I have to admit, I may be a little biased with this first attribute of a youth minister able to transition towards a Neo-Youth Ministry. During my junior year of college, I gave consideration to going into the world of academics and heading straight for seminary (and a subsequent Ph.D.) after undergrad. But my wife had plans of med school, and I didn’t want to be living off of student loans, so I defaulted back to the original plan of being a youth minister. I still have dreams of one day doing to seminary and possibly completing a doctoral degree, but for now, I do youth ministry and plan on continuing that for a long time.
Regardless of my own personal bias, I am convinced that a full-time youth worker needs to take seriously, or at the very least be consciously aware of, his or her role as a theologian. Now, I am not advocating that youth ministers start working on systematic theologies (although that might be nice) or giving lectures on propitiation and supralapsarianism. However, I am convinced that we are all theologians at one level or another, whether you are a trained academic theologian or an atheist. No matter who you are, you have some concept of God (or non-God) in your head that fundamentally affects the way you live your life.
As people called to disciple teenagers, youth ministers are concerned with teens orienting their life around the Way of Jesus Christ; ours is an explicitly theological endeavor. Yet, many youth ministers (and senior pastors and parents) tend to deemphasize the role of theologian when it comes to being a youth minister. They are expected to plan fun events, counsel, and teach Bible studies. And somehow they are supposed to shape the community of God without being a theologian (how you can teach a Bible study without being considering yourself a theologian is beyond me).
Well, it is high time that churches realize that we are theologizing our teens no matter what we do. The question that youth ministers need to begin to ask is “what theology are we communicating?” Given what I teach, what theology does that communicate? Given how I teach, what theology does that communicate? Given the way in which we gather and structure youth group, how are we theologizing our teens? It is not a question if you are imparting a theology to your students, but what kind of theology.
When you come to this realization, there tends to be a “Oh wow, if everything we do contributes to the theology of our teens, then 1.) What kind of theology should we communicate? and 2.) How do we go about that?” This is why the youth minister must become a theologian. The first step is to determine what you want to be communicating to your teens. This comes through Bible study, reading, discussing, etc. in order to highlight the most important theological facets of your ministry. Many youth ministers go through this stage initially during college or seminary. Others do it on the fly by reading and studying theology and the Bible. Regardless, foundational to your ministry must be the various theological components that you want to shape the lives of your students. Thus, you must become a theologian.
Next, you have to figure out how to communicate this theology, which turns in many ways to the discipline of practical theology. If you want to communicate the truth and relevance of the Christian community (ecclesiology) but the only time your kids gather is in a group of 150 for games, songs, and a sermon, then you are embodying something different than community. You are teaching that the Christian life is consumption of propositions from a single, authoritative, human source.
Rather than asking, “How can I teach about this theological truth?” a better question to ask would be “How can our community embody this theological truth?” Too often we think that if we cover a topic in Sunday school or small groups we have succeeded in communicating the important theological truths to our students. We need to get beyond that and help shape our practices in such a way that it complements and reinforces our “book” theology.
I am not saying that teaching theology in Sunday school or small groups is pointless, because it is not. Teaching in such a setting gives students the language to describe and interpret their experiences and practices. But talk alone will allow other experiences and practices to shape our students in contradiction to the theology they are “taught”.
Youth ministers are doing theology whether they know it or not. The goal is to become conscious of this role, define our goals, and implement those goals holistically. A Neo-Youth Ministry must take seriously the youth minister’s role as theologian.