Gracious Youth Ministry

by Jeremy Clark

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Those us of us in ministry positions who know and understand the grace message appreciate the freedom and peace it brings to our mind and spirit. We have seen the excitement in others when they first understood the exceptional nature of Paul’s gospel (Rom. 16:25). Next to seeing a lost soul come into a saving knowledge of Jesus, watching the light come on as a Christian realizes that he or she does not have to ignore the “contradictions” in God’s Word is a joyous occasion. We who minister, imitating Paul as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), desire and long to teach the precepts of the gospel of grace. But isn’t there more?

For the past two years, I have served as a part-time youth minister as one who understands the mystery (Col. 1:24-26) as you do. I have spent hours instructing students and adults alike in the gospel of grace so that I might “commit these [teachings] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). For a moment, enter the mind of today’s student and ask yourself how you would like to be in my youth group. No doubt you are eager to sit and listen to some guy talk about the Pauline revelation as compared to the dispensation of the law and the reinstatement of the Kingdom program that God put on hold due to Israel’s rejection of her King. I can sense the yawns.

I want to back up one verse and share with you a secret, if you will, that I learned early on as I began my ministry to students. While the following principle certainly applies to youth ministry, it also applies to anyone who ministers in the Church. Paul urges Timothy (a young pastor himself) to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:1). We understand what grace is all about. We understand that we have been given the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8). The question for us who minister, and especially to today’s students, is how do we minister BY grace instead of ministering ABOUT grace. We want to be strong in grace both in word and in DEED.

To understand ministering by grace, you must understand what it means to minister without grace. Legalism is the practical antithesis of grace. Bondage to laws (especially man-made ones—Col. 2:20-22) is the opposite of living the life of grace. Likewise, a ministry bound to a ministry “formula”, bound to an unalterable schedule, bound to man-made ideas of what youth ministry is all about is ministry by legalism. How many of us treat ministry like a job with a checklist of items we have to accomplish in order to “feel” that we have had a successful week? The world has taught us to treat a job in this manner. Consider the consequences of running your ministry this way: Because you have written ten notes to students, you have led a Bible study and a Sunday school class, you spent time talking to a parent, and then prayed in front of the congregation during the worship hour, you feel as if you have done enough to meet your job requirements for the week and become proud of your accomplishment. During other weeks, you do not feel as if you have done enough and then are overcome with guilt since you have not checked off enough items from your list. The consequence of ministry by legalism is either pride or guilt. Neither is fruitful.

I often tell my students that if they want to know how to live the Christian life to its utmost and fullest, then they must constantly ask themselves what it is that they can do to bear fruit for God (Rom. 7:4). What things can they do that will please God? (Eph. 5:8-11). Think about the following absurd example: How would your mom feel if you told her one day that you love her, and to show her that you love her you are not going to beat her. You go on to tell her that the reason you are not going to beat her is that it is against the law. Do you think that she would sense that she is loved? Probably not. Most people refrain from beating their moms because they love them first and as a consequence of their acts of love they fulfill the law (Rom. 13:8-10). Likewise, we know that God does not want us to serve him legalistically since it shows no love towards Him, but only increases our pride. He wants us to find out what pleases Him and to do those things (Eph. 5:10).

If you are weak in grace as a minister, how will you conduct yourself? Instead of finding out how you can help to bring forth fruit in the lives of your students and others with every act of service, you will attempt to accomplish certain tasks and objectives that will make you feel good and take away any sense of guilt. Notes, Bible studies, Sunday school, talking to parents, and praying are all great things. However, ask yourself if you are doing them because they are the most effective ways to bear fruit in your ministry or because you are ministering by legalism.

The great thing about students is that they do not want to be part of a legalistic ministry. They want someone who is real and genuinely cares about them. Students know when we are not strong in grace and when we are ministering out of a sense of self-imposed obligation, pride, and legalism. They know when we are being real. Besides, ministry by grace is a whole lot more fulfilling, meaningful, and fun!