Theological foundations for youth ministry

Photo by Horizon Church on Unsplash

Passy (pastor), isn’t Moses the one who wrote Deuteronomy?”

A teenager genuinely asked me during a teens discipleship programme in April 2019 in the city of Nairobi, in a peri-urban town about twenty minutes by public transport from the Central Business District. Because of our Presbyterian esteem of God’s Word, I hesitantly responded, “Yes, Moses is the author,” not knowing what was following next. The hesitancy was informed by my experience ministering to young people who have all sorts of questions about life – questions that carry a lot of theological significance but which sometimes adults whisk away as coming from a rebellious heart.

“Then how come the story of Moses’ death is part of Deuteronomy?” she followed up with this question.

She was referencing Deuteronomy 34 which contains the account of the death of Moses threatened in Deuteronomy 32:48-52. I had never considered the dilemma before and in order to save face, I posed the question back and 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.

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 and upon researching the same, I came to see some of the apologetic responses given to such apparent biblical contradictions. But apologetics is just one facet of the diamond that is pastoral ministry, and at the heart of it is a pastoral heart and theological competence.

The 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 alike. 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, and 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, on a popular level, are suffering some sort of malaise.

Though some have noted that youth ministry is only a recent phenomenon of the 20th century, 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-cultural fads and shallow biblical ministry that may be the reason why the faith of teenagers, in America (and probably in large parts of the globe), has been reduced to the acronym MTD (Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism) in the landmark study by the sociologists Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton in their book 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 as:

  1. In a legalistic sense, focusing on right and wrong
  2. In a psychological sense, seeing God as a “shrink”
  3. In a theological sense, seeing God as far removed from the intricacies of life

From a study conducted in 2015 among Nairobian youth, a major reason that young people were disillusioned by the Church is lack of robust teaching that can tackle the issues of life. Another study on faith formation that has been done in Africa is by Shantelle Weber, a practical theologian at the University of Stellenbosch, focusing on 14-17-year-olds. The major point from these studies is that youth ministry must consider the necessity of robust theological foundations.

Although there are different models of how youth ministry should be done within the local church, the reality is that whether through youth services or through family services, several factors are important in discipling the next generations in the 21st century. These factors are not novel but can be found within the entire counsel of the Scriptures:

1. The role of parents as the major disciplers of their children

Rather than being silos that are detached from the local church ministry, youth ministries and ministers ought to equip parents to play their roles effectively. In an age 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 of parents as the core disciplers of children is found 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“. Written within the context of the “shema” of Old Testament Israel, the expectation is that parents themselves are nurturing their following of Jesus, who is God’s ultimate Word, in order to share the Word with their children in an age-appropriate manner. Youth ministers must not ignore the role of parents.

2. The centrality of the Scriptures as the tool of discipling

In the New Testament, Timothy serves as a model of a young person who is involved in the life of the local church. This lends credence to elders within the church in drawing young people into the life and ministry of the local church. Additionally, to support the earlier point, it is clear that his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois were his core disciplers (2 Timothy 1:5). The following question might be, 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 for young people but we must remember that it is the Word of God, received by faith through the Spirit’s conviction, 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 young people are asking are theological in nature. These questions are usually influenced by the worldviews of the day from retrogressive traditional cultures, to material secularism, to postmodern influence, 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 these worldviews – in the global post-Christian and secular culture. Some have said that “Africans are religious” but the increasing Christian presence in Africa may not be much deep, even though it is an indicator that God is working (Mission scholars have noted that the center of Christianity is moving to the global south). In Kenya, we have for instance the Atheists in Kenya, who are questioning the role of religion in the public square. Just recently, there was a constitutional appeal labeled #Repeal162 whose 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 Emanuel Baptist Church in conjunction with Ekklesia Africa East are gatherings that are equipping ministers in this important Word-work.


Theological foundations in ministry are crucial. Even in the face of complex cultural times, from western postmodernity and resurgence of African traditional worldviews, youth ministries must be anchored in a biblical worldview. The reason is that we are sometimes tempted to reinvent things. On the other hand, some think theology is a reserve for far-removed academics. But as R. C. Sproul noted, “Everyone is a theologian”. The question is whether we are bad ones or growing ones. And growing theologians grow in their grasp of Scriptures and in their love for Christ, not in order to be masters of scripture but to be mastered by the Scriptures*. Scripture’s witness, even in the time of Timothy, our exemplary minister, reminds us that his cultural milieu was also pegged with various challenges (2 Timothy 2:14-26). Nonetheless, Paul is able to caution him to be centered on the sound doctrine of inspired Scripture and to learn from his example, in his emotionally charged final farewell (2 Tim 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.

 *D. A. Carson in The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor

This article originally appeared on Theogrimage 


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