by Andrew Root
Baker Academic, Ada, Mich. 211 pages
Reviewed by Shelby Etheridge
There’s a lot of debate going around about future of Christian formation in the church. Conversation abounds about how to welcome children and youth in worship, how to cultivate an intergenerational church and how to do “theological youth ministry,” ministry in a way that helps our young members remember the way youth group deepened their faith, more so than nights spent bowling or playing laser tag.
Root’s book, a combination of a Bonhoeffer biography and guides to two of his well-known books, shows that theological youth ministry has roots in one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Root shows the particular connection Bonhoeffer had with youth ministry, from his work in Berlin, Barcelona, Harlem, and back to Berlin again, telling the story of Bonhoeffer’s life and ministry through a particular lens: his work with youth and young adults. “Children” for Bonhoeffer are not future or even young members of our church communities; they are full members, for they find their way deep into our community as “their persons experience love and trust, as their persons experience life and community.” Root focuses on Bonhoeffer’s ministry with children and it is a helpful reminder that though it can sometimes be devalued, it is actually one of the most important ministries of all.
As a pastor who works with children, youth and their families, I, like many of you, struggle with conflicting schedules: sports on Sunday mornings, hours of homework on a weeknight, required rehearsals or practices that make weekend retreats near impossible. Yet despite these conflicts, there is something special when the church gathers together. One of the focuses of Bonhoeffer’s early work, “Sanctorum Communio,” is seeing the church as a community, as distinct from society. Bonhoeffer was seeking a church that takes the shape of community over society. The community creates personhood; the community looks almost like a family. This challenged me to examine whether in Christian formation we are creating a society or a life-community.
As I read this book, I was preparing to lead my first confirmation class and wondering how I could make our time together meaningful and worthwhile. Bonhoeffer taught a confirmation class in Wedding, a lowincome district in Berlin, and while I might do more preparation than he did (he admitted that he never prepared for the class in detail), I found inspiration in the way Root described Bonhoeffer’s teaching style: “He took the initiative to share himself by sharing his stories … that allowed him to take the pedagogical step to hear the boys’ own stories and weave these stories together with the biblical text and, in Bonhoeffer’s case, Luther’s Small Catechism … Bonhoeffer simply, but profoundly, was inviting the boys to witness and share with him as he followed Jesus Christ, as he lived his faith before them.”
As we consider how it is that we can be in ministry with our younger members, there is no better example than this: Invite them to witness, share with them as we follow Christ and live our faith before them. May it be so.
SHELBY ETHERIDGE is the associate pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Maryland.