American Youth Ministry: What Would Bonhoeffer See? . . .

This is probably more true than when I first wrote and posted it here back in July of 2011. I had been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the time and I was struck by how his writing decades before offered a prophetic and spot-on evaluation of our 21st Century youth ministry world. I stumbled on this blog post this morning while looking for something else. . . and thought I would re-post thoughts from then that are even more accurate now.  Here’s that post from July of 2011. . .

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.

(The good news is that there are youth ministry resources that have been recently developed that serve as an antidote to these youth ministry trends. And so, I will highly recommend The Word In Youth Ministry Podcast, Youth Pastor Theologian, LeaderTreks, Reformed Youth Ministries, and Rooted. Check them all out in your quest to keep going deep!)

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