How I Am Using ‘The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School’ in Youth Ministry

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I was gifted a copy of the new book The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School at the books launch party during the 2021 Rooted Conference. The book is 30 chapters of Christians of all ages and struggles. The authors share how Jesus transformed their lives and outline gospels truths they wish they had known when they were younger.

Now, the challenge of any book geared towards youth ministry is the question of how that book can have an impact on your students. Sure, there is excitement any time you come home from a conference with new swag and an overweighted suitcase full of books, but often times, those books can hit your shelf only to never leave there.

It would be a shame if you let that happen with this book. After reading it, I have found it to be a powerful encouragement to myself and my students, as well as immanently practical for ministry. Its a book to put in students’ hands and to hold in your own as you plan ministry and teach students. Here are a few ways we are using it in our ministry.

Sharing a Word of Grace

The first words you say each week as you gather with your students sets the tone for the rest of the gathering. Oftentimes, our meetings have begun with silly anecdotes, announcements, or begging kids to sit down and listen. This provides and abrupt and awkward transition as we move into the reading, singing, and proclamation of Gods Word.

Rooted introduced me to the practice of opening your time with students with a brief “word of grace”—a brief introductory statement about how the gospel offers grace to students. In this practice, the gospel is shared, the tone is set, and worshipful response becomes our posture.

The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School has become an invaluable resource in preparing these short, grace-filled words for our weekly meeting. Currently, we are working chapter by chapter through the book each week, taking one chapter per week to help us prepare for these short words of grace to speak over students as we gather. We do not necessarily share the story from the book that the author offers, but we use their testimony to hear the aches and awkwardness our students face and how the gospel speaks to them.

For example, we do not read Liz Edrington’s story (“Weariness and the Kingdom,” chapter 23) word for word, but we paraphrase it, quote a couple of lines, or use it as a launching point. For instance, we might begin our time by saying, “Some of your feel that it’s all up to you,” a feeling Liz shared in her story, and then go on to share how the gospel frees us from our desperation to earn our place in God’s kingdom. Our hope is that a few of our students will be able to share their own stories of how Jesus has worked in their lives and share them as “words of grace.

Thus, the book has become a helpful resource and model for our students. This is true not only in big group settings, but also in more personal counseling situations.

Walking with Students in Pain

Recently, a student in our ministry has been struggling with doubts about Gods goodness and character in salvation. This struggle has led him to bouts of crippling anxiety. While answering his biblical and theological questions, I’ve also spent a significant part of our meetings reminding him that Jesus loves him, cares for him, and does not cast him off when he doubts. His mind needed answers, but his heart needed love.

A wonderful gift to our meetings was when I read Mark Howards chapter “Doubt and Love,” in this book. Mark describes his own story of wrestling with feeling that God only related to him as a distant, cold judge—if he related to him at all. He goes on to share how through understanding his adoption as a son of God he began to see God as infinitely desirous and loving toward him. His doubt needed answers, but it also needed to know that he was loved in his doubt.

Once I read this story, I knew that I needed to put it in the hands of this student. When I did so, it was clear just from the student’s expression that he was reading his own story in the story of another. The sneaking feeling that he was alone in his feelings and doubts was beginning to slip away as he saw an older example who struggled with the same questions, but was healed by the love of God in Christ Jesus.

There are many pastoral and counseling issues that require us to enter in with understanding and empathy. While each situation is different, with 30 chapters on various tension points in the teenage life, this book offers a comprehensive resource for building that bridge.

These bridges are also needed in our large group teaching.

Illustrating and Applying Bible Teaching

I have previously written about the need for youth ministers to preach the gospel to the questions students are asking in the language they are speaking. This is a call not to watering down the gospel but to applied and contextualized gospel proclamation to the whole lives of our students. This is a big calling that requires youth ministers to do the hard work of knowing their students, their questions, the answers they are receiving, their struggles, and how the gospel speaks to them.

Nevertheless, ministers will not always know everything that is happening in the lives of their students and what needs addressing. For much of my time as a youth minister, I had the benefit of being closer to my students’ age than I was to their parents. I had closer proximity to their struggles, temptations, and anxieties simply out of generational proximity that their parents lacked.

That time has gone, and now I find myself on the other side of that equation with distance between the world I grew up in and the world they are growing up in. Whats more, I will never know what it is like to go through your teenage years as a woman or as a person of color or with some particular sin struggles or suffering. Nevertheless, I minister to many who will. I need to know how the gospel speaks to their personal, particular experiences.

With deeply personal stories of defining moments in their lives, including painful memories and personal mistakes, the chapters in this book provide timeless descriptions of what it is like to feel shame, to be a misfit, to doubt, to have regret, to experience heartbreak, and more. But each of these points are healed through the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The feelings, hurts, and sins detailed in this book are present in our ministry each week, and each of the stories of our students are still waiting for Jesus to bring healing to them. We must not shy away from sharing the how the gospel speaks into their lives, and this book does a lot of the work in equipping us to do so.

Knowing Jesus for All of Life

 Ultimately, one of the greatest encouragements and most helpful aspects to The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School is that it is not a book that only speaks to the high school experience. These are not just stories of Gods grace to teenagers, but stories of Gods grace to people who have continued to follow Jesus long after their high school years have passed. Its a book of pastors, musicians, parents, counselors, and more who have found eternal life and who look back and wish their high school selves could enjoy the freedom they have now.

Importantly, then, this is a book about what it means to follow Jesus well beyond the four years students have in high school. This is a book that gives them categories and hope for what it looks like to follow Jesus for the rest of their lives. Put this book in the hands of your students, use it as you teach and counsel, read it with parents, and you will show your students what it looks like to know Jesus for all of life.

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