Several years ago, a friend and I had an ambitious dream to gather several of our peers in youth ministry and write a book together, with each person taking one chapter. As it would turn out, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs (or rather, our brains were bigger than our, well, brains), and the book never came together. I’m not sure if anyone else wrote their chapter, but even if they did, we never followed up to collect them. We also were much newer to ministry than we are now and much newer than the authors of the truly helpful youth ministry books. But I did write my chapter, and it was about the importance of knowing what you believe. It was about theology, and I titled it “The More You Know, The More You Grow.” I felt then, as I do now, that studying and understanding theology is a crucial discipline for youth workers if we’re going to do anything meaningful.
I’ve been encouraged in the years since writing that chapter to see theology more prevalent in youth ministry. In 2011, Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean published The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry” and in the years since there has been a greater emphasis on theology in youth ministry. I believe, however, that the work is not done. Too many youth ministries are still void of theology, settling for the stuff on the surface. We have to go deep into our study of who God is and what we believe about him, in order to convey that truth to the teenagers God has entrusted us with. And I also want to point out that we cannot embrace theology at the expense of practice, of actually doing something (I’ll talk more about that in this blog post and in others). As theology is one of the primary topics I plan to talk about in this blog, I thought it would be prudent to lay a foundation for that. Why is theology important for youth ministry? There are two reasons I want to present today, to lay the groundwork for future discussions.
1. Theology helps us know our God better, and as a result to grow in likeness to him
We believe that God created us to be in relationship with him, and that the relationship is restored when we are saved. One of our primary goals in our faith journey is then to know God better, right? In all the other relationships in our life, when we want to know the person better, we do a few things. We get to know them as we communicate with them, primarily through our listening. We study them – their habits, mannerisms, likes, dislikes, etc. We can learn about someone through other people, but if we really want to know them as best we can, we have to do the work of getting to know them personally. Why don’t we do the same thing with the most important relationship in our life?
If we are going to listen to God and study him, then theology has to play a major role in that (it does mean “the study of God” after all). I think I should clarify what I’m talking about when I say theology. I’m talking about systematic biblical theology. Studying God’s Word in a thorough way to understand what it reveals about him. I’m not talking about natural theology, spiritual theology, ecumenical theology, or even practical theology, although I think some of these disciplines have a lot of merit. I’m not talking about theology in a nebulous way, like we do sometimes in our Christian circles. I’m talking about an in-depth study of the Bible and understanding why we believe what we do about God. The Bible is God’s primary means of communicating with us, so shouldn’t it be the first place we look to know him more? If someone in our life wrote us a book revealing who they are, we’d be lunatics to toss it aside and say to them, “So tell me about yourself.”
As we study God and his Word, we will grow in our knowledge of him, and that’s a very important thing. Jeremiah 9:23-24 records the words of the Lord on the matter of knowing him: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” We are often proud of our creative ideas, our attendance numbers, or our connections with teenagers. We should not be boasting in those things, but rather in our knowledge of God. Knowing God is central to our relationship with him.
However, I want to add a caution as we consider the importance of theology. As someone who is analytically minded, I appreciate the intellectual side of theology. But if theology stays in our minds, then what good is it? While the Bible talks a lot about knowing God and being transformed in our minds, it also talks an awful lot about loving God and being transformed in our actions. It is not good enough for me to simply grow in knowledge about my wife. I can know what her favorite drink from Starbucks is, but if I never use that knowledge in a loving act, it’s worthless. Theology has to be an exercise of the mind and the heart. As we progress in our life, we should progressively become more like Christ, and in order to be like him, we have to know what he is like. Theology has to play a foundational role in our life of faith.
2. Theology helps us shepherd faithfully
Not only is theology important for our personal life, but it is also important because of our role to disciple teenagers. If we want to actually make a difference in the lives of the teenagers we serve, we have to know what we believe and why we believe it. We aren’t doing them any favors if we’re never able to go in depth and discuss things like God’s sovereignty, the problem of evil, or the atonement. In their middle schools, high schools, and colleges, they are confronted with questions and challenges to their faith, and often have questions themselves. How can we faithfully lead them if we aren’t working to understand ourselves?
I’ve actually heard youth pastors say things like, “I’m just not a theology guy.” Are you kidding me? Then what are you doing in ministry? I’m not saying that everyone in ministry has to be an expert in theology. I’m just saying that we can’t toss it aside, and ought to be seeking to grow in this area. The New Testament writers are incredibly clear that pastors and teachers in the Church are responsible for leading the people in their care, specifically in the area of doctrine. How can we possibly expect ourselves to help teenagers know what is true and what is false if we don’t have thought-out answers ourselves? We should take James’ warning more seriously when he writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”1
My current title is Minister of Students, and while I don’t have “pastor” in my title, there are some people who call me Pastor Alex. I appreciate that, but don’t expect everyone to, and most parents, teens, and other people just call me Alex. I’ve also known youth workers who get bent out of shape for not being called “pastor”, and I think that’s relevant to our current discussion. Instead of being so concerned with what people call us, why don’t we actually act like pastors? We are responsible for pastoring (shepherding) the teenagers in our care, and if that’s the case, then why don’t we hold ourselves to the same standards that we expect of our senior pastors, lead pastors, associate pastors, teaching pastors, and elders? Theology is crucial to our youth ministries because we have a responsibility to teach, disciple, and shepherd our teenagers faithfully, and how can we do that if we only have half-answers and rough ideas in our own life?
Systematic biblical theology is important for our personal lives, because it helps us know God better and grow in likeness to him. As we minister out of the overflow of our own hearts, this has an impact on our ministries as well. This type of theology then helps us shepherd faithfully, as we take seriously our responsibility to teach and pastor. I am excited to talk about theology with you in this blog, not to elevate it to an improper height but to see it’s necessity in our personal spiritual growth and in our ministries. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope you’ll follow along. I also hope this becomes a discussion, so I encourage you to use the comment section below. Let’s encourage each other to do youth ministry with excellence, to the glory of God.
- James 3:1 (ESV)