How Gospel-Centrality Prioritizes Long-Term Fruit in Youth Ministry 

In 2010, while working at a summer camp in the mountains of Colorado, I became obsessed with a singular passion: to summit a 14,000 foot mountain (we call them “14ers” here) called Longs Peak. 

Beyond just climbing it, a friend and I convinced our group that watching the sunrise from the top would be far more epic. This meant starting at midnight and hiking nine miles over some seriously sketchy terrain in the dark, guided only by moonlight and headlamps. 

As our group approached the most treacherous and exhausting section of the climb, we scrambled faster along the trail in order to catch the rapidly approaching sunrise. In my hurry to reach the top in time, I got lost and wasted several hours wandering around at 13,000 feet trying to find the correct path again. Not only did I miss the sunrise, but a storm hit as our group was a few hundred feet from the top, and we had to turn around, unable to summit. Since I was driven by my zeal to get to the top as fast as possible, I lost sight of my overall goal to summit. And I seriously missed out. 

Immediate Results v. Long-Term Fruit

Passionate and ambitious youth ministers are driven by Jesus’ Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). However, it’s easy to misinterpret this verse by thinking it means seeking immediate results, even at the expense of long-term fruit. Youth ministers face frequent decisions between what works in the short term versus what will bear long-lasting fruit in the future. As citizens of an eternal kingdom, God calls us to have a vision for ministry that aims to cultivate our students’ lifelong faith in Jesus, not simply to capture their attention in the present. 

In 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, the Apostle Paul models how to minister with the long view in mind by keeping the gospel as the driving force of his leadership. He reminds the Corinthian church of how he ministered to them: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:1-2). 

The Centrality of Christ

The first thing to notice is that Paul’s ministry was characterized by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The phrase, “I decided to know nothing among you,” is an idiom that describes the centrality of his ministry, which was Jesus Christ. A pizza restaurant may serve pasta, salad, and garlic knots, but because it’s a pizza restaurant, pizza had better be the main thing on the menu. Likewise, Paul instructed the Corinthians about other significant topics in addition to the crucifixion, such as lawsuits, marriage, the Lord’s Supper, and sex. 

Paul’s singular passion, however, was for the Corinthians to know that Jesus Christ died for their sins, justified them by faith, and was raised from the dead to deliver them into eternal life in his kingdom. The rest of his teaching and pastoral ministry flowed from this reality.

The Message Over the Messenger

The second observation is that to maximize the crucifixion of Christ, Paul minimized the attractiveness of his preaching, or what he calls “lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1). Throughout the letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes an apologetic for his ministry over various false teachers who were influencing the church through flashy and rhetorically powerful preaching. 

He doesn’t say, “My ministry was obviously right because it was the most popular, inspiring, and influential.” Instead, he says, “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). Paul was willing to hinge the power of his ministry on God’s working, not his own preaching ability, ministry strategy, or charisma. 

In other words, by focusing on the gospel of Jesus as the driving force of his ministry, rather than “lofty speech or wisdom,” Paul sacrificed short-term, measurable results for long-term fruit. 

The Mission of Your Youth Ministry

It’s tempting for youth ministers to want to cultivate a ministry that is defined by a gifted preacher, good friends, and a fun, cool event that students can’t wait to attend each week. However, youth ministers must wisely assess the central, driving motivation of their ministries. 

Memorable trips, caring youth leaders, and a fun community can build an outwardly successful youth ministry that draws in many students. Still, these alone do not create life-long disciples of Jesus. Gospel-centered youth ministers resolve to always keep the good news of Jesus as the ministry’s ultimate goal, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5). 

Only the gospel, applied through the power of the Holy Spirit, creates disciples of Jesus who persevere until they reach glory (Rom. 8:30). 

A Personal Example

I learned this principle in high school while attending a church from the theological stream of the Christian Modernist Movement (or Liberal Christianity). The youth ministry at this church was essential in my growth as a young follower of Jesus, and I am forever grateful for the impact of my youth pastor. I loved my church friends and have great memories of in-depth Bible studies, impactful retreats, and mission trips.

I never explicitly heard the gospel preached in that ministry, however. As a result, a few years after high school, I watched as every single friend of mine from the youth group stopped attending church and departed from following Jesus. 

I am convinced it is because this youth group ignored Paul’s mantra to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Most of the parents in the church were proud of the youth ministry and delighted with their teens’ enthusiastic involvement. But the lack of long-term fruit tells the real story. 

Once I was old enough to realize the missing piece of my own experience, I resolved in my heart that every single student who came through my youth ministry would hear the gospel. This means sometimes having to say “no”—even to the good ideas parents bring, when I don’t believe those suggestions will add to the gospel proclamation of our ministry. I shifted my perspective from only celebrating immediate results to an eternal perspective. I began to encourage parents to hold out hope when their teenagers seem far from God and disinterested in church, knowing that their faith doesn’t rest on any quick-fix programmatic change, but on the power of God.

A Renewed Perspective 

A year after my failure on Longs Peak, I was back in Colorado for round two with this mammoth of a mountain. With a renewed perspective on my ultimate goal, I set out with the proper preparation, mindset, and plenty of daylight. It was slow-going and hard work, but coupled with endurance and resolve (and the gift of perfect weather), we reached the top. The view was stunning, a small foretaste of the beauty of God’s kingdom. 

This illustrates the hope of youth ministry with an eye toward the eternal kingdom of God. No matter how much success or struggle a youth ministry experiences in the short term, when it’s centered on the gospel, the power of God will reveal its true glory in the long term. The results will be magnificent.

Interested in learning more about how to do gospel-centered youth ministry? Consider joining our August 2024 youth ministry mentorship cohort.

Michael is native to the Chicagoland area and currently oversees the student ministry at Fellowship Denver Church in Denver, CO. He studied Film & Digital Media at Baylor University and received his M.Div from Denver Seminary in 2016. He and his wife Jillian met while working as camp counselors in Estes Park, CO, and they have two daughters. In his free time, Michael loves mountain biking, skiing, watching movies, afternoon cortados, and is a long-suffering Chicago sports fan.

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