From Methodology to Theology: Become Worshiping Communities of Missional Theologians

October 9th, 2009


When I first started, I had no concept of what youth ministry was. As one who'd grown up outside the church, I'd never even been in a youth group. So it was somewhat ironic when the senior pastor asked me if I'd consider leading the youth ministry at our church after the former youth pastor left. I felt extremely inadequate—the only youth pastor image I knew was of the super-athlete-charismatic-big smiler-tall-energetic-cheerleader-type with a mullet hair cut (this was the late 1980s), and I was the polar opposite.

I was the non-athlete (unless you count bowling and billiards), rather introverted type. However, I did have a passion about doing whatever I could to communicate and introduce Jesus to those in the emerging culture, which includes teens, so I said yes.

Phase 1: Thinking that Youth Ministry Equals Methodology

As I jumped in headfirst to become a youth pastor, I called up other churches' youth workers to find out what they were doing. I wanted to find out what worked. I visited Willowcreek, Saddleback, and a few others to learn how to do youth ministry and look for models. I went to the local Christian bookstore and grabbed a Jim Burns youth ministry book and a Youth Specialties Ideas book. After saturating myself in methodology, my mind and heart were whirling with ideas for messages, dramas, videos, games, retreats, and camps. Embracing the surfeit of published and packaged youth ministry materials out there, I became entrenched in youth ministry methodology and finding whatever “worked” in making young people disciples of Jesus. There were books on how to speak to teens—books on finding movie clips for the meeting; discipleship materials for youth small groups; dramas for teens; retreat ideas; song books and new worship CDs; PowerPoint games, etc. It was great! You could find almost anything you wanted…and more. I indulged in all the how-tos of youth ministry, and as a result the youth ministry grew and parents were happy, the senior pastor was happy, and God seemed to bless the ministry as a result. However, a slow, rude awakening began to happen after a few years, and my focus on methodology began crumbling the ministry.

Phase 2: Rethinking Youth Ministry due to Cultural Change

In The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations(EmergentYS), I wrote about this story and the ways that I, and others, noticed a change in our culture, which had a dramatic impact on youth ministry methodology. We were feeling the impact of moving into a post-Christian culture. New sets of questions were arising as young people began viewing life, values, spirituality, and God (or gods and goddesses) differently. Culture in America was taking a rather drastic turn, which in this case was much more than simply a generational or cultural difference.

Because I was spent a lot of time around non-Christian teens, some of my previous categories of youth ministry methodology were shaken up. As I listened to these kids' questions about life and faith, as they shared their hopes and dreams, and as I learned about the values they held dear, I realized the methodology (even though it had been effective) wasn't connecting with the minds and hearts of these emerging young people. The methodology of more program-and fun-based evangelism wasn't working anymore.

Out of pure motives, I had focused for years on keeping up with whatever worked, and when these things no longer worked like they used to, I didn't know where to turn. I began questioning things I'd never previously questioned. I was used the “hold your hand up and make a decision” moments which led to salvation. But I began wondering where this “hold your hand up and make a decision” came from. For years, I would tell kids after those moments that they were now saved; but I began to wonder what all I really meant by that—was there anything beyond just them going to heaven when they die? I understood that Jesus died for our sins, but was it all about a future in heaven, or was there something more about living as a disciple of Christ in the here and now? And as I ruminated on what salvation really meant, it began to impact how I did evangelism.

I began wondering why we separated families in worship. Where did the concept of having teenagers and families attend church worship gatherings separately (thus dissecting the family every Sunday morning) come from? We used to call our youth ministry a “church for teenagers.” But was this accurate? Is church an age-group? As I began rethinking youth ministry and all we were doing, I realized that this rethinking couldn't stop there.

Phase 3: Rethinking Ecclesiology and the Church

Once you start rethinking youth ministry, it's only a matter of time before you have to rethink the whole church. Our youth ministries don't stand on their own; they're part of a larger organism (hopefully), and in many cases youth ministry is reflective of how the rest of the congregation does church. And the questions kept coming: What is the church? Is it a meeting people attend? If, theologically, we think of the church more as a meeting and a place, that shapes what we do. Is the church a building or people? Why do most people say they “go to church” or “attend a church”? Aren't we supposed to be the church? Where did the concept of a senior pastor originate? Why do we use business titles in an organic family like the church? What was the New Testament church like and did it resemble at all the churches of today? Why do bands stand up in the front like a pop concert and sing? Why is singing the way most church people define worship? What is a pastor? Where did the 3-point sermon with acronyms come from? Why do we focus more time on administration than shepherding?

I began to get dizzy realizing that I was so used to focusing on what worked and was totally happy with methodology that I wasn't theologically thinking about youth ministry and church. And the scary part was, nobody else I knew of was either.

Phase 4: Rethinking Theology

Whether we realize it or not, our methodology flows from our theology. If we aren't thinking about theology, then we'll only have a shallow form of youth ministry. We allow whatever works to drive our hearts and minds because we're mainly judged by and rewarded by results—if the teenagers have fun, if they enjoy coming to youth group, if the numbers are up, if the parents are happy, etc. All of these types of subtle measurements force us to focus predominately on methods without even realizing it.

Once I began rethinking ecclesiology, it naturally led to rethinking theology as a whole. Do I believe certain things theologically only because Josh McDowell or Lee Strobel had a neat, clean, compelling answer? Why was I satisfied with neat and clean answers when the question seemed much more complex and messy? Will my senior pastor be upset if I explore other viewpoints of the end times? What is discipleship? Where did that word come from? What is spiritual formation in youth ministry?

It slowly but surely dawned on me that although I'd graduated from seminary, taken every theology class, learned all the systematic charts, and taken the tests, theology was more like a math puzzle. We figured it out (so we thought), filled in the blank, and then shut the text book and focused on methodology in ministry—leaving our theological thinking far behind. Rather than theology being threaded throughout the fabric of our ministries we focus on keeping up on whatever makes our programs and meetings work best. Of course, all of us want our programs and meetings to make disciples, but it seems so shallow in retrospect not thinking through the theology of it all. How we think theologically shapes everything we do, and sadly for years I fell into the trap of being focused on methodology without thinking about the theology behind it (or not behind it).

No one ever challenged me on this—and I think it's because most everyone else was doing the same thing. How many times do you hear how theology shapes what's being talked about at a seminar or written about in a youth ministry book? We have seminars and books on how to speak to young people, but not about the theology of preaching and the theology of where it fits within the church. We learn how to implement new pop songs into worship, or use turntables, multimedia, multisensory experiences—but not how to address the theology behind the lyrics we encourage teens to sing over and over and over again. We have seminars and books on leadership drawn from a Western business model, but what is the theology of a shepherd? How about the theology of church leadership?

Phase 5: Becoming a Missional Theologian

All these things eventually led to me a point of wanting to basically start over and build from a new foundation. We started a new sister-church called Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz. I by no means consider myself, or those in our church, academic theologians in the traditional sense; but I am a person who takes the study of God seriously, which is, I think, a good working definition of a theologian in a very real sense.

The result of our rethinking of methodology, ecclesiology, and theology, we were drawn to our primary purpose, wherein we're continually “Asking God to transform us into a—Worshiping—Community—of—Missional—Theologians.” The word “theologian” is in all our literature, on our signs, and on a large painting in our meeting room. We use these words everywhere as a constant reminder that thinking theologically is one of the things we want to strive for as a church—teens and adults alike. We teach that the goal of theology is not head knowledge but transformation of hearts.

Children and teens are part of our worship gatherings. Children stay in the whole gathering once a month; the other weeks they stay for the first part and then go to classrooms. When children come into the worship gathering for the whole night we give them little boxes called “Little Theologian Kits.” I baptized a 9-year-old boy a few weeks ago, and in the baptism he read a letter he wrote to Jesus that he had signed with his name and, underneath, “Missional Theologian.”

We're starting a “School of Theology” and hope that teenagers will be very much a part of it. We hope to engage minds to understand not only what we believe but also why we believe it—to also know other beliefs and learn how to think about the church theologically. Of course, as we develop a full youth ministry we'll have the usual teenage fun and zany things that are all part of youth ministry. We also will worship not just cognitively but by blending the cognitive with artistic, experiential, multi-sensory forms of learning and worship.

In the midst of this, we don't want to become all about head-knowledge and inwardly focused with theology, which is why we want to be a worshiping community and also missional. Our knowledge of theology should melt our hearts in praise and adoration to God, and our theological thinking should drive us to our knees in prayer for those who are in need around the world. In my experience (and what's been reported to me), most youth ministries aren't struggling with teens being too focused on head-knowledge, but from a lack of theological understanding. But it's something we need to guard against, because without love, all the theology we know means nothing.

A Challenge to Youth Leaders to Think Theologically

My hope is that all this stimulates some thinking about how much you think theologically about what you do. We in youth leadership will set the culture for how youth ministry functions in our churches. We in youth ministry leadership will likely be leading entire churches in the future, and the patterns we set now about our focus on methodology vs. theology will continue if we don't stop and rethink things. We'll set a culture for young people of how they think about life and the church and what it means to be a disciple.

Youth ministry is theology, and we'd better recognize that or we're in danger of turning youth ministry and the church into a shallow version of what they could be. May we become worshiping communities of missional theologians.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.