Youth Ministry’s Historical Temptation to Compromise on Biblical Truth

If you work in youth ministry, you know the opposition and even outrage that foundational Biblical doctrines and truth elicit from the world. In the western world, one encounters a great chasm between secular culture and that of biblical Christianity.

Particularly in ministering to teenagers, fear and doubt can easily creep in: “We are becoming irrelevant. We can never win people to Christ unless we change.”

This voice speaks a half-truth. In every place and every age, we must think contextually about how we communicate the Bible in an understandable manner to our audience. We see the apostles do this effectively in the Gospels and the epistles. All of the Gospels and the epistles had a specific audience and cultural context in mind when they communicated the truth of Christ.

For the sake of our local ministries and the broader field of youth ministry, two things need to be said frankly. First, this is not a new problem. Christianity has overcome cultural chasms between the church and the world since the days of the apostles. Second, and most importantly, it is destructive, dangerous, and ignorant of church history to think that compromising, watering-down, or altering the clear teachings of Scripture stands as a legitimate ministry strategy. The western church stands as evidence of the catastrophe that ensues when we abandon the Scriptures in the name of relevance and cultural accommodation.

Let Us Not Repeat History

The quandary of cultural relevance that western Christianity faces today is common throughout church history. History also reflects, though, that the gospel has the power to overcome apparent cultural impasses.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, we must humbly and kindly teach the word of God in an uncompromising manner to the kids and parents before us, no matter how passé or offensive the Bible may appear. The message of the Cross sounded insane and stupid to both the Jews and Greeks to whom Paul preached in Corinth. However, Paul offered this exhortation to the Corinthians: “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:15).

Certainly, Daniel could not have perceived Nebuchadnezzar as a likely recipient of God’s word. Still, Daniel remained faithful to the word, both in proclamation and practice, and we ultimately see the megalomaniacal king bow down to the most high.

The Ninevites appeared completely hostile to God’s word when Jonah called them to repent and turn to Yahweh. However, they responded and obeyed when Jonah faithfully delivered God’s message without compromise.

Though underreported, we are seeing a revitalization of Christianity in perhaps the most historically gospel-resistant city in the world: New York City. Thirty years ago, less than 1% of Manhattan was professing Christian. Today, nearly 5% of Manhattan claims Christ as savior. This revival in the church in New York has been largely on the heels of gospel-centered, evangelistic, Bible-based church plants over the last three decades.

Whether it’s the larger field of youth ministry or the youth worker in the local church, we must cling to scriptural truth as the axis of our teaching and message.
It is not our job to assess the relevance of God’s word today. It is God’s Word, which has intrinsic truth for all people in all ages.

We must remember that his word has the power to change hearts and minds in a supernatural manner beyond our rationalistic expectations. If you want to see people come to love and follow Jesus, you must proclaim his word and his gospel without compromise.

Everyone Is Tempted to Compromise

The temptation to compromise is something every Christian experiences. Sticking to the biblical message, which seems offensive, small-minded, or anti-intellectual at times, is costly and scary.

I’ll never forget five years ago when some students asked me to lead a Sunday school class on hell. I prepared. I looked at everything Jesus said about hell, as recorded in the Gospels. I combed Revelation. I was nervous. Sunday came – it was game time. And my worst nightmare occurred: a visitor walked in the door.

Welcome to the Church of the Advent. Glad you are here. Please sit down while we talk about…. hell. Awesome.

The anxiety I experienced then is the same trepidation I encounter when a student asks about the Bible’s teaching on same-sex marriage, or the leadership dynamics in marriage, or God’s command to drive the Canaanites off the land at all cost in Joshua. I crave the approval of man, of my students. A temptation exists to water-down, dodge, or equivocate on what the Bible clearly teaches.

Here’s the confidence and conviction we must have. First, the word of God in its unadulterated truth has power beyond our rationale. Our thoughts, musings, and illustrations are impotent unless they carry the thrust of God’s word. God’s word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Our words might sound wise, but they only carry power insomuch as they flow from God’s word.

This is a large part of the conviction on which Rooted Ministry was founded. We believe the larger world of youth ministry has put too much focus on the methodology of youth pastors. Rooted established a gospel-centered theology conference for youth pastors because we believe that youth leaders themselves have zero power to change kids’ hearts for Christ. Only God by his word and Spirit through his people can make lasting disciples.

Secondly, we will all go before the judgment of Jesus Christ one day to give an account for what we have done – whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10). Of course this will not determine our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ. That Sunday school lesson on hell, however, or that answer to the hard question, will be accounted for (Jam. 3:1).

These truths reinforce that faithfulness to the entirety of Scripture matters. It matters for the children and families we serve, and it matters for the offering we give to our Great Savior when we go before his throne.

May God give us all the grace to stand firm.

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries for eighteen years at the Church of the Advent, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide” (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition’s Book of the Year (First-Time Author). He is also the co-editor of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School (New Growth Press) and the author of Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024). Cameron is a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University undergrad, and summa cum laude graduate from Wake Forest with an M.A. in Education. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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