It is fair to say that most youth ministers desire to not only personally live a Christian life, but lead others to do so, as well. They want to honor God, share Christ and minister to adolescents and their families.

In pursuit of that goal, youth ministers seem to have a mystical ability to transcend controversial divisions, denominational litmus tests and personal preference in the name of collaborating with others who love God and teenagers as much as they do. This is evidenced by the many conferences and events held each year in the United States and around the world, where thousands upon thousands of youth and adult youth leaders come together to praise God and learn more about serving Jesus with and among teenagers.

However, there can be a potentially negative side of youth workers bypassing differences. This can happen when theological convictions take a back seat to cooperation, leaving theological convictions necessarily shallow.

Bible studies written for a broad swath of theological traditions give little to no consideration of theological heritage. Conferences are planned and executed without regard to the particular cultural issues present in the intended audience. Too often, tradition-defining doctrinal positions are abandoned in the name of collaboration.

A balance is needed. We begin to approach that balance when we begin to consider the cultural context in which we minister.

Generation After Generation
The questions that plague adolescents are constantly changing, as much as adolescents change themselves. Youth ministers have worked hard to discover and address these questions with each passing generation. In fact, the struggle comes not as much with youth ministry’s relevance but with our substance—our understanding of holistic adolescent development and its implications for holistic youth ministry.

Over the years, many youth workers have embraced an approach focusing on holistic adolescent development. But in practice, relevancy—finding the latest theme, song or program—has been the dominant focus for most. The priority of relevancy has even driven the contemporary focus on spirituality, simplicity and a harkening back to ancient practices. When it comes to the day-to-day details of a youth ministry, substance—engaging adolescents as whole persons with the whole gospel—can fall by the wayside.

Without maintaining substance as our guiding principle, we can lose sight of the answer to the question: “What really constitutes ‘Christian’?”

This question subdivides into the question whether theology is a transforming or descriptive discipline, and the challenge of avoiding the twin perils of Christian faith:
• That faith becomes solely a private affair with no effect in the public arena;
• Or that faith is a public action with no individual understanding.

The Need for a Practical Theology of Youth Ministry
I was approached a few years ago by a veteran, seminary-trained, youth minister who worked alongside other long-time and well-trained youth ministers.

He told me he had a great theme for a camp experience where students would leave on fire for Christ and ready to share the gospel with everyone. He came up with the idea while at the House of Blues, the logo for which is a heart on fire. T-shirts were already ordered with the Luke 24:32: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” He wanted me to create the curriculum.

It is not unusual to have inspiration come from a rather mundane moment in life. Nevertheless, the Scripture they had arrived at does not imply the great evangelistic thrust they were assuming. It had all the right words—hearts, burning—but an entirely different meaning.

As the T-shirts were already printed, I suggested that we keep the theme and Scripture but remain true to the text—that we explore how we often look for God to show up in the way we are hoping and expecting, and because we’re not open to how God chooses to manifest, we miss His presence. The theme worked, and the students went home with a new appreciation for God’s activity in their lives—even when they don’t realize it.

I believe it is possible to be relevant to young people and true to Scripture. We accomplish these goals when we keep the priorities of practical theology and scriptural reflection in the foreground while also carefully studying our cultural context for ways to apply theology and Scripture to kids’ culture. In a word, a ministry of practical theology requires that we be bilingual.

In his book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From Strategy to a Theology of Incarnation, Andrew Root suggests that “why youth ministry matters and is important” needs to be considered “from a biblical and cultural perspective.”

In a generation that is, in general, biblically illiterate and theologically untrained, there are nevertheless theological questions unique to the adolescent experience, and in fact unique to the adolescent experience in this particular historical moment.

As Duncan Forrester suggests, adolescents are not only unique but constantly changing, so that adolescents today are quite different from adolescents 30 years ago. Asking contextual questions about the contemporary adolescent and contemporary adolescence, and sorting through the response within the adolescent context, is itself theological.

Three Principles of Theologically Grounded Youth Ministry
Three related insights set the stage for the reconciliation ministry that is the youth worker’s birthright.

First, youth workers must be bilingual—able to find correspondence between the asymmetrical perspectives of social psychology and theology. The theoretical and practical issues that attend to adolescence are best considered in the light of both these disciplines and in their correspondence.

Second, a practical theology of youth ministry unites three strands of existence: the individual, the communal and the eternal. Acknowledgment and synthesis of these three are crucial in the major life task of adolescence.

Third, a maturing adolescent is nurtured through the transformative power of Christ and the commingling virtues of love, justice and mercy. This book will unpack each part and show both their relation to one another and to youth ministry.

Theology takes time and effort. A lack of focus on this has resulted in a plethora of well intended, sincere-hearted but shallow at best and dangerous at worst teachings and leadings across denominational lines.

It is important to note that it is not because youth ministers are incapable or lazy. Rather, in the fast-paced world of the dynamic lives of adolescents, youth ministers find themselves lacking in time, skills, knowledge and a point of entry to do much beyond what they are already doing.
Theology was never intended to be an irrelevant exercise in academic gymnastics. It is our faith, guided by the questions of our day, seeking understanding from God. For the youth minister, these are the questions which arise from looking closer at the lives and culture of the adolescents whom we are called to serve, whom we love and whom we know.

Amy Jacober, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Practical Theology/Youth Ministry at George W. Truett Theological Seminary. She previously served as the volunteer Youth Pastor at Agape Christian Church in Pasadena, taught at Azusa Pacific University, Seattle Pacific University, and Fuller Theological Seminary. Dr. Jacober serves on two national boards: the Association of Youth Ministry Educators (AYME) and Young Life Capernaum (Young Life ministry for teens with disabilities). She also serves on the international board of the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry (IASYM).

This article was adapted from The Adolescent Journey: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Practical Youth Ministry by Amy E. Jacober. Copyright(c) 2011. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. IVPress.com.

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