As Jesus interacted with people during his earthly ministry, he often asked them to “follow me.” But he didn’t call them to follow a trend or a list of rules. Instead, he asked his disciples to follow him—and that involves a relationship, a friendship.
Many young people need a “tipping point” that spurs them to follow Jesus, and that experience often occurs through involvement with youth ministry. Because following Jesus isn’t a one-and-done occurrence, though, we must keep guiding students through the highs and lows of what it means to truly follow Jesus.
As a GROUP Magazine survey reveals, teenagers have a range of thoughts about that topic. Here are their responses to some interesting questions:
- It’s not so bad when people say they’re followers of Jesus when they’re at church but sort of put that aside in their everyday life.
- I’ve met a lot of people who seem more interesting to me than Jesus does.
- People can take their relationship with Jesus too seriously.
When Colorado pastor Tom Melton preached a sermon titled “An Absolute Jesus in a World of Relativism,” his point was to highlight how Jesus—because he’s so specifically a person and not an idea, symbol, concept, or slogan—is offensive to the sensibilities of a culture that despises exclusionary clauses in its “religions.” This Jesus said, over and over, that he not only knew the way of truth, he was the way itself. The only way.
Melton described one of his outreach trips to Cuba—when he got lost in the middle of Havana and his beginner’s Spanish left him helpless to communicate. Finally, the stranger who’d been trying to give him directions back to his hotel gave up and said, “I am the way back to your hotel—I’ll take you there.” Yes, Jesus is pointing teenagers in the right direction, but many of them remain confused. They need more than directions. They need Jesus—the way itself, not simply a guide.
But a merely nice Jesus is no Jesus at all—and it’s impossible to have an intimate relationship with a person who doesn’t really exist, with a fake Jesus. In his foreword to Jesus Mean and Wild, Eugene Peterson writes:
Every omitted detail of Jesus, so carefully conveyed to us by the Gospel writers, reduces Jesus. We need the whole Jesus. The complete Jesus. Everything he said. Every detail of what he did.” 
And the reason we need the “complete Jesus” is that our false caricatures have relegated him to the wallpaper of our lives. Because we have nice-ified him, he’s not all that interesting to us. We habitually diminish Jesus from shocking to average. Author and academic Peter Kreeft explored the singular attraction of Jesus in a lecture he gave several years ago at Boston College, which later was posted on social media and went viral. Here’s an excerpt from “Shocking Beauty:”
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… I think Jesus is the only man in history who never bored anyone. I think this an empirical fact, not just a truth of faith. It’s one of the reasons for believing his central claim, and Christianity’s central claim, that he is literally God in the flesh…
“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 ever 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… I think boredom is one of our major psychological problems today, though few of our experts acknowledge this…We all know the harm that boredom does if we have kids. The… most effective way to make kids behave is to keep them interested…
“So, if we’re to have any hope of improving their behavior, we first of all have to get their attention…Don’t we know what’s going in church? Don’t we know that we’re attending a meeting of spies plotting a revolution against the prince of this world? Why are we bored? What’s missing? Those who meet Jesus always experience either joy or its opposites—either foretastes of heaven or foretastes of hell. Not everyone who meets Jesus is pleased, and not everyone is happy. But everyone is shocked. Preaching is usually boring…But Jesus seldom preaches. What does he do instead? He dances. Ultimately he dances on his own grave.”
If the Jesus you’re trying to know and follow is more like an adult version of Barney, the cuddly children’s show dinosaur, than “the lion of the tribe of Judah” or the “shocking” person that Kreeft is describing, your connection to him will devolve into a compartmentalized transaction, not a real relationship with a real person. The false Jesus of our conventional narratives—our Fifty-Shades-of-Nice Jesus—arouses no passion in us. Our latent passivity toward him is a natural result of the milquetoast descriptions we’ve embraced about him and the tips-and-techniques bastardizations of the things he said and did.
And a declawed Jesus doesn’t seem strong and fierce and big enough to walk with us into the fiery furnaces of everyday life. We’re all facing big challenges and struggles, and we’re looking for someone or something to help us overcome or give us the courage we need to survive the blows we’ve endured and the difficult situations we must find our way through. The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon is a nice, likeable, relentlessly upbeat guy—he’d be No. 1 on your dream birthday-party list. But you wouldn’t choose him as your “wingman” if you were walking into a dark alley in a bad part of town. “Nice Jesus” isn’t hard enough or tough enough or fierce enough to journey with us into our own dark alleys of life—and that’s exactly why we need to have a deeper, more real experience of him. If the only Jesus we’ve experienced in the church is a cardigan-wearing, lullaby-loving Mr. Rogers knockoff, then we’ll naturally go all-in with “lesser gods” that promise better results in the real world.
 Eugene Peterson, from the foreword for Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God by Mark Galli (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), 11.
So, what does it mean to go “all-in” in our relationship with Jesus? The clearest biblical translation is an encounter between Jesus and a crowd of thousands, recorded in John 6. It’s 2,000 years ago on a lonely Capernaum beachfront. A massive gathering of fanatics has shown up to hear the rock-star Jesus—they’re captured by his miracles, healings, and teachings. And on this day Jesus tells them something that, at first, seems confusing—but then it dawns on them that he must be insane. Jesus tells them, nine times in a row, that they must “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood” or they’ll have “no life in yourselves.” They ask for clarification, but Jesus simply repeats himself, over and over. And they’re quickly disgusted and disoriented enough to escape him en masse.
Thousands of boisterous Mediterranean people retreating in a massive, noisy rush? That likely sounded like an elephant stampede, with all those sandaled feet kicking up a towering dust cloud. And after the chaos and noise from their retreat has died down, Jesus looks at his core 12 disciples—also likely disgusted and disoriented by his inscrutable proclamation—and asks this incredible question: “You do not want to go away also, do you?” It’s maybe the most vulnerable question ever asked, because it’s God asking it. And, here, Peter steps to the plate and answers like an all-in disciple: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Peter, like the masses who’ve just stampeded from Capernaum, scrambling to get away from the half-insane Jesus, would likely escape him if he could. But he just can’t. He likely doesn’t understand what Jesus has just said any better than the angry crowd that has rejected him. But Peter so identifies himself with Jesus that he can’t imagine leaving him. Peter is all-in, and this is exactly the kind of relationship Jesus is longing for. When we so identify ourselves with Jesus that we can’t imagine leaving him, then we’re all-in.
Remember that Paul, one of the great all-ins of all time—also one of the greatest thinkers and certainly the greatest apologist in history—describes his orientation to Jesus this way: “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). What does he mean by “know nothing”? He is, of course, using hyperbole to emphasize his passion—to spend his energy and his intellect and his emotional capabilities to know Jesus. He’s not interested in facts and trivia and “right answers” about Jesus. Paul wants to know him the way you know your best friends or, even more accurately, your lover—inside-out. Paul wants to know him so well that he can finish his sentences.
But most of us have bought into a flawed strategy for spiritual maturity that produces caution, not abandonment. It’s called the “understand and apply” strategy, and it’s the preferred spiritual growth imperative of most evangelical churches in the Western world, and the go-to sermon outline for most pastors. It assumes people grow deeper in their faith when they understand biblical principles and apply them to their lives. But “understand and apply” has proven to be a marginal strategy, at best, and has weak biblical support. Jesus did not use it as his primary teaching strategy—he preferred debriefed experiences, conversations, surprising questions, and narrative metaphors. Ask anyone who has been transformed by their relationship with Jesus how it happened, and not a single one will cite a “biblical truth that they applied to their life.”
The ultimate reason so many of us follow Jesus half-heartedly, or no-heartedly, is that we can. We’re not “ruined” for him, as Peter was when Jesus asked if he was going to leave, too. A disciple’s answer to that question is something like: “I don’t understand a lot of what you’re saying, and I can’t comprehend the things you do, but I know I have nowhere else to go. You’ve ruined me for you.” Disciples answer this way because of the depth of their attachment to Jesus. And they’ve become deeply attached because they have simply decided to get to know him as he really is, not as they’ve been told he is. Because of the vast number of lesser gods that are demanding our attention, only a deeper attachment to Jesus has any chance of stopping our slide toward the abyss of our cold and distant relationship with God.
To help us understand what he’s aiming for in his relationship with us, Jesus uses a botanical metaphor:
I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire” (John 15:5-6, The Message).
This joined-to-the-Vine metaphor is telling us a deep truth: We are dying branches in desperate need of attaching ourselves to a growing Vine, and the Vine is Jesus himself. Later, Paul builds on the foundation of Jesus’ metaphor by extending its meaning:
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you” (Romans 11:17-18, NIV).
Transformation happens when we attach ourselves more deeply to Jesus, because he’s the only one who can really change us. Transformation comes when we have “the life of the Vine“ flowing in us, not when we’ve mastered a long list of spiritual disciplines. A “self” that is fully alive, and fully itself, is the organic outcome of a deepening attachment to the Vine. And it’s the organic outcome that Jesus is after, not “understanding and applying.”
If you’re not familiar with the concept of grafting, watch this video for a succinct demonstration of the process.Grafting always begins with a cut—the sickly, low-producing branch is cut off from its source of life, pruned, then shaved at the end to prepare it for an intimate joining with the “root stock.” The Vine itself is cut open to receive the grafted branch. Jesus invites us to attach ourselves to him, grafting us into his essence—our identity is then hidden in him, and fruit results. Paul explains it this way:
Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4).
And again, writing to the church in Colossae, he says:
“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:2-4).
Transformation is the natural result of grafting in the organic world—botanists tell us that the bond between the grafted branch and the vine transforms the branch into “a miniature version of the parent tree.” This is why, by the way, Jesus can make this ludicrous statement with a straight face:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father” (John 14:12).
If our attachment to him essentially makes us a “miniature version of the parent tree,” the fruit we produce will be like his own, and even greater.
Our grafted bond is intimate but not instantaneous—it takes a long time for it to “take.” Our transformations, whether they’re physical or spiritual, are often so slow-moving that we have a hard time noticing the profound changes that are happening in the moment. They are most often like a glacier—an inexorable force that changes our geography, but is hard to mark “progress” at any particular time. Transformation is most often a time-lapse thing. But the deeper our attachment to Jesus, the more he transforms us, making us whole again as Adam and Eve were in the garden, before the Fall.
William Paul Young says:
“Wholeness is when the way of your being matches the truth of your being. That begs the question, what’s the truth of your being? This is where this understanding of Jesus at the center of all the cosmos becomes absolutely critical. How are you going to know the truth of your being unless somebody tells you what the truth of your being is?”
Jesus created each one of us as unique. He wants us to bear much fruit—unique to the qualities he’s invested in us. He is the “root stock”—the source, the nourisher, and the stronghold. We are the branches. As we stay connected to him—“abide” in him—the world is nourished by the fruit that he produces only through each of us! So, while “understand and apply” sounds Christian-y and positive, it’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The understand-and-apply formula for maturity and transformation rests on two commonly accepted fallacies…
1. “Understand and apply” assumes mere understanding leads to growth. If understanding 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 does not guarantee transformation. The Enlightenment kicked off a common understanding about rational thought that is now a given in our culture: The most important ingredient in any recipe for growth or maturation is the progression of thought. On one level, that would mean the smartest people are also the most mature, and it takes very little investigative effort to debunk that premise. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to make the case that Jesus’ disciples upended the ancient world because of their advanced understanding of biblical truth. No, they upended the ancient world because they’d been transformed by their intimate relationship with the Spirit of Jesus, now living inside them because of Pentecost.
“That’s right,” we say, “because we must also apply our understanding to our life—that’s what the disciples did, and Satan never has done. It’s the application of our understanding that produces transformation.” That brings us to fallacy #2…
2. “Understand and apply” assumes our growth in Christ is dependent on our ability, or willingness, to apply truth to our lives. Anything that is founded upon the strength of our efforts is flawed, and is inherently limiting. Try this experiment the next time you’re listening to a sermon or reading a “Christian living” book: Count the number of times some version of “apply this to your life” is mentioned. Then ask yourself: “What’s the likelihood that I’ll immediately begin applying these truths to my life?” Or even more telling: “What’s the likelihood that I even understand how to apply the truths I’ve just heard, or have the willpower to consider applying them?” Another way of assessing your adherence to this standard is this simple test: What “apply it to my life” imperative did you pick up from the last time you were in church, and how did you end up living it out in your life? We feel guilty about our “grade” in the apply-it-to-life category because, simply, we’re living under an impossible prerequisite for growth and transformation.
If we added up all the “applications” we hear on a yearly basis, we’d have a big number—much bigger than our own relatively tiny capacity for catalyzing transformation can handle. “Apply this to your life” is the most over-used, under-scrutinized “given” in the Christian life. We have to confront the brutal realities surrounding this sacred cow—we’re not very good at applying things to our life, and even when we’re successful at it, transformation into a more Christlike version of our character is sketchy at best. Remember, some of the best practitioners of the “apply it life” mantra were also some of the worst examples of spiritual maturity—the Pharisees that Jesus lambasted over and over.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law preferred the scorekeeping efficiency of understand-and-apply over the messiness of an intimate relationship. No one understood God’s law better, and no one spent more time and energy thinking through how to apply those laws into every conceivable situation—they made a cottage industry out of it. “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst’ ” (Luke 17:20-21, NIV). We do not enter into the kingdom of God by “careful observation” of God’s principles—the kingdom is not something outside of us that we apply to our lives. It is the lifeblood of the Vine, and only the grafted-in branches share in it. Jesus assesses the Pharisees’ application mentality this way: “Woe to you! For you are like concealed tombs, and the people who walk over them are unaware of it” (Luke 11:44).
In Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus and Peter have an excellent adventure on the water. When Jesus says, “Come,” he’s inviting us on an adventure with him, to go places where only he can take us. Best of all, he never leaves us alone on this journey.
Jesus invited Peter to walk on water with him, and midway through the experience, Peter is overwhelmed with doubt. Peter probably uttered the Bible’s fastest prayer—“Help!” Think about it: He had to say, “Lord, save me,” in the time it took for him to sink from his ankles to his chin!
Jesus was probably thrilled that Peter got out of the boat. He wanted Peter to taste a bit of the adventure-life Jesus wanted him to live. He wanted more for Peter, just as he wants more for all his followers. Jesus can do impossible things. He likes to help others do things they could never do on their own. He wants to take us on adventures, out of our comfort zone, to be where he is.
Jesus wants us to trust him even if what he calls us to seems impossible. But if Jesus says come, we can know that with him we can do all things. Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (NKJV).” The only reason Peter was able to water-walk was that he’d fixed all his attention on Jesus—Jesus fueled his faith. And when Jesus tells us to “come follow me,” and we do it, we’ll water-walk just like Peter. That doesn’t mean it’ll be perfect. Peter still sank. But he was the only one who got out of the boat to walk toward Jesus. Maybe Jesus is waiting, right now, to “walk on water” with us. How is he asking us to “come” right now in our life? When he asks, he empowers.
If you’re a “cradle Christian,” there’s one glaring aspect of Jesus’ personality that you likely never learned about at church: his shrewdness. In the persistently nicey-nice world of the church, “shrewd” might as well be a four-letter word.
For example, have you ever heard anyone in the church describe Jesus as “disposed to artful and cunning practices” or “tricky”? Not likely.
And yet, when Jesus was training his disciples to go out and upend the world with his gospel message, his primary advice was about shrewdness:
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
So…let’s let this sink in—Jesus used the metaphor of a snake, which had always been tied to his enemy Satan, to drive home to the disciples the kind of relational skills they would need to do their job. Put another way, he was telling them to be as sneaky and conniving as Satan, but to do it all with a pure heart.
So…if you’re looking for the Christian self-help book Your Snakiest Life Now, you’ll be disappointed. And you’ll likely never hear a pastor preach on “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” (Luke 16:1-9). Jesus said some very un-Jesus-y things in that parable—stuff we’d rather not admit he said. If you’ve forgotten it, here’s a snapshot…
Jesus was teaching his disciples about how the kingdom of God works by telling them a story about a lazy, conniving, dishonest manager who was bilking his rich employer. When the rich man discovered it, he fired him. The guy was so lazy and arrogant he couldn’t imagine working a real job, so he summoned all his master’s debtors and cut their bills in half, hoping one of them would take care of him after he got his pink slip. And then—what the heck?!—the master praises his worthless manager for his shrewdness. Then Jesus adds this disturbing commentary: “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”
Jesus is saying, in effect, “You people need a little basic training in conniving behavior, because ‘nice’ won’t cut it in the job I have for you.” For a much deeper exploration of this parable, and how we can live it out in our everyday life, check out Shrewd: Daring to Live the Startling Command of Jesus by Rick Lawrence.
So, what does shrewd look like in youth ministry? Here are some examples:
NOT SHREWD: Requiring teenagers to enter your world to grow in their relationship with God.
SHREWD: Inviting yourself into your teenagers’ world to help them grow in their relationship with God. This is just what Jesus did when he looked at the “man in the tree,” reviled tax collector Zacchaeus, and said, “I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19).
NOT SHREWD: Teaching kids biblical principles to live their lives by.
SHREWD: Telling kids unforgettable stories that have no “moral,” but instead reveal the values and “norms” of God’s kingdom. The examples of principle-based teaching in Jesus’ ministry are few (the Beatitudes, for example); the examples of story-based or experience-based teaching are many (the 55 parables he told, not to mention the times he asked his disciples to walk on water or cast out demons or…).
NOT SHREWD: Isolating parents because they often act like your enemies.
SHREWD: Proactively finding ways to love parents because they often act like your enemies. Jesus said, flat-out: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). We act like God’s children when we build connections with parents, equip them to do their job, and involve them in the ministry.
NOT SHREWD: Discovering the relevant topics kids really want to learn about, then teaching about those topics.
SHREWD: Discovering the relevant topics kids really want to learn about, then finding a way to teach about Jesus using those topics as a starting point. Jesus wasn’t primarily interested in offering his followers strategies for making their lives work better—he wanted them to “eat his body and drink his blood.” As the great English preacher C.H. Spurgeon proclaimed: All roads lead to Jesus.
NOT SHREWD: Understanding the culture’s harmful, destructive influences and working to isolate kids from them.
SHREWD: Understanding the culture’s harmful, destructive influences and working to subvert them by using those influences as biblical discussion-starters. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” or “Whoever is without sin can cast the first stone,” he was using ungodly cultural practices as a launching pad to teach about the kingdom of God. We can do the same with the music, movies, and video games kids are into.
NOT SHREWD: Creating an expected rhythm to your ministry that everyone can predict.
SHREWD: Injecting surprise into your ministry rhythm so no one ever gets too comfortable. Remember when Jesus decided to heal a blind man by spitting in the dirt and smearing mud on the guy’s eyes? I bet no one saw that coming.
NOT SHREWD: Expecting kids to own the truths you already own.
SHREWD: Helping kids discover the truth themselves, so they’ll own it.