Belonging Before Anything Else in Youth Group

I can still see the look of terror on his 14-year-old face. Martin’s dad had signed the two of them up for our church’s summer mission trip. Martin was entering high school but didn’t attend church regularly because he’d decided he was an atheist. He even wrote an essay in eighth grade outlining why he knew there wasn’t a God. 

But there he was, weighing about 80 pounds, and visibly intimidated by the prospect of being around a group of teenagers he’d never met—not to mention leaving the country to go to Mexico where we would be helping with construction on a church building and serving in children’s ministry. But he didn’t have a choice, so he joined our group that morning at O’Hare International Airport.

God used that week to change Martin’s life forever. He spent his high school years at youth group pretty much every Sunday, went off to college where he was active in a college ministry, and now is an occasional lay preacher at his church. And in fact, today he runs a very successful company he started with one of the guys he met on that same trip.

Belonging Before Belief

So what changed for Martin that week? Let me start by telling you what didn’t happen. He didn’t have any conversations with anyone about his intellectual misgivings to the faith. Nor did he spend the week poring over the Scriptures, examining the claims of Jesus. 

Rather, he spent the week enjoying the community of believers. He encountered Christ through the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), who accepted him unconditionally on that trip. And by the end of it, he was ready to follow Jesus along with the rest of us. The community softened his heart, making his commitment to atheism a short-lived one. 

A few years later, I heard someone verbalize the concept I got to experience tangibly that week: that Christians should allow outsiders to “belong” before they’re asked to believe anything. The old model says that “belief” must come first, but Jesus modeled the former as opposed to the latter. For instance, when he encountered Zacchaeus, he showed him grace, acceptance, and hospitality (Luke 19:1-10) even though Zacchaeus was a (likely reviled) wealthy tax collector. Zacchaeus responded with repentance, and Jesus in turn announced that salvation had come to his house.

Some might warn: But this is dangerous! How can you be sure that this young man actually follows Christ if he doesnt hear the gospel preached?

This is not an either/or set of choices. Martin certainly heard the gospel in our evening team times that week. But how better to communicate the beauty of the gospel in practice than to allow teenagers like Martin to see Christian community from the inside? How better to set Martin up to receive the good news than to surround him with a group of people who love each other well, and who accept people without condition?

The Welcome of the Gospel 

On the trip that week, Martin saw Christian community at its best: people united under the banner of Christ, selflessly serving others, and acting with love and acceptance towards one another. It would be hard to have imagined any other scenario but the one we saw, where he left that trip and put his faith in Jesus.

We won’t always have the luxury of inviting someone far from God along to spend a week with a group of believers. And in fact, it doesn’t always work out the same way it did for Martin. I’ve experienced other instances where people like Martin dont come to faith after a trip or retreat. But the takeaway for our youth ministries is the same, regardless of the results: When nonbelievers show up to your group, the most important thing you can do is to include them as part of your gospel ministry. Help those students know they belong in your group, help them glimpse the gracious welcome of Jesus—whether or not they ever change their beliefs. 

After all, this is what Jesus did. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). He didn’t wait for us to believe him or reject him. He showed us his love, displayed once and for all on the greatest symbol of belonging in history, the cross.

Syler Thomas is a native Texan who has been the student ministries pastor at Christ Church in Lake Forest, Illinois, since 1998. He writes a column for YouthWorker Journal, has had articles published in Leadership Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and is the co-author of two books. Syler and his wife, Heidi, have four kids.

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