Why gospel-centered youth ministry necessitates pastoral patience.
This article was originally written for Rooted Ministries.
Gospel-centered youth ministry is both the most needed and most neglected aspect of most churches. I know that is, perhaps, a reckless and sweeping generalization to some, but in my experience, youth ministers have been put in the ultimate “catch-22.” They’re lost in the deadly triad of what they’ve been told teens need, what parents say they want to see in their youth, and what the clergy has tasked them to accomplish. Youth pastors are often shied away from preaching the unadulterated message of the gospel in lieu of focusing on ensuring that the teens with which they’ve been entrusted don’t mess up. And so long as “not messing up” prevails as the predominant aspiration of any youth ministry, the tendency will always be to rely on regulation and guilt to get those “wayward” teens to straighten up.
The fact remains, though, that youth ministry is at its worst when it’s relegated into being nothing more than a teenage daycare, instilling in them only do’s and don’ts.
Youth ministries can quickly devolve into legalistic playgrounds where rules run rampant. Sadly, many are fine with this arrangement. As long as nothing “worldly” infects or affects their youth, many parents and leaders ascribe this as the mark of a successful ministry. But the youth group isn’t a church-appointed obedience school for teens who’d rather rebel. Instead, it is a critical extension of the church body in which its future dwells.
Such is why youth ministers and leaders ought to be encouraged and emboldened in their efforts of expositing the gospel of grace to teens. Youth ministry is at its best when it is “rightly dividing the Word truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), when it is describing to teens in a myriad of ways how God’s gospel frees them to be obedient, how Christ’s finished work for them on the cross liberates them from caring about their own interests to courageously investing their lives in others. The gospel of God’s free pardon and abundant mercy through Jesus is the very truth that enables and empowers students to not talk back to their parents, to not slander their peers behind their backs, to not bully those who are weaker, to not indulge themselves in pornography, alcohol, and drugs. In short, grace is actually what enables and empowers the Christian life.
Actions done for God will never be inspired by increased attention to rules and regulations. Only a richer, deeper knowledge of the depths of the gospel can inform and inspire our actions for the sake of the gospel. It is only as students are confronted with the horrific cruciform suffering of their Savior rightly deserved by us because of sin that they will grasp the magnitude of the gospel. This is the only message that inspires their love, devotion, obedience.
Endeavoring to preach this sort of message to teenagers will likely be a frustrating, laborious venture because preaching the gospel won’t always result in immediate life-changing decisions. In fact, it almost never will. Grace is a long-term game. It’s not a silver bullet. The “fixes” that legalistic preaching brings, while often producing the appearance of change, never last. The change and growth that’s seen in that system will eventually be exposed for the façade that it is, often in heartbreaking or excruciating ways. Gospel-centered preaching isn’t enamored by the instantaneous response that’s accompanied by guilt-ridden preaching. Its only emphasis remains concentrating on the love and glory of God in the person and work of his Son, Jesus Christ, on behalf of filthy, rotten wretches. In his book, The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine writes excellently to this effect when he says:
A longing for immediate revival and return can tempt us to say no to patience and yes to shortcuts . . . Pastors are long-distance grace runners.1
Preaching grace is like running a marathon. There’s no easy route to the finish line. There are no shortcuts. Notwithstanding the abundance of distractions and detractors from this message, the youth of today are in desperate need of one thing, and that’s grace. Not more systems of scorekeeping and debt collecting and reward giving. In fact, there’s evidence in droves that our insistence on installing systems of requited performance infect our youth with all manner of exhaustion, mental illness, and burnout. Take, for instance, the following passage from John Thornton Jr. writing on Vox recently:
While on a youth retreat with my church a few months ago, I asked about 10 kids, ages 13 to 18, to take a few minutes and write down three words to describe what their lives felt like. They go to a variety of schools, from private and religious to urban public and magnet, and come from a range of backgrounds. After a few minutes writing down their answers silently, we sat in a circle in the living room of our rented cabin and began sharing. One student wrote on a whiteboard each word that the group agreed aptly described their lives.
By the end of the exercise, the following words were written on the whiteboard: stressful, complicated, over-involved, full of transitions, anxiety, uncertainty, pressure, and exhaustion . . . this is the reality for almost all kids today. There’s variance as to how they experience these things based on the types of privilege they come from, but I have to say I’m convinced that most kids today can’t escape this stress and pressure — only survive.
We have inundated our teens with a sneaky law that’s slowly killing them. We’ve taught them that while initial salvation is with Jesus, sustained righteousness is on them. Our messages to youth have been boiled down to nothing but pithy conversations about better obedience. There’s no life, here. Only death.
Life only comes with the proclamation of free and inexhaustible grace. This means preaching Christ from every page of Scripture. This means showing your students the beautiful narrative of the Bible on which to find Jesus’s shadow. This means preaching the whole counsel and glory of God, even when that necessitates navigating the tricky and tedious passages.
And make no mistake, such an enterprise is no small task. It requires perseverance and patience on all fronts. Your students may groan at the notion of engaging a study of one of the boring books of the Bible. The parents may begrudge your insistence on upholding sola gratia in front of their teens each week. But notwithstanding those who may decry your methods or the lack of rapid revival, stay the course. Your students don’t need another lecture in morals. They don’t need another discourse detailing all the ways they need to “straighten up and fly right,” and how they’re capable of doing so. Teens (and you, as well) need to hear about their sin; about how inadequate they are and how utterly incapable they are of ever living up to God’s law, regardless of religious performance. They need to be reminded of the depths of their sin and infinitely deeper bowels of mercy and forgiveness that are found with Christ. In short, your students need grace.
Therefore, youth ministers, do not recoil at concerns over your message of grace by nullifying it with the admixture of works and stipulations and formulas for acceptance by obedience. (Gal 2:21) Do not cower from the message of grace by infusing it with qualifiers and exceptions. To do so is to cage it, relegating it to impotency. To understand how life works, we must first understand the genesis of life in Christ, and that’s through the unsullied, untouched message of grace.
Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 121, 124.