I am not a Youth Minister. I never wanted to be a Youth Minister. The thought of corralling and dealing with 30 or so High Schoolers or Junior Highers makes me break out in a cold sweat. But, I have great respect for those that are brave enough to rush into the fray and pastor this portion of the parishioners. After all, adolescents are just less nuanced adults – and most adults barely function above the level of adolescence anyway.
But even though I have no desire to jump into youth ministry, it doesn’t mean I don’t like reading books about youth ministry. A lot of what comes out of that ministry circle is gripping in both theological and ministerial scope. Such is the case with Taking Theology to Youth Ministry. Andrew Root (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is the Olson Baalson associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, Minnesota). He is passionate about students, discipleship, spiritual maturity, and asking the question: ‘What’s the point of youth ministry?’ In Taking Theology to Youth Ministry, Andrew Root takes you along the journey of Nadia – a fictional youth pastor who is trying to understand the ‘why’ behind her ministry. As Root unwinds her journey, he helps you uncover the action of God as it pertains to you, your ministry and the world around you. And throughout the book he encourages you to discover how you can participate in that action.
Andrew Root does a great job of deconstructing youth ministry, exposing its faults, lauding its successes – and then reconstructing it in such a way that it serves as a more holistic approach to reaching this church demographic.
He explores the reasons why ministers approach their ministry the way they do by exposing their motives. If your motives are wrong, the outcomes may be outwardly successful, but inwardly bankrupt. Here is an excerpt from the book:
“As a youth pastor, my intention is to love every kid for who he or she is. But at a deeper, perhaps even unconscious level, my motivation might be to see … indications that their faith is growing, because that will prove that my ministry is a success. And in such a situation, there will be times where my intentions (to love every kid for who they are) get trampled by my motivation (to see signs of growth in kids, whether in their prayer life or acts of social justice). We often try to smother our motives, never honestly acknowledging or wrestling with them, perhaps hoping that if we can be clear in stating our intentions, then our motives don’t really need to be dealt with.”
He advocates for getting our motivations right and letting the outcomes be a natural expression – instead of carefully concealing our motivations with layers of good looking actions. His goal for youth ministry is to have kids engage the concept of God acting in history, understanding what that looks like, and learning how to partner with God as He works now in our present world. Here is a snippet:
“I contend that at its core youth ministry is about participating in God’s own action. The purpose of youth ministry is to invite both young and old to participate in God’s action. Youth ministry, like all ministry, seeks in humility to be swept up into God’s own action, and therefore to participate in God’s activity in our world.”
Finally, here is 4 ways in which ministry can teach kids how to discover God personally instead of just reading about Him from a distance:
1. Action over Frozen Doctrine
We see theology not as the process of thinking that connects our action with God’s, but as the doctrinal seat belt, the safeguard that keeps our ministry from dangerous errors. Yet, if we’re honest, we know teenagers’ hearts are rarely set ablaze by the heat of doctrine; doctrines are too stilted, too linear, and often too cold to light a fire in a fifteen-year-old’s heart. But at its core, theology is not doctrine; it is reflection on the action of a God who encounters dead and impossible realities for the sake of life. Doctrine is necessary and important, but it is not primary. The action of God— in our lives and in Scripture— is primary. Doctrine is to serve God’s action. What makes one a theologian in youth ministry is not her ability to repeat doctrines but her ability to notice and speak to God’s presence in the context of the lives of her young people.
2. Mystery Over Frozen Knowledge
When we free theology from subordination to doctrine, when we make the action of God the content of theology, we are pushed into mystery. By focusing on the act of God, we make the assertion that what we see is not all there is, that there is more to reality than can be perceived. Young people already sense this in their being; they sense that to exist is more mysterious than rational, that there is more hidden within existence than we are able to know. When we see theology as simply imposing doctrine, we actually cut young people off from searching the mystery of their very existence.
3. Issues Over Frozen Principles
At its heart, all theology is practical. Theology is to assist the people of God in participating in the action and mystery of God. This means that good theology, although it dwells in mystery, cannot be abstract. It cannot be a collection of principles with no real connection to our lives. Theology may call us to think big thoughts, but these big thoughts are embedded in our very lives. As we’ve said, we know God through God’s own action, and God’s action is found in the stories of our lives and the lives of the people of God throughout history. This means theology is more about issues than principles; it is about confronting the realities we face rather than a static set of principles.
4. Questions Over Answers
Theology [should be] more active than static, more about seeking God in the issues of our lives than in books and intellectual arguments. Theology [is] the invitation to participate with God in a new reality, in the mystery of God’s own activity in the world… theology primarily [is] practical, as a way of “faith seeking understanding” next to our deepest yearnings.
Taking Theology to Youth Ministry grabbed my attention precisely because of what I said in the beginning of this post – adults are just more finely nuanced adolescents. So what speaks to youth will also speak to adults. And if getting kids to ask better questions helps them engage a living God – I dare say it will also helped us “bigger” kids do the same.