Ask Rooted: How Do You Shift to Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry?

shift gospel centered

It’s one thing to talk about gospel-centered youth ministry, and another thing to actually do it. Many youth ministers wonder what practical changes we can make to youth group gatherings in order to better express the good news of God’s grace.

We asked our Rooted writers to tell us about their own progression to gospel-centered youth ministry from more attractional models. (“Attractional” refers to ministry that draws teenagers into the church building, with less thought to the content and desired fruit of students’ participation.) We hope their answers will inspire you as you point teenagers to Jesus. And remember, the gospel is rest. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).

Matt Brown, Family Pastor at The Gathering Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO

If you watch many post-game press conferences, the losing coach is often asked what the team could have done better. Many times their answer is cliché coach-speak: “We need to go back to the basics.” This simple answer can be helpful when considering changes to move from an attractional youth group to a gospel-centered one. We need to go back to the biblical basics found in Acts 2:42.

After Pentecost, believers gathered together and “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). As well-intentioned as spectacular programming can be, it often distracts from reading God’s Word, singing, prayer, and fellowship. We need to simplify. Focus on expository teaching, praying and singing together, and opportunities for teenagers to spend time together over food. Please realize though, these changes might result in painful questions like “how are you going to grow this youth group?” Rest easy in the grace of God. Your growth strategy is simply what the early church did; consuming the Bread of Life through worship, prayer, Bible study, and fellowship. 

Emmie Thompson, Co-Director of Middle School Ministry at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, TN

Several things come to mind when answering this question.

First, regularly ask for guidance—from the Lord and from others! This may seem obvious, but our posture is key to making the shift in a more gospel-centered direction. We cannot do it alone. We are finite and have blind spots. Attractional ministry is often motivated by a right desire for students to attend church and to be exposed to the gospel. We can easily slip into manufacturing attraction instead of trusting the inherent attractiveness of the gospel for students. Pray for a fear of the Lord over fear of man (in this case, the students)!

Second, prioritize student buy-in and leadership. It is easy for youth leaders to view themselves as the ones solely leading the youth group. However, you cannot do what you do without the leadership, insights, and hearts of your students! Teenagers crave the same healing and redemption that you and I have found in the gospel. You’ll need two critical element in order to bring students in on your vision of a gospel-centered ministry. The first is a genuine, trusting relationship with your student leaders. This takes time! The second requires that you explicitly address what and why you do what you do with the youth group. This displays the power of the gospel that animates all that the youth group is. These two things show teenagers your heart of dependence on the gospel.

Paradoxically, when a youth group is gospel-centered and not attractionally-driven, its ministry will be attractive. Why? The gospel and a Christ-centered community is truly the answer to everything that teenagers (and we ourselves) are searching for. In their desire for healing, hope, and love, point them to what really lasts and fulfills.

Joey Turner, Pastor of Student Ministries at Patterson Park Church in Beaver Creek, OH

When I think about moving from an attractional ministry to a gospel-centered one, play becomes more meaningful than ever. Please do not think because you are going gospel-centered, you have to go “no fun!” The attractional youth ministry model is not bad because it has too much playing, but because it makes play primary instead of the gospel.

Play is so important, especially for teenagers from hard places. Think about all of the things that take place during play in the leader-student relationship: “Great job.” “Oh, I love how you did that.” “Come on, we can do it!” 

Play is disarming, it allows for connection and shared experience. New kids can join in without being in the spotlight. Play provides a means of building trust with a student, allowing him or her to observe whether you are a safe person. Your youth ministry will suffer if you get rid of play in the name of “gospel-centeredness.” Gospel people love to love students, and students love to play.

Talk to your leaders about the benefits of play. Help them to see that play is a tool for gospel-centered ministry. On a practical level, this means we want high participation from our leaders in our games, rather than having them stand on the side while students play. So we choose games that involve everybody. We try to foster inside jokes, laughter, and great memories. We want students to remember that “those gospel people” loved and cared about them—that we were safe, fun, and desperate for Jesus.

Steve Eatmon, Associate Pastor at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland

Attractional youth groups focus on entertainment and relationships. The main goal is to get as many kids through the door as possible. To do so, you center your activities on whatever keeps the most amount of teenagers present for the most amount of time. The main metrics are attendance and how much money is generated and spent to ensure that attendance. By contrast, gospel-centered youth groups focus on the Person of Jesus. The main metrics are the depth and orthodoxy of Bible teaching and the experience of God’s grace. Relationships are not built around whatever keeps students enjoying their time at church. Rather, in gospel-centered ministry, we foster relationships in hopes they result in life transformation into the image of Christ. Teenagers come not because they find entertainment, but because they find genuine community and hope in Jesus.

Simply put, if you want to move to a more gospel-centered youth ministry, change your metrics.  If you change your metrics, you will by design change your focus. To do this, however, requires that people above you (senior pastor, elders presbyters, etc.) are on board with this model. If you can accurately present to your leadership the advantages of the gospel-centered approach as opposed to the attractional model, you can effectively transform your youth ministry focus.     

Andrew Slay, Pastor of Students and Families at Westwood Baptist Church in Cleveland, TN

In transitioning from an attractional to a gospel-centered youth ministry, I would encourage youth ministers to do three things.

Repent for what you’ve done. One of the hardest things about making this transition is admitting you were wrong in how you have done youth ministry in the past, whether wanting to have more numbers, wanting to please parents and students, or being lazy by just “doing what you did in youth ministry.” As hard as it is to admit you were wrong, repentance demonstrates the work the Lord has done in your life through the gospel. By seeking to shift to a gospel-centered youth ministry, your life will be a practical example for parents and students of how the gospel can change our hearts. 

Recast your vision for where you are going. You must explain what gospel-centered youth ministry will look like moving forward. This will help parents and students have right expectations for your events, retreats, mid-week, and Sunday gatherings. During this time, you must explain the difference between attractional and gospel-centered ministry, why you are shifting your model, and what they can expect. Essentially, gospel-centered ministry is rooted in Christ and his Word. By focusing on the goodness of the gospel and the mercy God has shown us in Christ, you will demonstrate to students how to be transformed and how to make disciples. 

Remember who you are serving. When making any transition, there is bound to be pushback from others. Moving from attractional to gospel-centered ministry is no different. You must expect some parents and students to disagree with the vision you are casting. Some of them may even leave because of it. As a follower of Jesus, your aim is to please God and fear him in all you do (2 Cor. 5:9-10). Also, remember that you are not alone. Jesus promised to be with his followers until the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20). So, take courage, knowing that your service and work for the Lord is not in vain.

For encouragement and equipping for gospel-centered youth ministry, it’s not too late to join us for Rooted’s annual conference, November 2-4, 2023 in Nashville, TN!