Youth Ministry – Theological Starting Point

AUMC JP GroupThis week I am leaving full-time youth ministry to return to the realm of government contracting.  The decision to make this occupational change was a tough one to make but it was ultimately a decision that was made for my family.  In the midst of this transition, I want to reflect and share my thoughts on youth ministry.  What are the goals of youth ministry?  What is a theological starting point for youth ministry? I will conclude this series of posts with my own philosophy of youth ministry.

Theological Starting Point - Prevenient Grace

A theological starting point is needed for any ministry.  Whether you are creating an entirely new missional community focused on service to the poor, modeling the service of Jesus Christ, or a youth ministry seeking to serve the youth of your community, it is vital to have a theological baseline for all of your ministry activities.  In my context of youth ministry as a student of John Wesley, grace[1] is the theological baseline for my ministry activities.  Specifically, I hope to use prevenient grace[2] as the starting point for my youth ministry.

According to the Articles of Religion, and John Wesley’s own writings, God’s grace is available to us even before we seek it.  Due to our own sinfulness we are in need of God’s grace and love to to reconcile our own relationship with God.  And since we have abused the free will given to us by our creator, we must now rely upon the action of God working on our behalf, without our initiation, to reconcile our relationship with God.  It is God’s work, and not that of our own, which makes salvation available to us.

My experience as a Methodist has taught me that the notion of limited atonement[3] is false.  This rejection of limited atonement also includes the rejection of the doctrine of predestination[4].  John and Charles Wesley both reject the doctrine of predestination.  The understanding of these rejections as part of my theological baseline for youth ministry is vital because it provides me with the criteria of who I should be focused on in my ministry with adolescents: all of them.

Grace, the love and peace of Jesus Christ, is universally available to all people, regardless of sex, race, creed, sexual orientation, or any other label we can place on an individual.  As a youth leader, if I am to follow the example set by Christ by loving those who have not yet chosen to love in return, then I must also love and minister to those who have yet to one, become active participants in the church, and two, express an interest or desire to be a participant in a Christian community.  This means that in everything I do as a youth leader it is my duty to love those who have yet to walk through the door of my ministry and to also see all of the youth I work with as being loved by God, and thus being loved by me.

Prevenient Grace Creates a Slippery Slope

The idea of prevenient grace as a baseline point for youth ministry can create a slippery slope when establishing guidelines for participation within  youth group activities.  The idea that anyone and everyone is welcome can become problematic when planning who can and cannot attend an event.  For example, when planning an international mission trip, if you are working with a baseline of prevenient grace, can you establish specific criteria for participants on the trip?  This is a question that our community is currently facing in light of what has happened on previously trips.

If we use the idea of grace as our baseline, and use grace as the way in which we engage our ministry, we are then able to navigate this slippery slope.  John Wesley also spoke of justifying and sanctifying grace.  To answer the question raised in regards to who can participate and who cannot, we can now look to John Wesley for guidance.  If we view justifying grace as the “ah ha” moment adolescents can have in their faith journey, a mission trip could be that next step after the “ah ha” moment.  Participation on a large scale trip could be the appropriate action taken by someone who is choosing to respond to the grace which was made available preveniently to them.

[1] “The unmerited love of God, which both forgives and transforms the sinner.”  González, pg. 70.

[2] “God’s grace ‘coming before’ (Latin preveniens) our believing in Christ.” Campbell, pg. 152.

[3] “The belief that only certain human beings have been elected or chosen by God for salvation and others will be damned.” Campbell, pg. 55

[4] “The view that God has determined beforehand who is destined for eternal life in other words, who are the ‘elect’.”  González, pg. 138.