The Politics of Youth Ministry

by Robin Barden September 10, 2014 A

I don’t know Mark Driscoll.  What I do know I’ve read in newspapers, gleaned via twitter, and discovered in blogs.

What this has given me is a narrative.  A narrative about the rise and fall of a charismatic, driven, single minded, entrepreneur: a precocious businessman who rebranded an ancient commodity in the same town where other young things rebranded music to give us Grunge, cafe’s to give us the Coffee Franchise, and bookstores to give us Amazon.  Following the familiar narrative of 21st century entrepreneurs, Mark started small, really small, before, as with all such success stories, the business grew, and grew spectacularly.  The spectacular growth being driven, at least in part, by the fact that Mark ‘got’ what people really wanted.  According to this narrative, the 20 something’s of average America were fed up with being rejected by conservatives because of how they looked, and had no time for liberals who couldn’t accept the hard truths of a hard life.  Mars Hill provided a cultural liberality hand-in-hand with a particular Calvinist ‘reality is as reality is, you just have to suck it up’ worldview.  In this way they mirrored the expressive yet uncompromising nature of exclusive humanism[i] that marked ‘bohemian, secular Seattle’, while introducing their own twist, which, they proclaimed, would make all the difference.  And, for a time at least, many were drawn to give it a go.[ii]

So what went wrong?  Well, according to this narrative, it all began to unravel when Mark changed the leadership structure.  At the beginning Mark was part of a leadership team that, together, provided accountability and a check on any personal excess.    Mark was the driving talent, but he was part of a band.  And no one is bigger than the band.  This, it is implied, was when the church was healthy, blessed even, growing and influencing many for the good of the kingdom.  The seeds of the church’s downfall were sown later, when Mark started to become more authoritarian.  The democratic leader became arrogant, and the arrogant leader became totalitarian.  Many of those now critiquing Mark the loudest are those that used to sit with him as part of the leadership team.  His lieutenants of old have now become characters in their own right.  The intrigue deepening with their tales of power grabs, violent disagreements and communal shaming.[iii]

It is a powerful narrative and one fed by more complex and deeply held discourses that incorporate, among others, semi-articulated notions of what it means to be human, the purpose of life, and the nature of the other.  As such, it meshes nicely with what Charles Taylor argues are the three most important forms of social self-understanding in modern society.   That is, the modern market economy (humanity as interconnected in a particular ‘flat’ or egalitarian manner), the public sphere (democratization of information and communication), and ‘the practices and outlooks of democratic rule’ (the people as sovereign).  All birthed out of, and feeding, a new moral order which has thoroughly rejected older hierarchal moral orders.[iv]  Critically, this rejection of one moral order for another has not brought about the utopia imagined by its early advocates.  Rather, as the moral order has changed, so has the nature of societies malaise.  Whatever it was in the past, today it emerges out of the search for an authentic identity.   The question for late-moderns is ‘who am I?’   The task is to express the answer in and through all that we do and are.  The problem is, that to work, we need this identity to be affirmed by all we know and meet.[v]

Mars Hill set out to address societies malaise.  But what they actually did was more complex then what they seemingly thought they were doing – addressing a longing for acceptance and certainty in a society on its way to hell in a handcart.  Rather than condemning late-modern society, Mars Hill actually provided an answer to the very question that birthed late-modern society: how can I discover and be my unique self?  What early Mars Hill did was to say, “here’s another answer, but this one works better”.  That is to say, if you live this answer the promise of late-modern society will be made manifest in your life.  Early Mars Hill embraced cultural expressions of authenticity while, at the same time, in taking a hard line on gender roles for example, provided an answer to the status anxiety many felt when trying to express their true self’s within mainstream Seattle society.  Mars Hill were not dismissing the age in which they lived, but embracing its very rationale for being.  They were saying, “this is how you can have it all”.  Providing a better expression of the raison d’être of a society then they themselves are living, is always going to be far more attractive to that society then answering questions no one is asking, or, indeed, have stopped asking many years ago.  But not only that, it is better mission.

If we believe that God is the answer, then God is the answer.  If we believe Jesus encapsulates the theological truth of an incarnate God, than God is the answer today.  And if we believe The Holy Sprit shows us Jesus, than the churches role is, in the power of The Holy Spirit, to make manifest the answer to the question which late modern society is seeking to answer in its very being. This means that the church becomes relevant, but also that society becomes a means of critique for the church: and a reliable one.  After all, we are all trying to answer the same question.  My Muslim, atheist or Buddhist sister, is as able to spot where the church fails to answer this question as anyone else.  Not that we are to be driven by every argument leveled against the church.  Rather, we need to be responsive to where the good news we present has failed to manifest the good news in the life of all God has created.  That is, where our answer has visually and experientially fallen out of alignment with The Holy Spirit’s task of reconciling all to the Father through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Not that all will hear, nor will all follow.  And it certainly doesn’t mean we have a clear map of how to live the answer. But it does mean, that as we meet humbly and meekly in the temple to discern how we are working with The Holy Spirit to make manifest God’s kingdom within a late-modern society, we are alive to the fact that any internal inconsistencies in our approach will be made manifest in the lives of others.  Especially the lives of those that societies answer manifestly fails: the least.  We must learn not to care who points these inconsistencies out.  But in the Spirit of Christian faith, hope and love, rejoice that we have been given a chance to change things for the better: to live more in the heart of God.[vi]  The seeds of Mars Hill’s downfall are not found in Mark Driscoll’s development of an autocratic management style, but in Mars Hill’s resistance to repent for when their particular answer did not manifest God’s Kingdom in every life.  My suspicion is that this resistance pre-dated changes to the church’s leadership structure by some years.

Ministry is inherently political.  The church community is called to be a real world answer to the questions posed by today’s society.[vii]  To be Christian is to have faith in a kingdom we have seen, if only darkly as through a distorted mirror, that is better than all other alternatives.  It is to be convinced of the answer such that we strive to live this vision as our reality, today.[viii]   This is the call we feel on our hearts.  Youth ministry is simply part of this great call, and, as such, aligns itself with the religious political radicalism of much early work among young people in the UK.  The vision, however, is neither a libertarian, nor a communitarian, nor a free market utopia.  It is instead, a vision of a kingdom that better answers all the questions that birthed these modern ideals.  Youth ministry is inherently political, but the question is not, which manifesto to teach young people.  Rather, the question is ‘where in the lived reality of our neighbors has the church’s truth failed to make manifest God’s kingdom?’  Accordingly, we are not called to model a life lived according to this or that manifesto, but to model a willingness to truly repent where the church has been found wanting.  No matter who God calls to point this out to us.

[i] Taylor, Charles.  A Secular Age.  London: Harvard University Press, 2007.  p.636



[iv] Taylor, Charles.  Modern Social Imaginaries.  London: Duke University Press, 2004.  p.69

[v] Taylor, Charles.  The Ethics of Authenticity.  London: Harvard University Press, 1991

[vi] Brueggemann, Walter.  Israel’s Praise: doxology against idolatry and ideology.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988

[vii] Hauerwas, Stanley & Willimon, William. H.  Resident Alien: A provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know something is wrong.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989

[viii] Cantwell Smith, Wilfred.  Faith and Belief: The Difference Between Them.  Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1998