Voices: Make Jesus Christ the main attraction in youth ministry

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“A camp experience your students won’t forget!”
“Help your youth ministry change the world!”
“No sweat, easy prep Bible studies!”

Phrases like these litter the ads I get in the mail. Books promise tips for a successful career or managing family dynamics. Conferences promise optimal management of social relationships by attending an eight-hour workshop on personality archetypes.

While there’s nothing wrong with memorable events or experiences, much less self-examination, I was struck at how little Jesus is mentioned in so many ads directed at churches.

Bible study is spoken of as an afterthought—“No sweat! Easy prep!”—but shouldn’t this important task make any minister sweat at least a little?

Churches and students under pressure

I know why these ads exist. Churches are under pressure. The news is rife with warnings of church decline. Certainly, we need something to make church “relevant?”

Students are under pressure, too. They are connected deeply to their friends’ problems because of technology. And, paradoxically, they can feel as if they have no one to talk to about it.

Extracurricular activities, sports and jobs all pile up in students’ lives. Students are encouraged at younger and younger ages to consider their future careers. “Push” notifications about grades can appear on their phones at any moment.

While we don’t have all the information about how such pressure is affecting students, signs indicate deteriorating mental health.

During most of their lives, students are told what to do. They either push themselves to try to measure up, or they resist by giving up on the entire “rat race.” It’s no wonder “burnout” has become a watchword among the young.

What can we say to churches and students who are under pressure?

Where Jesus Christ is the main attraction

This summer, I visited 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The church was at the epicenter of the civil rights movement, one of the greatest Christian social movements of the past century. Many tourists come to see the historic building where Dr. Martin Luther King preached and where four children unconscionably were killed by a white supremacist’s bombing.

I read an informational pamphlet about the church that said 16th Street Baptist Church is “Where Jesus Christ is the main attraction.” That simple statement was reorienting.

If we tell students the church exists only to enact social change, what will students do when they find a more efficient organization enacting that change?

If we suggest the church is primarily where they learn techniques to be good people, and manage social relationships, what will students do when they think they’ve learned all the skills we have to teach? Will they believe they have graduated from church?

Kara Powell has noted, “Almost half of all young people drift away from God and the church after they graduate.”

If the church exists for the show it can put on, the skills it teaches or the self-improvement it can point toward, what could the church ever say to those who are just burned-out, done, finished?

Making the main attraction central to youth ministry

While not having all the answers, I always try to give a central place to gathering together to read and understand Scripture. We decorated a wall with the books of the Bible. We’ve discussed the basics of Christian doctrine. Now, we are exploring how the Old Testament families are our family of faith. None of this is aimed at ensuring students merely know more Bible trivia; there is nothing “trivial” about it.

When students see the Lord’s purposes fulfilled in so many different biblical figures, including outsiders like Ruth or Rahab, they are reminded we, too, were strangers who were far off and have been brought near by the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 2:13).

More than once while reading an Old Testament story or hearing about God’s promise of a new covenant written on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), a student has said: “Wait! That’s like what Jesus says” (see Luke 22:20)! Seeing those connections form always is a delight.

When we gather, I want students to see the Bible speak not just to people of old, but to them. In this way, we begin to retell our stories in light of Jesus’ life.

You may find superior versions of “church programming” elsewhere, but there is one thing only the church proclaims. This one thing cannot be sold or mastered. It is not just for the go-getter. It also is for the world-weary. This one thing is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And the main attraction is …

After giving a hard teaching, Jesus asked his disciples if they wanted to leave him. Peter responded: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

Just before his ascension, Jesus told his disciples his teachings were so that “in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In a world full of trouble, we cannot promise students they will have none. In a world where students feel the pressure of the future, we cannot promise them control. In such a world, the church can be the community that comes alongside them to witness to Jesus’ goodness.

Jonathan Balmer is a student at Truett Theological Seminary and a youth minister at Seventh & James Baptist Church in Waco. You can find him on Twitter: @JonathanCBalmer.

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