Becoming French

Incarnational Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian Scenario

Ron Ragsdale | Dec 6, 2010

An acquaintance came up to me the other day and said, “Ron, I think you need to become French.”

Bewildered, I replied, “What does that mean? I’m a Texan. I like being a Texan. I have a lot invested in being a Texan. I can’t change being a Texan. What in the world does it mean to become French?”

He answered, “Becoming French means you adopt a new life motto. It becomes your highest purpose: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!”

“Can you translate that for me?”

“Well, ‘Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood,’ is pretty close but you need to see it like a French-person to really understand it. It’s more of a general worldview. It is connected to a certain way of life, the French Way. You’ll like it, I promise.”

An imaginary dialogue, to be sure, but perhaps it can open the doors for us to understand some essential dynamics of evangelism and discipleship in today’s world. In the post-Christian scenario two factors come into play: 1) “outsiders” have less and less actual exposure to Christians and 2) their general feeling about Christians and Christianity is largely, and sometimes strongly, negative.

“Incarnational ministry” is a common idea in youth work. [[“Incarnational Ministry” refers to forms of Christian outreach modeled after Jesus in which adherents intentionally enter the lives of non-believers and embody God’s love through the building of authentic friendships. In this way, the truth of God’s love is not only heard by outsiders, but more importantly, seen and experienced.]] The post-Christian scenario calls for a new form of incarnational ministry: We embody what it means to be Christian in the everyday world. Without this form of incarnation, evangelism and discipleship are undermined, if not altogether impossible, in the post-Christian context…almost like asking a Texan to “become French.”

The Essence of Evangelism and Discipleship

What are we actually after when we talk about evangelism and discipleship among young people? At its base, the hoped-for outcome of evangelism is belief, or fundamental conviction; so fundamental that to gain that conviction is to become someone other than one was before. [[James McClendon and James Smith define convictions, or fundamental beliefs, in this way: “A conviction means a persistent belief such that if X (a person or community) has a conviction, it will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.” James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and James M. Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (rev. ed.; Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 5.]] In the Christian frame, belief and identity are inseparable.

What about discipleship? Perhaps the best definition of discipleship comes from Dallas Willard and James Bryan Smith: A disciple is an apprentice, i.e., one who follows a master and wishes their life to conform more and more to the model of the master’s life and practice. [[A good place to start in reading Willard is The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988). See also Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Recovering Our Hidden Life in God (1997) and The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (2006).]] Rather than being reduced to a function of knowledge-acquisition, sentiment, church attendance, and/or generally moral behavior (as it sometimes is), discipleship is best understood as the ongoing transformation of a life toward the life of Jesus.

In the post-Christian context in which many of us now live and serve, we have begun to realize how challenging the goals of evangelism and discipleship have become. There is a widening chasm between where young people are and where we’d like them to be – like asking a Texan to become French – even for many kids within our youth ministries. The new scenario creates a new critical need.

“Things We Do With Cows,” or, Why the Everyday Stuff Matters

This past spring we hosted our daughter and her college tennis team when they came to town for a series of matches against local universities. Her school is in Florida. Half the team is international. Only one out of ten players had been to Texas before (except our daughter, of course). We played up the Texas-angle and had lots of laughs.

Their first night we went to the small town of Gruene (pronounced “Green”), home of the oldest dance-hall in Texas. We ate at The Grist Mill, a locally-famous joint in a broken-down cotton gin. As the greeter led us to our tables, every head in the room turned to follow those ten wide-eyed, smiling young women.

“Rani” was wide-eyed but I can’t say she was smiling. It was more of a bewildered sort of look. I watched as she cocked her head to one side. Above the mantel of a very large fireplace hung the massive head of a longhorn steer. Rani is Hindi and grew up in Mumbai (Bombay), India. We had to walk right under the staring bovine bust.

I don’t claim to be an expert on Hinduism but I do know this: Killing a cow, removing its nape and head from the rest of its carcass, stuffing it, and mounting it over a mantel in a restaurant did not fit within the category “Things We Do with Cows” for Rani.

Go back to what we know about learning a foreign language. No amount of study, whether vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, etc., can make one fluent in a new language. Fluency is all about use embedded within the myriad interactions of people doing ordinary things. Fluency is not really about knowing what a word means; fluency is about what we do with those words. Or, as some philosophers would tell us, meaning is use. [[The topics are “epistemology” and “philosophy of language,” i.e., how we know what we know and how words get their meaning. I’m drawing on ideas from Ludwig Wittgenstein and Richard Rorty. For Wittgenstein, the meaning of a thing – whether cows, the number “five,” or, we could add, “being Christian” – can only be understood by its use embedded in a community in everyday life. Roughly speaking, we only learn what a thing is by what we do with it. See also Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).]]

“Things we do with cows” is a way of denoting those myriad interactions that together form the meaning of “cow” for Rani (or for a Texan). We learn what it means to “be French” the same way.

Being Christian: A Second Form of Incarnational Ministry

Whether cows or Christian identity, the playing field where we discover what anything means is people doing life together. A non-churched non-believer learns a great deal about Christian belief by the way I treat the checker at my local market or drive my car. Consider the “data transfer” that happens over time with consistent interaction. I play in a weekly pick-up tennis group where half of us are Christian. Every minute on the court, data is flowing to the non-churched folks in streams, not just about how we play a sport but more so, how we live. It is those kinds of interactions taken together that form the category “things Christians do,” or “what it means to be Christian.”

It is these linkages that are missing in the post-Christian scenario. People don’t know what it means to be Christian. A post-Christian non-believer has no built-in conceptual framework to understand what “becoming” or “being” Christian could possibly mean or entail. What outsiders most need is a life-on-life connection with followers of Jesus.

Understanding How Life-On-Life Works

James Bryan Smith relates an insightful model for understanding the how and why of personal change. [[James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009).]] Picture a triangle, point up. Three poles work simultaneously in the work of personal formation whether past, current, or future. The poles are Narrative, Community, and Training. With some amendment to Smith’s presentation, “Narrative” refers to what story we’re living and the scripts that we obtain within that narrative. [[Being a Texan is itself a narrative, for good or ill. Like most others I know, I feel the story of the Alamo is my story, even though no Ragsdale lived in Texas at the time. Determination, self-sacrifice, independence, obstinacy … these are all scripts within that narrative.]] “Community” refers to one’s social context(s), i.e., those with whom we journey. “Training” entails more than the intentional practices we might first consider (e.g., spiritual disciplines). It can also refer to any part of our embodied experience, especially habitual behaviors, and their effect over time in shaping who we are or become (so texting 1,000 messages a week would be a particular form of training).

Consider:

  • How does a seemingly sane and ordinary person become an Aggie? [[“Aggie” refers to a student, alumni, or otherwise rabid fan of Texas A&M University. Aggies are especially known for certain chants and hand-motions (“Yells”) and figures of speech, bemusing and bewildering to non-Aggies (Texas A&M is the archetypical rival of The University of Texas where we live in Austin, TX).]]
  • How did 25 boys in Minnesota recently become Islamic terrorists in Somalia? [[See www.newsweek.com/2009/01/23/recruited-for-jihad.html for one of many articles. The boys were Somali refugees, adopted and socialized into American families and culture at very young ages. Nonetheless, a number of these boys, now young men, became attached to the narrative, community, and training of violent Islamic radicalism.]]
  • How does one become a whole-hearted, whole-life follower of Jesus Christ?

The answer to each question is the same.

According to Smith, that answer is found in the mutual functions of Narrative, Community, and Training in a person’s life. We’re not saying that Aggies, terrorists, and Christians are the same; we’re saying personal formation happens the same. We’re always being formed into something.

Paul Ricoeur: Narrative Identity and Narrative Function

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur can help us understand something more about “narrative.” Ricoeur wrote about narrative identity and narrative function. On the identity side, Ricoeur noted that we can’t really understand ourselves (or anyone else for that matter) until we “emplot” our life in the form of a story, a narrative. [[Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another (trans. Kathleen Blamey; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). We see an echo of this whenever we meet another person and ask, “Tell me your story.”]] Narrative identity is especially strong when we find that our personal “short-story,” as it were, is part of a larger Grand Narrative – a story bigger than ourselves. Each person’s life is a story. Identity is shaped by narrative.

Ricoeur also wrote about the “narrative function” of literature, whether novels, history-writing, or even the Bible. [[Paul Ricoeur, “The Narrative Function,” Semeia 13 (1978): 177-202 and Ricoeur, “Toward a Hermeneutic of the Idea of Revelation,” Harvard Theological Review 70:2 (1977), 1-37. See also the collection of essays in Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination (trans. David Pellauer; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), especially, “Philosophy and Religious Language,” 35-47.]] Ricoeur identified how in story-telling the narrative creates an alternative world to be explored and experienced by readers through a process of sympathetic listening. He called this idea “apartenance” (in French), how readers enter the stories that they read. When we exclaim “I really got into that story” after reading a good book, we are not merely stating it was interesting. Rather, Ricoeur would say that we were in that story. [[This has implications for how we teach the Bible to young people, by the way. Even those biblical genres that are not themselves narratives (e.g., psalms or epistles) are often best related in the context of stories.]]

So to apply these concepts to our discussion of incarnational ministry:

1. Our life is the novel. It is in the hurly-burly of ordinary life that we give flesh and blood expression to what it means to be a believer and follower of Jesus. We incarnate what it means to be Christian. This is our story.

2. Others read our story. “Life-on-life in real life” is the mechanism whereby outsiders are able to read what it means to be Christian. They read it in us.

3. More than just read it, others are able to explore and experience our story for themselves. This is the extension of Ricoeur’s insight. The more our life is woven into the fabric of another’s, the more the other is able to understand and explore what it could be like for themselves to be a follower of Jesus.

Putting It Together

There’s nothing wrong with running a great program. We should give it our best efforts. Well…maybe our second-best efforts. Life-on-life is more important. If we “get it” when it comes to this form of incarnation, a number of core commitments will come to the fore.

  • The quality of our relationship with Jesus, both ours and all who serve with us as staff and volunteers. What are we incarnating about being Christian?
  • The quality of our life together as a team doing ministry with youth, i.e., what we incarnate together as a missional community in God’s name.
  • The quality (and quantity) of our life-on-life interaction with young people.

Holding these commitments, we might identify a few implications for how we program our ministries. Some ministries might even realize they are over-programmed. We can keep asking the question, “Where and how is life-on-life happening between ourselves and youth?”

Life-on-Life Ideas and Examples

What would it look like for a church or parachurch youth ministry to take seriously a process like becoming French? Here are some ideas and examples to inspire our thinking.

  • A Minimum Commitment. If you’re the senior leader of a youth ministry, plan your weekly time-allocation with intention to make a minimum boundary for life-on-life connection with teens. Twenty-five percent of your hours may be a good start. If you’re not doing it, who else will? Supervise your staff with the same (or higher) minimum guideline. Recruit and supervise your volunteer leaders with a similar commitment for life-on-life connection with youth. Likewise, consider setting a minimum commitment for connection with parents.
  • Open up Your Home. Your home can be a “home base” for youth. What they experience in your home will likely be more important in their formation than a year’s worth of Bible lessons. If you are married, you and your spouse have to be “together” on this; communication and guidelines are vital. We used to have a rule for kids when they visited in the evenings: “When you see me brushing my teeth, it’s time for you to go.” You can recruit and train a few key parents in the “home base” philosophy as well.
  • Create New Environments for Connection. A church in our community created a “Fifth Quarter” gathering for young people after every home football game (they’re in a one-high-school community). They don’t meet at the church; they meet at a pizza parlor (and its parking lot). Over 100 kids come each week. Adults in the community cover the cost of the food. There’s no program to speak of. Youth staff, volunteer leaders and even parents can engage with kids in a safe environment, enjoying life together.

“Community Service” is another idea. Many schools require students to complete 100 hours of service before graduation. Kids are often at a loss, wondering what to do. You and your leaders could take the initiative in establishing service projects, inviting kids, and doing the projects with them.

  • Find a Special Niche. Austin, Texas is a lake town. Water sports are a big deal for many. A local church realized they had families with lake access and ski boats, and even a few professional competitors. They created a summer wakeboard program for kids. All the leaders and support staff are Christians (boat drivers, instructors, parents, etc.). Participants hear about Christian faith in the program but, more important, they see and experience the faith in the lives of the staff and parents.
  • Serve in Schools. Some churches are beginning to think out-of-the-box altogether. Here in Austin there is an organization helping churches adopt local schools by volunteering in existing groups who serve kids on campus.

Where and how is God inspiring you in the post-Christian scenario? If there’s one thing outsiders (and young insiders) need today, it is a life-on-life connection with followers of Jesus. Whereas our discipleship of youth will be anemic without it, evangelism will seem like nothing short of nonsense. It’s like asking a Texan to become French.

Action Steps

  1. What are the major insights you gained from the “Becoming French” metaphor in this article as it relates to incarnational ministry?
  2. What do you think of the ideas that “our life is a novel” and “others are reading our story”? How does it make you think differently about ministry?
  3. Ron highlights three core relational commitments: our relationship with God, our relationships with other teammates, and our relationships with students. Of these three commitments, where are you the strongest? Where are you the weakest? What might you do to strengthen those relational muscles?
Ron Ragsdale

Ron Ragsdale learned incarnational ministry through 19 years on the staff of Young Life. More recently, he served as Director of Discipleship at a large PC (USA) church. He holds an MAT and ThM from Fuller Seminary. Ron and his family live and love in Austin, TX. He can be contacted at ronrags@sbcglobal.net.


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