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Fall 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 2 · pp. 176–85 

Thirsty for the Reign: A Kingdom Theology for Youth Ministry, Part Two

Ritch Hochstetler

Josh Robbins was seventeen when he died in a Memphis hospital after taking a new designer psychedelic drug, T-7, as reported in Rolling Stone Magazine, January 31, 2002:

To adults, Josh was invariably polite, soft-spoken, and clean cut. His mother recalls that Josh brushed his teeth, washed his hands and did his laundry without ever being told. He was almost perfectionistic about the way he looked. But to his friends, Josh presented a different face. He was still the same soft-spoken youth, but he also drank hard, smoked pot constantly and, in the years leading up to his encounter with T-7, dealt a variety of drugs. 1

Kingdom theology in youth ministry will force us to address the disconnect between faith and practice in the church.

As I survey the church-scape at the dawn of a new millennium, I see young people who are, on the surface, like Josh: healthy, intelligent young people, brimming with dreams and hope for the future. On closer inspection, however, they are immersed in a quest to escape this world and searching for something deeper, a spiritual dimension to life. Not all follow the fatal path Josh chose. Most youth recognize, even if they {177} choose to ignore their longings or medicate their pain, that there is a deeper calling and purpose in life than they are currently experiencing.

Many of these kids come through our youth programs dressed in the cultural disguise of adolescence and speaking Christian-eze at the drop of a Bible verse. However, a closer look reveals deep questions, longings, wounds, and scars, brought on by life lived too fast, relationships in disarray, and church teaching and programs that fail to address relevant questions. If we are to help kids navigate this dark world, then it is imperative that we enjoin them to find a vital life in Christ. This new life will not only address the deep spiritual thirst they feel, but it will open the door to a new world where lifestyle choices are radically impacted by an intuitive and practical kingdom theology.

To make this happen, we must, as the community of the gospel, commit to the necessary steps to becoming the revitalized church. This church, illuminated by the gospel and a careful study of the needs of millennial youth, will not hesitate to sacrifice the sacred cows of youth programming. To engage in the vital task of youth ministry that grows out of a kingdom approach, we must first stop and take a serious look at who we are and what our practice in youth ministry entails.

THE STATE OF YOUTH MINISTRY IN NORTH AMERICA

The organization Youth Ministry International, reporting on youth population worldwide, invites us to imagine a group of 1,000 students representing an equal distribution by country. In this group, 250 would be from China, 83 from India, and 3 from the United States. To this gathering of students add 100 youth workers (paid and volunteer) who represent the distribution of youth ministers around the world. Based on this scenario, 99 of the youth ministers present would join the 3 U.S. students leaving the 1 remaining leader to join the 997 students who are left.

This skewed reality in youth leadership resources versus needs is no shock when you consider the gross economic disparity in the global sphere. However, when we pause for a moment to let these numbers sink in, the question that bleeds its cognitive disequilibrium is, “If the church possesses so many resources in people and programs to reach youth, then why are we not seeing a lasting impact of students engaging in mission and ministry beyond their youth group?”

To answer this question we must stop in the middle of the fast and furious activity we call ministry and look at our current practice in North America. This past year I did just that on opening night at the National Youth Workers Convention in Dallas. As I passed through the {178} doors into the exhibit hall, the sea of youth ministry vendors were marketing everything from the latest extreme Christian youth experience to the most incredible worship widgets. From the racks of “*NSYNC with Jesus” worship-wear to “What Would Jesus Do” underwear, I was struck with how much time, attention, and money had been invested marketing Christianity to our youth. Somewhere between laughter and tears, I heard a still small voice ask, “Why?”

This sold-out convention, which drew more than four thousand youth workers from the midwest and south, had many redeeming qualities during the five days we were together. Simply getting together with a throng of youth ministers for worship and teaching was incredible. During sessions and seminars, we were called to recommitment, to reliance on God and his Word, and away from cultural entanglements that keep us from engaging in “the dance of faith” as we minister with youth.

However, I came away with a haunting question: If this is truly our call, then why is there such a gap between what we say we are about and our practice? Why, on the one hand, do we engage in youth ministry like marketing managers, analyzing target markets and creating products to sell youth on Christianity, while on the other hand, we say it is about the gospel, loving kids and loving God, being community and reaching out to a broken world?

STARTING TO ANSWER THE “WHY” QUESTIONS

The radical disconnect between the call of the gospel and the current practice of youth ministry in North American Christianity should stir in us images of an indignant young man scouring the temple with whip in hand. If Jesus entered our world of culturally saturated ministry madness today, we might have to change the popular slogan from WWJD to WWJH (What Would Jesus Hurl).

The problem lies not in authentic efforts to contextualize the gospel for a postmodern generation, but in our investment and reliance upon well-constructed strategies, tools, and resources as the be-all and end-all. Whatever is deemed effective in bringing in numbers of kids in one pocket of the country is quickly packaged and franchised so everyone can increase attendance at their youth group—presumably to justify their existence to the church board. In reality, when you really step back and evaluate all the stuff now associated with North American youth ministry, you get the feeling that we have become enamored with our own creativity.

Please do not misunderstand me. I have been involved in youth {179} ministry nearly two decades. During this time I have copied ideas, stolen lesson plans, flipped through myriads of idea books, and laid in wait for the next hot talk or incredible meeting maker—searching diligently for anything “that works” in reaching kids. Why?

In my better moments I believe it has been because I love kids and have a passion to walk with them toward becoming a disciple of Jesus—whatever it takes. If I am honest, I also have to say that I have tried so hard, using as many tools as possible, so that kids would show up at youth group. In my present conversations with younger youth workers I continually hear talk about how many kids showed up as the number one criteria for whether or not an event or meeting was successful.

I believe that for most of us in youth ministry, for kids to vote by their absence or walk away bored from our well-crafted program is a cross too heavy to bear. In the end, this line of thinking—that if I am not funny, musical, dynamic, or cool enough, kids will be lost to Christ and the church—betrays a culturally-induced hedonism in Christian wrapping. In a word, it’s sick!

The time has come for soul searching and asking some tough questions. What if up to half of what we spend our time doing or fretting about has nothing to do with the gospel? What if youth ministry has nothing to do with numbers or attendance, and everything to do with people, prayer, and personal relationships? What if our teaching in youth ministry focused more on how Jesus is going to ruin your life rather than how he can help you escape damnation, bless you, or give you a great report card or strength to score the winning touchdown? What if we could really see with the eyes of Jesus, and our ministry with youth took on God’s vision and priorities for a new millennium? What if we had a kingdom theology of youth ministry?

BARRIERS TO A KINGDOM APPROACH TO YOUTH MINISTRY

Pop Theology

In order for us to be able to envision what a kingdom theology in youth ministry would look like, we must first peel back the layers on three pervasive barriers. The first barrier is that youth ministry today is often practiced from the starting point of a faulty pop theology. This theology, which has been heavily influenced by North American materialism and a hedonistic approach to all of life, is characterized by making the ultimate goal the creation of young, “packaged,” happy Christians who have an individualized, privatized faith. {180}

These youth are trained to use Scripture and a list of Christian disciplines to create a holy huddle. They are taught that the most important thing is being Jesus’ friend. Discipleship under this umbrella struggles to embrace the brokenness and pain so prevalent in the world of adolescence. Following Christ is less about dying to self and more about teaching youth to adopt a “prayer of Jabezian” Christian worldview where the daily task becomes “hanging with God” in order to be blessed and to expand your territory (opportunities for successful Christian living).

The fruit of this teaching shows itself on many service and mission trips where youth and leaders see themselves as “the Redeemed” who are taking Jesus to the poor, heathen outcast, rather than as spoiled, broken, rich kids going out in humility to learn, discover, and join the activity of Christ in the world. Though having a personal relationship with Jesus is vital for the believer, when we teach kids to hold it tightly as a cloistered friendship, we are in essence telling them to camp out around the gates of salvation rather than imploring them to venture out into the kingdom. As Leonard Sweet, professor of Evangelism at Drew University, states it,

Friendship with Jesus is a lot less rigorous than discipleship with Jesus—Jesus has too many friends today, too many “believers.” Jesus does not have enough disciples [=learners], not enough “behavers.” 2

Passionless Christian Adults

A second barrier in youth ministry today is an adult church impotent of passion and relevance. Youth spirituality today is centered on intuitive theology—a tangible feeling or experience of “the Holy” encountered both as a seeker and in the context of community praxis. One way this spirituality is nurtured is in the ecclesiastical womb of passionate worship where performance and political correctness give way to authenticity, participation, spontaneity, and applied truth.

Translated, what this means in real terms is that the church needs to get off its high and holy ethnic-theo-bred denominational horse, where jousting over worship styles, forms, and music abound, in order to embrace new experiences, music, poetry, art, story, and liturgy born of the millennial generation. This does not mean throwing out all that is considered traditional and sacred. It does mean the de-eucharisation of some of our historical forms of worship so the passionate spirituality of youth can be embraced and valued in the gathered Christian community. {181}

Lack of True Disciples in the Church

A third barrier, which is perhaps the greatest hindrance to practicing a kingdom theology of youth ministry, is the lack of the palpable presence of living, breathing disciples in the church. Strauss and Howe, authors of The Fourth Turning, 3 stated in 1995 that one of the defining characteristics of the millennial generation is that “their B.S. Detectors are always on.” 4 For those of you who are more removed from farming, what this means is that this new generation has a well-developed, intuitive olfactory sense for finding stink in lip-service Christianity.

Spiritually speaking, this makes kids practical theologians, evaluators of the practice-theory-practice loop in every human encounter. Forget the fact that early and middle adolescents are in the developmentally challenged state which is characterized by normal and volatile fluctuations in moods, behaviors, and actions. What they want and need is to experience a community where someone is actually living what is being taught across the pulpit and in the classroom. I am convinced that this is why, in my seventeen years of experience as youth pastor, so many kids who wanted to be baptized had troubling questions and doubts about membership in the congregation. In essence they were saying, “If being a pew-potato is what it means to be a church member, then I don’t want it!”

There are two approaches that we can take regarding this third barrier. First, we can write kids off for the critical idealism that characterizes adolescence and patronize them with spiritual correctives and clichés about how they will understand things when they get older. Or, our response can be to take them seriously and admit our shortcomings and need for transformation as adults in the church. To take kids seriously—which opens the door to kingdom youth ministry thinking and practice—will mean engaging their questions and doubts with honesty, humility, and a true desire to understand what they are saying.

Kenda Creasy Dean, Associate Professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, has been working to define the essence of practical theology in relation to youth ministry. According to her,

The point is that practical theological reflection leads to radical congruency between the theology we espouse and the one we live. . . . Youth ministry that emphasizes evangelism, without simultaneously giving adolescents opportunities to serve in substantive ministry, eviscerates discipleship. Youth ministry that seeks Christian action without a growing relationship with Jesus reduces it to good works. In {182} short, if adolescents are to become practical theologians in their own right, we have to get them into the pool. And that means you and I have to stand in the middle of the pool ourselves, practicing our faith while holding out our hands, inviting the youth we love to jump into the Christian community alongside us. 5

KINGDOM BASICS FOR YOUTH MINISTRY

It is clear that to engage in the vital task of a kingdom theology of youth ministry we must engage practical theology with both our heads and our hearts. In this new world order, youth will be invited to join us on the terrifying, death-inducing, value-crashing walk of faith called discipleship with Jesus. In this walk, youth need to know that the gospel is comfortable with pain. Youth need to understand that the road into God’s kingdom is paved not only with promise and blessing, but with suffering, difficulty, and the call to die. Youth need to experience spirituality and community with the honesty and depth sufficient to address the mess they find themselves in. It is into this mess that Jesus came proclaiming and owning the reign of God as his ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV)

If it is true that youth are thirsty for the reign, that encountering a passionate, relevant Jesus not only changes them, but their worldview, ethics, lifestyle, and vocation, then how do we get from our current youth ministry practice to a kingdom approach? How do we infuse kingdom values into the volatile and sometimes hostile world of church youth programs where traditions, expectations, and a community of stoic pew dwellers often set the direction? Without giving a recipe for success or a franchise idea to plug into your current program, here are some ideas to point the way.

Balanced Biblical Theology

First, it is imperative in our teaching that we begin by advocating a balanced biblical theology, that being a person of faith means both experiencing and extending the reign of God. As we apply this radical kingdom theology we will help youth begin to close the gap between {183} word and deed and thus begin the journey toward radical congruency, an inner and outer life that rings true as faith convictions become the kindling for the fire of the kingdom to spread. This holy fire of God’s kingdom works to purify not only the hearts of individual believers, but patterns of systemic violence, abuse, and injustice inherent in the fallen social order. In the world today where kids live and move and have their being, school settings where violence and bullying are daily rituals, home situations filled with stress and broken relationships, and church communities irrelevant to the cries of their hearts and seemingly impotent to act, this is very good news.

Donald Kraybill, in his classic work, The Upside-Down Kingdom, states:

The kingdom points us not to the place of God, but to God’s ruling activities. The kingdom is present whenever and wherever women and men submit their lives to God’s authority. 6

Transformed Programming

Second, a kingdom approach to youth ministry will transform our programming. Instead of making it the sole purpose of youth group to grow in numbers and nurture churched kids, the focus will expand to include building small groups and the inclusion of outcast or marginalized youth. This does not have to mean killing the sacred cow of midweek or Sunday night youth group, but it may mean letting it sleep some nights to allow more time for the small group gatherings. The reality is, kids will always need “massing” or larger group activities to build community. What smaller group gatherings provide is time for personal support and challenge that will help them grasp intellectually and experience intuitively what it means to be in God’s kingdom.

The reality of this truth hit me this year when our conference youth ministry office planned several discipleship retreats which limited the numbers of participants to fifteen or less. In this size of group, kids were able to see our brokenness and struggle as leaders in following the way of Christ. In this setting we were also able to unpack the meaning of the hard teachings of Christ in new and fresh ways which call us to die to self. Programming in the kingdom is very countercultural.

The Faith and Practice Gap

Third, kingdom theology in youth ministry will force us to address the disconnect between faith and practice in the church. This will mean {184} risking new approaches in ministry aimed at getting people, youth and adults, out of their comfort zones. Though church involvements such as youth group, Sunday school, ushering, teaching, giving a ride to a church activity, providing a snack, or writing a check should be welcomed and encouraged, praxis ministry experiences of service and learning beyond the four walls of the church must be given a priority of effort and time.

These experiences may include community prayer and service walks (random acts of kindness), going to malls, supermarkets, youth and family shelters, and other public places to interview, talk with, serve, and pray with people. In kingdom ministry our goal is to retro-activate church membership, fitting it with the spirituality and character of the early church, to include the training, opportunity, and calling to be a practicing disciple.

Freeing People’s Time

Finally, and in the most pragmatic terms, a youth ministry guided by kingdom theology will mean one thing: more of our time. To make room for a kingdom approach in ministry will require that programs and committee work that have outlived their purpose will be discontinued to free people’s time to engage in “kingdom activities.” This will necessitate a fundamental value reorientation in the area of time.

To make room in the schedule for kingdom ministry and living, the current church and societal family practice of giving the public school and sporting events prime time will be subjugated to the higher, sacrificial call of Christ. In addition, a time-squeeze will be felt in the area of TV and video viewing, often the main component of “family time.”

CONCLUSION

It is time to recognize that beyond our models, paradigms, strategies, methods, beyond all the glitter and hype of North American youth ministry, our youth and our church are thirsty for the reign of God. Pursuing God’s reign with a kingdom theology of youth ministry will be difficult. It will cause great pain. It will call for new priorities in the way we spend our time. It will mean some of our sacred ministry practices must die.

It will mean aligning ourselves with the radical Christ who was committed, in word and deed, to serve the Father. And in the end, it will mean joining our kids on the incredible journey of experiencing and extending God’s reign, in passion, relevance, and authenticity.

What a privilege. What a responsibility! {185}

Part One of this collaborative effort, by Wendell Loewen, was published in Direction 31 (spring 2002): 35-45.

NOTES

  1. Mark Boal, Rolling Stone Magazine, 31 January 2002, 46-47.
  2. Leonard Sweet, Christian Counterculture, Special Summer Edition, 27 July 2001; www.christiancounterculture.com/cc_10727.html.
  3. William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (New York: Broadway, 1997).
  4. Strauss and Howe, quoted by Wendy Murray Zoba in “The Class of ’00,” Christianity Today, 3 February 1997, 20.
  5. Kenda Creasy Dean, Starting Right: Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 33.
  6. Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom, rev. ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1990), 20.
Ritch Hochstetler is Conference Youth Minister for the Western District and South Central Mennonite Conferences. He has served four congregations in youth ministry since 1985. Ritch has a Masters in Theology, Youth Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. He resides in Hesston, Kansas, with his wife and two teenage children.

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