Dr. Andrew Zirschky
Andrew has more than 20 years of congregational youth ministry experience and holds an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected but Alone Generation and Teaching Outside the Box: Five Approaches to Opening the Bible with Youth.
“Mission is the mother of theology,” wrote German theologian Martin Kähler in 1908. That phrase has been repeated in countless published works and sermons, because Kähler captured an essential truth: That historically theology only develops and matures when it is grounded in practical mission work.
In fact, going back to the works of early church fathers and mothers, we find that what we often interpret as deep theological treatises were actually developed out of the need for answering pastoral questions as the gospel message spread. For example, Basil the Great’s work, On the Holy Spirit, is often framed as abstract theology written in response to the debates of the Arian controversy. But in reality it arose from questions posed by his flock, and the need to clarify a robust understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in the lives and actions of believers. Where there’s mission, there’s need for theology.
Mission as Lifeblood
If mission is the mother of theology, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that the loss of mission goes hand in hand with the loss of theological substance. In recent years sociologist Christian Smith has pointed out that the thin, self-focused, therapeutic spirituality of most Christian teenagers (and adults) in America can be best described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)— a vague form of belief that doesn’t believe God is doing much in the world, and that God wants little more from us to than to be nice and happy. In her bestselling book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasy Dean argues that “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is what is left once Christianity has been drained of its missional impulse.” What she means is that when the gospel is drained of the self-giving love of Jesus, the sending love of the Holy Spirit, and a call to be tangible witnesses to the inbreaking Kingdom of God, then all that’s left is a thin, self-focused spirituality that doesn’t matter much to the world — nor to the lives of young people.
If faith is going to matter to the daily lives of young people (and I believe this is the big, open issue for the next 20 years of youth ministry in America) then it will happen because of re-establishing a vital connection between mission and theology. However, I mean this in a very specific way.
Mission as Transformation
You see, when we talk about theology, we are not truly talking about the “study of God” as it often gets phrased in introductory theology courses. Yes, that’s the etymology of the word, but in a Christian framework, theology is always the study of God’s actions. We can know nothing of God outside of revelation from God, and how God has revealed godself is through concrete actions in space and time. Theology then is coming to articulate our understanding of God and the world through reflecting on God’s actions. However, recall what I just said about MTD: The deistic aspect of this pervasive belief system among teenagers is that God generally doesn’t act in the world, nor does God expect us to do much either.
To combat this means re-establishing the vital connection between mission and theology, by inviting youth into missional activities in which they encounter God’s action and in which their very conception of God is transformed.
Dean contends that what we’re after isn’t just involving teenagers in good works (e.g. – mission) but moving them toward developing a “missional imagination.” When this takes root, teenagers “begin to imagine the world as a place where God acts, and themselves as participants in God’s action.” When teenagers begin to see the possibility that their own actions can become human translations of God’s work in the world, then this is a momentous realization that has far-reaching consequences for their very identity and purpose.
One of the key ways that the development of a missional imagination happens is by participating in practices that decenter the self and disrupt the young person’s usual way of experiencing and interpreting the world. I’ve seen this very thing occur for countless young people (and adults) in the summer programs that CYMT ran through its Theology Together initiative from 2013 to 2019. What happened at these week-long events (called Collide) is that we intentionally helped teenagers make connections between the mission work they were performing, their beliefs about God, and their own lives.
They weren’t just talking with an elderly neighbor, or handing out toiletry items to people experiencing homelessness, they were co-operating with a God who calls them.
One of my graduate students in youth ministry, Hannah Vickery, recently phrased what happened at Collide best in a presentation she delivered on the intersection of justice work and faith development in teenagers. When we engage in the work of mission and justice with teenagers, she said, “we ask youth to dream and imagine Christ’s new reality. We invite youth to experience and be transformed in God’s presence as they act in this already-but-not-yet kingdom.” To be clear, what Vickery is contending is that teenagers encounter the very presence of Christ in doing such work (Matthew 25:31-46 seems to agree), and that until they encounter this reality “the relationship between faith, our everyday lives, and the issues in our world, will be meaningless.”
In summary, mission is the mother of theology because in mission work young people encounter the action and presence of God — and amidst the backdrop of religious sentiment that says that God doesn’t act — this is a transformative encounter that begs to be understood and examined.
 See Christian Smith’s book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, for a discussion.
 Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian, 39.
 Dean, 12.
 Dean, 116.
 Hannah Vickery, unpublished talk, “Why Justice Work Matters to the Faith Development of Teenagers.” Delivered in Nashville, Austin Seminary Master of Arts in Youth Ministry Intensive, April 2023.