Youth group culture: fully known.
This article was originally written for Rooted Ministries.
What is the greatest thing about the gospel? This may seem like an unanswerable question, or an undeserved distinction that’s little more than debate fodder for those who have nothing better to do with their time or academic sophistications than split theological hairs. Nevertheless, while the whole of the gospel is the greatest good for mankind, I contend that there is one thing greater than all the others; that, perhaps, there is one ray of truth that shines ever so slightly brighter in the sun of God’s unmerited favor; that in this pronouncement of glad tidings there is one beam of grace whose splendor and magnificence reflects more fully the complexity and immensity of the Heavenly Father’s disposition towards his children. And it’s the truth at the core of the gospel itself: the imputation of Christ’s righteousness on us.
I should say double imputation because, in the gospel, Jesus completes the wondrous transaction whereby he imputes his righteousness on us while taking on himself our un-righteousness. This glorious exchange of his perfection for our filth, his holiness for our sinfulness, is the wonder of wonders. How can it be that the sovereign Creator cares for his creation enough to live amongst them, and, what’s more, die for them? How can it be that the Heavenly Father would do so much for we who’ve done so little for him? How can it be that a God defined by such righteousness, glory, and holiness could exchange all of that for our rampant iniquity, obscenity, and filth? But that’s exactly what God does: he showers us with his love and drenches us in his grace all while fully knowing us!
This is the core of the good news — that while we are exceedingly sinful, God demonstrates over and over again the “the exceeding riches of his grace.” (Eph 1:7) The greatest thing about the gospel is that in spite of God seeing everything we do, knowing everything we think, and hearing everything we say, he still went to the cross for us and doles out free, unbridled grace upon us. Jesus’s glorious substitution and vicarious atonement on the cross is the fearless announcement of the end of all shame and pretending. No longer should we fear coming before the throne of grace; rather, we’re given the invitation to come boldly, just as we are. (Heb 4:16)
Shame entails something about you being disclosed or revealed that you didn’t want known. It causes disgrace, embarrassment, and guilt. The thing is, we know ourselves intimately and, therefore, we lie to ourselves constantly. We know that often we are the most egregious hypocrites, but as long as our peers aren’t aware, as long as we can save face, then we feel okay. Sadly, I believe these notions of pretense and artificiality are the biggest detriments to the believer’s pursuit of God, especially in youth ministry.
Youth ministries are routinely cheapened into glorified dentist appointments. (You know, when you exaggerate about how often you’ve been flossing and how little soft drink you’ve been drinking.) We don’t want to appear incompetent or deficient, so we “extend the truth” to hide our shame and pacify our guilt. And often youth groups are denigrated in much the same manner. The parents muddle the expectations, both for the youth pastor and the youth, treating the whole thing as some sort behavior-modification experiment. Their unspoken but heavily implied entreaty is, “Tell them what to do; make them obey us; keep them from having premarital sex or taking drugs.” The youth pastor, not wanting to cause a rift with and the parents or lose the trust of the senior pastor, then changes his message and focus, and all hope for a thriving youth ministry is lost.
Likewise, the youth often come to the group putting on their “Sunday best,” thinking that if they can appear put together and answer a few questions, then maybe they won’t be called out and everyone will stay off their case. Teenagers can be phenomenal play-actors when it comes to their Christianity (as can we adults) But these acts won’t last long under the sound preaching of the truth of the gospel, because the gospel means you’ve been found out!
We no longer have to keep up our charades of righteousness, don masks of piety, or pretend to be something that we’re not. This is how the Pharisees lorded over others, fashioning their own masks of religiosity for the praise and exaltation and attention of men. But throughout his time on earth, Jesus sternly rebuked them for their hypocrisy. (Mt 23:1–36) God’s glad tidings mean you’ve been laid bare, you’ve been exposed, and despite all that’s uncovered, you are celebrated and adored by a Heavenly Father who revels in championing his transformative and redemptive grace. Jesus’s gospel is the end of shame, the eradication of guilt! It’s the divine pronouncement that you’re fully known and fully delighted in — that you’re guilt is nailed to the cross and your shame is washed away in the flood of the Savior’s love. It’s freedom from condemnation, rest for our weary souls, and relief from our heavy burdens. (Rom 8:1; Mt 11:28–30) It’s the deliverance from the labors of self-love and artificiality. It’s liberation from all sense of pride and pretense.
With a proper understanding of the gospel, our youth ministry cultures will transform from groups that implicitly proselytize performance and pretense into ones that promote boldness, confidence, and edification. (Heb 4:13–16) A youth group that’s driven by the gospel of shame-killing, guilt-destroying grace is one that inspires participants to come, not with their religious résumés, but with their catalog of sins in hand.1 We don’t come as religious thespians persisting our pretending but as penitent fugitives who’ve ceased their running.
God’s gospel is the good news that you’ve been found out, found guilty, found wanting — but that God’s Son has come for the guilty, the needy. It’s solace and rest, and “the rest [it] offers is the rest of meekness, the blessed relief which comes when we accept ourselves for what we are and cease to pretend.”2
Thomas Adam, Private Thoughts on Religion and Other Subjects Connected With It (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1843), 62.
A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Whitakers, NC: Positive Action For Christ, 2007), 90.