The Heart of Youth Ministry
What attracts people to ministry to youth? Why are they in this field? Is it the massive salaries? Probably not. Is it the promise of feeling impressive when they tell people at family gatherings or high school reunions about their career path? Unlikely. Is it easy hours and strict boundaries between work time and personal life? Not a chance.
Youth ministry can be a frustrating field of employment and a challenging volunteer calling. According to various studies, the normal tenure of a youth minister at a local church lasts approximately eighteen months. Ministry to youth attracts a diverse collection of people, in terms of personalities and backgrounds, but the motivation behind a person’s entry into youth ministry is relatively universal. Certainly, it is not for the money, the status, or the ease. Youth ministers generally work countless hours for third-world pay while often being regarded as adult teenagers. They rarely sleep at night without at least one late-night text from a troubled or overly social teen. Then, after working to the brink of exhaustion much of the time, they field questions from parishioners like, “When you grow up, what do you think you want to do with your life?”
Youth ministers generally work countless hours for third-world pay while often being regarded as adult teenagers.
Given the lack of glory associated with ministry to youth and the personal emotional and physical cost of serving youth, a person who stays in the field—either as a volunteer or paid staff member— must see something extraordinarily precious that outweighs every difficulty. Two themes drive our mission and passion for ministry to youth:
We long to see God heal, redeem, and free young people as they trust Jesus personally, and we long to see God birth something beautiful and redemptive in this broken world through their lives as they bear witness to their Savior.
Any person living in relationship with teenagers aches at the commonplace sufferings and intermittent traumas these young people endure. Witnessing the awkward, insecure, acne phases of middle school and the failed fashion experiments of high school makes me cringe. Seeing kids screaming for attention through provocative tweets and Facebook messages breaks my heart. Knowing the loneliness and alienation that comes in these years of self-doubt, religious questioning, and parental conflict causes me to lament. Yet these are the common experiences of almost every teen.
When I consider their exposure to divorce, pornography, drugs, alcohol, death, suicide, and violence, I long for the second coming of Jesus Christ. When I see the world in which these kids live, I begin to say to myself, They’re only children; this is just too much. When I witness the suffering of teenagers, my passion for youth ministry explodes because I want their hearts healed. I want them to have hope. My commitment to youth ministry ignites because I know that news of what Jesus has done through his life, death, and resurrection contains the power to set them free. I know that God can bring them alive through faith in his Son.
An All-Consuming Passion
While my passion for sharing the gospel began at a Disciple Now weekend at First Baptist Church of Birmingham in January 1993, it climaxed in a children’s hospital resuscitation room on November 11, 2013.
On that morning, my wife called me in utter panic to share the horror that our three-year-old son, Cam, had stopped breathing and had no pulse when she checked on him in his bed that morning. I raced from a youth campout to a children’s hospital in time for the doctors to tell us they had exhausted all efforts: our baby boy was dead.
As we went to the resuscitation room to see our son for the last time, my wife, Lauren, and I recalled our conversation with Cam the previous afternoon. Cam told us that he wanted to go “visit” Jesus, and he suggested that we hop in the car. We explained to Cam that Jesus was with us now in the Holy Spirit and that we would see Jesus face-to-face when God called us to heaven. He, with a supernatural focus in his eyes, then asked, “Will I see Adam and Eve in heaven?” (Pretty impressive for a three-year-old.) Lauren and I discussed and told Cam that, indeed, God appeared to forgive Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3. Cam replied, “I’m not going to eat that apple. I not eat from that tree.” I told Cam that everyone “eats from the tree” and disobeys God; that’s why Jesus came. Cam ended this conversation by saying, “Jesus died on cross, Jesus died my sins.” The next morning, Cam passed into God’s kingdom.
While the pain of losing a child is inconceivable, what an incredible comfort my wife and I have in knowing that our son professed faith in Jesus and his work on the cross—the day before his death. My wife and I can live with the certain hope of our reunion with Cam in heaven. While I have had a passion for proclamation of the gospel of salvation since the seventh grade, never has its beauty and power been so real or palpable as the day we said good-bye to Cam.
This comprehensive handbook looks at every facet of youth ministry from a gospel-centered perspective, offering practical advice related to everything from planning short-term mission trips to interacting with parents to cultivating healthy relationships.
Never Forget the Foundation
The gospel of salvation points to the historic, complete, atoning work of Jesus and the mandate to spread this word of good news. The proclamation of the gospel of salvation constitutes one of the most pivotal functions of youth ministry. So often in youth ministry, we can become enchanted with good, but not ultimate, matters. Missional living, social justice, and Christian community all represent wonderful things that I desire students in my ministry to embrace. At the same time, we never should neglect the essential duty and blessed opportunity of making students aware of their need for salvation and offering Jesus as the certain comfort and solution to the only A-list problem life presents: What will happen to people when they die?
When we approach ministry to youth with this biblical clarity, the stakes are raised and our vocation takes on substantial meaning. Our work involves the eternal condition of the souls of the precious students whom God has shared with us. Regardless of the impression society may have of a youth minister, we know that we engage in serious business each day. We may visit amusement parks, play lots of Frisbee, and send thousands of texts per month, but do not be mistaken: when a youth worker or volunteer focuses on the gospel of salvation, his or her time addresses the single most critical matter in any person’s life.
Ministry to youth with the gospel at the center means we frequently take the opportunity to proclaim the good news of salvation through Christ. We pray fervently that the Holy Spirit will work in the hearts of our students. We equip volunteer leaders and students to share the gospel in their world. We go out into the world—including our cities and foreign lands—and proclaim Christ by word and deed.
This article by Cameron Cole is adapted from Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide, edited by Cameron Cole and Jon Nielson.