Youth Ministry and the Institutional Church: Lessons from Bonhoeffer

One of the anxieties churches face today is the state of youth ministry. This is often due to the practical concern that a poor youth ministry facing rapid attrition rate can only mean the inevitable collapse of the church due to the lack of succession. You can imagine then the heart sinking news when Straits Times published an article with the header “Youth in Singapore shunning religion”[1]. To make matters worse, three years later, Barna Group revealed their findings that churches in the west faced a dropout rate of 64 percent between those in the age range of 18 to 29.[2] Of course, churches here in Singapore are discerning enough to recognise that trajectories in the west need not necessarily reflect what goes on in our own country. However, as we hear these gloomy findings, what we do share in common is the entrenched fear of losing not just anyone, but specifically the youths and young people. After all, haven’t we been told, the youths are the future of the church?

In this brief article, I want to propose that maintaining this notion of youths being the future of the church is not only theologically wrongheaded, but pastorally damaging both to the youths and to the minister tasked to disciple the youths. I hope to do this by drawing on the experience of the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer is known to many of us as being that bright German theologian who not only completed his doctorate in theology at the age of 21 but who also later played a key role in the Confessing Church as pushback back against the German Evangelical Church during the Third Reich. Some of his more popular books would include the dense but rich Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Ethics. What is less known about Bonhoeffer was that he spent a considerable amount of time working with youths first in Germany and later in Barcelona, before returning to his home country once more. It is also within this context and experience of being a minister to youths that Bonhoeffer would develop eight theses on youth work. Space does not permit me to share all eight theses but allow me to draw on just two.[3]

Thesis 1:

Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the Word of God; it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God.

As a youth worker, Bonhoeffer was acutely aware of the energy and passion that youths had. If there was one group of people who would be willing to take risks and make sacrifices for a cause they believed in, it would have been the youths. This was seen most visibly in the German youth movement that the Nazi’s tapped on with the hopes of recruiting future patriots. As one might imagine, a temptation for churches would have been to consider tapping on similar youth movements in order to win these energetic and passionate youths for the future of the church. It was however at this precise point that Bonhoeffer fundamentally disagreed.

Bonhoeffer’s first thesis reminds the church that youths are not instruments. As embodied human beings created by God, they are first and foremost called to be disciples of Christ just as any adult is. To treat the youth as the future of the church inevitably results in a utilitarian approach to youths which fundamentally denigrates their personhood. Such an approach fails to love the youths for who they are. Instead, it only loves what the youths have to offer. As Andy Root aptly summarizes:

What is problematic is, not loving young people, but the loving of the youthful spirit of young people. For in loving the youthful spirit, we actually love not the young person, in his or her particularity, but what having the young person’s youthful spirit in our churches can get us.[4]

Even more fundamentally, the church that treats youths as the future of the church runs into the theological danger of replacing the lordship of Christ with the spirit and energy that a youth can bring. In so doing, it wrongly places hope not on Christ, the head of the church who will return for his people (Rev 21), but the energy that youths may bring to ‘revitalize’ the church. Church then, becomes dependent not on the potency of the Spirit brought about by the Word of God but the energy that people can bring.

The solution that Bonhoeffer proposes is that the church must take the full humanity of youths seriously. For in the incarnation of Christ, Christ himself is found “with and for the concrete humanity of young people”.[5] This must be reflected through the church’s earnest desire to teach and proclaim God’s word not due to a vested interest in trying to keep certain ministries alive but because that is the call given to all ministers by Christ (2 Tim 4:2).

Thesis 4: 

The church-community suspends the generational problem. Youth enjoys no special privilege in the church-community. It is to serve the church-community by hearing, learning, and practicing the Word. God’s spirit in the church has nothing to do with youthful criticism of the church, the radical nature of God’s claim on human beings has nothing to do with youthful radicalism, and the commandment for sanctification nothing to do with youthful impulse to better the world. “Christian” and “youth” is a rather harsh and not very credible word combination. The issue is not “modern” or “old fashioned,” but rather solely thinking concerning and from the perspective of the church.

Bonhoeffer’s next thesis is provocative. In most churches today, there exist a youth ministry. Some youth ministries go further to include a youth service. Thesis 4 of Bonhoeffer calls this into question. Precisely because the youths are not the future of the church, there should be no special privilege that youths enjoy such as a specially designated youth service. Within the church of God, there can be no division of people with regard to age. This does not discount the fact that there are indeed differences due to age gaps among the assembly. Rather, it seeks to affirm the place that youths have within that assembly. Often times the decision to start a youth service is driven by a desire to fill up that gap between the youths and the main assembly. While well intended, the irony is that such an approach only widens the gap. The result of this is twofold.

Firstly, youths end up being divorced from the life of church community. When this happens, Bonhoeffer reckons that we end up creating another category for youths called ‘Christian youths’. The problem with this category is that it underscores the fact that no such category exists biblically, for in Christ we are all children of God. There is no special class called ‘Christian youth’ that stands apart from the children of God which is the church. The most glaring result of having this special and unique category of ‘Christian youth’ is that once the youth in ‘Christian youth’ is outgrown as it eventually will, so will the ‘Christian’ that is attached to it. Hence Bonhoeffer’s remark that it is “not a very credible word combination.” While this point may seem somewhat abstract if not farfetched, consider churches that pride themselves as a youth church or perhaps having a strong youth ministry. If the church is defined by a particular time bound generation, what becomes of it when the generation passes on? What about that generation itself as it enters into another generational phase as time passes on? Do they adopt a different kind of Christian label? The reality is that no Christian can ever stand outside the church community as a distinct class. As Christians, all are called to participate in the life of the church through the sharing of life with one another regardless of age.

Secondly, on a practical level, when the church organises itself in order to fill a particular generational gap, the vocation of the youth worker inevitably suffers. This is so because the youth worker no longer becomes an essential minister for the life of the church. Instead, as Root elaborates, they are seen more as plumbers hired to solve a specific problem.[6]  The church may

appreciate the technical work of solving the problem of the gap but are not sure outside this technical know-how what purpose they [youth workers] have in our family. So we appreciate the technical ends the plumber wins for us but keep him from the center of our family.[7]

It is not difficult to see how this can be pastorally damaging for youth workers. For one, they will feel that their relationship with the church is purely operational with no real relationship with the other members of the church. So the irony is that in giving youths a special privilege in the church community, it ends up pushing not just the youths but also the youth worker to the margins of church life, divorced from the fullness of community.

What then can we do? Should we ignore the obvious generational gap that exists within the church? Surely not. But I think Bonhoeffer’s reflections does challenge us to rethink whether these age gaps should even be seen as problems in need of fixing to begin with. Bonhoeffer’s reflection also pushes us to start thinking theologically about what a youth ministry is in relation to the church. I don’t think Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on youth work are intended to provide for us all the answers. But at the very least, it frees many of us from a fear driven management of ministry where “What passes as youth ministry is often not serious modes of Christian formation but instead pragmatic, last-ditch efforts to keep young people as card-carrying members of our evangelical church.”[8] The freedom that Bonhoeffer’s vision of youth work promises pastors is the freedom for them to truly do what they are called to do — to minister and attend to the humanity of youths without worry or fear about whether the youth ministry closes down. We can do so precisely because it is Christ who is the future of the church, not the youths.


[1] Melody Zaccheus, Xue Qiang Pang, and Keng Gene Ng, “Youth in Singapore Shunning Religion,” The Straits Times, March 21, 2016, accessed January 1, 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/youth-in-singapore-shunning-religion.

[2] “Church Dropouts Have Risen to 64%—But What About Those Who Stay?,”Barna Group, September 4, 2019, accessed January 1, 2021, https://www.barna.com/research/resilient-disciples/.

[3] All eight of his theses can be found in volume 12 of his works that has been translated into english. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin, 1932-1933, ed. Carsten Nicolaisen, Ernst-Albert Scharffenorth, and Larry L. Rasmussen, trans. Isabel Best and David Higgins, Dietrich Bonhoeffer works v. 12 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 515.

[4] Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2014), 121.

[5] Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, 122.

[6] Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, 126

[7] Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, 126

[8] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2016), 145.


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