November 14, 2012

Wrestling with God: Dr. Andrew Root on Youth Ministry

Jacob Wrestling With The Angel by Alexander Louis Leloir (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Nathaniel Torrey

This past Thursday Wesley Theological Seminary hosted The Foundation for Evangelism’s 2012 Wallace Chappell Lecture. Dr. Andrew Root, Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, spoke about the task of evangelizing young people in a culture of quick thrills and flashy imagery.

Dr. Root claims that previous generations defined themselves by their work and commitments. For example, a man might define himself as a “company man” and a “husband”. However, today’s young people define themselves as consumers, by what the buy. Instead of defining themselves in terms of love and their relationships, they seek intense feelings of intimacy in seedy romance novels or in casual hook ups. With young people constructing their identities around what they consume and feelings of intimacy, this provides certain challenges for evangelism and youth ministry.

Accordingly, Root said:

”We have a generation of people who have come of age and are part of the church, the older generation of people, who have constructed their identity around work and commitment. They see the church as something you work at and are committed to. You have another generation of people, and I would include myself in this, who see the church as something you consume and are intimate with.”

The good feelings from the things we buy and casual intimacy come very easily but are also not very strong or lasting. But unfortunately youth ministry has hitched its cart to the wagon of consumption and intimacy, which has led to declining numbers in church attendance with young people, as evident by the rising amount of religious unaffiliated in a recent Pew Research Center poll. Dr. Roots said by softening the gospel, we really do a disservice to young people. When people come to the church for healing and comfort, a prepackaged and plastic version of Jesus Christ is incapable of giving them what they need. Instead, we should be ready to grapple with the stark realities of a life of faith. In closing, Dr. Root pointed to the story of Jacob, who literally wrestled with the Angel of the Lord, as an example of the kind of church life we should be giving young people:

“One of the ways forward is to actually help our young people, to help our churches as whole, to become places where we really wrestle with God. They can become places where we can really wrestle with the failings of consumption and intimacy and the places of hurt and pain in their lives. Maybe the identity of the Christian in our world is not one who easily easily believes but one who actually wrestles with God. The problem with this is that if you wrestle with God, you always walk away limping. One of greatest the problems we have with evangelization in our cultural context is not that our churches aren’t powerful, or culturally relevant, or don’t feel like U2 concerts. The problem with our churches is that our leaders, the people who are really invested, don’t limp.”

You can find Dr. Andrew Root on Twitter at @RootAndrew.