Thesis 1: Youthful energy is not the Holy Spirit, and it won’t save the church!

This past fall, I was fortunate enough to take a class at Luther Seminary about German pastor, theologian, author, and children’s/youth minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Professor Andrew Root. After reading his book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together, I decided to adapt my final paper about Bonhoeffer’s “Eight Theses on Youth Work” into a series of blog posts this week. Partially, I decided to do so because the book itself is fantastic and should be required reading for everybody working in ministry, and partially because I truly believe in what Root (and Kenda Creasy Dean) are calling for: taking the theological turn in youth ministry. And I believe these eight theses can and should help us to do just that.

Bonhoeffer on a weekend confirmation retreat with Zion's Lutheran youth in 1932.
Bonhoeffer on a weekend confirmation retreat with Zion’s Lutheran youth in 1932.

In staff meetings, council reviews, and ministry team planning sessions, I have often struggled to come up with answers to questions like, “how many kids showed up to [event]?” and “how many events do you have planned for the upcoming month?” My knee-jerk reaction is that I want the answer to simply be “enough”, but frankly, I have really wanted to contemplate better questions. Arbitrarily aiming for a huge turnout to a huge number of events feels like a huge failure from the get-go. And so, we turn to Bonhoeffer’s first thesis on youth work:

1) Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the Word of God; it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God.

The creation of youth ministry programs in the United States aimed to capture the spirit of the youth movements of the 1950s and 60s. Our current ministries are buried in the residue of that intention. Bonhoeffer argues in this first thesis that youth ministry should not find its roots in loving the spirit of youth, but rather in our responsibility to honor and acknowledge each young person’s concrete and lived humanity. When we take this theological turn seriously, and begin to intentionally value the personhood and agency of each individual young person, we begin to reframe our concept of ministerial success, and we begin to ask better questions, like,

“What is this student struggling with?”

“Where is God calling her into action?”

“How can this church-community carry his experiences to the middle of our life?”

All of a sudden, questions about the number of spirited young people showing up to this week’s pizza night and bowling party and lock-in and bible study and confirmation class start to seem as silly as they are.

The Main Thing

Next up: the second and third theses on youth work! Stay tuned… and in the meanwhile, tell me your thoughts on this first of Bonhoeffer’s theses– if you’re a children’s/youth/young adult minister or a congregational pastor, what is the real motivation behind your ministry with young people? Are we out to capture the spirit of youth? Do we think this youthful energy will somehow save our churches? What does/has taking the theological turn look(ed) like for you and your context?

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7 thoughts on “Thesis 1: Youthful energy is not the Holy Spirit, and it won’t save the church!

  1. In the past decade we have literally seen the ministry with youth become “leadership” ministry in that leadership is the key to young people responding to their faith. While this is not an across the board change it is certainly a substantial one. Offer leadership, they are ready. Offer events; not so much! It is a refreshing difference but it is not easy. It challenges us to be comfortable with the loss of control that empowerment of others as leaders naturally nurtures.

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