Recently, I read the book, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry by Andrew Root. In this book, Andrew does a great job of deconstructing youth ministry, exposing its faults, lauding its successes – and then reconstructing it in such a way that it serves as a more holistic approach to reaching this church demographic. He is passionate about students, discipleship, spiritual maturity, and asking the question: ‘What’s the point of youth ministry?’ (and I would say ministry in general)
Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with him and asking him a few questions. I wanted to get his take on a few key points and expand some of the provocative ideas he brought out in his book. Below is the product of that conversation.
Andrew casts light on a great point in that theology should be the study of God’s action in the world, both past and present. If we can get a grasp of what God is doing, we can begin to participate in His ministry. A critical distinction, since most of us are just worried about our own ministry.
Enjoy this short interview and make sure to comment, share, and engage in the conversation. Click on the toggle below to learn a bit more about Andrew Root and then jump on in:
Andrew Root, PhDAndrew Root, PhD (Princeton Theological Seminary) is the Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He is the author of The Relational Pastor, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry, Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry, Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry, and Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry. He is also the author of the 2012 Christianity Today Book of Merit award for The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. His other books include The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being, The Promise of Despair, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation, and Relationships Unfiltered. Andy has worked in congregations, para-church ministries, and social service programs. He lives in St. Paul with his wife Kara, two children, Owen and Maisy, and their two dogs Kirby and Kimmel. When not reading, writing, or teaching, Andy spends far too much time watching TV and movies.
Seeing God’s Action in the World: An Interview with Andrew Root
Q:In your book, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry, you say: “Theology at its most basic (and its most profound) is passionate reflection on God’s action, on God’s own ministry.” Every pastor (not just youth pastors) want people to engage God and His revelation – the Bible. So speaking for pastors: why is it so important to you that pastors focus on God’s action in the Bible as a form of teaching theology?
A:Yes. I have a book coming out with Intervarsity Press in April called “The Relational Pastor” that kind of pushes some of these ideas more broadly. I hope there’s some connecting tissue from this project to the other. What I’m really pushing for in this current series is to get us as a form of ministry to focus on the active, living presence of God in the world. I mean if we confess that God is active and moving in the world, then how do we help our people participate in that action? I think we believe that. We want that. We want people to see God not as just an idea or concept or theory or even being locked inside the Bible itself as if God were inert and kind of captured in history. We want to make this confession that God through the Spirit, that witnesses of Jesus Christ, continues to be active and moving in the world. That makes things fundamentally complicated because it draws us into big questions about our own person. It draws us into bigger questions about our context in how we make meaning within our cultural reality.
My overall hope is to focus on the agency of God, that God is an active mover within the world. I think we distinctly and deeply need the Biblical text to be able to make sense of the complication of God’s own action in the world. I think that if we’re going to have ministries that are robust and ministries that are significant, especially within a cultural context with the rise of secularization and the like, then we absolutely have to be able to speak in a rich and theological way about God’s activity. It’s important to me that pastors focus on God’s action in the Bible as a form of teaching theology. I think this is the only way to make sense of God and God’s activity. We must allow God to break in and move within our lives, or else it just becomes either stale religion or kind of disconnected thought and doesn’t actually engage within our concrete lived situation.
Q:In your book you have a great quote: “Theology is only theology when it becomes dangerous, when it threatens to leave us limping by exposing our motives to the action of God.” You now treat theology as something that engages people and makes them wrestle with their innermost thoughts. At what point in your ministry did you make the switch from “third person” learning to “first person” interaction? Was it a definitive “Aha” moment or a gradual evolution?
A:I think there are two things that led me into seeing theology this way. Theology absolutely is something dangerous.
One was a ministry experience that I mentioned in my first book, “Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry”. It’s the beginning story that sets it up.
I got into theology not because I had any real proclivity towards theology. I actually thought if I’d ever be in the academic world, I’d be a sociologist or something like that. I thought that thinking big thought experiments was not my destiny, especially when I was I kid. I thought the best I could do, which I actually think is, in some ways, nobler – would be just to be a youth pastor. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would write books or anything like that. I was always into ideas. For example: I was in ministry watching my church struggle with these young people from the neighborhood. They just showed up on the church steps and then we had to figure out how to do ministry with these young people. We were thrown into a lot of perplexing situations as these kids vandalized the church and harassed people as they came to church on a Wednesday night.
Big questions arose like whose church is this? Is it the kids’ who live in the neighborhood or the kids’ of people who put money in the offering plate? But the big question really was this: where is God to be found next in these young people’s lives as they are dealing with very difficult situations?
At that level it was kind of an “aha” moment where I started to realize that theology actually mattered in this situation. How we thought about God and how we thought about the church and how we thought about how God relates to the church had an incredible significance. It had an impact on the very practice and action and the very interpretation that I made of these situations. I think there was an “aha” moment at that level. That’s one thing. My lived, concrete ministry experience led me to see that theology is dangerous, that theology can lead us into rethinking what we’re doing as we try to correlate what we’re doing to the very action of God in the world.
At another level, the theological tradition that I work in and grew up in, the Lutheran theological perspective as well as the Reformed theological perspective, really sees theology as fundamentally a dangerous activity and is fundamentally existential or engaged in your own person and your own being. Especially when you think of Luther and what Luther had to wrestle with. The Protestant Reformation comes along because Luther is trying to make everything make sense. He is trying to please this God and doesn’t feel as if he can do it. Justification by faith alone is not just a theoretical idea he comes up with, but it’s actually a way for him to make sense of his own being – next to his confession or commitment of the presence and absence of God in his life. I think for me, both within these traditions that I live in as well as my own ministry experience, it kind of led me to see theology this way as something dangerous. I guess at one level it was an “aha” moment and another level it was gradual.
Q:In your book you explain, “Youth ministry developed due to cultural reasons more than theological ones, because we have societal institutions like the high school that divide age cohorts into a group that then forms a distinct culture and a marketing niche.” I get the gist from your book that you do not want to abolish youth groups, but does the segregation of generations do more harm than good? What can be done to knit the different age brackets together?
A:Yes, this is a really great question and I wish I had the direct answer for this, especially from kind of a practical perspective like, “Take these three steps and these two pills, and everything will be fine.” I don’t necessarily have an answer in that sense. I will say that you’re right, that I’m not against youth group in that I think youth group is important. I do sometimes wonder… let me say it this way: I think it’s significant and important for young people that we cohort them. They are distinctive – yes, and culturally determined, – yes, but nevertheless they are in a distinctive cultural situation having uniquely cultural experiences; and we shouldn’t minimize those. There’s reason for us to cohort them. I just wonder sometimes if we have it backwards. We cohort them up every week or twice a week and then work on inter-generational experiences maybe once a month or once a quarter or once a year. Maybe it should be the other way around. Maybe we should be focusing on inter-generational engagements weekly and maybe cohorted times once a month or something like that.
Again, I’m not exactly sure how that happens or how that movement is made. I will say one of the most fundamental ways that it would have to occur is that we would have to take this very bold step in our congregations to actually start treating young people as if they are, yes, nascent and immature, but nevertheless nascent adults. And treat them more adult-like than child-like. I think this becomes a problem especially in traditions that have confirmation, other rites of kind of passage that we usually do these when kids are 13, 14, 15 and then tell them that they are now “an adult member of the church” or “your voice is significant,” but it really isn’t. We send them to the high school youth group because we’ve been kind of co-opted by this cultural secondary education framework. It could be naive to say we need to treat them like adults. I think our faith communities could take steps to actually understand our young people, not as just these crazed teenagers, but actually as young, nascent, growing adults and therefore engaged in the congregation in more of an adult way than simply as kind of hormone-loaded crazy people as they’re often treated.
Q:Since I believe that “Taking Theology to Youth Ministry” could be a book for the average Christian and not just Youth Pastors, let’s wrap up with a broader question. You speak in your book about a theology that is action oriented, embraces mystery, confronts current reality, and prompts good questions rather than just giving answers. How do you practice these things in your life? How do you cultivate these principles in your walk with Christ?
A:Yes, that’s a great question. I know I try and make discipleship a huge portion of my life. And this thought plays out through all of the four little books that I wrote. Discipleship is really this brave movement into wrestling with your own story in your own search for God – and your own doubts. In my own faith journey, I want to think about faith and put it up against the deepest questions that haunt me.
I also think there’s something significant about the historical trajectory of Christianity. The people who did not hide from reality but tried to find God in the places of their deepest question – they were the people that led Christian thought.
Where I do this most often is with my children. I try not to just “punt” their deep theological, philosophical questions. I try to lean deeply into those questions and wrestle with them.
I also think one of the places that starts in my own faith life is to not settle for easy answers and to guard against – and maybe this is just me – but to guard against sentimentality. I come from, again, a theological tradition that does not rest on sentimentality. It tries to encompass the depth of the very act and being of God in the world. It requires that we have to try to say things directly and address the fullness of our experience – that calls an experience of hell, hell, and calls an experience of great joy, joy, and tries to live inside of those things. I think there’s this sense of the kind of freedom to live our lives and to search for God deeply within it.
In my own walk of faith, what is true is often not easy or easily digestible; but it is something that I actually have to wrestle deeply with. In my own life I watch way too much television and movies and things like that – but I do kind of seek for those significant moments of resonance within myself that point to something true and then try to think through why those are true. Why that scene or that song or whatever resonates with my spirit and to then put that realization into dialogue with the Biblical text or theological tradition.
Wrestling with how we engage theology, God, and our culture is a full time job. Having Andrew Root here to talk about them has been great – and informative. I encourage you to dig into some of his research and have this gut check: are you learning doctrine and dogma to feel safe in your salvation? Or are you plumbing the depths of theology in order to better identify God in your circumstance, surroundings, and world? Let’s keep the conversation going in the comments below, Facebook, and Twitter.