A few months ago a very nice person approached me and thanked me for writing my book The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. I was moved by their kind words. The person then said, keeping the conversation going, “I was thankful for the book because I’ve been saying for years that we just need to get kids to read Paul Tillich.” I stopped for a second, assuming the person was kidding, but inside the awkward few second of silence it became clear there was no jest in this remark. So I asked, “Why Tillich?” Confidently the person responded, “Because kids need theology!”

A number of thoughts ran around my head, the one tormenting me the worst was, “Why do you think young people need theology?” I swallowed the question before it escaped my mouth, because I thought it would be rude—or at least odd—for the author The Theological Turn to question the need for theology. However, that question continued to haunt me. Here I was, having written a handful of books titled not only similar to The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, but also Taking Theology to Youth Ministry and Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry. Still, I wanted to ask, “Why do young people need theology at all?”

I pondered the question for weeks, finally coming to the answer, ironically not in reading Paul Tillich but Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I concluded that young people don’t need theology at all. That may sound contradictory to say I don’t think young people need theology.

It hurts me to say that, because I actually love theology. I love reading and discussing theology. In the end, though, I’m not sure that knowing theology and all its doctrines help young people follow Jesus. I’m not sure theology alone makes much of a difference in the practice of ministry. A turn to theology in youth ministry risks losing the lived and concrete experience of young people by bulldozing their questions, fears and joys for information.

I think the kind person who complimented The Theological Turn misread the title. It isn’t The Theology Turn in Youth Ministry but the Theological Turn…, and while at first glance these words seem to be synonymous, I see them as quite different.

A youth ministry that turns to theology seeks to move young people into forms of formal knowledge (to assimilate to the doctrinal). A youth ministry that turns to the theological seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in act and being of God. The goal of a theology turn in youth ministry is to get kids to know information; a theological turn in youth ministry seeks to minister to the concrete humanity of young people, seeking for God’s action in and through their experience.

Yet, I’m sure as you read this, you’re thinking, “OK, but how does that actually look? What do you mean?” Let me provide an example from the life of one of greatest theologians of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Theology and a Dead Dog
It often is overlooked that Bonhoeffer was not only one of most talented students of theology in the 20th century, but he was also a youth worker. His entire ministry between 1925 and 1939 (until WWII began) was with either children or youth (I’ve sought to sketch this out in my new book Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker).

In 1928, at the age of 22, with a completed Ph.D. in theology in his back pocket, Bonhoeffer went on internship in Barcelona. Within weeks, he revamped the Sunday School and started a youth group. An encounter he had a few months later with one of these young people, a 10-year-old boy, illustrates beautifully the difference between theology and the theological.1

One morning, a boy came to see Bonhoeffer. Dietrich had requested something from the boy’s parents, and as the boy arrived Bonhoeffer became attuned to him, sensing there was something wrong, as the usually cheerful boy seemed out of sorts. The theological in youth ministry often has its impetus not in the formal but in the encounter of the experiential. Bonhoeffer neither had organized a formal time of pastoral care, nor had he looked to teach the boy theology. Rather, as minister, he sought to attune himself to the young person enough to seek the boy out and ask him to speak of his experience.

This attunement shows the depth of Bonhoeffer’s gifts for youth ministry. He did not see a one-dimensional child with flat and stupid concerns. Rather, Bonhoeffer would contend there is theological depth in the very concrete and lived experience of the boy—and his tears witness to the fact. Bonhoeffer was drawn into the boy’s humanity, understanding that when this young person spoke of his experience it would come to Bonhoeffer with theological depth. As Bonhoeffer invited the boy to speak, it eventually came out, the tears flowing. Bonhoeffer heard through the gasps of sobs as the boy repeated, “Mr. Wolf is dead, Mr. Wolf is dead.”

Bonhoeffer dwelt deeply in the boy’s suffering, sharing it by experiencing the loss the boy felt; he wrote a letter to Walter Dress about experience, noting the boy’s deep emotional attachment to the dog. Bonhoeffer stood as the boy’s place-sharer, inviting the boy to narrate his experience, to tell Bonhoeffer how it was the boy loved the dog and how the dog awoke him in the morning, playing with him all day.

Sitting with the boy, his sobbing was muted by the arrival of the theological; it welled up in him as his heavy experience was shared by another. Standing neck-deep together in the boy’s experience, having this experience shared by Bonhoeffer, the boy said, “But I know he is not dead at all!” The theological had arrived. The boy used what he had heard other boys say about death in religion class, what his teacher has responded about heaven, and constructed his theory of hope that he would again see his beloved dog, Mr. Wolf. The boy then directly addressed Bonhoeffer, looking for an answer; seeking confirmation from his pastor on his theory, the boy said, “But tell me now, will I see Mr. Wolf again? He’s certainly in heaven.”

Bonhoeffer’s place-sharing, lead to the impulse of confession and proclamation. Bonhoeffer did not sit with the boy and think, “The boy is weak. It is now time to convert him.” Rather, Bonhoeffer just shared in the boy’s experience, embracing him, patient and present in every tear. After the boy’s person had been joined by another, he sought clarity. The boy sought to offer his conception of what is real through his experience; he loved Mr. Wolf, so Mr. Wolf is in heaven, right? The theological burst forth from within the experiential, growing from the fertile soil of shared humanity through the action of ministry.

What was Bonhoeffer to say? He was stuck between theology and the theological. He perceived that the boy wanted a yes or no answer. He knew that it would be ministerial malpractice not to give an answer, somehow to drown the boy’s questions in Socratic methods of avoidance, offering the boy’s direct question only the answer of another question that would get him off the hook. The boy had shared his experience and sought to make sense of it; he sought the theological, and the heavy stone of theology that might have given the right dogmatic answer but taken no concern for the stained cheeks of the boy would not do.

Bonhoeffer confessed in his letter to Walter Dress that children’s/youth ministry is a deep and challenging locale in which to do the theological. He explained to Dress how he struggled with what to say; forced, through this experience, to think deeply. Similar to so many of us in youth ministry, he explained at the end of the letter that he felt small next to the significance of the boy’s deep theological question. Bonhoeffer never doubted himself in defense of his dissertation, but in the shadow of the 10-year-old’s cosmic question, raised by the lived sorrow for his dead dog, the overly confident Bonhoeffer sat in fear and trembling.

It was next to the 10-year-old that Bonhoeffer was pulled beyond theology into the theological, beyond the academic into the ministerial. It was here, in youth ministry, that he bumped up against the possibility of the encounter with Jesus Christ through the concrete humanity of being this 10-year-old boy’s place-sharer.

Bonhoeffer had to give an answer, and a theological one at that; the boy would settle for nothing less. So Bonhoeffer connected the boy’s love for Mr. Wolf and God’s own being as love, explaining, in a way the boy could understand, how in God all forms of love are redeemed and taken into the very love of God. “So I will play with Mr. Wolf again?” was the boy’s response, embracing the possibility in joy.

Now that the boy had experienced his suffering being shared, understood and cared for lead him to ask his deepest theological questions—as he heard Bonhoeffer respond to him not with theology but with the theological—he could not help but do the theological himself. He said to Bonhoeffer that he scolded Adam and Eve for bringing death into the world, for losing Mr. Wolf was an experience of a ruptured world that allows death to end love. The boy took a step toward the theological. Witnessing Bonhoeffer standing in the theological, the boy was drawn into the theological; watching someone do the theological, the boy did the theological himself.

Theology vs. The Theological
This story is a shining example of what I mean by turning to the theological as opposed to theology. The theological is first the ministerial; it is the taking of the boy to your knee and sharing in his suffering, allowing him to narrate his experience. It never is beating the boy over the head with theology, but seeking to give responses that attend to the experience. It hopes not for assimilation of theology in the young person’s brain but for the wrestling with God in the questions swirling within the young person.

Bonhoeffer reflected at the end of the letter on how surprising it was to see a boy that he imagined as only wild and excitable come to such reflection. This is a boy who would resist theology, too active to listen or care. Yet next to his experience, in sharing in his humanity, Bonhoeffer entered the theological with him, igniting his imagination, seeing him transformed from a wild, uninterested boy to one who would wrestle with God next to his deepest questions of lost love.

Mr. Wolf forced Bonhoeffer to be nimble, to be a true theological thinker. In our own day, so many in our churches think they want a youth minister who is able to teach their kids theology, believing that if the youth worker knows theology their kids will be safe, good and informed enough never to ask their parents or other adults the theological questions that inevitably make them feel, as Bonhoeffer felt, small and unsure in the thin air of inquisition. However, in this very thin air of the theological, the transformational occurs; it is where weeping turns to laughter, as Bonhoeffer said at the end of his letter. Bonhoeffer helps us see that a youth minister is not someone who heaves theology onto young people, getting them to know stuff, but is rather a minister of the gospel who stands near the concrete humanity of young people, sharing in their experience, helping them wrestle with God’s action in and through their concrete lives. That is the theological!

I wish I had been brave enough to say to the kind man that day, “Why do you think kids needs theology?” Having genuinely listened, I imagine I might have responded, “Well, I’m not sure kids need theology; I’m not sure they need better curriculum or youthful versions of Paul Tillich, or youth pastors who know every theological answer; but I do think they need our youth ministries to create open spaces with mission trips, retreats and confirmation classes where their questions can be asked, where adults and kids together might narrate their experience of dead dogs, divorced parents, and rejection from their dream schools and their dreamy boyfriends. In ministering to them in these experiences, we might await something more than theology—the theological place where thinking about God and doing ministry come together.”

1Bonhoeffer, Barcelona, Berlin, New York, 138.

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About The Author

Andrew Root, Ph.D., is the Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He is most recently the author of Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross (Fortress, 2014) and Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker, 2014). He is also the principal project leader for John Templeton Foundation Funded Science for Youth Ministry Project.

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