Bonhoeffer & Innovation

Youth ministry is waking up to the reality that it needs to innovate. Innovation is the topic of countless blogs, podcasts and conferences, it is appearing on mission statements and funding is gradually becoming available for those who dare to pioneer into new territory. Perhaps a lost voice in the conversation is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the 1930’s the confessing church in Germany was forced to innovate – ‘what does it mean to continue to be loyal to Christ in a time of compromise and persecution?’. The influence of the emerging Nazi rule had forced professing christians to theologically reflect on their situation and reimagine Christianity for Germany. In 1938 Bonhoeffer wrote an Advent letter to friends in the confessing church reflecting on the nature of their innovation which is worth quoting at length…

“I’m not quite sure how we have largely got into a way of thinking which is positively dangerous. We think that we are acting particularly responsibly if every other week we take another look at the question whether the way on which we have set out is the right one. It is particularly noticeable that such a ‘responsible reprisal’ always begins the moment serious difficulties appear. We then speak as though we no longer had ‘a proper joy and certainty’ about this way, or, still worse, as though God and His Word were no longer as clearly present with us as they used to be. In all this we are ultimately trying to get round what the New Testament calls ‘patience’ and ‘testing’. Paul, at any rate, did not begin to reflect whether his way was the right one when opposition and suffering threatened, not did Luther. They were both quite certain and glad that they should remain disciples and followers of their Lord.

Dear brethren, our real trouble is not doubt about the way upon which we have set out, but our failure to be patient, to keep quiet. We still cannot imagine that today God really doesn’t want anything new for us, but simply to prove us in the old way. That is too petty, too monotonous, too undemanding for us. And we simply cannot be content with the fact that God’s cause is not always the successful one, that we really could be ‘unsuccessful’: and yet be on the right road. But this is where we find out whether we have begun in faith or in a burst of enthusiasm.”

– Abstract taken from Eric Mentaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Thomas Nelson: 2010, 217-218.

At first reading it might seem that Bonhoeffer is against innovation, suggesting that “God really doesn’t want anything new from us”. A point which is certainly worth reflecting on in light of the churches sudden drive in innovation. We likely would benefit from the reminder that it is God who is making all things new, not us! However I think the heart of the letter lies elsewhere (yet its a point just as significant). Bonhoeffer’s question is ‘are we continuing to innovate simply because we are being unsuccessful?’ He suggests that this is not a reason to innovate, in fact we would do well to embrace failure.

What if some of the things we are doing which are failing actually don’t require innovation? What if instead they require patience, faith, perseverance & hope?

Young people are giving up on the church, this crisis narrative has perhaps become the dominant view within our UK context. Across all of London on a Sunday there is an estimated 2000 young people attending CofE churches. As part of the capital vision we are being encouraged to be “creative” which makes sense, clearly what we are doing is failing to engage a generation so we need creative innovative solutions. But what if innovation has been the problem? Youth ministry is arguably an innovation itself, we felt that it was a creative & necessary response to the invention of the teenager and the emergence of youth culture. Youth for Christ describes this “history of innovation”…

“As rubble from bombed buildings was swept away and new buildings erected in their place, social norms also began to change. According to Jeremy Black, professor of History at Exeter University, these changes meant “the population became more individualist[ic] and less deferential…the authorit[ies] of age and experience were overthrown and, in their place, came an emphasis on youth and novelty.” The teenage years were recognised as a documented life stage, “complete with its own fashions, behaviour, vernacular and arcane rituals.”

A rapid decline in church attendance was another feature of Britain’s emerging new landscape. According to George Wilson, “The moral pulse of Britain was low, her churches empty and her youth indifferent.” If Britain’s young people were going to be reached, clearly different methods were required”.

– Kathryn Delderfield, Youth for Christ, (, Accessed 23rd July 2018

The youth worker and innovator within me cries out “yes!” certainly many of us gave our lives to Jesus because we heard the gospel through innovative youth ministries that were willing to meet us in our spaces in a language that resinated with us. I continue to believe in youth ministry especially as a missionary force, but have thought for a while now that it could do with a shift in focus.

Is it possible that some innovations take us away from the “old way” Bonhoeffer refers to?  Post-war we created groups specifically for young people yet God’s goal throughout the unravelling story of the Bible has always been to form a family which is diverse and intergenerational. This is messy and can sometimes look much less successful than rooms filled with young people yet the research (YouthScape “Losing Heart”, Theos “Passing on Faith” & CofE’s “Rooted in the Church”) seems to be pointing back to this older way, a focus on bringing together generations and investing in faith within the family.

“This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls”.

– Jeremiah 6:16

Just as after the war, we are once again at a crossroads deciding which new innovative and creative approach is required to reach a generation dis-connected with the church. But what if the answer lies in the ancient path, what if the invitation is to innovate within the creative boundaries of God’s sovereign plan. I am suggesting that our innovations go through a kind of “crossroads filter”. That as part of our innovation process’ we ask:

  • Does this innovation reflect God’s Character?
  • Have I spent time in prayer about it?
  • Is it a natural progression of God’s unfolding story?
  • Am I doing this just because what I am currently doing seems to be failing or unattractive? Am I required to innovate or stay faithful and patient?

I believe that the shift in focus we need to see in youth ministry, a shift I believe passes the crossroads filter test (I plan to unpack this further in a future blog), is that we create innovative solutions to mend the generation gap and nurture faith within the family. This not only reflects the mass of recent research but it seems to stay true to God’s unfolding story of forming worshipping communities that reflect His global diverse and intergenerational family. Our innovative process need to be flexible enough so that we can fail yet continue to innovate whilst remaining on the ancient path, rather than abandoning it completely for a different path (in this case abandoning it might be by forming communities which fail to be diverse and intergenerational?).

Bonhoeffer’s challenge to us is not that we don’t innovate, but that we innovate in ways that are true to the ancient path and that we might not be overwhelmed by the pressures of success and failure thus allowing us to freely be creative as our diverse intergenerational communities use their gifts, prayers, creativity and talents to make disciples of all nations.

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