Thursday, April 18, 2013

A New Home for the Rooted Ministry

Rooted is pleased to invite you to our new home at There you will find all of the resources, blog articles, and information about our mission to see student ministry anchored in the incredible message of the Cross and of God's unconditional grace. Please visit us at

Monday, April 08, 2013

Re-Thinking Your Sunday Best: Why Student Ministry Needs to Reclaim the Centrality of Imputed Righteousness

Growing up, my parents made sure I wore my “Sunday best” to church—coat, tie, slacks, and on special occasions, suspenders!  After all, we were going to meet with the living God. A whole generation (or two) regularly used this phrase to communicate the reverence and awe of worship and to make sure our outward appearance reflected something of the cleaned-up heart we all embraced. Ironically, I didn’t spend a lick preparing my heart for worship.

Most of the time—during my early years—I only heard one side of the gospel. I heard that Jesus died on the cross as a payment for my sin, but I never heard that he lived for me. While I heard that Jesus died the death I should have died, I never heard that he lived the life I should have lived.

The point: Jesus has accomplished for us what God has required of us. He lived a perfect, sinless life, obeying all of God’s commands. That we are declared “righteous” by God (the doctrine of justification) is a declaration made on the basis that our sin has been credited to Christ and his righteousness has been credited to us.  We, therefore, stand accepted by God because of an alien righteousness, received by faith alone.

In reality, Jesus is our Sunday best. He is our righteousness. God is pleased, not with the fancy tie I received for Christmas, but with the righteous robes of his own Son, which I have received by faith alone—a “righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9).

Why does this matter for student ministry?  Because the imputed righteousness of Christ stands as the foundation for the good news of our being justified by God.  In other words, without justification sola fide we don’t have the gospel. If you, like many who have loved the recent “gospel movement”—The Gospel Coalition, T4G, the GospelProject, among others—want to lead a gospel-driven student ministry, the imputed righteousness of Christ must take a central place in your teaching and ministry to students.

Nothing will free your students from the cyclical shame of sin like knowing and believing that all of our sin—past, present, and future—has been cast as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). Similarly, nothing will spur them on to holiness and sanctification like knowing and believing that they are simply living out what they have already been declared: “righteous.” They are not striving to earn God’s favor; rather, they are striving to please the One who earned God’s favor for them.  The law of God, then, comes alongside, not to condemn, but as a friend, showing him or her how he or she can please God.

Nothing will give your students joy like knowing and believing that their righteousness isn’t found in being a good student, a good son or daughter, or a good soccer player.  Their righteousness is found in Christ alone.  Indeed, their hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.  Or, in the words of the hymn “Before the Throne of God Above”

Behold him there the risen Lamb
My perfect spotless righteousness
The great unchangeable I AM
The King of glory and of grace
One with himself I cannot die
My soul is purchased by his blood
My life is hid with Christ on high
With Christ my Savior and my God
With Christ my Savior and my God

May student ministries across our land embrace and love the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and may it free youth pastors and parents from the success-oriented, entertainment-driven models of ministry that undercut the very message they are seeking to communicate.

If you are involved in the discipleship of students, reclaim the centrality of the imputed righteousness of Christ as you teach and equip them.  May that, not self-help sola-boot-strapia, provide the true “gospel” focus of your ministry to students.

Brian H. Cosby is pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church in Signal Mountain, TN and author of Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture (P&R, 2012) and Rebels Rescued: A Student’s Guide to Reformed Theology (Christian Focus, 2012).

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Apologetics for Teens: You Asked: Your Questions. God's Answers.

Answering students’ questions about God, life, Scripture and Christianity is like walking a tight rope. On one hand, students deserve clear, thoughtful, and simple but not simplistic answers. On the other hand, the questions often reveal deeper, unspoken, concerns present in their own heart. The challenge is to provide answers for the spoken questions while also recognizing and addressing the unspoken questions.
For that reason I am delighted that William Edgar’s You Asked: Your Questions, God’ s Answers is now available. The book may rightly be described as “apologetics for teenagers” and its format is straightforward: each chapter begins with a common question middle and high school students ask, and then provides clear guidance and instruction enabling students to discover answers from the Bible and a Christian worldview. It is a work Edgar is uniquely qualified to write, having expertise in apologetics, a deep grasp of culture, and experience as a high school teacher. Furthermore, as an apologist in the tradition of Cornelius Van Til, Edgar skillfully answers the spoken questions while gently exposing and addressing underlying heart issues.
The direct audience for this book is students themselves. Edgar has provided a reliable guide for them in language they will find accessible. However, it would be a mistake to assume that this book is only for students. Youth pastors and parents will also find it a useful resource guiding their own interactions with their teenagers.
I am thankful this book is available and would encourage youth pastors, parents, and teens alike to make use of it. As Michael Keller wrote in his endorsement, the book will help students navigate the “minefield known as adolescence.” I agree with Mike, and commend You Asked to teens wrestling with tough questions, and to youth pastors and parents helping teens along the way. 

Bijan Mirtolooi is part of the youth ministry staff at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

Monday, April 01, 2013

The World’s Half-Truths for Teens Pt.6: The Power for Change Comes from Within


When I first began working with youth, the first Percy Jackson series was all the rage.  Greek gods, adventure, and awkward teen drama had captured the imaginations of youth all over the country - and some at my church.

Being totally unfamiliar with the books, I was curious to read them to find out why these books had become so popular.  So I picked up the first book in the series and began to read.

It didn’t take long to figure out what kids found so alluring about Percy Jackson’s story.  As the story begins, Percy appears to be relatively insignificant, marginally outcast, and and uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin pubescent youth.

Before long, we discover that -despite appearances - Percy Jackson is anything but normal.  Much to Percy’s own astonishment, he’s really a demigod - the son of a human mother and a Greek god for a father.  And Percy doesn’t have just any Greek god for a father, his dad is Poseidon, one of the “big three” in the Greek Pantheon.

Along with the revelation of his lineage, Percy also discovers that as Poseidon’s son, he inherits some of Poseidon’s power.  Percy discovers he can breath under water.  Water gives him strength. And most importantly, Percy can control water, bending it to do his will.

How awesome would it be to discover that a god-king was your father and that your father-god shared his power with you...?

Yeah, pretty much that’s the gospel - isn’t it?  Pretty amazing.

In Christ, haven’t we become children of the One True God, king and ruler over all things? (cf. Galatians 3:29, 1 John 3:1-2)  And what’s more, because we are his children, hasn’t God shared his power with us, filling us with the Holy Spirit as a downpayment of our inheritance? (cf. Galatians 4:6, Ephesians 1:13-14)  Isn’t this the source of our joy and delight? (cf. Ephesians5:18-20, Colossians 3:15-17)

Familiarity with these truths sometime blinds us (and the youth) to their sheer awesomeness.  Sometimes it takes something like Percy Jackson to wake us up to the sheer wonder of the story in which we find ourselves.

Obviously there are some difference between Percy and the Christian.  First, and most importantly, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is fiction whereas our adoption and inheritance are reality.

Secondly, there is a fundamental difference between the power of Poseidon at work in Percy and the power of Yahweh at work in us: Percy seeks to control Poseidon’s power to wield the god’s strength for his own ends, while we seek to be controlled by the Spirit to be wielded by Yahweh for his ends.

It’s here that we begin to see the lie that underscores Percy Jackson’s interaction with the world.

In the end, any difference that Percy makes in the world or change that happens in himself emanates from his own willpower and ability to control the power of his father god, Poseidon.  Ultimately, and change is of his own doing (the gods are rather disinterested in the affairs of their children and the human world).

For the Christian, however, meaningful change cannot begin with our own efforts but with the grace of a God who cares deeply about us and this world. 

Biblically speaking, the power to redeem doesn’t come from us learning to control the Spirit of God, but the other way around.  The Holy Spirit is not a weapon or tool that we wield, but that wields us even as the Spirit works to renew us into the image of our creator, Jesus (Colossians 3:10).

Certainly we are called to participate in the Spirit’s work as we seek to put off the old self and put on the new self - but even this is done by faith as we learn to rest in Jesus’ finished work and receive from him the inheritance he secured for us in the Spirit as the Lord bless our time in Scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship, and the sacraments.

So concerning the world’s half-truth of the power to change coming from within, I say, Amen! Let us find the power for change within...but not within us as ourselves, but within us as children and temples of the One True God who is generous with his grace.  And let us cling to his grace by faith - not as a reward for our personal effort, but as a gift of the Spirit works within us to conform us to the very likeness of Jesus.

Mark Howard is the Youth Director and Assistant to Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Covington, GA. Mark has a Masters in Theology from Wheaton College Graduate School

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Essentials in Youth Ministry: Others

We want to feel necessary.  We want to feel important.  An easy way to fill these desires as a youth worker is to make our youth ministries about us.  We even do what I just did -- call the youth group “ours” and come up with clever tricks to make the kids want to come be with us.

But it’s not really about us.  Youth ministry is about our Triune God - giving glory to the Father, in Christ, by the Spirit.  Certainly we’re actively involved in the work of God in these kids’ lives, but it’s God’s work through us - not ours in which to boast.  Ultimately, these kids are God’s. The glory is His.

What these kids really need, then, is not more of us, but more of Jesus and His grace.  Certainly they need to see more of Jesus in us and through us, but we are not the only - nor the primary - means through which the Father by the Spirit points the youth in our churches to Jesus. 

The primary means through which - by faith - the Spirit roots our youth in the grace of Jesus is Scripture, prayer, the sacraments, and fellowship with other Christians.

And the primary community through which God has ordained to practice these means is the church - the family of God.  And though we serve the church in a very unique capacity as youth ministers, we are not the fullness of the church in and of ourselves.

The youth need to see and experience God at work in others. They need to see and experience the wisdom of God through others. They need to see and experience the fellowship of God with others.

And “others” as I’m using it doesn’t refer only to other youth in the youth group.  They need to know their senior pastor(s). They need to know other parents. They need to know seniors and other adults in the congregation.

Though it has many flaws and downsides, one of the helpful correctives of postmodernism is that it reminds us that we all see things from a perspective.  This includes how we see God.  I am much too heady for my own good.  I need people in my life with passion and emotion in their worship and relationship with God.  They help me see aspects of God that I can’t on my own.

If the only picture of God that our youth see is from our preaching and teaching, then they are missing out.  Involving other adults in youth group -- or better yet, involving the youth in the fuller life of the church -- is one of the ways God uses by his Spirit to nurture our walk with him.

It might feel like a slap in the face to be told we’re not as important as we think we are, but really, this is good news.

We can’t do it all.  We can’t be all things to all people -- we aren’t meant to be.  There are kids with whom we have difficulty connecting.  But the same Spirit at work in and through us and our ministry is also at work in and through other Christians and the other ministries of the church.

If a kid doesn’t want to meet with us, maybe they will want to get together with someone else from the church.  If they don’t want to come to youth group, maybe they will want to join the choir or the praise team.  If they don’t want to come to Sunday school, maybe they will want to join an adult Bible study.

As Paul puts it in a beautiful passage on the unity of the one church in the one Spirit, “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16)

The family of God is an incredible blessing for those of us who can’t do it all (which is all of us).  Let’s not neglect the body of Christ in our ministries that we might together be built up in God’s love.

Mark Howard is the Youth Director and Assistant to Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Covington, GA. Mark has a Masters in Theology from Wheaton College Graduate School

Monday, March 25, 2013

Fear, Patience, and Prayer in Discipling Kids

Recently, I made a presentation to parents in our youth ministry, entitled, “Why Kids Abandon the Church.” Two years earlier, when I made a similar presentation, called “Grace-Driven to Postmodern Teens,” the class drew five people. Not surprisingly, this terrifying title attracted a packed room of sixty parents.

In the presentation, I explained our strategy, which has been eight years in the making, to maximize the chances that students will stick with Jesus and the church after high school. Terms, such as “theological depth,” “grace-driven,” “devotional training,” and “family discipleship” flew around the room. I routinely dropped names like Kenda Creasy Dean and Christian Jones.

While I qualified the talk with the premise that we have so little control over our children’s spiritual future- only God yields fruit- the presentation did have a “business plan” feel to it. While I stand by our strategy and commend other youth ministries to focus intentionally on fostering life-long disciples of Christ, a conversation afterwards with a young adult in the audience exposed my blind spot.

He said simply, “The thing you are missing is that after they leave home kids have to claim their faith on their own; parents cannot force that to happen.” This young man grew up in a nurturing Christian home and solid church. To my knowledge, he did not consistently seek out church or campus ministry in college. Here as a young adult he is thoughtfully considering the depth in which he may or may not follow Christ. God has brought a woman into his life, and this relationship has stimulated a fresh consideration of faith. His honesty helped me contemplate discipleship of young people with a fresher balance and with the following concepts in mind.

As much as say that God’s total sovereignty and goodness is the only hope for our children, in my flesh I believe that I have control. I think if I deliver the right messages, relate in the best manner, and orchestrate certain experiences, I can effectuate real faith in my students and in my own children. The lurking fear I have, that kids for whom I care so deeply will reject Christ and the church, only exacerbates my desire to cling to my devices.

When I survey the turning points that led to my decision to walk with Christ in college and young adulthood, all of them came places that no person, except God, could control. At the National Young Leaders Conference during my sophomore year of high school, an agnostic from Maine asked me why I was a Christian. I had no answer other than subjective experiences and the beliefs of my parents. This encounter caused me to question the veracity of Christianity. Days later, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (of all people) dropped by our house and gave us an apologetics tract. I only read the section on proofs of the resurrection and fulfillment of prophecy. This tract stimulated a season of further study, which confirmed for me that, in fact, Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord.

My parents and church had built solid foundations, but only in the moments ordained by the Holy Spirit in the mundane circumstances of life did I convert from a cultural Christian to a committed follower of Jesus. It all occurred apart from the control or strategy of any person but God.

Like most Christian parents and youth pastors, I have a strong desire to see my kids walk with Jesus in college. Ideally, in their first week in college they will attend a Cru or Navigators or an RUF meeting. On their first Sunday, they will start searching for a church that teaches exegetically and preaches the Gospel of grace. Their first date will be with a solid Christian classmate. At their first party, they will say no to the keg-stand and will return home that night to talk about the balance of law and grace, as they sit around their dorm room with their new found Christian friends. Oh, the fantasies of Christian parents.

But here is reality. God does not adhere to our dreams. God has timelines that conform to his desire to be exalted in the maximum manner in the optimal season. Our children and students may find God after they receive their third DUI or while working on their PhD dissertation in evolutionary biology or at the Democratic National Convention. We must depend on the grace of God for the patience and faith to align with His timing.

An article, like this, which decries our impotence in ultimately determining the spiritual welfare of our children, often leads to fatalistic despair.  This absolutely should not be the case. If anything, seeing that only God can produce fruit should drive us to the foot of the Cross and to a life of fervent prayer.

For several years, I have journeyed with a family in the discipleship of their children. These parents model family discipleship as they have taught their kids the Word, prayed with them, taken them to church, etc. Their children have wandered spiritually through high school, college and young adulthood. I have watched the mother move from panic to calm largely due to a fervent prayer life. In one of their children it appears that God- in a mystical yet palpable way- is using the random circumstances of his life to draw the kid to Himself. I feel as if I am watching the fruit of faithful prayer at work before my eyes. The Lord undoubtedly pours down grace on our children and students in response to our prayers.

Going Forward
I plan to continue to pursue ministry, where we preach grace and cultivate a deep, biblical belief system in students. We will help students transition to college and will equip them for a devotional life. And, it never hurts to be reminded in the midst of our best intentions that all hope centers on the generosity and sovereignty of God.  

Cameron Cole serves the Director of Youth Ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL. He is the chairman of Rooted: Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry, which holds its next conference, Hope in a Time of Suffering, in Atlanta October 10-12, 2013.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Are We Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater on Fun in Youth Ministry?

In our efforts to critique youth ministry and move towards reform, such that ministry to kids is more grounded in the Gospel and discipleship, can we "throw the baby out with the bathwater" when it comes to fun? Mike McGarry at Emmanual Baptist Church in Norfolk, MA, a respected friend of Rooted, had a great analysis and clarification on the tension between "fun" and being Gospel-centered on his blog, "crosswalk."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Letter to Friends of Rooted

Dear Friends of Rooted,
First let me thank you for your participation in our movement. I wanted to update you on some of the exciting things coming soon for Rooted.

·      Rooted is gearing up for a total makeover. We will have a new website which integrates the blog and the other content of the ministry into one place. The look and feel will be fresh, and, more importantly, we graduate from Blogger! Our new home at will go live in the next 3-4 weeks.

·      On April 8-10, Rooted will take its act to the Gospel Coalition National Conference in Orlando. Two Rooted steering committee members, Josh Cousineau of Redemption Hill in Auburn, ME and Dave Wright of the Diocese of South Carolina, will present workshops. Josh’s workshop is entitled, “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: Building on Jesus not the Jokes.”  Dave will speak on “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: Jesus' Mission to the Next Generation.”

·      Will you be attending the Gospel Coalition Conference? Come by our booth and meet us. Rooted will be a “vendor” at the event (we aren’t selling anything). We would like to know you personally.

·      Our next Rooted Conference takes place in Atlanta on October 10-12, 2013. We are very excited about our speakers, Jared Wilson, Sharon Hersh, and David Plant. The theme, Hope in a Time of Suffering, has great relevance for ministry to a generation of students, which have suffered greatly.  Right now, you can register very cheaply ($100) for this conference at Prices will go up in mid-April.

Please reach out to us if we can help and support you in anchoring your ministry more deeply in the Good News that the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross is utterly complete.

Kind Regards,

The Steering Committee of Rooted: Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Only Foundation for Youth Ministry

Rooted steering committee member, Josh Cousineau, authored this article on the Gospel Coalition blog. Josh will be leading a workshop at the Gospel Coalition Conference in April about Gospel-centered youth ministry. Rooted will have a booth at this show, as well. If you have an interest in grace-driven ministry, please come see us at the show to learn more about our ministry, about our next conference, and about how you can join the movement.

I remember sitting in the auditorium at the 2009 Gospel Coalition National Conference in Chicago. A session had just finished; we had been shown the glories of Jesus and how he is the only hope and foundation for our ministry. My heart was full, and I was glad that God had called me to minister to students. The two guys who came with me to the conference digested the content as they considered how to apply it not only to our own lives, but also to the students we served back home at church. . . .(Link)

Josh Cousineau serves as the pastor of Redemption Hill Community. He previously served as youth pastor at East Auburn Baptist Church. Josh leads the Gospel Alliance, a network of pastors committed to the Gospel in New England. And if you can't tell, he's also really awesome.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The World's Half-Truth's For Teens Pt.5: "I Am Generally Good"

Several years ago, I received a rap on my door at 6:00AM. A sheriff stood on the porch and yelled in my half-asleep face, “Come on out and see what you did last night.” I had taught a Bible study the night before at a local Starbucks and gone to bed at 10:00PM, so I was confused at his proclamation. He pointed out that my car was on top of the base of a mailbox, and the mailbox itself was three feet from its foundation. The Sherriff then accused me of drunk driving. (After three minutes of common sense investigation, we all saw that my bumper was dented and someone had done a “hit and run” on my car, knocking it on top of a mailbox.)

In those moments where my integrity was challenged, I immediately started to justify in my head how good of a person I considered myself. “I am a youth minister; I teach Bible studies; I’ve never been arrested; I’m nice; I tithe; I didn’t drink until I was twenty-one; I’ve never smoked a cigarette. I waited until marriage, by darn…trump that!” Even though I preach the depth of human sin and theologically include myself in that category, deep down inside in that moment of being challenged, the dirty truth, that I really think that I’m a “good person” based on my merit, came to the surface. 

“I’m a good person; it’s not like I’ve killed anyone.” We all probably have heard this one before from a teenager. Helping teenagers understand their sinfulness may constitute the biggest challenge a youth pastor faces, given the humanist sentiments in the world today. The idea of human goodness is a lie. It’s why we all lock our doors at night, and we don’t leave cash on our dashboard.

In truth, man can become good, but the biblical means, by which this occurs, differ drastically from the secular conception. And if teens embrace the secular sense and means of achieving goodness, they will be set up for a life of either misery, denial, or both.

Where is this true?
The incredible reality of the Gospel is that through saving faith in Christ, in the forensic sense, believers become righteous. This means that God imputes all of the “goodness” that Christ earned in his life to a believer. So, in a biblical sense, believers become “good.” It’s not just that our sins are forgiven; imputation means that believers become perfectly righteous in God’s eyes through imputation. However, this goodness comes through saving faith and God’s generosity. Not one ounce- an utter and complete zero percent- originates within us.

Where is this false?
The world’s conception of human goodness comes through the merits of a person’s actions or mainly through the absence of atrocities. Teens, convinced of their moral adequacy, will justify their goodness by pointing out that they don’t do hard drugs, make racist remarks, or commit acts of violence. Meanwhile, they may point to acts of charity, kindness to other, or community service as further proof of their righteous. (Let’s be honest, in our sober moments, we all think we’re pretty darn good. I know how deluded I am, deep down inside.) They fail to understand that to be good in God’s eyes requires one to be completely perfect. Imperfection equals badness. Period. Man can gain no righteousness by his or her own efforts. They look internally for goodness, rather than externally.

What’s the problem?
Buying the lie that we are good or can become good out of our merits is a miserable place to live. It’s a life of intense pressure. This belief requires that a person try very, very hard all of the time to be perfect to maintain this good. The alternative is to live in utter denial as one tries to somehow justify his or herself in comparison to others, rationalize their sins, or overlook them altogether.
Not challenging kids presupposed belief in their inherent goodness sets them up for burden or denial, neither or which is…..good. Pointing them to the goodness that comes externally from God through imputation sets them free.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Why Kids Abandon the Church (audio)

In the following audio recording, Cameron Cole offers parents explanations of why students abandon the church and how grace-driven ministry seeks to foster life-long disciples of Jesus.

Link: Why Kids Abandon the Church

Cameron Cole is the chairman of Rooted: Advancing Grace-Driven Ministry and serves as the director of youth ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

A True, Radical And More Than A Little Scatalogical Story About Forgiveness

the following post is from the blog Mockingbird which is is a ministry that seeks to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in fresh and down-to-earth ways. We do this primarily, but not exclusively, via publications, conferences, and online resources.

Whenever I’m in need of inspiration for a sermon, I re-read Judgment and Love – it contains the exact sort of true stories of forgiveness and its life-altering impact that always translate well in the pulpit. This past week I heard a doozy of a new one – this actually happened (ht Will Kulseth):

At a boarding school for troubled teens in upstate NY, something terrible happened. Someone defecated in a trash can, and then smeared the contents all over the walls of one of the living rooms. 

An assembly was called, and the headmaster, after voicing how upset he was about the incident, told the group that they were now going to sit there and wait for a confession. They sat for a long fifteen minutes, and then a student said: “I know who did it, and if he doesn’t confess soon, I’m going to tell on him.”
Finally a boy stood up and came forward. He said, “I did it”, not all that apologetically.
In perfect Luke-15-”While-he-was-still-far-off” fashion, the headmaster embraced the boy. He said: “Son, I’m proud of you for coming forward, and I want to tell you something very important: you are forgiven.”
He dismissed the assembly, and led the culprit with him back to the scene of the incident, where he had the boy sit in a chair facing the soiled wall. Then the principle cleaned up the mess by himself, while the boy sat there watching. 

written by John Zahl 2:43 pm

Monday, February 25, 2013

The World's Half-Truths for Teens Pt.4: God Wants You to Be Happy

Right in the middle of my talk on the exclusivity of Christ, a hand went up in the back of the room.  “Yes?” I asked.  The young man cleared his throat.  “How can you say that Jesus is the only way to heaven?  I mean, what about all the other billions of people around the world—are they going to hell simply because they don’t believe what you believe?

I started to answer his question when I realized that he had lots of questions.  I asked him if he could stay after the meeting.  He agreed.  As the other youth were filing out of the back door, I made a beeline for my examiner.  Among the many topics we covered during that conversation, one struck me.  I asked him, “What’s your ultimate goal in life?”  His answer (like most Americans would probably respond): “To be happy.”

As I reflected on his answer, I have come to realize that it’s a half-truth.  God does want me to be happy—in him.  It sounds like something from John Piper…and the Bible.  As Piper quips, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  Many students see happiness and church-life as exclusive realities; happiness comes as a result of entertainment, not God, right?

The “I’m-bored” phenomenon plastered all over Facebook and Twitter suggests that teens are often living between one pleasure-high to the next.  In between Justin Bieber’s swoosh and the latest iPhone game lays the black hole of boredom.  The joy of serving others is lost in the sea of narcissism, which has led to a culture of depressed, self-centered, and unhappy teens.

Ironically, the endless stream of entertainment has not brought happiness or joy to the ever-wandering heart of the American teen.  Instead, it’s led to loneliness, disillusionment, and a sense of being let down.  As Ravi Zacharias has said, “The loneliest moment in life is when you have just experienced that which you thought would deliver the ultimate, and it has let you down.”

But in God’s presence there is fullness of joy; in his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).  God wants his children to be happy, joy-filled disciples of Jesus.  But make no mistake: the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the foundation and fuel for happiness in him.  That reality that you are chosen in Christ, born again by the power of the Spirit, justified in the sight of God, and adopted into his covenant family, ushers the unhappy to see the majesty of our gracious God.  That God is self-sufficient—complete in himself from all eternity—and therefore without need of you or me or any celebrity, draws the unhappy, self-centered teen, again, to see the majesty of our gracious God.  Such majesty cannot but make the redeemed heart long for his fame and glory—bringing with it a sense of satisfaction; indeed, happiness.

As St. Augustine once taught about the dangers of dis-ordered love, the same can be said of dis-ordered happiness.  If we seek first the happiness in the creature, we will never know that happiness which we seek.  But if we seek first the happiness in the Creator, we will know the fullness of joy.

While the young man I talked with wanted “to be happy,” his quest for happiness was too small.  He was, as C. S. Lewis said, “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”  God is supremely happy in Himself and, by grace, offers the teenage soul happiness in Him through Christ our Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The black hole of boredom explodes with “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).  It is there that the self-centered, unhappy heart vanishes.  God wants you happy; don’t pursue lesser loves. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

We All Need Jesus: That’s Why Youth Group Isn’t A Replacement for Corporate Worship

In one sense, what we do as youth ministers is unique in the world of church ministry.  Our job definitely includes some of the most fun - and perhaps, also, the most heartbreak.

But in another sense, our calling isn’t intrinsically different than that of any other minister.  We are all called to shepherd the’s just that our flock is going through puberty and will eventually leave the confines of our specified fold when they graduate from junior high or senior high.

And perhaps it’s stating the obvious, but whatever our age, what all sheep need most is to be pointed to their True Shepherd, Christ Jesus the Lord.  He is the one in whom we are filled, and he’s the one in whom the fullness of God is found (Col 2:9-10). 

Not surprisingly then, according to Paul’s plea in Colossians 2:6-7, all Christians are called to “walk in [Jesus], rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

The the assumption Paul makes in this verse is that all Christians are being taught to walk in Jesus.  The means by which we do this with the youth (as others have writtenmore extensively about, such as Brian Cosby) are nothing less than the means God gave all Christians: Scripture, true Christian fellowship, the sacraments, and prayer. 

By faith the Spirit uses these means to graciously expose our sin, confirm our dependence on Jesus, and to remind us of our hope in forgiveness, redemption, and new creation.

Youth group provides one context within which to employ the means of grace in a targeted way to the youth.  But the means of grace remain the practices that are to define our worship as the local church - both young and old, men and women together.  As such, corporate worship remains an essential part--perhaps even the most important part--of our discipleship with the youth.

The beauty of corporate worship in the local congregation is that it provides the opportunity to weave together all the means of grace into one full-bodied experience in all our local diversity.  In fellowship together we read, meditate on, and preach from Scripture; we pray together in thanksgiving, with confession, and for one another; and we celebrate the sacraments as members of God’s family.

To segregate our youth from corporate worship or somehow treat them as if they need something different than the rest of the congregation seems to deny the sufficiency of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the means He’s given to feed and protect his sheep. 

Moreover, it implies that the youth are not yet full members of the family of God and must wait until they are older to fully participate in the ministries of the church.  Yet the reality is that any who are in Christ--whatever the age--remain a full member in the family of God.

So may we, as youth ministers, continue to encourage, equip and enable our youth to fully join in the corporate worship of the local churches in which we serve.  After all, the reality is that what the youth need is what we all need: more of Jesus.

Mark Howard is the Youth Director and Assistant to Pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Covington, GA. Mark has a Masters in Theology from Wheaton College Graduate School