Story, Signs and Sacred Rhythms is written by Chris Folmsbee, the head of Barefoot Ministries, an evangelical youth ministry resource and company. Folmsbee has 15 years of youth ministry experience and is also the author of A New Kind of Youth Ministry.
In Story, Signs and Sacred Rhythms, Folmsbee wants to add to the youth ministry conversation by bringing a new model of ministry to the table. His desire to bring about this new model of ministry is born out of his belief that youth ministry is perceived as a primarily entertainment-driven endeavor. Folmsbee wants to move us away from simply “keeping youth busy” to “a narrative approach that equips the rising generations” (8). He calls his new approach a “narrative-missional youth ministry.” Folmsbee explains, “I believe it’s the mission of God to bring restoration to the world, and it’s my premise that it’s through our discovery and understanding of God’s Story throughout history that we can first join his mission” (20).
The goal of the author’s narrative-missional model of youth ministry is to bring students into an understanding of the Story of God found in Scripture and ultimately into cooperation “with God’s mission to restore the world to its intended wholeness” (29). To get us to that point of cooperating with and taking part in God’s Mission, Folmsbee offers us five “stages of narrative youth ministry.” That model looks like this:
Story -> Theology -> Identity/Calling -> Way of Life -> Behaviors & Expressions
God’s revelation to us in His written Word comes in the form of a story. Scripture is a narrative from Genesis to Revelation which recounts God’s plan of salvation–God’s plan to restore our world broken by sin. In Chapters three and four Folmsbee gives a rundown of what he calls seven major movements of Scripture. He gives the “big picture” of Scripture beginning with the movement of creation, through the movement of God’s promise to Israel and onto the incarnation, the early church and ends in the movement of restoration, the consummation of the world when all that is broken is brought back into wholeness. This story, understandably, is the author’s basis for all we ought to do in youth ministry.
In chapters five through eight Folmsbee takes us through the four remaining stages of his narrative-missional approach. Chapter five gives us a model of discipleship by which we can help students interact with and apply the theology they are confronted with in the Scriptures. Chapter six attempts to show us that our practical theology then leads us to understand our identity and calling, that is to say, who we are in Christ and what God has called us to do. This calling leads us to a way of life, namely a life as a disciple of Jesus. In chapter seven Folmsbee follows up by laying out his understanding of what the virtues of Jesus are and how our students ought to follow them.
Chapter eight gives us what the “end product” of a narrative approach to youth ministry should be. In a “story-formed” Christian community, a “story-formed” student is formed in four major areas (Discipleship, Community, Evangelism and Justice) and ought to exhibit specific characteristics in his/her life. The student will express his/her story-formed-ness through spiritual disciplines, a life of corporate worship, involvement in the Christian community, sharing the gospel with others, etc.
What Folmsbee does well in Story, Signs and Sacred Rhythms is encapsulated in the name–his “narrative-missional” approach to youth ministry. The term “narrative” describes how the author challenges youth workers and Christian educators to make a shift in the way we go about communicating the Christian faith to the students and families we serve. If your confirmation class is anything like mine, you spend a lot of time (and by a lot, I mean one hour a week) nailing down the propositional truths found in the Catechism. While these are all good, right and salutary, Folmsbee helps us to see our Christian faith as a journey that is lived out daily, a story. As we pass down the rich doctrine of our faith to the next generation we must do so the way it was passed down to us, in the form of the story of God’s people daily interacting with God, oftentimes struggling to understand what, exactly, God is up to in the world.
The second part of Folmsbee’s narrative-missional approach to ministry is also important. What Folmsbee wants us and our students to see is that God is up to something (i.e. restoring the world) and he encourages us to find how we are called to participate in that work. We ought to be more than passive observers; we are called to be active re-tellers of God’s story of redemption in our world.
Much of what is good and helpful in this book can be found in the first two chapters. Beyond those opening chapters the author does not make his points as clearly and concisely as I would like. Folmsbee regularly uses graphs, flow charts, bullet points and alliterations that become confusing and tend to make what could have been a fairly straightforward text tedious.
Additionally, while Folmsbee’s book hinges on leading students into an understanding of and participation with God’s restorative and redemptive work in the world, he fails to discuss how God has accomplished this for God’s people. In his overview of the major movements of Scripture, Folmsbee describes the incarnation as the climax of God’s story, yet only in passing does he even mention the resurrection (59-60). Certainly Folmsbee is writing for an audience that understands the importance of the resurrection of Jesus, but to write a book on Christian formation and discipleship yet manage to drop the ball when it comes to the defining event for all Christians is mind-boggling! Romans 6:4 comes to mind: “We were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” A story without resurrection and Baptism (Gospel!) ends up being just another story we can’t live up to.
Much of what Folmsbee has written here has been covered elsewhere, most notably in Mark Oestreicher’s Youth Ministry 3.0 (Zondervan/Youth Specialties). For a clearer, more practical look at the “big picture” of the Scriptural story check out Through the Bible in 12 Weeks by Jenny Baker (Group Publishing). For more on the missional piece, check out Luther on the doctrine of Vocation because, let’s be honest, that’s really what “missional” is.