So often in youth ministry, we can make assumptions about students that either alienate part of the audience or neglect essential substance.
We assume that they know what certain words mean. We assume that they are Christians who know the gospel. We assume that they can connect the dots between the theology taught and their practical life.
When I give a talk, I try to never forget to use these five statements.
1. If you’re not a Christian . . .’
More so than any other demographic, students are in the midst of a fluid, dynamic journey. Because of the way they rapidly progress through different developmental phases, teenagers are constantly facing questions related to their identity and place in the world. They are trying to figure out whether or not they will follow Jesus. No matter how “Christian” a youth group may appear, one must always acknowledge students who do not identify themselves as Christians just yet, or kids who are “closet agnostics.”
By acknowledging non-Christians in the audience, you are communicating that they are welcomed in the group. You are saying that they are allowed to carefully and patiently think things through with God. You also give yourself an opportunity to address questions that they may have but do not ask. I usually ask these type questions by saying, “If you’re not a Christian, one thing you may be wondering is . . .” When we do not make this statement at some point, we risk alienating non-Christian kids and creating an atmosphere where they may feel the need to fake it to feel included.
2. ‘What this word means is . . .’
Have you ever read a legal contract? Did you understand any of the words? Did you feel helpless and stupid because you were agreeing to something, when in reality you had no idea what you were signing off on? People often use jargon as a way to create an “insider culture” that makes others feel on the outside. Often, Christian leaders use this same practice when they use biblical and theological terminology without explaining their terms.
Students need to boost their Christian vocabulary; it’s helpful for them to know words like justification, sanctification, sin, and faith. At the same time, while we use Christian lingo, we also need to explain what it means for two reasons. First, this prevents us from alienating students without a long church history who have no idea what we’re talking about. Second, it helps these powerful words stay fresh, rather than trite.
3. ‘Here’s where the gospel comes in . . .’
If we do a Bible study or Sunday school lesson without bringing the talk back to the basic gospel, we have wasted precious time. We all need to hear the word of our need for God and of his loving grace every day. Even if you are teaching on Proverbs and nothing in the text openly relates to the gospel, you can remind students that we have no ability to act on God’s wisdom without calling on and receiving the generous grace of God.
Explicitly proclaiming the gospel—not just saying the word gospel but articulating the reality of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, is essential in each talk.
4. ‘Let’s open our Bibles to . . .’
Regardless of the type of talk we are giving, all talks needs to have a basis in Scripture. Not only when we exegetically teach through books in small group or Sunday school, but also when we are doing topical talks, working from a biblical passage is key.
We need to model for students Word-centered ministry and Bible-centered life. We also need to protect ourselves from error by making sure our talks fall within the bound of what the Bible teaches.
5. ‘Here’s why this matters when you walk out of these doors . . .’
Biblical and theological knowledge have inherent value, but they carry far more weight when students understand their significance in the context of their whole life. In Matthew 4:4, Jesus teaches, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Christ points to his words of truth as necessities for life. When we simply teach kids doctrine with no practical application, we reduce Christianity to an academic exercise rather than the fuel of each day.
Given where students are developmentally, most of them cannot make the connection between biblical concepts and their life without a person explicitly explaining it. Furthermore, kids in this instant gratification culture want to know how matters relate to their life right now. This is not a cry for moralism or “relevance” (in the trendy sense of the word), but it does mean that kids need to know why the sovereignty of God affects their college decision and how the incarnation informs their use of social media.