importance of understanding vocation in its wider sense and the power of people following their calling in all walks of life as highlighted by the recent report and Synod debate ‘Setting God’s People Free’.

However the unintended consequence of the current emphasis on ordination is the quietening of the voice calling people to youth ministry. Not only are many youth workers leaving this ministry to train for the priesthood but there are fewer people training for youth ministry in the first place. This may be symptomatic of a church that has a clear and well-funded structure for training and deploying clergy but has no such structure for youth ministry.

At an individual level, it’s hard to argue against the voice of God’s calling to ordination!(and my hope and prayer is that if we end up with more priests with a heart and skills to work with young people, we may see more churches prioritising this vital ministry). But if there was an open door to youth ministry training and funded employment opportunities, would the calling to this specialist ministry be heard louder? If the way wasn’t so closed off or so hard to follow, would youth ministry become a real option?

As you might guess, I believe it would! The result will be that we’d have many more high quality youth ministries and growing churches. We’d have many more young people in our church communities and more young people receiving the help that youth work offers both outwith and within the church. Out of this larger population of young people who will also know what it is to be disciples of Christ, we will start to see more knowing their true vocation in whatever area of work God calls them to. And of course this will also mean more being called to ordination.

Can you hear two voices? – shouting Win! Win!

 

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A little child will lead them

Today’s Advent reading from Isaiah confirms that we need to let children be leaders in the church – or does it?

This phrase from the book of Isaiah is often quoted out of context as a proof text to encourage us to involve children in leadership. But as D. A. Carson said, “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” and this demonstrates that principle – it ignores the context of the verse. The whole verse reads,

“The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
    and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6 NIV)

So the verse is about a child leading animals, nothing to do with leading people let alone the church! The wider context is a prophecy of the coming kingdom under the reign of the Messiah, Jesus. Hence why we read it during Advent as we await the birth of Jesus. It’s a vision of a ruler anointed by the Holy Spirit, ruling with justice, righteousness and faithfulness and peace will prevail. The sign of that peace will be that animals will live in peace, instead of devouring one another and those that are most vulnerable, like children. Instead the child will play and even lead these animals.

It is this wider context though that may allow us to argue for understanding this verse as an argument for the leadership of children in our churches.

First the imagery reminds us of the Garden of Eden, that first paradise, the first image we have of the kingdom of God. In the garden there was no harm or destruction, no killing, enmity or strife but animals and humans were created to live in harmony under the leadership and authority of Adam and Eve. And of course Adam and Eve were children, leading and playing with the animals.

Of course? Well that’s if you take the view of Irenaeus, one of the founding fathers and theologians of the early church (c. 125-202AD, Bishop of Lyons). Irenaeus stated that Adam and Eve were young and child-like, that they needed to grow in wisdom and maturity. The important thing is that they and we, are all expected to grow up, there is an order to creation of development as we grow older. We are all becoming, journeying and learning as we go. Jesus came as a baby – maybe to emphasis the point – as for Adam so too for the second Adam. We note that Jesus  ‘grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and Man’ (Luke 2:52). Our calling is to grow up, to become more like Jesus and so more truly reflect the image of God imprinted on us.

So while we live in the ‘now and not yet’ of the kingdom of God, we recognise that children are vulnerable and not fully mature but the future kingdom is one of shalom; where children are safe from harm and where they will lead those who offer most threat. If the Garden of Eden was entrusted to children and Isaiah’s prophecy recapitulates that vision, then surely we can say that the coming kingdom of God involves children leading as well as adults. The wider context of scripture therefore allows us to read this verse not as a proof-text but as a call to enable children and young people to take their rightful place in our church communities that seek to demonstrate the coming kingdom. Here they can be leaders and learners alongside those of us who may be older but are also learning and becoming.

 

Image from: http://www.curezone.org/forums/am.asp?i=1940461
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Look back in wonder

30 years ago this week I started my first full-time post as a professional youth worker. 30 years working with young people, mainly teenagers, countless lives who have touched mine and changed me. Sometimes that has been mutual and our short encounters or longer-term relationships have changed them too. Most of the time it’s hard to measure the impact we have. Maybe it’s enough to remember the young people in the youth clubs, the young offenders, the homeless in the hostel, more youth clubs and street-based work, the pupils in the middle school and those part of church groups and camps.  Many were a challenge and some, I know, were let down by my failings or inadequacies. However most of them were a joy to be with and I treasure the memories and privilege of spending time with them, of being a small (or larger) part of their lives and celebrating them as they grew into adulthood. That’s the wonder that has kept me loving what I do.

The desire for quantifiable results or ‘outcomes’ by successive governments has all but killed off youth work as we knew it. Gone are the days when it was enough to provide ‘somewhere to go, something to do, someone to talk to’ – the title of one of the first papers I produced to justify my existence whilst working in a community school context. Now I’d rather talk in terms of helping young people discover their identity, meaning and purpose – recognising the importance of spirituality, faith and belonging to that search.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a 19 year old girl; heart-breaking and difficult to comprehend. Thankfully I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to do that for young people I’ve known. But a tragic, untimely death of a young person not yet in the prime of life causes me to pause and ask deep questions about the meaning of life and my work. It’s not that I doubt the value of what I do, just the occasional check-up won’t go amiss!

I’ve always been driven by a desire to make a difference, to make the world a better place and my heart has always been moved with compassion for young people. Being a teenager can be the most exciting time of life as we face new challenges and enjoy the freedoms of youth; but it can also be the toughest time as the physical and emotional changes triggered by puberty meet the changing expectations of a society that demands success in school, perfection in appearance and participation in a media-driven consumer culture with its own demands to ‘fit in’. It is no surprise that research constantly reminds us of the poor mental health and low levels of happiness amongst our teens (the latest out this week). It was always hard and my own teenage years were not easy but after 30 years it seems to be harder now than ever to negotiate adolescence. The universal Youth Service I started working for no longer exists, voluntary youth groups struggle to keep going and health and social services have restricted services available to young people. Instead of increasing support we have cut support for those who need it most.

I now work for the church. It is true that the church employs more paid youth workers than the government but I fear the absolute number of workers is decreasing as churches struggle to find funding. We’re also struggling to know how best to engage with young people, a boom in church-based youth work over recent years has not led to higher numbers of young adults staying in the church. Many of us are asking whether we need to rethink the whole ‘christian youth work’ model. There is no simple answer other than to recognise that young people do not see church communities as places for them to belong nor necessarily as spaces for them to encounter the Divine. Both belonging and the spiritual search are vitally important to the health and well-being of all of us and especially so for adolescents.

So my commitment to young people and youth work as a way of working with them has not changed. Young people fill me with wonder as they teach me new things and in so many ways reveal God to me. But I do keep wondering – what am I doing? As young people and culture change, I stay open to learn new things and new skills. I will keep seeking for new or not-so-new ways of being with and serving young people, for the models of church and discipleship that will enable young people to see the hope of Jesus and to know that life in all its fullness – identity, meaning and purpose – can be found in Him and the communities of people who follow His call.

 

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When an ‘absolute priority’ really isn’t!

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s task group on evangelism has just published its report in time for debate at the next General Synod. Already the Church Times has picked out the appropriate call to prayer and the proposal for a week of prayer before Pentecost 2016. It also lists some of the other projects and plans that were outlined at a press launch. I really hope this will be a report that will be implemented and not left to gather dust – it is timely and really important.

However I am also disappointed at a missed opportunity to tackle the key question of evangelism amongst children, youth and young adults. I was encouraged to read in the introduction that there would be,

“A sustained and well-resourced follow-up to the clear findings of “From Anecdote to Evidence” on the absolute priority of evangelism among younger people.

The report highlights the fact that most people come to faith while they are young and that evangelism is much harder once people pass their 20’s.

So that’s clear, evangelism is most effective and easiest with young people; furthermore the church is failing to connect with young people in any significant way and so “the future health of the Church of England depends on a renewed sense of urgency to engage with children and young people.”   

It would follow then that the following proposals for action  will reflect this top priority across the board – sadly no! There are some proposals in this section of the report that may start to tackle the problem (but don’t go very far as I’ll explain later) and the rest of the report seems oblivious to this conclusion. It doesn’t look like a sustained response, nor any sign of resourcing let alone how it is the ‘absolute priority’.

Yet again children and young people are left in their own compartment, like the small room at the back of the church, being taught and discipled by a few committed adults while the rest of the church gets on with the grown-up stuff. It would have been good to see some analysis of the impact of the other proposals on this ‘absolute priority’, to know that the new project worker will be seeking to include this age group in the specific projects, that training clergy needs to include work with children and young people, that chaplaincy in schools in one of the most effective ways of reaching young people, that youth work on urban estates is already effectively reaching young people (but I wonder if any youth workers will be invited to the planned conference on this topic). We need a more holistic and joined-up approach whereby the whole church takes responsibility for children and young people. This report could have shown a way towards that.

It would have been good too if I’d read somewhere that the task group had taken time to consult young people themselves, to give them a voice and to hear their ideas and suggestions. Given there is already a group set up for this purpose, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to achieve! (Church of England Youth Council – CEYC).

And so to the specific proposals related to young people. Before I comment maybe I should confess my irritation that there has been no involvement of Diocesan Youth Officers in the task group process and no mention of their role in the report or in implementing the planned actions. Yet most DYO’s are already doing what is suggested – we already spend hours encouraging the appointment of full-time workers,. we already work with Deaneries to plan youth work and with mission teams to include youth and children in mission action plans, we already try out new ideas for outreach and pass on best practice where we can. We don’t need people telling us to do what we already do but we need some help to do it! What is needed is bigger structural changes that mean youth and children’s workers can be paid a decent salary and have job security for longer than 2-3 years; that gives them professional development equivalent to that received by their clergy colleagues and that offers initial training without the burden of student debt. The report notes the need to sort out licensing and maybe this will make a start in giving youth ministers some recognition for the important role they play but they will need much, much more if we are to change the culture that sees children’s and youth ministries as ‘stepping stones to other forms of ministry’.

Justin Welby’s sermon on evangelism is the final part of the report and a positive note on which to end; it is an excellent explanation of evangelism and a reminder call to the task of being faithful witnesses sharing in the work of Christ,

“Jesus involves us in his work of calling people to follow him. This is the work of evangelism. He calls us to extend our hands and our hearts, use our words and lives to echo his call to every person to follow him.”

I hope and pray that this report and the decisions of synod will enable more children and young people to discover that call and decide to follow Him. That is the absolute priority.

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A Vital Ministry?

 Youth workers have operated for years on the principle that if young people do not come to us, then we go to them – and so we have models of work such as detached youth work and project-based outreach work that complement youth club provision. Yet when it comes to church we still seem to expect them to come to us despite the evidence that the vast majority of teenagers in the UK don’t come to church.

So what’s this got to do with school?

Quite simply – (almost) all teenagers go to school and so shouldn’t we be going to meet them there?

In his book, ‘A Vital Ministry’ John Caperon argues strongly for a recognition of, and investment in, the ministry of school chaplains. He states that chaplains ’embedded’ within the school community can offer key spiritual resources to young people and a significant point of contact between church and young people. Caperon argues that the traditional parish system where the church ministers to the surrounding community is ‘increasingly archaic’ in a culture that experiences community in a variety of networks and gatherings. It makes sense then for chaplaincy to be ‘at the heart of the Church’s mission’.A Vital ministry

Sadly he records how this ministry has too frequently been overlooked by the Church of England and its significance missed. Yet it seems even more important than ever when recent reports point to the potential demise of collective worship and the Lord’s Prayer is viewed as too offensive for cinema audiences. The school chaplain is uniquely placed to pass on the stories of Jesus and the Bible, to be a representative of the Christian faith and indeed of Christ, – ‘a walking sacrament’ and maybe the only Christian many young people will get to know.

Caperon’s argument is well-made; he outlines the historical, cultural, religious and educational context for the development of chaplaincy before exploring the specific roles that chaplaincy takes in church schools in the UK.  His research included listening to the voices of young people with experiences of chaplaincy and this revealed some telling and profound insights – from observations that ‘he’s like a mini-Jesus’ to the recognition of the important role chaplains play in the personal development of students and shaping the ethos of the school, ‘I think it defines the school … it’s actually about building a person’.

Based on this evidence, he outlines a four-dimensional professional role for chaplains – spiritual, missional, prophetic and pedagogic and explains how each dimension works in practice before exploring some practical issues for developing school chaplaincy.

My only criticism is the lack of discussion over the role of ‘lay’ chaplains. Apart from a brief discussion of the role of ‘para-chaplains’ – schools workers mainly operating from local charities – the assumption is that chaplaincy is an ordained clergy role.

Caperon’s recommendations are that school chaplaincy needs to be a valued part of the ‘mixed economy’ of mission and ministry, that we recognise the important ‘ministry of presence’, that chaplains can open up the ‘sacred sphere’ for young people and link them with the ‘chain of memory’ that is the church and so help them discover their identity. This is a unique ministry and for the sake of young people and the church, both now and for the future,  it is surely a vital ministry.

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One verse to rule them all?

Do you have a favourite Bible verse? Or rather is there one verse that you go back to whenever you need a short summary of the gospel? My guess is that verse may be John 3:16, “for God so loved the world… ”

I have just read the letter written to the church by R.T.Kendall, a man whose preaching ministry had an impact on me many years ago, but I found myself questioning a statement in this letter as he proposed that this well known verse as “the Bible in a nutshell”.

Really?

The whole Bible in one verse?

In an age of sound-bites and short pithy mission statements it is tempting to feel that we need to have a quick answer for people who want to know what our faith is all about but I’m not sure that it is possible to reduce the message of the Bible to one verse. and even if it were then I don’t think John 3:16 is really it.

Don’t misunderstand me, I really like this verse and it does offer us a helpful and useful description of one way in which we understand the message of Jesus but it is only one way and its definitely not the whole story.

These words were spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus in a specific context and specific time, they weren’t spoken to others at other times (as far as we know) but instead Jesus speaks different things to others. To some the gospel means ‘go and sin no more’, to another, ‘go and sell all you have’, to another, ‘come follow me’, and yet another ‘repent for the kingdom is at hand’. The message of Jesus and the Bible is not simple and we do it a disservice if we try to reduce it. Not only that but the danger of focusing on one verse is that this comes to define what we believe rather than explain it or help with our apologetic. In other words we come to believe what we preach, that this verse really is what Christianity is all about and we wonder why it is only attractive to a small section of the population.

This is not to suggest we shape the story to fit the culture (which Kendall is also arguing against) but as so often happens the real problems occur when we take verses out of context and try to build our theology around them rather than applying the whole counsel of scripture.  It is ironic and disappointing that Kendall states that we need to ‘affirm the whole of Scripture’ and not ‘water down the message’ whilst doing the opposite! He suggests there is only one reason for people to become Christians but surely this can’t be right?

I was first set to thinking about this by a comment by Brian McLaren speaking at Greenbelt when he asked what if we defined the gospel by 1 John 3 instead of John 3? As I reflected on this I recognize it would take us away from an emphasis on individual sin – believing in Jesus and thereby avoiding judgement and instead it would lead us to an emphasis on God’s actions in loving us first and on the way we live in that love. A more Hebraic rather than Greek understanding of faith maybe? A faith that emphasises the whole of life and not just what we believe, where belief refers to knowledge or acceptance of certain doctrine. What if we’d chosen another verse , maybe one of the ‘I am’ sayings – living water, or bread of life, or even Jesus ‘words from the sermon on the mount. Or maybe words of St Paul – there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus or nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8),  we are God’s workmanship created in advance to do good works (Eph 2:10) or the gospel as the power of God transforming us into His glory (“Cor3). If one of those verses became our starting point for explaining the meaning of our faith in Christ then we might end up with a different story that included more people in the same way that Jesus was able to do.

The difficulty is that this would be seen as heresy, a departure from the accepted tradition but it could open up a new way of understanding the Bible story that will connect with our culture in ways we have often failed to do. The Bible contains a whole wealth of words, images and metaphors to describe the purposes of God in our world and

one verse cannot rule them all.

 

* R.T. Kendall Letter to UK Church can be read here

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#makeithappen

womens dayToday is International Women’s Day, a day that I confess has passed me by in previous years but this year I’ve been much more aware of the injustice and difficulties that women face locally and globally. From the abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Haram, to the justification of rape by men in India to the sexual exploitation of children (not just girls but predominantly) in the UK there seems to be little respite from news stories highlighting the injustice that women face purely on account of their sex. And that’s without entering the fray over what ‘Fifty Shades’ portrays about the role of women.

In the church, sadly we may not fare much better. The recent celebrations over the appointment of the first female Bishop in the Church of England were marred for me by the manner of some of the responses by those opposed to it. Being married to someone training for ordination has made me more aware of, and sensitive to, the feelings of those  women who believe so strongly in their calling that they give up other careers and ambitions, have their gifts and vocation affirmed by others but are then undermined and made to feel unwelcome in the same church. In that light I was saddened to read that the Australian media are publishing stories of Christian women who have been victims of domestic abuse by husbands hiding behind a theology of headship.

It seems to me that too often our discussions about gender roles whether in the church or in society at large are really about the issue of power. Money, sex and power are often cited as the trinity of temptations that lie at the root of a multitude of sins; we are often more willing to denounce sex and money but less able to recognise or admit it when the desire to power leads us astray. The need to dominate, be in control and see others as under our authority is a strong driver for many of us and especially men, surely it’s part of our masculinity to be seen as strong and powerful!

Yet the model of Jesus was always to take a different road. He refused to take power offered by Satan in the desert, he  spoke of the first being last, denying the rights of James and John to sit at the top table, of the need to be humble, for leaders to be servants and the ultimate act of weakness – being killed by the Romans – was freely chosen as an act of self-giving love. As Philippians 2 articulates so clearly, the incarnation itself, Jesus’ life and his death were deliberate acts of ‘kenosis’ – an ’emptying’ of power. If the Son of God chooses not to take power and instead empties himself then we need to learn to follow his example.

#makeithappen is the strap-line for International Women’s Day, it is something that many of us have the power to do; more power than we men often realise or even than we would want to admit. The question is whether and how we are prepared to use, share or give up that power in the interests of justice and equality.

 

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