Postmodern youth ministry…a review

I first read Tony Jone’s book Postmodern Youth Ministry during my last year of undergrad studies. I realized quickly that it was a groundbreaking book for youth ministry, but I never fully realized at the time how important and influential this book would be.

I recently re-read the book and it shocked me to see just how relevant this book is for today’s youth ministry, and especially for tomorrow’s youth ministry. I still believe that for the most part, youth ministry culture has not fully caught up to what Tony was experiencing and writing about nearly a decade ago.  Looking back, this book was even more profound and prophetic than I had originally thought. Here in the northeast, we are very much witnessing the phenomone of postmodernity and its effects and influence on society, culture, worldviews, education, and religion.  I’m not convinced  other parts of the country have been struck with this reality, but they will in due time.

Tony’s opening thought “The day my world changed” was brilliant and true. In youth ministry, we cannot just claim that Jesus is Lord for everyone. In postmodern thought, that belief may be true for us, but cannot be an objective absolute truth for everyone.  Truth is relative and subjective, and this is visibly seen in today’s teens. (I realize that many will have major issues with the above statement. I am simply explaining the cultural realities surround postmodernity…whether you like them or not is another issue)

The first few chapters are a wonderful summary of what postmodernism is, how it came to be, and what its effects and influences are. Such ideas include that skepticism and cynicism rule the day, the argument that no text has an actual meaning because each reader imports meaning into the text; question everything; objectivity is out while subjectivity is in; never make lists; pluralism and tolerance are key; there is no Truth with a capital T..and ideas such as these.

Tony writes, “The students with whom we work were born into a culture in transition, and children born today are entering a thoroughly postmodern world. This is not to say that all students will adopt postmodern traits, but postmodernity will be the reigning school of thought, and postmodernity will be the reigning culture when our students arrive at college.”  Living in the northeast, I can vouch that this is true and failure to understand and acknowledge this will do much damage to churches and youth leaders.

Now, many might perceive the above characteristics to be negative and starkly opposed to the Bible and kingdom of God living…and to some extend I agree. However, postmodernism also brings with it some values that are highly biblical and kingdom of God minded.

Postmodern values:  experiential, spiritual, relative, communal, creative, environmental, global, holistic, authentic.

“Postmodernity may afford us the ability to recover some aspects of authentic Christianity.”

A missionary dives into culture headfirst and swims around, learning, perceiving and discerning.  A postmodern world demands that we admit that our contexts influence and shape us- that we be honest about our own subjectivity and we use those influences to benefit our communication of the gospel.  In my experience, in order to reach and effectivley ministey to postmodern students, one has to be a bit postmodern…or at least understand and appreciate it.  One’s aim cannot be to change or destroy postmodernism, but rather to work from within to bring about transformation within the system.

Tony implores youth leaders to shift toward authenticity. Our students want real, more than relevant. They don’t want worship services. they want worship experiences.

Students don’t want to be tricked into attending a meeting at someone’s house or a warehouse only to find out later that there’s a hidden agenda of saving their souls.  Andrew Root has written much about this issue of relationships vs. influence.

Additionally, students today are experiential, participatory, image-based and connective–everybody else is rational, passive, word-based, and highly individual.

Dan Kimball chimes in the discussion with saying, “the more blatantly spiritual our services and the harder we worship God, the more we will see postmodern youths connecting and responding to the gospel.”

Its not about watering down the message and creating seeking friendly environments.

Its also about a shift toward transcendence.

Postmodern youth ministry strives to promote students to feel they are entering sacred space when they walk into the room.

By taking this approach (which in many ways is contrast to the seeker sensitive mega church model), students get the strong impression that they are taking part in something unique, sacred, and eternally significant when they come to youth group.

I remember my years at Gordon College.  Every Sunday night our chapel turned into Catacombs, and we worship through icons (images), ancient hymns, silence and meditation all by candlelight.  These were incredible moments of touching the transcant and encounting the mysterious Divine.  Especially in the busyness of finals and athletic and social life, I needed these evenings to refresh my soul.

Every year, for the past eight years, I have been attnending the Youth Specialatiies National Youth Workers Convention.  Most years, they would transform spaces in the convention center to make a prayer room, labyrinth, and offer Vesper services.  Having not come from a faith tradition that promotes these, at first I was skeptical.  But having experienced the sacred, it has truly transformed my worship.

And now, with my own students, we bring in many comtemplative practices and create sacred space.   Some of our biggest “outreach” evenings will be for our prayers stations and spirituality spaces.  Students want to tap into their spirituality.  We should be open and willing to provide environments for them to do this in a Christ centered way.

Postmodern youth ministry also shifts the emphasis on evangelism

Tony writes, “In the postmodern context, it could be said that we ought to first evangelize experientially and teach the content of the faith later.  After all, Jesus says to his disciples Follow me!- not, Do you accept me as your personal lord and Savior?

“In modern Youth ministry, reductionism showed in our proclivity to purchase a program or curriculum, or take our kids to a really hyped up rally rather than do the long, hard work of building relationships and sharing Christ over time.”

Postmodern YM stresses the importance for a long-term discipleship. seeing it as a journey, and not a one-time close the deal event of conversion.  For too long, youth pastors have been counting conversions rather than counting conversations.  Coversatiions take time and devolope into relationships.  Relationships bring about community and transformation..which lines up more to the biblical example we have.

Teaching is re-imagined as well.

Instead of scripted talks and didactic teachings every week, Tony argues that we must facilitate discussion and dialogue.

We don’t need to try to convince or prove certain truths to students.

Rather, we can invite this pre-Christian student to experience the truth of Scripture by inviting him or her into the life of our community.  I have written about this shift. To read more see the link below.

Shift from facts to experience/encounter

“As pre-Christian students experience biblical love, and as they’re exposed to the stories of Scripture, the Bible will begin to take on “truth value” for them, and after time they will find the Bible is indeed a metanarrative into which every human being’s story in written.”

Postmodern YM allows students to first Belong to our community, then Behave by participating, and allowed time and grace as they come to Believe.

By comparision, traditional youth ministry often required the right Beliefs and Behavior before students could really Belong.  And we wondered why we weren’t making a different in the community and reaching unchurched teens!

Tony provides a great section about the web of belief and evangelism and how apologetics have been done in culturally appropriate ways that need to be done differently in a world which absolute, foundational truth is being overthrown.  How this works itself out is still in flux, but I do believe the way (method) and content (message ) of our apologetics and evangelism must change when doing ministry to postmodern teens.  I will attempt to write about this specifically at a later time.

In a postmodern world, we must exhibit authenticity and integrity as we teach students the essential truths of the faith.  If we oversimplify things, they will be blown away when they go into college or the working world and find that life and faith are not as simple as we lead them to believe. Better that they’re confronted with the rigorous complexities of faith now, in a community of faith where they can ask questions and work through spiritual dilemmas

Chris Folmsbee and Barefoot Ministry offer a great model for this approach:

Simplicity- Complexity- Perplexity- Humility.

For too long, youth ministry has intentionally tried to keep students in the Simplicity category by providing a simple faith and really not allowing much room (or time) for questions and doubts. We shied away from difficult passages and stories and offered cliche and trivial Bible answers to really tough questions and situations are students faced.  And then, they go offer to college and, in light of knew knowledge and experiences, everything they grew up learning seems to simple to be believable anymore.  Has this happened to anyone?

One of my favorite sections of the book contains a great chapter entitled The How of Discipleship

Tony shares his plan for catecissms and the spritual formation (education + trasnformation0

Re-reading this chapter causes me to rethink my plan for spiritual formation and to strive to teach not only bible, but history, doctrine, ethics, etc…

Included in Tony’s plan were the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, Apostles Creed, the sacraments, early church history, Old Test, New Test, Worship, Prayer, Missions and Outreach, denomicational distinctives…all combined within a structure of service, community, and hands on experiences.  Imagine restructuring your Sunday Am “Sunday school” (a.k.a babysitting and online curriculum) and have a real purpose and plan in place.

“Every church has to find a regular method to disciple its students appropriate to its local culture, its denominational heritage, and the congregation.”

At my church, I am currently in coversation about doing just this which the possibility of offering either a 6-month or 10-month class for all incoming freshman and a similar type of thing for outgoing seniors.

We would also combine such ancient practices such as lectio divina, the labyrinth, the spiritual disciplines, etc..

I’ll keep you posted on our progress, but I have thanked Tony for pushing me towards this thinking.

The last section of the book discusses relooking at how we view (and talk about) the Bible.

Doug Pagit’s voice is heard in the pages when he writes,  “The Bible is the nonfiction storybook of God’s interaction with his people.  It’s the lens through which we look at the world- not simply the object we study.”

J. Heinrich Arnold writes, “You will never be able to prove- even to yourself, that Jesus exists. Belief must be an inner experience.  As long as you try to prove the object of your belief intellectually, your efforts will stand in the way of such an experience.”

We read the Bible with our own lens that are fashioned by our surroundings. To try and say that we come to the text objectivity is self-deceptive.

In postmodern youth ministry, instead of trying to defend or prove the Bible (especially to the postmodern mind where objective Truth simply doesn’t exist), we must reclaim the Bible as narrative.

Tell stories.

A great job description for future youth workers could read something like this.

Youth pastors: Brings the Bible to life for students.

We do this so they can fully enter into the story and then have their lives changed and transformed by the story, kind of like that 80’s movie The Never Ending Story

What if  everything we did as youth workers was focussed on the goal that we might be conformed to Christ’s image!  No more measurements based on numbers or size of budget of staff.  And our annual review, the senior pastor would ask, Are you and your students being conformed to the image of Christ?

That is ultimately the goal of postmodern youth ministry.  The goals is the same (or should be) of all types of youth ministry.  The difference resides in who we are trying to reach, acknowledging that the realities of postmodernity necessitate that how we do it and what we say change and adapt to the culture…adapting for the result of transformation!

In conclusion….

Tony is attempting to do this in a postmodern context. In many ways, he is a missiologist and practical theologian.

If you do not understand postmodernity, you may not understand what Tony is trying to do.  If you are thoroughly emerged in a modern mindset and worldview (and no one is claiming that to be bad mind you), then you may in fact question and disagree with Tony on many levels.

Personally, I am glad that people like Tony Jones has a passion to reach a particular people with the gospel of Jesus.
Though his methods and message may be different than where many of us have come from and feel comfortable, it needs to be that way in order for a genuine and culturally approcatiate encounter with God to take place in the hearts and lives of postmodern students.

I am glad to hear that Tony is desiring to get back involved in youth ministry on some level whether speaking, teaching, or hopefully some more writing. (I personally think his heart has always been there)

As a final side note:  One of the great aspects of this book is that Tony was among the first to include commentaries infused within his content.  Authors such as Brian McLaren, Mike Yaconelli, Kara Powell, Dan Kimball, Mark Driscoll, Leonard Sweet, and others offer their opinions, critiques, and unbiased views on Tony’s thoughts.

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3 thoughts on “Postmodern youth ministry…a review

  1. Good post Dan. I think you did a good job summarizing the book and how we live in this postmodern world whether we like it or not. It is our job as youth ministers to present the Truth with a capital T to these youth as well as be draw them into a real, authentic relationship with Christ – not something that is convienent.

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on Postmodern Youth Ministry | Today I Will Notice

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