Original Opinion Piece for Thursday, July 3 (’14)
We continue a multi-authored series on the problems of youth ministry. For review, here are the previous posts in this series:
Today, the last two characteristics of a biblical and faithful youth ministry.
“Youth are youth. Kids are gonna be kids.” A faithful youth ministry will have none of this. Scriptural standards are crystal clear: Christians are chosen for holy living as a holy priesthood (1 Peter 1:13-25) as part and parcel of the Gospel. In fact, within the context of life after salvation, Hebrews 12:14 says “there is a holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
Kids may just be kids in the eyes of our culture, but in the eyes of God, they are either increasingly mature witnesses in word and deed to the joy of Christ and the salvation he offers or they are unrepentant enemies of the Gospel (Rom 1:18-31; 8:5-8; 2 Cor 4-5). Therefore, when a youth minister metaphorically stands on the corner and calls for youth to hear the words of the Gospel, he is standing in the place of Lady Wisdom calling for wayward youths to turn from death and embrace life (Prov 9), and he is doing so together with the family/parents. Moreover, Proverbs was, in many places, aimed directly at youth (see the thesis of Proverbs in 1:1-7), which is to say, the scriptures speak in many places to youth from an elder/older generation (or God directly) and hold them to a high standard called “holiness”. This is far more than a bare confession at an “altar call” coupled with a baptism of water and an outward show of service at a soup kitchen.
Our expectations must match God’s, and while this sounds simple, we must not assume we’re on the narrow path but must, instead, be willing to test ourselves carefully against Scripture and the history of the church. Ultimately, having lower expectations than God towards a child perverts God’s Gospel because it perverts his Word.
However, it is not only our expectations of youth that must change, but also our expectations of our ministry; we must not only change what we think of them, but what we think of ourselves. The Scripture, then, expects both church authority (1 Pet 5:1-5; Heb 13:7) and family to refuse to segregate children/youth into their immature ages and, instead, to call them to repentance and holiness with the Body. In case this point is argued still, remember that the letters of the New Testament were written to churches (not, generally, select individuals even if through select individuals) and were meant to be read to all in the church. This is clear, especially, in a letter like Ephesians, in which the Apostle, through his messenger, speaks to all in the church, even addressing children directly. Standards and expectations were the same for adults and children: holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. This isn’t a call to abolish the youth room (though some believe it is), but simply to point out the biblically obviously: God speaks to different ages and gives different commands but all are geared towards the same goal of mutual building up for the sake of collective and individual holiness. Let each of you look to the interests of others….
Echoing the biblical witness, David Wells says in his book Above All Earthly Pow’rs, “There is not a self-help program on the market today which is not, in some way, utilizing the knowledge, resources, techniques, products, and tools of this ‘age’ which, in biblical terms, is dead. It is filled with offers of help and of hope, of meaning and of fulfillment, and even of surrogate regeneration, but they all come from a world that is spiritually dead and therefore of dubious worth. That is an extraordinary, a breathtakingly radical position to take. The New Testament takes it unapologetically” (209). Everything that is not for Christ is against him. At times, it can be difficult to tell which is what or who is where. However, any institution or person, culture or tradition, home or church, that reduces Christ’s calling for radical holiness and discipleship—the kind that would rather enter his presence maimed and crippled than live without him (Mt 18:7-9)—is trash and a harbinger of death instead of a Gospel of life (Mk 10:40). This is not a call to live like there is no tomorrow. After all, we are told in Scripture that a man should provide for his family instead of leaving them for the mission field, to be wise with our affairs/job/money (1 Tim 3:5; 5:8), and generally, that we should consider our futures, but to do so with a pencil and planner rather than a sharpie. It is a call to place ourselves squarely under submission to Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s revealed methods and means. Let us renounce the hipster-entertainer-with-a-15-minute-”lesson” model that is little more than a baptized moralistic upper (see #7 below for more here).
Youth ministry must be far more than entertaining. Though violence is a hallmark of entertainment in our culture, the Cross is not meant to entertain. It is entirely possible that, where youth ministry includes entertainment as a primary “bait” (“Let’s just get ‘em in the door with this…”), we are in danger of having them confuse our tools with the message on the other side. As famed media ecologist Marshall McLuhan said, sometimes, the “medium is the message.” As another has said, “What we win them with is what we win them to.” Paul was willing to use no gimmicks and simply commend his preaching to those before him (1 Cor 1:18-25). He knew that “all who were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48) because of preaching—nothing else. The Roman world had theater and Coliseums, yet God did not give his people a play or movie or show. He gave them preaching (Rom 10:12-15). This runs entirely counter to prevailing culture which demands a pretty face, a packaged and polished message, and a promise of personal gain. Unfortunately, quacks and charlatans don’t usually label themselves anything other than Everything-You-Need. Moreover, our preaching is inherently weak. It’s supposed to be. It is, at the end of the day, just words, albeit words supernaturally empowered by a Spirit who has sworn by himself to use them to take a hard heart and make it Christ’s (1 Cor 2:1-4; 2 Cor 4:1-4). Culture and godlessness demands strength, but God clothes his people and faithful ministries in weakness and the foolishness of preaching so that his power and grace may be magnified and he may be glorified. God will have his due. Imagine a politician that proclaimed his weakness. We’d think him a fool. And yet fools we are called to be for the sake of Christ’s means of saving his people. In fact, Paul says, “We have this treasure (the faithful preaching) in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7ff).
What are you giving youth and every other age group in your church? This methodology is not dependent on any socio-economic tradition to be valid. It is neither black, nor white; rich, nor poor; educated or uneducated. It is, however, Christian. It is universally valid regardless of time, place, circumstance, and people. Faithful ministers must have as their primary focus to know and preach this Word. Current believers must share this focus. Together, they will be the fools who overcome the world’s wisdom, and the wisdom of churches who embrace the world and its displays of strength and beauty will be shown to be utterly vacuous. This is a counter-cultural aesthetic, a counter-intuitive method, and a counteractive power to Sin’s awful and penetrating grasp.
At the end of the day, and you may have noticed, what is called for in the Scripture is a youth ministry and a method identical to every other age group. The language, cultural metaphors, and food may change, but the ministry method and expectation is the same as well as the “who” doing the ministry: the Church collectively. I have been a youth minister for nearly 15 years, so I can speak with some experience: I am not a professional. Professionalism is not present anywhere in the scriptures. Instead, as a collective body, we minister to one another using the methods of worldly-weak preaching to build one another into a holy priesthood.
This may not be the youth ministry in which you are engaged, nor that in which you were raised. Sentimentality, however, must not keep us from obedience to Scriptural standard, and no amount of subjective peace can make a ministry or person objectively truthful. These are God’s means. Let us be faithful to him and, in so doing, be radically countercultural in ministry method and expectation.
#7: Biblically Faithful Youth Ministry Preaches (and Exemplifies) Repentance, not Moralism
Moralism is an insidious enemy, but it is not the Gospel. Who doesn’t want to be a good person? Perhaps more to the point, who doesn’t think they already are? At the end of the day, don’t we all play a little compare and contrast with our souls and those of our neighbors? Michael Bloomberg, former NYC Mayor, has become a poster boy for moralism due to his recent comments about earning his place in Heaven. After reading the article, if that’s all it takes, Heaven is a pretty cheap place.
The problem is, Heaven is a horribly expensive place with real estate costing more than any of us are capable of paying, even if we combine all our net worth. Matthew 18:21-35 is instructive here. There, Jesus tells a parable of a man who owed a king 10,000 talents. This was not just a great sum, it was an impossible sum. It was the equivalent of (about) 160,000 years’ worth of minimum wage work. Even with better pay, Jesus’ point is made: no one could pay back this sum. During Jesus’ time, it was not uncommon for a man in debt to be thrown in jail but his family left alone. This would cause his family to take necessary and drastic steps to ransom the debtor/head of home. But in this story, Jesus flips custom upside down: not just the debtor, but his family—the source of the king’s repayment and the ransom—was sold. Certainly, their sale would not fetch the debt’s amount. This was purely for rhetorical and judicial point serving no practical economic purpose. The debt was massive and no hope existed for repayment.
And there we stand. There stand our students.
No one is exempt from this debt, and Jesus makes clear it is a moral debt, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” At quick glance, it sounds like we’re simply supposed to be better: “forgive from your heart.” But the parable and the context of the story, which is Peter’s question in verse 21 about how often he should forgive his “brother,” makes it clear the point of the story is this:
You each owe a great debt to my Father—your God—and unless you recognize your need to plead a humble mercy from him, you will never know grace, and so never be able to give it to others, which is my will.
Biblically faithful youth ministry must resist the “be better” sermons even though “being better”, if meaning “be holy”, is entirely valid as a sermon. The difference may seem subtle, but it’s a grand canyon of difference and is summarized by another story Jesus told.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
At the end of the day, if youth ministry is not consistent with characteristics 1-6, it cannot possibly be the 7th: preaching grace-dependent repentance. What do the students of your church believe Christianity is? The only religion where you’re saved by doing nothing but trusting Christ’s finished work, or the only religion where I happen to find myself trying really hard to measure up to some varying standard (based on denomination) in order to look/feel/act the “right” way? Which prayer do you think your students would pray and with which would they identify? The tax-collector’s, or the Pharisees?
Resist moralism. Go back and read through all your lessons and sermons and small group discussion notes (whether youth pastor or volunteer or parent). Which have you been to them? It doesn’t really matter how sweet and loving and pretty the moralism is packaged. If you wrap up death with nice paper, it’s still death. Preach grace, and grace-dependent repentance that loves holiness because of love for God in such a way that death would be preferable to embracing good behavior for the sake of good behavior, which will only earn death.
#6: Biblically faithful youth ministry is characterized by a radically countercultural expectation of maturity in holiness and embracing of God’s established means to get there.
#7: Biblically faithful youth ministry is characterized by a repudiation of moralism and a proclamation of repentance.
How do we measure up? That is for each church, youth ministry/minister, and family to consider.