Beyond Me: Grounding Youth Ministry in God’s Story
Wendell J. Loewen. Waterloo, ON: Faith & Life Resources, 2008. 167 pages.
Youth ministry can be one of the most challenging contexts for connecting the ancient truths of the kingdom of God and the multi-dimensional perspectives of today’s youth. Wendell Loewen, professor at Tabor College, seeks to introduce those who work with or care about young people to a broader view of ministry that takes the larger story of God’s work as its starting point.
Loewen begins with a critique of the widespread adoption of the neatly-packaged ministry models that typically come out of large churches or para-church organizations. The single criterion for evaluating these programs has often been, “Do they work?” Loewen’s objections are that these models can result in reductionistic thinking (e.g., the belief that “one size fits all”) and that the theology framing them is often less than robust (17–18). The remainder of the book consists of his attempt to suggest a better way of developing a faithful ministry. Loewen’s paradigm is presented in two sections: “The Adolescent Narrative” and “The Counternarrative of God’s Design.”
The first section introduces the argument, developed throughout the book, that the adolescent quest is for identity, autonomy, and belonging as they walk the “tightrope” between childhood and adulthood. Identity formation in the present age suffers under the influence of postmodernism (chapter 2) and consumerism (chapter 3), which engender a type of moral, and sometimes physical, abandonment. With little or no fixed reference points, identity becomes tied to the quickly-changing flow of contemporary values often constructed through what one consumes. Because the adult world is seen as increasingly hostile (30), “peer clusters” provide the safe haven for which adolescents long.
The second section of the book looks at how the “counternarrative” of God’s reign can be conceptualized around the adolescent quest. Loewen bases this section on the conviction that effective youth ministry can only be based on God’s larger story. The incarnation of Jesus in the world is a message of presence and belonging (93), even through difficult times. Youth will thrive when their identities are grounded in this larger story, when they feel connected to the counternarrative of the gospel and God’s people. In this place of belonging among the people of God, they gain a sense of autonomy as they are taken up into God’s mission.
The weaknesses of the book are not many. To name one, it is surprising that Loewen pays so little attention to media when he discusses the adolescent quest. The book was published 2008, so there is no good reason why he could not have make the influence of media and social networking a bigger part of the conversation. To name another, more emphasis on the positive influence of peer-to-peer mentoring would have strengthened Loewen’s discussion. Helping older youth gain a vision for investing in their younger peers benefits both groups in their quest for identity, autonomy, and belonging.
Even so, Beyond Me is a fine introduction to missional youth ministry for both minister and laity. It provides a thoughtful and practical discussion of the ways in which youth ministry can be reconceived. The case for using the story of God’s redemptive mission as a basis for the spiritual formation of youth is well-made. The adolescent desire for identity, belonging, and autonomy is a very helpful starting point for discussing the current cultural milieu as well as the message of the reign of God. Loewen’s tone is practical throughout, especially in “Ideas for Scripting the Kingdom Counternarrative” (110–20).
Well-documented, though its sources are a bit dated at times, the book points to other works that will assist readers wishing to explore the ideas developed here further. Loewen’s book will help many who work with youth to extend and refine their own conceptions and practice of the important task of youth ministry.