A Call for More Careful Reading of Dr. Andrew Root.

This is just a gentle post asking for some care when reading Dr. Andrew Root. He is well worth the effort and he is invaluable to interact with. I am personally challenged by his experience working with so many hurting and broken young people throughout his career. I’m inspired by Root! I like him, and he has a lot of value to add to the conversation.

However, his densely written work is easily accepted as completely correct because it is written a head higher than most other youth work literature is. Many of us in the youth ministry world are simply not used to reading academics, and therefore we don’t bring the level of conversational critique required when engaging with the convincing and well-cited prose that academics, like Root, writes in.

Before publishing this, I sent a copy to Dr. Root and asked for his thoughts. He graciously and very gracefully replied. On the whole he saw it as a mostly fair critique, noting that we probably do come from different theological angles. Agreed! However, he did also clarify a few areas. Some of these have been incorporated into what I’ve written below. The main thing, however, is that his thinking has developed in more recent publications, particularly in his book, Christopraxis (2014). However, I have not yet read this, so cannot comment on it. This may make some of the critique below moot, however, as Root said in his email, ‘I’d imagine some of your concerns will remain.’

As this post is designed to encourage more critical thinking and careful reading, it’s not important that readers necessarily agree with my critique, so much as they simply engage with critique. For this reason, I have asked Dr. Root for permission to publish his response. If he is agreeable, then I will do so as soon as possible.

Dr. Root brings us a massively useful set of perspectives that we should carefully consider in our work, but that doesn’t mean that he is completely, one-hundred-percent on the ball, or that his views should be appropriated in their entirety. Academia works by moving conversations forward in micro-increments, with hypotheses tested, and attempts made to falsify. That’s how iron sharpens iron in the academic world. However, as Root’s books tend to skirt the middle ground between academia and populous, that context can easily be lost through no fault of his own.

I’m sure Root himself, from an academic background, would fully support me by encouraging us to engage in these kinds of innovative conversations with critical thinking and great care. Nothing should be swallowed hook, line and sinker, without some real thought – especially when it is at this kind of level.

This post isn’t written to target Dr. Root, but to use him as an example of taking care when reading literature that sits on the line between dense academic work, and popular practical materials. Root has become this example because of the number of blogs and groups currently reviewing him are in complete agreement and offer total support. It concerns me that reviewers and interviewers don’t ask critical questions of some of his more abstract or innovative ideas. They may simple not be aware of how unorthodox some of his claims are.

I recently wrote a paper analyzing the last few decades of ‘incarnational’ youth ministry theory (mainly looking at Pete Ward, Dean Borgman, and Andrew Root), and – after reading everything Root has published specifically on the subject – I was left with a few concerns that I’d like to outline here:

Approach to Evangelical Youth Ministry

First, Root’s own analysis of evangelical youth ministry is a little bit reductionist at times and comes with a tendency to erect a straw man in its place. He may, therefore, simply be fixing the wrong leak!

There is plenty to agree with in his survey of youth ministry. For instance, he says that there is a ‘dangerously high reading of cultural influence its blood stream’ (2007:23, 81) and it has settled into a pattern ‘that is more embedded in individualism’ (2013:110-111). Amen to that and let’s get on it!

He then, however, reduces evangelical youth ministry into a formulaic or purely functional approach, that makes ministry ‘goal-orientated rather than a companionship-orientated’ (2007:23). He, using this false dichotomy, writes as if any kind of potential influence is unhealthy, and thus any youth ministry that is trying to influence a young person to become a Christian is depersonalized and dishonest (2013:113-114). He sees this as manipulative leverage (2007:17; 2011:151).

There is very little nuance in Root’s critique. He doesn’t, for instance, differentiate been healthy and unhealthy influence. Talking someone down from the ledge before committing suicide would surely be an example of healthy influence? Many evangelicals would argue that this is exactly the type of influence they exercise by trying to help young people know the Gospel. Root, however, doesn’t consider these potential perspectives. Because of this, academic reviewers such as Dr. M. Dodrill (2013:12), Dr. B. Bertrand (2013:46), and Prof. R. Haitch (2013:38) believe that Root misunderstands evangelicals.

Root provides an important cautionary tale about manipulating young people through inauthentic relationships. However, he would do well to read other evangelical youth work theorists less as strawmen. Further, his sweepingly negative comments about influence cannot stand under scrutiny. Relationships are by their nature influential and contain a variety of moving goals.

In Root’s reply to me, he said this is fair critique, however should be placed in dialogue with his affirmation of evangelicalism in Christopraxis (2014). I will update this after I have read it.

Place-Sharing in Practice

Second, Root’s view of ‘place-sharing’ is dangerous if improperly applied. As much as I love Root’s compassion-driven model which focuses on empathy with the pain of young people, I’m troubled about what that could look like in practice.

For Root, we most deeply encounter the nearness of Jesus in His crucifixion, so Jesus empathised with our pain deeply that we – using the crucifixion as our base line – should likewise share in the pain of young people. Place-sharing requires us to indwell or inhabit another’s pain so completely that it becomes our own (2007:129-130; see Smith, 2009:113). This is not about getting young people to ‘accept… the gospel message’ it is about ‘sharing in suffering and joy, about persons meeting with persons with no pretence of secret motives’ (2007:15). One begins to wonder what the distinctives of the ‘gospel message’ are under Root’s theology (a point we’ll return to in objection four)?

Root’s approach puts the youth minister into very vulnerable positions. In his impassioned plea to place-share in the pain of young people, Root has encouraged muggy boundaries (Hickford, 2003:111). An immersed relationship cannot extend to a group of young people, twenty-four hours a day. This is a recipe for burnout — and sets a precedent for young people to allow themselves into unsafe situations. In Root’s response to me, he reminds me that he does say on several occasions that the youth minister can only be a place-sharer to perhaps five young people and should see it as a responsibility to ‘ordain’ other adults to do the same. Root also talks about openness and closeness and claims that place-sharing has starker boundaries than other methods (although this I believe points to the poor practice of those other methods, rather than to the soundness of his). Root does, however, indeed give more boundaries than I initially suggested. That granted, I think my problem remains. Empathising so deeply with a young person that their pain becomes our own is dangerous with any number of young people. It doesn’t provide a healthy relational dynamic where the hurting party can develop without attachment, and where the outside party (now the equally hurting party) can detach and remain true to their own identity and responsibilities. I recently shared this concept with both a Christian psychotherapist, and a PhD in child psychology. They both were deeply troubled and saw this as a fundamental gap in Root’s knowledge of counselling theory

This reveals another significant problem in Root’s writing. His relational examples are only between equal partners (marriage and friendship). This ‘leads to an overly simplistic and gendered divide between instrumental and expressive relationships’ (Betrand and Hearlson, 2013:49). Frankly, expecting a teenager to be an ‘equal partner’ and carry the baggage of a much older youth minster is a recipe for relational abuse – if not actually abusive in itself.

Root has responded to Betrand’s and Hearlson’s critique in the Journal of Youth Ministry (2013). Where they believe Root is ‘not interested in in young people hearing the Gospel’, Root responds that he wants ‘nothing more, than for young people to encounter and respond to the gospel’ (59) and says that this is not encountering an idea but Jesus himself. This Jesus is met, Root believes, in the revelation of ministry, thus Jesus is genuinely present within place-sharing. Salvation, he says, is found in encountering Jesus through participation in relationships. He concedes that he has ‘little concern for people converting to the idea of Jesus’ (60). Again, there is much to agree with here. Surely encountering the active person of Jesus is essential to the gospel. However, reducing the gospel narratives and Pauline materials on salvation to simply ‘encountering Jesus’ without doctrinal subtext is simply too small a picture of Jesus. It seems that for Root, salvation is little more than relational closeness to Jesus, rather than any atoning consequence of dealing with sin on the cross to win our forgiveness. Two people being close does not make them married. Covenantal promises, commitments, and sacrifices to adopt a whole new way of living is also important for a couple. Further, leaving that encounter necessary for salvation to be contained within the practice of human relationship feels very much like remoulding Jesus into our image, rather than seeking His. Root’s response is worth a read as it does clarify his position somewhat, however I was left with more concerns than less, as both the focus of salvation and Root’s very particular approach to Bible interpretation became starker.

Place-sharing, if clearer boundaries were applied, could be a helpful way to talk about the value of interested adults in the lives of young people. However, Root’s presentation of it as the Incarnation’s continuous form is unsound, and as a practical approach it is a recipe for burnout and abuse.

Theological Basis

Third, Root uses Dietrich Bonhoeffer as his de facto foundational thinker, but he also sees Bonhoeffer through rose-tinted lens. As much as I would agree that we have a plethora of helpful things to learn from Bonhoeffer, it is also worth noting that there are problems and nuances in Bonhoeffer’s theology which are heavily influenced by his context.

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 (words used by Root) which was 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). Bonhoeffer, during the later period of his life, discontinued his daily Bible meditation, denying that Scripture contained any timeless principles. He said, ‘we may no longer seek after universal, eternal truths’ reading the Bible (Bonhoeffer and Krauss 2010:71). Further, as someone who leaned towards universalism, Bonhoeffer lacked a strong theology of atonement or soteriology (Weikart, 2015).

In many ways, Root’s understanding of the Incarnation is not his own. The ghost of Dietrich Bonhoeffer walks each and every page. Haitch sees Root’s work as little more than a ‘cut and paste’ approach (2013:13-14). Even the phrase place-sharer is Bonhoeffer’s (Stellvertreter) (2007:83). 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.

It’s not that Root using Bonhoeffer is a problem. Bonhoeffer is a legend with much to teach us! However, Root uses him uncritically, and that is what causes issues. This is the same difficulty that I’m having with popular reviews of Root. There is much for value, but it must be read carefully and in balance.

In balance to this, Dr. Root would like me to be aware that in his later work, particularly in Christopraxis, (but also Faith Formation in a Secular Age, and Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs and Zombies) that his thinking has developed and shows deeper engagement with orthodox and Pauline conceptions – and particularly with Luther. I concede that not reading these yet puts me at a disadvantage, however, Root also concedes that despite this some of my concerns ‘will remain.’

Understanding of Salvation

Fourth, Root’s theology seems to miss key creedal components. He seems to go out of his way, for instance, to avoid talking about the atonement in any distinctive form, which makes me wonder what Root’s theology of salvation really is? He writes as if he is trying to unstick the incarnation from any kind of soteriology (2013: 132-133, 148-149; 2007:91-94), and avoids it being the way in which God’s wrath is appeased (2013:128).

From my reading of Root, salvation is reclassified as ‘finding your person bound to God’ (2013:70; see Bertrand and Hearlson, 2013:47); sin is re-understood as ‘antihumanity’ (2007:90-91); and new-creation is deemphasized in favour of individual, world-bound empathy (2013:99, 149). He does not cogently discuss victory, God’s glory, heaven, obedience, or proclamation in mission. He, I believe, marginalises the Father and subtly remoulds the classical understanding of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (2013:147). Finally, Root neglects to properly unpack essential views that emphasise the historically understood divine aspects of the Incarnation (such as Athanasius or the Nicene Creed) – and favours writers like Barth, Torrance, and Bonhoeffer, all of whom lean towards the Incarnation being something in itself salvific.

I find it difficult, in how Root has written, to see much effectual reason for Jesus to have died for sins apart from fulfilling some kind of ultimate act of place-sharing in our death. Root frequently moves the ‘goal’ of incarnation from a divine action to a participative human action (2007:89-94).

Summary

Do I think these objections result in an insurmountable problem with the work of Dr. Root? Certainly not – and in many ways I don’t like nit-picking someone whom I respect so deeply. It’s easy to find problems in anyone, and I’m sure Root could answer or clarify his approach to all of the above. Many of these are probably just misunderstandings, or rabbit holes that needed a little more clarification and nuance at the time of writing.

The problem is I – as a reasonably well-informed, theologically-educated, and experienced youth leader – after reading all of Root’s work, came away with these issues. It worries me greatly, therefore, that in the youth work populous, little, if any, critique is being offered. Why is it that the only real critical questioning has been relegated to the academic realm?

Let’s please read innovative work carefully, and appropriate it into our contexts with great attention to the young people that God has placed in our lives. It’s important to engage with deep thinkers, but deep thinking alone doesn’t make something correct or adoptable. In the case of Root, there is I believe, enough serious divergence from orthodoxy to require great care in reading.

My absolute best to Dr. Root, who I think is an invaluable thinker in our times. My hope for all of us, however, is that we can gracefully look deeper and more carefully at what we adopt.

 

References:

Bertrand, B., & Hearlson, C. (2013), ‘Relationships, personalism, and Andrew Root’, The Journal of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 45-55

Billings, J.T. (2012), ‘The Problem with ‘Incarnational Ministry.”, Christianity Today, 56, 7, pp. 58-63

Bonhoeffer, D. and Krauss, R. (2010). Letters and papers from prison. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.

Dodrill, M. (2013), ‘A call for more critical thinking regarding the ‘theological turn’ in youth ministry’, The Journal Of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 7-20

Glassford, D.K. (2016), ‘Bonhoeffer as youth worker: a theological vision for discipleship and life together’, Christian Education Journal, 13, 2, pp. 435-437

Godsey, J. (1991), Bonhoeffer’s costly theology. Available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-32/bonhoeffers-costly-theology.html

Haitch, R. (2013), ‘Response to ‘Incarnation and place-sharing’ by Andrew Root’, The Journal Of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 37-43

Hickford, A. (2003) Essential youth: Why your church needs young people. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications

Root, A. (2014) Bonhoeffer as youth worker: a theological vision for discipleship and life together. Grand Rapids: Baker Books

Root, A. (2013), ‘Evangelicalism, personalism and encounters with the person of Jesus: a rejoinder’, The Journal Of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 57-67

Root. A. (2013), How we talk about sin in youth ministry. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7I4gHCKElw

Root, A. (2011), ‘Participation and mediation: a practical theology for the liquid church’, International Journal of Practical Theology, 15, 1, pp. 137-139

Root, A. Relationality as the Objective of Incarnational Ministry: A Reexamination of the Theological Foundations of Adolescent Ministry in Griffiths, S. (ed.) and International Association for the study of Youth Ministry (2004) Journal of Youth and Theology Vol.3 No. 1 April 2004. pp.97-113

Root, A. (2007), Revisiting relational youth ministry: from a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books

Root, A. (2013), ‘The incarnation, place-sharing, and youth ministry: experiencing the transcendence of God’, The Journal of Youth Ministry, 12, 1, pp. 21-36

Root, A. (2013), The relational pastor: sharing in Christ by sharing ourselves. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP

Root, A. and Dean, K.C. (2011) The theological turn in youth ministry. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books

Smith, F.J. (2009), ‘Revisiting relational youth ministry: from a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation’, Theology Today, 66, 1, p. 109

Weikart, R. (2015), The Troubling Truth About Bonhoeffer’s Theology. Available at http://www.equip.org/article/troubling-truth-bonhoeffers-theology/

White, D.F. (2008), ‘Toward an adequate sociology of youth ministry: a dialogue with Andrew Root and Anthony Giddens’, The Journal of Youth Ministry, 7, 1, pp. 91-100

Winstead, B. (2016), ‘Bonhoeffer as youth worker: a theological vision for discipleship and life together’, Wesleyan Theological Journal, 51, 1, pp. 230-233

2 replies
  1. James Ballantyne
    James Ballantyne says:

    This is a great post because often sticking a head over the parapet and daring to challenge or critique someone like Andrew Root in public is brave within youth ministry. Theres lots to be discussed from your post, and I too have found much to enjoy and endure about some of Andrew Roots stuff, and ive written at least 3-4 pieces inspired by his latest book, though there is also much to be critiqued too. Thanks for this, really enjoyed reading something of depth on a youth ministry blog!

    Reply

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