Hands-on Help: Life Skills
group magazine: January-February, 2006
Knowing the Unknowable
Helping young people know and understand God is the most wonderful part of being a youth pastor, but there’s an inherent tension whenever we try to make the unknowable known.
We’re called to take a transcendent, mysterious, omniscient God and somehow make him recognizable and understandable. Because of this tension we have a tendency to slide in the direction of easy answers, steps, formulas, and concepts.
In a recent book by Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Eerdmans), I came across this definition of idolatry: Idolatry is reducing God to a concept or object. The object part of the definition is easier to define and to recoil from, but not turning God into a concept is where the tension builds to the breaking point.
We have to talk in concepts to communicate. For example, take the discipleship habits that we all revere. Before we know it, the transcendent character of God is slowly reduced to concepts such as discipleship means...and worship means...and sharing your faith or quiet time means...and, of course, the one we all like to say is “God wouldn’t do…”
Without even knowing it, the way we communicate can entomb what God is really like, rolling a stone across the entrance of his character. Talking in concepts is inescapable, but let’s at least consider how easy it is to slide toward idolatrous concepts of God. Here are three suggestions.
1. Discuss this tension with your youth ministry team. Brainstorm current and historical beliefs and concepts of God—inside and outside the church, within youth culture, and in your youth group. Determine which of these concepts are most likely to slide toward idolatry.
2. Be aware of which way the slope runs for you personally. Some of us like things neat and tidy, with all the theological corners tucked in; others are more comfortable with a modicum of obscurity. Knowing where you land on the transcendence scale is important as you wrestle with this topic.
3. Talk about ways to keep the concepts of God fresh and alive. Redefine common Christian words and concepts about God. Seek fresh words and definitions. Worship, for example, might become “having our blinders shattered by a glimpse of God, resulting in a response of awe and wonder.”