Daring to Just Preach the Gospel to Teenagers

Just after the 2018 conference, we received the following email from Arek O’Connell, a long-time friend of Rooted, and it was too encouraging not to share. With the 2019 conference starting Thursday, we wanted to encourage student ministry leaders everywhere to persevere in gospel centrality. When the gospel is shared clearly and repeatedly in youth group, this is the kind of impact it can have on teenagers…

Rooted in Nashville might have been the most formative conference for me and my ministry in the three years that I’ve been coming. I finally experienced the push I needed to truly run gospel-centered youth ministry.

Grand Rapids is an interesting place to live. The spiritual apathy is real and I’ve been very frustrated by the lack of vulnerability and honesty on the part of my students. We’ve tried just about everything to get them to open up, but nothing has worked. I’ve been yearning – maybe even waiting? – for a student to tell me some form of “I don’t feel worthy,” or “I’m scared God doesn’t love me,” so that I could finally give them the good news. For the most part though, we’ve had very surface level conversations with students over the years as we’ve taught them and engaged with them. Our entire volunteer team has felt the frustration as well and sometimes it feels like we’re banging our heads against the wall and going crazy. As you can imagine, it gets discouraging.

While I’ve appreciated Rooted’s suggestion to just preach the gospel over and over again, I’ll confess that my mental response has always been, “Amen! But I can’t do that in my context, because the kids won’t care; they already know the gospel. Even most of their homework from school involves the Bible!” So we’ve been trying to do series: series on social media, relationships, cultural issues, etc. Obviously, we talk about Jesus, but I can’t say that we’ve given just a straightforward gospel presentation and let that speak for itself.

This year at youth group we asked the students to guide our curriculum. We’re calling it ‘fishbowl curriculum.’ At the start of the school year, we asked them to tell us what they wanted to talk about by writing questions and putting them in the fishbowl. Every week, we would answer one of the questions. Once I got all of the questions, I sat down to read them and – backwards as it sounds – I actually became worried because in my soul and heart I knew that the answer to 95% of their questions would be Jesus and the Good News of the Gospel. I’m embarrassed to say that I even thought to myself, “Dangit, I can’t give them the same answer every week! They’re going get bored… I’ve made a mistake.”

I was sitting with that tension as I listened to the first night of plenary talks at Rooted. And I believe the Holy Spirit convicted me and revealed in a big way that – GOSH DANGIT – sharing the news of Jesus and His Gospel of grace once every week maybe isn’t even enough! I went to my Airbnb that night and typed up a new sermon for that Sunday.

It was a straightforward gospel presentation that invited my students to come to know Jesus more and to rest in his work on the cross. I was so nervous. I thought it would be received with an attitude of “Yeah, yeah, we already know all this. Let’s talk about drinking and vaping.”

Dear reader, what followed was the most fruitful night of ministry I’ve had in my entire life. Kids were crying as I echoed David Choi’s line from his Friday night talk, “God loves you so much that he’d rather die than not be with you.” I told them that I can’t imagine how exhausted they were from the constant pressure to perform. I let them know that against the backdrop of that pressure, they could find rest in Jesus.

And you know what happened? We finally saw vulnerability and honesty. What do you know? Preaching the gospel and inviting them to rest in Jesus’s work on the cross worked. Afterwards, we asked them to fill out a “spiritual health survey” with the following questions: 

1) Why do you come to youth group? 

2) What do you hope to do at youth group? 

3) What are your greatest spiritual needs? 

4) What is the biggest obstacle in your relationship with God.

Some of the answers I got read:

“My biggest fear is that in the end, my life/journey wouldn’t have mattered or have been good enough and I will just end up going to hell.”

“I feel like I’ve sinned too much for him to love me anymore.”

“Sometimes I feel like when I pray, he’s maybe not listening to me.”

There were also countless comments about pressure to perform. That they can’t focus on a relationship with Jesus because of school and work. So many are fearful that their works will land them in hell. And written on a sticky note at the top of my computer – as a daily reminder – are the courageous words of one student who wrote:

“I love everything we do here at youth group. It’s a lot of fun BUT we only talk about Jesus a little and I want to talk about him more.”

Ask and you shall receive! I promised the students that from now on, each week, they can know that I am going to preach the gospel to them. That the answer to their questions will in one way or another find its root and power in the gospel and in Jesus’s work on the cross. And the overall response was that these kids are more excited than ever to come to youth group now.

I just wanted to share this story with you and let you know that what you’re doing is changing lives and has transformed our ministry forever.

Arek is a CA native who currently serves as an ordained high school and young adult youth pastor at Hillside Community Church in Grand Rapids, MI where he lives with his wife Jamie and daughter Kaia. Arek holds an M. Div. from Western Theological Seminary, but is still just a big kid at heart. Arek loves spending time with family and friends and will talk to you about football, specifically the Raiders, for hours if you want to.

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