How can youth ministry be more than fun and games? In this episode we speak with Andy Root about how youth can find identity and deep joy in shared narratives and intergenerational connections.
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How can youth ministry be more than fun and games? In this episode we speak with Andy Root about how youth can find identity and deep joy in shared narratives and intergenerational connections.
Douglas Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Dr. Andy Root, Professor and Carrie Olson Baalson Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a prolific writer, and we are highlighting his book The End of Youth Ministry. Our focus for this podcast is reimagining youth ministry. Andy, welcome to the podcast. I’m really excited to talk with you today.
Andy Root: Yeah, I’m honored to be with you. So thanks for having me.
Douglas Powe: Yes, I want to begin because I hadn’t thought about it this way, but I think this description is actually very good and is helpful in a way that probably many churches wouldn’t like it to be helpful. But could you share a little bit more about what you define as the fundamental challenge youth workers face in doing youth ministry today? And that in many cases where people really see them as or perceive them as is the director of fun?
Andy Root: Yeah, yeah. I think this has been a legacy that’s been with us for a little while at least in Protestant youth ministries. And I guess part of the point of the whole book and the argument is to try to make a case for why that was, why we tended to assume that we needed a youth worker who was the lead counselor of fun, as I use, as someone who can attract young people to come in. I’m also trying to show that this has maybe passed us by. And I think it was a suspect perspective even say three, four decades ago, to assume that the congregational youth worker their job was kind of “whatever you do, make sure that kids are having fun and that they want to come.” I think that that was suspect at the time. But I really think we’ve had some cultural changes that really make that impossible now. And it becomes a pretty big burden we put on the youth worker that doesn’t recognize that there are different questions and even different kind of moral horizons at play that I think need to make the youth ministry about something different than it was. But that was there because I think at the core we felt like what the youth ministry was for was attracting young people and playing its part in a kind of echo system that drew in young families. And young families with kids were interested in going to a church where there was a children’s ministry and there was a youth ministry. And so the point of the youth ministry and children’s ministry — no one would say it this way — but wasn’t often for ministry per se as much is a way to scratch the itch of middle-class parents’ desires. It’s a little crass way to say it. But I think that it’s served that way. And at the core then, what really matters is that kids are coming because they think it’s fun and you have the best youth ministry in town if it’s the most fun, or it is the most dynamic because young people are choosing to be part of it.
Doug Powe: Yeah, I appreciate that. And I think you’re right and you pointed out the danger is that really the idea wasn’t for youth workers to be involved in ministry. The idea was for them to attract young families to the church. So someone who in reality maybe wasn’t really good at ministry, but was great at attracting people, was perceived to be successful and of course the vice versa was true. And this really made for youth workers who were really interested in doing ministry, this made their job really challenging. I mean is that a fair statement.
Andy Root: Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, there was I think a certain perspective that unfortunately that we had this kind of perspective that “like attracts like.” So if you want young people to be part of the ministry, part of the church, their families to be happy with what was going on in the church, then you needed a youth worker who is basically a kid, you know a wild fun young person themselves, almost. So that ended up not being kind of “let’s look at somebody who has the maturity, or the perspective, the experience to do ministry and walk alongside our young people.” But we need somebody who can just keep kids happy and keep kids coming. And yeah, I think that was detrimental on both ends. I think it underplayed the value of what young people really wanted. And it also, I think, had a generation of youth workers who gave the church what the church expected which was not much deep thinking, not that much maturity. Not a kind of sense of a vocational calling into ministry but the programmer of fun things at the church.
Doug Powe: So Andy, I appreciate what you just said. And it connects to another point you made about how youth workers could fall into this trap with the congregation or the denomination where on the one hand they want them to be the director of fun, but then the youth worker also then can sort of build resentment. And they’re sort of waving their hands trying to get recognition for the youth, trying to say “Hey we’re over here. Look at what we’re doing.” Could you share more about this insight.
Andy Root: Yeah. I mean I think it becomes a real challenge. Because historically, as this has been pushed — that the youth ministries is for fun or a good youth worker is the person who has a youth group with the most fun — eventually I think if you stick around long enough, that this starts to chafe against you a little bit. And you start to recognize that there’s got to be something more you’re about. But then you have those conversations and I think often you’re kind of just told, “Well, just keep having fun. Or just keep doing this.” And it’s really easy I think then for the youth worker to take on some resentment towards the denominational or church as they try to win kind of recognition for youth ministry being a valid thing, that youth ministry having a valid place. So you’re caught a little bit in this place, where to make youth ministry about fun also then can set youth workers up to have certain resentment towards the denomination and towards the church that keeps asking them to live to that lowest common denominator.
And so you know this just becomes I think a challenge we have overall culturally where right now, I think in our time the need for recognition is a really strong thing and a really good thing. But we’re trying to negotiate how we do that. And how do we actually give legitimate recognition to people. And how do we think about that. And sometimes social media becomes more of a place for kind of cascading resentments for not receiving recognition for whatever it is that we’re doing. In some of those practice I think unhelpfully get transposed a little bit into youth workers who are honestly quite exhausted, trying to be the sales rep for the congregation through the youth ministry and are making pitches for the denomination or the church to see it as something deeper.
But one of the things I’m trying to push back in the book is to imagine that kind of going at war, or setting up youth ministry against the church, or youth ministry against the denomination that just doesn’t get it, and that my job then is to win recognition for young people at my church or young people everywhere. I don’t think is necessarily the most productive way forward. But it makes sense why we’ve been tempted into some of that. And I think having a deeper understanding what youth ministry actually is for would be is a helpful way to break that.
Doug Powe: I appreciate that answer. And I think that what you’re sharing is helpful. And it sets up what I just found surprising and also just a great read. You make this audacious claim that youth ministry is for joy. So my question is then, how are you distinguishing between joy and happiness? Because I can easily see people falling back down into this sort of hole that you’re trying to avoid. So how are you distinguishing when you make this claim of joy.
Andy Root: Yeah. It’s a great question. And you know it’s been fun to talk about this book because whenever I say my answer is that “youth ministry is for joy,” I kind of have a laugh. Because I’m not sure what that is. No one knows what it is. And it seems kind of like an obvious thing like we know what joy is. But it’s somehow eluded us even though it’s this deep kind of biblical concept to me.
You know, and to be quite honest, I stumbled upon this because this book comes out of a grant that was at the Yale Divinity School that was looking at joy and human flourishing. So I was part of two groups with that grant. And we were really supposed to center on what joy actually is. And the more I thought about it the more it really connected to this. But you’re right that the whole problem culturally is that we kind of see joy as a synonym for happiness. And who isn’t for happiness? And isn’t that kind of “lead counselor of fun” to stir up the happiness and put more happiness in kids’ lives?
So one of the reasons I want to push back and say that youth ministry really has to change is because of the way these two things work together and are kind of embedded in parents’ imaginations. In one, I think parents feel an incredible amount of pressure that they need to help their kids formulate an identity to be able to answer the question “Who am I?” And maybe somebody quite different than 20 or 30 years ago is answering that question “Who am I?” The options for that had just exploded. And it just feels like there’s now a unique identity for every person.
In the days of the John Hughes’ movie The Breakfast Club, there were eight different options to be an identity at a high school. You could be the jock. You could be the homecoming queen. You could be the geek. You could be this or that. That just doesn’t exist anymore. And now I kind of believe that every young person, that in some way every person has their own authentic unique way of being themselves. And if you’re a parent that’s beautiful in a certain way and that’s beautiful I think overall culturally. But as a parent that’s really hard. Because in some sense, how do you then pass on values or kind of direction in that? You really just have to support whatever happens with your kid. And you get this other element that gets us into happiness.
We’re not really sure where this comes from culturally, but where we feel like our kids will never be happy if they’re not satisfied with their identity. Or if we don’t help them find their unique self, they’ll never be happy. And you talk to most parents, and what they’ll say that they really want out of their children is they just want them to be happy. They just want their kids to be happy. And part of my point throughout the whole book is this drive towards identity and towards happiness is what makes youth ministry so hard right now. Because back just three or four decades ago, at the heyday of the youth group where the youth worker was the fun person who led the youth group. Well for the most part, kids don’t have that much to do. Especially middle class young people. They were hanging out a lot. They were roaming neighborhoods and driving cars and you know hanging out. So to have a youth group gave them something to do.
Well now, most at least middle class young people are incredibly busy and they’re not disconnected from their parents. They’re with their parents almost every minute as their parent drives them around the state for soccer tournaments and basketball tournaments and one violin coach to one S.A.T. prep coach. You know they’re going all the time. And parents are really invested in this because they want to help their kids to figure out who they are. And you can’t really pass on values to your kid because they have to figure their unique identity out. You can’t just impose an identity on them. But you can help them figure out “what their thing is.” And if they can figure out “what their thing is” — they’re really into basketball or they’re really into choir — then that will help them figure out their identity. And if they can figure out their identity, then they’ll be happy. And if they’re happy, then you’re a good parent. And I want to be very sympathetic to that. I have a 13-year-old and I have a 16-year-old. And I get it. I feel those pulls myself.
But I also want us to push us a little bit different and in a deeper direction. To think happiness is good and no one should ever not be about happiness. And we should always want more happiness in our lives. But both biblically, and even just in the great kind of Western philosophical traditions like stoicism or something like that, happiness was nothing to live for. Like happiness was great if you got it. No one should return happiness. But there’s got to be something bigger and deeper to live for. And so I wanted to take this turn away from happiness towards joy. And that joy actually is maybe as opposed to happiness being a feeling of maybe getting what you wanted at its most superficial, that joy is actually a deeper theological experience, I think, a deeper experience maybe even with God’s own action. That joy is experiencing the presence of communion and particularly divine encounter. In a death experience. In an impossible experience. When you felt like something was lost and it’s given back to you. When you felt like you were up against death and you found new life. The only way to describe what that feels like, what that tastes like, is joy. So it’s taking a pivot in youth ministry away from the youth ministry just being another thing that populates the calendar of young people.
And now the youth worker has to compete with volleyball and S.A.T. prep and just a menu of other activities. And to think that youth ministry instead is about participating in journeying with young people in their lives, and being present in these moments of joy, of shared life. Of being there in disappointment. Of being there in fear. Of being there in a new possibility as it dawns in their lives.
Doug Powe: Yeah. Yeah. And you have described it well. And I’m going to try something on and please punch holes in it immediately. But it seems to me what you are suggesting is instead of thinking about youth ministry as a program or just some sort of plan, that really we should be thinking about “how do we actually deeply invest and journey with young people and help them to experience communion into full a sense of community within that particular congregation but also community with God? And how that intersection can really make a difference in their lives?” So is that a fair statement? I’ll let you punch holes in the way that I’m describing it.
Andy Root: I have no holes to punch. That’s exactly right. And I really want to say that if we don’t take that turn, and if we kind of stick with the job of the congregation and youth worker is to make the youth ministry another thing on par with basketball and hockey and debate club and all of those things, that it will not serve the faith formation of young people. And it will not serve youth workers well. That you will be asking a youth worker to bang their head against the wall. But there’s something more beautiful in exactly what you said, in journeying with them. So instead of trying to manage the program so young people show up, what does it mean to actually find ways to participate deeply in young people’s lives? So that’s kind of the direction that it’s headed. So yeah, what you said was better than I could say.
Doug Powe: You’re kind. I’m going to take a little bit of a turn here and move to how you suggest we embody this or move into helping people to experience this joy and practice this joy. And what you suggest is moving from proposition to story. Could you say a little bit more about why you believe story is so powerful, particularly for youth?
Andy Root: Yeah. I think for me there’s a couple reasons that come out here that probably connect us back with our conversation. One is that I do concede kind of culturally that helping young people figure out their identity and how they answer the question “Who am I?” is a big piece. And it’s an essential piece probably of youth ministry and just really advocating for young people.
But I do think we have a kind of cultural illusion, especially as it relates to kind of more middle-class settings. There’s a certain illusion that the young person finds their identity internally within themselves. Like you know they go in their room, maybe they watch some YouTube videos, but at some point between 11 and 13, they come out of their room and announce to their parents, and then on school, and then on social media that “This is me. This is who I am.” And obviously there’s something to that.
But I think that that’s more of an illusion than an actuality. That we never formulate our identities by ourselves internally and that identity is always a discourse. It’s always a conversation. And it’s always a conversation with other people. And particularly to have an identity we need a story. For instance, to find yourself in an identity crisis is to find out that the stories that you were living in no longer work. Or the stories that you felt like articulated how your life was a good life no longer feel good. That everything you thought was true in the story you thought you were living isn’t true at all. And that throws you into an identity crisis. So to have an identity, I do think that we need a story, a story that articulates who we are.
And so what part of my point here is, that if youth ministry is trying to fight saying things which I often hear, like youth worker say things like, “Well, if kids in my community will get up at 5:00 in the morning to go to swim practice so that they can be on the swim meet, well then they should get up at 5:00 in the morning and read their Bible, too. You know, they should do the youth ministry activities at 5:00 in the morning just like they would do the sport?” And I always feel like “Gosh that’s naive. And if you can pull it off let me know. But good luck.” And I don’t know many who have.
Again we’re back to competing in that way, you’re just banging your head against the wall. But what youth ministry or the church, just the church’s ministry has, that even swimming or basketball don’t have, at least primarily, is that we are a narrative. That we give a story. The story of God’s own act within the world. The stories of the people in the congregation who have prayed and sought for God in disease and in suffering and in oppression. And that these stories are formative to us. And we need other people’s stories as much as we need to have our own story that we own. That we need to find our own story by hearing and participating in other people’s story.
So stories, I think, is a huge piece of how we formulated our identity in the Christian tradition. And most all the religious traditions are rich in narrative. You know the NFL had their 100th-year anniversary last year. We were inundated with the 100 greatest players and he 56 greatest Super Bowls, or whatever. You know we were inundated with this. And at one level, I think in our cultural context, the church kind of feels like we sit in the shadow of the great NFL. You know how many more people play fantasy football than care about church on Sunday morning? But at another level, you know while the NFL is this multibillion dollar business that has all these eyeballs in the American context, at another level the NFL has a hundred years of stories. And the church has 2,000 years. And if we go back to its Jewish roots you know more like 6,000 years of these stories and these narratives across the world of diverse contexts of people seeking for a living God manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. And finding ways to live and to die in and in and through this narrative. And that’s really quite beautiful and quite significant and also then connects us to Joy.
I think Joy, as opposed to happiness, that happiness can have a narrative to it, but happiness doesn’t necessitate it. And in the book, I make a kind of comment, a little analogy, that if you’ve got everything you wanted for Christmas, by March if I asked you about what you got for Christmas, it would be very hard for you to narrate it, even if you had a really happy Christmas and got everything you wanted. It would be hard for you to tell a story. And if you did tell a story, it would be the story of how you got the car you always wanted or something. You’d feel almost embarrassed narrating it and telling me why you wanted that. But joy, when you experience joy, it just comes out as a story. And you almost always have after narrate it and even make sense of it in and through a story. So joy is always narratable. It always has a deep story to it which is what passes it on, unlike in happiness.
I can actually become resentful of your happiness. Because it makes me feel like I’m less happy or that you got the thing that could’ve made me happy. The promotion or the product that I always wanted. But joy has a different kind of dynamic to it. That joy includes me in a certain way. It sweeps me up into the feeling, yes. But it sweeps me up into the narrative itself and it does something to my own identity, my own story of “who I am? And how I exist? And what’s a human life ? And what’s it for? And who is this God who is acting and moving within the world?” So story becomes a really significant thing. So I’m trying to push youth ministry and the church, maybe through youth ministry, to focus more on narrative and story than kind of winning program loyalty I guess is a way we could say it.
Doug Powe: I think what surprised me, although it should not have, I know you’re a Charles Taylor fan, has been how you take Taylor’s “close spin” and “open take” and relate that to story. Can you share a little bit with our listeners the way you connect these big ideas from Taylor.
Andy Root: Yeah. You know I am a kind of Charles Taylor junkie which is a difficult thing. Because the great thing about these epic-making theologians, philosophers in this case, but I guess it’s theologians too, but they make up words. And they make up concepts. And it becomes a kind of inside talk. When you get it, it’s really cool to have a beer and talk to people and use these words they made up or these concepts they made up. But this is one. It’s informative. But it’s also confusing.
But Taylor’s point is that he really does believe that identity is based in these narratives and stories. And he’s saying inside of our age, where we tend to live and inherit a world that he calls, again in his inside language, “an imminent frame,” where we tend to have a default setting, like your default setting on your phone, our default setting in most of western civilization is we’re kind of set to see things imminently or to see phenomenon as natural and material as opposed to supernatural. That we kind of inherit a world where when something strange happens, we don’t think “Oh, there may be an angel in the room. Or did the stranger I meet, that we had this weird encounter, could that be a devil or a demon?” We tend to presume more natural, material realities. Or when a global pandemic sweeps across the world, we tend not to think, you know, “The Devil’s after us. Or someone sinned against something. And this is what’s happened.” We tend to have other answers for these things.
And so one of the things he says is that inhabiting that kind of world, you still need stories. And you still need narratives. And a challenge for those of us who still hold on to some kind of transcendent reality, some kind of God who acts in the world, is that we still inherit this kind of world. But we can take on two different forms of being within it. And this is where Taylor kind of shows his own faith commitments. He says you know one way you can live, and one way you can you can gather these stories, these stories that come to you about whatever they may be — stories of answered prayer, or stories of meaning found in the midst of kind of losing something — and you find a great moment of joy, really.
You can interpret those stories in two ways. You can interpret those stories in what he calls a “closed spin” where you can have someone say “I was sick and I prayed. And you know, I just I heard God say to me ‘No matter what happens in the midst of this, I will I will never forsake you or leave you. I’ll be with you.’” This is a “closed spin.” You could say, “Oh well. You know this is what happens when people are desperate. They make all sorts of things up.” And this is just the way our consciousness works to solidify our anxiety. It’s a mechanism within the head that appeases our anxiety. You could say that would be a “closed spin.” But an “open take” would be to wonder. To be open to the possibility that maybe this does point to something bigger. That maybe there is a God who calls out to us and speaks to us.
And so one of the things I’m pushing really practically for in youth ministry inside of this is that instead of youth ministry becoming the funnest activity that young people participate in, maybe what it is is gathering young people when we can gather young people and expose them to a lot of stories. And then asking them to have an open take and lean into it. And asking them to discern these stories. And I think one of the things we don’t do in our cultural moment, where we want to be in a really good way affirming to everyone. But sometimes what that does is it cuts down us actually in doing the really honoring thing to people, which is to interpret their stories and to say, “Well, what does this mean? And if this happened to you, if you heard God say to you ‘Though you’re sick, I’ll never forsake you or leave you.’ What does that mean about the universe? What does it mean about my own life? What does it mean about the world we’re inhabiting?” And to lean into those and discern those.
And I just wonder if the youth workers job is to become both the curator of these stories that young people hear, but also the teacher, the guide who takes them in, to interpreting in them and discerning them. And tries to keep young people from spinning all those experiences closed. To keep open. To open up to wonder. To walk into those. I think it becomes a more formative way to think about what the youth worker and what the youth pastor is all about. That they’re the ones who journey with young people into narratives and always try to have an “open take.” That doesn’t always leads to “I believe this. Oh yes, this is what the creeds have always said.” No. It could lead to discussion. And it could lead to, “Yeah, I think that person had that vision. But they had taken too much Nyquil that night .” It could lead to discussion and pushback.
But I think our job is really to honor young people and say “We think you need a story. But we think you need to participate in that story by interpreting stories and by asking what they mean. And challenging them in some ways. But being open to them calling out to us. But that also means being discerning of them.
Doug Powe: Andy, thank you. And thank you for your time. As we get ready to draw to a close, I want to end with this. I’ve been using the term “youth ministry.” But the reality is you’re really clear throughout the book that it is about intergenerational ministry. Why do you have such an emphasis on calling it intergenerational ministry?
Andy Root: Yeah. I mean I think for me, what ultimately is important is that I try to tell my own students that if they are hired as the youth pastor say, that there really is no such thing as youth ministry. Or it could be a ministry malpractice to assume that you are the youth’s pastor. And that you’re kind of just cohorted with this group of people. And you’re just a pastor to these group of people. I actually don’t think that’s what young people need. And I don’t think that’s what the church needs.
Now that doesn’t mean that we might not have youth pastors for a long time within our churches. But we need to see the youth pastor as a pastor to the whole congregation who advocates for young people particularly. And that’s for cultural reasons more than theological reasons. And it’s for cultural reasons that we’ve cohorted young people up in secondary education and then into universities and things like that. And who knows how that will change post-pandemic. But that’s the reason we’ve had to do that.
But that the youth pastor, because they’re not the “lead counselor of fun,” because they’re not just the advocate for a great youth group that competes with all the other churches’ youth groups, but because they’re one who journeys with young people around narratives and stories, who seeks to participate in joy through narrative and story. Then they’re a pastor. They are involved in the core ministerial work. And so that becomes intergenerational in itself. But this place of narrative also means that we have to do intergenerational work. If the point is just to retain young people through fun, then it again may work to just cohort them out with “like with like.” If you want kids just too have fun, why would a 15-year-old want to hang out with a 65-year-old or a 75-year-old or an eight-year-old? Why would they want to do that? That seems boring and that seems weird.
But if this is about something deeper and this is about sharing in these experiences of joy through the narrating our experiences, then that 75-year-old has a lot to tell these young people. And the young people, the 15-year-old has a lot to tell the 75-year-old. And not again just in propositions that they have to commit to. But in stories of lives lived, of questions dwelt in, of sufferings bared. Like those are deeply needed. And we need in the room, dwelling in those stories, sharing in those stories, participating in life together, we need 5-year-olds, and 15-year-olds and 55-year-olds, and 95-year-olds. And that becomes the truest expression I think of what the church is. So we’ll need youth workers for a while to remind us that our young people need to hear these stories and participate in these stories and formulate their own stories for the congregation. But it’s always bigger than that.
Doug Powe: Andy, thank you so much. This has been great. I really enjoyed talking with you. And I look forward to hopefully connecting in person one day.
Andy Root: I would love that. Thanks so much for having me.
Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Bishop Will Willimon shares insights from his book Leading with the Sermon: Preaching as Leadership.
Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.
- The End of Youth Ministry? (Baker Academic, 2020) by Andrew Root — Available at Cokesbury and Amazon
- “Resurrecting Youth Ministry,” a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Jen Bradbury
- 8 Things Your Christian Educator Wants You to Know by Virginia Callegary
- Characteristics of a Healthy Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean
- 50 Ways to Strengthen Ministry with Youth, a free resource from the Lewis Center