The Gospel and Inconvenient Youth

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When people ask me why a focus on Gospel-centeredness is so critical in youth ministry, my response comes to me in faces: Robbie and Kevin, adopted brothers struggling to integrate into their family. Charlie, for whom I stumbled over gender pronouns. Angel, the only member of her ethnicity in her whole youth group. Esther, who was surprised when I recognized the scars on her arms. Each and every one of them beautiful, broken children of God. And each of them inconvenient participants when it comes to modern youth ministry.

When you date the development of modern youth ministry can say a lot about your beliefs as to the purpose of youth ministry as a whole. While some point to the mentoring models of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, and others the emergence of Sunday School and temperance movements in the early 1800s, many consider the origins of modern youth ministry to coincide with the post-WWII rise in suburban adolescence in the United States. 

As such, many versions of modern youth ministry have focused on entering into the opulent, extracurricular spaces of the American suburbs, seeking to contextualize the gospel to evolving youth cultures, and partnering with parents to shield students against the temptations and dangers of an increasingly secular world. 

In some ways, this approach is not wrong. A suburban youth ministry emphasis at the time paralleled the population rise in the suburbs, and the rise in American youth culture as a whole. It is a wonderful example of contextualized ministry to a specific emerging people group. However, many critics of modern youth ministry also point to how the suburbs negatively affected – and altered – the purpose of ministry itself. Over time, youth ministry became a system of cultivating well-mannered, clean-cut, drug-free, celibate students – students who could seamlessly and successfully enter mainstream society. Christian students were expected to go to college, to enter their denomination’s campus ministry, to get married, and start the process over again with their children. 

This is how I was trained. This is the context of all the books I was recommended on youth ministry as a young worker. This is the perspective of every camp and blog and organization I had ever been a part of in youth ministry. And this is the perspective that almost drove every one of the faces I mentioned earlier – faces that are burned into my memory – away from the church forever. 

God was gracious. My journey towards Gospel-centered youth ministry began with tiny steps, the Holy Spirit’s prompting that I didn’t have to replicate the loud, extroverted ministries down the street that attracted hundreds more students than I would ever see. It was seeing students as family, as those who would bear my burdens and pray for me and speak the gospel to me even as I did also for them. It was being a real person before them, making mistakes, confessing sins, and watching them not leave. It was the perfect picture of God’s grace through Jesus. I realized I was inconvenient, not cool or talented or connected enough, yet God loved me and wished to use me. 

We need Gospel-centered youth ministry because the purpose of the gospel is not a safe and comfortable life, but Jesus. The Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ view students as whole persons, made in the image and carrying the dignity of God; these students are deeply broken by sin, and also incredibly loved in the chaos of their world by the Son of God who died for their redemption. There are students – many, many students – whose lives don’t fit into a gospel of success and behavioral perfection. Their own sins, and the sins of so many against them, require the long, slow healing of Jesus. They will not be ‘fixed’ by a few years of youth group meetings, yet they will need other students and leaders around them to risk and pray and cry and bear their burdens. They are the outcasts, the needy, the forgotten, the abused, their gifts don’t fit on college applications – yet Jesus wants them. These students need a gospel-centered youth ministry because they need a real savior whose mercy and love are not contingent on their ability to impress the adults in their churches, a Holy Spirit whose history of sanctification includes the battered and broken far more than the clean-cut and well-mannered. 

College-bound, ‘perfect’ students, need Gospel-centered youth ministry just as much. They need a gospel that loves them too much to be captivated by their good works or their cultivated talents. They need a gospel that names their sins and offers actual freedom rather than self-help strategies to manage and hide their brokenness, a gospel that dignifies them as real people, instead of objectifying them by their potential. Jesus reminds them that they can stop running and working so hard on their own behalf – he has already accomplished everything worth accomplishing – and he empowers them to do real ministry among their peers. 

Both our convenient and inconvenient students, who have had the grace of Jesus poured over them in equal measure, are the ones whose call will send them back into the world to bring the same light and redemption they themselves have experienced. 

Most of all, I need Gospel-centered youth ministry. I need it as a youth minister because it is far sexier to prepare modern youth for the laser-laden, college-assumed, media-saturated, and designer-approved churches of an Internet age than to struggle with the kids no one wants on a camp website. I need the gospel as a sinner because my pride and arrogance need to be dashed against the rock of the gospel, my expectations for an easy and attractive ministry checked, allowing me to meet my Savior in the needs and cries of the convenient and inconvenient faces he brings before me. I need it because I, too, am an inconvenient face in this world. I am not enough for the youth ministry industrial complex that desires ever-younger, more relevant versions of who I wish I was. But when God thinks of the children he loves, because of Jesus, the answer comes to him in faces – including mine. And that is enough to fuel every youth ministry for the rest of time.

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