Teach Teenagers About the Real Jesus: A Word for Youth Ministers About #goals

I had been working at my church for three years when Jeremy Lin was drafted to my home team, the Houston Rockets during the 2011-2012 season. Young Asian Americans like me got to see one of  “our own” ascend to the heights of super-mythical powers. The Asian community in Houston already had a famous player, Yao Ming. But Jeremy Lin felt even more familiar. Granted, he was a Harvard graduate, an NBA player, and made $25 million. But he was a Christian! 

In those years, the life advice handed down to teenagers by Asian parents and pastors was often, “Be like Jeremy Lin.” As a young adult, I often compared my life to his, asking myself, “Dude, what are you doing with your life?” In hindsight, this instinct to hold Jeremy Lin up as the gold standard wasn’t fair to students (or to Jeremy). More important, it wasn’t biblically faithful. 

As parents and youth ministers, we often have human aspirations for our students. But in Mark 10:17-22, we read about an impressive man Jesus encountered that corrects our thinking. Matthew calls him “young,” Luke calls him a “ruler,” and all accounts note that he’s rich. So, the story is better known as the “Rich Young Ruler.” On the surface, this young man has accomplished what we all aspire to be. 

Jesus’ dialogue with this impressive young man shows us what it means to invite our students to truly follow Jesus rather than calling them to human standards of success. The rich young ruler had it all by the standards of the ancient Jewish community, but Jesus invites him to lay all of that down.

What must our students do?

While this young man had everything and had accomplished so much, the author wants us to recognize that something was still missing. This man, earnest and honest about it, runs to Jesus and kneels before him, searching and seeking something. 

Jesus and this young man proceed to have an odd dialogue. The man presents a question that apparently haunts him: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of answering directly, Jesus immediately pushes back on the title the young man has given him. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks him. 

In other words, Jesus asked this man whether he truly believed that Jesus and the Father were one. Jesus was probing to see whether this young man knew the one to whom he was speaking. The pushback wasn’t about terminology; it was about identity

The young man attaches “good” to “teacher,” which is the wrong answer. If we turn in our Bibles back to Mark 8, we read Peter’s confession. Mark reminds us that Jesus is more than just a prophet, more than a teacher; he is the Messiah (The Christ). This young man’s theology is misaligned, just like many of our students. 

I wonder how our students would categorize Jesus at this moment. Most of them believe all sorts of things about Jesus that simply are not true. For example, they believe that he is merely good or some remote god-like figure. In our Asian churches, oftentimes we have made Jesus out to be a stricter form of a distant parent who checks our grades, never shows affection, or loves us insomuch that we perform or serve him. Our responsibility as church leaders is to teach those in our care what is true about the Lord.

Suppose the teenagers under our guidance fail to grasp Christ’s true nature, mission, purpose, and identity. In that case, we jeopardize distorting the core of the gospel and the richness Jesus offers—resulting in skewed priorities, identity crises, and a shallow faith. This rich, young, ruler achieved it all and yet was poor of his understanding of who Christ really was

Our primary task as youth ministers and parents is to disciple our students to love the Lord with all of their hearts and all their minds. Ironically, what I hear often in my church is that students do not need “more theology” or even (brace yourself) that students “do not need theology at all.” It’s a silly response to a sad reality. But when the sad reality meets how we go about ministry, then it goes from sad to scary. What is that “one thing” we think our students need? 

In the ministry I lead, we continue to communicate to our leaders and parents that the world is consistently teaching and discipling students (see. Ephesians 4:14). And not only is the world teaching and discipling these students, but they are also doing so at a rate and speed that is constant and instantaneous. How much more should those with the gospel teach and engage the lives of our students? 

Our students lack one thing. 

Jesus continues to engage this young man and gives him a test. He quotes from the Ten Commandments. On the surface, those were things that were “measurable” and action-oriented. For an Asian culture that leans heavily on performance and outward appearance, this part resonates. And the man responds, essentially, “I’ve done all of it” (vs. 20). We need to pause and be honest: This guy is a rock star! We’d all hire him as our summer youth ministry intern. Or at the very least, we would sign this man up to do whatever ministry he wants in our churches. 

In spite of his impressive resume, the young man should have answered something like, “I’m guilty even of these things, Lord, help! Save me! My hands may be clean, but my heart is wicked! Save me!” The Law was meant to be a mirror to our true selves. Like an x-ray, the Law shows us how things really are. We can blame others or compare ourselves to others, but the Law exposes that we fall short of God’s standard. Romans says, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). 

Mark tells us that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. Then Jesus said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21). In verse 22, we read that the man went away sad because of his many possessions.

Notice Jesus’ posture towards this man. It’s not frustration or “bruh! Get it together…” It’s love. And in his love, he challenges the young man. Notice that love here is a pleading kind of love that goes straight for the heart.  

It’s interesting that Jesus tells the man, “You lack one thing,” because he follows this with five commands.

Remember how much success this man had known in his life. He honestly wants to get eternal life, remember. But Jesus is pitting this man’s one love against another love. He pits this man’s entire identity and worth (not just his achievements and prestige, but also his ability) against his allegiance to Jesus. In love, Jesus enters into this man’s entire world, a world that this young man has built for himself, and asks him the same questions he asks all other disciples: To give up everything and follow after him. Essentially, he asks this young man, “Do you truly love me? Am I worth your all? Do you trust me?” Sadly, this young man does the calculus, and ultimately decides he can’t part with all he has. 

Jesus looks at our students and loves them. 

As we share this teaching with our students, they may experience shock that Jesus expects them to sacrifice it all—their vocation, their online identity, their leisure time—and to trust him more than these things. If we want them to know the real Jesus, we need to help them consider whether Jesus is worth their time, their money, their influence, and their very hearts. If the teenagers we serve come to trust his character and his heart, they will see that he wants to set them free. Free from sin but also free from the bondage that sin brings. 

Here’s the beautiful truth we can preach to our teenagers, and to ourselves: Jesus will go first. He himself is the rich, young, ruler who gave up all of his heavenly riches to be born in a manger to a teenage girl in the backwoods of Bethlehem. Jesus gave up his place of highest honor to come as a man to be mocked, betrayed, spit on, and killed. He is the one who comes looking for you and for each of your students saying, “I love you. Trust me.” Jesus goes first. 

We invite teenagers to follow us as we follow Jesus. 

So many people believe that this passage is only for “young” people. But Jesus speaks to universal desires for health, wealth, and status. This teaching applies to us as youth ministers just as much as to the teenagers in our ministries. Jesus is asking all of us the same question “Am I worth it?” Without diving deeper into the heart of the text, we miss the offer on the table. We may think that this passage was only for this young, rich, influencer. We can too easily persuade ourselves that Jesus is only demanding “others” to be this radical.  

I fear many of the families in our ministries may be praying that their kids become this rich, young, ruler. Do you see the irony of this story? This man had everything, yet he still was lacking. We’re so bought into the culture of prosperity that we sometimes sacrifice our kids on the altar of success: more games, more study, better college, better jobs, more money. None of these are wrong in and of themselves, they just make terrible gods. I fear our children might gain the world, but in the process, forfeit their souls (Mark 8:36). 

In the Asian community, we so desperately want our students to study hard and make the grades in order to succeed. We put them through test preps and study groups. All of those are good gifts from a good God. But if the end goal is success by human standards, then we have missed the mark. Offering anything less than the real Jesus sets our students off on a path far from the heart of God. Hear the lesson from this rich young man.

Even so, pastors, let me offer a word of encouragement, even as these passages weigh in on us who minister in the reality of a broken world. Philippians 1:6 reminds us that it is God who begins the good work, it is God who is faithful, and it will be God who will bring his work to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. There are so many days where my heart is heavy for students and parents who, perhaps unknowingly, idolize the rich, young rulers and Jeremy Lins of the world. All I can do is plead with God to save. But my confidence is in the one who did save, who continues to save, and will save. Let us put our hope in this risen Jesus to change the hearts and loves of our students. 

If you’re looking for encouragement and equipping for gospel-centered youth ministry, consider applying for Rooted’s mentoring program. You can use the code MENTOR10 to receive 10% off from now until May 15.

Justin Wong

Justin serves as the Pastor of Youth at Chinese Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. He has worked with students, parents, and families for the past 23 years. He graduated from Houston Baptist University with a biology degree and later received his Masters of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently finishing his Masters of Theology and Doctorate of Education from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married Tina and they have two girls, Ella and Mia.

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