Rethinking “Youth” Ministry

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 9.08.36 PMWhat does it mean to “do theology” with youth? or in youth ministry? Andrew Root has been exploring this question for years and he points the way in today’s post by showing how Bonhoeffer was a theological kind youth pastor. Not one who so much taught theological answers but one who introduced youth to thinking and living theologically.

Follow this post and you will see not only Bonhoeffer’s story but a discovery of the theological turn in youth ministry.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer came of age in a burgeoning, if middle to upper class, youth movement. He was part of the “Boy Scouts” of Germany (Bunde). There was the Wandervogel (wandering birds) movement and the Bunde, the second far more organized and adult run. Andrew Root, in Bonhoeffer the Youth Worker, puts it like this:

Where Wandervogel revolved around rambling—unkempt young people romantically singing songs as they walked arm in arm (not unlike a Coca-Cola commercial)—the Bunde consisted of more organized and ordered groups, often having a certain task, like scouts with its military ethos. Where Wandervogel had only very moderate leadership, and this leadership came from older youth, the Bunde was often led by adults. Bonhoeffer, in his own later adolescence, joined the scouts only to quit after a short time, confessing that he wasn’t wired to take orders from anyone and was sick of all the marching (plus, his older brothers teased him relentlessly for his involvement).

Yet the Bunde experience—the experience of youth groups—made its impact on Bonhoeffer (26).

What DB did was create Bunde groups in the churches he served. That is, he created youth groups in Germany. Hitler, as you may have already surmised, captured this youth movement and turned toward the National Socialists in the Hitler Youth movement.

The Bonhoeffer children did not attend church, nor did the organization and ordered life of the home lead them to desire the youth movement. But Paula Bonhoeffer, DB’s mother, was a woman of faith and so was their nanny. Paula desired creativity and not conformity to the society in her children. Their home was large and it was often full of friends and people, and as a young one in the family, DB was cared for and guided by older family members and brothers-in-law. Dietrich cared for his twin sister, Sabine, and his younger sister Susanne. Root suggests DB’s theology of community (ecclesiology) was formed in a social home.

Root explores DB’s life as one shaped toward youth ministry, from his older brother’s premature death in WWI. DB’s act of rebellion as teen was the choice to become a theologian, which put him at odds with his siblings. He went to Tübingen; a trip to Rome heightened his calling into the church; instead of studying with Harnack he chose to study with Reinhold Seeberg, and even here he began to veer from Seeberg by finding Karl Barth’s theology more compelling; while working on his PhD he began to work with youth. In fact, that ministry shaped his research interest and theology. He cared about the sociality and concreteness of the church.

What might most notable is how ecclesiocentric his dissertation was (called Sanctorum Communio, or communion of the saints) and how that most of his experience in church was youth ministry. His focus on personhood often focused on children and community:

The ramifications of this are direct: a church that seeks to embrace its children in and through the revelation of Jesus Christ, a church with a truly rich children’s ministry, is not the church with the flashiest children’s ministry program. This may only reveal that the church is a society, seeking to use its children’s program to productively gain members and strengthen its own place within the larger society. Rather, in Bonhoeffer’s mind the church with a rich children’s ministry is the church that is a community, where the life of young people is taken into the life of the community, where their person is shared in. Earlier in Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer says directly, “Unlike the society, a community can support young children.”And the support that he is referring to is not the support of programs but of Stellvertretung (place-sharing), which happens only in the community of persons of will (51).

DB saw infant baptism as entrance into the community, into the family of faith. It is to carry the child as a mother carries and cares for a child.

So DB spent three years preparing for Sunday School with children and teaching catechism. The classes ballooned, they formed a youth group and they met at his parents’ home in Berlin. When he left for a year long ministry in Barcelona, he recorded this in his diary:

What affected me most was saying good-bye to the church work. . . . Pastor Meumann mentioned my name in his general prayer. For a long time church prayer has been something that has left me cold but, when the throng of children with whom I have spent two years prayed for me, the effect was incomparably greater (60).

In Barcelona… with Max Diestel now has his mentor. He preached and pastored but he also found another opportunity to do more youth ministry with the German Lutheran church in Barcelona. SS had almost collapsed but he revived it, filled the classrooms and spent his time devoted especially to the older boys in the church. He taught in the public school and started a discussion group. Root tells the story of Bonhoeffer ministering to a boy who lost “Mr. Wolf,” his dog. Will he go to heaven? DB theologically expressed how God created and loved animals and the boy’s spirit was restored. Root’s summary:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a forefather to the theological turn in youth ministry, and the story of Mr. Wolf stands as a shining example of what this means. The theological is first the ministerial; it is the taking of the boy to your knee and sharing in his suffering, allowing him to narrate his experience. It is never beating the boy over the head with theology, but seeking to give responses that attend to the experiential. It hopes not for assimilation of theology in the young person’s brain but for the wrestling with God in the questions swirling within the young person. …This is a boy who would resist theology, too wild to listen or care. But next to his experience, in sharing in his humanity, Bonhoeffer enters with him into the theological, igniting his imagination, seeing him transformed from a wild, uninterested boy to one whoo wrestles with God next to his deepest questions of lost love (70).

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