Four Surprises from (Nearly) 10 Years in Student Ministry

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Come January, I will have been in youth ministry for ten years, two of those as an intern and eight as full-time staff. Recently, I transitioned from a church in Oklahoma City where I’ve been a member and a youth pastor for nine and half years. As I packed up my office I asked myself what I’d learned and what I was surprised by in that decade, particularly in my preaching. Here’s what came to mind.

1. The Bible is most powerful when you assume no one understands it.

Early on I made a decision to write sermons as if all my students were unbelievers. I hoped that my sermons would become more evangelistic, apologetic, and accessible to outsiders. But what I did not expect was how many kids from Christian homes would tell me they finally understood their Bibles.

Because I took the time to define terms like “sin,” “sacrifice,” “Jesus’ blood” and “hallelujah” without an appeal to “Christianese” or common Christian metaphors, both Christian and non-believing students understood for the first time the Bible’s power. But I also found that I began to understand my Bible better too. Constantly rephrasing biblical truth for unbelieving ears transformed not just my students’ but also my own unbelieving heart.

2. I found my “voice” by trying on others’.

If you ask a group of students what they want most in their pastor near the top will be “authenticity.” Students want us to be the same on and off the stage – but that’s really hard. Being in front of the room comes with different rules, expectations, and vulnerabilities than in one-on-one interactions; teaching the Bible comes with even more. Being “yourself” behind the pulpit takes skill. And it was a skill I didn’t have and was terrified other people would find out.

So I started listening and reading other teachers, pastors and preachers. I wanted to learn from them but honestly I just wanted to sound like them. Anything to hide my deficiencies and earn some applause. But God did something strange as I flirted with plagiarism. Ironically, I found my voice fastest when I tried on others.

As I tried on the inflections of Chandler, the verbal pugilism of Driscoll, the professorial tone of Keller, and the quirky expressions of the Bible Project, I discovered myself. That’s the great thing about plagiarism – even when you’re just plagiarizing tone – both you and everyone else knows when something’s not yours. And God in his mercy used that to make me both more honest and more authentic.

3. The gospel is not less than forgiveness of sin, but it is more.

I’ve taught hundreds of sermons. And in each I’ve wanted to preach the text and proclaim the gospel as the climax of each sermon. But early on I made the mistake of stopping at Jesus’ death , instead of beginning there. In my zeal for the sufficiency of Jesus’ death on the cross, I neglected the new life Jesus was birthing in me.

This was unhelpful. A diet of “Jesus died to save us from our sins” alone, at least as I preached it, created inaction in my students. While they knew they Jesus saved them from death, they didn’t know they were saved to a new type of life. Unintentionally, I had malnourished them. It became clear that my students needed a gospel as big as the Bible.

Don’t mishear me. Jesus’ death in our place for the forgiveness of our sins and the gaining of his righteousness is the only good news that saves and sanctifies. But I had reduced the gospel at great cost. I reduced the good news of the cross at the expense of the resurrection.

I reduced the good news of forgiveness, at the expense of Holy Spirit’s indwelling. I reduced the gospel of Jesus’ defeat of sin, at the expense of the good news of Satan’s defeat. I had reduced the freedom we have in Christ, at the expense of our freedom to obey God’s commands. In the words of Jen Pollock Michel, Jesus was a funeral director but not a midwife.

Once I stopped shoe-horning the forgiveness of sins based on Jesus’ righteousness alone as the climax of every text, it allowed me and our students to worship Jesus for “all the riches of his grace.”

4. Preaching Jesus every week from every text is hard work.

The last discovery meant that I had to work a lot harder at my sermons than I used to. I had travelled the “Jesus loves you and forgives you” path so often, it was hard for me to see Jesus in the dozens of other ways Scripture signals. Jesus is a Warrior, a Lover, a Helper, a Law-Giver. He’s Lady Wisdom in Proverbs and he’s the Wrath-bringer in Revelation. He’s the Priest and Temple of Leviticus and he’s Israel’s King and Prophet. To understand Jesus’ ministry as the fulfillment of each of those (and more) meant I had to know my Bible far better than I used to.

Since the goal of a sermon isn’t informational content but heartfelt worship, I didn’t just have to know more, I had to pray, meditate, and be controlled by the Bible more. Its metaphors and its imaginative universe needed to become part of me. Surprisingly, preaching Jesus every week became much harder work.

While ten years in ministry is a long time and this article is very short, these four lessons have had dramatic consequences for me and my students. If you are a new student pastor learn in the 10 minutes it took to read this what took me 10 years to live through. Preach to the non-believer not just for their sake but your own. Preach Jesus deeply and do the hard work that necessarily requires.

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