Last week, three more high-profile mass shootings rocked the US, once again sparking intense debate about gun control, white supremacy, and the president’s role in inspiring the shootings. In the wake of these attacks, the media also profiled the alleged gunmen, who were dubbed “loners” by those who knew them. They were also all young—the three alleged gunmen’s ages fell between 19 and 24. An LA Times op-ed by researchers who have analyzed data about the profile of mass shooters since 1966 also noted that nearly all of them were traumatized as children.
The American church’s youth ministry model hasn’t done a good job of reaching this demographic, largely because of the middle-class’s desire for safety, said Andrew Root, the author of multiple books on youth ministry and a professor of youth and family ministry at Lutheran Seminary.
“So all of a sudden, a loner kid comes, who either is bullying or has been bullied, and then comes in and is just a negative presence,” he said. “It can lead young people to say they don't feel safe and lead parents to be very clear to the youth worker that they don't want that kid around because he/she feels unsafe. I think it becomes really difficult that American youth ministry as it classically has been a middle-class phenomenon and that tends to push these young people out. Or not even out, but they just disappear.”
Root joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss the complexities of welcoming disaffected young people into church, why lack of interpersonal relationships especially hurts young people, and what Bonhoeffer has to offer our current conversation on youth ministry.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Things Above Podcast: Heavenly Thinking for Earthly Engagement.
This episode of Quick to Listen is also brought to you by Focus on the Family’s Bring Your Bible to School Day powered by students nationwide October 3rd. When you sign up to participate, you’ll also be entered to win a trip to the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C..
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Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 171
When you see the ages of these gunmen and they're under the age of 25, how do you react to that?
Andrew Root: It both is shocking and it's horrifying, but then after it happens a half dozen times and we find out that nearly every one of these folks is young, but also as male—often a white male—it almost becomes obvious. I mean you almost lose the shock in it. But you know, I do think it really points to the fact that often, especially within Protestantism, youth ministry has been something you do to entertain kids, to keep them connected, to have families pull into your church parking lot instead of passing your church and going to another church. In many ways, youth ministries have often been a billboard that attracts young families. And you see that there's a lot more at stake here—in how we think about young people within the church and how we do youth ministry. But we have a crisis with young people, particularly young men in this culture. What the answer is, I'm not sure, but it is definitely an issue before us.
Traditionally after a mass shooting, the media will profile the gunman or alleged gunman, and in many instances, the word loner comes up a lot. What is going on in your head when you're reading through these profiles and they're describing the gunman in that way?
Andrew Root: It seems like that it correlates, and I do think it is an issue of young men that we have to confront and ask questions about, but to me, I do think it says something particular about modernity and late modernity and the time that we're in. There's something about maybe the technological realities we live in, the way our communities are kind of disembedded from one another, about how community becomes a quite absent thing, that we're living in a kind of a precipice right now where we're never more connected than we are now, but we're never lonelier than we have been now. And I think that's across generations. And we're just kind of seeing, especially with some demographics of people, that loneliness and the human soul don't do very well together.
You know, maybe we're at a particular time where, in a broad stroke across the Western culture, we're trying this experiment of allowing people or forcing people into kind of enclaves of loneliness, and their only interactions with the world are through digital spaces, and the early returns don't seem to be a very healthy thing. I'm not one that wants to demonize technology or say that that's the problem or to say that violent video games are the issue, I think these problems are really thick issues and there are multiple realities there, but it really is clear that the human spirit is just not constituted to be alone. It can do incredibly destructive things.
And so it's not surprising, but what I think is a toxic recipe that we're dealing with is loneliness coupled with what Nietzsche actually called ressentiment, this French word for resentment, which is deeper, which is these deeper grievances. And so when you're all alone, and no community of face-to-face interaction, but you can go online and just be taken into kind of a pseudo-community reverberating grievances, I just think it's corrosive to the human soul. And so I think there really is something endemic about what it means to be a modern person that we live with this at least baseline sense of grievances or that resentment for other people or resentment for the way the world is. And if it's fed in a certain way and particularly if we're disembedded from communities, it can have, as we're seeing, quite violent reactions.
Is there a model of youth ministry that has successfully been able to particularly reach loners who may not be attracted to join youth groups?
Andrew Root: I honestly don't know. What I do know is it's incredibly difficult. The way that youth ministries unfolded post-World War II and into the parachurch movement, there was a deep missional impulse to kind of reach out to these young people. But it was also a very different culture at that time. But as we've kind of moved into the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and even into in today, youth ministries have become mainly a congregational-based reality. We still have parachurch organizations and there are still organizations that are on the cusp of reaching out and having an interaction with young people like this, but I don't think most local churches can reach young people like this. Because as a middle-class phenomenon, it really does become a holding pen, or it becomes your job as the youth worker to keep a growing youth group going, and usually that means kids have to be having some fun but also, they have to feel safe.
And I think particularly in our time, safety—in particular, emotional safety—becomes a high good that parents have. So all of a sudden, a loner kid comes, who either is bullying or has been bullied, and then comes in and is just a negative presence. It can lead young people to say they don't feel safe and lead parents to be very clear to the youth worker that they don't want that kid around because he/she feels unsafe. I think it becomes really difficult that American youth ministry, as it classically has been, is a middle-class phenomenon and that tends to push these young people out. Or not even out, but they just disappear.
And most youth workers don't even think about where they've gone because they just kind of disappear into the ether, and we don't really have a theological or ministerial perspective to go find them. And I think these kids are particularly—not always but particularly—in middle-class kind of settings. This grievance culture tends to really grow inside of middle-class phenomenon, where you are really comparing yourself to other people and feeling like you're not succeeding as well. And it's those people who are to blame, and someone needs to get back at those people. The more difficulty that they're under, the more they get a message from us that we're not really interested in them. No one boldly says that to them, but I think they pick that vibe up pretty quickly.
How should a youth pastor navigate that?
Andrew Root: It's a big question that probably is larger than just what the youth pastor does, because the youth pastor does have to respond to what the executive pastor, senior pastor, and/or parent leadership committee wants to happen. But you know, something's happened within Protestantism whereas youth ministry became a congregational phenomenon that the missional element of it kind of got lost.
I think there will always be reasons for high school students or middle school students to cohort them up, but we have a really interesting situation where the cohorting is the norm and then if there's any kind of intergenerational interaction, that's episodic and doesn't happen as much. I think that actually should be flipped. That getting them into the life of the congregation, into the educational Bible study with other adults is probably more important, and then cohorting them up at other times would be significant too. But to me, what really passes on faith is the life of this community, and the narratives of this community, and the struggles and prayers of this community. And young people really need a lot of stories of adults who are living in faith, hope, and doubt and trying to figure this out. And when we cordon off really strong walls around the youth ministry, then they don't tend to get that. We still need something called youth ministry, but it needs to be more porous, on the edges, and really getting these young people engaged with other adults, watching them struggle to live out their faith—through their parents as well as other adults within the church.
You’ve written a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his work in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party and beyond. Considering some of his history and the type of radicalism he sought to fight against through his ministry, what's was the engagement strategy Bonhoeffer used that you think we can adopt today?
Andrew Root: First of all, he would say let's respect young people enough to really listen to them and to really call them to their responsibilities. He's never a hater of young people. Even when he thinks they're taking a wrong turn, he wants to embrace them. But then he really does show that it's very dangerous to look to the leader, to even give up our own kind of perspectives and stories and glue them onto the leader. And we have to be really frightened when we see that with our young people. In our culture today, I think we see this kind of divide between a certain collectivism. On the left, the collectivism is about getting in like, you need to make sure you do not transgress certain perspectives. There's a policing of language. But then on the right, there's an incredible desire toward the leader, that he is going to make America great again, that we need to follow this person. And Dietrich just thinks that both types of collectivism are a recipe for disaster. In post-1933 Germany, that collectivism and that need for a great leader comes together in one and you get just a horrific situation with national socialism. Or what we have right now, with the two going against each other, a kind of liberal collectivism versus the right-wing need for a great leader. But the need for the great leader, in some sense it can stoke these grievances, this resentment that can lead to these actions we're experiencing.
And so Dietrich says we need to be wary of two things: One, we need to see human beings not as a conglomerate of their choices, but we need to see human beings as their bonds, their relationships with each other. That even these young people who have done a horrific act, we need to be reminded of their humanity, that they are sons to parents, that they are connected to other people, that we always need to see people in relationships to their bonds. And then the other thing he says is that we need to not focus on the personality but actually focus on the office. And part of the problem with the great leader is it becomes all bound in the personality and you lose the humility of actually representing an office, that the office becomes really insignificant.
The only way to break this kind of grievance and resentment is for people to narrate their stories and to tell the stories about the relationships—maybe even the broken relationships—that make them. And when people have deeply broken relationships—traumatized moments like we heard as one of the phenomena with these young people—and don't have anyone to share them with, anyone to confess those experiences with, anyone to say to them that was really, really difficult or you're not alone in this, it can just fester and become absolutely evil. It can lead to deep evil inclinations. So I think Bonhoeffer would really call us to have a very different conception of what it means to be a human being and to base that on who God is and what the biblical text says, that we are persons and we have our being in relationship. Usually what young people need is to hear other people share their stories. They need to hear adults share their stories so that if young adults are experiencing some level of trauma, they can hear how others are dealing with it and know that they are not alone. It may even make them feel safe to open up themselves. So narrative becomes really important.
There's lots of research that suggests that loneliness is not something that is just felt by "loners" but is experienced by more and more young people. What do you believe is contributing to the widespread nature of loneliness?
Andrew Root: The stereotype of growing up in the ’80s and ’90s was that all adolescence was about friends. And I think with Gen Z and the iGen, they're spending so much more time with their parents than with friends, they're in their rooms watching Netflix, and they're growing up slower. And one of the reasons I think they're growing up slower is because our larger culture just keeps speeding up, things just keep going faster. Whether it's technological change, whether it's social change, whether it's just the pace of our day-to-day lives are changing. And I think we've seen an escalation of identity option. If we think back to The Breakfast Club and it seemed like one of the reasons it was such a great movie in the ’80s, or at least seemed to resonate with people, is because it had one of each type of identities you could be—it's like six identity options.
And now we live in a cultural context where there are hundreds of options of identity out there, and you could be whatever you want to be, you can decide that for yourself. So there's this whole push towards uniqueness and then getting recognition for your unique identity, but I'm really intrigued by this French sociologist who has written this book called The Weariness of the Self and actually in French their direct translation is "the fatigue of being yourself." His whole argument is that depression has become kind of the mental illness issue post-1970s because of our speeding up of our society and the utter responsibility that's placed on you to create and curate your own identity. That you creating a unique self and getting recognition for that unique self becomes your responsibility. And that is an incredible, incredible task to place on the shoulders of a 14-year-old kid. That you need not only to figure out your own identity, but then you need to uniquely perform that identity, and performed it in a way that other eyeballs—particularly on social media or whatever—look at it and hit the "like" button that you actually have unique, interesting identity. And of course, once you do that, you got to keep doing it because people get distracted and you have to win that recognition back. And he actually thinks that in many ways, what depression becomes is this weariness of having to continue to curate the self. I think that's a huge challenge that we have with young people—they're growing up slower because the larger society is going more quickly and that puts them in huge moments of crisis now.
We have a whole generation who's growing up with this incredible task before them, starting at 11 or 12, to create and curate their own identity and then to beware of all the haters and to try and accrue as many fans as you can. Which I think ultimately has the potential making you incredibly lonely and really wonder who you are at all. And I think the Christian life wants to say, "Yes, having an identity is important ... but what it really means to live a human life has something to do with the very human life that Jesus Christ lives, has something to do with these kinds of moral frameworks that we've lived out of." But now our highest good tends to be our own self and that can be incredibly lonely—and not only lonely but incredibly fatiguing. I think it has pushed a lot of young people away from feeling like they have any friends and feeling always on the precipice and probably teetering into depression.
What should parents be doing? How should they think about raising their kids so that they are well discipled but also willing to reach out to the kids in danger of being alone?
Andrew Root: I think the danger with parents—particularly middle-class late modern parents—is to think that what we need to give our kid is as many things as we can. And I don't even mean those material things, but connection to things like basketball, like debate, like a tutor for test prep, and then youth ministry and the church just becomes another thing in a menu of things, and usually it is a thing that ends up losing. And I think that our young people don't need another thing. And so the youth ministry doesn't need to be another thing, the parent doesn't need to be committed to another thing, what they ultimately need is stories. The Christian life is a story, and they need stories to live inside of. Identity is always based in narratives, and usually narratives of the good, of what it means to live a good life.
So I think parents need to help their kids have stories and narratives of what it means to live a good life. And as a Christian, that story is linked with the very life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And to have our identities in that story should propel us out into the world to our neighbor, and at the very least to the loner kid in the class. To see that kid as a human being who has other human beings that love him or love her or has relationships that are broken and fractured, and maybe being willing to talk to them, maybe being willing at least not to pick on them or to ignore them.
What are two or three ways that you think that we should pray specifically for young people today?
Andrew Root: We really have to pray that this epidemic or shadow of loneliness that's kind of creeping over our culture, that our young people are protected from that. But I think we also need to pray for the courage that we can be nearer to our own young people, our own children, our own grandchildren, the young people in our congregations. And not only be near to them, but then to share our own stories—of God's goodness to us, but also the places and the times in our life where it's felt like God has been distant or silent and yet here, we are still faithfully seeking for God. So to pray for loneliness to broken but to pray that we participate in the breaking of that loneliness by being near and seeing our young people.
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