by Andrew Zirschky
Jumbo shrimp. Live recording. Pastor’s day off. They’re all oxymorons—figures of speech crafted from contradictory words that make us chuckle when we slow down to consider them.
Then there is “practical theology.”
While some might find practical theology to be a humorous oxymoron, it’s actually the foundation of how the Center for Youth Ministry Training (CYMT) educates and trains youth ministers—and we make no apologies for it. We strive to equip youth ministers and churches to develop theologically informed and practically effective youth ministries. Approaching youth ministry as practical theology is what sets our graduate residents apart in a field desperate for faithfulness and effectiveness in ministering to young people.

Youth ministry is broken; how are you going to fix it?

Fresh out of college, that was the first question I was asked by the pastor of a good-sized church. I gulped hard. He wasn’t messing around with the typical softball interview questions; he’d gone straight for the jugular. Surely this was against the rules! After panicking for a moment, I gained enough composure to ask him what he meant.
“I don’t mean just at our church, it’s broken here, too, but it seems it’s broken everywhere. For 20 or 30 years we’ve been doing youth ministry pretty much the same way, and despite all the guidance we’ve received from educators and psychologists, it’s clear that it’s not working. Teenagers come to church in droves to play games and hear a Bible lesson, but then they walk away from the faith. We’ve invested money, time, and prayer. The old ways are broken, so what are you going to do?”

Losing Our Way and Finding It Again

He was right both about faith failing to stick and the sources for guidance in youth ministry. It used to be that youth ministry was guided by educational theory under the assumption that if we just imported educator’s tips and tricks into our Sunday school lessons and youth group meetings, then we’d see results.
Youth ministry also found guidance from the field of developmental psychology, and for a time we assumed that if we just understood the way that teenagers grow and develop, that we could be effective youth ministers.
Youth ministry found further guidance from the fields of marketing and advertising. We watched carefully what MTV and popular youth brands did to attract the attention of young people, and we followed suit thinking that effective youth ministry would result.
We were equally guided by ideas drawn from leadership gurus, Fortune 500 companies, and management experts in hopes of developing systems and structures that would result in youth ministry success.
While youth ministry gained much from appropriating the wisdom of these other fields and disciplines, we simultaneously lost our way. All of these things are helpful, but none of them make what we do Christian. In fact, guided by these human practices alone, we’ve found ourselves undertaking ministry to young people that is sometimes distinctly non-Christian, despite its religious veneer.
At CYMT we believe that youth ministers are not merely educators armed with religious content. Neither are they merely counselors who help ferry Christian young people safely through the turbulent waters of adolescence; nor are youth ministers simply religious marketers, prophetic pitchmen, savvy businesswomen, or cruise ship recreation directors. While they may be called upon to function in some of these capacities along the way in youth ministry, we believe youth ministers are called to be precisely that: ministers.
Ministry, if it is truly to be ministry, is grounded not in educational theory, but in theology. That means that youth ministry is a theological discipline, not a branch of psychology. Theologian Andy Root observes that God is the original minister, and God’s activity in creation, incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection is ministry. [1] When we reflect upon and articulate God’s ministry then we’re doing theology. When we discuss how we might best cooperate with God’s ministry, then we’re making that theology practical.
Root has called this realization the “theological turn” in youth ministry, and CYMT is on the leading edge of that turn to seeing youth ministry, and youth ministry education, as practical theology.

Defining Practical Theology

At its most basic, practical theology is a process of reflecting on what we do and why we do it. It’s a process of considering the faithfulness of our ways and actions in ministry: Faithfulness to both the best we know about human wisdom, and faithfulness to the best we know of God and God’s mission in the world.
Practical theology is active, it’s not navel gazing. Rather, when we engage in practical theology it leads to the active and intentional entanglement of our theology and our actions. This weaving together is not a top-down approach where we start with abstract theological concepts and then distill them into acontextual or universal principles of action. That would be a form of applied theology that fails to respect the difficulties, realities, and subtleties of ministry in a complex world.
Rather, practical theology is a true dialogue, a fluid dance, between the concrete, messy reality of our situation, and our theological understandings. Practical theology starts with what is happening as we describe the situation in which we find ourselves; it depends upon human knowledge and theory to understand why this is happening; and it employs theological reflection to help us understand what should be happening. Through a careful blending of these three, we discern a faithful way forward to new forms of action and response that are at the same time theologically informed and practically effective.
For example, when we step back and look at young people through a practical theological lens we can begin to recognize ways in which we’ve come to view and respond to young people that conflict with our deepest beliefs. Developmental psychology might bring us to focus on the limitations, deficiencies, or inabilities of young people. Drawing from the field of marketing might lead us to view young people as merely consumers to whom we market our spiritual goods and services. However, theologically we know them to be created in the image of God, children of the Father, full members of the body of Christ whom we are called to equip for works of service (Ephesians 4).
There’s obvious tension in these perspectives, and practical theology doesn’t exclude the wisdom we gain from human fields of knowledge, but it shapes how we see this wisdom, how we sift it, and how we appropriate it. Holding together the tension that youth are full members of the Body of Christ, and yet at the same time are still developing cognitively and socially, brings us to approach youth ministry far differently than we might with either perspective alone. That’s the process of practical theology.
While it is a process, we hope it becomes more than a process for our students. We seek for practical theology to become a habit of mind, a way of looking at everything they do in ministry as they constantly ascertain not merely what plan of action is going to be practical or effective, but also what words and action are going to be faithful to the God they believe, the Kingdom of God they proclaim, and the context in which they minister.
Youth ministry as practical theology brings us beyond our love for whatever-works pragmatism and our cultural obsession with “efficiency.” It brings us beyond our love in youth ministry for mere “relevance” and number-driven definitions of success. Youth ministry as practical theology forces us into the hardest work of all: Determining how we might be efficient, effective, successful and relevant in ways that are faithful at every turn to proclaiming the inbreaking Kingdom of God.
“Youth ministry is broken; how are you going to fix it?” is still a question that hangs in the air, and at the Center for Youth Ministry Training we believe it’s best answered with a practical theological response. In re-framing youth ministry as God’s ministry, we come to see it’s not ministry that’s broken, but our ways of cooperating with God’s ministry in the world. Reforming those ways is a matter of preparing graduate residents to do the hard work of practical theology as they combine the best we know about the world from human disciplines, and the best we know about God. The end results are graduate residents who are theologically informed so that they can be practically effective.