What Gospel Centered Youth Ministry Means (and what it doesn’t): Part 2

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In the last decade, youth ministry has seen a movement away from the historical focus on law and morality, toward the proclamation of the gospel: the Good News that God loves and redeems sinners through Christ. However, this movement is still a minority in the world of ministry to teenagers. Students continue to walk away from the faith after high school and, despite the dropout rate, many youth workers are failing to notice what’s missing. In the past, traditional youth ministry has often focused on building relationships with students where the gospel has been present, but not central. Rooted is thrilled to see more youth workers talk about the need for gospel-centered youth ministry. Part 1 of this article (on Rooted yesterday) focused on how to discern whether your ministry is Gospel-Absent, Gospel-Present, or Gospel-Centered. Since “gospel-centered” has become something of a buzzword lately, the following are five pillars that Rooted believes are essential for building a Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry.

1. Gospel Centrality
We proclaim the grace of God that saves sinners. The gospel is more than justification. Christians throughout the ages have believed a fourfold gospel: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Glorification. In our ministry to students, we help them understand their created purpose as God’s image-bearers. Teaching about creation runs deeper than a yearly lesson against evolution and naturalism. Instead, we proclaim the perfect intimacy with God for which we were created, and guide students to understand that sin is so hellishly evil because it turned God’s image-bearers into men and women who honor themselves above God. At the center of the gospel is the cross and empty tomb, where the wrath of God and sin of humanity was atoned for and conquered. While it’s tempting to minimize the book of Revelation because of varying and debatable views on end-times, there is great confidence to be gained through the fulfillment of God’s promise to glorify his children, to judge sin and evil once and for all, and to establish the New Heavens and New Earth in a way that exceeds even Eden. You will find the grace of God at the heart of a gospel-centered youth ministry. Rather than driving students to fix their behavior, we call them to become children of God through what Christ has done on their behalf, knowing that the Holy Spirit will reshape their hearts and desires as they understand their identity in Christ.

I have previously written about my experience counseling Eric through his struggle with porn. Early on in my ministry, I entered the conversations with a bag of tricks up my sleeve and tracking software to recommend. Those approaches to helping young men like Eric overcome temptation sometimes helped, but they rarely changed the heart that was being drawn to sexual sin. Because even well-intentioned and prayerful behavior modification proves temporary, I decided to continually repeat and apply the gospel to Eric. He was a Christian whose eyes had been blinded to the beauty of Christ and whose heart was dulled to the power of God’s grace. It took months of regular conversations, but God slowly transformed his heart. Yes, we installed software on his devices for accountability, but they were not viewed as a magic bullet. Instead, when I would get pinged, I had a new opportunity to invite him to confession and repentance before his Heavenly Father who had so much to offer – far more than porn could deliver. This is only one example of the many ways a richer understanding of and confidence in the gospel has changed pastoral ministry to students.

2. Theological depth through expository, biblical teaching
Because the Bible is “God breathed” and is “useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness so that the man of God might be fully equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16), we are not ashamed to keep it front-and-center. Whereas ministries who are “gospel-absent” seek to reach students by focusing on making Christianity seem relevant, gospel-centered youth workers build with confidence upon the authoritative Word of God.

We do not make the Bible relevant. Because we believe Scripture is true, it is relevant with or without our added fanfare. Yes, theology and exegesis are important and we should not shy away from them, but remember the purpose of both is to help teenagers develop a biblical worldview so that they build their lives upon the Word of God rather than the opinions of their youth leaders. A helpful question to ask is, “Would students recognize that my message is based on Scripture, or would they say the Bible was shared in support of the things I wanted to say?”

There have been nights when I’ve driven home from youth group shattered over how poorly the night went. The game bombed. Students where cliquey and exclusive. No one volunteered to pray. Only half of my youth leaders showed up. And my message was a rambling mess. But… I know that I taught God’s Word and I spoke the truth of the gospel. On those nights, I prayerfully commit to prepare better next week, but I also rest easy because my confidence is in the Holy Spirit who is drawing the lost to God. The alternative is that my hope is in myself and my own ability to entertain and amaze. Sometimes I still fall into that temptation.

3. Relational Discipleship
This is the area where youth ministry has been strong for decades: relationships. Jesus built his ministry around relational discipleship, and so should we. Youth workers desire to see their students grow in godliness, and we all know this will not happen simply by expecting them to attend our programs and Bible Studies. Gospel centered youth workers take a genuine interest in students’ lives outside of youth group and pursue opportunities for intentional conversations that express the love of God and lead to spiritual formation.

Unfortunately, many youth workers get trapped in a cycle of friendship and “relating” and never begin the process of asking more personal questions. Here’s the thing: discipleship is personal, so if you aren’t asking uncomfortable and personal questions then discipleship probably isn’t happening. It’s a hard thing to know when to press in and when to hold back, but as youth workers who want to see students maturing in Christ, we need to lead with initiative. Have a discipleship plan: read through a book of the Bible, use a catechism, memorize Scripture together, or read a good Christian book together. Yes, discipleship can happen informally and without the student knowing there’s a plan. Sometimes that’s exactly what they need. Other times a student might benefit immensely by you bringing them into the fold, and telling them your plan. Obviously we should “do life” with students and not every conversation needs to be about Jesus – but if it’s awkward to ask your students about their spiritual lives, then you’re missing the heart of discipleship.

4. Partnership with parents
Youth ministry has always recognized the important role of parents, but if we’re honest, parents have often been viewed with suspicion. They complain about the ministry, sometimes even gossip about us to other parents, and can often seem like a barrier in our ministry to their children (especially if we only hear the teenager’s perspective on challenging situations). This has the potential to drive a wedge of mistrust between parents and youth workers. Instead, gospel-centered youth workers aim to build (and keep!) the trust of parents, because we recognize that parents are the spiritual leaders of their children. Even with non-Christian parents, we look for ways to minister to the whole family, not only the teenager.

The reality is, most parents feel like they are failing their kids, and when they give you a tough time it’s because they’re trying to advocate for their teen. When I’ve had conflict with parents and it’s turned out well, that’s largely because I’ve responded graciously and emphasized my desire to support the parents and serve their family. If you stay in one place long enough, some parents will be your greatest champions, some will want you fired, but most will be happy to receive your support and partnership.

Remember that when students graduate from your ministry, they won’t graduate from their family; so be intentional about calling or texting parents to ask how you can pray for and support their family. This demonstrates that you are for them. As trust is cultivated and conversations deepen, there will be opportunities to invest in parents for their own discipleship, and to give them a gospel fueled vision for their teenager.

5. Intergenerational integration
We should not be surprised teenagers disappear from church if they have primarily grown their faith in the youth group. Many of these students have never meaningfully been a part of their church, so engaging one in college and beyond is a challenge to say the least. How can youth get rooted in the church when they are always in the youth room? Gospel-centered youth workers are intentional to ensure teenagers are not merely welcomed at church, but seen as valued contributors. When teenagers come to our ministries, they meet adults who genuinely care for them and invite them into the faith-family. Creating opportunities for students and adults in the church to build friendships and get to know each other should be seen as a vital aspect of the church’s ministry to teenagers. The Fuller Youth Institute has been a great champion of this vision through their Sticky Faith initiatives and, most recently, through Growing Young.

I can’t say my transition into gospel-centered youth ministry has been perfect and without speedbumps. But I can say that my church’s ministry to students is stronger and teenagers are more involved in the overall life of the church than they were when I arrived thirteen years ago. There were days when I was tempted to simply give up and keep doing what was expected. Change is hard and we still have more work to do, but I cannot express my gratitude for how Rooted has helped me move beyond gospel-present ministry.

As the discussion about gospel-centered ministry continues, we hope this two-part series has been helpful to unpack what Rooted is advocating. To read part one, please click here.  For further reading, please read Gospel Centered Youth Ministry (Crossway 2016), which was edited by the Chairman of Rooted and many chapters were authored by youth ministry leaders affiliated with Rooted.

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