Friday, February 05, 2010

Perspectives on Family Ministry (Part 7)

Now we come to chapter 7 of Perspectives on Family Ministry. It is entitled "Family-Based Ministry: Separated Contexts, Shared Focus," and it is written by Brandon Shields. For sake of time, let me jump to what I believe was the best part of Shields' chapter. Shields challenges some commonly cited statistics regarding the dropout rates of churched teenagers as they become adults. Shields points out faulty generalizations made from some research conducted by the Barna Group and LifeWay Research. Based upon his own research, he contends that "age-organized ministry is not the sole or primary cause of postgraduation church dropouts" (106).

Let me go on record as saying that I am glad that Shields challenged this use of statistics. Statistics can be useful, but it is crucial that they be well-understood within their context and used with the wisdom to see them in the big picture. All of us can be far too prone to say, "Since X is a fact, therefore we must do Y." For example, "Global warming is a fact; therefore, we must cut greenhouse gas emissions." This is completely illogical. No deduction about what should be done can be drawn from any isolated fact, assuming that it is indeed a fact. Furthermore, pastors or church leaders can tend to be influenced by statistics generated by nation-wide surveys far more than is reasonable. As pastors, we must make practical ministry decisions based primarily upon our first-hand knowledge of our local people and situations.

The effect of Shields' challenge is to focus the discussion more upon biblical or theological principles than upon statistic or results. This is great. However, it is at this very point that I believe this chapter was the weakest.

Shields begins his chapter by stating that "the two core values under-girding this philosophy [family-based ministry] are flexibility and balance" (98, italics original). I knew as soon as I read this that he and I were on totally separate pages. I actually hope that Shields does not mean this in the way he has stated it. I assume that he is taking for granted the fact that the Bible is our final authority for faith and practice and just skipping ahead to the practical decisions that must be made in any ministry. But even if that is the case, let's think about what this means for the lived reality of the authority of Scripture. Shields identifies "the two core values" that guide his philosophy of ministry. This is pretty important. He has analyzed those things which are absolutely crucial to his way of ministering and has boiled it all down to two non-negotiables. Those two non-negotiables are "flexibility and balance."

Given the high priority of flexibility and balance, it would seem we are well within our rights to ask for some biblical justification for these two particular values and for making them core values. I'm not asking for a proof-text. I just want to know how a deep understanding of the entire corpus of Scriptural truth can lead one to distill flexibility and balance as the two core values for ministering to young people. There ought to be some connection, especially if one is going to claim that these are core values. Did Jesus make flexibility and balance his core values? Did Paul make flexibility and balance his core values? Even if one could argue that flexibility and balance enter into consideration at some point, it is extremely difficult to see how they could be classified as core values. Hence, I would argue that Shields' philosophy of ministry is grounded in pragmatism, whether he intends it to be or not.

In fact, I would go so far as to argue that striving for "balance" can take us away from Scripturally ordered ministry (see Losing Our Balance for more thoughts on this). Balance almost always becomes defined according to personal or communal, not Scriptural, standards. By appealing to balance as a core ministry value, Shields calls into question whether he is a consistently Trinitarian thinker or not. He does not appear to recognize how our doctrine shapes the way we think about everything.

The concern over Shields pragmatism only grows when he challenges the regulative principle (112-14). I don't mind if he wants to challenge the regulative principle, per se, but I would like to see him do it in a way that shows a strong consideration of all the relevant biblical truth. Instead, what I find is strong pragmatic statements backed up by thin theological appeals. For example, he states strongly, "I believe that shifts in Western culture demand the establishment of youth ministry and other age-organized practices of ministry" (113). But the only two theological reasons he gives to back up this strong claim are the priority of evangelism and the requirements of Christian compassion, both of which are pretty general. So what is it in Shields' model which drives the actual practices of the church? This is why Paul Renfro responds that "sola cultura is precisely the problem with family-based ministry" (123).

I wish I could say more right now, but time forbids. Suffice it to say that, while I mildly criticized family-integrated proponents for insufficient theological bases, my criticism here is much stronger. I believe family-integrated proponents have the right ideal, even if they fail to live up to it. I believe family-based ministry, as represented in this chapter, is not biblically accurate in its ideals.

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