What Gospel Centered Youth Ministry Means (and what it doesn’t): Part 1

I always considered myself a gospel-centered youth pastor. There was a period when I even created a blog entitled “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry.” But looking back, the irony is striking. The gospel has always been present in everything I do, and it’s never been absent or marginalized, but I realize now it was a stretch to call it central.

What I personally learned the hard way is this: not all “gospel-centered” ministries are created equal. Today’s resurgence of gospel-centered ministry is much needed, but it’s also created confusion about what it actually means to be gospel-centered.

As I have walked through my own shift in ministry philosophy, I have found it helpful to contrast three approaches to ministry: Gospel-Absent, Gospel-Present, and Gospel-Centered.

Ministries can fall into this camp in two ways, one intentional and the other accidental. The first camp views Jesus as purely a motivational figure who inspires us to live better lives. This is the Jesus of the social gospel, health and wealth churches, and other similar movements where Christianity is more about building heaven on earth and living your best life now.

The second camp of gospel-absent ministries is much subtler. I believe it usually happens when youth leaders are trying to be relevant, helpful, and approachable to teenagers. Since teenagers are coming of age in a post-Christian world, the common assumption is that too much “Jesus talk” and Bible-teaching will turn young people away, therefore those critical emphases are lost or minimized. In an effort to make Christianity accessible, it’s often taught in a way that helps teenagers understand how God wants his people to live. Instead of Christianity being a religion about sinners incapable of saving themselves and God who came to save them anyway, it is reduced to a general exhortation of loving others, morality, and being “good Christians.” This is a warped gospel and not what was proclaimed by the apostles. Again, this sort of gospel-absent ministry can happen with good intentions but forms disastrous results.

Gospel Present
There is a common assumption that ministries who preach the gospel and do evangelism are therefore gospel-centered. I fell into this category for nearly a decade. My preaching of the gospel rightly focused on salvation by grace alone, through faith alone. But the gospel was largely disconnected from my discipleship strategy. I needed to heed Paul’s words in Galatians 3:3, “After beginning by the Spirit, are you now finishing by the flesh?” My confidence in the Holy Spirit to bear the fruit of ministry wasn’t absent, but I trusted in my ability and my ministry plans more than I wanted to admit. Discipleship became more about my godly counsel and advice than it was about God’s Word and helping students to see the practical impact of their identity as children of God who have been saved by grace. When the gospel was present but not central, I found myself working hard to train students to live the Christian life, while forgetting that law-based discipleship didn’t work in the Old Testament either. In a way, I viewed the gospel as the entrance into the family of God (initial salvation) and as the exit strategy (final salvation into glory), but the gospel had not shaped my daily understanding of what it means to be a Christian: an adopted and beloved child of God (regardless of his/her unworthiness).

Too many youth workers similarly view the gospel as a hook into the Christian life, rather than embracing it as its pulse. Our ministry effectiveness is not dependent on whether or not youth group went well last week, but upon the power of God at work in students’ lives. While many will agree with that statement theologically, their ministry practices deny it. Gospel-Present ministries often cater more to the assumed preferences of teenagers – presumably to actually get them in the building – but fail to continually deliver the Good News once they’ve arrived. Teaching has fallen out of favor in many youth groups, because students “don’t like being talked at and have a short attention span.” Youth group lessons aren’t rooted in Scripture, because we assume students will be bored of God’s Word. Church is boring and “not targeted” to students, so we provide alternative services to reach them instead (only to wonder why they don’t attend church as adults).

While Gospel-Present ministries rightly proclaim the message of salvation, the gospel has not shaped the center of the whole ministry.

The defining mark between gospel-present and gospel-centered youth ministry is whether or not the gospel is central in every facet of the ministry, instead of merely on the periphery. I eventually realized I was calling students to salvation by faith alone, but I was more focused on equipping them to grow their own faith by hard work and Bible teaching. Today, I place a higher emphasis on nurturing students to discover the daily effects of saving faith: they are God’s child, they are united with Christ, their sin (past, present, future) has been atoned for, they have a Father in heaven who loves them dearly (no matter what they do or don’t do), and they have a future hope that is certain and unmatched. Rather than driving students to live more biblically (which easily comes off as cracking the whip, law), I try to inspire them with a realistic perspective of their fallen condition and a bigger, more loving vision of a God who chooses them anyway.

We need the humility to resist the arrogance that has crept into much of the gospel-centered ministry world. Perhaps sharing these three categories will lead to some healthy and sharpening conversations between youth workers. After all, it should be refreshing to hear so much talk about gospel-centered, cross-centered youth ministry. While we acknowledge that we don’t all mean the same thing by that phrase, let us celebrate that Christ is proclaimed, sins are confessed and repented of, and discipleship is a growing priority in many youth ministries. That attitude sounds a lot like the Apostle Paul’s approach (Philippians 1:15-19).

Personally, I spent years faithfully teaching biblically-sound lessons and calling students to saving faith. The gospel was present and I would’ve been deeply offended to be told I wasn’t “gospel centered.” I assumed that students (and my volunteer youth team) saw how the gospel fuels each facet of the Christian life, so I didn’t always make those connections clear. Eventually I came to realize that if I wanted to equip my students to grow a lifelong faith, I would need to confidently build every aspect of my ministry, every lesson, every one-on-one meeting, how the youth ministry related to the rest of the church, upon the gospel of grace. Instead of encouraging my students to live better lives, I remind them as often as I can that they are sinners who are immeasurably loved by God. I haven’t necessarily seen radical transformation, but instead what is slow-growing and hopefully enduring fruit.

Tomorrow’s article will bring greater clarity on Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry by highlighting Rooted’s “Five Pillars” as the hallmarks of the ministry philosophy promoted by Rooted (and the ministry philosophy I have come to adopt). For more in-depth reading you may want to read “Gospel Centered Youth Minsitry: A Practical Guide” (Crossway 2016) which was edited by our Chairman, Cameron Cole, and many of the chapters were written by youth workers affiliated with Rooted.

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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