Theological Foundations of Ministry with Young People
To navigate the passage from attempting to do ministry in the middle to transformational ministry with young people a theological foundation is essential. A well-defined theological foundation provides the under girding for solid transformational ministry. Being United Methodist, the appropriate beginning of a solid theological foundation begins with finding the balance and living in the tension between Scripture and reason, tradition and experience. It must fight the tendency, especially in youth ministry, to polarize the two opposing ideas that salvation and spiritual maturity comes from “faith alone,” often represented by emotionally made decisions during events and rallies, and “holy living” and mission activity, where social justice and righteous causes are substituted for real faith development. Therefore, my theological foundation has five key components:
1. Graceful: grounded in grace and the realization of God’s unconditional love toward all of humanity.
2. Incarnational: beliefs and practices that reinforce the imago dei, the understanding that all of humanity is created in the image of God.
3. Transformational: willing to embrace and struggle with mystery.
4. Missional: balancing proclamation of the gospel and social action.
5. Communal: formed in the context of community where the whole people of God are welcomed.
Grace, God’s unconditional and underserved love toward humanity is foundational for a theology that will govern ministry at the crossroad. It is at its most basic, “God’s gracious activity…has been and is being offered to every human being.” Being grounded in grace means, as Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “we shall expect, look for, and welcome all the signs of the grace of God at work in the lives of those who do not know Jesus as Lord.” This theology embraces that understanding that God is already working in the lives of those outside of our “camp” or “group” and is present and beckoning every person, indeed all of humanity, into a relationship with God through Jesus. A relationship that is welcoming and stable in a world of instability. A theology of grace that expresses God’s desire to be in a real, intentional and ever-present relationship stands as an answer for the acute pain of abandonment so often felt by emerging generations. Grace, as God’s self constantly and consistently extended as love toward humanity, fills in the void left by human relationships and their inherent frailties. A theological foundation that is graceful embraces God’s continual movement toward humanity.
Not only is grace essential to a theology that serves in the crossroad, but also so is the understanding that all of humanity is created in the very image of God. Indeed, practicing the idea of imago dei requires that it is understood that we see something of God in every heart, hear something of God in every voice. That Psalm 139’s voice rings in our ear that God knows every person from his or her mother’s womb. That every person is known by God fully and completely and is not beyond God’s constant and consistent love and concern. A theological foundation that affirms the presence of the imago dei in all of humanity affirms its presence in the most difficult individual. It embraces them with the same unconditional love and affirms the presence of God, pre-existent in their life, no matter what their actions or life-choices may indicate. Indeed, as Dean reminds us, “the imago dei remains faint but visible.” Essentially “to every human life God is antecedently and enablingly present.” Our theology must recognize God’s presence in all of humanity, but more vitally, in each individual. An incarnational theological foundation seeks and find’s God’s presence even in, perhaps especially in, those far from God.
The struggle with mystery and transformation is vital element in a solid theological foundation for youth and young adult ministry. It allows and embraces a struggling with mystery and realizes that true transformation is a work of God. The mystery involves that struggle that occurs through the transformational nature of the sacraments where God’s presence is evident and encountered in ways that are not rationally explained. In the Eucharist, for example, there is “a physical taking of bread and wine, and a spiritual appropriation of the true body and blood of the Lord.” The struggle with mystery means that, particularly with young people, we may be “moved ecstatically beyond the boundaries of the self to the posture of awe.” The embracing of mystery allows us to “fill the existential cavern—Pascal called it a ‘god shaped void’: that is present in every person. The pursuit of transcendence and the seeking of the eminent presence of God in us and through us can only be found by embracing mystery. It is in the embracing of mystery and the allowance that everything of God is not so easily explained where transformation occurs as an essential element of a sound theological foundation.
In addition to struggling with mystery, a theological foundation of ministry with young people must be missional in nature. It is easy to focus on the experiential and powerful expression of ministry that mystery provides and neglect the moving beyond self to self-sacrifice. To balance this, a solid theological foundation of ministry must strive to form missionaries and not simply spiritual consumers. Reflecting back to the need for this theology to be graceful in practice, to be missional is the realization that God’s grace comes through “words and deeds that [meets] the person’s deepest needs and [offers] that person salvation.” By missional in nature, the practice should not be the self-serving practices where we are actually “meeting our own needs (wanting to feel good about what we do) rather than truly serving others.” Often, especially in youth ministry, activities reinforce the idea that we have a “superior sense of what the world needs.” “We have to affirm that redemption is never salvation out of this world (salus e mundo) but always salvation of this world (salus mundi). Being missional requires that we respond to two central “mandates.” They are “the commission to announce the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ; the second calls Christians to responsible participation in human society including working for human well-being and justice.”
Lastly, a solid theological foundation of ministry must be communal in practice. This, like the call to be missional in nature, is a counter-cultural ideal. It must move beyond a religion of me that reinforces the consumerist nature of our culture to seeing the individual as part of a greater, divine whole. The theology must struggle with the revelation that no one is self-made. Indeed, as Stanley Grenz writes in A Primer on Postmodernism, “Individuals come to knowledge only by way of a cognitive framework mediated by the community in which they participate.” We are formed and transformed by a God who models living in perfect community and whose story is the foundation of our belief. Community, by its very existence, invites the sharing of stories. A crossroad theology is one where our stories are shared. We, as the people of God are called to be narrators of our stories, or as Newbigin states, “The human story is one which we share with all other human beings—past, present, and to come.” It is these stories, shared in the midst of community that is the locus for transformation. “God’s chosen location for transformation is the Christian community.”
A theology of ministry at the crossroad holds many factors in tension. It strives to be graceful, incarnational, transformational, missional, and communal. It is a theology that is informed by scripture, honors traditional, allows reasonable discussion and doubt and allows credibility to be given to the experiential nature of faith. All of these factors mold a solid theological foundation for ministry with young people.