Our students have more role models to look to than ever before. For the first time in history, teenagers can legitimately choose video game streamers and social media influencers as their role models. They can imitate their career choices and with enough luck, they can turn into their role models in a very short amount of time. With the emergence of social media, we are also much quicker to learn about the moral failings of the leaders we choose to follow.
When our students’ role models and leaders fail, it can be devastating in a number of ways. But what about when that role model or leader they choose to follow is a pastor or youth leader? When leaders fail our students, especially when they are church leaders, our students need the church more than ever. Allow me to explain using my own journey.
My Story With Church Leadership
I didn’t grow up in the church. I came to faith at 16 years old when my youth pastor shared the gospel with me. I didn’t have a strong male influence in my life, let alone a daily example of what a godly man, husband, or father looked like. My youth pastor became that for me in the most life-giving way possible. Unfortunately, I only had two years with him before I went to college and found myself lacking a reliable male spiritual influence in my life.
Enter Mark Driscoll. After speaking to one of my college friends about my desire to find a godly man I could learn from, he encouraged me to listen to Mark Driscoll’s sermons. From my first listen, I was hooked. I had never heard someone speak so bluntly and truthfully from the pulpit about boys becoming men. Many were turned off by his brash preaching style, but I longed for it. I needed someone to tell me to grow up. I needed someone brave enough to tell me to live up to the standards of biblical masculinity.
For months you could say I was a Mars Hill evangelist. I told everyone they had to listen to Driscoll. I challenged the young men on my dorm floor in the same way Driscoll challenged his congregation. Whatever Driscoll said I took as truth without question. I’ll never forget the day a friend challenged me on my zeal for listening to and following Driscoll. He asked me in a very gracious, yet upfront tone “I’m sure Driscoll is great, but what local pastors are you listening to in church?” Additionally, he suggested that no leader is infallible. He said I should find areas of disagreement with just about any leader because no one is Jesus; all human leaders are just as susceptible to sin as anyone else.
I wish I could say I appreciated my friend’s wisdom and challenge that day, but back then I took personal offense to his questions and suggestions. Why in the world did I need to get plugged into a local church when I was getting regular biblical preaching on my iPod? Why would I willingly look for areas of disagreement with a man who fulfilled so many longings of my teenage heart? I concluded he had no idea what he was talking about and I continued to be a Driscoll evangelist and disciple.
A few years later, per the requirements of my degree program, I became an intern at a local church to serve in the youth ministry. It was the first time since I left my home church at the age of 18 that I was plugged into a local body of believers. It was in my fellowship with local believers I began to learn just how much Driscoll’s preaching had an effect on my life. I was brash, I was arrogant, and I had substituted the great commission for the mantra “be a man!”
Faithful brothers and sisters in this congregation bore my youthful zeal and arrogance with patience and grace. They walked alongside me offering christlike rebukes and encouragement. They discipled me in the ways I needed rather than the ways I wanted. The pastors who preached on Sundays certainly didn’t preach like Driscoll, but they knew me by name and they called me to biblical obedience in the areas of my immediate influence and daily life. When I had questions about theology and the gospel, they walked alongside me with grace and love as I asked endless questions.
Before I knew it, six months had passed and I had not just one, but many godly men whom I respected as examples and authorities in my life. I no longer clung to Driscoll’s sermons, I clung to the brothers and sisters who were doing life with me. I exchanged the church on my iPod for living, breathing believers on Sunday morning. And in the process I found myself much more interested in the words, deeds, and love of Jesus Christ than in Driscoll’s charges to manhood.
This season of transition and transformation turned “the body of Christ” from an idea into a grace-filled reality. As I walked alongside my new church leaders, brothers, and sisters I came to experience the richness of the diversity of God’s church.
In speaking about the church, the Apostle Paul says this in 1 Cor. 12:18-19 “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” The primary mistake I made in choosing Driscoll as my leader was that I had forgotten about the importance of the remaining parts of the body of Christ. I was neglecting the blessing of the whole counsel of the body for the limited wisdom of a right hand that lived across the country and didn’t know a thing about me. It was only after I had spent time with the body that I came to realize just how necessary each part of the body was for my growth and development.
As most of us know by now, Mark Driscoll wasn’t the leader or even godly man I thought I aspired to be. Christianity Today’s podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” (among other sources over the last decade) has exposed some hurtful truths about Driscoll’s ministry. It turns out that all those calls to biblical manhood were hiding behind a mask of calculated and systemic abuse, manipulation, sexism, and bullying. Driscoll was removed from his position as pastor at Mars Hill, he ducked church discipline, and he began to degrade the very doctrines he once passionately preached. I am not exaggerating when I say that had his public failure happened in my Driscoll evangelist days, I don’t know that I would be a Christian today. Had I not found godly men in my local church, Driscoll’s failures would have caused me to question the foundations of my faith entirely, and I would have been alone with those doubts and questions because I had substituted fellowship with believers in the form of my iPod.
The Leader Who Never Fails
Teenagers need the church because their leaders are going to fail them. If you’ve been doing ministry for more than a week, you know exactly what I’m talking about. No matter how much you love your students, no matter how many hours you give in a week, no matter how passionate you are about discipling young people, you and I are going to fail them—over and over again. It is precisely because we are going to fail them that they need the church. But more importantly, teenagers need the church because the church is the body of Christ.
There is a temptation among youth workers to be the all-star, to be all things to all students. We need to resist that temptation at every opportunity and keep pointing our students toward Christ and his body, the church. Driscoll didn’t walk with me during my failures, the church did. Driscoll wasn’t the one who showed me what living like Christ in my community looked like, the church did. As much as I believed Driscoll was forming me more into the image of a biblical man, he didn’t. God used the church to do that. And the reason the church succeeded in all the areas Driscoll had failed me is because the people of God were always, without fail, pointing me back to Jesus and to the gospel. I didn’t need a strong example of a godly man, I needed the very definition of the godly man, I needed Jesus Christ.
As I listened to Driscoll as a young man, I was regularly convicted of all the ways I was failing as a man. I would vow and promise to be better, to do better. The church allowed me to rest from the need to perform, to be better, to do better because Jesus had already accomplished and secured everything I would ever need through his death and resurrection. Driscoll got it right when he once said, “there are no heroes in the Bible except for Jesus. The story of the Bible is about only bad people who are lost in sin and one good person who takes it away, Jesus.”
Teenagers don’t need heroes to model their lives after. They don’t need charismatic leaders who will use the formidable minds of youth to create clones of themselves. They need Jesus. They need the gospel and the hope it offers in a world full of leaders who will constantly fail them. Teenagers need the church so that there will be a Christ-shaped net to graciously and lovingly catch and embrace them when the world, and their leaders, fail them. Praise be to God that the ultimate leader of the church, Jesus Christ, will never fail them even when we fail him and others over and over again. Teenagers need the church—we all need the church—because the church points us to Jesus.