One of the challenges I find in writing an article about any given topic is figuring out how to avoid a tone of “yeah, I got this,” and yet also not hem and haw about it and waste your time (and mine)! Nearly every practical concern in ministry is always a work-in-progress. We never “get there.” As much as I want to, I have learned during these past thirty years of vocational ministry that I can never sit back and rest on my laurels.
Those tricky parameters apply today as I briefly explore the question of how to introduce young people to Wesleyan theology. I bring this up as someone who has been recruiting and training college students and young adults as interns since 2009, and worked in direct youth ministry for twenty-seven years. What I am finding is that nearly every intern candidate I meet with has a very poorly formed understanding of theology in general, and if they come from a Wesleyan tradition, essentially no ability whatsoever to articulate any distinctives of their theological heritage. Mind you, 99% of my recruits come from Christian colleges!
In my experience, most young people who have grown up in the church have not been invited to grow their faith up past the goldfish-crackers-and-apple-juice simplicity of childhood Sunday school. In other words, as their classes at school advance into physics, economics, literature, foreign language, AP World History and calculus, they are not given equally robust and developmentally-appropriate concepts in their faith. I have called this “feltboard Christianity.”
I think this contributes greatly to a departure of young people from the church as they enter adulthood — just google “millennials leaving the church” if you want to get depressed. Much of the faith education they have received does not provide an infrastructure for them to think through the big questions they face in college and beyond. So I would like to share a few ever-evolving principles I am working on with other pastors and leaders to root our young people in theological and philosophical foundations that will hopefully help them walk into adulthood as earnest, thoughtful followers of Christ:
1. Preach robust Wesleyan grace and doctrine from the pulpit.
I am relatively new to Wesleyan faith practice, having worshipped in independent churches for the first twenty-five years of my faith. As I work within my own Free Methodist denomination, I am saddened to often see that many people I meet in our churches have either never even heard the word “Wesleyan” from the pulpit, nor could they articulate much in terms of what that theological lens brings to their own spiritual formation. I start with this point because the majority of discipleship should be happening in the home as parents transfer their faith to their kids; yet parents cannot do this if they are not well-versed themselves.
2. Commit to hiring theologically-trained youth pastors.
This is where much of the breakdown comes. I do not have hard and fast statistics, but anecdotally I would report that about 75% of the youth workers I have met over the years have not received formal, advanced theological training, that which has been traditionally provided through seminary. There are a world of reasons for this, but I want to assert that churches MUST commit to having the pastors that train up their youth have as much training as the pastors who teach in their pulpits every Sunday. If it does not happen, I see most youth ministries devolve into too many wacky games coupled with simplistic do’s and don’ts that do not integrate into the larger developmental needs of adolescents. This will require financial investment, but it is necessary.
3. Dig into church membership.
This may or may not surprise you, but I firmly believe a key addition to every church youth ministry should include a process of invitation to church membership. In the Free Methodist Book of Discipline (2015), “at age sixteen youth members may be approved by the local Board of Administration for adult membership. To be admitted as adult members, they must answer satisfactorily the questions for adult membership before a public meeting of the society.” (Paragraph 6120) With some of our youth pastors I have been developing and dreaming up a spiritual formation plan that starts in junior high and carries students into a “confirmation class” of sorts that equips them for a decision regarding membership. Try to envision what exciting and empowering things might happen if young people are invited into the core mechanisms of church life!
I could add a few others, but this can get the conversation started (I hope!) I took the title for this article from 1Timothy 4:12, where the Apostle Paul counsels his young disciple Timothy in leadership. We cannot call our young people to “set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” if we do not provide the tools for getting there. I will spend the rest of my days pressing into this crucial priority of spiritual formation and leadership development for the church. Will you join me?