Theology for Urban Streets

Dean Borgman is a  professor of youth ministries at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is also founder and general editor of the online Center of Youth Studies. He was involved inYoung Life’s first urban work on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Young Life’s Urban Training Institute in New York. His teaching now is primarily located in Roxbury, MA at CUME, the Center for Urban Ministerial Education.

Is an urban youth worker a theologian? Consider how demeaning a question like this is—when Martin Luther said every Christian is a theologian. So the question should be, “How serious is an urban youth worker about his or her theology?”

Those working with youth at the grass roots, in the trenches, on the streets, often feel unsupported and unappreciated, stretched to their limits and tending toward burnout. Caring about young people who have suffered and are oppressed by a neglectful and even oppressive society is the heart of our work, but it can’t be its foundation!

A recent book, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry  by Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean (2011), describes the foundation of our ministry to be theological. Some urban preaching suggests a theology of escape from the streets and spiritual triumph away from the world. Although not a book about urban ministry and theology, The Theological Turn rather encourages engagement in the world and our neighbors’ suffering.

Such practical theology examines what God cares about and what God is doing around us—and in youth today. It’s about the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who He is and how He would be relating to kids who are hurting. It’s a theology that sees God suffering on the Cross.

The suffering of young people and society’s unconcern is serious, but it cannot be the foundation of our work, or we will burn out. Our foundation involves our theological understanding of what God has done about youth’s suffering—especially in the Cross.

Urban youth workers see the impact of fatherlessness, of neighborhoods where drug pushers or pimps are leading role models and gangs are avenues to status and protection. As we strive, in this context, for God’s Kingdom to come and will to be done in our neighborhood, we often see little tangible change. Our hopes and efforts for community transformation, for educational, economic and long-term political change, are usually frustrated. In seemingly hopeless situations Christ’s final triumph gives hope. Theologians call that our eschatological (final or end times) hope. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. “He may not come when we want Him to come, but He comes on time.” That hope and reality keeps us going—even in defeat. But such eschatological hope for Christ’s Kingdom can only be grounded in Christ’s suffering on the Cross. Our present hope is grounded in Christ’s suffering as it affects the suffering we confront.

The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry is one of the most important youth ministry books published in 2011, and perhaps in several years. Squarely facing the crises of our times, it addresses theological questions: “What has God done—and how? What is God doing—and how… in your relationships with youth and in the contexts of their lives? The suffering in young lives and the anxiety and despair all feel at times are answered in a theology of the Cross. Having admitted it is not specifically an “urban youth ministry book, we recommend The Theological Turn as addressing critical crises in the lives of those you love and serve. You can find a further review of thisbook in the Encyclopedia of Youth Studies.  Please don’t stop here. Take time to discussing this blog and further review, and the book itself, in your learning group or team to prevent depression or burnout, and the deepening of your ministry.

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