Theses 2 & 3: What is church-community, and where is the place for youth within it?

We continue this discussion about taking the theological turn in youth ministry using Bonhoeffer’s “Eight Theses on Youth Work” as a framework for the conversation and reflecting on Andy Root’s book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together. Previously, the first thesis gave us a new framework for our motivation in this kind of work. This post is on theses 2 and 3, related to what church-community is and where young people fit into it. Let’s start by looking directly at the two related theses:

2) Our question is not: What is youth and what rights does it have, but rather: What is the church-community and what is the place of youth within it?

3) The church-community includes those on earth whom God’s dominion has torn away from the dominion of death and evil, those who hear the Word concerning the establishment of God’s dominion among human beings in Jesus Christ and who obediently assemble around this Word in faith. The church-community is Christ’s presence as the true Lord and Brother. Being in the church-community means being in Christ; being in Christ means being in the church-community. Sacrifice, intercession, and confession are the acts of fellowship in the church-community. It is only within the church-community that one can pass judgment on the church-community. By nature the church-community cannot be judged from the outside.

For a couple years, I worked as a children’s and youth minister for a “mission start” church within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). A big part of becoming a recognized, full member congregation of the synod included going through a process during which a professional church consultant met with and interviewed all of the church staff, council, and other key leaders. After a couple weeks of collecting information and building a profile for the congregation, we received a gigantic written review full of observations and suggestions. In the report, the consultant suggested that rather than fully embracing young people into the existing worshiping and fellowship community of the church, I should focus on setting aside the Wednesday youth group time to “build a congregation of young people”, doing worship specifically for high school youth. The other significant suggestion for my role was to help develop a worship service that was specifically designed for families with young children, separate from the rest of the church-community.

I was shocked when I read this, and was nearly angry when some of the church’s leadership suggested that I take on the task of building this entirely new worship service—music, liturgy, prayers, preaching, and everything that goes into worship planning—so that younger children could be active participants in worship. At the time, I publicly objected to it, suggesting that when we say in the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” that we actually are talking about a certain sense of unity, and that there isn’t a Jesus for people with white hair and a different Jesus for people who watch YouTube videos and listen to One Direction. The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and empowers all into one. Or, at least that’s what Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed outlines.

The question I kept asking– both of myself and of church leadership– was along the lines of, “Shouldn’t we just be focusing more on making our already existing worship and church life more accessible for all people at any age and at any point of spiritual and religious maturity?” I would still ask that question today–if I hadn’t been canned soon after challenging those expectations, that is. Anxiety creates some pretty bizarre circumstances.

I think what I was getting at in those moments was about what Andrew Root writes in Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: “[The theological turn] has the deep ramification of shifting the job of the youth worker from hunter and gatherer of the spirit of youth to pastor of the church-community that calls all its members to hear, see, and respond to the humanity of children (by carrying them), inviting children and youth deep into the church-community’s life as a way of sharing in Jesus Christ.” And so, here I am in the process of a seminary education and candidacy for ordination into the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

I don’t know exactly what being a pastor will end up looking like for me, but I do know that we are called (and pulled and shoved) into relationships and community. I do know that every neighborhood is a mission field, and that my identity will be rooted in this understanding of who/what God is, and how God is revealed in the world. And I do know that young people are an equally integral part of each of those neighborhoods.

What are those pesky promises we make to every single child in baptism, again?
What are those pesky promises we make to every single child in baptism, again?

Next up: Theses 4 and 5! Stay tuned… and in the meanwhile, what’s your take on what church-community really is? What does it mean in your context to carry children into the heart of the life of the church-community? What changes when we take this seriously? How can we work to refine what we do already, rather than putting people into neat, inaccurately labeled boxes and then creating “special programs” for them? Do we really think this is what God calls us to do??


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