Jesus as Substitute, #Rooted2015

We promise we didn’t bribe him, but Todd Hill wrote this awesome “musing,” mid-Rooted Conference this year. His words are something so many of us can relate to – so familiar and beautiful that we thought we’d share them with the rest of the Rooted Community!

“Jesus did not come as an example of how we should act. He came to be our substitute.”  This was only one of many statements that really caught my attention as Scotty Smith spoke to a group of youth ministers, last night at the Rooted Conference. I always knew that the What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) craze seemed a little off to me, but now I could put into words why that hasn’t exactly been my motto in youth ministry. Scotty made it clear that what Jesus did on the cross determines more about us than the impossible striving of trying to live up to what He would do in life. So, why is that important to me right now mid-conference? Because I find myself quickly sinking into this familiar feeling, one that I’ve struggled with throughout my ministry: “Boy, I really am a failure at this youth ministry thing!” Maybe you can bear with me now as I preach the Gospel to myself and reorient my heart, preparing for the last 24 hours of this event.

I am a pretty regular Facebook user. At one point, I thought that made me hip and trendy; but since most of the youth I work with have long-since left Facebook for much cooler social media platforms, I guess it actually makes me pretty old fashioned! Anyway, the strike against us 30, 40, and 50 year olds posting on Facebook is that we only post when we are doing really cool things, so that the world thinks that our life is one exciting picture-perfect moment after another. Certainly we have all witnessed our students caught up in a similar charade. I never post pictures of my two kids fighting with each other. I don’t take a photo of our house with piles of laundry all over the living room, and dirty dishes overflowing from the sink. I don’t confess to the world that I am completely self-absorbed, so that (in one instance) my biting, mean-spirited comment to my wife left her crying in the bedroom. The irony is that while we do have some cool, picturesque moments in my family, those are the exceptions. The normal day-to-day happenings are moments I would never post in a million years, because I don’t want you to see my countless failures as a father, a husband . . . and a youth director.  

So, here-in lies the comparable danger of attending a youth ministry conference. The culture of Rooted is grace and humility, which is why I am drawn to attend each year. But my heart has a tendency to measure my youth ministry against what I hear about your youth ministry. In the workshops, I listen to several speakers graciously share how various aspects of their ministries began to thrive. The intent is for us to take these practices back home, and implement them for ourselves. But, bringing my own insecurities to the table, I find myself scrolling through what seems like highlight reels of other people’s Facebook-worthy youth ministry pictures, and I begin to feel like I am a total failure. 

Examples of the litany of negative thoughts running through my head: I don’t integrate my youth into our congregation nearly as well as I should! Wow, that guy’s kids get excited about singing worship songs? How can I possibly find a way to teach meaningful Theology to my students? – I can’t even get them to bring a Bible, let alone study it deeply and intently! I just heard someone say that their students are stepping up to leadership positions, but I’m still trying to beg my kids to come out for the pizza parties!

Rooted is probably the least competitive youth ministry conference a person could attend, so why do I feel so dejected? I walk back to my hotel room for the afternoon break with my head spinning, and my heart a bit overwhelmed. I just can’t seem to get my ministry looking picture-perfect.

As I process my feelings, God gives me two good gifts. The first: a friend with whom to talk. As we discuss and share our successes and failures, I am reminded of something I already know.  There is not a single ministry represented at this conference that isn’t a ministry with a messy, sinful leader doing ministry with messy, sinful students. I know, a strange thing to find encouraging. The truth here is that all of our ministries are flawed. The examples of strength and success within the various groups I’ve encountered are simply good gifts of God’s grace, given to ministries with loads of laundry piles and dirty dishes in the background – just like mine! 

This gives me hope.  

I am reminded that God offers regular gifts of grace and mercy to my own ministry. He also gives me plenty of dirty dishes that remind me daily of my need for Jesus.

The second good gift is a reminder that Jesus did not merely come as an example of how I should do youth ministry; Like Scotty Smith said, He came as my substitute. The justification I have as a child of God, with Jesus dying in my stead, gives me all of the hope that I need. I no longer need to carry the weight of trying to do absolutely everything the “good youth ministries” do. I don’t need to wallow in my shortcomings and failures as a youth director. Jesus already came as a man and emptied himself as a servant in my place. As my substitute. He took my shortcomings and failures onto Himself so that I could live in hope and freedom. The only “success” that I have in ministry is found in remembering all that Jesus has done as my substitute, and pouring that truth into the lives of my students.

So, do I still have a lot to learn in how to do youth ministry well?  Absolutely! However, if I don’t walk away convinced that Jesus is the only hope for any of our ministries – that I am enough because, on the cross, He was enough, then I am completely missing the point.

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit…” – Why, yes there is!

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles from Rooted’s youth ministry blog. 

Todd Hill is the youth director at New Life Presbyterian Church in Dresher, Penn.  He earned his bachelor's degree in Bible and in education from Philadelphia Biblical University. He also holds a master's degree in education from California University of Pennsylvania.  When he isn't running his two children to soccer practice, Todd loves to play basketball and travel with his wife Young-Mee to places with good food.

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