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Gospel for the teen years

30 January 2012

Steve Hollinghurst on guides for the young and youth workers


Street Smart: Practical skills for connecting with young people
John Robinson and Jan Greenough

Monarch £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

Why and What I Believe
Martin Tensen
Coconut £19.99

CHRISTIAN youth work ranges from working primarily with non-Christians in open clubs or detached work to working with Christians in church groups. These two books illustrate that range.

Robinson and Greenough’s book draws on many years’ experience working with non-church young people through the Eden Projects. It describes itself as giving practical skills. This is very much what it does. Besides talking about youth culture and building relationships with young people, Street Smart goes further than many books, exploring practical issues related to youth work such as building good relationships with statutory bodies, safeguarding procedures, how to deal with gangs and violence, and properly managing a youth-work team.

I have several years’ experience in this area of youth work, but still learnt from the advice offered. Those seeking to start such a ministry will find much of this priceless. On these grounds alone, this book is a good addition to the genre. But there is more here than practical advice for doing open youth work: it is also a manual for doing cross-cultural mission in the diverse cultures of non-church young people. Working in this field, I recognise much of what is being said. It is well explained in a no-nonsense style.

I wish that the book in places went beyond practical advice to deeper questions. We are rightly told that “if you’re the kind of person who can’t conceal their disapproval of tattoos, low necklines or short skirts — send someone else,” and then are insightfully asked if we would respond in the same way to a minimally clad member of a native tribe.

The further questions, however, about why we may feel different about the two, and what that tells us about our assumptions and about the significance of seeing teenagers as if they were foreign tribespeople, are not raised. This would add theological depth to an argument that comes over otherwise as prag­matic. None of this means that this is not a good resource in this field.

Tensen’s book is very different. It begins with the “nine subjects of systematic theology”, and then seeks to “provide your faith with a firm foundation”. I was not, then, surprised that a teenager quoted on the dust jacket, though positive, described it as “rather heavy”.

The book is based on 160 ques­tions interlaced with group exercises and various negative views on faith to be countered as the nine subjects — the Bible, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, man (it is man throughout), salvation, the Church, angels and demons, and eschatology — are ex­plored.

These areas are given more down-to-earth titles aimed at youth-group study. That section six is called “If God is love, why the need to shed blood?” and nine “How does the world end?” gives you a flavour of how these are handled, and hints at its fairly conservative theology.

What you make of this book will depend on how you find its approach. Its style is to set out in outline a range of ways in which theologians, philosophers, and popular critics of Christianity have approached questions; and this is informative. In the end, however, it is clear what the right answer is supposed to be: it will be one that assumes that the Bible is inerrant, that never questions the dating or authorship of its contents, or their historical accuracy, and that accepts only scholarship within the biblical text, not standing outside it.

So the answer to difficult questions about “what I believe” tends to be “The Bible says . . .”; and, if probed on reasons why, “God has made sure the Bible is inerrant and we have to accept that by faith.”

With this approach, even though much good information about the original text is provided, the most searching questions remain un-asked. The only heaviness is the weight of its large-size 400 pages.

As someone pleased to have been taught biblical study at an excellent Evangelical college, I know that there is far more that the Bible can say. Some people, of course, do believe in this way, but when I was a university chaplain, I met too many who, when this all fell down like a pack of cards, equated it with losing their faith. Something like a couple of good Tom Wright paperbacks might prove a better purchase.

The Revd Steve Hollinghurst is Researcher in Evangelism to Post-Christian Culture at the Church Army Sheffield Centre.

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