Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the most engaging figures from the 20th century. He was a theologian who is acclaimed and claimed by liberals and conservatives. He was a pacifist who got involved in the plot to kill Hitler. He was a martyr and a victim of the evils of Naziism. He was a follower of Karl Barth, a Sunday school teacher in a black church in New York, a critic of both American racism and German Naziism, a writer of deep theological works and of soul searching practical theology, and a man of scholarship who lived an exciting life.

The evangelical world loves his two defining books. They are The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. I have read both and have returned to them frequently. The first chapter of Discipleship is a contrast between what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace and costly grace. That chapter is one of the most important Christian writings of the last 100 years. The whole book is good, but all Christians need to read and reread that first chapter.


Life Together grew out of the seminary experience of Bonhoeffer as teacher to a group of young men. Being a theologian himself, Bonhoeffer expected his students to master theology, but even more important, he expected them to grow in spiritual disciplines. This book focuses upon prayer, Bible reading, worship, and fellowship. As individuals and as a gathering of Christians, the Christian life is to be intense.

A few years back, Eric Metaxas wrote a popular biography of Bonhoeffer that was titled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
Metaxas is a gifted story teller and the book is a wonderful retelling of the main events of Bonhoeffer’s life. However, that biography is deeply flawed. Bonhoeffer is cast as an American-type evangelical in the hostile world of Nazi Germany.

The world of German theology is a tangle, a muddle, a festering swamp with some great thoughts amidst the alligators. The best and brightest American theological thinkers made pilgrimages to Germany during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to glean the riches that were certainly there. But Germany was also the seat of Higher Criticism and Theological Liberalism. There was, on the one hand, the brilliance of the professors and the profoundness of their insights. On the other hand were the denials of historic Christianity and the derailing of Christian orthodoxy.

Men like J. Gresham Machen negotiated their way through the world of German scholarship and emerged committed to orthodox theology. It was Machen’s German experiences that helped prepare him for writing such works as Christianity and Liberalism. Not all who crossed the Atlantic came back home untainted.

I only have a surface knowledge of German theology from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So does Metaxas. One gets the impression that Germany under Hitler was divided between a large old politically and theologically conservative class and the Nazis. The broad brush strokes of black and white cover the canvas of Metaxas’ book, but the story is much more nuanced and shaded than that book allows.

I suspect that it would be hard to write in such a way as to capture the complexity of Bonhoeffer’s theological perspectives and peers. Much of the story of 20th century German history leaves us longing for some good guys to cheer. In a similar example, German General Erwin Rommel became the symbol of the “Good German” after World War II. Desmond Young’s biography of Rommel and the classic film “Rommel: The Desert Fox” portrayed a heroic man of honor who died because he tried to stop Hitler. But Rommel and his wife had been fervent supporters of Hitler. He had some great qualities, but he was a flawed hero at best.

Exactly where and how Bonhoeffer’s theology goes astray is a topic for someone else to explain. Bonhoeffer can rightly be paired with his contemporary and sometimes mentor Karl Barth. Neither would be welcome in the denomination or church that I am a part of. (By welcomed, I mean welcome to pastor.  I would have enjoyed listening to and fellowshipping with either man.) But both were breaths of fresh air in the context of theologically liberal Germany and then in the battle between the German Christian Church and the Confessing Church of Nazi Germany.

All that has been said is prelude to this ringing endorsement of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together by Andrew Root., published by Baker Academic Books. When I began this book, I figured it would be a biography that focused on Bonhoeffer’s years in Spain and Berlin where he taught the youth. It is heavily biographical and those experiences figure in to Root’s account. But this book is a much more in-depth examination of how youth ministry tied in to Bonhoeffer’s ideas of church community.

Another surprise about this book was becoming acquainted through it with the author Andrew Root. I had never heard of him, but learned through the book that he has authored quite a few works on youth ministry. This raised my suspicions. I see so much in youth ministry that seems focused on rock-like concerts, youth culture, numbers and trends, fun as a theological creed, and a tearing away of the young people from the rest of the church. I know this is all an oversimplification, but I almost ceased to be shocked by the outlandish things I hear of that are done in the name of youth ministry.

But Root surprised me as he unfolded Bonhoeffer’s vision of youth ministry into his own vision. Both see youth as a vital part of the entire church body, that is, the community of Christ, and both envisioned youth ministry as being deeply theological. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the youth group tackles Calvin’s Institutes on Sunday night (and some of my students expressed favorable views about that), but it does call for some practical and lived out theology that goes beyond pizza, texting, and sappy contemporary songs.

Youth ministry is a relatively new thing in America. Bonhoeffer wasn’t a youth director or youth pastor in the sense that we think of. He grew up in a largely secular family and then studied some rather esoteric theology. Since he was young, he got assigned working with the young. He was brainy enough to appeal to young scholars, but he was plenty capable of having a good time with the guys. But it was the theological engagement that pushed him in his ministry.

This book, along with Bonhoeffer’s two classics, need to be carefully read and thought through by Christian leaders in the churches and Christian schools. My tradition, the Reformed Faith, tends to highlight our children being in covenant, but then does little to directly minister to them as youth. The broader evangelical community prostrates itself before any mode or method of getting kids to come to church. I think Bonhoeffer and Root, as his spokesperson, have something to say to all of us.

One final plus for this book: After the main portion of the work, the book has extensive guides and commentaries on The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. That section alone is a worthy read. But don’t miss the rest of the book either.


One thought on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker

  1. Pingback: BA Books & Authors on the Web – April 17, 2015

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