A best friend is a youth worker and they love this happy chap called Andrew Root.
They passed on this book and told me to read it. It excited them and I can understand why. Youth ministry is certainly not what I am called to, on account of the fact that I hate teenagers because I remember what they are like. Give me your legalists and your doubters, leave me to work with children or pensioners, put me singing in a worship band before you deploy me in your youth ministry. I have tried to do some youth ministry in the past. But the teenagers usually fall asleep or start throwing spitwads at my notes. Maybe they throw them at me but have crappy aim. That makes sense. Teenagers are crap at most things.
So for Root to have kept my attention is impressive.
Youth groups are rare things in the Republic of Ireland. In all likelihood, unless you are an evangelical Christian or was raised by one, you haven’t participated in them. In one of the most regrettable decisions of my life, I once helped to bring one of the largest youth work organisations in the world to Ireland. Thankfully, its pilot collapsed. Maybe you could charitably declare that our cynical soil is not fertile ground for growing adolescents enthusiastic for Jesus.
But that having been said, I first encountered the Gospel in the context of a youth group. Admittedly, I joined the youth group because there was a really hot girl in it that I wanted to spend more time with. But God endorses snog evangelism. The youth group that I was a member of was notable for the youth that were in it. They were pretty fantastic people, even though they were in their awkward teen stage. They still are. One of them is currently cycling down a mountain in Bolivia right now and spent the last few years building more houses around the world than Irish property developers could ever hope to fail to sell. Another is a church planting Presbyterian minister. A third makes dental equipment. But each of those three guys does more good than pretty much everyone on planet earth, including the quality control person in Bushmills distillery.
All this is to say, I am ambivalent about youth ministry.
Root’s Starting Point
Relational youth ministry is an approach taken by churches to caring for teenagers that is grounded on building relationships with them. For Root, this noble idea becomes a kind of trojan horse because we slip into seeing the relationship as “a goal-oriented rather than a companionship-oriented fashion that is more faithful to the theology of incarnation”.
His Problem With Evangelicalism?
There is much of merit in this book but it begins with an analysis of evangelical culture in the US that is sociologically blunt. He draws false dichotomies commonly, for example, what matters more is not that young people become Christian but that they become “human alongside others”. Root has had plenty of experience with the huge sprawling American evangelical sub-culture and one can appreciate the animus that could arise but allowing it to show genuinely weakens the book.
Root’s Ideas Of Incarnation
The core of the book is a plea for incarnational theology without an agenda. For Root, incarnation is not seeking to “influence” us. Jesus is our pattern for mission, he is present to us in our relationships with others and we are called to join in God’s mission. But I couldn’t help thinking that Root fails to make anything of these ingredients. He says that incarnation “is not about getting us right but bearing what is wrong with us, so that we might find that we are only right in the embrace of a God who loves so much to be with us”. He develops these thoughts along the lines of Bonhoeffer’s “place sharing” philosophy. But Root doesn’t seem to take this as a central thesis and instead gets lost in a discussion of the methodology of mission.
An Argument That Doesn’t Land
There is very little engagement in the book with the Scriptures. It is not a Biblical theology and this might be the reason why these interesting trajectories end up going nowhere. He says that “to be incarnate is to be crucified” but in literal, sin-payment, atonement-making sense, this applies only to Christ. The incarnation that he speaks of is the radically other condition of the Logos made man (as I waffled about yesterday). We are not incarnate and our mission is not “incarnational”. It may be true, as Root argues from Bonhoeffer, that Christ stands between you and I as we relate to each other but it cannot follow that every person-to-person encounter always functions as an in-breaking of revelation.
Incarnation and Influence
Is it even true that incarnation is not about influence? I actually don’t believe this. Jesus came to influence us towards new humanity, to life life and life to the full. We will do greater things than him as his followers and he has sent us his advocate. Advocates influence.
The Embarrassing Case Studies
He tries to apply his theology through case studies. One of them, extended in agony for the reader, is a treatment of Good Will Hunting. Will is actually used as an example of someone who benefits from place-sharing. This is the weakest part of the book. It sounds so bad as I describe it here that I just have to stop and not go any furhter.
Root’s book is thought provoking but it feels like a chimera- a liberal Protestant text using the approaches of evangelicalism. The book is full of pseudo-psychological diagrams that map out how the four-dimensional human (Root’s theories) relates to the five spheres of life (Root’s theories) but little Scriptural engagement. He launches an attack against incarnational ministry which I sympathise with but his alternative seems to be incarnational theology without purpose. It seems to me we should keep doing what we’re doing but just not be so intent about people becoming Christian. This conclusion seems to contradict everything that comes before it.
If you are involved in youth ministry, then Root’s book is probably essential reading and very thought provoking. It might be just the incentive that you need to make necessary changes to the way you do things. But for me, it lacked coherence, a Biblical basis and as is so often the case, it could have been half the length.
Your Correspondent, The greatest case of false advertising he’s seen since he sued the makers of “The Never-Ending Story”