IVP - Online Pulpit - The Theological Cure

September 8, 2011

The Theological Cure

by Andrew Root

I have a hunch. It is totally anecdotal, but I do think it is based in a reality, one that I’ve sensed over the last decade of talking with youth workers and speaking at pastors’ gatherings.

Here is my hunch: all pastoral ministry has gone the way of youth ministry.

What I mean is this: Almost since its inception youth ministry has been trying to make a case for why fickle people should come to church. Sure, I know that youth ministry has been about much, much more than this (and thank God), but it is a fair assertion to state that Protestant churches began funding in-house youth workers in their congregations because their children were no longer coming or were not all that interested in the church. So we hired young (at times hip) youth workers that could make a case for religious participation.

This meant a number of things: good looking, athletic young workers, big youth rooms, cool events, relational contact, new worship experiences, the blending of technology and Christian practice. And this has had a huge impact on the church (and this isn’t anecdotal); youth ministry people have shifted the direction of the church more than almost any other group of people in the last fifty years. After all, Billy Graham was a youth preacher, then Bill Hybels and Rick Warren were old youth workers, and a good number of emergent church folks, both leaders and participants, are either present or former youth workers.

So pastoral ministry has gone the way of youth ministry. And so far, this is positive—I think. But here is the wrinkle. As this process has happened and as our context has become more detached from Christendom, pastors, like youth workers in the past, have had to concern themselves with how they were going to get fickle people to come to church. At the beginning of youth ministry it could be assumed that people would show up on a Sunday, the only question was, would their children? Now there is no guarantee that anyone will come.

So the pastor has had to take on the entrepreneurial spirit of youth ministry, using programs, events, relational contact, new worship experiences, hip clothes, and the blending of technology and preaching to make a case for giving participation a shot.

But there was a bacteria in this youth-ministry entrepreneurial movement that has now been passed on to pastors. Because the focus was on winning participation, there was a little need or desire to reflect, especially to reflect theologically about the practice of ministry. Thinking was okay, but what won esteem was action. The hyperpractical, scaled down and digestible now became essential. I think this bacteria is now in the bloodstream of pastoral ministry, and unfortunately I think that youth ministry was the original carrier.

theoturnOP.jpgBut here is my historical hunch, and where my book The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry comes in. In the last ten years I have watched youth workers want (yearn) to think theologically. They’ve been at this winning participation perspective too long and know it is a dead end. They are ready to think theologically about what ministry is and how human action in ministry participates in the action and being of God. They still want action—that is, they still want to take kids on mission trips—but they would also like to reflect deeply on what a mission is and how it participates in God’s own ministry.

But here is a further problem: As youth workers have sought to take this theological turn, their pastors haven’t always been that helpful or supportive. The pastor simply wants the program to continue, adding some more kids and keeping the energy high. So as the youth worker turns to theology, often times her or his pastor is ambivalent.

But this is the gift that the youth worker can give back to his or her pastor: the youth worker can remind you, pastor, that theology still matters, that deep thoughts still have a place.

It is only a hunch, but if youth ministry is guilty of being the carrier of this thoughtless ministerial perspective, then maybe we can become part of the antidote, inviting the church back into a theological conversation on the very practice of ministry.

rootOP.jpgAndrew Root (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) is in the Baalson Olson Chair as associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN).

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at September 8, 2011 11:55 AM Bookmark and Share


As a youth worker, I completely agree with what you're saying here. When I first started it was all music, smoke machines, lights, pizza and iPod giveaways. That all changed once the budget crunch hit.

We lost a lot of kids when the flash was gone.

At one point, we were meeting in parks and at pools during the youth pastor's "summer break", and I was doing the teaching. I went back to theology and the kids loved it. They got tired of the same old/same old youth ministry sermons and longed for something deeper.

I see this happening in, mostly, non-denominational 'seeker friendly' churches that look to flash over substance just to put seats in the seats. I honestly believe their doing a disservice to their congregations by adopting a similar structure as their flashy youth programs. I highly doubt that flashy churches create effective disciples, instead creating consumer Christians.

Awesome words!
Christian (Mesa, AZ)

Comment by: Christian Salafia at September 8, 2011 1:21 PM

A profession at Reformed Theological in Jackson gave me a quote that has become very dear to me as a pastor.

"A preacher is a spokesman not a salesman."

We must speak the truth of God clearly and lovingly, but weather it be youth or adults we have and will continue to damage the church of God if we continue to ignore the good theology to attract anyone.

Jesus strongly criticised the pharices for going to great efforts to convert people to their traditions making them twice the sons of hell.

Comment by: Russ at September 8, 2011 3:36 PM

I agree. Growing up in youth ministry, I feel that I did have a youth pastor who desired to teach us the Bible and be culturally relevant, and one who loved us. Yet, I feel that deep theology was left out of youth ministry (if not the church in general) because it would either not be interesting (which may have been true for some), or because they thought we couldn't understand it.

So we can be expected understand pre-calculus, but not the depths to which Jesus loves us, loves God, and the vast reasons why He died and rose again???

I'm grateful for your idea to push theology back into ministry as a whole, and youth ministry in particular, because that is where the next generation of pastors will come from.

Comment by: Don Sartain at September 16, 2011 8:06 AM

As a Pastor of the same church for nearly 40 years, and seen 100's of these (at one time) young people pastoring here in the U.S. and missionary service abroad, I totally disagree with your assessment. First rule of communication: avoid exagerrations, so a title "ALL pastoral ministry" is what caught my eye and disappointment me. Second, we've never relied on gimmicks, pizza parties, special effects, but along with outreach, made the center of all we do the preaching & teaching of the Word of God. This is central in/to everything. Reading your article my question was "I wonder if he's every pastored a church" or has the majority of his life, conclusions come from the seminary world. To paint things with too broad of a brush, and especially not to have a working model to back it up, makes writing a book difficult. Personally, I am wearying of the plethora of youth experts today telling us what's wrong with their generation, the church, the methods. MY QUESTION IS HOW ARE YOU USING THE TOOLS GOD GAVE US (HIS WORD & PRAYER) COUPLED WITH FACE-TO-FACE WITNESSING YO REACH THIS GENERATION?

Comment by: Harold Warner at September 16, 2011 8:32 AM

Wow, sounds like another good book coming from the professors at Princeton Theological Seminary. Kenda Dean also wrote a very compelling book, "Almost Christian." Way to lead the charge Princeton!

Comment by: Kim at September 16, 2011 9:58 AM


You are now guilty of the very thing you accused Andrew of. Do you know if he has ever pastored a church? Do you know if he sits in the ivory tower of academia making "judgments"? We need to be careful not fall into our mess.

Well, I have only pastored for nearly twenty years and I think Andrew was kind in his assessment. Youth ministry, in my humble opinion, overall is that it is an epic fail... sure we see some fruit and that is good... but not at the expense of Biblical discipleship and faithfulness to gospel ministry. Our youth are spiritual babes if that. They are theological infants and we have raised them... we have given them Veggie Tale versions of moralism and not Biblical exegesis and systematic theology.

I have taught Bible in a Christian high school for the past six years and if they are any indication of the fruit of youth ministry we are in for a rude awakening. Many of these kids fail to grasp, appreciate, or even hold to the basic Christian tenants of our faith. Now I don't blame youth ministry for this...God is sovereign in salvation, but if I was to lay blame it would ultimately fall on Christian parents who pass the spiritual buck to someone else. Instead of discipling their children, which is Biblical, they pass it off to the 21 year old youth pastor or they spend 10K sending them to a Christian high school.

Frankly, I praise God that some youth pastors are abandoning the gimmick style church approach for theological depth. Youth do not need another pizza party or iPod giveaway for their sinful consumer driven souls... they need to encounter the resurrected life possessing Christ. They need less "how to" and more "this is" or "thus saith the Lord". We need to return to the Word...preach it faithfully to believer and unbeliever alike...and then trust God for the results!

Thanks Andrew!

Comment by: Derek Mackie at September 16, 2011 10:08 AM

I think this article is dead-on. I worked as a youth minister with this model of ministry....BRING THEM IN. We were successful in some ways...a lot of folks showed up at a tiny church. I know a ton of young people from my time there. In the end however, because of our focus, when they stopped being entertained in adulthood they stopped coming. We never got to them where it mattered. We did some good certainly and there is some fruit from that ministry...but it should have and could have been more.

Fast forward to my next church. I had realized my issue from the last and worked to correct it in this church. We were going to build correctly. PROBLEM...my boss was a former youth minister. The adult ministries of the church were running under the same model that this man was successful with in youth ministry. Entertain, take on trips, confuse basic participation with spiritual growth, don't ask a lot of people...just keep them happy and excited. This pastor was a long time friend of mine.

HE fired me after 18 months. I wasn't creating a big enough splash. We weren't growing enough (went from 12 students to 45...but i digress). We weren't the next big thing. I was tarred and feathered and sent packing.

I do not subscribe to the narrative that a positive change will flow from the servants to the established leader. I just don't see enough humble youth minister model Senior Pastors out there to make that happen.

Sadly, i think barring some major movement of the Lord (which I pray for everyday) we will not see this problem go away until the next generation of Pastors grow into those roles.

Comment by: Chris at September 18, 2011 8:50 AM

"Because the focus was on winning participation, there was a little need or desire to reflect, especially to reflect theologically about the practice of ministry. Thinking was okay, but what won esteem was action. The hyperpractical, scaled down and digestible now became essential."

What pastors must do is stop turning over the marketing of their church to pure marketers, whether in or outside of the congregation. Don't get me wrong, marketing has its place, but if a pastor does not stay engaged in the process and ensures that first and foremost what is done is in keeping with good theology, churches will continue to strategize and always be in search for that next great program to get people in the door.

Comment by: Pat Pope at September 18, 2011 12:57 PM

Unfortunately, I've seen this approach with youth pastors in several youth groups as well. Thanks for the reflection. As well, I'd love to know your thoughts on NCFIC's "Divided" movie on youth ministry.(http://dividedthemovie.com/)

Comment by: scott d mckenzie at September 18, 2011 6:29 PM

2 timothy 3:16-17 ALL scripture is inspired by God and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.17,God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.

Let's us get prepare to be equip by the lord and I think are main goal is to have balance in all these problems and continue to build 0n relationship with family's.I am trying to says that we still need a mixed both for a growing youth.

Comment by: chris at September 19, 2011 5:44 PM

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