A Christ-Centred Approach to Youth Ministry
I can picture it vividly. It's Friday night, the lights are dim, and the music leader is picking his guitar in the background as he sings about God's love. Meanwhile, the speaker stands up and talks in a loud voice: "Do you know how much God loves you? He loves you so much he sent his Son to die for you! Who wants to accept that love tonight?" Crying, hands start to go up. A few stragglers look around, see who else raised their hands, and decide to raise their own hands too. The leaders anxiously go around the room helping the youth say a prayer for salvation. The night concludes, everyone cries and says goodbye. Later, we all go home.
On the following Sunday, some of the youth and leaders go to their home church and share with the congregation. "It was an amazing time at youth/camp/mission trip/retreat. We had 15 kids accept Jesus into their lives." Everyone cheers, some people cry tears of joy. Mission accomplished.
This is often the Canadian church’s mindset; it’s about numbers. How many were there, how many got saved.
But are these the right questions to be asking?
Months after these types of experiences, how many of these kids who made a decision for Christ are involved in a local church, serving, and being transformed into Christ-likeness? The impetus of youth ministry can often be placed on making a personal decision for Jesus, but unless these decisions are followed by discipleship, the decisions can end up being meaningless.
So what's the remedy? I believe it's having a discipleship-focused, Christ-centred ministry. A ministry that does not just mention Jesus during an altar call, but a ministry that places Christ and his gospel at the centre; a ministry not focused solely on numbers and entertainment, but a ministry that is focused on relationships and encouraging a life that is holistically centred on him.
Here are some practical ways you can accomplish this:
First, teach the gospel. This may sound like a no-brainer, but sadly, it's not. In many cases, youth ministries are about making morally and socially acceptable youth, not disciples. Morality is important, but it must always be taught in light of the gospel. Thus, it is important to teach about Christ, our sin, and our need to put faith in Christ for all things.
Second, focus on relationships. Youth ministry is all about relationships. Go out for coffee, go to sporting events and meet with your leaders. In addition, encourage your student and adult leaders to meet with other youth as well. Through these informal gatherings, you can share with each other on what it means to follow Christ in everyday matters.
Third, encourage authentic, open, and safe community. Do Bible-studies as a group, and admit that you don't have all the answers. Encourage questions and allow for doubt. Help the youth make their faith their own; help them work through difficult questions and situations.
Finally, be patient. Discipleship is a process and it takes a long time. Be willing to stay at your church for as long as God will have you there. Continuity is important, and relationships take time to develop. It may be years before you see any change in your youth. So be faithful, pray, and set your eyes on Christ.
Jon Cleland is the youth pastor at Glencairn Church (Kitchener, ON) and a current seminary student. Jon will be presenting a workshop called "A Christ-Centred Approach to Youth Ministry" during the Equip 2017 Study Conference: Transforming Discipleship.