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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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.

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