What is Grace-Filled 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.”

“Grace” gets a lot of press these days, especially in ministry circles. This is by no means a negative thing. Indeed, Rooted exists to help make grace even more at the heart of every youth ministry. But I wonder: how often do we pause to make sure both we and our students know what we mean when we talk about grace? Many of our students could probably tell us that grace comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe even some could cite the GRACE acronym: “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” These are correct answers, to be sure, but somewhat incomplete.

Grace is God’s unmerited love for and delight in sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on their behalf. Grace-filled youth ministry has an expectant longing to see students’ lives transformed by this reality. When we pray that every student would receive grace-filled discipleship, we pray that students would not only cognitively know what grace is, but that they would experience it in their lives.

As we think about how to foster grace-filled ministries, there is no better place to look than Jesus himself. The author and giver of all grace lived a life of compassion and unmerited love. Of course, our ministries will never look exactly like Jesus’. Our sin prohibits us from offering a grace as uniquely unlimited as his, and the love we show to our students will only be a fraction of the all-satisfying love available to them in Jesus.

And yet, Jesus has offered us a sufficient record of his life on earth, giving us a model for grace-filled ministry. A grace-filled ministry is Christocentric, looking continually to Jesus as the perfect source of all grace, love, and mercy.

Grace-Filled Ministry Forgives When Students Mess Up

Spoiler alert: your students will mess up. It’s a guarantee of living among sinners in a fallen world. It might be as minute as a student leader failing to remember to make a meeting, or it might be as devastating as a naked picture scandal from the resident “good girl.” No matter the case, grace-filled youth ministry offers the forgiveness of Christ in these moments. Always. It recognizes the reality of sin and is not surprised when it manifests itself in our student’s lives.

When students fail, grace-filled ministry points them to the final forgiveness given to us through the blood of the spotless Lamb of God. Jesus is the rejoicing father in Luke 15 who welcomes his filthy, wayward child home. Jesus is the one to offer eternal life to a repentant thief on the cross in his last moments of life. When our students sin, we are given an opportunity to encourage them to look to the cross of Jesus and see him loving and forgiving them through his sin-defeating death and resurrection.

Grace-Filled Ministry Delights in the Law of God

And yet – a grace-filled ministry also upholds and delights in the perfect law of God. If we neglect to teach and preach the instruction of the Lord in the name of being “grace-filled,” we have robbed our students of experiencing the richness and fullness of life that is to be found in walking in the statues of the Lord.

Jesus loved the law. He elevated it. He knew it well and preached it often. In John 8, we see the grace-filled ministry of Jesus in action: he rescues a woman caught in adultery and frees her from condemnation. After pronouncing her forgiven, He instructs the woman to “go and sin no more,” inviting her into a richer life of obedience to God’s law.

A grace-filled ministry is never void of God’s perfect law. We delight in it, seeking to walk in it and encouraging our students to do the same. As we do, we rest in the infinite grace of Jesus that meets us every time we fail to do so.

Grace-Filled Ministry Loves The Least of These

In reading the gospel narratives, one thing is clear: Jesus loves sinners. He hangs out with them often, eats with them, and invites himself over to their houses. He goes out of his way to interact with isolated, shameful people whom the world has cast aside. Jesus shows us that a grace-filled ministry seeks the lost, the sick, the outcast. If our ministries are attractive to the “good” kids only, we have failed.

Pursuing and loving the least of these isn’t always easy. Like Zacchaeus, students might believe Jesus wants nothing to do with a sinner like them. Like the poor, the blind, and the sick in Jesus’ day who came to him only with their need, offering love and mercy to students means we forsake expecting anything from them in return. This self-forgetful love lies at the heart of grace-filled ministry. We extend the kindness of Jesus to students—not because we know they have something to offer—but because we ourselves have been shown the same kindness by our Father.

Grace-Filled Ministry Does Not Tie Worth to Performance

In youth ministry, we have a unique opportunity to foster an environment for our students that is markedly different than any they encounter in their daily lives. In school, they are given grades based on their academic performance. If they have a bad day on the soccer field, it might cost their team a game. Socially, they are considered “in” based on what they wear and who they hang out with. In every sphere, their worth is wed to their performance.

Not so in a grace-filled ministry! A grace-filled ministry feels like an exhale for students as they walk through its doors. They know that in this environment, their worth is not tied to what they do—or fail to do. They are loved, accepted, and valued simply because they are a beloved child of God. Their worthiness hinges not on their performance, but on the work of Jesus on their behalf.

A grace-filled ministry looks like Jesus beckoning anxious Martha to his feet, showing her that she does not need to prove herself to anyone. A grace-filled ministry welcomes both over-achievers like Peter and skeptics like Thomas, reminding them that Jesus longs to meet them in both those places.

Friends, what a gift we have to ask for the Spirit to infuse our ministries with the grace of Jesus: forgiving sinners, upholding the law of the Lord, seeking the outcast, and unhinging belovedness from performance. Of course, we will fail. But the same grace we long for our students to know will meet us when we do.

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