Recently I wrote a critique of Andrew Root’s approach to incarnational youth ministry, to which he graciously responded.
In many ways, however, Root’s understanding of the Incarnation is not his own. The ghost of Dietrich Bonhoeffer walks each and every page. Even the phrase Root uses, place-sharer, is Bonhoeffer’s (Stellvertreter). Root said that Bonhoeffer’s part in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was driven by the belief ‘that it was the only way that he could truly (truly = in the imitation of Christ) share the place of those crushed by the wheels of the Nazi political machine’ (2007:85). This would have been the ideal place for Root to have added some words of caution about using Bonhoeffer as a de facto position on Christology, however we are left wanting.
With this in mind I think it’s worth taking a minute to ask whether Bonhoeffer really is the best role model for youth workers. As much as I respect him as both a compassionate minister and a deep thinker, there is another side that is rarely discussed.
Bonhoeffer’s Christology was born out of a very turbulent life experience. He emphasised the this-world focus and concrete nature of Jesus becoming flesh which was then very heavily outworked in a strongly social gospel.
Abstract or internal knowledge of God was almost entirely dismissed by Bonhoeffer. He intended that ‘all Christian doctrines be reinterpreted in “this world” terms… The only way to find God, then, is to live fully in the midst of this world. Christians must participate in Jesus’ living for others’ (Godsey, 1991). This affected his approach to both prayer and worship.
Bonhoeffer, during the later period of his life, also discontinued his daily Bible reading, denying that Scripture contained any timeless principles. He said, ‘we may no longer seek after universal, eternal truths’ by reading the Bible (Bonhoeffer and Krauss 2010:71). Further, as someone who leaned towards universalism, Bonhoeffer also lacked a coherent theology of the atonement or even of salvation itself (Weikart, 2015).
Although Bonhoeffer brings much needed humanity to a sometimes very overly ‘functional’ and ‘formulaic’ evangelical Christianity, his work cannot and should not be used uncritically. Yet this is precisely what Root and others in the modern youth work world do by building on his theology of incarnation. It is little wonder then that Root deemphasises the divinity of Jesus, rarely speaks to any experience of Him outside of concrete relationships with people, and expresses a muddy view of salvation.
What is continually missing from Bonhoeffer is any sense of ‘it is finished‘. There is little to no talk of victory, glory, heaven, Jesus as divine, or the eternal nature of salvation. These have no real presence in his work leaving a heavily dis-balanced gospel.
Bonhoeffer is an inspiration personally, but I don’t think he makes a great role-model theologically when it comes to the practice of youth work. At least, I’d like to see him used more critically.
References (in order of appearance)
Root, A. (2007) Revisiting relational youth ministry: from a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books
Godsey, J. (1991), Bonhoeffer’s costly theology. Available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-32/bonhoeffers-costly-theology.html
Bonhoeffer, D. and Krauss, R. (2010). Letters and papers from prison. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.
Weikart, R. (2015), The Troubling Truth About Bonhoeffer’s Theology. Available at http://www.equip.org/article/troubling-truth-bonhoeffers-theology/