It’s both comforting and annoying when you read a book and get a sense that the author jumped in your head and thought your thoughts for you, but that’s how it went for me when I read Andrew Root’s new book, “Taking Theology to Youth Ministry”
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Andrew Root, well, let’s just say he’s a big theology kinda guy. He has a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary and is an associate professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota. He thinks eye-opening thoughts and says profound things about youth ministry in particular, so he’s the go-to guy about youth ministry theology…plus he’s young and cool and talks about growing up watching television. We can relate. I met Andy last year at the SMU Perkins School of Youth Ministry, and he was genuinely a nice guy. But what I like best is that Andy is also a great storyteller – and that’s how this book comes across, as a great story.
“Taking Theology to Youth Ministry” explores thinking theologically about youth ministry from the approachable perspective of a youthworker named Nadia. When I started in youth ministry, like probably most new youth workers, I didn’t really understand what the word “theology” even meant, never mind what my own personal theology of youth ministry was – so I could relate to Nadia’s journey of discovering what she believed to be the real purpose of her ministry and her role as a youth worker. Her journey is the journey many in youth ministry travel – except that she gets past the points of frustration to true meaning and purpose.
Through Nadia’s story, the book explores what is the purpose of youth ministry. Nadia discovers that youth ministry itself was not born out of theological needs but because our culture had segregated students into grades and age groups, so ministry began to reflect that trend. Although there is no historical or biblical precedent for youth ministry, and even if the field has a reputation for not being serious about things, it is still a place for theology.
As youth ministry evolved into a profession, the standards for youth ministry evolved as well. As Nadia discovered, when she was a hired youth worker, people expected her to be able to explain the purpose of her ministry in a professional, purposeful way. In my experience, the larger the church and the more professional the congregation, the more pressure there was to perform and be “successful” as a program. Like many youth workers, I planned my programs with a popular, easy to articulate, purpose driven model. Root says:
“Too much purpose-driven theological reflection in youth ministry has been more fodder for candy shops than dangerous wrestling, because it views theology as a bunch of biblical bullet points used to sweeten our intentions, rather than a call to examine our motives in the light of God’s judgment and grace.”
The danger of this pressure, is that it rewards having a plan or presentation of ministry without necessarily requiring deep reflection on God’s call for the ministry.
Another danger is in feeling the pressure to be “successful” as a program in order to make different camps in the church happy. When you looked deeper, the visions for youth ministry and standards for success for the people around Nadia divided into three primary motivations: keeping kids good, involving kids in service and passing on the elements of our faith tradition to kids.
The motivations in themselves are not bad, and being able to articulate the purpose of your ministry is a good thing. “But maybe a problem created by this professionalization is that it encourages us to ignore our motives, as opposed to actually doing ministry from the location of our motives, from the core of our own being. We get confused into thinking that the heart of youth ministry is organized calendars and vision statements rather than having the courage to seek to become part of God’s action in the world, which always exposes our motives.”
As I reflect on my own journey in youth ministry, I have struggled with pressure to “grow the program” and to do ministry the “right” way. But growing numbers would never be enough and there isn’t just one right way – so many different parties bring different expectations, motivations and standards of success of failure to the table, there’s no way to make everyone happy.
“If youth ministry isn’t about keeping kids good, making them into something, or passing something on, then what is it all about? I contend that at its core youth ministry is about participating in God’s own action. The purpose of youth ministry is to invite both young and old to participate in God’s action.
It’s about participating in God’s own action. I love that. It’s exciting to think about what youth ministry would be like if we could set aside the pressure to perform and just figure out what God is calling us to do next. Us. With our own God-given gifts and passions being used to their fullest, instead of trying to beat ourselves up for not being enough. There is freedom in being able to articulate your purpose as a ministry this way. It could be, after prayer and reflection, your youth ministry takes off in a totally different direction.
There is so much more to write about in this book – and a cool part is that the appendix has discussion questions for each chapter. It would make a great book study with fellow youth workers, parents and youth in your ministry or the rest of the church staff. If you read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts! We are all in this together.
As you plan your fall programs and move forward, how will you reflect theologically about your ministry? What difference will that make?
What does it look like in your context to participate in God’s own action?
What standards of success or failure does your church use to measure youth ministry?