One of the most compelling scenes in human history is the execution of Jesus. From his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane to the several rapid trials to his crucifixion, there’s incident upon incident of intrigue. Even outside of Christianity, this is viewed as one of the most important events of history.
For Christians, Jesus’ death is the once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins. And his victorious resurrection three days later is our victory, too, assuring us of eternal life in heaven with him. Every youth talk, event, service, and gathering can be “infected” with the truths of the gospel, making a beeline to Jesus’ cross and then to his empty grave.
By enduring the cross—willingly—Jesus accomplished his mission. Even though he knew what terror awaited him, Jesus chose the cross, in obedience to his Father. As the sacrificial lamb, Jesus died for all people to complete his earthly mission.
Belief in the Resurrection isn’t some pie-in-the-sky, fairy-tale type belief, nor is it “blind faith.” A great deal of scholarship argues very powerfully for the historical reliability of Jesus’ resurrection.
Our faith rests on this critical truth: Jesus conquered sin and death. He rose to life—and offers us new, eternal life. Like a Jenga tower, all of Christianity crumbles if one essential truth is removed. Without the Resurrection, our faith would be utterly meaningless and absolutely pointless. As the Apostle Paul writes:
For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world” (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).
What if everything we strategize and do in ministry moved teenagers closer to Jesus and his cross? Which is more compelling: scaring teenagers into abstinence by using stock STD statistics, or taking them to the foot of the cross where they can look up at the crucified Christ who suffered for their sins and died to make them pure? Sorry, scary-stat-man, the cross is much more compelling to teenagers than your fractions.
But it’s not just abstinence that makes sense when it’s beelined to Jesus. Self-image, obedience to parents, music and media choices—everything becomes clearer in the shadow of Christ crucified (see 1 Corinthians 2:2).
Every camp talk, Sunday school lesson, Wednesday night youth group teaching, and counseling session can invite our kids (and us) to stare eye-to-eye with the crucified Christ. Why? Because that’s where all the greatest subjects in the Bible always end up!
The Old Testament points forward to Jesus, the gospels unveil him, the epistles explain him, and the book of Revelation exalts him. So if all of Scripture is making a beeline to Jesus, then why can’t all our youth ministry efforts point there, too? Real youth ministry is about Jesus, nothing less and nothing more.
Presenting the Gospel
It’s easy to assume that our students are Christians. Don’t make that mistake. Just because kids look, act, and smell Christian, it doesn’t mean they’ve truly embraced Jesus as their Savior.
Each week, do kids hear the good news that, despite our sins, despite our transgressions, and despite what we deserve, God offers us hope, forgiveness, restoration, and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ alone? Do they know that through Jesus’ death we’re delivered from eternal death and through his life we’re delivered into true life?
It’s important to regularly offer the gospel in a clear, compelling way because, first of all, it honors Jesus. The high point of history, the apex of Scripture, and the centerpiece of heaven is the crucified, risen, ascended, and glorified Jesus. When we tell the story of Jesus’ sacrifice and victory to our teenagers every week, we’re emphasizing our worship of him. That is reason enough to share the gospel relentlessly.
Another benefit is that it unleashes power in our ministry. St. Paul wrote,
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16).
When we remind kids of the gospel every week we unleash its power into our youth group. The result? Our youth ministry is transformed from a “program” to a powerful mission! Think of how exciting youth group would be if every week teenagers bowed their knee to Jesus.
Finally, presenting the gospel weekly serves as a training ground. Our presentations will prepare kids for what to say when they get their own opportunity to share Jesus. If young people hear us explain the gospel week after week, soon they’ll be able to do the same.
Teenagers are bound to have different responses to Jesus’ resurrection, based on their “faith-personalities.” Even Jesus’ own friends reacted in a variety of ways. For example:
- John believes Jesus is raised before seeing proof. He readily believes the miracle.
- Peter impulsively races to the tomb, then rushes right into the tomb. He’s almost desperate for it all to be true—longing for everything to be put right (especially after his denial of Jesus).
- Mary is first on the scene, then she lingers after the others leave. Jesus appears to her first—and she clings to him.
- Thomas has a questioning faith—he needs to be fully convinced in order to believe.
But the bottom line is that the historical reality of Jesus’ miraculous resurrection demands something of his followers. It demands:
- a response of belief (like John in 20:8),
- a response of proclamation (like Mary Magdalene in verse 18), and
- a response of true worship and a life committed to Jesus’ lordship (like Thomas in verse 28).
Knowing that someone’s willing to die for you is an assurance of major commitment. In fact, it’s a tipping point in someone’s faith journey. Jesus wasn’t only willing to die for us; he went through with the brutal ordeal. When the reality of what he’d done sank in, Jesus’ band of cowardly disciples mobilized into a “band of brothers” so brave that they changed the world. To a man, they died for Jesus.
So, in between the cowardly denials and an upside-down crucifixion, what changed in the souls of the 11 remaining disciples? That’s really the great question of youth ministry—we’re trying to move kids from a mild affinity for Christ to a die-for-you commitment.
The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers…or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.”
“Dramatic transformation” requires an epidemic in the life of a teenager. What viral strains will do the job?
- Christlike presence in the midst of crisis—Dig deep into an adult Christian’s story and you’ll likely find several turning points in their journey toward “deep, transformative faith.” In a recent survey, nine out of 10 Christian college students said they had a crucial recommitment experience that was as significant as their conversion. Two-thirds of these students said the recommitment experience happened when they were teenagers.
These experiences were fueled by four catalysts: crises, outreach trips, big events, and camp experiences. Now, crises have no inherent power to cement a teenager’s commitment to Christ. But, like surgery, they do have an unmatched power to open a teenager to deeper healing. The key: When the crisis hits, is there a passionate Christian engaged in the student’s life—not to answer unanswerable questions, but to offer determined love? The right question for youth workers is: “Where would Jesus be?” Right there in the middle of the crisis.
- Staying power—The longer you stay in youth ministry, and the longer you stay at the same church, the more likely you are to start epidemics.
- Clarity—In Jim Collins’ bestseller Good to Great, he and his team of researchers studied 11 companies that beat the odds and vaulted out of longtime mediocrity into longtime excellence. One transforming catalyst is something Collins calls the Hedgehog Concept. Briefly, it means companies that embrace one simple purpose, then pursue it with passion, succeed. Companies that skittered between one “passionate purpose” after another stayed mired in mediocrity. Determine your ministry’s God-given purpose, then organize your ministry around it.
- Challenge—If you rarely challenge your kids to commit at a deeper level, they’ll have few opportunities to embrace transformation. That’s exactly what God did when he struck Saul blind on the road to Damascus. He challenged him to change: “Why are you persecuting me?” Now Saul had a choice—to continue down the same road or choose another fork. He took the fork less traveled.
Sometimes the longest stretch in the youth ministry calendar can be the seeming “dead zone” between the holidays and summer. Ironically, in the Christian calendar this is the time when everything heats up. Lent and Easter—the deepest, most significant, central part of our Christian existence.
Lent and Easter are part of a great rhythm called the Christian or liturgical calendar, which anchors us in a rich heritage that’s been the spiritual metronome of faith communities for hundreds of years. Lent can powerfully renew your perspective on life and ministry.
Keeping track of schedules, planning activities, organizing small groups, and making sure we get time with our families is enough to make us live as if the death and resurrection of Jesus never happened. But Lent has the potential to change that. During Lent we’re called to put to death the sin and apathy we have in our hearts toward God. We’re invited to enter again into the life that God intends for us.
Lent isn’t something that can just be added in to our busy youth ministry schedules. But what if we let Lent shape our existing activities?
For hundreds of years, Christians have emphasized two primary things during Lent—turning from sin in repentance through denial of things that distract our attention from God, and second, turning to God by studying the Christian story. Consider the following ideas for intersecting Lent with your ministry:
- Study, understand, and commit yourself to Lent.
- If you regularly practice Lent, instead of the usual “chocolate fast,” try fasting from the Internet at home for the next 40 days.
- Read the biblical story that leads up to the Cross. Pick Scripture readings from the liturgical calendar, or choose your own.
- Give up something as a youth group community. If it’s something you regularly buy, give the money to a charity instead.
- Give students Lent Journals to record and share their discoveries along the way.
- Fasting reminds us of suffering. Remind each other of the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifices of others who’ve gone before us. Read about martyrs who’ve given their lives because of their faith.
- Remember Sunday is never a fasting day because it’s Resurrection day. Find ways to create Sunday celebrations as a youth group community in the midst of your fasting.
Join Christians worldwide in anticipating Easter, the deepest and most central part of our faith expression. That time of year is hardly a down time. It’s the pinnacle. The way we treat this period of context and rhythm can radically anchor young followers of Jesus. He is risen. He is risen, indeed!
Here are two ways to make Jesus’ death and resurrection come alive for young people:
- Quietly tell the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross by reading aloud Luke 23:26-34. Ask kids to quietly reflect on what they’d heard. During that quiet time, have several adult volunteers slam wooden blocks together to replicate the sound of nails being driven into Jesus’ hands and feet (to be effective, it must be a very loud surprise). beside them. Then have another adult volunteer read aloud Luke 23:35-36 while other adults touched a vinegar-soaked paper towel to the lips of each young person. End by reading aloud Luke 23:44-46. Tell kids to be quiet for a few moments, then sit up when they felt ready. Finally, read aloud John 20:11-18. Pray: Thank you Jesus for dying on the cross for me. Thank you for rising from the dead to save me. Amen.
- Re-create Jesus’ appearance to the disciples after his crucifixion and burial. Tell teenagers to imagine that they’re the disciples hiding out (in an empty room) from the Roman soldiers. Hold a small prayer service that includes music. Watch a YouTube verson of “He’s Alive” by Don Francisco to use as your worship-time closer. Consider renting a fog machine from a local theater company–it’s a nice touch and fairly inexpensive. During the last chorus of “He’s Alive,” have “Jesus” walk into the room in a cloud and touch each member of the group on the head without saying a word, then walk out. Play soft music in the background while kids silently pray.