In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells a story of seed scattered on four different soils. When the seed fell on the path, on rocky ground or among thorns, it failed. Three-fourths of this parable is about the failure of the seed to produce abundant fruit.

Like this parable, church leaders often focus their attention on failure -- the large numbers of youth and adults who are leaving the church. Certainly, such failure must be addressed, but our vision can be clouded by a limited, negative focus. Remember that some seed falls on good soil and produces a hundredfold! Perhaps this parable is as much about the church today as it was about evangelization in the first Christian communities. I believe it’s time to stop focusing on the failures of youth ministry and start focusing on the soil that produces a hundredfold.

A few summers ago during the Youth in Theology and Ministry (YTM) Summer Institute at Saint John’s, a high school junior approached me as I was walking to lunch. “Jeff, I’m really mad at you!” she said. “What’s up?” I asked.

“I had my whole college academic program all worked out,” she told me. “But now because you had us take these theology classes, I have to revise my entire plan. I love theology so much, I now have to figure out how to include theological study in my college coursework.”

This story is not unique. For 20 years, the Lilly Theological Programs for High School Youth initiative -- now known as Lilly Youth Theology Network (LYTN) -- has engaged high school youth in theology and inspired them to pursue theological study in college and seminary. In the last year, an additional 93 High School Youth Theology Institutes have started. Research from Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Theological Seminary, reported in 2013 that 25 percent of these programs’ alumni have attended, are attending or are planning to attend seminary. This is an amazing success story!

How effectively is your congregation engaging high school youth in thinking theologically? How might the pedagogical lesson learned from LYTN prepare your congregation’s soil for an abundant harvest?

Through decades of work with high school youth, we at LYTN recommend the following strategies to pastors, youth ministers and other pastoral leaders who want to move their youth ministry beyond pizza and volleyball to effectively engaging youth in thinking about Christian faith.

  1. Use experiential learning within your teaching. Design disorienting or dislocating experiences that surprise young people. Use poetry, movement, arts and activities that encourage multisensory engagement in a theological topic.
  2. Clarify the one big theological idea you want youth to remember five years from now, and focus on that. Do not dumb down the theology. The TED Talk principles can be helpful in preparing 18-minute lectures.
  3. Ask yourself the following questions as you develop your presentation or course: What am I prepared to learn from these teens? How does my presentation help create community and relationships?
  4. Give youth a voice in the theological argument being covered. Don’t just prepare lessons for them; prepare lessons that engage them in thinking theologically.
  5. Develop a process of reflection for your sessions that establishes a dialogue between the lived experience of high school youth and the theological content.
  6. Empower youth to do theology. Shift from teaching content only to teaching practices and skills.
  7. Integrate the personal aspects of the theological topic. Young people love to hear how you as a theologian or youth minister live out this theology in your everyday life -- and to think about how they might live it out in theirs.
  8. Understand the socioreligious contextual issues facing young people. Recommended resources include “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers,” by Christian Smith; “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church,” by Kenda Creasy Dean; “Youth Ministry in the Black Church: Centered in Hope,” by Anne E. Streaty Wimberly, Sandra L. Barnes and Karma D. Johnson; “Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids,” by Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark; and “Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church,” by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin.

These strategies are a starting point for reflection and conversation about effectively engaging high school youth. To learn more about how to put them into practice, please visit the LYTN Resource Center.

Jesus begins his explication of the parable of the sower with a command: “Listen!” Listening means not forgetting about the good soil that produces 30, 60 and a hundredfold. Listening means going deeper with your high school youth by engaging them in theological reflection. Listening means discovering that young people can develop a love for theology that sustains their discipleship. Are you listening?


This essay was produced in partnership with the Lilly Youth Theology Network.