Jesus has high expectations of his followers. He requires total, “all-in” commitment from people who want to live for him. And he never promises that the road of faith will be easy; in fact, Jesus warns that the road is narrow and the costs are high. We must be willing to give our very lives for Jesus, just as he did for us.
That can be an intimidating message to share with teenagers. They have so many other obligations and commitments. How can they possibly be 100 percent, no-questions-asked devoted to Jesus? That’s where youth ministers come in. What a privilege and joy to show young people the earthly and eternal rewards of a complete commitment to Jesus Christ.
GROUP Magazine asked Christian teenagers to respond to an array of statements designed to get at their commitment level. Kids ranked each statement on a continuum from 1 to 10, with the bottom of the scale representing “not true of me” and the top of the scale representing “very true of me.” The statements are random-but-likely “markers” for an all-in commitment to Jesus; they’re more like a spot “taste-test.” The higher the average rating, the more kids affirmed this statement is “very true” for them. Conversely, the lower the average rating, the less the statement is true of them. A mid-point rating of “maybe/maybe not” would be somewhere near five. Statements are listed from highest to lowest average rating:
- 8.22 I’m absolutely sure I’ll stay connected to a church after I graduate from high school.
- 7.92 The Bible is the inerrant (no mistakes) and infallible (completely trustworthy) Word of God.
- 6.86 I’d be willing to spend a year of my life helping people who’ve never heard of Jesus to come to know him and grow in their relationship with him.
- 7.83 If adult ministry leaders who know me at church studied my Facebook or Instagram or Twitter account, they’d see no difference between the “church me” and the “no-church me.”
- 6.71 The Bible has had a huge influence on how I see the world and how I live my life.
- 6.63 I am a “fully committed” disciple of Jesus, not simply a Christian person.
- 6.34 My relationship with God will have a huge influence on my future career.
- 6.34 The people I most look up to in life are “all in” disciples of Jesus.
- 6.28 A person’s own relationship with God is a huge factor in whether or not I’d consider dating that person.
- 5.18 I often have “spiritual conversations” with people outside of church activities.
- 3.64 People who seem super-committed in their relationship with Jesus make me uncomfortable.
Impediments to All-In
GROUP Magazine also asked students about possible impediments in their journey toward a deeper commitment to Jesus. They’re listed in descending order of their average true/not-true responses:
- 7.0 I wish I knew a lot more about how to actually have a day-to-day relationship with Jesus that made a difference in my real life.
- 6.24 The greatest pressures I face are all somehow connected to relationships.
- 5.74 Christianity, in the end, is primarily about being a good person.
- 4.66 I have lots of doubts about my faith and often wonder if everything I say I believe is really true.
- 4.6 There are many things in The Bible (ym-pedia “the bible”) that I have a hard time believing.
- 3.32 Bad news happening around the world really undermines my faith in God.
- 2.02 I have experienced abuse—physical or sexual—in my life.
For his book The Jesus Survey, Mike Nappa conducted a survey of more than 800 Christian teenagers. One surprising discovery was that “Confident Christian Teenagers”—the 9 percent of youth group kids who buck the trend and express confident, consistent faith in four essential beliefs about Christ—are living a markedly different experience with God than their peers. Consider:
- Eighty-six percent (nearly nine out of 10) of Confident Christian Teenagers strongly agree with this statement: “I’m 100 percent certain that the Holy Spirit of Jesus is present and active in my life today—and I have proof that this is true.” Among all other Christian teenagers, barely half (52 percent) make the same claim. Put that statistical variance of 34 percentage points in the context of a presidential election, and you can quickly see how significant that difference is.
- Likewise, nearly all (94 percent) of Confident Christian Teenagers strongly agree with this statement: “I’m 100 percent certain Jesus has answered one or more of my prayers—and I can prove it.” Again, only about half of all other Christian teenagers (55 percent) say the same thing.
This data suggests a key commitment-related connection: “Right belief translates into real experience.”
If we’re half-hearted, our faith experience is limited. The gospel writers share some encounters that Jesus had with people who weren’t quite “all-in.”
In Mark 10:17-31, the rich young man wasn’t willing to give up everything he owned in order to follow Jesus. And in Luke 9:57-62, people wanted to tend to some earthly business first.
These Bible passages—and others—reveal key points about making a commitment to Jesus:
- Jesus doesn’t want half-hearted fans; he’s after all-in faith.
- Jesus can tell what’s holding people back from being all-in—and he directly challenges them on it.
- Jesus clarifies that obedience—not just appearing religious—is at the heart of all-in faith.
- There’s a “cost” to following Jesus: giving all of yourself, not just some.
- Being a Christian isn’t about saying a magic prayer of belief; it’s about following Jesus, no matter the cost.
Counting the Cost
Jesus’ followers were literally asked to risk it all. And it wasn’t for an exciting adventure like summiting a dangerous peak; it was the risk of being slandered, jailed, and executed.
Church history records that 10 of Jesus’ 11 disciples (including Judas’s replacement Matthias) were eventually put to death because of their faith. John wasn’t martyred, though he was tortured and exiled. Many, many Christians in the early church (especially during the first through fourth century) were executed for their faith.
The New Testament consistently emphasizes that the willingness to die for one’s faith is the ultimate character trait of a Christian. In Matthew 16:13-28, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, and then Jesus starts to talk about his own death. Jesus teaches that following him means carrying one’s own cross—the first-century equivalent of the electric chair!
In John 21:15-23, Jesus has a conversation with Simon Peter that reveals what loving and following Jesus requires:
After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.
Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”
“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.
“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”
This Bible passage reveals the following:
- Peter initially didn’t understand the cost of following Jesus (reference Matthew 16).
- Peter “failed” the test earlier; he repeatedly denied his faith in Jesus under public pressure (John 18).
- Now Peter has seen the brutality of Jesus’ death, the power of his Resurrection, and his faith is beginning to change.
- Jesus is asking for a love so devoted that it follows Jesus’ example even to the point of death.
- Jesus foretells Peter’s own eventual and horrific martyrdom (21:18-19). Church history records that Peter was executed by being crucified upside down.
- Faith means being willing to give up our lives for Jesus.
Another part of following Jesus wholeheartedly is denying ourselves. In Luke 9:24, Jesus says we have to lose our life to save it.
Jesus is saying we could spend our whole lives serving our distorted selves, and even if we gained the entire world, it would not be enough make us who we truly are. But through Christ we have a choice. The logical question is “What must we do?”
Jesus says we can die to our distorted selves by denying our “self.” And it’s clear this will be a daily journey, not a one-time commitment. But all journeys begin with a first step.
We each have a choice. We can live our lives the way we think is best, or we can let our distorted selves die on the cross of Christ (see Galatians 2:20) and trust Jesus that he’ll give us the new life that fuels our true identity.
You can’t “should” teenagers into an all-in relationship with Jesus, any more than you can “should” someone into marrying you. For true intimacy to grow in any relationship we have to be captured and consumed by our lover’s essence. For more on the danger of “shoulding” in youth ministry, check out Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry by Rick Lawrence.
Pastor and theologian N.T. Wright says,
The longer you look at Jesus, the more you will want to serve him. That is of course, if it’s the real Jesus you’re looking at.”
It’s “the real Jesus” whose gravitational pull is so strong that we can’t escape his orbit once we get close to him. Philosophy professor and C.S. Lewis scholar Dr. Peter Kreeft said:
Christ changed every human being he ever met… If anyone claims to have met him without being changed, he has not met him at all. When you touch him, you touch lightning…. The Greek word used to describe everyone’s reaction to him in the gospels is ‘thauma’—wonder. This was true of his enemies, who killed him. Of his disciples, who worshiped him. And even of agnostics, who went away shaking their heads and muttering ‘No man every spoke like this man’ and knowing that if he didn’t stop being what he was and saying what he said that eventually they would have to side with either his killers or his worshippers.”
In our conventional understand-and-apply mentality—the most prevalent ministry strategy in the church—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 Tim Keller or Lee Strobel might reel-off in the moment.
In a GROUP Magazine survey of Christian college students, we asked them to look back and identify the factors that caused them to grow and mature as followers of Christ. Their primary catalysts included:
- A crisis or a great struggle
- A camp or retreat experience
The common thread among these influences is that they’re all identity-forming forces rather than understand-and-apply forces. In contrast to relational experiences that shape our identity in Christ, the understand-and-apply heresy promotes two glaring fallacies:
- It assumes mere understanding leads to growth. If understanding alone was 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. 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.
- It assumes 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 life?” 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?”
Jesus described the people of God as sheep for good reason—they’re not exactly quick of mind, if you know what I mean… The sheep don’t need a better understanding of how to avoid getting eaten by wolves—they need a deeper trust in and obedience to their Shepherd, who will look out for them and defend them and rescue them.
What questions can you ask your students to peel back the veneer of their experience in your ministry? How can you gauge their commitment to Jesus? Here are a few questions to get started:
- Are you feeling challenged?
- Are you coming, primarily, for free food and friends?
- Do you know what Jesus wants for your life?
- Have you grown closer to Jesus this past year?
- What’s causing you pain or forcing you to change something in your life?
Listening well to a student requires a deeper-than-normal awareness—paying attention to what happens between the words and hearing what their body language, expressions, and behavior are trying to convey.
Making changes based on students’ feedback leads to an assault on stagnation. It’s hard for stagnation to set in on a ministry that’s always moving.