Many employed youth and children’s workers have not been theologically trained and do an excellent job. Perhaps theological training is only necessary for those in adult ministry? This has been the pattern of church life for decades—the children’s ministry is run by the happy volunteer or the young person who is testing out whether they are ready for the pastorate.
Is this model the best one for children and youth? Perhaps there’s a better way and this thinking is upside-down. Four reasons behind this error make it vital that youth and children’s ministry is taken more seriously and theological training is considered by anyone involved with Christian ministry amongst the young.
Children are theologically vulnerable
Consider the pastor who stands in the pulpit and states, “Jesus is half-man-half-goat.” What would be the response of the adults in the congregation? I would hope that they would begin to throw things, shout and walk out. In England, you may even find that some write stiff letters!
But can you imagine saying the same thing in a group of 3–5 year-olds? There is a high chance that they would nod along and believe you. If my suggestion seems extreme, then consider milder errors. The difference between the response of children to adults is stark and highlights their vulnerability. This tends to be a sliding scale, and teenagers will be keener to challenge and question.
The adult is in a position of great power simply by being the adult, and the child or young person is theologically vulnerable to what they are told. For this reason, perhaps our youth and children’s ministers should be better trained than our adult pastors, not worse. The responsibility of the role is great (Mark 9:42), and the privilege is even greater (Ps. 78:4).
The questions children and young people ask tend to be more theologically stretching than those of an adult. When my son asks me, “Does Jesus eat in heaven?” he demonstrates curiosity and depth of thinking that is often missed for being cutesy or irrelevant. There are times when such questions come flowing out of a children’s group as they wrestle with the depths of theological truths and try to make sense of them in their worlds.
“Did God die on the cross?”
“Will my pet dog be in heaven?”
These are important questions for the young mind asking them. And it demands a sensitive and theologically acute person to respond well to them. If you are in children’s or youth ministry, could you answer the questions above in a way that points the child to see the glory of Jesus more clearly and help them to delight in him?
Youth and children’s ministers are the “cultural gatekeepers” of the church
Thomas Bergler’s study, “The Juvenilization of American Christianity” reveals a church that has grown to mimic the mistakes of the youth group, often focused on entertainment and therapeutic morality. The youth group is a microcosm of the church ten years from now, and any mistakes that are made there will have repercussions on the wider body. What the youth experience in their setting they will come to expect in the church gathering.
The church will weaken if youth work is only interested in “bums on seats,” keeping the parents happy, or presenting an image of success. Rather, youth and children’s ministers need to know how their ministries function under the twin umbrellas of church and family so that both are strengthened and not undermined.
The church desperately needs youth and children’s ministries that are theologically rich, relational and missional, caring for our young people at an often fragile stage of their development. The church desperately needs young people who are striving for spiritual maturity.
If a youth and children’s ministry takes theology seriously, and I don’t just mean the process of teaching theology but of allowing our theology to shape our practise, then the church will be healthier, more vibrant, and will delight in God more abundantly. For churches who invest in their youth and children’s ministers, the rewards are delayed but are vast.
If you are a youth and children’s minister, the impact you have, not just on individuals but also on the church more widely, is immense, and it is important to get it right! Theological education should help you begin to see the positive and negative implications of your decisions.
Children and young people need pastors who ooze Jesus
Whenever I ask young adults what they remember about their time in children’s or youth ministry, they very rarely are able to tell me about a brilliant talk or Bible study. They tell me all about their leaders and how they loved Jesus. Children and young people need adults who can model a deep love and joy in God, who can ooze a life full of Jesus, and who can show them what it means to keep in step with the Spirit.
Theology, when done right, leads to doxology. It leads us deeper into the glories of the triune God and to worship him. When our children and young people have leaders full of this kind of love, they will want that joy for themselves. They need pastors who know how to speak the truth and know how to live the truth. Children, particularly, are very good at spotting fakes. Studying theology should grow us into authentic ministers of the gospel.
Theological education aids perseverance
I have been ministering in the same small town for twenty years, and the greatest joy has been to watch babies grow into mature Christian adults. In my context, sticking it through the years has been vital as many young people come back to a familiar face from childhood when the storms of life hit. Perseverance has mattered in an area where families remain for decades.
Keeping going as a children’s minister has not been easy when the expectation has been to move on to so-called “real” ministry. And yet I am convinced that I am better in ministry in middle age than I was in my twenties, and hope that I will be better still in my sixties, God willing.
Having a theology degree has helped me to “stick it”! It has helped me to know that I am not in training for some greater role but have been trained for the role where God has placed me. This allows me to take note of where I am and be present rather than looking for the next step up. It has helped me to delight in God and his plans for where he has me.
Ministry among children and young people takes time, and often the results are not visible for many years. Having a deeper understanding of the work of God can give a perspective that enables perseverance when “the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines” (Hab. 3:17, NIV).
Not all youth and children’s ministers will pastor in the same place for twenty years; for many, it will not be necessary nor possible; yet for those who do and are able, it provides a rich reward, and a theological education has been invaluable for me to do that.
Should the church invest in the theological training of her youth and children’s ministers? Yes, it is to her detriment not to.
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