I grew up in youth ministry at a time when youth groups were filled with gimmicks, clichés, and Christianese. There was always some sort of disgusting icebreaker game. It involved drinking a blended concoction of canned foods, or retrieving stinky shoes from a pile and then returning them to their owner. Youth ministry was about getting as many kids in the door as possible and then “Jesus-juking” them with a testimony. The gospel was simply knowing that “Jesus loves you.” Being a Christian meant wearing a WWJD bracelet and going to Promise Keepers conferences. For all the good that Youth Ministries did for my generation, the heavy emphasis on entertainment and the low emphasis on theology implied that youth needed a different gospel than adults.
When I started as a Youth Pastor back in 2009, many youth leaders were still abiding by these same philosophies of reaching youth: “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care”; “It doesn’t matter why they come to church, as long as they are coming”; “Just tell them Jesus loves them; they will learn theology later.” As I wrestled with how best to reach youth, I remember other youth pastors and parents literally saying these things to me. I saw the desire to “do whatever it takes” to get a generation that was quickly leaving church back into the church doors, but I still wasn’t convinced that watering down the gospel was the right approach.
Holding Back the Truth
As teens are growing up in an increasingly post-modern world, it seems we’ve become even more desperate to do anything to get them to come to church or be receptive to the gospel. So we shy away from the more shocking or difficult truths about God; we talk more about God’s love than we do about his holiness and our sin; we hold off on deeper truths of the gospel until a later time when they will be more ready. But I wonder if, in our desperate attempt to reach youth with the gospel, we’ve actually turned to a different gospel.
Is it still a gospel that saves if students only know the love of God, but not the incredible barrier of our sin which his love had to overcome through the cross? Is it still a gospel that will stand if students do not understand the sovereignty of God through suffering, as demonstrated supremely in his sovereignty over Christ’s suffering at Golgotha? A gospel for life if it is not a gospel that calls teens to come and die? To say that teens only need the love of God, without knowing their need for God, is to lead them to a gospel that never calls them to repent and give their lives to the only One who can truly give life.
What They Really Want
Over the years in youth ministry, I’ve come to find that students want the deeper, more difficult truths of God concealed from them. They want to know how the gospel is not just good news for them, but also for the problems of the world. They want to know how God is sovereign over both the good and the evil in their lives. And nothing communicates that more than the complete gospel of grace. Sin is so offensive that someone had to die. But God’s love is so triumphant that it overcomes sin and suffering. To leave out the deep truths of the gospel is to turn a teen away from the rich mines where the gold of God’s character lives.
If we want our youth to have a faith that lasts, we must trust in the power of the gospel to save–the complete and unhindered gospel. In fact, the more a teen knows about the depravity of their sin, the election of God’s grace, the propitiation of Jesus’ death, and other foundational truths, the deeper the roots of their faith will go as they continue to face life’s challenges. If the gospel was sufficient to save us, then we can trust that the same gospel is sufficient to save students today.