John the Baptist and the Upside-Down Kingdom Culture of Youth Ministry

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This is the third article in our series, “Building a Kingdom Culture in Our Youth Ministries.” In this series, we will address passages from the Gospel of Luke, which demonstrates that the culture of God’s Kingdom is that of grace and mercy for the poor, the weak, and the failing. It’s a culture built on grace meeting humility and vulnerability. Read the previous article in this series here.

I grew up in Canada in a city where the average winter temperature was often around -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Yeah, it was cold. When it’s cold out, you play a lot of hockey. Hockey is the sport/activity that defines Canadians, and we all had the same hero growing up, especially in Edmonton where Wayne Gretzky, “the Great One,” lead the hometown Oilers to four championships in five years.

There is much debate about what made Gretzky the greatest hockey player of all time, or even (as I might argue) the greatest athlete ever. He changed the way the sport was played forever. He rewrote the record book. He even made hockey relevant in southern California!

There are many reasons why the moniker “the Great One” fits. In my mind, the most applicable reason is that if you take all of the goals he scored, he’d still have more career points than the second ranked player. He has more assists than any other player has total points, and he did it in 200 less games than anyone else. He’s the greatest player because he did a better job of helping other players succeed than any other player in history.

What makes a person great? As an individual and even as a country, there has been no lack of discussion around what it means to be “great.” We encounter conflicting ideas about greatness when we approach that question through the eyes of the gospel.

One of the marks of Jesus, His gospel, and the kingdom He came to inaugurate, was that He flipped all of our human assumptions about greatness on their heads. The word kingdom, in our little imaginations, looks nothing at all like the dominion of Jesus. His was a kingdom that many have called “the upside-down kingdom.”

How do we build this culture of the “upside-down kingdom” in our youth ministries, when teens are immersed in a society that equates greatness with feats like a carefully curated and well-liked Instagram feed (or even record-breaking Hockey stats)? In Luke 7:18-35, we get a remarkable glimpse into the life of John the Baptist, about whom Jesus says, “among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least is in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

Jesus, essentially, calls John the Baptist the greatest man alive. His description of John, illustrated in Luke 7, illuminates a number of things foundational to building an “upside-down kingdom” culture in our youth ministries.

Greatness knows when to admit, I don’t know.

It’s easy to forget what led Jesus to call John the Baptist the greatest man alive: John’s doubt in who Jesus was. In Luke 7:20, John sends his disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another.”

In the kingdom of Jesus, the upside-down kingdom, a mark of greatness is not blind acceptance, but rather the courage to admit to others that you are not sure. John the Baptist, whose kingdom purpose was to pave the way for the Messiah, admits publicly in Luke 7 that his faith in Jesus as the savior he’s long-awaited is shaky. He doesn’t wait for a quiet moment one-on-one with Jesus to privately ask. He sends his own disciples to publicly question Jesus outright. He may be doubting, but he remains fearless.

In the upside-kingdom, honesty about doubt is not rebuked or ridiculed, it is commended. Jesus simply tells John’s disciples to report back to him what they have seen. Then He tells the all the people listening – tax collectors, Pharisees and lawyers – that the one who doubted is greater than they.

Greatness lives humbly.

In Luke 7:24-26, Jesus compares John directly to others who would be great themselves. Jesus describes John as someone who dressed in soft clothing, in plain unremarkable dress. Those who would be great try to prove their worth with ‘splendid clothing.’ John is described as someone who lives in the wilderness. Those who would be great attempt to prove their greatness by living in luxury in king’s courts.

Jesus was born in a cattle shed, raised as a lowly carpenter’s son. In His upside-down kingdom, things like designer clothing and luxury cars are not status symbols. When our students look to fine things for their worth, they are like a “reed swayed by the wind.”

Greatness points to Jesus.

John was great, not because he understood his value or his importance as a result of his purpose as the messenger. John understood that he had value because of the message he had to bring: that one yet to come was Lord and Savior. And this is the same place where our students might find their own value.

John was ultimately great in the upside-down kingdom because he pointed away from himself. Even in his doubt, he deferred to Jesus for direction. His entire life and ministry was about pointing people away from himself and towards Jesus. We see this most clearly in John 3:30. Many of John’s disciples are leaving to follow Jesus. He says he is not out to win a popularity contest, “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.”

Too often, greatness is measured by achievements, wealth, or reputation – especially in the culture of teenagers. John the Baptist is proof that Jesus’ kingdom, the upside-down kingdom, works very differently. If we are to have a kingdom culture in our youth ministries, we must encourage our students to be more like John the Baptist, who I’m sure Ralph Waldo Emerson was thinking about when he said, “A great man is always willing to be little.”

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