I have been a Baptist for as long as I can remember. At first, it was not my choice as this is where my family worshiped but in due time I became a Baptist by conviction and not by force. Being a Baptist allows one to be theologically diverse as it allows you to determine your own convictions responsibly. But sometimes, in practice, it’s the complete opposite.
I was reminded often while growing up that being a Baptist is being a “people of the Book”. The “Book” being a reference to the Bible. Ultimately what it meant was that whatever I needed to know, whatever questions I had, whatever needed to be resolved, whatever lifestyle choices had to be made, was ultimately referred back to the Bible, whether I agreed with it or not or whether I understood it or not. It’s quite amazing how we subconsciously accept and adopt mannerisms and belief systems sometimes without any cognitive processes. I remember once, sitting with a friend at McDonald’s, being engaged in a theological conversation on a very controversial topic and I responded naively and perhaps arrogantly, “what does the Bible say on the matter?”
Now I do believe that the Bible has all one needs for life, both temporal and eternal (2 Tim. 3:16), but what I discovered is, it’s not so simple to say “what does the Bible say on the matter?” especially when I am going to add commentary. Because once I add some commentary, no matter how small, it is no longer what the Bible says but my interpretation of what I believe the Bible says. Whilst, I do believe we are guided by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures by revealing to us truth and revelation from God (John 16:13), we have to be honest that in our humanity we can sometimes (maybe lots of times) get it wrong.
Being a Baptist today, I am careful to say “the Bible says,” when in truth it really is my interpretation of what I think the Bible says. If I am to quote the exact verse and not add commentary then I believe we can say “the Bible says” (even that may be debatable among some as they may argue as to which biblical translation is most accurate when being compared to original texts or early manuscripts). But it is also not that simple, because in order to know what the Bible says, we have to do some study of the text, the historical setting, our own prejudices and context we live in and also our applications (and there remain many more and different hermeneutical methods that are used for interpretation – see how complicated this can be?). We then begin dealing with the text and have already begun interpreting the text and giving our view on it. Unfortunately, this is where bigotry, fundamentalism and fanaticism can creep in. Here lies the danger of having a “theology” on something or everything because we then try to fit God in our theology and not vice versa. When we become dogmatic about our opinion, we then have no room for the Holy Spirit to let us know what the text could really mean. This becomes especially important to remember when dealing in youth ministry.
Young people are in a vital stage of their lives where they are busy shaping and forming convictions on their belief system. We should be careful and responsible not to force our opinions and beliefs upon them. While we are meant to help assist them into asking questions, seeking questions, and seeking answers to questions, we must always remember that ultimate truth comes from God and not from our interpretations and beliefs. A good theologian reminds me often that our theology is shaped by our experiences, by our lives. As Andy Root* in “Taking theology to youth ministry” says, it is in our “yearnings and brokenness” where we meet God and where God acts. When we attempt to give a theological answer, an interpretation and application of the text, we often rob young people of this meeting place between them and God. We rob them of this mysterious encounter that can only come from God. If we are not careful, our theology can substitute the word of God.
So what does it mean to be a Baptist in youth ministry today?
- We can trust God to still reveal himself today in real and tangible ways, often at the point of deep despair, yearnings and brokenness, and not merely some theoretical interpretation of some biblical text. God, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (tomorrow) (Heb 13:8) still reveals himself at a burning bush experience and calls us to “take off our sandals” (Ex. 3:2) and join him on a journey of discovering who he is despite our very own shortcomings and weaknesses. We can know that God has a plan for us despite us not knowing our tomorrows (again thanks to Andy Root for an insightful discussion on this matter);
- There should be passion and mystery in youth ministry and we need to help young people, in their daily lives, understand that they are on a journey with God and that they are able to experience and understand God in ways that they understand that can be beyond human logic. Why can God not still allow us to experience him in mysterious ways?;
- We are hermeneutical beings, interpreting Scripture and our lives in order to understand God’s revelation. Theology is birthed in life, in ministry, in our engagement with God and not the other way around. If theology, our understanding of God is birthed in our life experiences and our engagement with God; and if we allow young people to live a life passionately sold out to God, imagine how he can liberate and transform their lives according to his grand purposes for them.
* Root, A., 2012, Taking theology to youth ministry, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.