Gospel Centered Youth Ministry

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Recently a friend of mine suggested a book to me. The book is called Gospel Centered Youth Ministry edited by Cameron Cole and Jon Nielson. It’s a book written by a collection of youth pastors passing on wisdom they’ve learned over the years. Right from the beginning I fell in love with this book because the back reads, “dodgeball and abstinence training just aren’t enough.” To which I shout a hearty amen! I have been a full-time youth pastor now for 5 years but I’ve been working with youth for over 11 years. Over the years one truth has trumped most truths I know, which is that the more I learn the less I know. With each passing seminary class, with each new source of brokenness I encounter, with each new interaction with someone holding a different worldview of my own, one thing has become painfully clear… I know a lot less than I’m ever willing to admit.


As I’ve worked with youth and pondered the purpose of my job, there is ONE THING I do know… Games and behavior modification might be the greatest disease plaguing youth ministry (okay maybe that’s two things). Every year as I plan out my year I find myself asking, “how can we play less games? How can I preach the beauty of Jesus and the gospel to these students without encouraging them to just curse less, tithe more, and read your bible?” Not to say that these things are evil or bad, they just shouldn’t be a focus or result of our time together. And the unfortunate reality is that more often than not youth ministry meetings highlight the game we’ll play and end with a moral behavior modification action step a student can take in the upcoming week. Over the last few years one tension I’ve always wrestled with is “Am I providing a band aid for an injury that requires stitches?” Are our programs encouraging our students to fall more deeply in love with Jesus or are we just entertaining them well? Are our programs allowing our students to engage the grace and love of God in a way that transforms their very fibers or are we trying to make them as “good” as we can? What is youth ministry all about? Why do I do what I do?

Well Gospel Centered Youth Ministry has helped me answer these questions much more effectively than I could. Right from the get go in the first chapter, Cameron Cole waste’s no time in diagnosing what some of the biggest challenges youth and youth ministries face today. He suggests, and I couldn’t agree more, that most modern problems in youth ministry can be boiled down to 3 things.

Problem 1: Source of truth.

We live in a day and age where truth has become so incredibly subjective. It seems that to suggest that someone’s version of their truth might be wrong is actually more offensive than believing in something untrue. Yet, as Christians we are confident that the ultimate source of truth is found in scripture, is found in Jesus Christ. Cole suggests “Many times, teenagers express hesitation about God based on the suffering they see in the world. They frequently question his goodness based on disappointments they have experienced in their lives. They often open statements about moral convictions with ‘I think’ and ‘I feel.’ Like every other human being, they naturally derive their views on truth through their own experiences and observations. Rarely would a person confidently consider God good and just if they based their views on their own experience, given their normal pains in life and evils in the world. Would any teenager abstain from sex until marriage if left to his or her own rationality?”[1] Obviously the answer to that question is no! So to just say ‘don’t do that’ because Christians just don’t do things like that isn’t good enough. Behavior modification won’t transform… Jesus and scripture, which accurately represent God, man, and truth will. One way youth ministry has failed over the years is its desire to point to right behavior instead of truth.

Problem 2: View of Self

While I am entirely unqualified, I could write a book on this problem of my own. Their seems to never be a middle ground on this problem. Students (and to be fair most adults) often think of themselves falling into one of two categories: God or garbage. Either we are God’s gift to the community we’re in or we are no better than the dirt beneath our feet. So much of my time as a youth pastor is spent fighting these two attitudes. So much time spent encouraging humility and unity and so much time spent affirming the image of God that is in each student. Cole suggests that effective youth ministry “simply needs to inform and remind students that they are made to live in a dependent relationship with God… It must help them [students] understand that all of their sin originates from attempting to be the lord in their own lives, rather than allowing Jesus to be their king.”[2] Whether you think highly of yourself or not, one problem remains in all of us… we know how to run our lives better than Jesus. We need God, but we don’t want him because we’re often too focused on ourselves. We’ve got to remember where we stand in the pecking order with God. We are dependent wholly on him, we need him, not more of us.

Problem 3: View of God

Why did God do this to me? If I had a dollar… inherent in most suffering and pain I find with students is the belief that God is anything other than loving and good. Most of the suffering and pain I see is a result of forgetting that our God is the one who is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and forgiving. When we find solace in an alternate source of truth other than God, when we seek to be the Lord of our own lives, more often than not we lose sight of who God actually is. Our pain obscures our vision, replaces the beautiful artwork with finger paints. We must never lose sight of who God truly is…

So as I ponder what youth ministry should be all about I find myself leaning towards simplicity… The games, the events, the worship, etc. Everything that we plan for the week will fall into its proper place when it’s all said and done. Where youth ministry (and for that matter all of our spiritual journey’s with God) needs to begin and end with these three questions.

What is your source of truth?

Who are you in relation to God?

Who is God?

Like I said, three simple questions… yet, questions that will take a lifetime to answer.

[1] Cameron Cole, Gospel Centered Youth Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 27.

[2] Ibid, 29.

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