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Why Theological Method Matters in Youth Ministry

In a recent conference for youth ministry I noticed the presence of a theological method called "theological reflection." I am familiar with Theological Reflection (TR) from my years in youth ministry in the UK, but was surprised to see its prominence among evangelicals in the US.

TR is a relatively recent development in theological method. Its roots are in theologies that stress a particular cultural context as the starting point for theology. They usually contain the name of the context in their titles, such as "black" theology or "feminist" theology. Sometimes they are grouped together under the term "liberation" theology and are theologies often seen as belonging to people groups who have experienced oppression, marginalization or other sufferings.

Apart from the context in which the theological work is done, theological reflection has a particular method common to this group of theologies. Consequently, TR can be practiced by just about anyone. Over the last couple of decades TR has been more mainstream, making its way into Western seminaries and influencing some in the evangelical community.

In this post I want to explain the method of TR and argue that to make it the controlling method for one's theology is a mistake.

The guiding motive of TR is context. What is theology in a particular context? Consequently, the starting point is the experience of those doing the theology. TR “begins with the lived experience of those doing the reflection; it correlates this experience with the sources of the Christian tradition; and it draws out practical implications for Christian living.”

In contrast to traditional methods TR begins and ends in praxis - some experience leads to reflection and analysis that, in turn, leads to new forms of practice in the Christian life: “Theology is in service to experience, not the other way round.”

Robert Kinast, in his book, What Are They Saying About Theological Reflection?, surveys the field of contemporary practitioners and theorists. There are many versions, but much similarity so, in order to explain the method, it is only necessary to recount one version. The work of Thomas Groome is as good a place to begin as any. Groome contends that learning and being are in relationship such that what is learned has a fundamental effect on what is doing the learning and vice versa. Groome calls this “epistemic ontology.” Such a process is intended to resolve the natural human drive to become all that we are meant to be. Learning, consequently, has, as its goal, the realization of a distinctively Christian practice reflective of the continual dialectic of being and learning.

Groome suggests five stages for such a process. First, the relevant experience (broadly construed as any human experience that is relevant to any topic of learning) is named. To name an experience involves simultaneously describing and interpreting an experience. In this stage the experience is owned in the sense that the subject becomes responsible for the narrative and its interpretation. 

The second stage is to reflect on the experience, arriving at unresolved questions, tensions, critiques of prejudices and presuppositions. This process is a clarifying process, bringing to light the experience in order to best move to the third stage - research (this is actually not the term Kinast uses, but it seems to describe it best). In the research stage the experience is correlated to relevant theory found within the Christian tradition. All such theories are brought to bear on the issues that the experience raised.

The fourth movement is a dialectic between the subject's experience and the correlating resources in the Christian tradition. The assumption in this stage is that faith (the resources of the tradition) and human experience naturally correlate in the subject. “People have a natural capacity to make such connections between life and faith and to act on them.” Faith and learning, therefore, find their integrative moment within the subject.

Finally, such a method proposes that what results is a decision in reference to praxis. God’s work in revelation, according to Groome, is found primarily in action not in propositions. Consequently, praxis is the desired learning outcome. Participants are continually enabled to reflect on human experience with the primary aim to develop new strategies for living out the Christian faith in the world.

In youth ministry this is an attractive model. One begins with the experience of young people and uses the experience to cause a theological reflection. Its aim is engagement, to begin to see how theology is constructed in experience.

For example, author of the series, A Theological Journey Through Youth Ministry, Andrew Root defines theology as “a passionate reflection on God’s action, on God’s own ministry…Theology is the servant of ministry, because theology is reflection on God’s action of ministry…To think, feel, and partake in God’s activity— this is to do theology.” Root's emphasis is on the action of God and the question of how God is acting in a particular context. Among young people Root wants us to ask: what is God doing? How is God acting in this situation?

While I praise the attempt to advance a more theologically deep youth ministry, I don't think TR is a good controlling method. It is important to say that I don't mean that no one should ever do theological reflection. Many proponents of TR are correct when they say that TR is a somewhat natural way to do theology. What I disagree with is the promotion of TR to the dominant method practiced in youth ministry. Here are five reasons I think this:

First, the starting point for a theology limits the content of a theology. If the starting point for theology is experience, then experience will limit and determine the outcome or content of theology. The starting point for Christian theology is God's revelation in scripture and it should be scripture that determines the outcome of theology. That is not to say experience is irrelevant, but only that experience makes sense in the light of scripture not the other way round.

Second, in TR the place of scripture is limited to being a resource (among others) used in order to aid reflection. This, I think, lowers the place of scripture to the role as a "means" for reflection. Root sees knowledge of God in terms of "encounter" that one has in the midst of reflection. The Bible may be another means by which one encounters the God who acts. However, the Bible is not only the means by which one encounters God, but a statement of truth that refers to reality. Its historical nature can be lost in a hermeneutic that focuses on the existential reality of the reader. Furthermore, the Bible describes knowledge in terms of an end not only a means. In fact, eternal life is defined by the knowledge of God. John writes: "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3).

Third, TR makes cultural context king of one's hermeneutic. As with all liberation theologies, TR aims to liberate theology and set it free in a cultural context, in this case youth culture. The underlying assumption is that youth need their own theology not merely one passed on from the older culture. Such a supposition drives interpretation, what the text might mean on young people's terms. This distinctive yields an opposition to anything like a "grammatical historical" method of interpretation. The context that drives a grammatical historical hermeneutic is the context in which the Bible was written not in which it is read.

Fourth, TR, if practiced in a theologically conservative church context, will likely be at odds with the method and philosophy of the pastor and much of the rest of the church. Of course there may be many other things that put one at odds with the pastor, but this is an unacceptable difference. The pastor will likely be suspicious of such a definition of theology. His definition might be something like: "theology is the study of the historically conditioned progress of the self-revelation of God as given in the Bible." He might have separate definitions for the various branches of theology--historical, systematic, biblical, philosophical, dogmatic--but they will all refer to God's revelation in scripture. One can see the difference. And, if the pastor is worth his salt, the pastor will call out the youth worker and want a conversation about theology.

"So what?" a youth pastor might say, "what if the pastor doesn't like it? He's not the youth leader. I am. And I know what I'm doing."

However, let me ask this: What are we doing? What is the purpose of youth ministry in the church? Are we setting up our own church within the church or serving the wider body? Let me suggest that we serve the church not usurp it.

Finally, the gospel is weakened by TR. The gospel is not reached through reflection; rather, it is preached by a person more passionate about Christ than about culture, who has a message for young people from God in scripture.

I have seen TR become the controlling method in ministry before. While I appreciate the emphasis on doing theology with young people I think that to make TR the dominant method is a mistake.

Robert Kinast, What Are They Saying About Theological Reflection? (Paulist Press, 2000).
Kenda Creasy Dean and Andrew Root, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry (IVP, 2011).