What does youth ministry have to do with theology?

It has been remarked in some corners of practical theology academia that youth ministry is taking a theological turn. Whether that happens at a popular level remains to be seen, but the realization of the need for theological reflection in youth ministry thinking is a welcome development. The contention is that if youth ministry is to be properly focused and effective, it must be grounded in deep and authentic reflection upon who God is and who we are in response. Sociology, psychology and educational theory are helpful, but they cannot be foundational when it comes to thinking about ministry. If we base our youth ministry programming or teaching on anything other than theology—such as business models, marketing techniques or entertainment—it will fail because it will be idolatrous, inviting God to fill in another fundamental form. Besides, once it gets in the game of business, marketing or entertainment, the church is bound to lose; there are too many other forces in the world that are much better at them. Instead, we must embrace our distinctiveness authentically and holistically. We must strive to be theological people.

Theology literally means “words about God.” So anytime we talk or think about God (saying internal words to ourselves), we are doing theology. In fact, we never stop doing this. We always are being theological. No one, not even those of no religious faith, can avoid theology. Everyone, at some level and to some extent, thinks about God or the existential questions related to religion, questions of meaning, identity and fate. We are all theologians. The question is how much we acknowledge the fact and try to do it well.

Some youth ministers see how essential theological reflection is for the sustainability of their youth ministries, and they somehow make time for it amid lock-ins, lesson planning and contact work. Others acknowledge the importance of theological reflection but lack the time or training to engage in it. Still others, unfortunately, are convinced theology is a waste of time. They declare theology gets in the way of loving Jesus. Or they claim we ought to spend our energy doing instead of thinking. Let’s look at those two objections.

First, because theology is thinking about God, theology is an act of devotion for believers. To engage in theology is to love God with our minds. So those who “just want to love Jesus” would do well to engage their theology seriously. In fact, they probably already do, but to neglect theology is to love a made-up image, a projection, a phantom. On the other hand, to engage in theology well is to take our relationship with God seriously. How can we love the other in any relationship without seeking to know deeply who the person is? This takes work.

Second, for those who want to do and not think, it is important to remember that all our actions have intentions behind them, intentions that are formed by our thoughts, beliefs and values. How will our actions be worthy unless our thoughts, beliefs and values are properly formed? How will they be properly formed unless we take the time to think carefully about who God is, who we are, and what it is we are to do in this world? That’s theology. When we rush to action—even if we think it is worthwhile ministry—without rigorous theology accompanying it, it is quite likely our work will be unsustainable, shallow or perhaps harmful.

Loving Jesus and doing ministry are worthy goals. In fact, they are central to who we are as Christ-followers. However, neither is a better or higher priority than doing theology because, in fact, they are inseparable from theology. Theology comes before, exists in the midst of, and occurs after practices of loving Jesus and engaging in ministry. So let’s own it—and do it well—because if we don’t, our youth ministries will go down the path of least resistance, generate a shallow understanding of God and self and mission, or become indistinguishable from other cultural forms. Doing theology, thinking carefully and rigorously about God, is being faithful to the people God has called us to be; if we are to walk with adolescents as we together embrace that distinctive identity, we must do it intentionally, holistically and authentically; that means we must be theological people.

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