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REVIEW: Youth ministry history is refreshingly atypical

As a youth minister for more than a decade — and as superintendent of a Christian K-12 school — I have read my fair share of books and articles about reaching kids.
Whether it’s an activity-based program (run, run away) or a program focused on the buzz words “spiritual formation,” I have seen and read a lot.
But Mark Senter’s “When God Shows Up — A History of Protestant Youth Ministry in America” was a bit of a shock for a guy who thought he had seen it all.
I assumed the book would be a tidy 150-page manual outlining the brief history of youth ministry, highlighting various trends and then offering a recommendation into the newest method of reaching teenagers.
I was pleasantly wrong.
Upon first glance, a 300-plus-page book on the history of youth ministry in America struck me as overreaching.
Then I started reading. The book offers a fantastic description of the history of spirituality regarding youth in America — and how churches have placed their emphasis on youth. Then follow descriptions of the various methods and programming used.
Weaving together the events of U.S. history, the changing dynamics of the country’s youth population and the evolving characteristics of churches is not a small task. But Senter does it with professorial pen and a youth minister’s touch.
Senter chronicles the history of youth ministry by attaching time period pieces of literature and entertainment to illustrate the issues faced by that period’s youths.
He uses Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” to illustrate the youth culture of the late 1800s in the Midwest.
He compares that culture to the Roaring Twenties, using references from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
Senter’s heart for youth ministry exudes through the manuscript as he combines historical information and practical applications.
There is something about this form of narrative that speaks to me. As much as I would love to read just for the sake of reading, a book like this poses the question, “How can this information be used right away?”
There are definite opportunities for youth leaders and teachers to take the material and translate it into an immediate teaching opportunity for students.
Much like a school teacher may use civics and government to illustrate an educational objective, Senter gives me the opportunity to use literature such as Sawyer and Gatsby — along with movies like “Grease” — to teach kids that life for teenagers always has been about trying to find your way in the world in which you live. Sin and stress didn’t begin with this generation of teenagers, so connection to the past has a real benefit.
Recent discussions of social justice and the place that teenagers play in shaping the world’s future are great, but Senter reminds me that there was a time in which students were not just debating life, they were having to live it. In so many ways, that stands in contrast to the youth culture of today.
Youth leaders and teachers spend countless waking hours combing through material searching for something relevant.
I believe Senter gives 300-plus pages of relevance that can be used right now for today’s youth leaders and for today’s students.
The material is rich and deep — so much so that I felt overwhelmed at some points of the book. My initial reaction to reading books that I want to put into use is to begin immediately creating a plan of implementation. With Senter’s book, I had to pause to process all I was reading, which would sometimes slow my momentum. This small criticism may be more of a reflection of me as a practitioner rather than as a scholar.
As Senter clearly relates, youth ministry didn’t begin with the addition of youth ministry degrees in Christian colleges. Its roots run deep, and various denominations have viewed youth culture through a variety of lenses.
But whatever the viewpoint, the end result needs to be: “How do we create an environment where students have the opportunity to come into a closer relationship with God?”
In “When God Shows Up,” Senter provides a clear picture of how our predecessors have dealt with the issue through the years. Now it is up to this generation of leaders to recognize the culture in which they live and lead accordingly.
RANDY SPECK is superintendent of Oakland Christian School in Auburn Hills, Mich. He is passionate about
developing student leaders. Contact him at [email protected].

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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