On Becoming a Teachable Spirit
Burning questions on how God reaches out to teenagers, how their grains of faith can be sustained, and in what ways the urban church can share the gospel with city kids.
The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age by Daniel A. Bell & Avner de-Shalit. Princeton University Press, 2011. 352pp.
The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry by Andrew Root & Kenda Creasy Dean. InterVarsity Press, 2011. 352pp.
On the urban Westside of Oslo, our youth ministry had a "girls' night." Girls with limited experience with Christian practice discussed their sense of worth—faith, experiences, hopes, and fears. Then gradually we turned to questions of life after death and salvation. As leaders, we felt trapped between alienating the girls on one hand and being faithful to our beliefs on the other hand. Then Reidun (age 16) broke the hesitant atmosphere with a simple and unexpected confession: "I don't know how to make sense of life after death, but I know that I'd feel lost without Jesus in my life right now."
The last years of service have raised burning questions for me on how God reaches out to teenagers in my city, how their grains of faith can be sustained, and in what ways the urban church can share the gospel with city kids. Two books—Daniel Bell and Avner de-Shalit's The Spirit of Cities and Andrew Root and Kenda Dean's The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry have highlighted these questions in exciting and fresh ways. As a missionary to urban youth in Oslo, I share the authors' delight for both cities and youth.
Both books are quite different, and yet I sense that the authors would enjoy a conversation on some topics. I believe there are at least three points of potential bonding.
The Spirit of Cities looks for the identity of nine cities in search of a spirit. By strolling the cities, collecting stories from the city streets, engaging in spontaneous conversations and experiences, the authors have come to find distinctive personalities in cities. Each of these cities is made up of a pluralistic way of life and a myriad of human expression, and yet they have a need for a collective identity. Though the authors give limited attention to youth in cities, their awareness of faith and religion is high, opening with a chapter on Jerusalem. Their personal relationship to seven of the nine cities is their starting point and runs through the whole study. Their approach is less scientific or research-oriented, more like like artists painting family members. Bell and de-Shalit persuade us that a city has an identity that must be respected but also possibly challenged.
A similar respect for youth underlies The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. With passion and delight for youth, the authors' agenda is helping youth ministers reflect theologically, with attentive and sound minds. The first part of the book is dedicated to developing theoretical frameworks for this theological task. Root explores steps to develop practical theology—theology's relationship to other sciences and hermeneutical questions in various models. In Dean's chapter on salvation, this theological theme is explored in relationship to Biblical texts and the development of the adolescent in psychological and theological terms, and ultimately, it is connected to theology of the cross. She captures some of the desperate urgency and hopefulness I've found in adolescents' search for identity and meaning. The second part of the book explores specific practices in youth ministry.
The books find a first point of contact in their passionate search for identity. In particular, Bell and de-Shalit have ordered their chapters according to cities that are the closest to their heart. The first chapters are on Jerusalem and Montreal (their hometowns), and they stir up the warmer and more personal language—in the final chapters on Paris and New York, their interest is still keen, yet not as attached. These authors are personally shaped by their subject matter—youth and cities. Similarly, in my experience, many teenagers in Oslo are both deeply connected with and feel the need to overcome their hometown. They long to escape and see a different world, yet home is their center of gravity. When I walk around in our neighborhood with teenagers, they sometimes suddenly share memories connected to specific buildings, shops, and streets. Their stories speak of identity being shaped in the midst of passion for their city. Who am I? Who is this city?
Bell and de-Shalit describe how cities counter some of the uniformity that comes from globalism and nation states by consciously developing identity in an ethos. This connects to the passion that Kenda Dean uncovers in the adolescent search for a self, as opposed to disappearing into nothingness. Their developmental stage allows adolescents to "realize with new force that they could live or they could die, and they do not want to die 'for nothing.'" They have an intense desire to be something—to lead lives that carry significance.
Secondly, it's noteworthy that the authors are pushing boundaries for new and accessible methods. They make way for a more dynamic approach to academics. What's more, they share their methods so the reader may personally use them. Root's chapter titled "God is a Minister" provides three steps in a theological process—experience, reflection, and action—that let us come back to experience with new insights and questions. This theological dance draws us closer to seeing God's ministry towards ourselves. Our girls' night is a typical setting for experience that could step into scientific exploration and theological consideration on concrete matters—which again would call for a response in new action in the youth ministry.
Yet, I am concerned that this method may be out of touch with our hectic realities. When a situation calls for our attention, do we have time to draw back? In the fleeting character of urban life, will what called for my attention still be around when I have finished my reflection time? Many times I've realized in hindsight that I had a moment to say or do something spiritually significant, but because I wanted to have it thoroughly worked out, I didn't act. So the strolling method of Bell and de-Shalit come to my aid as a way and metaphor of being present and reflecting on the go. It has a liquid flow, connecting themes and issues with reality and experience. The girl I mentioned earlier, Reidun, was, in a sense, a practical theologian who was confessing the need for Jesus in her present reality. Her statement came from the "strolling of her own streets" and was linked to teaching from confirmation classes and girl's night. It also connected the night's theme, "sense of worth," to the question of life after death. Jesus gives her a sense of worth—and without that, she would feel lost. So, how about picturing the three steps in Root's theological dance flowing into the city streets in a stroll or less structured dance? In ministry, we have normative theological commitments—will an unstructured stroll keep up and develop our faithfulness to these?
Finally, both books make me wonder about where we find our faith. Did Reidun's confession of being lost without Jesus come from the depths of her loneliness and need for someone? Or had God revealed Himself to her? These are linked to the issue of how humanity receives divine impulses. Teenagers are vulnerable in urban life, as numerous impulses call loudly for attention and teenagers are yearning for connection. They search for faith and identity by intuition. Dean links the adolescent search for identity through the virtue of fidelity in developmental theory to faithfulness as theological concept. In my experience, faithfulness in the life of youth is tricky. They search for it outside themselves while simultaneously yearning to faithfully devote themselves. But where can they go to have their longings satisfied? The urban church that wants to persevere in the competition for adolescents' hearts and souls need to stand out in faithfulness and alertness to the Spirit of God. My sense is that the urban church especially needs to develop discernment in a patient presence amongst youth. This will also involve crossing borders to visit teenagers' territory.
It is interesting to note that in The Spirit of Cities, "spirit" is mainly used as term for collective human values and outlooks. In The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, "spirit" and "spirituality" is more linked to divine revelation. Andrew Root argues, "But theology makes the claim that revelation gives individuals a distinct vision of reality that cannot be perceived outside of God's unveiling love." Yet, I find traces of acknowledging transcendence in spirit and faith when de-Shalit discerns between benevolent and destructive faith in Jerusalem: "If faith causes people to hate others or disrespecting them to the point of spitting at them, then there must be something wrong with that faith. But if people can see the image of God in every person, then their faith very worthy of respect." And in Andrew Root's chapter "God's Hiddenness, Absence and Doubt," we find a reverence for what we cannot know or control in theology. Rather, he calls for the church to be "always searching for the 'where' of God alongside adolescents." To faithfully trust God's continued presence and care and linger in the reality of teenagers in Oslo is still my greatest challenge and sometimes joy as a missionary.
Can young people reflect theologically on their identity? Their capacity and willingness to articulate these issues will vary greatly. However, they do it by intuition (according to Dean). So training them to think theologically about how their city shapes them and how they in turn shape their city seems to be demanding but a potentially fruitful mission. Strolling their streets together with them and teasing out their view of life and identity requires a long-term commitment, but may also be given by grace at unexpected moments. Chap Clark, my professor in youth ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, encouraged me to be more devoted to learning than knowing. It's one of the most precious pieces of advice I have received for doing youth ministry in urban Oslo. So, it is my hope that we may join urban teenagers in exploring identity with a spirit of learning and faithfulness to God—and that these books can help inform our work.