Youth Ministry Thinkers: Andy Root

In our Youth Ministry Thinkers series, we profile important voices in the field of ministry to the next generation. While the Next Institute does not endorse all the opinions of those we profile, we believe their positions to be important in shaping conversations about youth ministry across the world, and commend critical engagement with their work.

In the youth ministry world, there are few people as prolific as Andy Root. Since joining Luther Seminary as their endowed chair for youth and family ministry in 2005, he has published thirteen books on a range of subjects, from history (Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker) to philosophy (Faith Formation in a Secular Age) to family ministry (The Children of Divorce) to theology (Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross) to dogs (The Grace of Dogs). 

Perhaps his most important contribution is his 2011 work with his mentor at Princeton, Kenda Creasy Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, in which he and Dean acknowledge a growing movement within youth ministry (of which the Next Institute is a grateful participant!) away from the entertainment-focused, attractional, moralistic, and solely-evangelistic youth ministries of the 1970s-2000s, towards an intentional, theologically informed ministry to young people that acknowledges the dignity and ability of youth to be informed agents of God in the world. 

Root’s Style and Theology

Those new to Root will find a strange (yet compelling) juxtaposition in his works - he commonly uses narratives to introduce his concepts in case study-like situations, modeling how the difficult subjects he is engaging come up in the ebb and flow of actual ministry and parenting. This makes his work initially very accessible and winsome. However, the man is nothing if not deep, and his books move in and out of these narratives into complex theological and philosophical discussions. This may jar some readers who (despite his honest, academic subtitles) have assumed based on the tone of his narratives to be reading a certain type of youth ministry book focusing on encouraging anecdotes instead of a deep work of theological reflection. At the same time, this shows that Root truly practices what he preaches - that youth ministry is a valid environment for theology, and that youth can be theologically informed agents of the people of God.

The most difficult thing about Root might also be the most refreshing thing - that he has a true, unique perspective, not simply explaining the positions of others. However, it is not an easy one to grasp, especially for those who assume he will take the traditional evangelical position on youth ministry. Root draws deeply from the traditions of Neo-orthodoxy, especially the works of Karl Barth and Deitrech Bonhoeffer. He seeks to focus our attention on what he calls divine action - the actual work of God in the world, and locates this in the communal ministry of God's people. Root explains: "...the location where persons share in each other's lives as an act of care and love (what I call 'ministry') is the place where the living Christ, and therefore divine action, is present.

Where to Start with Andy Root

While Root’s first book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry is one of the clearest articulations of his theology, it might not be as accessible to new readers. Besides The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry with Dean, consider one of these options:

  • Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (2014) - Part history book, part youth ministry manual, this work will give you a new appreciation for Bonhoeffer as a champion of young people, racial reconciliation, intergenerational ministry, and theological depth. One discussion of Bonhoeffer as a catechism teacher for a group of rowdy boys who try to run him off is absolutely golden.

  • Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies (2018) - A prime example of Root’s narrative-theology style, here he weaves discussions about science and faith into a story about a youth pastor and his students. While some will not agree with Root’s own positions on science explained here, the real worth of the text is how he models finding the spiritual longing behind students’ doubts about faith as they grow up in a world dominated by science.

  • “Ministering to Youth Growing Up in a Screen-Based World” (2012) - The Yale Youth Ministry Institute held a wonderful series of lunchtime interviews with Root on technology and culture that can be found here.