Good Theology, Good Ministry?

This post is by Syler Thomas, who blogs here (sometimes) but who also teamed with Chris Folmsbee and me to write Jesus Creed for Students. Syler pastors at Christ Church in Lake Forest, and in this series examines one of the most important youth ministry books to come along in a while.

In The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, authors Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean are intending to be both descriptive and prescriptive about that “turn,” which is for youth pastors to better embrace their role as a practical theologian. As someone who has been in youth ministry (much to my surprise) for the past 14 years, I appreciate the way they captured some of the ethos of a youth pastor: that we’re drawn to youth ministry by the opportunity for impact, that we enjoy staying on the margins, that there’s a reason why we’re OK when we’re not invited to the meetings that the adult ministry folks are invited to: we’d rather be talking to a student about their struggles than debating which color the carpet should be. But Root and Dean, while praising us, also urge us to go deeper, to consider more profoundly the role theology plays in youth ministry.

What do you think of these conclusions? Would you have circled a different statement on this pop quiz? Do think there is a good correlation between theology and ministry? Why are some ministries so good with such thin theology? Why are some churches noted by sound theology and weak ministry?

In chapter 2 (entitled “God is a minister”), Andrew Root mentions something he does in one of his youth ministry classes. He offers six phrases and asks his students to circle the one that is the most true. Here they are:

Good theology leads to good ministry.

Good ministry leads to good theology.

Bad theology leads to bad ministry.

Bad ministry leads to bad theology.

Good theology can lead to bad ministry.

Bad theology can lead to good ministry.

Now you could spend hours dissecting this and arguing for this or that combination, but the one he says is the most true is the second one: Good ministry leads to good theology. He then unpacks what that means, which is important. Because there is a sense in which this is a very dangerous statement. I don’t think he’s saying that if, from an outside perspective, a certain church has a healthy ministry, then it will automatically mean that that ministry also has good theology…meaning “correct theology.” Root is less concerned with “correct” theology and more concerned with the good theological reflection that comes when good ministry is happening.

He goes on to say that there are three steps to being a theologian: experience, reflection, and action, which will then lead back into a new experience, and the cycle begins again. He critiques the academy for only centering on reflection, and critiques typical youth ministers who only center on experience and action. All three must be present.

What do you think of his conclusions? Would you have circled a different statement on his pop quiz?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Stephen Milliken

    Andrew Root has the best literature on youth ministry out there today: Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, and The Promise of Despair are excellent as well. That’s all I have to say about that.

  • Ana Mullan

    It is a very profound statement the one that Syler presents. Somebody said that a life that is not reflective is a life that is not lived well (my own paraphrases). I suppose that thinking should apply to other groups, organizations and churches. To reflect should lead to change, where necessary, which is an action in itself, and the outcome should be not for our own benefit alone but for the sake of the world.

  • Anna

    He oversimplifies if he says there is only one way to get to good ministry and good theology. They inform one another. A theological insight can change the way you do ministry. An experience in doing ministry, conversely, can transform your theology. It flows back and forth.

  • RJS

    The most true statement is clearly 5, with 6 running second. The other four are expressed as absolutes, and this makes them less true off the top.

    But I agree with the sentiment that good ministry leads to good theology leads to good ministry … Of course we have to define what “good” is.

  • Mark Brown

    Most true, I’d have said #3. Bad theology, bad ministry. Primarily because the feedback loop of reflection doesn’t work. Secondly that you don’t even know what you are aiming for.

    I’d have a real problem with the stated most true because you can build a good 1st article institution (externally good ministry) but never even get to the gospel or the making of disciples.

  • Alan K

    What is good ministry? Its existence presupposes all sorts theological realities. I agree that in the end #2 is the most true—after all, Jesus said “go” instead of “think” or “understand—but the apostles having “good ministry” is the result of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Thus, it seems that it would be a better conversation to begin with ministry as something Jesus Christ does.

  • Thomas Renz

    I disagree with RJS on this occasion. How can theology that leads to “bad ministry” ever be “good theology”?

    It may well be possible to hold a theology that is good in most respects and to engage in bad ministry but it will be the bad (unbalanced, decontextualised or just plain wrong) parts of one’s theology that will “lead” to “bad ministry”, not the good bits.

    Similarly for the last statement. By the grace of God, one may well be be engaged in good ministry in spite of rotten theology but it won’t be the “bad theology” that “leads” to the good ministry.

    “Most true”? Statement 3, if such a question even makes sense, because the corrosive effects of bad theology are more “automatic” than the development of good theology from good practice. It would be more accurate to say that good theology can only be built on good practice than to claim that good practice necessarily leads to good theology.

  • RJS

    Thomas,

    I was focusing on the word “can.” But you make a good point.

  • http://www.soulation.org Dale Fincher

    I like RJS’s question… what is “good” ministry? And to add to that, what exactly does “ministry” mean? Practicing love with your gift set?

  • Luke

    I think that what Jesus says about good trees producing good fruit and bad trees producing bad fruit is true for theology.

    I like the view of people in ministry as practical theologians. It’s like physics; we have theoretical physicists and experimental physicists. The experimental physicists base their tests around what the theoretical physicists say, but if it doesn’t line up in the results the theoretical physicists have to change their tune. If something consistently doesn’t work in ministry the traditional theologians ought to rethink their philosophies.


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