Thoughts on Youth Ministry and Theology

I was recently asked what I think is the best way to help kids (teenagers, in particular) get started on theology. Since the question was posed via Twitter, I felt the pressure to put the answer into a sentence. Truth is, I had to think about the question a bit. I've never approached my ministry with young people as a ministry to get them started on theology, that's never been the telos for my ministry. At least that's not explicitly the intention with which I enter into ministry with kids. But, of course, theology is pretty important. If when we say 'theology' we mean something like "a continuous process of disciplined and prayerful thought through which a community of faith seeks to understand what it believes and thus to be guided in its living out of that belief..."(Douglas John Hall, Cross in Our Context, 3), then the very shape of ministry is theological and the very shape of theology is ministry. So, yeah, I do want kids to get started on theology... but not primarily as a dogmatic discipline. Dogmatics will help along the way, no doubt, but theology is fundamentally an act of participation in ministry.

I wouldn't be surprised if some of the people I've worked with in ministry, because of my passion for theology, may have questioned, at times, my capacity as a practitioner of youth ministry. I'm quite sure I've given them other reasons to do so, but theology isn't one of them. If anyone thinks I just want to teach theology to kids--to get every kid reading Barth and Tillich--they've got me wrong. And if anyone thinks that disciplined attention to and passion for more dogmatic forms of theological reflection somehow obviate one's ability to effectively minister to people, even kids, then I think they've got theology wrong.

There is perhaps a form of theological reflection that isn't so helpful. There's a version of theology which is somewhat ambivalent to the complexities and multiplicities of human experience. Some practical theology--which actually isn't so practical--could be described as "applied theology." Gordon Mikoski uses archery to illustrate this--what he sees as an older form of practical theological reflection...
A single archer aims a single arrow at a single stationary target... this sort of practical theology entailed three main tasks: getting the doctrine as clear and sharp as possible, aiming correctly, and using the right kind of force and method to hit the target. There was a certain mechanical precision, not to mention monotony, to the older forms of Protestant practical theology. (Opening the Field of Practical Theology, 170-171).
Mikoski sees practical theology as something much more organic and dynamic, grounded in normativity but keenly sensitive to human experience and the actual contextual work of ministry. Ministry is theology, but it can't just be "applied theology." Getting people to be theologians is not the goal, something deeper and fuller is the goal. Mikoski suggests that while archery would be a bad metaphor for this kind of theology, maybe a better one would be that of "a medical health-care team." He says, "In this metaphor, full functioning or flourishing of life is the aim." Not just one arrow is pointed at just one target, but all different sources and experiences are taken seriously. "While trained medical doctors continue to have a central role, nurses, ethicists, social workers, administrators, and patient advocates all contribute something important to health care. The work is collaborative" (174).

Theology is important, fundamental, insofar as it is not an end in itself. This is true for me, even as a theologian, but especially as a youth worker. I want to get kids started on theology, but only because of where it might lead them--perhaps even to "full functioning or flourishing of life..."And I don't go into ministry to get kids started on theology, I go into ministry as a work of participation in God's affirmation of the life and dignity of God's people... theology is on the path, but it's certainly not the purpose. Relationship, to put it in a word, is the purpose. And the complexities of relationship demand attention to more than just dogmatic theology. All different sources and experiences must be taken seriously.

So how did I answer the question on Twitter? What is the best way to help kids get started on theology. I said, quite simply, "the bible... and someone who cares enough to read it with them." Of course scripture is given a certain normative force, but it cannot stand alone. There must be a "collaboration." There has to be relationship. It's in relationships, the very fabric of human life and experience, that divinity and humanity encounter one another. And in all our theological musings we must attend to this fabric if our theological work is going to indeed be the work of ministry.