Should Youth Discipleship be regarded as performative pedagogical practice?

One of the dangers, writes Giroux, of modern educational practice set within a global economy that has economic growth as its driving force is that it has involves even more so a

‘narrow pedagogy, memorization, high stakes testing and helping students to find a good fit within a market -orientated culture of commodification, standardization and conformity’

Giroux wasnt writing this that long ago. As a result; Young people, writes Giroux further, ‘are treated as customers and clients rather than a civic resource, whilst many poor young people are simply excluded from the benefits of a decent education through the implementation of zero tolerance  policies that treat them as criminals to be contained, punished or placed under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system’. (Giroux, On critical Pedagogy, 2011)

Over the last few weeks I have written a number of pieces on young people and participation within the church, and I am thankful to the few of you who have read and shared them widely. Quite expectantly, one of the key tools to think about participation has been Harts Ladder of youth participation, which i have now shared twice, and i do so without apology again here.

Image result for hart's ladder of youth participation

However, whilst participation is a key aspects to how young people interact with agencies and establishments, from Giroux, critically young people can be little more than consumers in their role in the school, and probably barely on rung 2-3 at all. Developing a culture of youth participation in schools can only be achieved if it is part of what drives to actions of a school towards its funding expectations, including its Ofsted reports and league tables, none of which barely mention young people as participants in the overall ‘Good/Outstanding scale’ – So if its not measured and idealised as an outcome, it will barely feature as significant, in the rigorous testing and managerial culture of the school. Being run as a business within the global economy and with spending targets to boot. However, this is a sidetrack to a question about young people and participation, and more so about discipleship as a pedagogy.

I wonder, when reading the quotation from Giroux above, did you think about how young people are discipled in church and youth ministry?

Last year, I heard a seminar by Jo Dolby who had done an academic piece of work on Discipleship. Within it she referred to the definition of discipleship that arrived from the greek word ‘Mathetes’ , which literally means, to be involved in the process of ones own learning. Discipleship seems to involve an ongoing process that involved the learner and teacher as an ongoing process. Jo pointed to a number of aspects of discipleship based from the culture of discipleship in Jesus’ time that were provocative and counter cultural. She shared these things at last years Streetspace national gathering, a write up for which and the flipcharts on discipleship are here: Streetspace Gathering 2017

But Mathetes and discipleship as an ongoing process of learning. Interesting…

One definition of Pedagogy is :  The method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept. (From The online Oxford dictionary) , Pedagogy is often used in educational practice as seen above. It is less well used in Faith Based discipleship conversations. Discipleship is less seen as educational, and more formational. At least that is the common language within churches in regard to discipleship, formation and authentic practices.

 Though forming, as Root goes on to say, has been thought of in not a neo-liberal vacuum (Root doesnt talk about this at all) but in a secular age, which values Authenticity. Formation has become another buzzword for educational group work that hopes desperately to keep young people within an institution (pages i-xiv).

Churches have become no better or different than schools. Where the schools curriculum is bent towards the market. Churches have been hoodwinked into reductionist programmes of survival. Reductionist in that they hope to keep young people, having only avoiding worst case scenario to hand. If Root is to be believed, though i think the British context is different, churches have turned to youth to keep their own authenticity intact, for being youthful is a sign of authenticity in todays western culture. What Root lacks in his prognosis is the effect of neo-liberalism, power, control and education within his analysis, though what he strives for is a rethink of formation, doing so without a huge mention of discipleship, though with one that calls for increased awareness of divine action, and young people as participants beyond just the institution (p191-194)

Will an understanding of Discipleship as Pedagogy help? Again, Root will probably say no, i think. Though in an age where youth participation is lessening in schools, then at least the church might offer something distinctive if discipleship was a process of ongoing collaborative learning. Discipleship as ongoing learning that also including aspects of divine action, and also performance might be closer to what is required. A quick aside, when Vanhoozer diagnosed American Youth Ministry and the church as a whole with the MTD disease that Smith Identified, his cure was to uphold Theology and also the Drama of doctrine in the ongoing actions of Human performance ( Vanhoozer, 2014, Faith Speaking Understanding) for him, limited doctrinal knowledge was the pre-curser to the God that makes me feel good attitude prevalent in MTD. How might a performative pedagogy that enabled the ongoing learning of Christian doctrine help within Youth Ministry?

Wesley Vander lugt suggests that Formation and Performance are intrinsically linked. There is limited use for one without the other, performance reveals formation, and vice versa. (Vander lugt, Living Theodrama, 2014). The process of learning, of formation within youth discipleship might benefit from how its ongoing pedagogical practice is performative and in doing so reveals, and helps young people embody theology in the world, being more that participants within faith institutions.

In the same way, Giroux and Root have at their heart the sense that pedagogy and discipleship are for the same ends, the flourishing of humans within the flourishing of local communities, Root suggest that the church is the only collective society that is for personhood itself ( p207), and as Giroux above indicates pedagogy of persons is, at its most ambitious :

‘is to educate students to lead a meaningful life, learn how to hold power and authority accountable and develop the skills, knowledge and courage to challenge common sense assumptions while being willing to struggle for a more socially just world‘ (Giroux 2011, p7).

Discipleship as prophetic pedagogy? It may be that the church, if it can think of youth discipleship as a process of helping young people lead a meaningful life (and not just conformity to institution) then it might have something to give and contribute in society with young people who do get ‘left behind’ but also who are in the system and struggling to cope. But discipleship as a pedagogical practice, that forms disciples to lead meaningful lives for the greater good, and gives them keys to understand their place in the world, to enable it to flourish, and challenge structures of power. How might churches do this – let make them places of welcome, and places where young people create hope, and places where young people are ministers of it in their world.


Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy, 2011

Root, Andrew, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Smith, Christian, Soul Searching, 2004

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014

Van der Lugt, Living Theodrama, 2014


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