The “Quick Fix” and the Storm: The Gospel is of First Importance
Youth ministers are often charged with an untenable task. While teaching students the Bible and leading them to Christ, we must also help them navigate the treacherous waters of adolescent love, grief, friendship, and heartbreak. Not that most youth leaders mind; it’s actually half the reason we fell in love with youth ministry in the first place.
Yet, in trying to care well for our students, we often get caught in an echo chamber of voices telling us all the areas we have still failed to address – from sex to friendships, modesty, pornography, identity, self-harm, cliques, alcohol – the list can go on. It quickly becomes disheartening, feeling like we can never do enough to “help” our students weather the storms of life.
It is in this space that many youth ministers are tempted to reach for what I have come to call the “quick fixes.” For example, if you know a ship is sinking, and you can see the crack in the foundation where water is rushing in, what do you do? You fix it. You plug it, mend it, and hope it is enough to sustain the next rush of water.
As hard as it is to admit, my ministry boat once had more makeshift “fixes” than it had actual standing ground. The truth is, I have never considered myself anything but gospel-centered. Yet one particular storm in my ministry revealed to me the true meaning of gospel-centrality and, even worse, that I was not living it.
The Quick Fix and the Storm
About four years into my time in student ministry, I felt like I finally had a solid hold on the work. I had weathered most of the tough teenage scenarios; I became confident that I knew how to help any student out of any sin.
Without realizing it, I had formed a theology that viewed sin as an action instead of a condition, and believed each sin just needed the right, yet unique, prescribed cure. For example: if pornography was the sin, then blocks on the internet were the cure. If sex outside of marriage was the sin, then restrictions on dating were the cure.
I had begun offering my students a works-based salvation that I proclaimed louder than true salvation. And worst of all, I called it “gospel ministry.”
Then one summer, a student of mine who had been struggling with pornography for several years broke down in my office. Her shame was overpowering. Why could she not break this cycle of sin? She had done all the right “steps,” but still felt captive to her sin.
For the first time, my 5-step, quick fix plan revealed itself for what it really was: not strong enough to save. So instead of offering an answer, or giving the “it’s going to be okay, you can beat this” speech, I was struck by what Paul meant when he said “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved …” (1 Corinthians 15:1-2a)
Not only is the gospel what saves my students, but the gospel is what continues to save them.
Of First Importance – The Corinthian Church
Right after this, in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, he says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received …” (1 Corinthians 15:3)
Knowing that Paul’s writings comprise over 75 percent of the New Testament cannon, we cannot take it lightly that it is this – what precedes verse 15 – that Paul himself says he considers to be “of first importance” amidst all else he wrote to the church:
… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised in the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appears to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Cor 15:4-6)
Paul considered that above all else, that which is of first importance is the good news of the death, resurrection, and ministry of Christ – the gospel.
The Corinthian church had written a letter to Paul addressing a multitude of concerns among its people, pleading for Paul to give them a solution to their problems. Sounds like a few emails from parents I’ve received. Yet, what strikes me most about Paul’s words to this church that was wrought with divisions, unrepentant sin, and issues of false doctrine, is that he does not offer them practical advice or a quick fix; instead, he presents “of first importance” one thing: the gospel. He reminds them the battle is not against flesh and blood – meaning the outward actions of the people are not the problem, and so actions will not fix them.
He delivers to them the one thing that will save – the one who has healed their brokenness through offering His own body to be broken for them. Their only hope for being set free from sin is the persistent grace of God offered through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Of First Importance – Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry
Just as Paul walked with the Corinthian church through tangible problems, sin, and pain, we will walk with our students through the same. Yet, Paul’s words here have helped reshape my understanding of true gospel-centrality. I can say that I am “gospel-centered” all I want, but the true test of that moniker comes through what I deliver as “of first importance” – not merely in my teaching, but as I disciple and walk with students through suffering.
While gospel-centrality means proclaiming the gospel as the only way to salvation, it is more than that. It also means that everything we do is shaped and informed by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – His past, present, and future ministry. It means that when we talk about forgiveness, we don’t simply give “steps” to forgive, but we proclaim God’s forgiveness of us through Christ (Col.3:13). When we walk with students through the trials of adolescent love, we don’t merely give them antidotes for their lust, but we give them a grander vision of God’s love through Christ for the church (Eph. 5:25). And when we face the challenges of teen friendship, we don’t become their friendship curator, but we offer a vision of friendship rooted in the love that sent Jesus to the cross, the true love of a friend (John 15:13-15).
I have been guilty of proclaiming the gospel with my mouth but preaching works with my tongue. I have spoken of the good news on Sunday, then given “quick fixes” to the problems of the week. I have felt the pressure of parents and leaders telling me I “must” teach our students about modesty or identity, and taught just that and nothing more.
But as Paul reminds the Corinthians, so I remind you – my fellow ministers – it is through the gospel that we receive salvation; it is in the gospel that we stand; and it is by the gospel that we are being saved. No quick-fix talk on identity or relationships or social media will mend the brokenness in our lives. It is only through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ that we can offer a hope for brokenness, a hope that produces faith in the coming King and His redeemed and perfect kingdom!