Some youth ministers labor for years on end without ever seeing a conversion or they see very little spiritual growth. Others, however, seem to have it all together—big crowds, mass baptisms, teens singing Ke$ha to the tune of Kumbaya.
How much of the success of student ministry is up to you? Where does your ministry and God’s sovereignty connect? And if God is completely sovereign (which He is), does it affect your daily approach to working with youth?
The sovereignty of God is one of his holy attributes. It means that His divine will is omnipotent and supreme over all (Eph. 1:11). God’s sovereignty is displayed or expressed in two distinct ways. First, God’s sovereignty is displayed in his eternal decrees—God has decreed the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10). All things come to pass according to his eternal purpose and plan.
Second, His sovereignty is displayed in his temporal providences—his eternal decrees executed in time and space. For example, God has decreed salvation for his elect (“predestined”), but it comes to pass when the Spirit of God performs divine heart transplant and causes His beloved to be born again (1Pet. 1:3). That is the sovereignty of God displayed and nothing—not even the tiniest molecule, as R. C. Sproul would say—falls outside of the sovereign control and plan of God.
So where do you fit in? How does this relate to student ministry?
Your Part: The Means of Grace
God has not only ordained (“decreed”) the ends, but the means by which He would accomplish those ends. This can be illustrated in both evangelism and prayer. While God elects His people by sheer sovereign mercy, He sees fit that those people come to faith in Christ through the hearing of the gospel message. Thus, He has ordained both the means and the ends.
A similar theme can be found with prayer. I sometimes get asked, “Does prayer change things?” My answer: No, God changes things, but He uses your prayers to do it! Both the outcome in time and space as well as the means to accomplish that outcome are wrapped up in His eternal purpose and the “secret things [that] belong to the LORD” (Deut. 29:29).
The usual and ordinary means by which God saves and sanctifies His people—including teenagers—are the Word of God, prayer, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Historically, these have been called the “means of grace.” However, God also uses other means to save and grow His people, including gospel-motivated service, grace-centered community, and worship.
While God remains sovereign, He calls you to plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:7). But how do we faithfully plant and water the gospel? Through the means of grace that God has already provided His church. We don't have to invent new foundational paradigms and strategies for saving and sanctifying teenagers. We have a role and responsibility: to simply be faithful to the various means—the six listed above—that God uses to grow his people. In fact, the early disciples “devoted” themselves to such a ministry (Acts 2:42-47).
Two Common Pitfalls
As youth pastors and those working with teenagers, it is easy to fall into one of two theological and pastoral pitfalls, when considering the sovereignty of God and ministry. One is to think that—because God is sovereign—it really doesn’t matter what I do; the ends all turn out the same. While it is true that “faithfulness” is always more important than “success” in ministry, we should heed Timothy Keller’s plea for an emphasis on fruitfulness as well. As noted above, God uses our ministries of the Word, prayer, sacraments, etc. to accomplish His eternal decrees, in time and space. We have, therefore, a great responsibility in our ministry to students.
The other pitfall is to think that the “success” of my student ministry is really determined by my programs, special events, or my cool soul patch. This, I’m sad to say, is the default ministry paradigm in student ministry in the American church. There is so much emphasis on creating the greatest show on earth, that we have lost the centrality of the sovereign grace of God in saving sinners. Instead, we gimmick and game students to the point that the youth themselves are left confused by the essential character of the gospel. In the end, what’s missing is God himself!
Some Practical Suggestions
Let’s put this together. Let me give you three practical suggestions for leading a student ministry in light of the sovereignty of God:
1. Study the attribute of God’s sovereignty. Yes, study! Scripture is replete with references to the sovereignty of God and many books have been written to help us explore, discover, and take delight in this holy attribute. Such a study and focus will undoubtedly lead to a greater daily reminder and awareness of the truth that we serve a God whose sovereign will reigns supreme from all eternity. My failings in ministry, therefore, will not thwart His plan. Rather, my failings and weakness are used by God as part of His sovereign plan—often pointing to the reality that God’s grace is sufficient and that His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
2. Evaluate your student ministry by the means of grace. These include the Word of God, prayer, sacraments, gospel-motivated service, grace-centered community, and worship. Do these provide the backbone of your current ministry? If not, the pitfall of self-reliance might be lurking up ahead. But a faithful and fruitful ministry will seek to plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ through these divinely ordained and established means.
3. Don’t Apologize for God. I hear this all the time: “I’m sure God wouldn’t let that happen.” There is a temptation to apologize for God when bad things happen, or when things happen that we don’t understand. No, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job. 1:21). Just because we don’t understand why something happened doesn’t suddenly render God impotent. Just because all of your event planning and financial resources didn’t provide the desired effects, we must not say, “If only God could give a little help here!” Nothing is sweeter and more comforting than serving in student ministry for a God who is, at once, good and sovereign. Let God be God and praise Him for His sovereignty!
Brian H. Cosby is pastor of WaysidePresbyterian Church in Signal Mountain, TN and author of Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture (P&R, 2012) and Rebels Rescued: AStudent’s Guide to Reformed Theology (Christian Focus, 2012).