Rethinking Youth Ministry
Progressive Christian Youth Ministry: A Primer
This list of questions by themselves might be the very same posed to members of any conservative evangelical congregation. Those churches might even post them on their website under the heading "What do we believe?" followed by concise and concrete answers ready to be memorized and shared with any non-Christians seeking to know more about the faith. In contrast, the purpose of these conversations in my church was not to arrive at any final conclusive answers at all. Nor was it to try to urge our congregation to embrace the orthodox Christian responses to these questions. Rather, we were encouraging young and old alike to wrestle with scripture, to share from their experiences of living a life of faith, to question their assumptions, and to own up to their doubts.
Through these conversations, we discovered that we are a far more diverse congregation than many of us had suspected. Our views on the reality of God were all over the theological map. Some saw God as "out there" while others experienced God as part of their most intimate relationships and experiences. Our understanding of the identity of Jesus ranged from seeing him as a gifted rabbi to understanding Christ as at one with the nature of God. Our thoughts on the core Gospel message included both those who affirmed the notion of God's universal love and others who subscribed to a theology of atonement. Some argued the mission of the Church was to live out the gospel through acts of justice and peace while others maintained we were primarily called to evangelize non-Christians.
What a gift it was to have our youth right there in the middle of this conversation, sharing their own insights and witnessing the adults of the church admitting that none of us has a corner on theological truth. In the end, we were unwilling to define just exactly what a Christian must believe even as we celebrated our covenant to continue exploring our faith together in community. The only conclusion we reached for which there was true consensus was an affirmation that our diversity is a strength, not a weakness. Our willingness to resist putting God and our faith in a box encourages a humility that admits we will never understand God fully because that understanding continues to evolve and change over the course of our lives.
From the perspective of ministry with youth, a progressive theology challenges us to help teens embrace that theological uncertainty and to see faith not as a destination but as a journey. Teens need to be free to ask difficult questions, challenge traditional beliefs, and reevaluate their understanding of Christianity without fear of being labeled "unfaithful." Given this, I'd suggest four basic approaches that might guide those of us seeking to lead a youth ministry from the progressive perspective:
- Embrace faith as a life-long experience of learning and growth rather than as a one-time decision. Such an approach just might have the power to end the flood of youth leaving the Church for good following high school because they see their theological education as complete.
- Engage the Bible as a human response to God rather than as a divine document. Doing so allows teens to let go of rigid literal readings of scripture from childhood and see the texts anew through the lenses of culture, history, and geographical context (both our own and that of the original writers).
- Explore the Christian faith as an encounter with the here-and-now Kingdom of God rather than as a means to reach the afterlife. Seeing the Kingdom as a present reality invites teens us into a life-long experience of encountering God's presence everywhere and in everyone.
- Experience the mission of the Church as a daily living out of the ways of Jesus rather than as imparting a set of beliefs to non-Christians. This perspective invites youth to participate every day as partners with God through acts of justice, compassion, and mercy. It encourages them to see Christianity not as intellectual assent to certain ideas but as a way of life that has the potential to bring transformation to the world.
To be certain, leading a youth ministry from a progressive Christian perspective can be challenging. It would clearly be easier to hand our teens their faith in a pre-packaged box, no questions asked. But ultimately I believe the progressive approach can lead young people to a mature experience of faith that engages their intellect, their emotions, their relationships, and their very lives as they seek to center themselves in God's boundless and limitless grace and peace.
Rev. Brian Kirk is an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves an inner-city church in St. Louis, Missouri. He also teaches as adjunct faculty at Eden Theological Seminary, and co-writes the blog rethinkingyouthministry.com.