This article was originally written for CCCNZ‘s Rongopai magazine in May 2018, and can be accessed here. I had been asked to reflect on the importance of theology in my role as a youth pastor.
During my late teens, when I was a new and young Christian, I was part of a weekly Bible study for young adults. The older woman who ran it had a verse that was an unofficial mission statement for us. It was a text that we returned to time and time again. Years later, I find myself sharing the same text with the young people under my watch. That verse is Daniel 11:32b: “The people who know their God shall stand firm and take action.” This highlights two crucial actions of the Christian life: standing firm in the faith, and taking action to serve Jesus. It also gives us the means by which we can do these: Knowing God.
It should go without saying that theology is important for all Christians, but there is an urgency that is particular to young people. By definition they haven’t had as much time to be rooted and built up in the faith (Col. 2:6-7). They are also more exposed to the deceptions of man-made ideologies (Col. 2:8) through social media and via secondary/tertiary education than the rest of us. Not to mention the simple temptations of the world that young people are more prone to: they may not yet have the wisdom or experience to decline the allures of parties and drugs and sex. Young people want to fit in with their peers, and their faith needs to be fairly robust if it is going to be retained as a part of their identity.
“Standing firm” in the faith is something that is becoming increasingly difficult in New Zealand. Nothing about the Christian faith can be taken for granted anymore. Nothing is exempt from critical questioning. As our society drifts further from its Christian roots, those who choose not to drift with it face growing stigmatism for their stand. The contempt that Christianity faces from some quarters makes “standing firm” a daunting task, let alone actually standing up and opening one’s mouth to “take action” as an active servant of Christ.
As a youth pastor, my education – and I include both my formal study and self-directed reading – has proven helpful here. There have been numerous times when young people have asked me about some challenge to their faith that they have encountered at school or elsewhere. It has been tremendously useful to be able to show them how I would tackle the problem. Even if I don’t have answers immediately on hand, it is still reassuring for them to know that the challenge is not a new one and that there are answers that can be had and that a substantial response can in fact be made. Kids need to have someone they know they can bring the difficult questions to.
I should also add: academic study is useful, but it isn’t everything. What counts is seeking to know God and love him with your mind. Reading good books will make up some of the lack in a formal education, or better yet, build on it. It is important to keep feeding your brain.
Here is what one of my year 13 students has said about the importance of theology: “Theology is the difference between a vague emotional quasi-spiritualism and an actual worldview. A solid foundational theology equips the young person to understand what they read in scripture, and make informed decisions based on their understanding of eternal truths. Theology helps us attempt to understand more of God and his ways… A shallow, weak theology will not hold up under pressure. A rich, well considered and solid theology will serve to strengthen faith.”
This is why theology is so important for young Christians. What they can learn will help them to weather the storms and even advance in them. They need to know the encouragements of 1 Peter to stand strong, and the warnings of Hebrews to persevere. They need to know that God is the Creator of a good creation, but that his good creation has since become a ‘fallen’ creation. They need to know about the nonconformist Christians of Restoration England and how they remained faithful under pressure. They need to know why it isn’t stupid to believe that a good God and a suffering world can both exist. They need to know why certain actions people do are wrong, and how to both speak truth and show love to them as well. They need to know how to recognise what in our culture is inconsistent with biblical Christianity, and how to reach it with the gospel. Most of all they need to know Jesus. This is theology – God and his gospel. The study of Scripture, doctrine, history, apologetics, ethics, missiology and more, all conscripted to the service of a living faith in the living God.
It is increasingly recognised (and addressed) that the fun and games and excitement of youth ministry isn’t making real and lasting disciples. There’s nothing wrong with fun and games, but if our aim is to grow mature Christians, faith has to be given real substance. This may prove challenging to put into action, but I would like to challenge you to find a way. A lot depends on it. The strength to refuse honour to the cultural idols of our day will come from having a clear vision of a bigger God. The courage to defy these idols will be drawn from a zealous faith fuelled by robust and awe-inspiring eternal truths. For the honour of Christ and the good of his people in the coming generation, do find a way.