Theologians Beware

As the new Associate Professor of Youth Ministries at Northwest University, I’m playing quite a bit of catchup these days.  Though the past six years of my life have, practically speaking, been defined by the practice of local youth ministry, much of my academic time was focused upon Church History and the completion of my dissertation.  I’m excited that I have an opportunity to teach in both areas here at Northwest, but realize the daunting task it is to get up to speed as a (at least amateur) practical theologian of youth ministry.  Hence the catchup.

As yesterday’s somewhat inadequate post (and your helpful comments) showed, I am beginning to interact with some of the most vital current reflection in the field.  One set of reflections that I suspect will be foundational in years to come is the 2011 collection of essays by Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean entitled The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry.  It is a challenging and at times highly theological work, but worth reading for those very reasons.  More than a little of my blogging on youth ministry during the next months will likely be in dialogue with Dean and Root in this helpful volume.

By means of followup to a conversation begun by yesterday’s discussion and in an attempt to start the dialogue today, I offer two quotations from Root/Dean:

Young people are not bored by theology.  They are bored by theology that doesn’t matter.  (Dean, 22)

This all leads me to assert that to do theology you must be in ministry.  (Root, 40)

Two short sentences, but they contain multitudes.  Both point to the value of theology relative to its actual practice in life and its ability to speak into the reality of today’s adolescents.

I agree.

Early in my life as a believer, I really liked theology.  In the way one likes learning trivia or reading encyclopedias.  I ate it up and considered devoting my life to its study.  But then…well, seminary cured me of that.  After finishing my MDiv I largely walked away from the study of theology.  I suppose I was bored by it.  Other than as fodder for arguments or minutiae, what was the use, I wondered?

Take doctrines we love to teach: the Trinity and (for us Pentecostals especially) the Rapture.  People can get REALLY caught up in teaching them, and as a youth I was taught by well-intentioned elders who felt these things were important.  The Trinity: comparisons to an egg, the stages of water, apple pie.  You know how it works.  The Rapture: foreboding charts, scary movies from the 1970s, and endless desire to name the Antichrist.

Here’s the thing, though: I’ve spent the last six years in youth ministry largely ignoring these doctrines because they didn’t matter.  Now, before you start to argue with me and tell me how important a Trinitarian perspective is, I get it.  I do.  But most of the time it just doesn’t matter.  A lot of what tries to pass for vital teaching with youth (and others in church) can be boring dogma or, in Pentecostal circles, sanctified conspiracy theories or Holy Spiritized scholasticism.

If theology is “words about God,” then it must be more than an academic exercise in taxonomy.  What Root and Dean rightly assert is that words about God must be words about a God who is, by God’s own choice, intimately entwined in the life of Creation.  Who speaks in the midst of our lives.  Who sits with us through the doubts and fears and transitions in the passage of adolescence.

Everything in ministry needs to be about this God who is there.  Dogma apart from this will never suffice.

Can the Trinity, the Rapture, mission trips, service projects, confirmation classes, summer camps be vital bearers of God’s truth in our existence?  Yes.  But not the way we sometimes do them.

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One comment on “Theologians Beware

  1. Maxwell Mooney says:

    I completely agree with Root and Dean that theology is important and that students want theology as long as it’s practical and real.

    I do want to provide a little push back about the trinity. From my experience the trinity is one the most practical theologies we can ever study. It provides us with a deeper understanding of self and a deep understanding of community. These are immensely practical things and I think we can teach students in a way that espouses these values and makes it real for them.

    I look forward to continue reading all of your insights. We seem to be discovering similar things at the same time.

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