Recently, I attended a gathering of youth workers from all across the country. I love these times because I get to reconnect with old ministry friends and make plenty of new ones. But during my time there, my conversations, and others I caught wind of, seemed to continually turn to a single struggle that many youth workers are having.
“How can I love my students while helping them to truly love and follow Jesus?”
How can I love them where they are, accept them for who they are in a world that approves, even celebrates, so much of what the Bible condemns? If I am going to reach my students with the gospel, then I need them to come to youth group; so how can I make our time together, my teaching, and the church as a whole irresistibly attractive for my students? How do I get them to choose youth group over video games, YouTube, sports, or even school commitments?
How do I show Christ in a post-Christian culture?
Read enough of the Gospels, and you’ll soon discover that throughout his ministry, Jesus became the modern day equivalent of a superstar. Thousands followed him on social media, he was featured on the cover of every major magazine publication—for better or for worse. For some, Jesus was the most sought-after person in the world, for others, number one on their hit list. Thousands of people traveled with Jesus going days without food and water—so many that Jesus had to feed them. They would fight through crowds just to touch him in hopes of being healed. They even believed he could heal people from hundreds of miles away. People viewed him as the ideal revolutionary. A man with a cause they could get behind. What could be more appealing than that?
But here is the thing, Jesus’ ministry was never attractive at the expense of truth. The crowds that followed Jesus were frequently amazed at his miracles and his teaching. Sometimes, so much so, that it caused people to walk away. His words were often hard to hear. Jesus’ words divided families, nations, and religious ideology. The truth he spoke was sobering and required more than just feel good doctrine and self-help. His words demanded action—radical action for the coming kingdom.
Jesus’ words are attractive not because they somehow make us feel good about ourselves, but attractive because they speak truth about our world and about ourselves. It is sometimes hard to swallow and often even harder to live out. I am frequently asked by youth leaders; “What does it look like to love our students without affirming a lifestyle the Bible clearly condemns?” It is a question of morality in a culture that sees sin as entirely relative. And I am convinced that no matter the cultural climate, truth will always cut to the heart of who we are and who we are designed to be. Loving others must always begin first with truth—truth in Christ.
Draw the line and do not cross it
No matter the cultural environment, the Bible continues to serve as the unwavering standard. Without it, we are merely trying to judge our lives based on our own rules. It might sound nice, but in reality that cannot work.
But wait a minute. How can I love someone when I construct such clear and rigid lines? Well, the same goes in ministry as it goes in parenting. As a parent it is not my job to be my kids’ friend, nor is it my responsibility to make my children happy. It is, however, my responsibility to raise them to be productive, adult members of society and followers of Christ. And it is my responsibility to show them what it truly means to have joy in life—joy in Christ. Making disciples requires the same responsibilities. The love I have for my children is evident in the clear and consistent boundaries I give them for guidance. Follow the ministry of Jesus, and you will see the same pattern in how he sought to make disciples.
Be clear about truth
One of my favorite phrases about scriptural interpretation is that, “the Bible can never mean what it never meant.” There is no doubt the Bible holds supreme importance in the life of a believer. However, in a world where post-truth is a virtue, careful and accurate interpretation of truth is perhaps more critical than ever, and, therefore, how we communicate it as well.
Several years ago I was asked to give a talk on truth to students at a youth camp in California. To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect. It was going to be a breakout, so I figured I would have at least a handful of students. I had hundreds. About a year later I gave the same talk at a few different winter camps as part of a broader topic over several sessions. The feedback I received was incredible. They said the highlight of their weekend was the teaching. And just recently, I gave a version of the same talk on truth to a local youth group. Same reaction.
It’s not me. It’s not my stories, my delivery, object lessons, or some magical way I keep their attention. I am convinced it is the topic. Students want to know what truth is, does it exist, and what does the Bible say about it. In our modern world, confronting this topic head-on is an absolute must. Every time I give a talk on it, Christian students walk away encouraged with a renewed sense of confidence in what they believe. And non-believing students walk away with plenty of questions to consider our culture’s version of truth (or the absence of) versus the Jesus version.
Keep it simple
It is about the gospel. Nothing more. Nothing less. In my early days of ministry, I would get caught up in the hype of ministry events. I thought that if I could just get the right speaker, have the right kind of lights, music, and experience that students would show up. I had a very arrogant Field of Dreams mentality. As an intern, I begged my senior pastor to let me change the name of our youth group to make it sound cooler in hopes more kids would show up. In my first solo gig as a youth leader, I moved our meeting of only ten to fifteen students into the sanctuary so we could take advantage of the fog machine, cool lighting, and better sound quality.
I never once considered how the gospel could merely connect with the students’ lives genuinely and tangibly. They may have experienced a quality production, but I am not sure they ever encountered the risen Jesus.
The statistics of Generation Z are staggering. Most are not Christian at all with many having never stepped into a church. Even those that do profess belief in Christ know little about the Bible. It is time to get back to the basics of the gospel. The profound simplicity of how Jesus changes lives, the power of community, and what it looks like to live out God’s mission for His world.
There is no magic formula or three-step process. Just stick to truth, the Bible, and preach the gospel. Try new methods, have fun with your students, and build a strong community. But as our culture continues to rapidly change, dig your heels even deeper into the foundation of Christ.