I’ve been involved in many different church youth groups. By and large, the various meetings went one of two ways. At some of these meetings, they delivered a message of substance rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even as an adult worker, I left feeling convicted and captured by the truth and grace of Jesus, and I could tell it impacted the teens from the honest and probing questions they raised.
At the second type of meeting, the kids were presented with what was at best good advice, and at worst a needling lecture. Possibly, light effects, musical performances, or cool videos were integrated to make the antiseptic little speech more palatable. I left such meetings feeling frustrated and empty. Little response was seen from the youth. Some displayed external acquiescence and strove to toe the line laid down, the rest stared with blank indifference.
The most disheartening instances were those where I saw the group atmosphere slowly fade from the first example to the second, from depth to shallowness, from genuineness to plasticity, from transforming lives to relying on external trends.
Youth ministry is not the only area of ministry that may take this direction. Many adult services go the same way.
Using technology or current trends isn’t a bad practice, if it is done well. If the tool is incorporated in a way that is appropriate to the setting and message and there is sufficient talent to do it properly, it can be an asset that appeals to modern audiences. It should not dominate or distract but serve the main purpose, which is preaching Christ, and Him crucified. Presenting the savviest cultural trend for the church’s amusement is no substitute for connecting the redemptive work of Christ to their lives.
Whatever methods are used for delivery, whatever the subject or passage of Scripture preached, every message should come back to Christ, and not just the person of Christ, but the Cross of Christ – the reason for His redemptive purposes, the way that He accomplished them, and what it means for us today. Whether talking about Proverbs, Leviticus, or the Gospel of John, there ought to be a discussion of why it matters by discovering how it points to Jesus.
Church audiences, especially young people, have more appreciation and interest in genuine attempts to answer their questions than they do for attempts at imitating their own trends, which likely have already begun to feel stale since they are inundated with them. Questions may remain unspoken or unacknowledged, but must be addressed if any meaning or value is going to be assigned to a message that exists in a world overcrowded with information. When real answers are lost amid trendy treatments that only relate to an existing knowledge base and experience, the message comes across as redundant and superfluous. As a result, it is written off as nothing more than a list of crazy tough rules or a boring speech based on an old book.
Whenever I witness this happening in a church event, I am reminded of the words of Cameron Cole, a youth minister I spoke with on the subject of gospel-centered youth ministry. He told me, “If the message heard about Christianity is nothing more than a booster to self esteem, instructions to be a nice person who doesn’t drink and do drugs, and that God is a nice fella who’s there as a fallback – none of that is worth sticking to.”
So, we are faced with how to make the gospel of Jesus Christ stick. Good instructions or disapproval of wrongdoing, however much they may be biblically based, is not going to cut it. The Good News of Jesus is not about the chance for behavior modification.
As Cole said, “If I don’t always go back to Jesus, and the reality of what He’s done in His life, death, and resurrection, then what I’ve done was a waste of time.”
That is at once much harder and much easier than jazzing up a church service to reflect pop culture. Making the gospel-connection to Jesus, and then connecting that to the actuality of people’s lives, is not always simple or the work of a moment, but diligently searching the Scripture for insight does quicken the heart and mind. The encouraging news is that the story of Jesus Christ is a story that stretches through all history, for all mankind, and the straightforward truth of Jesus can well stand on its own.