The End of Youth Ministry?

Why Parents Don’t Really Care about Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do about It

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Andrew Root
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , March
     2020.
     240 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781540961396.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his book The End of Youth Ministry? Andrew Root explores why youth groups rank low on parents’ pursuit of a good life for their children and offers a way forward to youth workers by concluding that “youth ministry is for joy … in friendship and rejoicing in the summum bonum [the highest good] of Jesus Christ” (225). His journey to this conclusion takes the form of a fictitious narrative to communicate larger aspects of reality, comprising of an ebb and flow between story and theological reflection.

This journey starts with an open-ended question: Youth ministry is for _____? First, it is for not wasting lives, expressed positively as fostering flourishing, which can only be considered if the possibility of living a good life exits. Parents want their children to flourish, and youth ministry, including confirmation classes, ranks lower than other activities such as basketball, music lessons, and more, in achieving what parents consider a good life to be. Parents rank activities using moral decisions based on feelings and thus fill their children’s calendars with activities that will assist their children’s search for identity, which contributes to their flourishing, hence their happiness. Second, youth ministry is to provide seeds (values) and tools (for avoiding bad decisions) that assist young people in finding their thing, their identity, which leads to the highest good, namely, a life of happiness. Happiness is at risk when young people cannot find their thing (identity) because then they are not affirmed for or recognized by it. Parents consider emotional injury as a threat to their child’s thing and thus want to protect them from it and see youth ministry as a support in their endeavor.

Root continues to delve into answering his central question by linking romance and identity, indicating that in the age of authenticity, romantic relationships are where identity is tested. He illustrates this using the lyrics of a Demi Lovato song, namely, “I don’t know who I am without you … you ain’t nobody ’til you got somebody” (78). A romantic relationship means one’s identity is recognized; however, this is loaded with the risk of being let down or a breakup, resulting in emotional injury. So, Jesus becomes the safest romantic relationship, as he will never “break up” with one (80). Root then unpacks the aspect of drama, which he describes as a pervasive social reality of the need for identity recognition. It is drama because it feeds on resentment, which is “grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged” (86). Drama occurs when a person or group feels that others are not recognizing them and is wounded by it. Enter social media and the ability to curate one’s identity for craved recognition, which reduces time available for attending youth group, among other things. The downward spiral of unsatiated identity recognition can be describe as moving from a lack of recognition, to resentment, to a loss of mercy and humility, to seeking revenge.

Next, Root expounds happiness, noting (1) its inability to remain as a steady state in life, especially when death reminds one that it is a biological impossibility; (2) that it is often a matter of chance; and (3) that it is rooted in hedonism—the pursuit of pleasure. With contemporary parents and the broader culture’s focus on happiness, youth ministry has followed suit along hedonistic tracks as opposed to eudaimonia tracks, which refers to the pursuit of virtue. However, as an alternative to pleasure, virtue in and of itself cannot produce a good life of holiness. Neither the pursuit of pleasure nor the pursuit of virtue can compare to pursuing the Good as “the aim and only measure of a good life” (113), which is by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Youth ministry should seek to provide young people with visions and practices that help them encounter and participate in the Good, of which God is the source. This requires a death to “self’s aim for happiness,” followed by resurrection and a “new identity called Christ” (116), requiring youth ministry to help young people seek Christ and him crucified, preparing them for love and service to their neighbor.

Root continues his journey by exploring joy within a trinitarian context, stating that there is a communion of joy evidenced via the continuous discourse between the three persons of the Godhead. There is a link between joy and storytelling because both usually include a communal experience, and one is unable to have a strong identity without a sense of a story. Identity is formed by significant events that become one’s story. Thus, youth ministry is for young people to hear and tell stories wherein transformation occurs. Next Root considers the closed spin of the immanent frame in comparison with the open take of the transcendent frame: both require interpretation, with the former flattening narratives and the latter seeking connections. Finally, Root connects friendship and identity formation, noting that friends “embrace a shared happening with concern” (222) and that friendship provides an opportunity for living out cruciform (i.e., cross-based) virtues of humility, gratitude, and more. This also includes friendship with God. 

Root succeeds in achieving the aim of his monograph via a novel storytelling and deep theological reflection. He delves into the why as opposed to the how of youth ministry, which is welcome. However, a shortcoming is the seemingly abrupt ending, with insufficient attention given to possible practical application. Now that one knows the why, what possibilities exist for implementing it? It would be most enlightening to hear the voices of young people in a follow-up monograph, either confirming or challenging Root’s experiences and theological reflections. His book is highly recommended to all who desire to see young people’s lives not wasted but flourishing in the Good, namely, having their identity in Christ.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun Joynt is a research associate at the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Root (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has written extensively about youth ministry.

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