Anyone who is a youth pastor for more than ten minutes knows how difficult it can be to run a student ministry. Summer camps, fundraisers, student drama, parents, sermon prep, students texting during your sermons—it’s hectic. And whether you are a youth pastor, Sunday school teacher, or volunteer parent, presenting the gospel and God’s Word in an understandable way can prove to be the most intimidating task of all. I still have much to learn (and have had my fair share of mistakes), but over the years, there are a few essentials I have learned for ministering the Word of God to students.
Avoid an Entertainment Based Ministry
I have been a part of ministries with an entertainment based model, and I get it. Have lots of games, make the students laugh, get them to like you, and then you can build relationships and share the gospel with them. The problem with this is that these ministries tend to be very shallow. Rather than challenging the students by regularly engaging in God’s Word, students are given short emotion-driven messages with the occasional “respond to the gospel” invitation thrown in. These ministries produce a lot of “decisions” but very little discipleship.
There is nothing wrong with providing forms of entertainment in your ministry. They can even be great opportunities for building relationships and should be used as such. However, I am convinced that at least one of the major reasons why students leave the Church in their college years is because their student ministry was not centered on God’s glory or His Word, but on games, movie nights, and self-help discussion groups with the occasional Jeremiah 29:11 verse thrown in. Your main task is to show your students God by preaching and teaching His Word faithfully.
For those who do strive to exalt God and His Word in their ministry, there is nothing worse than losing the students' attention simply because what we teach goes over their heads. Truthfully, even students who grew up in a Christian home have a difficult time grasping even the most fundamental aspects of the gospel. It is important that youth pastors and teachers patiently and carefully lay down the foundational doctrines before they dive into the more complex doctrines. Before you talk about God’s sovereignty over our personal will or whether or not infants should be baptized, lay down the foundations of the gospel. And keep it simple. Show the students where the Bible talks about our sinful nature, our need for grace, and the sufficiency of Christ’s death in our place.
Remember that simple is not always shallow. The fact that everyone is a sinner (Rom. 3:20), that Jesus died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6), and that knowing Jesus is so wonderful that He makes everything else seem like rubbish in comparison (Phil. 3:8) are not complex truths, but they are profound. In fact, these are truths we never move beyond. As we go deeper into the gospel and unpack more complex doctrines, we should regularly remind our students (as well as ourselves) of the simple truth that Jesus saves sinners.
Although starting out simple is essential in helping the students understand the gospel, we eventually want to take our students deeper. There is a myth that students are at an age where they can only grasp simple concepts. Unpacking and wrestling with certain doctrines such as predestination or penal-substitutionary atonement are too challenging and would only confuse them. In some cases, this may be true, but the only way students will grow deeper in their knowledge of God is to go deeper in His Word. Far too often, youth pastors are content with keeping their sermons or Bible studies only on a surface level. When we do this, we unintentionally stunt our student’s spiritual growth. A shallow understanding of the gospel produces a shallow Christian.
Too many teenagers have a weak understanding of the gospel. The evils of our own sin, the reality of hell, the supreme holiness of God, and the atoning death of Christ in our place are only half understood. As a result, the grace and good news of our salvation may be accepted but it’s mediocre at best. The Bible is an okay book, but we’d rather read (or watch) something else. Praying is nice, but not essential. You get the point.
Show your students the hard truths revealed in Scripture. Show them God’s supreme sovereignty in our suffering. Show them the horror of their own sin and the reality of the hell. And then show them what it truly means to be saved by grace and to joyfully behold God’s glorious beauty.
We live in a world which seeks to undermine and dilute the truths of God’s Word. Don’t hesitate to preach it with unbridled boldness. Your students will thank you for it.
Preach Expositional Sermons
Topical sermons have long been the popular mode of preaching in youth groups. After all, with the slew of issues and sins the students are dealing with, what better way to address them than through a topical sermon series?
Now there is nothing wrong with preaching a topic, and sometimes it may be needed. The challenge, however, is making sure that what we are preaching is actually biblical. I find expositional preaching a far better way to preach (and personally, I prefer to preach through whole books of the Bible). Here are a few reasons why.
- Expositional preaching helps us to proclaim what the Bible says, rather than our own ideas and opinions.
- Expositional preaching helps us to keep our sermon passage in its proper context.
- Expositional preaching helps us to understand the more difficult doctrines because we are hitting on the surrounding passages which support it. For example, election in Romans 9-11 will be easier to grasp if we first give our students a solid understanding of the Gospel in Romans 1-8.
- Preaching through whole books of the Bible will cause us to touch on certain doctrines we wouldn’t normally cover. There are plenty of doctrines that are not at the top of my list of what I like to preach. Faithfully preaching through the books of the Bible helps me touch on those doctrines, and thus feed and challenge students in ways I may not have anticipated.
- Preaching expositional sermons helps us to see how all of Scripture points to Christ and the Gospel (Luke 24:13-49; John 5:39). This not only gives us a lens and framework to help us better understand more difficult doctrines, but it helps us to interpret the Bible rightly. Many well-intended Bible studies and sermons tend to see every story as a moral lesson for our behavior. Certainly, the Bible does give us many instructions and commandments, but reading the Bible in light of God’s overarching narrative of redemption helps us to take the main focus off of ourselves and on to God. The Bible, after all, is one of the chief ways God reveals Himself to us. And it’s Christians who have their focus on Jesus, not on themselves, who grow in holiness (Hebrews 12:2).
Engage in Apologetics
All students doubt at times, and if we are honest, so do we. The only way we can grow is if we wrestle with these doubts, rather than ignoring them. Do not discourage your students from asking the difficult questions. Apologetics are a wonderful tool and youth pastors and teachers should to take the time to become familiar with various arguments regarding the Christian faith. God wants us to trust Him in all things, but He has also equipped us with a plethora of answers. We ought to use them.
In your sermon prep or Bible study outline, think through possible questions the students may ask. Do some research and bring those questions up. Give your students something to chew on, but also provide some helpful answers. Finally, do not forget that although philosophy and science can be beneficial in apologetic arguments, God’s Word alone is our highest authority.
No youth pastor can be an effective preacher if they aren’t diving into God’s Word themselves. We will never be perfect at ministry and we will never have all the answers, but your students need God’s truth, and your ability to articulate those truths to them is essential. If you are not growing in your knowledge of God, how can you help you students grow? Here are a few things I feel all youth pastors ought to be doing.
- Regularly read the Bible, study it, and meditate on it. Get a Study Bible which provides good footnotes, articles, and a solid concordance (I recommend the ESV Study Bible).
- Pray. Pray that God gives you wisdom and insight as you pour yourself out to your students. Pray that He gives you strength to withstand the temptations of pride, sin, and laziness.
- Read good commentaries and other good Christian works which challenge you (here is a wonderful list of J.I. Packer’s suggestions). And I can’t stress enough–read Christian biographies. To see God’s grace work through the lives of Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Rutherford, the English reformers, and so many others will feed your soul.
The Heart of Ministry
Finally, and most importantly, if you are going to preach Christ to your students, you need to understand who you are in Christ. It is not merely a matter of you having accepted Jesus as your savior at some point in your life. Do you love Him above all else? Do you delight in the fact that you are adopted as a child of God only because Christ purchased your salvation with His own blood? Do you long for the day when you will finally see His face in all His glory?
Do you have a deep hatred for your own sins? Do you fight them, walking in open confession, as you fix your eyes on the beauty of God? Does the fact that some of your students do not know Christ ever keep you up at night? Do you weep for their souls, praying and longing for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Do you earnestly pray that they grasp the Word of God and are fed by His truths?
These questions may sound over the top, but they are necessary if we are going to rightly shepherd our students through the preaching of His Word. We have no business doing ministry if our hearts are not entirely fixed on God and making Him known. Remember that preaching is an act of worship, first and foremost, in which we expose God’s glory.
To Him be the glory alone.