Leading young people to theologically minded faith

November 10th, 2015

For too long Christians have thought of theology as an esoteric academic discipline, the province of supercilious, tenured scholars scheming behind the fortified walls of ivory towers. We ought not be surprised, therefore, that theology almost never crosses the church parking lot to the double-wide trailer where the youth ministry hangs out. Kids don’t need theology, the reasoning goes; they need faith — a conclusion, ironically, that is grounded in (bad) theology.

By contrast I see theology as an essential component of faith, including the faith of the young. Young people are just developing the ability for deep reflection on and interpretation of their experiences. This emergent capacity is at the core of theology. Theology seeks to deepen the perception of God’s saving work in creation — past, present, future. Theology provides young believers with a different way of “seeing the world.” Indeed, theology empowers young Christians to recognize the earth as God’s gift instead of as their personal apple for picking. With careful attention and disciplined effort, young Christian believers can learn to imagine their existence through the eyes of a God who seeks to gather all creation in love and who calls them to join in that mission.

Admittedly, this is a tall task between playing broomball and eating Beanee Weenees on Sunday evenings. Young people are perennially distracted because that’s exactly the way economic and political powers want them. Concentrating is tough when one’s pocket is forever pinging, chirping, and buzzing. Plus, thinking is hard for everyone. Capacities for theological reflection are emergent; they do not drop out of heaven into teenage brains fully formed. They require exercise in order to grow. And then there’s the resistance to overcome. Churched young people already think they know all the answers to the questions of Christian faith — Jesus in your heart and a smile on your face.

There’s no magic potion, no way around hard work. Instead I offer suggestions for practice and reflection with the Bible as a primary resource.

1. Practice peculiar stuff when you gather

Forming theologically minded faith requires a sufficiently odd communal life. The following exchanges should illustrate my point:

“So Pastor Jin, you’re saying you want us to process behind a cross through the neighborhood on Good Friday? As in walking? Behind a cross? A big one? In broad daylight? There’s no way this ends well.”

“Rev. Lulu, I took an informal poll and we’re officially the only youth group on the planet that spends one entire day of our beach trip with a marine ecologist.”

“Yo Skeeter, I told my parents what you said about the early Christians refusing to bow down to Caesar and how maybe we shouldn’t be saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school. Dude, you’re on LinkedIn, right?”

The Israelites received excellent directions for practicing peculiar: “Recite [these words from the Shema] to your children . . . when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about,” commands the Lord in Deuteronomy 6 — at home even — “Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol.” Say what!? (Teens love saying the word “phylactery” by the way; it reminds them of, er, health class.) “Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.” In other words, immerse your young people in practicing the peculiarity of their belovedness. Practice being peculiar long enough, and eventually the young will ask: “Rev. Lulu, why are we doing this?” Whether out of curiosity or total annoyance, or fear, or longing, questions will come. And these are moments of theological genesis.

2. The Bible is your ally (but the relationship can be difficult)

The Bible is essential to doing theology with youth because it’s the church’s foundational theological document. Unfortunately, most youth don’t have a clue about how to read it. They naively imagine the writers of scripture as progenitors of today’s newspaper reporters who merely gathered the facts of what they or others witnessed. As to interpreting the nonnarrative parts of scripture, forget about it. Lacking any sense of the sweep of Israel’s history or that of the nascent church; any awareness of cultural, political, or social realities the biblical writers inhabited; or any basic theological vocabulary, young readers (and many of their adult leaders) are reduced to searching for one-line self-help maxims: “You shall run the race and not be weary.” Meh.

Wise Bible teachers will employ varied strategies. First, it can be helpful to repeatedly suggest to students that the Bible, for all its densely diverse literary forms, tells the unified “Story of God’s Saving Work” from beginning to (future) end. A teacher friend at a local church school devotes an entire classroom wall to creating a stylized time line depicting this work plus varied biblical descriptions of it, along with pithy theological commentary on their significance.

Supporting this Bible-as-Salvation-Story approach, Duke’s Youth Academy for Christian Formation repeatedly recalls for students what it calls “The Seven Theological Cs.” (Clever, yes?) In order these are: Creation; Crisis/Covenant; Christology; Comforter; Church; Calling; Coming Reign of God. These terms could easily be invoked as chapter headings for the Salvation Story. In addition, they establish a baseline theological vocabulary through which young people may be guided to interpret the scriptures. (Note that worship and mission perform God’s Salvation Story and likewise invite interpretation through the alliterative Cs.) For example, faith as “covenant” summons numerous stories of covenant­-making in the scriptures as well as commentary on the meaning and significance of covenant for Israel and the church. The worshipping community performs covenant through baptism and holy communion. Covenant also flavors human participation in God’s mission: We are called (yikes, another C!) to be stewards of the non­human creation (and another!). The potential interpretive connections between Salvation Story, the Seven Cs, and living the Christian life are endless.

Second, theological biblical interpretation will use all the literary interpretation skills that young people are learning in school. Reading the Bible theologically requires facility with narrative, allegory, metaphor, paradox, irony, and typology. These are the principle means by which the Bible does its theological work. For example, Paul’s characterization of Jesus as “Passover lamb” in 1 Corinthians 5 gathers up Israel’s experience of slavery and divine deliverance and then transposes it onto a new liberative key through the events of Christ’s death and resurrection life. Or contemplate in the book of Genesis how we learn that Adam and Eve “hide” from God. On the face of it, this seems little more than a fact of the story—the answer to the “where?” question on the journalist’s list. Yet “hiding” begs metaphorical and therefore theological interpretation: “What parts of yourself do you hide from others? Why? Does God ever seem hidden from you?”

3. Go forth around the bend with twenty young friends

In addition to practicing peculiarity at home and learning to read the Bible with theological lenses, theologically minded faith requires significant and repeated encounters with difference beyond the faith community. So seek it out. Visit the urban core, the rural poverty zone, the gang reconciliation ministry, the substance abuse center, the natural disaster site, a private church school, or a monastery. Take your tools for theological reflection with you. Ask: “In light of the Seven Cs, what are Christ and the Spirit seeking to do here? How can we learn to want what Christ wants? Given what you’ve just witnessed, is the cross a symbol of violence or peace? Of which stories from scripture did that protest remind you? In response to suffering around us, must Christians always do something?”

This pattern of repeatedly entering into different and/or difficult spaces (peculiar practices in youth group, the writings of the Bible, and differences in the world) and then reflecting upon them offers a critical means to scaffold theological reflection for the young. By God’s grace it will one day become native to their faith.

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