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

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

Your nose looks a little different this new year

These last few months, thanks to all sorts of fun yet time-consuming activities, have not been a blogging season for me. To be sure, there are a number of half-baked drafts on my hard drive; none of them, however, seem worth sharing at this point. Good thing this isn’t my job.

I came across something exciting last night, however, leading me to turn this particular post around in under 24 hours. The thing that excited me was a bit narcissistic, but oh well this is a personal blog and that is bound to happen from time to time.

The exciting thing came from a snippet of a book blending youth ministry practice with social construction theory, one which I have been reading these past few weeks (emphasis added):

Let’s face it: our readings of Scripture are deeply biased. Biases are not necessarily good or bad. They are like noses; we all have them. But just like the noses on our faces, they can be difficult to see. When we do not recognize our biases in reading Scripture and treat them as ultimate truth, we eliminate others’ biases. This limits new forms of understanding and manufactures division that hinders relational growth.

— Brandon McKoy, Youth Ministry from the Outside In, p.156 – 157

This got my attention, because I used the same “nose” metaphor in my senior-thesis-turned-e-book that I published earlier this year, The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay (see excerpt below). While this may be a case of wit’s all been done before, I think McKoy and myself are both sufficiently influenced by Gadamer to say that this is a pretty neat case of language being shaped by tradition. Besides, coming up with the same language as someone more learned and experienced than myself is a reassuring sign that I might be on the right track (I had a similar realization last year with Barbara Brown Taylor).

Granted, McKoy talks about biases, while I talk about prejudices, but we are talking about essentially the same thing. For those of us who are card-carrying members of the human race, our understanding of the world is fundamentally finite. Rather than trying to know everything from all possible perspectives, the remedy to this so-called problem is hardly a remedy at all but rather the way the world should have been from the beginning: that we develop trusting relationships with people who see things differently than us — so that we may be corrected, humbled, and inspired.

I don’t like to drum up gloom, but initial reports suggest 2013 has been the year of suspicion. Congress is in deadlock, ethnic tensions seem anachronistically high, and our private lives and personal information feel compromised. In the political economy of 2013, trust has been a more precious resource than gold or oil or even bitcoins.

For Christians, our churches continue to divide, using certain verses as cleaving knives. What sadness.

Emergent problems require innovative solutions, yet tradition (and the corresponding wealth of wisdom) has been held hostage by those who fear change. The guardians of tradition, whoever they may be, need to let go of the false notion that tradition is unchangeable and static. Every belief or ritual or symbol they hold so dear was, after all, an innovation of it’s own back in the day.

I am droning on (I guess that is something else that happened in 2013), so let me get to the point, which is hardly a point but more of a New Year’s challenge.

  • Looking back on 2013, how has your metaphorical nose (your biases, your prejudices, etc.) been changed through experience or through relationship?
  • Looking forward on 2014, what can you do to take care of your metaphorical nose — regardless of whether you think it is awkward or perfect or something inbetween?
  • Looking forward on 2014, what can you do to take care of others’ metaphorical noses — in a way that does not induce shame or hostility?

While you reflect on those questions, go ahead and read this excerpt from The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay (for context, this part of the essay is reflecting on the July 2013 verdict of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial). Afterwards, feel free to share your reflections in the comments section.

It seems shameful to have prejudices, although prejudices are as normal as the noses on our faces. Many are awkward, to be sure, but that is no reason to hide them. Yet, shame is precisely what our culture encourages. We like calling people out: “You’re insensitive!” “That wasn’t politically correct!” “What a moron — I’m going to call out your bigotry on the internet and get a bunch of like-minded people to share my content!”

Calling people out makes us feel enlightened, like we stand on the moral high ground. For the truly oppressed, calling out an oppressor may feel like the only shred of dignity they can get in the fight.

But, if I dare say it, it is when we cover up our prejudices that they are most likely to erupt in violence. Like an algae bloom in stagnant water, our faulty prejudices are most threatening when they are not constantly being exposed and stirred and moved and challenged.

And so, we don’t magically need fewer prejudices. We need more safe places to sound stupid. We need to be compassionate people in both correcting and correction, with whom wrong answers are opportunities to practice humility instead of shame.

By the way: for this weekend only, the gods are letting me offer The Virtue of Open-Mindedness: An Essay at the reduced price of FREE. You might as well download it to pad the new e-reader you got for Christmas, or send a copy to that one uncle who wouldn’t shut up about religion or politics during holiday dinner.

For that matter, I’m still reading McKoy’s book, but I can already say I strongly recommend it for any youth minister with a social sciences/philosophy bent. Check it out here.

Your nose looks a little different this new year

Gospel > Global Warming: thesis statement

So I meant to do a blog post on the topic of how the global warming narrative stacks up against the gospel narrative. I originally timed it for publication between Easter and Earth Day. Well, it turned into five blog posts and now it is so like not even Easter on the liturgical calendar. Suppose I got excited. Anyhow, I’ll be posting this series throughout the week. And yes, it does reflect a bit on my experience as being part of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, but nothing here necessarily reflects any official position of Y.E.C.A. whatsoever. Just my own thoughts that I want to contribute to public discussion.

Gospel > Global Warming

Gospel is Greater than Global WarmingAs a society, we have confused redemption with progress. We have succumbed to the cult of more, more, more — no matter what the cost. While the cult of more, more, more is idolatry in-and-of-itself, a number of us have realized that with the cult comes a cost in the form of the climate crisis. The consequences of global warming are not only a big, big deal, but on the personal level the fight against global warming is proving to be a big, big deal to a lot of people.

I know a number of people who proclaim loudly, whether with their words or their fashion or their Facebook profiles, that they are “an environmentalist above all else.” For whatever noble reason, the battle to save the planet and the countless living creatures — including human generations present and future — is not just a life-or-death struggle. It is an overarching narrative, a deep well of personal meaning. It has its own alpha — a world before humans, or at least before the Industrial Revolution — and one of two possible omegas, either success or failure, either an ecotopian world where sustainability and ecological consciousness thrive as supreme values, or a dystopian planet torn apart by climate change and no longer inhabitable by humans.

Bill McKibben is perhaps the nation’s leading environmentalist. Bill also is a Sunday School teacher for his United Methodist congregation up in Vermont, and yes I would probably pay good money to sit in his Sunday School class. Yet, I was disappointed when I saw video of him speaking to a summit of climate activism leaders from across the world. Bill told the audience that:

“Very, very few people can ever say that they are in the single most important place they can possibly be doing the most single most important thing they could possibly be doing. That’s you, here, now.”

As Christians, we know, as Bill should have known before he made this poor statement that oozed of self-righteousness, the most important place was Calvary, the most important thing was the Crucifixion. It wasn’t very, very few people who can say they did this, it was one person, our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is crucial that we make this distinction, lest the cult of more, more, more is merely replaced by an idolatry of climate change. The global warming narrative is severely limited in its ability to meet the human being in a holistic manner. The alarms of global warming may wake us up in the morning, but the solutions — sustainable policies, green technologies, etc. — will not give us peace when we go to bed at night, pondering the mysteries of the universe. The quest to combat the climate crisis is not enough to give our lives meaning.

Although, as Christians, we know global warming is a not a sufficient narrative to give our lives meaning, nevertheless the reality of global warming has major implications for those of us who claim to follow Christ. The climate crisis is not a mere issue out there in the world for the world to deal with, but it is for us Christians a two-in-one crisis which we must address.

First off, we know that as human beings created to be stewards of God’s creation, the climate crisis is an identity crisis. “To have dominion” is one of few commands in the Bible to be addressed not to Israel, nor the disciples, nor the church, but to the entire human race. Yes, this relationship broke apart with the fall of man. Yes, global warming is only one of many human ecological footprints damaging natural habitats worldwide, but in many cases it is proving to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. As God’s redemption people, we must be at the forefront of leading humanity into this restored relationship with the creation entrusted to us. Otherwise, we are failing to live into our God given-identity.

Second, the climate crisis is also a humanitarian crisis. We know that the poor are inherently less capable of adapting to climate change, that the poor tend to be most vulnerable to the brunt of the impacts and the least equipped to make good on the occasional benefit climate change provides. As Christians, especially as Christians in America, we have neglected and occasionally even run away from our prophetic role in society when it comes to speaking up about the climate crisis. For Christians, a people shaped to be for the poor, among many values, the humanitarian crisis of global warming is a second identity crisis, on top of the failure to be a steward of creation.

The crazy thing is that we believe, in Christ, there is no identity crisis. We know that, in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. If we really believe and live into the redemption story, then we believe also that there are also no sinners nor saints, just sojourners. In Christ, we have been redeemed to participate in God’s world-saving mission, regardless of our baggage.

If we really believe the redemption story, then we have faith in this little arithmetic: that the Gospel > Global Warming.

But why does that matter, and why is it good news?

Tomorrow: Good News, Reasons #1 and #2

Gospel > Global Warming: thesis statement

The distance between home and home

[Warning: this is a blog post that doesn’t resolve itself. It comes with no tidy ending or wrapped up in a witty conclusion, it is just documenting experience and that’s just fine because I’m only a twenty-something, after all.]

There is a petty dissonance down the middle of my mind, about 2000 miles wide, roughly the distance between home and home. And I know I’m not alone in this.

On my 1.5 mile bike commute to work, I see two Subarus. First, a Forester, with an Oregon license plate. Second, an Outback, that while its owner has traded the Doug Fir plate for an Abe Lincoln, the rear window still prominently features a “Heart-in-Oregon” sticker.

I have not met the owners of these Subarus, as much as I want to. I want to ask them if they have also noticed that, from a road-side perspective, our state (2) has beat out the more likely contenders by a function of population and osmosis: New York (0), Texas (0) and California (0). I want to ask them why they too have decided to play the Oregon Trail in reverse.

Nobody truly knows what makes an Oregonian an Oregonian, but like these Subarus I have through little ways resisted assimilation to the city I have found myself in. I still have my Oregon’s Driver’s License. My shipping address, which changes from lease to lease, is different from my billing address, thanks to parents who have stayed put. Even though I walk by Alderman Ameya Pawar’s office on the way to picking up groceries at Jewel Osco, I still am registered to vote in Oregon’s 1st congressional district. I have a sticker on my laptop that proudly proclaims my tribal, er, state identity to the whole coffee shop.

Not that Chicago is a bad place. I really do like Chicago actually, or at least the neighborhoods I have spent time in. I like that just about everything I need is walking distance, I like the fact that there is always something going on, I like having centrally located train stations and airports that make the nation and world readily accessible.

If I had to, I could settle down and live here and be happy.

I could start buying things, like furniture, that do not fit into checked luggage.

So what’s holding me back?

Do I think Oregon just simply scores as the better place? — No. Places are not meant to be quantified.

Do I miss going on runs through forests with elevation changes? — No. Because I’d just as easily miss run-by-witnessing the quirkiness of people made possible by Chicago’s density of population.

Do I just like being different? — Maybe. But even so, that is probably less a weird psychological-ego thing than it is an Oregon cultural artifact.

What I think it comes down to is this: Oregon simply has shaped me in more ways than Chicago has. From the way I think to the way I dress to the way I spend my time and money. If tomorrow I were go and spend a year in New Orleans, or in Tanzania, or on the moon, I would tell people that I am from Oregon. Not Chicago.

I am not complaining about my current situation. I am here by choice, as opposed to the refugees and exiles who are here as a last resort. Nevermind that the “who am I/where am I” question is much easier than the “who are we/where are we” question: a surprising number of my friends have fallen in love not just across state lines but over international borders, and are having to figure out these questions not only in tandem with another but through concrete decisions.

So, as disorientating as it may be, the incongruence between home and home may actually be a normal part of the human experience. A formative part, even.

Maybe there is not supposed to be a right answer. If there is, however, I suspect it is not found by asking “which place should I call home” but rather “did I show up today, or did I run away?” At the very least, we are more likely to know how to answer the latter question.

That all said: my Oregon driver’s license, my state-issued identification card, expires this August. Under ORS 803.355 (and yes, I did look this up), I can only renew if I intend “to remain in the state or, if absent, to return to it.”

Not that the DMV employee is going to ask. Besides, I am confident I could make a legal case for my intention to return to Oregon in the eight-year period I would extend my domicileship, mostly revolving around the fact I see myself going to grad school sometime in the next eight years and that decision is probably going to shut the door on Chicago and there will be a transition period in which Oregon is the only place I could call home.

The more important question is this: am I going to continue resisting assimilation? If growing up in Oregon taught me anything, it taught me the importance of celebrating the places we find ourself in, whether the mountains or the valleys or the coast or the city. I am thankful for this lesson, but how shall I best thank the teacher?

By snubbing the Illinois driver’s license, am I showing up or am I running away?

I have no clue.

I am curious to see what I decide.

The distance between home and home

Gerald the Olympic Night Bowler, and the American Election

Everyone, meet Gerald. You may think Gerald is an imaginary friend, but I prefer to consider him more of a metaphorical comrade. Gerald has long represented our country in the Summer Olympics in a somewhat obscure sport called “night bowling.” It is much like the bowling-alley type of bowling that you and I know, except that it takes place outside, on uncertain terrain, and with minimal lighting.

A serious student of the sport, Gerald spends his evenings and weekends studying up on how to become a better night bowler. His performance follows a highly unusual pattern that he has not been able to transcend since his first Olympics Games (the 1984 Los Angeles games, which he reminds me took place after the boycott of 1980).

See, whenever it has been so dark out that Gerald even see the pins he is supposed to hit, he has been able to walk away with the gold medal. This happened in 1988, 2000, and most recently as 2008. But in other years, when there is just enough daylight left to make out the silhouettes of the far-off pins, Gerald not only does not medal, but his final score is lower than it would have been otherwise.

This doesn’t make sense. It shouldn’t. Gerald can’t explain it himself, but he is quick to point out that this his performance in the Olympics has predicted another once-every-four-years contest: the American presidential election.

See, in addition to being a world-class night bowler, Gerald is also an armchair politics junkie. And what Gerald means is that every year that he has won the gold, the election has gone on as expected. But every year Gerald has lost, namely 1984, 1996, and 2004, the same years that he had enough daylight to see the pins he was supposed to hit, were the same years that a major political party ran a unsuccessful campaign to defeat an incumbent president.

(I admit Gerald can be confusing sometimes.)

In other words, in a year when both major parties hold a primary election, there is no telling which side will win. But in a year when only one party holds a primary, because the defending party will just renominate the current president, the pattern has been that the challenging party will lose the election. This is despite the fact that the challenging party can (and often does) strategically pick a candidate whose strengths match up with the current president’s weaknesses.

Imagine political parties as night bowlers and the candidate they have to defeat as bowling pins. When challenging parties bowl without seeing the pins, they do alright. But when they can see their target, they fail more miserably than they would bowling blind.

Gerald, of course, has the numbers to prove it.

Reagan’s first win was with 91% of the electoral college, and in his second improved to a whopping 98%. Clinton had 370 electoral votes his first go-around, and jumped up to 379 for the sequel. Bush Jr. improved on his down-to-the-hanging-chad 50.3% win in 2000 to a surprising 53.2% in 2004.

The only exception was Bush Sr., who Gerald considers a fluke that just tried to ride the wave of 1980’s Reagan-mania into the 1990’s.

Anyhow, I happen to be at Gerald’s place for a quick visit. Either because he lost the gold medal this year or because of his idea, makes an upfront claim. “Barack Obama will win this election, no questions asked.”

I ask Gerald why he thought this was. He pauses for a second, and then asks me, “well, you work with youth, right?”

“Yeah, part-time. Why?”

“What do you tell a junior higher who thinks he is all rebellious and what-not?”

“Usually something like ‘do not root your identity by what you are against, but instead by what you are for.’ Help them to embrace something positive.”

“Exactly. If a fourteen-year-old can understand that, men and women three times as old trying to lead the country should be able to as well.” Gerald then pulled two books from off his bookshelf, one being Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Romney’s No Apology. “Have you read either of these?”

I shake my head. I thought being halfway through the audiobook of Dreams From My Father was pretty good for being an informed citizen.

Gerald continues. “Well, all you need to do is look at the titles. See Obama’s book? He is talking about something positive. He’s talking about hope and the American Dream, and what he thinks that looks like. Maybe is right, maybe he is wrong, but definitely he is talking about something positive.”

I ask about Romney’s book.

“Well, look at the back flap. See the first sentence, ‘On his first presidential visit to address the European nations, President Obama felt it necessary to apologize for America’s international power.’ The title of Romney’s book, the premise of the entire thing, is less pro-Romney and more anti-Obama. And you cannot deny that this entire time, Romney’s campaign has been more about defeating Barack than about electing Mitt.”

Before I have a chance to agree, and mention something about  Gerald goes on.”That was John Kerry’s problem in 2004. Bob Dole’s in 1996. Walter Mondale’s in 1984. They, or at least their parties, were all so obsessed with defeating the giant that they forgot they were giants themselves.”

But one thing does not line up with Gerald’s hypothesis: rather than losing ground on Obama, Romney is running a much tighter race than McCain did in 2008. I ask Gerald how he explains this.

“Well, first of all, the governor has been moving all over the place in a way McCain was too principled to try. You never know when he will be moderate Mitt or when he will be right-wing Romney. That opportunism is fine if you want to win an election, but the coalition he will be governing with is going to become quickly disillusioned.”

Gerald shots a quick glance at me to make sure I am keeping track, and then pulls out some of Nate Silver’s charts from the 538 blog. “Second of all, even if it has been a close race, Obama has been solidly in charge of this thing the entire time. In fact, the only thing that swung the election towards Romney,” and here Gerald points to a swift downturn in October, “was not anything Romney did as much as it was an overconfident Obama falling asleep at the wheel during the first debate.”

I try to make sense of this. “So what you’re saying that campaigns should avoid pushing out attack ads.”

“Not quite,” Gerald responds. “If a candidate got elected without having to overcome some outrageous criticism, I would be worried about his or her ability to maintain authority once in office. Attack ads have their place, but they should not be the bread-and-butter of a campaign.”

Gerald continues. “Ultimately, the problem is that when a opponent bases their identity as the anti-identity of their rival, the opponent remains one step behind. The opponent gives up the power to define themselves over to their rival, and the rival now has the ability to define himself and the opponent.”

What began as an argument is quickly becoming a rant, as Gerald raises his voice and starts pounding the table. “And this isn’t good for the country. Debate succumbs to polarization! Options devolve into stalemates! Inspiring rhetoric is drowned out by cynicism…”

“Gerald, I get it!” I interrupt, trying to calm him down. “So, the political parties do better in the presidential elections when they do not know who their future rival is, because then they do not have the temptation of basing their platform off the incumbent but instead are free to be themselves?”


I try to change the subject. “So, what does this have to do with the fact you lost the gold medal this year?”

At this time, Gerald asks me to leave.

Gerald the Olympic Night Bowler, and the American Election