James grew up in church and was even a student leader in youth group his junior year of high school. He doesn’t look back with resentment on his church life, but that’s mostly because he doesn’t think about it at all. Most of his youth leaders were helpful and he’s thankful for them. He enjoys seeing them when he visits church for Easter and Christmas.
Nothing major happened that led James away from the faith he was raised to believe. There were small things here and there: a difficult breakup, a few hard conversations with friends, lots of uncertainty about what to study in college, and a parent who got sick (but recovered). But James doesn’t consider any of them to be the final straw. He simply outgrew his faith and moved on.
Every veteran youth worker knows students like James. Too many of them. These are students who we’ve poured our prayers and ministry in to, and yet they’ve walked away. Why?
As tempting as it is to say “Here’s why, and here’s how to fix it!” it would be irresponsible to make those statements. But here are a few general observations we can draw from James and others like him.
Remember Our Mission: Lifelong Disciples
The mission of youth ministry is not to make teenage disciples, but adult disciples whose faith took root during their teen years. I believe this captures the biblical drive behind ministry to children and youth. This core conviction shapes the way we structure our ministries.
In an effort to minister to students like James, many of us can look for quick-fixes and better resources. But I’m increasingly convinced we need to pause and ask a bigger question: “What even is youth ministry?”
We need to build on a biblical foundation of what youth ministry is. That important question is overlooked all too frequently to our own peril. It’s a great question to throw out for discussing during your next parents’ or leaders’ meeting.
This question is one way we can build our youth ministry on a solid biblical and theological foundation. If we want to pursue theological depth but we’re built on a pragmatic foundation that primarily cares about “what works” or “what gets kids in the door,” then our ministry’s foundation will be at odds with our mission of making lifelong disciples. As they say, “theology drives methodology.”
A Faith That’s Big Enough to Grow Into
When we advocate for theological depth, we aren’t advocating for youth pastors to become theology professors in the youth room. Instead, we want youth workers to embrace the truth that youth ministry is theological ministry. If we want to invite students into lifelong faith then we need to train students to live theologically.
As teenagers transition from childhood to adulthood, they’re beginning to question what they’ve always assumed was true. Much of that is because they’re encountering people with different worldviews both online and offline. When we assume that teenagers agree with what we’ve always taught in the face of these differing viewpoints, then we’re leaving them on their own to navigate these newfound questions. Theological ministry engages those questions and creates space for open conversation about uncomfortable topics.
Sometimes, teenagers simply need a safe person who isn’t named “mom” or “dad” to present their questions to. And when they do ask, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions that they’re abandoning their faith. Maybe they just need to ask their question out loud, or to verbally process a new idea. In these cases, may the patience God has shown us give us courage to be patient with our students.
In this way, theological depth in youth ministry isn’t always about what we preach and teach. It’s about our overall approach to evangelism and discipleship. Our theology shapes the structure and program of our ministry. Our theology shapes the way we teach and preach. Our theology shapes the way we counsel students and parents in times of crisis. Theological depth is the biblical foundation for our entire ministry.
The Cost of Neglecting Theological Depth
Historically, youth ministry has been skeptical about the role of theology. As people say, “theology divides,” so it’s often kept on the sidelines in favor of unity and partnership for the gospel. I sympathize with the desire for unity, but I have found deep and meaningful unity with fellow youth workers with whom I genuinely disagree over important doctrines.
Building on theological depth provides clarity and steadiness while ministering to a generation whose culture is constantly changing.
When you build on a theological foundation, then you have clarity on the foundational building blocks of your ministry. You know that you are going to teach the Bible, preach the gospel, and talk about the Triune God with confidence. If you sideline theological depth because you assume students aren’t interested, then you’re going to chase trends make the gospel seem cheesy or cliche.
What is a Christian?
Building on theological depth isn’t about us trying to form theological scholars, but Christians. And if we aren’t committed to raise students to be Christians, then what good are we?
The majority of teenagers today self-identify as Christian, and yet nearly half of those teenage Christians believe Jesus was a good teacher but not God. More than half agree that religious belief is a matter of personal opinion (rather than objective truth). You can read more statistics here (I filtered the youngest age group and checked all those who professed to be some variety of Christian).
My point is this: Are we teaching basic Christianity to our teenagers? If we aren’t teaching Christian doctrine then we shouldn’t be surprised when they profess to be Christians but reject essential Christian teachings. This is why it’s a good idea to teach through the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, or your church/denominations’ Confession or Statement of Faith. These clearly and succinctly highlight important foundational Christian truths like the deity of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the doctrine of sin, and the reality of the resurrection. Without these truths, we shortchange our students.
What sets Christianity apart from other religions and worldviews?
Teenagers live in a pluralistic and diverse world. When I was a teenager in the 90’s, I’d hear missionaries talk about people from other religions and cultures, but they were always distant and out of reach. Now my teenage son plays video games with or watches social media created by people from around the world every day. The world is smaller, and worldviews interact with each other constantly—hence, Gen Z’s commitment to tolerance.
Avoiding theology because you want to promote unity may easily trickle into your ministry culture to the point where you hesitate to identify the ways in which Christianity is different from other religions.
Building on theological depth sets a ministry culture where hard questions are consistently welcomed and easy answers are avoided. It promotes genuine conversation about the distinctives of our faith.
What does it mean to be human?
Gender, sexuality, and mental health are, without a doubt, the most common questions teenagers ask about when given the opportunity. They are constantly bombarded with messages at school and on social media. Parents and youth workers can easily feel overwhelmed and confused about how to respond.
Building on theological depth means your response to these difficult and sensitive issues flow from your theological and biblical commitments. It’s far too easy to simply respond in a way that we believe is pastoral, without genuinely digging into the biblical truths that need to guide our response.
My pastoral heart breaks when I think about former students like James. It’s easy (and tempting) to look back and beat myself up. “If I had only been clearer about what it meant to be a Christian, then maybe he would’ve grown into his faith instead of growing out of it.” “If I set a ministry culture where hard questions were welcomed then he would’ve talked about the questions and struggles he kept to himself.” “If another leader or I spent more time investing in him then maybe we could have kept a personal connection with him instead of him fading away, and not noticing until it was too late.”
Building on theological depth also means that we can find rest in the sovereign providence of God. We are called to be faithful ambassadors of Christ, but we place our full confidence in God to bear fruit in our students’ lives. He will not abandon James, and he won’t abandon us either.
We hope you can join us for our 2023 Rooted Conference in Nashville, TN where Mike will give a workshop on “Pursuing Theological Depth in Youth Ministry.” Be sure to also check out Mike’s website Youth Pastor Theologian, full of theologically-rich resources for students and youth pastors.