Teaching youth to understand the gospel is the heart and soul of youth ministry and Christian parenting. Don’t miss our newest bonus curriculum on “Gospel Foundations: A 10 Lesson Curriculum on the Building Blocks of the Gospel” available at RootedReservoir.com. Whether you use it as a stand-alone Bible study or your summer curriculum for your youth group, we hope you find it so helpful.
Like many older Millennials, I experienced a rude awakening when Buzzfeed recently declared skinny jeans, side parts, and my most-used emoji (laughter-through-tears), v. uncool. Confronted with our advancing age, my college girlfriends and I lamented our apparent irrelevance. Do we actually need to dispose of all of our denim? And what is up with replacing the laugh-cry emoji with the skull (as in, I’m dead from laughing)? The Buzzfeed quiz only confirmed what I have long suspected as I’ve served the current generation of teenagers: I am no longer cool.
For vocational youth ministers, the admission that our cultural relevance is fading can feel like a career-ruiner. Many of us start in the field fresh out of college, a time when we’re able to resonate with the concerns of adolescence while also having just enough adult perspective to relate to parents and older ministry leaders. It can seem that once we’re no longer cool, we no longer have anything to contribute. Dear youth minister, this couldn’t be further from the truth!
Whether you’re young and new to youth ministry or feeling a little washed up, we all need to be reminded that cool is overrated. So here are three practices that are more important in your ministry to teenagers than being cool. (Spoiler alert: They all come from the ministry of Jesus!)
Care > Cool
Teenagers (like adults) long for someone to take an interest in them. They want to know that someone actually likes them enough to listen and engage—and they can easily tell when our concern is less than genuine.
In my experience, the youth ministers who pursue friendship with students and express care for their lives are a hit with teenagers regardless of age, style, or whether or not they’re up on the latest TikTok phenomenon. At my church, we have several lay leaders who are themselves grandparents of teenagers, and many others who are empty-nesters. Our students bask in the attention these leaders give them and are eager to hang out with them at Starbucks or Chipotle to talk more about life and faith. We would do well to take note of their faithful example and not lose heart.
When we prioritize care for students, we model the way of Jesus, who slowed down to take an interest in the lives of Zacchaeus and the woman at the well, who met Peter, James, and John at their workplace, and who dined with sinners and Pharisees in their homes. Again and again we see that Jesus was self-forgetful, focusing on the needs of the person in front of him at any given moment.
When we’re focused on being cool, we will always call more attention to ourselves than we do to the teenagers God has placed around us to love. But if we imitate Jesus in our compassionate care for their lives, we will lay a foundation for effective ministry, regardless of how culturally relevant we may feel. So take time to really listen. Offer your presence in time of crisis. Visit students at their after-school jobs and attend their extra-curricular events. Be intentional about hanging out with students outside of youth group, taking an interest in who they are and what they have to say .
Content > Cool
As singer-songwriter Mat Kearney has said, “If your vibe outweighs your substance, you are destined to be a novelty.” Nowhere is that sentiment more true than in youth ministry.
For too long, youth ministry in churches and parachurches has desperately tried to appropriate pop culture in hopes of connecting adult leaders with students. In the 90’s and early 2000s, that often involved a young male youth pastor with frosted tips whose youth group talks most often focused on sex and dating. Today, it might look like the tech-savvy youth minister with the flashiest social media presence and perhaps a leaning toward more progressive theology.
Of course we want to acknowledge the many benefits of godly adult influences who can relate to teenagers, and being tech-savvy is an asset to ministry. But all too often, youth ministers have attempted to win students to Jesus through a youthful vibe rather than by the substance of the gospel–the Good News that God saves sinners through the finished work of His Son.
In Jesus’ life and ministry, we see a stunning commitment to substantive content. Taking the example of the woman at the well in John 4, we notice that as soon as Jesus demonstrated his caring interest in the Samaritan woman, he began to share good news with her. Rather than trying to make his message easier to hear (i.e. cool), he cut straight to the heart of the matter, telling her in no uncertain terms she needed the living water he alone could offer, and announcing that he was the promised Messiah. His message offended her cultural perception, but it also changed her life !
Nothing is more important in our ministry than the good news of the gospel. In fact, good research has shown that teenagers are especially attracted to churches that take the gospel seriously. When we prioritize proclaiming the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our students’ lives over proof-texting or clickbait-style teaching, we offer students the only message that can transform their lives. So commit to spending significant time each week preparing and presenting content that points to Jesus. Teach the whole counsel of God’s Word. Engage with your students’ honest questions. Invite them to dive deep in studying Scripture with you, always looking for gospel connections in the text.
Context > Cool
We’ve already stated the tendency in youth ministry to overemphasize adopting youth culture in order to reach students. Still, there is an important nugget of truth in this approach that we should not miss if we want to speak to the hearts of teenagers: As in all things, context matters.
Whereas the content of the gospel never changes, the way we communicate it to a specific culture is always a moving target. If we don’t consider our students’ context, we’ll fail to address their toughest questions and their deepest longings. Where we miss the mark on these nuances, the gospel we preach may not actually sound like good news to them. Unlike the well-meaning youth pastor who works overtime to embody the youthful mannerisms and trends of her students, when we prioritize context over cool, we acknowledge the culture that is catechizing our students and seek to show how the gospel offers a better story. As Tim Keller has so often taught, when we know the culture well, we will be able to both affirm the parts of it that point us to the gospel and challenge the parts that are contrary to the gospel.
Again we observe this principle in the ministry of Jesus, since the miracle of the Incarnation is that God sent his Son to a specific people in a particular time and place. Turning back to the example of the woman at the well, we see that Jesus was well-acquainted with not only the Samaritan woman’s personal story, but with her broader context, too. He took time to meet her exactly where she was, knowing fully how her culture had informed her beliefs about God—but he didn’t need to adopt her cultural framework in order to win her to himself.
Like missionaries to a remote culture overseas, we must take time to learn the values, manners, and parlance of youth culture. As we age, we increasingly feel like outsiders to a foreign culture. That’s okay, but it means we have to prioritize learning our cultural context more than we once did. Even if you’re a young youth pastor, know that the culture won’t stay the same for long. Begin now to curate some trusted sources that can help you stay in touch with your students’ world. Talk with them and ask them about their interests. Take time now and then to peruse their Spotify playlists to see what they’re listening to. Subscribe to Axis’ weekly newsletter, The Culture Translator. Cultivate friendships with younger leaders in your ministry and ask them what trends they are observing in youth culture.
As King Solomon wrote, “a generation goes and a generation comes” (Eccles. 1:4). Coolness, like beauty, is ultimately fleeting. But here’s the best kept secret in youth ministry: Teenagers don’t need you to be cool. They need you to show up for them consistently, talk to them about things that matter, and point to the goodness of Jesus. So let’s not idolize coolness, but plan for a long obedience in youth ministry, whether or not you feel especially relevant. It doesn’t matter if you’re 24 or 84, if you demonstrate care for students and love for Christ, you will be the kind of youth minister God can use to draw teenagers to Himself.