Q&A with Dr. David White, Professor of Christian Education & Youth Ministry
How did you get to this point? What drew you to a career as a Professor of Youth Ministry?
I was fortunate to be a teenager during the 1970s renaissance in youth ministry, at a time when Youth Specialties and Group were first getting started. In those days, there were no academic programs for youth ministry and no academic books on the theory of youth ministry. All youth ministers were making it up on the fly—cobbling together games, small groups, Bible studies and youth choirs. We were all learning from each other, borrowing and stealing ideas. Youth Specialties did a good job of identifying creative youth ministers who had something to teach. It was a wildly generative time.
However, as the baby boom teenagers became adults, numbers of youth waned, Church budgets were cut, culture became more consumer-oriented, youth ministries grew more entertainment-oriented in order to survive–and there were many other cultural changes, including growing emphasis on diversity, that made us question the youth ministry approaches we had pioneered in the 70s.
Meanwhile, across the landscape of youth ministry some of us began to perceive the changes in youth ministry, and the need to theorize youth ministry. To this point, the only theory youth ministry had employed were fields such as developmental theory and leisure game theory. Seminaries and divinity schools seemed not to acknowledge adolescents as worthy of scholarly study, especially for purposes of formation. Gradually, in the 90s, a few schools—primarily, Princeton, Fuller and Luther– began to put money into study of youth and ministry. By the mid 90s, the Lily Endowment began to address what they saw as the impoverishment of youth ministry models, by funding a number of seminaries who hosted summer theology institutes for youth. As a result, they raised the visibility of youth ministry, especially for their doctoral students. In a few years the number of students doing advanced work on youth ministry grew from a small handful to now dozens.
Without belaboring details, this history traces my own journey in youth ministry—from a youth, to a youth minister for 20 years, to doctoral work, to directing a Lilly youth program, to directing research in youth ministry, to teaching youth ministry at several seminaries, to now participating in one of the largest graduate programs in youth ministry in the world.
What is it about CYMT’s partnership with APTS that you love?
I especially love the cohort groups of students who come into the program and advance together. There is a palpable sense of community that is intensified in this program. Students share their journeys together, their successes and failures, as they find their way forward in and beyond class. I especially love having these groups in my home every year. We cook pizza and laugh together.
Do your MAYM students ask similar or different questions in class as a result of working in the field at the same time?
MAYM students always come into the classroom with their own contexts in their heads, and their own problems and possibilities. This is more true of MAYM students than in other programs. It makes for a very rich conversation around common topics as students ask or respond to questions from the lens of their own struggles or successes.
What do you want/hope students to take away from your classes?
I want students to be aware that they stand in a moment of time, a very particular place in history—on the shoulders of others. The field of youth ministry has over the past 40 years, developed in many different directions—theologically, understanding of culture, pastoral roles, and the variety of practical approaches available to them. They have more resources for youth ministry than any other generation in history. This knowledge will not necessarily solve the particular problems of their context, but it will provide perspective of how God has worked in the past, is working in the present and will work in the future. Of course, I want them to drink deeply from the academic readings, lectures and discussions, and I want them to be informed by the academics. But more than that, I want them to see that youth ministry is a calling of God, an important part of God’s mission in the world, one that should give them pride and evoke humility at the same time.
Where do you get inspiration for your class lectures?
Everywhere. Every lecture represents perhaps 50 or 60 books that a professor has read. Every lecture represents many hours of the news of current events in youth culture. Every lecture represents dozens of conversations with youth workers and church leaders about the problems and possibilities of youth ministry. Every lecture represents a considerable number of hours in prayer, discerning God’s call for my own life.
What was your experience in youth ministry when you were young?
I was fortunate to find a strong youth ministry program when I was 16 years old. We had weekly Bible studies, Wednesday morning prayer breakfasts, Sunday afternoon choir rehearsal, weekend retreats, and summer missions trips and choir tours. In a short time, our youth group grew from a dozen youth to nearly 100 in less than a year. The sense of community was crucial. The love I witnessed—youth for each other, adults for youth, youth for adults—has informed my thinking about youth ministry to this day.
What’s something you learned from your students recently?
I continually learn from my students. Most recently, my students have taught me about the particular challenges of urban youth ministry—including pastoral care for homeless youth, victims of violence and exploitation, mental illness and poverty.
Most memorable experience in the classroom while teaching youth ministry?
In one of my courses, we end the semester with a day of theater games, especially the games from Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. It is loads of fun. We are silly. We move. We act. We think. We feel. We create. It is one of the most generative approaches for youth ministry, one I will miss if we do not get to the other side of this pandemic. It simply cannot be done online or by Zoom.
What classes will you be teaching this fall? How do you see those classes as being critical to the development of youth workers?
This fall I will be teaching a course Advanced Studies in Youth, Church, and Culture in which we study the history of adolescence, including the eventual marginalization of youth, their commodification, and sometimes empowerment. We will examine youth ministry through the lens of postmodern culture, examine the modern church and how it is shaping and being shaped by culture, and explore the latest studies in youth, culture, and religion.
We wrongly imagine that youth ministry is somehow autonomous or simply acting out a pure gospel. Culture is the water that fish swim in, the air that surrounds us, the images and tropes that populate our imaginations. We cannot do youth ministry effectively if we do not understand the culture that surrounds youth, and the culture they make. Youth ministers must be students of the culture, not to emulate it but to translate it theologically, to faithfully participate in it and sometimes to confront it.