Dean Borgman: “Writing a Practical Theology Text for Youth and Family Ministries”

“Writing a Practical Theology Text for Youth and Family Ministries”

by, Dean Borgman

As a college student in the 1940s I led a small youth group; in two years it expanded from three to thirteen students. In the early 1950s, after college and a military stint, my friend Bill and I were leading a Saturday night rally in the basement of a church. We saw it grow from scores to one hundred, two hundred, and then three hundred kids—with a nice socioeconomic and ethnic mix. Still in the 1950s, I became a high school teacher and assistant coach in southern New England’s upper-class Gold Coast and was involved initiating New England’s first Young Life clubs. My doctoral studies at Columbia University, in the early 1960s, were interrupted when I agreed to help a young Bill Milliken work with gang members and drug addicts on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. My suburban to urban experience was then extended internationally as I taught for a couple of years in Liberia, relating to African college students and young houseboys. Back in the States, I became involved with Harlem’s Street Academy Program, then began directing and teaching in Young Life’s Urban Training Institute. Serious personal and programmatic difficulties led to a change of venue in 1973, and I became a professor of youth ministries at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary while also involved in youth ministry on Boston’s North Shore. Heart stirrings drew me down to Boston’s inner city, a setting where I teach and minister still.

Cover ArtThese varied settings have given me not only a love for young people but also a keen interest in their different cultural settings. Training urban leaders and teaching at seminary sparked my academic curiosity in the social sciences, cultural studies, and practical theology.

Urban ministry, counseling studies, and experience left me with a heart for troubled youth—those hurting from any kind of social or personal damage. That is why I wrote Hear My Story: Understanding the Cries of Troubled Youth (Baker Academic, 2003). It seeks appreciation for the many settings and situations of youthful pain and anger, which can lead to homicide or suicide. Hear My Story also wrestles with the theological issues of pain, suffering, violence—and the challenge of ministry in such situations.

Through all this, I realized I was becoming a practical theologian. The youth ministry books through the 1990s seemed to lack theological engagement and depth. Working with graduate students and being among academic theologians stimulated me to write When Kumbaya Is Not Enough: A Practical Theology for Youth Ministry (Hendrickson, 1997). Advertisers had begun research on the teenage market in a new way un-cited by youth ministry literature. I was discovering, with interest, youthful subcultures and popular culture, including rock music and R-rated movies—disdained and condemned by many Christians. Two different Christian approaches to pop culture began to appear, and the polarization concerned me. I wanted youth professors and leaders to be thinking theologically about pop culture and media, human development, families and peer groups, sex, and humor.

The years since 1997 have produced revolutionary changes in many areas: family structures; preteen, teenage, and emerging adult life; capitalism and consumption; and our digital and cyber worlds. Brain research has given us whole new insights into adolescent recklessness, use of drugs, and limitations in mature life choices. The social sciences are finding that children and youth are hardwired for meaning, morality, and transcendent spirituality. (See, for example, Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities by the Commission on Children at Risk.) Out of such study, and along with my own continued experiences and teaching, has come my latest book, Foundations for Youth Ministry: Theological Engagement with Teen Life and Culture (rev. ed. of When Kumbaya Is Not Enough; Baker Academic, 2013). I hope this text, along with our website (http://www.centerforyouth.org, soon to be www.cultureandyouthstudies.org), will provide not only youth leaders and professors but also parents, pastors, and teachers with challenging ideas and helpful resources in the social and spiritual crises facing our society and churches.

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Dean Borgman (MA, Fairfield University and Columbia University) is the Charles E. Culpeper Professor of Youth Ministries at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and teaches at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary. An internationally recognized authority on youth culture and adolescent ministries, he established Young Life in New England and founded and directs the Center for Youth Studies. Borgman is the author of several other youth ministry books and hundreds of articles and is an Episcopal priest. He lives in Rockport, Massachusetts.

For more information on Foundations for Youth Ministry, click here.