By Matt Cleaver Awakening Youth Discipleship brings together a trio of Methodist and Roman Catholic youth ministry academics to present their thoughts about discipling adolescents in a consumer culture. Youth ministry veterans Brian Mahan, Michael Warren, and David White each offer two chapters in this short book (126 pages). However, unlike many youth ministry books written by professors, this volume offers a good balance of sound theological critique and concrete examples and suggestions for ministry.
At its core, the book speaks to the common problem found in youth ministry, namely that “while youth ministry has been successful, in some degree, in introducing large numbers of youth in commitment to Jesus, we often contradict our hopes of forming youth in the way of his gospel by reinforcing their relationship with popular culture and habits that engage young people as passive consumers of sensational products like concerts, CDs, T-shirts, and an easily consumable gospel” (36).
Broken into three sections, the book begins with David White offering a fairly unique narrative detailing the historic development of adolescence through the lens of economics. His second chapter offers a variety of suggestions and examples of teaching methods used by the Youth Discipleship Project, a four-week summer program for teens offered by the Claremont School of Theology. These teaching methods offer ways of engaging students minds that begins them down the road of resisting, rather an conforming, to cultural norms.
Michael Warren tackles the ever-present adolescent task of identity, especially how profit-driven marketers captivate the imaginations of youth. Disturbingly, he relates how youth ministry practice is heavily influenced by such marketing techniques. Warren might lose some with his long and repeated citations of Roman Catholic Church youth ministry documents, but readers who persevere through will be greeted with great suggestions for social ministry to combat market-driven identity formation.
Brian Mahan’s section discusses the cultural definitions of success that creep up in our culture and how youth ministry can reinforce these cultural definitions, especially when trying to “spiritualize” the events in adolescents’ lives. Rather than giving lip-service to God when students fail and fall short of their own expectations, Mahan advocates a practice he calls “sacred commiseration,” an amorphous, hard-to-describe practice that is more a group attitude of prayer and spiritual direction than a step-by-step procedure. I actually had to go back over Mahan’s final chapter to really catch the essence of what he was trying to say, but the work was worth it.
Most importantly, this book offers a theological basis not simply for the content of a youth ministry, but for practices that will conform to the gospel while resisting the consumer culture most of us find ourselves in. The problem for many reading this book will be that the practices that are suggested are not highly structured and cannot be explained in a step-by-step format. While the implementation of this book may not be straightforward, the hard work of attempting to discern what it looks like to resist a culture of consumerism might in itself be exactly the kind of practice the authors advocate. Youth ministers of all stripes would do well to read and ponder the thoughts and suggestions offered in this book.