I remember asking students in the first Bible study group I graduated, “What is the gospel?”
After two years of investment, all I received were blank stares. Crushing.
Now I ask my students to define the gospel at the beginning of every Bible study. If nothing else, they will leave this ministry knowing that God’s love for sinners – as exemplified through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ – constitutes the central message of Christianity. I want students to know Christianity first based on what Jesus has done for them, far above what they do for God.
One of the best youth ministry books I have read is Chap Clark and Kara Powell’s, Sticky Faith, which offers practical direction for effective youth ministry, based on the research of the Fuller Youth Institute. One of the chapters in this book discusses the utter importance of kids having a “sticky gospel” – a gospel that sticks with them long after they leave our ministries.
I offer these four marks of a sticky gospel.
(1) A sticky gospel comforts.
Whether I am sitting in the congregation during corporate worship, or teaching a small group or Sunday school class, I often know the stories behind the faces in the seats. I know that behind the veneer of public smiles and nice clothes reside people struggling with addiction, grieving loss, stricken with mental illness, or contemplating suicide. Knowing the intense pain many (really most) people experience during their lives, I feel a responsibility to always – every single time – offer comfort. We, as the bearers of God’s grace through Christ, carry the unrivaled message of hope for suffering people.
A sticky gospel always comforts those in pain. It reminds the weary of the rest and refreshment found in Christ. It reminds the inadequate and insecure of the finished work of Christ on the Cross – that there is nothing we can do or not do to make Him love us more or less. It reminds the wounded that Jesus heals our wounds through His grace. It reminds the desperate of the living hope in the resurrection of Jesus.
The good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection inherently comforts people. Student ministry leaders must be disciplined to remember and assume that, behind the closed doors of the soul, every kid in the room is suffering. Thus, we need to communicate the fullness of the gospel as a comfort for the struggler.
(2) A sticky gospel convicts.
In addition to comforting the weary, ashamed, and depressed, the gospel should also convict students of their need for God’s grace. Charles Spurgeon once said that good preaching should, “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” A sticky gospel will convict students of their daily need for God’s rescue and forgiveness.
An essential element of the gospel is that God did not send Jesus to live and die for mankind just for kicks and giggles: He did it out of dire necessity. Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:18, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely home in his kingdom.” Rescue refers to our need in a state of total helplessness. Paul also says in Ephesians that mankind was “dead in our sins and trespasses.” But then God, “being rich in mercy…. made us alive together with Christ.” As sinners, all people wander and self-destruct without Christ’s leadership in our lives.
We do not talk about the necessity and the costliness of the gospel in order to shame students. We do so to remind them of two things. First, we remind them of their daily need for Christ. A sticky gospel does not refer simply to God’s grace and mercy for initial salvation, but also to his love and mercy as a central aspect of our day-to-day maturation as Christians who are also sinful human beings. Second, we remind our students of just how interested and committed God is to their lives. The fact that God sacrificed Himself in Christ to rescue all his people says to them (and reminds us), “Surely God adores me!”
(3) A sticky gospel centers on Christ.
At times, we can allude to the gospel in vague and non-specific terms. In its original, non-religious context, the Greek word for gospel, evangelion, references a victory in battle or in politics. If a nation or group won a military battle, the evangelion was the announcement of the good news of the victory. In other contexts, if a person had risen to a new political office, the evangelion announced their promotion. When New Testament authors used this term in the context of Christianity, they spoke of the good news announcement of Jesus’ victory over sin and death (through his life, death, and resurrection). They also allude to His rise to the throne as king.
Before the Cross, we see Jesus preaching about the “gospel of the kingdom.” After the Cross, we nearly always see the word “gospel” referring to the righteousness and eternal life which Christ has won for sinners through his death on the Cross. Regardless, the mention of the gospel is always associated with Jesus himself. As
D. A. Carson said in a 2012 sermon on 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel is “intrinsically Christological.”
Therefore, when we talk about the Gospel with our students, it always needs to point back to Jesus. To say, “God loves you,” is in synch with the gospel, but it’s not as accurate as saying, “God loves you through Christ.” I stress this, not as a matter of theological hair-splitting (although doctrinal precision has value), but because connecting the gospel to Christ makes the concept more concrete for students. So many of the benefits of the gospel are abstract concepts. Jesus and the Cross are concrete images that help students internalize the immense love God has for them through Christ.
(4) A sticky gospel is comprehensive.
At times, Christians reduce the gospel to this: God saves people so they can go to heaven. Certainly, this is a great and wonderful aspect of the gospel, but many more complex and beautiful benefits flow from the gospel of Jesus Christ than this. Eternal life in heaven, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, union with Christ, adoption, and sanctification are all benefits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection here and now. Helping students have a fuller understanding of the implications of the gospel will give it more sticking power.
As we move forward in our calling to share the gospel to our students, our children, and all those whom God has placed in our lives, may we offer comfort, conviction, Christ, and a comprehensive illustration of all that comes with the salvation we’ve been freely given. And Lord…let it stick.