The Balancing Act

Youth ministry, similarly to other areas of christian life, is full of contradictions. But how do we live with these tension? How do we keep things in balance? Jo Dolby explains...

Years ago, at a youth work gathering, I was chatting to a youth worker who was telling me what was going on in his youth project. He said that for six years they’d been praying for a minibus, and that recently a local business man had heard of their need and donated a large amount of money so they could finally buy the minibus. He claimed it as a miracle and said that it had taught him loads about having faith and trusting in god to deliver on his promises.  

I know it sounds really awful, but my first thought wasn’t really that positive. I wondered if he’d applied for a few grants, done some fundraising with the young people, asked around for sponsorship… maybe he could have had that minibus a few years earlier?

The conversation wouldn’t leave my mind. The question I ended up with was this: how much do we pray, trust God and wait for him to answer us, and how much do we act, strive and work for the outcome we need? How much do we do and how much does God do? I eventually concluded it was probably a bit of both, two opposing approaches balanced together.

Since then, I’ve noticed that youth work is full of these little tensions, or paradoxes: things that seemingly are opposite or contradictory, but things that we have to somehow hold together.

Paradox is a weird concept to get your head around. Once you start digging into it, it just gets weirder. Great minds from all kinds of disciplines - mathematics, science and theology - have wrestled with paradox. I haven’t got room to explore it fully, but here are a couple of definitions: ‘The co-existence of opposites with the tension in between,’ Paradox in the gospel? (Jim Currin, Grove Books). ‘The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth,’ Neils Bohr.

There are all kinds of paradoxes, all around us. God is near, but God is also really far away. Jesus is fully human, yet fully God. We are saints and we are sinners. We live in a kingdom which is now, and not yet.

As Christians, paradox is something we have to live with. And as youth workers, we encounter all kinds of paradoxes. We are commanded by God to practice Sabbath, but we are called to live sacrificially, to give our lives for the building of God’s kingdom. It’s good practice to plan out our youth work and have a strategy, but we need to be spontaneous and allow space for the Holy Spirit to work. We need to enable young people to integrate into society, but we also want them to fight against injustice and call out oppressive systems and structures. We need to be professional, working within boundaries, but we also need to be honest and vulnerable.

I’m sure you could add your own to the list; there are many paradoxes in youth ministry, and they can be frustrating, complicated, confusing and irritating. They make us ask the big questions of faith and life as we struggle to get our heads around how God can be contradictory, yet trustworthy.

Paradoxes can push us to our limits, but they can also push us open, enabling us to learn new things, to grow as people and as youth workers. I want to suggest three things we should avoid when it comes to paradox, and three ways we could respond to paradox that might help us. In the coming weeks and months on the Premier Youthwork blog, various youth workers will be exploring some of the specific tensions we face as youth workers.

Three things to avoid


Accepting contradictions

Just to confuse things a bit more, there are many things that may appear to be paradoxes, but in fact are contradictions or inconsistencies that can be corrected. It’s really important to examine the truth at either end, see how we got to that truth and look at whether the two truths can fully coexist at once.

Sometimes in reexamination we may find a mistake, and then our contradiction can be resolved. For example, can you be a smoker and urge the young people you work with not to smoke? Is this just an inconsistency we have to live with? Does having the experience of smoking mean you have the right to tell others not to, learning from your own experience? Or is it really just a lack of integrity and honesty? Is there a ‘mistake’ here that needs to be rectified?

Some things are disguised as paradoxes, but they are not real paradoxes; they should not coexist. Sometimes there are things that do not and should not go together. One is damaging, wrong, false. We need a careful examination process and good discernment to work out which things are contradictions, and which things are genuinely paradoxical.

The pendulum swing

At this point it’s important to recognize the binary world we live in. Everyone loves a good binary choice – it’s simple, clear and easy to understand. We have grown up in a world of either-or thinking, of this or that, of clearly defined binaries. At school we were taught that there was a wrong or a right answer: dualistic thinking is ingrained in us.

Have you seen the recent Twix advert, with the slogan ‘try both, and pick a side’? I often think that rings true in the Christian world. We want to know where people stand theologically: what’s their view on a certain issue? Do they think this or that? LGBT affirming or non-affirming? Liberal or conservative? For women bishops or against? Saved or lost? In or out? We pick our side of the issue and we defend it viscously.

The thing is, binaries are not always bad: they can be good. In fact, God created certain binaries, which we read when God created the world, bringing order out of chaos. We read about the heavens and the Earth, light and darkness, sea and sky, morning and evening. If God created these binaries, they can’t be all bad. In The naked now, Richard Rohr writes: ‘Binary thinking is not wrong or bad in itself – in fact, it is necessary in many if not most situations. But it is completely inadequate for the major questions and dilemmas of life’.

For simple, clearly defined things, binaries are helpful. But when we come to great theological themes, complex emotions and multi-layered circumstances, binaries are ineffective, and insufficient. When we live in one binary and something complex happens that makes us question that binary, we can be tempted to reject one binary completely, and make a dramatic swing over to the other side.

Some people have been hurt by the evangelical Church, so they swing over to a completely different expression of church, rejecting and condemning the evangelical world. Some people get tired of sung worship, so they move to a more reflective, meditative style. Some youth workers get disillusioned with evangelism when it doesn’t turned out how they’d hoped, so they move to a more demonstrative evangelism through social action alone.

Change is good, but what isn’t good are big dramatic swings where we reject everything about a certain position and experience. Spiral dynamics is a theory of human development popular with some progressive theologians at the moment. Like a lot of other development theories, it describes human progress as moving through certain stages. What I like most about this particular theory is that as you move onto another stage, you don’t reject any stage you leave behind; you take the best from it and carry it with you. Richard Rohr explains it by saying, ‘[it takes] humility to include the value of every previous stage while also moving beyond its limiting boundaries.’

In cases of depth and complexity, we need to avoid pendulum swings and move into a new imaginative approach, synthesising the best from all experiences and positions to create something completely new.

Solving the paradox

When faced with a paradox, the natural reaction is to try to solve it. I met with a philosophy professor who had spent five years of her PhD researching one paradox alone. She didn’t solve it. I remember feeling really bad for her and thinking that she must feel so frustrated that she had spent five years on something she couldn’t  resolve or fix. Her answer blew me away.

She told me that the point of a paradox is not to solve it, but to listen to it. Every paradox points to something. It asks us big questions, stretches us and challenges us. Some problems are not meant to be solved, and some mysteries are not to be revealed. We need to be people who can sit with mystery. We need to be ok with saying we don’t know.

Three ways to respond


Listen to the paradox

Once we’re comfortable with mystery and the unknown, we can stop trying to solve the paradox and start listening to it. For example, in exploring the tension between Sabbath and sacrifice, the idea that we are supposed to have a day off a week but also give everything we have to our calling, bigger questions are revealed. Where do we get our identity from? What do we hear in silence when we are doing nothing? Are we enough without our jobs? Are we able to really stop? Do we buy into a dangerous Western ‘it’s good to be busy’ culture? Let every paradox speak to you.

Be opened by the paradox

Once we’ve listened, we can act on what we’ve heard. Notice Jim Currin’s definition of paradox from earlier, ‘The co-existence of opposites with the tension in between’.

This definition hints at something happening in the tension between two opposites. The binaries we read about in Genesis were the precursor to life, they created space for creativity: the brush and the canvas, together in tension creating something beautiful. This creative third space is exciting; it allows us to go to a totally new place, propelled forward by a creative energy like a flicked elastic band.

This creative tension also helps us to grow: we stretch in the tension; we are pulled open to newness, to different perspectives, to a larger viewpoint. Like the milk cartons which rely on two corners being pulled apart, we in the tension are opened, enlarged, stretched.

Parker J Palmer, in The promise of paradox puts it like this: ‘As I live in that resistance – as I acknowledge and confess it to myself and others – slowly my life is pulled open. In the tension created within… I am opened to other ways.’ If we allow them, paradoxes can open us up to become someone totally new.

Create something new

The part of the character of God that I relate to the most, is God the creator. The first thing God did was create: in the beginning, God made. God is always doing  immensely creative things, with us, in us, through us, and it’s in paradox that God’s creativity most reveals itself.

Like a match, struck against its box, like sticks rubbed together to create fire, tension and paradox create; in the conflict between the two opposites, a spark is brought into being, something new is made. It’s a beautiful mystery.

Leonard Sweet said: ‘Paradox is the essence of creativity. When 58 famously creative types were studied (such as Picasso, Mozart and Einstein), the one thing they shared was their ability to bring together opposites as mutually embracing, not mutually exclusive. The research report continues, “In an apparent defiance of logic of physical possibility, the creative person consciously [embraced] antithetical elements and developed these into integrated entities and creations.”’

When we truly allow two opposite elements to hold together, we pioneer new perspectives, new ideas, a third way. In philosophy this process has often been described by Hegel’s dialectic triad…

It’s a bit like that cool moment in primary school when you learned two colours could mix together to create a totally new colour.

When we truly sit with a paradox, with each opposing truth and listen to what it can tell us, when we don’t try to resolve it or fix it or ignore it, we are opened. We hold each truth and allow the tension to propel us forward. We are stretched, challenged and made bigger and better, as people and as youth workers.

Jo Dolby is a youth and community work lecturer for the Institute for Children, Youth and Mission (CYM) in Bristol, and a youth worker in Bath. For blogs exploring specific tensions in youth ministry, visit the Premier Youthwork website.

Look out for the follow up blog series in the coming weeks!

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