The Epidemic of a Jesus-less Gospel in Youth Ministry

Facebook and I have a love-hate relationship. It loves to suck me into the vortex of infinite scroll and I hate how easily that happens. Strangely, the posts that suck me in more than any others are from a youth pastor group I’ve joined recently. Without fail, the gravitational pull of the article or meme or screenshot overpowers my ability to click that red x-button on the top of my browser window. I lost this battle again the other day as I found myself staring at a screenshot that one youth pastor shared, celebrating a conversation that took place between himself and one of his students.

I don’t remember the exact details, but it went something like this:

Jim (Student): My life is terrible and I’m a horrible person. I wish I could be good like you.

Pastor Bill: Jim, don’t say that. You can be good like me. God will help if you ask him.

Jim: I would but I don’t know how. I feel like things are so hopeless.

Pastor Bill: You can pray something like this, “God, my life is a mess. I know I am a sinner and I want you to forgive me. I give my life to you and I want to follow you forever.”

Jim: I just prayed that prayer.

Pastor Bill: Congratulations, I’m so happy for you. You are now a Christian!

Seemingly, these are the moments that delight a youth worker’s heart. We don’t give ourselves to this ministry for the praise we receive from others or to amass our fortunes. We do what we do because we love Jesus, we love teenagers, and we’ve been called to this ministry. So, in many ways, I love this text-exchange. But in some very major ways, I am also deeply grieved and troubled. Because we cannot talk about the gospel without certain words being at the heart of our message – namely, “Jesus,” “Cross,” “Sin,” and “Grace.”

Hopefully, throughout this youth worker’s ministry to his student there was a long and faithful track record of preaching the gospel. I sincerely hope that is the case. While the exchange above assures the student of his new identity as a Christian, it is problematic at best that faith in Christ’s death and resurrection aren’t even referenced (never mind central to the gospel invitation). In my thirteen years as a full-time youth pastor I have taken students to evangelistic events and retreats where the speaker preached a sorely incomplete gospel. Instead, they talked about our need for the gospel, or they talked about the benefits of the gospel. This has always left me with extra work to ensure that my students who raised their hands or made commitments actually understand that the gospel is explicitly cross-centered and empty-tomb-secured. Preaching the gospel without preaching Christ crucified is like trying to teach someone how to drive in a car that does not have an engine.

I hate to sound like I’m picking on the good-hearted youth worker, but the above text conversation is the type of incomplete gospel I’ve heard too many times at camps, retreats, and various other ministry contexts. Like this pastor’s student, faithful Jews and Muslims pray for forgiveness too – but apart from the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ, those prayers are in vain. We must be certain that we are preaching the Christian gospel, not a version that other Abrahamic traditions would also affirm. Christ-centered preaching obviously finds its center in Christ, and yet I have often reflected back on my own lessons as a youth pastor and wondered, “Why wasn’t Jesus as the heart of that message? Why did he get placed on the periphery or as an after-thought?”

The gospel is the announcement of grace for sinners through the life, death, resurrection, and eventual return of Jesus Christ. The gospel proclaims that none of us are really “good,” yet God loves and saves sinners through Jesus Christ. The gospel is an invitation to turn away from your sinful desires and to receive new life in Christ. Friends, are we tired of this message? I certainly hope not!

My soul was stirred by that conversation on Facebook. I was convicted by the times I’m sure I’ve “shared the gospel” while barely mentioning Jesus. And yet I’m thankful that God’s sovereignty is even able to bring about genuine faith from incomplete gospel presentations.

Do not be ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe (Romans 1:16). There is no other message under heaven by which people can be saved (Acts 4:12). Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one can come to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Jesus is the gospel. There is no good news without him.


Mike McGarry is the Director of Youth Pastor Theologian, has served as a Youth Pastor for 18 years in Massachusetts, and has two youth group aged kids at home. He earned his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published three books – most recently, “Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith.” Mike is committed to training youth workers to think biblically about what youth ministry is and to training them to teach theologically with confidence. You can connect with him on social media @youththeologian.

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