Youth Ministry Principles from Dead British Authors
G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and C. S. Lewis (who for the record was Irish) have become rather hipster in the land of youth ministry. We casually toss around their pithy quotes (many of which they never said or wrote), show movie clips of their adapted tales (even though “there is death in the camera,” according to Lewis, and fantasy “is a thing best left to words, to true literature,” according to Tolkien), debate the essential truths of Aslan and Aragorn, and dream about how to design a youth building that looks like Minas Tirith or Cair Paravel.
Ironically, there’s nothing these four would have more loathed than to be viewed as hipster. They considered themselves cultural dinosaurs: adherents of ancient traditions, medieval tales, old books, and premodern sensibilities. “Cultural relevancy” was not part of their worldview.
It’s rather astonishing, then, that their books, essays, stories, and letters are culturally relevant decades and even a century later. Why do their ideas, tales, language, and style continue to delight, challenge, engage, and captivate readers of all ages—whether in academia, Christendom, or the wider populace?
There are plenty of reasons, and many of them can be distilled into ideas or principles relevant to the unique world of youth ministry. Here’s one example:
Inkling Youth Ministry Principle #1: Embrace Dogma
Ours is a love worship—hate church/relationship over religion/just-Jesus spiritual culture. We want not just a personal but also a personalized faith. We crave an emotional, uplifting, independent, comfortable, and—above all—flexible spirituality that allows us to create a creed and define the doctrine in ways that fit our personality, lifestyle, interests, goals, dreams, and passions. The rigid dogmas of Christianity don’t work for us. We’ve outgrown them. We’ve moved beyond them. We’re people who crave a fluid, organic, and malleable me-and-Jesus spirituality that poses as a cutting-edge, paradigm-busting, innovative, and post-modern twenty-first-century embodiment of Real Faith Like We’ve Never Known Before— because apparently the twenty centuries before us were too backward to have anything like real wisdom, deep understanding, or true faith.
As much as we dislike dogma, we especially dislike rigid dogma. But that’s just exactly what Christian dogma is: authoritative and firm statements about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, sin, salvation, and all of life.
We bristle at authority. It’s so . . .well . . . authoritative. We love (really, really love) to talk about authors and stories—especially our own stories—and how we must let God be the author of our lives. But at the same time, we love to be our own copyeditor and make revisions along the way. We graciously accept God as author. We bristle at God as authority.
We also bristle at rigidity. It sounds mean, narrow-minded, thoughtless, uncharitable, and entirely un-Jesus-y. Surely Jesus wants us to be bendable, flexible, pliable, and easygoing. Those are practically biblical mandates, right?
Viewed from another angle, though, rigidity can be seen as firm, unchanging, solid, and constant. Surely we want Jesus to be firm, unchanging, solid, and constant. Surely we want to count on Jesus to be Jesus at all times in all circumstances. And although Jesus often did and said things that were surprising and unconventional, he never did or said things that compromised the unchanging reality of God’s truth and character.
Dogma (rigidly authoritative statements of truth about our faith) is wildly unpopular with many of today’s teenagers and young adults. And—let’s be honest—it’s also unpopular with many full-grown adults. Or maybe it would be better to say dogma is virtually unknown to many of today’s teenagers and young adults—perhaps because no one wants to teach it, perhaps because we believe teenagers aren’t interested in it and can’t understand it, or perhaps because we assume dogma and Jesus are at odds with each other.
At age 12 Jesus was in the temple “sitting among the religious teachers, listening to them and asking questions” (Luke 12:46 NLT). I don’t think they were talking about the weather, or the color of the carpets, or the plans for next week’s large event. Instead, I think they were talking about faith. They weren’t talking about the feelings and emotions and self-serving aspects of relationship-without-religion—they were talking about the foundational truths and unchanging tenets of God and His word.
One reason so many people repeatedly return to Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and Chesterton is because these writers unashamedly embraced dogma and doctrine. And they valued it and upheld it. They understood that without dogma, the Christian faith is empty—void of meaning, purpose, direction, and anything else of value.
More than 50 years ago, Dorothy Sayers wrote this:
“Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as ‘a bad press’. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—‘dull dogma’, as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama. . . .
“It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeping in a drastic and uncompromising realism. . . .” (Creed or Chaos? And Other Essays in Popular Theology, 1947)*
This could have been written last year, last month, yesterday, today. Churches and youth ministries that do not know, teach, celebrate, review, rejoice in, and cling to “dull dogma” will not have lasting and meaningful ministry and will not give birth to lasting and faithful disciples.
Give me Jesus, yes. Give me relationship, please. Give me worship, of course. But also give me dogma. Rigid, unchanging, authoritative, staggeringly dramatic, and wildly adventurous dogma. My life, the life of the church, our youth ministries, and our youth depend on it.
* From the essays “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged” (p. 1) and “Creed or Chaos?” (p. 28).
CRYSTAL KIRGISS, PhD, has worked with students for thirty years. She writes for Youthwalk magazine, has written for many specialty Bible editions, and is the author or coauthor of many books, including In Search of Adolescence: A New Look at an Old Idea. Crystal lectures in the English department at Purdue University where she also researches the history of adolescence. You can hear Crystal speak at NYWC San Diego on Doing Ministry with the Inklings and Adolescence: From Social Construct to Historical Reality. There’s still time to register! Visit NYWC.com for more info.
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.