Stand back. . . take a look. . . and evaluate. We need to do that more, especially for those of us involved in 21st century North American youth ministry. I fear we don’t do it enough. . . and it’s hurting us.

One way to stand back, look, and evaluate is through the eyes of history. Looking at the past is one way to make sure we get it right this time around. A highly-respected “old friend” has been helping me do that this week. The journey he’s taking me on has been pretty doggone thought-provoking. My “old friend” is one of my heroes of the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I first “met” him when I was a college student reading his books “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.” Now, I’m reacquainting myself with Bonhoeffer through Eric Metaxas’ phenomenal book, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” It’s outstanding and is sure to be one that I’ll read a few times. I hope you’ll read it too.

Yesterday I had to stop several times to process and think as I read the chapter on a young mid-twenty-year-old Bonhoeffer and his one year trip to America to study at New York’s Union Theological Seminary from 1930-31. Metaxas does a great job explaining Bonhoeffer’s deep and thoughtful (don’t expect anything less from Bonhoeffer) impressions of the American church. Writing to folks back in Germany, Bonhoeffer described what he found at Union among those preparing for ministry: “There is no theology here. . . they talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.” He found the students to be extremely theologically shallow and illiterate. Instead, they were consumed with politics, sociology, and other issues of the time. . . and probably not too deep on those either.

As Bonhoeffer described the busyness of his fellow students, I couldn’t help but think of how busy we’ve become as we build our brands, pursue marketable relevance, maintain our social networks, and tweet our lives away. He wrote, “Not only is quietness lacking, but also the characteristic impulse towards the development of individual thought. . . there is little intellectual competition and little intellectual ambition.” Bonhoeffer found there to be “more a friendly exchange of opinion than a study in comprehension.” He concluded that even though there was a strong leaning towards community, that community was “founded less on truth than on the spirit of ‘fairness.’ One says nothing against another member of the dormitory as long as he is a ‘good fellow.'”

Do you see why I got stuck yesterday? If we stand back and look at the state of contemporary American youth ministry with Bonhoeffer, I wonder if he would be pointing out much of the same these 80 years later. Our time is co-opted by busyness. With so much to do, what we should be doing rarely gets done. What falls by the wayside is the cultivation of spiritual and theological depth. Not only do we not seek out times of quiet, but we find them incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling. By not centering in, we blast ourselves out all over the place. . . to here, there, and everywhere. And if our ministries are about multiplication, we need to remember that zero times zero yields zero. Are we shortchanging our Lord, ourselves, our church, and our kids?

Eric Metaxas says that Bonhoeffer’s conclusion on what he found in the American church (with the exception of the Black church) “was withering.” Bonhoeffer wrote, “I am in fact of the opinion that one can learn extraordinarily little over there. . . but it seems to me that one also gains quiet insights. . . where one sees chiefly the threat which America signifies for us.”

Let’s hope Francis Bacon was right when he said, “Histories make men wise.” I hope they make those of us in youth ministry go deep.

6 thoughts on “American Youth Ministry. . . What Would Dietrich See?

  1. Walt,

    This is another great article from you. I had “met” Bonhoeffer several years ago as well and enjoyed his companionship since. A question from this article, does our busyness, our lack of quiet time, our shortcomings in youth ministry come from ourselves as individuals, as the Church, or as a youth ministry culture?

    I think that yourself, Doug Fields and others are on a mode towards holistic ministry where we fill ourselves with the Spirit so that we can invest in them. So the youth ministry culture is headed in that direction. But the buy-in from individuals as well as the local churches is still low…

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

  2. Bonhoeffer’s thoughts are challenging and insightful, but I can’t help but think 80 years later American Christianity, though far from perfect, is in much better shape than European Christianity.

  3. Bonhoeffer’s thoughts are challenging and insightful, but I can’t help but think that 80 years later American Christianity, though far from perfect, is in much better shape than European Christianity.

  4. Walt, I loved this book! Its sheer size can be intimidating because of our “busy” schedules, but it is profound. Metaxas did a great job probing into the life of a man whose faith (and theology!) enabled him to see what was going on around him. He was interpreting the culture (like someone else I know) so that when the day of evil came he was able to stand his ground against the devil’s schemes. Thanks for posting!

  5. Bonhoeffer could have escaped to America and enjoyed the comfortable existence he could have had, but instead when he got to America he turned around and went back to Germany to join the suffering church there. This is one of his greatest acts of heroism.

  6. Walt, You don’t know me, but I bought this book on your recommendation and have been devouring it. I’ve made it as far as his imprisonment and I had to put it down; I can’t bring myself to read of his death. I will shortly, I just need some time to prepare. It is masterfully written and clearly speaks to our generation here and now. It is a clear reminder of the reality of evil, despite our attempts in America and in the church, to pretend that Satan isn’t much of a threat except to our comfortable daily experiences now and then. I read the snippits from his 2nd lecture in Barcelona to our family as part of a devotional last week. I knew little about Bonhoeffer before reading this but I can’t wait to read his own writings. Thank you for the recommendation. There will be many copies of this going out of our house with Christmas wrap this December!

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