I have ministered to adolescents for eleven years, eight of them as a youth minister. Based on my conversations with kids and observations in the culture, I consider these five theological tools essential for parents, pastors, and youth ministers hoping to minister effectively to today's teens.
1. Knowledge about the canonization of Scripture.
Perhaps it is a result of The DaVinci Code or maybe the effects of deconstructionism and revisionism in historical studies, but one of the primary apologetic questions I receive from students involves the formation of the canon of Scripture. In no subject area have I observed more misinformation. Students have told me that their high school English teacher taught that the Gospel of Mary Magdalene was not included in the Bible because Christianity is misogynistic. A kid told me that the Gospels were actually written in fourth century.
If a student does not trust the Bible as God's Word, ministries will have a hard time giving them any confidence in the truths of Christianity; the Bible serves as the authority and foundation for all Christian doctrine. Those ministering to youth must possess a strong understanding of the history and system by which the early church discerned certain books as authoritative and rejected other books as either uninspired or heretical.
Recommended Reading: F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture
2. Developed theology of sexuality, particularly homosexuality.
Questions about premarital sex, gender, and sexuality are increasingly common in youth ministry. For many kids the make-or-break issue about Christianity is homosexuality. Many kids think the actions of anti-gay fanatics, such as Westboro Baptist Church, represent Christian theology regarding homosexuality, and, needless to say, they hold reservations about the faith. Meanwhile, other kids espouse the secular portrayal of homosexuality as a civil rights issue akin to racial segregation.
Youth ministers need a balanced, scriptural theology that neither amplifies homosexuality as worse than other forms of sexual sin nor permits it any more than we condone pornography or adultery. Equally important, they need a humble, gentle, and compassionate tone in dealing with the issue.
Recommended Reading: Wesley Hill, Washed And Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality
3. Ability to teach the Bible in the greater context of redemptive history.
Earlier in my career, people said that postmodern kids had rejected metanarratives and only listened to the micro-narratives of personal storytelling. Some of my colleagues and I now agree that the fatalism of denying a defined metanarrative for life and the world seems to have bottomed out. Kids are more likely today to want to believe there is reason and design behind everything that happens in the world. Students greatly benefit from knowing salvation history.
As a way of taking students through all of redemptive history, I teach each one of my small groups a study on “Top 25 Events from the Bible” that travels from Genesis to Revelation. When teaching Scripture, I make a point to connect the content to the broader context of biblical narrative. It reinforces for kids the belief that a good, sovereign God rules the course of human history, as well as the events of their individual life, at a time when they desire it.
Recommended Reading: Vaughan Roberts, God's Big Picture
4. Theological, not only moral, understanding of sin.
Most students—Christian and secular alike—believe morality is individually relative. Therefore, explaining sin simply in moral terms will not resonate with most teenagers. You may say that all people judge, lust, envy, and lie, but your teenage audience likely can justify any of those sins at the personal level, believing they have ultimate authority over morality.
Consequently, those ministering to teens need a theological understanding of how sin originates from the human desire to live independently from God and to be the “god” of our own lives. Most students will accept that they do not depend on God for all matters of their life, if at all, or that they do not have a relationship with him. (In truth, these matters represent our deeper issue as sinners and the source of our immorality.) Students will accept the theological argument for human sinfulness far more readily than a moral explanation.
Recommended Reading: Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods
5. Understand adoption as an element of salvation.
I charge myself as guilty for neglecting this element of salvation, and it cost me big time. The church often exclusively preaches salvation as an individual matter. In a sense, we camp out on regeneration and justification and stop there. I know I did. The persistent teaching of my colleague, Mark Howard, and the talks from Ray Ortlund and Mary Willson at the 2012 Rooted Conference (recordings from all three can be found here) opened my eyes to this blind spot.
Far more than previous generations, today's teenagers value community. If they do not see how groups or beliefs yield corporate fellowship, they are less likely to embrace it. Adoption represents the aspect of salvation whereby God adopts sinners as his sons and daughters. Our salvation does not simply save us individually but also makes us a part of a greater body of intimate connection. Having a fuller understanding of salvation in both individual and corporate terms will help a person ministering to teens offer the gospel in a way that appeals to their high view of fellowship and need for loving acceptance.
Recommended Reading: Trevor Burke, Adopted into God's Family (in the NSBT series edited by D. A. Carson)