“So what?” The question strikes fear and anguish into the hearts of most youth workers and Sunday school teachers.
We can deal with the Bible trivia know-it-all, or the class member who’s always about three beats behind the rest of the discussion, or the kid who spends every Confirmation session covering his arm with ink-pen tattoos. We can handle the overstressed parent or the cranky senior citizen or the child who has proudly decorated the back of the pew with her marking pen. But when someone responds to our work with those two dangerous words, “So what?” the defenses go up and our tongue turns into rubber.
Suppose, however, that the question wasn’t a flippant commentary on your arrogant teaching style but a fundamental, core question asked in sincerity? Suppose it wasn’t a word of cynicism but a word of curiosity and openness?
Awhile back, I attended my first cooking class. Now, I’ve been cooking just fine for 35 years and never took a formal lesson. You could say I had some ambivalence about the whole adventure. The first session turned out to be lots of fun. The teacher was right off the Cooking Channel — full of jokes, food folklore, and even a couple of ranks on unsuspecting class volunteers. I had no doubt I’d gotten my money’s worth and couldn’t wait to go back again. Did I try any of the recipes or techniques at home? Truthfully, no.
|Can we be honest about naming some of the things we call “ministries” which have taken on a life of their own and are tangential at best to the mission of our congregation?|
I was crushed when a different instructor led the next session. Her jokes were lame and her manner much more focused on actual cooking. I’d been cheated. Where was the good teacher? I looked at my watch. Three hours to go.
I stuck it out, and somewhere between that first scent of sautéing onions and her amazing description of the five different textures that carrots can have, I began to see the light. There was a meaning and purpose to her class, and this teacher was drawing me into her vision. She had looked into my heart and answered my deep question, “So what?”
“You can eat just fine opening cans or heating up things in your microwave. There are plenty of fast foods and conveniently prepared items in your local supermarket,” she said as she slid the cornbread into the oven. “But you’re here because you want more — something more satisfying.” At this point, we all nodded and smiled as we envisioned gourmet dishes gracing our family’s candlelit dinner table.
She dumped an unmeasured bounty of Cajun spices into the simmering bean pot and leaned across the counter: “You don’t know what you need, though. A few fancy recipes and a pep talk won’t do it. You’re all baby boomers. Most of you never learned the basics and you’ve rarely experienced the tradition of communal cooking. That’s where the joy and the creativity and the satisfaction comes.” Then the oven began smoking, and she miraculously salvaged a pan of half-cooked cornbread.
My esteem for this teacher continued to rise as I contemplated the truth of her observations: I would have pitched the cornbread in a heartbeat. Throughout the session, our teacher shared her vast knowledge of nutrition and chemistry, and her passion for cooking and eating together with the people she loved. She knew what her mission was, and it colored all her actions as a teacher.
Ministries’ “So What”
At some point, each of us is compelled to answer the “So what?” question about our ministries. For teachers in the church, it means looking at all of the assumptions we are operating from and putting everything on the table.
Pastor Rick Warren has developed a small empire based on his 1995 book, The Purpose-Driven® Church (Zondervan, November 1995). The premise is a simple one, of course: to examine the fundamental purpose for having a church and then focus one’s programs to fulfill that purpose. His colleague at Saddleback Church in southern California, Doug Fields, has written a spin-off, Purpose-Driven® Youth Ministry (Zondervan, January 1998). The concept sounds like a no-brainer, but the whole process is easier said than done.
The “So what?” question calls us to peel back our traditions and habits and accommodations. We all have them, no matter what our theological orientation. (An interesting one to observe with the Saddleback folk is their struggle to reconcile their driving purpose source, the Great Commission, with their traditional fundamentalist ambivalence toward baptism. See The Purpose-Driven® Church, p. 105)
Here are a few questions for us Lutherans to consider honestly:
- You have a Sunday School — So what?
- You sponsor an annual ski trip for your youth — So what?
- You have a Confirmation program — So what?
- You have a “praise” worship service — So what?
- You baptize infants — So what?
Do these ministries have a goal? Do they exist only because they always have? How are they part of our congregation’s core mission and priorities? Can we be honest about naming some of the things we call “ministries” which have taken on a life of their own, and are tangential at best to the mission of our congregation?
Tony Jones, in his book Postmodern Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001),makes a case for the new watershed in culture and thought, which leaves the linear, scientific mindset of the Enlightenment behind and embraces a pluralism and global sensibility quite unlike anything known before it:
“The postmodern missionary cries out, ‘Question everything!’ Postmodern architects, philosophers, poets, and literary critics are crying the same thing in their fields. This is the predominant call of our day” (p. 69).
“So What?” Struggle
The proposition that questioning things is destructive is itself the first thing to be questioned! Our young people are coming with this frame of mind, and the questions will not stop. The good news is that a teacher who knows why he or she is there can draw in the questioners — just as surely as I was drawn in by my cooking instructor. Struggling with the “So what?” questions can strengthen and direct our ministries in new and amazing ways.
The late youth-ministry guru Mike Yaconelli rose to fame as the innovator of resource materials in the 1970s and 80s. Under his guidance, the age of “jello nights” and saying “fuzzy bunny” while stuffing your face with marshmallows blossomed in youth groups across the country. We all got on the bandwagon with fun activities that were supposed to bring kids in the door so that eventually they would “like” the church and want to join.
And then, in the late 90s, Mike was deeply challenged by the “So what?” question, and his message and ministry shifted radically. He threw out the nerf bats and began teaching contemplative prayer:
“This generation is longing for relationship, mystery, experience, passion, wonder, creativity, and spontaneity. In other words, they want to go past where the ‘sidewalk ends. ’They long for the place just beyond words, the shore of mystery. In other words, they’re looking for Jesus. What else do we need to know?” (Youthworker Journal, January/February 2000)
There’s a small part of me who still wishes to have another cooking class where the laughs keep coming and I don’t need to take so many notes. But in spite of that, my family is enjoying the amazing taste of steamed carrots seasoned with dill.
Katherine S. Miller-Holland, an ELCA consecrated diaconal minister, is Director of Confirmation and Youth Ministry at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Silver Spring, Maryland.