Youth ministry and theology have not always gone together.
Hopefully you’re a bit befuddled by that thought. Hopefully you’re shocked that anyone could conceive of youth ministry without theology. But, in fact, youth workers haven’t always thought of themselves as theologians, nor have pastors and parishioners considered youth ministry to be a theological task. Sad as it may sound, youth ministry has a history of being little more than fun games and a cheesy Bible study.
There is one reason that youth workers really should be reading and doing theology, and it’s the same reason every child of God should be doing theology—to participate in the life and being of God in lived experience and in the lives of others.
In part, we have the Institute for Youth Ministry to thank for the shift. In the 90’s a brilliant theologian who happened to be a youth worker (or was it the other way around?) by the name of Kenda Creasy Dean got the ball rolling and started the IYM. With a deep commitment to connecting theology and youth ministry, the IYM got youth workers thinking about theology… and more importantly, perhaps, they got theologians thinking about youth ministry.
It has now become more commonplace to connect youth ministry and theology. Even Youth Specialties, one of the largest youth ministry organizations in the country, offers a “Theology Track” at their conferences. Youth workers are more theologically engaged than ever before. But it’s possible that, in a way, we’ve overcorrected. Youth workers now know that we need to read and understand theology. But do we really know why?
Andrew Root, who (incidentally) is partly responsible for the theological turn in youth ministry (there’s a book by that title, just FYI), has written about this. In an article titled, “Why Theology Isn’t Enough For Youth Ministry” Root wrote, “…I’m not sure that knowing theology and all its doctrines helps young people follow Jesus. I’m not sure theology alone makes much of a difference in the practice of ministry.” You might have been shocked to read such words from a guy like Root, from the archetypical theologian/youth worker, a guy whose work has been nothing if not theological.
What Root is lamenting is that, in overcorrecting the old disconnect between youth ministry and theology, youth workers took the theological turn to mean that youth needed to know theology and that youth workers needed to teach it to them. In this way, “A turn to theology in youth ministry risks losing the lived and concrete experience of young people by bulldozing their questions, fears and joys for information.”
In other words, by teaching young people theology through theologians like Paul Tillich, we risk answering questions they aren’t asking—perhaps even implicitly suggesting the questions they are asking are less valid. By dwelling on theological thought unanchored in the experience of young people, we risk communicating that the church is not for people with the “mundane concerns” they have.
But youth ministry and theology belong together. They must be connected. So it’s in no way a bad thing that youth workers are thinking about theology (and hopefully some theologians are still thinking about youth ministry). But if you want to know the real reason why youth workers should know theology, it’s not so that they can know more about theology and it’s not so that they can be better at teaching kids Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics or Kathryn Tanner’s theological anthropology (not that it would be really bad for people to know that stuff).
There is one reason that youth workers really should be reading and doing theology, and it’s the same reason every child of God should be doing theology—to participate in the life and being of God in lived experience and in the lives of others. As Jürgen Moltmann writes, “The true theology of ‘the children of men’ [quoting Proverbs 8:30–31] is participation in the delighted loveplay of the divine Wisdom, which interpenetrates everything created. …It is the profound, unreasoning pleasure in God’s presence…”1
The reason we read and do theology is so that we can better see where God is present in the lives of young people, so that we can be open to its disruption, and so that we can participate in what God is doing there. Theology gives us eyes to see our work as God’s ministry. As Root puts it, “A youth ministry that turns to the theological seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God.” If your theological reading isn’t helping you do that, you’re either reading the wrong theology or (more likely) you’re reading theology in the wrong way.
So yes, youth workers do need to read theology. But not so that they can teach theology to kids. Only so that they might be awakened to the theological, to the presence of God, in the lives of young people.
1. Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology, p. 25
Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He’s been in youth ministry for over ten years and holds an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at University of Aberdeen. He lives in Toms River, New Jersey, with his wife Amanda and their son Henry.