My church sits next door to an Islamic Center, and a thriving one at that. They host hundreds of devoted followers each week for a variety of programs.
They are also friendly and welcoming neighbors. Each year they invite our church staff to their building for an inter-faith dinner. When they heard I served as our church’s student minister, they gladly introduced me to theirs. As we talked about our jobs, I asked him what their weekly gathering time for students looks like. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by his answer, but I was.
He said, “We play a few games, eat some snacks, have a message, and then discuss the scripture passage in small groups. What about you?”
I was struck immediately: “That’s what we do too.”
A question then floated to the top of my mind: What’s the difference between our student ministry and theirs?
If one of our Christian students walked across the parking lot and attended youth group at the mosque, or if a Muslim student attended ours, would they notice any difference? Would they have the same experience?
Theologically I knew the right answer. Christianity and Islam are vastly different religions with different core beliefs, holy books, and plans of salvation.
My inner seminary grad spoke out, “The difference is the gospel of Jesus.” Of course. But something kept poking my heart. If the gospel is the difference, then is it actually making a difference in every part of our student ministry?
If the gospel is just a special message a few times a year, if it’s just tacked onto the invitation, if it’s something we only emphasize on the first night of summer camp, then are we really that different?
The Muslim youth group next door has fun, too. They teach their students to love people and serve and be kind, too. They encourage them to pray and read the scriptures, too. They teach them sexual purity, too. Are we really that different?
This internal dialogue bothered me. It set me on a course to reframe everything I thought I knew about student ministry through the lens of the gospel. If the gospel is the one thing that makes us unique, then the gospel needs to be the one thing that shapes how we do everything.
Every student needs to know the gospel. We are not in the business of making good, moral kids. We are in the business of making disciples. If the gospel is the power for salvation (Romans 1:16), then our students need to know the message and all its implications for life. The good news needs to go beyond their heads and down into their hearts.
Every message needs to preach the gospel. We are not in the business of giving character clinics or pep talks. We are heralds sent to proclaim good news. If Jesus said all of scripture points to Him (Luke 24:27), then every message needs to proclaim who He is, what He’s done, and why it matters.
Every small group needs to live out the gospel. We are not in the business of group therapy or even helping students have quality friends. Yes, community is vital to the Christian life, and we want students to feel loved and held accountable by godly peers. But the gospel is what makes Christian community unique. The death of Jesus brings us together and his resurrection joins our spiritual family for all eternity (Ephesians 2:19).
Every parent needs to be equipped to parent with the gospel. We are not in the business of helping parents raise kids that mind their manners and make good grades. Parents need to see how the gospel changes their parenting goals. Every child first needs to be regenerated through hearing and receiving the gospel. Then, and only then, are they equipped to accomplish the ultimate goal for their life: making much of Christ.
Every mission trip and every service project needs to focus on demonstrating and sharing the gospel. We are not in the business of only meeting physical needs. Students need to recognize the ultimate need of every person is salvation through Jesus. While following Christ does mean serving the least of these, the greatest act of love we can offer someone is the good news about Jesus.
When we do student ministry without the gospel, we join in with every other world religion in attempting to do the impossible: Raise up good, moral kids who hopefully save themselves.
The gospel is not a sideshow. Or an occasional emphasis. Or even simply the starting point. It’s the one thing that changes everything. As J.D. Greear says, “The gospel is not just the diving board off of which we jump into the pool of Christianity; it is the pool itself.”
Games are fun. Food is good. Small groups are effective. But only one thing in student ministry is vital. It just so happens to be the one thing that makes us unique. It’s the good news about Jesus. It’s the gospel.