The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry

By Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean, InterVarsity Press, 2011

Reviewed by Dr. Sam Baker, Associate Professor of Student and Family Ministries

Here’s a simple challenge. This coming Sunday carefully and cautiously approach the youth pastor in your church and ask, “What is your theology of ministry?” If he stares at you like you’re from the former planet known as Pluto, don’t be surprised. Unfortunately, it’s the response of most youth pastors today. If, however, you’re met with a well-crafted, carefully articulated response, one which makes sense both in theological and practical terms, consider yourself lucky.

As Kenda Creasy Dean, co-author of The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry notes, the turn in youth ministry is “…an era in which theological reflection is becoming the norm in youth ministry instead of the exception… it [youth ministry] has not always been concerned with theological reflection. This is not to say that theology wasn’t happening, or that youth workers didn’t care about theology. But it is to say that youth workers’ actions and self-conceptions were rarely informed by significant theological reflection.” Theological reflection is “becoming the norm?” This undoubtedly is a positive marker in the progress of youth ministry, isn’t it? It’s a rhetorical question.

Although The Theological Turn… reflects a different faith tradition than Corban follows, it still offers valuable points for consideration. It is divided into two parts, with Part I, “Theological Starting Points,” addressing the question, “What does theology have to do with youth ministry?” This section invites the reader to envision “practical” theology (over-and-against systematic or historical theology) as an integrative imperative for youth ministry practice. In this respect the authors emphasize the roles that experience, reflection, and action play in the outworking of youth ministry programs. They challenge academics and practitioners alike, “… that by seeing youth ministry as a theological task, theory and practice are held together. It is too often assumed that youth ministry is for doers and not for thinkers. Yet good doing demands good thinking.”

As the authors discuss what is required for “good thinking” to take place, they exhort youth ministers to return to a reformed “representative” theological tradition, pointing students to a shared experience of suffering—suffering common to all humanity—ultimately redeemed through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. This representative perspective, according to the authors, provides a way to hold a correct theology of humanity’s need and Christ’s atoning work together, connecting Jesus’ identity as a shared representative with His work of redemption. The authors note, “Youth intuit that salvation lies in finding someone who loves them enough to die for them, and the whole of adolescence is directed toward this end.”  Thus, the theological starting point for the turn in youth ministry begins with practical theology, which will begin to slide the center of youth ministry thought toward a historical and deeply traditional Christian understanding of shared suffering.

The second half of Part I offers suggestions as to how to initiate this kind of theological thinking. The language, however, can tend to be heavy with academic and theological jargon (e.g., historical dogmatics, kerygma, Bultmann’s existentialism, via negative hermeneutics) unfamiliar to many youth workers. It may even be overwhelming. And while the authors “raise the bar” by motivating youth ministers to think theologically, my concern with this section has more to do with wording which may not speak to all Christian faith traditions. The specific historical theological language advocated by the authors may detract from the importance of the message, and its implications for broad theological contexts of youth ministry.

Part II, “Theology Enacted,” focuses on the pragmatic side of youth ministry, providing methodological examples built on theoretical concepts addressed in Part I. This is the more easily digestible section of the book, as both authors demonstrate how theological considerations can be integrated into specific ministry contexts.

Topics include:

  • A biblical understanding of the miraculous: how the miraculous works within the meaning of suffering.
  • Sin v. sinning: how to talk with students about the doctrine of sin.
  • A theological perspective on adolescent hormones, desire, and sexuality.
  • An eschatological way of viewing camps, retreats, and conferences.
  • Outdoor trips: experiencing God and facing the crisis of reality.
  • Service and mission trips: global tourism, or seeking the suffering vagabond?
  • A catechetical model for confirmation: a suggested curriculum.
  • Merging eschatology and hope into the here-and-now.

Each of these chapters provides rich dialogue, mixed with practical implications for specific ministry programs. The authors draw on current hot topics within youth ministry, providing exactly the kind of integrative approach encouraged throughout the rest of book. The authors do an exceptional job demonstrating the rich theological thinking required and necessary for contemporary youth ministry.

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