Feed Them Jesus: Why Gospel Centrality Matters in Youth Ministry

“That guy’s talk wasn’t even about Jesus,” my son said as we got in the car after a youth group gathering at another church in town. I was equally stunned as I was proud of my then sixth-grader. Apparently, he paid more attention to his dad’s sermons and the spiritual conversations around our table than it appeared.

My husband was a church-planter pastor during my children’s growing up years. Because our young church lacked other teenagers, my children grew up without a home church youth group. While we loved the intergenerational environment of our church, we also wanted our children to build friendships with Christian peers. Therefore, we were fine with them attending another church’s youth group if they were being fed the true gospel of the grace of Jesus

Our oldest two children found programs where this was the case. When our third child—the son whose observation I’m referencing—reached middle school, he wanted to go with all his school friends to the biggest, most popular middle school youth group in our area. My husband and I had strong reservations, but we told him he could go if I joined him for a first visit to hear the teaching.

A couple nights later I sat in a large atrium counting down the minutes while kids ran around for an hour; the boys playing pool, shuffle ball, and basketball, while the girls mostly stood around in their school cliques. Finally, it was time to go into the auditorium. The worship band played song after song, and then the youth minister gave a brief man-centered message focused on what the kids needed to do for Jesus rather than leading them to rest in Jesus’ accomplished righteousness for us.

My son never asked to go back. 

Even as a sixth grader he was able to discern that the message given was not the gospel. In the same way law enforcement officials’ study of real dollar bills enable them to identify fraudulent money, my son’s knowing the gospel helped him detect a counterfeit gospel message. Youth leader, the gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ is what transforms a heart. Therefore, feed them Jesus.

What Is Gospel-Centrality and What It’s Not

The gospel is not just any teaching plucked from the Bible. A message can mention Jesus, draw upon a Bible passage, come from a Christian leader in church, but the gospel may not have been proclaimed. For the gospel is the word about Christ—the historical facts and the interpretation and implications of those facts for sinful people. Christ came on a rescue mission to live the perfect life and die a sacrificial death for people he came to save who had no other hope apart from him. Romans 1:16 tells us it is this message alone that changes hearts, “…for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

On the other hand, the message my son and I heard offered mere moralism. It left listeners laden with guilt over how we failed to measure up and burdened by what we needed to do to better ourselves as Christians. We do need to hear of our sin. But without the hope of Jesus’ work and worth on our behalf, we are left enslaved. By contrast, the gospel frees us from the need to strive or to prove ourselves. For as Paul preaches in Galatians 1:7, any message that leads us to seek our righteousness in our performance or good works represents a “yoke of slavery,” not the freedom Christ’s finished work brings and he wants us to rest in.

When The Gospel Isn’t Central and When It Is

The opportunity for my son to hang out with his friends playing games he enjoys at the youth group we visited were great perks that entice teenagers, only they lack staying power. My son needed the meat of the gospel. Those who only know a diet of cotton candy theology are starving and don’t know it. 

We hear regularly about the statistically high number of kids who grow up in the church but leave as young adults. Many of them have digested a cotton candy version of Christianity, primarily concerned with following rules and good behavior. When they don’t measure up to the prescribed moral standard, or when they flat out don’t want to follow the rules, they often flee the Church to suppress guilt and shame. On the other hand, I’ve consistently seen teenagers who have been fed a steady gospel diet leave home and seek out a gospel-centered churches and ministries.

Your job as a youth leader extends far beyond the short years you have with a teenager. You have an opportunity to help instill a lifelong love for the Lord. And as you tell them again and again about who Jesus is for them, we pray they will learn to apply the gospel in very specific ways to their daily lives. For instance, here are some practical implications of proclaiming the gospel in your youth ministry: 

  • When students mess up, they know God still smiles upon them and his perfect record is theirs (2 Cor. 5:21)
  • When they feel hurt, misunderstood, or left out, they turn to Jesus knowing he identifies with them, offering acceptance and security (Heb. 4:15).
  • When teenagers feel frustrated by their lack of forward progress (or someone else’s) in the Christian life, they trust God to work out their sanctification (1 Thes. 5:23).
  • When trials come and darkness seems unending, they find comfort remembering Jesus’s suffering and death ensured a day is coming when there will be no more tears (1 Pet. 5:10; Rev. 21:4).

Feed them Jesus. And in your planting and sowing the seeds of the gospel, cast your hope on the promise that God’s Word will not return void (Isa. 55:11). The gospel alone working in the hearts of young people is what leads to sustaining faith and the development of future church men and women, moms and dads. The same gospel frees you, the youth minister, to stand secure in Jesus’ perfect work on your behalf. May the gospel nourish and sustain you as you feed the teenagers in your care.

If you’re looking for gospel-centered training and camaraderie with other youth ministers, we hope you’ll join us at Rooted’s annual conference in Dallas Texas from October 24-26, 2024.

Kristen Hatton holds a master’s in counseling and works primarily with teen girls, parents and families. She is the author of Parenting AheadThe Gospel-Centered Life in Exodus for StudentsFace Time: Your Identity in a Selfie World, and Get Your Story Straight. Kristen and her pastor husband reside in Dallas, Texas and are the parents of three young adults and a son-in-law. Learn more by visiting her website at www.kristenhatton.com.

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