Is Theological Youth Ministry just the latest Buzz Word? Or is it really about God this time…

Posted: January 19, 2011 in Theological Youth Ministry

Purpose Driven
World View
One Eared Mickey Mouse


There are long line of buzz words that seem to change as often in youth ministry periodicals or books as color schemes change as to what’s in and what’s out in the fashion world.

I took a few moments today to read some very thoughtful folks discuss the theological movement in youth ministry. At first I glance I was grateful we youth ministers are finally diving into greater depths…then my pessimistic side wondered is Theological youth ministry just the latest buzz word for those ever changing periodicals? I mean take a look at my list above I bet some of you might even be able to pick out the years those words were used in every other title that Group, Youth Specialties, or your denomination publisher published.

Here is my hope: The theological youth ministry conversation is reforming youth ministry around Christ and his Word rather praxis, philosophy, or event culture.

Here is my fear: The theological youth ministry conversation is an intellectual exercise of a maturing profession flexing it’s newfound professionalism and proving it to the world who still thinks of it as a second class ministry.

I have more thoughts, but first… What say you?

  1. GREAT post, Jerry.

    Some of us have been doing theology in youth ministry for years – long before many non-denominational evangelicals “discovered” it. In some ways, this marks a natural progression of a new Christian. Consider:

    A young man named Chris, tired of the bar scene, connects with a co-worker who tells them about this sweet new church in town. Chris is wary about “church”; fraught with boring liturgy, early morning worship services, dozens of blue-haired old women who think they own the place, and stuffy preaching from an old white pastor. His friend assures him this new church is nothing like it. They have LCD screens, a rock band, a surfer dude that is called ‘pastor’, a lot of laid back young people, and a Sunday night worship service that doesn’t cramp his style. Chris is intrigued, so he goes to check it out. Everything about the church is ‘seeker-sensitive’ and benign. He loves it. After a few years of high-level involvement, Chris discovers that this church’s approach to ministry feels ‘comfortable’, but lacks depth and substance. Even his small group is a little thin; only reinforcing the surface-level content of the previous 45-minute sermon. He has profound questions that aren’t being answered…he wants worship that is connected to something beyond this group of 21st century hipsters…he becomes concerned that his financial contributions are being used to buy the latest technology for the expanding building, instead of being used for mission. He wants more than what is being offered, but he doesn’t know where to find it.

    Like Chris, many new evangelicals are discovering theology for the first time. For children that grow up in the church and are engaged in Sunday School, VBS, confirmation, etc. – they start to ‘discover theology’ in adolescence. Therefore, there is just as much need for theological youth ministry as there is for emerging theology in non-denominational churches. I hope that our adult leaders have the integrity to make this more than just another fad.

    • Jerry Watts says:

      Thanks so much for contributing so substantially everyone.

      Erik…I agree many of us, and many saints before us have been faithful theologians that reflect that in our youth ministry. I also agree that just like your friend Chris – youth ministry as an entity is maturing. My only counter might be that we who share a similar tradition (as you and I do) with rich theological depth have for the most part adopted a praxis in youth ministry that’s not shaped by our theology but rather the larger trends in youth ministry that have often been adopted by Christians in the evangelical tradition because it seemed their “stuff” worked. Really what I’m saying is so often our evangelical brothers and sisters have remembered what we have forgotten. There is a great satire about this in the Wittenburg Door magazine called: “Wisdom from a park bench-those wacky Lutherans… By Al Scheider” Tried to find a link for it but couldn’t 🙂 THANKS for the great conversation Erik!

  2. Matthew says:

    Good questions. For some, theological reflection in youth ministry may be the ‘next step’ in the development of youth ministry leaders, and in the building of congregational youth ministry. For others, it may simply be the next buzzword that gets used to reframe what’s already happening.

    If we allow new ideas and approaches to our profession to deepen the relationship we, and young people, have with Christ, then we’re growing in the right direction. If, however, we simply use the most recent buzzword to describe with new language what’s already happening, our faith is not maturing.

    And this issue is not confined to youth ministry. I’ve often said that the faith of many adults seems to have stagnated at a confirmation level ~ which is great for young people who are affirming their baptism, but not so much for the adults whose children are approaching that milestone.


    • Jerry Watts says:

      Great “$0.02” but I’d call it at least “$2.00” thanks for adding some great thoughts.

      I agree theological reflection is the next step for many. I thought your comment about using new language for saying the same thing gets at my concern about just flexing our intellect as opposed to truly focusing youth ministry on Christ and his Word. Let’s pray theology isn’t mere semantics but a true reflection of trust and transformation in us and in youth ministry!

  3. jeremy zach says:

    Interesting perspective. I like the direction you are going. I would suspect that being theological is really about God this time since THEOS is God and ology means the study of. So if it is good theology it should reflect God. However I don’t think theological is a buzz word. It is a word that has been carried through the centuries.

    I believe your “hope”: Here is my hope: The theological youth ministry conversation is reforming youth ministry around Christ and his Word rather praxis, philosophy, or event culture.” Is inherently theological.

    Paxis, philosophy, and culture all falls into the theological category of incarnation. I think these things things keep theologies that are Christ centered honest.

    In addition, Tony Campolo has called youth pastors dumb and not theological, so really the stereotype of youth pastors NOT thinking theologically definitely needs to be overturn. Plus, what is the worst thing that can happen if youth pastors starting thinking theologically?
    I don’t see a fear if youth ministry becomes more theologically bent. In fact, it may need it.

    • Jerry Watts says:

      Thanks Jeremy… I appreciated how you framed praxis, philosophy, and cultural reflection as an incarnational response to our theology. Well put.

      I agree in the span of history theology isn’t just a buzz word, and I SO agree that youth ministry NEEDS to be thinking and reflecting theologically. My hope is that we are being reformed by God’s Word and moved by the Spirit to consider theology first and let our incarnational move out of the Spirit and not the might or power of man. (Zech. 4:6 again)

      Hears a better way to articulate what I labeled as my fear. If theological language is used to show our intellect instead of redirecting our ministry to the sovereign authority of God then like Matthew said about we are simply using new jargon with the same old stuff.

      • jeremy zach says:


        You reinstated this beautifully: if theological language is used to show our intellect instead of redirecting our ministry to the sovereign authority of God then like Matthew said about we are simply using new jargon with the same old stuff.

        Great post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Do you have a RSS feed?

  4. Speaking as “an old white pastor,” all I can say is, “You mean I wasn’t doing theological youth ministry back in the 1980’s?

    • Jerry Watts says:

      thanks Dwight. your comment is in many ways my point…
      While it’s good that we are maturing a profession to articulate our theological reflection in our ministry…thanks be God that the Holy Spirit doesn’t wait for our own intellect to catch up with power of His Word
      ….then again since it was the 80’s maybe the leg warmers, stoner knee high moccasins, and tight izod prep shirts somehow interfered

  5. […] Ministry Jerry Watts, a blogger at Reform This, had an insightful post about whether or not “theological youth ministry is just a fad.”  I encourage you to read his […]

  6. Jerry Watts says:

    @Jeremy I had an RSS feed but I’m guessing since I’d been away from my blog since September wordpress updated and it dropped somehow. I’ll add a new one . Thanks for your kind words about the blog. I appreciate the opportunity to engage conversation with you and others. God Bless!

  7. Jeremy Myers says:

    Great to “see” you here. Nancy gives me updates whenever I see her. Congrats on the new call!

    So many thoughts . . .

    I wonder if we’ve just found out that “theological” might be the best adjective for youth ministry? Maybe that is what we always meant when we were using those other words; believing – for some reason – that theology was not “for” us. Maybe we are awakening to the fact that theology is the act of discerning and proclaiming what Christ has done, is doing, and might yet still do in our communities and the list of words you mention above are simply ways we go about practicing theology. So, – Is our practice of theology . . .

    Relational? – yes, always.
    Relevant? – hope so.
    Purpose Driven? – sometimes, filtered through the Cross.
    Family? – hope so.
    holistic? – should be.
    World View? – don’t think you can do theology without this.
    Paradigm? – seems to be the antithesis of theological reflection.
    One Eared Mickey Mouse? – hope not.
    Post-Modern? – inevitable?
    Emergent? – should always be emergent if it is always led by the Spirit.

    My other thought (and I experience this almost daily in academe) is that we do need to flex our muscles somewhat, in order to help others truly understand what it is we do. Our discipline is like no other and it has been pigeonholed. This not only jeopardizes our current practices but also our ability to attract and retain new, vibrant leaders who can help move our discipline forward.

    I hope “theological” sticks and I hope we continue to talk about how we going about “being theological” with and for our youth.

  8. Jerry Watts says:

    Thanks Jeremy! It’s great to “see” you too. I appreciated how you articulated the places that we’ve been have in some ways been attempts for God to remind us where we are going.

    As we look back on the Youth Spirituality Project you and I were influenced by which fundamentally re-orientated youth ministry on the Word and the work of the Spirit was foundational for me in articulating youth ministry theologically

  9. Rob Zahn says:

    Theological Youth Ministry is just another buzz word(s) annoying us like a fly or a gnat ‘buzzing’ in our collective ears. At first, it gets our attention and turns our heads in its direction. But like all the other ‘buzz’ words, we will soon enough swat this one away with a quick thwap of our hands.
    This is not to say that a theological perspective on youth ministry isn’t good. It is. In fact I think this approach, like many of the others on your list, enhance the ministry that is being to/with those in their first third of life. [bzzzzzzzz]
    You wrote: “Here is my hope: The theological youth ministry conversation is reforming youth ministry around Christ and his Word rather than praxis, philosophy, or event culture.”
    I would offer that all of these (praxis, philosophy, and even culture) reformed youth ministry around Christ within the context that Youth Ministry was in at the time it became a buzz word. [bzzzzzzz]
    Granted, all of these can be poorly executed, even theological youth ministry can grow out of a crappy theology. The point I want to make is that just because we now are focusing on ‘theological youth ministry’ doesn’t mean we are more Christ/Word/Creator centered that we were before (nor does it mean we are less…) [bzzzzzzz]
    Of your list at the beginning, I would argue that all of them came from an honest attempt to help a given demographic group grow in faith. Sure, we are giving much more attention to ‘youth ministry’ now that we were 40 years ago or even 30 years ago, but the intent of growing faith in kids has always been there, even if the methods were flawed or somehow ineffective.
    I think we need to continue our professional attempts at becoming more effective, more focused, more biblical and more faithful in our attempts at Youth Ministry. But I wonder if sometimes we almost put too much stock in our own labels and philosophies (and even theologies) [bzzzzzz].
    Far be it for me to claim a ‘confessional’ defense, but I think we can take a lesson from Martin Luther when discussing the administration of the sacraments. To paraphrase, he says that there is no such thing as worthy administration of the sacraments. It ultimately doesn’t matter how they are administered or who does it. He says this because what happens in the sacraments is of God and not of us. We still are to administer them because we are commanded to, but the work is ultimately God’s.
    So too with ministry, any ministry, the work is God’s work not ours. Regardless of our words and praxis of relational, relevant, purpose driven, holistic, family, world view, paradigm, one eared Mickey Mouse, post-modern, and emergent words [bzzzzzz], the Spirit works.
    And therein lies my point. At least in most of the Lutheran tradition, we have forgotten the work and the presence of the Spirit. We are so Christ centered in our logical, pragmatic, strategic…human methods of ‘doing ministry’, the Spirit has virtually no place.
    Maybe the best way to think about youth ministry and any ministry for that matter is to make room for the Spirit to work…to guide, to nurture, to form faith. Like the story of Cornelius in Acts 10, the Spirit will work, if not within our flawed attempts at ministry, then outside and ahead of those attempts as well.
    Spirit led [bzzzzzz]
    Did I simply add just one more fly to the list to be swatted at??
    Your turn BLOG-o-sphere!!

    • Rob Zahn says:

      Allow me to reply to myself…

      To put it another way, youth ministry isn’t necessarily finding its way to effective ministry for itself. Rather, because of the absence of organizational restraints that the larger church has, it is simply responding to the ’emerging’ culture foreseen and described by scores of people including Brian McLaren (The Church on the Other Side – 1998, A New Kind Of Christian – 2001), Leonard Sweet (Soul Tsunami – 1999), and Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence – 2008) just to name a few.

      With this freedom, Youth Ministry has had time and opportunity to try new perspectives, philosophies and the like at a faster rate than the larger church. The ’emerging’ culture is only beginning to be understood. I wonder if our methods of ministering IN this new culture seen first in younger generations are simply an attempt at getting our heads around ‘the great emergence’.

      • Jerry Watts says:

        @Rob Your reply deserves a whole other post with all the insights you shared …thank you, your comments and the thought reply by others on this post is why I started blogging.

        First of all I agree that all the buzz words I rattled off are in fact well meaning, Godly, heartfelt efforts…often keenly useful in their time and many yet still. I also deeply appreciate your reminder that just like worthiness or lack thereof while of administering the sacraments neither validate or invalidate them since it’s the Word of Christ that makes the mystery possible not you or me…we too in youth ministry are simply fallible vessels.

        All that said my fundamental concern about making theological youth ministry apart of the youth ministry lore is that we use it to advance our professionalism, our sense of self importance, and our academic know how (not trying to be anti-academic here @Jeremy), and loose the focus that you are suggesting Rob which is the power of the Spirit.

        To your final point: As I outline in my thesis on youth ministry and the great emergence youth ministry is on the fault line of the this new era and feels the tremors first. All the more reason to be grounded theologically in God’s Word and not in our own imagination but rather (to quote Brueggermann) be in line with God’s prophetic imagination. As P. Tickle reminds us of those 500 year rummage sales I would suggest each one of those eras were all fundamentally addressed by a return to the Scriptures. Be it Luther in the Reformation or monastics after the Great Schism just name two. So yes Youth ministry is feeling it first, that gives us a greater responsibility not regulate this critical time in church history to another buzz word. Love your thoughts Rob. Thanks so much!!

  10. […] should be considered “theological”. Jerry Watts has a good string going right now over at Reform This. I would argue that theology is the sin qua non of youth ministry because even our first move into […]

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