The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry

Young people are not bored by theology. They are bored by theology that doesn't matter.

The questions that young people have are often the same ones that perplexed the great theologians, driving them to search for God in the places God didn't appear to be—places of brokenness, suffering, and confusion. So it's not surprising that youth are interested in practical theology, and especially the ways we understand the intersection of divine action and human action.

1. Youth ministry as practical theology is not new. You have been doing practical theology at some level from the first moment you started intentionally living as a Christian. Practical theological reflection is what thoughtful people of faith (including youth ministers!) have done for centuries to make decisions about ministry and mission: (a) understand a situation calling for a faithful response, (b) reflect on this situation with all relevant tools of discernment, including those offered by the gospel itself, and (c) construct a faithful response to this particular situation. For us as youth workers, this includes becoming more thoughtful about our practices and more aware of the way our work reflects (or fails to reflect) the gospel of Jesus Christ. Practical theology simply gives us direction and language to describe this process.

And this language matters. Youth ministry has only recently emerged as a viable option for pastoral ministry, and it still struggles for a proper name ("youth" only describes some of the people we work with) as well as vocational legitimacy (you know the rhetoric: it is a "stepping stone" into "real" ministry, a holding tank for pastoral neophytes until they get "a church of their own," and so on). One of the reasons for these misconceptions is youth workers' tendency to work at the margins of the church, physically and symbolically. Many people drawn to youth ministry are not invested in the credentialing aspects of church leadership. We are often somewhat allergic to (or disdainful of) "insider" Christian language and tend to feel at home in the church's boundary waters, where the gospel becomes entangled in real life and where translating "churchy" language into a useful vernacular for people on the edges of the faith community is a daily necessity.

The reason for our self-imposed marginality is simple: most teenagers are on the church's margins too—not fully opposed to Christian faith, but not invested in it either. The result is that we do what all missionaries must learn to do: we wing it with whatever resources we have. Confronted with the particularities of a given young person, we translate faith on the fly, trying to make connections. Many (and often most) of the young people who cross our paths aren't Christians. They will never go to youth group. They don't know that the message we bear belongs to Christ, or that they belong to God as surely as stars belong to the nighttime sky. Yet we know, and as a result, we are determined to encounter these young people—no matter who they have momentarily become—as cherished children of God.

The problem with "winging it" is that we operate without checks and balances—a precarious position for people in ministry. Google "clergy" and you will quickly be reminded that ministers are as capable of damaging young people as helping them. Practical theology offers youth ministers an intentional process that allows for considered, creative pastoral responses to the particular situations facing adolescents.

It also helps counter the sin of making ministry about us. Without such intentionality, we become victims of our own best intentions. Either we become mired in reflection at the expense of action, or (more likely) we jump too soon, responding out of our own needs instead of out of what either the young person or Jesus Christ requires. As I look back at my own "crash and burn" moments in youth ministry (the list is long and humiliating), it is obvious that most of them could have been avoided if I had been a more self-aware practical theologian at the time. When I hear youth workers complain about a heavy-handed retreat talk, a diabolical senior pastor, sex talks gone bad or pointless mixer activities, I know that an intentional process of practical theological reflection is in order.

2. Youth ministry as practical theology is neither "relational evangelism" nor Christian education—though it involves both. When youth ministry first attracted academic attention, evangelicals were in the habit of assuming that youth ministry was a form of evangelism, following the model of parachurch organizations where the primary theological method involved leveraging relationships with teenagers in order to "earn the right to be heard." Once a relationship of trust could be established between a Christian adult or teenager and his or her young friend, this friend (so the thinking went) would be likely to convert and join ranks with Christians.

Meanwhile, mainline Protestant and Catholic youth workers viewed their ministry primarily as a form of Christian education or catechesis. In this view, the chief goal of youth ministry was to nurture disciples, a practice that by definition took place in congregations. The goal of conversion seldom occurred to these youth workers; after all, the young people they met with grew up in churches, which implied (so the thinking went) that they were already Christians. Over the years, these two approaches became suspicious of one another and perfected the art of ecclesial potshot. Parachurch organizations, popular among teenagers for their appealing leadership, were considered theologically suspect and were accused of siphoning off teenagers from local churches (both charges were occasionally true). Meanwhile, mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations that struggled to get youth involved were accused of not being "Christ-centered" and for lacking methodological know-how with teenagers (both charges were occasionally true).

As youth ministry became increasingly professionalized in the late 20th century, these two approaches started to learn from each other. Literature on youth ministry became more available, and evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Catholics regularly commingled at youth ministry training events that quickly became nonnegotiable for new "professional" youth workers. A new generation of mainline Protestant and Catholic youth ministers—many of whom had positive experiences in parachurch ministries when they were adolescents themselves—imported a form of "relational ministry" to congregations, and young evangelicals, including those in parachurch organizations, adopted discipleship formation as a critical feature of their ministries. Today, most youth ministers (from all theological persuasions) would agree that relationships, evangelism, and discipleship formation are important for contemporary Christian youth work.

At the same time, it is still common for congregations (and seminaries) to consider youth ministry as either a tool for evangelism or as a subarea of Christian education. Both of these views misrepresent what actually goes on in ministry with young people. What makes youth ministry distinctive is not its form, but its flock. Ministry with young people is, after all, ministry—not so different from ministry with anybody else. Yet because young people demand that the church address them in their particularity (in other words, from the perspective of their specific cultural and developmental experiences as adolescents), youth ministry serves as a laboratory where we can learn to contextualize ministry. When we walk alongside young people as Christ's representatives, we become incarnational witnesses, people who must use our own lives to "put wheels on the gospel" for the flock at hand.

If there is any practice that every shepherd of young souls must learn, it is the ability to think missionally—the ability to translate Christ's love incarnationally, through our own lives, while sharing the lives of those we are called to love and serve in Christ's name. Youth ministry means responding to the flock God has given us in ways that are particular to them.

3. Youth ministry as practical theology is not boring. As soon as you say the word theological (and we've said it a lot), eyes start to glaze over. Here is what we don't want you to do when you start putting theology at the heart of youth ministry: (a) Organize your youth group around a systematic theology syllabus, (b) drone on in your next youth meeting about sin and atonement, or (c) make Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics your confirmation curriculum.

Now that I've said that, let me backpedal a little. While I don't know youth pastors who have organized their youth calendar around a theology syllabus, I know plenty who read in the great works of Christian theology issues that weigh heavily on the hearts of teenagers. They therefore find ways to let these voices speak to teenagers—usually without fanfare or much in the way of "making it shiny" (we know youth workers who use Bonhoeffer's Life Together, C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, and John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul "straight up" with theologically curious young people, with great success).

In addition, we absolutely should discuss sin and atonement with young people—as well as other "heavy" theological issues in Christian theology (try theodicy if you want to wake up the crowd)—as long as we can do so with humility, in ways that communicate our confidence in their abilities as practical theologians. When I was a campus minister, I logged the longest string of failed Bible studies in the history of college ministry. I planned killer Bible studies every semester, and two people would show up. Convinced that I needed better marketing, I stole the title of a Bible study used on another campus and mailed out postcards announcing our new unit, "Hard Core B.S." (of course it stood for "Bible study"). I scrambled for the most off-putting subject I could find (doctrine!) and hunted for one people still argue about (election!).

That's when Paul, one of the most perceptive students in our campus ministry group, caught me after church. "Will it really be hard core?" he asked. "I'll come if it's really hard core." I promised (what did I have to lose?), and he came. So did ten of his friends—and then twenty, then thirty, then forty. We drilled down into doctrine, into tricky passages of Scripture, into theologians who had something to say on the subject. We had to find a bigger room, and it was still standing-room only, every Wednesday afternoon. From that point on, "Hard Core B.S."—which always came back to two questions (Where is God in the story? Where are you in the story?)—became a staple of our ministry, attracting students who had outgrown our usual weekly activities and who, as a result, were frequently overlooked.

Here is what I learned: Young people are not bored by theology. They are bored by theology that doesn't matter. Theology is the most relevant of all disciplines; it is reflection on what God is doing with us, in human time through the Holy Spirit, as revealed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—which is why theological reflection can never be separated from life itself. Theology begins and ends in life's concrete situations, and presenting it as anything else will surely misfire.

Moreover, young people long to be taken seriously. Witness the Invisible Children and Do Hard Things phenomena—both launched by teenagers fed up with pablum offered by schools and churches. These experiences strike a chord with teenagers who long for someone who believes in them enough to challenge them. Unfortunately, most youth are routinely undersold by their churches.

4. Youth ministry as practical theology is not optional. Without theology, we have no language to describe our experience of God, no way to prevent ministry from devolving into social science or social service, no way to point ministry beyond ourselves toward Christ. Of course, we do not need to use academic, technical or polarizing language to ground our practice of youth ministry in theological reflection. Theology simply gives us a vehicle to talk about what matters most. And unless youth ministry deals with the ultimate issues—Why am I and why is God? What is worth living for and what is worth dying for?—it has no place in the church. As C. S. Lewis remarked in God in the Dock, "Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important."

To approach youth ministry theologically is to help others give it equal footing alongside other forms of ministry. It's to open the eyes of others to see young people's status as human beings, created and loved by God, who have the right to be taken seriously by the church. In solo pastor situations, this means attending to young people as full-fledged participants in the congregation. In multistaff churches, this also means removing the disparity between youth pastors and everyone else.

When I was speaking at a youth ministry training event recently, someone raised a question about prioritizing youth ministry in our present economic crisis, when churches seem to be cutting youth ministry positions to make budget. Tongue in cheek, I remarked, "Who says it has to be the youth minister who gets cut? Why not cut the senior pastor—let volunteers do that job, and keep the youth minister?" The audience laughed, and we continued the discussion, recognizing youth ministry's "down" position in an economy of scarcity. But when I got home, a letter was waiting for me. It was from a woman who had been at the conference. She recalled the joke about cutting the senior pastor's position in order to keep the youth minister, and said: "I just wanted you to know that our congregation here in Minnesota did exactly that. It was clear to us that, to be true to the mission of the church, we had to remain faithful to our commitment to young people. So when it came time to adjust our pastoral staff, we let the senior pastor go, and we kept the youth minister. Today volunteers are doing the preaching and pastoral care, and the youth ministry is a strong presence in our community."


Adapted from The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, by Andrew Root, Kenda Creasy Dean, copyright(c) 2011. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515.

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