Incarnational Youth Ministry [Part 1]: Theological Foundations

This series is adapted from a paper that I wrote for a youth ministry class in Fall 2010.  Posts in this series will appear on Tuesdays for as long as it takes to get through the content in manageable pieces.  Enjoy!

An understanding of youth ministry must be shaped by theological foundations, informed by cultural concerns, and find its home in equipping parents and families to form the faith of their children.  At its very core, youth ministry involves bearing the incarnational presence of Jesus Christ into the lives of young people through relationships that are clothed in Christ.  In Philippians 2:5-8 (NIV), the apostle Paul describes the incarnation of Christ and the heart of incarnational youth ministry:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross!

Jesus forfeited his place of power and priority in heaven in order to come to earth and become one of us–a human being.  Those in youth ministry essentially do the same thing, forfeiting a place of power and priority as “adults” in order to enter the world of adolescents and to bear Jesus into that world.  In order to really practice this sort of incarnational youth ministry, steps must be taken to build a foundation of “theological rocks”:

Since youth ministers must become skilled backdoor theologians–people who can slip theological truth in through the cracks of everyday life, without waiting for a formal invitation to preach–the first task of ministry must discern those theological rocks we want our lives and our ministries to proclaim (Dean, Starting Right, 17)

In order to fully embody the incarnation of Christ and to “smuggle God into the room from the rear before youth can erect the normal defenses,” youth ministry must begin with a healthy theological foundation (Dean & Foster, The Godbearing Life, 181).  In Starting Right: Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry, four authors contribute to this framework by establishing four theological foundations for youth ministry: repentance, grace, redemption, and hope.  By taking a closer look at each of these theological foundations, one can begin to see how each provides an important framework for practicing incarnational youth ministry.

Before diving headfirst into the theological frameworks of repentance, grace, redemption, and hope it is first necessary to grapple with the whole idea of practical theology for youth ministry.  How is it that those seeking to engage “students in a process by which they may discern God’s call in learning what it means to live out their faith in the context of a believing community” make that happen in a theological framework (Clark, “Youth Ministry as Practical Theology,” 12)?  Chap Clark argues that youth ministry must become an academic subset int he field of practical theology so that youth ministers may be fully equipped to facilitate such discernment among students.  In response to Clark’s article, David E. White argues that Clark has made it seem that youth ministry must ultimately “involve the technical skills requisite for a nuclear engineer,” and that it is perhaps better for Christian discipleship and leadership to be more intuitive-affective than the technical-rational approach proposed by Clark (White, “A More Excellent Way,” 52).  Finally, Kenda Dean responds to both by proposing that perhaps pracitcal theology is more of a solivitur ambulando, translated “it is solved by walking” (Dean, “We Will Find the Answers as We Go,” 39).  In an effort to bring these responses back to some sort of center, Chap Clark offers this statement of summary regarding youth ministry as practical theology:

…we must move the church beyond the programmatic view of youth ministry and shepherd God’s people toward embracing a perspective that maintains a commitment to the spiritual inclusion and development of the young that is dynamically expanding from the theological locus of God’s redemptive activity in human experience (Clark, “Coming Together,” 68).

This statement perfectly captures the heart of youth ministry as a discipline of theological reflection.  It is for this reason–moving the church beyond a programmatic view–that youth ministry must be understood in the theological frameworks of repentance, grace, redemption, and hope.


2 thoughts on “Incarnational Youth Ministry [Part 1]: Theological Foundations

  1. Thanks, Erin. I appreciate the way you went after this. To have this “dialogue” with 3 respected colleagues in the limitations of space (and setting) for this journal made for some artificial conversation/assumptions… nonetheless, I loved how you captured my intent.

    Chap Clark


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