In his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes an ongoing tension that presently exists between the modern western zeitgeist that considers only the “eminent” (i.e. the observable, physical reality) to be real and the desire and need for a “transcendent” experience (i.e. a reality beyond the eminent) to give life fullness and ultimate meaning. This tension is perhaps no more evident than in youth ministry and continues to have a large impact on it at every level.
As a result of adult anxiety, youth are rarely challenged to explore or participate in the alternative way of Jesus that resists the status quo.
For the more “liberal” end of the theological spectrum, this longing for the experience of the transcendent has led theological education to focus more on the shape of the community and practices of being loving, accepting, just, emotionally healthy and spiritually open to “God” while avoiding the specifics or didactic teaching of the Bible or Christian theology. The focus is on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy, choosing to show Jesus in actions of love, radical openness, and being non-judgmental in order to create a community where everyone is welcome and cared for.
At the more conservative end of this spectrum, that same longing for the transcendent is acted upon by leading youth towards orthopraxy as it is understood by the leadership. While the community is also created with the intention of being welcoming, loving, and fun, its ultimate point is to teach and convince youth to believe and enact what the tradition understands faithfulness to look like.
While each end of the above spectrum may view the other as vastly different, their methodology for how we teach or lead youth toward participating in Christian community seems to be born of the same essential question. How does a church go about providing theological education to their youth when culture no longer supports it as a norm and when the transcendent experience is the only proof accepted as to whether or not it is worth their time to begin with?
In the same vein, much of theological education currently makes the unseen mistake of emanating from the anxiety and fears of adults or youth. The adult anxiety stems from a growing structural disconnect between youth and adults and from being unable to control or predict the future of Church (or of their own lives). This low-boiling discomfort or fear leads to anxiety about the control over what youth experience and believe about what the adults hold most dear. In response to this anxiety, youth ministers are pulled toward designing ministries with programs and professionals that create control, conformity, and measurable results to demonstrate that youth are participating in the tradition, practices, and doctrines of the congregation. Or youth ministers create ministries that jettison any challenge to participate in the deeper rhythms and practices of Christianity, fearing that youth will be bored or the ministry won’t be “relevant.” As a result, youth are rarely challenged to explore or participate in the alternative way of Jesus that resists the status quo.
Clearly, there is confusion about how the theological education of young people fits into the larger life of the Christian community and about what constitutes “success.” While many anxieties, interests, and agendas pull at the youth ministry of churches, it is perhaps most important for leadership to have a community of their own help wade through the myriad of options and distractions that exist in their context.