You've been a youth minister to suburban kids in Seattle to street kids in Brazil. How do teens who write to you online differ from those you've worked with in the past?
What troubles teens is very much the same, so the biggest difference may be that the street kids I ministered to in Brazil can't afford computers. The young people who email questions to Pastor Paul have access to the Internet, and that determines a little who they are, but mostly where they are. I have received questions from the Middle East, Australia, India, England, and of course, the United States.
How does being online change how you minister to teens?
Being online also forces teens to articulate the issues in clear language, because they are writing instead of speaking to me. That makes my job easier. So does the protective cloak of anonymity the Internet also allows them. They can be brutally honest about what is troubling them, because they have less fear of being exposed or judged. Of course, the problem with doing anything online is that you don't have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions and understand the whole picture. Because of the lack of complete context, I tend to answer questions that are more general so that my answers might help a wide range of young people in addition to the particular questioner.
What are the those who write to Pastor Paul concerned about?
The questions that concern young people are pretty much the same as those that face older people. The table of contents in the book shows questions about everything from "Will my dog go to heaven?" to "Where was God on 9/11?" Young people have questions about death and helplessness, feelings of unworthiness, how to negotiate sex and relationships, family and friends, how to deal with people of a different religious tradition and the challenges those other traditions might pose for some of their own beliefs-these are just some of the most common.
The difference is that often times the setting is in their parents' home so they don't always have as much control over their situation as adults might. However, it is always stunning to me the kind of problems that teens can already be dealing with at such a young age.
How do you think teens will use your book?
My hope is that people will view this book as a spring board for conversations. There are so many different ideas and beliefs in this book that could be the opening for great discussions: the wonderful essays by young people of different traditions, spirituality from celebrities, tips for spiritual seekers, what the different traditions say about things important to young people, quizzes, and faith facts.
Of course, the backbone of the book is "Ask Pastor Paul." These columns answer a range of questions presented to me by young people. To tell you the truth, I am not so concerned that the reader agree with everything I say in my answers; rather my hope is that they will feel engaged in the questions and in the quest to find truth for themselves.
Kids are always looking for answers. Why does it seem they are expecting to find them in religious faith these days?
In times of strife and uncertainty, people begin to look for clear answers to existential questions. In the sixties, young people decided that the best way to knowledge was to throw out what they perceived as "the old" and "the failed" and to start completely new. Young people today are finding that there are timeless truths within religious traditions from all parts of the world, including Christianity and Judaism, and that they can find answers if they go deep within these traditions to mine the wisdom that is there.
How can spirituality help young people?
Focusing on spirituality means looking at that part of your life that is most important. Even though school cliques, the college you go to, or how much money you make is in some ways important, spiritual work means nurturing that part of you that is not just about the material things we own or superficial appearances. Spirituality puts the spotlight on ethical action, how we reach out to God, or concentrate on the nature of the universe. While the world advertises a culture of me, me, me-spirituality connects the individual with something bigger than him or her self. Spirituality is the individual's desire and effort to be connected to God.
In your book, you encourage teens to investigate the faith that seems to be calling them, whether that's Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. How does that fit with your own Christian faith, and your position as a Christian minister?
Jesus calls me to love God and to love my neighbor-period. As I read the stories about Jesus, I see him reaching across boundaries to treat people with respect and love. In the story of the good Samaritan, Jesus himself uses someone different from his own Jewish tradition to exemplify what helping our neighbor really means. I look for ways to increase love and harmony among religious traditions and in doing so I believe I am fulfilling my work as a follower of Jesus. It is an added bonus that learning about other religions increases my own store of wisdom and inspiration.