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Whiteboard Wednesday: The False Gospel of “Try Harder to Get Better”

In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday experiment, I make the case that the heart is more important than the head in youth ministry because Jesus said so…


With all the controversy swirling around the suicide-themed Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, we’re focused (again) on the impact of the powerful cultural messages teenagers soak in every day. It’s sobering to realize how these messages are leveraging how kids make sense of life, God, others, and themselves. If we’re going to have a shot at gaining a foothold for the gospel in teenagers’ lives, we’d better come at them with a “shock and awe” strategy that rivets their attention and overshadows these corrupting and forceful influences. So, what is our chosen strategy—our “big stick”? I think it’s something like this:

“Try harder to get better.”

Or maybe:

Understand and apply God’s principles for better living.”

This “try harder” and “understand and apply” imperative is central to almost everything we say and do in the church. We’ve reduced ourselves to a defensive posture, pleading with kids to ignore their overwhelming environmental influences and adhere, instead, to our “better principles for better living” message. And when we do, we ignore and even negate the biblical goal of ministry, role-modeled by Jesus on a hillside near Capernaum: “You must eat my body and drink my blood if you want any part of me.” The goal of youth ministry is inviting teenagers into an intimate relationship with Jesus and then mentoring them into what it means to ABIDE in him. But that goal is juxtaposed with the current heavyweight champion: “understand and apply.”

I call this dichotomy between the two approaches “Application vs. Attachment.”

And if we continue down the “application” road, the church will lose its voice in the culture. In so many ways, it’s already been reduced to a whisper. “Attachment” is the only way forward, and it’s also a far more biblically true path. Jesus had little interest in understand-and-apply strategies, preferring instead to use botanical, gastronomical, and even sexual metaphors that are shocking in their implications and run counter in every way to popular theological mantras. The biblical call to discipleship, promoted and practiced by Jesus, is nothing like “try harder to do better.” It’s more like a scented love letter from our Beloved, who wants us to come to bed.

Listen to this episode of Paying Ridiculous to Attention on how to pray:


In our conventional understand-and-apply mentality, our central role is to answer kids’ questions with something like prophetic wisdom. We’re always on the hot seat, and we’re always feeling ill-equipped to wow kids with the sort of zinger-answers that C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton or Timothy Keller or Lee Strobel might reel off in the moment. The last time I felt as well-equipped as C.S. Lewis to answer teenagers’ unanswerable theological questions was…never. Urban youth ministry expert Leneita Fix shared this sampler of questions, asked one night by her small group of senior highers:

  • How do I know if someone is demon-possessed?
  • Why doesn’t my Jewish friend believe Jesus is the Messiah?
  • Don’t Jewish people believe Abraham is Satan?
  • In those paranormal-type movies, are ghosts and demons the same thing?
  • Why don’t we ever get to stop sinning?
  • Why does my Jehovah’s Witness friend make me feel like I’m the one who’s wrong?

Good luck with those, Leneita. When we accept our “answer-person” job description, we back ourselves into the corner of incapacity sooner or later. All of us will get crammed into that corner because “the right answers” have replaced “the right orientation,” and it’s literally impossible for any human being to respond well to the myriad environmental forces that are leveraging our teenagers. Frustration is a foregone conclusion, because we don’t have all the answers, and we have a pretty miserable record of teaching people to “apply” truths.

Real transformation, even in our own experience, most often happens differently from “understand and apply.” The engine of transformation is far more about “who I am” than “what I know.” And in contrast to relational experiences that shape our identity in Christ, the understand-and-apply heresy promotes two glaring fallacies:

  1. “Understand and apply” assumes that mere understanding leads to growth. If understanding alone were a true indicator of growth as a disciple, then Satan should step to the head of the class. He knew enough biblical truth to go toe-to-toe with Jesus in the wilderness. Understanding alone, it’s obvious, does not guarantee transformation. But this assertion nevertheless hangs on with the staying power of a cockroach in a nuclear holocaust. The disciples heard Jesus, lived with him, and watched him, but they hadn’t yet been transformed by him. One crucial step was left: to move from an outside influence to an inside influence. And that’s why the Holy Spirit is so necessary. The Spirit makes it possible for us to move from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus. This is knowing in the “biblical sense”—it’s our most intimate act.
  2. “Understand and apply” assumes that our growth in Christ is dependent on our ability, or willingness, to apply truth to our lives. Try this experiment the next time you’re listening to a pastor’s sermon: Count the number of times some version of “apply this to your life” is mentioned. Then ask yourself: “What’s the likelihood that most people sitting in this room will leave here and immediately begin applying these truths to their lives?” Or even more telling: “What’s the likelihood that most people in this room even understand how to apply the truths they just heard or have the willpower to consider applying them?”

Paul, in his old age and with the end of his life on the horizon, gave his protégé Timothy this bit of parting advice: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal” (2 Timothy 2:8-9, emphasis added). Paul was imprisoned because of his aggressive pursuit of Jesus, and Timothy had lived through beatings and shipwrecks and imprisonments with him—all for the glory and honor of Jesus. Why would Paul have to remind Timothy about Jesus? I think it was because he was humble enough to admit the truth: Everyone, including Paul, Timothy, John the Baptist, Peter, and the disciples…and now you and me…are notorious forgetters.

When Group Magazine asked more than 25,000 Christian teenagers what topic they were most interested in talking about with their youth leader or other adult ministry leader, their top response was: “Getting a better understanding of what Jesus really said and did, and how faith in him matters in my own life.” They’re already pointing us in the right direction…

By the Way: I’ve adapted much of this piece from my book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry. In it, you’ll find the blown-out case for ministry that’s focused on attachment, not application. And the back two-thirds of the book is all about ideas that will help you move your ministry in that direction.


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Whiteboard Wednesday: The False Gospe...

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