Rollie Martinson’s book Effective Youth Ministry: A Congregational Approach offers a snapshot of leading youth ministry thought from the past. Published in 1988, the material contains both timeless foundations for youth ministry alongside some now anachronistic suggestions for implementation. Though he is currently Academic Dean at Luther Seminary, Martinson was Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at the time of the book’s writing. This works draws from his insights as a Lutheran pastor and as an academic within the field of youth ministry.
In the book Martinson seeks to provide a primer for a theologically grounded approach to youth ministry. He begins his opening chapter by stating that
Youth ministry starts with an “intentional” theology. This means that perspectives and programs need to be constructed on the foundations of the Christian faith. The results of this construction will vary from tradition to tradition and church to church. Universal agreement is not the goal. The goal is a youth ministry shaped by the gospel as understood by one’s own theological tradition and its interpretation to Scripture. (11)
Because of this theological foundation, youth ministry is foundationally no different in any other ministry of the church: it seeks to be constructed upon the pillars of the Christian faith first and foremost and then secondarily adapted and crafted towards nurturing faith in youth. In setting a theological foundation, the first chapter contains ten myths and corresponding foundations to help set the stage for the rest of the book. This initial section could be the most helpful for congregations whose conceptions about youth ministry involve isolating youth from the rest of the congregation, making sure youth keep “busy,” and trying to hire the perfect youth minister. For example, “Myth six suggests that youth ministry must be done by individuals who have youthfulness, charisma, and magic!” (16). He counters this myth with the foundation that youth ministry is best done by a diverse group of people rooted in the theological premise that the Spirit gives different gifts to different people, and youth would benefit from ministry amidst all of these gifts. The opening chapter really breaks down popular misconceptions and builds up theological foundations in their place, which will be the crucial building blocks for long-term success. The second chapter lays out further theological foundations for ministry after this initial brush clearing.
Martinson also includes what seems to be the obligatory chapter on adolescent development, mining from the fields of biology, sociology, and psychology. Stalwarts in adolescent theory like Erik Erikson, Carol Gilligan, and James Fowler are summarized and then translated into implications for ministry. Since the adolescent is wrestling with the questions of “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” Martinson suggests that ministries and churches are uniquely positioned to let teenagers know they are unique and valuable long before they realize their own worth (47).
The importance of understanding youth culture is also highlighted, and parts of this chapter date the book (Martinson informs us that “The ‘box,’ a large, portable stereo, has become a symbol of their culture” .) But on the whole, Martinson’s assertions are still applicable to today: youth still have their own culture and are still a highly marketed demographic. The only change might be that youth culture has actually gained in its wider cultural influence and significance in the past twenty years.
Practical suggestions fill the book, and are most prominent in the final six chapters as Martinson outlines strategies for organizing a youth ministry, getting a youth ministry started from scratch, and providing suggestions for possible activities that will reinforce his desire for theologically grounded ministry. From how long Youth Committee chairs’ terms should be to getting youth involved in worship, Martinson offers nuts-and-bolts ideas that can be developed and implemented right away. In the appendix he offers helpful tools and surveys for processing some of his suggestions.
One of the most striking drawbacks to the book is its lack in many places of tying together the importance of the theological with the practical. Both sides are present in the book, no doubt. But their relationship to one another seems a bit distanced. It could almost be read as two separate books: one book on a theology of youth ministry and another on youth ministry ideas. There are times when he seems to simply be listing practical suggestions for the sake of practicality but not grounding them in any sort of theological convictions. One such case is in his suggestion for the use clown ministry. Though he uses the theological justification of getting youth involved in ministry to children, and thereby integrating them with the rest of the congregation, he does not engage the practice of clown ministry itself theologically. What does it communicate to children about God when you have a clown ministry? Might you unintentionally communicate through clown ministry that God is not to be taken seriously? Questions such as these are theological engagements of the elements of ministry. Had he taken this next step in illustrating that we need not just theological principles, like integrating youth into the congregation, but also showed us how to evaluate our practices by making us question how we integrate youth into the congregation, Martinson would have offered a deeply robust theological treatise for youth ministry. Perhaps for brevity’s sake he did not make this next step, which is unfortunate.
Another critique lies in his admonition to study youth culture. It would have been helpful for him to emphasize more explicitly the value of knowing the youth in your congregation before studying youth culture. Years of youth ministry have made it clear to me that knowing the youth in my midst and spending time with them is much more fruitful in cultural insight than watching popular TV shows and listening to music popular among youth. This is a common admonition in youth ministry texts that could stand some correction.
The practical suggestions in the book were a bit too prescriptive at times. Especially when talking about the structure of the youth ministry, Martinson left little room for imagining a structure without youth committees, elected officials, and chairpersons. Even going so far as to tell how long the Youth Committee Chair should serve, he uses words like “legislative” and “judicial” to describe the functions of various bodies and committees at the church. He mentioned almost no room for creativity or adaptation depending upon one’s context. It could be argued that such structures today are often more of a hindrance than a tool to train, equip, and release people for youth ministry.
Though the book is now over twenty years old, the majority of the book is based off of theological insights that transcend time. As far as introductory primers on youth ministry, it is nearly as good as popular youth ministry books published during the past five years. With some minor updating the book could be a timely contribution to the growing body of literature that is helping to reshape and re-imagine youth ministry in the twenty-first century. The book is valuable because its anachronisms force the reader to focus on the foundational principles rather than whatever the latest trends in culture might be. Perhaps Martinson should consider writing “Effective Youth Ministry 2.0.”