What's Tony Thinking

The Cult of Youth


Is there a youth fetish in church and society? Religious News Service   has a great interview on this topic with Andrew Root of Luther Seminary and the author of Faith Formation In a Secular Age.

Root says he nearly jumped out of his chair when he read the following from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The church has been more obsessed with the youthful spirit than with the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

Bonhoeffer wrote that over 70 years ago, but it seems no less true today.

Not just the church. “Youth is the new global currency” claims Simon Doonan. It’s hard to know exactly what such a statement actually means, but it sounds like it means something, doesn’t it? Doonan writes about the “fetishization and over-praising of youth” at Slate.com

In the RNS interview Root, whose work I’ve long respected, offers some thoughts on how the church has come to be obsessed with youth and how easily this becomes a kind of idolatry.

The first point would, of course, be that the larger culture shares an obsession with youth and youthfulness. These days everyone — political parties, civic groups, service clubs, and businesses — want to attract “youth.” I’ve written elsewhere about the desperate eagerness of congregations to “reach” those aged 18 – 35. (Here’s a link to a Publisher’s Weekly review of recent books on Millenials and the church, some of which actually look quite good.)

Funny, I don’t remember ever working with a church that said to me, “Yes, we really want to attract the aged. We’re after the old people.”

Well, of course you can argue that there’s a sort of biological or organic imperative at work, e.g. survival. People intone, with solemn assurance the conventional wisdom, “Youth are the future of the church.” Actually, I’m not so sure about that. In a time when faith was passed from generation to generation, that may have been true. Of late, it appears that each new generation invents church to fit their own tastes. The assumption that today’s church youth are tomorrow’s church adults may not be true.

Root suggests that we live in what he calls the “age of authenticity.” Things like “duty” and “obligation” are old school, well, actually ancient. Authenticity is now the singular virtue. And Madison Avenue, no slouches, have picked up on this. According to Root, advertising has sold us on the idea that youth “signify” or somehow mediate this thing called, “authenticity.”

No wonder we’re obsessed with youth. If they signify not only biological survival but authenticity . . . give us some of that!!

Root, who does believe in the idea of youth ministry and the value of youth ministers, nevertheless has some hard questions. He says that asking how we can attract and hold onto youth is the wrong question. The right question may be, “How can we encounter the living God alongside our young people?” Yes.

In my own ministry, this meant that I wasn’t much interested in traditional models. That is, youth only and always “doing their own thing,” being off in their special clubhouse at the church. I was more interested in helping them to participate in the church’s central act and drama, worship. I loved working with both children and young people to be worship leaders, as well as participants, in meaningful ways.

All of this unfolds at a time when youth are stepping forward as leaders in a national moment and movement for gun control. Are we taking the young people of Parkland, Florida more seriously than the parents of Newtown because they are “youth”?

If strong and capable leaders emerge from among the young people of Parkland, Florida or in the wake of other such terrible events, I’m all for it. But it should not be lost on us that even as ours is a culture obsessed with youth, the real youth are increasingly at risk of being gunned down because the adults seem unable to act like adults and deal with the issues we face responsibly.

Maybe that’s really what is behind the cult of youth? Given the failure of adults to be sane and responsible adults, we gotta look somewhere.


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