Friends of Time: youth ministry and the clock

Friends of Time: youth ministry and the clock December 22, 2016

20161216_141500Youth workers come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to have at least this one thing in common: they are busy!

Youth workers are some of the busiest people on the planet, trying all the time to navigate the busy schedules of young people while also maintaining their regular scheduled programming and, in many cases, their full-time “side” jobs.  When it comes to time, there’s just never enough of it. In fact, one of the most effective marketing strategies for youth ministry resources is to sell time–“Think about all the time you can save if you buy our product!” Our relationship to time has hardly been what you would call a friendship.

It’s true for just about everyone, but especially for youth workers that, as Henri Nouwen put it, “Time constantly threatens to become our enemy. Time enslaves us…” (Spiritual Formation, p. 8). Elsewhere, Nouwen writes, “Our calendars are filled with appointments, and our years filled with plans and projects…” Sound anything like your church ministry calendar? “There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying, or doing” (Way of the Heart, p. 12).

But we should stop and think not only of whether what we’re doing is worth doing, but we should also think about how our relationship to time is forming us and shaping our ministry. How can youth workers who are always too busy ever hope to offer an alternative to a younger generation who are themselves pressured by time and over-scheduled?

In his important new book, Becoming Friends of Time, John Swinton suggests that our relationship with time doesn’t need to be so violent. The problem is that we are dominated by a particular kind of time, one that is historically new–the time of the clock. Swinton writes, “The time of the clock has quite distinct features. It is assumed to be linear, dynamic, and forward facing…, measurable and controllable” (Becoming Friends of Time, p. 22). We think that time is a commodity, ultimately something we use for productivity and achievement. This view of time is the product of industrialization (and it’s no coincidence that “adolescence,” as we know it, is also a product of industrialization… but that’s another article). We value time for what it allows us to produce, for its potentiality, for what it can give us. And, subsequently, we value human beings for their ability to inhabit this time… “to be able to handle the economics of time efficiently in a world that adores speed, loves intellectual prowess…, and worships comfortably at the altar of competitiveness, productivity, efficiency, and self-sufficiency” (BFT, p. 31). We end up with just no time for other people, especially those who cannot benefit us or our own productivity.

I can’t help, during this time of year, to think of Ebenezer Scrooge at this point, whose view of time shaped him to see Christmas itself as an inconvenient distraction from productivity. “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer…?” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol).

Youth workers aren’t near as harsh as Scrooge, but we too have a tendency to instrumentalize time. We invest more time in the youth who will best contribute to the success of our ministry. But as Christians and as youth workers, we need to see time differently. We need to stop slaving for the time of the clock and start living in God’s time. God’s time is not a commodity. It is fundamentally a gift. “God’s time is slow, patient, and kind and welcomes friendship; it is a way of being in the fullness of time that is not determined by productivity, success, or linear movements toward personal goals. It is a way of love, a way of the heart” (BFT, p. 74).

As Nouwen puts it, “Time needs to be converted from chronos to kairos–an opportunity for a change of heart… to start seeing that the many events of our day, week, or year are not obstacles to a full and meaningful life, but the way to it…” (SF, p. 9). The move from clock time to God’s time–from chronos to kairos–is a move from using time for productivity to receiving time as a gift from God.

When we see time as a gift, and cherish it as such, it fundamentally transforms the way we inhabit it and it opens us up to other people, even to the young people among us who may not be the “success stories” of the church, and it inherently offers an alternative, an invitation into a different way of living in the world. If time is our friend and not our enemy, then we are free, for freedom is the shape of friendship. We are free to slow down, to live gently, and to adopt the attitude of Jesus “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…” (Philippians 2:6-7)

So what is your relationship with time like? Is time your friend or is it your enemy? Do you have it or does it have you? Are you living on clock time or on God’s time? Imagine what it might look like, what practical changes you would need to make, for your youth ministry to be a friend of time.

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