Contact Work: Youth Minister As Presence of Judgment

How many times have you done contact work in the community, you see a student, and his or her first, nervous response is, “I’m coming to church this Sunday, I promise.” Now, you had no intention of asking this student about his or her recent lapse in attendance. In fact, you probably have not noticed it. However, you’re greeted with the expectation of shame.
Recently, I visited a school and saw a fantastic young man. This kid is so delightful that I’m thrilled any time I see him. He has a relationship with Jesus, and like all of us, probably has his ups and downs in his walk with God. In spite of my genuine enthusiasm, when I approached him, his first statement was, “I’m coming to Sunday school this week, I promise.”
I think this common reaction to youth ministers reflects the expectation of judgment all people naturally carry as a product of original sin. After eating from the tree in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve run from God when they hear Him coming. They hide and lie when He asks questions.
Does God immediately drop the hammer on these two new sinners when He approaches them? No, the Lord asks Adam and Eve about why they are hiding. He asks them neutral questions, and, in essence, is offering them an undeserved opportunity for mercy.
How does the recognition of the reality that people expect judgment from God and the church inform youth pastors? First, I think it reinforces the need to repeatedly teach the same old story: Christ died for sinners and there is no condemnation for those in Christ. God approaches us from a standpoint of grace. As the Anglican Prayer of Humble Access, states, we serve the God “whose property it is always to have mercy.”
Also, from a practical perspective, student pastors have to maintain an awareness that the students we serve, like all people, come housed with a compulsive expectation and heightened sensitivity of judgment. Therefore, any message or action to a student suggesting that they don’t measure up cuts deep, deep to the core. Very often, consistently inviting kids to events while out in the community doing contact work puts them under judgment. Even though we may be trying to include a student, often they view the invitation as something to live up to. If I come my youth pastor likes me. If I don’t I have let him down.
Beyond Bible study and Sunday school, student pastors need to embody the message of grace in contact work, in a manner that reflects the same message we teach. Our relationships need to communicate that I love you where you are; my interest is you, not your attendance. You measure up through Jesus, and have nothing to live up to any longer.

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries for eighteen years at the Church of the Advent, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide” (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition’s Book of the Year (First-Time Author). He is also the co-editor of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School (New Growth Press) and the author of Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024). Cameron is a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University undergrad, and summa cum laude graduate from Wake Forest with an M.A. in Education. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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