An Observation

I’ve been reading a lot of books. Specifically, I’ve been reading a lot of youth ministry books. As I’ve been reading books on student leadership, relational youth ministry, how to disciple students, and a host of other topics, I noticed something: we always want to agree.

Let me elaborate. In pretty much any other area where I do extensive reading (biblical studies, linguistics, Hebrew language, phonology and morphology, ancient near eastern studies, second temple, even adolescent psychology) when someone disagrees with something, they aren’t afraid to say so. More importantly, in those fields you’re expected to interact with the latest research. That means you can’t simply not address how your view on topic X differs from Professor Y’s view on topic X if Professor Y has recently published a monograph on said topic. Youth ministry books are different. I’ll allow that books on youth ministry aren’t meant to be scholarly monographs. Even so, it is frustrating when an author doesn’t interact with other youth ministry authors.

By and large, the youth ministry world is fairly small. If someone has managed to publish anything larger than an article in Youthworker, Group or Immerse that person probably knows and is known by a plurality of the other voices in youth ministry. So, we want to be kind. We want to embody love. I get that. But sometimes it would just be really helpful if an author would say, “I suggest doing such and such. You might note that this is different than what B suggests in her recent book. B is a great person, but I think she’s wrong here. Let me explain why…”

Maybe publishers don’t want to deal with that. Maybe authors just want to be nice. But every year I read a number of youth ministry books. Some of which have wildly differing ideas on ministry, or even a single aspect of ministry. That’s good! We need different perspectives. But sometimes I feel like either A) these authors aren’t reading one another or B) I’m completely misinterpreting what every one of them is saying. I know A can’t be true, and I’d like to believe that B isn’t any more likely. Therefore, there must be another reason. Regardless of what that reason is, I’d like to say: it’s OK to disagree. It’s OK to say you disagree. One of the things that makes scholarship so helpful is the back and forth that goes on between scholars. We need more of that–in published form–between youth workers who respect one another, but have legitimate disagreements over aspects of youth ministry philosophy and praxis.

I’m not saying this never happens in youth ministry. After all, Mark Oestreicher sometimes mentions minor disagreements with Kurt Johnston. But on the whole, we try to stay away from this and just applaud one another. On the one hand, that’s a good thing. We are all on the same team. On the other hand, I think doing so limits our interactions on important topics because youth ministry authors aren’t interacting with one another in sustained ways via books and articles. Perhaps that is happening on a personal level, but that doesn’t benefit the wider youth ministry world.


6 thoughts on “An Observation

  1. I think a lot of this stems from the fact that most ym materials are narrative/story based rather than philosophical. The first chapter will lay down the the skeleton and the rest of the book fleshes out the “what works for us” or the incarnation of the philosophy. Most yms are (1) using the same praxis model of relational ministry because the context demands it, (2) don’t argue theologically because their churches provide the theological framework and relational ministry doesn’t force an argument in this realm, and (3) every context is different (each group of youth in a particular place), so arguing can sometimes feel like comparing apples and oranges. Cultures are different, so we may acquiesce to the missionary in the context rather than argue points that are not congruent from our own context.

    The realm that does seem to need some argumentation and it is developing, is that for the vision for the future of youth ministry. Videos have come out asking if Youth Ministry is necessary at all (imo, due to sometime inept implementation of professional youth ministry principles), people are experimenting with Family Based Ministry models, Kenda Dean is arguing for changes due to Moral Therapeutic Deism, and Chap Clark is still a prophetic voice for reaching those who are hurting in our culture. This conversation has the most potential for good constructive argument.

    I feel that there are different ways to see this struggle. I am on the hopeful/optimist end and see how small pockets of well trained youth ministers can build a strong church for the future. I think some are lamenting the decline of institutional religion and are seeking ways to instill traditions and sound doctrine in the heart of our youth. Some are much more pessimistic and are sounding the prophetic horn for ym in general.

    And lastly, there has been a lot of turmoil in the field of YM as a professional pursuit. Partly since the death of Mike Yaconelli, and through the transitions of YS, and the emergence of many new voices from different fields (a favorite of mine being Dean Borgman, “Hear My Cry”), and Adam McClane w Youth Cartel as well. We are in an interesting time to be doing Youth Ministry. We can blaze some new paths, and we can argue for new ways launching from the old paths. And all of it for the seeding of a new generation. Very exciting!

    1. Daniel, thanks for your thoughts. I can see what you’re saying, partially. I think there are plenty of books that aren’t written from a “what works for us,” mentality. For instance, Contemplative Youth Ministry, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, Almost Christian, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, How to Build a Youth Ministry that Builds Disciples, etc. There are also plenty of articles that touch on theory rather than praxis.

      I certainly don’t want to suggest that we argue with people over the way things play out in a particular context, per se. However, I do think it’s important that we realize that not every idea out there is compatible. I also disagree that everyone is coming at things from the same relational ministry model. Andrew Root, I think, has shown where the typical model of relational ministry is weak and needs to be reinterpreted and reapplied. So I think there are a great many opportunities for us to be discussing and debating that we’re simply not taking advantage of at present.

      I think you’re right on, however, in terms of some of the turmoil about professional youth ministry right now. I actually think we’ll see professional youth ministers for the foreseeable future, but in different (expanded?) capacities.

      1. Perhaps I am painting too broad a picture and boiling things down too much. I do think, however, that many of the books you mention (many of which I have read), get glossed over by young ym’s in favor of “how to’s”, rather than the philosophical/theological underpinnings.

        When I go to the Youth Specialties conference and I see folks picking up books, they are definitely more narrative oriented. Many people are looking for a story or framework that will give them guidance, and for the part time ym at least, reading thick books on YM just don’t work.

        Personally, I found some of these texts helpful for my growth as a YM:

        Starting Right: Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry (text book)

        When Kumbaya is Not Enough: A Practical Theology of Youth Ministry
        by Dean Borgman

        All Grown Up and No Place to Go by David Elkind (a great read on “patchwork selves” and a good companion to Chap Clarks “Hurt”.

        And I’m a fan of the Purpose Driven Youth Ministry by Doug Fields (simply for its identification of Audiences, Purposes and Programming.

        I also recommend working on a Masters of Theology/M.Div as a personal investment for your youth ministry and your families. It just helps. Though I know this is not always possible (though online courses help).

        Stepping back, and looking at Academic Youth Ministry, I suppose I would frame things differently. As a full time Youth Minister, I don’t always have time to keep up with all the competing theologies. I have some of Andrew Root’s works on my desk. I need to pick them up and start working through them. It seems he and Kenda Dean are leading some charges.

        I do have a hard time reading a lot of modern works as well, because as I read that YM is in trouble, I see amazing things happening at the local level, and disciples being made every day. It doesn’t seem congruent with my own experience or context. I feel like the Prophetic call doesn’t apply to our situation, or that what is happening in our group will be part of what turns things around.

        It is my hope that YM remains optimistic and continues to vision out and begin solving issues rather than stall and get locked up without a clear path for the future.

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