Last Friday I was wandering through my old stomping grounds, the National Youth Workers Convention, in Sacramento. Beside me was Andrew Root, a friend since we were both Ph.D. students at Princeton Theological Seminary. Later that day we would sit together on a theological panel considering the state of the science-and-religion dialogue, but at that moment we were wandering through the conference book store.
Root is among the top rank of theologians working in youth ministry today, and he is undisputedly the most prolific author in the field, often publishing two books per year. Virtually an entire table was committed to his books, but one book was no where to be found. Root’s latest book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together was sold out, and the conference wasn’t even 24 hours old.
The popularity of Root’s new book is testament to a couple things, not least of which is the ongoing interest in Bonhoeffer, a 20th century theologian, activist, and martyr. Root has long studied Bonhoeffer, and he’s used the content of Bonhoeffer’s unfinished masterpiece, Ethics, to argue that relationship is not a means to an end in Christian ministry — relationship is the telos of ministry, since that’s where Christ enters the human situation.
Now Root has looked directly at Bonhoeffer’s legacy as a youth worker. It turns out that Bonhoeffer’s work with children and youth was more important to his development as a theologian than many realized. For example, Root writes that from 1925 to 1927, Bonhoeffer taught weekly catechism classes to youth and preached a weekly children’s sermon in worship. Root quotes Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial biography of Bonhoeffer, “He made biblical stories as exciting as sagas or as appealing as fairy tales. He went to great trouble to hold the children’s attention, which is why he so carefully wrote out in advance what he proposed to tell them.”
As any of us who have done youth ministry knows, adolescents often ask the most pointed questions about faith and belief. In chapter 6, Root recounts an astounding story from Bonhoeffer’s time in Barcelona, during which he concentrated on youth work. There, a young boy tearfully told Bonhoeffer, “Mr. Wolf is dead!” Mr. Wolf was the boy’s dog, and after Bonhoeffer consoled him, the boy asked, “Will I see Mr. Wolf again?”
If you want to see Root’s own theological heart — and you’re ready for some more heavy-duty theology — I commend to you his Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross. Basically, Root is frustrated that the current state of practical theology has turned toward the empirical and thus squeezed out any room for human experience of divine action. Too much, practical theology has become a sociology of religious experience, he argues, rather than a framework for helping people understand their very real experiences with God. Using theologians like Eberhard Jüngel, James Loder, Karl Barth, and Douglas John Hall, Root works to correct that.
I will be interested to see how the practical theology guild responds to Root’s challenge. Like Andy, my own Ph.D. is in this field, and I too was surprised at how empirically focused the whole field was. Progressive and liberal Christians in general have a hard time talking about God, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Christopraxis throws down a gauntlet of sorts in practical theology. Since these academic guilds at glacial speed, it will take some time to tell if that challenge is taken seriously. I, for one, hope it is.