Under Construction Under Scrutiny

“Under Construction” is a book written by the Head of Youth For Christ, a major player in the UK youth ministry world. It has been published by SPCK, one of only a few publishing houses who are currently publishing books about youth ministry in the UK. It is aimed at 13 – 15 year old boys, as far as can be ascertained, using the analogy of a house to draw parallels between a home (that’s presumably ‘under construction’) with living a Christian life. Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Certainly interesting enough to be given out for free at a major (THE major) youth ministry conference in the UK and interesting enough for youth ministry blogger and friend James Ballantyne to review here. Spoiler alert: it’s not a positive review and neither is this.

Full context: James and I are friends and have been talking about this book since November of last year. I wasn’t at said major conference due to illness and I haven’t read the whole book, just portions. It is enough though to make me want to add my voice to James’ and others in trying to give words to how poorly written and potentially damaging this book could be to a 13-15 year old. I should also point out that I am the Mum of a 13 year old boy who is on the cusp of 14. I hope he never reads this book or ever comes across some of the theology espoused in this book, though sadly I suspect he might and not only as a result of this book.

Here’s a few examples that had me reeling:

A supposedly redemptive story is told about a 19 year old girl who had sex with her boyfriend and became pregnant. The story is supposed to show the girl’s journey of faith and redemption the problem is that the description of what happened is a description of assault and all the shame and guilt of the story is laid on her shoulders, with no remark about the boy in the situation. I’m not the only one to have felt sickened by this story, I thought we had moved away from this kind of awful blame game with our young people. Clearly we have not.

An image of a weed is used to discuss sin. The question is asked: What stage is your weed at? Now, let’s put aside the 1980’s youth ministry culture feel to this image and consider how the image will be used. Because if there’s one thing we know about weeds it is that they can either be pulled up, often with relative ease, or, in a more biblical image, be left to grow alongside the ‘good seed’ until the time comes to harvest the whole lot. According to this book however, the weed may have reached a point where nothing can be done. I must have missed that in the Parable of the Sower, or indeed any of Jesus’ interactions with people: that message that there are some sins that cannot be forgiven or removed. What about grace? What about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to bring good out of all circumstances?

The encouragement to write notes, rate stuff, or doodle are poorly handled and executed. The suggestion that the reader should rate their family makes assumptions that are supremely disheartening. What about those reading who have no relationship with one parent or both for very good reasons? What about those whose family have disavowed them or abused them or who have been forced to leave or removed by social services? How will a 13 – 15 year old react to this who has both parents at home who lovingly and kindly demand that he does his homework and attend his music lessons? How might that 13 – 15 year old rate their parents?

 

The analogy of the house appears to be consistent through the book but it just doesn’t work. I’m genuinely uncertain how it got through the editing and publishing process.

There is nothing in what I read that is positive about being a Christian. Nothing about how much God loves us, no mention of how Jesus died so that we can be free of judgement, nothing that tells us how good it is to live a life of faith as a teenager, let alone as a teenage boy.

If this is what passes for a ‘nearly perfect’ youth ministry book, as claimed by one other review I read, then maybe I’m in the wrong job. Surely, our young people deserve better than this?