We are all doing this. Influencing others with what we think, believe, value, understand through the way we speak and act in our lives.
To influence others we do not need to be leaders or teachers. Teaching others is not simply what teachers do. What I mean is that all of us influence others (whether for good or bad) . . . we all make a difference to the lives of those around us – whether we are teaching others what to do or what not to do. Our lives speak, our lives teach.
If we are parents or adults with responsibility for children and young people then this role (whether explicit or implicit) is so important! As a parent of two girls I know this.
However, rather than teaching we often find ourselves in the Church (and certainly I do as a parent!) TELLING our children.
Telling them off.
Telling them to do stuff.
Telling them not to do stuff.
Telling them to listen.
Telling them not to listen (to other people).
In youth ministry this can also happen. We might have external pressure (leaders, parents, the wider church) who expect us to TELL children and young people what to believe, why they must believe it and how to put those beliefs into practice.
Freire wrote a book about oppression back in the 1970s, it is not a theology book, though it echoes the topics of liberation theology in the way Freire challenges the society (and oppressive instiutions within society) to bring freedom and liberation to people, arguing that seeking to teach people as an “expert” – rather than encouraging them to use their mind, thoughts, feelings of their own – is abusive. People are there to be simply told what is right and true.
Freire talks about bankers in paticular (pretty relevant to our recent economic history) but, it could have been the “experts” telling us what was best for Britain in relation to remaining or leaving the EU; the “experts” tinkering with the education of our children; the “experts” messing about with the NHS. Anyway, Freire suggests that the kind of “teaching” often engaged in is typically as follows:
1. the teacher teaches and the students are taught.
2. the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing.
3. the teacher thinks and the students are thought about.
4. the teacher talks and the students listen – meekly.
5. the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined.
6. the teacher chooses and enforces his / her choice, and the students comply.
7. the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the teacher.
8. the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it.
9. the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which he / she sets in opostion to the freedom of the students.
10. the teacher is the subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.
(Freire, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, page 54)
We might think that the above list is a bit harsh when we think of youth ministry – but how often does our discipleship model slip into a mode of communicating where our entire focus is on what we want to get across – rather than genuine engagement, dialogue and empowerment?
Do we stamp on “unhelpful” questions? We might ask, unhelpful to who – the young people, or unhelpful to our argument? In our ministry with young people do we sometimes see ourselves as the light itself rather than as a fellow traveller, with the main task of pointing others to the light – rather than to ourselves?
With the list above I think the most challenging is no.7 – do our young people “act out” their life of faith with God and do the stuff, simply because it is what they see us doing? Is this real faith or is it an illusion? What about when we leave or are not there?
Have we equipped our young people to know God or simply to know God through the lens of our own faith (with all of our flaws and imperfections shaping the view we have conveyed) when we “minister” do our young people primarily meet with us – or is there the genuine possibility of an authentic encounter with God himself? Do we mediate His presence?
Yaconelli in “Contemplative Youth Ministry” gives us a challenge and puts his finger on why we might get in a mess with the above. Basically – anxiety. We are nervous, afraid and desparate for results (either we feel this strongly ourselves, or others put pressure on us to “deliver”) Yaconelli suggests rather than a change of theology we need a change of heart to minister in a Christ like way. He reminds us that perfect love will cast out our fear (1 John 4:18) – but it is very hard to act out of that place of fearless confidence if we have not received that perfect love for ourselves.
Yaconelli sets up an “anxiety vs love” reflection and many of the “anxiety” modes echo the stuff that Freire talks about in relation to teaching:
Anxiety seeks control (How do I make kids into Christians?)
Love seeks contemplation (How can I be present to kids and God?)
Anxiety seeks professionals (Who is the expert that can solve the youth problem?)
Love seeks process (What can we do together to uncover Jesus’ way of life?)
Anxiety wants products (What book, DVD, curriculum will teach our kids faith?)
Love desres presence (Who will bear the life of God among teenagers?)
Anxiety lifts up gurus (Who has the charisma to draw kids?)
Love relies on guides (Who has the gifts for living alongside kids?)
Anxiety rests in results (How many kids have committed to the faith?)
Love rests in relationships (Who are the kids we have befriended?)
Anxiety seeks conformity (Are the young people meeting our expectations?)
Love brings out creativity (What’s the fresh way in which God is challenging us through our youth?)
Anxiety wants activity (What will keep the kids busy?)
Love brings awareness (What are the real needs of our youth?)
Anxiety seeks answers (Here’s what we think, Here’s who God is)
Love seeks questions (What do you think? Or as Jesus said, “Who do you say I am?”)
(Yaconelli, “Contemplative Youth Ministry”, page 50)
How are we ministering? Are we doing what we do out of anxiety of love – what is shaping us will shape our life as we live it out with young people and as we seek to minister to them in the name of Jesus. Are we truly representing Christ and the reality of the gospel and do we fully understand what freedom there is in his loving presence?
Lets not seek to tell them. Let us re-discover the kind of teaching that gripped the crowds who attended Jesus – full of questions, wonder, confusion, amazement, challenge, laughter, joy, anger . . . hope.
We cannot compete with Jesus, but we can seek to be a little more like Him to know His complete love and acceptance of us – and if we could have His eyes as we look at our children, youth groups, churches maybe there would be more teaching than telling.
This might lead to more discovery, more excitement and more wonder – oh, and more following. Not of us – but of Jesus.