It sounds a bizarre question doesnt it, after all, youth group may have just finished, it occured in the place of spiritual activity, a church, was led by christian leaders, often involved activities with young people who were keen to be there, and occupied for a short period of time, so its inevitable that God turned up – yeah?
Have you ever thought or felt that youth ministry, as a leader can be a bit of going through the motions at times, maybe we feel like that about church too- if we dare admit it – but the ‘motions’ and ‘routines’, ‘programmes’ and ‘activities’ of the youth group – do they leave room for God to be involved? and if so – what might be a relationship between what we do (as leaders), what young people do, and also how God might be involved in being present and active in the space?
Does God show up – when the young people cry at the end of our purposeful emotional talk? , is that God?
Does God show up – when the young person participate in ‘real church’ on a sunday, after being involved in ‘not real ‘ church on a sunday evening for 3 months?
I only ask provocatively, as is it worth asking the question – where, and how is God active in youth Ministry?
To begin an answer this, it might be worth referring to a few of the prominent theologically reflective youth ministry writers over the last few years, both from a UK and USA perspective. In the USA, the discussion regarding Theology (the knowledge of God) and youth ministry is potentially slightly more advanced in terms of writing on this theme, however Pete Ward, Sally Nash and a few others might disagree, as I suggested previously, Youth ministry as a field within practical theology is barely a discussion, but that might change.
So, Where is God acting in Youth Ministry – what has already been said?
Pete Ward says this:
It is God who seeks young people and chooses to call them to himself. Encounter with God is a spiritual event shrouded with Mystery. Despite all our efforts, training and experience, we are powerless beside the sovereign work of God (Ward, Pete, 1997, p35)
Going on to say that the desire to communicate also carries with the desire of simplification, reducing the gospel to simple messages (because of a myth that young people have short attention spans, not that they deserve better methods of education, discipleship or given the chance to raise their game and treated with more respect than a universal myth). The Otherness of God who is to be feared and respected is played down, writes Ward, The mystery of faith has been debunked, unpacked and demythologised and illustrated into non existence, creator God has become friend, and prayer is ‘like a telephone’, worship a ‘rave’. It feels, as Ward goes on to suggest at the end of the book, that creativity, artistry and imagination are clues to the moments of God acting, as they respond to a knowledge of God as creator God and instilling in the person a Spirit filled imagination.
In a way, God is active when young people are creative – and how creative are the young people allowed to be in your youth group?
A Second response to this question is arrived at by the American Theological and youth minister; Andrew Root, his knowledge of Bonhoeffer is well known, and four of his last publications refer significantly to Bonhoeffer and Bonhoeffers own experiences as a Youthworker. However, that aspect is not for now. What Root does in ‘Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry’ is to square the location of the presence of God within ministry as within the experiences of Community – ie in Relationships. This in part is counter to a prevailing culture in youth ministry to see relationships as a strategy for something else (and reducing them ethically and humanity). Relationships therefore are, according to Root (referring to Bonhoeffer) are the location and source of the presence of Christ within a Youth group.
The Meeting of I and you is the place where we encounter the living presence of Christ, because this is the place of transcendent otherness (Root, 2007, p114)
Whilst this flies against using relationships as a strategy (ie to bring young people to a thing) but as intrinsic itself, and locates the very presence of God in the relationship itself, and meeting Christ in the person. As a reality, meeting Christ in the otherness of persons within youth ministry, this is worth reflecting on, or reading the book further. As we are made for relationships and interactions, there is a need that this is costly and vulnerable, it is about community, seeing them as part of our being in ministry, not just a strategy. (Root, 2007, p121-122)
This might help the ‘where of Jesus’ in Youth Ministry – but does it figure and help us in thinking where Divine action occurs.
However, in a later publication: The Theological Turn in Youth ministry (2011), Andrew Root suggests, and I concur, that whilst the justification of youth ministry as a theological practice has gained significant ground in the last 20 years (and Pete Ward, and Roots own pieces above are part of this), especially to construct links between practice and theology, and practical theology has been helpful in this, little attention, according to Root, has been given systematically to
‘how divine action and human action relate to one another, to how and where they associate…we have not yet sought to articulate how to go about discerning the activity of God from the place of Human action or how human action is participation in the action and being of God in the world’ (Root, 2011, p219)
Roots response in The Theological Turn, is to briefly overview three positions in regard to Divine-Human Action and his new publication Faith Formation in a secular age develops clearly one of these, the role of being a minister, and in so doing this is where God acts. Stating; ‘To be a minister or to be ministered to is the vehicle into divine action‘- (Root, 2016, p201) it is here where divine action may be experienced in a secular age.
The problem I see in this, is that it reduces Divine action to predominately Human Action, and though Root is more concerned with ‘Faith Formation’ in this book, his response to Divine action, leaves me underwhelmed. Its as if, as Pete Ward said in 1997, Divine action is demythologised – reduced to something humanely tangible, and by doing so this reduces God in the playfulness of his/her action.
It is at this point where Theologians like Von Balthasar, Vanhoozer and others come in, when they relate the Overarching narrative of Gods action as a Theodrama. (references below)
For what we have in the Theodrama, that they propose, is that we as Humans are co-actors, acting, with God in the ongoing drama of world redemption. In the 5 act Theodrama that Wells proposes, God has already acted in History in four key scenes – Creation, Covenant, Christ and the Church – and is about to act mysteriously in the eschatology, (oh and save your time working out whether we live in a secular age, just focus on living in the church awaiting eschatological age) . The Bible gives us a clue, or a script, of how God and Humans have already acted in their ongoing relationship. Faith has been found in the generous gift of the widows mite, the touch of the desperate, the faith of the centurion, God spoke through prophets, and to people in covenant, also in surprising moments (such as the road to Emmaus). An expanded view of God, according to Vanhoozer, one remythologised, is one who Speaks and Acts in communicative agency. With the Bible being full of God speaking in and through, God presents himself in mysterious, yet consoling, commanding and promising ways (Vanhoozer, Remythologising Theology, 2010 p3).
In Contemplating Theology as Theodrama, and the Christian life, and pursuit of God as a drama itself, then for Vanhoozer, the Drama of Redemption, God is in the business of ongoing dialogue as the author and director of the Drama, in this expanded metaphor for Divine Human action – ‘The dialogical author is the new paradigm of a new kind of agency, one suited to neither examining dead things nor to manipulating objects, but rather to engaging the living consciousness of Human heroes’ (Vanhoozer, 2010, p333) To be human is to live in dialogical act, to live is to participate in the give and take of question and answer, call and response.
‘This drama itself is the story of how the creator consumates his creation into the whole that is true, good and beautiful as it is meaningful; a renewed and restored world, an abundant garden city characterised by everlasting shalom’ (Vanhoozer, 2010, p327)
So, How might Theodrama help in the awareness of ‘divine action’ in Youth Ministry? (or any ministry)
On one hand, it is not to reduce God to one favoured form of action, to say that God is creative is to negate the incarnation, to discover him in relationships through the covenant is to reduce the power and mystery of redemption and repentance on the cross, and what , as Root rightly says, Death, might mean in ministry. The whole Theodrama reveals God in communicative act, and within this Drama our ongoing scenes occur. The Divine Author is in our and the young peoples very midst, prompting and provoking in call and response. The Divine author is calling his creation towards the work of the kingdom, that is to love, hope, give and to feed, clothe and liberate. God is calling, metaphorically, from the stage of the action those who would continue to participate in a dangerous journey of continued call and response. Yet it is a call that respects the Human person, a requirement for obedience, and continued choice, it is an interjecting call, not an interferring or intervening one.
Where might Divine action occur in Ministry? It might just be where those called, respond to the call and begin to perform the Theodrama – even if they dont know it yet.
Baltasar, Hans Urs Von, Theodrama, Vol 1-5
Root, Andrew, Revisiting Relational youth Ministry, 2007, IVP
Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997, SPCK
Vanhoozer, Kevin, Remythologising Theology, 2010
Vanhoozer, Kevin The Drama of Doctrine, 2005
Vander lugt, Wesley Living Theodrama, 2014
Wells, Samuel, Improvisation, 2005