For the most part “traditional” youth ministry involves separating youth from the adults of the church and especially their own parents. Then exciting, loud, fast-paced programming is planned so that it captivates the attention of teens and entertains them long enough to slip in a truth. It’s no wonder that 88% of youth group graduates stop attending church after graduation. Adult church is boring, and after six years of ministry that has focused on their needs and entertained them, they no longer have a need for the church.
Traditional youth ministry would have as its motto – “It is a sin to bore kids.” However, it may be more of a sin to imply that the Christian life is always fun and centered on you. Mark DeVries in his book Family-Based Youth Ministry explains:
Keeping teenagers from ever being bored in their faith can actually deprive them of opportunities to develop the discipline and perseverance needed to live the Christian life. It is precisely in those experiences that teenagers might describe as “boring” that Christian character is often formed. Mature Christian adults, then, are those people who no longer depend on “whistles and bells” to motivate them to live out their faith. They have become proactive Christians – not reactive. When young people grow up to be reactive Christian adults, they are constantly waiting for someone or something to attract them, to involve them, to impress them. A reactive Christian puts the responsibility for his spiritual life on someone else.
If our programs are training teenagers to be reactive, immature Christians, we can expect those young people eventually to become discouraged by the difficulty and boredom of the Christian life.
Having a good time is useful for developing strong relationships and it is certainly has its place in what we do. However, we believe that authentic relationships and uncompromising truth is a greater necessity. Years of ministry with this focus has proven to produce students who become spiritual leaders in their families and churches, instead of those who walk away from the faith.
Traditional youth ministry has made it a point to be “youth–centered”. This means that there is a conscious attempt to focus programming on what will entertain students. This almost always guarantees that a growing number of students will attend these programs. However, this philosophy of youth ministry often insures selfish, immature believers who assume that God is all about them. We want to offer balance and challenge students to become mature through Christ-centered youth ministry.
Here are some foundational principles that guide us in ministering to students.
Until we, as believers, understand this truth we will never see the depth and joy of the Christian life. The glory of God is seen in the many perfections of who He is. At every level and in every way God is beautiful and perfect. He is the totality of our desires and every need we have is met in Him. The only true meaning to be found on earth is in Him. God is all about His glory. This may sound selfish (and would be if we were talking about us) but there is nothing greater for God to glorify than Himself. We have a tendency to think that God’s purpose is to help us. Therefore we hear many people say “I don’t need God, I’m doing fine on my own” or “Every time I need God I just pray to Him”. God’s purpose is to use everything He created to reflect the truth about Himself. Do everything in a way that brings attention to our Savior is the calling of every Christian, so that the truth about God can be seen in us.
So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. -1 Corinthians 10:31
Jesus died to redeem us so that He would be glorified through our redemption. He didn’t just die so that we could be free from the bondage of sin. He died so that others would see our changed lives, know the power of God, and glorify Him for what He did.
It is vital that students know this truth. Living the Christian life makes little sense apart from this truth. The first will be last and the last will be first, turn the other cheek, love those who persecute you, and be willing to die for your faith. These do not make sense when we think that God is just all about us (1 Corinthians 3:18). No one will fully live for Christ until they are motivated by the glory of God and treasure Him above all else.
Doubling our youth group attendance in six months would be immediately gratifying to us. Staying away from the difficult truths of scripture would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. Refusing to allow anyone to be confronted about sin would help. Large crowds, while bringing immediate satisfaction and applause, are rarely a measure of true growth.
There is a principle that a wise professor once – “Whatever you use to attract people is what it will take to keep them.” People hate the “bait and switch” tactics used by many organizations. We must be honest about what we do. Changed lives are a slow way to grow a group, but the results are eternal.
The goal of our ministry is mature adults NOT entertained kids. We must emphasize the way of Christ as seen in self-control, others first, humble servanthood, faithfulness, and others. Many times these truths are difficult and require confrontation to help students see the need. We must remain faithful to the truth. Those who grow and mature in Christ will one day resent the leader who never challenged them.
Rather train yourselves for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. -1 Timothy 4:7b-8
Paul recognized the eternal value of holding the standard of holiness for young Timothy. In-depth teaching on the value of treasuring Christ will not attract the same number of people as mud wrestling. Yet, we must place priority on developing mature believers.
This generation of students has been raised in a world where everyone is of questionable character. It seems that everyone from pastors to presidents have violated a sacred trust and selfishly exploited others. The greatest need in their lives is to see men and women of integrity that honestly follow Jesus Christ. Not perfect men and women. No one expects perfection from another person. We simply need to be real. It is those who hide their sins that lose credibility with students. We must strive to teach, speak, and live honestly from lives that passionately pursue Christ. Paul encourages us:
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. –Philippians 3:17
Paul knew the value of faithful men and women who genuinely follow Christ. Students do not need adults to be anything other than genuine and serious about a relationship with Christ. The greatest need of students is adults who are striving to become obedient followers of Christ.
When Jesus called people into a relationship with Him it always resulted in laying down the life they were living. Genuine faith always results in changed actions. No one can be saved by being good enough (Ephesians 2:8, Isaiah 64:6). However, no one can be truly redeemed and remain unchanged (James 2:17). We strive to help students see this truth. Many people make emotional decisions apart from genuine faith and repentance. The fruit of a biblical gospel is not an emotion decision but a changed life.
Most students will question their salvation. We strive to help them examine the truths of the Gospel for biblical evidence that the Holy Spirit has regenerated their life. Over time this leads to a confident faith that is not easily shaken.
Part of what we desire to do is to strengthen the family through the reinforcement of scriptural teaching. We understand that it is the parents who are accountable to God for raising their children. We want to be ready to assist them in that process in any way possible.
Fathers … bring [your children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. -Ephesians 6:4b
Many people approach youth ministry with a goal of changing behavior. Stop drinking, cussing, smoking, listening and watching horrible things. This is backwards. We must allow the truth of God’s word to change what they treasure and then the actions will change. We see progress by proclaiming the whole truth of God’s Word and then behavior changes as they understand truth.
The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of the evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. -Luke 6:45
When we allow the truth of scripture to bring conviction then we begin to see life change. Not to say that we never correct wrong behavior, because many times God will use that as an opportunity to bring conviction into the life of a student. However, we must not expect to produce followers of Christ by stopping wrong behavior. That is only the symptom of a heart-problem.
We believe it is important that we do not allow our students to become comfortable with where they are spiritually. We are all susceptible to this. We become easily distracted or get lazy and become very comfortable with where we are spiritually.
But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. -Philippians 3:13b-14
We strive to accomplish this by:
- Teaching the truth from scripture not catchy “how to” messages based on worldly wisdom. It is truth that changes lives. We must strive to make it practical and relevant but never compromise the teaching of truth just so it doesn’t offend.
- Challenge the way students live by saying the difficult things no one else will. (What they need to hear not what they want to hear). We are called to be honest with each other. (Ephesians 4:25).
- Help them evaluate their salvation. Don’t simply accept “I prayed a prayer” or “I was baptized.” Inquire with deeper questions about a changed life.
- Teach them to discipline themselves for the sake of godliness. Discipline has value for all things in this life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8)
- We believe in them, cry with them, love them, and forgive them when they fail. Remembering that forgiveness has been extended to us all.