Why does it matter that young people do theology?

Nell Goddard writes: When I asked a group of people (on Twitter, because I am a millennial) ‘Why should young people (18-30s) engage with theology?’ I got a variety of answers. From ‘It helps us understand more of who God is, who he says we are, and how we relate to the world’ to ‘Engaging with theology is engaging with God’ to ‘It shapes the outworking of our faith in day-to-day life’, there seem to be myriad reasons people think theology is important. 

What I was surprised at, however, was that none of the answers I received were specific to 18–30s. That’s not to say they were incorrect – theology is for everyone, and rightly so. But for a question specifically focussing on why young people should do theology, there was little mention of what they in particular might have to offer theological discourse in the 21st Century.

Theology is, at root, a contextual discipline. It involves looking at both the world in which we find ourselves, and the Word from which we seek guidance – what John Stott famously called ‘double listening’. The questions of ‘where and how does theology fit into my generation? Where and how does it fit into the world in which I find myself?’ are profound and important, perhaps all the more important for the millennial generation as they find themselves in a world radically different to the one in which their parents grew up. 

That’s not to say that older generations cannot or should not reflect on the world in which they, too, now find themselves. But the life and upbringing of millennials has contained a whole collection of experiences and factors which shape the way we might reflect theologically as opposed to prior generations. We bring a new perspective.

We (the millennials) are the ‘digital natives’, the #MeToo generation, the ones for whom the phrase ‘emerging adulthood’ was coined. Unlike our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, who frequently had a ‘job for life’, and who could afford to get on the housing ladder early on, this new generation of 18–30s has no set path towards adulthood. We are stereotyped and ridiculed in the media, blamed for ruining everything from the traditional automotive market to marmalade, and nicknamed the ‘snowflake generation’. 

We are also a generation that prize integrity and authenticity in leadership. We are politically engaged, and we are deeply concerned about climate change and social justice. We are entrepreneurial risk-takers, and we tend to value experiences over possessions. We have a lot to offer the world.

Communicating with this generation, however, is said to be notoriously difficult. ‘Adulting’, ‘baes’ (primary or secondary), and being ‘woke’ are concepts broadly lost on those above the age of 30 (35 at a push!). We – in some ways at least – have created our own language. After all, pretty much every 18-30 has a story of their mum/grandma/uncle using ‘LOL’ as ‘lots of love’ rather than ‘laugh out loud’ on a text. To those outside of this generation, the language can be confusing and difficult to follow. 

But Christian millennials speak this language. We’re fluent in it. It is our native tongue. We are just as much a product of our culture and our generation as the non-Christians around us. And we can communicate genuinely with our peers – in language we all understand. 

This need to communicate is especially important as millennials are probably the first majority un-churched generation this country has seen in hundreds of years. 70% of UK-based 16-29 year-olds identified as ‘no-religion’ in a report entitled Europe’s Young Adults and Religion, based on data from the European social survey 2014-16. 59% never attend religious services. 63% never pray. Most of us, therefore, are deeply religiously – and likely also theologically – illiterate. 

But we’re still human. And, in the oft-cited words of writer and university lecturer David Foster Wallace, ‘everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.’ What we worship forms us and influences how we interact with the people around us. This is just as true for today’s 18-30s as it is for anyone else.

What do we worship? Well, that depends where you look and who you ask. The advent of social media has exposed our narcissistic tendencies: we worship ourselves. The rise of dating apps has increased the chances of casual, no-strings-attached sex: we worship physical pleasure. The growth of instant communication has revealed our laziness, and fed our impatience: we worship instant gratification.

This is where theology comes in. Theology matters because it redirects our worship. It realigns it. It always has. It offers new perspectives on the age old questions of ‘who am I? What am I here for? What’s the meaning of life?’, which are being asked in new ways by a generation who live in a constant state of tension and flux.

As philosopher and theologian James KA Smith writes: ‘we all – whether naturalists, atheists, Buddhists, or Christians – see the world through the grid of an interpretive framework – and ultimately this interpretive framework is religious in nature, even if not allied with a particular institutional religion.’ In a post-truth world, engaging with Christian theology means getting know the One who is Truth himself. Communicating well-thought through, clear theology from a Christian perspective may enable us to draw people to God in a winsome, non-threatening, and potentially life-changing way.

It matters that young people do theology because they can translate it for and to a generation who are longing for answers, a generation formed and buffeted by multiple conflicting worldview, a generation whose identity is semi-permanently in flux, a generation whose very souls are up for auction on a daily basis.

More than that, however, theology helps us not only to think about issues as they arise, but to understand the underlying reasons behind these developments. Our Christian faith calls us to think theologically about the whole human condition, the character of the creator God, and the outworking of his intervention in the world. Theology offers us a deep understanding and a new perspective on both the very old and the very new cultural issues of our time. 

So, what are some of the cultural issues of our time?

Theology Slam, a new competition to find the most engaging young voices thinking about the contemporary world, has chosen 12 key topics relevant to everyday life and asked 18-30s to comment on how they intersect with theology. Ranging from ‘Mental Health’ to ‘Political Tribalism’, from ‘Disability’ to ‘#MeToo/Time’s Up’, the competition seeks to encourage young people to think critically and theologically about some of the big questions of our time.

How does the gospel of unconditional acceptance by God speak to our consumerism? How might a Christian anthropology engage with the #MeToo movement? Where does speaking the truth in love fit in a culture of political tribalism? What does the doctrine of the incarnation have to say about Artificial Intelligence? (How) does original sin feed into the way we engage with the latest Netflix series?

The Theology Slam team, made up of representatives from The Community of St Anselm, Church Times, SCM Press, and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC), are inviting applicants to submit a 500-word piece on one of these topics, accompanied by a short video explaining why this particular area is of interest to them. 

Come midnight on December 7th, applications will close and the Theology Slam team will pick three finalists, who will be given half a day of free public speaking training, and asked to prepare a 7-10 minute talk on their topic. This will then be delivered at the Theology Slam Live Final in March, where four esteemed judges (Professor John Swinton, Dr Eve Poole, Mark Greene, and Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley) will give feedback, questions will be taken from the audience, and then the Theology Slam 2019 winner will be crowned. 

The topics available for discussion and reflection are:

  • Theology and Mental Health
  • Theology and #MeToo/Time’s Up
  • Theology and the Environment
  • Theology and Artificial Intelligence
  • Theology and the Gig-economy
  • Theology and Social Media
  • Theology and Migration
  • Theology and Political Tribalism
  • Theology and Netflix
  • Theology and Good Disagreement
  • Theology and Disability
  • Theology and Consumerism

Further details are available here.

It is vitally important that young people do theology. The Theology Slam aims to encourage young adults in this pursuit. It hopes to equip them for fruitful and relevant discussion wherever they find themselves in their daily lives, and to inspire the wider church to listen to up-and-coming young voices as they combine an understanding of the world with a deep love of the Word. 

Nell Goddard is a Writer at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, author of Musings of a Clergy Child: Growing into a faith of my own, and part of the Theology Slam 2019 team.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

33 thoughts on “Why does it matter that young people do theology?”

  1. Nell, Great article, crucial topic and exciting project with the Theology Slam.

    Speaking personally as one who increasingly feels like a cultural dinosaur stuck in a Wimber conference in 1986, disconnected and de-voiced from communicating to the 18-30’s (even if I have two sons in that age group who regularly shake their head in despair at me) – what do we GenXrs in Church leadership need to know/do in order to communicate theology effectively to Millennials?

    • Hi Simon,

      As a millenial, age 26, i would say one of the main things that draws me in is good (engaging) communication in and of itself. There is nothing more frustrating than someone who is communicating a good point, but in a way that is dry and unapproachable.

      One of the things we millenials love (from my experience) is the opportunity to engage with the thoughts and ideas being espoused, see twitter, tumblr, and facebook as modern digital examples of this (though these are ot the best platforms for this as it is overtly impersonal).

      Another thought is that it needs to be relatable – how does this impact me, and how can this change the world around me, similarly to my first point, if it is theology for theology’s sake (though i think there is a place for this in certain circles) then when you are trying to communicate that it wont have the same impact as it would if it is contextulised to their situations, even very generally, and given a basis in their life.

      I hope that kind of makes sense in some way, this is based purely off of my experience.

      • OK Oliver, I agree with all the points you do make – it’s more the ones you don’t make.

        (1) If the substance is not true or well-evidenced, then the style is to no avail. People who are smooth (e.g. in a courtroom) can be convincing, plausible, persuasive, and ‘rhetorical’. Sometimes they need the rhetoric to ‘make’ the point convincing. The whole scholarly enterprise (and truth and honesty itself) falls to the floor if hi-tec ‘presentation’ somehow makes a point or argument more true than it would otherwise be.

        The point that good presentation is better than bad I entirely agree with. The point is a different one: it is that good presentation cannot make anything even a whit more true than it already is; and moreover that will be obvious to most if not to all.

        (2) Theology or theory can remake a person’s thought or worldview, with ramifications in all directions. To concentrate on things on whether I myself was bored or uplifted is significant in itself, just it is not significant for the key issue of whether what was said was true or not.

        • Oh, i agree with this. However, i thought that fact that what is being communicated is true, was in my mind, a given given the fact we are talking of the bible; maybe i should have made that more obvious? However the question Simon asked (at least as i read it) was not about the content, so much as engagement. Please correct me if i am wrong on that.

          How do we discern truth? Discern good theology? It comes down to its fruit, how it measures against the bible, and the character of God we see throughout, and esepcially how we see that in Jesus.
          So, does the truth in the theology being preached/discussed etc bring good fruit? Which for millenials is, i think, is in how it sits in their life, does it make a difference to them and to the world in a positive way?

          • That sounds great, & I would thoroughly endorse it.

            There are of course things that may not especially affect our own individual lives but will still affect the lives of others (as you say: ‘make a difference to the world’). Would need to avoid the temptation of thinking that only the things that affect *me* are important (which would be me-centred and subjective), because there are other things that would be good seeds and would have a good general effect.

            There might also be a need to be critical of postmodernism and nonsystematic thinking, e.g. situation ethics. If there is no overarching theory, our thinking can end up being incoherent; we might choose or commend something (e.g. feminism) because of one good fruit when really what we should be looking for is the net comprehensive sum effect of the different fruits, and that can be done only by systematic worldview-thinking.

            An example: Nick Clegg commended both cannabis and attention to mental health problems without seeing that the one might cause the other. Lack of joined up thinking is a danger of postmodernism.

            My final point would be that there is an assumption that the irreducible and basic bottom line is that some people are unavoidably millennials (baby boomers, Gen X or whatever), which is a bit like saying that the bottom line is that some people are right brained and some are left brained. There is no logical reason on earth why we should simply assume that these categories are morally neutral:
            -maybe those who are naturally right-brained would do well to develop their left brain and thereby become more rounded (and vice versa);
            -maybe right or left brainedness can be aligned with greater truthfulness – there is no reason logically why the 2 should be regarded as obviously equal (though of course they may be).
            And the same applies to baby boomers and millennials. We can’t just assume that these have to be 2 equally good ways to be. Quite the contrary – the best thing is to be able to appreciate several different ways of looking at things, not just one, can certainly not just the one that comes easiest and most naturally, since where is the merit in that? Nor can we assume that being a baby boomer or millennial is the unavoidable bottom line from which all else flows. After all, these are merely cultural matters, and there are things far bigger than specific cultures – e.g., human biology and anthropology. We could just as well divide people into male and female, right-brained and left-brained, urban and rural – there is no reason to call any of these divisions less fundamental than the name of one’s generation. The people I would listen to are those who are not bound by the thought patterns of their own generation. Now those are the people that can really think.

    • #MeToo
      😉 …meaning, I’m with Simon on this. I can’t help my age (blame my parents!), but I still need to communicate accross the breadth of ages. Don’t dismiss us, help us. Please. (And I’m *not* implying that you are dismissing us, just please don’t let it inadvertently happen).

  2. Thanks for this. Good article, and the project looks good.

    Isn’t there though one small topic missing from that list that is having a truly massive impact on millennials and their whole outlook?

    To be honest I receive LICC’s ‘Connecting with Culture’ email and it always depresses me when there are huge cultural issues going on related to sexuality and gender (and religious freedom), yet for some reason they never get a mention. LICC is one of those evangelical organisations that has opted for diplomatic silence on these huge issues for our age in relation to scripture and the Gospel (much like Theos – not so evangelical admittedly, but still oddly silent when it comes to anything to do with sex, despite this being possibly the biggest cultural battleground of our time). In LICC’s case it is all the more regrettable since LICC was founded by John Stott, who was so engaged in these issues and always so clear about the Christian teaching on them. I wonder if he would be pleased with LICC’s tactical decision to stand back and watch?

    I also can’t help but feel that this joint project with SCM and Lambeth has come about in part because of this silence, particularly given the project itself does not permit entries addressing it. Do Mark Greene and others really not realise how critical this issue is for our culture, our future, and for the credibility of scripture and the Christian faith?

    • The article gave me the impression that it’s already skewed in a liberal direction, particularly with the involvement of the Church Times and SCM Press. Conservative Christians need not apply!

      • I think that is unfairly sceptical. Are you really suggesting that we cannot do anything orthodox in partnership with those organisations? And what if there are evangelicals working in each of them who are desperate to encourage such partnerships?

      • Good Disagreement is a misnomer, because a lot of the time people have not yet done the study or thinking to be able either to agree or to disagree. Conformity to the culture is not thinking, and ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ are words that presuppose thinking.

      • Is Good Disagreement now a euphemism?!

        I really think a theology of sex and sexuality is pretty crucial right now for millennials and the absence of this from the scope of the project is I think pretty telling.

        • Good Disagreement could be an euphemism, or it could be a discussion of whether Theology as a whole is a Good Thing (see below), or something in between.

          But maybe you are persuading me. In fact would we like to see 4 additional topics:
          (a) Theology and religious freedom
          (b) Theology and sex
          (c) Theology and homosexuality
          (d) Theology and gender identity?
          I separate them out in this way, and indeed deliberately list them in this sequence, being (as I perceive) in decreasing order of the proportion of people who feel themselves directly threatened by what others say on the topic.

          • I imagine Good Disagreement is about maintaining unity while disagreeing theologically, why and how to do that.

            Yes all of those would be very good, very important, very relevant topics for millennials. But someone has obviously decided they’re too divisive to be included in this competition. Which is a huge pity – though does I suppose at least spare us too much dodgy revisionism…

          • There is a real danger in speaking of ‘threatened’. Facts have never cared about our feelings and never will. The rest of us know that and it is part of maturity to realise that this is true. It is not healthy to keep people in the immature state of expecting facts in the real world to conform to their own preferences and specifications. By the law of averages it is obvious that they seldom will.

          • It is loving to recognise that others may feel threatened. Many who speak of ‘feeling threatened’ do not do so idly. Consider the awful, awful treatment given to gay men who have the nerve to walk holding hands in the streets of Kampala. Consider the infinitely less awful, but still disrupted life of a BA employee who wants to wear a cross at work. Any of us who stands against our prevailing culture is at risk. And what we post here, or debate elsewhere, can increase the risk to someone.

          • Yes. But if people are brought up to believe that they can have what they want and tailor make the universe to their own specifications, a whole lot more people will feel threatened than otherwise would.

  3. Great article and great initiative.
    I’m interested in what your thoughts are on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon? He talks for hours about the Old Testament, and 3,500 young people (mainly young men) pay to go and hear him at the O2 Area, and more than a million follow him on You Tube. What can we learn from this – both negatively (the Alt Right have claimed him) and positively ( a hunger for answers to the important questions)? My atheist, vegan, Corbinista, twenty-something son says he seems to talk a lot of sense, but he feels he ought to object to him 🙂

    • Hi Peter,

      The Jordan Peterson phenomenon is a very interesting one. I am not qualified to comment with any authority. What is apparent is that he knows his stuff. Relevant to this topic, he has actually thought well about subjects, and can confront the ill-thought out viewpoint.

      However, Alsastair Roberts has been interested in him, and has quite a few items accessible from his blog: https://alastairadversaria.com/
      There is a search box, and entering ‘peterson’ into that gives quite a few items.

      Here is a sample:

      “Peterson’s work raises many fundamentally religious questions. As I have argued, Peterson is seeking to articulate a post-nihilist and post-materialist view of reality that recovers existential meaning. We will fall short of appreciating his ability to speak with such power and passion into the contemporary situation if we do not grasp this. For Christians, we share a belief in a reality that sustains deep meaning. Yet we have often become lazy in interacting with atheists who lacked a strong belief in the meaningfulness of reality, so have failed to sharpen our account of this and to press it home well in our message. This is one area where I believe that we can fruitfully engage with Peterson.”

  4. There is a long tradition of saying that Theology is not suitable for believers. It began with the Lord Jesus, who “taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes” – St Matthew 7:29. It continued with St Paul: “If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” – 1 Cor 14:38. It continued further with St Bernard of Clairvaux, with Pope Pius IX and the doctrine of papal infallibility, and in my own day with warnings to Christian students, “Whatever you study, don’t study Theology, because it will make you lose your faith.”

    Interesting then, that while we identify with many (or at least some) of these our illustrious predecessors, we all, at least on this blog, think that Theology is basically a Good Thing.

    • It is the case that some people fear studing (capital T) Theology because it will challenge their faith. But that might well be because their faith is a fragile structure based on shallow foundations. Last night I was having my interview with a ‘consultant’ in connection with my Ministerial Development Review (as a Licensed Lay Minister). I have recently done some study of theology and found very stimulating and not at all threatening to faith, and she agreed with me – she is currently studying herself as an LLM trainee. Although we grapple sometimes with deep and mysterious things, if it is not giving us a greater insight into the God we worship and service, there is something wrong.

      This evening I have been reading Andy McCullogh’s book ‘Global Humility; Attitudes for Mission’. He starts chapter 21 thus: “Theology should be taught as a verb and not as a noun. To theolog-ise. Especially cross-culturally. We must teach people how to think, not what to think….Parratt writes: ‘Theology should be done, not regurgitated.'”

      For those of us who are older, relating to Millenials is cross-cultural. So we need to heed this kind of thinking.

  5. This sounds like a fantastic project – may the Lord bless your enterprise.
    As we are suggesting other topics, is this one so obvious that it was overlooked:
    ‘Theology and the Bible’ – some “theology” I come across is definitely NOT from the Bible!

    I apologise if this is mere semantics, but as the topic is theology I was not sure about this line above:
    “How does the gospel of unconditional acceptance by God”
    I wonder if this is a theological slip as acceptance by God IS conditional upon repentance. Maybe it was referring to the unconditional offer of forgiveness through the unconditional love of God expressed through Christ who gave himself unconditionally for us and which is given to those who genuinely repent (Acts 5:31; 11:18).

    • Ian has an interesting article relating to ‘unconditional’:
      In particular, the difference between that grace is unconditioned – we do not have to meet any conditions to receive it – but it is not unconditional – we do need to be prepared to change in response to receiving grace.

      Not understanding the difference lies behind the fuzzy thinking connected with the use of words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘acceptance’, which can carry the idea that we should affirm people in their current state, no matter what it is.

      • Thank you, David.
        Yes, ‘unconditioned’ is a novel word. I had actually considered putting grace in my last sentence but decided that it is just as misunderstood as acceptance.
        I did once have a warm conversation on the topic of acceptance and sexuality with a Christian who said he belonged to ‘accepting evangelicals’. I remarked that it was a shame they couldn’t come up with something a bit better than that as it consigned myself and others to the category of ‘rejecting evangelicals’ – not the most gracious epithet.

    • I wonder if this is a theological slip as acceptance by God IS conditional upon repentance

      Not if you’re a Calvinist or another theology which goes in for irresistable grace, in which case those who are accepted by God will repent, they don’t get any choice in the matter.

      (Personally I’m more of an Arminian, but unconditional election and irresistable grace are not an unknown theological position (they are indeed two-fifths of TULIP).)

        • As below: TULIP is the (slightly facetious) acronym for remembering the main distinctive points of Calvinist theology (though it doesn’t necessarily work because I keep forgetting what the ‘P’ is for). It’s big on the sovereignty of God, not so keen on human free will.

          And, you use HTML tags: so <i>like this<\i> for like this

  6. Peter:
    T – Total Depravity of Man: every part of human life is touched by the fall
    U- Unconditional Election: we do nothing to influence the choosing of us by God in freedom
    L-Limited atonement: Jesus died for the sins of the elect
    I- Irresistible Grace: If elect, you cannot escape the grace of God coming after you to save
    P -Perseverance of the Saints: once saved always saved


Leave a comment