Bonhoeffer, Seinfeld, and the Opposite of Youth… | UMC YoungPeople
Connecting young people and their adult leaders to God, the church, and the world
July 2019

Bonhoeffer, Seinfeld, and the Opposite of Youth Ministry

By Andrew Chappell

After realizing that he is unhappy with his life George Costanza says to his friends Elaine and Jerry, “My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct in every aspect of life…it has all been wrong.” In the midst of this epiphany, Jerry presents an interesting hypothesis: “if every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” The rest of the episode of Seinfeld follows George on his vendetta to follow the opposite of his instincts. And guess what? The hypothesis is incredibly successful.

Recently, I’ve been asking myself questions concerning the Opposite Hypothesis.

  • What would happen if I followed the opposite of my natural instincts?
  • How would my decisions change? What would my life look like?
  • What would my ministry look like?

And right now, I’m asking this question: what does youth ministry look like when George’s theory is applied?

Seinfeldian Youth Ministry

For much of my time in youth ministry, I was constantly devoted to elevating the place of youth in the church. After all, I was constantly told by my elders, “The youth are the future of the church! We have to do everything we can to instill within them Christlike values…” (so they might remain in the church when they are older).

So we gave the youth their own space. We gave the youth their own mission trips. We gave the youth their own small groups, their own worship experience, and their own sermons.

Our instincts told us that in order to keep the youth in church, we ought to treat them like they are special, hire their own staff, feed them curriculum designed specifically for their age groups, and send them to serve in places with only their peers.

What if I had applied the Opposite Hypothesisto my instincts concerning youth ministry? What if I had designed a youth ministry opposite of my instincts? What if I had designed a youth ministry that didn’t elevate youth in the church, or give them their own worship experience, or feed them their own curriculum? What if I had done the opposite?

This brings us, of course to famed German theologian and spy Deitrich Bonhoeffer.

Hello, Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pacifist pastor, who became an anti-Nazi spy and was later imprisoned and hanged for his “treason.” In short, he was way cooler than either Seinfeld or Newman

What you may not know is that Bonhoeffer was heavily involved in ministry to youth and children for much of his life. Near the end of his ministry, Bonhoeffer composed his “Eight Theses on Youth Work” (in 2014, Faith & Leadership published a summary of these 8 points).

The second of his points is this: “The question is not, What is youth and what rights does it have? but rather, What is the church-community and what is the place of youth within it?”[1]

If Bonhoeffer were speaking to a group of youth ministers today, I believe he would re-articulate his second thesis with language more akin to George Costanza: whatever your instincts tell you…do the opposite. Bonhoeffer’s fourth thesis echoes his second more pointedly: “Youth enjoys no special privilege in the church-community.”[2]

For Bonhoeffer, the youth of the church are a part of the church, with no special status. They are just like everyone else. Their involvement is key and important and beautiful. But it is not special. It is not to be treasured about all others.

When we make youth ministry its own thing, apart from the rest of the church, apart from the rest of the body, we are doing more harm than good. Andrew Root, author of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker demonstrates that in giving youth special privilege, “we only fortify the generation gap, pushing young people off into youth ministry programs and away from the center of the congregation…Making young people ‘special’ divides them from their parents and other adults, for only those with special knowledge can teach them the faith, or even relate to them at all.”[3]

What Now?

What then are we to do? What is the opposite of our youth ministry instinct? What should I have done all those years of youth ministry separate and apart from the rest of the church? How now shall we follow Bonhoeffer’s theses?

Root declares that the answer would lead to an extreme paradigm shift. Following Bonhoeffer’s “vision for youth ministry, the paid youth worker’s job — her ministry to and for the young of the church — is to remind the church that there is no privileged space for its children; its children must be take into its life. Her vocation is not to idealize the youthful spirit of the church’s young people but to call the church to look past that spirit and embrace young people in their full humanity.”[4]

If you applied George’s Opposite Hypothesisto your ministry with youth right now, what might change?

Would the youth be sequestered in their own space? Or would the be incorporated into the ONE body?

Would the youth go with 20 of their peers to serve on a local mission trip? Or would they serve within their own community with twentysomethings, parents, and grandparents?

Would the youth receive their own teaching? Or would the minister gear his/her teaching toward all age groups?

Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s theses would get lost in the youth ministry of the 21st century. It might prove to be irrelevant and outdated. Or maybe Bonhoeffer’s understanding of youth ministry is just the thing we need.

Maybe it is time to follow the opposite of your instincts.