What Is Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry?

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Every so often, it’s good to get back to basics and remember our “Roots,” so to speak. This week we revisit Rooted’s vision statement, which summarizes our hopes and dreams for the work we do: “To transform youth ministry so that every student receives a grace-filled, gospel-centered and Bible-saturated discipleship in the church and the home.”

I was never what you might call an attractional youth minister, but I wasn’t always a gospel-centered one either. I have always believed that ministry to teenagers should be focused on helping students to know God’s character through studying His Word (Ps. 138:1), but I served in full-time youth ministry for several years before I caught a vision for pointing students to the work of Jesus in every youth group talk. Even then, as my teaching was becoming increasingly oriented toward Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to rescue sinners, the gospel of grace was only beginning to shape my ministry practices.

In 2014, I attended the Rooted Conference in New York City. Rooted’s vision is to transform youth ministry so that every student receives a grace-filled, gospel-centered and Bible-saturated discipleship in the church and the home. I was both delighted and challenged to discover a community of youth ministers who were applying the gospel not only in what they were teaching, but in how they were doing ministry.

The better part of a decade later, I’m still learning what it means to be a gospel-centered youth minister. But here is one thing Ive learned:Gospel-centered youth ministry  is about more than the content of our youth group talks and Bible studies (although of course Bible teaching that points to Christ is an essential component). The form of our ministry must reflect the gospel, too.

Students learn as much or more from what we teach implicitly as they do from our explicit message—so gospel-centered youth ministry encompasses the shape and the tone of our interactions with teenagers. In other words, we are called not only to preach the gospel, but also to embody it. The writer of Hebrews confirms this when he tells believers to “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of lifeand imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).

The gospel takes root in our ministries as our lives and relationships begin to reflect gospel values. Three gospel-shaped themes have emerged in my churchs ministry to teenagers as weve prayed and worked for gospel centrality.If you’re preaching the gospel but your ministry structures and values haven’t yet changed as a result, I commend these to you as opportunities to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).

The Welcome of Jesus

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Rom. 15:7)

Im indebted to one of my New Testament professors at Gordon-Conwell for opening my eyes to Luke’s stunning emphasis on Jesushospitality in his Gospel. Luke wants to show how Jesus extended and received hospitality everywhere he went, even though the world at large did not welcome him. He revealed Gods heart for the poor through his humble reception in Bethlehem (Lk. 2:1-21) and dined with sinners and tax collectors (Lk. 5:27-32, 19:1-10). He fed the crowd of five thousand at Bethsaida (Lk. 9:10-17) and he broke bread with his disciples on the Road to Emmaus, where they finally recognized him as their risen Lord (Lk. 24:13-35). In everything he did, Jesus was constantly welcoming others.

When our high school ministry studied Luke together several years ago, we reflected so often on this theme with our student leaders that “extending the welcome of Jesus” became a key part of our mission for youth group. We use this catchphrase as shorthand for everything from greeting newcomers, to helping a new freshman class transition into the group, to including those who seem left out.

Since we have received the greatest welcome of all in Christ, a critical part of our role as youth ministers is creating a culture where every student feels welcome. Of course we cant force our students to be kind and inclusive toward one another. But we can foster these traits as we point them to the kindness and the inclusivity of Jesus in the gospel, and we can pray for the Holy Spirit to be at work in their hearts and our own.

Gods welcome to us in Christ means “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). So ministries that are centered on the gospel of Jesus will lovingly challenge students to welcome one another equally across school, social, and economic boundaries.

The Grace And Truth of Jesus

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Just before the initial COVID-19 shutdown, our high school Sunday school teaching team had started a series on human sexuality. Before we got into the content itself, we took some time to frame the series in light of Jesus’ over-all posture toward people. We shared John 1:14 and pointed to the ways the Gospel writers highlighted both Jesusgraciousness and his truthfulness. He dined with sinners and welcomed the vulnerable and spoke gently to those on the margins. But he didnt shy away from speaking honestly about sin and what it would cost him. We reminded students that Jesus is our model both for being gracious and for speaking truth to one another from the Word. We encouraged them to ask God to fill us and our conversation with both grace and truth, following Jesus who is himself grace and truth.

If we hope to encourage students to grow in embodying grace and truth in difficult conversations and relationships, we as leaders must also be growing in these traits ourselves. On the one hand, do we walk patiently with students who test us or try to push us away? As we present the Scriptures to teenagers week in and week out, are we making space for their questions? Do we make it a point to apologize and ask for forgiveness when weve blown it? Do we extend grace when our students have blown it? On the other hand, are we brave to address conflict in the group? Do we lovingly confront students when we see an area where God may be challenging them to grow? And perhaps most convicting, are we willing to receive correction in the truth ourselves?

Jesus was the only human being to perfectly embody both grace and truth. As we look to him we will find our posture, our delivery, and the content of our message continually being transformed after the pattern of his likeness.

The Rest of Jesus

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

Rest doesnt come easily to me. As a driven firstborn and the daughter of two generations of small business owners, my natural default is to find my worth in what Im achieving. As youth ministers, we can often feel the need to measure up or to prove our value in the churches we serve.

The spiritual problem with this approach to life is not just personal; as a minister of the gospel my drivenness also affects the teenagers, leaders, parents, and church members I serve. If you and I want to be truly gospel-centered youth ministers, we must lead in rest. This means we take vacation, guard our day(s) off, and prioritize our time alone with God. But it also means we must learn to value people over projects and to allow those around us to drop the ball.

If were not careful, we can create a ministry culture that looks more like the brick factory of Pharaohs Egypt where the Taskmaster is always calling for more production (Ex. 5:1-18) than the Vinedressers peaceful garden, in which we abide in Jesus the vine (Jn. 15:1-8). Do our ministries invite teenagers into restful dependence on Jesus? Or do we give our students moral and spiritual to-do lists, making church just one more place where they feel they must measure up?

Theres a delicate balance between calling people to excellence and calling them to rest. The gospel always bears fruit (Col. 1:6, 10)—and not just any fruit, but good fruit. Still, this fruitfulness doesnt come as a result of our striving for perfection or trying to prove ourselves, it comes from abiding in Jesus. In the gospels economy, restful abiding (not striving) is the true source of productivity.

As you seek to put the gospel at the center of your ministry to teenagers, dont forget that they are “observing the outcome of your way of life” and noticing the overall tone of your ministry. How we serve them—in the welcoming, gracious, truth-telling, and restful way of Jesus—is just as essential to our gospel witness as the content of what we teach.

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