Theology of Youth Ministry; an Oxymoron

October 9th, 2009


No matter where you turn, the predominant idea that youth pastors generally don't have to be theologically astute has and will continue to come back to haunt us. With emerging questions about Christian origins, the Bible, and “Did Jesus look like the bobble head doll?” we're faced with the reality that theology can no longer be relegated to the halls of academic institutions. Due to the present predicament I suggest the pursuit of theological rooted-ness allows us to authentically minister in our local contexts and helps us set biblical parameters that help us stay focused on our call to make student disciples.

With this in mind, we'll have to wrestle with how to develop a theological approach in and about youth ministry. While the possibilities may differ, I'll highlight some points I consistently apply to my development. While some still worry about not being able to find the term “youth minister” in the Bible, the foundations of our calling and our ministries run much deeper than whether or not the term can be found in the text.

Theology What?

Using the word “theology” opens a can of worms that needs defining. I was, for a long time, under the persuasion that theology was the study of God until a university professor, Pamela Bright, brought a new perspective to mind. She mentioned, “Theology can not be the study of God, since none of us can really study God. In essence, theology is the study of people's experiences with God as revealed through our Scriptures and our church communities.”

After a few days of pondering, it hit me that at a basic level theology isn't that scary after all. Maybe it's easier than we think. Could it be that bringing a theological perspective to our ministries has most to do with listening attentively to the questions of our age (i.e. our students) and realizing that at a deep level they're the same questions that the Scriptures address? Approaching theology as a “lived discipline” relieves us from the nightmares of seminary cramming and academic jargon that is so often associated with theological studies. Leonard Sweet, in his new book Summoned to Lead, writes, “If you're listening, your inner voice will tell you the next step, not some authority. The inner voice is your guide and leader. Instead of depending on power relationships, depend on spirit relationships. After all, who's the best mentor in the world? The Holy Spirit, hands down.”

Today's emerging leaders will have to listen attentively to what is not said so that we do not miss the opportunity to vocalize what must be said. Theological pursuit as practiced through daily ministry finds its root in the art of attentive listening.

With 'theology' defined in this manner, it is safe to say that our theology drives everything we do in our ministries. The goals and visions for our students cannot be extracted from the next book craze; instead they should be prompted by the theological understanding of God's self revelation as revealed in the questions and the lives of our students. In his greatYouthWorker Journal article, “Ecclesiastical Pornography,” Kim Hoon notes, “The principle of customization is essential in ministry.”

I challenge you to wrestle with what God is doing in your local community. Fight the temptation to be tossed around by every fad that catches your attention. Theology is a lived discipline that's developed and surfaces out of our specific ministerial contexts. Let us not limit what God can do when we obey and are faithful with the resources available to us.

This Isn't the YMCA

What this theological approach to our ministries also provides is a biblical defence against the idea that youth minister is synonymous with event planner or baby sitter. Although fun and games are an important component of what I do with my students, I've been called to make disciples of those God has put under my care. If developing disciples of Christ isn't what we're doing, our church signs should read “Welcome to the YMCA.” Unfortunately this is what so often happens when we allow ourselves to slacken in the pursuit of loving God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. It's interesting that Paul wrote to a young pastor named Timothy, “Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don't be diverted. Just keep at it. Both you and those who hear you will experience salvation” (1Timothy 4:16).

Character and teaching were part of a holistic theological paradigm as it pertained to this young pastor, and I think it remains the same for us. Our mission, no matter how different our methods, remains rooted in biblical teaching that enables us to be people of character and make disciples. While society's ability to divert us will always remain a temptation, our ability to pursue a holistic theological approach to youth ministry will keep us focused on our calling as youth ministers. In the process we'll develop theological discernment that teaches us to listen to the questions emerging from today's youth culture and respond relevantly and intelligently pointing our students to Christ.

Just Keep at It

Whether it's taking some night classes, attending prayer retreats, requesting a sabbatical, or just reading different books, the pursuit of a theologically-rooted youth ministry can no longer be seen as just an option. With students of this generation asking more and more questions, it'll take more than a pretty story to direct them and ground them in the message of Christ. For this reason we must devote ourselves to the pursuit of theological thinking through different methods that allow us to remain grounded in our call. A book that has helped me rediscover a deep theological passion for my ministry is The Unnecessary Pastor by Eugene Peterson and Marva Dawn. I strongly suggest reading it as a devotional while working through the Pastoral Epistles.

In addition to reading specific books, it helps to surround ourselves with leaders who stretch our thinking and passion for God's Word—people who stimulate a theological passion for discovering the Kingdom of God. Theological pursuit in communal conversation is a gift very few people experience, especially with ones who aren't part of our particular Christian tradition. But in the process one will quickly see the great resource of knowledge that lies in different expressions of our rich historical faith.

I leave you with a quote by an anonymous author that's pinned in my office—it serves as a daily reminder of the difficult yet wonderful work God has called me to: “Empty heads will never quench empty hearts.”

With passion and consistency, we must let theology be a lived discipline that teaches us to listen attentively. In the process we'll gain an increased ability to resist following the many fads that surface. We'll remain faithful to our call to be individuals of character with a passion for discipleship. As we consistently work through this process, we'll begin to change the ethos of our time, and theology will no longer be seen as an oxymoron when used in reference of those who minister to youth.


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.