Confession time: I am the world’s pickiest apple eater. At the camp I worked at in college, we would often grab an apple after dinner from a big bin sitting by the door. Just imagine 250 boys trying to sprint out of a dining hall, waiting on me to inspect every apple as if I was buying a car. Some had holes made by birds or bugs, others had obvious bruises, and some were simply too small; but no matter how long it took, I would always find a perfect, blemish free apple.
One day, after much deliberation, I took a generous first bite out of my carefully chosen apple and immediately knew that I had been bamboozled. As the saying goes, the only thing worse that finding a worm in an apple is half of a worm. Shaken by the whole ordeal, I couldn’t eat another apple for a few days (I bounce back quickly). How could something that looked so good, something I took the time to carefully select, actually be so rotten inside?
Students are like this. Think of that great kid in your youth group. He or she is probably one of your favorite students, maybe even “the reason I didn’t quit last fall.” But sometimes, the student you had the most confidence in goes off to college and everything falls apart. Time reveals that what seemed to be fruit in his or her life was merely prideful moralism or driven perfectionism. The spotless apple was rotten on the inside, and we just never saw it.
Sometimes, we as a church view youth ministry as one of many things to involve students in that will shape them into productive adults. We subconsciously dream of students graduating with a 4.0 GPA, an athletic scholarship, and having never taken a drink or a smoke. Everyone, parents and community included, loves that kid. But what if we didn’t view our students like we did apples? What if we understood that the student who looks completely flawless to the naked eye, along with the one who seems littered with flaws, both needed Jesus in equal measure? And they both need him more than anything else in their lives.
I can speak with some level authority on this subject, because I was that “good kid” in high school, who thought he understood the gospel perfectly, but in reality I had only taken the first couple steps.
What happens if the “good kids” in our ministries don’t ever really understand the Gospel because we assume they know it based on the way they live their life? Anyone can see a bruised apple, but how do we discipline ourselves to preach to those who look like they have it all down already? Here are four things the “good kid” in your youth ministry needs to know about the Gospel.
You Are Not a Cosmic Exception
“Good kids” tend to view themselves like people in a new relationship view each other. You all know that couple whose love is so fresh that they are incapable of seeing any flaws or obstacles. They think they are going to be the couple who dates from seventh grade until spring of senior year when they get engaged and live happily ever after. “Good kids” read Romans 3:23 and immediately try to find a reason why they don’t fall under the “all” category. Jesus may have been the only perfect man, but we aren’t that far behind him. But the truth is, we are not a cosmic exception to the Gospel.
In the echo chamber of our heads, we convince ourselves we are better. This is not the case for
everyone, but pride will often cause “good kids” to hide what’s really going on in their lives. Be super careful at taking a high-achieving student at his or her word when they say, “Everything is going fine.” Trust me, chances are, it ain’t! Press them! You have to dig deeper to see the true problems because they spend most of their energy burying them in the back yard like a dog buries a chewed up slipper.
Ask things like: You sure everything is fine? What about that game last week? What about your family life? Has anything this week not gone according to plan? Where do you see sin most obviously in your life?
You Never Graduate From Gospel
“Good kids” typically rely on their wits to get by. This means they assume that once they can speak Christian-ese enough to recite the Apostle’s Creed and flesh it out a little, they are likely ready to get on to “the real stuff.” Don’t let them off so easy! When someone says they want more than just the Gospel, it means they don’t see the many areas in their heart that still need it desperately. The Gospel is like looking through a kaleidoscope. Once you seem to have a handle on it, your perspective changes. It reveals new depths of sin you never could have predicted, as well as fresh pools of grace to cover that sin.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, Paul takes the time to stress that the Gospel in not just the 101 class. “I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved.” We don’t stand in our knowledge of the Old Testament Law, Greek, or ability to avoid sin. We stand in the Gospel. The only message powerful enough to save anyone and convict everyone. Don’t let the “good kids” graduate from grace, don’t let them graduate from the Gospel.
Big Is Small and Small Is Big
College, grades, jobs, social status, and sports are probably some of the most important things in a “good kid’s” life. They usually pick one or two. From our perspective (and the world’s), these are big, important things! They matter a lot. We’re terrified of failing at these. Here’s the problem: Jesus spent his time on earth telling us these things are actually very small in comparison to the vastness of the Kingdom of Heaven. In Matthew 16:25, Jesus proclaims that “whoever would save his life would lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” I don’t think it is possible to overly speak this truth into the lives of your students. To put our hope and identity in these earthly things – in anything but Jesus – is idolatry.
David is all over it in Psalm 8:3-4 when he cries, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” In God’s eyes we are insanely small, but God’s heart has a vast and infinite love for small things. He loves what the world says are small things! Children, the destitute, even the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. In his grace, He chooses us to spread His glory throughout the world using a lot of these small things to do it. Things like conversations over coffee, kindness, joy, and caring for the poor. What is big to us is small to God, and what is small to us is big to Him. Therefore, tell your students to turn their gaze from the big things in their lives and learn to cherish the small things, the things that Jesus cherished.
You Are Not What You Do
Filling up a resume is torture. Imagine sending someone an 8.5 by 11 sheet of paper that is supposed to tell them who you are and why they should accept you as a person. That’s typically how the meritocracy of America works. Somewhere along the way, we bought in to the horrible lie that we are what we do. It has driven “good kids” everywhere to adjust their desires, hopes, and dreams to mimic the things that the world puts value in.
Bathe your students in the goodness of grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Because of Jesus, there is no fantastic resume (or lack thereof) that will alter God’s love for them. Don’t let students put their identity in a resume or the works of their hands. That path leads to frustration, depression, and isolation. It is a path that cannot satisfy. Their identity is in Christ alone. They are a child of the King! Praise God who does not command us to find our worth in the things we do in this life, but rather in the Gospel truth of Christ’s work that is able to satisfy every longing of our souls.