The Importance of Theology in Youth Ministry

When I was starting out in youth ministry one pastor told me that people tend to think of the youth pastor as the court jester. In other words, you are supposed to bring the fun, to crack up the room when the older people get too boring and serious. Sadly, with this stereotype in view, youth pastors can be notorious for thinking that theology is something only for the older people in the church.

Youth ministry models of the past tend to suggest that theology and youth ministry don’t mix very well.  Youth pastors are expected to be relevant, cool, cutting-edge, and fun. They are entertainers, saving the young people from archaic worship and monotone sermons and pulling them into an indoor theme park of excitement, video games and candy disguising a short talk that blends a comedy routine and a sermon that is really more of a motivational speech.

As youth ministers, we too can often draw these conclusions because most teenagers don’t know the New Testament was written in Greek, much less care about the Greek word for attitude in Philippians 2:5. That can deceive us into thinking that theology doesn’t matter much in youth ministry.  Au contraire, mon frere—not so fast.

In Philippians 1:9-10, the apostle Paul prays for the Philippian church, “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”  Love is often equated with feelings in our culture, but our goal as youth pastors is to help students ground that love in knowledge, which will ultimately help them grow in their faith. That knowledge includes theology—so for students to become mature Christians, they must have a strong theological foundation to their faith.

Generation Z is more serious than you think

In previous generations, many events devised by youth ministries were basically a diet version of secular culture. One example is beach week. High School seniors are notorious for having week-long post-graduation drunken escapades, especially if you live in a coastal area. The youth group solution has often been to have the same event, minus the alcohol and sex (adding in a little praise and worship doesn’t hurt either). The idea is better that they have their fun here than over there. 

Let me say that there is nothing wrong with that approach per se; lives can be changed at those events.  However, Generation Z (our current teenagers) wants something deeper. They aren’t impressed by a fun factor and they don’t expect church to compete with the entertainment industry. They want to find meaning in life. Research shows they are less into alcohol and sex, more into intellectual pursuits, value quality over quantity of relationships, and are more empathetic of others compared to previous generations[1].

Therefore, the youth ministry paradigm has to shift. Gone are the days of “if they have fun here, they will stay.” Instead, they will stay if they feel like the youth group shows genuine concern for others, specifically marginalized groups, and if the leader is willing to be authentic and help them wrestle with the deep questions of life.

Deep Questions Require Theological Reflection

Many teenagers wrestle with their faith, and most of the issues at the root of their wrestling are the deep theological questions that have plagued seekers throughout generations:

Is Jesus really the Son of God?

Why does God allow suffering?

How does faith line up with modern science?

What happens to people who have never heard the gospel?

As youth ministers, we help teenagers find the answers to these questions through theological study, the study of who God is and what he is like.

Most teenagers couldn’t care less about Arminianism and Calvinism. But the heart of that debate is the fairness of God: Why would a loving God hold people morally responsible for sins if they don’t have an adequate opportunity to understand their responsibility?  Fairness of any authority is a large issue for young people, and especially when that authority is God himself. But in order for the youth minister to adequately answer these questions, he/she must be schooled in many debates like the one between Calvinism and Arminianism and be able to translate the points of that debate into language students can understand.

An article from The Atlantic, which featured the testimonies of various young atheists—kids who were involved in church and then became atheist in high school or college—showed something interesting.  In fact, the title is “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity[2]” and it centered on the research of a Christian foundation learning the stories of how these ex-Christians came into their current belief system. There were numerous themes, but one stood out to me: They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.

One of the young atheists interviewed was once the leader of his church’s youth group. His youth minister’s Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that this minister didn’t dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions. The former youth group member reflected, that his youth minister ”didn’t always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn’t run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart.”

Now here’s the sad part. What turned the tide for this young man who now says he’s an atheist was that his church hired a new youth minister during his junior year of high school.  The church, in an effort to attract more young people, wanted the youth minister to teach less and play more. This difference of priority led to a change in leadership as his role model was replaced by someone who, in his words, “didn’t know a thing about the Bible.” When did this student begin lose his faith? You guessed it, around the end of his junior year.

This story illustrates why it is so important that youth ministers spend time teaching and training students to have a strong theological foundation. A shallow understanding of the gospel will not hold weight as students become adults and their faith is tested in various ways. More than just praying the sinner’s prayer” and “accepting Jesus into my heart,” students need a greater picture of the full counsel of God through creation, the fall, redemption and restoration. The robust theology we help them to build will point them to a deeper, more dynamic relationship with the God who sent his Son to die for them.

[1] Stanford News, “Gen Z are not ‘coddled,’” January 3, 2022.

See also: YS Blog, “Youth Differences from Millennials to Generation Z,” March 3, 2020.  Accessed April 21, 2022

[2] Accessed April 12, 2021, The Atlantic, June 6, 2013

Steve Eatmon has over 12 years of experience in youth ministry and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  Currently, he serves as the pastor to high school and middle school students at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland. He is married to Heather and they have two children, Ryan and Rachael.  

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