Monday 21 February 2022

Consilience, Covid, and Youth Ministry

Definition of consilience:

The linking together of principles from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory.

These things shouldn't be related in a meaningful way. Other than the light one shone on the other during some of the darkest days the western teenager had faced in some time. But Covid and youth ministry both showcase a curious pattern that has caused me to stop and think recently. And I'd like to take a stab at explaining it.

When I was a youth pastor I ran the math on how many kids were a part of an active youth program in the town my church was in, and how many kids were in the age demographic of all youth programs offered to the same demographic. When I mapped the two numbers together I got a fairly simple graph that I encourage all youth pastors to do for their own ministry at least once. Between my youth group, 4H club, and the Mormon church's youth program, 1-2% of the town's youth was involved in a faith-based or faith adjacent (being located in a church but not for gospel-oriented purposes) youth program. My goal, until I was asked to leave for an overtly evangelical method and practice, was to get that number to something above 3% by aiming at 10% and to have that 10% be because of my church. 

Long story short it didn't work, but the percentages stuck with me and I could never figure out why. They seemed important but I couldn't make it add up to something meaningful.

And while as a general rule I advise never doing the math on any given topic. Here, the numbers point to something significant. The numbers being and behaving similarly but from a different source and angle. That angle is churches that didn't enforce the covid mandates. 

In a different city, there were a few hundred churches, and in the midst of a global pandemic, and among a long list of unprecedented things, a precedented number came up again. 1-2%.

Consilience, as read above, is when two sets of principles link, forming a comprehensive theory. And somewhere between the small rural church youth pastorate and the large city church attender, the consilience of the average attendance of a youth group and an anti mandate church linked up like Mennonite's at a barn dance. Why? Because God is gracious, that's why.

By any rational metric youth, ministries don't work. The money and time spent on them don't add up to a statistical change in the demographic of teens that feed into them. Take your youth group's average attendance and then take a list of high schools and middle schools represented there and divide the two numbers. Are you making a difference? The math would suggest no, but we all know what an ounce of salt does to a pound of hamburger. Where is God's grace? It's in the making sufficient of His strength through our weakness. Or did you want to call decades of population parody-based youth min? Yes, your youth ministry used to be 20 kids and now it's 40 kids. Did your church grow at that time too? If it did, you didn't grow your ministry, your ministry grew with your church. A very different thing than you being the reason your youth ministry is above and beyond what a natural population demographic would forecast for any given church in your area. 

God's grace is that even though by metrics a ministry might be counted as a net loss, by his desires his will is still done. Your baptisms still count, your salvation stories still mean names in the book of life. and the worship that happens at youth during worship time still magnifies the name of Christ. God's grace in providing for a representative youth ministry is just as holy and wonderful as it would be for an explosive youth ministry. One that turned a whole graduating class into Baptists or baptized 4-6% of a city's grade nines. But to conflate the two of both being successful in the same way, would be questionable. Which is why I'm asking the questions. Because what really counts in youth ministry is that God's mission is being served and Christ's gospel is being preached. What counts is that the church is being the church.

Because of all the things we really needed to nail down, the church being the church was on the top of that list during this pandemic. Because what church looked like as it took a very drastic set of circumstances and made some drastic changes in the last few years. Zoom church did not exist as orthodoxy before covid. Now it questionably does. That's important. Because if it wasn't church, God's grace could compensate for it. And we would never know that what we were doing was a technical failure spared by an omnipotent and gracious God. We would never know we were sinners saved by grace. The baptisms would still count, so would the service to the poor, but we would have and at the very least could have been not doing church at all. Doing what we thought was a missional gospel-centered effort because it felt right and it was representationally valid. 

The consilience of 1% of churches in the area that refused to change what was orthodox pre-covid. Refusing to gather exclusively online, refusing to worship in masks, refusing to stop meeting together, refusing to hum quietly, refusing to render to AHS what was not AHS's, lines up rather perfectly with the 1% of youth in an average youth group, but in the opposite direction.

The genuine faith of that 1% was never in question but the methods of what the 99% were up to sure were. If 99 kids out of 100 aren't finding Jesus at your youth ministry can you call what the 1% was doing a success? You could in their youth groups. In their churches. But that means what the 99% are doing might just be a failure. Might just be something God's grace has to cover and compensate for. Something that the efforts of the 1% can't touch because of their weakness and their need for Christ's strength. 

Mapping success in ministry to technicalities is painful because it confronts us with this weakness. It means that numbers matter because those numbers map to people. It means that 99% of churches not doing real church and practicing an insufficient ecclesiology were wrong. Not winsome, not timely, not agreeable, or peaceable, wrong. And that 1% of churches doing the opposite were right.

How do you fix this?

I rightly do not know. but I can take a guess at the youth group side of this consilience. 

A youth pastor makes enough in a year to fund a new high school teacher in waiting through an educational degree about every two years. What if 200 churches in a city all sent their youth pastor to college for a teaching degree and kept them employed afterward until they secured a job in a school within their church's proximity for the youth group. An urban mission to which the likes of any city had never seen. There aren't 200 teaching positions available at any given point but an army of 200 teachers to be in waiting for that potential mission field would be a linchpin for the gospel's progress in any city. Not because it's a biblically-based method or because it's proven. But because it maps to what is already happening in that field from the other direction. Anti-Christian and post-Christian teachers are the norms for most high schools by hook and crook and opposition to a biblical youth age 13-18 is also. But declaring that 1-2 hours a week at youth group, is somehow going to compete with 7-9 hours a day at school. From people who deny our faith and actively teach against it at times, is laughably naive, and why God's grace rests so heavily on our youth programs.

That naivety will not change the fact that lives were changed at your last youth retreat, that souls were saved after the worship night and that students did grow deeper in their faith after bible study. But it will mask the fact that a 1% ministry is statistically insignificant to a population unless it does in fact change the population. Unless it is in fact salt or light to the world and its ground beef

So when 1% of the church at large held fast, stayed open, and suffered scorn, prison, and wrath. We at very least need to ask if that 1% is making a difference. If that 1% is working.

When we do that bit of math, we encounter a troubling statistic indeed. 

The 1% of churches that refused to be mandated and restricted, almost all, doubled in size. Saw growth on a level most churches only dream of. By every metric church's used to use for success pre covid as well. They mapped their strategy to the realities of the God they worshiped and didn't let lesser magistrates change how they rendered anything to Him. And consilience comes back to echo that choice as every church that chose to close or augment or downright alter their worship during this challenging time, used those metrics to call themselves a success before the first lockdown ever started. 

Matthew 9:9-13
English Standard Version

Jesus Calls Matthew

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.  And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.  And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

How many Tax collectors started going to churches that remained open. How many prostitutes to churches that they did not have to hide their face in. How many adulterers and fornicators made it to church in person while others gathered exclusively online, right next to Ashely Madison dot com and Tinder

Maybe we'll never know or be truly known for it. 

But you have to admit. It does line up nicely. 

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