Thesis 8: Don’t Be Fooled. Para-church Organizations Don’t Replace Your Work!

This is the final post in an ongoing discussion about taking the theological turn in youth ministry using Bonhoeffer’s “Eight Theses on Youth Work,” and reflecting on Andy Root’s book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together! We’ve covered lots of ground 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. The 4th and 5th theses addressed the consequences of creating special and “appropriate” spaces and times for youth to exist. The 6th and 7th theses addressed the identity of each individual young person as a marked member of the Body of Christ. And now, the FINAL THESIS, which addresses “Para-church” organizations outside the congregation. Ready? Let’s do this.

8) There is no real “church association”; there is only the church. The church youth association is not the youth of the church-community; that youth includes, rather, all baptized young people. Every church association as such already discredits the cause of the church. Such associations can only be perceived as makeshift entities, which as such have only relative significance.

Within the ELCA tradition, our congregations typically minister to and with young people in the context of the congregation. However, outside our embedded-ness within neighborhoods and communities, there are para-church (para being the Greek prefix for “beside” or “alongside”) organizations that aim to minister to young people, specifically. YouthWorks, Teen Challenge, and Young Life are all organizations that I have either witnessed/participated in with kids myself, or have had kids return from, and then have had to struggle to provide a gentle theological corrective to.

The problem I have with these organizations—and one Bonhoeffer might have as well—is that their focus sometimes is on obedience and a hardline theology that doesn’t seem to put value on the church-community. These types of organizations completely separate young people from the whole of their communities (see Theses 2, 3, 4, and 6!), and then they are cut off from programming once they graduate high school. This is problematic, if it actually matters to us that our youth-turned-adults feel as though they are valuable to the church after they graduate out of the highly programmatic model we currently operate in.

Full disclosure: I had an experience with an on-campus para-church organization during my freshman year at the University of Minnesota-Duluth that was so awful; so transparently abusive and manipulative that I thought, “If this is what it means to be a Christian, count me out!” And I was essentially away from the church for a couple years, until I was embraced back into community at my home church through the high school and confirmation programs, where I was invited into relationships with some remarkable young people and their families. But that’s another story for another post.

To be fair, these organizations have their place, but they simply cannot replace the local church— the place where their individual human-ness is acknowledged. Their names are known. They can have ongoing relationships with people they care about and who care deeply about them. If we believe that Christ shows up in community, then we have to take this charge seriously. It’s pointless to plant a seed if that seed isn’t going to be nurtured and tended to.

Faith formation is a messy process that requires real time, real relationships, and real investment. It cannot simply be an a la carte, pay-and-drop-the-child-off experience. That’s expensive, and yet a very cheap experience. Taking the theological turn may result in getting dirt underneath your fingernails.

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Making the Theological Turn in Youth Ministry

While Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to have an impact in modern Christianity on many levels, I find that his voice resonates very strongly for those of us who have committed to diving into the concrete, lived experiences of young people. Congregations and the institutional church across many denominations are concerned about their longevity, about the staggering statistics indicating a “bleeding out” of young people from religious institutions, and about the “problem of youth”. In light of this reality, it is high time we take our call to make the theological turn in youth ministry seriously: we need to confront our presuppositions about youth and its value. We need to claim our theoretical, programmatic, and technological approach to ministry with a demographic we’ve been all too comfortable keeping near the edges. We need to do ministry with youth—but also with entire congregations, communities, and the world—theologically, and I strongly believe that Bonhoeffer’s Eight Theses on Youth Work can act as a wonderful conversation partner and directive for us.

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Well, that about does it for these 8 Theses on Youth Work from Bonhoeffer… What do you think? Share your thoughts about what taking the theological turn might look like in your contexts! What is something discussed here that resonates with you? Where would you push back? Join the conversation!

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