How are your teenagers learning the gospel? Well, widespread reports about their biblical illiteracy pretty much rule out the Bible as a primary source. Their parents are often too busy, tired, and scattered to fit in gospel talk. And Sunday school? So many use curriculums that emphasize rote memorization or factual knowledge that’s divorced from life connection.

I think teenagers learn the gospel the same way the disciples did—from spending time with a person who lives it. And for your kids, that person is often you.

Not long ago we asked our online community of youth workers at Youthministry.com to tell us how they teach their teenagers about spiritual truths. Nearly 500 voted and “role modeling” was their #1 response. So what are your kids learning about the gospel from studying you? Or more to the point, what kind of gospel are they learning from you?

1. The false gospel of rubber guts. I think Christianity Today columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green has captured, skewered, and rotisseried a sacred cow that far too many of us are trying to milk. Namely a gospel founded on self-serving “vulnerability.” She writes

“I was once on a retreat for clergy families led by the pastor of a large metropolitan church who regularly announced he was ‘putting his guts out on the table’ and confessed to low self-esteem and generalized ‘brokenness.’ He never looked more cocky or confident than at those moments; those bursts of confession were, he knew, when his wide-eyed audience was in the palm of his hand….‘You know how novelty shops sell fake rubber “accidents” to “fool your friends”?’ I complained to my husband. ‘That guy’s got a set of rubber guts.’ “

Self-serving vulnerability—where we teach that God exists to make us feel better—may masquerade as the gospel in the short term, but the kids aren’t buying it. They’re looking for people who “love much”—and I’ve never met someone who loves much who wasn’t also “broken to pieces” by “the stone which the builders rejected” (Matthew 21:42-44). When you have nothing left to lose, there’s no reason to display your rubber guts.

2. The false gospel of earthly success. So much of what we teach teenagers about the gospel reduces God to a “really nice and influential guy” who wants to make our life on earth smoother, more successful, free from pain, and full of delights—a description that sounds a lot like heaven.

It’s easy to slip into this because we live in a culture that’s the closest thing to paradise the world has ever known. But with all our affluence, we’re still an unsatisfied, unfulfilled, restless, and depressed people.

The early followers of Christ lived life as if God was truly preparing a better place for them in heaven. I mean, they agreed with Paul when he wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). We’ve got too much promised earthly happiness on the line to consider death a gain.

Maybe that’s why we expect our faith role models to be people who are more successful than we are. Using that criteria, would the disciples qualify?

3. The false gospel of good works and improved moral character. Ask your kids for their definition of a “good Christian.” My guess is that at least three-quarters will describe someone who’s nice and does good things—like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. But Mother Teresa said: “Holiness does not consist in doing extraordinary things. It consists in accepting, with a smile, what Jesus sends us. It consists in accepting and following the will of God.” And Billy Graham said: “The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy but love. Christians are not limited to any church. The only question is: Are you committed to Christ?” If we make the gospel about doing nice things for others and building our moral character, we’re shooting way below the target.

4. The true gospel of “To whom shall we go?” My favorite gospel story is when Jesus tells the masses that they must “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” to gain eternal life, prompting many of his disciples to jump off his bandwagon. Jesus looks at those who remain—the 12 of his inner circle—and asks, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” And Simon Peter fires back: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69). If your kids learn this gospel from you, they’ll have learned the only gospel.

Rick Lawrence has been editor of GROUP Magazine (www.youthministry.com) for 18 years. You can reach him at rlawrence@group.com.

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