Book Review

“The End of Youth Ministry?” by Andrew Root

Cameron Cole
Tuesday, September 1st 2020
Sep/Oct 2020

The End of Youth Ministry? Why Parents Don’t Really Care about Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do about It
by Andrew Root
Baker Academic, 2020
240 pages (paperback), $22.99

Andrew Root, a leading voice in the academic study of youth ministry, has published a timely book for many struggling youth workers. While this book does not explore per se whether youth ministry as a part of the church is going extinct, Root does examine a frustration that many youth workers presently feel. In the rat race of sports, school, and ACT tutors, youth groups (and church) seem increasingly secondary to American families. Many youth pastors experience the disappointment of seeing Sunday night gatherings, Bible study, or the mission trip lose out over and over again as a lower priority than other developmental options, such as travel soccer or tutors.

Root asks the question, “What is youth ministry for?” In exploring this question via conversations with parents, youth workers, and students, Root identifies trends and themes in the values of parents. He uncovers changes in our culture over the past forty years and how youth ministry has failed to adapt.

Root contrasts the parenting paradigms of the 1980s and 1990s with those of the last twenty years, which provides valuable insight for youth workers about why parents don’t seem to care much about youth ministries. In the 1980s and ’90s, parents generally took a hands-off approach, and kids had massive amounts of free time. The problem that arose was that kids were growing up too fast. Using Fast Time at Ridgemont High as an emblem of the time, Root says that society became concerned that kids got into sex, drugs, and alcohol too early. As a result, youth ministries served to slow kids down and keep them out of trouble. Given that kids had so much time, these were the heydays of youth ministry.

In this young century, parents have taken a different approach and now closely manage their children, almost like personal coaches. At the bottom of it, Root claims, parents hope to help their children find their “thing,” which translates to discovering their self-constructed identity. Given that so many options exist, parents closely monitor and strategize how to lead their children on the most conducive path to discover their authentic identity.

Root found that parents consider the highest good among kids to be happiness—sustained happiness. They believe that if their children find their identity and then remain faithful to this self-constructed self (no matter what that self may be), then they would be happy. While trying to help kids find this identity, parents also exert endless effort to protect their children from any pain or difficulty. Since happiness is the summum bonum, pain and suffering undermine the goals of the parents. Most parents have not deemed youth ministry an instrumental part of this identity formation, as compared to travel sports and academic endeavors. As a result, youth ministers around the country are experiencing flimsy commitment from teenagers.

The first and perhaps most valuable contribution of the book is that Root helps youth workers make sense of this frustrating lack of priority they observe from families, helping them find language and causes for the decline. In addition to this, he shows how present-day models are geared toward 1980s social realities, which might lead youth pastors to reconsider their models in light of these cultural shifts.

Second, Root provides a valuable description and critique of parenting paradigms. Based on the whole of his interviews, Root depicts three parents who are composites of families from evangelical, mainline, and secular backgrounds. The remarkable reality is that the parenting philosophies and behaviors of the Christian families compared to the secular families differ very little—if at all.

Happiness for the child constitutes the highest aim. All the families believe that identity comes from self-construction through various activities. The parents all believe that pain is an enemy to be avoided and that they have a central role in protecting their kids from it as much as reasonably possible. The parents, he insightfully observes, are essentially operating within a theology of glory.

Root counters these beliefs with three valuable insights. First, he asserts that Jesus Christ—not happiness—is the highest aim. Happiness is fleeting and not sustainable, but joy in Christ can be found as a gift from God through Christ’s redemption.

Second, using the theology of the cross, the author shows how valuable pain and suffering are for the spiritual development of children. Root gives one of the best applications of the theology of the cross that I’ve read in a youth ministry book. He posits that when we come into relationship with Christ by faith, we intrinsically enter into the pattern of the life of Jesus: death and resurrection. Maturation in faith flows from death—painful and humbling experiences that lead us to deeper dependence on and faith in Christ. Rich joy results from the resurrecting work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as God meets us in and transforms us from death. Root voices the need to help kids enter into the death-resurrection pattern of life.

Finally, one of Root’s main emphases is that Christianity has better tools and value in helping kids find true identity. Self-constructed identity is unreliable and volatile, and it leaves kids empty, unfulfilled, and resentful. Harkening back to Galatians 2:20, Root shows that through faith in Jesus, our identity becomes Christ. Churches can communicate to parents the true, stable nature of identity “in Christ” and participate in this identity formation.

The only shortcomings I would point to in the book relate to the practical solutions for the problem, although I do not sense that Root is trying to offer a concrete model but rather a frame for the general problem. Root primarily recommends that multigenerational storytelling take a central place in youth ministries. He believes that we can better assist in identity formation and demonstrate the death-resurrection arc of the Christian life through shared narrative. In making this argument, the author deemphasizes the significance of theological propositions in identity formation. He writes,

Too often youth ministry has tried to forge identities in Christ by offering propositions, statements that young people consent to believe, and get proof of their belief by participating. We called this faith. This is not how identity is constructed, and this is not what faith is. Faith is not trust in propositions or commitment to participation but the identification with personhood in and through story. (166)

I do not think Root, however, is saying that theological and biblical training have no place or value in youth ministry. Elsewhere in the book, for example, he observes how a flawed Christology and anthropology undergird the parental paradigms (cf. 126), and he recalls how the stories of the Bible helped a struggling mother make sense of the movement of God in her life (cf. 147). Given that youth ministers historically do not naturally tend toward theologically rich ministries, my concern is that a young youth pastor will read the applications and come away thinking, “If we just gather around and tell stories, then our kids will grow in Christ.”

While assent to theological propositions alone will not help kids mature spiritually, stories disconnected from a well-shaped theological framework have limited value. Current youth ministry research demonstrates a theological crisis among young people. Root’s book reflects this in the views of the parents who live under a theology of glory that conflicts starkly with the metanarrative of Scripture and the gospel. I would have preferred that Root encourage storytelling alongside teaching the story of God via theological education and biblical teaching as a two-pronged approach.

One practical recommendation I take from the book is the importance of the youth workers partnering with head pastors in the discipleship and equipping of parents. The book exhibits how highly involved parents have become in the development of young people. As a result, rather than simply watching parents function as academic and athletic wranglers, churches can give parents tools to disciple their children. At the same time, as the book glaringly reveals, parents must themselves be well instructed in the gospel. The parents depicted in the book demonstrate little to no ability to connect their orthodoxy to the orthopraxy of parenting—which is a discipleship failure of the church, not the parents. Root’s book shows that now, as much as ever, we must invest in and equip parents spiritually to lead their kids.

Cameron Cole is the director of children, youth, and family at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the founding chair of Rooted, a ministry that fosters gospel-centered youth ministry, as well as the author of Therefore I Have Hope: 12 Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018) and coeditor of Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide (Crossway, 2016).

Tuesday, September 1st 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology