by John Oberdeck
Concordia Publishing House, 2010
Eutychus was a young man, a teenager, who, in Acts 20 was in a crowded room, late at night, with torches flickering, while listening to St. Paul share the gospel. Now the text suggests that Paul went on and on and on and Eutychus became drowsy. He moved to a window seat for some air but it didn’t really help. He nodded off and fell out of the third story window. He was pronounced dead…at least until Paul took over, took the boy into his arms and revived Eutychus. One thing that impresses me is Paul’s immediate concern for the youngman. He went right over to him rather than letting others attend to him.
On a bad day, my question is whether churches, pastors, church professionals, families, and parishioners much care about teenagers.
Youth Ministry has been a bright spot in the history of The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. Our tradition in youth ministry goes all the way back to C.F.W. Walther who once told his seminary class, “You cannot use your time to better advantage than by serving well the young people of the congregation.” The LCMS has a long history in youth ministry. The Walther League was a preeminent force in youth ministry until its end in the late 1960s. LCMS youth ministry has a grand history in servant events (celebrating 30 years of service in 2011), Lutheran Youth Fellowship and teen leadership, resourcing for youth ministry, training for adults and, new of late, young adult ministry. God has blessed the LCMS and its young people with a strong vision for nurturing the faith of young people in their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
All that said, the challenges of youth ministry have never been greater. Media and culture surround our young with all kinds of questionable influences. We live in an age of toleration where everybody wants to be nice and not offend. When it comes to faith, teenagers are increasingly inarticulate. The challenges of youth ministry these days are aptly chronicled in books like Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith (both books based on the National Study of Youth and Religion), A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence by Patricia Hersch and Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers by Chap Clark.
The National Study of Youth and Religion notes that today’s youth (and probably most of their parents) believe in something Christian Smith has dubbed “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). Simply stated, this is a religion about a God who made things, wants people to be happy, sits back in heaven watching things but pretty much stays out of the way unless we have really messed things up and desperately ask for His help. This is the God most teens seem to believe in. Most studies of teens these days note that parents are the number one influence in the lives of their teens. Teens most likely inherit their belief in MTD from Mom and Dad, or as Christian Smith notes, “You get what you are.”
On top of that, our youth population, both as a country and especially as a church body is diminishing. In 1980 for the first National LCMS Youth Gathering in Ft. Collins, Colorado, based on confirmation statistics, our youth population for 15-19-year-olds was about 220,000. Thirty years later, for our 2013 Gathering, again based on confirmation statistics but for 14-19 year-olds, the LCMS youth population is around 100,000 — fewer than half what we had 30 years ago. We are an aging church like most denominations. Good news? The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) finds that the LCMS is among “conservative Protestant denominations” that retain 86% of their youth through high school. The bad news? Our young adults drop out of church at the same alarming rate as most post-high-school young adults.
It is too often true that congregations these days literally have no youth. A smaller youth population means they are less visible. That contributes to a youth population increasingly at risk, including spiritual risk, to the extent that “Eutychus” could be standing right in front of us with a name tag that says, “Hi! My Name Is Eutychus” and we wouldn’t recognize him. And we certainly wouldn’t ask him how to pronounce his name.
So, what does all this have to do with a book review about theology applied to youth ministry? It could be that the church really needs to discover and recover two things: (1) its commitment to youth ministry, and (2) its theology. Both Chap Clark and Christian Smith stress that teenagers today largely cannot confess or explain what they believe. It’s partly about wanting to keep it private so as not to offend a friend. But it’s also about churches not teaching, not doing catechesis, like we used to. Teens can’t articulate what they believe because they haven’t been equipped. John Oberdeck’s book may be a great new tool for this purpose.
In my almost 40 years in youth ministry, we’ve often talked about the need for a “theology for/of youth ministry.” There have been attempts but mostly from evangelical circles. John’s book is an outstanding (I’d even say “brilliant” in the English sense) effort to bring theology to the fore. His point is not that there is a theology for youth ministry in the sense that youth ministry’s theology needs to be something different or specialized in some way. God is the same God for teenagers as He is for children and adults. He stresses that his book is about good, solid, Lutheran theology and how it can and should be applied to young people, their lives and their world.
The goal of theology is to connect people, including youth, to Jesus. As Oberdeck states, “No design of practical theology for youth ministry is truly practical if it fails to lead them to Jesus Christ.” (84). Our theology is about God’s grace, mercy, love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ and that’s the same whether you are a teenager or a golden-ager. He points out several times that his book is not about games or youth ministry programs. It is also not a curriculum. It is a resource for the person who wants to share the treasures of Lutheran theology to a youthful audience.
The strengths of this book are many. There is a personal winsomeness that connects the reader to the author. The author relates stories from his own life as a teenager and from the lives of his children. The stories make things real. John also demonstrates a great familiarity with current sources about youth, several of which we have mentioned.
His book demonstrates a profound respect for Lutheran theology. My personal favorite chapter is the one titled “Christian Youth.” Here, he consistently references the theology of the cross and how helpful it is to teenagers struggling with feelings of being alone and abandoned, unappreciated and unloved. I wholeheartedly agree.
Oberdeck believes that teens can handle serious theology, and I believe he’s right. In her book, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church, Kenda Dean, who teaches youth ministry at Princeton Seminary, says that teenagers are looking for something to live for that is worth dying for. They are looking for something to be passionate about. Teaching Lutheran theology with the passion John proposes could be just what the youth ministry doctor ordered. Let’s teach our teens to be passionate about what they believe. If we’re going to be Christian, let’s be Christian–but we have to know what that means. And it’s not about moralism and knowing right from wrong. It’s about Jesus.
I want to recommend this book to any person interested in doing serious youth ministry, and that recommendation is one I would make to folks from other Christian traditions. But, this book is very Lutheran–in fact, very Missouri Synod Lutheran. As an LCMS person, that’s great for me. But honestly, it is a book that deserves a broader audience than just the LCMS. It takes up the task of making theology relevant for our teens. It demonstrates a profound respect for them to take theology seriously. It certainly should be read by any church professional committed to youth ministry. I believe it would be an excellent resource for lay persons working with youth. And I hope a few people outside LCMS circles would also pick it up and not be concerned about its pedigree. It’s just that good!
Christian Smith, in his closing remarks at the Youth Ministry 2011 Symposium hosted by the LCMS Youth Ministry Office, said, “Helping teens and emerging (post-high school) adults (and parents) really, truly and existentially to understand this one and only inescapable, awesome reality: that they are from all eternity, personally, absolutely and unconditionally loved by and reconciled to God in Jesus Christ–and will only ever have real life by living in and out from that reality.”
Eutychus Youth can be an excellent resource in helping youth workers help that happen in their youth.
This review was originally published in Concordia Journal, Spring 2011, a publication of the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.