When thinking about the state of youth ministry in theological education, I cannot help but think about the state of theological education as a whole. I keep hearing that it is in crisis (which is not something a newly minted Ph.D. wants to keep hearing). Theological schools are closing, some are holding on by a thread, and others are changing their curriculum in hopes of remaining “relevant.” In their desire to not only survive but thrive, schools are also rethinking theological education so that we don’t end up simply rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.
The question many congregations are asking is, “How do we get youth and young adults to come to Church?” Instead, we should be asking, “How do we meet youth and young adults where they are?”
What is Theological Education For?
One of the things I find particularly interesting is the growing trend of providing a theological foundation to those who will work with nonprofits doing community organizing or other social justice work. There is growth in the number of theological degrees offered for those who do not seek to enter the academy, to be a pastor, or to go into congregational ministry at all. I find this interesting, because many of those who have seen youth ministry as their vocation have been seeking theological training as non-pastors for years. I also find this growing trend interesting because, in many pockets within urban ministry and within Black Christian traditions, social justice work, community organizing, and congregational ministry have often been one in the same, even when the theological resources coming from mainline Protestant theological schools were scarce, especially within the field of youth ministry.
Who is Theological Education For?
As more theological schools turn toward explicitly equipping this vision of ministry, I wonder what texts they are going to use. Much of the youth ministry material being produced by mainline Protestant writers still pretends that the bulk of youth ministry is being done by suburban White churches with a paid youth minister. With the dwindling state of mainline congregations and seminaries, it is really necessary to think about the contexts for which we are preparing our students. This is not a call to abandon congregational ministry, but it is a call to affirm the vocation of a youth minister in its broadest sense.
Beyond All the Walls
Thinking more broadly about defining Church has always been a part of my vocational identity. As one called to the diaconate of the United Methodist Church, I am committed to a ministry beyond the Church walls. This does not mean being outside of the Church, but connecting the Church to the world and seeing the Church as much larger than the building in which I worship on Sundays or the denomination to which I belong. As the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley proclaimed, “I look upon all the world as my parish.” Having a broader understanding of Church and ministry allows us to look at youth ministry more dynamically. In a world where youth and young adults are increasingly finding meaning outside of the Church, the question many congregations are asking is, “How do we get youth and young adults to come to Church?” Instead, we should be asking, “How do we meet youth and young adults where they are?”
Searching for the Spirit
What would it look like if theologically-trained youth ministers filled our schools, after-school programs, sports organizations, community organizing agencies, grassroots organizations, and the many other places that youth and young adults are finding meaning? What would it mean to be a minister whose main ministry is not inside the walls of a church? These are not new questions—several Christian traditions have been ministering this way for years. However, these questions are relatively new in White mainline Protestant theological education. While the number of young people’s Church attendance may be declining in mainline Protestant congregations, these young people’s search for meaning is not in decline. Their desire to be a part of something bigger is not in decline. Nor is their search for the spirit—and what is spiritual—in decline. We can help them find what they are looking for, but we must stop waiting for them to come to us. We need to go to them, and we need to be theologically-trained as we go.
Rev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. is currently the Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew Theological School. She has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her Ph.D. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.