#ThinkingThursdays | Get your Hands Dirty

Photo by Amaury Salas on Unsplash

Youth Work, Youth Ministry, Theology: they all have to be grounded in context. To take these things out of their place is to only see half the picture. In my opinion, it’s like the difference between gardening and flower arranging. To do theology (or gardening) well, you have to get your hands dirty in the context.

Rich Passmore describes it like a triangle. On one side we have scripture, on another we have the traditions of the church – the way things have been done and understood in the past, and on the third side: context. To stand in the centre of the triangle, you have to take all three sides seriously.  This thinking is perhaps best summed up in a quote taken from the forward of Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered: ‘In working with young people do not try to call back to where they were and do not call them to where you are as beautiful a place as that may seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before’

But how do we engage with context seriously? Steve Bevans takes the gardening metaphor further in a way that describes the different ways you might deal with culture and context.

Some take the approach that Gospel should be countercultural, which is a bit like weeding and fertilising the soil (the context) in preparation for planting the seeds of the Gospel.

But you might say it’s more like taking a seed from one place and planting it somewhere new – like translating – e.g. taking the story of the Good Samaritan and re-telling it using football teams.

Maybe you think there is more value in culture and the places where we meet young people than simply cultural dressings. Maybe taking context seriously means having a dialogue between the two: like cross-pollination, sharing ideas between what’s going on in culture and how the church thinks and does things. Are there good things in the world that the church can learn from?

Some believe the job of theologian, of youth worker, is to simply be (metaphorically) good at gardening. It’s about practicing discernment in the context more than right or wrong. The work never ends – weeding is constant – and practice makes you better at it.  

Then again, perhaps it’s all personal preference and individual discernment. God speaks to us all individually. If that’s the case, then work hard on cultivating your own garden, your own spiritual life. Others will be inspired or otherwise respond to cultivate their own garden. Trust that God is speaking to everyone.  

And if that is the case – if God speaks and creates everywhere, in every time, place and context – then maybe the seeds of the Gospel are already in the ground. Perhaps the role of youth worker, of theologian, is to water and tend to those seeds where you find them.

Responding to culture in relation to scripture and tradition is what’s important – otherwise you’re flower arranging something beautiful but completely disconnected. Frontier Youth Trust is building a movement of pioneering youth work – encouraging youth workers and churches to take mission risks to reach young people. Contact us for help in exploring this thinking in your practice.This is not really my own work. Try reading Richard Passmore’s Here be Dragons (FYT, 2014) for a useful guide to youth work and mission that engages with culture. Get more on engaging with theology and culture from Stephen Bevans,