Theses 4 & 5: Young People Don’t Need a Specialist, They Need Place-Sharers!

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 has been fun so far.. The first thesis gave us a new framework for our motivation in this kind of work. The second and third theses were related to what church-community is and where young people fit into it. This post will focus on the 4th and 5th theses, which address the consequences of creating special and “appropriate” spaces and times for youth to exist, and help us understand the changing nature of youth ministry when we take the theological turn. So, let’s dive in!

4) The church-community suspends the generational problem. Youth enjoys no special privilege in the church-community. It is to serve the church-community by hearing, learning, and practicing the Word. God’s spirit in the church has nothing to do with youthful criticism of the church, the radical nature of God’s claim on human beings has nothing to do with youthful radicalism, and the commandment for sanctification nothing to do with youthful impulse to better the world. “Christian” and “youth” is a rather harsh and not very credible word combination. The issue is not “modern” or “old fashioned,” but rather solely thinking concerning and from the perspective of the church.

5) The bible judges youth quite soberly: Genesis 8:21; Isaiah 3:5; Jeremiah 1:6; Ecclesiastes 11:10; 1 Peter 5:5; 2 Timothy 2:2 et passim.

 These theses serve to address the idea that “youth workers are like plumbers called in to fix a leak, to fill the gap, but rarely do we invite the plumber fixing the gap in our bathroom waterline to dinner, into the heart of our communion” (this is taken directly from Root’s book). I used to take some pride in regularly getting compliments from congregants, parents, grandparents, and pastors that sounded like this: “You’re so good with the kids!” I was relieved to be noticed, to be valued. But what I didn’t yet realize is that loaded into this compliment is the desire to create a special and separate space and “appropriate times” for youth as participants in the things of God. I was valued as a specialist who had the energy and passion for young people. This is why, at the beginning of my career in youth ministry, I found it so perplexing when my suggestions to bring young people into worship and deeper into the community life of the church fell flat.

Fix that leaky pipe, youth directors! Make young people good!
Fix that leaky pipe, youth directors! Make young people good!

Making the theological turn in youth ministry using these two theses ends up undercutting the assumptions most churches have about young people and the ministry we do with them. Making this turn should help us understand why—when we give youth a privileged space, separate them from the church-community that includes their families and other elders, and allow “Christian” to be a piece of clothing worn as temporarily as the “youth” garment—young people end up leaving the church, because there is no longer a privileged space that we have created for them.

Here’s a video I produced in 2012 for the Alaska Synod’s Assembly, in which high school youth discuss what they’re looking for in church, and how they feel when they attend church. Admittedly, this video addresses only some of the symptoms of youth-workers-as-specialists, but I do believe it gives us a nice place to stop, listen, and reflect on what we all crave in church-community: relationships. These relationships develop as a happy consequence of being together, dwelling in God’s word and presence, and identifying Christ in and as community.

Next up: Theses 6 and 7! Stay tuned!! And in the meanwhile, what’s your reaction to the assertion that young people shouldn’t necessarily have special spaces aside from the church-community? Does your church’s children’s/youth minister/pastor exist as a specialist, and if so, what needs to change in your congregation to start actually trusting in God’s ability to do God’s work as adults– staff included– take the theological turn and become place-sharers rather than specialists to “fix a problem”?

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