In this post, I present two versions of my Theology of Youth ministry.
Theology of Youth Ministry: Accessible Language
In this version, I use accessible language so that kids can understand my theology. While the primary audience is children, “less is more” with people of all ages. If your personal preference is for simplified, clear language, this version is for you too. Lastly, I was thinking of the needs of adults learning English (limited vocabulary) and adults with cognitive disabilities when I wrote this version, for accessibility. No matter what your age, capacity, or preferences, you are more than welcome to glean from either version.
You are Important to God
Children are special to God. God calls his people children, and loves them with the same tender love he has for Jesus. Jesus invites kids to get to know him. He tells adults to become more like kids so that they will understand Heaven. God is very protective and hates it when people hurt his kids.
Children are great teachers for adults! Children show grown ups that you don’t have to try hard to know God and help people. Kids are curious and teach adults how to ask good questions about God. Children want to go on adventures with God, and challenge adults to believe that God is powerful. Children love people, and challenge adults to care more about how they are treated. Adults need children’s faith to be healthy.
When adults respect how kids teach them about Jesus, they will listen to kids and protect them. They will train kids in safe and healthy places, and teach them good things. Even when kids are too young to say, “I choose you, God” with their words, adults should still learn from them.
You are Gifted
God is visible and invisible. In order to love God fully, you have to love the parts of him that are visible and invisible. God made people for this reason! When people choose to love and follow Jesus, God gives them gifts so they can walk closely with him and help others. Just like a kid can be good at math or reading, the Holy Spirit gives people new spiritual gifts like advanced understanding, knowing secret details, crazy trust, healing people’s bodies, doing miracles, sharing messages from God, telling the difference between God’s voice and other voices, speaking heavenly languages, and understanding languages. God gives some of these gifts to everyone, so they will help each other. Some kids may also experience things like special dreams or seeing angels as part of their calling. The bible tells us to want special gifts so that we can help people. God gives each person what they need for their calling, and gives more when we practice our gifts.
Just like how you might inherit your parents eye or hair color, you can inherit the gifts from your family. If your family members have special gifts like worshiping God with music, you might also be good at that too. Some gifts like creating new groups and things for God, sharing messages from the Holy Spirit, taking care of God’s church, teaching about God, or telling other people about God can also run in families. If your parents are able to, they should teach you about how to use your gifts. If your home family can’t teach you, don’t worry! Your church family can. The Church is responsible for teaching young Christians about their gifts.
You should be Protected
To protect kids spiritually, the church has to protect kids’ bodies and emotions too. Since kids are young and small, they need help more than adults. The fact that kids need help makes God love them even more. The Church should love and protect kids like God does. However, some churches haven’t protected kids, taught families about how to protect kids, or expected the rest of the world to treat kids well. When the Church doesn’t teach the world that kids need protected, entire families can be in danger. Children of color, kids with poor families, and refugees can be even more unsafe. In God’s eyes, the Church is more responsible for protecting kids than the government or volunteer groups. God especially cares about orphans and refugees. He cares so much that he says that if anyone hurts them, they will be cursed! The Church absolutely must help.
When people hurt your body, your emotions, your mind, or your spirit, it can make you feel bad about yourself and like you did something wrong. However, God will never think less of you for things that other people did. God’s tender love means that even if other people hurt you, he will heal you and make up for the pain. The Church must take responsibility to make sure you are safe.
The Church must also make sure that kids know how to navigate unseen, spiritual experiences or use their gifts. Ultimately, the whole point of having spiritual gifts is so that you can know the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus better. Just like God called Samuel as a kid, kids can see pictures, hear words, have dreams, or know details from God. Kids need to learn from the Church and from historical figures in the Church to know how to use their gifts and not be scared. A good church will teach you about the supernatural through the bible and help you practice knowing what is and isn’t from God. Through training in your gifts, you will be able to know Jesus better, have fun, and make your life a celebration of God. Knowing that God will reveal his secrets to you when you follow Jesus and that Jesus has already protected you will help. When kids learn how to use their gifts, they make their communities richer. The Holy Spirit can use kids with disabilities too! God isn’t afraid of our limitations.
Finally, the Church should also teach you about how to navigate scary spiritual things that you might see, hear, or sense. These things aren’t from God, because God will never make you afraid on purpose. When kids are spiritually sensitive and don’t have enough help from adults, they might sense these scary things more often. Being scared can even make kids afraid of the supernatural parts of God.
Kids offer Hope
Just like adults, kids aren’t perfect. Kids are limited and have strengths and weaknesses. However, since kids are so young, they can teach adults about how to be kind to each other and care about the world. Just like David was brave in standing up for what he believed, children’s sensitivity makes them brave world changers. Adults should learn from the things that worry kids! For example, some kids don’t like it when animals are treated badly, especially the animals people eat for food. The way kids want animals to have healthy lives can teach adults how to take care of the world and do business. When adults listen to kids, they will be better at changing the world.
Theology of Youth Ministry: Scholarly Language
In this version, I reference biblical and academic sources so that educational leaders, church leaders, and parents can understand my theology. The primary audience is adults who are interested in scholarly language.
For good reason, the bible calls children precious. In Psalm 127:3 and Proverbs 17;6, children are a reward and an inheritance from the Lord. God refers to his people in the Old and New Testament by names like “Children of Israel” (Exodus 1:1) and “Children of Abraham” (Romans 9:7) to demonstrate his multigenerational covenantal love. God used the love he had for his own Son as grounds for the new covenant ( Ephesians 1:4-5, John 3:16, Romans 8:1-14). In this same Spirit, Jesus explicitly invites children to come to him (Matthew 19:14). He implies that God values children even more than adults, since their angels always behold God on his throne (Matthew 18:10). Jesus uses imagery of children and sonship in the Parable of the Prodigal son to express God’s mercy (Luke 15:11-32). He also draws on his audiences’ experience of the tenderness of parenting to understand the goodness of God (Matthew 7:11). Jesus invokes the imagery of vulnerable children when threatens individuals who would mislead his Church (Luke 17:2). Jesus also names childlikeness as the standard for entrance into heaven (Matthew 18:3). Childlikeness and sonship is the standard adults must imitate (John 1:12).
As the embodied future of the family of God, and within their own right, Children’s spirituality is profoundly important to the spirituality of adults. As part of the household of faith (Galatians 3:28), children have various qualities that make them excellent exemplars for older generations. Children model vocation that is inborn and unearned. They model innate curiosity in pursuing Christ with all their minds (Deuteronomy 6:5). Children’s hunger for the experiential gospel (John 14:9-21) raises adults’ faith in the power of God. Children’s genuine love challenges adults to greater sensitivity and sincerity in how they navigate challenging people (Romans 12:9-21). Children’s genuine hope challenges adults’ sensitivity to discern and establish God’s justice (1 Corinthians 13:7). Children must be fully valued and included within the leadership of a community for the Church to flourish.
Adequate respect for children looks like adults acknowledging Jesus’ work within them. Adults in the Church must honor the embodied gifts children bring to the community, explicitly incorporating children’s perspectives and committing to protect them from abuse and usery (Acts 16:16-34). Adequate respect also looks like creating a training environment that is safe and healthy for children’s flourishing (Luke 11:11-13), like a well-protected greenhouse (Psalm 144:12). Even when children may be too young to make a vocal confession of faith, the community of faith must be humble enough to discern the Holy Spirit working in and through them as a sign.
Gifted and Valued: Understanding Spiritual Gifts and Giftedness
Humans are created not just as natural, but supernatural beings. Christians serve a supernatural God who gives good gifts to his children (Matthew 7:11). In order to fully worship God, Deuteronomy 6:5 teaches that individuals must love God not just with their hearts or their intellect, but also with their spirits (Deuteronomy 6:5). Through the lens of holistic education, children can demonstrate gifts or giftedness that is intellectual, emotional, physical, social, or spiritual.
In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Paul explains that as a result of faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit apportions spiritual gifts to each believer (Acts 2:38). These gifts are diverse and include wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophesy, discernment, diverse tongues, and interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). Similar to adults, as children put their faith in Christ, they individually receive gifts for the service of the community (1 Corinthians 12). Just like academic gifts in math or reading or socio-emotional gifts, these spiritual gifts are resources that help believers pursue their God-given vocations and minister to other people (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). In addition to gifts that all believers experience, some children experience exceptional spiritual sensitivity and giftedness (Ephesians 4:11-16) as part of their life calling for spiritual leadership inside (Matthew 10:6) and outside of the church (Acts 17:16-21). The bible tells believers to desire greater giftedness, because it helps the Church (1 Corinthians 12:31).
Similar to the way that cultural wealth or trauma can be inherited through families, individuals can inherit the physical and spiritual blessings (Deuteronomy 5:10) and deficits (Deuteronomy 5:9) of their forefathers. Since individuals are born into family systems, exceptional spiritual giftedness can be generational (1 Chronicles 25:1). The spiritual leadership callings in Ephesians 4:11 (such as apostleship, prophecy, pastoring, teaching, or evangelism) (Jeremiah 1:5) can be passed down through families (Deuteronomy 7:9, Romans 11:29, Acts 21:9, Isaiah 8:3, Zechariah 1:1). For example, the prophetic musicianship calling of Levites in 1 Chronicles 25:1 was a gift to an entire family system (1 Chronicles 25:1). Individuals would inherit some share of musical talent, and their relatives would be responsible for helping to provide training (1 Chronicles 6:33). The life of Johann Sebastian Bach is a strong modern example of an individual and family system who embodied this calling to sacred worship. As these stories demonstrate, parents bear the primary responsibility (Ephesians 6:4, Isaiah 54:13) and right for teaching their children how to worship God (Deuteronomy 6:7). Gifts for spiritual leadership can be stewarded generationally (2 Timothy 1:5-8, Psalm 145:4) when parents and children perceive the value of it (Romans 10:9-13).
And yet, individuals who experience high degrees of spiritual giftedness may not have family members who can support them. Similar to the story of the Gershonites in 1 Chronicles 23:11, God can group individuals who share similar gifts and assignments together as one family (Psalm 68:6, 1 Chronicles 23:11). As the body of Christ, and due to the lack of resources currently available to individuals and families, the Church must take greater responsibility to assist spiritually gifted children (1 Corinthians 12).
Greater Vulnerability, Greater Responsibility
In order to protect children’s spiritual wellbeing, the Church must also make a greater commitment to protect children’s holistic wellbeing. Due to their age and vulnerability, the physical and emotional challenges that children face are equal to if not greater than adults. Children’s vulnerability and weakness makes them indispensable in the eyes of God and accredits them greater protections ( 1 Corinthians 12:22-23). However, the Church as an organization has often failed to protect children from dangers that jeopardize their holistic wellbeing in Church, at home, or in society. Before God, the Church is more responsible (Matthew 28) than secular state government or non-profit organizations to protect the needs of vulnerable children. This negligence carries generational implications, as injustices against children through adverse childhood experiences (ACES) can affect families at a generational level. Furthermore, child abuse disproportionately affects children of color, children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and refugees. Based on God’s fearsome love for children who have lost of parents (Exodus 22:22-23, Deuteronomy 10:18, Isaiah 10:1-3) or have refugee status (Deuteronomy 27:13, Exodus 22:21, Matthew 2:15, Deuteronomy 24:14), the Church must advocate and engineer greater forms of child protection. Furthermore, the Church’s response to practice or alleviate child abuse has lasting spiritual implications. According to Deuteronomy 27:13, anyone who mistreats orphans or refugees will be cursed.
While adverse childhood experiences may undermine children’s self worth and self-identified sense of innocence, God does not determine individuals’ innocence based on how others mistreat them (Jeremiah 31:30). To the refugee, God promises to provide the same protective love that delivered Jesus from Herod (Matthew 2:15, Romans 1:1-32). In situations of loss, God defines vulnerable children by his own tender regard for them and himself, restoring and healing what was stolen (Joel 2:25, Isaiah 53:5, Lamentations 3:21-23). In order to protect children’s spiritual wellbeing, the Church must take greater responsibility to protect children from trauma.
Irrespective of individual stewardship of spiritual gifts (Romans 11:29, 1 Samuel 28), degrees of giftedness, or age, people have supernatural experiences (Jeremiah 1:7). In addition to physical and emotional wellbeing, the Church must provide resources to support children’s spiritual wellbeing. Similar to the story of Samuel’s calling, in the midst of everyday life, children have supernatural experiences. Children can receive impressions (1 Corinthians 12:10), words of knowledge, or holy spirit led pictures or dreams (1 Samuel 3). Just as Samuel needed Eli’s parental and pedagogical protection, children need adults’ guidance to navigate the spiritual realm ( 1 Samuel 3:9, 1 John 4:4-6) using a biblical understanding of the supernatural (Deuteronomy 6:8). Children need guidance from the contemporary and historical witness of the Church in how to steward their gifts (1 John 4:1-4). Spirit-filled Churches can support adults and children to use their spiritual gifts in way that is biblically-based (1 Samuel 3:9, 1 John 4:4-6), life-giving ( John 4:4, John 7:37-38, Revelation 22:17, Isaiah 55:1, Isaiah 41:17-18, Ezekiel 47:1-12, Isaiah 49:10, Psalm 23:2), Jesus seeking (Jeremiah 29:13), and God glorifying (Ephesians 5, Jeremiah 2:13). Teaching children that God will reveal his secrets to them (Matthew 11:25) as they abide in him (John 15:4-11) and that Christ has already overcome all supernatural opposition on their behalf (1 John 2:12-14) can be an empowering part of this process.
When children are taught to navigate their spiritual gifts or giftedness in a way that glorifies God, they enrich their communities. For example, in chapter 6 his book on disability, timefulness, and gentle discipleship, John Swinton describes a prayerful yet nonverbal young girl whose wordless, swaying prayers appeared to have the effect of healing an adult’s broken ankle. In instances like this, children demonstrate God’s power in and through their limitations (2 Corinthians 2:10, 1 Corinthians 1:27).
As part of training in the supernatural realm, the Church must also provide training to help children navigate spiritual harassment. When children experience spiritual giftedness but do not have adequate parental, ecclesiastical, or pedagogical support to navigate their experiences, they are more likely to experience spiritual harassment. Spiritual harassment can be defined as intermittent or episodic sensory experiences that increase children’s distress through external spiritual stimulus, giving the sensation of being attacked. For example, children who experience episodic night terrors that they or their families perceive to have a spiritual root may be the victims of spiritual harassment. Ongoing experiences of spiritual harassment in childhood can lead individuals to fear and disengage from the supernatural parts of God.
Children are not superhuman or more morally outstanding than adults (Romans 3:23). They face similar challenges, and are born with inherent imperfections and virtues (Psalm 139: 13-18, Psalm 130:3). However, children’s lack of years can provide greater sensitivity and innocence in navigating the human experience. Similar to David’s willingness to stand on his convictions in the face of near certain death, children’s sensitivity can guide them into courageous hope (1 Samuel 17: 45-46). Furthermore, children’s hope can function as prophetic criticism that provides adults strategic direction in pursuit of justice. For example, in 2018, approximately 4% of American youth aged 8-18 adopted a vegetarian diet, compared to 3.3% of adults. Many of these youth adopt vegetarianism out of “ethical concerns and [concern for] the toll that meat production takes on the environment”. Children concerned with the current American meat industry may intuitively long for animals to live holistically healthy lives and die as painlessly as possible. From observing and learning from children who ethically abstain from unjustly produced animal products, adults may become more aware of their Christian responsibility to steward the earth (Genesis 1:28). As adults humble themselves to receive children’s sensitivity, this increased awareness may lead to systemic reform. By listening to children’s concerns about the effects of pollution, gun violence, and mental illness, adults will be more equipped to establish the Kingdom of God.