I was nearing the end of a full day of consulting a large church on the state of their youth ministry. I had listened, taken notes, asked questions, and read their materials. I was now feeding back to them what they had said God was asking them to be and do in their youth ministry. I was not selling a specific program or particular philosophy, I was going deeper with them, to the heart of what the church means for kids and families.
The more I reflected with them on some of the specifics I had heard during the day–like God calls us to be a family of families, people are always more important than programs, we are always to seek unity, and our primary mission is to love God, each other, and the world–the more frustrated several of the elders and senior staff became. “Give us the model . . . and . . . find us the person to run it, and we’ll be fine!” When it came down to it, even after a day of dreaming, praying, reflecting on the mission statement of the church and the youth ministry, what the leadership wanted was not a thoughtful, theologically driven vision and strategy of serving the needs of the students and their families. They just wanted a model, and a program that “works”!
What does it mean for a youth ministry program to work? Or, to put it another way, what is the criteria for deciding if a ministry program works, and how does a church therefore measure success, evaluate staff, and plan for the future of the program? The answer lies in how what we do (and are) lines up with our theological convictions and calling. Every one of us has theological convictions, but it is more than common for what we believe and what we do to go in two different directions. The call of the Gospel is that God has invited us into His Kingdom work, and therefore the alignment of what this means with how we do youth ministry is central to our call.
Theologically-driven vision and strategy – When we don’t, When we do!
Theology can be a scary word. It is also such a common one that most people in ministry think they are supposed to know what it means, but when pressed they stumble for a concise definition. Simply put, theology is the process of considering what God thinks. It is bringing our story (work, life) in line with God’s revealed story in Christ’s Kingdom purposes and work. “Doing” theology, as some describe it, is when we go through the process of trying to figure out why and how God speaks to and counsels us toward the most appropriate response to a given situation, need, or circumstance. Thinking theologically means that our first criteria for success is not what “works,” as it is typically defined, but rather how what we do and how we live are in sync with God’s call to ministry and service (which, by the way, includes such issues as what makes sense in a given community, meets both real and felt needs of students, what honors family structures and issues, and yes, works!). “Theological reflection,” then, as Kenda Creasy Dean says, “keeps the practice of youth ministry focused on God instead of on us.”
When We Don’t Think Theologically
When we spend our time trying to be successful, to blindly implement a “successful” model, or to “grow” a ministry (none of which, by the way, are automatically not theologically appropriate) at the exclusion of first asking what God has revealed, thinks, and wants, we may ultimately undercut the very thing we are trying to accomplish. What sets youth ministry apart from other forms of youth work is our commitment to helping adolescents come to trust Christ and assimilate into the church. Concentrating on the looks or observable results of youth ministry before or instead of prayerfully working through a theological grid can sometimes make us look and even feel successful, but we may not be doing youth ministry.
Some things that can happen when we ignore the need to think theologically:
- Games are competition, and many kids, discouraged, check out;
- Trying to connect we end up spending our energy as a leadership team with those we like more, communicating to the fringe that they don’t matter;
- Our events do more damage than good, like announcing an “awesome” Father-daughter night in front of many girls who do not know their fathers.
These and other examples of how ministry can miss our intentions can happen to anyone, but a leader who takes the time to think theologically they will be far less common.
When We Do Think Theologically
Prayerfully seeking God’s intent for our ministry will provide a guide for everything from hiring staff to deciding on a mission trip to giving announcements. Using the above examples, here’s how a theologically committed youth ministry may look:
- Not wanting to do anything that excludes kids because of physical differences, games are used that levels the athletic playing field;
- A team will strategically assign leaders to kids, and constantly be on the lookout for any student that may be feeling ignored or marginalized;
- Exclusive events are advertised with sensitivity and creativity, so every person knows that, regardless of their particular situation, they belong as members of God’s family.
Summing Up – Be a Theologian!
Theology starts with the Bible. As we read it we ask, “What does our experience teach us, what has the Church said, and what is the reality of people’s lives today?” After these questions, theology goes back to the Bible to make sure what we are affirming God says is in fact true.
Step back, ask some hard questions, and give your kids a theologically aligned youth ministry!
[Guest Post by Chap Clark]