A little over a month ago I was wading knee-deep through a roomful of academics—every year I go to a gathering of youth ministry professors (aymeducators.org) to learn what they’re learning and offer up my own decidedly non-academic perspectives. The theme this year was “Practical Theology,” carefully chosen to spotlight a rather unfashionable accessory in today’s youth ministry. As much as I loved the conversation, and recognize the importance of its focus, I left that gathering thinking the biggest “miss” in ministry today is actually “impractical theology.”
But before I plunge into the thick underbrush of theology’s role in youth ministry, let’s run down a little rabbit trail…
A few weeks ago, after an evening of tacos and silly laughter with our neighbors and good friends, I was shocked to discover an entire subculture I never knew existed—the secret fraternity of men who practice “manscaping.” I had no idea that vast numbers of otherwise normal men take great pains to, um, regularly remove as much of their bodily hair as possible. That’s right, it’s called manscaping. And yesterday, just to underscore the truth of this horrific reality, our friends handed me a Bed, Bath & Beyond catalog with a “Rechargeable Mangroomer” highlighted. It’s an electric shaver on the end of a long pole. A bargain at only $39.99.
Now, there’s no doubt that some men are cursed with an overabundance of bodily “landscape,” and it would be an act of service to humanity if they removed their shirts only under cover of darkness. For these men, a Rechargeable Mangroomer is a decidedly practical invention. Practical, in this sense, promises to meet a need that is now culturally relevant enough to matter—there was no manscaping in the “golden age” of the ’50’s or in medieval England, for example.
And, (exiting the rabbit trail) just as “practical” is determined by the priorities and sensibilities of a culture, “practical theology” hinges on our culture’s determination about what is theologically practical. According to our research, Christian teenagers much preferto study topics that “apply to my real life from a biblical perspective” rather than “studying the character, personality, and behavior of God.” Because this inclination is so strong, it has forced us into a “practical” approach to youth ministry that goes something like this: “Convince teenagers to learn and adopt a set of principles for better living.”
If it’s not a topic that “applies to a teenager’s real life,” then it’s not practical to them, and we feel the inexorable pressure to offer up theological Mangroomers—not exactly the glorious focus of the Christian life.So now (as Monty Python once promised), for something completely different—a sampler taste of the “impractical theology” no one wants but everyone needs…
• Jesus spent more time praying (talking with his father) than speaking to others.
• When Jesus had time on his hands, he chose to hang out with the kind of desperate, thirsty, unkempt people we habitually avoid.
• Jesus said we’d know we were fully in his camp when others started insulting, persecuting, and defaming us because of him.
• Jesus said our calling in life is offer our miniscule “all-in” as a contrast to the prevailing culture—like a lamp in a dark room or salt added to a recipe.
• Jesus talked often and bluntly about the sobering reality of hell.
• Jesus gravitated to acts and to people who operate way, way under the radar.
• Jesus was quick to forgive those who were repentant and quick to condemn those who weren’t.
• Jesus said all lesser loves will eventually morph into idols, competing for our allegiance to God.
• Jesus ignored people who talk big but don’t act big and honored those who talked small but acted big.
• Jesus was constantly healing people of incurable diseases, permanent disabilities, and demonic possession.
• Jesus was quite comfortable using offensive language (directed at the religious hypocrites of his day)—the kind that’s so incendiary that it can get you killed.
• Jesus loved celebrations and enjoyed himself so much that he was often accused of public drunkenness.
• Jesus said our loyalty to him and his ways should outweigh our loyalty to our biological family and its traditions and practices.
• Jesus valued nurturing strong growth (growing wheat) over pulling stubborn weeds (fighting sin).
• Jesus said our most egregious sin is, simply, not believing in him. ◊
Rick has been editor of GROUP for 23 years, and he’ll be leading a totally “impractical” 8-hour track called “Jesus-Centered Ministry” at our Simply Youth Ministry Conference in Chicago, March 4-7—youthministry.com/conference.