Learning to Be, Not Do, in Youth Ministry

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Poetic Youth Ministry, by Jason Lief

POETIC YOUTH MINISTRY: LEARNING TO LOVE YOUNG PEOPLE BY LETTING THEM GO
JASON LIEF
CASCADE BOOKS, 2015
$21
160 PAGES

Poetic Youth Ministry, by Jason Lief, is a disruptive book on youth ministry. Opening with the Disney film WALL•E as an analogy for the challenging identity-formation journey young people face, Lief examines why the “faith scripts” taught in many of our churches often end in tragedy, with our young people choosing a different faith than Christianity or opting out entirely. Lief is driven by a concern for those who have left the faith, the factors that contributed to their leaving and how we might respond.

Lief (who is co-editor of Perspectives) begins by critiquing a variety of popular youth ministry approaches and concludes with this observation:

The recurring theme found throughout this literature is that the Christian community has either failed to cultivate the right practices that ground the identity of young people in orthodox Christian belief, or the community has failed to seriously engage the new cultural reality young people inhabit every day (p. 12).

The church concludes that young people leave as a result of inadequate teaching or insufficient communication of the gospel. By contrast, Lief says young people are drawn to and enamored with the social imagery governing Western culture, which he identifies as global-technocaptialism. According to Lief, global-technocaptialism “emphasizes progress, surplus value, and the transcendence of humanity through technological progress.” He observes that in many cases the church adopts approaches to ministry and faith formation that co-opt the values of global-technocaptialism. Young people are thus catching a very different understanding of the Christian gospel than the church intends to communicate. They don’t leave the church; they merely exchange the Christian faith for the promises of global-technocaptialism.

ESCHEWING ‘STRONG THEOLOGY’

Lief describes global-technocaptialism within the church as a “strong theology” that exercises “power by using language to make positive statements about God, the kingdom of God, and the way the world should be.” This theology, combined with what Charles Taylor describes as the sanctification of ordinary life, results in a profoundly different version of Christianity. Lief argues that Taylor “demonstrates that the ‘object of faith’ for this way of life is a belief in an immanent ‘god’ that is present in the natural laws and ordering of the world. Through the presence of ‘god’ in the structures and ordering of society, humanity is empowered to transcend the difficulties of material life by creating new forms of peace, security, and ‘happiness’ through the political and economic spheres of ordinary life.” In this context, young people leaving the church are a problem because they are stepping outside the lines drawn by the church.

To counter this situation, Lief draws on the work of philosophers Gianni Vattimo and John Caputo and recommends we purse a “weak theology.” A weak theology is rooted in subverting the power structures and being present with young people. He invites us to consider what it looks like to equip young people to embrace life in this broken world, “to live responsible lives of love and hope.” Lief’s notion stands in sharp contrast to many youth ministries, where “through practices of piety, morality, and doctrinal beliefs, young people construct an identity that is desirable, or consumable, for the sake of the Christian community.”

In the last portion of the work, Lief draws on the works of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to explore the role of presence in young people’s faith formation. Lief’s desire is for young people to encounter the living Christ. This will involve re-examining the nature and character of our communities, not the addition of yet another program. He summons us to consider a different way of “being” rather than trying “to do” more to retain them.

Lief’s invitation is disruptive. His analysis will foster nods of agreement and disagreement. His description of youth ministry being co-opted by global-technocaptialism will be met with suspicion. His invitation to focus on being present rather than doing things and solving problems will leave one awkwardly searching for a solution. In spite of his intriguing analysis of the current situation, helpful alternative perspective and the invitation to be present with young people, one is left wondering “to what end?” The “telos” (end), and this is true throughout youth-ministry literature, is elusive. How does he desire to see young people formed? The gospel transforms people, and this transformation, for example, ought to be marked by an increasing presence of the fruit of the spirit in a person’s life.

Poetic Youth Ministry provides an intriguing look at youth ministry that has implications for every ministry in the church. It challenges each of us to consider a different way of being – a challenge that deserves serious consideration.

This book is best read in a group. If you decide to engage in a reading date with Poetic Youth Ministry, a date you will not regret, be prepared for a heated and intense dialogue with Lief’s critiques and proposals.

Darwin Glassford, a youth minister for more than 30 years, now teaches church education at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and pastors Harderwyk Ministry, Holland, Michigan.