More than two centuries ago, John Newton wrote the classic hymn “Amazing Grace” to honor God for rescuing him from a monstrous life in the slave trade. He’d spent much of his adult life herding panicked and desperate Africans onto the slave ship he captained, then selling them to wealthy landowners in America. So when he penned “saved a wretch like me,” he wasn’t kidding. Newton knew God had snatched him from evil and darkness and despair—his “Amazing Grace” lyrics are unabashedly desperate.
Contrast Newton’s take on grace with the average North American adult or teenager who’s singing the lyrics to this hymn in church. How many of us really identify ourselves as “wretches” when we sing the iconic chorus? Do I honestly think of myself as “a miserable person: one who is profoundly unhappy or in great misfortune” or a “base, despicable, or vile person”? Well, yes, sometimes… But here’s what is indisputable: the direct tie between our appreciation of grace’s magnitude and a gut-honest assessment of our wretchedness.
Do we need God’s grace as much as Newton’s bare-faced confession shows he did? More likely, if we were to translate Newton’s lyrics to accurately reflect what we really think, we’d sing: “Expected grace, how innocuous the sound, that gave a friendly nudge to a pretty good person like me.”
This is no great surprise—we live in the most affluent, excessive culture in the history of the world. Most of us aren’t in danger or want on a daily basis. And most of us have a pretty high opinion of ourselves, even when it’s subtly cloaked in knee-jerk humility or dismissiveness. So why go to God for grace when we don’t experience a real need for it?
I love something Steve Fitzhugh once said—he’s a former NFL player who now directs an after-school youth center in Washington, D.C. Fitzhugh had returned from a speaking trip to Africa, where a local pastor in Zimbabwe had left him with this: “Steve, in America you believe in God. In Africa, we depend on God.”
What a dart to the heart!
Dependence is the key to pretty much everything in our relationship with Jesus. We were made, at our core, to be dependent on God. But our Great Temptation is dependence on self. Of course, we can’t manufacture dependence—that’s exactly the problem we face in our life and in our ministry. How do we move more deeply into a dependent relationship with God, or invite students into one, when we live in a cultural environment that makes desperation a last resort?
•Study the price tag. What made The Passion of the Christ such a sledgehammer of a film? Mel Gibson had the courage to show (not tell) us the price tag for our redemption. Most of us think of sin as something we shouldn’t do, so we will ourselves to overcome it and try to teach students to do the same. But our addiction to willpower exposes our undercover commitment to live outside of the necessity of grace. Instead, what if we framed sin as our willful disregard of God? What if we stopped talking about trying harder and focused, instead, on the sound of the lash on Jesus’ back?
• Teach about the “hard” Jesus. Kids relate to Jesus as a nice, sheep-lugging, baby-kissing, hair-tousling kind of guy because we often gloss over his ferocity, which is on display everywhere in the Gospels. What about the Jesus who made the price of discipleship unbelievably steep for the rich young ruler in Luke 18, or the Jesus who called the religious leaders of his day “whitewashed tombs” and “snakes” in Matthew 23 (likely as offensive to them as any four-letter word is to us today)? Jesus was a difficult person—a lot of people were uncomfortable in his presence and scandalized by things he said and did. C.S. Lewis used fantasy (the character of Aslan in the Narnia stories) as a strategy to reintroduce Jesus to people who thought he was merely nice. Our goal must be the same—to reintroduce the real Jesus to our kids. My friend Ned once told me there’s a progression to the Christian life: The more you know Jesus, the more you love him. The more you love him, the more you want to follow him. The more you follow him, the more you become like him. The more you become like him, the more you become yourself.
• Find ways to place ourselves, and students, in God-dependent situations. We’re nudged toward dependence on God when we’re placed in dependent circumstances. Way back when my hair was still brown (ish), I was in an international training school to learn how to be a cross-cultural street evangelist. One night in Sicily during an outreach event, a woman came screaming into our midst, apparently possessed by a demon. There was no time to flip through the manual at that point—I and my other wide-eyed missionary friends had to trust that God would show us what to do as we were doing it.
In practical terms, “as we’re doing it ministry” means scaring ourselves and our kids—in a good way. It means we plunge into risks that are put before us by God’s Spirit. In terms of student ministry, it might mean that we ask kids to lead something that we would normally lead, or serve in a setting that’s far outside their comfort zone, or reach out to people whose problems are beyond their ability to solve, or introduce others to the real Jesus.
In short, our path to dependence follows the trail Peter blazed—we (and teenagers) listen when Jesus calls and get out of our “boat” to walk on water to him. If we do this often enough, we’ll have no doubt of our “wretchedness,” and we’ll have no misconceptions about God’s grace.
I recently crossed paths with a student who had moved away and was attending a new student ministry. I asked him how he liked his new youth pastor and he gave me an interesting answer. “I like him a lot but he’s not like you. He doesn’t make us KNOW the Bible.” I found that strange. What youth worker wouldn’t want you to know the Bible? He said, “You know, he doesn’t make us know where Scriptures are and make us look it up like you do.” My shock made it impossible to contain my next question, “You miss that?” “Well, yeah.”
You see, I have a policy that I spout every time I stand in front of a group of students to teach the Bible.
1) Everyone MUST have a Bible to do Bible study.
If you don’t have one, we will give you one right now. And then, I don’t start anything until everyone in the entire room has some form of a Bible in their hand. After a few weeks, the students either download a Bible app, start bringing a Bible (sometimes even the big dusty one they found on their parents’ bookshelf), or pick one up from our ministry stash on the way into the room. I don’t care if every verse I use is beautifully written out on my cool, moving-background PowerPoint, I want everyone in that room to have a tangible Bible in their hand. You see, I’m not so arrogant as to think that God can only use the verses I’m teaching to speak to these students. This may be the one time this week or this lifetime that this kid has a Bible in his hands and I want to give him every chance I can to feel the Spirit’s prompting through God’s powerful Word even if he’s choosing to read the Song of Solomon instead of listening to what I have to say. I know that God’s Word never returns void.
2) Everyone is allowed to challenge what I teach as long as it can be backed up with Scripture.
In the beginning, students are mostly annoyed with me stopping their well-thought-out opinion with the question, “And where can I find that in the Bible?” “Uh, it’s in there; I heard the preacher say it.” “You don’t know where? Then I don’t have to believe what you say is true. In Bible study, the Bible is the only truth.” A few of these confrontations and students start coming to Bible study armed for battle. They know that I am going to challenge everything they say, so they come ready to back up their opinions with Scripture. They search for discrepancies in what I’m teaching; they want to catch me taking something out of context; they follow their natural instinct to prove the grown-up wrong; and God takes them on a journey that transforms some of them into Bible scholars who know how to find what they need.
So don’t let your students get away with sitting in the back of the room enduring the reading of Scripture every week. Give them a Bible and design your times together in a way that forces them to participate. My teenage friend confirmed what I have believed for years: Students want to think. They want to figure it out, they want to decide if this Jesus stuff is true, and they want to be challenged.
I don’t apologize for ignoring the laments of countless students (and some youth workers) when I refuse to start teaching until I know everyone has a Bible. The reward comes on the days when a student looks me in the eye and quotes a verse that adds to or contests what I am teaching. It confirms to me that a student’s life will forever be changed by the knowledge of God’s Word.
In the summer between fifth and sixth grades, my parents took me to a Pat Boone concert. For the uninitiated, Pat Boone is what you might call a “crooner”—amazingly popular with women whose hair-color preference is tinted-blue. For a pre-teen, this two-hour excursion was akin to a week at Guantanamo Bay. I believe my parents were trying to torture me—I know this because, not long after that concert, they took me to a back-to-school sale and bought me lavender bellbottoms and a purple terry cloth shirt with white drawstrings. I wore the whole ensemble to my first day of school the next week.
I remember getting into a lot of fights at school.
But here’s the crucial thing: At the end of his concert, Mr. Boone gave an altar call, because he’s also a no-holds-barred believer. And, inexplicably, I couldn’t stop crying as he made his invitation. So, painfully shy as I was, I stood up in front of several thousand strangers (it seemed like several million) and made the three-minute hike down through the grandstands to the side of the stage. There, a kindly elderly man prayed with me to receive Jesus as my Lord and Savior. Now, 40 years later, I’ve spent my entire adult life in ministry. And it’s all been possible because of that one teary moment of passion at the feet of Mr. White-Buck-Shoes.
Well, not exactly…
Just like the several hundred Christian college students who responded to a GROUP Magazine survey about their faith journey, my conversion experience represents only a tiny sliver of my evangelistic journey as a disciple…
• In middle school my family continued to attend a mainline church, where I finally decided to start listening to what the pastor was trying to say instead of daydreaming and watching the clock.
• In high school I connected to a church youth group in an evangelical church for the first time, and learned my faith had a reasonable foundation.
• As a freshman in college, I was suddenly stricken with a life-threatening illness around the same time I hooked up with some charismatic Christians–they prayed for a release of the Holy Spirit in me. For the first time, I had an insatiable hunger to read God’s Word, and my relationship with Jesus became an every-moment reality.
• Right after college I was asked to teach a Sunday school class at a mega-church, and I learned how to defend my faith and draw others into a love relationship with God. I used a concordance and a Greek dictionary for the first time and devoured C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Malcolm Muggeridge, Elisabeth Elliot, and others.
• As a late twentysomething I attended a Catholic church for a season, drawn in by the beauty of its liturgical traditions and its embracing of mystery in my relationship with God.
My story is a pretty fair example of two truths we uncovered in our big survey of college students…
1. Family ministry is the key to evangelism.Most people in America come to Christ because their parents brought them to church regularly when they were young. Parents are, by far, the best evangelizers. This is the REASON that justifies spending an inordinate amount of time connecting with, supporting, and even discipling parents. If you knew you had a powerhouse team of evangelizers right under your nose, wouldn’t you find ways to fuel their fire?
2. Teenagers need “recommitment experiences” like rockets need boosters, and youth workers are key to those experiences.Mission trips where kids do something in the name of Jesus, crisis experiences where kids learn they deeply need Jesus, big events where kids are asked to choose for Jesus, camping experiences where kids learn the power and necessity of a faith community, and teaching where kids experience and talk about their faith—not just listen to the mechanics of it—are all crucial to long-term Christian growth.
Caging evangelistic impact inside a moment-in-time conversion is like reading only the introduction to a great novel. ◊
Rick Lawrence has been editor of GROUP Magazine for 25 years, and he’s author of Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry and 99 Thoughts On Jesus-Centered Living. He’s on Twitter @RickSkip, and you can email him at email@example.com