Is Yours a “Come and Dodge Ball” or “Come and Die” Ministry?

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Christ’s words on discipleship continue to haunt me: “If you would follow me, take up your cross daily, deny yourself and follow me”(Lk 9:32). Take up your instrument of a torturous death and follow Christ. To put it in somewhat more contemporary language, take up your lethal injection needle, your electric chair, your hangman’s noose, and follow Christ. Jesus is worth this extreme category of devotion. He is not just a “number one priority” in our lives; He is everything.

The saccharine, “your best life now” teaching of much Western Christianity pales in comparison. We must proclaim the narrow way and costly grace of Christianity. We must desire more for our youth than to just be nice to their peers, not look at porn, and to come to our meetings. We must call students to come and die, that they might truly live. We must beckon them to turn over every nook and cranny of their hearts and lives to the Lordship of Christ. We must portray God as he truly is: not only gracious, compassionate, and near – but holy, just, and transcendent.

When I observe the lives of many Christian students and families, I see very few spiritual hopes or expectations. But when it comes to academics, career, or extracurriculars – well, that’s quite a different story!

Often, a youth ministry can look like a bunch of hamsters on wheels running themselves ragged. Our ministries have a lot of activities and busyness, but very little gospel fruit. When I was in high school, I was struck by the survival mentality that pervaded the parents in my congregation. Parents wanted their kids to just “hold onto” their fragile faith until graduation, they wanted the youth minister to keep the kids coming to group, to say a prayer, to get baptized, the end. A Christianity checklist and the hope for their children to just stay out of trouble and be a “nice kid.” Youth group was an inspiring Bible verse, pizza, and dodgeball holding tank until college – and then, good luck and hope you make it!

American churches need an awakening: if 80% of Christian students lose their faith when they get to college, youth ministry cannot be just “business as usual.”

In his day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought against the “cheap grace” of the largely nominal and floundering Protestant church of Germany. Bonhoeffer’s commentary on the state of the German church and its embrace of “cheap grace” sounds eerily familiar:

“Cheap grace is grace we bestow on ourselves…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship….”

With 55% of U.S. teens professing faith in Christ, the American church seems to be in a similar crisis as the pre-World War Two German church.

A man once told Jesus he would follow him wherever he would go. Christ had the audacity to warn him that the Son of Man himself was homeless, with no place to lay his head – as if to say this is what discipleship might very well entail (Lk 9:57-58). Another would-be follower asked if he could first go bury his father, and another if he could say farewell to his family. Christ’s response: “Let the dead bury their own dead” and “Don’t look back” but follow me (Luke 9:59-62).

As ministers to young people, we must open their eyes not only to the sin in their hearts but to the gods of our culture: academics, a career path, extracurriculars, even family and fun. These are good things, but as ultimate things they make cruel gods. In our culture, we have made these things ultimate.

I question mainstream American Christianity when I read about people like Pastor Zhang in China who was sentenced to 12 years in prison for holding a church meeting. Or when I hear of Amal, an Israeli teen whose mother has burned her Bible no less than nine times; yet Amal continues to share her faith and attends a Bible college even though her family and others threaten her life.

As pastors, we must give our students and families a proper vision of the kingdom of God – one that is vastly sweeter and overwhelmingly more breath-taking than the American Dream or the extra-curriculared-out rat race most of our congregations are living. Below are a few practical suggestion and ways that I have found helpful in attempting to do this in my own ministry.

Preach the gospel, and preach expositorily through entire books of the Bible. This cannot be over-emphasized.

Share stories from Christians in the “two-thirds world.”

Teach the history of Christianity and the persecuted church; this has had much impact on my students.

During youth group, pray for missionaries your church supports or, even better, have a student do so! Host an event like 30 Hour Famine. Mission organizations or boards and groups like the Voice of the Martyrs could be helpful resources in making this global connection.

We were crafted and purposed for a whole-hearted, knocked-down-drag-out kind of love. And we must point our students to their only real satisfaction: life in Christ.

This is actually incredibly freeing news for ministers and parents. This article is not a call for people to just get their act together. It means we can stop trying to convert youth. That is part of the job description of the Holy Spirit. Christ said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

All man-centered efforts are futile. We do not need to rest on our own techniques and methods; we need only be faithful – praying for the Spirit’s power and preaching the word. We can stop huffing and puffing at corpses, expecting ourselves to raise them: only Christ’s word can raise the dead. The exhausting burden of our own performance is lifted.

Forget the gimmicks. I can stop trying to look for the next silver bullet that is going to take my youth ministry to the next level. After all,

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.” (The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer).

The more we put students in touch with the unmerited and costly grace we see in the crucified Son of God, the more their hearts will be gripped by the gospel and bear the fruits of discipleship.

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