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Young people as theologians

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Young peopleWhat do you think of when you hear the word ‘theology’? At a recent conference for youth workers, a speaker asked the participants that very question. Their responses were varied, but most were negative. The perception of many people was that theology was something dry and dusty, which middle-aged, usually intellectual men engaged in, while sitting in their academic ivory towers. It was obvious that theology has a negative elitist image and is seen as removed from daily practice. In contrast, Jurgen Moltmann says:

‘Every Christian, man or woman, young or old, who believes and thinks at all about that belief, is a theologian. …theology isn’t just a task for the theological faculties. It is a task for the whole people of God; the whole Christian community on earth seeks understanding.’

(What is a Theologian?’ The Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church and Culture, 1999)

What is theology?

The simple definition of theology is ‘thinking about God’. The current trend in the various fields of theology is to emphasise that all theology is practical in that it relates to the way we live life. I therefore choose a definition that addresses the practical nature of theology and the importance of hearing a variety of voices:

‘Practical theology is a place where religious belief, tradition and practice meet contemporary experiences, questions and actions and conducts a dialogue that is mutually enriching, intellectually critical, and practically transforming.’

(S Pattison and J Woodward, A Vision of Pastoral Theology, 1994)

‘All people, young and old, are included in this understanding of practical theology. Christian young people, like all Christians, struggle with what it means to be a child of God in this world affected by sin but redeemed by love.’

(KC Dean, C Clark and D Rahn (eds.) Starting Right, 2001)

This definition takes seriously the cultural context by recognising that all church practices relating to theology and liturgy have been shaped by - and arisen out of - specific historical issues and settings. At the same time, it avoids devaluing the church’s traditions and overestimating the value of current culture and local context. Focusing solely on the needs and desires of the young people could lead to a kind of self-indulgence where correct theological practice is determined by the young people’s beliefs. The emphasis in this definition is upon a process of dialogue that explores and creates meaning and transforms the practice and faith of those involved. In worship situations both the young people and the church tradition would be challenged and altered.

The definition also has a leaning towards practice. It seeks to make changes that address current local needs while remaining faithful to scriptural and church tradition. Faithfulness to tradition does not mean that worship traditions will simply stay the same in this dialogue but rather that they will be taken seriously. This dialogue ensures that the Gospel is grounded or contextualised into every culture and time. In other words it is a conversation where all those involved in the dialogue (tradition, the local church, the young people) bring questions and issues to the inquiry, which allows for dynamic growth, change, and clarity.

The importance of culture

Moltmann argues that a gulf opens up between the practice of the church and the culture of the people only when the church stops listening to the theology of the people, including young people. When listening ceases the theology and practice of the church becomes sterile and disconnected from everyday life. With the rapid changes in culture occurring now, hearing the variety of voices in the church, especially those of young people, becomes even more important. The danger is that the church remains fixed in the symbols, language, and music of modernity, but is seeking to minister to those in post-modernity. The theological reflections of young people can assist the church in this transition. Examples of this kind of theological conversation are demonstrated in the voices of young people:

‘The church says I should dress up and offer God my best in worship… I think I should be honest before God and come as I normally dress – be who I really am.’ (Holly, 16)

‘We should have music that expresses the passion we feel for God, music that allows me to offer myself to God.’ (Rob, 15)

‘God’s word should relate to my life, give me hope, speak to my world, that’s not what I hear in church.’ (Laura, 16)

The value of involving young people in theological reflection becomes clear as we examine the concept of engaging in theological reflection.

The Contributions of Young People

What do young people bring into this conversation that is unique and essential for faith today? There is a need to ground worship into people’s everyday cultural setting. Many books are currently being published within social sciences and theology that speak of the cultural shift from modernity to something new – ‘post-modernity’. It is not this booklet’s purpose to debate the make up of this new culture but it is important to note its enormous impact upon the church.

Young people have grown up in this post-modern environment. The variety of cultures British young people inhabit may be diverse but through the education system, media, popular culture and globalised economic and communication systems young people experience and reflect post- modernity. When young people bring what they know of this culture to the church, their contribution can help prevent the church from being stuck and hardened in a bygone era. The young people also contribute their own unique and sometimes challenging viewpoints, which, because of their physical and social development, may be significantly different from adults’.

Young people in the Western world stand in a different place from children and adults with their own set of concerns and needs. Where they are in life means that they may well understand and interpret theology differently from adults. Adults need to hear this both to expand our understanding and to prevent young people from becoming marginalised in the life of the church. Until very recently youth ministry and the voice of young people, though capable of contributing, have been absent from practical theology at all levels including the local one. Robert Schreiter argues that the church needs to hear the voice of the whole community, especially those that have been silenced, to prevent our theology and practice from becoming a repetition of tradition or isolated from the people (see Schreiter’s Constructing Local Theologies, 1985) The church at all levels needs the voices of young people. 

Finding a faith language

For the sake of their spiritual health, young people need to be included in the ongoing theological conversations of the church. Christian Smith, in his research among young people from the United States, discovered a lack of faith language. He stresses the importance of the ability to express faith as this capacity is intimately connected to spiritual growth and experience.

Inarticulacy undermines the possibilities of reality. So, for instance, religious faith, practice and commitment can be no more than vaguely real when people cannot talk much about them. Articulacy fosters reality. A major challenge for religious educators of youth, therefore, seems to us to be fostering articulation, helping teens to practice talking about their faith, providing practice at using vocabularies, grammars, stories, and key messages of faith (see Smith’s book, Soul Searching for more on this).

Although his argument is not specifically aimed at the need to intentionally find ways to include young people in theological discussions within the church, this would certainly be one way to achieve the goal of providing opportunities for young people to talk about their faith. In the dialogue they will be given opportunities to both hear the language and stories of faith and worship, as well as expressing their own stories. If Smith is correct, and I believe he is, then spiritual growth and understanding will take place when young people are given the opportunities to be practical theologians.

This means that those involved in leadership within churches and church youth work have a dual role. The first role is to create opportunities for young people to speak of their theological ideas concerning worship and other areas of Christian life and to give their voices power. The second role involves empowering young people by providing them with the language and experience from which they are enabled to speak. These two roles are closely linked in a ‘what comes first, the chicken or egg?’ fashion. Young people need to express their desires for worship, but in order to do this most effectively they need to experience worship to which they can relate. This means that those involved in leadership will need to create occasions to explore with young people stories of worship and a variety of experiences of worship. In providing these opportunities, both young people and the church may not only discover what young people really think about the current church worship, but also provide a language for these opinions to be expressed and assist a growth in understanding that extends to all ages.

Objections and weaknesses

There are inherent weaknesses in including young people in the theological conversations of the local church. Young people often lack a breadth of experience in terms of worship styles. They can lack a theological language and at times the ability to be self-critical. However, these faults could equally be applied to many adults. If a person was brought up in a church with an appreciation of that church’s style of worship, they may uncritically embrace that style as the best. It is clear from research that young people know enough about worship to identify the kind of worship that fails to express their faith or encourage an awareness of God’s presence. If they have experienced a meaningful worship service they can articulate what made it meaningful to them. It is also true that if they have not experienced meaningful worship they may not be able to describe what it is they want or need because – like adults in similar situations – they simply don’t know.

Another potential difficulty is that young people may lack the faith language to express their worship desires. In my UK research (carried out as a basis for the book Empowering Young People in Church) some young people struggled to express various theological ideas, but then, many adults and even theologians struggle with these concepts. Most young people were very clear about how they desired to express their worship and why. Their desires for and practice of worship clearly expressed a theology that they were sometimes not able to articulate.

An objection to hearing theological reflections and responding to them was raised in a recent email conversation with a theologian. He observed that:

‘Though worship is expressed in cultural forms, youth culture or any culture for that matter should not be the starting place for worship. Getting the ‘culture right’ is a secondary matter and the primary question is how to worship in a way that expresses Biblical truth/sound theology. Starting with the question of a cultural fit potentially means that theology will take a back seat and that worship will become little more than culture with a little bit of God/religion thrown in for good measure. Besides that, culture is part of a fallen humanity, and so it cannot be a matter of ‘clicking and dragging’ culture into worship without any kind of serious critique thereof.’

This objection is valid in that worship must be biblically and theologically sound – worship should be pleasing to God. The objector noted however that the only way to express worship is through language and images that have a cultural setting. Worship cannot be expressed through anything else other than the culture that is part of a fallen humanity. The question is whose culture and whose setting? Traditional worship in our churches may be biblically and theologically sound, but it ceases to be worship when it is so culturally removed from the world of the young people that they cannot connect with the language and symbols. Empowering the young people to express their theology about worship is to allow them to enter into a conversation with the Bible, tradition and their culture. In a conversation, it doesn’t matter so much who starts talking, but rather that all participate and all voices are heard. Until recently, the voice of the young people has not been heard.

Empowering young people to be theologians

It is perhaps helpful at this point to offer an example of giving young people the opportunity to reflect theologically on worship, while providing the language and experience to express themselves. Anglican and Methodist young people gathered for a weekend retreat on worship. Many had experienced worship both at large youth events (which they spoke of very positively) and in their local churches (which they found largely frustrating). On the Friday they were given an opportunity to express their frustrations and joys concerning their local church worship and suggest possible changes. They clearly expressed their frustration but struggled to suggest how changes might be made.

In order to provide the language of worship and ideas, over the course of the weekend the young people were given opportunities to explore a variety of styles of worship including loud band-led worship; creating and experiencing the stations of the cross; quiet singing that led to silence; small group work playing with church communion liturgy, and the writing of personal psalms. At the end of the weekend they were once again asked what they might say to their local church about worship and how they might help. Suggestions flowed in, many of which were inspired by the experiences of the weekend, although at first glance they might have seemed unrelated to these.

Five practical ideas

The following are some proven suggestions for empowering young people to engage in theological reflection surrounding worship.

  • Show a number of short video clips of fans celebrating a football victory, a crowd at a rock festival, a crowd at a Christian rock concert, and a traditional church worship service (all available on After watching these ask the young people what worship is and why people worship.
  • Create a questionnaire asking for responses to how young people relate to various parts of the worship service, which style best enables them to worship, and an open-ended question offering suggestions surrounding worship. Distribute the questionnaire to young people and adults. Allow the young people and adults to discuss the findings separately so as to allow a freer discussion among the young people. Then create a time when the church can come together to discuss worship using the findings as a discussion starter.
  • In small groups, allow the young people to engage with the church’s liturgy or patterns of worship by examining what it communicates and why. Then encourage them to express that liturgy in their own symbols and language or in a way they would find meaningful. In this process they might want to challenge the order of the worship and contents or suggest alternatives or simply translate what is already there into a language or expression that is more meaningful to them. Through this kind of experimentation they will hopefully discover the ‘what and why’ of traditional liturgy and assist the whole church in thinking of alternative ways of expressing worship. The young people may want to take their ideas and create small acts of worship among themselves. In doing this they will personally engage in worship and discover what assists them in a Biblical expression of worship.
  • Allow the young people to describe experiences when they have come away from worship feeling and thinking ‘Now that was worship!’ Probe the descriptions with questions like What made it so? What was being said about God through the experience? How did it make you feel and how did you respond? What difference has it made in your life?
  • Attend a variety of youth worship events with the young people, such as Soul Survivor, Greenbelt, Spring Harvest, Taize-style worship or visit churches or groups from different traditions. At the events and on the way home listen to their comments and encourage their theological reflections on their experiences.

Adapted from the Grove Booklet: Empowering Young People in Church by Steve Emery Wright (£2.95 from

Steve is a Methodist Minister who has worked in youth ministry and served churches in the USA, New Zealand, the UK and now in Singapore. He currently lectures in youth ministry and pastoral theology at Trinity Theological College in Singapore.


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