Upon being hired at Augsburg College, I was intent on establishing Augsburg College as THE place to study and train for youth ministry in urban settings. It made complete sense given Augsburg’s unique location and the diversity of its student body. Over time, I have come to a place where I do not think the teaching of urban, or suburban, or rural, or small group, or confirmation, or congregational, or intergenerational, or missional youth ministry will serve the church or the world. In fact, I think this approach actually harms the church, its leaders and the young people we are called to serve.
Instead, I’d like to propose an “anti-model”. Let me explain by painting the history of adolescence and youth ministry with broad brushstrokes (I know I am oversimplifying this, but I still think it works). G. Stanley Hall placed “adolescence” on our radar as a unique life-phase around the turn of the 20th century. With this came a biological, universalizing understanding of adolescence. This led the church to adopt what I call a “Water Tower” approach to youth ministry. Somewhere out there is a water tower full of “ministry”, all you need to do is get your church plumbed correctly, turn on the tap and you will have ministry in your location. It will be identical to ministry in all other places. This will work because adolescents (being understood biologically) are the same everywhere.
Soon we became critical of a strict biological understanding of adolescence and we began to recognize in the influence of culture. Joseph Kett is a great example. Biology is not the only thing shaping adolescence; culture plays a role as well. This led the church to adopt what I call a “Water Bottle” approach to ministry. All you need to do is understand what youth in your culture prefer. Then you head on down to the local Ministry-Mart and pick up a case of bottled water (packaged ministry) that meets the needs of your youth. It might be sparkling water, flavored water, etc. Kids aren’t the same everywhere so we need a way to get exactly what OUR kids need, but we still need to go somewhere else to get it.
Both of these, however, are theologically short-sighted and allow absolutely no agency to our youth or God. Biology and/or culture are the only actors in these two understandings of adolescence and we know this is not true. We know that our youth are not only shaped by culture, but are also shapers of culture. We know that biology is not the only thing determining the future of our young people, we also believe that God is calling them into a future. This calls for a new way of thinking about young people and a new way of thinking about ministry.
Rather than subscribing to a biological or cultural understanding of adolescence, I propose we construct a vocational understanding of adolescence. Rather than limiting ourselves to a Water Tower or Water Bottle approach to ministry, I’m advocating for a Living Water approach to ministry (see living water post) that recognizes God’s living water flowing to God’s people in all places, offering life and hope that is unique to that time and context.
This anti-model is not without some structure or direction. I do think ALL ministry shares particular foundations and practices, but I think our conversation around these practices and foundations has been far too limited by our context(s). I would like to move to the meta-level, that actually enables a community to begin to truly understand how ministry might become contextualized in their location.
I think there are 5 foundations for ministry that create a framework for all ministry everywhere. I also think there are 3 core practices of ministry that allow a community to engage in creative context-specific ministry. My goal is not to universalize ministry with youth, but to talk about ministry (and the educations of leaders for ministry) that truly grows from a process of a community discerning and proclaiming Christ’s incarnation in their location.
The three core practices of ministry are: interpretation, discernment and proclamation of the incarnation. I believe everything we do with children, youth and families can essentially be identified as one of these three practices. These practices happen within a framework shaped by 5 foundations: relational, theological, holistic, experiential, and vocational. We generate and engage in the ministry practices of interpretation, discernment and proclamation in ways that are always relational, theological, holistic, experiential and vocational.
I will begin to flesh out each of these practices and foundations over the next few months. Please stay tuned and please share your 2 cents (or more). I’m eager to hear if you think this works and makes sense.
This post is the first post (of 9) in this “anti-model” series.
- Part 01: youth ministry anti-model
- Part 02: youth ministry is interpretation
- Part 03: youth ministry is discernment
- Part 04: youth ministry is proclamation
- Part 05: interpretation, discernment and proclamation are theological
- Part 06: interpretation, discernment and proclamation are relational
- Part 07: interpretation, discernment and proclamation are holistic
- Part 08: interpretation, discernment and proclamation are vocational
- Part 09: interpretation, discernment and proclamation are experiential