A Plea For Theologically Rich Youth Ministries
Youth ministry has come a long way over the past 20 or 30 years. Fading fast are the models of ministry that were heavy on entertainment and light on truth. I am glad for this! There’s nothing wrong with having fun in youth ministry; in fact, I think it should have elements of fun. But we know that youth ministries need to be built on much more than that.
I try to think like this: what have I given my students to hold on to for the day they hit rock bottom? Make no mistake about it. That day is coming. For some it has happened already. Life inevitably takes a turn for the worse and we are left barreling in a downward spiral until we crash-land at the bottom of a pit, with seemingly no help in sight and no way out.
Some of my students have had glimpses of that in their lives already through terrible hardship. Many have not. But the day is coming eventually. Will I have prepared them for it? Will I have given them anything to hold on to….
- when their parents get divorced?
- when they are abused?
- when their sibling is killed by a drunk driver?
- when they are diagnosed with cancer?
- when their future spouse cheats on them?
- when their child dies tragically?
We Are All Theologians
Youth ministers, paid or volunteer, have the amazing privilege of helping young people shape their worldview, values, and belief system that will sustain them (or not) for years to come. We have the opportunity of a lifetime to impact a young person’s life for the better and give them the tools and knowledge they need to navigate their way through life’s ups and downs. But even if we are people who steer-clear of building our youth ministries on entertainment, that doesn’t automatically mean we are doing a good job of discipling teens.
Here’s the reality: teenagers need good theology. Not just fluffy devotional thoughts, but serious and intellectually engaging doctrinal training. You want to know why? Because they already are theologians. They just have crappy theology. Theology simply means “God-talk” or “the study of God”. So if you ask a teen something like what do you think about God? and they have any kind of answer at all, it means they already have a theology. They have a way of understanding the world around them and a belief system that governs their actions, desires, and goals. But what they so desperately need, whether they realize it or not, is to have a biblical theology.
Give Them a Rock to Stand On
For instance, I recently spent four weeks in our youth ministry teaching on the sovereignty of God. These were not any kind of cutesy 15-minute talks peppered with cultural references. (All of my cultural references are outdated anyways.) This was four weeks of pretty intense theology, 30-40 minute studies going over dozens of Scriptures and putting together an understanding of God that sees him as ultimately in control of the universe and, on a more personal level, our own lives. What was very cool to see was the response from the students. Many of them were deeply affected by our study and said that it helped them build their faith in God, even when they could not understand what he was up to.
In other words, it put a rock under their feet. It gave them a stabilizing force with which they could endure anything that life throws at them. It helped them to believe that God was not only good, but also fully capable of bringing the most glorious things out of the ugliest ruins. Thank you Job, and Joseph, and Jesus for giving us such clear examples of this!
Not Just for Church Kids
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that good theology is only for church kids. It isn’t. In fact I have found that sometimes it’s the unchurched kids who are most interested. Good theology speaks to anyone who wants to make sense of the world around them, which basically is all of us. The only trick is to help young people see how it connects to everyday life. I’m not arguing for dry, theological lectures that essentially transfer information from one head to another. Instead, I’m arguing for passionate explanations of God and human life and how the two play together in ways that affect the big and small things of life. When you offer that to a teenager, they almost always eat it up.
Over the Cliff
One of the reasons that young people often don’t stay in church is that we never gave them the theological framework they needed to face life as a grown adult. We offered them Fishy Crackers when they were ready for steak. Make no mistake about it: teenagers are hungry! They hunger for someone to help them make sense of life and explain its ultimate purposes and meanings. They hunger for reasons as to why things are the way they are. They hunger for a vision of the way things could be, and how they play a part in bringing it about. And, quite frankly, the Church isn’t always offering them much to satisfy those appetites. But the world is. And so like anyone with a growling hunger, they go where they are going to be fed.
Unfortunately, dropouts are inevitable. Jesus said so himself. But we can still do much to limit the loss, and one major component is giving kids good theology. And it’s not just for their own personal issues. It goes much wider than that. They simply won’t be able to withstand the various cultural crisis that face them either without a good theology:
- Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?
- Why can’t a man use a woman’s changeroom, or vice-versa?
- What makes people think science and God are at odds with each other?
- Why shouldn’t I move in with my boyfriend/girlfriend?
And so on and so on.
Our students need great youth ministries, and we simply aren’t great if we aren’t rich in theology. Open the Bible and teach them the Word of God. Help them to study it for themselves. Shine a light on truth and let God’s Spirit do his work in their minds and hearts. Don’t shrink back, but labour to be able to say with the apostle Paul:
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:26-27)