During my first few years of high school, my relationship with God was quite sheltered. Having faith in God came easy to me because I hadn’t been given any solid reasons to doubt him. I was healthy, my family life was steady, and I had lots of people who loved me. Sure, I had some minor inconveniences and struggles, but life was good. However, this bubble that surrounded my faith burst the moment my dad sat me down my junior year and said, “Your mom has cancer.” It was as though my eyes were unveiled; suddenly I could see how broken our world is. This led to the realization that life on this earth is not all about seeking happiness or contentment. I desperately began to wonder, “Well, then what is life about? What is God’s purpose for me?”
Most, if not all, teenagers and young adults are wrestling with these same questions. To be honest, I am still working on the answer. I have still struggled to wrap my head around what our earthly mission truly is. I often get caught up in the complexities of God’s Word, making my purpose much more complicated than it needs to be. Last summer I had the opportunity to grow in my understanding of God’s purpose for his people through a ministry internship at my home church. This experience allowed me to see behind the scenes of church life and to be mentored by some of the best ministers I know, who poured into me spiritually.
Over the course of my summer, I had the opportunity to grow in understanding purpose and what it means to live out the gospel daily. Jesus pointed to this foundational purpose in his conversations with the Jewish leaders of his day. Like many other times in Jesus’ ministry, one day the Pharisees attempted to corner him into bad theology by asking, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36). Unflustered, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt. 22:37-39).
Rather than get caught up in the nitty-gritty details of our specific calling to do this or that, it is most important that we love God and love people. The life of Christ is the epitome of these commandments. In a world teeming with sin he remained perfect, abounding with love for his Father and for each person he encountered. He is the example we strive to replicate and the model we seek to follow. It is through his life, death, and resurrection that we are able to know and love God intimately. When we are in love with the Lord, we can then love our neighbor well. The gospel informs our purpose from God because Jesus’ whole life was really about modeling these commandments. Loving God and our neighbor is our mission and purpose, just as it was Christ’s purpose.
Teenagers on Mission
One of the coolest, most impactful parts of my summer was getting to be a firsthand witness to how this mission of loving God and people is carried out in the church, especially in the youth ministry. I was able to be a part of the students’ mission trip to Nashville and their annual beach retreat, two trips that taught me so much about how to help youth love God and love their neighbor. There are two key things I think all youth ministers could apply to their own ministries.
First, plan many times to be together. Aside from the weeklong summer trips, I saw the importance of creating weekly time for fellowship. It seems to me that so much of youth ministry is just about simply being with students. Whether it be getting ice cream, watching a movie together, or facilitating a Bible study before school, creating those times for fellowship is not only key to helping teenagers build relationships with each other, but also to building relationships between teenagers and their youth ministers. This foundation of trust and familiarity is an integral part of ministering to them and loving them well. I saw firsthand how this foundation allowed the youth to receive the wisdom given to them, therefore, able to take these greatest commandment to heart.
Second, make serving others a regular occurrence. There is something about this activity that brings people closer together than anything else. I watched friendships form and grow over the course of our Nashville trip as the group did hands-on service alongside each other. More importantly, I saw these students learn so much about the Lord and love him even more deeply simply by answering, “Where did you see God at work today?” each night before bed. This kind of growth is so unique to mission trips and cannot be replicated without interacting with and serving those in need, together. These trips provide ample opportunities to foster a love for God and each other, teaching them how to live out the gospel. In a world that seems to be increasingly self-absorbed and isolated, incorporating time for service and fellowship is vital to effective, gospel-centered youth ministry.
Teenagers in a Broken World
A commitment to God’s greatest commandments sometimes feels like a heavy burden. I have seen how difficult it is to stay true to these in the midst of a world that is full of brokenness. My internship came during a summer that fully showcased this brokenness with continued tension over the pandemic, a deeply polarized political climate, and corruption in the Baptist church coming to a head (just to name a few examples). I struggled to see where God fits into all this brokenness and experienced deep doubt about ministry and my own calling. After all, it is difficult to reconcile God’s goodness with the darkness we see in the world around us. This struggle is not unique to me; everyone has wrestled with this at some point. It is important that youth are not overlooked in this experience.
As a teenager, my sheltered faith could not have handled the doubts I have encountered this year. I did not have the right tools to reconcile God’s goodness with the brokenness of the world around me. Although the world’s fallenness is nothing new in the course of human history, it does seem to be more on display than ever. Therefore, it is crucial that youth today are given the wisdom to understand and combat this darkness, no matter how tough or complex those conversations may be.
Even in the brokenness, our purpose is to love God deeply and love people the same. Yes, our world is fallen and dark, but all the more reason we are called to be a light. This is the kind of heavenly perspective teenagers deserve to be shown. To teach this is difficult and may entail tricky topics and lessons, however, this is the kind of perspective that allows for a true understanding of God’s greatest commandment.
I could not have come to these conclusions without the spiritual formation I experienced this summer. The mentorship from our team of ministers and their confidence in me allowed this growth to take place. With the ample opportunities offered to me and the encouragement they poured into me, my call to ministry was both affirmed and strengthened. Most importantly, they taught me what it truly means to spread the gospel daily, by taking this complex concept and boiling it down to simply loving God and others. How incredibly impactful would it be if this wisdom was imparted to each teenager who passed through our churches? Teaching and modeling this kind of gospel living should always be the priority of youth ministry. What a group of Christlike, world changers that would bring!