04.16 | Colonization vs. Culturization

YSMarko is writing a new book. The working title is Youth Ministry 3.0. Hope it gets a new title because if I were still a youth worker, I wouldn’t buy it. It sounds too much like the next flashy program or wave of ministry, which I think is (in conext) both what he is writing about and not. Excerpts from some of the chapters can be read here. Good thing i know how to get over my judgemental self when it comes to book titles, because this post is really good.


Before a foreign missionary (or any cross-cultural missionary) hits the ground in a new culture, she spends months or years studying that culture: language, customs, beliefs, practices, food, clothes, music and other cultural art , political systems and other systems of power, needs, relational dynamics and family systems, and much more. When she lands, she continues to be a student of culture, learning substantially more when she’s living in the actual cross-cultural context. Without this learning, and the logical contextualization of both message and methods that should come from it, she will fail at her mission (at best), or inflict great damage (at worst). Without this learning and the intentional contextualization that flows from it, she will be a colonizer.

In a sense, we’ve endorsed colonialization in youth ministry for decades. But this damaging and fruitless approach has never been as much of a misstep than it is today, with youth culture embodying a deeper otherness than it ever has in previous decades.

Most youth workers do not have the luxury of studying youth and youth culture (again: language, customs, beliefs, practices, food, clothes, music and other cultural art, political systems and other systems of power, needs, relational dynamics and family systems, and much more) prior to engaging with real teenagers . Most of us need on-the-job training, in the trenches learning, life long education. I had wonderful undergraduate and graduate training in educational ministries and curriculum development, cross-cultural education, adolescent development and psychology, theology, and a host of other related topics. And it provided me a good basis for getting going in youth ministry. But I would have to say that, today, 90% of what I know and practice in youth ministry has come from learning that happened outside of my formal preparation.

And, really, a good cultural anthropologist doesn’t just read books about a people group or culture. To borrow the wonderful words of Eugene Peterson’s spin on xxxxx [ref], referring to the incarnation, they “move into the neighborhood…” [get full quote]. This is key: a moving into the neighborhood mindset and practice. We must live incarnationally, positioning ourselves humbly and openly on the sometimes cold, dark and scary stairwell to the underground of youth culture.

But it’s not just about being a student of youth culture in general. Youth workers committed to a Youth Ministry 3.0 ideal don’t move into a conceptual neighborhood. They move into a real neighborhood, with actual living, breathing, moody, irrational, finicky, guarded, hurt teenagers! I’m not saying you have to physical relocate your residence. I’m saying that a commitment to contextualization moves us, incarnationally, into the lives of a group of real students – not hypothetical ones.

Youth Ministry 3.0 in your context should look different than Youth Ministry 3.0 in the church down the street, and certainly look different than either the church across the country, or the denominational norms, or the big ol’ Youth Ministry 2.0 mega-group everyone thinks you should clone.

Contextualized youth ministry doesn’t come from a book or a conference (two of the things my company offers!). It comes from discernment. And discernment always involves inquiry, always involves reading and thinking, always involves careful listening, always involves wrestling with questions that might not be answerable, and always involves the Holy Spirit.

In addition, discernment for contextualization is always better accomplished by a group than by an individual. Youth Ministry 2.0 was all about top down leadership. Youth Ministry 3.0 is a shared journey, utilizing a shared discernment process, involving both adults and teenagers .

You know your students, you know your community: dream and discern with them to create a localized ministry that brings the present gospel to the real kids you see every week. 

When we were going through training to come do this work, I remember thinking that our training would be so helpful for youth workers. If they could just spend a week learning to see their youth cultures and communities the way we were learning to see our community, they would ditch their prepackaged programs and curricula and just go be the church.


2 thoughts on “04.16 | Colonization vs. Culturization

  1. Really, isn’t any sort of evangelism/ministry, “missionary work”?

    Besides being a Pastor, I think that it is/could be.

    If a person feels a burden for people, they should get to know them in every way before introducing God into the picture. I’ve seen a lot of situations where people, and I REALLY hate to put it this way, but “beat people over the head with a Bible.”

    People don’t care what you know until they know you care.

    I think a big part of that is getting to know them, fellowshipping and being a friend.

    My words are so inadequate, but I hope you know that I mean, I totally hear you and think that this author is right on.

  2. I don’t know. It’s like a doctor. A doctor must have extensive knowledge and training and may not know you on a personal level, but can examine you and help you just because of his knowledge. A person does not need to have cancer or a broken bone in order to know how to treat it. Does it make him a better doctor if he has ever been a patient him or herself? Absolutely! I’ve heard many doctors say that it changed the way they way they practice medicine and how they interact with their patients because of their own experience as a patient. But without the extensive knowledge, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to even reach patients.

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