“Backing In” to Youth Ministry

YMbooksIn recent years, I have become more and more aware of how influenced I was by the practical theology course I took with Don Browning when I was in seminary at the University of Chicago Divinity School. I think it might have been the last such class that he taught before retiring, and I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to study with him. I’ve regularly applied his approach in my ministry and have relied on his classic practical theology text to give shape to my DMin thesis at McCormick Theological Seminary.

According to Browning, practical theology moves from praxis (practice) to theory and back to praxis. Sarah B. Drummond calls this “backing in”—practical theology begins with observing what is happening in faith communities and then “backs in” to reflection on the theological meaning of these practices. In other words, the practical theologian identifies and describes a situation or problem in the practice of ministry, analyzes this situation or problem theologically, and then returns to ministry with a revised plan for future practice. I think this is how pastors and church leaders should always operate. At the Div School I was trained and encouraged to think of myself as a scholar-pastor and that approach is a good fit for me.

This year I have found myself in an interesting situation with respect to my youth ministry work at Fourth Church. Through some staffing changes and expansions, I now have two full time people working with me—a sustainability milestone that we reached sooner than I anticipated we would. They both started working right before the beginning of our program year in September, and by “right before” I mean a matter of days or weeks. So they both had to hit the ground running.

It is also the case that neither of them have much youth ministry training or professional experience. So in addition to jumping into the particular tasks of our youth ministry context, they are also learning about youth ministry from scratch. Fortunately, they have both been interested in reading some foundational youth ministry books with me as a way to figure it out together. So far, this has been a great experience. Our reflection on what we are doing in our context is significantly enhanced by reflecting on the ideas and concepts we are reading (or re-reading) together.

In many ways, this reflects my own youth ministry training. I never took a class in youth ministry or even religious education during seminary. Instead, I was unexpectedly thrown into youth ministry in my first church job and had to learn it while doing it, with a lot of help from a veteran mentor. When (even more unexpectedly) I was called to be a full time youth pastor, I started collecting and reading as many books as I could get my hands on. It was (and is) my way of learning on the fly. It fits well within Browning’s understanding of practical theology.

I realize that I am blessed to serve in a situation in which having three youth ministry professionals is even possible. Yet I really believe that this is how training and continuing education in youth ministry—really, any kind of ministry—ought to be. Studying ministry is done best when imbedded in real ministry contexts. Our particular arrangement is great because we have someone with over a decade of experience and two people starting from scratch reading about and discussing youth ministry while we’re actively doing youth ministry. If I was a solo youth worker, or a solo pastor for that matter, I would be actively seeking out a cohort of colleagues with whom to do this same kind of thing.

So far,  here are the books we’ve discussed:

Next up is Andrew Root’s Relationships Unfiltered (with Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry and The Relational Pastor in the background).

What would you add to our list as classic or timely or essential books in youth ministry? What would you like to be reading while actively doing youth ministry?


  1. Tim Hughes says:

    “Practicing Passion” (also Kenda) is my all-time favorite. Mark Yaconnelli’s “Contemplative Youth Ministry” is also very good. Love the books named above, too!

  2. The Synaptic Gospel!

  3. Those are all terrific, and just what I would recommend. Root, Dean, and Yaconelli were my triumvirate when I was just starting in youth ministry. “Choosing Church” by Carol E. Lytch had a big impact on me because it made me start to focus more on ministering to whole families and not just to youth.

    I also recommend reading a lot of YA novels: John Green and Sara Zarr both provide lots of food for thought.

    “Soul Searching” by Christian Smith is on my list–I really need to read it–as is a brand new book “Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations.” The list is long, but those are the ones on the top of the pile!


    • Soul Searching is good but very much a sociology book. Either just skip to the conclusions or read the summary in Dean’s Almost Christian. Thanks for the other suggestions.

      • Hmm, then “Choosing Church” may not be what you’re looking for either; it’s also very much a sociology book. I can tell you that her conclusion is that youth are more likely to continue attending church if both (not one) parents are committed to attending church and make it a priority. At least that’s how I remember it.

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