This article was originally written for Rooted Ministries. Be sure to visit them for more gospel-centered youth ministry resources.
Upon moving to south Florida in the spring of 2013, I wasn’t really looking to get involved in pastoral ministry right away. I had just graduated from Bible college with a Youth Ministries degree, but because of the transition between states, my only goals at the time were to find a job, find a house, and get settled with my wife in our new town. This was a big shift for me. Moving from the Appalachian foothills in upstate South Carolina to the beaches of southern Florida is a pretty jarring change, in terms of the weather and the people. There are zero similarities between the two locations.
As I adjusted to life in West Palm Beach, another immediate goal was to find a good local church similar to the one I grew up in. With my dad serving as a pastor since the late ’90s, church hunting was unfamiliar to me. After this new experience of vetting churches, my wife and I ended up finding a small church where the pastor quickly began to use and trust us with various ministry tasks. I soon inherited the role of youth pastor and also became heavily involved in the music ministry.
Ministering to teenagers became an engrossing passion. Even though I wasn’t necessarily seeking out a ministry position, God undoubtedly saw fit to place me in a role in which I might put to practice all that I had learned in classes and lectures. I was instantly riveted by student ministry. Engaging young people in the midst of their most dire and decisive years is truly a privilege, one that shouldn’t be taken nonchalantly. An indifferent approach to youth ministry just won’t cut it.
At about this same time, my own theological and doctrinal understandings were morphing and solidifying me to be the grace-addicted preacher I am today. I’ve never considered myself as one who has “arrived” spiritually. More so, I am a lifelong student. In fact, “the more you think you’ve arrived and the less you see yourself as daily needing rescuing grace, the more you will tend to be self-referencing and self-congratulatory.”1 My mentality going into this ministry was to never forget that I was in as much need, perhaps more so, of this gospel of grace as the teens were. I endeavored, therefore, to lead them amidst the trenches, not lecture them from the headquarters. I wanted them to see that I was just as desperate as they were, that the hope and grace of the gospel isn’t something you arrive at but something you believe in with your life — “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)
To that end, I began to saturate myself with gospel-centered reading, writing, and thinking. I took studying more seriously; I began poring over Bible passages, books, sermons, podcasts, and more books, all of which I believed would make a significant impact on these teens’ lives and help them navigate the treacherous years of adolescence. My message was simple: grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone. My mission was to force-feed these teens the message of forgiving grace, which is the lone truth that can inspire genuine love and obedience.
One evening, following a Wednesday night service, I was called into the pastor’s office . . . and my ministry was never the same. My “grace-junkie approach” to youth ministry wasn’t being well-received, especially by a particular duo of deacons who deemed my message too careless and lenient for their young people. I came to the grave and solemn realization that I was being forced out of this ministry. In my determination to uphold what I believed was the truth and essence of the gospel, I stubbornly defended my position, sitting before the pastor and deacons numerous times, attempting to explain and expound my approach to ministering to their youth. After months of deliberation, aggravation, and prayer, it was clear that it was best for my wife and I to part ways with the church — the toughest decision we’ve ever made.
Even so, I’m not bitter by what transpired, nor do I harbor any grudges over what was said to and about me. This was, perhaps, the best initiation into the travails of ministry I could have ever experienced. God was gracious enough to sustain and teach me throughout the whole ordeal.
Too often, youth ministers shy away from preaching the pure, unadulterated message of the gospel for fear of parents causing an uproar over too much teaching on freedom and not enough on rules. The tendency is to rely on regulation, coercion, guilt, and force to get those “wayward” teens to straighten up. Youth ministries can quickly devolve into legalistic settings.
The fact remains that youth ministry is at its worst when it’s regulated to being nothing more than a teenage daycare, instilling in them only do’s and don’ts.
The youth group isn’t a church-appointed obedience school for teens who want to rebel. Rather, it is a vital extension of the church body in which its future dwells.
Youth ministry is at its best when it’s “rightly dividing the Word truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), when it’s describing to teens in a myriad of ways how the gospel frees them to be obedient; how Christ’s finished work for them on the cross liberates them from caring about their own interests to courageously investing their lives in others. The gospel-truth of God’s free and abundant grace is that which enables and empowers students to not talk back to their parents, to not slander their peers behind their backs, to not bully those who are weaker, to not indulge themselves in pornography and drugs — in short, it’s what enables and empowers the Christian life.
Youth ministers, do not recoil at parents’ concern over your message of grace by nullifying it with the admixture of works, and formulas for acceptance by obedience. (Gal. 2:21) No, “what the Christian church needs today . . . is a stubborn un-muddling of law and grace.”2 To cower from this message by infusing it with qualifiers and exceptions is to cage it, relegating it to impotency. To understand how life works, we must first understand the genesis of life in Christ, and that’s through the unsullied, untouched message of grace.