Let’s be honest: most of us enjoy working with students because we know students are awe-inspiring. I love seeing their growth and witnessing their questions, knowing that God loves them and God asks them to love all, allowing them a place to feel enveloped in God’s love and grace, a space that welcomes all and every bit of them, to use their voice to ask, and offers choices to search and find.
But, I’m writing here to tell you something you don’t know. I’m here to share what my theology of youth ministry looks like and what my understanding of God has meant for our youth ministry, and how you can build your own.
I understand my role better now than I did 15+ years ago as a youth director, but who and what I did at 21 hasn’t changed my theology too much. My ministry works with students, parents, communities and is based on theology (the study of God) with students.
Note: If you’ve never contemplated your “why” for ministry, I suggest starting there. I recommend watching Simon Sinek’s “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” focus on how our center must answer the question of “why.”
Your theology of youth ministry is the foundation for how you do ministry and answers not just “why” but supports the scaffolding of “how.”
Within that theological foundation of studying God, we must also tackle the “why” we are doing it. And we must go deeper than to “make disciples of the world” (our denominational mission) because it must be something we own that we can ascertain if we are feeling accomplishment or getting off track, something we can feel specific progress on. Something that broad isn’t a bad “why” for a denomination, but we must be more direct as an individual or church ministry.
My theological why is because I recognize that students who do not know who they are, and that there is unconditional love because they are created in the image of the divine, do not see that for others, either. They are called to a world that requires them to see themselves and others with dignity and worth and ensure that all can thrive. I want every student who steps into our ministry for even one time to know they are enfolded in love without strings. By the second time, they are working towards equity and justice for the greater community and making the earth a little more like the heavenly kingdom Jesus shared.
For me, what I do (within the context of developing student’s brains) requires an environment that allows nuance, questioning, seeking — all by both students and their parents and the broader community that works with them.
I built my theology of youth ministry on that foundation, but also the support pillars of everyone having a “place, space, voice and choice” and I structure all things in this ministry based on those four things.
So here is where it gets tricky: our theology in youth ministry must encompass the individual and the community. So many people often miss one for the other, either chasing experiences that build within the community and forsake individual discipleship or dive deep into personal growth without realizing that understanding how we do this all within a global community is often lost. So, my foundation, while it sounds like it centers around the individual, the first two focuses are on community. The second two pillars center around the individual in the space of community.
My students know the boundaries: They can call in the middle of the night, and I will be there to help. They can text pretty much any time, and I’ll text back as soon as I check my messages. They can send me Tiktoks and photos of fuzzy cows. They can have inside jokes that I roll my eyes at, and they can always invite someone, and I will change the lesson to discuss who we are and what unconditional love means without ostracizing the visitor. I will sit in driveways with them, send them care packages and door drops, celebrate their birthdays and other big moments, and tell them I see them and what they are going through when things are tough.
And within all of this “practical” work is a foundation that scaffolds and supports the ministry my other adults and I align with scripture and I am influenced by tradition, reason, and experience.
Theology is the foundation and the scaffolding for all the practices that make up day-to-day ministry. Many people enter youth ministry without their theology and practical work towards how they will serve. I recommend taking time to figure it out and writing it down.
How to Build Your Why
- What is the mission of your denomination/church? (It helps to know this, but it is not foundational for your ministry. It can influence it.)
- What is your call? What does that look like in five years? Ten? Twenty? This helps you know what path you are on but also how best to serve your current call. There is nothing wrong with knowing you will want a change in five years, but it helps you realize how to support a ministry that must grow past you.
- What is the passion that God has put in your life? (Also, what is YOUR individual “Why?”)
- What are the passions that God has placed on the role and team for the ministry you serve?
- What do you believe about God, and what do you want every student that spends even one hour with your group to know? (Helps if you can back it with scripture.)
- How do these align? Those overlapping words from the above four questions will be the start of your foundation. This is not a mission statement: it reflects all the above and a guiding beacon when you need to explore if your ministry is on track when you decide to do something or if it doesn’t fit your why/foundational theology.
And as a reminder: it’s okay to reshape this slightly every few years, but because it’s tied to YOU, it shouldn’t shift too much unless you have a significant shift in your theology.