A youth minister, a theologian, and a tech guru log onto Twitter…
So began a theological debate last week about mission trips carried on in 140 character increments amongst Andy Root, Adam McLane, and myself. It all started when Andy posted this little snippet of theological provocation:
the point of mission trips is to invite kids to witness in their feeble acts to the promise of God’s action to make all things new.
Adam’s response was:
Maybe in an idealistic world. But in the practical world of YM, there are many different reasons/justifications for missions.
And my contribution to the topic was:
I don’t think it’s idealistic. Our mission trip theme last year was (God’s coming) “shalom” and we talked about exactly that.
The way I read it, we were approaching mission trips from three different perspectives:
- A theologian
- A person who interacts with tons of different churches, youth ministers and youth groups
- A person who primarily works and ministers within a specific local context
Adam wasn’t necessarily disagree with either Andy or myself, but saying that, for the most part, “most youth groups don’t think theologically about much.” He also said that “Most youth groups aren’t as sophisticated as yours. There are a lot of youth groups on trips.” That Adam used the word “sophisticated” to describe our youth ministry was quite surprising. I would expect that if anyone ever came to observe or research the way we do youth ministry at our church they would be significantly underwhelmed. To me our youth ministry isn’t sophisticated, at all. In fact, it’s pretty simple. No bells, no whistles, no lights, no fog machines, no in-house videos. That stuff sounds sophisticated to me. I don’t have the time or creative energy to mess with that stuff.
I do try to ground everything that we do theologically, but to me that isn’t sophisticated. Theology can’t be sophisticated because it permeates everything we do, whether we acknowledge it or not. So, whether a youth minister is a seminary grad who reads obscure theology journals on weekends or is a volunteer who has only been theologically trained through Sunday school classes the net result of our ministry is the same: theology–what we believe about God–is communicated through our practice. But we need to help people interpret our practice since we are “hermeneutical animals.”
That’s where theology comes in. Rather than going on a mission trip to “help people,” we are witnessing to the hope that the Christian community confesses in a God who will one way restore all things unto himself and make all things new and whole. Any group can go and help people. There’s nothing distinctly Christian in helping people; it’s just pragmatic. But a pragmatic approach falls short: people will be hungry again tomorrow, houses will continue to deteriorate and need further repair, another hurricane will come and do damage again. Practically speaking, mission trips make no sense because they are lessons in futility. The work is never finished, there is often more to do, and many times the people don’t deserve our help. However, the point is not to practically help, but it witness to our hope in God. So, even though drug addicts are laying in a bed of their own making, we still feed them because we too are unworthy of the grace given to us in Jesus Christ. And even though that house will need to be repainted again in another 20 years, we paint the house because we are witnessing to the day when God will make all things new and there will be no more pain, nor more decay, no more deterioration.
It’s really not that sophisticated. Christians believe in heaven and Christians believe in forgiveness by grace alone through faith, so I interpreted the practice of mission trips through those lenses. That’s all it means to do youth ministry with some sort of theological foundation. All we have to do is to interpret our practice through simple lenses like that in order to help our communities understand the point of why we do what we do. Left to themselves, they will interpret practice through the lens of cultural norms. Our job as leaders in the church must be to take those actions and reclaim them for the purpose of forming people in faith.
I think that Adam was right in saying that some people don’t think very theologically about youth ministry because it is too sophisticated. But why?
Is it really that sophisticated? Where have we gone wrong in our churches to make people think that they are incapable of thinking theologically (when in reality is is impossible to avoid)? Can theology be reclaimed by laypeople in churches? Can volunteers lead theologically robust mission experiences? How can we help them do that?