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I have encountered very few youth workers who intentionally marginalize the gospel. Most youth workers genuinely care for students and want to help them discover God’s calling on their lives. Despite our good intentions and all the attention given to youth ministry over the recent decades, teenagers today are increasingly secular and walking away from the church. Rather than fueling animosity towards youth ministry, this should lead to sobering reflection on the ways we have drifted from the Bible’s instruction on ministry to the next generation.

I wrote A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry: Teenagers in the Life of the Church in order to provide a biblical, historical and theologically sound foundation for the next era of youth ministry. Today’s “dropout rate” (the percentage of students in our ministries who eventually walk away from the faith) is complicated, and larger cultural shifts are also in play. If a “Five Simple Steps” approach could resolve this dropout rate, it would have happened by now, for there has been no shortage of “how to” solutions.

The Bible is not silent about the purpose and basic methodology of pastoral ministry. In our zeal to care for students, I believe we have taken our eyes off of what Scripture teaches about the purposes and methods that have fueled God’s people to evangelize and disciple the next generation. While evaluating our ministries, we need to be honest about the difference between our stated priorities and our functional priorities. For example, many affirm the priority of discipleship while their functional priority for the youth ministry is that it would be a fun place where teenagers are safe. Fun and safe spaces are good, and hopefully our ministries are those things. But through my years in youth ministry I have become concerned that when fun and safety become the functional priorities of many youth ministries, they undermine discipleship and the importance of training students to dig deeply into the Scriptures (because those priorities aren’t “fun enough” to draw students).

What youth ministry needs most is this: to build on a gospel foundation. Without the gospel, there is no salvation and the church is just another social organization. Because of the gospel, the church is the light and the hope of the world. So why would youth workers intentionally build on any other foundation? This drift from the gospel usually happens the same way any other drift happens: slowly and accidentally while the navigator lost sight of the true course.

With this in mind, A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry highlights the five pillars of gospel-centered youth ministry, which were originally developed by The Rooted Ministry. If your ministry wants to minimize the temptation to drift from the gospel, discuss these pillars with your team of leaders and with your church leadership to ensure your commitment to these priorities.

  1. Gospel Centrality – The gospel is more than an evangelism tool; it is the central message of the Christian life. By holding out the good news that “God saves sinners through Jesus,” we are inviting students to lay hold of the grace of God. This frees them from the pressure to perform and calls them to live in true freedom as beloved children of God. Because the gospel is more than an evangelistic message, we teach this every week rather than only at special events.
  2. Biblical and Theological Depth – The Bible is equally as inspired and authoritative in youth ministry as it is in the pulpit for the lead pastor on Sunday mornings. Therefore, teach it with confidence that God’s Word really does have the power to transform your students’ lives. And remember, the way you teach Scripture provides a model for your students about how to read it when they’re not in youth group, so show them how to interpret and apply Scripture in a way that demonstrates Christ as the center.
  3. Relational Discipleship – Youth ministry has always excelled in fostering relationships between students and youth workers. As we build relationships with students, we want to help them see how the gospel shapes all of life, not only the “spiritual” life. This pillar reminds us to resist both authoritarian discipleship without relationship as well as youth-worker-as-buddy relationships where discipleship does not happen. As mentors who desire to see students grow into Christian maturity, we need to have a discipleship plan for our students.
  4. Partnership With Parents – The Bible clearly teaches that parents are the primary spiritual leaders of their children. Accordingly, we view ourselves as co-evangelists and co-disciplers of the teenagers in our ministries. Spiritually mature parents generally influence their teenagers towards Christ, and although your ministry to parents may take some time away from students, it is a great benefit to your students, your youth ministry, and your church. This also applies with non-Christian parents. Ministering to them will benefit your students and may even lead them into the family of God.
  5. Intergenerational Integration – Youth ministry is for adolescence, while the family is for life. The church, however, is for eternity. Why would we lead our students, then, to grow the roots of their faith in the youth group, knowing they will be uprooted when they eventually graduate? Instead, we seek to help students find their role in the broader church through gathered worship, ministry, and fellowship. Finally, if our students are never meaningfully a part of the church, why should anyone be surprised when they walk away after graduation?
Mike McGarry
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