I wrote this paper two years ago, but a number of my friends are taking the class this term and the professor handed out my paper to be read! I forgot I had given her permission! But it was good to be reminded, and be able to go back and re-read it. I am happy to share it, especially because I continue to be drawn toward Eucharistic theology.
Since it is up for public consumption, I decided to post it here for all to read.
Taking the Eucharist to Youth Ministry
Andy Root recently published a book called, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry. In it he writes, “I believe a small but growing (in numbers and depth) group of youth workers are ready, even yearning, to think theologically about youth ministry.” Considering the reputation youth ministry has for being quite un-theological (or at least, the reputation for not being very thoughtful about what theology is being displayed), that is encouraging. If Youth Ministry professionals have agreed to develop a better theology, then it follows they must choose what theological doctrine is the best place to begin. For instance, the theological starting point of the book Consuming Youth: Leading Teens through Consumer Culture is vocation, of the doctrine that individuals are called by God, as illustrated in the following quotation: “…the biblical concept of vocation has been replaced by psychological and cultural ideas related to ‘getting a job’ and ‘making money.’… Youth were separated from expectations to fully attend to the call of God upon their lives…” The authors feel that the theological doctrine of vocation is especially missing in the lives of young people, and if a culture of vocational imagination were fostered in the midst of our consumerist culture, it would serve as an antidote to the sociological plight of teenagers.
I agreed with many of the arguments put forth in that book, however I found myself thinking that while vocation is important, it was not the right place to begin the conversation and not an adequate foundation for discussion on youth ministry. Instead, I think the theological doctrine that most adequately serves as a foundation for youth ministry (and for all ministry, really) is the Eucharist. In this paper, I am going to first summarize a few aspects of Eucharistic theology that I think are particularly relevant to this discussion. Then I will explain why it is a good starting point for youth ministry in particular, considering the developmental needs of adolescents and in light of teenagers’ cultural location. While I would agree consumerism is a defining aspect of young people’s experience, I argue the Eucharist is a more adequate response to the negative ramifications of that culture precisely because it offers an alternative vision of consumption. With that theological framework of the Eucharist as a lens, I will then address certain goals I have for a thriving youth ministry, and what criteria I would use to evaluate when a youth ministry is thriving based off that theological framework. Finally, I will conclude with my overall philosophy of youth ministry: what is its purpose, who are the ministers and who is being ministered to, what content is being taught and by what method, and what church environment is successful youth ministry.
A theology of the Eucharist could be discussed in many different ways, since different authors highlight different aspects of the sacrament. Different authors often begin by talking about different things: an affirmation of materiality, which extends the theological truths of the incarnation, or the eschatological vision and hope that partaking in Eucharist fosters, or the alternative economy that the Eucharist communicates. All these are important, but what I want to discuss could perhaps be called Eucharistic Ecclesiology, or the connection between the communion meal and the church of Christ. There are two aspects of this I want to discuss: when participating in the Eucharist, we remember Christ’s story (as well as our own). But also in the Eucharist a re-member-ing takes place in which we as individuals are knit together and unified into one body, Christ’s body.
The Greek word for remembrance is anamnesis, and the foundation for Eucharist as anamnesis is found in Luke 22:19: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Biblical scholars tend to have three basic questions about anamnesis in Eucharistic practice: “Who is doing the remembering? What is to be remembered? What is being done in the act of remembrance?” Scholar Paul Bradshaw concludes that most scholars agree: “(a) God is the subject of remembrance; (b) the church is the one who remembers; (c) both remember in a mutual process.” This is quite profound: not only do we remember Christ’s death and resurrection, but we are remembered by God—just as God told the people of Israel to remember him and his commands, despite their unfaithfulness to do so, he constantly remembered them, even in the midst of slavery in Egypt or famine in the desert. Memory in the Eucharist is not just about remembering Christ’s death and resurrection, even if that is one aspect of it. We also remember the Triune God’s faithfulness to his people throughout history, as well as his faithfulness to us as individuals in all areas of our lives. In the suffering of Christ, we also remember those who are have suffered throughout history and who are suffering in present day.
One way to talk about this remembrance of others in suffering is “Anamnetic Empathy.” In psychotherapy there are four aspects of the process of empathetic behavior, according to Theodore Reik’s model, which are particularly relevant for youth ministers as they encourage their youth to go through these stages:
“(1) Identification: paying attention to another and allowing oneself to become absorbed in contemplation of that person. (2) Incorporation: making the other’s experience one’s own via internalizing the other. (3) Reverberation: experiencing the other’s experience while simultaneously attending to one’s own cognitive and affective associations to that experience. (4) Detachment: moving back from the merged inner relationship to a position of separate identity, which permits a response to be made that reflects both understanding of others as well as separateness from them.”
I vividly remember the first time I had communion with wine. I grew up in a church tradition that once a month would pass around tiny little wafers and cups, and it was stressed communion was only a symbol, nothing super mysterious was happening. When I was seventeen, I was visiting a non-denominational church that drew liturgical inspiration from various denominations. It was there I went up to take communion by intinction, and when I put the piece of the loaf in my mouth, all of a sudden I tasted the bitterness. For the ten years of my life that I had taken communion, it was always sweet grape juice that always left me wanting more. After that one small bite, the abruptness of the bitterness shocked me into thinking about the bitterness of Christ’s suffering on the cross and the bitterness of his death. I was shocked into thinking of my own suffering throughout my life, and by extension, through anamnetic empathy, the suffering of others in Christ’s body.
This brings us to the second aspect of remembrance: “…the Eucharist is much more than a ritual repetition of the past. It is rather a literal re-membering of Christ’s body, a knitting together of the body of Christ by the participation of many in His sacrifice.” This knitting together, or unifying us into one community, means that there is a liturgical pairing of the church and the Eucharist: both are the body of Christ, and therefore it makes sense to term the theological foundation as Eucharistic Ecclesiology. Cavanaugh makes the distinction that: “Christians are the real body of Christ, and the Eucharist is where the church mystically comes to be.” But it’s important to recognize that while participating in the Eucharist creates unity within the body of Christ, it also requires unity. Our ethical conduct, whether or virtues or our vices, become everyone’s when we participate in communion, for better or for worse. Scripture warns against taking communion without being reconciled to one another; the Eucharist is not magically going to make disagreements disappear, but through amnametic empathy it can help us be unified in actuality and potentiality.
The act of remembering (and re-membering) in the Eucharist is important for young adults in particular for a number of reasons. In an essay called “Formative Memories: The Neuroscience of Adolescent Memory and a Practical Theological Perspective for Youth Ministry,” D. Andrew Zirschky argues that for teenagers, memory is life-defining. In mid to late adolescence, what Dan McAdams calls “narrative identity” is when “people begin to arrange their entire lives—the past as they remember it, the present as they perceive it, and the future as they imagine it—into broad and self-defining life narratives that provide their lives with some semblance of unity, purpose, and meaning.” Because teenagers are at a developmental stage where narrative identity is key, the Eucharist is precisely the place where they can participate in remembering and constructing their own story by situating it in the broader story of what God is up to in the church and the world. I read a book called Resident Aliens when I was a teenager, and a passage that became really important for me illustrates this point in terms of baptism primarily, but we can extrapolate the importance of the Eucharist:
“When we are baptized, we (like the first disciples) jump on a moving train… We become part of a journey that began long before we got here and shall continue long after we are gone…. Faith begins, not in discovery, but in remembrance. The story began without us, as a story of the peculiar way God is redeeming the world, a story that invites us to come forth and be saved by sharing in the work of a new people whom God has created in Israel and Jesus… In Scripture, we see that God is taking the disconnected elements of our lives and pulling them together into a coherent story that means something… The little story I call my life is given cosmic, eternal significance as it is caught up within God’s larger account of history.”
Not only is Eucharist important for young people because developmentally they are at a place of the autobiographical self, seeking meaning and purpose in their life, which the Eucharist speaks to in a very real and sensory way, but also because by situating their stories in the cosmic story of what God is doing in the world, they are bound to a community of people to whom they belong. In the same span of time when I was reading the previous book, I encountered this passage that immediately struck a chord in me:
“Community is a place of belonging, a place where people are earthed and find their identity… When a child feels it does not belong to anyone, it suffers terrible loneliness and this is manifested in anguish. Anguish is like an inner agitation which affects the whole body, transforming the digestive and sleep patterns, bringing confusing, destroying all clarity about what to do, and how to act.”
I immediately knew what Vanier was talking about. How many times had I gone to bed in anguish because I had been rejected by my latest crush and was suffering acute loneliness? Kenda Creasy Dean would recognize this as the theological rock of passion: “the burning desire to be engulfed by love, to be ignited by a purpose, to radiate light because the love of another shines within us.”
As has been show so far, the Eucharist makes sense as a starting point for youth ministry because of the developmental stage that young people inhabit. Another reason Eucharist is a good place to begin is because of the cultural location of young adults in particular, especially the digitalization of experience and hyperconsumerism. Young adults need to be reminded of their own materiality and the materiality of others in this increasingly digital world of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google that gives rise to disrespect of bodies through cyber-bullying and (sexualized) chat roullette. Participating in the Eucharist is a very sensory-laden activity (or at least is meant to be), that affirms materiality:
“Anamnetic empathy… is an embodied practice. It is not merely initiated by listening to the words that tell the stories of salvation; rather, it embraces all our senses. We bring to the table our actual bodies, which contain a myriad of memories, and there we drink the wine and eat the bread. Through this real eating and drinking we may taste, see, and smell in fragmentary ways what the basileia [kingdom] is all about: a joyful feast that nourishes everyone and in which we do not need to hide the stories of our lives and our bodies.”
Another aspect of young adults’ cultural location is consumerism, to which the Eucharist can very clearly offer an alternative for how to consume well. William Cavanaugh says, “One of the peculiarities of the Eucharistic feast is that we become the body of Christ by consuming it. Unlike ordinary food, the body does not become assimilated into our bodies, but vice versa.” Consumerism tries to convince us that if we buy the right product, we will feel happy and free and live a flourished life. Instead, as soon as we buy one thing, it must be discarded for the newer and better item, leaving us just as unfulfilled (if not more so) than before. Especially for teenagers, the pressure to be “cool” intrinsically links their worth with their purchasing power. The Eucharist, in contrast, offers an alternative way of consuming (because we cannot get away from consumption entirely). Instead of being left with nothing after consuming: “We are consumers in the Eucharist, but in consuming the body of Christ we are transformed into the body of Christ, drawn into the divine life in communion with other people. We consume in the Eucharist, but we are thereby consumed by God.” This can be summed up in the phrase, “You are what you eat.” Augustine reports in his Confessions he heard a voice say to him: “you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.”
One summer I interned at a Mennonite church, and once a month they would have a special communion service. After the service, however, they would have what they called a “Fellowship Meal”: basically, a potluck. But potlucks can have a lot of theological depth behind them, if one understands that the extension of what happens in the formal worship service permeates our entire lives and has ramifications for how we live every day. This can be discussed in terms of “sacramental permeability.”
The Mennonite church has a strong theological emphasis on community and reconciliation with one another. Community, as unified in the Eucharistic supper, means that we are all equally image-bearers of Christ, whether we are old or young, men or women, rich or poor. When I discuss the Eucharist as a theological starting point for youth ministry, I should be explicit in saying the practice of the Eucharist should not frequently be done by be just the youth group in the attic or basement or whatever youth room that is exclusively theirs. Instead, everyone is God’s children, and all are gathered together at the table.The church is to be a place of nurture for young people because it is a place of discipleship: “[the church] calls people to conversion, but it depicts that conversion as a long process of being baptismally engrafted into a new people, an alternative polis, the countercultural social structure which is called church.”
A thriving youth ministry, then, with the theological framework of Eucharist Ecclesiology, is one in which young people are nurtured in the wider church community, in which they are included and made to feel like they belong, and that their participation in the Eucharist is framed for them in such a way that they feel their story is given wider significance in the story God has been up to throughout history. They are called to be new creations in Christ, changed by the bread and wine they consume so that they become more and more like Christ.
In Resident Aliens, Hauerwas and Willimon tell the story of trying to make confirmation in their church about discipling their young people to resemble an ordinary person who lived their life in an extraordinarily Christian way. They decided the best way to do confirmation was to connect each youth with a mentor in the church and participate in various activities: reading the Gospel of Luke and discussing it together, attending and discussing Sunday services together, even assessing the church budget and their own financial contribution to the church. This would go on for a few months, and when the Sunday of confirmation arrived, the mentor would tell the church what the young disciple was bringing as a contribution to the church community, and the young disciple would thank the congregation for a gift they had provided (sermon, basketball team, Sunday School teacher), that helped his or her growth as a disciple.
This story illustrates that a thriving youth ministry is one in which every youth feels connected to the church community in some way, and one way to do this would be to include young people in communion services with the adults. Whether the youth are actually feeling unified in actuality during these services might be hard to assess, but at least the participation in the mystery of the Eucharist bestows grace even when a youth pastor, or the youth themselves, are unaware of it.
Perhaps even more important than participation in Eucharist with adults would be assessing whether sacramental permeability had occurred: if participating in the Eucharistic meal bled over into the youth’s ethical decisions and everyday life. For instance, Hauerwas and Willimon go on to tell the story of Max, a fourteen year old who was paired up with mentor Joe, a twenty-four year old. It turns out Joe was sleeping with his girlfriend, and Max, dropping by unannounced, discovered that fact and held Joe accountable. Because of the equalizing nature of the Eucharist, young people should feel confident in challenging their brothers and sisters in Christ, when appropriate. The pastor intervened in the situation, and “Eventually, the pastor got Joe and Max back together, but not before Joe had been given the opportunity to reexamine his life in light of the claims of the gospel as it met him in a fourteen year old named Max.”
The purpose of youth ministry, with the framework of Eucharistic Ecclesiology, to disciple and engraft young people into the church community, primarily through the Eucharistic meal which allows them to be re-membered into the body of Christ by remembering Christ’s narrative and situating their own narrative in the larger story. Although I did not discuss baptism much in this paper, the two sacraments go together purposefully. Baptism can be understood as the event where a resident alien, or resident of another country, makes the transfer of citizenship (except unlike when it is done in geographic countries, there is no test to prove they belong there: the grace is bestowed on them, and it becomes clear that this was their home all along). There is a common phrase, blood is thicker than water, to illustrate that families should stick together no matter what. What baptism and the Eucharist teach us is that, “Water is thicker than baptism.” Baptism and the Eucharist re-draw family lines and allegiances so that our ultimate allegiance is to the Body of Christ.
Being engrafted into the Body of Christ is a process, even for those who have received infant baptism. Young people should be nurtured into their faith identity, and because they have a lot to learn, young people should be the primary learners. However, like the story of Max and Joe illustrates, because of the equalizing nature of the Eucharist, we are open to wisdom that young people might bring to the lives of adults as well. I imagine most youth services would not do communion every week (although they certainly could). Instead the content of most youth group gatherings would have the understanding that any teachings that were taught could have their embodiment in the Eucharist in some way, or at least would paint a picture that the theoretical teachings done three times a month were an extension and supplement to what they were learning liturgically in the act of taking communion. Our bodily habits tend to tell us more about what we believe then the theoretical worldview we are able to recite. Youth should learn about reconciliation and peacemaking in sermons inspired by Scripture, but they can also learn it through the Eucharist itself perhaps even more vividly as they see it and taste it and smell it.
If the culture of a church is not already pretty inclusive of young people into the wider church service, youth ministers might have some difficulty changing the environment. Older people sometimes tend to have a bit of fear or discomfort around young people, and both groups assume the other does not want them around. The only way to get rid of these prejudices is slowly, over time, taking communion together and perhaps having young people meet one on one with adult mentors. When faced with the humanity of the other, whether the “other” is a youth or an adult, will help individuals extend their understanding of humanity to the wider group. The youth minister should have confidence that Christ is already involved in the lives of the congregation, and will be active in mediating the relationships.
As I mentioned, it might be hard to assess this sort of approach. I think the best way to evaluate is often already done by many churches (although perhaps in a somewhat compulsory way). I grew up in a church that every September would have a “back to school service” where we would sing songs and do skits according to our age range. Similarly every June we would hear from a couple graduating seniors about their faith. I think giving the opportunity of testimony on a regular basis allows people to see the work that God is doing in their relationships, and gives individuals a chance to reflect on their own relationship to the larger church community.
Eucharistic ecclesiology is ultimately a good theological starting point because it speaks (both theoretically and liturgically) to young people where they are, developmentally and culturally, as it allows them to remember their story in light of God’s overall story, as well as re-membering them into a community of belonging.
Berard, John, James Penner and Rick Bartlett. Consuming Youth: Leading Teens through Consumer Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.
Bieler, Andrea and, and Luise Schottroff. The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, & Resurrection. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.
Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.
—– Torture and Eucharist. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.
Dean, Kenda Creasy. Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.
Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People who Know that Something is Wrong. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989.
Root, Andrew. Taking Theology to Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
Vanier, Jean. Community and Growth. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989.
Zirschky, D. Andrew. “Formative Memories: The Neuroscience of Adolescent Memory and a Practical Theological Perspective for Youth Ministry.” Kindle booklet.
 Andrew Root, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 10.
 John Berard, James Penner and Rick Bartlett, Consuming Youth: Leading Teens Through Consumer Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 28-29.
 Ibid, 65.
 Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, & Resurrection, (Minneapolis, MN:Fortress Press, 2007), p.158.
 The miracle of manna is often seen as a precursor to the Eucharistic meal to highlight God’s constant care and providence in our lives.
 Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, p.168.
 When I say suffering of others in Christ’s body I do not just mean professing Christians. Dorothy Day is quoted as saying: “St. Augustine says that we are all members or potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Therefore all men are our neighbors and Christ told us we should love our neighbors, whether they be friend or enemy.” Quoted in William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 221.
 William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 229.
 Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 212.
 Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist,235.
 Kindle book.
 Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 52.
 Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 13.
 Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), xiv.
Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, 170.
 Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 232.
 Berard, Penner, Bartlett, Consuming Youth, 82-3 et al.
 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), xi.
 Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist, 232.
 Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, 5.
 Bieler and Schottroff, The Eucharist, 54.
 Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 46.
 Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 105-7.
 Ibid, 108-9.
 Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 109.