Every fall, youth groups all over the planet refocus for the new ministry year with kickoffs, events, retreats, and messy games. Youth workers with high hopes are eager to communicate the gospel to young people in their care. When all the activities are stripped away, however, our definitions of “gospel” often remain abstract.
Try this experiment: Ask your volunteers to offer words that describe the gospel. Chances are you’ll hear terms such as salvation, grace, forgiveness, love, and so on. Some people might even drop serious words such as justification, redemption, or propitiation.
Next, ask volunteers what good news looks like to a young person. Chances are you’ll hear responses such as “a good friend,” “my parents not fighting,” “feeling safe,” “a chance to start over,” “liking myself,” “for the pain to go away,” and so on. Some might even drop more serious phrases such as “to not throw up after meals,” “to not use sex to find the closeness I crave,” or “to not hate my dad.”
If “gospel” actually means good news, why do the answers to those two questions often seem amazingly distant? Could it be that we’ve lost the connection between God’s message and its relevance to teenagers’ lives? This doesn’t mean our descriptions of the gospel are wrong. Nor does it invalidate what good news looks like to young people. Instead, the challenge is to bring gospel and good news together, with one illuminating the other. An abstract gospel means nothing to teenagers seeking good news. So we need to serve as the “bridge over troubled water,” helping translate the gospel into areas of their lives in which they desperately need good news.
This isn’t some postmodern interpretation. Consider Matthew 25, where Jesus defines gospel from the perspectives of the hurting. Gospel is good news when we feed the hungry, welcome the homeless, support the poor, and care for the sick.
Good news is the tangible gospel. Any reference to gospel must have an up-close presence, or else it’s no gospel at all.Click to tweet
I often wonder if flashy programs, fun events, and messy games push the gospel away from what young people really seek and need. Our role is to hear and feel what good news is for each individual. This moves everyone—and entire ministries—closer to the essence of good news/gospel. This year, let’s have the courage to try that.
Steve Argue is Life Development Director at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and adjunct youth ministry professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He consults, writes, and researches on issues pertaining to adolescents and youth ministry.