Renouncing second hand expertise in Youth Ministry

I had been guilty of fake-reading Soul Searching. I think it is a common curse. A friend of mine was telling me about the book a few years ago as he was I think just starting his Phd, and we had a great conversation about it, he even put some quotes up on facebook, when putting ‘notes’ on facebook was a thing.

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But I didnt read it myself.

Fast forward a few years, and I am reading a Vanhoozer book, on the place of doctrine in Ministry, and in an article, he refers to the key conclusion of ‘soul searching’ and considers ways of overcoming this.

Oh well and good I think, Vanhoozer is much more challenging to read than Christian Smith, and he knows what he is talking about, so I neednt bother reading it myself. I even write a great blog on it, well i say great, a few people thought it was great. But I still hadnt read the source material. I had fake-read Christian Smith then proclaimed to be a trusted source myself to talk about it.

I wonder often this occurs in aspects of Youth work and Ministry. Somebody else reads a book on something, then uses the idea from the book to be an expert on a thing, and those receiving it only hear an interpretation and leave trusting that the person has represented it right. That person becomes the expert on Freire, or Jeffs and Smith, or Vanhoozer, and then its the few snippets or quotes that are circulated. I must admit, I still have a few of these blind-spots in my literature closet, but having now read Christian Smith, this is now not one of them. 

There is a task in the ongoing practice of youth work and ministry to be maintaining integrity to what we say we base our practice on, if we do have notions of doing so with theory or theology in mind. The pain of the personal hard graft to read it ourselves is worth it, we are changed through the process of reading. 

It is not enough to be on the bandwagon of someone elses expertise, yes be inspired when someone refers to a book or article – but then get hold of it and read it. This is what I did when Helen Gatenby refered to ‘We make the road by walking’ by Friere and Horton a few years ago in a conference, and what a book it was, to read the whole thing. Deeply inspiring for practice and a view of educating humanity presented in conversation very inspiring. But i could have just taken Helens word for it.

Oh – but when have we got time for reading you say? Its not a matter of time, but a matter of priorities. A conference or lecture might give us a dip into an authors perspective – but in reading it ourselves are we opened to new possibilities and use our skills of interpretation to bear further fruit on and in it. As reflective practitioners we can consume contemporary culture and learn through it, and contemporary culture includes publications in sociology, psychology and theology to inform , shape and bring insight to practice, and to ourselves as persons.

What i found in ‘Soul Searching’ was considerably more than the headline of it that has been oft quoted. That of MTD, (Moral Therapeutic Deism) – and as I am reading it, I am reflecting on whether it is significant 10 years after its publication, and in my context the world of Christian youth work/youth ministry in north east England. Especially in light of two pieces of research regarding the faith of young people and their engagement in churches. What i can use the detail of the book for, and reflect on is far more than the headline, and ill be posting some of the highlights from Soul searching in the next few days, but this post isnt about the content of Soul searching, though what it does say is that young people arent given the critical skills or deep theology as part of their faith, thats ironic – because unless we as youthworkers develop a love of gaining ‘first hand’ knowledge, and the critical skills to go with it, then not only might we sell ourselves short, its likely we’ll do the same for the young people.


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