What David Bowie Can Teach Youth Ministers

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My first thought when hearing of the passing of David Bowie was that even though David Bowie grew to be old he will be remembered as forever young, like many icons that passed too soon. You usually hear this said about legends like James Dean, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain who will be forever young because they died young, but David Bowie still seemed younger than ever during his last days and his legacy carries that on.

So what was it about David Bowie that drove that youthful spirit of his? Was it because he behaved like the young people of today or in the 70’s? Not at all. And he definitely didn’t follow the trends of young people of today or in the 70’s. I believe David Bowie’s spirit stayed young because he able to consistently be vulnerable in all his strangeness.

The myth that says the older you get the less out of touch you get with the youth is only true when it comes to surface behaviors and interests. But there’s something much deeper that connects the young and old. I’m talking about radical authenticity.

Even though all of David Bowie’s characters can’t exactly be labeled as his authentic self, each of those characters were each authentic fragments of the complexity that is David Bowie. Philosopher, Simon Critchley put it beautifully in his book Bowie: “Identity is a very fragile affair. It is at best a sequence of episodic blips rather than some grand narrative unity. As David Hume established long ago, our inner life is made up of disconnected bundles of perceptions that lie around like so much dirty laundry in the rooms of our memory.”

I definitely believe in some sort of concept of a true self, but I don’t think it’s accessible enough to ever be understood or explained. All we have is brief brushes with fragments of ourselves that combine somehow to make us who we are. What people like David Bowie do for young people is permit them to more freely explore all the fragments of their identity without shame. Bowie helped generation after generation feel comfortable in their own skin by being revolutionarily comfortable in his own skin.

Bowie was a voice for and to the young weirdos and freaks of the world. And when weirdos and freaks are given something to gather around outside the large circle of normalcy we try to fit into, that circle becomes smaller and smaller as you see how many people are actually outside feeling the same as you.

People like David Bowie are able to teach something to youth ministers who are currently struggling with helping youth feel safe and able to express themselves. It’s very important to pay attention to what connected David Bowie and youth underneath all the characters, make-up, and controversies.

I’ve grown tired of youth ministers who believe their ministry will work by following the trends of present day youth. I’ve seen it fail miserably, whether it’s through the minister being so current in pop culture that they end up making references over students’ heads (just because it’s popular among youth doesn’t automatically mean it’s popular among your youth), or on the other end they come off as fake and trying too hard. And youth don’t need yet another person in their lives who is more up to date on trends and memes than they are.

Face it. Following the trends of wearing oversized t-shirts and growing a man bun isn’t going to do anything for your ministry. It’s cool if you want to do that (I’ve started wearing slightly oversized t-shirts myself, but I don’t have the patience to grow out my hair) but it’s not going to make people feel more comfortable connecting to you. That comes through something a lot deeper than the references you make, and the ways you look and dress.

It comes through radical authenticity.

It comes through being vulnerable about your strangeness and fearlessly expressing it.

After all, we need less youth feeling like they need to be “cool” or “up-to-date”, and more youth permitted to be vulnerable turning and facing their strangeness, and embracing it.

In 1974 Bowie was asked about fans putting on costumes to look like him and he said that it was like that in the beginning but people were also discovering things about themselves that had nothing to do with him. “If I’ve been at all responsible for people finding more characters within themselves than they originally thought they had then I’m pleased,” Bowie explained. “Because that’s something I feel very strongly about: that one isn’t totally what one has been conditioned to think one is; that there are many facets of the personality, which a lot of us have trouble finding and some of us do find too quickly.”

I believe the reason there is so much confusion concerning identity in young people today is because society gives us labels with distinct interests and behaviors attached to each of those labels. Confusion comes when a person experiences behaviors and interests that spread across many labels and feel that something is wrong with them, instead of the weirdly strict nature of today’s labels. We should be allowed to both fully be ourselves and reinvent ourselves without labeling it.

There is something profoundly Jesus-like about all this.

Jesus’ entire ministry consisted of boundary breaking and label smashing whether that was taking the role usually filled by female slaves by preparing and serving his disciples food, or by hanging out with everyone kicked to the edges of society. Jesus was authentic at his core, and his authenticity brought out the authenticity in others.

Perhaps the constant ch-ch-ch-ch-changes in culture today demand not a trend following formula of youth ministry but more of an avant-garde, formula-rupturing approach to youth ministry, sprung forth from the beautiful strangeness of all those personally involved. This is the type of youth ministry that can actually make a difference in the lives our wonderfully complex young people. Let’s make things less ordinary, and more exciting. It is truly a gift, after all, to be able to live in such strange times as these, isn’t it?