Seven Deadly Sins of Youth Ministry: On Gluttony

Gula by Hieronymus BoschLent is a season of reflection and repentance, a time to do a hard reset on our priorities and fix our minds on things above, not on earthly things. But we’re youth workers, right? Of what do we have to repent?

(OK, at least some of us are youth workers. I realize I have plenty of readers who aren’t actively involved in youth ministry. If that’s you, you’re more than welcome here too.)

In light of that question, I’d like to take a closer look at how we do ministry, as well as how we live our daily lives, to see if there isn’t still room for repentance this Lenten season. To that end, I’m starting a new series on some of the attitudes and actions that threaten the effectiveness and Christlikeness of our ministry. I’ll be addressing them under the rubric of the seven deadly sins, starting with the sin of gluttony.  But first a word about the sins in general.

What are the Seven Deadly Sins?

We should probably note that the list of seven deadly sins is not actually a biblical list. You can’t turn to the fourth chapter of 2 Hezekiah and find them listed, in order. This list is the result of theological reflection on the teaching of scripture, rather than a fixed set established in scripture itself. What is more, while in modern discussions the set of seven deadly sins is fairly consistent, early on different theologians had different lists, some of which even featured eight deadly sins.  So really, that’s a good question.

In fact, the name “deadly sins” itself is a bit of a misunderstanding. It comes from the modern, rather than literal, understanding of the word capital. When we talk about capital crimes, we speak of those crimes for which the prescribed punishment is death. Eventually this connotation to the word capital lead to the list of capital sins being called deadly.

But “deadly” is not the original meaning of the word capital; capital comes from the Latin adjective capitalis, which meant related to the head. Over time, capital came to mean “that of primary importance,” but that is not the sense of the word when used in relation to these sins. We call these sins capital not because they deserve the severest penalty, but rather because they are the head, the source, of so many other sinful actions and attitudes.

What are the seven deadly sins? For the purpose of this series of posts, we will use the traditional list:

  • superbia (pride)
  • avaritia (greed)
  • luxuria (lust)
  • invidia (envy)
  • gula (gluttony)
  • ira (wrath)
  • acedia (sloth?).

I list the Latin terms here because, like capital, the connotations of English translations have experienced some drift in meaning over the years.

The Sin of Gluttony

St Thomas AquinasI always feel awkward talking about gluttony because it is sometimes the most visible of the seven deadly sins, and it’s one that I very apparently struggle with. Never trust a fat guy who says he wants to talk to you about gluttony. Yet obesity is not always a sign of gluttony, nor is a svelte figure proof of innocence.

At its heart, gluttony comes down to eating away that is not mindful of our obligations to others. The common sense of gluttony as overindulgence is just one of the ways that people eat mindlessly. Over-consumption in one place often means famine elsewhere.

Yet it is frequently noted that eating too much is only one of five ways that Thomas Aquinas says we become guilty of gluttony. It’s equally gluttonous to eat too expensively or too daintily, thereby spending inordinate resources to satisfy our rarefied appetites, resources that could have been used in service to others.

Paul condemns the sin of gluttony in Philippians 3, when he writes:

For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things (Philippians 3:18-19, NIV).

As long as we eat in such a way that our appetites rather than reason dictate our consumption, we are guilty of gluttony.  It’s easy to understand how the individual practice of gluttony can damage a community, and the many ways it can give rise to other sins. But how can a youth ministry be guilty of gluttony?

Gluttony as Over-consumption

We’ve already noted that at its heart, gluttony is over-consumption that is unmindful of its effect on others. Youth ministries can do that as easily as individuals. Without careful oversight, any single ministry of the church is capable of exhausting the resources of a congregation as a whole.

In some ways, I can see that I myself am guilty of this error. Before moving to Middletown, I served as the full time youth pastor at a small Nazarene church in Illinois. At the time, the congregation averaged about 80 each Sunday in worship. Every Tuesday we averaged over 40 at Agape, our midweek worship service for teens, many of whom we brought every week to our suburban church from the inner city in our vans.

A ministry of that size required resources — finances, volunteers, energy, facilities, transportation — that our small church cheerfully and sacrificially provided. It was exciting to see how God was bridging cultural barriers and reaching students with the gospel.

But in retrospect, I can see now that the disproportionate consumption of resources by the youth ministry in comparison with the church as a whole was unhealthy and unbalanced. Yes, it was a ministry for the church to give so much, so sacrificially to serve teens who had little to offer in return, and it was a blessing to do so. But it eventually lead to burn out for the church.

Facilities, finances, energy, attention, personnel — all are limited resources in the church. Say what you want about God owning the cattle on a thousand hills and the hearts of an army of volunteers; as true as that is, it’s often hard for any given ministry to liquidate those assets.

As a ministry, are you operating on the assumption you’re entitled to as many of those resources as you can appropriate for your own ends? Or do you make decisions on how to utilize the limited resources of the church in a way that is mindful of its effects on the other ministries?

When scheduling trips are you mindful of how commandeering the congregation’s fleet of vehicles will effect the other ministries that need them?

When planning your ministry night, are you mindful of how playing group games in the gym affects the pre-teens meeting in the room on the other side of the wall?

When conflicts arise over sharing resources, are they settled by asking “Who got on the schedule first?” or “How can we do what’s best for both groups?”

Gluttony as Gourmandise

St John of the CrossSt John of the Cross writes in the Dark Night of the Soul (as opposed to the Dark Knight of Gotham, assuredly an altogether different matter) about the issue of what he calls “spiritual gluttony.”  Spiritual gluttony is a very natural danger, he writes, given the real delight and pleasure that believers find in spiritual disciplines.  Like gourmandise, the relish a gourmand finds in an excellent meal, we seek this delight in our times of devotion to God.

The problem arises, however, when we submit to devotion in pursuit of the delight, sweetness and satisfaction it brings, rather than out of a simple, faithful obedience to God.  Even our spiritual disciplines can become an avenue for indulging our desire for pleasure. In regard to the danger this attitude can pose to prayer and other devotional activities, St. John of the Cross writes:

They have the same defect in their prayer, for they think the whole matter of prayer consists in looking for sensory satisfaction and devotion…. When they do not get this sensible comfort, they become very disconsolate and think they have done nothing…. Once they do not find delight in prayer, or in any other spiritual exercise, they feel extreme reluctance and repugnance in returning to it and sometimes even give it up. For after all, as was mentioned, they are like children who are prompted to act not by reason but by pleasure (Dark Night of the Soul, 1.6.7).

Like over-consumption, this is a danger not just for individuals, but for youth ministries as well. How do you measure success in your ministry? Number of hands raised in worship? Net weight of tears sopped up by the tissues hidden behind the altar? Total number of minutes spent verklempt by people in the pews or number of lyrics choked off prematurely by the emotion of the song leaders on stage?

It’s easy to gauge the success or failure of our ministry events by how they make us feel. Yet if we communicate that the ability of something to evoke emotion is the measure of it’s spirituality we risk leading students to question the value of perseverance in prayer even when it seems like God is hiding his face.

What’s more, when the sweetness of devotion is enough to convince us of our spirituality despite obvious disconnects in our obedience to Christ, we risk leading students into a multitude of errors. When we, in the words of John of the Corss,  “strive more for spiritual savor than for spiritual purity and discretion” we offer worship that is less than pleasing to God. Don’t believe St. John and I? Listen to God says through Amos:

I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24, NIV)

Is your ministry focused on making people feel spiritual, or is it a passionate pursuit of His reign, and His justice?

Gluttony as Self-Centeredness

Spiritual gluttony as emotional gourmandise leads us to the final aspect of gluttony that can plague any ministry, namely an inordinate focus on self.  Gluttony in the individual happens when we seek to indulge our own appetites without regard for our fellow humanity.

Gluttony in youth ministry occurs when we begin to focus on our own needs and our own wants and fail to recognize the needs of the world around us. There’s lots of talk about attending churches and ministries where “I can be fed.” But if I focus simply on who feeds me, without joining hands with those who seek to feed the world I am a glutton.

As ministries, on what do we focus? Keeping the parents happy? Keeping the students well fed? Sanctuaries filled with participants? Social calendars filled with events? Or are we part of the Church, the Body of Christ, who gives herself for the life of the world?

One of my favorite hymns of all time isn’t all that old.  Written by Dr Elton Trueblood (from nearby Richmond, Indiana in fact) Thou Whose Purpose Is to Kindle concludes with this stanza:

Thou, who still a sword delivers
Rather than a placid peace
With Thy sharpened word disturb us,
From complacency release!
Save us now from satisfaction,
When we privately are free,
Yet are undisturbed in spirit
By our brothers misery.

Discerning words for a gluttonous age.

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