Book Review: Youth Ministry: A Multi-Faceted Approach

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Youth Ministry: A Multi-Faceted Approach is a new book out from the people who brought you the Centre for Youth Ministry, the UK’s number 1 (in terms of full-time students) Christian youth work training course. The reason I picked it up –and the reason I think it needs to be reviewed– is because CYM is such a major player in the training of youth ministers and to have a book that clearly articulates their youth ministry philosophy would be useful if only to critique. And so this book review isn’t so much a review of the book as it is a review of the current youth ministry philosophy being put out by CYM1. I should point out that I trained at CYM and got my degree and JNC qualification (the UK government recognised youth work qualification) through them at their Cambridge centre at Ridley Hall theological college. I therefore have been taught by some of the people writing in this book, and so I’m probably more passionate about reviewing this book than I would be if it came out of one of the other big training centres.

The book is shaped like this, first in the introduction “it offers a philosophy of youth ministry” (p. xiii) and then in the next twelve chapters it offers “an exploration of some of the roles youth workers play” (p. xiii) through twelve different metaphors written by different CYM authors. To be honest, we’re going to spend pretty much all our time in the introduction looking at the philosophy of youth ministry offered, because once we understand how broken that is, we’ll see that the rest of the chapters all fall to more or less degrees because of it.

The aim of youth ministry is set-out relatively clearly at the start of the introduction. “Youth ministry is multi-faceted, it is not a one-dimensional activity; it is about facilitating and empowering young people to have the better, fuller, more abundant, rich and satisfying life that different translations of John 10:10 talk about. This involves being concerned about their whole lives, not just the faith bit, wanting to see them fulfil their potential and be all God created them to be.” (p. xiii) John 10:10 comes up a lot in this book, so it’s worth quoting it in full here from the NIV; Jesus is speaking and says “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Except wait, that’s only half of the verse, that’s John 10:10(b). What John 10:10 says in its fullness is “the thief comes only to steal and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” which while not changing the meaning of the verse completely does change the tone of it. We’ll come back to this verse but for now we’ll keep following the logic in this philosophy of youth ministry.

The next logical step is this, if youth ministry is about empowering young people to have better, fuller, more abundant lives then we’ve got to define what an abundant life is. And that abundant life can be defined as having a high standard of well-being. So we’re told that youth work should seek “to enhance the well-being of young people.” (p. xiv). The next step is being told that for Christians, this idea of well-being can be understood through the Hebrew word Shalom. Shalom is apparently this idea of peace and happiness and well-being and is well-reflected in the current government policy of Every Child Matters. At this point, I’ve got to say I nearly threw this book down. Is the great abundant life and peace of the bible offered really found through meeting the five Every Child Matters outcomes? I mean, Jesus comes along and declares that he has come so people may have true, outstanding, abundant life and that looks like someone who achieves economic well-being? Again, we’ll come back to what Jesus is actually saying in John 10, but for now we should keep following the logic of the book.

Except that’s also the last logical step. That’s the justification for this philosophy of youth work in it’s entirety. We should be working to give young people an abundant fulfilled life, we can do this through working for their well-being, and this working for their well-being can be understood well through the framework of the five outcomes of Every Child Matters2. I need to be fair here though and point out that half of John 10:10 isn’t the only bible verse used to justify this position, Genesis 1:27 (“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”) is also referenced heavily. Towards the end of the introduction we get this line “there are recurring theological themes such as recognising that young people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that they should be invited to experience life in all its fullness (John 10:10)” (p. xxi). So a verse and a half of scripture and the mangling of one Hebrew word.

This is of course, rubbish. And you can tell it’s rubbish almost without engaging with it, because it’s a philosophy completely devoid of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t actually need to do anything in this philosophy. He’s relegated to the sidelines. Sure He comes to bring life in all its fullness, but He doesn’t have to do anything to bring it about, that’s the job of youth workers who are seeking the well-being of other people. How do people gain this life in all it’s fullness? They gain it not through the gift of Jesus, but through other people helping them out and empowering them. This might sound slightly nit-picky, but it’s not. When Jesus promises abundant life, he is the one who will give it and ensure it happens. If we think we’re the ones who can bring it about, then we’re stepping into Jesus’ place. We’re the ones who give abundant life to people. It’s no wonder then we redefine abundant life as achieving the five every child matters outcomes. That’s something we can just about do for people.

I think what’s gone wrong here is that the heart of the Christian message has moved from Jesus Christ –that is Him born and died and raised and ascended to save us and bring us to God– and moved to being created in the image of God. So the root of our hope and the answer to our problems isn’t that we’re saved and so in Christ Jesus and so have security and blessings from our Father, but rather that God the Father looks after us and loves us because we’re human beings and have the image of God in us.

But that isn’t what happens. God gives us abundant life (and all the other good promises and blessings) on the basis of Jesus Christ. If we trust Jesus for everything, we are given all these blessings and given abundant life now (hey, we know God now! We have the Holy Spirit in us!) and perfectly eternally in the new creation. And the security for this is not whether or not we’re good but whether or not Jesus has done enough to save us and is loved enough by the Father. And we know the answer to both those questions is the strongest yes in all of history. But if the basis of all good things is in our creation, we’re left with a smaller weaker idea of what an abundant life looks like. We’re left with something that actually, is humanly obtainable. Jesus sort of comes to bring about a kinda of abundant life (a life that’s better than the current life, but still well within human realms of imagination) but he doesn’t really do anything so we can actually have it.

The thing is, you can see all this if you read John 10:10 in context3. John 10:10 isn’t about Jesus coming to give us abundant life and then walking off into the sunset. And it’s certainly not about Jesus somehow making abundant life possible but leaving it up to his followers to sort out. The good news is a whole lot better than that. This is what is actually going on in John 10.

John 10 comes after Jesus has healed a blind man and used the miracle to contrast spiritual blindness with spiritual sight. He says that one of the reasons He has come into this world is to separate, He says there are those who can see truly and those who claim to see but are actually blind (John 9:39). He continues this talk of separation with a story about two men and some sheep, one man breaks into a sheepfold and the other a man who comes in to it through the gate and who the sheep will listen to and follow (John 10:1-5). No-one understands this story though so he breaks it down into two separate stories to make it clearer.

First Jesus tells a story about the true gate. He says I am the gate for the sheep. He holds the way open for those who will be saved. If you go in through Him you’ll saved. There are other people who are thieves and robbers, but the sheep know who Jesus is and they only go in and out through Him. The thieves come and kill and destroy but Jesus comes so that they may have life and have it to the full. When Jesus says “they may have life and have it to the full” He’s talking about His sheep.

Then Jesus gives the other story. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. There are other people who should look after the sheep but because they are hired hands and don’t care for the sheep they run off when wolves appear. But Jesus is the good shepherd, He knows his sheep and they know Him, just as Jesus knows His Father and the Father knows Him. Jesus goes to give up his life for His sheep and bring all the sheep who are far away into His fold. The Father loves Him for doing this.

Two stories and both are getting at the same thing. There are sheep who know Jesus and recognise his voice and belong to Him -it’s implied therefore that there are sheep who aren’t Jesus’ own . Then there is Jesus, the one who looks after the sheep. Also there are thieves and cowards, who pretend to look after the sheep but are in it to draw people away and have no love for the sheep. These folk are the blind pharisees and other people who claim to lead God’s people in truth but actually try to draw them away from Him. This won’t work because Jesus’ sheep know His voice and He, as a good shepherd won’t lose any of them, but that’s what they want to do. They come to kill and destroy ultimately, but Jesus comes to give them safe pasture.

In a sense all Jesus is doing in John 10 is preaching from Ezekiel 34. He’s saying, “remember when Ezekiel prophesied about the false shepherds and said they were getting fat off the sheep and abusing them? And remember how Ezekiel said the LORD would not have that stand, but one day would come Himself and be the shepherd of His flock and bring them to Himself? Remember that? That was about me, and now I am here to look after my sheep and throw out the bad shepherds”. This is why Jesus can say at the start of this section “For judgment I have come into this world” (John 9:39). In part he’s come to throw out the false shepherds.

So what is Jesus saying? He’s saying that he comes to bring his people to him by laying down his life for them. And His people will know Him and have life and life in all it’s abundance. It’s not a story about generic abundant life that Jesus somehow brings about for everyone, it’s a story about Jesus being the true shepherd who lays down his life for his people to save them and bring them to him and have this abundant life4. You cannot take the promise He gives of abundant life here and make it a general promise for everyone. By doing so you claim that the promise is not on the basis of the salvation that Jesus brought about, but rather on the basis of creation5 and consequentially you take away the power and glory that belongs to Jesus.

There are other things that could be said about this philosophy espoused here, I haven’t touched on how this philosophy fails in dealing with sin, the Trinity, and the church, but there isn’t time or space for it. I haven’t even touched on the other twelve chapters. The long and short of it though is that the philosophy presented in this book, and taught by CYM isn’t actually Christian in any true meaning of the word. It’s not evangelical, it’s not historical christianity, it’s heretical liberalism that takes us away from Jesus Christ. Name a dead theologian, from Athanasius to Zwingli and they will stand against this. I’m not talking about just lining up Calvin and Owen here, select any dead theologian that holds to Christ and the Bible; pick Barth, Brunner, Aquinas, Hooker, Mother Teresa, Smith Wigglesworth, not one of them would claim this as Christian.

Why? because there is no concern for Christ in this book. He gets no glory out of it. His place in salvation is robbed, and the great declaration of the love and judgement of God on the cross becomes meaningless. When the cross is thrown down out of the way there is where left to lift Jesus up. And so this philosophy settles for making youth ministry into something lesser, something that humanly is quite obtainable but actually isn’t very good. A ministry of doing things slightly better than the world can. That’s not the gospel. The gospel is not seeing young people crippled and broken with sin and offering to find support services for them that will help them live their lives a little bit better6. The gospel says get up and walk to the young person and gives them the power to do it. We have been given the good news of Jesus so people can be saved, so they can know Him and have abundant life now, our job can be to see people saved and rejoice in Jesus Christ. It can be to change the world with the good news of the gospel. It can be to see young people worship and adore the slain and risen lamb, and on the last day see those we have preached the gospel to stand before the Father as worthy, righteous, sons and daughters declaring his praise. I’m not sure why we’d be happy with less of a ministry that God has promised us in his glorious son Jesus.

Update

Sally Nash has kindly responded to this review and I recommend as you’ve finished reading this, you should read that.

Footnotes

1 It’s worth showing how this book can be said to represent the philosophy of CYM as a whole when CYM operates out of four or five different regional centres all of which have a decent level of autonomy. The St John’s Nottingham centre may place a stronger emphasis on somethings than the Ridley Hall Cambridge centre (my Alma Mater for what it’s worth). But time and again in the introduction this book stresses that it is a book coming out of the CYM vision of youth ministry. Every single person to write a chapter in the book has been involved in CYM in some level over there life, and more-so all but three of the authors have been paid teaching staff. Every centre except Ireland has either a director or a former director writing a chapter and quite a few of the authors where involved in the initial setup of the centre. The current CEO and Team Leader of CYM contributes a chapter. Finally in the preface we read “this book represents over two hundred years of practical wisdom and experience from staff and students, former and present, of the Centre for Youth Ministry.” (P. xi). I labour the point because I want to show that the thrust of the book is in agreement with everything CYM stand for. When their philosophy of youth ministry is stated, it is the philosophy of CYM. I am sure that individual staff members would disagree with points in each others chapters, but on a fundamental level their understanding of the philosophy behind youth ministry is what this book teaches.

2 I wonder if this philosophy, and this understanding of youth ministry, has been created because people have sought a way to justify the professional secular youth work as espoused by the JNC as the best way of working for Christian youth ministers. The book does try to argue that the best way of facilitating well-being for young people is to carry out best practice youth work as setup by the government. I’m not sure this is the place for it.

3 This is also clearly seen if you properly study the bible’s concept of what true peace is, or studied what the image of God really meant in context of the entire Bible. This would take longer than we have and probably isn’t necessary to prove the point though. Maybe some other article.

4 As an aside, if you’re employed to look after God’s flock how do you know you are a not a hired hand who’s just going to run away? If you act like you’re separate from the rest of the flock and not one of Jesus’ sheep, and if you don’t trust that because you have Jesus you are one with Him the true good shepherd and so can love his flock, then you’re probably going to run away at trouble. So run to Jesus and trust in the care of the good shepherd.

5 Providentially I’ve been reading Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen while writing this. One of his big points is that liberalism seeks to make things that are given to the church things that are given to general mankind. Whether that’s the promise of adoption or the sermon of the mount, these things are rightly things that can only be understood and accepted and had if you trust in Jesus for salvation. If you don’t, these things don’t make sense and are useless to you.

6 At this point some will say “but isn’t it a good thing to get a young person in touch with support services” to which I will reply clearly it is, but if ministry is only about doing that, if it stops there and doesn’t give them the life giving message of Jesus Christ then I’m not sure how it can be considered a ministry of life at all.