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‘Incarnational’ under fire

20 December 2013

Steve Hollinghurst considers youth work and its theology

Youth Work from Scratch: How to launch or revitalize a church youth ministry
Martin Saunders
Monarch £12.99
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Models for Youth Ministry: Learning from the life of Christ
Steve Griffiths
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT853 )

THESE are two very different books on youth ministry.

The book by Martin Saunders is, as the title suggests, a guide to setting up good Christian youth work from nothing. It is compre­hensive and practical, and goes through the steps from creating a vision for the ministry to assembling and training volunteers, all the way through to assessing the project once it is established.

At each stage, advice based on the author's considerable experience is supplemented by insightful short pieces from others in the field. There are also example forms, ques­tionnaires, programme plans, and other useful tools to use across a wide range of areas. Much of this is geared to those starting out, but much of the material will also be useful for those reassessing youth ministry that may lead to insights that can really improve it.

Saunders argues that all youth ministry should be "mission-shaped". This is evident in a number of areas, especially the helpful material on listening to the context before deciding what is needed. Church activities can respond to per­ceived needs, not real ones, especially when adults set up minis­tries for young people. Saunders also explores the "Believe, belong, behave" axiom, and suggests that, in youth ministry, it starts with a safe place to belong, then addresses behaviour, and finally opens the space for belief. As such, it adds to a growing awareness that discipleship is not something one offers only after conversion, but is part of working for transformed lives and communities at all stages of the journey of faith.

The book by Steve Griffiths is very different: a work of theology seeking to change how we think about youth ministry. It is essen­tially about Christology, and offers different chapters on Jesus's incarn­ation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and Second Coming, and seeking insights from each for youth ministry.

Our theological assumptions often remain unquestioned, and ministry suffers as a result; so the intention here is worth while. Throughout, there are good lessons on vulnerability, the limits to in­­carnation (we don't become teen­agers!), dependence on God, and the sacrificial nature of ministry. The Christological structure, how­ever, leads to a great deal of repeti­tion.

The author's particular target is "incarnational" youth ministry that builds long-term relationships with the hope of "earning the right" to share the gospel. Instead, Jesus's ministry, he argues, is formed of brief but powerful encounters. This brings us to his great theme: under­standing the difference between the two Greek words for time,chronosandkairos. The emphasis, he argues, has been on on-going,chronos, time-commitment, when it should be onkairos, moments when God breaks in. We can focus so much on the planned programme that we are not open to the God-inspired event that may actually be far more important. That is not to say that he doesn't value planning; rather, he wants us to be alive to thekairosmoments within thechronostime.

Nevertheless he tries to push thischronos/kairosdistinction too far. Gradually, "chronosthinking" also becomes promoting our ego against God, and our selfishness against others' need. The word simply will not bear the weight being put on it.

If the emphasis on "earning the right to speak" has been a corrective to speaking without understanding the context, and thus failing to communicate, Griffiths is right to remind us that God can break in at any point in people's lives, and we need to seize those opportunities. In focusing on Christology, however, he ignores the real basis of the idea that ministry with the non-churched may take a long time.

This is not the incarnation, which tells us that we must go and meet people where they are, but the experience of moving from Jewish to Gentile mission in Acts, which tells us that mission often takes longer with those who do not share our religious background. I am also not convinced by his half-page argument that Jesus didn't really spend much time with the disciples either. The Gospel accounts, time and again, contrast the one-off encounters with the on-going teaching of the disciples. Acts and the epistles suggest that this be­­comes the pattern for the Church, too.

Griffiths also feels that talk of Jesus present with us has hidden the importance of the Spirit and hope in the Second Coming, both to be given their due weight. He em­­phasises that, after the ascension, Jesus is in heaven, awaiting the Second Coming. This, however, seems to take account only of the physical Jesus of Nazareth, and ignores the Logos of St John's Gospel or the Christ of the epistles, who ascended to fill everything, and in whom all things hold together. Equally, while Jesus needed to go that the Spirit could come in his place, this means that the Church is sent, as Jesus was, as his new body on earth, so that he is again present. But this is also a target for Griffiths, who fears that it heaps guilt on youth workers in the expectation that they are Christ to others.

This is an ambitious book with some valuable insights. But its structure does not quite work, and the theology is too often shoehorned into over-played insights that end up distorting it.

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


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