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.
About the Author
Cameron Cole(MA, Wake Forest University) serves as director of youth ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, and is the chairman of Rooted, a ministry dedicated to fostering gospel-centered student ministry.
Jon Nielson(MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)serves as the senior pastor of Spring Valley Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Roselle, Illinois.He is the author of many books, includingGospel-Centered Youth Ministry.He and his wife, Jeanne, have four children.
Drew Haltom (MABS, Reformed Theological Seminary) serves as a pastor at Christ City Church in Memphis, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife, Laura, and two children. Prior to his pastoral ministry, Drew served on staff at Service Over Self, an organization dedicated to leadership development and home repair in strategic neighborhoods in Memphis. He is a contributor toGospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide.
Philip Walkley (BA, The University of Mississippi) is the executive director of Service Over Self in Memphis, Tennessee, and previously served as the director of student ministries at First United Methodist Church of Grenada, Mississippi. Philip and his wife, Kelsea, live in Binghampton, Tennessee, with their three children. They are members of Fellowship Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee.
Dave Wright is the coordinator forstudent ministries for the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina. Previously he served as a youth minister in churches in suburban Chicago and Cheshire, England. He has written numerous articles for magazines in both the UK and US.
Read an Excerpt
The Gospel at the Heart of All Things
Youth Ministry Founded in the Gospel
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?"
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.
Furthermore, when I see the world into which these children are headed, I long for redemption. I lament over the widespread addiction, broken sexuality, pervasive corruption, normalized self-absorption, flagrant injustice, unapologetic materialism, chronic depression, and utter despair. While the temptation arises to wallow in hopelessness and accept the status quo, I know that God intends to bring hope to those on earth through the activity of the Holy Spirit in the lives of his followers. The kids to whom I minister can be witnesses to God's redemption, sources of light, and agents of justice in a fallen, dark, desperate, crooked world. I want them to be people of the kingdom during their time in my ministry and every day after they leave the fold and enter the world. When I remember that, as a minister to youth, I am sitting in the most pivotal, influential position in the world to promote this global movement, I can be nothing but inspired. It's energizing to think of all God can do in the life of a person who lives for Christ and the kingdom from high school and on into college, marriage, family, and career.
I want this work of healing in young people's hearts and this passion for God's redemption in Christ to continue for the rest of their lives. I'm not looking for this to be the "Jesus phase" that they look back on as "cute" or "fun" when they enter their thirties. What a heartbreaking waste of time that would be! While I realize that not all the kids in my ministry will surrender their lives to Christ, I long for the currents of God's work in the kids to flow when they are eighteen, twenty-eight, and seventy-eight.
Given that youth ministry focuses on lasting redemption, what catalyzes transformation in the lives of teenagers? Is it close friendships, fun games, moral training, positive role models, community service, or uplifting music? Not really. Perhaps the most important thing a person ministering to youth can possess is an accurate appraisal of the fundamental problem in both people and the world and a clear understanding of the way God can restore them both.
The Problem and the Solution
My most influential mentor in my early years of serving in youth ministry impressed upon me an important maxim: "Theology drives methodology." This is a jargon-filled way of saying that what you do in ministry reflects what you believe.
Perhaps critics of youth ministry have used too much hyperbole and generalization in characterizing the practice of youth ministry. Stereotypically, the practice of youth ministry included entertaining events, lessons on moral behavior, an emphasis on good spiritual habits, and efforts to inspire students toward deeper commitments to God in the context of a group of friends. In playful terms, youth ministry is dodgeball, abstinence, and pep rallies with your buddies in the name of God. While this description is an exaggeration, some truth lies beneath the stereotype. (If you're starting to roll your eyes and say, "Not this again!" ... stay with me. There is extremely good news coming.)
Traditionally, youth ministry methodology demonstrated a specific theology about kids' biggest problem. It suggested that kids lack both proper knowledge about moral Christian living and sufficient motivation to adhere to the standards. The kids would do right if they just knew how to obey God, and if they had consistent reinforcement to "be good Christians." Therefore, youth ministries functioned to educate students on Christian behavior and exhort kids to live for God. This belief may have manifested itself practically through frequent messages centered on behavior, worship designed to generate emotional responses, and exhortations for increased effort in the pursuit of moral Christian living.
Presently, I think youth ministries are moving away from these methods. Due to the volumes of research suggesting that the moralistic, emotional, entertaining approach to youth ministry has had little to no efficacy in creating lasting followers of Jesus, many youth pastors have put the dry ice machine in the church attic and toned down the underage drinking speeches. Still, I am not confident that youth ministry as a whole has identified the substance of what God uses to change lives.
The kids of today have the exact same problem as their great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, Adam and Eve. Humanity has not fundamentally changed since the days of the garden of Eden. Any person ministering to youth can understand the three fundamental issues underlying every teenager's problem with an investigation of Genesis 3. There we find the record of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in disobedience to God's word. Let's think together about this account for a few moments.
Problem 1: Source of Truth
Teenagers lack an accurate understanding of the source of truth. The Serpent's initial act of deceit in Genesis 3:1 comes when he asks, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" God had spoken clearly to Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:17, telling them that eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will result in death. Eve even acknowledges this. Their downfall begins, however, with this statement in Genesis 3:6: "When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes." Eve shifts from operating under the authority of what God verbally had revealed to her and now uses her own senses and judgment for her view of morality, herself, and God.
Many times, teenagers express hesitation about God based on the suffering they see in the world. They frequently question his goodness based on disappointments they have experienced in their lives. They often open statements about moral convictions with "I think" and "I feel." Like every other human being, they naturally derive their views on truth through their own experiences and observations. Rarely would a person confidently consider God good and just if they based their views on their own experience, given the normal pains in life and evils in the world. Would any teenager abstain from sex until marriage if left to his or her own rationality?
The first part of the solution to this fundamental problem involves pointing students to the authoritative sources, Jesus and the Bible, which accurately represent God, man, and truth. Youth ministry hoping to make lasting change needs to constantly hold Jesus up "as the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). Christ-centered ministry moves students toward embracing the goodness and holiness of God. Furthermore, effective ministry bases its lessons and teachings on Scripture. It moves students toward a worldview grounded in the truth God has revealed in the Bible.
Problem 2: View of Self
The second problem plaguing all teens is a false view of self. The Serpent sold Adam and Eve the lie that they could "be like God" (Gen. 3:5). After eating from the tree, the first couple demonstrated this distorted belief through their actions, which screamed independence. First, when they realize they have sinned and created damage, the wounded couple takes matters into their own hands by crafting leaves to cover their shame (Gen. 3:7). They did not believe that they needed God; they could handle this problem on their own. Then, when God confronted them about their misdeed, Adam and Eve both shifted blame. Adam says, "That woman made me do it," and Eve, "It's the serpent's fault" (see Gen. 3:11–13). They behaved as if they were above accountability and did not have to answer to God.
The view of the human condition depicted in Scripture is not a pretty picture. Jesus himself referred to his disciples — the cream of the Christian crop — as "evil" in Matthew 7:11. Christ told Nicodemus in John 3:19 that, "people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil." In Romans, Paul said that all "have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). The prophet Jeremiah took it to another level, saying that "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). Wow! This is brutal news.
Before things become too depressing, we must remember that human depravity, although deep, has simple roots: humans think they can be God. Teenagers, like all people, naturally believe they can live their lives, independent of God and without his help. Effective youth ministry does not need to beat teenagers over the head about their "wickedness." It simply needs to inform and remind students that they are made to live in a dependent relationship with God, and that they naturally defy this need. It must help them understand that all of their sin originates from attempting to be the lord in their own lives, rather than allowing Jesus to be their King. But let's be frank: sugarcoating the reality of human sin is a major disservice to kids. It's like telling a person diagnosed with cancer that it is only a cold.
Problem 3: View of God
Finally, the third issue plaguing all teens is a false view of God. The Serpent created seeds of doubt in Adam and Eve when he told them that God was lying — they would not surely die by eating from the tree (Gen. 3:4). Then he led them to believe that God was holding out on them, because he knew that they would be "like God" if they ate the fruit (Gen. 3:5). The Serpent portrayed God as a liar who withholds goodness from his children. Adam and Eve took the bait and ate from the tree. After their fatal deed, they demonstrated their new theology in the way they reacted to God's entrance into the garden. What did they do? They ran and hid, and then they lied. Their behavior exhibited their belief that God was one who would not forgive and whom they could not trust. God was bad according to this new "theology."
Perhaps the most important element of effective youth ministry, then, is proclaiming the goodness and love of God. No teenager will entrust his or her life to a person they cannot trust. However, who can resist trusting and knowing the true God of the Bible? He is "slow to anger and ... forgiving" (Num. 14:18). He "waits to be gracious ... and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy" (Isa. 30:18). His works are perfect and he is without flaw (Deut. 32:4). God is the One who teenagers can cast their cares upon because he cares for each one of them (1 Pet. 5:7). Knowing the true character of God heals the teenage heart, as young people see his love poured out at the cross of Jesus.
The problem of every teenager runs incredibly deep. The false beliefs that underlie their sin and suffering are deeply ingrained in their hearts from birth. Thinking that morals and motivational speeches will fix this problem is like believing a Band-Aid will heal a broken leg or that aspirin will cure cancer. Teenagers need a total overhaul of their belief systems. Above all, teenagers, like every person, need God to rescue, revive, and re-create them, as they repent of sin and entrust their lives to Jesus as Savior and Lord.
The Change Agent
Youth ministry seeking lasting changes must flow out of the theology of the cross. The cross presents a picture of a just, loving, and revealed God. Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, bears the full punishment for the sins of God's people in their place, in order to bring salvation.
God does not remain hidden. He exposes himself fully in the crucified Christ, whom we learn of through his Word, the Bible. He reveals himself as one in love with his people in his incarnation and through the holy inspired Word.
The cross tells honestly the depth of man's problem with sin. Man's sin issue is so deep that God himself would have to leave heaven, endure torture on a cross, and experience eternal judgment to fix it. That's not a skinned-knee-level problem; that's an issue of epic proportions. It is a problem only fixed by the power of God, not by the best efforts of people.
Finally, the cross sings the song of the immeasurable love of God. His love for man is so great and passionate that he, in fact, would leave paradise to endure such suffering for his beloved people. He would take on hell to rescue his people from it. The cross is the most passionate, determined love story of all time.
This theology of the cross captures what Christians refer to as the gospel. In Greek, gospel means "good news" and, in the original cultural context, often referred to a comforting announcement of victory in either battle or politics. While many people define the gospel in various ways, these definitions generally revolve around God's victory over sin and death in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This victory not only redeems sinful people who put their faith in Jesus, but it also extends to God's broader work of restoring the fallen world through the Holy Spirit — a restoration that one day will be completed in God's creation of a new heaven and new earth.
The reason the authors of this book consider gospel centrality so critical to youth ministry is that it addresses the heart of students — their true problems and their greatest eternal potential. Rules, motivational speeches, fun, and friends have no power to heal hearts and revive lives like the good news of Christ's completed work. When we take ministry back to the gospel, we are connecting students with the power of Jesus's cross and resurrection. God can accomplish the purpose of ministry to youth (lasting change) through the gospel as they believe in Jesus and follow him forever.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry"
Copyright © 2016 Cameron Cole and Jon Nielson.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Collin Hansen 15
Part 1 Foundations for a Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry
1 The Gospel at the Heart of All Things: Youth Ministry Founded in the Gospel Cameron Cole 23
2 Making Disciples Who Make Disciples: Discipleship in Youth Ministry Darren DePaul 39
3 The Impact of Expounding God's Word: Expositional Teaching in Youth Ministry Eric McKiddie 54
4 Emulating God's Heart: Building Relationships in Youth Ministry Liz Edrington 67
5 Community Based on the Gospel: Building Community in Youth Ministry Mark Howard 79
6 Building a Foundation with the Parents: Partnering with Parents in Youth Ministry Mike McGarry 90
7 Gathering God's People: Generational Integration in Youth Ministry Dave Wright 102
Part 2 Practical Applications for a Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry
8 Helping Students Personally Engage the Bible: Small-Group Bible Study in Youth Ministry Jon Nielson 117
9 Equipping Youth for Gospel Ministry: Leadership Training in Youth Ministry Jon Nielson 129
10 Singing That Flows from the Gospel: Music in Youth Ministry Tom Olson 140
11 Interrupting the Regular Routine: Retreats and Events in Youth Ministry Jason Draper 151
Part 3 The Fruit of a Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry
12 A Public Faith: Evangelism in Youth Ministry David Plant 165
13 Bearing Gospel Fruit among the Poor: Serving the Poor in Youth Ministry Philip Walkley Drew Haltom 178
14 Going in a Fruitful Manner: International Short-Term Mission Trips in Youth Ministry Elisabeth Elliott 190
General Index 207
Scripture Index 211
What People are Saying About This
“Few of us take a trip without some kind of GPS device at our side. We need help navigating the route, the traffic, and the current road conditions, all in an effort to reach our final destination. In humble, authentic and truth-tested ways, Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry provides that level of clarity to those who are passionate about engaging, connecting, and discipling young people within the reach of their calling. With advice anchored in the timeless truth of God’s Word, Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry delivers light to the unlit roads of working with young people. It underscores the priority of this mission, while amplifying the impact that an effective student ministry can have within a church community. Filled with wisdom, light, hope, and guidance, the contributors point to a clear objectivemaking lifelong followers of Jesus the Christ.”
Dan Wolgemuth, President/CEO, Youth for Christ
“This book is both theologically insightful and practical . . . and a book about youth ministry must be both. This is a commendable resource for youth pastors, volunteers, students in training, and search teams looking for a youth pastor.”
Jay S. Thomas, Lead Pastor, Chapel Hill Bible Church, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
“We see the lamentable statistics about younger people walking away from the church, despite every attempt over the last couple of generations either to turn up the cool factor or to fight the culture warsor both. The contributors point to a better way. They have tested his gospel-centered approach and honed and refined it along the way. This book is not only a wake-up call, it is a practical guide for ministry to our younger brothers and sisters. I’ll be recommending this book far and wide.”
Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California
“You are holding a very helpful, straight-to-the-point examination of the fundamental how-to’s in youth ministry. Covered here are the key areas of successful Christian youth leadership. Broad in scope but sharp in focus, this book will clearly help anyone who strives to have a ministry built on gold rather than straw.”
Ken Moser, Assistant Professor of Youth Ministry, Briercrest College and Seminary; author, Changing the World through Effective Youth Ministry
“The contributors to this volume have reflected deeply on the nature and power of the gospel. Drawing from their years of experience, they have given us theologically rich and practical reflections on youth ministry that aim to exalt Christ, strengthen the whole church, and equip teenagers for ministry.”
Mary Willson, Associate Director of Women’s Initiatives, The Gospel Coalition
“Gospel-centered youth ministry is the need of the hour. It’s rare to find a book that brings together expertise on everything from evangelism to small groups, from mission trips to social justice, but Cameron Cole and Jon Nielson have given us the perfect primer. I’m grateful for this book and look forward to putting it in front of my students!”
Alvin L. Reid, Professor of Evangelism and Student Ministry, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; author, As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students
“Here are 14 chapters written by 14 practitioners each with his or her own personality, writing style, and insight. Yet there is one focusJesus. For these writers, youth ministry is not only about teaching the teachings of Jesus, although that is important. Youth ministry is about making discipleslife-long learners personally following and growing in Jesus. These chapters are heart-felt and teen sensitive, with a profound respect for the gospel. That, plus a lot of practical insight make this a book worth having in your youth ministry library.”
Terry Dittmer, National Director of Youth Ministry for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod
“Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry is a substantial step in the right direction toward faithful discipleship of students. Not only should anyone in full time, part-time, or volunteer youth ministry purchase this book, but pastors and parents need to pick up a copy as well. Your church will be blessed by it.”
John Perritt,Resource Coordinator; rymonline.org; author, Your Days Are Numbered and What Would Judas Do?
“Cameron Cole and Jon Nielson provide a clear vision of holistic ministry, encouraging and challenging readers to integrate the gospel as the center of their ministry with youth.”
Brian Cosby, Senior Pastor, Wayside Presbyterian Church, Signal Mountain, Tennessee; Visiting Professor, Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta