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Bye-bye church. We’re busy.” That’s how a recent USA Today article on teen involvement in church and youth group begins by describing the general attitude of teenagers today. Faced with increasingly busy schedules—packed full of sports, music, drama, and college-prep classes—many teenagers are finding little time (or need) for the church. While youth group and youth retreat attendance skyrocketed in the late 1990s, many youth pastors are now finding that students are “not even coming for the pizza anymore.” Maybe the pizza was part of the problem to begin with.

Somewhere along the line—as entertainment, social networking, and media technology took off in our culture—we youth pastors began to feel threatened. Could our gross-out food games and acoustic guitars compete with special effects, wild parties . . . and YouTube? Deep down, we knew they couldn’t, but we tried hard. We wooed them with louder music. We promised wild fun. We built youth “warehouses” filled with pool tables and Wii’s. And perhaps we gave them the exact opposite of what they really needed.

I’ve been a high school pastor for about eight months now; I certainly have much to learn! In just those eight months, though, I have formed a few convictions from which, by God’s grace, I will not soon depart:

  • I cannot compete with my students’ culture in the area of entertainment.

Some youth pastors can keep up much better than I can. Still, even the savviest, coolest, most-in-touch youth pastor around will find himself unable to entertain students in a way that will keep them coming to his youth group. The competition is simply too stiff.

  • I can offer high school students the real gospel of Jesus Christ—and they can handle it.

The gospel—the objective reality that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” which is received by faith alone—is what high school students really crave. The amazing (and constantly humbling) thing about continually offering the gospel to students is the response it brings. The response is not: “Wow, Jon, you’re cool,” or “That music was off the hook!” It’s actually a much more biblical response: repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. High school students crave the real, true, life-changing, not-watered-down gospel of Jesus Christ. Woe to us if we give them anything less.

  • Growth happens not by entertaining, but by equipping.

We in youth ministry have been chasing down the wrong “e” word. For a time, especialy during the peak years in the 1990s, we were able to draw huge numbers of students by entertaining them. According to Barna, it’s just not working anymore . . . and maybe that’s a good thing.

It is time that youth pastors return to a surprisingly ancient concept. God gave pastors and teachers to the church to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph. 5). Chris Palmer, a youth pastor quoted in the USA Today article, was on to something when he described his new approach to youth ministry: beginning to teach that following Jesus is “hard work,” as well as “radical and exciting.” If high school students crave the true gospel of Jesus Christ, they desire to see lives (including their own) that are radically and genuinely affected by a relationship with Jesus Christ. They spot hypocrisy better than most of us adults.

Youth pastors need to embrace a ministry of gospel proclamation and gospel equipping. We preach the gospel, we make disciples, and then we train those disciples to do the same. We get the students to the point where they say of our gospel work: “Hey, I can do that!” That is more exciting than Wii. The growth that comes through this is called “gospel growth.” And that’s better than kids coming just for the pizza.