Many youth ministers have a love/hate relationship with camp and retreats. We love the late-night spiritual conversations and questions, the friendships that emerge, and the opportunity to pull students away from the digital noise that surrounds them at home. Still, the return home from camp can be discouraging. As students leave an environment marked by spiritual discussions and return to one filled with materialism, stress, and general discouragement, their spiritual zeal can quickly decline. And although I am quick to identify this pattern in my students, I have been slow to observe a similar struggle in my own heart.
Reflecting on my own re-entry from camp, I have noticed that my passion diminishes a bit upon returning to my daily routine. The zeal that characterized my preaching at camp is replaced with a tone of apathy; whereas my camp messages point to freedom in Christ, my messages back home often resemble a sort of spiritual “to do list” (read your Bible more, pray more, etc). As I began to see this tendency in my own heart, I had to ask myself, “what happened?”
Legalism and Moralism
In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul posed similar questions:
“Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3).
“You were running so well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7).
Observing the lives of these once faithful followers of Christ, Paul noticed something illogical and ultimately dangerous. False teachers had entered the church in Galatia, convincing new believers that righteousness required a careful observance of various Old Testament ceremonial laws in addition to faith in Christ. In light of the Jewish background of many of these converts, the attraction to the Mosaic Law made sense on one level. These were, after all, laws they knew well that brought with them a morality relevant to their former life.
But instead of affirming a strict adherence to the Mosaic Law, Paul issued a scathing response. He reminded the Galatians that their salvation had already been secured—not in their own self-righteousness, but in the perfect righteousness of Christ who fulfilled the Law. It was essential that these believers returned to the purity of the Good News, both for their future growth and for the preservation of the gospel.
The spiritual “letdown” I experience after camp is not all that different from the struggle of the Galatians. My students and I weren’t being lured away by the Mosaic Law, but I came to understand that something fairly similar was at work: I was falling prey to the allure of moralism.
Moralism is that familiar system that seeks to pass down not a devotion to Christ but a set of culturally acceptable morals by which we are to live. It is a system that demands children to be kind, honest, polite, etc. When taught in schools it speaks to the qualities of a good “citizen” or “friend.” When taught in the church, it ultimately teaches the same concept but simply replaces “citizen” with “Christian.” It is a code preached through just about every children’s television program and reinforced by the rules of any kindergarten class. Like the presence of legalism to those believers addressed in Galatians, the moralism of today remains a constant threat because of its familiarity and its outward attraction.
Early on in my experience as a youth pastor, the threat of moralism was never something I seriously considered. I knew it existed yet I believed it was somehow only present in “those other churches” where the gospel was never clearly taught. In observing and experiencing that post camp dip, however, I came to understand that my own teaching and ministry was at times falling prey to this common foe—and that apart from proactively fighting against it, I was bound to fall into the trap of moralism on (at least) an annual basis.
Warring against the impulse of moralism may look different in each youth ministry context. In my experience, however, I have attempted to fight it by thinking through a few basic questions every time I teach.
1) What is the aim of this message?
Having opened his letter to the Galatians with his familiar greeting of grace and peace, Paul wastes no time in reminding his readers of his unchanging focus and greatest concern—the pure gospel of Jesus Christ:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the Gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7)
The primary importance of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is usually clear in my teaching at camp. But if we are to properly follow Paul’s example, the centrality of the gospel must be our concern every time we stand before our students. Our first priority in any message is to declare that the only means of securing salvation is not in our good works but in the perfect righteousness of Christ.
Does this mean our messages should be void of other biblical commands or practical concerns of daily life? Of course not. It simply means that we are always aiming to address more than the outward behaviors of our students—we’re seeking to address their hearts. When the emphasis remains fixed on outward behaviors, it can help produce students who look the part of a Christian. But if the person of Christ is left out, our messages will fall short of communicating the gospel our students need to hear again and again.
2) Can I preach this message with genuine passion and urgency?
Preaching the pure gospel is inevitably passion-filled preaching. The famous Puritan pastor Richard Baxter said, “I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” You can hear a similar passion in the writings of Paul in I Corinthians 1:10 or in Galatians 6:14 as he says
“But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
Our effectiveness as preachers and teachers cannot be reduced to the amount of emotion we display in any given message. But if our students can never sense a tone of passion or urgency in our preaching, then it’s not likely we are fully communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ.
3) Does this message inspire genuine joy?
Paul writes about the spiritual fruit of joy (Galatians 5:22), which by definitionis different from the fleeting sense of happiness that comes from entertainment. It is a sense of deepest satisfaction—the kind that students get to taste at camp—and ultimately one that is found only in the gospel. As we teach in a way that clearly captures the gospel, our teaching can be a tool used by the Spirit to inspire joy. A message of moralism may inspire temporary compliance and may even have the effect of encouraging the outward appearance of happiness. But it will not inspire lasting joy. To that end we must preach a gospel that is the power of God and the wellspring of life and joy.
The battle against moralism is not lost or won in the few days following the end of camp. It must be fought every day in our hearts and our ministries. Knowing that the allure of moralism is always calling to our students, we strive to continually preach Christ crucified just as Paul did. By the grace of God, we prayour students will hear our passion and experience the joy of the gospelfor themselves.