What’s Your Story: a book review

What do you think about when you think of youth ministry? Pre-fab curriculum? Programs? Silly Games? Youth pastors who ‘really care,’ play guitar and have a soul patch?  I am several years removed from the youth ministry world but still am invested in how to nurture the faith of teens and young adults. The perennial problem has been that when youth graduate from youth group, they graduate from church. Thankfully this is not the case with everyone, but it happens far too often.

Brandon McKoy offers a fresh approach which will change the way many are doing youth ministry. Youth Ministry From the Outside In draws together insights from practical theology and Social Constructionism. In fact, youth ministry guru Chap Clark writes the Forward and social theorist Kenneth Gergen writes an Afterward. In between, McKoy takes on a journey from  the way youth ministry  is–with its focus on individuals–to a fuller, richer picture which encompasses the insights of narrative therapy and linguistics. McKoy utilizes  social constructionism to posit that we (and our youth) are interconnected beings whose story is shaped by environments, traditions, family systems, etc. He sees the job of the youth minister is to help students to narrate their own story, get them to ‘thicken’ their own story through asking perceptive questions and exploring the themes, and by helping students locate their own story in the biblical story. Youth grow in their faith and relationship with God when they are able to locate their lives within Jesus’ own story.

In Part One McKoy describes the shift from the modernist emphasis on individualism (“You are Special”) to the social constructionist view of persons existing as a web or relationships.  This inter-connection explains why students take on different roles in their various relationships. For example. a student can be a growing thriving youth in church, but act ‘out of character’ while at school or at work. It isn’t just that they are just being hypocritical or duplicitous. The relationships that formed them may cause them to behave in certain ways in certain settings (because we are defined in relationship). McKoy suggests the way to address this is by getting students to tell their life stories which thicken their connection to the gospel.

This is fleshed out in Part Two. McKoy describes the significance of life stories and the events that shape our youth, particularly in early childhood and pre-adolescence., middle school and mid-adolescence, and middle adolescence. By getting youth to narrate their own life story, this promotes self understanding among youth and fosters organic spiritual growth.

In part three McKoy connects the life stories of our youth with the biblical story.  McKoy is concerned that we read the Bible mindful of our biases and assumptions, as well as the textual issues inherit in its pages. However he does argue for the authority of scripture because of the authority we invest in it as faith communities (163). Furthermore, he urges us to read the Bible as an ‘all-encompassing story’ and to focus on the person of Jesus as our hermenuetical key for understanding the whole of scripture.  McKoy wants youth to encounter a full-bodied version of the Biblical story and be able to make connections their to their own stories:

If students are not given thick descriptions of this [biblical] story, their personal stories(being shaped by the prevailing cultural story) will not be enriched by the alternate reality (God’s story) with which to frame the stories of the story of their lives.  Presenting the biblical story is not about providing explanations for events that the authors did not include or searching deep behind the meaning of the words, but about re-presenting the text in living detail (180).

Such a close reading text enables youth to imagine the realities of the Kingdom of God and helps them know Jesus because we know Him through knowing his story. And so a thick description of the biblical story and an emphasis on relationships enables students to  deepen their own story and grow in their faith.

Many Christians are suspicious of social construction theory and narrative approaches. Are these approaches ‘too postmodern?’ Are they too loose in their appeal to authority and truth? Is their emphasis on relationships harmful to our conception of the individual? McKoy anticipates many of these objections and attempts to answer them through out the book (often in a a text box labeled ‘the critic’s voice’).  I remain uncertain about aspects of social construction but find the way McKoy applies its insights helpful and suggestive. Certainly attention to how people are shaped by relationships, and the value of narrative approaches to understanding people and scripture offer important insights.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone active in ministry. This book is focused on youth ministry and is most appropriate for those who are active in that world; however the uniqueness of McKoy’s approach and the manner in which he explores the implications of social constructionism for ministry has a wider application.  Part two discusses the developmental stages which affect adolescents; yet the basic approach of focusing on relationships, retelling stories of people, capturing the story and moving youth to greater engagement with Jesus’ story is also applicable to just about anyone.  I re-read several sections of this book as  I thought about applications. You may not agree with every aspect of what you find here, but it is sufficently challenging. I give this book five stars:★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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