Can we talk about God now?

Not long ago, on my daily commute to campus, I got into a conversation with a fellow commuter about classes and such--the normal bus ride chit-chat. She told me that she was taking a course on ethnography, which peaked my interest, so I began to tell her about my own interest in ethnography and Childhood Studies as an interpretive conversation partner for Youth Ministry. She asked me what drew me to ethnography, and without much hesitation I answered, "frustration."

I don't think I'd thought about it in quite those terms before. The answer just sorta slipped out. But once I said it, I realized how true it was. It was frustration that drew me to a Childhood Studies approach to constituting youth and an ethnographic approach to interpreting the experiences of young people. 

It'd take a while for me to give a good introduction to what Childhood Studies is and how ethnography would provide the right interpretive framework for the kind of theological engagement in Youth Ministry that's necessary (in fact, it might take two full academic articles... one of them will be out in the Journal of Youth and Theology very soon and the other's under review). But the shorthand of it goes something like this: 

Childhood Studies is an interdisciplinary approach to the study of children and childhood which constitutes childhood as a cultural construction and a social practice, rather than a stage of development with an inherent and natural trajectory toward adulthood. It understands "the child" not as a pre-social potential adult, purely subject to developmental, pedagogical, and parental processes, but as a "social actor" who lives in a distinct social world and participates in the social practice of childhood. As such, Childhood Studies offers Youth Ministry a lens through which to interpret the experiences of young people that does not over-theorize or essentialize their experience by imposing gerontocentric social or developmental norms.

Ethnography is the qualitative "science" of describing peoples' social experiences. It seeks a "thick description" (Clifford Geertz) wherein one can interpret cultures on their own terms, relinquishing control of the interpretive categories to the research subjects, rather than simply transliterating their experiences into the categories imposed by the researcher. In other words, ethnography is the art of non-selective hearing. With an ethnographic methodology, we can attend to the actual experiences of young people (where, as youth ministers, we expect to discover God at work), without the obscuring psychological and developmental assumptions that come with traditional categories of "adolescence" and "life cycle" theories.

Now, I'm a theologian, not a sociologist or an anthropologist. So when I come to these interpretive conversations, I take my own theological motivations and concerns. It's theology that's lead me to these conversations (I actually think that gerontocentrism reflects a mistake in eschatology). But it's also frustration...

For years, I've been studying Youth Ministry. And for years, I had been under the impression that the primary (if not the exclusive) interdisciplinary conversation partner for Youth Ministry was developmental psychology. Whatever sociological work we did consider was quantitative and filtered through a developmental hermeneutic. Young people were always "adolescents" and adolescence was a "stage of development" under the rubric of the "journey" to the "integrity" adulthood and generativity (see Erik Erickson). Even our approach to young peoples' spirituality was co-opted by developmentalism (see James Fowler's Stages of Faith and the more enigmatic James Loder's Logic of the Spirit). A good understanding of developmental psychology seemed to be more important in my Youth Ministry education than good theology (indeed, most of the youth workers I've known have had a better handle on the former than on the latter).

This is one of the big reasons I didn't get a B.A. in Youth Ministry. When I went to college, I started our as a Youth Ministry major. And in the school I was attending, Youth Ministry classes were heavy on development and light (I'm being generous) on theology. The concern was developing young people into mature Christian adults, not attending to God's action in the experiences of young people. I got bored.

I got frustrated.

And I think I got frustrated for two reasons.

1. Developmental psychological interpretations (transliterations, really) of adolescence as a struggle of "ego identity vs. role confusion" (Erickson), an endeavor to complete "tasks" in transition to "individuation" (I forget where Chap Clark gets this, Elkind? Santrock?) and to achieve the virtue of "fidelity" (Erickson again) never really resonated with my own experience. I never really understood what these people were talking about. Of course I could relate to struggles over identity and role, etc. But I could see that my parents and grand parents were going through similar struggles. And I could see that there were children and teenagers in my life who seemed to have a better handle on their "identity" than many of the most "generative" (read: successful) adults I knew. I just never found it helpful to theorize these kinds of things into discrete "stages" or to see them as normative and universal (what about people with developmental disabilities!?). It was obvious to me that there were people whose experiences were just not being taken into account, who weren't being heard by the selective hearing of developmentalism. And I wanted to find some way of attending to these people. This made it difficult to stay motivated in interpretation and made me all the more eager to think about theology instead.

2. I wanted to talk about God. In lecture after lecture on why teenage boys are horny or why teenage girls are so emotional (ugh!) I found myself thinking, again and again, "can we talk about God now?" I wanted to ask theological questions, not just psychological ones. I wanted to know where God was at work and how I could participate in God's action (it took me reading Andy Root, years later, to figure out how to articulate that), not just how to keep kids sober or make sure they weren't having sex on the mission trip. Intuitively, I knew that there had to be something more to ministry... and I thought it might be God. So I switched majors. And my theological path has brought me to where I am, still thoroughly concerned about doing ministry, but seeing ministry as a theological task--searching for God in the lives of young people in order to participate. My concern is not for human experience, per se. My concern is for the God that people are experiencing. And if I'm going to discover God's work in the lives of young people, I need a lens that allows me to see the actual content of that experience and not just in the places where it conforms to the standard of maturity.

The reason I think Youth Ministry needs Childhood Studies and ethnography is not because we need Childhood Studies and ethnography... it's because we need theology. To be more precise, we need the theological, we need God. I want more people in Youth Ministry to ask, "can we talk about God now?" I want more people in Youth Ministry to be on the lookout not for developmental conditions in order to affect them, but to be on the lookout for what God is doing in the actual content of people's experience, regardless of its conformity to standards of maturity, so that they can be a part of God's ministry.