Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ministering To and Partnering With Catholics: A Practical Guide

At school events, clubs, Campaigners and camps we have most likely encountered a large number of kids who were raised in the Catholic tradition.  Yet many Young Life staff and volunteers who were raised Protestant find it challenging to navigate the theological and cultural differences presented by a Catholic worldview.  We have a kingdom-sized mission in Young Life - to reach every kid (Protestants, Catholics and the unchurched) and give them a chance to respond more deeply to the gospel.  The Catholic Church is committed to the same vision and offers an expansive and yet largely untapped institutional network of kids, parents, potential leaders, committee members and donors that could help us achieve our common goal.  Offered here is a brief list of DOs and DON’Ts that may help you to avoid the pitfalls, minimize confusion and enjoy the manifold blessings of ministering to and with Catholics.

DO invite Catholic kids into a deeper relationship with Christ.
DON’T neglect the role that Christ has already played in the lives of Catholics through baptism, religious formation, confirmation, family, retreats, etc.
            The classic misstep here is to assume that a Catholic isn’t in relationship with Christ because he/she doesn’t use relational language to talk about their religious experience.  Catholic tradition speaks clearly and openly about entering into a relationship with God.  Young Life is particularly adept at proclaiming to adolescents God’s invitation to meaningful and dynamic relationship.  While it is entirely possible that Catholic kids don’t talk about relationship with God simply because they are currently disengaged from their faith, let us not make this assumption too quickly.  Inquire about their thoughts, feelings and experiences of God.  There may be more relationship there than meets the eye.  Our job is not to discredit and discard kids’ religious upbringing but to acknowledge and build upon it.

DO encourage Catholic kids to pursue and embrace a faith of their own.
DON’T ever intentionally dissuade kids away from the denominational tradition they were raised in.

            Young Life is interdenominational.  This means that we respect a broad diversity of Christian faith traditions – Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, mainline, etc.  One of our greatest strengths as a mission is our willingness to look beyond our differences and minister hand in hand to lost and hurting kids.  We are truly one body in Christ.  The single biggest obstacle preventing Catholic parents and priests from trusting Young Life is the fear that Young Life staff and leaders pull Catholic kids away from their faith.  Worse yet, stories are told about Young Life staff intentionally targeting Catholic kids, attacking their faith and pressuring them to leave the Catholic Church in order to be “saved” or to “become a Christian.”  This is an egregious mistake that confuses kids and drives a wedge between Young Life and the largest body of Christians on earth.  If we wish to partner with Catholics to “reach the unreached” we must prove our worthiness by honoring their religious heritage and encouraging Catholic kids to be the best Catholics they can be.

DO encourage Catholic kids to critically examine their faith.
DON’T use small groups or Campaigner bible studies to specifically contradict what you feel are errors in Catholic teaching.

            Many Protestants may feel the need to “correct” what they consider erroneous beliefs or practices within Catholic tradition.  Young Life staff might view Campaigners as the perfect place to talk openly with their Catholic friends about all that is wrong with “praying to Mary,” the misguided “traditions of men” or “earning your salvation.”  First, it is essential that Young Life staff who are working with Catholic kids acquire at least a baseline understanding of what the Catholic Church actually teaches.  Resources like Alan Schreck’s Catholic and Christian: An Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs or Thomas Groome’s What Makes Us Catholic might prove very helpful.  Most Protestants would be pleasantly surprised to learn that the Catholic Church does NOT advocate praying to Mary, it does not teach Tradition over Scripture nor earning one’s way into heaven.  Young Life staff may be shocked to learn that Catholics and Protestants have even come to an official consensus on the doctrine of justification, the theological dividing point of the Reformation.
            Campaigners or other small group bible study settings are indeed perfect places to closely examine the Christian faith and how it applies to kids’ lives.  We want kids to know their faith, to own it and to act on it as vibrant members of the body of Christ in the world.  We encourage kids to ask tough questions and together we seek answers in the Bible as a normative witness for Christian living.  When facilitating such a discussion it is important to remember our role as Young Life leaders.  Our role is NOT to steer kids toward our own denominational interpretations (however passionate we may be about them).  Rather, we should know our audience well enough to “meet them where they’re at” and call them to something deeper. 
            Take the following example: If we have kids in our bible study that were raised Presbyterian, Methodist and atheist, then it is our duty and privilege to call the Presbyterian and Methodist to embrace Christ in their respective churches while inviting the atheist into a life-giving relationship with Jesus (offering church suggestions later).  If we are ministering to Catholics, it is especially important to direct kids toward a deeper understanding and practice of their Catholic faith.  We must be committed to honoring the Catholic faith in which their parents have chosen to raise them.

DO encourage Catholic kids to stand up at the say-so if they have meaningful experiences at camp.
DON’T celebrate the experience with Catholic parents and priests by saying their kids “became Christians” at Young Life.

            The say-so is one of the most beautiful experiences of Young Life camping.  To watch kids stand before their peers and proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ is something we all celebrate.  Yet it can be a confusing time for Catholic kids.  They may be sitting there wondering, “Now I do feel more alive in my faith than I ever have.  I kinda feel like standing up, but does that mean that I wasn’t a Christian before?”  Our answer to that question is vitally important.  Catholic kids have been baptized.  Most have been confirmed.  Many were raised by committed Catholic parents who shared Christ with them throughout their lives.  Some may have gone to Catholic schools, made retreats, been to confession and participated in countless liturgies. 
            To say that they have “become Christians” because they stood up at the say-so is to deny the presence of God operating in their homes and churches for years before they even heard of Young Life.  We can easily use other language which honors both their earlier religious formation and the spiritual growth experienced at camp.  We might say that a Catholic kid “deepened his faith” at camp or “grew in her relationship with Christ.”  These subtle language adjustments can not only engender the trust of Catholic parents and priests but also encourage their active partnership in the ongoing discipleship of adolescents whom we all love so dearly.

DO actively seek relationships with Catholic adults (parents, priests, teachers, etc).
DON’T wait for them to come to you.

            For those YL staff with little exposure to the Catholic Church, the most helpful practical step is to build a relationship with a local priest or Catholic parent who can provide guidance for you in handling the many specific questions that will arise in working with Catholic young people.  This relationship does not require a lot of time but it will require that you take some initiative.  Most Catholics unfamiliar with Young Life may fear that we’re the kind of bait-n-switch, fear-mongering, fundamentalist operation they’ve seen on TV.  Inform them that Young Life is ecumenical, that we respect the many Christian faith traditions our kids have been raised in, and that our aim is NOT to pull kids away from their Catholic faith but to help them “grow where they have been planted.”
            When you go into meetings with Catholics, be prepared.  Reading the USCCB document on evangelization Go and Make Disciples, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement Christian Mission in the Third Millennium or the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification could really help.  Ask questions of Catholic adults and exhibit humility in your responses.  We suggest questions such as: As a Catholic parent or priest, what are your perceptions of YL in our area?  Do you have any concerns about our work with local Catholic kids?  Is there anything that I could be particularly sensitive about when ministering to Catholic kids?  What are your biggest struggles in passing along the faith to young people?  Do you have any suggestions to offer as to how YL can support Catholic kids, parents and clergy in building kids’ faith?  The upshot of real relationships with local Catholics is immense.  The stereotypes that divide will diminish, trust will grow and true partnership in the gospel can flourish.

DO invite Catholic parents and priests to Young Life events.
DON’T be afraid to show them the very best of Young Life!

            Young Life is a fun, exciting and life-giving ministry.  Don’t hide it under a bushel basket!  Catholics will appreciate the humor, the creativity and the relevant ways Young Life presents the gospel to kids.  They will be floored by the lengths to which you’ll go so that kids might know the love of Christ.  We’ve learned a lot about ministering to the unique demographic of postmodern adolescents.  That’s our niche.  Young Life leaders are good at what they do - penetrating the world of kids and making Jesus come alive.  Be sure to invite Catholic parents, teachers, priests, youth workers and community leaders to your clubs, events, banquets and adult guest camps.  Be courteous and respectful.  Ask about how Young Life’s ministry complements the good work Catholics have been doing.   Answer their questions with care and sensitivity.  Inquire about how Young Life might better serve Catholic kids in your school or town.  Do what you do best – BUILD RELATIONSHIPS!  Then watch the Holy Spirit unify us as one body and mobilize us for the kingdom-building work to which we’ve all been called.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On Justification

Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” can hardly be realized without a serious discussion of the doctrine of justification, the “first and chief article”[1] of the Protestant Reformation.  After all, dichotomous interpretations of the diverse biblical treatment of justification constitute the principal cause of the historical and theological divisions between Catholics and Protestants.  Most Christians know that there was a consequential fissure in the church in the sixteenth century and that this split had something to do with how men and women, stained and wounded by sin, were brought to wholeness and eternal life in Jesus Christ.  But very few could tell you what has happened in the last 500 years, if anything, to move toward reconciliation and reintegration in the one Body of Christ.

The vast majority of Christians today continue to think about the doctrine of justification according to the age-old caricature: Catholics believe in justification by works while Protestants believe in justification by faith.  It seems fairly straightforward.  But have you ever stopped and wondered if this is what Catholic and Protestant churches actually teach and believe?  Do the anathemas and doctrinal condemnations hurled back and forth between Protestants and Catholics in centuries past still apply?  Have you ever wondered if we might be continually drumming up old arguments which have long since been settled? 

In October of 1999, an ecumenical event of colossal significance took place in Augsburg, Germany.[2]  482 years after Luther famously nailed the 95 theses to the doors of castle church, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church solemnly confessed a fundamental consensus on the doctrine of justification.  In the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, the vast majority of Lutheran churches worldwide and the Roman Catholic Church announced that they “have together listened to the good news proclaimed in Holy Scripture” and that “this common listening . . . has led to a shared understanding of justification.”[3] 

This shared understanding represents one of the most important and groundbreaking developments in the history of the Western Church, one that no pastoral minister or youth worker can afford to ignore.  It changes the way we unpack the Scriptures and handle the delicate conversations that inevitably arise in Bible studies and backyard debates everywhere.  It transforms the way we minister to kids in Young Life, answering the touchy questions that bubble to the surface of Campaigner discussions and cabin times at camp properties around the world.  This official statement of the Joint Declaration finally grants us the freedom to stand united on a rift that has divided us for nearly half a millennium.  

So what does the declaration say and how can we explain our shared understanding on the doctrine of justification today?  In pastoral settings and casual conversations, how are we to explain this articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, “the article by which the church stands or falls”?

First and foremost, we can stack hands on the conviction that we are justified by grace alone.  Both Protestants and Catholics agree that the foundation of justification is God’s grace and not our own works or abilities.  The Joint Declaration states clearly, “We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation”(JD, 19).  No “earning our way to heaven” or justifying ourselves by stringent moral adherence.  Even when Catholics talk about “cooperating with God’s grace” this is understood as an act of personal consent which is itself a gift of God’s grace.  From beginning to end, it is all grace.

Second, we are justified by Christ alone.  We receive the gift of salvation which issues from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Heaven forbid we posit ourselves as judges and arbiters of salvation, deciding who is “in” and who is “out.”  Yet when salvation occurs both Catholics and Protestants can agree that it is Christ who saves.  All people are called to eternal life in Christ Jesus and God’s grace is made available through His Passion, Resurrection and continued presence in our lives.

Third, we are justified by faith.  Without faith, there is no salvation.  By placing their trust completely in their Creator and Redeemer, Christians find communion with God and live as they were intended as partners in the kingdom.  The Joint Declaration is careful to note that faith, understood by both Lutherans and Catholics, “is active in love, and thus cannot and should not remain without works”(JD, 25).  Drawing from the passage typically quoted to highlight faith, Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians both that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” and “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”(Eph 2:8a,10a).  What both Catholic and Reformed traditions understand as justification by faith alone (sola fide) is not merely intellectual assent to prescribed doctrines but a complete change of life involving mind, will and affections.

Fourth, even for those justified by God’s grace by faith, sin still exists.  “Sin still lives in them,” the Joint Declaration says referencing 1 Jn 1:8 and Romans 7:17 and 20.  It does not take much personal reflection to realize that those who have given their lives to Christ are still sinners.  Yet both Lutherans and Catholics confess that this sin, and the enduring inclination we all have toward sin (Catholics call this concupiscence), does NOT, however, separate us from the love and mercy of God.  Through Christ the “enslaving power of sin is broken” (JD, 29) and the justified are not separated from God.

In summary, the Joint Declaration states “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works” (JD, 15).  This is truly Good News!  This is something to be shared!  While there are still points of disagreement between Protestants and Catholics, we must resist the temptation to fall into old caricatures and arguments.  The doctrinal condemnations of the Reformation and the Council of Trent no longer apply.   Fundamentally, on this primary issue of justification at least, we are no longer divided. 

Yet the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church challenge us to “become who we are.”  This historical consensus on the basic truths of justification must not collect dust in some document.  It must be lived and embodied in our churches and in our relationships today.  “Here,” the declaration exhorts, “it must prove itself”(JD, 43).  In the next leadership meeting or small group gathering, in the next religious discussion around the coffee pot, proclaim and live into the unity that already exists.  While grace is always received as gift from the salvific work of God, it is always and forever our responsibility not to “waste this grace but to live in it”(Annex, 2D).

[1]             Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles, II, 1: Book of Concord, 292.
[2]             A location rich in religious symbolism, Augsburg was the place where the Augsburg Confession was presented to Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire by (among others) one Martin Luther in 1530. The Augsburg Confession consists of 28 articles of faith which stand as the primary tenants of the Lutheran movement of the sixteenth century.  Even today, the “Augustana” (drawn from its etymological roots in the Latin, Confessio Augustana) represents one of the most critical documents of the Lutheran church.
[3]             Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 14.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Evangelization and Christian Unity

If you live and work in religious circles, you've probably read your share of books about evangelization.  Perhaps you've even been to a conference or two.  For some, you take this word to mean sharing your faith or your "spiritual story" with others.  For others, you might understand evangelization in its broader context, the dynamic and correlational interplay between revelation and culture, between gospel and the world.

What probably hasn't made the latest "top ten" list for evangelization, one we certainly might not expect, has to do with another word we should be familiar with - ecumenism.  Drawn originally from the Greek word oikoumene which means "the whole inhabited world", Christian ecumenism seeks and promotes unity among the world's Christian churches.  One of Jesus' final prayers is powerfully ecumenical, "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have love me" (Jn 17:23).  Here Jesus presents Christian unity as a central concern of God's heart, "that all of them may be one" just as Jesus is one with the Father.

Yet what is equally compelling about Jesus' prayer is that evangelization is intimately related to the unity of the Body of Christ.  The missional upshot of Christian unity is that the world may believe in the essential message of the church, that in Christ Jesus we find salvation and eternal life.  Jesus does not pray that we hone our testimonies or sharpen our preaching (as important as those things are).  Of all the things that Jesus could have prayed about in his final hours he chose to exhort the budding church to overcome their differences, forgive their trespasses, and live in unity with one another.  This will let the world know that Jesus is truly the Son of God, sent by the Father to proclaim the loving message of the kingdom.

What does this mean for the mission of Young Life today?  What does it mean for our efforts to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith?  It means that faithful obedience to the Great Commission assumes that we "go and make disciples of all nations" as one body and in one Spirit.  The Apostle Paul calls us to "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph 4:5).  In his first letter to the Corinthians, he proclaims famously that "though all its parts are many, they form one body" (1 Cor 12:12).  In other words, our commitment to evangelization must be grounded in our commitment to Christian unity.

The Catholic Church understands ecumenism as one of its most precious callings.  "The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council" (Decree on Ecumenism, 1).  Gone are the days that Catholics and Protestants question the legitimacy of one another's rightful claim as sons and daughters of God.  The Council proclaimed boldly that "all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called a Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers [and sisters] by the children of the Catholic Church" (Decree on Ecumenism, 3).

Our deepest identity, Protestants and Catholics alike, is that we are sons and daughters of God, made in God's image to reflect to the world God's saving message of love and beauty in Christ.   We are, truly, one body in Christ.  If we wish to honor the heartfelt prayers of Jesus our Lord, if we have any hope for evangelization in the world, we might start by "becoming who we are" - one body of the one Lord.  The world of adolescents and adults alike will know that Jesus is among us when they witness Protestants and Catholics, Evangelicals and Anglicans, conservatives and progressives, united in faith, hope and love to the glory of God the Father.