There are people out there who are much smarter than I who are talking and writing and teaching about youth ministry. I admire the work of many, including Kenda Dean, Andrew Root, Mark Ostreicher, and MTSO’s own Tim VanMeter, just to name a few. Many, like Tim, have done great work on thinking about ecology and youth ministry, and have delved into the depths of theology surrounding our relationship to the creation. But lately, I’ve been thinking about how a theology of creation, and specifically the idea that human beings are created in God’s image, can have a profound impact on youth ministry. So, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts here, in the hopes that it will at the very least help me to clarify my own thinking, and perhaps might get others thinking about it, too. Here goes…
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
In Genesis, we learn of the creation of humanity by God. Now, I don’t want to get embroiled in a debate about creationism vs. evolution here, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you might as well stop reading now. Suffice it to say, I believe that a person can hold that the earth is billions of years old, and that life has evolved over eons and eons to get to the place where we are now, and still believe that God is the Creator, and that we are created in God’s image. How? The short answer, to quote my first theology professor in seminary, is “It’s a mystery!” In fairness to Sarah Lancaster, however, I should note that in the same breath, she also stated that this is an inadequate theological response. If you want a longer answer, stick around, because I intend to one day write down why I hold those two beliefs…but that is a different blog for a different day.
Back to Genesis. If we hold that God created human beings in God’s own image (what classical theology called the imago dei, then such a belief must have an impact on how we approach the world, and thus ministry, hence the relationship between youth ministry and the theology of creation. If we hold that we are all created in God’s image, some of the very first thoughts/questions that come to mind are:
1. Since God is Creator, each of us is also a creator in some way, and the ways we all create are different, and as varied as the human race. Some people create by making works of art, or making music, while others create by growing food for others to eat. Some create sermons or theological treatises, while some create clearly written and easy to understand directions for how to set up your TV set (Yes, they do exist out there somewhere!).
2. If each of us is created in the image of God, then we are obligated to treat each other like that’s true. If I see you as having the image of God, and you see me as having the image of God, then it is nigh impossible for us to kill each other, lest we do violence to the very foundation of our humanity. (A theology of broken souls, compared with Harry Potter’s quest to kill Voldemort’s horcruxes would be good here.)
3. Seeing God’s image within others also forces us to recognize that God has a variety of ways of approaching the world, and does so through a variety of gifts. Paul’s encouragement to the Church to recognize the spiritual gifts within the body of Christ is an example of this concept being played out in a specifically Christian way.
4. What happens if I meet someone in whom I just can’t seem to find the image of God?
Those are just a few preliminary thoughts. Please don’t take this blog post as definitive–it’s a work in progress!
Now, if we turn to youth ministry, and look at our work with young people through the lens of a theology of creation, there are some insights that bubble to the surface. First of all, it is important to note that our work with young people is part of the creative spirit of God, helping to create and co-create communities of love and care with others who also posses the image of God. This relieves us of the notion that youth ministry is somehow about “keeping the kids occupied so they don’t get into trouble.” *(Actual quote from an actual congregation member)* Second, it forces us to confront the fact that every young person we encounter has been given gifts by God–gifts that may be undiscovered and unused–but gifts nonetheless. Those gifts may come out in ways we don’t want them to (such as the young man who has the gift of compassion, but instead uses his natural tendency to relate to others’ problems as a way to prey on the girls in the group), but it is our job to help young people recognize those gifts, and put them to use for the kingdom (or kindom) of God. Third, a theology of creation in youth ministry confronts us with the mission to help young people overcome the brokenness of their lives and their souls, in a way that helps them embrace the “original blessing” given by God to all of humanity, but which we lose whenever we allow greed or arrogance to get in the way. For us as Christians, this means a relationship with Jesus Christ, who overcame the horrors of torture and death in order to offer new and eternal life.
I guess what I’m getting at is that youth ministry is pretty deep (I probably didn’t need to tell most of you that), and that a youth ministry rooted in a theology of creation can transform a dull and lifeless “keeping the kids busy” kind of ministry into one that embraces the frustrating and diverse nature of working with people who posses the imago dei within their souls. So the next time “that kid” shows up at your door, or confronts you in the school parking lot, or causes havoc in your small group, remember that he or she is not just a problem to be dealt with, but a precious gift from the Creator, called from before the beginning of time to be in relationship with God. Go, and help “that kid” become a child of God!