Youth Group: Leaving Behind the Show to Let Jesus Be the Star

My personal youth group experience took place at the turn of the century. Student ministry in the late 1990s and early 2000s was one of the prime seasons of the attractional ministry model that helped birth the modern mega-church movement. Youth services were designed to have the latest music, the best games, the most compelling talks, and the most fun. With idea banks supplied by Saturday Night Live and Gameshow TV networks, entertainment reigned, while leaders sprinkled in just enough teaching to make the group Christian.

As youth leaders, many of us come to student ministry with our past experiences as youth group students (if we grew up with a church background). We pick up where we left off as high school seniors and seek to recreate our youth group experiences for the next generation. Without using discernment in this process, we can focus on things that do not really matter.

Youth Group: Cool, Safe, and Entertaining

When the goal of youth group was to offer a safe and cool place for students to hang out, teaching focused on the evils of the world versus the safety of the church. Under the “cool” façade, youth group became a Christian bunker where kids of religious parents could be protected from “bad influences” and the evil in the world. Building a safe Christian youth group sub-culture took the place of equipping students with the gospel message to engage the world on mission.

In the “cool” youth group mentality, committed students were more interested in coming to church events than doing things with “unbelievers.” These students defined themselves by their holiness. “I don’t drink, smoke, chew, or hang out with those who do.” “I don’t watch R-rated movies unless they are about Jesus.” For many of these students, the good news was that they were not as bad as they could have been.

In these youth group settings, teaching lacked the gospel because the message of the gospel was only necessary for those students who had not yet accepted Christ. Once students were “in,” messages only needed to center on religious performance – love more, forgive more, serve more, sin less, and make sure you have your daily quiet time. As you performed, God and others would be impressed and accept you. If you couldn’t perform, something was clearly wrong with you.

Starting out as a youth minister, it was only natural for me to try to reproduce the model I had seen in the youth groups of my middle school and high school days. I thought student ministry should be fun, game-driven, exciting, and event-driven. The excitement level of the weekly meeting should be the highlight of a student’s week.

As I sought to develop messages, the goal was to take a cool and creative idea, build some Scripture around it, and present it to the group. It would be “relevant,” and students would be challenged as they learned the latest novel idea of the aspiring youth pastor. The desire to borrow ideas from the current popular preacher’s sermons also helped drive the message. If only I could be as cool, creative, and relevant as Andy Stanley, Louie Giglio, or Erwin McManus.

The journey to embracing gospel centrality – embracing Jesus as the hero of the ministry, and letting His life, death, burial, and resurrection take center stage – came through several streams. In the converging of these streams, my heart for gospel centrality began to grow.

Youth Group: The Place to Learn the Good News About Jesus

The first stream was being discipled by other leaders on the journey to embrace the gospel. They saw the gospel as not just the ticket into Christianity but the whole of the Christian life. The gospel was needed not just as a ticket into eternal life but as the key to following Jesus every day. Through these mentors, I began to see the role of the gospel as the meta-narrative, or all-connecting story, of Scripture. It was the life-transforming story that brings hope from which we live the Christian life.

The second stream was coming to understand my own need for the gospel. As kid in youth group finding moments of honesty, I realized that I could not sin less. My attempts to try harder to impress God and others were not sufficient. I needed the gospel to remind me of who I was when I failed to follow God. I needed the Holy Spirit to fill and transform me so my life could begin to look like Jesus.

The third stream was the exhaustion of the showman. When ministry becomes topping the last event, gimmick, or game, it is easy to find the idea bank empty. When the creativity needed to manufacture the latest cool talk or the idea for what would be “relevant” doesn’t come, it is hard to know where to turn and what to do. Running a show to entertain teenagers that is better than the media that surrounds them is an impossible task.

As these three streams merged, I realized that gospel centrality was essential to biblical faithfulness in student ministry. By making the gospel the central message of the ministry, students would be drawn to find hope in Jesus and his work for them instead of their performance. Teaching would be exposing the truths of the text rather than using the text to “Christianize” the latest idea. Ministry would be about getting to know students relationally than trying to entertain them systematically.

Youth Group: Jesus, Front and Center

When the gospel is the center, Jesus shines through the ministry rather than you and your show. You get to be the one who points students to him. Watch him change their lives and see what he can build through a group of students who have devoted themselves to following him.

The question for us as leaders is: do we believe Jesus and trust him that his gospel is truly enough to be the foundation upon which we build our lives and ministries?

In writing of the power of the gospel, Paul reminds us: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16 ESV).

When it comes to your ministry, point to Jesus through your message, offer grace and forgiveness through the gospel when students fail, and let Jesus be the hero. And in those moments when you get lost in your show instead of his, remember that Jesus’ gospel of grace is for youth workers too.

Ben Birdsong is a church and para-church student ministry veteran and currently serves as the Minister of Missions at Christ Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He is also an adjunct professor teaching children, youth, and family ministries at Birmingham Theological Seminary. Ben also helps churches with custom curriculum through Your Youth Ministry Curriculum and authors with book projects through Birdsong Innovations. Ben has bachelor’s degrees in Marketing and Human Resource Management from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a Master of Divinity degree from Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, and a Doctor of Ministry in Ministry to Emerging Generations from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. As an author, Ben has written the devotional books Words from the Cross: 7 Statements that Will Transform Your Life, journeying through Jesus’ final moments before His death, and James: Everyday Faith. He is also a monthly contributor for parenting and family ministry content for Birmingham Christian Family magazine. Ben also wrote the John study and a portion of the Psalm study for Rooted Reservoir. Ben is married to Liz. He enjoys reading, writing, watching movies, and blogging at

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