What Is the Place of Bible Study in a Youth Ministry?

One of the things that I enjoy most in life is sitting down with a group of high schoolers on Sunday nights and teaching them God’s Word in a way that is faithful to the meaning while helping them apply it to their lives.  We are currently studying the book of Philippians, and I love the challenge of studying the meaning of the text, seeing the universal principles in it that God is teaching, and then helping teenagers apply it.  We have a small group time after our time of Bible study, and I get energized hearing them wrestle with how what they have heard applies on the baseball field, in their high school hallway the next morning, or in their relationship with their parents when they get home.

Brian Cosby has written a helpful book, Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry fron an Entertainment Culture that reminds us of the importance of having Bibgiving up gimmicksle-saturated, Gospel-centered Youth Ministry that takes the Bible seriously.  Cosby writes:

Doctrine should never be separated from worship and the “so what?” question.  Doctrine should inform students why they should do well in school, and how they can fight the temptation to gossip about another teen…indeed, the truths of God’s Word should be the lens through which they view all of life–from homework to movies, from dating to parents. — pp. 99-100

I can’t imagine having an opportunity for teens to regularly gather together and not encouraging them to believe the gospel and live the gospel through taking time to teach God’s Word.  Youth Ministries are never more fulfilling their mission than when they support Christian parents by supplementing what their teens are already being taught at home, while also reaching out to those who come from unbelieving homes by consistently, passionately teaching what it means to know and follow Jesus from the Bible.  Anything less is subliminally teaching them that it’s OK to build their lives on sinking sand (Matt. 7:24-27)!

Often when the importance of the Word of God in Youth Ministry is brought up, there is a concern about the place of games.  I heartily believe that both have a place in Youth Ministry.  In our context, our Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers enjoy free time over ping pong, pool, and foosball before we begin each Sunday night, and an organized game after worship in singing, Bible Study, and small groups (including prayer).  In fact, I have told our Children’s Ministry workers, “You must have fun if you work with children,” and the same goes for Youth Ministry.  Teenagers love to have fun together, which is part of fellowship for them.  But there does not need to be a dichotomy between having fun together and taking the Bible seriously!

Peter confessed to Christ, “You have the words of eternal life…” (John 6:68)  In order to have a Family Ministry that has an eternal impact, we need to study those words of eternal life together regularly.  Twelve year olds and eighteen year olds need this Word just as much as everyone else.

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Mary: An Example of a Teenager Who Loves God

picture 13We often think of Mary as a mature woman, especially when you read her “Magnificat” or “Song of Praise” in Luke 2:46-55.  However, Jewish traditions at the time of Jesus’ birth point to the fact that Mary was probably about 14 years old when she was told by the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to the Savior of the world.

In an age in which not much is expected even out of Christian teenagers, Mary is a wonderful reminder that Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers are capable of a deep relationship with God.  If you are a teenager, I pray that this will be a reminder to you to “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12)  If you are a parent or grandparent, remember that much of Mary’s love for and knowledge of God was taught to her in the home, which was the Jewish (Deut. 6:4-9) and is the Christian (Eph. 6:4) God-ordained place of every day discipleship.

As a teenager, Mary put God’s desires for her life above her own desires (Luke 1:26-38).  Being surprised one day by the angel Gabriel and being told that she would be pregnant with the Messiah was not in Mary’s plan for her life.  This was unimaginably “inconvenient.”  Rather than complaining, Mary’s response was, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)  God’s will was more important to her than her will.  She not only was submissive to God’s will, she joyfully embraced being used to bring God glory (Luke 1:46-55)!  God’s will was good news to her.

As a teenager, Mary knew God’s Word and “theology” (Luke 1:46-55).  Mary’s spontaneous Song of Praise in response to giving birth to the Messiah is dripping with Scripture references and a deep understanding of God’s plan for redemptive history.  She knew and loved both Old Testament Scripture and great truths about God.  Mary’s Bible knowledge at the age of 14 reminds us that teenagers who can ace a pre-calculus class can understand and get excited about knowing God better through His living and active Word.

As a teenager, Mary knew she needed God’s grace in Christ (Luke 1:47, 1:50).  I don’t put Mary out as an example to make you simply feel bad as a teenager or as a parent.  Mary is a stunning example of a teenager who loves God, but she also knew she was a sinner who needed God to save her.  “…My spirit rejoices in God my Savior…”  The long-awaited Messiah that she now knew she would raise from infancy would show her and other believers God’s grace (Luke 1:54-55).  Mary spoke of the same grace that is offered to you today, if you will turn to Jesus and say, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

How Crucial is Youth and Family Ministry?

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I was encouraged again in how crucial Youth and Family Ministry is when I recently saw some shocking statistics.  In a 2009 poll of one thousand people in their twenties who used to attend Bible-believing churches but who no longer attend, a whopping 40% of those who don’t believe first started to have doubts in middle school, and 44% first had doubts in high school.  This is in contrast to only 4% who began to doubt in elementary school, and only 11% in college (Answers Magazine, July-Sept. 2011, 124).

In the same issue of Answers Magazine, Al Mohler gives some analysis and remedy worth considering:

…Kids are spending a very small amount of time in church activities, and many of those activities have very little theological, biblical, or spiritual content.  As a result, we have a generation of young people who believe that there is a God, but they don’t have any particular god in mind…

When asked, “What steps can the church take to do better?”  He explains:

Focus on expository preaching, and teach how to think biblically.  The pulpit has to take responsibility.  In far too many churches there is just no expository preaching [teaching that expounds on a particular text of Scripture].  There isn’t the robust biblical preaching that sets forth the Word of God and then explains how the people of God have to think differently and live differently to be faithful to that Word.

Show the seriousness of church, including personal accountability.  The local church must be a robust gospel people.  It must be a warm fellowship of believers.  It must be a fellowship of believers who are really living out holiness and faithfulness to Christ, and being mutually accountable for that.

Otherwise, our kids will get the message: “You talk a lot about sin, but it’s really not all that important to you.”  Or they will think the gospel is simply about moralism.

Give answers about current issues.  We’re not giving our kids adequate information on some very crucial issues.  [Think about] the questions the average teenager faces…

Explain how the gospel is unfolding through real history.  …The Christian faith, the Christian truth claim, the gospel, is first of all a master narrative–a true story–about life, about God’s purpose to bring glory to Himself.  It has four major movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation…If we don’t anchor our children in that story, if they think that Christianity is merely a bunch of stuff to believe, if they don’t find their identity in that–in which they say, ‘Yes, that’s my story.  This is where I am.”  Then they are going to fall away.

Mohler was asked next, “What are parents doing wrong?”  His answer is a timely reminder for those who have teens as well as those of us who have small children:

We’ve got to start treating young people as a mission field, not just assuming that mere nurture will lead them into Christian discipleship and into Christian faith.

Parents need to take a big responsibility here.  The one thing we know from the entirety of Scripture is that parents have the non-negotiable responsibility to train, educate, nurture their own children into the faith, to confront them with biblical truth, to ground them in the Scriptures.

We also have, on the part of many Christian parents, a buy-in to a new secular understanding of parenthood.  We are letting our children make big decisions far too early.  So, when you have a 14-year-old, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old, making decisions about whether he or she is going to participate in church activities, be at church…that’s a child who is making decisions that should be made for him or her.

What steps can parents take to do better?

Teach God’s Word all the time, in everyday life.  This is not something that you can do once a day, once a week, and say that’s done.  That’s why I go back to Deuteronomy 6.  It is a constant teaching opportunity.

I don’t mean a piece of chalk and a blackboard.  I mean the kind of opportunity that comes from having seen something together and saying, “All right, how do we figure that out?  What does that mean?” [i.e. watching a movie, reading the same book, talking about the news]

Help adolescents think through the big questions.  Adolescence is the crucial point.  For the first time they’re beginning to think about the big questions of life.  When the lights go out at night, they’re trying to figure out, do I really know the meaning of life?  Do I really know who I am?  At that stage, don’t be afraid if your kid is asking questions … don’t be afraid to say, “I know there is a good answer for that.  But I’m not sure right now I’m prepared to give the right answer for that.  So we’re going to go find it together.”

(Al Mohler quotes are from Answers Magazine, July-Sept. 2011, 127-129).

I am so excited about Family Ministry because during this crucial stage of life, the church and parents both have the opportunity to make life-long disciples of Jesus as they consistently teach and apply God’s Word.  This God-ordained partnership of the church and parents is for the good of teens and the glory of God!

What Are Two Things Teenagers Need from a Youth Ministry?

I have been thinking recently about Youth and Family Ministry, and I am thankful for what Austin Duncan has written regarding Youth Ministry in Evangelism: How to Share the Gospel Faithfully.  As I read these paragraphs below I wanted to shout, “Amen!”  Two things (not exhaustive, but certainly primary) that teenagers need from a Youth Ministry are:

1) The Scripture to be taught at a level they will understand.  This includes a great emphasis on the Gospel.  What more important message could we possibly offer them for their lives now as well as for the rest of their lives?  Nothing.

2) To be a part of the church as a whole.  This includes involvement with their parents and the rest of the church.  There is no switch that can be flipped when they leave the Youth Ministry that will make them *now* productive members of the church.  They should be part of the church body now.

Thank you Austin for explaining this so clearly and passionately:

“The Scriptures themselves are the most important tool for the youth pastor.  There is no other way for a person to come to Christ except through the preaching of the gospel, and there is no place where the gospel is presented more clearly than in the Scriptures.  When a youth ministry is built on verse by verse teaching of the Bible, the students learn how to live and what to believe.  As a God-ordained side effect, students also learn how to study and interpret the Bible for themselves as they watch Scripture rightly divided and properly explained … Teenagers in the youth group need this message [the Gospel].  They do not need cultural relevancy, and they certainly do not need a youth leader who really “gets them.”  They need a minister who will explain to them that they will not get to heaven on the coattails of their parents’ Christianity, that God hates sin, and that the most important issue in the universe is not if they are going to make the soccer team, but if they are reconciled to God.  Have they turned from sin to the Savior?  Have they embraced, in faith, God’s perfect sacrifice of His dear Son?  Is Christ’s life theirs?

…It should not be possible for students to faithfully participate in a youth ministry but not participate in the church. … The youth must be involved with adults in serving missionaries, participating in neighborhood outreach, and visiting the elderly.  Above all, they should be a part of the corporate body of the church in worship, fellowship, and service.  One of the reasons that young people withdraw from the church is because they grow out of what it has to offer them.  Eventually, they will tire of games and skits, and look for something more profound.  A key to student ministry–for a lasting student ministry–is to get young people involved in the church because they are in love with the gospel.  Then, if they leave the church, they abandon an integral part of their lives.  Church no longer is a place that serves them, but a place where they belong.

Isolating our teenagers from the rest of the body of the church is bad for everyone involved.  Just as the foot cannot say to the hand that it is not part of the body, so the youth cannot say that he or she is not part of the body of believers (1 Cor. 12:15).  Serving the church is how Christians are called to use their God-given gifts, as this is where believers live out the New Testament command to love one another.  Teenagers must be taught to have affection for the church, to care for its needs, and to devote themselves to its health and growth.”

From Chapter 15, “The Youth Pastor as Evangelist: The Church’s Most Fruitful Evangelism,” in Evangelism: How to Share the Gospel Faithfully, ed. John MacArthur (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 213-215.

The question always comes up when advocating an eternal perspective in Youth Ministry, “Can you still have fun while doing this?”  Of course!  As I know Austin himself lives out (I have known Austin for 9 years), this is all done with grace–and fun.  But although we laugh a lot with teenagers and may do many fun activities with them, we need to have enough vision and love to give them what they need: God’s Word and the Gospel, and to help them be a part of the church, the body of Christ.