college travels

Thursday, January 11, 2007

some thoughts from Cambridge

So what was the iasym conference like?
It was really cold (even though the locals kept delighting in how mild it was!). It was great fun - living with 100 other people really interested in thinking seriously about youth ministry was a hoot. I got to meet a lot of very interesting people (took Kenda Creasy-Dean to the pub, had lunch with Pete Ward, breakfast with Malan Nel).

Beside all that, the conference in Cambridge sparked a number of interesting thoughts.

The need for a gospel governed practical theology

The was a question that was explicitly raised in response to one of the research papers being presented, but also a question that could well have been raised in response to many others. Does Youth Ministry begin with the sociological observation of youth spirituality, or does it begin with the call of God in Christ? It’s not a question that we often think about in Sydney, but the discussion that was going on at the conference was quite split on the answer. So many of the research papers had done quantitative or qualitative research on young people and ‘discovered’ things like young people like to pray, and that youth groups having their own space to operate will be better at enhancing Christian consciousness over those that don’t. Having made such observations youth ministry then takes its direction from this research – and we aim at fostering the prayer life of young people, or at creating spaces for young people to use.

What is missing in most of the discussion and thinking about youth ministry is that we get our impetus and direction for this ministry from the word of God. It’s the fact that Jesus is King that drives us to speak his words to young people. It’s the word of God that explains and critiques the observations we make of the spiritual lives of young people.

Thinking about the value of sociological research reminded me of Peter Jensen’s discussion of general and special revelation – “Experience intimates, the gospel enlightens; the gospel interprets, experience confirms” (The Revelation of God, 2002, p.108). Our experience points us in certain directions by which we can look at the gospel with different eyes. Reflection on the actual experiences of young people and youth ministries can point us in certain directions by which we can look at the gospel with different eyes. But we need to gospel to make sense of our experience of the world.

There is a definite need for a gospel driven practical theology – an understanding of theology and ministry practice that takes the particularities of our ministry experiences seriously (using all that sociology, psychology etc can reveal to us) that remains directed and driven by the gospel.

Don’t get intimidated by people with PhDs

A corollary to the first point – there are plenty of people who have PhDs in fields relating to youth ministry (mostly under the heading of ‘practical theology’) who could benefit to going back to the uncomplicated task of reading the Scriptures to understand the nature of God and the task of ministry. Rule of thumb - don't get intimidated by someone with an impressive sounding title or CV; and don't get sucked in to pursuing these things at the expense of the kingdom.

American Youth Ministry has failed… and doesn’t know where to go next

There is a strong sense in the academic world of youth ministry in America that the entertainment driven American style of youth ministry has failed. A significant research project last year revealed that though American youth ministry has succeeded in things like number of kids involved, numbers of leaders, training of leaders, provision of resources, what they have singularly failed to do is produce adult disciples.

Could there be a connection between the first point and the last? Of course that is my hunch – now we need to share our theological arguments with the American academy, and it might also be helpful to have some sociological research to confirm what the gospel enlightens.


  • Hey Graham, Ive been enjoying checking the blog to see what you have been up to and thinking about...sounds like cambridge was a lot of fun.

    By Anonymous Darthur, at 11:06 am  

  • Hey bro! When stating that "American Youth Ministry has failed" I was wondering if you were referring to a specific part of America... or a specific country. Either way it would be interesting to chat about the approach and experiences of youth ministry over yonder, and where I call home as well.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:26 pm  

  • Gday ~J
    I was wondering how far afield these comments of mine would reach!

    I'm obviously not an expert on the North American Youth Ministry scene. The reference I made was in particular to the 'entertainment' model of youth ministry. The people from the US that I was speaking with pointed me to David White's book, Practicing Discernment with youth and Smith and Denton Soul Searching reporting on the (US) National Study of Youth and Religion.
    I was interested to hear what these books were saying at an academic level because of the connections with the article by Mike Yaconelli in Youthworker called "the Failure of Youth Ministry" ( a few years ago now. Of course, he published a later apology that said he had been misunderstood, but the points he was making were still valid - producing long term disciples hasn't eventuated. I'm not convinced that the response should be to just say, 'isn't youth ministry hard, but lets press on even though there's not much lasting fruit'. That seems to me to be a hopeless approach. A better idea would be to perhaps go back to the scriptures and see if somewhere along the line we've missed something important... and my humble suggestion is, why not read the Bible with teenagers to introduce them to Jesus and lead them to read and respond to the Word of truth!

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 5:49 pm  

  • Kenda Creasy-Dean ... is he the guy who kind of endorses the Andrew Root book, 'Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry'??? I spied it in the College Library the other day, and liked the title, so I went and bought it.

    I'm about half way through, and have about a thousand questions. It's insightful, but also a very confusing read at times... Does he use 'Incarnational Youth Ministry' and 'Relational Youth Ministry' as inter-changeable terms? Because my memories of Youth Ministry lectures defined them pretty differently...

    Matt Jacobs

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:02 pm  

  • Hey Matt -
    No, Kenda Creasy-Dean isn't the guy who endorsed Andrew Root's book, because she's a SHE! (

    And yes, Andrew Root's book is insightful, and 'question raising'. I've read it as well and will be talking about it in more depth at the Theology of Youth Ministry conference

    Though the two terms 'incarnational' and 'relational' youth ministry are basically being used synonymously, I think he is saying that 'relational' youth ministry as practiced by American Evangelicalism (as a tool of influence) is an incorrect application of a truly 'incarnational' youth ministry that is grounded in the incarnation of Christ.

    Now... whether his proposed incarnational ministry is the right way forward... well you'll need to come to the conference to hear more!

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 10:36 am  

  • haha, you know at first I thought Kenda might be a girls name, but then I found out that Dutch Sheets is actually a bloke (or was I thinking of Stormie Omartian???) ... so maybe Kenda could have been a blokes name too!

    Conference looks good. I'll write it in the diary and see if I can make it.

    The main question I'm struggling with at the moment is based on Bonhoeffer's statement that the concrete presence of God in the world is experienced in the you and I relationship ... I think I worded that right.

    And basically that I need to be Jesus to the kids.

    I think the new-found Sydney-Anglican in me (God bless my Presbyterian roots) isn't coping with a lack of Bible referencing, which I understand is because Root is trying to create dialogue with Bonhoeffer's Theology (which I'm assuming is from the Bible anyway) in order to create a Practical Theology of Youth Ministry.

    I wish I could find that Bonhoeffer book we read on Hook Island...

    And secondly, I'm not sure that influence is quite the evil thing that he makes it out to be. Sure, a relationship purely to influence a kid to be regular at Youth Group/Bible Study/Church (and then discarding that relationship if the kid doesn't meet our end goal); I can see the problem in just seeing the kid as another number, but isn't there a degree of the Holy Spirit influencing us? Jesus influencing the disciples?

    Maybe I should start my own blog...

    Matt Jacobs

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:09 pm  

  • Hey Matt, maybe you should start your own blog.

    You've pinpointed key questions I have about Root's work as well.

    I haven't read as much Bonhoeffer as he has, but at least from what I've read in Life Together I think Bonhoeffer would affirm the presence of God in a brother (or sister) as they speak the word of God to us. It seems to me that Root is going beyond Bonhoeffer's assertion.

    Whether or not he's got Bonhoeffer right though, I am more confident that I disagree on biblical grounds. As you say, there's a lack of careful biblical interaction (something I'm sure your Presbyterian roots would have issues with as much as your current Anglican-ness would!)

    And on influencing, you've made a good point that 'discarding that relationship if the kid doesn't meet our end goal' is something we all want to distance ourselves from.

    What I find so challenging about Root's book though is the historical and cultural analysis of the origins of relational ministry - the rise of the 'pure' relationship (following Giddens) and the application of sub-cultural identity theory.

    Certainly the language of 'having a personal relationship with Jesus' is not really the language of the NT.

    What I want to think more on is how can we talk about building relationships with others (especially with teenagers) so that we might also see them build a relationship with Jesus in a way that is a faithful improvisation of God's drama... but before I give away the guts of my conference paper, I'll leave it at that!

    By Blogger Graham Stanton, at 9:48 pm  

  • "I think Bonhoeffer would affirm the presence of God in a brother (or sister) as they speak the word of God to us."

    Yeah, that sounds more like it!

    And you're right, most Presy's I know would have a problem with a lack of Bible in there too.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:06 pm  

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