WHEN my latest book was published last month, my publisher and I thought that its title — The End of Youth Ministry? — would be provocative enough to draw attention. We never thought that it would be prophetic.
Now, a few weeks into the pandemic, for most congregations and para-church organisations, youth ministry has, indeed, ended — at least, it has ended in all the ways that we have always done youth ministry (not being allowed to gather in groups larger than ten will do that).
My book asks a question, which is not often wrestled with by youth workers, pastors, and youth ministry gurus: why do youth ministry at all? It asks what youth ministry is really for. These questions were important before Covid-19 had locked us in our houses, maxing out our bandwidth. Now, these questions are existential.
THE question “What is youth ministry for?” is important, particularly in middle-class settings, because, during the past decade or so, congregational youth ministry has not fared very well. The waning of youth ministry has not, however, been caused by a frontal attack: there have not been petitions or speeches calling for the ending of youth ministry.
Rather, next to all other opportunities and activities in children’s lives, youth ministry has slid down the scale of importance; just ask any youth worker. In the autumn, parents make a commitment to getting their children to a youth group or confirmation, but, when things get busy in October, the same parents tell youth workers that their child just does not have time. Basketball, test preparation, piano practice, or any other dozen activities will keep them from participating in in youth-group activities. During the past two decades, the youth group has lost its prominent place in families’ schedules.
Ironically and counter-intuitively, however, this slide seems to be concurrent with parental involvement. Over the past generation or so, as parents have become more involved in their children’s activities, youth ministry has had less hold over families’ time and attention. We could say that young people are less committed to youth groups not because parents are less concerned for the future of their children, but because they are more concerned.
OVER these past few decades, we have seen a whole reworking of our imagination of a good life. Once — indeed, as recently as the 1980s and ’90s — parents believed that they gave their children a good life by staying away: providing ample free time and free space was what an adolescent needed to flourish, it was believed.
This is evident in the Netflix drama Stranger Things, which readers would do well to watch during their quarantine. In it, Mr and Mrs Wheeler, the parents of Mike, one of the main characters, are classic (and loving) 1980s parents, who stay out of their teenagers’ lives. In the era depicted, a parent’s job is to provide meals, a basement, and a curfew. Outside of that, children are free to roam the neighbourhood. If you happen to be in Hawkins, the small Indiana town where the series is set, your roaming will include fighting a demogorgon. If not, you may find it advantageous to go to a church youth group, have some mindless fun, and hang out with some friends. There wasn’t much else to do in the 1980s.
There has been a radical shift since then. Today, a good parent is considered to be one who helps his or her child to flourish, who no longer stays out of the child’s life, but organises and directs it. Parents now see it as their responsibility to help their adolescent children to flourish by giving them every opportunity to find themselves by finding their thing (cheerleading, singing, dance, chess) in the world. Schedules are no longer open, but packed with practices and tutors (so packed that they drive parents to exhaustion).
But that is all worth it, it is believed, because that it is how you become a good parent. Today, parents’ job is to help their children live whatever dream that they want in the future — by getting them involved in all the right activities, practices, and rehearsals. It is frantic involvement that will do it.
THE German social theorist Hartmut Rosa argues that people’s lives have been so sped up over the past few decades, going faster and faster, that they no longer have any sense of what a good life is in the present.
We have no sense that it is our job to help our kids to understand and live the content of a good life now. Even Christian parents are not sure what the good life is. They are even less sure how they would teach and form their child towards a good life that’s for the here and now. The present, Rosa explains, is too short: our lives move too fast for us to assume that a good life has any content in the present.
The good — what it means to flourish — has shifted almost completely into the future. Parents drive thousands of miles from one sports tournament to the next, or across the county or state for lessons with the best piano teacher, not because they believe time in a smelly minivan (people carrier) is part of the good life. They do it because these activities give their child resources. And, if they get it right, those resources can be cashed in for a good life in some undefined future.
Youth ministry will never be able to compete as an activity. It will never rival sport or music, because it can never promise to give young people the kind of resources that can achieve some future dream. While saying things about the future, Christianity particularly is — as all religious traditions are — more concerned about the present. There is a sense of ultimacy about the future, a hope for the beyond, but faith is about what it means to live in this moment. Faithfulness is living fully in relation to God now.
SO, WHAT in the world should youth ministry be for in this time of contagion and quarantine? Imagine that your whole life as an adolescent, or as a parent of an adolescent, has been about “looking forward”: to the next competition, to admission to an elite university, to being chosen for this team and playing in that tournament, to how you’ll juggle both your children’s tournaments on the same day.
Now, just imagine that one day (like last week), all the “looking forward” was suddenly over: all the work, investment, time, scheduling, and momentum halted. Imagine that all the activities that produced resources towards giving your child some future good life stopped. And imagine that there was no timetable for when you could again “look forward.” Your whole identity as a parent, and an adolescent, was found in “looking forward.” But now there is no way to do so. Who are you?
What do you do when a virus causes you to be completely and relentlessly in the moment? How do you live only with only enough knowledge (and schedule) for the present? What is the purpose of life, of parenting, if all your control in setting what’s coming and what needs to be looked forward to, is over? You can’t even crawl back to the youth group, the ever reliable back-up activity, waiting in the wings.
When the trappings of youth ministry end, what we are left with is the core: ministry. Right now, this is where youth ministry has to start: in the painful gift of being given the here and now. What we can offer parents and young people is an invitation to be in the present and to reflect on what it means to be living well.
It is in this unique moment that youth ministry can ask young people to respond. Perhaps churches could invite them to make videos and micro podcasts that wrestle with what it feels like to be in the here and now. What makes it full or meaningful? What is it like to stop and listen for the voice of God, not in “looking forward”, but right now, in the pain now? This moment gives us an odd (and poignant) opportunity to ask young people who they are, where God reaches for them.
AT THIS TIME, youth ministry needs to be exposing young people to stories of people in their church communities who have found God in moments of longing and loss, of hope and hardship. What about pairing them up with an older member of the congregation to interview? “Tell me about a hard or strange time: how did you sense God in it? How did it change you?”
It in these very moments, when “looking forward” has no power to pacify and distract us from our being alive, that we need to seek for the God of life. Youth ministry now needs to wonder: what if all the things that we were looking forward to never come again, how will we grieve for them? But, more importantly, who will we be? Who is God calling us to be now? Asking these questions together — that’s what youth ministry is for.
Dr Andrew Root is Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, St Paul, Minnesota, in the United States. The End of Youth Ministry? Why parents don’t really care about youth groups and what youth workers should do about it is published by Baker Academic at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-5409-6139-6.