Why Gospel Centrality Must Be the Heart of Your Youth Ministry
During an interview in 1970, Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones was asked about mankind’s fundamental problem. Is man’s problem poverty, lack of education, or something else? This was his response:
My quarrel with the general outlook of today is this: That they begin to talk about treatment before they’ve established a true diagnosis. Now I can’t help putting it like this you see. It’s a very poor doctor who medicates symptoms and isn’t aware of the disease that produces the symptoms. To me the disease is the form of the sinful nature of man. And because that is true, none of your medication of the symptoms is going to deal with the problem. And I maintain that this is what history is teaching us. That with all of our advantages today, the problem is as great as ever.
In other words, “...man is a rebel.”
When the world looks at humanity, it sees our needs as primarily environmental and seeks to remedy them with band-aid fixes. If we simply provide people with education, lend a helping hand, and care for others, then there will be progress.
But this is what Lloyd-Jones considers an inferior diagnosis.
Illiteracy, poverty, hunger, etc. are all real problems (and not in any way to be diminished), but they are not the disease. Simply attempting to alleviate the symptoms without dealing with the disease that causes those symptoms will leave us no better off than we were before.
The gospel, however, deals with the disease. Man is a rebel, at enmity with God. Without Christ we are “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Our hearts are turned away, and we are unable to be reconciled on our own. Our enslavement to sin is our most fundamental problem, and there is only one solution: salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8).
At Rooted, we hold closely the principle of “gospel centrality.” Gospel centrality means that the gospel gets top priority in all that we do. Gospel centered student ministry lets the good news about Jesus inform the way we teach, program, and build relationships with students and parents. It’s the center of everything. Why? Because the gospel diagnoses and treats the disease, instead of providing palliative care to symptoms.
Without gospel centrality, youth workers will find themselves treating mere symptoms rather than addressing the main problem. Here are a few ways that can happen:
For too long, youth ministry has often been associated with keeping kids out of trouble and teaching them good morals. Give them something wholesome to do and teach them not to do bad things. “Don’t have sex before marriage. Don’t do drugs. Don’t drink. Stay in school. Be nice to your parents.” But immoral behavior is not the problem.
Are our sins a problem? Yes. But the gospel doesn’t only teach us that our behavior is a problem. It goes down to our very hearts. It’s not just that we do bad things; it’s that we have bad hearts. If we fail to place the gospel at the center of our youth ministries, we will be doing nothing but raising up a generation of Pharisees. Jesus said that it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). In other words, our hearts are the source of our sinfulness. Mere behavior modification is insufficient to treat our real problem.
The gospel deals with that heart problem. When we place our faith in Jesus, He gives us a new heart. He transforms us into new creatures that are no longer enslaved to sin. The gospel doesn’t just modify our behavior–it turns us into new beings (2 Corinthians 5:17).
During the pandemic, our students have experienced loneliness like never before. They see friends less than ever, and they feel miserable. As youth ministers, we want very much to help them find relationships. But if we are not careful, we can make relationships an end in and of themselves.
Relational ministry without gospel centrality turns churches into friend factories instead of faith communities. Broken relationships and loneliness are the result of sin (sometimes our own and sometimes the sins of others). But only the gospel treats the root of that symptom.
Our real need is not only for friendship with other people, but friendship and repaired relationship with God. We are separated from God through sin, and it is only by faith in Christ that we can be brought into a right relationship with God. The gospel tells us that by faith we “have the right to become children of God” (John 1:10-13). And as God’s children, we don’t just have a new Father, but a new family of faith. You see, the gospel gives us more than a group of friends–it gives us a family.
We want students to be happy. We want them to feel like their life is on track. You may feel a tremendous amount of pressure, internal and external, to try to give students a self-esteem boost. This comes from a place of compassion, and that desire isn’t a bad one.
But if happiness is central, rather than the gospel, things get way off base and can truly be deadly to our students. What if sin is what is making them happy? What if they believe that God wants them to be happy above all else? How does that view of life hold up in the real world? When happiness is the center of our lives, anything that makes us feel bad is viewed as “toxic.” And so the notion of sin altogether is toxic.
Failure to put the gospel at the center can lead our students down a path towards sin and destruction.
But gospel centrality deals with emotional health in a much “healthier” way. It shows us that, while we were sinners and enemies of God, God loved us enough to send his Son to die in our place. Our value and identity are found in Him. It teaches us that difficult life circumstances don’t mean that God doesn’t love us, but that He is working all things together for our good.
Lloyd-Jones likens the minister to a doctor. To merely treat a patient’s symptoms without dealing with the underlying disease would be unethical for a medical professional, and how much more for us who deal with human souls? So as you disciple students, don’t get distracted by the symptoms, but build your ministry around the cure we all need: the gospel.