A semi-regular attempt (in other words, as I have time) to explore the interaction between God and the adolescent world, especially the connection between theory and praxis (otherwise known as practical theology). Primary emphasis will be given to the role of the church (and especially the emerging church) in this process.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Youth Ministry as a Practical Theology

Youth ministry is a funny animal. Over its history, there have been times when it has been incredibly used of God to change the face of the world. At other times, it has been little more than a caricature of what the world was doing, albeit more poorly. Part of this schizophrenia, I'm convinced, has to do with the fact that, historically, youth ministry as a discipline has not given proper weight to the task of theology, instead focusing almost exclusively on the social sciences. As a result, it has tended to fall prey to the multiplicity of youth ministry approaches that are pervasive (not all of which are even biblical), often adopting methods that are antithetical to orthodox theology in general, or one’s theological tradition in specific.

Over the course of the next several posts, I will lay out the way youth ministry has been viewed in the past, and then show how previous theologians attempted to make youth ministry a theological enterprise, but only got us halway there, still seeing youth ministry (and all practical theology) as a second order discourse. Finally, I'll make a case for youth ministry as practical theology as seen by a first order discourse.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful if we first define what is meant by the term "practical theology." Let me first offer a definition by Karl Rahner that I find simply outstanding: "Practical theology is that theological discipline which is concerned with the Church’s self-actualization here and now – both that which is and that which ought to be. That it does by means of theological illumination of the particular situation in which the Church must release itself in all its dimensions. This practical theology is a unique, independent science, a fundamental one in essence in spite of its reciprocal relationship with other theological disciplines, since its business of scientifically critical and systematic reflection is a unique quantity and its nature is not deducible. For it is reflection oriented towards committal. The task of practical theology as an original science demands a theological analysis of the particular present situation in which the Church is to carry out the especial self-realization appropriate to it at any given moment. Practical theology challenges the other theological studies to recognize the task which inheres immanently in them, oriented to the practice of the Church; the second demand it makes is that they should apply themselves to this task." (Rahner, Karl. "Practical Theology within the Totality of Theological Disciplines." Theological Investigations Vol. 9. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1972. pp.101-114.)

Rahner beautifully elucidates practical theology, specifically in his focus on two aspects: practical theology deals with the here and now by pointing to what should be, and it does so is in conversation with other disciplines (theological and otherwise).

Of course, Rahner wasn't exactly writing for youth workers, so here is my simplified definition of Rahner: "Practical theology is the discipline which seeks to call the church to what it should be. It is primarily concerned with helping the church always ask the right questions, thereby helping the church continually reflect on what it is doing so that it can do those things which are core to its being as the expression of God's kingdom here on earth. It's goal is to remind the other disciplines (Bible, theology, social sciences, etc.) that they all have a purpose other than pure academic intellectualism. That purpose is to always discover how their respective disciplines speak to the church here and now, and how those disciplines can assist the church in the carrying out of that identity."

(By the way, if you're interested in learning more about practical theology, let me recommend A Fundamental Practical Theology by Don Browning, what I consider to be the best book on the subject.)

I'd love to hear your comments on this as we go along. Only in conversation together can we move the discussion forward and continue to develop youth ministry as a truly practical theology.


Blogger Scott Williams said...

Hey Jim,

One of my previous "teens" is interviewing there for the graphic designer position there on Friday the 25th. Her Name is Stephanie and I told her to look you up. If you have any infulence she'd be great!

4:26 PM


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