As a youth ministry professor, I sometimes do consulting for churches. Often what the churches tells me goes something like this: “Our youth group just isn’t reaching students like we think they should be. What are we doing wrong?”
When I meet with the leaders of the youth ministry, invariably they are looking for a specific answer to their problem. They will show me all their programs, have me talk to the youth staff, parents, and maybe even the teenagers, and then we will all sit across the table. All eyes will peer expectantly at me, waiting for me to give them the answer they need to revitalize their ministry. They want me to tell them something like, “Well, it’s apparent that your youth room is the problem. If you will just paint it alternating stripes of neon orange and lime green, and if you will put in a kicking sound system, that should take care of your problem. You’ll soon have teenagers flocking to your church.”
The preceding may stretch the facts just a bit, but only a bit. The truth of the matter is, most of the churches are looking for quick answers to their youth ministry woes. What they aren’t looking for is what I want to help them find—a theological and biblical rationale for their youth ministry. Follow that up with a close examination of how that rationale is played out in their programs and ministries. In other words, I want them to examine why they do youth ministry. Only when they honestly confront that issue is it possible to then examine how to make the ministry more effective in reaching students for Christ.
Why is a biblical and theological rationale important to have? It is important because it allows us to shape our ministries on the very nature of the Godhead. For example, if we believe that God is love, how does our ministry reflect His love in all of its many facets? Similarly, if we believe that God is justice, how does this idea impact what we do and why we do it?
Unfortunately, far too many youth ministries practice the reverse. They allow their ministries and programs to shape what they know and teach about God. For example, one youth ministry I am familiar with routinely does a ritual hazing during its fall retreat with incoming seventh graders. The students are made to feel humiliated during this “ceremony” which officially adopts them into the group. While the youth pastor defends the practice, stating that, “It’s just a fun way to show them just how much we love them,” theologically this experience sends a distorted message to those seventh graders. “If this is love and acceptance,” they inwardly ask, “why should we be a part of it?” These students are experiencing cognitive dissonance because what they hear proclaimed—“love and community”—is not matching up with what is practiced. That is the result when we fail to start with theology and allow it to shape the ministry.
When we start with a theological and scriptural foundation, we can have assurance that what we do in ministry (our practices) appropriately reflects what we believe about God (our theological convictions) rather than just our whims, cultural trends, or the expectations of others.
Another church with which I’m familiar has chosen to allow their ministries to emerge out of their theological and scriptural understanding of God. This church, which does not have a professional youth pastor, takes seriously their theological tradition which is based on grace in its many forms—prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. This concept of grace is married to their understanding that all people (including adolescents) are made in the image of God which gives them unconditional value.
Very few adults in the church could verbalize these concepts, but they are deeply engrained in their very being. They understand that their role is not to convert students but to faithfully proclaim the gospel, creating regular opportunities for students to encounter God’s grace, and ultimately to allow God to do the converting. After students encounter the transforming power of grace, they are shown what it means to live Christlike lives as they in turn show grace to others.
This is one congregation that takes seriously the idea that their children and adolescents are a vital part of their community of faith. Their programs and ministries affirm this by allowing the students to be equal partners in ministry. This church has built its youth ministry on a theological and scriptural foundation. As a result, their ministry to youth is both wholistic and full of integrity.
Truth be told, it’s much easier to build and run a youth ministry that is not built on a biblical and theological foundation. We can go with the latest fad, follow the recent trend, and adopt the philosophy of the current hot speaker. But doing this only ensures that our students will never gain a true understanding of God and what He wants to do in their lives. It’s playing spiritual roulette with the lives of our students, hoping that one of the things we try will eventually work. Why would any youth worker want to follow this fast paced mad gamble of faith? Who would want to found their ministry on a blown-by-the-wind philosophy, that tries to bound from mountain top to mountain top until we are exhausted?
The purpose of this article is not to call you out if you are one of those folk. Rather, it is to encourage you to begin thinking about how your theological tradition and your personal beliefs about God can and should impact your ministry. I believe that through this practice you will discover a new sense of freedom in ministry. More importantly, you will help create a ministry that is faithful to your students and God. May it be so in your ministry.
Going Deeper: If this idea is new to you, here are some ways to get started Thinking Theologically About YOUR Youth Ministry:
- Get by yourself or with all of your youth staff in a room with a white board. Brainstorm together and write your answers on the board. Start by asking these questions: What is our theology? What do we believe about God? If our youth ministry was to reflect God’s character, what would we change? What would stay the same?
- When you sit down at any planning meeting, always ask “What is the purpose of this event/program?” “What is the underlying theological foundation?” “What does this event teach our youth about God and community?”
- Rediscover your own theology. Read some basic or challenging theological works (such as Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, or The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard). As you reflect, ask yourself—how does what I am reading affect the youth ministry I am involved in?
James K. Hampton is an author, speaker and veteran youth worker who serves as Assistant Professor of Youth Ministry at Asbury Theological Seminary.
[Photo credit: matt1125]