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To be a Christian at all is to be a theologian. There are no exceptions.
It was during my first year of ordained ministry, while I was in my late 20s, that I learned my younger sister had multiple sclerosis. Kathy's diagnosis was the first really awful news to confront me personally, and for months I reeled under the weight of the disease and the dreams it altered. MS is a cowardly disease; it maims but it does not kill. Today, I am profoundly grateful for that fact-but at the time, all I could feel was terror of the disease's cruelty. One day, on a visit back to my seminary campus, I dumped my anguish on my former seminary advisor. "But God made your sister," Robin insisted. "God made her body ..."
"Yeah," I shot back, "but when God made her, it all worked." And then I dissolved into a pile of sobs, right there in the middle of her office.
Robin's idea of pastoral care wasn't what they teach you in counseling class. She didn't reach for the Kleenex, do reflective listening, or give me "space." Instead, she leaned forward, looked at me straight through those hot tears, and said: "Do you believe in God? Because you live as if there is no God!"
And I cringed-because it was true.
I hadn't meant to live that way, of course. After all, I was an ordained pastor, a shepherd of souls, convinced of my call and knee-deep in leading young people to Christ. When Robin shone the halogen beams of God's love onto the way I lived my life, the God-light in my eyes was so bright that everything else receded into deep space. For an instant things looked the way they look from onstage in the theater: the spotlight freezes you in time, so bright that you can't see the audience, forcing you to exist in the now onstage. The light in Robin's office stung my unadjusted eyes. I couldn't see through it, or around it, or beyond it. There was only light, and Jesus, and now.
We call them moments of truth for a reason. We see things differently after the light of Christ exposes us, reveals what we truly believe-even those of us vowed to ministry. It took Saul three days to see straight after the light of Christ knocked him off his high horse; personally, I'm still working on it. Until Robin challenged me to "'fess up," I hadn't realized what a practical atheist I had become. I was ... I am ... a sincere coward who confesses Christ and then runs for cover. I live like a theological schizophrenic. There is the theology I want to believe, that I think I believe, that I tell youth I believe, that I entered ministry because I believe-and then there is the theology I actually practice. The first theology is risky, radical, self-abandoning. But the second one-the theology that leaks through my life and ministry, and as a result has devastating potential to drain my actions of authenticity and power-is cautious, calculated, credible.
Christianity isn't any of those things.
A moment of truth for youth ministry
The tragic spring of 1999 shattered our national complacency about "youth these days" and ended a century of youth ministry more often devoted to keeping young people safe and entertained than to challenging them with mature faith. After the Columbine High School massacre, stories of teen martyrs flooded the media and gripped our hearts. As youth ministers tried to regain their pastoral balance in the days and months that followed, I heard from Christian youth leaders all over the country who were haunted by the same question. It was a question asked pointedly by teens in chat rooms and churches, by parents and pastors in pews and in pulpits, by young people who have had it up to here with pizza and volleyball, and who are dying-literally-for something worth dying for. "Would you die for your faith?" they asked us. About the best most of us could manage was, "Gosh ... I hope so."
The shocking congruency between the faith professed by Columbine students of many Christian traditions, and the way they lived that faith in word and deed during the shootings, stopped us dead in our tracks. Teenagers who couldn't keep a promise to clean their rooms remained faithful to Christ at gunpoint. We saw the cost of this radical discipleship in the lives it ended as well as in the lives it saved. Meanwhile-while teenagers were stockpiling explosives in a garage, posting threats on the Web and recording their deadly plans on video-Congress debated the definition of sex and school boards wondered if squirt guns merited expulsion and church leaders got themselves tied up in knots over the color of the youth room-for perhaps the millionth time this century.
Just what were we thinking?
Christians preach a God who is (thankfully) bigger than we are, and as a result our lives and our ministries always fall miserably short. This is human and inevitable; but it is also redeemable. Unless those of us in youth ministry learn to approach our calling as a theological enterprise, asking ourselves why we pastor youth in the ways that we do, we risk turning youth ministry into a giant Saturday Night Live skit:
What we say: "God sent Jesus to save the world!"
What we think: "I must save this young person from self-destructing."
What we say: "God is in control!"
What we think: "They can't run this program without me."
What we say: "Jesus loves us unconditionally."
What we think: "I can't tell them what I think or they won't like me."
What we say: "With God, nothing is impossible."
What we think: "I feel like I'm drowning in youth ministry."
Put simply, theological reflection keeps the practice of youth ministry focused on God instead of on us. It makes possible radical congruency between what we say we believe and how we conduct our lives. Without intentional theological reflection in our ministries with young people, we will all be living like atheists in no time. And the next moment of truth could be ours.
Theology: it's everywhere you are
Theology is rampant among teenagers. Perhaps that statement surprises you. We have grown accustomed to thinking of theology as academic gobbledygook, alien to adolescents and the (real) people who work with them. Think again. A few minutes of television ought to convince you: Postmodern society pelts young people with gods from every side-gods of good times, gods of good looks, gods of success, gods of excess, gods of health, gods of wealth, gods of ambition, gods of position, and countless others-all claiming salvation or your money back. Because there is no shortage of truths vying for the adolescent soul, there is no shortage of theological discussion among teenagers who must daily choose between them. Theological images permeate music and movies, theological rituals find their way into gangs and families, theological assumptions work their way into the way teenagers approach proms and parents, homework and careers. Adolescents traffic in theology every single day. Of course, this theology may not be Christian. Chances are good that it's not even conscious. But theology infuses the air young people breathe, punctuating the practices of families, hovering in the hallways of the high school, and reverberating in the rhythms of the neighborhood.
Adolescents, therefore, take their theology quite seriously, even though they're not conscious of it. Most of their theological reflection goes unheard, unnamed, and unclaimed. They are unaware that the social studies discussion on freedom is a theological discussion. They don't realize that the way they treat an unpopular classmate reflects a doctrine of creation. They don't suspect that their impulse to sacrifice on behalf of others is an act of faith. They may treat their CDs as sacred artifacts, vaguely aware that music transports them to a mysterious "higher ground." But they often deny that music has the power to influence them-although if you try to change the radio station, you will encounter a resistance so fierce that it can only be compared to parishioners' reaction the last time you tried to update the music in church.
Most adolescents engage in intuitive theology-reflection about the divine-human relationship that often bypasses language and rational discourse, but that nonetheless constitutes a real part of a young person's inner life. Intuitive theology might be composed of beliefs or actions that "feel" right to a teenager, but they lack a conscious structure or story that holds them together.
If the teenager has been involved in a religious community, she might have an embedded theology. Embedded theology comes from a religious story inherited from a faith community. The images and language from this story ring true for the adolescent, but she has not critically examined them. Intuitive and embedded theologies are extremely vulnerable to manipulation, and they don't hold up well to scrutiny-which partly explains the crisis of faith awaiting many a devout Christian high school student who takes an embedded theology to college, only to find that critical thinking is the order of the day.
The alternative to intuitive or embedded theology is deliberate theology-an understanding of faith that arises when a young person carefully examines his theological assumptions and practices. Deliberate theology is not simply a rational exercise in critical thinking (which would reduce theology to a cognitive operation). Above all, deliberate theology is faith-but it is faith seeking understanding. To use Anselm's description, it is faith that tries to figure out God, faith that can ask "why" with confidence knowing that God is not threatened by our doubt. Students with embedded theologies say, "I believe ..." Students with deliberate theologies say, "I believe because ..." Whenever a young person asks why, he edges toward deliberate faith. The "why" questions always lead us to God, even when that God is unknown.
The theological nature of adolescence
Deliberate theological reflection lays a stable, though flexible, foundation for growing faith. Unfortunately, youth ministry has been reluctant to invite young people into this level of theological thinking. We tend to view young people as consumers of theology rather than as people who help construct religious discourse. We are far more likely to consider youth objects of ministry rather than agents of ministry; people to be ministered unto rather than people Jesus has called into ministry in their own right. We think teenagers need theology added to them, like antifreeze, when they really require a language that claims for Christ the unnamed quest for God that is already well underway.
The irony, of course, is that adolescents are theologians by nature, uniquely wired for theological reflection because questions about who we are in relationship to "the gods" form the spine of the human search for self. Children cannot ask theological questions because they have not yet developed the cognitive capacity for third person perspective-taking, or the ability to see the world through someone else's eyes. Adolescents, however, begin to develop the ability to see themselves and the world from the perspective of another-an extraordinary mental achievement that literally changes the way youth experience themselves in the world. "We do our young people a great disservice when we speak of this new power as critical thought," notes educator Sharon Daloz Parks, describing the importance of third person perspective-taking for spiritual development:
New questions can now be asked, and they can sound critical; however, the essence of this emerging power in adolescent lives is the capacity for reflection and for wondering in new ways about the relationship between the self and world. This new power is vital in the development of both the moral and the spiritual life. It allows the individual to take into account the perspective of the other-even many others. It enables the individual to come closer to participating in the perspective of God. It represents an enlargement of consciousness and an enhanced capacity for wonder.
In short, third-person perspective-taking equips the adolescent with a sense of interiority that is altogether new-a recognition that the emerging self is composed of inward as well as external qualities. This interiority gives the adolescent "more space for becoming," as Parks puts it. It gives young people room to entertain transcendence-to consider possibilities that pull youth beyond themselves, into a larger reality that includes but is not limited to them. They begin to recognize the possibility of another point of view besides their own-including God's. They "try on" God-mode, imagining what it might be like to participate in the perspective of God. They wonder: about God, about themselves, about their purpose and place in the cosmos. Children inquire about God; youth inquire after God, seeking a relationship, a sacred trust, an anchor that remains steady in winds of change.
Practical theology: theological reflection on Christian action
Youth ministry practices a particular kind of deliberate theology called practical theology, or theological reflection on Christian action. There is no sharp line between practical theology and theology in general; as British practical theologian Paul Ballard points out, "All theology is in the service of the community of faith, and therefore all theology is essentially practical." Don Browning, the most well-known American practical theologian, describes all theology as "fundamentally practical," with historical and systematic theology informing the larger practical theological enterprise.
Practical theology is the kind of theological reflection that takes place when we're up to our necks in the particularities of Christian life and ministry. Unlike historical or systematic theology, which seek to discover God's truth by stepping back from Christian life and analyzing the texts, traditions, and general themes of Christianity, practical theology discovers God's truth in and through Christian life. Historical and systematic theology give youth ministry a broader context-a wider conversation in which the particular situation of practical theology may participate.
But practical theology is more than a matter of applying historical and systematic theology, like so much spray paint, to the surface of Christian life. Practical theology has creative force: It weaves together multiple strands of theological reflection to evoke new understandings of God in particular-concrete situations that call for action.
Excerpted from Starting Right by Kenda Creasy Dean Chap Clark Dave Rahn Copyright © 2001 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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