Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Youth Theology - an Invitation

Youth ministry is often viewed as a side dish of the church. It is a way of dealing with a problem.  The problem is that young people are not involved in church.  This problem-oriented approach to youth ministry is bound to fail. What lies at the heart of profound ministry to youth is an unfettered proclamation of the gospel: "the Kingdom of God is at hand." If one concedes that youth do in fact have brains, and are capable of comprehending sermons, and Bible studies, then the uncomfortable question emerges: is there a theology worth captivating their attention? Is there truly a gospel message that speaks to them? If so, what is it?  If there isn't one, then what might it be?

Here are some potential theological launching points:

To be young is to be fully human.  Adulthood is not a destination, but another step on a journey of faith.  Babies, children, adolescents, teens, young adults, adults, and seniors are all human beings. One is not better than the other. Each has specific gifts that it offers to the community of the church at large. Language that puts down teenagers is just as oppressive and inappropriate as racist or sexist language.  Furthermore youthfulness is a state of being that crosses boundaries of race, gender, class, etc.  The experience of adolescence varies from person to person and group to group, and having dialogue among young people from various social locations can contribute to a richer church.

Bringing young people together in conversation, and adopting a theology that prioritizes their experiences will help contribute to living out the Kingdom of God hoped for by many people around the world. Because young people have an innate sense and experience of what it means to be both privleged and oppressed they are natural bridge builders between disparate groups. In other words, it may not be enough to teach young people how to serve the poor, for example.  Instead, placing a mirror in front of adolescents so that they might see how they are at times oppressed, and at times the oppressor would help them see the larger issues of justice and righteousness in the world today.  This will lead to a solidarity with people who greatly oppressed in the world. Solidarity will lead to social action and the building of a more just world.

What are the needs of youth?  What matters most to you? Creating justice with youth begins by creating justice for youth.  This is youth theology.


Daniel Rose said...

This is a much needed conversation. I have been thinking a great deal recently about the reality that youth are the church. I like how you called youth ministry the "side dish" of the church. I think most churches see youth ministry in this way.

I think the beginning is understanding again the role of covenant when it comes to families and child-rearing. With the great move in Western Christianity away from paedobaptism we have lost the vision of the covenant child. We no longer see continuity between generations and we are no longer trusting God for promises on each subsequent generation. As a result we treat children and youth as outsiders from the community of faith.

We feel the tension and as a result hire professionals (like me) to try and "win" kids to Jesus. The problem is that these kids are meant to be a part of this community. If we would engage them as people who are already "in" we would completely change how we interact with them. We teach them to love God and one another as opposed to "winning" them to Jesus. This would then free them up to embrace their mission as sent ones for Jesus earlier and making a more lasting impact on the world around them.

I think that's the starting point. What do you think?

Wesley Menke said...

Daniel Rose,

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and posting your thoughts. I agree with you. Youth and children should be considered full members of the church and taught to love God and neighbor, not be "won." I propose that the key to doing this is recognizing that youth and young people have essential gifts to give the church already. They are not a liability but an asset - theologically. They can teach as much about God as they can learn. Youth fully embody the image of God! Salvation isn't an event they experience when they are "old enough," but something that addresses their needs starting now and with a promise toward the future. The tendency you rightly criticize of having to "win" youth presupposes a subtle discrimination toward youth that because of their youthfulness they somehow need to be saved from it. It's as if the subtext of some youth ministry is that youthfulness is a sin that young people need to be saved from! What if youth were celebrated as made in the image of God, instead of inherently sinful beings in need of conversion?

Daniel Rose said...

Wesley, great question! I think you're right we need to celebrate youth and their youthfulness as expressions of God's image. There is a place for helping them understand their need for a savior but it really needs to be in the context of the whole.

It's sad, in our church right now there are some older people who want to "involve the youth" by having them be ushers or sit on a "youth" missions board. Could they not teach? Could they not lead music? Could they not serve as deacons?

Yes, their gifts are necessary to the church. We must be constantly evaluating how to fully involve and engage the emerging generations. I think that this is deeply tied into our understanding of the sacraments because they are so powerful for shaping our communities and betray our presuppositions.

Wesley Menke said...

Daniel, Of course their is a place for understanding the need of a savior for adults just as much for youth. I don't question this. My point is that culturally youthfulness is often depicted as something that is sinful, and young people need to be saved from it. Do you know what I mean?

Daniel Rose said...

Absolutely! I couldn't agree more.

tripp fuller said...

great post. excited about your project.

Anonymous said...

Just a few questions regarding your thoughts on this topic...

I disagree that kids are "THE church." What does the Bible say about when a person becomes a Christian? It indeed was an event. The Spirit revealed the gospel of Christ to the people, and they believed, were baptized and became followers of Christ.

Are not all people born as sinners and in a state of depravity? It is not youthfulness that youth need to be saved from. It is our innate love of sin that youth (and everyone) need to be saved from. And I would argue that the Spirit does the winning, not the pastor or youth leader. The pastor allows himself to be used by God to reach the youth.

How is "continuity between generations" with regards to the new covenant biblical? Abraham was promised his children (Jews) would be a part of the old covenant, but since Christ, the new covenant is established between believers (Jew and Gentile) and God through a personal relationship, and not ethnically.

What is the Church in your definition? Is it a group of people who believe in the gospel of Christ, or is knowledge of the gospel of Christ not necessary to be a part of the Church as you make it seem to be if infants can be part of the Church?

Why do youth need a saviour still if they are already part of the Church?