Saturday, 4 January 2014

Youth Ministry and the Epiphany

Four Gifts that make youth ministry an Epiphany
The title “Called to a noble adventure” comes from John Paul IIs words and they form the theme of the conference and the title of the vision statement for youth ministry in England and Wales.
Pope John Paul II invited young people to a noble and authentic adventure when speaking about the need for a church that is for young people[i]. A church that would challenge young people but only after it had given much to them. A church that would be built around a joyful Gospel and an experience of Eucharist that was understood as bigger than the mass.
The story of the wise men from today’s Gospel describes a noble adventure undertaken in hope through following a star that most other people had seen and yet not recognised. These wise men had woken up, they had “read the signs of the times” and they were looking for God’s a new experience of God in a new and a young life.
I want to suggest to you today that your star is already up and shining. Your star is calling you to a noble and an authentic adventure and into the presence of God hidden in the lives of the young. It is easy to lose sight of that star because it is different from the many other stars in the sky. It is not always the brightest or the most colourful. Nor is it the star that many other people choose to follow. But it exerts a pull on you, deep down. For some that pull is felt as curiosity about what life is about, for some it is the pull of relationships and belonging, for others it is the urge to change the world and for many it is the tug of a presence that never leaves us.
The experience of being pulled out of ourselves into action and into relationship is an experience of God. This is the God whose mystery links the family history I carry with the pattern of relationships I desire. It is the link between the sweep of evolution and the need for justice and peace. It links our inner world with the outer world and makes all people brothers and sisters in a communion of belonging that becomes eternal. This shy and profound presence, touched in relationships and experienced in silence, is the big story that young people need to experience before it is ever preached. In our work with young people this is the reality that we are opening up rather than explaining.
The vision document “Called to a Noble Adventure” offer us the tools to help young people find their star and with it an authentic experience of God. It is a gift to youth ministers in England and Wales that can be unpacked in many ways. I would like to introduce you to one way you can unpack this gift today by looking at the four goals it outlines for us as ministers to young adults.
The first gift and goal is an appreciation of the unique personal path to meaning that each young person must walk. On that personal path there will be experience, wisdom and gifts that often emerge from the pattern of love already embedded in life and from the patterns of the absence of love that make up each personal and unique story. The gift is an awareness in the youth minister, if not in the young person, that God is already present in the events of their unique authentic experience. That awareness leads the youth minister to take off their shoes because they are standing on the holy ground of God’s presence within the lives of the young. The youth minister’s role on the personal journey of a young person is to accompany and connect one unique journey with the lives of others without manipulation, without pressure and with great respect for the way that God may be working in their lives. Accompanying young people needs us to be in touch with where we are on our own authentic journey because if we are not sensitive to God’s presence in our own lives how can we sense the Spirit of God moving in the experiences of young people. That is why youth ministers need to have the awareness of mystics as well as the words that open up relationships.

The second gift is the Gospel – the good news of Jesus- lived with joy. Both of those words are important: lived and joy. You can be good news for others if you are not authentic- living what you believe- you will just be a hypocrite. Neither can you be good news if you constantly give way to sadness, pessimism, fear or anxiety. You may well struggle with all of those things and the struggle becomes good news for others because you keep going. Both your gifts and your weaknesses can serve the Gospel of joy because they remind you that you are incomplete, that you need others and above all your life depends more and more on God in order to make any sense. The story of Jesus, his struggle with meaning, with religion, with hypocrisy reveals a deep pattern in experience that leads to life. Struggle leads to inner strength and cross leads to resurrection when one is faithful to the spirit within us that calls out Abba Father. The pattern of Jesus’ life reveals the way that God is at work in all lives. The Gospel is the second gift.

The third gift is community. We have a personal and authentic journey, we have a Gospel map to guide our personal choices but the third gift is the pattern of relationships that surround the journey and the map. The Church, for all its faults, is the community that surrounds our personal Gospel journey with friendship, guidance and prayer. The church is a network of relationships and not a building. It is not simply parishes and dioceses. They are the visible aspects of church that, like an iceberg, conceal a deep sense of searching and a hunger for meaning in the culture. The church can emerge when the conversation in the pub changes and people share their hopes and fears. The church emerges when a communal tragedy draws us together in mutual grief and questioning. The church emerges when those in need are supported and those who serve are celebrated. Each retreat centre is a church, each small group becomes a sacred space where God’s presence is touched. It is within the pattern of relationships that God’s love is experienced, God’s wisdom shared and in that pattern of relationships that we are accepted and forgiven for the mistakes on out journey.

The fourth gift is simply a job. The job is to give people an impression of God’s love. To hear God speaking in the cry of the poor. (To build a better world) To sense God’s presence in the giftedness of young people and call those gifts to life. (To guide) To defend the rights of young people where they are threatened especially within the church. (To Advocate) To open up your experience as a support to others. (To witness) To celebrate life and build deeper relationships. (Community building)  To build up the church as a place of welcome and hospitality for all through letting young people know that they are loved, especially the young and the poor.
These are the four gifts that the noble adventure offers to you. Use them wisely and well and they will become an epiphany; a revelation of God’s presence among us. On this feast of the Epiphany then let’s commit ourselves to open up this gift of a youth vision in 2014. May it bring us joy, stamina, deeper friendships and above all, a sense of the abiding presence of God in all of life.

Swanwick January 5th 2013

[i] World day of prayer for vocations 1995