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Why Christian theology needs youth ministry (a response to David Bailey)

Dr Phoebe Hill

23 Jan, 2020

 

Phoebe Hill responds to David Bailey’s work on ‘theological shorthand’, exploring why a ‘thick’ theology is important for youth work, and how a ‘thin’ one could be problematic.

 

In the last issue of The Story, David Bailey offered a short summary of his new book Youth Ministry and Theological Shorthand: Living Among the Fragments of a Coherent Theology (you can read it here).

Fragments of faith

Bailey’s short summary introduces the concept of theological shorthand: the ‘fragments’ or motifs of a ‘thin’ theology that youth ministers operate with. Commonly used terms which reflect this thin theology are ‘relationship’, ‘like Jesus’, ‘being there’, ‘time’, and ‘journey’. On the one hand, Bailey explains, these terms are meaningful in the animation of practice, and help to sustain a youth minister in long-term sacrificial ministry to young people. On the other hand, they are ‘untethered’ from the wider Christian tradition, and therefore lack sufficient depth and outworking. Bailey highlights this paradox, which is both a celebration of the embedded theology of youth ministers and a critique of the lack of robust theological reflection operant in youth ministry practice, disconnecting it from the wider tradition and theology. Bailey also suggests that these terms are icons – which can be ‘windows into the story of God’ – a term and concept he develops in much greater detail in the book, and which help towards his construction of a ‘thick’ theology.

Bailey’s work is hugely interesting and insightful. The book is a wonderful example of the interplay between empirical research and theology (a tricky beast) and a helpful summary of the relationship between youth ministry and practical theology (for those who are interested). Bailey’s research also resonates with much of the literature on theology within youth ministry and also my own experience of research with youth ministers and in youth work contexts. I too have heard phrases like ‘it’s all about relationships’ or ‘we just want to be Jesus to them’, repeated often when youth ministers describe the motivations or process of their work. I cannot do justice to all of Bailey’s research here, but will offer the following brief and humble reflections.

‘Thick’ theology: a particular passion

As someone who has sought to do a ‘thick’ theology in the context of a youth club, I also resonate with Bailey’s aims and the need for more theological resources for youth ministers. The subtle normative undertone to Bailey’s work is that youth ministers should be doing thick theology, and are at least partly to blame for the deficit in theological thinking.

 

It is important, however, not to underestimate the challenge of doing this kind of work. It requires a distinctive blend of social scientific experience, theological resources, and access / ability to work in youth contexts or with youth ministers. Thick theology is no easy feat, which makes Bailey’s work all the more important.

"What if we could start to think of ourselves not as individuals but as a youth ministry community, working together in our strengths and passions?"

 

It also requires a particular (or maybe a strange!) sort of passion and interest; it is not everybody’s cup of tea. One of my reflections in response to Bailey is therefore: do we expect youth ministry practitioners to be doing ‘thick’ theology for themselves? And if so, is this a fair expectation? I know many reflective practitioners who would be motivated and capable in this regard, and I know many activist practitioners who would really struggle to spend time reflecting on their practice. Is this to be perceived as a failing, or does the responsibility lie with those of us who write and research in these areas? What if we could start to think of ourselves not as individuals but as a youth ministry community, working together in our strengths and passions?

 
Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash
 

Christian theology needs youth ministry

Bailey highlights one of the problems of the prevalence of thin theology in youth ministry as its potential ‘untethering’ from the Christian tradition. Although terms such as ‘relational’ or ‘journey’ represent embedded theology, and a complex and nuanced practice, explicit links to the Christian tradition are not made; Bailey suggests that there are such links when you look for them, to traditional theological concepts such as marturia (witness), diakonia (service) or kerygma (speaking / preaching). Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, it feels necessary to ask the question: why must youth ministry be tethered to the Christian tradition in this way? Why must these links be sought? Perhaps the answer is that youth ministry will lose its way and its theological impetus if it becomes disconnected from the wider tradition. But I think there is potentially a more compelling reason for this ‘tethering’: that the Christian tradition needs youth ministry.

As Bailey makes clear, terms such as ‘relationships’ and ‘journey’ are theological motifs which have bubbled up from the real life experiences of youth ministers working with young people. They are what might be described as ‘indigenous classification schemes’ (Brewer 2000: 16), language which classifies meaning in a particular context and which has emerged out of faithful service to God. If youth ministry is not tethered to the Christian tradition then yes, youth ministry might suffer. But the Christian tradition may suffer too. The Christian tradition needs the pioneering and indigenous embedded theology of youth ministers on the frontier, just as much as they need it.

"If youth ministry is not tethered to the Christian tradition then yes, youth ministry might suffer. But the Christian tradition may suffer too. It needs the pioneering and indigenous embedded theology of youth ministers on the frontier, just as much as they need it."

Theological reflection, a process which seeks to connect theology and practice, is perceived to be the tool for establishing and upholding this two-way conversation between tradition and life, or in other words, ‘tethering’ youth ministry to theology. We’ve recently begun a qualitative piece of research specifically about theological reflection in youth ministry, and whether youth ministers – after leaving their theological training institutions – still incorporate this reflective activity into their practice. The literature is hugely suspicious of theological reflections’ ability to provide the much needed link between theology and practice, and to keep the two-way critical dialogue between the two alive.

 

It will be interesting to see what emerges from our research; our hunch is that, like Bailey’s findings, the link between theology and practice, proposed to be upheld by theological reflection, may be absent from the life and practice of youth ministers.

Messiah complex?

Another fascinating aspect of Bailey’s work for me is his discussion on what theology is, implied in his concept of ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ theology. In the book, Bailey explains that ‘Theology is lived, performed and embodied’ (2019: 32). Thus, we are all – to some extent – theologians, doing theology all of the time. This theology may not operate cognitively, but rather in the lived or perhaps intuitive reality of a youth minister’s experience. The question then is not whether or not theology is happening, but, as Bailey asks, ‘how good are we at thinking theologically’ (2019: 32)?

 

It is not the problem of theology versus no theology, but good theology versus bad theology. Perhaps here lies another impetus for the need for thick theology in youth ministry. Taking just one of the terms from Bailey’s list of youth ministers’ theological ‘icons’ – being ‘like Jesus’ – it becomes apparent how such a term could contain both good theology and bad theology.

"Desiring to be ‘like Jesus’ to others can also be reflective of bad theology...It can be subtly reflective of a desire for power...a messianic tendency...It can reflect a prideful belief that we – as the youth ministers – are the answer to young people’s problems, and that they need us."

 

If being ‘like Jesus’ means practising sacrificial love, being present, or seeking out and dignifying the outcast, then it could represent a helpful theological motif. However, desiring to be ‘like Jesus’ to others can also be reflective of bad theology; this phrase is a particular bug bear of mine for the following reasons. It can be subtly reflective of a desire for power (or at least reflective of and reinforcing of an implicit power imbalance in youth ministry), a messianic tendency or a desire to be the saviour of young people. It can reflect a prideful belief that we – as the youth ministers – are the answer to young people’s problems, and that they need us. More than these, being ‘like Jesus’ to another subtly suggests that the other cannot ‘be Jesus’ to me.

As Bailey identifies, these phrases are like ‘windows’, and it depends on how they are applied, and how they reflect the motivations of the person using them, as to whether or not they will constitute good or bad theology. Giving time to thinking through these theological motifs, and work out their implications in conversation with the Christian tradition – good or bad – may be an important process, as Bailey recommends.

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