When Should A Youth Worker Make a Transition Over Theological Differences?

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The average tenure for a youth pastor is cited to be only eighteen months. Accordingly, the overwhelming majority of readers of the Rooted Blog have likely navigated – or are presently considering – a transition out of a particular youth ministry setting. While any number of illegitimate motives can drive youth ministers to desire a transition, there are also many valid reasons for youth ministers to consider making a change.

Theological differences between the youth worker and the church they serve is perhaps the most pressing of these valid concerns. When such differences exist, a youth minister may feel as if all of his or her ministry effort is spent de-bunking bad teaching from the Sunday worship service. Alternatively, he or she may feel conscripted into making doctrinal compromises for the sake of church unity. Neither option promotes a clear conscience – or true unity in the local church.

Theological differences become apparent through a variety of circumstances. Perhaps the realities of the church don’t line up with the portrait that was presented to the youth minister during the interview weekend. Maybe the church has changed its doctrine in a way that poses a threat to the youth minister’s conscience. Or, it may be the youth minister’s theology that has changed to a degree that would strain a continued partnership with the church.

This article seeks to present concise, practical, and gospel-centered advice for youth ministers who find themselves in any of the above circumstances.

Marks of “Being” and of “Well-Being”

What doctrinal “boundaries,” if trespassed, should signify to a youth minister that it is time to make a ministry transition? When would it be better for a youth minister to remain in his or her present ministry setting despite some apparent theological differences? In addressing both of these questions, the words of one of my church history professors – Dr. Jason Duesing – are extremely helpful and relevant. In his article entitled, “A Denomination Always for the Church,” he lists four essential marks of genuine local churches.

  1. The gospel – the good news that Jesus’ saving work is sufficient to save sinners and mend the world’s brokenness – is believed and proclaimed.
  2. The church initiates new members: through believer’s baptism by immersion, through the christening or sprinkling of infants, or through another interpretation of the ordinance of baptism. (The author intentionally leaves this wording broad.)
  3. The church celebrates the Lord’s Supper together.
  4. The members of the church gather intentionally unto the glory of God.

Dr. Duesing classifies these four marks as constituting the “being” of the local church. With them, a local church is genuine. Apart from them, the assembly in question is not a true church.

Duesing also lists a number of marks of “well-being” for local churches. These marks include the structure of the church’s leadership, the church’s intentionality in making disciples, and more. These marks of “well-being” are certainly important. Duesing even goes so far as to say that these marks of “well-being” determine if a church is “more” or “less” healthy overall. And yet here’s the key: churches can differ in their interpretations of these marks of “well-being” and still be considered genuine local churches.

This unity-in-diversity can exist only because the church’s identity is rooted in the purity of its Savior, not in the purity of its practices. It is Jesus – Son of the Most High God – who prevails against the gates of Hell (cf. Matthew 16:18). Churches which cling to that confession (the gospel as revealed in the Holy Scriptures) and which seek to embody it as best as they can (baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and life together) are joined to the conquering Messiah, and will likewise tread down the forces of darkness as He leads.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

When determining if a theological difference is important enough to warrant leaving his or her current ministry role, a youth minister should first determine whether or not the quibble is over a mark of “being” or a mark of “well-being.”

If a church departs from the gospel message as the standard of faith (cf. Galatians 1:6-10), if it no longer recognizes Jesus’ command to baptize new members of the church (cf. Matthew 28:18-20), if it stops celebrating the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), or if it simply stops gathering its members together cf. (Hebrews 10:24-25), a youth minister’s first responsibility is to approach the leaders of the church and begin a tactful-yet-direct conversation about these theological concerns (consider this counsel an extension of Matthew 18:15-20 – more will be said two days from now). If a resolution cannot be reached, then a youth minister would do well to leave quickly and to warn as many other people as possible to do likewise. A mark of “being” has been compromised, and it is doubtful that the assembly in question is a genuine local church.

That being said, I would quickly add that most youth ministers I have known experience theological discord with their churches over marks of “well-being,” rather than over marks of “being.” It’s not as if the church ceases to believe the gospel; it just may not articulate it in the ways the youth minister prefers. Or perhaps the church still assembles together for the purpose of glorifying God, but the order of service is simply not designed as the youth worker would design it. This list could go on and on.

In such scenarios, youth workers would do well to remember that the church they are considering leaving is a distinct body of people for whom Christ has shed his blood, and whom he now lovingly leads and tenderly renews with the Word of God (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33).

God may indeed bring about trying circumstances of theological discord to prepare a youth worker to pursue a new ministry opportunity which he will eventually reveal. But until such an opportunity is clearly presented, I would encourage youth ministers to resist the temptation to retreat from these uncomfortable circumstances. Instead, youth workers can find joy in at least two ways that God uses theological discord to produce lasting gospel fruit.

  1. Theological differences make us more like Jesus. A primary purpose of God is to make his people like Jesus (cf. Romans 8:29). In other words, before God wants to do anything through us, he wants to do something in us: to make us like Christ! Situations of theological discord cause us to develop Christ-like character traits such as humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance. These traits in turn allow us to embody the character of Jesus as we maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace, together (cf. Ephesians 4:1-3).
  2. Theological differences cause us to rejoice in the grace of Jesus. When we think of how imperfect and unhealthy churches can be – and how Jesus remains proud to esteem them as his bride – we realize an important truth. Christ did not die and rise again on behalf of a generic people; he did so for these people, with all their imperfections and misguided theological views. And if there’s gospel hope for these people…then maybe, just maybe, there’s gospel hope for us, too.

There’s a cost to seeing this fruit developed in our lives. We will patiently endure uncomfortable situations. But take heart, dear youth worker: the cost to make you increasingly like Christ has been paid by Jesus, not by you. His sufferings, not your own, are the basis of your hope. No matter how off-base your church may be, you are protected by God’s power for the salvation that is to be revealed in you in the last days – even if you suffer now for a little while (cf. 1 Peter 1:5-6).

 

Be sure to return to the Rooted blog tomorrow, where I’ll be exploring ministry transitions for personal reasons (as opposed to theological), and what questions to ask yourself if you’re considering such a transition.

 

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