A New Kind of Youth Ministry: Book Review
Written by Jim French
What’s in a name?
If you’re in love, then there's nothing in a name, if you’re a reader and pick up a title that reads A New Kind of Youth Ministry, then you may have other thoughts and expectations. It’s dangerous to title anything “new”. As someone once said “There is nothing new under the sun” and people react to titles. Authors should know this. It is interesting the number of titles that have been changed on publication of the second edition (The Last Word on Guidance for example got retitled as Guidance and the Voice of God). I wonder if this book makes it to a second edition, whether it would be better titled “Some Good Things to Consider and Do in Youth Ministry”. The current title of the book may set up barriers and expectations right from the beginning for some readers.
A new challenge?
The heart of the book is Folmsbee’s desire to see young people grow not just in their head knowledge of God, but in their relationship with Him, in and through Jesus. This goal is right, good and noble. However, the way Folmsbee has gone about addressing what he characterises as a "problem with classical youth ministry" is reductionist and reactionary.
The book attempts to challenge current youth ministry and reculture it. The word “reculture” is used in most chapter titles, as Folmsbee sets out to rethink evangelism, discipleship, mission, service and outreach, leadership, education, and ourselves. By 'reculture', he means a process of change that involves critical assessment, rethinking and generating new ideas, then implementing these new ideas and practices. It is also about an ongoing recursive process of evaluation, assessment, ideas, and further implementation that moves away from the static, and embraces a dynamic living ministry. The goal of all this is to deeply touch young people’s lives, by training and equipping them to be agents of God’s restoration of creation.
Pros and cons of this book
The first objection I have is that there is little said on how to implement the changes that Folmsbee has proposed. Reculturing is so central to the book, it really needs more than one chapter on how to make it happen, especially when the book is full of anecdotes from Folmsbee’s experience in ministry, where implementing change has been so hard and met with such disastrous results.
However, before we go too far with the objections to the book, there are a number of positive aspects to this book which need to be stated. The book raises questions about current motivations and practices in youth ministry. It is an open and honest book that speaks of jealousy, arrogance, lack of love for God and for young people, and is willing to confront and begin a process of change in life and ministry, as well as the realities of confronting change in these areas.
The book taps into a need for change, which I believe most people in youth ministry think and feel. It helpfully encourages the salvation story schema of the Bible, and advocates the need for youth ministers to find their place in the drama of salvation, walking alongside and leading young people in this story. The book has picked up on the needs for belonging and significance, and young people’s ideals for changing the world and being a part of a bigger cause. The focus is on inspiring people to be used by God and live for God, not just know about God.
Chris Folmsbee appears to have had a number of youth ministry positions in significant churches over a twelve year period. The book has a number of anecdotes of his experiences, clashes and joys in these positions. Currently, Folmsbee is the CEO of Sonlife Ministries / Barefoot Ministries. He is also a keynote speaker at numerous conferences. From the introduction, it is clear that he has been influenced by a number of the emerging church leaders, like Tony Jones and Brian McLaren.
The honesty of the book is one of its weaknesses. The reader maybe left wondering whether the author has some more personal issues to work through (as we all do). Whether a book is the place to air our grievances, hurts of the past and to work through further personal issues is a question that remained with me after I finished reading.
So what is wrong with the book?
It sounds harsh asking that question, but this is the nature of both books and reviews. There are a number of weaknesses in the book. As said above, the much polarised nature of the old vs. new, program vs. people, dualistic vs. holistic, sacred vs. secular is both helpful and annoying. While this type of polarised approach easily brings the ministry in contrast, the reality of ministry is that it is messy, organic and complex. I doubt whether there are many in youth ministry who know much about God, but are not growing in their knowledge and love of God.
I agree that some youth ministry in the past has been driven by entertainment, events and programs, and it is good to question how we do what we do, but not all "old" is bad, just the same as not all “new” is good. The book did not argue fairly by giving a critique of past and current principles and practices of youth ministry, and therefore it came across to me as reductionist and reactionary. Rather, it presented Folmsbee’s experience in youth ministry with senior ministers, other youth ministers and parents who are fearful of change, postmodernism, monastic practices and the current youth generation.
It seems as though Folmsbee is reacting against his experience of youth ministry in more conservative and fundamental churches. However, not everyone reading this book comes from a conservative, theological, fundamental North American church, therefore the book may alienate readers from other Christian cultures. By alienating particular North American churches of a more conservative and fundamentalist nature, this book will also inevitably alienate other less conservative and fundamentalist Christian cultures that may be more open to the change and postmodern thought Folmsbee is extolling.
One of the critiques of the emerging church is that they are strong on conversing, but the conversation is limited to those in the emerging movement. There has not been much discussion or answers to some of the questions raised by critics of the theology of the movement. But again, one needs to be cautious, the spectrum in the emerging church runs the full gamut from conservative (Driscoll) to liberal (Rollings). Folmsbee seems to be shaped by a limited number of writers and their perspective on postmodernism, and therefore the book is limited in its footings. Interestingly, there has been a reach back in time to the monastic writers for inspiration in the emerging church. Folmsbee talks of the panic that was raised when at one church he began advocating lectio divina, so not all which is old is bad!
An important warning
There is a warning in this book that is not stated nor intended by the author but true for us all - be careful to listen to more than one side of the conversation. Whether it is the emerging conversation that Folmsbee presents, or whether you are conversing in more conservative circles. The more conservative voice may need to be heeded especially if you are seeking to ground your youth ministry practice in biblical principles. There was very little Biblical basis given for the changes and proposals that Folmsbee has put forward in this book. Ironically, Folmsbee is willing to listen to the principles put forward by the emerging church and engage in practices of the monastic movement, who cloistered themselves away from culture, in order to advocate a new kind of youth ministry to a postmodern generation!
The final word
When reviewing and critiquing, one of the difficulties is to work out what was not said that needed to be said. One chapter that was missing may have been titled, “Reculturing Parents: from abduction and contracting, to discipling their own children”. Any “new” development in youth ministry must include equipping, supporting and supplementing the parents' role in discipling their young people. It seems as though Folmsbee was not willing to share thoughts on a conversation that has been going on in North America for almost a decade (see for example Mark DeVries’ 1994 book, Family-based Youth Ministry).
So there doesn’t seem to be anything new under the sun in this book. The material in Folmsbee’s book challenges some of the current event/program driven models of youth ministries, but I think it would be wrong to say this is new. It is really the discipleship model that Tim Hawkin’s book Fruit That Will Last, put forward in 1999 and Moser has been advocating in his book Changing the World through Effective Youth Ministry in 2000. The advantage that both these books have over Folmsbee’s work is they are voices from a different cultural and theological context, with firmer footings in the Bible as a basis for the principles and practices of youth ministry, something which is lacking in Folmsbee’s book.
Chris Folmsbee (2007), A New Kind of Youth Ministry, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan