Leading Young People To Theologically Minded Faith

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by Fred Edie

This article is featured in the Youth Ministry: A Part of the Church or Apart from the Church? (Nov/Dec/Jan 2015-16) issue of Circuit Rider

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.

fred_p_edie

Fred P. Edie is the associate professor of the practice of Christian education at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. He also serves as the faculty adviser for the Duke Youth Academy.

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8 Comments on "Leading Young People To Theologically Minded Faith"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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George Nixon Shuler
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It continues to amaze me that persons who fight against the relief of suffering and pain and toward the oppression of the many whine about the religion and politics of those of differing views. If anyone thinks an answer to the old “WWJD?” is “work in the fossil fuel industry, fight environmental protection, subjugate women, encourage racism and xenophobia, dishonor transgender folks and encourage their murder by dehumanizing them, etc.” their problem is with reality, not the progressive elements within the UMC.

Wes Andrews
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Nobody really lives in that imaginary world…. in which anybody who disagrees with Mr. S must be haters of everybody in the world….. sheesh…..

Richard Hicks
Guest

Too many words people!!! Read aloud and live the Good News stories together with, not to, young folks and all will be fed – and return. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

Wes Andrews
Guest

The most theology dishonest places for young people to receive a balance theology is UM seminaries, UM colleges, and academic institutions in general. Progressive professors who are adept at debate skew the fact to create more cynics rather that accurate describe the Gospel which would probably create more believers, or a lest more accurately informed students.

Wes Andrews
Guest

Sorry for the typos…. YIKES

Paul W.
Guest
Or not. As one who works with youth, I suggest you could instead try to: 1) Stop pretending that your personal political goals are “Christian”. Youth aren’t stupid, but they are impressionable. If you are doing things like leading your youth on a progression through town behind a large cross, showing how “ecologically sensitive” you are by making them meet with a marine biologist, or encouraging them not to say the pledge of allegiance, you, personally, are already in serious theological confusion and should definitely not be leading or even involved in a youth ministry! Your goal as a youth… Read more »
Casey
Guest

As a former student of Dr Edie, I can assure you that your criticisms are based on what you’re hearing through your own anxieties, not something he actually says or teaches. Numerous former students solidly committed to orthodox Christian teaching would agree.

Donnie
Guest

Amen!

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