Youth are not just the church’s future—they’re also the church’s now. As a leader, volunteer, or church worker, your job is to remind youth that they’re loved by Jesus and their congregation. The following is an excerpt from Connected for Life: Essential Guide to Youth Ministry, which provides guidance, encouragement, and advice on leading a youth ministry that supports young adults in their faith for life.
Why do we teach?
If you were to go to a typical youth group and ask each young person why they are a part of the group, you’d likely get a variety of answers depending on how the youth ministry is structured. When a youth says, “I love the music there,” hopefully it’s because he’s connecting with the theology of the songs and not just the tunes or melodies. For a youth who answers, “I just want to hang out with my friends,” it could mean that she’s developed strong Christian friendships as a part of the group, or it could be your group is simply a social gathering and nothing more. If a young person answers, “I love that I can be accepted for who I am,” either you’re doing a great job of building an environment of support and encouragement, or as Christian comedian Tim Hawkins would say, “You’re at a bar!”
While hopefully you’re not doing youth ministry at a bar, sometimes young people do want to find a place “where everybody knows their name.” There is absolutely something to be said about building an environment where young people can feel safe, build strong friendships, be challenged and encouraged, and enjoy fellowship. But my prayer for you is that ultimately your youth ministry will be defined by something greater. Young people are drawn to a church ministry by different factors: friends, food, silly games (typically involving food), interaction with caring adults, competitive sports games, music, or being locked in a church overnight. (I will never understand why youth who won’t normally step foot in a church show up when you tell them they will be locked in all night, but God works in mysterious ways.) All of these are reasons to attract youth to a group and are great ways to connect with nonbelievers, but ultimately none of them will keep them there. These factors could perhaps keep young people connected until they graduate but will definitely not keep them in church as young adults because “regular church” often looks so different from what they grew used to.
Many churches focus mainly on having a fun place for young people to hang out, but they miss out on giving these teens something more than that. Youth can always find somewhere to hang out, so what makes us different? Gordon MacDonald summarizes this idea nicely when he tells us that just about anyone can build houses, feed the hungry, or treat the sick. But unlike the world, the Church can offer grace. At what point in your ministry do you get to the core of the Church, which is grace? Certainly we can share grace with one another in the midst of our ongoing relationships. In fact, Luther called this the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints and identifies it as a Means of Grace. But the primary way in which grace is heard, read, and applied is in the teaching of the faith to young people. So why do we teach? The simplest answer to this question is that teaching is what we do as Christ’s Church. We are commanded by Christ to do so:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)
To put it plainly, we make disciples by baptizing and teaching; therefore, teaching is one of the primary jobs of the Church, and by extension, the youth ministry. Disciples of Christ is the “who we are” of youth ministry, which means that teaching the faith is the “what we do” aspect. Teaching the faith is the primary thing that separates us from all the other choices that youth have with which to fill their time.
What do we teach?
Knowing that we have to teach the faith is fairly obvious and hopefully self-evident. Knowing what to teach is a somewhat different story. Most churches have a plan or idea of what to teach children (i.e., whatever is outlined in the Sunday School curriculum they use), but the planning oftentimes stops there. Very few churches have an intentional plan for education from youth all the way up through adults. We typically offer a variety of Bible studies, and some people show up to them, so we assume we’re doing our job. Technically, yes, we are doing our job and bravo to these churches for doing something! But we could be doing our job so much better! I firmly believe that having a plan for what you teach is one of the easiest and most beneficial tasks that you can do in youth ministry, or any congregational educational ministry, for that matter. As we look at Scripture, God’s instructions to the young nation of Israel in Deuteronomy give us a great model of the foundations of Christian Education:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4–9)
From this passage, we get two key ideas as to what we are to teach: who God is (v. 4) and what He wants for us (vv. 5–9). We also see that parents are given a primary responsibility in the teaching of the faith (v. 7), as well as the fact that teaching is an ongoing “on the go” concept and not just for designated Bible study sessions (vv. 7–9). The more the Church can help parents, the better. We as the Church can provide ways for families to have faith conversations “near, far, wherever you are” so they’re not dependent on their children getting spiritual content only while they’re physically at church.
In terms of content, the main three categories and questions I see in Scripture are these: Who is God? Who am I? And how is God calling me to live? Not only can any Bible study topic or idea go into these categories, but any Bible passage can be discussed using these three areas. Take any given passage and, after reading it, ask these three questions:
- What does this passage say about who God is?
- What does it say about who I am?
- What does it say about how I am to live as a result of who God is and who I am?
That is an instant Bible study right there and is a great introductory way to teach youth how to read and study the Word on their own.
Blog post adapted from Connected for Life: Essential Guide to Youth Ministry © 2019 The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved. Scripture: ESV®.
For more guidance, encouragement, and advice on leading a youth ministry that supports young adults in their faith for life, order below.