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Ministry: A Risky Business?

By Arthur Brown.

What are some of the risks you are currently facing in your ministry? I am sure if you spent a moment or two to think about this, you could come up with a not insignificant list. But maybe that is not the most helpful place to start.

People who know me well are aware of the fact that I am prone to doing stupid things on occasion. In my younger days, when bones tended to heal more quickly, I had numerous motorbike-accidents due to my ‘daring’ or reckless (take your pick) pursuits, and also nearly drowned (on two separate occasions) whilst white-water kayaking. I have been involved in youth work and ministry both in the UK and the Middle East for over twenty years now.  Much of my work has been with young people, not typically associated with our churches, who are ‘at risk’ in some way, and often have been labelled (and, to be honest, condemned) as ‘risk-takers’.  This has included young people who had been, or were at risk of being, excluded from school due to their behaviour; young people who were living in hostels and involved in drug and alcohol abuse; young people who ‘enjoyed riding other people’s motorbikes, without first receiving their owners consent’ etc. In other words, young people who were prepared to take risks!

Despite all my time with these young people, it is only in the last few years that I have begun to reflect on the theological nature of risk, and the lessons that we can learn in our more general ministry and church leadership, from the young people I have described.  Maybe it is these young people who have a prophetic message for our churches...if only we were able to get beyond the surface appearance and behaviour - behaviour which we may find challenging and confrontational - and see what motivation lies beneath.


What is ‘Risk’?

Gullone and Moore define risk taking as “participation in behaviour which involves potential negative consequences (or loss) balanced in some way by perceived positive consequences (or gain)’.[1]  We all take risks in our lives, to a greater or lesser extent, some more obvious than others, some of a more physical nature than others, but risks nonetheless. Entering a pastoral relationship is a risk. How far should we open ourselves up without risking becoming vulnerable, or loosing our seeming authority as a ‘woman or man of the cloth’, with all those unwritten implications? Which contractor should we use for the building work that is needed in the church hall? Is the potential benefit of saving £3,500 worth the potential risk of not having a satisfactory job finished on schedule?  What about the risk of upsetting the treasurer?

Going back to the list you may or may not have come up with, what makes you view these primarily as risks rather than opportunities or challenges?

Within this article I would like us to reflect on our attitude towards risk, particularly as it relates to our role as leaders in the church, and more specifically about how we, as leaders, relate to young people, who may be considered more as ‘risk-takers’ than ‘risk-adverse’.

Although there is no right or wrong answer to this question, it may be helpful for you to consider if your personality is more prone to risk-taking or risk-avoidance, and how this element of your personality relates to and impacts your own ministry and the church you are involved in? It may also impact how you view others who may not fit within your own personality type.  For example, would you think a family with young children considering a move to Afganistan to support community development and relief work there to be unwise? Foolhardy? Brave? Maybe unwise in terms of their timing? Following their perceived calling from a God who is prepared to take risks himself, and calls his followers to do likewise?

The fact that I now live in Beirut, Lebanon, with my wife and three young children may tell you something more about my attitude towards risk as it relates to our faith.  We moved here over 4 years ago to serve with BMS World Mission, the major UK based Baptist mission agency.  I am privileged to teach youth ministry and applied theology at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.  Beirut is not known as a place of peace and stability.  Recent conflicts have further added to its reputation. As we watched the Royal Navy ships approach Lebanon to evacuate British citizens during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, following Jesus took on a new meaning. Our calling to Lebanon had been clear. Having returned to the country after a brief holiday in the UK, 24 hours before the bombing started, our call to stay seemed even clearer. Living through the 34-day war, experiencing the devastating destruction of communities where friends lived, watching and hearing bombs land in built up areas of the city, four kilometres from our home, was horrific. And yet this is where Christ had led us, and others. Not to a place of safety, but to a place of mission!

When we left the UK in 2005, one thing that saddened us most was Christian friends asking if it was safe - as if safety was a prerequisite for following God’s lead. Yes things can, and do go wrong. We could have been harmed - physically, emotionally or spiritually - by remaining within a war zone. However, would that have meant that we were not meant to have been there, or that we were not abiding by God’s will? I think not!

I have come to the conclusion that for his followers, the fullness of life Jesus refers to in John 10.10 involves the highs and the lows that come from being prepared to take risks for and with Jesus. Following Jesus involves a spirituality of risk-taking - a spirituality of fearlessness that holds on lightly to possessions, lifestyle, security and even safety. However, this type of spirituality appears alien to a world caught up with self-preservation, fear, financial security and individual achievement. Interestingly, the financial markets are based on risk. The more we are prepared to risk our financial savings, the more dividends they might pay. Maybe the global financial crisis can teach us something of the dangers of seeking security in risky financial institutions and practices. Maybe we can also see the paradoxical nature of our faith. Jesus may ask us to give up our safety whilst offering us belonging in him that is eternally secure.

Faithfully following Jesus in any setting - rural, urban, in the UK or overseas, at work and in the local community - carries risks. Risk is a part of life, and an even greater part of the Christian life. It appears, however, that modern Christianity, at least in the West, has become risk-averse, and houses, according to Shane Claiborne, subtler demonic forces - numbness, complacency, comfort - that can eat away at our souls.[2]  Bishop Tom Wright tells of a Bishop colleague of his who complained that he had less impact than the apostles who caused riots wherever they went, saying that wherever he went they served tea.[3]

A college professor once warned his students that too many of us “tip toe through life in order to arrive at death safely”[4].  We need more youthful reckless abandon! In my experience, reckless abandonment has not featured in church teaching. It means taking risks. Jesus did not ‘tip toe through life’.  Perhaps it is young people, within and beyond the church, who can teach us the attitude of Jesus. If we called ourselves ‘followers of Jesus’, rather than Christians, with the social, political and historical baggage this term holds, maybe we would recognise the hazards involved in true discipleship.

How do we, as ministry leaders, make decisions?

Consider the position of a church youth worker who has been employed, by the church leadership team, to develop mission opportunities with young people from the local community.  At the same time, they are expected to provide the teaching and pastoral support for young people in the church. Their commitment to mission, which may result in local young people coming to church and the youth group, and influencing, and potentially disrupting, the ‘safe’ program designed for the church kids may cause anxiety and tension with the parents in the church.  What are the risks involved in supporting missional youth ministry, or any form of missional ministry for that matter?  Are we, as the church, prepared to change what needs to be changed, in order to serve the needs - felt and actual - of our local communities?  We may risk losing some, in order to gain others.  Are the vision and mission statements of our churches so vague as to become easily interpreted as ‘safe’, or so radical and missional as be easily interpreted as ‘reckless’?  Which would you feel more comfortable with?

Vincent Donovan, in the introduction to his seminal missiological text, Christianity Rediscovered, relates how his missiological thinking developed significantly during his time with the Masai in Tanzania to the notion of North American youth culture.  He wisely asserts that “In working with young people...[we must] not try to call them back to where they were...[we must] not try to call them to where [we] are, beautiful as that place may seem to [us].  We must have the courage to go with them to a place where neither [we] nor they have been before.”[5]

Learning from Young Risk Takers

There are many and complex reasons why some young people are prepared to take risks. One obvious one is to conform to peer pressures, with the need to belong often uppermost in their mind. Some young people, it would appear, are prepared to do almost anything to be included in one group or another, despite the fact that their behaviour may also mean social and familial exclusion. There is an obvious paradox.  The need to be included involving the need to be excluded.  And yet, as Kenda Creasy Dean highlights, it is young people today who are potentially among “God’s most forthright, frustrating, and often unwitting prophets...until consumer culture (or even in some cases our church culture) numbs them into a lobotomized compliance.”[6] We must learn about true discipleship, and the cost of true love, from adventurous and passionate young people. However, this is a risky message to teach, and an even riskier one to live and lead people into. One challenge I would add that relates to evangelism: adults are often keen to encourage young people to evangelize their friends, despite the risk of how they may appear...and yet are not always as willing to risk their own social status in doing the same with their own friends and colleagues.  If we, as adults, are to be effective in developing emerging young leaders, surely we must lead by example.  Is it fair to ask young people to take the risks that we are not prepared to take ourselves?

Future Hope

One characteristic of adolescent risk-takers is ‘living for the moment’, due to a lack of future hope accompanying fatalistic attitudes.  Although time scales differ, the Western church has fallen into the same trap.  Without the eternal perspective, we seem unwilling to habitually follow Jesus, being unprepared to risk and sacrifice as radical disciples.  When we see ourselves, and teach that we are ‘temporary strangers in a strange land’, we will see that our destination provides means to participate in the way of The Christ. Some very practical implications spring to mind.

How are the priorities of our church budgets decided?  Which people seem to have the most influence in these decisions, and what are their priorities? Does building fabric and comfort take precedence over unfashionable missional partnership giving? Do we have a ‘safe’ inward looking program focus, or a more ‘risky’ outward missional agenda?

Hope, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, is “the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk.”[7] When  physical, emotional, economic, social or religious security and comfort cease to dominate our decision making, we will model a more radical, attractive and accepting faith, one that may attract young people. Brueggemann further states that “hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.” Young risk-takers may be subversive. They may ‘live for the moment’. They also show us what it means to risk losing to make important gains. Maybe what young people crave, and risk harm for, is more akin to the pearl of great worth than we give them credit for.  Was building a community of risk takers what Jesus meant for his church?  Much in the New Testament suggests this.

Urban Expression ( has developed a number of values that relate not only to urban church planting, but to mission in general. One such value is that of taking risks, recognising that it is acceptable to fail. Other values include the recognition of Christian faith as a journey, being committed to helping people who are frequently marginalised, condemned and abused by society move forward from wherever they are at present. Urban Expression also “challenges the trend of some Christians moving out of the cities and encourages Christians to relocate to the inner cities”, despite the “so-called risks”. Being prepared to take risks with people, by being involved in their often messy lives, bears likeness to the incarnation.  Let us not be the leaders who encourage a safe version of the gospel.

Doing theology as risk-taking behaviour

Kenneth Leech, suggests that “only a theology which is marked by the spirit of adventure, the urge to discovery and the practice of pilgrimage, rather than one which is static and propositional, (not taking any risks...or indeed having any faith) can respond to people in transition and upheaval”.[8] Adolescents therefore require risk taking within their theologizing, their search for meaning, and their understanding of God.  They ask questions adults avoid by labelling children and young people naive or idealistic. Are there risks in empowering children and young people to become involved in church decision-making processes? Most of us would agree that being ‘adult’ does not necessarily lead to wise leadership and stewardship. Can young people, who are less risk-averse, be more faithful to the true call of the church, to work towards the prophetic transformation of society according to the vision and purpose of God? In fact, article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child makes it clear that young people have the right to an opinion, and that their opinion should be taken seriously and considered in matters that affect them.  If we want our churches to significantly impact children and young people, maybe we need to be more prepared not only to listen to them, but to act on some of their ideas.

The incarnation demonstrates God’s willingness to risk and experience pain and suffering for humanity’s sake. Despite opposition, Jesus broke down social, cultural, religious and political boundaries. Because Jesus risked social and religious exclusion, he was executed as a radical, rebelling against contemporary power structures. Young risk-takers, when appropriately supported and discipled, might relate to Jesus in ways that we cannot or will not, and teach us valuable lessons. Jesus’ risk-taking demonstrated the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ which may attract young people who have not found true love. Rather then seeking retaliation against those who had rejected him, God was seeking restoration with those he had created.  He desired relationship, or as Miroslav Volf would suggest, embrace, rather than exclusion. Rather than seeking young people’s continued exclusion by retaliating against their behaviour, often initially caused by a failure of society to recognise their very real needs, in punitive ways, maybe a more creative, positive and transformative approach would be to seek reconciliation and restoration with marginalised young risk-takers.

“Well of course he isn’t safe” says Mr Beaver, describing Aslan in C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, “But” he goes on to say, “he’s good”.  Maybe it is time we ‘allow’, or rather empower, young people we minister with, to become the un-caged lions they have the potential to be.  Is now not the time to let their roars sound in and beyond our churches...the churches which young people are leaving in droves, partly as a result of its perceived passivity?

Arthur Brown is a Lecturer in Youth Ministry and Applied Theology at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon.  He and his family are mission personnel with BMS World Mission.  For more on young people and risk taking behaviour see his Grove Book ‘Taking Risks: Young People and Risk Taking Behaviour’ published in 2009. He is also a Contributing Editor for

[1] Gullone, E. and Moore, S. (2000) Adolescent risk-taking and the five-factor model of personality in Journal of Adolescence 23 pp. 393-407

[2] Shane Claiborne The Irresistible Revolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) p.227

[3] Tom Wright Acts for Everyone Part 1(SPCK: Westminster,2008 )p.61

[4] Claiborne The Irresistible Revolution p225

[5] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, (London: SCM, 1982) p.xiii

[6]  Kenda Creasy Dean Practicing Passion p.6

[7] Walter Brueggemann The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) p.65

[8] Kenneth Leech Doing Theology in Altab Ali Park (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2006) p.25

Arthur Brown

in Youth Ministry and Applied Theology at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. He and his family are mission personnel with BMS World Mission

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You are reading Ministry: A Risky Business? by Arthur Brown, part of Issue 50 of Ministry Today, published in November 2010.

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