BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

51tLSKtnqNLI purchased “What Can We Do? Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience” out of a sustained interest in the intersection of religion and public life (professionally, I split my time as the youth minister of an evangelical church on the north side of Chicago and also as the communications assistant for a movement of faith-based climate change activists). I was pleased to see the authors, David Livermore and Terry Linhart, write what I believe to a sorely-needed resource: a practical guide for youth groups aspiring to “change the world” beyond short-term mission trips and polarizing politics.

The meat of the book are 9 chapters on various contemporary issues — such as poverty, human trafficking, and the environment. Each chapter concludes with a list of practical ways a youth group could faithfully respond. These issue-based chapters are sandwiched by short reflections on global awareness and “glocal” service for Christian teenagers. At 167 pages, the book is purposefully concise; readers interested in delving deeper into a particular subject should take advantage of the “Resources” section at the end of each chapter.

I majored in global studies & conflict transformation for undergrad, so most of the issues discussed in this book I had already studied in-depth. Rather than new knowledge, the value of the book for me was seeing complex issues distilled into their most important points relative to youth ministry (I sometimes forget teenagers don’t need every piece of information floating around in my head before they can carry the pain of the world in their hearts). As someone actively engaged in youth ministry with an eye toward doing justice, there were times I found the book encouraging — for example, I was recently feeling disappointed about how a particular outreach program wasn’t bringing in the sort of numbers one would expect, when I was reminded that we don’t do it just for the numbers but because “youth groups who emphasize outreach have higher levels of social and ethnic diversity in their groups” (p. 109).

One important critique: when Dave and Terry discuss climate change, they sheepishly say “we…don’t believe global warming and climate change are certainties” (p. 83). By framing the issue in this way, the authors mistakenly assume climate uncertainty is a question of reality rather than severity. By suggesting that Christians should “continue to probe the science on this” (p. 84), the authors convey an irresponsible lack of urgency and miss a valuable opportunity to invite youth pastors to help students understand how the media and other cultural forces shape how scientific fact is interpreted.

Although I have not yet had an opportunity to use this book with students, I think it’d make a satisfactory small group guide for any youth mission leadership team. Besides being a good read for all youth ministers to get up to date on important global issues, it also serves as a helpful reference book for the office bookshelf — although, given the nature of our rapidly changing world, there might be need for a 2nd edition sometime in the next 10 – 15 years.

(Another good book to add to the same office bookshelf would be Mae Elise Cannon’s Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World, a more encyclopedic and comprehensive discussion of contemporary issues, written for Christians of all ages.)

Review cross-posted on Amazon.com.

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BOOK REVIEW: “What Can We Do?: Practical Ways Your Youth Ministry Can Have a Global Conscience”

One year out, and five bullet points of pithy advice for new grads

Crazy to think that a year ago, I walked across the stage, received my degree and entered the so-called “real world.” For those of you making the transition this spring, I thought I would share some of these scattered lessons I learned while trying to figure things out for myself. They are not comprehensive, they are not profound, but I wish I knew them straight from the get-go. Maybe you will find them useful yourself. Or maybe not, I wouldn’t be offended.

1. Know that your major doesn’t define you.

A college degree is a useful thing, yes, but it cannot be used to predict the future.

I was a double major with two rather big-sounding subjects: “Global Studies” and “Conflict Transformation, concentration in Religion Studies.” These were some of the funnest degrees I could imagine getting — in fact, I made up the second one out of my electives — but it was not until after I graduated that I realized how hard it was going to be to live up to them.

This is perhaps more obvious with global studies than it is conflict transformation. While my friends were taking Fulbright scholarships and Peace Corps posts, I moved to a nice little neighborhood a few miles away from campus. While I was doing what deep down felt right, I kept nagging myself for not living as “globally” as a global studies major should, and that people would somehow look at me as a sort of failure for staying stateside.

It was a petty worry. Almost instantly after graduation, people went from asking “so, what are you studying?” to “so, what do you do?” People don’t really care that much about majors in the real world. So while my global studies degree gave me some important overseas experiences and knowledge, there is no reason to force my present into the trajectory of the past and leave the country when I do not have a reason to.

(A couple years down the road, however…)

2. Volunteer. Create. For free.

It is tempting to think of the “grace period” — the automatic six month deferment on student loan repayments — as a break between school and the real world. While we all need the occasional break (maybe a couple weeks long at best), the grace period can better be thought of as a six month experiment. There will probably never be another time in your life where your monthly expenses will ever be so low.

For my grace period, I did a summer internship in the Pacific Northwest, which was followed by taking a part-time job in the fall in Chicago. Neither of these were lucrative, but they paid for rent and food. While the summer internship was a good learning experience, working only part-time for the fall freed me up my nine-to-five energies to volunteer with different groups and write lengthy rambles that later became blog posts like this one.

It was not until grace period was over that I started looking for another part-time job. Eventually, I was approached with a job offer from one of the organizations I had been volunteering with, and enthusiastically accepted. While a good volunteer record is not a sure-fire way to obtain employment,  it is about as effective as sending out resumes and, at the end of the day, much more personally fulfilling.

But volunteering is not the only “luxury” of the grace period. You also have an opportunity to express yourself through some sort of creative outlet (and I sincerely believe everyone has at least one creative outlet), not just dabbling here and there but with some sort of actual depth. If you have ever been wanting to try something (painting, blogging, music, etc.) go for it now. It might be quite a while till you get a second chance.

3. Pay attention to your net worth (as least as much as your monthly expenses)

When the inevitable comes and student loans are due, suck it up and pay them. Yes, the amount of debt you may be saddled with is probably obscene and likely unjust. But, the way the system is set up, you are not doing yourself any favors by reducing the minimum payment. (Counter-frictions that wish to stop the machine, skip what follows and best of luck in your endeavors in bubble-popping bankruptcy.)

Why?

My monthly budget consists of three major expense categories: rent, food, and student loans. Early on, I assumed that if I could get my pay check to cover these and some miscellaneous expenses, I would be on the right track. Which is perhaps true, but it is not the big picture.

The big picture is not my monthly budget (income versus expenses), but rather my net worth (assets versus liabilities). Granted, my net worth is currently in the negative five digits. It is a rather intimidating number to look at, but it is helpful for making my student loan payments for this one specific reason: while student loan payments are a monthly expense, they have neutral impact on my net worth. The only negative impact my loans have on my net worth are the accrued interest, which is significantly less than the monthly payment, but significantly greater than any yield I could get from putting my money into a low-risk savings account.

In other words: while I have felt spread thin trying to make my paycheck cover my expenses, which comes out to $0 or slightly below, I have nonetheless seen my net worth slowly increase. It hasn’t been dramatic, but it has been in the right direction. Which has given me the mental relief of knowing I must be doing something right, and having an optimistic sense of brighter financial future ahead as interest payments begin to decrease and loan payments altogether start to cease.

To track my net worth, I use Mint.com’s Net Worth graph under “Trends.” Simple, effective, and with a good visual. That said, a number of net worth tracking tools exist online, and you could probably create a decent personal spreadsheet if you so desired.

4. Give audiobooks a spin.

I did more than just read a lot of books in college. I underlined them, wrote in the margins, sticky flagged and sometimes even regurgitated onto spreadsheets. Every page number was a potential footnote in a future term paper or senior thesis (of which I had three total, each about 25 pages long and 100 footnotes strong).

There were some things I did college to keep my sanity. I tried, for example, to take one class each term that was not reading-and-writing based. During marathon study sessions in the library, I would treat myself to study breaks that surprisingly involved taking a ride on the elevator (no joke).

After school, however, I discovered that my old study habits got in the way of my natural enjoyment of books. I would analyze cover-to-cover, letter-by-letter, preparing for senior theses that didn’t exist. Or I would skim for information instead of reading for the fun of it.

Part of my remediation has been the practice of listening to audiobooks. I would not have experimented naturally, being a visual learner and a mediocre listener, but a hour-long traffic-jammed commute to my summer internship convinced me to give it to a try. It was during this time I began to revalue the “performance” of reading over the mastery of material. I have kept the habit up, listening to various audiobooks as I take the train or clean around the house.

As far as a platform, Audible.com has worked nicely for me. If you are looking for an audiobook to start with, I highly recommend Dr. Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now (and no, it isn’t a pithy self-help book, but an actually well-reflected mediation of young adultdom from the perspective of clinical psychologist) (and Dr. Jay narrates the book herself, which I think is pretty neat).

5. Develop friendship rituals.

Not every college experience comes with great campus communities. Mine did, therefore graduation marked a major transition in my social life as well.

At college, most friendships could almost be sustained by a simple walk across campus on a sunny day. Physical proximity combined with dorm life, synced class schedules, club meetings, campus lectures, this-or-that cause fundraisers, and late night study sessions meant that there is an intensity to the peer groups of the campus community that cannot quite be matched elsewhere.

After graduation, the confederacy of the campus community becomes a diaspora. While I definitely think it is important to branch out of our own generational bubbles, there is incredible value in staying close-knit to people our own age going through the same type of life experiences. For those of us who stick around the city, we at best will find ourselves part of an urban tribe to maintain the momentum of what we created in college.

But it becomes difficult to get the group back together. It takes time to put meaningful get-togethers together, and finding something that works in everyone’s schedule is near impossible.

There is no solution, no return to the way things were in college. But as best as you are able, whether with your urban tribe or just a friendship circle, look for things you can do weekly or monthly to bring everyone together. Maybe it is going out to a favorite restaurant or bar. Maybe it is poker night. Maybe it is a T.V. show. Even a recreational sports league fits under this category.

The advantage of these “friendship rituals” is that not only that they require little prep, but you know they work schedule-wise for everyone involved. It takes trial and error, these rituals really are found as much as they are created.

It is not spontaneous, so it may not sound like fun. But it is fun, and quite frankly getting everyone together for whatever reason is what creates the space for something spontaneous to happen.

Friendships after college, like work or finance or finding yourself, require a lot more intentionality. But far from being a curse, these hurdles simply mean that you and I now have to show that we truly care, care enough to go out of our way to make things happen.

All part of growing up, I suppose.

Friday Addendum: Tune into stories, not tips and tricks

I posted the original five bullet points of pithy advice on Monday. It struck me throughout the week that I had left out perhaps the most important thing I discovered about my first year out, which is to listen to the stories of people.

I mean, listening to stories is something you should be doing that anyways, because people are storied creatures and have an inherent need to have their biographies be known. Listening is love at its simplest. But when you’re trying to make it in the world, listening to stories has some instrumental value as well.

The story of the 43-year-old woman who got the job in the career field you are going into. The 27-year-old man with your same major who is currently applying it in the most unusual of contexts. The 84-year-old man reflecting on what life could have been. Even the 12-year-old girl dreaming about what life could be.

The one thing these stories have in common is that they are not yours.

You might ask someone, “what advice would you give to someone like me?”

Some may tell you to send your resume as many different places as possible. Some may say to send your resume to one place and not give up until they give you a chance, even if that means waiting outside their office for the whole day. Some may say marry young, some may say marry old, some may say marriage is for lovers, some may say marriage is for losers. Some may say save, save, save; others may say work, work, work; others may say live, live, live.

Anyone’s advice is, at best, a reflection of their own experience with success.

So, as our story unfolds, in any which of too many possible ways, we needn’t worry ourselves about living up to some sort of standard of excellence. Regardless of what the magazines say, there are no “five best tips” out there, just a bunch of people like myself with pithy advice of their own. What we have to offer each other is not a road map to success, but honest and true stories. Stories that, when shared, can help the next graduating class better identify, and see that the next generation be equipped, to tackle the challenges and identify the opportunities.

Trail-blazing is tough. We all at one point will have to go off the beaten path. And there are also some trails, some forks in the road, that we may only be able to recognize not by footprints in the ground (or institutionalized open doors) but by knowing that someone else has taken exactly that turn.

“Hey, this person has been through something similar to what I’m about to go through. In their situation, they did such and such and, well, we know how that turned out. So, then, I suppose I could try something like that as well.”

Listen to stories. Many, many, many stories.

One year out, and five bullet points of pithy advice for new grads

What if the church were to save the planet?

A few weeks ago, someone asked me “regarding climate change, how would you like to see the church act differently?” Not a question I’m used to, unfortunately. Whatever words came out of my mouth were hardly an answer I felt satisfied with.

(A number of the things I post here are originally based off questions that I initially struggle to answer, but after mulling about it for a day or week or month or so I finally have a response I can excited about. But since by that time the conversation has been over for a day or week or month or so it’s usually too late to bring the point back up and so I figure I’ll just tell the whole world wide web. So, yeah, this is one of those posts.)

From Genesis 1 & 2, it is pretty clear that there is a biblical mandate to care for the planet. God created a whole lot of stuff, and saw that it was good. He then created humankind “in his image,” which means a lot of things but certainly implies that from the perspective of another mammal, bird, fish or perhaps even a plant, that those tall, mostly hairless, two-legged things walking around should resemble in action the Creator that gave them existence, cared for them, and saw that they were good.

Instead, humanity has destroyed the living things of the planet and overwhelmingly neglected their needs. Instead of seeing the created world as “good because God said so” it has been treated as a bank of natural resources that are “valuable to fulfill my own wants.” And the church has been largely complicit in this affair, preaching a theology of domination rather than a theology of stewardship, although that has thankfully been changing back for the better in recent years.

But why climate change? Is it not enough that this or that local church recycles and has a community garden in the backyard?

One reason could be because the church sees care for the poor as part of its mission. The ability to adapt to climate change (or any sort of change for that matter) is a privilege of those endowed with some savings or at least a decent credit rating. Many humanitarian aid organizations, secular and faith-based, are already realizing that they need to respond to climate issues. My hunch is that groups like World Vision and Bread for the World are no more than three years away from highly visible climate campaigns.

But instead of focusing on duty, I want to talk about potential. Because I think the church can afford to be ambitious. The church might actually be humanity’s best chance at overcoming the climate change crisis, simultaneously saving the planet while living more into a vision of redeemed humanity.

Let me explain.

The church is a global force.

Unlike most environmental issues (i.e., air pollution, deforestation, and invasive species), global warming is, well, a global force. It is not limited to specific localities of cause and effect, but instead has the ubiquitous power to change the entire world order. It takes a global force to counteract a global force.

While we talk a lot about living in a “globalized” world, the list of truly global forces is actually quite small. The Internet. Capitalism. The United Nations. None of these have made satisfactory progress towards halting climate change, and at least one of them has been a contributing culprit.

With 2.2 billion adherents, however, the church is a global force in its own right. No other religious group comes close in terms of size and geographic spread, and that number is essentially tied with the number of worldwide internet users. Setting aside theological considerations and speaking in strict sociological terms: if there is any group worldwide with the muscle to mobilize effectively around issues of climate, my money is on the church.

Bonus points to the first person to call which Chicago-based church this is, presently concealed by the all-too-rapidly melting Arctic ice cap.

The church has the power to change hearts and renew minds. 

Sometimes climate activists look against the hard, economic data and, despaired by the calculations, throw their hands up in the air in defeat.

Economic projections are usually based on expectations of human wants versus resource scarcity. While there is not much the church can feasibly do about scarcity, it certainly has and continues to be influential in shaping our desires. Whether hosting drug addiction treatment programs or inspiring charity in the human heart, we know of the church as a space for cultivating sensitivity to a higher yearning.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.

As an oft-tossed around proverb amongst my close friends goes, “you just gotta want it.” For where there is a want, there is a will; where there is a will, there is a way.

The church has the voice to pastor in an era defined by climate change. 

Environmentalism has a tendency to take on spiritual overtones (sentiments like “feeling one with nature,” for example). As global warming increasingly moves from hypothetical model to experienced reality, I would not be surprised if the response by the general public was of a zealous, religious, almost-panicked scale.

Think about it. An abstract, formless phenomenon has the power to change things around the entire world, rewarding humanity for obeying some sort of code, and punishing humanity when it does not, adding the promise-threat of impending apocalypse. This same category applies to “global warming” equally as it does to our Judeo-Christian concept of “God.”

The obvious problem is that “global warming” is limited in its ability to meet the human being in a holistic manner. Climate change’s ensuing call for action may wake us up in the morning, but it will not give us peace when we go to bed at night.

In this context, the church has an opportunity to proclaim a greater story; a story of love, yearning, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness. The gospel story, if you will.

This is an opportunity for the church to be an effective witness. But it needs to position itself now in order to capitalize on this chance, by swiftly responding to the reality of global warming by demonstrating a sense of duty (yes, this is our responsibility), a confession of guilt (yes, we have screwed up), and an act of faith (yes, we can change this). If the church ignores the crisis of climate now, the church will deserve to be ignored in the midst of a crisis of meaning.

What does this look like? Maybe it starts with finding groups that can carpool to church. Pastors are always trying to create small groups within their congregations anyways. But ultimately what it will require is a confidence to engage in systemic change that comes from prophetic vision, holding accountable not just congregations but the leaders of politics and industry. And efforts are already underway, and it is super easy to get involved.

So, in response to the question I was asked a couple weeks ago – I would love it if the church, instead of being reluctantly dragged into faith-based coalitions against global warming, took more leadership on the issue and showed that it had some confidence in itself. If, in 2050, the church can say, instead of “we did our part” say “we did it!”, that would be just incredible. We just gotta want it.

What if the church were to save the planet?

Who, then, is my neighbor?

The deciding factor for the Samaritan was that he was present with the beaten man along the side of the road. The Samaritan “came near” the scene of the crime, he “saw” the helpless man, and “was moved with pity”. These are all verbs of loving presence.

Each of the verbs, however, takes on a new dimension in today’s globalized world. We are able to translate the Greek into English, but how do we translate a 1st century command into 21st century action?

An excerpt from a recently published blog post I wrote for Covenant World Relief. The byline is anonymous (I wrote it as an intern), but the piece is actually quite personal. Read the full thing here.

Who, then, is my neighbor?

What I can do with a degree in Global Studies

People ask people about to graduate college what they plan on doing with their major. It is almost never easy to answer “So, what are you going to do with that Global Studies degree?” But over the past few weeks, I have found a few solid answers that I keep returning to:

1. “Graduate.”

2. “I said it was Global Studies, not Global Do-Something.”

3. “Flee the country, not pay back student loans.”

4. “Become a millionaire.”

5. “Hold wild protests against the IMF, World Bank, United Nations, NATO, and the G20…because they won’t give me an entry-level job.”

6. “Apply for globe-trekking adventures that utilize my cross-cultural abilities.”

7. “Start a NGO that teaches practical job skills to those who don’t have any. Then take courses.”

Inspired by a NPU Global Studies alumna who told me King Kaleb of Axum was known as as “the one who brought about the morning” or “the one who collected tribute,” I’ve also considered walking around the streets with robe and crown demanding people to pay me a one-dollar tribute or else I’m going to refuse to bring about the sunrise for a whole week.

If you have any better ideas, here’s my resume.

What I can do with a degree in Global Studies