This book is a collection of essays from an American context (although I found a significant amount of material that resonated as a UK based academic and practitioner) that encourages us to “choose life for the sake of young people, drawing upon the life-giving elements of religion and culture, and critiquing that which thwarts life”. What is refreshing about this book is the research base; it is written by practical theologians with a clear agenda of demonstrating the ways in which practical theology can inform youth work. The authors approach to practical theology is “the study of God and the world by engaged reflection on action (past or present practice) and reflection for the sake of action (future practice)”.I read the book a chapter a day and always looked forward to doing this as I knew I was in for a stimulating and engaging read that would spark all kinds of ideas.
The book offers a range of methodologies for doing practical theology which are useful examples of the field. These include literature reviews, case studies, field observations and interviews and action research. However, in most instances one is presented with the findings with little significant discussion of the underpinning methodology which is disappointing as that would enhance its transferability. A range of themes are explored including children being gifted, situated, isolated, imagination seeking, socially endangered, having yearnings, identities to be shaped, needing public witnesses. Various challenging questions are posed such as why so few churches are engaged with troubled youth and whether this is because of deficient theologies or ecclesiologies or the difference between operative and official theologies, for example. There is a very good critique of the Disney Princesses franchise written by a mother (and scholar) who has tried hard to resist gender stereotyping; her (I think tongue in cheek) idea of Disciples on Ice gives an indication as to the competition faced by the church in promoting a life enhancing world view for children and young people. Young men are also subject to significant stereotyping and cultural influences; a critique of the Boy Code is offered based on interviews which demonstrate that although the code is not necessarily articulated clearly there is pressure around specific behaviours and attitudes with the notion of being a loser the most serious insult that can be given.
Insights into children, young people and culture and the subsequent implications of this for practice is a significant feature of the book. Thus there is an interesting theological reflection on vision and yearnings around relationship with the holy, community, meaning making, faithfulness and vocation and while these were not necessarily new thoughts they were presented in a fresh way which encourages us to have a strong theological underpinning to our work. The chapter on testimonies was a reminder of how valuable this spiritual practice can be particularly when in other situations young people are voiceless. The final chapter draws together threads from the rest of the book and makes practical suggestions as to how we develop life-affirming practices with children and youth as well as summarizing some of the effective reflective ministry that the book describes.
What I missed in this book was an index that would have made it more useful for research and teaching where you could follow a theme through the book more easily. However, this is one of the most helpful books I have read about working with young people for a long time.
Reviewed by Dr Sally Nash, Director Midlands Centre for Youth Ministry, email@example.com.