Reimagining The Gospel In Relationship, Part 2

The Gospel In Youth Ministry

Photo by Thomas Frost Jensen.

You can read the first part of this article here: Reimagining The Gospel In Relationship, Part 1.

Forming the young in the colorful story and life of the gospel will not simply play to the insecurities of their parents and guardians. Often it will exacerbate them.

As a story of the most troubling kind of self-giving, it will subvert their elders’ tendencies to patronize them with it and turn their elders into fellow learners of the gospel, something the young desperately need to experience with adults. It will help them find in the Bible not pat theoretical answers but a morally complex story that enables them to struggle through the complexities of embodied life with hope, a story where doubt is not inimical to faith but a mode of it and where failure is not a threat to God but what God makes his own.

That our children might “lose their faith” or figure among the statistics of drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, or quitting school can inspire toxic fears in us. Instead of patiently digesting their doubts with them (with Israel, with the psalmist, with the disciples, with Jesus, and with others of the Christian past) and helping them pick up the pieces after they’ve made big mistakes, we can let our fears crowd them out of a home for the difficulties of real life. But the gospel story of the Bible is all about God’s hospitality amidst those difficulties and God’s power in Christ to embody that patient, if painful, welcome.

Above all, perhaps, forming the young in the gospel will school them in the arts of friendship at a time in their lives when nothing is more important than making good friends. If the gospel is especially about the way God empowers people to love one another, then friendship names this power at its most intimate. Friendship is what Jesus told his disciples he was teaching them when he washed their feet and then loved them to the death. Friendship is not simply something modeled for us in a few stories of the Bible or one of many topics covered in the Bible. It is the way God has drawn near to us, through much suffering, so that we are able to draw near to God and to one another. Friendship is thematic to the story of the Bible and the wisdom it offers along the way, reaching its fullness in the gospel about Jesus.

Friendship is of course not a theoretical matter that you can put up on a PowerPoint slide for a youth ministry lesson. It is a quintessentially practical and complex reality learned through the testimony of others, modeling, and trial and error. I am afraid that for most of our young today, friendship is at best a tangent of the gospel, and they do not have many good adult friendships around them from which to learn or in which to participate. Most of what we call friendships are short-lived, involve very little sharing of goods and life with one another, and depend on some industry of entertainment to get us together. They seldom move far beyond initial attraction, appeal, or mutual interest. But the art of friendship according to the gospel story is a matter of lasting commitment, mutual vulnerability, and subtly growing in love for one another through suffering and rejoicing together.

In attempting to school our young in the arts of friendship by the light of the gospel we will have to show them that while being the same age is often an occasion of friendship, it is not a precondition of Christian friendship or community. The body of Christ takes up our manifold differences, including those which can divide generations, and enriches them so as to make us colorfully one. If church tends to further institutionalize the segregation of the old and the young, we cannot teach them what we have learned about friendship, we cannot learn from them how to be friends, and we cannot engage in the hard work of befriending the young without pretending to be peers. That work involves telling and re-telling the gospel story faithfully as well as practicing the gospel by making our lives more hospitable to one another:

  • the young and old doing things together,
  • adults learning to enjoy doing things that the young enjoy,
  • being faithful to one another when we fail and when being together is painful.

Describing friendship as thematic to the gospel story will empower us to practice and teach the arts of friendship. And learning those arts will increase our ability to say and to see the way that God has made us God’s friends and the way that friendship is still unfolding among us according to the gospel.

Insights from a Youth Ministry Practitioner: Steve Argue

When Tommy shared his insights into the gospel with the Sticky Faith Cohort, I remember remarking that his insights were beautiful … and probably shot over the bow for many youth ministries. This view of the gospel is challenging both theologically and programmatically, as it forces youth workers to reconsider the assumptions that drive our teaching, small group dynamics, retreats, volunteer expectations, ecclesiology, and ministry success.

As our own church’s youth ministry team has reflected on what “gospel” means, we have learned from Scot McKnight’s work that there’s a difference between cultivating a “salvation culture” and a “gospel culture.” A salvation culture attempts to “get people saved” by getting them to believe the right things. A gospel culture attempts to capture the imaginations of people through living as a community that practices good news—the good news that was anticipated throughout the first testament and then established through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We cultivate a gospel culture not by passively believing what Jesus did, but by actively joining Jesus in what he continues to do, by the Spirit within our faith communities.[[Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The original good news revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).]]

For a year, our student ministry staff focused on making intentional shifts from methods that contributed to a salvation culture toward practices that fostered a gospel culture. We have learned to:

1. Help students frame the small stories in the big story

A simple way we did this was by putting up a slide up every week listing all the books in the Bible. We would remind our students that Bible tells the story of God’s interaction with people. For example, then, if we taught from a passage in the Gospel of Mark, we would highlight that book on the screen, so that students could see from where in the biblical account the particular story emerges. Through this, and through our teaching, we show students how to read and interpret the scriptures by modeling each week that scripture passages are more than random stories, rules, or belief statements. They are embedded in the bigger story.[[For additional resources on how to explain the Bible within a larger narrative, check out Mark Novelli, Shaped by the story: Helping students encounter God in a new way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2008); V. Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002); N.T. Wright’s For everyone series.]]

2. Encourage students to learn how to believe, not what to believe

What one believes, by itself, fails to bring belief into everyday life. It gets “stuck” at youth group or church, unable to connect with the rest of a person’s family, friendships, neighborhood, choices, or aspirations. As Tommy mentioned, the gospel honors the complexity of peoples’ lives. Encouraging students to move beyond what to how to believe prepares young people for a life of dynamically maturing faith beyond high school. We practice this by creating space every week and every trip for students to raise questions and express doubts. We want them to know that the mystery of the gospel can connect with the complexities of their lives. We want them to know that questions and doubts are not the opposite of faith, but part of it.[[See “From Faith to Faithing” on the FYI site for more exploration of this process.]]

3. Remind volunteers and parents that the gospel will make things messier, not neater

Many adults want youth groups to be a “safe place” for their teenagers. While we want it to be a positive place, I don’t think we can guarantee that it’s a safe space. Kenda Creasy Dean reminds us that any young person who begins to embrace the gospel will become a “menace to society,” confronting societal norms of injustice, oppression, and power often invisible to adults.[[Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the quest for a passionate church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 33.]]

Attempts to use religion to spiritually domesticate students, to perform for adults, or to control their friends, their libidos, or their risky behaviors, fail to comprehend the power of the gospel and the transformative power of the Spirit in their lives. We have learned that if we open ourselves to the messiness of the gospel in students’ lives, they will get in trouble for rejecting adult expectations, they will want to go overseas rather than to college, they’ll visit the dangerous parts of town, and they will ask adults to help them through abuse, eating disorders, depression, pain, forgiveness, family crises, and friendship challenges. A “relevant” gospel is a messy one that messes us all up, in the name of Jesus. We’ve had to prepare our volunteers and parents for this beautiful-scary-messy reality.

4. Realize we need them

I have reminded our volunteers and parents that the teenagers in our community are the prophets. They actually believe that they are being invited into a bigger story that inspires faith in fresh ways and often confronts the limits of our programming. In short, we need them for our own understanding of the gospel. When we recruit volunteers, we tell them that they might change a students’ life, but more likely they (the adult) will be changed by those students. Our very interaction with adolescents may save our own souls, if adults are brave enough to go there. This is good news. This favors a gospel culture.

Action Points

  • How do you explain the scriptures to your students? Do you (and your adult leaders) understand the bigger story of the Bible? What steps can you take to help your students and adults understand the whole story?
  • Is your youth group a gracious place for students and adults to ask questions and express doubts? What might it look like in your context to cultivate environments that encourage them how to believe, not just what to believe?
  • What are the possibilities and challenges with being open to the “messiness” of students embracing the gospel? What do you see already? What might you need to anticipate?
  • Where do you think your volunteers or parents need to grow most in their own understanding of the gospel and gospel culture?