Youth Ministry; training young people to perform theology (not just learn it)

I was on my way back from the diocesan youth officers (DYO) conference last Wednesday, and I realised I had made a mistake. If I am being kind to myself, it was because I was given 30 minutes to talk about one particular subject ; Evangelism, and in my train of thought I developed thinking on the theological reasoning for contextual ministry with young people, of creating spaces for young people to opt into the christian belief.

I also talked about how as youth ministers we need to change the metaphor – to reflect on the performance of our knowledge of God with young people, and how we as youth ministers create spaces of welcome, of conversation and healthy spaces. Reflecting Theologically about the delivery of youth ministry has occurred for a while. From Pete Wards (youthwork and the mission of God, 1997), Paul Nash ( What Theology for youth work, Grove, 2007) , and from the US, Dean Borgman (When Kumbaya is not enough, 1997) and titles by Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean. What we’ve become good at is theologically justifying the practice of youth ministry, locating it withing Mission, cross cultural mission, education, discipleship, theology and practical theology. When i say ‘good’ i mean that people have done it, it can still be the unheard of, ignored ministry within the church. However thats not for now. Whilst the practice of youth ministry has been theologically defined and justified, the question of this article, and the reason for admitting my error at the diocesan youth advisers gathering is the following; What we need in youth ministry to reflect not on what theology to underpin our practise – but instead ‘what theology for young people themselves’?

At the DYO conference, Alex Batts from Youthscape, Presented research on what they had discovered about young peoples faith. For anyone involved in open youth work for a long while, it wasnt hugely surprising, but what she said was that for young people faith wasnt about trying to understand whether something was true enough to win an argument. (one to reflect on if trying to ‘apologetics’ in youth ministry) But instead, young peoples faith was practical, it was personal, it was formed in their experience. In short, faith was something that was useful. 

This does tie in to some other thinking i have done recently on faith and myth making, and how young people construct a story and adopt an ideological story that helps them make sense in their lives , a story that provides coherency, validation, efficacy, self worth. This is based on work by Bryan (2016) who is influenced by Baumeister, and McAdam and their psychology which includes narrative identity and myth making and these processes. On a slight tangent, it is fascinating to compare what Alex said, with the research by Christian Smith, for, whilst he ascertained that young people in the states have adopted a Moral, therapeutic deism faith. There are some resonances, for the faith that he found young people to have was one that was useful for young people, ie it gave them confidence and helped them ‘do what they want‘. Faith does have to provide usefulness for the individual. What that usefulness entails is different for each person. God isnt in existence to be useful for us, that point it to be made, but participating in the rituals, community, rites and discipleship might include elements of personal or community usefulness; hopefully beyond ‘God giving me confidence, or a self help manual. Image result for moral

Thinking about MTD again. What it brings to the attention is that faith is something that is learned about, but what matters is ‘being morally good’ as a response to faith, or alternatively, its that faith in action is one that emphasises moral actions. This is done through the ongoing learning of the faith through what can often be formal teaching methods ( Brierley, 2003). From the God-slot, to the Bible study, the sermon to the conference, the teaching method can be one way, and what is implied -so goes the research is that young people are ‘just learners’ and that enacting the faith is about morality. Young People as learners is something that Nick Shepherd identifies in Faith Generation (2016) – its as if thats where young people – and dare I say it adults – get stuck in the church. They are on an ongoing journey of being talked to as a learning process, and continual learning.Image result for performers

What this can then imply is that the Christian faith is just one to be learned. God is to know about, an abstract. 

Theology – ie knowledge of God – as far as young people are concerned becomes merely a cognitive task. Whilst it is important to build within young people a set of doctrines and beliefs for them to live by, and I assume this is what is going on in our youth groups, discipleship courses and programmes, these doctrines are not just to form young people – they are to equip them for performance. Theology for young people needs to be active and performative, to use a phrase I often do, it needs to be dramatic.

We need a shift from youth ministers to be educators of young people, helping them learn. But to be acting coaches, forming them through learning in the performance. For in youth ministry our task is not to teach, it is to make disciples. Not only that, to form young people as theologians, or ‘practical theologians’ (Kenda Creasy dean, 2011) But beyond this, practical theologians that act. Equipping young people to be performers of theology, ongoing actors who perform the gospel in 10,000 ways every day, week and month. Performing the love of God with their friends, performing the justice of God, the mercy of God, the faithfulness of God, the mystery of God in the everyday moments, and they perform not alone, but to learn the promtping of the Spirit in the everyday moments, the cues and clues in every context that call wisdoms voice.  It is so much more than ‘being good’ and doing a bit of evangelism with their friends to invite them to a group.

A performative Theology will also help young people to understand their role and purpose, for if they are participants and players of the drama, then they join the company of others in Gods ongoing drama of redemption that is the fourth of five acts ( Vanhoozer, 2014) . It provides not only usefulness in the everyday, calling and purpose, but gives young people meaningfulness in the everyday, and significant control of their actions, the autonomy that a young person and we all want, but as well act in ongoing obedience and faithfulness. A performative faith, within the long term plot of the drama, also gives young people a coherant life story, calling and purpose, one that might be easier for them to adopt as a personal narrative.

A performative Theology for young people and their ongoing discipleship appeals to their imagination. Even Paul was after newly attuned imaginations; Philippians 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in christ Jesus’  The word that Paul uses is Phronenin, The same that Aristotle uses for Phronesis, meaning, practical wisdom. Paul isnt asking the Phillipian church to do the same thing and be robots, but to understand the situation rightly and act accordingly – to act as Jesus Christ, in the nature of the kingdom – one that turns the other cheek, blesses the peacemakers and offers a coat to enemy. it isnt moral behaviour, its the essence of the kingdom that is of the superabundance of the love of God (Ricoeur, 1995). Can we aspire and inspire young people to be performers of the kingdom? 

Young people love films and movies – conceptualising their role in the world as ongoing actors of Gods play might not be difficult. They need not know where to find God in the plays and dramas of Hollywood, but that others might see God in their everyday productions. See God not because he appears in the script, but also the acting and non speaking. God appears through their acting.

What young people dont need is another rule book, moral code or dictum. They get enough of this in their schools. One step out of line in these institutions is detention wielding. They need faith to be a guide, a compass, an ongoing cognitive attuning to the voice of God that prompts in the every day performance. What we dont need, and what young people are switched off from is a meaningless moral faith. Helping young people view themselves as performers may also ultimately be realised when the whole church realises its duty to perform love and justice in their local community, hosting spaces of welcome and acceptance in towns and cities. But thats for another day, helping young people to theological performance might in their passion ignite a church to community action. Our task in youth ministry is to form performing young people, disciples who work for the kingdom. Not just spectators of our performances, after all there are no armchair disciples, we might do well to awaken young peoples acting imaginations in order to bring about performance.

I leave the end of this piece to Kevin Vanhoozer who says:

“The church exists to form and train grateful disciples to understand the Theodrama (Gods Drama) and their roles in it so that they can communicate and continue Gods wonderful works for the sake of the world. There is theater whenever a person meets another. Every encounter with another person constitutes a small scene, and whether disciples will say and do the right thing is what makes for drama” (Vanhoozer, 2014, p233)


Borgman, 1997, When Kumbaya is not enough

Brierley, D, 2003, All Joined up

Ricoeur, P – 1995, Figuring the Sacred

Root, A, Dean, Kenda The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 2011

Smith, C, 2005, Soul Searching

Shepherd, N- 2016 Faith Generation

Vanhoozer, 2014, Faith Speaking and Understanding

Ward, P 1997 Youth work and the mission of God

Wesley Van der lugt – Theatrical Theology, 2014


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