Once, while teaching a group of toddlers, my wife used an old blue suitcase to talk about Abram’s call from God to move to a new country. She talked about how Abram had to get his belongings together quickly and go where God was leading him. The toddlers were definitely transfixed by her object lesson, but she later discovered some of them completely missed her point. The kids told their parents that they’d talked about suitcases that day. Some of them could muster-up that it had something to do with Abram’s call from God, but others insisted the lesson was about an old blue suitcase.
So was my wife wrong to use the suitcase to illustrate a Bible story? No. But for some of the kids, the defining image of the suitcase overshadowed the Bible story it was supposed to illustrate. And, I suspect, most of us are blind to the many, many times we do the same thing in our youth ministries.
• Ever hear a riveting story in a sermon, but forget what the sermon was actually about?
• Ever rave about a funny or profound commercial, but can’t remember what it was promoting?
• Ever thought, “Wow, that’s an incredible video clip—I gotta see that movie,” but have no idea how it related to the Scripture passage it was illustrating?
• Ever been impressed with a speaker’s PowerPoint slides but couldn’t tell anyone what the talk was about soon afterward?
If you’re a typical youth worker, your 20-minute message might include four personal stories and three jokes. Your youth space might have a flat-screen TV, killer sound system, stage lighting, and even a coffee shop. The music you play is probably fast-paced and upbeat—no chance you’d risk something more, um, contemplative. Once in awhile you make a funny video to introduce the topic for the night or to make important announcements—you wonder if they noticed your reminder buried under their laughter. Maybe you spend 20 minutes playing a game that you’re hoping will illustrate your point, but spend only 30 seconds making the connection.
Nobody’s intending to overshadow the Gospel. In fact, I’ve never met a youth worker who’d disagree with Paul when he said: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16). The gospel is, of course, our hope of salvation—it’s central to everything we’re trying to teach our teenagers. But somehow, unconsciously, we’re convinced that its barren truths need a “spoonful of sugar” to help them go down.
FLASH AND DASH
Two things push us to enhance the gospel with a little flash—our fears and our insecurities. We fear that students won’t respond the way we want them to when they hear the gospel message, so we live under the shadow of that insecurity. And adding flash is similar to drug abuse—once you start using it, you need a bigger and bigger “hit” each time to get the same results. We subtly start focusing more of our time, energy, and resources on enhancing the gospel, and less of our efforts on actually sharing the gospel.
Flash subtly changes the focal point. The question we have to ask ourselves is simple: What do I want my students to remember? A quick way to check whether the message you intend is the message that’s received is to simply ask your teenagers about their “takeaway.” Is there a gap between your intention and their reality? Do they remember the cool video, the fun game, the heart-wrenching personal illustration, or the gospel message you presented?
Now, I’m not implying that we need to get rid of everything except our Bibles. Flash is often what makes youth ministry fun and relevant to teenagers. I’m saying we need to make a more courageous assessment of what’s really getting through to our kids. Here are a couple of questions that will help us do that:
• Where’s your focus? You’ll find the answer to this question by taking a simple inventory of money spent and time given. How much of your budget is spent on set design, giveaways, multimedia, and food? How much of your time is spent editing video, creating PowerPoint slides, brainstorming funny bits, and finding just the right YouTube clip?
• What’s your draw? When you tell students about your youth ministry, what do you always mention? Whatever comes out of your mouth first likely reveals your “draw.” Do you focus on your cool meeting space or your video game system? Or do you tell them about how God is changing students’ lives?
Just asking these two questions has nudged me away from the “creeping peripherals” in my ministry and toward a more central focus on the gospel.
SPOTLIGHTING THE GOSPEL
If you want something to get noticed—to stand out from the shadows—put a spotlight on it. This is exactly the thinking behind the way players are introduced at a pro basketball game. Because of the spotlight, you notice only individual players as they come on to the court—you don’t notice the coaches, the bench, the hoops, the fans, the referees, or even the basketball. These are all important components of a basketball game, but the spotlight edits what the fans pay attention to. And nobody complains at a basketball game because the chairs or the trainers are overshadowed—they came to see the players play. So, what does it mean to spotlight the gospel?
1. Live it out. Your example, more than any program or study or strategy, is the most profound way to spotlight the gospel for your students. Living out the gospel means loving the unlovely, being kind to those who are mean, refusing to defend yourself when it seems impossible to let something go, and seeking out those students to whom no one else will go. The more your kids see adults living out the gospel, the more they will understand what it means for them to do the same. Students need to see how Christians live out their faith when things are going well and when things are going terribly.
During a transition in my ministry, after it’d been announced that I’d be leaving in a few weeks, I tried to simply live out the Gospel in the midst of a sometimes-tense situation. My actions and words during this “gap time” spoke louder than any lesson I’d ever taught. Since that time, several students and adults have told me they saw things like integrity, kindness, grace, and trust lived out in my life, and they remember those “lessons” years later.
2. Reference the gospel in conversation and from the front. Everyone expects us to mention a few verses in our youth talks, but how often do they hear us use biblical references when it’s not expected? When you talk about an upcoming mission trip or service project, reference how the disciples served, and why. As a lead-in to prayer requests, tell them Jesus’ story about the “friend who needed three loaves” in Luke 11. No, we’re not talking about mini-sermons here—just natural, reasonable connections to the gospel. It’s about living and speaking the stories and truths of God’s Word intentionally.
I was walking the halls at a multi-school event, looking for students I knew, when a girl tapped me on the shoulder—I hadn’t seen her in a year. Her family had moved to another city and she’d stopped coming to our church. I asked about her relationship with her mom (it wasn’t the best). She shared that it was getting better, but still a struggle. I felt the nudge to make a connection to Scripture, so I told her that her struggle reminded me of what the Bible says about getting along with your parents.
3. Take your focus off the peripherals. One quick and effective way to turn the spotlight on the gospel is to point it away from the non-gospel aspects of your ministry. I don’t mean we eliminate the peripherals from our ministry—just that we spend much less time focusing on them. Talk more about your fascination with Jesus than your fascination with technology, for instance.
About a year into my ministry I started adding video elements to my high school Sunday school lessons to highlight what I was trying to teach. It worked well, but after a couple months I realized it was affecting the focus of the class. My teenagers were more focused on the videos than they were on the Scripture passage. After this realization, I treated media as a targeted strategy instead of a staple.
The gut-check is an honest answer to a hard question: Are you more fascinated with technology than with Jesus? Whatever we are impressed with in our life, we will naturally talk about. The quickest path to a deeper impression of Jesus is to slow down and pay better attention to what he says and does in the gospels. What would it feel like if he walked into your office, saying and doing the things you’re reading about?
Another way to move the spotlight off the peripherals in your ministry is to take regular breaks from them. We don’t have to have a cool video or a new game or a funny illustration every week. When we use these things as spice instead of the main course, our teenagers will know what our ministry is really all about.
4. Listen as an entrée to invitation. The more broadly and deeply you listen to your students, the more likely they are to invite you to spotlight the gospel in their life. And when you show a teenager that they matter enough to be listened to, you show them they matter to God.
I got into youth ministry because I wanted to minister to students, but my administrative responsibilities often intimidate me into cutting short the time it takes to really listen. I’ll never forget the day my wife and I met with an eighth-grade girl at her house. I was ready to leave, pressed by administrative tasks that were weighing on me, but we could sense she had something she wanted to share. So we stretched out our stay until she revealed she’d been cutting. This point of pain in her life was also an open door to “live the Gospel” with her.
When we spotlight the gospel, we ultimately spotlight the God who thought it up. And when people come face-to-face with God, they are forever changed!
Mike Kupferer is a longtime youth pastor in Ohio.