It certainly looked as though Skip Masback’s career was flourishing. He’d had a thriving pro bono public and corporate litigation practice in Washington, D.C. for 12 years. But something wasn’t right with his world. His tears were telling him so: the prevailing secular rationalism wasn’t working. Careerism wasn’t enough. All the sacrifices, the all-nighters, the time away from family wasn’t adding up to fulfillment.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” he recalls. “I’d reached out for every secular tool – self-help books, delegating work to my junior partners, hiring a chauffeur, walking the bridle trails on our farm before dawn, even secular meditation. Nothing worked.” “I was riding back and forth to work on the Washington Metro, trying to hide my tears.”
One day in desperation he opened a Bible, shuffling through passages until he came upon the nativity story in the Gospel of Luke. “Fear not,” the angel said. To a hardened Washington lawyer, this was news. He was no longer crying.
A few days later, his steady re-reading of the nativity text yielded a yet more mysterious experience. Sitting on the facing seat of the Metro he saw Jesus, and he heard Jesus say, “Skip, do not be anxious – I will take care of everything.”
Masback recounts: “Look, I was still a cynical trial lawyer, so I struggled for an explanation of what had just happened. Jesus son of the most high had suddenly showed up on the Washington Metro to’save’ me? Sure, it certainly seemed like he had. There was a spiritual dimension of reality that had appeared to me through my Sunday school image of Jesus? Maybe. Or maybe I was just imagining it all. All I knew for sure was that I felt grounded, healed, and that no attempted reconstruction of the event was going to clarify the ambiguity or even begin to’explain’ what had just happened. My main take-away was that maybe this had always been the nature of religious experience. Maybe religious experience had always been inherently ambiguous. Maybe all humans had had access to these healing, life-giving, inexplicable encounters – all except for my little demographic fragment of skeptical yuppies who had decided we were too smart for it all and had managed to maroon ourselves in the wilderness, cut off from God.
“I knew I couldn’t explain what had happened, but neither could I let it rest. The encounter set me off on a furious faith quest to reconcile what my heart knew was one of the most important experiences of my life and what my head said was impossible or worse.”
That pivotal moment was more than two decades ago. Today Masback is managing director at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, where he supports founding director Miroslav Volf’s work on the God and Human Flourishing project. Masback heads the center’s Adolescent Faith and Flourishing Program, with a focus on research and development to enhance and support youth ministries.
Masback joined the Faith and Culture Center staff this fall, culminating 21 years’ experience in parish leadership, church revitalization and ministry to youth. The future of church and society, he declares, depends on rising generations connecting with gospel living that brings health and well-being.
His vocational commitment was launched by his change of heart as a Washington attorney. Soon after his gospel epiphany on the train in 1988, he left his legal practice to study scripture in his barn office, take night courses at Georgetown University and ultimately enter Yale Divinity School to do an M.Div.
While there, he interned at a Connecticut church and found his true vocation: ministering to youth. After graduation in 1994, Masback landed at Congregational Church of New Canaan, where he would become senior minister until this fall, helping to draw up initiatives beyond the congregation (such as the Yale Divinity School Bible Study). Throughout that time he focused special care on the youth of the church.
There are many pragmatic strategies for engaging young people at church, he says, but foundational to all of them is relationship, pastoral presence.
“The first task is just be with them. Just love them. Care deeply for them in a sustained way, and take it seriously. Love, live, listen, learn, and only then lead. They’ll actually tell you what they need and yearn for if you listen to them. They’ll respond eagerly to the promises and claims of the Gospel if it’s encountered together as part of a shared life.”
Adolescents hunger for relationships despite the mixed signals they give, he explains.
“Some young people might act diffident or indifferent, but actually I found they were hungry for the flourishing life offered by Jesus. Adolescents are not complacent. They are like dry ground thirsting for water. The more they got into the discussion, the more they ran with it. I discovered that if I accept them and love them where they are, they respond.”
Much is at stake in the work of transforming young people and deepening the professionalism of youth ministry, he argues.
This era faces twin spiritual calamities, and Masback believes they feed on each other – declines in church attendance and a trend of deteriorating mental health among many adolescents. The future of Christian institutions depends on nurturing young people who embrace the stories, promises and demands of the Gospel and who are committed to their own journeys of faith and discipleship. The future of a healthy culture depends on communities – including communities of belief – that nurture ideals of well-being, resilience and the common good.
He cites various studies, including the 2003 national Commission on Children at Risk, that identify turbulent trends at work among American adolescents since the late 1980s – increases in depression, thoughts of suicide, body image problems and sexual assault.
“Taking cues only from culture, young people are left with a maladaptive account of the life well led,” Masback says.
Contemporary culture fails young people when it offers hyper-individualism, impoverished social connectedness, a lack of hope in the future. In secular parlance, healthy “authoritative communities” are multi-generational entities that are committed to children’s well-being, teach clear boundaries, offer a sense of protection and promote spiritual development as well as the dignity of the neighbor.
“And that sounds like church to me,” he says.
Masback outlined his thoughts about strong youth ministries in a November lecture at YDS, one in a series of addresses sponsored by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, Berkeley Divinity School and the Youth Ministry Initiative called “Youth Ministry: Now.” (To view it online, see faith.yale.edu/news/youth-ministry-now-skip-masback). The next “Youth Ministry: Now” lunch and lecture will be Dec. 4, featuring Andy Root of Luther Seminary on “The Children of Divorce: Interpreting the Experience of Divorce for Youth Ministry and the Church.”
“The church in every generation has the task of re-presenting the gospel in a way that’s compelling to the experience – and the suffering – of its particular time,” Masback said in an interview in October.
“I’ve experienced how young people are struggling.” He’s been present at youth suicide interventions. He’s seen young people open up about their worries about depression, body image, eating disorders, drug use or destructive sexual behavior. He has seen young people changed by church experiences in worship or community or mission trips, which lift them out of their isolation and invite them into a story greater than themselves.
That kind of witness to transformation has shaped his larger vision of the church in a contentious culture that would devalue what congregations offer. It goes to the heart of his work at the Adolescent Faith and Flourishing Program.
“I’ve tried to be a presence that believes, trusts and shares that the gospel of Jesus was the most important thing in the world – and that we are all pilgrims on faith journeys that will last a lifetime” Masback says. “Surely this shared adventure is at least as important and as deserving of our best efforts as our secular undertakings.”