In his suggestive probing of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on a scent for the impact of DB’s own ministry to youth, Andrew Root discovers that DB’s theology was shaped by his ministry to youth. All found in Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker. Which leads to a question many of us have perhaps asked: When dare we introduce youth to Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship and Life Together? Or perhaps, Can they comprehend him at that age?
My own experience comes into this one: I first read what was then called The Cost of Discipleship (but now Discipleship) as a college student, I devoured it, loved it, and — now nearly forty years later — did not comprehend it. Over the years I have read portions many times but it’s the kind of book that needs to be read over and over to comprehend well. I’d not say the same for Life Together, which comes from a unique experience of would-be pastors learning together in isolation from others and all in a unique social condition: the Confessing Church breaking from the German Christian church of the Third Reich, some in the Confessing Church seeking legalization under the Third Reich and others not, learning to pastor from one who had after all not pastored all that much in Germany itself, and one who had a vision for a new kind of pastor for a new kind of Germany.
(By the way, I’ve been asked if I am writing a book on Bonhoeffer. No, I’m not and have no intention to do so. I’m reading many of his official works in order to answer a question I have: How did the pacifist Bonhoeffer think his way from his pacifism to his involvement in the conspiracy? I am settling into an answer, and it may show up some time as an essay but for now it is just a question and a search.)
But what to teach from these two books? Root suggests the following themes can be raised:
1. Following Jesus. Root, pp. 173-174: “Follow is a book that in almost no way is after nuance, but only the provoking of direct, immediate, and faithful following of Jesus Christ. Even Bonhoeffer, in his prison cell, admitted that the book’s direct tone may be a danger to the reader. But though dangerous, due to its lack of nuance and propensity to yell its directive to FOLLOW, Bonhoeffer, even in his gray prison cell, stood behind every word.”2. Cheap Grace: who has not heard his amazing words? Grace as an idea instead of a summons.
3. Grace as principles, programs, and doctrines. Root:
It is possible that much of North American youth ministry is actually the perpetuation of cheap grace; it is the arm of the church that offers the “idea” of Christianity to the young. Bonhoeffer may tell us if he were with us today that the problem with youth ministry is that it is addicted to cheap grace. It has been so captivated by the “idea” of Christianity, by the idea of getting young people committed and excited about the institutional church, that it has given itself over almost completely to principles and programs. Just take stock of the most popular blogs and speakers at youth ministry conventions. Often these are not theologians or ministers but those in the business of ideation; they tell youth workers that they can create the next big idea, that Christianity is an idea and that if we can just break through, following the right principles, we can create programs of loyalty that stretch as deep as Apple and Gucci (177).
4. Grace at a cost. Root quotes DB: “Cheap grace has ruined more Christians than any commandment about works” (Discipleship, 55). Discipleship is an idea when it is not bound to the person of Jesus; when it is, it is costly grace; when it is not, it is cheap grace. So what does this look like for youth ministry? “Youth ministry may be simply, but profoundly, the space that invites young people to hear the personal call of Jesus Christ to come and follow” (180). As Root develops this theme it is all about personhood, not an idea, not a program, not a principle. Root turns it into a simple claim with this: “Bonhoeffer has shifted our focus from the idea of cheap grace to the personhood of costly grace” (187).
Thus: a youth ministry should focus on the call of Jesus to himself. “No further content is possible because Jesus is the only content. There is no other content besides Jesus. He himself is it” (187).
5. Cross: “Whenever Christ calls, his calls leads to death” (188). True discipleship is cruciform.
One more from Root (190): “Youth ministry invites young people to put their ear to their deepest questions of fear and death and listen intently for the Word of Jesus to come to them, to call them forth, from this fear and death to follow and find life in his person!”