the theological turn in youth ministry; a review


Get Out Your Dictionary:

Over the last ten years youth ministry has been gaining in street credibility among those in professional ministry.  There is finally a critical mass of people who see youth ministry as a legitimate ministry calling, deserving of a proper education, salary, and in some cases even a pension.

Seminaries like Fuller have had a long tradition of elevating student ministry and seeking to educate those people who have chosen to pour their lives into adolescents.  Their youth ministry blog is one of my favorite, thoughtful resources.

Because of the hard work by many before us, we are now in a time of legitimate writing and education for those of us in youth ministry.  Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean are on the forefront of this theological discussion around the context and practice of youth ministry.  And this is exactly the topic they address in their recent book, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry.

This book is not for the faint at heart or the casual reader.  Root and Dean have put together a seminary-level textbook on practical theology, and approaching it as anything less would leave the reader in the dust.  So if you are ready to go swimming in the deep end, pour yourself some coffee, find a nice quiet place that inspires learning, (like a library), and jump in!

Worth The Read:

The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry is the best deal on the internet.  If you were to take this class at Princeton Seminary it would cost well over $1000, yet this book can be yours on for $11.02. Seriously, that is the cheapest street cred ever for your library.  But more than just a great deal, it is a thick book, deserving a thoughtful reading; it's compelling, challenging, and sometimes even frustrating.

Root and Dean did not back off one bit from their theological lexicon of $10,000 words.  I had to dust off some books from my seminary days and bookmark wikipedia just too keep my head above water.  While the terminology in this book could be a turn-off for many practitioners of youth ministry, wrestling with this subject and this format is important for us to do.

Many youth workers want all the upside of the rising professionalism associated with youth ministry. But this professionalism isn't just bestowed on people, it's earned when youth workers behave like professionals, and take their education and theological training seriously.  Wrestling through this book is the sort of work that educates us, expands our worldview, deepens our theology, and equips us to do our jobs with more purpose.

Many youth workers have an amazing gift of intuition.  In their guts they "know" students and understand their felt needs.  Their passion for Jesus and their ability to connect allows them to go quite far.  But for the long haul, youth workers must have a theological worldview and understanding that informs their decisions, their choices, their conversations, and their programs.

This book gives the theological underpinnings for what many of us do in youth ministry intuitively.  By giving it theological language we now enter into a conversation that is deep and enriching. Even while struggling with the vocabulary, I was encouraged by the larger story of the gospel and the vital place student ministry has within it.

It is such a gift to have theological language to address many of the felt needs in student ministry. Dean's chapter on identity, and the fear adolescents have of disappearing, provides a completely new window into the lives of my students, along with tools to address that fear through a broader picture of the Gospel.   Dean also writes a chapter on the theological significance of summer camps that is one of the best, most useful and instructive chapters of the entire book.

Root and Dean set out to place student ministry firmly in the stream of practical theology, and they accomplish this goal.  Student ministry is the very definition of practical theology, and if we are going to do our jobs better then we must understand how theology shapes our ministry.

We Are Already Impressed:

While I enjoyed reading this book and was challenged intellectually and spiritually, I realized that most of my positive response to this book was because I wanted to be able to respond positively. Root and Dean are two of the leading theological voices in student ministry and are single-handedly elevating the conversation.  It is because of their work that student ministry is gaining credibility in seminary circles and elevating the calling of those who work with students. I wanted to be on this side of the discussion.

But as I have reflected on the book over the weekend, there were a couple of issues that kept coming to the surface for me.

One is that there were too many big words.  I know I have self-deprectated my way through most of my life and most of this blog, but the truth is that I am not dumb, and this book made me feel like I am.  I understand many of the issues and topics that are being raised, but the language used is over the top.  I know that the vocabulary terms in this book are staples in the seminary community, but they have zero touch points in the world of practical ministry.

I understand the need to elevate the conversation and to educate youth ministry leaders, but it felt a little like youth workers are either chubby bunny experts who thrive on the four spiritual laws, or those ready for some meaty discussion.  But the truth is, no one uses the terminology used in this book.  Not senior pastors, not adults in church, not those ready for meaty discussions--nobody.

Every chapter is chock-full of deep, deep theology and philosophy.  It's too bad, but much of what's discussed will be left on the page, because there is little to no attempt at placing these ideas in a real ministry context.  It would have been helpful to include a bridging section to each chapter to give these theological concepts a home in the real world.

Most people who are in vocational, pastoral ministry are people all about practical theology.  It is what we do naturally.  Those of us who are practical theologians need the help of academic theologians to sharpen us as we strive to do the thing God's called us to do in our unique context. Root and Dean try really hard to lift up the practical side of theology, but there seems to be a patronizing undercurrent for the actual practice of youth ministry.  I hope as they continue to grow in respect and influence--and rightfully so--they won't stay so cloistered in the seminary world as to lose the ability to communicate effectively with, and understand the work of those of us in the practical theological world.  We need their respect, their voice and support.

Youth workers are some of the most spiritually and intellectually deep people I know.  We love that there are theologically strenuous books to challenge us.  Root and Dean are two of the most respected thinkers and writers out there,  and I m thankful for this book and for the ways it pushed me to think better.  I look forward to more of my friends reading this book and for the conversations that will surely follow.

Don't be a cheapskate. Buy the book, and let's wrestle together.