The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Essential Elements of Effective Youth Ministry

elements-of-youth-ministry

Introduction

I have been doing a lot of reflection on the practice of youth ministry recently, which I guess is not too surprising since I am, well, a youth minister. The more I think about it, I am convinced that there are six necessary elements of effective youth ministry. I am not absolutely claiming that this is an exhaustive list, but I do think that the categories I talk about below, properly defined, basically incorporate the whole practice of what youth ministry should be.

I should also point out that these elements are not dependent on a particular model of youth ministry; rather, they are characteristics that should be a part of any model. Not to overcomplicate things, these six elements basically fall into three categories, with each category containing two elements: one more visible element, which is supported by a related, less visible element (see chart below).

elements

Events (High-Visibility Programming)

The category of programming refers to a lot of the stuff that I think people most naturally think of when they think of youth ministry—trips, special events, and regular activities that the youth group is involved in—and the behind-the-scenes planning that makes all of this activity possible.

Simply put, although youth ministry is about a lot more than events on a calendar, events are a fundamental and crucial part of youth ministry. Those events can be widely varied (devotionals, youth rallies, ski trips, service projects, flag football games, eating together, game nights, etc.) and can accomplish a range of objectives (fellowship, study, service, outreach, etc.), but ultimately, if you never have events for your young people, you don’t really have a youth ministry.

Events represent what is most likely the most public aspect of youth ministry, and many times, people may judge a youth ministry’s effectiveness solely on the basis of the quality or perceived quality of your events.

Administration (Low-Visibility Programming)

In order for your events to actually happen, it requires a great deal of planning, and this is where administration comes in. This is much less visible than the events themselves, but it’s absolutely crucial: if you don’t invest time in administrative duties, then your youth ministry simply will be unable to function.

Youth ministry administration is about much more than putting together a calendar of events, however. It involves all sorts of planning and record-keeping that enable your programming to actually be implemented: recruiting chaperones and volunteers, organizing curriculum, tracking youth attendance, setting up group texts, sending out parent newsletters, and the list goes on and on.

I have found that administration can be a difficult thing for youth ministers: because most administrative tasks go on behind the scenes, no one (generally) forces you to do them, and to be honest, usually they are not very enjoyable. And I do think it is possible for a youth ministry with poor administration to still have effective programming at times, but I think good administration makes consistency in quality programming much more likely, and also helps to make a youth ministry much more sustainable.

Teaching (High-Visibility Learning)

Any effective youth ministry will make it a priority to provide an environment where learning can occur, since we want our young people to grow up to be mature people of faith. Primarily, we want our young people to learn about God and the Bible, but it is important for them to learn other things as well (Luke 2.52 talks about how the 12-year Jesus grew physically, intellectually, socially, and spiritually, and in my opinion, this sort of well-rounded growth serves as a good model for what we should try to achieve in youth ministry).

Most visibly, this characteristic of youth ministry is achieved through the practice of teaching. Teaching occurs in formal settings, like Bible classes, sermons, devotionals, worship-leading programs, and youth group retreats, and it also occurs more informally, in mentoring relationships and personal Bible studies.

Because a lot of people can witness you teach (including adults in some settings), this is another element where people tend to make judgments about the quality of the youth minister.

Study (Low-Visibility Learning)

The reality is that your teaching will not be very good for very long if you have not invested a significant amount of time in study. Or to put it another way, before students can learn, the youth minister has to.

I think study is very important, and maybe because I am somewhat of a nerd, I actually enjoy it. But really, I feel that there is an almost endless list of sources and topics that are worth studying which help you to teach more effectively as a youth minster:

  • Scripture (obviously)
  • Interpretation and exegesis of Scripture
  • Theology
  • Ministry (general)
  • Youth ministry (both theory and practice)
  • Adolescent development
  • Interpersonal Relationships and Conflict
  • Leadership
  • Church History
  • Technology and Social Media
  • Teaching Methods and Theory

This list barely scratches the surface of different areas of study which apply directly to youth ministry, and help you to teach more effectively.

Study is another low-visibility element, and for many people, studying is not fun, and because of that, it’s an element that can be crowded out of a busy schedule. Still, I do think it’s true that people can tell by your teaching if you have done your homework or not and put in the necessary amount of study ahead of time. And more importantly, if you provide a full slate of exciting and well-run events, but your students never really learn anything, what have you really accomplished?

Example (High-Visibility Living)

Intentionally, I have saved the category of living for last, because I think it is the most important: fundamentally, Christianity is more than a bunch of activities we do, or a bunch of precepts we learn: it is a way of life. And effective youth ministries should help prepare young people to live according to the Way of Jesus.

Most visibly, this is done in the example of the youth minister himself. It is really hard to overstate the importance of your own personal example and the influence it has as you interact with your students on a day-to-day basis and seek to build meaningful relationships with them. If you provide great events and wonderful, biblical teaching, but act in such a way that does not reflect Christ, you send a mixed message to your students, and may even drive them away from the faith. Your students witness your devotion to the church, the way you interact with your spouse, the way you respond when another student misbehaves, and whether or not you cheat at dodgeball. And based on what they see, they make judgments about the authenticity of your discipleship (and honestly, they should, shouldn’t they?).

Obviously youth ministers are never perfect, but we should live lives of devotion to Jesus and moral excellence so that we can appropriate the words of Paul to our students: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”

Spiritual Life (Low-Visibility Living)

The ability to be a good spiritual example for young people does not occur in a vacuum; it is undergirded by a robust spiritual life characterized by devotion to Christ and attention to spiritual disciplines. Ultimately, while good organizational skills and study habits are an important part of youth ministry, the single most important element is a devotion to Jesus Christ and a desire to help others develop a similar devotion.

Personal spiritual formation is enhanced by disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading, fasting, etc., is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and is the fuel that empowers us for ministry, and keeps us going when circumstances are difficult and our ministries are not achieving the results we would like.

Conclusion

If you work in youth ministry (whether that is your job, or whether you support a youth ministry as a deacon, parent, chaperone, teacher, volunteer, or whatever), and especially if you are new in youth ministry, I hope that this list of the elements of youth ministry and the way they are related is helpful to you. Youth ministry is a multi-faceted endeavor, and I don’t know many people who naturally excel at all areas of it (I know I don’t!). That being said, being aware of the different elements of youth ministry helps us to take stock of how we are doing in the different areas, and enables us to focus more on those areas that are more of a struggle for us.

What’s Wrong with Youth Ministers? Some Common (and often Legitimate) Criticisms

Youth Ministry–What's Wrong

Note: This is an updated version of a series of posts that I wrote a few year ago. 

Introduction

I have been involved in youth ministry in some fashion for about 15 years now, so the statements below are based on observations I have made during that time. That being said, I am in no way claiming to be an expert on youth ministry, and I am certainly not suggesting that I am a perfect (or even particularly good) youth minister. What I have written below is simply a collection of opinions and suggestions based on personal experience.

Typically, youth ministers don’t get a lot of respect. Many members of the congregation largely consider them to be glorified baby-sitters who come for a couple of years as hired hands, hang out with teenagers and then move on, unworthy of the salary they receive (“What do you do all day, anyway?”).

I think that’s unfortunate, because I believe that (good) youth ministry is an important part of a healthy church. However, if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that we (youth ministers as a whole) have done a lot to warrant the criticisms and generalizations that are often directed at us. Let’s look at some of those criticisms.

(1) Youth Ministers don’t stay very long.

In a very good article on ministry, Lynn Anderson suggests that it’s hard to be really effective as a minister until you’ve been at a congregation for at least seven years.[1] This might seem shocking since a lot of ministers don’t stay in place for that long, but it makes sense when you think about it: it takes time to build deep, genuine relationships with people, and most people aren’t really going to trust you with their spiritual well-being until they know you well. The problem is, as often as ministers tend to move from one congregation to another, youth ministers seem to do so with even greater frequency. I’ve been working with the teens at Farmington continuously since May 2006 (since then my title has changed and my responsibilities have evolved and expanded somewhat, but still, my foremost priority has been working with the young people). That’s a time period of about ten years, and of the 12-15 Churches of Christ that I am aware of in Northwest Arkansas, only one has employed the same youth minister for that entire time. Many have gone through 3-4 youth ministers over that period.

Now that’s just one person’s anecdotal evidence, but it certainly seems to support the generalization. So why do youth ministers leave congregations so quickly?

Of course, there are a lot of reasons, and youth ministers shouldn’t be blamed for some of them. Sometimes clashes with an eldership or an “important” family will lead to a job transition that is entirely out of the youth minister’s hands. Sometimes a youth minister will transition into a different ministry role at the same congregation because it is what the church needs most. Sometimes youth ministers just get completely burned out and need a career change.[2]

But often, reasons for leaving aren’t as good. A lot of times youth ministers show up on the job with big plans and new ideas, and then get frustrated when things don’t quickly turn out exactly as they planned. Rather than stay, put down roots, and work to gradually make things better, they are enticed by the greener pastures of a higher salary or a larger congregation.

I don’t claim to know what the answer is, and I don’t know if Anderson’s figure of seven years is appropriate for youth ministers or not. I do know it is difficult for those teens who have to adjust to 2-3 youth ministers in their 6-7 years in the youth group, and that they feel somewhat abandoned each time they have to deal with a youth minister leaving. I also know that remaining at the same congregation for as long as I have has reaped rewards for me, as I am more trusted by the congregation now than I was when I first came, and as a result, am more able to implement new programs and ideas.

(2) Youth Ministers are never in the office working.

I know this is an idea that a lot of church members have, but really, I hear this said (or more often, implied) most commonly by other ministers. A lot of preachers who spend hours and hours in the church office each week studying for Bible classes and sermons get frustrated when the youth ministers they work with are never around.

Certainly, I think it’s true that youth ministers spend less time in the office than pulpit ministers do, and I know from personal experience that if I call a church office trying to get in touch with a youth minister, it is more likely that I’ll end up speaking to a secretary who has no clue of the youth minister’s whereabouts than to the youth minister himself. But like a lot of areas in life, I think it’s important to avoid extremes when thinking about how often a youth minister should be in the office.

On one hand, if youth ministers are supposed to focus largely on mentoring, teaching, and working with teenagers, it doesn’t make too much sense for them to spend 40 hours a week in an office where no teenagers are present. Besides, it’s not like work can only happen in an office: just because youth events can be enjoyable doesn’t mean that they don’t also require a lot of work, and it doesn’t seem fair to require a youth minister to be in the office for 40 hours if you also expect him to spend a lot of nights and weekends at youth events.[3]

Fortunately, most churches (including, thankfully, my own) realize this and allow their youth minister to have a relatively flexible office schedule. Unfortunately, some youth ministers take advantage of this, gradually spending less and less time in the office until they reach a point where you never know when to expect them.

I think it’s important for a youth minister to work out a regular office schedule where, barring some unusual occurrence, other people can expect to find him in the office if they stop by. The number of hours may vary from church to church, but it’s important for people to be able to get a hold of you, and since, as a minister, you are a visible part of the leadership of the congregation, it’s important for people who stop by to at least occasionally be able to see you.

(3) Youth Ministers build allegiance to a group, not to the Church.

In recent years, this has become a vocal criticism of youth ministry as a whole, and I think it is a valid one, so I want to spend some time addressing it. Multiple studies have shown that evangelical teens leave the church at an alarming rate after they graduate high school,[4] and it seems likely that at least part of this phenomenon can be attributed to problems with the way we do youth ministry.

Consider the following, hypothetical example:

On a regular Sunday at ___________ Church, the youth group meets for class in their special, isolated, youth room in the Family Life Center. After class they head out to the auditorium for worship where they sit with the other teens on the special youth group rows, and after services are over, they either stay where they are, visiting with friends, or rush back to the youth room to play ping pong/foosball/PS4.

On regular Sunday evenings, instead of meeting at the church building with “old people”, the youth group has a special Life Group where they meet in each other’s homes to have a devotional, sing a few songs, and then have a meal.

These are just on regular Sundays though, which don’t actually occur all that regularly, because the Youth Minister has made it a priority for the youth group to be gone to as many trips and youth rallies as possible on weekends, in addition to regular monthly Sunday night gatherings with teens from other youth groups (after all, it’s hard to keep teens excited about just going to “regular” church).

On Wednesday nights, of course there is a special teen class in the youth room in the Family Life Center, and because this is such an important time during the week for the teens to fellowship with one another, they don’t come out after the Bible class period to spend time singing or having a devotional with the rest of the church family, but instead just stay in their room to have more time with one another.

Each week there will be a devotional at one of the teen’s homes.

In addition to youth rallies and weekend retreats, special activities include a ski trip over Christmas Break, a couple of church camps in the summer, and a short-term summer mission trip. All of these are primarily for teens, but there will be a few parents and maybe a youth deacon or two thrown in as chaperones.

Obviously this is just a hypothetical example, and to be clear, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with any of these specific activities, but when added together, what you get is a group of teens who spend a lot of time with each other doing “church activities”, but have very little meaningful interaction with anyone else in the church. They likely don’t even know the names of the majority of adults who aren’t their Bible class teachers or youth deacons or parents of their friends. The careful and diligent work of the Youth Minister has made them very dedicated to the youth group, but has also (unintentionally) isolated them from the church family as a whole.[5]

What happens when they graduate? Is it particularly reasonable, after spending years cultivating in them an allegiance to the youth group (which has been largely separated from the church as a whole), to kick them out of the youth group once they graduate and expect them to eagerly switch allegiances to the church as a whole (largely made up of parents and “old people”)? I think it’s increasingly becoming clear that the answer is, “no.”

Does that mean that mean that youth rallies, youth trips, youth rooms, and even youth groups should be done away with? Well, judging by the fact that I am a Youth Minister, I obviously don’t think so, but I do think that it means that youth ministry needs to be rethought somewhat.

I think it is important that we provide opportunities for our students to build relationships with other Christians their own age, and I also think it is appropriate to offer teaching that is customized and directed at teens, dealing with the issues they face in a way that is interesting to them. Taken together, these goals provide justification for a lot of the things I mentioned in the hypothetical example above, but these goals must be balanced with the intentional effort to make teens disciples of Jesus, which of course, involves a lifetime of service to His church (not just 6-7 years of involvement with a youth group).

Instead of being isolated from the church, teens are an integral part of it, with their involvement including, but not being limited to, youth group activities. Of course, that’s easier said than done—how do we make teens active and functioning parts of the Body instead of merely loyal members of a youth group? Well, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are a few suggestions:

Limit how often the youth group is absent from the corporate worship of your congregation. From personal experience, I can say that it is really tempting for youth ministers to have their groups miss a lot of the worship services of the church, opting instead for special events where the worship is different, fresh, and exciting. But is there any doubt that the more your kids are absent from worship with the local body, the less they feel like they are a part of that body?

If high school graduates want to hang around for a while, let them. I’ve known some youth ministers who are adamant about getting kids out of the youth group as soon as the summer after their senior year is over. Considering what I mentioned above about students leaving the church at an alarming rate after graduating high school, I’m not sure this is a great idea. Transitioning from high school to college is a difficult time for a lot of students, and especially if you don’t have an active college group at your church, some might not know where they fit in. I’ve always encouraged those who have already graduated but who are still interested in coming to youth events to come—they provide good, older role models for the younger students, and it also helps to keep them involved with the church.

Provide opportunities for adult Christians to mentor students one on one or in small groups. We have used mentors to work with our Lads to Leaders students for several years, and good relationships have developed from this. Furthermore, we are planning to implement a church-wide mentoring program to provide our students with additional contacts and meaningful relationships with mature Christians. Having students work with adult mentors provides another positive Christian role model in their lives (and they can never have too many), and also gives them another connection to the church outside of the youth group and their own family.

Allow teens to be involved in the life of the church, and encourage them to do so. Let your young men serve in the worship assembly. When high school teens reach a certain level of maturity, encourage them to teach (or help teach) a children’s Bible class for a quarter. If there is a work day at the church building, let your young people know that they are needed as well. Look for ways in which your congregation can serve the community and make sure that your teens work hand in hand with older members to accomplish those projects.

(4) Youth Ministers are shallow.

I had a hard time coming up with the title for this area of criticism, but really it’s just an umbrella description for specific criticisms of youth ministers that I’ve heard voiced or implied several times like, “All he does is plan fun events! There’s never any spiritual emphasis!” or “His Bible classes are pure entertainment! There’s no Bible to them!” or “He doesn’t even know the Bible! Why is he teaching our kids?”

Fun Eventsin a time when a lot of teenagers are having fun in some decidedly unholy ways, I think there’s nothing wrong with having certain events that are for the express purpose of having good, clean fun. Of course, these fun events should be balanced with other types of events, but I honestly don’t know of any youth ministers who do nothing more than play basketball with their teens. Most organize regular devotionals to provide a time outside of worship to study the Bible, and many travel to a variety of youth rallies, retreats, and summer camps to provide an opportunity for worship and spiritual growth.

If there is one area in which I think youth ministers as a whole could be more intentional about planning activities it would be service. Fundamentally, Christians are supposed to be servants, but that’s a hard message to get across in our self-centered, consumer culture. One thing I’ve always tried to do as a youth minister (sometimes more successfully than others) is to provide a variety of opportunities for service to remind my students that following Jesus means adopting His model of servanthood.

Entertainment vs. BibleI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but teenagers in today’s world don’t exactly have stellar attention spans. This isn’t particularly surprising since most of them have been watching television since birth and spend most of the day plugged in through a smart phone, iPod, or laptop.

Because of this, there is undoubtedly a need for capturing the attention of our students in order to teach them effectively. That being said, if you’re not careful, you can spend so much time engaging the students that you don’t have time to engage Scripture. I’ve seen Bible lessons for teens that were so focused on grabbing their attention and making the Bible relevant that the Bible was barely mentioned at all!

Fundamentally, I believe that the Bible is relevant to the life of every person, and because of that, it is interesting. I don’t claim to be a great teacher, but the Bible is a great book, and since I make it a priority to teach Scripture in my classes, it’s usually fairly effective.

Bible KnowledgeI have become personally convinced that Christians, on the whole, are woefully ignorant of the teachings of the Bible. That’s a scary thing to me, but even worse, a lot of Bible teachers (including some youth ministers) aren’t much better.

I don’t want to over-generalize here, because everyone is different: I’ve known youth ministers with little formalized training who are outstanding Bible students, and others with college degrees in Bible who seemed completely unaware of basic biblical teachings. Regardless of that, on the whole, we as a people don’t know our Bibles well enough, and I’ve never known anyone who spent too much time reading and studying Scripture.

And, related to the point above about Entertainment vs. Bible, the better you know and understand the Bible, the easier it is to teach it. Being able to describe the historical and cultural background of a specific story or passage is more interesting than just having your students take turns reading it out loud. Better understanding leads to better teaching.

(5) Youth Ministers are “liberal”.

I really dislike the labels “liberal” and “conservative” when it comes to church discussion, because everyone defines those terms so differently that they become largely useless.[6] I dislike the labels so much that I almost left this one off the list entirely, but it is a common criticism, so I thought I would address it briefly.[7]

In this last criticism, I am not referring to the idea held by some people that having a youth minister is inherently liberal,[8] but rather the notion that youth ministers individually tend to be more liberal than the congregations that employ them, and thus, cause problems at those congregations.

Like I said above, this is a common criticism, and I’m sure it’s valid to a degree, but I think it tends to exaggerated a lot. Let me explain.

It makes a lot of sense for youth ministers to be a somewhat liberal group as a whole when you remember that, as a general rule, youth ministers tend to be young, and they also tend to be only a few years removed from an education at a Christian university (typically, people are more liberal when they are younger, and usually Christian universities are somewhat more liberal than are a lot of the congregations whose young people choose to attend them).

Nevertheless, if a congregation has done a good job in the interview process to find a youth minister that is a good fit for them, then really it shouldn’t be an issue—more liberal churches will have no problem accepting youth ministers with more liberal views, while more conservative congregations will avoid those candidates and instead hire someone whose views are more in line with their own.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if there is a huge problem of youth ministers being too liberal for the churches they work with[9], at least part of the blame should fall on the congregations who hired them in the first place when they obviously weren’t a very good fit.

Summary and Conclusion

In this post I discussed five different criticisms which I think have varying degrees of validity:

(1) Youth Ministers don’t stay very long.

Is this criticism valid? Generally, yes. It will always be difficult for youth ministers to get respect if they are viewed more as hired hands than as good shepherds (cf. John 10), and people can’t help but view youth ministers as hired hands when they don’t stick around long enough to put down roots and build meaningful, lasting relationships with the congregation. There are certainly some valid reasons to leave a congregation (even after a short period of time), but in general, I think youth ministers as a group are guilty of leaving a little too quickly when things get difficult.

Suggestion for improvement: Congregations are made up of people, which means that any church and therefore any church-related job is going to come with problems and headaches. Realizing from the outset that no ministry position is perfect helps to temper unrealistic expectations. Furthermore, working on developing the biblical virtues of perseverance and patience helps a minister weather the bad times while working diligently to help bring about better ones.

(2) Youth Ministers are never in the office working.

Is this criticism valid? To a degree, yes. It is not valid when based on the assumption that being in the office is the single most important thing that a youth minister can do, because much of youth ministry cannot be done in an office where no young people are present. Thankfully, most congregations realize this today, and adjust office hour requirements accordingly. Unfortunately, some youth ministers take advantage of this arrangement and are never found in the office at all, and that is a problem. Youth ministers hold a visible position of leadership and, therefore, need to be accessible to members of the congregation at certain times.

Suggestion for improvement: If you have office hours posted (or even if they are not posted, but were agreed upon when you were hired), be a person of integrity and make it a priority to be in your office at those times. Make the hours you spend in the office as productive as possible by focusing on those aspects of youth ministry that can be done without your youth group being present: studying and preparing Bible class lessons, answering phone calls and emails, planning and publicizing events through social media, or reading books on ministry and Christian living.

(3) Youth Ministers build allegiance to a group, not to the Church.

Is this criticism valid? Yes. I spent a lot of time covering this one, because of all the criticisms people make about youth ministers/ministry, I think this is the most significant. A lot of the activities and strategies that youth ministers typically employ serve to isolate young people from the rest of the congregation, leaving them without any meaningful relationships with other, older members. Once the teenager graduates from high school (and the youth group) he/she can feel out of place at church and not surprisingly, a lot of teenagers leave the church during this time of life.

Suggestion for improvement: Limit how often you remove your youth group from the corporate worship of the congregation; the more often you are gone (regardless of how important the reason seems), the more you underscore that, on some level, the youth group is not a part of the larger congregation. Allow high school graduates to still hang out at youth group activities, and invest some level of responsibility and leadership in them. Encourage your teens to be actively involved in the life of the church in worship, in service, and in church-wide events. Finally, provide opportunities for adult Christians to mentor teens one-on-one or in small groups—the more relationships a teen develops outside the youth group the better.

(4) Youth Ministers are shallow.

Is this criticism valid? At times it is, but on the whole, I don’t think youth ministers should be roundly criticized for this. As I mentioned before, I honestly don’t know of any youth ministers who do nothing more than plan fun events and play games with their teens. I do think that youth ministers sometimes lean too far toward entertainment when trying to teach their students, but even that generally comes from a desire to instill biblical principles in a way the student will remember rather than an unwillingness on the part of the youth minister to teach the Bible. Youth ministers are sometimes unacceptably ignorant in their Bible knowledge, but as I argued before, so are most Christians. That’s not to say that it isn’t a problem (it’s a huge problem), it just isn’t a problem that youth ministers should be singled out for.

Suggestion for improvement: Youth activities which are fun should be balanced with activities that focus on other important aspects of the Christian life. There’s nothing wrong with taking your teens bowling or visiting Six Flags, but you should also take them to spiritually-focused events like retreats and youth rallies and also provide them with abundant opportunities for service. With regard to Bible class, teaching the Bible should always take precedence over entertaining the students, and that is made easier when the youth minister has made a personal commitment to Bible study.

(5) Youth Ministers are “liberal”.

Is this criticism valid? Mostly, I don’t think so. Generally speaking, because of their age and educational background, I do think that youth ministers tend to be more “liberal” than the average church member, however, I don’t think it’s particularly common for youth ministers to swoop into a new ministry position, determined to make the church more liberal at all costs, causing irreparable damage along the way. Actually, I think it is much more common for youth ministers to forget about some of their own personal preferences, realizing that they are out of place in their current congregation and not worth causing grief over.

Suggestion for improvement: Congregations can go a long way toward alleviating this problem (to whatever degree it exists) in the interview process. Since terms like “liberal” and “conservative” are relative and generally used in relation to certain beliefs or practices, it should be easy enough for churches to ask specific questions during the interview process which determine if the candidate would be a good fit for their particular congregation.

I’m sure there are other criticisms that I could have covered in this discussion, but I tried to hit the ones I hear most often. As you can see, to some extent I think that youth ministers are criticized unfairly, but because of the questionable actions of a lot of youth ministers over the years, I also think that we deserve a lot of what we get.

As I have tried to make clear in this posts, I am by no means the perfect youth minister, and I am sure that at times I have done some of the very things that I have criticized here. Nevertheless, as I move forward, my goal is to exemplify the positive aspects of youth ministry rather than the problems often associated with it.


[1]Lynn Anderson, “Why I’ve Stayed,” Leadership 7, no. 3 (June 1986): 76-82. Anderson goes on to talk about good and bad reasons for leaving a particular ministry but maintains that, as a general rule, ministers do their best work after they have been working with the same church for at least seven years.

[2]Youth ministry is difficult for a lot of reasons, but in particular, seeing teens in whom you’ve invested years of time and love make bad decisions and sometimes even abandon their faith is tough.

[3]For example, going to church camp each summer is hardly a vacation. Instead of working from 8AM-5PM, I get up at 6 in the morning and am responsible for the boys in my cabin all day (and all night) in addition to teaching class, preaching, coaching, coordinating recreational activities, etc.  I always have a good time because I love working with young people, but if you’re comparing the level of stress involved, I’d take 40 hours in the church office any day. Same goes for for special trips that I am in charge of.

[4]Statistics from different studies range on what percentage of teens leave the church after high school. A good estimate is probably something around 40-50%. See Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011): 15. Other sources suggest different percentages. Kendra Creasy Dean, “Proclaiming Salvation: Youth Ministry for the Twenty-First Century Church,” Theology Today 56, no. 4 (January 2000): 525, states that “more than half of those confirmed as adolescents leave the church by age seventeen.”

[5]For what it’s worth, I do think teenagers actually enjoy this type of youth group—taking lots of special trips, being isolated from adults and the elderly, having their own special worship and Bible study gatherings—I’m just not convinced that, when taken to an extreme, it’s conducive to healthy spiritual formation.

[6]For example, some people use the term “liberal” to refer to the idea that Jesus wasn’t actually define and wasn’t physically raised from the dead, while other people use it to refer to the practice of clapping hands while singing in worship. The fact that the same term is used to describe such widely varying theological beliefs and practices renders the term almost meaningless. It becomes just a relative term—anyone to the left of me is “liberal”, while anyone to his right is “conservative”.

[7]I won’t put the terms in quotation marks from here on out because that would be annoying to read; just realize that I am making no attempt to actually define the terms, but am just using them in a general and relative sense.

[8]Some Christians/congregations believe that, since the New Testament doesn’t specifically speak about the use of youth ministers, congregations that have them are using a “liberal” innovation. Obviously, I disagree. Not wanting to go into great detail on this point, I would suggest that the New Testament comes much closer to supporting a congregation having a youth minister than having a multi-million dollar building to worship in, and a lot of people seem okay with that practice!

[9]There is no doubt in my mind that there are multiple examples of guys who have come in with more liberal views, tried to bring change to the congregation they were working with and caused a great deal of damage in the process. Nevertheless, I don’t really think this is a common occurrence; it is certainly not true of the vast majority of the many youth ministers I have known and worked with.

The Seamless Story of Scripture

Seamless Story of ScriptureA lot of times, the distinctions between the Old and New Testaments are exaggerated and caricatured. People talk about “the God of the Old Testament” versus “the God of the New Testament.” They will (mistakenly) emphasize that the Old Testament is all about law while the New Testament is all about grace. They may even argue that we don’t even need the Old Testament, because as Christians, we live under a different age. I have written about some of these problems before.

Increasingly though, as I study more and more, I am struck by just how well the two testaments of God’s Word—Old and New—fit together. This year for my daily Bible reading, instead of reading, I have actually been listening to Scripture, specifically to Max McLean’s reading of the ESV while I drive around in my car. This is the first time that I have attempted to make it through the entire Bible by listening to it, and it has been interesting, and has brought out certain elements of the text that I had missed before. One example of this occurred just yesterday, as I was driving in the car and the recordings transitioned from the end of the Old Testament to the beginning of the New.

The end of Malachi reads:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

(Malachi 4.5-6)

Transitioning into Matthew, you get the genealogy and birth story of Jesus, and then we get this:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

(Matthew 3.1-6 )

I have long known that John the Baptist was the “second Elijah” prophesied about in the Old Testament, who would prepare people for Jesus to come, and I think I knew that Malachi contained such a prophecy (in addition to Isaiah, etc.), but the unity of these two books was never emphasized to me as much as it was yesterday, when I heard both of these passages back-to-back in one short car ride. Matthew picks up where Malachi left off: with the coming of God’s representative who would prepare people for the coming of God Himself in the flesh.

This might be a really obvious example that you have noticed before, but for me, it is a reminder of a great truth: Scripture is not comprised of two disjointed halves, but is instead a seamless whole—a well-woven story crafted by God’s Spirit, relating God’s creation of the world and His quest to redeem and reconcile that creation.

God, Free Will, and the Future: Gregory Boyd’s Open Theism

God, Free Will, and the Future

Introduction

The twentieth century witnessed a variety of significant developments across the theological spectrum. One recent development that has made considerable waves in evangelical theology and continues to spark much discussion today is open theism.[1] Fundamentally, open theism is a re-visioning of the classical theist idea that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events. Instead, openness theologians argue that although the future is partly known by God, it is also partly “open” in the sense that what transpires genuinely depends on the decisions made by free agents, and that God does not know exactly what will occur until these decisions are made.

There are many scholars associated with the open theist perspective, but perhaps the best known and most influential is Gregory Boyd, a theologian, author, college professor, and church pastor who has written extensively on the subject.[2] This paper will seek to present the salient features of Boyd’s open theism and then critically interact with his views and also suggest how he might respond to the criticisms presented.

An Outline of Gregory Boyd’s Open Theism

Boyd first referenced his open theist views somewhat in passing in his popular Letters From a Skeptic, which consisted of a series of correspondence between himself and his initially unbelieving father.[3] Since then, Boyd has written more about open theism, and although he upholds the basic framework of the openness model, he has also produced substantive developments to it. First, Boyd has tried to move the openness discussion away from strictly philosophical and theological grounds by examining the testimony of scripture in detail.[4] Second, he emphasizes the ways that Satan and his demons have rebelled against God and thus, limit his control of the world.[5] Third and most recently, Boyd has brought a distinctly christocentric focus to the open theism debate, arguing that models seeking to explain the interaction between God’s foreknowledge and human freedom should accurately reflect his character as revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.[6]

Boyd questions the classical theist position, arguing that the notion that God possesses exhaustive knowledge of future events is influenced more by Greek philosophy than by the teachings of scripture.[7] As noted above, he goes to great pains to establish the biblical basis for his viewpoint, but it is undeniable that his theological and philosophical commitments play a dominant role in his views. In addition to these three categories, Boyd also makes pastoral and scientific arguments for the open perspective. Boyd’s views will be examined according to these five categories.

Theologically, Boyd begins with the conviction that God is love and this fundamental characteristic lies behind his purposes for creation:

“Throughout its narrative the Bible shows us that God created the world out of his triune love with the goal of acquiring for himself a people who would participate in and reflect the splendor of his triune love. More specifically, God’s goal from the dawn of history has been to have a church, a bride, who would say yes to his love, who would fully receive this love, embody this love, and beautifully reflect this triune love back to himself.”[8]

However, if love is the goal of creation, Boyd argues that creation must include free moral agents who have the ability to freely choose whether they will love God or not: “had God created us such that we had to love, our love could not be genuine.”[9] Certainly an all-powerful God could have created humans in such a way that they would automatically feel and act in loving ways toward him and one another, but such humans would be nothing more than puppets. Genuine love is only possible if people have the capacity to choose to love or not.[10] To this point, Boyd is largely in line with Arminians and other free will theists, but open theism departs from these other perspectives by insisting that human freedom necessitates a future that is undetermined and partly open, the full details of which even God is unaware. For Boyd and other open theists, if God knows what a particular person is going to do in the future, then that person is not truly free to make self-determining choices; God’s foreknowledge is held to be at odds with human freedom.[11] Thus, from a theological perspective, Boyd concludes that God cannot possess exhaustive foreknowledge of the future because if he did, it would compromise human freedom, and without human freedom, the love that lies at the center of God’s entire project of creation would be compromised as well.

This conclusion poses problems for the classical understanding of God’s omniscience, which holds that God knows every detail of what will happen in the future, but on philosophical grounds, Boyd argues that this classical conception of the future is mistaken. For Boyd and other open theists, the future simply has no ontological existence until God and free creatures make choices that bring it into existence:

“…To assume [God] knows ahead of time how every person is going to freely act assumes that each person’s free activity is already there to know—even before he freely does it! But it’s not. If we have been given freedom, we create the reality of our decisions by making them. And until we make them, they don’t exist. Thus, in my view at least, there simply isn’t anything to know until we make it there to know.”[12]

In light of this understanding of the nature of the future, Boyd argues that God is still omniscient in that he knows everything that there is to know: in addition to perfectly knowing the past and the present, God knows what he will do in the future, and he also knows all the possibilities of what free creatures may do in the future.[13] Moreover, based on his perfect knowledge of the nature of human beings, God knows what people are most likely to do in a given situation based on the solidified character they have developed via the decisions they have made throughout their lives.[14] Boyd argues that God possesses perfect knowledge and infinite intelligence and is thus never caught off guard by what creatures freely choose to do.[15] He likens his view of God’s providence with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s book, where the author determines the overall structure of the story along with the possible story lines and different endings, but allows the readers to make choices that truly impact what happens next.[16] As the architect of the story who predetermines certain aspects and knows all the possibilities and probabilities of how free creatures may act, God can be relied upon to achieve his ultimate goal for creation.[17]

In his discussion of the biblical support for the open view, Boyd emphasizes that scripture presents two types of passages, or motifs, that are important for understanding God’s relationship to the future. He labels them the “motif of future determinism” and the “motif of future openness.”[18] Boyd believes that both types of passages are equally descriptive of the way that God and the future actually are, and that attention thus needs to be paid to both. First, in discussing the scriptural motif of future determinism, Boyd admits that there are many passages which indicate that God does in fact have foreknowledge of certain future events.[19] These passages describe God’s knowledge of a variety of future occurrences, including circumstances that would befall Israel, events in the ministry of Christ, particular choices that would be made by specific individuals, and the consummation of God’s eschatological plans. Boyd in no way denies that the Bible teaches that the future is indeed settled and known by God in these respects, but he does argue that these texts do not require the belief that everything that will ever occur has been settled by God ahead of time.[20] Naturally, in addition to these scriptures, Boyd focuses even more on biblical passages that emphasize the motif of future openness.[21] These passages appear to describe a God who regrets the actions of humans and even the results of decisions that he himself has made, who is surprised by unexpected events, who tests people to see what they will do, who speaks in terms of what may or may not occur, and who changes his mind about certain things and reverses his intentions. Holding onto the validity of both of these biblical motifs, Boyd concludes that the future is partly settled but partly open as well.[22]

As mentioned earlier, Boyd serves as the pastor of a church, and thus, it makes sense that he also argues for the validity of the openness viewpoint on pastoral grounds. Simply put, this argument states that the open perspective helps people to better live out their faith, and Boyd believes this is true for multiple reasons. First, he argues that the open perspective is valuable because it makes more intellectual sense than the classical view, and reflects the way that people actually live on a daily basis.[23] Every day, people weigh options about a host of things—which clothes they will wear, which route they will drive to work, which television show they will watch after dinner—in a way that implies that the content of their future is partially open and that they actually have some control over what comes to pass. Second, Boyd claims that open theism helps believers to make better sense of God’s Word because it enables them to coherently reconcile certain aspects of scripture that seem to be in tension with one another.[24] We have previously discussed Boyd’s scriptural motifs of future determinism and future openness; Boyd argues that a perspective that considers the future to be partly settled and partly open allows the believer to take both sets of scripture seriously and make sense of them. Third, the open view places great urgency on prayer.[25] Regardless of scripture’s teaching on the importance of prayer, many Christians believe that the future is exhaustively settled and that therefore, prayer cannot truly change anything. They might continue to pray out of a sense of obedience, but their fatalistic outlook has deprived them of any urgency that might otherwise be associated with prayer. On the other hand, the open view holds that some of the future genuinely depends on prayer, and that God truly allows people to have spiritual input in what comes to pass. Fourth, and most significantly for Boyd, he argues that open theism provides a robust response to the problem of evil.[26] Boyd finds the response of those who explain horrific evil as being a part of God’s mysterious plan to be entirely unsatisfactory. Instead, he argues that evil occurs because free creatures such as humans and especially Satan and his demons abuse the freedom that God gives them and rebel against him. The evil choices these free agents make are not a part of God’s plan; indeed, he does all that he can—within the parameters of freedom that he has set—to influence people for good, fight against evil, and bring about good from evil.

Finally, Boyd presents scientific support for the openness perspective. This is a more peripheral means of support than the other four categories, but Boyd does claim that recent scientific advancements in quantum mechanics underscore the idea that the world is unpredictable and indeterministic to some degree.[27]

Boyd knows that the open theist perspective on the future is not traditional,[28] but he combines all of these different categories of supporting arguments in an attempt to present open theism as a valid evangelical explanation for the interaction between God’s foreknowledge of the future and the freedom of individuals. Furthermore, at different times he emphasizes similarities between open theism, Arminianism, and Molinism, in an effort to borrow credibility from these accepted evangelical perspectives.[29] Despite this, open theism in general and the work of Boyd in particular have met with harsh responses, with different reviewers deeming Boyd’s views to be incompatible with biblical inerrancy,[30] incompatible with historic evangelicalism,[31] and even heresy.[32]

A Critical Evaluation of Boyd’s Views

Although there are significant problems with Gregory Boyd’s open perspective, there are also aspects of his views that are compelling and worth defending. First, it is seems excessive to declare Boyd’s views to be heretical or incompatible with evangelical theology. Although Boyd does nuance traditional conceptions of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, he is adamant that open theism is supportive of both characteristics. God is perfectly omniscient because he knows all that there is to be known: he knows the past and present in full detail, he knows those aspects of the future that have already been settled, and he also knows all possibilities of what free creatures might choose to do.[33] In regard to omnipotence, God originally possessed all power, but freely chose to delegate a degree of his power to enable free creatures to make genuinely free decisions.[34] Regardless of this, God is still in control and is assured to win the cosmic battle with Satan and achieve his ultimate purposes in that he “determines the parameters of our freedom within the flow of history which He directs.”[35] In this sense, Boyd argues that the open view of God actually ascribes more power to God than the Calvinist perspective, which assumes that God “can be assured of ultimate victory only if he controls all the variables.”[36] Instead, the open perspective emphasizes that even when limiting himself by granting true freedom to created beings, God is still powerful enough to bring about his ultimate victory. Still, Boyd clearly redefines the traditional understanding of God’s omniscience and omnipotence,[37] and it may be true that the open perspective minimizes these attributes in some sense for the sake of emphasizing God’s love and the freedom he bestows as a result of that love. However, this is arguably more defensible than extreme versions of Calvinism that emphasize God’s omniscience and predetermination at the expense of his love for all people. If Calvinism is given a seat of prominence at the evangelical table, then surely there is room for open theism as well.

A second strength of Boyd’s perspective is his emphasis on the love of God and his desire for genuine, non-coercive relationships with humans. This serves as a helpful corrective to extreme views that picture God as exalted and distant, proclaiming irrevocable eternal decrees according to his purposes and unaffected by the problems and petitions of his people. Instead, openness thought argues that God empowers humans to genuinely affect him, and that God is so grieved by evil and suffering that he enters into the world through Jesus Christ and “suffered out of love at the hands of those for whom he died.”[38]

Third, Boyd emphasizes that out of his love, God created humanity with genuine freedom. This freedom allows humans to have real say-so over future events and the nature of their lives, and has compelling implications. Rather than feeling resignation at an inevitable future that has been settled from eternity past, believers share responsibility for what happens in the world, knowing that their choices genuinely influence the way things turn out. Boyd writes compellingly about how the open perspective empowers believers to fight against evil and injustice, knowing that their efforts truly matter, and also lends urgency to prayer, as prayer is a means of influencing God to actually change things in the world.[39]

Despite the strengths of various aspects of Boyd’s openness perspective, there are also numerous problems with his presentation; we will examine the three most significant. The greatest problem stems from Boyd’s insistence that it is impossible for a creature to genuinely have freedom if God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of future events. In other words, if God knows that a specific event will come to pass, then he must necessarily be the cause of that event. This is a long-standing claim,[40] but one that Arminians have always claimed is unnecessary and logically confused. Simply knowing about an event in the past or the present does not imply that that knowledge caused the event in question; why then should knowledge of a future event imply causation? Instead, Arminans argue that “everything that God knows about the future, he knows only because it will happen, not vice-versa.” [41] God simply finds out about future events before they happen.[42] Of course, Boyd knows all of these arguments. It is unfortunate that he rejects them, because the classic Arminian view possesses the same strengths as the open theist perspective, without having many of the inconsistencies and problems from which it suffers.

A second problem with Boyd’s perspective stems from his discussion of the scriptural motif of future openness. It will be remembered that this group of passages represent God regretting certain decisions that he makes, being frustrated by the way things turn out, and even changing his mind and reversing his plans at times. Boyd takes these scriptures as conclusive evidence that God is unaware of certain aspects of the future. As multiple scholars have pointed out, however, Boyd reads these passages literally and does not seem to take into account that they are actually examples of anthropomorphism—divine accommodation where God uses analogy to human emotions to tell us something about himself.[43] Boyd rejects this criticism, however, arguing that the openness passages do not seem to be anthropomorphic, and that those who want to use anthropomorphism to explain them are doing so because they are uncomfortable with the implications that stem from reading the texts literally as open theists do.[44] Furthermore, Boyd argues that reading these scriptures anthropomorphically undermines the integrity of scripture: if a passage says God is frustrated by what his people do, how can that be the case if he knew all along what they were going to do? How can God be said to change his mind if he knew all along what he was going to do?[45] Based on these responses, it seems that Boyd does not truly appreciate that scripture uses anthropomorphic analogies to portray God as both similar and dissimilar to us, showing us that God genuinely experiences emotions, but not precisely in the same way that humans do.[46] Furthermore, Boyd’s claims that scripture is disingenuous if it depicts God as asking questions he already knows the answers to or being frustrated by events that he knew would come about do not account for texts where God asks questions about past or present events:

“God asks Adam, “Where are you?” and “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Gen 3:9, 11). The Lord asks Satan, “Where have you come from?” and “Have you considered my servant Job?” (Job 1:7-8). If God knew the answers, was he disingenuous to ask? …Does Boyd’s God know the past or present fully?”[47]

Of course, Boyd would readily affirm that God does know the past and present fully, and would likely respond that the questions asked by God above were likely rhetorical in nature.[48] Still, this raises questions about Boyd’s interpretation of these sorts of passages, and indicates that he is not as consistent in his literal reading of both deterministic and openness scriptures as he claims.

Third, Boyd’s approach is problematic because it seems uncertain—if not impossible—that the God of open theism can actually bring about his goal for creation. If God’s goal for creation was to have a church that would say yes to his love, and humans are only able to love God if they are free to choose to love him or not, and God is unaware of genuinely free choices until they occur, then it seems impossible for God to know for certain that he will be victorious and achieve his goal for creation in the end.[49] Additionally, since God’s engagement with evil and his ultimate victory over it is an integral part of Boyd’s response to the problem of evil, uncertainty regarding God’s ability to bring about his eschatological purposes for creation is a major problem for his theodicy as well. Boyd responds to this objection with two different arguments. First, he suggests that even though God does not know whether or not particular individuals will accept his love when he creates them, he did know from creation that “a certain percentage range of people would, through faith and by means of his grace, accept his saving love.”[50] Second, Boyd argues that God “predestines whatever aspects of history need to be predestined to accomplish his objectives.”[51] However, both of these responses seem like impossible claims for an open theist to make. If God can foreknow with surety that a certain percentage of people would accept his love, then according to the open perspective, that means that God has determined those responses, and such determination is incompatible with the entire open theist program.[52] The argument that God sometimes intervenes in the lives of moral agents to ensure that his purposes are achieved is even more problematic, as it overtly suggests that “God cannot accomplish His ultimate purpose without violating a significant component of that purpose (namely, human freedom).”[53] If Boyd’s ultimate confidence in God’s ability to realize his eschatological goals relies on God’s occasional removal of freedom from supposedly “free” creatures, what is the point of basing an entire theological construct on freedom? Ultimately, this contradiction seems to be an insurmountable problem.

Conclusion

Since first writing on open theism over twenty years ago, Gregory Boyd has spent considerable time expanding upon his views of God’s knowledge of the future and the freedom he grants to his creation, and trying to present a case for the open perspective that is both compelling and coherent. As I have argued in this paper, Boyd succeeds at the former but not the latter. Boyd’s firm insistence on the omniscience and omnipotence of God help to establish open theism as a valid evangelical perspective, and he is to be commended for his emphasis on the love of God and the freedom he grants to individuals which empowers them to live truly meaningful lives. However, Boyd’s understanding of the relationship between God’s foreknowledge and human freedom is problematic, as is his reading of various scriptures which present God in anthropomorphic ways. Most problematic though, is the fact that Boyd’s open theism is fundamentally incoherent in that it holds that God at times violates or overrides human freedom in order to guarantee that things turn out according to his plan. This contradiction renders the entire premise of the open perspective meaningless.

As noted previously, Arminianism can lay claim to the same advantages as the open view without being marred by its problems and inconsistencies. If nothing else, Boyd’s thoughtful and extensive work should encourage theologians from the Arminian camp to present the practical benefits of a free will theism that upholds God’s exhaustive foreknowledge in similarly compelling ways.


[1] It is difficult to pinpoint the exact beginnings of the modern open theist movement, but one particularly significant early work that initiated the use of “open” language was Clark Pinnock, et al, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

[2] Corin Mihaila, “The Ignorant God of Open Theism,” Faith and Mission 19, no. 3 (2002): 27-29, is representative of many scholars who, when examining open theism, focus on the unofficial triumvirate of Boyd, Clark Pinnock, and John Sanders.

[3] Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1994).

[4] Boyd interacts with scripture in much of his writings, but for two earlier works with extensive scriptural focus, see Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 21-87; 157-69, and Gregory A. Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 13-37.

[5] See Gregory A. Boyd, God At War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), and Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

[6] See Gregory A. Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 183-208.

[7] A good representation of this argument is made in Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic, 33-34: “The view of God as knowing and controlling the whole future from the beginning is in my estimation more the product of Aristotelian philosophy than it is the Bible.” Boyd makes similar claims in other places, but he always simply states this conclusion rather than presenting an argument. See Boyd, God at War, 47, and Boyd, God of the Possible, 17, 130-31. For an argument that rejects the premise that classical theism was unduly influenced by Hellentistic thought, see Michael S. Horton, “Hellenistic or Hebrew? Open Theism and Reformed Theological Method,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45, no. 2 (June 2002): 317-41.

[8] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 51.

[9] Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 188. Importantly, this freedom to choose whether or not to respond to love is not limited to humans, but is also extended to spiritual beings like angels. The abuse of this freedom and the subsequent (and ongoing) rebellion of Satan and his minions figures prominently into Boyd’s response to the problem of evil.

[10] Ibid., 189; Boyd, God of the Possible, 134-35.

[11] Boyd, God at War, 49-50: “Unless the future really consists (at least in part) in possibilities among which free creatures choose, and thus unless the future is known by God as being (at least in part) a realm of open possibilities (for God’s knowledge always perfectly corresponds with reality), then self-determining freedom, it seems, cannot be consistently maintained.” To be sure, open theism is not the only perspective that finds it impossible to reconcile God’s sovereign foreknowledge with genuine human freedom: somewhat ironically, Calvinism holds the same conviction, but reaches the opposite conclusion, ultimately minimizing or sacrificing human freedom in order to preserve God’s foreknowledge. See Horton, 335-36.

[12] Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic, 30

[13] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 117.

[14] Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 193-94: “We begin by making our choices, but in the end, our choices make us. We are gradually but inevitably becoming the decisions we make.” Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” 20-21, uses Peter’s denial of Jesus as an example of this kind of foreknowledge. Jesus was able to predict what Peter would do when given the opportunity to deny him because he knew Peter’s character perfectly, as someone who was outwardly bold but cowardly when faced with a difficult situation. This would seem to be a very poor example, however, since Peter’s character was clearly not solidified based on the drastic character change he experienced after the resurrection. See Douglas S. Huffman, “Some Logical Difficulties in Open Theism,” Criswell Theological Review 1, no. 2 (2004): 183; Paul Kjoss Helseth, “Response to Gregory A. Boyd,” in Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 219. Furthermore, this line of argumentation does not seem to be able to account for the level of specificity of Jesus’ prediction, that Peter would deny him three times before the crow of a rooster.

[15] Boyd, God of the Possible, 150.

[16] Ibid., 42-43; Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 199-201. Boyd, God of the Possible, 127-28, also uses the example of the “Infinitely Intelligent Chess Master” who knows all possible future moves of an opponent and can thus always be prepared to respond in such a way that his ultimate victory is guaranteed.

[17] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 155-58; Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic, 45-46.

[18] Boyd, God of the Possible, 13-15.

[19] Ibid., 21-51; Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” 14-23. For a sampling of such passages, see Gen. 15:13; 1 Kings 13:1-2; Isa. 45:1, 46:9-11, 48:3-5; Matt. 26:34; John 6:64.

[20] Boyd, God of the Possible, 30.

[21] Ibid., 53-89; Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” 23-37. For examples of this category of scriptures, see Gen. 6:6, 22:12; Exod. 4:1-9, 13:17; 1 Sam. 15:10, 35; 2 Kings 20:1-6; 1 Chron. 21:15; Isa. 5:2-4; Jer. 3:6-7, 19-20, 18:4-11; Ezek. 12:3, 22:30-31; Matt. 26:39; 2 Pet. 3:9.

[22] Ibid., 14.

[23] Boyd, God of the Possible, 90-91.

[24] Ibid., 91-92.

[25] Ibid., 95-98.

[26] In God of the Possible, 7-8, Boyd states that he first started to reflect on the openness of God after reading about God changing his mind and adding 15 years to Hezekiah’s life following Hezekiah’s fervent prayer. Even with that in mind, it is evident that responding to the problem of evil is a central concern for Boyd, and lies at the heart of his advocacy for the open perspective. In addition to addressing this issue in other writings, God At War and Satan and the Problem of Evil form a two-volume effort to construct a theodicy using open theism.

[27] Boyd, God of the Possible, 107-11.

[28] Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic, 30.

[29] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 87: “The question of the openness of the future, then, is an in-house Arminian discussion on how to render the freewill defense most coherent, biblical and credible.” At times, Boyd also refers to his own view as “neo-Molinism.” See Satan and the Problem of Evil, 127-28. Many Arminians and Molinists do not affirm any close ties between themselves and open theism, however.

[30] Charles L. Quarles, “Was Jesus an Open Theist? A Brief Examination of Greg Boyd’s Exegesis of Jesus’ Prayer in Gethsemane,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 8, no. 3 (September 2004): 109.

[31] Michael D. Stallard, “A Dispensational Critique of Open Theism’s View of Prophecy,” Bibliotheca Sacra 161 (January-March 2004): 41.

[32] Richard L. Mayhue, “The Impossibility of God of the Possible,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 12, no. 2 (September 2001): 220. Understandably, Boyd is somewhat defensive about some of these responses, as can be seen in the discussion in Bruce A. Ware, “Rejoinder to Replies by Clark H. Pinnock, John Sanders, and Gregory A. Boyd,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45, no. 2 (June 2002): 245. Ultimately, although Boyd believes open theism to be the correct perspective and that it has important implications, he insists that it is not a doctrine that should be a source of division among Christians, and that “the love with which believers debate issues is more important to God than the sides we take,” God of the Possible, 9.

[33] In Boyd’s language, the debate is not really over God’s omniscience or his foreknowledge, but is rather a debate over “the content of reality that God knows.” Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” 13.

[34] Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic, 45-46.

[35] Ibid., 46.

[36] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 129.

[37] Ware, 252.

[38] Boyd, “God Limits His Control,” 186.

[39] Boyd, God of the Possible, 8, 92-98.

[40] As noted above, it is a claim that, somewhat ironically, both open theists and Calvinists share.

[41] Robert E. Picirilli, “An Arminian Response to John Sanders’s The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence,Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 3 (September 2001): 473. See also William Lane Craig and David P. Hunt, “Perils of the Open Road. Faith and Philosophy 30, no. 1 (January 2013): 49-53.

[42] David Hunt, “A Simple-Foreknowledge Response,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 49.

[43] Mihaila, 29-33; Horton, 328-41; A. B. Caneday, “Critical Comments on an Open Theism Manifesto,” Trinity Journal 23, no. 1 (2002): 104-07.

[44] Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” 37-40.

[45] See Boyd, God of the Possible, 62, for an example of this repeated argument. On a practical level, this line of thought does not really make sense: I can be frustrated by an unfortunate event, even if it was something that I expected would happen.

[46] Mihaila, 30. Later, Mihaila, 32, states: “Thus, while one must accept the fact that in such passages the Bible speaks truthfully about God (i.e. God genuinely repents and regrets), it does not follow that the Bible speaks univocally about God in such passages (i.e., God repents and regrets in every way man does).”

[47] Caneday, 106-07. Caneday also points out that biblical passages where God tests to know whether or not his people love him actually suggest that God is unaware of present conditions rather than future conditions.

[48] In fact, he does assume that God is asking rhetorical questions in Gen. 3:8-9, Boyd, God of the Possible, 59. Boyd argues that the context of Gen. 3 demands that they be rhetorical questions while denying that the contexts of his “motif of future openness” passages similarly require a rhetorical interpretation. This inconsistency seems to stem from Boyd’s prior philosophical commitments to a God who knows the past and present exhaustively but does not exhaustively know future events, rather than from the texts themselves.

[49] Johannes Grössl and Leigh Vicens, “Closing the Door on Limited-Risk Open Theism.” Faith and Philosophy 31, no. 4 (October 2014): 476: “Since it is possible for every human being God could create to freely refuse to share in his love, God cannot guarantee, at creation, that His central purpose for the world will be fulfilled.”

[50] Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 156.

[51] Ibid., 115. Going back to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel metaphor, Boyd argues that God sets the overall parameters for the story in a way that guarantees that things ultimately work out according to his goals.

[52] Grössl and Vicens, 483.

[53] Mihaila, 37.

The Christian Response to a Broken World

Christian Response:Broken WorldThe tragic events of the past week in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas have been nothing short of heartbreaking. From my perspective, the response to these events from a lot of Christians has been pretty disappointing as well. Too often, we are quick to speak and slow to listen instead of the other way around (see James 1.19), and when we react in that way, we can often add fuel to the fires of heartache, division, and confusion that are already waging.

The reality is that we live in a broken world marred by lots of problems. As Christians living in this context, how should we respond when tragedy occurs? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are three responses which I believe are helpful in the face of tragedy:

(1) In response to a broken world, Christians should lament. Perhaps our most basic response to suffering is that we should weep with those who weep (Romans 12.15). That seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but recently, instead of this, I have seen Christians telling those who weep that what they weep about doesn’t really exist and isn’t worth weeping about at all! When the world gives us evidence of its brokenness, we should acknowledge that brokenness, allow ourselves feel distress, and bring that distress before God. It has become popular, in some circles, to criticize prayer as a response to horrible tragedy, but as Christians, we should take no note of such dismissals. Christians believe that God is ultimately sovereign over the universe, and thus, He is the one who can do something about the brokenness in our world. It is absolutely appropriate that we bring out laments before our Father, as we yearn for a day when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5.24).

(2) In response to a broken world, Christians should aid the suffering. I think part of the reason that a lot of people are critical of prayer is that they feel that this is all that Christians do. And perhaps that can be a fair criticism at times, because God certainly expects us to accompany our prayers with righteous actions. Philip Yancey says that the church forms the front line of God’s response to the suffering world, and I think he is right: Christians have a responsible to get into the mess of the world and try to do something to clean it up. That is probably accomplished less by posting political agendas on social media when tragedy happens, and more by being present with those who suffer, developing real relationships with people who are different than we are, and seeking to extend justice to those who don’t have it.

(3) In response to a broken world, Christians should proclaim Jesus. Too often, this part is neglected. In John 16.33, Jesus was speaking to His disciples on the night of His arrest and He said simply, “In this world you will have tribulation.” Though not spoken directly to us, those words certainly apply to us as well; as recent events remind us, we live in the same world, a world which was created good but has been tainted by sin and is now characterized by heartache. As Christians, we weep with those who weep, we do what we can to help those who are suffering, but we also remember the second half of John 16.33: “In this world you will have tribulation…but take courage, I have overcome the world!” As Christians we also proclaim that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that sin, suffering, strife, injustice, and death do not get the last word. As Christians, we long for the day when Jesus returns, when death dies, and when every tear is wiped away from our eyes.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I am certain that more could be said. At the same time, I am just as certain that if Christians everywhere would respond to suffering and tragedy in our world in these ways, the Christian witness would be strengthened, the suffering of people would be limited, and the borders of God’s Kingdom would be expanded.

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