Dr. Jeff Kaster is the director of the Youth in Theology and Ministry (YTM) Summer Institute at Saint John’s University and the coordinator of the Lilly Youth Theology Network.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells a story of seed scattered on four different soils. When the seed fell on the path, on rocky ground or among thorns, it failed. Three-fourths of this parable is about the failure of the seed to produce abundant fruit.
Like this parable, church leaders often focus their attention on failure — the large numbers of youth and adults who are leaving the church. Certainly, such failure must be addressed, but our vision can be clouded by a limited, negative focus. Remember that some seed falls on good soil and produces a hundredfold! Perhaps this parable is as much about the church today as it was about evangelization in the first Christian communities. I believe it’s time to stop focusing on the failures of youth ministry and start focusing on the soil that produces a hundredfold.
A few summers ago during the Youth in Theology and Ministry (YTM) Summer Institute at Saint John’s, a high school junior approached me as I was walking to lunch. “Jeff, I’m really mad at you!” she said. “What’s up?” I asked.
“I had my whole college academic program all worked out,” she told me. “But now because you had us take these theology classes, I have to revise my entire plan. I love theology so much, I now have to figure out how to include theological study in my college coursework.”
This story is not unique. For 20 years, the Lilly Theological Programs for High School Youth initiative — now known as Lilly Youth Theology Network (LYTN) (link is external) — has engaged high school youth in theology and inspired them to pursue theological study in college and seminary. In the last year, an additional 93 High School Youth Theology Institute (link is external)s have started. Research from Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Theological Seminary, reported in 2013 that 25 percent of these programs’ alumni have attended, are attending or are planning to attend seminary. This is an amazing success story!
How effectively is your congregation engaging high school youth in thinking theologically? How might the pedagogical lesson learned from LYTN prepare your congregation’s soil for an abundant harvest?
Through decades of work with high school youth, we at LYTN recommend the following strategies to pastors, youth ministers and other pastoral leaders who want to move their youth ministry beyond pizza and volleyball to effectively engaging youth in thinking about Christian faith.
These strategies are a starting point for reflection and conversation about effectively engaging high school youth. To learn more about how to put them into practice, please visit the LYTN Resource Center.
Jesus begins his explication of the parable of the sower with a command: “Listen!” Listening means not forgetting about the good soil that produces 30, 60 and a hundredfold. Listening means going deeper with your high school youth by engaging them in theological reflection. Listening means discovering that young people can develop a love for theology that sustains their discipleship. Are you listening?
This article first appeared on Faith and Leadership.