Mark CANNISTER. Teenagers Matter: Making Student Ministry a Priority in the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. pp. 254. ISBN 978-0-8010-4852-4. Reviewed by Richard SHIELDS, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, ON M5S 1J4.
Mark Cannister, professor of Christian ministries and chair of the Division of the Humanities at Gordon College (Massachusetts), puts together in seven chapters a “why” and “how to” for making student ministry a priority in the church. His main argument is that student ministry must be grounded in the spiritual and religious realities of youth whether church members or not. The reach and manner of youth ministry must not be limited by the expectations of Church going parents or traditional church programming.
To make room for non-member youth, a church needs to move from a “service model” to a “comprehensive ministries” model (following the ideas put forward in Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church). When youth ministry makes the shift, the field of the ministry changes and the possibilities of the transforming power of the Gospel shatter the neat separation of “discipleship” (religious education/faith formation) and evangelism (bringing non believing youth to faith). This, naturally, will make demands on the congregation, which will not only have to make room for these new Christians in its midst, but find ways to connect with and support their parents. A church that is on board will deal with the issues of resources and planning, to each of which Cannister devotes a chapter. The book concludes with an enthusiastic plaidoyer for a church that takes risks in breaking down the barriers it (often unintentionally) has built around itself and embraces the revolutionary vision of community-in-Christ that inspired the early church, Luther’s biblical stance, and Bonhoeffer’s moral witness. Ministry, to students or adults, involves reaching out to them, “meeting them in their points of need, drawing them into a community of faith, and guiding them on a journey that lasts a life time.”
This is a book about the place of youth ministry in the Church and, indeed, the place of teenagers in the church. It is aimed at senior pastors and youth ministers in evangelical churches, as is clear from the discussion questions that follow each chapter. While there are several openings for deeper practical theological analyses, Cannister’s critique of the organizational structure of multi-service churches does not seriously take on the corporate business model that has become necessary for the sustainability and growth of the free churches that continue to appear across the American landscape.
As a text book for theology, it might be useful as an example of the growing genre of “how to” books for youth ministry, but it lacks a critical handling of the sources it builds on. In a Church setting, however, there is much here for prayerful reflection and discernment.