As a youth pastor and Christian parent, one consideration tends to dominate my mindset: am I fostering sustainable faith in Christ in my students and children? I have a limited season of special influence within these relationships, and I want to do everything within my power to cultivate enduring Christian faith.
At the 2013 Rooted Conference, Jared Wilson opened with a penetrating question: will my children be prepared to suffer? Jesus guarantees that all Christians will encounter tribulation (John 16:33). Consequently, a critical aspect of youth discipleship involves anticipating the tragedy that awaits our children and training students in such a way that they can walk through suffering while trusting God and his goodness.
My theoretical rumination about preparing kids to suffer became far more personal near the end of 2013. I often worried about whether I was prepared to suffer. As a white American male from an upper class family, my life had been relatively easy, and I feared that one day something awful would happen that would shatter my faith. What would happen, if I, a person who had led hundreds of students during a 10-year youth ministry, walked away from Christ? What was bad enough to demolish my faith?
My imagination would take me to places of utter doom as I considered the worst things that ever could happen to me. The journey always arrived at the same place, the potential death of my son.
In November 2013, my worst nightmare came true. My wife found my 3-year-old son dead in his bed one morning. He went to sleep and never woke up. His death was classified as SUDC (Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood), which is a medical term for “we have absolutely no clue how this perfectly health child suddenly died in his sleep.”
While I expected such an event to annihilate my faith in Christ, I’ve found the opposite to be true, as the Lord has sustained my soul in the intensely dark months of sorrow that have followed his passing. God’s truth, which flows out of Scripture, has reassured me of his goodness. His Spirit has sustained me by his grace. I am a usually sad but often hopeful, joyful person who loves Jesus.
This I Call to Mind
My consideration of how to prepare young people for suffering now has become both theoretical and experiential. For a decade I have studied, on behalf of my students, what Scripture says about surviving suffering. For the past year, I have analyzed how the Lord prepared me to survive and thrive while living in the excruciating sadness of my child’s death. But the one thing students need the most is something often underemphasized in youth ministry.
It bears saying that teaching doctrine does not constitute the trendiest fad in youth ministry. I recently read an article by a youth ministry leader who downplayed the importance of training kids with doctrine, as he sided with the greater value of experience over knowledge. And recent studies point to an alarming lack of basic doctrinal knowledge among students in youth ministry. In their College Transition Project, a Fuller Youth Institute research team led by Kara Powell and Chap Clark found that 35 percent of students did not mention Jesus in their definition of the gospel. Jen Bradbury’s national study of teen Christology, published in her recently released book, The Jesus Gap, discovered that only 44 percent of students surveyed believed that Jesus is God. In that same study, only 9 percent of participants earned perfect scores on a quiz of seven basic questions about Jesus, such as his divinity, humanity, sinlessness, resurrection, and so on.
To be sure, teaching students biblical doctrine can appear academic. Some youth pastors (like me) are tempted to validate their ministry by training kids who can give the right answers, regardless of whether they are actually repenting and trusting in Jesus.
But as someone who continues wade through dark, foggy waters that feel like hell on earth, God continues to renew my hope by his truth. As Jeremiah said while recalling the horrors and atrocities of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem,
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end. (Jer. 3:21-22)
Time and time again, God has spoken his truth to me through his Word in such a way that has renewed my trust in Jesus and given me hope to carry on.
What Helps the Most
I can say from the pit of deep darkness that most often the really unpopular and repellant truths of Scripture have been some of the ones that preserved me the most.
In an individualistic society, the last thing you think kids want to hear is that God made you for his glory; your happiness and comfort subordinate to what will most magnify Christ and his kingdom. In reality, knowing that my child’s death and my season of suffering have deeper implications related to God’s redemption of the world have given me something to get out of bed for, when rising in the morning is the last thing I wanted to do.
Nobody likes to talk about full wages of sin apart from God’s mercy. Teaching the wrath due to sinners isn’t exactly cotton candy. However, remembering wrath and judgment, which I deserve and from which Jesus has rescued me, has protected me from bitterness and entitlement along the way.
Proclaiming God’s sovereignty in all circumstances tends to provoke difficult questions from students. Knowing that my child’s death was not a random, accidental surprise to God assures me that the Lord remains fully in control of my redemption and healing in my grief.
Best Way to Teach
In my youth ministry experience, I have found that the best way to tackle the hard truths is simply to teach exegetically through entire books of the Bible. Given the choice, most of us would love to bounce around from Romans 8 to John 10 and over to Galatians 2 and Revelation 21. It would be tempting to let Romans 9, 2 Thessalonians 2, and Luke 16 sit out a few plays at small group. But dodging the difficult texts robs us of the opportunity to prepare students for the suffering that certainly awaits them.
May God help us to teach the Scriptures completely and accurately with the hope that the seeds of truth planted may grow into foundations of hope and assurance when the day of suffering comes.
Editors’ note: Cameron Cole will lead a workshop at The Gospel Coalition National Conference in April, along with David Plant (Redeemer Presbyterian Church) and Jon Nielson (College Church), on the topic of ”Stumbling Blocks: Preparing Students for Life in a Fallen World.” Cole and Nielson are also co-editing a book—Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry (Crossway)—to which Plant is a contributor.