Recommended books & reviews, Theology

Concrete faith: A review of ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker’ by Andrew Root

Bonhoeffer as Youth WorkerAt the start of this book, Andrew Root outlines ‘The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon’, the term coined for the divergent Christian tribes who have bestowed hero status on the German theologian.  One consequence is that books on Bonhoeffer are warped by the theological commitment of the authors, whether they be radical, liberal or conservative. Bonhoeffer’s legacy easily falls victim to the tribal propaganda rife in today’s Church.

With this in mind, Root dismisses some of Bonhoeffer’s most popular advocates. Eric Metaxas’ biography is ‘so flawed and earnest to paint Bonhoeffer as a conservative’ that he refuses to refer to it.  Similarly Peter Rollins ‘deeply misreads Bonhoeffer’ due to his dogmatic commitment to his revolutionary interpretation.

The ‘lens’ of youth work

Root does bring his own lens to his study of Bonhoeffer, but it is not one shaped by theological tribalism. Rather it is something more concrete and helpful: Bonhoeffer’s practice of youth work.

Many people will be familiar with Bonhoeffer’s most famous books, The Cost of Discipleship or Life Together or his role in the plot against Hitler and his Letters and Papers from Prison. Fewer have acknowledged the central role that youth work played in his life’s work.

This neglect is in itself significant – because it shows how the Church and its theological establishment continues to patronise and marginalise youth work.  As Root shows, Bonhoeffer never fell into this trap. Despite his deep and intricate theological work and political activism, Bonhoeffer consistently led a wide range of youth groups and wrestled with the practical challenges involved.

Root takes us on an immensely readable journey through the different stages of Bonhoeffer’s life. Each chapter focusing on a different part of this journey and his youth work in different contexts in Berlin and also further afield in Barcelona and New York.

From technological to theological

Root writes in an accessible, yet scholarly way, and never pulls his punches about the problems facing contemporary youth work in North America. His central critique is that much ‘youth ministry was created as a technology’ needed to solve a functional problem of ‘low religious commitment and immoral behaviour.’

‘This technological approach has begun to feel like a noose around the neck of many youth workers…it feels as if their ministry is always in search of the next big programme, model or idea’.

In contrast, Root claims that Bonhoeffer is the forefather to ‘the theological turn’ in youth work. Rather than trying to solve a functional problem, this approach ‘seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God.’

‘Concrete and lived experiences’

The core reason Bonhoeffer captivates people today is not because he wrote some profound theology.  It is because this theology was ‘concrete and lived’. Like Jesus himself, Bonhoeffer’s faith led him to his death. And it is through this death that power and life has come.

All youth workers and church leaders (and bloggers!) can benefit from Bonhoeffer’s challenge to keep theology real and rooted in the concrete. We need to avoid the constant danger of what he described as ‘phraseology’ which is rife in the Church today.  As Root puts it:

‘Phraseology was the enemy because it was theology cut loose from real life; it was theology that could make no difference or had no concern for the concrete and lived experience of young people.’

Recommended reading

One improvement that Root could have included is a study guide to help youth workers reflect on the themes of this book. Christian books easily live in a world detached and disintegrated from actual application and authors need to do all they can to help readers move beyond the world of words.

But I would highly recommend this book to any Christian youth workers who are looking for a stimulating read.  Even better, I would recommend that all church leaders who have a youth worker buy two copies and commit to reading a chapter each week and reflecting together.

Root’s book is a great addition to the many books written on Bonhoeffer – an inspiring challenge to cut through the abstract and recognise God at work in the concrete and lived experiences of young people.

Buy Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker by Andrew Root (Baker Academic)

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