With the publication of his first book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation, Andrew Root has stormed onto the youth ministry scene as a force to be reckoned with. Root is Assistant Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, which is also home to youth ministry stalwart Rollie Martinson. Root has a background in youth ministry through church work, Young Life, and as a gang prevention counselor. Though he is young, he is theologically astute, graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Ph.D. in Practical Theology.
In his book, which appears to be a reworking of his doctoral dissertation, Root blows open the traditional conception of relational youth ministry as a tool used to gain the right to speak influence in the lives of teenagers. Root thinks this is theologically void and calls it a way of practicing the theological heresy of docetism. Drawing from research conducted while a doctoral student at Princeton Theological Seminary, Root found that in youth ministries, “relationships have been used for cultural leverage (getting adolescents to believe or obey) rather than as the concrete location of God’s action in the world.” This popular strategy of ministry is often touted as incarnational, because this seems to be the way in which Jesus conducted ministry. Root goes on to say,
I have realized that a youth ministry of influence has very little to do with the incarnation…. God became human to be with and for us, not simply to influence us toward this or that end. (This would actually be there heresy of docetism, which believed that Jesus only appeared to be human in order to influence us.)… The incarnation is not about influence but accompaniment.
For the bulk of the book, Root forges a new genre in the niche of youth ministry literature as he constructs a theological treatise for robust incarnational youth ministry, drawing almost exclusively from the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He seeks to answer three questions and show their relevance to youth ministry: Who is Jesus Christ? Where is Jesus Christ? What then Shall We Do? As I told Rusty and Noah the other day, his book could be subtitled something like “If Dietrich Bonhoeffer did Youth Ministry.”
Root does not simply leave his method to intellectual theological arguments, but gives us a final chapter on what this might look like in real youth ministries. His suggestions and theological insights, if taken to heart, really do have the potential to change youth ministry as we know it.
While reading the book, I came to the realization that, to my knowledge, there is no youth ministry book that is as theologically deep and rich as Root’s. Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster’s book The Godbearing Life is the only work close to Root’s in nature, but even it does not probe the depths of a particular theological subject like Root’s. In my estimation, Root’s book will be noted as being the first in a line of theological books written specifically for the context of youth ministry. With the publication of this book, a new (and needed) genre has been birthed.
This is truly a must-read book. Root’s gift to the youth ministry community is not only in the content he provides, but also in modeling for us what it looks like to think theologically about youth ministry. Taking both to heart will change for the better the way you do and think about youth ministry. In fact, this book is helpful in forging a Neo-Youth Ministry.