Paradigms and Theological Language of Youth Ministry


I'm being challenged by what I've learned during a two-day course on the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study at the beginning of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza.  I've been bowled over by a new paradigm of youth ministry – from program-centered to formation-focused, from event-based to outcome-oriented (see yesterday's post).  This is a youth ministry model that begins by articulating what kind of outcomes it wants, what kind of faith it wants to form in young people.  It is a radically different approach to youth ministry than the "traditional" (or, if not traditional, the de facto) model of loading up with programs and hoping that kids have fun, get something out of it, or at least stay out of trouble.  Because of this wonderfully overwhelming experience, I'm loving this conference.  Indeed, the remainder of this conference could be lousy (but I'm sure it wont be) and it will still have been worthwhile.

However …

However, I find myself wresting with two theological issues that are embedded in this paradigm of youth ministry.  For one, the operative definition of "church" in this workshop had much more to do with faith formation than it did with Word and Sacrament.  Indeed, Word and Sacrament were discussed as essential parts of that process of faith formation.  But for a guy who has Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession ringing in his ears, it is hard to hear church defined in ways that don't explicitly or primarily name Word and Sacrament as central.

The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.

– From Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession

Once we shift to defining church as the place of faith formation, we can speak of any place of faith formation as being "church."  "Families, homes are church," I heard at this workshop, and I've seen in Faith Inkubators materials and elsewhere.  Though I don't discount in any way the vocation of the family and the centrality of homelife in the process of faith formation, I do not view the home as a "church."  Why not?  There simply ain't no Word and Sacrament happening in the homes.  There's prayer, Bible reading, thanksgiving, admonition, comfort, forgiveness … there's lots of great faith-stuff that happens (or could happen) in the home.  But the home is not church.  The home has its own God's-blessed vocation of providing roof and food, love and nurture, and yes, Christian formation.  There's no need to saddle the home with the responsibilities and tasks of the church, too!

Church is different, it seems to me.  The primary calling of church is not to provide shelter or food or clothing or basic rearing.  Church is that unique gathering of God's people around Word and Sacrament, that broad community of people called in faith to be the Body of Christ, fed and nourished by God's promised presence in water, wine, bread and simple spoken words.  What I fear is that when we start speaking of the family or the home as church, its not too far a leap to ask, "Who needs the congregation?  We have church at home!"  The leaders of today's workshop went to some lengths to emphasize that the home does not trump the congregation.  But the language used surely can take us in that direction.

The other theological problem I'm wrestling with is this tendency to put descriptors before the word "faith."  Throughout this workshop we spoke of "mature faith," "vital faith," and "vibrant faith," among others.  I get nervous when we start putting adjectives before the word "faith,"
– whatever happened to faith alone? – for I fear that in so doing we put more stock in the adjective than we
do in the faith itself.  That is, if we're striving for a "vital" faith, we
risk devaluing someone's faith that might otherwise be sincere or
deeply-held simply because it lacks what we call "vitality."

Certainly, I know what they're talking about.  I have no interest in arguing against the importance of homelife in faith formation, or of denying that there is a certain level of "maturity" or "vitality" in the ways that some people practice their faith.  I accept their study findings and their proposals for ministry. 

But to use their findings and proposals I would need to use slightly differently language.  I would not refer to family as a "church," but would instead lift up the blessed and holy vocation of the family in its own right.  When speaking of faith I would avoid using adjectives to describe faith, but would instead describe ways that their faith take on flesh in Christian living, in patterns of Christian practice.  Such simple semantic changes might avoid some of the theological problems I noted above … but I need to put more thought into this.

I'm looking forward to continuing to learn in the next three days.  The learning next will be different – no intensive multi-day courses, but instead a series of workshops on everything from postmodernism to integrating community service into youth ministry; from the ELCA's ecology to understanding relational ministry.  It should be fun.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

5 thoughts on “Paradigms and Theological Language of Youth Ministry

  1. Chris, not being there to judge for myself, I would nevertheless agree with your hesitations. You are cataloging the errors of pietism. In the end, the adjectives are anthropocentric dreams and ideals.

  2. I understand your push back on locating faith formation in the home. It does create the possibility of making the church unnecessary. I’m not sure the answer lies in word and sacrament though. I’ve actually been thinking that we put way too much emphasis on word and sacrament, especially as it pertains to ordained ministry. Yes, I’m aware of the historic Lutheran confessions, but maybe it’s time that we modify them a bit. But that’s a whole other discussion.
    One of the problems with the EYM study is that it does present a paradigm whereby we are concerned with forming faith in our own children and youth. It can cultivate a very inward-focused approach, which can also serve to make the church irrelevant if we locate that primarily in the home. There’s little talk of the church existing for the sake of the world or how the church can together accomplish a mission that no one family can undertake.

  3. @Matt – good point about the “inward-focused” approach. In my loose rephrasing, the study looked at congregations that “create” mature, faithful youth, and asked what it is that those congregations do (what “faith assets” those congregations have). The focus of the study was the faith of the young person, not “the church” or the church’s witness in the world, or justice or any number of other wonderful and holy things. To its defense, this study was about youth ministry, not about ecclesiology or the mission of the church, but about one portion of the church, one aspect of its mission …
    If my goal is to cultivate mature faith in my young people, than this study surely shows me a path. But the question is a fair one – is nurturing the faith of individual youth the best goal to have in youth ministry? Surely it is hard to argue against that goal, but is there some other goal – perhaps, a goal oriented around being church, a more communal/ecclesial goal rather than has as its goal the nurture of “mature faith” in individuals – that is more appropriate for our contemporary Lutheran context? What if youth ministry is not necessarily about nurturing “mature faith” in young people, but about being church in all its multilayered messiness?
    Crud. I’m tying myself in knots. I’m grateful for this study and this conference for getting me to think and to wrestle and to grow.
    But now it’s time to go see if the lunch for which I’m 30 minutes late is still available.

  4. I sympathize with some of your concerns here. “Home/church”– maybe there’s another way to see that. I believe John Paul II referred to the home/family as “the domestic Church.” If Bible reading and Christian teaching is going on in the home (as ideally it would be), then isn’t “the Word” present there? The Church/Body of Christ is active and present wherever Christians find themselves in their daily settings. The Church “gathers” around Word and Sacrament, then “scatters” to fulfill its various ministries in the world — and family somehow ties into that … Is there perhaps a concern here that “church” not be bound exclusively to the “sacral” setting on Sunday morning?

  5. From my perspective, there is great value in faith practices. The importance of placing tools in the hands of all ages to practice faith in the home through reading the Word and praying and blessing one another is not to be underestimated. I believe you are referencing a workshop where there was also the mention of the importance of ritual and tradition. As an individual who grew from a “church groupie” volunteer when my children were younger, to a position on staff in a church, to a position in the synod, to working with national organizations,and yet a “lay person”; I cannot emphasize the importance of understanding the need to see faith as a life-long, 24/7 journey. I do not remember any one telling me that I was indeed THE faith role model for my children when they were young and did not consider this until I worked in the church. The fact is, my children are more like me than I ever want them to be, so the priorities I set as a parent, will eventually have an effect on the lives of my children. No doubt I’m teaching them the faith, but what faith is it?
    A rather long answer to your insights and concerns…bottom line:I do believe the home is a church, but I also believe the church is a home to many. I have experienced the most beneficial ministries to be when what is practiced each week in the community, is set as an expectation to practice in the home. It’s empowering us to be nourished in community each week and then sent to do the ministry at home and beyond. I think you may have misinterpreted the intent of the message by not understanding the great value in equipping the home and how it empowers individuals and families to do even greater work in the community and in fact, thirst to “be part” of a community where it is nurtured.
    From what I have experienced and understand this to be is an ingredient that actually strengthens the church, equips us to do the work (not the pastor alone), and is not a threat to the congregation being non-existent. A little passionate about this? You bet! Let’s talk:)!

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