Youth Ministry in a Secular Age

Youth Ministry in a Secular Age May 10, 2016

James KA Smith’s You Are What You Love is an accessible, penetrating treatment of the liturgical understanding of human existence, of discipleship, and culture that Smith has been developing in a number of his recent books. In this book, he focuses on the specifics of Christian liturgy as a “technology of recalibration” that inculcates a vision of the world and the future, new habits, and, above all, new loves. And he extends his argument by talking about liturgies of the home, the liturgical form of ministry in the church, and the liturgical dimension of work and culture-making.

In one of many insightful passages, he takes on contemporary youth ministry. It’s not pretty. Smith argues that “we have turned youth ministry into an almost entirely expressivist affair, surmising that what will ‘keep’ young people in the church is a series of opportunities for them to sincerely exhibit their faith. Instead of embodied worship that is formative, we have settled for a dichotomy: an emotive experience as a prelude to the dispensation of information, thirty minutes of stirring music followed by a thirty-minute ‘message.’ While you might not immediately guess it, such dominant paradigms in youth ministry are actually held captive to thinking-thingism [Smith’s phrase for the Cartesian intellectualist understanding of the human person]: the anti-intellectual fixation on entertainment is really just a lack of confidence in formation.” The emotivism of youth ministry “is tethered to a deeply intellectualist paradigm of discipleship: the whole point of keeping young people happy and stirred and emotionally engaged is so that we can still have an opportunity to deposit a ‘message’ into their intellectual receptacles” (145).

Youth ministry is thus at cross purposes with itself: “In many cases we have already ceded their formation to secular liturgies precisely by importing these liturgies into the church under the banner of perceived relevance. So while young people might be present in our youth ministry events, in fact what they are participating in is something that is surreptitiously indexed to rival visions of the good life” (146). As Smith says, “form matters,” and if our youth ministry is formed by secular liturgies, it will form the young to be comfortably at home in a secular age. Such youth ministry exhibits the effects of what Charles Taylor calls “excarnation,” the disembodiment of the Christian faith: “Having reduced Christianity to a message, we create an emotional experience as a gateway to dispensing the message.” As Smith argues, “this is a sign that we have given up on incarnate modes of formation bequeathed to us in liturgy and the spiritual disciplines” (146).

Youth ministry that is effectively secularized can backfire. By equating “extroversion with faithfulness,” it discourages and turns off young people who are not extroverted (146). Youth ministry is designed to keep kids in the church, but it can drive them away: “in the name of curating an exciting, entertaining ‘experience’ to keep young people in the faith, we end up only creating consumers of a Jesus message while disenchanting vast swaths of older young people who simply can’t imagine signing up for a Jesus glee club” (147).

In place of this paradigm, Smith argues that churches should make use of “ancient Christian disciples and historic Christian worship,” which many young people will receive as “a life-giving gift” (147). Citing his experience as a college teacher, he argues that “young people experience historic practices of prayer and devotion as gifts of grace in themselves, a way that the Spirit meets them where they are” (147). Disciplines and Christian liturgy form a genuinely counter-secular youth culture.

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