God is our great bridge-builder. At the heart of the gospel is the story of a God who bridges the chasm that separates a holy God and sinful humanity. This is the reason that Jesus took on flesh and lived the perfect life we never could. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection made it possible for sinners to be reconciled back to God.
But Jesus’ work does not end there. The stubbornness and sinfulness of humanity spills into our horizontal relationships with one another. Sin creates a chasm between both God and our neighbor. Because of sin and brokenness, the dividing walls of fear, resentment, distrust, gossip, malice, hatred, and self-conceit have fractured every possible inch of human relationships, including those within the walls of the church. Youth groups are no exception.
Reconciled to Christ, Reconciled to One Another
At a recent youth service, our students were asked to submit prayer requests using an online form. As requests came in, I was deeply moved. Of course, we received requests about academics, upcoming school tests, grandparents’ health, and growth in Christ. But, some of the most heart-felt requests highlighted the tensions our students feel with parents, siblings, friends, and one another at church.
These prayer requests highlighted the often invisible barriers that exist between longtime friends who drift away from each other. There were prayer requests that illuminated the tensions at home that led to fractured relationships with parents, often creating divisions that last months and years.
In Ephesians 2:14-16, the Apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus came into the world to break down these dividing walls. Yes, Jesus restores the separation between God and humanity, but he destroys the barriers that separate us from one another as well. As youth pastors, we may spend too much time trying to help our students prioritize a right relationship with God that we unintentionally overlook the right relationships Jesus came to restore with our neighbors. Jesus came not only to cleanse us of our sins, but also to remove the barriers that sin creates in our relationships with one another.
Teenagers need to be reminded that the heart of the gospel message is the hope that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection radically alter our relationships for the better. Yes, the outworkings of that reconciliation may take time and the healing may not be automatic. But our starting place towards wholeness and reconciliation with one another is far better off than what we might imagine because of our righteous standing before our Heavenly Father. Our vertical reconciliation informs and empowers our horizontal reconciliation.
Reconciliation in Your Youth Group
As noted, for those who are growing in their relationship with God, there will be challenges. The fabric of their lives might detail a tapestry characterized more by relational hurt, brokenness, and pain. Each day our students carry with them the burdens from a conversation with mom or dad that ended in a prolonged silent treatment. Our students may sit a few rows back from someone whom they have written off because of how they felt slighted or hurt years ago. As youth workers, we are called to enter the relational world of teenagers as bridge-builders and reconcilers, joining Jesus on his mission to break down dividing walls.
Here are some practical thoughts for your consideration: as youth pastors, we have a distinct advantage of seeing a macro perspective of our youth ministries. We get to observe who is coming and going, who sits on the margins, who is quiet or disengaged, and who might need a friend. As such, rebel against a culture that lends itself more towards avoidance and division. We get to play a part as bridge-builders among the different members of our youth group and model for others what Jesus’ work on the cross means for our relationships today.
I love connecting newcomers with oldtimers and encouraging our students to build relationships beyond usual boundaries. I love seeing our students in our fairly large youth group of 150 students engage in unexpected ways that models curiosity and risk-taking: middle school students talking with high school seniors, 8th grade boys connecting with older 10th grade boys, and adults and teenagers sharing space together.
As a youth pastor, we are in a unique position to draw different groups of people together across several generations. I would encourage us to not lose sight of the fact that this task of building bridges should be done with the purpose of joining God’s mission of breaking down dividing walls.
Why do I try to walk students out at the end of youth night? To break down dividing walls that might exist among church, parents, youth ministry, and students. What would be the purpose of advocating for our youth to join our English Ministry adult congregation several times per year? To break down dividing walls that separate our students and the very congregation into which they will belong once they age out of youth group. When siblings arrive and make separate beelines for opposite ends of our gathering space, why do I make it a point to connect with both of them while making efforts to enfold them into the center? To break down dividing walls that we wear on our sleeves, knowingly or unintentionally, with the goal to live into the new way of reconciliation made possible for us through Jesus.
Gospel Hope for Lonely Students
It should be no surprise to anyone that our youth feel alone. Despite a multitude of tools for connection at their disposal, there is no replacement for real-life connection and authentic community. When our students start from a place of feeling disengaged and disconnected in some of the most important relationships that exist in their lives, youth pastors have a message of hope for lonely students.
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross puts our relational standings with one another on a radically different footing. Our starting place with one another is far more solid and grace-filled than what we might perceive. Jesus has closed the relational gap that we sinful humans so often feel. On the cross, Jesus has put to death the boundaries that divide the body of Christ, his Church.
As ministers of the Gospel, may we remind our students– and ourselves!– that the hardest work has been already done by Jesus Christ on the cross. May we learn to live as recipients of this gospel freedom and grace that comes through Jesus Christ, the One through whom all relationships are made new, right, and restored.