In Luke 1, the angel Gabriel visits Mary, a young, virgin, unmarried Jewish girl, and tells her something amazing: “Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Of course, Mary is a bit confused, bewildered even! How could this be? After all, she is still a virgin. Gabriel continues: “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.”
As we remember every time we repeat the Apostle’s Creed, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. In other words, Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit!
I guess you could say I had a kind of similar experience at the National Youth Workers Convention (NYWC) this year. No, there will be no babies born, and certainly not God’s Son!!! However, in a way, I, too – like Mary – was impregnated by the Holy Spirit with new energy, new dreams, new vision for ARM’s mission. In a way, Jesus was born in me anew.
NYWC is a 3.5 day conference hosted by Youth Specialties that’s all about equipping, empowering, and encouraging men and women who serve the church through youth ministry. ARM has attended NYWC for several years. We go as exhibitors and so we can invite others to share in the work God has invited us into here in rural Alabama. It’s also a big encouragement for us as we hear stories about how God is working in and through young people. There are also other ministries present, some great friends of ours, that we get to see and “talk shop” with.
Throughout the weekend, we handed out lots of brochures, pens, and fliers. This year we awarded t-shirts to anyone who could drive a nail all the way through a 2×4 in one swing (or get pretty close)! That was a lot of fun.
While all the fun and networking and sharing stories was exciting, it was the sermon given during the final session of the conference that impacted me the most. The speaker was Kenda Creasy-Dean, a theologian, author, and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who specializes in youth ministry. Her sermon was about discovering a bigger frame for the story of youth ministry. She shared about several exciting social entrepreneurs – all young people – who were changing the world all around them. But, they were doing it outside the church, without the church. Why?
The old frame of youth ministry that has become the standard is just too small. She, along with other theologians of youth ministry, call this frame Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Basically, its a theology that says God wants everyone to be “good”, that the purpose of life is to be “happy”, and that God is just there to help whenever He’s needed – like a vending machine of sorts.
This frame is indeed too small. Creasy-Dean challenged us to consider what youth ministry would look like as an incubator for things like social entrepreneurship. As we step back and think about the suffering endured by so many all around the world, there is much that breaks God’s heart. So what better place to train the next generation to use their energy and skills to transform the world than in the church, in a youth group? What dreams could God be giving to the youth in our churches and are we ready to walk alongside those youth and help their dreams come to life?
She ended with an analogy that blew me away. During her 2nd pregnancy, Creasy-Dean was briefly hospitalized and was on an IV at home for a few days. Her family had experienced a couple deaths recently, so her young son had been to the hospital several times to see those ailing family members. When his momma went to the hospital, he instinctively assumed that she too was dying. Creasy-Dean found him crying one day after she had returned from the hospital. When she asked him why and he told her he thought she was dying, she told him gently, “I’m not dying. I’m pregnant!”
I’m not dying. I’m pregnant!
Creasy-Dean concluded with this thought: the church is not dying, youth ministry is not dying – we’re pregnant! Yes, it’s painful and at times confusing. We have work to do. But God is bringing something to life. God is creating something beautiful within us. The Spirit has conceived something in us and as the apostle Paul reminds us, God will bring it to completion.
I walked away from that sermon and from NWYC with a sense of wonder and amazement: what is God birthing in me, in Alabama Rural Ministry? What is God birthing in the communities where we serve? What new thing is God doing in lives of the families and children in rural Alabama? What might the Spirit be conceiving in the lives of the youth and volunteers who serve with us all year long?
I’m not quite sure yet, but I’m excited and filled with hope about the possibilities. God is up to something… that’s for sure. We’ve seen God working in powerful ways here in rural Alabama. We’re excited to be a place where young people can come and dream as they serve others. We’re excited to be a part of that new community, the body of Christ, that God is renewing, redeeming, and restoring by the power of the Holy Spirit.