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These are strange times for anyone in ministry. They’re especially difficult for people in youth ministry. Andrew Root’s The End of Youth Ministry?: Why Parents Don’t Really Care about Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do about It reframes youth ministry within the multiplicity of social and cultural goods competing for the attention of young people and parents. He claims the purpose of contemporary youth ministry is to help foster the happiness of young people while affirming their identity. Here, identity is not the Kierkegaardian embrace of despair and responsibility for one’s finite humanity, it’s the identity offered to us by the broader ideological forces of the status quo. To overtly challenge or disrupt these ideological parameters means upsetting the equilibrium of emotional safety parents want for their children. Put simply, the function of youth ministry as it is done in churches today is to provide divine affirmation for a particular way of life—the good life that offers itself through an assortment of institutions and activities. Youth ministry has an important role to play, as long as it stays in its proper place.

But the question I find myself asking lately is: What if what passes for Christianity today really isn’t the point of Christian faith? I’m thinking of the political and cultural divisions that are justified with religious arguments, leaving legitimate concerns about the authority of scripture and Christian discipleship to be overshadowed by political calculations. John Calvin was clear about the true nature of sin: our hearts are idol factories. We constantly give spiritual authority to people and institutions that have none. Since Adam and Eve, we’ve been tempted to take what doesn’t belong to us, to claim an authority that isn’t ours. Sin is a movement toward abstraction, the desire to become something more than what we were created to be. In today’s language we call this ideology. I maintain that it doesn’t matter where one lands on the conservative/ liberal spectrum, to assert our ideology as the truth about the world is idolatry. The result is violence, hatred, and dehumanization. The antidote is the revelation of divine Love in Jesus Christ.

I get strange push back when I bring up God’s love. Usually, it comes from people who want more truth or wrath. What they seem to forget is that the Bible says, quite literally, God is love. A close reading of the Bible also reveals that truth is personal, or more specifically, a person. Scripture tells us that creation is grounded in relationality—the divine love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, when people criticize Christian love as too soft or permissive, I remind myself that they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Whatever their objection might be, it’s not Christian. And that’s the problem: much of what passes for Christianity today isn’t necessarily Christian or biblical.

Enter the youth minister. This assessment is not a criticism of youth pastors—most work hard to help young people discover God’s call upon their life. The problem is they’re up against powerful ideological forces that foster an over-spiritualized approach to faith. This leads to a spirituality that’s disconnected from our embodied experience. It’s as if youth ministry and the lives of young people exist on two parallel lines that never intersect. Young people hear about morality, doctrinal beliefs, God’s will, and salvation to an eternalized heaven, but none of it really matters for their daily life. It all lives in the cloud somewhere, like a sacred version of social media. And like social media, it ends up cultivating anxiety and despair. Am I living up to the moral and doctrinal expectations God has for me? Do I have enough faith?

Every year I have the incoming youth ministry students read Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. This inevitably leads to a discussion about praying naked in front of a mirror—a practice she suggests to the reader in response to a painting of Jesus with no body hair. Her point is that incarnation is about real, finite, embodied humanity. Yet, everything in the cultural life of young people tells them something different. The news about the negative impact of Instagram on young girls (and boys) shouldn’t surprise anyone; realizing one hour of youth group a week doesn’t solve their problems shouldn’t be a surprise either. Yes, youth ministry engages many issues young people wrestle with, but this engagement usually doesn’t include a framework for understanding what it means to live as a human person in this world. Abstract messages about sexuality, our eternal destination, and taking our troubles to God in prayer don’t provide the necessary wisdom to navigate the realities of the ninth grade.

In every part of life, we know that change requires a change of behavior. Youth ministry falls under the umbrella of practical theology, and the approach of practical theology is to begin with lived experience by asking: “What’s happening?” Theoretical reflection always follows an engagement of practice, of lived experience; otherwise, we end up providing answers to questions young people aren’t asking. Somehow, we think getting young people together on a Wednesday night for an hour, to listen to a lesson and discuss it in small groups, miraculously leads to transformation. But much more is needed. We’ve figured this out in other parts of life—it’s common sense that to become a good athlete or musician we need to practice. Neuroscience tells us that changing the way we think involves changing the way we live—neuropathways are wired and rewired through repetition.

Youth ministry needs to recalibrate. It needs to move from abstract spirituality to embodied life, from the eternal to the finite. The focus of youth ministry needs to turn to the intersection of the gospel with the lived experience of young people. They don’t need abstract moral or doctrinal principles, they need to learn what it means to live as a human being, created in the image of God, transformed by Christ’s death and resurrection. They need to hear about God’s love for the world, for their temporal, finite, existence. They need to hear how the gospel calls them out of sin and into a new way of life, a new way of being in this world, grounded in love and grace. 

For the young people I know, the world’s gone crazy, and the church isn’t far behind. They’re not concerned with the same things adults in the church seem to care about, at least not in the same way. Human sexuality? I’ve found young people across the theological and political spectrum are much more thoughtful and nuanced than adults. Politics? Social issues? Same thing. They’re not a monolith, but they’re much more willing to engage the conversation in a way that doesn’t demonize. They’re more cynical than people realize, at least the ones I talk to. They’re suspicious when I talk of transformation or change; they’re much more likely to find a way to get by—to game the system. And that’s the point really, adults have given them a world racked with division and hatred masquerading as truth and light, and then we wonder why they’re anxious or depressed. We hand them an other-worldly spirituality without telling them what it means to live as a human being in this world.

Youth ministry needs to become less spiritual (in the abstract sense described above) and more human. There is a rich tradition of Christian practice and insight to draw from. In the Spiritual Formation class I teach to incoming theology and youth ministry students, we start with the question: What does it mean to be human, created in the image of God, redeemed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? We explore this question with the desert fathers and mothers, the Rule of St. Benedict, and the revelation of Julian of Norwich. We spend time in liturgical prayer and the prayerful reading of scripture. Students are invited to sit with Pseudo Dionysius and St. John of the Cross. In divine silence and darkness, they reflect upon the power of pilgrimage, and, yes, we discuss praying naked in front of a mirror. We read Kierkegaard and Calvin on sin, human agency, and responsibility, spending much time with Abraham as he makes his way with Isaac to Mount Moriah. The most important theme is God’s love for this world. We read the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and marvel at the way St. Francis experienced the overwhelming presence of God in the leper, the wolf, and all of creation. Through these voices I want students to hear the voice of God gently asking them to “wake up”—to live as the new humanity of Christ in the world, to experience the ordinary moments of life as gift, and to never turn away from moments of suffering and despair. I want them to hear the good news about God’s unconditional love so they can make peace with themselves through the power of the Holy Spirit, living as signs of God’s love for this world. This is what youth ministry has to offer young people—wisdom about what it means to live as the new humanity of Jesus Christ in this world, loving God and loving our neighbor.

This is the part where some readers will want me to provide a detailed explanation of what this looks like. This is the “how” question that provides the “gotcha” moment for us academic types. I know what this means for my context, and I’m at work putting it into practice. I’m in the process of writing a book about it—eventually, you will be able to read more there. To be honest, I haven’t the slightest clue what it means for you. I do know the hyper-practical question is often a way to avoid the responsibility of seriously doing the work. To be human is to be responsible—to act, to decide, to make choices. This is the life the church must invite young people into—a life of “sinning boldly,” recognizing our finite humanity is not something to be overcome but embraced. We must help them cultivate the courage needed to live as Christians in this world. Not because our actions save us somehow, but precisely because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and we now share in the power of his resurrection through the Holy Spirit.

Jason Lief

Jason teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

2 Comments

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Covid gutted our youth programming, as it has many, because of the continuing inability to do a ‘program’ that was designed around group, big group, participation. Interestingly, our high school group that was always tenuous because young people and their parents didn’t feel they needed to be there, has evolved into a small group fellowship of 3 – 10 youth, in a more relational environment of hanging out with the two leaders, sometimes over lunch, coffee, or dinner out, talking, talking, and talking about their lives, their challenges, their friends. My junior granddaughter was never much into youth group but doesn’t miss this reincarnation. Although I’m not there to judge or listen, this may be a manifestation of what you are exploring. In a recent coffee conversation with our youth director, he finds much more satisfaction in this kind of connection with this age group.

  • Gretchen Schoon Tanis says:

    Amen and amen. I believe that the wondering and visioning will pair nicely with the “how” youth pastors seem to come hardwired with. They will continue to be entrepreneurs and figure out ways to do the how. I’m grateful you are giving them the vision of the “why” that undergirds and is the foundation for that how. Thanks for your reflections.