A Deeper Integration of Theology and Ministry

Kara Powell | Aug 10, 2006

Have you heard the expression attributed to Einstein that Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Thats me, and thats you. We are youth workers who repeat the same ministry programs over and over again, hoping that this time they might actually work.

Sometimes they do work. God shows up through (or occasionally even despite) our efforts and grabs kids attention. Those are the days that we feel like composing our own anthem about how great it is to be a youth worker.

But sometimes the usual ministry stuff doesnt work. If were honest with ourselves, maybe its already starting to work less than it used to. Our ministry is feeling flat. Our kids are feeling bored. We are feeling tired.

Maybe the problem with Youth Ministry As Weve Known It is that its too shallow. For a moment, think about your ministry as a swimming pool. At the start of every day, you have a choice about where you and your ministry will spend your time and energy. Youre way past the Water Wings Stage, so you feel comfortable stepping away from the pool steps. Youve learned how to blow bubbles in the water, so you can do more than just dog paddle.

But you still tend to stay in the shallow end. Thats where its warmer.

And safer.

Part of what keeps us from entering the deep waters is that we dont engage in deep theological reflection. Its possible that were scared to. Or maybe we dont know how. Perhaps we dont think theology is all that relevant to what we do with kids and families. Or maybe were just lazy; most of us would rather keep doing what weve always done than do the hard work of theological reflection and integration that propels us into deeper waters.

The truth is that our theology impacts everything we do, from how we eat, to how we drive, to how we relate to others. And it certainly affects the depth of our ministries. We all practice our theology even when that theology is poorly thought-out and even when we dont realize it.

Its time to end the Youth Ministry Insanity. Its time to join the growing group of youth workers who are stepping out of the shallow end and diving in to deeper water. Its time to admit both privately and publicly that if we dont go deeper in our integration of theology and ministry, our students and our ministries will stay splashing around in the shallow end.

The Deep Design: An Overview

If we want deeper ministry transformation (and who doesnt?), our goals should be twofold. First, to consider our ministries in light of our theology and doctrine. Second, to be attentive to the provocative practical theology questions that our ministries will inevitably raise. So for example, our understanding of the relationships in the first century church described in Acts 2:42-47 should affect the way we try to develop community with our students. At the same time, students use of technology to stay connected to each other today should force us to start asking: how can we use technology to love and serve students? From a theological perspective, what do we gain by doing that? What do we lose?

The Deep Design were suggesting certainly isnt the only way to allow our theology to inform our ministry practices, and vice versa. It might not even be the best way. But this Deep Design hopefully allows us to toss aside our water wings and plunge into the deep end.

Heres an overview of the four steps in our Deep Design. [[Much of this Deep Design is derived from the academic discipline of Practical Theology.]] Step One provides the opportunity to discern Gods transforming activity in your ministry currently. Step Two focuses more on theology by allowing you to reflect upon fresh insights from Scripture, historical thinkers, current research, and experience. Step Three invites you to observe others who are integrating these new theological and ministry insights into their own settings and compare them with your situation. Step Four is the final culminating step that helps you apply findings from Step 2 and Step 3 to the issues that emerged in Step 1.

To simplify this process, heres one overarching question for each step.

Step One (Discernment): Now?

Step Two (Reflection): New?

Step Three (Observation): Who?

Step Four (Application): How?

The left half of the Deep Design represents Our Ministries both as they are right Now and How wed like to see them deepen. While its tempting to jump from realizing theres a problem to coming up with our own solution, the reality is that we will come up with limited ideas if we dont engage with the right half of the Deep Design, Others Insights. The flow of the four steps helps develop the right balance between looking in the mirror and looking out the window.

A Caveat: It Will Be Messy

In this article, the Deep Design is presented step by step, question by question. The reality is that the process isnt always as clean, neat, and linear as were explaining it right now. In fact, it never is. But just like when youre learning anything new, its helpful to understand all of the components in some sort of sequence. Tennis coaches teach new players how to hit the ball through a logical sequence: step forward, move the racket back, make contact with the ball, and then follow-through. Once players get these basics, they hit forehand and backhand shots in one fluid motion. That makes tennis (and deep ministry for that matter) more organic, more messy, and a whole lot more fun.

Whats that cross doing in the middle of the Deep Design?

In the midst of the Deep Design, we want our reflection and the intersection between our ministries and others insights to be continually filtered through the lens of Gods activity. How do we know if we are aligning ourselves with Gods activity? While our finite brains prevent us from ever fully knowing, one way we understand Gods activity is through His revelation, which we know primarily from Scripture. The cross is at the heart of our Deep Design as a reminder that we want all of our theological and ministry reflection to revolve around the model and grace of Christ as a central example of Gods activity. [[Had this been an academic article, we would have labeled this filter Christopraxis, meaning that our praxis, or theologically-grounded practices, is determined by Gods activity as seen through Christ.]]

Step One in the Deep Design (Discernment): Now?

As youth workers, we often get so busy doing ministry that we lose sight of what God is doing now in our ministry. We often end up like emergency rescue workers, responding to the latest 9-1-1 call from a kid or dousing fires that sprang up at last nights youth group. Our heads spin from one urgent crisis to the next without thinking about how all of these flare-ups are aligning with, or detracting from, Gods work in our midst.

Step One invites us to slow down and discern what God is up to in our ministry Now. Trying to discern Gods work in our midst begs an obvious question: What exactly is Gods activity? Its helpful to contemplate Gods activity by thinking about what academic folks call His telos (pronounced tell-oss). Taken from the Greek, in this context, telos means Gods divine intentions or purposes.

That helps somewhat, but were still left with the question of: so what does God intend? Some might answer that God intends for His kingdom to be advanced. Others might suggest that God intends for His peace to reign. Still others might propose that God intends for all people to worship Him. While these are all accurate answers, we suggest that in its most simple essence, God intends transformation. He desires this transformation to happen on multiple levels in our natural world, in our faith communities, in our individual lives, and in our larger world.

In the Deep Design, the goal of the first Now step is to discern Gods current transformation in our midst. More specifically, we ask three Now sub questions:

  • What type of transformation is God bringing about now?
  • What is creating space for Gods transformation now?
  • What is hindering Gods transformation now?

So how in the world do you figure out what God is up to? Whats the process for answering these three Now questions? The short answer is through both your own individual reflection and communal reflection with others. In both types of reflection, its helpful to consider your ministry from the perspective of Gods story as presented in Scripture. Where in your ministry do you see actions and attitudes that resemble Jesus life and ministry? Where in your community are the passions of Jesus being expressed? Poignant answers to these questions are often revealed through corporate prayer, spiritual disciplines, worship, and discussions about Gods narrative presented in Scripture.

Step Two in the Deep Design (Reflection): New?

Once you know your Now, the second step in the Deep Design is to engage in New reflection. The goal of the New step is to reflect upon New ideas and theological insights related to the issues that arose as you tried to discern Gods activity in your ministry Now.

How do you identify the New perspectives that can help move your ministry out of the shallow end? The great news is that we can gain wisdom from those both inside and outside our context by asking:

  • What does Scripture say?
  • What does history say?
  • What does research say?
  • What does experience say? [[There are obvious parallels between these four questions and the well-known Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Based largely on the writings of John Wesley, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral teaches that Gods revelation comes in four forms: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The essence of two of the New questions are identical to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in their focus on Scripture and experience. We have changed tradition to history because for many, the word tradition only means our current traditions while history more clearly communicates the thinking and practices of the church throughout its existence. We have changed reason to research in order to send the message that we want to gain New insights from others research and not just from our own individual rationality.]]

Scripture has two types of authority. One is its historical authority, meaning it contains Gods commands to people in Biblical times. The second is its normative authority, meaning that when it is properly interpreted, it helps us understand Gods commands to us today. That means that if Scripture says one thing, and something or someone else says another, Scripture trumps that other voice.

By history, we mean traditions and teachings from the past. Unfortunately in our hunt for fresh ideas, we in the field of youth ministry have often disregarded the outdated wisdom that has been developed by those who have studied and served God before us. We operate as if nothing much of significance happened between the writing of the Bible thousands of years ago and where we are now. Whether its because of our ignorance or our pride, weve turned a deaf ear to the whispers of wisdom that echo from the past. Studying our history helps clear the wax from our ears.

In the midst of understanding our history and the evolution of key theology and church practices, each of us has certain branches in our faith tree that are unique. If youre part of a denomination or movement, that group has a deep sense of history (some way deeper than others!). Whether your church and youth ministry have been around for 100 years or 1 month, they are undoubtedly grounded in certain doctrines and traditions. Perhaps you need to abandon these historical principles and practices. Maybe even more likely, you need to hold firm to them and re-New them by translating them in ways that make sense to your students. Either way, its only as we value the church and work within the narrative of the churchs own self-understanding that we can truly bring change.

We move from the past to the present through the third voice in finding New depth: research. When we discuss the value of academic research with youth workers, some of them nod immediately. Others squint their eyes and look like we are speaking to them in a language originating in a galaxy far, far away. In their minds, such investigation is done by boring scientists in white lab coats who study irrelevant questions and end up giving purple pills to one half of the guinea pigs and green pills to the rest.

Thats not the kind of research were talking about. Were talking about Roll Up Your Sleeves And Get Dirty With Kids kinds of research. Were talking about the kind of research that puts adults in the position of listeners and students in the position of youth culture experts. Were talking about what is now being referred to in academic circles as action research, meaning research that reflects the real needs of real people and offers real help. Overlooking these contributions in our search for deeper ministry is a little bit like looking for a quarter in the dark. You might find it, but it sure takes longer.

We move from others insights to your own through the fourth voice in finding New depth: experience. Your church, your community, and your kids are unlike any others. You as a leader are unlike any other leader. God intends to use the unique experiences of both yourself and others to help you swim past shallow waters. By putting these experiences under a microscope, youll see the tiny nuances and hidden principles that you might otherwise miss.

One point of clarification: in trying to hear from Scripture, history, research, and experience, there are times when one or two voices will have more to contribute to your Deep Design than others. Sometimes Scripture shouts about an issue; other times it whispers. Occasionally history has volumes of insight; often it is silent. Thats OK. It would be unrealistic to think that each source should contribute exactly 25% to your process. Nothing in life that matters is that neat and clean. The goal is to soak in wisdom from all four when possible, not to artificially squeeze a few drops from a source that is actually pretty dry on that particular issue.

Step Three in the Deep Design (Observation): Who?

In figuring out how to go deeper in our ministries, its helpful to have examples of others who have gone before us. The goal of the Who step is to observe others who have come up with New theological and ministry insights similar to ours and are already trying to go deeper. These people arent perfect but their willingness to try new ideas and paddle, sidestroke, and sprint forward can help you take a few bold or maybe tentative strokes into deeper water.

One important warning: You will never follow someone elses plan exactly and be successful.

The truth is that you live in a different community, you work with different students, your students have different parents, you have different volunteers, you have a different senior pastor, and you have your own leadership style.

That means that to effectively take the third step of the Deep Design and figure out Who you can learn from, and how their stories relate to your own, you are going to want to ask three questions:

  • What are some ways that others are applying these new insights to their ministries?
  • In what ways is their situation similar to ours?
  • In what ways is it different?

Step Four in the Deep Design (Application): How?

Now that weve reflected on New theological and ministry depth in step two of our Deep Design diagram and studied the example of another ministry and compared it with our own context already in step three, we are well equipped to answer the final synthesizing question: Given everything, How can we go deeper?

It might help if you think of this fourth How question like a jigsaw puzzle. Studying Now, New, and Who is a bit like dumping a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces on your dining room table. In the final section, you get to figure out How to put those pieces together into a puzzle that fits your ministry. The best picture for your students is not something you copy from others, but something God shows you and your team. Since youve done the hard work of reflection in the first three steps, you are well positioned to apply theology to the ministry challenges and dilemmas you face.

One other word of warning: as youll note from the shape of the diagram (which resembles the mathematical sign of infinity), every time you reach a new goal, youve basically created a new Now for yourself, which means the Deep Design process never ends. Its a constant loop of discernment, reflection, observation, and application. It is this ongoing theological and ministry evaluation that keeps us from the lunacy of repeating the same ministry practices and expecting different results.

The exciting news is that there is an ocean of new depth ahead of us.

And you get to help navigate it!

To find out more about the Deep Design and how to apply it to your ministry, check out Deep Ministry in a Shallow World: Not-So-Secret Findings about Youth Ministry (Youth Specialties) by Kara Powell and Chap Clark from the Fuller Youth Institute (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, July 2006). Much of this article has been adapted from this research-based text. Also check out the free additional Deep Ministry resources on our web site at http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/wp/resources/books/.

Action Points:

  • We recommend that you try answering the three questions in step one for your ministry overall before you do anything else. What type of transformation is God bringing about Now? What is creating space for this transformation? What is hindering it?
  • What role does Scripture usually play in finding New ideas for your ministry? What role do you want it to play? If there is a difference in your answers, what does this tell you?
  • Do you agree or disagree with the importance of history, research, and experience as ways to learn New insights? Why is that?
  • Who in ministry have you tended to follow in the past? When, if at all, did you diverge from their model, and why did you decide to branch out on your own journey?
  • Who from your ministry should you involve in discussing this Deep Design and how it relates to your ministry? Given your answers to questions 1-4 above, what should be your first topics of conversation?
Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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