In a society where religious diversity, secularism, and non-religious tendencies are becoming more and more difficult to avoid, Len Kageler assures us that we need not fear for our youth. In fact, he argues, interfaith encounters can help to strengthen the faith of our youth, not weaken it. Combining an impressive analysis of sociological and psychological studies with decades of experience in youth ministry, Kageler navigates the intimidating waters of youth religiosity, spiritual development, commitment and relationship-building to provide a comprehensive, big-picture view of our unique cultural and historical situation and how it impacts young Christians.
Ultimately, Kageler argues, young people will inevitably be exposed to other religious views. Sheltering youth from these encounters does nothing to prepare them for when those encounters do occur. Far from sheltering his youth, in his ministry Kageler has actively facilitated these encounters, with some impressive results. As Kageler explains, most youth have these encounters for the first time when they are away from home, disconnected from their faith community and in a place that is hostile to their faith. Kageler would rather have youth encounter other faith traditions and start asking difficult questions about why they are a Christian while they are still living at home, coming to youth group and a part of a church body. Kageler argues, with research to back him up, that introducing youth to divergent faith traditions not only helps them better understand and grow in their faith – it also gives them both a heart for those who have not yet found the love of Christ and an understanding of how to bridge the cultural gaps that divide many faith traditions. Not only do interfaith encounters strengthen Christian youth in their faith, but they are a powerful tool for giving Christian youth the relationships, the knowledge and the love to show the grace of God to people of other faith traditions.
Kageler’s book is a welcome contribution to the current literature on youth ministry. His work is well-researched, and his experience offers a long-term view of the history of youth ministry that many authors in the area lack. His experience in both the United States and Canada also contributes to his big-picture view. The book has a few flaws: it was a bit repetitive, contained a distressing number of simple editorial mistakes, and chapter 2, on how mosques and Islamic community centres are beginning to borrow from the Christian youth ministry tradition, was tangential to the work and not very interesting to read. It would be a suitable appendix instead of the second chapter. But the strengths of the work far outshine the flaws. Kageler does a masterful job of weaving together serious research with engaging stories of his own experience in youth ministry. He is focused on the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and cares deeply for the future of the Christian church. He offers great ideas for how to engage youth of both Christian upbringing and other faith traditions, and how to invite people into the love of God without forcing it upon them.
There are many things to appreciate and learn from in Kageler’s book. He wants to see interfaith dialogue without giving up exclusive truth claims. He wants to see interfaith cooperation without diluting the truth of the gospel. He wants to see youth take the responsibility of leading and organizing their own youth programs. He wants to see youth take a larger role in the church. He wants the church to make room for youth to exercise their gifts, without compromising what worship is. He wants the church to be welcoming to non-Christians without taking away from worshipping the Triune God. He wants youth groups to be fun and also equip young people with a comprehensive orthodox Christology. He wants youth groups to be safe and also provide young people with a place where they can wrestle with deep questions of doubt and how to live. Far from making him pessimistic, it is clear that Kageler’s years of experience have given him a powerful and optimistic vision for the flourishing of young people’s faith in the church and in the world. Youth Ministry in a Multifaith Society is a powerful challenge for the church to think deeply about how youth ministry can prepare young people of faith to be “in the world but not of it.”