I sat in my office a couple months ago realizing we had missed the mark on our mission. Our leadership team longs to raise up gospel-minded students who are growing in devotion to Jesus, dedication to one another, and drive to reach people with the Good News. As I reviewed our budget spending over the first six months of the year I noticed a disproportionate amount of money relegated the line item “events.” Youth events can be a tool to build relationships with students, but realizing more than half of our ministry budget had been spent in that direction caused me to think about our priorities.
The longer I follow Jesus, the more I realize that everything in life will work to pull me away from focusing on the gospel—and this reality reaches to student ministry as well. The process of evaluating myself and our ministry has been painful at times; yet it is also a great source of joy. The Lord is at work when we examine ourselves honestly. Here are four questions to help you think about your church’s priorities when it comes to youth ministry.
1.) Have we forgotten that teenagers are part of the church?
The way we structure student ministry can reveal what we believe about the people involved in it. When we push teenagers out of the corporate worship gathering and into a classroom, our actionscommunicate that they need to sit at the “kids table” when it comes to church. Sunday School can be a great thing, but consider whether it might happen at a time that doesn’t conflict with corporate worship. Or if youth programing during corporate worship is a model for your church’s ministry, look for ways students can brush shoulders with others in the Body throughout the week.
The question of integration goes beyond Sunday morning worship as well. Are we actively encouraging teenagers to contribute to the mission of God in the local church and community? Do we offer appropriate opportunities to serve? Have we created environments in community groups or classes that allow teenagers to get to know young families or retired people? Do they have a voice in public gatherings or are they relegated to the role of community babysitter?
If we don’t find ways to involve students in the church as a whole, we risk making youth ministry more like a parachurch organization occupying space in the building regularly. Teenagers are part of the church today. We must start seeing them this way or the Body will suffer.
2.) Have we neglected the gospel in our teaching?
The gospel is so much more than being good or feeling good about ourselves. Emphasizing the commands of Scripture (don’t have sex, cuss, do drugs, lie, etc.) without the truth of what Jesus has done misses the Good News entirely.
Think about the themes of your teaching in youth ministry. Have you made the Bible about behavior modification and doing the right thing? Is biblical truth a counseling manual to help solve problems rather than revelation from an all-knowing Creator? Have you spoken of God in general terms to make students feel good about themselves rather than holding out His character so that they may know Him?
Jesus condescended to earth to seek and save the lost. He has made a way for those who have been separated from God in hostility to be brought near, adopted as sons and daughters. In Scripture God has revealed His plan to redeem not only human beings, but all creation. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, this kind of gospel emphasis can lead students to see that Christ is worth their lives.
3.) Have we minimized teenagers’ calling to fulfill the Great Commission?
If teenagers are part of the Church today, then they are also called to fulfill the Great Commission with their lives and witness. To focus solely on their extracurricular activities or schoolwork is to reinforce what the world is telling them—that achievement is what matters most.
How do you and the other adults in your church talk to students about the future? When you ask a student about his or her plans after high school, are you wanting to know how they will use their future for the mission of God on earth? Do you ask them only what colleges they are thinking about, or are you helping them think about serving in a local church as well? Are you helping students look beyond their schoolwork and activities to form a vision for talking about Christ with their friends? Maybe teenagers are excited about everything but the gospel because we are reinforcing the wrong measuring stick when it comes to what’s important in life.
Youth worker, think about the families in your church for a moment. Is the conversation in their home focused on their performance in school and extracurriculars above Jesus’ command for them to be follow him? Performance in activities must be secondary to using those activities to grow as disciples who make disciples.
Two things come to mind as we talk to parents about these key issues: humility and curiosity. I’ve found that many parents are willing to share where they are struggling in the home (even with a twenty something with small kids) when I’m willing to ask more questions and make fewerstatements. Curiosity and humility condition our hearts to point parents to the wisdom of Jesus—partnering with them to seek Christ and grow together consistently.
4.) Have we reduced discipleship to a program?
My wife and I recently dedicated our second son to the Lord. In the presence of our church family, we committed to raise him to glorify God with his life. Our congregation also committed to come along side my son and our family, helping him (and us!) grow in faithfulness. This is a shared responsibility in which the Body of Christ participates.
It is the church’s privilege and responsibility to reach into the lives of teenagers and their parents so they may savor Christ. Do the adults in your church see students as a burden to be chaperoned or as members of the Body whom they are called to shepherd? The Apostle Paul instructed older believers to teach and train younger ones, revealing sound doctrine in their everyday lives (Titus 2:1-6).
So allow students to come alongside you and your family in the normal ebb and flow of life. Invite them over for dinner and show them you care about them. Support their efforts toward the expansion of the kingdom of God in the community. Encourage adults in the church to get involved with youth ministry or to invite a student to their community group—as a participant rather than as a babysitter.
Growing in Grace
We all have room to grow in the evaluative questions above because our ministries are run by imperfect people—us! But Jesus is more than capable to leverage our weakness for His glory and for our progress in the faith.
In his letter to Titus, Paul explains his instruction about older men and women instructing younger ones, showing why ministry to the younger generations is vitally important:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people for his own possession, eager to do good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
God’s grace has saved you. The restoring power of grace revealed through the gospel helps us recognize our failure isn’t final. While we wait for the hope of Christ’s return, grace gives His Bride what we need to disciple as many people as possible—including teenagers.