What’s the purpose of youth ministry?
I, along with many other youth workers, have been asking this question for more than a few years. We often compete with basketball, ballet, and Beta Club for the limited time and attention of their students. Sadly, youth ministry often doesn’t make the cut. Why is that, especially since most parents desire a robust spiritual life for their kids?
Fortunately for youth ministers like myself, Andrew Root has also been thinking about this question. Root—professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a leading voice in the study of youth ministry—has written a helpful book to aid us in answering this crucial question: what is youth ministry for?
The End of Youth Ministry? Why Parents Don’t Really Care about Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do about It
What is youth ministry actually for? And does it have a future? Andrew Root, a leading scholar in youth ministry and practical theology, went on a one-year journey to answer these questions. In this book, Root weaves together an innovative first-person fictional narrative to diagnose the challenges facing the church today and to offer a new vision for youth ministry in the 21st century.
In The End of Youth Ministry? Why Parents Don’t Really Care About Youth Groups—and What Youth Workers Should Do About It, Root’s goal is to convince us that youth ministry is for joy. As he explains, “only if youth ministry is for joy can we avoid the traps that have led to a cultural slowdown and our misguided conception of a good life—namely, the need for recognized identity and the goal of happiness” (xiii).
The most obvious strength in Root’s book is his keen eye for the cultural trends running in and through white, affluent youth ministry. These observations are invaluable for youth pastors seeking not only to disciple the students in their charge, but also to teach parents to disciple their children. He observes that, in contrast to the youth and family landscape of the 1980s and 1990s (think Fast Times at Ridgemont High), families today are in the throes of a cultural slowdown. Parents are seeking more and more to protect their children from negative social experiences, while also giving them the tools to achieve lasting happiness.
As one might imagine, this makes for a fragile balance within each student’s life. For most parents, the highest good in their child’s life is the happiness that comes with a secure identity. So it’s not surprising that parents are concerned with helping their children find their “thing”—the activity which marks out the path toward their unique identity—and that it’s only when children have found this that they truly discover happiness (54–55).
This assessment helps explain why so many extracurricular activities are prioritized higher than youth group. Youth group is rarely seen as a child’s “thing,” or even as a place to gain and hone skills for life after school, whereas basketball or Beta Club is seen as teaching skills like resilience, teamwork, and commitment.
Such a unique, self-constructed identity can’t be the foundation for happiness, however, because it’s inherently fragile. The identity depends on the positive recognition of others, so if a child’s peers reject his or her expression of him or herself, that child’s identity can be completely upended (64). If young Johnny expresses himself as a good basketball player, but one of his teammates tells him how bad he is at dribbling and shooting or, worse, simply ignores his skills, then Johnny’s whole identity is thrown into confusion. How can that be the foundation for any kind of happiness?
A unique, self-constructed identity can’t be the foundation for one’s happiness because it’s inherently fragile.
Root rightly contends that such a mindset is “too flimsy” to bear our pain (134, 137). Instead of happiness, we must look to Christ as the highest good—the only good that can bear the burden of our pain and fear. As Root writes, “The suffering of the cross, which delivers the real presence of God, produces not melancholy or dourness but joy,” for even in pain and suffering “it invites us to participate—to be found in—the very life of God” (147).
If The End of Youth Ministry has one shortcoming, it’s that it’s long on diagnosis and short on practical prescription. Though Root gives a frame to help us move out of these cultural constraints (i.e., by locating our identities not within our own selves, but within the person of Christ), he doesn’t give much advice on how to do this practically.
Still, Root has given youth ministers an illuminating look into how and why parents and students prioritize the things they do. He’s made challenging concepts simple, and he’s done Christ’s church a great service in writing this book. It should be on the nightstand of every late-modern youth minister as they seek to minister to students and equip parents to spiritually invest in their children.