It shouldn’t come as a shock that given the western world’s current cultural climate, Christ’s command to share our faith, be a witness, and make disciples is increasingly difficult. It is easy for churches to be captivated by the siren song of audience building and program mastery as the litmus test for success. But Christ’s church is not judged on its ability to fill seats. Instead, it is contingent on its ability to send. The mission to go and make disciples is clear, and the church was carefully designed for that specific purpose.
Youth ministry is no exception.
Given the world we are asking our students to step into, it is increasingly critical that we equip the next generation. Our students are not the future of the church; they are the church. There is no better time for them to get the dirt of ministry under their fingernails. But given the large scale challenges our students are facing even to express their faith, the thought of where to begin can be paralyzing. So I started to think through some of the roadblocks that often stand in our way of being effective witnesses of the gospel and how youth leaders and parents can begin to prepare students for the road ahead.
Simplicity vs. Complexity
I know, this seems almost counterintuitive. But remember, although the gospel is incredibly simple, God himself is a complex mystery that forces our minds to conceive of something far beyond our ability to do so. Think of this way: In the classroom, teachers know a student “gets it” when he or she can explain a complicated or difficult concept, simply using their own words. Keeping things too simple can rob the student of a full understanding.
I believe the same is true of the gospel.
On the one hand, the gospel message is incredibly simple. Simple enough that my four-year-old daughter can get the gist. “I am a sinner. God sent Jesus to die in my place so that I could be reunited with Him.”
However, the gospel is also incredibly thick with meaning, layer upon layer, giving it rich and profound theological significance. Complex enough that a seminary professor could study the gospel and its implications for an entire career. So, in our efforts to avoid turning youth group into seminary, we err on the side of simplicity. But it is often not enough. While our treatment of the gospel need not be a Ph.D. dissertation, we do need to explore the complexity of God so students can explain the simplicity of God. For example, students need to dive into the depths of God’s love for humanity and the intricate problem of sin so they can effectively help someone see how the gospel addresses the human condition.
Remember, what we know informs our actions. The deeper our relationship with Christ goes, the more meaningful our efforts are toward others in his name. The more we know about culture and the stories of peoples’ lives, the greater capacity we have to love others.
We teach how we learn, and it’s easy to ignore how others learn and that makes our teaching ineffective. It’s easy to overlook the vastly different wiring and chemistry of each student we are asked to minister to. So when we teach our students how to share their faith, it’s much easier to supply them with a cookie-cutter approach that we find helpful or useful. But to train students to take Jesus into their world for the sake of their world we have to get beyond formulas, cookie-cutters, and production line evangelism. Our goal in ministry ought to be designed to create opportunities for the students to dive into who God has created them to be and to find ways to live out the gospel message according to their personalities, interests, gifts, and talents.
Students are different. So it would be natural to assume that the way they express the gospel and live their lives for Christ will differ as well. The extroverted athlete might lead team prayer, or actively find ways to be a witness on the field or court while the introverted musician might work to connect people to the power of Christ’s love through music. Allow students to dial into how they are creative and use that to kindle a fire for sharing the gospel.
Teaching our students to live missional lives, to talk about Jesus, share their faith, etc. should not be seen as an “add-on” or another thing they have to do. Sharing our faith should be a natural outpouring of who we are in Christ and what he has done in our lives. To borrow a phrase from J.D. Greear,
“God has no interest in making you a gospel reservoir. He wants to make you into a gospel river.”
This is the message of sending every students ministry should be living out. Send students into their spaces, with their talents, their gifts, and passions, to impact their world.
What if I Fail?
No one likes rejection. But it is entirely unavoidable. Whether a team tryout, a job, or even a potential prom date, rejection merely is part of the daily rhythm of life. As I grew in my faith, I could not wrap my mind around the idea of a person not wanting Jesus. However, I completely understood why I didn’t make the basketball team. Rejection on the court was obvious, but rejecting Jesus seemed unimaginable.
But it was in those moments I found myself returning time and again to what Paul told the Corinthian church. We all have our roles, but in the end, it is God who makes it all happen (1 Corinthians 3:7). Which in part, means that rejection is part of the process. Which also means that I am only responsible for my role. Whether or not a person accepts the gift of grace does not rest on my shoulders. They are making their rejection or dismissal of the gospel, much less about me and all about Christ. If I didn’t get the part in the school’s play, I might need to work on my acting skills. If I failed the test, I might need to study more. Not the case with the proclaiming the gospel.
Remind your students that rejecting Jesus does not necessarily mean they need more practice, or they failed, or even evangelism is not their gift (although doing our part does mean practice and preparation for those important spiritual conversations). Our job is to be faithful to the gospel and the mission. Leave the results to God.
Learning to Love
This may come as a shock, but most people don’t come to know Christ because the rock concert that was worship was epic, or because the speaker delivered the most profound blend of words your ears have ever been privileged to hear.
An excellent worship experience is essential. And a well-crafted, beautifully prepared sermon is powerful. But neither of those matter without love. People come to know Jesus because they encounter a profound explosion of love into their lives.
The crux of being a witness is to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1), by imitating love. How we love people far exceeds our programs. How we respond to hate and injustice in culture worships louder and more beautifully than any band. Without love, there is no witness, and there is no discipleship. Love is hard, it’s messy, complicated, and often misunderstood. But the foundation of love is what makes the gospel so simple, so powerful, and so revolutionary.
Training your students to share their faith effectively starts here. It starts with laying our cards on the table and knowing precisely what we are working with and what we ought to expect in the process. But this is only the beginning.