Progressive Christian Youth Ministry: A Primer

"Like" the Patheos Progressive Christian Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christian issues.

Editor's Note: This article is part of the symposium, "What Is Progressive Christianity?" presented by the newly launched Patheos Progressive Christian Portal and in partnership with the Wild Goose Festival (June 23-26). Like us on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christianity.

In my new text Missional Youth Ministry: Moving from Gathering Teenagers to Scattering Disciples (itself a primer on progressive Christian youth ministry), I share a story of a conversation with one of my youth volunteers that helped me to see more clearly my ministry with teens:

I was talking with Josh, one of the talented and devoted adult leaders of our youth program. It was shortly after seeing [the documentary] "Jesus Camp" and I was commenting that one thing that distinguishes fundamentalist evangelical teens from our teens is that the evangelical youth really know what they "believe." Those Jesus Camp kids can tell you exactly what they think about God, sin, the afterlife, salvation, etc. Our youth, on the other hand, probably couldn't really articulate any definite thinking on those subjects. Josh's response: "I'm not sure a teenager should be able to give you a definite answer about those things." Though a part of me wants to provide youth with a basic set of Christian fundamentals, a greater part of me agrees with Josh. Teenagers don't necessarily need answers about faith. Rather, they need to be shown how to ask lots and lots of questions. And, just as importantly, they need a safe space in which to ask them.

At its core, progressive Christianity maintains that there are no easy answers to the questions of faith simply because our understanding of God and Jesus evolves and changes (i.e., "progresses") enormously over a lifetime. As we move through life, and as our experiences and knowledge shape and alter our view of faith, we come to see that we only have a piece of the truth and that we must be in conversation with others who themselves possess part of that spiritual truth.

I was reminded of this fact in recent weeks as my own congregation participated in a church-wide study of four major questions related to Christianity. We covenanted to meet on Sunday mornings in small groups to talk about these questions and discover more about who we are as a church. The groups were intergenerational and included a mix of teens, young adults, and older adults. The questions we pondered together included:

  1. What is the heart of the gospel message?
  2. Who or what is God for us?
  3. What does it mean to affirm Jesus as Christ?
  4. What is the mission of the Church?

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.