Youth Ministry as Theology

I've picked up a lot of prescribed standards for Youth Ministry over the years... most have been fairly pragmatic responses to the relationship between church and adolescence. Some have to do with identity--the value of giving adolescents a social identity within the church: their own group, their own pastor, their own music. Some have to do with development--the value of mentorship (including the whole 5 adults to 1 kid ratio in ministry) and integration. Some have to do with relevance--the value of quality and a welcoming environment (including good music and cool lights). Some are even more directly spiritual--the need for relevant biblical teaching and worship in youth ministry. And then, of course, there are reactive standards, standards which develop in reaction to preceding standards, even to some of those I've listed above. Some of the things I've picked up over the years are more true, more universal, and more helpful than others... but how do these standards develop? How do we come to these conclusions?

Most of our standards in Youth Ministry are sociological or psychological conclusions. We examine cultural trends and contextual shifts that demand us to change the way we do things. We interrogate the conditions and challenges of contemporary adolescence and we determine how and in what ways we should structure and implement a response. This is good. We are students of "youth culture." But are we students of theology? We've developed youth ministry as good sociologists and developmental psychologists, but have we been good theologians? What is the relationship of theology to Youth Ministry? I tend to think it's been an awkward one.

Youth Ministry keeps saying that Theology is its friend, but whenever Theology wants to hang out, Youth Ministry seems to have something better to do.

We don't start with theology. We start somewhere else... we do good sociology with some theological proof texting. Theology has been the justification for youth ministry, but it's hardly been the basis. We didn't come to our conclusions through the deep interrogation of our understanding of who God is and how God acts in our specific contexts.

We've done our best. In fact, we've done well. There's a lot to celebrate in the heritage of youth ministry. The standards which have changed over the years have been necessary and good. But youth ministry is and always has been a theological endeavor. It's time that we become theologians. Ministry should not only be justified by theology, it should be the historical and physical manifestation thereof. Ministry should be theology in action. Youth ministry is theology. God is the basis of ministry.

So what we need is for more youth workers to take themselves seriously as theologians. We need more practical theologians to actually engage theology on its own terms. We need more people who are more patient in doing the hard work of theology and fewer people who are so in a rush to get beyond theology that they forget to engage it. Theology needs to be the rationale for what we're doing in youth ministry, not merely its justification.

Good theology implies a deep interrogation of the human situation. That means that if we do theology well, our standards and responses will be sociologically and psychologically appropriate. But ultimately, our work will be the manifestation of who God is and the participation in what God is doing. Our ministries won't just be pragmatic, they'll actually be in correspondence with the very fabric of reality.