Imago Dei in Youth Ministry

Rooted asked contributors: How will a theological concept you’ve learned or come to understand better influence or change the way you do things in the new school year?  This article is one in a series of what they had to say.

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Genesis 1:27

Yesterday I looked back over the notebook I kept for six years while working as a youth minister in Charlottesville, Va.  This was the place where I created the youth calendar, wrote retreat talks, organized curricula and crafted bible study after bible study.  As I scanned the pages, I was stunned to see that not only had I taught before on the reality of imago dei (the image of God), but I had also done so with what appeared to be a pretty robust understanding of it.

I say “stunned” because it took going to a fantastic seminary counseling program and having my identity (the way I relate to myself, God and others) turned upside down and inside out for God to really create a deeper understanding of the crucial place this doctrine has in a healthy theology.

I had imago dei down in word and thought, but I did not have it down in heart. I had not penetrated my understanding of relating to myself, others and God. It, unknowingly, merely rested in the theoretical and abstract recesses of my theology to be taught but not deeply known and felt.

I knew myself as a deeply broken sinner who was completely unrighteous, unable to merit my own salvation and possessing of a heart that was “deceitful above all else” (Jeremiah 17:9).  I lived in Romans 3:10-12: “no one is good but God; no one is righteous, not even one.”  And these verses are absolutely true.  But they are not the full picture of God’s design of man.

When we hold man’s depravity (his utterly sinful bent) in tension with his dignity (the reality that God created him in His image in a way that means His very glory is displayed individually in each of us), we do a much better job of conveying the story God tells us about His kingdom in Scripture.  Yes, pointing to man’s depravity allows us to paint a glorious picture of His grace as manifest in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross on our behalf because of the contrast it presents.

However, we must keep an eye out for the glory, beauty, and mystery God has created us for and in, which we first see in Scripture through the doctrine of imago dei.  It does not answer the conundrum of sin (there, we need the word of the cross John 19:30: “It is finished”), but it does set the stage for God’s original design of man and His fantastic reflection in him.  It helps us to look for the dignity in one another that God has placed there to reflect Him in a unique way.  It helps us to call out the dignity of our students, even, as the Holy Spirit leads, and it changes the way we understand ourselves.  I am less afraid to celebrate the fantastic, individual gifts God has bestowed upon students for fear they will miss how sinful they are, and I am less afraid to acknowledge and accept my own.

Depending on our context for ministry, the population we work with will tend to fall off on one side of the horse or the other (living more in belief of their dignity or more in belief of their depravity), so we must read, know, and pray about our setting in order to teach and speak God’s truth into it well.  For me, the heightened depravity-teaching setting meant that I needed more of God’s grace in order to really believe and claim (at a heart level) that I have been made in God’s good and glorious image and to let that reflect in the teachings of my ministry.

It is worth asking yourself the question, “Do I have an easier time believing the reality of imago dei about myself or the reality of being totally depraved?” Because as we live as Romans 7 sinners, saved by God’s grace, we live in a tension that desperately needs the whole story of God’s redemptive plan, begun before time through His Son, Jesus Christ.  This is a place of tension that acknowledges deep, continued need for the Holy Spirit and invites students to wrestle with the truths of Scripture.  This manifests in how we write our Bible studies (do we ask questions about that tension?), our talks and our Sunday school lessons.  And it hugely impacts how we relate to one another, God and ourselves.

Liz Edrington serves as the Fellowship Groups and Young Adults Director at North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, TN. She received her M.A. in Counseling from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, and she has worked with students in one form or another since 2002. She is an emeritus member of the Rooted steering committee, and she's the author of a 31-day devotional for teenagers called Anxiety: Finding the Better Story (P&R Publishing, 2023). Pickled things delight her, as does her snuggle beast, Bella the Dog.

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