Book Review: ‘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
Reviewed by Andy Castle
So I was intrigued, and flattered, when someone from the marketing department of Baker Publishing contacted me recently, offering to send me a complimentary copy of the latest book by Andrew Root. Naturally, I snapped it up quickly, eager to see what Root’s latest thinking was.
I’ve admired Andrew Root for many years. He’s an academic and a theologian, with a focus and, more importantly, massive heart for youth ministry. But I don’t find him easy to read. I was first introduced to his writing about eleven years ago, when a colleague suggested we read through his then latest book together. The problem was that I had to read each page two or three times to have any idea of what he is talking about! Yet I knew that what I was reading was to be cherished.
Root is someone who can think far more deeply about issues than I can and that’s why I find him so important an author. I need to be able to understand him so it can help shape my own thinking and understanding. This latest book is no different.
Once again, it is gold dust.
He’s changed his writing style for this book, ‘The End of Youth Ministry?’, writing largely in a narrative style, as he tells a semi-fictional journey that he has been on over the course of a year to discover what youth ministry is really for. It’s well-written and engaging, as we follow his developing thinking around why traditional youth groups aren’t reaching and engaging as many young people anymore and what we might be able to do about it. This is where I really benefitted, being able to follow the thinking of someone such as Root as he develops his own understanding.
He claims that the world’s strategy is for those we love to be happy, this is the primary goal and what good parents aim to achieve with their children. In the past, this would have included the church youth group as it provided a place to find someone ‘nice’ to date, and to slow down the process a bit of becoming an independent adult. He argues that now the world has slowed down considerably on this process, recognising that marks of adulthood such as marriage, home owning and living independently from parents is happening later in life for many, the need for the youth group is less of a necessity. Instead, it is lined up alongside other happiness-bringers such as basketball practice (it is an American perspective) and music lessons.
Root challenges that to most parents church is great as long as it helps their child be happier. But happiness is the overarching goal, not obedience to Jesus or any deeper spiritual connection.
I read this book at a time when I had been considering for some time that maybe the way we do youth work in our churches needs to change. What would that look like? I am convinced that we need to be less about activity and more about relationship. How can we genuinely get alongside teenagers, show them Jesus’ love and support them no matter what they do or achieve? So this book spoke into some of these questions and thoughts.
Root argues that for too long youth workers have seen themselves as the ‘lead counsellor of fun’, quoting a fictitious youth worker as saying, “When I was trying to do youth ministry as the lead counsellor of fun, it became really clear to me that youth ministry wasn’t about change or transformation; it was about retention.” Ouch.
His conclusion is that Youth Ministry is for Joy. That deeper relational connection that enables people to connect with each other, through Jesus and his Church. He argues that we need a place to gather to encounter God together, to pray in open ways, not strict nor following specific paths, but allowing individuals to prayerfully invest in each other and to engage with God experientially. He also argues for more sociable opportunities to connect with each other, to allow us to really share our lives with each other – not based on being superficial, but to share with each other our individual needs for Jesus and the working power of the Cross, and to then relax together in each others’ company. He argues that ‘it can’t work to just tell young people to commit to church or religion like they do their other things. The Good (of God) cannot be mastered like tennis or rasgueado guitar strumming. God’s Goodness convicts us and throws us back into impossibility. There are no proficiencies to master, just narratives to embody.”
Midway through the book he presents some very helpful wisdom on society’s current difficulty with image, recognising that we are raising young people to be whoever they want to be but not helping them with the reality that who we are is dependent on the recognition we receive from those around us. This raises a challenge around if we are encouraging young people to be whoever they want to be, how does rub against enabling them to be all that God wants them to be?
Once again it was not the easiest book to read but, of what I did understand, I found it challenging and a voice that we really must listen to. Personally, I don’t think it goes quite far enough in its conclusions, leading me to ponder whether there is a follow up book to come, but the questions it does raise, and the way in which the author does this, I found refreshing and inspiring.
Grab yourself a copy and let me know what you think.