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A Review of
Youth Ministry in a Multifaith Society: Forming Christian Identity Among Skeptics, Syncretists and Sincere Believers of Other Faiths
Paperback: InterVarsity Press, 2014
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Reviewed by John W. Morehead
Evangelical books and other resources that address youth ministry usually do so without much reference to the pluralism and multifaith context of America and the West. Len Kageler’s volume, Youth Ministry in a Multifaith Society, fills a much-needed void in this area.
Kageler’s book examines youth ministry in multifaith contexts through nine chapters and two appendices. His approach is unique in that he does not follow a typical doctrinal contrast template found in so many other Evangelical volumes that touch on other religions. Instead, he helps Evangelical youth workers understand their ministry in light of social scientific data, as well as similar approaches being taken by youth workers in other religious traditions. In the first chapter he draws attention to the concepts of youth and adolescents as well as the youth work activities of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews. He concludes the chapter by noting that exposure of Evangelical youth group members to the members of other religious youth groups can have a positive function that can “call into question previously held assumptions” (31) which then aids in spiritual formation.
The second chapter is devoted to consideration of Muslim youth work, and how they are wrestling with many of the same cultural challenges Evangelical youth workers must address. In chapter three Kageler considers “The Nones,” a term popularized through a Pew Forum survey, and which refers to those who claim no religious preference or institutional affiliation, as well as syncretists, those who combine elements of differing religious traditions in smorgasbord fashion. In this chapter Kageler draws upon the National Study of Youth and Religion, the American Religious Identification Survey, and social scientific data in order to help youth workers better understand the religious phenomena that shape the cultural context for their ministry.
Chapter four highlights aspects of the history of the Christian Church in its past engagement with a multifaith and pluralistic world. The fifth chapter “explores three primary perspectives on religious ministry in a multifaith society” by way of Kageler’s typology of “traditional, modern and postmodern” (90) and how these approaches impact youth ministry. Chapter six discusses why youth religiosity is important for individual youth as well as the broader public good. In chapter seven Kageler presents thoughts on youth ministry that engages Nones and syncretists. Along the way he considers four differing contexts for Nones that must be taken into account in ministry formation. Chapter eight addresses youth engagement with their counterparts in other religions, including joint group activities in the community. Here the point is made once again that “we should expose our students to other points of view regarding faith” (152) in that this presents “positives for our Christian youth” (153). This chapter also includes a description of “four encounters” in the way in which Jesus shared the Kingdom of God (160), including, including love, truth, power, and allegiance encounters. The final essay in chapter nine provides thoughts on “A Multifaith Pastoral Theology.” Finally, the volume concludes with two appendices, one on Evangelical Free Church resources for youth pastors, and the other a listing of the “Protestant Denominations Reviewed in the National Study of Youth and Religion.”
Youth Ministry in a Multifaith Society incorporates several helpful aspects. As mentioned previously, this book is not like so many produced by Evangelicals on other religions with simple charts of beliefs that compare certain religions with Evangelical Christianity, usually followed by an apologetic refutation of their doctrine and worldview. Instead, Kageler provides a very different perspective as he helps youth workers understand not only the social, cultural, and religious context in which they minister, but also that they rub shoulders with youth ministry workers in other religious traditions.
This book is also valuable because of its interaction with religious demographic surveys as well as social scientific data. Exposure to this data provides a way for the theological frameworks of youth ministry workers to dialogue with other disciplines as youth ministry strategies are put into place.
Kageler is also to be commended for taking the Nones and syncretists into account. These represent significant demographic areas that Evangelical churches should not ignore or simply dismiss.
The author is also to be commended for his encouragement that churches consider implementing multifaith youth group activity. The fears that Evangelicals have about the dangers of exposing youth (or adults for that matter) to other religions, while understandable in the sense of concern over spiritual purity and “contamination,” are not unsurmountable. There are far more advantages to informed and discerning engagement of other religions, which more often than not ends up strengthening previous religious commitments rather than casting doubt upon them.