Taking Jesus’ Message Seriously with Teenagers
This guest post is contributed by David Hertweck. David serves the New York Ministry Network of the Assemblies of God as the youth and Chi Alpha director.
Last December I had an amazing opportunity to travel to Southern California and be in a room with other national ministry leaders, discussing the latest research from the Fuller Youth Institute. The room buzzed with energy and engagement as the FYI team unpacked six core commitments made by churches defined as “growing young.” It was clear that the results and resources attached to the research were going to be game-changers for the local church.
Now that research is available to everyone. One of the six core commitments described in Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church is “Take Jesus’ Message Seriously.” I suggest that if we are going to take Jesus’ message seriously, then we need to be sure we actually understand the message. The gospel of Jesus easily loses its clarity and beauty when we misrepresent it.
This means we may need a “broader gospel” and a “better gospel.”
Let me explain.
God is not simply saving individuals; God is forming a people. Likewise, God is not only rescuing men, women and children; he is at work restoring and renewing all of creation. We need a broader gospel.
We also need a better gospel. The gospel isn’t simply helpful information and needed inspiration to improve your story; it is an invitation to enter a bigger, truer, better story.
The gospel isn’t good advice; it’s good news!
It’s better than we think. It’s better than our teenagers think.
In the book Good Kids, Big Events & Matching T-Shirts: Changing the Conversation on Health in Youth Ministry, I discuss the need for gospel-fluency in youth ministry. One of many obstacles on the path to gospel-fluency is the way we preach Jesus.
I’ve heard many youth ministry messages, and I don’t think I’ve heard one that doesn’t mention or reference Jesus at some point. Somehow, somewhere, at some point Jesus gets an obligatory mention . . . even if it’s just in the closing prayer.
But is that good enough?
I’ve witnessed four ways that Jesus is often preached to teenagers.
Admittedly, I’ve used all of these examples—too many times. Maybe you have too.
Jesus as an inspirational example
The main idea: Jesus did it; you can do it!
The problem: This approach appeals to a student who measures their worth in terms of accomplishment, spiritual or otherwise. It works on the will but not the heart. If Jesus is only an example, then the average teenager is in a lot of trouble because, well, Jesus was perfect. Your teenagers need much more than an example to inspire them (or eventually crush them). They need a Savior to rescue them.
The result: You might get teenagers to change their behavior, but it will be in their own strength and with a hint (or more) of moralism. This is not the gospel. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to give us a second chance to get things right. Jesus did it because he knew we never would.
Jesus as a faithful sidekick
The main idea: Jesus did it, and he will help you do it!
The problem: This approach reduces Jesus from the central character of the story of our salvation to the silent partner who simply helps us live right. He becomes nothing more than the greatest tool in your toolbox. One more metaphor: Jesus gets the assist, but I get the goal. The gospel is not that Jesus helps us get it right, but that he got it right in our place. Big difference.
The result: You may get teenagers fired up, but you may also make them self-reliant, filled with unhealthy expectations. If they think that all they need is a boost from their buddy Jesus to be okay, then they may not understand the depth of their own depravity. Instead, grasping on a profound level just how lost we are can become the starting point to encountering Jesus.
Jesus as a jilted boyfriend/girlfriend
The main idea: Jesus did it for you, so don’t hurt his feelings or let him down!
The problem: This approach appeals to students’ emotions, fears, and sense of guilt. Most people don’t want to disappoint or let down anyone, let alone God! But fear and guilt are not gospel motivations; they are tools of the enemy.
The result: You may get emotionally-driven responses, especially from students who want to please people. They will make all sorts of radical promises about “never, ever, ever sinning again.” However, teenagers will eventually find someone else (peers, boyfriend, girlfriend . . .) whom they don’t want to disappoint even more than God. That relationship will easily outplay this type of change.
Jesus as a divine loophole
The main idea: Jesus did it, and you should too. But if you don’t, he will forgive you!
The problem: This approach can be combined with any of the previous three. It weakens the message of the gospel and the power of grace. Either the grace of God is the most powerful change force for humanity, or we’re hopeless. The “get-out-of-jail-free card” approach to grace communicates something far less.
The result: Some teenagers will come to see Jesus as nothing more than the great eraser. They do whatever they want and then come to Jesus, hoping he can hit the reset button for them. It makes them feel better, but it doesn’t invite them into the story of the gospel. Eventually, they won’t buy it; they’ll believe they’ve fallen too far. Or they just won’t be drawn to a grace that is strong enough to forgive them when their hearts wander, but too weak to truly win their affections and devotion.
One of the exciting findings in Growing Young is that young people are looking for churches that help them explore Jesus and his message. This may challenge us more than we think! The great news is that it opens us up to relearn how to communicate the gospel as truly good news for young people today.
Content partially excerpted from Good Kids, Big Events, & Matching T-Shirts by David Hertweck. Copyright @ 2015 by My Healthy Church. Used by permission of The General Council of the Assemblies of God.