Feed My Sheep: God’s Word as the Foundation to Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry

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Several weeks ago, our youth ministry celebrated “one year” of gathering officially. For one year we have met to pray and to study God’s word, trusting that the Holy Spirit is growing us into full maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:13). This first anniversary is sweet for me as it also marks my first year in youth ministry. I did not personally grow up in youth ministry, so the learning curve has been steep. I’m thankful for patient students, committed volunteers, and the Lord’s grace and mercy.

One of the core values for our ministry is that we be “gospel-centered.” That phrase has become a buzzword in recent years, so it needs unpacking. What I mean by gospel-centered is that the good news of Jesus Christ governs and informs all that we do as a ministry; our belief that God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ undergirds everything from the content we teach to the retreats we attend, and we believe that it provides us all we need for life and faith.

Gospel-centered youth ministry is multi-faceted. It involves repentance and faith, discipleship and mission. However, let me highlight one aspect that I believe is crucial to every gospel-centered ministry. I believe that to do gospel-centered youth ministry, we must commit to feeding our students the word of God.

Feed My Sheep

Towards the end of the gospel according to John, the disciple offers us a listening ear to an intimate conversation between the resurrected Jesus and Peter over breakfast on the shores of Galilee. Much had happened since Peter and Jesus last shared a meal. Several days had passed since Peter denied Jesus. Surely Peter’s heart still ached as he replayed the occasion and remembered Jesus’ piercing look (Luke 22:61-62). Although Peter had denied Jesus, Jesus never denied Peter. And days afterward, over this meal around a fire, Jesus enlists Peter for ministry.

Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” The Greek word used is translated the same as that of his unmerited love. Peter responds in the affirmative not once, but twice, and both times Jesus responds with, “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep.” Jesus asks Peter a third time, “Do you love me?” only this time he uses the word for an intimate bond between two friends. You can imagine how this broke Peter as he remembered denying Jesus only days ago. Still, Peter replies, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And once again Jesus responds with a crisp commission, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).

Two things stand out from this conversation between Peter and Jesus. First, Jesus connects our love for Him to our task to feed His sheep. Through this conversation, Jesus ties Peter’s ministry with his own. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). As ministers of the gospel, we are privileged to join in the reconciling, loving ministry of Jesus. We are conduits of Jesus’ love. And one way He makes his love known to us is through his word. If we rely on ourlove, compassion, and empathy, we will eventually run dry. Instead, we must spend time at the feet of the Great Shepherd, immerse ourselves in His word, his love, and then deliver that love to our students. When we gather under God’s word we trust that the scriptures are living, active, and guided by the Holy Spirit as He forms and shapes us in to the likeness of Christ.

Second, after we’ve fed ourselves, we feed Christ’s sheep. The promises of justification, redemption, and righteousness that we receive in Christ, we then deliver to our students. The most loving thing we can do for our students is direct them to the one whose love is forever and constant. Jesus commissioned us to be His ambassadors, not lone rangers. We care for the souls of our students best by lovingly leading them to the source of life and truth, Jesus the Word made flesh.

Practically Speaking

Gospel-centered youth ministry must be “Word-centric.” The author of Hebrews says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12-13). God’s word is central because we believe that it does what it says it does. Therefore, we must regularly look at our ministries and consider ways to better feed the sheep the sustenance they need. Remember, we cannot provide others what we haven’t first received ourselves. This means that, perhaps, you need to create better rhythms in your life to spend time in God’s word. Schedule time to read and meditate on the scriptures. Gather with others; organize your meetings around it. Time spent at the feet of Jesus is a faithful work that will bless your students. Another way to feed your students is to show them the wonders of the “big story” of the Bible. Show them the beauty of the narrative arc of scripture – creation, fall, redemption, and consummation – and how the parts interrelate and how they are part of the ongoing story! Whatever works best in your context, allow Jesus – the Word made flesh – to captivate your students’ imaginations. He is faithful to sanctify them (John 17:19).

I am a firm believer in the adage, “What you win them with, you win them to.” We must frequently ask ourselves, “What are the means we use to bring about maturity in Christ?” Our charisma, wisdom, activities, and programs are good things and helpful tools, but they are not the answer to our students’ deepest desires and needs. God is, and he has given us his word to mold us into the likeness of Christ (John 17:17). As ambassadors for Jesus, we must heed His directive first given to Peter, love Him; feed His sheep.

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