September 8, 2011
The Theological Cure
by Andrew Root
I have a hunch. It is totally anecdotal, but I do think it is based in a reality, one that I’ve sensed over the last decade of talking with youth workers and speaking at pastors’ gatherings.
Here is my hunch: all pastoral ministry has gone the way of youth ministry.
What I mean is this: Almost since its inception youth ministry has been trying to make a case for why fickle people should come to church. Sure, I know that youth ministry has been about much, much more than this (and thank God), but it is a fair assertion to state that Protestant churches began funding in-house youth workers in their congregations because their children were no longer coming or were not all that interested in the church. So we hired young (at times hip) youth workers that could make a case for religious participation.
This meant a number of things: good looking, athletic young workers, big youth rooms, cool events, relational contact, new worship experiences, the blending of technology and Christian practice. And this has had a huge impact on the church (and this isn’t anecdotal); youth ministry people have shifted the direction of the church more than almost any other group of people in the last fifty years. After all, Billy Graham was a youth preacher, then Bill Hybels and Rick Warren were old youth workers, and a good number of emergent church folks, both leaders and participants, are either present or former youth workers.
So pastoral ministry has gone the way of youth ministry. And so far, this is positive—I think. But here is the wrinkle. As this process has happened and as our context has become more detached from Christendom, pastors, like youth workers in the past, have had to concern themselves with how they were going to get fickle people to come to church. At the beginning of youth ministry it could be assumed that people would show up on a Sunday, the only question was, would their children? Now there is no guarantee that anyone will come.
So the pastor has had to take on the entrepreneurial spirit of youth ministry, using programs, events, relational contact, new worship experiences, hip clothes, and the blending of technology and preaching to make a case for giving participation a shot.
But there was a bacteria in this youth-ministry entrepreneurial movement that has now been passed on to pastors. Because the focus was on winning participation, there was a little need or desire to reflect, especially to reflect theologically about the practice of ministry. Thinking was okay, but what won esteem was action. The hyperpractical, scaled down and digestible now became essential. I think this bacteria is now in the bloodstream of pastoral ministry, and unfortunately I think that youth ministry was the original carrier.
But here is my historical hunch, and where my book The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry comes in. In the last ten years I have watched youth workers want (yearn) to think theologically. They’ve been at this winning participation perspective too long and know it is a dead end. They are ready to think theologically about what ministry is and how human action in ministry participates in the action and being of God. They still want action—that is, they still want to take kids on mission trips—but they would also like to reflect deeply on what a mission is and how it participates in God’s own ministry.
But here is a further problem: As youth workers have sought to take this theological turn, their pastors haven’t always been that helpful or supportive. The pastor simply wants the program to continue, adding some more kids and keeping the energy high. So as the youth worker turns to theology, often times her or his pastor is ambivalent.
But this is the gift that the youth worker can give back to his or her pastor: the youth worker can remind you, pastor, that theology still matters, that deep thoughts still have a place.
It is only a hunch, but if youth ministry is guilty of being the carrier of this thoughtless ministerial perspective, then maybe we can become part of the antidote, inviting the church back into a theological conversation on the very practice of ministry.
Andrew Root (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) is in the Baalson Olson Chair as associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN).