The priority of the gospel of grace in youth ministry has become a battle cry for many in the church in recent years. Through my involvement with Rooted, I have had the opportunity to interact with a large number of people in the youth ministry world who share this passion for student ministry anchored in the gospel. This array of people express several reasons for their conviction.
Some wave this banner out of principle. They come from a theological tradition that emphasizes biblical teaching and Gospel proclamation. They believe the primary function of the church is to declare the good news that Jesus came, died, and rose for sinners. This convicted crowd sticks to their guns and take pride in explicitly pronouncing God’s grace at every gathering and in every appointment.
This camp tends to keep youth ministry grounded. They promote grace-driven youth ministry, not because it’s attractive or because it personally helped them. They advocate for the gospel because it is the core theme of the Bible and the primary declaration of Christianity.
Others preach grace in youth ministry in the name of reform. They were raised in legalistic religious environments that wounded them. This crowd sat through high-pressure exhortations centered on behavior modification, mainly premarital sex and underaged drinking. Rarely did they hear anything about forgiveness of sins and unconditional love. Many of them had a burnout or meltdown somewhere in their story, which they link to their moralistic spiritual upbringing. The message of grace has healed their wounds and freed them from the performance treadmill. People in this camp long for a better youth ministry experience for the young people in their flock. Above all, they passionately want these kids to know the gospel of grace.
The reform crowd brings a passion for the gospel to the field of youth ministry. They remind us of the burden and despair that teenagers commonly carry, and then they push us to care for these children by reminding them of the complete work of Christ on the Cross.
But the cry for grace has not simply come from youth ministry reformers and theological purists. Another camp has made a strong argument for gospel-centered youth ministry on pragmatic grounds. What do I mean by this? Simply put, many youth ministry leaders promote grace saturated youth ministry because it works.
Researchers have identified gospel clarity as one of the most important practices of youth ministries seeking to effectively form students that remain faithful to Jesus and the church after high school. In their multi-year, longitudinal study of youth ministry graduates, Fuller Youth Institute’s College Transition Project identified a student’s understanding of grace as a key indicator of that student’s long-term sustainability as a Christian.
In their research, a team lead by Kara Powell and Chap Clark, found that many youth ministry alums had either no understanding of the Gospel or one that is contrary to scripture. Many students defined the Gospel based on works they may do for God-like loving your neighbor- rather than what Jesus did for them in his life, death, and resurrection.¹ The research found that the faith of students with a moralistic understanding of Christianity would run out of gas over time. Clark wrote,
A performance-based Christianity can last only so long. When kids reach the awareness- through failure or pain, or insecurity or inner wrestling with who is the owner of their faith- that they do not have the power or interest to keep the faith treadmill going, they will put their faith aside.²
Kara Powell reinforced this sentiment in a September 2014 interview with Christianity Today. When asked about the most important factor in promoting sustainable faith in students, Powell remarked, “It’s not easy to distill years of research into one single variable, but if I had to, I’d start with young people’s views of the gospel.” She further explained that when students without a clear understanding of the Gospel struggle and fail, their lack of understanding God’s grace and redemption leaves them high and dry. They do not understand that Jesus is there to forgive and restore them. Their faith then can come up empty.
So what point am I trying to make? I certainly am not trying to create oversimplified categories for those advocating for Gospel centrality in youth ministry. In reality, most people are motivated for more than one of the reasons listed above, if not all of them.
People enter youth ministry because they care about students and wish to see them come alive in Christ. But nobody wants a student’s faith in Christ to be a flash in the pan. Everyone works, prays, and hopes for students who follow Jesus from adolescence into adulthood and for remainder of their lives. In other words, we wish to make disciples.
Scripture, research, and experience all exhort us to make gospel centrality the primary thrust of our ministries. There may be no objective of greater importance than for the students who come through our ministries to understand that Christianity first and foremost is about what God has done for them in Christ, and, secondarily, about what what do in response to that profound gift of grace.
This pursuit takes on many forms. Forming kids in grace involves relationships that model the gospel. It entails being serious students and teachers of scripture that we may identify the gospel in all parts of the Bible. It requires being people of forgiveness and restoration when students blow it. It requires explicitly defining the gospel over and over and over again. It demands preparing students for the reality that they will fail in the future and illustrating how Jesus will be there to help them when they fall. In my ministry, it includes asking students to define the gospel at the beginning of every Bible study.
Whatever variety of means by which we seek to ground our ministries in grace, we can engage in no more valuable endeavor than to form kids in the message that God’s well of mercy for sinners never runs dry.
¹ http://stickyfaith.org/articles/more-than-the-red-bull-rip-off This article contains excerpts from Powell and Clark’s book, Sticky Faith, which contains practical applications from their research.
² Chap Clark and Kara Powell, Sticky Faith (Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan, 2011), 36.