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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

sabbatical fruit - week 3c - Young Life, Nicaragua

I spent May 16-25 in Nicaragua. There were a number of highlights; I'll try to capture some of them briefly without writing a book (which I think I could!).

I stayed with Pratt and Ashley Butler on the first and last nights of my time in Nicaragua. They are on staff with Young Life (or Vida Joven) in Nicaragua. They work at an international school in English-speaking ministry, but are part of the larger Spanish-speaking Vida Joven ministry in Nicaragua, which ministers in many schools.

Young Life is a ministry dear to me. My brother is on staff in Lubbock, Texas, and I've been a friend of Young Life all my life (I started going to "clubs" when I was 5 years old and my parents were on the support committee in Greenville, SC). Needless to say, between my long-time love of YL and my friendship with Pratt and Ashley, I was eager to see what was going on with Young Life in Nicaragua.

YL is YL Wherever You Go

Now, this statement - "Young Life is Young Life wherever you go" - could easily be seen as a critique... another example of importing an American brand of Christianity into a foreign culture. But that's not what I'm talking about. Yes, the same basic structure is in place in Nicaragua - clubs, volunteer staff, crazy skits, and summer camp. But those things are not what make Young Life distinctive. The real strength of YL is relational ministry - going where kids are - with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Not only is that a cross-cultural ministry approach; it is specifically a strategy that asks, "What is the local culture and how may I enter into it on it's terms to make friends and share the best of all possible news?" And that is not American-brand cultural Christianity, that is Biblical and missional faith in action. If there is any ministry structured from the get-go to cross cultures, surely it is Young Life!

Meeting Kids (or anyone) Where They Are

One of the original slogans of YL was the desire to "meet kids where they are." Out of this mission/vision comes important values like going into kids' worlds: high school, band concerts, lunchtables (when allowed), sports events, and generally hanging out where kids hang out. It reminds me a lot of the way Jesus was.

In Pratt and Ashley's case (and there are only something like 4 North American YL staff out of 25 or 30 in Nicaragua), this means hanging out at the International School (their assigned school), where students come from infulential families - they are the children of the wealthy, diplomats, politicians, and other "movers and shakers." This also means (conveniently) that classes and conversations tend to be in English since students come from all over the world, not just Nicaragua. But don't think Pratt and Ashley aren't learning Spanish - they are diving in culturally and are making friends and building relationships in their neighborhood and everywhere they go. Eventually, they hope to build a volunteer core out of University students in the area. When we arrived at their house, within three minutes, Pratt and Ashley had already introduced me to 4-5 of the folks on the street outside their house, including the ever-diligent "Mr. Whistle" - who patrols and guards their neighborhood making frequent (constant?!) use of his whistle to keep things under control.

Pratt and Ashley are also building relationships with the Nicaragua YL staff, taking the initiative to visit each of the 19 other "clubs" in Managua (the capital city). On my last night there, they took me to one of the other Vida Joven clubs, led by their friend and YL staff, Narcisso. It took place in one of the barrios - because of travel issues, clubs meet by neighborhood rather than by school. Like all YL clubs, it met in someone's home, with leaders taking care to set up and clean up. The entire club was in Spanish, but Pratt and Ashley took turns whispering in my ear to translate. Some of the jokes, games, and songs didn't really translate, but I saw what I've seen in YL since I was a child... loving adult leaders building into the lives of teenagers, earning the right to be heard, and sharing the love of Jesus. Narcisso spoke for 4 minutes at the end on John 3:16 and the teens gave him their attention and respect.

I shared in the previous post about the blessing of living with the Hinton's for a week, and while my time with Pratt and Ashley was shorter, I was similarly blessed to deepen a friendship with them through conversation, bug infestation, cards, and an amazing apple pie!

A Lesson for the Church

I think the lesson for the church is so clear and one that seems so hard for American institutionalized Christianity to grasp. If there ever was a time for "build it and they will come" Christianity, that time has passed. We (as the Church) need to learn from ministries like Young Life - not because they are successful, but because they are Biblical - and meet people where they are! Their slogan, so succinctly put, is the focus of this blog and what God has put so heavily on my heart.

The Church (in general) and Good Shepherd (in particular) needs to explore the surrounding community, learn what the culture is, and enter into it to build relationships and earn the right to speak into it. Less and less will we (whether Church or Christians) speak from a position of respect and privilege just because of who we are. Rather, we need to get up and get out into the world to be the kind of "salt and light" that Jesus taught that we should be.

Pratt and Ashley are one great example of what this looks like... and this understanding of Christian identity, as I hope has become evident from my reflection on my time with my missionary friends, is not the exclusive realm of ministers and missionaries, but is the responsibility and privilege of all those who trust in and follow Jesus Christ.

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