Postmodern Youth Ministry: An Appendix

October 5th, 2009

In my theological journey, my discovery of postmodern thought represented a big open door—or at least the key to open that door. I'd begun feeling confined by the dichotomous choices of the mainline theology I was taught growing up and the evangelical theology that I'd been taught at college. I was searching for something broader and deeper than black-and-white choices. I needed something that was ultimately more progressive and future-looking rather than thought that seemed to systematically look only to the past for its answers. Postmodernism was the key to unlock the door to the future of my theology and ministry.


Postmodern Youth Ministry is a book about philosophy, and by that I don't mean philosophy of ministry. The book deals with some of the current thoughts and trends in the academic discipline of philosophy. Some have wondered why such a book was needed—even whether such a book is a waste of time. In fact, just last year at the National Youth Workers Convention, Dan Kimball and I were leading a late night discussion on postmodernism and its implications for the church when we were interrupted by someone from the back of the room who said, “Hey, all this philosophy stuff is just fine to talk about, but it's really a waste of time. As youth workers, we need to get out there and get to know our kids, not to know anything about philosophy.”

While I agree with our interlocutor that getting to know our students is preeminently important, philosophy is also important. Each one of us has a philosophy that precedes our theology. While many of us may not be able to articulate it, we come to our doctrinal and biblical beliefs with opinions about what truth is, how much of the truth one can know, and even how human beings know anything. While you may argue that your beliefs on such matters are shaped by the Bible, I would argue that they're shaped by lots of other things, too.

That's why it's so important that youth workers understand the philosophical underpinnings of the students with whom we work, and for us to do our best to influence these philosophies. If postmodernism is indeed the prevalent philosophical viewpoint of our day (and you can disagree with me on that point if you want), then it's our duty to understand and be conversant in it. Jesus was conversant in the Hebraic mindset of his day and place, and Paul famously went right to the heart of Hellenistic philosophy, the Areopagus, to talk philosophy with the Athenians.


I'm not a youth pastor right now. I was for the last seven years, but now I'm pursuing a Ph.D. in practical theology and youth ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. But I was a youth pastor when I wrote Postmodern Youth Ministry, and I took some chances by singling out some stories from my own ministry. One of my regrets is that since writing the book I've lost touch with Meghan; and as far as I've heard, she has lost touch with her faith.

I wrote that Meghan was ruined for the worldly life and had been won over to a radical discipleship of following Christ. I'm sad to say that at this point, she isn't following Christ in the manner that I might hope. Her former boyfriend, Dan, however, is another story. He has just returned from serving in Iraq with the Marine Corps, and he'll be starting college this winter in Florida. And he's still following Jesus.

My point in telling you this is that I'm very humble about my seven years as a youth pastor. This is no false humility to try to make you like me. In fact, I often wonder whether I was any good at all as a youth pastor.

In other words, I don't think that I had the corner on the market for some hot new paradigm. Postmodern Youth Ministry is no magic bullet. In fact, I've taken some heat at speaking engagements because my youth ministry wasn't that big. I'm still convinced of the veracity of what I wrote, but Jesus is looking for faithfulness, not certainty. I wrote the book as an attempt at faithfulness: this is something that has worked for me (not “worked” in the sense of bringing in big crowds on Wednesday night, but in the sense of “this saved my faith and helped some students at our church”).

Developing a postmodern youth ministry is no great key to success, no matter how you define success. It's simply the best way I know to do youth ministry in a manner that's both faithful to Scripture and contextually appropriate.


In the four years since Postmodern Youth Ministry came out, by far the most disagreement I've faced is over my indictment of foundationalism. Foundationalism is the modern epistemological scheme. That is, it's the way that we thought people knew things during the modern era (roughly 1500-1950), and it's been overthrown in virtually every arena of academic discourse.

However, many Christians are hesitant to look beyond foundationalism. The obvious question is this: if the Bible isn't our foundation, on what do we stand? A corollary of this argument is the dreaded lack of absolute certainty. If, in a postmodern world I cannot say “Jesus is Lord” with absolute certainty, how can I believe anything? These are valid questions, and I don't take them lightly.

But as I said this fall at the National Youth Workers Convention (and for which I received vituperative opposition), foundationalism is not biblical. Now before you start e-mailing the editor, let me say this: when Jesus talked about the house being built on the rock versus the house being built on the shifting sand, he wasn't talking epistemologically. Jesus was talking about faith. And he was talking about us having deep confidence in our faith in him. I'm not advocating a lack of confidence in the Christian faith. Quite the contrary; I actually think postmodernism challenges us to even deeper faith than did modernism.

In modern foundationalism, the belief was that one's foundation was unquestionable, unchallengeable. But the fact is, people challenge the veracity of the Bible every single day. And how do you respond? Do you throw a tantrum and cry out “You can't challenge my Bible, it's given to me by God!” No. Chances are you defend the Bible. You talk about its historicity. You talk about how much sense it makes in the grand scheme of human life. And, most importantly, you talk about how the Bible has shaped and influenced you personally—you talk about how it has brought you into contact with Jesus Christ.

In other words, you argue from a combination of rational knowledge, tradition, and personal experience. That, my friends, is postmodernism! Foundationalism says there's one reason to believe the Bible: because it's unquestionably true. Postmodernism says there are lots of reasons to believe (or not believe) in the Bible, and our job individually and communally is to work through those reasons and discern how they jive with experience.


Please allow me to say a few words about this one big word. It stands for the branch of philosophy that investigates how people know things. And I continue to believe that it's key for the future of youth ministry.

The way kids come to know things is different now from the way kids used to come to know things. It's been well documented in these pages and elsewhere that students develop their worldviews, their convictions, and their beliefs based on a mélange of factors (just read through the Youth Culture Update section in this journal to have that confirmed). That includes what they read, the music they listen to, what their parents say, what they find in the Bible, what they hear at church, and what they see on TV. To deny this would be to deny the experiences of our ministries.

If students come to know things and fashion their beliefs in a number of different ways, then we should teach them the truths of our faith in a number of different ways. We should use experiences, small-group discussion, times of revelatory prayer, trips, and, yes, even old-fashioned, didactic teaching. But before we get too high on our ability to stand up in front of a group of students and keep them spellbound with our ingenious communication methods, we'd do well to look at research showing that behavior changes much more as a result of experiences and conversations than it does from hearing a talk (which, really, is just another word for a speech, sermon, or lecture).

The other day, my advisor here at Princeton, Kenda Dean, said that the church is pretty good at behavior modification with teens, but the church stinks at transformation. Ultimately, which do you think Jesus calls us to do?

An Appeal

You may not like Postmodern Youth Ministry. Good. Then write your own book. That is, we all need to be deep in theological reflection on youth ministry.

Postmodern Youth Ministry grew out of a car ride I took with Mark Oestreicher and Tic Long of Youth Specialties in 1998. The three of us talked about the biggest changes that have taken place in youth ministry in the past twenty years, and we agreed that at the top of the list was the professionalization of youth ministry. Not that long ago, youth ministry wasn't a profession. There weren't schools offering degrees in it, and there were no conventions, books, or professional journals of youth ministry.

Our profession has grown, and I thank God. It's one of the bright spots of the 20th century church. But let's keep the profession moving forward by doing some serious theological reflection on youth ministry. It's great that some of us are into sociology and psychology and anthropology—these will all help us better understand students. But we need to also be thinking about and doing theology. Let's look at the Bible, the state of the world, and the church, and students; and then let's try to discern what God's up to.

So you don't like Postmodern Youth Ministry? Okay, write a letter to the editor of Youthworker saying why you don't. Get on a youth ministry blog and make your opinions known. Come to the National Youth Workers Convention and let's talk. We need to keep this conversation going—in respectful, productive ways.

In the end, talking about, engaging in dialogue on, even debating the theology of youth ministry will help us all be great youth workers and do great youth ministry.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.