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Time and place.
The two go together. They must. And when they don’t, we know it.
You can be at the right place at the wrong time.
You can be in the wrong place at the right time.
This happens in ministry all the time.
I remember thinking that it would be a great idea to take my students on a spring break trip to Colorado. It sounded cool until I was told (rather passionately) that a group of Wisconsin students who had just endured five months of snow, don’t want more cold. They want the sunny beach! Right time, wrong place!
I have also had those frustrating moments where I have yearly taken students back to the same camp with no clear vision for what it means to return to a familiar place. I got the message— students lamenting that the camp “wasn’t as good as last year.” Right place, wrong time!
Youth ministry is about time and place. Both. Together. You can’t have one without the other.
This reality challenges us to consider how we use time and place in our youth ministries. Often, I’ve discovered that attention to one and not the other makes me miss a deeper dynamic that may be going on, clouding my assessment. I’m too quick to give blame or credit to the “camp” when it was actually our schedule that helped or hurt the event. I think an event date will fit perfectly in the schedule; the event fails because I don’t use the venue well. Both time and place must work together for our programming and, more importantly, for our philosophy of spiritual formation.
Mars Hill Bible Church has had the privilege of working with Fuller Youth Institute’s Sticky Faith project over the past few years. It’s been beneficial for us to dialogue with other church leaders within the cohort around what youth ministries can do to help students stick with their faith. In these conversations, I have been increasingly aware of our need to understand time and place as framing for youth ministry’s spiritual formation practices.
This piece acknowledges that the research from FYI calls for youth workers to be more thoughtful about how we are preparing our adolescents to carry their faith into adulthood. The answer may not be implementing programs, more lessons, or more activities. Rather, the solution may come from youth workers reconsidering time and place and paying more attention to both in our contexts.
1. We have a responsibility to help our students discover the intersection of time and place.
As we wrestle with the research from FYI and consider what it means to help our students grow a faith that sticks, we must consider time and place, striving to ensure the quality and intersection of both.
The challenge toward intersecting time and place is to first recognize that some ministries are often naturally stronger at one more than the other. For instance, some are excellent at “place.” They have established great spaces for programming, small groups, and mentoring relationships. Their “places” are filled with good teaching, good interaction, even good content. Yet, these places remain limited if they are not tied to a larger theological narrative that anchors them in a larger context.
When this happens, students are taught, mentored, peer-pressured into Christian behavior void of a larger redemptive story that they (and every person) is being invited into. In the long term as students move beyond high school, even the best youth group “places” will no longer exist. Therefore, good places also need good timing that explain why we teach, mentor, and meet together. Students need help carrying their faith beyond the familiar youth group spaces.
Similarly, some ministries are experts at “time.” Churches or youth groups may follow the church calendar (e.g., Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ordinary Time) closely, but fail to bring it to an accessible level for students. Therefore, if you offer wonderful observances of church time but it remains distant or irrelevant compared to the schedules young people keep, their schedules will win out. Their ways of marking time are more pressing, more rewarding, more (sadly) inspiring, and in their minds, more necessary.
What is needed is an intersection of the two – an intersection of time and place. Together we weave teachings, relationships, and story into a narrative that moves beyond high school into their next stages in life. This is one way faith starts to stick.
2. We have an opportunity to help our students form by helping them live rhythmic lives.
The intersection of time and place does not necessarily mean we need to add more to our ministry calendars. It does, however, challenge us to consider where we place the things we do with our students.
Place + Time = Rhythms
“Place” is the educational space by which we implement theological practices.
Practices are the teaching, events, and spaces that we believe are necessary for spiritual formation. Spiritual practices have many potential implications for your ministry and church. Each faith community must consider what practices you want to nurture in your students. For us, we develop our people through practices we’ve named as narrative theology, journey, wholeness, community, serving, and celebration. These disciplines are intentionally embedded in our regular programming so that they are implicitly and explicitly being taught to and practiced by our students.
“Time” pertains to “timing.” Not only must we place our practices in our programming places/spaces, we must situate our programming within our sensitivity to time. It raises questions about when we teach the practices we are attempting to embed into the lives of our students.
When place meets time, we create rhythms. Rhythms can create cadences for living, which can help faith stick. We recognized that the church has practiced rhythms throughout her existence and particularly we can think of these rhythms as hourly/daily, weekly/monthly, and seasonally/yearly. We implement them in light of these three concentric circles of rhythms that guide us:
Rhythms for the hour/day
‘In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.”[[Brown Taylor, B. (2009). An altar in the world: A geography of faith. New York: HarperOne.]]
Hourly/daily rhythms teach us that faith is embedded in our daily living. It is not only important to teach our students to pray, but also to offer them strategies for when to pray. For example, teaching them to pray the daily hours [[There are many resources: check out: Tickle, Phyllis (2006) The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime. New York: Doubleday.]] or at least at unique times in their day helps them integrate place and time, giving students the opportunities to learn a life of prayer where they can regularly experience communion with God within their daily routines.
In our youth group programming, we take seriously the idea that “every minute counts.” Therefore, each element of our programming highlights our attention to scripture, the freedom to ask questions, the opportunity to respond, or the necessity of journeying with others. This is also how we evaluate whether a youth group night is “successful” or not.
Rhythms for the week/month
“The wisdom of the desert Fathers includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self–to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.”[[Brown Taylor, B. (2009). An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne.]]
For students, the rhythms of the week or month are typically centered on their participation with the church community and the youth group community. As youth workers, we can start thinking ofthese gatherings not merely as events students attend, but also as weekly metronomes that communicate to our students that we need each other and that, while spirituality is personal, it cannot be private.
In the midst of everyone’s busyness which often leads to isolation, we encourage each other to meet together. We do this not only to receive from others, but also to give to others. Students learn not only the benefit of community, but also the necessity of the faith community in their faith journeys.
Students must learn that we are not competing with their other activities. We are simply teaching them that the Christian faith cannot be lived alone. Through this, we no longer measure attendance as much as we seek to measure participation, seeing youth group not merely as a teaching place, but also as a space in time that is necessary in their weekly cadence. Weekly, students learn to give and receive from each other. They learn to trust, be honest, voice doubts, and share joys that have little to do with attendance as much as they have to do with community. Participation is the antidote to hyper-individualism that only happens over time, not simply altar calls.
Rhythms for the season/year
“Seasons is a wise metaphor for the movement of life, I think. It suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance but something infinitely rich, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all—and to find in all of it opportunities for growth.”[[Palmer, P. J. (2000). Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.]]
Seasonal expressions in the church calendar help students and church communities tell and re-tell the story of God.[[Webber, R. E. (2004). Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks.]] They encourage a healthy balance, reflecting and experiencing anticipation, celebration, lament, repentance, hope, even “ordinary time.” Living into the seasons challenges youth ministries to even think about the programming, retreats, lessons, and music used during these times.[[Special thanks to Sarah Arthur, author of The God-Hungry Imagination: The Art of Storytelling for Postmodern Youth Ministry and her latest release, Walking with Bilbo: A Devotional Adventure through the Hobbit, for sharing this concept with me.]]
For example, we attempt during Lent season–a time of lament and repentance– to refrain from programming that is silly, wasteful, or overly celebratory. In our teaching and programming, even our song choices, we are attempting to teach our students that part of faith is lament, not just spiritual highs.[[The Sticky Faith Every Day curriculum was written to coincide with the season of Lent if you're interested in exploring this seasonal rhythm more intentionally with students. You can download the curriculum free here.]] They tie a black cloth to their backpacks to remind them that this is a season where we reflect on our brokenness, the brokenness of the world, and the longing we all have to be whole. At Advent, we use this space to speak of hope and anticipation rather than a series that focuses only on what “young people are doing wrong."
Seasonal rhythms teach us to practice and reflect on the whole Gospel and on God’s story, bringing up essential topics within their proper liturgical seasons, valuing all aspects of the gospel as a spiritual journey, not simply teaching random Bible topics.[[Wright, N. T. (2012). How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. New York: HarperOne.]]
Pursuing Rhythm Together
We live in a world that is at a rhythmic loss. Traditions, schedules, regular times to gather as family and friends are sporadic in our 24/7-paced world.
Good news for our students and our community includes recapturing life’s cadence. It’s the cadence that is already embedded in the very nature of our world, highlighted by our historical church through hourly, daily, weekly, and seasonal rhythms. By investing in time and place, our hope is that we can help students find their rhythms that will help their faith stick as they live it out beyond high school.
The good news is also this: You don’t need to add more to your ministry programming or timing. Simply take what you’re doing and make it more intentional by intersecting time and place. This, indeed, seems like what we’re called to do.
For more resources in the Sticky Faith Every Day series, including our free 8-week curriculum series, visit the Sticky Faith Every Day page now!
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