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Radicalism in Youth Ministry

Jon Wasson takes aim at the ideal of radicalism in youth ministry in his recent article for Immerse Journal, “Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship: Reframing the Language of Radicalism in Adolescent Contexts.”
Jon, via Bonhoeffer, is concerned with the rhetoric of radicalism and the ideology of radicalism in youth ministry because it shifts the orientation of discipleship away from Christ. I value Jon’s contribution to the theological practice of youth ministry and took it up in my own reflections and engagement with youth.

Personal Reflections

My first impression upon reading Jon’s article was doubt. I wondered if Jon just created a straw man here. The reason for such a reaction was
that I haven’t knowingly been part of a youth ministry that used the explicit language of
radical as Jon presented. So I started searching for how pervasive this rhetoric is in the youth ministry blogosphere and on church websites. After about 30 minutes of searching, I was sold on Jon’s characterization.

Upon further reflection, I believe I too was exposed to a certain ideology by my faith community. My rural, conservative and fundamentalist introduction into the body of Christ exposed me to a super-Christian ideology that reflects some of the characteristics of Jon’s radicalism.

I was 17 and listening to a teenage girl talk about her extreme act of trusting God. In a small, country church, she explained how she hadn’t thought it was possible for God to provide the money for her to go to Guatemala. She shared stories of tribal-like people groups being converted to faith in Jesus by simple Sunday school lessons. She painted a picture of the impossible situation of giving up a whole summer, spending a lot of weekends in preparation, praying daily for unknown people and finally seeing God transform lives by the power of the proclaimed Word. Having recently been converted to faith in Jesus Christ, her story quickly became my image of being a radical Christian.

That rural community of believers taught me that the point of the Christian life was to move hundreds of miles away from home and make a huge impact in a foreign land for Christ. The entry point into that way of life was short-term missions. If you chose not to go on a short-term mission trip, then you were choosing to live a common Christian life. The role of the common Christian life was to support the super-Christians in other lands through money and prayer. And to ensure that we had effective prayers, we were to rigidly keep the rules of holy living found in our literal reading of the Scriptures and our community’s rules for Christian living.

This type of ideology is what Jon writes against. Jon asserts that “what student ministry has done with its abuse of radical terminology” is to create “an ideal social dream for students instead of calling them to encounter the living Christ.” This critique follows his reading of Bonhoffer’s ideology of Christian brotherhood. And ultimately, the critique is that to set up any “end other than the person of Christ is to create an ideal as an ultimate reality.”

What Jon’s critical theological reading of youth ministry reveals for me is that youth workers both explicitly and implicitly adopt ideologies in order to communicate the gospel in relevant ways. This is nothing new for the church, though. My personal reflection mirrors much of what I found out there in terms of radicalism in youth ministry. The foreign missionary was my community’s image of radical Christianity. It was communicated as a life of total self-sacrifice for God, extreme focus onthe gospel in every aspect of life and overflowing with the miraculous,transformative presence of God in the world. For others, it may be radicalism or another ideology that has taken the place of Christ as the ultimate reality.

The radical idea (pun intended) that Jon puts forth is that we marry our idea of radical with a particular concept of ordinary. The ordinary radical in Jon’s proposal is his way of saying a disciple of Jesus Christ.  The true disciple carries the cross each and every day. In other words, Jon wants us to stop modifying Christian and embrace the gospel as a call to death.

From Deconstruction to Construction

So what?

That’s the question I ask in my head when someone deconstructs something. What I’m typically asking myself is, So what am I supposed to do about this? The following are two practical movements following Jon’s critique of radicalism in youth ministry.


Let’s begin exploring the reality of our use of radicalism in youth ministry. The pitfalls Jon points out serve as a great rubric in order to engage in the process of discovery.

1.    Do we make radicalism the end of Christian transformation?
This is a big-picture question, and we have a lot of places in youth ministry where we can subtly paint this picture. In our preaching and teaching times, we can communicate that the ultimate goal of the work of God in our lives is for us to become radical. This typically comes when we illustrate the ideal Christian teen living out radical faith. We don’t always communicate that what we mean by “radical faith” is simply Christian faith.

We also paint the big picture in the art and images in our worship spaces.Specifically, I think of those youth rooms that are plastered with blockbuster movies that communicate the message of radicalism. Comic book movies, the underdog sports icons, the passionate acts of redemption—all communicate that what we are called to is extreme acts ofwitness and not the ordinary acts of witness in the world.

2.    Do we create positions of power through our use of radicalism in youth ministry?
This point for me is about inside and outside language within the Christian narrative. I first encountered it when a person taught me to distinguish between “real Christians” and “cultural Christians.” What the person meant was well meaning, but what I learned was that some believers are on the inside with Jesus and some are on the outside.

Messed up, right?

This is what a power structure does. It gives one part of the community—radical Christians—the ability to dictate what following Jesus is about to another part of the community—non-radical Christians.

3.    Do we exploit students in our language of radicalism?
We can do this in our personal counseling of youth or in our invitations to make decisions about life and faith with youth. We can make statements that play on adolescents’ developmental and cultural impulse for risk taking. We can pump them up with high-energy activities and games then ask them to make radical commitments of faith.


Engage students with the whole concept of radical in order to discern if they have received radicalism rather than the gospel of Jesus.

Click here to download a lesson guide to explore radicalism with your students.

Youth workers need to explore the critiques that Jon’s article proposes. This is not to assert that Jon has entirely figured out the issue of radicalism but rather to suggest that we need to discern whether we are staying faithful to Jesus in our life together. It is in exploring the economy of our life with youth that I hope will reveal ways we can grow in our faithfulness to Jesus Christ.