“Passy (pastor), isn’t Moses the one who wrote Deuteronomy?” A teenager genuinely asked me during a teens’ discipleship programme earlier this year. I hesitantly responded, “yes, Moses is the author” not knowing what was following next. The hesitancy was informed by my experience in youth ministry. Young people have all sorts of questions about life. And these questions carry a lot of theological significance. But adults often dismiss them as coming from a rebellious heart. She followed up with this question, “Then how come the story of Moses’ death is part of Deuteronomy?”
She was referencing Deuteronomy 34, which contains Moses’s death foretold earlier (Deuteronomy 32:48-52). I had never considered the dilemma before. So, in order to save face, I offered, “I’ll have a look and get back to you”. I guess I am still learning that humility is not to be equated with losing face but with a Christlike spirit.
Apologetics is just one facet of the diamond that is pastoral ministry. At the heart of it is a pastoral heart and theological competence
The questions that the younger generations are asking require competent youth ministers. I could tell that she wanted to test my knowledge of the Bible. Doing the promised research I encountered some apologetic responses given to respond to apparent contradictions in the Bible. But apologetics is just one facet of the diamond that is pastoral ministry. At the heart of it is a pastoral heart and theological competence.
The challenging task of youth ministry in Africa
The continent of Africa presents crucial consideration for ministry to the next generations. First, the “youth bulge” of the African continent has been noted by a diverse group of economists and scholars. Almost 1 billion will comprise youth in Africa in 2050. Second, youth in Africa are quite diverse – from urban youth to rural youth, to youth who live under the threats of political instability and violence to youth who have imbibed the best of postmodern relativism and African renaissance. Third, the institutions meant to nurture young people such as the family and the church are suffering some sort of malaise.
Growing theologians develop their grasp of Scripture and love for Christ
Some have noted that youth ministry is only a recent phenomenon of the 20th century. Yet there is a need to minister the gospel to this crucial demographic. For a long time, youth ministry has been accused of engaging in pop-culture trends and shallow biblical ministry. In many cases this may be the reason why the faith of teenagers, especially in the West, has been reduced to the acronym MTD (moralistic, therapeutic deism). This was the conclusion of sociologists Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton’s landmark study: Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In summary, the faith that young people have inherited from older generations can be summarized in a:
- Legalistic sense, focusing on right and wrong
- Psychological sense, seeing God as a “shrink”
- Theological sense, seeing God as far removed from the intricacies of life
The answer is not relevance but relevant truth
From a study conducted in 2015 among Nairobian youth, a major reason that young people are disillusioned with the church is its lack of robust teaching. Superficial theology cannot tackle the issues of life. Another study on faith formation in Africa was done by Shantelle Weber, a practical theologian at the University of Stellenbosch, focusing on teens. The major point from these studies is that youth ministry must rediscover the necessity of robust theological foundations.
Although models for youth ministry will differ from one local church to another, the reality is that whether through youth services or family services, several factors will be vital in discipling the next generations. These factors are not novel and can be found within the Scriptures.
1. The role of parents in discipling their children
Rather than being silos that are detached from the local church ministry, youth ministries and ministers ought to equip parents to fulfil their roles effectively. Within a time when parents are usually consumed with giving gifts as opposed to offering godly presence, youth ministers must serve parents in their core role. The mandate for parents to disciple their children can be read in Deuteronomy 6:6-7, “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Therefore the expectation of Christian parents is that they will exhort and encourage their children to follow Jesus, God’s ultimate Word. This should be done in an age-appropriate manner. Youth ministers must not ignore the role of parents.
The expectation of Christian parents is that they will exhort and encourage their children to follow Jesus
2. The centrality of the Scriptures as the tool of discipling
In the New Testament, Timothy is a model of a young person involved in the life of the local church. This lends credence to elders within the church drawing young people into the local church’s life and ministry. Yet, to first point above, it is clear that Timothy’s mother and grandmother were his core disciplers (2 Timothy 1:5).
Youth ministries might be served by programmes that are contextually appropriate but we must remember that it is the Word of God, and Spirit’s convicting, that transforms young people
What should be the major tool in this discipleship process? Paul reminds us of the centrality of the Scriptures, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15). Youth ministries might be served by programmes that are contextually appropriate but we must remember that it is the Word of God, and Spirit’s convicting, that transforms young people (1 Thessalonians 1:5). It is the Word working through the Spirit that changes people, young and old.
3. The place of engaging culture with a biblical worldview
The questions that young people are asking are theological in nature. These questions are usually influenced by the worldviews of the day. These range from retrogressive traditional cultures, to material secularism, to postmodernism, to concoctions of new age philosophy. While it is crucial to exegete the cultures that create a fire for these unbiblical worldviews to simmer, it is crucial to similarly exegete the Word of God to respond to them. Some have said that “Africans are religious”. But the increasing Christian presence in Africa may not be very deep, even though it is an indicator that God is working. Many mission scholars have noted that the centre of Christianity is moving to the global south.
In Kenya we have, for instance, the Atheists in Kenya. They are questioning the role of religion in the public square. Just recently, there was a constitutional appeal labeled #Repeal162. Its aim was to question issues of sexual identity. To add to this, the prosperity gospel is penetrating even conservative churches. Such concerns are gaining traction and churches must consider how to respond. Churches must be anchored in a robust biblical worldview.
Apologetics Kenya and African Center for Apologetics Research are ministries in the Kenyan context that are seeking to equip believers and engage skeptics. The Proclaim Conferences that are hosted by Emmanuel Baptist Church, in conjunction with Ekklesia Afrika East, are gatherings geared towards equipping ministers in this important Word-work. Theological foundations in ministry are crucial. Even in the face of complex cultural times, youth ministries must be anchored by the Bible. But we are constantly tempted to reinvent things.
On the other hand, some think theology is a reserve for far-removed academics. But as R. C. Sproul said, “Everyone is a theologian”. The question is whether we are bad ones or growing ones. And growing theologians develop their grasp of Scripture and love for Christ. As Carson wrote in The Pastor as Scholar: this is not so that we can become masters of Scripture but to be mastered by the Scriptures.
Theology and ministry cannot be divorced from one another, just like doctrine and devotion, head and heart
Scripture’s witness, even in the time of Timothy, our exemplary minister, reminds us that our cultural milieu will always be pegged with various challenges (2 Timothy 2:14-26). Nonetheless, Paul is able to caution him to be centred on the sound doctrine of inspired Scripture and to learn from his example, in his emotionally charged final farewell (2 Timothy 3:10-17). Theology and ministry cannot be divorced from one another, just like doctrine and devotion, head and heart. Contrary to popular opinion, the practice of youth ministry lends itself well to theology.