Against the backdrop of a youth ministry culture bent on entertainment and gimmicks, veteran youth workers Cameron Cole and Jon Nielson have compiled a thoughtful collection of essays. In Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide, 14 contributors provide a clear call to faithful and Christ-exalting youth ministry.
Both Cole and Nielson frequently contribute to The Gospel Coalition, which has adopted Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry in its imprint with Crossway. Collin Hansen, TGC’s editorial director and author of Blind Spots [review], writes in the foreword:
When we’re so concerned with keeping the youth entertained or promoting a moral lifestyle, we can easily forget the message of first importance. . . . [This book] offers an excellent start for any youth worker eager to make much of Jesus and to see students filled with everlasting hope and joy. (15–16)
In Part One, the authors expound on some of the foundations of ministry: the gospel, discipleship, expositional teaching, and community. As you’d likely guess, the opening chapter on the gospel outlines the overarching theme of the book—connecting the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to youth ministry. But what exactly is that connection? As Cole describes it:
Perhaps the most important thing a person ministering to youth can possess is an accurate appraisal of the fundamental problem in both people and the world, and a clear understanding of the way God can restore them both. (26)
In other words, youth workers must know the gospel, embrace the gospel, and own the gospel before faithful youth ministry can happen. The good news is the foundation.
But the gospel also shapes everything else a youth worker does—from leading mission trips to serving the poor to teaching Leviticus to counseling teens saturated by a world of porn, cutting, and abuse. We serve because Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). We teach the Word because faith comes by hearing it (Rom. 10:17). This “gospel-centered” trajectory begins with the opening chapter and is sustained throughout the book.
The last two chapters in Part One perhaps deserve particular attention, as they’re devoted to areas often overlooked in contemporary models of youth ministry: (1) calling parents to disciple their children and (2) incorporating youth into the intergenerational worship and ministry of the church.
Some in the evangelical community seem to pit the family against the church and vice versa, as if these two institutions conflict. Not so with this book; it’s both pro-family and pro-church. Mike McGarry writes:
Because parents are the primary faith influencers of their children, the cost of investment into parent ministry should not be seen (negatively) as time that could have been spent with youth, but as a long-term investment in their family. (91)
But he also asks the question with regard to the church:
When teenagers have never experienced worship, prayer, discipleship, or fellowship within the community at large, why would we expect them to suddenly be receptive to full involvement in the church when they graduate? (94)
According to the authors, the church and home should complement one another. Moreover, local church worship and ministry should incorporate people of all ages. As Dave Wright explains, “The segregation of generations in worship is not seen in Scripture. . . . Worship in the early church included all generations” (103–4). That said, “I don’t believe the answer to segregation is the elimination of youth groups or other age-specific ministries,” he writes. “Rather, the church must minister to students by including them in all aspects of church life” (108). Certainly, one can make a case for this both/and model of ministry that sees both the home and the church functioning together to disciple the next generation.
While these themes are especially refreshing for a book on youth ministry, the book’s practical guidance in relation to the gospel sets it apart. When reading through the various “how to” topics—leading small group Bible studies, leadership training, music, retreats, mission trips—it becomes obvious that these youth workers have much practical wisdom to offer.
If you’re currently in youth ministry or in a church needing some direction, you’ll find this a worthwhile read. Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry might well be the one-stop shop for the philosophical, biblical, and practical elements of a youth ministry guided by the good news of Christ.