First up is Dr. David F. White, the C. Ellis and Nancy Gribble Nelson Associate Professor of Christian Education at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. David has been a part of the Youth Theological Initiative at Candler School of Theology (Emory University), and is also the author of Practicing Discernment With Youth (Pilgrim Press, 2005).
Be sure and leave your questions and comments, as Dr. White has expressed curiosity in your responses and a desire to reply to your questions.
-----Dan: Over the past few decades there’s been a dramatic increase in the “professionalization” of youth ministry. Do you think this trend will continue?
David: First, I would insist that it is important for us to explore the professionalization that you consider on the increase. And there are at least two ways in which people use this term, which correlate with two somewhat different trends. Until the height of the baby boom in the early 1970s youth ministry was a relatively organic affair in which congregations more easily integrated youth and their concerns into the intergenerational life in the church. As the numbers of teenagers grew, countercultural movements established a generation gap that proclaimed that young people should be suspicious of their elders. The suspicion was not undeserved since social norms of the 1950s required youth to be seen and not heard, to work and study hard, in part to avoid the desperation of the economic depression that many of our parents lived through. It was also at this time that developmental theory came to prominence and helped to envision adolescence as a discrete psychological stage with its own needs and tendencies. These are among the social forces that helped to make youth ministry a priority, as churches across the United States scrambled to hire youth directors, setting the stage for the professionalization of youth ministry. It was in the early 1970s that groups like Youth Specialties and Group Magazine began serving the needs of youth workers by offering resource seminars, Idea books, tapes, and ultimately national conferences. These gatherings provided a forum for youth workers to meet, support each other, organize and importantly, to claim an identity as a respectable ministry, different from other pastoral roles. Of course, these movements are now institutionalized as corporations, publishing houses, and speakers’ bureaus. And, most recently, some of those emerging from this historic movement have pursued academic careers in service of making youth ministry a more respectable intellectual enterprise—even Youth Specialties now has an academic publishing label. In fact, American models of youth ministry are being exported to all parts of the globe. Today, youth ministry has more financial and intellectual resources than ever before in the history of the world. I do not see this trend slowing or reversing anytime soon. It seems securely woven into the fabric of American religious life. It is worth asking whether this trend is entirely positive in terms of how congregations are cultivating young people as followers of Jesus Christ.
There is another side to the conversation about professionalization, the darker side, as it were. Remember all those congregations that once organically integrated teens into their intergenerational life? It seems as if many of them have forgotten how to nurture teens. So much energy and attention has been given to the model of youth ministry that requires a paid, trained professional, so that adults and congregations have forgotten how to nurture and mentor young people so that they are not simply relegated to the margins of community life, but are brought into its center and empowered for important roles. Further, as youth ministry has become more professionalized, youth workers have demanded salary increases, such that many smaller churches cannot afford to hire them. Further, few professionals are content to minister in a church that has small or no program budget. This effectively makes the professionalization of youth ministry a rather elite sort of thing, reserved for churches with resources to sustain such a program and salary budget.
Finally, although the professionalization of youth ministry has undeniably wrought much good, it is worth asking whether we can afford to think so parochially, whether we need to divert more of our attention to these margins, to help them develop sustainable ministries with youth. Much of my work has focused in these ways. I am a bit skeptical that all of the money and sophistication in contemporary youth ministry has yielded a correlative effectiveness. I have become something of a Luddite in terms of youth ministry technology. I want churches to return to fundamentals, where adults who excel in their practice of Christian faith draw young people alongside as apprentices in learning ideas and practices.
Dan: What do you see as some areas where the Church is missing the point in practices of youth ministry and how could we all do a better job of “getting it?”
David: Gee Dan, that is an enormous question and I do not pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the entire church sufficient to address this fully. However, I can say a bit about what drives my own research and writing. I observe that many youth workers are at risk of unreflectively assimilating to dominant/popular culture—to new forms of technology, consumerist approaches, marketing approaches, individualistic approaches, high spectacle approaches, etc. The question of culture is very complex, but it is one that the gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to face squarely. Whereas once upon a time culture was created in response to religious, human, and relational values attentive to the common good, today much of contemporary culture is in thrall to market forces, which spawns entertainment, media, consumerist habits, reduces self identity and relationships as commodities—as either consuming or producing objects. Of course this market colonization is not totalizing and includes pockets of humanity, but is nevertheless gaining strength in this era of globalization. Which is all to say, that youth ministry in particular and congregations in general must not simply assimilate to forms that are identical to culture, but must critically and theologically and shape ministry forms that are faithful. The kinds of questions that we must be asking include, “Does this form simply give youth a buzz or does it invite them into the joy of the gospel? Does this form allow for silence? Does this form allow for real self implicating vulnerability before God and neighbor? Does this form forge connections between other supporting Christians? Does this form forge connections with God? Does this form compel youth into the world in missions--that is love of neighbor? Does this form nurture youth in forming a vocational sense of self, in which God is calling forth their signature gifts in partnership with God?” In general, I am calling for a more rigorous practice of discernment among congregations, youth ministers and youth. Finally, youth need greater capacities for testing the spirits—what is holy and unholy, what calls them to life and what drains life from them. So, the practice of discernment is needed to help resist distortions of culture and self deception. But on the positive side, we need for youth ministry to embrace normative forms of Christian faith, practices that shape their bodies, minds, hearts, souls in Christ’s image. I am speaking of course of practices of prayer and bible study, but also practices such as hospitality to strangers, seeking justice, honoring the body, keeping Sabbath, living in community, forgiveness, singing our lives, dying well, creativity, taking food, discernment, and nurturing children. These are practices that Christians have kept in different forms throughout history, appropriately reshaped for their context. They have biblical precedent and themselves embody deep wisdom and doctrine. They have a trajectory toward individual and social healing envisioned as the fulfilled Kingdom of God, yet bear glimpses of that fulfillment at this time and place. Having said that, I am most intrigued and persuaded by the work of folks like Fred Edie at Duke who has effectively introduced a liturgy based curriculum for youth ministry that sees all of these practices in crystal clarity in worship, and insists that worship is primary context of theology and practice that forms us for work beyond the sanctuary, for the liturgy beyond the liturgy. His work seems vitally important for those who seek to resist the pull toward forming youth in distortions of market-formed culture.
Dan: What do you see as some of the biggest changes in youth ministry currently taking place? What affects do you think we might see?
David: As I said above, the biggest changes have to do with youth ministry’s seduction by market culture. But this is not the only change, nor necessarily the most determinative. I am heartened, for example, by the new ranks of Ph.D. types who are thinking and writing on youth ministry—such as Kenda Dean, Fred Edie, Andrew Root, Tony Jones, Dori Baker, Evelyn Parker. When I began my doctoral work in 1992 after 25 years in youth ministry there were only a small handful of folks in the U.S. doing advanced work on youth ministry, and now there are dozens. The effect of Lilly grant money getting the attention of seminaries and graduate programs, Princeton’s youth ministry forum, the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry, the Youth Ministry Educators Association, etc. has been to increase the number and quality of those doing such reflection on youth ministry. I am not suggesting that advanced research will have any sort of messianic effect, it will not alone save youth ministry. But, I suspect that it may serve an important role as a “ministry of identity”—in other words, it will hopefully keep youth ministry grounded in the deep logic of Christian theology, and prevent the inevitable drift toward tips, tricks and techniques that has dominated youth ministry in some eras.
Dan: What model of youth ministry that you’ve seen do you think is most intriguing, and why?
David: I am inherently suspicious of models as generalizable or universalizable to fit all contexts, however, as I have said, there are some basic normative rhythms that are biblical and theological that should ground all youth ministry (and church ministry more generally). For example, youth ministry should always (following Maria Harris here) involve leitorgia (worship and prayer), diakonia (service and justice), didache (teaching), koinonia (community) and kerygma (proclamation). Youth ministry should seek to participate in a three fold dance to which the Holy Spirit invites us—the dance of awakening us to God’s love, empowering us into fullness of humanity, and calling us into mission in the world. Youth ministry that does not do these things is truncated or bourgeois. I see these things being done effectively in many different ways across the church—many of which happen in small or rural churches and you will never see them celebrated in a Youth Specialties catalogue or conference. As I have said above, I think youth ministry approaches that engage the normative forms of Christian faith—worship and practices—will be faithful to the logic of the gospel. Which calls to mind another perennial question—what counts as effective or successful youth ministry? Having done youth ministry in some form since 1973 I am exceedingly tired of the short-sighted compulsion to seek numbers. I know the pressures of churches to justify paying salaries to youth workers, or the pressures to show they are doing well enough to merit attention of judicatory officials or Youth Specialties, or whomever. While I have sympathy for these pressures, when numbers come at the expense of deep tissue formation it is not only irrelevant, it is a sinful waste of time and resources. In my view, youth ministry that starts small and grows deep does something important. I am not denying the possibility that some churches may both attend to depth and breadth, but it must not come at the expense of depth.
Dan: If you could see one of your dreams about youth ministry come true for the Church Universal, what would it be, and why?
David: One of my deepest fears is that adolescence as it has developed over the course of the twentieth and into the twenty first century, has created a stage of life in which youth become abstracted or removed—from their families, from local contexts of neighborhoods and churches, from attention to social dynamics, from significant social roles that once empowered them to action. As my research has shown, there were times in history when youth were more centrally involved in significant social roles in churches, communities and for the common good. This is not only sad because it has disempowered young people, but it has served to segregate them from the life of congregations and communities. I believe that youth have signature gifts to offer the church, gifts that glimpse the kingdom of God, such as energy, beauty, creativity, questioning. I dream of a day when youth ministry would play a somewhat different role than housing youth while they await adulthood, but instead would empower youth to take on roles as adolescents, bringing adolescent charisms to these tasks. I think what we would gain would not only be the empowerment of youth, but the enrichment of the entire church. The church needs this vitality; the world needs this vitality for its healing. My ultimate hope of course is that the beauty of God would inhabit and heal all things, that all creation’s groaning would be met by God’s healing touch, that all people would live into the purpose of their creation. I think the resurrection of Jesus Christ promises as much. I suspect that God yearns to empower youth as partners of this transformation. And somewhere deep in the fabric of their hearts all young people yearn to participate in such transformation.