Questions came in quick succession: “Who do you say Jesus is?” “How do you communicate your faith?” “How do you tell these young people about Jesus?” Trying to draw breath, stumbling over my words, and grasping after some attempt at theological expression, I replied “incarnationally?” and “through relationships?” - hesitantly and almost without thinking. This seemed to be enough to answer the questions from a well–meaning member of the congregation.
Looking back on this encounter, I would now call the words I used theological shorthand. This important idea is explored in my new book, which both celebrates and critiques youth ministry in the UK. The book recognizes the sacrificial, dedicated, long term service of the youth ministers I interviewed. Yet, at the same time, the empirical research it is based on uncovers some gaps and tensions in the outworking of their theology.
The paradox of shorthand
Back to the questions. The theological expression I mustered to the well-meaning member of the congregation did not seem to fully articulate the nuances and complexities of my work with young people, yet it evoked and had a connection with the deeper Christian tradition in which my practice took place. For over 18 years I worked amongst young people on the fringes and margins of church life. It was through these rich encounters that I began to question my own theological understanding of youth ministry.
The book is based on the analysis of in-depth interviews with youth ministers and illuminates how they talk about their work amongst young people. By looking closely at and ‘slowing down’ the youth ministry process, I discovered that youth ministers speak in theological shorthand. Theological shorthand is a paradox: it is both meaningful, fuelling long-term sacrificial service amongst young people, and it is problematic, as it risks untethering youth ministry from the wider, deeper narratives of the Christian tradition.
Fragments of a coherent theology
As I investigated youth ministry, I found youth ministers’ theological shorthand expressed through the words: relationships, like Jesus, being there, time and journey. These words articulate a complex and nuanced relational practice that seeks (at least in part) to communicate the Gospel, and the faith of youth ministers amongst young people. I see these relationships functioning as communicative acts. When examined, the practice of youth ministers resonates with echoes and fragments of theology from the Christian tradition (e.g. marturia [the Greek word for ‘witness’], diakonia [‘service’],and kerygma [‘speaking/preaching’]). These fragments can also be found in the diet of worship songs, some books on youth ministry and the Biblical material that some of the youth ministers employ (explored more in the book!).
Therefore, theological shorthand reveals a theology embedded in everyday life, that evokes and has a relationship to a wider, deeper, richer set of beliefs from within the Christian tradition. The problem is that this broader tradition is not often expressed. Instead, what is expressed is a ‘thin’ description of practice – a thin theology. Theological shorthand is like a series of motifs and marks; it is a partial interpretation and theological description of the complexity of actual practice. Within youth ministry, these motifs and marks are the terms: relationship, like Jesus, being there, time, and journey. Paradoxically these descriptions are very meaningful in the animation of practice, and they point to and are connected to a deeper theological reality.
Windows & icons
The idea of an icon is helpful here. Within the Christian tradition icons operate as windows into the story and life of God. They remind us and help us see from our experience, that life is richer than we ever thought and that God is at work, drawing us in and helping us see afresh. Icons operate in liminal spaces existing between two worlds, they add colour, light, shade and texture to what can /cannot be grasped by the intellect – helping to render the invisible visible. Rublev’s painting of the Trinity (Google it!) is an example of this.
To move to a more contemporary metaphor, theological shorthand is like the icons on a tablet or smart phone. If you press an icon you explore the richer, deeper, wider world of the app, and if you explore the theological fragments relationships, like Jesus, being there, time and journey they lead you to a more profound understanding of the Christian story, to a more coherent theology, and to a richer description of our Christian tradition and history. Just like traditional icons, when reflected upon, the words (for example, like Jesus) can reveal layers of meaning and become a way of deepening knowledge about who Jesus is, how he lived, what he said. Therefore, these words act as icons, as windows that reveal new ways of knowing, and new ways of developing theological literacy.
My core argument is that the theological shorthand expression of practice is thin, and that the theology embedded within our practice is much more complicated than the language we use to describe it. This is true within ministry generally, but particularly in youth ministry, where theology operates in a world of fragments. Yet, these fragments (the words) can be used as windows and icons that when reflected and dwelt upon can illuminate the Christian tradition, heritage, and story of which we are part, bringing richness and full color to our theological expressions.
What can you do, as someone who lives amongst these fragments? How do our ‘thin’ descriptions of practice get thicker?
- Recognise that even if you don’t think you know anything about theology, the way you talk about your ministry with young people is theological
- Think more about the ideas and theological beliefs that sit behind the phrases you use (e.g. ‘being there’). How has our story shaped what we do and say?
- Develop your theological literacy – there are some excellent books and podcasts that reflect on theology and youth ministry. Just a few examples: Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean’s The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, Sally Nash’s A Theology for Urban Youth Work, and Nick shepherd’s Faith Generation. There’s also the recently begun Youthology podcast, a youth worker-led show which emphasises a theological perspective on youth ministry.
Dr David Bailey is Oasis’ Theology and Learning Specialist, Associate Editor for the Journal of Youth and Theology and acts as an External Examiner for St Mellitus College. Dave lives in Cornwall with his family, is a surfer and has very little time for poor coffee. His book is published by Wipf and Stock and can be found here.