By / Mar 15

For many students, the youth group is where they go to get away from Sunday worship. It’s often a place where they can laugh at some silly antics, enjoy music that is their style, and listen to lessons that might be a bit more palatable than what they’d receive in corporate worship with the larger church. But trying to escape “big church” is a problem. Instead, I’d like to suggest that your student ministry worship service should train students to participate in worship on Sundays. 

Some dangers to watch out for

While there is a place for appropriate contextualization, the temptation to replace songs sung on Sunday with what’s new, cool, and hip leads to one of the worst iterations of youth ministry. Sometimes the set list begins to look more like the average Spotify playlist more than the song list of the church. The sermons might be significantly shortened with less depth, less Bible, and less demand. Or, there may be no significant teaching at all. And, if your church does responsive readings or recites creeds, those may be left out completely.

Though this might come from a good heart meant to reach students you would not normally reach in your context, I believe that this approach drives students further away from the most essential discipleship aspect of the week: the Sunday gathering. The regular meeting of the larger church is one of the essential means that God has ordained to sanctify and grow his people. If our youth services undermine or cause confusion about what is essential and ordained by God, we have gone in a bad direction. 

Merely getting youth into a church building does not mean you are discipling them, training them in godliness, or seeing them saved. If anything, simply attracting youth to a church for the wrong reasons harms both the youth ministry and the church at large more than it helps. It creates a culture that entertains non-believers and keeps new believers immature rather than providing steps for spiritual growth.

A better way

By contrast, what if we saw our student worship gatherings as an opportunity to equip youth and facilitate greater participation in corporate worship? What if we used our student gatherings to train students in the how and why of our church or tradition’s rhythms of worship? This would mean making uncomfortable or uncool aspects of corporate worship accessible, instead of avoiding them. We’ll help youth grow as Christians and be better church members by discipling them in an understanding of how to best participate in that which is essential. After all, they are in high school for just a few years, but they’ll be Christians in the gathered body now and for the rest of their lives. We should pastor youth like that is the case. 

However, I am not arguing that we should get rid of all contextualization. Your youth service will look different from the corporate gathering because of the age of the kids, resourcing, help, and other practical matters. But I am saying that your student ministry service should not undermine the style, elements, and importance of your Lord’s Day gathering. Rather, the two gatherings should complement and feed one another, not create the sort of dichotomy where students feel at home in one and not the other. 

Some practical considerations

So, how do we equip them for Sunday worship? One of the easiest and most important things you can do is take advantage of the power of explanation, practice, and ritual. These three things, if reinforced in a student service, can help students sing louder, participate more fully, and engage with preaching as well as anyone in the church. Here are a few examples:

Singing. Instead of eliminating hymns, take a few minutes to explain why we sometimes sing old songs. When you sing new songs, explain what it is about that song that made it worth singing. Old songs and new songs glorify God but not because they are old or new. Our songs are intended to help us see and worship the risen Christ. Three minutes of explaining some good theology as it’s expressed in your music could not only help youth sing better but also disciple them toward a greater appreciation of a diversity of songs. 

Reading and reciting. Students often find responsive readings, creedal recitations, or written prayers strange. Instead of eliminating or replacing them, talk the youth through how Christians have engaged these practices and confessed these truths for thousands of years. In doing this, you connect youth to something deeper and richer than the next game or gimmick. I’d wager that with Generation Z’s search for authenticity and depth, they may even find it to be cooler than you think. Both singing and recitation also provide hands-on ways for students to lead worship as well. You might explain the practice yourself but then have a student lead the reading or singing.

Preaching. Preaching has fallen on hard times in student ministry. Some have abandoned the practice completely and others have pushed it so far to the periphery that it is not a key element of a student ministry. One of the reasons that students don’t like preaching is because they’re told that it is important for someone else, but in their spaces, it is not needed. Instead, we should be teaching students as God has instructed us. Paul commands Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). That command should be in effect in student ministry as much as anywhere. Our students can sit for two-hour movies and sporting events. They sit and learn for much longer at school. They can certainly sit for a shorter time in order to learn about eternal things. 

If we expect students to grow from Sunday sermons, our student ministry sermons should look and sound similar but with more contextual application. Students are hungry for the Word, and preaching is one of the best ways to give it to them.

The ordinances. At our church, we practice baptism and communion in our gathered Sunday service. But one idea we’ve found helpful is to use a youth service before a Sunday where one of our students will be baptized in order to explain these ordinances. Give 5 to 10 minutes to go over why we baptize, how we baptize, and who gets baptized (or the same with the Lord’s Supper). Do this quickly and contextually in a way that builds anticipation for the upcoming Sunday worship service. Then, end your youth service by encouraging the students to come to the larger gathering where the ordinances will be celebrated.

Training ground for Sundays and for the Christian life

In each of these ways, you’re helping students understand the reason for your church’s practices, and you are equipping them for the Christian life. When you follow this model, student services point toward corporate worship, train students to make the most of what God has deemed essential, and give them a rationale for the habits and practices they might take for granted each Sunday. I admit this may not be the most attractive model for drawing tons of youth, but I believe it will be the most effective in the long run, because it disciples students in every aspect of church worship.

I encourage you to use your church’s identity to help students value who you are as a body. We do not want students leaving for college who loved their youth group but don’t know what it looks like to be a part of the church. We want students to leave our churches with a love for the church. When this is the outcome, chances are they will find another church to love and not just look for the next best thing that serves their personal style. If we conceive of our student services as a training ground for Sundays, I believe that they’ll also be training grounds for walking faithfully as Christians.

By / Dec 15

A 2018 survey from the Barna Group and Impact 360 reveals that 33 percent of teenagers believe a person’s gender is determined by what the person feels like rather than their birth sex.1The Barna Group, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018), 46–47. Although only 3 percent of the American population identifies as LGBTQ—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer—that number more than doubles to 7 percent among teenagers. Additionally, 30 percent of teenagers know someone who is transgender. My goal in this article is not to present a defense of historic Christian sexuality, but to help youth workers sensitively care for and minister to students in these confusing times.

The rules for engaging students in a modern age are essential: listen, clarify, and keep the gospel and a person’s identity as an image-bearer the main thing. This will help youth workers take a gracious posture that covers a multitude of missteps and will assure LGBTQ students that we are not their enemies. It’s also essential to remember their greatest need is the same as the greatest need of every student—to be reconciled with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Youth workers can trust the Word of God to do the work of God. The Bible has power to change people’s hearts through the words God inspired. But Scripture is not a weapon to wield against sinners who need the grace of God. Youth workers build their ministries upon the Scriptures to proclaim the life and peace and hope of the gospel. As you minister to LGBTQ students, pray for the Holy Spirit’s illuminating work to turn the unbeliever’s heart toward the truth.

Don’t make every conversation with LGBTQ students about their sexuality, which would only anchor them deeper into viewing their sexuality as the most important thing about them. A sole focus on changing students’ sexual orientation misses the bigger picture. The mission of youth ministry is not simply to make students’ lives conform to godliness, because legalism can do that too (at least, on the surface). Instead, gospel-centered youth ministry calls students to live in light of the grace of Jesus Christ, confessing and repenting of their sins daily as they strive to live their new life in Christ through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

When students identify as LGBTQ

A key question that comes up in youth ministry is whether or not someone can embrace a homosexual or transgendered lifestyle and still be a Christian. A Christian’s identity is first and foremost shaped by their relationship with God through Jesus Christ, so I am uncomfortable with combining any other adjective with the label Christian. When we do that, there is a subtle competition between the two identities. The Christian’s identity as a Christian should be the core identity that reshapes and refines every other identifier: gender, nationality, sexuality, cultural preferences, denominational affiliations, etc. These other identifiers may be valid and important, but they must be shaped by God and by the authority of Scripture rather than the other way around. 

The Bible does not permit homosexual activity, and it teaches us that a person’s sex and gender are assigned by our wise and loving God at birth. Christians who live with gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction embrace their identity in Christ as their primary identity rather than allowing their sexuality to be the most important thing about them. This is often a confusing and difficult road for them, and youth workers are called to ensure they don’t walk it alone.

The call of the gospel is an invitation to a new life through grace-fueled repentance. A new believer will not repent of every sin immediately; it is a lifelong sanctification journey that requires much grace (from God and from others!). But Christians do repent eventually. The Holy Spirit is at work in their hearts, persuading them of the goodness and truthfulness of God’s Word—even when it brings conviction of sin. Those who profess faith in Christ Jesus but never repent of sin show that, although they may be trying to gain the treasures of heaven, they don’t really want a new life as a child of God. The timeline for this repentance may take years because of the nature of sexual confusions and how ingrained these identities have become in our culture. Be generous and long suffering with students and LGBTQ friends. If a practicing homosexual or transgendered person professes to be a Christian and yet persists in rejecting the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, that person’s conversion remains questionable.

But rather than lobbing this warning as a grenade, offer concern that befits the gospel. It is not a cop-out to leave judgment in God’s hands. The Lord has not rushed into judgment, and neither should youth workers. So, when in doubt, err on the side of patience. At the same time, Christian leaders will be held accountable for holding fast to biblical teaching (James 3:1), and it is not loving or gracious to affirm a professing Christian’s sinful lifestyle, regardless of what that particular sin may be.

Excerpted from Lead Them to Jesus © 2021 by Mike McGarry. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission. To purchase this and other helpful resources, please visit newgrowthpress.com.

  • 1
    The Barna Group, Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the Next Generation (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018), 46–47.
By / Oct 14

Sex is like fire. When it resides in the proper boundaries it gives light and heat, but unrestrained it causes great harm. Teenagers are receiving messages about sexuality every day — from the latest Netflix series, from social media, from their conversations with friends. Parents and youth workers must not overlook the value of having their own ongoing conversations with students about biblical sexuality.

Youth ministry has a legacy of urging teenagers to make virginity pledges and other similar efforts that can easily drift into manipulation. While the intent is good, since we should be teaching about sexual purity, the way we engage in these conversations matters. By now it should be obvious that we need to talk about sex in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not according to the law. It is not a matter of dos and don’ts but of helping students discover the nature of sex, the goal of sex, and the fulfillment of what sex can offer.

When youth group only talks about sex once a year, usually a few weeks before prom season, it makes sense that many students will be more shaped by the messages the culture and their peers are sending: “Sex is awesome.” “Love is love.” “Be careful but do what you want so long as the other person gives consent.” Others graduate from youth ministry with the impression that sex is inherently sinful. Some Christians even feel guilty about having sex after they get married because of the way sex was discussed during their teenage years. The solution is not to overcorrect by talking about how great and awesome sex is, but simply to be biblical.

God created us as male or female and gave us the gifts of marriage and sex to promote human flourishing. He did not need to make it feel good, but he did. It is a gift that reflects the delight and pleasure we were created to enjoy through intimacy with our Creator. At the same time, the Bible doesn’t pull punches about the dangers of unbounded sexuality. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed as judgment for their rampant evil and sexual sin. King David, a man after God’s own heart, caused great suffering in his family because of his sexual sin against Bathsheba.

Sex is a quest for intimacy

God gave the gift of sex to strengthen intimacy between a husband and a wife. The goal is intimacy — to be fully known without any fear of rejection. This is what so many men and women are trying to attain through their sexual activity, as if sex were a shortcut to it. Whether we are talking with parents or students, it is helpful and biblical to build the conversation around intimacy: God created us for intimacy with him and with each other. Sin has brought suspicion into relationships, but sex is a brief moment of joyful acceptance between two partners. Aside from the physical pleasure, this is what makes it so powerful.

This quest for intimacy also gives fulfillment to men and women who never marry. To many students, the idea of singleness can sound like a sentence to lifelong loneliness, and this fear drives them into toxic dating patterns. However, celibacy is an old-fashioned virtue worth reclaiming, especially considering that neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul ever married. Some churches treat married couples and those with children as priority members, but this should not be, and youth workers have an opportunity to teach students a wider view of human sexuality and relationships.

Sex is about intimacy, and perfect intimacy is found only in Jesus Christ who loved us and saved us while we were still enemies. God chose to redeem sinners and adopt them as sons and daughters. If he gave his life for us while we were still his enemies, then truly nothing can separate us from the love of God. In the midst of today’s sexual revolution, it is important to remember that sex is about enjoying intimacy with a spouse and yet, as good as sex may feel, it cannot deliver the type of intimacy our hearts most desire.

Best practices for discussing sex and dating

  • Always talk with parents first. Whether you are teaching in youth group or initiating a conversation with a student at the coffee shop, always talk with parents first. Many youth workers have assumed parents would be comfortable with another adult having these conversations with their kids, only to find out they were wrong. Plus, if the talk goes sideways, you’ll be thankful to have parental support while dealing with the fallout.
  • Make it an ongoing conversation. As you preach through biblical texts, make ongoing applications to students’ dating lives and sexual identities. If the only time you talk about sex is when the entire lesson is about sex, you’re missing a chance to shape the whole person.
  • Avoid a lot of joking about who’s dating whom. Laughter is good medicine, but it can also make having serious conversations awkward. Students may become hesitant to ask you about relationships because they fear you might turn it into a joke.
  • Teach about a biblical view of marriage. It can be tempting to avoid talking about marriage because teenagers are likely not getting married anytime soon. Inviting married couples of various ages to share their stories and what they’ve learned about marriage can be especially helpful for students from fractured households, because they may not receive this type of teaching (or example!) anywhere else.
  • Don’t overlook the Bible’s teaching about celibacy. Christian men and women who never marry are just as important and valuable as those who have large families. Especially in today’s culture surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, reclaiming the holiness of celibacy enables students to hear that it is possible to be both celibate and fulfilled in life.
  • Avoid damaging illustrations and examples. Many skits and examples have been used in youth ministry to persuade students about sexual abstinence. The most popular has been handing out a piece of gum for someone to chew, only to later hold up the piece of chewed gum and ask “Who wants this?” This illustration and others like it implicitly tell students who have sinned sexually that they are worthless and undesirable, both to other people and to God. The gospel, however, proclaims the love of God for sinners and his delight in giving grace to those who need it.
  • Resist talking about “sexual purity until marriage.” Married men and women also need to guard their sexual purity. When youth workers talk about sexual purity until marriage, this either conveys that sex with your spouse makes you impure or that you will not need to guard yourself against sexual sin after marriage. Rather than making it seem like sexual purity is a teenage problem, call students to sexual purity as a lifelong pursuit.
  • Consider speaking to the boys and girls separately. There are times when large-group teaching may be best, but consider ways to speak to students in forums that will minimize awkward moments while maximizing the potential for real conversation.
  • Ask students about their friends’ views. This will allow them to talk with greater comfort. It will also help you interact with the other viewpoints they’re hearing and get a glimpse of their own opinions. How you respond to this conversation will help them decide whether or not they can trust you.
  • Keep the grace of Jesus Christ front-and-center. Sex is about intimacy, and perfect intimacy is found through fellowship with God in Christ.

Excerpted from Lead Them to Jesus © 2021 by Mike McGarry. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission. To purchase this and other helpful resources, please visit newgrowthpress.com.

By / Dec 16

I will never forget having to explain the Sandy Hook shooting to my oldest son. I had stayed home from the office that day because I was sick. From the time I woke up that morning, I watched in horror and disbelief as the details of the tragedy unfolded on national news stations. My son could tell that something was wrong. So, instead of acting like the world that we live in was not a broken place, I tried to explain the tragedy and loss in a way that he could understand. It was not an easy conversation, but many times the most important conversations are not the easiest ones. 

Talking to children about difficult topics can be terrifying for parents, yet such conversations must take place. We cannot act like our world is not fallen and in need of redemption. There are evil people in the world that intend to do harm to others. If we are going to love our neighbors as ourselves (which must necessarily include the children that God has entrusted to us), then we must also warn them about evil in age-appropriate ways. 

A plan to talk about sexual abuse 

This is particularly true with the matter of sexual abuse. Talking about the topic of sexual abuse is complex because it affects various aspects of our humanity. For instance, while parents want to give their children a biblical vision of sexuality that affirms its goodness and design for the context of marriage, parents must also talk about sexuality in a way that acknowledges the disordered and wicked desires of some people who attempt to exploit it. In other words, because our world is broken, it is not enough to simply affirm what is good about God’s plan for sexuality without also acknowledging that some have taken God’s good gift and sought to use it in a sinful way that is contrary to his design.

There is a necessary balance to be struck when talking with children about things like sexuality and sexual abuse. Previous generations have often spoken of sexuality in ways that failed to rightly celebrate the goodness of God’s design, opting to speak mainly in terms of prohibitions and fear. The danger in our day is to focus so much on the celebration of the goodness of sexuality that we neglect to place it within the broader framework of a fallen world that is longing for redemption in Christ. Thus, we must speak to our children with a wisdom that strikes the balance between God’s design and humanity’s sinful attempts to exchange the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1). We must learn to speak in a way that says, “Yes,” to sex in the right context while also being able to say, “No,” where necessary.

When teaching children about their biology and sexuality, we must also admit and explain that not everyone in their life may agree with God’s design. Evil people, even people in their churches, their schools, and tragically, even their homes, may seek to violate and abuse their innocence. So, how can you help your children be prepared to live in a broken world where sexual abuse is a tragic reality? I would suggest following the H.E.L.P. plan (or something similar to it) to prepare them: 

  1. Have the hard conversation now rather than later.
  2. Equip them with specific, age-appropriate details regarding sexuality and sexual abuse.
  3. Listen to them and let them know that you will believe and support them.
  4. Pray that God would protect them every day.

Putting our plan into action

Here is how my wife and I have put this plan into use with our children:

A few years ago, my wife and I began a conversation with my oldest son about God’s good design for sexuality. The conversation did not end two years ago, though. It is an ongoing conversation. 

He knows that if he has questions about anything related to sex he can speak with us at any time. We made it clear from the beginning that there is no need to be ashamed about the conversation because sex is God’s idea. 

We told him to let us know if he hears or sees anything that he has questions about or feels uncomfortable with and assured him that he would never get in trouble for talking to us about this subject. Why? Because we want him to talk to us, not his peers or other adults. This is a conversation that God intended for parents to have with their children (Prov. 1:7-8). 

In fact, this is a conversation that my wife and I have been having in some form or another with all of our children from the time that they could bathe. In an age-appropriate manner, we explain to our children that certain parts of our bodies are not appropriate for others to see or touch. As the children get older, we go into greater depth. We don’t want our children to learn about anatomy from pop culture or pornography. We want to disciple them to know God as creator and designer of their bodies, for their good and his glory.

A conversation before camp 

So, as our oldest son prepared for church camp last summer, we sat him down to revisit the topic of sexuality, particularly as it related to sexual abuse. While it was uncomfortable, it was necessary. 

We explained to him that no one should be watching him in the restroom or the shower, regardless of what someone may tell him. We explained that it was never appropriate for an adult to touch him or insist on any type of affection from him (a hug, a kiss, sitting on a lap, etc.). We were specific, because we did not want to resort to vagueness in order to avoid the discomfort of the difficult subject. 

We established a code word or phrase that he could use when we talked on the phone that would alert us to a problem. If he used the word or phrase, then we would immediately pick him up. 

We told him that regardless of the threats that someone might use against him or his family, we would protect and believe him. We told him that while he should be respectful to adults, he did not have to comply with any request or demand that was outside the normal course of adult-child interaction.

Finally, to make sure that he understood, we talked through a few scenarios, asking him what he would do if he encountered them. Then, we prayed that God would protect him and the other children headed to camp. 

Was the conversation easy? Not at all. Was it necessary? Absolutely, because loving and caring for the vulnerable requires uncomfortable but frank conversations that prepare them and expose the wicked and unfruitful works of darkness (Eph. 5:11). 

Conversations are not the end-all-be-all measures to prevent the wickedness of sexual abuse. Evil people will continue to do evil things in this world until Christ returns to make everything sad become untrue. Until then, we weep over the brokenness and do our best to prepare and protect the vulnerable while being “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

By / Aug 12

This week RNS reported that the organization Young Life is facing pressure to overturn its policies on sexual conduct. For those unfamiliar with Young Life’s ministry, the organization exists to reach students in middle school, high school, and college. It also does specific outreach to teen moms, those with special needs, and young adults in military families And according to their website, Young Life is presently doing ministry in all 50 states and in more than 90 countries. 

Christians and sexuality

As a Christian ministry, Young Life has always embraced the tradition of biblical sexual ethics to which the church has held for nearly two millennia. But recently, the organization’s views and policies related to sexuality have come under scrutiny for excluding individuals identifying as LGBT. Though the policy is not publicly available, a copy obtained by RNS confirms that Young Life’s sexual conduct policy, which applies to staff members, “explicitly prohibits any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage.”

At the center of this controversy is the question of whether those who reject Young Life’s positions on sexuality should be eligible for employment with the organization. The RNS story opens by highlighting two individuals who recently worked for Young Life but had their employment terminated for conduct that violates the organization’s sexual conduct policy. In this case, both individuals are homosexual. After sharing their stories on social media about the way their service with Young Life ended, one of them used the hashtag #DoBetterYoungLife.

Since then, the #DoBetterYoungLife hashtag has gained considerable traction online. In addition to spawning multiple social media accounts and prompting hundreds of individuals to share stories of exclusion and pain related to their sexual identity or orientation, perhaps the most significant result of this movement has been a petition launched on Change.org that has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures calling for Young Life to repeal its sexual conduct policy and make other changes.

A complicated reality

Anyone taking the time to investigate can recognize that this is a complicated and multifaceted situation. The men and women speaking out on social media—many of whom are very young—are sharing stories of deep pain and hurt they’ve experienced as a result of being excluded or marginalized in various ways. These stories are moving and emotional and sad. Not only that, but many are marked by obvious sincerity.

At the same time, there is no real question about what Young Life should do, at least in terms of the substance of its policy. Young Life’s views on sexuality are, after all, not really Young Life’s views on sexuality. For Christians, the Scriptures set forth a clear and intelligible pattern, not only of what it means to be male and female, but of the nature of sexual intimacy and relationships as well. And these things are not ancillary to the Christian life, but central to what it means to faithfully follow Christ. For Young Life, and for any Christian organization, obedience to Scripture and fidelity to the Christian tradition requires that they maintain their prohibition on any kind of sexual activity beyond the bounds of heterosexual marriage.

For Christians, the Scriptures set forth a clear and intelligible pattern, not only of what it means to be male and female, but of the nature of sexual intimacy and relationships as well.

It has barely been five years since the Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. But in intervening years, society’s attitudes toward homosexuality and LGBT rights have continued to shift rapidly. So much so, that it seems we’ve reached the tipping point where, in many cases, failing to affirm same-sex marriage and expanded protections for LGBT individuals is now likely to bring forth rejection and scorn and potentially even more significant consequences. And this is the reality Young Life is facing.

The RNS article cited a statement from Young Life’s president, Newt Crenshaw, responding to the situation which indicated the organization would be taking steps to review the stories of current and former Young Life members who had “experienced pain in our family based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other factors.” Speaking as an outsider, I think this is obviously a commendable step for Young Life. Even when policies are substantially correct (as Young Life’s policy on sexual conduct assuredly is), there is still ample opportunity to address any means by which the policy may have been poorly implemented and to plan to better address such matters going forward.

Compassion and conviction

Though I’ve never personally been involved in Young Life, I know a number of people whose lives and faith were shaped in a profound and lasting way through the organization’s ministry. Moreover, it is clear that those who have spoken out about the hurt and pain they’ve experienced are often doing so as former insiders—those who’ve experienced the rich, loving community that Young Life creates for the thousands of students they minister to each year. That kind of love and community motivated by the gospel is the focal point of Young Life’s ministry; it is critical that they find a way to continue to model that for future generations without surrendering their core beliefs.

Young Life is not alone among Christian organizations thinking through ways they might better respond and minister to those whose sexual identity or orientation run contrary to the sexual ethics of Scripture. As Christian leaders seek to navigate these challenges, they should consider how they might imitate Jesus who was known for the tremendous compassion he showed toward those who were hurting or on the margins. Jesus was never guilty of compromise, nor was he ever bereft of compassion.

The church should be known as a community that loves and welcomes people, regardless of what kind of past, or baggage, or identity they might have. And loving and welcoming people includes what happens in our church buildings as well as the various kinds of ministries we create. Christians don’t have to back away from what the Bible says in order to love people as people and to point them to the hope, healing, and restoration that is available to them in Jesus. 

All of us should pray for Young Life’s leadership as they seek to address these matters in the days ahead and make whatever corrections are appropriate. And each of us can strive to care for those who are hurting even as we hold fast the things the church has always believed.

By / May 1

There’s a legend about John the apostle that’s tucked away in a book you may have never read—especially if you’re a children’s or student minister. Let’s face it, musty second-century sermon manuscripts aren’t top-of-shelf reading material for those of us who spend our days shopping at Costco for Goldfish crackers, leading early morning discipleship at Chick-fil-A, sanitizing toys in the nursery, or ordering pizza for Wednesday night gatherings. But let me tell you a secret: If you’ve missed this story, you’ve missed a treasure.

At the conclusion of one of his sermons,[1] the second-century pastor, Clement of Alexandria, gives us a beautiful and early account of generational ministry. The story begins shortly after John, the beloved disciple, was released from prison on the isle of Patmos. By this time in John’s ministry he was an old man. Most evangelical scholars believe John wrote the book of Revelation from Patmos in AD 95–96. Even if the disciple was a teenager when he followed Jesus, he would now be in his 70s. He’s likely an octogenarian.  

Clement begins his story by telling us what John would do after his release from prison:

After the tyrant’s death [likely Clement is referring to the Roman emperor, Domitian], John returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus and used to go, when asked, to neighboring Gentile districts to appoint pastors, reconcile churches, or ordain someone designated by the Spirit. Arriving at a city nearby [probably the city of Smyrna in modern-day Turkey], he settled disputes among the brethren and then, noticing a spirited youth of superior physique and handsome appearance, commended him to the appointed pastor with the words: “I leave this young man in your keeping with Christ as my witness.”

Now that he’s in his later years, John serves the church as an itinerant preacher and traveling advisor. He moves around from church to church, sitting on ordination committees and helping church leaders settle disputes—not all that different from what a retired pastor might do today. As a wise senior saint, John was also on the lookout for young talent. And he found a handsome and spirited young man in the church at Smyrna. Seeing leadership potential, he commended this youth to the local pastor for training. Then, when John returned to his home church in Ephesus, the pastor took the young man home, raised him, and when he had confessed faith, baptized him.

Maybe the young pastor had an underdeveloped theology of discipleship. Maybe he was burdened with a particularly challenging church; we do know the church in Smyrna had experienced the trauma of heavy persecution (Rev. 2:8–10). Clement doesn’t tell us the local pastor’s motives. He just says that after the young man was saved and baptized, the pastor “relaxed his oversight.” And at that point, things went sideways. Clement described it this way:

Some idle and morally lax youths corrupted the young man with lavish entertainment and then took him with them when they went out at night to commit robbery or worse crimes. Soon, he joined them and like a stallion taking the bit in mouth, he dashed off the straight road and down the cliff. Renouncing God’s salvation, he went from petty offenses to major crimes and formed the young renegades into a gang of bandits with himself as chief, surpassing them all in violence and bloody cruelty.

The young student fell into the wrong crowd, and this bad company corrupted his good character (1 Cor. 15:33). It’s a story everyone in youth ministry has experienced. Leadership gifts in a young person can be both a blessing and a curse. The Holy Spirit can use charisma and confidence for good, but, if the young person chooses to indulge their sinful nature, that same potential can be twisted for great evil. More privileged kids, like the prodigal son, will chase a party and popularity. A neglected young man, like this one in Smyrna, may join a street gang.

Responding to a youth who has strayed from the faith

How should we respond in that moment when a young person begins to turn away from the faith? Certainly, the fallen youth bears some responsibility. But can we say each prodigal is just a “bad seed”? That’s what the pastor in Smyrna thought.

Time passed, and John paid another visit [to Smyrna]. Then, the apostle said, “Come now, pastor, return now the deposit that Christ and I left in your keeping . . .  I am asking for the young man and his soul.”

“He is dead,” groaned the pastor in tears.

“How did he die?”

“He is dead to God. He turned out vile and debauched: an outlaw. He is in the mountains, not the church, with a gang of men like himself.”

The rest of the story makes clear that this pastor’s “blame-the-kid” approach to a straying youth isn’t the right one. But allow me to ask the question again: How should we respond when a young person begins to turn away from the faith? Is it a time for self-reflection? Should we ask, “What did we do wrong? Was there something missing in our youth ministry model?” Perhaps. But I find John’s more active response to be much more challenging.

The apostle tore his clothing, beat his head, and groaned. “A fine guardian I left for our brother’s soul! But get me a horse and someone to show me the way.” He rode off from the church, just as he was. When he arrived at the hideout and was seized by the outlaws’ sentries, he shouted, “This is what I have come for: take me to your leader!”

When John approached and the young leader recognized him, the young man turned and fled in shame. But John ran after him as hard as he could, forgetting his age, and calling out, “Why are you running away from me child—from your own father, unarmed and old? Pity me child, don’t fear me! I will give account to Christ for you and, if necessary, gladly suffer death and give my life for yours as the Lord suffered death for us. Stop! Believe! Christ sent me.”

Think about that for a moment. As soon as he heard about the straying son, this 80-year-old pastor mounted a horse and rode into the mountains to chase him down! It reminds me of what our Lord taught us in Matthew 18:10–14:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Clement tells us that the young gang leader “stopped, stared at the ground, threw down his weapons and wept bitterly.” He flung his arms around the old apostle and begged forgiveness. John assured him that he’d found forgiveness from the Savior, and the Father rejoiced!

Brothers and sisters who serve in children’s or student ministry, this is your mission. Remember this story the next time you’re stacking piles of cotton balls for a preschool craft. Remember John the Apostle the next time you’re playing knockout with the middle school boys. This is your mission. You’re carrying the good news to the little ones, and you’re chasing them down when they stray. Believe this good news. And call the kids in your care to believe, because Christ sent you!

Notes

  1. ^ Clement of Alexandria, “Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A. D. 325, Volume II, Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire),ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and Cleveland Coxe, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprinted 2001), pp. 603–604. The translation I’ve adapted here is from Eusebius: The Church History, A New Translation with Commentary trans. by Paul L. Maier, 4thed. (Kregel, 1999), pp. 111–12.
By / Oct 21

Hello, this is Russell Moore, and this is Questions and Ethics, the program where we take your situations and your dilemmas and try to apply the gospel to them. And today I have a question that came to me from a young man, let’s call him Justin, who is a youth minister, middle school minister in a large church. He says it’s a really well-led church. He is learning much from the other pastors in that congregation. He is doing youth ministry. But he says that he is increasingly burdened by political and mercy and cultural engagement sorts of issues in ministries, and he just doesn’t know whether or not he ought to leave and to try to pursue those directions and those things in terms of his ministry. And so he wrote to me and said you know you were a youth minister at one time, and he says he would really like to be doing the sorts of things that I’m doing now and so what would my counsel be to him.

Here’s my word to you, Justin. Obviously, if you are in a situation where you would say I have not been called to do this sort of ministry at all, or my gifts are not able to be used adequately in this sort of a situation, then leave it. Don’t do it. Just leave. But it doesn’t sound to me like that is what is going on. It sounds to me like you are saying I’m actually enjoying and engaged and the Lord is working in youth ministry, but I see myself long-term doing something else. Here’s what I would say: there are some people that God has called and equipped to be youth ministers all of their lives. They retire as student ministers somewhere. But that’s a rare group of people. The more typical situation is someone who serves in youth ministry or student ministry early on and then later serves in any number of ministries—maybe it’s senior pastor, maybe it’s worship pastor, maybe it’s campus minister, maybe it’s who knows what.

So, what I would say to you, the biggest arena of cultural engagement that you are going to have is in terms of youth ministry. People will say to me sometimes what do you think prepared you the most to do what you are doing right now? and my answer to that is always it was being a youth minister. And I’m not joking. It really is, because when you are dealing with students you are dealing with the most significant time in people’s lives in terms of setting the trajectory for their futures. And you are dealing with a constant barrage of cultural issues that you are having to address in the lives of these teenagers from who do I date? then later who do I marry? to issues of substance abuse and issues of pornography and combating that and issues of often broken family structures and how do I deal with the fact that my parents are divorced and they hate each other and I have to go back and forth to each of their homes? and so forth. I mean there are so many different issues that are right at the front lines in terms of youth ministry.

So I would say be faithful in that ministry where you are and say to God, God I am going to follow your direction providentially in terms of where you would have me later on. And if you are faithful and open to following the will of the Lord, one of the things that I’ve found is that you can look back on your life and you can see how all of the pieces of your ministry fit together in ways that you would never have seen or planned beforehand. I mean I can testify to that in my own life. There are all sorts of things in my ministry where at the time I thought I was in a kind of detour off of the trajectory of my ministry. Later on I would say, ah, I was working in politics for so long before I sensed again this call to ministry and I went to seminary and that was kind of a detour from what I was doing. Now, I see how those two things flow together, and I can see how God was training me in all sorts of ways as a youth minister and in all of the different things that God has had me doing. And those are just the things I can see. There are all sorts of other things in my life I can’t see and I don’t know, but I know that God is preparing us for the ministries he has for us. So, I would say pour yourself into those teenagers right now and recognize that God is going to use that in terms of whatever it is that he has for you later on. Your interests, the things that you are interested in are often going to give you a sense of the direction that God is going to take you, but in the mean time you can apply those interests into the ministry where God has put you right now.

So, that’s my two cents. This isn’t a sin issue or a righteousness issue. It’s just a help me to follow wisdom issue, and I would say that youth ministry is a critically important cultural engagement ministry.

This is Russell Moore. This is Questions and Ethics. What’s your question that you have? Let me know. Go to our website at erlc.com or send me an email at [email protected]. Until next time this is Questions and Ethics and this is Russell Moore.

By / Oct 12

The Youth Association Football program in Keller, Texas, made national headlines years ago because of a decision that many onlookers found scandalous. What brought media from major metropolitan cities and national news organizations to investigate the actions of a youth football program of a small city in Texas? They had the unmitigated audacity, in the eyes of many, to stop giving out participation trophies. According to the league’s vice president, the action was to fight the pervasive and unhealthy sense of entitlement that children grow up with today.

Leave it to independently minded Texans to stand up and defy the spirit of the age. But I am troubled that a youth football program in Texas has to lead the way by voicing what biblically minded Christians should have been saying all along.

The Bible is far from silent on sports and athletic competition (Gen. 30:8, 32:24, Ps. 19:3-6, 2 Sam. 2:14, 1 Cor. 9:24-27, Phil. 3:13-14, Gal. 2:2, Eph. 6:12, Heb. 12:1-4). In fact, the Apostle Paul uses the language of athletic competition as one of his three primary metaphors (together with warfare and agriculture) for talking about the Christian life (2 Tim. 2:4-7). All three are physically demanding and require self-control and self-restraint for success.

Is a desire to win bad?

Paul was undoubtedly a sports fan (he probably attended the Isthmian games), and it seems he could not think about the spiritual battle of Christian living without pointing to the obvious parallels drawn from his interest in athletic competition. Throughout these allusions, it does not seem to occur to Paul that one would ever compete in an athletic contest without trying to win: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24). In fact, he has no desire to “run aimlessly” (1 Cor. 9:26). For Paul, sports involve agony, strife, discipline, self-control, hard work, focus, intensity and a desire for victory—just like the Christian life.

Paul makes it clear that the eternal reward of an incorruptible crown is far more important than winning a corruptible crown on an athletic field, but his point only makes sense in light of the appropriate desire to win on the athletic field (1 Cor. 9:25). A child who doesn’t care if they win in a sporting contest and one who cannot lose without throwing a fit both have troubling character problems that ought to be addressed by Christian parents. Self-centered rage is not a spiritual virtue, but neither is weak-willed apathy. Christian parents must defy the spirit of the age by teaching children cruciform ambition, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Playing sports heartily, as for the Lord (Col. 3:23), will often be visible in sweat, bruises and occasionally blood.

Does actual achievement matter?

Though not keeping score and handing out participation trophies in children’s and youth sports is often passed off as a Christian idea, the root of this kind of thinking is found in modern psychological theories and not the Bible. In 1969, Nathaniel Branden published an article titled “The Psychology of Self-Esteem.” He argued that feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life, and his notion became the foundational presupposition in education and child rearing for a generation of Americans.

When this theory is applied to children, praise is detached from any actual achievement. In NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman conclude that the result of this thinking is a generation of American young adults who feel better about themselves though they achieve less and fear challenges. If feelings of self-esteem are the key to success in life, the thinking goes, then every child must be told they are a winner, and handed a trophy, even when they lose.

A few years ago, my oldest son’s middle school football team lost a game by about 40 points. When they announced the score after the game stating who had won and who had lost, a mother of a player on our team leaned over the rail and yelled, “Don’t listen to that! You didn’t lose. You are all winners. You are winners,” to which I could not help but to respond, “Not tonight. Tonight they’re big losers.” Everybody is not a winner and Christian parents ought to be willing to fight for our children’s right to lose.

There are grave implications for nurturing children in this type of self-oriented flattery culture where no one ever loses and everyone gets a trophy. The Bible relentlessly kicks the legs out from under our misplaced self-esteem and calls us to humble Christ-esteem. There’s a danger in telling children, “All that matters is that you participate, play nice, have fun and feel good about yourself.” The danger is that they might believe it.

Sports do not build character; they dramatically expose character and provide Christian parents and coaches with a valuable opportunity to develop Christian character. Our culture says, “Believe in yourself” and Jesus says, “Deny yourself and follow me.” No one can do both.

Nice children who just want to have fun and who have been consistently rewarded for intentional underachievement with a trophy are being cultivated in a worldview that is antithetical to self-sacrificial Christian discipleship. An entitlement mentality is at odds with the gospel message and God’s promise; it is “through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). If sports participation simply becomes another vehicle to prop up the notion that our children’s desires and feelings are more important than the good of others (the team), we must not act surprised when they someday conclude that their desires and feelings are more important than the good of their family, church and everything else, too. Narcissism, laziness and self-protection are not fruits of the Spirit.

When parents and coaches turn off the scoreboards and hand out participation trophies as though recognizing winners and achievement is unspiritual, sports are stripped of the essence that makes them such a valuable metaphor for the Christian life. The desire to win and receive the prize in athletic competition is the very thing Paul latches onto as a transferable concept for cultivating a single-minded focus on the advance of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:24-27). There are eternal winners and losers (Rev. 3:21), and we are to count the cost, take up our cross and follow him because we know what is at stake. Our task demands courageous, self-sacrificial, Great Commission gospel warriors.

And at its best, athletics provide Christian parents and coaches a limited but genuine theater for the examination and cultivation of Christ-honoring characteristics. When everybody is a winner, nobody wins. When everybody gets a participation trophy, everybody loses. Christian parents and coaches ought to know that better than anyone.

By / Jul 3

“I believe that God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

That memorable line is from the 1981 British historical drama film Chariots of Fire. It is the response Eric Liddell gives when he’s confronted by his sister for neglecting his responsibilities before God to focus on competitive running in preparation for the 1924 Olympics. His response is powerful because he doesn't see his athletic pursuit as neglecting God but as a means of glorifying God. Since sports were a means to a greater end of delighting in God, Liddell, a strict Christian Sabbatarian, refused to bow to international pressure to compete in the 100-meter race in the 1924 Olympics because it was on Sunday.

You do not have to be a strict Christian Sabbatarian to appreciate and learn from Liddell's example. I believe that the Lord’s Day should be set aside for corporate worship and gospel rest in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In my understanding, the Sabbath principle is already fulfilled in Christ—who is our rest. But the Lord's Day is a gracious gift to remind us that our lives are “in him” and should be honored until he consummates his Kingdom and ushers in eternal rest in the new heavens and earth. Whether you are a strict Christian Sabbatarian or believe the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ, Liddell’s example is instructive for Christian parents as they think about their children's participation in sports.

Sports in Scripture

Eric Liddell’s sister considered all sports to be a waste of time. That notion is still around; a seminary professor recently commented to me, “Sports are not necessary, so why waste time on it—time that could be better spent advancing the gospel?” But, the Bible paints a different picture and is far from silent on sports and athletic competition (Gen. 30:8, 32:24, Ps. 19:3-6, 2 Sam. 2:14, 1 Cor. 9:24-27, Phil. 3:13-14, Gal. 2:2, Eph. 6:12, Heb. 12:1-4). In fact, the apostle Paul uses the language of sports as one of his three primary metaphors, along with warfare and agriculture, for talking about the Christian life (2 Tim. 2:4-7). I consider sports to be a gift from God, a competitive manifestation of the performing arts, capable of displaying truth, beauty and goodness.

Sports gone wrong

But, as Christian parents, our responsibility is to teach our children to take every thought captive to obey Jesus (2 Cor. 10:5)—including sports. Paul made it clear that there is something far more important than winning a perishable wreath on an athletic field (1 Cor. 9:25). Some Christians simply pull their children out of sports altogether because they do not want to face the decisions that will inevitably arise while navigating athletic involvement and a commitment to church and Christian service. One of the problems with this shortsighted approach is that the kids playing on these teams will one day have jobs, children and other responsibilities as they serve Jesus and his church. Showing them how to navigate these matters while faithfully committed to the supremacy of Christ is not a problem but a wonderful opportunity for discipleship.

Nevertheless, like all of God's good gifts, sports can be easily corrupted. Some Christians make the mistake of prioritizing sports over church by reasoning that the youth sports opportunity is for a limited period of time and church will always be there. Clearly, teaching children that sports are a valid reason to neglect God is disastrous. Some parents fashion themselves as victims in dealing with these issues as though they cannot set boundaries on their children's participation. They reason as if the only options are not participating in sports at all or acting like the sports team’s practice and game schedule is in charge of their children's lives.

Shepherding in sports

The solution is simpler than many Christian parents want to believe, but it involves parental leadership, direction and conviction. The bottom line is, sports are never the problem, inadequate leadership in the home is the problem. Sports are often made scapegoats for parental failure of leadership. Liddell’s excellent Christian example is instructive. He was passionately committed to excellence in athletic competition, but it was for the glory of God, and therefore his Christian conviction led him to set boundaries and gladly endure the consequence. When a Christian family is involved in sports, they should be committed and diligent participants, but they ought to draw whatever boundaries are needed up front on their child's participation. As the father of eight children who loves sporting competition, I have had to lead my family in this way many times.

When you register your children to compete on an athletic team, you should clarify any boundaries that you have on their participation. For instance, all of my sons have played youth sports and we have told the leagues when we sign up that we do not play or practice on Sundays, so if a coach did not want one of our children on their team because of that, we wanted them to know beforehand.

Also, when my sons made All-Star baseball teams, we told the coach that we know most of the championship games are on Sunday and my child would not participate on Sunday, so if they did not want him to be on the team because of that, we would certainly understand. It is good to teach your children that Christian convictions have consequences and that you will gladly face them. Too many parents are rearing their children in Christian sentimentality, which wants them to have convictions for which they never suffer.

In our home, we do not treat other church activities as if they are the Lord's Day. We have biblical-theological convictions that demand setting aside Sundays, but we do not have the same approach to general church programming. We are not victims of the sports team’s schedule nor are we victims of the church program schedule. Parents have the primary responsibility to disciple their children and a major part of that involves watching the choices we make. For instance, if one of my children has practice or a game during the time of a youth event, then they usually go to their practice or game because we want to glorify God with the commitment we've made to the team. In other words, we do not want to use general church activities as an excuse to be lax on our commitments. We also view participating on the team and being involved as parents in the league or school as a unique mission opportunity of which we want to take full advantage.

I have found that if you are honest and straightforward about what you will and won't do based on your Christian convictions, people's respect for you is not diminished—it is strengthened. Sports, rightly understood, are but a means to a greater end of delighting in God. Though, like all good gifts, sports can be corrupted and become an idolatrous competitor with God instead of a means to glorify him.

I believe that God made me for a purpose. But, he also placed me in a home that enjoyed sports, and when I played baseball, I felt his pleasure. And I unapologetically hope my children feel his pleasure through sports, too.