Growing up, I had a list.
A list of vices my pre-teen mind wasn’t supposed to think about. The list was long.
Warlocks (I’m not kidding)
Farting (“fart” was a bad word)
It went on…
But here’s the problem with trying not to think about something – all you end up doing is thinking about that thing. So, being a very moral child, anytime I would think of something on the list I would whisper aloud, “God, please forgive me for thinking about girls’ bodies. In Jesus’ name, Amen!”
But soon, I learned that just praying for forgiveness wasn’t enough. I needed to pray for it fast. If I prayed too slowly, I would start thinking about girls’ bodies again before I got to the end of my prayer! Meaning, the first prayer wouldn’t count and I’d have to start all over. Over time, my prayers got faster and faster and faster as I tried to outrun my guilt and hormone-charged brain.
But then, even speed wasn’t enough.
If I started thinking about one thing on the list, I would be reminded of the rest of the list. Thoughts about girls switched to swear words, which morphed into warlocks (again, not a joke) endlessly and rapidly. So I thought, “I’ve got to pray for forgiveness from the whole list as fast as I can.”
Eventually though, I couldn’t make it through the comprehensive sped up prayer without thinking about something at the beginning of the list so I would start at the beginning again, and again, and again, and again. My parents would catch me whispering to myself. I never told them why.
Years later I read that when CS Lewis was younger, he would spend hours in prayer every night convinced that if he got just one word wrong, or didn’t say everything “from his heart” he had to start the prayer over for it to work. Lewis said that he would listen to the bell tower of his school ring in each new hour of the night as he tried to pray the perfect prayer. He said this was the reason he became an atheist. And it’s the reason I, on the other hand, am committed to preaching the gospel to myself, and especially to the students in my ministry.
The Gospel Will Save My Students from their Anxieties.
This generation is plagued by depression, anxiety and suicide. Sociologist Jean Twenge says this generation is on the verge of “mental health crisis.” While she places the blame on smartphones I would lay the blame at our culture’s never-ending lists. Like the Judaizers who tried to add the 613 Jewish laws to belief in Jesus in order to be justified before God. Expressive Individualism and the doctrines of Tolerance add long lists of laws about what it means to be “masculine,” “sexy,” “successful,” a “woke citizen” and an “authentic person” in order to feel justified as teenage humans.
If Paul wanted to emasculate the Judaizers, who added the written Law to justification by faith, what would he say to the Social Media-izers whose unwritten and ever-changing laws are enforced by a Sanhedrin of shame and outrage? He would say now what he said then, “The law brings death” (2 Cor 3:6). It brings with it anxiety, shame, and that sinking feeling that we’ll never be good enough.
The only hope in the face of death is not moral stories about doing more and trying harder (driven home with a little guilt, shame, and a purity ring). It comes from preaching Jesus Christ crucified and risen. Each of our students feels their inability to follow the law — it haunts them. So show them the Jesus who was perfect. The only “authentic” human would rather die than keep that perfection to himself. Preach Jesus who exchanged his perfection, his authenticity, and the look his Father gave that said “I’m proud of You!” for their imperfection, incompleteness, and sense of inadequacy. It’s only when that message is preached that our teens’ anxious hearts be resurrected free.
This freedom does not come from clever Jesus-jukes and gospel turns. It comes from opening the word and preaching the gospel from each line. That’s why I’m committed to gospel-centered student ministry: “the gospel is the power of God” (Rom 1:16) for anxious hearts, of which I may be the worst.
The Gospel Saves Me from My Neurosis.
Eventually, I would stop my neurotic prayers. It was too exhausting not to. But I never let go of my obsessive introspection, constant comparison, and insecurity. As I aged, some psychic alchemy changed lists of swear words into lists of attributes I lacked as a youth pastor. They demanded me to be a better preacher, a better counselor, funnier, smarter, more entertaining. The lists threatened me. They whispered in my sleepless ears, “If you don’t look like me your students will leave and you’ll be a failure.” I’ve cried myself to 2am often enough.
For as long as I have forgotten the gospel I have had trouble falling asleep. So the second reason I’m committed to gospel-centered student ministry is selfish, it’s the way I sleep at night. In Ephesians 6, Paul explains to me that my problem is that I often go to war at a technological disadvantage. My enemy is not of flesh and blood and I can’t defend myself with an armor of mental lists.
To the extent I trust my abilities, cleverness, pastoral sensitivity, hilarity, or capacity to “kill it” is the extent to which I’m exposed. Those flaming darts of inadequacy, those Satanic arrows will always hit their mark. I’ll walk off stage ignoring the wounds just long enough to finish that game of foosball only to bleed to sleep. But when I put on an armor not my own I’m promised a truth more true than “You’re a failure.”
I’m protected by a righteousness hammered solid by another and a shield designed so well that it’s bearer is given confidence that no fiery arrow formed against it will prosper. My head can rest easy, encased in a salvation I did not earn; my hand can grasp firmly a weapon greater than clever cultural commentary — a sword forged by the fires of Christ’s affliction, sharpened on his tombstone, and battle-proven by the Spirit’s resurrection power.
For the minister, gospel-centrality is about survival. We were not meant to carry the weight of souls. It will crush us — just like it did Jesus.
When we trust innovation to resurrect hearts, impressive delivery to stop sin, and entertainment to keep the kids interested we’ll neurotically obsess our sleep away. We’ll be crushed in battle by an enemy taking advantage of our bleary-eyed listlessness.
Pastor, preach the gospel. Only Jesus will give you rest. Only Jesus will save students. Only Jesus destroys the enemy. Only Jesus can be crushed and then resurrect. Your neurosis is not martyrdom and it will save no one. Give it up. Give it to Jesus.
For more about how teens experience anxiety, read here.