What role does theology play in youth ministry?
What kinds of theological and existential questions do teenagers want to explore? And how well (or poorly) do churches typically do at helping them sift through the answers?
That’s a question some seminary professors are beginning to ask, including Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean, authors of the 2011 book “The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry.” Root, an associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and Dean, professor of youth, ministry and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, make the case that youth ministers are by definition theologians — absorbed in the heart-and-soul questions young people want to ask about God.
“Young people are not bored by theology,” Dean writes in the introduction to the book. “They are bored by theology that doesn’t matter … . Young people long to be taken seriously.”
In a recent interview, Root explained more about what he sees beginning to happen in youth ministry.
Margins. Creasy and Root write that youth ministers tend to operate on the margins of the church — where young people often are found as well. “Youth ministry has only recently emerged as a viable option for pastoral ministry,” Dean wrote. She also wrote: “Despite youth ministry’s long history, its practice has often been viewed by senior pastors and academics as lightweight.”
To some extent, youth ministers may perch on the margins partly by choice. “Sometimes it’s been celebrated as being on the margins,” by folks saying essentially “we’re the kind of people who are crazy enough to work with young people,’ Root said in the interview. “We’re crazy in a good way.”
That approach sometimes has carried with it a kind of “hyper-pragmatism that was really good at taking action, but not so good at being reflective about that action,” Root said.
He is starting to see that mindset change. Some youth ministers — both seminary-trained and not — are intentionally becoming more reflective and more theologically focused. Root thinks that, by doing that, youth ministers could provide pastoral leadership to congregations in which increasing numbers of adults also are questioning, as many teenagers do, whether they want to be part of the institutional church.
Questions. Teenagers don’t have a great history of sticking with church. “Intense interest in spirituality still fails to translate into adolescent church
involvement in most Protestant congregations,” Root writes in the book. More than half of those confirmed as adolescents will leave the church by age 17, he writes.
That happens, Root says, at the same time teenagers are wrestling with identity formation and deep existential questions. “All of us are really asking this question `What is a lifetime and how do we live it?’ ”
What does it mean to be an embodied person?
What does it mean to exist?
Root encourages youth ministers to respond theologically, by making room for young people’s questions about God, humanity, relationships and meaning — and about the connections they see between their questions and lived reality, the kind of concerns that echo through the music they listen to, the books they read, the films they watch.
“Don’t be scared to invite young people to articulate experience and questions about the presence of God, and about where God is not found,” he said. “Where God isn’t is often the place where theology becomes really interesting.”
Doubts. That may not be the kind of conversations, however, that some churches encourage.
Some conservative Protestant congregations focus on ways to “keep our kids good,” Root said. “We’re really worried about the moral corruption of culture. We’re worried about sex outside of marriage. We’re worried about drinking and drugs … We send them to youth group so they will stay good.”
Mainline congregations may be consumed with survival. “We’re really worried that in a generation or two there will be no one” to keep alive the traditions. Some conclude that “we need to do youth ministry essentially to make more Presbyterians … to turn them loyal to our brand, in some sense.”
What drives both these approaches, Root said, is “this fear that our churches are going to be empty and our kids are going to turn out bad.”
Youth ministers who think theologically are more focused on giving teenagers space, resources and support to explore their questions — even if their doubts persist.
On theological matters, some teenagers may not be sure what they really believe.
You leave church, “you do believe now, and then in two hours you’re filled with doubt,” Root said. “In some ways I think the parents feel that too, but they don’t think they should say it.”
It makes some adults anxious to think teenagers might leave church on a given night with persistent questions rather than being certain of the answers, Root said. But youth ministers can guide young adults in thinking theologically about the big questions — such as how God interacts with humanity in the midst of evil and suffering, or about what makes a meaningful life.
Root said churches tend to reward teenagers to assimilate to church values and think in middle-class terms of progress and achievement, and to give the cold shoulder to those who have deep questions and fears.
He thinks of teenagers chiefly in terms of that second, more troubled model.
They are “people who are newly aware that they are stuck between possibility and nothingness,” he said. “Adolescence is when that is in Technicolor. You can do anything with your life, but you can’t play varsity soccer. You can do anything you want, but you can’t date that girl you’ve had the crush on for four years.”
Teenagers, he said, are people “who are wholly embedded in significant realities” — and are trying to figure out what that means.