(The following essay comes from the Rev. Wendy Mohler Seib, a PhD candidate in practical theology and Director of Faith Formation for Youth and Young Adults at the Institute for Discipleship at Southwestern College. The American church needs to re-think its approach to ministry with youth, college students, and other emerging adults. Wendy is a leader in helping us to do this work. Her post is a review of an important book by Andrew Root.)
According to Andrew Root, “Youth ministry exists for joy.” His latest book, The End of Youth Ministry? Why Parents Don’t Really Care about Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do about It follows Root’s quest to finish the sentence, “Youth ministry exists for ____.” Root addresses the prioritization of youth ministry in competition with extracurricular activities consuming middle class youth and identifies the gulf between the priorities of parents and youth workers.
In his book, Root thoroughly dissects the history and cultural influences shaping the parental pursuit of happiness for their children. Using interviews, philosophy, and sociology, Root explains shifts in youth ministry from the 1980’s to the present. He demonstrates the effects of these cultural shifts on parental perceptions of the role of youth ministry. Root’s work gently and poignantly exposes “our misguided conception of a good life – namely, the need for recognized identity and the goal of happiness.” Root contends parents push children to find a passion or “thing” (i.e. hockey, soccer, piano, theatre, etc.) as a means of identity formation without critically reflecting on criteria to establish what is “good.”
Root invites the reader to eavesdrop on his conversations and experiences with J and Lorena, a youth pastor and youth. By chronicling J and Lorena’s story, Root awakens the reader’s imagination to a ministry rooted in joy. When Lorena’s life was on the line, the hospital waiting room became the fertile ground for J’s local youth ministry to move from fun and games to a ministry of joy and friendship. Through a philosophical lens, Root analyzes the qualities of the good life and challenges modern notions of “good,” drawing the reader to historical moments when holiness and virtue constituted a good life. His thorough descriptions are an invitation to evaluate life choices that substitute happiness for joy. Intergenerational story-telling transformed J’s youth ministry, and Root explains how this communal practice gives youth the ability to discern between happiness based on goods and joy found in the highest good.
Root is convincing! He points to the Triune God as the greatest good and beseeches youth ministries to embody life together in community where joy is birthed when friends share in the suffering and glory of Christ. Root debunks the notion of numbers, programs, emotional responses, or sin management as fruitful youth ministry by prophetically calling youth workers to focus on the cross. He describes the changing context of youth ministry and offers a refreshing aim for youth workers – joy, Christian joy, rooted in the person of Jesus Christ and discovered in authentic community.
In 2011, I sat by Andy in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, where we attended the Association of Youth Ministry Educators gathering and went to eat with mutual seminary friends. Prior to AYME, I read his book, The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church. While star struck in Andy’s presence, one critique of his book lingered. I wanted an answer, “What about joy?” Andy was humble and kind as he listened to me make my case for joy. I don’t remember Andy’s exact words, I remember the sentiment of the conversation being something like, “Yeah…about joy…” (voice trailing off as we returned to discussing despair and suffering). He invited me to press in during times of suffering. He reminded me not to run too quickly to the resurrection without walking through Good Friday and Holy Saturday. He caught my attention. He urged me to encounter aspects of God’s character less known to me. And yet, I left unsatisfied. His response failed to address my uncertainties about joy amid suffering.
This book answered my questions about joy without compromising the invitation, and even necessity, to enter suffering. Root reminds us, as Paul reminds the Philippians, joy is birthed in suffering, which means the joy is not happiness based on subjective or circumstantial criteria. Joy is not recognition, passion for a “thing.” Joy cannot be acquired through the consumption of products or by avoiding negativity. A youth ministry established in joy invites young people into the complete gospel story whereby the living God invites Christ followers into friendship with the Triune God and one another. It is here where joy, not happiness, abounds.
In my estimation, Root’s book comes in the providential timing of God. This spring, my Adolescent Spirituality class read about identity formation from various authors. Over spring break, our lives were completely and utterly disrupted by COVID-19. When we reconvened online, we read Twenge’s book about iGen as people around the globe suffered and died. We discussed our pain, questions, disappointments, and losses. We wrestled through Christian ethics, and predicted ways COVID-19 may shift the attitudes and behaviors of iGen. We raised our laments through Lent and proclaimed Resurrection in the face of a pandemic.
Young people know suffering and loss. They knew it before COVID-19, but the pandemic has seriously altered their lives. They’ve lost loved ones, their parents have lost jobs, some have gone hungry, they’ve missed major life milestones. Beyond the mental health crisis already facing this generation, the isolation, fear, anxiety, depression, and grief have been compounded. The future is uncertain. Young people yearn for peace, hope, and joy. Now is the time to read Root’s book, reflect on the good life, examine our ministry practices and priorities, and enter the “waiting room.” In the face of widespread suffering, may “joy in friendship and rejoicing in the [aim, focus, or highest good] be what youth ministry is for.”
 Throughout the book, Root draws heavily on the philosophy of Charles Taylor.
 See Jean Twenge’s book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy-and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (New York: Atria Books, 2017).
 Andrew Root. Why Parents Don’t Really Care about Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do about It (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), Kindle edition, xiii.
 Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy-and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (New York: Atria Books, 2017), Kindle edition, 74.
 Andrew Root, The End of Youth Ministry?, Kindle edition, 225.