Whether we’re called youth workers, youth ministers, or quite simply “the youth guy” (as I’ve been called far too often), the reality is that ours is a theological task. The thing is, nobody warned me about this before I took my first youth ministry gig.
Nobody bothered to mention that I was to be a theologian. That sounds even more daunting than “worker,” or “minister” or “pastor.” Over time, I came to see that if my role as a minister amongst youth people had anything to do with helping young people see God in the midst of life’s ups and downs, then theologian is precisely what I am.
The title “theologian” is not restricted to priests and pastors, or those who inhabit academia’s ivory tower. Theology is the task for the whole people of God. It’s a very practical task. For young and old. Lay and ordained. For those who take seriously their discipleship, and who are asking what it means to follow Jesus in this world.
If, as Christian youth ministers we’re not thinking theologically, we’ve got a problem. Yet how was I to know, without someone telling me? What was I to do without anyone equipping me?
Stepping back to think about it, why would the Christian church not be asking first, and foremost, where God is in any given situation? It makes sense that we should do this – and yet, is theology at the root of our work with young people?
Perhaps we’ve become so captive to the surrounding culture that we think we need to start elsewhere. And yet, the Christian story is one that claims all things hold together in Christ.
If this is the case, then we should most definitely use the tools given to us by science, psychology and so forth.
We must also understand that our lens, our worldview, or way of seeing (and acting in) the world must be shaped first, and foremost by our narrative (or rather, the story of God who enters into relationship with us and all of Creation).
When ministering amongst youth, then, we have the opportunity to engage them in deep conversations about life’s meaning. Where is God? Why does it feel as though God is absent? What does the current situation tell us about God? What might God be telling us about our current situation?
Over the past few days I’ve been reading a book by Youth Ministry scholar Andy Root. In his book, “The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry,” he shares:
- What do you think?
- How do you respond to the idea of youth ministry as a theological task?
- What attracts you to / repels you from this idea?
By Luke July 16, 2013 - 11:39 pm
I totally get your perspective. Youth ministry has to be theological. Our job as youth ministers isn’t merely to prepare them to be sociable adults; we need always to be fostering mature faith in our youth, and equipping them to become mature participants in the Church — people who are able to theologize throughout their own lives. And this means practicing with them the act of seeing God’s fingerprints in all experiences, whether good or bad, annoying, joyful, devastating, or otherwise. In my opinion, if youth ministry isn’t theologically-driven, it’s missing its mark. There are loads of groups out there who can prepare young people for mature adult life in other ways (such as Scouts, Guides, athletics, etc.), but it’s in the context of Christian youth ministry that youth ministers (together with parents) can provide young people with an interpretive framework through which they might engage in scripture-reading, prayer, and in leaning into life in the Church. Thanks for your thoughts on this. This is really essential.
By Jesse Dymond July 17, 2013 - 7:51 am
Luke, I’m glad you made the distinction between youth ministry and other young peoples’ groups. I’ve heard it said that if we forget our faith in our call to social justice, we become an NGO rather than a church. The same is true for youth ministry: if we put all our energy into social events and ignore the need for theological depth, titles like “the youth guy” might be accurate.
By Andrew Stephens-Rennie July 17, 2013 - 12:25 pm
Luke – I think what has distressed me most has been the conversations with youth leaders (and even priests) who reduce the “youth stuff” to personal development. If the church offers anything distinctive (and I would argue that she does!), it is not personal development. As you say, there are plenty of other places for that. And yet, as church we are called into this deep relationship with God, one another, and all of Creation. What would it mean if we took that seriously – for ourselves, as well as in our journey alongside young people?
I can’t imagine youth ministry without that kind of depth. If it also involves laser tag and lock-ins and stupid amounts of sugar, fine. But let’s not forget why we’re here in the first place.
By Luke Johnson July 18, 2013 - 2:19 pm
Yeah, I agree. Our ambition has been to cultivate a Christian community of young people who do Christian things. That can (and does) include fun activities for the sake of fun, but it’s pretty malnourished if “fun” becomes the whole point. I totally get what you say about personal development. As in any ministry rooted in church practice, our motivation has got to be the same as apostle Paul’s who worked to present his ‘young’ Christians as blameless on the day of Christ. I think this type of ministry is more exhausting and costly. Games are easy to plan and run, but this conformity-to-Christ focus is really relational and requires pretty gritty commitment.