The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry

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

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