The future of the church isn’t youth…
It’s not what you’d expect from a youth minister: “Youth enjoys no special privilege in the church-community.” This line was penned in the late 1930s by the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spent most of his pastoral career working with children or youth.
Equally surprising, Bonhoeffer’s assessment in picked up by the contemporary youth ministry expert Andrew Root. Dr. Root is in full agreement with Bonhoeffer’s potent pronouncement.
To Bonhoeffer, it is theologically misguided to even put together “Christian” and “youth” as a privileged label, for Jesus is not the inventor of Christian children but of childhood universal (as Bonhoeffer asserted in a little-known lecture in Barcelona). Combining “Christian” and “youth” undercuts the importance of young people themselves.
When we put together “Christian” and “youth,” young people are no longer “Christians” – disciples, and full participants in the church community through baptism. Rather, they become a distinct species called “Christian youth.” And when the “youthful” part of the label no longer fits, then neither might the “Christian.”
To label the young “Christian youth,” Bonhoeffer believes, is to make faith bound not in their humanity and the eschatological work of Christ, not in the wrestling of their being, but in this episodic time of “special privilege” created by culture. Faith becomes a fashion, a particular, distinct period during which you are loyal to something before moving on to something else.
Your “Christian-ness” is bound in your “youthfulness.” Once youthfulness fades with age or new lifestyle commitments, so too can “Christian.” “Christian” was an adjective you used to describe your high school days. As you outgrow the privileged space (especially the youth group), as you outgrow your youth, you outgrow “Christian.”
For years, youth ministry has been searching desperately for new ways to keep young people connected to the faith they had as “Christian youth.” Young adults seem to shake off “Christian” like a dog shakes off water after a bath. Maybe the reason that’s so easy to do is because we’ve fused “Christian” and “youth,” establishing a privileged space for “Christian youth” in our congregations.
Clearly, Bonhoeffer believes that we should continue to do youth ministry. But we should do it by undercutting youth ministry as a privileged space. We should do youth ministry as way of moving the young into the center of the church community.
Youth ministry seeks not to make young people “Christian youth” but to participate in the humanity of the young as they encounter the living Christ. Youth ministry is not about strategies to produce “Christian youth” that hold on to the fashion and stay loyal to the brand. Instead, it seeks to invite young people into the cruciform space of Stellvertretung (of place sharing) that is concretely lived out by the community of the church.
In the privileged space, young people are “Christian youth” for a time. But in the cruciform space, they are given a shared space, a space of persons sharing in persons. They are not “Christian youth” but persons bound to others in faith, hope and love.
In the shared space of church, young people encounter the living Christ, who meets them not with a call into a fashion but with an invitation to follow.
A summary of Bonhoeffer’s essay, “Eight Theses on Youth Work in the Church,” is available online.
“Take it from Bonhoeffer – there is no “Christian youth” is adapted from Andrew Root’s forthcoming book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together.