John used a bit of Hebrew poetry as he described his purpose for writing the epistle of 1 John.
“I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” 1 John 2:13-14
John writes to children. Why? Because of their simple faith: they “know the Father.” He writes to the fathers. Why? Because of the wisdom they have developed concerning He “who is from the beginning.” And he writes to young men. Why? Because of their courage in the face of the evil one.
Of course, John does not really mean that only children have faith, only fathers have wisdom, or only youths have courage. In a sense, he is calling all of us to have the faith of children, the wisdom of parents, and the courage of youths.
Often the Bible speaks to children. Often to leaders. But, it is a little more unexpected that John would address his letter to youth. The word he uses for “youth” is neaniskoi. The word comes from neos (meaning “new”) and probably means something like “a new adult” or “a young adult.” It is not exactly equivalent to our idea of adolescence, but means something similar. It was used of young people who had achieved puberty but were not yet married. A neaniskoi could be 15 years old or 25, but he was a young person.
In American culture we tend to view young men and women as older children. That doesn’t seem to be the way John describes them. Read it again: “you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” The young people John describes are doing more with their faith than quietly listening to simplistic youth sermons. They are valiant warriors for Christ. Perhaps we need a new theological way to look at the young people in our ministries. What would youth ministry be like if we saw teenagers like John did?
A good theology of youth would change the way we do youth ministry, but it might also affect the way we think of church. Without question, teenagers need the church: it’s wisdom, faith, support, and protection. But, the more profound issue of church praxis may be how much the church needs the passion and courage of youth. For a generation, the church has retreated from a culture that has grown increasingly hostile to the gospel. What do we need to engage American culture with the gospel? Perhaps the courage of the neaniskoi.
It is time for those of us who work with youth to see them as champions for the gospel. We need to call them to be examples to the rest of us of how to overcome the evil one. We need to make sure that their excitement is close enough that it rubs off on the rest of us. We need a theology of youth like John’s, a “neaniskology” that calls young men and women to be strong, to abide in the word, and to overcome the evil one.
After over 30 years of service as a Youth Minister, Youth Ministry Consultant, Design Editor of Youth Discipleship Resources, and leader of curriculum development for youth and adults, Paul Kelly now teaches youth ministry and Christian education at Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. He has served Gateway for 10 years and currently serves as Chair of the Educational Leadership Department. Kelly is also Senior Editor of the Journal of Youth Ministry, a peer-reviewed journal publishing research related to the study of youth ministry.