Bible Study Tension

Street Youth Ministry has an intern. That intern has led Bible study as a concluding event of his study with me to better prepare his as a pastoral candidate to help lead the church to work with homeless young people. I am very proud of my student!

The group dynamic changes every day in Bible study. Watching the intern explore the dynamic present one particular day reminded me of my first days of starting the Bible study, more than a year ago. He had something planned, and it totally flopped with this group. They just didn’t ever give it a chance. That happens some days to me, too. So he returned to the SYM default plan: read the next Bible chapter and explore it inductively in group discussion.

They read aloud the first paragraph of Matthew 23. Then one of the youth began to try to explain the passage. He was well versed in inductive Bible study, Jewish culture of the first century, and really took off. The youth was eloquent and intelligent but also very preachy. Nobody else joined in the conversation, and it was hard to “reel in” the speaker. After a bit, the intern began to express one of the rules that SYM uses: “We just look at what the Bible says. We don’t say what’s right or wrong. That way it’s safe for everyone–Christians, atheists, people of other faith, people of no faith.” That restarted the discussion. This this groundrules reinforced, they began discussing how the church leaders in Jesus’ (and Matthew’s) time were putting big burdens to be perfect on people, putting on big airs, and being very imperfect themselves. And they began discussing their own experiences of the church leaders today: “You’ll let me come here as long as I’m good, but when I need help, you tell me to get out. When I fall down or fall apart, you walk past me. When I admit my faults–and they are some big ones, you shun me.” Tough perceptions from a street youth with poverty, mental health, and other issues.

The intern asked, “Do you find the church to be burdensome or a blessing?” Stories immediately poured out about failed encounters with Christians and the church, but nobody answered the question. The intern pressed harder: “Is your experience of the church overall a burden or a blessing?” The tone changed and they shared insights: “You have to live for God. You have to submit to the path God sets for you. It’s easy to live in fear, and it’s much harder to live in peace and love. My experience of the church is a blessing.”

The tension of where their answers started and where they ended caught me by surprise. But later I realized that this tension captures a truth. We are all sinners. Reformed theology tells us that we are rotten to the core. We don’t deserve God’s grace, but God loves us anyway. But, as Christians, when we come together to form the church, we are the body of Christ. The very same individuals who sin every day form the perfect body of Christ at the same time. This is the source of the tension in the street youths’ statements. They experience terrible things from us, but they can also simultaneously see the church as a source of blessing. I believe they experience the church honestly as both a burden of the sinners and a blessing of the body of Christ.

The Bible study ended with prayer. Prayer requests from the youth included one for more tolerance, more love, more family connection between people who aren’t blood related. “Like at Thanksgiving. When Uncle Roland and Uncle Tito, who hate each other, manage to get along for the day. Pray for that.”

Jesus bore the burden. Let us take care not to put burdens on our brothers and sisters. Let us live in love, loving God with all our being and loving one another as Jesus loves us. Amen.

“To know, love and serve street dependent youth.”
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