The Missing Piece in Modern Youth Ministry
By Ryan Itzel
Throughout the years, God has blessed me to participate in multiple areas of ministry. One aspect of ministry in which God has used me, is youth ministry. It has been a blessing to serve at Bible summer camps, after school programs in Christian schools, and lead youth groups through internship programs, cumulatively adding up to nearly 10 years of youth ministry work. I have loved every moment of teaching the Scriptures to young people, pushing them to dive deep into the Word of God, and urging them to respond to the commands given by our Lord for faithfulness. But through all the joy of discipling students from the Word, I have found there to be a serious issue that has plagued much of modern youth ministry. It is a problem that, if left unchecked, will be destructive to the church for generations to come. The issue is the rejection of the sufficiency of Scripture.
My experiences as a youth leader was truly a blessing. This was not because it was easy, nor was it because I had the full support from those around me in how I steered the ministry. Rather, my joy came from the Word of God, and seeing the Word change the lives of those who heard it. The reality of my experience is that I was regularly opposed by those in authority over me and by many over whom I was given authority. Throughout the years I have been rebuked for defending expository preaching in a youth group/Sunday school setting, ordered to skip chapters of the Bible that were “problem chapters” in light of the theological beliefs of a church, told that middle and high schoolers can’t handle 30 minute lessons that expound on Christian doctrine, had secular psychology elevated as the real solution, and the study of Scripture abandoned for group discussion. The list goes on.
Why would the ideals shared above be adopted by a ministry professing to be Christian in nature? The answer is found in the numbers. The modern church has embraced a methodology that seeks for numerical and financial progress above all, and avoids any doctrinal distinctives that cause division. One of the most heart-breaking conversations I had in youth ministry was when an elder told me to give up teaching and let the kids come to their own conclusions. The reality is that truth divides. Thus, post-modern thinking will continue to have a devastating effect on any church mesmerized by numerical growth.
If a ministry adopts pragmatic philosophy (whatever grows a ministry in numbers is good – the ends justify the means) inevitably it will fail to answer one very simple question. . . What does the Bible say?
Salvation and Sanctification
Often the Bible is treated as being archaic, lacking solutions to modern issues. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The Scriptures divide all people into two categories. These two groups are understood from 1 John 3:10, “ By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” Notice, John separates all people into one of two categories: children of God or children of the devil. There is no middle ground. You are either reconciled to God, or an enemy of God, yet the Bible gives answers for both.
First, the Scriptures tell us that at one point in our life, we all were enemies of God, dead in sin, and children of the devil (Ephesians 2:1-3; 1 John 3:4-10). We were all by nature children of wrath, and on account of our sin, the wrathful vengeance of God was directed towards us (John 3:36; Colossians 3:6). What is the solution to the greatest predicament that every person will face? The source of salvation from the wrath of God comes by the perfect work of Jesus Christ our Lord (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus, the perfect Son of God, gave Himself through His substitutionary death on our behalf, that those who would repent of their sin and trust in Him alone, would be saved. But by what avenue does one receive this gift of grace? The Apostle Paul informs us of this divine work in Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Paul is telling us that the way an enemy of God becomes a child of God is by receiving God’s grace through the hearing of the Word of God. That means that we must preach who God is in His holiness, man in his utter sinfulness, Christ in His person, character, and work on our behalf (life, death, burial, resurrection), and our response of repentance and faith. A pragmatic ministry model will avoid the majority of the gospel out of a desire to make the message more pleasing to carnal men. In this ministry model, God is love, but holy judgement for man’s sin is lost; man is sick, but not dead. Jesus is presented as having died for us out of love, but atonement for sin will be softened or completely absent, and the command to repent is avoided as being counterproductive to the ministry philosophy. The reality is that many of the issues students are facing in our churches are the result of a need of salvation. Too many youth groups abandon the preaching of the Word for entertainment or self-help therapy, when what is really needed is transformation through the preaching of the Word. We need to stop underestimating the power of God in salvation (Romans 1:16-17), stop over-estimating our own ability to effect change, and stand on the sufficient authoritative Word of God to accomplish what He has ordained it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11) (Acts 13:48). As John Calvin once said, “Our Lord Jesus Christ says that we are like dead men until we are renewed by the gospel and by the faith that proceeds from it. There is not one drop of life in us that deserves the name of life.”
Second, while the Scriptures do tell us that at one point all people everywhere were dead in sin, headed toward eternal destruction and punishment, by the grace of God, salvation came to the world through the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is the point of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:11 where he says, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” We were all once in the condition of spiritual death, but when we heard the word of Christ proclaimed, God used the truth of the gospel to change us from old to new (2 Corinthians 5:17). Though we have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb we still struggle in this world. Depression, anxiety, anger, a lack of self-control, lust, and much more are the daily struggles of many in our youth groups. Many believe that the gospel message was the key for salvation, yet now our students and even our adult congregants need more. I have even heard it said in a discussion on the teaching model for a youth group, “Let’s face it. . . John 3:16 is just boring.” Is the gospel useful for salvation but void of power to mold and shape the life of the believer after conversion? Surely not! Jesus tells us a most important truth in His high priestly prayer of John 17. In verse 17 Jesus says, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” The night before Jesus’ death on a cross, His prayer for the disciples and those to come after them was that they would be sanctified by the very Word of God. How often do we think we know what our world needs, more than our omniscient Lord?
Some might say that students are struggling with emotional turmoil and need something more than what the Bible offers. The gospel is powerful to save but not sufficient to deal with the needs of the inner man. But the reality is that we have opted to relabel what God has already defined; sin is often called a “disorder.” Your student is diagnosed with an “anxiety disorder?” Teach them to replace the lack of faith in Christ for trust, find peace in Him, and live for the furtherment of His kingdom (Philippians 4:6-7; Matthew 6:25-34). The person you disciple is controlled by outbursts of anger due to difficulty of life compared to others? Teach them to put off your covetousness and find your satisfaction in Christ, not the temporal desires of this world (Colossians 3:1-11). Your friends are “addicted” to sexual gratification of some kind? Call them to repent of sin, run to Christ, and let brothers in Christ help bear your burden (Galatians 5:16-6:2). This is not to say that there is never a time where someone might need medical help, for there are many valid health issues that have a pathology and must be treated medically, but the reality is that the majority of issues faced by those in the pew must be solved by being sanctified, renewed, and transformed into the likeness of Christ through the Word of God (Romans 12:1-2).
There are only two kinds of people: those who need to be saved and those who need to be sanctified. Both kinds of people can have their needs met by the sufficient Word of God. If you are in youth ministry, or any kind of ministry for that matter, stand on the Word, preach the Word, and trust that God will use His Word to accomplish all that He ordains it to accomplish. As the Apostle Paul said in 1 Timothy 4:11-16,
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
 John Calvin and Joel R. Beeke, 365 Days with Calvin (Leominster; Grand Rapids, MI: Day One Publications; Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 299.