What the Doctrine of Sanctification Can Do for Your Youth Ministry

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Why is this not working? Why are we not making progress? Why does it seem like we’re taking three steps forward and two steps back? These are questions I’m sure you’ve asked at one point or another; I know I have. Ministry is difficult and it can be even more difficult when we don’t see the growth we expect to see in our students, or in ourselves. But could it be that we are placing expectations on ourselves, our ministries, and our students that are above and beyond what even Scripture places on us?

While I’m not the student pastor at my church, I do have the privilege of serving on the adult leadership team for the student ministry. One of the responsibilities that comes with this role is, on occasion, teaching. I recall one evening working through Acts and really feeling like the lesson I had prepared was on-point; I just knew the kids were going to have major “light bulb” moments by the time I finished. Unfortunately, not even ten minutes into the lesson I was hit with the hard truth that much of what I said was not having the effect I had hoped it would. One or two students picked up what I was laying down, but there were just as many who looked back at me with blank stares, as if I’d just tried to explain the intricacies of quantum physics.

I remember the frustration that followed after that evening. What did I do wrong? Why aren’t they getting this stuff? Why aren’t they responding and growing as quickly as I want them to? That’s when the Lord brought to my mind my own Christian walk and how, perhaps, it wasn’t the lack of response from the youth that was the problem, but rather my own expectations of immediate growth that I had placed on them.

I can tend to be a theology-nerd; I can easily get carried away with the academics of the faith. But, while it is important to step out of the “ivory tower,” it’s not always so easy to see how the “theory” of theology affects the “practice” of ministry. In this case, though, I think we could benefit a great deal from finding the connection between the doctrine of sanctification and our practice of youth ministry.

What is Sanctification?

For many of you, this may seem like a pedantic “re-hashing” of something you’re already familiar with. But stick with me.

In the strictest sense, sanctification is a setting apart for God’s purposes, or being made holy. Both of these things have been done already; Christ, through his death, has become our complete sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30, ESV).  But, in a here-and-now sense, sanctification is an on-going process in which God works through us to bring us into greater conformity to Christ. It is “growing” in our knowledge of Jesus and in his grace (2 Peter 3:18). It is the process by which we fix our eyes on Jesus and are thereby “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Sanctification is to be “transformed” by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) – knowing that it is actually God who works the whole process through us (Phil. 2:13).

So often, we view and understand sanctification as a personal transformation, but I believe the doctrine can also apply to the growth and transformation of our ministries.

What is important for us to see is that sanctification is an ongoing process and (it’s important to note) one that God has ultimately promised He will accomplish in time. Sanctification is a process that God works out in our lives from the moment of salvation until the day we enter Heaven. None of us becomes completely like Christ over night (or ever in this life). If you disagree, please get up with me because I want to learn from you. Even Paul realized perfection, in terms of Christ-likeness, was an on-going process with ups and downs, and a state of being that humans, in our fallen state, can never fully accomplish. In Philippians 3:12-14 Paul plainly says that he has not reached perfection but he presses on to “make it [his] own.”

So, how does this help me?

Many of us would say we don’t need to see instant and overnight spiritual growth in our students. However, from a practical standpoint, I think we too often expect it – rather than trusting God to accomplish His work in and through us, in His own time and way. By falling into this mindset, we set unreasonable expectations for ourselves, our ministries, and on those to whom we minister. We expect our teaching to really sink in with our youth, and we get frustrated when they don’t seem to get it on the first go around. We expect parents to fully grasp the importance of the Word in their student’s life, and we become discouraged when they don’t immediately re-align their student’s priorities and schedules. We hope that our youth would look up to us and seek us out for advice, and we are exasperated when that doesn’t seem to happen.

The doctrine of Sanctification should free us from those unrealistic expectations. If God intended spiritual growth to be a process, who are we to expect that results will always be immediate? Paul, who was arguably more productive in ministry than many of us today, even understood that immediate and complete spiritual growth was not something that he had achieved but was rather a slow and complex transformation. That realization pushed him to not dwell on the past and become frustrated or downcast when the reality of things was different from the hope and expectation of things. Instead, he pushed ahead “toward the goal to win the prize” of eventual, ultimate, and complete spiritual perfection with Jesus in eternity (Phil. 3:13-14).

This is the hope we have in our ministries.

When things aren’t going exactly as you’d like them to go, remember that life and ministry are both a process. God is ultimately at work in your work. He is faithful to not let His Word return void (Isa. 55:11), and He will bring to completion the good work He is doing in and through you (Phil. 1:6).

Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

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