I remember sitting in the auditorium at the 2009 Gospel Coalition National Conference in Chicago. A session had just finished; we had been shown the glories of Jesus and how he is the only hope and foundation for our ministry. My heart was full, and I was glad that God had called me to minister to students. The two guys who came with me to the conference digested the content as they considered how to apply it not only to our own lives, but also to the students we served back home at church.
In the middle of our conversation another youth pastor came up to us and jumped into the conversation. I don't know who he was or where he was from. All I know is that his statements totally caught me off guard. "This stuff is really good," he said matter-of-factly. "Not much is applicable for youth ministry though. Glad we don't have to worry about using all of this with students." I don't think I even responded.
Many of you would agree with me about the absurdity of his comment. Yet, sadly, this is how thousands of youth ministries across the nation operate. Jesus is fine for big church, but he won't keep students engaged. Jesus is okay for my daily devotions, but students need something more to capture their attention. Jesus is great for those who want to go deeper, but we need to start with something else to get them in the door on Wednesday night.
In more than 11 years working with students in many different capacities in many different settings, I have found the exact opposite to be true. Ministries that focus on anything but Jesus may fill the seats on Wednesday night, but they do not prepare students to live in the real world. That guy at The Gospel Coalition National Conference, along with countless other youth ministers, failed to build his ministry on Jesus.
Bought the Lie
Students have many different needs today: acceptance, belonging, discipline, jobs, and so on. But in all cultures in every generation, all students need a true Savior. The students who every week reluctantly attend your church with their parents have one overarching need in their life. They need to see that Jesus is the only foundation on which they can build their hope, joy, and security. Anything else will leave them needing more, looking elsewhere, and suffering loss.
We have bought the lie that if we can simply get students in the door, entertain them, and keep them happy, we will somehow make disciples of the students in our church. So every couple years, at most, we seek new styles, systems, and methods for youth ministry. In a rapidly changing culture we seek cutting-edge games, activities, outings, missions trips, and weekends away to keep the students happy.
But revamping youth ministry to make it more appealing won't necessarily solve our problem with reaching and keeping students. No, the very foundation needs to change. In Isaiah 28 the prophet uses the picture of Christ as the cornerstone upon which life must be built. This image is used again in 1 Peter, and Jesus even shows us that Isaiah was talking about him (Mark 12:10). Tragically, Israel placed their hope on something else, a treaty with Egypt (Isa. 28.15).
Likewise, many youth leaders have built our hope on something other than Jesus. We have built on a foundation other than the only cornerstone that can truly stand the waves of life that you and your students will pass through. Students in 2013 need the same foundation as students of the 1950s and even those who lived in Isaiah's day. It is what Adam and Eve needed to remember in the garden during their temptation. Only God always delivers on his promises.
Many of us have made a proverbial treaty with Egypt: the Egypt of entertainment, wisdom, programing, and fun. But our students need something more helpful and biblical. Something that will withstand their parents' divorce, bullying, pressure to give up what God has preserved for marriage, war, and countless other things. A life built only on fun loses its luster when real life hits. And trust me, real life is hitting even earlier for many students these days.
Love youth enough to win them with the foundation truth of Jesus, his love, his forgiveness for their wrongdoing, his loving acceptance, and most of all his sacrifice, which made it possible to be right with God the Father. Many pastors have observed, "What you win them with is what you win them to." I want students to be won to Jesus, not jokes and games. I must trust in the Spirit, not my amazing programs, to work in my midst.
We're called to build our lives on the firm foundation of Christ, the chosen, precious cornerstone, and we will not be put to shame (1 Peter 2.4-7). I don't know about you, but I have seen God as more than faithful in my life. There will always be another method of how to do youth ministry, or the best way to reach students. Let's take God at his word and build our ministries on Jesus and Jesus alone. He is the only firm foundation your students need.
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Join us next month for The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference and learn more from Josh Cousineau when you sign up for his workshop with Nate Morgan Locke on "Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: Building on Jesus not the Jokes." When you register for TGC13 in Orlando, you can also hear from Tim Hawkins and Dave Wright on "Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: Jesus' Mission to the Next Generation."
Josh Cousineau planted Redemption Hill in Auburn, Maine. He is a founding member and core team member of the Gospel Alliance New England and serves on the steering committee of Rooted. Josh is married to his high school sweetheart, and they have four children. He blogs at joshcousineau.com.