What if young people are viewed as Theologians?

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. Image result for theologianThats 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 searcImage result for theologianh 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. Image result for curiosity

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 theologians, 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) 



I wish Jesus spent more time completing funding bids!

Image result for funding applications


Or for that matter other tasks that seem to pull on the day to day strings of the youth work organisation manager. Like trustee meetings. Or Payroll. Or Policies implementation. Or emails. Or publicity photos, Or liaising with churches and agencies. Or recruiting staff.

But Funding bids and finding funding in the youthwork organisation is what ive been doing for what seems ages now, in fact it has been all summer since June.

Finding funding is such a key aspect of youth work organisational life, of the management of youth work in organiations, as it affects staff security, performance, vision, and also the desire to want to invest in young people because without long term security it can make it humanly challenging to want to commit to a young person and invest in them in time, because its not great to feel that they might be let down.

But funding is only one aspect of Management in faith-based Youthwork, and is one of many aspects that it sometimes feels as though it is a role that is difficult to find direct correlation with the example and ministry of Jesus. Its not impossible. But it can at times seem that those involved in face to face practice have a wealth of Jesus orientated examples – given that Jesus was involved in many conversations with people in the gospels – and theres only scraps for the faith based youth work manager to theologically reflect, or reflect on. Ive written before about whether management is the appropriate term, and discipleship or supervision is better, and im not going to go over the same ground here.  (see other articles in the ‘youth work management’ category on this site, theres a link above)

The limited correlation is one reason for thinking about a discipline like Practical theology that can be helpful in adding another discipline into a theological reflection, when the Bible might not give an obvious answer to not just a complex situation, but also one that is befit of a contemporary issue.

When it comes to Money specifically Jesus has much to say, and the early church have much to learn and grasp – but what they have is a network channel of funding, so for example in Corinthians 16 v 1-4 there are pleas from Paul for the churches to provide to the ‘mother’ church in Jerusalem and obviously tithing, but in these cases the churches are supporting other churches. The aspect that changes this is that rarely does church see faith-based youthwork as another church – and merely a mission activity, and sometimes this means it can be well funded across a number of churches, on other occasions these organisations close because they get meagre rations even from large numbers of churches in an area.

It is difficult to read the Gospels and think at all that Jesus had issues with finances, with sustinence, with resources to enable his ministry to continue, and what he didnt seem to do was have the need to send off funding bids to charitable trusts.

In many ways there are clues to good management of the disciples by Jesus throughout the gospels – but maybe it just doesnt look like what we think management to be in the organisations, even churches, that exist in todays environment.

He did recruit those who fit the criteria he was looking for

He spent time educating them through conversation, and gave, no embodied examples

He listened to their gripes

He gave them opportunity to question (Peter usually)

He respected their weaknesses, but challenged them to be better

He was in contact with other groups – such as John the Baptists disciples

He knew of the ruling authority and how ministry was being thought of ( ie the beheading of John)

He knew of the resources available – peoples houses ( Peters mothers) – their ability to work and find food – ie Fish.

So maybe he didnt have to deal with a group of trustees – but im sure the suppers in the upper room might have got heated, and he didnt have to deal with policies – but the pharisees were trying to make him stick to the ‘Law’, and he knew there would be provision for the disciples, and it arrived from surprising sources, such as the boy with his lunch, from the crowds. But its not as if we hear that the disciples went without. Did he manage their resources, well it can be presumed. Maybe as they walked around Galilee they could pick off the fruit trees, and receive the hospitality of the stranger in the village, and they could gather the local produce from the market.

I find it far more difficult to reflect theologically on ‘faith-based youthwork management’ as it seems as though the pressures are from all sides, from local and national policies, from young people, parents and volunteers (or lack of) from staff, trustees and agencies- with varying degrees of expectation- not much of the tasks involved in management ever feel to me as if they are as theologically understood, or underpinned, and not that things have to be all the time.

Often it boils down to ‘how’ something is done, in a situational ethics kind of way, rather that what it is that is done.  And yes, i am aware that 1,000’s of people in all walks of life are performing roles that might not be anything like the roles Jesus performed, even those in the Clergy – how would Jesus do PCC meetings? or deal with the administrator who makes spelling errors in the pew sheet?’  Not everything is a straight copy- and actually we’re probably not meant to copy anyway, we’re meant to imitate. What Jesus needed to do in 1st century Galilee was appropriate for his time, so must we as managers in faith based organisations also try to act as appropriately in the situations were in. We manage well, by discipling people well.

Actually im glad Jesus didnt spend all his time in ministry writing funding bids. It would have made for the dullest gospel narrative, one littered with ‘copy’ and ‘paste’ and endless searches on the charity commission website.

Discovering Youth Ministrys implicit Theology

“So belief is not some kind of arcane metaphysics, it is performed – much as one would perform a play”(Percy, 2010)

Many of the books and articles I’m reading at the moment refer to Missiology and Ecclesiology, not surprising given that this is the title of module I’m currently writing an essay on (in between some distracting posts here) , the reason I say this is that there may be huge amounts of writing out there already that refers to how implicit, or performed actions in youth ministry reveal its operant theology – just that this is a blind spot for me at the moment which I am yet to explore.

However, as I have began to explore the writing of Healy (2001), Percy (2005,2010), and Vanhoozer (2005,2010), in relation to lived, an ordinary, implied Theology – for the church – i wonder whether the same could be said for the practice of Youth Ministry and its own implicit theology.

Just taking a small step back – a traditional view of Theology, and Ecclesiology is that these are both in some ways revered – ie if we know the ‘pure’ theology of say Paul, or the Ecclesiology of Barth, liberation theology, or even a Trinitarian ecclesiology – then we might seek to apply this to the practice of church, or mission, or indeed Youth Ministry. The Theology or Ecclesiology becomes the ideal blueprint (as Healy, (2001) would determine), and practice plays second fiddle to it, never quite being able to match the ideal.

Contrastingly, Healy, Percy and Vanhoozer, all in slightly different ways argue for a theology is viewed implicitly as it is practised, for example:

“By Paying attention to the sensed and experienced dimensions of day to day ecclesial life, one begins to gain some insight into how style might matter just as much as substance, and behaviours as much as beliefs” (Percy 2010)

“The church is local in that wherever the community gathers, it does so to demonstrate in its embodied life a particular way of being-in-the-world” (Vanhoozer 2014)

For Healy, Ecclesiology should be “practical and prophetic” (2001)- and thus birthed in reality of performance.  Whilst all of these refer the the acts of the ‘church’ – this can, obviously, also refer to the ministerial practices of the church, such as as people minister with young people in all the variety of labels, such as youth ministry, detached work, messy church and so on.

The question is then – what is revealed about the behaviours of those who realise & perform youth ministry about its theology?  or as pertinently What kind of God is revealed in how it is performed?

To take on Healys view that the grounded and real nature of the church is something to be recognised in the outworking of how it is ecclesiologically thought of – what about the lived and real practice of Youth Ministry as a source of discovering theology, rather than thinking- what theology should be applied to youth ministry – instead, what attentiveness and observations might be made about the lived, and real performance of youth work & ministry so to determine its also local, lived theology?

For example – what is revealed about God in the way a youth group might shape its activities? or the way the leaders interact at different times with the young people?

What is revealed about the theology of a detached team who are open to receive the questions about faith from young people – but close down their questions with simple answers? Or differently in the tone of the voice of the conversation, the questions asked and the interactions?

It may be even more subtle than this – as what might it say about  the implicit theology of youth work whereby the first thing a youth leaders does is say hello individually to every young person as they enter?  or the kind of space where a young person is comfortable enough to make their own cup of tea? or other activities, the weekend away, the worship event and you can fill in the others..

What is implied in the theology of the practice if it encourages young people into social justice projects?  forms of prayer, or liturgy.

Where in the practical of the often most practical of ministries might the theology of youth work & ministry be most implicit – without us even knowing it, but in the actions of the way these things are enacted, performed – and not just in their content.

Call it performance pedagogy, or praxis, or participation in enacting church – strangely all p’s-  and as youth workers/ministry – we have been attuned to its vocational and ethical /integrity responsibility for some time. Yet might the live performance reveal something of a theological integrity, one that young person might make connections with, and might reveal as much about our theology as the narrations and declarations of God that we might do within.

Shaping Youth work & Ministry in whatever guise might involve taking seriously attention made to what theology is implied and embodied in its performance.



Where is reflective youthwork practice in the Practical Theology discourse?

One of the real benefits of studying at ICC on the Ba in Youthwork and applied theology, and I imagine some of the other equivalent courses in the UK, was that a deliberate attempt, due to national youth & community work accreditation, for these courses in ‘Christian’ colleges (colleges which adhered to ecumenical Christian values ) to educate and give christian youthworkers a language of their practice which enabled them to be as well versed in community based, council funded, settings as also church related settings, and for this much credit has got to be given. Shared language and practice guidelines were and are exceedingly helpful

And so, many shared aspects between christian faith based youthwork, and non-faith based youthwork have similar characteristics, and some of these i have identified in my #ywaf15 blog which is here http://wp.me/p2Az40-fJ. Along with practice aspects such as reflection (Kolb) , person centered work (Rogers) and liberation ( Freire et al) . This is immensely useful.

However, in my Practical theology lectures for my MA, aside from work by Pete Ward, the overall discourse about youthwork, and youth workers using Kolb, or reflective practice is sadly lacking. I wonder why is this? (many state that professionals such as teachers or social workers use Kolb- but theres barely a youthwork mention in sight..)

Are there youthworkers who are writing in the practical theology field? – well i’m sure there are (other than Pete Ward), but why in all the guide books on practical theology is a ministry that has an 4,500 FTE workforce within the church not even mentioned? Does it not exist? does no one realise that youthworkers who have been academically trained might have insight into reflective practice which might actually help clergy and others studying academically practical/reflective practice?

So, whilst the christian youth workers have strived to keep up with the discourse of youthwork (when i say strived i mean that at least they have been in the main given the tools to from some academic establishments on the course) – the direction of youthwork practice has remained under the radar for clergy in training (who will have to do some practical theology). The ironic thing is that, because of imposed ideologies within other practices, such as teaching and social work (these are often mentioned in the practical theology discourse) these professions have more limited opportunities to develop a true reflective practice, and not that i’m saying youth workers always can either, but youth work might have some good examples of its use, and be a educative practice that could provide clearer insight of its use for clergy. So, i lay down something of a personal and collective gauntlet,  to make further contributions in this field. Maybe youthwork is too new a profession and thus there are few contributors. Maybe youthworkers are too busy to write using a theologically reflective methodology?  and contribute to the field.

What is encouraging is that Practical theology is creatively reshaping the methodology, derived from Kolb, adapting it to include collaborative, and collective voices,  or as in Eric Stoddart (2014), to take seriously the powers at work in the context of reflective situations. These too are an area that youthwork is rich in , as it strives for young people to be liberated, and that forces of power are often stimuli for action in the world of young people. Its enlightening that theology has creatively shaped reflection from Kolb, and so Youth work should in some ways catch up and contribute to the discussion. If it is, and I’ve missed it thus far then great, I clearly haven’t done enough reading on it, or too new in the field. But at the moment the youthwork voice and example is sadly lacking as a profession in the discourse.

So , whilst being able to contribute to professional youthwork has Christian youthwork/ministry not kept up with the educative discourse of clergy in their training, thus is one possible factor in clergy not being able to manage youth workers as effectively because they have no reference as to what they do. Its probable that if you’re a youth worker in a church right now, you might have no idea that your minister (if Anglican) might also know Kolb…(at least its a starting point for shared language..)

This week i am undertaking a practical theology assessment on Thursday, on the subject of management of youth workers in churches. Maybe this is a toe in the water of contributing to the field.

But come on Christian ministry training – give credance and acknowledgement to Christian youthworkers whove been using Kolb, Argyris/Schon, Freire (amongst others) in practice for at least over 20 years now… ignore the youth workers in the midst of the church no longer….