A Letter to Youth Workers. . . (aka “Theologians”) . . .

“We’re not going to be talking about theology here.” I’ve heard that statement uttered many times as a preface to a youth ministry training session. I’m not sure that maybe I haven’t said something like that myself on occasion. If so, please forgive me. I don’t ever want to say it again.

Theology matters. If ministry practices are suggested after being preceded by a statement like “This isn’t about theology”. . . well . . .RUN!! Theology is about a God who has established an order and parameters within which human beings  are able to flourish rather than perish. Youth ministry strategies and practices are always informed by theology. . . either theology that is done consciously (which increases the chances of it being good theology), or theology that is done unconsciously (which increases the chances of it being bad theology). Of course consciously-done theology can be erroneous, and unconsciously-done theology can be sound and spot-on. But to assume that youth ministry strategies, responses, and practices can be done without theology is just flat out wrong.

Take for example what might be the most-pressing youth ministry issue we are facing today: developing ministry responses to the fast-changing cultural shifts regarding love, sex, marriage, and gender. Our youth ministry strategies, responses, and practices on these matters are always downstream from theology. . . whether we are paying attention to what’s upstream or not.

I recently read a fantastic and timely article on the importance of theology written by Kevin Vanhoozer in “First Things” magazine (August 2018). . . “Letter To An Aspiring Theologian: How To Speak of God Truly.” Read that title again. . . “Letter To An Aspiring Theologian: How To Speak of God Truly.” If you are doing youth ministry, you are an “aspiring theologian.” And, if you are doing youth ministry, your greatest responsibility is to “speak of God truly.”

Let me be blunt here. There’s been a slow side in our youth ministry world away from consciously doing theology first, into somewhat thoughtlessly embracing methodologies, practices, and strategies. And in our running first to the pragmatic, our youth ministries in the end might wind up being counter-productive. Each of us must hope that this isn’t true in our own case, because if it is, we will have nurtured kids into living lives that are compro-cultural rather than lives that our counter-cultural and glorifying to God.

That said, would you take some time to read and ponder Kevin Vanhoozer’s letter to you? . . .

I was delighted to receive your letter asking about the best route to becoming a theologian. Let me confess up front: I’m still in via myself. My business card should identify me not as research professor but perpetual pupil of theology, though if it did, you probably wouldn’t be writing to me. I need to underline the point: Theology is neither a nine-to-five job nor a career. To know and speak truly of God is a vocation that requires more than academic or professional qualifications. The image you should have in mind is not the professor with a tweed jacket, but rather the disciples who dropped everything to follow Jesus. Becoming a theologian means following God’s Word where it leads with all one’s mind, heart, soul, and strength.

Let me say a few more things about what theology is and why it matters, just to make sure we’re on the same page. Theology is the study of how to speak truly of God and of all things in relation to God. But theologians can’t approach the object of their study. . . Finish reading the rest of the article here.

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