Going Deeper with Jon Huckins’ “End Times and Global Immersion”

During the past eight years, I have made four trips to Israel. I have participated in two six-month undergraduate and graduate study experiences and have co-led two short-term pilgrimage experiences for high school and college students. I’ve taken classes and shared meals with Jews, Muslims and Christians and have seen and heard uncounted stories of suffering and injustice. During my short amount of time living in Israel, I experienced many of the complexities of life in the Middle East.

Through all of the difficulties of adjusting to living in a new culture, the greatest was the confusion I faced as a white American evangelical. As Huckins states in his article, “Rather than immersing myself in the living narratives, I had been content with a theology and narrative that had been formed for me.”

As my life intersected the numerous narratives being told by the diversity of people living in Israel, I understood that I needed to seriously reconsider both the eschatology and the ecclesiology I’d been handed.

In North America we have the luxury of being highly selective and particular about whom we participate with in the life of a local faith community. Our freedom has provided us the ability of being able to divide ourselves by all kinds of denominational, theological, liturgical, political, racial and economic differences. We clearly delineate between who is in and who is out, who is one of us and who is one of them. Sunday mornings in North America more closely resemble tribal gatherings—each group closely gathered and facing inward—than diverse and interconnected expressions of the body of Christ.

As an American Christian living in Israel, all the ways I had been trained by our culture and my theological education to differentiate myself from other Christians no longer mattered. Participating in a community with other followers of Jesus meant more to me than it ever had before. The small church I experienced was diverse, strange and filled with beautiful tension. American evangelicals, Pentecostals, Messianic Jews, Christian Zionists, Palestinian Christians and followers of Jesus from various other countries and political persuasions all called this community home. Though there was plenty of bickering and arguing, I never witnessed it leading to actual division, neglect or hate. The truth is, we all needed each other to survive the daily struggle of life in Israel. As a legitimate follower of Jesus in the Middle East, you either accept the body of Christ for what it is—a diverse community that transcends race, theology and politics—or you choose to live in isolation.

The problem with the Western understanding of what it means to be a part of the church is that it really only helps our students understand what it means to be a part of a church. Living in Israel transformed my understanding of what it means to be part of the church because I realized that in the United States we have constructed our religious institutions in such a way that we don’t really need each other.

As much as we all needed each other in the community I was part of in Jerusalem, this community also needed connection, support and encouragement from followers of Jesus around the world and in the United States. And, though I never realized it, followers of Jesus in the United States needed connection, support and encouragement from this small and unique community in Jerusalem and from other Christians around the world. We have failed to remember the words of Jesus—that our brothers and sisters are anyone who does the will of God,[i] not just people who look and think like us. This includes Huckins’ friend Mildad, the Palestinian Christian who lives in Bethany.

The kind of ecclesiological isolationism that many Western Christians practice leaves room for our other theological understandings to get distorted. We have allowed ourselves to get in trouble by practicing a weak ecclesiology, especially given the popularity and sensationalism of end-times prophecy and eschatological beliefs that include violence and despair. Our communities haven’t modeled what it means to hold ecclesiology and eschatology (regardless of our specific set of beliefs) in tension and have therefore indirectly taught our students that eschatology trumps ecclesiology.

As Huckins reminds us, according to a dispensational understanding of the eschaton, the existence of the nation of Israel is a necessary part of the sequence of events leading to the return of Christ. Therefore, many evangelical Christians support the nation of Israel in their cause against the Palestinians. As Huckins points out, what many of us don’t know (or don’t care about) is that American Christians are financially and politically supporting the oppression of not only the Palestinian people but other followers of Jesus—Palestinian Christians.

What dispensational theology states in practice is that it is more important to prop up the nation of Israel as a pawn in our end-times game than to stand with, suffer with and support other followers of Jesus who are being oppressed. This is not only one of the reasons dispensational theology is practically untenable but also why our students may not have a more comprehensive understanding of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.

God confronts Cain after a dispute involving religion, jealousy and the murder of his brother.[ii] In a rapidly changing world filled with confusion, tension, violence and possibility, all of us in the Western church are confronted by the asking and answering of Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” If we’re to be the kind of Christians who can hold our theological convictions in tension while modeling and practicing an appropriate ecclesiology, we have to answer this question with, “Yes.” And if we say yes to this question, even if it is only in a whisper, we have no choice but to embrace followers of Jesus from around the world as our brothers and sisters and to actively pursue ways mutual connection, support and encouragement can be experienced.

This brave response will undoubtedly lead to the rethinking and reorganizing of our theological, political, racial and economic opinions, which might be exactly what God wants us in the Western church to do. For the sake of our own souls, for the well-being of followers of Jesus around the world, for the sake of our students—both now and in the future—we have to find the courage to take this step.

1) Invite leaders from other Christian traditions to speak at your youth group, or invite your students and leaders to join you at a gathering of followers of Jesus that looks different from your own.

2) Challenge students to scour internet blogs and news sites looking for stories (both positive and negative) about other Christian communities from around the world. Set aside a few minutes in your weekly gatherings for students to share what they’ve found and to collectively pray for your newly discovered brothers and sisters.

3) Don’t avoid difficult theological, political, racial or economic conversations during your gatherings. Inviting students to hold differences with others in tension will go a long way in the future toward them knowing how to exist in connection with followers of Jesus who are different from them.

[i] Matthew 12:46-50.
[ii] Genesis 4:9.

Read the full article at: http://jonhuckins.net/missionalivingandadvocacy/a-response-to-my-article-end-times-and-global-immersion/



Student (micro)Enterprise

I’ll never forget the November evening in 2007 when we put $1,000 cash in the hands of 200 high school students and volunteers.

Why is that a good idea?

Several years ago the Mars Hill community was in the midst of refining the language we use to describe our mission and vision in order to effectively point the energy of our community in a more precise direction.[1] The words “joining the God of the oppressed” became part of the mission of our community, which challenged and inspired us to respond to the question, Who are the oppressed in our world and in our community?

The simplest and broadest response, of course, was humanity. We are all born into the circumstances of personal spiritual oppression and in need of Christ’s redemption. The more complicated response involved identifying whom we would actively serve as a missional community to try and bring about measurable change in oppressive circumstances.

We made a five-year commitment to Turame, a micro-enterprise bank in Burundi, Africa.[2] At the time, Burundi was one of the poorest nations in the world and still faced the religious, political and economic effects of the genocide that took place in Rwanda and Burundi during the previous decade. Well-meaning aid agencies have at times indirectly abandoned the poor through creating a dependency on handouts, and traditional banks across the world have abandoned the poor because they’ve been unwilling to lend to them without capital.

However, micro-enterprise functions based on two revolutionary beliefs that counter these two problems.[3] The first belief is that, given the proper resources and support, the poor can lift themselves out of poverty through their own effort, energy, creativity and entrepreneurship. In many cases, a loan of less than $100 is enough for a widow in Burundi to start her own small business (micro-enterprise), begin to provide for her own family and eventually pay off her loan. The second revolutionary belief behind micro-enterprise is that the poor can, in fact, be trusted. Whereas most banks require financial capital, micro-enterprise functions on the belief that shared humanity between the bank and the client is reason enough to extend trust.

Who Are the Oppressed?

Our faith community responded to the question of identifying the oppressed in our world through our work with Turame. But, as the high school pastor of our church, I still stumbled over how to be honest about the question, Who are the oppressed in our community?

I finally thought of the faces of my students.

Adolescents in western society are victims of systemic abandonment.[4] The systems and institutions created to support and encourage adolescents on the path toward adulthood now exist more for an adult agenda than for the adolescents. The traditional family, educational, religious and political systems that once supported adolescents now in many cases exploit them. We’ve left our young people to try to answer life’s greatest questions alone. Today’s adolescents face a historically high level of expectations while receiving a historically low level of systemic adult support.

These systems of abandonment and oppression are alive and well in many of our churches. We’ve segregated our communities by age. In our attempts to provide age-specific and relevant programming, we’ve damned our young people to student rooms and kids’ ministry rooms on separate campuses or at opposite ends of the building from the sanctuary and have made it clear to them that the main service belongs to the adults.

We use mission and service as opportunities for adults to feel better about themselves and their church rather than opportunities to empower and trust our adolescents. In many of our communities, the only time adolescents are a focus in the main service is when some achievement can be paraded among the congregation for adult approval. But once the celebration is over, we dismiss our young people back to their separate spaces and programs.

The more time I’ve spent with the Bible, the more I’ve come to realize that throughout the narrative of Scripture we see that God is always with the oppressed and the young. Today’s teenagers fit into both of these categories. If that’s where God is, than that’s where I want to be. This is why I’m more convinced than ever that being a youth pastor must also mean being a youth advocate. Our young people need shepherds who are willing to stand with and for them as they suffer through an existence that has become unjust and unnecessarily difficult.

Joining the God of the Oppressed

Until our communities recognize the plight of our adolescents, we won’t be able to effectively pastor them with credibility toward serving others. The way we engage mission and service with our students cannot further perpetuate their own oppression. We damage the development of our students and the sustainability of justice efforts by continually jumping from one cause to another. We fail to help adolescents understand the complexity of systemic injustice, and we treat them as stereotypes, believing their attention spans to be too short to stay committed to one cause. We’re more faithful to our adolescents when we remain faithful to a cause for the long term.

I suspect American teenagers have raised thousands of dollars for a good cause only because they felt compelled to serve an adult agenda. Although this money is useful, it comes at the expense of an opportunity to empower, encourage and trust our adolescents. Using tactics of guilt and shame to compel a person toward compassion is manipulative and reprehensible. We can hold ourselves accountable to this by being aware of how we measure success. Are we only counting dollars raised or homes built? Or are we telling the stories of service? Are we emphasizing students’ journeys along the way—their successes and failures—as well as the stories of those we serve?

If we invite our students into an opportunity to serve, we have to also offer them the support they deserve in order to participate. Without support that is free of an adult agenda, the opportunity will likely become one more instance when adolescents will engage only to perform for and meet the expectations of the adults involved. Providing adequate support from adults means not shaming students who opt out of participation (they might not be lacking compassion; they likely have many other expectations to meet) and allowing adults and students who do want to participate a say in what participation really looks like.

Micro-Enterprise with Macro-Impact

At Mars Hill, joining the God of the oppressed meant building a bridge between how we answered the question, Who are the oppressed? on both a local and global level. Although the circumstances of an American adolescent and an impoverished Burundi woman couldn’t be more distinct, the oppressive circumstances of abandonment and a lack of trust bind them together.

Every November and December, our high school students are invited to take a hands-on approach to our microfinance initiative by borrowing $5 from our church to start their own small businesses. They sign loan agreements, agree to pay back a $1 a week and work hard with other students and leaders to create profits that can be donated to Turame. Students can pool their money or work alone. However, everyone holds everyone else accountable, and everyone supports everyone else’s micro-enterprise.

Together (sometimes with adult volunteers), students have started t-shirt, yard work, jewelry, ornament, greeting card and baking businesses. They’ve produced viral videos, held video game marathons and hosted art auctions. Adults and adolescents have strengthened relationships, built trust and discovered creativity, and students have embraced their distinct and creative role in our community. The stories of our students have become a prophetic catalyst to spur people of all ages toward compassion and ingenuity.

Since that memorable night in 2007, our students have taken out 634 loans from our church ($3,170). Their hard work and ingenuity have led to nearly a 100% repayment rate and almost $12,000 in profits, all of which have been donated to Turame.

Our students have proven that, given the appropriate support, they can accomplish remarkable things on behalf of others. They have proven that adolescents can be trusted with the resources and mission of our churches. They have invited our churches to understand that addressing issues of injustice and oppression can begin with youth ministry.

[1] http://marshill.org/believe/mission/

[2] http://www.turame.com

[3] Yunus, Muhammad. Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty. PublicAffairs: 1999.

[4] Clark, Chap. Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Baker Academic: 2011.

Micro-Enterprise with Macro-Results

For the past 5 years Mars Hill has partnered with World Relief to support Turame Community Finance—a microfinance resource in Burundi, Africa, one of the poorest nations of the world. Microenterprise functions with the belief that given the proper resources and support, the poor can lift themselves out of poverty through their own effort, energy, creativity, and entrepreneurship. This revolutionary idea has shaped how we’ve invited our high school students to participate in supporting this project. Because similarly, we believe that given the right support and resources, our high school students can accomplish remarkable things on behalf of others.

So every November and December, Anthem (high school) Students take a hands-on approach to our microfinance initiative by borrowing $5 to start their own small business. They sign loan agreements, agree to pay back $1 a week, and work hard with other students and leaders to create profits that can be donated to Turame. Since 2007, our students have taken out 634 loans from our church (that’s $3,170). Their hard work and ingenuity has led to nearly a 100% repayment rate and almost $12,000 in profits, which have been donated to Turame. From designing clothing and jewelry, to hosting a video game marathon, our 9th-12th graders continue to model to our community what it looks like to actually live out the mission of our church.

Read the full article here:  http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/blog/micro-enterprise-with-macro-results


College Ministry for High School Pastors: Part 2

At Mars Hill we believe that encouraging Sticky Faith in the lives of our students can happen when we realize that ministry to college students isn’t just for College Pastors. This is why our community has created a “Post-High School Ministry” as an extension of our High School Ministry. We’re seeking to help our graduates walk across the bridge from adolescence to adulthood and from a high school youth group to adult ministry opportunities in healthy ways by pursuing the following objectives in our High School + Post-High School Ministry:

Objective #1: High School graduates will experience a significant relational connection to the Mars Hill community that transcends High School Ministry Programming.

Objective #2: High School graduates will experience a growing spirituality that transcends High School Ministry Programming.

These objectives have led to multiple small but significant shifts in how Anthem functions as a ministry. We’re doing everything we can to equip our volunteers to be volunteer pastors in the lives of our students. We want them to understand that a relationship with a high school student isn’t a programmatic commitment but is a sacred bond that students need present in their lives beyond high school graduation. The Sticky Faith research has helped us to realize that if adult relationships with adolescents end when high school ministry programming ends, than we shouldn’t be surprised if adolescent faith ends when high school ministry programming ends. We spend a significant amount of time and energy pastoring, training, and equipping our volunteer pastors to be more than just a volunteer, leader, or sponsor in the lives of our students.

Read the full article at: https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/story/college-ministry-for-high-school-pastors-part-2




College Ministry for High School Pastors: Part 1

Exposure to the Sticky Faith research immediately reframed our understanding of high school and college students and how our community can best serve them. We realized that if our community genuinely desired to serve and be an advocate for college age students, we had to recognize two significant and distinct tribes of people that we had mistakenly labeled as one:

Tribe #1: College age students from the Mars Hill community who were a part of our high school ministry and graduated from high school in West Michigan.

Tribe #2: College age students who moved to West Michigan (to work or attend college) and have joined the Mars Hill community.

Read the full article at: https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/story/college-ministry-for-high-school-pastors