In early August, I had the privilege of attending the Rostered Leaders Gathering of the ELCA in Atlanta, Georgia. For me, the most gripping workshop was presented by the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla , who serves as executive director of the Global Mission unit of the ELCA . His talk was titled “Deconstructing the Narrative of the Lie” in which he explored how narratives are created and used to perpetuate systems of exclusion and marginalization, both in the US and globally. He proposed that we can unleash Jesus’ liberating power by constructing “alternative realities” … truths that confront dishonest or incomplete “facts” that are held as “normal” and “truth” by the vast majority of people in each culture or subculture.
He referenced a book by John D. Caputo, “What Would Jesus DEconstruct?”. That title is a play on “WWJD” … remember that fad? Of course, I had ordered the book by the time the workshop ended. When it arrived, I was surprised to learn that the whole WWJD fad was based on a book called In His Steps, written in 1896 by Charles Sheldon. 1896? Really? It took us that long to do something with that book? I guess Christians are slow learners.
I also realized that “alt facts” are nothing new. The hard part is now, and always has been, figuring out which facts are Godly facts and which are self-serving distortions. Whose facts are the real, enduring truth?
Sheldon’s book begins with a homeless man showing up in a comfortable suburban church one Sunday after a traditional, edifying hymn. He describes the tragedy in his life, and how “there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand. But what would Jesus do?” Caputo’s answer is that Jesus’ truth would “turn things upside down. The last would be first, the meek and poor would inherit the earth, the hungry would be given good things, and the rich would be sent away empty … instead of being confirmed in our ways and congratulated on our virtue, we would stand accused, looking for the log in our own eye rather than the sliver in the eye of the other.”
How often does this actually happen in our North American churches? To be sure, there are individuals in many congregations who make a sincere effort. But if we are honest with ourselves, in how many churches do we see the overwhelming majority of people getting up close to a truth that is “ominous, frightening, ugly and even smells bad, as Caputo puts it?
And does the lack of having our actions match our words … the absence of a lived-out faith … have anything to do with why the Church is dwindling away?
You can obviously tell how I would answer that question.
What does that have to do with youth ministry? Well, just about everything. Young people are innately suspicious of the institutions of their parents. They are, by nature, rebellious. And they are ready to join a cause they can be passionate about. Does the Church offer that?
I recently listened to an interview on NPR with the reformed former leader of a white supremacist organization. He recalled that it was easy to recruit youth to his organization “because there are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, they tend to search for very simple black-and-white answers.” He expressed the belief that ” people become radicalized, or extremist, because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.”
Certainly, all the literature I have read about youth is consistent with this. We all need …. and seek … identity, purpose and a community. What would it look like if the church offered youth an alternative to negative identity… one that was so appealing and gripping that they jumped into it as easily as they do into the things that peers pressure them to do? What if we “went after them” with the energy and persistence that negative leaders do?
I leave you with that and a string of other questions:
What narratives do we need to deconstruct at St. Paul? In Carlisle?
What half-truths or spun versions of things do we need to let go of to reveal the truth … God’s truth?
What traditions (adiaphora, as Luther would have called them) do we need to let go of that are getting in the way of our current mission and guiding principles?
How to we start, finish and sustain the hard work of getting the log out of our own eyes so we can see what God is calling us to do?
Holly Hoffman, Diaconal Ministerby