One of the things that has happened over the 5 years we have been running our Forge program is that we have gradually gathered around some values that matter to us. Values are often something people tend to confuse with ideals. Many people in the churches that I have worked in have tended to think of values as something along the lines of aspirations. They think about their church or organization and think about what they would like it to be one day. Values aren’t that.
Values are ideas and ethics that already exist within your organization. They are reflexive tendencies that shape the way you shape your programs and relationships within your community/organization. Along with your mission and vision, when clear, values tend to shape what you and your fellow supporters see as inside and outside the scope of who you are. They aren’t so much who you are or what you do, as they are the way you do what you do together. And I don’t think you can just sit down and write them down one day. They tend to emerge from the life of an organization/ministry over time. They emerge from actually doing what you do. I tend to find that we have tripped over a value when we make statements like, “That isn’t who we want to be.” Or, “That feels more like the way we want to go about doing this work.”
Well, it feels like in the last 1.5 years some clear values have started to emerge for our Forge ministry. We have lived enough life together to begin to name some of those values. Perhaps the most key value for us is that we believe that all human transformation happens at the pace of human relationships.
Our ministry has realized over time that our community has plenty of programs. We have lots and lots of places that kids can get services for different kinds of things. We have lots of places in our community where people can get better at things (sports, music, tech, etc.) And while programs do a lot of good, students are often left with the sense that they are a commodity in someone else’s self actualization. What I mean is that each coach, teacher, and minister wants to know that what they do each day as they get out of bed matters. I want to know that my youth ministry matters. The unfortunate side effect of this desire for me to feel like I have meaning is that it creates a temptation to want to make an impact on things and people. This can often reduce teenagers to cogs in our own personal quest for meaning. This is why a music teacher is offended when a kid in my church chooses in my chooses a humanitarian aid trip over music camp and questions her commitment to music. This is why a swim coach lets an athlete know, the moment they get out of the pool (after swimming a record time) that it wasn’t nearly their best. Christians are not (ideally) in the program business or even in the get to heaven business. At our core, we are in the rescue and transformation business.
When I think of why God exists in human relationship with people it is all about a giant, eons long, painstaking, and long suffering RESCUE OPERATION. The whole project of God on our behalf is an effort on the part of God to rescue and restore us. It is not about getting us to somewhere and apparently it isn’t about getting us right or perfect. If that were the case, none of us would be welcome in this project. So, what is it about? It’s about a God who wants to rescue us from ourselves.
So, the question then becomes how are humans rescued? How is it that we come to be changed and shaped? And what does it look like for us to imitate the shape and form of that rescue operation in our own ministries?
Well, I think Christian ministries can take 3 forms.
The first form of ministry that often happens in many places in our world, not least of which is the church, is transmogrification. My oldest child reads Calvin and Hobbes on a regular basis and one of my favorite cartoons is when Calvin makes a “Transmogrifier” out of a cardboard box. I had always thought it was a made up kid word until I looked it up. It turns out to be transmogrified means to be transformed, but in a kind of humorous, ridiculous, or bizarre way.
Many of our ministries, because they desire to make an impact, can turn people into odd Christian caricatures. They function as bizarre transmogrifiers. You have seen folks like this. People whose ministries or programs so desperately want to demonstrate transformation that they almost force it on people. The people become walking televangelists for this or that. They become so awkward that you begin to wonder if they believe their own story of transformation, or whether is it simply a kind of incantational mantra meant to hypnotize. Transmogrification is the sort of ministry where a quality ministry ideal goes into the machine and something along the lines of a Chinese knockoff product comes out. See below. It looks like what you wanted, but it really isn’t.
Many Christian ministries produce people like this. Partially this happens because their ministry ideals are so desperately high. Partially this happens because they believe that their ministries exist to “produce” people at all…sometimes even on a mass scale. These are not the ministries we want to create.
A second healthier version of Christian ministry is working for positive human transformation. This is the kind of work that takes hours and hours of relational time. It is the sort of ministry that is patient, loving, and long suffering. It does not exist to make me feel better or more charitable. It does not exist to give one a sense of accomplishment or meaning. It exists to benefit the other person. It does not treat them as an object to be transformed. It honors their agency and autonomy. I don’t believe these relationships are truly co-equal, but they should be highly mutual. In good transformational ministry both parties are transformed!
This sort of transformation requires another human being to engage. To push this back into the realm of the obviously theological, this is why God enters into the world. Human transformation cannot be accomplished, apparently, without flesh on flesh. Sacrifices must be made in order for transformation to happen. Somebody somewhere is going to have to give something up and lay something (probably themselves) down for the sake of the other. Blood. Sweat. Tears. They are going to have to enter into our suffering rather than simply offering empathy and sympathy.
The simple truth (and it’s become one of our Forge values) is that human transformation requires human relationship. It’s not a program or a machine. This is why God must break into the world. We cannot expect human beings to pray a prayer or take a class and see transformation. We cannot expect to see a neighborhood or community transformed only because a rec center was built. Until human beings are willing to invest in human beings true transformation will never happen. It is long, slow, grinding work that is NEVER finished. No human being ever reaches a finish line because we are never completed creations of God.
But, the true jazz of human work and the gospel is transfiguration work. Transfiguration implies a kind of exalting or lifting up. One might say that transformational work leads to transfiguration. Transfigurational ministry happens when the countenance and spirit of a person to is lifted to a new summit. It’s byproducts are hope and joy. Utimately, gospel work is about transfiguration. It’s about painstaking transformations, slow positive human erosions and constructions supported by the scaffolding and spires of dozens of caring human beings, that eventually elevate another person to LIFE. Irenaeus was once purported to have said that “the glory of God was a human being fully alive.” Transfiguration is when we see someone come to life and the radiance and resonance of that moment is profound. So, how do we go about transfigurational ministry?
My experience in ministry tells me that transfiguration happens through God alone. Heck, I am not even sure I am really capable of transformation! I know we can’t produce transfiguration. But, the divine moment when you look at a student or human and recognize that something is completely transformed, is beyond our creative capacities. It is the exclusive product of divine action. It is wonderfully beyond our control and measurement. It emerges from unexpected places and unexpected moments and shocks us. It violates our sense of what we once thought was possible. Transformation is uncommon because it takes so much work, time, and energy. Transfiguration is miraculous because it is impossible until it happens.
In the ministries I run, we value doing the right ministry, the right way, at the right pace. We think that transformation is often something that happens over years and perhaps even over generations. It is work that is difficult and requires mutual relationship. It is not possible without the Spirit. It does not produce a Christian caricature, but the real McCoy that only God can see and draw out of each one of us. Every once in a while we see a true transfiguration and we give thanks and plod on.
It’s a wonderful calling.