I don’t like weeds. Ever spring as a kid, I would hide under my bed in hopes my parents wouldn’t remember I was in the house. “Brent, go pull the weeds in the flower bed.” Darn, they remembered. Weeds make a nice flower bed look ugly. They can also steal the nutrients and water from what’s in the flower bed.

In youth ministry, we run the risk of “weeds” affecting our ability to produce fruit. Over the next few weeks, I want to give you four spiritual “plants in the youth ministry flower bed” and the “weeds” that can adversely affect their growth.

Plant #1 – Faith in Jesus

I know this is so basic, but there are some untruths that church tradition and culture have created that make this more difficult than a small step. The first difficulty lies in understanding what faith doesn’t mean. It does not mean you act like a Christian before you trust Jesus for salvation. Yet, many churches do not embrace students who have never darkened the doors of a church. These students do not know what to wear, may smoke in the parking lot, or worse, have a tattoo and nose ring. These students are living life as they know it. but our church culture dictates they must become like one of us before receiving the message of the gospel. Often, we forget that it is through the work of the Holy Spirit that we have “achieved” where we are today. We are not the same person as before we met Christ. We forget that we, too, were once “dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3, ESV)

Faith in Jesus is step one. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved . . . For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:4-5, 8).

But, you say, “I have ‘normal’ students who have never been to church.” In most churches, students still have to join the church culture before they are officially welcomed as saved by the blood of Jesus. For lost students, their first point of contact with church is often with the students in the youth group who invited them to a youth event or youth worship service. Through a context of relational ministry, these students accept the gospel as true and put their faith in Jesus. Herein lies the problem.  In order for their salvation to be “church” official, they are expected to attend a service they have never attended, walk down a long aisle in front of people much older whom they do not know, talk with an unfamiliar person at the front, and tell a group of strange people about their spiritual decision. All this, so they can have the opportunity to make a second spiritual decision to obey through baptism.

I’m not asking to dissolve the church organizational structure, which is necessary to conduct church business and to stay organized. What I am asking is for our church culture to recognize and help discover ways to stop hindering spiritual growth. For example, in a previous church, I went to my deacons and shared with them the scenario  described above. I asked for their blessing to bypass the church policy part in order to get to the spiritual part first. I asked them if we could baptize new believers in front of their friends on Wednesday night. No, we didn’t buy a trough for the youth room. We moved our Wednesday night service to the sanctuary and invited the church to join us. For those church members who could not attend, we videoed the baptism and showed it on Sunday morning.

By moving students from salvation into spiritual growth through baptism, we could then move them toward the logical next step, joining the body of Christ where church membership would be important. Instead of the church expecting the students to take the first step, the church was now coming to the students. Adult church members met with students on their turf.

When we allowed students to walk naturally on a spiritual journey instead of pausing to get through church structure, we had two unexpected results The students who were baptized were able to share their testimony of faith with their friends through baptism, which led to an increase in salvations in our student ministry. Then, the children’s ministry started attending our baptisms, and we saw the same results there as well. (Since the vast majority of our children were from church member families, we did keep their baptisms on Sunday morning.)

The second unexpected result of that change was that unchurched parents of those new believing students showed up to watch their students baptized. Those parents felt more comfortable coming on a Wednesday night as well. We had deacons and other adults in our church welcome them. Thus, students not only shared the gospel through baptism with their friends but also shared it with their parents.

I like what Mark 1:2-3 says about John the Baptist, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (ESV) It’s like a road with potholes. It makes for slow and terrible driving. But, if the road crew comes, fills in the pot holes, and then smoothes out the road, the drive is easier and more pleasant. John the Baptist was smoothing out the theological potholes to make Jesus’ arrival easier and more accessible to the people.

In youth ministry, we need to make sure that access to faith in Jesus Christ is accessible. Have our youth ministry programs and events made it difficult or confusing? Is our youth group so exclusive that a non-Christian or non-member does not feel welcome? Is our church emotionally and mentally prepared to embrace and love those that are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) We need to give students access to salvation through Jesus Christ as it was intended: a free gift.

Categories: Youth Ministry

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