Ministering to Teenagers Changed My Understanding of the Gospel
Growing up, I have always been the youth ministry kid. If you were to do an SNL character of “that kid that loves youth group,” it would have been me. Dress up in your best Christmas outfit, you say? How about I show up with hair spray painted red and green with leggings and a tacky sweater to match? Invite friends to the retreat, you say? Why don’t I take 100 copies of the invite to middle school and literally pass them out to everyone I know! Listen to Christian music? Sure, just give me a list of secular bands and then Christian bands and I will throw all of my secular music IN THE TRASH.
This might seem like an exaggeration but I have just recounted multiple things that I actually did as “the greatest youth group kid of all time.” Can you see the SNL skit yet?
Let me tell you what else this looked like for me, particularly as a middle school student. I brought my Bible to school every day. I walked around with it at school every day. I walked around with it in my hands, OUTSIDE OF MY BACKPACK, every day. This is real. I didn’t talk to a friend once for a month because she said a cuss word. It’s a true miracle that I had friends at all. Also praise the good Lord above that social media wasn’t around yet. Can’t you just see all the posed pictures of me reading my Bible every morning?
The Lord, as always, had been working all along. Showing me, through changing friendships and hard conversations, that this was not the way that He communicated the Gospel. The Gospel is good news; is this how you would share good news with someone?
Then, in college, I started to work in youth ministry and teenagers – that’s right, teenagers – changed my life. Okay, obviously it was Jesus, but HE USED TEENAGERS! If that’s not the Lord working in mysterious ways then I don’t know what else is.
So much of my understanding of the Gospel was that Jesus died on the cross for my sins and now I needed to do everything that I could to be good. Or at least look like I was good on the outside. This might have protected me from the consequences of more outward sins, but my inward sin of pride was the real motivation. Not Jesus. Finding righteousness in my own actions also meant that I looked at others the same way. What they did was who they were. Enter youth ministry.
My first small group of girls were the worst. The actual worst. (By the way, they would all say the same thing about themselves today and I would hang out with any of them any day of the week now). I am not a crier and this group of girls made me cry, more than once. They were mean. Like a group of Regina Georges.
Here’s what would not have worked with this group of teenagers: middle school me. A list of rules on how to be nicer. A few Bible verses to tell them that being kind will get them to heaven, and being mean will get them to “you know where.” That they were spawns of Satan himself. I am giggling to myself even thinking about what would have happened if that is what I showed up with, week after week to say to these girls. For one, they would have laughed in my face. But also, I would have been talking to no one. This works for no one; middle school and high school students will let you know just how much this doesn’t work.
Every Sunday night I would make my trek from college to the church to meet with these girls. There were days…I can probably count on one hand how many…but there were days when we had incredible conversations of what was hard about being a teenager and being a Christian. Most of the time it was like wrangling cats to just get them to just do our Bible study, instead of something like taking a door knob off of a door for absolutely no reason at all (that happened). Through both the great conversations and the ridiculous ones, I saw something I did not see as my teenage Christian self. That Jesus actually enters into the mess, sits with us, listens to us, AND speaks truth. If He didn’t enter the mess first, we wouldn’t have any reason to listen to His truths.
Teenagers are in one of the most vulnerable and exciting and emotional times of their lives. Teenagers feel everything HARD, which makes life hard. When you are heart broken, it feels like it will never end. When you are left out, it feels like you are worth nothing. Constantly changing physically and emotionally leaves most teenagers insecure in every way. But all this feeling also makes life beautiful. When you are excited about something, it is the best thing that has ever happened to you. When you love something, it is your all-time favorite thing in the world and no one can take that away from you.
Teenagers also have an incredible gift for figuring out who is real. They know who they can be real around and who is being real around them. Why else would a kid need multiple Instagram accounts? One is for the people who can see you for who you are (weird, fun, sad, etc.), the other one is for everyone else. Everyone else sees what you want them to think of you. Who you want to be seen as. Thus, a teenager can sniff out a faker. They spend most of their day in school trying to figure out who they can trust. Who won’t tell their secrets? Who is real? You can’t fake it around teenagers. They will find your weakness and pounce. Okay, maybe not, but they will be able to tell if you are genuine.
What an incredible time for the grace of the Gospel to enter in. A balm for the weary, always working, always searching, always wondering, always feeling soul of a teenager.
The grace of the Gospel enters into the messiest of emotions. Into the messiest of situations. Into the messiest of wrong decisions. The Word of God enters in. It lets us know that this is not the way things were meant to be. Sin has messed us up to the deepest parts of our soul. It has made us believe the lie that God is not enough. That He does not love us. That He does not know us. That we can do better and be better. That He is holding out on us until we’ve got our act together.
Jesus reverses the “did God really say?” of the Fall (Genesis 3:1b). Jesus, through His humanity, His death, and His resurrection shows us that He is enough for us. That He loves us enough to take on the wrath of God that we deserve. That He knows us because He became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). That only He is perfect, so trying harder and being better is no longer necessary. That He isn’t holding out on us, but actually knows the best way for us to live.
Gospel-centered youth ministry is a balm for the teenage soul because it says, rest in who I am. The search is over. Your identity is found in Christ; your Creator, your Redeemer, and your Savior.
As a youth worker and as a parent (of a four-nager), it can be easy to just want your kid to be good. To make the right decisions. But if that’s the message I give, then I’m continuing to feed the lie of the serpent in the garden. I’m making my teenagers and my own child feel like they can be their own Savior. Just be good. I’m doing nothing more than feeding the lie that you have anything to do with your salvation. In fact, I’m giving them an identity in their goodness instead of in their Creator. Grace-centered youth ministry is always pointing students to Jesus. That is what changes behavior. Knowing who their Savior is and what He has done for them. There’s a verse from a hymn that I love, “Come Ye Souls By Sin Afflicted,” that I think points this out beautifully:
Blessed are the eyes that see Him; blest the ears that hear His voice;
Blessed are the souls that trust Him. And in Him, alone rejoice;
His commandments, His commandments, His commandments,
Then become their happy choice.
I wanted to be my own Savior. My sin has always made me believe that I could be. The more I see my sin, my failures, my inability to anything “good” without that sense of pride creeping in, the more I realize how unable I am to be a Savior. The more I know about who God is, how much He is not like me, the more I see my need for Him and everything He did for me on the cross. Then His commandments become my happy choice. Without the work of the grace of the Gospel, obedience would never be my happy choice. It is precisely the fact that I can’t be perfectly obedient that points me to the grace of the Gospel. It is precisely because I am dead in my sin that I know, only the grace of the Gospel can make me alive again.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” Ephesians 2:4-6