Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker and the Tension of ‘Youth’ Ministry

On Wednesday, November 5, I had the privilege to join a conversation with Dr. Andrew Root (Carrie Olson Baalson Chair of Youth and Family Ministry, Luther Seminary) on KFUO’s Faith ‘n’ Family program.  The interview specifically focused on Dr. Root’s new book: Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together.  Dr. Root has written and presented much on the life, ministry, and teaching of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and what we can learn from it today, specifically in relation to youth ministry. The book reviews Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and ministry through the lens of his work with youth and children.  I find two parts of Bonhoeffer’s biography particularly fascinating:

 Dr. Andrew Root's new book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, gives insight into Bonhoeffer's work with youth and children and the tension of care for youth without giving them special privileges.

Dr. Andrew Root’s new book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, gives insight into Bonhoeffer’s work with youth and children and the tension of caring for youth without giving them special privileges.

  1. How the Holy Spirit used Bonhoeffer’s youthful rebellion to drive him to the church and to be a leading theologian of the Twentieth Century,
  2. How Bonhoeffer’s work with youth and children (which made up most of his ministry experience) molded his pastoral heart.

Through his experience, Bonhoeffer wrote much about the importance of children and youth in the Body of Christ and how the church can appropriately communicate the Gospel and Biblical truths to them.  He also was aware of the meaningful questions and insight young people bring to the church in their unique seasons of life.  He wrote extensively on the Christian community and the unique unity Christ gives believers, regardless of age or station in life.

Inspired by Bonhoffer’s wrestling, writing, and vision, Dr. Root articulates in some of his writings and presentations  concerns shared by other congregational ministry practitioners when evaluating and planning their “children” and “youth” ministry.  Dr. Root is particularly helpful in raising concerns about how congregational ministry can acquiesce to pressures of Western individualism and consumerism and other societal norms which are not helpful in building Christian community.

In the interview, book, and other writings, Root discusses two themes that at times may seem contradictory.  On one side, Root highlights Bonhoeffer’s goal of youth and children’s ministry is to carry children “into the center of life of the church-community” (Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, 56-57).  On another side, Bonhoeffer wrote Eight Theses on Youth Work in the Church, which includes, “Youth [Ministry] enjoys no special privilege in the church-community.” Bonhoeffer understood the tension which could arise in a Christian community if it desired to focus attention on the faith life of the young, without raising them above, or separating them from, the unity of the Christian community.  The ONE unity (and all ministry) of the church-community finds its foundation, nourishment, and strength in the living Christ and his sacrificial love for all.

You can understand or have experienced how these desires for unity and faith formation are met in your congregation.  You also might think of areas you’d like to put more time and effort but know fully how this creates tension in congregational or your personal ministry resources of time, finances, and volunteers.  How does the Body of Christ create a space for young people to know they are at the center of the church’s love and care without creating a “special privilege”?

For me, I consider that I serve in an office called YOUTH MINISTRY which directs the effort for a YOUTH Gathering for youth (and adults!) from across the country and world, provides LCMS Servant Events focused on High School YOUTH, and runs the YouthESource, which resources YOUTH and YOUTH MINISTRY practitioners.  (Root obviously deals with this same tension as the Chair of Youth and Family Ministry and his preparation of Youth workers.)

Now, before we close the LCMS Youth Ministry Office, strike the terms “Children Ministry” or “Youth Ministry” from your business card, or change congregational documents and websites, hold strong to your baptismal grace!

I am reminded how the Holy Spirit uses the service of parents, pastors, DCEs, teachers, Deaconesses, DCOs, lay ministers, lay adult volunteers, and young people to bring all God’s people to the center of the church-community.

I am reminded how parents and other adults walk with young people through life’s trials and celebrations.

I am reminded how God’s people point one another to Christ’s sacrificial life and death, and victory over the grave, which won for us forgiveness and eternal life.

I give thanks for the way the Holy Spirit uses youth ministry practitioners to carry young people in their faith development from season to season.

I give thanks for how the Holy Spirit uses the best intentions (and worst intentions) of broken, sinful people so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is shared in our churches and communities.

I can understand how ministry to young people might seem to absorb a lot of resources, attention, and energy.  But, I hope congregations see the benefits and blessings of walking alongside young people as they grow in the faith and teach us all important lessons along the way.  In this journey, may God bless us with understanding and thankfulness for the unity we share and the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

A few additional takeaways or questions from Dr. Root’s book and Bonhoeffer’s vision for Youth Ministry:

  • Word and Sacrament ministry provide an array of opportunities to support young people and their families around the gifts that God gives through Jesus Christ. The Body of Christ provides prayer, support, and encouragement to all as we celebrate life’s joys and share one anothers’ burdens as large or small they may seem to be.
  • Are children and youth ministries bringing young people to the “center of the life of the church-community” or are they a “disconnected appendage”?
  • Does the “adult church” take time to listen to the theological questions of young people? Does the “adult church” posture themselves in a way which communicates (to young people) they too are continually learning and growing in their faith in Christ through life’s circumstances?  (And, that perhaps they might even learn from the young!)
  • How do we help young people understand the Christian faith and Christian Community as something you do not grow out of but are built up into? (Baptism through Christian burial)

Listen to the Faith ‘n’ Family interview with Dr. Root, here.

Find a study resource on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, here.

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Note: LCMS leader blog articles express the personal experiences and views of our ministry staff and have not been subjected to the LCMS doctrinal review process. Readers are encouraged to leave questions in the comment section or consult their pastor with any queries related to this content.

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