In elementary school, everyone wanted a Starter jacket. The Starter jacket was a winter coat for each major NFL or NBA team with the team’s colors and logo. I can remember combing Eastbay magazine, circling my favorite shoes and jackets. My mom, not entertaining the ridiculous price of a Starter jacket, but knowing I loved the Chicago Bulls, bought me a winter coat with the Chicago Bulls logo on it.
I pretended to be grateful. It was a Bulls jacket, which was good, but it was not a Starter Bulls jacket. I wanted to be like those guys with Starter jackets. I wanted to fit in and for people to like me. And I thought I could get all of that from a winter coat.
One day at recess, people separating based on the brand of their jackets. My best friend, who was the alpha male of the group, declared that my non-Starter jacket was a Starter jacket in his eyes. Because of that, I got to hang out with the “Starter jacket” crowd.
This mindset I had as a kid is not much different than the one we often have as teenagers or adults. We want to fit in with the world around us. We tend to view ourselves as better than others. Often we feel as though we must have the right phone, the right video game system, the right house, or the right look. We will not associate with certain people because we find them different, strange, or uncomfortable.
Of course, we see this in our students as well. The good news is that this is not what Jesus created us, or them, for. We have been given a new mindset in Christ along with our new life in Christ. Life, purpose, and fuel for ministry do not need be to generated, for we have them all in Christ.
We are still like the kids on the playground, albeit in more sophisticated ways. Yet God calls us to a diverse setting, the church: a group of people from all backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, personalities, and ethnicities. In church, we find those who feel they don’t quite belong as well as those who have their “group.” Even at church, we battle the temptation to live with the mindset that focuses on living to “fit in.”
This is not the mindset we envision or hope for in our youth groups.
Mercies of God
Paul writes in Romans 12: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God…” (Rom. 12:1a). Paul has just spent the last eleven chapters describing God’s sovereign grace to sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, he appeals to these mercies as the source for the Christian to live with a new mindset. With this mindset, Christians see service to the body of Christ as the natural expression of their new life in Christ. As youth pastors, we can invite our students into this new mindset by inviting them into life with Jesus.
Note that Paul’s appeal is not based on fear, punishment, or penalty, but God’s mercy. We can communicate to students that God’s mercies mean that they have been justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, not by their ability to fit in (Rom. 3:23-24). The mercies of God direct them to receive Christ’s atoning work by faith, not by their efforts to please their friends (Rom. 3:25). The mercies of God tell them that Christ died for them while they were still sinners (Rom. 5:8). The mercies of God save them from what their sin deserves and instead give them eternal life in Christ (Rom. 6:23). Because of the salvation they have in Christ, he works all things together for their good (Rom 8:38).
New Clothes in Christ
The lengths that God went to save us reveal not only his great love but also the bankruptcy of the self-focused mindset with which we were born. Our students know that going through life working for acceptance or attempting to conform constitutes a poor life. Paul’s appeal is not from a place of God’s judgment, but God’s mercies and his unfathomable grace, so that we will believe in the riches we have in Christ.
You know that old pair of shorts your dad wears that he loves, but your mom and siblings are embarrassed every time he wears them? Or that threadbare shirt from college the still wears to remind him of a time long in the past? He doesn’t need a patch and thread— he needs new clothes! And so do we. The new “clothes” are our identity in Christ: our position before God, our comfort, our acceptance, our hope. We have been accepted by God. Invite your students to reflect on and live out of this truth.
My ability to hang out with the “Starter jacket” crowd was not fair— I didn’t even have a real one! God’s mercy to us—and to our students—in Christ is not fair. By faith in Christ, we have been declared righteous even though we are unrighteous. Unlike the different kinds of status in school or among friends, in the church we are not all on different levels of value; we are on the same level in God’s economy as recipients of grace. Our joy for God’s mercies is our social status!
Because God’s mercies in Christ are transforming mercies, we must have a new mindset of service to the body of Christ in this life. So, take joy in becoming more aware of this new mindset God has given us and inviting your students to do the same.
Youth pastors, we hope you will join us for more gospel encouragement at our 2023 conference in Nashville, TN.