Is Youth Ministry working too well? Is it making kids too conventional?

Youth Specialties
June 6th, 2010


A few months back I wrote this post for Tony Jones’s blog, I thought it might be our interest to re-post it here.

By Andrew Root

I have been thinking about Tony’s youth ministry post from the other day—the bell curve one.  I think he is right in a descriptive sense.  Christian Smith reveals that a majority of young people are conventional in their faith—happy to uncritically follow their parents faith/religious commitments.  I also think he is right that Tony’s book and Chap Clark’s speak of distinct young people on the fringes.

I don’t think Tony gives himself enough credit.  Postmodern Youth Ministry is not only descriptive (as Smith’s study is—that’s his job as sociologist) but is also prescriptive (Smith adds some of this in his “Unscientific Postscript,” though the very title shows that his project is not meant to be prescriptive).  Tony does this prescription by presenting a theological/pragmatic critique from postmodern theory.

And I would add that while Clark’s book has much merit, it runs the risk of being sensationalism; whether he falls into this trap or not (I think he may avoid it) <strong>evangelicals have tended to see culture as hostile and its hostility as the fuel for ministry (i.e., the world is really bad, we need to save our kids from it).

It is no wonder then that Smith’s findings made Clark uncomfortable (as he asserted in the LA Times). They not only contradict his own findings (though I never thought they did as much as Clark did), but more importantly they oppose a core interpretive moral code that Clark (and much of evangelicalism) holds to—the interpretive code that the world is a negative and a dangerous place, meaning youth ministry is about saving kids from the negative world and acidic culture that hurts them.  Youth ministry then is about actions that save/rescue kids from the world of hurt (and often the saved-ness is objectified by young people looking and acting conventional).

For Smith to assert that a majority of kids are conventional and that conventionality is not correlated with commitment, but benign affirmation, potentially strikes at the very core of the theological identity for Clark and how he imagines ministry—no wonder Clark was negative (but that’s just my interpretation).

What’s more interesting is to push this point further.  If youth ministry is really about saving kids from the acidic culture (which is bad) then youth ministry can easily slide into the wing of the church that ushers kids into conventionality. In other words, youth ministry is doing a good job when kids act and look conventional (happily religious).  It could be argued that it was this driving need in light of a new radical youth culture in the 1970s that motivated parents to financially support a youth worker in their local congregation (not just at the denominational level)—they wanted someone with the expertise to make their kids conventionally religious kids (that showed this by being “good”).

Smith’s study is profound (and Tony’s is helpful in this vein as well), because he shows us that conventionality does NOT equal spiritual maturity, depth, or discipleship—that conventionality can itself be acidic. (That is probably more dramatic than Smith would assert, but I actually believe it can, that religious conventionality may be as much an enemy to young people encountering the act of God in Jesus Christ as R-rated movies and Jersey Shore).  Smith’s study points to the fact that we can actually make our kids conventional and yet they are moral therapeutic deists.  These realities may have made the evangelical sensibility uncomfortable (BTW, while evangelicals were working hard to pass on conventional faith to their children, mainline liberals had their thumbs up their you-know-whats, so there are no heroes here).

Now, all that said, what is not discussed in that post is what to do with this descriptive reality, with the acidic conventionality. It may then be that the challenge for youth ministry and the church as a whole is to pop the bubble of conventionality; this may be the best way to engage young people (and yes this is risky, but the problem with the church and youth ministry is that it lacks the risk of encountering our raw humanity).

This is why in my own projects I have tried to work two major elements, the power of relationality as encountering the humanity of the young person and the theology of the cross as the theological invitation to seek for God next to our own and young people’s yearning, doubting, and suffering humanity — in those locations where convention is shown to be a hollow idol that has no mouth to speak or hands to move.  In other words, I think the way to break the numbing conventionality is to engage young people around seeking for a God made known in the most unconventional of realities (especially for a deity) in the cross—to follow the early Reformation and look for a God that reveals Godself in suffering, death and the opposite of all religious conventionality.  The cross is the invitation to seek for God up against our most haunting realities, next to our despair, questions, and fear—all things conventional faith is supposed to solve in a cutely wrapped religious package.  On Doug Pagitt’s radio show we discussed just this a couple months ago.  (I actually make a case for this congregation-wide in my  book The Promise of Despair.)

Youth Specialties

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