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Augustine and Youth Ministry

Augustine casts a large shadow over Western Christianity. Hundreds of years of Christian thought and practice point back to Augustine and at times he seemed to stand as a mark of orthodoxy in the West. So I’m not surprised to find that Augustine is still being promoted as a guide for Christian life and ministry today. Jeff Keuss is one such promoter and lays out an Augustinian starter guide for youth ministry in his recent Immerse Journal article, St. Augustine’s Confessions.

Augustine and Youth Ministry

Keuss begins by crafting the plot that Augustine was a teen bad boy turned hero of the faith. On that merit alone, Keuss states, “…Augustine’s continued confession of faith and development into a great theological mind offers a profound testimony of someone who can and should be framing the theological content and form of contemporary youth ministry in the 21st century.” To which I’d question, “Hasn’t Augustine reigned in the West both in content and practice for over a millennium? And wasn’t the Apostle Paul the original “bad-boy-made-good?”

Keuss constrained his engagement of Augustine to Confessions. First, Confessions reveals that Augustine framed his personal story as a prayer and emphasizes that the journey of the Christian life is the journey of finding our place in God as our way of self discovery. Second, he shows that the mobile nature of contemporary youth life needs confession rather than commitments. He explains that the practice of confession is an ongoing process of following Christ which is always new. Finally, I think that the redemption of memory is of grand importance to youth ministry today and Keuss situates this process of redemption in the midst of a confessing community of Christians. Here is where contemporary youth ministry has failed youth. We have not given youth a place where we intentionally remember together who we are before God.

The Problem

But I would have to diverge with Keuss at the same place that others have diverged from Augustine and that is the priority of the interior life. In contemporary Western Christianity there is a break between spirituality and religion. It is believed that religion has to do with the outward expressions like traditions, practices, doctrines and moral codes and spirituality is about the inner life that has to do with prayer, contemplation, and most importantly the self.

Charles Taylor gives a penetrating description of this split.

Augustine’s turn to the self was a turn to radical reflexivity, and that is what made the language of inwardness irresistible. The inner light is the one which shines in our presence to ourselves; it is the one inseparable from our being creatures with a first-person standpoint. What differentiates it from the outer light is just what makes the image of inwardness so compelling, that it illuminates the space where I am present to myself. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it was Augustine who introduced the inwardness of radical reflexivity and bequeathed it to the Western tradition of thought. The step was a fateful one, because we have certainly made a big thing of the first-person standpoint. The modern epistemological tradition from Descartes, and all that flowed from it in modern culture, has made this standpoint fundamental—to the point of aberration, one might think.

And this emphasis on the self and the split between the inner (spiritual) and outer (religion) is what Keuss promotes via Augustine as the place where God reveals God’s self to humanity in the midst of a changing culture. He writes, “…the more temporally plastic and therefore disposable the cultural artifact the more we are affirmed that it is God within our hearts who is ever-present and calling us and is greater than the brokenness and fragmentation we find in the culture.” And he also adds, “It (Augustine’s Confessions) is a challenge to see the world as a place that is ever-changing and absurdly so in comparison to the truth and solidity of God that resides in the caverns of our deepest selves.”

Holistic Faith Formation

As Paul Markham has acutely pointed out that the influence of Augustine and the subsequent development of Augustine’s focus on the inward resulted in a view of conversion as an inner experience. This has resulted in the church in the West and contemporary youth ministry struggling for words and images to articulate what it means to follow Jesus that goes beyond a private inner experience. And I don’t’ think Augustine can help us move beyond Augustine at this point. I think that we need to find another source to help youth ministry and the church in the West to reconnect inner and outer so that we can lead youth into a holistic exploration of life in God.

Please do not hear that I’m negating contemplative faith practices. I merely want to shed light on the reality that the priority of the inner life must not remain if we are to become fully human in the way of Jesus. Humans are embodied actors. We are not merely thinking creatures. Thus our formation into being human must give equal priority to the inner and outer dimensions of our existence. Contemplative practices which give priority to the inner are not the only means of grace or even the primary means of grace by which God reveals God’s self and we learn to become fully human in the way of Jesus. There are sacraments, communal practices, acts of mercy and works of justice which form us into the image of God. Thus it is in the constellation of the various means of grace energized by divine agency in the midst of a community of disciples where people are redeemed and restored into the representatives of God for the sake of the world.