“When I taught high school my students read Immanuel Kant.” As an insecure first year Divinity School student, those words made me shrink in my chair. I was sitting in on a class entitled “The Concept of ‘Religion’ in Modern Theology.” The assigned reading: Immanuel Kant. Our teacher, a new professor in the Divinity School, was brilliant and intimidating. And to top it all off, he pointed out that high school students could wade through the dense language and thought of this perennial Enlightenment philosopher. I could barely make sense of the words I scanned…
Yet what struck me most profoundly about the comment, beyond my own insecurity, was a confidence in the curiosity and intellectual capacity of youth. His comment was not meant to demean us as graduate students, but to raise up youthful high schoolers. His comment was more like: “Youth can read Kant, you can read Kant, we can all read Kant.” My professor explained that, as a high school teacher, he did not assign whole books by Kant to his students, only select passages. And each passage was read together, digested slowly, and reflected upon carefully. He was developmentally sensitive. Still, he awakened in me an awareness of who youth can be: curious, critical, questioning, deep thinkers. The big, enduring questions of human life penetrate us all, including adolescents. Big thinkers, confusing as they can be at times, are tackling big questions we can all entertain in some degree. My professor indicated that his high school students were thrilled to entertain philosophical ideas.
I know I have fallen victim, even as a youth minister, to the caricature of youth as hormone-driven, impulse-obeying, careless, apathetic, stimuli-craving fun-seekers. Youth need games. Like water balloon fights. Then, when water-soaked and fun-satiated, youth leaders can slip in a “teaching moment” about how God’s love is like a water balloon: full and ready to burst all over us, especially when we fumble with it and fail. That’s it. No more. Water balloons as a fun metaphor for God’s love.
Young people can’t be interested in theology. They can’t be concerned with the meaning of Grace as a theological concept for Christian life… surely they don’t care to learn a deeply theological-spiritual practice like lectio divina... they need games and fun, and maybe a little lesson. But that’s it. That’s all they can (or will) handle. Right?
A recent article in the Christian Century shares exciting news to the contrary. Youth are attending summer theology programs at a growing number of theological institutions. Yes, high schoolers tasting theology at seminaries. And loving it. Fortunately, this program, offered through the Lilly foundation, does not have exclusive insight into the potential of youth as theologians. An emerging wave of youth ministers are rethinking youth ministry in light of the unsatisfactory discovery that youth ministries are too often flattened into one or two dimensional programs. Sure, building community and relationships, often through games and fun activities, is a good and important aspect of youth ministry. Sure, mission trips offer important opportunities to serve and expand cultural horizons. But what about learning the Christian tradition? Not just reading the bible together and sharing how we feel, which is also important at times. But exploring the big questions about Jesus, God, Sin, and the fullness of life through the big ideas of thinkers like St. Augustine, Luther, Wesley, Tillich, or Rahner. Why can’t we read and learn about the life of Bonhoeffer, his notion of discipleship, and what discipleship might mean for us today?
Maybe the problem is the idea of “theology” itself. We can view it as detached, unimportant, theoretical. Theology doesn’t relate to the life of Wii-playing teens, does it? It does. Theology is not just ideas floating off in space: it is thinking that is crucial to a way of life. We might even say that living is inescapably theological–whether we know it or not. Worship is theological. Economics is theological. Responding to bullying, obesity, and living harmoniously with people of other faiths is thoroughly theological. What youth might just be thirsty for are the tools to talk about, think about, and live with these everyday experiences as part of their Christian life.
Creative and innovative youth ministry might not be about the most flashy program or high-energy activity. It might just be finding engaging ways to bring theology to everyday life–making it accessible, understandable, digestible to the youth who, I suspect, are like the rest of us: struggling to lead lives that are full, integrated, whole, and authentic. You might even have a hunch that such a stance is theological itself. You’re right.