Saturday, March 03, 2007

Seminary Paper #2: The Use of Theologies in Youth Ministry

In my theology class last year, this was the paper I received the highest grade on. The assignment was to take four books (from four viewpoints) that were read in the class and summarize them, critique them, and apply them to actual ministry. The four views were neo-orthodoxy, open theism, existentialism, and process theology. The paper had to be six pages double spaced, so I am assuming no one will actually read the whole thing.

There is an infamous statistic in relation to youth ministry that is floating around in churches today. This statistic states that only four percent of teenagers are “Bible-believing Christians.” (Lawrence) While this statistic is not actually a true fact, it does reflect that the Christian faith as proposed by churches is not actively reaching or engaging today’s teenage culture. One of the main reasons for this is because the majority of today’s teenagers operate from a post-modern mindset. The idea of postmodernity is fairly new, and that paradigm for thought is still being explored, but one of the key premises of postmodern thought is “to question all premises. All assumptions are out the window for a postmodern . . . all is relative and nothing can be taken for granted.” (Jones 22). Another key element of postmodern thought is the huge emphasis on personal choice. There is no absolute truth, only subjective truth that the individual decides on for themselves. Youth ministry expert Thom Schultz passionately argues that the most important job is to communicate “the 1 thing”, which he defines as “a heart-to-heart relationship, a close growing friendship with God.” (14) Theology as a discipline has long been relegated to the realm of academia, without much practical application, especially in the realm of youth ministry. However the fact that numerous theologies exist, all which have different ways of relating to God, could be very appealing to postmodern teenagers. Using “the 1 thing” as the basis for analysis, it can be seen that neo-orthodox theology, existentialist theology, process theology, and open theology all present a different path to personally relating to God. The youth minister, who has a firm understanding of these theologies, can utilize them to present choices so that the postmodern teenager can pick which way of relating to God is best for them.

Starting with neo-orthodox theology, it is important to understand some of the basic elements of each strain of thought, so that one can have a better understanding of how that theological framework arrives at its belief on how one personally relates to God. Arguably, the most influential theologian on evangelical orthodox thought has been Karl Barth. There are several key points that create the framework that this mode of theology works out of. The first major emphasis in this theology is on the absolute sovereignty of God. A phrase used by Barth that quickly paraphrases this concept is that “God’s freedom is his own.” (69). The second key emphasis in neo-orthodoxy is the idea of human sinfulness. On this topic Barth writes, “Man is not good: that is indeed true and must be once more be asserted. God does not turn toward him without uttering in inexorable sharpness a ‘No’ to his transgression.” (60) In neo-orthodox thought, the ideas of God’s sovereignty and human sinfulness have a particular dynamic. God gives people freedom not to do what they will, that is to sin, but to freely choose to “repeat [God’s] divine ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’” (Boff 81). It is in confirming the choices that God made in his sovereignty, that humans can find goodness. Finally, neo-orthodoxy promotes the centrality of scripture to one’s understanding of God. These key elements are the backbone of neo-orthodoxy, which are essential for understanding other applications of neo-orthodox thought.

With neo-orthodoxy having a strong biblical basis, it is not surprising that the belief system presents Jesus as the way one personally relates to God. The sovereignty of God and God’s divinity set God apart from humankind. However, it is through Jesus that one can see the humanity of God. Bath describes this idea as such:

“In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in Him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ is in His one Person, as true God, [human’s] loyal partner and as true man, God’s.” (46)

This view holds that the humanity of God is part of God’s nature, and that this humanity was expressed in the form of Jesus Christ, whom people can relate to. While this view will be commonly taught, in most mainline denominations there are other views to consider.

Existentialist theology, as popularized by Paul Tillich, could potentially be naturally appealing to postmodern teenagers. This is because the center of existentialist thought is the centrality of the individual and a strong value is placed on the freedom of choice. In existentialist thought this is expressed by the idea of a centered-self, a self that is free from being defined in any way by outside influences. For a postmodern teenager this idea could be very appealing. The concept of a centered-self is a heavy influence in the theology of Tillich. In Tillich’s view a centered-self is essential for living a life of faith. To understand Tillich’s theology it is crucial that one grasps his concept of faith. Tillich defines faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned: they dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.” (1) This is important because for Tillich the concept of God moves beyond God. In Tillich’s line of thought God is merely a symbol for what is truly ultimate in the universe. This all-encompassing ultimate is bigger and greater than even terms such as God convey, because the idea of God is a concept constructed in human finitude. Thus in existential theology, the way that one personally relates to the ultimate is by living a life that is ultimately concerned with the ultimate. This sort of faith is not an aspect of one’s life but one that creates the centered-self because “faith as ultimate concern is an act of total personality. It happens in the center of a personal life and includes all its elements. Faith is the most centered act of the human mind.” (Tillich 4)

Another theological framework that would be very appealing to postmodern teenagers is process theology. One of the defining values of postmodern culture is the communal aspect. Postmoderns place a high value on relationships and can see strong relationships existing in ways that are non-traditional. These values very strongly echo the core of process theology, which is based on the understanding that all things are related to each other and connected to each other. This inter-related aspect creates some views of God that are very different from other theologies. For example, the God of process theology is a very real entity that people can relate to, as opposed to a metaphysical ultimate that can only be related to with symbols like the God of existentialist theology. Postmodern theologians also have a difficulty with the idea of God’s sovereignty as expressed by neo-orthodoxy. Process theology does not a view that God exercise direct control over the universe. Instead, God relates to the universe. The greatest implication of this is that God is not wholly immutable as classical theology supposes. If any beings are in relation with each other, including God, it is inevitable that the actions and interactions of these beings will have a mutual impact on each other, and these impacts will inevitably lead to change. Process theology maintains that God is changeable on some level. However, it is important to note that God in God’s character does not change; only the way that God’s unchanged character is expressed is changed. When it comes to the notion of how one relates personally to God, process theology states that everyone is already related to God. Thus, process theology debarks drastically from many other modes of Christian thought, because Jesus is not inherently necessary for one to relate with God. In process theology, the way that a personal relationship with God expresses itself is by the individual being opened to God’s persuasion. God in God’s unchangeable character does have a will that God wishes to see enacted, but through a relational process God will try to see this will carried out. For process theologians God does not coerce, but persuades and the more one is in a relationship with God the more one will be open to God’s persuasion.

Postmodern teenagers place a high value on the idea of customization and the concept of taking different ideas and combining them to create a new idea. It is in this spirit that postmodern teenagers might find open theology appealing. Open theology infuses the base principles of neo-orthodoxy with a process theology understanding of a relational God. Open theologian Clark Pinnock points similarities between open theology and neo-orthodox theology when he wrote, “All of us hold to the fundamentals of orthodox theism, e.g. the immanent Trinity, the God-world distinction, God’s actions in history, the goodness, unchangeableness, omnipotence, and omniscience of God, and the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (11) However, open theology also has a good deal in common with process theology. While, Pinnock stated there is a God-world distinction and that God is unchangeable, open theology believe that God is changeable. The key difference between open theology and process theology on this point is that process theology believes God changes because that is part of the process, and open theology argues that God chooses to change. In other ways open theology and process theology are in agreement. Pinnock’s following statement in regards to open theology would be at home in a work about process theology as well: “God’s grace is a persuasive power not a coercive power. God does not force people to love him, as if that were possible, but pursues personal relations.” (163) Open theology holds that “the 1 thing”, a relationship with God is paramount, and what God wants. Open theology believes that God’s primary nature is love and that God wants a loving relationship with his creation. People enter into this loving relationship with God through God’s self reveling, and for Christians this revelation was in the person of Jesus Christ.

Neo-orthodoxy, existential theology, process theology, and open theology all provide vastly different theological frameworks. All four frameworks present a different answer to the question that was stated as the key concern of youth ministry: “how does one personally relate to God?” All of these theologies offer different strengths and weaknesses to answering that question to post-modern teenagers. For example, postmodern teenagers might find the existential idea of a centered-self to be appealing, but they may lose interest in the non-relational ultimate that Tillich sees people grounded in but not personally relating too. It is important that youth workers be familiar with multiple theological frameworks, so that they can present a variety of different viewpoints in their religious education of postmodern teenagers. The utilization of these different theological backgrounds could be extremely helpful in engaging a postmodern mind as they choose and create a personalized theology that is appealing to them, in true postmodern fashion. As long as teenagers are connecting with “the 1 thing” and beginning a personal relationship with God it does not really matter if they view that relationship as a process or an act of being ultimately concerned.


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