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Youth Ministry as Practical Theology

By Amy Jacober | Ph.D. Associate Professor of Practical Theology/Youth Ministry at George W. Truett Theological Seminary | March 22 2011

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

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