“Gospel-centered youth ministry is great in theory, but is it effective at building lifelong disciples?”
To be honest, this is a question I’ve asked with increasing frequency, especially as our typical way of doing ministry has been sidelined. If you are familiar with the ministry of Rooted, then you know we are all about advancing grace-driven, gospel-centered ministry to students through partnership with youth workers and parents. I have written previously about What Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry Is (and isn’t), and I want to make the case that Rooted’s five pillars of gospel-centered youth ministry continue to uphold faithful ministry to students… even during this quarantine.
When so much of life has been stripped away by a global pandemic, you cannot possibly overlook the fragility of life. It has been impossible to ignore the curse of death and the pain of grief, even for our teenagers. Business cannot continue as usual, and maybe that’s a good thing. As youth workers who desire to see students transformed by the gospel, this is a crucial season to apply the hope of the gospel before our students.
The sovereignty of God gives comfort that our Heavenly Father still knows the number of hairs on our head – he is neither handcuffed nor hard-hearted towards our very present fears. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that death has lost its sting – we live with the hope of eternal life in the midst of great sickness. The indwelling Holy Spirit has united us with Christ (John 14:20) and brings us before God’s glorious presence.
Because of the gospel, we refuse to take up the role of jester. Instead, we lean in to redouble our efforts to preach the gospel of grace. There is no greater comfort to give students. Even though students are largely not following social distancing guidelines, they are very much aware of their own mortality. While resisting any semblance of manipulation, it is wise to invite students to honestly evaluate their relationship with God and to receive the security and hope that come from faith in certain rescue outside of themselves – their only true Savior, Jesus Christ.
Theological Depth Through Expository, Biblical Teaching
My son is in the sixth grade. That makes me “youth pastor dad.” It also means I regularly ask him for feedback on what’s connecting with students and what isn’t. Recently, he gave me a punch to the gut by saying, “Well, I don’t really think you’ve been teaching the Bible. You’ve been talking about the Bible, but we’re not really getting into it. You know?” Ugh.
In an effort to keep things from getting too heavy, and because teaching on Zoom is incredibly awkward and difficult, I stopped teaching like I’m accustomed. Obviously, the messages were shorter (usually 10-12 minutes). But my son’s feedback was more accurate than I am proud to admit. Since then, I’ve recommitted myself to actually teaching God’s Word and showing students the message of the gospel in the text, while inviting them to re-discover the comfort and hope we find therein. And guess what – they’re more engaged and attentive than they were when I was trying to keep things light.
Whether in quarantine or not, the Bible is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16). Resist the draw to put the gospel on the shelf in favor of entertainment or relevance. Fun and games are not the enemy, but, in the words of the Apostle Paul, exercise self-control in everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:5). Trust the Word of God to do the work of God.
In the midst of the grief and trials of this quarantine, I am increasingly convinced this season is full of wisdom for youth workers to glean. The primary one is this: the program is not the ministry.
As students continue to drop out of our weekly calls – and while we continue to be unable to meet together in person – do you still have a youth ministry? I certainly hope so! Discipleship is not a program, and it cannot be cancelled by a quarantine. Check in on students – leverage technology during this season to keep in contact through texting and social media. Depending on state regulations, consider ways for small groups to meet while practicing social distancing. Continue to invest in the individuals you are discipling and mentoring. The only way this quarantine can cancel your ministry is if you are building a program rather than using a program to build relationships.
Yes, relational discipleship is significantly more difficult right now. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Technology like Zoom and Facetime have allowed us to maintain contact with students – but don’t neglect the power of personal ministry. Jesus did not merely hold out his hands over crowds full of sick people, he touched them. Leverage resources available to you, but remember that Jesus’ model of discipleship is explicitly personal.
Partnering with Parents
Every youth worker in history has affirmed the unique spiritual influence parents have on their teenagers. This is even more significant during a pandemic. If we cannot figure out how to make progress now in partnering with parents for the spiritual development of their children, then I doubt we ever will.
There are four general reasons why I think we’ll fail to equip and empower parents for family discipleship during this time. First, we expect too much. Parents are trying to work from home, keep their kids safe, figure out how to homeschool their kids with remote-learning from their kids’ teachers, and maintain some sanity. It’s a heavy load, and being told that they’re spiritual failures if they don’t use the devotional you sent them is the last thing they need. Second, we give them unhelpful resources. The chances are good that you have been asked to teach a bad curriculum at some point in your ministry. It’s usually a miserable experience that requires significant effort to re-write the lessons in order to make them effective. Provide students with a gospel-centered resource that is easy to use (like the free Family TableTalk sheets from CPYU), and give them generous amounts of grace if they only use them sporadically. Third, we make a half-hearted attempt. Sure, we tried; but we know it wasn’t a well-constructed plan and the parents could tell. Finally, the parents simply aren’t interested. Maybe they’re just too overworked to make the effort, or maybe they’re spiritually disinterested.
Wherever your ministry might be in developing a meaningful partnership with parents, be patient and continue to gently encourage them to disciple their teenagers. Resist the urge to overwhelm them with more things for their to-do list. Instead, ask parents how they’re doing, how their kids are doing, and pray with them – don’t just offer to pray for them, actually do it over the phone. Making these phone calls and praying grace-giving, gospel-centered prayers over them just might be the best thing you can do to reorient them around the cross and empty tomb.
Your youth ministry will likely not be the first ministry in your church that regathers. When the church begins to meet again, be an advocate to help your leadership consider the struggles of teenagers and their parents as they prepare the worship services and preaching emphases. Perhaps this could be a good summer to develop a plan to build a prayer team, recruiting adults in the church who will pray for a few students by name regularly throughout the school-year (see the Pray For Me Campaign for more ideas on this).
When your community allows it, encouraging families to do service projects raking or mowing for the elderly (or other church families in need) would be a fruitful way to get students interacting with other generations in the church. Or, if guidelines are loose enough, you could serve as small group. Empowering students to serve and/or serve alongside the other generations adds a significant blessing to both your students and the church family.
A Final Word: Rest
Finally, take some time to rest. In the midst of the pressure to perform and to “earn your paycheck,” remember the gospel is an invitation to experience rest for your weary soul. That should also include physical rest – remember the sabbath. You do not need to burn yourself out in quarantine to prove anything to anyone. Drink deeply of God’s grace, and trust him to establish your ministry as you find your rest in him.