In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday experiment, we take a surprising plunge into authenticity, and what it looks like to create a ministry environment that invites vulnerability and a sense of relaxed honesty. Teenagers growing up in a “curated” and plastic world are starved for authentic relationships—we explore the way Jesus feeds people who hunger for deeper connections in their life.
So, let’s focus on a couple of big barriers that keep us from creating the kind of authentic ministry environment that leads to transformation in students’ lives…
#1—Toward a more vulnerable vulnerability…
Christianity Today columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green captured, skewered, and rotisseried the sacred cow of self-serving “vulnerability” in ministry. She writes: “I was once on a retreat for clergy families led by the pastor of a large metropolitan church who regularly announced he was ‘putting his guts out on the table’ and confessed to low self-esteem and generalized ‘brokenness.’ He never looked more cocky or confident than at those moments; those bursts of confession were, he knew, when his wide-eyed audience was in the palm of his hand….‘You know how novelty shops sell fake rubber “accidents” to “fool your friends”?’ I complained to my husband. ‘That guy’s got a set of rubber guts.’”
Rubber guts, or our self-serving vulnerability, is insidious because it gives the appearance of authenticity without any of the cost of it. Real vulnerability has us on the knife’s edge, where we feel the present impact of what we’re living/sharing/teaching. I mean, we have skin in the game. We don’t use past vulnerabilities that we’ve now mastered as evidence of our authenticity. After a long discussion over coffee about this, my friend (and longtime youth pastor) Casey Franklin wrote me a brilliant email, reflecting on our conversation—here’s a portion of it:
People outside the church expect people who are inside the church to have it together. So, when we talk to our neighbors or friends we’re a little insecure about letting people know what it’s really like on “the inside.” Do we “blow our witness” by letting other broken people know how broken we really are?
Western Culture, and especially our Western Christian Culture, covertly pushes us into image-maintenance mode. It’s especially hard for people to discover that leaders and pastors have struggles or issues or difficulties, because there’s an implied expectation of relative perfection. And when we struggle with doubt or weakness, we worry that it’d be devastating for others if it ever got out.
In our performance-based culture and perfection-obsessed society, we all put our best foot forward in relationships—this system is based on covering up our faults, weaknesses, and insecurities. We all play the game—knowing we don’t have it all together but trying to make sure that everyone else thinks we do.
But what if we had the courage to embrace a kind of raw authenticity that was embedded within a redemptive reality? What if we valued knowing the scars, wounds, and struggles of others, because we had a sacred respect for how those things have shaped them into a force to be reckoned with? What if we all had an increasing freedom to be who we really are, tell it like it really is, and “out” our shortcomings and failures for what they really are? That would be a strange, messed-up, and liberated world…
Your ministry culture is shaped by your interior culture—the environment you set for your group will directly reflect the level of authenticity you maintain in your everyday life, not merely in your message illustrations.
#2—Toward a less performance-based environment…
Not long ago I was sitting in the vast auditorium of a large church during the opening worship set. I felt a tension inside—the same I often feel during a “formal” worship time in a church that has its own band. I was chewing the fat with Jesus, trying to understand why I’m so often uncomfortable with the “standard” way many churches set the stage for worship. And then it clicked. As I looked down at the vast stage—probably 75 or 100 feet across—I realized that the band members were positioned to spread out from one end to the other. No band member was closer than 15 feet from the other, and the drummer was surrounded on three sides by Plexiglas. “They have valued performance over community,” I thought. And while it might sound professional, the feel of it works against authenticity in worship. We’re drawn to authentic community, but our performance addiction so often trumps it. And we are unaware of how we’re undermining true vulnerability…
When we were first brainstorming, more than a decade ago, what kind of environment we wanted to build for our national youth ministry conference (we later named it the Simply Youth Ministry Conference), I threw out a value that everyone in the room quickly adopted as a kind of battle cry: “Puncture the show.” All of us in that room were weary of performance environments, and we set out to experiment with ways we could turn a big conference into a more authentic, vulnerable experience for everyone who came. In the spirit of “puncture the show,” here’s a sampler of ideas that will help plant that kind of environment…
- Pay “ridiculous attention” to Jesus and to others. The corollary to Jesus’ proclamation “You don’t have because you don’t ask” is this: “You don’t understand because you don’t pay attention.” Paying attention—or paying attention so well that you could call it “ridiculous”—is one of the greatest acts of service we can offer Jesus and one another. Most teenagers, most days, don’t have anyone paying peculiar attention to what they say or do. Be more ridiculous. In our podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus we zoom in on Jesus every week.
- Ask more demanding questions. I don’t mean we ask questions in a demanding way; I mean we ask questions that make teenagers wrestle with the truth, and with Jesus. One of my favorites: “Why did Jesus treat the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 so harshly?” This is the sort of question that forces us to slow down and pay attention to Jesus—to wrestle-out the dichotomy between our assumptions of him and the reality of him. Good questions surface courage in our responses, and courage creates authenticity. In my book Jesus-Centered Life I call this wallowing in the mud puddle stories as a way to grow closer to him.
- Guide the discussion by asking great follow-up questions. My rule of thumb in any conversation is simple: Always ask one more follow-up question than you normally would. When we pursue past our normal boundaries, we unlock treasure. And when an answer seems out of place or is flat-out ridiculous, we can re-direct the flow of the conversation by asking a follow-up question like: “If __________ is true, as you say, then how can _________ also be true?”
- We celebrate truthful (and even profound) insights when we hear them. Nothing fuels an authentic environment more than celebrating the fearless, honest things kids say. Once, when I asked a group of students to “sum up” their experience of Jesus in Matthew 15, one girl stood up and said: “Jesus is a badass.” I gave her a standing ovation, and so did the rest of the room. You could feel the authenticity of the community grow in response to the risk she took.
This week join us with Sarah Bessey as we talk about freedom, letting Jesus remove our shackles and what’s wrong with discipleship today.
Helping teenagers root their identity in Jesus starts with continuing to root our own identities in Jesus. I take intentional retreats with Jesus a few times a year. Sometimes they’re overnight, other times they’re just for a day. To help you have the same experience I put together this download on having a spiritual retreat with Jesus. Download it now!
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