When it comes down to it, language is a powerful tool. How the church, amongst other organisations constructs practices and policies is often due to the implications caused by the descriptive language of people, from disabled people ( people with a disability, thus need ‘special help’ to be ‘able’), people deemed poor, or specifically Young people. In a previous post here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Np I critique the more common language descriptors that young people seem to have inherited in churches, these include ‘learners’, the ‘not there yet’ and the ‘deficit’ or ‘development’ theories. I conclude in that piece that young people should be considered as Saints in the present church, not only heroes and leaders for the future one.
What descriptors like ‘anti- social’ or ‘adolescent’ do is provide the church and youth ministry with a whole host of descriptors or views of young people. From Sociological, educational, psychological, social, economical, generational ( Gen x, that sort of thing- sigh), these seem to be common in trying to understand young people, or be common disciplines to draw from in the pursuit of trying to find the next best strategy, model or method for youth ministry and endless search to find the one way to keep or prevent young people leaving the church.
Much from a faith perspective is made of creation verses like Genesis 3, which describe the making of man in Gods image. But that seems to be regarded in substance and soul, rather that it inform the practices of youth ministry, which seem to use the above disciplines as the starting point. Within youth ministry also, there are a whole host of task orientated descriptors, when it comes to tasks that are expected of them, they are often to ‘evangelise’ to their friends, to go on ‘mission’ trips, to ‘attend’ groups, to ‘lead’ sessions, to ‘learn’, to be ‘disciples’. Yes often they are to be ‘disciples’. And this can be contentious. The discussion about the order of salvation & discipleship is tiresome, but relevant, as it often just means that young people are subject to shallow messages to reaffirm a conversion, rather than experience something actually deeper. Discipleship is a complicated concept, one to leave for now. but one that can often appear absent in the drive to reach and connect with young people. Or even in the pursuit to enable them to conform in christian practices.
What i want to suggest is that a theological view of young people, might conclude that young people are theologians.
Whoa, hang on a bit, am I serious? Young people as Theologians?
Theologians are the geek guys who do dull sermons, theyre the book writers and the academics. Thats who the theologians are, and we dont need them, ‘we just need a simple faith’ , the easy stuff, something relevant, attractive… and theres no way young people want to be theologians, no they want to be nurses, sports physios, teachers and artists, not theologians…
the trouble is, young people are already theologians. Its too late.
Thats the problem. Theology is deemed to be for the experts and the geeks or clegy and academics. Theology is in everything we do in churches in youth ministry, we operate as theologians, we speak theology, it is in the every day.
But not only from a creative point of view are young people made in the image of God, but those made in the image of God, as part of the human condition is a continual striving for searching, finding out and curiosity, this is borne out in Pauls speech in Antioch, in Acts 17;27, where Paul reiterates that there is a continual search after God in the hope that he might be found.
A person is on a continual search. They might not study God, per se, but be consciously and unconsciously studying the world to find a source of meaning, a crumb of comfort. Or a way to make sense of the purpose in their life, to adopt a story that enables everything they know to fit together, and this might be a God story ( a sacred myth) or a different one. It is where sacred myths are helpful for young people. But what it means is that young people and all of us, are on the look out for something to believe in to help us make sense, or in a continual state of denial of the need for a story, and be possibly deeply troubled, confused and be struggling.
So what I want to suggest is that it might be more helpful to reflect on the possibility of young people, not as disciples, or converted or evangelists, but as theologians.
If in working with young people in our churches and organisations we consider young people to be theologians, what might that mean to how resources, programmes and practices are for and with them? How might they be treated differently as a result? If nothing else it means that forms of youth ministry are a theological, and practical task.
It is worth breaking it down a little bit, when I suggest that young people are theologians, they could be one of or all of the following, and what I plan to do over the next few weeks, is to expand further on these concepts of young people as theologians, some I have mentioned above. They might be a combination of the following, rather than these in linear development.
Children as innocent theologians, for whilst age might be a social construct, there is undoubtedly an innocence to the curiosity and intuition of a child in their spiritual awareness, it is from their pure heart that often truths flow out of innocent connections with God.
Curious Theologians, This might be all of us, but maybe most notably in those who deliberately search, who ask questions, who find God in the process of the search, the depth of the soul. This ties in with the references above, but curiosity is part of being human, ongoing life long learning, ongoing life long theologising and being brought into new understandings and expansive understandings of God.
Intuitive Theologians; This thought is common in youth ministry, and my next post will develop this further. So, in the mean time, it might be worth thinking about the creative spaces where young people are intuitive, make intuitions and interpretations, and have the desire for deep meaning, of sense made in the world, for something to believe that might be true. But also that it is in the ‘how’ of something being done that young people might discover the ‘why’. Anyway, this is a teaser for a post on young people as intuitive theologians later in the week.
Practical Theologians. Young people not only want something to be true. It needs to be Useful. Faith mot just a crutch. But also a hope. Not a self help guide to doing anything ( MTD, Christian Smith, 2005) , but the daily encounter with God in the midst of the ordinary that directs, guides, prompts action and is in dialogue. Its not in the arguments over truth and apologetic where God might be found, but in the everyday spaces.
Performing Theologians. This is part of my subject for my dissertation, and ive written about this previously, follow this link: Helping young people perform, not just learn theology. But it might be worth exploring more, the concept that not only might young people be intuitive theologians and practical theologians, but that how might we enable them to perform theology. For what i am convinced we are good at in youth ministry is creating a whole load of christian practices, such as services, youth events, festivals and concerts, yet often these entertain, reach and make faith relevant. When it comes to performing the kind of life Jesus asked of us, and young people, what might that be like to perform, to perform acts of sacrificial love, mercy , justice – performing out of love for God and in the world to transform it. To be hope in communities, not hope in holy spaces. Young people as public performers of theology. Again, ill develop this further in the next few weeks. But safe to say, that performing theology is not the ‘end game’, performance enables intuition and formation and vice versa.
So, this might be teaser or a turn off. My concern is that even in Christian faith based youth ministry, a theological understanding of personhood, and young people is rarely talked about, or even the starting point for developing approaches to mission, church or youth ministry. Context often rightly does, cultural studies (less rightly), church growth ( less said the better) or ‘what we used to do, or have always done’ , and so the writing a few posts on these in more detail in the upcoming weeks will be to look at them from a range of angles, and consider their implications for working with young people. Thinking theologically about young people, might just enable them to be viewed as theologians. I think this is a better starting point. And lets develop language and ministry, mission and practice around the ongoing belief that young people are theologians first and foremost, and that spaces and practices are created to form them as theologicans, who find, interpret and perform out of the faith in the everyday, in the practical and the prophetic. Young people as Theologians first and foremost in youth ministry, a starting point.
Von Balthasar, A Reader – (his reflection on Persons as searching)
Dean, Kenda (et al) Starting right, Thinking Theologically about youth ministry
Dean, Kenda, & Root A, The Theological turn in youth ministry
Shepherd, N, Faith Generation
Smith C , Soul Searching, 2005
Vanhoozer, K The Drama of Doctrine (2005), Faith Speaking Understanding ( 2014)