First Third Conversations

Doing Theology in Youth Ministry Part II

A blog post by Dr. Roland Martinson

Image Credit: Amazing Grace by Len Matthews on Flickr

Practical Theology -- Four Tasks

These youth ministry leader reflections and actions could look much like Richard Osmer’s definition and description of practical theology in The Teaching Ministry of the Congregation.

Osmer asserts that Christian ministry is best done when leaders attend to four tasks.

  1. The descriptive-empirical task which asks: What is going on? It focuses on the actual state of some form of Christian practice in a particular context. It seeks to investigate empirically and to describe as fully and accurately as possible a particular field of experience.
  2. The interpretive task which asks: Why is this going on? The data of empirically research is not self-interpreting. It must be placed in a more comprehensive framework, offering an explanation for patterns of behavior, attitudes, and ideas.
  3. The normative task which asks: What forms ought Christian practice take in this particular context? It focuses on the construction of theological and ethical norms with which to assess, guide and reform some dimension of contemporary Christian practice.
  4. The pragmatic task which asks: How might this area of practice be shaped to more fully embody the normative commitments of the Christian tradition in a particular context of experience? It focuses on the development of action-guiding models. The primary focus at this point is on matters of “how to.”

Comprehensive approaches to “thinking ministry theologically” such as Osmer’s description of practical theology offer possible angles of vision and formats for youth ministry leadership teams guiding a congregation’s strategic decisions regarding the why, what and how of their relationships and practices.

Jesus’ Ministry as Example

The life and ministry of Jesus provides powerful examples of reflective, creative approaches to God’s mission. In the ways Jesus taught and served people, he drew on tradition and tended to context as he provided fresh visions of God’s work in the world. Youth ministry leaders would do well to reflect on their understandings of God, experience, and practice in conversation with the gospel narratives.

When considering ways to shape the practices of youth ministry, there are some important points to remember from God’s active work in the world.

  1. God often moved in a “new way” to accomplish his mission. Those movements and activities of God have not always been fully understood at the beginning.
  2. God acts uniquely and concretely, employing real persons, times, places, and events to accomplish his purposes. Youth ministry is best shaped and performed within the needs and culture of the community.
  3. Though God’s movements are unique, they take place within the larger context of his history and work with his people. While expressed through unique, innovative practices, youth ministry is at its best when it fits into the broader, common practices of the community of believers – prayer, worship, faith traditions and long-term vision.
  4. Youth ministry is at its heart a mission strategy, a congregation has to engage a culture that may or may not be different from that of most of its members. Youth ministry by its very nature of addressing a constantly changing youth culture calls for new and innovative approaches.

God’s Presence in Relationships and Practices

Common family and age-level culture, relationships and faith practices are significant building blocks in the spiritual life of a young person. The Exemplary Youth Ministry study of 161 congregations reported the most effective of these theologically -- informed cultures, relationships, and practices in The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry. The cultures, relationships, and practices are most clearly represented in the 44 Faith Assets emerging from the study. Youth ministers might well reflect on how many of the common practices found in the congregations in that ETM study are present in their ministries.



The Teaching Ministry of the Congregation, Richard Osmer, Westminister Knox Press, 2005.

The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry, Roland Martinson, Wes Black and John Roberto, EYM Publishing, 2010.


“Rollie,” Roland Martinson, S.T.D is Professor Emeritus, Children, Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Theological Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Rollie’s ministry with those in the first third of life includes fifteen years of congregational ministries in Minnesota, California, and North Dakota and 35 years of teaching and consulting as a professor at Luther Seminary. Dr. Martinson has been a director, team member, and advisory council member of multiple major youth and young adult research projects.

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