youth ministry is interpretation

I believe the primary task (or practice) of youth ministry today is the hermeneutical task, or interpretation. This is the first practice of the anti-model presented in an earlier post. Youth ministers often find ourselves in the role of interpreter – interpreting youth culture for adults, interpreting adult culture for youth, interpreting church tradition for youth, interpreting middle schoolers for high schoolers, etc. But there is more to this work of interpretation.

Interpretation, as one of the primary practices of youth ministry, means that our work centers on the task of helping young people re-interpret their reality in light of God’s Good News. We interpret their reality in light of God’s Word and we interpret God’s Word in light of their reality.

There is quite the hullabaloo right now in our youth ministry universe around whether or not youth ministry should be considered “theological”. Jerry Watts has a good string going right now over at Reform This. I would argue that theology is the sin qua non of youth ministry because even our first move into a relationship with a young person is a result of God’s spirit moving. That is a theological claim! Ministry is ultimately and primarily about what God is doing and what God is calling us to do (We’ll get to this later when I post about discernment and proclamation as the two other practices.). Douglas John Hall defines theology as “ . . . that ongoing activity of the whole church that aims at clarifying what ‘gospel’ must mean here and now.” We must interpret “gospel” for our “here and now”.

Therefore, theology, proclamation and ministry all require interpretation. But interpretation is neither static nor linear. We must interpret what the Good News is right here and right now for our youth in their context. But the interpretation does not begin there because we must also interpret the right here and right now context in light of the Good News. But interpretation doesn’t start there either, because the way we understand our context will change our interpretation of the Good News . . .

Herbert Blumer’s theory of Symbolic Interactionism is also helpful here. It states that there in never simply a stimulus and response (behaviorism – think salivating dogs), but there is always an event of interpretation between those two. So the stimulus (revelation in whichever form you choose) does not automatically elicit the desired response (faith). There is an event in-between these two, and it is in that event where we dwell – where we engage in interpretation. The act of interpretation is not separate from the action or event — it is integral.

So we, as youth ministers, are always engaged in a dynamic transaction between text and context in which one never presupposes the other. Don’t get hung up on whether youth ministry is theological or not (or whether you are theological enough). It is definitely interpretive and when you are interpreting  – you are doing theology – and that is good news!

This sounds great on paper – or on your screen – but how does it play out? How have you seen the Good News change the way a student understands his or her reality? How have you seen an experience change the way a student understands the Good News?

How have you practiced interpretation?

This post is the second post (of 9) in this “anti-model” series.


About jeremypmyers

Jeremy Myers teaches youth and family ministry at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN. His current academic interests include articulating a vocational understanding of youth and a public understanding of church. He lives with his wife and two children in St. Paul, MN. Bluegrass music, strong coffee and huge pancakes are a few of his favorite things.
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8 Responses to youth ministry is interpretation

  1. Jerry Watts says:

    Great Post. It’s got me thinking on several different areas of life and ministry.

    I like the way you’ve articulated this theological task Jeremy. It also reminds me of the work you did with YMSP ( youth ministry spirituality project) where partners (volunteer & staff) in youth ministry were invited to think of youth ministry as a spiritual discipline in their life as opposed to another volunteer commitment on their calendars.

    That being said, I agree we youth ministers are engaged in the theological task as we engage text and context or to put it another way…welcome real people – real teens to alignment their lives through the lens of Christ the Word made flesh.

    But how in this Great emergence do we do that with orthodoxy and not glorify our uncertainty? I came a across a great poet named Taylor Malli via Chris Seay today and his challenge is my question for the interpretive work we are doing in youth ministry… a question of authority. Hear him share it here:

    • jeremypmyers says:

      “It is not enough to question authority. You’ve got to speak with it too.” I love it! Thanks for the link and the comment.

      I don’t mean to sound too vague here, but what if the only true orthodoxy is the orthopraxy of seeing Christ in the neighbor – in the world? Which orthodoxy do we choose to teach our youth in order for them to begin to care more for the neighbor and the world than for a particular orthodoxy?

      I don’t want to make this a Law/Gospel issue, but a vocational issue (I can see many people rolling their eyes right now.). Vocation becomes a whole new category the seems to merge orthodoxy and orthopraxy – the confession of faith in a Christ who calls us and draws us deeply into the world and the particular way in which we respond to that call in each moment of our lives.

      When I teach our general religion class to first year students at Augsburg I can see why they are often accused of relativism, but I am finding that it is not relativism that they are trying to articulate but some type of pluralism. A pluralism that locates them securely within their particular stance on faith (Catholicism, Protestantism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Islam, etc.) and simultaneously recognizes that Truth can be elussive to all of these might actually be found between them all rather than contained within one.

      There is something to this that I think is very Christ-like. But, we’ve not helped our young people articule this stance, or speak with authority. Instead, we’ve simply assumed they “like, don’t really care much. You know what I mean?” : )

  2. Pingback: youth ministry is discernment | tree of life

  3. Brent says:

    I have always bought into the truth that “the Christian life is more often caught than taught.” you could easily insert “good news” in the place of “christian life” and I believe it would hold true. Our young people experience good news when we reveal it (or point it out). They seem to be waiting for us to point it out, to walk with them into it, to celebrate with them when they sense it…

    Youth ministry is our opportunity to keep wide eyed young people hopeful that if they seek they really will find. Then, years from now, when they find themselves stuck in the middle of bad news, they will remember the truth of good news!

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Thanks, Brent. And I would say that we are in the business of helping our youth realize that they are the ones being sought. The practice of interpretation helps puts words to the experiences they have of being found – again and again.

  4. Pingback: youth ministry is proclamation | tree of life

  5. Pingback: Youth Ministry Is Theological | tree of life

  6. Pingback: Youth Ministry is Relational | tree of life

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